The hungry insurgent: Gleaning and preserving in the city


We Americans waste a lot of food. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we throw away about half the food we produce, much of it quite usable. It amounts to filling a large football stadium to the brim every single day, something between 160 and 295 billion pounds of food per year. One way to cut this back lies in our neighbor’s backyard: gleaning. Gleaning is the process of harvesting food you didn’t plant.

This is how it works: My friend Jim has a pie cherry tree that produces more than he and his wife can use. When he is done harvesting, he calls me to come over. I pick all the remaining cherries and pit them in my back yard, then give them to my friend Julia. She makes the cherries into jam, which she puts up in canning jars I got free at church from a woman who no longer cans. Julia, Jim and I then split the cherry jam three ways. Everyone wins!

In the past few years, I have also harvested a half-dozen apple trees that I don’t own, right near my house. Here’s how. You walk down the street or alley in the late summer or fall and you see an apple tree that has apples rolling into the street and lying all over the yard, a fairly certain sign that the owner doesn’t want the apples. You knock on the door, asking if the owner plans on harvesting them. If nobody is home, leave a note with your e-mail and phone number. If they don’t want their apples, ask if you can gather them.

To reinforce your courage, note that every owner I have talked to has been happy that someone can use their fruit. Many owners did not originally plant the tree years ago, and many people are too busy to deal with the huge quantity of apples produced by a mature tree. Fruit falls and rots, and just represents a mess on the lawn.

Several owners have been considering chopping down the tree because the neighbors have been complaining about the mess. In the past three years, I have saved three apple trees from an untimely death, merely by taking free apples. (Sadly, one very stressed-out owner actually did chop down a couple of trees, despite my best efforts.)

Understand, these are not always perfect apples. They are usually neglected (which I prefer to think of as “organic”). Some are great for munching, but many are better as desserts, apple sauces, cider or dehydrated apple chips. I have done all of these things, enjoying our urban bounty all winter.

Supplies don’t need to be expensive. As I mentioned, you can often get absolutely free canning jars and rings from friends who don’t want to can any more. That leaves just the lids to buy. And jars are not that expensive new. (For some reason, thrift store prices are often ridiculously high, often more than new.) Dehydrators and juicers are also often available at garage sales at good prices, although condition may be unpredictable. And my very favorite suggestion is the old saying that, if you don’t have a lot of stuff, it is good to have friends. There is no reason why every single household needs a canning kettle when we could be canning with our neighbors. There is no reason for strictly private ownership of every juicer (or lawnmower or snow-blower, for that matter), when we could make deals with our neighbors.

There are some important rules I should mention. Never, ever take fruit from someone’s tree without getting permission every year. Don’t take more than you can use. Give a thank-you gift to the owner, something like cherry cobbler or apple pie. Respect and care for their tree as if it were your own; don’t break branches, and clean up any mess you might make. If you want to be super popular with the owner, offer to clean up and haul away any rotting apples (for compost, ideally). Another benefit from cleanup is that the fruit will have fewer worms the following year. And, if possible, plant your own fruit tree as soon as you can, so you can also add to the abundance of our community!

I want to end with another story. Last year I was picking mulberries on public property when a couple came by, walking their dog. They asked what I was picking, and I gave them a taste, adding how much I enjoyed my little forays out picking fruit. The man suggested that he had a rental property with an apple tree that he never harvested. Well, he ended up offering it to me for gleaning, and I got over 1,000 high-quality apples from that one tree alone. It was another tree that had been scheduled for the ax, since it certainly produced a lot of apples. Were those apples mess or food? By gleaning with courtesy, I would suggest that we save trees by providing a service to reluctant fruit tree owners and increase the fruit tree canopy of our city. By merely picking and eating, we demonstrate the value of something that nourishes us all. And if, in the process, we make friends with our neighbors, we all win.

OK, so on to the calendar. At this point, you will see fewer gardening classes and more classes on canning and storage. This is seasonal, of course. It is time for us little squirrels to start thinking about what we will eat all winter.

July 5, 6 to 8 p.m. $15. “Canning basics,” Mississippi Market Co-op, 1500 W. 7th St., St Paul. 651-690-0507.

July 7, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Free. “Cooking with summer squash, zucchini, onions, fried green tomatoes,” Minneapolis Farmers Market, 312 E. Lyndale Ave., Mpls.

July 11, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Growing and cooking with herbs,” Community Ed Services Building, 2225 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-668-3939.

July 14, 2 to 4 p.m. $28. “Summer jams,” Mississippi Market Co-op, 1500 W. 7th St., St Paul. 651-690-0507.

July 16, 7 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP. “Managing yard waste and composting,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave., Brooklyn Park. 612-543-6225. www.hclib.-org/pub/events

July 18, 7 p.m. $21. “Food preparation and preservation,” Marianna Padilla, 4416 Pleasant Ave. S., Mpls. 612-824-9467.

July 18, 7 to 9 p.m. $22. “Canning basics,” Wedge Co-op, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls. 612-871-3993.

July 23, 1 to 3 p.m. $28. “Countertop fermentation: pickles,” Mississippi Market Co-op, 1500 W. 7th St., St Paul. 651-690-0507.

July 29, 1 to 3 p.m. $25. “Canning basics: tomatoes,” EggPlant Urban Farm Supply, 1771 Selby, St Paul. 651-645-0818.

Aug. 6, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Fall yard and garden care,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave., Brooklyn Park. 612-543-6225.

Aug. 15, 7 p.m., $21, “Food preparation and preservation,” Marianna Padilla, 4416 Pleasant Ave. S., Mpls. 612-824-9467.