Shaca, the Chocolate Lab, was my garden buddy for many years. In her youth, after a busy and respectful day in the garden, she would prance into the house proudly displaying a large, green tomato between her chompers. A terse response from me usually followed as I removed it. A few minutes later she would return, tail wagging, with another one. She liked that game.
As much as she enjoyed it, tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow along the Front Range of the Rockies in Colorado, and losing large ones late in the season, just before they ripen, is stressful.
Shaca learned to stay out of the garden beds. Whenever I was gardening she would lie in a prime shaded spot along the garden edge and watch me. In my absence, particularly when the squirrels were active, she would forget the boundaries. In addition to pilfered green tomatoes, some plants were occasionally damaged. To minimize garden losses I put a fence up and only allowed her in when I was present. I didn't like the restrictions, but she still had lots of yard to play in.
Rosie, the Black Lab, was much older when she ventured into my garden for the first time. In my new, unfenced garden, she learned to stay out of the raised beds. I only caught her gnawing on a green tomato once or twice after the first frost had already killed the vines. I didn't have a big problem with her retrieving garden refuse and let it go.
|Shaca and Rosie|
We lost both Shaca and Rosie this last year. Their gardening transgressions are memories, pleasant ones now.
Lily, a Yellow Lab, is new to our household that also includes two older dogs. Lily is the newest garden criminal. She's been in the garden since she was a puppy, which hasn't been long since she's only 10 months old. I no longer have to tell her to get out of the beds. She does a wonderful job of walking the paths and avoiding new plants. But her inner dog was encouraging her to live up to the legacy of Shaca and Rosie.
One evening this week we heard her running and pouncing along the deck. Loud scurrying was interspersed with careening against the house and rails. She was attacking a green tomato as it rolled along the wood planks.
It was humorous, or rather it would have been humorous if it wasn't the largest green tomato in the entire garden and was just about to change color. She had plucked it from a plant in a pot on the deck. It was obviously too nice a prize to leave on the vine and she was quite proud of the new toy that was entertaining her.
I was annoyed and a little angry. The next day, though, my deductive light bulb turned on. The answer to the unasked question of why Labs love green tomatoes was suddenly clear. I'd seen Lily behave in the same manner before.
There's a reason Labrador Retrievers are called retrievers. Sticks, stuffed dog toys, and socks are all items Lily loves to fetch. Not all of them on command. She loves to steal my socks in the morning and then bring one to me while I'm searching for them. Shaca would occasionally present me with a dead bird that I suspect one of the other dogs had killed. Rosie would wander in with various items of clothing from the bedroom. Their tails were always wagging joyfully.
Retrieving balls is a special love. A throw across the yard, a breakneck run, a deft snatch, and a speedy return with the prize. Tennis balls are the toy of choice. Their bounce and ease of heft made them perfect for master and dog alike. Nice, green, tennis balls.
|Which one is the ball? (See the teeth marks)|
It's taken three dogs and many years to realize the similarities between tomatoes and tennis balls. To a dog they're virtually the same thing. Firm, round, and green. I don't recall any of the dogs bringing me juicy, red tomatoes, just the green ones. After a full day when I was ready to relax and enjoy the evening, a young dog's energy is still amped and ready for more play. Dad doesn't want to participate so let's grab one of these balls hanging in the no-no place.
It's difficult to fault an animal for something they do naturally. Retrievers have been bred for generations to retrieve. When we play fetch with an object that could just as easily be a green tomato, can we blame them for finding their own outlet for play. Even if it's our treasured garden.
Netting and fencing will help alleviate the problem in the garden, but I'm not sure if the tomato plant on the deck will ever be safe again. I lose more tomatoes to insects and birds than I do to the dogs so it's not something I'll lose sleep over. And as I think about it, it brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
Dogs are smart. Labs are friendly, loving, playful, and not vindictive at all. It makes perfect sense that they would break life into simple elements: play, fun, ball. We reward them with praise or treats when they bring back the tennis ball. Why wouldn't they wag their tails and anxiously bring us a green tomato.
I think back to Shaca skipping through the patio door with her prize and it heightens a sense of nostalgia. She was young and eager to please. Lily continues in the same vein, tail wagging, morning sock in mouth, anxious for attention and play. I suspect more green tomatoes will be lost to her sharp mind and desire to entertain herself and me.
I'm okay with that. The cost of a few tomatoes creates priceless memories. She'll lose her puppy mentality soon and before I know it both of us will be too stiff and tired to play fetch. There will always be green tomatoes, but as we've seen with Shaca and Rosie there won't always be Lily. The next time I find her with a green tomato there won't be any harsh words. We'll both enjoy the moment.