Sunday, February 26, 2006

Weeds and long-toothed enemies

I see it has been two weeks since I posted anything here. I'm pleased to report that it has been a rodent-free two weeks. At least if there are rodents sharing my living quarters they're smart enough to stay quiet and out of sight.

However... I'm still dealing with the lingering effects of the voles in the corner of the basement.

For many years, I've noticed a strange phenomenon in the spring. My houseplants sprout weeds. These are indoor plants, never allowed out of the house. Completely domesticated. Yet, in March or April a weed pops up here and another one there. This leads to several questions in my mind. What is the source of the weed seed? Why only in spring? How does a seed that has somehow managed to invade the fertile soil of a houseplant know when its time to grow?

I've never found the answers to those questions. This year, however, things are different. It's only February. Spring is not here yet. Most of my houseplants are wintering under the grow light in the basement. I move them there to make room for the Christmas tree in December and they tend to stay there until I get around to starting seedlings for the garden under the light. Shortly after my last blog entry, I discovered weeds growing in several of the plants. Why? Why so many? Why in February? They were in bunches as though emerging from a pile of seeds. There were many, many little seedlings.

As the days passed, these seedlings opened up their first leaves and I recognized them -- buckwheat. I know those leaves. They are similar to morning glory leaves but not quite the same. I plant buckwheat in my garden to keep the soil busy when I'm not growing other things. (It has to do with the nature and vacuum conflict.) It grows, blooms in little white flowers of no particular beauty, develops seeds, replants itself, and starts the cycle over. The source that recommended it for this use says to turn it under before it flowers in order to prevent it from becoming a nuisance. I don't bother. I've been planting it for years and it has never become a nuisance. When winter comes it all dies. This is a good thing.

Morning glories on the other hand are determined to lay claim to my entire garden. I pull up hundreds of seedlings all summer long. Always a few escape my notice and manage to produce their quite pleasing flowers, lulling me into thinking that surely just one or two morning glory plants in some quiet corner of the garden can't be all that bad and setting me up for another summer-long battle with morning glory seedlings sneaking into every bed in the garden. It's because of the morning glories that I've come to know buckwheat first leaves so well. I have to be able to distinguish between them in order to wage my battle against the morning glories trying to pass themselves off as buckwheat seedlings.

Buckwheat growing in my houseplants. This is not happenstance. This is the work of the voles. Oh well, the houseplants need something. No big deal. I like having things growing in my little basement garden nook in February.

A week ago, I decided to start some cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli seeds under the grow lights. It's not that cole crops ever actually develop into anything in my garden, but it gives me something springy to do in February when it's still too early to start tomatoes and such.

I pulled out my meager seed cache (reduced greatly by the vole invaders), my seed trays, and potting soil. I had a new large bag of soil which hadn't been opened, but had a hole in the top. When I opened it up, I discovered not just potting soil but, you guessed it, buckwheat seedlings! They were rather light-starved since they'd been growing in a bag of dirt in a cabinet. I decided to ignore them. I'd simply uproot them and bury them in the seed trays. The decaying plant matter could provide nutrients for the new seedlings. I planted my seeds, watered the tray, put it down under the grow lights, and forgot about it for a few days. When I went to check on it, guess what I found. Many, many seedlings shooting up toward the light. Whoa! I didn't plant this many cabbage seeds. As a farmer once said when confronted with a similar situation in a parable told by Jesus Christ, "An enemy hath done this!" Obviously, there were not only buckwheat seedlings in the potting soil, but also not-yet-germinated buckwheat seeds. How would I tell the difference between the buckwheat and my cole crop seedlings? The farmer in Jesus' parable decided to let both the wheat and the "tares" grow together until the harvest lest pulling up the "tares" destroy the wheat plants, but I decided that I might be able to take a different approach. All week, as soon as the little seedlings open up their first leaves and I positively indentify them as buckwheat I've been nipping them off with a thumbnail. It has helped that there are so many of them and they're growing around the edges of the tray compartments rather than sprouting from the center where I put my seeds.

Yesterday for the first time, I noticed a seedling that looked different from the many buckwheat sprouts still sprouting. It was a darker green. It was growing from the center of the compartment. I think it's the real thing. The color difference will make it easier to continue nipping off the buckwheat without being so concerned that I might be killing off my cole crop before I even get it out into the inhospitable garden plot.

Those voles were busy! They stashed buckwheat in the potting soil, my houseplants, AND my laundry. (Fortunately, it was dry laundry and I managed to get those seeds out the back door before they sprouted.) The evidence of their activity is still popping up these two weeks later.

The mousetraps are staying. I ended up throwing out all the remaining buckwheat seeds and included a new supply with this spring's seed catalog order. Although it's a weed in the basement, I'm still open to the idea of planting it in my garden to choke out more obnoxious weeds.

Death to voles that come in the house! I need to get the word out.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cold-blooded rodent murder

I drowned two small rodents this week. I held their little heads under water until they quit struggling. I don't remember ever drowning an animal before. (This may be a case of suppressed memories.) A darker side of my personality may be emerging.

Critter #1 was a gray mouse with bright little black button eyes. It was clumsy. Rather than being caught in my trap properly by jostling the trip level while enjoying a last meal of peanut butter, it apparently tripped over the trigger in passing and was caught by its back leg. This, of course, was not fatal. I heard the trap snap shut in the wee hours of the morning in the attic-closet beside our bedroom. I heard the trap being dragged across the floor. I heard rustlings. I heard the trap being dragged around some more. I thought of the mementoes and Christmas decorations stored in that attic space and the destruction done to such items when a mouse discovers them. I wondered how much of the mouse was caught and thought about the possibility of it chewing off the trapped body part and continuing to live in the attic. By the end of an hour, I had moved on to meditating my approach to mouse murder.

Trying to make as little noise as possible in order to avoid disturbing my husband (whose chosen form of mouse elimination is poison), I gathered a flashlight, an old sherbert container, and a magazine. The capture of mouse and trap didn't go as smoothly nor as quietly as I hoped (a couple of involuntary "eeks" escaped my mouth when the mouse got too close for comfort), but eventually I emerged with mouse and trap in the sherbert container and the magazine acting as a lid.

Ordinarily, at this point, I would consider release outside. However, there were a couple of aggravating factors. (1) I wasn't ready to give up my trap and couldn't figure out how to release the mouse without getting bitten. (2) I had been home alone most of the week and this mouse had been impersonating an intruder in the night with its rustlings, depositing droppings on the utensils in my kitchen drawers, and then moving into the attic with our family keepsakes, leaving me with less than kindly feelings toward it. I'll spare you the details of what happened in the bathroom, but it was over fairly quickly and the mouse was dead when I disposed of it on the woods side of the house.

Just a few days later, I found buckwheat seeds in my clean laundry. Grrrrr!!! There were two crimes committed here -- messing up my laundry and wreaking destruction in the drawer in the basement where I store my garden seeds. My thoughts turned to that little gray mouse and I was glad I had drowned it and wished I could do it again. However, when I checked my seed drawer, I heard rustlings in the wall behind the cabinet. Grrr. More traps.

This time I caught voles -- little brown mouse-like rodents. The first two were clean killings. Vole #3 ran off with my trap. I searched high and low through the garden clutter before finding it. Another incomplete kill. It should have been dead. The trap had closed over its neck and skull, doing plenty of damage. Yet, it was still alive at 10 in the morning! I admired its will to live but felt obliged to finish it off after doing so much damage. There was a bucket of collected rainwater outside the basement door. I dropped mouse and trap in the bucket and held it down. I waited for the struggling to stop. And waited. The little critter must have had an extraordinary will to live. It lasted much longer underwater than the mouse did a few days earlier.

Two rodents deprived of life in just a few days. Premeditation in each case. I'm hoping the word gets around the neighborhood rodent population.

I put what seeds weren't ruined in plastic boxes and threw out the rest, but I probably need to do a house inspection for entry points. I prefer to live at peace with my furry woodland neighbors as much as possible.