Fruitful Thinking

Local fruit tree projects are helping to redistribute the season’s backyard bounty.

Even if you’re a fruit lover, a backyard tree can seem to be both a blessing and a curse. “We had this huge pear tree and it was going to waste,” says Toronto resident Fereshteh Hashemi. “We were drowning in pears. We didn’t even pick one-tenth of it.”

She’s not alone. Anyone who owns a mature fruit tree knows they’re so productive it can be tough to keep up with the harvest. Fallen fruit leads to a smelly, rotten backyard mess—and a tremendous loss of a precious resource.

So when Hashemi heard of Not Far From the Tree (NFFTT) one of several local fruit tree project in Canada that use volunteers to pick and redistribute residential fruit to local community groups, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. “I just thought, if there’s somebody that would be willing to take it—be it a food bank or whatever—it’s a win-win situation.”

How it works

The beauty of these projects is their simplicity: Residents register their trees and teams of volunteer pickers (or gleaners) harvest the fruit once it’s ripe. One-third of the picked fruit goes to the homeowner, one-third to the volunteers and one-third to local community groups, such as food banks that are always short on fresh produce.

“It seems horrific that all this fruit could go to waste when there are definitely people in our community that are very needy,” says Brenda Diffley, program manager of Vancouver-based Food for Families, a partner with the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project (VFTP).

“Recipients are really grateful and surprised that their neighbours would willingly give up their fruit. [This project] links community members together and gives us the idea that our lives are a little more connected than perhaps we think.”  

Hidden treasures

The range of fruit harvested from these backyard city gardens is nothing short of extraordinary: apples, pears, apricots, cherries, grapes, mulberries and serviceberries, are just part of the bounty collected by fruit tree projects from B.C. to Ontario.

“It really astounded me just how many fruit trees there were in my neighbourhood—tucked away in backyards and along alleyways,” says Laura Reinsborough, project coordinator of NFFTT, which in its first season picked more than 3,000 lbs of fruit from one Toronto neighbourhood. “Suddenly you’ve got a different map of the neighbourhood based on where food is growing. It shows the potential for urban agriculture that’s just under our noses.”

At a time when most fruit comes from the grocery store chains and much of it is imported (think Washington State apples or Chilean grapes), these projects help expand people’s ideas of what it means to eat locally.

“People assume that if [the fruit] is from someone’s backyard, it’s not as good as if it was professionally managed,” says Juby Lee, fruit tree project co-ordinator at Environment Hamilton, which picked 5,000 lbs of fruit last year. “People are really surprised not just that the project exists but the quality of that food.”

And the quality is exceptional.

“We’ve picked heritage varieties growing in people’s backyards that are organic because people have never sprayed—and they’re incredible,” says Lisa Pitman, a picker for NFFTT. “I can’t even tell you the number of new things I’ve tried.”

With the trend towards local food only expected to grow, the hope is grassroots projects like this will expand and evolve as city folks discover the benefits and accessibility of urban agriculture.

“There are lots of times when I’m loading up the ladders and people will walk by and start talking to us,” says Liz Perkins, a VFTP picker. “People are pretty pleased when they find out there’s an organization actually doing this. And if you’re going to volunteer somewhere, it’s really great to just hang out in a tree.”

For more information:

Not far from the tree (Toronto) -

Hamilton Fruit Tree Project (Hamilton, Ont.) -

Lifecycles – Fruit Tree Project (Victoria, B.C.):

The Summerland Fruit Tree Project (Summerland, B.C.) and The Fruit Tree Project (Vancouver):

The Guelph Fruit Tree Project (Guelph, Ont.):