July 21, 2017

The Woodchucks Are Back

Marmota monax, aka woodchuck
(among many aliases)
Only slightly less predictable than the yearly return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano each March 19 is the mid-July annual pilgrimage of woodchucks to the Medfield Community Garden in Massachusetts.  Unlike the California event, tourists have yet to take notice of the east coast invasion by multiple members of the extended Marmota monax family, so there is still time to get a ringside seat.

While I had not circled the event on my calendar, I was not the least bit surprised to receive an email Thursday morning from one of the plot holders at the community garden that Betty and I manage.  The gardener, Heather, wrote, “When I arrived at the garden this morning there was a chubby woodchuck munching away in my neighbor's (Ed’s) garden. It looked like he went under the fence so it will need some repairs…”

My immediate response was to dash off a memo to each of the 75 gardeners who grows vegetables in the town-owned garden, reprinting Heather’s email, and warning everyone that the woodchucks (there are always more than one) would not be to content to eat just Ed’s vegetables. I warned he or she will follow their nose and seek out other, vulnerable gardens and will likely post reviews on Yelp!   That, in turn, generated a panicked response from Ed, who said he is on vacation, and asked if I could effect some of those emergency repairs.  I said I would do so.

Before I continue with this story, here is what humankind knows about woodchucks.  The first thing is that they have many aliases.  They have fake IDs identifying themselves as groundhogs, whistlepigs, marmots, and half a dozen lesser-known names.  They are endemic in Canada and call home a swath of the United States running roughly from Minnesota south to Arkansas; swooping down into Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina.  They are thick as thieves in New England.  They are, technically speaking, a large ground squirrel.

The Medfield Community Garden is
more or less a woodchuck's idea
of heaven
Woodchucks prefer open country and the edges of woodlands.  They live in underground burrows with multiple entrances.  The Medfield Community Garden occupies a one-acre site in a former farm field (the aforementioned ‘open country’) surrounded, in turn, by woodlands that are protected town conservation land.  And, did I mention that hunting is prohibited in Medfield?  “Location, location, location.”

In my warning memo, I wrote that everyone should make certain the fence around their garden was buried.  I said, Yes, I urged you to do this back in April, and most of you took that advice to heart.  So, the real advice is to make certain your fence is still buried in the ground at least three or four inches.  If it is not, or if you did not bury it because it was too much trouble or you assumed the only hungry wildlife you needed to thwart were sheep or capybaras, take the time to bury it now.”

The gap under this fence at the
community garden is three inches.
Anything can crawl in and out.
A quick survey of the community garden this morning revealed that my estimate was a little optimistic.  Fewer than half of the 75 gardeners had buried their fences; including, of course, Ed.  While Ed’s fence at least sat on the ground, many fences in the garden began a good two or three inches above the soil line.

I further wrote, If your plot is on the perimeter of the community garden, consider driving wood or bamboo stakes through vulnerable points of entry.  Make them four to six inches apart and drive them down at least six inches.  Woodchucks are fundamentally lazy.  They won’t try to figure out why they can’t get into your garden; they’ll just go for easier pickings.  And make certain you gate isn’t the Achilles Heel of your protection plan.  Make certain it is tight at the bottom, has no obvious gaps, and consider those wood or bamboo stakes.”

I repaired Ed's garden as best I could
This is what I did for Ed.  I found the two points of entry where the woodchuck had moseyed in, and added ten or twelve stakes to seal those points.  Of course, since none of Ed’s fence is buried, that woodchuck or his cousin Ralphie has another 96 liner feet of fence to crawl under.

Bobbex-R won't kill
woodchucks, but it will
annoy them mightily
My next piece of advice involved chemical warfare.  “Invest in a spray bottle of Bobbex-R.  Bobbex-R doesn’t kill woodchucks; it just smells awful to them, causing them to avoid your garden for a more palatable one.  Apply it around the perimeter of your garden – not on anything you plan to eat.  A 32-ounce ready-to-spray bottle will cover 1,000 square feet, which means a full-size plot can be sprayed ten times; a half-size plot can be sprayed 14 times.  As an application lasts two to three weeks, one bottle will see you through to the end of the gardening season.”

Will people in the community garden buy a rodent repellent?  The uniform price seems to be $32.47 for that ready-to-spray solution.  Given that each garden has several hundred dollars of produce growing in it, it seems like a bargain.  I sniffed the air this morning for the tell-tale scent of putrefied eggs and garlic.  Nothing so far.

“If you find a place in your fence where an animal has entered, repair the site immediately, which does not mean piling up mulch or stone around the affected area,” I wrote.  “Woodchucks may look dumb, but they’re not.  They have good noses, unerringly return to the same locale, and pawing aside some loose debris helps build up an appetite.”

This morning, I observed several gardens with closely-spaced wooden stakes around what may have been previously unnoticed entry sites.  I also found a depressing number of places where gardeners had piled up mulch.  I have to learn to make my declarative sentences shorter.

My last piece of advice to my troops was this: “If all else fails, be prepared to stand guard around your garden for the rest of the season with two metal trash can lids at the ready.  I do not advocate this approach.”

It isn’t that banging garbage can lids is time-consuming (although it would likely get very old, very quickly).  It is that I can imagine that, rather than driving woodchucks from the vicinity of the garden, it would encourage families of adults and chucklings to gather at the periphery of the site, spreading blankets and bringing picnics, waiting for the rest of the band to arrive.

July 11, 2017

Quest for Blueberries

Fresh blueberries, picked in the
morning, washed, and consumed with
breakfast.  Is that too much to ask?
This story begins two years ago when Betty and I began the process of creating a ‘from scratch’ landscape at our new home.  ‘Low- and high-bush blueberries’ were near the top of the list of native plants we wanted.  We ultimately purchased five low-bush blueberries, which we planted above the stone wall at the front of our property.  They have thrived, spread, flowered, and produced mountains of tiny blueberries that have fed the creatures that visit our garden. 

Those low-bush blueberries, unfortunately, are not the topic of this essay.

We also purchased five high-bush blueberry shrubs.  They cost close to $40 each and were already laden with already ripe and ripening fruit when we brought them home.  We planted them in a cluster in our rear garden.  For two weeks, we gorged on sweet, luscious blueberries.  I remember joking at the time that we had picked enough berries off of them to defray about a quarter of their cost.

Blueberry bushes produce
awesome fall colors
Berry season ended.  The shrubs grew.  All was well.  Autumn came and we delighted in the display of autumn color that Vaccinium corymbosum  put on.  It rivaled anything in our garden.

Came the spring of 2016.  It was a drought year and, though we gave adequate water to those five shrubs, we saw few flowers and fewer blueberries.  We wrote it off to dry weather and the reality that pollinators were still just discovering our garden.  All our bushes made it through the year looking healthy.  We considered it a victory.

Two weeks after the last flower, I put
up fencing and netting for protection
The rains returned this spring and our five blueberry shrubs were alive with vibrant, white flowers.  I began to think about protecting the shrubs so we could enjoy our bounty.  Two weeks after the last flowers disappeared, I put up fencing and netting.  Metal posts were driven into the ground and half-inch plastic fencing was placed around the boundary of the shrubs.  Fifty ‘ground staples’ anchored the fencing to deter ground-level incursions.  Quarter-inch netting was spreads across the top to foil fence climbers and avian intruders.

These berries were showing their
first blush of red
I watched as the berries changed from white to green to red-purple.  The first batch needed just a day of additional ripening.  I salivated at the thought.

The next morning, every ripe blueberry was gone.

I inspected the base of the fence.  Where the beginning and end of the fence met, there was a gap where a small animal could have wriggled through.  I wired it closed.  I found areas where a contortionist rodent could squeeze between the fence and the earth. I added more ground staples.

The next batch of berries ripened before my eyes.  The morning I went to pick them, they had vanished.

Every potential point of
entry was reinforced
I reassessed the netting as well as the fencing.  I added bamboo and wooden poles to further make a ground assault impossible.  I added ties to better secure the netting to the fence.

The blueberries are still disappearing.

I spent much of yesterday on our back porch, monitoring my patch.  A crow cawed from a nearby pine tree.  Crows, as we all know, have been known to bend and shape metal with their beaks.  Undoing twist ties is well within their skill set.  A suspicious-looking squirrel loitered in the area but, aware he was under surveillance, made no move for the fence.  A tufted titmouse lit on one of the tall metal stakes but feigned disinterest in the crop below it.  Two mourning doves walked in circles, pecking at non-existent seeds.  A fat chipmunk tried just a little too hard to look like it was much more interested in a random piece of bark mulch than in the blueberries behind it.  One of these creatures – or perhaps all of them – are guilty of stealing my blueberries. 

Chipmunks are the most likely culprit
A few years ago, Betty and I were on a garden tour in the Berkshires.  One of the estates on view had a dozen high-bush blueberries encased in a structure with removable screen panels, built with 4x4’s post-and-beam style, that must have measured twenty feet by forty feet, with seven feet of head clearance and a locked door.  I remember laughing at the time that the cost of building such a cage so outweighed the potential benefit that the payback time must approach infinity.

This morning, looking at the white berries that I am certain will be swiped just before I judge them ripe, I could not help but mentally lay out a variation on that ostentatious Berkshires building.  I could use 2x4’s, and five feet of headroom would be sufficient for my needs…

Afterword:  On Sunday, July 23, I threw in the towel and took down the netting and the fence.  Nothing worked, and I never saw what was getting into the enclosure.  All I know is that I never got a single blueberry from those five plants.  There will be a better plan next year.

July 1, 2017

Summer Rain

This summer, our garden is lush.
Double-click for a full-screen view.
It rained yesterday afternoon.  It was a glorious thunderstorm that dropped better than a half an inch of rain on our garden.  As this is written, the skies are overcast and there is a promise of even more rain this evening.

Our four rain barrels are
full, and are augmented
by twenty-plus re-purposed
cat litter jugs, each
holding three gallons.
Last year at this time, we had four empty rain barrels across the back of our home.  Those rain barrels were at the receiving end of an elaborate system of gutters, diverters, and underground drain pipes to collect and carry away rain water.  It was a beautiful system; intelligently conceived and built with back-breaking labor.  But without rain, it was also pointless.  We went weeks without a drop of rain in the summer of 2016.

So, instead, with a new garden filled with plants with limited root systems, we scrounged water from every possible source.  We doled out that water with a figurative eyedropper, conserving every pint.  We watered at six in the morning to ensure no water was lost to evaporation.  The garden made it through that long, hot summer but we were exhausted by the effort.

This year, our four rain barrels are completely filled with 220 gallons of neutral pH and chlorine-free water, and an additional reservoir is stored in twenty re-purposed, three-gallon cat litter jugs.  We lavish water on container gardens to keep them blooming and on new perennials to encourage root growth.  What isn’t collected flows directly into the wetlands behind us via six subterranean conduits.  As a result, the vernal pools that were dry in April last year are still filled with water at the end of June.  It is a sign that we are, at long last, beginning to replenish our watersheds.

Diverters allow us to
switch from filling barrels
to directing water into
the wetlands behind us.
A return to more normal rainfall has an unexpected benefit as well as a drawback.  The benefit, as reported by the University of Massachusetts Extension Service, is that all this moisture has activated the maimaiga fungus.  Why is that important?  The fungus is deadly to gypsy moth caterpillars.  Caterpillars die before they can lay the eggs that would otherwise wreak havoc next spring on our oaks.  It means the devastation of the past two years will likely abate.  The downside to the precipitation is that the woolly adelgids are hatching.  They primarily attack hemlocks and the drought kept eggs from hatching.

June 2017 yielded more than five inches of rain in Boston; more than an inch above the long-term average.  We’ve had 26 inches of precipitation so far this year – four inches above normal.  This week’s Drought Monitor map shows no area in New England as being even abnormally dry.  Last year, all of New England except extreme northern Maine was in at least a ‘Stage 0’ drought and much of the region was in a moderate drought (which would become ‘extreme’ by summer’s end).

Our elaborate system of
drains is also designed to
look attractive.
We learned to cope last year.  An absolute lawn watering ban in our town (Medfield) reduced summer water usage to winter levels.  Lawns went brown.  Then, to the surprise of many homeowners, cooler weather in September and October, coupled with a little rain, caused those same lawns to green up.
The question is whether we learned any lasting lessons from the summers of 2015 and 2016.  I fear the answer is that we did not.  Driving around town this week I saw automatic lawn sprinkler systems pouring water onto bright green lawns in mid-day.  I saw other sprinkler systems operating in the rain. 

Rain is not guaranteed.  It is a gift to be cherished.  Being stewards of the land means also being stewards of our finite water resources.  It’s an imperative that ought to be obvious. All those lawn sprinklers tell me that, sadly, lessons have been too easily and quickly forgotten.