TTReading’s Community Orchard Project

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It’s been an encouraging couple of weeks for TTR’s dreams of setting up community orchards around the town. While I don’t want to take anything for granted, and our application is still in progress, we recently got agreement in principle to fund a project that will see us plant 5 community orchards in public parks around the town over the next 3 years.

If we do it right, that should be just the start.

We applied to Groundwork, who are administering the Big Tree Plant on behalf of DEFRA and the Forestry Commission. Their aim is to increase the number of trees enjoyed by people in urban environments but, unlike TTR, they have no particular focus on edible planting or community-building. That made for a tricky application initially, because the average cost that they are looking to maintain over the project is £4 per tree, whereas the absolute cheapest I’ve been able to find decent-looking fruit trees for sale is around £10 per tree.

I also had doubts when making the application about how to make the community orchards as self-sustaining as possible, in terms of nutrients. Having developed an interest in forest gardening over the last couple of years, I know that modern fruit trees have been bred to be much heavier cropping than is naturally the case, and that this makes them hungry for nutrients. Without significant inputs of nitrogen, and to a lesser degree phosphorous and potassium, they will be unable to sustain these high yields of fruit and will become stressed and susceptible to disease.

In the end, one problem was a natural solution to the other. Probably the most environmentally beneficial way to provide those nutrients (not to mention the cheapest and easiest) is to plant Nitrogen-fixing trees alongside the fruit trees. As well as providing nutrients (and potentially a host of other beneficial functions: providing windbreak, attracting beneficial insects etc) many of those trees can be bought and planted as whips, from as little as £1 per head. By mixing cropping fruit trees and “nurse tree” whips, we were able to significantly reduce the cost per tree.

The other way that we decided to reduce the per tree cost in our application was by learning to graft the trees ourselves. At this point, I probably need to explain what grafting is.

Most of the fruit we eat is grown from known, named varieties of fruit tree (e.g. Braeburn) which have been bred and selected over the course of hundreds of years. Trees are typically selected because they crop heavily (and / or because they’re delicious), but if you breed a great apple tree and you want to make more like it you can’t just plant its appleseeds. Every pip in every apple is genetically different and the seedlings, like children, may or may not share the parent’s desirable characteristics (and you’ll have to wait years to find out whether they do or not).

Instead, to propagate that Braeburn apple tree, commercial nurseries take some of the genetic material from the parent tree (i.e. a twig with some buds on it) and “graft” it onto a young apple tree. It’s like performing minor surgery. The twig grows on to be the top half of the new tree, and produces apples with the characteristics of the parent tree. The bottom half (called a rootstock) largely determines how big the tree ends up being and how disease-resistant it is. It might sounds a bit like Frankenstein, but humans have been grafting fruit tree varieties for literally thousands of years (there’s an apple variety, Decio, that is still commercially available today which dates back to 450 AD).

Now, if you already have a range of genetic material (i.e. twigs on live trees) from a range of good fruit trees, and you know how to graft, you can propagate those same commercial fruit trees for the price of a rootstock (i.e. for £2, instead of £10). If you learn to propagate the rootstocks too, and you have a little land to do it on, you can make new commercial-style fruit trees for free (or rather, with just a bit of work, care and maintenance).

So, our plan to make the project self-sustaining going forward is to plant out two of the orchards with ordinary commercial fruit trees that we buy in, and to use the genetic material from those trees (along with whatever else we can get hold of along the way) to propagate more fruit trees by grafting. If all goes well, we should be able to set up further community orchards around the town every year if need be, with no further funding.

So, what’s the next step?

Groundwork have approved the project in principle, but asked for more information about a couple of areas, most notably about our (reasonably amateur) grafting skills and about the maintenance of the newly planted trees.

To help build our skills, we’ve contacted some of the folks at the Oxford Orchard Project who’ve responded positively, offering to mentor us at grafting skills so we can get the success rate we need.

Now, we’re looking for help with looking after the young trees. The first 3 sites are due to be Waterloo Meadows and Prospect Park this winter, followed by a larger area at the Thameside Promenade (i.e. behind the Rivermead leisure centre) during winter 2013/14. The final two sites, due to be planted around January 2015 are still to be confirmed, but at the moment will probably be in Woodley / Earley, possibly at Bulmershe Park and Woodford Park.

What we need now are people who live near the proposed sites to help plant, water and take care of the trees in the first years, and to join in with the harvest in the years to come. If you’re interested in taking part in the project, let us know at communications@transitionreading.org.uk