Plant Thieves – the Dirty Underbelly of Gardening


Guest Post by Marie Viljoen of 66 Square Feet

When I was a little girl, I picked a branch of pink lilac hanging over a
neighbour’s fence, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. I carried it home to my
mother. The elderly gardener whose lilac it was pursued me to our front door. My
mother was preternaturally calm about it all, and refused to punish me. Perhaps
because I had picked the beautiful flower for her. I might be bent, but I was

Soon after, when I picked all the pink sprays of blossom I could
reach from the tall old lilac shrub at the same front door, my mother was less
sanguine:  What have you done? she cried, tears starting in
her blue eyes.

Mutely, I held up my offering.
GuestMarielily thief getawayCropped
Thirty years later,
I’m standing at our studio window on the Lower East Side, New York, where our
garden design business is based. I see someone across the street, in Sara D. Roosevelt
, standing in the flower bed, between two low fences, calmly
snapping off waist-high Formosa lily blooms. I planted those lilies three years
ago, from 100 bulbs we purchased for the park, in slow transition from drug
strip to inner city oasis. I rush across the road, forgetting traffic, with
camera in hand. Snap-snap-snap, I take pictures in my rage. She does not even
look up. She stuffs her haul, upside-down, flower heads first, into a shopping
cart on the other side of the fence.

From my mouth my mother’s cry, down the yearsGuestMarieTrashed office pot

What have you

You are a thief! I gasp. The charge is basic. Eloquence
flees. The root of the matter. The flowers do not belong to her. Nor do they
belong to me. They belong to the air beneath the plane trees and the traffic
whizzing past on East Houston and the basket ball dudes on the courts and the
old Chinese ladies doing Tai Chi at 7am and the bums at the tables with their
brown bags and the hipsters eating lunch on the steps from Wholefoods recyclable
cardboard and the ambulance drivers who always let their engine idle while they
rest in the cool air conditioning inside and the apartment dwellers flanking the
park and us across the street, designing gardens for rich rooftops and nostalgic
for scented blooms in the middle of the biggest city in the United

Cut off at the knees.

GuestMarieMedian agastache stolenCROPPED Not that it was unprecedented or unexpected. Last spring our pots in front of
the office were trashed. We replanted. A favourite flowering quince was broken into. Then the boxwoods of summer
disappeared. We planted more. The median we had planted for the city suddenly lost about 90% of
the agastache we had purchased and planted in May: systematically snapped off.
We kept on watering. It resprouted.

And that is the only lesson I can draw. Don’t give up. Keep on truckin’.
Whether people are aware of it or not, flowers and plants make us better people.

At least most of us.

Marie designs gardens in New York City and tends her own little
in Brooklyn.

Photos:  Top, thief making her getaway.  MIddle: the trashed pots in front of Marie’s office.  Bottom: remains of agastaches.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. The lesson I would have learned is: Plant more poison ivy and bunny ear cactus. Follow the blood trail, and call the cops on the one with a rash.

    I’m not a very nice person when it comes to mindless destruction.

  2. Luckily, I’ve been spared thieves, even when I gardened next to a busy city park. The closest was when a neighborhood child decided to help me weed (without my knowledge) and mistook my (glorious!) Allium caeruleum for wild garlic.

  3. Last spring, we had no garden, but we had large perennial flower beds in the front of our house. I planted tomato plants. They were calmly snapped off at the base. This happened 3 times before I realized the neighbor kids were playing swords in our flower beds. By the first frost, and round 3 of tomato plants, we got 4 green tomatoes that I carefully wrapped in newspaper and allowed to ripen.

    Needless to say, we have a backyard garden this year and the tomato plants (and green beans) have been replaced with a short purple leafed plant.

  4. I remember visiting a private park once where they became so exasperated with people walking off trail and doing whatever they wanted that the people running the place actually planted cactus and poison oak in broad bands beside the carefully laid out walking trails. It worked. I thought it was genius, my birdwatching campmates were less than thrilled. Stay on the trail means stay on the trail.

    I believe that if you were to purposely boobytrap your garden with dangerous plants you could get into trouble with the law but somehow this park got away with it.

  5. I too live in Brooklyn, and have had planters stolen on and off for years. It is especially bad right before Mothers’ Day! I’ve had 40-lb bags of manure stolen from right by my inside front gate. I discovered, finally, that nobody wants to steal pots of coral bells. Luckily, I love ’em. Revenge is useless; keep on planting is the only way to go…

  6. Our community vegetable garden regularly has thieves who take veggies – last year my two pumpkins were taken.

    We’ve put out an excess veggie box that anyone can take from but I don’t know that it’s helped much. We’ve finally had to put a lock on our garden door – which just makes me sad.

  7. Troll: people will steal sod … recently I saw an article in I think Little Rock AR where a fairly well-to-do couple showed up and loaded a newly laid sod lawn in their pick-up and rode off with it, so nothing is sacred.

    Besides, the stolen lawn is probably only being moved to an new location, not eliminate, unless they are true turf-terrorists and will be holding the sod hostage in exchange for three yards or locally-created compost!

  8. it is easiest on the soul to garden thinking that the plants may live or may die, just as we. each blossom is a gift, as is each day. think of the thieves as hungry people who need a cup of soup. thieves are just “hungry.”

  9. Why do people do this? You just want to make the world a little more beautiful, and then everybody can enjoy it. I too, have had plants stolen, seen things disappear from public areas. I just feel that manners and common sourtesy is disapearing from society.
    But we gardeners, persevere.

  10. I live down the street from a hospital. I’ve found flowers, looking like they were chewed off on the remaining stem, that undoubtedly were given to cheer up a sick friend or relative.

    At one point, back years ago, when solar lights were new to the market and expensive, I put them in my front yard. I don’t think they lasted a week.

    We’ve also had our front door doorknob stolen, but that’s a different story for a doorknob fancier’s blog.

    I hate people.

  11. Sacramento is Camellia City with many of the buildings Downtown incorporating camellias into their landscaping. Each winter, I get to enjoy them on my to & from work. In the warm months, it’s the roses from the World Peace Rose Garden in Capitol Park. And it breaks my heart when I see people pick the blossoms from the trees/shrubs on which they were apparently doing very well, only to discard them a block or two later. Nearly every morning I see a few on the sidewalks.

  12. grrrr…drives me nuts. Sure, I don’t care if kids pick the flower heads off my dandelions, but when they rip and tear my articokes off the stem or rip out a prized Japanese Maple, it steams me. If I didn’t hate pruning it so much, I might put in a barrier of barberry just for those jerks.

  13. I had a home garden when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama. With regularity everytime I left for a couple days, some of my produce would be snatched. A planted tamarind seedling was dug out of the ground once.

    I everytime I talked to a neighbor I mentaly accused and suspected them all of stealing from me. It’s a really ugly feeling – having no trust.

    I eventually talked to the neighbors and told them how bad it made me feel and asked them to help gaurd my garden. It was a little better after that. In the end, I made peace with the whole thing. There is good and bad everywhere. And I got up the next morning and gardened again.

  14. I think it’s different when children steal or break – they should be disciplined and then forgiven. But grown people straight up stealing is ridiculous, especially because most gardeners will share seeds and cuttings if you just ask.

  15. When I was trying to decide where to plant lilies in my garden, my first thought was not to put them anywhere easily accessed from the sidewalk. It’s sad, but it’s reality. Up near the street, I have foliage plants. They’d have to be pretty sophisticated to want those.

  16. That is so frustrating. I once had one plant out of several stolen from the potted arrangement I had out front. I never could find a good replacement for it.

    Another time I kept wondering where our excess, expensive but wonderful garden soil was disappearing to. One day I returned home early to find my retired next door neighbor in my backyard handing buckets of dirt to his wife over the fence! Unfortunately our relationship was never the same after that and I installed locks on my gates.

  17. To:Sysiphus’s Gardner
    I just happen to be missing three yards of locally produced (my backyard) compost!!!!

    Were you driving with a band of VW microbus hippies with shovels in my neighborhood?

    The TROLL

  18. We had a renter who, when they moved out of the apartment, dug a Japanese Maple tree out of the back yard. It was winter, and the ground was frozen, and by the looks of the hole, they didn’t even bother to dig out a decent sized rootball, to give the tree a chance to survive the transplant. I was so angry!

  19. Plant wicked plants, I say.

    a pyracantha… rue… something that looks pretty but itches. Oh sorry… vindictiveness does not become me.
    never mind

  20. A hopeful guy once brought my roommate daffodils that he’d obviously cut from the apartment complex’s flower beds. She turned him down pretty fast.

    On the other hand, I let my kids pick as many dandelions as they want. It’s like weeding.

  21. I was chatting with a friend recently and asked where she got a certain plant in her yard – “Oh, from the apartment building a few blocks down. They don’t deserve a plant like that, they had it squeezed in by mugo pines!” !!? Oh dear. There went my respect for that friend…. a thief is a thief, no matter the justification they use.

  22. I did my share of pre-school flower picking and don’t begrudge the occasional child, but like others here it is the adults and those that know better or who only trash your plantings that I have a real problem with. Trampling, smashing, ripping up, etc. is disheartening and does make you want to go all vigilante on them. I just take in and out a deep cleansing breathe and hope karma bites them in the end.

  23. Funny story. I remember when I was a teen my boyfriend brought me a bouquet of flowers to work. I thought it was nice and thoughtful until my boss pointed out that they came from her bush and he had jumped her fence.

  24. I have two solutions, both of which I deploy in my own garden, which is mostly along a long sidewalk and just a block from a subway station. 1) I plant thorny things near the sidewalk and that keep people and dogs out – I use pyracantha, barberry, stratchy junipers, sharp hollies, mahonias, you name it…most of these are also evergreen so they give me privacy, and behind them in the interior of the garden I plant the more delicate things. 2) Interspersed with my collection of prickly plants along the sidewalk I plant cheap, easy to grow things like orange daylilies or purple coneflowers or cheapo-daffodils in the spring, fully expecting that some/all of them will be picked/harvested by passersby – it gives them something to snatch and keeps them from coming further into the garden and picking my more expensive and selective plants.

  25. When I was four years old, we lived in a house 65 miles east of NYC. No sidewalks, no lawns really. My father planted four small shrubs in front of the foundation. Two days later, we awoke to find them missing, just holes in the ground.

    It only takes one f*@ker to make it all disappear. A year later we planted again, no takers.

  26. It’s funny how we all remember the thieves…or what was stolen. It is an elemental feeling of outrage, I suppose, nurtured by the knowledge that what was taken cost the most precious thing of all: Time, which rewards the patience that is sometimes gardening…

  27. I feel sick for you – I feel bad enough when my children accidentally cut down some plant when playing in the garden, for an adult to do this is just selfish wickedness. It brought to mind my son when very small picking the strawberry flowers for me – oops! but he was forgiven.

  28. My neighbor is a little off in the head, and several years ago she began before sunrise raids into other peoples gardens stealing various plants and breaking blooming branches. The whole neighborhood was up in arms not knowing who was doing it. So I got up early and waited until I caught her. It is a great story that you are welcome to read part one of the story here:

    And You Thought Deer Were A Problem

  29. Two days, or I should say nights, after I planted 2 pear trees in my front yard, I came home to just one lone tree. I wanted to scream “It needs a pollinator a#%hole!!!” My veggie garden is along our alley and unfenced…the worse the economy gets in our small town, the more I wake up expecting more to be gone than what the deer graze.

  30. Troll: Dude! I got 3 yards of tree-clippings by bribing the tree service guy cutting down and chipping down a tree to dump 1/2 his load in my driveway this weekend! Maybe it was just your compost and he hid it in his dump truck and ditched his micro bus…

    Are the holding the compost hostage for a pallet of sod?

  31. When I was around 7, my dear friend Annie and I stole pomegranates from a neighbor’s yard. We hid behind a hedge and ate the delightful fruit. The pomegranate owner found us. Instead of anger she brought us more pomegranates to enjoy. Almost 50 years later I remember her good hearted nature very time I see a pomegranate.

  32. Nice to see you on Garden Rant, Marie!

    When whole plants are stolen, the thefts are likely more larcenous than petty. No matter how much of a bargain it might seem, don’t buy your plants off the back of a truck. If something looks like it was just dug out of the ground and dumped into a container, it probably was, to mask its origins. Don’t support the black market of plant trafficking.

    When the NYC Parks Department started its Greenstreets program back in the 1980s, a friend of mine worked for them as a gardener. He told me that theft was one of their biggest problems; people stole entire plantings from the middle of the streets! These were clearly “landscapers” finding material to sell to their clients. He started embedding barbed wire into the root balls and stems of the woody plants. Like a bike lock, it would not stop the determined thief, but it would slow them down enough that they might move elsewhere.

    When I moved to Flatbush, neighbors told me their horror stories of plants stolen from their front yards. The most brazen was a woman who went to my next-door neighbor’s yard, dug out the Japanese Maple from their front yard (yes, she brought her own shovel), and rode off with it, on her bicycle.

    Like Cassie above – yet another Brooklyn gardener/blogger! – I’ve learned not to put out any container plantings until after Mother’s Day. What a thoughtful, last-minute-because-I-didn’t-think-of-bringing-you-anything-until-I-saw-these-beautiful-flowers-on-some-stranger’s-front-steps, gift!

    (P.S. to Cassie: Nice to “meet” you here!)

  33. I know this is just the wrong thing to say, but after listen to all these horror storeis, I am somewhat amazed. I have never had anything from mine, my parents, or grandparents gardens stolen. I had read about it in the paper a couple of years back as starting in Dallas and Ft. Worth, but generally it was more high-end (expensive pots, fountains, some newly planted trees). I have lived mostly in the suburbs of small (Little Rock, OK City) to large cities (Dallas/Ft. Worth). I am truely sorry to hear about all this mayhem.

  34. Just want to say how much I appreciate this great piece, even though I’m late to the comment roll!

    I love how you say that the lilies belonged to the air beneath the plane tree—beautiful and poetic.

    Perhaps that lady snagged her trousers a little on the way out? One can only hope for a karmic payback equal to the crime. Maximum embarrassment preferred…

  35. Lux & Style- Somehow a stolen seed seems almost part of the natural propagation of things, a cutting less-so, but still. At least the plant’s center of gravity remains intact and relatively unmolested.

    We had some problem neighbors, and the smallest of their transgressions was the regular pilfering of my neighbor’s roses. When caught red-handed and asked in her native language why the thief was cutting all the roses, she said “because I don’t have the seeds”. I think this is why. Because the plant thieves don’t have “the seeds”, which I take in a metaphorical way.

    She was invited back to pick roses once a week under the supervision of the neighbor/gardener. I believe that if she had stayed in the neighborhood, she might have learned to grow roses, and other things, and might even have gotten “some seeds”.

  36. Plantanista – I agree that seeds and cuttings seem not egregious at all. I have known many serious, passionate gardeners like Lux and Style’s mother. Maybe because growing from them takes patience and time.

    I like the metaphorical idea of seeds, though. Very good idea for story. Maybe you can write it.

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