Crimes and Ethical Dilemmas in the News


Metro gardener

Two items in Sunday’s papers caught my interest, and possibly yours.  “Metro edict choking Phantom Planter’s blooms” in the Washington Post really warmed my heart – except for the part about Metro.  Part-time lawyer Henry Doctor has been planting flowering plants in the 176 otherwise abandoned little planters along the escalator leading to the Dupont Circle subway station (aka Metro).   I’ve ridden those multi-story escalators and very much appreciated the plants, and had no idea a volunteer gardener was to thank for  them.  Trouble is, he asked for permission and was told he’d face “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he continued to tend to the 1,000 flowers he planted there.  (By the way, the story doesn’t tell us why they’re abandoned.  For at least 20 years they contained groundcover Junipers and looked terrific.)

The back story is that the Phantom Planter here has has been quietly performing “clandestine horticulture” for 34 years, with no trouble.  He’s planted 40,000 flowers far and wide – at embassies and memorials, even in other countries, like Cambodia, Argentina.  He tells the Post, “I’m not denying that I’m a little nuts”.  I say, nuts in the best possible way.  He’s the son of a well-known District community activist, and I guess he sees beautification as a form of community activism, which I certainly think it is.

Until now he’s stayed under the radar, but since his citation has gone public with this website, which is bringing attention and support for his cause, as have other online campaigns to protest anti-gardening laws new yorkerand regulations.  (Think HOAs and cities that require all-grass front yards.)  Doctor is respecting Metro’s order that he stop watering the plants (Metro cites safety concerns), but he’s worried.  He’s a gardener.  When there’s no rain, we fret.

Next, in “Horticulture Heist, the New York Times’ Ethicist was asked to weigh in on the ethics of taking cuttings from plants in a shopping center – which plants could not be found at any store, we’re told.  So, is this stealing?  The Ethicist’s considered opinion is that if he were to place unethical acts on an ascending continuum of 1 to 100, he’d give the cuttings-thieves “a 4.  Maybe a 3.”

One more thing.  This week’s New Yorker has a cool city garden on the cover, and click here to scroll through years of gardening-related covers.


  1. Perhaps the government wants tiny security cameras there and devices collecting meta data?

    If backwater Southern towns with little population, less money have them….

    FYI, been going rogue with flowering garden seeds for decades.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. As to the “Horticulture Heist,” that’s just plain wrong on so many levels. Not finding a desired plant at 2 nurseries is a typical Saturday for most gardeners. Surely it was available mail-order somewhere.

    They also didn’t ask permission, likely because the answer would have been “no.” If public landscapes let everyone take a little piece instead of sourcing their own, there wouldn’t be much of a public landscape left.

    I sometimes feel like a child fighting temptation at the local Lowe’s when they have tables full of beautiful lilies on display. How easy it would be to take few seed-like bulblets from the ripe stems, pocket them, and drop them in the rich soil of my raised beds at home? But I don’t.

    • While I agree with your statement “If public landscapes let everyone take a little piece instead of sourcing their own, there wouldn’t be much of a public landscape left”, I cannot let it go without comment that the number of people who would know what to do with a cutting is a very small fraction of the populace. So many seem to think gardening is difficult, requiring advanced knowledge, if not actual magic potions. Growing from a cutting? Pure voodoo!

      But yes, if everyone who wanted a piece of a plant – whether to root, to put in a vase, or to adorn hair – took a bit of plant with them, our public landscapes would be a scraggly lot.

  3. The NY Times Ethicist prefaced his comment by saying the couple technically stole, technically vandalized and should have asked permission before taking the cuttings. It does seem like a harmless crime, but I guess a lot depends on how carefully the cuttings were taken. And maybe if the couple had asked, the landscaper could’ve helped them source the plants.

    The first story surprises me. Surely Metro could work with the guy as a volunteer? What he’s doing is better than letting weeds grow. Maybe Metro should advertise for volunteer bids on areas they are unable/unwilling to landscape.

  4. As a public gardener, I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to raise (for example) Echinacea pallida from seed, finally have it bloom, and then come to work one morning and see the bed trampled and the flower heads ripped off (sometime they pull the whole plant out) because someone wanted seed. And usually, the seed isn’t even ripe. Once I watched a woman go from Magnolia to Magnolia ripping off branches from the passenger side of a car while her friend drove slowly down the street. It is vandalism and theft. EVERYTHING is available now via internet – no excuses.

    • And then there are the people who pick flowers or fruit at community gardens and say, “It’s a community garden, that means it’s for everyone.” I have a big patch of echinacea and have started telling people who ask that it’s coneflower. One year a whole plant was dug up, and flowers were being cut a few times a week, so I put up bird netting and barriers along the path.

      Some years ago I toured Lotusland. At the beginning of the tour, we were told that no cuttings were allowed. So I was appalled that a couple people were making a game of sneaking cuttings of everything in sight. I didn’t know them, so I don’t know if they were even going to use the cuttings, or if they would end up as mulch on the long ride home.

      • Oh, don’t get me started…the number of people who pick fruit out of the orchards around here without asking is crazy. I have a friend who found her orchard foreman hiding in the trees from a busload of tourists picking their apples–he was just so shocked by their invasion.

      • I think we all could go on & on about garden thievery … About people who pick fruit from the trees planted in the center of my lawn. No sidewalk overhang whatsoever. They trample the lawn – not that I’m overly fond of the grass, but hubby is … and it’s not theirs to trample!

        And people who help themselves to the blueberries in the ‘hedge’ between my lawn & my front walk. It’s selfish, I know, but I didn’t work so hard to clear the area, amend the soil, and tend the plants as a public service. I planted them because my children & I like blueberries. If I am feeling generous, I might bring a jar of jam over, but not to those who steal from me.

        People who walk right up to my front door to pluck a rose from the climber there. I once surprised a teenager when I went out to get the paper & instead found him standing just outside my door twisting a blossom off, presumably to give to the girl standing out by the street. He mumbled something that might have been an apology and scampered away, leaving the rose dangling by its now-mangled stem.

        If they asked, I’d be inclined to share. But they don’t. They just take.

  5. I too was struggling with the taking a cutting issue. Now, I have taken a poppy seed head once. And I felt guilty, but I justified it to myself that there were more than the gardener would want. But this year I was out in my garden everyday hand pollinating my hellebores. I am on the garden tour this year and I was stressing that some people may think it is okay to take a seed pod or two. And it would not be. They have finally ripened and are spilling out on my sidewalk, so everyday I’m out there picking up the seeds from the concrete and making hellebore nurseries. So it won’t be a problem on the tour, but I was concerned.

  6. I recall being told, when visiting a British garden often visited by busloads of blue-haired ladies, that they would descend like locusts onto uncommon cutting items (“Oh, I’m just taking a slip”) until the plants were fully dismantled. Common sport over there; guards would have to be temporarily posted.

  7. Re: Cuttings. When you take cuttings from a public planting (museum garden, sidewalk, etc.) – that’s tax money that paid for those plantings. As a taxpayer, I’d put that a little higher up the crime scale than 3. A plant in a private garden that’s actually hanging over the sidewalk/street getting in people’s way would be higher yet, but a little below walking into the garden itself to take plant matter. But if it’s someone else’s property, it’s someone else’s property whether it’s a withered flower or a diamond!
    Re: Mr. Doctor & Metro – if Metro’s concern is actually safety issues, why could they not ask him for proof of insurance, and to put up a “men working” sign? Metro’s reaction was not only extreme, but slightly bogus.

  8. What the Ethicist didn’t touch on was this relative new (in the plant world anyway) process of patenting plants. If those shopping mall plants were trademarked, then “propagation was prohibited”, to quote the legalize. So what the couple did was technically not only ethically wrong, but illegal as well.

    Thankfully, we haven’t got any horticultural police yet. But as I am careful to not in my lectures to garden clubs, when members are dividing plants for sale, they should be sure they’re not selling any patented varieties–which is becoming harder and harder to do these days!

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