Monika Maeckle

Those of us who garden are accustomed to four-legged creatures snatching our vegetables, munching on foliage, even digging up tender new plants. Plant damage and pilfering by critters are annoying facts of life in the garden.  When two-legged thieves rip off our gardens, however, it can feel like a punch in the gut.

Sago Palm
Sago Palms are targeted by plant thieves, photo. Montreal Botanical Gardens

“We’ve experienced fruit trees dug up, grapevines, things that we had nurtured and gotten established,”  said San Antonio Community Gardens Coordinator Angela Hartsell.  “Overnight they were gone.  I just don’t get it.”

I don’t either.   When someone recently dug up  up a single $2.75 purple-blooming verbena from my thoughtfully planned yard in Lavaca, just one day after planting, I was dumbstruck and angry.   It happened to me last year in Austin, too. Just blocks off South Congress Avenue, my babied heirloom tomato plants were plucked by a stranger at the peak of their ripeness.   Then someone chopped down my six-foot-tall sunflower stalks.

Hartsell and police officers speculate that trees and valuable plants like Sago Palms are targets of unscrupulous landscapers who comb neighborhoods looking for recent transplants to use in their work.  Newly planted  items are easy to remove and reuse.  “They’re cutting their costs,” said Hartsell.

San Antonio Police Officer Gilbert Santos couldn’t say whether or not garden theft is on the rise, only that such incidents, unfortunately, are not uncommon.   Garden thieves will even remove inexpensive, recently installed bedding plants and sell them at flea markets. “They sell them for a dollar.  It’s just easy, an opportunity.  They’re there and they just take it,” he said.

Over on the San Antonio’s River, where a $385 million riparian restoration is underway, plants have been stolen to the tune of a few thousand dollars, the San Antonio River Authority’s (SARA) Steven Schauer said via email.  Exact numbers are difficult to assess, since plants are constantly replaced because of flooding, disease and insect damage.

“While the circumstances vary, the typical situation is that someone comes to the project overnight and digs up some plants and/or shrubs in one area, usually at a location near a street connection,” said Schauer.  In some instances SARA has employed techniques like nailing down vegetation to make it more difficult to take, he said.

Garden Thief in Austin, Texas
Garden thief in Austin, Texas, took my heirloom tomatoes last year

Up on on the Museum Reach, the problem became such an issue in later stages of the project that security guards were hired at extra cost to monitor the plants while they took root.  “When we were working on the Museum Reach Urban Segment the contractor started landscaping and we were made aware that people were taking the plants,” Lori Houston, an Assistant Manager of the City of San Antonio, who worked closely on the project, said.  As a result,  landscaping was postponed until the end of construction, and both private security and a more visible police presence were added.

It isn’t only the cost of lost plants and trees that must be replaced. Gardeners and professional landscapers feel violated when green thieves uproot and “plant-knap” plants, or leave them mutilated.  “It can be a very negative thing,” said Michele Gorman, Community Gardens Assistant Manager who works with the Pittman Sullivan Community Garden on the East Side.  “It’s not just the cost of the plant.   It’s the time you spent nurturing it,  trying to build on something that you want to be longterm.  It can be very disheartening.”

Stolen verbena plant in Lavaca
Seriously? You stole my $2.75 verbena plant?

Hartsell told of a vandal chopping down a four-foot tall pencil cactus, a lovely specimen and very slow grower.  “They just left it on the ground for us to find,” she said.  Landscapers cutting costs makes criminal sense, but thoughtless destruction calls to mind animal torture, leaving gardeners to wonder: what kind of person would do such a thing?

We’ll never know.  Psychologist Susan Blake couldn’t explain it, either.  “I would just love to know what’s on their minds.  Does it seem funny to them?  You have to wonder if there’s a sadistic element to it–not just to the gardener but to the plants.”

Some gardeners (including this one) have been driven to installing digital game cameras.  (The tomato thief photo above was taken with a game camera bungee-corded to a crepe myrtle tree.)   Gorman and Hartsell recommend working with your local San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) officer, a police officer assigned to your neighborhood. The community policing program will send a SAPD officer to your home to conduct a neighborhood crime walk, whereby you walk the block to introduce yourself to neighbors, asking them to participate in a neighborly lookout for suspicious activity.

Here’s some other tips to help cut down on yard larceny:

1. Load the bottoms of potted plants with heavy rocks to add weight.  It’s good for drainage and makes them more difficult to cart off.

2.  Skip the yard art and garden gnomes. They’re just invitations to steal.

3.  Plant stinging nettles in front of inviting fruits and foliage as a deterrent.  At least the plant thief will get a burning rash.  Prickly cactus also may help, and agarita is extremely ornery, if you can find one at a native nursery or transplant it from the wild.

4.  Heed the community gardener’s advice and conduct a block walk and introduce yourself to neighbors.  Work with your  SAFFE officer as recommended by Hartsell.    More eyeballs on the yard and street mean more surveillance, more accountability, and hopefully, less crime.

5.  Install real and/or fake garden cams.  Alert your neighbors to the new surveillance.  And let thieves know they’re being watched by putting up a sign.

One garden thief paid for his plant crime with a gunshot to the head.  An angry, armed homeowner  pulled the trigger upon discovering the thief stealing a potted plant from the porch.  The thief was charged, but the homeowner was not, because he was protecting his property. No one I know who loves gardening would advocate such an extreme reaction. We simply want to nurture things that grow without thieves robbing us of our bounty and our pleasure.


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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...