Philadelphia's annual, if not perennial, crime wave

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Tara Martello, husband Stephen Ballerini and son, John, 2, at their Fairmount home. Two years ago, someone stole a tree at their home. They replaced it with flowers, which also were stolen. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

In Philadelphia, people pilfer peonies, hijack hydrangeas, and abduct azaleas.

Victims don't usually report this dirty crime, so no one knows how common it is. But every spring, neighbors trade tales of purloined plants.

"It's just irritating, because you're like, 'Really, they're going to steal plants now?' You almost can't have anything nice in front of your house because it's going to get smashed or ruined," said Tara Martello, an occupational therapist who lives in the city's Fairmount section.

Two years ago, someone tiptoed away with a tree that grew in a pot outside Martello's house.

"They ripped the tree right out," she said. "We saw a trail of dirt going down the street."

She and her husband replaced the tree with white, yellow, and blue flowers. Someone took those, too.

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Martello, however, is as undaunted as a dandelion that takes root in a concrete sidewalk. She put flowers outside her house again this year. So far, they are still there.

Of course, Philadelphia gardeners don't take this greenery grabbing lying down in their hammocks.

How could they in the city where Mayor Frank Rizzo tucked a nightstick into his tuxedo cummerbund to be properly dressed for both a riot and a formal affair? Where pedestrians and drivers engage in crosswalk stare-downs? Where people battle to win a ribbon at the Flower Show as though they were competitors on reality TV?

This city's plant lovers channel their flower power. They fight back.

Sally McCabe, project manager of Garden Tenders, a program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, once had a plot at Seedy Acres, a community garden in Northern Liberties. People took flowers that surrounded that garden, so McCabe and her friends planted prickly pear as a deterrent.

"We toyed with poison ivy," she said, "but it's delayed gratification. Stinging nettle would be better, because you touch that and you're going to sting for 10 minutes."

In community gardens, people also walk off with vegetables. McCabe gives those crooks the benefit of the doubt, believing they are merely frustrated at seeing food go to waste.

But she also knows how to keep the vegetable thieves at bay.

"Put flour on your plants. Nobody wants to pick something that's been dusted," McCabe said. "It looks like you put pesticides on it."

People ask her for advice on preventing theft a few times a year, often around Mother's Day, when the crime peaks.

About 25 years ago, thieves carted off an entire block of shrubs that Anna Maria Vona of South Philadelphia had planted in whiskey barrels. She planted again. The shrubs disappeared again.

"I was in tears," Vona said. "I felt so violated."

She and her neighbors stayed up in shifts to watch the plants. As dawn approached, the lookout fell asleep, and someone filched their foliage again.

"It was very clean. You didn't even see any dirt," Vona said. "We started to suspect it was somebody who might have been a landscaper."

She and her neighbors on the 1900 block of South Chadwick Street dumped all of the dirt out of the barrels. Her husband, Carmen, figured out that they could drill holes in the bottom of the barrels and install grommets. Then they looped sturdy cable through the grommets and around the root balls of the shrubs. They encased the cable in plastic so it wouldn't rust.

"It becomes like a noose," said Vona, who with her husband owns Carmana Designs, a custom furniture and design business. People still tried to shanghai her shrubs. Vona would find the plants hanging part of the way out of the barrels, but the cable foiled the crime.

Equipped with a new defense, Vona no longer lashes her bushes to the ground.

"I have my camera on surveillance," she said.

But she also said people didn't swipe plants as often, possibly because they had gotten more used to the idea of "greening." In 2003, the Horticultural Society named her block the greenest in the city.

McCabe, of the Horticultural Society, agreed that the crime used to be more common. "I see it much less now," she said. "There have been times when you just didn't put anything out."

She believes many culprits are children who simply grab a pretty plant without thinking or take it as a quick Mother's Day gift, she said.

http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20110531_How_making_art_can_help_stop_violence.html Harris, manager of City Planter, a Northern Liberties gardening store, said she taught customers how to secure their pots to the ground with a technique similar to the one Vona used.

Steven Kiefer, a Philadelphia police officer who works in Fairmount, where filling flower boxes is almost a competitive sport, said residents rarely reported stolen plants and other relatively minor crimes.

When they do, the police dole out their own gardening advice.

"We just tell them to put some concrete in the pot," Kiefer said, "so nobody can really take it."

 


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill

at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.