A garden that only a human could love

Out West, hungry critters abound, and our plants are their would-be banquets.

John Kehe

When we moved to a guest ranch in the High Rockies, I was thrilled to live among the wildlife. Every day was a mountain safari: Great horned owls swooped across the yard. A spotted bobcat perched in a tree. Jack rabbits froze mid-dash to curl up into balls, immediately camouflaged as large, gray stones. Elk thundered past the window at night. A bald eagle coasted in the clouds. It was all just heavenly!

Until I planted a garden.

The tulips never stood a chance. I began searching for signs of them in April. I waited impatiently until the last blizzard finished in May – late May. Still no tulips. Curious, I decided to dig them up. Had they frozen? Were they duds? No. They were gone. In their place was a network of tunnels. Apparently, the bulbs had provided a fancy rodent dinner.

That afternoon, I saw deer leaning heavily against my garden fence, forcing the metal mesh closer to the greens. They jammed their muzzles through the fence holes, noosed the stalks with their tongues, and vacuumed up each and every sprout in the garden. Goodbye, baby sunflowers.

I decided to get serious. I consulted experts at the local garden center. I channeled my inner Mr. McGregor. My fence grew taller and sturdier. I dug down 12 inches to seat the mesh underground, blocking burrowing interlopers. My children decorated it with shiny, colorful pinwheels to discourage birds. I congratulated everyone on a job well done.

But we were not prepared for the chipmunks. 

The chipmunks darted in and out of the tiny holes in the fencing. They scampered up and over my fortified barricade. Those striped bandits carried off their edible loot and stashed it in their colony in our rock wall. The daisies were beheaded, the gaillardia decimated. The black-eyed Susans never recovered. It’s a good thing chipmunks are so adorable. I spotted one drinking from a recently watered leaf. Awww!

I grew more determined. I sprayed fox urine at the advice of one friend, laid out piles of chicken feathers at the behest of another. I even spread out clumps of fur from our Great Pyrenees after her summer shave. The chipmunks didn’t care. 

I surveyed the damage. The oriental poppies were still viable – they had large, ferocious spikes on their leaves, and they would be beautiful. But something was missing: every single bud. What are poppies without blooms? 

“Nice thistles, Mommy,” my daughter giggled. Round 2 to the chipmunks.

In a fit of desperation, I dipped every new flower bud in cayenne pepper. Later that day, I found a large bud lying on the ground, abandoned after only two bites. Aha! Could this be the answer? A late-night thunderstorm washed away my rising hopes, along with the pepper. 

I returned to the garden center and commiserated with the saleslady. “The wildlife!” I complained.

“I know,” she agreed. “They’re relentless. At my house, the deer even eat the yucca plants.”

I was dumbfounded. “The yuccas?” How in the world could they conquer that pokey pompom of a plant?

“They chew up and down the spikes like corn on the cob,” she said. “It completely destroys them.”

I had to admit, that was pretty impressive. What could you do if even yuccas weren’t safe? 

I wallowed in the anguish of defeat. 

I was hauling laundry past our sliding glass doors when I saw it: a mommy chipmunk nursing her baby. I froze, perfectly shielded by the curtain. I saw the little animal balance on one front paw and use the other to cradle the baby. All my mothering instincts kicked in. “OK,” I told her. “You can have whatever you want. I know you’re eating for five.”

The fence came down. The garden became an open banquet in honor of the wildlife we loved. Each new plant was an experiment. Forget the “experts” – the neighborhood wildlife indicated their own gustatory preferences. At the end of summer, we carefully tallied the results: My purple Russian sage had been nibbled, but was otherwise thriving – declined by chipmunks. Nobody bothered the white yarrow, either, although other colors were evidently delicacies. The columbine was abundant – no wonder it’s Colorado’s state flower! 

In the spirit of trial and error, we planted daffodil bulbs, carefully marking each location with a tag. My 4-year-old surveyed his work: “Mommy, do you know what those little signs are for? They tell the animals not to eat these plants!” 

I had to smile. Someone had been paying attention, but the game had changed.

“Actually, honey, they advertise the newest entrées offered at our family garden buffet.” 

We’ll have to wait until spring to receive the reviews.

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