Ethics and Community Garden Theft

Despite the September chill, it must still be tomato season; the Boston Globe published a report on Boston-area community garden theft last week, detailing the havoc that wayward vegetable snatchers are wreaking on vegetable plots throughout our fair city. Although tomatoes are top of the most-stolen vegetable list, local thieves have also stolen collard greens, cucumbers, watermelons, eggplants, squash–just about anything that hasn’t already been eaten by squirrels, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, groundhogs, rats, Japanese beetles, flea beetles, winter moths, chipmunks, deer, or that moose that wandered into Brookline 15 years ago.

And therein lies the lesson of our tale; urban gardeners face challenges very different from suburban gardeners. In the leafy lands beyond the reach of the MBTA, the chief problem is how to build a fence that is attractive yet sturdy enough to keep rodents out. (Nothing short of the Selfish Giant’s fence is tall enough to keep a moose out).

In cities, though, fences don’t keep vegetables from going astray. People can climb them or jimmy the locks. They’re also philosophically discouraging; how can you reach out to your neighbors if you’re planting your squash in a gated community?

So what can urban gardeners do to discourage thieves while maintaining that friendly, open, we-don’t-hate-strangers community garden spirit? Some community gardens try to discourage theft by giving produce away and encouraging as many visitors as possible, on the assumption that having more people around will discourage sneak thieves. Several web sites quote David Tracey’s book Guerilla Gardening, which advises hiding tasty fruit behind icky parsnips, putting up signs that clearly state that the community garden does not grow community produce, and keeping the site tidy, so thieves won’t think they’re stealing from a “neglected” plot. In a pinch, Tracey says,

“Don’t give in to dark visions of the culprit collapsing under the weight of the loot in the middle of traffic, no matter how delightful. Invent some better scenario where the stolen food somehow ends up in the stomachs of people who need it. Consider that in a future life, they may be growing things for you.”

In short, having people wander in and sometimes steal your stuff comes with the territory—just like groundhogs in the suburbs—and you should cultivate good karma for your next reincarnation by not getting too unhinged. As Valerie Burns, president of the Boston Natural Areas Network which oversees more than 100 community gardens around Boston, puts it: “You have to be philosophical about it if you garden in the city…You just have to hope that it’s going to be food for someone who might really need it.’’

Then again, Burns decided to stop planting eggplants and butternut squash after a few too many vanishing vegetables. Apparently when eggplant is in peril, philosophy is not enough.

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces. If you like what you are reading here, check out her book and tune in to WCVB’s Chronicle HD tonight (Friday, September 30) at 7:30, on channel 5, to catch Meg talking about Boston’s parks and gardens!!

  One Reply to “Ethics and Community Garden Theft”

  1. October 16, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    I much prefer inrfomative articles like this to that high brow literature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *