Safari to the Bottom of the Garden

The author’s pond at the bottom of his garden. Author’s photograph

The author’s pond at the bottom of his garden. Author’s photograph

We usually think of our gardens as places for our own pleasure, of our own contrivance. If our houses are the first ones built on our land, we tend to regard them and the gardens we create around them as something new. But our land has a history. We are not its first inhabitants, and it is instructive to look back at what was there before, and what and who has survived around us.

My own plot of ground had been part of an apricot orchard; when we bought it, there were still a few old trees, gnarled and ragged, producing some fruit but slowly declining in their old age. Prior to the orchard, the land was part of a cattle ranch with a history going back to the time when the mission lands were divided; Rancho San Antonio left its name on streets, parks, and malls. Before that? Aside from the native peoples, there were bears, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, and more. The bears are gone and mountain lion sightings are only occasional, but there is still wildlife, which, with a little encouragement on our part, will come out of hiding, inspect, approve, and move in. We may not always be aware of their presence, but they are there.

At first, we were only aware of the birds. We hung out feeders and enjoyed Anna’s hummingbirds year-round, with chickadees and orioles free-loading in their seasons. Robins and cedar waxwings came through in mid-winter, feasting on pyracantha berries. One year, the waxwings came late in the spring when the apple tree was in full bloom. I found a flock feasting on the petals. They are beautiful birds, but I coveted those petals for the show they offered me. I clapped my hands, and the birds took off. They have never repeated their foray.

Feeders brought a variety of birds—turtle doves, juncos, sparrows, jays, spotted towhees, plain titmice—but also an annoying squirrel, or perhaps a family of squirrels that liked to scratch out much of the grain as they sought their preferred sunflower seeds. I tried several means to discourage the squirrels, but not until I hung the feeder on a long chain from a high tree branch did I succeed in baffling them. They would sit on a nearby sundial and stare longingly, but they never tried the long leap to the feeder shelf.

The birds were a pleasure to watch, and the cost of their food was minimal. Then I installed an ornamental fishpond at the bottom of the garden, not realizing that I was creating a watering hole for an arkful of new creatures.

Into the pond went water lilies (Nymphaea), yellow Iris pseudacorus, pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata), and floating plants of various kinds to create a suitable environment for the brightly colored fish, which we trained to be fed at tea time. A stand of timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’), and a clumping variegated grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’), accented with a piece of bronze sculpture, made a handsome backdrop for the pond. I was satisfied with the results, but there were unexpected consequences.

I interrupted a kingfisher, once, as he was about to carry off a goldfish. I startled him into dropping his prey, which I scooped up and returned, still flipping about, to the pond. I had never seen a kingfisher in the neighborhood before and never have since. But I did have another winged predator: a great blue heron. I observed him stately parading on a neighbor’s roof, then taking off in the direction of my garden. Sensing his destination might be my pond, I dashed out to find him standing in the pond, intently staring between the lily pads, looking for his breakfast. A truly fine sight, I was hesitant to chase him away, but I really had not put the fish there for him. With a clap of my hands, I disrupted his breakfast plans, and he rose majestically, with a measured flapping of wings, to soar away. It was easy to believe in pterodactyls as I watched that ponderous grace take to the air.

I had installed a single jet fountain in the center of the pond, and, as we sat over afternoon tea in the adjoining terrace, a hummingbird would arrive in a whir and dart into the top of the spray—drinking or bathing, I could not determine. Dragonflies, too, liked the water: great shiny red ones would alight, motionless, on bending leaves. The smaller, turquoise-blue, damsel flies also flitted and rested, flitted and rested. Robins bathed at the pond’s edge, but our most interesting visitor was a scrub jay. He would inspect us at tea time and encouraged us to bring crusts of bread to offer him. We tossed the bits nearer and nearer, until, finally, he would perch on my knee and eat from my hand. I had never been so close to one before and had only seen them as raucous bullies at the feeder. Now, I was treated to a sort of purring gurgle in his throat—meaning something, but I knew not what. As our “Admiral” became more confident, he also became bolder and less mannerly in his feeding; we were not entirely unhappy when the fall season advanced and the weather put an end to our pondside teas. We wondered if he would return in the spring, but none of the jays ever again approached us so closely.

We enjoyed the birds and the drama they provided, but then our pond was discovered by creatures that had, perhaps, been there all along. Raccoons, opossums, and skunks are generally nocturnal and shy of human contact, though quite willing to eat whatever may be left unguarded. My garbage can had apparently been too securely lidded for the nimble fingers of the raccoons, as I had never seen them until I installed their favorite waterhole.

Raccoons are thought to be fastidious about their food and will wash it whenever possible. I should not have minded, had that been the limit of their use of my pond; but no, they held midnight revels with all their kin, splashing about in the water, tearing up the plants, catching fish, and making a desolation of my little Eden.

I acquired a catch-and-release trap that caused no harm to the creatures but allowed me to transport them into the foothills, where I hoped they would find themselves a new home. I caught three or four raccoons and relocated them. Then one morning, I found a skunk entrapped. Clearly I had a problem. The SPCA told me to bring in the trap and its occupant, and they would deal with it. Yes . . . but how? Eventually, I approached the cage, holding before me a sheet of black plastic, which I dropped over the cage. I put it in the back of my pickup and drove to the SPCA. They were welcoming, took my bundle and my grateful donation, and later returned the cage empty of its recent occupant.

Sometimes a neighbor’s cat was so unwise as to inquire about the peanut butter bait. On more than one occasion, I caught an opossum. They probably drank at the pond but were not destructive. They were not my problem, but skunks and raccoons were. I wanted my pond as pristine as it had once been. I was not thrilled with my solution, which was to string a low voltage wire on short plastic stakes around the pond. The wire proved a good deterrent. The voltage was too low to be hurtful to creatures that touched it, but they did get a shocking experience and learned to keep away. I had my pond back, but I also had a wire around it, which somewhat defeated the naturalistic look I had prized. Eventually, however, I began not to see the wire. A selective vision can solve many problems. (I have also found it effective with weeds.)

Deer and wildcats, which may have once roamed through the orchards and fields, seem to have been barred from my area by freeway construction to the west. Gophers have seldom turned up, though I see their hills in open fields nearby. But my garden has provided a great food source for a new invader: the vole. These so-called “meadow mice” burrow just under the surface of the ground, like moles, and have a ravenous appetite. Almost any fleshy plant root or bulb seems to please them, along with the bark of the loquat (Eriobotrya) and the bottom stems of a cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elation). Nothing seems to deter them—neither trap nor poison—and they produce three or four litters of young each year. I have taken to placing new plants in wire baskets, which does help but is a nuisance.

The voles have solved one of my small problems, however. In recent years, I have brought home pots of Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) each spring for the house and planted them in the garden afterwards. They continued to flower each year and to produce offsets so prolifically that I began to wonder what I would do with any more. Then, the voles arrived and found the lily bulbs irresistible. Now, the patch of lilies is gone. I shall start over, because I love the lilies and their wonderful fragrance; but, they shall each have their baskets to protect against those little short-tailed varmints.

I still see the occasional raccoon romping across the lawn in the early morning, the opossums still waddle down the garden path, and I know the skunks still live, unseen, in the neighborhood. But we have come to an agreement, my wild neighbors and I. We have established a sort of peaceable kingdom by agreeing to respect each other’s rights. Only the watering hole is out of bounds for them, and it continues to be a delight for me. In the late afternoons, we sit over tea, enjoying the play of the fountain, the flash of the goldfish, and the graceful acrobatics of the hummingbirds. It’s not a bad life.