Monthly Archives: May 2011

Personal interlude

North Texas is not a good place to get sick, and the end of May is a good time if you really feel like taking out your nasal passages with muriatic acid and ice picks. It’s bad enough that the local plants respond to impending blast-furnace temperatures by spreading pollen across the countryside in a desperate hope of reproducing their genes before they die. (In many ways, plants in North Texas are like the attendees at a comics convention.) It’s bad enough that prevailing south winds blow up Austin’s, Houston’s, and San Antonio’s respective fugs and drop it right atop Dallas. (When friends ask me if I want to come to Austin, I tell them all I need to do is inhale deeply inside of a hipster bar while its patrons cough and sneeze in my face to catch the whole experience.) It’s bad enough that more sensitive co-workers adjust to the increasing heat by turning down the air conditioning to liquid-nitrogen superconductor level, which leads to a much larger shock when they finally step outside during the worst of the heat at closing time. It’s bad enough that all of the children in the state grab souvenirs from their classmates on the last day of school in the form of exotic and horrible diseases and share them with everyone in the neighborhood. Combine all of these, and you understand why I was afraid the neighbors would hear my influenza-inspired coughing and sniffling, chain the front door shut, and write “DON’T OPEN – DEAD INSIDE” on the front of the house. And I wouldn’t have blamed them.

The Czarina is doing her best to assist with getting me back to full form. Decent food, herbal teas, generally checking up to make sure that my skull hasn’t filled with phlegm. Of course, I know that this won’t last, because she’ll want to go to bed soon. At that point, she’ll crank the AC down to “comfortable” levels, meaning that she’ll sleep soundly but I’ll be pulling ice crystals out of my gums. The only time she ever freaks out over cold is when it’s outside, and I suspect that she fills her pillows with dry ice when I’m not looking.

Being this ill, though, does a wonderful job at preparing me for my impending mortality. I know now that my last moments are going to involve yet another flu-instigated bout of pneumonia, three bouts of which have nearly killed me in the past. It’ll be when the doctor comes into the hospital room to check on me and charge my bill for another “consultation” that I’ll finally go. That’s at the point where I start coughing. Then retching. Then performing a perfect recreation of John Hurt’s final scene in Alien, with my spleen baring sharp teeth, hissing, and running across the room. I’ll be coughing up blood, coughing up urine, coughing up xenon gas (my favorite after-dinner tipple), and you don’t want to know what’ll be coming out of my tear ducts. I’ll finally flop back on the bed, bile and insulin and navel lint dripping off the ceiling, before rising slightly as the doctor screams and runs away like a little girl and the nurses ask “What the HELL happened?”

At that point, I’ll gasp “We call it…(wheeze) ‘The Aristocrats’!” *thud*

Have a great weekend

Because it’s been that sort of week…

Consume mass quantities

Another quick posting, and then once more unto the breach, once more. Friends and family already know that the FarmTek catalog is my favorite horticulture porn these days, and the crew over there is offering a special for Facebook fans. As I keep telling the Czarina, all I need is a new Nepenthes greenhouse; it’s not like I’m blowing it on bad cocaine and journalism degrees, right?

For those who can’t quite afford a new greenhouse, there’s always fun to be had with the new items at American Science & Surplus. That place will be the death of me, as I’m just now finishing a big project involving several items from the Home & Garden section. If you don’t hear from me by Tuesday, send a rescue expedition, okay?

The Triffid Ranch in the news

A quick interlude before getting back to the Day Job: 2011 must be the year for television interviews. I had one last April (airdate in progress), and I just received a query about another one for this next week. Details will follow, but if anyone wants to follow up with a contract for a regular gonzo gardening segment, I certainly won’t complain.

Gnomes vs. flamingos: the war continues

I see that the garden gnome/plastic flamingo war picked up a bit. I guess the gnomes couldn’t figure out what “Phase 2” was.

Put a little outhouse in your soul

Every year for our wedding anniversary, the Czarina and I watch television. Well, let me rephrase that. At that time, we simply watch television. We’re not arrogant anti-television snobs who sniff at the idea of watching anything on the “idiot box”. We just simply don’t have the time any more. In combination with the both of us previously having been married to television addicts, we just can’t justify paying nearly $75 a month solely to flip around looking for a program that sucks marginally less than the 80,000 other selections on cable.

That’s not to say that we ignore the incredible output of televised entertainment. We just ration it out with a NetFlix account, so the Czarina doesn’t need to listen to me whimper about my dream job and I don’t get in the way of her next challenge. Besides, the best thing about watching television series in bulk is that they don’t come with obnoxious commercials.

Even so, at the end of the year, we hie ourselves to one disclosed location or another for our anniversary. It might be a hotel in Fort Worth, a ranch house in far West Texas, or just about anyplace with good beds, clean bathrooms, and unlimited cable. With the latter, the Czarina turns the channel to HGTV, and we generally overdose on home improvement porn until she’s sated. After three days of nonstop HGTV, she’s received plenty of ideas, and we’ve filled our humps of hate on the commercials until the next anniversary. (Trust me: for those who haven’t given up on cable television, go six months without it, and then go for a test drive. Every time we figure “You know, we’d like to do something besides smile and nod when friends go on and on about their favorite television show, so why don’t we get cable?”, all we need is a handful of Pajama Jeans ads to burn that compulsion right out of our heads.)

Anyway, we’re nearly six months away from our hump-filling, and that’s when Amanda at Kiss My Aster brought up a truly Lovecraftian horror for our next anniversary. Namely, My Yard Goes Disney. Oh, I’m sure that the sort of people who sit through Hanna Montana marathons will love this idea. I just figure that the show might work a bit better if it went dark. REALLY dark. “Today on What The Hell Happened?, this lovely suburban house and yard were completely redone by H.R. Giger, Harlan Ellison, and Angelspit! Let’s see if the neighbors notice!”

The Liveliest Awfulness of dessert

On a sideline, I’ve been working on additional recipes using Buddha’s Hand citron, also known as “Cthulhufruit“. I’ve learned several very valuable lessons from one such experiment conducted this weekend:

Numero Uno: Soaking sliced Cthulhufruit in good vodka (I highly recommend Dripping Springs) produces a very good sipping vodka, but some of the better nuances of the extract don’t survive baking.

Numero Two-o: It’s possible to add Cthulhufruit extract to standard Key lime bar mixes, but one day I’m going to have to make my own batch of Cthulhufruit bars from scratch.

Numero Three-o: Only in a universe that regularly uses non-Euclidean geometry can one box of Key lime bar mix produce 16 bars, even if they’re the size of a postage stamp.

Numero Four-o: The Square-Cube Law applies when you use two boxes of Key lime bar mix. 30 minutes’ baking won’t cut it.

Numero Five-o: Not paying attention to the Square-Cube Law doesn’t produce bad Cthulhufruit bars. It just produces bars that are a little too goopy for consumption by hand. However, heated up slightly, the mix is spectacular atop good French vanilla ice cream. Ergo, I have no worries about it going to waste. Anyone want a fresh batch of Cthulhufruit cobbler for H.P. Lovecraft‘s 121st birthday this August 20?

“The garden hooligans are loose!”

Of particular note in the news from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is that Dame Helen Mirren has a new Nepenthes cultivar (of the hybrid Nepenthes spathulata x spectabilis) named after her, courtesy of Borneo Exotics. This, of course, goes very well with last year’s “Bill Bailey” Nepenthes cultivar, which I can state with authority is an absolute beauty in the greenhouse. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to attend this year’s Chelsea Flower Show: I keep getting invites to the Arsenal Flower Show, but I don’t know why. (Fat chance on that. We Riddells are going to be Manchester United Flower Show Enthusiasts until we die.)

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”

As an aside, an otherwise dreadful week was made immeasurably better by the arrival of a new package on Thursday. My personal collection of carnivorous plants is now enhanced with my very own Nepenthes hamata from Sarracenia Northwest. Having just learned about the Nepenthes hamata x truncata hybrid “Predator”, I swear right now that if I ever develop any N. hamata hybrids or cultivars, I’m naming them for Clive Barker and Doug Bradley.

There are people who make you so happy that you wonder how you got through life without their radiance. There are people that make you wish you could win the lottery just so you could give them the money. Then you have people who make you want to break into their houses while they sleep, take tissue samples, and clone them in the millions. Jacob and Jeff at Sarracenia Northwest have that effect.

“You have two choices. You can weed, or you can fight.”

A bystander for Billy Goodnick’s Crimes Against Horticulture: When Bad taste Meets Power Tools Facebook page brought up the Web site Plant Amnesty. I can’t complain about the sentiment, but after years of watching crape myrtles get coppiced half to death, more resembling overly inbred toy poodles than anything botanical, it’s time to get the word out. You WILL hear us coming.

The importance of being concise

Gardening beginners often wonder why so many of their elders use Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature to describe plants. While it may sound pedantic or snooty, they often have good reason. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of modern binomial nomenclature, was a botanist, because he would have known firsthand that depending upon common names of plants is for suckers.

You may ask “Why is it such a big deal? A carrot is a carrot is a carrot, right?” Well, not precisely. The problem with English and other living languages is that they change constantly, picking up memes and fragments from other languages, mixing and melding parts from those languages to make new words, and giving new meaning to those same terms over the years. Latin and classical Greek are static or “dead,” as nobody’s making new Latin slang terms. (The Czarina and I once made the acquaintance of a very nice waitress who was majoring in classical Greek, and she noted that the difference between the Greek she’d learned at school and normal contemporary conversational Greek today was comparable to the gap between Chaucer‘s English and what I’m belting out right now.) Different areas, people, and eras may give the same common name to plants with roughly similar features or habits, but the end results can be horrifyingly different if the “moonflower” you plant in your back yard is Ipomoea alba or Datura stramonium. The Latin never lies.

When I get scoffing expressions as to why meanings can be important, I just relate an incident that happened several years back, when the Czarina and I were at a huge antiques mall near her parents’ house. This was a converted supermarket that was just packed with interesting antiques, all mapped out into a grid and each grid square rented to a different tenant. We were near the front of the store, and passed by a booth run by two brothers. One of the brothers had brought his grandchildren out for the day, and they were helping him rearrange the booth, setting up new items and moving others so the display didn’t look stale.

At the time, we didn’t know that the term in the antiques and flea market trade for this was “fluffing”, and the person doing this was called a “fluffer”. Apparently, it’s nearly universal, as antiques storeowners in England and Australia use the term as well. Our problem, though, was that we’ve made the acquaintance of some very interesting people in our lives, so we knew a completely different meaning for “fluffer”. I’m not even going to link to a definition: just Google up “fluffer” and read the first excerpt that comes up. After you come back and you finish screaming in either horror or laughter, we’ll continue.

Got that out of your system? Good, because it only gets worse from here. As stated before, we were passing by, and we heard one of the two brothers talking about how “every shop needs a good fluffer.” The Czarina and I looked at each other with shock, not sure we’d heard what we’d heard. That’s when the other said “That’s why I brought the grandkids. They’re excellent junior fluffers.”

Squelched laughter. We could not believe what we were hearing.

“Oh, but your great-uncle here? He’s a MASTER fluffer.”

It just kept getting worse and worse. We couldn’t move, we were holding in the belly laughs, and we literally had to support each other to keep the other from falling onto displays. It was like something out of a Monty Python film, with Michael Palin playing Pontius Pilate. All they saw were two loons in leather jackets and boots, getting great amusement from a completely innocent conversation, and they were getting more and more peeved as our faces got more and more red. We finally had to excuse ourselves and staggered into the parking lot, where we laughed for a solid ten minutes.

It was the next day that we discovered the antique shop meaning of “fluffer”.

And why bring this up, you may ask? Just keep this in mind when you start wondering “Mommy, how did the Venus flytrap get its common name?”

Of course…

Fifteen years ago Monday, I packed up an 18-foot Hertz Penske truck, three cats, a savannah monitor, and a now-ex-wife and trekked across the continent to Portland, Oregon. Almost eighteen months later, I was back in Texas, swearing that (to paraphrase General Phil Sheridan, governor of Texas during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War) if I owned Oregon and Hell, I’d rent out Oregon and live in Hell. For years, I referred to Portland as “Innsmouth West”, and promised that I’d never go back, and the hipsters whining that I was wrong only cemented my resolve.

Well, my mistake was that I was looking at the wrong places, with the wrong emphasis, and I only discovered the interesting people and venues in and around Portland after I was already gone. Sarracenia Northwest, among other things. It’s bad enough that I only learned about Rare Plant Research in Oregon City this morning, but to learn that it’s hosting an open house this weekend? That sound you hear is of my intestines tying themselves into knots. (For those folks in the area, apparently Rare Plant Research is hosting a reservation-only garden party on July 9. Go have fun, because I’ll be trapped here in the Texas heat.)

Appropriate garden sculpture

With many thanks to Darren Naish, THIS is what I call appropriate garden sculpture. The only way I’m working with garden gnomes if if I’m allowed to recreate the outdoor morgue scene from The Walking Dead.

Have a great weekend

Don’t get me wrong…

While poking about, I discovered a new cooking, gardening, and outdoor living show called Dig In Dallas, which runs on our local Fox affiliate at 6:00 on Saturday mornings. I regret that I missed out on last weekend’s interview with Leslie Halleck of North Haven Gardens, but I also admit that I probably wouldn’t have caught the show. I can understand running it at a timeslot that’s both available and relatively inexpensive, but 6 in the morning?

This may sound academic, but I was thinking about this a couple of years ago, when the hype about seeking younger gardeners was in full swing. Specifically, this was at a garden show where, with the exception of a few kids brought there by their grandparents, I was probably the youngest person in the entire exhibition hall who wasn’t working for the company hosting the show. Everyone was talking “young”, but the show wasn’t pitched to them. It wasn’t advertised in venues where anybody under the age of 65 would have noticed. Worse, it contained no content that would have made them brave Dallas traffic on a beautiful autumn day. (The only time we’re overloaded with worse drivers than when we get snow is when we have a truly spectacularly beautiful day, because that’s when the real dingbats decide to go to the mall.) The vendors were there, and ready, but how was anybody supposed to know the show was there for them?

This isn’t to say that gardening television and radio shows have to be remade in some horrible Disney Channel format. A lot of the effort can come with the timing. Many moons back, half of Dallas’s punk and metal community was absolutely addicted on the late Jack Horkheimer’s PBS-syndicated show Star Hustler. We’re talking about characters with the longest and sharpest Liberty spikes you’ve ever seen, hanging out in front of clubs and shading their eyes from streetlights in order to spot Mars because Jack had taught them where Mars was located at what time. It wasn’t hard to get hooked on Jack’s goofy enthusiasm, but the timing had to be just right. Our PBS affiliate would run Star Hustler just before it shut down for the night, which was usually about a half-hour after closing time at most clubs. This meant a lot of viewers started by coming home after a long night slamdancing, turning on the television for background noise while winding down, and finding themselves confronted by someone who made them give a damn about planetary astronomy.

Not that this couldn’t be done with a gardening show, but it would have to be handled carefully. Let’s face it: it’s hard to make horticulture dramatic, even if British television keeps trying. And trying. And someone much more eloquent than I sums up my feelings about the old PBS stalwart The Good Life:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with existing gardening programs, because they fill a niche. I just figure that, for all of the noise about getting younger gardeners into the fold, some extra effort should be made to encourage those younger gardeners to watch. Something darker and more gonzo, perhaps. How about this as a starting point for an opening credits theme?

Gnomes vs. Flamingos: The War Continues

Elizabeth Licata at Garden Rant made a very interesting point about the ongoing garden gnome invasion, particularly her quote “It’s an interesting paradox: the most fanciful products of the human imagination are marketed to consumers as a way to replace imagination.” It’s something the Czarina and I have discussed quite often, on our human need to make threatening figures cute and friendly. I’m sure that my paternal ancestors along the England/Scotland border from 500 years ago or so would have laughed themselves sick at the idea of welcoming the fey into their houses and gardens, but we’re also a culture that’s okay with sparkling vampires and cuddly Cthulhus.

Now, it’s not just that I’m a firm advocate of making gardens potentially threatening again. I also loathe garden gnomes, with the possible exception of one that yells “It’s a hippie he’s killed! Hey, everybody, he’s killed a hippie!” at passersby.

My friend Debbie Middleton feels the same way I do about garden gnomes, but she’s a firm proponent for lawn flamingos. She and her best friend conduct neighborhood sorties to aggravate the other, leaving tortured and mutilated plastic and ceramic fragments on the other’s front lawns and porches. I sympathize with Debbie, but I also figure that the war is already lost. How can flamongos stand against gnomes?

Now, the odds are improved by making flamingos less cutesy. Much like gnomes, flamingos have mutated from fairly impressive birds into pink hobbits; the only thing worse is the habit of turning hummingbirds, some of the most cantankerous and belligerent avians on the planet, into charming garden art. (Anyone who’s actually spent time around hummingbirds knows that most have no fear whatsoever of man, beast, or god, and the Aztecs portrayed their war god Huitzilopochtli as a hummingbird for good reason.) Real flamingos aren’t exactly war machines, but they’re still a match for a group of gnomes. We need to pep them up a bit.

Thankfully, palaeontology offers a few options, keeping the basic theme, and in the process making your garden into something that would have scared the hell out of Edward Drinker Cope. We can go for a bigger wingspan or better filter-feeding ability. We can shift families a touch and go big. Or we can go postal or go Aotearoa. We can even go point-blank surreal.

(That sound you hear in the background? That’s the sound of the Czarina, weeping bitterly into her breakfast tea while reading this.)

Even better, you have possibilities for scenes with this sort of lineup. Really dislike the fact that your neighbors constantly peek over the fence? Give them something to scream about. After all, there’s no reason why you can’t re-enact the inevitable gnome/flamingo war in resin and metal, with just the right Late Seventies/really bad cocaine design, right?

Alternately, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do this with a Texas theme, using Ray Harryhausen for inspiration.

(Again, that sound? That’s the sound of the Czarina’s extremely sharp elbows sliding out of their sheathes, moments before she plants both into the top of my head. This may or may not be accompanied by her bellowing “WAIT A MINUTE, Sparky!” seconds before she strikes.)

I’d best stop while I’m ahead. I’m truly afraid that this might go too far, and someone gets the bright idea of mixing garden design with Warhammer 40,000 gaming. I don’t think our species’s collective psyche could handle the strain.

Poached Orchids and Vaporware Wollemi Pines

There’s a particular pretend customer that comes to every retail business who’s best known as “YouShouldJust”. This is the character who looks over inventory or selection and then chirps “You know, you should just…” This is immediately followed with an insistence that the business carry something impractical, implausible, expensive, or even illegal. In bookstores, YouShouldJust wants the store to carry Kindles, even though those are sold only through Amazon. In restaurants, YouShouldJust nags about how the menu needs pomegranate margaritas or abalone steaks. At the Triffid Ranch, this involves YouShouldJust holding his breath until he turns blue or until I start offering Cephalotus and other extremely rare species. With some businesses, YouShouldJust wanders about, hitting up every venue and insisting that everyone carry the one item or follow the same idea. The smart ones ignore YouShouldJust unless s/he puts down money up front. The rest of us learn, the hard way, that as soon as you inform YouShouldJust that the item is in or the idea is implemented, that’s the last you’ll ever see of the character. It’s not malicious and it’s not fraudulent: it’s a weird power play that’s intensely annoying, especially when eight or nine YouShouldJusts come by in successive order.

(To be fair, a lot of businesses ignore requests from customers because, usually, “I’ve been doing this for 20 billion years, and we tried that once and it didn’t work.” I was once told that the big science fiction magazines tend to stick to digest format because Analog once went to a standard magazine format in the 1960s and fans still complain that this was too extreme a change. In 1965. Considering that at this time, my main activities in life circled around gulping down amniotic fluid and kicking the hell out of the inside of my mother’s uterus, I’m glad that I’m a bit more amenable to change in the last 45-odd years than most science fiction magazine readers.)

A lot of this boiled up after a friend pointed out an article on orchid poaching. Much like the flood in fad pets after a movie or television show makes Dalmatians or turtles or owls popular, any announcement of a new species gets YouShouldJusts racing to exotic plant dealers, asking about getting hold of a specimen of Nepenthes attenboroughii. They don’t really want it: they want to be able to say “Look: I convinced this dealer to carry it, and there it is.” For all of the understandable growling over the collectors who somehow think that clones produced by sterile tissue propagation are inferior to wild-gathered specimens (a growling that extends to this attitude among reptile and amphibian keepers, I might add), I also have to wonder “How much of this poaching trade is fueled by YouShouldJusts making noises about buying rare specimens and then flaking out when they arrive?”

I’m not saying that YouShouldJusts encouraging poaching should be shot. Mandatory spaying and neutering is enough: Weed-Eaters for the boys and Roto-Rooters for the girls, and anybody who complains doesn’t get anaesthesia.

(An interesting corrollary to the YouShouldJust phenomenon involves the Wollemi Pine, Wollemia nobilis. I could go on for days about this fascinating plant, but I’ll leave that for the experts. Let’s just say that the Czarina bought me one in 2006 for my birthday, and it did quite well before an unknown affliction hit it at the beginning of 2008. Trying to get a replacement has been interesting, as another gentleman discovered the hard way, because of YouShouldJust. The initial reports on the Wollemi pine were followed by so many YouShouldJusts demanding specimens at any cost, for bonsai and ancient gardens for example, that a gigantic captive breeding program started to protect the last remaining wild specimens from being poached. As with the endangered orchids mentioned earlier, it’s a pain for those wanting legitimate specimens in the States, as the one authorized breeder shut down all sales two years ago, allegedly because of an inability to fill orders. Meanwhile, the nurseries and garden centers that carried Wollemia during the first big rush wouldn’t order new ones even with money up front, as almost to an individual, they complain that YouShouldJusts made noises and then refused to buy when the plants were available. The search continues.)

Be nice. Be considerate. Be responsible. Don’t be a YouShouldJust.

EDIT: I almost forgot to mention that the worst YouShouldJusts are the ones who tell entertaining friends “You should write a book,” and who nag about it all the way up to where the book has a publication date. Just sayin’.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

I figure that only a few people would find this entertaining, but I have to ask. Considering the foofarol that goes into the Chelsea Flower Show every year, why isn’t there a competing Arsenal Flower Show to keep the horticulture hooligans under control? (Mind you, I’m Manchester United Flower Show, all the way.)

Uh oh, we’re in trouble

A call from Logee’s Greenhouses about my current stock of Euphorbia flanaganii. A quick peek on the site, jogging my memory as to where I’ve heard the name “Logee’s” before. A dinner conversation last night with two friends about Synsepalum dulcificum, the famed “miracle fruit” that shortcircuits the tongue’s ability to taste sourness. Yes, I think we have another test subject at the Triffid Ranch. (Cue maniacal laughter.)

Texas Frightmare Weekend news

And for some actual news: the Triffid Ranch has been showing plants at Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009, and it remains the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year. The previous hotel in which it was held was great for a lot of reasons, but the crowds outgrew the hotel by 2010. Most of the vendors were wondering after this year’s show “So where can we go, other than Dallas Market Hall?”

We now have an answer. May 4, 5, and 6, kids. To quote one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century, you’ll boogie ’til you puke.


I can’t vouch for the rest of the planet, but the last few nights in North Texas have been nothing short of glorious. The temperatures are abnormally cool for this time of the year, and everyone is scurrying to get important things done before the thermometer goes from “nice and comfortable” to “swimming through pools of molten concrete”. (When General Phil Sheridan, former governor of Texas during Reconstruction, said “If I owned both Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell,” he was speaking for anybody and everybody who’s had to spend a summer in Austin.) And the nights? We get a short period where we can leave windows open at night, and that period is now running about three weeks longer than average.

One of the other joys involves last night’s and tonights full moons. Between a lack of atmospheric pollution and a relative lack of light pollution, last night’s moon wasn’t only bright enough to navigate by, but honestly almost bright enough to read by. Considering that Earth’s moon is one of the darkest bodies in the solar system (having about the same general color as cocoa powder), a full moon would be nearly intolerable if our moon had the same albedo as Ganymede or Enceladus.

Anyway. I’ll explain why later, but head out tonight and check out the moonlight tonight. Don’t just stare up and let the reflections off the Tycho crater burn holes in your retinas. Look around the garden a bit. If you have fireflies at this time of the year, pay attention to both their brightness and their flashing patterns. If other critters are up and around, pay attention to how they act and why. Most importantly, look at the plants themselves, and note which ones stand out the most in the full moonlight. There will be a test later, and it may involve scorpions.

“If the Sontarans don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

For the last several years, I’ve joked that my gardening style resembles a television show. Namely, an unspeakable Lovecraftian fusion of Doctor Who and The Red Green Show. This being Texas, this requires me to explain the metaphor in terms that don’t leave the listener, in the immortal words of fellow Lone Star transplant Bill Hicks, “looking like a dog being shown a card trick.” Stating “Lots of very alien-looking plants amid old planters” doesn’t come close to describing the aesthetic, and asking the listener to picture “Flying saucers on cinder blocks in the back yard” just gets them to call the police. The problem isn’t just that these two shows are sufficiently obscure to most Americans that explaining the connections would take all weekend. It’s that programs are, in reality, the same exact show.

For the card-trick folks, Doctor Who is a classic British science fiction show that, with the exception of a big gap between 1989 and 2005, ran pretty much continuously since the day after the Kennedy Assassination. The Red Green Show, on the other, is a similarly classic Canadian comedy series running between 1990 and 2006. The former chronicles the adventures of the Doctor, an enigmatic extraterrestrial who travels through time and space in a temporal vessel. The latter chronicles the adventures of Red Green, the head of the mythical Possum Lodge located somewhere within the wilds of eastern Canada. Other than that, they’re the same exact show.

For those familiar with both shows, the background. By the end of 1989, Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner had successfully driven the show into the ground, and the BBC decided that it was time to cut its losses and give the program a much-needed rest. Nathan-Turner, though, wouldn’t give it up, as witnessed with his constant attempts at a revival, and he tried to pitch a new show to American and Australian outlets without success. The Canadian Broadcasting Company, though, nibbled a bit, but with one big proviso. Since the funds for keeping Doctor Who alive came from the comedy budget, the show had to be retooled as a comedy. Since the available money was even smaller, no universe-spanning adventures. Since it was a CBC show, the talent had to be Canadian. Other than that, nothing changed at all.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the similarities. Both shows have a very distinct opening instrumental theme, recognizable by millions, but unlike just about anything else in the history of television.

Both shows are named after an older gentleman of bizarre dress and manners, who constantly interferes with the Powers That Be.

Both shows feature a gangly and rather dorky younger relative, who happens to be the only relation you ever see. Otherwise, you have hints and suggestions of a past history, but they’re all supposition.

Both title characters travel in a bizarre vehicle that holds considerably more crap on the inside than would appear to be possible from the outside.

Both characters have a tendency to attract a slew of very bizarre cohorts and companions.

Both characters have a propensity for tinkering, and are known for singular tools for getting the job done. (C’mon. You’d do anything to hear Peter Davison mutter “And now for the Time Lord’s secret weapon: duct tape.”)

Both shows have a thing about robots.

(go straight to 5:52)

And let’s not forget male sex symbols.

EDIT: And then there’s the slight change to the classic Possum Lodge motto. Apparently the original was “Quando omni flunkus, reingero”: “When all else fails, regenerate.”

The only major digression involves the villains. CBC budgets meant no Daleks, no Cybermen, no Movellans, none of that. This meant that the only one of the Doctor’s nemeses that made the transition was a famed megalomaniac obsessed with universal domination.

Again, between the budget and the comedy background, this meant the Master wasn’t quite up to his old tricks. It just meant that his new tricks were a bit more, er, subtle

Now that there’s context to my original metaphor, be afraid. If this doesn’t discourage random passersby from insisting they come by “to see the plants,” I don’t know what will.

Glass half-full situation

The Triffid Ranch has been quite the source of entertainment for the crew at Texas Hydroponics & Organics for the better part of a decade. Back when the Dallas branch was located down on Elm Street near downtown, I regularly came to Texas Hydroponics to pick up coarse-grade perlite and indoor lighting systems for the carnivores. The best incident, though, came the day the Czarina and I were next door at Sons of Hermann Hall for a friend’s wedding in 2006.

The first consideration: I wandered next door because the bride was vaguely curious about ways to preserve the roses in her bouquet, and I suggested “Why don’t I try to root a couple of cuttings and see if I can get you a full rose bush out of it?” The second consideration: I was in a bad bicycling accident two days before, and broke at least one rib while flying over a parking median in a high-rise parking lot. I made it to the wedding, arm in a sling to protect the broken rib and loaded on enough painkillers to stun an indricothere. (For those who’ve never broken a rib, it’s not just painful to sleep in any position other than sitting upright, but your worst fear is a good sneeze.) This meant that I was quite the mess when I sashayed inside in a full suit and tie and started asking for recommendations on cloning gels. To their eternal credit, they didn’t even blink.

Because of that, I’ve been a loyal customer since then, and they do their best to return the favor. That’s why it’s time to invoke the power of lateral thinking.

Over the past year or so, I’ve become quite fond of GrowStones, a replacement for perlite made from recycled beer bottles. Perlite is both a great way to lighten the density of heavy soils because of its porosity and a good way to encourage drainage with low weight. The problem with perlite is that it’s a finite resource: perlite is a form of obsidian with a very high water content, and when broken up and dumped into a kiln, it fluffs up like popcorn or Styrofoam peanuts. Problem is, only a few sites with large amounts of perlite exist on the planet, and when they’re used up, we’re done.

The idea behind GrowStones is to simulate the porosity and water drainage abilities of perlite with a reusable and renwable resource, as we aren’t going to run out of beer bottles any time soon. Ground glass is mixed with calcium carbonate, dumped into a kiln, and then broken up from the final fused mass. In the process, you get a product with most of the same advantages as perlite, and with a lot less dust. (Although perlite dust is considered a “nuisance dust”, it’s still a glass dust. Anybody who remembers the joys of inhaling volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens’s eruption in 1980 has reason to wear a particulate mask when working with perlite straight out of the bag.) I don’t know about anybody else, but this appeals to my inherent Scottish frugality.

The only problem? Well, the Texas Hydroponics guys warned me as soon as I picked up a new bag. The old technique left a product with a slightly higher pH than what worked best for hydroponics. To its credit, Earthstone International realized this right away, and asked that the current inventory be held until the company could get out product made with a new process. This, though, left a lot of existing, high-pH Growstones to work with.

And here’s the suggestion. I’ve been using GrowStones for a while for drainage in Capsicum pepper and other non-carnivore propagation containers. It’s already nearly perfect for improving drainage in soil mixes for cactus and other succulents, and most of the pH problems can be treated with a suitable application of vinegar. (I usually cover a 1.25 cubic foot bag of GrowStones with water in a 22-gallon container, and add a gallon of standard white vinegar before letting it sit overnight.) The current batch of GrowStones might not work for standard applications, but why not for reptile enclosures, raised beds, or other uses where the pH doesn’t matter?

If this works for you, and if you don’t mind picking up the phone, give Texas Hydroponics a call, and specifically tell them that I sent you. They’ll appreciate the help.

Writer’s Interlude

Among many other surprises this weekend, I discovered a check from Reptiles nagazine. This was payment for an article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in the May 2011 issue. This was just the cherry atop a writer’s sundae: working with Reptiles has to be the best experience I’ve had since I started writing professionally in 1989, with my time at Gothic Beauty being a very, very close second.

For those who didn’t know or didn’t care, I spent nearly 13 years as a writer for various science fiction magazines. Most pleaded poverty as to why they paid in “exposure”, and the others generally paid if and when they felt like it. Somehow, though, bringing up the fact that a publisher was six to eight months late in paying for previous articles, all the while begging for new pieces, was considered the height of bad taste. Worse, getting aggressive about collecting was seen as “being difficult”. This wasn’t the only factor in my leaving writing in 2002, but it was one of the top three. (The one time I relapsed, the status quo returned, and I finally received payment from the SyFy Channel only after threatening to out the personal E-mail addresses and phone numbers of SyFy management if the company continued to ignore requests for payment. Nearly six months of courteous requests got nothing, but one threat to give out Skiffy Channel president Bonnie Hammer’s direct phone number, and I got the check within two days.)

Anyway, based on this, I think I’ll be sticking with horticulture writing for a while. The editors are friendly, the readers are fascinating, and prompt and reasonable payment is gravy. Best of all, compared to science fiction, I can write about things that actually matter.

And now, your moment of wonder

They’re everywhere!

Have a great weekend

In the tradition of acquaintance and force of nature Jack Bogdanski, have a good weekend. (For me, it’ll be the first free weekend in well over a month.)

Dinosaurs (and worse) in the garden

Every six months or so, I look for a more effective tree-rat repellent. Traps haven’t worked, and most of the recommended repellents have no effect at all. In fact, I think they’re gargling the mothballs everyone has suggested for their aggravation. I suspect that it’s time for more determined measures, so I’ve looked into statuary. Aside from the obvious selection, which the Czarina will not stand for, it may be time for custom work. After all, what says “bog garden” like a custom fiberglass Cthulhu emerging from the muck?

“Oh, we have such wonders to show you.”

The Czarina is quite fond of quoting a book by Eric Hansen called Orchid Fever. In it, Hansen describes an orchid enthusiast in Spitzbergen, above the Arctic Circle, who keeps his collection in a well-heated greenhouse during the summer and moves them to a space in the laundry room for the winter. His wife refers to the orchids as “his green harlots,” so the Czarina sympathizes whenever she looks inside the greenhouse.

Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. I mean, I could be like a lot of other husbands. I could insist upon dragging her out into the cold on Sunday mornings in December to watch Dallas Cowboys games. I could pull the bedcovers over her head and then pass gas. I could plan a roadtrip and charge the 300-pound Samoan attorney to her credit card. (I’ll do that with the crocodile monitor, but only when she’s out of town. Once she looks into its beady yellow eyes, she won’t want to send it back, especially if it’s already gotten used to its lizard bed by then.) I just have a rather disturbing addiction to plants that eat flesh, and it’s not like I’m raising opium poppies or making breast milk cheese.

That said, I made the plunge. I have a Nepenthes hamata from Sarracenia Northwest on its way. Where is your God NOW, er, I mean, what can it hurt?

“You solved the box! We came! Now you must come back with us!”

Most carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a particular El Dorado specimen that they dream of raising. It might be the corkscrew plant Genlisea. With others, it’s the South African sundew impersonator Roridula, with its symbiotic ambush bugs and resinous droplets. The one that everyone talks about, in tones usually reserved for telling the priest at church that his fly is open, is the Sulawesi pitcher plant Nepenthes hamata.

This isn’t just because the plant is notoriously hard to keep in propagation, as it cannot handle excessively high temperatures or fluctuations in humidity. No, it’s because of its pitchers. Nepenthes first grow a set of lower pitchers, usually adapted to snagging ground-based or poorly flying prey. After a time, the plant starts to vine around vertical supports, and the pitchers, known imaginatively as “upper pitchers,” are usually wildly different in appearance and shape from the lower pitchers. In most cases, as experts have noted, if the lower and upper pitchers were discovered separately, botanists would have every reason to believe that they came from separate species, and in fact many species described in the Victorian period were declared nomen dubiam when the parent plant was identified.

And such is the case with Nepenthes hamata. All Nepenthes have a distinct lip or peristome along the mouth of the pitcher, and some can bear all sorts of flares, ruffles, and ridges. N. hamata‘s lower pitchers look a bit gruesome, as if someone welded a bandsaw blade to the peristome. The upper pitchers, though, are a true nightmare, being covered with sharp inward-curving hooks, and I tend to describe them to Nepenthes beginners as “resembling a condom designed by Clive Barker”.

Anyway. My friends at Sarracenia Northwest already make sure that the song I’m usually humming in the greenhouse is Ministry’s “Just One Fix”. They now have N. hamata specimens for sale. Really…never mind the track marks…I can quit at any time…

(I’d also like to add that Doug Bradley, the actor best known for playing the Pinhead Cenobite in the Hellraiser films, is a regular guest at Texas Frightmare Weekend. Sadly, he only browses for a few moments at the Triffid Ranch booth before moving on: I think the plants scare him.)


My wife and confidante Caroline and I have been married for nearly nine years, and she’s put up with an inordinate amount of grief from me over the intervening decade. Best known for her exemplary jewelry, she’s also known throughout the online community as “the Czarina”. (The nickname came from when I was teaching her how to play chess shortly after we married, when she reminded me of the character in Fritz Leiber’s famed chess ghost story “Midnight by the Morphy Watch”.) She’s marginally taller than I am, at a full six feet, so I’ve joked for years about how she’s popped me in the top of the head so often with her elbows that I can use the dent as a candleholder. Further mythmaking ensued, with my relating how I can tell she’s less than happy when her elbows slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor. It’s to the point when people meet her for the first time, they don’t ask “Where are you from?” or “May I see your jewelry?” They always, ALWAYS ask “May I see your elbows?”

This drives her mad. So does the observation that our marriage could be described as particularly deranged fan-fiction involving the romantic exploits of Delenn and GIR.

This doesn’t mean that I avoid behavior that annoys her. In fact, the best image most friends and general spectators have of us in public involves me lying on the ground in a fetal ball, paralytic with laughter, while she kicks me in the ribs and screams “What the HELL is WRONG with you? HUH? What is WRONG with you?” (This was first instigated when my best friend asked if we were planning to have kids, and I pointed out that any children of mine would be at the school science fair with the project “How Does Brundlefly Eat?” She apparently had issues with my joking about this at dinner.) She often paraphrases Bill Cosby when she asks me if it’s impossible for me to sleep at night without a good beating.

And so it goes into discussion of pets. We already have two cats: one is smart enough to be working on his Ph.D thesis and the other is so dumb he trips on the carpet pattern, and our carpet is a uniform blue-grey. “That’s not enough,” I say, so she asks me what would, in my deranged little world, make a good pet.

“A crocodile monitor, naturally. Preferably one trained to eat the squirrels in the back yard.”

Personally, I don’t see why she has such an issue with a crocodile monitor. We’re only talking about a three-meter-long lizard with a potentially venomous bite, that climbs trees to snag prey as heavy as it is, and whose indigenous names in New Guinea invariably translate to “demon” for its habit of hunting hunters. I can’t figure it out. I mean, how could you say “no” to this cute widdle face?

Crocodile monitor profile

Essential reading

I’m no longer amazed at the strange perambulations made in my life over the last ten years: all I can do is hang on. A case in point was my exposure to triggerplants. An online friend was discussing the possible carnivory of Australian triggerplants, and I naturally assumed, with the typical arrogance of a beginning carnivore keeper, that he was referring to hammer orchids instead. Out of nowhere, a friend of my friend both gently cleaned my clock on my ignorance and gave me the opportunity to rectify my attitude. That, friends, is why my growing space is completely overloaded with one of the most fascinating plant genera I’ve ever come across.

Later postings will go into more detail on triggerplants and how well they do in Texas (ridiculously well, as I’ve discovered), but now I send you in the direction of my friend Ryan Kitko and his blog Cunabulum. You ever meet someone who makes you wake up in the morning glad to have made his acquaintance, and who always surprises you with new lines of inquiry? Yeah, that’s what friendship with Ryan is like. You could read about his researches and passions, or you could meet him at next year’s International Carnivorous Plant Society conference and ask him yourself.

You never hear the one that gets you

The Triffid Ranch faces a lot of threats at various times from flora and fauna. The same soil mixes that work so well for carnivorous plants are also prime habitats for clover, so Saturday mornings are spent plucking clover from the propagation pots before the clover goes to seed. Tent caterpillars and green looper caterpillars love the taste of young Nepenthes leaves. While I don’t mind the ongoing Mediterranean gecko/orbweaver spider war in the greenhouse resembling a community theater rendition of Babylon 5, that can’t be said for the black widow spiders that camp out underneath greenhouse benches. Termites and Amanita mushrooms and ants and mosquitoes: they’re all part of the terrain. I don’t even mind the mourning doves out hooting their heads off at dawn, because they make great breakfast for the neighborhood red-tailed and Harris’s hawks and bedtime snacks for great horned owls.

The wildlife component I actively enjoy are the opossums, and we have a regular visitor in “Harold,” named after the nephew of Canada’s greatest superhero. As befitting the US’s only indigenous marsupial, Harold hides out during the day in an undisclosed location, but waddles across the lawn at night to check out the greenhouse and everything in the vicinity. He’s not destructive, though, and he’s welcome even when he leaves calling cards large enough to be seen via surveillance satellite. (As my best friend is fond of quoting, “That beast shits like a man.”) In return, he goes after a lot of bugs and other critters, and he does enough work around here that I’m worried that the Texas Workforce Commission will tag me for not paying his Unemployment insurance premium.

The wildlife welcome, though, isn’t open to one animal: the squirrel. I’ve had a loathing for tree-rats since 1998, when I lived in a house with two gigantic and prolific pecan trees. They were incredibly prolific before the tree-rats stripping the trees of anything remotely edible, and squirrels have the charming habit of partially eating nuts, dropping them, and grabbing another. This meant that every available surface was covered with pecan shells and hulls, which stained concrete and left glass-sharp shell shards underfoot.

Problem is, tree-rats get into everything, and they don’t even have the charms of real rats. Norway rats have high intelligence, long-term memories, and adaptability, while squirrels have nothing other than a prodigious breeding cycle to keep them from becoming extinct. Sometimes it’s the arcing buzz of a tree-rat connecting with a live electrical line, causing a brownout or blackout in the neighborhood that requires you to reset every electric clock in the house. Sometimes it’s the “do you MIND?” expression as one cleans his testicles on the hood of your car in the morning. The aspect of tree-rat behavior that really affects me, though, is their automatic assumption that every pot and planter in the area is full of cached nuts. Apparently dragonfruit cactus and Venus flytrap seedlings smell like a veritable Smaug’s hoard of acorns and other nuts, so I come home from the Day Job to find uprooted and tossed flytraps everywhere.

Hav-A-Hart traps don’t work, because of a combination of utter stupidity and tripwire reflexes. I don’t want to use poisons, because they’d also take out any scavengers of their corpses, from cats to crows to Harris’s hawks. Electric fences are both impractical and a waste of time. They breed faster than standard predators can thin them out, and the Czarina absolutely refuses to allow me to chain up a crocodile monitor to oversee the Sarracenia beds. Hence, I suspect that the rat-sniper from Moscow may have the right idea. Crouching on the back porch with a $3500 air-rifle fitted with a laser sight…and the last thing the squirrel hears is a hearty yell of “Hey! Tree-Rat! SMILE!”

Oh, I’m in trouble

I’d never advocate or endorse warehouse hijacking. Likewise, I feel for Dan Aykroyd after the recent Crystal Head Vodka heist took some 21,000 bottles of the stuff. HowEVER, Dan, if it turns out that most of it is drunk before the FBI and ATF get hold of the perps, want to work out a deal to sell the empty bottles? They make really good sundew terraria, after all…

Stretching the limits of an art form

I’m sure that many bonsai enthusiasts might be less than enthusiastic about Nick Letz’s, erm, interesting bonsai and penjing arrangements. Some may even be offended at his mixtures of flora and nontraditional pots, or his inclusion of sculptures. Me, I’m blown away, because I’ve been dreaming and creating similar arrangements with carnivores for years. This is the point where we see the evolution of an art form, where traditionalists will scream about how this is inappropriate or sinister, and the new practitioners end up themselves becoming part of the established order as they’re gradually accepted. Count me in as on the side of the Robert Bakkers and John Lydons.

“When there’s no more room in Hell, Datura will walk the earth.”

The Web site doesn’t include more than a pre-order form, but the newest issue of Gothic Beauty magazine arrived yesterday, complete with the newest “Gothic Gardening” column. Want to learn more about the one plant that connects “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Manson, and George Romero? You’ll need to snag a copy.

New reading material

I’ve stated for years that any book with the Timber Press conifer on the spine is one that has to go into my library. Likewise, out of the plethora of terrarium books I’ve come across, I’ve only found one that actually comes close to a decent view of the terrarium design process, and it’s now almost 40 years old. (It’s still relevant, but a lot of the materials and resources mentioned in it are painfully out-of-date.) Time to buy a copy of Terrarium Craft, isn’t it?

(For the record, whenever possible, any and all book recommendations will link to St. Johns Booksellers, based out of the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. The owner, Nena Rawdah, is a very old and very dear friend, and her store now contains a rather large palaeontology and natural history library left redundant when I quit writing professionally. If you’re in Portland, give her a visit, and if not, give her your horticultural book sales.)

The obligatory first posting

For those coming across it, this is the new blog for the Texas Triffid Ranch, a very small carnivorous plant nursery located in Dallas, Texas. The previous LiveJournal site was given a break for a while, but now it’s time to get back to work.