Sunday, June 3, 2012

Leningen Versus the.... Deer?

           In recently comparing our respective garden progress, my friend Lisa told me she has four large gardens: three for their family and one for the deer.
            “What do you do?” she asked me. “Do you have a fence?”
            “Oh, no.” I waved the question away. “I haven’t really had problems with deer. I think it’s because I live in the midst of corn and alfalfa fields—they have much tastier things to munch on.”

            Apparently my nonchalant and foolish statement was the kiss of death. The next morning, my brassicas—my cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli—showed definite signs of nibbling. Three entire plants were gone—ripped right out of the soil, roots and all.

            I’m not comfortable repeating in print my words following that revelation.

            Time to spring into action. In a blast of brilliance, I found a spare two-by-two board in the garage and used the circular saw to cut the end into a point. I went upstairs into our family dress-up closet and got out a pair of my father’s old veterinary coveralls. I stuffed the suit with rags and straw, and remembered that I had kept the control top area of a pair of nylons, the legs of which I had used to bag elderberries for winemaking. I knotted the legs, stuffed it with straw, knotted the waist, and tied an old floppy gardening hat on the top with craft twine. I pounded the stake into the ground right in the middle of the brassicas, tied the dummy to it with spare clothesline, and tied the nylon and hat head onto the stake and onto the dummy. Additionally, I found the parts of a large wind chime that had been ruined in a storm, took of some of the larger chime parts, and attached them to a stake in the far corner of the garden. They don’t chime all the time, but make the occasional loud and disconcerting clang that I hope will scare whatever fauna is considering plundering my garden. As the light diminished and it became too dark to garden, I wiped my hands on my filthy jeans and took a final survey of my kingdom—hopefully, this would work.
Meet Murray.

            I haven’t seen any new nibbling in a week, though the scarecrow startles me sometimes when I am alone working in the garden and catch him out of the corner of my eye. I have named him Murray.

            I have, however, discovered a new problem: something (an insect) is eating my kohlrabi seedlings as fast as they can sprout. I know that the conventional go-to response is to spray the seedlings with an anti-pest chemical; however I really feel like the whole purpose of personal farming is that one can feed one’s family confidently and healthfully, without worrying about contamination from industrial chemicals. I know that when I feed my baby son, I have fostered his food from seed to harvest, and he is getting the very best.

            That being said, something must be done if that kohlrabi is to make it onto his plate at all.

            This is one of the many instances in which I turn to my older, wiser, master gardeners. My mother, for example, swears by spraying the plants with a solution of Ivory Liquid dish soap and water. My step-grandmother, an avid lifelong gardener, says that a crushed garlic and water solution has always worked for her. Both seem to make sense, and I have tried both. Last year, I sprayed the garlic solution on my beetle-bitten roses, and it seemed to work somewhat (I still noticed some arthropod snacking, but not as much). My application of the Ivory Liquid solution scorched one plant, but I also applied it in the late morning on a hot day (not smart). This time, I tried something different.
Kohlrabi in trouble

            Since my son became (a) mobile enough to follow me everywhere, (b) super-“helpful” and interested in helping Mommy clean and (c) overly willing to put everything in his mouth, I have switched from industrial cleaners to a simple white vinegar, water, and lemon juice mix for daily surface cleaning. I simply took this mixture in its spray bottle down to the garden and sprayed the seedlings. Will this be effective? Stay tuned.

Another danger: Giant slugs. A quarter in the middle for scale. 
            I do sometimes feel like the protagonist in that Stephenson short story “Leningen Versus the Ants.” For those unfamiliar, the upshot is that an overly confident white land baron buys a Brazilian plantation and pooh-poohs the natives’ warnings about the ants. When the ants come in killing swarms, he is sure he can triumph easily. He tries all sorts of schemes, only to be bested by Mother Nature, and ultimately barely escapes with his life. The takeaway: in our human effort to control our natural environment, only so much is wise and possible.



  1. Great post! The bugs seem to be a issue a lot in the past few years. P.S. The Giant Slugs! With the quarter for size, they look almost as if they are salamanders. Though equally gross. Can't wait to read the next one :)

  2. My friend the agronomist has reported that there are army and cut worm sightings in western NY, ask your father about Grandpa's battle with them. Also, we visited a local farm today that you would be interested in, they milk Jerseys and make raw milk cheeses, also sustainably raise pork, chicken, and pasture veal. I had a hard time listening to all of their theories as I was getting my Jersey fix, some I like, others I could not quite buy, like giving credit to the land that their Jersey bull bred all 15 cows in one month.