Moby Dick the woodchuck is back.
No, he is not an albino woodchuck. He just keeps resurfacing. At the moment, he looms larger than life in my tiny garden. I analyze the damage in the morning, raise my fist, and mutter epithets toward the sky — though he’s a groundhog. There’s no question I’d like to shoot him, but I can’t. We live in town.
What is actually growing?
The rest of the garden is doing well. Perennials are happy, and vegetables are coming along. I have planted new crops where the brassica used to be — spinach for fall, new beans, new lettuces and another round of carrots. The tomatoes are coming (no sign of blight). The peppers are ripe, the beans bountiful, the onions content, the carrots magnificent. The garlic is almost ready to be harvested. My potato plants are three feet high (no beetles have found them yet). The zucchini are in full force. And after a rough beginning when there was not enough sun, the basil is finally flourishing. It is pesto season. My friend Louise wrote from Italy the other day about something she’d learned about basil:
“I always thought that basil wanted to grow in full, hot sun, and certainly we’ve always had good luck growing it that way. But two unimpeachable sources (gnarled old Italian gardeners) have told us in the last week that full, hot sun is only for growing basil for minestra, the vegetable soup many eat for supper here. If you want to make pesto with your basil, you must grow it in partial sun; it will be more tender, less minty and better suited to pesto on pasta. Who knew?”
I have basil in three locations, and it is true that some of the plants are more tender than others. I will test to see if the gnarled Italian gardeners are right!
Below are two recipes for pesto, the first to be added to vegetable soup, the second to be added to pasta dishes. Both can be made in an electric food processor, but you will find that if you take the time to make it the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle, the flavor is more aromatic. (Note: Walnuts can be substituted for the pine nuts, but they are slightly bitter, and pine nuts round out the flavor better; they are just awfully expensive!). Wipe the leaves gently with a towel to remove any dirt, and remove stems. Cleaning the basil leaves this way releases more of their perfume.
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He has eaten all of my brassica plants: the entire row of broccoli, grown from seed under the grow lights in my living room, tenderly handled, repotted and hardened off outside; and all of the Brussels sprouts (ditto). He has eaten the tops off a row of the best carrots I have ever grown. He has chewed the vines of the cucumbers and stolen peas. Now he is turning to more gourmet pleasures: the radicchio grown from seeds I got from a friend in Italy.
It started five years ago. Eleven o’clock one July morning, Divine, a student from Tanzania whom we were hosting for the summer, sat on the back porch steps eating a sandwich while I was making jam in the kitchen. “Mum,” he said, bursting suddenly into the kitchen, “Mum, there’s a little brown man in the garden!”
A little brown man? Was I on the verge of learning a new piece of Tanzanian lore?
“Come quickly! He’s eating the broccoli.”
I ran onto the deck, and sure enough, standing tall between two raised beds, there was a sleek, light brown woodchuck with a large piece of broccoli between his two front paws. “No!” I yelled — as if he were a dog — “Down! Go away!!” I clapped my hands and glared. He flashed a knowing look, and shimmied off through a break between the fence and the house.
Then I glared at our dog sleeping on the deck. Not known for her intelligence, apparently her eyes, ears and nose didn’t work either.
And so war broke out. Every morning at 11 o’clock, the rascal appeared. He entered the garden through multiple points. We blocked them. He came in anyway. We borrowed a Havahart trap and received many pieces of advice. “Bait it with chrysanthemum leaves.” “They love tuna fish — put in a tin of tuna.” “Try sardines.” “They love peanut butter.” “Try broccoli, or carrots.” We tried each and every suggestion. We caught a huge possum that my sons dubbed Yoda.
We started plugging the holes in the fence. He still entered. We got a good slingshot. We missed. Divine offered to teach us how to use a spear. We discovered Moby had built a home beneath my studio. With its radiant floor, he was set for winter: a quiet snug burrow, with a warm ceiling. After we destroyed that hole, he moved under the garbage hutch on the north side of the house. Every time we blocked it off, he came back and dug in. We notified our neighbors that we were putting rat poison down the hole, so they should keep their cats inside for a few days. But all we got were dead voles.
When he finally moved out that year, it wasn’t because we’d gotten the better of him: the vegetables were all gone.
The next two years, we did not plant broccoli. Moby Dick did not return. So this spring, I decided he was truly gone, and planted one dozen carefully grown brassica plants.
Not so. My neighbor Jane, who has been waging war with multiple woodchucks in the college meadow that slopes down to Otter Creek across the street, has just put in an electric fence around her vegetable beds, in addition to multiple fences around the edges of the property and solar powered beepers in random corners of the garden. The day she plugged in the new fence to the solar powered transformer, guess who appeared at my place?
While Barbara Ganley celebrates the flow of wildlife at her place, relishing the rabbits, the deer, the wild turkeys, the squirrels and the raccoons, I do not. I don’t have enough vegetables to spare. When I complained to my friend Peter who lives in Salisbury, he just laughed. “You should have seen what happened the day a moose came and lay down in my potato patch.”
A moose? Now there’s a Moby Dick!
Genovese Green Sauce for Minestrone Soup
You will need 1/2 cup fresh sweet basil leaves, 1 sprig of fresh parsley, 1 garlic clove, 2 teaspoons of pine nuts, 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon of olive oil (more or less), 1 tablespoon of butter (optional).
This pesto can be added a tablespoon at a time to a summer vegetable soup. Then top the soup if you like with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pesto Genovese for Pasta and Potato Dishes
You will need 1 cup of sweet basil leaves, 1 parsley sprig, 2 garlic cloves, 1 1/2 tablespoons of pine nuts, 1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese (or another cheese that is spicy and salty), 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, and approximately 1 cup of olive (the amount depends on the consistency you like).
This recipe makes enough sauce for four servings.