“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!
Hello my best beloveds! It is September! We’re cooling off! We’re drunk on the abundance of harvest season! We’re wondering how summer went by so fast! We’re celebrating the history of America’s labor movements by only giving white-collar people the day off! We’re literally bathing in tubs of pumpkin spice!
September is second only to June, in my mind, as peak “Oh my GOD I LOVE my GARDEN” season. The nihilism of August is past, the rains of autumn are coming, we’re harvesting the last of our tomatoes and eyeballing our ripening squash and wrapping ourselves in mingled relief and nostalgia for the growing season that’s coming to a close. It’s almost Halloween season! “Feast with friends and/or family until the darkest days of winter are over” season! Don’t forget to take at least a little of your loveliest produce and set it aside for the bleakest days of January and February — whether you’re freezing or canning, a bag of homegrown tomatoes simmered down into sauce or a jar of fig jam goes a long way when you’re in the throes of the wintertime sads.
Seasonal vibe check
For some reason, this year, I have been fighting this overwhelming urge to go back-to-school shopping. I am not, it may be noted, a student. But all I can think about is, like, buying a Lisa Frank notebook and the new sweater that is going to Define The Person I Am This School Year. It’s all going to be different from now on! The sweat-soaked angst of summer is behind me! I’m older and wiser than I’ve ever been, and this article of clothing is proof!
So, in deference to the *~academic vibes~* of the season I am going to bring back the actual worst part of school: report cards! Isn’t that fun?!?
Every year, in the garden, I do more experimenting than rule-following. I distribute sage and time-tested advice and then I completely ignore it to see what I can get away with or whether I can fine-tune something for my particular microclimate. I also frequently test the limits of benign neglect, bad scheduling, or shoddy follow-through.
While I am unwilling to subject you, dear reader, to my mistakes and experiments in real time, I am happy to share their results. I know I am not the only person who is overscheduled or under-motivated or simply curious about how to make standard practices work better for a Richmond backyard specifically.
In short: I fucked around, so you can find out.
So, without further ado, instead of quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares, I am offering you
The Great Growing Season Experimentation Report Card of 2022!
The Trials & Tribulations of Teensy Tiny Tomatoes
I started tomato seeds directly in a raised bed under a greenhouse cover, hoping they would mirror the incredible resilience of the volunteers I get every year. The seedlings I carefully nurture like precious infants do fine, I guess, but the trash baby plants that pop up out of LITERAL CRACKS IN THE SIDEWALK are the most infuriatingly healthy plants I’ve ever seen. While many people just wait until they can direct-sow tomatoes after the soil has warmed, I wanted to see if I could get a jump-start.
Around the beginning of April, I topped one of my raised beds with a greenhouse cover I got for forty bucks on the internet, sowed my seeds, and waited. Then, after tomato season was well and truly underway, I bought a few established plants from a vendor at the Maymont Plant Sale as a control group, because they have the Good Equipment and I knew their plants would have been set up for maximum success.
Results were mixed. My direct-sown seedlings were slow to get going, because even in the greenhouse it wasn’t warm enough for them to be truly *happy.* Of the three I started: one was murdered in a tragic “lost my balance and smushed something when I put out a hand to catch myself” accident; one failed to thrive, and I ultimately replaced it; but the third was, indeed, incredibly healthy!! It outshone all the other tomato plants in the garden, both in terms of health and yield. What does this mean? I’m not sure! I think it’s definitely an endorsement of direct-sowing — but I probably need to be more patient. I’m going to try again next year, with adjustments.
Sidestepping Squash Succubi
I didn’t plant my squash or cucumbers until the very end of June, hoping to avoid the annual nightmare infestation of the bugs who must not be named. The idea here is that squ*sh bugs lay their eggs in June — on your cucumbers and zucchini and butternuts and pumpkins, alas — and so if you simply have no squash plants for them to lay on, you disrupt their reproductive cycle, and boom! No infestation.
A (qualified) success! Squ*sh bugs are a literal nightmare pest that can really only be controlled through heavy pesticide use or manually picking every single bug off the vine. I don’t have the patience for the latter, and I’m ethically opposed to the former in backyard settings. So anything that gets me pumpkins without a fight is definitely worth trying. I meant to direct-sow all my cucumbers, pumpkins, and butternuts at the end of June, but life being what it is, I actually didn’t get it all in until the first week of July. But — miracle of miracles — it’s now September and I have not seen any marauders in the patch!
HOWEVER, it’s now September, and my plants have only had two months to get their shit together. It’s a race to see how much of a yield I can get before the first frost. For the cucumbers and miniature squash I planted, that’s fine! I am already glorying in my baby butternuts. But there’s no way I would be able to get a carving pumpkin or other large squash to maturity before the first frost. So if you’re going to try this method, definitely go for petite or miniature varieties.
Snubbing Sprays and Supporting Soil
Over the last few years, I’ve been working my way toward an entirely spray-free garden. This year, except for a one-time, very early season spritz of neem oil on my (not-yet-blooming) tomatoes, my roses, and my fruit trees, I didn’t use anything. No pesticides. No fungicides. Nada.
The idea is that, with time, I’ll be able to achieve enough balance and biodiversity in my yard and garden that my plants’ natural defenses and the pests’ natural predators will keep one another in check. Does this mean I’ll never stumble upon the pest-ravaged corpse of a comrade felled before their time on the battlefield? No! But theoretically, it means that the occasional plant murders won’t escalate to full-on Purge-style murder sprees.
It’s … working? Look, I hesitate to crow success from the rooftops, because as we all know, hubris leads to patricide, and my dad’s a pretty nice dude. But year-on-year, my garden has become healthier, more resilient, and less plagued by pests and diseases, with a few notable exceptions.
This has required some compromises: I’ve established a non-aggression pact with the less-cute predatory insects and pollinators, up to and including not automatically destroying hornets’ and wasps’ nests (within reason). We are too mean to them! I know they look scary, but try to think of them as bad boys with hidden hearts of gold. Little jabby Edward Cullens. Sure, they’re dangerous, but they’re also
vital to the ecosystem dreamy.
Less controversially, I’ve allowed small sections of my yard to go to meadow, only mowing them twice a year or so; I’ve been using no-dig methods wherever possible and trying to feed the soil as much as I can. It’s going really well, I’m very pleased, and I’m excited to see how things progress as time goes by.
(There are always butts.) (heh heh heh)
My fruit trees — specifically, my peach and my nectarine — are fucked. And without spraying, they probably always will be. They’re just too delicate, too disease-prone, and too dang sweet to make it through the summer without getting hit by fungus or mildew or some kind of pest infestation. And at least some of my roses will probably always have a little bit of a fungal thing going. I’m coming to terms with the roses; I haven’t decided yet what to do about the peach and the nectarine. Spray them and nothing else? Accept that I just won’t get fruit from those trees but they still look nice? IDK!
Credit where it’s due: a few of my fruit trees have handled the spray-free regimen just fine. The cherries and pears are muddling along, and the fig is thriving. She don’t give a damn. Just throwing fruit around by the fistful like a king trying to buy the goodwill of the commoners. (It’s me, I’m the commoners.)
Grace’s Growing Season Fuckery: B
So there we have it! I’m giving myself a solid B. I obviously made an effort, and I am clearly a reasonably intelligent kid, but I lack focus and spend too much time reading novels under my desk when I think the teacher can’t see me. Ah well. We can’t all be “a joy to have in class.”
What I’m pondering in the garden this week
Fall is tree planting season! As a certified Shade Queen,TM I am all about planting trees. (This is as much a selfish impulse as an environmental one: I literally cannot bear direct sunlight for longer than fifteen minutes at a stretch. I become something … unnatural.)
I have hit max capacity on trees in my own yard, though, so — especially on the heels of summer — I’ve been thinking a lot about where trees are in the city, what kind of trees they are, how well they’re cared for, and what it all means. (Ha HA, suckers, this is another one of those what does it all MEAN columns.)
I live in the not-yet-fashionable but rapidly gentrifying end of Church Hill (North Church Hill, is what people say when they want to be absolutely sure there’s no way you’ll confuse the two). The neighborhood was built as a streetcar suburb in the early 1900s, and when I moved in seven years ago, there were a lot of vacant houses and empty lots, many of which had absolutely enormous trees on them.
As developers have scooped up property and renovated or built homes, they’ve also demolished the trees present on those properties. And look, this isn’t a NIMBY thing! The city of Richmond needs housing, lots of it, and more density. I’m not saying that Nothing May Be Built, For Fear of Losing Trees.
But my backyard is dominated by an oak that, according to an internet formula I found (so, grain of salt), is between 150 and 185 years old. It predates my house. When my current neighbor moved in, the first thing he asked was if I’d ever thought about having the tree taken down. I explained to him, with only minimal swearing and just one threat to his well-being, that the tree wasn’t just an environmental asset, but — as our houses collectively sit on a slope with no retaining wall — the oak’s root system was holding our yards in place.
If you go into the other end of Church Hill, or into the Fan District or Jackson Ward, there is shade everywhere. The parks and streets are lined with mature trees. In some of the city’s most “picturesque” neighborhoods, the power lines run through the alleys so the trees don’t have to be mauled every year to avoid accidents.
This summer, the city (or Dominion, unclear) tore out an ailing maple in front of my house. They didn’t tell me it was happening and they didn’t replace the tree; they just demolished it and left. Four other trees on my street have been removed the same way. I’ve watched developers fell enormous trees from the backyards of houses they’re renovating, or lots they’re building on. An oak went down earlier this summer that left behind the largest stump I’d ever seen in person. What little shade the neighborhood does have is being removed, inch by inch, and no one seems to be replacing it. And yeah, I can go stick a sapling in the easement, but it will take decades to have the same impact. There are no maturing trees to take over from the already established ones we’re losing.
The arboreal future of the neighborhood — and in many ways, the city — is steered entirely by developers and investors and what they choose to do with the lots and homes they’re scooping up. What developers and investors do not care about, and are not thinking about, is how to build a sustainable, welcoming neighborhood. What they want are frictionless, faux-luxury renovations, or new builds that sell for top dollar and are devoid of potentially undesirable characteristics. Which means the houses have to be as big as possible, the yards need to be empty and featureless, and working around an existing tree isn’t worth the additional time or cost.
I’m not a crank. The city, and Church Hill especially, also needs: dense, affordable housing, and plenty of it; justice and support for the families recently forced out of the public housing that is now mid-demolition at the end of the neighborhood; more and consistently reliable public transit; and concentrated, community-led investment in our public schools. These are all important and I am begging you to not accuse me of waffle erasure because I said I am worried about the future of pancakes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still also need some fucking shade. It doesn’t make trees less important.
We need green spaces and neighborhoods that are welcoming and cool and pleasant to be in, for ourselves and our kids and our neighbors’ kids and the dogs we treat like kids. Heat islands aren’t getting any less severe; torrential rains are not becoming any less likely. Every giant-ass tree in Church Hill is holding the soil beneath it in place, preventing erosion. But none of this is mutually exclusive! I promise you, we can have apartment complexes and trees! In fact, apartment complexes house many people, which means we can have space for more trees!
I think fences provide an illusion of sovereignty where our yards and balconies and stoops are concerned, but make no mistake, we are making decisions for everyone when we make decisions about our own yards. Our fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides drift on the wind and drain into the river; our invasive plants spill over into the yards and gardens of people with whom we’ll never speak. When we destroy the neighborhood’s established trees, we rob our neighbors of shade, our soil of stability, our yards of biodiversity and wildlife.
But just as one diseased rose can sicken a block’s worth of rose bushes, so can one saved tree or unmown patch of grass bring life to a block’s worth of homes. The commons have been enclosed, but not erased — not entirely. The hum of natural life, even in dense urban areas, is something we are all entitled to enjoy, something we are all obligated to protect. Trees are the first and largest building block of that system, the structural supports without which nothing else can thrive. A developer working around a shade tree, a homeowner hiring an arborist to keep a tree healthy instead of removing it, an apartment manager planting trees in courtyards and easements — these actions don’t occur in a vacuum. No matter how tall your fences are, the decisions you make for the green spaces you occupy are communal, whether you like it or not. So think carefully about what those decisions are.
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: Just in time for winter, let me introduce you to this EDIBLE. HOUSEPLANT. SUCCULENT. It’s called Cuban Oregano, it’s a member of the mint family, and it is delicious! And it grows like CRAZY. Slap it in a pot on a windowsill, you will not regret it. Photo by Grace Todd.