Friday, August 19, 2011

Community Garden Does Not Mean Free-for-All Harvest

[Editor's Note: Within eight days of posting this article, the SACG experienced a massive produce robbery of only expensive produce, like Nappa Cabbage, colored greens, ripe tomatoes, bell peppers, and Tuscan Kale. This was not the work of deparate folks, but someone who selectively took certain produce and left nothing behind to continue growing.]

Today, the Columbus Dispatch ran an article and the NBC and Fox affiliates all ran stories about the rampant thefts of produce from community gardens. When confronted by us or our good neighbors, the thieves either run or protest that it is a community garden, therefore, the community is allowed to help themselves. We have to explain that it is a community garden in the sense that the community can sign up for a plot where they then can plant, weed, water and harvest themselves. It is not a place for somone else to literally steal the fruits of the gardeners' labor. I then invite them to join us in the garden the following year, but they virtually always shake their head and leave.

We know that the thieves at the SACG know this already. Most of them come at night. Because the SACG is surrounded by a fence and has locks on the gates (only once we start noticing the disappearance of produce), people come in with bags by knocking down the fence or jumping the gates. We do not have a problem with trespassing where the fence has strong metal stakes or is covered with raspberry bushes. Our fence is not strong enough for people to climb, although people have clearly tried (as evidenced by the broken prongs on brand new fence).

Other gardens have put up No Trespassing signs (which are not terribly attractive) and we are all considering security cameras so that the thieves can be prosecuted. The Fox story noted that locked gates and security cameras were not enough to protect the FPC garden plots from pilfering. A Joyce Avenue community garden has since put up a fence, but the gardeners were apparently so discouraged after last year that only two of them returned this year.

When we first began having a problem two years ago, I put an article in our neighborhood newsletter explaining the "miscommunication" and threatening to move the garden if it did not stop. As far as we can tell this year, the theives are not from the immediate neighborhood (at least no one says they have recognized any of the individuals). A few of the individuals who have shown up at the garden seemed to be legitimately confused about their right to help themselves to a free supermarket.

All this being said, some of my suburbanite friends think I am being stingy by begruding the theft of food in this anemic economy. (A certain General Counsel joked earlier this week that vegetarians are a pretty shady crew:) However, the problem is that we have plots outside the fence along the alley where anyone can help themselves to tomatoes, peppers, brocoli, colored greens, turnips, cucumbers, etc. We also always give food upon request to anyone who asks (rather than simply takes). We also donate over 200 pounds each year to food pantries. Finally, these people are not taking just a few tomatoes. Most of them bring bags in order to take a week's worth of food (or more) at a time. You cannot imagine the disappointment to the gardener who has been tending the plot carefully each week -- in the extreme heat and mud -- only to find that the peppers and tomatoes were taken the day before s/he was planning to harvest.

We have been resigned to a certain level of shrinkage and I always encourage gardeners to grow a little extra every year to make up for some losses. However, we already work so hard when it is hot or extra rainy (and, thus, extra weedy) that several of my gardeners have already told me that they want smaller plots next year, not more work . . . . .

Anyway, here is the Dispatch article:

Community gardens plagued by thefts

Despite signs, people are helping themselves to crops at harvest time.

By Courtney Hergesheimer Dispatch

Val White of the East Side weeds her plot in the community garden at the Franklin Park Conservatory, accompanied by her dog Mo. Thefts of crops at another local community garden got so bad that gardeners now plant extra vegetables, anticipating such losses.

When Bill Dawson returned to the community garden at the Franklin Park Conservatory on Tuesday, he saw someone who was busy reaping what others had sown.

Dawson parked his car and walked up to the woman who was wandering through the 40 garden beds, filling a trash bag with plump green tomatoes.

“I had to explain the system and that these vegetables were not hers to take,” said Dawson, community-garden coordinator for the conservatory.

While most gardeners expect rabbits, birds and squirrels to feed on their fruits and vegetables, many are learning that human bandits are lurking among the carrots, peppers and squash.

"’Tis the season,” Dawson said. “It’s harvest time — everyone wants to come home with a bright red tomato.”

The American Addition Garden on Joyce Avenue, one of about 250 community gardens in the Columbus area, is experiencing the same. “We put up signs telling them not to take the vegetables, but no one listens,” said Marie Mooreland, a garden volunteer. “We started planting extra (vegetables) to make up for the difference.”

Mooreland said that so much is taken from the 10 plots there that the gardeners looked into installing a security camera.

“It’s such a problem because the plot is on the main thoroughfare,” she said. “We have to educate them.”

Lori Kingston, spokeswoman for the Franklin Park Conservatory, said people misunderstand the word community. “They don’t understand it means people gardening together in a community,” Kingston said.

The conservatory asks all plot owners to donate a portion of their harvest to a food pantry of their choice.

Beth Urban, executive director of the American Community Gardening Association, which is based in Columbus, said people can take precautions.

“Some people put raspberry or blackberry bushes in front of their gardens because they are thorny and deter people from entering,” Urban said.

She added that others put up fences or hang signs asking visitors not to sample the fruits of their labors.

Although these vegetable bandits can be a nuisance, Dawson said he tries to convert them to the craft.

“I tell them, ‘Weed a little, take a little,’” Dawson said. “We want to educate them and encourage them to take part.”

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