If the only green thing you’ve nursed is envy at your friend’s gardening skill, there’s hope for you. While some people seem destined to have lush green landscapes and others have apartments that double as greenhouses, some of us feel like plants should stay far away for their own safety. But, guess what. That’s hogwash!
Inside all of us is an inner plant lady waiting to be unleashed. There are a few simple tricks and techniques you can integrate into your budding garden that will set your plants up for success from the get-go. Expert gardeners swear by these rules of green-thumb, and they might help you too!
1. DIY watering jug: Instead of spending money on a store-bought watering can, you can make a really effective one from a plastic milk jug. These are great to have around for kids learning the responsibilities of tending a garden.
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2. Newspaper trick: That old stack of Sunday papers sitting in the garage is actually a blessing for your garden. Newspaper is absorbent enough and breaks down in the soil, so adding a thin layer of papers beneath the top layer of soil prevents weeds from spreading.
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3. Tools in the sand: Storing muddy shovels can be a risky business. Either they’re easily knocked over or leave large clumps of dried dirt in their wake. To combat those hazards while keeping them spiffy, place gardening tools in a bucket full of sand and mineral oil.
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4. Paper product tubes: Whether of the toilet or towel variety, the little cardboard tubes on paper products serve as biodegradable seedling starters. You can plant seeds directly in the tubes, raise them to little sprouts, and move the entire tube into its final spot in the ground.
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5. Keep critters out: Nothing dampens the spirit quite like putting time, sweat, and money into a garden, only to have it destroyed by hungry animals. Thankfully, a bar of soap will keep the critters at bay. Grate the soap into shavings and distribute them around the plants.
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6. Plant veggie scraps: Take half of the pepper you were going to use for dinner and regrow your own full plant. Leave the seeds inside a portion of the pepper, cover it in soil, and give it some water. You’ll see sprout results within days!
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7. Green onions for beginners: If you’re inexperienced in growing plants or working with limited space, you can grow onions right inside a glass. After you chop off the top of your green onions, submerge the white roots in a shallow cup of water.
8. Makeshift bottle greenhouse: For those of us without yard space, there’s an easy way to grow plants that requires special humid conditions. Cut off the bottom of a plastic bottle and place it over the top of your potted plant. Voila, you have a portable conservatory!
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9. How to fill overly large planters: Have you ever seen those gigantic planters and wondered about all that wasted dirt inside? Well, many aren’t full of soil. Rather, they’re loaded with plastic bottles to take up all that extra space.
10. Clever planters: If you’re struggling with space for potted planters, consider an unconventional growing vessel like an over-the-door shoe rack. These lend themselves to plants because you can customize the drainage for each individual pouch.
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11. Keep ‘em separated: Even the greenest thumbs have trouble estimating the blueprints of their gardens. A little trick that prevents plants from growing into each other is by leaving them inside the plastic container. Then, you plant the whole thing in its entirety into the earth.
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12. Muffin tin garden spacer: Sure, you can shell out the money for a spacer recommended by a blogger. Or, you can take a muffin tin from your kitchen and press it into your soil like a stamp.
13. Composting made simple: If going full compost bin is too much of a commitment for your gardening game, ease your way in by collecting a few daily food items to add to your soil. Set aside banana peels, coffee grounds, fruit rinds, and eggshells in a container stored outside.
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14. Salt fertilizer: You can stretch your bag of fertilizer by adding Epsom salt, which is usually a key ingredient. In fact, you can add the salt directly to the soil or create a water-salt solution to pour at the base of your plants.
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15. Soiled bottoms: Combat dirt dribbling out of your planter’s drainage holes with coffee filters. Simply place a filter in the bottom of each pot and cover it in soil and you never have to worry about it ever again.
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16. Control your chemicals: When the weed level reaches a point where wrangling them requires the strong stuff, make a barrier to protect the surrounding greenery with an aluminum can. The spray will stay within your targeted area!
17. Level up your irrigation system: If a plant coroner existed, they would tell you the most common cause of vegetation death is overwatering. To nip this in the bud, place a sponge in the bottom of your planters and cover them with soil to combat moisture-fueled rot.
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18. Rosespuds: To get your money’s worth out of a bouquet of your favorite roses, you only need some potatoes. The roses still need to be alive for this, but just insert each stem into a whole potato. Plant that spud under the soil, and it should take root.
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19. Wine cork markers: It’s nearly impossible to keep track of those plastic little markers that come with store-bought plants. A natural material like cork adds an extra bit of design to our outdoor space with just a toothpick and a pen.
Figuring out the right and wrongs of taking care of plants can save you an enormous amount of time and money. This extends to backyard spaces in general, where you can avoid a major headache by avoiding these common mistakes.
1. Mowing too much: If your grass has become overgrown for one reason or another, don’t try to mow it all down in one day; this will cause too much stress on the blades. Instead, slowly shave the lawn down in increments over a few sessions.
2. Ignoring dog spots: Identifiable as circular patches of dead grass, dog spots are where Spot likes to pee. As soon as you see signs of one, soak the problem area with a lot of water before replanting grass. Your yard will thank you.
3. Failing to eliminate thatch: Thatch, the layer of decomposing grass debris and clippings that builds up on yards over time, can damage lawns because it blocks out nutrients from the healthy grass below. This makes it vital to get rid of.
4. Mowing in the same direction: You should be mowing in a different direction every time you tackle the chose so that the grass doesn’t grow at an angle, and so you don’t run the risk of eventually having permanent (ugly) mower tracks on your lawn.
5. Over-watering: To determine how long to water a lawn, people say put a pie crust on the grass and see how long it takes to fill up with 1/2 inch of hose water. But this doesn’t take soil density into account; soil that isn’t as dense requires less watering.
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6. Cutting grass too short: If we’re talking about grass length, when in doubt, go longer. Long grass has many benefits, but one stands out: tall blades shade the soil, making pesky weeds less likely to grow.
7. Forgetting to reseed: Don’t forget! Reseeding is important to maintain a healthy and thriving lawn. The task may seem daunting, but for most average-sized lawns, one weekend does the trick.
8. Using a dull mower blade: If the blade on your mower isn’t sharp enough, it will cause stress to the grass. So inspect your blade — if it’s brown on top, it’s probably too dull!
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9. Getting rid of every leaf: It’s tempting to rake each and every leaf that falls onto the lawn. This actually isn’t a good idea because leaves act as a natural fertilizer. Leaving a few behind will make your grass healthier.
10. Mistreating shady areas: Patches of grass that aren’t exposed to direct sunlight all day need less water because less evaporates. They also require less fertilizer than other sections. Dousing them with too much will only kill your precious blades.
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11. Cleaning up too much after a mow: While too many leftover grass clippings can lead to thatch problems — who wants those? — a healthy amount of the stuff is actually desirable. Clippings reintroduce moisture and nutrients to the soil.
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12. Multiple, quick watering sessions: Rather than watering your lawn every day in short installments, water once per week for a longer period of time. This will make your lawn more resilient to droughts.
13. Neglecting the shade: It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to grow grass under the shade of trees. The trick is to choose the right species of grass and planting method for your region.
14. Forgetting to compost: Just a little can go a long way in creating healthy, thriving lawns. Apply compost across your yard with a shovel in a layer about ¼ to ½ inch thick. With a rake, work the material through the grass.
15. Neglecting to add mulch: This only needs to be done once a year, so there’s no excuse! Adding fresh mulch to the grass every now and then makes a yard need less water and grow less weeds. In the long run, mulching will actually save you time.
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16. Mow wet grass: Never, never, never mow wet grass! Touching blades to a wet lawn will ensure any fresh clippings clump together and clog the mower. After a rain, check to make sure grass blades are not slumping before cutting.
17. Misusing herbicide: Herbicide is used to kill weeds, but it’s only effective when they’re still growing. Make sure not to use the stuff when it’s too cold out, as this means that the weeds are likely not growing, thus rendering the chemicals ineffective.
18. Over-fertilizing: Too much fertilizer can seep through your lawn and have harmful effects on nearby bodies of water — lakes, streams, etc. Make sure you know exactly how much fertilizer your lawn really needs.
19. Forgetting to aerate: Aerating might be a hassle, but it’s important. Over time, top soil layers will get stamped down, making it harder for necessary nutrients to enter. Don’t forget to keep an aerator in the shed!
20. Over-sized lawns: Don’t be afraid to make your lawn smaller. This doesn’t mean sacrificing outdoor space — it just means less work watering fertilizing, and the rest. You can be imaginative and use boulders, trees, statues, and more to minimize the amount of grass that needs tending.
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Moving away from the lawn and to the garden, it’s important to deadhead frequently. This simply means make sure to prune dead flowers as often as possible so new ones have room to sprout.
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2. Rotate crops: It’s vital not to plant the same species in the same spot of the garden year after year. Rotate them every time you begin your yearly gardening to ensure the soil stays nutrient-filled.
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3. Understand lawn drainage: The last thing you want happening is to create a garden you’re super proud of only to have it drowned out after a storm. Learn where the water drains out the best after heavy rainfalls.
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4. Choose a spot wisely: It’s imperative that your decision to start a garden involves a spot that’s ideal for the vegetation. You’ll want an area that gets direct sunlight for at least half the day.
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5. Know your fertilizer: When combing through the various options, hardcore gardeners look for three key ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. All three of these ensure plants will grow in a mineral-rich environment.
6. Dig up weeds: Regardless of whether or not you garden, you don’t want weeds leaving your lawn looking unsightly. In order totally eliminate each weed, rip it up by the deepest root possible.
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7. Grease your shovel: One of the most annoying aspects of planting a garden is when the soil you’re digging sticks like glue to the shovel. A layer of petroleum jelly or WD-40, however, fixes the issue.
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8. Save Autumn leaves: Old leaves act as wonderful mulch, compost, and fertilizer — that’s a threefer! Plus, you can lay the leaves over a garden to prevent frost damage.
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9. Save those seeds: Growing foods like tomatoes and other veggies that have seeds is super easy! Save the seeds, let them dry out, and then place them into rich potting soil. Pretty soon you won’t have to buy produce anymore!
10. Understand potting soil: Sometimes the soil you purchase for potted plants comes with fertilizer mixed in. However, make sure you read up on whether or not the plant needs additional fertilizer just in case.
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11. Don’t rake your garden: As tempting as it is to rake up the hundreds of dead leaves that might cover a garden during the fall, leave them be! The leaves provide great fertilizer as they slowly decompose.
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12. Unravel bound roots: Sure, buying potted plants is definitely more convenient than potting them yourself, but the bound roots on many of them don’t allow for maximum nutrient consumption. Use your hands to break the mold apart.
13. Study hardiness zones: Hardiness Zone maps are created by United States Department of Agriculture, and before you plant anything check them out to learn which species flourish in your particular area for maximum vegetation.
14. Learn about soil: Before you go out and buy a bunch of plants you think will flourish, learn all about the soil on your property so you don’t waste money buying seeds that won’t grow.
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15. Lighten your load: Lugging around pots can be a strain on your back, so do yourself a favor and fill the bottom half of large pots with packing peanuts to significantly cut down the weight.
16. Watch your pets: Gardens can be fun places for pets to investigate, but if you’re going to let Fido explore it, make sure your plants are pet-friendly — some species are poisonous when consumed!
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17. Time your seeds out: The time of the year you plant stuff has a massive impact on whether or not it lives or dies. Do some research and plant everything accordingly instead of wasting time by screwing everything up.
18. Deter squirrels: The bulbs of many flowers double as the perfect snack for those pesky squirrels. To keep those bushy-tailed buggers away from your hard work, cover the garden with chicken wire cut to size.
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19. Shift perennials around: Gardeners often carefully dig up their perennials and relocate them in late summer or early autumn. This helps with growth and size control. Just make sure you don’t split them where they’re blooming.
20. Segregate aggressive plants: Certain species will overtake a garden, so make sure you give them their own confined space. Also, watch out for hazardous species if you’re clearing out an area, and few are worse and hogweed.
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Hogweed is believed to have originated in the Caucasus region of eastern Europe, first sprouting in places like Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Those that lived among the plants knew how dangerous they were; foreigners, however, weren’t as well-versed.
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To them, these plants were just pretty white flowers, exactly the kind of ornamental shrub that’d look perfect in a garden. It was only a matter of time before would-be horticulturists began spreading the weed to other parts of Europe.
By 1817, the plant had made its way to Great Britain, appearing on the seed list at Kew Botanic Gardens in London. Just a decade later, it was spotted growing wild throughout the foothills of Cambridgeshire, England.
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For the next century, the weed continued to spread across Europe unabated, even as word of its ill effects became more and more well-known. Gardeners continued to plant it in their flowerbeds, and farmers even fed it to their livestock.
Eventually, though, the dangers of the plant became too great to ignore, and concentrated efforts were made to prevent its further spread. Yet by this point it was too late: the weed had already made its way to North America.
Intended for display in botanical gardens throughout Canada and the United States, the first plant rooted near Highland Park in the city of Rochester, New York. From there, it began popping up everywhere from Ontario to Maine to even as far west as Washington.
But as the truth about the plant made its way overseas, those in North America also began taking measures to rid themselves of it. Before long, the invasive weed’s growth was almost entirely under control… or so we believed.
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In 2018, a Virginia gardener was tending to their plants when they developed burns trademark of the notorious weed. The burns were so severe, in fact, that the gardener actually spent the next 48 hours being treated in an ICU.
When family members returned to check the flowerbeds, the dirt was littered with the plant’s signature white flowers. This marked the first appearance of the weed in Virginia — and the beginning of a nationwide crisis.
Yet what was this dangerous plant? That question isn’t as easy to answer as you’d think. While its scientific name is Heracleum mantegazzianum, it’s also known as the cartwheel-flower, giant cow parsnip, hogsbane, and even wild rhubarb.
But one moniker seems to trump all others: giant hogweed. Sure, the name doesn’t sound too threatening, but beneath its seemingly gentle exterior lies a poison so potent that it can have you out of commission for years at a time.
The sap of the giant hogweed is phototoxic, meaning it interferes with the skin’s ability to protect against sunlight. This then leads to phytophotodermatitis, causing the skin to burn and bubble once exposed to even the slightest bit of sun.
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Photosensitivity brought about by giant hogweed sap usually persists for a few days, though depending on how much sunlight exposure you’ve received, the damage can be irreversible. If the sap enters the eyes, for example, it can cause permanent blindness.
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For those that do come in contact with the dangerous sap, washing the affected area with soap and cold water should be enough rid the skin of the toxin. However, sunlight exposure should be limited until the skin heals, which could take up to several months.
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In one instance, a Virginia landscaper was forced out of the sun for two years after a particularly serious run-in with the plant. The teenager had inadvertently touched his face after handling a bundle of giant hogweed, causing the whole thing to peel right off.
Fortunately, more and more people are now raising awareness of the dangers of giant hogweed. Many countries now list the weed as an invasive species, and the European Union even created the European Giant Alien Project in order to completely eradicate it.
This won’t be an easy task, however, as the giant hogweed is often difficult to distinguish from several harmless plant varieties. Queen Anne’s lace (below) is nearly identical to giant hogweed and the two are commonly mistaken for one another.
Maryland Biodiversity Project
If you do manage identify giant hogweed on your property, it won’t be easy to get rid of, either. Mowing, trimming, or weed-whacking will only destroy the top half of the plant, allowing the roots to regrow the weed in a matter of weeks.
Instead, look to a landscape professional to get the job done. This way, you can avoid unintentionally exposing yourself or your family to painful toxins and ensure that the weed doesn’t come back next spring.
But even with your yard clear of giant hogweed, there are still plenty of plants to keep an eye out for — and not just the nasty ones, either. In fact, there are a handful of flowers and shrubs that could save your life in a pinch.
1. Rafflesia flower: These are the largest flowers in the world. They can grow up to 39 inches in diameter and can weigh up to 22 pounds. If you ever stumble upon them in southeast Asia — and just so happen to be suffering from internal bleeding — ingest the flower to stop the flow.
2. Wolffia globosa (Watermeal): Contrary to the Rafflesia, this plant is the world’s smallest plant. It floats at the surface of ponds and can sometimes grow at the top of fish tanks. If you’re ever lost and find these plants, then you’ve just stumbled upon dinner for the night. Make a fire and roast the sweet cabbage-tasting treat that’s rich in vitamins A, B2, B6, C, and nicotinic acid.
3. Bull thistle: This scary looking plant is actually quite useful if you find it in the wild. The roots, stems, flowers, and leaves can be eaten if you’re stranded and starving. If you’re trying to cook something else, dried bull thistle is flammable and will help start a fire.
4. Bleeding Tooth Fungus: Found in Europe and the North American Pacific Northwest, this “bleeding” mushroom is not edible and it won’t send you to Strawberry Fields. If you do eat it, an overwhelming taste of bitter pepper will fill your taste buds — you’ll become nauseous and your gag reflex will trigger. It won’t kill you, but it won’t help you either!
5. Aloe vera: This “wonder flower” is widely known for its healing powers, but if you find it in the wild you’re in for a real treat. Aloe helps with skin irritations like rashes and burns, but it also has antibacterial properties that can be used for cuts.
6. Pineapple Weed: Hikers have long looked for this plant as a source of nutrition. Although it doesn’t taste like pineapple, it still provides energy for the whole day. Visually similar to chamomile, you can also make a healthy tea with it or mash it up and use it as an insect repellent.
7. Red Cup Mushroom: These intriguing “scarlet elf cups” are pretty useless. They have no nutritional value, are very dry and tasteless, and if eaten in large quantities, they’ll cause more harm then good. But, if you must collect water from a nearby stream, these little guys make great cups!
8. Mullein: This might be one of the most important plants on this list. If you’re ever stranded for a long period of time, chances are you’re going to need to go to the bathroom. This plant’s common name is “cowboy toilet paper.” Its soft leaves make a perfect substitute for the plush roll. Just look for a plant with a long stem, short yellow flowers, and soft leaves, and you’re in luck!
9. Burdock: The best way to identify this plant is to walk through a field and see what sticks. Seriously, this plant is covered with annoying, sticky burrs that attach themselves to anything they touch. But if you get past that, the stem has amazing healing and antibacterial powers. Additionally, if you’re diabetic and need insulin, the root will lower high glucose levels.
10. Dandelions: What is normally the unwanted weed in the garden can be very useful if stumbled upon in the wild. The entire plant can be ingested raw, although the roots are very bitter. The yellow flowers can be used to make syrup, or, if you’re looking for a good time, they make dandelion wine, too.
11. White Snakeroot: Abraham Lincoln’s own mother died from milk poisoning. What poisoned the milk? Well, the cows the family drank from ingested this flower. Don’t be like Mama Lincoln. When you see this plant, run!
12. Chicory: It’s day five. You’re still stranded and now you’re having coffee withdrawals. Don’t worry, look for the bushy plant with small blue, lavender, and white flowers. If you toast them you can use the flowers as a coffee substitute to get your fix. It’s not a pumpkin spiced latte, but you can’t be picky in the wild.
13. Wood Sorrel: The great thing about this plant is that it grows all over the world, so it doesn’t matter where you get lost. The flowers are edible and a great source of Vitamin C, and if you just chew them, they help alleviate thirst. Additionally, if you have sores in your mouth for whatever reason, eating this helps promote healing.
14. Angel’s Trumpet: Contrary to its angelic name, these flowers are pure evil. Not only will you die if you eat them, but they will torture you before it happens. If ingested, expect to experience things like paralysis, hallucinations, a violent trance, AND THEN death. So tell your friends, toot your own plant-connoisseur horn because this knowledge is life-saving.
15. Narrow-Leaved Yucca: The interior part of the roots can help you keep clean during your stay in the wild (whether it be intentional or accidental). Dig up the plant, peel off the outer layer of the root, and then grind it with a rock. Mix this substance with water and get to scrubbing. Like soap, the friction will produce foam.
16. Sage: Besides using sage to cleanse your home of evil spirits, it can also cleanse your body of B.O. Just rub raw sage leaves all over your body for a natural deodorant. If you need a little more help killing the odor-causing bacteria, you can take a smoke bath in burning sage that will leave you smelling fresh.
17. Rocky Mountain Willows: Named after the most common region they’re found in, these flowers are like nature’s aspirin. Got a fever? Have a headache? Fell down a mountainside and broke your arm? Ingesting this plant acts as a pain killer. Also, eat something you shouldn’t have and now your stomach is upset? Works for that, too!
18. Nightshade: With a name like that, you know this plant should NOT be messed with. The roots are by far the most poisonous, but just two berries can kill a child. If you eat a little by mistake and actually live, it’ll cause you intense hallucinations and delirium. So if you see a dark, ominous plant… probably best to just leave it alone!
19. Trembling Aspen: If you’re stuck out in the wilderness with little to no shelter, chances are you’re going to get a pretty nasty sunburn. So find this plant and rub the chalky bark all over your body for a natural sunblock protection!
20. Prickly Pear Cactus: What looks like a plant you should steer clear of is actually one of the few helpful desert plants. If you don’t have a source of food, you can eat the reddish fruits at the top. Just remember to remove the prickly outer layer first. The inside of the cactus itself is also great at helping fight high cholesterol and high blood pressure, controlling sugar levels, and curing a hangover.