Inaugural Orchard Stewards Training Program a success!

We’ve harvested a ton of fruit, and seen countless beautiful fruit trees gracing the backyards of Toronto over our 11 years of picking and sharing. Sadly, we’ve also seen many of the city’s trees growing older, or suffering from disease or pest infestation. Indeed, just like any living thing, fruit trees need to be cared for, and they also have a finite lifespan. Every season, we hear from a number of fruit tree owners who are sad to report that their tree is no longer producing fruit, or that they’ve had to cut it down. In a fruit season like this one, where cold weather and rain have slowed or stunted fruit production in many trees across the city, the sensitivity of our urban orchard is all the more evident.

That’s why this spring, Not Far From The Tree, supported by the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation and the City of Toronto, launched the Orchard Stewards Training Program, which was designed to equip members of the NFFTT community with a foundational knowledge of fruit tree care. This initiative grew out of NFFTT’s recognition of the importance of promoting the responsible stewardship of Toronto urban orchard in order to ensure that this unique resource continues to feed Torontonains for generations to come. Taught by Susan Poizner, renowned educator, urban orchardist and founder of Orchard People, it was comprised of four workshops that spanned from late March to the end of June.

The first workshop was an in-depth in-class session on pruning theory and caring for young fruit trees, hosted in The Stop’s Green Barn in late March. It was a cold, rainy day, and the fruit season felt like it was still aeons away, but it was energizing to see a room of people so engaged in the fundamentals of fruit tree care! Susan delivered a detailed PowerPoint presentation, covering different techniques for different trees, seasons, and pruning objectives. Students asked excellent questions, took notes, and practiced their pruning skills using twigs Susan collected from an apple tree in Wychwood Barns Park.

Orchard Stewards learning the fundamentals of tree pruning at The Stop’s Green Barn.

The second class was a hands-on late-April spring pruning session, where students honed their skills by practicing on four apple trees planted outside the artist studios at Artscape Wychwood Barns. Spring pruning focuses on improving the shape of the tree and the airflow between branches, which optimizes fruit production, promotes healthy growth, reduces the incidence of pest infestations and diseases, and ensures the tree will be easily pickable come harvest time. Judging by the number of apples on the trees at the time of publication, it would seem that the students did an excellent job on their first try!

Orchard Stewards hard at work pruning the apple trees in Wychwood Barns Park

Our third class focused on proper soil and nutrition for fruit trees. With the mid-May buds bursting forth all around us, it felt like a very appropriate time to discuss how to nourish our newly awakened fruit trees. Back at The Stop’s Green Barn, we began with another excellent presentation from Susan on the proper techniques for watering and mulching fruit trees, as well as a detailed discussion about how to analyze and optimize soil for fruit production. Following this, we all headed outside to spread some nutrient-rich sheep manure around the trusty apple trees outside the Barns. One of our participants, j wallace skelton, enjoyed the class so much that they even made a hand-drawn poster summarizing the learnings!

We wrapped up the Orchard Stewards Training Program on a hot late-June Sunday afternoon with our class on pest and disease identification and management. We spent the first half of the class in the air conditioned community gallery space at the Barns, where Susan gave a detailed presentation on the day’s subject matter. After the presentation, we took a quick break for a slice celebratory cake and a mug of coffee. Then, we headed outside to inspect the spring growth on our apple trees. Pest and disease free and laden with fruit, the trees were looking great! The students were excited to try NFFTT’s new pruning equipment, recently acquired from our Official Equipment Sponsor GARDENA Canada, so we thinned the trees out a bit more and removed a few of the less healthy looking branches.

When we finally wrapped up the final class, there was a sense that Not Far From The Tree had taken a big step towards increasing the sustainability of Toronto’s urban orchard. Our students came into the program eager to learn more about fruit tree care, and left with the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to become true Orchard Stewards.

As excited as we are about graduating our first ever cohort of Orchard Stewards, though, we know there’s still lots work to be done to ensure our Urban Orchard continues to get the care it needs. We’re exploring offering an expanded Orchard Stewards Training Program Level 2 next season, and engaging graduates of the program to offer fruit tree care services for our tree registrants. We’re also working to educate our broader community about fruit tree care (see our Fruit Tree Care Guide to learn more about fruit tree care and planting), and encourage them to plant more fruit trees. In fact, we partnered with the Toronto Parks And Trees Foundation to deliver a Tree for Me event in early June, where we gave out free fruit trees in the community. After all, since planting trees is one of the best things we can do to fight climate change, some of them might as well be trees that also feed us and our communities! We’re also distributing flyers to tree owners whose fruit trees are sick or dying, and sharing fruit tree planting resources with anyone who’s interested. As we continue to expand our Orchard Stewards programming and promote a culture of orchard stewardship amongst the NFFTT community, we’re excited to see Toronto’s urban orchard continue to grow and flourish!

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