URBAN ORCHARDIST

WORDS Kim Newth PHOTO Supplied

In the heart of the city, a half-acre urban food forest packed with fruit and nut trees, currants and berries has put down roots and is starting to push towards the sky. Ōtākaro Orchard, nestled between low rise office buildings and the Ōtākaro/Avon River, is Christchurch’s only community led anchor project.

I’m here today to meet project coordinator Peter Wells, who has put in many long hours on this site since taking up the role in 2016. Peter is from the US and before coming to Christchurch worked on Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest project.

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As Peter shows me around, he stops to pick a couple of fresh figs. Everything here is still maturing but it’s an exciting reminder of what’s to come.

“At the moment, it looks like a very young forest system,” says Peter, who has a background in performing arts and dance, as well as anthropology and permaculture design. “I like to think there is a kind of choreography at work here involving landscapes, plants, and people. It’ll take another two years before we really get going, but once this landscape is fully grown all the trees will have a three- to four-metre canopy. Ōtākaro Orchard is growing into a place for everyone: an educational hub and a community asset.”

Complementing the orchard, herb and vegetable beds and an outdoor amphitheatre will be the city’s first living building, housing a local food information centre and social enterprise café. Constructed out of 3750 handmade adobe brick and other local materials, the building will have a green roof of native plants and other eco-features. Inside will be small private and public meeting rooms. The building is due to be completed December this year.

“That’s when we will open our doors to the public. It will be a very visible venue between the Margaret Mahy Playground and the Christchurch Town Hall. People will then literally be able to stroll by and pick something off the trees.”

Peter first became interested in permaculture design – creating edible landscapes that mimic forest ecology – while studying sustainability at Goucher College, Baltimore.

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“I became aware of the reality of the ecological crisis unfolding around the world and of the huge disconnect between people and their food,” he explains. “I intentionally studied anthropology to understand how these sorts of community projects work.”

While Peter has been the face of this special endeavour for the past few years, he notes that it has been many years in the making and hundreds of volunteers, young and old, have dug in to help. Layer upon layer of mulch – cardboard, compost, and wood chip – has been built up to mimic leaf litter and encourage the spread of mycelium (which Peter describes as ‘the Internet of soil’).

Ōtākaro Orchard stands at the centre of a city-wide food resilience network that includes five public food forests, 26 community gardens, 70 edible gardens in schools and 26,000 fruit trees on public land.

“We’re not just the garden city – Christchurch is the edible garden city!” quips Peter.

“Ōtākaro Orchard is the culmination of a grassroots vision, backed by local government, central government and the private sector. Ultimately, the goal is to become self-sustaining. The entire site will eventually be used for events like community galas.”

Give it a few years, once the fruit trees have grown tall, and it is easy to imagine what a bountiful place this will be for the city.