Summer, I have decided, brings out my worst obsessive-compulsive behavior. It zooms in on the garden, where, naturally, I have the least amount of control.
Starting around April, I am looking for signs of trouble – bugs, mildew, disease, plants that didn’t make it through the winter. I’m not wondering yet whether or not I’m a good person. I’m not taking death and decay personally. I clean up debris and shrug my shoulders.
By May, however, as each plant starts to rise a little taller, I’m in full blown OCD land. I fret about the salvia, spirea, yarrow, wild geranium, and Stoke’s aster plants that are curling up before my eyes. Like the Wicked Witch of the East’s shriveling, crushed legs under Dorothy’s house, the leaves on these flowers are dissolving, turning black, shirking back. Too much rain? Not enough rain? A virus? An insect? What kind? How will I know?
I study the leaves, identify a small red bug, and then another one with a black stripe. Instantly, I’m at my desk, googling for evil red bugs. The OSU Extension site says they are nymphs of the fourlined plant bug, Poecilocapsus lineatus, which is among the most dastardly of perennial flower pests. It doesn’t kill its host plant but it makes it look like crap, biting into the leaf and spreading a saliva (ew) that destroys tissue, then sucking out the liquefied tissue (eeeww).
Knowing the cause gives me a little bit of control, tamps down the OCD temporarily. I mix up a blend of rubbing alcohol and water, with a splash of dish soap, and spray the living bejesus out of every single shriveling plant. I feel a little better.
As I’m tackling P. lineatus, I start seeing three-leaved sprouts of poison ivy poking out of the soil. There’s one near the catmint, another by the mound of blue fescue. The minute I begin looking for it, poison ivy is everywhere. And then I start thinking about poison oak and how much harder it is to identify. Or poison sumac, god forbid.
I notice a plant that has three leaves and wonder if it is a perennial flower I planted last year or if it is some kind of mutated poison ivy. It is near the lilies and I stick my hand in to pull the lilies back so I can see better. I don’t even know if I touched the thing but I shift into Karen Silkwood mode. (Remember Meryl Streep playing Karen Silkwood in the movie Silkwood, the same movie in which Cher is a lesbian? OK, this dates me but it came out in 1983. Anyway, Meryl sets off alarms in the nuclear plant when she gets exposed to radiation, which immediately sends her into the shower to get scrubbingly decontaminated.) That’s what I feel like. Rubbing alcohol, dish soap, cold water. I think all the plants hate me now and this is my payment.
And then back to Google to identify the plant…because I’m still not quite convinced it is poison ivy. I google images of poison ivy leaves. It seems that every image I click – each one that looks like the culprit under the lilies in my front yard – is hosted on a site for naked hikers. One thing leads to another and, in addition to useless information about flyfishing, I now have a list of naked hiking web sites floating around in my brain cells: bushwalkingblog.com, gonomad.com, freehikingvermont.com, openjourney.com.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that nude hiking sites would include feature stories on poison ivy do’s and don’ts. I imagine an equal amount of space is devoted to tics, mosquitoes, nettles, and thorny, brambly things. What doesn’t make sense is nude hiking.
Long story short: turns out the poison ivy poser in my yard is actually an anemone. I’m looking forward to it flowering.
Now my attention is on the dreaded whitefly population that has invaded one of the back beds. Each spray of water drives an angry white cloud from the black-eyed Susan patch, only to land right back where they were, like unrepentant zombies. It is survival of the fittest out here.
I worry. I despair. I plant marigolds. I feed the earth with fish emulsion. I spray DeerOff at the edges of the beds. I worry some more. I feel guilty. I start talking to my plants to make them feel loved.
By fall, my OCD will wear out and I won’t care anymore. I will forget that I need to get rid of the dead stuff so that the fourlined bug doesn’t find a winter home. But then winter will come and I will be praying for spring so I can start all over again. My OCD will reappear just in time for the rise of the fourlined nymphs.