As kids, we want Peter Rabbit to sneak into Mr. McGregor’s garden. That’s where all the action is. And of course we root for him to get out alive, having filled his belly with soporific lettuces and evaded the homicidal gardener. Nowadays, reading Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit to my daughter, Mr. McGregor looks less like a villain than a beleaguered old man trying to feed his family. And Mrs. McGregor, who put Peter’s father into a pie? A paragon of sensibility. She should have her own blog.
The McGregors’ plight strikes a chord because 120 years after it was put to paper, we find ourselves similarly beset. Mr. McGregor chased Peter around with a garden rake. Our arsenal – updated for the times – includes a Havahart trap, smoke bombs, balls of barbed wire, and now a .22-caliber rifle.
We weren’t always this militant. I’m okay with the idea of tithing to the animals, giving a tenth of the harvest like the serfs had to do in feudal times. The probem is, our particular nemeses, the groundhogs, are no longer content with a portion. They want it all. They’ve mown our cabbage, kale and broccoli plants to the stem and pulled some out of the ground altogether. We will not taste a single snap pea; the entire double row is nibbled to the ground. Our battered lettuces can’t gain a foothold. So far, they’ve let our tomato plants be, but I know from experience that they’re just waiting for the fruit to ripen.
When we broke ground on our garden last year, we spent thousands of dollars on tough wire mesh to encircle a quarter-acre paddock. We dug a trench around it and sunk the fencing into the ground at an angle, so that if burrowing creatures got to the fence and dug down, they’d hit fence (they’re not smart enough to back up and try again).
It wasn’t until later that we found an animal hole already in the garden. For some reason I can’t remember now, the hole didn’t look to me like it was “active,” but I filled it with rocks as – I thought – a precautionary measure. The next day, the rock pile had been tossed aside. I asked my fellow farm dwellers: “Hey, you didn’t move that pile of rocks, did you?” The rocks were heavy, requiring two hands to lift. I piled them back into what I fancied an artistic tower, only to find it reduced to rubble the next day. That was when I started picturing the groundhog wearing a wristband and a headband.
I flooded the tunnel with a hose. Forty-five minutes and god knows how much wasted water later, there was no sign of a back-up. The extent of what we were up against began to dawn on me. This was not an animal hole but a sophisticated subway system that might extend for miles.
We went on the offensive, bombarding the hole with every deterrent we could dream up or Google: we peed in it, covered it with mesh, hung a bar of Dial soap in a stocking above the hole, put a pot of nasturtiums next to it, stuck balls of barbed wire down it. The groundhogs slid the mesh panels aside, tunneled around the barbed wire, gnawed through the stocking to eat the bar of Dial soap, chomped the nasturtiums. Once the sentinel rock pile remained standing for a few days and we were hopeful, until we discovered a fresh hole in the opposite corner of the potting shed.
This spring I called a pest control company: what was the proper way to handle this situation? For an initial $95 fee, they set up a trap. Each time an animal is caught, you pay an additional $95 for the company to come take it away and re-bait the trap. Last year, through a combination of a borrowed gun, a Havahart trap, and a dog, we dispatched of six groundhogs, which hasn’t made a dent in their population. If we had brought in a professional, we would have been $665 poorer and in exactly the same situation we’re in now.
There was no way around it. The more I learn about large scale food production, the more certain I am that eating home-grown food is critical. We would have to take matters firmly into our own hands.
Husband Joe asked for and got a .22-caliber rifle for his birthday. It wasn’t the kind of gift you jump up and down and give kisses over. He listened and nodded as his father explained how to sight it in. After Joe shot his first “whistle-pig,” as he’s taken to calling them, he e-mailed me:
“When Beatrix Potter writes of rabbits eating Mr. McGregor’s lettuces, it’s cute. Like how you root for the Godfather or Tony Soprano. Until you realize you are Mr. McGregor.”