Our rental house is on a bit of an incline and has a couple of terraces: one adjacent to the bedroom and one by the living room. I planted my tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, herbs and eggplant in pots on the bedroom balcony, a full story above the backyard where anything you put in gets instantly devoured by deer. With a second story deck-top garden I could avoid both the deer issue and the slug situation.
I was a dedicated plant mother. Every day, I threaded the hose through the bathroom window across the bedroom to the balcony so I could water everybody. I praised my babies for their progress and fed them organic fertilizer once a month. First thing in the morning, before even visiting the bathroom, I would jump out of bed and visit the vegetables to see how much they had grown overnight.
It was fun while it lasted. I tossed lettuce from the garden with home-grown tarragon and chives, and dry-rubbed chickens with fresh-picked thyme and rosemary. My plants were exploding with teeny tomatoes, prickly purple eggplant blossoms, mini green peppers and wee jalapeños. I don't think we bought lettuce in three months. I felt like Mother Nature incarnate. Or maybe Martha Stewart. (Okay, not Martha. She has a clean house. And servants.)
Then I started noticing gashes in the ripening fruit. Squirrels? Birds? Raccoons? When I consulted my gardening friends on Facebook, the locals suggested roof rats, nasty little creatures that carry bubonic plague. Not to be confused with the VW beetle-sized Norwegian rats I used to encounter on the streets of DC, roof rats are a different species. (Like it matters. A rat is a rat is a god damned rat. Why else would the scientists have named the thing rattus rattus?)
illegal to purchase or plant English Ivy, standard ground cover in the Oakland Hills).
I was still pondering the rat hypothesis the night I had my first sighting. I turned on the outdoor light to inspect my plants and stepped out onto the balcony, startling the ugly beige rat noshing on my tomatoes. I screamed, leaped back inside, slammed the door shut, screamed some more and jumped up and down maybe six times. Standard female rat-spotting behavior.
The next day, I moved all the plants from the bedroom balcony to the one in the living room. I hoped this would be a safety zone as there were no trees or ivy to worry about. It was a haul. The tomato plants were busting through their 6 foot cages like B movie Giant Octopi. I trailed dirt across the house, earning myself a trip to the chiropractor in the process. But it was worth it. My plants recovered peacefully from their trauma, at least for a few days. Then I trotted out for morning inspection and discovered the Great Red Hope of the slow-growing beefsteaks, gnawed to a nub.
I asked around for advice. One friend said to sprinkle red pepper around the base of the plants. I did, and woke to 6 slashed, half eaten habanero peppers, their sticky little seeds strewn all over the deck. I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
I googled ways to protect the fruit. The one I went with involved cutting up four runny pairs of stockings and making little wraps for the tomatoes.Trussed and dressed in see-through black, my poor tomatoes looked like the chorus line from Chicago. For a couple of days, the rats were put off, or confused, or maybe too busy filing their teeth in preparation for the final onslaught. Next thing I knew, they were baaaaaack and eating through the nylons. So I hired someone to take down the ivy and cut away any branches close to the balcony, and that worked too, until the morning I found a fat red tomato on the deck, gored like a fallen matador.
The crisis escalated. We bought glue traps. I felt guilty, thinking about those poor creatures trying to pull free. I made my husband swear he would deal with any rodents we caught. (Thank God for traditional sex roles. I once asked a lesbian friend how she and her partner negotiate rat-trapping, spider-squashing and the like. Her answer? "We fight.") Anyway, I arranged some apple chunks around the traps and went to bed. The next day, the bait was gone and the traps, unoccupied. Apparently, the fruit was only an appetizer because I discovered two eviscerated tomatoes in one of the pots. That night, it rained, and the traps got too wet to salvage. I put them in the garbage.
So I threw in the proverbial towel. (The word "proverbial" is a writer's cheap device to let you know I realize I'm using a cliche). Following the advice of my informal gardening advisory, I harvested anything bigger and less green than a pea. Then, I took down the plants. I stuck the tomatoes and peppers in a paper bag with a banana peel to hasten the ripening process. The cherry tomatoes, delicious when vine-ripened, turned out tasteless when bagged, but the other varieties are sweet with a concentrated tomato taste – probably perfect for making sauce.