Gardening Warfare

The Zen garden of sand and a few aesthetically placed rocks encourages peacefulness, serenity and restoration of the soul.

In my yard, gardening is WAR.

I enjoy gardening, not just the resulting blooms or neat hedge, but the act of gardening, the fight itself. The tug-of-war that uproots an errant orange tree seedling is the kind of reward that brings me back week after screaming week. The battle field of my yard yields regular skirmishes. Hefting a three-gallon sprayer can make or break me on a windless evening when the temperature reaches a scorching 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but I soldier on. Okay, so once I braved on until heatstroke amplified the feel of the rotation of the earth and I planted my face on my verdant St. Augustine grass.

My husband, my ally, often wages the larger battles with me, but his regular field of warfare takes place inside the house involving carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and the usual repairs demanded by home ownership. Separate weapons; separate war.

dew on a spiderwebJust hearing the name of sedge grass raises my battle cry. This yard is mine and you can’t take it you weed, you. Back, back, I shout spraying it with diluted poison. I have to laugh when I read that the ‘natural look’ is in for residential gardens.

The natural state of a yard in Florida would include chaos, weeds, root-rot, fungus, ant colonies, erosion, cinch bugs, armadillo burrows, snake infestation, yellow-jacket hives and other assorted pests, diseases and such undesirables unfit to mention in polite company. This natural look must be similar to the natural look touted by Bobby Brown® makeup. It almost takes more effort to make the effect look effortless.

I joined a Garden Club on the misunderstanding that these dear ladies gathered monthly to share gardening tips and techniques. In four years I’ve gained 60 new friends, some terrific salad recipes, but less knowledge of gardening than anticipated. In fact, some of the ladies brazenly hire mercenaries to battle for them so, in effect, my garden club pals serve as generals, planning the war and directing it from a clean, safe distance. These dear souls cluck their tongues when they drop by the house and catch me with soil under my broken nails and twigs in my hair, but I know deep down they either admire my effort or excuse it as youthfulness.

ladybug in a garden

The enemies of a beautiful native Florida yard and garden are legion—and mostly natives themselves. Has anyone grown Oleanders without the attendant poisonous orange and black caterpillars? I’ve sprayed and found that I have to nearly double the prescribed dosage of insecticide to kill them, or go the low-tech route and bash the nasties one by one. Where can one develop a lush lawn of St. Augustine grass without crabgrass, Bahia, dollar-weed, sedge, dollar weed or clover? And let’s not overlook cinch bugs, fungus, armadillos, fire ants, termites and root-rot—all robustly reproducing natives.

Perhaps the Zen garden is peaceful because it contains only rock and sand. It is the ultimate low-maintenance garden. Grab a bamboo rake and draw circles in the sand for meditation. No weeding, hedging, fertilizing, exterminating, bleeding, replanting, watering, mowing, grading or irrigating. It simply won’t work in Florida.

If I prepared a sand and rock Zen garden in my yard, this thing of beauty would become either the community litter box for neighborhood cats or the ants would construct a mega-colony in it.

A local physician Rob and his wife Pat, planted a stunning water garden in their entranceway. Nestled between a wall by their driveway and the house, this expensive recycling in-ground pool served as an oasis, greeting visitors as they passed by on the walkway to the front door. It had a silent pump to re-circulate the water and another device to aerate the water for the $50-a-piece Koi they purchased to inhabit the pool. It had water lilies, bamboo, floating oxygenating grasses and a scavenger fish to eat algae. It was lovely.

On the third day they settled into a sofa with their drinks to gaze upon the pond through their living room window. Their Koi pond was attractive, so attractive, in fact that a native bird spotted it and flew in, settling on the imported rock edge of the pond. Before my friends could run outside, this native Great Blue Heron had gorged on $200 worth of Koi and flew off.

They know what I mean when I say gardening is war; they simply never considered the possibility of an air attack.

I’ll continue my garden war for the blooms, for the butterflies and for the battle. Give me the cathartic release of wrestling my small patch of nature into bloom. Keep your Zen gardens; I’m waging a war.


Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa.

Damn Yankees and Other Pests

MP900314057Since moving to Florida as a Yankee, I’ve learned most things about the native pests the hard way.

Mutant-size Roaches

While unpacking that first week I learned the two-part horror of what the gentry euphemistically calls a Palmetto bug. The first horror is that it looks like a mutant-size roach, so when one skittered along the floorboard I mistook it for a mouse. Then it ran up the wall. After I crept up to it, with my arm drawn back, shoe in hand, the second horror manifested itself. The mutants fly! It flew at my face and landed in my hair. For a few minutes I flailed on the carpet, smacking my head with the shoe and screaming with my mouth shut. (My brothers witnessed it, so yeah, they will gleefully describe it to others at any opportunity.) Welcome to Florida.

Fire Ants

Within the month I learned the Fire Ant Dance. All the craze in this giant sand lot state, the dance begins by standing in one place on a green lawn. You will feel nothing as a legion of the tiny red ants sneaks up your legs. The ants attack with the kind of silent uniform precision that Navy Seals employ. The dance grows frantic in a combination of primal scream therapy and hopping, gyrating, and jerking movements that were popular in the sixties. But the dance doesn’t end when you’ve smashed the last hateful ankle-biter, no, then the itching pustules form to haunt you for days, lingering as tiny souvenirs of this nature encounter. I long considered bug repellent my signature scent.


The most expensive lessons on native insects came after we bought our first home. A Mediterranean style beauty, our first home consumed a decade of savings in the down payment. We were so proud to live in it. So, apparently were the termites. The subterraneans introduced themselves by burrowing up through a microscopic crack in the foundation, up the furring, to poke their tiny pinchers through a pin-point hole in the drywall. A small pile of sawdust was the first clue of their presence. Evicting them meant boring holes in the foundation inside and outside, into the porch, and into the pool deck.

But then their cousins, the drywoods, awoke from their mystic slumber in the lumber and chewed their way down through a door jamb. We had to temporarily move out while the exterminators filled our home with noxious fumes. Our cherished dwelling looked like a circus tent for days. The neighborhood kids gathered to ask if there would be elephants and cotton candy. Again, let me remind the gentle reader that Florida is a giant sand lot, the perfect breeding ground for armies of vicious, well-organized pests.


Without porch screens Florida would be entirely uninhabitable. The mosquito, the state bird, comes in three distinct varieties—the blind, the biting and the oh-dear-Lord size. The blind mosquitoes swarm like gnats, rising in clouds off the lawn in their peculiar three-day life cycle then they die off leaving what looks like black snowdrifts at doorways. The biters, well, the males buzz and don’t bite. The silent females are so aggressive that they will suck blood through leather shoes. The third kind of mosquito might not be a mosquito at all, but it looks like one, only much, much larger. I’ve heard rumors that the State of Florida breeds these giants because they eat the larvae of the biters. The state-sponsored giants look like they can cart off half a pint of blood each, but they are the good guys. Nonetheless, it has taken years to overcome the instinct to swat them.



Spiders bother me the most. Florida is home to the Brown Recluse, the Black Widow, the Banana and many other alarming varieties of toxic web spinners. Sure, they help reduce the mosquito population, but when my shrubs get covered in webs every fall gardening is over until January. I’ve learned to watch for the distinctive zigzag pattern of the Banana Spider’s web. Once I sprayed hornet spray directly on a Banana Spider, saturating him and knocking him off his web. He was back the next day. Chemical warfare was not enough. It took a shovel to prevent him from breeding.

Forget the cute fuzzy caterpillars of children’s books. Florida has poisonous caterpillars wearing Halloween colors. I suppose they become that way because they exfoliate Oleanders, you know, the tourist-killing plants whose straight toxic branches look perfect for roasting marshmallows. These caterpillars transform into red-bellied black moths, not butterflies. It figures.

After twenty winters in Wisconsin and Indiana, I’m in Florida to stay despite the insects, the hurricanes, the alligators and the snakes. I had considered drafting a brochure to warn newcomers about the pests here, but then my neighbor explained that the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is whether they visit or move here, so that brochure idea quietly vanished. So, welcome to Florida, the state where it is considered sacrilege to point out that the center of tourism is a rodent theme park. Pests? What pests? This is America’s playground and I’m thrilled to live here.


Tampa Bay Sounding, a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa.