Why Guerrilla Gardeners Want to Get Caught

©. Nicolas Zurcher

An art professor and her comrades carry bags of knives, wax and tree branches through San Francisco after the sun goes down. Their eyes dart around, nerves on high alert.

"We try to have one person on lookout," explained Margaretha Haughwout, the art professor.

Haughwout helped found Guerrilla Grafters, a group that grafts fruit branches onto city trees. Grafting is an ancient farming practice based on the weird fact that trees will accept new limbs. If you tape a cherry branch to an ornamental tree, the branch will start growing cherries. For Haughwout, grafting is a way to feed people for free. For the city of San Francisco, it's a crime. But that's okay; in fact, Haughwoute is counting on it.

It all started in 2011, when Haughwout and some friends came up with the idea and grabbed some branches. Things were more innocent then, and the group strolled down a San Francisco street in the middle of the afternoon, accompanied by yapping pet dogs.

"We were pretty conspicuous the first time," Haughwout told me. "We wouldn’t be able to be like that now."

Not so surprisingly, passersby noticed them and asked what was going on.

"We said we’d taken a pruning class and we were just practicing," she said. "It made no sense because we were holding up the branches. But people seemed to buy it."

grafting a fruit tree

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

That first year, the group grafted cherry, plum and pear trees around San Francisco. Haughwout says grafting changed her.

"You continually come back to see how the grafts are going," she said. "All of a sudden, the way you move through your neighborhood changes."

Normally, grafts take three to seven years to start growing fruit, Haughwout explained. But her first pear graftings grew fruit that year.

"We took it as a sign," she said.

It certainly seemed to be. At first, all went well. Locals were excited to see fruit on the trees outside their houses.

"I remember one woman gestured to the whole street and said, 'This whole street should be fruit. Can you imagine?'" Haughwout said.

Guerrilla Grafters grew. The grafters set up a website and got emails from people all over the world who were starting their own grafting groups. The founders taught workshops around the country.

But the grafters learned pretty quickly that not everyone was feeling the grafting spirit. Once, when Haughwout was was out grafting with Tara Hui, another Guerrilla Grafters founder, they struck up a conversation with a man about the trees near his house.

“What do you think about these trees having fruit on them?” Hui asked him, says Haughwout.

"That'd be horrible," he replied.

That's when they realized that the branches and other supplies stuffed into their bags were in plain sight.

"We had this moment of shoving everything away and trying to hide it from him," Haughwout said.

Occasional naysayers were, perhaps, the first rumblings of the fight to come. Journalists wrote about the Guerrilla Grafters, and that meant city government found out about them. The government lambasted grafting.

"The city considers such vandalism a serious offense," said Mohammed Nuru, San Francisco's public works director, at the time. The government and grafters went back and forth, arguing their cases in interviews and articles.

“We’ve definitely had a media war," Haughwout said.

Eventually, the argument made its way into the real world. When Haughwout came back to check on some cherry trees she grafted a few months before, she was in for a horrible surprise. The city had severely cut back all the grafted trees.

"They were really wounded," she said. "They never quite were the same."

For Haughwout, the trees weren't just decorations, or even food sources.

“When you care for something that’s alive, it’s hard to see them wounded," she said. "You sort of feel like you’re mourning with the tree.”

That's when the grafters realized they needed to be more careful. They'd been planning to put a map of all their grafts online so people could come and pick the fruit. They'd have to scratch that plan. They'd also have to come up with strategies for talking to journalists and take extra care when photographing their grafts.

"We always try to shoot in a way where you can’t tell where the graft is," Haughwout explained.

But Haughwout didn't actually seem to mind all the negative attention. In fact, she considers it part of the project.

"It exposes who city government really works for," she said. "Governments usually work for property. They say 'falling fruit attracts homelessness and rats,' which is obviously a really suspicious pairing."

guerilla gardeners
© Margaretha Haughwout and Guerrilla Grafter Ian Pollock conduct a workshop in Oakland. Ariel Cooper

Even before Haughwout started grafting, she knew she'd be entering a debate with city government. She was kind of counting on it. In her view, there's a really problematic divide between private and public. Private spaces are for the wealthy. Public spaces are for nobody. Ornamental trees, for instance, are just decorations. "They're 'in public,' but you're not supposed to touch them or interact with them," she said.

It wasn't always like that. Most countries used to have "commons," public spaces that everyone could farm. In medieval England, for instance, farming communities shared a common growing space, which they'd organize at council meetings. A couple centuries ago, the English government privatized the land, taking it from farmers and giving it to large agricultural businesses. And that's pretty much where a lot of the world, including the U.S., stands today. Most people live in a world of private property.

"We’re challenging that dynamic," Haughwout said. "We’re advocating for a real commons."

She imagines a world with more food forests (which, as she points out, aren't just for humans), fewer cars and lots of vertical gardening.

"It’s not like you have to go get a jackhammer to make a difference," Haughwout said. "It’s about looking at your environment differently."

So for Guerrilla Grafters, grafting isn't really about grafting. It's about what public spaces are for, and who in a society ought to have access to them. If companies and wealthy people own most land, and the government won't let people plant on public land, then most people are stuck buying food from large corporations.

The situation is also rough on the environment. 40 percent of land on the planet is now farmland, which is part of the reason we're in what scientists are calling the planet's sixth major mass extinction. Maybe that could change if people used city land, rather than just walked past it.

“Our city streets are sterile," Haughwout said. "Our laws enforce it, our economy reinforces it, our culture reinforces it. We’re demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be that way."