When fences don’t work, Phil Keenan finds a new solution.
Sheltered by the low branches of a peach tree, I sat on a little bench and surveyed the backyard in all its green beauty. I drew short, gentle breaths from my corncob pipe and watched accidental smoke rings form every now and then. It was the end of the day and it was a good time for a bit of a ponder.
When we first moved into this house a few years ago it became clear that the dogs could escape at various weak points along the fence line. As renters, it was our job to make sure that our pets couldn’t get out as long as the fence we had was barely adequate—and it was barely adequate, but no more than that. So, after experimenting with different methods to secure the fence, we decided to invest in one of those “containment systems,” as the manufacturers call them. A wire circuit runs around the perimeter of the property and when the dogs, wearing special collars, come too close they hear a warning noise, and if they go closer than that they get a small shock. This means the animals learn to keep away from certain areas, and it is quite humane, although the idea seemed somehow cruel to us at first. The safety of the dogs is more important, and when you know the system works it confers a certain peace of mind which can’t be quantified.
Unable to escape, the dogs turned their devious minds to other puzzles while we were out at work. Naturally they saw the vegetable gardens we had constructed with chicken wire and numerous stakes and pickets as a challenge worth pursuing. And so they worked methodically, examining the fences which had been constructed to keep them out, sniffing what was on the other side, enthusiasm for the task increased by proximity to the forbidden zone, and planning their assault. The little white one is the general and the big black one does what she is told, and together they are able to dig under, push aside, knock over, or slide through any obstacle put in their way. They would go days, sometimes weeks, and occasionally months, without doing anything naughty, without any attempts to get in, and it was natural to think, as we did, that they were not going to get in any more, because they couldn’t now—it was too secure—or they were bored with the idea or they so hated the punishment when found transgressing that they thought better of further transgressions. But they always got in again. It was never over.
The Gardener would often say she was sick of it. She got her hopes up and thought it would be different now. Things were growing and she had started to make plans about what to do next, what to grow next, how to approach the next season. And then her hopes would be dashed as seedlings were dug up and fragile plants trampled and newly planted areas rendered barren. She would go back though, increasingly reluctantly, but she would go back, and weed and plant and plan. Despite the best efforts of the dogs, The Gardener had some great successes: corn grew thick and high at one stage, and seemed almost out of place in a suburban backyard, and one of the beds became a herb garden, which was established enough that canine interference could not harm it too much.
But she eventually reached her limit. We both did. We pulled down the fences, as she had often threatened to do, but we replaced them with the wire from the containment system, running through the middle of the crops, linked to the rest of the circuit, creating a zapping footprint which now covers the whole growing zone. We used wire cutters, some teamwork, and a bit of imagination: the dogs are not only restricted by the boundary of the backyard but they also cannot venture into human only horticultural areas. It’s a great relief.
And now we focus on the food. Cares are left behind. There are no more catastrophes. The Gardener tends and waters and frets about the weather. She talks about the zucchini becoming too wet if it rains and is careful to not oversplash its leaves. She has had successes and failures—a watermelon being the single notable example of the latter—but she has harvested, and we have eaten, much more than it ever seemed possible from such a modestly proportioned plot. Modest is not the right word at all, for it is a very fine garden.
I have learned to recognise carrots when they are growing and only their delicate, feathery leaves are visible above the ground. I can also spot a tomato plant, particularly if there are tomatoes growing on it. (I like tomatoes.) Basil goes well in the ground near a tomato, just like basil goes well with tomato on bruschetta or in countless other dishes. And I have successfully identified radish, sitting in their rows, but that was mostly a guess. I’m only truly sure it’s them when I can see the red part. Leaves are becoming more familiar to me, but it is a slow process. There are so many plants to learn. Our neighbours accepted a genuinely enormous turnip from us the other day, which was growing so lustily that the bulbous purple top had burst through the soil. Events like that require no special knowledge to comprehend. Growing things can be dramatic and even violent. A garden is never still for long, and outbreaks of surprisingly vibrant colour are always possible, too.
Under the new, rather large, blue umbrella, we ate a late lunch last Sunday. Beyond the shade over our table the sun was hot. We sat in comfort and ate a bacon and egg salad featuring vegetables and herbs from our garden beds. The cat perched on the arm of a director’s chair and the dogs sat and waited dutifully for scraps. They didn’t get many. The meal was delicious, and it was good to be in the backyard, eating together.
Image credit: OakleyOriginals/Flickr