Stealing Flowers

Anyone who thinks that gardeners are naturally generous people, eager to share their bounty and always glad to see the neighbors enjoying the beauty and tranquility that their garden has brought to the neighborhood, has never been around my place in early spring. Sometimes having a garden can be so aggravating that I don’t know why I even bother. I am referring, of course, to the problem of flower theft.

I used to live near the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, where tourists regularly snapped blossoms off my perennials as they walked by. It was annoying, but eventually I got used to the idea that anything that spilled into the sidewalk was fair game. One year I planted a Sungold cherry tomato right at the edge of the sidewalk just for the tourists. To my surprise, the tomatoes were left mostly untouched. I guess they were saving room for churros and corn dogs.

One time I actually caught someone digging a geranium out of my neighbor’s yard. This was taking it too far. I stopped him on the sidewalk and confronted him. A garden is not a collection of free horticultural samples, I explained frostily. A plant is a possession, a thing that someone owns, not a souvenir offered up to tourists to help them treasure the memories of their summer vacation.

He hastily stuck the geranium back in the soil, but not before his children had gathered around to listen to me scold their father. It was a low moment for him and, in some ways, for me, too. I was letting flower theft get under my skin.

I tried to relax my standards a little when I planted my garden in Eureka. Once again, the front yard would be full of flowers. I could have put up a fence or a boxwood hedge, but I didn’t want to build a barrier around my garden, and I certainly didn’t want to create any shade on my south-facing slope. Instead, I planted a row of lavender—a visual barrier, something that is difficult to step over and patrolled by ever-vigilant honeybees. If somebody snapped off a sprig of lavender as they walked by, I’d hardly miss it, and there was always the chance that a bee sting would teach the flower thief a thing or two about crime and punishment.

But it pains me to report that I’ve lost more than the occasional lavender sprig. The worst offense was the theft of a purple “Globemaster” allium, an enormous round flower in the onion family that blooms just once a year from a single stalk. These bulbs retail for nearly ten bucks each (you heard me right, ten dollars for one lousy bulb), and once you’ve grown them, you realize that part of what you’re paying for is the anticipation. The stalk rises to a height of three or four feet, slowly, as you watch and measure and pace and wonder if it will bloom in time for, say, a party you’re giving, or a visit from your in-laws. The bud gets fatter and fatter, and one day, the flower, which is really a cluster of tiny flowers that form a globe shape, starts to emerge. It takes another week or two for the flower to reach its full size, then it might stay on the stalk for a month or more.

Except in my garden, where someone walked right up to the flower bed next to my doorstep, and cut it down with a sharp knife.

It is impossible not to notice the disappearance of a four-foot tall globe-shaped flower from one’s front yard. It is equally difficult to overlook the sudden departure of the lone iris that saw fit to bloom early, or the first daffodil of the year. Oh, and about that lavender: the idea was to pick a sprig of it, just one, while walking by. Yanking out an enormous handful, leaving a fist-sized hole in the shrub, is not an insult from which a lavender plant, or its owner, can recover quickly.

I’m not the only victim of flower theft. Every couple of years, a news story circulates about a proud hydrangea grower who awakens to find her bushes stripped of flowers. The flowers dry beautifully and can be sold in flower shops and craft stores for around eight dollars each. Roses sometimes meet the same fate, as do calla lilies. Florists have learned to be more careful about their suppliers to avoid trafficking in stolen goods.

And if a hydrangea in bloom presents too much of a temptation, imagine the allure of a field of sunflowers. Farmers in flower-growing regions sometimes band together to patrol the fields when their crops are in bloom. Botanical gardens lose rare flowers and plants to theft, and even graveyards are not immune from the wide-ranging appetites of flower thieves.

What possesses a person to steal flowers? Shouldn’t something as lovely and ephemeral as a flower inspire people to do good? Do flower thieves steal anything else—newspapers, potted plants, welcome mats? What bothers me most is knowing that some of the flower crimes in my garden were premeditated. The stalks were not ripped out on impulse—they were cut neatly at their base. The flower thief brought a knife.

The gardeners in my neighborhood have come up with all kinds of strategies to combat this problem. Some have put up signs like the one pictured here. Others plant impenetrable hedges or install high wooden fences. And plenty of people have adopted the same strategies they might use for any other garden pest: relocate the valuable plants away from the pest’s habitat (the alliums are now in the backyard), and where pests are unavoidable, plant extra so you don’t mind the crop loss.

So my front yard is filled with daisies and cosmos and other ordinary, run-of-the-mill flowers. They are so easy to grow that any flower thief should be embarrassed to have to resort to stealing them.

And in fact, some are: from time to time people knock on my door and ask permission to cut flowers. I hardly know whether to be offended by their sense of entitlement, or consider it an improvement over theft, but either way, it forces me to be the sort of gardener I am not: the gracious and kind-hearted sort, who is happy to share the beauty and tranquility of her garden with others, who rushes inside for a pair of scissors and cuts a lovely bouquet while chatting amicably about the communal nature of gardening, and who never, ever mumbles, “If you like flowers so much, plant your own damn garden” as they walk away.