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Trying to Get Along With the Neighbors

July 18, 2010

This "tall" aster has been repeatedly eaten by the woodchuck (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) One of the challenges of rural gardening is trying to get along with the neighbors. It’s not my human neighbors I am concerned with; they are almost unfailingly kind and considerate. No, the neighbors who sometimes try my patience are wildlife neighbors with whom I share my environment.

Some are welcomed company. I long ago ceded the wild blueberry patch to the turkeys, whose antics I enjoy. I wish they had more of a taste for blackberries than blueberries, but blueberries in Maine are easy to come by. The deer visit my garden only occasionally, they are often fun to watch (especially the fawns), and they mostly just nibble around the edges of the garden. (The exception is their tendency to feast on hostas if I am away from home for an extended period of time; I have sometimes returned to find a bunch of stems sticking out of the ground, with every leaf having been bitten off and eaten.)

Early stages of the chipmunk excavation. What are they building? (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)Others violate my sense of personal boundaries. The neighbors with whom I find it most difficult to live in peace are the members of the large and extended rodent family. I could probably get along fine with the field mice if they were content to live in the field; but they seem to spend most of their time trying to find ways to move into the house. The chipmunks do not try to move inside, but they can be quite a nuisance outside. I will grant that both the chipmunks and the wild strawberries were here before I was, making it only fair to share the strawberry harvest; but it does seem to me that the chipmunks take more than their fair share. And there is that gloating way they pile up the uneaten strawberry parts on the back steps where I can’t miss them. This year the chipmunks undertook some kind of major excavation project under the fence border. I first noticed a small pile of dirt at the front of the border, with a small hole leading downward under a geranium. Each day, the pile of dirt kept getting bigger and bigger. I wouldn’t have believed that chipmunks could move this much earth, except that I saw them at it. What were they building under there? I was imagining a major underground shopping center, perhaps the chipmunk version of downtown Montreal!

My personal nemesis and the largest rodent with whom I share my property is the woodchuck (a.k.a. groundhog). These animals are voracious eaters who love garden plants more than anything else in the world. This year’s resident woodchuck dug a burrow under the deck, with the main entrance under the steps. This was brilliant siting; the location under the deck protected them from any digging predators, and the entrance under the deck stairs gave them prime access to the garden. Turn right and they were in the deck border; turn left and it was just a quick scamper across a maintenance path to the blue and yellow border. They could even, as I discovered one morning, make a u-turn, run up the steps, and feast on all those delicious flowers growing in containers on the deck (nasturtium, yum!).

Woodchucks seem to have a sixth sense about which plants are prized most highly. Last year, the night after I thinned the morning glory seedlings, the woodchuck ate most of those remaining. This June, I glanced out the kitchen window one afternoon to see a woodchuck standing on its hind legs and reaching for the first flower on the ‘Silver Edge’ siberian iris that had taken years to finally bloom. I screamed, and the woodchuck ran off; but the next morning, the flower was gone and the stem with several more buds was lying broken on the ground. I have learned over the years that woodchucks seem to have individual preferences about favorite plant foods, so you can’t predict what they will devour. I was particularly frustrated one year with the woodchuck who broke off daylily scapes each night and then left them on the ground rejected, apparently unable to remember from one day to the next that he or she didn’t like them. Some woodchucks are binge eaters who will eat a favorite plant right down to the ground, leaving you staring at an empty space in the garden and trying to remember what was growing there! In response, I often find myself indulging in violent fantasies.

This year, though, some highly desirable new neighbors moved into the neighborhood; a fox family set up residence in the woods to the east of my house. I first became aware of their presence one evening when I glanced out the window to see a fox kit pouncing on something in the front yard. Shortly afterward, the mother fox came trotting up the driveway with a dead rodent hanging from her jaws. The kit went running down to meet her and the rodent prize was transferred from mother to child. After that, the fox family was much in evidence. Every day, I would see one or another of them trotting through the yard, often with a rodent clamped in its jaws. One of the kits took to hanging out in the back garden. I would have preferred not to find fox scat in the middle of the walkway or animal carcasses left in the flowerbeds, but  these seemed a small price to pay for the advantages. The chipmunks decided to make themselves scarce, and I had all the strawberries to myself. The woodchuck was intimidated, and its raids on the garden became less frequent and less serious.

I find it so much easier to get along with the neighbors when I have the fox neighborhood watch to keep everyone in line. If I had known they were coming, I would have brought the fox family a casserole to welcome them to the neighborhood. I hope they decide to stick around next year.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. sequoiagardens permalink
    July 18, 2010 3:43 pm

    Being a rural gardener myself, I enjoyed your tale! Go the foxes!

  2. July 18, 2010 4:16 pm

    so sorry to hear of your fuzzy critter woes. i can completely relate. i just shoed a little red squirrel away from our deck only to discover he just ate the majority of my patio tomatoes. and those little chipmunks, Chip and Dale, are doing a fine job of messing with my garden. they ate all of our strawberries as well.

    thankfully we haven’t had to wrestle this year with the woodchuck. i wish you all the luck in guarding your lovely gardens!!

  3. July 18, 2010 6:02 pm

    When I moved to my neighborhood I didn’t think it would be rural. But after seeing a black bear, coyotes, deer, vols, and of course the blue heron, I live in Florida, in my kio pond I have begun to think it as rural. I do agree about the rodents. Last year the vols by far did the most damage, but this year they are gone. I thought it was my new dog, a pound dog, part jack russel part daschund. But maybe it’s something else. Anyhow, good luck

  4. July 18, 2010 6:40 pm

    Jean, I love this. And it’s so true.

    I have the worst nosy neighbors, the Raccoon that was inside my kitchen last week.



  5. July 18, 2010 9:08 pm

    Jean, You need to have your place certified as a Wildlife Habitat, then you can say that you share your gardens with all those who live there and visit.

    Your story today sounds a lot like one we could tell except we are a wildlife habitat and now we have to say we share with all the other creatures who live and visit here. No more hassle it’s now a way of life.
    By the way we do have a way of discouraging certain creatures from dining on too much of our garden.

    Enjoy the evening,

  6. July 18, 2010 9:25 pm

    What great and cute helpers you got, Jean! My biggest enemy is a deer. have a great week and thanks for your comments on my blog. Today, we saw 4 mooses! I’m glad they don’t come to my garden!

  7. July 18, 2010 10:05 pm

    Jean, yea! for the foxes. They are so beautiful! We live in town, but sometimes I wonder the things that must roam around in the dark. In town we have seen ofcourse deer, skunks, foxes and once I saw a mountain lion! They were probably looking for deer

  8. July 18, 2010 10:40 pm

    What a great post, Jean! You’ve made me aware of some creatures that I had no idea were nuisances with non-food garden plants. Like the woodchuck. We see a woodchuck about once a season–they don’t seem to hang out here. Ditto the squirrels and chipmunks, who pass through but who seem content to stay in the wild parts of the property (we’re very rural) and away from the two ancient felines who do go outside. Most of our cats are indoors-only, or only go outdoors with us supervising.
    My big problem is raccoons, who aren’t content to try to find bird feed or horse feed or whatever, but must also come up and crap on the deck almost every night. It’s stinky and it stains the deck and it can be dangerous. So I’m about at the point of waging war on the raccoon. The donkey keeps deer and coyotes away, or at least down in the lower part of the pasture, and we don’t grow veggies mostly…we feed birds, grow plants for pollinators, and have a no-spray laissez faire attitude about so called pests. Except that raccoon. I’d like to turn a sooper soaker on him. Or her.

  9. July 18, 2010 11:00 pm

    Oh my, what a collection of wildlife you have! Do you have a garden dog to keep some of the critters in check? (My garden dog wouldn’t be up for the task but a bigger, more courageous dog just might.) And how about the deer visitors, are they intimidated by the fox family?

  10. July 19, 2010 12:50 am

    Jean. I loved this post. Humourous and true and the same time. Sounds like you have more than your share fair of pests!

    The only one we share seems to be the chipmunks and I looked at your photo of what they did with much interest, because I have the very same thing here. I wasn’t sure if mine was from chipmunks, squirrels or rabbits, so since you ‘caught’ them in the act, now I know sure sure it was the chippies.

    In my garden, it was the small bulbs (crocus and mini irises) that they dug up. I can see that they ate some, but I’m really hoping that they have just ‘replanted’ them somewhere else.

    Thanks for the good read!

  11. July 19, 2010 8:34 am

    I could use some foxes around here! We watched a plant get sucked into the ground last night by a vole.

    I have heard woodchucks are terrible. I hope the foxes keep them in check!

  12. July 19, 2010 9:13 am

    hahaha, that is also a problem in the tropics, we have chickens who eat the leaves, and goats especially the kids which eat everything, even the barks and trunks. My late father said, if you are not careful they might also eat your legs, but of course it is a joke, only to emphasize their voraciousness.

  13. July 19, 2010 1:27 pm

    Oh dear, Jean, I understand this well! I’ve been trying really hard to get along with the resident rabbit but it is not showing nice behavior in the garden, and it’s really getting on my nerves! Of course, if I had a fox, the rabbits wouldn’t be an issue! You’d think my dogs could keep it at bay, but they’re not useful in the middle of the night when the bunny comes to visit.

  14. July 19, 2010 3:57 pm

    I think I would trade in the local cats, rabbits and grey squirrels for a fox anyday in my garden.

  15. July 19, 2010 6:38 pm

    I think your foxes are fabulous, and you’re right, a small price to pay to help ‘balance’ your garden ecosystem. My mother lives on the east coast, and has been battling a groundhog with a voracious appetite now for the last two years. I think she’d be thrilled if a fox showed up to help with that problem.

  16. thevioletfern permalink
    July 19, 2010 7:13 pm

    How awesome! My in-laws have had a fox den in their backyard for years – in the middle of suburban sprawl! It truly amazes me and I so enjoy watching them. A big welcome to your new neighbors. Maybe planning a backyard woodchuck BBQ?

  17. July 19, 2010 7:32 pm

    Isn’t it lovely when all is in balance? But then, what exactly is balance? I enjoyed this post so much, Jean! I can so feel your pain about the woodchucks. I had issues with them last year. Like, take entire tomato plants out of the ground as soon as they get big enough to start flowering issues. 😦 What I didn’t get was, aren’t tomato plants toxic? And why pull the whole thing up? Why not nibble a branch.

    Still, every time we catch one eating, F. films it, and we get very still and reverential — causing me to wonder, are we insane??

    We have seen very few this year. But instead, we’ve got a coyote family that’s moved into the area. I’d rather they hadn’t, as I have two cats, who do a bang-up job keeping the smallest rodents away already. If only the deer were so easily intimidated. Two mornings ago, I was awoken by the sound of chewing just before dawn, and a plump doe was standing in the kitchen garden, right beneath our bedroom window!

  18. July 19, 2010 8:20 pm

    Well, that’s integrated pest management in action, isn’t it?

    I spent many summers working in rural New York, and had a dumb joke with myself that the woodchucks were all depressed and suicidal. They’d stand on the side of the road, apparently trying to decide which was the best car throw themselves under. They looked so serious, standing there, on their hind legs, fretting.

    On a lighter note, here’s the only large rodent in my very urban garden:

  19. July 19, 2010 8:39 pm

    I dont’ have woodchuck, thankfully, perhaps because fox have been established in our neighborhood for years. I do, however, as you know from reading my many creature woes, have deer, chipmunks, moles, and voles – the worst currently being deer and voles. Chipmunks have been really bad in the past, they tunneled under a walkway and enjoyed large established clumps of crocus, but their impact has eased of late. We have hunting hawks during the day and hunting owls during the night, plus a neighbor recently spotted a bobcat … yeah … and we have coyote. If I had cats they would all be indoor animals, but I don’t and I hope the larger predators become miighy plump on deer and rodents. Maybe a more natural balance will again be achieved, and my gardens will be less munched.

  20. July 20, 2010 2:09 am

    Most unwelcome visitor: pet cats of neighbors. Last week I lost it and told my neighbor I saw their cat kill two birds in two days…enough! Keep the darn thing inside. I said it in a nice, friendly way of course, but deep down, those pet cats are the worst! Feces, digging, killing birds I try to attract.

    The number two on the bad neighbor list are the moose, but what can you do about them?

    I’d love a fox family, but haven’t seen one around my neighborhood, too many bears, coyotes, and wolves I guess.

    Christine in Alaska

  21. July 20, 2010 6:54 am

    Jean, I have had just about every rodent you mentioned except the woodchuck. I need a fox! I have a terrier, but he doesn’t seem to be able to chase any of these away.


  22. July 20, 2010 11:23 pm

    Jean – you made my day!

    You know how near and dear this subject is to my heart. My Rose Mallow now is ‘incarcerated’ behind fencing because the bunnies recently decided they liked to nip the new growth (and leave it abandoned nearby). Now that the flower buds are getting ready to bloom, I’m stoked to see my 1st season of Zone 5 Hibiscus. -Shyrlene

  23. July 21, 2010 10:36 am

    Hi Jean

    I’m an urban animal, born and raised in Chicago’s inner city, and I’ve always viewed foxes as rather magical creatures.

    Their behavior sounds impressive, despite the scat; an integral part of your garden’s ecosystem.

    My garden has some mole/vole action that I can’t fully diagnose, or deal with in any way that seems to work. Fully fenced, there are no predators to frighten, or eat them!

    I’ll continue to find the fox rather magical, having only experienced a couple sightings on dark country roads. But now I shall recognize another facet of how they, in fact, operate with their neighbors! Alice
    aka Bay Area Tendrils

  24. July 21, 2010 9:05 pm

    Hello Everybody, This post seems to have resonated with a lot of you. What I’ve learned from this is that every gardener, whether urban, suburban, or rural has wildlife neighbor issues they have to figure out how to deal with.

    Jack, Susan, Tatyana Rosie and Gloria, I am definitely a fan of the foxes. A number of years ago, I heard a story on Maine Public Radio about a Maine golf course that had a fox den. The foxes kept running out onto the golf course and grabbing the golf balls, until the golf course had to develop some special rules about how play would proceed after a fox stole a player’s golf ball! I did wonder what they were doing with all those golf balls.

    Clare and Alice, I agree; foxes are both fabulous and magical.

    Joene, When I first moved to this property, there were a lot of foxes around and almost no chipmunks, squirrels or woodchucks. (The road I live on has “fox” in its name.) Then, over time, the fox population declined precipitously (perhaps related to an outbreak of rabies in foxes). This year, the fox population seems to have rebounded in a big way; I have been seeing a lot of them as I drive around the back roads.

    Allison, I’m sorry to hear about your red squirrel and chipmunk trials. Those red squirrels can be particularly pesky, and I’m sure the creator of those cute chipmunks, Chip and Dale, was not a gardener. On the other hand, since you are raising chickens (another fox favorite food), you would probably be less welcoming of a fox family in your neighborhood.

    Lisa, I love your story of the woodchucks trying to cross the road, and your gopher photo is amazing! I’m glad that gopher is in your garden and not mine!

    VF, how about mouse and chipmunk stew as a starter before that woodchuck BBQ?

    Diane, I’m glad to help you diagnose your own garden excavation. I really don’t understand what they were after; the only bulbs I have in that flower bed are a couple of allium, but they seemed to be digging much deeper than that. Indeed, when I started to notice that the excavation tailings included a lot of stones from the new septic system leaching field that I had installed in the fall at a cost of several thousand dollars, I decided that I could no longer afford a “live and let live” attitude. I took a garden hose, stuck it down the entrance, and flooded the excavation, then filled in the entrance.

    John, this way suggest that I don’t have the appropriate attitude to make my garden a wildlife habitat! Unlike Meredith and F, I never feel reverential about animals eating my garden. While I’m quite happy to have other animals do the killing (in the name of ecosystem balance or integrated pest management), I’m not above killing myself.

    Andrea, that joke sounds like something my father would have said. LOL There must be a special variety of father humor that crosses cultural boundaries.

    Charlotte, I sometimes see a great blue heron fishing in the river near my house when I go for my morning walk. The one who found all those fish rounded up in your koi pond must have thought he died and went to heron heaven!

    Rosey, Kimberly, Joene and Shyrlene, I’m very grateful not to have either voles or rabbits in my garden.

    And, Christine, moose — yikes!! There’s an animal that makes deer in the garden look like no big deal!

    Jen and Jodi, I’m particularly grateful not to have raccoons in residence (although I saw one less than half a mile away earlier this week). Jen if I got up during the night and found a raccoon in my kitchen, I would probably have a heart attack! One year, when I went out to Acadia National Park for my summer solstice camping trip, I was assigned to a campsite with a raccoon den and a mother raccoon who was raising babies on nothing but food stolen from campers. Two months later, I went back to Acadia, was assigned to the same campsite (bad karma??), and discovered that the babies had grown up into juvenile delinquents who made my stay anything but restful.

    Linda, I don’t have pets, but I know many people who find dogs helpful. (But, as Eileen indicates, his doesn’t always work.) Anyway, I’m more of a cat person than a dog person; and if I had cats they would have to be indoor cats, both for the reasons Christine points out and because we also have fishers in the woods here.

    I guess as long as there are gardens, there will be wildlife neighbors trying to “help” us with them.

  25. July 23, 2010 2:56 pm

    Sorry to hear about your wildlife neighbors that are not nice. We have in our garden pesky moles, pesky rabbits, pesky squirrels and pesky birds!

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