Ever since The Orchid Thief, we’ve grown used to looking to Florida for interesting plant crime. The association was reinforced in a recent Palm Beach Post story about nursery owner Carl Reddish, who got himself into trouble when he reported the theft of six palm trees from his backyard operation—which also happens to be illegal.
In addition to the irony of his bringing about his own comeuppance, there are other issues here. Reddish had been running his nursery for at least thirty years in a residential neighborhood, and honestly didn’t see why he should have to abide by the same code restrictions governing businesses as other local nurseries. It was his livelihood, and nobody else needed to mind. The plants—citrus, palms, bougainvillea—don’t sound too interesting considering it’s Florida; I’d much rather pay a visit to the dashing John Laroche of The Orchid Thief.
We have our own mini-controversy about illicit plant sales in Buffalo during Garden Walk. One of the best gardeners on the walk, who maintains two large ponds, grows elephant ear and canna in his basement, and has great success with Japanese anenome and acanthus, is considering taking his garden off because the committee governing the walk objects to his selling his extra plants. (“Feed my habit,” he calls it.) There’s a rule about keeping the walk “pure,” but in this case I think they should look the other way.
There have been more serious clashes between the law and gardeners in Western New York. During the early 80s, an English grad student living in Kenmore (a suburb of Buffalo), refused to mow his lawn for years. It was covered with three dozen varieties of wildflowers, many of which he had planted—and he did, in fact, weed and till the space. This guy received death threats, gunshots were fired at the house, and snakes were placed in the yard—all by his neighbors. He was fined by the village for violating an ordinance, which he fought, semi-successfully, in court. Eventually, neighbors mowed the lawn illegally while he was on vacation. He lives in the Appalachian mountains now. His dissertation was to be on Thoreau. I don’t know if he finished it.
And last summer, several articles in the Buffalo News reported on the ongoing strife between a man who had a stand of sunflowers near his mailbox and his neighbors, who claimed the plants obstructed their view of street traffic when pulling in and out of their driveways. Sunflowers are annuals here, so nature eventually resolved the dilemma.
I think my all-time favorite happened last year, when a neighborhood activist was arrested for mowing an absentee landlord’s easeway (strip between street and sidewalk). This was also Garden Walk-related—the mowing was part of a community-wide clean-up before the event. The landlord objected to these efforts; it drew unwelcome attention to his dilapidated properties. The fine point of law: who exactly does have authority over the maintenance of an easeway, which technically is owned by the city?
In urban neighborhoods here, gardening is often seen as a civic task, a way to make a community look attractive to possible homeowners and unattractive to criminal elements. In suburban neighborhoods, there is often subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressure to conform to the standard of a neatly-mowed lawn and a pleasant if unremarkable domestic landscape.
Gardening can make a bigger statement—and cause a greater controversy—than we might imagine. I’m sure many of you can recall similar incidents of garden-related crimes, misdemeanors, or scandals in your necks of the woods. I sort of like the dark side of gardening—makes me feel less like a character in a Barbara Pym novel.