How to run an Edible High Road
Guerrilla gardening, Incredible Edible Todmorden, orchard planting, the Edible Bus Stop – these were all ideas related to our own core Abundance work and something I planned to explore one day... when I had more time... But then I read about a new idea: the Chelsea Fringe, a festival of anything and everything to do with gardening, that would take place at the same time as the Chelsea Flower Show. Gradually ideas began to solidify: we must do something inspirational and fun, but something with a longer life span than just a 3-week festival. We decided to create an Edible High Road.
Each business along the main shopping road and the two smaller “boutique” roads in Chiswick would host a tree, planted in a big tub, with an underplanting of herbs and salads. We had no images of how the ‘river of trees’ would look, so we mocked up something. We felt we needed a minimum of ten, quite close together, but in our mind’s eye we were aiming for 25 trees, which we thought would be mainly restaurants.
We got 55. They ranged from chiropractors via dentists, estate agents (lots of those) to banks, bakers, clothing shops, jewellery stores and a dry cleaner.
The shops were told it would look nice, they would get something for their money, the only work they would have to do was to water it (and take it in at night if in the smaller pots). They had the choice of keeping the tree, or giving it back to us for planting out permanently in the neighbourhood, either in community orchards, or school playgrounds etc after the event. They liked that they might be doing something for their area, but also that they might get something to keep..
Obviously, we had no money. We made a rough ballpark estimate and asked each shop for £60 to sponsor one tree. We gave them an explanatory leaflet. As soon as they accepted a tree, we sent them an invoice. All bills had to be paid before the trees arrived. No pay, no tree. So the sequence of events was:
- Leaflet + visit (maybe follow-up email, or follow-up visit to catch the manager)
Nevertheless we had one shop that was offended when they received the invoice: “We thought it would be free” – er, listen to our talk, read our leaflet, why would it be free?? And one restaurant that didn’t pay in spite of 2 email reminders, 2 phone calls, an additional visit to put the repeat invoice into the hands of the owner’s son, and a final email warning them of the cut-off date and its consequences. So when the other shops got their tree they rang to demand the two matching trees that they had specifically requested to stand either side of their door. “No pay, no tree.” “Well, we’re very upset about that?” “We’re very sorry, but you didn’t pay in time.” “So, what are we going to do about it?” “Well, next time we do a project, you’re going to pay on time.” “Hmph.” Each tree in total cost about £50, made up of:
- Tree (bare root, from wholesale nursery) £12
- Pot average £18
[mixture of wooden barrel £24, silver bucket £25, rubber pot covered in hessian £6]
- Soil £4
[we ordered one big grab bag of soil suitable for veg growing, £225]
- Salads, herbs £5
[thyme, chives, salads, mint, oregano, nasturtiums – about 6 plants per pot]
- Fruit decorations 0.75p
As the fruits wouldn’t be ready, and also to encourage local participation and ownership, we asked several primary schools to create fruits for the trees. We also had a cutting table at the launch to make more fruits. These were hung on each tree, and added a splash of colour. Stiff foam in varying colours, £30.
- Transport £3
We rented a big Luton van with tailgate, £76 per 12-hour slot, for delivery and collection, from the local van hire guys.
- Banner £3
We printed one big banner to display on the railings on a central location (local church gave us permission). £150
- Leaflets, treasure trails, tree signs £3
We laminated a sign for each tree which had Edible High Road, website etc on one side, and the fruit variety and info on the other. We also created a treasure trail and printed out a few hundred copies to give out at the launch. £150
- We got sponsorship from a great garden centre (Neals Nursery, website www.capitalgardens.co.uk) who gave us £200 to get really nice prizes for everyone who entered the Treasure Trail.
We had to spend a bit more on prizes, also to refill the van with diesel, etc, so good to have a small reserve.
The Edible High Road dates were 19 May – 10 June 2012. We started asking the shops to participate around late January. Ideally we should have had the flyers in January and gone methodically to all the shops, but in reality it took us a while to hone our request, and also we were too soft-hearted with not holding to our first cut-off date. Ideally we should have bought the trees bare root, when they cost very little, and potted them up while they were still dormant. In reality we were still potting up into early May, and the last few trees were bought in pots. Ideal timing would be as follows:
- Jan- March: sell tree sponsorships. Buy bare rooted trees, pot up, and watch them fill out.
- Early May: plant up bases with herbs and salads.
- Edible High Road start: we felt it was important that the trees all arrive suddenly and secretly one day. We positioned all the trees one Saturday morning between 5-8am. This also worked in terms of parking restrictions and traffic density. Removal was less key – we took them away on a Sunday afternoon, three weeks later.
The larger chains in general took more effort to win over. Small independent shopkeepers, where you can get to the top of the decision-making chain quickly, were the easiest. The larger chains – WH Smiths, Boots, M&S, Barclays, Gap – well, some of them may still be thinking about it. But we had a few unexpected successes with the big chains: HSBC sponsored four trees (2 for their branch and 2 more trees to put outside local charity shops), Sweaty Betty, Sofa Workshop. Waitrose refused a tree but put us down as a local charity for May for their community finance scheme (green buttons) which created awareness (and £300, though this takes a few months to arrive). A few shops revealed their true colours (“Oh no, the local community are always begging for stuff from me”. Er, goodbye! I won’t be begging for one of your expensive cappuccinos again!)
Preparation and storage
We needed somewhere to assemble and then store the trees. Initially we had thought about our back gardens, not really appreciating that each tree (plus its little canopy) will take up a square metre or so... We found a local community gardening project with space in a yard. They were also willing to help us to water the trees. Luckily the spring was hideously wet, but on the few sunny weeks (remember them?!) the trees needed lots of water.
We bought the trees and the first load of pots from a wholesale nursery. We took whatever varieties they had, but they did have a pretty good selection. We had 38 apples (about 15 different varieties), pears, greengages, plums, cherries, nuts. We splashed out on 2 peach trees that we couldn’t resist. We also got two nut trees, but they were perhaps a little on the small side.
Each tree needed to be assembled in its pot. We used old polystyrene lumps picked out of skips and plastic bottles saved at home to put at the bottom of the pots for drainage and to make the pots lighter. We added mycorrhizal fungi powder around the roots (wet the roots, a sprinkle of powder that must actually touch the roots) and bone meal powder in the soil (not on the surface, so foxes not encouraged to dig up the soil). Soil to about 2 inches below the top of the pot to allow for watering, and later, for the addition of the salads.
Salad and herbs were added about a week to ten days before the trees went on display, so they have time to bed in a bit, but not too far in advance because they have to manage for 3 weeks out on display. Big ripe lettuces would bolt, so we planted things on the small side.
We publicised a couple of drop-in gardening sessions where volunteers could come to help plant the trees and then the herbs/salads. We had the soil delivered earlier in the week, we bought the trees bare root on a Friday, and we held the work sessions on the weekend. We sent info to our own mailing list, to the local website, and other friendly organisations. We had about 10 extra helpers each time, which was great.
Council permission and press coverage
We asked permission from the local council, mainly dealing with the head of business support in the Environment Department. We emphasised that the project was temporary, that the trees were not commercial in any way, that the pots on the narrower pavements were small enough for buggies and wheelchairs to get past, that the trees would be planted out in the area afterwards. They even asked whether they could use some of the trees for street planting; that call felt like a major breakthrough, a moment of triumph for us!
We got the local press on board by sending out information well in advance, and also ringing for a chat to the journalist or editor to explain what we were doing. We also invited the local councillors (2 of whom didn’t even bother to respond) and the local MP (who did) to attend our launch.
Branding and templates
We made sure each tree was clearly labelled as being part of the Edible High Road, run by us (Abundance London) and part of the Chelsea Fringe. It also referred to our website, and encouraged people to download the tree treasure trail. The kids made fruit to hang on each tree.
Each tree had a code, which referred to a treasure trail. People could download the treasure trail as a pdf from our website, and some shops also gave them away. We supplied a little note for the shops to stick on their windows to say ‘Treasure Trail forms available inside.’
The trees had to go into the truck in the reverse order to which they were to come out. We had rather foolishly let the shops choose their kind of tree (most didn’t care), so we had some that had demanded a greengage or a cooking apple. Also we had huge barrels for the big pavements and smaller pots for the narrow pavements. This meant the trees had to go into the truck in a specific order in order to come out in a specific order. This led to a 5.45am meltdown in team spirit, but we are all talking again now...
We had a team of 10, a couple of trolleys / flat wheels, a photographer and someone filming the whole adventure. And afterwards we went for a big coffee and breakfast at one of the participating shops.
We decided we needed some kind of launch moment. On that first Saturday we set up a couple of tables outside Waterstones – they had not sponsored a tree (which involved money), but had put our posters in their windows and made appropriate supportive book displays. We invited participating businesses to bring along any promotional material, and especially encouraged participating restaurants to bring snacks, ice cream shops to bring samples, etc. We asked As Nature Intended to bring English apples, Sofa Workshop gave away free pencils, Samba Swirl gave away frozen yoghurt, Union Jacks brought free pizza slices, etc. We arranged a selection of Treasure Trail prizes to show, borrowed back a tree from a neighbouring shop, set up a craft table for kids to make more fruit. It made a bit of a buzz and wasn’t too much work.
During the 3 weeks
The first week the weather was boiling hot and many of the shops didn’t understand how much water they had to give their trees. One estate agent emailed to say their tree was all floppy and looking peaky. They had given it a glass of water the previous week... we explained the facts of life to them.
One of the charity shops, whose manager had not briefed the staff member, was delighted to find a tree on their doorstep on the first day. They pulled off our tags, slapped a price on it and shoved it in the window. Luckily we stopped them from selling it just in time!
Two trees, left outside from the first Saturday to Monday morning, disappeared. One shop rang to ask what happened now – we explained that that was that, it had been their responsibility to look after it. They were so upset at their loss that we relented and gave them another tree (slightly mankier) that had been left over. There were no more losses.
Several of the shopkeepers commented on the local (unofficial) Tree Police – “We’ve had a stream of people popping in check whether we are watering it properly...” The fruit began to form, the herbs flourished. We had great feedback. The completed Treasure Trails began to arrive.
Dismantling the Edible High Road
After three weeks we prepared the businesses for the end of the Fringe. Who wanted to keep their trees? We were astonished to discover how many did. At the beginning most had rather disdainfully turned up their noses at the thought of keeping their tree, but there must have been something about dragging them in and out each morning and evening, and being brought nose to leaf with their tree, in many cases watching the little fruitlets develop, learning to see from the flaccidity of the leaves whether they needed watering or not. Many had fallen in love with their tree; it was like trying to prise the ring off Frodo.
So instead of collecting up around 40 trees at the end, as we had expected, we only collected 15. Another six businesses asked if they could look after their trees until the autumn when we planned to plant them out permanently. We were delighted to agree, and not have to worry about watering 6 more trees during the whole of summer. The shops that wanted to keep their trees promised to look after them, and to plant them out properly and permanently in the autumn, whether in their own gardens, the staff back yard, or a local community garden of their choice . Of the remaining 15, several of the local schools wanted them immediately and promised that they had made provision for watering throughout the summer. The remainder were housed in a pub garden that had opened too late to participate in the original Edible High Road, but promised to water the trees and used them to decorate their new pub garden until autumn.
In autumn these trees will be planted up in the communal orchard at Dukes Meadows. HSBC’s only condition for sponsoring four trees was that they be allowed to send a team to plant the trees come the autumn. Little do those bankers realise that pick-axes are needed to dig holes up there...
Things we could have done better
We should have offered the shops no choice of tree; that would have made our life a lot easier. If we had known how many we had, it would have made our purchasing easier, as we had to make a couple of trips to buy the trees and pots. We should have chosen one style of pot, or perhaps one big barrel (very heavy, but hard to steal) and one smaller pot for dragging in and out, rather than the three styles we ended up with. It would have been nice to see the post office or the police station with trees. And it would have been nice to get the ubiquitous high street chains such as WH Smiths, Boots, M&S on board.
The most important result is that we have 55 more fruit trees in our neighbourhood.
We were surprised that the shops kept so many, but the bees won’t mind pollinating a private tree rather than a public tree, and if we have engendered an appreciation of more fruit trees amongst local businessmen, that’s a big plus. The businesses really enjoyed participating. One estate agent wrote: “The Orchards of London team have been over the moon to support your project, may next year be bigger and even more successful!” Others commented it was one of the nicest community projects they had been involved in. This is a good basis from which to carry out future projects. (Ideas please to firstname.lastname@example.org!)
Six local schools have each gained between two to four fruit trees, which will enhance pleasure and learning in those schools. 42 kids finished the treasure trail. It must have taken them a couple of hours, as it was pretty long and detailed. That means they had to visit each tree and look carefully for a code hidden on it. So those kids (and their parents) have spent time hunting for and looking at fruit trees. And the prizes were all gardening-related. One mum wrote to us: “Such a lovely idea to run this event - thank you from Jonah and Ava (aged 9 and 7).”
The feedback from local residents has been brilliant. For instance: “I just wanted to say how completely fabulous your Edible High Road in Chiswick was. It really lifted the heart to walk past so many beautiful fruit trees so deliciously off setting their brutalist surroundings. I felt a distinct pang of sorrow on Sunday when I happened to see some of them being taken off to new homes in a lorry!”
And finally ... our favourite question from one of the estate agent assistants when agreeing to host a tree. “And what will the tree be made of?”
Copyright Karen Liebreich