Monday, September 5, 2011

My garden woes

By this time of year, I'm normally just swamped with fruit. I'll have given fruit to my friends, relatives, pretty much all of my neighbors, and even people just passing by. I'll have my freezer stocked with fruit for the winter, and I'll have eaten so much fruit myself that I'm actually rather tired of it.

But not this year. For a variety of reasons - some of my own making - this summer has been a complete disaster. All my work, day after day, has been pretty much for nothing. And the main reason for that has been the squirrels. I just haven't been able to keep them out of my fruit this year.

I've tried all sorts of things. Finally, this past week, I took my electric fence charger in to be tested. Apparently, it wasn't working right (still shocking, apparently, but not all the time), so I bought a new one. This one was far more expensive than the first and much more powerful. This one is for cattle, not pets, and I was strongly urged not to touch it myself.

Note that it has a very high voltage - thousands of volts, I think - but very low current. So it will sting, it will probably hurt like hell, but it's not dangerous. It won't actually cause any damage. But when I first plugged it in, I quickly discovered a problem with my setup. I could hear this loud cracking sound from underground, where I've got an insulated wire going under the gate on my chainlink fence.

Let me tell you, that was a scary sound! After hearing that, I really don't want to touch the electric fence wire! Every second, when that charger would pulse, I'd hear it. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!  I don't know if that would intimidate the squirrels, but it certainly intimidated me!

I dug up the underground cable (it's an insulated wire specially-designed for this purpose, because ordinary electric cable isn't insulated for such high voltages) and discovered a spot where the insulation was damaged. It wasn't scraped off completely, but it was thin enough that a high-voltage spark could jump to ground.

So I got that fixed - although I still hear cracking occasionally, where the electricity has found another place on my fence, due to water or dirt, to jump to ground - and I turned it on. The result? Pretty well... nothing. The squirrels are still eating my fruit. In fact, that squirrel eating the last of my fall peaches and fall apples crawls through those electric wires without seeming to notice anything at all!

Yeah, apparently squirrel fur is really good insulation. After making this change, now I'm terrified to go into my own backyard, or at least to go anywhere near those electric wires, but the squirrels don't notice it at all. Heh, heh. (Seriously, I think the squirrels will still get zapped occasionally, and will eventually learn to avoid the wires. Whether that will keep them out of my fruit or not is another question.)

It's not just the squirrels causing me problems, though. Squirrels don't normally eat my grapes, but the birds sure do, so I go to a great deal of work putting up bird netting. (Note that the wasps and bees really attack my grapes, too, and the netting doesn't do anything to help with that. I don't like to spray them, because I don't want to kill bees, but you can't believe the numbers I get here - or the damage they do. I don't know what commercial growers do.)

Anyway, I really worked to get the nets up and to make sure there weren't any holes anywhere. The result? The other day, I had four robins inside the netting! One of them was dead when I found him - tangled up in the netting, hanging upside down. Yeah, I hate when that happens! (There are ways to minimize that, but not to avoid it entirely.)

The other three were very much alive, and I was able to get two of them out of there. Well, I got one out, and the other seems to have found a way out on his own. At least, I don't see him in the grapes anywhere. But the last robin - a young one - was really a pain!

I could catch him through the netting, but never near an opening (and I didn't want to cut a hole in my net). I've got chickenwire along the ground (that's actually to keep the birds from getting tangled up in netting bunched along the ground), so I propped that up to let  him out. But when I got close, he wouldn't fly down, where he could get out, but always up into the netting, instead.

And when I left him alone, he didn't want to get out. What, and leave all those lovely grapes? I left him alone for two days, with the fence still propped up, and I could see him resting on the ground right beside that opening,... but he was just as happy as could be staying inside, eating all the grapes he could stuff down his throat.

Finally, this morning, I went out and got him out of the net. It was a struggle, but I finally accomplished that. Of course, by tomorrow, they'll be back in there again, I suppose. Or some other birds will be. I don't know how they get inside, but they do.

Of course, they really, really work at it. They can see those grapes inside, and they really do work to get at them.

Sometimes, I'll see birds just beating themselves against the netting. I don't know if they've become furious at seeing those grapes just out of reach, if they're trying to beat their way through the netting, or if they're merely trying to push the net closer to a bunch of grapes (any bunch close to the net is quickly stripped of grapes). But they really do work at it.

And they're very good at finding even the smallest opening to squeeze through. They're not very good at all at finding their way out again. But maybe they just don't have the same incentive then.

Speaking of which, I did have a squirrel inside my bird netting the other day. I don't know why. (I hope he wasn't discovering a taste for grapes.) When I walked outside, he tried to scamper off, but couldn't get out of the netting. Man, he was absolutely furious! Heh, heh. It was pretty funny.

I thought at one point that he might get tangled up in the netting, which wouldn't be funny at all (because I'd have to try to cut him out of it - without getting bit). But I deliberately scared him, so he might think twice before coming back. I even smacked him - lightly - with a stick.

Well, when a squirrel panics, all they can think about is running away. And when they're surrounded by nylon netting, that doesn't work too well. Heh, heh. Well, after a few minutes, I left him alone, and he had no trouble finding a way out then. He probably just got out through one of the seams. It's not that hard for a squirrel. (Before I got my electric fence set up, they'd slip in and out of the bird netting covering my strawberries with no problem at all.)

All this would be pretty funny if I weren't working my butt off for nothing! Luckily, this is just a hobby for me. But I sympathize with farmers and others who grow food for a living. It can't be easy. We do need to share our planet with wildlife, but I understand that it's not always easy.


Jim Harris said...

What a battle. Are you going to try again next year?

WCG said...

It's pretty discouraging, Jim. But if I wasn't doing that, I'd probably just sit in my computer chair all day. I do that in the winter, and I tend to gain weight then, so it's probably good that I've got something else to keep me busy.

But I really do need to cut back on my fruit-growing. I just can't keep up with it. I'm not ready to stop entirely, though.

Jim Harris said...

Have you considered building a greenhouse?

How do other fruit growers handle the animal invaders?

WCG said...

A greenhouse? No. Well, only briefly. I thought about growing a fig tree here, because I love figs. I really wouldn't need a greenhouse for that, but I'd have to make some special arrangements (the fig would freeze to the ground every year, but in the right spot, it would still ripen figs).

I've seen pictures of people growing bananas this far north, too. They don't actually get fruit, though. Again, it freezes to the ground every year, and you have to work to keep the roots from freezing ,too. But a banana plant looks pretty exotic up here! (Unfortunately, I don't have the room for that.)

Commercial growers generally plant one variety en masse, which makes them easier to spray and makes it harder for animals to wipe out the entire crop, since they all ripen at once. And if I weren't in town, I could just shoot the squirrels.

A dog or two in the orchard would keep a lot of animals out, too. But if I went that route, I'd have to leave the dogs out all day, and they'd bark. My neighbors do that, but I don't want to be like them.