Liam Nelis, Donna McFeely and Gráinne O’Neill looking after fruit trees within St Columb’s Park House Walled Garden.
A new project is underway in Derry to help people grow their own fruit.
It is cold outside in January, the frost is on the grass each morning and the natural world seems to have ground to a halt, in sympathy with our current locked-down status.
However, beneath the soil from Steelstown to Creggan, and from St Columb’s Park to Strabane and the Sperrins, roots are slowly growing, as an innovative new community of Fruit Forest growers spreads throughout the local egion.
Over 3,000 plants, including Rovada Redcurrants, Ben Connan Blackcurrants, 20 varieties of raspberry canes, sweet Victoria plums and a dozen or more varieties of Irish apples, have been delivered to local community gardens.
They are finding plant guardians to tend and care for this first generation of health-giving tasty new arrivals.
Social Farms and Gardens, the national organisation behind the Fruit Forest project, received extra funding from the National Lottery Community Fund last June, and, mindful of the huge contribution to personal wellbeing and community resilience that community gardening made during the first lockdown, decided to take the next step.
A total of 42 community gardens, schools and community organisations throughout Northern Ireland are taking part, eight of them in the Derry City and Strabane council area.
These trees and bushes will remain within our communities for years to come – and with the propagation plans in place their descendants will be spread wider and wider.
Once established the fruit bushes can produce not only a delicious crop of healthy berries, but a dozen or more cuttings for new plants also each year.
In five years one of these bushes could theoretically have over 1800 descendants – in ten years they could easily produce enough for one for every man woman and child in the council area!
Róisín McGilloway, the teacher behind the Bunscoil Cholmcille’s transformation to an outdoor learning and food growing space for children, loves the idea of propagation and distribution of the cuttings and young plants.
“People love getting plants - an everlasting gift that you can keep looking at and have a memory for, especially one that will give you a harvest year after year. And if there’s a wee story goes along with that it’s so much better!”
Conor O’Kane, local Social Farms & Gardens Growing Resilience project officer, said he was delighted to see so many people involved in the project.
“People often think of a forest as a discreet entity growing beyond us out in the countryside – but the idea of the Fruit Forest is a distributed forest, integrated into our community – fruit trees in every garden, blackcurrant redcurrant and blueberry hedges instead of privet or leylandii – and this will do wonders for our wildlife, our birds and bees as well as reducing the carbon footprint of our fruit supply.
“It also encourages sharing and gifting – of fresh fruit or of juices and jams, and also of the young plants that can be propagated each year from the parent stock.
“All this increases community resilience and links across generations – and brings us back in touch with seasonality.
“Obviously at this time people aren’t able to get together the way they would like to, but through the use of Whatsapp groups and a Facebook page the various groups are communicating with each other, sharing photos and keeping spirits high in these tough times.
“And those trees and bushes heeled in waiting for a safer spring and warmer weather to get planted out will have their day soon."
Mark Roberts, manager of The Playtrail at Pennyburn, is also involved in the project.
“The dream is to get to the point where we no longer have to depend on the supermarket shelves for weeks-old, refrigerated fruit selected for shelf life – but can share the joy of eating fresh sweet berries and juicy crisp apples warmed by the sun in our own gardens,” he said.
“And that’s maybe a few years away yet, but we are making that dream possible by starting to plant the forest today”.
If you would be interested in becoming a plant guardian and to get in touch with your local Fruit Forest or community gardening group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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