About the Author

Helena Moncrieff

Books by this Author
The Fruitful City

The Fruitful City

The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest
also available: Paperback
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With so much food already being squandered, it is easy to feel that a little tree in a backyard won’t matter to world hunger, depletion of resources, and the growth of landfills. But reducing waste, I was about to find out, is not the only reason for picking fruit in a neighbour’s backyard.

The word “locavore” is a creation of the 21st century. Eating local has become a lofty pursuit, imbuing those who can do it exclusively with the awe that might have gone to the connoisseur of the fifties who could source the best Russian caviar, find strawberries in February or sneak a fresh pineapple in from Hawaii. Sometimes there are political reasons for drawing a geographic border on our plates, but more commonly today, it’s an environmental and nutritional concern. Restaurants and grocery stores highlight locally produced vegetables and meats, equating local with fresh and assurances that knowledge of where the food is grown somehow makes it safer. Defining “local” is a matter of opinion for most of us. The Canadian government expanded its definition in 2013 when it moved from food originating within 50 kilometres of where it is sold to food produced in the same province or territory or 50 kilometres from the border. So as interest in eating local grew, so did the definition of what makes something local. At the same time, the idea of hyper-local — eating fruit grown in sight of your own kitchen window, perhaps — is still met with a degree of trepidation by those who aren’t seasoned gardeners or foragers.

At some point we knew how to identify which plants would nourish us and which could be used as poisons. As our parents and grandparents turned their backs on homegrown food in favour of the convenience of industrialized supplies (and who could blame them when they were still hand-wringing laundry), many of us lost the generational knowledge that should have been passed on as routinely as shoelace tying. I felt stupid when I didn’t recognize the mulberries and serviceberries Gwendolyn lugged through the door, and asked, like so many others have, “Are they safe to eat?”

Yet it’s not too late to turn things around. Laura’s organization and more than a dozen others across Canada are leading the fruit-picking renaissance; they’ve also popped up in the United States and beyond. It’s a wedge into new efforts to reclaim, not just the fruit, but the knowledge of and connection with food. Nurseries are seeing an uptick in fruiting plant sales, although nowhere near what it once was. Connon Nurseries, for example, has been growing, wholesaling and retailing plants in Ontario for more than a century. Sales manager Brad Hale says the new interest has more to do with the experience, the desire for freshness and the knowledge gained from growing food yourself rather than the economic imperative it once was.

Even if viewers don’t head to the kitchen, having an entire television network devoted to food, at minimum, shows an interest in how food can be prepared. A Neilsen Global Ingredients survey released in 2016 found 80 per cent of Canadians believe food prepared at home is healthier and they look for products without artificial ingredients. Farmers markets are increasingly popular with more than 600 operating in Canada and more than 8,600 registered in the U.S., almost double the number from 10 years ago. They are all clues to a new fascination with what we’ve lost. A growth in allotment gardens and urban agriculture shows the interest in action. A not-for-profit called the Bowery Project, for example, started in 2014 turning vacant spaces into temporary places to grow food using easily-movable milk crate planters. The produce goes to local chefs and charities. Many schools across the country have added food-producing gardens to their greenspace; some are able to turn the small farms into cafeteria fare or, in partnership with outside organizations, student employment.

All of those efforts are worthwhile. But my fixation on fruit trees comes from their longevity. Backyard tomatoes, fava beans, kale and lettuce have to be replanted each year. When the urban farmer moves away, or loses interest, the garden plot can quickly return to wild plants and weeds, with little trace of what was once there. The fruit trees endure, the agricultural equivalent of tagging, leaving markers across our cities of who came before and a taste of what they ate.

When Gwendolyn left for university in Halifax, I signed on to pick, armed with sunscreen, gardening gloves, and a lot of questions. How old were the trees and who had planted them? Who wouldn’t pick fruit from a tree in their own backyard? When did we stop seeing the usefulness of a homegrown tree? How can we have food banks and soup kitchens campaigning for more when this bounty exists in neighbourhoods across the country?

Soon I was talking to fruit tree planters and pickers, canners and chefs, historians and home economists. I set out to eat, pick and visit more trees across the country and talk to the people who had figured out what the city fruit tree has to offer in the 21st century.

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