Sharleen Fiddaman of Old Palo Alto had her pear trees stripped bare by thieves thrice in the last month.
And more than 100 plums were swiped in the middle of the night from the backyard of a Green Gables resident.
The heists were silent and stealthy; the only evidence of thievery was a few stray fruit that had been squished under the weight of what could have been sneakers.
"I don't know who did," the Green Gables resident said, noting that the tree was not visible from the street. "I don't think it was animals, however."
Produce pilferers are sneaking through Palo Alto neighborhoods with increasing frequency, residents are reporting on e-mail listservs. Private gardens have been raided; fruit picked from public lands.
In Fiddaman's case, people are the likely culprits. Like nectarine ninjas, humans have the ability to sneak into yards unnoticed, strip a tree in minutes and escape with their stolen goods without leaving a trace.
Local gardener Karen Sundback suggests residents install motion-detecting lights to deter delinquents. The beacons literally "shine light" on thieves and hopefully on their consciences.
For some people, however, embarrassment does not inhibit snatching habits. Catherine Bourquin, Palo Alto's community-garden program coordinator, said she has talked to residents who take evening strolls through the main community garden on Newell Road, glass of wine in hand, to pick and sample the produce -- apparently feeling no guilt about their actions.
But "people pay to garden here," Bourquin said. "The fact is they put money into the plants and the soil."
Broker Carl King said he caught a woman cutting blossoms off a tree near the Art Center in broad daylight. When questioned by King, the woman smiled and said she "was preventing them from going to waste."
There are signs in English and Spanish at the main garden that Bourquin said she thinks deters some pickers. At Eleanor Pardee Park, the garden is gated and locked to make thievery difficult.
Detective Brian Philip said police take these thefts with the same seriousness of any other petty theft in the area.
"We don't ignore anything reported by a citizen, even stolen fruit," he said.
Philip said that most incidents likely go unreported, but police can increase patrols if they know a certain residence or neighborhood is being targeted.
Locked gates, motion-detecting lights and police might be able to stop human thieves, but they are ineffective to Palo Alto's real kings of thieves: squirrels.
Cute yet criminal, squirrels are well-known garden raiders.
Retiree Bob Eaton works a 1,000-square-foot plot at Palo Alto's main community garden. Eaton has rarely had problems with people taking his food, but squirrels are the ones who take his tomatoes and corn, he said. Right now there is no way to control the squirrels in the community garden, he added.
Sundback said cats can help to get rid of squirrels. But ensuring cats stay on constant guard can be difficult.
King said he uses a Havahart Trap to catch and release the animals humanely. However, once a thief always a thief, and many of the squirrels return to their life of looting.
Some gardeners go to more extreme measures to get rid of squirrels, King said. He attended a class in which they taught him to catch the squirrels in a Havahart Trap and then, taking lessons from Tony Soprano, fill a garbage can up with water and send the vermin to a watery grave.
King does not participate in this practice but is no stranger to the prowess of the fluffy-tail rodents.
"My experience with vermin, the squirrels at least, is that they usually taunt by consuming the goods in an obvious visible location," he said. "Then they leave wasteful remnants of one's prized fruit or veggie there."
One time, after coming home from a long weekend, King walked up to his front doorstep and noticed a half-eaten squash lying in plain sight. A squirrel had dragged the vegetable all the way from the garden in the backyard, consumed what it wanted -- and then left the remainder to remind King who was the true king of garden thieves.