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Living the Homesteading Dream – Part 7

Weeds and Bugs and Raccoons, Oh My!

I’m in the middle of the garden, dusk just tipping into darkness, wearing nothing but my underpants when I realise that chasing a raccoon whilst clapping and shouting—we’d just finished reading that they don’t like loud noises—might attract attentive neighbours with something they’d not likely seen yet.

And, believe me, they’ve been watching this little permaculture homestead come together for a couple of years now, so they have seen some stuff, if only via glimpsing across these boundary lines every so often out of perplexed curiosity.

The raccoon lopes away, turning to look back, suggesting this half-naked man’s—that’s me—effort is but a dream. I should have just stayed in bed because it seems to know that I’ll be back there soon enough, leaving the garden an unattended smorgasbord once again.

It started with our wood mulch pathways. Every morning we’d wake up to find them disheveled, the cardboard below them torn up in areas. Rocks from the garden borders would be tossed askew. Mulch in the garden beds would be tugged this way and that. Apparently, there were just too many earthworms for the resident raccoon to resist, so putting it all back together became a morning ritual for us.

The stakes got higher, though. When the strawberry mounds were promising huge harvests—we’d already pulled a couple of bowlfuls without making a dent in the future bounty—the raccoon started scrumping (Emma’s English term for stealing the farmer’s fruit in a sort of rascally way). The strawberries were all disappearing, with the raccoon having set the little green lids daintily on the ground after having snacked on them.

Then, it attacked my beloved pea, carrot, and leek double-reach bed. At first it was just at the ends, pulling the mulch out of place there. But, it soon delved into the bed itself, shifting the mulch so that it would knock the flimsy young leeks akimbo or even under cover.

It messed up the medicine wheel. It destroyed an impromptu pumpkin patch at the edge of the food forest. It finally got into my soybean, corn, and butternut squash circle. And, it was at this point, we got some humane traps so that we could remove it.

Then, for a week or so, there was radio silence. We hadn’t even set the traps, save to say setting them on the patio with a plan to put them out. But, the raccoon seemed to sense a trouble in the force.

Truth be known, the same or some relative of the same rascal decimated our tomato plants last year. We’d put up a garden, even though we weren’t living here, to just use our beds while building the cabin. We’d show up with half the fruit ripped from the vine, one sampling bite torn from each before it was tossed aside. Later, it took out the entire bed of sweet corn in the week between our weekend visits.

We were a little more prepared this year and felt some sense of security in the fact that we would be onsite all the time now. It has been, at best, a mild deterrent as long as one of us is willing to chase it away, us in nothing more than underpants.

 

Opossum
Image by Jonathon Engles.

Creating a vibrant ecosystem is amazing, and it’s a joy to watch. Birds flitter and sing, a home-team hummingbird buzzing around every morning to sample the lavender, chicory, collard, and mustard blooms. The butterflies flap through with no urgency, sure that a meal is available somewhere. Pollinators—bees of all sorts—pollinate. Snakes slither here and there. Frogs sing in an unceasing chorus, usually giving way when the bullfrog belts out a demonstrative bass note. Lizards scale the porch posts. Spiders weave webs. Moles make mounded pathways. Rabbits dart away at the sound of anything. Opossums scrounged in the compost piles. Deer parole the edges. We’ve even had some black bears drink from our pond, leaving massive footprints behind them.

We love this kind of thing: nature. And, in a sense, that’s possibly the only way we’ve remained sane because… As those birds flitter and sing, they also pinch the berries. As the butterflies flap, they are laying eggs that turn to caterpillars that can strip a plant of leaves in no time at all. Yellow jackets have claimed a small section of the flower garden along the outer fence. Last year, the rabbits ate the strawberry plants down to the nubs. The deer are just waiting for an opening. Bears have destroyed the neighbours locked trash cans multiple times now, but for some reason, they’ve steered away from our heaps of compost. A wayward mole keeps digging around the foundation of our house.

In a word, we are not always sharing the space exactly how an optimistic homesteader might envision.

Emma and I have put up layers of fencing, a two-meter job around the perimeter of our cultivated acre—food forest, fedge, medicine/tea garden—and a second one-meter fence around our berry hedges, vegetable plots, and culinary herb garden. Our main concern was the deer, and it has kept them at bay. The birds, however, fly, and the raccoons climb.

As animal rights activists and bleeding-heart vegans, the thought of electrifying the fence lines is not so appealing. After all, the critters are just doing their thing, nothing personal here. We’ve already set up a double layer of fencing to deter them, not to mention random underpant patrols, but the competition for who gets there first is one we too often lose. We are looking at moveable netting to circulate amongst berry bushes and fruit trees. We are thinking of trapping and transporting some of the wildlife—raccoons, you know who we mean here!—to the nearby state park where wildlife food is in abundance.

Image by Jonathon Engles.

To be honest, sometimes it is just about all we can muster to keep the weeds at bay enough for our crops to grow. As wild food foragers, we’ve happily embraced the presence of edible volunteers like sweet violets, spring onions, sorrel, lambsquarter, dandelion, and so on. We’ve embraced “ditch daisies” for their beauty and intentionally cultivated useful, if not a little domineering, natives like bee balm and blackberries.

But, much of our gardening space and food forest originated from pond bottom that was cleared when we revitalised the dam here. That bottom, while rich beyond belief, a dark and lively soil, is wrought with what we have ubiquitously nominated “pond weeds”, and they are relentless in their will, defeat all deep mulches and out compete everything from carrots to cowpeas to sweet potatoes to berries. Subduing them enough to pull out a respectable harvest has required a lot more attention than anticipated, and we only press on in the belief that our efforts will sooner or later make them subside, at which point we will never disturb the soil—not even a sneeze—again.

To say we mulch is to snort while doing so. Our gardens are a never-ending dumpsite for grass clippings, autumn leaves, deadheaded flower blooms, and wood chips. At this point, even just three years into building them, there are dozens of layers of biodiverse organic matter rotting or rotted atop what was once a lawn the neighbours begrudgingly admired. We were complimented on the lawn before we’d ever even mowed it once, and little did anyone know—despite us saying so—that our goal would be to all but eradicate it.

When the pond got “dipped”, most of the lawn was buried beneath a foot, often more, of smelly—like manure—soil that looked suspiciously like mountains of mud for weeks. After it had a while to sit and drain, we began sculpting it into raised beds and terraces, and so on. It was so exciting to see the richness of the earth, the depth of it. It felt like having to get the dam back into shape was more a blessing than an expense. That was late September. In late spring the next year, some sort of demon crawling weed strangled our plants and another sticky, prickly thing intertwined with it to make the combination very difficult to pull out.

Furthermore, ever the mulcher and believer in more organic matter is always better, I foolishly pulled and set the remnants of these weeds back down on the garden beds to promptly root again and find even better footing. We have wrestled it back further and further this year—halfway through the growing season—but there are still parts of the garden—the path in front of the black raspberries, sections of the main crop raised bed gardens, the pond itself (parrot feather is its name) etc.—that are left in complete denial. We don’t need them just yet. We don’t have time for the wrestling matches there, so we just push back the schedule or make half ditched attempts in small fits of rage.

Image by Jonathon Engles.

Life is good. The garden is growing, and we are eating from it daily despite being years away from real fruit and nut harvests. The ecosystem, cultivated and wild, is thriving.

Sometimes, though, the desire for tidiness or for a particular edible plant to succeed becomes overwhelming and stricken with frustration in that nature feels as though it isn’t cooperating. It is in these moments, a fresh rain falling and kicking up the seaweed-like smell of recently removed parrot feather, that we look out and think, Isn’t it beautiful!

It’s no wonder that raccoon keeps coming back for more: The menu is fantastic, the meals bountiful, and the gardeners—at least it seems—must have a pretty good sense of humour about it all. Honestly, who wears old, Christmas boxers with scarf-laden snowmen in the middle of June?

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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