Trying to Get Along With the Neighbors
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.)
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.