For Armand Rahman, the summer of 2013 stands apart for more than just its epic storms. Since the season began, he's had five or six plants plundered from the carefully designed garden beside his Riverdale home.
They weren't just any plants, either. One was a cactus his partner had brought from California. Another, the yard's single bamboo cane.
"Whoever is grabbing the plants knows their stuff," says Mr. Rahman, a pharmaceutical consultant and enthusiastic gardener. "They don't go after the $5.99 little flowers, but the $20 or $30 plants. They dig [them] up very carefully with scoops, and even put the soil back in again!"
At his wits' end, Mr. Rahman posted a note on his fence requesting thieves to keep away from the garden. When last week's storm washed the sign away, two more plants disappeared.
Mr. Rahman is hardly alone in his wandering plant woes. Garden supply stores, such as the East End Garden Centre in Leslieville, can point to customers who have reported runaway flower baskets. The Leslie Street Spit Allotment Gardens, the Parkview Neighbourhood Garden and the Toronto Botanical Garden are among public gardens that have also been visited by sticky-fingered foes this summer.
Paul Zammit, Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Garden, reports that while theft is an annual occurrence, this year has been particularly brutal for larger varietals, flowering species and ornamental grasses such as pennisetum and rubrum grass. The thieves are getting brazen: Just a couple of weeks ago, someone dug out five large two-gallon plants in one fell swoop.
"It's a sad reality for us," Mr. Zammit says. "We operate as a not-for-profit, so every dollar counts."
Staff at Fiesta Gardens near Christie Pits park regularly encounter flower bandits mid-snatch; the perennials in the centre's front garden are a frequent target. Michael Panucci, an employee, remembers one summer in which he helped catch an entire family of plant pilferers; a couple had dispatched their young son to scout the store's premises and then create a distraction while they attempted to dismantle a fenced enclosure that guarded a couple hundred dollars' worth of plants. They'd been hoping to resell the goods.
"I was really shocked at the amount of effort that they put into getting material," Mr. Panucci says.
The economic impetus of the Fiesta Gardens flower thieves would not surprise Mr. Rahman, who says the costs of gardening have become increasingly prohibitive.
"If you look at the prices of flowers and gardening equipment, it's incredibly expensive," he says. "If you track how expensive it is now just to plant in the city, it'll cost you hundreds of dollars. And I think it's probably the cost of gardening that's driving people to steal plants."
Gardening expert Mark Cullen isn't positive that garden theft is a worsening problem, but he does know that it's a problem. Anything of value that's easy to transport is a potential victim – particularly if it's in flower, and near a roadside. He recalls one year when he moved a number of the 12,000 daffodils he plants annually toward the street, and lost "about five clumps" to "people who came and just helped themselves."
"I think there's this very profound contradiction when people steal flowers or plants or even seeds from a plant that's in a public space," says Mr. Cullen. "It's there in public space for a reason, for the public to enjoy. And there are certain individuals who feel it's their right to take those plants, those flowers, those seeds, and use them for their own personal gain. What goes through their minds, I don't know exactly."
Mr. Zammit agrees that, though times may be tough, there's more than a degree of entitlement (or maybe kleptomania) behind most plant thefts. Thieves tend to be choosy about what they pluck; new introductions to the Botanical Garden have been among this season's targets. The entire scenario has him shaking his head.
"I like to remind people that the goal of the garden is to educate and inspire people," Mr. Zammit says. "When people take from that, everyone suffers."