An apple a day

Dawn Francis-Pester visits the London community project that is helping city dwellers of all ages rediscover the pleasures of eating homegrown fruit.

An apple a day

If you spent any of your childhood running around sun-dappled orchards and savouring melt-in-the-mouth apple pies, you'll understand the appeal of growing fresh fruit in a huge metropolis.
Set up in London five years ago by two women motivated by environmental concerns and memories of scrumping, the Urban Orchard Project attracts community-minded individuals for whom apples are often steeped in romance. Merrin Layden, who grew up in Melbourne, became involved in the project two years ago, and is as passionate about giving city dwellers access to fresh fruit as she is about doing her bit to tackle climate change.
'Whatever your culture or background, many of us had ties with traditional fruit as children, along with fond memories of cooking,' Merrin explains. 'Drawing on this kind of experience, we work to engage communities in restoring existing orchards and planting new ones.'
Limited to modern supermarket shopping habits, these days most of us would be hard pushed to list more than half a dozen apple varieties. Surprisingly, though, there are 2,000 different varieties of apple to choose from in the UK – so you could try a different one each day for six years! Pears, plums, cherries and apricots are other orchard favourites, and the Urban Orchard Project also cultivates more unusual and sometimes medieval fruits, such as medlars and quinces. They are keen to learn about traditional fruits grown in other cultures too, and have recently been working with some Bangladeshi women, growing a traditional fruit (syzygium cumini) that is similar to a damson.

Fruit on your doorstep

Part of the attraction of orchards is that they can yield large amounts of fruit with the minimum of care. Unlike vegetables that can require quite extensive watering and general nurturing, fruit trees need some watering once a week in their early days, but then little more care than some winter pruning and mulching. It is thought that, when mature, the trees that have been planted so far will produce over 100 tonnes of fresh fruit each year. With 95 per cent of the fruit we eat imported, it is a healthier alternative for city dwellers to find free-to-pick orchard fruit grown without chemicals, on their doorstep.
The Urban Orchard Project has now worked with the local community to plant or restore around 100 orchards in the London area, often with heritage varieties. Five new trees were recently planted in Wyck Gardens near Brixton, including a Cambridge greengage, an Adam's Pearmain apple and an Aromatnaya quince, while a mature apple tree was restored in the same area. A permaculture orchard in Jubilee Park, Enfield, is the biggest project so far, and one of the newest.
Institutions in the Victorian Age often had orchards in their grounds to provide a healthy atmosphere, and some of these have been revived in hospitals and psychiatric establishments. At Bethlem Royal Hospital a number of heritage varieties have been re-established, including Lane's Prince Albert, Monarch and Cox's Orange Pippin.

Planning together

As well as the appeal of growing fresh fruit, Merrin feels the community aspect of the project is a huge attraction. In the first five years, over 10,000 Londoners were involved in the project and around 2,000 received support and training in fruit growing.
The community is involved at every stage of the project,' she tells me. 'It starts at the idea stage when local people share their experience and knowledge of the area, sometimes mapping with satellite images to ground trace orchards. They then take on a lot of the planting and care process, which often includes companion planting wild flowers to attract insects and encourage pollination. Finally, they help with the harvest, and this is when we try to have some fun and really celebrate the orchards.'
While the Urban Orchard Project started by tracking down community groups to work with them, groups now approach them first, if they want to set up an orchard on their housing estate or local park. As each project needs to be sustainable, a short assessment is carried out first, mainly to ensure the group is engaged and organised, so the venture will be fruitful.
Often children in areas of high deprivation enjoy access to these green spaces too, and they can become involved through their estates or with local schools, where dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties are chosen. Merrin finds it rewarding to watch children connecting with nature and describes a recent planting day when looks of nervousness gradually changed to glee as holes for trees were dug out, exposing a mass of wriggling worms at the bottom.
'At first the children can be a bit nervous,' she explains. 'But before long they have their hands in the mud and are picking up worms. It's an amazing experience for them to see trees laden with fruit that they have had a hand in cultivating.'

Autumn celebrations

As harvest time approaches, Merrin and her team are busy thinking up ideas for celebrations and community events. Last year there was dancing, partying, apple bobbing, and story telling at the London Orchard Festival in October. Visitors could also try apple juicing, gaze at succulent fruit on display, listen to talks about fruit growing and take part in the ever-popular longest peel competition.
Once the autumn celebrations are over, the more traditional wassail provides extra fun and entertainment for the winter months. Dating back to pagan times, this is a festival that involved singing to the trees to ensure a good flow of sap that would bring a fine harvest. Nowadays it still features a lot of singing and of course cider, which the Urban Orchard Project mulls especially for the event.
With the 100th orchard now planted in London, the project is ready to spread to Edinburgh, Herefordshire, Birmingham and possibly Manchester this winter. Again, they are anxious to work with local partners to replicate the idea started in London, but adapted to different social and environmental contexts. Anyone with knowledge, experience or memories of orchards can apply, and share a glass of cider once the hard graft is over.

To learn more about the Urban Orchard Project, visit

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