Real Gardens

A Prickly Situation

Porcupines are cute, if not cuddly, animals. I just wish one had not targeted my garden.

It announced its arrival in early summer by ravaging our raspberry patch. I didn’t know then who was the malefactor. Not only were the berries stripped from the bushes, the canes themselves were chewed through near the base, flattened and crushed. My wife Suzanne duly pruned the bushes back to healthy growth, but we lost not only this year’s crop but next year’s as well.  Incidentally, this should have been a clue: such treatment of raspberries is classic porcupine damage.

The invaders left no further sign of their presence until early August. That’s when, here in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, we normally start harvesting tomatoes. I typically grow around 18 tomato plants; last year I picked enough ripe fruit to make and can 20 quarts of sauce. This summer, though, as the fruits ripened they were pulled off the vine and left half eaten. Worse yet, the vines were often snipped off close to the ground. I applied a commercial animal repellant, but it had no effect.

That’s when I decided that the time for hand-wringing was over. I set a large “Havahart” trap out in the garden baited with a slice of melon. Something stole the bait that night without tripping the trap. To tell the truth, I was somewhat relieved because I didn’t know what I would do with the thief if I caught it.

Massachusetts law forbids the translocation of wild animals. For good reasons: those groundhogs you’ve been trapping and releasing in some meadow miles away from your house? According to wildlife experts they probably starved or were picked off by predators when dumped into unfamiliar territory: either the habitat wasn’t suitable for them, or if it was, it was probably already inhabited by groundhogs and other wildlife that wouldn’t look kindly on the alien. Besides, the moving of wildlife has been implicated in the spread of rabies.

The following evening the sound of rhythmic calls alerted us to the presence of some animal in the garden. My wife Suzanne took a flashlight outdoors and found a porcupine crouched among the tomatoes: porcupines are expert climbers as well as able diggers so our garden fence had proven no obstacle.

I confess that I shot the porcupine, which has ended the damage to the tomatoes and hopefully will prevent renewed attacks on the raspberries next year. I am left with a dilemma, though.

I garden largely because this activity helps to connect me to nature. I love to see the birds eating the seed heads in our flower garden, and I willingly share my plants with most caterpillars and other insects – although I draw the line at invasive Japanese beetles, which have no effective predators in New England to keep them in check. I have sprayed the asparagus with spinosad during years when the population of Japanese beetles is exploding. Otherwise, though, it is mostly live and let live in our garden; we accept the small losses as a cost of a healthy ecosystem.

What does a gardener do, though, when a pest is as omnivorous and destructive as a porcupine? Apparently, they will eat almost everything in a kitchen garden. I’m hoping that a new porcupine won’t move in, but if it does, I face a decision: do I just give up growing my own food, or do I accept periodic mayhem as part of the cost of filling the pantry? I don’t like either alternative.

Posted by on September 5, 2016 at 9:57 am, in the category Real Gardens.
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12 responses to “A Prickly Situation”

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting. The only time I’ve ever seen a porcupine in the wild was hiking up Mt Greylock not far from your neck of the woods. I was actually pretty thrilled to see it, as it seemed so rare to encounter. Such a strange creature. Maybe they are more plentiful in western Mass. Your the first person I’ve heard of dealing with one in his vegetable garden. Seems pretty destructive or pretty successful, depending on your point of view. But, of course, you knew you were going to set some opinions afire with this post! 😉 Good luck.

  2. Helen B. says:

    You self satisfied prigs. Go live on a primitive ranch like the man in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. Then you’ll see what it’s like to be in harmony with nature. You’ll miss the grocery store.

  3. kermit says:

    Well, Thomas, you could give up gardening altogether. Then you wouldn’t have to feel guilty about killing all the animals raiding you lawn – but don’t think about the ones your lawn kills by depriving them of habitat or food. Out of sight, out of mind? I prefer gardening myself. Since I’m in the middle of a suburban block, however, I’m unlikely to run into such troublesome critters.

    If you have problems again, try the electric fence and tell us how it works out.

    I’m sorry to see Wynn go; she’s missing an opportunity to tell us savages how we might live more in tune with nature. We humans are facing a steep learning curve for that. I want to, but there are eight billion or so of us, all guzzling oil & coal (if only indirectly), and we need to clean up our collective act. I suspect that gardening will be a very important part of that. So garden on, be as organic as possible, enjoy life, live and let live when you can. Peace out, as the kids say.

  4. Lisa says:

    Thank you for speaking up. I totally agree. How can you kill an animal for trying to feed itself? There are plenty of gardeners who believe in no kill compassionate gardens ing!

  5. marcia says:

    “..what is the difference between squashing an ant and popping a porcupine?”

    Estimates: 100 trillion ants in the world.
    Estimates : Porcupines : less :-)

    My neighbor used to shoot and kill groundhogs. I protect my vegetable garden and let them eat the weeds and some bird food in the yard. Have never had a problem with them by doing this. My concern is that , depending on the time of year, gun owners are not just killing one animal, though it appears that way, but the offspring, too, who they don’t see, who will then starve.

    I kind of like my groundhog:

  6. salad says:

    no biggie…it comes with the territory. what is the difference between squashing an ant and popping a porcupine?…

    humans and animals and plants live on this planet together and there are checks and balances. sometimes the bugs get your starts, sometimes an unexpected hail storm takes out your tomato starts, sometimes the frosts come early, sometimes the animals get your plants, sometimes you take a few predators out to ‘thin out the herd’,… sorry but there is no such thing as “pristine wilderness” or “untouched nature”.

    for me it is a question of: do i want to drive many hours to the grocery store (and have to do this every 2 weeks to obtain fresh food) or do i want to protect my crops so i have enough food to live off of through the winter. i think it is reasonable to also feel as strongly about protecting your crop EVEN if you live close to a grocery: growing it in your own backyard cuts out a lot of oil usage.

  7. allen bush says:

    Thomas, I’ve had to pop a groundhog or two. They’re still plenty around and I’m OK now that they’ve moved up the hill closer to the feeding grounds in the alfalfa field. But a few years ago when they started gnawing on the back door in the country, loudly enough that I awoke, they crossed the line. They’ve found my cantaloupe patch this year, but they aren’t being too piggish. They’ve left us some.

  8. skr says:

    I don’t know a single gardener/farmer that hasn’t killed creatures in order to protect his/her garden/farm.

  9. I feel your pain! A woodchuck has built a burrow under the shed and periodically wreaks havoc in the garden. We fenced in the garden with picket panels, hardware cloth wrapped around the bottom to prevent digging, floppy chicken wire draped from the top to discourage attempts to breach the enclosure. It doesn’t always work, though, especially at the gates and corners. I’m thinking of adding an electric fence. Meanwhile, what I believe is a raccoon has pulled down the bird feeders and rabbits have decimated their share of almost anything not wrapped in poultry fencing. Even the sparrows are proving to be too much, stripping bark from the lower branches of the tulip tree, killing them. At least I don’t have deer… yet.

  10. wynne wilson says:

    Extremely disappointed that you felt it was required to kill an innocent animal that got in the way of your taking over its own habitat. I am removing myself from this website so I do not have to be reminded of such selfish acts.

    You could have taken more time to solve the problem rather than taking a life.

  11. skr says:

    Electrify the garden fence. It doesn’t even cost that much. It’s just a mild shock also if you’ve never come in contact with one.

  12. anne says:

    So sorry about the porcupine! Your story expresses so well the dilemmas faced by farmers and gardeners around the world. On our farm, we strive for an “economic threshold”; a certain amount of damage, we can live with in order to avoid a scorched-earth policy, but above the threshold, something has to be done or we’re out of the game. In the garden, the threshold is more highly personal. How much damage can you tolerate? Porcupines sound like a lot of damage, and dangerous to boot. One of our dogs got nailed in the face, and those quills are awful to pull out. Hopefully you scared any others from coming around!