“Attack of the Killer Thumbs” aims to provide answers to your garden quandaries and your houseplant conundrums. We think plants make our lives and homes and balconies a better place to be. But we also know that you aren’t made of money. Here you will not find recommendations for our “favorite” sixty-dollar gadgets or “quick and easy” tutorials that will cost thousands of dollars to accomplish. We will focus, wherever we can, on solutions that are cheap, easy, and kind to the environment.
Hello and welcome to Attack of the Killer Thumbs!
Hey babies! It is August! We’re dodging storms! We’re under heat advisories! We’re abandoning our overambitious spring plans! We’re going out of town for a while and coming back to gardens that have gone completely to shit and feeling guilty about it! We’re sweating too much to be sad about the continuing disintegration of society!
August is when I get a little Saturn Devouring His Son about the garden. Like I don’t know if you know this, y’all, but even as an obsessive garden person, the garden is sometimes… a chore? That I sometimes resent? Who wants to pull weeds when the heat index is 116?? No, I’m literally asking. Tell me. GIVE ME THEIR NAME. I WILL HARVEST THEIR SECRETS. I WILL PULL THEIR HOT-WEATHER MOTIVATION FROM THEM LIKE CARROTS FROM FORBIDDEN SOIL. IT WILL ONLY HURT A LITTLE.
Anyway. You have my blessing to abandon garden maintenance until it’s under 100 degrees outside. It will be our little secret. Let the weeds run riot. Maybe sneak out at night or in the early morning to water it, if you have to. Dance naked in the moonlight and garland yourself in feral morning glory vines. Don’t worry. It will still be there in a month.
Seasonal vibe check
If you have somehow maintained your motivation, there’s still time to slam in seeds for your fall crops! Especially anything you’re planning on eating for its leaves (or anything frost-tolerant). If you spent all summer being like “ah shit I really wanted to start a garden this year and I just never got around to it,” this is actually the perfect time to choose a site and stake down a tarp or an old bedsheet to kill off the grass and other weeds before starting new beds in the fall — the heat will accelerate the die-off, and you have time to plan for the more project-friendly weather ahead.
Now is also the perfect time to do yourself, your guests, and your neighbors a HUGE FAVOR and go hunt for (and get rid of) standing water any and everywhere in your yard/porch/garden/alley/block to help keep mosquitos in check. (As we discussed, your adorable “mosquito-repelling plants” might not be the solution they were advertised as.) Do everyone a solid and go on standing water patrol! If you have standing water that you can’t get rid of, consider installing a pump or picking up some mosquito dunks (check the packaging to make sure they’re safe for wildlife). If you’re putting out water dishes for stray cats or neighborhood dogs, change that water frequently! This time of year, pretty much any standing water is FULL of mosquito larvae. Even the thirstiest strays don’t want to drink that.
I don’t know if everyone saw it, but beloved local nursery the Great Big Greenhouse had a cannabis cultivation seminar at the end of July! I couldn’t go, but if anyone did and wants to let me know how it went, I’d love to know. I’m guessing a lot of us are spending the summer cultivating our own entertainment — indoors, please, let’s not tempt fate — and the GBG knows a growing (heh heh heh) market when it sees one.
Your quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares
My chard! My beautiful, beautiful chard! (Three crying-face emojis)
Full disclosure, y’all, in the interest of Journalistic Ethics™: these picture messages came from my mom, who a) knows a lot more about leafy greens than I do, b) knew darn well that she was lucky to have had chard survive into the dead of summer, and c) didn’t need me to tell her what to do.
But prompted by her Tragically Doomed Chard, let’s talk fungus! And mildew! And mold! And the fact that August is SO HOT and SO WET and your poor plants are basically living inside a line cook’s crotch right now with nary a box of cornstarch in sight. Things are gonna get weird.
There are literally thousands of fungi species that cause plant disease, ranging from microbes that live in the soil to spores that are carried on the wind. What complicates the whole arrangement is that there are also tons of beneficial fungi — lil garden buddies who can help your plants take in nutrients, fight the bad fungi, all kinds of stuff. Diseases caused by fungi are common enough that you’ve probably heard of some of them even if you’re not an avid gardener: downy mildew, powdery mildew, blight, black spot, rust. Fungal disease can strike just about any plant, from oak trees to houseplants. And they are, I’m sorry to say, an absolute bitch to deal with.
For years, I’ve heard (and repeated!) that baking soda, milk, or even neem-based sprays are effective preventatives for a broad assortment of fungal diseases. If you google “diy fungicide,” you are going to get approximately a million recipes for one of those three things. But for you, babes, I realized I wanted to go the extra mile and, y’know, research my oldey-timey home remedies. And guess what? (I think you already know.) When you look into the actual research that’s been done, there’s very little evidence that these approaches work in a lab or greenhouse setting, and almost no evidence that they’re broadly effective out in these mean
“What!?” I can hear you gasping. “The Pinterest infographic/random google result/my own granny (sorry, granny) steered me wrong?!?” I know!! I am scandalized! Al Gore’s Internet, spreading misinformation??? I need a fainting couch! And a stiff drink!
So, y’know, this puts me in a bit of a pickle. Because while there are lots of sprays and things you can buy to prevent or kill fungal disease in the garden, they range from “viciously toxic” to “reasonably safe for you, not so much for [fish, insects, birds, pets]” to “pretty much fine, but also going to kill all the good fungi.” I don’t really want to tell you to just go buy a bottle of whatever, hope for the best, and get to sprayin’. For one, I promised not to spend all my time telling you to buy stuff. And for home gardeners, especially, I think what’s most important — the absolute first priority — is to always, always err on the side of harm reduction.
So I’m going to tell you that — bummertown — the best approach you can take to fungal disease is a two-pronged strategy of prevention and cold-blooded plant murder.
Boringly, prevention is your best bet. I’ve gone so far as to make you an acronym! You ready? For fairly reliable fungus prevention, use SCAT. Which in this context means Soil, Crop rotation, Air, and Tools. (I crack myself up.)
Soil and Crop rotation are going to be most important here. Good fungi can go a long way to both fighting off bad fungi and ensuring that your plants are robust enough to fight off disease. Healthy soil is vital. Dust the root balls of plants with mycorrhizal fungi when you plant; top-dress beds with compost twice a year (the best compost you can make or find!); feed your plants and soil with seaweed fertilizer or compost tea; ensure that beds drain well; and avoid overwatering, so the soil isn’t soggy. This is also another good reason to mulch: a thick layer of mulch will prevent spores in the soil from splashing up onto the stems and leaves of your plants.
In vegetable beds, try to do a three-year rotation between plant families (brassicas, nightshades, squash, etc.) if you can. If your garden is very small, even one year will be a big help! You can even take a year off from a plant family entirely. If all your tomatoes get blight this year, maybe next year will be the Year of the Green Bean. (Sure, no tomato sandwiches, but have you ever had a cold pickled dilly bean on the beach in the dead of summer? A true delight.)
In the interest of rude acronyms, I’m using Air a little broadly here: first, and most instinctively, ensure that there’s good air circulation around plants that are likely to get their shit wrecked by fungal diseases. Tomatoes, cucumbers, roses, and potatoes are all common victims. Prune so air can circulate within the plant, and try not to plant too close to fences/your house/things that will block the prevailing breezes. Second, you want to ensure the leaves are staying dry by watering just the roots when you water your garden. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but sprinklers are your enemy. Water with a wand or a watering can or even a hose — as long as you get up under the foliage so the water is just going into the soil.
Finally: Tools! Always, always clean your tools. When you’re moving between beds, or even between different plants, give clippers/trowels a quick sterilizing to avoid spreading spores or mites or anything else (I use isopropyl alcohol). At the end of the season, thoroughly clean up any and all leftover foliage or dropped fruit & veg. If you’re handling/disposing of/raking up after plants you know are diseased, it won’t hurt to go ahead and sterilize everything you’ve used. (Also, if you want your tools to last, give them a nice oiling before putting them away!)
There is some evidence that spraying with neem oil, milk, jojoba oil, or baking soda can help prevent fungal infections, if you know from experience that they’re likely. I have personally had reasonably good luck with preventative neem spritzes in the past, on roses and fruit trees, when I remember to keep up with them. If you go this route, don’t go bugnuts: baking soda is still a salt, and you can stunt or damage your plants; don’t use neem or jojoba sprays on plants that are currently in bloom; and wash any produce thoroughly before eating. (Milk sprays are essentially harmless, although I’ve heard they can smell … less than ideal, in a southern summer.)
Alright, so you’ve SCATted like a champ, but you still got a fungal disease, because Richmond Line Cook Crotch August. Alas, alack, but them’s the breaks.
Feel free to try a baking soda or milk spray, if you like! It won’t hurt, really, it just might not do anything. Your best bet — I’m so sorry — is to become Death, Destroyer of Plants. If you catch it early, remove and destroy affected leaves. Be preemptive and remove any foliage or fruit those leaves were touching, too. If it’s already spread, though, your best bet is just to demolish the plant. If it’s a perennial plant, or a tree, you might not need to go so scorched-earth; especially if the problem is leaf-based, you can remove the affected foliage, practice good prevention with surrounding plants, and hope that winter will kill it off.
My mom tore out her chard in the end, by the way, after trying a milk spray for good measure. RIP, chard. You were good while you lasted.
What I’m pondering in the garden this month — just kidding, it’s too hot for pondering, I am only sweat and resentment now, check back in September.
IDK about you, but August is right around when springtime’s ambition turns into late summer’s list of failed experiments. And fungal problems. And my post-vacation “oh shit I forgot how much feral morning glory and Virginia creeper can grow in a week.” I sat on my porch the other day, with the sweat pooling under my boobs and in my ass and behind my knees, and let myself fantasize for a good twenty minutes about flattening all of my flower beds. Just tearing ‘em out. I yearn for a hard freeze. I yearn for a blissful void. I yearn for a big dumb blank chemical horrorshow of a lawn. I want to crawl beneath the rosemary bush and let the trumpet vines consume us both in cool, creeping silence.
But I am going to step back and take a cold shower and pull on my Big Girl Bootyshorts and carry on. I know that this is a temporary impulse. I know I would actually be sad if I didn’t have a garden, and this is how I feel every year in August, at least for a bit.
Because hey! It’s also “eating a tomato sandwich over the sink” season. “Cucumber salad for dinner” season. “Baby watermelon on the vine that I’m hovering over like a midwife” season. It is time to make pickles and jams and give your friends bags of summer squash because you planted too many and you’ve run out of exciting ways to eat them and now you’re seriously debating trying to use them as weapons or sex toys or a rudimentary form of currency.
Summer is great; summer is terrible; summer is almost over as soon as it begins and I will resent it and embrace it and miss it when it is gone.
The next time we meet in this space, I’m going to have something more substantial to say. Until then, what are you pondering in the garden this month? Come tell me on Twitter or email me or tag me on Instagram. I wanna know!
Until then, I’m going to go pull some weeds. I’ll see y’all down at the Pipeline. Somebody save me a cold beer.
Got a plant question you’d like answered here? Spent the afternoon making houseplant memes and none of your friends are finding them as funny as you hoped? Send queries, conundrums and inside jokes to Grace on Twitter @MissHelleborus, on Instagram, also @MissHelleborus, or via email at [email protected].
Top Photo: Maude has become deeply concerned about the weed situation and would like to speak to a manager, but the joke’s on her, because I have abdicated all responsibility and she is in charge now. Photo by Grace Todd.