Poor Man’s Feast: Fighting the Neighborhood Woodchuck

Posted inCreative Voices

I am in no way a violent person.

The wasps and yellowjackets (the latter being the assholes of the bee world) that invade our home every summer fall into the them versus me category (I’m severely allergic) but I make Susan dispatch them. She hates doing it not because they’re threatening, but because she’s got this thing about sentient beings, and that includes angry, stinging, deadly bugs. Not everything can be warm and fuzzy.

My mother, though, was a furrier for a very long time after I singlehandedly ended her singing career (she tells me) and I was brought up on visits to the odorous Hudson’s Bay Company in Manhattan where my stepfather would buy skins to fashion into the fur coats I not-so-secretly hated. Still, there is no way in hell that I could harm a furry being, even if he is eating his way through my garden.

Or so I thought.

A few years after we moved into our home in exurban Connecticut, we were lucky enough to be given some dried heirloom pole beans by our neighbor, Sherry. Sherry’s grandfather (I could be getting that wrong–maybe it was her great-grandfather) carried them over from Italy, and now, they’re grown everywhere from my neighborhood to Katherine Whiteside‘s in upstate New York. I even shipped a batch to Deborah Madison, and so they’re growing in Galisteo, New Mexico, too. (These are well-known beans: Marcella Hazan identified them for me shortly before she died, and lovingly calling me a jackass for not cooking them correctly.)

The beans are beautiful: mottled green and purple, meaty, earthy, and totally delicious. And they love my soil. One day, though, some years ago when my garden was located behind our house, I stepped out of the shower and looked out the bathroom window at our thriving raised beds. I didn’t have my glasses on, so when it appeared that our beans suddenly looked a little anemic, I was sure that I wasn’t seeing things clearly. Only, I was: in the time that it took me to take a short shower, something had eaten every last bean, and most of the bush they were growing on. I reached for my glasses, got dressed, and looked back out the window. This time, staring back at me from inside my garden fence was a fat— and I mean really fat— woodchuck.

It sat there, chewing, and did everything but give me the middle finger. When I ran out to the garden, it waddled out through a hole in the fence, and took a swan dive into an overgrown, half-dead juniper bush. That night, Susan and I decided that the juniper bush, and the woodchuck, had to go. We were very serious and grave.

Our growing season was over a short time later, and so we stopped thinking about the woodchuck for about six months, and instead planned all of the delicious things we’d grow in the garden the following year: Hakurei turnips, French breakfast radishes, Bright Lights chard, mizuna, and kohlrabi.

“You’re going to have to do something about the woodchuck,” one of my friends said to me. She used to be a Buddhist monk, so when even she implied that it had to go, I knew I was in trouble. But with snow on the ground, I still had a few months to dream and plan and order my seeds.

I was like gardening’s version of The Village Idiot.

When it came time to plant, we reinforced the fence (which was eight feet tall, because we have deer, too), stapled down its bottom, and hoped for the best. Weeks later, we had magnificent French breakfast radishes, gorgeous turnip greens, two kinds of beets, the beginnings of our chard, and my beloved kohlrabi. I was not pleased when Susan came back from the garden one early morning before work and said you’re not gonna like this.

No kohlrabi.

I cursed like a longshoreman.

A few days later, I went to check the vegetable garden during a weeding break, and all was well. I went back later in the afternoon and the chard had been eaten, the beet greens were missing, and the tomato leaves had been chewed like tobacco. I might have actually shrieked when I saw that the radishes were topless. Over in the herb garden, there were signs of woodchuck feet. I drove to Agway, where I marched in like Lou Ferrigno, and was given a choice:

  1. Gas pellets to drop into their burrows. (No way.)
  2. Borrowing the neighbor’s Jack Russell. (Possibly.)
  3. A large, plastic, battery-operated hooting owl with a revolving head. (Reminded me of Linda Blair.)
  4. A gun. (Forget it. No guns.)

“Can’t I just reinforce the fence some more?” I asked the Agway guy.

“Sure. It’ll climb it, like a ladder.”

“How about putting a top on the fence. “

“It’ll burrow.”

I nearly wept. And I remembered that scene in Caddyshack, when Bill Murray blows up the whole golf course just to get rid of the little bastard. Was I going to destroy my garden just to rid it of a (big) pest? If I managed to get the woodchuck to leave, I’d still have to face chipmunks, birds, deer, and, probably, other woodchucks.

There’s a lesson in here, somewhere. And although I continue to receive dozens of suggestions ranging from having a few different men relieve themselves on the periphery of the space, to dropping Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum down the woodchuck burrows, I’m pretty much resigned to this being an on-going battle. Because in the northeast, where I live, if you grow it, they will come.

Is it worth the hassle?

Definitely. My radishes are delicious.

And the battle rages on.

French breakfast radishes + soft sweet butter + Maldon sea salt

Remove the tender leaves from the radishes. If they’re in good condition and not yellowing, wrap them up in paper towel, and put them in the salad crisper. Make pesto with them the way you’d make pesto with anything: in the bowl of a food processor put chopped leaves, olive oil, garlic, toasted pine nuts, Parmigiana Reggiano. Whir, taste for seasoning. Or go full on Chez Panisse and use a big mortar and pestle.

Serve the radishes with softened sweet butter and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. Black bread is nice too.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.