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Friday, 16 July 2010

Chuck Visits the Garden

By Olga Hebert of Confessions of a Grandma

Our back yard, a half acre stretch of green lawn, abuts an open field and beyond that, woodlands cover rolling hills that frame evening sunsets as they march up and down the western sky.

When there is sun, all through the spring and summer, it hits the backyard about 11:00AM and shines down on it until sunset. The land is flat and relatively rock free for a Vermont property in the country, having served as a corn field in its previous life.

I’ve lived in our house for seventeen years now. Throughout that time, I have been slowly working on flower beds around the property. I have a variety of established perennials. I fill in faded spots with annuals and container plantings here and there. Because I like to cook, I put in an herb garden a few years ago.

Last year, I got the notion to plant some vegetables – nothing large scale, just a couple of tomato plants, some lettuce and maybe some green beans. My husband and a neighbor helped expand a garden area out by the shed. I weeded and amended soil soil and then weeded some more.

When the ground was ready, I put in three tomato plants, three cucumber plants, a row of lettuce, a row of green beans and one pepper plant. I dragged an extra long hose out to keep the garden watered if we went a day or two without rain. I watched things grow - like magic, tiny little green tomatoes forming from yellow flower heads, baby cucumbers, fresh lettuce to pluck and wash and put right into a salad.

I wondered why I had ever stopped planting a vegetable garden years and years ago. Oh, there are so many things that a garden can teach you:

  • The wonder and the expectation as winter melts away and the earth warms.

  • The potential of life as small green shoots appear, tender looking yet so determined.

  • The urge to nurture and carefully feed.

  • The need for vigilance - checking the weather, mulching against the sun, covering against the late frost, watering through a dry spell.

  • The need for patience - waiting out too much rain, checking for harmful insects or rotting fungus.

  • The anticipation of the bounty that is to come.

  • Dealing with disappointment and loss, as well.

So last summer I learned those lessons and I harvested lots of lettuce and peppers. My grandchildren especially loved the cucumbers and, even better, the dill pickles I made from them. We had one picking of green beans before the flea beetles took the rest and, like everyone else in the neighborhood, I lost all my tomatoes to the late season blight.

And this year, I was ready to try it all over again.

This year, I bought seeds and started the tomato and cucumber plants in my basement. I sprinkled them with water and talked to them like I was Queen Isabella sending Christopher Columbus off to conquer new worlds. I wanted them to realize that I had great expectations for them.

I worked last winter’s mulch of leaves and grass clippings into the soil along with several bags of fresh compost. On Memorial Day, I spent the entire morning planting, then went to the nursery for marigolds to act as friendly companions and planted them as well.

It looked great. I sat a garden frog on a cinder block to watch over garden day and night.

For three weeks, everything grew. The beans popped up, the other plants bushed out nicely. Only the lettuce was a bit on the slow side. My neighbors, all avid gardeners, would drop by to encourage my fledgling efforts. However, there was one visitor early in June that I just didn’t take seriously enough.

We were sitting on the deck having a late supper when Mike asked if I’d added another garden sculpture - like one in the shape and size of a furry young woodchuck. I certainly hadn’t put him there, yet there he sat surveying the garden around him, only going to hide under a rhubarb leaf when we walked out to shoo him away.

Mike put an empty coffee can at the corner of the garden and gave it a couple of plinks with his pellet gun - this meant to scare Little Chuckie away. It seemed to work. For the next couple of weeks there was no sign of him save for a perfectly round depression where he had been sitting that night.

But here’s another lesson, or two. I should have left Mike to his pellet gun while I went immediately to research the common woodchuck on the internet. I didn’t do that so I learned the hard way.

Complaisance has no place in the garden. And once a woodchuck spies a conveniently located all-you-can-eat salad buffet, he is quite loath to leave. In fact, Chuck was making himself quite at home in my garden.

Not content to raid from the tall grass of the nearby meadow, he had dug himself a tunnel under the garden shed. He seemed to have made peace with the dented coffee can sitting on the railroad tie and set about shearing all the lettuce right to the ground, a few nibbles on the cucumber leaves, a bite into the small baby pepper - which he then spit out - and on to chomping the liatrus like they were ears of ripe corn.

Sure, woodchucks need to eat just like us, but it was painfully obvious that sharing is not among Chuck’s personality traits. His ravenous gluttony did spur me onto more learning and it’s healthy for my aging brain to keep learning new things so maybe I should thank him a little bit.

Belatedly, I hit the net and learned that the woodchuck (Marmota manox), also called a ground hog, a ground beaver or a whistle pig, is a rodent that grows to about two feet in length and weighs from 5 to 10 pounds. It likes to eat vegetables (as they say, “DUH!”) and succulent plants. Its rodent teeth need the wearing action of gnawing so it can be quite damaging to fruit trees. It is timid, but has little innate fear of humans.

Because it is timid, pinwheels or other moving devices can be used to keep it out of the garden (sometimes). It burrows tunnels and likes to have a summer home in fields of tall grass or under sheds. Locating a garden away from tall grass and sheds that provide cover helps to discourage woodchucks. (Oh, well, too late for that one.)

You can buy repellent spray for vegetables and flowers that taste bad to the woodchuck and is “not offensive to humans or harmful to pets” (but really smells bad and so is kind of offensive to sensitive noses). A solution of Epsom salt has the same effect, I learned after I bought the $8 spray bottle of stinky stuff. Coyote or fox urine sprayed around the perimeter of the garden scares them off. My neighbor told me ammonia, that I could buy for $2.50 a gallon, could be used to the same effect - after I paid $18 for a seven-ounce bottle of coyote pee, also very stinky.

Armed with all this new knowledge and some out of pocket expenses, my garden is once again thriving. I’d like to think the smelly stuff worked and Chuck got the hint that he was no longer welcome. I’m sure he moved up the hill to my neighbor’s much finer garden. My fear is that neighbor Ray is not so inclined to fool around with sprays and predator urine and much more apt to take aim with a twenty-two shot.

Sorry, Chuck. I wish things could have worked out a little better.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post



I hate to laugh at the rodent problem in your garden, BUT I saw the funniest cartoon recently on this very subject.

Pictured was a beautiful vegetable garden with all the veggies labeled on little sticks. The moon and stars were out and in the middle of all these vegetables were two giant rabbits pushing supermarket carts down the rows selecting a lovely meal.

I'm not sure how funny you would have found this cartoon but we laughed our heads off at it.Sorry!

Olga, I loved your garden story and your relationship with Chuck.

Loved your story from two points of view. One is just about the garden, the serenity and wonder of it all. The second is the battle with Chuck. I was completely involved.

I loved this story, Olga! I suspect Chuck is feeling like he dodged a bullet in avoiding that "big coyote" that lives at your house! What marvelous lessons grow in your garden for everyone involved. Thank you for sharing.

Olga - Wonderful story!

It took me back to our early forties 'victory vegetable garden'. I can still see my father sitting patiently on a knoll above the garden with his shot gun. I can still hear the two sharp cracks which finished our Mr Chuck.

I was about five, and I dragged out a shovel and we did give him a proper burial! - Sandy

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