Forbidden fruit: Stolen crops ripe for Los Altos residents' finger-pointing

Los Altos resident Pierre Pasturel unlatches the homemade PVC enclosure he built to protect his Fuji apple tree from backyard marauders like squirrels and rats.

Roger Melen is the most discerning of fruit growers. Every year, the Los Altos Hills resident waits patiently as his treasured Bing cherry trees blossom and the flowers morph into tiny red bulbs that grow plump and juicy. He harvests only when the fruit develops a deep maroon sheen and a slight tenderness.

Melen’s crop was just a week shy of perfection when he left town for Memorial Day weekend last year. Upon his return, he discovered both trees completely stripped of cherries.

“I really felt horrible because I had no idea who could do such an extensive thing,” he said.

On reflection, Melen guesses the culprits stood about 11 inches tall, had beady, black eyes and sported bushy tails.

Homegrown fruit trees are ubiquitous across the Silicon Valley suburbs, and this is prime picking time. Locally, apricot season is winding down, but varieties of peaches and nectarines are alternately achieving peak ripeness. And the resident rodents know it.

Last week, Los Altos resident Josy Ryan took to to lament a picked-clean fruit tree and solicit advice from neighbors with similar “fruitless experiences.” Her post has netted more than 50 responses.

“They are still dribbling in,” Ryan wrote in an email to the Town Crier. “Everyone has an opinion and advice on how to protect the fruit from invasion of any kind. Many have gone to great lengths, i.e. cages, noise-making traps and on and on.”

It’s all in the pursuit of outsmarting squirrels, rats, deer and birds seeking nourishment and hydration.

Los Altos resident Dick Blanding began planting fruit trees on his property in the late 1960s. Now with 20 trees providing a dozen varieties of citrus and stone fruit, Blanding finds himself battling squirrels and roof rats each year. Usually, the bandits make off with a few plums, figs and avocados, but they managed to decimate two entire plum trees this year.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Blanding said.

Pest-proof solutions

Wildlife and gardening experts recommend a variety of measures for protecting produce from pests, including the installation of thin metal sheeting on tree trunks, the suspension of reflective CDs on tree branches and bird netting. They caution that fruit trees should be planted at least 6 feet from roofs, fences and other trees so that squirrels can’t land flying leaps.

Pierre Pasturel of Los Altos may have found the definitive pest-proof solution: a homemade enclosure fashioned from chicken wire, PVC pipe, Velcro and a whole lot of zip ties. He constructed one for his Fuji apple tree and a slightly smaller version for his apricot tree. The structures feature “French door” openings for easy fruit harvesting and are collapsible for easy storage. In total, the project set him back an estimated $200.

“My wife calls it the ‘Fruit Coop,’ because instead of protecting chickens from foxes, it’s protecting fruit from animals probably desperate for food,” Pasturel said.

So far, it seems to be working: Pasturel reaped approximately 225 apricots this year compared to 170 a year ago when he was sans-coop. His apples, still small and green, are actively ripening within their not-so-gilded cage.

Two-legged thieves

But fancy enclosures may not deter the most aggressive kind of fruit pest: the two-legged kind. Ryan’s fruit disappeared overnight with not so much as a seed left behind on the ground, and so she suspects humans are responsible. She said her neighbors have reported seeing someone with a truck and a ladder lurking around properties with fruit trees.

“Animals do not clean up after themselves,” Ryan wrote in her email.

Sophia Yen of Los Altos spent all year nurturing her persimmon tree, even venturing so far as to feed it milk to make the fruit grow sweeter. She delayed harvesting, waiting until the orange beauties reached prime ripeness. The tree was denuded in a single day, a heartbreaking experience that’s led Yen to regard all farmers’ market and fruit-stall persimmons with suspicion.

Los Altos Hills resident Jean Danver spoke of a similar experience. A week and a half ago, the fruit from her apricot tree vanished during the one-hour window in which she walked her dog. As Danver’s house is located at the end of a long private drive off Robleda Road, she believes that the thieves had previously visited her property.

“I guess this is an annual thing: People coming into Los Altos and stealing fruit from trees,” she said. “It’s rather common.”

It seems that few residents are reporting the thefts to police, however. Neither the Los Altos nor the Mountain View police department has logged any fruit-nabbing complaints this year. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which provides law enforcement services to Los Altos Hills, has record of only one incident.

Nevertheless, fruit thievery is a crime, said Shino Tanaka, Mountain View Police Department spokeswoman.

“If the victim wishes prosecution, sometimes it can (lead to) a citation for petty theft and/or trespassing to burglary,” Tanaka wrote in an email to the Town Crier. “But again, these are generalizations and may require a citizen’s arrest.”

Fruit growers whose trees survive the onslaught of animal and human pests and find themselves with bountiful harvests can invite charitable organizations like Village Harvest to pick their fruit and distribute it through welfare groups like the Community Services Agency.

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