Tuesday, October 22, 2013


This is the year I simultaneously embraced frugality and middle-aged pastimes: I planted a vegetable garden. Also numerous pots of flowers, but 'tis the tale of the vegetable garden that I wish to tell.

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 jalapeƱos. 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?)

Roof rats came to our shores as stowaways on tall ships and have been scampering around the California underbrush ever since. They may not be natives, but they've made themselves at home. The critters like to nest in high places. They gallop across roofs, break in to attics, and set up camp in trees. The English Ivy on the side of our house has leaves as big as saucers and climbs all the way to the roof. A veritable stairway to heaven for rattus rattus. (In its own way, English Ivy is a pest too - it  pulls the mortar out of bricks, destroys paint jobs, takes over gardens and creates a perfect breeding ground for rattus rattus. In Oregon, you can buy a joint at your local dispensary, but it is 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.

The day after I bagged the harvest and tossed out my plants, I found this handout in my mailbox. A day late and a bushel of tomatoes short. Oh well. Next year, I'll try again. It's Fall anyway. Maybe I'll go buy a pumpkin... Do rats eat pumpkins?

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