Two Reasons to Be Vigilant, but Not Lose Hope

During the winter break, I checked on the school garden at least once each week. On the sunny warm days, I got drawn in to some maintenance tasks that needed doing. While there, I enjoyed seeing students and families riding their bikes, skateboards, and scooters or pushing strollers through the campus.

I do NOT enjoy finding theft and vandalism. It makes hard work feel worthless and demotivates further investment in the garden.

Observe the garden closely each day. If you find yourself thinking, Did I put that there, you might be the victim of vandalism.

Theft and Vandalism. They often go together, but not always. In my years of supporting and researching school gardens, I’ve heard numerous stories about these twin evils. I’ve learned to interpret different measures of vandalism. On one end of the continuum, there’s the annoying “just passing through” variety. Usually found in the form of a few carrots out of place or rotting pumpkins moved, this type of intrusion is typically harmless. On the other end of the continuum, there’s blatant disregard for property. This is the most disheartening kind of violation because if not addressed, it makes the garden a target for repeated attack.

Always be on the lookout for evidence of intruders. We gained a shiny blue Maglite, but we lost two expensive wheelbarrow wheels.

The other day, as I looked for standing water, cover crop progress, and possible frost damage, I noticed a blue flashlight on the ground. Upon further observation, I also noticed that one of our overturned wheelbarrows no longer had any wheels. What someone will do with two wheelbarrow wheels is beyond me, but it is an expensive inconvenience to replace them. Theft typically requires notifying authorities, which means putting more work on the principal’s plate as well.

Even here in quiet Napa, school gardens are are routinely vandalized. I suspect most damage is caused by bored adolescents looking for a place to hang out. It almost always involves former students.

Interestingly, one or our former student lookouts stopped to talk to me while I was working in the garden the other day. He asked, “Did you know that kids sometimes go in the garden at night?” We engaged in a lengthy conversation about respect for property, protecting our school, and strategies to avoid theft and vandalism. Here is some of the wisdom I garnered from my experience and from talking to a twelve-year-old boy.

How to Protect Your School Garden from Theft and Vandalism

  • Keep the Gate Locked: As I mentioned in an earlier post (See Four Ways to Labor Less, September 5th), I prefer a combination lock over a key lock, but the combination must be changed regularly. This ensures that there is ongoing communication between the school garden coordinator and those accessing the garden.
  • Rely on neighborhood watch: If you involve the community in the garden, they will keep a watchful eye out. Invite them to events and share the bounty. Engage in conversation when passersby comment on the garden and keep them informed of foul play.
  • Store Tools in the Shed: Valuable items should be locked up at all times, but of course every school garden has a few rusty tools that get left out. I purposely leave out a few trowels in disrepair. It’s like the “cluttered car” approach to deterring theft. It implies, “nothing of value here, move along.”
  • Keep Valuable Items Appropriately Stored or Use Cable Locks if Necessary: It’s hard to know what might be of value to an intruder. I never suspected that someone would take wheelbarrow wheels. If you’ve ever tried to store tomato cages in an already crowded toolshed, you know it’s impossible. Because they are easy to steal, I actually keep these in plain sight. I figure, if they’re visible from the street, it means a potential thief would also be visible. I’ll probably buy a cable lock now, just in case and to send a message to the wheel thieves.
  • Install Motion Lights: A solar-powered LED light costs about $40-$80 and takes time and resources to install. I will make a bid to the PTA to invest in one and ask a handy parent to install it for us because I can’t afford to lose any more wheels.

Be vigilant, but don’t lose hope. Occasional visitors to a school garden don’t always cause problems, but do take steps to discourage the ones who do.

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