At the NHS Forest we love trees, of course, but there’s something extra special about a tree that provides food. In the early part of the 20th century, orchards were a common feature of hospital sites. As they fell from use, many were lost to housing and other development, but some have been preserved as community orchards. Apple, pear and cherry saplings are also available through our tree planting scheme, and many have been newly planted at NHS Forest sites. One reason fruit trees are a popular addition to hospital grounds is that dwarf and miniature varieties are often available, which makes them ideal for small spaces – and of course, for reaching the fruit. Fruit trees also offer good opportunities for engaging staff, patients and communities.

NHS Forest sites with orchards

Some of our NHS Forest sites have held Apple Days in autumn to celebrate the apple harvest at their orchards. Cirencester Hospital’s Apple Day involved the local community, including school children, to collect the apples and juice them. The children were encouraged to make fruit ‘creatures’ and to learn about the importance of ‘five a day’ as well as studying the bees in the orchard’s hives.

Volunteers in Preston, Lancashire, harvested fruit from the orchard at Guild Lodge and distributed it to the hospital’s Step Down Unit, which provides self-catering housing for patients in recovery from mental health issues. In this way the orchard supplies service users with healthy food, reduces costs for the hospital, shrinks the carbon footprint from food production, and promotes active lifestyles.

In South London, Bethlem Royal Hospital worked hard to restore its old orchard in partnership with The Orchard Project. As part of this project, service users and staff were invited to join full-day workshops on renovating the old apple trees. During Bethlem’s annual Apple Days, there are tours of the orchard, and the apples are harvested and juiced. The hospital’s occupational therapy kitchen makes use of the cooking apples. Excess fruit is sold to staff, with surplus donated to the charity FareShare.

Volunteers prune apple trees at Bethlem orchard
Volunteers prune trees at the Bethlem orchard. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital / SLaM. All rights reserved.
Jars of jam and chutney from Bethlem orchard
Preserves made with fruit from the Bethlem orchard. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Why plant an orchard?

Traditional orchards can support a huge variety of wildlife. Blossom encourages pollinating insects, which are in decline across the country. Hollow trunks and holes – which are particularly common in fruit trees – shelter bats, woodpeckers and owls. The Orchard Project estimates that orchards can provide habitat for up to 1,800 wildlife species, so the benefits to biodiversity are enormous. And of course, fruit trees store carbon and are an important part of mitigating climate change.

Fruit trees reach ‘old age’ faster than many other tree species… a 50-year-old apple can have the same features as a 300-year-old oak!

The Orchard Project

As our NHS Forest sites have shown, orchards in community and healthcare settings have myriad functions that support service users, staff, school children and the wider community. They are a source of healthy, organic food, which can also reduce costs for the NHS. Service users can be trained in restoring and maintaining the orchard, children can learn about the environment and healthy eating, volunteers can maintain the site and harvest the fruit, and service users and staff can cook it and eat it. Apple trees can begin producing fruit within just a couple of years of being planted.

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The Orchard Project