Wildlife Encounters


I’ve posted before on this blog about the attraction of wildlife tracking in the garden.  Garden wildlife, I noted then, reminds me of teenagers – the critters eat distressingly huge meals then typically leave without communicating about what they have been up to or what their plans are. Reading the tracks is the only way to learn what the animals are doing (would that this worked with teenagers).

I had a notable encounter of this kind this past month.  Something was stomping the plants in my garden.  And for a change it wasn’t careless human visitors.

Over my many years as a horticulturist, I’ve grown accustomed to wildlife attacking my plants, though more often in the form of slugs, beetles and caterpillars nibbling holes in the leaves or even, as in the case of cutworms, decapitating whole seedlings.  On the whole, I find myself better able to tolerate mammalian invaders because, although their individual appetites are far greater, they are also easier to exclude.  A welded wire fence keeps the bunnies at bay.  (By the way, am I the only one who even as a child rooted for Mr. McGregor?  As far as I’m concerned, Peter Rabbit got off lightly.)  A solar-powered electric fence that administers mild shocks deters the deer very effectively, at least in my very rural neighborhood.

Whatever it was that was stomping my plants seemed to find the fence to be no impediment, however.  I was stumped (not stomped, fortunately) until my wife Suzanne found a trail of huge double-hooved tracks.  A quick look at my Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks revealed that we had acquired a garden moose.

We had seen moose on our property before.  Once, my wife had seen a bull moose with a big rack of antlers in our beaver pond, and on another occasion I had spotted what seemed to be a young male on our dirt road.  The tracks in the garden weren’t distinct enough to identify this visitor as anything other than an adult – almost 6 inches long, the footprints were big enough to blanket the whole heart of a lettuce or Napa cabbage.  Judging from the path it had followed, this moose seemed not to be eating in the garden, just stumbling around squishing things.

The visits continued — I assumed that the long-legged moose was stepping over the fence — until one night when our dog, who was sleeping by an open window, exploded with a fusillade of barks.  This, apparently the moose did not like, for the next morning we found the electric fence torn off its poles where the moose had, it seemed, exited at high speed.

It has not returned since.  I don’t miss the damage to our garden, though I do regret the sense of contact with the wild that the moose brought.  Now that the blackfly season has passed, I may take my tracking guide and make an expedition into the nearby swamp, to see if I can find evidence of the moose on his or her home ground.  I’ll try not to stomp any plants.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Yes, must admit wild life in the garden is always amazing. To see a large animal close up and watch its behavior is really important.
    We had a black bear in our meadows last week. He was silent, just sniffing the air; completely ignored us or didn’t smell us. We were about 20 feet from him at one point.
    We have several mulberry trees which is what brings wild life from all sides, yet we live just two miles from a busy shopping center and traffic.

  2. Do you live in the Northwest to see those moose? In my New Jersey woods, I get so many deer that new dogwoods no longer survive, and the deer eat all the chanterelles from my secret patches. Saw a coywolf not long ago but it is impossible to photograph them, I think because they are so sly and quick. I wouldn’t have recognized it, but I had recently seen a PBS special about them.
    Perhaps the most amazing was the albino deer I had for several years, but suddenly it stopped coming. I hate to think. All this makes you feel at one with nature.

    • Actually, I garden in southwestern Massachusetts, in southern Berkshire County. The wildlife is rebounding in an amazing way in southern New England.

    • Mimi, I live in Oregon, and while there are moose in the northeast part of the state, in most other spots it’s elk that we see here in the northwest.

      We had a piebald deer in our neighborhood for a couple of years. It’s markings were like an Apaloosa horse’s, with white spots. It gave birth to another piebald, and then we never saw them again. I also hate to think (despite the damage they do). Cycle of life, and all that.

  3. It’s funny how I garden for one particular type of wildlife, but then am upset when other wildlife eats the gardens, removing feed for the wildlife I want. I growl at the rabbits and chipmunks that eat my sunflowers because the sunflowers are meant for goldfinches.

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