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Originally published June 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 17, 2009 at 12:09 PM

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Green thumbs with sticky fingers: Plant thieves strike Seattle yards, parks

A rash of plant thefts is causing headaches and heartbreak in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood, among other areas throughout the city.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tips for preventing plant theft

Joe Abken, general manager at Shoreline's Sky Nursery, says plant thievery is typically selective, targeting high-ticket items such as Japanese maples or dwarf conifers.

"This is that time of year when people are putting money into their yards." Plus, "with the housing situation, a lot of people are trying to improve their homes for sale."

In his experience, plant thievery tends to be the work of unscrupulous landscaping companies, though "I would suspect it being the same person if it's happening in one area."

Here is Abken's advice on how not to become a victim.

Stake your plants or enclose them, especially if they're centerpiece-quality.

Avoid placing prized plants near the curb or street. "You run the risk anytime you put something outside the boundaries."

Be especially cautious with plants you've just put in. Without deep roots, "a freshly planted tree is easily taken out. It takes nothing but a couple of guys to come in and pull it out."

Lighting and security cameras can be effective, if not always aesthetically appealing. "Motion lighting, every time a dog or cat or person goes in there, can be annoying."

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The realities of city living can be harsh: Windows get smashed. Fender-benders abound. Then, when you least expect it, someone goes and makes off with your shrubs.

"I expect cars to be broken into," says Beacon Hill resident April Jahns. "But stealing shrubs seems really bizarre."

Around Seattle, thieves have plundered P-patches and pilfered public parks. About $2,000 worth of plants has been lifted from Capitol Hill's Volunteer Park alone over the last 16 months, according to Seattle Parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter, while homeowners and others report thefts ranging from Seward Park to Washington Park Arboretum.

At social-service agency El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, about $300 worth of plants has been stolen from community gardens, including a large hosta plant and several roses donated by a local flower society.

"It gets frustrating," said volunteer master gardener Mick Duggan. "People are reluctant to keep donating plants if they know they're just gonna get stolen."

Duggan has since removed the tags from his plants so anyone who takes them won't know what they are, but that defeats the purpose of his efforts. "It's hard for us, as master gardeners," he said. "We want to educate people."

In the past year and a half, Beacon Hill has been hit especially hard, with plants stolen from Lewis and Jefferson parks and from residences throughout the area.

Last year, someone swiped a sapling from April Jahns' front yard, but the stay-at-home mother didn't think much of it until two weeks ago, when two Daphne shrubs freshly nestled amid a row of leopard's bane flowers alongside the house were taken in the dead of night.

The next day, she and her husband were shocked to find them gone.

"It's just such a petty crime," Jahns said. "But it's not cheap for us to keep replacing them."

Then, they remembered: They'd installed security cameras outside their house.

"It was upsetting"

Plant theft ranks low among urban vices.

Untracked by police, it generally causes more headaches and heartbreak than monetary loss: Here you are, just trying to beautify your yard, improve your neighborhood — and then some punk comes along and, in the words of one resident, practically makes you want to buy a shotgun and move to the country.

Police urge victims of plant theft to file reports. "Anytime something is taken without permission, we would like to know about it," said Seattle police spokesman Mark Jamieson.

A few doors away from the Jahns, Caterina Bertucci dug out some grass in front of her fence a couple months ago, planting some shrubs she'd found on sale. Several days later, more than half were gone.

Bertucci was fuming. A grad student, she even channeled her anger into a reflective essay.

"It was upsetting," she said, especially since the sale was over by then and the plants were three times the price. She replaced them with cheaper ones — "little teeny-tiny guys," she said.

Not far away, on a wooded hillside across the street from Pacific Medical Center, Vinh Nguyen and a crew of volunteers have been restoring native species at 5-acre Lewis Park in hopes of promoting local wildlife. The project is part of the Green Seattle Partnership, which aims to restore 2,500 acres of forested city parkland.

But late last month, someone uprooted a dozen or so plants, many of which Nguyen had bought in Bellingham with his own money. "They're impossible to get here," said Beacon Hill resident Dee Dunbar, a project volunteer.

Nguyen is still rattled by the situation. Like others, he said, the thieves appear selective and knowledgeable. "They didn't steal the cheap ones."

And because so much was taken, it leads him to think the plants are sold — perhaps by an unscrupulous landscaper — to unwitting clients.

He's gone to neighborhood council meetings and asked residents — and night security at Pacific Medical Center — to take down the license plates of any landscaping trucks seen after dark.

But beyond parks department spot checks and normal neighborhood police patrols, there really is no effective solution, though volunteers say they visit the park daily.

"We feel very vulnerable and helpless," Nguyen said.

"It's kind of ridiculous"

Which brings us back to the Jahns' security cameras:

Video footage from the security system they installed showed a man with a distinctive hairline climbing their short retaining wall and plucking the Daphnes as easily as dandelions before walking off with them.

Neighbors fingered him as a nearby resident with a well-maintained yard, but Jahns said police told her he denied any part in the thefts when questioned.

She said they thought the footage might be too grainy to support pressing charges. Jahns hoped to confront the man herself, but her husband talked her out of it, so in the meantime, "he walks by our house and gets the stink eye from us," she said.

Their recently planted magnolia is secured by chains, and new shrubs are tied to heavy pottery. Oh, and there's some barbed wire involved, too.

"It's kind of ridiculous," she said, "but we don't want to keep replacing it ... I'm not gonna let this jerk dictate to me what I'm gonna put in my own yard."

And with another neighbor reporting that her potted plants have been vanishing for 10 years, Jahns soon plans to post fliers showing images of the on-camera thief from her security video.

"It's just so bizarre," Jahns said. "Who steals plants? Why do I need to chain up a tree?

"I just want my yard to look nice."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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