City gardening can sow a seed of violence

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One of my best friends -- a college history teacher -- raises chickens in the East End.

He and his wife, an elementary school teacher, live on an idyllic street in Park Place, a stone's throw from Frick Park. Their chickens Alice and Trixie are named after the sitcom wives on "The Honeymooners."

There was a third hen whose name I don't recall, but it was eaten by a raccoon before we had a chance to bond. My friend explained that the varmint had broken into what was believed to be a fairly impregnable chicken coop, leaving only a mass of feathers and two traumatized chickens behind. My friend and his neighbor, a fellow chicken enthusiast, reinforced the chicken coop with more wire and whatever material was needed.

When the raccoon made a return trip a few days later, it was dispatched to its eternal reward by my buddy, who had sacrificed sleep in preparation for what turned out to be their one and only nocturnal showdown. A grateful Alice and Trixie survived the long, cold winter without fear of harassment by man or beast after that.

Meanwhile, my friend has begun the arduous task of preparing his garden for another season of vegetables and beautiful flowers. He accepts the fact that there will be more incursions by groundhogs and raccoons because chickens and robust gardens attract them. While the rest of the country deals with the ecological fallout from a mysterious bee shortage, there are plenty of them pollinating flowers at my friend's house.

A few years ago, under his supervision, I began planting tomato and pepper plants along the side of my house. Because all that was required of me was to water the garden early in the morning and late at night, I had great results early on. I tried my best to keep the vines tied to the wooden stakes, but nature exerted its own pull on the maturing plants by forcing the burgeoning vegetables back to the ground at every opportunity.

Last year, I even had a short-lived battle with a groundhog that lived under a neighbor's porch directly across from my garden. That groundhog would scurry confidently through my backyard with its two offspring in tow in broad daylight until Leila, our pit bull, put an end to such an arrogant sense of propriety. But when Leila slept, the groundhog and its brood helped themselves to hunks of tomatoes and plant leaves.

Because I didn't want to resort to Second Amendment remedies right off the bat, I called the city and inquired about groundhog traps lent to city residents for a week or so. No matter what time I called, the city never had any traps on hand, but one was always expected back within three days. I was told to call first thing on that appointed day, but it never panned out. I spent nearly two weeks playing a game that was straight out of "Waiting for Godot."

Just when I was going to break down and actually buy one, my wife shouted that Leila was chasing the groundhog around the yard and along the fence. The critter had gotten fat on my tomatoes and looked much heavier than the last time I'd seen it. It was also vaguely annoyed with Leila and kept turning to face her every time she nipped it in the butt. Maybe the dog had exhausted it, but it was moving way too slowly given the danger. That's when I began to wonder if it might be rabid.

Instinctively, I grabbed for a rake and joined the fray. Leila's incessant barking drove me and the groundhog to distraction as we tried to find a dignified way out of the impasse. When the creature lunged at Leila, I defended my dog by swinging and connecting with the groundhog's furry but muscular back using the business end of the rake. Because I don't usually go around impaling living creatures, it was a moment of startling brutality for both of us.

Intent on ending its suffering, I leaned my full body weight on the rake until the groundhog stopped breathing 30 seconds later. When I turned it over, it was dead. All the rage and fear I felt seconds earlier had dissipated, replaced by a melancholy realization that I had killed something that was a parent and had only wanted to provide for itself and its brood. The fact that it was at my garden's expense was nothing personal.

After the battle, I went to my friend's house and gave him the blow-by-blow. Given the lengths he goes through to rid his garden of nuisances on a regular basis, he wasn't impressed.

"You're a man now," he said. The sarcasm in his voice made us both laugh. He didn't call me a wimp (exactly), but he insisted that even when it comes to the care and maintenance of something as beautiful as a garden, blood was sometimes going to flow.

I didn't have any more problem with groundhogs after that.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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