My war with the squirrels

When I heard my wife call out, “Wow, your German Johnson grew three inches overnight,” it took me a couple of seconds to process the news. At first I wondered if she had spontaneously begun reciting the contents of her email spam folder. But that didn’t seem right.

She was out on the back porch at the time, so next I thought maybe she was just being complimentary to a neighbor. But then it dawned on me that she was talking about a variety of tomatoes growing in our garden.

Raising tomatoes is something of a summertime passion of mine, along with eating homegrown tomatoes and making people listen to stories about homegrown tomatoes. I try to experiment with different varieties each year, and by “experiment,” I mean “plant the ones with the funniest names.”

The marketing sector in the tomato-industrial complex obviously goes to great lengths to come up with creative and hilarious tomato variety names like “Big Beefmaster,” “Cherub Chippendale” and “Truck Driver’s Hemorrhoids Barreling Down Route 66.” So we really should honor their hard work and use their names in sentences whenever possible, such as “I’m going to serve Aunt Gertie’s Redbush for dinner,” or “I can’t wait to get my hands on your German Johnson.” (Come to think of it, naming tomatoes might be what George W. Bush is doing now that he’s no longer coming up with comical nicknames in the White House, such as “Pootie-Poot” for Vladimir Putin and “Turd Blossom” for Karl Rove.)

But this year there’s a big change in our backyard vegetable garden: no tomatoes. Instead, I’m growing my tomatoes in pots on the porch. This represents a humiliating surrender to my mortal enemies, the squirrels.

For the past seven years, I’ve been engaging our neighborhood squirrels in epic backyard battles that make Bill Murray’s character Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack” seem like the rodent-compassion delegate to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Before that, I could always count on our good ol’ dog Jake to terrorize any nearby squirrels into self-relocating to a nice farm upstate. But since Jake’s gone on to that great butt-sniffing convention in the sky, the squirrels have become my mortal enemies.

They don’t satisfy themselves by eating an occasional tomato in its entirety, like any well-mannered rodent would do. No, the furry little hell-rats take one bite and move on down the row, taking individual bites out of every tomato in the garden, like a bratty child poking his snotty finger into every chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.

In past years, I tried every trick in the book. I caged the tomatoes so thoroughly that I couldn’t even harvest them without a retina scanner and an encrypted password, only to watch the little devils eat my tomatoes right through the cages. I tried growing so many tomatoes that they couldn’t eat them all, only to watch them spontaneously cater giant squirrel parties, inviting hundreds of their closest squirrel friends and family to the feast. I tried repellant, scarecrows, water pans and pepper to no avail. I daydreamed about dangling some tomatoes over a pit of live alligators. And I must admit I had fantasies involving firearms. But ultimately, I stayed true to my pacifist ethos.

And so this year, I threw in the towel and moved my tomatoes to containers on the porch, where the squirrels can look and sniff and drool but not touch. It’s a southeast-facing screened porch, so it’s got direct sunlight most of the day. And I’ve found I really like container gardening. The porch has even expanded to become home to salad mix, beets, basil, thyme, cilantro and smug satisfaction.

But is the porch a suitable place to cultivate one’s German Johnson, safe from the onslaught of larcenous squirrels? Time will tell. So far it is working, but someday soon I fully expect to come home and find a herd of squirrels inside the porch, lounging on our furniture, noshing on my German Johnsons and reading subscriptions to Suburban Garden Hijinks Monthly on their Kindles.

Until that day comes, my tomatoes will luxuriate in safety inside the screened porch, where, like the lover on Keats’ Grecian urn, their juicy deliciousness will remain forever out of reach to their would-be suitors outside. I sure hope so, anyway. I’m betting my German Johnson on it.