ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Community gardens in St. Louis are becoming less open to the community following a surge of thieves helping themselves to the bounty of fruit and vegetables.
In some cases, the people who pay a fee for the land and volunteer their time to cultivate the plots are being forced to place their gardens under lock and key.
"We've had people come in periodically when the tomatoes were especially ripe and taking a few," said Terry Lueckenhoff, one of the gardeners at the Fox Park community garden. "But this year, people have come in and cleaned the garden out."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the garden's 30 beds, filled with tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, are now locked behind a gate.
"We have a nice patio in there, with a pergola, with seating, and we certainly wanted to encourage people in the neighborhood to take advantage of that," Lueckenhoff said. "We hate to cut those people off."
While the disappearance of an occasional vegetable is normal, gardeners said the number and amount of thefts has dramatically increased over the last two years, and especially this season. They added that the economy is likely an issue.
"Anything that anybody's growing has been taken," Lueckenhoff said. "I had cabbages taken, which makes me think people are actually using them."
There are around 180 community gardens in St. Louis with up to 120 growing vegetables. Gateway Greening, which organizers and helps pay for more of the city's gardens, said it already has two dozen applications for new gardens next year.
Many of the gardens provide extra vegetables to homeless shelters and community organizations, meaning the thieves are taking from some of the most needy, gardeners said.
"These community gardens are willing to share," said Matthew McBride, a member of the Fox Park community garden. "But whenever someone takes an opportunity, tempers flare."
Other gardeners said the thieves may not understand that the gardens belong to whoever paid to rent the individual plots and take the vegetables, thinking they're for the community.
That has led some gardens to post signs explaining the purpose of the land.
For example, the City Seeds Urban Farm is tended by homeless people as a way to provide job and life skills. After losing two beds worth of mustard and collard greens, the garden installed signs explains the garden's mission and hasn't reported any thefts since.
Gardeners at the City Greens Garden, which provides produce for Midtown Catholic Charities, caught some thieves as they were stealing vegetables.
"We encourage them to help us," said garden manager Bobbie Sykes. "To come back and work."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)