In my imagination, a garden is a place of tranquil enjoyment where people move about slowly, smelling the roses and picking the fruits of their labor. Many public gardens are like this—well-tended spaces where visitors can soak up the atmosphere in comfort.
Not so in my backyard.
The problem isn’t with the work of gardening. Digging, planting, pruning, composting—I’m comfortable with those. I’m also okay with the fact that gardening takes time. I plant a fig and wait… and wait…three years now, and no fruit. But some day it will get there, I’m sure, as will the still-flowerless pomegranate bush. I’ve got time.
The problem is the pests. The four-footed pests, the six-footed pests, and those that have no feet at all.
The largest of the four-footed pests is the deer. Suburban deer are more and more numerous all the time. They are the main reason my landscaping is relatively boring. The back yard has plastic fencing attached to the chain-link to raise the height to nearly eight feet, but the front and sides of the house are undefended. As a result, my choices are limited. No hostas (deer candy), no roses (thorns will not stop them), no zinnias, no coneflowers. Even the azaleas get nibbled and so flower poorly. So I depend on rosemary, lavender, and irises where there is enough sun, and ferns and lamium in the shade.* The rest of the plants are restricted to the fenced backyard.
The fence doesn’t keep out other four-footed pests, though. The worst of these are the squirrels and the voles. The squirrels help themselves to my fruit before it has even ripened, running off with strawberries, green peaches, and half-ripe tomatoes. No fence will keep them out—I would have to cage my garden in chicken-wire to do that.
While the squirrels attack from above, the voles attack from below. They leave neat little holes where plants once were. Sometimes I find a plant suddenly wilted and discover it no longer has any roots. I have lost whole rose bushes to voles, as well as tomato starts.
I haven’t included moles on my list of garden pests because they don’t eat plants and may in fact be snacking on the grubs of a different garden pest, the Japanese beetle. The Japanese beetle is certainly one of the most annoying of my six-footed pests, since it particularly likes the unopened buds of roses. Grasshoppers do damage to the leaves of plants, as does a mysterious brown beetle that only comes out at night. And then there is the tomato hornworm with its voracious appetite. It’s easy to pick off, though, so the worst thing about it is coming upon it unexpectedly when handling a tomato plant. (Shudder.)
Weeding is part of gardening, and I actually have fond feelings for the weeds that our guinea pigs used to enjoy: chickweed, wood sorrel, purslane, and dandelions. But sometimes a weed goes too far. I had just one summer of not being able to weed, and now the stiltgrass (Microstegium) is threatening to take over my entire yard. I am not kidding here. Naturally I would also like to be rid of the Youngia japonica and the mock strawberry (which does indeed mock me with a strawberry-like fruit that doesn’t taste like strawberries), but at least they aren’t growing knee-deep and dense enough to hide anything on the ground, from the garden hose to a yellow jacket’s nest.
The tiniest pests of all still make themselves felt in a big way. I’ve lost rose after rose to black spot, a fungus, and a different fungus contributed to the deaths of two very well-developed apricot trees. I was afraid to replant apricots, lest the new ones go the same way, so now there is a fig in that spot. So far the fig is serenely unbothered by pests of any kind.
I have saved the very worst pest for last. This creature doesn’t eat, infect, or otherwise harm a single plant, but it has a bigger impact than any of the others. It is the mosquito. I can’t stay out more than ten minutes without long pants, long sleeves (in summer!), and DEET on all remaining exposed skin. Mosquitoes not only make it difficult for me to pull weeds, pick off bugs, and remove diseased leaves, but they also prevent me from enjoying my garden—which was the whole point of gardening in the first place.
And I can’t fence them out.
Till next post.
*Actually, I also have catmint, chives, thyme, sage, aromatic aster, assorted mints, and a pomegranate outside the deer fence. So far, they have not been eaten.