Squirrels in paradise
Oh, Hell! What doe mine eyes with grief behold . . . ?
John Milton, Paradise Lost
I started a garden last spring. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I hired Sara from all edibles to start the garden. She double-dug and amended an eight-by-twenty foot terraced hill at the side of our house. (I’d had shoulder surgery that January and there was no way I’d be able to dig even shallow holes.) Sara planted the crops as well, and in no time at all, tiny lettuces blossomed into large ruffled heads. Herbs shot up like teenagers, and in due course—and despite a rainy summer—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini (especially zucchini) magically appeared. I was in paradise.
Sara also planted strawberries which dutifully produced fruit from spring through fall. Not that we got to eat any. Just as the berries turned red, they disappeared. Okay, some of the berries, those hidden under leaves, survived, but every one of them had a big bite out of its middle. Something was feasting on our produce.
Local deer, of course, amble quite casually down our street, wander up driveways, and disappear over low fences into our neighbors’ gardens. We’d surrendered the jasmine in our front yard to these graceful hedge clippers. We weren’t that invested in the jasmine. But we were invested in our garden, so much so that earlier that year we’d enclosed the entire perimeter of our back and side yards with six foot deer fencing. If a deer had somehow jumped the six feet, breaching our defense, we knew there’d be more than strawberries missing. The entire garden would have disappeared.
It wasn’t deer, so I searched the internet for information about other animals that were fond of strawberries. As it turns out, a lot of animals are fond of strawberries: deer, rabbits, chipmunks, rats, mice, possums, turtles, raccoons, birds, squirrels. There were so many critters to contemplate that I decided to write the strawberries off.
One morning this spring, I planted starts of arugula and lettuce. The green shoots looked Edenic against the dark rich soil. The very next morning, however, the garden looked less like Eden than Ground Zero. A fat, self-satisfied, squirrel sat on its haunches where the lettuce and arugula had been. I had proof—fat, furry proof—that squirrels had eaten our greens. Had they consumed the strawberries the year before as well? And what was next on their menu? I recalled disturbing reports about squirrels being fond of tomatoes. And I’d been planning to grow heirlooms! In that instant I saw a garden full of red and golden orbs, all with large chunks missing from their centers. The Zen-like pleasure I’d had in the garden began to seem like a tattered dream.
I returned to the internet where I read post after post about how to keep squirrels and their wildlife cousins away from one’s garden by using, say, cayenne pepper, human hair, garlic, fox urine, vile-smelling liquids, dogs, pellet guns, electric fences, fake owls, and fake snakes. But for every blog touting the effectiveness of a particular remedy, there was another blog declaring that remedy lame. And did I want a season full of low level warfare with cayenne pepper, putrid liquids, and fake snakes? No! (Well, I wouldn’t have minded the fake snakes.)
I began to wonder whether it was worth even trying to maintain a garden when I stumbled upon a post showing how to enclose tomatoes in squirrel-proof cages. That made me think. If I extended the deer fence on three sides of the garden another two feet up and if I had a fourth deer fence panel constructed, I could have a wire ceiling stretched over the top. I would have a cage eight feet wide, twenty feet long, and eight feet high. There would be three gates, one for each level of the terraced hill. I called Carlos, with whom I’d worked on house and garden projects for several years. Carlos looked at my plans, made some adjustments, and said, “Yeah, Judy, we can do that for you.” Two days later I had a squirrel-proof garden.
To some, my wood-and-wire structure might look like a giant chicken coop. Maybe Carlos thought that too, although he took a picture of it. (Perhaps he figured he’d be ready if another client threw a fit over light-fingered squirrels with hearty appetites.) But to me the wood and wire feel like an airy green house without glass. I slip into one of the gates each day and cut lettuce for dinner or snip some herbs. I watch the strawberries. Some are turning pink, and they are still rounded, still whole. I’m at peace in the garden again. Now, it’s paradise regained for me—so far.