Orchards have a long and evolving history in the UK, which likely began with the Romans and grew over the centuries to become a ubiquitous part of the British landscape. Beyond producing food, there are also various cultural and social associations with orchards that have led to a modern iteration and evolution: the community orchard.

Ringmer Community Orchard in Lewes, East Sussex. Photo provided by orchard members.

A community orchard is a group of five or more trees planted, cared for and benefited from communally and voluntarily. Harvests are often shared amongst volunteers, donated to food banks or simply free to pick for passerby. Over 1,000 community orchards exist in the UK, including in town centers, schools, affordable housing units and even prisons, and over 35 groups exist nationwide dedicated to their planting, restoration, promotion and/or care. Champions of these projects believe orchards offer a simple solution to local challenges such as access to nature, food insecurity and neighborhood beautification. Governments and private funders seem to agree, with dozens of council-run, national government and National Lottery Heritage Fund supported projects across the county.

So why the growing interest in community orchards? It could be that a broader rise in food, social and environmental awareness over the past several decades has led to an increase in activities like community tree planting and food-growing. Orchards are also nostalgic and romantic for many, offering a connection to British agricultural and landscape histories, with Kent’s orchards for example first planted by Henry VIII. Fruit trees also provide many of the benefits as urban forestry, like shade and carbon sequestration, but with the added benefit of providing food. These spaces are additionally unique ecosystems home to thousands of wild species, including some exclusive to traditional orchard habitats.

The community orcharding movement started in the UK in the late 1980s in response to a steep orchard decline over the last century that resulted in the loss of 90% of traditional orchards. This was devastating for a landscape and culture that has in many ways been shaped by the once prolific British orchard. Through a coordinated effort by the Dorset-based charity Common Ground, who believed orchards reconnect people with their local history, environment, ancestors and foods, hundreds of community orchards have since been planted across the UK. Interestingly, as more people get involved with community orchards, additional impacts beyond fruit and landscape history have also emerged.

A national survey of community orchards found that one of their primary benefits is an ability to foster safe, trusting and bonded communities. This is due to the positive social interactions that happen among volunteers and visitors who come together in orchards. This positive social outcome, also known as social capital, is like other forms of capital a foundational element of healthy societies. Community orchards are rich in this social capital because they are, by their very nature, places of communal effort and reward. This coming together to care for and share the literal fruits of collective labor bonds people to one another and creates stronger and more connected communities.

Along with the benefits of local produce, biodiversity, increased green space and historical significance, the social value of community orchards is an important reason to incorporate them into British communities. However, one important flaw to note is that at present most orchards users appear to be older White, highly-educated and middle- or upper-income. This is similar to community gardens, allotments and farmers markets, all of which try to address similar issues but have likewise been found to mostly benefit more privileged populations. While this does not invalidate the benefits these spaces offer to those that can access them, it is an important finding that reveals the need to share the bounty across a more diverse landscape. Funders and groups focused on community orchards should therefore prioritize planting new orchards in underserved areas and already established orchards should look for ways to engage more diverse members of their communities. By doing so, were could create richer sources of local food, connection and social capital for a wider swath of British society.

Brixton Community Orchard in London. Photo taken by the author.

In the end, community orchards are sources of food, nature, history, and biodiversity alongside the less obvious but equally important benefit of social interaction and community connection. As people search for engaging and effective neighborhood development projects, community orchards should be considered as an effective tool that connects us to our local foods, history and, perhaps most importantly, to each other.

This post is based on a study on the history, characteristics and social value of community orchards in the UK titled The Fruits of Community Orcharding: Cultivating Social Capital Among the Fruit Trees in Great Britain. For further information or a copy of the paper, please contact the author Lizzy Rainey at l.rainey@ids.ac.uk. Additional resources provided below:

The Orchard Project

The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation

People’s Trust for Endangered Species

Community Orchard Guide

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