Invasion of the two-legged veggie snatchers

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Growing a vegetable garden is an exercise in humility, disappointment and pride. And sometimes, anger. Hungry deer or rabbits undo the gardener's hard work, but you can accept that there is no mischief involved. When two-legged raiders help themselves, the joy of growing food is somehow stained.

Over the past six months, I have chronicled the growing season at the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in our Food section's blog, All We Can Eat. Weekly, I visit the public garden west of Alexandria to observe and photograph the plot. What does it demonstrate? With tenacity, you can raise a lot of fresh food even in a plot that is very much under assault from rabbits and, moreover, deer.

A panoply of poles and nets, baskets and wires seeks to protect emerging seedlings, young transplants and wandering vines. Usually the barriers work, but sometimes they fail disastrously, such as the time the deer nibbled the cucumber vines to stumps, and when they went to town on the cowpeas and Swiss chard. Humans, by contrast, are effective pests all the time.

Cindy Brown, the assistant director at Green Spring who works hands-on with staff and volunteers, would relate the losses each week. In spring, someone had come in and snipped off the arugula for a clean harvest and pulled a nice head of lettuce or three, just as they had reached the right size. That was merely the beginning.

In June, the sparkling, eye-catching trusses of red currants were taken in their prime; in August it was the tomatoes; in September, the peppers and melons. In some weeks, for the blog's featured vegetable and recipe, Brown would have to buy produce at the supermarket because there was little or none left of the required article in the demonstration garden.

Peppers are a favorite target: Both chili and sweet peppers are taken routinely. The cantaloupes and watermelons are stolen at their peak, no doubt by visitors who check early and often on the development of "their" fruit.

Brown recently pointed to a freshly dug growing bed, from which all but a couple of items had been stolen. "That whole bed was filled with butternut squash, and those two were the only ones we harvested."

The vegetable garden is in the heart of a heavily visited botanical attraction in a densely populated part of the Northern Virginia suburbs. Some of the vegetables are supposed to go to the volunteers and staff who raise them from seed with much effort, and others are left for display and education.

Working one Sunday morning, Brown saw a whole family arrive with empty plastic bags and head directly to the garden for a harvest session. "It's very awkward, because you don't always catch them in the process of pulling the thing out of the ground. We find visitors with bags of produce and we say, 'Where did you get this?,' and they say, 'Oh, the store.' "

Brown is somewhat sanguine about the problem but was clearly miffed when the staff found people violently shaking the jujube and Chinese chestnut trees to harvest the goodies. "They had no understanding that they were damaging the trees," she said.

Green Spring horticulturists also administer nine community gardens throughout Fairfax County. "Each one will have theft," said Brown. The degree of the problem is often related to a community's garden accessibility. Gardeners with plots on the fringes of a community garden, naturally, seem more prone to losing produce.

In Washington, the Temple Garden at 15th and R streets NW has this year seen widespread filching. "I would say that about half the people I have talked to were having a serious problem with it," said Andrew Kolb, one of the gardeners. In midsummer he noticed that the ripening chili peppers were vanishing, along with the tomatoes. "We got into the habit of picking stuff before it was ripe and ripening it at home."

At Fort Barnard Community Garden in south Arlington, pilfering is more "a nuisance than a problem," said Erin Treacy, who found a much-anticipated butternut squash taken last month, cleanly severed from the vine. "If it's a critter, it leaves a mess." Treacy once found a fellow gardener helping herself to her flowers. "She said, 'Oh, I didn't think you would mind.' Well, you were wrong about that."

Kolb said that next year he and his wife will grow vegetables that are less enticing, with more greens and root crops. "In August I found a plastic bag of canned goods in my plot, and I'm not sure if it had been left by way of apology for taking my plants. I like to think it was."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company