Groundhog interrupts dream of a perfect garden

Our garden is designed to be viewed from the house, and this is the best time of the year to survey my domain. Despite the total mess outside, I can easily envision gorgeous flowers, unmarked foliage and weedless beds because nothing is actually growing yet. The gardening is all imaginary; reality hasn’t yet intruded on my dreams. But my reverie was rudely interrupted last week by the appearance of a perky young groundhog. Horticultural daydreams do not include hungry, tunneling, eating-machines in fur coats. That is material for nightmares.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax), also known as wood chucks or whistle pigs, are native to eastern North America through Canada and into central Alaska. They’re about 18 inches long including their 6-inch tail and weigh between five and 10 pounds.

Like the chipmunks and prairie dogs they’re related to, groundhogs dig underground burrows. These average 5 feet in depth and can be 20 feet long. Where generations of the animals reuse a burrow they can be three times as large.

The tunnels have multiple entrances that are protected from flooding by a lip of soil. A second burrow is constructed for winter use. In the wrong location, these excavations can damage farm equipment, endanger livestock and even undermine foundations. This makes groundhogs unpopular with farmers and stockmen. Their appetite for human food like berries, lettuce and fruit, and their ability to climb over barriers as high as 10 feet and tunnel under barricades makes them unpopular with just about everybody else.

We’ve had three groundhog encounters over the years. The first was with one of the huskies and lasted less than a minute. Dog: 1-groundhog: dead. I cried when I bagged the body.

The second meeting is enshrined in family lore as “The Encounter with One-eyed Chuck.” This groundhog was missing an eye, which may be why it wandered within feet of where my husband was weeding. The groundhog and my husband both looked up at the same moment, caught sight of one another, squealed and retreated. Chuck didn’t set up housekeeping in yard.

My little visitor last week skittered across the front garden from shrub to perennial clump, then headed down the east driveway. It shot south across Grand Avenue during a pause in the traffic and only survived the crossing due to a kind driver who slowed down so it could transit the south lane. I haven’t spotted it since then.

My friend and fellow gardener lives right next to where the groundhog disappeared, and I hope it doesn’t find a home in his yard.

I held my breath until the little critter made it safely across the street. The truth is, I talk a tougher anti-critter game than I play. If it moves to our yard, I’ll probably echo my aunt who has yelled, “bad groundhog” for years as the critters feasted on her vegetables. After scolding, they are left in peace. They have to live somewhere, after all.

I’m back now to my reveries of plants unscathed by capricious nature. The deer and rabbits will set me straight soon enough, of course, but for now my garden is perfection and groundhog free.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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