Iguana Apocalypse


I’m not a fan of zombies. They’re creepy, unstoppable and incoherent. Yet, millions of people flock to their movies, read their novels, and watch their television shows. While some battle zombies in video games, others are preparing for an actual zombie apocalypse.

But they’re wasting their time. The real cause of our undoing is a creature far colder than zombies.



In a recent post, I lamented what these deer in reptilian clothing had done to my little petunias — which then sent me on a quest to find plants that iguanas would ignore. Sadly, the online resources offered very short lists — usually plants with thick, leathery leaves.

But my vision for the three large pots in the backyard wasn’t exactly thick and leathery. It was more flowery and tropical, like bougainvillea and hibiscus — or as iguanas refer to them: bacon.

One online list suggested mandevilla, a beautiful vining tropical, and its close relative, dipladenia, a more shrubby plant with mandevilla-like blooms. As soon as I read that iguanas ignore the plant, my heart was set on red blooms and deep green foliage cascading over the rims of my pots. Dipladenia it was to be.


All was quiet on the winter front, as somewhat cooler temps slowed the voracious vegetarians to a crawl and encouraged the dipladenias to put on a grand show.

March and April, though, have seen a quick warm-up in zone 10, with daytime temps approaching 90 and nights remaining mild — just enough to stir the cold blood of the cold-blooded brood.

In other words, I went to bed one night with three lush pots. . .


and when I woke up, it was like a scene from Dipladenia of the Living Dead. To varying degrees, each leaf and flower had been chewed. One plant barely had a single leaf remaining.


The Internet had lied to me. The plant that I had been told iguanas would ignore was actually a monster mash. Could I even trust the Internet for a solution?

My first effort was to turn to my neighbors, all of whom shared my horror and agreed that iguanas were an invasive nightmare. They also long ago decided to throw up their hands and their plants in defeat. At that moment, I noticed their gardens — or rather their non-gardens. Aside from palms and a few leathery fronds, there was very little landscaping with flowering anything.

Is this how the end will be? Will we not go out with a bang or a whimper, but with a nibble, a chomp, and a leafy burp?


I, for one, would not go quietly into the garden. Each time I spotted an iguana crossing my line in the sand, edging along the seawall, or nestling itself into a flower pot, I would burst from back door, a flip-flop in each hand — smacking them together — and aggressively running up to my enemies to chase them away. I cared little that my iguana-weary neighbors were cowering and laughing at me from behind their windows.

The sad fact is, it never had to be this way. Iguanas are not native to south Florida — and today’s infestation was born of escaped or released pets. A mild climate plus few predators equals an ecological apocalypse.

Along the banks of undeveloped inland waterways, three iguana species (the common green iguana, the Mexican spiny-tailed, and the black spiny-tailed) can be spotted eating and sunning in the vegetation. Before there was a pool in my backyard, it was not uncommon to see eleven iguanas of various sizes (from 10” long to 4’ long) slithering along the seawall to graze on my weed-filled lawn. Jurassic Park was alive and well in my backyard.


Recently, I was watching “Vikings” on the History Channel. In one episode, the French had poured large vats of boiling oil on the invading Norsemen. Could this same tactic work on my marauders?  With each passing day of the iguana invasion, my thoughts turned more medieval. Strips of carpet tackless buried in the pots around my plants. Spiked boards to discourage walking into my yard via the seawall. Crossbow.

Surely, there had to be a way.

Ultimately, I returned to the Internet to find a solution. Information was a mix of common sense (don’t make them feel comfortable), labor intensive (the constant reapplication of Neem oil to plants), and ridiculous (place my compost pile near the seawall to encourage iguana nesting so I could destroy their eggs).

The sites, however, did suggest homeowners could humanely trap iguanas and then humanely euthanize them. I don’t think I’m at that point, though. I don’t think I’m ready to have my garden become a humane slaughterhouse. I just want the iguanas to stay away.


I was alone in my battle. The future and freedom of south Florida gardening was solely in my hands.

Perhaps to fight iguanas, I needed to think like a deer — or at least to think like gardeners who fight a constant battle against them. Cages around everything. Wolf urine. Old CDs dangling from trees.

Shimmering movement — and then my strategy fell into place.

I placed interlocking plant stakes in each of the pots, creating a sort-of cage around each of the three dipladenias. I rummaged through some old Christmas wrapping and found spools of shimmering red and shiny white curling ribbon.

“Use the white one,” Joe said. “It will be prettier.”

War is never pretty, but the white would better reflect sunshine. So I cut ribbon and tied each strand to the green stakes so that they could flap and flutter in the breeze.  I then added strips from an old towel for variety.

Next, it was off to a local Dollar Store for some pinwheels. There, I struck gold — or rather a rainbow, a shimmering pinwheel of colors. When I reached the cash register to pay for my secret weapon, the male cashier said, “How are you today, little man?”

First, this was not a time to mention my lack of height. Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes. Second, just because I’m a 52-year-old man purchasing glittery pinwheels without a child in sight does not mean that I’m reliving some childhood memory.

I’m a soldier dressing my plants for battle. I’m a member of the few, the proud, the gardeners.


With my pinwheels in the middle of each pot, I’m hoping there will be a constant wind to keep iguanas out. If not, I will have to dig up plants, repot them, and move them to the iguana-free front yard. In the meantime, my garden now looks like a Renaissance fair — or at the very least, a throwaway prop from the classic ‘80s video “Safety Dance,” by Men Without Hats.

See what I mean.

At the moment, it’s still too soon to dance, even if I wanted to. I just know that these iguanas don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine.

Gardening Is Nothing To Sneeze At

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

When Joe and I first moved into our Long Island home, I had my all-time worst allergy season. All at once, it seemed, the oaks unleashed gobs and gobs of pollen in clumps that rivaled tumbleweeds. Pale yellow dust coated everything with its evilness.

As a new homeowner, I wondered and worried how I would be able to garden in a world that was inhospitable, where merely stepping outside caused relentless sneezing, itchy and swollen and watery eyes, and a sore throat.


Thomas Ogren.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and we have Thomas Ogren, a gardener/educator who has compiled more than thirty years of research into The Allergy-Fighting Garden, a wonderful new book that combines horticultural science with logical garden choices so that homeowners and communities can work toward limiting the amount of allergens in the environment.

The book combines the best of his two previous works, Allergy-Free Gardening and Safe Sex in the Garden, with new information, so the end result is something that is informative and user-friendly.

My favorite portion of the book is the section entitled “The Allergy-Fighting Plants,” a very thorough A-to-Z listing of garden plants and their OPALS rating. OPALS is the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale, which Ogren created when he wasn’t researching, lecturing, writing, or gardening. It’s the first allergy-ranking system for plants and is now used by the United States Department of Agriculture. On the scale, plants are ranked from from 1 (least allergenic) to 10 (most allergenic). I’ve illustrated this post with photos of some of my gardening choices, and I’ve added their OPALS ranking.


NGDM: The strangest thing happened to me while reading your book. I had a series of aha moments because so much of what you’re writing makes complete sense — that gardeners can garden allergy-free — and it’s something I’ve never even considered. I always thought that will gardening comes pollen, and with pollen comes sneezing. We just have to deal with it. When you began your research, what was the moment that you had your Aha Moment, that you were on to something?

Tom Ogren: That total Aha Moment….or, actually two of them: I had been very skeptical about both allergies and asthma, but my wife had both. I’d read a book by some MD called Psychosomatic Illnesses and in it the author, a man, wrote that allergies and asthma mostly affected women because they were more emotional, more given to hysteria . . . and I sucked that all up. After all, I didn’t have allergies or asthma, so obviously I had my act together much more than did my wife, Yvonne.

Yvonne would have an attack of asthma (fairly frequently back then) and I would show no sympathy at all, and (I sure do hate to admit this) often I’d even lecture her on how she ought to get her act together. This went on for years, but one day I was doing a landscape job in Berkeley, California, and people everywhere were sneezing and generally acting like they felt miserable. It was early spring and everywhere the big acacia trees were in bloom.

When the landscape job was done (a week or so), I drove back home to San Luis Obispo and as I drove I thought about all of this allergy I’d been seeing, and I came up with an idea. The next day, back at work (I teach landscape gardening and horticulture in a prison), I got with my students (big, tough, muscular gangbangers, every last one of them) and I proposed that we sniff flowers and record what, if anything, happened.

First we sniffed some pansies and nothing happened at all, then we did some double dianthus and again nothing at all. The third plant we tried was bottlebrush flowers. I sniffed them, nothing; my foreman sniffed them, nothing — but then the next guy took a sniff of the bottlebrush flowers and wow! Did he ever sneeze! Really loud and really hard.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Suddenly I was suspicious of that idea that allergy was “all in your head.” By the time we’d gone through the whole class, one third of them were sneezing, over and over again. It was perfectly amazing and it was an Aha Moment if there ever was one. Not only had I discovered that some flowers triggered this response, but also that some flowers did not — a learning lesson. I also suddenly felt very guilty for the hogwash that I’d been putting my wife through. This was the first Aha Moment.

The second Aha Moment: I’d been studying plants and allergies for 6-7 years or so and one night my wife and I were in bed and she was reading a novel and I was reading a thick serious book about monoecious and dioecious flowering systems in trees. I read something and then said to Yvonne, “I just had an idea. These dioecious plants, they are often the very worst allergy plants of all, but think about this. Since they are 100% separate-sexed, that would mean that the males produce all the pollen and the females catch it and turn it into seed.”

“Okay,” said Yvonne.

“Yeah,” I said, “but look at it this way. The big lists of plants they say not to use, all those maples, poplars, willows, yews, junipers and so on, the female plants aren’t producing any pollen, just the males. And think about this, if a female plant produces no pollen and it traps pollen, it means that female plants are actually allergy-free plants! See what I mean?”

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “You know, Tom, you just might be on to something with that.”

Now, really, what I’d reasoned out there, it wasn’t rocket ship science, just the opposite. But still, up to that point no one had ever written anything ever saying this. It was an Aha Moment. For sure.

Canna, OPALS 3.

Canna, OPALS 3.

NGDM: I imagine you must often find yourself fighting an uphill battle trying to get your message out there, especially when dealing with cities and municipalities. What has been the greatest challenge?

TO: Well, indeed this has been nothing but an uphill battle, and it still is. Considering that pollen is the most common allergy/asthma trigger in the world, I am amazed that allergists do not take any courses at all in horticulture, and very few of them have had any courses in botany either.

Likewise, I am amazed that all these asthma educators and the many health groups that are associated with them, that they dwell on 2nd hand smoke, on mold, on dampness, on infestations of rodents and or roaches but they never even consider doing anything to limit exposure to pollen. I heard two speeches in the last few days on “asthma triggers” and the word pollen wasn’t mentioned even one time. I find this disturbing at best.

Most cities and counties don’t seem to want to do anything about allergies at all, and not all that much about asthma. Allergies are seen by many as not so important (especially if those in charge don’t have allergies) . . . and yet more than 80% of those with asthma already have allergies, and also that getting allergies greatly increases your chances of getting asthma. Cities are very reluctant to ever cut down a tree “just” because it is highly allergenic. Even worse, they are generally quite reluctant to even stop planting the very most allergenic trees. Most of the time they appear to want to keep on doing things just as they have always done them. But then, cities and municipalities are not the only ones that make this an uphill battle. Commercial horticulture has so far not done their part either, mostly just the opposite.

All said, it sounds terrible, but nonetheless, I am very dogged in my pursuit of this, and in the end I feel that common sense will yet win the day.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

NGDM: Your book is very user friendly and very well-researched — but I was most impressed with your OPALS rankings, a means of providing the allergy quotient of so many plants. It seems like it would be a no-brainer for wholesalers and retailers to include that information on the plant tag. Why do you think there’s so much reluctance to provide this information?

TO: Nursery people don’t like to say anything negative about any plants, and especially not ones that they sell. The big growers already make good money on many very allergenic male clones, and they will keep on growing them until suddenly no one wants them anymore.

NGDM: If you could offer the average home gardener three top tips to address allergy-free gardening in their own yards/communities, what would it be?

TO: One, make a big effort to get rid of the very worst plants in their own yards, and at the schools where their kids attend. Two, join with some other people and try and get a local pollen-control ordinance enacted, an ordinance that stops the sale and planting of the very worst landscape plants. Lastly, plant and encourage others to plant many more female plants — there’s no balance of the sexes in cities, and everywhere more female plants are needed.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

NGDM: When did a passion for gardening first take hold in you? Who inspired you to get in the garden?

TO: When I was a kid we had a lovely old black lady who lived with us to help out with all of us kids (there were six of us). Her name was Katherine Scott and she loved to garden and she’s the one who first showed me how to plant the squash and bean seeds, how to weed and water; she’s the one who really got me hooked….and I was totally hooked by age four.

My grandfather, Tom Myers, he was a doctor and he loved to garden, especially to grow roses. I was named for him and I can still see him wearing his old clothes, working contentedly in his big rose garden. When I was seven, he asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted my own guava tree — and that’s what I got. I loved that tree and I was the only kid I knew who had his own fruit tree.

Lastly, both my mother and father appreciated good gardens, even if they weren’t especially good gardeners themselves. My mom loved the idea of lots of fruit trees in the yard, and my dad planted them, and as I was the oldest boy, he often had me help him.

I guess you could say I was raised right!

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8.  No surprise that I was sneezing.

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8. No surprise that I was sneezing.

For more information on allergy-free gardening,

you can also visit Safe Gardening.

A Star Is Born

Tray of plants

I know gardeners can be an excitable bunch when it comes to flowers and vegetables, soil and pests. Seed catalogs on a snowy day, bulbs poking up with the first warm breath of spring, an enormous sunflower, and fifty shades of green — all these things and more can get a gardener’s pulse racing.

Still, I thought my neighbor’s excitement over a small bloom was a bit overdone.

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The Plight Of My Petunia



Petunias and I go back. Way back.

Long before I started my own plants in the potting shed in February, petunias were a staple in my parents’ garden. They were often planted in old tires that my father would cut, flip inside out, and paint white — instant, recycled planters.

Petunias were also in the lyric of a song my mother used to sing around the house: “I’m a lonely, little petunia in an onion patch.” I’m not sure if she ever sang the entire song, but the melody was way too chipper for a teary-eyed, solitary petunia in a planting of pungent bulbs.

Nevertheless, when it came time for a Florida garden, I had to decide if I wanted to continue with plants that I used in Zone 7a — or did I want to jump into the Zone 10b pool with both feet.

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Once Upon A Tomato

Tomato Seeds

If seeds could talk, I wonder what tales they would tell.

I’m sure they would recite their perfect equation of soil, light, and water for their optimum germination. They wouldn’t even wait for us to ask. They would just offer that info up at the start of the conversation. Seeds are funny that way.

I wonder, though, if they would be willing to share with us their story? That perhaps their great-great-great-great grandfather hitched a ride on Paul Revere’s coat on his famous midnight ride? Or that they, in fact, escaped from a research lab looking to build a better seed?

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Bloomin’ Update 53: New Year, New Look, New Plants



It’s been some time since I posted a “Bloomin’ Update,” because — well — I had nothing bloomin’ in my garden because I didn’t have a garden in zone 10.

But as 2014 changed into 2015, so too did the garden change. Where there was once only lawn, there are now beds. Where there are beds, there are now plants and pots and paths. (Speaking of paths, I’ll describe the path I took to create this garden in a future post.)

With all of the changes happening around me, I decided to make some changes to this blog. For a while, I’ve considered purchasing my own domain — which I have now done. It’s official, I am now Nitty Gritty Dirt Man dot com.

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