From Urban Desert To Oasis

Becky Vipond
Tuesday, 29th April 2014

The story of how a great community has worked to transform disused spaces and grass verges in to mini orchards and forest gardens.

"This is about planting for the future. In years to come our kids’ children will eat this fruit." John Carol, Orchard Guardian.

In 2011, Merseyside based arts and health initiative Squash Nutrition, was granted Big Lottery/Local Food funding for the ‘Village Farm Orchard’, an ambitious and innovative two year community food project in Stockbridge Village, Knowsley. In a nutshell, the project is about long-term social and environmental engagement; with a community producing their own free, local food, learning new skills through a creative menu of related training and sharing the love further, via many exciting engagement opportunities.

A Village Green?

Stockbridge Village was built in 1965 to house people relocated from Liverpool's inner city slum clearances in the post war housing shake up. Originally named Cantril Farm, its architects imagined a modern garden village featuring open grassed spaces and a pioneering segregated traffic/pedestrian system. 

By the mid 70s, when Liverpool's industries were in serious decline, creating high unemployment, Cantril Farm was hit hard. Inadequate housing, infrastructure and transport links added to these problems leading to social alienation and unrest.

Over recent years, firstly through Stockbridge Village Trust and then Villages Housing Association, there has been and continues to be a progressive and positive regeneration of the estate.

In 2008 Squash Nutrition were invited to lead a two year Health and Well-being project called 'Café Society' in Stockbridge where we met an inspiring and passionate community whose enthusiasm and vision helped the Village Orchard plan take root.

Stockbridge is remarkable for an abundance of green space. Often described as 'green desert' these areas are mostly grassed and unproductive, providing minimal value to residents and requiring continuous mowing by the council/landowners.

A central aim of the Village Farm Orchard project was to turn some of these empty assets into edible orchards. Fruit and nut trees are slow growing but once established benefit from low maintenance, are resilient and attractive and best of all, can provide fresh food for decades to come. Instead of designating one large orchard space, the intention was to site multiple mini plantings throughout the village within arms-reach of residents' doorsteps.

Spreading The Orchard Love 

The long term success of the plantings relies on residents’ feelings of ownership and care for the trees. Individuals and groups have been encouraged to participate in the ‘request a tree’ service - deciding where trees will be planted, and in many cases dedicating trees to friends and family past and present.

So far 200 fruit trees and 150 fruiting bushes have been planted in the community and very importantly along the verges and the ‘in-between’ spaces within the estate. Permaculture principles have been shared and embraced and several mini forest gardens have evolved.

 

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Local children planting trees 

A Hub of Activity

Farm Hub’ was established at the beginning of the project in a shop unit in the centre of the estate to provide a space for training, meeting and socialising. It has been an invaluable ‘shop-front’ for all orchard activity. It is a much loved, welcoming, accessible and very flexible space which has hosted harvest festivals, pop ups and plant give-aways.

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The village hub in the spring

Sharing Skills 

A diverse menu of training courses compliments, supports and enhances the orchard plantings. Picking up a spade is not the only way people can get involved and making this project as inclusive as possible has been key to its success.Tree care, horticulture, beekeeping and propagation workshops run alongside preserving, local food cooking, basket weaving and green woodwork sessions. Training takes many forms: workshops, tasters, courses and drop-ins.

So far 262 people have taken part in training and a further 2,132 residents have participated in school workshops, youth group sessions, film shows, markets, cafe events and pop-ups. 

A Resource for All

A Village Farm Orchard map planned and designed by trainees, volunteers and participants charts the pocket orchard sites, forest gardens and areas of the estate rich in wild forage. This beautifully illustrated A2 fold out guide contains original artwork and is bursting with orchard recipes, permaculture tips and forage advice. It will be delivered to all 7,000 households in Stockbridge.

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The Legacy

The planted trees will begin to bear fruit in the next couple of years. Managed and cared for by the Orchard Guardians they will provide free fresh fruit for generations to come. The project has also ‘grown’ people. Participant feedback clearly demonstrates how much people have benefitted from the project - through meeting new neighbours, feeling less isolated, becoming more confident, learning practical skills, and having improved feelings of well-being and community connectedness. Since being involved participants have also taken up further training, started new jobs, begun new local growing initiatives and raised funds for community projects.

Some Words from Participants, Young & Not So Young 

“It’s great meeting people, we really enjoyed the planting in Roundhey Community Garden, everyone came out – kids, mums, everyone got stuck in.”

“The biggest thing I’ve learnt is you don’t need a big space to produce food, flowers or to just grow. It’s not the space that you need it’s the mind-set.”“I’ve tasted things I have never tried before.”

“I have learnt how to make a soup my grandchildren love ... it’s now called ‘Grandad’s Soup’.”

“I have loved this course – I have learnt how to use my hands, to use new tools and I have made a basket!”

“I love the idea that we are planting free food for the community.”

“I really enjoyed planting a tree, but it was so muddy!”

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Pop up plant giveaway

Steve Jones, a permaculture designer on the project, adds his reflections, “This was a dream challenge. It is a complex project requiring more than the two years we have put in to achieve our long term goals. “It is like an ultimate challenge for the urban forest garden. We want to create robust, productive and low maintenance landscapes within the estate to soften the empty spaces and to build relationships between the residents and the space that surrounds them. 

“I am used to talking to people about trees, soil and ecology, but when I arrived, I quickly discovered that these are not topics at the forefront of people’s minds. The daily grind of life means that most people are focussed on short term and more immediate goals. 

“Over the last two years we have recruited a big constituency of supporters, followers and volunteers, more than just the hard core of volunteers who turn up every week to plant in the rain and sleet. “It is early days yet but, something really interesting and very important is growing on the Stockbridge Village Estate.”

The Successful Ingredients

The Village Farm Orchard project has revealed a passionate and active community. All ages have come together to develop ideas and plans, use permaculture principles and learn an array of skills and knowledge that they have channelled into multiple food supplies around the estate ... A great step towards a resilient future.

Becky Vipond has a background in both arts and education. A shared enthusiasm for growing and eating great food led her to co-found Squash Nutrition with friend and colleague Clare Owens. Now 10 years old, Squash devises and delivers a diverse menu of creative health projects across the North West. For more information on Squash Nutrition visit www.squashnutrition.org

Steve Jones, is a permaculture design teacher and founding member of Chickenshack housing co-op in West Wales. He now works as part of Sector39, an association of designers, gardeners, teachers and crafts people working for a sustainable future in Mid Wales. His latest enterprises is a collaboration with Cwm Harry known as www.CwmHarrySkills.org.uk Read his community gardening blog at www.get-growing.org.uk 

Below is a brilliant animation about the Stockport Village Farm Orchard.

 

Further resources

Watch: How to convert a conventional orchard into a perma-orchard

Maddy explains how her greenhouse thinks it's a mini forest garden

Planting a forest garden on a roof in the city centre

Watch: How to graft a fruit tree

How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield for a special price of £12.70 from our Green Shopping site

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