The childhood rhyme “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” may have lost credibility, but this rather common fruit is proving to be more than just one of our ‘five a day’. Here’s how an innovative fruit tree planting venture has led to surprising well-being benefits for whole communities.
The Orchard Project has been working dedicatedly for ten years to open people’s eyes and taste buds to the joys of apple growing. Founded in London, the charity has helped to plant or restore hundreds of orchards across England and Scotland, creating much-needed wildlife havens accessible to everyone. And the Project has found that by helping bring communities together, the health and well-being of those taking part has received a welcome boost.
Chief Executive Officer Kath Rosen is expressive when she describes her charity’s work. The sights, smells and tastes she encounters are plenty to make her job a delight, even though the headquarters is sited on one of the capital city’s East End streets. “It’s a brilliant way to get people to have a very tangible relationship with nature. You can plant trees, you can be in nature, but when you are actually planting orchards, you can eat it as well. So you can engage all the senses in nature,” she says.
Bringing communities together
The positive benefits of growing your own food means their orchards are helping to break down barriers and feelings of isolation by bringing people together. Groups of people, some meeting for the first time, join forces to plant, nurture, harvest and maintain the trees. “Sometimes, the world that we live in can feel so overwhelming, so negative, that to be able to put a spade in the ground, plant something and then eat the produce that comes off it, it’s a really wonderful thing,” says Kath.
“The orchards themselves act as catalysts for other community action, so where we’ve planted orchards, you often get other projects shooting off, like community allotments, schools using them, people having picnics. They become venues, an asset in that community space.”
Kath believes that educating people about orchards is also important, so that people realise they can enjoy fruit picked straight from the tree. “There’s quite a lot of fruit that’s not being used, due to a lack of awareness and a lack of confidence that if it’s not from the supermarket wrapped in plastic, then it doesn’t feel safe.”
The Project does not spray on any of its orchards, but in light of people’s reticence about eating fruit from urban trees, it carried out a small study and research review, seeking advice from a range of sources including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Soil Association and University of Nottingham. This found that even in inner city areas, apple trees filter out toxins present in the soil, so that the fruit it bears, once washed, is claimed to be safe to eat. More details and advice can be found on a ‘contamination fact sheet’ on its website.
Taking positive and practical action
The Orchard Project has also carried out studies to collate information about how community orchards are helping people with mental health issues and additional needs. Kath says, “It is very positive being able to take practical action in your local community to make a difference. We have a lot of feedback about mental well-being. Isolation is a massive issue in cities, you live surrounded by people but you don’t know anybody. Being in orchards is a space to engage with other people.”
Operating as a community-led process, groups get in touch if they want to plant an orchard, or resurrect an old one. New orchards get an individual design to match the space and needs of the community. Varieties of apples that were known in that particular area are often included to help reintroduce and preserve historic apple stocks. The Project currently works in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and London planting all sorts of fruit trees, but mainly apples.
“We don’t own any of the orchards or land - our role is to give people the skills to look after fruit trees themselves,” says Kath, whose team provides ongoing support for years. The Project also runs a variety of courses to pass on a host of traditional skills and people can even study for a popular Level 3 in Community Orcharding.
Growing demand for planting fruit trees
The charity began when two women, Carina Millstone and Rowena Ganguli, came up with an idea that lots of people could have been fed by the fruit if the Victorians had planted orchards across London instead of the ubiquitous plane trees. “Just having that one thought, they found there was a massive demand for planting fruit trees,” says Kath.
As well as public parks, schools and the grounds of hospitals, the Project works on housing estates. “A third of London is actually green space, so there are loads of opportunities to plant orchards here.” The Project is even discovering new varieties to add to the national fruit collection in Brogdale in Kent. If you have an apple tree, you may also be able to find out the name of the variety via the DNA ‘fingerprinting’ records at FruitID.com.
“We now have lots of trees providing fruit for people. You can step out your door and you’ve got food growing there and you can pick and eat it, for free,” says Kath. “They’re so different from what you can find in the supermarket, the textures, the colours, it’s a completely new world of taste. The more diversity we have in our food system, the more resilient it is going to be.”
Capturing the fruits of the past
Supermarket fruit generally comes from commercial orchards, which are lines of bush-like trees using rootstock which is designed to produce the most fruit. Traditional orchards are based on bigger rootstock and provide habitat for a variety of birds and other wildlife due to a characteristic called senescence. “Senescence means apple trees get old quicker than other trees,” explains Kath explains. “A 50-year-old apple tree will have the veteran features of a 300-year old oak tree. They are really amazing places for wildlife because of this.”
In spite of the benefits of planting and regenerating orchards, Kath says the messages of connecting people to how food is grown is not coming down from government. The Project’s education work with children varies between schools, depending on leadership and budgets. Funding restrictions means nature pursuits are often not viewed as a priority.
“We’re trying to connect children with how you grow food and create that passion for nature and the environment. Kids love apples, they love fruit and if we bring them to orchards, they help to harvest and we often make juice with a hand press and they think that is just wonderful,” says Kath.
“All the idea around healthy eating and actually where the food comes from is not a priority, it’s not connected up in the schools system. It’s not embedded from the government.” Local authorities are largely supportive though, because their projects help communities and often transform barren open spaces without the need for council cash.
Kath loves her job, not just because of its bountiful outcomes, but also all the people with whom she works and comes into contact. “From a very young age, I’ve been really energised by being in nature, being able to pick fruit.”
How you can help:
The Orchard Project is the only national charity solely dedicated to planting and restoring orchards and it relies on grants and donations.
Supporters can join its membership scheme and receive a welcome pack of goodies, plus news and updates, along with invitations to events.
Other ways to help include sponsoring a tree or donating towards creating orchards. The charity also welcomes funding to help run its courses.
To learn more about the Project visit theorchardproject.org.uk
Origins of the proverb:
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is said to be the 19th Century English version of an old Welsh saying, which promoted the benefits of eating apples and caraway seeds before bedtime. Although medical studies do not exactly support the claim, apples are a valuable contributor to the ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetables deemed to be good for health. They contain a range of vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre and antioxidants.
History of the apple
- Apples are believed to have found their way to Europe from Central Asia.
- The Romans introduced larger, sweeter fruits to Britain, which had previously only had its native small crab variety.
- Apples grown from its own seed will actually produce a different fruit, so to create the same fruit you need to graft onto a rootstock. Much of the USA and UK’s produce uses rootstock developed in England in the 20th Century although newer, more resilient varieties have also been created.
- The UK has developed more than 2,500 varieties of apples of the estimated 7,000 worldwide, but only a handful are sold in most supermarkets.
- To sample some of the lesser known varieties, visit farmers’ markets or search ‘Apple Day’ events online.
- The Heritage Fruit Tree Company is aiming to bring back traditional varieties of apples and other fruits. See www.heritageappletrees.com for more information.
- Special ‘family’ apple trees, which have more than one variety grafted onto them, are also available online and at some garden centres to plant in your garden.