Something’s growing at the community gardens in Tacoma, according to Kristen McIvor of the Pierce Conservation District.
It’s not tomatoes. Or kale. Or even pumpkins, with fall quickly approaching.
It’s more unexpected.
It’s “a mutiny,” McIvor tells me.
Admittedly, that sounds a bit hyperbolic — especially since we’re talking about spaces known for attracting mild-mannered gardeners, not rebel insurrectionists.
But frustration has a way of bringing out unexpected emotions and actions in unassuming people, and what many local community gardeners describe as an increase in theft has bred a movement that — according to McIvor — goes against everything these plots of vegetables and greenery are supposed to stand for.
“This is a threat to community gardening,” she says, in all seriousness.
This is a threat to community gardening.
Kristen McIvor, Community Garden Coordinator at the Pierce Conservation District
Let’s back up.
Sue Ford is the coordinator at the Proctor Community Garden, the large, 52-plot parcel of collectively cultivated land at North 21st Street and Proctor. A few years ago, she says, things started to disappear. At first, wildlife – rabbits, raccoons and the North End’s urban deer — were the suspected culprits. And, to some extent, that proved to be the case.
But the problem went beyond that, the gardeners soon concluded. They began to believe some of the problem was human-caused, the work of mischief-makers or those who didn’t understand that the fruits (and vegetables) of a community garden aren’t there for the taking.
There were incidents of vandalism and whole boxes of carrots that sometimes went missing. The evidence, Ford says, was clear.
“Raccoons, we have found, do not carry knives to slice off a head of cabbage,” she jokes. “To my awareness, they’re not knife-carrying animals.”
The 44 gardeners who work the land at the Proctor Community Garden, understandably, grew perturbed, Ford says. They began to take small steps to help reduce the losses, like strategically planting particularly appealing crops away from the fence and meeting with liaison officers from the Tacoma Police Department.
“We’ve done everything that we’re supposed to do, and it’s escalating, not de-escalating,” Ford says of the problem.
So, on the Fourth of July, the gardeners locked their community garden.
That’s where this story gets complicated. McIvor says there are 45 gardens in Tacoma, and 20 of them are on public land. In one capacity or another, her agency works with all of them. She says, “The one rule we have is that the gardens cannot be locked if it’s public property.”
“It’s the fundamental way in which our program is justified … because all of the resources that support the (community garden) program and support that piece of property are taxpayer dollars,” McIvor explains. “The vast majority of the costs associated with (community gardens on public land) are subsidized by the public. We can’t make that justification if not for the social benefit of those spaces. They need to be spaces for education, and a space that is a resource for the community.”
While the Proctor Community Garden bowed to this pressure and took off its locks last month, it’s far from the only community garden that’s dealing with theft, or the only garden that’s resorted to locks.
The Rogers Park Community Garden on public property in Tacoma’s Dometop neighborhood, according to on-site coordinator Mary Young, has also dealt with a spate of veggie, water and equipment thefts. Gardeners there also decided to place a lock on the premises, and — as of this writing — it’s still there.
“People work so hard. They pay a small fee at our garden. They buy all the plants or the seed, and they take care of it all year,” Young tells me. “They get to a certain point where they’re about to pick their vegetables, and they’re gone. And that’s frustrating to our gardeners.
I’d say it definitely got better when we put the locks on.
Rogers Park Community Garden on-site coordinator Mary Young
“I’d say it definitely got better when we put the locks on.”
McIvor says members of the Junett Community Garden, at North 15th and Junett streets, also recently voted in favor of placing locks on their small piece of agricultural paradise. She says everyone knows the rules, and, “There are definitely gardeners who understand the nature of what they’re doing and the value of the public space that they have access to. But increasingly gardeners are trying to lock the garden, she said.
In response to this growing gardener insurrection, McIvor and her agency are trying to mend (open) fences and find common ground. And, at the same time, take the locks off.
She acknowledges that the initial reaction to the problem was too slow. Now, data is being collected on thefts at community gardens throughout the city, in an attempt to get a handle on the true scope of the problem.
An education effort is also underway, both for the gardeners who McIvor says “are feeling like the world is against them and they need to build a way in order to keep their investment safe,” and members of the public who may mistakenly think the fruits and veggies at Tacoma’s community gardens — which already donate 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of produce to local food banks every year — are there for the taking.
“What we’ve heard from gardeners is they feel like if this isn’t addressed and the problem doesn’t get fixed then they’ll quit. It’s not worth it for them to put in all the time and work and have their harvest taken,” McIvor says. “We’re very concerned. We want people to have a positive experience as community gardeners.”
Meanwhile, gardeners like Young vow to keep digging.
“We will find a way to make it work if we are not allowed to have the locks,” she says. “Garden members put their time and money into these gardens. They are growing food for their families.
“Our gardens are not you-pick.”