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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.

September 11, 2012|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Tara Hui checks on a tree to which she has grafted a fruit-bearing branch. 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.
Tara Hui checks on a tree to which she has grafted a fruit-bearing branch.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

Even the urban agriculture movement is torn when it comes to the secretive splicers, outliers in a nascent push to bring orchards to America's inner cities. While many applaud their civil disobedience, others fear a backlash against community farming efforts. And few believe their work will ever fill a fruit bowl.

Not that that really matters.

"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."

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On a sunny day toward the end of summer, Hui was bent over an immature tree, searching for the tell-tale strip of electrical tape that would show where a fruit-producing branch had been spliced onto an ornamental plant.

The small stand of cherry trees had been transformed during the most recent grafting season, late winter to early spring, using a simple method that Hui described as being "like tongue and groove in carpentry."

First a slit is made in the host tree. Then the alien branch is whittled into a pointed wedge. The grafter inserts the wedge and matches up the elements' nutrient-transporting layers before securing the area with tape. The Guerrilla Grafters use electrical tape instead of grafting tape so they can color code their work for future reference.

"Once it heals, it connects," Hui said. "Basically the branch becomes part of the tree."

The group only grafts trees that are nominated by a steward in the neighborhood, who promises to maintain it and make sure that fruit is harvested and does not become a hazard. Trees also are grafted within species, fruit-bearing apple onto ornamental apple, for example.

If all goes well, in several years grafted branches will blossom and bear fruit. Of the 50 or so trees Guerrilla Grafters has transformed, Hui said, a few already have produced fruit, including an Asian pear whose location she would not disclose.

"Two months after we grafted it, it flowered, and we went back again and saw little pears on it," she said. "Some passersby must have picked it and had it, which is the idea. There's no ownership of these trees. There's just stewardship."

The Guerrilla Grafters are as cagey about attracting members as they are about safeguarding the group's operations. There is a Facebook page, and prospective grafters "contact us for the most part," Hui said. "It's a little tricky. We just want to be careful."

It was a lesson learned the hard way.

On Feb. 18, a grafting project was announced on Facebook: "Hayes Valley Farm today at 1pm — Laguna b/w Fell and Oak." Two days later, the website said that "all the viable grafts on those trees were gone. …The trees were so severely pruned, they even look kind of sad."

The group suspected city gardeners were behind the "vandalism" and beseeched them to be kinder in the future: "Whether or not you agree with what we do," the post said, "please trust that we care about those street trees as much as, if not more then you do.… We respect your hard work, please allow greater participation in caring for our public space."

Carla Short, San Francisco's urban forester, said that no one in the Department of Public Works had "formally" removed any of the guerrilla efforts performed by the group of 30 or so grafters.

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