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Hard graft with Sheffield Fruit Trees

Now Then food editor Ros shares her experiences of escaping from her desk and getting her hands dirty as a volunteer with the local growing co-op. 

Sheffield Fruit Trees moss valley

The Sheffield Fruit Trees crew at their Moss Valley site.

Ros Ayres

Sheffield Fruit Trees are a small, not-for-profit co-op of fruit tree growers. They cultivate plants and trees onsite at their nursery in Meersbrook and on their new plot in Moss Valley.

I have previously featured SFT’s work to increase community access to fruit trees, which includes planting in communal spaces and grafting cuttings from local varieties which are under threat. This year I bought my first fruit tree from them, a dwarf ‘red falstaff’ apple tree, planted in my lawn with the intention of encouraging more wildlife into my garden.

I have been writing about food for Now Then for almost a decade, driven by a passion to connect people to our local growers and independent food scene. Thinking more and more about where food comes from, how biodiversity is critical for sustainable growing and how we are deeply interconnected with nature, I decided it was time for me to do something different. It was my turn to connect directly; I wanted to find out what it’s really like to put in the graft.

So I signed up to one of the SFT’s volunteer days, run at the half-acre Moss Valley site established at the end of last year. As part of the sessions you get the opportunity to help out with planting out varieties of fruit trees and doing tasks like weeding and composting. You can work to your own physical capacity and no gardening experience is necessary.

Going into this, I had a quite romantic view of working outside, picturing myself taking in the views, listening to the birdsong and doing something productive – a stark contrast to my screen-based day job. I had confidence that I could do the physical work, as I am fit and regularly do strength workouts at the gym. I was looking forward to meeting the people behind this venture and making myself useful.

SFT’s small orchard is located on Lightwood Lane in Moss Valley, the same site as Moss Valley Market Garden, who grow a variety of vegetables for their veg bag scheme. It’s a beautiful site with elevated views of rolling hills.

Sheffield fruit trees moss valley hops

Spent hops from Abbeydale Brewery placed around the base of trees help to suppress weeds.

Ros Ayres

Sheffield Fruit Tree members Julie and Daniele told me how they volunteer their time on a Friday at the Moss Valley orchard and do work days at the Meersbrook site on a Wednesday. Between them they have vast experience of gardening, growing and foraging. Daniele is also involved in The Edible Year, which runs foraging walks and workshops around the city.

I was hoping to learn something from my volunteer session that I could translate to my own space. My garden is small but free-flowing, with a range of plants which hopefully support biodiversity – the bees certainly seem to be enjoying the chive flowers and alliums.

To be outside, not sitting at a desk, was welcome. It felt viscerally different to be doing something tangible with my hands beyond typing on a keyboard. Julie said that this is what she enjoys most about the work – you can zone out and enjoy the quiet without the distraction of technology.

As I helped to weed around the fruit tree saplings, Daniele explained that SFT are working on cultivating the soil because nothing has been grown in the field for a long time. They reuse the weeds and the clods of muddy grass we dig out to create compost. Some dandelions are left because they encourage biodiversity. I’m told the roots, when cleaned and roasted, make good coffee.

After a few hours of digging hard clay soil and loading the wheelbarrow with weeds to take to the compost pile, my shoulders were starting to feel the strain. The final push was taking the wheelbarrow down the boggy track to load up with spent hops from Abbeydale Brewery. With a few stops on the way back uphill to get the barrow out of mud, we got back to the plot to cover the beds with the hops. This is the ideal recycling, as they help suppress the weeds.

With my heart pounding, I learnt that I might be fit in the gym but my stamina for physical work was being put to the test. But it felt good to be out in the fresh air, listening to birdsong and seeing the results of our work together.

We sat on the grass for a well-deserved lunch break. While Daniele made us all cups of tea, Julie explained that they have more plans to develop the Moss Valley site following the success of their crowdfunder, which was match funded by the Forestry Commission. They will get a shed which they can use for training and to store tools, which at the moment they bring on site every time. They will also install a borehole and pump to set up an irrigation system for more efficient watering.

An appreciation of the hard graft that goes into planting and nurturing fruit trees was my main takeaway from my volunteering session. Reading about the work people are doing to build better, more sustainable food systems is one thing, but being part of it gave me a real insight. I have nothing but respect for what Sheffield Fruit Trees have achieved so far to make a difference through grafting, preserving varieties of trees and sharing their skills.

Writing this in my garden, I look at my apple tree with the last of the spring blossom. I feel a strong desire to give it the care it deserves because I know the work that went into growing it. I can’t wait for it to bear fruit. I hope that the wildlife gets as much benefit from it as I do.

Learn more

If you're interested in volunteering or attending a fruit grafting workshop with Sheffield Fruit Trees, drop the team an email.

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