The Gardener Versus the Groundhog

What induces a man to retrieve old cat litter from the garbage and then wander outside under a darkening sky in his bare feet to stuff the mix in a hole in the ground? Garden rage, my friends. Plain and simple. Allow me to back up. When my wife and I returned to New Hampshire […]

By Ian Aldrich

Jul 15 2011

What induces a man to retrieve old cat litter from the garbage and then wander outside under a darkening sky in his bare feet to stuff the mix in a hole in the ground? Garden rage, my friends. Plain and simple.

Allow me to back up. When my wife and I returned to New Hampshire in 2009, after several years of living in the city—first Cincinnati, and later Boston—one of the first things we did with our new rural life was put in a vegetable garden. It wasn’t fancy or all that huge—just six midsize raised beds we made ourselves  and stocked with different mixes of tomato plants, lettuces, peppers, and squash.

Raised Beds
Raised Beds

We learned a lot that first year. Tomato blight, for example, moves at about the same speed as light. It’s not there, and then it is. Our un-trellised peas proved to be tangled mess, ready to consume whole body parts.  But the relative bounty got us hooked. We added a few new beds the following year, and then this spring tried to expand our pallattes further with additional heirloom varieties.

Success breeds the yearning for more, bigger success. Even a calming hobby like gardening can turn into a competition of sorts with yourself.  Yes, those Paul Robesons did do well last year, but that was so 2010. Let’s see what these Aunt Ginny’s Purple varieties will do. By year three, I’d moved way beyond gunning for a few nice summer salads. I wanted to construct a portrait of color, taste, and texture. By all fair estimates I’d become a gardening jerk.

The season this year began for us in late February when we ordered a heaping stack of garden catalogs.  A month later my wife and I got to work, sorting seeds, filling up starter cells, and coaxing these future plants into existence. Trays of plants took over our coffee table, which we moved next to a large south facing window. We played the meticulous parents. We watered daily, and carefully, with a hand sprayer, and rotated the trays regularly so the plants wouldn’t become too leggy and bend in one particular direction. By late May our new plants were securely in the ground, ready for a full growing season. By early June a good portion of the greens had been wiped out.

It was subtle at first. A few select nibbles here and there that I chalked up to some expected early season loss. The garden after all seemed secure. It was fenced in and over the past years weather, not critters, had offered up the biggest problems. Then, a week later I came home to a massacre. Two rows of salad mixes had been chewed down, the Black Seeded Simpson was virtually gone, even the arugula had proven to be popular. In another box, my wife’s treasured beets were but a memory. Same with the Swiss chard. Two tomato plants had also taken a hit, while the peas had been given a severe haircut, leaving us with just a series of short stumps.

Fence Defense
Fence Defense

I went into combat mode. Armed with a carpenter’s staple gun, I fired back, securing the perimeter fence more tightly to our raised beds. For further deterrence, I attached wind chimes to the pea trellises, and fastened a whole series of loosely tied tin pie pans to the garden fence, which flopped noisily when the wind kicked up. I was determined to have the loudest garden in southern New Hampshire.

But still the losses mounted. The buttercrunch lettuce went down without a fight. The radishes had obviously been tasty. Even the onions took a battering. I was dealing with a seasoned fighter. The invasion had been stealthy—there were no holes in the ground by our beds—but all signs pointed to a groundhog, a suspicion that was confirmed a few days later, when on a lunch break, I came home and found a smallish furry animal scampering across the garden and through the fence. He’d heard my car and gotten scared. Or, given the state of the free buffet, he was full.

At our local garden store I paced up and down an aisle of traps and various liquid concoctions. There was outright poison to consider, and I wondered how recession proof the fox pee gathering industry was. Finally, I settled on an organic mixture that could be sprayed directly on my plants. When I returned home I sprayed, and sprayed, and then sprayed some more. I should have kept the receipt. By the following afternoon, some of the lettuces I’d “protected” the most had become an early lunch.

Better fortification became my next strategy. I wrapped the base of the peas in some old plastic fencing, laid out a cluster of deer netting along the perimeter of one side the garden, and added taller, smaller gauge metal fencing along another side. In some sections of our gardens, places I had suspected to be the most vulnerable entry points, I had three layers of barricades. I had constructed a mini-prison yard. All that was missing were the snipers.

My defense didn’t stop just there, however. Perhaps during another, saner time of year, I would have thought twice about scrounging through some old garbage for a shovel-full of retired cat litter. But when a friend who’d waged his own battles with groundhogs suggested it as a deterrent—“they hate the smell,” he said confidently— I made my move. I had a pretty good target, a suspicious looking hole at the edge of our backyard, about 50 feet from our beds. Which is why, late on evening, I found myself happily stuffing clumps of litter, with a shovel mind you, into the ground. I used every last bit of what I had. If I had a hundred pounds of the stuff, it wouldn’t have been enough.

Did it work? I think so. By late June, my lettuce and tomatoes had recovered. The peas, too. And there had been no sightings of the groundhog. The fencing certainly didn’t hurt, either. There’s just one small issue: Our garden is nearly human proof as well.