• John R

We could not be prouder of our spinach if they were our own children. Maybe prouder.

Look how thoroughly green and upright! Look at those beefy crinkles so chockfull of vitamins! We’ve got a dozen of these stalwart, early-spring rascals actually growing in our garden. We did something right!


Look underneath the leaves. What are those tiny white dots? And over here on this plant, why are these leaves so scabby?

Yes, just when a gardening triumph seemed so close, so graspable, it slipped from our fingers like (insert sports analogy here in which a team on the verge of winning blows it). Our spinach is being attacked by Pegomya hyoscyami, the spinach leafminer.

This is an insidious pest that arrives as eggs deposited by a momma fly on the undersides of spinach leaves. Those white dots we noticed are the egg clusters. On extremely close examination, the clusters reveal themselves to be rows of itty-bitty eggs.

These little eggs eventually turn into maggots that look like adorable miniature white carrots. But they are neither adorable nor carrots. These 1/4-inch-long larvae eat their way in between leaf layers (spinach leaves have outer epidural layers and a soft munchable inner layer). Once inside, the larvae begin to tunnel around, plumping themselves up on vitamins that are rightfully mine.

Their tunnels appear on the leaf surface as brown and gray scars. When sated, the bugs drill escape holes and drop into the surrounding soil. From there they mature into flies that buzz around, mate, and in one of Nature’s infuriatingly dependable cycles, alight on spinach leaves to begin the process all over again.

Pegomya hyoscyami as an adult fly

According to various gardening experts, there’s no surefire remedy, unless you don’t mind soaking your vegetables in pesticides—killing off beneficial pollinators in the process—and eating carcinogenic materials. Over on this side of the fence, we’re pretty organic, mostly because it’s less work—you can just sit back and let things happen, and when your lawn becomes weed-infested and your garden beds are drooping and scarred you can proudly claim,

But we’re organic!

Back to remedies:

• Cover seedlings with fine-mesh netting to prevent flies from laying eggs on the leaves.

• Pinch off and destroy any leaves with scars.

• Introduce beneficial insects that feed on leafminer larvae. Parasitic wasps such as Diglyphus isaea kill leafminer larvae before they pupate, and ladybugs will feed on them, too ( although I’m not sure how you train winged insects to stick around your garden when there’s a whole neighborhood out there to explore).

• After harvesting, till the soil to destroy lingering larvae and help prevent an infestation of the next crop.

• Spray leaves with Neem oil. Neem oil is supposedly an organic pesticide that, when properly applied, is harmless to humans. Although the unspoken implication here—with a caution about improper application—seems to indicate that Neem may not be all that benign. Anyway, Neem odor is like a cross between paint stripper and rotten apples, and if you’re whipping up a salad for people you don’t ever want over for dinner again, that’s the way to go.

I’ll admit that prior to the discovery of our leafminers, we did enjoy a just-picked, garden-fresh spinach salad, so if there are any ill effects to be had from ingesting raw Pegomya hyoscyami, I’ll try to let you know before the paralysis sets in.

But now, in the warm light of new knowledge, we carefully scrape off the egg clusters, leaf by leaf, and discard leaves with any signs of scarring. Then a thorough washing. And we’ve developed a fondness for steamed spinach. Which only underscores the old adage, When Life gives you leafminers, sterilize.

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Thunk! The sound was loud, harsh, and unmistakable. A bird had flown full speed into our living room window. From the sound alone you could tell the outcome would not be a good one. Sure enough, a dead robin lay feet-up at the edge of the front garden.

Deb summed it up: “Oh crap damn.”

As home dwellers, we have a certain responsibility to try and encourage things to live. We plant, fertilize, water, and hope. Nevertheless, stuff dies. Bugs get squashed, shovels sever worms, plants collapse (given our sporadic care, I suspect many Schiddygarden plants are suicidal). And every once in a great while a bird flies pell-mell into one of our windows. Most shake it off, take a couple of deep breaths, and fly away. But some don’t.

Birds colliding with objects isn't rare. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimates that one billion birds die from window strikes each year in North America. Make that one billion and one.

A bird death feels especially tragic. They’re such free-wheeling, generally chirpful, curious yet wary, often beautiful, and frequently entertaining creatures. We’re dismayed when dead ones show up on our property or in the mouths of our cats. Yes, there are things we can do to help prevent accidental bird deaths—more on that in a bit.

Meanwhile, an existential question looms: Where are the dead birds? We see the carcasses now and then, even occasionally witness their demise. But consider—there are some 9 billion birds in North America, with tens of thousands if not millions of birds flitting about in any particular neighborhood or countryside. Given that population density and an average bird’s natural lifespan of three to five years, you (actually me) might deduce that hundreds of local birds die every day. But where are the carcasses? Why aren’t dead birds literally littering the yards and sidewalks?

Because I am nothing if not insatiably curious about stuff that nobody in their right mind would care about, I asked the question of Josh Morris, the Urban Conservation Manager for the Seattle Audubon Society.

“It’s an interesting question and one that we think about a lot,” says Josh who, it turns out, is definitely in his right mind. In fact, part of Josh’s professional responsibilities is to try and estimate the number of birds that die from collisions with man-made objects, especially windows, and to create programs and guidelines to help reduce bird deaths.

According to Josh, a main reason we don’t see bird carcasses is that they’re hard to spot. “They’re small and tend to blend in with whatever substrate they’ve ended up on, and injured birds may hobble to underbrush to hide before they succumb,” he says.

In fact, the Seattle Audubon team was so intrigued by the question that they conducted an experiment. They secreted dead bird carcasses all over the city, then gave a group of bird-finders specific instructions on the coordinates, surroundings, and even photographs of the carcass locations. Bird finders went out three times each day for a week, and in the end only located less than 50 percent of the hidden bird bodies. Although scavengers such as ravens and rats probably account for some disappearances, Josh Morris thinks scavengers aren’t the complete answer to Where are the dead birds? “We’re trying to figure that one out,” he muses.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a foolproof solution for preventing birds from flying into your windows. They mistake reflections of trees, shrubbery, and the sky for the real things, sometimes with ill-fated results. The remedy is to apply deterrents such as stickers, exterior screens, or hanging cords that disrupt reflections and present a more solid-looking surface that birds will avoid. They’re readily available—you can find a large selection of adhesive-free stickers and other deterrents in a variety of colors and styles at nature stores and online.

It would be impractical to apply those kinds of defensive measures to every window in a house, and impossible to predict the changing light patterns and flight angles that might cause a bird to be fooled by a reflection. But in general, large windows are the most likely culprits. For more information about how to prevent birds from flying into your windows, check the websites of the Cornell Lab and the American Bird Conservancy.

Meanwhile, on the not-dead side of this blog, there’s Merlin, the free bird-identification app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Take a photo of a bird with your smartphone, and Merlin will sift through its recognition database to come up with an I.D. Or, you can record a bird’s song, chirp, or call and run it through the app to let Merlin make an audio identification of your very-much-alive winged companion.

Here's a great photo of a not-dead yellow crown sparrow taken by David Pederson:

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  • John R

My father cut off the ends of two of his fingers while reaching for a stick that poked out from under the lawn mower he was pushing. Zing! Blood and bone.

It was a seminal event for a man whose upkeep of the family home and property was the very essence of his soul. Everyone was amazed that he’d ignored common sense in doing what he did, common sense being one of my father’s fortes. In fact, a self-inflected accident was such an out-of-character, image-shattering gaffe that he began to wonder if perhaps he was not entirely at fault. Perhaps if someone had been a more conscientious raker-of-lawns, then the stick would not have been there in the first place, and he would not have had to reach for it, and he would not have inadvertently let the index and middle fingers of his left hand drift ever-so-slightly beneath the rim of the lawnmower deck, and so on.

In my defense, I submit that I was, and always have been, a reliable lawn steward. Growing up, I raked up hundreds of bushels of leaves and sticks, dug out thousands of dandelions, and cut square miles of lawn. I even cut the neighbor’s lawn until their 25-year-old parrot died after choking on some scrambled eggs. No more Polly want a cracker croaking from the lilacs. The facts of their parrot dying and me not cutting their lawn any more were unrelated—I was headed off to college. But I liked that parrot. She was a classic of parrotness. Her name really was Polly and she did loudly insist that she wanted crackers. Unfortunately, she got scrambled eggs.

Which brings us to England.

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), British gardeners have about 300,000 gardening accidents per year. Lawn mowers are leading culprits—no surprise—and are involved in about 6,500 annual mishaps (one imagines hundreds of stray digits scattered about the verdant lawns of England).

Flowerpots are a close second, accounting for more than 5,000 calamities. Thankfully, it’s difficult to imagine a flowerpot causing the mayhem of a lawn mower. Nevertheless, don’t turn your back on any flowerpots—obviously not all of them are well-intentioned.

Pruners grab third place on the list and unfortunately, it’s not at all difficult to conjure up the kinds of injuries that pruners are capable of administering.

Of course, picking on the Brits is low-hanging fruit because they’re so far away. Also, they have Prince Charles, who sort of looks like the poster boy for a-gardening-accident-waiting-to-happen, and who indeed some years ago suffer an eye injury while trimming trees. Where the Highgrove groundskeepers were at the time is anybody’s guess, possibly at a meeting of the Royal Trimmers and Pruners Society. I’ll add that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents proudly displays the yearly number of folks who have successfully maimed themselves, which feels a bit unproductive, marketing-wise, for the RoSPA.

Nevertheless, with good old American sprit de corps, we Yanks can thump our chests and claim a vastly superior 400,000 garden-related, emergency-room-worthy accidents per annum. Of these, more than 60,000 involve a lawn mower, toes being the most well, you know…

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers some sage observations on garden safety, such as the fact that the moving blades of rotary lawn mowers are hazardous (who knew?!!), wearing flipflops while mowing is unsafe (but oh so comfy), and that pushing a mower over rocks is ill-advised.

So in early spring when warm days have encouraged our lawn and associated weeds to grow like, um, weeds, I retrieve our mower from the shed for the first lawn trimming of the season. It rattles and squeaks as I maneuver it over the concrete patio and put it in position for starting. Old Chopper is a venerable gas-guzzler that refuses to die and provide me the emotional license to switch to a more guilt-assuaging electric model. With unfortunate dependability it roars to life at the very first pull, shaking off a winter’s worth of mechanical ennui and sluggish oil, and belches a nice round ball of fumes. Then it settles in, shuddering with anticipation like a leashed dog watching a squirrel.

I’ve never had a gardening accident, knock on wood, although as man and machine sally forth there’s enough clattering going on that I wonder if the blade is coming loose and is about to slice through the back of the mower housing like the weapon of an android ninja. It’s possible. But I calm the fears and sally on, and before long I’m wrapped in blissful white noise and the heady scent of fresh-cut grass.

Then I spot it: a stick laying just 20 feet ahead. It’s a medium-size piece of wood, two-feet long and maybe half an inch thick. I have several choices. One, I can stop the mower and remove the stick from my path. However, this is an inconvenience and interrupts the meditative state that mowing induces and that I so desperately enjoy. Two, I can run the mower over the stick, disdaining the USCPSC’s advice not to do so and trusting in Old Chopper’s hard-nosed ability to grind it to rough mulch, calamitous noises be damned.

Or three, I can approach with due caution and, just before the stick disappears beneath the deck, with the engine running, reach down to…

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