Gardening: when it’s not all green thumbs and roses

With this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and food shortages in the grocery stores, I had high hopes for my vegetable garden this year. Plans were to double its size, and plant it heavily with lots of different crops that I could preserve by canning, freezing and dehydrating. My garden would become my own little urban prepper’s stockpile of plentiful organically-grown food – right in my own backyard – with more than enough to share with family and neighbours!

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Throwing shade and breaking limbs

Many years ago, my vegetable garden was 25′ x 40′, but the neighbour’s two oak trees eventually shaded the area so much, that I had to reduce the size of the garden by half. Plants weren’t getting enough light, and the falling oak leaves contained tannic acid, which is highly acidic and bad for both soil and plants.

Luckily, late this winter, the owner of the neighbouring property finally decided to cut down the two oak trees. Both were diseased, and began to become a hazard with their frequently-dropping limbs. I guess the final decision was made after a third of one of the trees broke off, and smashed another neighbour’s fence, shed and back porch.

Doubling up

So now that adequate sunlight and those nasty, acidic leaves were no longer an issue, I started working on expanding the vegetable garden – back to it’s original 25′ x 40′ size.

In my head were images of beds and beds of luscious plum tomatoes, which I would turn into 30+ quarts of yummy spaghetti sauce. Just like I had years ago.

Slices of fresh tomatoes right from the garden

Other 4′ x 8′ raised beds would hold zucchini, yellow squash, several varieties of beans, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, kale, lettuce….So many wonderful things to grow!

Quarantine made obtaining vegetable seeds almost impossible, and online sources were all out of stock. Fortunately, I had found a local source of seeds back in February – before the pandemic – and stocked up on all sorts of choices.

Side notethe Dollar Tree had packets of seeds – 5 for $1. OMG what a find!!! Although there weren’t a lot of seeds in each packet, every one of those seeds germinated.

And sow it began

In March, the snow was melted and I began starting seeds indoors using my Aerogarden and planting flats clustered around to benefit from its grow light. Yellow pear tomatoes, Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, San Marzano plum tomatoes, kale, Swiss chard and parsley were the first first ones to start.

The first seeds to sow in the garden were the peas, which went into the garden in late March. They were one of the packets I bought for 20 cents at the Dollar Tree, and I was eager to have them come up, as they would be the very first edibles to harvest.

Next to plant were two beautiful parsley plants, which I grew from two tiny seeds. I planted them in two tall, cobalt blue ceramic planters and placed them on the back steps. Gorgeous!

The first signs of trouble

One day, I went out to the back deck, and found the two parsley planters all dug up! Also demolished, were the lettuce plants which I had planted in the cobalt blue ceramic strawberry pot placed nearby.

I replanted the plants, and cut pieces of chicken wire to fit into each of the pots, to try to deter what turned out to be squirrels digging up the plants.

Cobalt blue ceramic planters filled with zinnias and marigolds, and the soil is covered with chickenwire to deter the squirrels from digging

To deter the squirrels, I sprinkled them liberally with Korean hot pepper flakes (which I had left over after making kimchi.)

Next to be attacked were the three rose bushes I have planted in huge black pots on the patio. Once again, dug up by squirrels. Once again, chicken wire was cut to fit over the soil in each pot. And a dose of Korean hot pepper flakes.

And then they dug up the two hanging pots of red geraniums that I had overwintered in the basement.

Once I fitted chicken wire barriers over every single pot on the property, I looked forward to seeing those peas growing in the vegetable garden. The row was the entire 8′ length of the bed, and every day those 20 plants looked better and better. First there were the blossoms, and then the pea pods started to emerge. I did grab a few in the “snow pea” stage to use in an Asian shrimp recipe I made one day. Delicious!

The second attack

One day, I went out to check the peas, and found ALL the plants to be eaten halfway down to the soil!

Pea plants that were eaten by animals

I almost cried.

I had no idea what ate the plants, so I kept watch for the next few days. AND dumped a ton of Korean hot pepper flakes on the plants. I also made a stinky spray of garlic, sriracha sauce and water to spray on all the plants.

And then I saw the culprits. Woodchucks! (you may know them as groundhogs.) At first, it was one. And then another. And then another. Three that I saw running around my property and feasting on my garden!

Putting up barriers

Since there was nothing around the raised beds to protect them from the woodchucks, I decided to get some chicken wire and build something to surround the entire area – AND the area that I was going to use for expansion.

Oh yeah. I still hadn’t gotten to digging up all the grass in the new 20′ x 25′ area yet. I was spending all my time making chicken wire covers for the dozens of potted plants I have.

So I went out to get some chicken wire. Except all the stores were out of stock. It seems that everyone had the same idea – start a garden this year to avoid the stores as much as possible.

I ended up coming home, and searching online to see what stores may have some in stock. Tractor Supply, Lowe’s, WalMart, and at least five local Home Depots were all out. The only supply was a three hour, round trip drive – so out I went!

Lucky me! I managed to score 150′ of the much coveted chicken wire fencing! I spent the next two days pounding in T-posts and putting up the fencing.

Vegetable garden surrounded by a 3' high chicken wire fence to deter the animals

At the end of the second day, I stood back and admired my work.

And watched as a woodchuck hoisted it’s fat ass over the 3′ fence and into my garden.

UGH!

Calling in the reinforcements

Overwhelmed with the thoughts of a very daunting task, I hired an exterminator to capture (and release unharmed – far far away) the little shits woodchucks.

Over the course of three weeks, FIVE woodchucks were caught and taken away. Five. I was SO relieved to have that problem taken care of!

Meanwhile, I put in over three dozen tomato plants, dozens of kale plants, 12 eggplant, 12 green peppers, and two types of beans – purple pole beans and wax beans at the base of the arch I was using to train the pole beans on.

The third attack

Every morning and evening, I walk through the garden to check all the plants. I can also see most of the garden from the kitchen window.

One morning, I looked out the window, and saw something on the ground in one of the tomato beds. When I got out there, I saw a few of my precious tomatoes lying on the ground!!! What could be knocking them off the plants? And how did they get through the chicken wire fence?

Tomato plant that was partially eaten by animals

Later that day, I looked out the window and saw what was going on.

SQUIRRELS were climbing up the T-posts and hopping into the garden. They were also climbing up the lilac bushes on either side of the garden, and jumping/flying into the vegetable beds! UGH! those little jerks!

So I went into the garage, and grabbed the two rolls of Bird-X netting that I had picked up during my chicken wire fence outing. I cut wide strips, and hung them randomly in the lilac bushes, and then wrapped the tomato beds with the netting. And then I draped wide strips all along the top of the chicken wire fence surrounding the garden.

It worked!

For a day.

Every day afterwards, several tomatoes were on the ground – partially eaten.

To make matters even worse, the 18 of the heirloom plum tomato plants only produced two to three tomatoes each, and there were no flowers to indicate any more would be produced. This summer was extremely hot as well – temperatures have been in the high 90s for weeks on end – which is unusual for the Connecticut shoreline.

A quick run-down or two

So far I have:

  • applied hot pepper liberally on all plants
  • sprayed plants with “stinky stuff”
  • put up a 3′ fence around the entire garden
  • draped the top of the fence with netting
  • draped adjacent lilac bushes with netting
  • wrapped plants with netting
  • paid an exterminator to eradicate five woodchucks
  • gone outside numerous times a day chasing rodents while hurling obscenities
  • have spent a little over $500 on the above, plus utilized supplies I had on-hand

In my research on how to deter these pests, I saw a product that allegedly repels rodents like squirrels – oh – and the new-to-the-garden-this-year chipmunks. Never in my entire life living on this property have I seen those. OR the three rabbits that appear every day now.

I bought the product.

Applied the granules liberally in a 8″ band around the garden. I even ran an 8″ wide band of granules down the center of the garden.

15 minutes later, a squirrel jumped into the garden, and sat ON the band of granules while eating a tomato.

I went into the house and wrote a letter to the company to request a refund (they have a satisfaction guaranteed policy, and I sure am dissatisfied!

So yeah, let’s run down a list of the enemies:

  • woodchucks
  • squirrels
  • rabbits
  • chipmunks
  • the occasional bird that likes cherry tomatoes
  • snakes (yeah, I can’t even talk about those yet. < shudder >)
Wild cotton-tail rabbit that has been eating vegetable plants in the garden

The latest, up-to-date report

Right now, it’s the beginning of August, and I STILL haven’t finished expanding the garden. I managed to get two beds dug up and planted – with yellow squash, cucumbers and zucchini – but the squirrels kept getting into those as well. Each plant was wrapped with chicken wire AND netting, but the squirrels are so desperate, that they were ripping the barriers open and gnawing on the plants.

Four days ago, I looked out the kitchen window, and saw a squirrel grab a green tomato off of one of the wrapped-in-netting plants and run off with it.

But what happened next was the final blow

When I went out to the garden the next morning, I saw these fairly deep holes in all three of the tomato beds. They looked too deep to be from squirrels digging into the soil. And there were green tomatoes everywhere on the ground! And all the leaves and flowers were eaten off the pole beans.

I looked at the holes a little closer, and then I saw what they were.

DEER HOOF PRINTS

You guys. I live in an old, established urban/suburban neighbourhood! We don’t have deer. Or at least we didn’t until now.

So that did it

I went back inside, grabbed two baskets, and picked every goddamn tomato out there. Red, yellow, orange or green – I picked it. They are all in the house now, and I will ripen them on the counters.

The next day (Monday), I ripped up EVERY SINGLE tomato plant in the garden and put them in leaf & lawn bags.

On Tuesday, we were hit by a hurricane/tropical storm and a tornado touched down in a near-by town. Since the winds came from the south, and Long Island Sound is a mere half-mile away, everything has salt damage as well as wind damage.

Today is Thursday, and the city sanitation workers have just come by to pick up all the tree branches I put out from the storm damage – and the two bags of tomato plants.

The garden is limping along – sans tomatoes. My big plans to expand the garden are shot to hell. And so much for the bounty I was anticipating.

A few pea pods that were salvaged from the animal-eaten vegetable garden
The entire pea harvest from what was left of the 20 plants

But here’s what I want to impart to you

I’ve been gardening – and more specifically – gardening on this very same property – since I was a toddler. The property has been in my family since the 50s, and now it is mine.

I know this place. The soil, the pests, the climate.

Or at least I used to know.

I am a State of Connecticut certified Master Gardener.

And I used to teach gardening classes locally and did lectures on various gardening topics.

But all my years of experience and training did not lead to perfect results this season.

Because sometimes, shit happens.

The climate patterns are changing. Spring lasts for only a few short weeks now, and the summers here are much hotter and for a lot longer than they used to be.

One friend’s theory on the critters is that the pandemic has reduced traffic, and the animals are running around a little more freely than in the past.

Another thinks that the high temps and lack of rain is making them seek water, and therefore, they get it from the tomatoes.

So don’t be discouraged when things don’t go well – or how you planned. Take good notes throughout the season. Learn from it.

And use that experience to plan for next season.

Because there really is no such thing as a green thumb anyway.

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