A Murder Mystery

Behold my garden. I plant a vegetable and herb garden every year; this was it in 2015:

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And one of that year's harvests:

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I grew up helping my dad with his garden, and he's still my go-to source for information when I have a gardening problem. This year, I'm not having a problem. I'm having a murder.

First Strike, First Suspect

This year, as always, I ordered a bunch of transplants from Seed Savers, a wonderful heirloom nursery from which I've long received the majority of my plants and seeds. I planted my tomato and hot pepper plants as quickly as I could after they'd arrived and hardened off. Within a few days, all but one of my tomato plants were gone, cut off at the ground and left to rot there.

"Cutworms," dad said. 

These little bastards are moth larvae, and they're known to cut seedlings down at the ground. The symptoms matched the diagnosis, but luckily, there was a treatment. Dad and a master gardener I met at the OSU-OKC Farmers Market—where I went to buy replacement plants after nearly two-thirds of my entire tomato crop was decimated—told me to protect the stems. Dad suggested a straw from a fast-food cup:

June 14, 2017

And the master gardener suggested aluminum foil. 

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Advice, as you can see, I took. But then, things took a darker turn.

Reach Up for the Sunshine—Then Don't

It seemed to help for a little minute. None of my tomatoes got cut down. But there were still signs of a problem. One of my crops that was harmed was my cucumber bed. While maybe half my seedlings survived, about half had been cut down, including an entire row closest to the house. Once it seemed I'd solved the problem with my tomatoes, I replanted that row. I also planted a bed of kale on which I'd been procrastinating. It germinated within days, and I thought, "That's it. We're on our way." 

And then, the Hack-And-Slash Killer returned with a vengeance.

June 14, 2017

June 14, 2017

I thought cutworms only attacked at the base of a plant, and only very young plants at that. But soon, I was coming out to find branches chewed off and dropped on the ground. It was happening everywhere. Plus, without a way to protect non-tomato seedlings (the straw and foil tricks won't really work on true seedlings, as they're too small). This, for example, was my cucumber bed tonight. You can see where an entire row is missing:

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This was a bed full of kale seedlings; now, there is nothing at all growing there:

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Entirely gone. I still wonder if cutworms are to blame, but a few additional facts have me scratching my head—and screaming with rage.

Following the Clues

Number one: My garden is riddled with small holes just about the width of my index finger:

June 14, 2017

June 14, 2017

June 14, 2017

There are dozens of these tiny holes all over. All are the same size. Some have little mounds of dirt around them like an anthill, but there are no ants anywhere near them. Some of them even are in the grass just outside the garden's boundary. These have never shown up in my garden before. I stuck my finger down one, and it kept going. I dug it out a bit, and it kept going . . . and going . . . and going. It got so deep that I no longer could follow it down. Whatever is digging these tiny holes—whether it's my murderer or not—lives deep.

Dad suggested digging it up with a shovel and breaking up the soil to see what emerged. I tried that but found nothing. He also suggested sticking a hose down there on very low power and flooding the hole to see if anything crawled out. Nothing did. 

When I called the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service—a wonderful group of people who will help any citizen with a gardening problem—the master gardener I spoke to was so flummoxed by these symptoms, she said she'd have to do some research and call me back. When she did, all she could think to suggest was pesticide. I've never used chemicals on my garden, and I don't want to start now. So here's me, back at square one. 

Another Weird Complication

But here's something else. My garden is comprised of six raised beds, a border made of cinderblocks with herbs planted in the holes, and a few pots. My herbs and most of my vegetables are getting indiscriminately hacked away. But for whatever reason, this one bed—in which I planted Gold Medal tomatoes from my very first Seed Savers order in April—hasn't been touched.

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Whereas my bed of Cherokee Purples was whittled down to one plant, this bed hasn't had a single leaf go missing. I'd seeded both with Purple Opal basil. In the Cherokee bed, the basil seedlings are gone. In the Gold Medal bed, they're doing just fine:

June 14, 2017

That bed is between two affected beds, so we can't blame border proximity. Why is my murderer leaving this entire square of dirt alone? 

Because whatever this killer is, it's heartless:

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June 14, 2017

The Suspects

So what's happening? Even my plants that have had all their stems cut off seem to be determined to continue to grow; as you can see in the photo above, they're putting on new leaves as fast as they can, and none of them has died yet. But eventually, they will, and anyway, I want a damn harvest. So what's going on here?

When my seedlings first started going down—before I ever heard the word cutworms—I had another culprit in mind:

Blue Jays

I once witnessed blue jays in my garden indiscriminately cutting down seedlings. And those little buttwipes weren't gathering material for a nest. As I watched, horrified, from my kitchen window, I saw two blue jays—the two in this photo, in fact—lean down, snip several seedlings at their base and leave the murdered plants where they lay. Because blue jays are assholes.

But I haven't seen many blue jays in the yard for a couple years. I do have a lot of robins who seem to really love hanging in my garden, and a couple families of cardinals nest in my yard every year, but I've never seen any of them manhandling (birdhandling?) my plants. So while I won't rule aves out entirely, they are not currently a subgroup of interest. So who else could it be?

For the first time in twelve years living in this house, we have a mouse. Possibly more than one. 

Not everything about the mouse hypothesis makes total sense. But. This particular rodent showed up in my home—again, the first one in a dozen years—at just about the same time this whole trouble started. Plus, there's one hole in the garden that's larger than the others. I don't have a good photograph of it, but it's fist-sized, and it seems to be freshly dug every morning. At first, I thought one of my neighborhood's enormous clowder of stray cats was using my garden soil as a litter box—they do it every year, and every year I end up having to replace at least a few plants because of it—but they pretty much stop once the soil has become more solid after many waterings. By this time every year, they've entirely moved on. But I have almost no experience with mice. Could it be the little rodent running around my home—it's gone up to my closet and pooped on my shoes as well as down to the den and into the pantry—is also messing with my garden? 

I tend to doubt it. Why would a mouse chew stems off plants only to leave them sitting where they fell? 

Finally: I did find another hole in my mulched alley between beds—a somewhat larger hole like the one I thought might be a mouse den—and found these little trilobytes:

June 14, 2017

But somehow, I doubt their involvement. They've been in my garden from the beginning, and though I can never remember if they're good, bad, or just ugly, I tend to think I'd have had this whole problem before now if they were to blame.

Other Factors

Aside from what's causing this problem, I have to ask—why now? I was feeling particularly chuffed about this year's garden. In February, I did an interview with a master gardener for Oklahoma Today, and she told me several mistakes I've been making that made 2016's harvest particularly weak. When I planted this year, I was sure not to repeat those mistakes. 

For example, I didn't use any new compost this year, as I discovered I'd been over-enriching my soil. This year, I bought a few bags of garden soil. Did something ride in in the dirt I bought at Home Depot?

I've cut back on watering, as I found out I've been watering too much. Did I inadvertently allow something to flourish without getting flooded out?

For the first year ever, I didn't plant marigolds. I've always heard their scent drives away predators; in this interview, I discovered they don't do much to prevent pests and may, in fact, attract them. Did this simple change allow an infestation to grow?

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Finally—and this one has me a bit nervous, as it feels likely—for the first time, I went to an online nursery other than Seed Savers. See, I used to get this Cuban variegated oregano—which is the most delicious herb I've ever grown—from Horn Seed Company here in Oklahoma City. When it closed several years ago, I had trouble finding it anywhere. Then, this year, I found an Amazon seller offering transplants of it, and I ordered several:

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I'm worried something may have come to haunt me, like a free, evil gift with purchase. Which leads me to think about what I'm looking at for the rest of my summer.

As a post-script to this section: We haven't had much of a hard freeze for the last two winters. This is my second pest problem in as many years. CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, AND I HATE IT. There's a certain elected official who better hope he never meets me when I'm carrying a snowball. Or even a cup full of those heavy, sharp ice cubes my grandma always had in her freezer.

The Stakes

Whatever the reason—and whatever the culprit—the stakes are high. If I let this go and hope for the best, what's to make sure it doesn't come back—and get worse—next year? If something did, in fact, ride in in my soil or my transplants, I'd hate it to spread to other yards and gardens. I need to get this under control right now. 

And on a personal level, I plant a garden so I can have a harvest. I didn't have one last year; other than my kale—which did well—I literally ate one cherry tomato in 2016, and that was my only real pull. I'm angry at whatever's going on here, and I'm determined to figure it out. I'm loath to use pesticides still, but if I find that's the only—or even just the far-and-away best—answer, I'll do it. But if there's a better method—an organic method that won't make me worried I'm eating poison—I'd rather do that.

If you have any ideas that may help me, would you leave them in the comments below? There'll be an entire damn bushel of Cherokee purple and gold medal tomatoes; lemon cucumbers; aurora, jalapeño, and habañero peppers; kale; and as many herbs as you can carry in it for you.

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