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I thought I was a nature lover. Then raccoons started tearing up my lawn


West sod story

The grass was rolled up neater than any roll-up-the-rim cup, Sam Heffer writes. Raccoons: 1, backyard: 0

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I always thought the soil in our tiny backyard was contaminated. Why else would nothing grow there? My husband Michael and I had both grown up with lush green lawns rolling out behind our family homes. Maybe that's why our vision of a backyard, even a small one, included enough green grass to call it a lawn.

One evening, as I stared out at the yard, a mother raccoon climbed down a huge nearby willow tree onto a low slung hydro line. Three furry babies trundled along close behind. Like novice gymnasts, they reached for the hydro line, tumbling back onto the fence and each other. They're very cute, I thought.

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When we first moved into our semi-detached home, the yard had already hosted an in-ground goldfish pond of uncertain dimensions. It was long gone, although the trademark red rocks of the fish pond surfaced every time we stuck a spade in the ground, in hopes of planting something that would grow. Nothing did.

"Try a hosta," my gardening friends said, "They're hardy." The hosta was dutifully planted, watered, even talked to – and it withered.

"That's very unusual for hostas," my green-thumbed supporters said.

After a few years of do-it-yourself disaster, we decided to call in the professionals. We chose the family-run place where we always got our Christmas tree. It never occurred to me that their seasonal specialty of selling dead trees likely didn't bode well for our yard. Nevertheless, we awaited the transformation and there it was, a few hours later: green grass, three flower beds and a few precious perennials planted in a fit of giddy optimism. We invited neighbours over Saturday night, eager to have a barbecue and enjoy a yard that no longer looked like a habitat for prairie dogs.

Early Sunday morning, I carried my steaming mug of coffee out to the backyard to sit and soak up paradise. But paradise was gone. Every single piece of sod had been rolled up with the precision of a factory-made jelly roll. I blinked in disbelief. It was as if the sod had come off the truck and the gardener had forgotten to unroll it. My coffee went cold as I padded to the end of the yard in my slippers. Well, whoever had done it was thorough, I'd give them that.

Our neighbour had recently discovered that not one, but nine different raccoons had been rolling up his sod nightly. He knew this because the pest-control agency had trapped them all on his tiny property. When I heard this, I told Michael, "Our backyard is doomed. We need a plan."

Everyone had a story and a strategy. Try lawn staples: metal stakes driven into the ground to hold the sod in place. Forty-two lawn staples into the ground that night. Forty-two lawn staples plucked and strewn everywhere by dawn. What about moth balls? Blood meal? Cayenne pepper? Baking soda? Coyote urine? We tried them all. Nothing deterred the savvy sod turners.

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"Get a dog," another neighbour said, "Once they pee all over your yard to mark their territory, the raccoons stay away." I wondered if we could borrow a dog. Michael reasoned he had the means to mark our territory, helping himself to another beer.

"At least do it after dark," I said, and he did. The raccoons came back anyway and our fresh green sod was fading, with no chance of sinking tiny roots into the ground for more than a few hours at a time.

It was ironic, our efforts to keep the raccoons out of the yard. We were nature lovers after all. We were enthusiastic birders. We took trips to view wildlife: whales, polar bears. But this struggle on our home turf beat all.

Michael found a "Motion-Activated Outdoor Animal Deterrent" device online. A small rectangular box was perched atop a two-foot high stake. The box sort of resembled an animal head with two eyes. The device also featured a hose hook-up. As the furry intruders entered the yard, their movement triggered a rotating machine-gun effect, firing high-pressure spurts of water. No raccoon was sticking around for that experience.

Sure enough, the next morning, I sipped my coffee in backyard bliss, willing the undisturbed sod to sink its roots into the ground, pronto. The next morning, it was rolled neater than any roll-up-the-rim cup.

How had the raccoons gotten past the gadget? And then, I saw muddy little paw prints all over the top of the sensor: As if one animal had disarmed it while the others had a go rolling up the yard and feasting on grubs. Their cunning was worthy of some admiration. Michael shook his head when I showed him the paw prints: "The bastards," he muttered. It was to be the first of several more lawn-less seasons.

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When we recently replaced our rotting backyard deck, we decided to have another go at creating a lawn and garden. We hauled out bins of questionable sandy soil, littered with still more goldfish pond rocks and dumped in rich topsoil, manure and compost. This time, we avoided sod entirely, and purchased bags of "quick-germinating" grass seed, along with an old-fashioned sprinkler. Our ever-hopeful gardening buddies rallied round with gifts of perennials. And as I watched this year's brood of baby raccoons climb down the willow tree, I didn't think they were cute, I thought: Bring it. We're ready!

Sam Heffer lives in Toronto, where her lawn is finally growing.

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