Sometimes gardening is hard to handle | TheFencePost.com

Sometimes gardening is hard to handle

Dennis Hemmer

My wife and I are future gardeners. While we religiously put in a garden every year, something always happens that limits its productivity.

We have two gardens in our yard, a long area in the back and a long area on the south side of our house that's protected and gets incredible sun.

Each year we're gonna do it better next year. Next year we're gonna stay on top of the weeds. Next year we're gonna space the seeds properly. Next year we're gonna thin the crop better. Next year we're not gonna plant so much of this; we're gonna plant more of that.

This year was going to be the year. We ordered the seeds early to ensure that we got the varieties we wanted. When it came time we knew we were past frost, lo and behold it was too wet to till. When it dried out I tilled in well-composted steer manure and just the right amount of low-nitrogen fertilizer (10-10-10). When I finished, I had fertile areas any seed would be happy to call home.

I laid out rows and planted seed carefully at the specified spacing and depth in the back garden. In the front we planted healthy tomato plants and winter squash. When I was finished I was proud that I had done it right this year. My wife then carefully planted two dozen marigold plants along the front of the back garden to ward off damaging insects.

As I watered the garden and pulled the weeds that had the audacity to grow between the rows, I noticed it looked like something had nibbled on the marigolds. My suspicions were confirmed when we saw a couple of very young cottontails (they looked like something you would see on a greeting card) contentedly munching on marigolds. My wife was torn. While she was furious that the "rodents" were eating her marigolds, they were so cute she didn't want anything to harm them. Being educated as a wildlife biologist, I informed her that they weren't rodents, they were lagomorphs.

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I watched as the seeds in the garden began to grow and was satisfied when I started to see long rows of seedling plants. We broadcast seed several areas both front and back with basil. One of our neighbors' friends noticed the basil a few years ago and asked permission to pick a sprig now and again. We now plant small areas in front specifically for her. I soon noticed that the rows began to disappear and that the basil that had come up in a smooth carpet of plants was gone.

We have always had cottontails in the yard and they hadn't harmed our flowers or gardens. They always seemed to be eating fresh grass and I was all in favor of anything that helped me keep the grass mowed. The reason for the disappearance of our seeds became evident as we watched a number of cottontails of various sizes contentedly eating our garden. We researched cottontail diets and found that while they would eat many of our plants, they wouldn't bother the tomatoes, pumpkins or squash.

I decided that a diversion was needed. It was evident that the garden needed to be replanted, so I decided to plant lettuce along with the beets, carrots and chard. Everyone knows that rabbits love lettuce. Being a practitioner of the concept that if a little is good, way too much is better, I planted two long rows of a mixture of lettuce/kale/spinach the full length of the garden. I also planted a row of carrots and a row of beets.

As the plants began to grow I discovered cottontails prefer Detroit Dark Red beets and Chantenay carrots to arugula and kale. The rabbits began to consume the carrots and beets and apparently left the lettuce mixture untouched. Soon, we had two rows of healthy lettuce, spinach and kale and no carrots or beets. They had even cleaned out the chard (apparently cottontails have discerning tastes).

Out in front, we were more comfortable as we had only squash and tomatoes. They consumed all the little patches of basil, but we decided we could give that up for the sake of wildlife. We have lots of penstemon in the front for pollinators and in hopes of attracting hummingbirds. Either the plants were so healthy we couldn't see the damage or the cottontails didn't like them. However, just as the stems were long and flowering we saw a bunny walking along the wall. If any penstemon was hanging in his path he leaned down and nipped it off easier that if you had pruners. Apparently this was their modus operandi, as we noticed that many of the squash stems had been nipped off but not eaten.

We have a 75 pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever. When she was young we trained her not to chase the cottontails as we didn't want her to harm them. However we thought that rabbits would have a natural fear of dogs and they'd stay away if she was out. We were disabused of that theory when one night we watched her chew her rawhide bone while a cottontail contentedly ate grass about 40 feet away.

The rabbits were so abundant it was common to see five to seven in our yard at one time. One decided that the tomato patch was a good place to sun himself. He would lay on his side on a mound where squash was planted and soak up the rays. One dug a small hole under one of the tomatoes. At first I thought they were making a burrow, but finally I decided he just wanted the dirt for his sunning mound.

Having destroyed the marigolds, the rabbits started on the lilies. Eventually all that was left of what had been healthy and colorful lilies were stems that looked like what remains after a squirrel eats a pinecone.

By mid-summer, we lapsed into a truce with the rabbits. They had long since consumed many of our flowers and all the beets and carrots in the back. The squash had started growing so vigorously they couldn't keep up with it (either that or they figured out that under a leaf was a good place to hide and stay cool on hot summer days).

I shared my rabbit woes with my sister. She said "Hey, be thankful all you have are rabbits, we have deer. They ate my tomatoes, squash and everything in my garden." When I told her that they shouldn't eat her tomatoes as they are poisonous, her response was "Good." She said they were getting pretty bold. When she confronted one it just looked at her and snorted. "It was like it said I've got four legs, teeth and horns," she told me "Come on, sister, and show me what you've got." Being educated as a wildlife biologist, I knew I should tell her that they were antlers, not horns. However, given her mood I let it go. Her husband had built a raised garden on legs that allows you to grow and harvest your garden without bending over. "The deer decided that was their buffet table. They just walk along it and take whatever they want."

All that was left in the back garden was lettuce, spinach and kale. While we had 100 times more than we could possibly eat, it looked green and verdant. Then it started to bloom and go to seed. While it looked nice when growing, when it began to seed it looked … well … seedy. I decided that the route to go was to prune off the seed heads and let the green continue to grow. When I went to prune the flowering parts, they were covered with bees, with more hovering waiting their turn.

I try to plant flowers for pollinators in my yard. I am convinced that with the large expanses of lawn and frequent use of pesticides, our pollinators are in peril. There was no way I was going to cut these flowers. Amazingly, the lettuce, spinach and kale flowers had far more bees that the ones I had planted for them.

Since we would have a frost before long and the bees were happy, the garden though looking seedy, was fine. This year we had the first frost far later than normal. Although many of the lettuce, spinach and kale plants had set seed, there continued to be plenty of blooms for the bees. Even after we got regular frosts there were enough flowers that when the days warmed, there were bees, particularly honeybees, on the flowers. As long as there were bees, we left the tangled mass of seedy plants for them. Finally, in late November when the snow had crushed the plants, we pulled them and put them on the compost heap.

Our garden did give us produce this year. We had bountiful sweet, ripe tomatoes to share with friends. Adequate zucchini (enough to eat and share but not so much we had to resort to leaving it in unattended cars).

We had enough winter squash and pumpkins to last the winter. However, beets and carrots had to be purchased. If you buy some honey with the tang of radicchio, you can thank us for feeding the bees so well.

I don't know what our garden will be this coming summer. I'm sure we're gonna do things better. I do know we're gonna put enough chicken wire around it to keep the rabbits out.❖