I joined a guerilla mission to turn city trees into fruit trees

guerilla grafting fruit branch onto city tree
© My graft! (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

A ragtag group of guerilla gardeners and I marched down the street with a covert mission: to turn a row of city trees into a different species of tree.

Cities plant tons of trees in parks and along the street to keep temperatures down, clean the air, and just generally make people feel less like caged animals in a concrete dystopia. New York City, for instance, is currently planting a million new trees.

These city trees tend to be decorative — they don’t bear fruit — and some people think that’s a waste. There are so many hungry people in cities; why not plant fruit-bearing trees? Whole cities could be lined with free apples and peaches.

So people take this issue into their own hands by turning decorative trees into fruit-bearing trees. These folks are called guerilla grafters. And I joined them on one of their expeditions.

trees in a nyc neighborhood© Turtix/Shutterstock

It started when the grafting group and I gathered inside a small, messy Brooklyn building. Branches wrapped in wet paper towels sat on a table. Marilyn, the woman in charge (not her real name) showed about five of us how to cut the branches.

“You can do a pencil cut, or you can just do a straight diagonal,” she said. “I don’t know; I haven’t actually tried most of these.”

We were learning how to transform trees through a process called “grafting.” Grafting is when you take a branch from one tree and splice it onto a different tree. People have grafted since ancient times. In fact, the apples in grocery stores generally come from grafted trees.

“If anyone else wants to jump in, please do it,” Marilyn said midway through her explanation. “I don’t really know much about this.” There are people that graft a lot more regularly, but Marilyn had just recently learned.

We grabbed the branches and went out the door. I’d imagined guerilla grafters sneaking through the city at night covered in face paint, hiding illicit cherry branches in their black turtlenecks. But we just sauntered down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon.

grafting a fruit tree© The hands of someone better at grafting than me. (Barsan Attila/Shutterstock)

As we walked, we passed a guerilla garden Marilyn had set up. Lettuce and other vegetables grew in the small bit of soil between the storefronts and sidewalk. She'd stuck a sign, "FOOD IS FREE," in the garden. I'd passed by the sign before and always thought it was some sort of a philosophical statement.

Marilyn looked at the sign and sighed.

"People still don't take the food," she said.

"Wait. Should you maybe just write, 'FREE FOOD'?" I asked. Her eyes lit up.

"Ohhhhh," she said. "Yeah, that makes sense."

We were looking for a row of ornamental cherry trees that Marilyn had seen earlier. Ornamental cherry trees are bred specifically to not actually make cherries, so the irony of grafting fruit-bearing branches onto them would be delicious. Unfortunately, Marilyn couldn’t remember where the trees were.

“Maybe this next street?” she murmured.

We walked in circles. On the way, Marilyn pointed out other grafts people had made years ago. One tree in someone’s yard looked completely normal, until you noticed a strange branch growing out of the base with different leaves. It grew up a few yards and made up the bulk of this odd, Siamese tree. I realized that grafts had probably been around me my whole life; I’d just never noticed them.

Finally, we found them: a row of decorative cherry trees lining a quiet street.

“You can try grafting a peach branch onto a cherry tree,” Marilyn suggested.

“Will that work?” I asked. She shrugged.

I approached one of the cherry trees and found a branch the width of the peach branch in my hand. One guy lent me his pocketknife, and I started cutting. The knife was dull, so I ended up whittling the branch rather than cleanly slicing it. I accidentally made it into a poky shape, which coincidentally turned out to be a grafting technique.

“Oh nice, you went with the pencil method,” Marilyn said.

“Mhmmm,” I said, like I did it on purpose.

I slid the peach branch into the cherry branch. Then I covered the branches in wax, taped them up, and wrapped a rubber band around them. Down the line, maybe someone would enjoy free peaches. Take that, agribusiness.

So if you’re ever wandering through Brooklyn and notice a peach growing out of a cherry tree, you’ll know what went down.

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