There is something about putting down roots that lends itself to gardening. I had spent the ‘80s a nomad, basically, bouncing from lease to lease in college, to a two year stay in a duplex on my first post college job, to roughly five years of living in motels, camping trailers, and sometimes in the bed of my pickup truck tramping powerline construction jobs across the South. By the latter years of grad school—the first half of the ‘90s—I had a collection of potted ferns and houseplants donated by moving grad student friends, and dozens of cacti I had grown from seed. I had built a wooden swing outside my rental, so I could sit in the evenings and relax while reading for doctoral exams. A cat had adopted me by exploring the end of the house I rented, which I left open-doored because, even in South Mississippi, I couldn’t afford to run an air conditioner on a grad student stipend. In a nesting impulse, when Lisa and I married we bought more plants, and a year and a half later, when we bought our first house in Denver, we planted a garden in the back yard.
We got a lot of help from Jim Hart, a guy that I met in our home Bible study, a WWII bomber navigator and former county agriculture agent with a GI bill degree from Texas A&M. He was old then, WWII having been over 50 years at that point, and he had a bad back and hip and walked with a cane. He was always in pain, it seemed, but he liked to show me his garden. He lived in a neighborhood of nicely manicured, small lawns, and his back yard was given over completely to gardens, with just a few strips of grass for his terrier Daisy to run. The yard was terraced so it sloped sharply toward the back privacy fence. The first level held a flower garden that attracted hummingbirds on their migratory path. Below that he kept chard, horseradish, rhubarb, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, beans, and peas. Along the back fence he kept dozens of raspberry plants, and there were grape vines and strawberries lining another fence. The back yard looked out over the entire front range of the Colorado Rockies, a backbone of mountains that loomed over the flat prairie and extended north to Wyoming and south into New Mexico. Mount Evans, over 14,000 feet above sea level, stood snowcapped most of the year and looked close enough to touch. On a good clear day, I could sometimes see Pikes Peak fifty miles to the South. I spent a lot of time at Jim’s house, tilling his garden, shredding pruned tree limbs and garden waste into mulch with his shredder, planting and digging and chopping. He’d sit in the sunshine and teach me about gardening, drawing from his years of county extension service, while playing tug of war with Daisy and a dangling chew toy.
Ever since Peter Rabbit, pests and gardens have gone together. From the fat rabbit that terrorizes my beans in the back yard, indifferent to the presence of human and dog; to the ground hog that climbed a trellis and worked its way along the top, trimming my beans, like a hedge clipper, even down to the stems; from the aphids, cucumber beetles, tomato worms, and squash borers that slowly kill off the plant, to the robins, and now the chickens, that scratch up a freshly seeded plot and never allow the plants to germinate in the first place, there is no shortage of things in Arkansas to kill a garden overnight.
This summer I started working with the community garden sponsored by our church. Our church sits on the outskirts of town, and lies on a road where modern neighborhoods have filled the gaps that once separated old farms. Between late model homes where the closest thing to agriculture is mowing the grass, there are old barns and crop land, pig and goat pens, and the occasional horse and cow pasture and tractor for sale. The community garden lays about three hundred yards off the road, at the end of a field behind the church’s steel bus barn. The road is a two-track road worn across a pasture, crossing a dry-season creek, and then leading up to the garden, 36 four-by-twenty foot plots separated by mulched walking paths. Driving the two track takes me back to afternoons driving fire roads through the national forest and power line right of ways. I always drove slowly with the chance that I might see a herd of deer or turkey grazing. At the church rabbits young and old hop out of the two-track, and there are usually anywhere from four to six in the garden, grazing on beans, peas, broccoli, and lettuce.
We put up a heavy orange plastic mesh fence, the kind used around construction sites to keep curious people out of harm’s way. The rabbits chewed right through that. We found neatly round entrance and exit holes at each end of the garden. Some people tried putting human hair in socks tied to garden stakes, pepper spray, and live traps. After the third planting of beans had been nibbled to the ground, I drove over to Ultimate Outdoors, a gun store that sells hunting and fishing supplies.
When I walked into the store, there were a group of old men sitting in chairs, apparently passing the time of day like you might expect in a Faulkner novel. Even dressed in my summer uniform, khaki cargo shorts and dirty t-shirt, I felt out of place. The walls of the store were lined with rifles and shotguns, like an armory prepared for civil unrest. Everyone turned to look at me, and I was glad I hadn’t worn my Bisons for Obama t-shirt that day. I wandered around for a couple of minutes, perfectly willing to find what I was looking for on my own, but a clerk finally asked me what I wanted.
“Fox urine,” I said. “You guys carry trapping supplies?”
“I’ll show you what we got,” he said. He led me over to the deer hunting display and showed me a four ounce bottle of fox scent, designed to hide human scent from whatever I might be hunting.
“I got rabbits in my garden, eating my beans as fast as they sprout.”
“Twenty-two’ll take care of that,” one of the old timers said.
“It’s in the city limits,” I said, not wanting to explain that I didn’t want to kill anything.
“Twenty-two shorts, then.” Everyone in the little group laughed and nodded.
“Yeah. Well I really just want to scare them off.”
“Coyote piss is what you need,” another guy offered. “I use it on my traps. I got a web site here where you can buy it by the quart.” He pulled out his cell phone and started keying through his numbers, but he couldn’t find it. He gave me as much of the company name as he could remember and I wrote it on the fox urine package. “Well, all you got to do is search it on Google. Just put in ‘coyote urine’ and it’ll come right up.”
I thanked him and paid for the fox urine. That evening I bought a spray bottle at Dollar General and headed for the garden. Fox urine smells about like you’d expect, musky and strong, a scent that several hand washings won’t take completely off, and I mixed up a solution carefully. I sprayed it around the edges of my garden plots, trying to create a clear chemical barrier between my freshly sprouted beans and the pathway, careful not to hit the plants because I feared it would kill them. It was strong. My wife walked away, nauseated. The scent lingered in the bucket that I had placed the opened bottle in, making it useless for other applications.
A few days later my fourth planting of beans had been nibbled back to bare ground.