Varmints That Can Ruin Your Day

My strategy is to plant a little more than I need of everything, do my imperfect best at pest control, then resign myself to sharing some of my bounty with the critters and insects.

When Hollis Engley, former editor of this magazine, got out of his car in my driveway, he noticed four deer in my vegetable garden. Entry for them had been easy: It was late fall and, the garden having been more or less put to bed, the gate through its twelve-foot, deer-proof, chicken-wire “walls” had been left carelessly ajar. Who would have imagined that deer would be interested in the few tough, partially frost-rotted leaves atop the tall stalks of kale I hadn’t yet cut back?

A nanosecond after Hollis spotted the deer, they spotted Hollis. Built like a bear, Hollis is actually harmless, but the deer didn’t know that. Terrified, they beat a hasty retreat from the garden, forgetting about the gate and instead hurling themselves repeatedly against the chicken wire until it gave. They jumped through, leaving four large holes in the garden’s once-secure perimeter.

I wish I could claim that this was the worst deer damage my garden has sustained. In fact, my first winter in my house, before I wised up and surrounded everything evergreen with wire or plastic mesh, deer ate every leaf off my newly planted holly bushes, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels. They devoured the lower branches of my cryptomeria, pine trees, and cedars. In the spring, just as the buds of the lilacs were swelling with promise, they nipped them all neatly off the ends of their stems like so many cocktail olives on toothpicks. As for my roses and lilies, let’s not even go there.

The largest and most destructive of the Vineyard’s varmints (other than a few humans I can think of), deer have plenty of help when it comes to interfering with the bounty and beauty of the Island’s gardens. Raccoons, for instance, have an uncanny ability to guess when it’s the day before you deem something ripe for the picking, and that’s the day they eat it. The one and only year I tried growing corn, I came out on harvest day to find only bare cobs awaiting me. The raccoons had carefully shucked them all, then eaten the nearly ripe kernels off of them right there on the stalks, with the precision of those cartoon characters who treat the cob like the carriage of an old typewriter, returning it with a ding after devouring each row.

Unless you roof your garden with wire mesh, it’s nearly impossible to keep raccoons out, so I’ve chosen to grow things they love less than corn. Other gardeners collect the masked bandits in Have-A-Heart traps, and then dispose of them in decidedly heartless ways.

Many do the same with skunks, whose damage is more indirect but equally devastating. Skunks aren’t usually interested in your vegetables or flowers, but rather in the grubs growing fat in the dirt around them. If you’ve ever found little circular holes in your lawn and wondered what made them, it’s skunks, who somehow know exactly where to dig to find a grub an inch or so down. This is actually good for your lawn, and it’s considerably cheaper than hiring someone to aerate it. In addition, every Japanese-beetle grub eaten by skunks means one less full-grown beetle eating your raspberries or roses later on. However, I have often come out to my garden to find recently transplanted seedlings uprooted and lying on the dirt, withering in the hot sun – a result of the tireless grub-seeking of skunks. Having spent weeks germinating and nurturing said seedlings, I am never happy with this turn of events. But in their search for succulent, subterranean snacks, skunks have no regard for anything that gets in their way.

Skunks, being excellent diggers, gain access to my garden by tunneling under the fence. I’ve tried piling rocks in and around their tunnels, but they have the will of prisoners digging themselves out of jail – only they’re digging in. Few rocks are too heavy for them to push aside; if they are, the skunks just dig around them. Once a tunnel is in place, word gets out to the rats, who view it as a drive-through at their favorite fast-food restaurant. This is seriously bad, because rats are the gourmands of the natural world. They consider your vegetable garden a big Whitman’s Sampler and see nothing wrong with taking a nibble of something and putting it back in the box half eaten. There’s nothing more frustrating than plucking a huge, red, juicy strawberry off the vine, only to discover its bottom half missing. Likewise with tomatoes, peppers, and even beans and peas.

Various birds may also nibble the produce, especially fruit and berries, but I forgive them because they also eat insects. Insects – the bad ones, at least – are unforgivable.

Chief among my invertebrate nemeses is the tomato hornworm. The first time you see a hornworm, you might be tempted to consider it beautiful. The length and girth of your middle finger when full-grown, the hornworm is the precise green of a young tomato leaf, with narrow black and white stripes along its sides. With its dangerous-looking spiky horn near its posterior, it is an impressive bug and – you might think – exotic enough to merit being allowed to live. But think again. One or two hornworms can devour every leaf on a tomato plant overnight, and leafless, the plant doesn’t stand a chance.
Doing in these worms is disgusting at best. They cling tenaciously to the stalks they so closely resemble, and once you’ve succeeded in wresting them off the plant, they wriggle around with surprising muscularity. Squishing them is inadvisable, given their size and the copious quantities of green glop that squirt out of them when you do. I drop them into a jar of soapy water and try not to watch as they squirm in their death throes.

Now that I’ve thoroughly grossed you out, I may as well mention slugs, which, like rats, eat everything. Slime and slugs go hand in hand, and if you choose to pluck them manually from your plants (which is what I do, grimacing the entire time), you wind up feeling like one of the characters in Ghostbusters who gets covered in sticky goo after a close encounter with a sliming poltergeist. If you pour salt on a slug, it will dehydrate to death, but if I salted all the slugs I came across each year, my garden, with the next rain, would reach the salinity level of the Dead Sea. Some people bury bowls at ground level and fill them with beer. The slugs slither in, drink their fill, and drown there in a drunken stupor, which I suppose is a relatively nice way to go. For Christmas this year, my mother gave me an industrial-size bottle of something called Sluggo, which, sprinkled around your garden, kills slugs in some way I’d rather not know about, but I’m going to try it this summer anyway.

With all these varmints – and more – vying for what’s edible in my garden, it’s a good thing that self-sufficiency isn’t my aim. My strategy is to plant a little more than I need of everything, do my imperfect best at pest control, and then resign myself to sharing some of my bounty with the critters and insects. Is it worth it? Definitely. One bite of a homegrown peach or a freshly picked stalk of raw asparagus and you have to give the varmints some credit: at least they have good taste.