Mitcham Community Orchard

On a previously derelict site in Mitcham, the seeds for a community orchard sprouted back in 2010. This is the story of how our November 2021 Spotlight Garden, Mitcham Community Orchard and Gardens, came to be. ⠀


AnchorMitcham Community Orchard | An introduction to the space

Putting the community in Mitcham Community Orchard. Copyright: Sustainable Merton
Putting the community in Mitcham Community Orchard. Copyright: Sustainable Merton


Merton’s local environment charity, Sustainable Merton were first approached by the head of open spaces at the council due to concerns about flytipping. The council knew the charity’s role would be critical in helping to connect the dots and support local residents keen to bring this site back to life.

Over the next two years, the community began planting an orchard of fruit trees and bushes, wildlife-friendly flowers, ponds and hedging. There was a wealth of knowledge and vision amongst the locals including how to create a planting plan as well as a self-led space to fulfil different functions with and for its local residents. With several helping hands and relentless volunteer days, the Mitcham Community Orchard and Gardens became a reality.

As with most community gardens, their reliance on dedicated volunteers has seen lots of highs and lows as well as opportunities and challenges. When some key people involved from the start left the group a few years ago, more outside support was needed to sustain this community resource. A new chapter for the orchard began when Diana Sterck and Sustainable Merton took the site under their wing. The team has supported the orchard since 2019, welcoming new interest and volunteers who have given it a new lease of life. In July this year, Ellie Smallshaw took on the role of helping to manage the site to support and build on these foundations.

The orchard’s current efforts and goals are about reaching out to more local residents and involving new people to register as orchard members. All this to make sure this lush quarter of an acre doesn’t remain a secret haven but instead provides opportunities for more local people to connect with nature and growing their own food.


AnchorA staff member's perspective | Ellie Smallshaw

Ellie Smallshaw provides community support and coordination for the volunteers. Copyright: Sustainable Merton
Ellie Smallshaw provides support for volunteers. Copyright: Sustainable Merton

 

Listening, supporting and enabling - that pretty much sums up Ellie Smallshaw’s role at Mitcham Community Orchard. Sounds simple enough, but anyone with experience in community organising or coordinating community gardens will know that it takes much skill and compassion to provide the right help for people to feel supported on the road to self-empowerment. Just over four months ago, Ellie took on a coordinating role at Sustainable Merton to help get the community orchard back on track and flourish again.⠀

A lively WhatsApp group keeps communication ticking along nicely while their monthly action days work well to attract and engage new people. Coming together to take on bigger tasks makes for the perfect social glue that keeps this community resource thriving. Ellie’s support here ranges from promoting the days to helping source materials and equipment. She also facilitates the working group of volunteers and residents every two months when bigger plans are collectively made for the space.⠀

Ellie is passionate about the role this food growing space plays not only in fostering a sense of community, but also in improving biodiversity in our urban areas and building climate resilience. She calls it a Climate-Friendly Garden: ‘The ability to grow and share food has many benefits; it reduces food miles, enables people to eat fresh, organic food, and connects people improving their health and well-being’.⠀

Encouraging different habitats is something the orchard does well too! They have three ponds, a wildflower area that pollinators love, a perimeter hedge attracting even more wildlife and log piles left for insects, mosses, lichens and fungi. Other climate-friendly features include shade-giving trees and no paving which creates a cool place for people to visit and helps to reduce the risk of flooding. Ellie and the volunteers are also proud of their no-dig approach, using cardboard for covering weeds and mulching to feed the soil. The volunteers are passionate about making compost to feed into a circular economy.


AnchorA volunteer’s perspective | Genevieve

Volunteer Genevieve is generous with her time and knowledge. Copyright: Fi McAllister
Volunteer Genevieve is generous with her time and knowledge. Copyright: Fi McAllister

 

'I wouldn’t be here without this garden' says Genevieve of Mitcham Community Orchard, where she has volunteered for the last 16 months. Four years ago, she lost her husband to illness. Together, they had managed an allotment plot for 30 years until they had to give it up when he fell ill.

Genevieve has lived in Europe since she was 19 but was born in Morocco and lived in Senegal to a French family. She owes everything she knows about food growing to her late husband, who as a child wasn’t interested in playing football like his friends but instead wanted to grow carrots. He passed his passion for growing food to Genevieve and she feels she must pass it on now too.

It's only in the last few years that Genevieve has grown food collectively in a community setting. She was involved in a community garden in Wimbledon, but getting there was a challenge during the pandemic. When a neighbour from a Covid support WhatsApp group mentioned a community orchard nearby, Genevieve was sold. She remembers the first day she visited – 14 July 2020. It was wild, full of rubbish and hadn’t been touched in a while due to lockdown. Although Genevieve knew a lot about growing veg, she had plenty to learn about fruit trees.

These days, you'll likely find Genevieve at the orchard handing people fruit and veg over the fence, encouraging them to join her and teaching others about where food comes from. Genevieve is passionate about growing food from all over the world to reflect the wide range of communities living in and around Mitcham. She has learned from another Brazilian volunteer Gizela, about forest gardening. Lisa, a Vietnamese volunteer, has taught her about Chow-Chow, Yam, Vietnamese mint, Dhudi (a winter melon) and watercress growing techniques.

‘Gardens nurture something in us. You give, you take’ though Genevieve thinks nature is trying to tell us that we’re taking too much at present. She believes that spaces like Mitcham Orchard are for people and the planet. She’d like to see more locals and children get involved with the orchard and is committed to making it more welcoming and accessible.


AnchorA tour of the site | Open day with Gizela & Genevieve

Mitcham Community Orchard welcomes all, age is not a matter. Credit: Sustainable Merton
Mitcham Community Orchard welcomes all, age is not a matter. Credit: Sustainable Merton

 

On 27 November 2021, Mitcham Community Orchard and Gardens was open to showcase their climate-friendly features following from COP26. We were delighted to join on site for this in-person day of celebration, action and reflection. ⠀

It was a chance for the local community of Mitcham and those joining from further afield to enjoy this amazing growing space. To get stuck into some much-needed site work that benefitted from more hands, taking a guided tour of the site and its history and participating in a discussion about what a climate friendly garden means. Together, we explored the role our urban food gardens play in tackling the Climate Emergency. ⠀

After all, here at Capital Growth, we feel there’s a discussion worth having about how urban food growing communities are taking local action that helps to tackle the climate and nature emergency by increasing biodiversity, creating urban wildlife corridors, reducing pollution, providing access to green and cooler, shaded spaces as well as preventing local flooding. ⠀

In fact, we want to raise the question -- are our urban food gardens playing an increasingly important role in providing solutions to climate change but not being recognised for it? What do you think?

The day kicked off at 11am and ran till 3pm in Mitcham CR4 3AL. We had scheduled the following to keep visitors busy, feeling connected and staying warm:⠀

  • 3 guided tours at 11.30, 1pm and 2.30pm of what the community orchard group is growing, their compost system, pond, wildlife area and plans for the future
  • Discussion about how to create a ‘climate-friendly garden’ and key features to include in your growing space as well as climate resilience
  • Plus, light refreshments

While Saturday's weather was not very kind for our Open Day at Mitcham Community Orchard, the volunteers most certainly were!


On this occasion, volunteer Genevieve was joined by another fellow volunteer, Gizela, and ran us through how you can visually distinguish an apple tree from a pear tree.

 

Did you know that the buds on an apple tree are grey in colour, pretty hairy and round whereas they are shiny brown and super pointy for pear trees? These two dedicated volunteers were brimming with pride, joy and a vast amount of knowledge gained from the Sustainable Merton Community Orcharding course with The Orchard Project. No amount of cold or windy weather could dampen their spirits any day at this community garden.
 
Another highlight from the day’s events was the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Merton joining us all to plant an apricot tree that Genevieve grew from seed six years ago when her grandchild was born. We couldn’t have been more honoured to be a part of it!

 

AnchorWant to find out more about Mitcham Community Orchard and Gardens? Visit their webpage or contact them here.

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