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Guerrilla Grafters: Splicing Fruit-Bearing Branches Onto City Trees

In San Francisco, a new form of covert agriculture is taking root: making fruit trees out of trees that normally don’t bear fruit, and turning an entire city into an orchard.

Money, as we all know, doesn’t grow on trees. Food, on the other hand, does. So with the economy dragging, why not turn public trees into a source of free fruit?

In San Francisco, a group of renegade agriculturalists called Guerrilla Grafters are doing just that, grafting fruit-bearing branches onto public trees that otherwise don’t bear fruit. The group has created a web app to help locals find trees that might be good candidates for a new, fruit-bearing branches and provides tips on how to pull off a successful grafting. They also have a Facebook page where they report on upcoming events and track the progress of their cherry and pear grafts.

What makes them guerrillas is the fact that this grafting is illegal. As the group’s Tara Hui explains, "people think of fruit trees as kind of a nuisance." That’s both because of the mess they might create in the form of rotten fruit and the vermin they might attract in the form of rats. Depending on the species you’re using, grafting might also run afoul of patent law. The Guerrilla Grafters address the first two problems by making sure each grafted tree has a "steward" who can monitor and take care of it.

Guerrilla grafting might be seen as another branch (ahem) of a diverse and burgeoning movement to bring nature—and its bounty—into the urban environment. The practice of guerrilla gardening (first popularized, perhaps, by a certain John "Appleseed" Chapman in Ohio in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) has attracted a lot of media attention in the last five years, and local organizations have proliferated. The related ideas of urban gleaning, urban agriculture, urban aquaculture, and vertical farming also seem to be gaining momentum.

One especially nice thing about guerrilla grafting, however, is that it splices together the low overhead of guerrilla gardening with the productive promise of farming in the city.

Whether guerrilla grafting will take off—and, indeed, whether it will grow to any meaningful scale in San Francisco—remains to be seen. But given the media attention, there is certainly interest. And given the fact that there are thousands of trees in most American cities, it would seem to have some potential as well.