Friday, July 4, 2014


As I mentioned several columns ago, I have been trying to grow a rhododendron shrub in my front yard for years now, with disastrous results. Well, and I say this with extreme caution, I’ve finally managed to plant one that currently is thriving (I am crossing my fingers, toes and eyes as I write this). I feel like a proud new mother. I even lovingly named the shrub “Rhoda.”

The reason for my previous failures is the soil in my front yard, which resembles something you’d spread out your blanket on at Hampton Beach. It is about as rich and moist as the Sahara. So I’ve had to be diligent about watering Rhoda. If I skip even one day, her leaves begin to droop.

To water her, I bought one of those new-fangled hoses that expands when you turn on the water, and shrinks to fit in the palm of your hand when the water’s off. But there’s a problem with that hose. It’s 50 feet long. Rhoda is 75 feet away.

That’s not the only problem with the hose. I wanted to use my lawn sprinkler with it. Well, when the water is off, the hose shrinks down to only a few feet. So I can’t really place the sprinkler where I want it until the hose is turned on and expands to its full length. But if I do that, I get wet – very wet.

So I tried to buy a regular 75-foot hose. I say tried, because just lifting it caused my back to make noises that sounded like popcorn popping. Defeated, I bought an old-fashioned watering can instead. I can’t use it to water my lawn – not unless I want to spend five or six hours refilling the can – but fortunately Rhoda seems to be thriving on being watered by hand.

The other morning I got up and looked out the window to admire Rhoda, as I do every morning (and afternoon and evening), and my mouth fell open.

“No!” I shouted, scaring the dogs. “No!”

I ran outside in my pajamas (thank goodness I have no neighbors close enough to see my yard) and stood staring at my lawn. It looked as if giant snakes made of dirt were lying all over it. They were gopher mounds and above-ground tunnels. And where were they heading? Straight for Rhoda. For some strange reason, they also completely encircled my well.

“Find the main hole, stick a hose down it and flush out the gopher,” one of my friends told me.

“I can’t! My hose is only 50-feet long, and the main hole is at least 65 feet away. And somehow, I don’t think my watering can will do the trick. Besides that, what am I supposed to do with a wet, ticked-off gopher?”

I knew Rhoda’s days were numbered. Visions of the gopher yanking her down through the ground and making her disappear right before my eyes, like some bad magic trick, made me head to the hardware store.

“Do you have something to repel gophers?” I asked the clerk, who looked about 18.

“You sure it’s a gopher and not a mole?” he asked.

“If a mole makes mounds and tunnels a foot wide,” I said, “I don’t want to meet up with him. He’d have to be Super Mole. The tunnels are heading right toward my rhododendron.”

“Well,” he said, “Moles eat grub worms, not roots. Gophers love roots. So it must be a gopher.”

He led me to a shelf and grabbed a plastic container. “This should get rid of him,” he said.

“Is it safe to use around pets…and my well?”

He read the back of the container. “It says it will kill fish and birds, not to get it on your skin, and be careful not to use it near ground water.”

I was beginning to think it would be safer to drop a bomb on my lawn. “What kind of repellent kills fish and birds?” I asked. “It sounds pretty extreme.”

“Oh!” he said. “This is a gopher and mole killer, not a repellent.”

“I just want the gopher to leave, not drop dead!”

He scanned the other containers, then picked up one. “Here you go! Castor-oil pellets. Good for your lawn, safe for pets, and it repels moles and gophers.”

“Castor Oil?” That was a new one to me. Although, castor oil definitely used to repel me, so I could understand why it also would repel animals. I remembered my mother giving me castor oil, “the miracle health tonic,” when I was kid. The stuff was so foul, I had to hold my nose whenever she put the spoon up to my mouth. I also remembered the kids at school, whenever we discussed castor oil, saying it was disgusting enough to “gag a maggot.”  I found myself wondering if it also might gag the aforementioned grub worms.

“Just sprinkle these pellets around your yard,” the clerk said, “and the gophers and moles will keep their distance.”

I was thinking that just to be safe, I’d sprinkle the entire container around Rhoda’s base.

Well, the repellent worked, and I haven’t seen any more signs of the gopher. I also, with fiendish glee, stomped down all of its above-ground tunnels and mounds.

But yesterday I spotted some tiny bugs munching on Rhoda’s leaves. And this morning, there was a deer eating some other shrub only a few feet away.

I can’t take any more of this stress. I am beginning to think there is no way to keep Rhoda entirely safe. Maybe I should erect a big plastic dome over her…and then surround it with a punji pit and an electrified fence.

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