Got fruit? Many older houses in Toronto sport a fruit tree of some kind in the yard. From mulberries to apples, sour cherries to pears, backyards across the city offer a trove of hidden seasonal treasure. But in the recent real estate boom, plenty of people find themselves moving into a property that includes fruit trees in the yard and don’t know what to do with the things. Especially when it comes to harvesting the stuff. Even if they manage to pick their fill, there’s usually a lot left over – some for the birds and squirrels, but even more that goes to waste.
An organization called not far from the tree aims to change that, allowing homeowners to share their harvest with local charities, and with volunteers who will come and harvest the fruit in exchange for a share of the crop.
The project started last year when Laura Reinsborough volunteered at the Green Barn Farmers Market and found herself in charge of harvesting apples from the orchard at Spadina Museum to sell at the market. “I had never picked an apple before,” explains Reinsborough, “and all of a sudden I had this apple-selling business on my hands. And it just kind of grew from there.”
Partner Suzanne Long now runs the museum/market aspect of the project, which includes a weekly drop-in harvest on Saturday mornings and selling the rare, heritage apples from the museum’s gardens at the market in the afternoon. Museum staff give demos and tours of the gardens, and volunteers help to pick fruit from the trees, many of which are over a hundred years old. Much of that fruit goes back into the museum, to be used in cooking demos in the Victorian kitchen, but the extra fruit is transported by bike or cart to the market, just over a kilometer away, and profit from the produce sales are funneled back into the museum’s garden.
Meanwhile Reinsborough has taken on an even more ambitious project, which is the residential fruit harvesting arm of not far from the tree.
Currently working only in Ward 21, which is Reinsborough’s neighbourhood, and allows her to transport the donated fruit by bicycle, residents can register their tree with the organization and a team of volunteer fruit gleaners will come by, with all the necessary gear, including ladders, bags, and rakes for clean-up, and will harvest ripe fruit from the tree. Homeowners who are also animal lovers can also request that a certain amount of fruit be left on the tree for local birds and squirrels.
All harvested fruit is split three ways, with one third to the homeowner, one third divided up among the gleaners, and the final third taken by Reinsborough to a local charity, either the Wychwood Open Door Program, or NaMeRes, a 61-bed native men’s residence shelter. Since NaMeRes is open 24 hours, many harvests are scheduled for early evening so Reinsborough can drop off the fruit on her way home, although she’s been known to freeze more perishable fruit such as cherries when she can’t do the delivery right away.
Since the beginning of July, not far from the tree has done an average of 2 to 3 harvests per week, and just last week broke the one thousand pound mark in terms of fruit harvested. “I’m having a great summer!” Reinsborough laughs as she calculates these numbers in her head.
Currently the residential harvest program is only available in Ward 21/St. Clair West, although the group will register trees from anywhere in the city. Reinsborough admits to being overwhelmed by the amount of interest in the project and realizes that the scope of a city-wide project is too big for one girl on a bike to handle. Her hope is that not far from the tree will eventually develop into a network of neighbourhood-based fruit tree initiatives across the city, all harvesting local fruit and sharing it with local charities.
In the meantime, owners of residential fruit trees are encouraged to contact the group to register their tree(s), even if they’re not in Ward 21. And anyone interested in volunteering can do so in one of two ways. The Saturday morning events at Spadina House are drop-in style – just show up, sign a volunteer waiver and get picking. To volunteer for the residential harvests, simply contact the group via their website, where gleaners are added to a mailing list and receive notification about upcoming harvests.
It may take a few years before the every fruit tree in the city is accounted for and harvested, but the benefits of a program like not far from the tree are far-reaching. Homeowners have someone to help them harvest (and eat) their backyard fruit; charities get free, fresh fruit to feed or distribute among their clients; and local people who volunteer to be gleaners get to enjoy being part of the harvest and reap the benefit of a bag of apples or apricots for their hard work. And everyone can be satisfied in knowing that tons of local, usually organic, food that would otherwise go to waste will be put to good use.
Photos 1 and 4 are from the not far from the tree flickr photo stream.