February 29, 2012

A Sinister Theory About the Source of Bugs in the Garden

Some catalogs feature cute-as-
a-button kids with ringlets
who smile as they eat their
veggies.  This one is from
Territorial Seed Co.
The coffee table in our family room groans under the weight of seed catalogs just now.  We get them by the dozens each year; not just the familiar Burpee’s and Johnny’s of Maine, but special ones chock full of heirloom varieties.  Every catalog is a promise of a wonderful summer rife with perfect, lush vegetables.  Some catalogs even feature photos of adorable children, some with ringlets in their hair, happily eating their veggies.  Life is good.

Betty goes through these catalogs, marking likely candidates for our own garden and other gardens for which she is ordering seeds.  She then compares characteristics of ‘like’ plants, looking for the tell-tale trade-offs among taste, yield, and days to maturity.  In the end, she makes reasoned choices that ensure our garden will be planted with just the right seeds for our needs.

Somewhere out there, I suspect, is an
'alternate' catalog with entries like this...
Why, then, do things go so terribly wrong in our garden every year?  In 2011, it was an infestation of corn borers on top of an army of Mexican bean beetles.  Voles ran amok and nematodes munched voraciously on the roots of our carrots.

And, it isn’t that we stood idly by, watching this destruction.  We keep deer out of our gardens with a vile-smelling spray that, based on its cost, includes gold dust as one of its ingredients.  My fingers turned yellow mushing the egg sacs of various beetles on the bottoms of leaves.  I gamely plucked tomato horn worms from vines; an act of selfless valor that should come with a medal for bravery.

I have a theory about why things go wrong in our gardens.  I cannot prove it, but I suspect that there is a catalog company out there, marketing sheer, unadulterated pestilence.  Its proprietors have a fleet of black trucks (with Jolly Roger flags on the side) that follow the mail man, watching mailboxes, looking for fat packages containing dozens of seed packets awaited by eager gardeners.  These evil businessmen then slit open the packages from the ‘good’ seed companies and substitute their own product (making certain to bill your credit for absurdly high shipping and handling in the process).

... or this.
Come May, you plant the seeds for bush beans, believing that you’ll be harvesting plump, tasty pods into July.  Instead, by some mysterious happenstance, bugs appear almost as soon as the cotyledons have given way to true leaves.  As there are no jumbo jets being chartered from Colorado or Mexico, the eponymous beetles have made their way here via some other means of transport: packets from that sinister seed company.

I can only imagine what their own catalog looks like.  Aphids and whitefly described with the same hyperbolic language used by the ‘good’ guys.  “Brand New! Apocalyptic™ Aphids!” an entry would shout in boldface type.  “Suck the life out of a row of celery in two days, guaranteed!” or “Calamitous® Cabbage Worm turns nearly-mature produce to slime before your eyes!!”

Of course, we hope for the best.  We use ‘best practices” to keep our gardens pest-free yet, somehow, the red spider mites find us.  As for me, this year I’m going to keep an eye on the mailbox, just in case there’s a black truck following it with a skull and crossbones on the side.

February 19, 2012


One day late last June, my wife, Betty, began complaining of feeling tired and a constant stomach pain. 

There are two things you should know about Betty:  first, that she is not a ‘complainer’.  If anything, she is the kind of person who doesn’t speak up even when she is freezing or about to have heat stroke.  Second, she has enormous energy.  Feeling ‘tired’ is not normally a part of her vocabulary.

When this condition persisted into a third day, I pushed her to go see her doctor (something else she does not do willingly).  Betty’s internist did an examination and then sent her down for blood work.  When Betty returned, her internist was wearing a surgical mask and handed one to Betty.
My wife's home away from home
for four days and three nights
“I’m calling for an ambulance and sending you to Brigham & Women’s,” the doctor said.  “Your white blood cell count is down to 20% of normal.  Until then, you’re in complete isolation.”

An hour later, Betty was admitted to Brigham & Women’s Hospital where she was put in an isolation room.  I was allowed to drive her into Boston, but that was the extent of the concessions to her dignity.  For the next two days, she was poked, prodded, and subjected to every conceivable test by a battery of specialists.  She was, for lack of a better description, “an interesting case” because there was no ready explanation for her extremely low white blood cell count.

If you are conversant with diseases and markers for them, you know that a low white blood cell count is closely tied to leukemia.  Brigham & Women’s is next door to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and connected to it by a host of passages through which passed oncology interns and residents eager to do bone biopsies.  Fortunately, Betty exhibited none of the other symptoms and so remained in the hands of the infectious disease people.
Ehrlichiosis bacterium
On her third day, she was visited by yet another specialist, who had heard of her condition and wanted to know more.  He spoke with Betty for half an hour, determining that she was an avid gardener who spent a lot of time outdoors in multiple gardens.  Betty also said that she occasionally found ticks on her body but removed them promptly and had seen no rash.  The specialist asked an odd question: if Betty had recently been to the Gulf Coast.  Betty said, “no”.
“I think I know what’s wrong with you,” he said.  “I think you’re the sixth case of Ehrlichiosis I’ve diagnosed this year.”

Then, he said something scary:  “If I’m right, doxycycline will kill the bacteria that are shredding your white blood cells and we’ll see some improvement within 24 hours.  But, if I’m wrong, the doxycycline will mask other markers and make it harder to find the right infection diagnosis.  What do you want to do?”

Another vial of blood was drawn and Betty started on doxycycline.  It would take a week for the results to come back.  It confirmed that Betty had contracted a rare disease: Ehrlichiosis. 
Double-click to see this chart at a
more readable size.  The nymph
deer tick is the second smallest
Ehrlichiosis, or more specifically, Human monocytic ehrlichiosis, is a tick-borne disease seen, when it is seen at all, in Texas and Arkansas (hence the question about whether Betty had been on the Gulf Coast recently).  There, it is carried by the Lone Star tick and infects a few thousand people each year. 

The good news is that Ehrlichiosis responds to doxycycline, the same drug that is used to treat Lyme Disease.  Betty’s white blood cell count began climbing within 24 hours and she was released (after four days and three nights) to complete her recuperation at home.

The bad news is that Ehrlichiosis takes a well-read infectious disease specialist to spot and, even if Ehrlichiosis is suspected, there’s no ‘quick test’ for it, as there is with Lyme Disease.  Moreover, the absence of a rash is not at all uncommon; in fact, it occurs in fewer than half the cases.  Betty had the muscle aches (her stomach) and malaise that are common symptoms, but not the chills and fever or nausea that are the most common ones.

As the specialist explained it, the scariest part of Ehrlichiosis is that it is so hard to diagnose.  The bacteria invade the blood stream and begin attacking white blood cells.  The infected person gets sick but there’s no clear indication of what’s wrong.  In the meantime, the person’s immune system is badly compromised, and a hospital is a terrific place to pick up additional bugs.  As the infected person picks up those secondary infections, they’re treated for them, but without treating for the underlying ehrlichi bacteria.  In a ‘good’ outcome, the patient comes down with a secondary infection that is treated with doxycycline.  In a bad outcome, the secondary infections keep piling up and the patient dies; the underlying diagnosis never made.

The second scariest part of Ehrlichiosis is that researchers are still unclear as to how long a human has to come into contact with an infected tick.  For Lyme, it’s 24 to 48 hours.  Betty never noticed a tick and did not remove one in the week before her symptoms appeared. She is meticulous about showering.  Could it be that even a brief contact with an infected tick is sufficient?

And, here’s another scary footnote: even after Betty’s white blood cell went back to normal, the lack of strength and continuing tiredness continued for several months.  Those symptoms are common after-effects of the disease.

A month after Betty was released from the hospital, researchers from the Mayo Clinic formally reported their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine that a previously unidentified strain of the ehrlichia bacteria had infected deer ticks in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and were spreading the disease to humans, with 24 cases confirmed.  The report, however, made no mention of New England as a target.

So, call this a warning.  If you garden in New England, there’s a new, very nasty bug out there to be wary of.  Ehrlichiosis has joined Lyme Disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis as a reason to slather yourself with tick repellents, and to wear clothing that gives ticks fewer point of contact.

February 11, 2012

That Was the Winter That Was

The photo at left is of a snowstorm, Massachusetts style, 2012.  This is the winter of the Arctic Oscillation and La Nina.  It may well be the spring of few blooms.

Double-click on the image and you'll
see snow falling.  Unfortunately, it
melts as it hits the ground.  The red
arrow points to our snow 'pile'.
If you are reading this from Europe, you are doubtlessly saying, ‘feel free to take some of ours’, because Europe is having one of its coldest and snowiest winters on record, with Rome digging out from a once-in-a-century eight-inch blizzard and more northerly cities shivering from a never-ending Arctic blast.

Here in the Boston suburbs, we have had exactly seven inches of snow, and two of those inches fell in October.  We were supposed to get a measurable storm today.  One of the Boston newspapers even called Betty looking for a comment on its implications. 

But the predicted storm has fizzled.  The snow at 2,000 feet turns to rain as it hits the ground.  We have a wet driveway to show for it, and nothing else.  That tiny patch of white in the photo is the remnant of our January “storm”, and it’s only there because we pushed all the snow from the driveway into one pile.  Betty and I usually take bets along about now on when the last of the snow on the property will melt.  This year, the bet is off.

Rome gets snow, we get bupkis.
As everyone knows by now, this is all the result of the Arctic Oscillation.  The jet stream has pushed unusually far north and some poor town in Alaska has received 22 feet of snow.  Weaker Atlantic trade winds allow little pockets of cold air to descend into unusual places like, say, southern Italy, with the result that the Romans have snowball fights for the first time in living memory.

This would all be sour grapes except that New England gardens are likely to pay the price for this weather anomaly.  This morning, when I went out to get the newspaper, I found that yet another spring bulb had popped out of the ground – thrust up by the heaving of the earth caused, in turn, by the fact that the ground isn’t frozen down two feet like it ought to be.  I only saw the bulb because it’s a hyacinth, which the squirrels and rabbits won’t touch on a bet. 

The lack of frozen ground and snow means our trees will ‘pop’ weeks earlier than is good for them.  If the Arctic Oscillation dissipates and we get a couple of late season nor’easters, we’ll have branches and entire trees breaking over.  The perennials will have weakened roots because of the aforementioned heaving and will come up earlier.  That will require more soil moisture, and that’s exactly what we have a deficit of because of the lack of snow.

We will get through this, of course.  Plants are, for the most part, resilient.  But we breed plants today for their showy blooms and textured foliage, not for hardiness.  I suspect that by this fall, more than a few of our specimen shrubs will have gone to Plant Heaven.

No one said being a gardener was easy.  This winter – and the coming spring – we’ll find out just how difficult being a gardener really is.

February 6, 2012

I Married a Plant Prostitute

So, there I was on a Friday evening, crawling through rush-hour traffic along the Mass Pike in an ancient truck with dubious brakes, no suspension to speak of, and a water garden slamming into my right leg every time I accelerated.  This is the lot in life for a Principal Undergardener, especially when he is married to a plant prostitute.

Maybe I should explain.

New England Grows - it's as though an entire village
springs up overnight
Each February, the ‘Green Industry’ in New England gets together in Boston to exchange ideas and show its wares.  If that term is unfamiliar to you, the Green Industry is the world of nurseries, growers, seed companies, garden centers, landscapers, and the ancillary equipment (from pots to greenhouses and earth moving equipment) that serve their needs.

It's a sea of greenery in
early February
It all takes place in the mammoth Boston Convention & Exposition Center and this year’s show unfolded over three days last week.  I spent one day – Thursday - at the show basically wandering around and seeing some industry friends.  Betty went her own way to do what she does at the show.

I have a fundamental fascination with trade shows.  They’re theater at its very best and person-to-person contact in an age when websites and Skype have rendered reach-out-and-touch selling an anachronism.  It’s as though some smart people got together and, overnight, threw up a town dedicated to just one subject. And, because the subject happens to be plants and their care, it features a lot of greenery and color at a time of year when such things are in short supply in New England.

I was there to gawk
and play with the toys...
I spent hours wandering aisles, examining plants and tools, and generally annoying the sales staffs because I did not represent a chain of retail nurseries or landscaping service.  It was truly a wonderful day and I was a kid in a candy store.  That was Thursday.

Then came Friday afternoon and a return trip to the show.  At 3 p.m., the show closed.  At 3 p.m. and one second, vendors began breaking down their exhibits, packing up equipment and putting everything on giant carts to wheel out to waiting trucks.  For most show visitors, it would be time to go home.  For me, it was the beginning of work.

...Betty was there with big game in mind
You see, while I was playing with toys and ogling plants, my wife was going booth to booth asking for plants.  Her pitch was well honed: she’s putting together a garden for a not-for-profit institution at next month’s Boston Flower & Garden Show, and she really needs plants.  If the vendor said ‘sorry’, Betty smiled, said, ‘well, thank you anyway’, and went onto the next exhibit.  And, in fact, many nurseries and plant growers sell the contents of their entire booth during the show.

But for those who don’t, those plants - be they annuals or perennials, plugs or trees - are a pain in the neck to truck back, where they occupy greenhouse space and require heat and maintenance.  Giving them away for a worthy cause is icing on the cake.

Let’s just say that Betty was fabulously successful.  She had roped in four Master Gardeners to help collect plants and we all began taking them out to the aforementioned borrowed truck, which had an enclosed bay of about 120 square feet.  Even as we stacked in plants pot-to-pot, it was obvious that we had more plants than we had space.  So, some plants went into boxes and more plants went on top of those boxes.  When we ran out of space in the truck’s bay, we started using its cab.

As the show deconstructed itself around us, Betty saw other plants in booths that weren’t being loaded onto dollies.  “Can we have that?” she would ask.  Invariably, the answer was in the affirmative.  It was at this point that one of her Master Gardener buddies, seeing Betty triumphantly return with a nectarine tree in bud, said, “You are such a plant prostitute.”

“I know,” Betty said, sheepishly. 

“I am, too,” her friend said.  “And I love it.”

In all, we garnered more than 400 plants which, along with what we already have in greenhouses will fairly well populate the 1100 square foot exhibit.  It took until 9 p.m. to tuck them all into a greenhouse.  Part of this week will be spent sorting the new plants into a semblance of order to determine what is usable immediately for the show and what will go into a second display planned for April.

A worthy cause?  Definitely.  Did my arse and back ache all weekend?  Also, definitely.