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Originally published August 25, 2009 at 12:04 AM | Page modified August 25, 2009 at 12:19 AM

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Volunteers help homeowners with fruit trees

Fruit trees thrive all over Seattle, with homeowners reaping more than they can use or give away. Efforts exist to harvest that fruit for donation to the needy, but a new program, City Fruit, aims to go beyond that by offering Seattle homeowners horticultural instruction as well as workshops in canning or jam making.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For more information

City Fruit: Can be reached via e-mail at info@cityfruit.org. Its Web site is http://cityfruit.org/.

Community Fruit Tree Harvest: This is part of Solid Ground's Lettuce Link program and can be reached at 206-694-6754 or lettucelink@solid-ground.org.

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Even in a typical year, the plum tree in Monica and Heidi Risse's front yard spawns more plums than they can use.

Plums have gone to their Beacon Hill neighbors and to family. Monica used to take bags of them to work. The sisters have made plum sauce, attempted oven-dried plums and have plans to make plum jam. But this year, by their estimate, there are 20 times as many plums as usual.

Not bad for a tree they barely tend to. So when they heard about City Fruit, they jumped at the chance not only to have their fruit harvested but to learn how they could be better tree stewards.

Fruit trees thrive in the Seattle area, with homeowners reaping more than they can use or give away. Neighborhood efforts — such as those in the Central District's Colman area and in West Seattle, or those orchestrated by local fruit-harvest pioneer Solid Ground — exist to deliver that fruit to local food banks, senior programs and other needy agencies.

But some volunteer harvesters and local fruit-tree enthusiasts began to realize harvesting was only part of the picture. Many homeowners didn't know how to care for their trees. From that realization, City Fruit began to form late last year, and the organization officially launched its Web site in June.

"We would go to harvests, and there would be worms or moss," said Gail Savina, director of City Fruit. "Trees weren't trimmed properly. The fruit quality wasn't there."

City Fruit goes beyond harvesting by offering homeowners instruction in pruning, pest control and harvesting as well as workshops in canning or jam making. The organization also hopes to create a neighborhood network so that anyone seeking harvesting help or workshop information can consult its Web site for citywide options — next month's canning classes at Rainier Community Center, for instance.

The site allows residents to register their trees on an evolving map of the city's bounty, creating an ongoing inventory of what the group calls "an important — but often overlooked — element in the urban forest canopy."

The origins of the area's fruit-tree population are hard to come by. "I don't know that anyone's mapped out the history of it at all," said David Conners, president of the Seattle Tree Fruit Society.

Old victory gardens

A few public parks started as orchards, some going back 100 years. Others speculate that many trees date to the days of victory gardens, when private citizens were urged to plant fruit trees as food sources during World Wars I and II.

Today, fruit trees have been absorbed into the urban landscape. They often are part of the package when houses are sold. A tree is seen by some new homeowners as a bonus, Savina said, but "more often than not, it's a nuisance. They don't know what to do with it."

Much of the fruit goes unused, falling to the ground and rotting, attracting rodents and pests.

City Fruit — like Solid Ground, which runs the 5-year-old Community Fruit Tree Harvest and provides the bulk of the city's fruit gathering — sees the bounty as a community resource. Supported by grants, donations and member fees, City Fruit works with homeowners not only to share their fruit but to maintain healthy trees and maximize their use of the fruit they keep.

Just part of the yard

The Risse sisters don't know how far back their tree goes; it was there when they bought the house 15 years ago, along with a cherry tree near the garage. "We didn't really know what they were," Monica said. "We just liked the house."

The branches of their overloaded greengage-plum tree are propped up with a mishmash of implements, including wooden and bamboo poles, a 15-foot piece of lumber, a long stretch of PVC pipe and a rake.

"This is the biggest production I have ever seen," said Monica, who helps develop Web sites. "It's literally taking the tree down. It's like a crazy circus tent."

"They're like clusters of grapes," said Heidi, who runs a home-based bath-products business. "It's insane."

Jana Vitols, one of about 50 City Fruit volunteers, is here to help. In a few hours, she and the Risses pick 75 pounds of plums destined for a Madrona restaurant's weekly dinner for the homeless. The fruit is juicy and sweet, with skins that sparkle in the sunshine.

Vitols started with City Fruit last summer. One day she harvested 350 pounds of plums from a tree in Medina. At first, it was hard to eat any of it. "I'm like, oh, these are going to food banks," she said. "And then I saw the abundance."

City Fruit volunteers are trained in harvesting and food safety. They show homeowners how to reduce pest infestation by outfitting apples with small, sock-sized nets or keeping fallen fruit away from the base of trees.

Tech copywriter Lorraine Barnes, another Beacon Hill resident, is eyeing the organization for help. The apple tree in her front yard provides nice shade, but only her chickens find the fruit tasty.

"They're not sweet apples, so they're not ones we really use," Barnes said. "I might make a pie or two out of it, but other than that it goes to waste."

She said she is thinking about putting in a pear tree along the fence and hopes City Fruit can help her toward that goal and show her proper pruning methods.

Savina said that's exactly the kind of thing the organization can help with. "We can tell her what kind of pear will grow and be resistant to pests, and recommend people to come help," she said.

Long-term goal

Ultimately, Savina said, the program seeks long-term sustainability — perhaps developing neighborhood markets supplied by local trees and generating enough income to pay someone to coordinate them.

"Fruit is something that really grabs people," she said. "Everybody likes fruit, and the idea that it's being wasted — you turn that around and say, 'Wow, it doesn't have to be on the ground.' "

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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