One night in late June, someone stole Earl Randolph’s tomato.
It was his first of the season—a bright red 4-inch beauty—and the loss was particularly frustrating because Randolph had planned to scoop it up the night before but put the task off till morning. Thieves, he says, have long targeted his plot at the Fort Stevens community garden in Brightwood.
Members of the garden have tolerated steady losses from uninvited foragers for years. Other gardeners tried to reason that their neighbors, many of whom live in subsidized housing, just really needed something to eat.
Randolph isn’t as forgiving.
“Anytime that anyone forcefully takes something from you, I don’t think that’s tolerable,” he says. “I would be more than happy to give anyone something if they just ask for it. The one tomato, if he’d come up and asked for it…I would give it to him.”
He is the longest-standing member of the 50-plot parcel near the intersection of 13th and Peabody Streets NW. In his capacity as vice chair of the garden association, the 74-year-old Army veteran has developed a reputation as a strident rule enforcer. Whenever members neglect their weeding or harvesting, he’s the one to scold; he’ll even report chronic offenders to the association’s chairwoman. If he witnesses anyone—another gardener or a stranger—attempting to steal vegetables, he calls city cops. (The garden’s on land owned by the National Park Service, so the Park Police have jurisdiction, but Randolph says they rarely show up.)
“Mr. Randolph is authoritative. Every little rule and regulation we have in our garden, he wants us to go by,” says Corinia Prince, chairwoman of the garden association. “He’s just like that. He confronts people.”
A few years ago, when thefts from Randolph’s vines began to rise, he decided the crimes were retribution for his zeal. “People ripping off my stuff seemed to be out of revenge to me,” he says. “I’ve been on folks real hard to keep their gardens clean.” He suspects both errant members of the association and neighborhood no-goodniks who just get annoyed with the old man calling the police all the time. Someone, he says, even poured herbicide on his plot.
But mostly, the thieves have gone after his tomatoes.
In 2003, he barricaded his plot with a 4-foot-high fence—the only one at Fort Stevens. But the fence seems to have painted a brighter target on his little patch. Last summer, Randolph arrived one morning to find the bottom of his wire fence, made of thick, plastic coated wire used to reinforce sidewalks and masonry, pried back at the gate. He took note of three empty beer bottles and the markings of sneakers in the dirt. Randolph’s two dozen tomato plants were picked bare.
“They stole all of the tomatoes,” he says. “Green, ripe, or otherwise.”
Already this year, the pilfering is just as bad. “I do believe it’s beginning to get increasingly worse.” Randolph told me one hot afternoon last week.
After his tomato was stolen in June, he added a sturdy wooden gate to his wire fence.
“I just wish I could have caught whoever it was in there,” he says. He still thinks the thefts are directed at him, but other gardeners are suffering, too. Very few cucumbers or zucchini have made it out of the garden in the hands of their rightful owners this year.
Prince tries to calm Randolph down. “I tell him that it’s not targeted at him. I’ve had stuff missing, and other people have had stuff missing out the garden,” she says. “He talks that way like he’s really, really angry. But I don’t think he’d hurt anybody.”
A solution has been elusive. Two years ago, the garden association petitioned the Park Service to allow them to put up a fence around the entire garden. But the request was denied.
A representative from the National Park Service, Brenda Hynson, says that the fence was rejected because the garden is in a historically sensitive area, near the remains of Civil Warnera Fort Stevens.
Randolph says he won’t stop agitating. He plans to call his councilmember, the mayor, and the chief of police. “I guess that’s as far as I can go,” he says. “I would love to sit right up there on the hill. And when one of them comes through…” He squints his eyes as if looking through a sight.
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” he says. “Just let them know they’re trespassing.”
Randolph usually spends a couple of hours a day in the garden. He arrives early in the morning or late in the afternoon. He picks what’s ripe, pulls weeds, then waters. He has two rows of black-eyed peas, three rows of green beans, a hill of cucumbers, about two dozen tomato plants, and a few radishes.
Checking on his plants on a steamy afternoon, Randolph, in jeans, a striped shirt, and a camo boating hat, spots a barely yellow tomato hanging on the vine. “I’m gonna pick that before I leave,” he says.
While he’s there, another gardener hurries in, grabs two cucumbers from his patch, and runs back out. He yells back at Randolph: “I wasn’t gonna leave them there.”