Coping with Common Garden Pests
By Will Kaufman
Illustration by Andrew Ferneyhough
In light of recent events and their unusual effects, I have decided to compile a guide for coping with the new common garden pests. They’ll kill the garden if you let them, and I don’t want it to die.
Reader, excuse my limited knowledge of whatever techniques may have worked in the past. My wife was the gardener, not me. Before the sky turned red and was torn with slow, black lightning that broke with a sound like the wailing of many widows heard through a bad connection, I managed a Radio Shack.
That said, the old ways I remember are no longer effective. For example:
I’ve dealt with raccoons in the past. One raccoon, at least. It was digging up my wife’s kale, and when she tried to chase it off with her spade it arched its back and hissed at her, unafraid. She told me it was probably rabid and said we should call animal control. I told her I’d take care of it, and did so with our garden hose. The raccoon might actually have been rabid, it didn’t like the water.
The day I chased off the rabid raccoon with our garden hose was a proud day, a story that went over well at parties.
We used to have parties, and people would stand in the garden with glasses of wine and compliment my wife’s roses, and her kale. We used to turn the corroded, spiderweb-shaped handle of the garden tap and a jet of clear water would shoot from the end of the hose. The brown sludge that dribbles out these days, while frightening to me, would not have scared off the troop of raccoons that arrived in the garden yesterday.
Not a troop, a gaze. My wife told me that. A group of raccoons is called a gaze.
There must have been fifteen of them. Some were adolescent, the size of housecats, but a few were as big as a German Shepherd. The gaze marched in lockstep, in a phalanx, the largest up front, the smallest in back, and they all had the stubby, rubberized antennae once common on cell phones protruding from sores on their backs and sides. I believe they are linked by these antennae, a single entity.
When they marched out of the hedge I was busy filling a hole.
I was on my knees in the dirt, and I had my wife’s spade, and I was filling in the hole. In my surprise I forgot the outcome of her previous encounter with the lone, standard raccoon, and did the most obvious thing. I raised the spade over my head and shouted, “Get out of here. Go on.”
The raccoons arched their backs and hissed in unison. I retreated into the house and watched through the kitchen window as the two biggest jumped down into the hole. They heaved what I had been burying to the surface, and took her. Her arms splayed over her head, her hair dragged through the dirt. I couldn’t stop them. Maybe if I had a gun, but I don’t. Maybe if I owned a gun this guide would be a single sheet of paper with, “Shoot it,” written beneath the title.
I must find other methods.
What I do have is a hobbyist’s workbench, an assortment of electronics, and two car batteries. Using a length of wire and a box of nails, I constructed a relatively simple electromagnet. The wires will probably melt when I attach them to a car battery, but hopefully, with whatever the raccoons have become, the magnetic field will last long enough to disable them, or at least scare them off. It would certainly ruin my cell phone, if I still had a phone to ruin.
I will, of course, have to get the device close enough for the field to affect them. I suppose this means tracking them to their lair, or burrow, or whatever, which I should do anyway. I want back what they took from me. I want her here. The last thing I can do for her is make sure she’s in the garden she loved so much when she was alive. But I think I should wait to see if the raccoons come back, and perform the test on home ground, where I know I can retreat into the safety of the house. Run and hide. What else is there to do but run and hide?
So far this guide is not off to an encouraging start. I will record an instance where I successfully dealt with a garden pest.
I can recall my wife complaining bitterly about an infestation of slugs that once troubled her kale. She wasn’t sure what a group of slugs was called, but she knew that a group of snails was a walk. My wife poured food-grade diatomaceous earth around the plants, and the slugs went away. There was still a half-full box of the stuff in the garage, so it was the first thing I tried. Unfortunately, the slugs have grown a thick, callus-like skin, and are untroubled by this deterrent.
Next I attempted to pour a small amount of table salt directly onto one of the slugs. When my bare hand approached within a few inches of the slug, it spat some sort of acid at me. The hose, obviously, was useless for washing the stuff off my skin. My hand is spotted with blisters, but at least there is no sign of infection.
My final solution, and the one I would recommend, is for the gardener to employ a golf club. I find the 5-iron very satisfying, as this medium club keeps my flesh out of spitting distance, yet still provides sufficient control that I do very little damage to the kale. The slugs’ new skin is thick enough to withstand a solid hit, and I believe I have knocked several of the bastards nearly two hundred yards.
My wife introduced a loveliness of ladybugs into the garden to combat the aphids that plagued her roses. I was always suspicious of that name for a group of ladybugs, and the insects have proven me right by becoming a troublesome pest. At issue is how they’ve stopped eating aphids and started stockpiling gasoline in gelatinous sacs they build from spit and mud and affix to the underside of leaves and the stalks of plants.
The sacs don’t harm the plants in themselves, as they are well sealed. The problem comes when the winds shifts, and blows from the east, carrying with it ash and embers. Luckily, my wife always gave her plants sufficient space to grow, so fire cannot easily spread from one to the others. Regardless, a truly dedicated gardener must keep the total number of rose bushes bursting into flames as close to zero as possible.
My wife never lost her sense of the romantic novelty of ladybugs. Whenever one strayed into the house, she’d coax it onto her fingertip and carry it to the window and invite me to blow on it.
“Make a wish.”
I never actually made any wishes. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps those wishes were set loose, and found some other wisher to make them. Perhaps this world is someone’s wish. I’d like to meet that person.
I didn’t make any wishes because I had a decent job and a pretty wife who smiled when I blew a ladybug off her finger, and why would I take the time to think of a wish when I could just blow, and see her smile?
She would not like these new ladybugs so much.
The best approach to ridding your garden of these pests is to fill a jar or other container with a small amount of gasoline (siphoning gas from a car is more difficult and more disgusting than it appears in movies, but can be accomplished with some determination and a length of otherwise useless garden hose) and place a funnel in the container’s opening. This modification of the common hornet trap is very effective. The ladybugs crawl in through the funnel, and are unable to escape.
The ladybugs have suggested something to me about what happened to the world. Who hasn’t heard about military drones designed to steal important resources, such as gasoline? I cannot say how that programming might have come to infect ladybugs. I think if I could look at one under a microscope I’d find, much like the raccoons, growths of metal and plastic. Not that this speculation matters much.
Red Cross Volunteers
Normally benign to gardens, Red Cross volunteers become pests when they decide to tramp through your roses in their heavy boots, and not because they want to appreciate whatever faint perfume those bruised blossoms have left to offer. After all, if their heavy filtration masks are working properly they shouldn’t be able to smell anything beyond their own stale breath. No, they’re going piss in the grave you dug and then steal some of your increasingly ragged and limp kale on their way out.
Red Cross volunteers always come in pairs, which is not enough to be considered a group and require a name, although I think a group of Red Cross volunteers is probably just called the Red Cross. One of the pair distracts the gardener at his front door, delivering rations and clean water, and encouraging him to start wearing a mask because the air isn’t safe to breathe.
“It’s still pregnant with bad tech,” is the volunteer’s phrasing.
Meanwhile, the other volunteer sneaks around back to ravage the garden. You might not even be aware that your garden is a Red Cross volunteer’s favorite rest-stop for days on end.
Luckily, Red Cross volunteers, unlike raccoons, can be dealt with in much the same way as cougars or mountain lions. Make yourself appear large by holding something up over your head in a threatening manner, such as a kitchen knife, and yell. The Red Cross volunteers won’t trouble you again.
An unfortunate side effect of frightening off Red Cross volunteers from your garden is that they will also stop coming to your door to deliver food and water.
Usually a gardener’s friend, a particular species of brown, hand-sized spiders has become a serious threat to plants. Not because it eats vegetable matter, but because it cuts off leaves to make camouflage for itself. At least, I think the spiders are trying to camouflage themselves. They wear the leaves whether they are in the garden or inside the house. Maybe they aren’t smart enough to know that leaves don’t grow in houses.
These spiders can most often be found within ten feet of the human they have decided to follow. While they are not dangerous, it can prove unnerving to wake in the morning to find a dozen large spiders on the walls and ceiling of your bedroom, and one on your wife’s pillow, each with leaves stuck to its back and legs, swaying as though in a slight breeze. If separated from their subject by a bathroom or closet door, they can chew through wood to ensure their surveillance is not interrupted. A large enough group (my wife never had a reason to tell me what a group of spiders is called, though I’m sure she knew), beyond being highly unpleasant houseguests, can destroy a garden.
Unlike Red Cross volunteers, spiders ignore yelling and threatening gestures. They are extremely easy to kill, since they won’t run away while they’re pretending to be leaves, but they also breed rapidly. If you suspect a spider has laid eggs in your garden, the best course of action is to wear a mask that does not have human features. I noticed, after an afternoon with my face buried in my hands, that the spiders had left. By the next morning, they had returned. So I cut eye-holes in a paper bag and put that over my head. I have not seen the spiders for days, which makes up for the rotten smell of my own breath trapped in the bag.
If my wife were alive, she would not want to kiss me.
Any gardener who accepted a mask from the Red Cross may never even encounter these spiders in the first place.
While not a direct threat to plants, the ghost of your wife standing over the grave you dug for her by the rosebushes may prevent you from properly caring for your garden. She won’t move, she’ll stand perfectly still, except for her eyes, which will always look right at you. You’ll suspect they see you even through a wall and a closed door. Wearing a paper bag won’t help. She’s not there to surveil you, she’s waiting.
In the end, the only way to rid your garden of such an apparition is to give it what it’s waiting for. My wife, for example, is waiting for me to get her body back, to save it from any further desecration by the raccoons, and bury it by the rosebushes she loved. After a week of hiding in the house, wearing the paper bag, not sleeping for nights on end, I went out to her and told her what she needed to hear.
“I swear,” I said. “I’ll bring you home. But I need you to leave me alone.”
“I miss you,” I said. “Wait, come back. Come back.” I threw myself down in the hole I dug for her, and thought about waiting there until it became my grave.
Raccoons, pt. II
In order to test my electromagnetic raccoon repeller, I needed a raccoon. I reasoned that if they came for my wife’s body, meat would attract them. I had not opened my freezer since the power went out, but I opened it now. The smell that escaped was deep and rank. I removed a bag of once-frozen hamburger patties, turned black and watery in the plastic, and tossed the thing on the ground in the yard. Meat in the dirt. Just what the raccoons had taken before.
Within an hour the gaze came marching out of the hedge. I saw they had changed even more, and even though they moved in unison, each had grown different from the others. One had a sort of dish of bone and skin and metal sprouting from its back, another had a nose that grew up from its face and curved back over its head, where it expanded into a sphere covered in nostrils.
I placed the bundle of nails coiled in wire near the meat, and when the raccoons approached I attached the leads to my car battery. The result was not what I expected. Instead of disrupting whatever the raccoons had become with a strong magnetic field, the bundle of nails and wires crackled and sparked, and the insulation on the wire caught fire.
Owing to the presence of my wife’s ghost in the garden, I had not been tending to my ladybug traps, and the loveliness had made quite a comeback. The rosebush nearest my raccoon repeller exploded into flames, and burning droplets of gasoline fell upon on the raccoons. They fled, emitting a squealing sound not unlike a troop of rusty bicycles, their fur singed and smoking.
I wanted to follow them back to their lair, but as I ran past the burning bush, a slug that had invaded the garden during the haunting burst in the fire, and my face and arms were sprayed with boiling acid.
I retreated to the house, my own hide singed and smoking. I tore up my cleanest shirt to make bandages, but I haven’t changed the dressing yet. Sometimes the burns feel like they’re moving.
The caterpillar’s diet is no longer the reason for its inclusion in this guide, rather it is the new use to which the caterpillar puts its silk. Where the caterpillar once created only a single cocoon for its metamorphosis, it now fabricates cell phones. The phones are, of course, not functional, but their shape is very distinct, and the caterpillar even goes so far as to incorporate any glass it can find into the screen and plastic into the body. Consequently, the silk phones are quite heavy, and if given the time and resources, a caterpillar will create enough to break the stem of a rose bush.
A caterpillar can manufacture ten to fifteen of these phones in a day. I think that an army of caterpillars might be able to bring down a tree. A group of caterpillars is called an army.
Fortunately, ants, large groups of which are also sometimes called armies, will eat the caterpillars. An army of ants can be obtained with the simple expedient of a box or bowl and a handful of sugar. The gardener should wear thick gloves when transporting a box or bowl full of ants, as they have a ferociously strong bite. Pour the ants out over affected plants, and in a few minutes the caterpillars will be dead.
I though ants needed a queen to begin a new colony. However it seems that if they decide your garden is, say, a good place to find other insects to eat, they will build a nest right there. Their nests are no longer subterranean, either, but tall mounds in the shape of suspension bridges, which they can erect overnight. At least, my ants are building a bridge.
While what this army hopes to bridge will probably remain a mystery, the effects of an eight-foot-high suspension bridge on a garden are thoroughly undesirable. Such a structure blocks sunlight and displaces roots.
If your garden is anything like mine, many of the plants in it may already be dead, or beginning to exhibit the sort of suspicious behavior that makes their preservation seem inadvisable. When you see how possessed your garden is by death and change, and understand that you will never be able to save it, you will only be able to think how appropriate that is. You couldn’t save your wife, either. She died gasping, with jagged, calcified tumors erupting through the skin of her stomach as though she were pregnant with a mountain.
Why would you want a monument to your failure outside your kitchen window? Your wife wouldn’t want to be buried there, you wouldn’t want to know she was buried there. It’s time to burn. Take whatever gasoline you can find, pour it into the anthills and over the plants, many of which may already be covered in ladybugs’ sacs, and light a match.
It is advisable that the gardener retreat to a safe distance, in case there are slugs.
Emergency services being spread quite thin by recent events, a fire will not draw firemen, as it once might have, but heavily armed policemen more accustomed to fighting wars than enforcing law. Much like Red Cross volunteers, they think nothing of tramping through whatever remains of your rose bushes. Military Police will, however, respond aggressively to the techniques that worked so well on the Red Cross volunteers.
A gardener who has been rendered unconscious by the application of a rifle butt to his temple, and spent the better part of a day unconscious in the smoldering remains of his wife’s garden, will awake to a splitting headache, dry throat, and a cluster of leaf-clad spiders.
I wish my reader luck in dealing with military police, and suggest that not attracting their attention in the first place is the surest method for keeping them out of your garden.
Spiders, pt. II
Thinking myself clever, I put on my paper bag and took a picture of my wife out into her garden, and waited. I thought it would be nice to see her outdoors, smiling, but everything was burned and I could not pretend she would be happy there. I would have liked to pretend I would be happy to have her there, alive again.
Soon enough a spider came swaying across the charred dirt, pretending that it would be completely natural for leaves to be growing there. The spider watched my wife’s picture. When I turned the picture around, the spider slowly worked its way in a wide arc until it could see my wife’s face again.
Satisfied, I burned the picture, striking the last match in the box. The spider and I watched my wife’s face curl and blacken and disappear.
When she was gone, the spider started searching, scuttling in a spiral out from the ashes.
“I thought you’d have a better trick than that,” I said. The spider did not respond, just ran ’round and ’round where I sat. I felt bad for it, and took off my bag so it would have someone to watch, and be satisfied. It ignored me, and continued spinning its widening search.
Raccoons, pt. III
To any prospective gardener who finds this, I wish you luck. I hope you can learn something from my failures that will help you keep your roses blooming. I fear this guide has become overly involved in my own particular problems, not all of which will be relevant to you. But the thing is done. I miss my wife. I’m hungry, and thirsty, and everything around me is in ruins, and I wish I’d died with her. Something wet and trembling is happening under the shirts wrapped around my arms, and I am not even brave enough to peel them off to see what I am becoming.
The power came on last night. For an hour, the lights flickered on. I don’t care what that means. I went around the house turning off all the switches, and shut my blinds against the streetlights.
I’m going to take whatever rotten meat is left in my freezer and lie down with it in the grave I dug for my wife, and wait for the gaze. Wherever the raccoons take me, at least I’ll be with her, and if, in this time of strangeness, our bones awake to roam about, at least our bones will roam together, and be strange together, and that may be the best one can hope for in light of recent events. The only name I can think of for a group of bones that aren’t part of whole skeletons is a pile, but there must be a better one. My wife and I will be something other than a pile of bones.
A life. We will be a life of bones.
We must take our beauty however we can get it in these new days.