This page was last updated on Friday, 14 March, 2014.

Full Metal Gardening

By Sue Moore
14 March, 2014

Snakes and creepy crawlies really freak me out. Just thinking about them makes my whole being contract in an involuntary shudder and I think “ewwww”! I hate snakes, spiders, ground wasps, ticks, southern no-see-ums, and mosquitoes, but you will have to engage in full contact if you want to be a gardener’s gardener, if you want the green leather jacket. If you have no ambition in this regard and are a reluctant gardener then you won’t care anyway and you’ll do as you please.

I try to enjoy the late winter and early spring chores in my garden before the really warm weather sets in, and I’m forced to deal with these PUNKS. As I’m sipping my coffee writing this down I remember one of my best memories – EVER - was forged in the hell of full metal gardening.

Having started my narrative with this topic, let me state for the record that I pity the newbie gardener who thinks he/she can just throw a handful of seeds in the raw ground on whim and expect to get instant gratification without putting in the required dues. I think if you do with no dues or doodoo, then you just got lucky.

There is nothing wrong with learning and starting to garden. Everyone must start somehow. Just know that those of us with scarred up legs from scratching mosquito bites, and swollen, cut and gnarled knuckles from outdoor work, will squint at you through our sun-kissed, tan-delineated crow’s feet and howl with maniacal laughter at the hazing we know you are about to suffer. At least that’s what we delight in thinking because most of us have had to learn through mistakes and really hardy sweaty work. Yes it’s rather petty, isn’t it? But odds are you will have a similar learning curve and somehow that gives seasoned gardeners weird comfort. It’s a rite of passage. (Ignore our grumpiness and do it anyway.)

I garden with a menagerie of fur children who have house privileges and think they’re people. Usually that is made up of the Border collie, the aging Yorkshire terriers and the cat. Sometimes more uninvited live spectators show up in the peanut gallery…and this is how my best story begins.

Now at the time of this vignette the Border collie is our farm dog, Samantha Jane. She was a rescue, as most of my animal companions tend to be over the years, and a farm was just the rehab she needed to become a grounded happy and useful family member. So she’s content in her role as watcher, protector…and companion to everybody else.

The Yorkies are a tad more difficult to describe. They were acquired as a child substitutes for me I think, as my children grew, developed outside interests and eventually flew away from the nest. Undoubtedly they are cute and mismatched wet-nosed mops with pitiful chocolate marbles for eyes– who are my constant shadows and will whine pitifully if I leave their sight for any reason. They are great fillers for a self-described neglected human mama’s emotional needs, but also restrictive at times like a prison ankle bracelet. So with separation anxiety a sad issue, they are always at my heels. I kind of like it.

Then there’s the cat. Yes…as you guessed, she considers me adequate household staff at court where she is the undisputed queen and deigns to proffer a soft paw and whiskered kiss now and then. She will often smear her lip on me when feeling really needy and then attaches herself like glue to my lap. Needless to add I’m completely smitten by all of them and would defend them like the family they are, of course.

So one sunny late April day we were all in the kitchen garden doing our respective thing. Me, I was hacking or digging something, and they – sunning and breathing in the smell of the lovely soil after a light rain and tracking butterflies in the soft light or something. It was a peaceful little bucolic scene, like you would imagine a great afternoon on the idyllic homestead to be.

Yes I remember clearly now, I was digging a hole for a new plant and I’ll tell you how I remember that but don’t go filling in the details in your mind here because it’s not going to be what you expect.

Before I continue I really must clue you in that the smaller Yorkie behaves like a naughty boy sometimes. He will angelically watch my face when I’m puttering around outside, until I turn my back. Then he’s off like a shot to get away from the group, under the fence and onto the pasture to explore freely like he’s just been hired by National Geographic. What is it about male dogs? He’s my only male dog and the littlest and YES, he’s been altered. That does not matter. He can be off and gone to the far side of the first paddock in a minute or less. I have found him rolling in horse tulips, which is a prospect only slightly better than being sprayed by a skunk. Yorkshire Terriers are notorious for being fearless and not grasping the size concept. Anyway, I tell you that to explain WHY I have Sammie’s big crate out there with us.

Back we return to the garden scene. It was sunny and warm, and a real luxury to bask in Spring warmth when the incident occurred, so we were all pretty lazy and taking frequent breaks to turn our pasty faces toward the warm rays from the sky. Everyone was behaving and staying in the perimeter. Then I remember Samantha Jane up and skipping behind me toward the shed to investigate something, when the “something” announced its presence by rearing up to strike. (Or defend itself, whichever is your opinion.)

What ensued can only be described as a frozen moment in time. Every living thing froze - the reared-up snake, Samantha Jane in a pointing position, the muppet-like Yorkies were statues, and…ME. I don’t think anyone breathed. I suppose this is what is meant when people say you could hear a pin drop. That big black sucker was enormous! He was at least 6 feet long if he was an inch and had obviously crawled out from under the shed to enjoy the sun too. I think he was as surprised as we were to see him!

I suspect her majesty the cat was watching the whole thing from the porch craning her feline neck with delighted interest, but I will never be sure. Still no oxygen was being exchanged, nor a cell was moved.

So you’re probably thinking, oh NO…what did you do? It was not a matter of thinking and doing, it was pure instinct for all of us. What a study in human and animal nature. What a mental snapshot. It was a defining moment for the domestic command structure and my worst nightmare. Recalling it, I swear I heard the theme song from the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

The world stopped moving for what seemed like several seconds, though I know it could not have been that long. When that “fight or flight” adrenalin kicks in, it’s like you’re moving in a different dimension of space and time – a much slower one – everything is crisply outlined. You absolutely know that feeling at least once in your life. That’s when your instinct (or training and rote memorization) kicks in. Of course in my case here, it was the “mommy-will-protect-her-babies” maternal instinct.

I remember yelling “GET IN THE CRATE!” My deep and authoritative mommy command was employed to which no animal in my menagerie misunderstands. And instantly there was response of movement.

Like lightning I streaked to tend the crate door while a flurry of different colored fur babies pancake in on one another and in the same motion I whirl around like a Viking berserker with my garden mattocks to face and slay the evil dragon. It definitely was like a martial arts movie, where I could jump from rooftop to trees if I wanted in slow mo. I slammed the door (why? It didn’t latch! If I over analyze this I don’t enjoy the memory as much)

Needless to say the dragon blew that Popsicle stand pretty fast and was gone out of sight before I could swing up and focus on his former location with my crazed and determined response to defend the pack. It was surreal. Yes it could have been a black racer, but in my opinion it was a black rat snake.

Maybe only a parent can understand, I don’t know. I looked over at the dogs holding their collective canine breath in the crate as the scene quietly devolved, and after a second of realizing what had just happened I think I must have busted out laughing so hard I may have wet my pants! This was the truly humorous part of it. Their absolute acknowledgment of my authority, the perfect obeisance to stack one’s canine self into PANCAKE mode in a wire hole was just too funny. I guess you had to see it to truly appreciate it.

Multicolored fur smashed into every crevice of the wire crate – that mental picture is humorous to me to this day that I can still laugh out loud. Not sure how the smaller Yorkie survived it, Sammie is about ten times his size. Brown, tan, white, black hair all jumbled into one in the safety of that modern wire den and an odd eyeball or two waiting for my next instruction, because the “Alpha dog” said so. Haha! Power is intoxicating and it’s probably wrong for me to revel in the pleasure of it.

Why did I choose to order them in that flimsy wire crate? I don’t know! It just seemed like the safest place for them to be while I took care of business. Why does any mom stick out her hand in front of you when she has to suddenly brake in the car? Does she really think that will keep you from going through the glass? If I had any doubts before about my dogs perceiving me to be the boss, that incident sealed it, at least in my mind. That’s right…I’m the Alpha. Who’s the woman? ME. I’m the Alpha.

I won that round with full contact gardening and I still laugh thinking about the whole thing.

Black Rat Snakes are really common in the eastern part of North America, they eat rodents and other pests, and are not poisonous. It’s very common to see them even in heavily populated suburban areas because they’re attracted to food and it’s not you. They often crawl into dark places looking for mice, like barns and garages. There’s no need to “whack” every snake you see, give them a chance to do their job and move along. I have heard some conflicting information about their nesting and hibernating habits, but all farm folk I know agree that they’re beneficial to have around and not harmful. They kill their prey by squeezing, so you may want to consider the issue more closely if you have unattended chickens or kittens…etc. I am not an expert, but even the full metal gardener knows to live and let live when possible. In retrospect the worst that snake could have done to my 45 pound Sammie was tussle a little bit, and Samantha Jane would probably have won. It’s a good idea for everyone to learn to identify snakes and keep a snakebite kit handy. You’re never going to be perfectly safe anywhere, so you should confront any fear about it now, before there’s an “incident” like mine with a different character. But have no doubt I was going to whack that sucker!℠ (Right-side navigation page SSI insertion)