WHEN WE moved into our home with a third of an acre in Altadena, we inherited an orchard. Oranges, grapefruits, Meyer lemons and pomelos hung like tropical ornaments. Late summer and fall brought a bounty of avocados, figs and persimmons. And when the apricots and plums ripened in spring, we couldn't pick them fast enough. Hundreds of the stone fruit hit the ground and rotted.
Every year I vowed to work harder, pick faster and share smarter, but every year I ended up hauling bushels of spoiled fruit to the curb for trash pickup.
I wasn't alone. Altadena resident Gail Murphy found that her blackberry vines produced far more than her family of four could consume. Ditto with a prolific pineapple guava tree that bears fruit at the same time in the fall.
Murphy and her sons, ages 4 and 8, set up a fruit stand to handle the surplus. Some neighbors purchased the berries; others swapped them for produce from their own yards. Murphy soon added free-range chicken eggs, tomatoes and apricots to her stand.
Neighbors wished for a way to share on a larger scale. They were eager to pass on the abundance of their own gardens and sample the harvests of others who lived nearby.
So in November, Murphy expanded her fruit stand into a virtual marketplace: the Co-op & Food Exchange of Altadena, a Yahoo Groups e-mail list and discussion board dedicated to sharing and swapping homegrown organic fruits and vegetables. Now 45 members who live in or near Altadena or Pasadena post announcements offering surplus crops or seeking a particular kind of produce.
The group has gathered for swaps in the park and, most recently, our first summer harvest potluck dinner, where all of the dishes were made with homegrown crops.
Thanks to the exchange, it's easy to find homes for my excess citrus. When the apricots and plums ripen all at once, I have a steady stream of fruit pickers. They reduced this season's waste to nearly zero.
I expect nothing in return, but I've received organic mint, basil, pink striped lemons, blackberries, onions, peaches, exotic recipes involving pomelos, strawberry plants and lemon grass from other members.
"I just hate wasting all the oranges and plums in my yard, and I cannot possibly use it all," Altadena writer Ellen Snortland said. "I love being able to swap."
Pasadena teacher Christina Wenger lives in a yard-less condominium but raises vegetables in a friend's backyard. Even though this year's crops were disappointing, she found that basil grows in abundance.
"For big bouquets of basil, I've received some wonderful garden produce," Wenger said. "This group has proven to me the accessibility of localism; one person doesn't have to grow everything."
That localism and ability to become self-sufficient appeal to Marcia Coppess. The Pasadena resident is striving to produce more of her own food. She has a thriving vegetable garden with an abundance of heirloom tomatoes, but new fruit trees aren't yet bearing anything. Exchange members have filled the gap with fresh apricots, plums, peaches, blackberries, figs and citrus.
Patrick Reagan, an Altadena software designer and exchange member, is exploring the idea of starting a local co-op store. He says there's a larger market for the excess produce in the area.
Meanwhile, exchange founder Murphy wants to expand the concept. "We already have members in Arcadia and Monrovia, so there's definitely an interest," she said. Prospective members can go to groups.yahoo.com /group/COFEaltadena, and she encourages gardeners in other areas to start their own exchanges.
I'm glad to be part of a group with lofty goals, but my own mantra is much simpler: Let no fruit go to waste.