“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!
Hi babies! It’s October! We’re making our yards spooky! We’re wearing sweaters! We’re considering the ways in which landscaping can be weaponized to prevent “undesirable” use of public spaces! We’re planning Halloween costumes! We’re watching horror movies for the catharsis of experiencing fear caused by something other than geopolitics! We’re drinking hot apple cider!Seasonal vibe check
We have had a string of perfect fall days, y’all. Chilly nights, just-short-of-chilly days, textbook stuff. It’s time to bring in any tropical plants you moved outside for the summer and start bedding your garden down for colder weather. The Old Farmer’s Almanac — and my completely unfounded superstition — are calling for a particularly cold winter, so now’s the time to prepare!
With that in mind, I’ve prepared an end-of-season checklist, just for you:
- Acquire an autumnal beverage of your choice, alcoholic or otherwise.
- Wait until the sun has just started to cut across the sky in that sort of sleepy golden way that reminds you how much earlier the sun is setting. Wrap yourself in the sensation of time passing, and also a sweater, even if it’s a little too warm. The sweater is for ambiance. Sweat a little. It will be cold soon enough.
- Make a list of any plants you have that are particularly tender or prone to damage from heavy frosts: camellias, for example, whose roots are very close to the surface of the soil; southern standbys like figs, magnolias, gardenias, and hardy hibiscus; perennials that die back to the ground, like dahlias, lilies, hostas, and peonies. If you haven’t, put a stick or plant marker of some kind around those perennials, too, so you can find them after they’ve died back.
- Note which plants, if any, need to be moved, and how much mulch and compost you’ll need to give them all a thorough top-dressing. Finish your drink. Watch the sun go down. Ponder Halloween decorations. Text an old friend.
- On the soonest feasible morning, find yourself startled at how perfectly opaque the blue of the sky can be. Move any plants that need moving. Clean up and dispose of any diseased foliage. Spread a thick layer of compost or manure over all your garden beds. Cut back any diseased or dying branches or stems on shrubs. Begin the habit of disconnecting your hose every time you use it so you won’t be caught by surprise if there’s an early freeze. (Letting your hose freeze full of water is a good way to wind up with a ruined hose.)
- Put up frames and frost fabric for your winter crops, if you decide to go that route. If you’re careful, you may be able to keep some greens going through until spring. Celebrate the autumnal death-related holiday of your choice. Feast in preparation for the dying of the light.
- After the first frost, mulch your perennials and trees thickly; either mulch or cover empty garden beds.
- Plan for spring. Order seeds. Daydream liberally. Develop a codependent relationship with your houseplants. Buy a grocery store orchid to remind yourself winter won’t last forever, even if you’ll only wind up killing it in a few months. Tell yourself you’re really going to have the hang of it, next year.
- Double-check that you really, actually remembered to disconnect that hose. No, seriously. Go check again.
Have a marvelous fall, y’all! Stay warm, enjoy the cozy season, find me on Twitter or email me if you have questions, big or small. What did you learn in the garden this year? What can’t you wait to try differently in the spring?
Your quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares
What happened to my St. John’s Wort??? It seemed happy and then it was … not.
Full disclosure, babes: this was texted to me by a friend. Advice column nepotism!! But, it let me really dig in and get you the good content, because I had multiple follow-up questions, and now I have a DIGRESSION for you.
After some pointed questioning, it turns out the St. John’s Wort in question was sold to my friend as a … houseplant, somewhat inexplicably. Which is something of a trend that I’ve noticed — companies are selling seeds and baby plants in these cutesy-tootsy planters and kits that heavily imply, if not outright say, that you can just grow them on your windowsill. Except they’re selling plants that are categorically unsuited to living indoors in teeny-tiny pots — plants that are fast-growing annuals that get HUGE (basil, sunflowers, random vegetables) or plants that require very specific growing conditions in order to germinate (poppies, lavender, ROSES), and many, many plants that will never in a million years survive being “grown” in the dumb little pots they’ve provided. It’s a grift, pure and simple. Winter-hardy plants should stay outside! Some of them require or prefer chill hours, or need to go dormant for a period of time; most of them want full sun, which you won’t get indoors without specialized equipment; and those fast-growing annuals are going to keel over and die no matter what you do, so why not just grow them when they’re in season???!!???
It isn’t just that these stupid little kits are, literally, a scam. I worry that they hurt people’s feelings (“I followed all the instructions and it died anyway, I guess I’m just congenitally incapable of keeping plants alive”) and put people off what can otherwise be a lovely and tasty hobby. A lot of them are targeted at kids, and that’s a pretty dispiriting takeaway. And there are edible herbs you can grow indoors! Including basil! You just have to expect that it will die after a while and, y’know, put it in a pot that’s bigger than a goddamn coffee mug.
I have a rule of thumb when people ask me about poisonous plants: if we don’t already eat it, it’ll probably make you sick. Similarly, if you aren’t already vaguely aware of a plant being semi-popular as a houseplant, or haven’t seen it in a nursery’s houseplant section, there’s probably a reason for that. (Grocery stores do not count; they’ll sell you any old damn thing as a “seasonal gift.”) (Plants I have seen shoved into ludicrous decorative pots as “seasonal gifts” in grocery stores: roses, hellebores, lavender, whole-ass fruit trees.)
St. John’s Wort is a shrubby lil guy that gets to be about three feet tall and wide. It’s a fast grower and self-sows easily. It’s considered invasive in some places, where gardeners are advised not to plant it, lest it go feral; from experience, I will say that after planting it in an herb bed, it took me about three years to get rid of it again. (Whoops.) It’s not suited to living in a lil pot on your desk. Which is what I told my friend — who, hopefully, has already transplanted our friend here into a bigger pot and moved it outside.
Also, uh —
Don’t water your plants every day, you goddamned maniacs.
What I’m pondering in the garden this week
We don’t give plants enough credit for being creepy little monsters.
It’s spooky szn, and so I’ve been throwing myself into my annual orgy of debatably tasteful Halloween decorating and horror movies. This, combined with the tiny gremlin on my shoulder that’s constantly reminding me that I need to create ContentTM, got me thinking about plant-themed horror narratives. Specifically, why aren’t there more of them??
I perused a bunch of different lists, mostly garnered by googling variations on plant-themed horror movies, and tbh, I was really surprised by how many of them aren’t actually about plants. Like, if you go poking around, a lot of them boil down to man was the real monster all along, and/or aliens, and/or the literal devil.
(We do not speak of the offensively boring Wahlberg vehicle The Happening. It does not deserve the breath we expend in discussing it, and so we will not.)
It’s easier to finds plants-as-horror-antagonists in print, which I get: it is difficult to make an immobile organism scary on screen! And yeah, plant horror sort of peaked in and around the Victorian era, where it was used as a handy-dandy metaphor for the looming threats of horny ladies, and the uncivilized world, and the queers, which is, uh, not ideal. But the Victorians were also a lot more aware that life, especially “modern” life, was an inherently tenuous thing, and they understood, better than we do, that it is only a matter of time before we can no longer contain the growing things we claim to have domesticated. Everything you know and love will one day vanish beneath an unstoppable tide of greenery. Herbicide-resistant weeds are going to doom us all, because we were unwilling to find better alternatives to Roundup, and amaranth evolves faster than we can make chemicals to kill it with. I think we need to be afraid of plants again, if only so we give them the respect they’re due!
With that in mind, here is my first pitch for an appropriately plant-centric horror film. One that I think is thought-provoking, spine-tingling, and relevant to the Youths of Today. Are you listening, Hollywood??? Make me rich!!
Horror Comedy, 2024
Twenty-eight-year-old Cara is tired of feeling like she can’t get her shit together. She channels her frustration with her shitty job, her shitty landlord, and the ever-increasing cost of living into a mild houseplant addiction — even if she usually kills them within a month or two. She’s desperate to feel like an adult, whatever that means, even if the trappings of “adulthood” are well beyond her budget.
When Cara’s roped into attending a wealthy friend’s bachelorette weekend at an exclusive resort, she’s more conscious than ever of her own inability to keep up with the not-quite-Kardashians of the world. The weekend culminates in a boozy brunch at a high-end “plant bar,” where Cara — after a weekend of feeling like a broke failure and charity case — overindulges in the bottomless mimosas. She wakes up the next morning with a nasty hangover, a series of damn girl you really know how to party texts, and a beautiful, mysterious orchid in a gilded pot. Oh, and a text alert from her bank, warning her that she’s maxed out her credit card.
Determined to make the best of things, and in light of the ABSOLUTELY NO REFUNDS disclaimer on the plant’s care instructions tag, Cara decides the plant is a sign. She’s going to get herself together. She’s going to stick to a budget. And she’s going to keep this plant alive, damnit.
Back home, Cara juggles work, bridesmaid commitments, and her love life while trying to keep her new, and, it turns out, extremely delicate plant alive. The orchid has an insatiable hunger for blood meal, mineral-rich bottled water — and once, she swears, a mouse, seemingly half digested by the thing’s roots by the time she finds it — but the plant thrives on her attention, even seeming to move toward her when she speaks to it. Her hard work seems to finally be paying off: she’s promoted at work, she manages to smooth things over with the bride, and she finally goes on a couple dates that aren’t totally dismal, a series of successes she attributes, in part, to her “lucky plant.” Sure, it pulsates a little, and she’s noticed that it seems to smell, ever so faintly, of rotting meat. And the neighbor’s cat has gone missing. And Cara’s roommate swears it tried to bite her. But it looks so nice, in the middle of their dim little apartment, and it’s probably the most expensive thing she’s ever owned.
Distracted by her newfound success and a fresh shot at love, though, Cara begins to neglect the plant — only to discover that, when push comes to shove, the plant will take care of itself. (By eating, and then colonizing, her roommate, her landlord, her love interest, the bride, and several hapless bystanders.)
“A confusing mishmash of anti-capitalist rhetoric, over-the-top gore, and seemingly endless plant trivia that concludes by implying the rich are feeding people to their houseplants. Utter nonsense that will, no doubt, find a willing audience in a generation more preoccupied with resentment than hard work.”
“A love letter to the burnout generation, the anxieties of conspicuous consumption, houseplant people, and the desire to murder that one friend from high school you could never quite seem to cut out of your life. You know the one.”
“Imagine Bridesmaids, but if it ended in the entire cast being terrorized by a flesh-eating plant that turned half of them into undead, root-bound ‘zombies’ that yearn for blood and fertilizer in equal measure. I’m not sure I’d watch it again, but the flowers erupting from the groom’s eyes in front of the wedding party is an image I’ll never forget.”
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: Pears Pears Pears Pears. Photo by Grace Todd.