Splat: City Planners Aren’t Fond of Fruit

Before I became a homeowner, I never thought that replacing a parking-strip tree that dropped huge burrs would require the same level of persistence and diplomacy as, say, achieving the Montreal Protocol. Nevertheless, there I was, on the phone with San Jose’s arborist, arguing over whether I could have a fruit tree on the parking strip.

“We really don’t want the fruit drop,” he said. “A lot of times, homeowners let it cover the sidewalk, and it rots and makes a mess and becomes a hazard.”

“I would never let the fruit rot,” I said. “We eat the fruit. Besides, there are already lots of plum trees on the parking strip in my neighborhood, so why can’t I have one of my own?”

He paused before deciding to let me in on the secret. “Um, in your neighborhood, we made a mistake. We thought those were flowering plums, but they’ve got fruit, and we’ve, uh, learned from our mistake. It’s a mess there every June.”

Suddenly, I had an idea. “How about a palm tree?” I offered.

“Well, you do know you can’t grow coconuts here?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “I was thinking about a different species.”

“I suppose that’s OK then, since you won’t be dropping fruit,” he agreed, unaware that I planned to plant Butia capitata, otherwise known as “pindo palm” or “jelly palm.” Years later, it would produce hundreds of plum-sized fruit that my two little “fruit bats”—nine-year-old Evan and five-year-old Jasmine—would devour, innocently keeping from violating the rationale behind the city’s hatred of fruit-bearing trees.

That conversation took place 13 years ago, before I’d planted more than 100 trees and bushes on my 7,200-square-foot tract-home lot, producing an effect that my neighbors affectionately call “the rain forest.” Today’s edible landscaping movement has come a long way from the days when most neighbors looked askance at those who broke the one-big-ornamental-tree-and-a-lawn look.

Fueled by the “buy-local” food movement, many homeowners—and even a few brave, balcony-owning souls—are starting to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Fighting a lack of knowledge—much of the gardening wisdom that used to be passed down in families was lost in the generation between the victory garden and the organic movement—they plant fruit trees in their lawns and vegetables in their back yard. Some even complement their gardens with small livestock, such as ducks, geese, chickens, and small pigs (warning: some pot-bellied pigs become huge).

But most cities still discourage parking-strip fruit trees, out of fear of bugs, decay, and tripping injuries. “Almost nobody in city planning is encouraging edible landscaping these days,” opines Michael Corbett, an urban planner who specializes in environmentally friendly developments.

But many growers take heart that neighbors today are less likely to whisper “The Adams Family” behind your back should you forego a lawn in favor of more productive landscaping.

Typical is San Francisco resident Aline Bier, whose adventures in edible landscaping have shaped her front yard. Generally, she says, her neighbors have not only tolerated her edible garden, they celebrate it. “My garden is totally in front and close to a little kids’ park/playground,” she says. “I have had chickens and ducks for years. They, and my fruit trees, are the talk of the neighborhood—from toddlers to oldsters, and among foreign-born folk, who often know much more than [I do] about farm animals and fruit production.”

Eric Beeghly, a member of the fruit enthusiast group California Rare Fruit Growers, agrees that at least in his neighborhood, people are enthusiastic about his unconventional yard, which is nearly lawn-less. “I recently designed and installed a front yard consisting almost entirely of edibles,” he says. “The response of the neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive. For example, a neighbor came by and and asked how much a strawberry plant would cost—I included 250 strawberry plants in the design. She was excited and surprised when I told her she could get six plants for about $3.50, and she told me [that] she planned on buying some right away.”

Still, says Bier, there are limits. Most cities in the Bay Area limit or even prohibit keeping livestock. Though these rules often remain unenforced in the absence of complaints, city officials are quick to respond when neighbors report violations.

“The only problem I’ve ever had was some years ago, when somebody gave me a rooster,” says Bier. “I put him in a cage in the garage and covered the cage, for the first and only night I had him. When I got to work the next morning, the City Attorney had already been calling with complaints.”

In addition to discouraging or prohibiting fruit, many jurisdictions impose clearance and other requirements on parking strips, as avid fruit gardener Sini Falkowski recently found out. “In the parking strip, I have two avocado trees planted, along with a persimmon and an apple tree,” she says. “I know these are not legal street trees, but I keep them healthy, trimmed, and looking good. Unfortunately, I just discovered I’m breaking a rule that says street trees should be trimmed to allow a six-foot clearance from the ground for vehicle safety reasons.”

Falkowski says that she will comply if anyone complains, “but so far my neighbors have been happy when they see the baskets of apples and other fruits that come to their doors.”

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