(This is copyrighted by GreenPrints magazine (http://greenprints.com/), Spring, 2006 - it ran in the edition of that date. It is reproduced here by permission.)
Garden cats get a lot of attention; they’re worth it. Nevertheless, heeding the cats’ contribution to our gardens, should not overshadow the often unmentioned Garden Dog.
I guess having a dog be your garden animal, does depend somewhat on the breed – Old English Sheepdogs, for example, could squash an entire row of lettuce just by laying down for a nap. The Garden Dog has to be considerably smaller.
On the other hand, those yappy little puff balls of fur! Not in my garden! I’m not a fan of a lot of barking. And I’m really not fond of the flighty and nervous. No. A Garden dog would have to be more steady – somewhat just this side of sedate.
And then there’s color. A white garden dog? That’s like a gardener with white carpet – only this would be a carpet that would go to the dirt instead of passively lying in wait for the garden to come to it. A Garden Dog must be dark – the closer to the color of mud, the better. I suppose for folks with red soil, a miniature Irish Setter would be THE very ticket – if it existed.
So… you have “small, steady, dark colored…” Hmm… I’ve got just the specimen. My choice for a Garden Dog is a Scottish Terrier. I just happen to have one right here. Sleeping, of course, because there’s no food nearby at this very moment. Casey, my Garden Dog, isn’t quite black – he’s what they call ‘brindle’ which, to my lexicon, means ‘compost-colored.’ Perfect! And because he can’t seem to stay properly coifed, he invariably strikes me as looking very much like a freshly turned compost pile on legs. They are very short legs, which I suppose serves to support the image as well as the dog.
He keeps snakes away, I say. “In Los Angeles?” I am asked with incredulity. “There are no snakes in LA!” He’s doing a pretty good job, then, if you ask me.
I wish we could arrive at the same kind of security with squirrels or rather, one of that species. There is one who is convinced that this garden is his garden and he would just as soon not share with us. Any way that this squirrel can, he is out to disrupt the quiet of our day. His favorite tactic is to stir up trouble. This means, going for the shortest denominator: Casey.
The squirrel will run down a tree near the patio and entice Casey into barking at him. I don’t like a lot of barking and both animals know it. To Casey I say, “This is a no barking zone!” Casey tries his best to ignore the provocateur, but the squirrel comes closer, finally onto the patio, raising its furry tail and slashing the air with it, like a matador with his red cape in front of a bull. Casey, swallows his barks, whines a little. The squirrel comes closer. Finally in a burst, instinct wins all and Casey charges – the squirrel jumps almost nonchalantly back on the tree just out of Casey’s reach, waving his impressive tail/cape with defiant bravado. Casey, of course, now is barking uncontrollably, until I can figure out some way to divert his attention. I can pick him up and walk to the far end of the garden, but without a distraction, once I set him down, you get the same effect as letting go of a bungee cord – you can almost hear the boy-yoing as Casey heads back to the scene of the crime.
One memorable day last fall, the squirrel was relentless. Maybe rodents get some sort of autumn fever, this one did seem to me to have collected a few too many nuts, I think he might have even gotten into some mushrooms. Time after time, I had gotten the Garden Dog calmed down enough only to have that rabble rouser traipse down the tree to restart the chain of events bringing us back to "animal confrontation-- take six!" kind of a Ground Hog Day movie phenomena. I know, I know. Wrong rodent, but that’s the film’s mistake, not mine. Finally, frayed at all ends, I located my “squirrel gun” – a pistol-shaped hose nozzle with a long range, hard-stream-of-water capacity.
The next bushwhack was the final “one ambush too many” and I let loose, drenching the instigator with one long beautifully executed stream of cold water. I was so relieved that we would soon have calm as I watched the miscreant bound away.
With the ruckus finally abated, I settled down to finish off some work with a nearing deadline. In addition to the one acre garden adjacent to a public school that Casey helps me manage, I occasionally break from garden tasks to attend to my other passion, the writing for which I hope to one day be famous. Or perhaps, at least solvent. In the garden, under the shade of an old pepper tree, there is a patio where I fold out a desk and place my laptop, inhaling the breezes from the Pacific Ocean wafting scents of sweet peas and compost my way. It’s idyllic, bucolic. On most days.
KA-WHACK!!! Right smack dab middle of the forehead, a thing – out of nowhere – hit my pith helmet and rolled away across the patio. “Wow!” exclaimed a neighbor, who had just approached to ask a garden question, “Those high schoolers must have it in for you! And I thought that safari hat was just an affectation!”
With Sherlock Holme’s power of observation, I had already figured out it wasn’t a ‘someone’ and had turned my gaze up into the pepper tree. Three branches up stood the squirrel with what I perceived to be a rather smug and self-satisfied look in his little piercing rodent eyes – humans aren’t the only garden pest we have to fear. He had fastballed a pine cone directly onto my head! Talk about your payback pitch!
Casey sprang into guard dog form and I grabbed the hose again, spraying that uppity varmint good while he took off for parts unknown. Now it wasn’t just the dog who needed to be calmed – I was a little unhinged too. In about 15 minutes, we both had settled, my fearless Garden Dog sitting in my lap while I pounded away on the keyboard, concentrating on my deadline at hand.
Deadline. Oh, what a horrible word! It comes from a prison setting where guards immediately shot the person who wanders over a painted line on the ground. Seeing how many of these I’ve wandered across in my writing career, I can metaphorically, and only metaphorically, thank goodness, present myself as a human equivalent of cheese cloth. There are those editors that fall asleep with a smile when they dream about bringing back the old meaning of the word, I’ve worked with more than a few of them and they deserve more caution than any four-legged, tail waving, pine cone throwing rodent. Surely, by now the little devil had gotten his comeuppance and with order restored, once again the deadline had all my attention as I strove to break my procrastination pattern and beat the this problem once and for all.
Suddenly, Casey jumped up and started barking, so animatedly he fell out of my lap. Looking up, toward the branch of infamy, there was our querulous contender, poised, his right paw in a perfect follow through and a pine cone whistling my way. Ducking the missile, tucking and rolling, wondering how I had come to be up against a squirrel with a better aimed fastball than entire the Dodger relief pitching corps, I came up near the hose again. With the dexterity of a seasoned warrior, I caught my foe mid-rump in mid-jump between the pepper tree and the neighboring pine tree. High in the branches of the pine tree, just beyond range, he whirled about and gave me a parting lecture, the specifics of which were more than literally over my head, but the general import was plenty clear enough for all within earshot.
He’s not been back for a few weeks, but I haven’t stopped marveling at the Shootout at Pine Cone Gulch, as I now call that corner of the patio. And yes, I muse, maybe a Rottweiler could also make a nice garden companion. If they only came in miniature… For now, I'll keep my fearless, if somewhat overmatched, Scottie. Forgive me if I don’t take off my hat. Life here can be dangerous. Even with a Garden Dog.