How should a community garden cope with theft?
DELRAY BEACH, FL — Two years ago it was decided that Gladiolus Education Garden would be different than standard community gardens, with their lists of rules, membership dues, and individual raised beds. We were and still are radicals to some extent, but, this was not an attempt to build an anarchist’s garden or exact revenge on some overbearing, capitalist system. Our motive was simple: grow as much food as possible. Thus, the neatly arranged rows of raised boxes, typical of other gardens around the country, needed to go. Experimentation was the foundation of Gladiolus and is still a formative force in the garden today.
Development started slowly on the dry, weedy double lot one block north of Atlantic Ave. We had a single spigot at the very northwest corner of the property and our longest hose reached halfway to the back of the lot. Our site plan was rough and open to interpretation except for one element: a central footpath that runs diagonally through the land. Permaculture, a style of natural farming, dictates that before breaking ground on a site an assessment of existing resources is necessary. We considered the footpath to be a valuable resource, as all community gardens need community support to function, so maintaining the flow of neighbors through the space was crucial.
Today, the path is now wider and mulched thickly. Jasmine vines wrap around a tall pergola that stands at one end, enticing pedestrians to pass underneath. We have a really great tool shed that has the garden name painted on one side, anyone who traverses the path is sure to notice the name of the place. We always say hello to anyone who passes by and many of the neighbors know us by name. We have received a number of compliments on our progress and how beautiful everything looks.
Progress: forty-five papaya trees, twenty banana trees, twenty coconut palms, two jackfruit trees, one mulberry tree, one soursop tree, one pink guava tree, and many more edible perennial species and annual veggies.
Despite the enormous progress, we still struggle with how to respond to the heartbreaking thefts that continue to occur.
While planting the baby banana trees, we promised our young garden volunteers that bananas would come. Months went by and they would constantly ask, “When are we getting bananas?”
We would say, “Soon! Just wait!”
We all waited patiently, tending to the weeds under the trees, watering, mulching, and fertilizing (organic!). Months went by and sure enough, the green bananas appeared! But, after a few weeks of watching the bananas swell and grow, the entire bunch was carefully sliced from the tree by an unknown person. We told the young volunteers that it was okay, it happens sometimes, and, there would be more bananas on the way, surely they wouldn’t all be stolen. However, it saddens me to say, they have all been stolen.
In a number of progress meetings with Auroras Voice board of directors chair, Pablo Fernando del Real Salazar, we discussed the possibility of theft as well as methods to deter theft. Closing off the garden with a fence and installing no trespassing or other types of warning signs was one idea. While this might have been somewhat effective, we felt it sent the wrong message. Instead, we decided to move forward with trust and hope; trust in the surrounding community and hope in the kindness of others.
Optimism has morphed into realism as the stolen banana bunch count reaches three.
I hesitate to diagnose the community as callous and cold, or anything else for that matter. Community elders may be able to offer insight here, not I.
Amongst ourselves, our discussions and comments have all been rooted in compassion for the thieves.
“Maybe whomever took the bananas really needed them.”
“They were hungry.”
“One thing is for sure, they know how to prepare green bananas.”
Were we mad? Yeah. Are we still mad? No, not really.
Chip Bentley, a Boynton Beach resident who is now a driving force in the stewardship of Gladiolus, offers two solutions: if a fence must go up, it will double as a trellis, supporting perennial edibles, otherwise, the garden will refocus on growing things that people do not recognize so readily as food.
The garden’s creative director and resident artist, Anya Fisher, feels that “…the garden is educating us as much as we are contributing to it and people have to learn the hard way sometimes about plants and people alike.”
What are a bunch of local organic bananas worth? Some rough calculations only amount to petty theft.
What are those bananas worth to the young volunteers who put their soul into caring for them?
We spend a great deal of time teaching the volunteers what we know about gardening, nature, and life. One fundamental that we are constantly sharing is that everything is a lesson. Successes and failures alike are learning opportunities. Theft has been a hard lesson to spin.
Hypothetically, had we harvested the bananas and divided them equally amongst the volunteers, as the garden is designed to function, the lessons could have been: hard work pays off, take care of the earth and it will take care of you, happiness is eating out of one’s own garden, sweat-equity has value, and good food is good for you.
So, what do we do?
How do we respond?
What do we say to the involved youth?
We have hope that the future success of our community garden does not lie in constant police surveillance or a six-foot chain link fence.