Spring catalogs, spring editions of gardening magazines, and garden shows are in full bloom these days. All offer creative, colorful ideas for unique plant combinations for your garden – and some of these combinations are within reach for us neighborhood gardeners who balance work/family/volunteering/and other mandatory obligations that take us away from our favorite past-time. But a few combinations have not been discussed often, if at all. These combinations are the focus of this essay. And I would love to hear of your similar experiences.
Sod Busters – Pippin the Beagle and Pants the Squirrel:
When my spouse and I bought our house, 95% of the yard was covered by lawn. This lawn was probably original to the house (built in 1942) and it looked very well cared-for. Deep, dense roots made the mats of sod I dug up almost 4 inches thick – it was a back-killer of a job – and eventually I resorted to smothering it with cardboard or newspaper followed by compost and mulch. At this writing, 95% of the lawn is gone, replaced with garden beds joined by pathways, some beautiful stone work (thank you, Bill!), and a couple of raised vegetable beds. Most of the sod removal I did myself except for a 10-year period when I had help – in all the wrong places and at the wrong times. One particular time comes to mind.
If you are familiar with scent hounds, you know their propensity to dig. And if you know squirrels, you have seen those little holes in your lawn and garden. Hounds love soil, the fresher the better, and once they are on the scent of something they will dig (or chase) it to ground. Deep ground, really deep. Squirrels love the entire yard – lawn and all – and will attempt to bury their stash anywhere.
Our beagle, Pippin, enjoyed following me around the yard, watching me dig holes which he decided were much too shallow, and then correcting my inadequate work. He loved to rearrange the annuals I planted in the full-sun garden. He especially liked to pull out Coleus, Salvia, and Nasturtium, and a few days after installing my new plantings I would find them carefully and gently pulled out of the ground and moved to another part of the garden, with holes filling the sun garden. Pips was a busy dog. But the biggest hole I remember him digging was after he had seen his nemesis, Pants the Squirrel, bury a peanut on his (Pippin’s) side of the fence. Some background to this story – this mean-spirited little rodent used to sit very close to the fenced portion of the yard where Pips played and eat peanuts while Pippin watched. Pippin loved peanuts, shell and all, so this was as close to a personal attack as anything he ever encountered. Anyway, one day while in the house he must have seen this damn little squirrel bury a peanut in his part of the yard because he ran to the door and howled to be let out. When the time came to let him back into the house, I went outside and was truly amazed at what I saw. Pippin stood next to the biggest hole he had ever dug, his face covered with dirt, his front legs and chest spattered with dirt, mulch, and pieces of sod, and he was crunching something. His tail wagged enthusiastically. He had found the squirrel’s peanut. Other than when this same squirrel fell out of the apple tree right in front of him, I had never seen Pippin so proud and happy.
A meeting of the minds – the Siamese and the Possum:
During the first years in our house, we had a Siamese cat named Layla. She was purebred – a beauty with limited brain-power and with such crossed eyes that she had to turn her head side-to-side in order to see straight ahead. Needless to say, she was an inside cat. But on one memorable, hot summer evening, she snuck outside with neither me nor my spouse realizing it. It was, also, around this time that we had a possum living somewhere on our property. This poor creature barely had a working brain, so I didn’t mind when it wandered through our yard on its’ way to who-knows-where. Anyway, as the sunset faded and the breeze picked up, we opened our front door to let in the cool air. As we listened to music I heard an odd sound coming from our covered work area. The sound would start, then stop, resume, and then stop again. It sounded like someone trying to whistle but without the requisite talent. This intrigued me. A kindred spirit, I thought. I stepped outside and walked around the corner to the covered area where I saw something so funny I still laugh about it today. Layla had cornered the possum. But being the thoroughly domesticated, purebred creature that she was, she had no idea what it was or what to do with it. After all, she wouldn’t even play with catnip mice. I watched her as she turned her head from side-to-side to get a good view of it, making a low-pitched, distracted meow at the pathetic possum that had backed itself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to get away. It made an odd, spitting and hissing sound as it looked at Layla, then around and behind, then back to Layla, then up, around, and finally right at me. Then Layla looked at me as if to say, “What is this thing? And what am I doing here?” I looked at them and decided that the only way to resolve the slow-motion stand-off was to get the cat back into the house and the possum out of the area. I bent down to pick up Layla but that startled her so much she shot away from me in a blur of hiss and fur, which frightened the possum so much that he ran, slowly, straight for me. This startled me so much that I turned and ran back to the house, went through the house and to the back door in time to meet Layla, who was already there and scratching frantically to be let in.
I didn’t see the possum for the remainder of summer, and Layla didn’t sneak out again. I’m not sure what benefit the possum brought to our garden, but for a short time he probably allowed Layla to feel the call of the wild before returning to her easy, domesticated life. And, she slept well that night.
Everyone’s a Critic – the Crow and the Gardener:
In a blog post from September 2014 (The Peace Agreement), I explain how I ended up with a resident crow. This interesting and intelligent bird has been generous with both gifts and chatter (mostly the latter). He has also shown a fairly well-developed sense of humor, probably from watching the antics of the creatures who inhabit my garden and my reactions to them. But something this bird does that truly astounds me is this – he complains when he doesn’t like my work. I have never encountered this feature in any other animal (except the human animal), at any time, regardless of the work I am doing.
A few examples: years ago I bought a Cupressus macrocarpa, ‘Wilma Goldcrest’, at a 50% off sale at a reputable nursery. Granted, the plant looked ill, was terribly root-bound, and was taller than all the other Wilmas sharing its table. But, I felt sorry for the plant so I bought it. To make a long, tall story short, it grew into a stately 15 foot high tree within a couple of years. My crow decided this tree was his, and developed a rather protective attitude to it. As I pruned the tree over the years to thin its lush canopy, the crow would sit in the apple tree a few feet away and chatter at me. I began to pay attention to this communication. The more I pruned and thinned, the more he chattered. One day in late autumn before we took down the tree, I apparently pruned too close to a part of the tree important to him – he flew from the apple tree to the top branches of the Cupressus and cawed loud and long at me. Although the bird had never (and still hasn’t) been aggressive to me, it was clear that he wanted me to stop my work. I complied. That winter, when my spouse and I took down the tree, we found an old nest in the area that the crow had been so protective of.
We support a large population of small birds here; not by using tree feeders but with a wide variety of berry-producing plants. In addition, I keep a small bird bath filled with clean water through summer and autumn. Last summer, I decided to move the bird bath to a more shady area of the garden. When I moved the bath, the crow swooped down from the apple tree and landed on a fence post nearby and cawed at me – again, loud and long. I wasn’t sure what he was complaining about and didn’t want to take the time to find out, so I went about my work. The bird continued to follow me around the garden, complaining as he moved. I decided to move the bird bath back to its original location, and the crow immediately stopped fussing. Over the next few days I watched the visitors at the bath and found that he was one of the visitors. I’ve never heard of a crow using a small bird bath, but he uses ours and has definite ideas as to where it should remain. There are other odd examples of this remarkable birds’ strong opinions, one that includes dropping Doug fir cones on my head until I move away from a spot he doesn’t want me to work in, and I usually comply even though I don’t know what he has to complain about. But, complain he does.
Gardening with wildlife present challenges, entertainment, and some genuine irritation. My work would flow smoother, be easier, and more efficient if I didn’t have these critters to work around. But, in honesty, I can’t imagine gardening without these wonderful ‘garden combinations’.