Making peace with wildlife in an urban garden
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
I have a confession to make: Yours truly was once a cold-hearted executioner. A new gardener driven by glossy magazine photos, I wanted the perfect landscape free of nibbled leaves and gnawed blooms. So, I lured the soft, slimy bodies of slugs into shallow jar lids filled with cheap beer. Each morning I would check my traps and, sick to my stomach, sit down by the hostas and cry. This lasted less than a week, a few days at most. I also poisoned voles, because they, too, were eating my hostas, my phlox and my dahlias. As a pacifist, I realized that harming animals made me feel worse than the animals’ eating my plants. Those poor slugs and voles were merely doing what creatures — humans included — do, which is forage for food to ensure their survival.
If you’ve cultivated a plot of earth to grow flowers, vegetables or fruits, you know the pain of walking into the garden at dawn and seeing the overnight destruction caused by wildlife. Birds eat berries and fruits. Bunnies eat vegetables and ornamentals. And deer, well, they eat about everything! It creates quite a conundrum, for although I am a gardener, I am also a passionate lover of wildlife. I am part of the ecology of my land, and I believe a garden can be a place for balancing ecology and horticulture.
I’m not alone in this balancing act. In her delightful book, My Garden (Book): Jamaica Kincaid complains about the families of rabbits or woodchucks that eat the beet leaves right at the moment of harvesting. “I plot ways to kill them but can never bring myself to do it, I decide to build a fence around the garden and then I decide not to. . . who can really care,” she writes.
Nowadays, I see more than slugs and voles in my garden. Last spring two foxes ran roughshod over my peonies while chasing a rabbit. Shortly after, a bat got caught in a hanging urn on my deck. A young fawn made himself at home in a thicket of coralberry. And in the neighboring neighborhood, coyotes have been roaming through the streets. It’s like Wild Kingdom up in here! What’s a gardener to do?
Due to urban sprawl, wildlife habitat is rapidly shrinking, leaving many creatures homeless. As wilderness is destroyed, animals are venturing further into occupied areas in search of food and shelter. Those occupied areas just happen to be our gardens, intended to be occupied only by us and those we invited.
Over the years, I’ve tried countless deterrents to keep pesky animals out of my garden, such as physical barriers, squirrel baffles, homemade sprays and organic fox urine (maybe that’s what attracted the foxes?). I even set out store-bought carrots and lettuce in hopes the rabbits would leave my flowers alone. I watched from the window as they nibbled a pot of hostas and then moved on to my generous offering for dessert. “Well, I never!” I wailed. To which my ever-amused husband answered, “Uh, yes, you did.”
I decided I might as well keep an optimistic approach to the problem, something I call the garden-as-guru method. This half-acre plot is teaching me, by degrees, patience first, then acceptance, followed by surrender. And, perhaps, especially coexistence. Merriam-Webster defines coexistence as: 1. to exist together or at the same time 2. to live in peace with each other especially as a matter of policy.
Years ago, a chewed plant angered me, but yoga practice has introduced the lessons of nonattachment and expectation. And aging has pounded the truth of loss into my life. I’m ok with knowing at the moment of planting this lily or that fern, there’s a 50-50 chance the plant won’t survive the season. The fact is these creatures are part of my garden, my world. It helps to remember I share this earth with all living beings: the adorable, and the less adorable. It doesn’t matter who was here first; we are both here now.
I keep doing my best with this leaning into coexistence. I plant some flowers. I place a small cage around a special Daphne odora until it grows bigger. I feed the birds. I plant a few more flowers. I drink the beer myself, and turn my head as the slugs crawl along the flowerbeds, maybe occasionally scooping one up and placing it ever so gently near the compost pile. I still swat and kill mosquitoes, and doubt I’ll ever evolve out of that. But, the older I get, the more I tend to agree with Theodore Roethke, “I’m sure I’ve been a toad, one time or another. With bats, weasels, worms . . . I rejoice in the kinship. Even the caterpillars I can love, and the various vermin.”
Ah, the peaceable kingdom. Is it here yet?
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader, and
hiker. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment