Illustration by Garth Williams (from Margaret Wise Brown’s book, Mister Dog)
Giving Seed Saving New Meaning
Seeds are such little miracles, bundles of protein and promise. Seeds can nurture living beings and create new plants. Seeds can also invite flocks of hungry birds into your garden, eager to share the bounty. Indeed, birds give seed saving a whole new meaning, as preventing them from gobbling down everything we sow can be quite a demanding task. Years ago, I had a wonderful water-spraying device called a scarecrow that was motion activated. It worked to keep birds and dogs and deer out of the garden, and many birds disliked it as well, except for the crows, which quickly learned to trigger the refreshing spray for feather cleaning and preening purposes. Oh well. These days, I mostly resort to covering newly sown beds with a sheet of woven row cover, loosely held down with rocks along the edges.
That doesn’t keep slugs and snails away, of course. I generally find it less stressful to sow seeds indoors and pot them up before setting them out in the garden as larger starts. I repurpose plastic lettuce boxes as mini greenhouses for seedlings, propping the hinged tops open with old plant labels for better air circulation. When the second set of true leaves form, I gently tease the youngsters apart and give each a 4-inch pot to grow on in. After a few weeks in our unheated sunporch, the sturdy little plants are ready to go into the garden. Since the sun porch is not heated, it gets cold at night and the starts are already hardened off, so changeable spring weather is rarely an issue. However, other dangers await the youngsters once they’re nestled in the mulch.
Beware Of Bunnies
Bunnies are adorable, but oh my, can they ever eat. In recent years, rabbits have proliferated all over our island. Proliferated is definitely the word, for rabbits are famously prolific, producing as many as five litters a year when well fed (which these clearly are). Each litter may consist of 4-8 babies, all of which are sexually mature in 2-3 months. They start their breeding cycle in February around here, and their gestation period is about a month. Do the math and try not to faint. However, rabbits are pretty low on the food chain and many babies die young, eaten by cats, skunks, and snakes as well as larger birds. Adult rabbits are preyed on by owls, hawks, coyotes and foxes, not to mention dogs, and many become roadkill. That’s why the temperate world is not utterly overrun by rabbits, but it can seem a likely eventuality when our beloved gardens are getting ardent appreciation from these voracious critters.
That said, rabbits aren’t the only ones who nibble garden greens. To identify the culprits, look at the leaves; rabbits’ teeth make clean, straight cuts, while slugs and snails, caterpillars, leaf miners and deer take raggedy bites. Slugs and snails are always a problem in cool, damp weather, but they can be controlled by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around slug favorites like young lettuces and greens. To keep Cabbage Moth caterpillars from decimating your kale, as soon as you spot them at work, spray both sides of the leaves with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring soil dweller that paralyses the caterpillars’ digestive system so they stop eating and die. However, Bt works equally well on the caterpillars of beautiful butterflies, so use it only on target plants when pests are present and never spray in windy weather. Leaf miners are trickier to control but you can always feed affected leaves to chickens (yours or a neighbor’s), put the funky foliage in the green waste bin, or bury the leaves in the hottest part of a thriving compost heap.
Dealing with deer is an increasing issue as their habitat is destroyed to make room for new houses or shopping malls and so on. Fencing must be high and impenetrable to foil these strong, graceful, leapers but there are a few good tricks for reducing their damage in our gardens. Strong smelling meat by-products such as blood meal and bone meal are effective deterrents for both deer and rabbits, but need to be renewed every few weeks in rainy seasons. Both are good soil amendments that add important nutrients to the soil, from calcium, magnesium and zinc and iron (bone meal) to nitrogen (blood meal). Both smell strongly of their animal origin and that’s unpleasant to both deer and rabbits. Bonus!
Both bone and blood meals need to be replenished after rain, but perimeter plantings of strongly scented herbs are even more potent when wet. Edge the garden with rosemary, oregano, sage, catmint and fennel plants and you’ll delight pollinators and discourage nibblers. Line each garden bed with thyme, oregano, and chives and enjoy the benefits of repelling pests and making happy pollinators, such as increasing crops and encouraging seed production to ensure next year’s bounty. If you have dogs, encourage them to pee around the outer parts of the garden, as their scent markers are repellent for smaller beasts. Post-puberty human males also produce repellent pee, and a timely squirt can keep unwanted feasters out of your garden. Best of all, urine offers both nitrogen and phosphorus to soil; to avoid burning tender plants, ask handy males to limit their territorial marking to the outer perimeter of the garden. Onward, right?