Hey, squirrels, I want some tomatoes, too

It appeared that we weren't going to harvest any corn or tomatoes from our garden this year. But maybe there was hope.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

We had no trouble getting things to grow in our garden this year; the only problem was claiming our share of the produce. The soil was rich with compost and spring rains came on time. From June onward, we could look out at the garden and see it full of lush green growth.

But we were not the only creatures looking forward to a bounteous harvest.

In May, my husband had planted our favorite Sugar Buns corn. Knowing from experience that both seeds and young plants are often gobbled up by garden marauders, Dave covered the corn with chicken wire, carefully securing the corners with sticks.

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Within a day, we saw a squirrel tunneling under the chicken wire and stuffing his cheeks with corn kernels. When we left on a vacation, some seeds had survived and were germinating, but when we came back not one corn plant was to be found.

Ever optimistic, my husband planted the remaining seeds from the package and repeated his protection program only to have the squirrels immediately dig up every seed. There would be no Sugar Buns.

As the summer heated up, our tomato plants started to set fruit. We grow our tomatoes inside chicken-wire cages, which enclose the plants from top to bottom. Last year these topsy-turvy enclosures successfully protected our harvest.

This year, after several days in the high 90s, I began to notice bites out of the new green tomatoes. I carried large rocks to the garden (rocks too heavy for a squirrel to move) and fortressed off any entry to the bottom of the cages.

The next day, several partially eaten tomatoes were at the bottom of one of the cages. The squirrels (or some other critters) were still gaining access to the cages.

My husband had just bought a new pair of sneakers, so I had a nice, odoriferous pair of discarded shoes – the beginnings of a scarecrow. I raided my husband’s side of the closet and found a pair of khaki pants with threadbare cuffs that should have been tossed out long ago and a chambray shirt, also long overdue for the rag bag.

I placed a hanger inside the shirt and filled out the chest with Bubble Wrap. Strips of Bubble Wrap also worked well for stuffing the pant legs. I sat my man in a chair, secured a head of sorts to the top of the hanger with duct tape, and topped it with a ball cap. I placed the man in the chair next to the tomato plants.

Later in the day, as I was walking alongside the garden I felt a presence to my left and was spooked when I glimpsed the scarecrow in my peripheral vision. “Well, this will surely work,” I thought.

It did work for several days. But when the tomatoes had brightened to a pinky orange, I noticed the raiders were back. Several tomatoes hanging on the vines had tooth marks, and green tomatoes had fallen to the ground.

Several days later I looked out the window and noticed the tomato plant moving. Getting my binoculars, I focused on a squirrel perched in the greenery.

I decided that it was time to borrow our neighbor’s Havahart trap. We baited the trap with peanuts and set it next to the tomato plants. When we checked it an hour later, the trap was sprung, but no squirrel was inside.

After numerous tries, with the squirrel trotting off with our peanuts each time, we gave up on trapping and resigned ourselves to the fact that this might be the summer without garden-fresh organic corn or tomatoes.

Fortunately, there are many farmers’ markets nearby.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a bumper crop of green beans, cucumbers, and basil. The tender young bean plants had been defended from nibbling rabbits with low chicken-wire cages, and no creature seemed interested in munching on the cucumbers or basil.

As the days passed, we noticed that lots of large tomatoes remained on our plants. Many were turning red. One evening as we were sitting on the deck, we noticed our neighbor’s rose of Sharon bush swaying in the breeze, except there was no breeze.

Perched at the top of bush, the squirrel, ignoring our tomato plants, was instead eating the lavender blooms off the rose of Sharon.

Still, we know that the squirrel might be fickle in his menu choices and return to our tomato patch. So every day we harvest the tomatoes that are just slightly less red than optimum ripeness.

It takes two of us: one to hold open the prickly wire cage at the seam and the other to very carefully maneuver the tomato through the opening, making sure it doesn’t get sliced by the sharp wire.

Some tomatoes are slightly scarred with a tooth mark, but most are fine. In fact, so fine that now we have a surplus, and I was able to can six half-pints of our favorite winter tomato condiment, tomato chutney.

TOMATO CHUTNEY
________
This is wonderful on burgers and sandwiches and in egg dishes, and is a great flavor booster in pasta dishes.

Cooking tip: To peel tomatoes, blanch for about 10 seconds in rapidly boiling water, then plunge into ice water. Immediately remove tomatoes from water and peel off skin.

1 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped tomatoes
1/4 large Granny Smith apple, chopped
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped red pepper
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1 large garlic clove, minced
1-1/4 tablespoons minced fresh gingerroot
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon coriander
Pinch cayenne pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon pickling salt

Combine in a low-sided, wide, heavy stainless steel pot: sugar, tomatoes (with juices), apple, raisins, red pepper, vinegar, garlic, and ginger. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in onion and return to a slow boil. Cook 15 minutes, stirring fairly frequently the last 5 minutes. Break up any large chunks of tomato. Stir in spices and salt. Continue to cook at a slow boil, stirring fairly frequently, until mixture can hold a mounded shape and liquid has cooked down to a slightly syrupy consistency, 5 to 10 minutes. Note that chutney will become somewhat thicker after it cools, so don’t cook too long.

Remove from heat and spoon into hot, clean half-pint canning jars. Screw on two-part canning lids and process for 10 minutes. Makes approximately 6 (one-half pint) jars.

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