Lean and hungry Felix prowls a pest-free garden

A good many years before he became the respected school principal he is today , Jack Wainright (that's not his real name) lived in a seedy one-room apartment in New York's Lower East Side. That's where he learned that if he skimped on his cat's meals, he never had a problem with cockroaches.

Lessons learned young live on, which is why Felix III now performs a similar task for the august Dr. Wainright today. Not that cockroaches are a problem (perish the thought!) in the affluent White Plains neighborhood, but it is known that the Wainrights have the most pest-free garden in town.

Sometime in March, about the time of the first spring thaw, the slow reduction in Felix III's rations begins. By the time the early plantings are up and growing, Felix is all but on his own -- gastronomically speaking, that is.

In other words, he feeds himself, except for a basic survival ration that includes a little milk.

Not unexpectedly Felix has become the best hunting cat in town. To hear the school principal tell it, nothing comes into his garden, not even the neighbor's dog. Moreover, the acrobatic cat leaps to such heights and with such frequency as to pull a butterfly out of the sky, so that the cabbage looper presents no problem to the Wainrights.

"The cabbage what?" Dr. Wainright is known to ask somewhat smugly of gardening friends.

Those who have heard of the exploits of Felix on more than one occasion suggest that there may be some exaggeration in the tale. But the point is obvious: If you expect your pet to assist in keeping problems out of the garden, see to it that it has some incentive to do so.

Now not every gardener keeps a pet or wants it to go hunting. The answer, then, might be to encourage some nondomesticated helpers to take up residence.

If you can admire snakes, rather than loathe them, these attractive (when you get to know them) creatures do a great job of cleaning up the garden. For several years one or more snakes has inhabited my garden. There has always been a mole or two around as well, but never in vast crop-damaging numbers. This year, for some unexplained reason, the snakes have moved out and the unchallenged mole or vole population has exploded.

If ever those snakes return I shall welcome them with open arms.

Another welcome garden-helper is the never-tamed shrew. Diminutive as it is, it's the best rodent-chaser of the lot. Visiting raccoons are great for keeping rats and mice off the place, but they seem to disturb the moles but little.

If the use of animals, wild or domestic, isn't your choice in pest management , there is another option in rodent control that does not involve poison baits. It might be termed the barrel-in-the-ground technique.

I first came across this practice many years ago in South Africa. A grain farmer, finding that some rats could not escape from a steel drum into which they had accidentally fallen, set several 55-gallon drums into the ground so that the tops were level with the surface. To be sure none of the rats would get out he even greased the sides, a precaution he later found to be quite unnecessary.

Scampering rats would tumble into these drums night after night. They never did grow suspicious of these "holes in the ground" the way they did of conventional traps. This way a rather severe infestation of rats was controlled.

I was reminded of this method the other day when a reader of Organic Gardening magazine wrote to say he trapped mice using a steel bin or bucket set into the ground this way. He placed a little grain in a circle next to the edge of the pit to attract the mice. Each morning he would transport the captured creatures and release them far away from his or any other residence.

One final tip: Keep a squash racket or badminton racket handy whenever you go out into the garden. They are ever so handy when it comes to swatting those dancing white butterflies whose offspring do such damage to your cabbage plants.

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