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Imagine if city governments focused more on planting food-bearing plants than ornamental plants. Everyone can come together for urban foraging, making such plants essential for beautification and community building. Ethan Welty wants every person in the world to give more attention to these food-bearing plants, and this is his main purpose for co-founding Falling Fruit. Joining Corinna Bellizzi, he explains how he uses this online platform to promote fruit harvest in urban settings by mapping which cities you can forage food. Corrina and Ethan also share about the trees and plants they grew and harvested, as well as the process and benefits of guerilla gardening and grafting.
About Ethan Welty
Ethan Welty is a postdoctoral researcher at the World Glacier Monitoring Service and University Of Zurich. He is the Co-Founder of Falling Fruit, a technology-focused 501(c)(3) non-profit organization mapping the world’s edible plants. They have developed an online platform to promote urban foraging and local food.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ethanwelty
Guest Website: https://fallingfruit.org
Show Notes: – used raw audio files
0:00 – Introduction
2:05 – Ethan’s postdoctoral research
5:19 – Falling Fruit
12:14 – Food-bearing plants vs. ornamental plants
24:19 – Guerilla gardening and grafting
33:50 – Local food and community building
37:40 – Ethan’s favorite fruit to harvest
40:19 – Walnuts and acorns
44:16 – Carbon sequestration
49:14 – Plan of action
54:04 – Advice on getting started with urban foraging
57:59 – Conclusion
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Ethan Welty On How Urban Foraging Could Change Cities Forever
As many of you know, I have worked to create a Five-Step Activist Guide to help you unleash your inner activist. All you have to do is visit my website, CareMoreBeBetter.com and join the email list. As soon as you do so, you’ll get a welcome email, including a link to download the guide. In this episode, I’m finally going to get to dig a little bit deeper into two things we covered in our regeneration series as we meet Ethan Welty.
He is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the World Glacier Monitoring Service and the University of Zurich. He’s a photographer and also the Cofounder of Falling Fruit, a technology-focused 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that’s mapping the world’s edible plants. They have developed an online platform to promote urban foraging and local food. Ethan, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Corinna.
I’m thrilled you’re here. As we get to jump into this discussion on urban foraging, guerrilla gardening and local food, I’d love to learn more about what you’re doing in your postdoctoral research.
It’s something rather very different. My life had been flowing in parallel paths. I have a background in Math and Physics. I got involved in Environmental Science more generally. I did my PhD on glaciers, using time-lapse photography to look at rapid glacier retreat and rapid changes to landscapes with climate change. I landed in Switzerland to continue that work.
I’m a Programmer for the World Glacier Monitoring Service. I’m helping them to better manage submissions of glacier observations around the world. There are scientists in every country with glaciers and people studying glaciers. They’re reporting back their observations and then the World Glacier Monitoring Service compiles them for analysis, reporting to governments, the UN, and other larger international bodies.
It sounds like you got to combine a couple of things here, your love of photography and also of research, as you did your undergrad work and are now in your post-doctorate fellowship.
There are some other things too. There’s the more technical computer science side. For whatever reason, I’ve been drawn to projects I can build with those skills and also geography. That was also a passion that’s played out in different ways, whether mapping glaciers or mapping edible plants.
It’s using technology to better our lives. I spent a bit of time poking around the website. It’s quite simple, but also, I was surprised to see how many fruit trees in my neighborhood aren’t logged. I planned to go in there and add the lemon trees. There are a couple of what looked like volunteer plum trees in my neighborhood as well. It will say that the fruit they produce is more pit than fruit.
They can make a great jam. If somebody wanted to volunteer to water them, I’m sure they would do much better. I’ve been looking at all of those things, too, in my own community. A couple of plots of land might even be suitable for a guerrilla gardening project, but there are some legalities or if you can get permission from the city to do things like that. That can be another way to turn unused land into a food source for your community. I was hoping you could talk about how you founded Falling Fruit with your cofounders. What led to it? How’d you get here? Where do you see it going from here?
My cofounders and I all have slightly different stories of our origin, but they all shared this theme that in different ways, we came to the realization that there was a lot of food growing in our neighborhoods. I had this mental switch when I started to make beer. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, for graduate school. I was brewing beer and then I also started to make apple cider. That meant finding apples for my apple press, which led me to want larger volumes of apples than I could provide for myself from the trees in the yard of the house I was living in.
Some friends introduced me to some apple trees. They had spotted from the bike trail. This switch in my mind that when I went from the city or someplace that’s separate from where the food comes from to this realization that, “The city is an environment where there could be food if only I look.” Suddenly, I saw much more than that I had missed over the years. I started to see the city very differently and noticed details that I had missed.
As I got into it, I also realized that it’s quite a bit of work to keep track because, unlike commercial orchards, every tree is on its own schedule and there might be many different varieties. I was very organized with modern technology. I had everything separate, like the notepad, handheld GPS and a camera and trying to keep track of all of these different places. I got quite good at it. This would have been sometime in 2012. By that fall, I was getting all the fruit I needed from the streets of Boulder.
I also noticed that I was the only person doing this. I thought, “That’s a missed opportunity because there’s quite a lot here.” It’s quite a lot of fun. People seemed very surprised. I would easily blow people’s minds by picking a chair and apple off a tree. That’s all it took. People are not noticing. They hadn’t had that switch in their mind. I thought, “Maybe I could find a way to share this project with others.”
It was through another program in Boulder called Boulder Food Rescue, which is a retail-level of food rescue organization. I was a volunteer with them. I met the Boulder Food Rescue cofounder at that meeting, who was also very into foraging and had the same experiences and thought, “We should build a platform.” We partnered together that was Caleb Phillips. He’s a computer scientist through and through and had all the skills that I at the time did not have. We got to work and many sleepless nights later, we launched Falling Fruit in March 2013. It’s more or less how you see it now. That was my journey.
One element that shaped the project was I had gotten my hands on the City of Boulder’s Tree Inventory from a different project. I thought, “The city arborists, they’ve already gone through the trouble of mapping all these trees on city streets, in the parks, precise location and the species or maybe even the cultivars. I can use this as a tech forager.
I was using that, at least, as an initial guess for where I could find some interesting things. That shaped the focus of Falling Fruit. We wanted to provide any existing knowledge that could help the forager. I brought in the Boulder Tree Inventory and the inventory for a lot of other cities. Since then, I’ve tried to be very rigorous in our management of the information that we’re hosting on the platform.
One of the things that I do every day, I take a long walk with my dog around my neighborhood. I’m in Scotts Valley, California, where a budding chaparral oak forest is next to a bunch of redwoods. It’s like a rolling hill on one side is more exposed and on the other side, it’s more deep crevassed like a mountainous range. You have two very different climates that come together here.
As you walk around the neighborhood, I have neighbors who have planted grapes that they’re purely ornamental. They don’t do anything with it, but it climbs up a trellis and they let the fruit fall. A good part of that vine is over the fence and so when it’s ripe, I pick them and take them home to my family. It’s the same thing with plum trees, pomegranate, apple and pear in my neighborhood.
A lot of people don’t care about the stuff that’s on the side of the fence and it falls. I imagine it’s the same story on the inside of their yards. I’ve been debating at what point I go door knock and say, “Are you open to like letting me come in and harvest your tree?” I’ve also done some more things in the past where I had a friend who had an apple tree in their yard. It was like a very old and tall apple tree.
We lost it in a storm and ended up splitting. It had to be cut down, but we would get incredible yields from that fruit tree. I would be climbing the branches and shaking them so that apples would fall and then we’d press everything right then. It wouldn’t matter if it got minutely bruised because you’re running the press right in the yard and making cider with your friends.
I’ve been involved in some of the stuff over the years and always felt like it didn’t make a lot of sense that we spend all this money as different municipalities planting trees, shrubs and other sorts of plants that don’t produce a yield that are in public spaces and you could put something else. Instead of a poisonous shrub-like oleander, which is everywhere, you could plant a strawberry tree, a bush with a fruit that you can eat. That’s edible. The birds and people eat that.
I’ve shown my kids that these are delicious fruits. I’ve picked them with them and they’re like, “It tastes great.” It’s a great source of Vitamin C and it’s something that you can’t go and buy at a typical grocery store. It’s a way to teach people to be more engaged with the nutrition that they’re bringing into their bodies to get kids involved and thinking about where food comes from. To me, it makes so much more sense to consider even working with our local cities to plant edible plants as opposed to ornamentals in different areas.
You’ve touched on the main long-term mission here of the Falling Fruit Project. First and foremost, it’s a tool for individual foragers, but I think it was a way to re-imagine what cities can provide us. I’m not claiming that we can grow all the food that we need inside the city. I don’t think that would necessarily be a very efficient way to approach the problem. As you pointed out, there are all these benefits to sharing our city with food-bearing plants. For nutrition, community, education, understanding where food comes from, greater botanical knowledge, and nature’s cycles.
Here’s what’s already in most of the time accidentally already available in your city. Maybe because some food-bearing species snuck through and made the cut in some landscaping, so go and harvest them. As you point out all the other plants, that’s not the case. Imagine if all of the trees in the city were food-bearing in some way. Why not? There are lots of reasons for the why not. There is a lot of squeamishness around the comments. “If we have this abundance and maybe someone will get more than their fair share.” These ideas about, “Is there a fear that someone might get more than they deserve?”
There’s classism around forging and it’s how it’s seen as a lower class or admitting to being hungry or something. Also, mixing the urban with the rural in a way some people who are in the cities are less so, but want those worlds to be kept separate. There are also the practical concerns mostly from the cities about, “Is it going to make a mess if people don’t harvest?”
There is a gap or there could be a gap between the supply and the demand. Right now, there’s a moderate supply and no demand. We’re trying to get the demand up to meet the supply so that then hopefully, we can start a conversation with cities and say, “The residents of your city have met the supply. Let’s now talk about growing the supply as the demand grows.”
These are the big picture ideas. That’s something I would love to have more time for is starting to work with city governments because that’s going to be the way to change the landscape of our urban environments. They’re the ones making those decisions with guidance from all of us, but we have to make our desires known and that means also getting more people on board with this vision of the city.
I have some thoughts around all of these things. My father is a landscape architect. He has mostly worked in the business and very high-end residential world. He has commonly seen that people have a reticence to place or plant fruiting trees and fruiting plants because they tend to attract more birds and squirrels and things that they may consider pests. They’re worried about the tree falling or having all the fruit fall to the ground and make a mess.
The one case in which I completely agree with that is the olive tree because every time you see an olive tree planted, they bear a ton of fruit. If they are not harvested, it ends up on the sidewalk, it stains the sidewalk and it’s hard to clean up. There are certain instances where that makes sense from a city perspective, “Why would you want to plant a bunch of olive trees that most people aren’t going to go and forage?” First of all, they don’t necessarily identify.
It depends where you are.
They don’t know it’s olive. They don’t know how to process it. They think that you have to do all this work to marinate it or get the oil out or whatever, so they let it drop to the ground. Whereas if that was an apple tree or a pomegranate or something else, they’d be more likely to grab it and say, “Look at this delicious snack here.”
Something like the strawberry tree, which a lot of people don’t know, is food. They think it’s some fruiting bush. Commonly, if you see a fruiting bush and it’s got red berries on it of any sort, you think it’s poisonous, so you don’t touch it. Having a dad who is a landscape architect taught me about plants. He’s like, “This is a fruit. I like to use these in different projects that I work on in Silicon Valley because they do well in the environment. They don’t take much maintenance. You don’t have to water them much and they produce fruit. You get birds that will eat them and if you want to pick it, you can pick it yourself too.”
I’m like, “That sounds like a good solution.” Why don’t we have more of that? Why do we continue to place oleander everywhere you could possibly think of when oleander is poisonous and my own husband once consumed some and was in a hospital like a three-year-old.” It’s a reality. When it’s used so much as an ornamental bush, kids put things in their mouths and can get in serious trouble.
I’m amazed. There’s a lot of yew planted in landscaping. At least in Switzerland, there is like 0.01% of the tree is edible and the rest is extremely poisonous. It’s a strange choice.
What is yew?
Most people think that cities are not where food can be harvested. However, this can be changed if city governments set aside funding to plant food-bearing trees.
A yew is Taxus genus. They are these very deep green. They looked almost Christmassy evergreens, extremely waxy deep green, and these arils. They are not technically a fruit. It’s a pink color that wraps a seed. It’s little pink dots on a very dark green background. They are very common ornamental here. They’re one of the most poisonous plants in the world. There are all these crazy stories of archers who made bows out of the wood and would die from poisoning over time. Livestock are dying when the trimmings are thrown over into a field and they ate it and collapsed.
Another aspect that you touched on is that edible is a very fuzzy boundary. The yew is a great example. It’s mostly very poisonous except for this one, a little thing where if you eat the little jelly around the seed, which is also extremely poisonous. It’s this tiny little piece that’s edible. There are lots of other things that might be edible if they’re processed correctly. That means maybe we’re unearthing some old knowledge about how to do that, whether that means making it at least palatable and edible. Those two things often are necessary ultimately.
We see that a little bit on the platform. There’s always been this tension or challenge. People are using the platform who are extremely knowledgeable and are adding things like yew sometimes. They suck on the pink part. Other people are more beginner and rely on getting their lips on some tasty fruit without having to go out of their comfort zones right away and try out plums, apricots, mulberries, and things that are pretty easy to identify. We’ve tried to cast a wide net. “What is edible? To whom?” Does that mean that all maple trees are edible if you want to tap them for maples syrup? Some people do that. Others would think that’s absurd to put on the map.
I listened to a few podcasts that are in this space of considering how you build this new world that we might seek to create, where food is more readily abundant, where fruit trees are the norm, as opposed to something that is ornamental because of the fact that cities will invest in watering them, but after their roots are established, you don’t need to water them. They can produce fruit and they can feed the squirrels and the birds, which I contend with in my own garden. They also produce viable, nutritious, and can be harvested by anybody who happens to be passing by. That would be a more healthy space.
One of them could happen here. That’s led by Robert Evans and they had a discussion that was pretty deep about guerilla gardening and what it is and how you can choose a plot of land that nobody necessarily is working to maintain. Do something as simple as toss some seeds or bury some pits or even go as far as getting a sapling and planting it. Also, doing something like wearing an orange vest because if you wear an orange vest, everyone assumes that you’re there to work that you’re supposed to be doing. I’m like, “This is creative.”
I started to imagine the streets of Scotts Valley, where we have some ornamentals planted alongside the road. One of the things they talked about is even replacing something that the city has planted. I’m like, “You’d probably get in trouble for doing something like that,” but it raises the question of what choices would you even make in your own yard? If you have a yard that you have some soil in and choose to plant a tree, why not choose a fruiting tree instead of a non-fruiting tree?
When we moved into our house here, they had chosen a non-fruiting cherry in the front yard. It’s a beautiful tree. It creates beautiful flowers every year. Every time I see it bloom, I wish it would fruit. Wishing doesn’t make it happen. I might see 2 or 3 cherries that fall to the ground always before they’re even palatable because it’s not meant to fruit anyway. It creates a beautiful mess when all the little petals fall to the ground, but no fruit in the end.
It’s even making those small choices. I planted a Fuji apple in my backyard because it’s so fruitful and you don’t need to have two of them. I then planted two pluots and only one of them, for some reason, will ever flower, even though the other is grown ginormous and I do fertilize it. Because only one of them ever flowered, I had to get a third plum to be able to make it go ahead and produce fruit.
Now, I have a Santa Rosa plum, a pluot and another pluot, that’s a beautiful shade tree. Who knows, maybe there was some mix-up and they didn’t give me a plum. I don’t know, but the trees that I’ve chosen to plant in my yard are fruitful at the end of the day. My father gave me a pomegranate as my graduation present in June. I received my MBA from Santa Clara University.
He came to my house with a pomegranate. I chose to plant it on the front edge of my yard because I thought when it gets big, I’m probably not going to be able to consume all of its fruit in a time that will be manageable. I’ll plant it on the front edge of my property and I will put it on FallingFruit.org and then people in my community can come and harvest the pomegranate.
It’s a lovely idea. It’s a great strategy because rather get help with the harvest, especially in a space where you don’t have to coordinate. There are so many fruit trees producing an overwhelming amount of fruit for their owners on private property. There’s a whole class of organizations built around that issue. Falling Fruit can help the individual forager around the edges in all of the public spaces and on the boundaries with private land, but what about all the things that take a bit more coordination to get permission and then you’re talking about a large volume and a lot more food unlock that way?
That’s taken care of by all these different organizations that are doing urban gleaning, coordinating volunteers with landowners, getting access to the resource, harvesting and sharing the harvest around the community. There’s one that we helped start in Boulder basically because Falling Fruit didn’t address this and there was a need called Community Rescue, which is still going. Although, I’m not involved anymore.
Another benefit of making sure that all of those private trees were harvested was not because of squirrels, but because of bears, which is in mountain bordering communities, it’s an interesting topic. There are a few other places like that in the United States. There was a program in Squamish, British Columbia in Canada. I’m not sure if they’re still active. I believe in Missoula, Montana, where this direct connection was made between bear conservation and urban foraging where you don’t want the bears to come into the city because that usually ends badly for the bears. Once you’ve secured all the garbage cans, you use bear-proof trash and compost bins.
Once you have that, then the next tier to take care of is the fruit trees. That has certainly been the case in Montana and in Colorado. There’s also that benefit to making sure that we’re harvesting all of the fruits. There’s another guerrilla strategy, which you didn’t mention, but I feel it should be mentioned as guerrilla grafting. You won’t have to remove the whole tree if it’s a good rootstock. For example, the decorative cherry tree is genetically more than capable of hosting a fruiting cherry. On Falling Fruit, you can use it as a platform for also finding non-fruiting but graftable varieties.
You’ve convinced me so I could take branches from my existing Santa Rosa plum and the other pluot and graft it onto the non-fruiting one in the backyard.
Is that one never flowering either, though? That makes me worried.
It flowers barely. It only produces fifteen flowers or something ridiculous when it goes into bloom. I don’t understand why. I haven’t figured it out. The other two bloom like crazy. It’s interesting. I wonder if the trees are communicating under the ground with their roots or something. It doesn’t make any sense to me. For all intents and purposes and absolutely, it looks like a pluot, and it just won’t fruit.
For those that are reading and may not know, pluots are plum apricot hybrids. They produce a sweeter plum, but it’s a little fleshier than what you might be used to from a standard plum. They’re delicious, and they tend to produce more fruit than an apricot tree in my climate. That’s why I chose pluots as opposed to apricots.
Did you see anything in your neighborhood on the Falling Fruit map that you didn’t recognize or like the name of?
I saw the technical term for the strawberry tree, which I didn’t know. I knew they were called strawberry bushes or strawberry trees, which I thought was cool. There were not that many, and it’s mostly lemon. A lot of people are listing lemon. People plant a Meyer lemon and they don’t realize how much fruit they’re going to get and it’s also thorny and difficult to get inside the branches. Some people won’t harvest half of the tree for that reason.
One of the things that we do, if we’re going to host a big party and we decided we want to make lemon drops, friends will literally ask around the neighborhood, “Do you mind if I come to harvest your lemon tree and get 50 lemons off of a single bush?” That’s incredible. One thing I have noticed during this pandemic time, the lemon trees in my neighborhood are fully getting harvested. It’s because people are spending more time at home and they’re also noticing them because these bushes are not listed on FallingFruit.org, at least not yet. I plan to maybe put them there.
There’s been a general uptick in interest in one’s immediate environment in general, but certainly also related to local food. One aspect is while we’re traveling a less to faraway places, so like trying to find fun adventures near home. It takes a lot of work to make these things oneself. If you’re working from home, you might be flexible with timing for projects like this. People started to bake sourdough bread and spend more time foraging and using the fruit from their trees. We saw that also in the traffic on the website. There was a very obvious uptick in interest.
People are talking about it. The reality is that we have fruit trees in our midst that are left to neglect. If they’re neglected and the fruit falls to the ground, then it’s sad.
I would encourage you to go and knock on doors because it’s important to have conversations about these overlooked and forgotten fruit trees. You’re basically bringing value to them. You’re saying, “This is something of value that you have. I’m interested.” Maybe they’ll say, “No. Go away,” but then think, “Maybe I should make use of this. It’s clearly something valuable.” The best is if they’ll be happy to share and it might lead to other interactions. This is a great way to get to know one another.
I get to know people in my neighborhood. The loop I take is about three and 3.5 or 4 miles, so it’s not a small stretch, but I come across so many of those trees because you notice things when you’re taking the time to walk. We have plenty of Blackberry bushes, which grow along both my property and the creeks here. The problem is they tend to be interspersed with poison oak. You have to be careful where you’re picking. There are quite a few lemon trees, pear, apple, plum, cherry pomegranate and a couple of volunteer plum trees that are growing too much in the shade to produce enough fruit. That’s what I noticed in my direct neighborhood.
When I looked on the map, all I saw were lemon trees and strawberry bushes that had been added, and they were essentially on public land or on the edge of somebody’s property. I have two Meyer lemons in my yard, but they don’t produce that much fruit yet. They’re still getting established. I tend to glean from the lemons of my neighbors and then I will take surprise apples home. The problem with my walk is that I’m not eight feet tall and some of these apple trees are quite large and they’re 25 feet up in the air and nobody is doing anything to maintain them.
Do you have a fruit picking tool or you’re thinking of getting one?
I’m planning to get one and make it a part of my tour because otherwise, these beautiful apples are falling to the ground and it’s such a pity to see them like become sauce on fall.
Sometimes looking down is as effective as looking up when you’re looking for new sources of fruit.
What is your favorite fruit to harvest if you go on your Falling Fruit expeditions?
It’s going to be hard for me to choose one, but I can describe what my new foraging routine has been in my new environment here in Switzerland. It’s no order here. There’s a lot of wild garlic, Bärlauch, bear garlic. That would be allium ursinum. They’re mostly in for the greens that grow above the ground and they have this nice, like garlicky flavor. I make pesto with it.
There are a lot of Cornelian cherry dogwoods. These are dogwoods that fruit and they have these little red berries and I’ve been experimenting. There’s a lot of Iranian recipes that use them. You can add salt and eat them straight after they’ve been in the salt for a while. It’s tangy and delicious. I made jam, but it’s a lot of work to get the pits out. You can put them in vinegar with mint. That’s another Iranian method.
Mint grows wild all over the place.
Hops for beer right in my neighborhood. There’s this neat thing, a chocolate vine, akebia quinata. It’s basically unknown except in Japan, where it’s a full delicacy. It’s strange looking thin where the outside of it is a vegetable and the inside is a fruit. There are lots of apples in Switzerland and hazelnuts. I harvested some walnuts when they were green. I’m trying to make my own nocino like the liqueur and then cherries. I’m doing some rum, sugar and fruit that you age for the holiday season. It’s so much fun. You don’t need to go too far into the mountains or anything. It’s nearby, but you have some seasonally relevant little mini-project.
There are a couple of Walnut trees in my local community here. With walnuts, I don’t know if people know this. I had a walnut growing up, but you literally wait until they fall to the ground. If they fall to the ground, the husk around them is black and it peels away and inside is the nut, like the one you would buy from the store unshelled. You can harvest those once they fall into the ground. Harvesting them green the way you have, you have additional preparation you need to do.
The green, that’s important for nocino, because you have to cut it like the undeveloped fruit cut and soaked into the alcohol, but if you want the nut, it’s easier to let him sit raw. Let the outside fall apart and then you’re left with this dry nut-like it’s sold in the store. I found a cache, another species foraging, and then I’m picking from their cache, but there was some stuff stored in a barn and I had to go and get those things out of the barn. In the pockets in between, there were these big piles of walnuts.
One in every three trees planted for foraging is chestnut trees.
The squirrels were swirling it away. That’s exactly what they do.
I stole some of those from them. I hope they won’t mind.
They forget where they put stuff too. Here, they are so busy with acorns. That’s what they go for from all the oak trees.
Which have traditionally been a major source of food for human societies, but it’s a work to process them.
You have to blanch it a lot until the bitterness has gone, then it’s edible. You can make cakes out of it and stuff, more like tortillas.
There’s a modern method. Traditionally, it’ll be like maybe in a basket and a stream or some moving water, but you can also put it in the flush tank of your toilet since that’s cycling very frequently. You’ll have a little bag, a mesh bag where the acorns are in there.
Convincing people to use their toilets to make food is a little further than most are willing to go. That’s a great window to think about because the Indians and Americans who were in this particular area, the acorn was the primary staple in their diet. It’s not incredibly nutritious, but it supplied the calories that they would need to get through a hard season. It made up a consistent part of their diet. It’s so interesting that you have different vegetables and fruits available to you in Zurich that I hadn’t heard of, like that wild garlic.
We have plenty of green leafy stuff. There’s a lot of mint and things growing wild. You can almost always find that. I plant basil in my garden and strawberries are my ground cover because I like the things I plant to be edible. If consumers or people at their homes think about it this way if you’re going to take the time to garden, focus more on things that are edible. You can add spices that you grow in your garden to your soups in the winter. You can add apples that you harvested from your neighborhood to sweeten up some of those stews or cook with your pork loin if you eat meat and things like that too.
There are so many things that you can do with fruit that you might harvest from your local neighborhood. We’re thinking about it a little differently from what we’re inviting you to do. I also wanted to chat about one thing that relates to climate and fruiting trees. That is the carbon sequestration of a tree rather than cutting it down. I wondered what your thoughts are specifically about using fruit trees as opposed to something that might be evergreen or something along those lines from that perspective.
My gut feeling is that you can’t get a fruit tree to be nearly as large as some of the big shade trees that are used in cities that are ornamental but very effective at getting very large. Those would be more effective for sequestering more carbon, I would expect, because of more rapid growth. Fruit trees tend to be slower growing and then not particularly long-lived like an orchard tree.
This is more like the mega edibles that I’m talking about partly because they’re putting so much energy into producing these big fat, juicy fruit, which means that they don’t live particularly long and they don’t get particularly enormous. For me, it’s not something that I’ve pushed because it doesn’t single out fruit trees or edible food bank trees specifically.
More plants and trees, make sure a lot of that stuff is edible because why not? It will be a win-win if we have more green space. I believe in a fairly cozy urban space. For all kinds of reasons relating to the climate, density is good. It can be very pleasant and very livable if done well. Of course, a big part of that is having a lot of greenery where there aren’t people living or shops in the way. Where there aren’t buildings, a lot should be given over to green space because we need that to feel whole in some way.
I live in this interesting model that does not exist in the United States, but it’s very common in Zurich. It’s a big nonprofit housing development. It’s like a mega co-op with 1,200 people in line. I’m in an apartment with my partner, but there’s also some shared apartment. It’s all kinds of different living models built into it. It’s thirteen buildings and then the whole block is a shared space and there are gardens and playgrounds.
There are lots of fruit trees and a little herb garden. I don’t have to go far to find some rosemary, thyme, or sage for the soup. It’s nice because I get to have this open space. I get to have my gardening and foraging experience right here, but also, there are a lot of people living right around me, but we get to share in this nice communal space. I liked the model.
It sounds like it’s where a lot of cities are headed, too, with living building challenges and things along those lines where you integrate more green space and it becomes alive, work and play or recreation type of facility at the same time. As we prepare to close, I have to ask you, is there a question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had or a thought that you’d like to leave our audience with?
I feel like we covered all of the important parts.
One of the things I have been thinking about is how I teach my children to think more about the open spaces and community and their day-to-day. Even involving them and some of this, either guerilla gardening or harvesting from my local neighborhood, is something that will keep them more engaged with understanding where food comes from. How beautiful it is that these bushes create fruits or these trees create fruit that we could harvest.
I might get brave enough to go doing some of that door-knocking with them in tow because it would be a little harder for people to say no to a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old with a little basket, all excited. I’ll make that an event and also think about whether there’s a spot for me to create a community and a Facebook group or something like that within our local area to get people thinking more about this thing. Reaching out to the community members when they have a plum tree that’s full of fruit that would otherwise create a mess in their backyard if it wasn’t harvested and asking people to come and do it for them.
There are some action items here that people could take on. One is if they have a fruit tree on their own land, they’re not harvesting from it or they’re harvesting a small amount, whether that’s adding it to Falling Fruit and saying, “Please knock at the door. I’m going to let you in,” or that’s contacting one of their local urban gleaning organizations.
There’s not a comprehensive list on Falling Fruit, but already a pretty big list, especially for the United States of those groups. I’d encourage people to start to engage in their city in this way. Maybe that’s finding that there isn’t very much and then complaining to the city government about it. Expressing a desire for more or that’s finding that it’s a huge amount and adding some to falling fruit, so others can also help others get started.
At this point, one of the things I get a kick out of is finding new things. That’s fed by my knowing that there are thousands of species of food-bearing plants on the Falling Fruit map and in almost all climates. I curate and I keep an eye on the map. The one thing in Antarctica is more of like a free box, but not a plant. There are so many things to exist, but I have not met most of those plants. It’s also this interesting tourism strategy. I show up in a new city, “This is pretty different from where I’m from. Maybe there are some very exotic plants that I can go and try out.”
If you go to the South from Zurich, for example, hop on the train, you go through a long tunnel under the Alps and you pop out the other side, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean climate and everything’s completely different. One of the things that are striking for foraging is that 1 in every 3 trees is a chestnut tree like how it was in the Eastern United States before the blight. You’re walking these trails in the woods and it’s piles of chestnuts everywhere.
We think foraging is always this idea of, “Things are hard to find and there’s so little of it. We’re all competing.” Whether that’s in a forest right out of town where it’s chestnuts everywhere or if it’s right around the corner from an apartment building having this feeling of abundance is refreshing. “This is accessible and there are lots for everyone.” That’s a good starting point for community building and having a good time.
If they want to be a forager for somebody getting started, what would your number one tip be for them? What would you tell them? It’s like, “This is what I would advise you if you’re getting started.”
The strategy that’s worked for me is to slowly add to my repertoire very gradually. Starting with the things that I know, maybe I don’t know what the tree looks like, but I know the fruit. Looking up when they’re likely to be fruiting so that I can identify them with lots certainty, “This apple came from this tree. That’s an apple tree.” Going a step at a time. Especially in cities that have tree inventories, it is also super useful to use these because you have a very formal source of information that’s very comprehensive. It’s like a tree gallery. That will be useful for the fall to have that and know that.
Making those connections, going in the right time when something very distinctive makes it much easier to identify, going with someone who knows more, then using other resources, field books, the internet, but taking it slowly and adding on. It quickly pays off. You can identify one species. You’ll know when to go and harvest, then you can add on more and you add your repertoire, but you’re already benefiting. The most basic knowledge is already serving you well.
My tips are basic. Get a dog, take it for walks and bring a bag. You already bring a bag to pick up your dog poop, so you bring a bag that’s separate from that that is basically reusable. When you see a tree that’s fruiting, take a couple home with you.
Also, realizing that if it looks like an apple, it probably is. Just because it’s in the city doesn’t mean that it can’t possibly be an apple or it can’t possibly be a cherry, which is what a lot of the people that I met back in the day in Boulder, that was their block. They’re like, “Could it be? No, it’s the city. It couldn’t.”
They think they’re going to be poisoned. Worst case scenario, it will be a crab apple and it will be bitter.
Not all varieties are created equal in terms of their palatability.
Thank you so much, Ethan, for taking this time with me. This has been a fun conversation. I want to encourage my audience to check out your website, which is FallingFruit.org. You can go ahead and visit the site. You can create a profile and add some fruiting trees in your neighborhood to the list. You could even explore what types of food are growing in your neighborhood. Ethan, any closing words?
Go out. Have fun. Eat well.
Most of that fruit, if it’s growing on trees in your neighborhood, it’s likely organic and non-GMO. If you’re eating an organic non-GMO lifestyle, you’re going to be doing more of the same. I encourage you to check it out. If you aren’t already gleaning trees in your neighborhood, it may be time to start.
I want to invite everybody to visit my website, CareMoreBeBetter.com. There we have an action page where you can discover different things that you might do in your community to go ahead and make the world a little bit better day by day. This show always invites you to care more about a particular issue so we can all be better. Thank you, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community because it’s my firm belief that together, we can all do so much more. We can care more, we can be better and we can even regenerate Earth. Thank you.