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“Guerrilla Grafters” Seek to Bear Fruit on Streets of San Francisco

Food Vigilantes Take on City Prohibition on Sidewalk Fruit Trees

We’re all familiar with the story of a certain famous tree that bore forbidden fruit. Here’s a story of trees that are forbidden to bear fruit at all  — and the story of people who are working to change that.

Photo by Randy RobertsonThe Guerrilla Grafters follow a fine and ever-expanding tradition of benevolent urban
mischief-makers, from yarn-bombers to grammar vigilantes, but go one better by
literally adding new growth — and free food — to city streets.

San Francisco, like many cities, prohibits fruit-bearing trees on sidewalks and other public right-of-ways due to health and safety hazards. The fear is that fallen, rotten fruits attract vermin, can cause hapless pedestrians to slip and fall, and can stain sidewalks.  Many of the urban trees managed by the SF Department of Public Works are fruit trees such as apple, pear, plum, lemon, and cherry — but are strictly ornamental varieties, which are bred to produce normal leaves and flowers but never a single fruit.

Enter the Guerrilla Grafters: a new group that is busily splicing fruit-bearing branches onto these ornamental fruit trees. They follow a fine and ever-expanding tradition of benevolent urban mischief-makers, from yarn-bombers to grammar vigilantes, but go one better by literally adding new growth — and free food — to city streets.

Grafting has been a standard horticultural practice for thousands of years. Branches of one plant, chosen for fruit, are spliced onto the body of another plant (of the same genus, but not necessarily the same species) chosen for its root structure or trunk. The vascular systems of the two specimens fuse together and become a single entity. Most commercial fruit and nut trees are grafted.

Only a small number of trees in San Francisco have been grafted so far, but the results have been promising. One individual remarked that, “We grafted four trees, and their progress is extraordinary. You see some people looking at the trees like something is going wrong.”

Unfortunately, something is indeed wrong — at least according to the San Francisco municipal code. While Guerrilla Grafters have not yet encountered any pushback from city officials, San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nurus told the San Francisco Examiner, “The trees that are in the right of way, they’re not for grafting. The City considers such vandalism a serious offense. There would be fines for damage to city property.”

If the “guerrilla” in the group’s name didn’t give it away, the grafters are perfectly aware that their project is illegal. In a short video, Guerrilla Grafters co-founder Tara Hui says she “would love to work within the confines of the law…” and then, instead of finishing the sentence, she just laughs.

The group does not hesitate to take an anti-establishment stance. Their motto, proudly displayed on their nascent website, is “Undoing civilization one branch at a time.”

But the grafters’ real focus seems to be the reinvention, rather than destruction, of some civic values. "Imagine walking down the street and discovering one apple that is available to you as a gift," grafter Ian Pollock told the magazine Bay Nature. "I think this would change your relationship to the public sphere because gifts change you emotionally — they create a sense of indebtedness."

The group got its start when Hui grew frustrated with the lack of fresh food available in her neighborhood, which she refers to as a “food desert.” The goal of Guerrilla Grafters, Hui explains, is to “shift away from this notion of scarcity to a feeling of abundance.”

It’s sad, then, that the city doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the project. The grafters want to add value based on existing infrastructure and generate free food in a way that could benefit all city-dwellers. But their plan is illegal due to those “health and safety hazards.”

The truth is that urban fruit trees, properly managed, would pose no threat at all. Good tree care is built right into Guerrilla Grafters’ DNA. The group ensures that any tree to receive their grafts is also assigned a steward, who is in charge of pruning and basic maintenance.

This adopt-a-tree model is similar to San Francisco’s own Tree Maintenance Transfer Plan, through which property owners can adopt the trees outside their home or storefront. The Department of Public Works hopes to put some 20,000 city trees up for adoption. Direct from the DPW website:

“In order to sustain a healthy Urban Forest, the Department of Public Works (DPW) is proposing to standardize maintenance responsibility such that, in general, fronting property owners will be responsible for the maintenance of street trees in the public right of way. DPW does not have the resources to prune and maintain trees at a frequency recommended by the tree care industry to sustain their health.”

There’s a beautiful synergy here just waiting to happen. The city needs to find caretakers for thousands of its trees. The Guerrilla Grafters are building a crowd-sourcing toolset on their website to allow users to log in, access and update a tree care database, share maintenance reports, and coordinate gleaning. Furthermore, grafting on fruit-bearing branches greatly increases both the utility and the charisma of urban trees. It gives residents new reasons to adopt some of the trees they walk past every day. It also ties into crowd-source ethos that has become the center of Bay Area culture.

Other established websites such as Fallen Fruit and Urban Forest Map have been helping city residents find fruit for years. Guerrilla Grafters have the potential to create a whole new level of citizen participation, and citizen responsibility, for public spaces and public property.

Think of it as a next-generation FarmVille (another San Francisco product, by the way). I could post updates to Facebook that say “I just finished winter pruning of my cherry tree! Have you checked on your tree lately?” Or “Brian needs help harvesting lemons near 22nd and Folsom.”  

If you ask me, that sounds awesome. And it could quickly become a reality if city officials realize the potential for collaboration. The alternative – forbidding citizens from growing fruit and nurturing public spaces – seems to reveal a lack of vision and imagination on the part of San Francisco officials. And what would become of the trees with already-grafted branches? Will there be a “no harvesting” sign posted by the ripening fruit, or a Public Works employee standing nearby and proclaiming, “thou shalt not”?

Brian Scoles, Intern, Earth Island JournalBrian Scoles photo
When not writing for the Journal, Brian pursues all sorts of interests not at all related to his degree. He is passionate about intentional community living, wilderness exploration and leadership, and most recently, activism. He also works with Applied Mindfulness and is a contributor at Sustainablog.

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This is great piece, thank you.  Just tweeted it.  I wish the share button was on each piece to make it easier to do on a smartphone though!

By Rebecca Kasilag on Tue, March 20, 2012 at 10:36 am

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