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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, His column runs the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of the month.