pushing the boundaries of urban foraging

When I was a kid we would spend our entire summer, from the end of June to the end of August, at our family property on the Sunshine Coast of  BC. Most days there were two chores we kids would have to get through before we were free to run wild on the beach; a half hour typing lesson with an audio tape and an old fashioned typewriter in the basement of the family cottage, and picking a bucket of berries.

I hated both chores equally. I cheated at the first (looked at my fingers) and grumbled through the second. My older cousins were cunning enough to fill the bottom halves of their berry buckets with gravel, enabling them a faster exit to beach time, though I gather the day their mother pulled those buckets out of the freezer to make a pie did not end so favourably.

I read somewhere that picking wild berries is the last common form of urban foraging, and as the years went by and I developed a desire to be as deeply connected to my food system as I could, berry picking no longer seemed a chore to me. When my husband, Paul, and I would spend the few weeks of our summer holidays at the family home, we’d make time each day for berry picking. We’d stake out bigger and better patches around town and would fill, at the very least, a 4L ice cream bucket with berries each day. One year we picked enough berries over our summer holiday that we each had a handful of frozen berries with our breakfast every day well into the next spring.

I had my first taste of urban foraging in Sweden this summer. I’ve been working (as one does after graduation when one has no formal work experience in one’s chosen field and has relocated to a country where one don’t yet have the firmest grasp on the first language) as a professional dog walker. This new line of work has seen me spend hours upon hours meandering through some of the more affluent suburbs of Stockholm, and there has been plenty of foragable food within my grasp. Small patches of smultron, a teeny but fiercely sweet feral strawberry, are easy to find if you know what you’re looking for. Raspberry canes are sporadic. Many yards have ‘decorative’ shrubs dripping with red, white, and blackcurrants. The tub of redcurrants pictured above was foraged from a shrub in my friend Alina’s apartment courtyard. It took me less than ten minutes to pick and is now stashed away in the freezer.

What is the  most abundant are the fruit trees leaning over the roadways from large, immaculate back yards. In July it was cherries. Wandering the quiet streets I could stuff handful after handful of ripe cherries into my mouth. Now, in the waning moments of August, apples and pears are abundant. Huge, old, glorious apple trees, with varieties ranging from tiny green orbs to huge fiercely red apples that look like something out of Snow White. And oh they are ripe. So ripe that the air is thick with the smell of fermenting fruit in some places, entire trees exploding into spores of mold. Apples and pears are falling off of the trees onto the lawns beneath them and, in the places where trees are straining against the fences, onto the road beneath. In one place ripe pears dangle precariously above a Porsche that has been parked on the street.

So, dear Foodists, I ask you this: is fallen fruit fair game? Is tree fruit hanging over a public walkway open for picking? What if you can reach over the fence and into the yard? What if you’re preventing fruit from falling on and damaging a very expensive car? Just what are the boundaries of urban foraging?


13 Responses to “pushing the boundaries of urban foraging”

  1. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    i ve seen these berries somewhere..

  2. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    I always felt that fruit accessible from public property — hanging over sidewalks, growing in parks or boulevards — is public. I don’t go for reaching into private yards or trespassing, except with permission.

    And it’s often very easy to get permission. So I find that a smile and a polite question with an offer to split the fruit yields a good results, always. Most of the time that fruit would have gone to waste or would have cost the property owner money to have it cleaned up.

    So public fruit is public, private fruit is accessible through permission.

  3. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    Absolutely! Fallen and public space fruit is fair game. And may I add that if a complete stranger walked onto my front yard garden and picked themselves a bowl of green beans I would be 25% offended and 75% happy to have less beans to deal with! Okay, maybe the permission route is the best way, and I love the tradesies idea.

  4. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    Fabulous article Katie.

    I’ve had the pleasure of spending lazy summer days at Soames Point with your family and I envy you the wonderful upbringing you had there. What a wonderful retreat your family has created on the Sunshine Coast.

    Not only do I think fallen fruit or fruit hanging into public spaces should be free to forage, it almost seems wrong not to. The idea of someone with fruit trees they ignore, letting fruit rotting on the ground, just seems terrible.

    Oh, and I’d let James pick my berries too if he flashed his big white smile at me. Wait, what?

  5. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    I would love to see people with fruit trees pick and deliver bushels of fresh fruit to the food banks. Particularly when fresh from the trees tend to last longer, such as apples.

    We used to pick wild blackberries as kids in North Van up around the power-lines. All of our neighbours grew apples and cherries in their back yard then gather to make jams and jellies then pies. Glorious memories!

    As for picking today… I’m too aware of the spider web but at what $4 to $5 a lb at market I’ll wear gloves!

  6. Posted on August 30th, 2011

    Yes, it is a shame to see *so much* fruit rotting on the ground and on the trees. It was with the cherries earlier in the summer, and again now with the apples and pears. I’ve thought of putting up a sign in the neighbourhood letting people know I’d be happy to help them harvest their fruit in exchange for a portion of the yield. And as Liesa said, getting some of that fruit to people who need food is a great thing to do. Vancouver has a Fruit Tree Project that links up people with fruit trees and people who can help with the harvest ( I’m not sure if any such program exists in Stockholm.

  7. Posted on August 31st, 2011

    Liesa, this is actually happening in Vancouver – you register to have your fruit trees picked and it gets donated. So many people either inherited fruit trees with no idea what to do with them or simply don’t have the time and most of it rots. Such a waste. Here’s the organization:

  8. Posted on August 31st, 2011

    In other news, I was so excited to find a blackberry bush on the way home from my granny’s house yesterday that I jumped right in and filled my water bottle and all my leftover lunch tupperware with berries. You must be right that it’s the last common kind of foraging but it’s also one of the best parts of summer.

  9. Posted on August 31st, 2011

    This is a great article, Katie! We live right next to a lot of private gardens that have fruit trees hanging over their fences, so we are constantly debating this question as well. I definitely think that fallen fruit is fair game but fruit hanging over a fence is a bit trickier.

    We’ve just started up a blog ( in which we identify local plants that are edible and/or have medicinal uses… we even mark their specific locations on a map so that everyone can find them and enjoy!

  10. Posted on August 31st, 2011

    The best urban foraging is when friends with various fruit tees beg you to come relieve the stress on the limbs!

    We’ve got blackberries all over our neighbourhood, and mostly on relatively common property so no permission needed. This time of the year it really sweetens our post-dinner walks. Hell, we even have a large fig tree on the corner of an industrial alley that’s fair game. Don’t think it’s ever yielded much, but still!

    And, don’t forget, there’s al sorts of herbs to be had here in Vancouver (assuming you are okay with not knowing what’s on them). Jer wrote about it a while ago here on Foodists:

  11. Posted on September 6th, 2011


    That makes me happy that this is already something in place. I have a friend with a very saggy apple tree to pass this onto.

    Thank You!

  12. Posted on October 8th, 2011

    My son arrived home yesterday to an older foreign man in our yard picking apples off our tree.
    In a very heavy accent he asked “It’s OK” my son (17) dumbfounded said ” I guess”
    I am posting this because that tree requires an enormous amount of effort on our part to get the yeild that we were graced with and to just help yourselves while the owners are unaware is completely wrong.
    I live in MI and we also have people who steal grape leaves, so much so that signs explicately stating that they are not for everyone are posted.
    I am all about food that you know its origin.
    Consider that fruit has its peak and drops are natures selection process not fair dibbs.
    The trees weighted with apples are just awaiting their perfection by the owners who I’m sure will make bread, pies, muffins,or just eat in their truest form.
    I love my tree, it means a lot to my family. why not get your own?

  13. Posted on October 8th, 2011

    I would love to get my own fruit tree some day! Of course first I need to move out of my 62 meter apartment and be able to afford a house with a yard…and then, yes the trees! And the garden! One day!

    I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone trespasses into someone’s yard and steals their fruit. Having studied food systems for years I’m well aware of the labour and emotional investment that goes into growing food, and if I had a tree in my yard and someone came in and helped themselves to it I’d be rightfully angry.

    And I wish you were right about the people I was writing about using their fruit to bake bread, pies, and muffins, but sadly, you’re not. As the weeks have gone on I’ve watched more and more fruit drop to the ground and rot. I’ve walked through patches of the neigbourhood that smell like and apple cider factory, I’ve watched entire trees go up in a bloom of mold spores. I’ve watched people pick up the fallen fruit from their lawns and throw it over the fence into the empty lot next door so that it becomes someone else’s problem. And I’ve watched people do nothing at all, lawns simply become littered with red and green apples which could feed and nourish someone but are instead simply left to rot. It makes me sad, and it makes me angry.

    And yes, I’ve foraged some fruit. One lovely member of the neigbourhood I wrote about has been so kind as to collect their fallen pears and leave it in a laundry basket with a sign that says ‘free’. I’ve collected some pears each day, and I plan to leave that person a jar of pear chutney and a thank you card in exchange. I’ve also found an apple tree in a public space that no one has been picking from. I’ve picked all I can reach and collected the salvageable fruit from the ground from which I intend to make apple butter, apple sauce, and a variety of cakes and muffins.

    These people who are letting their trees and yards go to rot, I wish I could go in there and harvest their fruit, but I will not tresspass. If I happened to encounter one of these people in their yards I’d ask them if they wanted help managing their trees, and I’d donate what fruit I could to a good cause.

    Much of the forageable fruit I speak of is in trees leaning over fences, and the fallen fruit is dropping into roads and other public spaces below. I often pick up such fruit as I walk past, as it isn’t doing anyone any good on the concrete, but sadly much of it is left to rot. Such a shame. Such good food.

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