Community orchard diary

Having considered the prospect for some months, it was in April 2009 that the transitionmonmouth Food Group decided to make a community orchard a priority. Roslyn Aubrey agreed to start researching – possible sites, orchard designers, tree availability, and costs.

May 2009: We obtained agreement from Monmouthshire County Council and from the local Two River Meadow Group to use part of the meadow for our first orchard.

June 2009: We met Rob Boyle of Carrob Growers at the site and, as a result, he produced two possible planting plans. We opted for the more complex one which incorporated herbal orchard mix under-planting; this includes herbs that attract insects that would otherwise be detrimental to our trees. We also met John Cummings who is prepared to design a permaculture orchard for us; this involves a great deal of ground clearance and we decided this should be left till later. Well, there’s plenty of land to spread out to! He tested the soil and declared it to be good for our purpose.

July 2009: We were fortunate in being chosen by Waitrose as one of their causes for July so encouraged everyone to put their green tokens in our box. We also put in for an MCC Community Environment Grant (successfully), having obtained quotes from three suppliers. We chose Carrob Growers of Llanrothal – reasonable prices, able to supply a wide range of trees + sundries, and local. A list of volunteers started to build up.

August 2009: We had a further meeting with Rob Boyle and agreed on named varieties. He patiently took us through the various stages of ground preparation and ongoing maintenance we needed to do.

September 2009: The field – shoulder high with grass, nettles, docks etc – was cut and we had our first working party – Gerry Bright, Andy + Bethia Smith, Sarah Robson + Lewis, Mike Jones and Vivien Mitchell. Despite the rain we marked out much of the area, strimmed and laid old carpet around where each tree was to be planted, and piled up the grass cuttings to keep the carpet in place. There is a large tree at the edge of the new orchard which provides shelter from sun and rain; Andy cleared it of nettles so we use it as a base camp. We keep our energy levels topped up with food and drink that we share. Two further working parties – the first disrupted by some hay bales at the far end of the field catching fire so time was spent carrying water from the river to put it out – completed this work and we were ready to start digging and getting rid of the pernicious roots. The soil is good but, never having been cultivated, requires some strength for the initial dig. Our original aim was to have sufficient ground prepared to plant 16 trees in National Tree Week in November. At the rate we are going we might well get the ground prepared to plant all 34! That doesn’t mean to say our work will be done – there is still the ground preparation for a further 16 trees + soft fruit beds + 60 square metres of the herbal orchard mix. The number of volunteers is heartening; apart from those at the first working party we have also been joined by Anthea Dewhurst, Felicity Greenman, Richard Corbett, and Geoffrey Jones (with his amazing spork). In total we got 42 volunteer hours under our belt during the month (our bid for the grant from MCC included 100 volunteer hours by the end of April 2010). We now have six of our trees sponsored – by Charlotte Jones, Christopher Cooper, Mary Newman, Olive + Gerry Bright, Carole Were, Tess + Jacquie Hutley.

October 2009: Two further working parties clocked up a further 32 volunteer hours and we finished the ground preparation for 34 trees – amazing! One of the working parties was particularly jolly as we were joined by eight marvellous children from Llangatock School with their teachers, Rosemary Francis and Jeannette Shalliday. The children worked so well and were impeccably behaved – and they gave us a big box of biscuits to maintain our energy levels. We hope they enjoyed themselves and will come again. Other new volunteers included Andrew von Staufer, Colette Mooney, Melinda Andrews and Ian Curley. Hazel Eyles, Monmouth Priory, Nick + Sarah Frost, Melinda Andrews, Anthea Dewhurst and her sisters, Nico + Roz, joined the list of sponsors. A further meeting with Rob Boyle finalised the planting plan for the rest of the orchard – mainly apple trees as these seem to be the most popular + beds of raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, loganberries and tayberries. But there was one great sadness. One of our sponsors, Christopher Cooper, died, peacefully, on 31st October.

November 2009: The rain rained. Working parties convened but disbanded. Nevertheless we clocked up a further 32 volunteer hours and during National Tree Week we planted the first 29 trees. New volunteers included Louise Curley, Hannah Hubert (aged 6 and a jolly hard worker), Margaret Harris + Miff Smith. The Inaugural Planting Event on the 28th was marvellous. David Thorp lent us a large marquee, Bethia Smith made a hot spicy apple drink, Anthea Dewhurst made toffee apples, Andrew von Staufer roasted chestnuts (and also filmed the event for MonTV), Gerry Bright toiled endlessly, Simon Brown toiled and hosted and, best of all, the weather was fine and over 50 people watched as Cllr Ann Were, the Mayor of Monmouth, planted the celebratory tree under the supervision of Rob Boyle. We were pleased that Jack Roocroft came for a short while; he is unwell but has wanted for so long for the area to be better utilised – which it surely will be. It was a joyous event, and my thanks to all who made it possible. Jonette Watson and Susan White joined the list of sponsors, and Susan very kindly gave us two Purple Hazels which we will plant soon.

December 2009: After the mammoth effort during November we initially thought we would give it a break until the New Year – but we couldn’t! – and we had two further working parties. At the first we got four more trees planted. The ground was frozen for the second but we got on with clearing nettles, brambles etc surrounding the site and also a large tree that had fallen across one of the paths. Apart from the usual stalwarts we were joined this month by Alan Morris and got a further 16 hours under our belts. It’s going to be such a lovely area. I took my family down there on Christmas Day. It was so uplifting – frosted and beautiful.

January 2010: The highlight of the month was that BBC Wales Today wanted to film our orchard as one of their “good news” stories. The first attempt was abandoned because of the snow but the second, despite snow in Monmouth (but OK for the BBC as there was no snow in Cardiff) went ahead. The stalwarts were out as usual together with the children from Llangatock School. We planted a purple hazel and lots of snowdrops, mainly for the sake of the cameras! The ground was really too wet to do much else but hey! – it’s not every day that the BBC comes to see us. They gave us a full three minutes on their show that evening. Kathleen Spencer joined our list of sponsors.

February 2010: Despite the forecasts, the weather was fine for both of our working parties this month. We planted eight more trees and spent the rest of the time in further protecting them from the insatiable rabbits. In the past two months the rabbits got very hungry and the snow gave them a “leg up” so they were able to nibble the bark above the rabbit guards. We resorted to wire netting three foot high and trust that will do the trick. Trevor Hooper kindly donated two Black Worcester pear trees and planted them for us! Roger Steer joined our list of sponsors and Hazel Eyles joined the band of volunteers. It is nearing the end of the planting season but there is much ground preparation to do for the remaining trees, the soft fruit plantings and the herbal orchard mix. The snowdrops are flowering; hopefully they will divide and multiply.

March 2010: We thought the weather would get better and we could start having picnics in the sunshine but not a bit of it. However, we got a chestnut tree and more snowdrops planted during one brief working party and made a good start at clearing the nettles under the tree that we use as base camp. So – not much progress other than planning, working with the schools, and fund raising for some benches. Well, we all might as well have benches to sit on while we enjoy the orchard.

April 2010: We had a couple of good working parties, one of them with Llangatock School out in force, and spent much of the time clearing nettles. Margaret Caldwell joined the band of volunteers, Mike Frost cut the grass all the way to the river path, the trees have flowered, and the area is looking very good.

May 2010: Trevor Hooper has loaned us a petrol mower which we tried at our first working party this month, and Jack Roocroft came along with a mower attached to his tractor so the boys (Jack, Andy + Andrew) all had a very jolly time playing with these new toys and mowed the whole of the orchard yet again – a splendid effort that the nettles will not like. We planted two loquats and a Family pear tree donated by Andrew von Staufer but had to spend much time watering them twice a week; it’s a bad time of year to be planting trees but there was no option to wait till the autumn. We did more ground preparation for the herbal orchard mix, divested the trees of codling moth grubs, planted primroses, and have made a good start on clearing around the clump of willows at the edge of the orchard; this will make a lovely area protected from the elements and is a pretty clump. Two of our trees were diagnosed with fire blight; this is caused by bacteria which are harboured by hawthorns, of which there are many in the vicinity – so this is going to be an ongoing problem and will need weekly inspection and immediate action. We cut off the affected branches and hope that the trees will outgrow the infection. The Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls joined the list of sponsors and I had a very enjoyable hour with some of them + Nick Meek + Tessa Norgrove (the Bursar) discussing transition initiatives.

June 2010: Three of us had a trip up to Leys Hill to collect a trailer-load of horse manure and we mulched all of the trees. The battle against the nettles under our base camp tree is paying off and grass is beginning to grow rather well in their place but there remains the battle of the wild turnip. Jack + Andy worked hard on getting Jack’s old mower back in action – which it is, and the orchard + surrounding areas including the gulley have all been cut – which just left a great hay raking operation as the grass had grown so much in a month. We are regularly spraying the trees with a soap mix to kill off aphids and have taken all the fruit off the trees so they put their strength into growing rather than producing fruit this first year, and we have weeded round all of the trees. We sadly dug up the Jubilee plum tree killed by fire blight, but the other trees are doing well. Much to do at this time of year! Margaret Harris joined our list of sponsors.

July 2010: We did more work than ever this month. Andy repaired the entrance fence and painted a new sign; it now looks really welcoming. He also started clearing along the boundary fences; this was much welcomed and spurred action by others – including Peter Short, Roger Ward + Nick Frost from the Allotment Association. We are now responsible for an area of over two acres (we started with just half an acre) – and including an area of the riverbank in front of the bench. A pair of swans + five cygnets settled near the cleared area and we got much pleasure watching them grow into ugly ducklings. Richard Corbett has been welcomed as our Artist in Residence, and plans to start work in the autumn. Colin + Pauline Grant joined our list of volunteers, Margaret Harris joined our list of sponsors.

August 2010: The month was largely devoted to mowing and continuing the clearing we started in July, including an attack on the Himalayan Balsam on the riverbank; we won’t win that one but will do our best. It is noticeable that the area is being increasingly used. The Allotment Association had a very successful BBQ evening and picnics are on the increase. It’s a marvellous area now for these activities, particularly enjoyed by children with grateful parents in tow. We encouraged everyone to pick the bounteous Bullace Plums and Mirabelles at the boundaries – food for free! Garry + Amanda Hughes joined our list of sponsors. Every effort in the coming weeks has to be on ground preparation for the herbal orchard mix so it has time to get established before the winter sets in. All five cygnets are well and happy.

September 2010: We had two good working parties which finished the ground preparation for the herbal orchard mix. This got sown and was germinating well by the end of the month. Quite separately, Andy did a load of mowing (with a borrowed sit-on mower) + strimming. It’s looking marvellous and the access to the riverbank is much appreciated.

October 2010: We finished the ground preparation for the trees that we plan to plant this winter and the whole area got mowed + strimmed yet again. David Leat (Gwent Wildlife Trust) gave us a pruning lesson and has promised to come back next month to supervise the work. Monmouth Rotary Club planted hundreds of purple crocuses as part of their campaign to eradicate polio throughout the world. Ann + Martin Were joined the list of sponsors.

November/December 2010: The weather was such that we weren’t tempted out apart from forays to check that all was well. However, we had some good news – donations enabled us to buy our own (second-hand) sit-on mower + trailer.

January 2011: The weather wasn’t much better in January but we managed two impromptu working parties when it was not too inclement. We tidied up the rabbit guards and replaced ties – the problem with using biodegradable ones is that they biodegrade! We also planted the remaining trees. Jack Roocroft died on 18th January and we planted a Victoria Plum which is what he always wanted in the orchard.

February 2011: A quiet month – still very cold – so just a bit of strimming + clearing. But spring is on its way – first the snowdrops, then the almond in all its pink glory, then the crocuses all looked lovely.

March 2011: The weather warmed up and we sprang into action. David Leat gave us a pruning lesson and, to make sure it was done correctly, he gave all of the trees their first prune. Thank you, David! Then one sunny day, thanks to a Community Environment Grant, we got our very own notice board + picnic table – quite a palaver as the notice board came on a truck too large to get down the allotment road but, with a little help from our friends and the kind man who delivered the picnic table, we got both in place much to the interest of passers by. The table is under the big tree so we get some shelter from the elements. The notice board is just inside the gate and is going to be useful to tell people about the orchard, how it came to be, what each of the trees are (so much better than labels which just seem to disappear or fade into oblivion), who sponsored them + news + forthcoming events. We’ve worked hard for all this but we are very grateful.

April 2011: We planted some violets + snowdrops, did some tidying + strimming but without a drop of rain all month there was little else to do – too dry for planting or weeding – but …

May 2011: … all of a sudden, + still without any rain, the grass grew by over a foot while we blinked – so it became a struggle to get it mown with the equipment we have – and then we had a “hay day” to rake up the swathes. Eight of us put in 30 hours, made a marvellous job of it + had a load of fun.

June 2011: Miss Penny Hunt joined our list of sponsors. There was little to do apart from mowing + weeding round the fruit trees in preparation for …

July 2011: … the National Garden Scheme Open Days which were well attended + enjoyable + we did a bit of weeding round the trees. This year again we relieved the trees of most of their fruit so they continue to put their strength into growing. What little fruit we left “disappeared” – we hope it was enjoyed – also the bounteous Mirabelles + Bullace plums – planted along the A40 when it was built – which we encouraged people to pick. Alina Cawthorne + Carol Pirie joined our list of sponsors.

August 2011: We took a holiday. The County Council did their annual cut which gave Andy a break + on Bank Holiday Sunday the Allotment Association invited us to participate in their annual barbeque – a very relaxed affair with Nick Frost cooking our food over wood in an old wheelbarrow. That’s what it’s all about!

2012: In March David Leat very kindly pruned our trees + gave us good advice on their continued care. We had a couple of working parties to clear weeds + plant more primroses but then it started to rain + it seemingly never stopped. Additionally, in the area adjacent to the orchard a mains sewer broke which resulted in the formation of a stinking lake followed by contractors for a period of six months or so repairing the damage. The County Council agreed to mow the orchard area four times a year, for which we are grateful. So, although we did little apart from tidying + litter picking the orchard is thriving. Lorraine Williams joined our list of sponsors + Stephen Bezani planted a Bulmer’s Foxwhelp cider apple tree which he had been given to celebrate his 60th birthday.

We worked with Adventa on the development of their Green Book for Gardening and we will have open days at the orchard on 6 + 7 July 2013 from 11am till 3pm on those days. For those wishing to do some work – there is always plenty to do – bring gardening gloves + join in the fun. There will be refreshments + a Swap Shop for seeds, plants, produce + tools from Tools for Self Reliance Cymru who are always grateful for any you have spare, whatever their condition.

To round up the report for the year, here are a couple of paintings by our artist in residence, Richard Corbett, dated February 2012. The orchard is beautiful at all times of the year – and will become more so as the trees mature. It’s been such a great project + I am immensely grateful to all who have made it possible.

Spring sun
Spring sun
Three trees: Spring
Three trees: Spring

2013: The year started badly. The weather was dire – cold + very wet – + then various members had health problems. We missed the Spring pruning opportunity + the first time we got a working party together was at the end of June when 16 pupils + 4 teachers from Monmouth Comprehensive came down for a morning + made a grand job of raking up grass clippings, clearing round the trees + planting cowslips. Many thanks to Anthea Dewhurst for organising this + to Olivia McLachan for leading on behalf of the school.

Over the weekend of 6 + 7 July we had an Open Orchard event together with the Two River Meadow Group + the Allotments Association. We had a Swap Shop for seeds, plants + produce, tools from Tools for Self Reliance Cymru, + refreshments provided by the Allotments Association. The weather was marvellous + a good time was had by us + the many visitors.

In October Transition Monmouth chose a very wet Sunday to have a BBQ. Despite (or because of the weather) we had a splendid time – John + Steven Fletcher, Haydn Cullen-Jones + Andy Smith did sterling work in putting up gazebos, John Payne BBQ’d admirably under the tree, + we all stuffed ourselves on marvellous food.

Community Orchard
In 2009 it was a field with shoulder high coarse grass, nettles, thistles + docks – totally impenetrable. These days it is much used by all ages.

2013 was a good year for produce – all of which disappeared when it was ripe, apart from the medlars. We picked five big bags of the fruit + Sue Parkinson converted them into delicious medlar jelly.

2014: One fine March afternoon David Leat came + pruned all the trees. The Council was very late in their first mow this year so that you could hardly see the trees for the cow parsley. It looked magnificent but required work by the scouts to cut back round the trees so that mowing did no damage. With a little help from Monmouth Comprehensive School pupils during Summer Learning Week, all went well + we were ready for the Orchard Open Day on Saturday 12 July when we had a BBQ fired by John Payne’s sustainably produced charcoal + other refreshments + Swap Shop + tools + for the first time, locally produced fruit, veg + eggs.

At the patch of ground by the bus shelter between the bus station + Co-op we have started work on an Incredible Edible Herb Garden. The idea is to grow herbs for use by the community – yes – come + help yourselves to what you need – + yes, it’s free. In keeping with the Incredible Edible movement started in Todmorden by the indefatigable Mary Clear, we now refer to the Incredible Edible Community Orchard. It may sound barmy, but it works. There is no evidence to date that people take other than what they can sensibly use.

May 2016 update: Thanks to the efforts put in by a total of around 150 volunteers who have given some 1,000 hours of their time, the orchard is a HUGE SUCCESS! The County Council mows it two or three times a year, we have added a few more fruit trees, we continue to plant wild flowers + do a bit of tidying up, one of the dog walkers carries with him a bag to collect litter – not that there’s much these days, + the community continues to responsibly use the fruit. It all looks wonderful, is much used + loved +, I hope, gives joy to many.

There is an area of about three acres adjacent to the orchard going all the way to the Old Wye Bridge. Apart from a small copse planted by the Two River Meadow Group the area was unkempt – but – in February 2015 we were able to negotiate with the County Council to plant a woodland of oak, maple, alder + wild cherry. The whips have taken very well + doubled in height already. I dream of how even more beautiful the area will be in a few years.

The orchard has been such a success that we are now planning five more community orchards – in Overmonnow, Drybridge, Osbaston + Wyesham – truly stuff that dreams are made of, well, mine anyway!

May 2017 update: The orchard is looking amazing – what do you think? In 2009 it was a field with shoulder high coarse grass, nettles, thistles + docks – totally impenetrable. These days it is much used by all ages.

There is much on-going debate about mowing – some want the area mown 14 times a year, some only once. A compromise has been agreed that seems to please everyone – paths are mown regularly but the rest is left to flower for the pollinators. The picture shows the results of that first mowing of the paths. We do little – a bit of pruning, tidying, litter picking. All of the fruit appears to be used as intended – apart from the medlars which we pick + try to encourage people to use. The chestnuts are doing so well there are signs that the undergrowth is being kept in check; the grass is much finer + only grows to about 6 inches.

The adjacent woodland is coming on a treat – some of the trees are nearly 10 feet tall, + the birch in the copse are 25 feet already with obvious signs that the undergrowth is being kept at bay. It is very exciting!

We have made a start on a second community orchard at Lancaster Way with three almonds, three Harry Baker crab apples + four eating apples. These are part of a mixed woodland with about 200 rowan, silver birch, blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, ash + oak – some planted by pupils from Osbaston Primary School. More orchards are planned. The woodland planting is part of our on-going flood prevention project, RECS – see our RECS Diary.

We have started to advertise our Incredible Edible Herb Garden near the bus station; this is now a source of chives, rosemary, marjoram, bay + other herbs for people to take what they want to eat + enjoy.