Trouble in Paradise

I have a coffee cup depicting neat rows of vegetables that proclaims, “I love my garden! (Almost as much as the rabbits, bugs and the birds do).” It was a gift from several years ago and I still value it—mended chip and all—because the quip brings a grudging smile every time I use it.  I sincerely believe that Mrs. Callaway, as I called Alice, would have gotten a chuckle out of it too, although she might have tweaked the trio of rogues on it if she had been the designer.  She definitely understood all too well that gardening in any form involves A LOT of give and take from nature.  I began working at Hills & Dales late in the spring of 1994, when she was in her 80th year and long after her philosophical motto of patience, perseverance and acceptance had distilled and seeped into her gardening soul.  I was on the cusp of middle age myself and pretty well acquainted with the vagaries of gardening, so to speak, or at least that’s what I thought.  The realization quickly came that even this degree toting, South Georgia farm girl still had volumes to learn.  So, while the other article in this newsletter gives heartwarming details of domesticated animal companions that had their home at the estate, this one will recall encounters with its wilder fauna—some charming and some wryly exasperating.

Those initial months of learning to tend this still-private garden brought my first, shall we say in depth, encounter with the most numerous bane of its summers, the black form of the eastern lubber grasshopper.  For reasons still debated, this large native insect populates sections of Troup County in disproportionate numbers compared to most other parts of the state.  I soon found out that, presumably because of the smorgasbord of dietary options planted at Hills & Dales, the population here was of nearly Biblical plague proportions.  That’s not much of an overstatement.  They were here literally by the hundreds, and Mrs. Callaway could be seen determinedly picking them off the tops of the boxwood hedges every summer morning and stomping them to death in the gravel paths.  She was quite fierce about it, and not squeamish at all, swiftly grabbing the 2-3” long, wriggling, hissing adults with her bare hands before giving them a quick ending.  Though awed and somewhat alarmed, I knew that I was not to be just a bystander who let these voracious marauders escape, but my initial anxiety must have been apparent as my new mentor teased me with, “Jo, I think you’re scared of them!”  Although truly relieved to find out they did not eat boxwood or magnolia, it didn’t take long for indignation over the damage to so many other lovely things to overcome my qualms. I was soon murdering grasshoppers left and right, even bringing my children into the act.  Mrs. Callaway told me of how she had begun the custom years earlier of paying her grandchildren a penny per hopper they killed, and now that a generation of great-grands were visiting her garden, she had put them on the lubber extermination payroll.  My son and daughter accompanied me on Saturdays that I had watering duty, and she gladly accepted their voluntary enlistment, cheerfully dispensing the appropriate coins to them for their elimination efforts.

Lubbers weren’t the only insects that would partake of the garden’s choice offerings, of course, but the nibbling of the others seemed rather insignificant in comparison.   No, the next mug on the least-wanted list was that of the beauteous whitetail deer.  Perhaps the most urban gardens in this region are exempt from their grazing, but this one has been on the menu for many years.  I was familiar with having to fence beds of my most delectable ornamentals or edibles at home, and wire fencing was installed around the Lower Garden (now the Ray Garden) and the vegetable garden to keep deer out of those areas; but she had things planted over a few dozen acres—what to do about that?  Her other countermeasures involved diverting them away from plants susceptible to their mouths, scraping antlers or both with scent repellents applied with meticulous punctuality—a practice we must adhere to today.  If an application was missed due to rain or miscalculation of rapid growth, gnashing of teeth and regret might follow, and this has not changed.  Ironically, some of the most effective sprays repel people as well, which was not a big issue before the estate was open to the public.  Thankfully, after the solution dries it becomes less and less detectable to human noses.  Speaking of irony though, it truly abounds in this garden.  Not far from the front steps that lead to the East Portico of the home stand two little statues, still where Alice put them years ago.  They are small figures of deer, a doe and a stag, placed under a tree as if grazing on the surrounding ground cover. “A present from Fuller,” she explained to me and although very fond of them, “they’re the ONLY ones on the place that I like.”  The garden staff seconds that.

Birds would not have been on her naughty list; she adored most of them.  Although songbirds would eat a good many figs and most of her plums (still do), she loved seeing them here anyway, always listening for their chirps or songs as she walked about.  She would imitate the towhee’s call back to them, and quickly lift her gaze to see if she could spot a red-tailed hawk that had just cried out. Bluebirds were encouraged to nest on the property by the placement of houses constructed just to their liking, with records kept of which were occupied each spring.  Mockingbirds, cardinals and robins raised their young and splashed in convenient puddles.  Even typically vexatious crows were tolerated for they rarely bothered her sprouting seeds, although they would always gather for quite an autumnal feast in the pecan trees.

Many other species inhabited the grounds then and now, and there is still that give and take mentioned earlier with most of them.  Cute little chipmunks scamper about nearly harmlessly, although they do make many little burrows throughout the garden and dig in our containers at times, as do squirrels.  Mrs. Callaway would fertilize the boxwood with cottonseed meal, only to have them eat a significant portion of it.  She seemed to shrug their consumption off, though, being far more concerned with damage to her most prized plants.  However, there is one amusing memory that comes to mind, though it was maddening at the time. It involved a stand of sweet corn planted in Alice’s vegetable garden one spring—not a large patch, but enough for pollination to be successful.  We waited as the seed sprouted, the stalks of ‘Silver Queen’ grew and tasseled, and the ears got plumper by the day.  She was thrilled.  On the morning we determined the corn was at its peak for harvest we headed out with expectations in tow, only to find still-erect stalks displaying bare cobs stripped of their husks, the succulent kernels…well, there were no more succulent kernels. Admittedly, I was too aggravated to be accepting, and to be perfectly frank, I don’t think that I was the only one.  Much speculating and sleuthing amongst the staff ensued to determine what culprits we were dealing with.  We were about to settle on accusing raccoons, with their all too appropriate bandit masks, when her maintenance man, Sidney, caught the true thieves skulking in and out of the rows in broad daylight! They were squirrels, and the diminutive burglars were furtively looking for more sweet, delicious corn.  That tale does segue into one more bit of present-day irony—that being the choice of mascot for the estate.  You see cute little Earle, as he is called, is a squirrel.  A fox squirrel to be precise, but still a squirrel.  I think Mrs. C would have approved of Earle’s selection, but she just might’ve had a twinkle in her eye and a droll smile about it.

A resident fox squirrel who we lovingly named Earle.

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