by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
In 2013, Sustainable Capitol Hill worked with Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, Schemata Workshop, and Dominique Juleon to produce a map of fruit trees along public right-of-way roads. This was part of a larger project to glean fruit from these unharvested or under-harvested trees, and donate the results to local food banks. At the beginning of the project in 2005, low-income advocacy and poverty prevention organization Solid Ground was a chief volunteer organizer for the seasonal gleaning, but the group moved on from its duties. Sustainable Capitol Hill is now calling for tree owners and volunteers to keep the project going.
“This one looks like a non-fruiting cherry,” devoted “freegan” eater and fan of gleaning Amy T. said. She walked around the neighborhood with The Capitol Hill Times pointing out some of the fruit trees in the area where she sometimes gets fresh, fallen goods.
Freeganism is a lifestyle that promotes using resources otherwise discarded by others. The common image of this is “dumpster diving,” but Amy sees a lot more potential (and health) in gleaning.
Gleaning is the age-old process of harvesting leftover fruits and vegetables that farmers choose to let remain on the tree for one reason or another. In some ancient cultures, as described in ethical texts such as the Jewish Talmud, farmers would intentionally leave the outermost portion of their crops unharvested so that those in need could glean for themselves. In modern times, urban gleaning is an oft-overlooked source of fresh produce that many food charities have started to use to provide fresh, healthy food for those who can’t afford market prices.
The 2013 tree map identifies dozens of locations throughout the neighborhood bearing seven different kinds of fruit. The leading tree fruits in Capitol Hill are cherries and plums, followed by peaches, and a scattering of figs. There is also at least one almond tree located on 12th Avenue between East John Street and East Denny Street. The largest concentration of fruit trees is east of Broadway in the mostly residential hillsides before 15th Avenue.
Efficiently and safely gleaning fruit from trees isn’t as simple as picking it from the branches barehanded. Sustainable Capitol Hill offers courses on more nuanced skills like pruning, the process of carefully and selectively removing parts of the tree to create more space and let more of the plant thrive. Minimally, this sort of activity benefits from gloves, safety goggles and shoes that are sturdy enough to withstand some dirt, mud, and maybe climbing.
“I don’t want anyone to think people like me are just taking stuff,” Amy said. “It’s totally okay to knock on somebody’s door and ask. I mean, a lot of people don’t use everything on the tree. It’s too much. Not everybody says yes, but a lot of people are pretty happy to give.”
Strictly speaking, produce is best when it’s at a sort of “sweet spot” of ripeness and as close to its time of harvest as possible. Because of ongoing chemical reactions within the fruit itself, some ripening can occur off of the tree, but a half-ripe fruit won’t magically become tasty and nutritious after five days in a box.
Stone fruits like peaches and plums are ready to pick once they achieve full color and begin to soften at the suture line, which is the cleft in the fruit’s flesh running from stem to blossom. The suture line should give just a little, and little to no green should be visible on the flesh. To be sure, don’t just take the sun-facing image of the fruit as an indicator, as green can hide in the shade. Common yellow figs tend to follow the same rules, though they have no stones or pits.
Almonds are fairly easy to check for ripeness. Almond hulls begin to split when they’re ready for harvest (typically some time around August). When most of the hulls on the tree have started to split, it’s time to harvest. Experienced almond harvesters spread a tarp on the ground to catch falling hulls, as they naturally fall when they’re fully ripe. The hulls should be discarded and composted immediately so the nuts can start to dry.
Apples and pears are a bit more finicky, depending on the variety. Some stick to their stems for a long time, others fall right off at ripeness. Generally, weak stems and brown seeds indicate a ripe apple or pear, but because of the way maturing fruits release a chemical called ethylene that breaks down tougher plant compounds like chlorophyl, apples ripen well off the tree. A “close enough” apple or pear will ripen quickly on its own, especially in a bag or within proximity to other ripening fruits like avocados.
Capitol Hill’s fruit trees can produce hundreds of pounds of fresh produce, usually more than any given individual or family in possession of even a single tree can use on their own. Sustainable Capitol Hill would love to hear from homes and businesses that have fruit trees on their property and are happy to let volunteers do the work of harvesting. If you have a tree or want to work with Sustainable Capitol Hill to glean this year, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and join Sustainable Capitol Hill on Meetup.com.