Gardening: The road to hell

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You know how they say a Republican is a Democrat who’s been mugged? You don’t? Well, I guess they don’t say that so much anymore. But they used to. Honest. And, in that same vein, but perhaps without that same pithy concision, a killer is a pacifist who’s had her tomatoes eaten by a chipmunk.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the aphorist in the family, but I need you to look past style and consider substance. Gardening brings out the killer in all of us.

This has been a tough year for our garden. Which should come as no surprise, since every year that you try and eke vegetables out of the Carver coarse sand that passes for topsoil around here is a tough year.

It’s been worse than usual, though, this time. It started with some kind of mysterious insect infestation that nibbled every single collard and pepper plant I put in all the way down to the stem. Half of the eggplants went, too, before we resorted to chemical warfare. By “we,” I mean Kevin, who waits until I am away and then pulls out the weapons of mass destruction. I know better than to ask questions.

Then we got a relentless heat wave in July, and our potato plants just turned brown and keeled over. They’re enjoying a bit of a resurgence now that the weather’s cooler, but the other day I found that some of their leaves had been eaten, and there was mysterious poop the color, size, and shape of unripe raspberries in the raised bed. Can anyone help ID the varmint?

I cannot believe I'm posting a picture of poop

I cannot believe I’m posting a picture of poop

Our one bright spot was the hoophouse. And ‘bright’ probably overstates the case – it is merely slightly less dark. A stinkbug army wreaked havoc in the cucumbers (until I went away again), but the peppers and eggplants are big and lush. The fruit-to-foliage ratio is distinctly sub-optimal, but it’s such a relief to see a plant thrive that I don’t even care much.

And then there are Kevin’s Roma tomatoes. We get our seedlings from our friend Christl, and so our plants start their lives with every advantage. She delivers them in May, hardy and full, and we generally manage to get ourselves a decent tomato crop. This year’s Romas, though, are the biggest, fullest plants we’ve ever grown. And by “we,” I mean Kevin.”

Tomatoes in the hoophouse.

Tomatoes in the hoophouse.

He planted three of them in the hoophouse, and used a system of clips and ropes suspended from the hoophouse ribs, to trellis them. They are a good eight feet tall now. Although, as always, we’d like to see more fruit and less foliage, there are enough tomatoes on the vines that we look on them with satisfaction.

About a week ago, we saw the first blush. Every day, a little less green, a little more red. It took about five days to go from a tinge of pink to an all-over red. It was a day away from ripe, and you know where any gardening story that contains the phrase, “it was a day away from ripe,” is going.

It’s going to bring out the killer in all of us.

In this case, it was chipmunks we were going to kill. Because some chipmunk had figured out that he could live the life of Reilly in our hoophouse, safe from hawks and owls, sheltered from the rain, and with plenty to eat. We caught him on the Varmintcam, snacking on our almost-ripe tomato. Because the plants were suspended from the ceiling, the stripey little bastard could just climb right up.

Chipmunk, caught in the act -- see the tail hanging down?

Chipmunk, caught in the act — see the tail hanging down?

Kevin set a rat trap and baited it with peanut butter, and thus did Reilly meet his end.

In general, I don’t like having to kill things that eat my food, or my food’s food, but I make a special exception for hornworms. I take a very particular satisfaction in tossing a big succulent hornworm on to the driveway and watching the chickens tear it to pieces. (It’s only the cute furry things I prefer that Kevin kill.)

Hornworms are definitive proof that there is no god. No omnipotent being with a shred of decency would allow the existence of a giant worm that eats tomato plants and looks exactly like the leaf of the plant it is eating, unless it served some higher purpose like being delicious in its own right or being able to solve the cold fusion problem. Although I haven’t eaten one, I’m willing to wager that hornworms are not delicious, and I know for a fact that cold fusion is well beyond their capabilities. Hornworms are destructive and diabolical and disgusting.

And so it is that gardening, far from being the peace-loving pastime of Birkenstock wearers everywhere, is an activity guaranteed to engender burning hatred of one’s fellow creatures. Today, you’re trapping chipmunks and destroying hornworms. Next thing you know, you’re annexing Kuwait.

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Comments

  1. I have an organic pesticide recipe that either worked well for us or was coincidentally applied just as the pests were leaving anyway. I can send it to you if you think it might be worth experimenting with.

    • Ursula — Send it along! And let me know how it continues to work for you — a couple more applications should establish whether it’s that coincidence you mentioned.

  2. Tamar, you had me giggling all the way through. I can so relate. I’ve had hornworms aplenty this year on my tomatoes. We feed them to the lizards though, as we have no chickens. And lately my lime tree, fondly named Margarita, has some sort of infestation on the new leaves. Ugh. It truly is a battlefield.

  3. One year quite a while ago I had a large garden that I had just spent two days weeding to perfection. It was splendid, everything just starting to produce.
    Woke up the next day to a disaster, a vegetable desert, mowed down in their prime.
    So I sat, steaming, and waited. And watched and waited.
    Till a very fat groundhog showed up, waddled over to my green beans, and started nibbling on my hard work.
    I shot him right through the screen in the back porch. Bulls eye.
    The story is still being told. I think I was a vegetarian at the time.

    Since that time I’ve decided eating a few of my plants is not a hanging offense. The bears get their share of apples and blueberries. The birds get the cherries well before we even try. I do have a deer fence and rabbits aren’t a problem.

    But this has been a tough garden year. My tomatoes are pathetic and I’d pull them up except the poor things are giving out a meager crop. Garlic crop was great, potatoes, well, I planted about 15 pounds and dug up 20. Onions are very good and carrots are fine. The haricot verts are lovely. The radishes would not radish and the spinach was sad. Lettuce was fine. Basil ok. Parsley spectacular.

    I have just realized that I no longer like weeding. Not when the weeds can grow six inches in a day.

    • Through the screen, eh? I like the picture of you with the gun, waiting for the groundhog. I picture you in pajamas.

      Thanks for the story, and good luck with the garden!

  4. I just have to ask, and this is not a judgement, does anyone know if it is illegal to kill a chipmunk?

    Several years ago a minister I knew did a service on much the same topic Tamar just touched on, the chipmunks that turned her into a killer. Several people in the service told her that they were native creatures, there is no open season on them and to kill them, to even trap and release them is illegal.

    Half my friends are breaking the law if this is true.

    • I looked it up — in Massachusetts, you’re allowed to hunt chipmunks all year (except during deer season). Whether you’re allowed to rat-trap them isn’t clear, but I’m assuming the environmental police won’t come calling. If they do, it’ll be a hell of a story!

  5. So google says that’s rabbit poop. Who knew? I didn’t. Appears they poop two types of poo and that’s one of them. Amazing what you learn. Amazing what one can google!

    • I’m not saying it isn’t rabbit poo, but it doesn’t look like any sort of rabbit droppings I’ve ever seen.
      We have a pet rabbit (groan) and a bunch of wild ones, who don’t yet know their ear-marked for the pot.

      • omg, I wrote “their” instead of “they’re”. So much for that 25 years of edumacation.

        • Rebecca — Thanks for the ID! (Confirmed by Paula, below.)

          Kingsley — It happens to all of us, edumacation be damned. And enjoy those rabbits.

  6. Aha! So that’s what it looks like!

    Further to the rabbit poop comment, I read in my Raising Rabbits (Storey Publications) that rabbits have to be allowed bedding that will disallow their night poop (for that is what that is) to fall through the bottom of their pens because, and I am not making this up, they have to be able to eat it because it is an important source of nutrition for them. Evidently they don’t digest it all the way the first time around, but this could explain why, after the second time around, that rabbit poop is the only manure you can put on your garden ‘hot’ and not have it burn your plants.

    I can’t help but feel that it looks like it was made by little tiny green Hulks, though.

    • Paula — I followed up, and found out that those are cecal pellets — as opposed to fecal — and are indeed supposed to be eaten. But I can’t help but like the tiny green Hulk theory.

  7. Regarding the “some kind of insect infestation” …

    I recently got a mini-greenhouse. Ostensibly it was to protect the various seedlings from my wife’s chooks.
    The chooks would nip the top off all the seedlings so just a stalk was left.

    So I started raising seedlings in the green house. The bloody seedlings were still nipped off.
    It wasn’t chooks or insects, and the only openings in the house were a few gaps around the door.

    So that only leaves only … mice? Something that could climb up the table legs.

  8. Amen, sister, WRT hornworms. The bluejays generally take care of the small ones in my garden, but they leave murdering the horrific 4- and 5-inchers to me. I’m always happy to oblige. Recently, I had an infestation of fuzzy poisonous IO moth caterpillars that even the birds won’t touch. The greyhound likes to rub his face on the shrubbery (I don’t know why), so the IOs and I went to scissor-war. 

    I tolerate some threats to my veggies, but threats to the hounds mean somebody’s going to be dismembered. To hell with pacifism. :-)

  9. I can’t stop laughing. Sitting at my desk, chortling. Remembering last summer, when my gentle, pacifist husband was ready to resort to truly horrific violent measures just to have ONE pepper, tomato or watermelon ripen before the chipmunks got it.

  10. This was so funny! I can relate :) We had a rooster show up at our hen house one day. We had no idea where he came from and we went around the neighborhood asking if he belonged to anyone. No one wanted to claim him. My husband had taken a liking to him but I wasn’t too sure. I heard how mean roosters can be and he was upsetting my hens. The next day I went out to the coop a couple hours after letting the hens out and my favorite girl was laying in the dirt covered in blood. That damn rooster had violently raped her! I was so mad! We tried to catch him, but it was like watching the three stooges. Finally my neighbor offered to shoot him. I was sold. It only took one shot from across the yard and he was no longer a threat. Usually I am very sad when something has to die, even for the survival of another, but I was happy as a clam that this trouble making rooster was gone!

  11. Can totally relate. We are not gardeners. Completely gave up on garden this year and planted blackberries and raspberries. We CAN raise fruit, tho all the early stuff froze, have a beautiful crop of apples, pears and Italian prunes. The BIRDS are beginning to peck the apples. A first!!!! And did you know that chickens are immune to whatever makes Rhubarb leaves poisonous?? Yep. Had to surround with a small mesh security fence. On a similar note, a friend watched a rockchuck CLIMB his apricot tree to eat them. Did not know they climbed trees…. Needless to say, his .22 rifle got some exercise :-)

  12. Great story, and I can absolutely relate.

    It’s also a great example of something else, speaking of aphorisms. Most (many? some?) of us have heard the saw, “the thing that sets us apart from the ‘lower’ animals is our opposable thumbs.”

    I disagree. I belive the thing that most sets us apart from the other animals is our ability to justify and rationalize our actions. Nothing is so inconstant as personal ethics.

    I have a very dear friend up in the Santa Cruz mountains outside of San Francisco. She’s a true Dead Head, going back to the beginnings, and one of the most peaceful, tolerant people I have ever met. She is deeply dedicated to native habitat, and has worked tirelessly (and selflessly) around California to restore and protect native species. On her own place, she accepts wildness as a whole, minimizing her own footprint (we all have to live somewhere, but none of us has to live EVERYwhere). Rattlesnakes, lions, coyotes, bears… she welcomes them all, and only interferes when they become an immediate danger. As long as they are native.

    There’s a hard line that comes up when it comes to non-natives, such as wild turkeys or feral hogs. When the subject comes up, you can actually see her features harden, that incredible tolerance dissolves in an inkling. While I still think she’d stop short of shooting them herself, she has no compunction whatsoever about bringing in a “hired gun” to kill the invaders.

    • We all have our breaking point. I will note that turkeys and feral hogs make mighty good eating — the hogs are one of my “moral meat” staples. Eating animals that are doing damage seems to be a big win.

      Thanks for the story.

  13. I don’t think it is rabbit poop: that looks like tomato hornworm poop to me. I want to say I am 100% sure, but I’ll leave some wiggle room.

    • Sabine, it’s hard to see the scale, but it’s too big for that (also too green, I think). It’s the size of an almost-ripe raspberry. If that’s a hornworm, it’s the hornworm from hell!

  14. I completely sympathize!! I just got back, this second, from a long overdue trip to buy rat poison. The little bastards have been overrunning my balcony garden- they started by eating a green tomato here and there and ended by completely chewing through the main stems of the gigantic tomato plants. (Thankfully they don’t seem interested in the peppers.) They seemed to be going after the pithy center of the stems. Who knew?? I’m not one to kill animals I’m not going to eat, and I hate cleaning of any sort, but it will bring me great joy to scoop up dead rat bodies in a day or two.

    • This year I have resorted to poisoning rats. I hate poisoning things, but first they ate all the green peaches, leaving only the stones on the tree. Then they ate my tomatoes before they could ripen. The capper was when they ate all the green apples off the tree. They wanted war, and they got it. There is no Geneva Convention for rats.

  15. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar,

    About growing tomatoes. If you already know this, forgive me but I had been growing tomatoes for several years before somebody told me.

    Inspect you plants regularly. When the side shoots have developed the plant puts out a new shoot in the “V” formed between the main stem and the side branch. Pinch these out and you will get more tomatoes and less foliage.

    You get two side benefits. Because this allows more air and light into the bush, the tomatoes ripen quicker and you get less problems with damp

    I have been very lucky with vermin this year. A stoat (a small but very efficient killing machine) made its burrow under my tool chest and I no longer have a problem with mice. Unfortunately, Tho’ I have been careful not to disturb it, I expect it to move out now it has had everything that is edible.

    • Mick, when your stoat decides to move on to greener pastures, perhaps you’ll give him my address. We love verminators around here — a barn owl did a very thorough job last year, but the critters have bounced back with a vengeance.

      Thanks for the tomato tip! We did do the shoot-trimming as the plants were growing, but we were not, perhaps, as assiduous as we might have been. Next year: fewer plants, better pruning.

      • Stephen Andrew says:

        Wait wasn’t I crazy last year for pruning my tomatoes? Lol or had I just lost all credibility by that point because I advised you put pantyhose over your melons? Very sorry about your gardening woes this year. I’m big into roses this year and tried to propagate about 10 cuttings. There’s ONE that hasn’t suffered a sure death. Gardeners are a social lot because we’re always looking for friends who can grow what we can’t help but kill. But I’m sure next year will be better…

  16. Hi Tamar,
    Well, since last I wrote you, I’ve moved to Manila, where my wife’s home awaited us. I’ve retired from teaching, although I’m doing some consulting on the side. So, my green thumb has started throbbing, wanting back into action. So far, I’ve contented myself with trimming and cleaning Palm trees, cutting down a few that threaten the integrity of a retaining wall, and putting a short border of rocks around freshly-thinned flower beds. However, I’ve started a kitchen waste compost pile, and cleared a Squatter’s garden on the adjacent vacant land (a common practice that seems like a victimless crime right now). I’ve also targeted some wood-eating ants, assessed the local termite situation, and decided which trees need to be removed (we have a stunted pair of Mango trees, a lime tree, and an avocado that need relief from the jungle trees that are towering above them. I’m going to be planting trees to replace the jungle, and I’m only removing the skinny, weed-like trees, but I certainly feel conflicted about being a settler in the jungle.
    Killing trees is not my favorite task, but I’m well equipped to handle most of these tasks, being raised on two farms. My grandfather had a 94 acre pig farm, where I used to work in the summers; and from there I would move to my Uncle Jeff’s dairy…remind me to tell you about my cousin Matthew, affectionately known as “shithead.” It was a great adventure for me, so I’m trying to get back to my roots (pun intended).
    Thanks for a timely article, and best wishes on a lousy garden.
    Best, Richard

  17. T

    What a great opening salvo, and aren’t blogs wonderful, I had no idea that Rabbits had ‘night poop’ Brilliant!
    SBW

  18. Peter Apps says:

    The hand grenade shape of the mystery poop is typical for caterpillar droppings. Do you have death’s head hawkmoths where you are ? Their caterpillars are one of the few things that live on potato leaves and they are impressively large, like the adults.

  19. My dad, the masters in weird biology guy says it is indeed the mother of all Hornworms and that is its poop. Too green and not irregular enough to be from a rabbit.

    Go google horworm poop images. That’s right, this group and my dad have me googling hornworm poop.

    What has my life come too? The next time I’m at a party and we have one of those awkward pauses I am sure to blurt out this astonishing information.

    Karen

  20. On the poop. The shape is very much like the hornworm poop I’m so intimately familiar with, but the size, the color, and the — what should I call it? — finish are wrong. Extrapolating from what a I know a 5-inch worm to excrete, this thing would be a foot long. Also, our hornworm poop is black, and it is firm and dry-looking, not loose and wet-looking.

    That said, it doesn’t look *exactly* like cecal pellets either.

    Perhaps it’s the demon spawn of a rabbit and a hornworm. (Peter, I’m not sure if we have the death’s head moth, but it looks like the larvae are about the size of hornworms, so I’d assume the poop would be similar.)

  21. Tamar, the low fruit:foliage ratio (termed “harvest index” by agronomists) with tomatoes is usually due to a nutrient excess. In other words, it’s possible you over-fertilized. I haven’t seen any data on this, but from seeing (and growing) a range of tomato types (cultivars, indeterminate vs. determinate) across varied climates and soils (CA Central Valley, New England, Michigan), it seems that using indeterminates varieties (though most Roma-types are determinate…) with a lot of organic matter amendments like manure, coupled with plenty of water, give luxuriant growth and few fruit. Once had tomato vines growing up to the second story window, because I had, at the time, thought dumping a few loads of composted sheep bedding would improve fruit yield. Ha!

    Sorry to hear about your sand soil. Fortunately, you have the lesser of two extremes. Heavy clay soils (80%+) is impossible to amend and work, whereas sandy soil can be leveled up, and it will always be a workable texture. You should consider adding an amendment that could exchange the cation-exchange capacity (CEC- evidence biochar can work for sandier soils) and water-holding capacity (increasing soil organic matter content, though it seems you already do this).

    • Andrew, I’m conflicted about people like you. On the one hand, I am extraordinarily grateful for gardening help from someone who’s clearly knowledgeable in way I don’t suppose I will ever be. On the other hand, it sure does make me feel like a shlub!

      I think you may be right about the excess of nutrients. Kevin is fond of PlanTone, and a fair amount went into the hoophouse. Next year, we’ll be a bit more discriminate.

      I do thank you for making me feel better about my Carver coarse sand! We work it, every year, and hope to build up something resembling fertility before hellf reezes over. We’ve added a lot of organic matter, but I’ll look into biochar. (And this seems a reasonable place to confess that it was only last year I figured out that ‘cation’ wasn’t pronounced like ‘vacation.’)

      Thanks for weighing in!

  22. Hi Tamar, to help live off the land I have just started selling my own honey. Proceeds will be reinvested in vegetable seeds and more hives. :-)

  23. Strictly speaking, you have proved only that God, if He exists, cares nothing for gardeners.

  24. Oh, bother as a certain bear would say. We have solutions to horn worms, and similar pests, as well as chipmunks and squirrels.

    The insect types get munched by the chickens and ducks. The trick is to run the poultry through quickly. They’re more interested in the high protein and lipid filled snacks of pests than the plants once the plants are knee high. This works with most everything except peas and beans combined with ducks – a no-no combination.

    We have no squirrels and virtually no chipmunks because they’re such tasty snacks. Our dogs double team them, one dog driving the prey to the other. This has also eliminated coon, most mice and voles, etc from our near area.

    • Walter, it’s a testament to your farming skill that everything works out up there in the Sugar Mountain ecosystem. If I ran the place, the dogs would eat the chickens, the squirrels would eat the tomatoes, and the hornworms would eat the pigs.

      I’m fascinated by the dogs’ cooperative hunting. I know coyotes and wolves do it, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I would have thought that ability was domesticated out of them.

      • Accidental Mick says:

        I don’t think dogs have lost the ability to co-operate it’s that we generally don’t let enough of them live together to become a genuine pack. (Don’t be frightened off by the negative connotations we have given to the term pack. A pack of wolves, hyenas or hunting dogs are each very hierarchical, social and protective of each other and their communal young.)

        As they cannot talk, they have to live pretty close so that they can predict each others reactions.

        A little while back Jen (the queen of gamekeepers) posted that her dogs were showing protective behavior towards her spaniel, Podge, while she was pregnant.

        • Mick is right. Our dogs live in a large pack, working here on our farm doing livestock guarding and herding. I’ve observed that dogs in a natural pack situation are different than the singles who live in human homes without that pack interaction.

          Cooperation is a fundamental part of their work, both with us and with each other. Additionally, ours have been raised in this pack for many generations so behaviors get passed down from generation to generation. Their work is partially based on instinct, part on the training the older generation gives the next generation and part on training I give.

          As Mick says, the pack is a very positive thing. It is their society and passes on their lore.

  25. This was an excellent post, I laughed all the way through

  26. I also become homicidal when rabbits breech the fences and eat my vegetables. My cauliflower seedlings didn’t even last the night after planting them, poor things. The broccoli was gone the next night. If we weren’t within city limits I’d already have an air gun and know how to use it. Our peaceful, organic, electric lawn mower-owning neighbors at our old house did get one. They had a huge vegetable garden and lots of flowers and were tired of losing so much to the rabbits. The wife would herd the rabbits toward her husband and he’d pick them off. When we get a dog one of these days I’ll have to make sure it’s a rabbit hunter.

    • Patti Drier says:

      I highly recommend a good, well bred farm type rat terrier for rodent control. Even if they do not catch/kill the varmints, they hassle, chase and generally torment them into leaving for a place less patrolled. We had farm dogs, (1940’s &1950’s) lived outside, they also worked in pairs. If they got something cornered where they could not get at the rodent one dog kept guard and the other found a person who could help. There are different types of rat terriers now. But they all need to be kept inside during hot/cold weather. Besides their down time is usually spent on someones lap! We have one of the smaller types now, (not the smallest type) and for being a house dog before we got her, her instincts went into overdrive when she got here. This particular rattie will not kill anything. But the chipmunks have left, and there are fewer squirrels raiding the bird feeder.

  27. Tamar and Kenvin, the oysters were a big hit at the bake! Tomato hornworm poop, not green truffles . Pick the tomatoes just before perfect ripness and color and let the become perfect in the house. All ammimals know the exact time of fruit and veggie perfection and then attack. Outsmart them by being a couple of days early.Christine and Thomas