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Patchwork: Ecological gardening gets tested under stress

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Posted on July 20, 2012 |
By Barbara Ganley



goldfinch-in-the-sage.jpg
A GOLDFINCH MUNCHES on sage seeds, leaving the leaves for humans to eat. Photo by Barbara Ganley

I’m standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window at what should be a pleasing garden scene: the foreground herbs in full flower dotted with bees and butterflies; the middle ground’s tall, sturdy peppers and tree-like tomatoes ripening their fruit near the eggplants and cucumbers; and the background beans scaling sky high on their teepee poles — you know, the way it usually looks out there in midsummer.

But what am I actually seeing? Beyond the slight droop of thirsty plants? Beyond the lusty weed-grasses that thrive on no water and find their way into every corner of the garden? Beyond the gap-toothed bed where 200 heads of garlic were just harvested before the searing heat could stress them? I’m seeing more rabbits than I can count and a battalion of chipmunks and squirrels running roughshod over the raised beds.

Sizing up the fence

Read more Patchwork columns

Look there: Just beyond the window, inside the careful square of fencing, the beet greens are rustling, and not with the breeze. Right in the middle of the patch you’ll see a baby bunny’s ears. And a bunny mouth filled with tender leaves. The rabbit is so small that when it hears me scolding, it hops right through the holes in the fencing. Bird netting, I think.Chicken wire. It’s time to get serious.

Of course none of my efforts saved the strawberries, which succumbed to an invasion of ravenous rodents. Almost nothing can foil a squirrel intent on food. Fences? Netting? Child’s play. As much as I admired their chutzpah, I found their techniques galling: they did not run off with their loot — they chomped big mouthfuls from each juicy berry and left the gnawed remainders for me. Gee thanks. Who knew that the hard spring effort to protect plants from frost and weeds was all for a bunch of squirrels.

Most years I’m not bothered by wildlife incursions. I aspire to what Kristina Lyons, a former student, describes in her doctoral work on an ethnography of soil as “an ethics of reciprocity,” something indigenous farmers practice along the Amazon, “nourishing, feeding, and not only themselves. Rather a whole array of hungry mouths eating together: microorganisms, insects, roots, animals and humans.” (See her article and recipe at http://openviewgardens.com/guest-series/farming-as-reciprocity-in-the-co....) How sensible. How unlike the human-centric practices that have landed the planet in this mess.

Yes, this way of gardening means that chipmunks always commandeer more than their fair share of gooseberries. Yes, squirrels knock too many pears from the espaliered trees. And yes, rabbits will take out the broccoli and fenugreek, and deer will mow down the beans if I leave them vulnerable. I’m okay with that — we all get enough if I play my part right.

But this year? Things are way out of whack. I’m lost in the rodent version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And I’ve heard from master gardening friends that even they have never seen the likes of it. Sure, we’re always contending with the normal rises and falls of particular animal populations. But in all my years of gardening, I have never experienced such losses as these. Almost everything is under siege. Even the tomatoes are being raided, ripe ones torn away and absconded with, green ones left half eaten on the ground. I’m having nightmares filled with phantom figures of snickering squirrels and giant rabbit teeth and screaming vegetables.

Where are the coyotes, the bobcats, the foxes when you need them?

I’m on my own, it seems, and battling. Yes, the live-and-let-live vegetarian gardener is battling for the very lives of the sweet potato crop, the fennel, the chard, the chicory. Bill suggests drastic measures, mentioning how much he’d love a good rabbit stew and how he’s happy to help especially since — ahem — the raspberries have been razed. Even gentle friends, pacifist friends are talking about setting ingenious traps and using pepper spray and buying shotguns.

Not me. No sir. I’m banking on outsmarting the varmints by being a student of the garden itself.

Take the sweet potatoes. Only those snugged up against volunteer tomatillos are thriving, so using a layered planting system of tall varmint-vexing plants above and around the tender tasties will help them elude razor-teeth deer. Bushy hot Thai peppers surrounding the tomatoes wave No Trespassing signs even chipmunks read. My old friend rabbit-repelling mint and flowers such as fritillaria with its rodent-repulsing scent planted amongst squirrel favorites will do their part. If I ring the beans with their kitchen companion sage, at least every second year the squirrels will be so consumed with consuming the sage seeds that they will forget they ever liked beans.

Indeed, sage is the perfect plant for an ecological garden: the bees are mad about its flowers, the goldfinches and chipmunks covet their seeds, I harvest the leaves, which are far too astringent for anyone else. And nothing could be easier to grow if you just let it grow where it wants — in the gravel paths. I just wish it flowered every year.

Paying close attention to the dance of the garden will sort things out … eventually. Learning this subtle choreography takes patience, a willingness to see the balance in terms of years not weeks. Long-term solutions, short-term smarts and a bit of luck.

So, no guns, no traps, no chemicals, and no rabbit stew. Some years I lose a little, this year a lot, but I’m getting wilier as I listen ever more deeply to the rhythms of the land. And one day, I’ll get it close to right. Okay, this year we’ll be eating a lot of tomatillos and potatoes and peppers and garlic and onions and not much else. But all is not lost — just look at the bees in the lavender and leek flowers, the butterflies in the arugula. Pollinator heaven now means garden health later. And next year? I’m planning and plotting and dreaming of strawberries. Lots and lots of strawberries.

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