Gardening

Adrian Higgins on Gardening: What's So Bad About a Mouse Outside the House?

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 17, 2009

People ask me how to fix problems in their gardens, and I am happy to oblige. But a lot of questions have little to do with plants or landscape design; they are desperate cries against the animals that show up when you unwittingly provide them food and shelter.

Voles, groundhogs, deer and rabbits all can undo the work of the gardener, and you must devise ways to thwart them. There is no cure for squirrels.

Then there are mice.

On the other side of the screen on my porch, I have planted a stand of black-eyed Susans. Last summer, I was enjoying the view of the garden when I noticed a creature rustling away at the base of the flowers, and I caught a glimpse of a sparrow. But the closer I observed the sparrow, the more I could see that it had four legs and whiskers and a tail.

The mouse proceeded to climb up the slender stalk of a black-eyed Susan, and when it reached the top, it neatly severed the fading flower head with the efficiency of a guillotine. The mouse then dropped to the ground -- from a height that would have been about 20 feet if scaled to human size -- and dragged the seedy bloom about six feet to beneath an upturned clay flowerpot.

One seed head was not enough for this persevering creature; it would repeat the spectacle over hours, days, weeks. I counted more than 100 missing flowers by late summer. Oddly, it preferred heads with some petals on, rather than the riper seed of a fully shriveled flower head. I didn't mind. The main display of black-eyed Susans was past, and the mouse provided hours of theater.

My dog, who is otherwise highly intelligent, would get wind that there was something beyond the screen and trot about with his tail in the air but was never able to target his quarry. The mouse ignored us; something deep within it knew that the days were shortening and that it needed to gather nutritious seeds for the distant winter.

Another mouse took up residence in the garden shed. I know this because one day I noticed that the thick black plastic trash bag in which I kept the birdseed had been gnawed and that the rodent had eaten to its heart's content. I also know this because later I saw the creature on the potting bench, emerging from a pile of gloves. We both froze for a few seconds before the mouse turned tail. I took the birdseed into the house. But I had pangs of guilt and would take a handful when I remembered and place it on the shed's bench. The next morning, all that remained were the husks. If I forgot, I didn't worry, because the mouse had found the bag of food for the pond fish and was helping itself.

In the kitchen, we have a mousetrap that has dispatched its share over the years. We bait it with a dab of peanut butter if there is evidence of mice, and within a night or two, there is a body to get rid of. Earlier this summer, something strange happened. The trap was baited and set, and yet the mouse ignored it. We could see it scurrying into the stove when alarmed. Gradually it became bolder and would not dash away every time we met. That, and the fact it had outsmarted the mousetrap, endeared the wee thing to me, though my wife was less sanguine.

People who are in the business of killing vermin will tell you that mice can spread disease and cause allergies and may burn your house down by chewing electrical wires. Recently, the public relations department at Ortho sent me a news release touting its better mousetrap. It's disposable and enclosed in a way that you don't have to even see the corpse. In a related poll it co-sponsored, Ortho said that only 27 percent of people surveyed thought they'd had mice in their homes the previous year. "Yet, a recent government study of more than 800 homes found that four out of five (82 percent) had detectable levels of mouse allergen," wrote the Ortho spokeswoman.

I still admired my little mouse. Once, when it was scurrying away, it stopped to wash its face. That takes a lot of moxie. The poet W.H. Auden once lived contentedly with a mouse in his New York apartment and regaled guests with stories about its antics. His biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, quotes Auden as telling them: "There are usually enough scraps lying about for the poor dear to eat."

Suddenly, my house became less welcoming. The mousetrap spell lifted, and one morning I saw the body of my friendly rodent, stiff and cold. "You got my mouse, then," I said to my wife. "Actually, that's the third this week," she replied. So my one supermouse may have been a whole tribe. The trap has snared two more in recent weeks. And when I checked my garden shed mouse, it was dead on the bench. Perhaps the fish food didn't agree with it.

The silver lining is that the black-eyed Susan mouse is back. It has gathered more than 200 flower heads. Now it's so plump that when it scurries up a flower stalk, the stem arches over. Fill your larder, my friend; just have the smarts to stay out of mine.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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