A four-legged gardener finds a job

A dog's knack for weeding makes gardening lively.

“Here,” Jeanette said, shoving a plastic grocery bag at me. Limp daffodil foliage flopped out of the top. “They’re a gift from Pepper. She dug them up – again – in the flower bed by the back porch, and I didn’t have the energy to plug them back in. Again.”

Those of us who love gardening and love dogs have days like this. It’s tough to find a good garden dog, one who will hang out with you in the garden without trashing the tulips.

Cats, spectators to the core, are better suited to the job. They can lie there for hours utterly content to simply be, occasionally exchanging a look with you that says: “Isn’t this the life?”

Not dogs. Dogs are participants. Idleness is anathema. If you don’t give them a job, they’ll find one on their own.

I didn’t really understand this when I got Else, our German shepherd. At 6 weeks old, she was little more than a ball of fluff with two big eyes and two big ears, one of which flopped sideways as though its crinoline stiffener had gotten wet.

Since I had started with her so young, I thought I could mold her into the garden dog of my dreams. Little did I suspect that she would view hanging out as dereliction of duty.

She was 4 months old when spring came and I took her out into the fenced-in vegetable garden with me. I stood by last year’s tomato patch, trying to decide what to do first. So did she.

Still considering, I reached down to grab a clump of errant timothy grass, self-seeded from the surrounding fields. So did she. Like furred lightning, she clamped down firmly on my hand (gloved, thank goodness) and began to pull. I corrected her. “No, Else. Leave it.”

She looked puzzled, slightly hurt. “But I was helping,” her look plainly said. “You needed that weed pulled, and I’m here to help.”I reached for another weed; she chomped down on me again. “No, Else. Leave it!” I insisted.

She sat down, mystified. She was a team player. It’s what German shepherds do. They protect and serve – even in the garden. And it was obvious that as she looked around, she could see a lot of things that offered opportunities to serve.

A vermin population needed keeping in check. Barn swallows needed discipline, accomplished through regular chasing back and forth across the lawn accompanied by her deep-chested “Woof!”

Gray buzzards, an invasive species that plagues our local sheep farmers, squatted on the ridgepole of the barn. They would need to be told off, too. And the compost pile clearly needed regular excavations.

She saw her duty then and, over the next eight years, she did it assiduously.

But while she has had plenty of jobs to occupy her, she remains convinced that she was born to weed. That’s probably because at heart, she’s a team player; she likes to work in tandem.

So when my daughter, Abby, and I revamped the weed-filled raspberry patch last fall, we recruited Else.

The patch was a mess. In addition to monster pokeweed and a miserable tangle of bindweed, we were dealing with deep-rooted, invasive white mulberry – fair-size saplings that had sprung up in the patch over the course of a year’s neglect.We were frustrated, but Else, now part of a response team, was in her element.

Fortunately, she has matured. She has learned not to grab my hand the minute I go for a weed. She also knows to stand by – quivering in anticipation, but not doing anything until given the order – while we dig the deeply entrenched weeds.

In the course of the morning, she helped yank out wads of bindweed, taught the pokeweed who was boss, and patrolled the fence for rabbits while we carefully dug out the surviving raspberry canes.

But her favorite piece of the project was getting rid of the white mulberry trees that had taken stubborn root. This was major weeding, and she was delighted to discover that she had a crucial part to play.

At each tree, Abby and I dug down to loosen the dirt around the long yellow taproots, exposing a big chunk of root while Else waited, ears erect and twitching, eyes riveted on our spades. When we reckoned there was enough root to grip, Abby deployed her. “OK, get it, Else!”Legs splayed out like the platform on a drill rig, Else went at the root with gusto, growling (no doubt to let the root know that resistance was futile) as she yanked and yanked and yanked that thing out of its lair.

After wresting it free, she brought it to Abby and spit it out at her feet, clearly pleased.

Score one for the team. We did everything but high-five her.

Else will probably never be the garden dog of my dreams. She will never just hang out. She’s too committed to participation. But even though she’s not perfect, it turns out that she is a good garden dog.

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