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….
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!