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Chipmunk 3, Silence 0. May 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. You may recall our friend Ben and I posting about how we’d attempted to foil a groundhog who was after our Swiss chard by draping bird netting over our row of alternating Swiss chard and spinach plants. The groundhog, which I actually saw racing from our back bed (having decimated all our kale plants), had only eaten the Swiss chard, leaving the spinach untouched. (Hmmmm.) We’d never had animal damage to our garden before, and were determined to try to save our crops.

Unfortunately, as I discovered to my horror a couple of days ago, whatever the groundhog may have done to our kale, it was a tiny chipmunk who’d leveled our Swiss chard. I know this because, as I inspected the garden beds, I saw a completely destroyed—as in eaten to the ground—Swiss chard plant and, horrifyingly, a chipmunk completely entangled in the bird netting.

How such a small creature could have eaten such a large plant in a single sitting was a mystery to me. But more to the point, I needed to free the chipmunk from its deadly trap. Grabbing my pruners in one hand and the enmeshed chipmunk in the other, I began snipping away. To my great relief (since I was bare-handed at the time), the chipmunk seemed to realize that I was trying to free it, not eat it. It didn’t try to bite me, struggle, or attempt to get away, which would only have tightened the mesh noose around its neck and body. At last, after many scary snips, I was able to free the chipmunk, who made a very hasty exit.

Looking at the wreckage of the Swiss chard, I concluded that protecting the plants wasn’t worth taking a life. Another tactic was called for. I opted for hot sauce. I figured the burn would deter chipmunks and even groundhogs from turning our greens into a free all-you-can-eat buffet. With OFB in tow, I headed to the local grocery and bought the cheapest hot sauce I could find. Then, I splashed it liberally on the Swiss chard, and the spinach too, for good measure.

The next morning, an unusually diffident OFB returned from taking our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, on garden inspection. “Uh, Silence, have you looked at the garden beds lately?” he asked, trying for a neutral tone.

“Not since yesterday. Why do you ask?”

“Uh…”

“Uh, what? What’s going on back there?!”

“Well, remember those plants you put the hot sauce on…”

“Of course I remember! What happened? Did the chipmunks eat them anyway?”

“Well, no.”

“Then maybe it worked!”

“Uh…”

“Uh, what?!!!”

“They’re all white.”

“What’s all white?”

“The spinach and Swiss chard. All the leaves have turned white.”

OFB was right, as I quickly saw for myself. How putting hot sauce on leaves could seemingly suck the chlorophyll out of them overnight I’ll never know, but it did. Our crop was ruined. Even the chipmunk(s) hadn’t had such a devastating effect.

Maybe I should have put a splash of hot sauce in a gallon of water and applied it that way. Now OFB is suggesting that we pull the unsightly plants and start over. I’m leaning toward leaving them, hoping new leaves regenerate from the crowns while the pepper-laden older leaves provide some protection from chipmunks. One thing’s for sure: So far, the chipmunks have beaten us at every turn. Thank goodness they don’t have a taste for tomato and pepper plants!

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Gack!!! A groundhog in the garden! May 1, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. As if this hadn’t already been the weirdest spring on record! We’ve had temps in the 80s in March, frost on our neighbor’s back lawn this morning, on the cusp of May, along with nighttime lows in the 30s all week, and then temps back in the 80s predicted for later this week. The lowest rainfall on record for March, and not much better for April. Yet our raised beds are doing better than ever, or, I should say, were doing better than ever.

Our perennial veggie bed is bursting with rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus, comfrey, motherwort, and catnip (for our three huge Maine coon cats). We’ve planted Jerusalem artichokes in it and some potatoes, too, which we find are perennial for us, and are eagerly awaiting their appearance. Our allium/herb bed is resplendent with “walking” onions, garlic, garlic chives, chives, onions, leeks, sage, oregano, thyme, and cilantro. And our long bed, which is shaded by a pair of dwarf apple trees and thus is best suited to greens, strawberries, and potatoes, is—or I should say, was—having its best year ever.

The formerly mild April weather had encouraged us to plant all sorts of greens, mustard-family plants, and cole crops in the long bed. We planted three kinds of kale, four kinds of mustard greens, five varieties of radishes, and innumerable types of lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, spinach, and other greens, along with some new strawberry plants. Everything was looking great, until this past week’s dip into the 30s, which burned and blackened the newly emerging potato shoots. (We think the plants will recover.)

Then came Sunday. It was perfect gardening weather—temps in the low 60s, a clear, sunny sky—and our friend Ben and I were out taking advantage of it, as, I was pleased to see, were both our neighbors. (“Silence! What’s this huge spider? Is it poisonous?” “Ben! Look how well my bamboo’s coming back!”) Naturally, I managed to get a horrendous sunburn, which OFB, who’d been gardening in a fleece jacket, long pants and baseball cap, as opposed to my bare head and tee-shirt, had little sympathy for. “Beach bunny.” Grrrrr!!!! But I digress.

Point being, at some point during my weeding and greenhouse-tending, I took a break to look over the beds. And then I saw that the kale and Swiss chard plants had been decimated. “BEN!!! Something’s eaten our plants!!!” OFB thought it must have been a deer, but I pointed out that a large, hungry deer wouldn’t have settled for munching down a few chard and kale plants, especially with apple trees invitingly nearby. I thought it must have been a rabbit or a groundhog.

Fellow gardeners may find it strange that we haven’t had problems like this before, but for whatever reason, we haven’t. Our previous problems have all been caused by birds, who regularly beat us to our strawberrries, blueberries and raspberries, and to bugs who attack our peaches and apples. Veggies have been pretty much exempt.

Thinking quickly, I suggested to OFB that we get out the bird netting we usually drape over the trellis protecting our blueberries and drape it over our bed of greens. It’s not exactly heavy-duty protection, but it would provide some protection, allow us to water through it, and be lightweight enough for the greens to grow up beneath it. So we did that, weighting the ends with stones.

Then this morning, OFB and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, went off to feed the chickens, one of our favorite morning rituals. For whatever reason, I was looking out the back deck door after them; I guess I just enjoy seeing how much fun they have while they’re doing the chicken run. And because I was watching, I saw a groundhog race from the greens bed into—talk about adding insult to injury!—our wood- and straw-shed at the back of our greenhouse.

“BEEEENNNNN!!! There’s a groundhog! It’s a groundhog that’s been eating our crops! It just went into our greenhouse shed!”

OFB, for once quick on the uptake, grabbed Shiloh and raced to the shed. Yelling “Boogah! Boogah Woogah Woogah!” at the top of his lungs, he began kicking everything in the shed with remarkable vigor, while Shiloh did her part by barking at deafening decibels. I don’t know what effect this had on the groundhog, but I suspect the neighbors will be talking about it for years. (After all, it was 7 a.m.)

As it happened, we have a couple of rolls of 3-foot-high chickenwire fencing in our toolshed. So this evening, we headed to our local hardware store and got six posts for it. As I write, I can hear the banging as OFB hammers them into the ground. Will this be enough to keep the wretched grundsau (as it’s known locally) at bay? 

I haven’t got a clue. I guess I’m just grateful it wasn’t a deer, also plentiful in these parts. But I hope the groundhog decides to join its famous relative Phil in Punxsutawney and abandons our backyard. I don’t know about you, but I’m not especially eager to eat greens or anything else after they’ve been munched on by somebody else.

                 ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Raccoon 1, gardeners 0. May 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening.
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*&%$!!#@! raccoon. Our friend Ben discovered a goldfish (dead) and snail (mercifully unharmed) lying on the deck yesterday morning, and a muddy, ripped-up mess where the container water garden had been looking so lovely and serene. As feared (see my post on setting up the water garden, “A good day for gazing balls”), the wretched raccoon had discovered the all-you-can-eat buffet on our deck and bellied up for its dinner.

As the earth awakens from its winter rest and gardening season moves from a longed-for dream to a blister-inducing reality, raccoons emerge from hibernation, mate, and bear their young. By May and June, the females have hungry mouths to feed (including their own) and the males are footloose and fancy free. Just as your first crops are ripening, you’re likely to see these big, smart, adaptable omnivores casing your produce or pet food—or worse, see the path of nocturnal destruction they’ve left in their wake.

We’re not the only ones who’ve suffered raccoon depredations in the past few weeks. Melissa at Zanthan Gardens (http://www.zanthan.com/gardens/gardenlog/) had a raccoon trash her water garden, too. And the Weed Whackin’ Wenches (http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/) had a very humorous encounter with a raccoon attempting to raid their garden and have since posted the formidable Diva Dog on guard duty to prevent any recurrences. Our good friend Edith had the ultimate horror, a family of raccoons in her attic. (Given the noise even a solitary squirrel makes overhead, our friend Ben shudders to think of the racket, not to mention what else might be going on. It probably sounded like boot camp in progress.)

From one end of the country to the other, the raccoons are active… and they’re hungry. Our friend Ben understands that they’ve even become naturalized in Europe, and are up to their usual tricks in urban and suburban areas there, too. Yikes!

What makes raccoons more of a menace than those other backyard marauders, groundhogs (aka woodchucks), bunnies, skunks, and ‘possums? (Note that I did not say deer. if you have a deer problem, you probably laugh at raccoons. But that is another story.) It’s a combination of intelligence, dexterity, omnivorous habits, and size. Did I mention that raccoons are big? A fullgrown male can weigh 35 pounds and be 36 inches—that’s 3 feet, folks—long, not counting the 10-inch tail. The largest raccoon on record weighed more than 50 pounds. It takes a fair amount of food to fill an animal that size, and the critter can do quite a lot of damage just waddling around among your plants.

Raccoons are dexterous because they really have hands rather than front paws, and they certainly know how to use them. And like us, raccoons are omnivorous. (Unlike us, they have a fondness for garbage cans, and have absolutely no trouble pulling off the lid so they can climb in and explore.) They’ve been known to open screen doors, climb in open windows, and squeeze through pet doors to get to the coveted kitchen, then open cabinets and refrigerators, removing choice treats from their wrappers and leaving a pile of wrappers and an open fridge door, much like a distracted teenager, in their wake. (Cheesecake is apparently a favorite; our friend Ben can sympathize.) The very word “raccoon” derives from a Virginia Algonquian word meaning “he scratches with his hands.”

Another famous thing raccoons do with their hands is wash their food before eating it—the Norwegian word for raccoon means “wash bear”—though scientists will hasten to assure you that they’re not actually trying to get the food clean. (Just what they are trying to do is still a matter of debate.) Unfortunately, this means that a water garden provides one-stop shopping: The raccoon can select its meal and wash it in one convenient location.

What to do? Putting netting over the water garden is reputedly effective at keeping raccoons (and other predators like herons) out, though it hardly enhances the water garden’s aesthetic appeal, which is surely the reason we have them to begin with. (Since most raccoons are nocturnal, I suppose you could net the water garden at night and remove the netting every morning, but what a pain.) Our friend Ben is hoping that a barricade of container plants will at least give our raccoon pause. (By contrast, our outdoor cats love them, lolling on the deck in the shade of the plants’ foliage and doubtless dreaming of the jungle.)

Incidentally, you may wonder how we know that it’s a raccoon and not the outdoor cats attacking the water garden. Fortunately, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. While the cats do exhibit a preference for drinking the water in the container gardens rather than the fresh water in their own bowls (gross!!!), they don’t fish in them or tear up plants. Battered, knocked-around plants and muddy water are sure signs of raccoon feasting.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have two other things going in our fishes’ favor: First, we laid a section of clay pipe horizontally in the bottom of the water garden to provide the fish with a safe haven, then put in lots of plants for cover. And second, in past years this raccoon has appeared practically nightly for a couple of weeks, then moved on for the rest of the season. Maybe the other fish (and snails) will fare better. If not, our favorite water-garden store, Aquatic Concepts, is fortunately just a couple of miles down the road. We’ll just wait until there’s no further sign of depredation and restock.

For someone like our friend Ben who grew up with Sterling North’s heartwarming book Rascal, his real-life story of growing up with a beloved pet raccoon, to make the transition to viewing raccoons as pests isn’t easy. But one look at the helpless fish, the hapless snails, and the ravaged plants is enough to cause an attitude adjustment. Not to mention the very real threat of rabies to our outdoor cats—37.5% of reported rabies cases are in raccoons.

This morning, the water garden is once again unmolested. The water is clear, the plants are recovering, and I can see the two surviving fish swimming peacefully in the depths. But our friend Ben knows better than to assume that the worst is over. Once the raccoon has a chance to size up the situation, it will be raccoon 2, gardeners 0. It’s going to be a long couple of weeks.       

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