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streetwalker - saratoga 02: fruit trees in public spaces

Saratoga Heritage Orchard

Throughout my career as a public servant…from my time as a volunteer advising municipalities, a leader of a community nonprofit organization, or as an employee…at some point a gardener, foodie, or tree hugger (I use this term affectionately) would approach me exclaiming, “Let’s plant fruit trees in public spaces!” In essence, their immediate motivation is to address hunger but also answer a dream of gift sharing for people walking idly by picking fruit from space that might otherwise be considered underutilized. Eden. It’s a wonderful gesture toward public good, answering the call for everyone to just get along while upping food availability. There are only four instances where I have observed fruit trees in public places: municipal orchards, community gardens, plaza trees, and the occasional generosity of homeowners planting trees along sidewalks. There are, however, caveats and challenges.

The first example is here in Saratoga where the municipal Heritage Orchard surrounds the public library, a place I frequently visit on my streetwalker tours. Set on almost 14 acres, the Heritage Orchard represents one of the last vestiges of the “Valley of Hearts Delight,” as Santa Clara County was once known by its endless orchards predating Silicon Valley. The orchard’s heritage designation is rather recent, perhaps in recognition of other disappearing orchards: first identified as a city park in 1984 followed by its listing as a local historic resource in 1988. In 2001, a Historic Orchard Master Plan recognized a need for management and includes a 2020 update addressing maintenance, climate change, and public involvement. Management of public fruit trees, unfortunately, has its tests.

The plan recognizes that this orchard is not fenced; a quick online search found various postings about orchard thefts throughout the country, but the crime does not appear to be commonplace. When I lived in the wine country, I recall vintners commenting that the grapes closest to roadways were practically expected to disappear…if not by humans perhaps by wildlife. At the time of this posting, it is unclear if theft is a quantifiable concern in either situation. Instead of focusing on theft, the management plan for the Heritage Orchard mentions public access that could compact soil, damaging tree roots in the process, or people breaking limbs caused by unfamiliarity with proper harvesting techniques. Considering these concerns, the City of Saratoga is attempting to control how fruit can be harvested by posting unattractive yet informative signage along the roadway and pedestrian pathways. The signs direct people to contact the city with their interests before taking fruit.

One alternative option to orchard conservation and protection appears to be fencing the point of entry, but what message does that convey? It depends upon the application and even style of the fencing. If we’re thinking about barbed wire or chain link, we’re on our way to catastrophe.

Fencing can be linked to our second category, community gardens. Years ago, I had the honor of leading the effort and design for the Town Green Community Garden in Windsor, California. As an active community garden, there are plot renters managing their own designated gardens, and the common spaces include a few communal fruit trees and a berry patch. There are even plots for a local food bank. I recall when the subject of fencing came about, and there were two factions: one for keeping the garden open to the public and another for providing access for members only. The final decision to fence the perimeter was influenced by the realization that garden members will be working to grow their own food, so allowing the public in at anytime day or night risked hard work disappearing overnight. And so, the fence was constructed with gates locked at night. We used a simple galvanized “hog wire” with wood posts, which allowed viewing into the garden from the outside while allowing gardeners to train various crops like beans and peas, so the fence doubles as a trellis, effectively extending useable space. Win, win!

Similarly, I have observed community gardens within the City of San Jose. They, too, are primarily secured. One slight variation are community gardens that were developed in tandem with new housing projects, where tenants could rent a plot through the development’s homeowners association. The degree of fencing is variable, however most assuredly secured against the public.

Tying both orchard and fencing together for this post, the City of San Jose also has a historic orchard in the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens. The orchard trees have had their struggles, but a nonprofit, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, is leading the initiative to replant and provide volunteers for maintenance. It is not clear at the time of writing what the goal is for the orchard, and with few producing trees, theft may not be an immediate concern. Regardless of tree performance, the land is fenced with a simple perimeter enclosure, approximately 3’ tall. While not secure, per say, it provides unintrusive demarcation that might dissuade trespassers to some degree. This could be a model for cities like Saratoga for articulating space without moving toward more hostile landscape measures such as tall fences with locks.

I discovered the third idea for public fruit trees while on a walk through the streets of Barcelona (yes, I try to get around as a streetwalker). Barcelona will forever fascinate me with its hyper grid of city streets in stark contrast to its “Gothic Quarter,” a nickname for the city’s original Roman and Medieval center of protective walls and narrow streets. The corner buildings of the newer grid are chamfered, which offers an opportunity to create mini plazas at street intersections. A few of these social spaces have raised planters that double as seating, and some of the trees were a kind of citrus, what look like small oranges. Fruit was plentiful on every one of the trees, healthy too. I could not help but notice that the fruit was only in the upper reaches, suggesting that when opportunity arises, the low hangers had already been taken. Could something like this occur in the United States? Are there any examples? To date I have not seen them.

Finally, as I walk the streets of (insert city), I will eventually find homeowners that have taken it upon themselves to add fruit trees close to the sidewalk, either on property or in the public “parkstrip,” the landscape area between the sidewalk and curb. I have yet to talk with any homeowner that has done this to find out their intent and results. Could these locations be the last gardening space with sun? Is the intention to share the fruit with passersby? Which incidentally has given rise to a global mapping project where fruit trees can be found. Or is it simply linked to cultural notions that the only valuable tree is the one that produces fruit, rather than a shade tree that does not? Inquiring minds.

While I do not know their reasons for planting fruit trees where street trees should stand, I can as an arborist, designer, and public servant answer the question, “Why don’t we plant more fruit trees as street trees?” One word comes to mind, liability, and this is where drawbacks are noted. City-sanctioned fruit trees might actually lead to lawsuits, and here’s why. First and foremost, fruit drop, as referenced in this report from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources discussing trials on a growth regulator. As fruit matures and sometimes isn’t harvested (it happens more often that one might imagine), the fruit will drop on public sidewalks that could lead to pedestrians slipping or tripping. This also includes fruiting olives, "fruitless" flowering pears, and ornamental American sweetgums, as examples. Condoning the planting of fruit trees in such locations would then make city agencies subject to liability cases. Similarly, if homeowners take it upon themselves to plant fruit trees over public walkways, they too could be liable for injuries caused by dropped fruit. In short, one will find it difficult to find city officials motivated to support this idea.

Another concern is infestation. When trees become infested and untreated, insect residue can become a sticky problem on cars, possibly damaging their finishes. Infestations can lead to sooty mold; a clear sign of this problem is when sidewalks and roadways are stained black under tree canopies. The next time I see some, I will add a photo here. To be fair, fruit trees are not the only type of tree that is vulnerable to infestations. Ornamental street trees like some types of elms can also succumb leading to unsightly sticky messes on surfaces below. In either situation, it will be up to the property owner to have a proactive plan to address infestations.

A recent walk to the Saratoga branch library, casually observing the orchard laden with fruit, became a pondering. Why exactly, couldn’t there be more opportunities to plant fruit trees in public rights-of-way? Perhaps not along streets due to liability concerns, as I have articulated, but finding those opportunities within existing parks, open space, or neglected lots might be possible. For some years now, I have watched the last orchards in the “Valley of Hearts Delight” be replaced with high density housing, yet so many cities talk about finding places for pocket parks, pocket forests, and now I’m thinking of pocket orchards. Token replacement? Perhaps, but what is this valley when it loses its heart’s delight?

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