There is a group of fruit lovers in San Francisco that practice something known as “guerrilla grafting” – they graft fruit bearing branches onto fruitless, ornamental trees across the Bay Area city. Having access to free fruit sounds like a wonderful idea, considering the number of homeless people who can rarely afford a decent meal, but guerrilla grafting is actually illegal.
In many metropolitan areas, urban foresters make sure that flowering fruit trees don’t bear any fruit, in order to keep fallen fruit from making a mess on sidewalks and attracting vermin. Most public trees are fruitless, a fact that the Guerilla Grafters obviously don’t like. While authorities see urban fruit-bearing trees as a nuisance, these agricultural rebels see them as an opportunity to provide fresh, healthy produce for free to anyone who walks by.
According to their Facebook page, “Guerrilla Grafters is a grassroots group that sees a missed opportunity for cities to provide a peach or a pear to anyone strolling by. Their objective is to restore sterile city trees into fruit-bearers by grafting branches from fertile trees. The project may not resolve food scarcity, but it helps foster a habitat that sustains us.” Their mission, they say is to make delicious, nutritious fruit available to urban residents through these grafts.
As noble as their intentions may seem to most of us, guerrilla grafting is illegal and classified as vandalism by San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. It doesn’t matter who plants the tree, who grafts branches, or who maintains it, if it’s on a sidewalk, it’s publicly owned and messing with it is a crime. But as of 2012, the department did not plan to actively pursue grafters. “Unless someone is caught in the act, there’s not much we could do,” said spokesperson Gloria Chan, adding that it is hard to catch because the average person doesn’t know what an illegal graft looks like so it’s not likely to get reported.
However, some people seem to think guerrilla grafting is a very serious problem. “It gets very dangerous very quickly,” said Carla Short, an urban forester for the San Francisco Department of Public Works. “I mean the minute that fruit gets crushed on the sidewalk, it is slippery. We certainly don’t want people to get injured.”
But the law isn’t a deterrent for these urban gardeners, who seem quite focused on their mission. “People think of fruit trees as a kind of a nuisance,” said Tara Hui, member of the group since its inception five years ago. “The intention of doing guerrilla grafting is not so much for the sake of challenging authority, but to set an example – a working example – to counter the arguments. If we have a prototype, we can have a legitimate rational discussion on the issue.” Plus, every grafted tree has a steward, someone who promises to check up on it regularly, making sure it doesn’t cause any problems.
She added that many fruit lovers did try to follow “legal channels” at first – she wanted to plant a fruit tree in front of her house and was fully prepared to care for it herself. But her efforts were repeatedly thwarted by the department and by San Francisco nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest. So she began connecting with other frustrated residents who wanted fruit trees and they started using social media to delve into underground channels.
The grafters like to think of their activities as ‘hybrid farming’ or ‘street theater’ and believe that their efforts don’t pose threats like slip hazards from fallen fruit or damage to the host trees. “With grafts, you only have a few branches that are fruit bearing, and it’s really very manageable,” said guerrilla grafter Miriam Goldberg. And they take full responsibility to make sure that ripe fruits are safely harvested. They’re also prepared to help with maintenance tasks like pruning, propping, and watering.
“The hope is that through this one small act (of grafting) we can reconnect with a shared space and reconnect with each other,” Hui said. “Ultimately, I think codes and regulations should respond to the reality of people’s lives. Just taking an evening stroll, and then you see a fruit and you reach over and now you’re nourished.”
Guerrilla grafters have created a web app to provide grafting tips and help members find trees that might be good candidates to accept fruit-bearing branches. Through their Facebook page they track the progress of their cherry, plum, and pear grafts, and report upcoming events