The Practical Gardener

The first time I was ever mad enough to actually see red was when the family hound decided to dig up a bed of 6-inch-high, spring-planted snow peas. When I walked outside and saw the bed laid waste, I dragged the whimpering beast to the scene of the devastation and shoved his nose into the soil. I shook him and incoherently screamed about canine values and my view of his responsibilities in our nuclear family. I threw clods of soil and made obscene gestures at him as he raced away to spend the next three days hiding in the doghouse. It was ugly. In retrospect, however, I’m glad it all played out that way because, once I calmed down, it was a really good lesson for me: It broadened my awareness of Acts of God in the garden.

I’ve never felt angry when the rain doesn’t come, or when unexpected frosts take out crops; I do my best to be prepared for Mother Nature’s periodically odd behavior. But when the family dog does something horrendous in the garden, it just seems unfathomable. That’s because we humans have a covenant with those animals that have thrown in their lot with us. We give them names and live vicariously through them as they spend their days doing everything we’d like to be doing ourselves if we didn’t have to work — playing in the back yard, maybe, or snoozing in some lovely, sun-drenched corner of the house. But they are animals, after all, only a few steps removed from the wild.

I’ve been thinking about these things recently because, as I believe I mentioned last week, my neighbor’s puppy has acquired a fondness for fresh asparagus from Jardin Fou. At first, I was livid when I found those wonderful, succulent spears chewed off before we could enjoy them. If it were a rabbit or a groundhog, our dogs would be on the case. But the damage is being done by one of the neighborhood pack; in fact, I suspect my own canines have joined their comrades in the debauchery, which has left me feeling vaguely defiled.

I called around to various gardening folks to pick their brains on the subject, and most everyone had something to say. Insect pests may wreak havoc with crops, but they don’t stir up the kind of passions in gardeners that damage by mammals does. I think it’s because we, too, are mammals. It’s like getting mugged compared to paying outrageous service charges. Muggers and groundhogs are Us; insects and Master Card are Them. We’re losing something either way, but somehow it just feels different.

Lots of folks have challenges with groundhogs. My gardening pal Brett Gustuvson once lost a quarter-acre crop of kale to two groundhogs in about a week’s time when he was a market gardener. “I tried and tried to catch them,” Brett told me, but to no avail. That’s another disturbing aspect: How can a critter as slow and seemingly placid as a groundhog escape capture by someone as resourceful as a gardener who’s at risk of losing what little money he might have made on his cash crop? But hard as it is to do, catching them live and then releasing them in other areas is really the only way to get rid of these critters. Fences that keep rabbits out of the garden are only a minor inconvenience to groundhogs, which can climb as well as they dig.

Raccoons can also be live-trapped, but you’ll have little chance of luring them with bait when your sweet corn is ripe. If you see ‘coon tracks in your garden, rent a Have-a-Heart trap at the local rental agency and get rid of the critters before your corn matures. Honey-soaked bread, peanut butter and marshmallows all make good bait. And if this nocturnal critter ambles along when you have ripening corn, try leaving a transistor radio playing in the garden all night.

Among gardeners who don’t have dogs, deer damage has become ever more prevalent; these nimble creatures can leap all but the highest fences with ease. I’ve heard that human hair collected at the barbershop and spread around the garden is somewhat of a deterrent. I’ve also been told by friends in New England that a dual-pronged approach — a 3-foot-tall rabbit fence surrounding the garden, plus a single strand of wire strung 3 feet off the ground 3 feet outside the fence perimeter — will deter deer, because they can’t span the distance between the wire and the opposite side of the fence with a leap.

Gardening folks I spoke with talked about loose cattle, rabbits, chipmunks, wood rats, raccoons, deer, squirrels and opossums. Overall, however, the biggest problems they told me about came from moles. One of the old-time gardeners in our valley grows castor-bean plants in his corn patch, placing one plant for every 150 square feet. They’re handsome in a big and gawky, mulelike sort of way, and moles are said to detest being around them.

The good news about a mole infestation in your garden or yard is that it shows you have healthy soil. Moles mostly eat earthworms (the international good-soil indicator), as well as various grubs. They won’t eat your plants, but their tunnels damage root systems and carry disease from one plant to another. The bigger problem with moles, though, is that voles, shrews, rats, pocket gophers and house mice use their tunnels for their own destructive, plant-eating swoops through your garden.

A mole can eat its weight in grubs and worms in a day, and they’re constantly patrolling for food as they move through their vast, well-made network of underground highways. In an infested yard or garden, you can see the telltale swell of the tunnel tops. And the air in those tunnels dries out your plants considerably quicker on warm days. My gardening pal David McClure reports that moles are the scourge of his family’s ornamental garden. “They heave the soil with their tunnels, and Maurie and I are forever resetting plants that have been pushed out of the ground. It’s a serious matter when a favored (and expensive) perennial plant has been uprooted and lays on the ground for a couple of hot summer days while I’ve been busy at work.” And their Welsh Corgi makes an even bigger mess when he starts digging after moles that he can hear or smell as they hurry along underground in search of food.

We, too, have periodic problems with moles here at Jardin Fou, and we have two rat terriers that I’d hoped would do the job they’ve been bred for. Unfortunately, however, these two don’t seem to know they’re supposed to be working stiffs. Our couch-potato canines prefer to let our mighty cat Gandhi drag in the moles he’s slain so they can play with them.

David relies on specially designed traps to deal with his mole problem, but he says these creatures are extremely wary, so he’s devised a strategy for steering them to particular places in the garden. He strategically places barricades made of heavy aluminum (sold as flashing in the roofing department at the local lumberyard) in the middle of the tunnels. When a mole comes up against the barrier, it will burrow along the edge of the metal in an attempt to get around it. Then David sets his trap — a spring-loaded affair that’s activated by the vibrations from the moles digging underneath it as they’re forced through narrow openings — covering the contraption with a bucket to keep the cat and dog away.

Meanwhile, I’ve made some halfhearted attempts to prevent the dogs from chomping the asparagus, but the season was mostly over before I got around to setting up a temporary fence around that bed. Next year, I’ll be ready.

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