killing plants

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021

Dead Plant Growing

This rubber plant (Ficus elastica) is on Death Row. It was there all summer, but didn’t know it. The plant thought it was on a holiday, but nights are cooler now. In a month or two, there will be a clear night with frost, and the rubber plant will die.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Doomed rubber plant awaiting a killing frost.

The plant has a history. It is a clone (via many cuttings and air layering) of one acquired by my mother at least sixty years ago, maybe more. Every house she lived in (and my parents moved a lot) had a rubber tree in the living room. Mom liked the leaves, which could grow to two feet long while remaining relatively narrow. Maybe that’s why she put up with the plant’s growth habit in suboptimal conditions–a single stem that eventually threatened to scrape the ceiling, or acquired an ungainly lean. At that point it would be decapitated, and the cut off piece would be rooted to make a new plant. Meanwhile, the original put out a branch at right angles to the stem, which made it look like a gibbet with leaves.

Rubber plants grown in their preferred conditions look much better. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Eventually, Mom got rid of her rubber tree. By that time she lived in a small apartment and had also acquired a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), which she liked better than the rubber plant. It certainly looked better. But by then I also had a clone of the rubber plant. It wasn’t welcome in our living room, which at the time hosted two big weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), so it was relegated to what became my writing room in the basement. It’s a low-ceilinged room, and while it’s south-facing, there really isn’t enough sun for the rubber plant. So said plant ended up looking like a gibbet for gnomes. Mind you, it was present while I wrote my first novel and several others.

My mother died in October of 2018. Although I was tired of the rubber plant, which was not doing well, I felt obliged to keep it going in her memory. By this summer, the plant really was a thing of ugly. I decided that rather than watch its slow decline, I would put it outside and let the first frost kill it decisively.

Of course, with more light and lots of summer heat, the rubber plant grew new leaves, which reminded me why my mom liked the plant in the first place. But its proportions haven’t improved; if anything, the extra foliage has made it even more of a hulking mess. It wouldn’t be easy to find a spot for it in its old quarters, and it would likely go into a decline again over the winter. So it’s now on Death Row.

As a gardener, I feel a certain amount of guilt about this. If the rubber plant were a cat or dog that just happened to look old and scruffy, I wouldn’t be planning its demise, would I? On the other hand, gardeners rip out and kill healthy weeds without compunction. Maybe it’s because this is a house plant, and of course there’s that connection with my mother.

I thought about propagating a new plant. Unlike animals, plants are sort of immortal in that new clones can be created through cuttings or tissue cultures. The best way to make a new rubber plant is a technique called air layering. You cut partway through a branch and wrap the cut area with sphagnum moss, making sure to keep the cut open. Wrap plastic around the moss and stem and keep the moss damp. Roots grow in several weeks, at which point the new plant may be removed and potted up. My current plant was produced this way, and its predecessor dispatched. I blogged about that HERE.

The trouble is that under the same suboptimal growing conditions that produced ugly specimens before, a new rubber plant would be no different. Watching my various rubber plants looking less than beautiful was not a happy experience, so I’ve decided it’s time to bid Ficus elastica a fond farewell.

Death in the Garden

Death is perfectly at home in the garden. It is, after all, the other half of the circle. Gardeners, therefore, become rather intimate with it.

Plants die. Sometimes the gardener kills them deliberately. That’s the way it is.

Death by Nature, or (Lack of) Nurture?

In my garden shed, I have a tin can stuffed with plant labels. Every one of the plants they represent is dead. As each death was confirmed, I stashed the label in the can as a memento mori.

Tags of the Departed

Tags of the Departed

Looking through them today was a sad little walk through the garden’s past. Two golden hostas, two kinds of pink Gaura, a number of blue-flowering plants (anchusa, veronica and balloon flower), and Cosmos atrosanguineus. I tried that one twice — an elegant small plant with dark, velvety flowers that smell like chocolate. But there were also plants I had almost forgotten. That lovely Coreopsis, “Moonlight” — pale lemon yellow flowers and dainty foliage. Years ago, I knocked myself out trying to make it happy, but it perished. So I tried another variety — “Golden Showers” — darker yellow and not as elegant, but that died too. Goodbye, Coreopsis. It all comes back to me now — the ecstasy, followed by agony.

Why did they die? Who knows? Probably not all for the same reason. Some of the obvious ones are poor site choice, insufficient soil preparation, winter-kill, too little water (or too much), or some sort of underground root-chewing creature. Or verticillium wilt. The list of plants susceptible to this organism is quite long, and I see a species of Coreopsis (tickseed) among them. On the other hand, foxgloves are also on the list and they grow well here. My first inclination is to blame the Norway maples whose roots spread throughout the garden. This is likely in the case of plants that prosper at first, in well-prepared soil from which the roots were removed, then dwindle as the roots return. But some of the plants whose tags repose in the Memory Can may have been duds right from the start. Among them is Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” a rose whose description made me think it was just the thing. Sadly, the plant I purchased died right out of the pot it came in, and I actually obtained a refund from the nursery, who assured me it came from a bad batch.

Whatever the cause of death, the gardener just has to get over it and move on — try again with a new plant, or give up on that species altogether. As Henry Mitchell said, “…the whole system rests essentially on death,” and, “If tender folk go to pieces for fear a plant may be hurt (even before it is hurt, and it usually isn’t), then how do they cope with the death of a dog or a person? We are not born to a guarantee of a voluptuous bonbon-type life, you know.”

No, indeed.

Death by Gardener

Gardeners are generally thought of as mild-mannered and harmless.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! In fact, after farmers, gardeners are almost the only everyday, non-special folks who get to exercise the power over life and death routinely, every day (if they weed that often).

Every gardener has an arsenal of potentially death-dealing implements, among them the human hand.

Garden tools, or instruments of death

Garden tools, sometimes used as instruments of death

Most of the time, these things are used to plant or trim (well, not the Swede saw). Occasionally, however, they are called upon to dispatch (i.e., kill) and remove unwanted plants. Not always weeds, either.

Every spring and summer, I pull up dozens of maple, laburnum, cherry, holly, spurge laurel and cotoneaster seedlings. Infant trees and shrubs, denied further existence by a gardener who does not want a small forest on her 50 by 120 foot patch of ground. Somehow, I have no problem with snuffing out their lives, but when it comes to dispatching a well-grown, healthy-looking specimen, it’s a different matter.

I actually hate killing plants.

Take these weeds, for example. There is a clump of them right by the door of the garden shed.

Great looking weeds.

Great looking weeds.

They are quite attractive, with their fresh, jagged foliage and little yellow flowers. Right now, I’m reluctant to pull them up. Once the flowers give way to seed pods, but long before the seeds ripen, I’ll cut them down. I’ve been doing that for years, and this small clump is all that’s left of a flourishing patch.

Then there’s campion, Lychnis coronaria, a weedy but utterly reliable plant. It grows and blooms in sun and shade, even in dry, rooty ground. The white form — and we’re talking a really bright, assertive white — is actually quite elegant.

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Epimedium

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Epimedium

The magenta kind looks good against green, and clashes well with other bright colours.

Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and other summer blooms.

Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and other summer blooms.

But both forms seed themselves enthusiastically, which means there are way too many of them here.

Note all the campion plants. especially the assertive white ones.

Note all the campion plants. especially the assertive white ones.

I’ve decided to remove any campion plants that are hard to reach for the purpose of deadheading (properly done flower by flower). I’ll do the deed once they’ve passed their peak of bloom and start to show their true weedy natures, but before the seeds ripen, of course. At that point I’ll have less compunction about digging them out. (Hmm. Seems to me I had the same plan last year).

It’s even harder to destroy shrubs or trees, especially if they look happy and prosperous. Take this Cornus sericea, a native plant related to dogwood. It popped up in one of the tomato pots several years ago. At the time I thought it might actually be a dogwood, so potted it up and watered it faithfully through the next few summers. Somewhere along the line, it rooted down into the ground and took off. Now it’s starting to be A Problem, slumping into the rain barrel.

Cornus sericea

Cornus sericea

This shrub can grow to 20 feet. I’d rather not have it right next to the house foundation. It’s also called Cornus stolonifera, which means it spreads by rooting where branches touch the ground. The kind thing would be to transplant it to a suitable spot, but I don’t have such a spot. So it has to go. One of these days, just before a trip to the municipal yard with a load of garden waste, I shall dispatch it. That way I won’t have to watch it wilt and shrivel, like these branches pruned last week from a ceanothus and a magnolia.

Ceanothus and magnolia prunings.

Ceanothus and magnolia prunings.

Back to tree seedlings, I’ve noticed three or four that popped up last year in different parts of the garden. I have no idea what they are, but last fall their few leaves turned interesting shades of orange. I thought at the time I had been blessed with some sort of desirable plants, and decided to observe them until I could figure out what they are. No luck there as yet, but the seedlings are growing well.

Seedling of unknown tree, possibly oak.

Seedling of unknown tree, possibly oak.

The leaves look different this year, bigger, darker green and not as deeply lobed. I’m wondering if they are some sort of oak, but not the native Garry oak. They must have originated locally, but the nearest non-Garry oaks are about half a kilometer away. Gardens are full of small mysteries.

The thing is, I will likely have to pull out some or all of these little trees someday. I’m not looking forward to it. The power over life and death is not held lightly.



A couple of days ago, I did in a plant, a sprawling, hideous monstrosity of a rubber “tree” that had lived in a low-ceilinged, south facing basement room for years. It was deformed by the unsuitable situation I had inflicted upon it, but even so… It was impossible to get to the window to water the other potted plants that sat on the sill without crouching to get under the rubber tree’s branches. Most of the leaves were on the ends of the branches, making the thing look like a somewhat arthritic tentacled monster. There was no way to improve it, so when I managed to air-layer a cutting last summer, I decided to dispose of it.

I find it hard to kill plants that I have watered and otherwise cared for.  In a way it’s like euthanizing a pet animal, except that in the case of the plant, one usually does the job oneself, and it’s doubtful whether one is really putting it out of any misery. Lugging the rubber tree outside, lopping off its branches, finally yanking the trunk out of its pot and hacking up the root ball, I felt like a brutal executioner. Plants don’t scream, but rubber plants bleed latex. Now that the deed is done, however, I certainly appreciate the spaciousness of the room where it used to live, and the unimpeded access to the window.

The rubber plant was an ugly, misshapen specimen, so you can imagine how much trouble I have killing a healthy, attractive plant of almost any sort. Only the worst weeds fail to generate a twinge of compunction. This brings me back to those wretched maple  trees that  dominate my garden. In theory they could be removed quite readily. There are several tree-removal outfits in town. Indeed, one of them cut down yet another maple here some years ago, one that grew in the 12 foot wide space between my house and my neighbour’s. It was so obviously in the wrong place that I didn’t experience many qualms about its demise, and since then I’ve planted a perennial border in that space.

But the two maples on the west side of my back garden present other “issues.” One of them supports a hearty climbing rose of unknown variety (at least to me), that has hundreds of small, fragrant, fully double pinky-white blooms every June and July. I suspect that it would tolerate being cut down and repositioned, but the prospect of doing this doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the general disruption and chaos brought by men and machines to the plantings (such a grand word for my collection of tough survivors!) near the trees. Finally, those trees are homes to other creatures — a gang of squirrels and the local crow family, as well as other birds I hear singing on summer mornings. So I dither and defer, all the while muttering and complaining mightily about roots and shade.