Patience With the Experiment

Future perfect

Though gardeners are supposed to put down roots, I’ve made an awful lot of vegetable gardens in the last decade. When I first bought a weekend place in the country, I made a garden right behind the house. It worked well in high summer, but my fall crops did nothing. When the sun got lower in the sky in late summer, shade from some giant white pines, even though they were at a considerable distance, became a problem.

So I made another garden, in a fertile boggy sunny spot which I loved and which was perfect in every way, as soon as I figured out I needed to spend one muddy April on my belly in a trench, nailing cage wire to a fence to keep out the groundhogs.

Then I helped make a first garden at my daughter’s elementary school. We were given a spot on the east side of the school, and once again, shade turned out to be a problem, in this case, a sheet of afternoon shade cast by the building. So we moved the garden to a better corner of the schoolyard, to a spot that had the worst soil I’d ever seen in my life–lifeless sand compacted by 80 years of traffic by small feet into cement. Yet in year three, after two years of intense application of city-provided compost and this year, a more casual sprinkling of second-cut hay, that garden is beautiful.

Last year, I decided my weekend garden in the country was no longer working for me, since my kids’ various interests no longer allowed us any freedom on Saturdays. So I made a new garden in the city, just by wheelbarrowing city compost over my sod. New garden, new troubles. I’d never seen  seedlings eaten off by cutworms before. Seedlings I’d babysat for months in the basement. The only proper reaction is operatic–hair tearing, arm waving, anguished shrieking.

I seem to have solved that puzzle by mulching heavily last fall.  Apparently, cutworm moths like to lay their  eggs in grass and weeds, not on a blanket of maple leaves.

But my garden has other irritations. I sat on my screened porch this year and watched a squirrel just casually lift out a lemongrass plant I’d  rooted and pampered for months in a sunny window.  The squirrel carried it up a tree–and then five minutes later came back for the other lemongrass plant.  (What is it about lemongrass?  It’s also the only plant in my garden that my dog likes to eat.)

Now that I’ve seen that performance, I think I understand a few other crime scenes, including a young gooseberry plant found half-dead beside its empty hole.

I’ve also noticed a lack of germination in the garden that puzzled me. It wasn’t until I planted my pole beans and saw that the ones on the lawn side of the arches were fine, while the ones in the garden were nowhere to be seen, that I realized squirrels were responsible here, too: They were eating my seeds.

I don’t know what the answer to this question is. My husband and my kids like to set up targets in the country and shoot at them for fun. But they have yet to do anything violent or useful with their weapons. And this is a city. I think if we tried to shoot squirrels here, we’d be arrested.

Also, I’ve been shocked to realize how pernicious the influence of the Norway spruces on the north side of the garden are. Thanks to the greed of their roots, the second half of the garden barely limps along. Potatoes seem fine. Other crops just don’t quite work.

In other words, I’ve been a vegetable gardener for 20 years, but nonetheless, I currently have some very serious problems.

But I also have faith: by improving my timing and tinkering with simple tools such as mulch, water, compost, fencing–and our fantastic local tree removal guy–I’ll get it right eventually.

I’d like to give that information to beginners. Vegetable gardens take a few years to figure out.  Have patience. They tend to be halting at first, and then they are ridiculously beautiful and productive.


  1. I was once frustated this one year when I kept losing my Sweet Corn in the furrows. There was this little tiny hole where the seeds had been but no seed. I had alwats presoaked all my seed also to give it that headstart, so I knew they should have quickly appeared. Those holes though and what was doing it was a mystery. Was it happening at night when I was in bed ? But why no tracks or digging around the tiny hole ?

    I kept on replanting after replanting and the same thing. Finally one early morning I saw what was doing the dirty work. It was our ground loving foraging birds California Towhees. I thought, Those ittle turds. But I still like them though as they also mill around for critters that would otherwise feed on my garden and I would still chase the cat away when he was attempting to stalk them. Needless to say we had no corn that year. But they never did come back any year after that and make a repeat.

    I guess that is what makes gardening a fun challenge. It’s never the same year after year.


  2. What Kevin said, about how it’s never the same year after year! I’ve been gardening for decades, and farming for 20 of those, and I have a mantra (actually, it holds for most life situations too): “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect”.

  3. Chickenwire everything! I battle birds, squirrels, and f&#@%*%# gophers. I make chickenwire baskets to keep the gophers out of roots. I also use hoop tunnels made out of 6″ welded wire concrete reinforcing mesh which I then cover wire chickenwire. Big ones for garden rows, small ones for the nursery flats in which I start seed. I once left the hoop off of a nursery flat overnight by accident, and in the morning all the seedlings had been mowed down by the birds. I keep the plants protected until they are big enough to handle the abuse.

    WRT the hoop tunnels. I cut the stuff off of rolls three squares wide and however long and bend back the cut ends on one side to back hooks. So you have one long edge cut flush and the other long edge with the bent back hooks. You can then assemble those panels by hooking the hooks over the flush edge. Use as many as needed to get the size you want. When not in use, they can be broken down and stored as the nest easily. These can also be turned into tomato cages.

  4. In our neck of the woods the main culprits are rabbits and squirrels. Of the two, I’d say squirrels are the worst. They have a prediliction for digging up all kinds of newly planted additions to the garden. My brother, also a gardener, has a fantasy where he shoots them and then puts their heads on stakes like they did in the Middle Ages as a warning to the others.

  5. Ok, maybe it’s not pc, but squirrels are rodents, as are chipmunks, and they can be caught in rat traps, basically just bigger mouse traps. Cruel, maybe. But after watching them destroy a veggie garden and do serious damage to new perennial beds for 3 years running, my heart hardened to their cuteness.

    • Where I live we’re dealing with Eastern Gray Squirrels; an invasive alien species. It’s PC to trap them.

      • Yeah, we have all kinds of fun with urban wildlife in Ballard – coons, possums and, of course gray squirrels. A family has decided that the attic makes a good home and has gnawed their way into it. We have to figure out how to evict that crowd. Our cats have a joint operating agreement with the coons and possums with their cat food, freely sharing its distribution center in the laundry room. We plant veg in raised beds which have worked out well. The worst problem we have thus far, besides the endless overhead watering (fungal diseases) is the cabbage moths. Don’t bother with corn; it’s coon candy.

  6. It’s always humorous to me that no matter our intentions or our effort, we’ll be reminded by the insignificance of our actions by nature, be it weather or squirrels or some other “Huh, I never thought that would happen” occurrence. It seems that the more I learn and experience the more I’m aware of all the things that can and do go wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t have selected such a humbling hobby in the first place, but it’s always worth it in the end.

    • Very nicely said! I came to the same conclusion after recovering from a temper tantrum over recent squirrel-inflicted carnage to my eggplants. Sometimes gardening makes me want to tear my hair out, but it’s still what I’d rather be doing pretty much any time of the day.

  7. We have a nickname for squirrels: baby wolves! They are my most hated pest. Wait till one gets into your house…..and they are very wily about traps. I will say my kids have all honed their sharpshooter skills though, thanks to the squirrels (we live in the country, far from neighbors)….

  8. I’ve been gardening for at least 30-40 years, counting working in my parents’ gardens as a kid, since we kids had a decent say in what happened there. Despite this experience, I’m seeing a regression in my veggie garden. Each year, the yield is lower, the plants less vigorous. I’ve had the soil tested, I’ve looked into whether I’m selecting the appropriate varieties, looked for signs of infestation & disease … My conclusion ? As the neighborhood matures around me, the neighbors’ trees have reached heights that block just enough sunlight each year to affect my crops. So instead of my ever-growing knowledge resulting in a better garden each year, I get closer & closer to lukewarm. Very disheartening.

    • I feel your pain! This same thing is happening to me, and I fear I may have to rearrange my entire landscape to accommodate a vegetable garden at this point. I often fantasize about neighboring trees contracting diseases necessitating their removal.

  9. Slingshots and pingpong balls work well against squirrels. They sting but don’t actually do damage. Paintball guns would probably work to discourage them as well.

    • I use marbles and a slingshot and all I have done is train the squirrels to travel under the cover of my retaining walls where I don’t have line of sight from my sliding glass door and scatter when they hear the sliding glass door.

  10. A bit of bird netting draped around will keep the crows and other birds off the newly planted seed, and while not squirrel-proof, will make them work harder for it. Also, bird netting is easy to pick up and pack away once the seedlings are big enough to be less appealing to birds and squirrels.

    It may sound crazy, but I’m careful not to sow peas or other large seeds while a crow is watching, since they’re crafty enough to understand what’s going on.

  11. It’s not the little critters that get me — it’s the deer. We finally decided to make PVC/bird netting cages for the peas and the beans. It’s the only way we get any.

  12. 2 words: community garden!

    I don’t know if it’s my area or the fact that there’s so much to choose from, but I rarely get squirrel predation at my plot. One year all my noncherry tomatoes had squirrel or bird bites, so I started planting different colors and more cherry tomatoes. Ever since, I’ve seen one bite in one tomato each year. And a couple years ago a volunteer sunflower had a flower head chewed off as soon as the seeds started to mature. Actually, the human predation is worse.

    I do have to protect seedlings from birds from Sept. to June, however. I lost my peas one year because I thought 4 ft. was tall enough to withstand predation. Within 2 days they’d been eaten down to bare stems. I’ve also observed the towhees kicking mulch around. One year they unearthed a couple potatoes I’d missed. Another year I spread compost, planted seeds, and whoever rummaged around that planting bed was delighted to get both worms and seeds. Ever since, I’ve put the compost out a couple days before seeding, then used row cover or hardware cloth to protect the seeds.

  13. This year has been the worst for my vegetable garden so far. Temps have been much higher than average. I’ve replanted the beans twice, the corn, cucumber, some of the peppers, broccoli and all the seedlings of leeks & onions fried to a crisp. I’ve since replanted all of these. Some of the potatoes haven’t yet germinated and some have rotted in the ground. Well water doesn’t seem to be the answer to germination only rain which has been in very short supply this gardening season. Its ironic as the field of corn across the road from me planted the first of may is almost chest high.

    I do think wildlife may be the culprit as I hear a lot of chipmunks but my faithful crew of cats are doing their best on them.

  14. A neighbor of mine likes to treat the squirrels as pets (bubonic plague and rabies carrying pets I would point out) and they bury their peanut treats anywhere they can–usually in my freshly planted beds, often destroying what I’ve planted. Of course they don’t eat the peanuts they “hide” and I find them later.

    Sometimes I dream of squirrel stew with a nice chianti.

  15. Your experience with the squirrel made me remember the year a morning (or is it mourning?) dove pulled up all my sunflower seedlings. It would jerk one up, look at it, throw it down unconsumed, and then repeat the process with the next in line. I think it was just being mean.

    My dog likes to eat the tips of verbena bonariensis, so it grows short and full instead of tall and wavy.

  16. i love this thread! i finally learned the 10% rule – just count on losing 10% every season to something, it greatly lessens the rage and heartbreak.

    for better and worse, i count on the garden changing every season – it’s the best classroom where i learn the most about myself and the natural world around us.

  17. I’ve got 2 walnut trees and a hazelnut (filbert) so I got squirrels. Plus the native oaks and my unreliable apricot tree they like to raid. My solution is my Jack Russel terrier who terrorizes the furry tailed rats. Let the squirrels land on the ground and he is off like a rocket in pursuit. Never catches any, but I know others who have Jacks and they say eventually they will catch and kill one. Nuff said. There are so many that they tease him by chucking at one end of the yard (1\2 acre) to the other and he relentlessly goes nuts. Keeps him in shape I suppose.

  18. I came here for consolation to my continual problems in the garden and I’ve found it!
    Thanks, all, for sharing your frustrations and continued comitment to keep gardening.
    It is a challenge we all seem to accept for living the way we want to live.
    I just came in from spreading powder chili pepper on two of my planters that have been eaten to stubs by a groundhog….yes, I plan to shoot him if I get the chance (We’re in the country) but I’m trying lesser remedies in the meantime, including netting the bottom four feet of my morning glory vine which was looking grand before he found it.

  19. love reading everyone’s experiences but would add a request. It would be helpful to know where you re gardening. could everyone add not necessarily zone but state or province and area therein. I think it would help in utilizing others experiences. Btw
    Barbara I’m southeastern Ontario.

  20. Squirrels require a strategic solution in the city. We live in Boston, and my backyard garden is surrounded by nosy neighbors, and kids cut through the yard daily. So shooting and kill traps are out of the question. I live trap, using a Havahart, and tell my neighbors I’m relocating the cute little guys (illegal in Massachusetts, $5000 fine and up to 2 years jail). Then I take the trap into my basement and pop them in the chest with a .22 pellet gun. So far my tally is 58.

    There are other benefits to this practice – I skin them every now and then, clean them up, and cook them. Brunswick stew, fried squirrel in gravy, etc. I know this is going to gross out 95% of your readers, but most Americans have forgotten how good squirrel tastes – my vote for best wild meat!

    Before everyone goes ballistic about disease, squirrels are not carrion eaters, have a lower incidence of rabies than even house pets (CDC website), and are not carriers of plague or Lyme. If you disagree, that’s your business, but if you post about it I won’t engage with you. Happy to talk urban foraging, though!

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