Monday, April 24, 2006

Evolution 101

Dandelions are proof positive that the "survival of the fittest" is a myth. Or at best incredibly imperfect.

Just think about it for a minute. For many, many, many years now these weeds of the daisy family have been absolute anathema to the entire lawn culture of the suburban portions of our country.

Chemical and organic products have been assiduously developed to eliminate them. Professional lawn care services, both natural and un-, have appeared on the streets of our neighborhoods - their vehicles ejecting rubber boot clad, hose dragging "technicians" whose sole intention is ridding the lawn of any vestige of the broadleaf yellow plants.

Even at its most rudimentary level, gardening has a device, the fork-tongued weed remover, clearly designed with dandelion uprooting in mind.

I'm having these thoughts as I am wielding that very same the hand tool on one of the twenty or so yellow intruders that have survived my organic lawn care company's Spring application of pre-emergent broadleaf weed killers.

And as I look around at the other houses in my neighborhood I can easily tell which have chemical lawn service (one or two isolated dandelions), organic (a small number of localized lion-toothed invaders) or none at all (lots and lots!). In my immediate neighborhood the dandelion bottom line is - most have less than two, some a few, and a very small number have a very large amount.

So given this crystal clear, very public statement of total dislike for their very existence, why haven't the dandelions realized that presenting themselves as tall, bright yellow, toothy-leaved "flowers" in middle of closely cropped, uniformly green fescue carpets shouldn't really be the best way to ensure their survival.

It's like the old Stephen Wright comedy routine taking a shower and seeing a spider scurrying across the white tiled wall. The spider stops and seems to crouch down thinking "Yeah. I'll just stay still and press my little black body down against this shiny all white surface. Nah! He'll never see me."

And it's even harder for the weeds to hide once you've spotted a few of them.

Just now for example I went out to dig up a group of five bright yellow dandelions that decided to "come out" right along the edge of my sidewalk. In order to dig them out I had to visually find the hidden tap root by backtracking down from the flower into the ground. It's actually pretty easy to do this because the jagged outline of the offensive weed is so obvious against the smooth grass background.

In the process I implant the image of that green saw-toothed body so firmly in my mind that it becomes a visual template through which I'm now viewing anything and everything. And whatever falls within the confines of that pattern is going down. Even headless dandelions without any sign of aboveground yellow or white all of a sudden leap to the foreground when I scan a surrounding area. And the more I find, the better my vision gets. Suddenly I am a weed-seeking missile of death - crawling and duck-walking from one unwanted plant to the next and dispatching it to whatever afterlife awaits the universally unpopular.

Until hours later when, legs cramped and eyes blurry, I drag the last bucket of dead dandelions to dump into the trash, and call it a day.

In bed that evening I'll close my eyes and see that same green spiky image floating in the dark nighttime space. If I finally fall asleep the insidious weed will punctuate my dreams. And when I awake and look out on my lawn I will see that they are back. As they are in my neighbor's yards. So I will put on my fighting uniform, grab my weapon and return to the battle.

All the while I'm wondering - if the theory isn't wrong then how come these dumb little weeds are evolutionarily so far ahead of us?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Just Use Your Imagination

Even though Spring is here we are not yet truly into the full-fledged gardening season. But if your body can't garden all day yet, your mind certainly can. All you need is a little imagination and a small amount of inspiration. Like what I recently found in the Pest & Disease Guide section of the Gardens Alive! catalog - the latest issue of which fell through my mail slot just the other day.

Gardens Alive! offers a wide range of organic gardening products. Some of which, like lawn food and a compost bins, I have used.

But there are other items that I am just too terrified to have shipped to me for fear that the package will arrive damaged and I'll come home to find my front step under siege from either an army of "Grub-away" parasitic nematodes ($16.75 for a package of five million) or a thousand Chrysoperla carnea, the "best all-purpose predator".

Or worse yet, have a couple hundred thousand nematodes escape undetected in my house, establish a base camp, and attack....something. After all, these are not submissive little (and I do mean little) guys. These under-sized buggers are armed, dangerous, and spoiling for a fight.

According to Gardens Alive! "While other beneficial nematodes wait passively for their prey, ours move up to 10 times farther and much deeper into the soil. Grub-Away Nematodes also have a special "tooth" that burrows into their prey, allowing faster control of pests."

We keep our house clean and free (as far as we know) from things that would tick off a nematode. But I can just imagine the rush of testosterone that one million ready-for-combat nematodes, jam-packed into a tiny, all natural box can generate.

And the chaos and carnage that could result when they're dropped into the battle zone and can't find the enemy that they're looking for. Fortunately, while it doesn't specifically say so, I think they go about their jobs pretty quietly. (I mean how much noise can a nematode make?) So whatever bloodshed they wreak at least won't disturb our sleep.

But it isn't just the stuff they sell that attracts me to the Gardens Alive! catalog. It's the picture of the world they create with their product descriptions and lists. A tiny world fraught with danger and excitement. Underground hazards and dangers. Exotic, unseen (and virtually unseeable) killers and assassins. And mostly they do it with just names and minimal descriptions. The rest is up to us

For example, there is the Onion Thrip. "Thrips gather in large numbers on onion leaves, causing wrinkled or ribbony shoots to emerge in place of the expected smooth ones...Thrips are too small to be readily seen by the naked eye..." But we don't need to see them - their name tells it all - if you just listen to it and use your imagination.

We've all seen enough science fiction movies to picture for ourselves what a Thrip must look like - four long spindly legs, each leg fifty times longer than the only slightly fatter body, four eyes with barely a head to attach to below which is a crooked jack-o-lantern shaped mouth. They are silver colored - like onions. And mean - they make onions cry.

And what about the Cabbage Looper with its Spiderman-like lariats that shoot out from the ends of its twenty-four appendages to lasso and hog-tie even the most agile cabbage. They probably rush into the garden at daybreak like a band of Hell's Angels rodeo-ropers using the bright rays of the sun for cover as they encircle the half asleep cabbages hobbling, tying and branding them before the dew even has a chance to dry on their curly leaves. The poor vegetables never have a chance.

Or the Blister Beetle that seems like it should be fought with Clearasil instead of Pyola Insecticidal Spray. Enough said about that one.

But not all of the pest and disease names are off-putting. One in fact (other than the word virus in its name) sounds positively seductive - Cucurbits or the Squash Mosaic Virus.

Just picture the intricately placed, multi-hued pattern decorating the elephant-ear squash leaves as they provide shade and protection for a totally limp zucchini. This one might be worth getting - especially since a good portion of my squash turns up dead anyway.

They don't advertise the pests and diseases as being for sale but they must have loads of them in their test kitchens and I'm sure that they would make an exception for an old loyal customer. I mean, not all of us are fortunate enough to have such an exotic array of weapons of mass destruction in our very own backyards.

I could even use the "Instant Rebate Certificate" on the front cover - if I could work up the nerve to scratch and win. But truthfully I'm a little afraid to rub off the protective coating. With this catalog you never know what might be under it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Squashing the Borers

My wife Mars and I have fought the squash borer for as many years as we've planted that vegetable. And for that long the lethal insect has won.

Every annum it seems like pretty much the same old story. Around the end of May we go to a local nursery and purchase the infant plants - a few yellow and a few zucchini. On Memorial Day weekend we plant them, carefully distancing them from each other and hilling them up per the squash planting specs.

Then over the next several weeks: we water them; they grow; blossoms are seen; anticipation builds; leaf size expands exponentially making squash watching more difficult; the first yellow or green fingerling is spotted; foliage continues to enlarge further obscuring the progress of the crop; the initial tiny gourd is relocated and having now grown to a usable size is severed from the vine; other edible-sized ones are noticed and harvested; leaves keep getting bigger resulting in sun blockages all along the East Coast; zucchinis ripen at the rate of hundreds per plant per day; Mars pulls out her "Gad Zukes" cookbook and whips up various zucchini dishes including "sloppy zukes", chocolate zucchini cake and zucchini split sundaes; neighbors hear noises on their front steps at night and discover bundles of long, green, smooth-skinned vegetables at their doorsteps; and we both vow to reduce the size of our squash crop significantly next year.

Then suddenly, like a vegetative impersonation of an astronomical black-hole collapsing in on itself, the plants just completely wilt and totally, irrevocably die. The summer isn't even half over and we are, once again, out of the squash business for another year.

According to the Penn State University Entomology web site this is what actually happened. "The squash vine borer injures plants by tunneling through their stem, which interferes with nutrient transfer in the plant. Borer feeding weakens plants providing the opportunity for secondary infection. Plants damaged by the squash vine borer will wilt. Examination often reveals shiny green-to-yellow colored frass within the stem. Often frass will protrude from any damaged areas of the stem. If vine senescence occurs early, the borer may tunnel into the fruit."

Frass and senescence! Who knew? Obviously if we did we definitely would have put a stop to it - or maybe not. We were both working all those years and only able to devote weekends to the tending of our crops, along with the hundreds of other things we needed to do. But now, because we've retired, we have all the time in the world to battle frass and senescence - and win. At least as it occurs in squash. In ourselves it may be a different matter.

The first step is to know your enemy - in this case the squash borer moth.

According to some folks, e.g. Jennifer Frick on, "The moth itself is beautiful - hardly the picture of devastation!" (I'm thinking maybe something like Kathleen Turner in the movie Body Heat. And since this is my essay I'm going to hold that thought for a moment.........okay, now back to work.)

The squash borer moth has clear wings (yes you can actually see right through them) and is about one inch long with orange and black tufts on its body and legs. It lays its copper-colored eggs on the squash stems just above ground level where they hatch in a few days. The newbies then burrow their way into the center of the stem and, protected from pesticides and predators, merrily munch away on the stalk eventually inducing the above mentioned black hole effect.

Knowing all this it should be relatively easy to implement a successful multistage defense against our annual invader.

Stage 1: Seal the border: I'm figuring that if Mars and I alternate eight hour shifts for the month of June we can secure all of the entry points into our garden from illegal insect immigration. Update: I just checked with Mars and there is one slight modification to this plan - there will be no rotating guard duty. She felt that since this masterful plan was my "brilliant idea" that I should be given the honor of "doing the whole damn thing by yourself."

Mars, and a few of her friends, will be providing logistical support for my efforts from a luxury spa/golf resort in Scottsdale Arizona.

Stage 2: Search and destroy: Even in the unlikely event that one of the miscreants slips through my Stage 1 Steel Curtain, how hard can it be to find these ground level, copper- colored, b.b. sized eggs and obliterate them? Besides after thirty straight days of twenty-four hour sentry duty I may be a little tired, so I can use a less strenuous activity. I'll just lie down here on my stomach so that I can get my face up close and personal with the base of the stem and then ZZZZZ, ZZZZZ.....

Stage 3: Cut and run: "Huh! What time is it? When did you get back? How long have I been out here? You're going where?"

Okay suppose somehow a few little sap-hungry caterpillars still make make it through. I'll just take my trusty Swiss Army Knife and, being extra careful not to cut too deeply, slit the stalk lengthwise and - rats! All right I'll try the next one. Damn! Not again! Here, while keeping my temper under control I'll just rest the squash stem in the palm of my hand and plunge...oh no!!! Where did Mars leave the phone number for that "Hunks in Bunks" Campground she was going to?

Stage 4: Yes dear: A while back Mars told me that instead of all this "hands-on nonsense" I should just spray some Rotenone around the base of the plants to keep the moths away and come inside for awhile. Maybe I should have listened to her.

But now she's telling me to stay out in the yard while she's in the house interviewing gardeners. Today it's a brawny, long-haired blonde named Thor. It's his tenth time back, and the third visit this week. He must not be very good at this.

After he leaves I'll have to ask her again about that environmentally friendly pesticide.

I'll also have to find why she feels like she needs a gardener when I'm always outside doing all the yard work anyway.

I mean "duh!"

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

...Not Easy Being Green

Maybe I'm just getting a desert mentality but to me a garden looks best the way it does right now - tiny dots of spring green scattered sporadically in an otherwise drab winter landscape.

Out in the dry wasteland the spots of green, or any color other than tan, are few and far between. But they are definitely there - you just have to get out and look for them. It can be hard work, but not half as tough as the effort that the plants put in just getting there.

I've been busily discovering these tiny emerald islands of life over the past week or so as I Spring-clean my flower beds from their cold weather accumulation of blown-in leaves and last year's now dead stems and foliage. I'm trying to give all my perennials a jolt of sunlight and, when it happens naturally, water to get them on their way for another year.

The brash tulips and such that seem to burst from the ground all at once as a full set of healthy leaves, had notified me that it was time to gently push aside the crinkly brown blanket that had covered them for the past several months. The rest just lay quietly waiting to be coaxed into the early stages of photosynthesis.

A few plants, such as the sedum, are already recognizable as tiny miniatures of their future shape. Others are known by their geographic positions, like the thin egg shaped Hosta that are barely breaking through the ground in the eponymously named garden plot dedicated solely to that species. But most are unknown to me by virtue of their current shapeless identity and their co-occupancy of land with multiple other equally non-recognizable or still invisible flora.

Sometimes all it takes is a gentle pass or two with a floppy-tined hand rake to expose the little fellows. Others, like yesterday when I was working in our Iris/Chive garden, require multiple iterations of precision pruning on last year's limp remains. What's left of these plants are about fifteen inches of flaccid, straw-like former leaves tangled within themselves and covered with dead oak detritus. The drill is to carefully cut off a few inches and slowly rake the now-loose plant debris. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Until ultimately you arrive at a crewcut stalk with three or four green future Irises.

Domestic perennials are supposed to start their year like this, after all that's what years and years of cultivation have taught them to do. And in a few months, with more care and the proper weather and moisture, they will play out their genetic destinies in colorful displays of colors, shapes and textures - just like they are supposed to.

But right now, when they seem so small and isolated, there is little to do for them other than to give them the opportunity to partake in the increasingly more available and warmer sunlight and abundant water of early Spring.

Their desert cousins of course don't even get this minimal amount of help. The rain that they need may not show up for weeks, or months, or years, or not at all. And if a particular plant doesn't appear, no one is likely to even notice.

So these dry climate flowers need to be much cagier and more opportunistic than their city-mouse relatives - insinuating themselves into supportive environments and remaining ready to spring forth into full blossom at the slightest hint of water - self educating in the ways and means of survival in a less than welcoming environment.

Tiny plants attach themselves tenuously to stone canyon walls by digging their shallow roots into the only available piece of soft dirt. Their seeds are carried away and dropped by passing zephyrs or ingested and dropped by migrating birds and rodents. A passing thunderstorm generates a fraction of an inch of rain, or a mountain pour-off floods an arroyo, or a river rises ever so slightly on its banks - and the flower blooms for as long and as hard as the available water allows. Then returns to rest and wait.

Coddled and cosseted or neglected and ignored. Intelligently designed and hybridized or self-sufficient fittest of survivors. All of these plants, desert and domestic, somehow have within them the life force to take them from bud to blossom.

It is the picture of that possibility that makes the barely emerging garden the best one of them all.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

99 words In Praise of TV Commercials

If it weren't for television commercials I probably wouldn't get any things that I "have to do" done. Tonight during a break in the nightly news I cleaned up the dishes and loaded the dishwasher. Other times I've filled the bird feeders or performed my pre-bed ablutions and not missed a beat in the program.

It's important to have times like these when the thing you are doing becomes so unpleasant that you actually jump at the opportunity to do something that you consider slightly less vexatious.

I also watch a lot of public television. Especially during pledge week.