Category Archives: Gardening

Sara’s Tree Friends

Author’s Note: This is a fictional short story I wrote for a Creative Writing course. Please enjoy!

Throughout the summer, Sara’s vegetable garden, including two sapling apple trees, slowly took over the front of our suburban property. My eleven-year- old daughter was fortunate in her first season with above average rain, and “Farmer” Sara’s crops were
producing nicely. Tomatoes, peppers, corn, squashes of all kinds, and even “yucky” foods like turnips and green beans covered the entire yard all the way up to the sidewalk. The garden was quite the jungle though, with veggies planted in a disorderly and somewhat random fashion, and some, like sunflowers and trellised runner beans, growing up to twelve feet tall.

Today, while going through my mail, I watched out my front window as Sara was tending to one of her apple trees. Sitting on a recycled pizza cardboard box, she knelt down to add yet another “plant friend” to the collection that now surrounded each tree. As she pulled out her beloved orange-handled soil knife to dig a new hole, I noticed Sara talking to the plants. I could not hear what she was saying but it looked like she was scolding some and encouraging others. It was quite the conversation. After inserting the plant’s root ball into the ground, Sara shoveled dirt into the hole, taking care not to damage its young leaves. Then, in a move I did not see coming, she placed worn plastic cups from her childhood doll tea set in front of every plant. Filling the cups from the green metallic watering canister, she seemed to be introducing each friend to the newly arrived plant. It was a plant tea party. Uh, she had a cup in front of her too. Please, for all that is holy, do not drink that fertilizer water! Oh good, she dumped it around the transplant. Grossness averted, I now could get back to the mail.

Looking at each piece, I absently contemplated the fact that we still receive physical mail in this modern world. One would think with all the technology that we had at our fingertips, mail would have gone the way of the blacksmith or buggy whip manufacturer, but here I was, sorting through pieces of paper and cardboard. Hey, what’s this? It was an official looking envelope from City Hall. Maybe it’s a tax refund. Upon opening it, my heart sank. In my hand was a “desist and decease” order giving us 14 days to revert our front yard garden back into acceptable lawn. An anonymous citizen had made a formal complaint, though I had a reasonable idea who this hero was. Immediately, using our landline (yet another antiquated technology), I called the included phone number to see if there was anything we could do. The uninterested bureaucrat on the other end said
there was a city council meeting next Thursday at 6:30 where we could appeal the decision. I told him to put us down on the agenda.

This whole garden adventure had started innocently enough in the spring. One day, upon entering Sara’s room, I had discovered ten or so three-inch tall plants, each with eight or so healthy deep green leaves, growing out of dirt smudged red Solo cups. Black soil specked with white fluffy particles was everywhere, including in the carpet and on the wall. The decaying smell of plant life and earth filled the air. Light from three borrowed makeshift reading lamps provided artificial sunshine and warmth for these young lifeforms. How did she put this all together without me knowing? She was always pulling stuff like this.

I bellowed, “Sara Elizabeth! Could you come here please?”

Coming from downstairs, Sara replied “Uh, sure Dad. What’s up?”

“Could you explain all this . . this. . stuff in your room? It’s a mess in here!”

“Sorry Daddy, but my trees need me”

“Trees? Is that what those are?”

“Remember those organic apples you bought us at the farmer’s market last year? I saved the seeds and planted them.”

“They look like baby trees right now. Where will they live when they grow up?”

“Don’t be silly. I’m planting them out in our yard.”

“Won’t they need cared for? We have water restrictions Sweetie. I can imagine trees drink a lot of water.”

“That’s why we’ll be saving used water just for them.” Sara giggled. “And I’ll pee on them every day!”

Well, that sounded gross but I didn’t want to squelch my little girl’s enthusiasm, so I continued the discussion.

“Won’t the neighbors stare at you when you are out there? I know I can’t URINATE when people are watching me.”

“Oh Dad, I’ll add my pee . . I mean URINE . . . to water inside then take it out. Didn’t you know URINE was a great fertilizer? URINE has nitrogen and phosphorous and other minerals.” She seemed to receive great joy from saying “URINE” over and over again.

“No, that sounds unsanitary to me. Where did you come up with that idea?” I asked.

“The Internet of course. I’ll forward you some links. Your personal email or work one?”

“Use my personal one I guess. Just promise not to spam me.” I answered, trying to get my mind around my little girl’s new interest. I just hoping this wasn’t going the way of last year’s ukulele. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t pay for a top of the line instrument and a full year of lessons for the discount when there’s a child involved. On the flip side, I’m getting pretty good at “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”. I just couldn’t let the money go to waste.

After letting the concept of planting fruit trees in my yard sink in, I decided to encourage Sara. She had never had an easy life. Born as a preemie (thirteen weeks too early), she struggled just to leave the hospital alive, having two surgeries in her first two months of
life. The last three years had been especially rough for both of us, as her mother (and my wife) had unexpectedly passed away. Our marriage had been a traditional one with most of the parenting chores falling to the woman of the house. I had always been the
“good cop” and suddenly my new role involved being both parents. Even now, I still didn’t always make the tough calls and it was possible, just possible, that I let Sara walk all over me at times. Since her mom’s death, my normally outgoing child had drawn inward and spent much time in her room. I think the problem was that we were still going through the grieving process in our own ways. Maybe this joint project would bring us together and let us process some of our pain. It was worth a try.

A week later, at our Saturday morning breakfast, I brought out a present, poorly wrapped in tacky red and green “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” paper from last Christmas.

“Before we get going, I have an early birthday present for you”, I said handing her the box. With a giant smile, she ripped through the paper, uncovering an orange handled twelve-inch long steel hand trowel. As her face went from smiling to doubtful, she slowly withdrew it from its handcrafted tan leather sheath. Gripping the handle with white knuckles so not to drop it, Sara inspected the sharp serrated edge, which came to a point, and the six-inch ruler clearly etched into the dull silver-colored shovel.

“What’s the heck is this?” she asked.

“It’s a soil knife. All the professional gardeners use them to dig holes and cut branches and stems. See this metal clip on the back of the sheath? That will catch onto your belt so you can always have your knife with you when you’re outside. Let me put it on you.” I clipped it onto her left side like a mom pinning a corsage onto her daughter on prom night. As Sara continued to examine her gift, I reached above the refrigerator and retrieved a matching soil knife. Attaching it to my belt, I said, “Look, we’re twins!” Sara just rolled her eyes.

“So are ready to plant your trees?” I asked.

“Really Dad? I didn’t think you were going for to let me plant them.”

“Well, you’ve spent all that time and effort growing them, plus I do love eating apples. Question is, do you know how to properly plant them?”

“Really Dad?” Sara repeated, this time using a snarky tone. “Didn’t you read any of my forwarded emails?”

“Um, not all of them.”

“I’ll go upstairs and get two of my trees. Meet you in the front yard?”

“Front yard? What’s wrong with the backyard?”

“I want everyone to see them!”

“OK, I’ll go out back and get some supplies. See you in a few minutes.”

As I loaded up our shovels and other gardening paraphernalia I thought we might need into the wheelbarrow, I wondered if I should put my foot down here. “No, it’s just two trees,” I told myself as I pushed our stuff to the front yard. I would have preferred starting in the backyard in case we failed miserably but she insisted. In Sara’s defense, the front was a clean slate. With only a few scrubby bushes, multiple clay and rock bald patches dotted with dandelions and other weeds, and no trees to speak of, we could literally start anywhere. Rounding the house’s corner, I witnessed Sara unsheathing her knife and brandishing it in the air. As I approached, she bellowed, “Arr matey! Shiver me timbers! Ye blade slices through the toughest seaweed and barnacles.”

“So you like it, Cap’n Sara?”

Throwing it downwards, and getting the blade’s tip to stick straight into the clay, she said, “Ye cutlass throws pretty good, landlubber.”

Um, that’s not exactly what I had in mind. “For heaven’s sake Sara, please don’t take it to school. They might think it’s a weapon.” There was no need getting more calls from the principal.

“Ye first tree goes here,” Sara pointed while referring to an unfolded full color plan. Then she removed some beat up yellow plastic tent stakes from a burlap bag she had brought out. Using the soil knife’s flat orange butt to pound the stakes into the ground, she marked ten spots. I winced with each strike, hoping the knife’s keen edge
wouldn’t injure my baby.

“Why are using so many stakes? Is that where each of the trees will be planted?”  Even my inexperienced eye could tell you shouldn’t plant this many trees in one area.

“No, we are building raised beds for two of my trees to live in,” she instructed. “We need to remove the soil first and replace it with compost. Start digging inside the stakes, ye lily-livered bilge rat.”

With that directive from my pirate supervisor, we first shoveled around the outside borders and worked our way in.

“Remember Dad, we need to go down at least two feet.”

“Are you sure? This is going to be a lot of work.”

“Put ye back into it, ye scallywag, and quit yer complaining,” ordered the Cap’n.

Many hours, breaks, and salty pirate talk later, we ceased the excavating to admire our work. With dirt and sweat covering our faces, arms, and clothes, we gazed at our four foot by six foot by two-ish foot deep beds. Piles of rocky clay surrounded each bed as we planned to use them as a border.

“Nice holes you have there. Who are you burying?” asked Mrs. Blayback from behind, startling us with her question.

“Oh, hi Mrs. Blayback,” I said, not remembering her first name. “We are building a raised bed so we can plant some trees.” I couldn’t remember the last time we spoke to our retired elderly next door neighbor. It’s strange that she would show up here uninvited.

“I would have thought you would be building up, not digging down.”

“We’re replacing the soil with something more nutritious,” Sara replied. “I’m planting apple trees I started myself from seed and they need all the help they can get!”

“Did she say she started apple trees from seed?” Mrs. Blayback asked me. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

“Oh, it’s not only possible, but we have a dozen trees to prove it,” Sara said. “Want to see them?”

Taking me aside, Mrs. Blayback whispered, “You know, I don’t think those trees will grow true. Meaning you won’t get the same apples you took your seeds from. Heck, you might not even get them to produce fruit at all.”

“I know next to nothing about apple trees, but Sara started them and I want to support her. I haven’t seen her this enthused about anything since her mother passed away. If she wants to be Janey Appleseed, so be it.”

Mrs. Blayback said in a louder voice so Sara could hear, “I don’t think your trees are going to work out. I’m a Master Gardener, you know. You should plant drought-tolerant natives instead.”

“And you should mind your own business,” Sara said while placing her left hand on her soil knife’s handle. “Why don’t you go back to your yard and save your dying roses?”

“I was just trying to help, little one. You should respect your elders,” Mrs. Blayback said as she walked back over to her own yard.

“Sorry about that,” I yelled at Mrs. Blayback’s back.

“Sara, you shouldn’t have been so rude,” I said.

“Dad, Mrs. Blayback doesn’t understand that these trees are my friends.”

“I know Honey. Let’s go to the store before they close. It looks like we need a whole butt load of compost.”

Returning from our errand, we unloaded the bags of compost and proceeded to fill both cavities. Today I was thankful Sara had acquired my genetics when it came to height and build. She was already five foot two inches tall, and according to her pediatrician, would be six foot tall as an adult. At that size, she was able to carry and shovel almost as much as her old man. As the day’s sunlight waned, our exhausted and dirty bodies finished piling up the last of the rich compost. The beds were now over two feet tall, looking quite robust and dark compared to the desolate yard. Wearily, we trudged into the house like mindless zombies, ate leftovers from the fridge, and went to bed without showering. Sara’s trees would have to wait until tomorrow

I awoke the following morning to Sara’s blue eyes staring at me while she sat on the bed’s side next to me as she did on every Christmas morning I could remember. She had strict orders not to wake her parents on such a special morning, but that didn’t stop her from watching us in anticipation. For her, today must be a special day, but that still didn’t override the fact that there is nothing creepier than having another human being peering at you as you slowly open your eyes. Becoming fully conscious, I noticed my every muscle was screaming out in pain, as my 40-something out-of- shape body was now feeling yesterday’s labor, but it was obvious I was not catching a break this time. After a pained yet hurried shower, breakfast and four Ibuprofen, I found myself outside, staring at the compost ready for planting.

“I brought out Fred and Gary to be planted,” Sara said.

“Who?” My morning brain was not understanding.

“My apple trees. These are my favorites.”

“So what are we doing with the bed itself? It seems real barren right now.”

Rolling her eyes, she said, “Didn’t you read my updates from last night? We’ll be planting tree friends around my trees.”

“Tree Friends?” I really need to keep up with her emails.

“Yes, I found an article called ‘Practical Planting Under Apple Trees’ which told me what to plant.”

“Hold it. You want to plant today? We don’t have any plants or seeds honey.”

“The greenhouse opens at 1 o’clock this afternoon. Didn’t you check your email? I sent you the list of what we need. And even with these new friends, I still have a lot of lawn out there. Can we plant fruits and vegetables between the trees?”

“If we dig up the lawn, where will I mow?”

“Now you’re getting the picture,” Sara said with a smug smile.

“What do you want to grow out here?”

“I’m not sure Dad. There are so many choices. Can we grow chocolate?” she asked hopefully.

“No Honey, that’s a tropical plant.”

“How about bananas?”

“No, they’re tropical also. How about the food we buy at the farmers’ market?”

“Those little orange cherry tomatoes are DE-lish! And what about grapes?

“Sure. Green beans?” I posed.

“Blech – unless you mean those canned dilly ones we bought over the winter.”

Great, now we have to learn how to can. This just keeps getting harder and harder.

“Why don’t we ask Mrs. Blayback? She seems to know a lot about gardening.”

“I’d rather not. Her pinched up prune face gives me the willies.”

“Well, I say we go over there and ask for some advice. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Sara and I walked through the bushes that divided our property from Mrs. Blayback’s and stepped into her side yard. Spotting her working in the back, we made a beeline to her immaculate freshly planted vegetable garden. Before us was a dark square plot which had been tilled in the last week or so. Mrs. Blayback was lying sideways on the ground as she placed starts into perfectly spaced pre-dug holes before pulling soil around each with gloved hands. As we approached, Mrs. Blayback stopped and tried to get up. I walked over to help her up while trying not to step on anything green.

“What t do I owe the pleasure of your company?” asked Mrs. Blayback.

“We are here to receive some advice,” I said. “Yesterday you mentioned you were a Master Gardener. We’d like to learn about growing vegetables.”

In the next half an hour, Sara and I both asked many questions. Sara pulled a notebook and pencil from her back pocket and made copious notes. Mrs. Blayback was a fount of knowledge of all things horticultural. By the end, Sara had a sheet full of the easiest and best vegetables to grow.

“After choosing which vegetables you want to grow, the next step is to pick a good spot to grow them in,” said Mrs. Blayback. “Let’s go over to your backyard and see where you have the most sunlight.”

“I want to grow them in the front yard where everyone can see them,” said Sara.

“Your front yard? Little one, I don’t recommend planting a garden there. Vegetable gardens are for the backyard. Everyone knows that.”

“I don’t care what everyone else does. My garden needs to be near Fred and Gary.”

“Who are Fred and Gary?” asked Mrs. Blayback.

“Those are some of the apple trees we were discussing yesterday,” I said.

“It’s just not proper to have garden plants where people can see them.”

“It looks like we are doing it anyway,” I said. “We don’t really do normal very well.”

“Well, if you aren’t going to listen to me, then I need to get back to my chores. Good luck with your garden.”

“Thanks for all the help. We’ll talk to you later.” I said as we slipped back into our yard. Funny, but I don’t think we spoke to her the rest of the summer.

On the Thursday night after receiving our letter, we apprehensively sat in the beige bland City Council’s chambers. In front of the room was a long table where the city officials sat facing the sparse audience. I wore a basic gray threadbare suit-and- tie from my corporate days. It was a size or two on the small size, and I had trouble closing the jacket, especially since it was missing a button. Sara wore a newly purchased second-hand dress, something I imagined young people wearing at church. It took us an hour and a half to find just the right one for this occasion. Lucky for us, Carol, a kind fellow shopper helped us out. She flirted with me the whole time, but I’m still not ready to start dating. Honestly, my hands are quite full with Sara, don’t you think?

“Do you think we’ll win tonight?” asked Sara.

“Of course Sweetie. How could they say ‘no’ to such an adorable little girl? Just remember to bat those eyes.” I hated teaching her such deception, but this was war. They were going to break my little girl’s heart and I wasn’t going to let it happen. The meeting started with the usual boring discussions of budgets, motions, and
plans. A local gardening club presented their request to use a city owned plot to grow vegetables for the city’s homeless shelter. The petition was denied as the property was already spoken for as a much-needed parking lot. After 45 minutes, the agenda finally
came around to us.

“Council has a request to overturn a front yard citation,” stated the Chair, an older man with distinguished greying hair and a stuffy demeanor.

“Yes, that would be us,” I said standing up. “Where do I get sworn in?”

“Please sit down sir. This is an informal hearing, not a court case.”

Another board member said, “According to the complaint, your front yard is overgrown and hasn’t been mowed all summer. This is in violation of our ‘Land Development Code’ which states the owner must maintain a proper ground cover on their property.”

“Actually, that’s on purpose. My daughter and I are using our yard to grow food for ourselves. There is actually little grass to mow, but trust me, the ground is covered.”

“Also, according to this report, you are growing several plants on the noxious weed list, including Garlic Mustard, Dame’s Rocket, and Crown Vetch. We can’t have that here inside city limits,” the board member continued.

“So if we remove the offending plants, we will be in compliance?” All those years of wasting my time watching fictional court cases on TV were now becoming valuable.

“Quite frankly sir, from what this report says, you will need to remove everything that’s not on the approved plant list. That can be obtained our web site.”

Out of turn, Sara asked, “Why do we need anyone’s permission to use our own yard?” The judge was not going to like that.

“Because we are a land of laws, young lady,” the Chair answered. “Without laws, there would be chaos. I’m sorry, but this is way it has to be. We have to consider property values and the general welfare of all our citizens. If this council makes an exception for you, we’d have to make it for others.”

Sara started bawling as the Chair continued, “On the bright side, you can grow what you want in your backyard where no one will be offended, as long as it’s out of sight from the sidewalk.”

Hugging her tightly, I whispered into her ear, “Don’t worry. We’ll replant Fred and Gary in the back for their safety.” As I released her, I locked eyes with Mrs. Blayback, who had been smugly sitting in the rear of the chamber. She was only a little over four feet tall and somewhat frail looking, but tonight she seemed puffed up and confident. Well, that explained that. Maybe I should have a word with her after all of this, but really, what can be done? I could get lawyers involved but that sounded expensive and would be way too late for this year’s crop.

“Please have your front yard in compliance by a week from Friday, or we will charge you to do ourselves.” finished the Chair as I contemplated our next move.

The following morning, as I was working from home, I heard a commotion emanating from the front yard. Yelling, yes, I definitely heard yelling. And a lawn mower. And Sara’s voice. Louder than I had ever heard it since her she outgrew her infant crying fits. “Better check this out,” I thought as I ran through the front door.

“I don’t care what you think! You have no right to be here!” Sara screamed. Like the protester blocking tanks in Tienanmen Square, Sara was defiantly standing a few feet in front of Mrs. Blayback’s immaculate green and yellow John Deere riding lawn mower. Behind Sara was Fred, her tiny tree still not tall enough to withstand the mower’s whirring blades. Mrs. Blayback had cut a swath through our garden straight to the apple tree’s bed.

“The city says it goes, so I’m here to help. You should thank me. This mess needs cleaned up!” yelled Mrs. Blayback.

Rushing to step in behind, I pushed Sara to one side, replacing her with my bigger presence.

“You need to leave our yard right now before I call the cops,” I yelled over the mower’s roaring engine.

“Call them. I’ll just come back later when you’re not here. There’s nothing you can do to stop me,” said Mrs. Blayback.

“Wanna bet?” Sara said as she launched herself from the side, knocking the woman to the ground and falling upon a row of green beans. Jumping on top of Mrs. Blayback, Sara wildly punched her victim, landing a few glancing blows upon Mrs. Blayback’s arms that were protecting her face. After an initial stunned reaction (who
was this beast set upon my neighbor?), I grabbed my young attacker and wrestled her off.

“You people are crazy!” Mrs. Blayback said.

“You want to see crazy?” Sara screamed while pulling her soil knife out of its sheath. With one quick move, she slashed across the tractor’s left rear tire with the sharp serrated edge, flattening the tire instantly. She then stood over the wounded and bewildered lady with knife raised and said, “Get out of my yard NOW! And never even look this way again, you bitch!”

After I helped a dazed Mrs. Blayback up off the ground, she turned and limped to flee this angry scene. Yelling after her I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure your tractor gets back to you.”

The following day, Sara and I were back out in the yard to correct a fatal flaw in our design. I had always heard fences make bad neighbors, but it was obvious even to me that we needed some privacy from our neighbor. City regulations said we couldn’t fence in the front yard, but we could start where the front of our house began. So I decided to fence the full length of the property line we shared with Mrs. Blayback first and then the public facing side next.

“I wish this fence could be twelve feet tall with barbed wire on the top,” Sara said.

“The city only allows for six feet in height. We are civilized people, after all.”

“Make sure the bottom touches the ground. We don’t want ANYONE squeezing under,” Sara said between hammering sessions.

Bringing up another board in place, I caught the image of Mrs. Blayback peeking over to see what we were doing. Placing her left hand on her soil knife’s handle, Sara stopped what she was doing, and with two fingers of her right hand, slowly pointed to
her eyes and then towards Mrs. Blayback twice. The neighbor slowly retreated and pretended to be tending to a rosebush.

“Honey, I don’t think anyone will be bothering us anytime soon,” I said while placing another nail in its place before striking the next blow.

Visiting the Early February Garden

In the wintertime, I rarely take the opportunity to visit my Northeastern Ohio vegetable garden. This is doubly true in February, as this month is when I often forget I even have a garden. So on a cold, partly cloudy, early February Sunday afternoon, I breached my protocol and took a backyard tour.

Early February 2017 Garden
Early February 2017 Garden

Temperatures hovered in the low 40s, which I have to admit is mild for this time of year. I’d actually been out digging in the dirt a few weeks ago when we got up into the 60s. Why would one be working a shovel during a notoriously slow garden period? To dig up some food, silly. I purposely left potatoes, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes underground to store them. The earth is a much better place to keep these root vegetables from going bad than the refrigerator or the basement. Looking around, those uncovered places were now a dark rich brown. Everywhere else I inspected, the ground was covered with plants or other mulch, just as I planned it.

Garlic Under Straw
Garlic Under Straw

My garden design employs a blanket of organic material, whether it is fall leaves or common weeds. Covered soil is happy soil. Even in this bleak winterscape, the soil is alive with activity, albeit slowed down by the cold. I observed green even underneath the blobs of snow that dotted my raised beds and garden paths. Of course this green was not the bright vivid green of spring, but a dull representative of a future only a month or two away. After closer examination, I discovered some living leaves to sample. The citrus taste of lemon balm, the bitter garlic of garlic mustard, the spinach tang of Swiss chard, and the distinct flavor of oregano all reminded me that warmer weather was around the corner. The straw-mulched garlic peeked out from its blanket, becoming greener by the day.

Garlic Peeking Out
Garlic Peeking Out

Gazing around my semi-frozen field, I realized I had left plenty of untouched vegetable remains as tributes to fall’s frosts. Dead pepper plants stood blackened, as they can’t withstand even a touch of cold. Lamb’s quarters branch towards the sky, spreading their millions of tiny seeds with every winter blast. Tomato vines, long dead, twine through my fencing, reminding me to start their seeds soon for summer planting. Again, leaving these all here was done intentionally, as overwintering “good guy” insects need spaces to hide and survive.

As I returned to my house with numb hands and eyes squinting from the unusual bright sun, my thoughts turned to my perennials, as those need less care and return year after year. Strawberries were visible, even now, though it would be April or May before I’d see flowers. My Egyptian walking onions, so named because they spread themselves around the garden, were weak but present. The sage sat with a few leftover leaves on top like helicopter blades. Twelve-foot high Jerusalem artichoke stalks whipped in the winds, each one marking a treasure trove of calories and fiber we will enjoy this spring. Even the infant trees (maples, walnut, and honey locust) which coexist with my annuals made their presence known, though they all were still hibernating. I guess it takes a gardener to truly see what the future holds for this mostly brown dull rectangle of possibilities.

Groundhogs in the Garden

There is nothing worse than spotting groundhogs amongst your prized vegetables. Here’s how I’ve dealt with the critters over the years.

My experience with groundhogs began a handful of garden seasons ago, The first clue I had an issue was some barely noticeable missing leaves on garden plants, specifically spinach and broccoli.  I didn’t think much of it and thought maybe it was insect damage.  The next day, a few plants were stripped and others were just gone. My instincts told me I had bigger problems but I still hadn’t witnessed the perpetrator in action. The following day provided my answer – a decent-sized groundhog (who I named Woody) was inside my fencing. He had dug under to get to my veggies.

groundhogbroccoli
Groundhogs just love broccoli

Knowing I needed to stop this menace, I bought a box trap from the local farm supply store. Using that intelligence us humans are always bragging about, I placed the trap inside the fence. I knew a groundhog was getting into garden, but I didn’t want to deal with other animals like opossums, raccoons, or skunks.  Several days (and half my corn stalks later), Woody was looking back at me from the trap.

groundhogcage
Woody with some of those pulled down corn stalks on top of him. I used corn in the trap.

With a cage full of groundhog, now I had to figure out what to do with him. I could have killed him, but my heart wasn’t really into it. So after some soul searching, I decided to release him somewhere else. Technically this is not the most legal action in my state, but I was desperate. It was either this or just let him pass naturally, which seemed cruel. If anyone asks, I just tell them that Woody’s in a better place.

The next year, my groundhog situation was worse tenfold. Being a permaculture practitioner, I left a woodpile surrounded by brambles a mere ten feet from my garden. A momma groundhog took up residence with her little ones running through my fence like it wasn’t even there. These groundhogs were too smart to fall for my trap and I ended up calling in the professionals. Three groundhogs, three raccoons, and $300 later, my problem was solved for now.

groundhogtrapped
This groundhog was taken to the “groundhog sanctuary.”

Discussing the groundhog issue with my landlord, he thought a .22 rifle was a good solution. He said I could even practice with it by shooting targets off the very logs the groundhogs were living under. Had I lived within city limits, this wouldn’t have been an option. At this point, I had never owned a gun and couldn’t imagine having one in my possession. Not because I was against guns, but because I was unfamiliar.

In hindsight, a firearm could have saved money and the lives of those poor innocent raccoons (legally they can’t just be released). Several times I was within feet of these trespassers. A gun would have solved much gardening heartache. I think the issue holding me back was my lack of experience plus my girlfriend’s love of groundhogs. The trappers actually told her they were taking them to be released at a special groundhog sanctuary upstate or some other nonsense  She didn’t truly believe it, but it did soften the blow.

One defensive maneuver I  have implemented after all this groundhog fun was to turn those groundhog harboring logs into a hugelkultur mound (with help from the landlord). This act, plus mowing down the brambles around the area, reduced the chances of another groundhog infestation. Leaving an overgrown area with piled wood is just asking for trouble. You are literally aiding and abetting the enemy.

Last season, I was again faced (literally) with a groundhog. He was traveling several hundred feet (and several neighbor’s yards) from his home to graze next to my garden. In his defense, I do have some really nice clover out there. One day, I found myself nose-to-nose with him, as I ran to block his escape route. There we stood, a mere 5 feet from each other, deciding what to do next. My inner voice whispered softly, “If you only had a gun right now.” Instead, here’s the cellphone picture I took of him fleeing the scene.

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Run, Groundhog, Run!

Thanks to my giant hugelkultur mound and diligent garden fence reinforcement (including chicken wire bent in an L shape out into the grass – the Snarky Girlfriend’s idea), this particular varmint hasn’t made his way into my garden. But as long as they are in my yard, there’s always a danger of an invasion. This year (knock on woodchucks) there has only been one groundhog sighted and he lives out by the road, far away from my precious veggies.

I want to leave by saying I am an animal lover, which is why I’ve taken quite the twisted path to my current stance. I find myself thinking “How adorable!” when spotting a groundhog eating away in the grass next to the road. I don’t look forward to personally ending the life of a groundhog (or any creature for that matter). But since I’m not vegan, I’m eating animals all the time that didn’t die of old age. Cognitive dissidence is a funny thing. We humans kill by proxy all the time but society thinks poorly of hunters because they are “killing Bambi”. I believe next time I’m faced with a garden invaders, I will “dispatch” them with a newly purchased .22 rifle.  I guess we’ll see.

Give To Your Local Seed Library

A seed library allows you to “check out” seeds with your promise to return some of your saved seeds at season’s end.

Seeds I borrowed from the Seed Library of the Kent Free Library.
Seeds I borrowed from the Seed Library of the Kent Free Library.

Seed libraries are getting to the point where they are becoming commonplace, at least from my point of view. Just a few years ago, they seemed like they were an endangered species, with seed laws making their existence precarious at best. Now with updated state laws, the seed library is coming back with a vengeance.

Earlier this year, I wrote up a post for Mother Earth News about seed libraries. One point I made was that the only way a seed library will survive and thrive is for people to give back. Well, now’s the time for action.

Saved seeds can be beautiful.
Saved seeds can be beautiful.

My seed library experience

For example, my neighborhood seed library, the Seed Library of the Kent (Ohio) Free Library) just sent out a request for gardeners to bring in collected seeds.

Here’s a few of their reminders:

  • We collect vegetable, herb, or flower seeds.

  • If  you had a successful crop using seeds from the Seed Library, we’d like you to bring back at least twice as much seed as you “borrowed.”

  • Donated seeds don’t have to be from plants you grew from Seed Library seeds!  Anything you’d like to donate helps grow the collection.

  • Review seed saving guidelines to be sure that your seeds will be viable and “true”–for instance, double check whether plants needed to be grown a certain distance away from other varieties in the same family or whether seeds can be harvested from the plant the first year, or are biennial and need to overwinter.

  • Save and dry your seeds according to recommended practices.

  • Bring your seeds to the library in a clear plastic bag and be sure to completely fill out a donation form.

Unfortunately for me, my checked out seeds didn’t fair well. I borrowed 4 varieties of beans, yet none survived. Between our drought and hungry rabbits, no beans were produced. I do have other seeds though, including the pictured Jacobs Cattle beans. Turnips, tomatoes, and peppers will round out my donations.

The most important idea to remember about seeds is they are an abundant resource when saved. Our consumer society wants you to believe seeds must purchase them from giant organizations hundreds of miles away. Truth is, one tomato or turnip plant can produce literally thousands of seeds. As a seed saver, you will have so many you won’t know what to do with them all. Why not give some back to the community?

Invasive Thoughts

Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?

Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive invader or abundant producer?
Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive weed or abundant producer?

One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.

During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”,  I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.

“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan,  p. 87

I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.  

Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.

Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources.  My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.

Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”

 Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

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Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.  I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.

Best way to eat Lamb’s Quarters:  same as spinach

Violet (Viola sororia)

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Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard.  I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach.  Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.

Best way to eat violets:  leaves and flowers in salads

Plantain (Plantago major)

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Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.

Best way to eat plantain:  same as spinach

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

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We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways.  The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most.  Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants.  Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies.  Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.

Best way to eat dandelions:  young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

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In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite.  It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens.  As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.

Best way to eat purple dead nettle:  just a few flowers in salads

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie) (Glechoma hederacea)

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Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.

Best way to eat Creeping Charlie:  it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea. 

Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott

Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.

Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.

“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)

The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.