We Start a Few More Seeds and the Mystery is Solved!

It came time to start the second round of seed varieties – this time, quite a few tomato and eggplant varieties. I was on more familiar ground now. I had often started these same plants at home! Once again, I got a few other volunteers to come help and we got another bunch of seeds potted up. Spring was warming up a bit, and we nearly always have sun here, so I committed to checking in daily.

greenhouse8.jpgThese seedlings were quite a bit larger than the osteospermum when they first came up, but they didn’t seem to be coming up in the numbers I expected them to. And sure enough, they didn’t get much larger, and after awhile, it seemed they’d disappeared. I was panicking a bit….reading up on damping off disease, something I knew was supposed to be a problem in greenhouse culture. But I wasn’t seeing the pinching at the bottom of the seedlings. I wasn’t seeing…well anything! But I diligently stopped by each day to water and and encourage the little seeds.

I had extras of the tomato and eggplant seeds, so I asked a few volunteers to help me replant. We dumped the old six pot soil into bins and then redistributed the soil before planting the new seeds (we were very careful to only use “old” soil from the same varieties to plant the new seeds…just in case!).

The next day I stopped by and was surprised to see the soil surface scuffed up – but only in the trays of six packs that we’d planted the day before. Hmmmmm. This could NOT be the irrigation system. I looked closer. Wait a minute. It sort of looked like someone had maybe dug up the seeds in each newly planted cell. I looked even closer.

We now take a brief intermission to build suspense….

And then I saw it. Mouse scat on the edge of one of the six packs. Ohhhhhhhhhh. All was now clear. (Yes, I took a picture, but I’ve decided not to include it. Ewww.) Mice had been digging up and eating our seeds immediately after we planted them. Those rare seedlings we did get must’ve been missed, but were then enjoyed as a little green salad after they sprouted. I’d been diligently checking on and watering and encouraging empty six packs.

I must be honest. My very first reaction was RELIEF. I wasn’t somehow screwing up this process! Then….oh no, what can I do about this? Though some thought it silly, I was not up for killing mice. I was flabbergasted that poison would be suggested (“That way you won’t have to deal with the bodies!”) as the greenhouse is in a very established large park with a surprising amount of wildlife. I could just imagine a poisoned mouse heading out of the greenhouse and getting scooped up by an unfortunate owl or fox which would then also die. Finally, even though I was nervous about it, I settled on what’s called the “Tin Cat,” a live trap that supposedly can hold up to 20 (or more) mice.

greenhousemouse.jpgSo….I baited the trap with a little smear of peanut butter and committed to checking it each day. The only way to know whether or not there were mice in the trap was to pick it up and look in the vent at the end. Shakily I picked it up the first day, and sure enough there were two mice in it. One even hustled over to the vent to stick his nose out at me. Hoping the lid was truly secure, I put the trap on the floor of the passenger side of my car and drove to a more wild area about two miles away to release them. I’d pictured lifting the lid of this trap and having mice jump up at me (yes, I really was nervous about everything in this process). One hopped out and ran away immediately, while the other tried to hide in the trap. Apparently he was happy with his living quarters. After a minute, he finally gave in and left the trap. Whew. I’d done it. I was almost elated.

It got easier after that. I became a pro, not nervous at all. Over the next two weeks, I caught and released about fifteen mice, and our seedlings made better progress. I brought my camera one day so I could get a picture of one of our seedling eaters when I released it. As I looked through my “Mammals of North America” field guide, I realized that my mice were not house mice as I’d assumed. They were deer mice. Yes, the mice that carry the hantavirus. So I used bleach to wash down my greenhouse area and made sure to wear gloves while in the greenhouse and while releasing the mice. After another week or so, the greenhouse project was handed over to the new gardener, and it wasn’t mine anymore. (I did later hear that some of the parks and recreation staff took to putting out poison for the mice after all. Sigh….)