Six more weeks of winter, or an early spring? Punxsutawney Phil says winter will continue its icy reign, but the lesser known General Beauregard Lee (yes, in Georgia we let groundhogs join the military AND predict the weather) has forecasted an imminent spring. Call it wishful thinking, or maybe rooting for the “under hog” (sorry, couldn’t resist) but I’m going to go with the good General’s prognostications.
I have to wonder, though, who decided that groundhogs were the harbingers of spring? Why not robins, or bears, or wild turkeys? Why not any other creature that does not strike fear and rage into the hearts of otherwise mild-mannered gardeners?
Until this past summer, I’d had blessedly little interaction with groundhogs. I’d see them scurry across the road while I drove home, or I’d listen with amusement to my in-laws’ stories of bizarrely baited traps and failed attempts to catch the ‘hog that had taken up residence under their porch. When Andrew and I watched “Groundhog Day,” I found Punxatauney Phil to be cute. Clearly, the Myersville groundhog population had not realized that my garden existed. Well, the charm wore off. What’s worse, last summer, the groundhogs seemed to be working overtime to rectify their mistake.
The groundhogs announced their arrival in the high tunnel, by sampling their way down a row of tomatoes. One morning I caught a flash of furry little groundhog derriere squeezing out the far side as I entered from the near, so I knew who the culprit was. Luckily, groundhogs are short little buggers, so they were only ever able to reach the most low hanging fruit. It irked me to see perfectly good tomatoes nibbled by some free-loading wild animal, but I had too many other things to do to worry over much about a few tomato seconds.
Had that been the worst of it, we could have all gotten along. But of course, the groundhogs wanted a more balanced diet. As I was doing my afternoon greenhouse watering one day, I noticed that several of my seedling flats looked strange. Closer examination revealed that the tiny cotyledons–the first leaves that a plant sends out–had been nipped off neatly, leaving nothing but a perky, empty stem behind. I did not immediately make the connections between my high tunnel tomatoes and the mysteriously massacred seedlings, as the seedlings were all a good foot and a half off the ground, on makeshift tables. I assumed that rogue deer were to blame, and I decided that I would close the front doors to the ghouse that night, to prevent further damage.
Imagine my horror later that same afternoon when I discovered that my mysterious micro-greens lover had returned to finish the job. Seven flats of soon-to-be-planted brussels sprouts had been massacred. I became irate.
First, I made my tables taller, by stacking additional crates under the pallets that formed the top. Then I did my homework–what sort of delicacies do groundhogs prefer? I skulked into Safeway to buy a conventional melon from who knows where, then hurried home to bait my trap. A brief investigation revealed the source of my scourge–the groundhog’s burrow was conveniently located at the foot of the tree that stands equidistant from the back ends of my greenhouse and high tunnel. I set my trap just inside the tunnel, where I was certain the groundhogs would be passing en route to their daily tomato snack.
The next morning I rushed out to the high tunnel and was elated to find a very confused groundhog waiting (the melon was long gone). Despite my earlier fury, I couldn’t bring myself to actually harm the little guy, so I loaded him up in the Volvo, drove to the other side of the mountain, and released him deep in the forest. He was off like a shot.
I went out to check on my newest kale seeding. Munched. I couldn’t understand! The table was higher! What had happened??
Apparently, groundhogs can climb, when sufficiently motivated.
Out came the trap, and the remains of the melon. Back over the mountain I went, with groundhog number two.
By the time I caught groundhog number three, Andrew was advising me to spray paint it, to be sure that I did not have one groundhog with a particularly astute sense of direction. I was also reaching new levels of paranoia in my greenhouse, where I now covered every seedling tray with its own little protective cage. This made watering a real pain. Still, I had seeded the last of my kale, and I couldn’t afford to loose this seeding.
Finally, at groundhog number five, I reached my limit. I am sorry to admit, he did not live to a ripe old groundhog age. Nor did he suffer, though I might argue that I already had.
For some reason, groundhogs seem to have more nicknames than any other wild beast. Woodchuck. Marmot. Pasture Pig. Land Beaver. My personal favorite is Whistle Pig. At one point this spring I even thought that “Whistle Pig Farm” had a nice ring to it. (Clearly, this was the idle musing of a farmer who had had virtually no personal contact with with the creatures.) Truly, the most accurate (printable) name for them is “Varmint.”