When Community Garden Gardening Gets Ugly

I had last Friday off, and as I often do on my days off, I started the day at the community garden.  I spent a few hours harvesting, weeding, trellising, fertilizing, watering, and a few other necessary odds and ends. It was a beautiful morning to spend in the garden, and it felt so good to get the garden caught up and looking in tip top shape.  The garden is just on the cusp of ripening all kinds of wonderful fruits and vegetables, and so I took a little extra time to carefully check and take stock of what I needed to keep an eye on, including this beautiful Orange Tendersweet watermelon that was just about a week away from its maturity date.  It was looking very promising, but just not quite ripe yet.

Fast forward through a busy weekend of deck-building and community events, and I returned on Sunday evening to once again harvest a few things and water the garden.  As I walked over to the corner of the garden where the melons are, my heart sank as I saw only an empty space where the watermelon once grew.  It was gone, and with it, all of the other large Orange Tendersweet watermelons as well (five in total).

I kind of wanted to cry, and maybe even scream a little, but I didn't do either (though I will admit that a few choice words crossed my lips; I am human after all).  More than anything, I was just really, incredibly,  frustratingly disappointed that someone could have so little regard for the time and energy invested in a garden.  Like so many gardeners, I pour my heart and soul and a lot of time into my gardens.  I have easily put over 200 hours into just this garden in the almost 90 days it took for the watermelon to grow, all to the end that someone else felt entitled to help him or her self to not only one, but all of the big watermelons. To add insult to injury, only one of them was (maybe) ripe, so the other four almost certainly went to waste.

Sadly, this exact scenario is what most people ask me about when I mention that I garden at a community garden.  I think it's kind of sad that we have reason to go there first, focusing on the small chance that someone will be a jerk, rather than all the positive things about community gardening, like building community among local gardeners, providing gardeners with limited or no garden space a place to garden, and creating something really beautiful in a community. At our community garden, we all pitch in with a garden dedicated to growing food for our hospital's senior living facility and the local food shelf, which is a stark contrast to the ugly greed that might prompt someone to take all of someone else's watermelons, or a prized tomato, or whatever else strikes a fancy.

Now, is my life going to be drastically altered because someone stole from my community garden plot?  No, there are far more things in life that are more important than a few watermelons, and with time, the sting of it all will wear off, and my faith in humanity will be restored.  But it still makes me incredibly frustrated.  In fact, the whole watermelon incident has made me think quite a bit about garden theft.

Of course theft it is a risk that I knowingly accept by choosing to gardening in a semi-public space, but it's not just a community garden problem, either.  By now we've all heard about "the rhubarb lady," who not only helped herself to someone else's rhubarb, but provided a pretty violent verbal assault when confronted, and proved that greed (and a passion for rhubarb) know no property boundaries--and there are plenty more stories where that one came from about bad neighbors helping themselves to other people's gardens, even within the obvious confines on one's own yard.  Thankfully, I have wonderful neighbors and have never encountered this in my own yard, but I think these kind of experiences raise some interesting questions for community garden gardeners and home gardeners alike.

Is there a perception that gardens and the vegetables growing within are of so little value that it is somehow acceptable to steal?  What is the real value of a garden and homegrown produce?  Is it just the upfront costs of plants, seeds, and a slight increase to the summer water bill?  The market value of the produce? What is one's time worth?  What about the time it takes for that seed to grow into a fruit or a vegetable?

And when something like this happens, how does one respond? Is the satisfaction of posting a snarky sign in my melon patch worth it? Or should I simply take the "well, they obviously needed it more than me" approach? Does something like this make a person think twice about renting a community garden plot? Or at least think twice about what goes out in the community garden plot? Should one inconsiderate greedy person force me to change a gardening plan that works for me? What can community gardens do to deter veggie thieves?

It's certainly an interesting conversation without easy answers, and I'd love to hear others weigh in with their thoughts and experiences.

Update: A few days after writing this post, I found out more about what happened from another couple who happened to be in their garden plot when this all went down (actually, I missed it by just an hour or so on Sunday night).  As much as I wanted to believe that it was someone who really needed the food, it appears that is not the case.  They (it was a family - and don't get me started on involving kids in a garden theft) were organized, methodical, and targeted a number of gardens, taking multiple gunny sacks filled mostly with things that take a long time to grow (melons, sweet corn, even one little boy's Halloween pumpkin). And yes, they were fully informed that they were stealing from individual gardeners who put time and money into their gardens.  Sad, isn't it?  

On a positive note, the validation from other gardeners on the value of a garden and a gardener's time has been encouraging.  I'm now more convinced than ever that the world needs more gardeners! 

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