On Famine Farming


I once had a garden. A dream of one before that. It was a small garden, at first. Okay, just four tomato plants that I had bought at the Home Depot. Though it consisted of four humble plants that I repotted to a larger planter, it was my garden. I watered it faithfully, and waited for the cherry tomatoes to grow. About forty days later they did, and I was ready to eat the one or two a day that ripened by the time that I returned home from work. I always saved a few for the wife. I lived in this easy bliss for a few weeks until they came. Ravenous, furry, grey locusts – squirrels. They would ravage my humble crop daily. I would pull into my driveway to find scenes akin to a Spanish Tomatina. It didn’t take long for me to render myself; helpless, to the pulpy, fleshy carnage and I quietly, grudgingly withdrew to the easy comfort of autumn decay.

Mid-March of the next spring brought back the Sun and my resolve grew with each additional minute of light. I bought six tomato plants from the state’s tomato festival and planted them in my backyard. No planters for me! I had studied up on tomato farming but that was not all. I was ready to deal with those pesky squirrels. I placed the plants far away from the tree line and beyond where my mutt patrolled in his search for the perfect pooping spot. I even used commercial squirrel repellent to protect my tomatoes. All was fine until they came again! They showed no fear and no mercy. They frenzied upon the tomatoes leaving carnage and waste strewn throughout the garden, the driveway, and as if in a sign of complete defiance, on my kitchen window sill – the one that overlooked the garden.

I seethed. Bitter hatred boiled in my veins. Vengeance spawned in my heart. My mind lent itself to dark, unspeakable thoughts. I decided to go full on chemical warfare on the bastards. I planted habañeros around the tomatoes and then doused the tomatoes in a proprietary coating of habañero solution made of 1 part water and 2 parts crushed habañero pulp. The recipe called for equal parts water and habañero, but I was beyond a proportional response. There would be blood! I would mete out collective punishment. I would scorch the earth under which their grubby little paws scurried.

What I got for my troubles was chemically burned hands because I had mixed the solution without using gloves. I also got a mouthful of painfully hot tomatoes when I ate some a few days later. At this point, I was ready to give up on my little urban farming experiment. I wanted my tomatoes, but I really hated the squirrels. I was so furious that I’d even thought about shooting them in my backyard with a pellet gun, though that wouldn’t have made for the greatest headlines. (Local attorney charged with disturbing the peace and reckless endangerment after opening fire on a couple of squirrels in his backyard. In what neighbors are calling a squirrelpocalypse…).

I combed the web for answers, googling everything about squirrel prevention. (There are endless volumes, believe me!) I read countless blogs by hapless urban farmers like me who had adopted strange techniques for warding off the little furry fuckers. They ranged from spring-loaded traps, to placing decoys of birds of prey, to Santeria-like rituals of spreading dried animal blood around your garden. At this point, I was willing to try anything maybe even lighting a candle to Chango. Could you summon a Chupacabra? (I asked Google but didn’t find anything promising. I also didn’t want to start finding dead cattle on my lawn though honestly that would’ve taken care of the animal blood.     (#two-fer! #winning).

Then sometime toward the end of the New England growing season, I found a blog by some crunchy, hippie-type writing about her experiences and saying something along the lines of squirrels are people too. I rolled my eyes but kept reading. Her solution: just plant more. I furrowed my brow, scoffed, stroked the point of my chin, thought on it, rolled my eyes, then thought on it again. Ridiculous! I had already planted more and that just seemed to attract more of the villainous bunch. This hippie didn’t know what she was talking about. We were in the middle of a great war against Squirreldom and humanity – at least that part involved in urban, backyard tomato farming – was losing! She was either blind, willfully ignorant, or worse yet, a squirrel sympathizer. I pegged her for the latter! 

I moved on from the field of battle and turned to the worries of the fall. When would pumpkin spice be back? Would I brine the turkey this year and make homemade stuffing or just do a bake and box job? Would gift cards be suitable gifts? What would I do with mom’s inevitable insanely large sweater gifts? I’d already donated the last five years’ worth of sweaters to the Salvation Army. How many shots of Vodka could I tolerate now that I was a year older and functioning on a year’s worth less of brain cells? Where had all that glitter gone and would anyone remember the debacle of last year’s First Night?

Soon the equinox arrived and the dawn of the third year of farming was near. I thought about the previous two years. This would be my last. I decided that if I was going to go, I was going to go out with a bang. I headed back to the tomato fair with a fat wallet and a full heart. I would do it the hippie way this year. What did I have to lose? I bought ten tomato plants of several varieties: cherry, plum, heirlooms, etc… I also bought zucchini, cucumbers, string beans, parsley, sweet peppers, eggplants, and Brussels sprouts. I planted each in haste and dared the squirrel swarm to come.  It did. 

This time however the squirrels couldn’t keep up. There were too many tomatoes, too many peppers, too much of everything, too much for even me and my wife to eat, so we learned how to pickle and preserve. We shared with neighbors, family, and friends giving away as much as we could. I walked out to the garden one morning on the way to work and saw the half-eaten tomatoes strewn about the dirt, and the gnarled bits of cucumber and squash discarded after the seeds had been removed, but it didn’t bother me anymore. I was full. The squirrels were full, and the remnants of their feasts were fertilizer for the soil. I smiled. That hippie lady was right all along. There had been no war. There just hadn’t been enough. I had been a bad farmer. I had a dream about growing tomatoes in my back yard, but I had failed to take into account everything that I had to do in order to cultivate that dream successfully. At the first sign of hardship, I had given up, not once but twice and each time I had let my emotions get the better of me. I had not been growing tomatoes as much as I had been sowing discontent into my own dream garden. How quick had I been to scorch the earth in order to spite the squirrels? How ignorant had I been of their role in achieving my dream? The hippie lady knew that there would always be squirrels. The key to success was coming to that realization. They were not an enemy but a motivation to put more work into the garden. Had I not come to this realization I would have continued farming famine in the fallow garden of my dreams.

I nodded my head contently and headed to the car. The Brussels Sprouts stalks rose a foot from the ground – four stalks in total. They hadn’t grown very much over the last few weeks but they would soon sprout. I squatted in front of them to inspect and that’s when I noticed…nibble marks…RABBITS!!! (I’d have my .22 sighted by tonight.)

(c) J. Manuel

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