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May I have a word: When critters have first dibs in the garden

Readers unearth a bountiful harvest of new terms.

A squirrel got to this tomato growing on reader Ilana Hardesty's deck in Watertown before she could.Courtesy of Ilana Hardesty

Last time, I challenged you to come up with a word for what happens to veggies in a garden that have been “sampled by rabbits, squirrels, or other critters.” As you will have noticed, I’m not usually picky about whether responses name precisely what was asked for. I like it when they do, but related responses are fine.

Indeed, I received a lot of names for the critters doing the sampling. Diana Gaumond, of Brewster, wrote: “Your last column really hit a nerve for me. Every year I try to grow tomatoes, and every year I’m forced to share my produce with the chipmunks. They climb fences easily and help themselves to bites of tomatoes — as many as they can sink their teeth into. I call them a variety of names, depending on the level of destruction. Two of the printable names are veggie burglars and chip punks. What they leave behind is a chip wreck.”


Other readers offered more generic terms for the culprits. Marc L. Cooper, of Westport, told me, “Deer are our worst offenders hereabouts” but proposed the all-purpose veggielantes. Naomi Angoff Chedd, of Brookline, reported: “I have exactly one tomato in my garden, due, I’m sure, to the gnawties.” Charles Price, of Concord, suggested food critterics.

Karen Johnson, of Tyngsboro, passed along a mild word that would apply to human thieves as well as four-legged ones — and even my betes noires, the wild turkeys that are having their way with my cherry tomatoes: “If you want a word for a rascally critter, my Swedish grandmother used to call some of her grandkids (me included) a spelevink, which means a rascal or prankster.” That’s Swedish, of course — but one of the great things about English is that all we have to do to make it ours is to start using it.


Also relevant but not quite what was requested is the brief essay Jeff Winokur, of Needham, wrote: “As I go out to the garden each day, I say I’m going to check my critter feed. Thanks to our resident chipmunks and rabbits, I often find gardening to be a fruitless pursuit. And once we’ve dispensed with half-eaten fruit (usually tomatoes), I consider it tossed salad.”

I also got a few coinages for the sad remnants that the spelevinks have left behind:

Lorna Fredd, of Townsend, wrote: “An abundance of deer, rabbits, woodchucks, and even an opossum decimated our gardens this year, so I can certainly commiserate with the letter writer. I might call their leavings munchovers or niblets.”

John Haneffant, of Boston, reasoned: “Since these pieces of fruits and vegetables are vestiges left by pests, I think they have become pestiges.”

And Edith Maxwell, of Amesbury, delighted me by coming up with terms for “what happens to veggies” — a whole list of them, in fact. She wrote: “Hoo, boy, do I have experience with this! Here are my first two, based on the fat, hungry pests in my little organic garden: woodchomped and groundhogged. From another critter: bunnymunched and rabbitbit. And generally: rodentdented or rodented.” (Marc McGarry, of Newton Highlands, also proposed rodented.) Nicely done, Edith — but couldn’t you have also given me a word that would cover turkeys?

Jack Tuttle, of Hyde Park, felt that what “best describes the theft of the bounty that people working hard in their vegetable gardens are hoping to harvest is horticultural appropriation.” Jack, you are so in tune with the times I can practically hear you humming. I hereby award you bragging rights. Congratulations!


On a related note, Edith Maxwell, whom we heard from above, also writes: “We’re nearing the end of full fresh produce season, which is pretty short in New England. In September, I start feeling a sense of grief that the produce season is ending, and I feel it even more strongly in October. All those luscious blueberries and peaches, sun-warmed ripe tomatoes, crisp tender sweet corn, freshly dug potatoes, and so much more. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a word for the feeling of sadness that we’ll be losing all that until next summer? For me it’s a real grieving.”

Send your suggestions for Edith’s word to me at by noon on Friday, Sept. 8, and kindly tell me where you live. Responses may be edited. And please remember that meanings in search of words are always welcome.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor in Cambridge.