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  • John Hershey

Not all who wander are lost

Some are just trying to get away from the grasshoppers

By John Hershey:


When you live in Colorado, there are certain things you can count on experiencing every day. In the winter, for example, no matter how cold or snowy it is, you will always encounter at least one person out wearing shorts. And in the summer, it is comforting to know that you will see many tee shirts, hats, and spare-tire covers emblazoned with the slightly defensive-sounding slogan “Not all who wander are lost”.


It’s a nice expression of our love for hiking and exploring our beautiful state. For gardeners, it’s also a reminder that, however obsessed we are with gardening, there’s a lot of other fun stuff to do in Colorado.


The phrase itself is from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. But given the space constraints of bumper stickers and coffee mugs, the hikers who proudly display it usually omit the rest of the quotation, the line that provides the rhyme: “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” Tolkien captures the need for balance in our lives. Spending time in the wilderness is good for the soul, but it’s also fulfilling to create a home and really live in a place. The garden is nature too.


Fortunately, the garden itself regulates our obsession and helps us keep this balance. It’s too hot to be out there in mid-day and too mosquitoey at each end of the day. We have about a two hour window to get our gardening time in. This year, there is yet another factor that limits my garden activities. Grasshoppers immediately devour everything I plant, saving me time on future chores like weeding, watering, harvesting, and eating.


Everyone back East is freaking out about cicadas this summer, but I don't get it. They only show up every 17 years or whatever, and they don't do much damage to gardens or farm crops. Cicadas just want to do what all 17-year olds want: to spread their wings, be loud, and hook up. I say let them have their fun. They've earned it. They’ve been living underground for 17 years. Talk about delayed gratification!


Meanwhile, here in Colorado, the common grasshopper returns every season, more numerous and ill-tempered each year. Last summer they took my huge kale patch down to the studs, and now they're back and feasting on the whole buffet: beans, lettuce, cauliflower, and squash as well as leafy greens. They even like the spicy leeks and onions, and they mowed down my garlic plants so fast I had to pull the pre-trimmed bulbs early, just as the insects began burrowing into the earth to get at them.


Well done, young grasshopper!


But this year it's personal. I decided to fight back. Organic methods only, of course, so no nasty chemicals, But I thought I had a few tricks up my sleeve. If I wore a motto on my tee shirt, it would be Save the Kales!


Following tips from random YouTube videos, which are usually so reliable, I sprayed neem oil, which the grasshoppers found absolutely delicious as a seasoning on my lettuce. They probably would only have enjoyed it more if I had also sprayed vinegar to complete the salad dressing. Next, I covered the beds with floating row cover. The locusts happily munched through it like a palate-cleansing amuse bouche between courses of cucumber and eggplant. As a last resort, I got a big net like kids use to catch butterflies, and every morning I dance around in the garden like a lunatic, waving my net until it is teeming with a softball size mass of insects. I submerge the net in a bucket of water for a while, then serve it up as a sous vide treat for the chickens. It makes no difference of course, but it provides some satisfaction to me and the hens.


The only thing the grasshoppers haven’t eaten so far are tomato and strawberry plants. Online sources confirm that they don’t prefer these plants. But I suspect the omnivorous little demons are smart enough to realize that if they let the foliage grow now, they’ll be able to enjoy all the sweet ripe fruit later. Who knew all these bugs were so much better at delaying gratification than I am?


With heat and drought in addition to this biblical plague, the season is off to a rough start here. Why must we Colorado gardeners struggle with all these difficulties when the solution is so obvious? Our nation should start an Apollo-style program and dedicate massive resources to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of genetically engineering a super race of grasshoppers who eat only bindweed.


Until then, the best thing to do for our sanity may be to get away from the garden for a while. Wandering in the mountains recharges us, and soon we feel golden, like stardust, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.


We don’t garden because it’s easy. We do it because it’s hard. It’s the challenges of gardening that keep us interested, so we always return. Another great work of literature expresses the way I feel. In the Wind in the Willows, the river-dwelling homebody Mole has a horizon-expanding experience wandering in the Wild Wood, But then he is happy to return to his “cultivated garden-plot” and other “pleasant places,” which “held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.”


John Hershey (vegetablehusbandry@gmail.com) gardens in Littleton. Find him on Instagram at instagram.com/vegetable_husbandry

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