Category Archives: apples

Catalyzing Urban Fruit Production

Urban food production is easy, cheap, and fun. A frequent topic on this blog (here, here and here, for example), it can provide healthy food for the community, particularly those who may not already have it. Moreover, cities like Provo already expend resources on community landscaping, meaning planting more fruit trees would be almost free.

So why aren’t we growing more food in our parks and public spaces? Why isn’t urban fruit production a bigger part of the cultural and social environment in Utah?

I don’t know the answer, but my colleague Mark Johnston recently wrote about a man who is making this concept a reality in Provo. According to the article, Loren Boddy goes around picking fruit from his neighbors trees, then distributes it to the community:

During morning runs he once took when living in Springville six years ago, Boddy began noticing how much fruit went unused and ended up rotting beneath the trees in his neighborhood. When he asked, the homeowners were more than happy to let him come and pick all he wanted for himself. Soon he was enjoying fresh grapes, apples, peaches and one year even gathered 50 pounds of cracked walnuts, all for free.

Boddy also apparently uses his connections in the LDS Church to help distribute the produce he gleans.

The story is illuminative for several reasons:

1. It takes a community to supply the various skill sets needed to capitalize on urban fruit production. In other words, urban agriculture works best with a lot of people who share responsibilities and divide labor.

2. Utah communities already have the social structure in place to organize and divide labor to make urban agriculture more viable.

That second point is especially significant. Provo in particular ranks highly for volunteerism, has strong religious and cultural ties, and can grow fruit. In that context, there’s no reason those factors shouldn’t converge into a social effort — however formal or not — to apply urban fruit production for the community good. It seems the only thing lacking is a catalyst.

An apple tree in a Provo park. Why aren’t there more apple trees in more parks?

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An Urban Fruit Forest Example

The universally beloved city of Seattle has embarked on an exciting new initiative: planting an urban fruit forest. Basically, using a $100,000 grant, the city is planting fruit and nut trees that will be available “free of charge and largely without conditions.”

The article raises quite a few potential challenges, but the general objective is both noble and plausible. It’s also similar to the argument I made in this post and this post.

My point was that urban fruit forests result in low cost, environmentally friendly food for the entire community. That food can be used to mitigate the effects of local hunger and poverty, and/or simply to provide healthy food for those who take it.

Provo obviously wouldn’t grow the same kind of food that Seattle is planning, but the city already has enough fruit and nut trees — as well as people who gleen from them — to suggest that this could work.

Close up of a young Gala apple tree in the Joaquin neighborhood.

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Urban Fruit Forests Are Real

I’ve written several times on this blog about the possibility of using public space to grow edible produce, specifically fruit. I think this is a wonderful idea, but I get the sense that some people see it as prohibitively impractical or some sort of pipe dream.

But as this article demonstrates, urban food production is very possible. The article details the plans to create an edible forest in Seattle. Though Provo is a very different city, the already-abundant fruit trees — as well as the increasing local interest in gleening — suggests that something similar could work in Provo.

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More on Urban Fruit Trees

Here’s a fun little piece on people in San Fransisco who are literally grafting the branches of fruit trees onto non-fruit bearing trunks around their city. For the record, I’m not in favor of this idea in Provo, in large part because Provo’s size seems to lend itself better to working within legal channels.

But the point the “guerrilla grafters” are making is that urban fruit production can be a major asset to a city. It’s a very similar argument I made here, when I speculated that with Provo’s high rate of volunteerism and already-abundant urban crop the city could become a leader in this movement.

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Trees Trees Trees: The Provo Tree Guide, Etc.

One of the coolest things about Provo is the Tree Guide. I’ve spent a fair amount of time perusing this document and trying to figure out what trees grow around my home and in the parts of the city I frequent. I was going to blog about this wonderful document in the spring, when the trees were getting their leaves back, but the mayor wrote about it Monday so I figured that was as good a reason as any to bring it up here.

The mayor’s post is especially good because it points out that A) Provo is consistently recognized for its trees, and B) we have a city forester.

It’s also worth noting the important role that trees play in a city. Those two links both go to articles discussing how trees have positive environmental, health, and economic impacts in cities. In short, cities with lots of trees are better. As I’ve written before, urban trees also have the potential to feed people.

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Apples, Gleaning, and Urban Food Growing

In Provo, the aroma of autumn hangs in the air, the scent of ripening apples lingers in the streets.

Several years ago, Laura and I noticed Provo’s many neglected apple trees — and the fruit they leave rotting on the ground — and began gleaning them. The activity has become something of an annual tradition for us, and in the past few years we’ve made dozens and dozens of pies, loaves of apple bread, bottles of apple sauce and other delicious food with the apples.

This year, however, competition was more fierce. There are several trees we like to visit, but each time we went there were several other people — usually couples — gleaning the trees as well.

Though my initial reaction was to be competitive, seeing other people gleaning turned out to be fairly pleasant. While enjoying the cool autumn air and the sweet smell of fruit, we got to meet other people who also felt like it was a shame to let pounds and pounds of apples go to waste. Plus, for the first time ever, we borrowed a telescoping apple picking tool, which allowed us to pick the highest apples and bring in the biggest harvest ever. We literally picked hundreds of dollars of free apples.

Gleening urban fruit is fun and has a positive impact on the community. It prevents trees from making a mess, thereby saving on grounds keeping costs, provides inexpensive (free) healthy food to residents, and can actually be a form of exercise. And at least as long as it remains a niche activity, there is a sense of camaraderie among gleaners; it’s as though we’re all in on a really cool secret.

In many places, gleaning is also becoming a way for cities to provide for less fortunate people. Volunteers go out and pick the fruit, and then some or all of it — depending on the particular program — is donated to local food banks and homeless shelters. It’s a win-win, and if it works properly there are almost no disadvantages.

Wouldn’t it be great if that happened in Provo? Even better, wouldn’t it be great if Provo became a leader in urban farming, gleaning, and food production? There are many people in Provo who don’t have the money to buy enough healthy food, and gleaning could become a boon for them. More selfishly, the more edible produce we grow in our community, the more delicious food we eat.

Making Provo a leader in urban food production would be comparatively easy. While it will ultimately take millions of dollars and many years to revitalize downtown, an apple tree costs only about $30. Every homeowner could afford to plant a single fruit tree. (When I moved into my home recently, Laura and I planted five.) The city also could easily plant more fruit trees in parks. We could rapidly increase the amount of food our public spaces produce, all for a very small cost.

Of course, there are challenges. One of the main concerns people have with fruit trees is the mess they make. That’s a real concern, but significantly, this year I noticed that there wasn’t much of a mess around the trees we visited. Enough people gleaned them that there were barely any apples on the ground. Problem solved. In other words, the demand already exists to consume all of Provo’s apples. With more awareness and organization, Provo residents could easily glean and clean up after hundreds of additional fruit trees.

To realistically make Provo an urban fruit mecca, the city (or another organization, if it was interested) could organize volunteers to periodically pick the fruit. Volunteers could keep some of it, and donate what they can’t use. I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty details here, but we could call this organization the Provo Gleaning Committee, or something to that effect. Provo is the best place in the county for volunteerism, so finding interested people shouldn’t be very difficult.

So while none of this would be free, the investment would be low and the pay off fast. It could probably be done all with donations; I know I’d contribute a fruit tree to plant in a park, and I bet others would as well. In the end, the health and community benefits would last for generations, and Provo would enjoy the collateral benefit of having a reputation as a leader in this growing movement.

To read about my first experiences gleaning apples in Provo, click here, here and here.

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Picking Apples (Pictures)

I thought I’d end the “Picking Apples” posts with Part 3, but I figured I’d post a few pictures.  All of these pictures are of apples we picked from the second tree (see “Part 1“).  Also, there are a bunch that wouldn’t fit in bags, so I never really got a good picture of all the apples together.  These pictures probably represent between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the apples we’ve picked.  

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Picking Apples (Part 3)

If I ate nothing but the apples that Laura and I recently picked I bet I could live for a month without really ever feeling hungry.  (I’m sure I’d feel a lot of other things with that kind of diet, but the point is that I’d survive).  The thing is, I don’t really need all these apples to survive; though I’m not rich I’ve always had enough money to buy food.  That means that the apples are all extra food.  Nice, but not necessary. 

 

As I’ve thought about the vast amount of extra food that I’ve acquired in the last few days I’ve found my thoughts turning to people who don’t have food at all.  As I understand it, there are many parts of the world plagued by hunger, malnutrition, and famine.  Accordingly, while I picked apples I began to wonder why we couldn’t send all our surplus fruit to those places.

 

There are, of course, practical problems with sending something like apples to places like Africa.  Though it could probably be done, preserving the fruit for that long would probably be inefficient and costly (and other kinds of food would be much better to ship).  Likewise, planting apple trees in locations where there are problems with hunger would also not work because of the climate.  Thus, my conclusion was that the apples I picked could not realistically contribute to ending world hunger.

 

Or could they?  While there are many ways to alleviate world hunger without local apples, the fact that they may provide extra food leads me to believe that they might contribute by freeing up funds that would otherwise be spent on food.  So, for example, if I’m able to eat apples for breakfast for the next week, I have theoretically saved some money by not buying my normal food, which could then be donated to those who don’t have food (a familiar idea to my fellow Mormons out there). 

 

While my own charitable contributions could no doubt help many people, I can’t help but wonder if this idea could make a huge dent in world hunger.  Let’s estimate that the typical city block has 300 residents (that’s way too high if you live in the suburbs but probably low if you live in a high rise).  Now, lets imagine that each of those people ate two apples a day for breakfast for a week.  If each person normally spent one dollar on break fast, that means each person has saved seven dollars by eating apples.  Collectively, the block has saved $2100.  Now imagine if most of the blocks in a given city tried that.  Imagine if most of the cities in the United State tried it.  Very quickly there would be millions (or probably billions) of dollars.

 

This plan would be incredibly easy to implement.  300 people eating two apples a day for seven days would require 4200 apples.  Lets say each tree that was planted ended up being really scrawny and only produced 300 apples.  That would mean that the block of 300 people would need 14 trees.  The typical residential city block has more than 14 yards, so that would be fewer than one tree per yard.  In reality, however, each block would probably need far fewer trees (though I don’t see why they wouldn’t want even more).  Obviously it would take a few years for the trees to produce, but when they did the results could literally change the world.   

 

As was the case with my previous apple picking post, I know that this boils a complex problem down to an oversimplified solution.  I’m also not under the delusion that it is about to happen.  Still, it should more or less work.  It would require innovation and experimentation and would only bring about change over a long time, but it points out that the possibility of solving world problems actually exists.  My apple picking experiences have reminded me, then, that what we (myself especially) lack is simply the will to do even the simplest things to make a difference.

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Picking Apples (Part 2)

My recent apple picking experiences have led me to ponder the roles of urban vegetation.  These experiences have also reminded me of a presentation I attended a while ago at the old Gallery 110 in Provo.  The presentation was on urban gardening and while I felt the presenter focused too much on symbolic acts of urban guerrilla environmentalism that ultimately couldn’t effect any change, it was a useful experience for pointing out that most city plants exists only for beautification purposes.

 

The apple trees that Laura and I recently found and harvested are a good example of this fact.  The trees provide shade and look nice, and for most people that’s apparently all they’re good for.  Similarly, Provo and BYU campus have numerous plum trees all over, but they’re trimmed to minimize how much fruit they produce because the fruit is seen as a nuisance that dirties sidewalks and streets.  And of course, most lawns, trees, and bushes in urban environments bear no fruit at all and simply exist for people to enjoy. 

 

I appreciate plants that beautify, but picking bag after bag of apples recently has led me to consider more seriously why urban vegetation can’t be visually pleasing and productive.  Would Provo’s plum or apple trees be any less pretty, for example, if they were pruned to maximize their fruit yield instead of being trimmed to eliminate it?  As I run and walk the streets of Provo (and, in the past, other cities I’ve lived in) I always notice new saplings planted in parks and yards.  Occasionally these are fruit trees, but usually they aren’t.  Why is that?  What is to be lost by planting fruit trees more often than simply “attractive” trees?  There may be slightly more research required to maintain a fruit tree (though any nursery worker should be able to answer questions), and of course someone will eventually have to make the effort to pick the fruit, but those seem like small prices to pay for the reward of having delicious homegrown food (that is also essentially free).  

 

There are opportunities to turn urban settings into productive gardens right now.  Again, Provo’s fruit trees provide a good example.  Right now someone has to go around and trim them, so if they’re putting forth the effort anyway why not spend a little more time and prune them for their fruit?  Of course, this would take some extra training and know-how, but the fruit itself could easily offset the cost.  For example, cities could plant fruit trees along boulevards and pedestrian paths, and then charge local residents a small fee to come and pick the fruit on certain days of the year.  It’d be like going to a farmers market, except that the “venders” (i.e. the trees) would be spread throughout the city and people would get to pick the fruit themselves.  Cities could make a little extra cash, people would get fresh organic food, and there wouldn’t be rotting undersized fruit all over sidewalks.  Everybody would win.

 

I know that’s a simplified assessment of the situation, and I’m not advocating some kind of public orchard system.  Instead, I think that urban vegetation could serve many communities much better than it currently does.  I don’t think (as some do) that every square inch of dirt in a city needs to be planted with carrots and lettuce (though I’m not opposed to that idea), but it seems that many communities currently put forth a lot of effort to maintain their plants.  Why not focus that effort so it produces both beauty and fruit?

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Picking Apples (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago Laura and I went on a walk and passed an apple tree in front of a small apartment complex.  We probably wouldn’t have noticed it, except that the ground around the tree was covered in decomposing apples.  When we looked up we were surprised to see that the tree was still full of fruit.  Laura picked one and tasted it, and when she said it was delicious we decided to come back with bags and pick more.  After all, we figured, the number of apples on the ground suggested that no one else was interested in them. 

 

Because the apples weren’t necessarily ours, we felt the need to be sneaky.  The first time we went back there was a guy in front of the apartments barbequing, so we pretended we weren’t there to steal his apples and kept walking.  Then, later that night after it was dark, we stealthily returned and proceeded to pick more apples than we knew what to do with.

 

Just about the time our many bags began to overflow the barbeque guy came back out and gave us a suspicious look.  I don’t blame him; Laura was ten feet up in the tree and I was down below catching apples in my messenger bag.  However, what he said surprised me.  Instead of asking us to leave he told us that he “wouldn’t eat the apples.  Box elders got into them.  Take them if you want, but eat them at your own risk.” 

 

Now, it’s possible the guy just wanted us to leave and so he made up an excuse to scare us away.  However, if that was his goal he failed because Laura had already eaten some of the apples and was just fine.  Also, I had never heard of anyone dying or becoming sick due to box elders.  Nevertheless our bags were full (we probably had a bushel or more), so we left.

 

Since then I’ve tried to look up the dangers of box elders, but to no avail.  More importantly, Laura and I have made numerous loaves of apple bread, apple pies, and eaten many raw apples with no negative repercussions.  If we found a bug-infested apple, we threw it in the compost pile (which is also a secret that I’m hoping will totally decompose before the landlord notices it). 

 

In the end I’m left to wonder why the barbeque guy was afraid of the apples in front of his apartment (if he was serious about them being bad, which I believe he was).  Since then Laura and I have actually found another apple tree at another apartment complex and picked even more apples.  (In fact, we picked at least twice as many from that tree and had to make two arduous trips to carry them all home.)  Like the first tree this one was surrounded by fallen, decomposing apples.  Clearly, no one wanted them and I felt like it almost as my duty to pick all the remaining good apples and eat them so they wouldn’t go to waste.  While I’m glad I benefited from these trees, there was more than enough for everyone in the vicinity, if anyone had cared to look. 

 

While I’ll explore some of the larger thoughts I had about this experience in subsequent posts, the most basic conclusion that I’ve come to is to not be afraid to take a risk (in this case that risk was the very slight chance of becoming sick from eating a bad apple, but I suppose there are broader applications to that idea, which I’ve commented on before).  The other basic idea that I think emerges here is that there are free, delicious, and abundant resources all around us all, ripe for the taking.  

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