Books and Gardens and Stuff: The Lies Our Parents Tell Us About Gardening

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Billy Goodnick, but he’s a Santa Barbara garden designer best known for his Crimes Against Horticulture listings of particularly inappropriate or borderline offensive of trees, shrubs, and other boundary plants. I have a couple of particularly good examples here in Dallas that I need to photograph for him, but that’s not why I’m bringing up the subject.

No, the reason why Billy is, once again, keeping me from mowing the lawn around the Sarracenia area is because he’s running a contest. He recently finished Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s new book The Informed Gardener, and offers a free copy to the individual who has the best gardening myth to share. Feel free to head over there and enter, and then come on back.

Got it out of your system? Excellent. I myself had heard some great ones over the years. “Mixing sand into the ‘black gumbo’ clay in Dallas will soften it up.” (No, that’s a great way to make concrete, especially in summer.) “If you grow watermelons and carrots too close together, the watermelons will taste like carrots.” (That’s merely a great myth to explain why your watermelon cultivar was affected by viruses or simply bad growing conditions.) “Using charcoal grille ashes on your garden will kill your plants because of the lighter fluid fumes.” (Charcoal grille ashes will kill your plants because the highly alkaline and mineralized ash will burn the roots, not any long-volatilized or long-combusted lighter fluid fumes.) Oh, and “Watermelon seeds are poisonous if swallowed.” (Watermelon seeds used to be highly prized as a snack when roasted, and they were extremely popular in the Southern US around the turn of the last century. I have yet to track down exactly why this story popped up, but I suspect it had everything to do with the assumption after World War II that roasted watermelon seeds qualified as “poor food”.)

Now, these and others may be annoying, or potentially destructive, but they’re not dangerous per se. I have one, though, that had a fair chance of being lethal. Worse, it came from a professional who should have known better.

25 years ago next Tuesday, I first started work as a groundskeeper for a Texas Instruments facility north of Dallas. Technically, I was in charge of two of them, and I’d spend four days a week mowing and trimming the two acres of space on one site and then spending a day on the other. Back then, the big sites were named for the town in which they were located (Lewisville, McKinney, Lubbock), or for the road on which they were located (Forest Lane, Lemmon Avenue, Central Expressway) if they were within the immediate Dallas area proper. My main horticultural evil laboratory was at the old Trinity Mills site off Interstate 35 in Carrollton, and the smaller one was in the middle of an older industrial park space on Surveyor Road at the edge of Addison. Trinity Mills was a fabrication facility for TI’s Defensive and Strategic Electronics Group (DSEG), and Surveyor was a general supply warehouse for Trinity Mills and most of the other TI plants and offices in the area. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since Surveyor Road was so much smaller than Trinity Mills, basic maintenance could be done over the whole area within a day. Basic mowing, kipple pickup off the parking lots, edging, and whatever else needed to be done right away. The problem was that there was just enough time to do the basics, but not enough for larger projects. For instance, we had a big pile of sand in the back of one parking lot for the eventuality of the lot being frozen over in an icestorm, and I had time budgeted to trim back the Bermuda grass attempting to claim its summit. However, there wasn’t enough time to move that huge pile, one wheelbarrow at a time, to a place where the Bermuda grass and other weeds weren’t an issue. Well, technically, I had the time, but it wasn’t seen as a priority to the four layers of management above me who wanted to make sure my TPS reports had cover pages on them.

One day, that changed. My boss’s boss noted that a big linden tree out in front of Surveyor was looking a bit shaggy, and he squeaked a bit about peasants and livestock. My boss interpreted that as a directive to clean up the tree, so he sent me out with a pruning bill, a pair of hedge clippers, and a warning “Don’t get too carried away. That tree is concealing a big transformer for the building, and I don’t want anybody to notice it.”

Well, “don’t get too carried away” still meant removing nearly a ton of dead or bedraggled branches, and I went into the job with all the enthusiasm a 20-year-old being allowed to play outside on a weekday can muster. No, scratch that. It was with all the enthusiasm a 20-year-old being allowed to play outside on a weekday, with implements of destruction, can muster. If I’d been any happier, I would have vibrated all of my molecules into a new quantum state. I chopped and lugged, and sawed and buzzed, and hauled for a while when the pile filled an entire parking space, and generally made me feel incredibly sorry for the people inside who were stuck in their cubicles all day. (Well, almost. Many of them were also the same people who’d dump their car ashtrays onto the parking lot, shove all of the accumulated garbage in their cars out a door, and then tell me “I’m just giving you job security.”)

At this point, I’d been going to town for about four hours, and I was starting to slow down due to the summer heat. Right then, I felt a sharp pain on the inside of my elbow, and then a very unpleasant tingling. As I watched, I got a lovely welt that kept growing as I watched, and the tingling started spreading up my arm.

To this day, I don’t know what critter tagged me, but I could tell that it wasn’t a honeybee. When honeybees sting humans and other large animals, the barbed sting remains trapped in the wound, exuding venom from a very ingenious pump system attached to the venom gland. The bee usually pulls free, tearing this apparatus away from the bee’s body and leaving it to continue shuttling venom below the skin. This is why, by the way, you should never pull a bee sting with your thumb and fingers: that action squeezes even more venom into the site. The best option is to use the flat of a knife, sharp or butter doesn’t matter, to scrape the sting away. In my case, no venom gland and no attached sting, but something got me. And since I’m very sensitive to beestings, this meant seeking medical advice right away.

I managed to get into the building before my right arm went completely numb, and I managed to explain the situation to both my immediate supervisor on the site and the very surprised security guard at the front door. Notice of envemomation, symptoms, and possible courses of action. Both of them figured that getting me to a hospital or care clinic was my only option, but my supervisor realized that according to TI policy, he’d have to get advice from a medical officer before letting me go see a real doctor.

At that time, each larger TI facility had an on-duty nurse for first aid issues, and Surveyor deferred to Trinity Mills’s nurse. The problem was that the nurse in question was, how do I put this, raised in an alternate dimension where medicine and biology ran in a different direction than on Earth. I still remember my jaw hitting my sternum when she told me with authority that mosquitoes didn’t drink blood: they attempted to drink blood plasma, but they died as soon as they bit an individual. Not only did she confirm this when I asked her about this, but when I pointed out that I was pretty sure that female mosquitoes ingested blood to increase the viability of their eggs, I was told this was “liberal propaganda.” Since I was about as low on the company hierarchy as you could go and not give access badges to the bacteria in the septic system, I shut up right then and prayed that I never needed real medical advice from her.

Wouldn’t you know it, this is the one person keeping me from getting to medical care. She insisted upon talking to me, even though my teeth were starting to chatter from the pain of the tingling, asking about symptoms and what I was doing when this happened. I stuttered them out, finishing with “I didn’t see what got me. It could have been a wasp or hornet, or even a spider…”

“Paul, spiders don’t live in trees.”

“I don’t know if it was a spider. I don’t see a puncture, but I can see the welt,” which was now about the size and color of a tomato.


“Okay, whatever. All I can tell was that it’s tearing into me.”

“PAUL. Spiders do NOT live in trees.”

Between the pain and my naive assumption that I was talking with someone nominally classified as sentient, I didn’t realize what she was asking for about another five minutes. She wasn’t going to let me go until I told her “spiders don’t live in trees.” As soon as I admitted that, she finally let me go: two or three steroid injections at the local quack shack later, I was no longer worried about dying of heart failure or seizures, and my boss drove me home himself to make sure I was going to be all right. The whole time, doctors and bosses are chuckling ruefully “Spiders…in TREES? Was she SERIOUS?”

Both of those facilities shut down about three years later, and I have no idea where that nurse went when she was no longer needed. I still hope to this day that she didn’t become an insurance adjuster. She kept insisting that she knew from some grand authority, some hillbilly Professor Lindenbrock or Challenger, that spiders couldn’t live in trees for some reason, and I finally realized she’d have shot herself in the head rather than admit she might have been wrong. I have to admit, though, in my more bitter moments, that I have a fantasy involving someone finding a dessicated coccoon in a live oak tree above her garden, with “DEATH FROM ABOVE” written in the web surrounding it.

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