My parents were way ahead of the curve when it came to employing Integrated Pest Management for tending their garden. They would send me (henceforth referred to as “the pest”) out into the garden to weed, partly to control the weeds and partly to get me out of their hair. The problem was, from my point of view (then and now), I was only four years old.

Some four-year-olds might be able to handle being out in a garden by themselves, but I was not one of them. It wasn’t the weeding itself that bothered me — it offered the same easy satisfaction one enjoys when picking at a scab, something I relished at that age — and it wasn’t the feel of the dirt on my bare knees, although it’s true I didn’t care for that very much. It was the bugs that got to me. There were so many of them and they were everywhere.

I liked some of them. Ladybugs were acceptable to me and I knew how to pick up earthworms and cut them into two to make two new worms. I have never minded ants (even after watching The Naked Jungle) but I hated, and still hate to this day, flying, stinging insects and spiders.

So what would happen is this: I would kneel down in the garden and begin to weed. Soon a spider would come along. I’d feel the instinct to flee, but I wouldn’t because I knew I was supposed to stay and weed, so I’d find a rock and kill the spider. Then I’d feel guilty about killing the spider and I would shake in terror as I waited for all his friends and relatives to rush into the garden to seek their revenge. (This seemed completely real to me at four years old.)

By this point my anxiety would be so great that I couldn’t take it anymore and I would run back inside where my parents would upbraid me for being lazy. I’d explain that I was really only trying to save my life by outrunning roving bands of bloodthirsty spiders bent on vengeance, but they just didn’t understand.

Until, that is, the late-night spider freak-outs began, often triggered by the sight of a spider on the ceiling right over my bed. This would lead to prolonged periods of what my parents referred to as “carrying on.” I repeatedly failed to communicate to them just how awful it felt to know that one was about to be killed by an army of angry spiders while lying in one’s very own bed.

I guess they finally figured that forcing me to do the character-building chore of weeding the garden wasn’t worth dealing with all the late-night freak-outs, so finally the solitary weeding assignments stopped — but by then my deep distaste for gardening had taken hold.

Since then I’ve had very little to do with gardening, though I’ve planted Christmas trees on a friend’s tree farm and been a “foster gardener” for vacationing friends. I’ve even had to hand-fertilize the female blossom on a giant pumpkin under a gauzy veil of row cover — a story for another day — but I’ve generally stayed away from hands-in-the-dirt, “put your back into it,” earth-turning type gardening in favor of window boxes: lots and lots of window boxes.

There are insect-type pests that eat my flowers on a regular basis, and there are a variety of stinging, flying insects that visit daily (just yesterday I accidentally grabbed a wasp while attempting to grab hold of a banister). The happy, fuzzy bumble bees of earlier this summer have disappeared and now all I see instead are harried, driven little yellow jackets, darting in and out of my flowers like New Yorkers running for a bus.

We have larger pests in the neighborhood as well. Although it’s a working class neighborhood with small houses and tiny yards, it’s very heavily wooded and near a large tract of land that surrounds a power station.

I assume it is in these woods that the coyotes live. I can hear them at night sometimes, calling out in a chorus. It sends a shiver down my back. I’ve also seen two foxes and one of my neighbors tells me that they have a den under his garage.

I recently found a gigantic woodchuck dead in the middle of the road. (It took me two whole days to remember the word “woodchuck.” I kept telling my friends, “It wasn’t a beaver. It wasn’t an opossum. It wasn’t a gopher.” And they’d just look at me and say, “Well, what the hell was it then?”)

I’ve seen possums and I’ve smelled skunks, but the bane of my existence is the garbage-eating raccoon, my archenemy. He knocks my garbage cans over and feasts on leftovers several nights a week. I’ve tried shaking Tabasco on the garbage bags, putting cat poop in a ring around the garbage cans, everything but nailing the lids shut. Finally, after living here for two years, I realized that I could just keep my garbage cans inside my screened-in porch until garbage day. Duh!

And then, the ultimate transgression: for the past few weeks I’ve noticed clumps of white fur snagged on the stems of my flowers and a place in one of the window boxes where it looked the way it looks in the woods where deer have bedded down for the night — everything was sort of crushed. “How odd,” I said to myself, “it’s as if an animal were walking through my window boxes and then sleeping in one of them.” It took me several weeks to accept that this was precisely what was going on.

Well, there’s nothing to be done about it, and in fact I am quite jealous. I love the idea of sleeping in a bed of flowers. It’s something I would do myself if I could, except, of course, for the spiders … and all their relatives.

I grow herbs as well as flowers in my window boxes. Basil and mint are two I am sure to grow every year. Growing mint in a container is a good idea regardless of whether you grow the rest of your crops in the ground, because mint will spread like wildfire. Here are two recipes for which I “harvest” my herbs.


Chicken Salad with Lemon-Basil Mayonnaise
(serves 6 as a lunch portion, 4 as supper)

5-6 cups of poached, cooled chicken breast meat, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup good quality commercial mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup loosely packed basil that has been cut into ribbons
1/3 cup finely diced celery
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Poach the breasts and let them cool. Cut them into bite size pieces. (As an alternative, you can slice the breasts, spread them in a fan on a plate, and drizzle the dressing over them like a sauce.)
  2. Roll the basil leaves into a ball and then slice the ball into thin strips. This will create ribbons out of the basil leaves, called a chiffonade.
  3. Mix the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and basil together.
  4. Toss the chunks of chicken with the celery and add the dressing. Toss until the chicken is evenly coated.
  5. Season sparingly with salt and pepper.

Decent Iced Tea with Fresh Mint

The key to decent iced tea, to my mind, is to use Orange Pekoe tea to make the tea. Many times I’ve ordered iced tea in a restaurant and find that it tastes sort of sour or somehow “off,” but this is usually because it’s been made with Assam tea. Some people love Assam tea; it’s just a matter of personal taste. So, make a big pot of whatever tea you chose.

It’s much better to add mint leaves to the tea in a glass than to add the mint to the pot or pitcher if you plan on keeping the tea around for a few days. The mint gets a little bit bitter as it ages. So combine the tea and mint in a glass instead.

Place a few mint leaves in the bottom on a glass. Add a teaspoon of sugar. Now, using a muddler or the back of a spoon, press the sugar against the mint leaves and really grind it in. The sugar acts as an abrasive and helps to release all the mint essence in the leaves. Add cooled tea, sugar to taste, and a few ice cubes.