Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 12:02 UK

Ripe for the picking

Apple on tree

By Hugh Wilson

Walk down many a suburban street at this time of year and you will see trees stuffed with ripe fruit - much of which will simply rot and go to waste. But would you let a stranger into your garden to do the picking?

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness seems particularly fruitful this year.

Fat red apples hang heavy in private gardens. Roadside verges sparkle with the ruby glow of ripening berries. Nature's bounty is everywhere to see, from countryside tracks to the wilder corners of council-owned greenbelt.

Autumn is harvest time, of course, and both city and countryside are awash with an abundance of apples, pears and blackberries. This is a free and accessible source of fresh and scrumptious fruit, waiting to be picked. And surprisingly, much of it is left to ripen, wither, fall and rot, providing sustenance only for wasps and rats.

Supermarket apples
Someone will have an apple tree in their garden and still go to Tesco for apples
Agnes Beviz

"People are wary of fruit that doesn't come pre-packed from a supermarket," says Daniele Rinaudo, coordinator for Sheffield Abundance, a group that collects unwanted fruit from the gardens and open spaces of the city and distributes it to worthy causes. "We are so far removed these days from the food we eat, we waste so much."

The Abundance movement, which began in Sheffield in 2007 and is slowly spreading across the country, aims to change all that. Rinaudo says the South Sheffield group collects about 70% of its bounty from private gardens, and 30% from wild spaces and public land.

"We're always amazed at how much is out there," he says. "At the moment, we can collect up to a ton of fruit twice a week. When you think that one good apple tree can give you 300 kilos of fruit, that's some potential."

Agnes Beviz of Manchester Abundance (an entirely independent operation - the groups share only inspiration) has been similarly surprised at just how much unwanted fruit is out there, even in the middle of densely populated cities.

Knock on doors

"Once you start looking upwards when you walk or cycle, rather than down at the pavement, you start seeing fruit trees everywhere," she says. Many of them are in private gardens, but as Beviz adds, "someone will have an apple tree in their garden and still go to Tesco for apples".

Rotting apples
Rotting fruit - up and down the country, fresh food is going to waste

Abundance groups don't steal fruit, they simply ask the people who own trees if they can pick it. As a local group becomes well known, tree owners will often come forward offering access to their unwanted apples or pears.

"We're as proactive as we can be," says Daniele Rinaudo. "Just yesterday I knocked on one door and the lady said 'if only you'd come before'. She's got four apple trees and a pear tree. It's a typical reaction. Most people are pleased the fruit is being used."

The results of these labours are distributed to children's centres, homeless shelters and centres housing asylum seekers, among others. That's positive in itself, but the educational aspect of the Abundance philosophy is important too.

"They're very local groups but they emphasise wider environmental issues," says Anna Terzi, a project officer for Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. "They are illustrating concepts like food miles, seasonality and rediscovering old varieties. They're getting people away from the idea that blackberries have to come in little boxes, or that apples have to be this perfectly round red thing."

Sensible exploitation

Thanks to the inspiration and experience that Manchester and Sheffield provide, new Abundance groups - or groups that share the philosophy, if not the name - have sprung up in Leeds (Leeds Urban Harvest), Bristol (Fruit Sharers), Nottingham, Edinburgh, London and elsewhere. But the final aim is to do away with city-wide groups altogether.

Picking apples
A proto-environmentalist at work in the 1950s

"Really we don't want to be going to the other side of Sheffield to gather fruit," says Rinaudo. "It would be great to get to the point where streets or neighbourhoods just see it as a natural thing to collect and distribute all this unwanted food themselves."

Agnes Beviz agrees that Abundance groups are better as small, local operations. "Our group just covers a small area of South Manchester," she says. "We want to encourage other people in other parts of the city to set up their own groups."

Abundance groups think theirs is an idea whose time has come. They say that in a time of recession and environmental concern, exploiting a local source of fresh food just seems sensible.

And of course, there doesn't have to be any formal project in place at all. As a visitor to one Abundance message board writes: "There are a few people with fruit trees round here and when the fruit gets too much they leave it in front of the house with a little note saying 'help yourself'."

Below is a selection of your comments.

In the Abbey area of Cambridge, unused fruit in the street was being used by local yobs to throw at people and houses. The residents' association now collect the apples to make pies, and bought a cider press to make juice. It is fairly easy to make cider, a high-value product. Alas some fruit trees bear inedible fruit, such as crab apples - these should be replaced by trees that create less litter, which is how Singapore reduced its street-cleaning work.
Keith, Cambridge

I have enough crab-apple juice and elderberry juice in my freezer to keep me in home-made jelly-jam all winter, courtesy of the local churchyard. I took the precaution of asking permission rather than scrumping, and they seemed really pleased the fruit was going to be utilised. I didn't point out that if someone at the church got their act together, the fruit could be made up into jam and sold in aid of the church...
Jill, Northampton

Are there any legal issues with putting out excess fruit from your garden? We have a lovely damson tree which produces a huge excess of fruit that never gets used, but are slightly concerned about the possible comeback if someone becomes ill through eating our unwanted fruit.
Keren O'Connor, Haddenham, Bucks

We have an apple tree in our back garden. We went off eating the apples whole after my sister found a maggot in one (at least it wasn't half a maggot). But my mum still makes enough varieties of apple pie to keep us going all year. Once when I was about 12, we had bags and bags of apples - so many that we didn't know what to do with them - so my sister and I went up and down the nearest streets offering them to people. Even though we offered them for free, we still managed to make a fair about of money.
Rebecca, Ashford, Surrey

My parents used to have an orchard and would leave fruit out with an honesty box for donations to a local charity. After a couple of seasons they had a knock on the door - a local man who had been taking fruit who offered to help my father to prune the trees to keep them healthy and increase quality of the fruit. Over time a network grew up with local people sharing both produce and knowledge. Maybe that could work in other places? A lot of people have gardens and would be glad of some help to start to grow their own fruit and veg. In return they could give some back.
Alistair, Blackburn

We should have a new Bank Holiday called Apple Day at the end of September. Trees could be planted in public areas on Apple Day over the next five years. Every Apple Day after that, local people could help themselves to a few apples for eating, cooking or juicing, thus making gathering and preparing our own food an event to be celebrated.
Adam, London

I have used a freecycle page to posted a wanted ad for apples, and have had tons of fruit and shared them among friends who make jams and pies and wine. It was amazing how many people didn't want the fruit but were really kind in letting me into their garden to pick it.
Sharon, Wales

We live in a rural area where all the surrounding properties have remnants of old orchards or just a tree or two. Every autumn, our wonderful neighbours bag up their windfalls and leave them at their gates so we can collect them while out walking the dogs. Our pigs love them, and it's a sad day when the neighbourhood runs out of apples - it's time to take the pigs to the abattoir and repay the favour.
Stella Whyte, Wem, Shropshire

We have a mulberry bush in our front communal garden. They're delicious. But I'm forever chasing off people who just think they have a right to help themselves, without asking first. By the time the wasps and birds and the public have had their fill, there's very few left for us. What happened to manners?
Rob, London, UK

Our neighbour has an apple tree that overhangs our garden. Her apples are the most delicious I have ever eaten so we have been merrily scoffing away. We have now eaten all the ones on our side of the fence, so shall have to ask permission to go into her garden to get the rest but I fully intend to do so. Free food - the tastiest sort.
Simon Langley, Ilkley

We would love to see our apples used. We can't reach to pick them ourselves and we only get the windfalls that are usually too badly damaged to be any use. But we have good fruit going to waste.
Mary Childs, Guildford, Surrey

What a wonderful idea. We inherited a large garden with three apple trees and two pear trees. Every year I think I'll get chance to stock the freezer with pies and crumbles, but the reality is that we are lucky if we have time to pick a few to munch on. And yes I am guilty of also buying from the supermarkets, particularly that now they are ripening, it's getting darker earlier, thus less time spent in the garden. Maybe next year I'll have time to wear the Cath Kidston apron and be the yummy mummy of my dreams.
Sarah Wilkinson-Wright, Mirfield, West Yorks, England

Speaking from experience, the problem is the HUGE amount of fruit the average fruit tree produces, rather than our attitude to food. People I know have had to spend all weekends turning plums, crab apples, pears and many more into jars and jars of jam and chutney, pies, ice cream - and there are still more on the tree.
Mary, Manchester, UK

It always amazes me when I see blackberries on sale in supermarkets. A small punnet with a handful of berries costs several pounds, but if you just had a walk outside you would find more berries than you could use... for free! Selling blackberries is money for old rope.
Andrew, Edinburgh

There are already too many people here and so little wild space left. Wild fruit helps to feed our dwindling wildlife, particularly in the run up to winter. Still, why not go the whole hog and collect the starving animals produced by this theft from the wild for a stew?
Ian, Whitehaven, Cumbria

I would love to see schemes in council parks allowing people to plant a fruit tree. The fruit could then be picked by visitors when the time comes, or the fruit could be sold to local business, and the proceeds go to charities that need the money.
Conall O Gribin, Newry, Northern Ireland

I also find it extraordinary that when local authorities plant our parks and other green spaces, they plant non-fruiting varieties when, with a little vision, they could plant their fruiting cousins and everyone could enjoy even more "mellow fruitfullness" at this time of year. Not to mention the boost this would bring to stretched household finances in these recessionary times.
Neil Burnard, London

Even more heartbreaking are the heavily laden fruit trees next to motorways and railtracks. Even if only good for cider and animal feed, there are thousands of wildings - trees growing from discarded apple pips along the wayside that could be harvested. There's a hop plant next to the track at Haringey rail station. It breaks my heart it's going to waste.
LynneA, London

There a plum tree near the day nursery my son attends. The tree produces the tastiest plums I have ever eaten. I saw everyone walk past it without ever bothering to pick up any. After a few days of trying to fit in and ignoring the fruits, I decided to be brave and got home a bagful. Ah! Glorious yummiest plums! From then on, we got a bagful of plums every couple of days. The tree has finished producing plums for this year... My children are a bit disappointed. But we will be back there next year to pick more.
Vishal Rao, Sutton Coldfield

I trade what I can for produce I don't have, and give away what I can't. I don't buy vegetables from supermarkets and have become totally self reliant on the barter system in our village. This saves me £1,500 a year, and the tax man is totally bypassed; which gives me a certain type of satisfaction. The only issue I have is the government dictating to me about trading meat products. If the ban was lifted or relaxed in that aspect, I would never have to visit a shop for food ever again.
Dave, Ilminster, Somerset

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