Friday, May 18, 2012

Garden Lessons

Gardening never really interested me as a kid. It was the weeding that did it. Weeding was borrrring, and half the plants you had to pull up were outfitted with treacherous spikes. Sure, peas and green beans fresh off the vine were good and all, but to my youthful, unsophisticated palate, the reward just wasn't worth the effort.

Thankfully, I've since overcome that childhood ignorance. Growing your own food is awesome. Really. You put seeds in the ground, pour water on them every couple of days, and in a few weeks or months you get free food! Garden-fresh pickings don't even compare to supermarket produce.

Why did it take me so long to catch onto this? Part of the problem was that I spent the last two and a half years living in Phoenix, where the climate resembles the more temperate regions of Hell eight months of the year.

I did manage to nurture a few leafy green things there—mint, a few pots of basil, some garlic once—but they all withered and died sooner or later, indoors or out. Plus I lived in a rented house, no gardening allowed, for the first half of my stay and a second-story apartment for the remainder. Gardening just didn't seem feasible.

Still, I couldn't get the idea out of my head after moving to the much more reasonable Bay Area. Friends would call and boast to me about their tomatoes, their bell peppers, their mountains of kale. I was seized by jealousy, positively green with envy.

So what if I was still apartment bound? Why should people with houses and real yards have all the fun? Darn it, I'd show 'em!

Since my botanical knowledge was mostly limited to academic matters—root nutrient uptake, the intricacies of photosynthesis, that kind of thing—and since I am a stalwart believer in the power of the written word, my first step was to find a book that would supply me with all the answers. I found my bible in The Bountiful Container, an extensive and surprisingly enjoyable to read volume perfectly suited to apartment living.

After devouring the intro how-to chapters and a healthy number of the sections on specific plants, I dragged Amaury to the local nursery to buy supplies. (Dumping loads of dirt straight onto the balcony would probably violate the terms of our lease, so an assortment of terra cotta pots was needed.)

Back home, I carefully scooped soil into containers, mixed in some of the fertilizer that the enthusiastic young garden store employee had insisted we purchase, carefully laid down seed according to the precise specifications on the back of the seed packets and in my book… and waited. And waited. I went out on the balcony several times a day to check if my babies needed water and to deliver encouraging, sometimes pleading germinations speeches. I waited some more.

And finally, when I was on the cusp of despair, my seeds magically transmogrified themselves into actual plants and poked their little green heads up into the air! I was elated, bursting with pride, and hooked. Hooked on the simple thrill of growth, of creating something out of seemingly nothing.

Back we went to the nursery for more pots, more seeds. I picked up some organic mixed salad greens starts, too—not as exciting as starting from scratch, but hey, I'm not above a little instant gratification.

And then the invaders began arriving.

First came the yellow jackets. They weren't specifically interested in the garden, but their presence on a small balcony was unwanted to say the least. Especially as they seemed to be constructing a nest in the AC unit, a place difficult to access and where I certainly did not want maintenance to spray toxic pesticides that would then enter our apartment.

When the hanging trap we set up failed to solve the problem, we gave in and called the maintenance guy. He took apart the AC and removed the nest, no toxic chemicals necessary. Pest number one was out of the way!

In the meantime, I'd noticed an army of aphids bivouacking on the inner leaves of some of my assorted salad greens. I certainly wasn't going to apply pesticides here, either, and though the garden shop had had boxes of ladybugs for sale, just picking one up and seeing them crawling around inside had made my skin similarly crawl.

Note: I'm really not that bug-phobic, though I will make exceptions for craneflies and anything else with a disturbingly disproportionate leg-to-body-length ratio (and crickets… ick, crickets). But we would get infestations of ladybugs in the house I grew up in, and they are just gross.  (Technically they were Asian lady beetles, not ladybugs, but I'm not interested in such nitpicky distinctions.) When they blanket the front wall of your home so that you have to go in through the garage, and when you find their desiccated little carcasses in every room, and when you try to catch one and it panics and emits this yellow, awful smelling goo, you develop a pretty strong mixture of aversion and revulsion to them.

In any case, since pesticides and ladybugs were out of the question, I turned to books once again. My fave little natural living book, Make Your Place, suggested I arm myself with a squirt bottle of diluted castile soap. Since the first spraying failed to get rid of the invasion, I gave the whole pot a good soaking a few days later. It worked a little too well… I managed to kill the aphids, but my formerly richly green leaves quickly turned withered and brown. Whoops.

After an overzealous soaping session. (To be fair, this was also several days after I gave up and stopped watering it.)

The third and final pest: squirrels. I kid you not, squirrels have an insatiable appetite for cilantro. They started munching on my sprouts as soon as the leaves popped up, and they've been coming back ever since.

At first I wasn't sure if the toppled seedlings and scattered dirt were the work of squirrels or birds. But once I caught a greedy, beady-eyed, black-furred little beast red-pawed, I knew where to lay the blame. The weirdest part was that they seemed completely uninterested in the parsley I'd planted right next to it in the same box.

I recently spotted these unidentified critters on my cilantro. I'm blaming the squirrels for this, too. They were only on top of two stems that were about to bolt anyway, so I pinched the whole things off. Hopefully they don't return. They look nasty.

My immediate course of action, as you've probably guessed, was to seek the advice of gardeners older and wiser than me. I plumbed the depths of the Internet to learn how to defend my garden against these unwanted rodents. A search for "squirrel cilantro" brought up various garden blogs and forums (along with an alarming number of recipes…).

The non-culinary links suggested some approaches that just weren't practical for my tiny garden—planting a few rows of sacrificial plants, for instance. But I did come across a tip I could easily apply; several bloggers advised sprinkling garlic or chili powder around plants to keep nibblers at bay.

I dug some old cayenne out of the back of my spice cupboard—I'm pretty averse to spicy foods myself, so the jar was essentially full—and some granulated garlic. Several sprinkled spoonfuls later and I was feeling pretty confident that I'd outwitted those sneaky squirrels.

To be doubly sure, I logged onto my favorite scholarly search engine, Web of Science, and cast out a line baited with a few promising search terms. Eventually I reeled in a catch that seemed to support the garden bloggers' hypothesis.

The article, "The use of repellents to reduce predation of tree seed by wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus L.) and grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis Gmelin)," was published last year by a UK team led by Ian Willoughby. They tested five non-toxic or food-derived compounds for their effectiveness at keeping these granivores from pigging out on wheat grains and ash tree seeds in a lab setting, as well as acorns in a field test.

Repellents tested by Willoughby et al:
  1. Aluminum ammonium sulfate — taste and smell aversion
  2. Capsaicin, derived from chili peppers (genus Capsicum) — extreme irritant
  3. Denatonium benzoate — taste aversion (you might know it as Bitrex)
  4. Fish oils — Taste and odor aversion
  5. Ziram — Irritant, taste and odor aversion (this one is considered toxic, contrary to the authors' assertions)

Of the five, the capsaicin treatment was far and away the most effective. It lessened feeding rates by up to 95% compared to an untreated control. However, it's worth noting that the authors only tested capsaicin in one of their three experiments (wheat seeds), and none of the tests involved live plants.

Most unfortunately, my own capsaicin and garlic treatment completely failed to deter my local squirrels. Maybe I should have used more, or maybe the cayenne was too old, or maybe American squirrels actually like spicy cilantro. Who knows.

Disappointed but not yet ready to admit defeat, I installed a metal bike basket over the planter. It worked surprisingly well until another hungry squirrel decided to give it a go last weekend. We came home from a camping trip to find my previously lush herb garden mostly gnawed down to the stems. Damn. They'd even developed a taste for the parsley this time.

Herbs in jail. Those shoots almost reached the top of the basket before the evil squirrels gobbled them up again.

I'm maintaining the caged-in garden for now, but I've started an indoor cilantro pot just in case. Still, I think I'll take some extra precautions outdoors. Perhaps some halved garlic cloves hanging from the roof of the basket will finally keep the squirrels away for good? That'd keep us safe from vampires, at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment