I was planning to wait until harvest time to report on the results of my vegetable-gardening experiment.
I figured it was a simple before-and-after story, with nothing much to say during the in-between phase, when my plants would either be growing into real, live food-producing machines or shriveling up and turning brown.
What I didn't figure on was Chuck.
Things were going reasonably well. Seeds were sprouting, plants were getting taller, and the rain was helping me out. Then one morning, I glanced out the kitchen window and noticed that the garden suddenly looked sparse.
Where were those leafy-green broccoli plants in the front? They'd been my biggest success: the first vegetable plants I'd ever grown from seed, the biggest plants in the garden, a daily reason to hope that I might actually be growing a green thumb.
I walked outside for a closer look _ and discovered that all five plants had been hacked down. Every bit of every leaf was gone, and the stems were neatly clipped, as if with garden shears, to a few inches from the ground. There were no footprints or tracks that I could see, no half-eaten leaves, no evidence of any kind.
I briefly considered the possibility that my-sister-in-law, an avid gardener, might have stopped over and done me a favor. For all I knew, there was some time-tested broccoli protocol, widely known among experienced gardeners, of course, for cutting back the stalks just when they seemed to be thriving, to ensure a bumper crop.
That evening, I planted six cauliflower plants next to the fallen broccoli. Three days later, the cauliflower plants vanished, with the exact same MO.
I caught the thief in the act when I came out to make coffee the next morning. A big, fat woodchuck was standing up on his hind legs in the back of the garden, about to take a bite out of a butternut squash leaf.
"Hey!" I yelled, banging on the glass until he scurried away. Later, my husband and I found the entrance to Chuck's underground home and plugged it up with two concrete blocks, hoping he'd decide to dig his way into someone else's yard. No such luck. It took a few days, but somehow, he managed to burrow under the blocks.
I decided drastic measures were in order. I called my sister-in-law, who, once she'd stopped laughing, helped me buy all the necessary supplies to protect my garden: a roll of fencing; several tall, metal stakes to hold it up and some smaller stakes to anchor it to the ground.
At the store, we got some free advice for keeping critters away. The woman who rung us up said she'd heard mothballs would deter Chuck; the man behind us suggested sprinkling bits from a bar of Irish Spring bath soap in the garden. I opted to stick with the fence, even though it meant security would cost more than the garden itself.
Now, things are going well again. My 4-year-old daughter, Allie, helped me pick the first batch of baby greens for our dinner salad last weekend, careful to pinch the leaves off at the bottom the way my sister-in-law had showed us.
Six out of 16 tomato plants look sick, but one has a tiny green tomato on it! There's also a fuzzy little cucumber, as well as six watermelon sprouts, a dozen bean plants and all sorts of carrot tops popping up like tiny stalks of grass.
My buddy Chuck is still around. I saw him a couple of days ago and watched from the house, fascinated, as he gorged himself on weeds from the grass along the perimeter of the new fence. He'd scurry along, stop, stuff a leaf into his mouth, then look around for the next bite.
Occasionally, he'd glance over at the fence, as if catching a whiff of the tastier greens on the other side, but he didn't try to burrow under it.
The bitten broccoli plants, meanwhile, have rebounded with new leaf growth. I'm not so sure they will actually produce food for my family, but I'm over it. With the fence in place, I'm already ahead of the game for next year.
And if this year's garden somehow succeeds, I'll be so happy I might even be a nice neighbor and leave whatever's left of the broccoli plants next to Chuck's hole at the end of the summer.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44hotmail.com.