Hack Your City: Guerrilla Grafters’ Manual for Making Ornamental Trees Edible

You don’t have to ask permission to make your city more abundant, growing food where once there was none. Sometimes this type of urban hacktivism is obvious to passersby and thus, susceptible to interruption – like planting guerrilla gardens in vacant lots – but sometimes it can fly under the radar, with a much higher shot at success. Guerrilla grafting is one potentially sly means of making cities more hospitable to their inhabitants without relying on official avenues. All it takes is some cuttings from fruit bearing varietals, a few simple tools and a little bit of caretaking.

Why do cities so often plant non-fruit-producing ornamental versions of cherry, pear, plum and other fruit trees? Mostly for the sake of convenience and thrift. They don’t want to have to clean up after trees that might drop a lot of fruit on public surfaces like sidewalks, nor are they thrilled about any extra work harvesting and distributing that fruit might require. Many city governments, like San Francisco, consider grafting a form of vandalism.

But planting and maintaining food-producing plants can be especially crucial in communities that are euphemistically referred to as ‘food deserts,’ i.e. low income neighborhoods where groceries are hard to come by (almost always thanks to systemic inequality.) Many people who live in these areas don’t own cars, don’t have a lot to spend on food and don’t have the time to make special trips out of their way to find healthy options. These spots – rather than wealthier neighborhoods – are prime for grafting.

Tara Hui founded the Guerrilla Grafters collective when her own efforts to alleviate food deserts in the Bay Area were denied by city officials. She figured she’d just do it herself instead, joining up with fellow agricultural activists to transform existing trees into fruit-bearing trees and collect data on the project to prove that it works. The group only splices edible varietals onto ornamentals in areas where volunteers have pledged to monitor and maintain the trees to avoid problems like pests.

Want to give it a shot? You’ll need budding fruit tree cuttings, a sharp knife, ziplock bags, grafting tape, rubber bands and a few other household items. Check out this manual from Guerrilla Grafters to get started. Click to enlarge, or download (in English, German or Spanish) at the Guerrilla Grafters website.