Not Just Nerds About Fruit

Financial Times  

By Simon Busch
December 2007


The US might lack a tradition of wassailing, the centuries-old practice of singing to fruit trees in the hope of a better crop, but its orchards are nonetheless in ruder health than those in the UK, where the tradition was invented.


"From growing 20,000-25,000 fruit trees 13 years ago, we're now doing 100,000," says Nick Covatta of the Eastern Shore Nursery of Virginia, which serves garden centres covering areas occupied by half of the US population. Quite the fruit historian, he cites several reasons for what he believes is a revival of home orcharding.


One concerns the changing proclivities the baby boomer generation. "Home orcharding fell out of favour when the baby boomers were at the peak of their careers; it just took too much time," he explains. "But now they're getting too old to be running around and playing tennis they seem to be enjoying the more intensive forms of gardening, such as growing fruit trees. The rose business has had a similar experience."


Then there's the enormous blossoming of demand from ethnic minorities. Covatta's biggest customer sells mainly to Asian home orchardists planting Japanese persimmon, Korean bush cherries and Asian pear. "There is a particular part of Queens [in New York] that has seen a succession of immigrant groups over the past 100 years. First it was the Irish, then the Italians, then the Poles; now the new arrivals are Taiwanese, Ukrainian and Russian and they're all planting tiny plots of fruit trees in yards 30ft by 30ft."


Karen Tillou, manager of a ­demonstration arboretum for the Home Orchard Society in Portland, Oregon, also detects a rise in homeowners "growing a couple of fruit trees" for more philosophical reasons. "For a long time there was a core of older, retired people in the society - hobbyists who had the time to mess around in their backyard of maybe an acre in the rural suburbs; they weren't tied to a wider cultural movement," she explains. "But [now] issues that have become popular on the [US] west coast in the past five or 10 years - slow food, local food and an interest in organic cultivation - are bringing people in their 20s and early 30s into orcharding."


Though Oregon and other US states are still centres for commercial harvests, imports are increasingly common in grocery stores. China, for example, produces 40 per cent of the world's apples, among other fruit crops - 20m tonnes a year and growing. "The most popular fruit in Mexican supermarkets is the Red Delicious apple from Washington [state, in the US] and in American supermarkets ... bananas from Mexico," bemoans the Home Orchard Society's manifesto. The new home orchardists "want more control over their food supply", Tillou adds. They're "not just ... nerds about fruit".


For the same reason, many are also turning to organic growing methods, which Stella Otto, author of The Backyard Orchardist and former owner of a commercial orchard, describes as "the strongest trend" in the residential fruit tree market. "People want to eat the purest, healthiest food they can find" and one of the most trustworthy sources is their own backyard, she explains. Home-grown organic fruit is considerably less expensive than the flagrantly priced produce in stores and cultivation is feasible on a small scale. "If you really want to be a purist you can go and pick the bugs off your trees."


Another driver of the US orcharding resurgence is rising interest in "heirloom" fruit, "varieties people remember from their parents' farms", Tilou says. Gravenstein, Russet and Hudson's Golden Gem are among the redolent names of the apples being rediscovered. "I got a call from a guy in Ohio who said: 'Does your Pound Sweet apple taste like the ones my grandfather had in his orchard outside London when I was a boy?'," Covatta recalls. "He wanted to replicate that experience with his own grandchildren."


Sadly, with UK orcharding in crisis, that's something a British grandparent might now find hard to do. From a time when every small-holding and suburban garden had fruit trees, the country has lost almost two thirds of its orchards in the past 50 years, estimates Sue Clifford of the charity Common Ground, which recently republished the Apple Source Book in a handsome new edition. This is a problem not only for lovers of English apples, of which there are 3,000 varieties all "express[ing] their locality incredibly well", she says, but also for wildlife, since orchards are havens where the "collision of nature and culture has worked very successfully".


"Community orchards" might be the best way to revive them, she acknowledges. But, if space allows, there's no reason why homeowners couldn't plant just one pear or apple tree, Tilou argues. They are hardy and easy to prune and this time of the year - early winter - is the best time to get them started.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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