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The Humble Gardener

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Big City Varmints


There is nothing quite as exciting for me as receiving inquiries from young people who are beginning their gardening lives. The one that's hardest to answer is what to do about varmints in the garden.

I never had problems with wild animals in the years that I have grown rural vegetable gardens. I encountered the occasional snake in my country garden, but it was just trying to make a living and didn't wreak havoc on the crop. I never saw any extreme damage or thievery that involved varmints until I moved to the big city, Galesburg, Illinois.

The first year growing a city garden, I stood admiring the bountiful sweet corn crop. My parents were coming to visit in a few days and I eagerly anticipated serving freshly picked corn to the two people who had gotten me started on gardening. Chip, a Galesburg native and gardener, advised me to pick the crop rather than leave it on the stalks. I demurred; I wanted it to be fresh picked. The next morning, I visited the garden and found no corn. Not one ear. A voice behind me commented, "Coons."

After planting three pear trees and two apple trees on our town property, Chip and I babied the trees along until finally blooms appeared and fruit soon after began to form. Our fledging apple crop was good, with the occasional bite from a marauding squirrel, which bothered me not in the least. It made Chip-a man who made his living caring for and loving animals- almost rabid. When I looked at the pear trees, I saw the reason for his reaction. They had been decimated. The pears had been picked, nibbled slightly, and thrown on the ground. The bees loved them, but it didn't help us make a crop when the pears were wasted by the squirrels.

War was declared. Chip hung plastic jugs in the trees. The squirrels pranced by and continued their destructive habits. Next came aluminum foil strips. Same result. Chip spent hours reading gardening magazines and books, trying to thwart the little bandits. Nothing worked. The search has gone on for years. Sometimes we get a few pears that the squirrels overlook, but most years we do the work and the beasts get the crop.

Last year, I saw Elizabethan collars on the three pear trees. These cone-shaped collars are put around animals' necks to prevent them from messing with stitches, etc. I knew Chip had some left over from his veterinary practice, and correctly surmised this was the next step in the squirrel war. And they worked. The squirrels could not get past the slippery things to get to the pears. Chip planned the pie filling and jam we would be making come pear harvest, his dreams finally realized. And dreams, indeed, they were. The collars thwarted the squirrels but served only as a bump in the road–er, trunk- for the coons who merrily stripped every pear from every tree.

Guess I should have planted sweet corn as a deterrent.

The dogs have done their job to deter squirrels. Their shrill yipping as they throw themselves against the pear trunks results in maniacal laughter from the squirrels above. When they aren't busy destroying the pears, they tease the dogs, driving them to canine madness. One year, by extreme good luck (not for the squirrel), the dogs caught an unwary fellow as it made a dash through the yard. There ensued a tug of war that caused a cacophony of sounds never heard by this city kid. Dogs yipped, the squirrel bellowed. Blood flowed from bitten canine nose and squirrel paws. I screamed for Chip to "Do something, for God's sake!" Apparently waiting for the fray to end wisely constitutes "doing something."

One of the dogs took a breath and inadvertently released the squirrel; the other dog quickly followed suit and the squirrel made a lopsided hobbling dash for the nearest tree. Everyone got veterinary emergency care and dog cookies (well, except the squirrel, who obviously needed some as it sat outside our window at 2:00 a.m. demanding medical assistance).

Until squirrel hunting is allowed in town, which I am pretty sure the neighbors will not support - they are barely over looking at milk jugs and Elizabethan collars hanging from our trees, I guess the varmint problem will continue. So, my wise and wonderful advice is to plan to share your crop with the animals. I have resigned myself to buying pears and only making apple pie filling from our trees. Chip hasn't given up the fight and spends hours on the Internet hoping for a solution. Sometimes the better part of gardening is to know when one is beaten. I say, "Let them eat pears", with heartfelt apologies to Marie Antoinette.


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