The Mystery of the Plant Slayer

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It’s mid-December. Even in California, the sunlight that buoys my spirit is diminished. It gets dark at around five in the afternoon, and the winter storms are upon us. Though each year I anxiously await the return of the rains, the cold weather and darkened sky temporarily dampen my mood. It has not been a great year on the news front either. Unemployment remains unacceptably high. Our glorious golden state, still in a fiscal nightmare, raises the sales tax while taking an ax to education, the one endeavor with a future. And the environmental picture… Don’t get me started.

When the big problems seem too big, my garden has always been a place of comfort. Watching birds flitter around, noticing the first wildflower seedlings, and picking avocados and lettuce all make me feel like things will be okay. I hope that those who do not have a garden find similar solace in parks and urban community gardens, with the added advantage of being able to socialize with their neighbors.

But back to the garden. Along the sidewalk the Ray Hartman California lilac is filling out nicely. Yet when I step outside to look at it, I see something that I have seen all too often over the past few years. Branches are broken and split on one shrub, the other is pulled over. A newly planted monkey flower is uprooted and thrown into the middle of the front lawn. The soil is wet from the rains, so I right the California lilac and replant the monkey flower. I cut the split branches off the other shrub, realizing it probably will not survive. Then I go inside to call the police, again. A polite woman on the phone gives me an “Incident Number” and tells me that the police will drive around our block more often. Little comfort to me.

Ray Hartman Ceanothus was doing well until someone ripped off lower branches splitting the main stem near the base.G091214_9888-1

A second Ray Hartman Ceanothus that was pulled over. A third one was damaged too but it was already stunted from earlier attacks.

So what is going on here? Putting on my detective hat, I remember that this kind of thing has been going on for at least three years. The worst case was when several young trees along the sidewalk were uprooted and destroyed. One wildflower season, large spectacular flowering annuals were pulled out in the height of their glory and thrown into the bushes. I posted signs asking people to keep a look out for the wildflower murderer. In spite of everyone’s disgust, the monster eluded capture. Still, branches from trees are broken and left hanging, innocent young plants are robbed of their colorful promise, and venerable older shrubs are defiled.

I do not mean to make light of this, though it does help put it into perspective. This is not a major crime. Yet because it has been going on for several years I believe one of my neighbors is using this as a way to intimidate and bully us. So what are my options? I have spoken to the police and it is highly unlikely that they can help. I have spoken to neighbors. Since the plant murderer is not doing his/her nefarious deeds while others are around to see, I am expecting little help from them, either.

I now look to the garden itself for solutions. I have reduced the amount I garden outside the fence. This is unfortunate for me and for the pedestrians who do enjoy the garden but I find it less pleasant to be out there than to work inside the yard. In addtion, I no longer plant things that I pay for. I only put in plants I propagate from cuttings, and even here I am putting in less and less. Instead, I am letting native bunch grasses reseed themselves since they are tough, durable and hard to hurt. In response the garden is taking on a slightly wilder look, something I am enjoying. And there is less pampering needed for these plants. I am also seeding more with wildflowers. Yes some will be pulled out, their desiccating forms dangling in shrubs, but no one can pull out all of them.

So the plant murderer has gotten a response from me, but maybe not the one he/she wants. This trivial but supremely unfriendly act will change the garden but not for the worse. It will become tougher and stronger, but the flowers will continue to bloom each year.

Monkey flowers that I am potting up from 4 inch plants. Pot in front has cuttings of these young plants.

The whole thing makes me sad but I try to keep it in perspective. Many of my neighbors tell me how much they enjoy this little strip of wild suburbia along the sidewalk. I have overheard young kids explaining to their parents how the mulch helps the plants. It is, after all, probably just one person who is trying to spoil it for many, and that will not happen. The big problems we face are not so easily solved but our gardens can teach us how to approach them.

22 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Plant Slayer

  1. Maybe you should plant a poodle-dog bush. You would know to wash your hands immediately anytime you touched it, but the plant murderer would be unlikely to recognize it, and would therefore rip it out of the ground with his or her bare hands and not wash them off and would live to regret it.

  2. Yeah, not fun, this business. I have thought about plants that hurt but there are so many kids and people walking by. I know no one should be touching the plants but people and dogs do and that's understood. No point in letting one person spoil it for others.

  3. How awful! I wonder about the motive of the perpetrator! Is it that they feel threatened by someone doing things differently?<br /><br />About a year ago we bought a house with shrubs and no turf. A few local friends and passersby have said it&#39;s one of their favorite gardens in Whittier. Two neighbors, on the other hand, were originally nice but made it known that they hoped we&#39;d return

  4. Barbara, I am so sorry for your garden&#39;s persecution. Interestingly, while out in the garden earlier today (before reading your post), I was contemplating your wonderfully optimistic garden spirit, how you are able to see opportunities in trials and failures and to share them boldly. Know your chin is up — keep it there!<br /><br />Incidentally, we&#39;ve had other types of vandalism and

  5. YAYYYYYY for you and for us and for anyone who has the privilege to read your marvelous story. YESSIR, this is HOW TO overcome; both in the garden and in the soul.

  6. Barbara~~ No wonder you&#39;re depressed. The rain and shortened daylight hours are enough. But to have someone messing with your plants is unforgivable. Maybe you can set up a surveillance cam or motion detectors that spray water or turn on the lights and sound an alarm. I know. Not practical since you&#39;ve got neighbors but a thought…

  7. Oh, that&#39;s sooo frustrating. And so difficult to do something about. I had some problems with dog shit for a while, but that was nothing against someone actively destroying the plants. How sad.

  8. susie

    Oh, you poor thing. Do you live in a corner house like us? I have not had any damage, but we sure get trash, bottles &amp; cans from dumped form the people walking to &amp; from the park down the street. That can be picked up…I would be really peeved if they were touching my plants!

  9. Anonymous

    This type of behavior is what keeps me from changing my front yard from ugly but sturdy turf to the native wonderland I dream of. I live on a corner near a park — people drop dirty diapers and trash on my parkways. I thought it was just my neighborhood, but I guess Grinches live everywhere, even in lovely South Pas.

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  11. Thanks, all, for your encouraging words.<br /><br />Anon, I really, really believe it has less to do with my garden and more to do with bad neighbor relations. Trash, foot prints, and other wear and tear must be expected. What I am facing is something else. Please don&#39;t let my problems discourage you from &quot;gardening your heart out.&quot;

  12. There&#39;s no way that your plants or plant choices could be affecting that person&#39;s life in a significant way, so they must have some kind of problem with control or anger or something. Too bad they&#39;re taking out their issues on the plants, and too bad you have to live near them.

  13. This is so disturbing. We&#39;ve had a lot of problems with trash and cigarette butts and one corner plant has had several branches broken off (though I&#39;m blaming a dog just accidentally walking too close), but your psycho neighbor takes the case. I really enjoy reading your blog and am glad you have taken a higher, more positive road in relation to the negativity. I myself like wild

  14. You and your plants have my sympathy. I think you&#39;re doing the right thing. Eventually, the vandal will realize that he or she can&#39;t prevail.

  15. Sorry to hear about your neighborhood plant vandal, what a frustrating situation! I have problems with animal vandals in my front yard garden. The moose are terribly destructive to many kinds of plants. It&#39;s disheartening to see expensive and beloved trees and shrubs eaten or disfigured but at least I know who to blame…hope you catch the creep or they move away!<br /><br />Christine in

  16. Kat

    So sorry you have to deal with that. How frustrating. I&#39;m with Grace. I&#39;d love to see the motion sensor sprinklers go off on them on a cold winter&#39;s night.

  17. How funny that us passionate gardeners have to deal with people that are just as passionate about destroying the fruits of our labor! Who has that kind of time?! It almost warrants a camp-out behind the fence with the garden hose &amp; polaroid camera for a night or two. Glad to see that you&#39;re persevering.

  18. heh heh–I got a kick out of the garden hose campout

  19. Again, thanks everyone for your support. We are thinking about getting a surveillance camera and then checking the recording when plants are damaged. We&#39;re looking into it anyway. Probably the best approach is to keep this in perspective. How silly is it when someone feels like this is a good thing to do?<br /><br />By the way, the wildflower seeds are sprouting like crazy. It is going to be

  20. Anonymous

    I hope the vandals are &quot;just kids,&quot; not that it undoes the harm already done, but sometimes they do grow up and change their ways (or move away). <br /><br />Your blog is wonderful and inspiring. I appreciate all that you share with us.<br />A.<br />PS your photos from the backpacking trip were just spectacular!

  21. Anonymous

    There are cheap motion activated wireless cameras available… but if the problem is your relationship with your neighbor why not just address that. I am sure as long as your reasonable and find some common ground to work with your neighbors will respond positively.<br /><br />I think your doing a good thing – lawns are horrible and boring. Time for a sustainable landscaping revolution. I do not

  22. Anon1 &amp; 2 – thanks for your comments. I&#39;ll look into the motion activated camera. My neighbor denies doing this so it would help to know who it is. It has been going on for several years – probably longer than the attention span of most youth – so it is a mystery!

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