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Fruity Street Trees?
updated: Nov 20, 2010, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Imagine that you're walking down the street and get an urge for a triple-scoop cone of Everybody Loves Rhubarb, Lumpy Gravy, and Cioppino Siciliano. The saliva floodgates burst. A nano-second later, in a voice oddly reminiscent of dear old mom, your macrobiotic-hi-fiber-omega-3 conscience interjects: "Have a piece of fruit. It's good for you."

As luck would have it, growing right there in the parkway is a Magical Fruit Cocktail Palm (Phoenix delmonteana). Clusters of familiarly labeled cans hang within reach. Why, there's even a hollow in the trunk containing a handy can opener!

"What an enlightened and generous place I live in," you think to yourself. "Which forward-thinking civic leaders had the foresight to use fruit trees as street trees? Not only are these trees doing their part cooling the urban heat-sink effect (which, in turn, reduces ambient temperatures and lessens our dependence on energy-hogging cooling systems), but I can also increase my fruit intake!"

[For the sake of brevity I will agree that canned fruit is inferior to real live stuff. But it was cuter and quicker to produce a graphic with cans of fruit cocktail than to futz around in Photoshop all day.]

Better yet, what if instead of magical palms, your community planted trees that actually bear life-giving, palate-tickling, colorful fruit? It stands to reason: If you're going to invest resources in planting, watering and pruning trees anyway, why not get something back?

Not Such A Peachy Idea

I called Ron Combs, City Arborist for the San Luis Obispo, inquiring if SLO had fruit trees in their public places. Aside from the pavement staining olives in Mission Plaza, Ron couldn't think of any fruit trees in his inventory. He did, however, use words like rotten, messy, slip and fall, gnats and rats. "The concept of edible street trees sounds great, but they come with problems," he said.

(I'm imagining the sidewalks during persimmon season.)

After two decades working for Santa Barbara Parks & Rec, I have to agree with Ron's rationale for keeping these otherwise wonderful plants out of parks and public right-of-way. Even if we take personal injury attorneys, chiropractors and infantiles with projectiles out of the picture, it still doesn't make sense. Here's why…

Street trees lead a tough life. They're tormented by delivery trucks whacking low-hanging branches, stressed out by inconsistent irrigation, and stymied by soil compaction, utility lines and Lilliputian planting strips.

Add to those hardships the special care many fruit trees need to produce a bumper crop, including annual pruning, properly timed species-specific fertilization, and winter spraying for many stonecrop varieties. That's a lot more life-support than your basic Jacaranda or palm tree.

Tim Downey is Santa Barbara's Urban Forest Superintendent: "For most city trees, we work on a 5-year pruning cycle." When you're responsible for an inventory of 45,000 trees citywide, "fruit trees just require more attention than we can provide."

I always enjoy the faux orchard of purple leaf plum trees that Caltrans imaginatively planted at the 101 and Fairview. I imagine they saw the illogic of using actual fruit-bearing trees and defaulted to symbolically honoring to Goleta's waning agricultural history.

Waste Want What Not (Close enough; you know what I mean)

Not happy with this cold, pragmatic attitude, one might think, "Well, what if we organize the neighborhood and take responsibility for the special needs? We can share in the harvest, or donate to those who can't afford fresh fruit."

I'm not saying it's impossible; there are big-hearted communities doing similar things. Projects like Portland's City Repair (see previous Edhat article have captured the energy and vision of like-minded citizens by creating nurturing, earth-gentle, community-building programs.

But speaking from the perspective of a former municipal bureaucrat tasked with facilitating grassroots groups bursting with great ideas, the proof is in the persimmon pudding. Well-intentioned groups start out with all the fire and focus of a pubescent junior high school dude at his first make-out party. And while there are notable successes, most volunteer efforts fizzle over the long haul. The last thing I want to see are scores of fruit trees planted, then mounds of wasted food rotting on the ground.

Enough With The Doom and Gloom, Billy Boy

Speaking of waste, Backyard Bounty is hard at work reducing the mountains of unused produce that wind up in local landfills. The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County runs the program, performing a great service for the community. Backyard Bounty has collected over 350,000 pounds of unharvested, perfectly usable fruit from the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Maria areas in recent years. This second harvest is distributed to residents in need.

Do you have fruit trees in your own yard that aren't being harvested to their highest potential? Backyard Bounty will not only pick up fruit you've picked, but they have a crew of volunteers who will pick, pack, and put it to good use. If you'd like to donate or become a volunteer picker, connect at their website

So how about we get government out of the mix (I think that was a theme in our recent paralyzingly-polarizing election) and plant orchards on unused private land and commercial property? Are there Edhat readers with a big piece of land where fruit trees could grow for a few decades? Yep, it instantly gets complicated, but hey, we live in a region where people solve more baffling gardening problems. (Notice how well the gas-powered leaf-blower ban is working?)

"I Sell Every Fruit Tree From A to Y"

Norman Beard sure has an ear for catchy slogans. He grows and sells over 200 varieties of fruit-bearing plants (but he hasn't found one that starts with ‘Z'). He owns and operates Beard Tropics Nursery on 5-acres of sloping, ocean-facing property near Winchester Canyon.

Initially, I visited Norm to see if he could think of any fruits that might make good street tree candidates. But even though he's an energetic booster for the fruit tree cause, he was decidedly unenthusiastic about putting them in public areas, for the same reasons given by Ron and Tim.

Regardless, I spent an hour-and-a-half with Norm, first wandering gape-mouthed through his greenhouse full of exotica, then along dirt paths connecting a food forest of plants, including some I've only seen on Gilligan's Island reruns. But… I'm out of space for this week, so tune in next time when I take you on a fully-narrated picture tour of Norm's vitamin-rich empire, connect you with the world of "rare fruit growers", and tell you how to get started growing the garnish for your next umbrella-adorned cocktail.

You have two weeks to download Don Ho's E Le Ka Lei (Beach Party Song) and check Craigslist for tiki torches.


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