Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

Midnight in the Garden Shop of Good and Evil

Gardening is like watching celebrities ballroom dance on TV: It’s suddenly very popular. The only difference is that there is a rational explanation for the gardening trend. New gardeners are motivated by the economic situation, a desire to eat fresh, healthy food and the realization that gardening is a more productive way to spend a Saturday than golf. And more fun. If you’re new to gardening, you may be planning a visit to an area garden center. Before you go, you need a brief orientation. From the outside, it looks like a quaint shop where you might enjoy a leisurely browse among the gnomes and pick up some seeds. But once inside, you step into an epic battle between the forces of life and death.

Most garden shops are starkly divided into two diametrically opposed departments. On one side of the store, you find seeds, plants, soil and compost—the things you need to nurture life. The other section gives you the means to kill it.

You’ll know right away when you’ve crossed this line. One minute, the live plants and bags of organic compost fill the air wit that intoxicating, earthy aroma of a garden or forest. You feel safe, at home, one with the natural world. But then you cross an aisle, and suddenly you’re on the beach with Robert Duvall. Acrid fumes burn your nostrils, your eyes begin to water. Welcome to the herbicide and pesticide section. Apparently, some people love the smell of RoundUp in the morning. Smells like…victory garden.

Well, not to me.

The shelves are filled with bags of toxic stuff to eradicate any undesirable life forms. Yet as any organic gardener knows, none of it is necessary. I think the real marketing strategy is to exploit irrational fears of nature and offer the power to subdue all the scary things that await you if you venture into this heart of darkness to grow some lettuce.

The common phobia of snakes is a marketing gold mine, judging from the number of products promising to expel them from my garden. But I’ve never seen a venomous serpent coiled under my pumpkin leaves. In our family, we’re thrilled when we see garter snakes in the garden. They’re great fun to watch. And if you chase them away with chemicals, you’ll probably have too many slugs, spiders, rodents, and other garter snake prey. Of course, then someone will be happy to sell you poison for these creatures. When they’re gone, you’ll be overwhelmed by whatever they used to eat. And so on as you blast your way down the food chain in an endless spiral of extermination

Gardening is such a peaceful and serene activity, yet big garden business markets the fun of killing more than anyone except the video game industry.

Actually, you can start with a policy of deterrence. You know, peace through strength. Repellents are available to drive out rabbits, dogs and cats, moles and voles, or any other creature. And I know they work: I was repelled immediately.

Of course, to the type of gardener who sees nature and all its gloriously diverse flora and fauna as The Enemy, deterrence won’t work for long. Eventually they must resort to force and deploy some Kill-a-Bug, Root Killer, Critter Ridder or Deer Off. My favorite brand name is simple yet powerful in its violent imagery: Slug & Snail Death!

One puzzling item is called The Giant Destroyer. I thought it was to keep the Jolly Green Giant from stealing your green beans, but the label says it kills gophers, moles, rats, skunks, squirrels and other animals that don’t seem very giant to me.

If this seems reminiscent of chemical warfare, it is. As we learned from Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the first pesticides were based on poison gases developed for the battlefield. The brand names reflect their military origin: Delta Eight, Weed-Free Zone, Systemic Insect Drench, Ground Clear. The difference is that the UN Convention on Chemical Weapons apparently doesn’t apply in the garden. The one exception to this marketing strategy is an avian repellent called Bye Bye Birdie, but for obvious reasons names evoking brute force are more common than references to musical comedy.

My head spinning from the bewildering range of specific poisons (not to mention the fumes), I finally saw one product that makes all the others unnecessary, the ultimate weapon of mass garden destruction: KillzAll.

That’s really its name! I was going to make up some funny pesticide names that were violent and over the top, but I couldn’t do any better than the real products. This is one-stop shopping for eliminating all that pesky life that tends to show up in your yard or garden.

For gardeners who decide to go nuclear, there’s a whole group of products that just wipe out everything in their path, with names like Noxall and Organocide. Think about what that name means! If it’s alive, this product kills it. How can this be an effective sales pitch to gardeners?

There must be a market for all this stuff, but it sure seems contrary to the reasons for gardening in the first place. In an unpolluted ecosystem, many beneficial insects are happy to help you pollinate your plants and protect them from harmful bugs. Pests are controlled through symbiotic relationships with other creatures in the garden. But judging from the names, the manufacturers of KillzAll and Organocide aren’t interested in such fine distinctions. These products are from the “Let God sort ‘em out” school of horticulture.

Call me old school, but to me gardening is not about not killing everything in sight except one favored plant. It’s about fostering a diverse and healthy little ecosystem, which is hard enough without pouring poison all over the place. Having learned to garden by trial and error (mostly error), I need all the life I can get out there. I start many more seedlings than I need, on the assumption that only the fittest will survive the fickle weather and my gardening ability. Sometimes I get discouraged and feel like I don’t need to buy any Organocide because that’s one skill that comes naturally to me! But I don’t give up. I just plant a lot of seeds. Gardening is a natural process—our seeds want to grow as much as we want them to. We just need to help them along.

But not with KillzAll.

© 2012 John Hershey

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail and

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