In the first of a new monthly column, landscape designer Darbi Davis digs deep to bring you stories for your outdoor space. This month: the lawbreakers they call guerrilla grafters.

When urban sidewalks lined with sterile trees suddenly start dropping fruit, people eat and communities come together, thanks to an illegal movement that is establishing itself nationwide in the U.S.

We’ve all heard of guerrilla gardening – turning derelict, barren land into community gardens. The underlying motivation for guerrilla grafting is similar, except one group beautifies neglected space, and the other fills the void.

By grafting fruit-bearing branches onto sterile trees, guerrilla grafters provide a modern – yet illegal – solution to resolving food insecurity among populations living in a “food desert.”

That was the case with Tara Hui, founder of San Francisco-based Guerrilla Grafters. “We really didn’t have any fresh produce. The area I lived in was considered a food desert, but it had a lot of sidewalks,” she says.

The purpose of the grafters, according to Tara, is “not so much to antagonize but to bolster a sense of ownership within the community.” They do not haphazardly graft guerrilla style, and each grafted tree has an “adoptive parent” who monitors the progress of the graft and overall health of the tree as it morphs into abundance.


Speaking at a gathering in Tucson last month hosted by Slow Food Southern Arizona, Tara stressed the social implications of her grafting work. The newly grafted tree ultimately “creates a sense of camaraderie and relationship with neighbors and a trusting relationship with the space and people around you,” she says. They only graft in spaces accessible to the public at all times.

Grafting season is late winter or early spring, when the trees are just beginning to wake up. The Guerrilla Grafters encourage activists to set up guerrilla grafting groups in their own geographical regions and take ownership of their trees.
Some of their greatest volunteer support comes from computer hackers – familiar with a similar form of quick, stealthy work – and artists who view the acts much like a gardening form of graffiti.

Opposition comes from city municipalities, where codes restrict the use of fruit-bearing trees in public rights of way for reasons of safety (someone might slip on the sidewalk from rotting fruit) or nuisance (rats will invade).


One of the main hurdles the grafters face is vandalism, particularly in their hometown of San Francisco. “We say vandals although we suspect some sort of authority or agency, but we can’t prove it. The targeting and skill of pruning were so severe and in a fairly wide area that we don’t think it’s just random people doing it [the vandalism],” says Tara. “In one case in San Francisco, an entire street of trees had their grafted branches pruned back so much that some have died as a result,” she says.


For this reason the grafters must be secretive about their work and only release photos or films not depicting street signs or other identifying landmarks. Recently, they abandoned the use of color-coded electrical tape, and reverted back to grafting tape in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to the tree.

So, could guerrilla grafting happen in Tucson? Tucson has its share of non-native, non-fruit bearing trees, such as the Swan Hill Olive (fruiting variety banned due it’s allergenic properties). But, surprisingly, we lack guerrilla grafting advocates.

The reality is that our hot, dry, desert has more than 500 food-producing native plants according to Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy C. Hodgson. That number, coupled with our outstanding local organizations who promote native, food-producing plants and their fruits – Native Seeds Search and Desert Harvesters to name two – possibly explains why we don’t have so many vigilante propagators.

The harsh microclimates surrounding our public spaces, coupled with our epic water shortage, would most definitely have an impact on the survivability of non-native, food-producing plants grafted in place along our sidewalks. In fact some would say Tucson is the antithesis of a food desert. Organizations like the Iskashitaa Refugee Network harvest more than 75,000 pounds of edible food each year, from public and private lands scattered throughout our lower desert that would otherwise be wasted. Barbara Eiswerth, the organization’s executive director, believes that this is “only the tip of the iceberg in terms of harvesting edibles in the lower desert.”


So rather than guerrilla grafting, Tucson is more about guerrilla foraging. Laura Jensen, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture, calls herself an “urban forager”.

Once, she took her children on a bicycle foraging expedition through the University area. They collected four pounds of sour oranges, a little under a pound of calamondins, a couple of grapefruits, and olives. The result? Two dozen jars of marmalade and preserves! 

Reprinted with permission:

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