Monday, July 20, 2009

A Fruitful Excursion

Urban gleaning—maybe you've heard of it. Maybe not. It's related to freeganism (a good topic for another post, another time) and salvaging in general. It's big in Portland, Oregon, but is not unique to the Northwest. So what is it exactly?

Gleaning was originally a rural gig; people gathered stray crops left behind after a farmer harvested his fields. I'm not sure if that counts as stealing or not, but I suppose if the farmer isn't going to use the leftovers... Anyway, gleaning has moved into the cities, and in our case, the suburbs. People are picking fruit from seemingly ignored trees in residential areas. I'm not talking about going into people's yards (but if your neighbor has a fruit tree that is just dropping its bounty to rot on the ground, ask him if you can bring over your ladder and have at it—I bet he'll let you). These are fruit trees that don't belong to anybody and are not being picked clean by squirrels, like the trees surrounding an apartment complex.

A few years ago, Len and I noticed a huge crab apple tree in our neighborhood, on what appeared to be common ground, and under it, a massive mush of rotting crab apples, the edible kind just a little bigger than cherries (as opposed to the smaller, purely ornamental variety). We watched the fruit ripen, fall, and rot for two years in a row and were certain that it belonged to no one and was being used by no one. Last summer, we took advantage of this otherwise wasted harvest and picked a Croozer-full of crab apples, which we turned into sweet, tart, beautiful deep-magenta preserves.

We also found a few apple trees that we think exist by happy accident. They are typically near other crab apple trees, so we think they were meant to be ornamental crab apples, but in fact turned out to be full-fledged apples (perhaps due to the grafting of one type of tree onto another type of mature root stock). However they got there, it's free organic fruit! We're pretty sure there are no pesticides being sprayed on these trees, based on the fruit's rustic look. Of course, we nibbled on an apple, to be sure it wasn't some nasty inedible hybrid, and were delighted to find a couple of different and tasty varieties. We have no idea what kind of apples they are; one's Granny Smith-ish, the other is sweeter and more yellow/pink.

This past weekend, we took a bike ride (on our way to the grocery store—gotta combine those errands when you can!) to check on the varying stages of ripeness of "our" trees, and to look for other apple and crab apple trees. We started collecting for preserves and apple butter toward the end of the trees' peaks last year; we wanted to catch them earlier this time around. I'm happy to report we found lots of crab apple trees (more than we can use), some of which are just about ripe now, and even a few new apple trees.

But the best discovery of all (and one we're marking our calendars for next summer) was the apricot tree. Who knew? We can't believe we'd never noticed it before, all the times we've biked past it. But there it was, a litter of small orange fruits all over the ground and plenty more still in the tree. We stopped right there, hoisted ourselves into the tree (it was a big one, old, with thick branches) and picked to our hearts' content. We made apricot jam that very night, and I had apricots in my oatmeal for breakfast the next morning. Delicious. Delightful.

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