Have you ever experienced plants being stolen from your garden? It’s more common than you might think. A study in Britain showed that, on average, one home in seven has something stolen from the garden every year. I’ve been a victim of plant theft myself, in fact many times.
My Unplanned Self-Serve Garden
The worst situation was at my previous residence: a ground-floor apartment in a low-income district neighborhood where buildings were chockablock and there was very little greenery. I was luckier than most in that the admittedly ramshackle building at least had a postage stamp lawn in the front and a somewhat larger one out back, plus it was next to a churchyard where I was able to borrow even more space.
The “front yard” became a flower garden. And along the garage, on the church’s property, I struggled mightily to remove 80 years of junk and weeds and grow a vegetable garden. What I wasn’t thinking was that both were in full public view and thus visible to any potential plant thieves.
They hit the flower garden first and most heavily. They seemed to assume that I had put in a self-serve floral buffet and would walk off with bouquets of blooms. That wasn’t so bad, as I was growing mostly annuals and most will rebloom when you cut them back. But sometimes they’d simply rip out the entire plant, snap the flowers off, and toss the plant to the ground, killing it.
I think very few people in the neighborhood had ever gardened and as a result, they didn’t seem to recognize the edible plants in the vegetable garden as something useful—after all, carrot and beet leaves don’t look like much!—and usually left them alone. Except for the tomatoes. Whoever was doing the stealing began collecting those as they turned red. I soon learned to harvest my tomatoes before they fully matured to beat the thieves at their game … but that meant I was not harvesting tomatoes at their tastiest.
The back yard should have been a haven, as it had a fence around it, but it was still in full public view, only feet from a popular footpath through the churchyard. Thieves did leave my in-ground plantings (bulbs, perennials, shrubs, etc.) totally alone, but would often walk off with any pots of new plants I had not yet planted. (I learned to store them out-of-sight in the garage until I had time to do so.)
They’d also snatch houseplants I’d put outdoors for the summer, pots and all. And not the ordinary ones, like spider plants and philodendrons, but collectors items: orchids, bromeliads, cacti, succulents, etc. I always felt that the houseplant thief was not linked to the others and must have been a plant collector. I used to scout windowsills in the neighborhood, looking for my lost plants, but I never did find them.
On Safer Ground
I thought I had left plant thieving behind when I moved to my current home, in a much greener and more spacious suburb where everyone has gardening space, and indeed, only one plant has been stolen in 25 years of occupancy, but it was a dilly!
I always put my houseplants outdoors for the summer and one year had placed a beautiful clivia in a huge, heavy pot outside on the front patio. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but, although it was mostly a winter bloomer, that summer it started to bloom again, massively, with multiple stems jammed with brilliant orange flowers. It had never looked so good … or, obviously, so tempting! Because one day, it was simply gone … and a trail of sunken footprints (yes, it was that heavy) lead to the street where I’m sure a car awaited.
I haven’t lost a plant to theft since, at least, not to my knowledge (I have so much bloom now that if someone picked a few flowers, I would scarcely notice.). Of course, the garden has filled in considerably since then (I pulled out the lawn that and put in bed after bed of blooms) and, to be quite honest, you really can’t see much of it from the street any more. In fact, you can barely tell there is a house behind the wall of greenery! So, although I still put my clivias out each summer (my pride and joy is a now huge yellow one I grew from seed) and usually a few do burst into off-season summer bloom, I don’t really worry about theft: you simply can’t see them from the street.
Ideas on Preventing Plant Theft
If you want to prevent the theft of your plants, here are some possible solutions:
- Place conspicuous or high-value plants where they can’t be seen from the street (my current solution). In the front, limit yourself to small, widely available plants that won’t attract much attention and whose loss will not be as traumatic. In my current neighborhood, at any rate, that’s all that’s necessary.
- Plant big plants directly in the ground. Digging plants up is time-consuming and usually requires tools and most thieves prefer quick targets. At some point, too, when plants have rooted in, they become essentially immovable and thus safe from thieves.
- Grow plants in large, heavy pots, such as a half-barrel. My clivia was almost in this category, but was unfortunately was just light enough to be lifted. If it takes two pairs of hands to move a pot, its safety is almost assured.
- Tie the plants down with chains or cables … or anchor pots permanently to the ground or terrace. True enough, really diligent thieves will bring a bolt cutter or pull the plant from its pot, but that is only likely if they have a specific need for a plant you have. My experience is that most plant thieves are not organized criminals, but act impulsively when they themselves are attracted by a particularly enticing plant. They aren’t likely take something that isn’t easy to remove and requites advanced planning.
- Sacrifice one plant to save the others. I still recall as a boy the thrill of stealing apples from the farm down the road. Yes, that was very naughty, but kids will be kids! Legend had it the farmer had a shotgun and would use it on thieving boys, but the danger just made it all the more exciting! We would dare each other to grab an apple or two and would be thrilled when we got away with it. Yet we never got any further than the trees hanging over the fence next to the road, nor did we ever actually see the farmer with his shotgun. The rest of his orchard was perfectly safe from marauding children and I suspect he knew that well.
If you plant a sacrificial apple, pear, plum, fig or other fruit tree in an easy-to-access spot so budding thieves (and I suspect that such thieves are pretty much universal) can meet their need for a thrill, and the bulk of your trees where reaching them would be more complex and risky, they will likely be left alone. Even so, I suggest not tempting fate, so harvest your fruit quickly so as not to tempt potential looters.
- Get a yappy dog. A barking dog not only warns the plant owner something is wrong and gives you time to react, but intruders are usually afraid of dogs they suspect might be angry and will avoid homes where they are present. (To be honest, though, I did have a yappy dog, Poochie, when my clivia was stolen, and we heard nothing. I suspect she slept right through the raid!)
- Prevent night thieves with motion-sensitive devices. Whether they explode into bright light, give off ear-piercing sounds or to spray the intruder with water, motion-sensitive animal repellants fend off more than four-legged animals and will indeed put thieves off. But be careful how you install them. You won’t want to trip the device yourself by accident!
- Install a surveillance camera. To work as a deterrent, it must be either in a prominent position or you’ll have to post warning signs. If you do go the way of a hidden camera, at least you’ll have the pleasure of being able to see who took your plant … especially interesting when you suspect you know who the plant rustler is and want proof.
- Fence your property in or surround it with a hedge of prickly shrubs. And put in a garden gate you can keep locked, at least at night.
- Install warning signs. There is the classic “Beware of the dog” sign, which you can use whether you have a dog or not. And I suspect that a “Caution Poison Ivy” one would make a lot of plant thieves think twice! My favorite, though, remains “Plant thieves will be composted.” (Sometimes all you need to do is to remind the future brigand that what they are thinking of doing is illegal to stop them in their tracks.)
Plant Theft in Public Gardens
If you think you have a problem with plant theft in your garden, public gardens have things much worse … and this appears to be true all over the world. Sometimes this is major theft, with people stealing entire plants or even breaking in at night to steal truckloads of them, but it can also be petty thievery repeated at an unsupportable scale. Who doesn’t know otherwise upright citizens given to stealing cuttings or seed pods? There isn’t a garden or public park that doesn’t have to invest again and again in expensive repairs and replacements to mend the damaged caused by unthinking people.
One garden that has taken great steps to protect small, high-value plants is Wisley Gardens in England. I was there, in one of the greenhouses of alpine plants, when a lady in my group leaned over to touch a plant. A siren went off and a gardener and security guard came running. It appears they’ve installed a security system whereby a weak electric current runs from plant to plant. If you touch one, even lightly, that’s enough to sound the alarm. It was embarrassing and in fact, almost traumatic for the poor woman. I suspect she won’t be touching plants in a public garden again!