Henry Docter, 52, is photographed at the Dupont Metro North Station in Washington, D.C. Henry Docter, known as “The Phantom Planter” has taken it upon himself to plant Morning Glories, Cardinal Flowers and Cypress Vines at the Dupont Metro North Station. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Quirky garden artist Henry Docter has been surreptitiously planting flowers in public places on four continents since 1979. His unauthorized beautification efforts have frequently aroused surprise and delight — but never a problem until this month, when he ran afoul of Washington’s Metro transit system.

Metro threatened Docter with “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he dared to weed, water or otherwise tend to more than 1,000 morning glories and other flowers whose seeds he planted in 176 barren flower boxes alongside the top stretch of the north escalators at the Dupont Circle station.

Metro said it’s only concerned about safety. The boxes are set in steep, cobblestoned inclines, so Metro fears that Docter could hurt himself or others if he fell.

That doesn’t impress the man who calls himself the Phantom Planter. He said Metro is exaggerating the risk. He’s had little difficulty walking up and down two narrow service ramps to get to the boxes since he started planting there in October.

In addition, Docter has told Metro that he’s willing to use a harness as Metro workers do. He’d sign a liability waiver saying he wouldn’t sue Metro if he’s hurt.

“I’ve never gotten in trouble for planting flowers,” Docter, 52, said last week. “Never has anyone overreacted with such an absence of common sense.”

Docter spoke in the first interview in which he openly discussed 34 years of clandestine horticulture. The District resident estimated that he’s planted more than 40,000 flowers in spots ranging from the Israeli Embassy and Navy Memorial in the District to faraway locales, including Argentina, Spain and Cambodia.

He has newspaper clips to support his account. The Israeli Embassy acknowledged that it has tolerated his plantings in security barriers on the street for four years.

“I’m not denying that I’m a little nuts,” Docter said. He calls his plantings a form of performance art, saying, “Flowers are nature’s way of affirming how beautiful life can be.”

Docter is a husband, a father of two and — when he’s not sneaking out to garden — a part-time lawyer, children’s book author and collage artist. He was student government president at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda (Class of 1978) and is the son of well-known District community activist Charles Docter.

Henry Docter has gone public partly to rally community support in the face of Metro’s warning. He seems to be succeeding: A Web petition he launched last week has drawn more than 800 signatures. It’s reachable via letmyflowers
Neighborhood activists are planning a meeting in July to try to work out a compromise with Metro.

When I was interviewing Docter on Friday at the Dupont Circle station, a passerby guessed that he was the planter and enthusiastically praised his action.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Mike Stirratt, 43, who lives nearby, told Docter. “That seems incredibly unfair that they would prosecute you for doing something to help the neighborhood.”

Ironically, Metro wouldn’t have known about Docter’s act if he hadn’t sent it a polite letter June 3 describing how he’d planted the flowers a week earlier. His letter said he’d like to continue caring for them.

“In retrospect, it was a mistake to ask for permission,” Docter said last week. “After I planted the seeds, they sprouted very quickly. I kind of panicked and got concerned they would interpret it as a weed and destroy it.”

It’s clear that Metro wasn’t paying much attention. In October, Docter planted 150 daffodils and tulips in the same boxes. After they bloomed and died, he pruned the spent flowers and turned down and secured the leaves for future vitality.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that round of gardening apparently slipped under the radar. “It’s sort of beyond the scope of what you would imagine some private citizen would do,” he said.

Stessel also conceded that Metro’s real estate department might have gone too far with its June 11 “cease and desist” letter to Docter.

“The word ‘imprisonment’ is one we probably would have omitted had it originated in our general counsel’s office,” Stessel said.

Metro’s position now is that it wants to work with the community to find a solution that’s affordable, sustainable and safe. It’s not clear if that’s going to include Docter. He told me he’d do the work for $1 a year if Metro wanted to hire him and make it all official.

Docter is respecting Metro’s order but frets about the plants.

“The heat has returned, and I already noticed some of the leaves are wilting,” he said. “Every day that passes without water means the plants will not be as strong when they begin blooming in August.”

Metro had best act quickly. If the flowers die, its bureaucrats are going to look even more foolish than they do already.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.