“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” ninety-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, babies! We are feeling EXISTENTIAL for June! We’re celebrating Pride! We’re telling our friends how much we love them! We’re weeding the garden because it will keep us from doom-scrolling for a fifth straight hour! We’re lying in the wet earth after a thunderstorm, trying to feel close to something larger than ourselves!
Don’t forget to set something on fire (a list of intentions, some herbs, a nice little pile of wood,
a cop car) to celebrate the solstice on the 21st. Gather your friends! Spit whiskey into the roaring flames, reaffirm the worthiness of your personal battles, and ask the universe for a good harvest — whether in literal produce or something beyond the confines of the garden.
Seasonal vibe check
As predicted, May dead-ended into HOT HOT HEAT. I am watching the sweet peas in my front garden begin to hiss and crackle like little fragrant vampires in the sun, while the Icelandic poppies gasp for mercy and the lettuces foment mutiny (okay fine, they’re just bolting, but you take my point). Cool-weather flower and veg season is OVER, Y’ALL, and it’s NOT COMING BACK. (Well. Until fall. But October is several years away, isn’t it?)
Keep an eye out for incoming hot-weather pests and problems, especially in the veg garden: squash bugs, earwigs, fungus, and blight are all going to rear their heads soon.
I have already seen some of you watering (!) your flowers (!!) IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AFTERNOON WHEN IT IS NINETY DEGREES OUTSIDE (!!!!!!!!!!)! Babes! You might as well pour the water straight into the air; it is all going to turn around and evaporate. And unless you’re really good at harvesting rainwater, that’s bought water. You’re overpaying the city for that stuff!
Please, I beg you, water early in the morning or at the end of the day. There’s debate over which is better — I’m a morning waterer, but I am not here to judge my nocturnal gardening brethren — but either is better than IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DANG DAY.
Your quandaries, conundrums, queries, and cares
What the hell is happening to this rose
ROSES OF THE LIVING DEAD
Pour yourself a drink, friend, then get out your beaked mask and your grim sense of irony: you’ve got yourself a case of rose plague. Your poor shrub is both doomed and contagious, and, like the third act of a zombie movie, you should probably put it out of its misery before it infects anything else.
Rose rosette disease (cool kids call it RRD) is a virus (did you know plants can also get viruses) carried by mites. The mites travel from plant to plant on the wind. Which means your rose, in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty-two, caught a fatal “airborne” virus.
There’s not much that can be done once your rose bush is already infected. You can try completely removing the infected section of the plant by cutting back to the base or graft if necessary (if it’s sentimental or expensive, it can be worth a try), but if you don’t succeed, it won’t be immediately apparent, and the plant will be “contagious” the whole time. The safest thing to do is to tear it out entirely — root ball and all — and then dispose of the corpse in the trash, not in your compost.
For the sake of all our gardens, I’m going to take a moment to climb on my soapbox and ask y’all to go check your roses!!! I see bushes all over town that are infected, and I swear to the moon I’m going to start leaving people obnoxious little cards that say HEY PLZ KILL YOUR PLAGUE ROSES THX. Roses, especially cheap and hardy Knock Out roses (rumored to be particularly susceptible, but I’m not sure that’s really true), are a favorite of developers, landlords, and realtors, so lots of people just sort of . . . have them, whether they want them or not, which doesn’t help.
If you’re reading this and wondering whether you can put a giant N95 on your beloved roses, sadly, preventing RRD isn’t a sure thing; horticultural oil, neem oil, and insecticidal soap are all good preventatives, but they’re not a guarantee. If you go that route, be sure to follow label instructions and try to be sparing. (It’s too late in the year now to apply horticultural oil anyway, it’s hot as balls out there.) Other than that, the best defense is to nip infection in the bud by tearing out infected plants, pruning thoroughly at the end of the season (sterilize your clippers between plants!!), and hoping for the best <3.
If you need to replace your plague roses, or are trying to encourage a friend or neighbor to replace their plague roses, I asked the fine folks at Moulton Hot Natives for some environmentally friendly recommendations that will fill the Knock Out rose-shaped hole in your life. They recommend Ceanothus americanus, New Jersey Tea; Itea virginica, Virginia Sweetspire; and Rhododendron periclymenoides, Wild Azalea, among others. Check ’em out! They have lots of nifty stuff!
What I’m pondering in the garden this month:
Spitting in the face of god.
Or at least, spitting in the face of climate and common sense. As I sit on my porch, in the ninety-plus-degree heat, I am eye level with the sweet peas I planted this spring. The sweet peas I plant every spring, even though they are categorically unsuited to life here in the swamp-hill-river-valley that is Richmond, Virginia.
Sweet peas love long, cool springs, where nights are decently above freezing but the days stay temperate. They want to be planted at the very end of winter or early spring, and once temperatures climb up into the eighties, they start to wither away, like ailing Victorian ladies coughing discreetly into their hankies, and before long they give up the ghost entirely.
You might notice that exactly none of that describes the climate here. And yet.
Every year I plant as soon as I can, I shower the soil with compost like I’m made of the stuff, I shade the roots and give the crowns light and mulch the bejeezus out of them. And every year I get an anemic scattering of blooms before they’re roasted in the frying pan of late May and early June. I sigh and kvetch and then I plant them all over again. No joke: this year I ordered all my sweet pea seeds in December, went to put them with the rest of my seeds, and found six packets of sweet peas from last year.
What is wrong with me? Why am I like this!?!?
But I feel like a lot of us have our “spitting in the face of god” plants. Quixotic obsessions that we can’t seem to set aside, despite ourselves. Greenhouse-less gardeners who can’t help planting peppers in Maine. Squash bug-ridden cucumber obsessives. Probably somewhere is an English person bemoaning their inability to grow okra, thinking longingly of Richmond’s sauna-like summers. (Probably not.) My mother is obsessed with lavender; every year she buys one, puts it in a different spot, tweaks its growing conditions, convinces herself she’s honed in on the formula this time. It always fails to survive the winter.
I take notes and I do research and every year I sniff my four sweet pea flowers with reverence, and then I watch them die, still covered in buds that will never bloom. And — like a lot of things — not only is it bittersweet, but it kicks off a certain level of imposter syndrome. Out there somewhere is someone who will say I grow thickets, fields, literal cornucopias of sweet peas every year. No, really, I trellised them into a giant cornucopia. No sweat. My garden is blanketed with scent every spring. I am a god of sweet peas and you just need to do X or Y, you dummy. Surely this is not an unsolvable problem. Surely, at the very least, I should just stop trying. There are so many things that thrive in my garden, that look amazing every year even without being anxiously babysat for three solid months.
But this spring, for me, has been marked by a lot of loss. And a lot of pain. And I know I’m not the only one. I could shy away from my sweet pea obsession, which would be easier, certainly. At the very least, it wouldn’t tap into my insecurities quite so badly. But also, I dunno — if I can’t tilt at my floral windmills, if I can’t keep trying on the off chance that this is the year it works, what’s the point?
I think, sometimes, I need to spit in the face of sense and throw caution to the wind. There’s a kind of ache in exercising my ability to fail that feels necessary, like stretching a muscle. Like it’s good for me to keep going. Keep planting. Keep failing. Because maybe, with enough time and sweat and failure, I’ll figure out how to succeed. And even if I don’t, I’ll know that at least I made an effort. I didn’t just say it can’t be done.
I dunno, y’all. But that’s what I’m carrying with me through the end of spring.
Massive thanks to Seth Barch for stepping in to help out with the garden photography — an iphone only gets you so far! Check him out if you need a cool guy to take great pictures!
Top Photo: Have you never noticed that Richmond in the summer smells like hot dumpsters and gardenias in bloom? Photo by Grace Todd.