Open or­chards: pros and cons

Kate Mar­shall sug­gests the pick of va­ri­eties for fruit trees to grow in com­mu­nity gar­dens and shared public spa­ces.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

Plus the best fruit tree va­ri­eties to grow on com­mon ground

Fruit trees in coun­cil land are of­ten called open or­chards, de­fined as plant­ings which “con­nect the com­mu­nity through fruit and fruit trees in public spa­ces”. An open or­chard may be on parks and re­serves or a small collection of trees near a cul-de-sac, or an av­enue of fruit trees along­side a cy­cle trail. Pro­duce from open or­chards are open to the local com­mu­nity to har­vest.

Is there one near you?

There are many open or­chards around New Zealand. Ring your coun­cil or search Google for local plant­ings. In the top of the South Is­land, a Google Map called Nel­son Marl­bor­ough Food Map pin­points over 200 sites with fruit (or nut) trees in public spa­ces. There is handy in­for­ma­tion on what is planted and the best har­vest­ing time.

In Welling­ton, the coun­cil has devel­oped the Fruit Tree Guardians, where mem­bers of the public be­come the kaiti­aki for lo­cally planted fruit trees. This cre­ates a high level of en­gage­ment where the kaiti­aki ar­range the se­lec­tion, plant­ing and care of the trees in their sub­urb.

Per­haps the best known open or­chards are also the most south­ern, Robyn and Robert Guy­ton’s pro­ject to re-es­tab­lish her­itage fruit va­ri­eties through­out South­land. Graft­wood is taken from old trees to prop­a­gate new trees, which are then dis­trib­uted around the district. Over 7000 fruit trees have been planted this way through­out South­land.


It’s not hard to reel off a list of ben­e­fits of fruit trees in public spa­ces. Free fruit for local res­i­dents is clearly the main ad­van­tage. But the health ben­e­fits go be­yond the nu­tri­tion of fresh fruit.

En­gag­ing the local com­mu­nity to care for the trees provides ex­er­cise

If local com­mu­ni­ties could band to­gether to cre­ate open or­chards in their local ar­eas, the ben­e­fits ex­tend far be­yond just free fruit.

for those par­tic­i­pat­ing in plant­ing, prun­ing and har­vest­ing.

Tak­ing care of the fruit trees unites the com­mu­nity, as well as fa­cil­i­tates ed­u­ca­tion of younger com­mu­nity mem­bers by the more experienced. This is likely to lead to more gar­den­ing in home prop­er­ties, as peo­ple be­come more knowl­edge­able and com­fort­able with grow­ing food.

Fruit trees pro­vide green­ery in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments to pro­vide cleaner air and a pleas­ant dis­rup­tion to the con­crete jun­gle.

Ob­sta­cles & so­lu­tions

Coun­cils are some­times not overly keen on fruit trees in public spa­ces, though this is chang­ing with in­creased public interest and ex­am­ples of great open or­chards.

With tight bud­gets, coun­cils do not want any ex­tra work to care for the fruit trees. Vol­un­teers can be keen at the start of the pro­ject, but en­ergy can fal­ter over time or peo­ple move away, and then the trees be­come un­healthy, un­pruned and messy – with the ex­pec­ta­tion that the coun­cil will pick up the slack for main­te­nance. Un­picked fruit can be messy and at­tract pests such as rats and wasps.

There is also a gen­eral per­cep­tion that fruit trees are likely to be sus­cep­ti­ble to pests and dis­eases, and are hard to care for, but with good se­lec­tion of easy-to-grow va­ri­eties, this ar­gu­ment is eas­ily coun­tered.

Any public space plant­ing has a risk of theft or van­dal­ism. Small plants can eas­ily be ripped out (for “fun” or to be re­planted else­where), and older plants can have branches bro­ken. But a high level of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment can over­come these risks. Lo­cals help­ing to keep an eye on the trees do in­deed be­come their guardians.

Greed is also of­ten raised as a prob­lem. Us­ing signs to sug­gest only tak­ing what you need for your fam­ily, sug­gest­ing a limit for the amount per per­son, and show­ing pho­tos of the peo­ple who take care of the trees will help to show that it is a com­mu­nity plant­ing for all to share.

Sig­nage is also use­ful to pre­vent picking too early; a sim­ple traf­fic light sys­tem seems to work well: red for not ripe yet and green for go ahead!

Cre­ate one your­self

Fruit or­chards in public spa­ces take work, de­ter­mi­na­tion and a medium- to long-term view.

Se­cur­ing fund­ing is the start­ing point. This will be needed to buy all man­ner of plants, mulch, fer­tiliser, stakes, frost and wind pro­tec­tion, and sig­nage.

Get to­gether a group of com­mit­ted vol­un­teers from the local com­mu­nity. Be sure to com­mu­ni­cate that their ded­i­ca­tion is crit­i­cal to the pro­ject’s suc­cess, and that their time will be ap­pre­ci­ated by the wider com­mu­nity and will pro­vide value to the com­mu­nity for many years to come.

With a good plan in hand, the local coun­cil can be ap­proached with a pro­posal to trans­form un­der­utilised public land into a pro­duc­tive space for the com­mu­nity. (To avoid any po­ten­tial is­sues, coun­cils may re­quire a test for soil con­tam­i­na­tion.)

When se­lect­ing a suit­able site, con­sider as­pects such as soil qual­ity, di­rect sun, ap­proval of neigh­bours, and ac­cess to the land for chil­dren and those with mo­bil­ity is­sues.

Land­scape, eco­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal value of the site should be eval­u­ated – would fruit­ing plants en­hance or de­tract from these val­ues?

Once ap­proval is gained, the soil should be pre­pared to en­sure good drainage, con­di­tion, nu­tri­tion, and suf­fi­cient mois­ture. Select good qual­ity fruit trees of hardy va­ri­eties which suit the site’s soil and cli­mate. The plan for the or­chard should in­clude a main­te­nance pro­gramme with del­e­gated re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

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