5 minute read

Getting to the core of urban fruit trees


Author Helena Moncrieff gets to the core of the urban orchard with a venture into a backyard apple harvest.

A lyrical dee-dum signals a new email. It’s from Not Far From The Tree (a Toronto-based fruit picking and sharing organization) announcing another fruit pick.

I’ve signed up as a volunteer to get a first-hand look at all the ignored fruit in the city. Someone else’s discards have become treasures to this band of fruit hunters. We’re after free, locally grown, probably pesticide-free fruit. There are plenty of heritage trees in the city and plenty of people who want to pick them. The stumbling block is the infrastructure and costs required to connect the two. I’m curious to see who these people are and whether it’s really the fruit they are after.

I head up the asphalt driveway, carefully pushing my bike past a parked car and toe down the kickstand in front of the garage. Alison Smith meets me by the back door, buttoning her pea coat as she steps out.

We sit together on an iron bench and I explain my project, how we’ve lost the knowledge about what to do with fruit trees. “I fit right into that category,” Alison shrugs. “I don’t know how to identify them.”

Her apple tree reaches the eavestrough. It is laden with fruit, plenty of it half-eaten by raccoons and squirrels. “Honestly I’m not sure our apples are OK,” Alison says, adding that years ago she picked some for a pie but the experience left her wanting. “They’re tiny, so it’s really hard to cut them up and core them.

They’re super hard and super sour, so I had to add a lot of sugar. The pie was decent, but it seemed like three times more work than just buying apples from the grocery store.”

The apples on the ground don’t match the oversized fruits we picked at the one-hundred-acre pick-your-own apple farm the weekend previous or most of the fruit I find in grocery stores. These ones are freckled with brown spots and the surfaces are uneven. “There’s not a lot of meat from these guys,” Alison says, flipping a hand at the animals’ leftovers, “so that was my one pie.” But she remembers it. Toward the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan prepares a dinner from food made entirely from meat, vegetables and fruit he has harvested himself. He knows it’s not practical for every day but, he writes, “no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.”

That pie Alison made would have been all the more pleasurable, knowing the work it took to produce it. Alison didn’t plant the tree. It was here when she and her husband bought the house in the late ’90s from a couple who must have loved gardening. But, judging by the tree’s height and Alison’s recollection of that couple’s age, they wouldn’t have planted it either. So three families have watched it grow, I say, asking her what was here when they moved in. “The apple tree was here; there was a cherry tree in front of the shed.” She hesitates, drawing a breath and bracing

for my reaction to her next comment: “which we cut down.” She looks away then tries a recovery. “It wasn’t doing very well, it was dying, I think, so . . .” She deflates with a big breath out. “Feeding right into your thesis.” I nod in understanding.

Alison points to a second cherry tree at the back of the property that’s doing fine. It’s well past the roof lines and, without the fruit on it now, I wouldn’t have guessed it to be a cherry. “We don’t really pick those cherries either,” she confesses. “It’s a feast for the raccoons.” And the neighbour, she tells me, complains bitterly about the mess in her yard.

Val Colden strides into the yard. She is also a volunteer and trained to lead harvests, a “Supreme Gleaner,” as Not Far From The Tree puts it. The supremes run the picks, make sure everyone is safe and carry the equipment in and the fruit out.

After explaining the drill to Alison, Val heaves equipment into the yard: pick poles, canvas bags, a hand-held weigh scale, paper yard waste bags and white plastic buckets with body harnesses—so pickers can keep both hands free. Two more women slip into the yard. Val starts filling us in on the instructions. Clean up the windfall first, never use a ladder without someone spotting, don’t do more than you can, keep the fallen fruit separate. You can take it home if you want, but we can’t donate it. I remember the raccoon scat and think I might give it a pass too. “And finally,” Val says, “beware of fruit greed. We all know that the best fruits are the pieces just out of reach, at the top of the tree where there is more sun.” She tells us to go no higher than the second-last rung of the ladder. Don’t take risks for what may seem like the pick of the crop.

If you want to see a natural apple tree today, head to a city. This one is virtually growing wild. It’s unsprayed, unpruned and unpicked but for the animals’ efforts. As we start reaching and

climbing, I think of the orchards we’ve visited where even the youngest kids can fill a bag without so much as a stepstool.

Here in Alison’s backyard, we extend our aluminum poles to their full 10 feet. Two of us start on the deck. I hold the ladder, spotting for Heather O’Shea, another volunteer who is skilled with the pole. I watch her technique. Lift, twist, wait for the drop. The pick poles are lightweight, topped with claws fanging inward at the mouth of bright blue-and-yellow canvas bags. Two hours slip by quickly, but I can imagine the muscle tone professional pickers must have.

All of the apples are spotted. Still, Val eats one and pronounces it good. I look for an unmarked piece and bite in. The flavour is sweet but the texture a bit mealy. Perhaps Alison picked too soon and we are picking too late. Heather goes back up the ladder. She tells me she travelled an hour and a half on public transit to get here. I think she must be disappointed in the quality, but I’m wrong. It doesn’t matter when you are making cider.

“I’ve been holding on to batches all summer. They’re just waiting until I have enough volume.” She needs 20 pounds of apples to make a gallon, but she was yielding just one or two on each pick in August. She insists it’s worth the wait and patience. “From each pick you’re getting a different variety, so it’s a more complex-flavour cider.”

I’m picturing the payoff in months of cider lined up on shelves to get through the winter. Heather sets me straight: “If I’m sharing, it might only last a night.”

Wow. I’m doing the math on hours spent versus time consumed, but it’s a pointless exercise. We are all enjoying ourselves.

Val calls it a day and ends the pick. She has to get the fruit to a neighbourhood food bank before it closes. It’s one of the many details that make this simple act of picking city fruit more involved than it seems. Alison rejoins us as we bag up the apples. Heather holds the scale, hanging each bag by the straps. Val directs the distribution and recording. Seventy-two pounds of fruit off one untended tree. Alison declines her share, so two-thirds will go to charity and one third to the pickers. We’ll each get six pounds to take home, roughly a $12 payment for two hours of work, but we’re not here for the cost benefit. We’re feeling good. Alison gives us a big smile. “That’s amazing.”

Excerpted from The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest by Helena Moncrieff. Published by ECW Press Ltd.


IN HER TBG lecture, Helena Moncrieff examines our relationship with food through the fruit trees that dot city streets and yards. Helena asks how these living heirlooms went from being subsistence staples to raccoon fodder. Guiding us through her journey of slipping into backyards, visiting community orchards and taking in canning competitions, Helena shows us that while the bounty of apples is great, reconnecting with nature and our community is the real prize.

Helena Moncrieff

Helena Moncrieff is a writer, professor, former radio journalist and lifelong city dweller. Her freezer is full of fruit collected from other people’s backyards. The Fruitful City was shortlisted for a Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.


Thursday, September 19, 7:30 p.m. Members FREE; Public $15; Students (with ID) $12. Book signing follows lecture.