The importance of orchards and harvests

This post is greater than 6 months old - links may be broken or out of date. Proceed with caution!

Logo: The Orchard Project

By Kath Rosen, CEO of The Orchard Project

One of our London Project Managers shared a story this week –

Picture of Kath Rosen amongst apple blossom
Kath Rosen (The Orchard Project)

“A few years ago, the orchard at Henry Tate Mews (a veteran orchard in South London) was a little unloved - the trees were sad, the orchard wasn't being used and enjoyed and the harvest - well there wasn't one. A previous harvest day was even cancelled due to the lack of apples.

That was to change.

As part of our work, we engaged with the residents and people in charge of caring for the orchard and created an orchard management plan for the site. The engagement work including some cider - always great way to get people excited!

As part of this plan, they received a brilliant pruning and care workshop.

The result...

One happy thriving orchard and community.

Year on year with pruning care and orchard parties their yields have increased.

This year was a record-breaker at a 1217kg harvest!”

Waste apples being made into cider
Making cider from waste apples (Alberto Pezzali)

The apples at Henry Tate were being harvested to produce cider as part of our community giveback scheme. This year we harvested over 9 tonnes of apples from across London that would overwise have rotted on the ground and give back either cider, training or cash to the community groups that are stewarding the orchards. Projects like this help bring orchards back to life as well as providing hugely important community benefits, such as increased community connection and improved mental well-being. Orchards also enable people to take positive action in a meaningful and tangible way.

I run The Orchard Project - the UK’s only charity dedicated to bringing orchards into the heart of urban communities. We do this through:

  • Planting, restoring and improving urban community orchards, including undertaking practical conservation work that promotes orchard biodiversity and wildlife
  • Training and supporting groups to manage their own community orchard. We help people to learn and practise key skills like planting, pruning, grafting, harvesting and apple pressing
  • Delivering our accredited training courses in community orchard management and forest gardening, including to help people get into paid work
  • Running orchard events and activities that bring people together, build local pride, widen the orchard’s appeal and community use, and cherish cultural traditions such as harvesting, celebrating apple day and wassailing
  • Providing outdoor learning sessions in schools
  • Producing and selling cider and juice from surplus apples that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Small apple trees about to be pruned
Pruning day London orchard (Kath Rosen)

We predominately work with marginalised urban communities who suffer disproportionately from poor access to greenspaces to connect with nature. We currently work across 5 UK cities – London, Greater Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Swansea.

Orchards were once a significant part of the UK’s landscape, but over 80% have been lost to farming or urban development. As cities and towns have expanded, they have lost most of their orchards, London, for example only has 3% left. In urban areas, orchards have mostly been lost to housing and other types of development, and this is still a live concern. We regularly hear stories from our groups that their orchard has been threatened with destruction due to new planned developments. It is often only the fact that the orchard has a strong and vocal group of people protecting it that saves it. There is no default legal protection for orchards, unless the trees have specific tree protection orders (TPO) or the land is designated as a local nature reserve.

This is despite the many benefits orchards offer, not only for people and cider but also for biodiversity.

Orchards are classified as ‘Priority Habitats’ by Natural England, and they are included in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. This is because they make ideal homes for thousands of species of flora and fauna. Traditional orchards support an array of species identified as ‘Nationally Rare’ and ‘Nationally Scarce’, including lichens, fungi and beetles.

Why are orchards such vital habitats?

A professional CICO teaching the correct way to prune summer espaliers
Professional CICO training pruning summer espaliers (Jo Homan)

Firstly, fruit trees are early senescent, meaning they reach ‘old age’ faster than many other tree species. For example, a 50-year old apple tree can have the same features as a 300-year old oak. These features – such as hollow trunks, rot holes, dead or decaying wood and sap runs – are vital for supporting over 400 species of saproxylic invertebrates that live on dead or decaying wood. Birds and bats also welcome hollow trunks and rot holes in which to make their nests.

Fruit trees blossom early in the year, providing an important food source for our pollinators at the end of winter. The deliberate spacing between trees also lets more sunlight in, which is welcome for flying insects, like butterflies, who need warmth to power their flight muscles.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve begun to recognise the value of diversifying the orchard space to include other useful crops. We launched our accredited online course in Forest Gardening in 2020, and often advise community groups on complementary planting during the initial orchard design and later consulting stages. This means that there are even more benefits for biodiversity and more food for people to eat!

If this has whetted your appetite about orchards, we have a tailored course especially for you. Our Certificate in Community Orchards Pro is a professional qualification specifically for horticulturalists and people working in the countryside and wildlife conversation sectors who want to improve their orchard management skills. More information on this and a thousand other orchard related things over on our website. Or drop me a line at and tell me your orchard stories.

More from The Orchard Project

More on:

Posted On: 02/12/2022

Website design and development by Hello Technology in Whitby