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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Introducing Melba, scariest friend that crows could have

Henry Homeyer

Back in the 1950s when my grandfather grew Golden Bantam sweet corn, scarecrows were pretty basic: a fence post for a backbone, pants, a shirt, and an old hat sticking up on the top of the pole. Sometimes scarecrows were stuffed with mulch hay to fill out the body a little.

When corn first comes up out of the ground, it is considered a real treat by crows. That germinated seed, for crows, is as tasty as chocolate chip cookies are to us. A murder of hungry crows can decimate a family’s potential corn crop in just a day. But once the corn roots are established, corn is no longer of interest to crows. So scarecrows were to scare the crows.

In recent times, scarecrows have become garden art. I remember encountering a scarecrow in Randolph, Vt., that was so life-like it fooled me. It was wearing a dress and was a fine, full-figured lady carrying a hoe and a garden basket. When it didn’t move, I finally got the idea and I laughed. I’ve built a number of scarecrows since then, and introduced a scarecrow competition in the Cornish Fair. Making a scarecrow can really be fun. You’ll startle visitors and get them to giggle.

This year I decided to grow flint corn. Flint corn is the rock hard stuff that is ground for Johnnycakes, cornbread and polenta. It is an old-fashioned corn similar to what the Pilgrims grew back in the 1600s.

They didn’t grow corn to eat fresh with salt and butter. Corn was dried and stored as a good nutritious food that could be kept without refrigeration or any kind of preserving. I am interested in becoming independent of the grocery store (though I know that will never be possible). So I am growing corn as food during the winter. I have a friend that has a small stone corn mill who will help me grind the corn before storing it.

But growing corn takes space, and my garden each year is full of tomatoes, potatoes, and a little of everything from A to Z (artichokes to zucchini). But Michael Smith of Gypsy Meadow Farm in Plainfield agreed to let me have one 30-inch-wide row that is 250 feet long in one of his fields. Plenty of room for corn – and crows. So I decided it was time to make a scarecrow again.

If you are going to have a scarecrow that is garden art, it needs to be robust to fool your visitors; it needs a human shape, including the curves. And if is to last all summer, it’s important that its stuffing dry out between rains – or the clothing will quickly rot. I made a female scarecrow that has a bosom, a rounded backside, and a leg that appears to be stepping forward – with a shoe on it.

Here is what I used: a 6-foot steel fence post, an 18-inch scrap of board for the shoulders, a pair of old jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a sleeveless summer dress, a pillow case to make into a head, a shoe, a glove, and a hat. Additionally, I used an old life preserver to give the chest some bulk, lots of used plastic bags and a woven plastic grain sack.

First I slipped the steel post through one leg of the jeans, and pushed it into the ground. I stuffed the seat of the jeans with a plastic bag full of other plastic bags for bulk. Then I slipped string through the belt loops and tied the jeans to the post.

I left the jeans low enough so that later, when I wanted to arrange one leg to look as if Melba (all scarecrows should have names) is walking, I could stuff one leg into an old shoe and place it ahead of the body.

Next I put a Phillips screw though a predrilled hole in the post, and screwed it into the middle of the board that serves as the shoulder piece. I slipped on the life preserver and zipped it up.

Next I put some plastic grocery bags in a 20-gallon garbage bag, and tucked it into the top of the life jacket to fill out the bosom (the bags hang down over the life jacket). I draped a grain sack over the shoulders (to round them) and let the ends hang down into the sleeves of the old shirt that I put on my scarecrow.

For a head, I partially filled a pillow case with row cover – a fluffy synthetic material I use to keep beetles off my cucumbers. I made a nose by bunching up the pillowcase and tying a knot around the fabric so that it stands out.

I used a black marker to make large round, black eyes. Birds are, apparently, aware of eyes; some butterflies have round, dark circles – fake eyes – to keep birds from eating them. I tucked the pillow case into the life jacket, and then slipped the dress over the mannequin. I put on a big straw hat and adjusted it at a rakish angle. Lastly, I put a shoe on the loose end of the jeans, and put the “foot” forward, as if taking a step.

Crows are pretty smart, but I only have to keep them away for a few days. To add a little movement to my scarecrow, I added a red Superman cape made of lightweight synthetic fabric. It blows in the breeze quite nicely. And after my corn is well-established, I’ll bring Melba home and let her provide giggles to visitors in my regular garden patch. Gardening should be fun, after all.

Henry Homeyer is a gardener and writer. Contact him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746, or by visiting his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com. His column runs the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of the month.