Health Bonanza, Part II: Meet Your Neighborhood Fruit Trees

In my last post, I mentioned wild edible plants as a free source of highly nutritious food (and sometimes also medicine).

Another major health bonanza is fruit trees. Wherever you live, you are likely to find at least a few fruit trees in your neighborhood. (This might not be true if you live in an HOA development; homeowners’ associations tend to favor strictly ornamental, rigidly manicured landscaping, dominated by turf-grass. But even in that type of neighborhood, unless it is a brand-new development you might have a fruit tree or two in walking distance.)

Sometimes you’ll see fruit trees in front yards, but even if they are in the backyard they might have branches overhanging the sidewalk. I call this “public fruit.” Laws in different places may vary, and I always recommend knocking on doors and asking permission before you pick fruit, even if it is overhanging the sidewalk. Anyway, even if your area has no ordinances against picking fruit that overhangs the sidewalk, knocking on doors and meeting your neighbors helps increase neighborhood safety and social cohesion. And it just plain makes for a happier world.

I once knocked on the door of a place that had an orange tree. “Take all you want! They taste awful!” the guy told me. I let him know that if he fertilized the tree he might get sweeter fruit, and that in the meantime I was going to make marmalade and would bring him some. It was fun making several jars of delicious marmalade from the “awful-tasting” oranges, and dropping off a jar at his door.

Of all the times I’ve knocked on doors to ask permission to pick fruit (which is a lot), I can’t remember anyone ever having said no. One guy said, “Please take all you want! They mess up my yard!” I don’t remember what the fruit was; mulberries I believe.

Right now in Florida is one of my favorite times of year, because loquats are just getting ripe. I picked some of the delicious, bite-sized golden-orange ovoid globes  just this morning from a neighbor’s tree. The tree seems to thrive in a wide range of climates. It’s an evergreen with thick, attractive deep-green foliage. I once heard it referred to as “a useful tree that the ornamental-landscape industry latched onto by mistake.” 

Walk around your neighborhood at all different times of year, and you’ll soon get to know the different seasons for each fruit. It’s a perfect way to savor the beauty of the natural world; plug back in to seasonal rhythms that many of us have forgotten (or never learned in the first place); get yourself some fresh-picked peak-of-season goodness, and get to know your human neighbors as well.

Here’s to your health!

Suggested activities:

• Take a walk around your neighborhood and scout around for trees that have fruit on them. If you can’t identify something right away, look it up or ask someone. Knock on doors, say hi and ask permission to pick fruit; don’t be shy! Start doing this on a regular basis so you catch the fruits that ripen with each changing of the seasons. 

• If someone complains about their “messy” fruit tree, offer to sweep their sidewalk for them, rake up rotting fruit from their yard, etc. (But even the rotting fruit is still a source of food for wildlife, so if you do rake it up, try to put it somewhere where the birds, butterflies, and other creatures can still get at it.) Sometimes, once a resident finds out about the delicious, nutrient-packed free food growing in their yard, they stop minding the “mess” so much. 

• Start a club in your neighborhood for alerting each other to fruit-ripening times, and sharing fruit. Organize a fruit-drying or jam-making party. is a good app for plugging in to your neighborhood and finding likeminded folks.

• Draw up a “public fruit map” with your neighbors, showing the trees and the different ripening times; post it on your neighborhood’s website, on a bulletin board in your neighborhood meeting venue, etc. 

• Plant fruit trees in your yard. (Your local nursery will help you find the right varieties to plant, and will give you tips on caring for them.)

• If you have fruit trees in your yard, post online or put a sign in your yard when you have extra to share. When papaya trees sprouted in my yard and gave me a bumper crop, I put extras out on top of the Little Free Library in front of my apartment. Now when I walk around the neighborhood, I see trees that came from those papayas, or from the surplus seedlings which I also shared. I’m particularly happy to see the new trees flourishing because my papaya trees got destroyed in the hurricanes. Circle of life! All living things must eventually die, but they always leave new life behind them. Fruit trees give a sweet demonstration of this lesson. 

• Advanced activity: Look into setting up a community orchard at your school, church, or in a city park. Food forests (which may contain both fruit trees and vegetable plants) are sprouting up all over the place! Every time I turn around, I hear another story about an urban food forest. Read this article “In These Cities, Your Next Snack May Be Growing In a Public Park” to get inspired and form your own plan. “Fruit is free in these urban centers, thanks to food-bearing plants and trees growing right next to skyscrapers.” To get a sense of the concerns of those who may not be on board with the “public fruit forest” concept, check out OrchardPeople’s article “Should We Plant Community Orchards in Public Parks?” “The debate is raging from Toronto, Canada to Basel, Switzerland – should we plant fruit trees and community orchards in public parks? Enthusiastic residents and fans of urban agriculture say “yes!” but city authorities don’t always agree.”

And from Shareable, one more article for you, “Public Food Forests on the Rise“: “In Washington, an unruly seven-acre parcel of city land owned by Seattle Public Utilities was transformed into the Beacon Food Forest, the largest of its kind in the nation, where the community can learn about greywater systems, medicinal plants, pruning, and cooking. In addition, low-income families are able to gather herbs and other necessities for their meals, and surplus vegetables and fruit are donated to the local food bank.” Doesn’t that sound like something every city needs?

Oops, I lied — I have one MORE article for you! This one is for you apartment-dwellers and others with limited space. HGTV on growing fruit trees in containers. “Although not all fruit trees thrive in containers for long periods of time, you can grow any fruit tree in a container for a few years and then transplant it. You can also choose a dwarf variety, which is well suited to living in a container.” One of the most popular fruit trees to grow in a pot is the Meyer lemon. By the way, in the course of searching this topic, I found lots of beautiful little container-adapted fruit tree varieties for sale, including a “Patio Peach Tree.” There are many, many websites, books, and other resources dedicated to balcony and patio gardening.

Another tip for you if you live in an apartment, trailer/RV park, or condo: See if management will let you grow some fruit trees and veggies in a common area. At the farmers market the other week I met a lovely woman who is doing that at her condo. She is constantly pushing people to please pick and eat the free fresh food. Her neighbors love her! Not only is she hooking people up with fresh food; she’s also promoting a healthy social climate at her condo. And according to many studies, social connection may be the biggest of all factors influencing our health.

Postscript (Wednesday, March 6, 2019): Just got a text from a neighbor/friend, saying “Come get some mulberries!” Sure enough, her tree was packed with fruit. Mulberries ripen in waves, and from the look of her tree, we’ll be enjoying many rounds of them! In no time, I filled a ziploc bag (from my little collection of other people’s plastic bags that I’ve diverted from the trash over the years because they had barely been used and were still clean) with the sweet purplish-black berries. Fresh-picked local fruit has spoiled me, but I don’t mind. I can work with that!