Ongoing Battle of Macroflora and Macrofauna or
Why My Gardening Habits Have Changed Over the Years
By Dr. Sandra McDonald Hampton, VA.
Years ago when I gardened on a small scale, I did not think much one way or another about larger animals in the yard except for an occasional uttered expletive when coming upon evidence of a neighbor dog's visit. The battle vision crystallized for me when I tried to convert an area, which was evidently the neighbor cat's favorite spot away from home, into a garden. I put in a few choice dwarf shrubs, results of my own first propagation efforts in school. Upon inspection of my treasures the next morning, I discovered havoc and soon found the culprit to be the neighbor cat. At this point I took sides with the plants, declared war, and became a rock gardener; not in the usual sense, but rather in a practical sense. Three rocks too large for a cat to move were put around each newly set in young plant. It worked! I had stymied the neighbor cat! Inside the house I had been working around my 2 Siamese housecats for a good while. Airplane plants, orchids, and crotons are a few of their favorite salads. These plants must be kept out of the cats reach unless you do not mind nibbled plants. And dieffenbachia and other plants containing oxalic acid must certainly be kept out of their reach. I discovered this after one of my cats lost her voice. It took me a day or two to find that Sweetie had been nibbling on the dieffenbachia, and had probably lost her voice from it.
In Virginia, slugs and snails became common pests of my plants. When my orchids were put outside to enjoy the humid summer weather, slugs started rasping and eating their way up the leaves. A few primulas were added to the garden and proved to be choice tidbits for slugs. Small Primula seedlings dare not try to make it on their own in my garden. Larger plants have a slightly greater chance of survival. A nightly stroll in the garden with a can of salt water to drop these evening munchers into reduces the population somewhat, but does not completely eliminate it. Lime or ashes are both reported to be anathema to slugs. Finding other plant genera which slugs do not find so tasty is another alternative. Slugs like to eat rhododendron and azalea flowers, especially in wet springs, but this is a minor problem which will not keep me from growing azaleas and rhododendrons. Careful watching of seedling trays is necessary to prevent slugs from decapitating whole trays of seedlings almost overnight. Keeping lights on the seedlings all night seems to prevent this, because slugs prefer dark places.
My experience in rock gardening with cats has been extended and now foils squirrels. Rocks placed around small plants prevent squirrels from digging up the plants. Hav-a-hart traps work where my rocks leave off. Rabbits are a different matter. Azalea and rhododendron enthusiasts know rabbits really like certain varieties. Rabbits will eat through a whole bed of 'Gumpo' azaleas, mowing them nearly to the ground, and leave the odd plant (not a 'Gumpo' or other of their favorites) absolutely untouched. They know their varieties even if the gardener did not. I have also discovered, much to my chagrin, that certain other plant genera, which I happily found did not appeal to slugs, do appeal to rabbits. Small open weave berry boxes provide good small plant protection from rabbits. Hav-a-hart traps also work for rabbits, but rabbits seem to be more clever than squirrels in avoiding traps. Rabbits can do a great deal of damage if trapped in a cold frame during winter. Having had this experience, I am quite careful in closing down the sash for the winter.
Rats, most unsavory creatures, like to get into warm greenhouses to spend the winter. They can devastate orchid pseudo-bulbs and small palms in a jiffy. Poison works well in getting rid of them.
Moles and mice are a nuisance in the yard, tunneling under mulch, eating rhododendron and azalea roots, and girdling stems of some shrubs. Occasional winter inspections for their runs and subsequent use of poison can defeat them.
Neighbor dogs running loose are a nuisance, breaking shrubs, soiling, and most especially running down the center of newly planted beds of rhododendron or azalea liners or seedlings. Though they are sometimes chasing one of those pesky rabbits, they are much clumsier than cats and step on and break choice, rare or common plants indiscriminately. If a chat with the owner does not correct the situation, the dog catcher can.
Last spring, I was quite surprised to find what looked like a mouse hole under a rhododendron I needed to dig for a customer. As I started to dig the plant an angry bumblebee flew out, forcing me to abandon my digging for a few minutes until the bumblebee left the area. Bumblebees seem to have staked out a territory in certain of my seedling beds. They seem to be attracted to the white hat I wear when working outside. Since I want to live in peaceful coexistence with the bumblebees, I will buy a new hat, hopefully in a color they find less offensive.
The latest pest encountered, the pest which precipitated this article is the house mouse, or rather I should say the greenhouse mouse. As I was making my morning check on some recently sowed azalea and rhododendron seed from prized crosses, I found many flats with the sphagnum moss and tiny seedlings all dug up and threshed about. Seedlings which were not destroyed had become mixed with seedlings in their neighboring flats. Some seedlings were easily recognized and put into their proper flat, but some will be mixed until they flower or until I give up and throw them away. That pesky mouse had found the small opening I had made between the flats and the glass covers to allow a little air on the seedlings. He got in, then went from flat to flat tearing plantlets up until he found his way out twelve flats later. Since this was war, I quickly baited a mousetrap with peanut putter and have reduced the enemy forces by three, giving me some revenge for my loss.
I am thankful we do not have deer.