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Community Orchards

The fifth in a series of monthly Ecologist columns on the joys of allotmenteering

The Ecologist, June 2006

Eggleton Styre. Scarlet John Standish. Laxton’s Superb. Gravenstein. Cockagee. Kirkston Pippin. Foxwhelp. Lady Henniker. Cornish Honeypin. A pat on the back if you’ve even heard of any of these. A gold star if you’ve ever eaten one. And an unsurprised look if you don’t know what I’m on about.

These are all apples, of which an estimated 2000 different varieties have been traditionally grown in England , once the apple capital of the world. The climate and soil in the parts of the country once famed for their orchards – Kent , Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset – are perfect for growing mind-boggling varieties of this remarkable fruit.

It would make sense, then, in this age of farmers markets and rocketing interest in local food, for the English apple to be enjoying a resurgence. And yet our ancient orchards are falling like ninepins. In the late nineteenth century, 186,000 acres of England grew fruit trees; today it is just 44,000 acres, and falling. The area under apple trees has halved since 1994.

The rise of supermarkets, above all else, has killed them off. It’s easier and cheaper for Asda et al to sell one or two varieties, selected not on grounds of taste but on their ability to survive long-distance transport and look clean on the shelves. Superstores in the middle of counties famed for their orchards sell only Golden Delicious, imported from France . It’s a heartbreaking sight.

Fascinating, I hear you say, but aren’t you supposed to be writing about allotments? Well, I am – and here’s why. In my view, it’s imperative that the remarkable diversity of our national fruit survives another century; and while neither politicians, supermarkets or many consumers seem remotely interested in helping it do so, there are ways that you and I can. In fact, it may all be in our hands.

Fortunately, helping to save the English apple is not as hard as it sounds; and this is where your allotment comes in. Most of us are never going to own a traditional orchard and probably wouldn’t want to, but if you have an allotment – or even a small back garden – you can create your own little Eden . You’ll need to check that your allotment association allows you to plant fruit trees, but most seem to. If they do, you’re up and running.

Eighteen months ago I got together with a few friends and did just this. We got ourselves two adjacent plots and decided to turn them into an orchard of rare trees. One of my co-conspirators, who has developed into something of an apple obsessive, began scouring nurseries for rare varieties – again, not as hard as it sounds (see box for starters). The planting itself is easy enough – big hole, lots of manure, regular watering – and once the trees are in they are incredibly low maintenance compared to a plot full of leeks or courgettes. Buy yourself a book on how to look after fruit trees, and there you are; you have become a conservationist. In future years, your countryfolk may thank you. And if they don’t – well, stuff them. You still have the apples.

You have other things too. Apples are intimately tied to place, history and the distinctive character of local landscape, and there’s a whole ceremonial tradition that goes with them. In the right hands, this becomes a great excuse for a party. Take the ancient tradition of ‘wassailing’, for example, which is intended to bless and protect the trees for the coming year. It’s traditionally carried out in December, but if you can’t face the cold, do what I did and shift the date to Mayday – another date associated with nature rituals, but one which is considerably warmer. Then go and have fun!

This Mayday my orchard colleagues and our friends decided to wassail our trees for the first time. We trooped down after work with several bottles of cider, a barbecue and a history book. Following the curious ways of our ancestors we soaked pieces of cake in cider and tied them to the branches of a tree, stood around it singing an ancient wassail song, and then watered its roots ceremoniously with cider. We spent the rest of the evening sitting around a fire on bales of hay, watering ourselves with cider too. In the pink-blossoming orchard, with the pink sun sinking behind the housing estate, it was hard to think of a better way to spend the evening.

Save Our Apples! - Places To Start

Brogdales National Fruit Collection
Buy online or visit the nurseries of this, the largest collection of fruit trees in the world.

Traditional and rare apple varieties for sale.

Marcher Apple Network
Inspiring network of enthusiasts from the Welsh borders, dedicated to saving rare apples.

England In Particular
Inspiring website run by Common Ground, full of curious and fascinating apple facts.