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Groundhog Day-Week-Month-Season

by on September 16, 2020 5:00 AM


The movie “Groundhog Day” has been oft-invoked during the pandemic year 2020 to express the feeling of so many of us that every housebound day feels like every other housebound day. 

But I’m not here to talk about “Groundhog Day,” the movie. My topic is Groundhog, the Devourer. If you grew a garden this summer, you know whereof I speak.

Normally, my beloved and I do not grow a garden because normally, we spend parts of the summer in faraway places. Not this summer. 

Inexperienced as we are, we thought we’d start small. Instead of planting in our backyard weedbeds, we opted for pots on our back deck: less stoop labor, less vulnerability to the depredations of critters. Or so we thought.

Squirrels, we should have known, are unstoppable. During a bad spell of social media scrolling back in the unmerry month of May, I watched slo-mo video of squirrels acrobatically  conquering an obstacle course built just for them. (Equally marvelous to contemplate was the builder of the course, who apparently had even more time on his hands than I did.)

There is also nothing to stop chipmunks, bunnies or birdies from coming up on the deck and eating their fill. Gardeners, we supposed, must be willing to share. 

Meanwhile, thanks to the miraculous interaction of soil, sun and water, our tomatoes, peppers, herbs and lettuces seemed to grow even as we gazed at them. Like all gardeners since the dawn of agriculture, we were thrilled when little baby bells and toms burst forth from their stems. Too soon, I began singing the chorus of Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes”:

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things money can't buy,
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Then, reality hit. Overnight, the lettuces were eaten down to the nub. It was time to deploy the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy scarecrows we’d bought to welcome trick-or-treaters a few Halloweens back. It was hard to imagine that our invaders, whoever they were, would be scared off by two such insipidly grinning effigies, but what do I know about the workings of the rodentine brain? It was worth a try. 

Encouragingly, the lettuces grew back fast. The cherry tomato plant headed skyward. Soon, we were enjoying the fruits of our labor. Soon, our feathered and furry friends were enjoying the fruits of our labor. That was cool. There was enough for everyone.

Until there wasn’t. One morning the bell pepper plant looked like it had been visited by a tornado. Which is pretty much what groundhogs are when there are munchies around. I knew it was a groundhog (aka a woodchuck or whistle pig) because I later saw him waddling off the deck, multiple times.

So I did what all self-respecting 21st century gardeners would do – went online in search of groundhog deterrents.

The list of things groundhogs do not like is long and various: human hair, garlic, talcum powder, hot pepper, ammonia, castor oil, vibrations, whirligigs, chimes, dogs, cats (and their litter, used), shotguns.

We had several of these items on hand. When I trimmed my beard, I scattered the trimmings around the deck. I treated the back steps like a baby’s bottom, with liberal sprinklings of powder. I tossed hot peppers down various holes in the yard, like a sapper dropping a grenade into a bunker. Nothing availed. 

One website suggested that if all else failed, shoot ‘em and eat ‘em. A helpful culinary hint followed:

“Be sure to remove the scent glands from under the armpits. If you don't, they can ruin the meat. The scent gland looks like a yellow kernel of fat.”


Commenters on the various suggestions were none too impressed. One wrote: 

“I’m sorry, but I’ve tried ammonia, ammonia-soap mix, hot pepper/garlic mash, hot pepper/garlic spray, hot pepper flakes, dirty cat litter, and human hair. None of these have worked for us. We have reached the point of shooting them. But it seems like you kill one and two or three more show up.”

Others preach not just tolerance, but love. The Groundhog Haven Facebook group (139 members) is “a place where groundhog owners and rehabbers can share information about these wonderful creatures.”

If groundhogs were mindful that they were not the only diners on the buffet line, I might be on the same side as their Facebook friends – though I’d draw the line at rehabbing. 

Are groundhogs particularly troublesome this growing season? I asked Margaret Brittingham, a Penn State professor of wildlife resources. She hasn’t heard that, but if they are, she said, it might be because, in a dry summer, gardens are “the one place to find some succulent green vegetation.” 

A bigger concern than what groundhogs are doing with their teeth is what they’re undermining with their claws. At this stage of the growing season, I’m with the online commenter who wrote: “I give up! They can have the damn tomatoes!”

Just leave me my deck.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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