A new mesopredator in our semi-feral garden

Gayatri in the garden for the first time (From Blog Pictures)

I maintain a semi-feral garden to encourage a lively ecology of beneficial insects and predators, which tends to minimize the need for intervention to control pests.

To attract bees, small wasps and other useful insects I let catnip, feverfew, foxglove, white clover, lemon balm, borage, bee balm, marigolds, Love-Lies-Bleeding Amaranth, German chamomile, and a variety of flowering weeds come up anywhere there aren’t vegetables. Yarrow, fennel, a huge drift of self-sowing parsnips (very attractive to ladybugs and finches) in the back alley plot, and a blackberry patch do their bit as well. There are plenty of random edibles too: purslane (great Turkish-style in yogurt thinned with olive oil along with diced tomatoes and mint) and arugula are everywhere, garlic is starting to establish itself, and the asparagus patch is spreading west.

The foundations of the garden sheds are unscreened, so we generally have one skunk family a year for rodent control: no gophers for four years now. (The dog is not allowed in the garden, nor outside after dusk.) Wood piles here and there shelter garden snakes, so we have little trouble with pillbugs and earwigs, and the rodent population is only occasionally a problem. We live in a small oak grove, so prolific with acorns that squirrels don’t do much more than steal an occasional apple. In fact, up until this week, the only troublesome animal has been raccoons: I have to put an electric stock fence up each year when the Syrah grapevines reach veraison to have any grapes at all.

But a couple of days ago I saw a brush rabbit in my garden, perhaps attracted by the white clover throughout the garden, one of a rabbit’s favorite foods. Up with that I will not put, for we’re getting a lot of produce out of our garden now–all of tonight’s dinner except the salmon: cucumber salad, German butterball potatoes pan-fried with red onion, and Sunburst squash. And I’m not willing to share more than a few nibbles, which is not the kind of behavior one can expect from lepine invaders.

So we’re introducing a new predator to the garden:I spent a few hours outside with our two young cats, who’ve lived indoors since we got them from the animal shelter. The garden is securely fenced against dogs and coyotes (we haven’t heard any of the latter for five years; bobcats have been more common), and I’m introducing the cats to the outdoors a couple of hours at a time. They won’t be out at night.

Our little pirate cat, Gayatri, although quite vocal, and determined to follow me everywhere for the first hour or so, loved it. Pretty soon she was dashing across the garden and up the fruit trees (there are going to be some very surprised squirrels), or crawling under the garden shed (where the rabbit vanished to when I came upon it). Didn’t find anything. Yet. The fact that she has only one eye didn’t slow her down at all; she’s long since learned to move her head to give herself depth perception.

By contrast, our large black cat, Shakir, did not enjoy the experience. He hid in the orchard (semi-dwarf apple and pears trees) and ventured out into the former vineyard only a couple of times. He’ll adapt, I think. He seemed reassured by Gayatri’s relative insouciance, and even started to stalk her a couple of times until paranoia reasserted itself.

I’m hoping that the cats’ presence, their scent, and their scat here and there will discourage the bunnies, and other small furry pests. I’ll be monitoring their predation, and controlling it as much as I can (for instance, they won’t be allowed out if I hear quail moving through the neighborhood). I suppose we’ll be receiving gifts on the doorstep too as Gayatri and Shakir do their part for the household economy.


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