“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!
Spring has sprung, babes. The (second) long pandemic winter is over, and (still allowing for social distancing!) it is time to get outside and marinate our bodies in pure sunshine. For some of us, that means canned beverages at Pipeline. Maybe moving our Instagram scrolling from the couch to the front stoop. For others, the smell of freshly mown grass and the arrival of those daffodils you forgot you planted can mean only one thing: GARDEN TIME, BAY-BEE.
Seasonal Vibe Check
It is April. As the cutesy rhyme indicates, the month is traditionally supposed to provide “showers” which, in turn, bring about “flowers.” This year, though, has been on the dry side. If you have a garden, or potted plants outdoors, check and see if your spring bloomers are getting enough water — letting them dry out too much could keep them from flowering to their full potential.
4/20 is an excuse to indulge in one kind of weed and to do everything you can to combat another. Roll a joint, wander out into the garden, and pull up any clover, violets, dead nettles or other spring weeds that are trying to colonize your flower or vegetable beds. (Pro tip: chickens LOVE clover, dead nettle and chickweed. Violet flowers can be harvested and used to make syrups or jellies. Just make sure your dog hasn’t peed on them first.)
A word to the wise, as April bleeds into May: certain Big Box Hardware Stores have been trying to sell you tomato and pepper seedlings since, like, March. Do not buy them! Spring in Virginia is fickle enough to be meme-worthy, and hot weather crops need warm days and nights *above* fifty degrees. Stay strong. My rule? Tomatoes and peppers don’t go in the ground until Mother’s Day.
If you absolutely must buy that tomato seedling, keep it sheltered overnight for a few more weeks. You can always transfer it into a larger pot (“potting up”) and bring it inside overnight until the proper warm weather comes.
Your Quandaries, Conundrums, Queries and Cares:
Can fresh seedlings handle sunlight? I’m afraid they’ll get burned.
That is a valid fear! It can be scary, transitioning seedlings outdoors. You’ve been nurturing them for weeks, watching them sprout, taking excessive pictures of their first true leaves, scrapbooking about their growth rate… no? That’s just me?
Moving baby plants into the garden is a big environmental shift: temperature, sunlight, and strong winds can be a real shock to them. They can be burned by sudden exposure to full sunlight, and they can suffer from sudden exposure to heat or cold. But there is a solution. The process is called “hardening off,” and is accomplished in stages, so your chlorophyllic children can adjust to Life on the Outside.
First, find a spot that gets morning sunlight and afternoon shade. Place your seedlings in a tray or on a sheet pan, for easy transportation, and put them out as soon as you wake up on a warm day. Make sure they’ve been recently watered so they don’t wilt.
Second, if the overnight temperatures are still colder than the interior of your house has been, bring the tray inside at dusk and place it back outside in the morning. Alternately, you can buy or rig up a miniature greenhouse to protect them. My tomato seedlings have been happily coasting in my tiny greenhouse ($40, available online) since early April with no signs of stress.
Finally, increase their exposure to sunlight by a few hours a day over the course of a few days. You can do this by putting the strays in increasingly sunny areas and then putting them back in a sheltered area at night.
Once they’ve been outdoors for ten to fourteen days, they’ll be ready to go in the garden. Remember to transplant on an overcast day or just before dusk, so they’ll have a period of darkness to adjust before being exposed to a full day of sunlight. And water them thoroughly when they go in!
*Note: Plants that you purchase from a nursery should be hardened off already. That being said, make a point of noting the conditions the plant was kept in when you bought it. Was it in partial shade? Full sun? If it was being kept covered, or indoors, you might want to give it an accelerated version of the process — over just a few days — before putting it in the ground.
How do I eradicate ivy (English, poison) from my yard forever?
Okay, no, seriously, don’t pour gasoline in your yard. It’s terrible for the environment and hell on the water table, and living in a city where everything rolls downhill into the river, I try to discourage people from even using herbicides.
And herbicides are the answer you’re looking for, if you want a one-and-done solution that will remove ivy from your life forever. These plants spread by the root. If you try pulling them up by the stem, any piece of root left behind will turn into a new plant and pop out of the soil when you’re least expecting it, like a leafy chest-burster.
If you’re willing to put in some extra effort to avoid using chemicals, the answer is to dig deep. Grab a shovel and dig up the entire area where the ivy is. English ivy roots only go about six inches deep in the soil: poison ivy roots can go as deep as twelve inches. Working in a grid pattern, loosen the soil of the whole area, and then (wearing gloves!!!) go through and pull out any piece of root you can find. Rake the soil when you’re finished to see if you’ve missed anything. Keep an eye on it for the following year and pull up any starts you see re-emerging.
In a general sense, when dealing with invasives like this, it’s good to look at your yard and think of ways that you can rearrange or revise your layout to make maintenance easier. Maybe having a bunch of patio furniture right up against your fence line seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it’s getting eaten by weeds. Instead of trying to kill the weeds with chemicals, you can try to work in a “weed-whacking allowance” between the fence line and the furniture. Whack them down hard when you mow your lawn, so they don’t get a chance to come up. Or put down some pavers to squash them before they can sprout.
It’s important to try and work with nature, instead of against it. Defying nature never works. Jack London wrote a ton of books on the subject, and a lot of them ended with people getting eaten by wolves.
What I’m pondering in the garden this week:
This spring, I installed a single Aconitum in my garden — commonly known as Monkshood, or sometimes Wolf’s bane. This is either the coolest or most idiotic plant purchase I’ve ever made, because if you have heard of this plant, it was probably in the context of its most famous use: poisoning the shit out of people.
Aconitum carmichaelii — my varietal is called ‘Arendsii’ — is a gorgeous plant. It puts off these elegant, spidery blue-white-purple flowers in late spring and has glossy, spiky, dark-green foliage. That you cannot touch the plant without wearing gloves just keeps things spicy, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a little experiment, every time I go in the garden. Am I enough of an adult to subdue the dumb toddler in my brain who wants to touch the thing as soon as she is told not to touch the thing? So far the answer, surprisingly, is yes!
I didn’t buy the Monkshood because I’m a weirdo who fantasizes about poisoning her enemies. Well. I didn’t just buy the Monkshood because I’m a weirdo who fantasizes about poisoning her enemies. I bought it because it reminds me how much — and how little — humans have changed over the centuries.
We can’t resist beautiful things, even when they are dangerous. Think of the Victorians and their arsenic-riddled wallpaper. The number of times you forgave that particularly hot ex. The allure of precious gems and rare flowers we know we can’t afford and can’t take care of. We have kept Monkshood in cultivation for a thousand years because it charms the eye and can be used to get rid of unwanted dinner guests, even though having it at all is inherently risky. And I think that’s delightful, because at the end of the day, humans are very strange animals.
Your garden quote of the week:
“I have seen women looking at jewellery ads with a misty eye and one hand resting on the heart, and I only know what they’re feeling because that’s how I read the seed catalogs in January.”
— from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Same, Barbara, same.
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 or via email at [email protected].
Top Photo: Happy lil bee butt on my nectarine tree. Thanks pal! Photo by Grace Todd.