Summertime is the eight-week (give or take) interval for which most of us wait all year, the season for beaches, barbeques and back-country rambling. And it is also a time to watch out for burns: sunburned skin, blackened burgers, and vindictive vegetables. My best advice, respectively, for these dangers is: SPF 50, stay focused on that grill, and read on.
I know that vegetables are not really vindictive, but it sounds crazy to talk about them as a burning hazard. There are a number of plants whose sap can cause serious chemical burns, and one of them is a common and widespread invasive species, the wild parsnip. » Continue Reading.
It’s not too early to start thinking about late blight. No relation to early blight, with which it shares a last name, late blight has become a perennial disease since infected tomato plants were shipped from southern greenhouses to the Northeast in May 2009. Prior to that, late blight was uncommon, but now we seem to be able to bank on its arrival each August. The fact that it is a seasonal immigrant is worth noting, since most garden diseases (such as early blight) are already here in the soil.
Gardeners and produce growers make a fuss about late blight because it has the potential to kill acres of tomatoes and potatoes in a matter of days; its fearsome reputation is well-deserved. Given the botanical name Phytophthora infestans, “highly contagious plant destroyer,” it is what laid waste to the Irish potato crop from 1844 to 1846, leading to a devastating famine. » Continue Reading.
In springtime, driving around on weekends makes me sad. Invariably I’ll pass someone out in their yard, shovel in hand, maybe with their kids or spouse, and they have a cute little tree from the garden center on one side of them, and a wicked deep hole in the ground on the other. If I wasn’t so shy, I’d stop and offer my condolences, because clearly they are having a funeral for the tree.
Here’s an arborist joke: What do you call a three-foot deep planting hole for a tree? Its grave. Tree root systems are broad — three times the branch length, barring an impediment — and shallow. Ninety percent of tree roots are in the top ten inches of soil, and 98% are in the top eighteen inches. Tree roots are shallow because they like to breathe on a regular basis. I think we can all relate to that. » Continue Reading.
If jumping to conclusions was a sport, I might have played pro. In my prime I went for the long jumps. Like concluding that since I had once casually said to my spouse that backyard laying hens might be fun, she would not be upset when months later I came home with four dozen layers, plus a dog from the farmer where I got the hens. Can’t say jumping to conclusions worked out real well for me, but we all dabble in it.
For example if you heard of a first-time Massachusetts politician with the last name Kennedy being sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives, it would be normal to conclude she was related to Representative Joe Kennedy. A short jump, but there is a chance the two would not be related. So gardeners can be forgiven for concluding that two diseases that affect tomatoes and potatoes, both having the same last name, are related, or even the same thing. However, early blight is not related to late blight. Or urban blight for that matter. » Continue Reading.
As a kid of about five, I became suspicious of lawns. In a rare moment of TV viewing, I had seen a public-service ad wherein a bundle of green leafy stuff thudded into an eerily vacant playground while a baritone voice boomed out something like “Grass. We think it’s bad for kids. Stay away from it.” My mom insisted this was “bad grass” which did not grow in our yard. However, she declined to elaborate, which fueled my mistrust. So I kept off the lawn a while.
These days, “bread” is no longer money, “mint” is just a flavor, and the pernicious leafy stuff mostly goes by other names. There is only one grass, and it is almost time to cut it again. Jargon may change, but things like paying taxes and mowing lawns don’t seem to. » Continue Reading.
Kermit the Frog may have lamented “It’s not easy bein’ green,” but these days, everyone wants to market themselves as “green.” It seems to make us feel good. You might recall how in the early ’90s, lawn-care giant ChemLawn became (unfairly, to be honest) a magnet for public criticism as risks related to pesticide use became more widely known. With the help of some green paint for their trucks, and a pile of trademark lawyers, ChemLawn morphed into TruGreen, and just like that people started to like them better.
If “green” is a hot brand, then “emerald” must be tops. Who doesn’t like the Emerald Isle or the Emerald City, and now the 750lb. Bahia Emerald is on sale for around $400mil if you’re looking for a bargain. So right out of the box, the emerald ash borer (EAB) is ahead in the PR department. Plus, it’s gorgeous: a tiny streamlined beetle sporting a metallic green paint job with copper highlights. This, coupled with the fact that they’re not at the moment raining from the sky like a plague of locusts, may be why it’s hard to take the EAB threat seriously. But I’m betting a little “tea” will let the air out of EAB’s greenwash balloon. » Continue Reading.
By late-March it starts to feel as though winter is the only time of year not in a hurry to get somewhere. By comparison, every other season seems to go by with a Doppler-type velocity like an Indy car blurring past. But I realize that any day now, spring could get sprung, and when that happens, plant life will change by the day, if not the hour. Some of the first plants to catch my eye are ones which have historically been used to treat coughs and colds. Good timing, I’d say.
Herbal remedies have been part of human culture since the day culture got invented. No matter where our early ancestors settled, they exploited regional plants for medicinal as well as culinary value. In a sense, unknown plants served as an evolutionary pressure, except they selected against bad luck, and perhaps gullibility, and likely didn’t help the human genome a lot. As knowledge of plant medicine accrued, it was refined, committed to memory and passed along — first orally and later in writing — from one generation to the next. Ancient healers had to know the properties of a given plant, what it might interact with, and how to tell it from similar species. This of course helped protect them from the wrath of disgruntled patients, not to mention early malpractice suits. » Continue Reading.
My earliest memory of St. Patrick’s Day is how angry it made my mother, who holds dual Irish-American citizenship and strongly identifies with her Celtic roots. It was not the day itself which got her Irish up, so to speak, but rather the way it was depicted in popular American culture: Green-beer drink specials at the bars and St. Patrick’s Day sales in every store, all endorsed by grinning, green-clad, marginally sober leprechauns.
Although Mom stuck to the facts about Ireland; its poets, playwrights, and history, my aunts and uncles would sometimes regale us kids with stories of the fairy-folk, including leprechauns. It gave me nightmares. According to my relatives, you did not want these little guys endorsing your breakfast cereal. They might look cute, but if you pissed them off they were likely to kidnap you, steal your baby out of the crib, or worse. And one of the surest ways to incur their wrath was to cut down their favorite tree, the hawthorn. » Continue Reading.
In seedy neighborhoods across the U.S., ordinary people are shelling out hard-earned cash to feed a habit of near-epidemic proportions. The fact of the matter is, about 40% of American households are addicted to feeding birds. Things are even worse in the U.K., where close to three-quarters of the population are beset with this malady.
In severe cases, people provide birds with dried fruit, suet, and mealworms, and even landscape their yard with bird-friendly trees and shrubs. Most garden-variety bird-feeding addicts, however, go to seed. It often starts innocently: a few sunflower kernels strewn in the backyard or a handful of popped corn scattered for chickadees. But these so-called gateway activities can quickly escalate, and decent folk may soon find themselves sneaking out on Saturday mornings for a weekly fix of thistle seeds, millet, milo or suet. » Continue Reading.
Bad-hair days might be a personal frustration, possibly even a social calamity, but bad-air days can send the population of a whole region into a tailspin. Literally. By “bad air” I don’t mean urban smog, although that certainly merits an article, if not an actual solution. And while the fetid pong in one’s dorm room after an Oktoberfest all-you- can-drink bratwurst bash and sauerkraut-eating contest might bring tears to one’s eyes, that’s not the bad air I’m considering.
Under certain weather conditions, air becomes laden with positively charged ions, which is not a plus, as they can adversely affect our mental and emotional well-being. The saying “It’s an ill wind that blows no good” is meant to remind us that in the midst of difficulty we often find hidden gifts. Then again, sometimes the wind is what makes us ill. » Continue Reading.
Given that maple producers have to boil down roughly 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, you would think that dry weather might improve things. Obviously if drought could get rid of a bunch of water for free, the sap would become concentrated and you wouldn’t need to boil as much. Heck, in an extremely dry year maybe we could just drill into a maple and have granular sugar come dribbling out.
If only it worked that way. In general, a shortage of water during the growing season hampers the production of sugar and leads to lower sap sugar concentrations the following spring. Green plants have a magic formula for turning sunlight into sugar, and it calls for a few simple ingredients: water, carbon dioxide, sunlight and chlorophyll. If one item is missing, the transformation won’t work. I’m told most spells fail for want of a newt’s eye or some such, but if a thing as basic and usually commonplace as water is in short supply, the miracle of photosynthesis slows to a snail’s pace (which is likely used for some other spell). » Continue Reading.
Holiday parties are great for mingling with friends, but also for meeting new folk. Once you loosen up a bit, you might even let a charming newcomer kiss you under the mistletoe before the night’s end. But perhaps not if the new arrival is uninvited. And no one wants to be kissed without permission. Especially by a bug.
Chances are better than usual you’ll run into uninvited house guests this winter, and you can blame it on the past summer. Hot dry conditions in 2016 helped boost the population of some habitual break-and-enter offenders known as boxelder bugs. These oval, beetle-like insects are black to dark brown with red cross-hatch markings. Other than being a darned nuisance, these native party-crashers are completely harmless. However, they look very similar to a potentially dangerous insect, to whom they are related. (Different families, but the same order; you might say they’re kissing cousins.) » Continue Reading.
Apparently, the ceremonial burning of a large chunk of wood on or near the winter solstice (Yule to the old Germanic peoples) may have begun as a Nordic custom in the 6th century, possibly earlier. Known as a Yule clog, Yule block, Christmas log and other variants, the Yule log was purported to bring good luck in the new year if it burned all day long without being fully consumed. A remnant was always saved, and used to light the following year’s log. Though the tradition is much less common today, it has not been completely extinguished (so to speak).
Given the climate there, it is no surprise that the hardy folks in northern Europe thought the best way to observe a winter holiday was to light a tree trunk on fire and gather round it. That’s probably what I would have done, too. The French, on the other hand, put a whole new twist on the thing, inventing a delicious Yule log cake that they never burn, at least not intentionally. It took them a dozen or so centuries to come up with the recipe, but let’s not complain. You don’t have to go to France to check out a bûche de Noël — in Quebec you can find Yule log pastries that are works of art in addition to being delectable. (In an ironic twist, the bûche glacée de Noel, or frozen Christmas log, is gaining popularity in France and its territories.) » Continue Reading.
Speaking as a guy who can hide his own Easter eggs and still not find them, I marvel how Father Christmas, who is at least several years older than I, still manages to keep track of all those kids and their presents. Lucky for us that the most enduring memories are associated with smell. If it was not for the fragrant evergreen wreaths, trees and garlands (and possibly a hint of reindeer dung), Santa probably would have long ago forgotten his holiday duties.
Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit quite like the smell of fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir. Although most American households which observe Christmas have switched to artificial trees, about eleven million families still bring home a real tree. » Continue Reading.
When I was a kid I was fascinated by caterpillars, but had trouble with the word. To me, the sweet little woolly-bear traversing my hand was a “calipitter.” It was only years later I learned that a calipitter is an instrument used to measure the diameter of a caterpillar to the nearest micron.
Caterpillars continue to interest me, although I no longer find them universally cute. Imagine the letdown and loss of innocence following the discovery that some of these fuzzy, fascinating, gentle creatures that tickled their way across my hand were venomous. This revelation was akin to finding out Bambi was a dangerous carnivore, which in fact is a fear that haunts me to this day. » Continue Reading.
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