As part of a movement to plant the capital with fruit trees, the London Orchard Project will be planting and harvesting a new variety of apple which called ‘The Core Blimey’ in 37 new community orchards this year.
The rosy apple got its name through the imaginative entries of a 500-entry competition but the Cockney phrase dates back to the 1880’s. It denotes surprise and resonates with cheeky cheerfulness but also confers East Ender resilience on the new fruit trees which have been bred for life in the city.
The 40 young Core Blimey trees are now being planted in London’s public spaces, parks and schools. Yet this is always a busy time of year in London’s apple orchards. Across the city, from Barnet to Brockley, there are now over 40 orchards which have either been planted or restored by the London Orchard Project which was conceived in 2008.
It’s never looked back since gaining funding from the likes of the Forestry Commission, Heritage Lottery Fund and the City of London itself. And the extent of the project is now visible from their map which shows orchards in almost every borough contained inside the M25.
Many of the orchards have been been re-discovered as London was once full them. In Victorian times there were market gardens and small-scale orchards in the centre of the city. But hospitals, universities, prisons and social institutions each had their own orchard from which they grew and harvested their own fruit.
Where possible these are being restored, the major obstacle being brambles. Once the undergrowth has been stripped out with the help of willing volunteers, the trees are pruned and the trees become productive again. At the heart of the project is community involvement.
‘To start with, we discovered the Orchards and our small team would get to work. But now it’s the other way around, people are coming to us wanting to restore or create an orchard in their community” says Amber Arlehof, the publicity officer. Many of the new orchards are created in public parks and school playgrounds.
The orchard year starts in January with a lot of pruning but also some cider-laced fun with outdoor Wassails. Orchard-visiting wassails go back to pagan times when communities gathered to sing and recite incantations to the trees. The purpose is to encourage the sap to rise so that the apple trees will produce a good harvest later in the year. There are two London Orchard wassails this year in January and February, you will be sure to meet a Green Man and it’s also a good time to meet this new generation of urban fruit growers.
Some want to do something to help the local school, others see London’s unused spaces and want to see them used for fresh food. It’s also a way of addressing the city’s shortage of allotments. Unlike grass, orchards create habitats for wildlife which is vitally needed as bird, butterfly, bee and moth numbers dwindle. The best thing about the crops is that they are relatively low-maintenance, making them perfect for the busy Londoner.
After the hard work is done in January, the main event is the harvest in September and October, which chimes in perfectly with harvest festivals. “No more cans of baked beans at our Harvest Festival!” said one parent. Many London children are discovering the pleasure of eating home-grown fruit for the first time as they too are active participants in the fruit tree revolution.
“Fruit trees are much better than grass, in terms of sustainability. Grass is a mono-crop” explains Amber. For the ignorant like myself, monocrops are crops that are grown year after year on the same land, and can damage the soil ecology. Mono cropping encourages the use of pesticides, weakens plant resistance and can present a situation where an entire crop to be wiped out very quickly.
As well as providing training to orchard leaders who look after the new community orchards, the Project also holds open days where the public can learn everything they need to know about gowing fruit treees in urban spaces. There’s one coming up called Grafting Fruit Trees where you’ll learn to use your grafting knife to ‘whip and tongue’ and graft an apple variety onto a rootstock.
The London Orchard Project was started by Carina Millstone and Rowena Ganguli, who met on a Master’s course in Sustainable Development. On a dark, wintry night, four years ago, Carina rang Rowena after attending a Transition meeting in Brixton and said “Everyone is keen on fruit trees, but no one knows where to start. Why don’t we start the London Orchard Project together?” “Er, OK” replied Rowena. As legend has it, Carina then put down the phone before Rowena could change her mind.
So far the London Orchard Project has planted 37 community orchards of approximately 10 trees each, including apples, pears, plums of new and heritage varieties along with the odd experimental mirabelle, medlar apricot and peach.
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