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Cheap and Free Produce for Canning

Free Fruit Sources for Canning -

Although I try to pack a lot into my backyard, I have extremely limited space for growing produce.

On just 1/10th of an acre, I have 5 apple trees espaliered around the perimeter, 5 citrus trees in pots and enough vegetables, herbs and berries to keep us happy most of the year.

But I wouldn’t exactly say I get bushels of excess produce from my postage-stamp-sized homestead on a regular basis. From this space, we mostly eat the food fresh and I do some small batch canning projects and freezing.

Although I am also lucky enough to be able to preserve produce at our family’s 1892 farmstead, that is a very recent addition. Prior to that, I had to find extra produce for canning from different sources. And I still do!

There are several places you can look for wholesome, delicious produce that is either cheap or completely free. Here’s my list of where to look…

Free Fruit Sources for Canning -

Where to Look for Cheap & Free Produce

1) Grow It Yourself:
Naturally, growing it yourself is the best option. I couldn’t make a list without including that. But if you are like me with limited space, growing it yourself is not always enough.

2) Barter & Trade:
I have gained some of my best canning produce from my neighbors. A few of my neighbors grow food like me and we trade or barter when one of us has excess. This can mean fresh eggs traded for plums or jam traded for onions.

But it always means deliciousness traded for more deliciousness!

However, what if you don’t know anyone growing food in your area?

Well, that’s when you start learning to spot fruit trees while driving your car!

It is an important skill because everyone with a fruit tree gets a harvest that comes on fast. And when it does, it is nearly impossible to use all that fruit on your own. So much of it can go to waste.

If you see a neighbor with a fruit tree in their front yard (or peeking over the backyard fence), go knock on their door and ask!

A friend of mine showed up on a neighbor’s doorstep with few jars of homemade jam, made the connection and came home with bags of pomegranates. Most fruit tree owners are more than thrilled to have someone harvest their tree so they don’t have a mess of waste on their hands.

3) Connections:
Tell everyone you know that you are looking for produce to can. Just about everyone has a relative (or a friend of a friend) with a fruit tree.

Once the word is out that you have a canning pot and are not afraid to use it, you will be offered free fruit on a regular basis. Really!

The most common offer I get is, “Hey, my mom has extra {fill in the blank}. You can have it if you want it. Oh and do you think you could share a jar of the jam, sauce or preserves you make from it?”

Tee hee hee. They always have an alternative motive but the offer is still a good one!

Free Fruit for Canning -

4) The “Bad” Produce at Market:

This is one of the best untapped resources for extra produce. The American culture demands perfect produce without blemishes, bruises or bug marks. The rest usually gets thrown out. But that produce is still perfectly good. In fact, extremely ripe fruit is the most flavorful for preserves AND it is the fruit most likely to get bruised or crushed in transit.

If you get to know the local grocery store produce manager, you can arrange to take that produce off his hands. Set it up ahead of time and then make sure to show up for pick up.

But you can also find crushed produce at the farmer’s market. If you get to know the farmer’s selling, you can check in with them at the end of market day to see if there is any produce that didn’t travel well to market. They have to throw it out and you can usually have it for free – especially if you had made the connection ahead of time so they save it for you.

Important: What I do NOT recommend doing is coming at the end of the farmer’s market day and asking if they you can have their good produce at discount. A lot of people try this tactic and it is not really polite. In fact, it sort of undermines the relationship. It is better to come buy some produce at regular price and if you have a relationship with them, they are happy to throw in a few damaged fruit for free. But don’t try to shortchange these hard working farmers. They are the good guys and we need to support them.

Free Fruit Sources -

5) Dumpster Diving:

Okay, seriously – this is NOT my thing.

But I know a few people who swear by this. They go behind the grocery store on a regular basis and dig through the dumpster for boxes of damaged produce.

Now, I love a good freebie, but I would rather create a relationship with the store manager and get the produce before it hits the dumpster. However, this is an option if you are up for that sort of thing.

6) You Pick Farms:

I live in Southern California and we have some tremendous you-pick farms along the roadsides. So this is a great option for me. But it may not be an option for everyone. If you are ever traveling, keep an eye out for roadside stands and you-pick farms during the travel trip home. The flavors are incredible.

What about you?

Do you have any cheap sources for canning produce?

Do tell! (In the comments)

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.


  • Vickie says:

    Yes!! Drive through a country lane during August and you most likely will come to a tangle of blackberry brambles – especially if there is also a ditch alongside. Sometimes we even back up the pickup to the brambles so it is easier to get to the berries from the tailgate! Just be careful not to hurt the plants. This is the safest way, however, because in our area the berries attract mice, which then attract rattle snakes!
    Also, along the river bottoms while taking a short hike near where I live, I ran across a plum tree. The plums were ripe and falling off, so it was obvious no one was tending the tree.
    Then, down the road from where we are building our new home is a bridge that goes over the lake. Right there at the side of the bridge (municipal land) is a crab apple tree just jammed full of apples!
    So, I think #7 should be Nature and The Great Outdoors! Just be sure the fruit isn’t on someone’s property and that you don’t damage the tree or vines while harvesting.

    • theresa says:

      Excellent, excellent additions Vickie. I especially like your tip about backing the pick up to the brambles. I’m gonna try that!

  • Holly says:

    I grew up in Hell’s Canyon along the Snake River and there were a lot of old abandoned homesteads with fruit trees. Often the fruit trees were the only things left of the homesteads. We gathered pear, plum, apricot and apple, plus raspberries, black caps, and gooseberries. Those apricots were absolutely amazing! I haven’t found any that compare in flaovr and juiciness now days. Where I live now, in Washington State, there are wild elderberry bushes everywhere and I’ve made some good jam from that.

    • theresa says:


      I am so glad that someone is using up the fruit of the abandoned homesteads. I bet the flavors are incredible!

    • Laura Bell says:

      There’s a guy in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas who has come across old orchards planted by forty-niners and those who also lived in the mining camps. He is trying to preserve the old, heirloom stock by grafting them onto fresh rootstock. He even has a crowdsourcing website to help fund his venture. I’m sorely tempted to donate so I can get my hands on some of his trees … I just don’t know where I’d put the trees!

  • Laura Bell says:

    My parents always had a huge garden to go with our huge family. Even so, there was always a lot of produce available for preservation. I don’t remember anything going to waste. If Mom had more than she expected us to use, she’d give it to someone who didn’t have as much as they needed, knowing that when their abundance came in – whatever it may be – she would be on the list of people to offer it to. This way everybody shared the wealth.
    Unfortunately, I’m the oddity in my patch of suburbia. Where everybody else has a pool or a lawn worthy of a putting green, I have fruit trees and veggies and berry bushes. Not much to barter there. The few people I know who do garden, keep their produce for themselves. I’m thinking that the Farmer’s Markets might be my best bet – I love preserves and jellies and jams, so over-ripe fruit will be perfect. What about asking for a discount on “ruined” produce at the supermarket? Wouldn’t they prefer to sell it instead of taking the loss? Or is tossing the fruits/veggies more useful to them (financially)? I could never do the dumpster-dive. I consider myself pretty tough, willing to get grubby for most endeavors … but cannot do the dumpster thing.

    • theresa says:

      I’m with you on the dumpster thing too Laura.

      I like your idea of asking for discounts. Always worth a shot, I think.

  • Sara says:

    I’m lucky enough to have a friend with a garden she can’t quite keep up with. She loves help canning, and we split what we make. I also had somebody bring me apples they picked from an abandoned apple orchard in exchange for the zucchini I couldn’t get rid of fast enough. I may need to start spreading the word again. Sometimes those “You could do something with this, couldn’t you?” drop offs come at an inconvenient time, but they are appreciated.

  • Dennis Kroll says:

    I don’t advise dumpster diving, either. Many grocery stores are now required to pour bleach over that day’s tossed out produce and meat.

    • theresa says:

      Ewwww – Well, just another reason to go inside and connect with the produce manager. Thanks Dennis. I didn’t know that.

  • Gen says:

    My best friend has a huge garden every year. She always has more than what her family will use, and / or simply doesn’t have the time to preserve it all. She sends me a lot of the over flow to make sauces, jams, and try different preserving recipes. I make sure that she gets finished product to help stock her pantry too. Win – win!

  • Billie says:

    I have been trying to find recipes for canning veggies with the old timers way of putting the veggies in jars, pouring hot boiling water over them and then salt and putting into a cold bath (think that is what my grandma use to call it). I do my green beans that way but this year I had to try to do it from memory as I have not canned in many a year due to health problems.. This year I did my green beans in quart jars with a spoon of salt and then poured boiling water and processed them in a canner that is NOT a pressure canner. My problem is that I can not find any recipes for anything else that is canned this way and I know I use to do other things. I just can not remember what I did.. I need help and hoping that you can give that help to me.. Thanks ahead for all help..

    • theresa says:

      Hi Billie,

      The reason you are having trouble finding information on how to do this is because this type of canning is no longer considered safe. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but vegetables canned that way can harbor botulism – which is dangerous. Yes, people used to do this. Yes, people got very sick. Yes, some died. So, it is no longer recommended. Here is an article explaining the reasons:

      If you don’t want to pressure can, it is very easy to freeze veggies – especially green beans. You just quickly blanch them in boiling water to kill the enzyme that causes spoilage. Cool in ice water and freeze. They stay crisp and delicious.

  • Jon Paulson says:

    On dumpster diving: When I moved to my new house, I did a fair bit of dumpster diving in order to get a good compost pit going: spoilage and damage no issue at all!

  • Sam says:

    FYI, the the bruised and not-as-pretty produce is often sold under the name “seconds”
    Especially useful for tomatoes for sauce or canning!

  • Ted says:

    craigslist is also another place to find free fruit – Lots of people have apple or other fruit trees and when the fruit is ripe they would rather someone come and pick it off the tree for free than have to go pick up rotten fruit off the ground.

  • Alicia says:

    Hey Theresa! I just found your website and I’m in love with it! Thanks for sharing so much! I live in Southern California as well and was wondering what U Pick places you recommend.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Alicia –

      Sorry for the delay in answering you. I have been out in the field filming in Seattle.

      There are several places that are along our travel route through various areas of S. Cal that I don’t know the names of. We just stop as we travel to our farmstead or when visiting friends. But here are a couple that I do know, plus a website that let’s you look them up for your own area.

      Here is one in Moorpark:
      This is one my kids went to for a school tour that has a living history theme, but I have not visited it myself. They are known for their heirloom apples:

      Pick Your Own is a website that shows U-pick places for all the states. Here is the link for California:

  • Jamie says:

    Our you-pick farms are often higher priced than the fancy grocery store’s organic produce unfortunately.

  • S says:

    Unfortunately the u-pick druit places around here are significantly more expensive than buying fruit in a grocery store and about an hour drive away.

  • Rivka says:

    I have a vendor who delivers to me – a CSA but with home delivery – their policy is big batches are cost plus 10%. Not free but if you have any physical limitations then this works out quite well.

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