Gardening: A growing trend rooted in the past

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The Independent Online
Scrumping is actively encouraged at the Rivers Nursery Orchard at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, says Patricia Cleveland-Peck. It's all part of an initiative to improve community relations.

"Of course our Apple Day celebrations are going ahead," said Diana Richard. "It doesn't matter that this isn't a good apple year. We had hoped the Girl Guides would be able to make chutney to sell but there isn't enough fruit so we'll have to make do with a picnic and games - and a walk around the orchard."

The Rivers Nursery Orchard is just one of some 70 community orchards that have been created throughout the country for the benefit of local people. The initiative came from Common Ground, the organisation which focuses on the links between culture and nature: it established Apple Day in 1991, not simply as an excuse for a celebration but to raise awareness of the wonderful diversity of our local British apples.

The Rivers Community Orchard project is particularly rewarding as it is preserving and regenerating what was one of the great nurseries of England. The Rivers family began growing fruit on this site in 1725; here the famous `Early Rivers' plum was developed in 1834 - it is still one of the best. Here too, many new varieties of peach, nectarine, apricot, pear and apple were developed and experiments with dwarfing stock and pot-grown fruit were undertaken. The nursery closed in 1985 - part of the land went to development of houses and a private hospital, but some 42 acres have been made available to the community.

It was the enthusiasm of two dynamic women, Diana Richard and Susan Clark that got the project off the ground. "Last year we held a public meeting and invited all the local organisations; Scouts, Girls Guides, Women's Institutes. We were amazed by the enthusiastic response," said Diana. "Many local families had worked at Rivers Nursery and saw it as part of their history, so the idea had strong appeal. We had a traditional wassail in January and more than 60 people turned up on a cold winter's night."

Volunteers also meet once a month on a Sunday to do maintenance work. Both Diana and Susan have attended courses for the regeneration of old orchards at Brogdale Horticultural Trust and can instruct in pruning and other techniques. Volunteers will be rewarded by being able to take the fruit home. "Legalised scrumping," said Diana.

Meanwhile there is plenty to do. The last apple trees were planted in 1948 as a demonstration orchard and this area has now been surveyed and each tree numbered for identification purposes. One of the most exciting things about this old orchard is the fact that so much interesting genetic plant material was abandoned on the site; unusual, possibly unique, fruit varieties including a small bright-red gooseberry which looks like a redcurrant.

Fruit covers about a third of the area; willow trees shelter the orchard (the withies were used in packing the saplings for despatch) while beyond stretches a wildflower meadow containing wonderful chalkland flora; wild marjoram, scabious and bee orchids. Wildlife abounds; skylarks, owls, sparrowhawks and small mammals thrive in this undisturbed setting. An area has been set aside as a camping ground.

"We had a dawn chorus walk earlier in the year," Diana says. "It is so good to see this old orchard coming back to life."

The same could almost be said of another community orchard, this time in the urban setting of the London Borough of Ealing. Only after plans were made for the orchard (on a nature reserve) was it discovered that in the 18th and 19th centuries the plot was part of a well known nursery.

The Brentford Nursery, run by the Ronalds family, had specialised in apples. The famous Victorian writer J C Loudon commented in his Gardener's Magazine of 1829, "Mr Ronalds has for many years paid great attention to the culture and improvement of the apple and has selected above 300 sorts... the trees are of such size and age and Mr Ronald's experience respecting their individual character and habits of such an extent that... we have strongly urged him to publish a selection of engravings and descriptions."

The book, illustrated by Mr Ronald's daughter Elizabeth, duly appeared and Peter May, the landscape officer in charge of the current Ealing project, was delighted when he found a copy in Chiswick Library. "We knew that fruit had once been grown here, but this gave us a real - and very important - link with the past."

For further details about orchards contact Common Ground on 0171-379 3109