The Ashland Creek Park community garden has been fitted with a combination lock after gardeners there experienced a rash of vegetable and fruit thefts.

The Ashland Creek Park community garden has been fitted with a combination lock after gardeners there experienced a rash of vegetable and fruit thefts.

"It's a sad commentary on a sad state of affairs," said Ashland resident Bryan Holley, who volunteers as the community garden manager. "It's sad that things would be stolen from people who are trying to grow a sense of community through a garden."

Holley went to an Ashland Parks Commission meeting on Aug. 23 to report the thefts of produce and request that the garden gate be locked until the end of the growing season.

Commissioners voted unanimously to direct parks staff to work with the gardeners about locking the garden gate.

The gate will be locked until Nov. 1, with no commitment from the Parks Commission that the gate can be locked again next spring when the growing season starts. The rest of the park remains open to the public.

A 10-foot-tall deer fence already surrounded the garden.

Holley said he sees the locked gate as a temporary measure to deal with the thefts.

The 42 people who rent plots in the garden have been given the combination to the lock so they can get in, he said.

The community garden, established in spring 2003 at the undeveloped park off Hersey Street, is in its eighth growing season, he said.

Gardeners have experienced thefts before, such as stolen pumpkins last year, but the thefts began accelerating in early July. Everything from raspberries to squash to peppers has been taken, he said.

"We've worked so hard to be a bright spot in the world. It's like a real stab when something you've grown is stolen," he said.

Some of the thieves have been quite brazen, visiting the garden in the middle of the day. One gardener who was on his knees in his plot amid tall plants stood up suddenly, surprising a young woman who was carrying a milk jug that had been cut off so that it could be used as a harvest container, Holley said.

"She went into 'caught with her hand in the cookie jar' mode. She turned beet red and said, 'I just love to look around.' It shows a real brazen attitude if you go down there at 2:30 in the afternoon with a bucket in your hand," he said.

Holley said he and the other gardeners try to be understanding about the human condition, especially because of the tough economic times.

"No one wants to lock the garden. But we have sweat equity into it, we have dollars into it and we have amended the soil," he said.

Gardeners rent plots in the garden that range in size from 10 by 10 feet to 20 by 20 feet. The larger plots cost $55 for the growing season, Holley said.

He said the thefts are even more painful because the gardeners donate produce to the needy through ACCESS Inc., a Medford-based group that helps low-income families and senior citizens throughout the area become more self-sufficient.

It's not clear whether people have been stealing food from the garden out of hunger and desperation, or for other motives. Whether the thieves were Ashland residents or transients is also not known.

Ashland Parks Department Stewardship Coordinator Linda Chesney, who helps coordinate the garden, said she put together information on Tuesday so that a sign could be posted at the garden directing people to local food banks.

"Some gardeners were concerned that if people really are going hungry, that they have food," she said.

Places where people can go for food include the Ashland Emergency Food Bank at 2200 Ashland St.

It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Monday through Friday. The food bank is also open for those hours on the first Saturday of each month, said Interim Food Bank Manager Susan Harris.

The food bank does have fresh produce available, she said.

It accepts donations of produce in good condition from home gardeners, Harris said.

"Perishable food such as vegetables coming from a garden are so appreciated," she said.

Members of Ashland's two Rotary Clubs also are growing food on an acre of land that was donated by a Rotarian for that use, Harris said.

Last year, the Rotarians donated 3,000 pounds of fresh food and probably will donate a similar amount this year, she said.

A more broad-based Rotary effort channels food such as potatoes and peaches from large growers and vendors to food bank systems, Harris said.

Visitors to the Ashland food bank are allowed to choose the items they want, rather than receiving a box of food that isn't tailored to their needs, she said.

While the Ashland Creek Park community garden lock is new, Holley said that community gardens in Phoenix, Eugene and Portland have locks.

A McMinnville community garden in Northern Oregon was in the news last week after vandals destroyed fruits and vegetables. Community gardeners there said the senseless destruction showed some people did not have an appreciation for the work that goes into raising food.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.