Saturday, May 4, 2013

Open Orchard overview

I was asked to write about the project for an up-coming magazine that promotes Southland and her activities.


The Open Orchard project was born out of our desire to both create an orchard of fruit trees that suited Southland conditions and to reverse the deterioration of the old orchards we had seen as we travelled around the region; orchards on farms, in backyards and even alongside of roads and railway tracks. Putting the two aims together meant we could visit those 'heritage' orchards from Stewart Island to Waikaia, collect scions from the old trees and graft them onto new rootstock, and in that way save the varieties from extinction and produce hundreds of copies of the old favourites for sale back to the orchard owners or anyone else interested in starting a heritage orchard. We focused mainly on apples, as there were so many to chose from all over the region, but collected pear and plum varieties as well. We called the project 'Open Orchard' to reflect our willingness to share what we found, and the openess of the orchard owners to sharing their treasures with us. Our aim is to re-populate Southland with orchards of heritage fruits and we are more than pleased with the pace at which this has happened.
We began by learning how to graft apple trees. It's a simple process that, with practice, anyone can do. We teach both grafting and pruning as part of the Open Orchard project, as we believe it's important to enable as many people as possible, rather than keep the skills to ourselves. As we visited old orchards and talked with the owners, we learned as many of the names of the varieties as we could as well as the history of the families that had enjoyed the orchards, often for several generations. By grafting the 'samples' or scions of their apple trees onto modern rootstock that suited Southland conditions, we were able to offer rare and interesting fruit trees back to the community. We hold a heritage fruit tree sale each August in Riverton and interest is very high. To date we've sold around 3 000 fruit trees and those have been planted throughout Southland, fullfilling one of our Open Orchard objectives.
People delight in the names of the apple varieties and the romantic associations many of them have. Peasegood Nonsuch is a favourite and anyone who has stewed one of the huge fruits will know why. Cooking apples, largely missing from supermarkets nowadays, are making a strong comeback through our project. Yorkshire Greenings and Belle de Boskoop are quickly bought by those who have tasted them in the past. Eating apples too, remembered from childhood times, are very popular; Kidd's Orange Red, Ellison's Orange, Coxs' Orange, Merton Russett, Jonothans, Granny Smith's are all finding new homes in backyards throughout the region. Cider apples too, like Kingston Black and Slack-my-girdle are popular and cider-making is on the rapid rise here in the South.
We have been helped along the way by all sorts of people and agencies, from the old orchardist who taught us how to graft, to the SouthCoast Environment Centre and The Community Trust of Southland that have provided assistance in covering the cost of petrol used when scouting-out the countryside for orchards, advertising for the project and running the annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Riverton that showcases the apple project along with other harvest activities.
The Open Orchard project has run especially well, thanks to the support and interest of the general public who recognise its value to the region in reclaiming a special part of our heritage. As well, they see how fruit trees contribute to the health and happiness of everyone living here, with the fresh fruit they provide and the connection with our past. Dozens of Southland schools now have a heritage orchard in their grounds and more and more are asking for their own little school orchard. The Southland District Council has taken to planting our trees in unused spaces in many of the small towns throughout the region, to beautify and to provide free fruits for those wishing to pick them.
The Open Orchard project has gone from strength to strength over the past 5 years and will continue to grow in the coming years, such is the enthusiasm of the Open Orchard team based in Riverton, and the whole Southland community that recognises a good thing when they see it.
You can see more about the project, view the lists of varieties and order trees in the August sale by visiting: www.sces.org.nz , emailing office@sces.org.nz or ringing the SouthCoast Environment centre at 03 2348717. If you wish to talk with Robyn or Robert Guyton, the project managers, ring them on 03 2348249.

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