• John R

Getting immersed in the immediate.

I’m not much of a world traveler. I can count the number of foreign countries I’ve been to on one hand, and that includes Canada, which is cheating. We could add Las Vegas to the mix—that’s pretty foreign—as fate would have it I’ve been there more than I care to recall.

But I have stood in the column of sunlight that falls from the open roof of the Pantheon, and I’ve jumped naked into the Baltic Sea in the middle of January. I’ve watched 14-foot manta rays sashay through the waters of the Bahia de Banderas and seen the northern lights pirouette in the night skies of Manitoba.

I’ve done a bit more traveling within the continental U.S., although in an official capacity that often had me bound to airplane terminals and hotels. Nevertheless, those trips also brought me to the open plains of Nebraska to see one of the last original sod homes melting back into the earth, and to the backwoods of Arkansas where migrating tarantulas created a moving carpet on the forest floor. I’ve been on the shores of a Wisconsin lake in April to hear the ice crack with a whistling rumble—shooting from one end of the lake to the other—as if God was hurling a giant bowling ball across the floor of heaven.

These kinds of moments invite us to partake of an Earth that’s wondrous and complex and magical. They can enable our empathy and retrieve our humanity. Hopefully, they remind us to be humble.

But it’s not necessarily grandeur that has the power to blow our minds (although a sprawling vista can definitely be sublime) Nor is it necessarily the vividness of an experience (although the shocking cold blackness of the Baltic Sea is forever seared in my memory). In fact, a transportive, meaningful connection to the natural world is more likely to occur amidst the ordinary and the everyday. It happens when we engage with the immediate, letting the natural world find its way into our fluttery souls no matter where we might be.

In our own gardens, for example.

Ours is a modest property, merely an eighth of an acre—about half the size of a typical suburban lot. Yet these foreshortened boundaries offer no fewer examples of the intimacies between geology and biology, of the teeming complex interplay of soil and plant and animals, than any far horizon or depth of ocean or vastness of sky.

Here our spinach does battle with an invasion of leaf miners, a venerable climbing rose seeks the upper reaches of a 40-foot-high crepe myrtle, a group of heretofore placid daisies suddenly erupts into a towering island of nodding color. Well-planted dahlias refuse to emerge while unwanted weeds and invasives flourish in every concrete crack and patch of malignant dirt available.

Daddy long-legs hang fibrous webs in the eaves, tiny garden spiders fashion diaphanous doilies in the lilies, an occasional black widow pokes her bulbous body out to inspect the world of light before scurrying back into her preferred darkness. Trumpeting scrub jays trumpet do battle with marauding ravens as each seeks eminence over our modest patch of yard, unconcerned robins troll the grass for the trove of fat grubs that live in our lawn, ash sawflies are devouring the lower leaves of the Raywood ash.

So I sit in an old lawn chair, close my eyes, and turn my face to the warming sun. The heat feels good, like it’s sinking into my brain. I hear the enchanting melody of a black-billed grosbeak. I think: A few cut daises would look nice in a vase.

68 views3 comments

I really don’t mean to complain and whine. It’s just that I’m so good at it. And my motivation is off the charts.

Sigh. It’s the vetch.

Imagine that the last person on Earth you want to hang out with is Aunt Vetchie. Then the doorbell rings and standing there with dual suitcases and a little smirk is…you guessed it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The heartbreaking thing about this latest bout of vetch is that I spent much of last year removing the pernicious little bugger from our garden, strand by snaky strand, shuffling along on my knees in an attempt to pull them out before they could go to seed.

Vetch among the phlox.

Deb helped because it gave her license to do what she loves best, which is to cheerily remove living things from our property. She took out her share of vetch all right, along with handfuls of phlox and asters. As she plucked she gave a little running commentary: Oops! Collateral damage there! and Oh well, we have too many asters anyway.

Nevertheless, I can’t tell you how proud I was of our vetch-removal efforts (although possibly I just did). I told myself that, thanks to our dedication and determination, the Following Year there would be no vetch—or at least very little—and any stragglers would be easily removed.

Vetch pretending to be a daffodil.

This right now happens to be the aforementioned Following Year, and the vetch has gone bonkers. It’s everywhere. It’s reproduced itself in nightmarish, Medusa-like multiples, sending up slender tentacles that can be seen rising throughout the front garden, waving their seed pods in a disturbingly ominous way. It’s threatening a hostile takeover.

Vetch pretending to be a rock.

The thing about Coronilla varia, a plant that I have referred to in a previous blog as “the Snidely Whiplash of plants,” is that it’s completely shameless. It hides among other, more prestigious plants, cowardly trying to camouflage itself until it can propagate. It spreads by means of underground stealth—an extensive root system anchored with rhizomes—and pops up when the mood strikes, which is often.

NC State Extension Service says vetch is common to “roadsides and waste areas.” We’re right on a street, so we’re definitely “roadside.” Also, there are areas of our property that, if you saw them, you’d likely exclaim, “Whoa! What a waste!” So our place pretty much adds up as prime vetch territory.

Buttloads of vetch.

Unfortunately, without using chemicals in a “scorched earth” approach to ridding the garden of vetch (and everything else), eradication is pretty much impossible. It’s will to live is proving stronger than our ability to remove it effectively, our Previous Year notwithstanding. So the only remedy is to take it out by hand, hunting through the garden on all fours like a hog snuffling for a truffle.

Sure, I’ve cried a little about it. What garden hasn’t brought a guy to tears? However, I’ve sobered up and plan to purchase a kick-ass set of knee pads, fire up the earbuds, and do some serious snuffling. Vetch, here I come.

Illustration © Foxyliam | Dreamstime

38 views0 comments
  • 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.

32 views1 comment
  • Instagram Social Icon