I’m at the kitchen sink staring out at what should be a pleasing garden scene: flowering herbs in the foreground dotted with bees and butterflies, beyond them leafy peppers and tomatoes swelling fat with fruit, elbowing the absurd eggplants and cucumbers, backed by 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 drought and heat and insinuate themselves into every corner of the garden? I’m seeing varmints. Vermin. Varmints upon vermin, vermin upon varmints: more rabbits than I can count and a battalion of chipmunks and squirrels running roughshod over garden and orchard.
In other words, it's a disaster out there.
Look: 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. A bunny mouth filled with tender leaves. The creature 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? Pshaw. Child’s play. As much as I admire their chutzpah, I'm outraged by their technique. Do they run off with their loot? No, not a chance. They chomp big mouthfuls from each juicy berry and leave the gnawed remainders for me. Gee thanks.
Most years I’m not much bothered by wildlife incursions. I aspire to what a former student of mine describes in her 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.” How unlike the human-centric practices that have led to climate collapse. To this particular pickle.
Yes, this way of growing food means that chipmunks commandeer more than their fair share of gooseberries. Yes, squirrels knock too much fruit from the espaliered trees. And yes, rabbits will take out the broccoli and fenugreek, and deer will mow down the kale and 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, way out of whack. In all my years of raising our food, I have never seen every fruit, nearly every vegetable under siege. Even the tomatoes are being raided, ripe ones torn away, green ones left half eaten on the ground. And yesterday? Every pear lifted. Every last one.
I’m lost in the rodent version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Phantom figures of snickering squirrels and giant rabbit teeth and screaming vegetables haunt my dreams.
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. R suggests drastic measures, hinting at a good rabbit stew especially since—ahem--the raspberries have been razed. Even gentle friends, pacifist friends are talking about setting ingenious death 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 vermin-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 like 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.
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, the butterflies in the arugula. Pollinator heaven now means garden health later. So next year? I’m planning and plotting and dreaming of strawberries. Lots and lots of strawberries. For all of us.
Wish me luck.
A version of this piece was published in my column in the local newspaper.