Food for thought: LOUISE DANKS heads to Newquay’s Community Orchard and discovers food, shelter and a vital habitat…
Orchards were once a common and important fixture in the British countryside offering a staggering array of apple varieties and important wildlife habitat. Since 1950 Natural England estimates that overall orchard area in England has declined by 63 per cent – but efforts are underway to reverse this stark trend in the Cornish coastal town of Newquay.
Better known as a lively holiday town with the best surf beach in Britain, Newquay is also home to a seven-acre community orchard being developed for the local community. The land – donated by the Duchy of Cornwall – is being used to create a unique resource for Newquay, the surrounding area and Cornwall as a whole to enjoy.
Providing food, shelter, vital habitats and a sense of permanence in a modern and ever-changing landscape, the magic of an orchard should never be underestimated. From spring time blossom, through swelling fruit and bounteous harvest time in autumn, on to the winter months and the medieval tradition of wassailing, a single apple tree is productive, decorative and a welcome permanent fixture in any garden – but grown in any number and the effect is dramatically magnified.
Consider too, the mystery of inheriting an apple tree in a new garden, will it be a cooker or an eater? A good cropper? The nuanced differences in each cultivar, the individual shape formed by pruning, age and the impact of the microclimate on the tree are endlessly fascinating.
The combination of hedgerow, fruit trees and herbaceous under planting that occurs within a traditional orchard also supports a biodiverse range of plants, animals and insects – so much so that this unique habitat was designated as a priority in the 2007 UK biodiversity action plan.
So it was a delight to head to Newquay Community Orchard, an oasis nestled in the well-known coastal town and find out more about this project which, according to the orchard’s ethos, aims to ‘boost the local economy by providing jobs, apprenticeships, and educational services to local residents; improve the perception of food, make organic cheap and available, and reduce food miles and wastage; improve the health and wellbeing of residents through exercise prescription schemes, rehabilitation, and mental health services; and create a social hub where people from all walks of life can congregate.’
But it offers more than that: we know that the benefits of green space are wide and varied. They contribute to safer neighbourhoods and an increased pride in an area. Add to this the development of an orchard and you have the regeneration of skills, improved education in horticultural practices, food production and finally a sense of community which has a knock-on effect for improved health and wellbeing.
The busy team have planted mixed windbreaks in the hope that they will mature well and offer much needed protection in the years to come. The poplar, willow, and hazel copse have been planted and although still in their infancy, it won’t be long before they are providing a valuable and diverse habitat, as well as wood for the workshop and a further learning resource for those using and visiting the orchard. The first batch Cornish fruit trees were planted soon after and are maturing well.
An impressive avenue of juvenile espaliered apple trees includes many Cornish varieties, the marvellously named Pig’s Nose III, as well as Trevemper, Cornish Mother and Yellow Pear Apple which divides the site – and could eventually be the longest avenue of its kind in the UK. Like all plants, apple trees will be happiest and produce a good yield when happy in their surroundings. With this windy, exposed site, selecting cultivars carefully is very important and will give the trees the best chance of success ‘We’re still trialling varieties and techniques where it comes to apples’ explains community engagement officer Jack Greaves. ‘The conditions here can be pretty harsh. The wind can be damaging and when it’s hot, there is very little shade, we’ve spoken to many experts and asked for their advice.’
Newquay Community Orchard is home to an ever-growing group of volunteers through various courses and a regular timetable of work sessions. The courses run here are heavily influenced by the volunteers themselves and their interests. ‘The wood workshop came about because a number of the volunteers wanted to develop skills in more than just horticulture and food production,’ explains Jack. ‘It also allows us to process donated wood in a safe and secure environment.’
The all-important volunteer ‘sanctuary’ consists of a cosy shed complete with arm chair, large, round outdoor table with room for plenty of chairs for tea drinking and biscuit eating for the hard-working volunteers. The Den is a tall wooden wall peppered with nest boxes leads into an outdoor room through a low gate, this area is used as a meeting place and occasionally as an outdoor classroom area.
Onwards to the Community Growing Space, an area of raised beds used to grow vegetables, herbs and salad is neatly surrounded by a low Cornish hedge using beautiful slate donated by Delabole Quarry and conveniently sited pallet compost bays. A network of close-mown paths link the first area a large five-acre site and to the further two acres where there are big construction plans for 2017 and beyond including plans for a community building which will incorporate a café, classroom and events space.
At this time of year, one of the major jobs in the orchard is winter pruning of apple trees. A good starting point is to remove the three Ds: the dead, the diseased and the damaged. Always use sharp, clean secateurs and don’t try to cut any branch too thick for the tool in hand, as this will result in snags, tears in the bark and risks unnecessary damage to the tree.
Look out for any branches that are crossing and rubbing, these need to be removed as they can cause damage and provide an enticing gateway for disease. These branches can also take away from the aesthetics of the tree. The next step is to consider the shape. The aim is for an open centre to increase air flow and help to prevent disease, or a simple, central leader structure.
‘We will aim to show different types of pruning at the orchard’, explains orchard volunteer Lorena Viladomat which will help educate and inspire apple tree growers. Other advice includes always cutting back to an outward-facing bud as this will direct the new growth away from the centre of the tree. Reduce remaining ranches back to around four or five buds.
A standard apple tree has a trunk and branches breaking from the top of the trunk, but there are many different ways to train apple trees. Step-overs, fan-trained or even over an arch are all popular ways of incorporating apple trees into even the smallest of gardens – at Newquay Community Orchard trees have also been espaliered. There is always space for an apple tree in the garden – and you’ll be surprised by the creative ways in which one could be incorporated.
Pruning an apple tree on a cold, bright winters’ day is a real pleasure, stepping away from a well-pruned tree, knowing that you have given it a good tidy up and the best start to the growing year with a chance to maximise fruit yields is incredibly satisfying.
The word community in the name of this space is all too important, open to all who ask to take part in the courses run here ‘There is a right of way through the whole site,’ says Jack. ‘It means that lots of local people use the space to walk their dogs or just to enjoy the outdoors, we’re always open.
‘The support we receive from the local community is invaluable. Our passionate volunteers come from a range of backgrounds, from those just out of college who are looking for the support and training required to get into the workplace for the first time, to retired professionals who just want to pass on their wealth of knowledge built up over a lifetime.
‘There really is something for everyone at Newquay Community Orchard, and everyone is invited.’
To say that the team at Newquay Community Orchard are passionate about what they’ve achieved would be an understatement. As the town of Newquay grows, this space will be invaluable to all those who know about it – take advantage of the open invitation and pop along to see what’s happening.