Gardener, know thine enemy!


Often, when I'm reading books and blogs by gardeners, I find myself happy with my lot as a downtown St. John's veggie grower. Sure, I can't plant out my peppers until the end of June, but, heck, at least I don't have raccoons to deal with! Or locusts, or squirrels, or opossums, or deer, or tomato hornworms, or gophers, or so many of the pests that make backyard horticulture maddening for so many people. If I were outside of town, or even a little closer to the city limits, I might have rabbits, and of course you never know when a moose is going to flatten your garden, but, overall, the pest count here is relatively low. I do, however, have two formidable enemies. One is a purring, furry, yarn-chasing, mouse-hunting domestic mammal. The other is a slimy, greyish-brownish-yellowish, squishy, vile invertebrate. Neither one is welcome in my vegetable beds.

My neighbourhood is full of cats. Which is great, because it's also full of mice. Old House Syndrome, I call it. And I'm a cat person, for sure. But there is a certain cat in my family who sees any bit of bare ground and thinks to herself, "Oh, how luxurious! Someone's built a soft, warm, earthy box for me to do my business in! How kind!" This cat even managed to - ahem - relieve herself in a half-full 14-inch plastic flowerpot last year. That's a feat of balance, and I kind of have to admire her dedication. But I don't want to have my garden scratched to bits, nor do I want cat poop anywhere near anything I'm planning to eat, especially when there are little children digging around.

Last year I tried dusting the ground with cayenne pepper, which cats apparently hate, and it certainly seemed to work, but it had to be reapplied every time it rained, which was pretty much every day. Plus, someone told me some horror story about cats injuring themselves by getting cayenne in their eyes. Now, this kind of screams "urban (/rural) legend" to me - cats have pretty sensitive noses, and probably wouldn't go near anything that smelled like cayenne - but I'm freaked out enough to give the pepper a pass this year. So far, here is my strategy:

  • No bare ground! This means planting densely and intercropping vegetables with flowers and herbs wherever I can.
  • Where there is bare ground, for example, where I've just put in seeds or seedlings, I've placed fallen sticks and branches over top of them, making sure than none of the sticks actually leans on the seedlings. It ain't pretty, but it ain't much fun to try and pee in, either (um, I imagine...).

  • I'm also considering planting white clover as a living mulch under some of my vegetables. I tried this last summer, and it seemed to work well.
  • I have heard that mulching with pine cones also helps, because they're pokey and cats don't like to step on them. I'll try that if I happen to come across a cache of pine cones.
  • Another thing I'm trying is the herb rue, which is supposed to be an effective cat repellent. It's a gorgeous, silvery, woody, tender evergreen, with yellow flowers that attract butterflies. Unfortunately, it can also cause a severe skin rash in many people, especially children. So my plan is to grow the rue in small pots which I can place in my garden beds, then move out of the way (with gloved hands) when the children are playing.
  • One last thing: I might plant some catnip at the end of my yard, away from the vegetables. In theory, this should encourage the cats to congregate away from my beds and pots. In practice, though, I might just end up with every cat in the neighbourhood wandering in and out of my yard, hopped up on 'nip and looking for a decent place to pee. Must give this one some more thought.

As for the slugs, well, I'll bet you're bouncing up and down in your chair saying, "Beer traps! Have you tried beer traps? Try beer traps!" Let me tell you: there isn't enough beer on George Street to take out these guys. I had beer traps everywhere last year, and for every ten drowned slugs each morning there were fifty live ones, eating my beans and brassicas. I submit to you my bok choy:

Totally skeletonized. So here are a few things I plan to do to keep on top of the slugs this year:

  • Vigilance is the best pesticide! Dawn and dusk, you will find me in strolling my grounds (such as they are), smashing the heck out of every slug I see, without even a hint of regret. I find it helps if I sing Wilco's "War on War," only I change the words to "It's a war on slugs, it's a war on slugs, it's a war on slugs..." Hey, whatever gets you through, right?
  • I'm keeping all my tender greens - lettuces, salad mixes, and so on - out of the slugs' path by growing them in pots on my steps and in window boxes.
  • One thing the slugs went crazy for last year was squash blossoms. This year I'm training my squash up trellises rather than letting them scramble on the ground, putting a little extra distance between them and the slugs.
  • I'm going to try mulching around the bases of plants with used coffee grounds this year. Apparently the caffeine dries the slugs out and they won't go over it. Last year I tried finely ground eggshells, and diatomaceous earth, but these had to be reapplied after every rain, and since it rained all summer, it was kind of pointless. Coffee, though, is supposed to work even in the rain. We'll see about that.
  • Last year I tried the copper-mesh-electric-slug-zap method of slug control, but it didn't work at all! This may be because I used the cheapskate's version of copper mesh: dollar-store copper dish scrubbies. Or it could be because I had the mesh stretched out too thinly, so the slugs just coasted over it, suffering through the pain, knowing that delicious seedlings were on the other side. I'm going to try this again this year in some form, but I haven't decided quite what yet.
  • I'm putting little water-bottle rings around all my seedlings. I just cut plastic water bottles into 2-inch rings, then I make a zig-zag pattern across the top, fold the points out, and it's like instant barbed-wire for slugs. I don't usually buy bottled water myself, but I don't mind pilfering old bottles from other people's recycling (dance schools and gyms are magnificent sources of water bottles).

If I had a little more time to give to the nurturing of small animals, I would have a trio of hens, and perhaps a quiet, dignified female Muskovy duck to keep the slug population in check. My feathered friends would take care of all the slugs, snails, and other nasties that want to eat my lunch, and the Muskovy would scare the daylights out of any cat that even considered squatting in my planters.

Until then, though, I'll keep on with my trial-and-error pest control methods.

What pests do you have in your garden? And what do you do to keep them out?