The Fearless Animals of Bronxville
Before I get on with my usual musings, I must apologize for not posting as much as I was earlier in the season. The summer has taken a turn for the busy as my clients realized that there's work to be done and that I indeed am around to do it. I also find myself coaching two baseball teams (when I had originally only signed up for one), taking some online classes, and working to establish more gardens. Then came the storm last week, which knocked out our power for a 24-hour period, which was 24 hours of lost computer time that I did not have the luxury of loosing. On the plus side, nothing hit my house, and even better we were ONLY out of power for 24 hours. Pretty lucky actually.
Speaking of the storm and nature, fortunately, I was able to get over to the BGG before the it hit so that I could batten down the hatches, so to speak. I went around tying down every branch of every plant I could, I even tied guy lines to stakes I drove into the ground. Many many lines and many many stakes. You'd have thought I was erecting a tent for a moderate-sized circus. Luckily, there was minimal damage aside from a few branches, and the lid from Pete's Composter that got blown into the fence. But my plants all survived and most of the fruits and vegetables from them did too! I was quite happy and Twittery about it, but as I came to find during that recent run-in with mother nature, storms were one thing, animals were another.
Attacked by a Chipmunk
There are few sights more pathetic than that of a dirty, sweaty, middle-aged man yelling profanities at squirrels whilst clumsily fumbling about trying to scare them off. Yes my dear readers, I was that man this past week, and it was not one of my better moments as a gardener. It all began with a psychotic chipmunk.
Last Monday while I was standing over a bed contemplating the best time to plant spinach there, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a little brown thing moving toward me. I turned just as the little brown thing lunged at my foot, scratched my shoe a bit, and then ran off in what can only be described as a hit and run assault. That furry little brown thing was a cute little chipmunk, the very same cute little chipmunk that lives in the garden box with whom I thought I had reached a detente. As to why the little dickens attacked I'm still not sure. I wasn't near anything of his, nor was I doing anything threatening. It's possible it just didn't like me anymore, but he was certainly not rabid or anything like that. Odds are I was either near something he wanted or I startled him somehow. Perhaps he is simply used to me being around and as a result he no longer fears me. I'm just thankful nobody was around to see because the surprised "yelp" I let out was, well, more like that from a startled 6 year old than from — as I've stated previously — a dirty, sweaty, middle-aged man.
Now I've spent a lot of time in the woods and I've seen some astonishing animal behavior. I've been attacked by blue jays, hawks, and grouse. I once had a fox back me off. Twice I've had raccoons growl at me. I've had snakes stand me off. Even recently an opossum hissed at me and my son. Of course cats and dogs have attacked me plenty of times. On the other side of the animal-fright spectrum, I've scared off deer, moose, bears, coyotes, and I think one time a bobcat (although it could have just been a really huge domestic cat that was lost in the wilds of northern New Hampshire). Usually, chipmunks fall into the list of animals I've scared off. That is until my recent attack.
I spent the rest of the day in the garden watching my back in case the little rat-by-another-name came back. He didn't, and I was able to garden in safety.
Squirrels to the Right of Me, Squirrels to the Left of Me!
The Wednesday that followed my chipmunk assault was where things turned positively Hitchcockian. This story wouldn't be called The Birds but rather, The Squirrels.
I usually try to arrive at the garden around 9ish in the AM, but that day I got in around 8:15 since it was going to be really hot and muggy and there were also supposed to be thunder storms later. Upon arriving, I did my first pass around the garden just to see if there were any significant changes since I was last there. What I saw both horrified and enraged me.
On one plant there were three very large heirloom tomatoes I had been monitoring that had survived an earlier nasty storm and were slowly ripening their way to beauty and tastiness. Went over to inspect on that day, however, I found my tomatoes laying on the ground, half eaten with a ripped pieces of unripened tomato scattered about. They were totaled. Weeks of care and anticipation, tossed into the composter. To quote A.A. Milne, my "rage was such I couldn't speak!" Just when I thought I had reached my fill of shock, anger, dismay, I turned around to look at what was once a promising bunch of eggplant to find that they too were pillaged in a most frenzied manner.
There was no doubt about it, this was not the work of any chipmunk. No chipmunk —psychotic or not — could have wrought such destruction. It was the work of squirrels alright, but what manner of squirrel? I've seen squirrel strikes before, but the scene before me looked more like Carthage after the Romans got through with it.
It was at that moment I noticed a fluffy gray thing climbing down the fence from the outside. I was shocked at the sight, having never seen this previously during my season in the BGG. That darn squirrel was trying to get at my plum tomatoes! I ran over to scare it off, but the squirrel stood firm on the fence almost daring me to come closer. My fear of rabies and/or any other possible squirrel-borne diseases had abandoned me so I lunged at the little guy to scare him off. He ran away along the fence before coming to, yes, ANOTHER SQUIRREL! Now I had two gray squirrels on the fence trying to steal from the BGG with me standing right there.
I won't lie, this became an ego thing for me. I was not about to let two rats with airs take from the garden on my watch. So I moved quickly to the hose, tripping over the edge of a garden box as I went but managed to catch myself before hitting the ground. I frantically seized the hose and turned on the spigot. I then took aim at the two thieves believing that I had the necessary weapon in hand to foil their vegetable larceny. With a slight malicious upturn of my lips, I opened the valve sure that the steady pressurized stream coming out would force an immediate withdrawal of my furry opponents, but I was foiled. Out from the nozzle came not a hard steady stream of squirrel-repelling water, but rather a pleasant mist that would have provided relief on that humid day. But the relief I sought was not from the heat but from the furry invaders. Again, I fumbled with the hose trying to change the nozzle to the proper setting. By now, the trees around the garden were beginning to wilt from the string of profanity I was vomiting out. I finally changed the nozzle setting, got the hose to a stream and managed to force the squirrels off the fence and back into the trees. Victory! Or so I thought. My tiny triumph was short-lived.
A cute little black squirrel made an appearance now, as did the psychotic garden chipmunk. The chipmunk I didn't worry about, guessing that his earlier transgression was not personal or even specific to me, but I made sure to keep his position in mind. The squirrel on the other hand was making his way toward the sungolds. NOBODY TAKES MY SUNGOLDS! Over I ran dragging the hose, spraying, yelling, fumbling, water everywhere, enough profanity to make a hardened infantry soldier blush. The black squirrel made a hasty retreat, but there was no satisfaction in my driving him off as I noticed the psycho chipmunk standing now standing on my table, his eyes set firmly on another sungold plant. I dropped the hose and charged at him. Knowing he lacked the element of surprise the psycho chipmunk withdrew to his box.
I spent the next minute or two salvaging whatever dignity I had left. I took a moment to appreciate the sudden garden quiet, and to let my adrenaline surge wear off and the humiliation to settle in. Fully calmed I set about my garden tasks in earnest. This peace I soon found was not to last. Not 20 minutes later, I saw one of the gray squirrels back in the garden moving toward the tomatoes. I dropped my clippers and ran at him. This time, the squirrel immediately left the garden and surprisingly didn't try to challenge me, but when I turned around to go back to what I was doing, what did I see? The little opportunistic black squirrel charged back into the garden while my back was turned, grabbed a little green unripened plum tomato in his teeth, carried it to the top of a fence post and began gnawing at it!
Alfred Hitchcock gave way to Edgar Allen Poe as I gazed at that squirrel — not raven — perched upon my cedar post, mocking me in my darkest hour. I felt like the narrator in The Raven slowly sinking into despair, with sorrow for my lost tomatoes, but because his cheeks were so full of unripened tomato there would be no utterance of "nevermore" from that critter's mouth. Who says poetry has no place in our daily lives?
It was at this point I really started to get irrational and paranoid as various thoughts and explanations for this sudden collective rodent behavior began to percolate in my flustered mind. Had the squirrels actually planned that? Did one purposefully distract me while the other stole a tomato? Where they working with the chipmunk? I even for a second wondered if the animals' strange and brazen behavior was a harbinger of some impending seismic event. But in the end, I realized that there was no rodent cabal and that there was no earthquake forthcoming. Neither was the black squirrel any supernatural manifestation of my own dark thoughts and fears. The squirrels were smarter than I was, and that there wasn't a darn thing to do about it. Well, not entirely.
If I Can't Beat 'Em, Feed 'Em
Before my little squirrel run-in, the day before I had filled a spray bottle with a concoction of water, mild dish soap, and various pepper spices — anything hot that would burn — and then went around the garden spraying the areas around the plants, the actual fruit, and the posts holding them up. I had to don my COVID mask at one point because I was inhaling the little aerosol droplets of my potent mixture and it was beginning to burn my lungs. I think it would have done a good job keeping pests away had it not rained and washed all that I sprayed into the ground.
My plan going forward is to keep spraying my evil pepper mixture and to keep scaring off squirrels hopefully in a less passionate manner while I'm there. I will also do with them what I do with the resident chipmunk, which is to essentially pay them off. That is, I'll feed them. I'll leave bits of oats and birdseed in key locations, along with a bowl of water so that the squirrels go for that and not my plants. It's worked for me at other places. It's either that or put a raptor perch and owl box near the garden, which I'm sure would arouse a fair bit of commentary on whatever Facebook page the where local Bronxvillains virtually gather to discuss such things.
Just to be sure I did all I could, I consulted one of my many books on gardening and farming to see if there were any better strategies for squirrel deterrence. One suggestion was to get a cat. Nope. Another was to buy animal urine and spray it around. Now, I'm very dedicated to the BGG, but I absolutely refuse to spray pee all over the garden. Not even my own. The weirdest suggestion I read was to scatter human hair around, the theory being that the squirrels will smell the human hair and stay away. I'm dismissing that one out-of-hand however because it's obvious the squirrels don't fear humans (at least this one), plus the walk-by visual human hair tufts blowing about the garden would be unsettling to say the least.
For now I'll rely on my pepper spray concoction and whatever meagre intimidation my presence can bring. In the end I really can't blame the little animals for their persistence. These vegetables are quite good and a critter's gotta eat. Part of organic farming is the acceptance of nature in all its forms, which is a good as it helps to keep things in perspective reminding us that we and our gardens are one small piece of the greater ecosystem. A small begrudging part of me admires those daring young squirrels and that psychotic chipmunk. I just wish they'd spend more time tormenting someone else.
Pests aside, we are in good form as we approach mid-season. The big producer this year has been the lettuce and Swiss chard. I've gotten at least three harvests off every plant, excepting the one or two I was a little too aggressive in clipping. The peppers have been absolutely lovely as well. Many green, red, and yellow chilis have come out and many more are on the way. Eggplant was doing well, that is, until the squirrels decided it was delicious. I think they took out at least 50% of the eggplant crop. If I'm lucky I may get one or two more before the season is out but I'm not counting on that. The animals also took out all my heirlooms, but luckily they've left the cherry tomatoes, sungolds, and tomatillos alone. The sungolds continue to be beyond anything I've tasted elsewhere.
Cucumber has continued to produce well for the most part. In one box, the plants are rather stunted and never began their crawl upwards on the fence, but they now have some budding vegetables. The other box on the other hand is lush and creeping up the garden fence. It also has a large number of female flowers, which I didn't realize when I last surveyed. I'm thinking we may see at least 15 more cucumbers before the month is out.
As for herbs, the sage, mint, basil, and lavender continue to produce in decent-sized quantities. Despite my repeated clippings, the herbs all look very healthy and have been growing very quickly.
Yes it has been a good season so far but wasn't all abundance and joy for ol' Farmer Vin. The beans and carrots were a disappointment this year. The carrots seem a little too small, but that could be my fault for misjudging the depth of the boxes — I didn't realize there was landscape fabric under the plant boxes when I planted them, which can inhibit growth. Not sure I can stick with that excuse though. Farmer Dave managed to get beautiful full-length carrots in the same beds. Either way, I'm going to leave them in the ground another month to see if they improve, which they very well may. Thinking back, if I were to do it over again, I'd add more soil to the boxes to give them more depth.
The bush beans are pretty much done, finished, spent. I have a few healthy plants remaining out of which I will still get some production, but the rest I've since pulled out of the ground and thrown into the composter. Before I did, however, I was sure to pull off the little nodules on the bean roots and mix them into the soil. Those nodules contain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that will help provide nourishment for the next crop.
Doing a post-mortem on the bean plants, it seemed that their roots were too shallow and were never able to get at the more moist areas in the subsoil. I'm thinking that maybe I should have buried them deeper when I first planted them. Or possibly I should have added more absorbent organic matter to the surface to keep more of the moisture there. Additionally, I think the beds themselves may have needed more nutrient additives than I had put in. There are many possible issues there, but I can be happy in knowing or at least believing firmly that disease was not an issue.
My eyes are firmly set on my fall crops now. After I rip the old plants out from the beds, I will make a mixture of our regular horse poo compost, a bit of rock dust, and some of the compost from our own onsite composter that altogether will nourish our next crop. I will then shovel it onto the beds in preparation for the next planting. I've certainly got a lot of compost in the works, so there shouldn't be a lack of nutrients for later on.
To replace the beans and to fill in some areas that saw little or no growth, I've been planting beets, spinach, and kale, all great fall crops. I also planted some new bits of chard here and there simply because they've been doing so well. Another crop I'm planting is buckwheat.
I'm looking forward to this one for a few reasons. The buckwheat isn't being grown so much to distribute but to use as a cover crop over the rest of the summer and to return some nutrients to the soil. It's pretty fast-growing and does a nice job of making certain soil nutrients more bio-available, phosphorus being chief among them. They flower quickly, which should give the bees a nice source of nectar as the summer gives way to spring and they do well in prettying up the garden. Best of all, since they are a cover crop, I can just sort of fold it over the beds to use instead of going out to buy straw. My strategy over the next few weeks is to scatter buckwheat over the rest of the boxes as bits of space become available. Then hopefully by the end of the fall, we'll have nice carpets of buckwheat ready cover our beds through the winter.
This past couple of weeks have been the hottest, most humid, and oppressive of the summer. They've also been a period of great food production. Now things will start to get a little less intense during the day as the summer winds down, but we will still see steady and perhaps greater weekly deliveries of food right through September, likely all the way to November. I'm very much looking forward to our fall harvest.
In the meantime, I will go re-read some of the more well-known works of Western poetry as I attempt to make sense of the squirrels of Bronxville...which I'm sure still are sitting, STILL are sitting on the standing cedar pillar just above my garden door, but as they try to purloin vegetables I will whisper to them NEVERMORE!
My apologies Edgar, wherever you are.