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Garden Warfare

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Having a vegetable garden sounds like a gentle, relaxing and easy hobby. Dig a few holes in the dirt, put a few plants in, water, and before you know it — bushels and bushels of pest-​free, perfectly ripened vegetables in the summer.

Anyone who gardens knows how much a load of hooey that is. Gardening, if done right, is frustrating, backbreaking work, filled with disappointments but the occasional perfectly ripened tomato.

My garden can best be described as a war zone, and I the commander-​in-​chief of the “good guys.”

My enemies are many in number — deer, insects (just the “bad” ones) chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and my nemesis — the dreaded groundhog.

I have farmer friends who “dispose” of their trapped groundhogs, but I don’t have the heart, nor the firepower, to do so. When I do catch one in my no-​kill trap, I give them a stern talking-​to (always firm, yet kind), point out to them the error of their ways, load them up in the back of the pickup, and under the cloak of darkness, drive them a few miles away to North Park. I do this with the full knowledge that I am breaking the law — according the animal control folks, moving livestock is illegal. If caught, I will plead that I didn’t consider groundhogs “livestock.” What can they possible be raised for? Meat? Their natty fur?

Encouraging Cato, our Bengal cat (supposedly more “wild” than the average domestic cat) to hang out in the garden was my latest solution, but Cato seemed more interested in playing with moles and mice or napping than going after the groundhogs.

Deer are second on my “most hated” animals list. I realize that is impossible to find “deer-​PROOF” plants; these big rats will eat anything if they are hungry enough and actually ate the thorns off my rose bushes. I have tried applying a homemade spray of rotten eggs, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and cumin to keep the hungry critters away. It was successful except for the side effect of my yard smelling like a rancid burrito. Not worth it. My two-​ply, six-​foot wire fence surrounding my veggie garden seems to have kept them at bay, but any plant outside of that fortress is fair game for them.

Last on my list is the impossibly cute chipmunk. Not sure why, but these guys like to dig up and “up-​end” many of my veggies and flowers seedlings. A close friend empathized with my sob story, and leaning in close with a low, conspiratorial whisper, asked me if I ever heard of a “Chipper Dipper.” After bragging to me about how he “eliminated” 13 in one day, I was intrigued until he told me how to assemble a “Chipper Dipper,” which involves drowning the little creatures. No “Chipper Dipper” for me.

My worst defeat in my many garden wars came three years ago. After relentlessly pursuing a local restaurant owner, I had finally struck a deal with him to buy my organic, homegrown cherry tomatoes. I was in my snooty “only heirloom” phase, and growing some really unusual varieties: Red Zebra, Green Zebra, Topaz, Borgo Cellano, and Black Cherry. The morning after closing this hard-​fought deal, we left for our yearly beach vacation, leaving 30 thriving, robust tomato plants but returning to a garden full of rotten tomatoes, plagued (of biblical proportions) with stinkbugs. The black flakes I saw when I bumped up against the trellises were stinkbugs leaving the scene of the massacre.

It wouldn’t be such a tragic loss if I gardened the conventional (easy) way — buy veggie plants at a big box store, and plant them in the ground with bagged “Miracle Gro Garden Soil.”

Unfortunately, I am hardly a conventional gardener. I start all my plants from expensive seeds bought from mail-​order catalogs that I have been poring over since January, planting the seeds in seed-​starter mix under my grow lights in early March, transplant them in bigger pots around April, and on Memorial Day finally plant them in the ground that I have lovingly and painstakingly prepared for them. I am a little on the frugal side, so rather than buying compost by the cubic yard from a garden center and have it delivered, I make a few trips with my pickup and load up the bed with free compost from the parking lot by North Park. (I did decide to splurge last year and buy a few yards of compost… this truckload included a broken heel from a pair of women’s black stilettos and a hockey puck — maybe the garden staff was celebrating the Penguins’ Stanley Cup win?) I also shovel in some cow manure, a balanced granular fertilizer, and a few buckets of lime (to lower the pH of my acidic soil). This is mixed in with my existing garden soil. All in all, a very labor-​intensive, stinky and time-​consuming hobby.

There have been some notable victories, however. I managed to finally rid my garden of possibly God’s most unattractive creature — the tomato hornworm — a bright green, squishy, doughy, 5-​inch long hairless caterpillar who has been munching on several of my tomato plants for the last few years.

Refusing to use chemical pesticides on my veggies, or spend hours in the garden plucking these nasty caterpillars off my plants (so squishy it is hard to get a grip on them — yuck), so I just took matters into my own hands and tried to attract some equally vile creatures to do the dirty work for me.

I used my newest fad — Companion Planting — to help me in my quest. Companion Planting is simply a way to plant certain plants — usually both ornamentals and veggies — close together in order improve the growth and flavor of the veggies. In my case, I planted some dill and fennel — these plants have the perfect little shallow flowers that parasitic wasps love. And while they were in my garden lapping up that high-​carb nectar as an appetizer, I hoped they would stay a bit and enjoy a little hornworm for the main course.

A parasitic (braconid) wasp (tiny little wasps that can’t sting humans) lays dozens of eggs inside the hornworm caterpillar. These eggs hatch into larvae that feed on the hornworm’s muscle tissue, while leaving its heart and other essential organs intact until the larvae mature. This paralyzes the hornworm, which becomes merely a living fresh food source (aka buffet) for the wasp larvae.

Once the larvae mature, they exit through a hole they make in the hornworm’s skin and build a silk cocoon on the outside. Then the wasp matures, hatches as an adult, flies off to hopefully get a little wasp-​lovin’ and lay more eggs inside another generation of tomato hornworms.

Last summer I saw a big fat hornworm covered with little white eggs. I think my neighbor was concerned when saw me screaming, “Yesss! Die! Die! Die!” fist-​pumping the air in victory while I stood in the middle of my tomato plants.

I usually don’t revel in the death of any creature, but in this case I will make an exception. Too bad, Mr. Hornworm. I hope you had a long, slow, horribly painful death. That will teach you to stay out of my garden.

Sure, gardening is a lovely hobby… connecting with the Earth, growing locally grown organic vegetables, blah blah blah. I like to think of it as a great place to control and destroy. Plus those homegrown ‘maters are pretty darn good too.

Elizabeth Wiethorn

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and lifetime Pittsburgher who resides in the North Hills. She has worked in adult literacy, at a financial investment firm, as a kindergarten teacher’s aide, as a debt collector, and even as an entrepreneur. Her BA in English from the University of Dayton and her MBA from Duquesne University provide her with the unusual combination of being able to “cook the books” but also write a concise, grammatically-​correct statement denying all wrongdoing. She finds humor in the everyday and loves to laugh, especially at other people. All emails praising her undeniable talent can be sent to .

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