Archives for category: Organic Gardening

FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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GOING ORGANIC

As both a new arrival to North Carolina and a recent refugee from a law career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience. An organic farming class offered at Central Carolina Community College fit the bill. Not only would I learn new gardening techniques and pest control measures, but for three hours a week I could sample the life of a working farmer.
Little did I suspect that organic farming consists of only one part gardening to nine parts chemistry and soil analysis. For a former literature major like myself, there were intolerably massive doses of incomprehensible terms like “Ph”.
The first class, held at a real farm in Pittsboro, began with the customary introduction of the participants. Several were already professional farmers in search of knowledge in the “organic” realm. Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming, though they had degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry. One classmate had just inherited twenty-seven acres and craved direction and inspiration — organic farm or housing development? A contingent were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune. And then there was me, in over my head, a retired lawyer who grows a backyard vegetable garden.
The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose past was intriguing. Doug graduated from Harvard circa 1975 and somehow missed the memo about investment banking. His was the stringy body of a man who has done backbreaking, painstaking physical labor for nearly forty years. Just as stringy was the grey ponytail down the middle of his back.
Certainly, Doug’s jeans, boots and flannel shirts started out clean each day; however, by the five p.m. start of our weekly class, they were always caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours. To me, they looked muddy.
And THAT summarizes the course for me. Yes, I learned to place a tomato plant sideways in its hole. I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting. I learned to construct a raised bed and to make a temporary greenhouse. I learned one should not refer to the class as “orgasmic” gardening in front of classmates who do not consider it a laughing matter.
But I also learned being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work. There are challenges wrought by bugs and bacteria made exponentially harder by the organic element. And, organic or not, there are battles with heat, drought, floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina! And there are vagaries of produce prices and supply shortages, etc.
Farming is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year pursuit, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there is a small profit in the end. While I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my humble garden at home, there is no new career in it for me. Ultimately, what I learned is not to complain about the price of organic produce at the market.


SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Considering the title, readers familiar with my work will expect this story to take a turn for the metaphorical, to skewer or, at least, examine a lawyer or business or school-related character who shocked me or taught me to be wary. But, no, this is really about a snake in the grass.
I was mowing the lawn this morning, thinking a variety of virtuous thoughts, as I always do. See, the only way I convince myself that mowing the lawn is a reasonable activity for me to undertake, when it would be so easy to just hire someone to do it, other than the crass motivation of “saving money,” is that it is a form of exercise; it’s as valid as going to the gym. In addition, since I use a reel mower not seen in these parts since the 1950’s, I am helping the earth by rejecting fossil fuels. Also, my mower is quiet. Yes, that is the self-congratulatory mindset I usually wallow in while doing a passable, if mediocre, job on my lawn.
When I finished the front yard and proceeded to the rear yard this morning, I noted in my peripheral vision what initially struck me as an odd-colored and odd-shaped black-and-white stick, about five feet in length, ahead of me.
I did not need Jane Goodall’s level of naturalist expertise to conclude, after the initial shock: “That’s not a stick.” A very-much-alive, slithering object was slowly wending its way across my lawn twenty feet ahead. And, unlike several other snakes I have encountered, this one did not startle and race away in the opposite direction. Rather, he/she simply appeared to consider my presence and my now-regrettably quiet and non-threatening mower, to be part of the local environment.
“Whoa, that’s a big one,” I said to myself. This conclusion was in contrast to the not-uncommon sight of baby or juvenile snakes that we see somewhat regularly in a deceased and flattened state on our community’s concrete roads. We have often noted, my wife and I, that there are a lot of traffic-naive baby snakes around, yet one rarely sees the grown-ups. Obviously, they must be around somewhere; this morning, one was in my yard.
Let the record reflect I did not yelp or run. I merely blanched and hurriedly turned my mower around and headed towards the front of the house. There, with my front lawn mown but my back lawn still long, I considered my options. I could tell Katie the mower broke, and we needed to hire someone to finish the job. Lame. I could grab a shovel and return to the backyard to kill the serpent. No way. I recalled the time, several years ago, when we needed our seventy-five year-old neighbor to come to our driveway with his shovel to dispense with a live, baby copperhead. As humiliating as it should have been for me to stand by while he defended my house and family from the ten-inch menace, I was perfectly satisfied with my choice.
“I know what to do,” I said to myself. “I’ll look up black-and-white striped snakes on the internet and figure out what kind of snake this is. THEN, I can decide if we need to hire someone to mow the back or if I need to innocently ask our neighbor to take a stroll in the yard to, ostensibly, look at my vegetable garden. If he is away, I can suggest to Katie we let the backyard grow into a natural space and never step foot in it again.”
Meanwhile, when I went inside and looked out at the back yard, what I really hoped was that the snake had forsaken our yard forever. I was craving a triumph of “Wu-Wei,” the Chinese concept of “action through inaction,” that has guided so much of my life. Initially, I couldn’t locate the snake. My heart rate slowed. Calmly, confident the snake had disappeared, I entered “Black and White snakes in North Carolina.” Immediately, a whole page of pictures popped up. “My” snake, it turns out, is common and harmless. In spite of his passivity, he/she is grandly named a “King Snake,” with unmistakable black and white stripes. He is not poisonous or aggressive around people and is actually described as a boon to a garden because he is so effective at killing rodents.
“Okay,” I said to myself, “he’s (I decided to consider him a ‘he’ due to his name) not bad to have in the vicinity, so long as he isn’t too close.” I continued to read a comment from someone who witnessed a king snake actually attack and kill a larger, poisonous copperhead. “Wow,” I thought, “not only is he harmless, he’s also heroic. So long as I don’t have to see him, I can live with a king snake in the neighborhood.”
It was at that moment my heart sank; I looked outside just in time to see my slithering neighbor, my serpentine savior slide into a hole leading beneath my patio. “Great, just great. He’s the other resident in what is now a duplex.”
So, now what do I do? Only an ogre would poison a snake so regal (no pun intended). But I really don’t want to think about him every time I venture to the back yard. And I definitely don’t want to see him on a regular basis. And there are several family members who don’t want to know the nuances of “good snake versus bad snake,” to whom “a snake is a snake.”
Back to the internet again: there are non-lethal, organic sprays and powders that are designed to encourage a snake to depart. I suppose I’ll try them. To paraphrase an adage from movies and literature to describe everything from “men” to “women” to “internet passwords”: “A beneficial snake. Can’t live with him; can’t kill him.”


A SPLINTER

 

The suspect in this personal tragedy is the iris plant adjacent to our front entrance.  I was weeding around the front garden when I ran my hand along its stalk to experience its verdant life and came away with a splinter both microscopically invisible and intensely painful.  A dilemma arose, namely:  how to extract something one cannot see from a location as sensitive as the soft pad of one’s index finger?

Initially, one tries a clean sewing needle.  That succeeds in drawing blood and making me ponder what it is like in the bowels of the gulag or similar torture chambers.  I actually learn something – not to minimize the suffering of torture victims but, after several minutes of excruciating rooting around in my soft tissue with the end of a needle, I become somewhat inured to the intensity of the pain.

Having created an impressive puddle of blood on my own finger, it was not clear that the offending splinter was gone.  I could only hope that the area would heal unencumbered by the original cause of its swelling and soreness.

During the clotting and healing phase, I learn something else – the index finger on one’s dominant hand is really important!  Almost every surface I touch involves the right index finger.  Brushing teeth and, especially, flossing is index finger –intensive; likewise, gripping the steering wheel, inserting keys, opening cans, etc.  And don’t even think about playing tennis!

Among the frustrations of suffering this injury, so small yet so dynamic, is how avoidable it is.  I regularly remind myself not to engage in garden-related activities with bare hands.  Besides the possibility of splinters, there are a slew of hazards, including insects, poison ivy and thorns that are easily avoided by the mere use of gloves.  Yet, at least once a season, laziness, inattention or vanity conspires to remind me of this obvious fact.  Among the reasons I have stupidly failed to wear gloves include, but are not limited to, the following:

 

  1. I’m just weeding for a few minutes so why should I go to the garage for gloves;
  2. I may not find the gloves easily in the garage because I’m not so good at putting them back in the same place each time;
  3. The area I am gardening does not appear to have any hazards;
  4. Though I am notoriously unable to recognize poison ivy, my cursory glance at the area in question does not reveal any;
  5. An activity as benign as straightening a small area of a garden cannot possibly result in pain and suffering; and
  6. The only gloves I can locate appear really dorky and/or are pink, and even though I am secure in my manhood, they do not help my image in the neighborhood.

After my bloodletting, I apply a band-aid and hope for the best.  The next day, my finger is throbbing around the mound that now surrounds the excavation site.  I ask myself:  is it throbbing because there is still a splinter or because I dug into my finger with a needle?

My wife warns:  “You have to be sure the splinter is out.  Otherwise, it will never heal.”

I want to say something unpleasant, like “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” but I can’t, because she is right.  She offers to wield the needle again.

“There must be another way,” I say.

“Let’s look it up,” she says.

Sure enough, the computer search reveals reams of articles in the realm of splinter-extraction.  Among the inventive ideas are to wrap the area in a compress of baking soda.

“That’s better than a needle,” I note, though I am skeptical.  “How is that supposed to work?”

“Baking soda swells the surface, then you cover the area with sticky tape, and pull it off fast.  If the splinter has risen to the top, it will come out with the tape.”

“Sounds slightly plausible,” I admit.

After a day of wearing baking soda I examine the area and the mound of soreness persists.  We apply tape and rip it off several times.  No splinter is apparent.

“Let’s try a tweezers,” says my wife.

This sets off a round of searching in the bathroom, since tweezers are in the category of Phillips screwdrivers and non-dairy creamers; things you know you acquired at some point but cannot actually locate when needed.  As the search lengthens, I ask:

“What else can we try?”

“It says here that immersion in a potato helps to extract a splinter.”

“Are you serious?” I ask.

“Yes, something about the starch softening the skin.  A tweezers works more easily after that.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes,” she says.  “The next idea is a razor blade.”

“Whoa, that’s not good.  Let’s try harder to find the tweezers.”

Finally, we locate tweezers and a magnifying glass and squeeze around the area with them.  This is more pleasant than root canal without anasthesia, I imagine, but less pleasant than almost anything else.  With no pried-loose pricker apparent, and my wound turning an angry red again, I try optimism as a default position:

“I bet we got it out with the needle on the first try.  The soreness is just from the extraction.  Let’s give it a couple of days.”

My hopes are eventually vindicated, though it takes closer to a week for all the soreness to disappear.  Will I ever weed or garden without gloves again?  Certainly not in the immediate future, particularly with the specter of a razor blade participating in the “cure.”  However, human nature being what it is….


Dear Subscribers:

The story below grew out of a writing group session.  The prompt was that we closed our hands and were given a sprig of something.  All the women recognized it to be rosemary and wrote about cooking and herbs and Simon & Garfunkel.  I thought it was wheat so thought of my gardening class.  This continues an apparent theme of placing myself as a naif in a self-deprecating manner.  The leader suggested a whole collection of “fish out of water” experiences.  But I’m not certain that I want that to be my legacy…

As a new arrival to NC and a recent refugee from a career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience.  An organic farming program at the Central Carolina Community College seemed just right.  I figured I would learn some new planting techniques and pest control measures and experience, for three hours a week, the lifestyle of a real working farmer. Little did I suspect that organic gardening is one part gardening for about nine parts chemistry and soil analysis along with liberal doses of incomprehensible terms like “pH.”

The course began with the usual introductions of the participants.  Several were already professional farmers in search of information and techniques in the “organic” realm.  Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming though they tended to have degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry.  One classmate had just inherited 27 acres and was seeking inspiration —  organic farm or housing development?

A surprisingly large contingent of the students, or at least surprising to
me, were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, as they say.  And then there was me, the old English major, in over my head once again.

The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose back story, if I knew it, would probably make a better story than this.  Doug is a Harvard graduate circa 1975 who somehow missed the memo about investment banking.  He has the stringy body of a man who has been doing back-breaking, painstaking physical labor for 40 years.  Just as stringy is the obligatory grey ponytail that falls down the middle of his back.  I am certain that Doug’s jeans and boots and flannel shirts all started out everyday clean; however, by the 5 p.m. start of our class, they were caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours.  To me, they just looked muddy.

And THAT summarizes the course for me in a nutshell.  Yes, I learned how to lay a tomato plant sideways in its hole.  I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting.  I learned how to construct a raised bed and how to make a temporary greenhouse.  I learned that one should not refer to the class as orgasmic gardening in front of a large contingent of classmates who somehow lost their senses of humor.

But I also learned that being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work and
being an ORGANIC farmer multiplies the difficulty exponentially.  There is weather to contend with, and bugs and bacteria and heat and drought and unpredictable prices and shortages of supplies and floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina.

Farming is seven days a week, 365 days a year, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there will be a tiny profit at the end.  So, though I was exposed to the farmer’s life and I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my 5 X 10 foot plot at home, there is no new career in it for me.  But I am a lot less likely to complain about the price differential of organic produce at the market.