Friday, September 4, 2009

Neighbors and Pests

She gives with one hand and takes with the other. One day I’m waxing lyrical about the unexpected gifts gardens give; the next I go out and find the late blight that’s been plaguing much of the country this year on my tomatoes. I could have cried. We’ve had plenty of little Juliet tomatoes already, but the cool summer slowed the ripening of the bigger tomatoes. The Amish paste and Beefsteak were just getting going. I canned a small batch of salsa a couple of weeks ago, and have saved up about what I need for a large batch of pizza sauce.

(I’ve learned, by the way, that the Amish paste are far superior to the Viva Italia I had grown in previous years. Large, rich red, meaty, and aromatic, with the additional advantage of being an heirloom cultivar, Amish paste are now my top choice for canning sauces and salsas.)

So we rescued all the tomatoes that were starting to ripen on still healthy vines (at least six or seven pounds) for further ripening indoors, and bagged up everything else. Pounds and pounds of green tomatoes. Meanwhile, our neighbors across the fence reported that they, too, suspected they had late blight on their tomatoes. But, unsure whether it was late blight, and enjoying a beer while they strolled through their garden, they had little inclination to rip out diseased plant material that evening.

“I hope it doesn’t get on my potatoes,” I said, trying to hint, in my usual unsubtle way. Their tomatoes are just a few feet away from my last potato patch, much closer to my spuds than my own tomatoes. They hadn’t heard of blight on potatoes, and stared at me in disbelief when I mentioned that potatoes and tomatoes were both in the solanaceae, or nightshade family. Patiently, my neighbor pointed out that “one is a fruit and one is a vegetable.”

It occurred to me later that one topic I’ve rarely seen covered in the flurry of articles about backyard food production is the complication of near neighbors and their gardening practices. I’ve seen many that focus on chicken-keeping; I can’t recall any that focus on gardening. We’ve been blessed over the years, in the many places we’ve lived, to have had many, many good neighbors. The type of folks who will, unasked, run out with a shovel to help dig my car out of the pile of snow left by the plow at the end of my driveway when I foolishly forget to look before backing out. Who will offer to haul loads of free bark (as my neighbor with the suspected case of blight did), from the nearby city park when Rick’s out-of-town and my hip’s acting up. Who, in many ways, big and small, generously help out, often unasked, whenever we need it.

It was a neighbor, in fact, who got me started on my first garden. Back in 1981, we lived in base housing at McChord Air Force base in Washington state. Our neighbors and friends down the street dug up a section of their back lawn and planted a large vegetable garden. Inspired by them, Mother Earth News magazine, and the “back to the land” movement of the late 1970s, I decided I wanted to start a garden, too.

Rick was opposed because base regulations required submitting a written plan in advance and signing an agreement to replant grass over the plot before we moved. He didn’t want to replant grass, especially if he got orders to another base on short notice. So, naturally, as soon as he went out-of-town on another of his many TDYs (temporary duty at another base), I had our neighbor (coincidentally, also named Rick) come over and rototill up a section of the lawn.

By the time my Rick returned, we’d been ticketed for an unauthorized garden, but he was able to smooth that over with the authorities fairly easily. (I could write a whole post on the troubles I caused that poor man with the military authorities over the years, but I digress. Suffice to say, I’m lucky he’s still with me!)

In that first garden, I grew tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, peas, and some other things I can’t remember. What really stands out for me are the peas. I’d hated peas when I was growing up. Mom had a rule then that we couldn’t have dessert until the vegetables were finished. So around and around the table that bowl of peas would go, each child (eventually, eight of us) taking just a few and hoping that by the time the bowl returned to him or her, the peas would be gone. Of course, those were canned peas. Until I grew my own, I’d never tasted a fresh pea. And they were delicious. The goal was to freeze some to save on grocery bills, but we ate most of them fresh. Huge mounds of them, lightly steamed, with butter and just a little salt. They were a revelation.

The other thing I remember about that garden was the lack of pests. We had no fences around our yards in base housing, and never put one around our vegetable garden. No rabbits feasted on the fruit of my labor, as in later gardens. I don’t even remember any major insect problems.

I didn’t realize how easy I had it until I lived other places and struggled with various pests. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether some chemical or other had killed off any pests. Military installations have been (still are?) notorious environmental polluters, dumping all sorts of industrial waste into the ground. McChord AFB, in particular,
contaminated public wells adjacent to the base at the time we lived there. Those “organic” vegetables I thought I was growing were probably a lot less healthy than I realized.

Things were different at the first house we owned in Omaha, Nebraska. Insects weren’t too bad, but we did have a few rabbits. In the beginning, this wasn’t much of a problem. We, or our neighbor Jerry’s dogs, could chase them off fairly easily, and we didn’t lose many vegetables or flowers. Then one summer, we were overrun with rabbits. They razed everything I planted to the ground. They were everywhere and they were bold. When I ran at them yelling and waving my arms, instead of scampering off as in the past, they just sat and stared at me.

Jerry, sympathetic to my plight, and with a little time on his hands (he had no garden to defend; he discouraged his wife from planting anything in the yard because he didn’t want anything to “get in the way” of his mowing), was eager to assist. “Want me to get my gun?” he asked helpfully. “I have it handy. Why don’t I go get it now?”

“Uh, no thanks, Jerry,” I replied. “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”

Earlier that year, a family with an eight-year-old girl had moved in next door. She and her dad Craig stopped by my garage sale during the summer of the rabbit scourge and I engaged in what I thought was neighborly commiseration about the varmints. “You know,” I said to the father, after detailing my complaints, “Jerry keeps wanting to take his gun to the rabbits, and I’m about ready to let him!”

Craig fixed me with an icy stare. “My daughter loves the rabbits,” he said coldly. “She feeds them every day.” He put his arm around her protectively. “C’mon, honey, let’s go.”

Great. Now I knew why the rabbits had proliferated and I had a rep as a bloodthirsty bunny killer.

A few days later, I was aghast to see my neighbor Murray, who lived behind us and the rabbit-lovers next door, spraying something from a tank on Craig’s woodpile. Murray spent many a summer evening strolling through his beautiful perennial garden spraying some chemical or other on anything that moved.

What are you doing?” I asked.

“That’s where the rabbits live,” he said matter-of-factly. “Will it kill them?” I asked, wondering what the hell he had in that tank. It seemed unlikely that a bug spray would kill rabbits, unless it was a slow death. “I don’t know, but I’m sick of these rabbits!”

We bitched and moaned for awhile before I raised my biggest concern. “Well, I wonder whether that wood will be safe to burn? Whether there will be some kind of toxic fumes from that spray?” Murray didn’t know, and didn’t seem too worried about it.

Eventually, we got the rabbit menace under control by attaching chicken wire to the lower foot or so of the chain link fence that surrounded the yard. Would that pest control could be as easily achieved in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve said over and over to anyone who will listen (and many who were trying not to) that I thought I was a pretty good gardener until I moved to Wisconsin.

We figured we knew how to deal with the rabbits. Rick put up a picket fence and attached two feet of chicken wire to the bottom. But as we stood admiring his handiwork, we were astonished to see a rabbit leap gracefully over the chicken wire and through the pickets. So he went back and stapled-gunned two more feet of chicken wire to the fence.

But fences will not keep out chipmunks and squirrels. We had squirrels in Nebraska, but none ever came on my deck and dug fresh plantings out of pots as they do here. We start all our container plantings now with domes of chicken wire to protect the seedlings.

Last year was the year of the earwigs in the bed alongside the garage. I’m sure those bugs must exist in Nebraska, too, but, they weren’t a problem for me there. Apparently, they are impervious to insecticidal soap. They devastated my Savoy cabbages and bell peppers until I learned to set out traps made of tuna cans with a little oil in them. We must have emptied hundreds and hundreds earwigs from tuna cans last year.

The worst scourge of all is the Japanese beetles. I never even heard of a Japanese beetle until I moved to Wisconsin. Nothing kills them except heavy duty chemicals, which we are loathe to use. (Where is Murray when I need him???) We tried Neem oil spray, but that just deters some of them for a day or two. Insecticidal soap is useless. Rick spread milky spores on the ground, but that just kills the grubs. The bugs can fly in from miles away. Only neighborhood cooperation can get them under control.

Last night, while talking to the neighbors behind us about late blight on tomatoes and potatoes, we noticed Japanese beetles on their roses – just a few feet from our cherry trees. We engaged in a little friendly finger-pointing about whose shrub they originated from. Maybe they’re right, and the beetles did originate from our trees. And maybe when I’m not looking, they are diligently removing beetles. What I do know is that Rick is the only one who uses milky spores, and the only one I ever see collecting beetles every evening.

Our neighbors, who are generous and decent people, appear to have given up doing anything about their beetles. Usually I see them look at the beetles, sigh, and look away. They’ve told us we’re welcome to come over and shake beetles from their roses to feed our chickens. We’ve got plenty of beetles for our chickens in our own yard, but maybe we should go pick theirs, if only to diminish the numbers in our vicinity.

In a way, I don’t blame them. It’s a never-ending and seemingly impossible task to get Japanese beetles under control. Plus, neighbors on either side of our house have two birch trees each, which are also Japanese beetle magnets. Even if we and the ones behind us attack the beetle problem, we’ll make little headway without our other neighbors, who are wonderful people, but mostly disinterested in gardening.

So, in addition to the challenges of growing sufficient food in small spaces, and coping with local ordinances and homeowner association rules, we urban farmers will also have to learn how to enlist the cooperation of near neighbors, whose gardening practices directly impact our own efforts. Larisa, if you’re reading this, that lone homestead looks mighty tempting at the moment!

On the other hand, if I were a lone homesteader, who would dig my ass out of the snow the next time I need it? And who would I help, to make my life useful? Who would I talk to and laugh with? Maybe I ought to end this ramble, and go out to help my neighbor pick the beetles off her roses after all.

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