When was the last time you had fresh fruit? And I mean really fresh fruit, just picked from the tree. For so many of us, this simply isn’t a reality – and that’s something at The Orchard Project is working to change.
The Orchard Project is the UK’s only charity devoted to the creation, restoration and celebration of orchards for urban communities.
Originally founded as The London Orchard Project in 2009 by sustainable food advocate Carina Millstone, the initiative soon grew into The Orchard Project charity and has now reached Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a Welsh base soon to be set up in Swansea.
The Orchard Project aims not only to socially enrich urban communities, but also to take steps towards reforming Britain’s food system by allowing residents to work together closely to grow and harvest their own produce in towns and cities. The ultimate goal of the charity is for every urban household in the UK to be walking-distance from a community-run orchard.
As urban populations continue to grow, The Orchard Project recognises the vital need for accessible green spaces. By either restoring veteran orchards or planting new ones, the project enables communities to re-connect with nature and forge a deeper connection with where our food comes from. Since the charity’s inception in 2009, they have planted and looked after over 430 community orchards across the UK, planting and maintaining 2,200 fruit trees between 2018 and 2019 alone. The project primarily plants apples, pears, plums and medlars, but encourages the community to choose their own fruit tree varieties for their orchard, with more exotic fruits like figs and apricots being grown, too.
The positive impact that the charity’s community orchards have had on locals cannot be overstated. Once The Orchard Project has planted an orchard, the charity hands it over to a group of community volunteer to care for in the long term, giving residents the skills, tools and support they need to maintain the trees. Orchard volunteers are taught basic gardening techniques alongside more specialist skills such as how to identify different species of apple, or grafting fruit trees. Not only this, but The Orchard Project also organises seasonal events for the community, including blossom picnics and special apple days, which celebrate the autumn and winter harvest. According to the charity’s most recent impact report, 79% of its beneficiaries say that working with the orchards has boosted their physical and mental wellbeing; 93% of volunteers have felt more connected to nature; and 25% have found new employment with the skills they’ve obtained through the charity’s training programme.
It’s not just the local community which is enhanced by the charity’s work – the surrounding climate and wildlife also see a benefit. Planting new orchards in towns and cities increases vital tree coverage, which in turn cools the urban environment. As the fruit trees grow, they can absorb excess rainfall whilst also providing habitats for local wildlife which critically enriches the area’s biodiversity. By growing produce on their doorstep, communities also lessen their collective carbon footprint by reducing the air miles their food travels. The charity’s training workshops and courses teaches the community orchard groups to support the orchards with organic, wildlife-friendly methods of pest control and growth enhancement, and to comply to a permaculture framework wherever possible. From planting more trees and educating residents, The Orchard Project is also managing to preserve many forgotten, rare-breed apple varieties, such as the ‘Hounslow Wonder’ apple. Surplus fruit from orchards is never wasted; The Orchard Project has launched its own juice and cider enterprise to ensure the orchard fruit is always put to good use, using 12 tonnes of rescued fruit between 2018 and 2019.
The project still has a long way to go, but one tree at a time, we can all get closer to having fresh fruit on our doorstep. As societies become increasingly lonely and divided, The Orchard Project brings communities closer through nature. And what could be more natural than that?
To find out more about The Orchard Project or to donate or become a member, visit theorchardproject.org.uk.