Outwitting wildlife out in the vegetable garden

Courtesy photo Gary McKown stands beside his protected garden.

Two weeks ago, I visited Gary McKown’s suburban West Chester home to view his vegetable garden. McKown was one of the gardeners who responded to my invitation earlier in the season for people to tell me why I might want to come for a tour. He wrote, “Don’t know how interesting this is, but at least my gardening efforts could be called unusual. We are overrun with wildlife of all sorts and sizes, so I have spent about as much time and effort in keeping some of the critters out as in raising the garden.”The garden is actually two separate plots: one for the blueberries, strawberries and asparagus, and one for the vegetables. Both are fenced in, but McKown goes a step further with some of the plants. For instance, within the perennial cage, the strawberry plants grow in separate, hinged cages that McKown designed and built.

In the vegetable garden are many of the usual suspects: tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli and onions; lettuce left to grow up and set seed to plant next year. Here, too, there are cages within cages. “ First a complete woven wire fence around the whole thing, extended upward to 6 to 7 feet with netting to keep out the deer,” McKown wrote. “Inside, to keep birds from pecking the tomatoes are two cages housing four plants each. In the background is a reinforced net cage around my small corn patch (last year crows or raccoons or something destroyed every single ear before it was ready for use).”

There is also an electric wire around the entire perimeter, about four inches off the ground to fend off animals smaller than deer. This is driven by a solar-powered charger.

McKown grows a mix of tomatoes — Burpee’s “Better Boy” and “Early Girl,” and “San Marzano,” an heirloom Roma tomato. “I save the seeds,” said McKown. “These are third generation.”

I asked him if he follows the standard instructions; the ones that say to soak the seeds in water until the solution starts to ferment, etc. McKown said, “I do it the way my mother always did. I take really ripe, perfect tomatoes, spread out the seeds on papers towels.” When the seed pulp has dried, McKown rolls up the paper towels and stores them. At planting time, McKown just puts the paper towels in the ground.

In the main garden, robust pea vines with dozens of plump pods scrambled up branch sections stuck into the ground. Peas ready for picking? In the middle of July? “Early Frosty,” explained McKown. “The vines stay low, and they produce for a long time. I love these.”

In one corner, a solid stand of corn was just starting to tassel. “It’s ‘Amaze’,” said McKown. “It’s a new variety from Burpee that grows shorter than varieties like Silver Queen, which top out at around eight feet.” The proof will be in the eating, but so far McKown is happy with the Amaze. “I used to grow Silver Queen, but a strong wind would topple the stalks,” he said. “I’d have to tie them up.”

Where did he learn to grow food? McKown said, “I grew up on a farm — 275 acres in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the Ohio River.”

A closing reflection in McKown’s e-mail: “I guess the most interesting thing is, when we moved here 23 years ago and first planted the garden everything was out in the open with no protection whatsoever except for the woven wire fence, including large raspberry and strawberry patches with zero bird damage. The development was fairly new at that time, and no one kept a garden. I assume the wildlife eventually found the bounty here and established permanent residency nearby, meanwhile expanding the population by leaps and bounds.”

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pcbaxter@verizon.net, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.