In San Francisco, a secret project bears fruit: The Guerrilla Grafters are turning the city’s non-bearing public trees into an urban orchard — despite city regulations.
All Tara Hui wanted to do was plant some pears and plums and cherries for the residents of her sunny, working-class neighborhood, a place with no grocery stores and limited access to fresh produce.
But officials in this arboreally challenged city, which rose from beneath a blanket of sand dunes, don’t allow fruit trees along San Francisco’s sidewalks, fearing the mess, the rodents and the lawsuits that might follow.
So when a nonprofit planted a purple-leaf plum in front of Hui’s Visitacion Valley bungalow 31/2 years ago — all flowers and no fruit, so it was on San Francisco’s list of sanctioned species — the soft-spoken 41-year-old got out her grafting knife.
“I tried to advocate for planting productive trees, making my neighborhood useful, so people could have free access to at least fruit,” she said. “I just wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Today, Hui is the force behind Guerrilla Grafters, a renegade band of idealistic produce lovers who attach fruit-growing branches to public trees in Bay Area cities (they are loath to specify exactly where for fear of reprisal).
Their handiwork currently is getting recognition in the 13th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, as part of the U.S. exhibit called “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.” Closer to home, however, municipal officials have denounced the group’s efforts.
“It’s like the gardener’s version of graffiti,” said Claire Napawan, assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Davis and a grafters sympathizer. “Even if there’s some question about its ability to produce enough food to make a difference … as an awareness piece, it’s a good idea.”
The [Guerrilla Grafters] graft fruit bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees. Over time, delicious, nutritious fruit is made available to urban residents through these grafts. We aim to prove that a culture of care can be cultivated from the ground up. We aim to turn city streets into food forests, and unravel civilization one branch at a time.
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