Sunday 10 June 2012

London Green Fair and Apple Day

Many thanks to Lewis from the London Orchard Project for an interesting and informative talk at this year's London Green Fair.

I already knew a fair amount about the Project, having attended one of their training events at Camley Road Nature Park in 2009.  I learned a lot then from the splendid Wade Muggleton about apple trees, and how they can come in different forms (for example, espalier, step over and fan), and even featured in a Permaculture magazine photo.  The main outcome however was the decision to run our own Apple Day as part of Transition Crouch End, which is now in its fourth year.  Amber, the other Project Manager has actually been to one of our events and remembered the talk by John Selborne on the origins of apples. It seems to me this is a golden opportunity to revisit that connection.

There are three initiatives that the Project currently offers.  One aim is to create thirteen community orchards every year, working with local groups such as Friends of Parks and Housing Associations.  They will plant eight fruit trees and offer one's day training, with a visit six months afterwards to check how the plants are doing.  For their part, the community association guarantees four 'orchard leaders' who will take responsibility for the trees, including weekly watering during the first year.  The trees are planted carefully, which means choosing a suitable location; lawns with their bacteria-rich soil are not ideal for apple trees.  Because they are essentially edge of forest plants, they prefer a soil rich in fungus, which is facilitated by a mulch of vegetable matter.

Experience has shown that the new trees can be vulnerable to theft, vandalism and dog training, and so each new plant is protected by a fairly substantial guard, dug about three feet into the ground.  These may not be pretty to look at but will be reduced as the tree establishes itself.  The orchard is there for the duration.  By the same token, the choice of apple tree may be surprising: exotic varieties, rather than traditional.  Why is this?  The sad fact is that climate change means that delightful Victorian varieties such as the Peasgood Nonesuch, need chilly winter days to prosper, and these can be rare in an urban southern setting. Foreign varieties fare better.

The second activity offered by the London Orchard Project is restoration of old orchards.  It is striking how many of these exist in London, several of them interestingly linked to mental institutions,  founded in the nineteenth century.  (I wonder if St Annes Hospital in Tottenham is a case in point.)  The reasoning behind this seemed to be that tending the orchards was viewed as a kind of occupational therapy, something we would now regard as ecotherapy. 

The orchards can be seen on old Greater London Authority maps but the Project needs people on the ground to confirm this.  The Project will then attempt to restore old trees that may be overgrown and in need of care and attention.  Pruning out extra branches in the centre will recreate the goblet shape which is most productive, in that it allows pollinators to access the flowers and the fruit to benefit from light.  Older orchards are rich sources of biodiversity and even damaged trees are fruitful as excellent habitats for insects and birds.

The final service on offer is the harvesting of fruit.  The Project now own two cargo bikes, provided by the London Cycling Campaign, one in North London, one in South.  The Project appreciates that there are several groups already involved in collecting urban fruit.  There is the Organic Lea Scrumping project; Transition Kilburn to Kensal Rise have been offering fruit to schools for three years now and of course, our Apple Day would not exist without the input of the Urban Harvest and Gemma.  Nevertheless Lewis did mention one exciting development: the London Glider cider created by a group of enthusiasts in Epping and now stocked by six London pubs.  It even gained the accolade of a Camra award.

In terms of our Apple Day next year, it might be worth pursuing some of these ideas.  We already know about the iniquities of 70% of supermarket apples being shipped in from other countries, but did you know we could feast on a different English apple every day for six years?    

It would be great to invite London Orchard members to the Day to tell us more about their work.  They could also advise us about planting more apple trees in local green spaces, Stationers Park being a prime location. Lewis is a keen permaculturist and wants to explore the possibility of creating a forest garden around apple trees, where the formation of guilds would reduce infection and increase yields.  And of course they could give us feedback on our own apple produce, especially the liquid kind.  They have already conducted a successful experiment with cider-making and may be keen to share their expertise....  

It's never too early to start planning for Apple Day!  

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