Where did they go? Yesterday I had a nice row of lettuce seedlings down one side of my raised bed. This morning three were missing! Not a leaf remained, only the gnawed off stump of a stem, leveled to the dirt. Grrrr!
Since we live on a few acres, there are many possible culprits: insects (such as cut worms or grasshoppers), jays, crows, or other hungry birds, pocket gophers, or rabbits. Figuring out who done the deed was essential to knowing what defenses I needed to erect to protect the rest of my crop. It was time to pull out my Sherlock Holmes hat and bubble pipe and do some sleuthing.
First I checked for insects. Cutworms love to chew through a stem, which kills the plant, and then head off for the next victim, leaving the fallen bodies behind like a row of felled timber. They typically curl up around the last stem they sever. I didn’t see any wilting leaves, and there was no suspect lying in wait at either end of the line of missing plants. Not a cutworm.
We do have a few grasshoppers, although the numbers are extremely low due to the long, cold winter that just won’t leave. I have never had grasshoppers eat my lettuce. I gave them a pass.
I do have tons of birds in my yard (my seven bird feeders might have something to do with that), including birds large enough to easily uproot some lettuce. However, the roots were snugly in place; only the leaves had been eaten. And birds only resort to salad as a last resort. My birds were well fed. I doubted they had done it.
Pocket gophers are notorious for digging under a garden and yanking the plants down into the earth. I’ve seen bean plants suddenly disappear into their tunnels, and one year my entire carrot crop consisted of green leaves and gnawed off roots. But gophers also leave entrance holes, with a fan of soil piled around them. I had just finished digging up the beds and destroying all the tunnels left from last year, and there were no new ones to be seen. It wasn’t a pocket gopher.
That leaves those cute little cottontails. Did their m.o. fit the scene of the crime?
Rabbits love to chew on leaves, especially salad greens, and they chew them right down to the soil level, leaving no evidence behind. If they bite off a larger stem, it’s usually at a 45° angle. That’s the way their big teeth are slanted. Finally, I saw this perp running around my yard when I got up. (Are those green stains on its teeth?)
I’ve fought rabbits in the past. The only effective way to completely deter them is to erect barricades, and it isn’t easy. I have a 4-foot high wire fence all the way around my garden, with 2-inch by 4-inch holes. The rabbit is more like 12 inches around, but he didn’t even slow down as he ran right through it.
Step two. I added 1-inch chicken wire to the bottom. That kept them from breaching the fence, until they tunneled under it.
Step three. I (illegally) fed the local foxes and coyotes with a bowl of dog kibble. I was rewarded with a reeking (and I mean reeking!) offering of coyote urine, left in the same bowl to mark territory. I dribbled the smelly stuff all around the perimeter of my garden. That worked very well for a while. Now I want to know how to get more! (You can’t just go politely ask a coyote to pee in a bowl for you.)
Now I’m working on step four. I have some hardware cloth I’m shaping into cages to slip over my salad crops. It’s scratchy, hard to work with, and a pain when I have to move it to weed or harvest, but I’m pretty sure it will do the job.
Meanwhile, I just hope I don’t have two rabbits!