BANGOR, Maine — Jerry Ledwith has no problem giving away a tomato to someone who needs it.
But he does have an issue with folks coming in and taking without permission what he and his fellow gardeners are growing in their plots at the Bangor Community Garden.
“Listen, if you want a tomato, come see me — I’ll give you one. But don’t come and rip off premature vegetables that aren’t even ready to be eaten,” Ledwith said. “We put a lot of effort into this stuff, and I just think it’s a shame that people come out and steal from you.”
Tracy Willette, Bangor Parks and Recreation director, said this theft isn’t uncommon, given the department has received theft complaints each year since the garden opened in 2011. Parks and Rec runs the community garden.
But this summer the thefts have been more common than in past summers. The department has received between five and seven complaints, but no suspects have been identified. The department installed a trail camera this week to try to dissuade individuals from stealing — as well as keep an eye on any theft that is occurring at the garden.
“[Theft has] been a sporadic issue over the years,” Willette said. “The theft seems to be a little bit more common this summer than in the past, and [adding the trail camera] was an easy step to take to add some sense of security over there for folks.”
The Essex Street location is Bangor’s only community garden and is home to about 180 raised beds being used by about 100 gardeners this summer. Members of the community garden pay $20 per bed per year to use the space and have access to the water, compost and gardening tools.
People often opt to use the garden if they do not have enough or any space at their home or apartment to garden. There is a gate to the gardens, but the property is kept open 24/7. Willette said Parks and Rec has tried to lock it in the past, but feedback from gardeners suggested it was best to leave the gate open.
For Ledwith, who was Bangor’s harbor master for 25 years, having a plot at the community garden is a project he chose to take up with the time his retirement has given him. He tends his plot — where he is growing onions, peppers and tomatoes — with his wife and grandchildren.
But upon seeing that some of his onions and peppers were stolen before he could get to them, Ledwith wasn’t alone in his dismay.
“I’ve got granddaughters who help me out here and they were upset,” he said.
Willette said thefts reported by other gardeners this summer were similar to what Ledwith experienced. Folks have gone to the garden to tend to their crops, only to realize that tomatoes and other vegetables that were due to be ripe were instead missing.
Theft from community gardens is not uncommon. Willette said that when the Bangor garden was first started, some theft was anticipated because of the open nature of community gardens. A member of the Bangor Community Garden, Carolyn Anderson, said thefts occurred even in the small community garden she belonged to when she lived in Illinois.
While no one has stolen anything from her beds that she has noticed, she understands how it would be frustrating to have something you have grown yourself be stolen from your beds.
“People need to be made more aware that it is a membership [garden], it is something that people invest time in for themselves, not for a free-for-all,” Anderson said.
In Portland, where the organization Cultivating Community has partnered with the city to establish numerous community gardens, theft from beds is also a problem.
“Most gardens that we manage have experienced theft and it really changes from year to year,” said Laura Mailander, a Cultivating Community urban agriculture specialist.
To stem the prevalence of thefts, Mailander recommends gardeners attend their plots daily and harvest any ripe produce that is ready. One of the Portland community gardens has also put up a fake camera to act as a deterrent. Mailander said the more than 600 community gardeners in Portland take it upon themselves to keep an eye out for suspicious instances within the gardens.
Stephanie Mattsen, who was tending to her plot at the Bangor Community Garden on a recent Wednesday, brings up the argument that if people are stealing food, there’s a chance they really need it.
“If anybody comes in and takes my green beans, I figure they probably need it more than I do,” Mattsen said. “I don’t have a problem with people coming in and taking my stuff.”
Maine ranks first in New England in food security, with one in five children being food insecure. Rather than “prosecuting people for taking tomatoes,” Mattsen said she would like to see open-harvest style gardens in Bangor parks, where anyone who needed food could go and harvest it. While some small open-harvest beds have been incorporated into Downtown Bangor Adopt-A-Garden, the city does not organize any open harvest gardens. To fill the need for food, Anderson suggested adding a stand outside the community garden where members can place excess produce they don’t anticipate eating that can be taken by anyone.
Mailander said there a few open-harvest gardens in Portland, yet they are still experiencing thefts in the membership community gardens, so having the free options out there might still not ward off thefts entirely.
Confusion over what a community garden is needs to be cleared up, Ledwith says. He believes that people see the word “community” and think it is open to everyone.
“I think some people are getting the impression that because it says ‘community garden’ they can just come in and take whatever they want, and that’s just not true. Each one of these beds is paid for by people for the year,” Ledwith said.
After the season is over, Willette said, the department will assess the season and consider adding some clarity to the signs at the garden.
But regardless of thefts, members still say they love being able to use to garden space, and Willette said interest in the garden has only grown since the program began.
“The popularity isn’t dwindling,” Willette said.