Before we moved to Tolland last summer, I had lived my entire life in a series of medium sized cities. Like many of my generation, my perceptions of life in a forested area were heavily influenced by the idealized descriptions of the “back to the land” movement of the 60’s, James Herriot, and a large dose of Disney.
Of course here in Tolland, we are all at least close to (if not in) a forest pretty much all of the time.
I love many things about the forest.
Many of the woodland creatures almost live up to the romantic expectations I grew up with. I love having dozens of birds visit the bird feeder outside our dining room window every day. Some are frequent visitors, like our cardinal pair. The male has an oddly receding crest, with one ragged remnant of a feather draped over his head like an avian comb-over. We have red-bellied woodpeckers, that the kids call “punk birds” with their impossibly bright neon-pink caps. (Their bellies, however, are quite white. Go figure.) The sparrows and chickadees flock to the feeder like a Black Friday crowd at Wal-Mart, while the lovely but finicky goldfinches only appear when the feeder meets their exacting standards, like some bird-version of a Downton Abbey place setting. It was still a thrill to the whole family last winter whenever we spotted a deer in the yard or even just on the side of the road.
I love the smell of the rain in the forest. I love watching the leaves in the wind and listening to their rustles and whispers. I love the deep dark forests of Anthony Road and the lighter woods off Buff Cap and Old Cathole Roads. And today I loved driving down Tolland Stage Road, surrounded by woods with the faintest September touch of color and Glen Gould playing Bach on the radio.
But when I turned the corner to our street, a pair of brown rabbits flit across the grass and suddenly I morphed into a raging Elmer Fudd, contemplating the probable consequences of turning them into roadkill.
Because among the living things I love are the vegetables in my garden.
We were not unaware that gardens here had been known to have problems with marauding herbivores.
I had watched the fence on my neighbor’s garden grow taller every few weeks all last summer. What started as a quaint white picket fence a foot high acquired successive layers of scrap lumber, netting, wire, and eventually metal panels until by fall the garden defenses had acquired a decidedly military cast.
I had noticed the plethora of products at the garden supply store that claimed to repel deer – and that none of them guaranteed it.
I listened while my friend described the lovely hanging tomato plant she hung on her porch last summer. It grew beautifully and produced lovely tomatoes – at the perfect height for impromptu al fresco dining experiences for the local deer.
Undeterred, I browsed the gardening catalogs over the winter, and lusted for home-grown broccoli and cauliflower that could never survive our old California climate. I imagined pumpkins on the vine and winter squashes thriving among the staples of zucchini, tomatoes, and beans. Maybe we would even dare to attempt brussel sprouts. No matter how many sprouts we prepare, the last few brussel sprouts are always the subject of intense bargaining at our Thanksgiving table. So, on the traditional Memorial Day weekend, we put in a garden.
We thought we had more than adequately prepared for any wandering fauna that may think our little project was their personal salad bar. My husband put up a six foot fence of deer netting strung between tall stakes pounded deep in the ground. Pounding the stakes required us to remove what seemed to be several tons of rocks, which we used to line the bottom of the fence so there was no gap between the netting and the ground.
For a while it seemed to work. The peas ripened early. Most of them never made it out of the garden (my son loves fresh peas right out of the pod). I granted him absolution, as children eating vegetables is not something I can bring myself to discourage. The broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts grew tall and lush.
The bugs arrived shortly after the peas. The birds were utterly uninterested in helping with this problem, and exposed themselves as the shameless free-loaders they are. I was not at all reticent about destroying bugs. I stomped them, I washed them off, I sprayed them with goo that promised to be safe and effective (I suspect you can have one or other, but not both), and we fought to a draw. The broccoli and cauliflower barely survived, and we were able to harvest and eat those, but the brussel sprouts didn’t make it.
While the Battle of the Bugs was being fought, the pumpkin sprouted and started to snake across the garden plot, with an errant leaf or two vining through the garden netting. The zucchini exploded over the garden as only zucchini can, and the butternut squash finally decided to grow. The yellow and orange blossoms appeared every morning through the window, indicating that things were progressing nicely.
We ate the first tomatoes and zucchini in mid-August. The first small butternut squashes appeared on the vines. The pole beans gave up trying to reach cruising altitude and started to bear, and even the cucumber vines produced misshapen little fruits that should be good for pickling.
Then one day the pumpkin plant was gone. One lonely stem and a few forlorn leaves lay limply on the dirt. The fence was getting a little saggy and a small animal (a rabbit, I darkly surmised) had gotten to it. The pumpkin was planted at the far edge of the garden, so we pulled the netting a little tighter around the poles. We put up a scarecrow just in case it might help. It was an old decoration we had in the basement - a smiling little girl doll stuffed with straw. I suspect that intimidating large animals may not be in her skill set.
The butternut squash started to proliferate. It sprawled over the old brussel sprout beds and headed into the pumpkin patch. It grew over the pea pod trellis. It pushed at the bottom of the fence and sent tendrils through the netting. We found little baby butternut squashes everywhere as we carefully picked through the giant leaves that covered over half the garden.
Then one day last week the entire middle section of the butternut squash disappeared. A few desiccated stems remained where the lush, almost tropical vines with their elephant ear leaves had carpeted the ground. A few disparate leaves were scattered randomly in the mud. We found two surviving squash, but they no longer had vines attaching them to the ground. Our local Bambi must have missed them in her rampage – perhaps she had to burp or something.
So the burning question now is, how to save what’s left? The tomatoes, zucchini, beans, carrots, and the little pickling cukes?
My initial reaction to all this wanton destruction was to save the garden by inflicting massive violence on any deer or rabbits I could find. But the small, squeaky voice of the logical side of my brain realizes there are problems with that approach. Being logical, it compiled a list.
- I have no idea where the deer and bunnies are.
- I do not own any kind of weapon.
- I could not hit the broadside of a barn if I did have one.
- If I did hit something, I would have no idea what to do with it (probably panic and in any case the kids would hate me forever for shooting Thumper and Bambi).
- I have to go to work, sleep , occasionally use the bathroom, and take care of a household. This cuts into garden guarding time considerably.
Logic has all these depressing reasons, but the raging Elmer Fudd in me mutters with the kind of venom I heard from my teenage son’s video games – the parts he turned off when he heard me coming down the hall.
So Elmer and logic compromised.
Next year, we are not messing around with the little deer netting from the garden store – next year we start off with military surplus, and work our way up from there.
Because after all, with a big enough fence (or armored bunker, if that is what it takes) maybe I can go back to my idealized visions of life in the forest, garden and all.