Do a Google search of “urban fruit harvesting” and up will pop about 13,400,000 hits. Many municipalities plant fruit trees because their spring blossoms add a splash of colour and form to an otherwise grey and drab early spring cityscape. In the suburbs, many housing developments were built on former fruit orchards and sometimes the developers were thoughtful enough to leave a few fruit-bearing trees standing.
By the time mid-summer rolls around, most of us have forgotten about those fragrant pink or white flowers and so we forget what comes next—fruit! Until, that is, our sidewalks, and white cars, become stained mulberry purple and cherry red. Sure, the birds and squirrels appreciate our short attention spans, but some folks see it as a terrible waste of perfectly nutritious, nutritious and free food.
Trolling for fruit
Not Far From the Tree is a Toronto-based urban fruit-harvesting group that roams the city in search of windfalls—unwanted fruit and even the sap that runs through the city’s maples. In 2010, a group of 700 volunteers and four staff picked over 19,695 pounds of cherries, serviceberries, mulberries, plums, crabapples, apples, pears, grapes, walnuts, pawpaw, elderberries and ginkgo from 228 trees. The ‘gleaners’ divide the harvest three ways: one third is offered to the tree owner, one third is shared among the volunteers, and one third is delivered by bicycle to food banks, shelters and community kitchens.
Founder Laura Rainsborough started the group in 2008 after she first picked apples from a downtown orchard. From that moment on, she couldn’t help but look at her city in a new way: with “fruit goggles” on.
Laura’s not alone. Most of us are unaware of the city’s secret bounty. But now, thanks to groups like this, thousands of people around the world are donning their fruit goggles, too. Both casual and highly organised fruit gleaning groups are picking, gathering and tapping in cities all over the world. Tapping maples for sap to boil into syrup is, however, fraught with more challenges than simply gathering wind-fallen apples or cherries from laden branches. It’s fairly easy to haul bags and baskets of apples on a bike, but try moving sloshing buckets of sap to the kitchen for boiling down. Also, the city of Toronto had its reservations, concerned about the effect of drilling and inserting spigots into the tree trunks. In the end, the group concentrated on privately owned Norway maples (not only sugar maples give sap). In February, 2011 launched their Syrup in the City pilot program. The effort culminated in a community sugaring off party where 92 litres of sap was boiled down to 20 litres of lightly sweet syrup. It was fun and a sweet success, but according to Rainsborough, the program is on hold for now, while a few bugs are ironed out.
Inset image: Not Far From the Tree volunteers with apricots picked in downtown Toronto.