Orchards 101

Stewardship in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard

What is a community orchard?

A community orchard is a grouping of fruit trees planted in a public space or schoolyard and cared for by volunteers who maintain the trees, harvest them, and often have educational and social events in their orchard such as orchard picnics, blossom festivals and harvest festivals. Volunteers often share the harvest with the local community and agencies such as the food bank.

What is the history of community orchards?

Community orchards have existed in the United Kingdom for over 20 years and in Boston and Philadephia for over a decade. In the last few years a number of community orchards have been planted in Vancouver as well. Some community orchards are long established orchards that have been abandoned by local farmers and restored by the local community. Others are newer plantings. A community orchard may have two or three fruit trees…or it may have over a hundred.

How would I start a community orchard in Toronto?

Community orchards are still very new to Toronto. So the approach is to apply to Parks, Forestry and Recreation as if you’re applying to start a community garden. Only instead of growing vegetables, you’ll request that the garden consist of fruit trees. For more information contact Solomon Boye, City of Toronto Community Gardens Co-ordinator at (416) 392-7800 or sboye@toronto.ca. Or click here to read more on the City of Toronto website. To find out why our orchard was planted in Ben Nobleman Park rather than any other location click here.

What types of trees should be planted in a community orchard?

It’s best to focus on disease resistant trees, especially if you’re considering planting apple trees which can get scabby. Pears are very hardy. Cherries and plums can be vulnerable to black knot (but don’t let that discourage you from trying!). In our neighbourhood, apricot trees have been very successful. Peach trees can be messy and should probably be avoided.

How do you decide which varieties of fruit trees to plant?

It’s very important to take time to select the various types of fruit trees you’ll be planting to ensure your harvest is staggered throughout the season. For instance, your group may decide to plant three varieties of pear trees. From your research you may discover that “Harrow Delight” ripens in late August, “Flemish Beauty” ripens in late September, and “Bosc” ripens in early October. By selecting trees with different ripening times, you can ensure that you’re not overwhelmed with more fruit than you can handle at any given time. Mori Nurseries has a very nice single page leaflet showing what fruit trees they supply and when each variety ripens. You may want to contact them to see where you can get a copy.

Do fruit trees need to be planted in pairs?

Sometimes. Some fruit trees are self-pollinating. But for other types of trees you’ll need more than one for the trees to cross pollinate. As you are researching your varieties always check if you will need a second tree to be planted in order to ensure that the fruit tree will actually bear fruit!

Where do I find out more about disease resistant fruit trees?

So far, the top supplier near Toronto for disease resistant apple trees that we’ve found is Siloam Orchards. Be sure to order your fruit trees early, as they sell out.

Is it expensive to start a community orchard?

Nope. One year old trees can cost as little as $25 each.

How much care do new orchards need?

The most important thing in the first 2 or 3 years is to ensure that your young fruit trees are well watered about twice a week. Once a tree is established, rainwater should be enough except in the case of drought. Ensure you have a source for water in the park and a crew of people who are willing and able to water the trees with buckets or hoses.

What ongoing care is there for an orchard?

Fruit trees need to be pruned properly to ensure a good harvest. We hope to run fruit tree pruning workshops in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard in the years to come. Volunteers also need to keep an eye out for any sign of insect infestation or disease and report it to Parks, Forestry and Recreation if there is a problem. In three to five years, the fruit trees will start producing a significant amount of fruit. Then volunteers will need to harvest the fruit…and they’ll need to clean up the orchard regularly by collecting and disposing of the fallen fruit.

What conditions are necessary for a community orchard?

Most importantly, Parks, Forestry and Recreation will need to test the soil to ensure it is safe to plant fruit trees in your given location. You’ll also need a site with plenty of sun and with a source of water for irrigation nearby. In the city, many parks are located on busy streets and some have expressed concern about air pollution. But fruit trees, like other trees, do help clean the air. And many commercial orchards in Niagara and in other locations are planted along busy highways. All fruit from an urban orchard should be washed before eating. For research on air pollution and orchards, click here.

Can a community orchard be sited on school grounds?

Yes, and often they are. Some of Boston’s most successful community orchards are on school property. They are a perfect way to get children involved in growing and harvesting their own food and often the fruit goes into the school lunch program. One consideration is to choose trees that are ready for harvest once children are back in school in the fall.

Are orchards safe for children?

Fruit trees do attract pollinators at certain times of the year. But other common flowering trees, bushes, perennials and annuals also attract pollinators so this danger of bee bites should not be increased in a community orchard. It’s important that volunteers maintain the orchard and remove fallen fruit so as to not attract more insects than necessary. But studies show that children are safer and behave better when they interact in green spaces rather than in artificial play areas made out of concrete, plastic and metal. For more information on bees, click here. For more information on the benefits of children interacting with nature, click here.

Are their any good books to read to learn more about selecting and planting fruit trees?

If you want to know more about community orchards and fruit tree care, the best book to read is: Growing Urban Orchards by Ben Nobleman Park co-founder Susan Poizner! It specifically describes the challenges and joys of growing fruit trees in a public space and gives clear instructions about fruit tree care. Other great books that can be found in your local library include: “Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally” by Robert Kourik, “The Back Yard Orchardist” by Stella Otto, “Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening Fruits and Berries”, and “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” by Lee Reich.

Are there any native trees that are appropriate for a community orchard?

One tree you might want to try is the native Paw Paw which has a soft fruit that is said to taste like a banana. It does take quite a few years until the Paw Paw produces fruit, but when it does, it’s pretty special. Paw Paw can’t be purchased anywhere because the soft fruit gets easily damaged when transported. Remember, the Paw Paw is an understory tree, so unlike most other fruit trees, it need to be planted in shady conditions. To source a Paw Paw contact Grimo Nurseries.

Another native tree every community orchard should have is a Serviceberry. These trees (they can also be multi-stemmed shrubs) produce fantastic berries that are the size of blueberries and are equally delicious when ripe. Serviceberries also attract pollinators, and that is a good thing if you are planting an orchard. Serviceberries are very popular and can be purchased in any garden centre.

What about nut trees?

There are lots of types of nuts that can grow in the city. But, there are also lots of squirrels in our urban environment who love to feast on nuts. In the countryside, there are predators who keep the squirrel population down. Not so in the city. So if you plant nut trees in Toronto, don’t count on getting to eat many of the nuts!

Are chemicals necessary in order to grow fruit?

If you’re hoping to plant a community orchard, the deal is that you won’t be using chemicals. The trees will be tended organically. That’s why choosing hardy, disease resistant trees is so important. This means that some years your harvest may be prettier than others. But fruit doesn’t have to look perfect in order to taste good.

Susan visits a community orchard in Vancouver with 140 fruit trees!

Susan visits a community orchard in Vancouver with 140 fruit trees!