Despite a slow start, semi-drought and the recent heat wave, gardens are thriving. As in most years, we have our successes — during May and June we ate asparagus like it was our job — and failures: the first spinach, much prized for salads and serving steamed and topped with hard-boiled eggs from the neighbor’s contented chickens, was meager. But corn, tomatoes and peppers love the heat and the garlic is shoulder-high and yielded several shopping bags of scapes for stir-frying, garlic-scape hummus and pesto for the freezer. Peas are filling out finally and potato plants are robust. However (and with gardens there’s always a however), we are once again plagued by leaf miners in the beets and a complete wipeout of strawberries by either squirrels or chipmunks, both of which have been seen capering about in the garden despite the electric fence that thwarts their larger woodland companions.

The leaf miners first appeared two years ago in the beet greens. The larval stage of a variety of insects, leaf miners don’t injure the infested plants, but make roads and tunnels in the leaves, leaving them brown and ugly, as well as, in the case of spinach and beet greens, inedible. Last year I tried removing the affected leaves as thoroughly as possible, because when the larvae are done feeding they eat their way out of the leaves and drop to the ground to mature into adult flies. At the first sign of tunneling, you can squeeze the leaf at the tunnel and crush any larvae. Since there can be two or three generations in a season, depending on weather and climate, keeping affected leaves picked is important. If I’d been thinking, I would have covered the beet and spinach rows with floating row cover as soon as they were planted, which I will do next season. Other controls include using yellow or blue sticky traps to catch egg-laying adults and covering soil under infested plants with plastic mulches to prevent larvae from reaching the ground.

I don’t believe that spraying with neem oil or a homemade white oil will do much good, because the larvae are safe in their little leaf tunnels, but if you want to try a spray, mix two cups of vegetable oil with a half cup of liquid castile soap (made from olive oil if you want to keep it all natural) in a jar and shake until the mixture turns white. This is concentrated white oil and, to use it, it needs to be diluted with water — about a tablespoon of oil per quart of water — and put in a spray bottle. The shelf life of the concentrate is approximately three months from the day it’s made. Even if it doesn’t get all your leaf miners, it’s good for suffocating aphids, mealy bugs, mites and caterpillars on roses, ornamentals and fruit trees.







As for the strawberry-stealing squirrels, anyone who’s taken part in a bird feeder war knows they are the cleverest and most persistent of beasts. We’ve basically given up the fight and set our feeder on a stump around which we also scatter cracked corn, and ducks, doves, jays, squirrels and chipmunks feast all day long. The chipmunks have become softball-shaped from this indulging, but it doesn’t keep them from eating all my sunflower seedlings as a salad course. So I should have had a clue that a fruit dessert course would also be on the menu. I had planned to put floating row cover over the ripening berries, but we went away for four days and when I returned, the squirrels had stripped away every berry — ripe, semi-ripe and green. I suspect row cover would hardly be a deterrent anyway, so my plan is to use 12-inch planks to make a raised bed, move all the strawberry plants into it and, as soon as the blossoms have disappeared next spring and new berries formed, place old window screens on top of the raised beds. I’ll have to devise some method of fastening the screens to the frames, possibly simple hooks and eyes, but my idea is the screens would be free for the taking at the local swap shop and would be lightweight and collapsible for easy winter storage. If this doesn’t work, the nuclear option will be a hardware cloth lid.

I know there are other squirrel and chipmunk deterrents, but I don’t want to burn them with chili peppers or resort to small rodent traps or any violence. The truth is, I feel fortunate to live in such a porous setting. Garden snakes bask in the sun on our porch doormat and coil cosily on the straw mulch at the base of the tomato plants. Yesterday, while I was pegging out laundry to dry, a young gobbler stepped out of the raspberry thicket and proceeded to peck around not three feet away from me before returning to the berry patch. Meanwhile, resident hummingbirds were buzzing past my nose to get to their feeder and the phoebe in its nest over the window made frequent swoops over my head to skim the pond’s surface for insects. Two mallard families, one with nine ducklings and the other with five, plus what seems to be assorted aunts and uncles, patrolled the yard and splashed around in the pond, seemingly oblivious to the activities of us resident humans. Deer browse the edges of the hayfield at dusk, raccoons nest noisily in the barn, and we now bring the bird feeder in at night to foil both coons and the occasional bear. I’ve seen a bobcat catching voles under the snow and a fisher cat bounding across the road. So far we’re all passing in and out of each other’s worlds and find a way to share. I do draw the line at the mice who eat my sweaters, however. There’s no catch-and-release in their future; so, mice — be warned.