I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a reader looking for tips on how to control mice in her garden. While most gardeners see small rodents as part of the bargain, for her, the mice were a problem because she was trying to garden along the patio next to her house. Let's face it, mice, and the mess they make, are not something anyone wants on the patio.
This got me to thinking about some of the issues that gardeners have to confront when they cultivate a slice of nature. Most of us have found some sort of balance between our stake in the garden and the rights of various creatures to be there, too. Our decisions about what wildlife gets to stay and what has to go generally comes from a mix of instinct and trial and error. The issues are different for rural and urban gardeners, but the process is the same.
In talking to other gardeners, I find that the longer we garden, the more tolerant we become in sharing the space under cultivation. We also learn which creatures will harm us or our vegetables and which will peacefully coexist.
A lot of experienced gardeners intentionally overplant their vegetables, so they will have enough to share -- not just with their human neighbors, but also with the tomato hornworms and rabbits.
About five years ago, I learned just how touchy an issue this is when I wrote a column about dill and advised destroying the caterpillars that routinely strip the ferns off of growing dill plants. I think I used the unfortunate verb "smoosh" to describe my preferred eradication technique.
My phone rang off the hook with calls from enraged readers. One woman volunteered to come out to my house and pick up the caterpillars I had marked for death and release them elsewhere, presumably far from me. Another, who said she and her daughter had been reading my column together every week, said they would find something else to do on Wednesday mornings.
I also received a piece of what I can only characterize as hate mail from a retired school teacher who accused me of undermining a career devoted to teaching her pupils respect for nature. The letter took a decidedly personal turn, and I suspect that she had a thesaurus at her elbow to supply the stream of adjectives she used to convey her message.
I mention this episode only to point out the range of views on the subject of "managing" wildlife in a garden. My real crime, I think, was in admitting that I had killed caterpillars, which turn into butterflies and are prized above all other insects. While I had thought I was being kinder to all the life in my garden by not applying even an organic poison to control the caterpillars, I was clearly out of touch with the sentiments held by a number of my readers. (In any case, I have not killed a caterpillar since, so don't bother to call. I am reformed.)
So, which creatures are bad, which are tolerable, and how do you know? It really is a personal decision, but issues of cruelty and environmental impact should be taken into account. I know gardeners who have fits when they see mole tunnels criss-crossing their vegetable plots. They buy expensive, medieval-looking traps and flush the tunnels with the garden hose. Personally, I have never lost a crop to moles, even though they dig under my garden every year. To me, they are benign.
The same goes for snakes. Garter snakes, which you know by the stripe down the side, may surprise you but there's no need to pick up the hoe and start hacking away. While we have a lot of copperheads on our property and there's a large rattlesnake den nearby, I have never seen either snake in my garden.
Rabbits, deer and raccoons do their share of damage some years, but they usually can be controlled by barriers. Sometimes, however, you just have to share the harvest. Some people trap rabbits and raccoons, but that seems extreme. So you lose a few head of lettuce or a row of corn. If it's a continuing problem and you can't fence them out, squirt the plants with hot pepper spray or tie your dog out near your garden.
The only wildlife that have been truly unwelcome in my garden were hornets who built a nest in the ground along the fence last year. I did not realize they were there until I passed by with the string trimmer. They swarmed and stung, and I spent a Sunday afternoon in the emergency room.
The nest disappeared, but I know better than to go into the details here. With my luck, there's someone out there who is partial to hornets.