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GROWE Community Orchard - October Garden of the Month

GROWE community orchard
by Ally North Ally North

The garden that grew a community

Looking for planting inspiration to make your garden shine all year round? Every month we visit a garden which we think has nailed the best trends of the season, then report back with tips on which plants to use and how to recreate the look. This month we’re at GROWE (Grass Roots Oldham Women Enterprise), a thriving community garden next to the Rochdale Canal in Greater Manchester, with its own organic fruit orchard - what better way to celebrate apple season?

Orchardist Victoria Holden runs the GROWE community orchard with the help of local community groups and volunteers. “This was a derelict site,” she told us, “covered in brambles, with rotten decking and polytunnels that needed recovering.” Looking around the perfectly tended site now, it’s hard to imagine. “We wanted to help create a community space that was inclusive,” says Victoria, “so that people from Oldham and Greater Manchester could get growing in a way that’s fun, exciting and accessible to everybody.”

All of the redevelopment work was done by volunteers and local companies giving their time for free - as you walk around the one acre site, there’s a surprise around every corner - paddleboarders getting ready for a litter picking mission on the canal or a squirrel darting out of a compost bin with a sunflower head in its paws. As well as the polytunnels, there are herb and vegetable beds, a woodland area, two wildlife ponds and a therapy cabin as well as the beginnings of a tree nursery. Victoria’s organisation, Northern Lily, runs horticulture workshops - in a recent session they taught people how to graft rootstocks, resulting in a hundred new heritage apple trees for planting here and at other sites. “I want to show people the diversity of fruit out here,” she says, “because we’re growing in a changing climate and we need to discover which varieties will succeed and which won’t.”

Incredibly, all of this has been done IN A YEAR. It’s an eye opening example of what can be done when everyone in a community comes together to build something for the common good.

Land skills for everyone

GROWE is all about breaking down barriers to self sufficiency. Victoria points out the vegetable plants labelled in three languages and tells us “there’s been a real cultural exchange of ideas, especially from the Global South communities, and we’ve all learned so much.” The vibrant callaloo plants catch my eye, with their long purple flowers. They’re full of seeds which are known as amaranth and used as a heritage grain, while the leaves are used in Caribbean dishes and cooked like spinach. There are cassava, okra, loofah, sweet potato, African maize and even banana plants - everything that local people want to eat.

Everything is kept as low-cost and accessible as possible, so all their chilli seeds were donated by a local company and workshops show people how to propagate seeds in takeaway boxes and grow potatoes in carrier bags. We’re scribbling down ideas as we go!

growe orchard

Victoria’s favourite fruit trees

The orchard at GROWE is home to twenty four different fruit varieties in neat lines of mature apple, pear, plum and cherry trees. A beautiful sixty year old cooking apple tree is known as The Mother, from which many other trees have been grafted, and a seat has been built around the trunk so that people can sit in its shade (and today it comes in handy for dodging the rain!). We asked Victoria to tell us more about some of her favourite trees.

1. Egremont Russet apple

“This is a heritage variety that every Victorian would have in their garden,” Victoria says, “and it tolerates wet and windy conditions, so it’s perfect for growing here in the North West.”  She picks a beautiful golden russet apple from the tree and takes a bite. “It’s got that sweet, perfumey, almost nutty flavour.” Egremonts are a true dual purpose apple, perfect for eating fresh or cooking.

egremont russet

2. Golden Delicious apple

“Your childhood packed lunch apple!” says Victoria. Instantly recognisable, this old favourite does what it says on the tin. It ripens to a golden yellow colour with a slight pink blush and has one of the best flavour profiles of any apple. What’s more, it’s really prolific, so you’ll get plenty of apples for cooking as well as your lunchbox. “It’s a good choice if you only have space for one tree,” Victoria adds, “because it crops so well.”

 golden delicious

3. Conference pear

“My favourite pear,” says Victoria, and she’s not alone. Conference is not only the UK’s favourite pear, but the most popular fruit tree overall. “You’ll find it in the shops,” she says, “but it doesn’t taste like it does grown organically in your own back garden and picked straight off the tree.” 

It’s easy to grow and tolerates less favourable conditions - “We’re in the North West of England,” says Victoria, “but this tree is going to be fine with whatever the North West weather chucks at it.”

conference pear

4. Doyenne du Comice pear

This old French variety ripens early and it’s really easy to maintain. It’s plumper than a conference pear, with smooth, thin skin and a very sweet taste with hints of vanilla and cinnamon.

“The butterflies love them too,” says Victoria, “we get a lot here, so we leave any windfalls on the ground for them to enjoy.”

doyenne du comice pear

Get the look

1. Plant your own apples

“You don’t need an orchard,” says Victoria, “you can grow a fruit tree in a pot. Apples and pears are perfect if you’ve not got much space,” she explains, “because they naturally grow into a nice cone shape.” Even better, a lot of apple, pear, cherry and plum varieties are now available in dwarf and patio sized versions that can be grown in even the smallest space.

2. Grow your favourite food

Everything grown in the vegetable garden is chosen by the people who come here, and often that’s the stuff you can’t get easily or cheaply in the shops - beautiful and unusual herbs like purple shiso, summer savory, lemon balm, vietnamese coriander, borage and garlic chives. 

I loved the idea of growing all the ingredients for your favourite dishes in one bed - here it was samosas, with fenugreek, coriander, potatoes, carrots and peas, but you could easily replicate the idea with your own favourites, for example a pizza bed with tomatoes, basil, oregano and garlic or a stir fry bed with pak choi, spring onions, peppers and chillies.

3. Start a cutting garden

As you enter the GROWE garden, your eye is drawn to the colourful cutting garden, with volunteers tending the dahlias, anemones, rudbeckia and verbena, all still looking fantastic in late September. In the summer, they held flower crown and bouquet workshops, which were extremely popular! You don’t need a lot of space to start your own cutting garden - simply choose flowers that you love and which go well together. Perennial plants like dahlias and cosmos are best, as these respond to their flowers being cut by growing more, meaning that you get to enjoy them inside and outside your home - and they last for years.

4. The absolute GOAT(s)

I can’t sign off without mentioning one of the star attractions at GROWE - the three resident pygmy goats, Bramble, Rusty and Coconut. They were crowdfunded and their luxe accommodation built by a local company for free. Into The Wild Creatives run goat therapy sessions with the tiny trio, as well as meet and greets where you can feed, groom and learn about the goats. They’re the friendliest little things, and love being stroked and cuddled.

baby goat

Feeling inspired?

I know we are - I’m definitely growing callaloo next year! If you live nearby, why not go along and see what’s growing? If that’s too far, you can still get involved in community growing wherever you are. Contact your local library or council to find out what opportunities there are near you - or start your own.

basket of apples and pears

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