Regular readers will know this: I have a small but intensively cultivated plot at the Glover Park Community Garden in Northwest Washington. Working alongside 150 other gardeners has its dynamic adventures. The benefits outweigh the hassles, by long measure.
The garden is so large that it has its own internal character. One gardener told me once that I was at the hub of the place, he in a quieter spot. “This is Times Square,” he said, gesturing to my plot. “I’m in Queens.”
Little things like that make you laugh and value all the work that goes into the enterprise. The human interaction is no less rewarding than caring for your plants.
One day a couple of years ago, my gardening neighbor and buddy Dino Kraniotis had a Times Square moment. He came down to my plot, lifted his smartphone and framed a picture. I thought he was admiring my garden (vain me), but there was something unusually somber about him. Dino was looking past me, taking a photo of a man, stocky but sinewy, all scalp and furrowed brow and olive skinned, washing his face beneath a garden faucet. The man was about 60 and fit, and he assiduously avoided all eye contact.
“This,” whispered Dino in his pronounced Greek accent, “is the garden thief.”
The garden thief has been hitting Glover Park for about four years and may be the same miscreant who has plundered community gardens, private gardens and even commercial plantings for the past 10 years. So far two police departments have been unable to stop him, though they are trying.
I’ve since seen the same man Dino identified downtown, a block from the White House, walking blithely northward up 17th Street with an armful of hydrangea stems that he had conceivably tugged from the front of some hotel or office building. It was so brazen as to be almost inconceivable. No one else seemed to notice.
This spring, it appears the thief has returned to Glover Park with a vengeance. He likes three types of flowers, Dino says: daffodils, peonies and hydrangeas. The belief among the Glover Park gardeners is that he sells them to florists, event planners and restaurants, who may buy his line that he grows them on a farm. In truth, they are receiving stolen goods.
Dino says the thief’s modus operandi is to show up when few gardeners are there, either early in the morning, at dusk or when it is raining. If he is seen, he is careful not to take flowers and saunters quickly along the garden aisles (each garden is fenced against the deer), then sneaks onto one of the trails in Glover Park.
Dino followed the man on a recent May day and recounted this exchange: “A couple of joggers went by, and he said, ‘Are you following me?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Why, what did I do?’ ” He then told Dino he worked for the Park Service, which owns the land. And off he went.
The thief will take the low-hanging fruit of peonies and other flowers outside each fence, but he is also quite ready to breach the netting and steal from within. Ernie Vergara, a gardener here for 34 years, took me to several plots to show how this was done. It is believed he stole dozens of peonies that a gardener was readying to take to his wife for Mother’s Day. The loss reduced the gardener to tears.
One gardening neighbor found that the thief had used her tool trunk to vault over her low fence and then pick her peonies from within. She is somewhat sanguine about it, but she put up a sign, “Stop Thief: We Know Who You Are.”
Do we know who he is?
“We have identified a possible suspect. We don’t have an address,” said Lt. David Stallman, of District Three of the U.S. Park Police. The department has stepped up patrols and is working with the D.C. police to catch the guy, though Stallman says there is no certainty that he is acting alone.
Spring is a time of frenzy and joy in the garden, and communal gardening is about pride in one’s efforts and about friendship. It’s also about sharing advice, transplants and your own time. Is it too poetic an idea to think that a 70-year-old community garden in the midst of a city is a sort of Eden reclaimed, a place of innocence and comity?
In a metropolis where criminal violence truly destroys lives, the idea of getting hot under the collar about a flower thief may seem petty. And who knows what demons and travails this sorry person deals with? But he is a sort of serpent in our paradise.
I asked Dino what would happen if the thief were caught doing this in Greece? Dino shrugged. “We would beat the heck out of him.” Heck wasn’t exactly the word he used. “Perhaps that wouldn’t be right either.”