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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

If the city's tree crews come upon a grafting, they have been instructed to report it to her, and "we'll take it on a case-by-case basis." Street trees are allowed by permit only, and the city will not grant a permit for an apple, plum, pear or any other fruit producer.

"We really support growing fruit trees in the right places," Short said. But "we don't want people to get hurt, and we don't want to damage our already vulnerable street trees."


Community gardens have prospered for decades on vacant lots in cities around the country. But urban orchards — which require a greater investment, particularly in time — have only begun to catch on in recent years.

That commitment is part of the allure to the many romantics in the urban orchard movement. If a tomato plant is a summer fling, they figure, then a fruit tree is more like a marriage.

"You can have a relationship over time with a tree," said Lisa Gross, founder of the Boston Tree Party, which has planted 110 apple trees in civic spaces over the last year and a half and is planning its first harvest celebration in 2015. "We all love tomatoes, but you put it in and pull it out at the end of the season."

Most urban orchards are created with at least some municipal cooperation. The Philadelphia Orchard Project, launched in 2007, has planted 449 fruit trees in partnership with the city water department. The Beacon Food Forest, which will break ground later this month, was developed on seven downtown acres owned by Seattle Public Utilities.

And Fallen Fruit, an art collective, has plans to create Los Angeles County's first "public fruit park" — 100 trees planted in and around Del Aire Park near Hawthorne. Like the Guerrilla Grafters, the folks at Fallen Fruit say future harvests would be there for anyone who wanted them.

Ornamental street trees that are not bearing fruit "should be abolished," said David Burns, who co-founded Fallen Fruit and is working on the park project with the L.A. County Arts Commission. "That should be just not legal."

In a South of Market conference room, four members of the Guerrilla Grafters hunched over their laptops, working on the next phase of their sweetly subversive project.

Using data available online, they hope to pinpoint every one of the approximately 103,000 street trees in San Francisco that might be turned into a fruit producer. They also plan to map every grafted tree to aid in care, future harvesting and research into which species work best in the city's varied microclimates.

The prototype maps look like abstract watercolors, and the database lists each tree's location by latitude and longitude, as well as its scientific and common names. For a select few, there is a notation about what was grafted on and when.

After a decade working in high-tech, software developer Jesse Bounds, 35, took a year off and traveled the world with his wife. They volunteered on a vineyard in Italy, helped create water filters and stoves for South American villagers and lent a hand to Elephant Human Relations Aid in Namibia.

To Bounds, who has also grafted with the guerrilla group, the database is "software development work with a clear connection to the real world."

Hui also was trained as a computer scientist, but left the industry years ago to dedicate herself to the causes that she said matter: social justice, sustainability and community.

Her day job is with a nonprofit organization called Kids in Parks, where she teaches outdoor science classes to middle-schoolers on a part-time basis. With the help of a friend, she designed and built the Poo Garden, a prototype composting toilet that, when full, becomes a planter.

Hui said she works hard "to be less dependent on money." She barters and trades with friends. She keeps backyard chickens and eats from her home vegetable garden.

She dreams of cities filled with fruit trees.

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