Those Pesky Squirrels!

“A dog with a bone in its mouth neither kills nor steals.”
-Porfirio Diaz, former president of Mexico

Of all the critters that invade our orchards and vegetable gardens and steal the fruits and vegetables that we’ve worked so hard to grow, few are more persistent and difficult to stop than squirrels. These tree rodents take bites out of our tomatoes, rob our fruit trees, and steal our corn. They also rob our bird feeders and sometimes invade our homes to take shelter in our attics. Nimble and clever, these inhabitants of the Sciuridae genus seem to be able to defy every effort to keep them out of our gardens. A tall fence will stop rabbits and deer, but a squirrel will climb over that fence or find a way to crawl under it. Capsaicin (hot pepper) solutions sprayed on plants may temporarily cause them to snort and cough, but later then return for more and ask for a mug of Dos Equis beer. Predator urine fools them for a short time, but they eventually get wise.

I can’t promise you that this is a foolproof method that will forever keep the squirrels out of your garden. No method can do that. But of everything else you’ve tried has failed to keep them away, then maybe, just maybe, bribery might be the tactic that works.

So what’s a gardener to do? If all else fails, may I suggest a new tactic? Bribery. Allow me to explain. Porfirio Diaz, a former president of Mexico was able to keep his political enemies from threatening his rule by giving them high government positions and making sure that they were well-paid. Being so enriched, they had no reason to rebel and attempt to steal away his wealth, leadership, and prestige. In the same way, a squirrel that is well-fed on grain, nuts, or other things, should have no reason to rob you of the fruits and vegetables that you’ve worked so hard to grow. Like all higher life forms, squirrels eat because they’re hungry. To assuage that hunger, they will dine on whatever food items they can access be it wild berries, acorns, your garden fruits and vegetables, or anything else. So why not give them an alternative to your garden?

I discovered this tactic quite by accident. Several years ago, in my vegetable garden, I was growing corn and sunflowers. In the past, the squirrels would steal every last bit of corn from my garden leaving me with nothing. But that particular year, they instead turned their attention to the sunflowers. They devoured every seed and left the corn alone. That year, I harvested one of my best corn crops ever. That got me to thinking that perhaps if I provided the squirrels with alternate dining, then maybe they’d leave my garden alone.

So how do you put this into practice? One way is to purchase a squirrel feeder. Place it somewhere away from your garden and keep it well-filled with squirrel corn. Never let it go empty. Hypothetically, if the squirrels are filling up on the squirrel corn with which you are providing them, they will be too full to bother with your garden. It’s kind of like paying protection money to the mafia. But if it keeps the squirrels from destroying your garden, then it may be worth it.


The Pebbles of Spring

“One of the wisest people I have known once said that the best things in life should be thought of as pebbles in a jar. The assumption should be that the pebbles are finite — even if you can’t count them by looking into the jar, you should assume that one day they will run out. You should withdraw them with care, one by one, never doing it by rote or distractedly. If you withdraw them too rapidly, you are being greedy, and will hasten the day when they are gone; if you hoard them, if you are miserly in keeping them in the jar, then you will rob yourself of the experiences the good things should give you. There’s no perfect way to do it. The closest you can come to perfection is to know just how precious those pebbles are, and to value each one.”

  • Bob Greene, former Chicago Tribune columnist

In the column I quoted above, Bob Greene likened the days of summer to the aforementioned pebbles in a jar. Each day of summer is a pebble removed, never to be reclaimed again. We should remove those pebbles with care, he explained, not tossing them away rapidly without a thought or trying to hoard them.

In my humble opinion, spring can be thought of in the same way. Spring is a magical season, even more so than summer. Spring is a time of transformation, when the world changes from the cold lifelessness of winter to the rebirth of spring. New plant growth emerges from the ground, insects and animals come out of hibernation, birds return from their winter grounds, and the world hums once more with abundant life. Meanwhile we humans, put away our heavy winter clothes and coats and bring out the lighter garments. And of course, we gardeners once more begin the tasks of preparing soil and planting seed and seedling, eagerly anticipating the beautiful flowers that will blossom or the bountiful harvest of vegetables that will delight our palates and free us from the bland supermarket offerings.

And then we make plans! Lots of plans – for all the things we are going to do and accomplish during the year. Activities, vacations, gatherings with friends and family – all the wonderful things that we will be able to look back upon with fondness later in the year.

But Mr. Greene also goes on to say that too often, we let life get in our way. We allow work, family matters, household chores, financial matters to impede our enjoyment of life, and all of the magic passes by. And before we know it, the cold winds of winter are once again whipping across our landscapes, and we wonder how all our plans never came to fruition.

Mr. Greene was writing about summer. But this applies even more so to spring. The reawakening of the earth only happens during the springtime. Snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Dutchman’s breeches, May apples, and many others only bloom from March through April. Want to see the mating dance of the American woodcock? That only takes place from late February through May. If you carelessly toss away those spring pebbles from your life’s jar, then you won’t be able to see any of these again for another year.

And did you get around to planting your garden? No? Well, if you haven’t done anything by August, it’s probably too late to do much of anything. You’ll have to wait another seven months, with all the cold, ice, and snow that comes with it, before you’ll get another chance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have carelessly spill out those pebbles. It’s time to stand up for your springtime (and for that matter, your life)! Sure, we all have to put forth effort to acquire “coin of the realm” to exchange for food, shelter, transportation, and other goods and services. But we do not have to let it dominate our lives and steal our springtime.

So take some time out to walk in the woods. Visit a nature center and savor the magic of re-emerging life. Watch in awe as birds and animals tend to their young. Plant flowers and vegetables. But most of all, savor every pebble of this magical time of year.

Remember that the pebbles will all disappear no matter what you do. But savor each one and don’t let them pass you by. Your life will be much richer for it.

Know Before You Grow

Those of you who have taken one or more of my classes have probably heard me make this little speech. But for those of you who haven’t yet, I’m going to write about this for all to hear. Gardening is a fun and enjoyable hobby. However, if you also want it to be a successful hobby, you’re going to have to do a little homework. By that I mean that before you plant anything in your garden, you have to do some research on it. In other words, know before you grow.

“What? Homework? Research? I didn’t sign up for that! All I want to do is plant some vegetables. Homework is for schoolkids, not me.” And you are entitled to that opinion. But I will tell you, based on personal experience, that if you want to boost your chances of a bumper crop of veggies, it’s going to take some pre-work on your part.

On several occasions, people have asked me why the tomatoes (or any other fruit or vegetable they planted) grew poorly or not at all, despite having given it plenty of tender loving care. The first question I always ask them is, what cultivar did you plant? And almost without fail, I’ll get an answer something like, “Oh, I don’t know. We just purchased whatever was on sale Wal-Mart.” And that, my friends, was their first mistake. Planting any old tomato will get you any old results. Were you lucky enough to choose a cultivar that is right for your soil conditions, environment, etc.? Well, then you want to be sure to plant it again. Oh, wait; you can’t. You never paid attention to what cultivar you purchased, so now you won’t know what to look for. Were you unfortunate enough to choose a poorly performing cultivar? Well, then you want to remember what it was so you don’t make the mistake of planting it again. What was it called again? Oops! You didn’t pay attention to what you bought. You now run the risk of accidentally planting it again.

And if the above two scenarios aren’t enough to convince you, then allow me to relate a personal experience. Years ago, I planted Jerusalem artichokes in my parents’ vegetable garden. At the time, all I knew about them was that I liked the taste of the knobby tubers (similar to potatoes) that the plant produced. After they started growing, I happened to read a little about them in one of my books. The description read as follows: “The Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, in the sunflower family…” Wait a minute. Sunflower? Uh-oh. And sure enough those plants grew to a height of well over six feet, and with stems as thick as my wrist. I darn near gave myself a hernia trying to pull those plants out of the ground. And oh boy, were they prolific! I had shopping bags filled with tubers. And then, come the following spring, I got another surprise. The tubers I had failed to dig out began to sprout. They were now weeds. It took me two years to completely clear those plants from the garden. But if I had read about them in the first place, I might have thought twice before planting them.

Consider the current state of your garden – soil quality, amount of sun it receives, etc. Then decide what vegetables you wish to grow, and do some research to find out which cultivars of those vegetables will perform the best in your garden in terms of heartiness, yield, disease resistance, flavor, and many other criteria. Ultimately, you want to plant vegetable crops that are going to grow strong, hearty, and with and high yield of fruits and vegetables. Heirloom tomatoes are wonderful, but if last year’s crop of heirloom tomatoes was felled by a disease, then maybe this year, you want to plant a disease-resistant hybrid instead. Is your garden soil rather hard and blocky? Then instead of a long-rooted carrot cultivar, you’re better off planting one of the shorter rooted cultivars like Oxheart or Thumbelina.

So before you plant that seed, or put the seedling in the ground, consider well what you are about to plant. Make sure it’s the right plant for your garden. You’ll thank me at harvest time.

Love In the Garden

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. Once again it’s time for that wonderful holiday that celebrates love, romance, and intimacy. And its initials are VD. So let’s be sure to be careful out there. But I digress.

Throughout history, human beings have tried to find foods and chemical substances to heighten the sexual appetites and stimulate the arousal of the ones they love. Well, did you know that you there are foods that you can grow in your very own garden that will accomplish this? Here are a few. Source: Hudson Valley Seed Company,

Basil – may increase blood flow, heart rate and fertility, but the true power of this herb lies in its aroma. In ancient India, women would cover their breasts with basil leaves to attract lovers. Italians referred to basil as “bacianicola” or “kiss me Nicholas,” because it was thought to attract husbands.

Celery – this garden vegetable contains androsterone, a male hormone that acts as a pheromone for attracting mates. A few bites, and the hormone will start flowing through your sweat glands, making you irresistible to the opposite sex.

Onions – “What, no!” you say. “Onions will make my breath stink!” Well, perhaps, but according to ancient Arabic and Hindu texts, onions can stimulate sexual attraction. Many monastic diets forbid the use of onions because they were thought to be too stimulating. A French tradition recommends that newlywed couples consume onion soup on their wedding day to restore sexual energy.

Tomatoes – in the 9th century, tomatoes were known as “love apples.” The Catholic Church banned them because they claimed that this fruit had “questionable morality.” Tomatoes are high in lycopene, which is thought to stimulate health of the prostate gland. If you heat up tomatoes, as in preparing a tomato sauce, you’ll increase the concentration of lycopene consumed.

Arugula – was the spirit-green of Priapus, one of the Greek gods of fertility. Arugula is chock-full of essential vitamins, and its stimulant power has been known as far back as the first century AD.

Coriander – is the seed of cilantro. In Arabian Nights, it was used to cure a merchant of impotence. Do you love cilantro? Then let a few plants go to seed, and someone may love you back.

Hot peppers – contain capsaicin, which creates the same bodily conditions as sexual arousal – body temperature increase, elevated heart rate, endorphin release, and nerve ending stimulation. It gives a whole new meaning to “spicing things up!”

Fennel – was known by the name of marathon back in ancient Greece. They associated this herb with strength, courage, and longevity. Fennel is an excellent aphrodisiac for women, as it contains high levels of phytoestrogens, a plant chemical very similar to the female hormone estrogen. In the 1930s, fennel was used as a source of synthetic estrogen for hormonal balance.

Yarrow – is associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Yarrow was said to help in the search for a mate, and once that mate is found, it helps connect their hearts.

Carrots – carrot stewed sugar, a popular dessert in 1870s Tehran, was considered an aid for seduction and was highly valued by royalty for this reason. Carrots are high in beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, which is important for hormone production.

So now that you know about sexual stimulant properties, why not prepare some of them in a dish to feed to the object of your desire? Even better, you can grow all of these in your very own “love garden.” And lastly, if you are reading this and you are not yet a gardener, if this doesn’t encourage you to become one, I don’t know what else will!

The Lonely Gardener

Photo by Pixabay on

Lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely
Bobby Vinton

The last word in lonesome is me
Roger Miller

As much as we tillers of the soil love gardening, there may be times when it can be a rather solitary activity. As much as we may enjoy it, not everyone shares our passion. And at first glance, gardening doesn’t seem to have a social component built into it. Ask your friends to join you at a bar or a ballgame, and you’ll probably get a few takers. Ask them to help you dig or weed, and your friends will suddenly remember that they already had plans to wash their hair, change the oil in their car, and attend a double feature of Zontar, the Thing From Venus and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Gardening can be a social activity, if you find the right people to do it with you.

For starters, if you have young children, you can ask them to join you. Children are naturally curious and want to join in on whatever their parents are doing. You can assign them simple tasks like planting seeds and seedlings or watering them in after their planted. When they get a little older, you can assign them a section of the garden to be their very own to plant what they’d like. What a great way for a family to spend time together. It also has the benefit of getting the kids away from the electronics and out into the fresh air and sunshine where the digging and planting can give them some much needed exercise. Furthermore, you just may find that at the dinner table, there are fewer struggles in getting your kids to eat their vegetables, because they are more likely to do so if they’ve had a hand in growing those vegetables.

Another way to make gardening a social activity is to take part in the planting of a community garden. Here, the members of a house of worship or neighborhood can join together to turn a formerly bare patch of ground into an oasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. Working together to accomplish this is a great way to build friendship and camaraderie and strengthen the bonds that hold together a neighborhood, synagogue, church, or mosque.

Finally somewhere in your town there is a group of gardeners who have come together to form a club. Why not join them? You can rub shoulders with other people who enjoy gardening as much as you do. You can exchange information, gain knowledge, and maybe even make some new friends. Gardening may not offer the same social currency that attending a concert, going on a bike ride, or attending a sporting event might offer. But there are opportunities a-plenty to join with other human beings and share the joy that gardening brings.

New Year, New You, New Garden

Happy New Year everyone! I hope your holidays were fun and festive, and that you are now well-rested and eager to take on 2023 and whatever it may bring!

Outside, the weather may be frigid and snowy, but inside where it is (I hope) toasty warm, the time is right to begin planning your vegetable garden. Spring will be here before you know it, and you don’t want to be caught with your tomatoes down and the rest of your desired seed stock out of stock.

How did your garden perform last year? Did everything you planted grow vigorously and yield a bumper crop of fruits and vegetables? Or was your garden a miserable failure where hardly anything grew and what did was eaten by the rabbits and squirrels? Or perhaps your results were somewhere between these two extremes? Whatever your results were, take heart. This is a brand new year! No matter how your garden performed last year, it’s all behind you now.

If your gardening efforts in 2022 were crowned with a frowny face, don’t lose hope. You are not a failure as a gardener. As I’ve already stated, this is a brand new year. Last year’s garden is in the past. The slate, or in this case, the plot is wiped clean and you now can start afresh and anew. Now is the time, while nature is sleeping under a bed of white, to take stock of last year’s garden and figure out what you did right and where you erred. Perhaps the heirloom tomatoes you planted succumbed to early blight. Then perhaps it would be better to plant a disease-resistant hybrid tomato instead. Or maybe the deer gorged themselves on the fruits of your labors last year. Well, then this year, you build a tall fence around your garden, one that the deer can’t jump over. With a keen eye and careful review, you can pinpoint where you went wrong and come up with solutions to correct the error, so that you can have a better chance of having the vigorous and productive garden of your dreams.

If last year’s gardening efforts met with success, congratulations! No doubt you are flushed with success and bursting with confidence, eager to turn that soil and plant those seeds and/or seedlings. So why not build on that success? Why not add some new dimensions to your gardening efforts? To be sure, it is perfectly fine to plant the same vegetables and use the same techniques as you did last year. “Don’t mess with success” and “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” are valid schools of thought. But last year’s success is proof positive that you are a skilled and successful gardener. So why not take that success and skill to new heights? If you grew in a raised bed, try adding a second raised bed, assuming that you have the room. Better still, grow vegetables in one raised bed and something like blueberries, which require a more acidic soil, in the other bed. Or how about trying your hand at growing sorghum, harvesting the grain, and then chopping up the canes and extracting the syrup? Or what about growing popcorn instead of sweet corn?

“I don’t know, Mark. I’ve always grown the same vegetables every year. I don’t want to rock the boat. What if the new things I plant fail?” What if they succeed? Think how proud, happy, and even more confident you’ll feel when your new fruit or vegetable cultivar yields a bountiful crop of a new and different flavor for your taste buds. And if it does turn out to be a bust, well, you’ve just learned one more thing that doesn’t work, and you don’t plant it again. Sure you’ll have some regret, but better regret for something you tried instead of something you didn’t. Last year’s garden, failure or success, is history. You are planting a new garden in the new year, and your new success will give you a new confidence for a new you!

You Gotta Get Dirty!

Several years ago, my young niece and I were helping my father with my parents’ vegetable garden. On more than one occasion, my niece kept asking, “Grandpa, will you wash my hands?” Now traditionally, the washing of hands is performed after the work is finished. But it soon became obvious that my niece did not like dirt clinging to her hands for any length of time. She wanted to help in the garden, but did not like getting dirty.

With apologies to my niece, it just doesn’t work that way. Being a gardener is a lot like being a gossip columnist, because both have to wallow in the dirt if they want to do their job. To be a successful gossip columnist he or she must wallow in figurative dirt – lies, smut, scuttlebutt, innuendo, etc. To be a successful gardener you must wallow in the real thing, although I prefer the word soil. There are no two ways about it. Gardening gets you dirty – and sweaty. If you want to grow vegetables, flowers, or mushrooms, at some point in the process, you are going to have to sink your hands into the soil, and some of that soil is going to stick to your hands. To be sure, you can wear gardening gloves, but they will not completely keep your hands completely dirt-free. Not only that, but your clothes and shoes are also going to get dirty. And you’re going to sweat with a capital S! We’re not talking wisps of perspiration here. We’re talking great drops of moisture dripping off of your forehead and careening off of your nose!

If you’re willing to accept dirt, sweat, and stink, then welcome to the club! It’s plain to see that you like fresh air and sunshine, and the thought of remnants of Mother Earth sticking to your hands and clothes does not deter you from your desire to grow bumper crops of delicious, wholesome, fresh vegetables or beautiful flowers. On the other hand, if the merest thought of a speck of soil contaminating your digits makes you scream with horror, then may I suggest that you try another hobby? Perhaps stamp collecting is more your speed.

It’s What You Do With What You’ve Got

It’s not just what you’re given
But what you do with what you’ve got

            -Si Kahn

Many of us labor under the false notion that in order to grow a successful vegetable garden, we must have a large backyard – or even a large front yard. Those who don’t possess one many times often believe that they cannot grow any kind of garden. Well, I’m here to tell you that that is not so. One can grow a garden anywhere as long as one has access to a growing medium (soil, potting mixes, hydroponic chemicals, etc.), water, and light.

Have you been given (or purchased) a home with a small backyard? If so, you can build a raised bed or two, fill it with a commercially bagged potting mix (or mix one up yourself), and grow your vegetables there. If you use techniques such as square foot gardening, vertical gardening, succession planting, etc. you can maximize the yield you get out of that raised bed. You may even get a larger yield than your arrogant brother-in-law with his big backyard!

Do you have a deck, balcony, or patio? You can purchase containers, fill them with growing media, and grow your vegetables there. I once saw a video of someone who was growing a variety of vegetables and herbs in planters, bottles hung upside down, etc. on the balcony of his downtown Manhattan apartment. And I, myself, grow vegetables in grow bags and self-watering planters on the patio of my townhouse.

Do you have an outside wall that isn’t doing anything? You can set up hanging wall planters and grow your vegetables there. And how about your roof? You may even be able to grow something there. And as a last resort, you might even be able to use Other People’s Space (OPS). Perhaps you may have a friend or family member with a large backyard who might be willing to let you set up a garden on part of it. Sound farfetched? Well, I, myself, make use of OPS. My friend and musical partner Jean and her husband Dan have let me grow a garden in their backyard for years. So it can be done. The whole point is that, like in the words of Si Kahn’s wonderful song, it’s not what you’ve been given in terms of space that determines whether or not you can grow a garden and how successful it can be. It’s what you do with that space you’ve got. With a little creativity, you can turn a brick wall into a bountiful source of fresh fruits and vegetables for you and your family.

Creating the Garden Of You

Every one of us is a unique individual with personality traits, desires, hopes, and dreams that are yours alone. We all wish to express our heart’s desires in our own unique way in everything we do – the clothes we wear, the way we style our hair, the car we drive, etc. And if you’re a gardener, you want to grow a garden that reflects your own personal style. You want to grow what you want the way you want it. So how do you make this happen?

Start by building your vision of your own unique garden. Ask yourself some questions to set the mood. What is your garden vision? Perhaps it’s to grow a food garden to provide vegetables and fruits for fresh eating. Or maybe it is to grow a garden of native plants to support native insects and animals. Or perchance you wish to plant an herb garden to provide plants for culinary or medicinal uses.

Next, determine how you are going to bring your garden vision to life. Do you have space in your own home territory (backyard, front yard, patio, or deck)? Perhaps a friend or relative would be willing to let you “sharecrop” a portion of their backyard and let you garden there. I like to call this OPS (Other People’s Space)

Will your vision fit your constraints (e.g. space, finances, time)? If not, can you move beyond these constraints? If you work a part time job that interferes with you taking care of a garden, then maybe you can adjust your working hours so you can devote more time to that garden? If there are trees, shrubs, or other plants in your yard that limit your space, can you remove them to make room for your garden?

Are you fully aware of the effort needed to bring this vision to life, and are you prepared to put in that effort? Remember, gardening will require some labor on your part. If the thought of getting sore, dirty, and sweaty makes you blanch, then gardening isn’t for you.

Now it’s time to firm up that vision. Write it down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Some examples:

  • “I want to create a garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the community.”
  • “My vision is that of a garden that will provide a peaceful sanctuary where I can relax and unwind from everyday stress.”
  • “I desire to plant a garden of poisonous plants that kill people when eaten or touched.” (Think I’m making this up? Check out The Poison Garden at The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, UK) —

After you’ve firmed up the vision, you will want to plan it out. You can either draw a rough sketch on paper or, if you’re the anal type like me, you can draw it to scale on graph paper.

Once you have it all planned out, you can then begin executing the plan. Measure and stake out the site, dig up any existing grass, prepare your soil, plant your seeds or transplants, and ta da! Your garden vision has come to life!

And that’s all there is to it. Build it, ink it, plan it, and execute it.

So what’s your garden vision?

Where Do We Find The Motivation?

I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big one

  • From the song “Home Grown Tomatoes” by Guy Clark

Gardening is hard work. Turning over the soil, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, taking it all apart in the fall – all of this labor has the potential to make your body sweat and your muscles ache. So why do we do it? Where do we find the motivation? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but here’s what motivates me.

I am motivated by being out in the fresh air and sunshine and getting some exercise that doesn’t require me to pay exorbitant health club fees. I am motivated by the awe and wonder of putting a tiny seed into the ground and watching it grow into a beautiful plant that delights the eye and provides foliage and fruit that nourishes the body. I am motivated by knowing that I’ll be eating produce that hasn’t been contaminated by harmful chemicals or fresh animal manure (e.g. poop on tap) from a nearby animal farm. I am motivated by seeing the delight in a fellow gardener’s eyes when I share some gardening wisdom that helps him or her to grow more and better vegetables.

But most of all, I’m motivated by knowing that all of that labor will soon result in fruits and vegetables that are sweet, crunchy, fresh, flavorful, and nutrient-rich in ways that store-purchased fruits and vegetables can only dream about.

How about you? What’s your motivation for gardening?