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  • John R

I broke my leg. Yeah, I know. Boo-hoo. Last year you broke your thumb just one week before the annual Fourth of July accordion competition at the county fair, so you too had trauma but yours was worse. Everybody’s got a story, and when you crutch around with a leg cast you get an earful of everybody else’s tales of historic woes.

This is mine.

It happened during the summer, just as the plants were getting all sparky and muscular, with broad, sun-soaked leaves, hardy stems, and happy early-season blooms. The weather was sublime. I was out daily doinking around in the beds and shrubs, getting after weeds, spreading mulch, cleaning out debris, whispering endearments to tender shoots. For Schiddygarden, things were looking spiffy.

Then one day I went walking on a riverbank on the pretext of being a fly fisherman and I slipped on slick grass and my fibula went snap! In a heartbeat I was flat on my back staring up at the sky thinking, Hey God, WTF? as a nauseating pain started to take hold. What a way to ruin a decent morning.

Morning schmorning. It took a big chunk out of my entire summer. Couldn’t bike, hike, play pickleball, or drive a car, and gardening was restricted to holding a hose and watering the one little area I could manage to reach while standing on one leg. On the bright side, I wasn’t able to dig in the dirt and as a result my fingernails had never been cleaner.

Sure, I know. Buck up. Do the PT. Stop asking Deb to Please pull the horseweed out by the front fence and stake the pepper plants and remember to mow the lawn before noon. And maybe while you’re at it water the hostas and oh yeah hand me the pretzels. Please.

But after a generous helping of self-pity (and not wanting to exhaust Deb’s supply of patience), I began to look for some fresh perspectives. Nothing earth-shattering—not that I’m capable—but what became apparent as I sat outside (with my leg propped up to facilitate edema-draining) were ordinary, everyday vignettes that were curiously satisfying.

Perhaps it’s not what we see, but how we look.

First, apologies. No doubt these images would have been more compelling if taken by a photographer of talent and skill. Sadly, that was not the case.

It doesn't get more mundane than this, does it? In the moment, though, as I sat on the patio searching for a silver lining, there was this slice of sky with its wispy clouds and happy branches framed by a roofline and the edge of a patio umbrella. This view pulled me way out of the doldrums.

I looked over and this squirrel was hanging out on a branch sound asleep. By the time I took the lens cap off and turned on the camera and attempted to get everything in focus he (she?) popped awake and gave me the stink eye as if to say, Wadda you lookin’ at? Then she (he?) took off. It wasn’t exactly viewing lions on the Serengeti, but that afternoon, it was close enough.

This is definitely an Eye of the Beholder perspective, but amidst the tangle at the back of our property, our violet crepe myrtle, usually obscured from view (bad planning there) made a noble attempt to make itself known. It's such a feel-good plant that I hobbled over via crutches to say Howdy! and grab a one-handed shot.

From the low angle of sunlight on these coleus you can probably tell this photo was taken during happy hour, can't you? Cheers!

Now four months after The Break and with autumn settling in, the smoke tree is showing off and I'm getting ready for pruning, planting garlic, and being upright and crutchless. Sometimes the way forward just takes time, physical therapy, and keeping an eye out for the bright side. It's often right over there.

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It’s quiz time, and what self-respecting gardener doesn’t love a rousing

no-consequences brain tickler?

Truthfully, I’m not that fond of them because coming up with the correct answers requires bunches of neurons to be firing in the proper sequence. However, I’m giving the quiz and not taking it, so away we go! The subject this year is crawly things I've found in and around our garden.

Friend or foe: Black widow spider, Latrodectus

Answer: Both!

Oh my, a trick question right off the bat. True, the venom of the black widow is 15 times stronger than rattlesnake venom—you wouldn’t want to get bit by a black widow spider and then, you know, die. That possibility leans heavy toward the “foe” side. However, Latrodectus is also very efficient at general insect control, consuming flies, mosquitoes, gnats, ants and other annoying pests that cause us to question Gaia’s creative acumen. Stick that characteristic in the “friend” column.

A black widow as seen through the bottom of a glass jar (that has the lid on!).

Latrodectus is a widespread genus and found throughout the world. The variety North America is most familiar with is the black widow, a fat, gloss-black arachnid with a telltale red hourglass shape on its belly. Black widows are shy creatures that prefer dark, tucked-away places to build their webs, so you’re not likely to see one tromping about your bathroom walls.

The good news, venom-wise, is that black widows typically administer relatively tiny bits of venom, more on par with incapacitating a moth rather than aiming to bring down an entire human. Nevertheless, the results of a bite range from mildly irritating to what-kind-of-karma-are-you-burning-lately? Most hospitals carry a supply of black widow anti-venom for rare cases of severe reaction.

Fun fact: Contrary to popular myth, female black widows do not cannibalize their mating partners. Well, sometimes they do, but only when a male offers an unsolicited critique about the female’s web-building skills.

Friend or foe: Boxelder, Boisea trivittata

Answer: Neither!

Another trick question! So fun from my POV! The reality is that this common insect pretty much doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t bite or sting, doesn’t eat veggie crops, and rarely flies into your potato salad. The only bummer about Boisea is that scads of them may appear in the spring, massing in sunny spots like south-facing exterior walls and fences where they mill about aimlessly and occasionally blunder into copulating with each other. The sheer numbers may result in a stray boxelder or two getting inside your house where they will continue their prime directive of milling about aimlessly. When crushed or knocked about, they may emit a foul odor.

Friend or Foe: Earwig, Dermaptera

Answer: Both!

Three tricksters in a row! Give yourself several points just for reading this far. The earwig is extremely ugly, but current rules of the Friend or Foe Quiz™ explicitly state that physical appearances will not be a factor in determining F or F™ status. Too bad, because with those pugnacious pinchers coming out of its butt, this bug has yuck written all over it

Earwigs are hearty eaters. Their preference is for dead and decaying matter, which makes them garden-friendly saprotrophic janitors who help keep gardens clean of debris. But if their supply of dead stuff dwindles, they’re likely to eat growing stuff such as vegetables and plant leaves. Not cool.

Earwigs are mostly nocturnal and feed at night. During the day they are maddeningly clever at hiding in the petals of peonies and the undersides of pepper plant leaves. There are numerous insecticides available for eliminating earwigs, but natural methods, such as squishing, are preferred at Schiddygarden (as you will soon see).

Fun fact: Earwigs do not crawl into people’s ears as the age-old myth would have us believe. However, wishing that an earwig would crawl into the ear of the guy tailgating you is perfectly acceptable.

Bonus fun fact: Earwigs are one of the insects that you can tell the male from the female, if you’re into that sort of detail. Males have curved pinchers, and female pinchers are straight. The pinchers are used to fend of attackers, catch prey, and in mating rituals. How they sort out which tactic to use in the heat of the moment is one of those mysteries of Nature.

Friend or foe: Mystery caterpillar

Answer: Foe most foul!

This little tube of protoplasm and its buddies were busy this spring chewing the absolute crap out of the leaves of our Raywood ash tree. Thankfully, they kept their nefarious gluttony to the lower part of the canopy—perhaps they were so bloated with foodstuffs that they couldn’t climb any further.

Ultimately, that would be their fatal mistake.

I don’t know what these larvae are, and neither does anyone else. The usually reliable sources at the Oregon State Extension Services were stumped—one of their entomologists even dropped by to pick up some live specimens for closer inspection. They still couldn’t nail down a good identification. Ditto the invasive species website from Pouring through Google-searched images of caterpillars was pretty much an attention-sucking rabbit hole of wildly ornate and grotesquely proportioned Lepidopterans from which it was difficult to emerge with a clear purpose in mind.

Soon after I discovered that caterpillars were turning the lower leaves of our Raywood ash to lacey flutterings, my initial outrage metamorphosized into Old West-style justice. No Neem oil, pesticides, or cayenne-infused concoction for me. This was hand-to-proleg combat. With eerie calm, I squished the little buggers. One at a time. Bare-fingered.

Dispatching destructive larvae by squishing is easy. You pluck one, align it between thumb and forefinger, and squeeze until its guts squirt out its butt.

Spare me the cringe. Our ancestors were clubbing and gutting all kinds of animals way back when, so this is nothing by comparison. Of course, back then those people were basically starving all the time and had to hunt to stay alive, and then they’d do all sorts of inventive things with an animal’s remains, like make mukluks and flutes, so this isn’t really a sensible comparison.

By my 400th pluck-and-squish I’d done a respectable job of removing most of the invaders and I’d washed my hands an inordinate number of times in the process. Okay I was a little squeamish. But I counseled myself that I was engaging a completely natural, organic pest removal and that was good for the Earth and certainly good for our beleaguered Raywood ash tree.

Anyway, if you’ve got any ideas about this critter and the type of butterfly or moth it becomes, I’m all ears. Just don't stick an earwig in there.

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See those brown spots in the photo above? They’re all over our yard.

My first thoughts were, Oh no! Fungus! Underground grub! Incontinent canines!

As it turned out, the answer was even more insidious: Deb.

Over the years my bride has had every good intention of wiping out the dandelions in our lawn. This is an excellent use of her skills as a mitigator of living things, and she usually takes to the task with gusto, armed with a simple garden fork and a maniacal grin.

Deep down we both know this is a hopeless endeavor, as our neighborhood is resplendent with yellow-headed Taxacum officinale growing in drainage ditches, unmowed parkways, and the lawns of dandelion-tolerant neighbors. There are enough dandelions around here to ensure a healthy and perpetual crop throughout the southern half of our state. Those tufty little seeds fill the air like snow flurries.

Nevertheless, every spring as the dandelions start to show their fearsome noggins, Deb’s anti-dandelion crusade begins. Part of her urge certainly is the advent of good weather and the pleasure of being outside after a long winter. And part of her urge is simply to eradicate something.

Deb, who studies the nuances of her craft, had recently discovered that a dose of plain vinegar is an effective herbicide. This revelation was like giving Sweeney Todd a shiny new straight razor. She began to seek out victims—a neighbor’s bamboo poking up in our western flower beds; scraggly weeds growing in our gravel pathways, and Taxacum just about anywhere.

Vinegar made eliminating dandelions ridiculously easy—just stroll around with a jug of white vinegar and bombs-away. Sploosh. Dead. Don’t even have to bend over.

Unfortunately, the kill radius of a splash of vinegar can be considerably wider than the individual target, and collateral damage ensues.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the word “vinegar” derives from the French vin aigre, which means sour wine. (I think we can all agree that few things in life are as disappointing as anticipating a nice glass of wine only to discover the bottle is “corked,” turning a promising claret to vin aigre and hanging a dark cloud over the remainder of the evening).

Citing Harvard again (so unimpeachable!), the use of vinegar has been traced back over seven-thousand years to the ancient Babylonians. Back then, it was used as a digestive aid and a food preservative. (Journalist Tip: if you ever want to establish basis for a factual statement, link it to ancient Babylonians. Tough to disprove. Or Harvard, even tougher.)

Household vinegar is made up of mostly water and about 5% acetic acid. It’s touted as a nontoxic natural herbicide, devoid of the lab-manufactured chemicals found in many commercial weed killers. It can be an effective plant killer, disrupting cells walls and causing leaves and stems to wither away. (Stronger 20–30% solutions of horticultural vinegar are available at garden centers—they are very caustic and should be handled with care.)

I was not aware of my sweetie’s actions until well after the deed itself, when the spring rains had enlivened our lawn and the brown spots became obvious. When I asked if she and a jug of vinegar might be the cause of the mysterious lawn blight—and I inquired in a very calm and rational manner I might add—Deb answered with a shrug and a nonchalant, “maybe.”

As a student of Spousal Language Translation, I figured she meant, So what? Get over it. It’ll grow back.

Funny story: household vinegar doesn’t completely kill the roots of several types of common weeds, dandelions being one of them. Leaves and stems, yes, but those sneaky old taproots will remain unaffected and eventually the weed will grow back. Grass, being more tenderhearted, takes longer to recover. Eventually the dandelions will reappear to fill in the pockets of scorched earth, and our lawn will indeed return to its natural weed-filled state.

It’s too bad that Taxacum has gotten such a bad rap for being the transgressor of well-manicured lawns. In fact, the plant has much to offer. Dandelion greens and flowers are perfectly edible and are rich in vitamins and minerals, more so than kale and spinach. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the lowly dandelion provides antioxidants and compounds that help reduce inflammation, control blood sugar, and reduce blood pressure.

The leaves tend to be a bit bitter, it’s best to add a few chopped leaves to a veggie sauté or mix them judiciously in salads. And if you decide to douse the dandelions in your lawn with a splash of vinegar, try a nice balsamic.

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