I have thought long and hard about doing this post. It doesn't make sense to me to focus on the negatives about community gardening but bad behavior in community gardens has been brought to my attention numerous times recently that I felt I had to address the issue. My reticence at bringing up this issue is that no matter how awful it is to the victim, having a prized tomato stolen does not equate to white collar crimes where everyone suffers because of the greed of a few or environmental crimes committed by corporations polluting our air and water thereby causing sickness and death in order to make a larger profit. I could write much more about these crimes but this is a blog about community gardening so I'd like to focus on some petty crimes that happen in community gardens.
Everywhere I went this summer folks I spoke to related stories about bad behavior in community gardens. I heard from a number of folks from Chicago, New Jersey, Boston and New York about produce being stolen. A gardener will watch a tomato, watermelon or pepper as it ripens, waiting to pick the fruit at the peak of ripeness and flavor. It always seems that the day before the gardener planned to harvest, the fruit disappears. Sometimes the fruit would be stolen before it is fully ripe, in effect wasting the nutrients that would be consumed if the fruit was allowed to ripen fully. The thief may be a garden member or an outsider. This petty crime pales in the scheme of things when compared to much more serious crimes but in the context of a community garden it violates the ethos of sharing and cooperation that is key to the smooth functioning of a community garden. It also turns off gardeners from participating. I heard the comment from a few folks that they would have to rethink their participation next season.
Other stories I heard were of community gardeners setting fire to a fellow gardeners plot as revenge for a perceived slight or as an escalation of an ongoing feud. I have gotten reports of community gardeners bullying others to keep them out of the garden and of someone repeatedly undoing the hard work of a fellow gardener by ripping out plants. In one garden rain barrels were stolen. There were complaints of a garden leader using the garden as a party venue and pocketing the profits from an admission charge or sale of alcohol. There are rumors of drug dealing taking place in community gardens. While some of these behaviors are illegal, they all once again violate the spirit of community and cooperation on which the community garden movement is based.
For every one of these bad behavior stories there are dozens of positive and inspiring stories of neighbor helping neighbor, of folks working through their differences, of produce being donated to those more needy, of generations working together and passing on knowledge. These things are what community gardening means to most of us. As in the larger world there are bad characters that commit crimes that impact us in ways small and large. There are many reasons that people commit crimes; they could simply be hungry and feel they can't get a meal any other way, they could have been mistreated their whole lives so they behave as they have learned that people behave, they could be doing it for fun or on a lark or they could know better but use their talents to commit crimes rather than do good.
I don't have an answer for getting rid of bad behavior in community gardens. My guess is that most of it comes from outside pressures or behaviors learned outside of the garden. Things that may be beyond our control. Do gardens become mini police states by installing cameras in our gardens to catch thieves red handed? Would the cameras then be stolen too? If nothing else I think the issue of theft, vandalism and illegal and immoral behavior should be discussed at garden meetings. These behaviors should not be tolerated and it should be made clear to gardeners and surrounding community alike that community gardens are refuges of cooperation and community and as such they are crime free zones.