‘Planting an orchard has brought us together’
Amber Alferoff, 33, lives in London, with her partner, Sean, and children, Taya, 15, and Finn, 10.
‘The trees in the orchard are laden with fruit, and children are running beneath the boughs while friends and neighbours enjoy the autumn sunshine. I can’t help feeling proud, because this lovely scene isn’t played out in the countryside but in the centre of my bustling city housing estate. It’s been hard work getting us to this point, but when everyone comes together to enjoy the little oasis of nature, I know it’s all been worth it.
When I moved into a flat on a large estate in Islington, north London, with Sean and our two young children eight years ago, I couldn’t have been happier. There were people of all ages and from all walks of life, and everyone was so friendly that I quickly felt at home. I joined the residents’ association and soon got to know my neighbours.
The one thing I felt was missing from my life was a garden. I longed to have somewhere to sit and relax, where the children could play and where we could invite friends and neighbours. When I talked to other residents, it was clear that many of them shared my view.
Looking around the estate, I came across several small patches of land that weren’t being used. Known as “grass deserts”, they were mostly fenced off behind locked gates, sometimes to keep anti-social behaviour at bay or simply because they had fallen into disuse. I wondered if we could use one of them as a community garden.
I contacted local authorities and looked into grants that might be available. It took a while and there were plenty of knockbacks, but finally, a year later in 2011, I was given good news – we could use a strip of land near the railway line for an orchard. I was thrilled.
There was enough space for five trees, so my neighbours and I chose to plant four apples and one pear. For the planting ceremony, a big group of us gathered, celebrating with tea and apple muffins! We set up a committee to share watering duties, and a few of us went on a course to learn how to tend the trees.
Soon the garden was being used for all sorts of parties and celebrations. We had a big event for the Queen’s 90th birthday last summer and we’ve held parties for the children at Halloween.
‘I longed to have somewhere to sit and relax, where the kids could play’
The garden gives everyone a chance to get together.
With a further grant, we were able to buy window boxes for the people on the estate who, like me, live in flats. Sean helped to install them, and it’s lovely to see flowers growing amid the concrete.
Setting up the garden also led to an unexpected career change. I’d been working in the charity sector but I was offered a job working as a project officer for the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, an organisation that promotes gardens and farms in city communities. It’s a role I love and it’s made me realise how little city children know about the countryside. Some of them have never seen a farm animal before, and it’s lovely to see their faces light up.
Our garden has been open for six years. Since that first planting ceremony, we’ve added two more apple trees, plus gooseberries and blackcurrants. You can’t beat a piece of freshly picked fruit!
Having a thriving community is so important. I love the fact that children can play outside and neighbours will keep an eye out for them. Having a garden has been particularly good for the elderly residents, too. Some of them would stay in their flats alone because they had nowhere to go. Now they can wander up to the garden for a chat and perhaps enjoy a juicy apple. Being close to nature is great for everyone’s wellbeing.’
Amber and her neighbours love their little patch of green in the middle of bustling London
Children from the local flats, including Amber’s son Finn, can now play outside