Gardening Means War

I CAME TO THE COUNTRY from the city and brought along many of the city man’s easy ideas about the landscape and its inhabitants. One had to do with the problem of pests in the garden, about which I carried the usual set of liberal views. To nuke a garden with insecticide, to level a rifle sight at the back of a woodchuck in flat-footed retreat, to erect an electric barricade around a vegetable patch: such measures struck me as excessive, even irresponsible.

Respect for nature’s fragility was an article of faith with me. Deploying superior firepower to crush local opposition to my plans for the land seemed a reckless act of environmental imperialism. Besides, these animals had arrived long before the gardener, so who was the interloper? And what was gardening about if not working out a more harmonious relationship with nature?

One of gardening’s virtues is to clear the mind of easy sentiments about nature in general, and its fauna in particular. The first challenge to your romance of animals comes in April, after you’ve turned the soil, humped heavy bags of peat moss and manure from the car trunk to the garden, dug these in by pitchfork, and then laid out in scrupulous rows the seedlings of early crops—lettuce, broccoli, cabbage. Do all that, then see how you feel next morning when that orderly parade ground of seedlings has been mowed down by a woodchuck out snacking.

It’s not just the wasted time, effort and cash. Consider the forlorn appearance of the mowed-down seedlings, neatly snipped off a half-inch above the ground, as if by someone with a pair of scissors and all the time in the world. This is what tells you a woodchuck is responsible: they devour a crop systematically, whereas a deer—nervous, and possessing perhaps a more developed sense of shame—will snip a shoot here and there, and then, startled by a falling leaf or something equally perilous to a 200-pound mammal, will dash off before the meal is done. The woodchuck approaches your plants less as a thief than a relative. He does not worry that you will interrupt his repast, and he fully intends to return tomorrow for seconds.

And the gardener will oblige. He is not about to fold his garden in the face of this impertinence. A rodent whose cerebrum could be packed into a thimble might win a battle or two, but finally the war must go to the larger, more developed brain. What is our species doing on this planet if not winning precisely this kind of contest?

At least, that’s how I saw matters the first time, a year or two ago, when I awoke to the evidence of a predawn April raid on my freshly planted vegetable garden. I thought the problem through, and determined to take the battle to the woodchuck’s own territory. I went looking for his burrow.

My vegetable garden is laid out on a small, flat lawn that ends at the base of a small slope, which is covered by a tangle of blackberry bushes and a couple of Russian olive trees—perfect cover for a woodchuck burrow, and not five chuck-size paces from the nearest garden row. Woodchucks, nearsighted and slow-footed, prefer to set up house as close to their favorite dining spot as prudence will allow. I whacked at the brush with a machete, and there it was: a large, ugly mouth set into the hillside, with a pile of freshly dug soil arranged beneath it like a fat bottom lip. This woodchuck was not only visiting my garden, he had moved in for the summer.

This called for a program of behavior modification. I gathered a half dozen fist-size rocks and squeezed them into the hole. Then I mounded a few shovelfuls of earth on top and stomped on it a few times to jam the rock and earth down into the tunnel. This ought to persuade him to move elsewhere, I thought, with the confidence of someone who understood not the first thing about woodchucks.

The next day the hole had yawned open and spit out the rocks and the soil. Hungry from his excavation work, the woodchuck had polished off a fresh row of lettuce seedlings.

THE READER MIGHT REASONABLY wonder why I had no fence. I can offer a few practical explanations—expense, building competence—but the real reasons, I suspect, were more visceral. Fences just didn’t accord with my view of gardening. A garden should be continuous with the natural landscape, in harmony with its surroundings. The idea that a garden might actually require protection from nature seemed absurd.

I had also absorbed the traditional American view that fences were Old World, out of place in the American landscape, a notion that crops up repeatedly in 19th-century American writing about the landscape. Early landscape architects, such as Frank Scott, campaigned tirelessly against the fence, which was considered a feudal holdover from Britain. In 1870, Scott wrote that “to narrow our own or our neighbor’s views of the free graces of Nature” was selfish and undemocratic.

The American prejudice against fences probably has its origins in the first settlers’ views of nature. The Puritans saw the American landscape as sacred. The transcendentalists, too, considered nature “God’s second book,” and taught us to read it for moral instruction. Residues of this view persist. It may be that in nature writing today guilt has taken the rhetorical place of transcendentalist ecstasy, but the essential religiosity remains.

Once we accept the landscape as a moral and spiritual space, how can we presume to remake God’s landscape? It is one thing to cultivate the earth for our sustenance—the Bible speaks of that—but to do so for esthetic reasons has until very recently struck Americans as frivolous, or worse. Even when we plan gardens today, we avoid anything that looks designed or artificial. We favor gardens that resemble natural landscapes, and that leaves little room for fences.

MY OWN EFFORTS to design a perennial border that flowed seamlessly into the surrounding landscape met with derision from the local inhabitants, who quickly took advantage of my naive romanticism. The deer feasted on the young day lily and delphinium shoots. The grasses from the meadow have found that so-called hardy perennials are, in fact, pushovers. Instead of the flower border pushing back toward the meadow, the meadow is pushing forward to the house. Without my intervention, the border would not have stood the season.

Under the pressure of this many-fronted assault, I have come to understand the distance between naturalists, who gaze benignly on all of nature’s operations, and the experienced gardener, who perforce has developed a somewhat less sentimental view. Particularly toward woodchucks. I am not ready to see them banished from the planet altogether—they must have some ecological purpose—but I seriously doubt that news of some form of woodchuck megadeath in this part of the country would put me in an elegiac frame of mind.

But in giving up my romantic views of the local fauna, I may have gone overboard in the opposite direction. I tried everything I could think of to eliminate my woodchuck problem, in an escalating series of measures William Westmoreland would have understood. I started with elaborate campaigns of behavior modification—my send-in-a-few-advisers phase, in which I confidently deployed the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization. I had done my reading and learned that woodchucks can’t stand getting their fur dirty. Thinking I had located my adversary’s Achilles’ heel, I introduced a few choice items into his tunnel: a dozen eggs, smashed and dribbled down its side; a jar of molasses; half a can of motor oil; a dead field mouse. And, lastly, a quart of creosote, vile stuff so sticky he’d need his fur steam-cleaned.

When this didn’t work—evidently, my woodchuck lacked his species’ Felix Unger gene—I found myself attracted to less cerebral approaches. It’s astonishing, actually, how much anger an animal’s infiltration of your garden can incite. I would not, after all, go hungry as a result of his depredations. No, this was no longer about any cool calculations of self-interest. This was about winning.

A rifle was out of the question; I’ve always been afraid of guns, and have never owned one. But I came up with something equally unsentimental: I found a somewhat flattened woodchuck along the highway, scooped it into a crate and brought it home. I hacked the corpse into several pieces and jammed them into the burrow. This amounted to terrorism, I admit. But either he did not get it, or he did not care, because in two days’ time he had dug a detour around the corpse and the pillaging resumed.

Next, I decided to incinerate the woodchuck in his burrow. I poured maybe a gallon of gasoline down his tunnel, waited a few minutes for it to fan out along the various passageways, and struck a match.

Evidently, there was not enough oxygen down there, because the flames shot in the wrong direction—up, toward my face. I leapt back before I was singed too badly, and watched a black-orange fountain of flame flare up toward an olive tree. I managed to smother the fire with earth before the entire garden went up. I guess this was my destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it phase.

MY BRUSH WITH CONFLAGRATION among the vegetables shocked me out of my Vietnam approach to garden pests before I had a chance to defoliate the neighborhood. I also began to think that there might be more going on here than a cartoonish war between me and a woodchuck.

I realized that during a long walk one late afternoon last April in the woods near my house. Most of the land around here is post-agricultural hardwood forest; the farms were abandoned starting around the turn of the century, and the forest has made quick work of reclaiming large parts of the countryside. You might think this oak forest was primordial if not for the stone walls and other lingering signs of one-time cultivation: wolf trees (specimens with broad crowns, signifying they matured in open, uncompetitive spaces); the anomalous bloom of a garden flower, faint plow furrows visible in the snow cover.

But on this particular walk I found an even ghostlier set of signs. Following an old logging trail, I came to an area that somehow seemed more ordered than the surrounding woods. On both sides of the trail were stone walls—linear piles, really—marking small rectangular enclosures among the trees. Within each square was a rectangular pit lined with stones: the foundation of a small house.

I had stumbled upon Dudleytown, an abandoned 19th-century settlement that I had often been told was nearby but had never been able to locate. Traces of former habitation were everywhere, like shadows on the landscape, even though the forest had completely recolonized the area. Oaks, hickories, ash and sycamores had spread out evenly over the village like a blanket, rising up in the former yards and fields and even in the middle of cellar pits, jutting heedlessly through spaces that once had been organized into kitchens and bedrooms, warm spaces that had vibrated with human sounds.

If you blotted the trees from sight and followed the contours of the land, you could make out the organization of the village. Houses lined a main street. The stone walls marked each family’s yard; in some stood gnarled apple trees on their last legs, starved for sunlight by the new forest canopy. A few clumps of day lily survived, along with deep green patches of myrtle and vinca: remnants of dooryard gardens that the forest had failed to defeat. Some yards opened onto what must have been fields or pastures. Stone walls, which had once marked boundaries and kept cows from straying, threaded arbitrary paths through the trees, accomplishing nothing.

To the gardener in me, Dudleytown quickly assumed a spectral presence. Every weed I pulled, every blade of grass I mowed, each beetle I crushed—all was done to slow the advance of the forest that had reclaimed Dudleytown. It made me see that the woodchuck was no free-agent pest, snacking strictly on his own account. He labored on behalf of the oncoming forest. Not only the animals, but the insects, the weeds, even the fungi and bacteria, were working together to erase my garden—and after that, my lawn, my driveway, my patio, even my house.

My experience as a gardener has taught me that nature resents our presence. She deploys her various agents to undo our work in the garden. But to what end? Now I grasped her local teleology: Dudleytown.

The forest, I now understand, is “normal”; everything else—the fields and meadows, the lawns and pavements and, most spectacularly, the gardens—is an ecological “vacuum” that nature will not abide for long. Here the soil is richest and most frequently turned over. What softer, sweeter, more hospitable bed could an airborne weed seed ever find to lie down on? Other weeds don’t even have to find your garden: thousands of their seeds lie dormant in every cubic foot of garden soil, patiently waiting for a pleasing combination of light and moisture so they can move on your plants.

And your plants are sitting ducks. Just as cultivated soil constitutes a kind of vacuum in the environment, so do most of the plants grown in it. Most cultivated fruits and vegetables contain nutrients in greater concentration than ordinary plants. They stick out in the natural landscape like rich kids in a tough neighborhood. Enter the animals. The woodchucks and deer are the flora’s great levelers, making sure there are no undue concentrations of nutritional wealth in the landscape. They want to redistribute my protein.

Should the vertebrates fail to drive me out of my garden, a dozen insect species, each with its own distinctive tactics, will march on my plants in a series of waves beginning in April and unrelenting till frost: cutworms, which saw off seedlings at ground level; aphids, specks of pale green that cluster on the undersides of leaves, sucking the vital fluids; loathsome slugs, naked bullets of flesh that emerge at sunset to travel the garden on their own avenues of slime; and last to arrive, the vast, farflung beetle family, which mounts a massive airborne invasion beginning in midsummer.

Like the vertebrates, this exoskeletal mob is drawn by the nutritional extravagance of the vegetable garden, as well as by the fact that most garden plants are nature’s weaklings. We breed garden plants for qualities that appeal to us, not ones that might help insure survival. Rather than school them in the martial arts, we enter into a tacit pact with our plants: in exchange for their beauty and utility, we shield them from the horrors of Darwinian struggle.

So please don’t talk to me about the harmony of gardens and the natural landscape. The forest is so vigorous around here, so well served by its advance guard of animals, bugs and weeds, that a single season of neglect would blast my garden back to meadow; a decade would find the forest licking at my front stoop. And in 50 years: Dudleytown. A cellar pit with a sycamore rising through it.

WHAT WAS THE right approach to pests in the garden? How could I halt the advance of Dudleytown without turning my garden into a toxic waste site? These questions quickly led to bigger ones about how we choose to confront the natural landscape. Domination or acquiescence? As developers or naturalists? I no longer think the answers are so obvious.

Domination, in suburban or rural terms, means lawn, a demilitarized zone patrolled weekly with a rotary blade. The lawn holds great appeal; it looks sort of natural—it’s green, it grows. But, in fact, it represents a subjugation of the forest as utter as a parking lot. Every species is forcibly excluded from the landscape but one, and this is forbidden to grow longer than the owner’s little finger. A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.

On the other side is acquiescence: the benign gaze of the naturalist. Certainly, his ethic sounds nice and responsible, but have you ever noticed that the naturalist never tells you where he lives? Unless you live in the city or a tent, the benign gaze is totally impractical—sooner or later it leads to Dudleytown.

The trick is somehow to find a middle ground. That is what gardening is, or should be: a midspace between Dudleytown and the parking lot, a place that admits of both nature and human habitation.

The choice is not, as Americans often seem to assume, simply between raping the land or sealing it away in a preserve. That the first approach is bankrupt goes without saying. Yet, right as it sounds, the second one is a dead end, too. We need not, like the naturalist, shrink before our own power to alter nature. To renounce that power is in some sense to renounce our humanity—our nature, which is no less real than the nature we seem to think exists only out there. Shakespeare’s Polixenes has it right in “The Winter’s Tale.” In response to Perdita, who rejects the hybridized flower as unnatural, he says: “This is an art/ Which does mend nature—change it rather; but/ The art itself is nature.”

For the gardener, breaking free of the notion that art negates nature is liberating. A promising strategy against pests can begin to take shape. For starters, one can re-examine the American taboo against fences. Fences may offend American ideas about democracy, limitlessness and the landscape’s sanctity, but perhaps we need to consider the possibility that their absence offends the idea of a garden.

For most of history, people have been making gardens, and most of their gardens have been walled or fenced. “Garden” derives from the Old German word for enclosure, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition begins “an enclosed piece of ground. . . .” (Compare that to American dictionary definitions, which omit the idea of enclosure.) The long history of gardens, which traverses many very different cultures, suggests that perhaps there is something natural about erecting a wall against the landscape on one side and society’s gaze on the other. We number the beaver dam among nature’s creations; why not also the garden wall?

IT WAS TIME FOR ME to put up a fence. I went with five feet of galvanized steel mesh stretched across posts that had been treated with arsenic to resist rot and then sunk three feet into the earth. The bottom edge of the fence runs a foot underground, to deter tunnelers. It doesn’t look at all bad, and even though you can see through the wire mesh, when I close the garden gate behind me I feel as though I’ve entered a privileged space.

But more important, the woodchuck so far respects the fence; the cabbages have reached softball size unmolested. He has not abandoned his burrow, however, and I picture him jealously pacing the garden perimeter at dawn, scheming, looking for an angle. I remain on alert.

Now four feet of fence won’t impede a doe with snap beans on her mind, but I can take care of that. Six inches above the top of the fence, I’ll string a wire that pulses every second with several hundred volts of electric current. I’ve been told to smear the wire with peanut butter in order to introduce the deer to the unprecedented and memorable sensation of electric shock, after which they should be gone for good. The power will run off a solar panel that sits atop one of the posts, reaching toward the sun like some gigantic high-tech blossom. This last touch strikes me as a nice bit of jujitsu, turning nature’s power against a few of her own.

Intervening against the insects is not so straightforward; but here, too, there may be an art that “itself is nature.”

The key to eliminating an insect from the garden is knowledge: about its habits, preferences and vulnerabilities. Most chemical pesticides represent a crude form of knowledge about insects: that, for example, a powerful chemical, such as malathion, cripples the nervous system of most organisms, so a little of the stuff should kill bugs but (probably) not bigger creatures.

Even though this knowledge has been produced by humans wearing lab coats, it is not nearly as sophisticated or precise as the knowledge a ladybug, say, possesses on the subject of aphids. The ladybug is not smart, but she knows one thing exceedingly well: how to catch 40 or 50 aphids every day without hurting anybody else. If you think of evolution as a billion-year-long laboratory experiment, and the gene pool as the store of information accumulated during that experiment, then you realize that nature has far more extensive knowledge about her operations than we do. The trick is to put her knowledge to our purpose in the garden.

So far, the only way to harness the ladybug gene for aphid capture is by obtaining whole ladybugs, and this can be done through the mail. For about $10, you can order 3,500 ladybugs from a company that specializes in “biological controls.” The ladybugs come in a drawstring pouch that can be kept in the refrigerator; you spoon out the bugs onto the leaves of infested plants. They also sell praying mantis egg cases, which should be sewn onto a tree branch near the garden; when the weather warms in spring, the nymphs emerge, to take up stations on the upper leaves of your plants. Their patience and stillness are extraordinary, as are their reflexes: a praying mantis can snatch flying insects right out of the air.

Not all of the biological controls on the market are insects; some are bacteria. You can buy a powder innoculated with Bacillus thuringiensis, for example, and start a plague among the cabbage loopers and other leaf-eating caterpillars without harming anything else.

Biological controls won’t solve every pest problem—there are still too few controls, for one thing. But the approach holds promise, and suggests what can be accomplished when we learn to exploit nature’s self-knowledge and stop thinking of art and technology as being necessarily opposed to nature. For how are we to categorize Bacillus thuringiensis as a form of human intervention in the landscape? Is it technological, or natural? The categories are no longer much help, at least in the garden.

I won’t know until the end of the season whether I’ve completely solved my pest problem. But, puttering in my newly fenced garden, watching the mantises standing sentry on the tops of my tomatoes and the ladybugs running search-and-destroy missions among the eggplants, I feel a lot more relaxed about it. Though Dudleytown remains over the next hill, I know I can stall its advance for as long as I continue to put my thought and sweat into this patch of land. There are going to be setbacks; gardening is not a once-and-for-all thing. But I think I’ve drawn a workable border between me and the forest. Could it prove to be a Maginot line? I don’t think so—it doesn’t depend on the invincibility of technology. Nor does it depend on the benignity of nature. It depends on my acting like a sane human, which is to say as a creature whose nature it is to remake his surroundings and whose culture can guide him on questions of esthetics and ethics. What I’m making here is a middle ground between nature and culture, a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set against it; what I’m making is a garden.