Guerrilla Grafters Urban Orchards

Urban landscape grows fruitful—literally—thanks to Guerrilla Grafters

In San Francisco, it happens to be illegal to have fruit trees along sidewalks. Fallen fruit is considered a public health hazard, liable to get squashed, trampled and slipped on as well as attracting rats and other vermin. Which means that Guerrilla Grafters aren’t just posing as rogue agents in the food justice movement. What they’re doing—grafting fruit-bearing limbs to ornamental trees around the city—is actually illegal.

Guerrilla Grafters are taking advantage of one of the peculiarities of fruit tree horticulture. It’s possible to propagate trees by grafting the branch of one tree to the trunk of another. The grafting is accomplished by slicing a branch of the host tree vertically and inserting a budding branch tip of a second tree into the cut. The cut is then sealed with tape until the two trees’ tissues grow together. Trees must be closely related for the graft to take—you can’t graft an apple branch onto an orange tree, but you can easily graft one kind of citrus onto another.

Grafting’s horticultural pedigree extends back thousands of years. Some fruit trees such as apples depend almost entirely on grafting for commercial reproduction; farmers do not have to wait for a fruit tree to grow from seed and they can be assured that the fruit variety that sprouts from the branch will be exactly the same as from the tree it originally came from.

All it takes to turn an ornamental tree into an edible part of the landscape, then, is a small branch from a fruit-bearing tree, a knife, and some electrical tape.

The Department of Public Works maintains thousands of ornamental apple and pear trees throughout the city—each one a potential target for Guerrilla Grafters. They strongly discourage the planting of fruit-bearing trees on the street.

If caught, members of Guerrilla Grafters could be subject to fines for damaging city property, although the Department of Public Works told NPR that they would try to reason with the grafters first. The city encourages urban agriculture in more sanctioned forms, such as fruit trees on community gardens.

It isn’t that the grafters don’t respect the possible safety issues. In fact, each tree that gets grafted is assigned a steward, who is in charge of monitoring the tree. He or she will prune it, check for diseases, and collect any ripe or fallen fruit.

Guerrilla Grafters concentrates its small-scale efforts in working-class neighborhoods where fresh produce may be hard to come by thanks to a lack of supermarkets and corner groceries. Fruit could then be picked off the tree by hungry neighborhood residents. It could also be gleaned by food banks and similar organizations dedicated to providing fresh food to those in need.

The newest project undertaken by Guerrilla Grafters is developing an “urban orchard” database to find potential targets, track grafted trees and facilitate harvest. The organization has started to attract both local and national media attention after only having been in operation for around two years. It is also spreading seeds far from its Bay Area home. The organization now boasts over 100 volunteers in three states, according to the Bay Citizen, and may be going international soon.

It is unlikely that the efforts of Guerrilla Grafters will produce enough freely available fruit to provide any appreciable measure of food security in the neighborhoods they target. But that’s not exactly the group’s goal. Free food, growing from trees and within easy reach, is a gift that subtly transforms people’s relationships to public space. “Gifts change you emotionally,” Ian Pollock told the Bay Citizen. “They create a sense of indebtedness.” Fruit grafting then becomes a concrete—and sweet—way of building and rebuilding community.

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