Casaubon's Book

How To Kill a Plant

After all, we’ve already figured out how to kill a human being. All you need are trillions of dollars, the willingness to sacrifice the lives of countless civilians and military personnel, and a total disregard for natural resource consumption, and hey, after a decade or so, you can kill a guy. Am I sorry he’s dead? No, of course not. Does this resolve much of anything? Not that I can see.

So let’s talk about how to kill plants, which is way easier, especially when you don’t intend to. I offer this information up for several reasons. First, I’m an expert. You might think this wouldn’t be true, since raising plants is a large portion of my profession, but in fact, that simply makes me better at it than you. Fortunately, the vast majority of my plants survive, but I have probably tested out just about every creative way to kill a plant not requiring the importation of elephants. I am a professional plant assassin, dammit.

If you are feeling inspired by political events surrounding you to kill something, I now offer you a whole range of ways of murdering plant life, all tried and tested, and none of which require special ops or a military budget in the trillions. This might be especially satisfying if, as my husband does, you refer to plant life in the season of copious airborn pollen as “my mortal enemies.” I refer here, of course, not to killing hard to kill weeds (which might require elephants or strike forces) but easy to kill plants – those common garden annuals and perennials most vulnerable to your murderous impulses. Most ways of slaughtering plants are cheap and accessible to all, although some might require the borrowing of a pet or small child if you don’t happen to have one handy.

Second, if by some chance your goal is to keep plants alive (crazy talk, I know), you may find that not doing these things is helpful. Since some of the best ways of killing plants are things that seem like good ideas at the time, knowing what to avoid might be useful. Either way, I offer you ways to commit/not commit homicide as you choose. And if, while you kill your helpless unsuspecting plants you wish to should “USA! USA!” and Pump your arms about, Well, who am I to stop you?

1. Over-water. This may be the single best way to kill most plants, except for those adapted to wet soil. You have a range of options with this strategy – you can literally drown plants (did that recently with some hollyhocks when I didn’t notice I’d accidentally covered their drainage hole and then left them out in the pouring rain for two days), expose them to so much moisture they get root rot, or simply create the conditions for a whole host of exciting fungal diseases.

Solution: For most plants, you want to wait until the soil is dry to the touch (or dry down to a fingertip) before watering, and you want good drainage – don’t leave the plants standing with their roots in water.

2. Under-water – If slightly less common than overwatering, this is still an extremely popular option. I’m especially good with this for houseplants in the winter – I know I watered it recently…probably no more than two or three weeks ago. This is a killer in a dry house in winter. Meanwhile, the plant wilts and quietly murmurs…help me…save me…water… I’m also good at killing plants by not watering seedling flats on extremely hot days, in which plants can dry out very rapidly.

Solution: You already know you need to water the plants, right? So put it on the to-do list, and make sure you don’t convince yourself “oh, sure they can’t wait until I get home..” on that 90 degree day. Self-watering containers, inverted milk bottles, etc,,, are also good solutions if you simply can’t remember.

3. Cat/Bunnies/Slugs/Deer eat them. My cats love pepper plants. I always start pepper plants early (since they need time), and the best place to put them is in a sunny window near the woodstove (since they like it warm. So most years I put a flat or two on said sunny window and come back to find that one of my cats has eaten the tops off, and is sitting comfortably on top of the plants, purring their thanks for the salad.

Simon’s first full sentence was “the deer is in the garden.” In our case, the addition of dogs made the differences. Fences are helpful too.

Solution: Separate cats and peppers. Fence.

4. Dog/Cat/Child knocks over plants/flat. I think I have finally mostly learned not to put flats were they can be reached by other creatures…mostly….

Solution: Duh

5. Sharon drops plants/flats. I am not a coordinated person, and I sometimes think I can carry multiple flats down a flight of stairs. This is not always correct.

Solution: One thing at a time. No chewing gum while carrying flats.

6. Misidentifying plants and weeding them out. Yes, I have done this, to my mortification. The worst was the first time I grew Garden Huckleberries. I planted them and came back and noticed a weird weed. I had pulled out half of them before I noticed that said weird weed was planted in a very orderly row.

Solution: See if you can find a picture of a young version of your plant when you plant it the first time. Lots of plants look like weeds. Don’t be too hard on yourself – once you’ve done it once you will never do it again.

7. Goats/Sheep/Chickens eat plants. Yes they do – I can attest to the fact that when my goats get through the gate into my side yard that the first plants they go for are rhubarb and broccoli (yes, I know rhubarb leaves are supposed to be poisonous – all I know is that I have no dead goats or chickens and no rhubarb some years ;-)) and my poor, sad hawthorn trees. I also can tell you that garlic is the only thing that 14 sheep and 1 donkey will not eat if left in a quarter acre yard that includes your garden for 8 days (this was a while back and a long story).

Solution: Better fences, don’t put the 14 sheep and the donkey inside the fence, even if it seems like you have no choice.

8. Smothered by weeds. Some plants are pretty un-fussy and can compete with weeds. Some can’t tolerate any weed competition *at all* – carrots, for example, just disappear. May I tell you how many times I have had tiny little carrots disappear under tiny little something else?

Solution: Weed. You knew that, right? Me too – can’t think why I don’t do it ;-).

9. “Weeded” by a three year old. “Look Mommy, look how much I helped you! I pulled all the weeds in the garden!” “What a good boy you are, honey…Mommy didn’t really want any fava beans anyway!”

Solution: Watch child more carefully, acceptance.

10. Dog Mulch. Mac the Marshmallow is a 125lb Great Pyrenees with an unerring gift for locating the sunniest, warmest spot on a spring day. This is invariably one of my raised beds, preferrably the one I just turned and fluffed up for him and filled with seedlings. Many plants, strangely enough, do not enjoy having a dog the size of a pony lie down on them and roll around a bit to get comfy.

Solution: Try to convince the plants that this is awesome, shove the dog off 28 times, replant.

11. Flooding. A variation on overwatering, watering too vigorously can kill young seedlings or wash away germinating seeds. Best demonstrated by Simon at 6 who took “help Mommy water” to mean “turn the hose on high and point it at the plants for a good long while. Some of the seedlings ended up in the next county, I suspect.

Solution; Bottom water

12. Pay no attention to the conditions the plants actually require. I have the worst habit of starting seeds in the same flat that have nothing in common. Consider hollyhocks and peppers – both of them get started around the same time, of course, which makes them natural companions, right? Ummm…not so much. You see hollyhocks pop right up and grow huge and fast, while peppers are slower. So I have to keep raising the grow lights (used in very early season plantings) higher and higher to accomodate the hollyhocks, while the poor peppers reach desperately for light. Or I have planted something wet loving (Allheal, for example) with something dry loving (lavender) and tried desperately to keep both of them happy. I’ve also done this one with plant siting, mostly from ignorance – for example for the first couple of years after I moved here I simply couldn’t figure out why it was I couldn’t overwinter oregano. The answer is that my winter ground is both too cold and most of all, too wet. It turns out that I can overwinter oregano *only* if I raise it up high.

13. Don’t feed your plants – It is actually harder to kill plants from lack of fertility than you’d think – they are more likely to live but be sad, tasteless and stunted. But a creative plant-murderer can do it. I discovered this the first garden I planted – I knew plants needed to be fed, and I bought a nice organic plant liquid plant food and diluted it and poured it over my plants. It turns out that I misread the directions, and diluted it 8 times as much as was required. It said not to do this too often, and I didn’t, and was very happy to discover that my little bottle lasted me the whole summer…

Solution: Compost, greensand, and compost tea or dilute human urine.

14. Plant the shade lovers in the sun or vice versa. This is a nice easy one, and it was even done for me. The previous owners of the house had established a lovely shade garden – in the hottest, driest, sunniest spot of the front yard. Solomon’s seal, daylilies, hostas, goatsbeard…gorgeous, all slowly frying to death in the sun.

Solution: Check before you plant. Never assume you remember things.

15. Not watering In: I didn’t know about watering in when I first started gardening in college – I figured the soil was fairly moist, so why did I need to water the plants. What I didn’t realize was that watering in also gets rid of air pockets around plant roots and is often the difference between life and death. It was so depressing to come out and find a row of nice planted tomatillos lifeless and dead after transplant – don’t go there!

Solution: Water after planting.

16. Not hardening off. I actually did this one recently, even though I know better. Plants that have been raised indoors on windowsills and under lights must be hardened off. Otherwise, their leaves turn white, they flop over and drop dead at the shock of direct sun, wind and other things they’ve never met before. This does not mean “put them outside on the first hot sunny day of March” – you want a cool, overcast day, and only to put them out for a few hours the first time. Gradually, you can work out to all day in the hot sun. I had put some seedlings in the shade to gradually harden off a few days ago, when I suddenly needed to get into the spot where the seedlings were. I was in a rush and just set them on top of the metal grill in the bright sun. Poor tomatoes!

Solution: Be attentive to this, and gradual. Remember, if you bring plants in for the winter, you also have to harden them off, gradually accustoming them to dryer air and lower light.

16. Planted something too small or too big – I’ve rarely seen anyone discuss this, but most plants have optimal windows for going into the ground. Most of us know not to buy the seedlings with lots of blossoms and little fruit on them, because those plants are already overmature and will be set back – but what is also the case is that plants need to get to a particular size before they are big enough to go into the ground – tiny seedlings transplanted sometimes just disappear. It is often necessary with seed-grown perennials to grow them out for a while, maybe even a whole year in gallon pots, to get them to an appropriate size.

Solution: I’m not sure there’s an easy one here – don’t buy the biggest annual vegetable seedlings, of course, but for smallness, I’ve found a lot of experimentation is necessary.

17. Biological warfare – Have your 3 year old, rife with delight at his newfound ability to pee in the yard pee over and over again on the same rhodedendron.

Solution: Well, I didn’t like that rhodedendron anyway. But if you didn’t want to do this, you might invite your child to diversify.

18. Freeze them to death – Living at 1400 feet in a cold pocket, we have the occasional surprise frost. I have learned the hard way that if the weather forecast threatens to drop below 40, I should assume a freeze. I have also learned that waking up at 2am with a “crap, I forgot to bring in the bay tree” is often futile – by 2am, it is all over.

Solution: Do not play frost roulette.

19. Leave them in the care of my husband. This may not be a problem in your household, but overwhelmingly if I tell Eric “while I’m away please do X and Y thing with my plants’ X and Y thing will either not get done or get done in the least helpful possible way.

I’m hoping that the beekeeping will get him interested in plants enough to learn a little bit about them. Right now while he enjoys the plants we eat, it is a running joke in our family that the kids could identify more plants than he could by the time they were 2. Eric’s role in our plant-based agriculture is to follow directions “pick that” “dig a hole there” – I keep trying to get him engaged with this whole botany thing, but it isn’t working.

Solution: Do it yourself, or teach one of your kids/friends/neighbors to be trustworthy with plants.

20. Stomp ‘em flat – Large garden plus one large and one medium sized dogs, plus four boys all incapable of remembering to stay out of the garden, plus various visiting kids who follow my kids’ lead equals a serious scientific investigation into “garden plants that tolerate foot traffic, basketballs bounced on them and having someone play “pigpile” on top of them.” This is not a category listed in most garden books, which give a little bit of airplay to moss, grass and chamomile as the only things that really tolerate much foot traffic. Still, I can assure you that dandelion clumps can be used as second base, garlic will recover from having someone do a rolling catch on it, and that tomatoes will not. We’re going to expand into a study of how peas yield after a good game of red rover has taken place in their midst shortly.

Solution: My ears are open.

There you go folks, how to kill plants on a heroic day in which we are all celebrating killing and the hay that can be made from it!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Adrienne
    May 2, 2011

    I’m playing frost roulette right now… I have no place in my apartment to bring in all my containers, which should have been safe b/c it SHOULD NOT FROST IN KANSAS IN MAY! Pardon the yelling but it’s been an awful spring and is taking three times longer for anything to grow.

  2. #2 Eric
    May 2, 2011

    Giant sequoias don’t tolerate Roundup over-spray very well – I lost 1 (of 6) because I thought that if I didn’t see spray going anywhere else, it wasn’t going anywhere else. Looks as though the light breeze picked it up and landed it on my trees :(

  3. #3 UBS
    May 2, 2011

    You forgot the most efficient way: give them to me – they’ll be dead within a week…any plant, anywhere, anytime.

  4. #4 Stephen B.
    May 2, 2011

    I can’t really say people around me are overjoyed at OBL’s death, and I’m including some fairly right-wing types in my survey.

    A lot of folks know that the whole system stinks, has a lot of problems, and has to be reinvented from the local level on upwards and that one more killing, whether it be some unknown soldier boy or OBL, is just more of the same, old sickness.

  5. #5 Susannah
    May 2, 2011

    Solution to #7, Dog Mulch;

    I had a similar problem. I solved it by criss-crossing dried thistle stalks over newly-planted soil. Of course, I removed any seeds beforehand, and made sure the stalks were dead.

    Once the plants were established, the stalks could be removed and used elsewhere.

    Result; kids and dogs kept off, and even forgot to come back once the thistles were gone.

  6. #6 stripey_cat
    May 2, 2011

    I lost a lot of my borderline-hardy ornamentals and aromatics last winter: coincidence of a cold snap and a bad depression patch. And I’ve lost innumerable house-plants to depression-motivated (or demotivated!) neglect. Bad anxiety attacks to dreadful things to your ability to look after the garden too.

    I sniggered at the comment about menfolk and botany: my father has mistaken camelias and paeonies for roses (I think any double flower bigger than a carnation is a rose in his book), and my boyfriend is hard-pressed to identify more than a couple of dozen plant species. Neither can be trusted to look after plants without incredibly detailed, unambiguous instructions (ie add this many millilitres of water to this pot this often!).

  7. #7 Mark N.
    May 2, 2011

    Solution to #20 Stomp ‘em flat:

    Install a garden fence (don’t forget the gate).

  8. #8 Anna
    May 2, 2011

    I second Susannah’s solution for dog mulch, although you don’t have to use something *quite* as scratchy as thistle. I use fallen branches, about an inch or two in diameter with plenty of side twigs. Criss cross three to six across a small bed and your dog will figure it’s not worth fighting for.

    For #20, I recommend laying out permanent paths based on nodes. Our dog used trample a line diagonally across the garden because the paths I laid out in a grid pattern didn’t match her need to go straight to the falling down house she liked to lie in (a node.) Once I reworked the garden to take her paths into account, she stopped trampling beds (well, mostly, unless she enters the garden from an unusual location while she’s excited.) Granted, it also took a few weeks of “Lucy, no!” to help her catch on.

  9. #9 Arkady
    May 2, 2011

    I’m currently losing all my basil seedlings, looks like a fungus I think as it’s gradually spreading across the pot in a wave. May try not watering it for a while… everything else I’ve planted seems to be doing ok tho, just a few herbs and chilli plants in windowsill pots as I have no outdoor space (well, i’ve also guerrilla-planted some poppy seeds and wildflower mix near my block of flats, hoping they’ll sprout ok)

  10. #10 aimee
    May 2, 2011

    I just lost all my pepper seedlings – but I’m going to blame our long, unseasonably cold spring. It is true that they were all doing okay.. if mainly staying the same size and not growing… for weeks and weeks until last week when they all suddenly and inexplicably died… no frost. Maybe I overwatered? Oh I don’t know, I am just a hideous blackthumb. You say the vast majority of your plants live? I say count your bl;essings – the vast majority of mine die, year after year, but I can’t seem to help myself from planting with vigor and excitment every spring.

  11. #11 Christina
    May 2, 2011

    15 – Watering in. Water in at regular intervals. Do not plant 22 tomato plants and then go back to water in, the ones at the start will be very unhappy and may or may not recover (jury’s still out after 24hrs)… Include a watering can with your bucket of fertilized compost and trowel for putting plants in the ground.

  12. #12 Stephen B.
    May 2, 2011

    #18

    I have a potted lemon tree that’s four years old now. It’s obviously inside in front of a south-facing window in the winter and outside in the summer. During the shoulder seasons I try to put it out during the day as much as possible as the window location inside just isn’t as sunny as the tree really likes and the real, unfiltered sun outside makes it thrive.

    The thing is, I’d probably cry if I left it outside and froze it as I have 4 years invested in this tree now.

    I have a battery powered weather station and every time the tree is outside, I set the outside temperature alarm for 34 degrees. The few times it’s gone off I’ve cursed, but yes, outside I go. Think an alarm clock is hard to get up to? Try a beeping weather station commanding me to get out onto the dew-covered lawn at 1:30 AM!

    Getting the tree back into the house is a pain as I have to carefully guide it through a doorway, but I’ve learned that I can haul it into the garage much more easily for just one night.

  13. #13 et
    May 2, 2011

    Let loose chickens in the garden.

    They will inevitably eat all seeds and most seedlings. Any seedlings deemed inedible will be uprooted in their search for tasty worms.

    Some dags learn the difference between grass (okay), mulch & bare soil (not okay). “Off” for places paws aren’t allowed works here.

  14. #14 Desert Lean-to
    May 2, 2011

    For the last three mornings I’ve been roused from slumber by my DH with “the chickens are eating your lettuce.” Great. I can’t figure out how they are getting out of their yard and why they only get out first thing in the morning, while I’m still in bed.

    I have to remember they’re just doing their chicken-y business. This is my mantra while I’m in the front yard in my bathrobe, wielding a broom, no doubt being snickered at by the neighbors.

  15. #15 plumbing
    May 3, 2011

    With many plants, all that is required is a tiny segment of root left in the ground and it will regrow again. So, double digging is a good thing and sorting through every shovel of soil is almost a necessity. How to kill plants? Use patience and perseverance.

  16. #16 Claire
    May 3, 2011

    Don’t assume that just because you’ve now glassed-in your south-facing front porch and put three 55 gallon drums filled with water on it that it’s not going to drop below 32F on the porch in the middle of a St. Louis winter. Even though it was the first winter we had the porch and I knew I should have simply monitored the temperature this winter and left the citrus trees in the basement, I went ahead and put them on the porch. These are trees I’ve had for 15 years and two of them are productive. The porch dropped to 22F one night and was below freezing at times over a six or eight week period. The foliage froze on all four of the citrus trees, guaranteeing no home-grown citrus this year. No, the trees didn’t die, but the Bearss lime, the biggest and most productive of all of them, came close. I think it’s going to be OK – it has new leaves and branches – but I won’t know for sure for a few months.

  17. #17 KJMClark
    May 3, 2011

    Geez. And you didn’t even get to the ways to kill plants intentionally.

  18. #18 AnnaA
    May 3, 2011

    Don’t forget falling rocks.

    Our coldframe cover is 4 feet off the ground, and we prop it open on warm days with large rocks.

    On warm, *windy* days, like yesterday, apparently the rocks may lose their balance and tip into the cold frame, landing on the borage seedlings.

  19. #19 Karin
    May 3, 2011

    I’m pretty good at killing the plant before they even have a chance to be planted. I do this expertly by leaving the seed packet out in the rain, or leaving a seed packet in the pocket of my pants and then washing said pants.

  20. #20 Hazel
    May 4, 2011

    re: #7

    Young lavender plants do not take kindly to being insulated by a labrador sized dog who thinks that the bare soil you’ve just planted them in is far preferable to the chilly grass that used to be there and the perfect place to sunbathe.

  21. #21 Lazy Gardens
    May 4, 2011

    * – Until you figure out watering, buy and use a moisture meter. they are more accurate than your fingers.

    * – If you have the hollyhock and pepper problem with your grow lights, it’s easy to fix. RAISE the flat of peppers.

    * – Inverted tomato cages will discourage dog mulch for new transplants and are easy to remove. If you wrap a strip of bird netting around the cage, you can discourage cats and chicken grazing.

  22. #22 Greenpa
    May 4, 2011

    Sharon, I’ve been trying for 20 some years to write planting directions for our woody things that will ensure their survival.

    One of my customers finally cured me, though.

    “Make it fool proof; and nature will just make a better fool.” is what he said. And sad to say, that’s been my experience.

    It IS really useful to have a good list of How To Kill, though. Almost certainly better than the usual “How To Grow”.

    “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!” As James Bond didn’t say.
    :-)

  23. #23 Susan Haley
    May 5, 2011

    You are a ray of light in a dark world. — S

  24. #24 herky stubby
    May 11, 2011

    I find the title funny. How to kill a plant. And judging by your introduction, YOU ARE REALLY A PLANT KILLER!
    Entertaining post. And by the way, you also love plants so much :)

  25. #25 bobby
    May 15, 2011

    if the rabbits don’t show, I’m usually good.. but the rabbits have seldom not shown.. ;-0

    Stephen B. I’ve noticed the right wingers are unhappy about anything that happens while Barack is president.. even things they wanted to happen while Bush was president.. but they assure us they’re not racist.. and the rabbits aren’t going to eat my garden this year..

    Oh, well.. There are two more fantasies! ;-)

    enjoy
    bobby

  26. #26 Emmon
    April 2, 2012

    This article is both hilarious and really informative! You are a REALLY good writer and also a good gardener! Congrats!

  27. #27 Emmon
    April 3, 2012

    Hi Sharon – I just blogged about this post, specifically, method #20, at http://www.QuestionAndPlanter.com. If there’s anything you want changed about quotes, links, attributions, just let me know. I’m in LOVE with this article. I think it’s one of the most witty AND informative garden pieces I’ve seen this calendar year! Have a GREAT day!

    ps: I LOVE this website!!!! So glad I found it!