Ground zero in garden warfare Pests: Gofer this, gofer that. Homeowner declares plant-noshing woodchucks must go. But getting them gone means an all-out runaround.

August 17, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,STAFF WRITER

Chuck, as we dubbed the newcomer, moved next door about this time a year ago. Across our garden, through the cherry tree's branches, we caught glimpses, but he always kept his distance.

We respected that. It's OK, we figured. For years, we've seen Chuck's relatives all over Howard County; the quick on countless hillsides, the dead by the road.

We returned from vacation ready for an annual treat, home-grown tomatoes. But we found nipped buds and festering gouges in the lowest tomatoes on all six plants, a cucumber half-eaten and two pepper plants gnawed and broken.

A day later, we got visual confirmation: it's Chuck. With breathtaking speed, Chuck (Marmota monax, also known as marmots, woodchucks, or groundhogs, all the same thing) became one of the most memorable neighbors we've had in two states -- right up there with the cottonmouth moccasins in a Virginia Beach canal.

Chuck had taken up residence beneath a storage shed -- perfect habitat, with lots of tasty grass, ample tree and shrub cover, and a tunnel the books say can go 5 feet deep before you know you have a visitor.

Bottom line: For us, last summer's garden yielded only a pepper or two, a couple of cucumbers, and exactly zero tomatoes. This storied February Forecaster had metamorphosed into ugly August Aggressor.

Chuck's landlords responded in neighborly fashion, bringing in a handyman to live-trap the bugger. "He had to push the trap right against the hole, but it worked," we heard in early fall. Praise be, and thank you. Chuck was gone.

So it seemed until early May, planting time again for our six tomatoes, three cucumbers, and peppers. But the very next morning, not even out of their peat pots, those delicate, little cucumbers were history, chewed level. Tomatoes were nibbled, too.

Chuck was back. Only this time we discovered that he was actually a she (Charlie -- short for Charlene). For in the weeks to come, we would also get acquainted with Chuck Jr., Charlie II, and siblings No. 3 and 4. Mom and her quads. Five *&#$% groundhogs!

This time, we'll do the trapping. Quickly, we learn that leaner, meaner government means, among other things, our animal-control folks don't lend out traps anymore. So, short of poison (too many roving kids, cats and dogs), or plunking them with a rifle (which we don't own and our community would frown on, anyway) our options seem to be four:

1) Buy a trap. 2) Rent a trap. 3) Hire Ace Ventura. 4) Buy "farm fresh" tomatoes and cucumbers from a grocery store after accepting the absolutely crazy notion that we're really the interlopers and the groundhog is one of God's innocent creatures to be cherished and tolerated.

No. 3 is stupid, and No. 4 is stupider because we've lived 24 years in this town, groundhog-less.

We find the trap we want -- reinforced, galvanized wire screen about a foot square and slightly less than the width of a Toyota Corolla's back seat. It's a Rube Goldberg-device that doesn't harm the animal. Bait the treadle in the center, set two end-doors precariously open so that when the treadle tips, both doors drop and lock shut.

You don't mess with Charlie, who can weigh 16 pounds and, counting tail, be 3 feet long. That docile Punxsutawney, Pa., relative on TV every Feb. 2 is numbed by a winter-long hibernation. Any veterinarian will attest that in mid-summer, a riled Charlie can slice up a dog or hand in a heartbeat.

Price for a new trap? $65 or so. Renting at $5 a day or $18 a week seems more cost-effective. How hard can trapping Charlie be?

Bingo. A couple of overripe strawberries yield our first catch within hours the very first day. But it's little -- a foot long, give or take. Off to a wooded area for, hopefully, humane release into an area offering plenty of cover, food, water, and no suburban gardens.

Second day, make it 2-0, us. Another little one. Charlie is still at large. Another week, no Charlie, no harm, and the trap goes back to the rental store. Peace.

And then in early July, another sighting. Our lovely clusters of phlox, leafless and now we're down to just one cucumber.

The rental guy smiles knowingly. Heck, he must have two dozen traps. "They're in and out," he acknowledges. Meanwhile, a woman at the wife's work inquires, "Have you tried fox urine? Works great."

Lovely.

A Catonsville garden center carries the stuff -- at $8.99 for eight ounces bottled in Maine by someone who was either really smart or had way too much time to burn. Strew soaked pieces of sponge around your garden, and Charlie will split, thinking one of her worst nightmares lurks. Inquisitive readers, you learned it here first: If a fox wants you to know it's been visiting, you'll know. Whew.

So a-huntin' we go again. First day out, another young groundhog. Second day, the fourth sibling, which we hadn't suspected. Then a dozen days pass with the hottest action being a young catbird trapping itself on cantaloupe-bait twice in one afternoon. Back to the shop for the trap.

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