Critters

Four-legged critters in the garden.

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At present, there are no serious critter problems in my garden. As I related in the post Vegetable garden, we went through problems with groundhogs, rabbits, and meadow voles as the vegetable garden was getting established. For now, what with a redundancy of fences, the critters in the garden are limited to squirrels and a chipmunk or two. But, tomorrow may bring a new and unforeseen critter problem. Who knows.

There’s nothing to be done about squirrels, to be honest. Except for being a nuisance at the bird feeders, squirrels don’t cause many problems. I’ve never seen one in the vegetable garden, although they have the freedom to roam wherever they choose. I laugh at Daisy, my yellow lab, when she chases a squirrel up the nearest tree, telling her that her efforts are futile until she learns to climb trees too.

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A squirrel baffle on the bird feeder pole slows them down, but from time to time an enterprising squirrel gets past it and snacks on sunflower seeds and suet. All in all, squirrel antics are fun to watch. It’s easy to co-exist with squirrels, in my opinion.

In this post, I want to tell about some of the four-legged critters I have experienced in my gardening career. Some of them were just passing through. Others were cause for fantasies about shotguns.

When we started the vegetable garden, groundhogs were a serious problem in the neighborhood. Partially their presence could be attributed to a neighbor who was feeding peanuts in shells to bluejays. His method for distributing the peanuts was to open his back door each morning and toss several handfuls out onto his driveway. The jays came; the chipmunks came; and the groundhogs came. Beware of unintended consequences.

Soon the groundhogs dug a tunnel with an entry way in a patch of weeds bordering the driveway. Next, they dug a tunnel under my wooden fence to establish a stronghold under a deck in my backyard. After that, they tunneled under the shed on my property. I assume that my property was already in their territory, but they had never been so alarmingly present before. Soon a litter of baby groundhogs was born under the shed, and the groundhog population was ready to explode.

Some neighbors didn’t see this as a problem. Groundhogs are so cute. While I was persuading my neighbor to cease and desist with the peanuts, we were filling in groundhog tunnels, putting up fencing, and cursing quite a bit.

Putting a hose down a tunnel entrance for an extended period of time, thus flooding the tunnel, slows groundhogs down but doesn’t stop them.

IMG_1456Putting up fencing is good, but remember that groundhogs both dig and climb. First, for the digging problem, fencing has to be buried at least a foot in the ground. When we fenced in the vegetable garden, with our resident groundhogs in mind, we dug a trench a foot or so deep around the perimeter of the garden. Then we bent 9″ or so of the fencing at right angles and buried it in the trench with the right angle facing out. This was to keep the groundhogs from digging. After securing the fencing to metal stakes, we bent the top 9″ or so of the fencing at the top so the bent fencing faced out. This was to keep the groundhogs from climbing over the fence. It worked. Knock wood. A groundhog has not gained access to the vegetable garden to my knowledge. And given their obvious utter delight in total devastation of gardens, I think I would have known.

I have not always been so fortunate with groundhogs in gardens. A long time ago, I had a plot in a community garden. In this community garden, some members wanted to live in harmony with nature, which included groundhogs. They abhorred fences–except for the fence around the entire community garden that kept out the deer. These members planted flowers and created walkways. Their plots were beautiful, and I truly admired the creativity of various members.

Others of us, however, wanted to grow vegetables and needed fences to keep out critters like groundhogs. With some help, I put up a fence similar to the one described above. The fact that we had built a fence before worked to our benefit when we built an even better fence for the current vegetable garden.

Community gardens are supposed to be harmonious. This one wasn’t. It was pretty much war between the two points of view. I enjoyed the beautiful flower gardens. The flower gardeners did not enjoy my vegetable garden.

To be fair, things happened that were not good. Some lovely little trees that the flower gardeners treasured got cut down because they shaded vegetable gardens. I didn’t like that either. Other bad things happened.

One day I was thinning some lettuce that was far too thick and too tall. It had gotten away from me. I seem always to plant too much lettuce. As I sat, contentedly listening to the birds singing and working away at thinning the lush lettuce, I came upon a groundhog hiding in the lettuce patch, inside the fence I had built to keep it out. The groundhog was immobile, lying on its back, as I remember. Its teeth were clenched together, and it was foaming at the mouth. Thinking it might be rabid and that I had come close to getting bitten, I grabbed my shovel and started pummeling the groundhog. It was a reflex action. That groundhog didn’t belong in my garden. It looked dangerous. I remember shouting at it, What are you doing here.

So I killed it. The last thing that stopped moving was its tail. It took awhile. I picked it up on my shovel and carried it into the woods surrounding the community garden and threw it as far as I could. Of course I should have found out if it was rabid or what was wrong with it, but I didn’t. I don’t have an excuse.

No one else was at the garden at the time. I was shaking. I went home and called the person in charge of the garden and told him what happened. Although I didn’t tell anyone else about this encounter, word soon got around that I was a groundhog murderer. Not good. Not too long after that, I moved away and left the garden to the flower people. I think the idea of community gardens is admirable. My experience, not so much.

Thinking back on it, I don’t think the groundhog was rabid. I think it was poisoned. I think a member of the vegetable garden crowd was secretly putting out poison. If that was the case, I did that groundhog a favor by putting it out of its misery. It’s not a good way to die.

Well, that’s in the past. My present garden has seen a number of critters passing through. A grey fox once ran across my gardens and disappeared into the park across the street. That same park has been home to several red foxes. Two years ago, a female red fox raised her kits there. The young foxes were playing on my neighbor’s lawn one day, causing much distressing comment from passersby. The foxes have all disappeared. I don’t know why or where to. The rabbit population certainly declined during the red foxes’ sojourn in our area.

On a not so happy note, a rabid fox was killed after attacking two persons near a municipal park. The two persons had to get rabies shots. I don’t know if there were complications. Hope not. It’s easy to get scared and decide not to walk in the parks because of such incidents, but the rabid fox seems to have been an isolated occurrence. What a shame if we stop enjoying our parks out of fear. We don’t stop driving, or flying, because of accidents. So why stop getting good walking exercise while enjoying our parks.

At the present time, there are not many deer in the area. If this is due to hunting, or perhaps to disease, I don’t know. A few years ago, as many as 10 deer could be seen at any given time in the local parks. Now, I see very few. Too many deer in a natural area that can’t support them is not good for them, or for the neighborhood. What’s the right balance is the question.

When deer were more plentiful in the neighborhood, one deer stood out because it had a green collar. Where did the green collar come from. I don’t know. Somehow, to me, that deer became an individual deer that shouldn’t be eliminated in a hunt. Hard choices.

One of my sons once lived near a park where there were many deer, including an albino deer. He was working a night job at the time, and he often cut through the park on his way home. In this way, he came to know the white deer quite well, sometimes seeing it bedded down in his backyard. It was a special relationship, mythic almost, it seems to me. After my son moved away, I sometimes walked in his park–I always think of it as his park–but I never saw the white deer. It probably died of natural causes, but it will always live in my memory. And my son’s memory too, I think.

As you may know, New Jersey has a sizable brown bear population. Brown bears have been sighted in our town, but I have never seen one. There has not been a bear-human encounter here. However, a hiker was killed not that long ago by a brown bear in a park farther north in New Jersey. A group of college students were hiking and confronted a bear. They split up and ran. One student was attacked and killed. Again, what is the balance. There’s lots of things that come to mind that might have averted the tragedy, but in the face of the death of a person, it’s hard to say, well, this should have happened, or that should have happened.

Back to the current garden and less tragic events. Once a wild turkey strutted for a time around the garden. Then it rather dismissively flew up onto the back fence and away, never to return, to my knowledge. Guess it didn’t like what it saw.

Skunks inhabited the garden at night for a while. They made their presence known by leaving small holes made by poking their noses in the soil searching for grubs. I was worried that Daisy would confront a skunk at night with smelly repercussions, but that never happened. Why did the skunks vacate the area. I don’t know. Perhaps Daisy was a factor. There is much not readily known about the behavior of four-legged critters.

As I wrote about in the post Vegetable garden, rabbits were next in line after groundhogs to become a nuisance. Baby bunnies could squeeze through the 1″ squares in the wire fencing around the vegetable garden. When I got tired of thinking bunnies were cute, I put chicken wire on top of the existing fencing. I didn’t bury the chicken wire since rabbits don’t dig the way groundhogs do. The chicken wire successfully kept the bunnies out of the vegetable garden, for the most part.

The next problem with rabbits occurred while the red foxes were in residence. I think the rabbits vacated the park because of the foxes and choose my property as a safe place to raise their young. They nested around an old apple tree stump, and soon baby bunnies were born.

Unfortunately, Daisy discovered the baby bunnies before I did. She played with them, carried them around in her mouth, and ultimately killed them. I don’t think she ate them, but I don’t know. She’s a dog, let us remember.

Once I realized what was going on, I got all the baby bunnies I could find into a bag and carried them over to the park. Big deal. The foxes probably got all of the bunnies that didn’t die from other causes.

Not wanting to go through that ordeal again, I put chicken wire on the outer wooden fence around the property, stapling it to the wood without worrying about burying it. I did make a right angle in the chicken wire to run along the ground and put rocks on the wire to hold it down. It was work, and I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t want to go through repeated episodes of Daisy and the baby bunnies.

Lastly, meadow voles decided to take up residence in the vegetable garden the winter before this one. Meadow voles are also known as field mice. They discovered the salt hay mulch and the bed covers that I had used as season extenders. How cozy and warm. Who can blame them.

Hawks fly overhead most of the time. Occasionally, they dip into the garden. I’m not usually able to see what they have caught. Voles, good. Birds, bad. Owls have been sighted in the park across the street, but I haven’t seen them. On a recent Nature show about owls, the owls were shown slurping down voles in two gulps. I was cheering for the owls. Go owls.

But I can’t entirely leave the vole problem for predators to fix. So, last summer, in addition to the original fencing around the vegetable garden for the groundhogs, and the chicken wire for the rabbits, I put up hardware cloth in honor of the voles, burying a foot of it and leaving a foot above ground next to the chicken wire.

I think this worked because no voles to my knowledge got into the vegetable garden this winter. What a lot of bother all this fencing is. It wouldn’t be worth it except it all happens by stages, and I think, well, I’ll do this and then everything will be fine. Or will it.

One last technique that may be worthwhile is surrounding your space with plants that critters don’t like. Garlic. Chives. Mint. To name a few. It’s an interesting idea, and I want to try it.

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