Jay Garlough: Hidden Harvest

“We see people from all walks of life working together to feed themselves and neighbours while making better use of the bounty of food that is hiding in plain sight.” Jay Garlough, co-founder of Hidden Harvest Ottawa, describes how the organization is connecting neighbours, building community knowledge, and developing a taste for the fruits and nuts harvested from Ottawa’s trees. 

Photos:  Jana Dybinski

Jay Garlough harvesting a pear tree.

Jay Garlough harvesting a pear tree.

Q.1. From your perspective, what are the contributions made by trees that make them so important?

Trees provide food, shelter, respite and so much more. Not just to squirrels, raccoons and birds, but to all of us humans too.

Q.2. Where did your interest in harvesting fruit and nuts come from?

As the seventh generation of a family of farmers, we would always make the most of the food on our land. Regardless of what it was – delicious wild grapes or mangled, wormy apples growing along the hedgerows – we would do our best to not let it go to waste. Katrina Siks and I then met while taking a course on wild edibles offered by Martha Webber in Dunrobin. It was there that we realized there is an even greater variety of a food-bearing trees growing in the city than what could be found back home on our family farm.

Q.3. What is Hidden Harvest, when did it start and what does the organization set out to do?

Hidden Harvest Ottawa started in 2012 and set out to create a food-tree friendly city by picking and sharing fruit and nuts that would otherwise go to waste. Back in 2012, our goal was to venture out and find at least 365 food-bearing trees here in our City that we could harvest. We have since discovered more than 17,000 potential food-bearing trees, which has sort of blown our original goal out of the water.

Q.4. What are the common fruit and nut trees that grow in Ottawa?

Fruit: apple, crabapple, grapes, pear, hackberry, serviceberry (including Saskatoon berries), mulberry, sweet cherry, sour cherry, chokecherry are the trees and vines that we never have any problem finding in almost every City ward.  Nuts: ginkgo, black walnut, butternut, Turkish hazel are easy enough to spot. Butternuts are slowly dying out, which is sad to see, but most neighbourhoods have one or two hiding somewhere.

There are also some less common fruit and nut trees growing here in Ottawa such as the Japanese walnuts (also known as heartnuts), Korean pine (pine nuts!), Asian pears, plums, figs and we have even witnessed bananas being grown and harvested from a backyard greenhouse – although technically I think bananas are considered a herb, not a tree.

Pear tree 

Pear tree 

Q.5. Using City data, you found that there are more than 17,000 edible fruit and nut trees on City land. What happens to most of the fruit and nuts from these trees?

Good question. We don’t know what happens to most of it and I don’t think the City knows what happens with a majority of that food either. What we do know is that most of those City-owned trees are on the roadway allowance which means many overhang sidewalks and paved roads. When we are out harvesting we do notice that a lot of the fallen fruit is being collected by our City’s street sweepers or sidewalk cleaners, which means taxpayers cover the cost of sending it to landfill. Also, many of these City trees are in people’s front yards and of those we talk to most rake up fallen fruits and nuts and put them out in yard waste bags. The fallen fruit and nuts we clean off front lawns and roadways before each harvest goes into yard waste bags and is set out as yard waste to be composted. Very little seems to remain under the tree to decompose and feed wildlife as nature intended, so we always leave fruit and nuts behind for our furry and feathered friends.

Q.6. Last year, as an example, how many pounds of fruit and pounds of nuts did Hidden Harvest collect? What did you do with the fruit and nuts you collected and who benefitted?

In 2014 our Neighbourhood Leaders organized 48 harvests and, with the help of many volunteers, harvested 5,200 lbs of food. The harvests are shared four ways: at least ¼ is shared with the nearest food agency or community food program, ¼ is shared with the volunteer harvesters, ¼ is left with the homeowner, and up to ¼ comes back to Hidden Harvest for processing.

Q.7. What community benefits do you see from the work that Hidden Harvest does?

We see neighbours meeting neighbours at our harvest events and learning how to safely harvest, prepare and handle fruits and nuts that are new to many people. We see food agencies who are overjoyed to receive and distribute fresh grapes and cherries and serviceberries which they very rarely have the budget to purchase on their own. We see kids eating a sour cherry for the first time in their lives and their parents realizing that the blueberry-like fruits on the tree in their front yard are not poisonous but DELICIOUS. We see people from all walks of life working together to feed themselves and neighbours while making better use of the bounty of food that is hiding in plain sight.

Q.8. Would you say that there is a growing movement of people harvesting local foods, including edible fruits and nuts? If so, what are the reasons for this? If not, why not?

Yes. We suspect it is because they are putting the food in their mouth, enjoying it a whole lot, and then wanting more.

Q.9. In your opinion, are citizens, governments and businesses doing enough to protect and promote edible fruit and nut trees in Ottawa? What city policies would you like to see that would encourage more people to consume food from fruit and nut bearing trees?

I do not feel that, as a society, we have a good understanding of the richness of resources which exist in our homes, cities or businesses. The City’s bylaws such as the Park’s asset protection clauses (No. 2004 – 276.9.a) prevent the harvest of most fruit. We certainly understand the importance of harvesting and handling the fruit properly, so you do not damage the tree or hurt yourself. However, having to get
$2-5 million of liability insurance and managing the paperwork and back-and-forth that goes along with getting a consent to enter permits simply so four of our volunteers can pick an apple tree in their local park does limit the amount of food our group can pick and share each harvest season. We would love to see something like “Everyman’s Right” in Finland, which protects trees and endangered species while allowing for harvesting and foraging on public land. Note: Everyman’s Right does not apply to the grounds of the Embassy of Finland here in Ottawa – we checked! :-D

Q.10. What benefits do you personally get out of spending a lot of time outside, around trees and eating locally picked fruit and nuts?

Giving feels really good. I am certainly eating more fruits and nuts than ever before which has benefited my health and the amount of energy available to help us keep up with how fast Hidden Harvest has been growing as an organization. Also, realizing that there are so many people here in Ottawa who are willing to open their garden gates and invite us in to harvest and share the excess food growing on their trees has really made me proud to be part of this community!

Q.11. Finally, do you have a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, what kind of tree is it and where is it located?

This is the toughest question. There are so many. Could it be an unordered list of the top 45 favourites?

I suppose one old tree I admire is an urban walnut tree living the downtown lifestyle right along Laurier Avenue between Ottawa City Hall and the Rideau Canal. It is this massive, straggly-looking thing on a small island of grass surrounded by paved roads and pathways. Every year I think it’s going to die, but somehow it just keeps on going. It’s incredible to think about how much it has survived in its lifetime and how much it has experienced.

Jay in front of a walnut tree. 

Jay in front of a walnut tree.