Guerilla Grafters: the new fruits in town

Surrounded by Bradford pears, Yoshino cherries, and flowering crab apples, I have spent too much of my life witnessing the empty, unfruitful promises of urban and suburban springs.  For several years now, I have not only harbored fantasies of grafting tender young twigs from productive fruit trees on to the branches of these seductive liars, I have taken grafting classes with that goal in mind.  In that context, you’d expect me to be happier about the article on guerrilla grafting in last Tuesday’s San Francisco Examiner, but there are some things in the article that give me pause.

The biggest issue is the timing.  Rather than allowing the project a few quiet years to solidify and produce fruit, literally, a reporter eager for a scoop may well have thrown the project to the wolves long before there is anything other than speculation to argue about.

Being a professional, journalist Amy Crawford spoke to all the parties involved, including Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru.  Of course Mr. Nuru is not a fan.  It is nearly explicit in his job description that he not be: the trees are in public rights of way, inevitably some of the fruit will drop and not be harvested, cutting on trees is generally considered vandalism (grafting done poorly can cause damage), yadda yadda yadda.

Mr. Nuru did not know about the grafting that had happened last spring, but now that he and his department have been fully alerted by Ms. Crawford, they can certainly keep an eye out for any new grafts, nipping the project in the bud quite literally.  Since Tara Hui and the other Guerrilla Grafters members chose to begin the project on the downlow (and then let her full name be published?), they needed it to stay hush hush until several years of data could be collected to support the project once it became known.

Whether it needed to be subterfuge or not is not for me to say- I don’t live there and haven’t dealt with their local politics. That part of Mr. Nuru’s response in the article included an openness to ideas about urban agriculture is not surprising- this is San Francisco after all.

But above board or on the sly, grafting as a means to jumpstart urban orchards is smart, but it will run into some predictable obstacles.  Who is going to harvest, what about the fruit that falls to the ground, and what about attracting “urban wildlife”?  Also, fruit trees are notoriously difficult to manage organically, so somebody will bring up pesticides and spraying in the urban environment.

Village Homes Commons include urban fruit orchards

Village Homes includes edible plants in the landscaping of the Commons.

Frankly, either start up vector (renegade or round-table) would take the first few years to watch for these problems and develop systems and solutions before scaling up to the whole city or multiple cities.  Certainly the Village Homes neighborhood in Davis, California will have some insights to share about their public orchards.

Fruit drop is something the Guerilla Grafters seem to have under control: each tree has a volunteer steward who keeps on top of such issues.  In an ideal situation, signs could be put beside trees with ripe fruit: “Ready For Harvest!” Organizations such as local schools, Food Banks, etc can be matched up either with a given number of trees to glean from over the course of the season, or assigned gleaning weeks when their volunteers get to pick over ripe fruit the public has left behind.

Those systems would take care of the bulk of any fruit drop problems, but in the event that the dropped fruit attracted some of urbanities less beloved but definitely ubiquitous wildlife (rats and pigeons), one answer might be to make the ecosystem even more complex.

Michael J. Raupp, PhD

Dr. Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland most known for his Bug of the Week web page, spoke at a Master Gardeners conference I was at a few years ago.  One of the most interesting and resonant concepts he taught me that day dealt with landscape complexity.

Although much ado has been paid to biodiversity in certain contexts and at a certain scales, the term landscape complexity focuses attention on diversity at the structural level.  A yard with cleome, echinacea, yarrow, cosmos, dahlia, and daylilies certainly has diversity, but they are all herbaceous flowers.  Structural diversity speaks to the inclusion of trees and shrubs, deciduous and evergreen, herbaceous plants and ground covers, vines, canopy, and subcanopy.

When Dr. Raupp and his research team ran a series of field research projects several years ago, they were measuring the insect load in suburban yards.  More specifically, they were looking to see which plants seemed to provide some protection to their neighbors from insect pests.  What they found surprised them, and then delighted them.  In the end it was undeniably clear that the more complex a landscape the fewer insect pest problems the residents of said landscape experienced.

But why?

Somebody eats the pests.  The more interesting and varied the yard, the more likely that when an insect that would become a problem arrived, a predator would already be in residence.  The pest never gets more than a toehold on the site, so no population boom happens.

It is my belief that this fundamental ecosystem balancing occurs not just with insect pests but at all levels.  I believe that humans have an innate mental meter in our subconscious that sets off alarms when we see indications of something deeply out of balance.  It’s not that I think the alarm is very loud, we have plenty of evidence to the contrary, but when it comes to rats and pigeons, it does seem to ring at a pitch that most of us can hear.

For a little while there, my New Yorker buddies were positively rabid about the pigeon population.  Not long after I began to see articles about the success of various platforms and perches assembled around the city (often on the sides of skyscrapers) so that predator birds could nest (many of them like cliff faces), the pigeon complaints suddenly fell silent.  I believe the predator birds reached a level that could address the imbalance sufficiently to return pigeons from their status as ire-inducing “rats with wings” to their historic and more neutral urban bird standing.

Would the introduction of orchards into urban neighborhoods require a simultaneous invitation to particular predator species?  I don’t know, but it seems reasonable to at least look into it.

There remains one last concern voiced by Mr. Nuru in the San Francisco Examiner article to address: that of the trees being in the public right of way.  This issue of who exactly our park land belongs to is as old as parks themselves.  Either public land belongs to everybody and thus anybody can do anything (within reason) or public land belongs to nobody and thus nobody has any right to do anything.  The truth is of course somewhere between the two extremes, but no matter where you draw a line there will always be somebody straddling it.

Rather than saying no orchards anywhere, it would be more honest to say orchards would cause problems here and here much more than there and there.  Maybe fruit trees beside sidewalks would be more problematic but fruit trees near picnic tables next to playgrounds would be very welcome.

Beyond that, urban orchards do not need to rely on public land.  One of the things that thwarts the ability of a homeowner with a tiny weenie whittle backyard to have an apple tree is that apples need other apple trees nearby in order to pollinate and set fruit.  It is very likely that more than one person in any given neighborhood would like to have a fruit tree in their yard but believes there will not be a pollinator nearby.  It is also very likely that there is somebody else wouldn’t mind a fruit tree but hasn’t got the money or know how or impetus to go out and get one.  Somebody to coordinate these neighbors could create fruit bounty in urban settings and public land has never been touched.

At any rate, the Guerrilla Grafters project is underway in San Francisco.  The timing of the article is fairly awkward, leaving us all with the hanging question: can the parties involved begin a dialogue without either “side” being defensive?  Best of luck to everybody (especially my fruity friends!) ~ Molly

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4 Responses to Guerilla Grafters: the new fruits in town

  1. Brendan T. Leathem

    Thanks for a nice follow up with some great elaborations on the ideas in the article. Beyond the complexity of social issues that an idea like this challenges, the biological constraints are minimal and could be undertaken with a little attentive stewardship. The one idea I take issue with in your article is the notion that fruit bearing trees are more difficult to manage if it is done organically. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are numerous examples of orchard management done in the organic tome all over the Bay Area with great success. I encourage you to look deeper into this idea and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Thanks!

    • Yes, you’re right, organic orchards do not have to be more complicated; examples of this are abundant. I didn’t make myself clear: organic orchards have a _reputation_ for being more difficult to manage, ergo whether or not they actually are, somebody is going to bring up the spraying of pesticides and whatnot in a discussion about urban orchards. I meant for the section on structural complexity to come back around to this: traditional orchards are monocultures, so of course they have pest problems. Orchards within urban and suburban areas will be inherently more biologically diverse, more structurally complex, more broadly spaced from each other, etc etc. They are actually at an advantage when it comes to organic production.

      When folks talk about organic orchards being difficult, they are often talking from the market/ commodity (monoculture) point of view. I believe we are looking at an imminent sea-change in fruit production as the pressure for more organic fruit crops rises. The only folks who really really really have a shot at doing organic fruit production on a large _and eco-logical_ scale (there is, unfortunately, nothing in the organic standards that insists on sustainability) are the permaculturalists. To ask if permaculture can be done on a commercial scale is tantamount to sacrilege is some senses, but I smell an interesting blog post forming in my mind… thanks for the jostle!

  2. I was astonished to see the Village Homes picture! I went to UC Davis in the 1980′s and had a couple friends that lived in Village Homes. Back in the early 80′s, if I recall correctly, there weren’t so many trees back then. The picture looks much different from what I remember! I must go back to Davis for a visit.

    • Village Homes just got started in the early 1970s, so you were catching it very early in it’s life / life-liness. I have some interesting site diagrams I did of that project. I’ll have to find them, put them up here.

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