“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today”
Eleventh of March 2017.
I’m standing on a patch of grass in a housing estate in South London. I’m here to help and talk to Open Orchard, a local project, which ‘connects communities through fruit and planting fruit trees in public spaces.’
To the south and west of the little field we’re gathered in, the fencing has thickened with living filler; shrubs, young Ash, Sycamore and a few old faded drinks cans squeeze into the gaps. Swirls of apple blossom catch the sun, brambles coil and reach, as Great Tits dart in and out of cover. A dog barks and trots from a door. The birds scatter.
This is no village green; the other two sides of the grassy rectangle are enfolded in a yellowy-brown brick embrace, by the housing blocks of Moore House and Hogarth House. The area is part of Bentons Lane Estate in West Norwood. Once it lay within one of the most open, woody regions of London’s outer edges. The Effra ran nearby, winding north towards the Thames. Technically it still does, but underground now and buried in the sewers: although the course of this beloved little South London river is remembered by a pavement plaque, next to a stink pipe on neighbouring Gipsy Road.
The remnants of the old Great North Wood had been dotted here and there around the area, but despite romantic tradition the place hasn’t ever really been a last great redoubt of ancient English wildwood, at least not since the early medieval period. There were stands of trees and small woods here until the 18th century, but for centuries these were commercial enterprises, rather than anything wilder and were fenced off from the common land, managed and coppiced as part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Croydon and Lambeth Manors.
In a 17th century map, reprinted in John Coulter’s Norwood Past, today’s Benton Lane, falls approximately within one of, either the Elder Hole, or Cleyland Coppices. By the late 18th century these coppices were no more and the land cleared for development after the 1797 Croydon Inclosure Act and the sale a decade on, in 1806, of the Thurlow estates.
Later, comparing this old map with a modern-day street plan, I try to imagine how the tarmacked landscape of today can possibly have anything to do with this older, sylvan region. Only the hills of Norwood still push up and curve, as they always have – the shape of the land untamed, while almost everything on its surface has changed.
I have a dark vision of all the trees of England being chopped down and cut and crafted over millennia: first as fuel for campfires, then material for homesteads, farms, forges and barns, with further trees taken for forts and palisades, then wood for towers and keeps and castles, wood for coracles, fishing boats and warships, wood for factories, for warehouses, for cities. Finally, the relentless swinging of Paleolithic axes and all their rapacious descendants – Roman, Saxon, Tudor, Jacobean and the rest – stops.
Thankfully not every tree in these islands has been cut down. Not yet. In inner London alone – there are around 1,587,000 trees, with over 6 million more growing in the outer areas (that’s according to i-tree report for GLA and Forestry Commission)
Surprisingly, to me anyway, this ‘urban forest’ is not predominantly made up of London Plane trees. That hardy species, although it is probably the most common street tree, accounts for just 4% of trees in inner London – more common are Birch (12%), Lime and Apple – 6%.
I don’t know quite why but it tickles me that so many London trees should be apple. All that blossom in thousands of acres of park and garden gives the game away I suppose. Though a lot of these I’d guess are wild crab apple, taking their chances on railway embankments and the corners of parks and cemeteries and overgrown gardens.
Nationally many apple and other orchards have vanished; abandoned or grubbed up because there’s no longer any money in them. There’s a mournful chapter on the country’s last orchards in Paul Kingsnorth’s Real England. Yet, here in London one group of people have set out to plant a series of new orchards, filling South London with saplings of hope. Nearly all of them planted in the streets, public spaces and housing estates of Lambeth, with a few elsewhere in London.
‘The next big thing, will be lots of little things’
Open Orchard was founded in 2014 by a few friends in West Norwood, who had come together to create a community garden – the Bzz Garage – on small strips of land around the edges of the local bus station. The idea of creating local, urban orchards began here, as Wayne Trevor, one of Open Orchard’s founders explains.
“The idea came from the Bzz Garage garden project, which was supported by the Open Works platform (now Participatory City). We’d asked for donations of plants for our first planting day at the Bzz Garage (which was about transforming a neglected space through bringing the community together) – someone donated a dwarf morello cherry tree in a pot. The idea was raised- ‘why not plant more fruit trees here?’. The idea grew… people got involved… there was an opportunity through the Open Works for funding and support… and one Morello cherry tree became 60 trees in 10 orchards in the first year – now rising to 260 trees in 24 orchards. So the start was very much ‘this is a nice idea, we’re into this let’s give it a go’.
As soon as I first heard about it, I loved the idea of Open Orchard, but it was only through helping at the Benton’s Lane planting, that I got a proper, bigger sense of just how valuable and empowering the project is. Actually seeing and taking in part in the shared endeavor of marking a space, digging out a hole, placing the roots and then setting a young tree in place gave the whole exercise a genuinely satisfying sense of worth. This was reinforced further by the pleasing metallic clang of post-drivers ramming home the support stakes for each tree.
This particular action and sound certainly added to the glee of the children present, including my youngest son, who had come along to help. Leo loves apples and chose a couple of French Nonpareil apple trees for us to plant. As well as apple trees, the wider group of Open Orchard regulars and locals like me, planted pear and plum and cherries on the day – around ten trees altogether.
Planting days like this are just the start of the process: the group work with local people living near each orchard to look after the trees and there are plans afoot to map every orchard, as well as further events where people can pick and preserve and pickle the fruit.
Being here, being able to get stuck into doing something genuinely worthwhile that could, hopefully, last for years to come, gave me a real glow. In the face of an increasingly divisive and angry politics, especially in the UK and USA, I wondered if this opportunity to get your hands dirty, by doing something positive, in your own local area, was a consolation other people were taking up too, and if so, was this part of Open Orchard’s plan?
Wayne said that it was. “In some of our communications (email and FB)- I actively encourage people who are feeling scared, or angry and powerless over big world events like Brexit/Trump etc, to come and do stuff with us… I really believe that if more of us were doing things we cared about locally, the world would be better and we’d be much happier. Our work now is consciously providing a way for people to come out, plant a fruit tree [and through that also] connect with neighbours, care for the environment…”
At Benton’s Lane, Wayne talked about the notion that ‘The next big thing, will be lots of little things.’ Was this thinking and Open Orchard’s efforts a conscious continuation of the philosophy behind groups like Friends of the Earth in the 1970s with the slogan: ‘Think Globally, act locally…’ ?
“Certainly as the project has developed the slogan above is something I’m really drawn to. It was about the same time I got involved a bit in Transition Town stuff- and their whole ethos is about saving the world through local, resilient communities. And Margaret Meade said something like ‘never underestimate the power of a small, committed group of people to charge the world- indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’.
There’s a bit of a tradition in folklore and history of lone, often male, figures going out into the world to plant, or rescue trees. North America’s Johnny Appleseed – in real life nurseryman John Chapman – for example, or the fictional Man Who Planted Trees in Jean Giono’s beautiful tale of a shepherd planting trees in the bare lowlands of the Alps. Closer to home there’s Allen Meredith, who made it his life’s mission to save and understand Britain’s ancient Yew Trees.
For Open Orchard the act of planting of trees is not an activity for lone-wolves, it is very much a communal pursuit – with the social benefits closely intertwined with environmental ones.
“Since we plant on public land mostly, it’s essential we work with people who use/look after/own the land- we never want to just ‘land, plant and run’- as we need the communities to be the custodians of the trees once we’ve gone- to water, keep an eye on them, and ultimately use the fruit! SO here the social is essential to the environmental- no engaged people means poor tree growth and poor environmental benefits.
At the same time, we have lots of experience of neighbours meeting properly for the first time, kids connecting with nature, feeling a sense of purpose etc… in inner-city areas like south Lambeth this is really important.
The environmental side is a slow-burn. Sure, a newly planted tree will offer some extra pollination opportunities, suck up a little more CO2, or additional rainwater that might have gone into drains… but this increases year on year.
I’m excited to see what might be possible in 5-10 years- once the trees are fruiting well. Each tree could easily produce 20-50kg of fruit in a good year- that’s 5.2 to 13 tonnes of fruit! Since it’s all open, people could eat it fresh, make things out of it, even run some (hopefully) social businesses from it. This will also involve people coming together.”
Since the project began three years ago, the eight core members, plus various local volunteers and helpers have together planted 260 fruit trees in 24 mini orchards – mostly in Lambeth – including 35 trees in the ambitious Brixton orchard at the end of Rush Common, opposite St Matthew’s Church on Brixton Hill.
Funded by local businesses and the Mayor of London’s Air Quality Fund, the specific aim for this site is to provide both greening and better quality air on one of London’s most polluted roads.
As a group, Open Orchard has achieved a huge amount in a short time, but the appetite to push on and do more is very much there, although the scale of ambition is tempered by the groups ability to attract funding – which comes from a variety of sources including Lambeth, the London Mayor’s office and donations from individuals and organisations. Looking ahead Wayne explains that
“Each year we say ‘how many do you think we can do this year’ depending on who’s around, the funding… this year (our 3rd) was our best year yet (120 trees in the season). I’ve found that working at this end of the job scale is really tough. Last year we managed to attract funding of about £10k, which funded 2 people about 1 day a week. But so much of what we do is voluntary or we beg/borrow what we can. This year we’ve got another £10k but it comes with different focus (capital spend mostly, and not much for revenue), so it takes loads of time to constantly adjust course. In addition I’m looking at more permanent work, where I can have longer impact.
Our plan is to continue with the tree planting in Lambeth this coming winter and where possible try some other stuff like fruit picking, then making into preserves etc (we did some of this last year). Anything which is part of the cycle of fruit trees/fruit.
I talk a lot about ‘x trees in y orchards’ as it’s easy to understand and track… but the social benefits to me are much more important. If I was to move away, I can see myself coming back in 10 or 15 years time to see how all the trees are doing, who’s looking after them, what the fruit is like… there’s a good chance that many of them will outlive us… and that’s humbling.
Links and References
Norwood Past, John Coulter, Historical Publications, 1996