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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Them Again’ Us…

literate animalsI look up from my bowl of bran flakes and see a gray squirrel perched in a devil-may-care attitude on the rail of my raised asparagus bed. “Now what’s that rascal up to?” I wonder. Squirrels (Scurrilous scurrilous, in my opinion)…that gleam in their eye… mischief, that’s what it is,  mischief and up to no goodness, that’s the modus operandi of the squirrel. One thing I can tell you for sure, that ne’er-do-well astraddle the asparagus patch rail has more than hollandaise on its furry little brain.

I think of the history of warfare, the longevity of some of the great historical conflicts: the Hundred Years’ War waged in the fourteenth century between the Kingdoms of England and France, a dispute over the French throne (actually a 116 year war); the Wars of the Roses spawned by the Hundred Years’ War, a tiff between the Houses of York and Lancaster over the English throne; and the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And then there’s the Thirty-Eight Years’ War right here in the Valley, a conflict that has this gardener at odds with a goodly number of enemies…a war that shows no signs of letting up. A ceasefire appears out of the question, and while I can count on the old familiar foes, as the war drags on, it seems my list of enemies grows.

My garden is the battlefield. As soon as the first seed sprouts, the first berry or fruit blossom unfolds, the yearly battle is joined. Sometimes I think I’m at war with a good portion of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom. Of course there’s botany involved, too, but weeds are more a bother than anything, a constant easily dealt with. Animals and insects, on the other hand, roam the garden at will, strike without warning, most often under the cover of darkness. It’s guerilla warfare of sorts, and every crop in the garden is subject to merciless attack by vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Let me list a few of the four-legged intruders I’ve battled during my thirty-eight years of warfare:

Deer—Fortunately we’ve been spared these sloe-eyed varmints foraging in the garden, but last year I saw the tell-tale pointy hoof prints in the tilled ground. Now the master gardener Cisco Morris refers to a deer as a “two hundred pound slug,” and when I saw the tracks, I looked for plant destruction. At first it looked like the critter was just passing through. I traced the prints across the entire garden. The deer had daintily stepped over a row of lettuce and leaped the hedge, heading east and away. Later I discovered two or three new sprouts had been nipped from my newly planted black raspberries. The young cherry and gravenstein trees lost new shoots, as well.

Dogs—For some reason they love the loose earth of the garden and don’t tread as lightly as did that deer. Valley dogs tend to be large and a loping canine can easily churn up a section of garden row.

Cats—Plenty of these in the Valley, especially with the barn cats at the horse barn next door. The garden becomes one big litter box for them…and in their hygienic manner of “covering” their business they can root out many a tender shoot. The sweet and garden peas, the first crops I plant, have experienced considerable cat “thinning” over the years. cat-astropheThis I have discouraged by twining the rows as soon as the seed was planted and covered. Not wanting to hogtie themselves while seeking relief, the prowling felines avoid the taut twine, step over it and move on to open space yet to be planted.


Rabbits—The nursery stock next door and the woodshed out back provide cover for these little nippers. I’ve had to place empty bee boxes around my carrots and lettuce to protect the crops from these little mowing machines.

Raccoons—Shucks! That’s what a pair of them did to my corn patch a few years back. A pair of the varmints pulled down a half dozen stalks, shucked the ears and had a corn feast two nights running. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for the masked bandits, the state highway out in front solved my ‘coon problem.

Moles—&*$%!! The enemy below, I call them…and I could write (and will) a post or two about these subterranean demons. While they don’t eat the crops, they burrow beneath them or push them out of the ground. furry devilTheir tunneling allows the roots to dry out and no amount of irrigation can save the plants then. I planted garlic in a raised bed one season. The moles built a network of tunnels in the moist soil and the garlic shriveled. For two seasons in a row a mole tunneled beneath my cucumber row. My pickles came from Freddies’ those two years.

Livestock—Yes, believe it or not  one year we had an escaped horse make a dust bowl in our squash and pumpkin patch. Cows, too, three of them. A bull in a china closet? A cow in the vegetable garden? In either case, you’re going to sustain considerable damage.

As it has been and now stands, my garden is  “free range” and critters can come and go at will. I suppose I could fence the plot which would discourage somewhat the incursions of the hordes, but as the fence would have to be weeded and maintained, I’ve staunchly refused to fence in my vegetables. Besides, a fence is no defense against assault by air.

Birds. I have no one to fault for the avian intrusion on my crops than myself, but speaking about pecking the hand that feeds you, bird damage is the thanks you get for your thoughtfulness. Our winter bird feeder and suet blocks attract a host of birds. When the feeder is shelved for the summer, the birds transition to the garden for its bounty. Sparrows forage in the blueberry bushes, pluck the blossoms, pecking the berry buds in the process. As soon as the blueberries leaf out, robins move into their shade, waiting  to gash a berry at the first hint of color. I’ve since learned to remove all feeders from the place at least a month in advance of the berry bloom. Bird pluckedLast spring I had to tent my pea sprouts (we used leftover tule from my daughter’s wedding) because the LBBs (little brown birds) found it hard to resist the tender pea sprouts. Just the other day I noticed a few bean sprouts plucked and shrunken around the bean poles…no thanks to my little feathered friends. (Years ago after I spread some dairy cow by-product on the garden, a small flock of pigeons descended on the plot searching for kernels of undigested corn. As soon as the last kernel was gone, the pigeons moved on to my pea sprouts.)Blasted birds

One year I made the mistake of feeding “squirrel” corn from the cob to the jays. When the last cob was pecked clean, not only did they make a cribbage board out of my corn patch when the young sprouts surfaced, but they planted the field corn all over the place: along the fence lines, in the flower beds, flower pots, and the asparagus bed. (One thing I’ve learned about about jays: they’re good planters of corn, but they couldn’t plant a straight row if their lives depended on it.) And then there’s the big walnut tree out back. I waited for years for that tree to yield a crop. Finally the fall came when the tree produced two or three dozen walnuts. I wish I could tell you how wonderful they tasted, but no…you’ll have to ask the flock of crows that descended on the tree and made off with the entire crop in a matter of minutes. The garden’s strangest bird encounter, however, was back in the day Carolyn Peters had her animal farm on what is now Beebes’ Corner. I looked out at my blueberry row one morning and saw three hulking shapes lurking dangerously close to the fruit-laden bushes. Peacocks…, well, one cock and two peahens. I ran them off only to find them an hour later in the open garage along with the mess they’d made.

And then there are the bugs: the cabbage row in August is a blizzard of cabbage whites; aphids infest the sweet peas every single year, making the bouquets alive with more than color; leaf miners carve intricate designs in the beet greens; wire worms riddle the carrots and radishes (and turnips? You can see daylight through their roots when you hold them to the light).

And so the war rages on. During the recent Federal budget debates, the “sequester” and all, the word “entitlements” is bandied about between Washington and the press. I guess it’s this entitlements thing that’s so frustrating about my garden enemies: the cost and labor is mine; they think they’re entitled to the rewards and they don’t lift a wing, beak, paw or hoof to assist with any of it.

By way of analogy, let me share a story that aptly sums up my exasperation with gardening and my hard fought efforts to wrest a salad from the spoils of war. I’m a big fan of eggplant. Not only is the eggplant a beautiful vegetable, a sensual globe with a dark purple sheen as if it’s been Simonized, but it’s actually edible, you know, and can be fried, casseroled, or parmesaned. Eggplant is not easy to grow here in the Valley…not enough heat…too short a growing season. I’ve had success growing it in whisky barrel containers on the hot, summery south side of the house, but my first experience with  eggplant was in a row of  six or eight in the garden proper, if I recall, .

As the summer progressed, a few purple, yellow-centered flowers appeared among the  plants’ velvety leaves.  To my dismay the flowers aborted, dropped off, one by one; however, one blossom  finally set,  became a plump, purple node that slowly swelled as the days went by. Not a day passed I didn’t check that one lone fruit. Oh, the emotional energy I invested in the small, pendulous globe.

August, and the eggplant had grown to a length of five or six inches. Then it abruptly stopped growing, just hung there in its immature purple glory. “Just not enough heat,” I worried, “too short a summer.” I gave it one more week, but it was no go—or should I say, no grow. Regardless of its size, I vowed to pick the solitary fruit, bring it to table, so at the end of the month, clippers in hand, bent on harvest, I headed for the only plant to bear fruit. I reached in under the leaves to locate the stem, shifted the eggplant to one side to give the clippers better access. As I lifted the fruit, its heft seemed strangely light to me. When I twisted the lobe halfway round to examine it, my hopes for a slice of fried eggplant drizzled with tabasco sauce were shattered. The eggplant was just a shell of glossy skin; the insides were gone, the flesh eaten neatly away as with a scoop… my summer hopes and dreams slimed into oblivion by SLUGS!

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Gladys and I were riding the lower Loop Road the other day and as we churned past Jeff Miller’s (aka “Willie Green’s”) vegetable field south of the bridge, I noticed a sign and was startled by its revelation. “All those years of garden warfare,” I reflected, “when a sign was all I needed!  A sign,” I marveled, “ A simple sign. Can you imagine that!”Good luck with this

(That squirrel, by the way? He had excavated a walnut from the minefield he planted in the asparagus patch last fall, breaking off  pair of newly sprouted spears in the process. A sign…I have to get a sign!)

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