Tails from the Wild,


Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner?


By Clement Kent


Suppose you walked into your kitchen one day and surprised a scruffy stranger gorging himself on your food? Suppose he then turned tail and fled? The view of his tail is why I titled this piece "Tails from the Wild", because if you substitute "garden" for "kitchen" above we have an experience all too familiar to many gardeners.

The tail concerned might be the white flick of a rabbit or a white-tailed deer bounding off into the woods, the brown stub of a bear or the luxurious black boa of a squirrel. Weíll hope it wasnít the snaky hind appendage of a rat, although in the city it might well have been. No matter to whom it belonged, you probably wished, along with Farmer McGregor, that it would be the last youíd see of the intruder. Such wishes are rarely granted, alas!

In my October talk "Where the Wild Things Are" I shared some stories of wild things, welcome and unwelcome, in our membersí gardens. For those of you who couldnít be there Iím expanding on a few of these and adding some I couldnít fit in during the talk. Iíll bet many of you have such stories. Let me send you a challenge: if you think other Hort members would enjoy one of your stories, send it to the Newsletter Editor (horttoronto@hotmail.com) or if you donít have e-mail fax it to me at 533-9624. Iíll gather the best submissions into a follow-on article.

Let me start these tales of unexpected visitors with a note from my own family. My parents have a log cabin perched high atop a granite ridge some 50 kms west of Thunder Bay, in an area once farmed but now reverting to bush. The ground floor is garage and storage space, so one climbs up a stairway to the 2nd floor deck to enter the house proper. On the deck is kept a trash can with bird seed, and a bowl of occasional leftovers for the extremely friendly mutt named Rusty who migrates over from the neighbours ever hour or three to see whatís up. Just around the corner from the deck is a kitchen window with a shelf for bread crumbs for gray jays, a seed feeder for chickadees, and a tin can nailed to the shelf in which leftover fat is placed for woodpeckers (it had to be nailed down to prevent birds flying off with it!).


One weekend they arrived at the cabin, ready to harvest the fall carrots and turnips, only to find the dog bowl battered, the trash can of seed rolled over and looted, and bear droppings on the deck. Needless to say they removed both bowl (to Rustyís dismay) and can of seeds (and the droppings). This, plus occasional loud banging of pots and brandishing of brooms, seemed to discourage the bear enough that they concluded the problem was under control.

A few weeks later, at 4:00 in the morning, my mother heard a loud bumping and thumping near the door. Fearing a human intruder, she quickly flipped on the outside lights. Immediately there followed a rending sound, a crash, and the glimpse out the kitchen window of a the bear disappearing into the woods, tin can full of fat clutched in its jaws. The next morning they followed the route of the bearís climb to the feeder: up a platform which holds a rain barrel, to the point where the log walls begin and its claws could find purchase. Then up the walls to hang off the feeder shelf while trying to extract the precious fat. Then, the weight of the bear proving too much for the nails in the shelf, rather quickly back down to the ground.

Knowing thereís a hungry bear nearby does tend to make the fall harvest a little bit more interesting for my parents. What I found even more interesting was hearing an almost identical story from Judith Wong, with only the location of the feeder changed. Her weekend retreat near the Catskills is overrun by deer which eat nearly all her flowering plants, but to add bears to the equation really gives meaning to the phrase "add insult to injury". Judith is the sister of Jonathan Wong, whose experience in the Ministry of Natural Resources leads him to speculate that Judithís deer are quite literally starving, due to overpopulation. Unlike Northern Ontario where wolves and hunters still prey on deer, in the Catskills there is almost no culling of the herds. Jonathan says that in the nearby woods even normally unpalatable plants such as wild rhododendrons are damaged to just the height a deer can reach. I did offer Judith to see if Ontario could spare a few packs of wolves, but she worried that parents with small children might view this as a misguided gardening measure. We both agreed that the alternative of arming garden club members with baseball caps, red vests, hip flasks, and large-bore rifles and then leading them into the woods (along with beaters, dogs, and possibly a few peons to sound horns and trumpets and butcher afterwards) for a ritual deer slaughtering also had a few drawbacks.

Judith plans to bulldoze her garden someday and rebuild it into a garden of rocks, turf, small ponds, and anything else deer wonít eat. Jonathanís friend Summer Jackson, who lives in rural Kent, England, had a different take on deer. For some English gardeners, the biggest nuisance associated with deer are the hunters. She told me of the case of the woman with a garden adjacent to Exmoor in Devon who found a stag sprawled on top of her garden shed. The creature had been chased by a hunt and had only enough strength for one last leap over her garden wall. It would have been dog meat but for the gardener who drove off the hunt and snapped a picture of the exhausted stag - a picture which appeared in newspapers and animal rights brochures across Great Britain.

Summer herself has neighbours who have been known to let a fox into their gardens and drive off the hunt. But perhaps the most unusual garden visitor in her neighborhood is a wild boar. It seems a few have survived centuries of hunting in the south of Kent, and they have gradually been expanding their range again. This one slips into neighbourhood vegetable gardens under the cover of darkness and roots everything edible out of the ground with the bulldozer power of its snout. By dawn itís gone, leaving only a distraught gardener in its wake.

If I start on squirrel, skunk, and raccoon stories there will be no room left in the Newsletter for anything else. Perhaps the Editor will allow me just one: the case of the gourmet native plant gardener raccoon.

When I first planted my new pond I gloried in thoughts of lush pondside flowers and exotic blooms emerging from the water. No sooner had I turned my back than the raccoons began to investigate. This was not unexpected, and I had provided plenty of hiding spots for the fish in the pond, so I wasnít greatly worried. However, I began to be just a mite upset when every underwater planting pot was systematically hauled up, the plant extracted, a token bite or so directed at the roots to see if it might be good eating, and the remains contemptuously thrown to the bottom of the deep part of the pond. This happened not once but many times last year.

This year I resolved to prevail. A gloriously Rube Goldbergish contraption of pipes and tubes was made to prevent the rolling of pots to the bottom. After planting each pot was liberally weighted down with the heaviest stones that would fit. And it worked! The pots in the pond were saved unwelcome attentions.

However, this meant that more time was available to inspect pondside plantings. Now, I happen to love lobelias - Great Blue Lobelia, Cardinal Flower, their various hybrids, and some of the smaller and more modest natives like Kalmís Lobelia. After I protected the submerged pots, the lobelias and other more accessible plants came in for closer attention. This is when I learned that my local raccoons are native plant bigots. All of my Ontario native lobelia species were spared, but each and every one of the hybrids was searched out and treated like raccoon celery. Usually the stalk would be chomped through at the base, too low for the plant to recover. As these hybrids were exactly the plants whose bright red foliage was to have added to the reflections in the pond, the coons drastically simplified my pondside planting scheme. Was it artistic commentary on an overly garish layout? native plant bigotry? or sheer malice? Whatever the answer, Iíll enter the fray again next year. Now letís see...what did I do with the blueprints for that robot water cannon...?


Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t