Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Rat In My Lettuce

I've procrastinated writing this post for a week and a half. I tried to pretend that the incident never happened. And yet...the photos do not lie. Nor does the total and utter eradication of my lettuce seedlings. Nor my decision to toss my other herbs after what I discovered. Yes, I found a rat in my lettuce.
Of course, like those of so many other incidents in life, the story I'm about to tell, that of the rat in my lettuce, is not just a story about vermin and lettuce seedlings. It is also a story about France, and salad, and a children's picture book. It is a story about Impressionism and aromatic herbs, a south-facing brownstone and the discovery of one's green thumb. This, dear reader, is the real, full story of the rat and the lettuce. 

Claude Monet, in the garden at Giverny

Giverny, 2007
As a freckled third grader, one of my favorite books was Cristina Bjork's Linnea in Monet's Garden, which describes the visit of an enthusiastic young girl to Claude Monet's home and garden at Giverny in northern France, as well as to L'Orangerie in Paris to see his water lily paintings. To say that I loved this book would be an understatement; Linnea inspired a love of French painting and gardening that still exists in me today. When I first visited Paris several years ago L'Orangerie was closed for renovation and I didn't have time to take the train to Giverny, but prior to the epic Giro di Francia that JFL, AB and I undertook two summers ago, JFL, AG and I managed a quick day trip to Giverny as well as an afternoon visit to L'Orangerie, and I was not disappointed. Despite having a long list of places I would like to see in this lifetime, some places become so meaningful, and possess so many unexplored layers, that I would revisit them again in a heartbeat, and both Giverny and L'Orangerie fall into this category. Would this be the case had I not been enraptured by Bjork's text so many years ago?

Giverny, 2007
Cut to Spring 2009, and I finally have the time and space to begin cultivating my own small garden, which, in spite of no outdoor space, flourishes thanks to my south-facing living room windows and top floor placement. Time and space do limit my more ambitious plans--I would love to build this planter but it's simply not realistic without a balcony or patio--but I manage some lush and fragrant sage, thyme and rosemary, as well as a fast-growing olive plant and the previously discussed dwarf Meyer lemon tree.
Container Herb Garden--clockwise from the top: sage, rosemary, thyme, olive
When I returned from California at the beginning of May, and I knew that I'd be in New York for the next couple of months, I decided that the time was right to grow something more substantial, specifically lettuce. I eat salad year round, but my intake increases as the weather becomes hotter and more humid, so what better vegetable to grow in the sunny space between my herbs and lemons? Best of all, I had the perfect lettuce in mind, a lettuce that married my love of French gardens and American salad consumption: Monet's Garden Mesclun. 
Renee and her impressive seed catalogue became known to me through the pages of my beloved Sunset, and I had serendipitously discovered that Gracious Home sold her seeds in New York as well. Of course, her Monet's Garden Mesclun doesn't come from the artist's gardens; the seeds instead originate in Northern California's wine country, but their taste and visual palette invoke Giverny, and for that reason alone I wanted to grow them on the Upper West Side. Within five days of me sowing and watering the seeds, little sprouts had pushed through the dirt and stood elegantly in their cardboard pods. By ten days they had cleared the planter's sides, and I looked forward to my first Monet-inspired salad within the next week and a half. And then, Tuesday morning last week, I awoke early to go running in Central Park, and as I raised the shades in my living room, I glanced down and saw a baby rat contentedly feasting on my beautiful, expensive, French-Californian lettuce.

Just starting to grow...before Ratatouille Basil arrived
My friends and family quickly dubbed him "Ratatouille Basil", and marveled at the fact that he chose to strip all the lettuce out of my planters in a day while ignoring the herbs, the lemon tree, and all the fruit sitting out on my kitchen counter (well, at least as far as I could tell--I still tossed the herbs and fruit just in case). I, however, was more concerned with the fact that there was a rat in my apartment at all, much less in my lettuce bed, that he/she looked significantly less cute in real life than in these photographs, and that despite me yelling at and kicking the planter, the rat paid absolutely no attention to me and continued to eat away.  Oh, and the fact that he/she destroyed plants of such cultural, culinary, and personally historical significance. 

In the last week and a half, during which the super paid a visit and promised that I would never see another rat in my apartment (we'll see), my garden has looked disconcertingly forlorn. Only the lemon tree, olive and rosemary plants remain, and the little rock-filled trays that held the lettuce sit sad and empty on the living room floor. I still have seeds and extra planters, but I'm waiting to set them up once I'm as positive as possible that the rat is gone. That said, I guess I'll never know until the lettuce sprouts again, as that seems to be the most potent rat bait I possess. In the meantime, I have a few other ideas for replacing the sage and thyme, and now that the farmers' markets are filled with potted herbs, perhaps horticultural inspiration will strike again this summer. Or perhaps on my next visit to Giverny I can snip a few seedlings and plant them in my raised planter bed, on my beautiful balcony or patio. A girl can dream! 


  1. I am so glad you posted these photos because the entire world needs to see what we have to put up with in NYC! Did anyone else try to convince you it was a mouse?

  2. No one's dared to suggest it--I wish I had a better photo of its tail, because it is definitely NOT the tail of a mouse. But I was reluctant to lean in closer for a better shot!

  3. I've seen a rat "in the wild" (actually, in my back yard) but once, and I'm with you. You KNOW it's not a mouse and you are pretty grossed out. May you never see another in your domicile!