Plant Problems? The Sill's Resident Botanist Will Give You a Diagnosis (and a Solution!) via Email or Text

Composite, Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite, Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

Taking care of succulents is easy, or so they say. But that has never been true for me and my opposite-of-green-thumb. Aside from my beloved marimos, all the plants in my care shrivel and die. Their leafy language is one I just can't seem to understand. 

So when my future mother-in-law sent me a succulent arrangement last summer, I was nervous that it, too, would meet a terrible fate (and frankly, it feels like a bad omen to kill a plant given to you by your fiancé's mom). But I placed it in a bright window next to my desk at work, watered it according to the instructions, and watched with delight as the plants thrived. The Gymnocalycium cactus even flowered three times! It seemed that my plant killing streak was over.

A succulent arrangement in the sun.
My arrangement in its glory days.
Erin McCarthy

And then, one of the cactuses began sporting little white spots.

At first, I assumed the spots were just a cactus thing. But they quickly covered the plant in fuzz and began to spread across the arrangement. Panicked, I Googled "white fuzzy spots on plants," which returned millions of results, diagnosing everything from mold to bugs. With no clear answers available, I cut as much of the fuzzy cactus as I could out of the arrangement (it's potted in hard soil, making removal difficult) and bought a spray bottle to douse the plants with soapy water. That seemed to slow the spots down—but they weren't disappearing.

It eventually became obvious that I needed expert help, so I emailed The Sill.

PLANTS FOR THE PEOPLE

The exterior of The Sill's Amsterdam Avenue location, which reads "Plants Make People Happy."
Courtesy of The Sill

This New York City-based plant paradise—whose catchphrase is "plants make people happy"—was founded in 2012. Its goal, founder Eliza Blank told Coveteur, is "demystifying plant care for novices … it's really part of the mission to help those who are plant-curious but don't really know what they're doing."

To that end, The Sill offers weekly workshops, a page of common questions covering everything from the basics ("How do I choose a plant?") to "stranger things" ("What's that smell?"), and a section devoted to plant care called "Your Journey to Plant Parenthood." And if after all of that you still can't find a solution to your plant problems, you can fill out the questionnaire, send an email, or text with photos. Within a couple of days, you'll hear back from Christopher Satch, The Sill's resident botanist.

Satch, who joined The Sill in 2015, has botany in his blood—his grandparents are avid gardeners, and his father owns an orchard in New Jersey. "I've always loved plants," he tells Mental Floss via email. "They're fascinating with their secret world that's in plain sight—the way they grow, the slow movements that they make, their interactions with their environment." He likes how clean they are—"plants don’t poop everywhere or smell bad"—and finds it amazing that "they've mastered chemistry in a way that seems like witchcraft or alchemy. They create something from what is essentially nothing: Air, water, and minerals are all they need to make fruit, sugars, colors, flowers, everything. Their shapes, patterns, colors, and productivity have not only inspired civilizations but built them … We would be nothing without plants."

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Various types of plants available from The Sill.
Courtesy of The Sill

Satch's passion for plants is obvious, and he brings that enthusiasm to every plant workshop he runs at The Sill (during which he covers not just care but also history and relevance to daily life, because "understanding how interconnected our world is, I think, is also important"), and to every desperate plant-owner email he responds to. He gets hundreds of emails a month, and sometimes five texts a day.

Though Satch gets a wide variety of issues sent to him, they mostly boil down to two things: aesthetics—people notice that their plant has dropped a leaf and they're panicking—and people trying to make plants work in low-light environments. "Repeat it as your mantra: Light is food for plants. The more light, generally the better they do," he says. "Anything more than a few feet from a window, no matter how bright it looks, is considered to be low light. An old horticultural adage [says], 'The darkest shade outdoors is still many times brighter than a sunny window indoors,' and that's very true."

Both issues can be seen in one particular case: Satch was once contacted by a woman in Italy who had inherited her grandmother's 70-year-old Ficus elastica, and it wasn't looking so hot. Ficus elastica and all other Ficus plants are finicky, Satch says: "They will drop their leaves in response to not enough light. She was told that rubber trees are low light plants—and they can be, they'll just drop most of their leaves to compensate for the lack of light, and therefore food. She, however, wanted a fuller plant. For fuller plants, more light is needed to maintain bushiness."

The issue, Satch thinks, is that people "treat plants like objects, or expect them to react like animals would," he says. "Like in diplomacy, to reach someone, you have to speak their language. It's definitely a matter of understanding that plants will react slowly, and that they will react to their environment as a whole … They're living creatures and some thought needs to be taken as to what they need and are sensitive to."

PLANT RX

A succulent arrangement covered in little white spots.
The arrangment after a few months of winter—and a mealybug infestation.
Erin McCarthy

I send Satch several pictures of my sad succulents, outlining when I'd gotten the plant and how I'd unsuccessfully tried to treat it so far.

Satch gets back to me the same day with a diagnosis: Those fuzzy white spots are most likely mealybugs. "Mealybugs are dispersed in most environments," he says. "There may be residual eggs on a new plant you bring home, or in the soil, dormant. Most commonly, though, they come through windows that are open, or from plants brought inside from the outside." The best way to get rid of them, he says, is with a solution of hort oil or insecticidal soap; he recommends the exact kind of spray to get and instructs me to trim all the dead matter off the plants before spraying them with the insecticidal soap.

The arrangement has some other issues, too: Satch says some of the succulents are looking dry and one in particular looks like it needs more light.

Satch's advice thankfully also came with some assurances. "You're not doing as badly as you think!" he says. "Aloe ciliaris looks fine … The golden barrel cactus looks fabulous. The Kalanchoe also looks super fab! Keep up the good work with that!"

I do as Satch suggested: purchasing the insecticidal soap, trimming the plants of dead matter, giving them a good spray. I also rotate the arrangement so that the Graptopetalum—which was pale, Satch says, because it needed more light—toward the window. Within days, it was a darker shade of green. A week later, I spray my succulents with the insecticidal soap again. The white spots seem to be disappearing. So far, so good.

A succulent with brown and white spots on its stem.
Erin McCarthy

When brown spots pop up on my Graptopetalum (Google diagnosis: edema, sunburn), I email Satch again. "I have good news and bad news," he responds. "The good news is, is that there are dead mealybugs there—yay!" The bad news: Those brown and white spots are scale bugs. "Scale are easy to get rid of, but there's only one way—you have to scrape off each one individually, then follow up with an alcohol wipe to kill any eggs," he says. Infestations like the ones I'm experiencing are all too common, and in my case, they probably came with the plant. "To the untrained eye, they kind of blend in with the plants, which is why they've been evolutionarily successful, too—so it's understandable how they're missed," he says. "At both the university and the botanic gardens, we always say that the best way to avoid infestations is to select good stock from reputable sources."

PLANTS MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY

The interior of The Sill's Hester Street store.
Courtesy of The Sill

As I'm finding out firsthand, plant care has its challenges—but it's awesome to have an expert you can email directly who will help you troubleshoot and give advice so that you don't get discouraged. "You can make most situations work, you just have to be willing to put in the effort to make sure that the plant gets enough light," Satch says.

And if you're still nervous, keep this in mind: Even Satch, a person with a master's degree in plant biology and pathology, has killed plants. "One of the most memorable plants that I've killed was an unknown orchid species I inherited," he says. "It dropped all of its leaves, and no matter what I did, it didn't improve." He put it in the sun; when that didn't work, he put it in the shade. He tried two weeks of watering more, then two weeks of watering less. The stems of the plant were green, but it wouldn't stop dropping leaves. So, he says, "in a last ditch effort, I placed the plant outside."

It was a fatal mistake. "I unwittingly cooked my plant to death in the scorching sun," he says. "I later learned that it was a Dendrobium orchid that goes deciduous, and that orchids react to things very slowly." But even killing plants, he says, can be a learning experience.

So now, to be the best plant mom I can be, I'm looking back at my plant-care experiences and taking lessons from them. And one day, a couple of weeks after tackling my succulent problems, I went to The Sill's Hester Street store and bought a pet-friendly, low-light-happy bird's nest fern—the perfect plant for my apartment. It's comforting to know that if anything should happen, Satch is just an email away.

To contact The Sill, send an email to help@thesill.com or text 646-831-2216.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

11 Cooking Hacks From Real Chefs to Elevate Your Pasta Dishes

Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s one of the easiest and most popular dishes to make at home. Just boil noodles, heat a jar of sauce, and voila! What many don’t realize, however, is that with some attention to detail and just a few extra steps, you can take your spaghetti with marinara sauce from serviceable to restaurant-quality. Here are a few tips from the pros.

1. Make your own sauce.

This may not sound like a “hack,” but it’s way easier to do than most people think. All you need are four ingredients, according to celebrity chef Fabio Viviani: garlic, olive oil, basil, and a large can of whole plum tomatoes—he and others recommend the San Marzano variety of tomatoes, which derive from the volcanic soil around Naples. (If you’re so inclined, use a salad spinner to rid the tomatoes of their seeds before you get cooking.) Heat six smashed garlic cloves with some olive oil, add in the tomatoes, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, adding the basil at the very end.

2. Use a potato masher.

To break down those sauce tomatoes, you could smash them by hand, or use the same wooden spoon you use to stir. (You could also puree them, but most chefs say that’s a no-no.) Or, you could do like Scott Conant of Scarpetta does and use a potato masher, which allows for an even consistency while still keeping the sauce thick and flavorful.

3. Use the right amount of water.

Using too little water can cause noodles to clump while they’re cooking, according to Giuliano Hazan, son of legendary Italian chef Marcella Hazan. He recommends using six quarts of water for each pound of pasta. When in doubt, use more than you think you’ll need—but not so much that the pot overflows while boiling.

4. Don’t add olive oil.

Many believe that adding olive oil to the pasta water will keep the noodles from sticking together. Not true, says renowned chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich, who points out that well-cooked pasta should be naturally stick-free. Adding olive oil can also keep the sauce from adhering to the pasta, according to Alton Brown, which keeps ingredients separate that should meld together.

5. Salt liberally—and at the right time.

Just a pinch won’t do it, according to Del Posto chef Mark Ladner. To truly bring out the flavor of the pasta, add one tablespoon of salt per quart of water. As far as timing goes, wait until the water is boiling, but before you’ve put in the pasta. This allows the salt to infuse the water without affecting the boiling time—because, contrary to what you might have heard, adding salt right when you put the pot on the burner actually increases the time it takes for water to start boiling.

6. Turn off the heat and cover the pot.

Rather than boiling the water until the pasta is ready, do what famed chef and cookbook author Mary Ann Esposito recommends: Let the water return to a boil, then shut off the heat, cover the pot and wait for seven minutes. “Works beautifully for cuts like spaghetti, ziti, rigatoni and other short cuts of pasta,” Esposito writes. “Saves energy too.”

7. Cook the sauce in a skillet.

Forget using a small pot, or even a saucepan, to heat your sauce. As Bastianich tells it, a skillet is the way to go, mainly because it cooks evenly, allowing the sauce to thicken quickly. With its flared sides and lighter weight, a skillet also lets you toss the pasta and the sauce together.

8. Add a pinch of sugar to your sauce.

A touch of sweetness can help balance out the flavor of your sauce. Brooklyn chef Jen DePalma says she always adds a pinch of sugar to her sauce, which tones down the acidity and keeps it from tasting too bitter.

9. Cook the pasta with the sauce.

This might be the most crucial hack of all. As numerous chefs point out, pasta and sauce should be cooked together so that the sauce coats the noodles. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello recommends taking the pasta out of the water four minutes before the cook time listed on the package, transferring it to the sauce skillet and cooking the two until the pasta is al dente. You should only bring your sauce to a boil after adding the pasta, then simmer the two until finished.

10. Use the pasta water.

Don’t pour out that water after you’ve transferred the pasta. As Jason Pfeiffer, chef-de-cuisine at Maialino tells Epicurious, a splash of starchy pasta water on the noodles and sauce will help bind the two together. (You can also use it to make a cocktail, if you’re so inclined.)

11. Don’t forget to add the finishing touches.

Chef Ken Arnone recommends adding fresh sliced basil to your sauce five minutes before it’s done cooking. If you’re going more indulgent, do as Scott Conant does and add a tablespoon of butter. After plating, you could go the traditional route with Parmesan cheese. Or, you could follow chef Elena Karp’s recommendation and add shaved pecorino cheese along with a hint of parsley.