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Volume 15, Issue 30 ~ July 26 - August 1, 2007

The Burton Castle Is Under Siege

The forces of nature are crossing the moat

So, pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,

And smile, smile, smile.

–George Asaf’s popular song, from 1917

Good advice, but the smiles come hard. I’m beginning to think the Burton castle is under siege — and the moat is dry.

As they say, if it isn’t one thing it’s another; so it is at our household up here in North County. Wife Lois was preparing to join me in the war on outdoor pests, when she stubbed her toe. When it didn’t mend quickly, she finally went to a doctor to learn she has broken a couple of long bones in her foot and will be in a cast for ages.

Worse still, she’s scheduled to play a prominent role in a national testing convention in Salt Lake City next week. Meanwhile, I’m preparing for a week’s R&R next week in Vermont, which means the enemies hereabouts can run amok in our absence.

The way things are going, perhaps we shouldn’t even come home — if there is a home left.

Public Enemy No. 1

Public Enemy No. 1 hereabouts is a cagey raccoon that has taken over the screened-in porch during the night. We planned on having the porch made over in the coming winter, but we’re pondering pushing the schedule ahead. Some things can’t wait.

The ringtail — and possibly there is more than one — has discovered that a screen is just a screen, with nothing to fortify it. Breach it the first time; no problem thereafter. If it’s patched, they just do it again.

Will a new screen need to be backed up by unsightly heavier wire to thwart entry? Maybe. The side porch is where I store cat foods bought in fairly large quantities, also fruits and vegetables and other foods for which there is no immediate room in the kitchen.

Raccoons are uncanny. The dry cat food niblets I buy in 25-pound or larger bags are switched to fairly big plastic containers with caps. Once while in a hurry, I left the cap off. That’s when the raccoon learned all three containers held something to eat.

No problem, I figured, just make sure the containers are capped. But I underestimated my adversary. The next morning I found the containers upset, niblets scattered and three caps lying in a row on the floor. They had been unscrewed.

A few nights later, a dozen ears of sweet corn were ruined. The latch on the cooler I had placed them in wasn’t as secure as I thought. Almost every ear was partially husked, so the porch was a mess, too. I tried leaving the light on, but that didn’t work. I thought of leaving Zelda and Karla — the two family cats, both of good size — out on the porch. Perhaps they would discourage raccoon entry. Then I thought better of it. Raccoons can maul even dogs, as a ’coon hunter will testify.

Maybe a pit bull could be put in service as a watchdog for a few days. But my neighbors wouldn’t like that. Moreover, if a rabbit or stray cat went by, it probably would be on chase and leave in the screen a hole big enough for elephants.

Instead I tried moth balls. The first night there was no problem; the second night, the same old thing.

Poison is out. We have our cats, and I am sure there are some pretty strict rules about its use. What’s more, that resort would admit defeat by a critter smaller than most dogs.

If only I could handle this problem as I did with the corn for the birds stored in a large rubbish container in the back yard: a rock of some 40 pounds anchored the lid. There aren’t enough ’coons in Riviera Beach to remove the lid, even if they worked at it in concert.

Rabbits, Woodchucks and Bugs

Rabbits, on the other hand, I love. Or did until this year, when I branched out from peppers and tomatoes in the backyard garden to beans, pumpkins and cauliflower. And I planted flowers around the two bird baths. Bunnies love them even more than my five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Grumpy, who I’m trying to teach basic agriculture. The pole beans are special, leftovers from a Jack and the Beanstalk reading in school.

It only takes a fence a foot high to discourage rabbits. Not so, however, with the marauding woodchuck I welcomed as a new visitor last year; he sometimes makes a meal of the cauliflower.

Something else is getting to the cauliflower, leaving big holes in the leaves, so I’m trying spray as a last resort. The jury is still out on who’s winning that one.

Yet Pumpkins Are Flowering

Knock on wood, I’m almost afraid to mention one small victory I’ve had with the garden: The pumpkins are flourishing, with many a blossom.

You might recall a previous column [Springtime Trouble at the Grumpy-Grandpop Pumpkin Farm: Vol. xv, No. 16: April 19], when I mentioned that at Grumpy’s insistence, I planted three plants: one from Grump’s Jack-o’ lantern, the other two from expensive packaged seeds — only to learn from Dr. Gouin, who writes the Bay Gardener in this publication — that I was a couple months premature. Pumpkins hereabouts should be planted in late June or early July.

They’re exceptionally vulnerable to cold weather, equally so to transplanting because of fragile root systems, the good Doc told me, describing my success in the venture as poor to none. Being an old farm boy, I couldn’t resist the challenge. Once transplanted in late May, the plants did poorly for several weeks, then perked up and continue to thrive.

I’m barely turning up enough ashes from wood burned in my outdoor fireplace to supply the ashes to discourage borers from entering the vines and killing the crop, but so far so good. Grumps and I plan to use the first two pumpkins for our Jack-o-lanterns in October. A third one will go to Doc Gouin. I want him to know that hours of tender loving care can work miracles; Grumpy wants him to know Grandpop can do anything.

Moles and Hawks, Oh My!

But Grandpop can’t get rid of the moles that are making the dry grass of the side lawn as bouncy as a trampoline. I had thought the several foxes that had moved in would have solved that problem, but they’d rather try swatting butterflies and white moths.

Then there are the two bold hawks, who I fear will endanger the songbirds of many species that feast and nest in the lawn. They have become so brazen that the other day, both sipped water from a bird bath not seven feet from me. They wouldn’t budge until I shouted and waved my arms — with which I’d have liked to throttle them. I don’t believe in the balance of nature when my birds are concerned.

So, you see, my interest in flowers and my return to agriculture is a bumpy road. At best, one-third of the flowers have survived. The pumpkins will probably cost me 30 hours of attention, the cauliflower 10 bucks for one head. But if Lady Luck prevails, Grumps and I will break even on the tomato and bean plants.

Now she knows what it’s like being a farmer. Enough said.

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