Proposal for a Community Orchard

There is a small pound on the southern edge of Midsummer Common which gives access to the main Common from the Newmarket Road as shown in the picture to the right. It is a neglected area of grassland, infested with brambles, nettles and thistles. In their Management Plan for Midsummer Common, the Wildlife Trust wants to see this area enhanced through the creation of a community orchard. FoMC supports this idea believing it would provide historical continuity, habitat diversity, landscape enhancement and a source of nourishment for those people living in Cambridge.

The Site

The pound is about 135 metres long and 35 metres at its widest (see picture to the left). Being less than 2 hectares means that any new plantings would not be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Sheltered, sunny, south or south-west facing sites are generally best for planting new orchards as they provide the best micro-climate for pollination and fruit development. The pound is sheltered and reasonably sunny although the southern outlook is restricted. It is exposed to cold northerly winds but these are rarely of gale force. Being in an urban environment, frost damage should not be a problem. Rainfall is low in this part of the country so summer irrigation may be needed to establish young trees but there is a water supply on the northern boundary fence.

Fruit trees prefer an adequate depth (at least 50cm) of fertile, well drained, loamy soil, with a good structure and water holding capacity but they can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, pH values and fertility levels. The pound is about 5m above the level of the main Common and sits on river terrace gravels which give good drainage. A loamy soil enrichment might be necessary. The soil has been tested and proved slightly alkaline with a pH value between 7.0 and 7.5; fruit trees would prefer a pH value of just under 7.0. Fruit bearing apple, plum and cherry trees grow on similar soil in neighbouring gardens.

The following picture shows the pound to be a confined site. It is open to the main Common in the north, bounded by residential properties to the west and by a wire fence and brick wall to the east, and with a narrow exit to the road in the south. This boundary will constrain any tree plantings. There is a footpath going through the length of the pound giving access to the main Common from the Newmarket Road. Another footpath crosses the pound from a gate off Auckland Road to the allotments entrance although this path might be blocked off following the sale of land on Auckland Road. The adjacent allotments could be used as a tree nursery. Being common land, the pound must remain open to the general public at all times.


Site preparation

The site needs clearing before any orchard can be created. Brambles, nettles, thistles and other weed species must be controlled by regular mowing, hand pulling or digging; herbicides should be used sparingly in this area. The grassland needs careful attention. Sward height should be kept between 5 and 15cm. Rough grass in the edges should be left unmown to provide wildlife habitats - bumblebees and other insects nest in areas of longer grass. Grasslands in orchards can be rich in wild flowers - the new community orchard in Trumpington is well endowed with wild flowers. If wild flowers are not already present, they can be sown as seeds or planted as plugs once the new trees are established. This would reinforce the wild flower meadows being created elsewhere on Midsummer Common. To improve the overall appearance, the graffiti on the eastern boundary wall of the site needs cleaning off.

Tree selection

Certain orchard trees are common to specific areas - plums in West Gloucestershire, cherries in East Worcestershire, cobnuts in Kent, apples in East Anglia. Species and varieties may be chosen for a number of reasons, such as their cultural and historical value, their suitability for local conditions, or the uses to which the fruit is to be put. The City Council's Conservation Plan for Midsummer Common called for new tree plantings to be of native species and local provenance. This would suggest a fruit rather than nut orchard.

The East of England Apples and Orchards Project is a registered charity working to guarantee a future for local fruits and orchards. In order to assist conservation, the charity identifies and sells local variety fruit trees for small or large scale plantings and lists these in a catalogue. All their trees are grown on rootstocks that create half standard sized trees. These are ideal for community projects, growing to a very manageable size of about 3-5m in height with a spread of about 3m. To ensure successful pollination and a good crop of fruit, it is necessary to select varieties that flower together or are self fertile. Depending on the vigour of the actual variety they will fruit by year three after planting, sometimes starting in year two. Trees on these rootstocks can also be trained into fans, espaliers and cordons.

Apples

Their ease of cultivation, climatic tolerance, and the range of flavours and uses have made apples the world's most cultivated fruit. Over 2,300 varieties are grown at the Brogdale National Fruit Tree Collection. Apple trees on vigorous rootstocks generally live for 80-120 years, exceptionally up to 200 years. Apples are fully hardy in the UK. They generally flower around the first half of May and so are less vulnerable to frost than pears and plums. When grown on half-standard MM106 rootstock they reach a height of 3.0-4.6m, a spread of 3m and bear fruit from year 2 or 3 onwards.

The East of England Apples and Orchards Project lists 12 dessert, 5 culinary and 2 dual purpose apple varieties local to Cambridgeshire. Two of the eaters are local to Cambridge. The New Rock Pippin dates from 1821 when it was raised by a Mr William Pleasance, a nurseryman at Barnwell. It has a spice-like sweet flavoured yellowish firm fruit of first-rate quality coupled with excellent keeping qualities for picking in late October and eating in January to May. The Wayside dates from 1930 when it was raised by a Miss Cunningham of 'Wayside', Huntington Road, Cambridge. It is a seedling of the variety Charles Ross and has a distinctive fruity-tasting crisp sweet fruit for picking in late September and eating in October and November.

One of those from outside Cambridge, the Histon Favourite, dates from the mid 1880s and has a certain fame because it was raised by John Chivers. It has a pale yellow skinned fruit with a scattering of pink stripes and has a sharp and crisp flavour when picked in late September, mellowing with storage for eating in October to December. These 3 varieties are good for eating and can also be pressed for juice - a local group recently acquired an apple press and have agreed to lend it.

Culinary apples are used primarily for cooking rather than eating fresh. Cultivars can be divided into apples which are cooked whole (or in large segments) in the oven and become soft and fluffy, often aromatic and other varieties which are processed in pies, crumble, sauce, chutney, apple butter or fruit preserves. The Jolly Miller apple dates from 1883 and was once popular in the Cottenham area. It is a medium sized tall apple with a greasy yellow skin, reddish flush and broken red stripes for picking and cooking in late September.

Plums and gages

Plums flower about mid-April so are vulnerable to late frosts. Some plums and gages are incompatible with each other and will not cross-pollinate. One plum and two gage trees are local for Cambridgeshire. The plum, Wallis’s Wonder, flowers early and yields a medium/large yellow red-flushed sweet fruit for picking in late September or October. The two gages flower later but are partially self fertile. The Cambridge Gage is one of the most popular and reliable of the greengages - the trees are vigorous and crop regularly. They yield a greenish-yellow sweet, soft, juicy fruit for eating and cooking in mid/late August. The Willingham Gage produces a good crop of excellent quality flavoured fruits which ripen in late August or September. All three are grown on a St. Julian 'A' rootstock and reach a height of 2.7-3.6m and a spread of 3m. They fruit within 4-5 years and are suitable for relatively poor soils and grassed orchards.

Pears

Ideally, pears should be grown on a sunny, sheltered, south-facing site and, traditionally, they are often grown in walled gardens trained as espaliers, cordons or fans. They are less drought tolerant than apples and fare worst in dry, sandy soils; they prefer wet conditions and heavier clays. Pears take about 6-8 years to get established but have a longer lifespan than apples. They generally blossom from mid-April onwards and are more likely to require a pollinator. No pear variety is local to Cambridge but the Warden was found nearby. It is grown on a Quince 'A' rootstock and reaches a height of 2.7-3.5m and a spread of 3m. It produces large green flushed brown sweet fruit for picking and culinary use in October. In the 13th Century the Warden pear was a baking pear of great repute and was used for making the famous 'warden pies' derived from the Cistercian Abbey in Warden, Bedfordshire1. A suitable pollinator is the Laxton's Foremost dessert pear which dates from 1901 when it was raised by Laxton Bros in Bedford. It is a large yellow pear with a reddish flush and a few red stripes. The flesh is buttery and sweet for picking and eating in early to late September.

Tree purchase

Fruit trees are sold in a number of forms depending on their age, size and how they have been shaped at the nursery. Younger trees suffer less shock when transplanted and usually grow larger, live longer and develop a stronger root system which makes them less prone to wind throw. Maidens are one-year old trees looking more like walking sticks than trees, although some varieties will have developed some side shoots. Two-year olds are a little more developed but will have received little formative pruning in the nursery. Both require careful pruning in the early years and, if not carried out properly, may produce a weak and unbalanced tree.

The East of England Apples and Orchards Project sells all its half standard fruit trees at £12 each plus a £15 delivery charge. Appropriate supports, ties, guards and mulching material will add to the overall cost.

Tree Planting

All the selected apple, plum, gage and pear trees grown on MM106, St. Julian 'A' and Quince 'A' rootstocks can be grown as free-standing trees at 4-5m spacing in a designed layout or trained into other more compact forms such as fans, espaliers or cordons. Consideration should be given to grouping trees together that are to be picked at the same time and to separating dessert from culinary varieties. A triangular or hexagonal pattern is based on equilateral triangles; the trees are equi-distant in all directions. This pattern allows the maximum density of trees to be planted. Adequate space should be left between fences and trees for mowing, weed control and fruit collection. Bare-rooted fruit trees should be planted from November to March.

The planting of a tree is crucial to its long-term survival. Care should be taken to make sure this is done correctly and at the right time of year. Bare-rooted trees should be planted from December to March, when they are not in leaf, but not during periods of frost.

The roots need to be kept cool and moist before planting. Natural England has published a series of Technical Information Notes dealing with tree planting. After preparing the land and marking the position of each tree, a hole should be dug no more than 50cm deep and just wide enough to accommodate the roots without bending them. Some topsoil should be placed in the bottom of the hole to bed the roots on. The tree should be placed in the hole but keeping the graft above ground level. The roots should then be covered with soil and mulch.

Free-standing trees should be staked for the first five years. They should be watered regularly and a one metre circle around each tree should be kept clear of grass and weeds for at least the first three years after planting because competition for water and nutrients can severely affect young trees. Guards will be required to protect the trees from animals and the planted area could be fenced to protect it from intruders - as was done in the Trumpington Community Orchard pictured on the right.


Phased planting programme

A phased planting programme would make good sense. The footpaths divide the pound into distinct areas and these could be planted in sequence.

Phase 1

In phase 1, the largest area of the pound would be cleared of brambles, nettles and thistles and the remaining grassland improved. Then 5 New Rock Pippin, 5 Wayside, 3 Histon Favourite and 2 Jolly Miller apple trees would be planted there as shown in the picture to the right and fenced off for protection. The trees will start small and when fully grown should not impede the view of those living in the nearby buildings. The chosen trees would supply apples for eating from October to May - over 6 months of the year. The trees delivered would cost about £200. Tree guards, 32mm stakes, buckle ties, compost and mulching mats could bring this up to £350. First year maintenance would involve watering and pruning the trees and weeding and mowing the area. Space might be found for 4 crab apples and 2 quince trees. And a hedge might be created on the northern and western boundaries of the site. Once the trees are established, wild flowers could be sown or planted in the grassland and the area opened up to the public.

Phase 2

In phase 2, another area of the pound closer to the main Common would be cleared of weeds and 4 Wallis’s Wonder, 2 Cambridge Gage and 2 Willingham Gage trees planted there as shown in the picture to the left. These trees are shorter than the apple trees and should not seriously impede the view of those living in the nearby buildings. The trees would give fruit for eating and cooking in August and September - just before the apples. The trees delivered would cost about £100. Tree guards, 32mm stakes, buckle ties, compost and mulching mats could bring this up to £200. First year maintenance would involve watering and pruning the trees and weeding and mowing the area. At the same time, the wire fence bounding the allotment could be fully hidden by extending the existing blackberries with newly planted raspberries or a hazel hedge. To improve the attraction of the site, a picnic table could be added as at the Little Downham Community Orchard.

Phase 3

In phase 3, attention would be given to the narrow strip of land which links the Newmarket Road to the previous two areas and the main Common as shown in the picture to the right. The main feature in this area is a long brick wall on the east side. This wall is bare, faces the residential block and is covered with graffiti. Residents have complained about this graffiti which must be removed by the Council before anything else can be done in the area. Planting options are limited by the 13 metre width of this part of the pound which includes a footpath. One option would be to plant espaliers. Espalier training is usually done with apple and pear trees. Plums, cherries and other stone fruit trees are less suited to espalier training and are more commonly trained as fans. Given that apple trees are planted elsewhere, it would seem sensible to plant old pear varieties such as the Warden and Laxton's Foremost in this area of the pound. It would be best to start with maiden (untrained one year old) trees on Quince 'A' rootstock. Doing this will incur extra installation and maintenance costs. Espaliers for six pear trees could add £500 to the overall costs.

Tree Maintenance

The level of care in the first five years after planting is important in helping the trees become established. Most problems with establishing young fruit trees are caused by neglect and lack of management. Regular attention early on will help identify any problems as soon as they arise when they will be easier to address. Newly planted trees require regular watering. Guards, stakes and ties should be checked regularly. The grassland should be mown and any weeds controlled. Formative pruning should be carried out to develop a balanced tree shape. During this time the aim is to create a strong branch framework forming a healthy tree that will crop well in the future. This is the most important period during the tree's life.

Infrastructure

The site has adequate space for a safe barbecue area which is frequently found in wooded areas on the continent. This could be a welcome facility for the local community and be the scene for festive gatherings. However, further thought and changes to the local byelaws will be necessary before fires can be formally allowed on Midsummer Common.

To comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, the Council has decided to remove or alter some of the pinch points around Midsummer Common to make them passable by those persons using wheelchairs or mobility scooters and those with wide pushchairs. The Council's stated aim was to make gaps no less than 1.0m wide. The entrance gate from the Newmarket Road to the proposed orchard site is uninviting and less than 90cm wide and needs widening although it is not on the Council list. This is an opportunity to improve this entrance to the proposed Community Orchard and the main Common (see picture below). There is also a need to provide vehicular access because of the likely loss of the Auckland Road access point.

Organise a Volunteer Group to carry out the work

All parties - the Wildlife Trust, the Council and FoMC - recognise that the community orchard will only be created if a volunteer group takes on the task. Common Ground tell us that "the success of a community orchard lies in the strength of local commitment to it. Local people are the key to running it and deciding how it is used". FoMC would like to follow this advice and set up a volunteer group to do the work. It has already consulted its members and received a number of volunteering offers. It has also written to a local school inviting them to participate and will continue to recruit other volunteers.

If the community orchard is to go ahead, volunteers will need managing, training and insurance cover. Sustain has produced a good practice guide for managing orchard projects. It gives practical advice on setting up and running orchard projects; looks at creative ways to engage local communities and the media. The FoMC chairman has already taken part in a EU training programme on community orchards and attended a one-day course on tree planting organised by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Partnership. Funds permitting, other will be invited to attend one of the many available training programmes on the subject. The Council has already identified possible insurance cover.


Back