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I have to brag a little bit about my fence. We live right where new commercial and residential development borders long-time rural homes. I live in an older farmhouse, next door to a 1960s ranch with a new home built in the 1990s right behind me. The wildlife here is mostly rabbits, squirrels and ground moles with robins, wrens, hawks and doves hovering above our heads. But raccoons, ground hogs, coyote and deer are close by as well, and I’ve even recently spotted an eagle.
With one 60 by 12 foot garden bed running along my garage and drive and another 12 by 15 foot bed sitting in the back corner of the lot, you can imagine the potential cost of fencing such a garden. This year, I decided to go with the cheapest possible option. I am using deer netting, held in place by purchased wooden stakes and wood chips I got cost-free when the utility company took down a tree across the street from me, put the limbs through a chipper and left behind a huge pile of mulch in its place.
I was able to purchase a 100-foot length of deer netting from my local Lowe’s store for just under $13. I found 4-foot stakes (1 by 1 inch thick) in packages of six for less than $4 at Menards. I bought four packages. The deer netting is seven feet tall, and I cut it in half so that I had two 100-foot lengths that were 42″ high, yielding enough fence for these two garden beds for less than $30.
I stapled the deer netting in place to the wood stakes (which are soft wood, probably pine), leaving an extra six inches on the ground, which I folded out and then covered this with a thick layer of wood chips to secure the bottom edge of the fence.
Rather than a gate, I have a couple of sections where the deer netting is only 24-inches high, which allows me to easily step over the fence. I threaded a length of yarn along the top of these sections, so that I could easily see what I have to clear, anticipating clumsy falls into my growing produce without this precaution.
Having gone with this inexpensive fence, I realize that my garden remains vulnerable to large animals, but with a great deal of open greenery surrounding our property, I’m willing to bet that a rampaging herd of deer is unlikely to venture close to our house and garage, where my garden beds lie. Still, I have placed many of our now-unused cloches made from soda bottles on the sticks and bamboo stakes that are in my garden for various purposes. Others hang from nearby tree branches. My theory is that these bottles are functioning much like a scarecrow, creating motion and reflections that will fill wild creatures with caution and suspicion.
So far, so good. We’ll see if this fence continues to keep my vegetables secure through the growing season.
Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.
(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)
Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.
When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.
One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.
The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.
The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.
However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.
As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.
I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.
Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.
It was about nine o’clock in the morning, mid April with the sun barely showing from behind the clouds. There was a look of soft rain in the gray sky hanging low on the horizon across the horse pasture that loomed off in the distance behind my dilapidated white-washed garage. I was wearing my black-and-white zebra stripe flannel pajama pants, my floppy old pink Isotoner slippers, and the black velour hoodie that I had bought a month ago on clearance at Target. I was clean, but without makeup, and my hair was damp from my morning bath, and I didn’t care who saw it. I was everything the novice gardener ought to be. I was going outside to check on my early planting of peas.
My garden sits across my crushed rock-covered drive about a dozen feet from my bottom porch step, still damp from an early morning shower. I briefly glanced at the spinach and lettuce seedlings nestled comfortably in their flats, having been left outside on the porch in the cool night air to prepare them for transplanting later in the week, when the ground was less wet. As I moved down the slick wooden steps, I took care not to fall, holding on to the rail, until my slippers crunched on the surface before me. I stopped and stared over the field beyond the road, where a weathered farm stand still rises from the landscape, a relic of another time when gardens were royalty and their attendants, ladies in waiting. In the distant haze lay the apartments constructed not so many years ago and beyond them my beloved Target and Menards and Kinkos, reminders of the times in which we now live.
My attention was drawn back to my garden before me when I heard the distant shout of a golfer in the course a hundred yards from the rail fence that separates my land from my neighbor’s. I heard also the crack of the iron against the ball, although my view of the play was shielded by the towering pines behind my neighbor’s small sturdy barn. I moved thoughtfully across the drive to my garden plot that follows one car length between the drive and the neighbor’s rail fence and then continues along the full length of my old garage until it nearly reaches the ancient maple that separates the front plot from the smaller garden bed in the back corner of my lot. And then I saw it, and my heart sank and my soul despaired.
My peas. My lovely precious glorious peas. Murdered. Slaughtered. A full botanical bloodbath had occurred while I peacefully slept in innocence inside. Who had done this retched thing? Who had bitten off the tops of nearly half of my exquisite slumbering seedlings? Homicidal rodents, that’s who. Vicious rampaging rabbits. Or gluttonous groundhogs. Perhaps maniacal savage squirrels. How often I had heard their challenging chatter in the overhanging branches of my yard’s many towering oaks. They were not content with the plentiful bounty of acorns that roll beneath my feet with my every step. They had been biding their time, plotting, hatching a plan, waiting for their chance when they could strike and make off with my growing greenery.
And then they struck. They had been watching, those treacherous, sneaky assassins. They had seen me remove those hundreds of protective makeshift cloches that I had so lovingly constructed out of discarded one- and two-liter soda bottles. They had seen me rotate them over to my shorter lettuce and spinach seedlings in the back garden bed, leaving naked and vulnerable my beautiful, trusting and pure-hearted peas now liberated and reaching their faces up into the sky above. And then they struck. When my back was turned.
Sensing their one lucky break — a late afternoon and evening downpour that prevented fickle me from standing out in the cold and wet April air and hammering two dozen fenceposts into the soggy soil and then wrapping my garden behind protective chicken wire fencing to foil their sociopathic visions of pea-seedling slaughter — these crafty criminals struck in the dead of night. And me, having left the night before with my little peas looking like this:
. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:
. . . And this:
Is there justice in this world? Is there vengeance to be found? It is a harsh world out there. Evil lurks around every corner. We must be bold and face them down. We must triumph and fight for good. That is why my garden now looks like this:
Be brave, little seedlings. I am armed with hoe and rake and shovel and spade, and I will make sure the deaths of your brothers and sisters will never leave my memory. Because I am valiant, and I will battle onward for truth and justice, making certain those hellion horrors, those devious devils never ever have a chance to sink their treacherous teeth into your vitamin-rich, chlorophyllous, photosynthetic flesh again.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
We like peas. We eat peas all year round. I put peas in macaroni and cheese. I add peas to ramen noodles. I like baby peas on salads. We eat snow peas raw as snacks. And, while my children aren’t as crazy about sugar snap peas, I can open up and prepare a 16-oz frozen bag of them and eat them all by myself. In short, this family is pea-nuts.
So, in planning our garden, it made sense to buy a package each of snow and sugar snap peas (Dwarf Gray Sugar and Mammoth Melting Sugar, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). I couldn’t decide between two varieties of shelling peas (Dark Seeded Early Perfection and Burpeeana Early, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), so I bought both.
Yes, four packages of peas just for us. Well, I suppose we’ll share, but still — that’s a lot of peas. Because I was concerned about getting the pH of our garden soil down to around 6.5, I ended up planting the peas in flats to buy us a little time. I had intended to move them before they ever sprouted above the surface of the potting mix, but with more than a week of dreary and rainy weather and a couple of writing projects thrown in, I didn’t get a chance to put them into the garden until late last week.
As of today, I have about 100 pea plants in the ground. That amounts to about a double row 25 feet long. I have lots more to go. The rest of my peas are sitting outside next to my front door waiting for me to get them tucked into their garden bed. And they are very impatient. Some seedlings are now reaching three inches, and their strong roots have pushed out of the peat pots in desperate search for more dirt.
When I planted the first seedlings the other day, I was amazed at the tenderness I felt placing each one into its place six inches from its sibling on each side. Is there any more beautiful shade of green than that of a pea seedling? This particularly happy shade reminds me of clover. Or shamrocks. And the round shape of the early leaves also brings to mind those same comparisons. But the tiny little tendrils, soon to entwine and hold onto the fence/trellis I have planned to circle the garden’s periphery, stir memories of infants’ reflexive, trusting grasp around a parent’s outstretched finger.
Yesterday it snowed. An April snow is not so unusual here in northern Indiana. I’ve been told not to worry — that the peas are cold-hardy. But I worried anyway. And I had my son go out to the garage to find a tarp to cover the seedlings sitting outside on our porch.
But I was less worried about the pea seedlings I had already planted. While putting them into the ground, I had become worried that rabbits would nibble on my little plants before I got the protective fence in place. That’s when I remembered we had a large number of one- and two-liter plastic bottles in our garage waiting for recycling. It occurred to me that I could cut off the tops and use the bottoms as individual green house covers for the pea seedlings. So that’s what I did, enlisting family and friends for as many as we could round up. In the end, I also used the cut-off tops to cover the smaller seedlings, as well as some glass canning jars I had found in the basement. I pushed the plastic securely into the soil (although I am a bit worried about what chaos a heavy wind might create), and then laid down between the bottles a two-inch blanket of pine needle mulch. So, when the snow fell, I was confident that my little seedlings were well-protected and would survive.
And, once the peas are in place and their trellis fence has been installed around them, I can use the very same plastic bottles to protect the lettuce and spinach seedlings, which are next in line to be planted into the garden.
The snow yesterday was very wet and has already melted, leaving behind a very cold and damp garden. I didn’t venture out to plant yesterday, but I’m hoping we’ll have warmer and dryer weather soon so that I can get in the rest of my peas. Wish me luck.