It’s the time when heat and pests aggravate the best of gardeners. It’s hard to keep tomatoes setting fruit when days and nights break record temperatures. To compound matters, grasshoppers and tomato hornworms appear and gnaw tender fruits, leaves, and stems to little nubbins. Plains green thumbs frequently face daunting challenges. So do horticulturists everywhere, I’ve learned.
Trying something new, I experimented with a high altitude garden in the Rockies. Of course, that means inhaling thinner air, but cool mornings and nights compensate for short breath. Despite planting later and facing shorter harvest dates, I sweat less and face fewer pests. Or so I thought.
No one told me about picket pins, Wyoming rodents that love cruciferous veggies. Since this is an experiment, I rented a community garden plot. I figured I’d learn from locals used to the altitude and temperatures. My 8 x 4 foot raised bed came filled with fertile soil just waiting for me to show up with trowel and seeds. In no time, tidy rows of kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, radishes and onions absorbed soil nutrients, spring rains, and sunshine. I patted myself on the back, thinking my mountain garden would escape difficulties I’d faced back home.
Once sun warmed the earth in this raised bed, greens grew thick and plentifully. In no time, we enjoyed fresh spinach and lettuce, crisp radishes, and crunchy onions. It was lovely to harvest veggies that didn’t have a single beetle or grasshopper bite taken out of them. My pleasure didn’t last long.
Within days, something had nibbled away at kale and kohlrabi planted near the garden’s edge. I looked for insect droppings but found none. A high fence around the garden prevented trespassing deer so I couldn’t imagine what devoured my dream harvest. It was certainly healthy because it consumed entire rows of healthful greens.
Finally, I caught the thieves. Bigger than chipmunks but smaller than prairie dogs, they were speedy rodents. I learned they’re ground squirrels that natives call picket pins because of their tendency to stand up straight outside their holes , looking like stakes that keep a horse from straying. They also really like cruciferous vegetables.
A fellow gardener lost her cabbage plants to the hungry hordes. Yes, hordes. These creatures reproduce like rabbits so scores of them call the hillside near our fenced plot home. While deer can’t leap over the ten-foot fence, these intruders have no trouble sneaking between posts or under gates. I caught one perched on the wooden edge framing my rented garden. He unhurriedly nibbled what was left of my last kohlrabi plant before scampering out of reach. I swear he winked when he left.
Unconcerned with his human visitor, he didn’t run until I swung a canvas garden bag his direction. Ironically, this guy and his buddies have done far more damage than any grasshoppers or hornworms that visited my Kansas gardens. The verdict is still out about exchanging high plains planting for mountain tilling. What I have figured out is that no matter where vegetables grow, there’s a pest waiting to snatch them from my plate.