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Let’s face it: Gardening in the smoke is no fun

“I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eye or to please my soul, to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience, for novelty or for nostalgia, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow.”

— David Hobson, author of “Diary of a Mad Gardener: To Boldly Grow Where No One Has Groan Before,” 2000

I’m sure I needn’t remind you that the Rogue Valley has had only one day in the past month for which the air quality index was low enough to be considered “good.” The rest have been listed by IQAir as “very unhealthy” (4 days), “unhealthy” (17 days), “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (6 days) and “moderate” (2 days).

I chose this week’s quote by garden humorist David Hobson to remind me why I garden in the heat and smoke. Rather than me challenging the elements, the elements are definitely challenging me and my patience, not to mention my health.

The first thing I’ve learned about gardening in the smoke is that I don’t like it. I don’t want to boldly grow where mad gardeners have groan before, so I have escaped to Bandon where the air quality is consistently good and the air temperature stays in the high 60s. I feel a little guilty writing about it, but we even had a pretty substantial rain shower last night, and all day I’ve been savoring its cleansing effect on the landscape.

Enough gloating. I’ll return to my garden in Medford soon enough because there is a lot of work to do in the garden during September and October (see my garden to-do list this week). If the smoke persists as forecasted, I’ll wear a face mask because the smoke irritates my sinuses and gives me a nasty headache.

One thing is for sure — after a shortage of face masks early in the pandemic, our choices in respirator wear have proliferated. However, another thing I’ve learned about gardening in the smoke is that all face coverings do not offer the same protection against inhaling fine particles in smoke and ash.

I just read an article in Wirecutter, a product review website owned by the New York Times, in which author Tim Heffernan writes, “After 50 hours of research and testing different respirators, we’re confident that the comfortable, durable, widely available 3M 8511 and 3M 8210 disposable N95 respirators are the ones to get.” I checked local stores and they have plenty of both models in stock.

A lot of confusion has swirled around about whether people who are not frontline workers should wear N95 respirators. A May 2021 update on the Centers for Disease Control website acknowledges that the “supply and availability of NIOSH-approved respirators have increased significantly over the last several months,” but the website also states “N95 respirators are critical supplies that should be prioritized for health care workers and other medical first responders to prevent supply shortages.”

I learned there are different grades of N95 facemasks. The 3M 8511 and 8210 models are NIOSH-approved for protection against wildfire smoke, air pollution, and construction dust and fumes; whereas, specially fit-tested N95 respirators are used by health professionals. Heffernan says the 3M 8210 respirator also offers protection from the coronavirus because it filters exhalations as well as incoming air. The 8511 and some other N95 models have an unfiltered exhalation valve, which the CDC says does not fully guard against the spread of COVID-19.

As depressing as it is to say, I don’t think face masks are going to go away anytime soon. Our garden centers should carry an ample supply of N95 facemasks that are appropriate for wildfire smoke and the coronavirus, prominently displayed right next to the shovels and shears and other important gardening equipment. There should be a sign that clearly explains why wearing these N95 respirators will not hinder health care workers from doing their job effectively.

Let’s face it: gardening in the smoke is no fun. If ever there was a time to focus on growing early spring, fall or overwintering vegetable crops, it’s now. If ever there was a time to convert high-maintenance lawns and flowerbeds to low-maintenance native perennial gardens, it’s now.

I may be a “mad gardener” after all because I refuse to let the smoke and heat beat me down completely. I will escape to Bandon for a while, but I won’t stop gardening. David Hobson said it best: “I grow plants for many reasons, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow.” (By the way, if you could use some garden humor right now, Hobson’s books, “Diary of a Mad Gardener” and “Soiled Reputations” (2012) are both hilarious.)

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening to-do list this week

Thin out fall crop and overwintering seedlings in raised beds: beets, spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, peas, broccoli, cauliflower.

Direct seed another round of lettuce, spinach and radishes in raised beds.

Direct seed kale and onion sets to use for scallions.

Cut off growing tips and pick off flowers from tomato plants to assist fruit ripening; also pick off flowers from pepper plants and eggplants.

Fall rains are already beginning in Bandon, so I’m going to try putting wood ash around my seedlings in the raised beds to deter slugs (we have a lot of them even in the hoophouse.)