Growing Pains

One of the reasons I started a large vegetable garden years ago was a happy thought that this would be one area I'd not have to mow. I don't know what idiocy made me think I'd be getting out of some work. Beyond all the labor involved, growing vegetables requires vigilance.

I've dallied with cabbage, romanced spinach and flirted with asparagus, but my one true love is the tomato. My problem is the competition. Half the creatures that crawl, walk or fly eat tomatoes, and unlike me, they have nothing much else to do.

We live an hour's drive from New York City and you'd think wildlife would be no bother. Besides, the garden is protected by fence, screen and brick. Outside the fence, I grow snapdragons to discourage our furry friends from glancing in and getting all excited. Yet here is what I saw one day last summer between dawn and dusk, their beady eyes fixed on my comestibles: five rabbits; a scurry of squirrels; a mother woodchuck and her two young; a scold of irritated blue jays; a murder of crows; three raccoons; a vole; and deer of all sizes.

Last year, I added a variety of tomato new to me: Brandywine. I started the seeds indoors, transferred the plants to my cold frame in a timely fashion, readied fish fertilizer and cages, lined the fence perimeter with pest repellent, hung soap on twine from the posts, and sank the plants, 54 in all, into the garden in May. As the Brandywines turned pink so did I, my cheeks flushed with pride and expectation. Each morning, inspecting, I tenderly felt their heft. One beauty, fairly bursting to become a two-pounder, I marked for a future photo session.

Then one day I found Mama Woodchuck laying waste to my Brandywines; she dived into a nifty hole I'd never seen before. I noticed tomatoes with bites in them, one per tomato. I lifted a leaf and found a field mouse, who either was blinded by the sudden light or else winked at me. I heard cawing, looked up, and saw six crows hunching along a crab-apple branch. Crows are savvy critters, but like the squirrels in our peach tree, they take one taste and move on.

I bought a cunning plastic replica of a great horned owl, a forbidding, fierce-looking bird of prey that crows, and most other pests, fear, and I wired it to a post. Above the tomato plants, I arranged netting and anchored it with 30 spikes. Satisfied, I turned away and found myself face-to-face with the owl, which I'd forgotten about, and nearly jumped out of my clogs.

Five days later, back from a calming seaside respite, I found two sputtering crows stomping around beneath the netting and a third making comments from his perch on the owl's head. The pair on the ground had been crafty enough to break in, but apparently were too dumb to find the way out.

Many of my Brandywines had been vandalized, but the prize specimen was untouched. I asked around about vegetable contests without any luck, so I had my wife take ten pictures of me while I held the tomato next to my ear, so future generations could judge its girth. Then I ate it.

A month later, a magazine asked me to provide a photograph for their contributors' page. I sorted through the ten Brandywine shots and sent the one that seemed most impressive, and they published it. Wouldn't you know, they cropped out the tomato.

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