The Department of You Think You’ve Got Problems

Every once in a while, I learn something that puts my problems into perspective.

This is not to say that I’ve bought into my mother’s pocket wisdom, based largely on her impoverished childhood. Whenever one of us kids was inclined to complain about some minor irritant—somebody picking on you at school, a smashed bike we couldn’t afford to replace, a parental prohibition on having any fun with friends on Good Friday—her invariable response, unless actual blood was spurting, was: “no matter how bad off you are, there’s always someone worse.” (I know that’s not grammatical, but that’s what she said.)

Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware that there are degrees of bad. There’s too much rain in one week, for example, and there’s the Greenland ice cap melting. There’s a very dry July, and there’s the Dixie fire and then the Caldor fire.

Best intentions

I’d been planning on treating you to a blog post about all the little things that were actually going right in my garden. Maybe I’ll slip in a few of those a bit further along here. But I have to admit I have been getting the tiniest bit grumpy because not everything has gone right.

My chickenwire crop coops (try saying that ten times in a row, fast!) have kept out the bunnies, but not the cabbage white butterflies. Twice now, within a week, I’ve found one of those fluttering inside one of the coops, trying to get out. Either they’re smart enough to figure out how to get in but too dumb to find an exit, or they’re hatching inside. In any case, I released them and now watch anxiously for signs of caterpillar devastation on my Pink Beauty radishes. None appeared, but something attacked the roots of the arugula in the same coop. Sayonara, last night’s salad.

And I delayed just a little too long before harvesting my beauteous basil. Five flourishing bushes of the stuff. When I finally went out with my knife, I found them all full of downy mildew. So, down the oubliette with those.

Bean plants in foreground, growing upwards supported by strings stretched horizontally attached to vertical wooden stakes. Right hand stakes for 3 rows of beans are visible. In background, other plants, chickenwire crop coops visible, with some lawn off to the right and trees in background, revealing a small splotch of blue sky.

When bush beans go pole…

There can even be too much of a good thing, like the bush beans that weren’t. Bush, that is. I thought maybe I misread the package, but I just dug it out again.  There’s the name on the label: Maxibel Haricot Vert Bush Bean. Two weeks ago, I had to sacrifice a half dozen of my 5-foot plant stakes to improvise a support system for bushies that seem to think they’re pole beans.

But at least they have started to form the skinny little haricots.

That, however, is not the perspective I got.


For that, I take you halfway round the globe and invoke the experience of my friend R.

R has lived in Bali for many years now. I’ve visited that amazing island a couple of times, and let me tell you, when people talk about tropical paradises, they are not exaggerating. Things grow fast, in profusion, with wild abandon. Everywhere. Rain is regular, and so is sunshine. Okay, maybe it’s kind of hot and humid, but hey, tomatoes and eggplants and peppers love that.

Thick Balinese jungly growth, with vines climbing up tall trees, and some large-leafed plants in foreground that look like vastly overgrown versions of house plants; dominant color is green in shades ranging from bright medium to shadowy dark green

“House” plants in original habitat

So do all sorts of plants that we here in the “temperate” (speaking of averages) northeastern US consider houseplants. But oh my, outdoors in Bali, they grow so big they’d never fit in your house. Unless you are blessed with cathedral ceilings and seven thousand square feet of unencumbered floor space.

R recently consulted me about what plants might be suitable for sprucing up his indoor open-air patio (aka living room and dining room). He thought Monstera deliciosa would be easy (and Monstera can sure live up to its name in Bali!). But he leaned towards some kind of Heliconia. We went back and forth a bit, and I suggested that he might want a combination that would fill out more lushly than the more narrowly vertical Heliconia.

Paradise, but for…

He replied that it’s not a good idea to “let things get too jungly,” citing experience.

There used to be two or three big vines of [a] climbing plant…. [I]t had morphed into huge, tree-like vines that climbed to the ceiling in two locations, some very big leaves, actually somewhat attractive.

Sounded pretty cool to me, all right, but he continued:

The problems is that when things get too jungly here, one can find that one has created a wonderful habitat for snakes.

His next sentence mentioned cobras and kraits.

He was not just dramatizing the issue. I did some research.

Bright green viper coiled on top of a branch; branch is bare, brown, and about twice the thickness of the viper's body. Viper's tail has a strip of red; the top of the head is a slightly deeper green than the body, which verges on chartreuse

White-lipped Island Pit Viper, Trimeresurus insularis
by Bernard Dupont
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Bali is home to six species of poisonous land snakes: the spitting cobra, the king cobra, the blue krait, the banded krait, the Asian coral snake, and the island pit viper (which hangs out in trees and shrubs during the day). For a couple of these, no anti-venom is available. You might survive a bite from one of those, if they get you onto a ventilator fast enough, and keep you on it for a week.

Not that R had seen any of these interlopers in his living space yet, but he sure got me thinking. Especially after I ran across the photo of the seventh and highly venomous reptile, the banded sea krait. Normally they stay in the water, but they do come on land to lay their eggs. This particular specimen had its portrait taken after being found in a villa in the lovely little seaside town of Sanur.

Near where R happens to live.

Why invite trouble? Plant the Heliconia!

A patch of Heliconia pendula, with straight upright stems and large leaves somewhat like banana leaves, but flopped over, and strings of yellow-tipped red bracts hanging below the leaves, nearly to the ground

Heliconia pendula, by wallygrom
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Next time I’m out shaking my head over the cabbage whites’ damage or muttering unprintables as I struggle to establish yet another tier of support for those boisterous beans, I’ll hear my mother’s voice saying, “no matter how bad off you are…”

Good news?

So, the good news is, I can reach in to harvest those haricots without worrying that my hand will come out with a krait attached to my wrist. This, believe me, is a great comfort. So much so that I barely notice the large spiders staring warily at me from atop the bean leaves.

Other things are going fairly well too. My main attention in recent weeks has been on the veggie garden. I was late putting much into it this summer, so most of the raised beds stayed pretty bare until late July. But I’m here to tell you: there’s a lot you can put into the ground in late July or early August, and still get a respectable crop.

Two French breakfast radishes and a handful's worth of thin haricot green beans, on either side of a 12-inch wooden ruler, showing that the beans are about 6 inches long and the radishes about two inches. The radishes are vaguely cylindrical in shape, with deep pink tops (here, inverted to bottom of the picture) and a small strip of white towards the root end.The aforementioned beans look likely to overwhelm me with their output. The arugula (the ones the mysterious root marauder hasn’t gotten to) and the lettuce are chugging along nicely, and bid fair to overwhelm me alongside the beans. The peas (peas!!! in September!!!) have started flowering and I cherish hopes of getting a few. Not too many, because: the beans. The radishes have yielded numerous pink globes and a few French breakfast pink-and-whites. (Never mind that half of them look more like a dog’s dinner; they taste just fine.)

Shiso has been spicing up my salads, and the cilantro is looking close to ready. The chard is rampant. And I just put some kale starts in a couple weeks ago; I’ll report back about those. Not sure yet whether I’ll get much out of the carrots, but the green tops sure look pretty. Thinking I should plant a lot of them as borders for the flowerbeds next spring.

Speaking of which, my sister was here for about 10 days and heroically weeded those beds, thus leaving me with more time for fussing over the veggies. Meanwhile her dog, by snuffling eagerly around the burrow apparently taken over by a wascally wabbit from Tamerlane-the-woodchuck, struck such terror into its resident that I have seen nary a rodent since. He is aptly named: Boo.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Did you do any late-season planting this year, and/or do you usually do so? If veggies, which ones do best for you? If flowers, please let us all know what manages to flower before the frosts hit!
  2. Or, if you’re already packing your garden in for the year, what are you looking forward to, to replace your work out in the garden?
  3. What’s the worst garden disaster you’ve experienced this year, and on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being meh, and 10 being a banded sea krait), how bad would you say it was?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Thanks for reading! (And P.S.: that’s a monarch butterfly’s caterpillar pictured at the top of the page, taking a rest from chomping its way through my one surviving Asclepias tuberosa.)

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10 Responses to The Department of You Think You’ve Got Problems

  1. helen snively says:

    Are all of you free of the Asian jumping worm? It is known all over New England at this point.. bigger than our dear red worms who do such a lovely job in our composters. Grayish and wiggly with a distinctive ring or clitellum not far from the head. Eats away at the duff layer in the woods.. That’s enough info for a taste.. you can google and get way more info than you want.
    I got my worms from a beloved neighbor who gave me one pot of goldenrods before she realized she’d gotten the critters from a beloved native plant nursery out your way (I’m in Cambridge). The good side of all this is I’ve met lots more neighbors and fellow gardeners: helping them find worms, sympathizing, thinking about treatments, etc. At times I think I”m becoming the local worm lady but it also builds community in this dislocated time of ours.

    • Kateri says:

      Funny you should mention this, Helen. I’ve been planning to put together a post about the worms soon. Just visited a native-plants nursery out here, where the owner found infestations of the worms in some of the new plants, and suspects they may have traveled in with a shipment of mulch or compost. She said many nurseries have the worms and some don’t even bother to do anything to control them. In the short run, this has made me very cautious about trading plant divisions with friends, which is such a pity! It’s also made me far more cautious about where I’ll be buying plants. There should be much more publicity about this; the spread is fast, and it’s still under most gardeners’ radar.

  2. Susan Mckenna says:

    I just moved and an avid gardener in my neighborhood gave me a Rose of Sharon seedling. As readers may recall, I am the Non-Constant Gardener, the one who does not like to have their hands in the dirt. Kateri has kindly offered to help me plant the seedling and I will dig in the ashes of my beloved Aussie, Cinema, who died last summer. Looking forward to seeing her bloom again outside my writing window. Thanks Kateri.

    • Kateri says:

      By the way, folks: that planting ceremony is coming at the end of this week. There may be photos in a future post! (And I think Susan should be nominated to track the bush’s progress photographically–starting next spring–so we can all enjoy it.)

  3. Teague Skye says:

    well. not sure what (literally on earth?) heroically weeding is about… those suckers slid out into my hands – all mushy wet loamie dirt and all that mulch over the weed block paper! piece a cake. besides, it’s just another meditation for me as you know.
    have to wonder about your initial statement re everything not going “right”. seems to me one thing the earth is always trying to teach us is that life is a long series of reconciliations between our ideas of what reality (aka the garden?) “should” look or be like and the real reality. if i have to submit/limit myself to this concept of rightness and wrongness, i’d choose the garden’s way every time as the “right” way. never forget “maizee the individualistic cornplant”!
    i don’t think momma nature has much to learn from us other than perhaps disgust; we, on the other hand, as a species, have everything to learn from her. i’ll choose her and plant people’s knowledge over ours every time as you know.
    yer uppity little sister teague who weeds with her breath moving through her hands.
    love ya dear.
    ps please keep writing these – i enjoy them so.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Teague! And thanks for the weeding job, which (thanks to the shortening days and cooling temperatures) has kept things under control despite my apparent inability to get out there and do more weed patrol duty.

  4. Leslie Swartz says:

    Good news, bad news this unusual summer

    My reblooming daylilies just keep on reblooming. In an ordinary season they would rebloom once. This year I’m looking at at least the 4th round. I’m grateful.

    On the other end you of the spectrum the biggest and oldest of my peonies has white mildew, necessitating an early severe pruning. Not that they were going to bloom again but their abundant large foliage did not have a chance to turn that gorgeous dark shade. I may need to rethink density on that area. Or rip it all up and try again

    I’ll have lots of time to consider my options.

    • Kateri says:

      And there’s still time! I’m not sure it’s a great idea to tear the peonies out entirely, but dividing them and thinning the planting out a bit might help. Not sure anything would have prevented the white mildew this year, with all the rain we’ve gotten in the Northeast.
      Nice of your daylilies to give you the compensatory show. What an indestructible plant. I’m convinced that after nuclear Armageddon, daylilies will outsurvive the cockroaches. Possibly with all kinds of interesting mutations….

  5. lorna says:

    When my Jamaican friend was weeding my flower garden two years ago, a very pretty garden snake sent him flying across my property to the west side. He came back with a machete but I stopped him from taking personal affront, but then he was mad at me for not being mad at the snake.

    Today I planted oats to nurture the soil of my vegetable garden that did so poorly this year. I always have such good tomatoes, squash, eggplant, okra, etc, but the garden was a dud all the way through the season.

    Today I was weeding and got stung by 7-8 bees; so stingingly painful, still, but none stung my eyes, and they were not yellow jackets, or I would not be here typing this tonight.

    • Kateri says:

      Lorna, what a tale of garden woes! Good news for the snake, at least, but that’s two years back. I hope the snake has been repaying you by eating some of the critters that raid the veggie patch.
      Seems that this year was a gardening/ farming dud for lots of people, and also for certain crops. Must have been the excessive rain. I wish I’d been planting mushrooms; I seem to get bumper crops of those where I never expected them, and I can’t tell poisonous from otherwise, so I just take their pictures and move on.
      Bad bad bees! Wonder what kind they were? That would sure dampen my enthusiasm for weeding.

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