Archives for posts with tag: gophers

The Last Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s hot in the valley. And dry. This has been on odd year. We had heavy rains in November and December—with an absolute deluge the first week of January. And that was it. Winter is our rainy season, but this year, it wasn’t. After that, we had a few light rains and one storm in the spring. The local farmers are nervous. Over all, the state isn’t experiencing water shortages. There was a heavy snow-pack early this year, so the reservoirs are full, but those that depend on local, well water may be pumping dust by the end of summer.

The past two weeks they’ve been cutting hay. Sometimes, especially here, where we can have drenching fogs, the farmers can get two cuttings, in the spring. Last year it was cool and very foggy—so, we saw three hay harvests. This year, they’ve cut the first time, and it’s dry and yellow underneath. One cut is all they might harvest this year. That means when the summer heat hits, and all the grass goes, (first to gold, then to brown) they’ll be using up the limited hay supply for the dairy and beef herds.

Like I said, the reservoirs are full. Water managers around the state got their snow-pack early so there’s no hew and cry over it being a drought year. In an odd twist of fate, the cities have water, but reservoirs that supply them don’t help the farmers. And, they don’t recharge local aquifers on which the rural areas rely for well water.

Changes in our lives have us wondering how long we’ll be here. I’ve loved Two Rock, and it’s been good to me. But it’s time to move on to build a different future. (Maybe somewhere where there’s water!) So I wasn’t sure this year whether I should put in a garden.

I have been in charge of the farm garden for going on seven years. If we plant it—and have to leave—would someone step up, and care for it? This year was to be a banner year. Over the past few years, the main garden has been shaded by a line of trees Elmer planted to stop erosion from the dairy next door. If ever there was evidence that livestock can damage the land—the field next door is a clear example. The land drops two feet at the edge of our garden—right at the fence. The cows line up and watch me while I garden, and because of the drop we’re nearly at eye level as I bend to dig or weed. It’s a little weird. In any event, late last season Rick spent a couple of weekends pruning and topping that line of trees. This year the garden finally enjoys as much sun as it did when I first arrived.

Early in the spring I asked Elmer how he felt about putting in a farm garden. He hemmed and hawed and finally said we should. We discussed the dry winter and I said that this year we were ready with the drip irrigation. (Rick set it up last year and it was a huge relief in the workload.) I told Elmer I’d get to the garden once he’d plowed. Usually he plows in April, and then again in the first week of May. That digs under any weed seeds that might flourish in the fresh, loose soil. This year he didn’t plow. And, I waited.

Finally, I figured he’d changed his mind. He did plow what we call the “orchard garden,” where he and his girlfriend plant their personal stuff, but he didn’t plow either the main garden or the long garden by the chicken barn. I saw that he’d plowed and tomatoes appeared by the orchard a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime, spring has rolled to summer. It’s hot and digging is getting difficult. With all this dryness, we are getting an early start on the hardpan layer in the soil. It’s a curse and a blessing, that hardpan. If you wait too long to put the garden in, the digging is near to impossible. But that same hardened layer keeps the soils underneath moist. If you water smart—you can do a garden with very little input. That’s the theory behind our bucket gardens. (See

Getting Ready

Getting Ready

Without a word, Elmer plowed Friday night. Late. I woke up Saturday and realized that I needed to put in a garden. I’d already become accustomed to the idea of no garden, so this is an adjustment. The plow didn’t go deep enough to deal with the hardpan, so digging-in the buckets is a lot of work. If you don’t loosen the soil under the buckets, the roots won’t get beneath the hardpan into the moist earth below. So today I dug in enough buckets (and gopher-shielded rings and corn rings) for a modest garden. It’ll host eight tomato plants, half dozen peppers, four cucumbers, some zucchini and yellow crook-neck squash, a couple of winter squashes, beans, some lettuce, spinach and herbs, and corn. That’s enough for the farm tenants, since most don’t cook much and fewer avail themselves of the garden. I’ll plant with seeds and some starts, this week. I’m not planting the long garden this year.





Gopher proof rings

Gopher proof rings


I don’t know if we’ll be here for harvest. (But, we should be able to enjoy some of the early offerings.) With the drip system, the garden will trickle along, with or without Rick and me. It’ll be like a ghost garden. If that’s the case, I can only hope my farm neighbors will enjoy the harvest. (Assuming someone will water it, said The Little Red Hen.)

Ready for plants

Ready for plants

Furry Ground-Blight

A.V. Walters

We do the garden walk everyday. It’s a way to check how things are doing, see what’s ripe and do a little weeding along the way. Admittedly, after last year’s debacle, I’m constantly checking the tomatoes for any sign of (I’m afraid to even say it) blight. By August, you expect a little bit of yellowing or leaf curl, but a true blight is a sight to behold. It can wipe out whole patches in a matter of days. The best you can do is to quickly dig out the affected plants and dispose of them—far away. Do not compost a blighted plant, especially towards the end of the summer season. It can infect your compost pile, which, if it doesn’t get hot enough thereafter, will spread the disease with every innocent looking shovel full of black gold. (By this time of year I don’t have enough high nitrogen materials to keep the compost cooking—especially this year when it’s so dry that even the weeds are gray.) Bottom line: Don’t ever risk composting blighted plants. ‘Taint worth it!

So, it was with some angst that yesterday’s walk revealed a tomato plant in full wilt. A Black Crim, too, one of my favorites. Blight? Too early to tell and it didn’t really have the signs. Was its drip emitter plugged? No. And then, the big question, any sign of gopher? We’ve never had a gopher problem with tomatoes. Last year, a friend of ours said gophers were going after his tomatoes, big time, and we could only wonder if different gophers might have different food preferences. Gophers—picky eaters?) In fact, some of the tomatoes are planted in bottomless buckets—ones that were cut in the early days of bucket farming, before I was aware of the dangers of that Furry Ground-Blight.

Our tomato plants are not small. Most of them are taller than me. They’re held up by our super sturdy, tomato cages but, by this time of the year, they’ve extended well beyond the perimeter of the cage. Rick has had to stake some of them because the weight of the plants has even the super-sturdy cages listing. And, it’s tough to find the cage in that jungle, let alone the bucket. There’ve been no major gopher signs in the immediate environs. So, yesterday afternoon, we did a triage watering to see if it had any effect. Sure enough, by evening the patient had perked up considerably. That’s a good sign.

First thing this morning I went back out to check. I’d left my morning schedule open, just in case I needed to quarantine that wilted tomato. Sadly, it had wilted again. I pushed my way through the foliage to get a look at the bucket and the drip emitter. And, AHA! There it was. The evidence. The loose pile of loamy soil was directly in the bucket. Damn gopher!!!

It is a relief that it’s not a viral problem. But, I don’t remember if this particular tomato plant is in a bottomless bucket. That’s a big issue. Following this morning’s revelation, we resolved to retire all of the bottomless buckets, next season. But, if this was a drilled-out bucket, we’ll need to worry about gophers that have learned to go in from the top!

Next season, we could have a serious problem. Don’s little, field-farming venture (the squash and pumpkin plot) has failed. Undone by gophers, is the official reason. And it is true that his “crop” has been hit hard by gophers. We include his pumpkin patch on our garden walks, and the ground is perforated with gopher holes. Every week we could count more and more of his plants, succumbing. There’s more to it, though. Don wasn’t really ready, or geared up, to harvest and market the produce. That may be okay for the pumpkins—we still have time before the Halloween, pumpkin season, and I’m sure he’ll harvest what pumpkins he has left. Pumpkins will endure enormous levels of neglect, but the other things, zucchinis, crooknecks and cucumbers, require attention and harvesting. Don never stepped up to the plate on this. There are zucchini’s over there the size of Buicks! And the crooknecks look like ancient gourds. He’s given up, and the field is now, Gopherland. He’s got a major case of the Furry Ground-Blight.

From our perspective, this is a debacle. He’s essentially breeding gophers over there and, next season, there will be more of them fur balls and they’ll be my problem. (Thank God for buckets.) So we’ll need to determine whether our poor Black Crim was the victim of a subterranean attack, or whether we need to worry about gophers mounting the ramparts of our defenses. I watered the patient again this morning. With extra water, it may be able to limp to the finish line. It’s a shame, that plant must have a bushel of tomatoes on it—beautiful green ones. During my inspection this morning I got the first two and hopefully, not the last, ripe tomatoes from that plant. We shall see. And, as usual, in Two Rock, we have a late season for tomatoes.

Rick is fuming. (Well, as fuming as Rick gets.) He’s determined to get this varmint, though he’s had limited luck with his trapping efforts in the past. Last I saw, he was muttering under his breath, “Rodenator.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Rodenator is an expensive, propane fed device that explodes, frying underground varmints in their burrows. (“Hold my beer… watch this!”)

The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

The Proper Planting of Buckets

A.V. Walters

Recently, I’ve come across some not-so-clear-on-the-concept plantings, and so, perhaps, we need some clarification on the bucket farm issue.

As usual, if one first defines the objectives, and communicates (and here I may have failed), the implementation will be more successful.

So, the objectives of Bucket Planting are:

1)   The bucket directs watering directly to the root zone and thus saves water;

2)   If the plant is placed low in the bucket, the top unused area (3”- 6”) serves as a reservoir for watering;

3)   Properly planted (see above), the bucket serves as a wind shield for seedlings;

4)   The top of the exposed bucket serves as a hose curb to protect the plants;

5)   By watering only into the bucket, you keep the area (walkway and unplanted areas) weed free (Since even weeds need water–granted in areas that get ample summer rainfall this is less helpful, but it will still reduce your weeding chores.);

6)   Most weeding is limited to the interior of the bucket, and once your plants are established, they’ll shade that area, further minimizing weeds and reducing water losses;

7)   And finally, properly prepared buckets prevent gophers from eating your plants!

Of course, there are limitations. Buckets can’t protect truly long-rooted plants, whose roots navigate through the bucket’s bottom holes and beyond—but they do buy them time to get established. That way they’re more likely to survive if they get nibbled on.

Here are some basic guidelines to proper bucketification:

I prefer the black, semi-pliable nursery buckets. They last for several seasons, and they don’t get all brittle in the sunshine. Plus, most people just throw them away when they bring their nursery plants home. Sometimes you can get them free from recycling (and even neighbors, “Hey, I got a bunch of them!”) They’re pliable and drill out nicely. A bucket must have enough drainage. If you use just the holes that come with it, your vegetables will have “wet feet” and they’ll suffer rot or fungal problems. We drill three-quarter inch holes (using a sharp “spade” bit) every couple of inches, or so, across the bottom and a row or two around the bottom of the sides. (That’s an editorial ‘we,’ as I am not in the drilling department.) Our hole size is specific to the size of gophers, larger holes can be used if you don’t share this risk. (Indeed, for things gophers don’t like, we sometimes use bottomless buckets, which are much easier to pull out at the end of the season.)

When you ‘set-in’ a bucket, dig a hole as close as possible to the size of the bucket (up to its ‘shoulders’ so you leave a lip above the ground surface—2”- 3”.) Loosen the dirt in the area below the bucket, so the migrating roots don’t hit a solid barrier of compacted earth. Place the bucket in the hole and fill in around it, packing the dirt firmly. Now, refill the bucket, leaving the 3”- 6” inch area, I mentioned before (depending on the level of compaction) at the top of the bucket. You need at least three inches to be a decent reservoir. At the time you refill the bucket, this is a good opportunity to add any amendment. We use well-composted chicken manure because, well, we’re on a chicken farm.

When you plant a bucket, (especially if you’re using starts) make sure you’re not filling in your reservoir area. Take out some of the soil, if necessary. (Your start may look lost, deep in the bucket, but that also helps protect it from the wind—and we’ve got a fair amount of that, here.) If using starts, as with any other transplant, remember to loosen the root ball! I recently had to re-plant some peppers that had been put in too high by a neighbor and discovered that, though the soil in the bucket appeared properly damp, she’d set the whole start in as a root-bound block, and little of the moisture was getting in to the roots through that block.

When watering, especially initially, use a soft, slow watering method. The bucket contains the water’s energy, and if you’re not careful you can erode all around your poor baby vegies! And yes, this is a good opportunity for even more water savings, if you use drip irrigation.

These simple steps should ensure buckets of success.

Gopher Control, Revisited

A. V. Walters


Today was a day to catch up in the yard. The lawn was entirely out of hand. I had to use the weed whacker to get it down to a level where the lawn mower could be used. (We’re talking push-mower, here.) Calling it a ‘lawn’ is laughable, anyways. Really, it’s just an assortment of weeds, kept shorn. I tell Elmer, it’s not mowing, it’s “weed control”–sounds more agricultural that way. But when you keep on top of it, it looks downright passable. I’d planted the back corner, and suddenly the rest of the yard screamed for attention. Thus the Weed-Whacking-Extravaganza. (Good seats are still available!)

Once trimmed down to a tidy “level,” it became apparent that the gophers have really gone to town. The lawn is riddled with gopher holes (and valleys). Really, what’s up with that cat? He stayed out of sight for the noisy, weed wacking part but came out to investigate when I’d raked up and gone back to gardening. Now, he was peering down a gopher hole and looking pretty smug.

“Hey you, cat, what’s up with all these darn gophers? I thought we had an understanding here–you’re in charge of gopher control.” He smiled and yawned. “Really, look at this, there’s more gophers than ever!”

“Yes,” he nodded and began washing his face.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Do about it, what’s to do? These gophers are under control. I’m supervising.”

My jaw dropped. “Gopher control, butterball, means you’re supposed to hunt and kill these pesky gophers!”

The cat sat up and stared. “Excuse me? You never said that. You just said gopher control. Your instructions weren’t very specific, so I handled it my way.” He turned his attention back to the hole.

Damn cat. “I’m glad we’ve finally had a chance to clear up this little misunderstanding. Perhaps with this clarification, you can now do something about all these gophers.”

“Not so fast,” the cat looked up, “You can’t just go changing the rules, willy-nilly.”

“And why not? What’s the problem? Now that you know what’s expected, you could just get rid of the gophers, right?”

“It’s not as simple as that.” He stood up and turned his back to me. “It’s a question of trust. I’ve formed relationships.”




A.V. Walters


I’m a gardener. Still, it’s an interesting question and not one so easily answered. I don’t think that it’s just a question of quantity. Measured by quantity alone, I border on farmer. Last season, the first where I had any meaningful and steady help, we produced (and gave away) at a rate that compared favorably to any farmer’s-market vender. One stellar week I distributed grocery bags of vegetables every day, at a rate that would have easily filled any market booth to overflowing. Indeed, an appraisal of the garden by visitors frequently elicited comments about how we could “do the market.” I like it the way it is. I know that some of our garden’s recipients would not have eaten so well without the garden’s bounty. With the economy flailing last year a good many hard working folks found themselves out of work. Here, we had plenty to share. Sharing food, quality food that I’ve grown, is one of the most satisfying and meaningful parts of rural living.

And then there’s the exchange of produce between folks who themselves have gardens or orchards. I call it the Petaluma Salute. I once met a woman from a craigslist ad, in a parking lot in town, where we stood talking politics and gardening as we exchanged zucchinis for pears, tomatoes for eggplants from the trunks of our respective cars. We haven’t seen each other since, but the experience of complete understanding remains a solid memory, as she bemoaned a recent infestation of white flies and I offered her my full repertoire of organic solutions. This summer we were walking down to the mailbox when our closest neighbor came up on a mule with boxes full of zucchini and peppers. He stopped and said he was on his way over to give Elmer some vegetables. We looked at each other and laughed. “It’s coals to Newcastle,” I said. “We’re full to our ears with these and more.” He nodded, and turned the mule around, calling out behind him, “I’ll just have to go find other homes for these.” I live in a world where neighbors leave bags of produce on your back porch, and I respond in kind.

Still, I am just a gardener. Farming is honest work, but it is work for pay, or at least the hope and expectation that the season will pay at the end. It is food as commodity. So far, I’m in it for the very real and sensory gratification I get from working with the soil and season. I note some other subtle differences between farmers and gardeners—which I find akin to the differences between the idea of livestock and pets. We gardeners sweat over the lives of our individual plants. It’s personal. We worry and try different solutions to plant troubles. We water and weed and coax. Dinner conversation can include concerns about what’s up with that last row of peppers. Bugs? Gophers? Or perhaps the long reach of the shadow of the tree-line. (Indeed, this season one whole garden will be repurposed because trees have grown and early afternoon shade dictates that that area will become the home of leafy greens.) Our gardens speak to our hearts.

One gardener/farmer test is how well one handles culling the excess plants that seed-starts yield. Farmers plant the best and dump the rest. It’s a healthy approach but one that eludes many gardeners. Every year I vow to keep the tomato crop down to no more than 24 plants. But there are always extra seedlings—what is one to do? And then there’s the problem of orphan seedlings. Elmer’s cousin starts a plethora of tomatoes every year. Come planting time she gives him the culls—leggy, pale babies. Whether or not I’ve kept to my own limits, these orphan tomatoes always manage to find homes in one of my garden plots. So I am doubly challenged; I have my own difficulties dispatching the less than hardy and I adopt the culls of other gardeners (who themselves cannot bear to waste even the most bedraggled of seedlings.) I have garden space. I take them. I give them their own buckets and water and even manure tea, until they are robust and productive. In my five seasons here I’ve never ended up with less than 36 tomato plants. Good thing for canning, eh? Now, it’s March and we’re still eating tomato sauce and whole, canned romas from the garden.

Farmers, out of necessity, have to deal in numbers. Plants are crops. It’s not the eggplants next to the potatoes–it’s the cornfield, it’s acres. They suffer the same indignities of weather and drought, of predation, but without the personal relationship. They do so on a huge scale, and with the highest of stakes. Still, the financial rewards are often slim and success is never guaranteed, regardless of how much you put into it. Nothing is guaranteed, until the crop is in, or the herd sold—and even then there are the unpredictable vagaries of price. A farmer requires some measure of armor. He cannot afford a personal relationship with his plants or animals. Sometimes, and especially with livestock, this comes off as callous. I have a little trouble with it at times–I bristle at the chickens in their crowded cages. Yet that scale and approach is what’s needed to feeds us all.

And so, I remain a gardener. I enjoy the bounty, but, beyond my pride, I don’t have skin in the game in the end result. I joke at the distinction, but my hat is off in respect to the farmer.

Elmer, my favorite farmer, has chickens and sheep. When it comes to plants, he’s no more farmer than me. When it comes to garden-starts, he has the opposite problem. He goes to the nursery and picks the largest starts he can find. You know the ones, nursery fed on fertilizers, the junkies of agriculture; these baby vegies are literally climbing out of their four-inch pots. They’re bushy, precocious, already sporting blossoms, or even small fruit. They boast of success and productivity. It’s too good a deal to be true! And so it is. These spoiled, root-bound prima-donnas don’t transplant so well. They, too, get their own buckets but the damage has been done; their growth is invariably stunted by their over-ambitious early beginnings. We coddle them, but as yet I don’t know the cure for root bound. It shows that once we’re out of our fields of specialty, we are all gardeners. It’s always personal. For the root-bound, I carefully separate and spread the roots out at replanting time. For the scrawny ones, there’s always the hope of recovery.  I think of this as a lesson, in and out of the garden. I was myself (and remain) a late bloomer.


A. V. Walters

Better Living Through Chemistry

The other day I woke to the sound of gas-fired weed whackers. It was a relief. We’ve had strange weather this winter. No rain. We rely on seasonal rains to recharge the wells and this season has been dry. Here in Two Rock it’s green; we get a lot of fog coming in from the ocean. The fog (and in this year’s weather, frost) provides enough moisture to keep the ground green, especially in the low-lying areas where the fog settles. Looking across the landscape you can see the contours of where the fog flows by the trail of green it leaves on the hills. But that moisture doesn’t go deep. If you dig, it’s damp down only a few inches. It’s green, but it’s not growing and that makes the farmers nervous. I know on our farm they’re working to keep the sheep moving, rotating from field to field so the sheep don’t damage the grass down to the roots. Sheep can do that. Usually in the winter I have to mow my lawn every week—or at least every ten days. This season I think we’ve mowed only three times.

And then there’s the cold. It’s been really cold here at night, for months now. Really cold for us is low thirties and high twenties. With nights like that the sheep need extra nourishment to keep warm. The days are lovely, with temperatures climbing sometimes well into the sixties. Even with those warm days though, the cold nights and low moisture keeps the plant growth rate down.

There’s a funny thing I learned about cows (and even some sheep) when I moved here. They sometimes suffer from a “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. Even if a cow is surrounded by lush pasture, it will lean out through a fence if there’s greenery on the other side. You need to keep grass at the edge of the fence-line short and groomed. If you don’t, the cows will cut their necks on the barb-wire fences trying to lean out for the grass on the outside of the fence. I live next to a dairy, so even though we don’t do cows here, we get to observe what is done in the world of cows. We share an access road and some fences.

A year ago last autumn, somebody decided not to mow (or more correctly, weed-whack) the fence lines along the dairy side of our single lane driveway. I guess someone figured it was faster and cheaper to spray with herbicides. They were certainly effective. Late that autumn they sprayed and everything green along the lane shriveled and died. Stripped of its protective vegetation, the shoulder of the lane soon began to crumble. The seasonal rains fell on that naked dirt and what little roots remained were not enough to hold the soil. Freed up from roots, the gophers made the little gully along the lane their alley and churned the soil mercilessly. More soil eroded into the gully and washed away with every rain. By mid-winter, our undermined road began to crumble at the edges.  To save the lane, they dug the gully deeper to funnel the water away. The gophers dug deeper, too.  The edge was hardpan, barren, clay; its organic matter had flushed away so no new grasses would grow there. Grasses have a fine and broad stabilizing root system. Weeds grew there though, but their long tap roots did little to hold our road edges.

Through our long dry summer the grasses did not return along the lane. A few weeds sprouted, but not many. Last fall they chopped down the weeds. The farmers had to dig another ditch, inboard fifteen feet or so from the fence, to divert the water away from the lane’s edge. The gully along the road edge was eroded and jagged. It could no longer carry excess water along the side of our lane, without causing further road damage. Like I said, it’s been a dry winter and so far the new diverter ditches have not been tested. Here and there, along the lane there are some patches of fog-fed green. We’re hoping they’ll spread, their roots working through the soil to rebuild that mat of living material that holds all that’s good in the soil.

So, in this case the annoying drone of weed-whackers is a relief. It means somebody’s learned a lesson and we won’t be spraying anytime soon. With any luck, the rains expected next week will be gentle and will nurture the right kind of growth to re-stabilize the soil and return our lane to its former secure state.

A. V. Walters

The Evolution of Buckets

Give. You learn to recognize it very quickly, once its import becomes clear. While sometimes it’s obvious, with loose piles of dirt in evidence of the travesty, you soon learn to tell even when it’s the most imperceptible shift, a softness underfoot, not quite spongy, but the ground seems to pull away as you place your weight. You learn to see the signs, a slight rise, or cracking on the surface of the soil. You test it with your foot and there it is, the slightest give, and you know you’ve got gophers. Maybe they’re just passing by. But maybe your favorite pepper plant has some wilt at its extremities. Tomorrow the plant will be gone. I mean, completely gone! Pulled down a gopher hole with no trace except, perhaps, a slightly sifted loamy texture to the soil. Kiss those artichoke plants goodbye; they haven’t got a chance.

Buckets started as a way to save water. Initially we lopped off the bottoms of the buckets and used them as half buried tubes to direct the watering to the roots of our pampered vegetables. This really works—plus it offers some protection from wind (here we can have some pretty fierce winds) and as a ‘curb’ from dragging hoses. But our magic system offers no protection from the underground menace. (Right about now you should be hearing the theme song to Jaws.)

A few weeks into my first year gardening here, I got the shocking introduction to the reality of our biggest downside. We have gophers, big time. I’ve never lived anywhere where there were gophers. I’ve had deer problems, the scourge of many insect pests, even the occasional bunny, but never gophers. One day, one of my baby artichoke plants seemed a little droopy. It was a warm day, so I gave it a little extra water, figuring it would recover by the next day. There was no next day. It was gone! The next week saw the end of artichokes, each day another one limp and then dragged down to the zombie underground. I began to rethink buckets.

Buckets are perfect for the kinds of vegetables that, a) gophers don’t like; and b) grow large enough to not be well suited to garden beds. So tomatoes are a bucket natural. So are the various squashes, winter and summer. I’ve only ever lost one tomato plant to a gopher. When you figure that we might have thirty to forty tomato plants in the community garden (we weren’t kidding about the community part) that’s an acceptable level of loss. Squashes are similarly gopher hardy. Granted they gave the delicatas a run for the money but the hardy ones prevailed. The peppers do well in buckets, except for the damn gophers. So, I started changing the bucket configuration.

Initially we used clean five gallon paint buckets. These are nicely sized, but they get brittle in the sunshine after the first season. By year two, we’d graduated to black nursery buckets, in various sizes. These are easier to cut and they remain flexible for years. Our first effort was to put heavy duty screens in the bottoms. The screens worked well, but had sharp edges. Planting and pulling resulted in gardener injuries. We looked for a gardener friendly option.

Instead of just chopping off the bottom, we started to experiment with cutting holes in the bottom—sized to keep out gophers. A couple seasons later we’re drilling six to eight holes in the bottom and a row or two up the sides. With fewer holes, we were having trouble with wet feet—essentially root rot. These perforated buckets are more difficult than the bottomless ones to pull at the end of the season—they have to be “dug” out. But so far they appear to be gopher-proof.

Where buckets are less helpful are for lettuces or things that really grow nicely in rows (like radishes, beets or onions.) Unfortunately, and surprisingly, these are all prime targets for gopher predation. Buckets do work, but they aren’t sized well for leafies or root vegetables. This year we’re planning a section of raised beds—with gopher screens across the bottoms. We plan to build them out of used metal roofing. We’ll have plenty of row vegies for the full season.

We don’t really approve of gopher poisons—they just end up in the cats (which tells you that our cats, especially Bob, are doing their jobs.) We’ve heard stories about the Rodenator. It’s a gopher zapping contraction that fills their burrows with propane gas and then detonates! I’ve even gone on line to watch the videos. Quite impressive. It’s tempting, expensive but tempting. The Landlord is not so thrilled with the idea though. A bad experience with a similar solution left him wary. He’s afraid we’ll blow the whole place up. I understand why—his experience with trying to address the gopher problem was perhaps more successful than he’d planned. He started out with a home-made version of the Rodenator, filling the gopher holes with propane. But he and a buddy decided (for some reason) to set it off with a stick of dynamite! We can’t be sure if the problem was the dynamite or too much gas (probably both), certainly it had something to do with beer, but he blew-up his mother’s back yard and cracked the foundation of her house. For us, at the moment, it’s buckets and raised beds.

So, now when Bob and I walk in the garden and feel that give—I know my plants are safe in their buckets, and smile. And Bob will have to make some minor adjustments to his gopher catching techniques.