Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part I: Woodchucks Actual

Our community garden sits on a hill, while another heavily wooded hill continues the rise behind us eastward, toward Vermont.  This picturesque setting quietly belies the insidious population (if not hundreds, at least dozens) of woodchucks. Also known as groundhogs, these waddling, middleweight rodents burrow masterfully. They joyfully excavate their little homes and then tenaciously tunnel their way right under any and all barriers to early spring vegetation. Which, while waiting for the wild plants to sprout, includes a delicious twenty-item salad bar conveniently located right in their own neighborhood, a snacking opportunity otherwise known as my community garden.

For three summers I have battled woodchucks. “Battle” is not the most accurate word, since I tend toward nonviolence—so I haven’t engaged in hand-to-claw combat, or even met them up close–but fear not, their presence is clear.

My plot adjoins the first groundhog-hole-under-the-fence that the locals dug my beginning year, when the voracious critters rapidly decimated my early-planted oak leaf and bibb lettuces.

Even as I joked with my fellow gardeners when we discovered the damage, I was heartbroken, and dispirited.  Emails flew back and forth about how difficult these invaders are:

“Woodchucks?—might as well give up now.”

“J only plants corn and tomatoes, ‘cuz groundhogs don’t like ‘em.”

“They WILL destroy your plants, and are impossible to get rid of.”

I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Would this Community Garden thing really be worth it?

At some point that initial summer the gardeners rallied and plugged the holes, making the woodchucks reroute their speedy access over and over again; some folks fenced their individual sections, though I didn’t get quite that far.  Finally, the groundhogs found enough tasty morsels outside of our chain link, and we breathed easier.

Last year, my second year, I planted spring greens and then had to go out of town; I returned to nibbled-away spinach and the weeds that replaced it—It’s too late, anything I do will be destroyed; these nuisances are too numerous to deal with… If I weed now, isn’t that just a big “Come munch me” sign to the woodchucks?  Finally, I volunteered to be the Garden Coordinator and now have the worst looking plot in the place!

I became very sporadic in my garden visits.

But one day I discovered that later seeds, half-heartedly tossed into the soil, had sprouted into sturdy, sprawling, bristle-legged plants, some with orange blossoms promising vegetables to come. The arugula I had allowed to overtake my lettuces seemed to have repulsed the woodchucks, as tender pale frisee revealed itself, barely alive under the weight of now-overly-spicy leaves.

That second year I harvested more salad than the first, and went on to reap more than enough cherry tomatoes to pop into salads and put up for the winter. My belief in Community Gardening was strengthened.

With memories of the previous summer’s bounty dancing in my head, this year I started in promptly on planting.

During the first official workday in April, while I coordinated Perimeter Litter Cleanup and Getting To Know Your Weed-Wacker sessions, my newly recruited garden-mate cleared weeds in our plot; then I joined him to add the peat and compost, form mounds, plant seeds in double rows, and even put in a row of little cauliflower seedlings, carefully selected from the store for healthy stalks and lack of yellow leaves and well-developed but not overgrown root systems.

I came back two days later and saw the plants chomped down to the ground, just one half-eaten cauliflower leaf to identify what had been there. Once again I felt discouragement in my gut as I surveyed the other, untouched-as-yet plots, and sighed.

So, you thought perhaps the woodchucks weren’t around yet this spring? Or that they’d become stupid over the winter? Well, wrong on both counts!

After a phone consultation and determined trip to the hardware store, my garden-partner and I returned to erect an orange plastic fence around our plot, digging slit trenches to bury the bottom edge underground. We sweated, we dug, and rather like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, we cursed the little buggers while giggling at our own nefarious devices.

We still worried they’d get in—one vision involved finding woodchucks on their backs crunching carrots like babies sucking bottles; instead on the next few visits, we found the protected plot lavish with young basil and parsley, nasturtiums and acorn squash, and even volunteer tomato plants sprouting up!

As May turned into June and then July, the whole garden community worked to block the outer fence holes, continuously looking for new holes and filling them. Emails chimed in, this time encouraging each other:

“S has extra fencing if anyone needs it.”

“We just have to wait them out, til the hillside plants give them enough to eat.”

“Stick your weeds into containers with some water and let them rot; then pour the decaying smelly stuff all along the fence-line.”(That one was fun.)

The survivor from that initial vegetable holocaust come back from its gnawed state to inch by inch grow some stunted leaves, and then larger ones, and it finally produced a single creamy-bumpy head of cauliflower–which I harvested this third week of August.

the “White Cloud” Cauliflower that pulled through…

Yes, it’s beautiful.

But I have received more out of interactions with woodchucks than just, well, the skills of dealing with insistently burrowing rodents.

More on that, next week.

Squash Beetles and Old Yeller (not the dog)

Summer squash in July–that survived the dreaded squash beetle.

Last year R, who gardens in a nearby plot, caught me early one morning: Have you found any squash beetles yet?

Squash beetles? The last moment of my baby-gardener innocence…

Yeah, I read about them on the website; here, let me show you what they look like….as he flipped over a big hairy leaf, to reveal even rows of orange eggs along the thick plant veins.

You can control the beetles by squishing them with your fingers before they hatch.

Ewwww, I thought.  But I saw the damage already present in his plants.

Ok, I can do that, I said out loud as I dutifully smushed the few eggs in my own territory. And mashed the increasing masses of eggs on the next visit, and the next few visits after that. My flowers developed into zucchini, acorn and butternut squashes by end of summer, as I researched the critters online, saw the destruction they were capable of, and stayed vigilant in their pursuit.

This year I am a squash beetle pro.

The nymphs are particularly icky—those orderly rows hatch into black-legged, white-bodied reminiscences of the robot spiders of Stargate SG-1; they rapidly swarm the leaf undersides, and stir up an ancient human response: Run away! Run away! As adults, they grow grey shells and crawl around as recognizable beetles, and so don’t engender quite the same gut reaction.

In fact, I haven’t taken pictures of the adults or the lines of eggs, figuring people could just look that up if they were so inclined. Shudder. And the little spider-like stage, well, they skittle away too fast to take pictures. Double shudder.

I have a dear friend who works my plot with me. Because the squash beetles in all their forms (but especially the alien-invader nymphs) horrified my garden-mate when he first observed them, I take it on myself each time we weed to quietly dispatch the egg masses without comment, rubbing them to annihilation between my gloved fingers, sometimes even taking the whole leaf off and boot-grinding the nasty things into the afterlife.

This morning we went to the garden to weed and harvest again, and my garden-partner shivered as he noted, Yup, there are more of those creepy beetles.  I moved in to take care of them.  Later we pulled out a non-producing squash, found a gigantic zucchini hiding under another plant, plucked some sweet sun-colored summer squash, and then he jumped back—Ahh! There’s a g-d spider in here and it’s huge. I haven’t seen anything that big outside of the Adirondack woods!  He caught his breath: Whew! It reminds me of the tarantulas back in Oklahoma that were so large they’d bounce their way across the highway. Literally. Boing, boing, as the cars went by.

Well, this one wasn’t quite that sizable, but was enormous compared to what we’d seen previously in the garden.

Very quickly, the initial startle was overcome by admiration for the arachnid, as we snuck in closely but carefully to observe it.

Bright yellow markings on its back led us to the nickname Old Yeller. It wasn’t a stray like the loyal dog from the book, but rather a creature that belonged right where it was.  Neither did it embody the “ugly” of the original character, but instead stretched out lithe chestnut legs onto a beautifully crafted web in the corner of the pole beans.

Our final thrilling discovery– it was chomping away on a silk-wrapped adult squash beetle!  Tasty I suppose, if one were a spider (a bug-burrito, a calzone of creepy-crawlies) but who cares about gastronomic preferences when your nemesis is being destroyed? Not me.

As we harvested the pole beans very cautiously around its bug-catching lattice, we cheered the helpful spider on: You go, Old Yeller! You’re a pal! Git those squash beetles!

Of course, I don’t know what kind of spider it is. (Arachnologists out there, any ideas?)

We worry a little it’s something poisonous that we’ll have to steer clear of, but, as I was musing afterwards, There’s lots of “dangerous” out there in the world--mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, ticks with Lyme Disease, and heck, even humans who will T-bone you with their truck because they are too busy texting.

So I can live with “dangerous.” Especially if it’s swallowing those horrid squash beetles.

Unidentified spider we’ve nicknamed Old Yeller, who dines on nasty ol’ squash beetles

Peas! Beautiful Peas!

Peas and where they come from

I planted the seeds in May, thinking of slim pea-pods stir-fried with rice, but then the plants bleached in the July sun while I was home sick. Finally working in the garden, I thought, Damn, they are done, I left them on the vine too long! but harvested anyway. Maybe there will be some that are still tender….

Back in my kitchen, the pale, bumpy, now-inedible pods surprised me with actually-edible peas hidden inside! This gardener didn’t realize they’d continue on and make something different, like green bell peppers ripening into red.

The big pile of Pisum Sativum pods yielded four ounces of fresh peas—they are sugar snap peas; that’s what I planted, and now I know the difference.  For stir-fry alone, I could have planted snow peas. And if I’d gotten to these sugar snaps sooner, the pods (considered a fruit) would have been edible along with the green vegetable globes. Of course if I had just wanted plain ol’ peas, “shell” would have been the variety for me.

I discovered all this in my favorite educational cookbook: From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce 3rd edition by the Madison Wisconsin Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, 2004. (You can check out MACSAC here.)

My other lesson for the day–Some of the peapods made just one pea. The thick skin cupped and protected a single perfectly shaped emerald ball.

I used to be like one of the pods that made five, six, seven of these beauties, boom-boom-boom, lemme make some more! —  I believed I had to be the pod that constructed the most and the most exquisite peas!

But look–here is a capsule, so cute, so delightful, that curls around just one pea. Or maybe two, as in my photo, both well formed.  What does that say about production schedules, quantity and quality of what we make?

Sheepishly, I admit now that I don’t have to make “more”, “most”, “better” all the time. Just one pea can be enough.

Some of the pods, bulky and hard to open, reveal withered peas, a few undeveloped blips, little nubs of pre-pea. The cases looked good, but the contents are not as promised.  I don’t want that, either, to half-heartedly construct a life, the outside looking good but the inside empty.

Or, if I see these as unborn creations, ones I didn’t have time or attention for, I could mourn, but not fret too much over them.

Because there are plenty of seeds and soil and water, if I just keep returning to the garden. And thus, plenty of pods to come.

***

Here’s what I made with the peas, again adapted from a favorite Moosewood Cookbook recipe; the original Sri Wasano’s Indonesian Rice Salad involves among other things pineapple and peanuts which, as you may imagine, is a whole different taste sensation.

This is not the originally fantasized stir-fry, but satisfied my craving for savory rice with veggies. I served it with a butter-and-olive oil broiled, seasoned whitefish.

Smoky Honey Rice, showcasing my fresh community garden peas.

Smoky Honey Rice

1 ½ cups of (organic) basmati brown rice, cooked in 3 cups of water–while still hot, mix with 4 oz of fresh peas steamed for about 8-10 minutes or until soft, 6 TB of toasted sesame oil, 6 TB of honey, a couple stalks of chopped celery, ½ bunch of chopped scallion (green and white parts), a can of chopped water chestnuts, 1/8 to ¾ tsp of cayenne pepper depending on how spicy you like it, salt or soy sauce & fresh ground pepper to taste.

First harvest in my community garden plot

As someone who cooks a lot, for myself and others, I use fair trade, seasonal and local, and/or organic ingredients, whenever possible.   Call me crazy but I just believe in these defining attributes strongly, try hard to find them, and encourage others to prefer them over imported, old, pesticide-covered & water-polluting, factory-farm, long-distance food.

Having said all this, I don’t flog myself when I can’t find them. (Striving for perfection, not necessarily reaching it, right?)

As a city dweller without yard access, my fresh veggies with those descriptors come from the farmers’ market, the local grocery, and in the summer, my community garden plot. “Community garden” just means I grew it myself, or a friend did, in a local shared garden; in the Albany & Schenectady area, that would be part of Capital District Community Gardens.

So for me the literal ground-work of April and planting of May have now yielded July’s bounty—

Basil. Many poetic words have been waxed about its delicious properties, its pungent, fruity addition to dishes. But look how gosh darned pretty it is, coming out of the dark earth, growing hard in the night and day! I can taste the sun in it, taste other seashores and countries. As long as I pinch off the tops to keep it from bolting (flowering), it will continue to give me pesto and Thai-spiced vegetables and lime & basil vinaigrettes all summer.

And nothing like the morning light streaming through red chard….Yes, it got a bit old and spotted before I got to it, so I picked leaf after leaf, and tossed it all into green bags in the fridge until it could be washed properly; yes, I used the fancy salad spinner, rinsed it again and again to get the grit off, spin-spin-spin, and then finally cooked it all down. Mild and wonderful to float in soup or drop into stir-fry, it’s one of the “top ten vegetables” for nutrition. Go chard, you subtle thing, you.

Can I tell you what happens when you plant radish seeds in the ground, water them and then leave town without thinning them? You get a lot of radishes. I ended up with piles and piles of mildly spicy roots popping up out of the ground, mostly red but many pink, and a few exciting purple ones. You’ll see the basil here in the sink too, and a little parsley:  clean flavors to go into my salads.

Finally, this is a picture of my bush beans, before they were beans, back when they were just beautiful pinky-purple flowers. I watered, weeded some, went out of town (see above), came back, and almost missed the long stems of bean, hanging hidden behind leaves. They would have been spotty themselves and over-ripe the next time I came to my plot, if another gardener hadn’t pointed them out to me while I was frantically weeding the nasturtiums and watermelons. The former-flowers now-beans have been turned into Five Bean Salad, complete with parsley picked the same day.

Marinated Five Bean Salad Adapted from  Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, Ten Speed Press, 1977:

¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup fair trade olive oil

2 tsp salt and some fresh ground pepper

½ tsp oregano and 1-1 ½ tsp basil

1-2 heaping teaspoons of minced garlic

zest (the yellow part of the peel, taken off with a tool handily called a zester) and juice from half a lemon

1 can each of well-rinsed dark kidneys, black beans, great northern beans, garbanzo beans—or whatever else you’ve got. Mollie recommends freshly cooked beans, but it was just too hot this week!

2 heaping handfuls of fresh community garden bush beans, washed and trimmed

½ bunch of community garden parsley, chopped

1 finely minced red onion; maybe 1 1/2 if you like more onion

Mix all the sauce ingredients together. Cook the green beans in a bit of water (1/2 cup to a cup) until tender (5-10 minutes depending on their age and your definition of “tender”; some people like a crunch to beans; others desire complete abdication).  Mix green beans with canned beans and other ingredients in a big bowl.

This version is much lower fat than the original; I wanted to be able to taste the lemon and the different beans’ nuttiness more than just taste and feel the oil; a cup measures roughly 225 calories. Yummy cold or room temperature.

What To Do When Your Fridge Dies

This is what you do when your fridge breaks on one of the hottest days so far this year.

You stuff all the frozen and refrigerated food into two big bins (not owning big coolers), and wrap the bins in blankets until your landlord gets a new fridge moved upstairs.

Of course you cook the defrosting shrimp with the half-lemon from the crisper, and some salt, and eat it with the cocktail sauce you’d have to throw out otherwise (to reference George Carlin’s Ice Box Man).

All while you cry with a good friend.

Then you wipe your eyes and make an amazing pasta salad with the already cooked natural chicken breasts, organic red pepper, defrosted green beans, a can of mushrooms (‘cuz you can’t help loving canned  mushrooms, comfort food from your childhood), Flour City multicolor “pizza” pasta, oregano dried from the community garden, and basil & garlic cheese curds from Argyle Cheese Farmers, sold to you by Marjorie with a smile lo those months ago, and hidden in the freezer for a cheese emergency.

You feed the pasta salad to everybody who comes by to mourn the fridge’s demise.

Then you meditate on food you’ve saved, food you’ve lost, food you’ve hoarded; the temporal nature of foodstuffs and life, and finally, how delicious it is to be forced to eat cold shrimps on a hot afternoon, accompanied by a Long Trail Blackbeary beer and people who love you.

(If you want to know more about Argyle Cheese Farmers, look here.  For Capital District Community Gardens, here, and the tasty pasta I used, here.)