Local eco-designer Andy Moskowitz would like to see Santa Cruz use grafting techniques to improve the trees in its public space. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
This tree is a complete abomination of nature,” says Andy Moskowitz, with a laugh.
The local eco-designer is looking at a fruit tree that has been grafted three times to simultaneously grow plums, apricots and peaches.
“I call it Frankenstein’s fruit salad,” he says. The tree, bizarre as it is, produces food, which Moskowitz believes is the most important thing a tree can do.
It’s part of what he calls his “productive urban homestead” in midtown Santa Cruz, off Emeline Street—a plot about an acre big, full to bursting with thick grasses, leafy greens, dirt paths, benches made from fallen trees to sit on, a hammock, and dozens of fruit and nut trees.
Grafting—the process of improving the quality and output of a fruit tree by affixing a scion, or small cutting, of one tree to another tree with tape and sealer—is the key to the fruit he produces.
“That’s how ornamental trees can be transformed into fruiting, productive trees,” he says. “A crappy apple tree with really strong roots will have a delicious apple tree grafted onto it. Most apples, plums, pears, are all grafted trees.”
He wonders why the same thing isn’t being done with the trees in Santa Cruz’s public spaces, such as the cherry trees along Pacific Avenue.
“Why aren’t they making cherries?” asks Moskowitz. “There’s a beautiful, healthy apple tree in front of Taco Bell on Mission. If it was making apples, I wonder if it would make someone think twice about going in and giving themselves a heart attack and diabetes.”
Ornamental trees, he says, provide us with beauty and shade—no small feat.
“I think those are valuable functions for a tree, and every tree species should be preserved, loved, appreciated, spent some time with, climbed,” he explains. “That said, I think there’s no reason we couldn’t be propagating multi-functional trees everywhere. By multi-functional, I mean an apple tree is beautiful, provides great shade, and also provides a shit ton of apples.”
In San Francisco, locals frustrated with city regulations prohibiting fruit-bearing trees in public spaces (because city officials would have to maintain the trees and clean up the fallen fruit), have formed a group called Guerrilla Grafters. Under the cover of night they sneak around, attaching grafts of fruit-bearing trees to ornamental trees. The city’s public works director Mohammed Nuru told the San Francisco Examiner the act was considered vandalism and said, “There would be fines for damage to city property.” Yet the group presses on and even made The New York Times last month.
Moskowitz, who is in the process of developing an advocacy organization called Food Forests for a Future, says guerrilla grafting is interesting as a concept, but ultimately more flash than substance.
“There’s nothing subversive, there’s nothing treasonous about making fruit grow,” he says. “And really it’s the life-affirming nature of this that’s significant.”
Because of the nature of our current agricultural system, with big farms producing most of the crops, variety is dwindling. “Four kinds of apples dominate the market,” insists Steve Schnaar, head of the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project, an organization that brings people together to collect the bounties from residential fruit trees whose owners can’t eat all of the yield themselves. “Most of our events have been harvesting fruit that otherwise would go to waste. We reduce waste, promote urban agriculture, have fun and be outside,” he says.
More grafting, and more fruit trees, might be a crucial factor in ensuring a healthy future for humankind, says Moskowitz.
“Increasingly what I’m doing in my work is trying to develop strains for disaster readiness, drought tolerance, self-seeding and self-propagation,” he says. “There are things that we’re losing rapidly with the industrialization of food ways…I think that’s a real loss. And I think reversing that will be necessary to creating a living future.”