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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gardening with Marmots

Yellow-Bellied Marmots are, admittedly, very cute. They are also voracious eaters and especially enjoy mowing down promising-looking carrot and pea plants. We have a lot of rock outcrops and piles of boulders, making our property excellent marmot habitat. They are here to stay, so I've been thinking long and hard about how to successfully grow a garden in tandem with their appetites... I mean, a garden that we get to eat from too! 

Hardware cloth is the first order of the day. I've been running it along the bottom of the deer fence, making it less convenient for marmots to run into the garden whenever hunger strikes. As you can see, I've run it vertically along the lower 2-3 feet of fence, and then horizontally along the ground for another foot or so. I placed cardboard underneath for weed control -- fencelines just seem to invite difficult weeding situations. Then on top of the ground-laying hardware cloth I piled wood chips and rocks.

You will notice I said, "to make it less convenient." We have watched baby marmots climb up and over 4 foot tall chicken wire, so I am not under the illusion that the hardware cloth can actually prevent them from entering. They are good at burrowing under barriers, so on the south section of the garden that faces their favorite rock hangout, I piled many gallons of small rock on top of the hardware cloth. But if I stopped there, I would still be inviting disaster. 

Second order of the day: Sacrificial garden beds. Above is the first garden bed offering for the marmots. It is a raised bed (made with, you guessed it, rock!), and here you see various weeds I pulled for a nitrogen layer in the soil. Under the weeds are some pieces of wood... Yes, even the Yellow-Bellied Marmots get their own hugelkultur bed here!

Next a layer of hay... I'm sure it will sprout lush orchard grass, which they will probably appreciate. Even if they don't eat the grass, it will help draw their attention. 

Then a layer of soil and a wide variety of seeds: carrots, lettuce, sunflower, calendula, radishes, peas, etc. This may not be enough, in which case I'll add more sacrificial beds.

It can be very challenging to grow food in a dry climate with lots of hungry animals all around. The chipmunks love cherry tomatoes, the gophers love carrots, the deer get desperate in September... the list just goes on. You've heard it all before. But there are benefits too, besides the fun of seeing so much wildlife. I am looking forward to (hopefully) having the Dusky Grouse in the garden again this year... they love to eat the slugs, and I just cheer them on! (Yes, we live in a semi-arid climate and we have thousands of slugs... but that is a topic for another day.)

In the meantime, we're hoping for harvest success through the combination of making it harder for marmots to enter, and enticing them with greens outside the garden fence. Fawn and I have also added cages around some of our favorite asparagus and strawberry plants, just in case the marmots get in, for a double layer of protection. Thankfully they estivate starting when summer gets hot, so we only need to keep them out of the garden for the first part of the growing season. (Estivation is a summertime hibernation to avoid the dry part of the year when food is scarce. I'm grateful that the marmots employ this survival strategy -- it takes some of the pressure off the garden!)

What do you do, to preserve some of the harvest for human consumption?  
I'd love to hear about your creative ideas and techniques; please comment below.


  1. Julie, you're so inventive! Love the bit about the dusky grouse, I had no idea that they like slugs. I have problems with pocket gophers, which like to burrow under the raised beds, so each of them have to have a chicken wire base. For above ground pests, my collection of bird cages comes in handy for mice, rabbits and birds that like greens as much as I do. I like the critters to feel at home, but I'm darned if I'll let them have all the harvest too!

    1. Thank you, Jacki! It seems like the Dusky Grouse eat a pretty varied diet! We've also seen them chowing down on graceful cinquefoil. Pocket gophers can be voracious eaters here too -- I've had them take out whole rows of carrots -- that is a great idea to have chicken wire under your beds. Do you find that does the trick? Do you have any pictures of bird cages in use in your garden? I've often eyed bird cages at antique shops and wanted to buy them for the garden, for the same reason. It is important that after all this work, we get to enjoy some harvest too! Good luck with your critters. I watched a marmot in the garden twice today... now that he's tasted that tender asparagus, it's going to be hard to convince him to eat anywhere else!


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