What did you think when you read the phrase public fruit? There’s a crabapple tree a hop, skip, and a jump away from my house, and another apple tree a few bounds beyond that in a public park. There’s a quince tree over in another corner, and a few raspberry bushes peeking out over the sidewalk or in the brush. Community gardens sometimes have currant bushes, gooseberries, blueberries, cherries, or apples.
Making use of public fruit requires some organization and plans. There is a lack of clarity on the part of organizations (I’ve made off with a few quinces and apples from those public spaces, but definitely felt like I might have been walking toward the edge of illegality) and landowners, and a lack of courage on the part of the hungry landless eaters. Unfortunately, most communities lack an organizing force and too much fruit ends up smashed in the street.
The first challenge is identifying what qualifies as public fruit. Is the tree limb hanging over the sidewalk or street public? What about spaces owned not by the city or state, but by institutions like universities? How do you approach a neighbor or organization about picking some? Small steps can be taken by any individual to find the answers to any of those questions. (Technically, in many places, limbs over a public space are public but the owner may not agree. Check local statues and ask nicely. Again, ask the institution nicely. Key: offer to share the bounty or donate to a food pantry.)
A better long-term approach is developing clear plans and policies on how and where to plant fruit trees in public space. Denoting caretakers (individuals or organizations) can help ensure that trees are properly pruned, thinned, picked, and otherwise maintained. Parks departments, individuals, gardeners, and others can come together to find funding or simply the knowledge resources needed to enact the plan.
In the meantime, there are assorted organizations and websites focused on the subject. Neighborhood Fruit is a fun new one, designed to link fruit trees with people who want fruit. Neighborhood listservs and online or “hardcopy” bulletin boards may offer additional links to people with more fruit than they can handle. Gleaning organizations* may also have connections or need volunteers to pick from public or private spaces. Making use of public fruit is possible, but you may need to think outside the box.
*Gleaning, if you’re not familiar with it, is a traditional approach to cleaning the fields of any remaining food after farmers completed the harvest. Typically, the poor and vulnerable (like widows and orphans) would glean. Gleaning today is often done by volunteers for soup kitchens or food pantries rather than individuals.