Symbionts I have known

Gardening is a community effort. Even the most dedicatedly solitary gardener knows, deep down, that it takes a village to raise a crop. It may not involve other humans, of course, but it is definitely a team sport.

I think this really came home to me during my post-chicken period. For several years I kept a small flock of free-range birds, headed up by Chester, a gimpy rooster named for the lame cowboy in Gunsmoke. Chester and the girls roamed freely all day; then, toward dusk, he would round them up and lead them into the coop, where they were shuttered away safe from raccoons, possums and foxes overnight.

In the winter, the birds were given access to the garden, where they would turn over every square inch of dirt, gobbling up bugs, grubs and insect eggs. Their chuckles and exclamations were homey and funny, particularly when one of their number unearthed something scrumptious — say, an ant nest or a maggoty tuber. But come spring, I tried (with decidedly mixed success) to fence them out of the garden long enough for most of the young plants to get a running start. My efforts to keep the birds out generally petered out around midseason, but by then the plants were big enough to be worked around instead of mowed down.

I need to note that these were really free-range birds. During those years, I was dividing my time between Buncombe County, N.C., and Rockingham County, N.H., and the chickens were packed off to New England as part of the seasonal cycle. July to November in Deerfield, December to June in Black Mountain (with occasional Christmases in Ohio).

But circumstances change, and the traveling chicken circus finally folded its tent for good when I no longer had time for an itinerant flock.

Whammo! Suddenly, I had grasshoppers and Japanese beetles by the score. Absent Chester and crew, the bug population exploded, and I spent many hours trapping and mashing the resurgent invaders.

That shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, since I’d had a somewhat similar lesson a few years before, compliments of some other garden buddies: Mr. and Mrs. Copperhead.

I first established the Black Mountain garden in 1983, on a baldish patch in the woods near a ridge. Rock outcroppings along the upper border were ideal for basking snakes, and this fact wasn’t lost on the resident reptiles. The first couple of years, I didn’t mess with the snakes that wandered by — since copperheads are mostly nocturnal, I was willing to live and let live — but then Tuxedo Joe, one of my cats, suffered through a copperhead bite. (This proved to be the first of three such close encounters during Joe’s long life, attended by lots of swelling and a lingering infection.) I decided that we needed some distance.

The following season, I moved two or three copperheads farther up into the vacant land adjacent to my property. But when spring rolled around again, my best-ever feline buddy, Brave Ulysses, walked into the house with a 6-inch-long newborn copperhead in his mouth and dropped it, wriggling, in front of me. (Newborns have a beautiful chartreuse nose ornament, which attracts the insects that are the species’ baby food.)

I put it in a bucket and took it back into the woods.

The next day Ulysses brought me two more youngsters, so, after bucketing them, I followed him back to the garden, where he headed straight toward a flat rock and sat watching expectantly. After locking the cat in the house, I flipped over the rock and collected 14 more babies and two adult copperheads; the larger one (almost 3 feet long) was probably the mother. (Copperheads and rattlesnakes are live-born; the nonpoisonous species in this region hatch from eggs.) Later that summer, I moved another adult up and away.

The vole population exploded. (Voles are the burrowing rodents that do most of the damage usually ascribed to moles. Moles — which eat insects, grubs and worms — are hugely beneficial to gardens and lawns. Voles, though, eat plants — and they’re particularly fond of bulbs.) Tulips disappeared in a trice. Hyacinths vanished. Potatoes were hollowed out. Totally healthy plants would suddenly wither and die, and pulling them up, I would find an inch wide-tunnel in the ground and no root structure at all — the telltale signature of these voracious varmints. The four felines then commenced a halfhearted vole roundup that continued for years. But being well fed on cat chow, they lacked the requisite survival drive, and therefore barely managed to keep the voles down to a dull roar. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Still, I shudder to imagine how horrible the vole infestation might have become without the cats’ efforts, however feeble. And while I’m fully aware of the argument that free-ranging cats are not good news for songbirds, I also recall that the Black Death descended on Europe after a period of cat extermination driven by the Christian fear of witchcraft. No cats, too many rats. And suddenly, a flea-borne disease wiped out up to half the human population. Even today, feral cats keep our city rodents in check. I also salve my conscience by trusting studies that show that house cats tend to catch sick songbirds first. But I understand my motive in such excuse-mongering: The voles must die.

In addition to chickens, snakes and cats, unseen owls who rule the night, and the blessed bats who eat multiples of their body weight in insects at dawn and dusk, there are myriad beneficial bugs, from ladybird beetles to praying mantises to tachnid wasps to mud daubers that glean pests by the ton. And then there are dogs.

As with the chickens, I never appreciated the worth of a dog as a garden companion until the dog was gone. Irma entered my life about the time I started my Buncombe garden, and for 14 years she was rarely more than a few yards away. I may have thought I was guarding the chickens, but I was only partly right. That raccoons gave my garden a wide berth was surely Irma’s doing, and while she lived, no bear ever set paw on my compost bin. (At 25 pounds, she would hardly have given a bear much of a tangle, but the yard smelled like a dog and that was probably enough. Then, too soon, the smell was gone.)

There were few biting insects at 3,200 feet, so the sliding glass door stood open, sans screen, all day in clement weather. But the season after Irma died, I noticed one day that a loaf of bread had been dragged from the kitchen counter to the deck, torn open and partly consumed. A few days later, a fruit bowl was knocked over and a bunch of grapes went missing. I knew the cats weren’t the culprits. The next day, I was walking down the steps from the garden when a red fox bounded out of the house, across the deck and into the woods, a bag of potato chips in its teeth.

The fox knew Irma was gone. I re-installed the screen.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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