Feature

Communal fruit trees

Green Lifestyle magazine

A growing number of keen gardeners are thinking outside the fence and growing fruit trees in communal spaces.

Communal Gardens

Credit: Gail Kendrick

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Not everyone has space in their backyard to grow fruit trees, but there is much under-utilised land in city and urban areas just right for the job. And using these communal spaces has the potential to improve local food security and foster community connections. Here are three inspirational approaches to growing fruit trees in shared spaces in Melbourne.

In the front yard:
It is the first day of spring and a long line of people chat to each other as they wait to get a free lemon tree at the opening of Trillium Parklands in the municipality of Hume. The Lemon Tree Project is a volunteer group that aims to build community by the planting of shared lemon trees.

Jodi Jackson who helps run the project says lemons act as a starting point as they are easy to grow and “touch people in a way no other fruit does”.

“They are sweet and savoury and cross cultural,” Jackson says.

The idea began with public installations of lemon trees, herbs and indigenous species, along with all-important park benches to enable locals to sit down and talk to each other when they harvest. With the help of various grants, more than 700 lemon trees have now been planted in schools and retirement homes, outside a bakery and in people’s front yards.

All trees donated to individuals come with a stipulation that they be planted in the front yard so others can share the harvest. As The Lemon Tree project states: “The fact is we don’t all need to have a lemon tree in our backyards. One lemon tree produces enough fruit for a street’s worth of people.” This is an innovative approach and encourages people to take the time to consult with their neighbours and select a site that is good for the community. “Don’t rely on council land. Think about what you have available,” Jackson says. “Ninety-nine per cent of front yards in Australia are dead space.”

Jackson says the more people that visit a site and are aware of how it works; the more likely produce will be shared and not stripped by an individual. “If you don’t have the community working together, you are not going to have these amazing public orchards people dream about,” she notes.

She also stresses the importance of adequate soil preparation and making plantings beautiful places that people want to visit.

On nature strips:
Planting on the nature strip is another option for communal fruit trees. Karen Sutherland, whose garden, ‘Gunyah’, features in the Open Garden Scheme, has planted out her nature strip in a stunning mix of edible plants. Pistachio, loquat and dwarf quince form the tree layer and are underplanted with kale, artichoke, broad beans and edible indigenous plants. The area is unwatered so all plants are drought-tolerant. Low-growing ground covers work best as streets often become wind tunnels.

Sutherland says people coming up and down the street often stop to talk to her about the plantings. She hopes it will inspire others to do the same.

Regulations vary between different councils so check with your local council before planting your nature strip. Some require approval for any modifications, while others have an existing list of fruiting trees that are permitted. Jodi Jackson warns: “Council is important. Don’t be antagonistic; don’t go putting something where you know it is going to cause a fuss.” Council may be concerned about keeping sight lines around roads clear and dropping fruit, which can spread pests and diseases or cause problems on paths.

Be sure you can commit to maintaining your trees and choose disease resistant varieties that are the right size for the location. If your council is not supportive of planting edible species in public spaces, don’t be afraid to advocate for them to change their policies. Convincing arguments may include the need for local food security and the threat of climate change on our food systems. You can encourage them to do
an edible trees pilot and provide examples of other councils that have allowed fruit trees in public places.

Community food forests:
If you are more ambitious and can get council on side, you may want to plant a community food forest. A food forest differs from an orchard in that it aims to mimic the structure of a natural forest, with various layers of plantings. All the plants are edible or have a practical use.

West Brunswick Food Forest was planted about 15 years ago on council land adjacent to a sports ground. It fell into neglect after the community lost momentum caring for the site, but with some good pruning and lots of community building it is beginning to thrive again.

Like nature strip plantings, food forests in public spaces work best with hardy species, so all you have to do is prune and water. The West Brunswick Food Forest is an abundant mix of citrus, apple, pear, fig, loquat, olive, pistachio, feijoa, hazelnut and almond trees, to name just a few. Below the trees, the under-storey has been planted with berries and rampant growers that can survive some foot traffic, such as borage, comfrey and nasturtium. There are also edible woody herbs. Mints are planted around a table so locals can pick a cup of herbal tea to compliment their picnic or conversation.

Co-ordinator Libby Harper became involved to learn more about fruit trees and meet locals with similar interests. The communal food forest also allows her to grow trees she would never have room for at home, such as nuts.

She recommends planting species that ripen over a long period, are uncommon and require little maintenance. She recalls how they got an excellent harvest of white mulberries as they are “unusual grubby looking things that nobody recognises as fruit”. “In summer my little boy would just stand under the tree and eat fruit!” she laughs.

Unfortunately there is some theft in the food forest. Species such as stone fruit, which ripen all together, have been stripped overnight. The group plans to combat this with signage telling the story of the food forest and how it works, and by encouraging people to only take what they can carry in two hands. Libby hopes that as people see the food forest being cared for again, the sense of it being a shared space for everyone to enjoy will also grow.

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For more information:
Lemon Tree Project: http://thelemontreeproject.com/
Karen Sutherland - Gunyah Garden: http://edibleedendesign.com/about/
West Brunswick Food Forest: http://www.morelandcommunitygardening.org/p/food-forest.html