July 15, 2004

The Swarthmore Tomatofield War

Along with travelling, I’ve been gardening. My faculty rental comes with access to a very nice, large garden plot that is some ways away from the house, on the verge of a large wooded area that descends to Crum Creek.

My first year of having a vegetable garden was the best, in 2002.

I had a fabulous yield of tomatoes, peppers,

zucchini (way too much zucchini),

pumpkins, tomatillos, sunflowers and herbs. The only thing that got absolutely annhilated was my corn, which some animal stripped bare just as the ears appeared.

My second year I gave up on corn and added string beans. These grew fabulously well and were hugely tasty. But this time

my sunflowers

were absolutely destroyed before they could even germinate—something systematically dug up all the seeds for two plantings (this happened again this year).

The 2003 tomatoes were also subject to heavy assault by unknown vermin. The zucchini died of some kind of rot that covered the leaves with a grey mold and then turned the stalks to mush. The herbs did really well, though, except for rosemary, which just doesn’t seem to grow out here.

This year, I’m doing ok. I planted 18 tomato plants because the whole point of this garden, really, is to get me the tomatoes I can’t buy anywhere, and get me lots of them. But something has assaulted them again—they’re disappearing just as the first streak of red appears. So I’ve taken to picking them when they’re yellow and letting them ripen inside. The string beans sucked this time, but I think that’s mostly the seeds I planted—not as good as the heirlooms I planted the first year. The zucchini is rotting again. The pumpkins died quickly for some reason. The herbs are terrific as always. The tomatillos are growing, though like last year, have been slow to flower. Carrots, to my surprise, are flourishing—I tried the previous two summers and couldn’t get any to germinate. Peppers are doing well (poblanos, jalapenos, serranos, thai bird peppers). Herbs are self-sustainingly great now. Eggplants are limping along—I’ve never had much success with those, either.

It’s the tomatoes that are on my mind all the time now. They are what I want and crave. I managed to get one off and it ripened and I just put a bit of salt on it and devoured it. Nothing like it in the stores, not even the fancy-schmancy ones.

Here’s what I do to protect the garden: a 5-foot wire fence that I set into a one-foot deep trench to prevent digging under. Bobcat and coyote urine in the corners of the garden and soaked into cotton tags hanging from the tomato cages. An egg white-capascin-vinegar repellant mix sprayed on the tomatoes themselves. And they’re still disappearing. This year, they’re disappearing outright—I’m not finding the half-eaten corpses I’ve found in the previous two years. And they’re disappearing well before they ripen.

So I’m working on hypotheses about what’s doing it.

1) Chipmunks and squirrels. I’ve seen both of them raiding the tomatoes in the past; chipmunks were clearly the guilty parties last year. But they usually leave half-chewed tomato corpses and they usually only want semi-ripe ones.

2) Woodchuck. I don’t think the local ones can get inside my garden as it stands, and I’ve never caught them going for tomatoes anyway. I suspect them instead for other assaults in past years, including the Great Corn Massacre of summer 2002.

3) Rabbit. So why aren’t they eating the carrots, which are almost ready to be picked? Maybe they don’t know what they are. How are they reaching tomatoes that are two feet off the ground? But the young ones can unquestionably get in through the fence—I’ve spotted babies and juveniles in the garden before.

4) Deer. I thought I’d really made it so they couldn’t jump over, but there’s plenty of tales of deer jumping 5 feet, so maybe. No tracks, though. Do they eat tomatoes? Not sure, but I’ve seen other things that make me think they’ve been in the garden (plants that look trampled).

5) Raccoons. We got ‘em, they’re clever, and they could easily carry away tomatoes if they can get in. But damned if I know how they might climb the fence—I wouldn’t think it would support their weight, and there’s nothing dug under it anywhere. They might be pushing in past my improvised “gate” but I doubt it—it always is “tight” whenever I come out to the garden myself, with no signs of disturbance.

6) People. I’m afraid this is my current working hypothesis. The garden is a long ways from the house and people can come and go in it without being observed from any house at all. No footprints, though, even with the recent rain. I have had thefts from the garden before, though—several ripe pumpkins disappeared in September 2002 just as they were ready to pick, for example.

I don’t think there is much left I can do to keep varmints of all kinds out, though. Maybe lock the gate to test the “people” hypothesis, though that seems extreme. I tried stringing chicken wire around the top of the fence to discourage deer, but it ended up looking like a vegetable gulag rather than a garden. I used to put chicken wire around the tomato area, but the chipmunks just laughed at that. I kind of wish I had an old hound, a rocking chair and a shotgun—I’d sit out there for a few nights and see what’s what. Except that it’s illegal and I don’t think the college would be too wild about me blasting away at various critters on their property, not to mention my neighbors. I suppose I could put traps in the garden and see what gets caught, but that’s like catching a few raindrops and thinking you’re going to get a sunny day.

I keep thinking about that bit in Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill where the kindly (and evidently very rich) Folks put out a crapload of vegetables and such every single night in order to keep all the animals out of their own garden. “There is enough for all”, they said. I’m guessing that this is not the case—that I could plant 50 tomato plants and still watch them get stripped by the Mystery Vermin. So it’s war—if only I could figure out what I’m fighting and how to fight it.