Sunday, January 17, 2016

What's Eating Amy's Vegetables?

As part of my winter garden, I planted a bed of cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in my upper garden, which is not protected by a rabbit-proof fence. Last winter, I saw bunnies engaging in fine dining provided by yours truly so what was I thinking, right? I had a dream that the bunnies would pass me by this year if I smeared sage on my doorpost, or something. I dunno. Mind blip. I might just as well have given the rabbit a twenty-dollar bill and told him to treat himself to a salad at the Garden CafĂ©. That would have cost less than buying the plants and the mulch and the fencing and the plant food and all that. When I realized my mistake, I had every intention of moving the tender greens to the lower garden, which is protected by a rabbit-proof fence, but the rain and the holidays intervened and I had more important things to do than rescue vegetables from mastication. Every plant was chewed down to the squeak. I made my bed and sated rabbits got to lie in it. That’s the circle of life, hakuna matata, and all that. But it did not stop there. The situation devolved into a vegetable apocalypse.

No bunnies, not even Bugs himself, could have prepared me for what met my eyes in my garden yesterday. The kale, collards, and garlic in my lower garden were in fine form only a few days ago when I nipped some greens for my lunch. By yesterday morning, something had made a meal out of nearly all of it. I thought these crops were safe inside the fence since the bunnies have never gone inside the lower garden. Yes, I watched Jurassic World, I should know better than to rely on fencing. Clearly something other than rabbits gobbled up my winter gardens, something like birds, bugs, a beaver, or perhaps a stray orangutan. Maybe a mutant vegan velociraptor rex. Should I be afraid?

Keeping edible plants alive and well long enough to make it to my plate is such a chore that it’s a wonder I ever eat anything I grow. Truly it’s a miracle that any of us have the opportunity to enjoy fresh produce at all. Luckily someone somewhere knows how to grow food. I spend an inordinate amount of time in the garden arguing with birds, insects, animals, fungus, mold, weather, extreme temperatures, weeds, oak trees attempting to take root, space aliens, evil spirits, and invisible mutant vegan dinosaurs. And that’s just the back yard. The front yard isn’t fenced.

Things are a little better in this house than they were for me out in the woods when I lived at the Ranch. The first day at the Ranch we were thrilled to see deer in our yard. Within 48 hours, we were running up and down the deck like lunatics in the middle of the night throwing rocks at the deer to keep them from eating the landscaping. The previous owners had a dog that chased them off. We did not have a dog. We got one immediately, and she was the sweetest, smartest dog ever. In fact, she was too smart to waste her time chasing deer when she could be chasing squirrels instead. In other words, we needed to put up a fence.

Let me tell you the main difference between city people and country people. City people turn gooey and dewy-eyed when they see deer. They fold into themselves and find their inner center and fall in love with nature (the abstract concept) all over again. Country people gnash their teeth and holler when they see deer. They find their inner eccentric lunatic bag-lady. To country people deer are unnatural, they are the anti-Christ. The Sunset Western Garden Book, which is the California gardener’s bible, identifies what they optimistically label “deer-resistant plants.” These are generally aromatic plants (think rosemary and lavender), bulbs, and plants with sticky or furry leaves. Deer also steer clear of nightshades (unfortunately) since they are poisonous. Most gardening books will tell you that deer don’t eat camellias, azaleas, or rhododendrons, but apparently no one has told this to the deer (and they can’t read). Then there are the baby deer, who don’t know what they don’t eat yet. They figure it out by tasting. So once I planted Icelandic poppies, which deer actually don’t like. I have seen grown deer point at Icelandic poppies and make fake gagging sounds. Baby deer, however, see the Icelandic poppies and say, “pretty, let’s have a taste.” They bite off the flower and then spit it out. Then they leave a note asking you not to plant any more of those things, which is moot, since the poppies are already ruined because, let’s face it, you don’t grow poppies to look at decapitated stems.

When I moved off the Ranch (where I had a fenced vegetable garden), the first thing I did was fence my back yard. The deer can get into my front yard, but not my back yard. So I have a back yard full of fruit trees. The deer decimated my fruit trees at the Ranch. Now, instead of battling deer, I get to fight off peach leaf curl, shot-hole fungus, marauding woodpeckers, and flying mutant vegan velociraptor rexes. But the natural world is astonishing and by observation people have discovered many useful things about our fellow creatures on the planet. There are organic nontoxic simple counter-measures. Clove oil stops peach leaf curl. Woodpeckers are afraid of shiny mylar strips. Squirrels hate moth balls. My mole chaser (a pole with a rattly windmill on the end) wards off moles and gophers. Straight vinegar (no chaser) kills weeds. Sluggo for snails and earwigs. Copper spray for mold on the apple trees. Neem oil for tomato horn worms and white flies. And on and on. How amazing that we figured out these remedies. If we keep going, we could probably figure out a simple natural remedy for every disease that plagues humans.

So what is really eating my vegetables and what surprising trick can I use to get rid of it? Maybe it’s more than one critter devouring my garden. It could be tag-team decimation; like the rabbits start and then caterpillars take over halfway when the rabbits get exhausted. Or maybe the birds duked it out with cabbage worms to decide who would get to chow down on my goodies. We are all competing for a piece of the vegetable pie and the biggest creature doesn’t necessarily win. It’s disconcerting to be outsmarted by a caterpillar who didn’t even take the Mensa Test. Sigh. In spite of it all, I get perverse pleasure out of pretending to be a gardener. All the aggravation is worth it when a surprising crop of extraordinary cantaloupes bursts out of nowhere, the plum tree goes berserk, a zucchini plant goes wild, or the joyous fragrant basil (steady as a rock, every summer, there is always basil) is as tall as my waist. For all the rest, the food I try and fail to grow, the food I can’t grow to save my life, the food I dream of growing; for all that, thank goodness for the farmers and growers who sell at the Farmers Market and the natural foods store. Bless the hands that bring us our food.

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