What are the basic steps in starting a community orchard?
Answer: The American Community Garden Association (communitygarden.org) has offered a 10-step outline for starting a community orchard. Retaining the 10 major headings, the following is an expansion of that outline:1. The first step is to develop a plan, and the first order of business regarding the plan should be to determine the goals of the orchard, including whom the orchard will serve. In England, where the community orchard movement started, the first goal was saving local varieties in extant older orchards, which were threatened by age but even more by urban development. Other goals might include fruit production for the orchard workers as well as the general public, “private” fruit production on rented plots, fruit production for food banks and the needy, beautification (edible landscaping), and education for children, as well as adults, interested in learning how to grow fruit.Once a general plan is decided upon, a leadership team should be named to chair the committees necessary to oversee the general plan?committees like fundraising, volunteer recruitment, site selection, legal, and, of course, planning. The leadership team will establish priorities and among those should be choosing a name and logo for the orchard. 2. The second step is finding a site. In England, the sites are likely to be older orchards already established in the community on private land but threatened in some way and in need of preservation. In the United States, this is not usually the case, and a community orchard group will most likely be looking at public land to find a suitable site. However, depending on the resolve and resources of the group, it is possible to consider finding the best site regardless of whether it’s public or private, and purchasing or leasing the site if it’s on private land. Still, most groups will be looking at public land like parks, a botanical garden, or school grounds, all of which have the built-in advantage of having some public traffic (assuming that visibility is among the goals of the group). Sites that already have community gardens are natural candidates. The site search need not be limited, though, to schools and parks as there is often land in public ownership (city, county, state, federal) that has not been purposed and may not be readily recognizable as public. Check with local officials.A good orchard site is sunny with well-drained soil and access to water. It should not be in a frost pocket (an area where cold air can settle), and south-facing slopes should be avoided because they tend to induce fruit trees to bloom too early, thus making their blossoms subject to frost damage.Determine the history of a site to ascertain that there is little to no risk of contaminated soil from previous use (e.g., industrial site, waste dump). 3. Get a contract/lease. Most fruit trees don’t start bearing until they are three to four years old. Moreover, because initial investment in plants, fertilizer, and land preparation can be considerably more for an orchard than for a garden, a long-term agreement with the owner (be it public or private) is a necessity. At this point, legal assistance would be advised. If the government entity you are working with doesn’t provide legal services, look for a civicminded lawyer willing to do pro bono work for your cause. 4. Get money and materials. In large part to make things easy for the people who want to give your group charitable donations of money and materials, consider forming a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Don’t limit your funding searches to just local sources; depending on your goals and focus, there are national groups that might be interested in donating.Other focus areas might suggest appropriate donors. For instance, are you focusing on production for food pantries or other needy groups? Does your orchard have a strong educational component? Is historical preservation a main goal? Your goals should suggest to you individuals and groups who would be happy to donate to your community orchard. And don’t forget gardening groups, farm supply stores, landscapers, and nurseries; they are a very likely source of donated tools and plants. A website or at least a Facebook site is practically mandatory today for any group doing public fundraising. A Facebook site with names and photos provides transparency to reassure potential donors that you are a legitimate and worthy organization. Likewise, media attention provides both promotion and legitimacy. Arrange to be interviewed by local news media and make sure they know about any events (e.g., groundbreaking, planting, a major donation, notice of a workshop at the orchard) that are coming up. The more familiar your name becomes, the easier it is to solicit donations.5. Find helpers. Identify sources of volunteers, including master gardeners, garden club members, nursery operators, and Cooperative Extension personnel. Remember, perennial fruit culture is more complicated than regular gardening, so it would be advantageous to find experienced fruit growers. Public schools, 4-H, and FFA (Future Farmers of America) organizations should be notified. High school and college horticulture programs are another good place to look.6. Design the orchard. In designing the orchard, the first consideration should be the project goals from Step 1. For example, if a primary goal is production for food banks, heirloom varieties or exotic species should give way to varieties proven to produce abundantly in your area. Another primary consideration is choosing plants that do well in your climate and soil without the intervention of pesticides. First, plants have to be chosen that will actually survive the climate and soil types to which they will be exposed. After that, it is practically a given that any orchard open to the public will have to be managed without synthetic pesticides. It matters little what the experts say in this regard; the simple truth is that parents will not tolerate a situation in which they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their children may be exposed to the risks of pesticides. Consequently, the most disease-resistant, pest-tolerant, climatically adapted plants must be chosen from the start for the pest/disease/climate complex of your region. It will do little good to plant a Bartlett pear in the eastern half of the United States only to have it destroyed by the ravages of fi re blight. Likewise, a muscadine grape with great disease resistance, but not cold hardy past USDA Climate Zone 7, will simply not survive the cold winters of New England. Another important choice involves the size and scale of the orchard. This is tricky, of course, but the leadership team must try to gauge the level of support that will be necessary and available over the years. If there is any question about such support, remember it is best to start small and excel than to start big and fail. Successes will build community interest and support. Failures will imply that your group doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s harder to correct mistakes in perennial plantings than in annual gardens; therefore, be humble, ask questions, and think small initially. The physical characteristics of the site must be considered, and foremost among these for the purposes of fruit growing are shade and drainage (both air and water). Most, but not all, fruit plants will do best in full sun. This relates primarily to fruit bud initiation by the plants, but it also relates to disease management, as quick drying of plant surfaces inhibits growth and infection of many plant-pathogenic fungi and bacteria. But there are fruit trees, like pawpaws, that will thrive in the shade, though they will bear more fruit in full sun. Also, there are fruit species “out of their element,” like raspberries growing in the South, which will actually benefit from a half-day’s shade, especially if that shade moderates the southern and/or western exposures. Also, when laying out the orchard, consider the relative shadow cast from taller trees: in most cases the tallest trees should be planted on the northern border of the site because that will produce the least shade on the orchard site as a whole. Moving from North to South, the tallest trees come first, then plant the medium-height shrubs, next the berry bushes, and finally the ground-huggers (strawberries, lingonberries).Regarding water and air drainage, as already discussed in Step 2, the whole site should have good air and water drainage, but fruit plant species exhibit varying tolerances to “wet feet.” Cherries, for instance, are notoriously intolerant of heavy or poorly drained soils. Pears and blackberries, on the other hand, are probably the most tolerant of wet conditions. If plants intolerant of wet soil need to be planted where drainage is questionable, consider raising the individual plant site by berming the soil. Finally, consider adequate walkways, access for mowers, whether fencing is desirable, possible need for a storage shed, and the aesthetics of the whole planting, including the entrance with signage. You’ll probably want an attractive sign with the orchard group’s logo, but it might also be advantageous to have educational signage, as well as posted rules.7. Prepare and plant the orchard. A good first step on-site is to post a sign to let people know that a community orchard will be established here. The sign could also function to solicit more volunteers. Ideally, ground preparation starts well ahead of actual planting and includes activities such as performing a soil test, increasing organic matter (turning under a cover crop or incorporating compost or manure), dealing with existing vegetation (noxious weeds like bermudagrass can be serious, long-term problems, especially in berry plantings); adjusting soil pH with lime or sulfur; building trellises for grapes, raspberries, and espaliered fruit trees; and ditching and/or berming to deal with drainage. These types of things are difficult to do after planting long-lived trees and bushes, so try to anticipate future needs and obstacles. Planting day should be a fun event. Make it so. It’s a chance to get some publicity, so notify the press ahead of time and post announcements on social media sites. Make sure that the planters understand the basic rules of planting; you’ll probably want to have teams led by people with some expertise. You could also use this opportunity to have your first workshop, “How to plant fruit trees and berry plants correctly.” Make certain at the end of this day that plants are watered in and that someone is in charge of watering during the crucial establishment year. 8. Involve youth. Through public school biology classes, 4-H clubs, youth centers, church groups, and the like, a community orchard can engage kids. Youth will serve as positive ambassadors for the project because they’re going to tell others, including their parents. Making sure the neighborhood’s children are involved is just the right thing to do, but it can also help keep down vandalism. 9. Manage the orchard. As for what must get done for the sake of the plants, managing a community orchard is much the same as managing any orchard. The primary difference is managing who does the work. Volunteers will come and go, but the management of the orchard must have continuity.10. Reassess the project. Any long-term project should undergo periodic reassessments. Build such reassessments into the initial charter.You can learn much more on this topic in the ATTRA publication Community Orchards. This publication introduces community orchards and discusses the history of the community orchard movement and the motivations behind producing fruit in a community orchard. It offers advice on choosing fruit trees and plants most likely to provide successful harvests, including apples, pears, grapes, brambles, and other, unusual fruits. A profile of a community orchard program and a list of further resources are also included.