It’s a thing. And it’s on the rise. People stealing vegetables from under a gardener’s nose. Gardeners are used to finding ways to outsmart such critters as raccoons, squirrels, moose, deer and cabbage moths, but two-legged pests require a whole new set of tactics.
It’s frustrating. Especially since humans, unlike other pests, can read, communicate clearly with each other and know what they are doing is wrong.
Community Gardens almost always have special “share beds” with clear signage directing hungry visitors to designated harvest areas and explaining which beds are rented by individuals and therefore off-limits. Too often the signs are ignored. Gardeners who have labored over their vegetables for months show up with their harvest basket only to find someone else has beat them to it.
Gardeners are generous at heart. If asked, they would likely be glad to share extra produce, and many do just that by donating to food banks, shelters and neighbors. However, having their plots pilfered without permission leaves them feeling helpless and violated. Many gardeners pull up all their plants in a fit of frustration vowing to never set foot in a community garden again. Others go rogue, plotting out the kind of revenge that can get you 25 years to life. Don’t do that (see cautionary tale at the end of this article).
For those in the middle, here are some ideas for thwarting that most cunning of garden thieves…the homosapien. A curious creature to be sure
1. Spiders and Snakes – Many humans have an aversion to spiders, snakes, rats and mice…especially if they aren’t expecting them. Buy a few toy replicas and strategically place them in your tomato vines or wherever you want to deter a thief. This could backfire if the human investigates and realizes they are fake. Worse, if they screamed like a school girl in front of their friends, they might retaliate by pulling up all your plants, saving you the trouble. Or if it’s an elderly person with a heart condition they might keel over right then and there. Maybe a tomato isn’t worth it. Or maybe I am over thinking it.
2. Disguise the Prize – Buy nylons (green if you can find any) and secure the fabric around your tomatoes, preventing would-be thieves from spotting the tell-tale ripening orbs. This means that you need to be vigilant so the tomatoes don’t become overripe without you noticing.
For produce you are going to peel such as squash or cucumbers, use a non toxic natural based dark felt pen to color blotches on the skin. People are less likely to want your produce if it looks diseased.
3. Bury the Evidence – In a perfect world root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, beets and onions can be left in the ground long after they have reached harvestable size. They keep better that way and if you live in an apartment (as many community gardeners do) you won’t have access to a cold room or root cellar.
Many humans don’t have a clue what these root crops look like in a garden anyway, and will leave them alone. Others are savvier, and will recognize the tops from carrots, beets and onions that are sold with the tops on in the store.
Once the roots are mature cut the tops off and cover any exposed roots with a loose layer of leaves, coir or peat moss.
Now it looks like you have already harvested the crop and only you know what is really under there. The downside, especially if you use leaves, is that you might attract mice who will be more than happy to hide undercover and nibble on the roots.
4. Appeal to the Heartstrings – If you have a child or grandchild assisting you with your garden help them make a sign that says “Samuel’s Garden” (if the child’s name is Samuel : ) with little handprints or something that makes it obvious a child is involved. Only the most heartless will steal from a child.
Or you could just make a sign explaining as kindly and politely as possible that this is your garden and asking them to please not take anything. Maybe leave a share basket and indicate that anything in the basket is free for the taking but to please, please, please leave the garden alone.
5. Make Some Noise – Dangle bells, tin cans, old toy tambourines etc. from fishing line throughout the garden. When a person reaches into the beds they will set off a cacophony of noise and unwanted attention. Some people set up a one-time perimeter fence based on the same principle, hoping the intruder will snag their ankle on the fishing line and be left dragging an assortment of noisemakers. With my luck the person would trip, fall, hit their head and sue me. Or worse, an innocent dog or cat might get tangled up in the fishing line.
6. Dust Your Vegetables – Dust ripening vegetables such as pea vines, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cabbage, kale and lettuce with organic flour. It won’t hurt the plants but thieves might think it is some kind of pesticide and steer clear. If your community garden is strictly organic-as most are-be sure to let the manager know what you are doing to avoid getting kicked out!
7. Wire the Root Crops – After you have seeded your root crops-but before anything has come up-stretch chicken wire over the whole bed and secure with stakes or staples depending if you have a raised bed or regular plot. The plants will have no trouble poking their way through, but thieves will have a lot of trouble trying to pull potatoes through a two-inch hexagon. Of course, the same can be said for you, and it will make hilling potatoes impossible so you will have to rely on mulching over the chicken wire instead. And there is nothing to stop the marauders from pulling the wire off or using wire snips to expand the holes (as you will have to do come harvest time) but most will likely decide it is too much bother and move on.
Growing unusual produce such as these ground-cherries might confuse the thieves. If they don’t know what it is they are unlikely to take it.
8. Unusual Offerings – The best thing about growing your own vegetables is that you can plant the types of things you will rarely find in a grocery store. This also means people likely won’t recognize what is right under their nose. Yellow tomatoes are delicious but not instantly recognized as ripe the way red ones are. Mystery Keeper tomatoes ripen from the inside out and are picked green. Tomato heirlooms such as Black Krim are so dark they look like they are rotten even though they are absolutely delicious .
Ground cherries, edible flowers, edible vegetable leaves, yellow raspberries, purple broccoli, orange cauliflower, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke (tasty roots but very invasive), okra (unusual AND requires long sleeves and pruning shears to avoid prickles) and purple beans are just a few choices that you can grow in plain sight but are anything but plain and can be used to your advantage.
There is a plant on the market that produces both tomatoes and potatoes. Thieves might make off with the tomatoes but would never suspect potatoes were growing beneath. For more about this plant visit our post Grow Your Own Ketchup and Fries…From One Plant!
9. Just for the Shell of it – Humans are cunning creatures but notoriously lazy. They are unlikely to go to the trouble of stealing vegetables that require further labor intensive processing. Plant shelling beans and soup peas…they are not tasty fresh but absolutely delectable dried and used in soups or stews. Some gardeners have interspersed plantings of garden peas with shelling peas or beans to maximize crop space and to hide the coveted fresh garden peas from marauders with the munchies.
10. Plant Stinging Nettles – This is pretty mean, but also pretty effective. Once stung by nettles, thieves are unlikely to return. And you might have cured their arthritis. I personally know someone who swears that running her bare hands and arms through a nettle patch relieves her arthritis for weeks. I know for sure that nettles are ridiculously good for you, so you aren’t just planting them as a deterrent. You can harvest them too. That said, nettles are very invasive, so consider that before planting. For all the health benefits and reasons (other than deterring would-be thieves) to grow and harvest nettles visit our previous post Are Stinging Nettles the New Superfood? They even promote health in the vegetables that grow beside them!
11. Just Grow Weeds – Stinging nettles aren’t the only so-called weeds that are good for you. There are lots of weeds that put the nutrient value of common garden vegetables to shame.
Consider this comparison from our previous post about stinging nettles…
Protein content of Broccoli – 3.0 mg
Protein content of Lambs Quarters – 4.2 mg
Calcium content of Leaf Lettuce – 18 mg
Calcium content of Purslane – 65 mg
Magnesium content of Spinach – 49 mg
Magnesium content of Dock – 63 mg
And don’t even get me started on dandelions. See post What are dandelions good for? Absolutely everything! for more information on their all-encompassing health benefits. Some varieties (yes there are varieties of dandelions!) taste better than others. Try French or Italian dandelions both available from Richters. Growing them deliberately in beds makes the roots easier to harvest as well!
Other weedy but very nutritious options include plantain and chickweed. Plant and harvest these weeds deliberately and you will be sure to foil the thieves and be healthier for it. A dried combination of these plant’s leaves can be used as an immune boosting tea over the winter months or added to shakes, smoothies and juices. You will have an economical green powder that will put those pricey commercial products to shame.
12. Go Under Cover – Floating row covers, plant tents and wire mesh lids with hinges and padlocks for raised beds are all deterrents for someone trying to do a quick grocery grab.
And One Cautionary Tale…
If none of these tactics work then I leave you with this cautionary tale I once heard from a friend who heard it from cousin who heard it firsthand from a wise elderly man named Hank.
Now Hank was a kindly, older gentleman with a tanned face and piercing blue eyes. He had one of those calm demeanors that tell you he is a man who has made his peace with the world.
One afternoon my friend’s cousin came upon Hank in the community garden. Hank was patiently pruning and retying a tomato plant to a stake that had been knocked over by someone trying to get to his peas. The cousin expressed indignation, but Hank just smiled soft and slow and told him the story of Rose, a former fellow gardener who had been killed-according to Hank-by plain vindictiveness.
Now Hank had a theory that everyone is wired a bit differently and Rose’s wiring was tight. Every fall the garden held a friendly competition with categories such as biggest pumpkin, most oddly shaped vegetable, best tasting tomato and best basket of assorted vegetables etc.
While most viewed the competition as a way of bonding with fellow gardeners and having a bit of fun, Rose saw it as a way of establishing herself as the best gardener period. She had won the prize for best overall gardener twenty years in a row. When some of her prized vegetables started disappearing from her patch she was…well, less than pleased.
There were some thefts and vandalism every year so it wasn’t anything new, but for some reason, that particular season, something inside of Rose snapped. Try as she might, she could no longer accept her losses.
She took to counting her tomatoes, beans, squash and finally even her pea pods. Every morning she would take inventory and every morning it seemed like something had been subtracted.
At first she blamed the “hooligans” that roamed the neighborhood. Hooligan defined by Rose as anyone under the age of forty with free time to roam the neighborhood. She tried to ignite interest in an electric fence to keep the aforementioned hooligans out of the gardens.
“High voltage, mind you. None of this mammy pamby small jolt stuff that just makes your hand tingle for a couple of hours. I want to fry the little bastards. Knock ’em unconscious!”
At this point even fellow members who had been sympathetic and even somewhat intrigued by the possibly of an electric fence started to get alarmed by Rose’s escalating wrath.
When she failed to get enough interest in her high voltage fence, she festooned her garden plot with a cobbled together affair consisting of old raspberry canes and rose pruning’s held together by rusty barbwire. One day she badly cut herself trying to access her own garden. The wound quickly became infected and at one point doctors thought they might have to cut off her hand.
“Can you believe it?” she asked, several rounds of antibiotics and a tetanus shot later. “I almost lost my hand because of those lazy, thieving, good for nothing hooligans.”
Soon after she took down her prickly fence and put up a sign that said, “Nuclear Waste Test Plot…Eat These Vegetables and Die!” but the manager made her remove it on the grounds that the garden was-and always would be-strictly organic. The last thing they wanted were rumours flying around town that the gardeners were testing the effects of nuclear by-products.
After that came a sign that read “Organic Human Urination Fertilization Experiment Underway. Please Don’t Eat The Vegetables.”
It was hard to say who was more surprised; fellow gardeners who noted Rose’s unprecedented polite usage of the word “please” or Rose herself, when she came upon a note attached to her sign a few days later that read:
“Dear Gardener, I have heard about the benefits of urine on plants before, especially tomatoes and rhubarb, but have never tried it myself. I am intrigued. I have been adding my own “specimen” to your interesting experiment every morning for the last week and am looking forward to learning of the results.”
After that she stopped making signs and went on to alienate her plot mates by deciding the thievery was obviously an inside job being carried out by a jealous competitor.
No one escaped her interrogations or constant scrutiny. Every morning she counted her produce down to the last radish. She would yell out things like, “Aha! Seventy three pods of peas…yesterday I had seventy-nine. Didn’t think I would notice did you!”
Clearly things were getting out of hand, but the real thief, according to Hank, lurked inside poor Rose. Anger coupled with an insatiable desire for retribution and revenge had stolen her peace of mind.
Rose lost whatever joy she had found in gardening. While others sighed over missing produce or a few vandalized plants, they were able to move on. Soon they were back at it, once again taking pleasure in the pungent smell of tomato leaves, the uplifting sound of birdsong and feel of rich soil sifting between their fingers. Not so with Rose.
When August arrived Rose started talking about injecting her tomatoes with poison and dusting her beans with arsenic. She was clearly coming unhinged and the other gardeners were getting concerned. What if she actually carried through on her threats and ended up poisoning someone…maybe a small child? Should they call in the police? They eyed both Rose and her vegetable plot with much trepidation.
Then one day Rose failed to show up at the garden. A week went by and then two. This was unprecedented. Fellow gardeners started to wonder what could possibly have happened to her. Word finally came that she had suffered a massive heart attack and died in her sleep.
“With gardens it is always something,” said Hank philosophically, as he finished staking his tomato and took a step back to admire his handiwork. “Late frosts, hungry crows or people with no respect for all your hard work. Or maybe they’re just hungry and need it more than you do. Either way, at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s one of life’s many lessons. And between you and me, there is nowhere I would rather learn life’s lessons than in a garden. Sometimes you just have to learn to let things go. Otherwise you might wake up dead at ninety-two.”
“Wait…Rose was ninety-two?” the cousin asked in disbelief.
“Yup,” said Hank. “That’s all. Who knows how many more years she might have had if she hadn’t got so worked up over a few tomatoes and beans.”
So there you have it.
Maybe some of the tips mentioned above will trick the grocery grabbers, but if they don’t, in the spirit of Rose, do your best to take a deep breath and carry on. Because ninety-two is too young to die from anger.