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Digging for strategy in a pest war

The groundhog seemed surprised when I made an impromptu visit to the vegetable garden this week.

It was about 1 o'clock on a weekday afternoon. The groundhog had just lunched on a row of green beans. He looked at me as if to say, "Shouldn't you be in the office?" Then, he took off.

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He paused at the fence ringing the garden and shot me another glance. This time he seemed to be saying, "Are we really going to go through this charade? Are you going to try to 'scare' me?" I took a few steps in his direction. He made a whistling noise and scampered through a hole in the fence, disappearing into thick undergrowth.

The noise, I bet, was groundhog lingo for "I'll be back."

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So it goes these days in the garden. The fruits of your labors -- green beans, broccoli and a few tomatoes -- finally begin to ripen. You feel a small sense of accomplishment. Then along come the critters, who mow down your treasures. Groundhogs, birds, rabbits and, in some locales, deer feast on the vegetables you have nurtured.

I am now at war, or at least in a serious skirmish, with a groundhog. Working on the premise that I should know the enemy, I have researched the groundhog's lifestyle. He travels under several names -- groundhog, woodchuck, land beaver and, my favorite, whistlepig. He can climb trees and swim, but his favorite activities seem to be digging and eating.

His home, a network of burrows, is elaborate, with more entrances and exits than a Hollywood mansion. A wildlife biologist once mapped the "digs" of one groundhog and came up with an answer to a question that has long troubled mankind. Namely, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The answer, according to Cornell University's Groundhog Facts Web site, is 700 pounds. That is how much dirt, the biologist figured, had been displaced to excavate a typical groundhog residence. If wood, rather than dirt, had filled the burrow, the animal would have chucked 700 pounds.

Judging by stories I have heard, many gardeners would rather fill a groundhog with lead than fill in his holes.

In rural areas, a ready answer to the question, "How do you get rid of a groundhog?" seems to be, "With a .22 rifle." That is not a viable option for me and my fellow gardeners who work the soil in a community garden in Druid Hill Park. Somehow, I think that if we opened fire in the middle of a big city park, chances of getting return fire would be high.

A more likely option is to catch the critter, luring him into a trap with vegetables. Groundhogs are binge eaters: They put on weight in the summer so they can hibernate in the winter. At this time of year, groundhogs are ravenous, eating like teenage boys, devouring almost anything in sight. However, a big difference is that, unlike most teenage boys, groundhogs are vegetarians.

The other morning, John Polhemus, a fellow community gardener, and I examined rows of beans and a couple of broccoli plants the groundhog had attacked. There wasn't much left of these plants. Rabbits nibble on vegetables; the groundhog had virtually leveled these.

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Polhemus told me he had battled groundhogs some years ago when he worked a 128-acre farm in Warren County, N.J. He used to hop off his tractor and chase them down, he said. When the day arrived that the groundhogs could outrun him, he knew it was time to give up the farm, he said.

He also told me that groundhogs love ripe tomatoes. This prompted me to quickly pick three almost-ripe Prudence Purple tomatoes (a variety I mistakenly called Cherokee Purple in last week's column) that were growing in my plot.

Various plans are afoot for how to cope with the groundhog. One of my fellow gardeners has placed an inflatable plastic snake in his plot. I guess the snake is supposed to scare the groundhog away. Another gardener has been trying to keep the critter away by anointing her garden plot with animal urine. There is talk about bringing in a dog, a genuine hound dog with serious teeth, and pointing him in the direction of the groundhog abode.

Finally, there is the scheme of trapping the groundhog. This would require bait for the trap. If asked, I would contribute one of my ripe tomatoes to the trap, but just one. This might be war, but there are limits to my valor.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com


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