The Orchard Blog

This is Liz’s blog of what has been happening at the Orchard over time. Here I am keeping a record of what we do and why.  It is a work in progress. Please forgive its scant appearance in places.

The Place (land)

Redcurrants, netted till harvest-time

Nerys, Liz, Ian clearing keyhole garden base

Land art on the Brick Floor








The land we have been working on is on the Highbury estate in south Birmingham. It lies next to Highbury Park which straddles Moseley and Kings Heath. Our Orchard is a piece of rough ground of about one acre. We utilise about another acre around three of its edges. The fourth edge is boundaried by an NHS mental health provision at the Uffculme Centre.

This piece of land has a history, with a focus on its nineteenth century ownership by the Joseph Chamberlain family, prior to which it would have been farmland. Jo had bought an estate of some 25 acres and rented a further 70 from his neighbour Richard Cadbury. Jo built his family home here and gave his children (including Chancellor of the Exchequer Austin Chamberlain, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) a small farm to run, possibly to learn how to manage a business when they were in their teens.  There were pastures below the big house for cows and sheep to graze, and on a SW facing and gently sloping strip, he planted an orchard. No trees remained there because soon after he moved the orchard to higher ground on the north side. It would have been close to where he developed a kitchen garden that fed his family, guests and all the staff. The second orchard siting is now part of the present Four Seasons Garden Project. Several apple trees remain, as well as a very special fruit tunnel – one of few in the country – containing mostly pear trees.

It was a concern for these fruit trees that sporned the community orchard project in early 2010, for the trees had suffered neglect for about 30 years by that time. In October of the same year, funding had been found and on 10/10/10 the first work party met there and began work. I (Liz) was a founder member of Kings Heath Transition and our group was keen to get involved at the Orchard to create a local food resource and learn new skills related to low-energy living. I recall on that first day, a cluster of people arriving with spades or forks and surveying the land, challenged but undaunted by the nettles, brambles and the other weeds. Even when we stuck our forks in the ground and hit brick, our hearts didn’t fail us!

Meanwhile a community grafting day had been organised and scions from the old trees at Four Seasons were grafted on to fresh root stock. However, it was some while before any young trees were planted out on the original Orchard site – partly because the trees were too small and needed a more sheltered spot, and partly because the ground was a brick filled wasteland. Bricks were everywhere! We began to wonder if a whole building’s worth of brick lay on the ground we had been alotted for our task. And indeed this was correct.  A thatched barn had been standing on the north side of the plot, had become tumbledown, and eventually had been bulldozed down the slope where its remains were scattered. We never did clear all the brick, but hauled out each piece as and when we found it, and as and when we planted each tree. Instead we created raised mounds called Hugelkultur berms based on a Swiss design made of logs, brush, leaves, soil and compost. The idea is that it rots down and provides a rich culture for the fruit trees to send their roots into. We happily adopted this method, as we had plenty of the main ingredients – downed wood, brash and leaves from old woodland trees that surrounded the plot which were reaching the end of their lives. Making use of what would have otherwise been waste material was in accordance with Permaculture principles. It prompted us to look into Permaculture methods further. More of this under Philosphies and Practices.

From the very start, we had a keen beekeeper, Sharif, on board. There has been bee-keeping at Highbury for over 80 years and Sharif already kept bees there. He wanted somewhere to expand his number of hives, and the Orchard was a good place to consider: it promised plenty of blossom for bees to forage, a warm sheltered aspect and space for 4-8 hives. This has been set up with the Orchard Community as bee landlords, with rent paid to us in honey and the profit from further sales of honey to support our project. Again, an example of a Permaculture principle with mutual benefit from two resources.

As the site got cleared, we found older features that gave rise to great excitement.

The first was a log pile that had been obscured by all the bramble. It had obviously been there a long time because large fungi grew majestically upon it. Woodmice nested in it. It was splendid. We realised that most of our immediate neighbours were indeed the wildlife, and that we should take care of them and share the space that had been their home for a long while before we arrived. The log pile is still there as a sort of centrepeice to our orchard garden.

The second followed a discovery that some of the brick in the ground seemed to be tessalated. As we cleared the leaf litter and rotting vegetation layers, we discovered a brick floor. At first we had no idea how extensive it was. Curiosity got the better of one group of men who had free time in the week. They gave many hours to carefully exposing the brick floor, which turned out to be about 30 metres long and 10 metres wide. It is the footprint of the barn that was demolished plus its courtyard. In our day it is a natural gathering place and permanently houses a log circle and brick firepit.

A third space was visible at the extreme north end of our site where a 1.5 metre brick wall served as a boundary across the width. Here there is a concrete floor and water troughs and signs of drains. We know the Chamberlains kept pigs and suppose the piggery was here. Now it is a favourite spot for the children in our family sessions to set up a mud kitchen. Very apt.

Then we added some of our own. We have a number of families that are involved at the Orchard, some of whom had expressed an interest in creating child-friendly features in the garden. One of these is the Keyhole Garden, created with help from local artist and gardener Nerys Keyte. It is a kind of raised bed, so named for its circular shape and notched insert that allows the gardener easy access to the centre. The soil is laid down in layers with newspaper and other discarded natural materials, forming a dome at the centre where a small compost container is housed. A Keyhole Garden can be home to a densely packed range of plants. It is a design much used in Africa where moisture conservation is an issue. Even in a community garden in England like ours, water must be conserved for several reasons: we rely entirely on natural water collection from rainfall, but there are often dry months during the growing season and water must be ferried in cans by hand, and the plants must fend for themselves between fortnightly work sessions.  Another permanent feature that has great appeal to children is the tree swing, though to be fair there are adults on this swing too, often as not. Favourites that come out when family groups are in session are the hammocks and the wonderful xylophone which was donated by musicians Sarah Wright-Owen and her husband.

More recently David and I began providing well-being walks for the people who visit Kinmos, a local centre for those with learning difficulties and mental health problems.  Kinmos lost their centre in September 2016 and were re-housed at Cambridge Road Methodist Church. They were obliged to give away many of their garden items, which included some wooden raised beds. HOCCIC offered to take some of these and create a restful sensory garden within the orchard space, where Kinmos folks could come and feel at home. We have located this next to a wild rose briar that has been looking for something to scramble up. It is lifted a good 3m high by an arched trellis made of bamboo. Some seating will be placed beneath it and the raised beds arranged nearby.

The People (community)

Highbury Harvest 2014

Woodland Play for Families

Liz with Rhubarb








We may have been reticient in explaining who are among the main thrust of Highbury Orchard Community. As a Community Interest Company, we have four directors. Here we are:

  • Alf Dimmock, Senior Parks Ranger for the city, reminds us of city protocol and gives good advice where needed.
  • Margaret Healey Pollett, manager of All Saints Cafe, is a dyed-in-the-wool green business entrepreneur and founder member of Kings Heath Transition. She also buys some of the orchard produce for the cafe.
  • David Papadopoulos, champion of neglected landscapes, resourceful upcycler of used stuff, and gardener caring for trees.
  • Liz Wright (me), ex-teacher with a movement specialism and a focus on the early years, founder member of Kings Heath Transition, and gardener with a love of herbs. I am also a director of Spring to Life CIC, a city-wide provider of well-being therapies.

There have always been a wide range of people visiting the orchard. We hope that will always continue. In the early days, the secluded parts of the estate had a reputation for anti-social behaviour.  As more people began to come through on a regular basis, the ASB decreased. Some began using the orchard brickfloor as a place for respite and contemplation. Others got involved in gardening activities with us and joined our merry band of volunteers.

Orchards are not necessarily neat and tidy places like vegetable gardens, and have more in common with eclectic Forest Gardens. Ours is a semi-wild, semi-cultivated place. A number of people seem to identify with this quality, whether they may long for more order or more randomness in their lives. One Sunday we were especially delighted to see a retired professional lady working alongside someone who was often a rough sleeper in the area. We know that Joe Chamberlain did much to improve the living conditions and education provision for the poorest Brummies in his time, and we wanted to take up his baton while on our watch.

So we began with a community orchard, but our vision for the place rapidly grew to include activities that were educational in the broadest sense and beneficial to people’s well-being. In 2012, we took advice from the City Parks Rangers and ran outdoor learning sessions for families (Woodland Play). At first these were held only in the holidays but became weekly in 2013. From 2016 we started running two sessions per week aimed at the very young and slightly older youngsters. Now (2017) we have added monthly Sunday sessions and attract families who cannot be with us on a weekday. I am happy to say this includes plenty of fathers, and often the whole family joins us. Woodland Play is pretty popular and often pays its own way. We also receive grants to develop certain aspects of the sessions, such as working with autistic children funded by the Harry Payne Trust. A Near Neighbours grant in 2016-2017 was awarded to enable us to run a programme of culturally diverse explorations with a nature theme. These has been most rewarding for the group involved (session leaders and parents), teaching us about strong similarities between celebrations from different cultures. Many have their origins in the cosmic changes over the course of the seasons, such as the solstices and equinoxes. For example, the vernal equinox marks the first day of Spring in various cultures of the northern hemisphere – in Europe and beyond – and these have been incorporated into different religious practices.  We also reserved some of that budget to run a short introductory course in Non-Violent Communication, which has challenged us to go deeper with our conversations in peace-loving ways!

Next we wanted to offer similarly outdoor and playful opportunities to adults, especially those who feel marginalised or who are struggling with mental health issues. We wanted the sessions to be active, useful, playful and contemplative. Sessions contain activities involving conservation and gardening, craft, and time for inner reflection for which we acquired start-up funding in 2015. We have called them Stick Around  – some sessions are open to all, others are especially for people going through drug or alcohol rehabilitation. After the initial funded period, we found further grants increasingly difficult to come by. So we began to plan how to make the sessions pay for themselves.

Here are some we have considered with our participants:

  • making an affordable charge for sessions
  • making saleable craft items (calendar, cards; garden plant supports, garden signage, outdoor willow decorations; greenwood furniture)
  • fundraising activities
  • crowfunding
  • selling unwanted items on a local Sale Or Swap site

This group of people are not always easy to reach. Some have signed up with support organisations such as Kinmos and Creative Support. But they are not used to making their own way to events, and we mostly don’t see them unless a volunteer accompanies them, or extra effort is made on our part. Others will have support workers with CGL, Shelter, and SIFA. It has been good to meet the support workers from these organisations, but their client group can be quite transient, irregular, or needing many other appointments to get their lives on an even keel. A handful of people have come of their own accord, and a small bunch really do Stick Around and come very regularly. We decided very early on that even if one only person came, we would still run the session. This is true in the family sessions too, when numbers can be low in bad weather. After all, we wanted to convey the message that each person is important.

Other people – community orchard locals

Local schools have followed our development with interest. Our strongest contacts are with the primary schools in the neighbourhood. Although they mostly have a forest school base in their school grounds, there is a general agreement that visits to a larger open space in the park or orchard have immense learning value for children. We provide regular sessions for New Life Nursery School where all the adults attending have been delighted to see the children gain confidence over time spent outdoors and infuse the younger ones with their play culture – how to climb trees safely, for example. At KS1 we have provided activities with a currciulum link to Moor Green primary and Park Hill primary. All aspects of the curriculum can be learned outdoors due to its special qualities not found in the classroom, and we look forward to developing schools work in the future.

Our connection with Spring to Life CIC means that we have the potential to provide therapeutic gardening sessions at the orchard in accordance with the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) scheme, funded by the NHS. We are also neighbours with the Uffculme Centre run by the local mental health trust, BSMHFT and have forged various links with staff there.

Last but not least, we have been pleased to see the Chamberlain Highbury Trust become active on the estate, and to attend the stakeholder meetings which they have organised.

The Plants (trees)

  • honeybees
  • herbs
  • soft fruit

Philosophies and Practices (making it effective)

(1) Keeping the Land in working order: open access, Permaculture approach, in balance (order v chaos, ecologically)

(2) Maintaining an all-inclusive space means that everyone of all backgrounds and ages can be led by their own emotional social and learning needs. Each of these can be unpacked and explained more fully…

The space itself seems to speak into people’s imaginations. Some are seeking order in their lives, and find it evidenced by the work that is going on. Others are seeking a bit of chaos or randomness, and find it evidenced by the wild spaces and collusions with nature to leave things alone. The result is a semi-wild space, a sensitive balance between order and choas that is more challenging to manage but much more rewarding than a wasteground, or a vegetable plot.

We do a lot of child (people)-watching and practise our understandings around people’s behaviours and actions through observation and inquiry. Children in particular are developing their bodies, becoming more physically coordinated, expressing their socialisation with their families, and learning to relate to their environment – especially the natural enviroment with which they seem to have an affinity. Children, especially the very young, express themselves more fully through moving their bodies than through spoken language. By noticing what they are doing we can help them find the right activity to meet their needs, and peace is more likely to reign! The Woodland Play sessions often engage the notion of Schemas to identify and support a child’s pattern of thinking and discovery. Schemas are repeated patterns of action like lining up a row of sticks, or constantly pouring water from one container to another. In the wrong context they can be disruptive to others’ games, but when guided into a better setting, they are opportunities for deep learning and happy play. The Floor Book is another feature of Woodland Play sessions, where children are encouraged to make marks and talk about what they are doing. The play leaders and parents can then notate the drawing and understand what the child was working out in their mind. This helps us set up developing lines of interest at future sessions.

Our recent foray into exploring Nature through the eyes of different cultures (and funded by Near Neighbours) has highlighted three important threads worth deeper reflection:

  • Different cultures have much in common with one another – celebrating life’s milestones such as harvests and the year’s turning, birth, marriage, and death. This is frequently expressed through eating together, dancing, wearing colourful clothes and demonstrating skills.
  • Organised religions frequently take notice of cosmological events such as the phase of the moon (for the start of Ramadan for muslims), the position of the sun in the sky (for the start of Sabbath for jews), the changes in length of daylight at the solstices (various religious festivals coincide with these: Christmas, Basant, Songkran, Easter, Beltane …). These seem to be an expression that we on Earth are part of something bigger and look outwards beyond our planet to seek further information. Interestingly, special days organised by secular groups and aimed at raising awareness of good causes do not seem to follow a cosmological pattern at all.
  • Another thread from Nature that we discovered is the value of diversity. That although we have much in common with one another, we thrive on diversity. Nature too, sets up a much more sustainable system when it is richly varied. So the more species of plant and animal life that find their way to our eco-pond at the bottom of the orchard path, the more the pond will thrive and be healthy. So with us! A series of charming books by Max Velthuijs about Frog and his friends has helped us address some sticky subjects: how we could respond when someone who is different comes into our circle of friends, how we feel when someone we love dies and how our friends can help us, and is it OK to fall in love with someone very different from you.

(3) Managing well-being well is about being engaged with the mind and the body, and using tried and tested techniques – the Five Ways to Well-Being, sensory walks, WOW NOW HOW, mindfulness and yoga. Along with caring for plants big and small, we spend time observing similarities across Nature’s work, and integrating them into objects of self-expression through craftwork.

It is when well-being needs more attention, that we may wish to know our Inner Child better. And so the same activities popular with children often benefit adults too. This is partly reflected in the family sessions where the adults are learning alongside their children. It is also reflected in the adult sessions, where people can have a bit of Me Time at a deeper level.

Pounds and Pence (making it affordable)