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It’s Life (Jim) But Not As We Know It

It’s strange moving from the UK to the US. It sort of looks the same, and in some of the older cities you feel you could almost be in England. The flora and fauna however, are a constant reminder that you’re in strange territory.

Gardening is a different kettle of fish in the States – you can’t just plant any old thing in your garden. North America is divided into eleven climate/hardiness zones, enabling you to choose plants that will survive in your specific region. Plants are usually sold with a small map or zone number indicating their suitability, and “unsuitable” plants, trees and shrubs are often not even available in the local nurseries. For avid gardeners, this can be quite limiting and frustrating. A walk round Chicago neighborhood gardens gives you an immediate snapshot of the relatively small number of plants that can tolerate both the freezing winters and the hot, humid summers. (Hostas and astillbes are very popular.)Perhaps the biggest surprise to British gardeners is that, in many parts of the States, is the lack of greenery and foliage during winter. Lawns turn brown, perennials die back and gardens look well, dead. Additionally, there is no point in doing much planting before mid-May as entire regions can still fall victim to overnight frosts which kill new plants. Harsh north and mid-west winters also mean that composting takes twice as long since the entire contents of the composter are frozen solid for at least four months of the year.

It’s with the fauna however, that you really know you’re on different turf. Take, for instance, the insects, which blogger Brit Gal Sarah is convinced are “all on steroids”. Yes, there are bees and wasps (commonly called Yellow Jackets), but they’re three times the size of anything I’d ever seen. Before moving here, I associated mosquitoes with hot, vacation places, not northerly cities like Chicago, where I live. You learn very quickly not to leave children’s paddling pools uncovered unless you want to attract every mosquito in the state. In areas with a particularly bad mosquito problem, homeowners have a wide variety of mosquito machines at their disposal and it’s big business.

Picnics present unforeseen problems too. You can’t sit directly on grass here without your rear end being eaten by chiggers. Unfortunately they aren’t visible to the naked eye, although the red rash they leave certainly is. Depending on where you are in the country, the other pest your picnic might attract is the black or brown bear. They have come to equate signs of human life with food and will overturn cars and campers to avail themselves of your lunch. Many hiking trails and camping spots have signs warning visitors about bears, although bears often come into larger towns and cities looking for food also.

If that’s not enough to put you off camping in the USA, there are also bob cats and cougars neither of which you’d want to mess with. Don’t think you’re safe from these just because you live in a city either; in April 2008 a one hundred and fifty pound cougar was seen roaming around Chicago’s north side. These cats are found in almost every state in the USA and on every kind of terrain. If you’re out walking with your dog, make sure you’re not in cougar country as they are particularly attracted to our canine companions.

As a city dweller I live with raccoons over-turning the trash cans, possums living under the front porch and rabbits bopping around the gardens. Further out in the burbs, skunks and deer are common visitors, and coyotes are often seen. (In the past few years, several coyotes have made their way to down town Chicago too.) In the south, home dwellers have snake and ‘gator stories a-plenty. A friend of Brit Gal Sarah had a four foot long Bull snake drop onto her shoulders as she exited her garden shed, and there are countless news stories of people finding snakes curled up inside vacuum cleaners or worse, hiding in the toilet bowl. In 1999 the Federal Bureau of Statistics stated that 200 ” toilet-bowl attacks” were reported, with 50 fatalities. Alligators are frequently found hissing away in garages in southern homes and residents living near water in Florida are advised never to leave their doors propped open. Eek.

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Not quite what I was brought up with in England that’s for sure.

(PS. On a serious note, since many of these animals may be carrying rabies, and a cornered animal is a dangerous animal, always call Animal Control should you find a visitor in your house, garden or garage.)

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

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