Tag Archives: gardening

Squirrel War II

Or, Caleb: 1, Squirrel: 0

The tomato plants pushed out the top of the hoop house. Next year I will plant compact bush varieties.

The early spring heat wave fried my sugar snap pea vines before they had even bloomed. The mid-spring freeze weakened my beans. I had a good run of cucumbers and early on—until a rat (or rats!) chewed through the netting on my new hoop houses and ate the rest, plus the early crop of squash I had not yet harvested.

This makes me cry.

I set high hopes on the many fat, beautiful green tomatoes growing in the hoop houses—until last weekend.  The variety I grew inside them was too large, and the plants have pushed out the top, creating easy access for the squirrels, who decimated my crop.

It has not been a happy growing season for me.

The squirrel proof net tent is showing signs of wear and tear.

To add to my woes, the famous Squirrel Proof Net Tent is now three years old, and it’s beginning to show signs of wear. Holes have opened in the net here and there, allowing for squirrel incursions.

So a few nights ago, I set a couple of traps. I caught a squirrel and a rat. I re-set them and caught another of each. I re-set them again, but then some varmint figured out how to steal the bait without springing the trap.


What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that someone was watching my struggles, learning and absorbing, and working out a strategy. I finally understood this last evening, right around sundown.

I was in my big kitchen chair working at my laptop, when my Australian shepherd, Caleb, came over and said, “Woof.” He nudged my elbow with his muzzle. Thinking he just wanted attention, I scritched his head and went back to work. But he was insistent: “Woof!” Another nudge, this time more urgent.

Squirrel warrior

“Caleb, I can’t play with you right now. I’m working.”

“Frrrf! Arr! Arrrrarrrarr!” Another nudge. Then he ran to the back door, looked out, and looked back at me. “WOOF!”

I grumbled, relented, and hauled myself out of my comfy chair to open the door into the backyard for him. That’s when I saw what he was trying to tell me.

There was a squirrel inside the Squirrel Proof Net Tent, casually munching on the last of my green tomatoes. Caleb dashed out and proceeded to chase it around and around the perimeter of the tent. Inside the tent, the squirrel ran, dodged, turned. Outside the tent, Caleb ran, turned and followed. After several minutes of frantic circles, the panicked squirrel began to run headlong into the net, blindly trying to shove its way out.

Caleb caught on. After a few misses, he pounced on the squirrel as it hit the net. I heard a short squeak, then silence.

Caleb’s prey

Caleb stood panting at the edge of the tent and looked at the dead creature at his feet, still wrapped in the sagging net. Then we looked at each other in utter surprise.

“Caleb, you killed a squirrel!”

He looked back at the squirrel and then back at me. Still panting, he trotted over to the 12-foot diameter inflatable pool I have installed in my driveway for the summer (that’s a whole nother story), hopped in, and cooled himself off with a victory lap.

Victory lap

I went into the house for a pair of gloves and a sack for the squirrel. Seeing me head for his kill, Caleb hopped out of the pool and ran to it. I picked it up by a forepaw. He grabbed the hindquarters through the net with his mouth.

“That’s mine.”

I let go of the squirrel for a moment. “I know, buddy, but we can’t leave it here. It will stink.”

He let go, too. I picked it up again. Then he grabbed on again. “It’s mine.”

“Caleb, leave it.”

He’s a good boy. He dropped his prey, and I bagged it and disposed of it.

Afterwards, Caleb got a big thank-you treat for

  1. figuring out that squirrels in the garden = bad
  2. giving himself the job of squirrel-proof net tent watcher,
  3. insisting that I pay attention, and
  4. actually catching a squirrel.

And from now on, I will listen to what my dog is trying to tell me.


Thank you to my friend and marvelous musician Tom Godfrey for sharing this little clip, and to Wes Funderburk, Atlanta trombonist extraordinaire, for using his powers for good.


Filed under Gardening

Stalking the Feral Asparagus

My daily walk to work takes me past a rarity here in Georgia’s most densely populated city—an open lot in a residential neighborhood. There’s a house there, but it sits almost invisible way back off the street, and the expanse before it could reasonably accommodate another house entirely. It won’t surprise me at all when the lot is split and construction starts.

The ancient one

But for now, the lot is the province of the wild and green, though someone at some point had a vegetable garden there. I know this because every spring about this time, a few stalks of asparagus shoot up. It’s nestled amidst a thick, ancient border of monkey grass crammed up against the sidewalk, but there it is, a persistent perennial that has thrived despite what I am guessing is decades of neglect. I like to think of it not as Euell Gibbons’s “wild asparagus,” but more of a feral asparagus—once domesticated, now a resourceful, clever survivor.

Some of the gardening smarty-pants say asparagus can’t really be grown in Georgia. It’s too hot here, too humid. The plants will be too slender, the harvest season too short. But my friend the feral asparagus and I, we know better. For years I have waited to see that perfectly formed stalk shoot up. And for years I have been tempted to harvest it when I know it has reached its tender, crisp perfection and stand there on the sidewalk and eat it raw. But I’m more curious than hungry. I want to see what it will do—how tall it will grow, how much it will fern out, whether the red berries will form then later turn yellow, whether anyone else will notice that that’s an asparagus, for crying out loud.

Skinny leg and all

The feral asparagus inspired me, so I decided last year to try to grow some for myself. It made sense to me that one should plant the crowns in the fall, to give them a cool-season chance to muster up their energy in the earth before the first big show in April. So last September, I did my level best to find some. I googled, emailed, called around, but there were no crowns to be had in the autumn. I even received a stern email lecture from one source about how no asparagus crown grower in his or her right mind would ever sell in the fall. So I waited, chastened, until February, when the seed catalogs arrived, and I ordered myself a batch of twenty-five Jersey Knights.

They arrived in March, looking like a tangle of squid that had been beached for a few days. I got seventeen of them into the ground (the rest I gave away to neighbors) in a couple of choice locations with just enough sun and loamy, well-drained soil. I dosed them with heaps of good compost and long, regular drinks of water.

The first skinny leg poked through about ten days later. It is so hard to resist harvest, but asparagus needs time. A few years of it, in fact. So once again, I find myself waiting and watching the asparagus grow.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to pay my daily respects to my feral friend, with gratitude for the lesson in what can be done.


Filed under Foraging, Gardening

Cilantro Mountain

What do you do with a mountain of cilantro?

First, you make pesto (with some fresh chives, mint, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, salt, pepper, and lime juice). Some of this you will freeze in an ice-cube tray.

Then you make an enormous batch of guacamole.

Then you get creative, and you swirl the cilantro pesto into some homemade bread. It works beautifully.

Yet you’re still left with half a mountain of pesto and more to come. Other ideas?


Filed under Feasting, Putting Up

Urban Homesteader, Baby Killer

It’s astonishing to me that something can be at once so strong yet so frail. Life stirs, cracks open a hard shell by sheer force of will, extends one reach downward into dense earth and another reach upward through layers of matter sometimes a hundred times as thick as its own self. It’s heroic, really. It also gives you a false sense of security.

I started a flat of seeds three weeks ago. Mixed my seed starter with some water, filled the cells with all that rich organic stuff, then carefully dropped a few seeds into each cell: chard, kale, salad greens, marigolds, zinnias. I covered them with the clear plastic topper, placed the flat on top of a warming mat (it was still about 20 degrees out), and positioned it carefully under a grow lamp set on a timer out in my garden shed, next to the chicken coop. The seeds did their heroic superstrength thing, and within a week and a half I had a flat full of tiny green seedlings craning their necks toward the light. Tah-daaaaah!

Ah, but. Here comes the frail part. Once they hit the surface, they are suddenly vulnerable. I think I must have a hungry varmint living in my garden shed, because a couple of days after the seedlings made their grand debut,  the plastic topper had been shoved awry, the soil had been dug through and tossed around, the seedlings munched to nothing.

So I started over, this time adding as second flat with tomatoes, peppers, and basil. And I taped the plastic tops down securely on the flats with a few pieces of duct tape. Ha-ha, varmints! Go munch some kudzu, why don’t you?

The duct tape seemed to have worked, but then we had a warm spell over the weekend—too warm for my seedlings, alas. Especially with the warming mats that I forgot to unplug. And under those plastic tops, it got downright wet and tropical in there. A regular rainforest.

But kale and chard don’t grow in the rainforest. They like a little heat and moisture to get them started, then cool them off and keep the air circulating, thank you very much. Otherwise, you get what I got, which is called “dampening off.” That warm, wet world incubated all manner of pathogens that attacked those vulnerable sprouts, and they just bowed their heads and keeled over. That’s right. I killed my babies.

Time to start over again. This time, less water and more air, and I’ll have to figure out a way to give them these things and still keep the varmints out. I believe I have some net left over from the Squirrel Proof Net Tent that might do the trick.


Filed under Gardening

Tradeja: Joining the barter economy

Last fall when the economy tanked, folks began to think more deliberately about what they really need to live. Our sudden stumble into hard times exposed a nerve: if I lost everything, how would I secure food, clothing, shelter, medicine?

Tradeja eggs for honey

When you start thinking at that basic level, money becomes increasingly beside the point. Indeed, we know in the back of our minds that currency is a mere proxy for goods and services. Without actual stuff, it’s just paper and promises.

But beyond that primal fear, it’s an interesting exercise to see if you can find a value for the goods and services themselves in a money-free marketplace. In other words, to barter.

I started experimenting with bartering here and there a few years ago. A friend of mine has a home delivery dog food service with very high-quality ingredients that I know I can trust for the health of my pupster. He and his family love my eggs, so I bartered down the price of my dog food by paying him partially in eggs. And a few months ago, when I learned that a neighbor was keeping bees in his backyard and harvesting honey, we traded eggs for honey.

Tradeja a rosemary and eucalyptus wreath. This one from last year still hangs on my kitchen door. On damp days, the fragrance is divine.

As the holidays approach, a friend and I agreed the other day to trade eucalyptus from my tree for the long, gorgeous rosemary boughs she grows on her enormous bushes. Yet another neighbor brings her family’s kitchen scraps to my compost bins almost daily. And when she started her vegetable garden last spring, I repaid her contributions in finished compost. Bartering encourages a kind of interconnectedness that operates almost like a healthy little ecosystem.

Sometimes I think of it not so much in terms of a direct trade, but a micro-economy that eschews the large corporate presence which feed and feed on our addictions. When I have eggs to spare, I sell them to friends and neighbors, and that’s the money I take to the store to buy more chicken feed. Or if there is some left over, I buy cheese from a friend who keeps goats.

Tradeja a giant wreath of evergreen, pine cones, and winterberry

But really, I’d rather trade directly for other things I want and need. So let’s get started, readers: anyone up for an exchange of goods and/or services? I have eggs, some canned goods, and some fresh produce here and there. What do you have? What can we trade? Do any of you knit or sew? Are you crafty? The holidays are upon us. Can you save yourself and a few others some miserable trips to the mall?

And if you have participated in some good, creative, mutually beneficial barters, inspire us–share your stories!

Let the barters begin . . .


Filed under Community and Citizenship

The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.


Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Putting Up