Yesterday some of us from our group were joined by Councillor James Murray, the co-ordinator of the steering committee for the newly formed Eastbourne Community Orchards group, on a visit to the Ringmer Community Orchard. We were shown around the orchard by Peter May, who is something of a local legend for his immense knowledge of apples and his vast experience of helping to create and maintain new orchards throughout Sussex. The Ringmer orchard is a genuinely new community orchard created on about an acre of land – traditionally a horse paddock – donated by a local farmer, who wanted to give something back to the local community. It is now about 7 years old, and most of the fruit trees planted at the beginning were very young 1 or 2 year old saplings. The fruit trees, mostly apples of many different varieties, but also some plum and pear varieties too, looked impressively healthy and have grown considerably over the 7 years (all that horse manure helped!). Peter May explained briefly how the orchard was designed, why the trees were placed where they are, and how they are protected and maintained. One interesting feature was the placing of crabapple trees in between some of the apple trees, because crabapples generate huge amounts of pollen when they blossom, and the pollen can help in the cross-fertilisation of the apple trees nearby. Given that in some years pollination is poor because of weather factors, one plan is to help pollination further by having a few bee-hives within the orchard if enough people come forward to help install and maintain some honey bee colonies. We do hope this materialises, as wildflower-rich orchards make perfect Bee Worlds, and as the Friends of the Earth Bee Cause campaign is all about creating more Bee Worlds, so putting honey bees inside them is just the perfect thing to do!
For ease of maintenance, and to protect the fruit trees from over-exuberant mowing, the grass in the orchard under the trees is allowed to grow tall, and is only cut down once a year, just before the apples are harvested, so it was quite rich in wildflowers and butterflies, although the seeding of wildflower mixes had not been as successful as was originally hoped. No pesticides or herbicides are used at all in the orchard; Peter emphasised that choosing really healthy trees, of carefully chosen varieties appropriate to the site, from reputable nurseries was critical, as such trees would be naturally resistant to most pests and diseases if they are looked after properly. He also emphasised the importance of staking, protecting and watering the trees well in the early years, but that the main challenge is to keep the maintenance of the orchard going after these early years, for jobs such as pruning depends crucially upon the enthusiasm of the local community. Holding apple days and workshops within the orchard helps out with this, as well as having a membership scheme whereby people can have a share of the harvest in return for some hours of work each year within the orchard. The orchard holds a pruning workshop in January/February every year and we are welcome to come along then to learn all about pruning the fruit trees, an invaluable skill for enabling us to maintain our own orchards in Eastbourne. We had a fantastic discussion with Peter in the purpose-built apple shed on site about the various lines of funding that are available for community orchards, and it may well be that Action for Rural Sussex and the Brighton Permaculture Trust may be able to help out in some way with what we do in Eastbourne. All in all, we had a fabulously informative and inspiring visit.
For anyone wishing to join in with helping to make Eastbourne Community Orchards a reality, you are most welcome to come along to the first meeting of the steering committee on Tuesday 6th August at 6.30pm at Eastbourne Town Hall. The email address for the project is: firstname.lastname@example.org and a brand new website for the project is at: http://www.eastbournecommunityorchards.com/
Some very useful background reading on orchards is to be found in two excellent books:
the common ground book of orchards: conservation, culture and community. 2000, Common Ground.
Apples & Orchards in Sussex, by Brian Short, with Peter May, Gail Vines, & Anne-Marie Bur. 2012, Action in Rural Sussex & Brighton Permaculture Trust.