Open orchards: the best fruit trees for shared spaces
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.
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.
Advantages of open orchards
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 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!
How to create an open orchard
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.
- NZ Gardener