Raise Your Hands, Ma’am, and Take Off Those Clogs!


Have you ever walked past a garden with larceny in your heart? Spotted just that old-fashioned mock orange you’ve been looking for for years but can never find in a nursery? And thought, “Oh, what could it possibly hurt to steal just one little sucker?”

Or noticed a grape vine just dripping with grapes that nobody is bothering to pick?

Or worse, spied a crowded stand of bearded iris in some unbelievable color with nobody around? My husband’s had to shout me out of doing a bit of impromptu dividing more than once.

Well, give it up. The risks of crossing to the wrong side of the law just got steeper. New Scientist Magazine reports in its July 26 issue that scientists at the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen have been analyzing the organic parts of soil samples–which can hang around for thousands of years–to create new forensic tools. Their soil analysis is so accurate, it can pinpoint not just the geographical area where you’ve been marauding, but the particular garden bed. So, if Farmer McGregor decides to press charges, you may well be out of luck.


  1. My mom and her friends called it five finger gardening (tho’ only usually practiced on each other). I’ve also been told never to thank someone for a plant gift from a garden as it’s bad luck, but it feels Wrong.

  2. Funny story about that – years ago my exhusband and I were driving in our Colorado mountains, nice quiet 2 lane road and a lovely blue caught our eye. We walked up to find several large clumps of our state flower columbine and decided to “transplant” a small clump to our garden, which is very against the law here. Just as we started back to the car here came a wailing siren. Our first reaction was, “How did they know?”, but it was an ambulance. I’ve never done that again, but, I’ve been known to go to someone’s door and ask for a cutting or seeds.

  3. You all are welcome to ravage my garden any day.

    I think this idea of “owning” plants is near nonsense. In the grand scheme of things, how much work do we gardeners do to produce a plant? Most of the credit goes to nature. Can we honestly take credit for a flower in all its glory? How conceited are we?

    Rather, plants are used and tended, but not owned.

    In extreme cases, dishevelling someone’s garden for the sake of your own is disrespectful, but it isn’t theft. It goes without saying that considerate cutting and seed-collecting is done discreetly.

    Nature comes and goes – gives and takes. Embrace it.

    (Note: Susan’s post above summarizes my own.)

  4. Hey, I have ‘dig your own narcissus’ at my place. Really. In Takoma Park, MD.

    Perhaps forming community garden clubs where everyone shares seeds and cuttings. Of course, with proprietary plants, it could be a copyright violation. Hey- anyone have any info on that topic?

  5. Does picking the raspberries that came through the fence, and are hanging over the road (just out of the fox’s reach, he’s gotten the lower ones) count? Then, Garden Man is guilty. I didn’t pick them, but I did eat them. No evidence! And the owner begged us to come dig some up this spring, so we did.

  6. This reminded me of a story I read a couple of years ago where because of concerns about the coast line eroding and people taking pebbles home for their gardens – the police had followed someone home with their haul of pebbles and charged them!

  7. I liberate plants from derelict spots all the time; or grab extra ones overflowing their beds or borders. And offering to help friends with gardening allows me to subdivide and redistribute at will (which I do for both my garden and those of others). I think about asking people with overgrown hostas etc. if they’ll let me subdivide for them. I have not done this yet, though.

  8. I have always drawn the line at digging things up. I don’t care if it is in the wild, an abandoned garden, someones yard or a commercial space. Digging things up and removing them without permission seems wrong. It seems just as wrong to do it to Nature.

    Plant parts are another matter. Seeds, cuttings and loose keiki are good for propagation. This is an act of creation and multiplication. There will be more and the original plant stays were it is.

    “dishevelling someone’s garden for the sake of your own is disrespectful, but IT ISN”T THEFT. It goes without saying that considerate cutting and seed-collecting is done discreetly.” Dustin, if you came into my garden to do “transplanting”, discretely or not, on the plants I have paid good money for or spent my time and energy growing from seeds or cuttings without my permission, I would call it THEFT and TRESSPASSING. Don’t let me catch you. You won’t like my reaction.

  9. I do have a friend who saves native plants from gardens soon to turn into construction sites. She started a non-profit in Atlanta and she propagates the plants (only 10% of the plants there are native due to cotton farming) and gives them to others (usually groups) who agree to nurture them and continue the work. The site is http://www.ecoaddendum.org. (Her sculpture is pretty amazing too – biology gone somewhere else – pandrawilliams.com.)

  10. Well said, Christopher C NC! Dustin, your definition of ownership, trespass and theft is twisted and would not stand up in court. My garden is MY creation. I would be livid if someone destroyed any part of it, selfishly believing they had the right to the plant I carefully, lovingly chose, paid for with my hard-earned dollars, planted and tended. And I would take legal action.

    Stealing isn’t necessary. Gardeners are a generous bunch, happy to fill requests from fellow plant fiends (it’s a great way to meet neighbors). I am more than willing to share babies, seeds, and cuttings and I’ve been the recipient of similar generosity.

    I wonder, Dustin, if you also think that plants shouldn’t be patented even though breeders spend years and thousands of dollars creating new hybrids for us to enjoy.

  11. Destruction is not cool. Digging things up I tend to think isn’t cool – certainly not in a state park or someone else’s yard. Construction sites and at-risk areas are a grey area. Removing enough of a plant that someone would notice isn’t cool. But if someone wandered by and tapped my dill flowers for seeds? More power to ’em.
    I grew up with a mother that regularly rearranged rocks from public areas (ie junk sites, roadsides) onto our property. I tend to think that’s mildly more questionable (those rocks won’t replenish themselves).

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