El Cerrito resident grows exotic fruit in his own backyard, and maybe yours, too

From Asian plums to sapotes and Persian mulberries, Tom Addison plants fruits and vegetables across patches of unused land in the East Bay.

Tom Addison with his Pakistan mulberry. Credit: Paulina Barrack

Welcome to East Bay Nosh’s local produce week, during which we’ll highlight stories of urban farming, growing your own food and dining off the land. You can see all the stories from this package on the Local Produce Week page.

If you’ve seen an exotic fruit on a restaurant menu in Oakland or Berkeley, you might have Tom Addison to thank. So do scores of Easy Bay residents, who he’s taught to cultivate fruits rarely seen in the wild on the West Coast.

Addison, a long-time El Cerrito resident, has always been passionate about the environment: For 30 years, he focused on sustainability issues, lobbying at the state capital for air quality improvements and working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before his retirement three years ago.

The seeds of his fruit gig were planted in the early 90s, and steadily grew into what Addison calls his urban farming project: Addison seeks out properties — anything from houses to apartment complexes — that have unused land and works out a partnership with the land owner to use the real estate to plant and harvest fruit.

“It’s astonishing how much [unused land] there is,” Addison said. “There’s a lot of folks who have backyards, and most of them are just growing weeds and will, with annoyance, go out once or twice a year to weed whack them.”

Tom Addison lifts a leaf to reveal an East Bay rose apple, a fruit most commonly found in eastern Australia. Credit: Paulina Barrack

“I have found that when I approach most people and say ‘Hey, how about if I plant an orchard in your backyard? You’ll get more fruit than you can eat, so I’ll harvest most of it and you’ll still have plenty,’ most people are quite amenable to that.”

A bounty of fruit is fun and delicious, but Addison is also swift to note the implications and potential environmental impact a larger urban farming project could prompt. “I’m a big fan of the food forest backyard concept from a sustainability perspective. From an environmental perspective, people growing their own fruit makes a lot of sense.”

With a flick of the knife, Tom Addison reveals the fleshy fruit of an East Bay-grown Carmen Hass avocado. Credit: Paulina Barrack

Aside from the environmental impact of growing locally, Addison also noted that fruit grown close to home not only tastes better, but has more nutritional value than the produce found in grocery stores. 

“If we’re producing more food locally, if people are more aware of seasonal cycles… all of these things have societal benefits that are important but not always immediately apparent,” Addison said.

Addison prefers to plant tree crops due to their low maintenance needs and minimal watering level, but he also pays keen attention to fruits that are already well adapted to the El Cerrito (and surrounding areas’) climates. A lot of these fruits end up being exotic fruits that are often difficult or impossible to find in local grocery stores, appealing to both restaurant chefs and rare fruit enthusiasts alike.

“I grow a wide variety of fruit, from things you’ve heard of like Asian plums, or apricots or pears, but also a lot of less common things like sapotes or Persian mulberries,” Addison said. “A lot of [fruit selection] is trial and error, for decades at this point. But I do tend to look [for plants] from zones of the world that have similar climates.”

Frederick passion fruit flourishes in the East Bay. Credit: Paulina Barrack

When Tom is not harvesting fruit to sell, he helps other clients who are interested in growing fruit in their own backyards by offering horticultural consultation and custom grafting.

“Maybe somebody’s got an avocado tree that’s fifty years old, and never fruits,” Addison said. “That’s kind of a waste of photosynthesis I would say, although maybe it is providing some shade to the backyard, but why not get some fruit on that tree? So people hire me to come in and convert a tree that never fruits into a tree that’s making lots of fruit.”

Watch out: rocoto peppers like these can hit 100,000 on the Scoville heat unit scale. Credit: Paulina Barrack

Most of Addison’s participants in his urban farming project have been friends or acquaintances, with others finding out about his fruit harvesting through word-of-mouth. Since Addison is retired, he plans to keep his businesses fairly low profile. Despite this, he’s still figuring out ways to adapt and, well, grow. “I’m always experimenting, all the time,” Addison said.

“I always like to tell people life is too short to eat boring fruit,” Addison said. “I’m always trying to grow new things, including brand new species that people are finding. It’s an ongoing experiment and I’m always interested in growing new selections of given fruits.”

Follow Tom Addison’s fruit harvests (and rock-climbing habit) on his Instagram account, and please consider supporting the local California Rare Fruit Growers, Golden Gate Chapter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the propagation of unusual fruits and vegetables.