I have a confession to make. I have fruit trees and vegetable beds in my front yard and on the median strip in front of my house. My neighbors and I think this is gorgeous, but Berkeley’s code-enforcement officers disagree. These compliance “enforcers” think my gardens are code-violations worthy of fines of $3,000 dollars a day, $90,000.00 dollars a month. (These fines are substantially larger than the development fees paid by Berkeley’s multimillion dollar development projects!)
I learned about social justice and ecology as a Berkeley youth, in Berkeley’s public schools. As a child I also learned that I could collect fruit from street-side trees as my friends and I walked home from Berkeley Arts Magnet Middle School. Growing naturally everywhere, free fruit was good, better than junk food, and inspired in me an awareness of our community’s abundance.
Even as a child, I could tell that nature’s gifts were not appreciated by our consumer culture because there were too few fruit trees on every block, but I found every one of them, and I had my favorites. The more fresh, free fruit we picked, the more energy the trees could invest in producing a new flush of lush, rich fruit. Just a few days later our foundling fruit trees would be alive all over again with ripe juicy goodness. I cared about those trees, and, as a child, I felt the trees took care of me. These roadside fruit trees taught me that if we steward our earthly realm, it would provide for all our needs.
That said, free, street-side, fruit trees are not without their problems. Even as a child I shared some concerns older folk had, specifically about giant trees that couldn’t be easily harvested; too often those trees simply dropped their abundance everywhere. Fortunately, there is an easy solution to that problem. The amazing dwarf fruit trees! If you graft a delicious fruit tree onto the trunk of a dwarf-bred fruit tree, you get small, harvestable-sized fruit trees whose bounty can be reached without ladders.
I have passed on the gifts of my youth in Berkeley to the next generations by planting dwarf fruit trees all along my sidewalk in front of my home in West Berkeley. Unlike trees all over the city, my trees are pruned eighteen inches off the curb and to the sidewalk edge in order to make safe passage down the street and easy egress from parked cars. I did this out of concern for the safety of my community, and, as it happens, these are exactly the standards, as explained to me by current Parks and Rec Commissioner Lisa Stephens and past Parks and Rec Commissioner Steve Paskowitz, that the city of Berkeley requires for unpermitted fruit trees. I asked these friendly knowledgeable experts because the city’s compliance enforcers insist that I must get permits from the Parks and Recs Commission for my fruit trees and garden beds. These knowledgeable experts and concerned enviromentalists also said that they don’t give permits for individual fruit trees and garden beds: I just have to keep them pruned and maintained for safe access to cars, and pedestrians, etc.
So I won’t be removing my garden gems; I won’t be replacing these dwarf fruit trees and raised vegetable beds with rolled out sod. In fact I’ll be planting more dwarf fruit trees in my front yard, back yard, and any yard of a neighbor who wants to join me.
The city of Berkeley’s perverted “code enforcement” action has reminded my of my first inspiration to social and environmental justice—the abundance of our urban garden scape. It wasn’t till the Code Enforcement Director Gregory Daniel told my roomates that the frontyard was supposed to be a lawn, that I realized that sustainable Berkeley needed some organizing support. I intend to fundraise $500 a day to build demonstration victory gardens in front yards all across Berkeley. I commit to $500 a day because that’s the amount of the first round of fines I was threatened with by Greg Daniel, and it’s more than enough to run a crew of urban farmers to fully re-green our city. I’m committing $500 of my own money to the pot to plant fruit trees in your yard.
Every Sunday starting now, my household will plant new gardens across Berkeley. If you want to join us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Asa Dodsworth is a Berkeley resident and recently ran for City Council.