This summer Chicagoans have been treating community gardens like personal food banks.
After spending their summer carefully cultivating fruits, herbs and vegetables, some community gardeners are being beaten to the harvest by vegetable thieves. While not as expensive as rubies, diamonds and emeralds, these tomatoes, cucumbers and melons are just as tempting and pricey. Heirloom plants and seeds that are all the rage can be more expensive than recent cultivars. These plants that new community gardeners favor sell for top dollar at farmers markets around Chicago. Then there are also the costs associated with being a member of a community garden. In allotment-style community gardens, gardeners rent plots to plant in every year.
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Like with a burglary or a car theft, vegetable theft can leave a gardener shaken. Christopher Weber, a freelance writer in Chicago, recently blogged about a rash of veggie thefts at the community garden within Jackson Park. After listing the range of emotions the thefts left him feeling, he asked his readers for ideas on the best way to cope with the experience.
After a community garden has been plundered it is normal to feel everything from anger; to pitty at the thought of the thief perhaps not having food security. Once the initial shock wears off there are measures community gardeners take to minimize theft.
Personalizing the Garden
Creating a garden sign with your name and a message can help you channel that anger and create something beautiful. This approach reminds me of the movies where someone held captive starts to talk about themselves to their kidnapper in an effort to illicit sympathy. Sometimes it works and the person is let go, but most of the time it doesn't. After a string of veggie thefts the members of the Growing Station community Garden in the Pilsen neighborhood created personalized signs. The signs haven't stopped vegetables from being taken, but they have spruced up the garden and strengthened gardener's ties to the garden.
On a recent trip to this garden to photograph these garden signs (see gallery above) a member who lived nearby stopped me and a friend to ask us what we were doing in the garden. I explained to him that I was only interested in taking pictures and he told me about the various people he encounters stealing veggies from the garden. One lady who brought her own grocery bag justified her theft by saying that people routinely shoot each other or sell drugs nearby.
The 65th and Woodlawn Community Garden uses signs asking people not to pick plants, but they also have a sacrificial garden. A thickly planted area outside a fence where neighborhood residents are free to forage. Ben Helphand, Executive Director of Neighbor-Space, Chicago's land trust for community gardens, believes communal spaces where neighbors can pick produce are a great idea. "Not only is it a steppingstone for future gardeners but it provides an outlet for those who just have to pick something," says Helphad.
When the signs and pick-it-yourself garden patch doesn't work it is time to start a dialog between garden members and local residents.
Involving the Community
While personalized garden signs with pleas not to pick the vegetables may not deter all vegetable thiefs, theft could be reduced with community outreach. Canvassing the neighborhood and explaining the purpose of the community garden can create an atmosphere of respect for the garden. People will be less likely to steal plants and produce if they know that people are feeding their families from it or produce is being contributed to local food banks. Open days where non-members are invited to see the plots up close and talk to members can build ties with local residents.
Betty Redmond, Garden Leader at the Bowmanville Gateway Garden tells a funny story of neighbor's attempt to thwart a garden thief. A neighbor saw a uniformed paramedic in the garden one day taking produce. The "do-gooder" called the number on the side of the ambulance to report the suspected thief to his supervisor. As it turned out, the supervisor was aware of the situation, because the paramedic had asked for time to work in the garden. When he was reported to his supervisor he was harvesting tomatoes from the community garden, where he volunteers, for the Stone Soup Kitchen.
Involving the community in your community garden can not only bring in new gardeners and volunteers, you'll gain extra eyes who can act as a neighborhood watch.
Do good fences make good neighbors?
"From NeighborSpace's perspective a big fence and a lock should be the absolute last strategy a garden turns to," advises Helphad.
Garden theft isn't something isolated to neighborhoods undergoing a transition. From Pilsen to Bowmanville to even a community garden in Forest Park, IL., these gardens are being targeted by people who feel they have the right to reap the hard work of gardeners.
Please do not steal the vegetables, you didn't grow them.
Have you nurtured a tomato or cucumber all summer long just to have it stolen? Share your story in the comments below. If you have tips on how to minimize garden theft, share that too.
Update: The sign above asking people to "Please do not steal the Vegetables!!" has itself been stolen from the garden it was used in. Is there a more appropriate end to this gardening season that saw community garden raided by residents who didn't help grow any of the food?