Monthly Archives: August 2011

Horticulture and Publishing, part 4

Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.

And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?

If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.

Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.

Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.

By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.

The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)

Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.

The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.

The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.

One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.

And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.

Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?

Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

Okay, enough hinting around. It’s time to discuss an uncomfortable truth about the publishing industry, or at least the side that covers horticulture and gardening. The growth of the big-box chain bookstore both created and metastasized the current dire situation, and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders only made the situation more noticeable. This discussion will probably infuriate a lot of old-time readers, writers, and publishers, but that’s like stamping your foot in anger at a supernova.

The reality of the matter:

Most horticultural magazines and book imprints aren’t going to survive the next five years A.B.L. (After Borders Liquidation) in their current form.

The horticulture magazine as we know it today probably won’t exist at all in another five years.

The current book and magazine distribution system supplying readers with literature probably won’t exist in its current form in another five years.

Any publisher depending upon its current distributor or audience base probably won’t last the whole five years ABL.

For all of the noise about urban chicken-keeping and the like, making a sudden push for a nebulous “young audience” will probably accelerate any collapse.

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

The reality right now is that you have too many books vying for bookstore shelf space. You have too many books desperately trying to snag the attention of too few readers, and far too many redundant titles competing against each other. That’s just with books in general, of which horticultural and garden books are a subset of a subset that’s lucky to get its own marked subsection in most bookstores. With online sales, not only is everyone drowning in excessive content, it’s that much harder now to tell if a particular book answers a customer’s needs. Bookstore owners and employees understandably complain about their stores being used as showrooms, where customers come in, browse the selection, and buy their selections online. The stores are simply caught in an artifact of the big chain store days, where customers have been trained that if they wait a little bit, they can get the same book for significantly less. This speaks just as much about the decline of discretionary spending in a typical household as in customers not wanting to pay top dollar for a book that may be completely obsolete within five years. In ten years, the idea of people hanging onto huge book and magazine collections due solely to their initial cost is going to be as quaint as keeping music purchases on vinyl.

It’s even worse with magazines, and not just because of the amount of content online for free or damn close to free. The model for magazine sales was that newsstand copies built up enough interest to encourage readers to buy subscriptions, and the subscription money and advertising revenue brought in enough income to pay for printing, production, and administration. Either that, or the magazines ran on the trade publication or weekly newspaper model, where the individual copies were given away for free or at a drastically reduced price in order to get a minimum guaranteed circulation for advertisers. As magazine distributors folded or were assimilated, the number of available venues willing or able to sell magazines kept crashing, until now it’s nearly impossible to buy most print magazines outside of a big-box chain bookstore. At the same time, Borders management in particular encouraged customers to come inside and use the magazine section as a reading library. Some publishers saw actual subscriptions coming in this way, from either the blow-in subscription cards that littered the bookstore floor like autumn leaves or from the constant “Subscribe now!” house ads within the magazines. A lot of others, though, died, especially when Borders followed its usual invoice practice of paying for sold magazines”when we bloody well feel like it”. The current shutdown and liquidation of Borders only accelerated a shell game that was going to fold anyway, sooner or later, and many magazines couldn’t afford to wait upwards of four years for payment for issues long-sold and counted on Borders’s balance sheets. (And that’s with actual sales. Several former Borders employees have related the ridiculous number of magazines with covers ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit, with returns well above 70 percent on many titles. Even with big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast or Time Warner, this sort of expenditure was unsustainable, even if the idea was to get readers who may subscribe at some time in the future.)

With these factors, change is inevitable. Failing magazine publishers can no longer talk about “going on hiatus”, or presume that some rich benefactor is willing to throw away thousands or millions of dollars on supporting a publication that will never be profitable. Oh, it can happen, as with the recent purchase of Newsweek. It’s just not going to happen with the thousands of others. (With the ones whose business plans include either a purchase by an eccentric millionaire or a purchase by a big publishing conglomerate, rotsa ruck. In a few cases, as with one former science fiction magazine editor of my acquaintance who regularly whines about the unfairness of a universe that won’t supply said rich benefactor to keep him employed, the only real response is “Sometimes, very occasionally, the invisible hand of the market is both just and fair.”)

A lot of this change is going to be even more painful than it already has been. A lot of individuals in publishing who have kept gainful employ in the field are going to fight, the way newspapers fought against the Web as being “just a fad,” as one big newspaper publisher put it in 1996. In the last fifteen years, the potential market for newspapers has dwindled to the point where the average reader age is well above 50, and anyone under the age of 20 looks at the idea of getting news and information from a newspaper with the same incredulous awe as the idea of listening to AM radio or using a television with a manual channel selector dial. Books and magazines are going to go the same way, but only if we let them.

In the following collection of essays, I’ll try my best to look at viable options for horticulture publishing, but I’m definitely staying away from the one-fit panacea “We’ll put it online.” E-book and E-magazine publishing is an option, but it’s not the only option. The technoweenie fantasies of Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, where you give away everything for free and somehow make up the cost in volume, aren’t going to work, at least without other mechanisms available to pay contributors and staffers. Neither is simply saying that publishers need to embrace some nebulous younger market, without talking about how that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to have The Answers, or even some answers. All I want to do is light a fire under a few of the right butts, because I don’t want to see a collapse of my favorite publishers any more than you do.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 2

I’m still revising that observation on the state of publishing and horticultural subjects over the next five years, but the fact that blog writers are getting as much acknowledgment as standard print writers on gardening subjects is something else to be added to the stew. It’s probably seriously premature to assume that we’re going to see a revival of the zine now that e-publishing for tablets makes niche magazine publishing even more plausible and reasonable. However, I can say that existing practices with print magazines are going to have to change. Those magazines are going to need some pretty compelling content to justify paid subscribers getting their copies three weeks to a month after the latest issue hits the newsstands (and yes, Horticulture, I’m looking right at the bottom-of-the-barrel English Lit majors you keep hiring to handle subscription fulfillment). They’re also going to have to pay a lot more for contributors to put up with control-freak editors and “when we damn well feel like it” publishing schedules when said contributors can put the same content on their own blogs and get the same number of readers.

As mentioned before, I don’t expect a return of the zine, for a lot of reasons. I figure, though, that this is a great time for gardening societies and independent nurseries to look at the requirements for E-publishing. Let’s also say that this might be a great time to try something new that wasn’t plausible or sane under standard distribution models, such as

More books

I never want to give the impression that I have an extensive horticulture library. I just find that my collection’s mass is starting to warp space-time. Now it’s time to add some more of Stewart McPherson’s outstanding carnivorous plant guides to the edge of the event horizon:

Right about now, the Czarina worries about my selling body parts for new reading material, especially since I’m still taking notes from Carnivorous Plants and their Habitats, Volume Two in efforts to raise Roridula in Texas. Of course, that’s because she knows that I wouldn’t sell my body parts.

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Saikei and Art: Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller. Lew Buller, 2005. 178 pp., $39.95 US. ISBN 0-9772443-0-X

The obvious appeal of bonsai lies with its ability to simulate, in a reasonable scale, the incredible variations in trees when stressed by the elements. Most bonsai practitioners work to include the area around the roots, but actual landscapes? For short-term arrangements, the traditional Japanese form of bonkei works well, but the concept of saikei, the art of arranging miniature landscapes for longterm enjoyment, was first displayed and taught by Toshio Kawamoto in 1963. Today, saikei may not be as universally known as bonsai, but in a time when miniature gardens are starting to gain popularity, this is probably going to change.

If the name of Lew Buller rings any bells, it’s probably for his involvement with co-writing Mountains in the Sea: The Vietnamese Miniature Landscape Art of Hon Non Bo, the only English book so far published on Hon Non Bo design and management. His followup book, Saikei and Art, is a compilation of various essays and articles written on the subject for magazines such as Bonsai Today and International Bonsai, combined with new material and followup photographs.

Because of its origins in magazine articles, Saikei and Art has a small problem with jumping around and repeating itself from time to time. This is sometimes aggravated by the unorthodox layout of some sections, where it’s difficult to ascertain where, on a new page, the text starts from the previous page. Some readers may also have issue with the fact that Buller’s landscapes are predominately influenced by his life in the San Diego area, and recreations of Southern California might not jibe with other saikei practitioners’ ideas of arrangements.

Ignore those worries. Any serious miniature gardener, whether formally trained in saikei or not, needs this book in his or her library. Instead following the lead of far too many general horticulture books, where the book goes step-by-tedious-step into allowing readers to make an exact replica of an artist’s project, Buller uses his projects to illustrate the tenets and requirements of saikei, and then encourages readers to go their own way. He dedicates an entire chapter to texture, both in the importance of variety and in continuing a particular theme. In addition, while he understands that each artist’s particular styles may encourage the use of artificial additions such as “mud men” figures, he emphasizes that the focus of a proper saikei depends upon the balance of the complete arrangement, not just on one or two elements. Add one slightly incongruous element, whether a particularly stunning rock or an intriguing figure, and all focus goes to that element instead of to the rest of the landscape. In a diorama, this is a success. In saikei, this is a sign of bad design.

Right now, I’m preparing several large miniature garden arrangements for an upcoming plant show. Before each big show, I gather a series of reference guides to get me into the right frame of mind before starting. I already have such titles as Sheperd Paine’s classic guide How To Build Dioramas and Buller and Lit Phan’s Mountains in the Sea in the pile, and Saikei and Art is going right on top.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 1

The bright side: this was the first birthday in five years where I wasn’t dealing with a photo shoot, a television interview, a newspaper interview, or a medical emergency. (Well, manufactured medical emergency.) The dark side: the aerogel that we laughingly call Dallas air is getting so thick that four months of allergy shots are probably the only reason I’m still alive. The air isn’t too thick to breathe. It’s too thin to plow.

Anyway, one of the benefits of spending a three-day weekend in allergy-induced hallucinations is gaining insane insights into the universe, and having lots of horticulture -related reading material by the bedside definitely helped. This was compounded by being functional enough by Sunday to get up and around, and I decided to test this by visiting one of the local Borders bookstores being liquidated. I’m still concentrating observations and impressions based on what the implosion of Borders entails for the publishing industry, especially the horticulture and gardening components, and they should be coherent enough to share by this week.

One absolute, though, based on multiple visits to multiple putrefying Borders stores over the last six months. When someone finally chronicles the exact whys and wherefores of why Borders went under, I suspect we’ll get a lot of answers to various surreal questions. “Why did so many employees assume that working for Borders was ‘working in the publishing business’?”, for instance, seeing as how you didn’t hear Steak & Ale frycooks insisting they had to stick with a dying company because they wanted to keep “working in the ranching business”. The biggest one I have, though, is what Borders ordering rep was responsible for the company’s incredible selection of marijuana growing guides. Each store’s selection was already famous, and the current liquidation just accents how many copies of The Cannabible must have been stockpiled in the back of each store for years. Was this selection the result of a lost bet, or was someone in the ordering staff in Ann Arbor really, really projecting on their career plans after they left Borders?

Have a Great Weekend

It’s a bit early, but here’s leaving you with a bit of Abney Park. One of these days, I’m actually going to catch a live show: I would have done so a couple of years back when the crew played in Dallas, if not for a medical emergency. It takes real effort for a bad pre-show DJ to drive me from a live show, but the toad blasting Beck’s “Loser” (apparently, his theme song) loud enough to give the Czarina heart palpitations somehow managed to pull it off.

Thursday is Resource Day

(Lots and lots of interesting facts and resources come across the Triffid Ranch potting bench every day, and posting about every last one means that too many are lost in the news churn. Hence, a return of Resource Day, updated every Thursday.)

It takes a serious sense of humor to live in Texas during the summer, and gardening in Texas requires a particular sense of whimsy. After all, when it’s the end of August and Zeus, Thor, Tlaloc, and Kakatal are laughing and pointing (with one finger, mind you) at your efforts to keep tomatoes alive, all you can do is laugh back. The best way to do this is to make plans for autumn gardening, because after the air no longer smells like burning flint, you have perfect gardening weather from September to the beginning of December and beyond. I’m not exaggerating when I tell people I’ve harvested fresh tomatoes right off the bush for Christmas dinner, and you’d be amazed at how many habanero peppers you can pick on New Year’s Day when everyone else in the neighborhood is hung over.

Oh, and I keep laughing, too. That’s why, in a day where we’re justifiably wondering about the place of the print periodical, I keep renewing my dead-tree subscription to Texas Gardener magazine. I’ve let many of my regular magazine resources slip because of editorial changes or because they’re no longer relevant, but this is one I read all the way through, every two months. Did I mention that sometimes I’m laughing at the articles to keep from screaming? (I don’t necessarily wish harm on some of the writers. It’s just after reading the latest issue’s feature on growing bananas, I just want to eat their hearts in order to steal their superpowers.)

And for those who want a suitably maniacal mad-scientist cackle with their laughter, I’d like to note that the latest American Science & Surplus catalog arrived the other day, and I am in TROUBLE. Specifically, the Czarina actually has good reason to work with a lab still, and I have more of a need for a solar-powered vent fan than most. (Sadly for folks outside the US: I’ve looked for nearly eight years for a comparable supplier who ships outside the US and its territories, but have yet to find anything. If this changes, I’ll definitely let you know.)


It’s not much, but we’re finally getting rain. Bits at a time, more of a misting than a proper rainfall, but every last bit is appreciated. Now if I could just convince my youngest niece to stop chirping “For he is the Kwizach Haderach!”, I’ll be happy.

Slightly unorthodox miniature gardens

If I haven’t introduced you to Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens, please say hello. Janit has been extremely busy promoting new plants, new materials, and new concepts to miniature gardening, and I’ve been trying to help. You know that weird kid in fourth grade who keeps bringing in frogs and worms to show the teacher to help out with her science classes? Yeah, it’s like that.

Anyway, I’ve been keeping an eye open for unorthodox additions to miniature gardens, and I should have a great one for her perusal and approval in a few weeks. So what should I add to the Lithops arrangement: a Viking 1 model or a Lunakhod 1 model? (I’d go for something appropriate for our current weather in Texas, but apparently nobody makes a Venera 13 model yet. Sigh.)

Birthday beatings

I love the Czarina with all my heart and soul, and that’s probably why I give her so much grief. It’s obviously an addiction to adrenaline: walking up to a black rhinoceros and slapping it in the face, giving a Komodo dragon a thorough flossing, or going to a science fiction convention and telling the assembled crowd how the only thing you loathe more than Star Wars is its fandom are easy. Nothing compares to making the right comment that ends with the last things you see for the next six hours are her elbows going for your forehead. When it’s birthday season, it’s time to double down.

Now, the Czarina is exactly three weeks short of three years younger than I am, so she starts worrying about birthday celebrations around April. A lot of this comes from her being part of a very large and very enthusiastic Texas family, where quiet birthday parties are about as alien as dressing for minus-forty temperatures. (I regularly try to describe minus-forty weather to her, having lived through far too much of it in my childhood, and it’s much like describing the concept of “plaid” to Stevie Wonder. Our nephews and nieces love the idea of ice and snow for playing and skiing, but they question the sanity of anybody willingly living in places that stay frozen for eight months out of the year. I do, too, which is why I’m in Texas instead of Ontario.) Her mother reminds her of her obligations around February, so she has six months to fret and fuss to herself over whether she’s neglecting me. Naturally, I regularly steal Bill Cosby’s comment about how his kids can’t sleep at night unless they’ve had a good beating, and this time of the year, I sleep incredibly well.

It usually starts on the weekend, when we have some free time. We both know the rules. She asks for my input while keeping control of the situation, and not giving in to completely unreasonable requests. In turn, I know that if I make completely unreasonable requests for the next hour, for things she knows I don’t really want, I can drop a good humdinger and she’ll agree to it before realizing her folly. I can then look at her, tears running down my legs and into the stormdrains, and weep “But you PROMISED!” until she realizes I’m messing with her again. This fuels the adrenaline addiction, because one slipup, such as using the words “Wyoming real estate” or “threesome,” and I’ll need years of therapy before I regain such advanced skills as color vision and bladder control. Those elbows are sharp.

The other trick is to push the edge of “How does Brundlefly eat?” territory without going over. For instance, the esteemed garden guru Billy Goodnick commented on Facebook a little while back that the best way to take care of the arguments in a marriage about leaving the toilet seat up at night is to use the sink instead. I told him “Naaah. Use the dishwasher a couple of times, and she’ll be GLAD you use the sink.” When the Czarina saw this, her first response was to impersonate her mother and sigh “Oh, PAUL!” My immediate response was “What? I was going to say ‘oven’!”

And so the bladeplay began. She asks innocently “So what do you want for your birthday?”, and before the first syllable can emerge, yelling “And NOT a crocodile monitor.”

She’s obviously learning, as it’s only taken nine years of marriage for her to pick up my opening gambit. “Well, I had something I wanted, but SOMEone wouldn’t let me haul it home.”

“If you bring up that stupid case one more time…you know it’s GONE, right?”

“Yes (sniffle), because someone wouldn’t let me get a truck to pick it up. (sob)”

“Okay. Aside from a crocodile monitor or a glass case, or the case so you can keep the crocodile monitor, what do you want for your birthday?”

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, I have an answer, but finances won’t allow it for a while. I could have a smartaleck answer for her, and then she’d just look at me and say “Mm hm. And you got one of those when you were ten, right?”

*mope* “grumble* *scuff shoes in the dirt* “Yeah.” She’s remarkably perceptive as to the fact that it’s not 1976 any more, damn her.

“I’ll ask again, and I want an honest answer. What do you want for your birthday?”

Okay, then. I told her what I’m telling everyone else: get something for yourself. I’m serious.

To start, I can’t say enough about the intrepid crew at Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Texas. Not only am I glad to contribute what I can to help out, but I’m still going through the kilos of bat guano they let me sweep up last year for fertilizer. (Yes, I spent the Czarina’s and my anniversary last year sweeping up bat guano, and I thanked them for the privilege.) It’s definitely time for you to adopt a bat. Every bit you chip in means a bit more guano for my dragonfruit and the Czarina’s roses, so everyone wins.

If you’re more inclined toward the floral, then get me something nice. Get a membership with the International Carnivorous Plant Society or a premium membership with the International Brugmansia and Datura Society. There’s also the North American Sarracenia Conservancy for those with a more particular bent, but all of these will work quite well.

Oh, and don’t listen to the Czarina when she mocks me about wanting a pony. She’s still ticked off at when I introduced her to the works of the exemplary author Jeffrey Somers. Specifically, he has a married life much like mine, only he refers to his wife as “the Duchess”, and she’s much shorter than he is. Otherwise, the beatings are identical. My mistake was noting that I truly fear the day that my wife and Jeff’s wife meet, because they’d probably be friends for life, and then Jeff and I would be in real trouble. I even started using an endearing nickname for the love of my life based on this observation.

Kids, take my word for it. Even in the days before Google, the Czarina would have found out what “MasterBlaster” meant sooner or later. And when the Duchess finds out, I’m going to need skin grafts on the insides of my nostrils from where the two of them yanked out my nose hair.

Something to make your day

For those who don’t read the exemplary blog Bonsai Bark, here’s a story that will make your eyes bleed. It concerns stolen bonsai, specifically four prize-winners stolen from New England Bonsai Gardens last weekend. The punchline, though, is this quote:

Unless they are recovered soon, odds are whoever ends up with them won’t be able to keep them healthy. Years ago a friend (and customer of New England Bonsai) had some prize bonsai stolen from his back yard. The good news was the police found the bonsai during a drug bust. The bad news was, they found them dead in a closet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to punch something. Like the individuals who stole these bonsai.

Road trip

The 2012 show schedule is already packed pretty well, between shows and the International Carnivorous Plant Symposium next August, and the Czarina is insisting upon a trip to San Francisco as a very late honeymoon event. (When I say “insist,” don’t think that I’m complaining about this in the slightest. At bare minimum, we both want to see the Conservatory of Flowers while we’re out there, and that’s in addition to everything else to visit. I haven’t been to the Bay since 1996, and she’s never been there at all, so any escape to feed my addiction really won’t be an escape so much as a sidetrack.) Additional trips? The only way we can afford them is by my selling body parts, and I’m down to only three kidneys and a handful of hearts to last me until Christmas.

That said, well, reading about Erica Glasener hosting a tour of English gardens, complete with a tour of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, just makes me whimper a bit. Time for me to invent something really spectacular, such as a zero-point energy generator or a composter that can make garden soil from stupidity, to pay for this trip.

Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens
by Eric Grissell. Timber Press, 2010. 335 pp., $27.95 US. ISBN-13: 9780881929881

I came across gardening in a very roundabout way, and I can credit one book as being my awakening to the possibilities. That book, discovered in a pile in the Natural History section of the local Half Price Books, was The Hunting Wasp by John Crompton. Before starting that volume, my attitude toward wasps was the same as with most humans: duck and wave your arms around your head if one approaches, and rush for the can of Raid when it retreats. Considering how sensitive I am to honeybee venom, I thought I had a good reason to keep up that attitude.

Well, that was before John Crompton. Without him, I never would have learned exactly how valuable wasps are in the garden, and in fact elsewhere. Honeybees can pollinate flowers, but they do nothing against common garden pests. With the exception of vertebrates, pretty much every gardener’s nemesis has a parasitoid or exoparasite wasp that uses it as a host. Tomato hornworm caterpillars, houseflies, spiders large and small, cicadas, and even praying mantises are all prey. The more social wasps such as paper wasps may not capture and paralyze prey, but they still do their part: I currently have a paper wasp nest on the back porch, right over my head when I’m repotting plants. Considering how much damage they do to the annual green looper plague every spring, anyone who wants to spray my paper wasps will have to go through me first.

That’s the biggest thing that Crompton’s book taught me: we’re taught our basic responses to wasps, and they’re a matter of conditioned fear, augmented by the pain of the very occasional sting. Wasps should be respected, yes, especially by those with allergies to their venom. However, a lot of what’s seen as wasp aggression is really little more than curiosity, abetted by our conditioning to react in a certain way to certain insect shapes and colors. What’s funnier is that this conditioning is one of the big factors in keeping male wasps alive, as they have no sting and are completely harmless to humans.

When it comes to books on members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the vast majority focus on the bees. Lots and lots on traditional honeybees, with maybe some mention of carpenter bees, mason bees, and sweat bees as a sidenote. Most books on ants are intended for grade-school students, and they’re discarded about the time the reader has to deal with carpenter ant damage to a house or Argentine fire ant infestations in the yard. Wasp books pretty much begin and end with Crompton and with Jean-Henri Fabre’s The Hunting Wasps, now nearly a century old. And on the wasp cousins the sawflies? Not a peep, outside of basic insect pest guides.

Part of the reason for that lack of care, obviously, is bad public relations. Bee folklore and mythology range the width and breadth of the planet. (How many of you know that the name “Melissa” is ancient Greek for “bee”?) Ants at least get the Aesop’s fable on the ant and the grasshopper. Ants and bees get cutesy Pixar movies made about them. The closest to popular respect given to wasps? A begrudging comment on how the life cycle of the title creature in the film Alien had a basis in the real-life habits of certain exoparasite wasps.

Yeah yeah, sure sure. The wasp’s world is a horrifying one compared to that of humans, and it’s not hard to see the comparisons. (Last year, I came across an unopened silkworm coccoon hanging from a maple tree, and found inside the coccoon a mummified silkworm with two tiny holes in its body from where wasp larvae, implanted as eggs before the caterpillar started spinning, had gnawed their way out before pupating within the coccoon. I couldn’t help but murmur “Alien life form, dead a long time. Fossilized. Looks like it grew out of the chair.”) That’s just part of the story. Most wasps are essential pollinators, as the adults only consume nectar and other sweets (this explaining why they’re always attracted to spilled juice or soda), and they’re often manipulated themselves, as with wasp orchids. Furthermore, each parasitoid (young develops within the host’s body) or exoparasite (young develops outside) wasp species has a specific host, and those can range from aphids to cicaidas. I was recently lucky enough to view two tarantula hawk wasps searching for prey, and as their name implies, their chosen hosts are tarantulas and other extremely large spiders. Crompton himself was impressed by one species of wasp that attacks and paralyzes praying mantises, and he described these wasps as being like a human mother who has decided that the only food fit for her children is grizzly bear. (With both tarantula hawks and mantis hunters, the wasps don’t always win their battles.)

It takes a special love to research a book on wasps and their preferred hunting methods, and I was afraid I’d hit the point where the only way I was going to find a book with the information I sought was by writing it myself. Thankfully, research entomologist Eric Grissell beat me to it, and in so doing, gave me a lot of ideas for future arrangements. For instance, he described going from butterfly to wasp garden by setting up a solar-powered water pump with a 5-gallon bucket as a well and covering the top with rocks that would get splashed during the heat of the day, encouraging wasps and bees to gather water without a chance of drowning. Considering the number of bees and wasps converging on my Sarracenia pots for water during the summer heat, this is going to be an essential addition to the garden come next spring.

And then there are the photos. Crompton’s and Fabre’s books are a bit lacking in illustrations, and thankfully Bees, Wasps, and Ants is thoroughly and copiously augmented by beautiful color photos. When the photos can make me appreciate the beauty of ants, this says something.

As a final note, one of the best reasons to buy this book lies with the insects even more disrespected than wasps. Learning about sawflies was intriguing enough, but for years, the only information I could find on the local velvet ants was that (a) velvet ants were solitary wasps, (b) the females are wingless, and (c) their sting packed a powerful enough punch that they’re referred to throughout Texas as “cow-killers”. (I haven’t seen one since 1980, but after narrowly missing being stung, I don’t plan to test its ranking in the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to make sure.) That right there made this book indispensable, as now I can get co-workers and family members to alternate between oohing in wonder and making vague squicking sounds when reading about braconid wasps on tomato hornworms. I was even able to make the Czarina’s head go “pop” when describing the color of tarantula hawk antennae as tango, and she definitely wasn’t expecting to learn about colors and historical significance from a discussion of wasps.

Upcoming shows

Certain friends know me originally from my days writing essays and articles for various science fiction magazines in the Eighties and Nineties. (Don’t worry about which ones: without fail, they had all of the impact and influence of the CueCat and Microsoft Bob, and half the mockery value.) They also know that I quit in rather spectacular fashion in 2002, and aside from a couple of relapses (which were, without fail, catastrophic), I haven’t been back since then. These are the ones who sidle up to me and ask “So, Paul, if you state quite openly that you’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have anything to do with science fiction, then why do you do so many plant shows at science fiction conventions?” This is most often voiced by my best friend, who has been playing Adrian Edmondson to my Rik Mayall for going on a third of a century.

Well, I have several reasons. The first is that I still have a lot of friends in the business, and I’ve learned from experience that they can be in town but it’s almost physically impossible to get them to leave the convention hotel. The second is that many of these friends have kids (and, increasingly, grandkids), which gives me all sorts of opportunities to pass on horrible stories. “You know how your mom says she hopes you have a kid who’s just like you? Oh, trust me: I have tales that will curl your nose hair.” The biggest one, though, is that convention attendees and their family and assorted cohorts are a seriously underappreciated horticulture market. For the most part, their childhood memories of gardening consisted, as did mine, of having to do the zut work of weeding and cleaning in the garden without any opportunity to see a return. They don’t hang around garden centers because there’s nothing in it for them, and standard gardening options bore them to tears. However, show them that there’s more to carnivorous plants than the same old Venus flytrap, and they’ll attend regular shows just in the hope of seeing something they didn’t know existed but that they’re willing to buy right there and then.

Because of this, the Triffid Ranch has a regular presence at Dallas conventions, starting the year with All-Con in March and ending the con season with FenCon in September. In the future, the idea is to show off plants at conventions outside the state, but considering the cost of inspection permits to transport plants across state lines, that may be a little while.

Anyway, the first bit of good news is that Texas Frightmare Weekend, a horror convention in Irving, just announced the initial lineup for its 2012 show. Loyd Cryer of Texas Frightmare Weekend has been very supportive of the Triffid Ranch at previous shows, and I try to return the favor as much as possible. The 2012 guest list is still embryonic, so keep an eye on status updates. Since the convention moved to the DFW Hyatt at DFW Airport, thereby allowing an increase in display space, expect to see some surprises in arrangements and in new plants.

The second bit of news is a bit further off. Unlike most conventions, the World Science Fiction Convention moves to a new locale every year, based on bids made by committees and votes from current or previous attendees. As of today, the official winner of the bid for the 2013 WorldCon is Lone Star Con 3, located in San Antonio. Any excuse to go to San Antonio is a good one (it’s not quite as much fun as Fort Worth or Galveston, but at least it isn’t Austin or Lewisville), so I’ve already contacted the convention committee about Triffid Ranch dealer’s room space. Details will follow, but at least we have two years to worry about it.

That’s it for the moment, but should you know of a convention that could stand a hearty selection of carnivorous plants, feel free to let me know.

Lovecraft’s Birthday

Saturday, August 20 is the 121st birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, possibly one of the most influential American writers of the last century. Not only has his unique contributions done for horror fiction what van Gogh did for painting, but his work is distinct enough that the adjective “Lovecraftian” is used by people completely unfamiliar with his stories. (One day, I”ll make sure that “Leiberesque” gets the same use, but I’m still working on it.)

I also have a personal interest in “Grandpa Theobald,” as he called himself, as he’s a distant relative on my mother’s side of the family. In fact, if I’d been just one more week premature, I’d share a birthday with him instead of with Glen Matlock. (Hell, if I’d been a few hours more premature, I’d be exactly the same age as Shirley Manson. How’s that for a bummer?) Ergo, that love of the unknown goes back a little ways.

In tribute to my famed cousin, and in hopes of fending off heat-stress psychosis, it may be time for a trip to the garden center to make a Lovecraft-themed garden. Obviously, I already have a Buddha’s Hand citron, and I’m currently checking with a source further south for those seeking one of these beautiful trees in Texas. Carnivores are an obvious choice, especially with the cultivars named after HPL’s characters, and then we have the succulents. If you’re in the need for something that really stretches the meaning of the term “Lovecraftian”, may I recommend giving a hand to a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) or a rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)?

Have A Great Weekend

And to friends in Reno this weekend, I bring you a prime bit of head explodey from the early Nineties: the Spock Pistols.

Dark Gardening: weeping redbuds

I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.

In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.

Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.

After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.

Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.

The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The best thing about summer in Texas is the end of it, because you get a whole five months to plan for parties and events. You can peek outside your shelter, shaking your fist and the big yellow hurty thing in the sky as it turns everything you know and love to ash, or you can plan for the day when sunset is at a sane time and the air doesn’t smell like charred flint. This is what kept Texans sane in the days before air conditioning, and it really applies now. To make matters worse, all of my friends are at the Independent Garden Center 2011 show, and knowing that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is testing the hotel staff’s tolerance of impromptu Ween karaoke and random midnight gunfire makes me grind my teeth down to the gumline. The day she finally figures out how to flush metallic sodium down the toilet so it clears out every greywater line in the hotel, I’ll stop calling her “amateur”.

Because of this, I’m tentatively making plans for a Triffid Ranch party, open to customers, patrons, and interested bystanders. It would have to be after the big show at FenCon at the end of September, but this isn’t a problem when you live in a place where October lasts for six months. It won’t be anything spectacular, such as the spectacular Sarracenia Northwest open houses, but it won’t be too embarrassing. Details to follow.

I’d just like to add one note. Once the Czarina gets involved, her addiction to bad puns will be unstoppable, and there may be trouble. It may get bad. The moment she serves anything that looks like this, all of you have permission to shoot me in the head, because it’ll be obvious that the woman I married is gone, and life won’t be worth living. Thank you in advance.

Review: Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-Of-Hearts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross,. Timber Press, 2010. 283 pp., $24.95 US. ISBN-13: 9781604690767

Lists of odd plants are such subjective things. The local weeds in Capetown are horrendously exotic in New York, and the perspectives of casual browsers in the local grocery store floral section are a bit lacking compared to those of professional botanists and horticulturalists. It also depends upon personal tastes. I could make the argument that tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) are just as odd as the corpse flower Amorphophallus, but the question is whether I could back it up. Equally importantly, if I were asked to come up with a similar list, would I merely be copying someone else’s, or working from my own personal experience?

As far as Bizarre Botanicals is concerned, it’s a good start on a decent odd plant listing. Problem is, anything other than “a good start” would come in about eighteen volumes and arrive at the door via forklift. The most impressive aspect of this book isn’t that authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross managed to find at least 77 suitably odd plants to include in their listing. It’s that they managed to stop at only this many, and I can only imagine how many they left out.

As the introduction states, the original focus was on carnivores, and the first tip that you’re looking at a Timber Press book is the beautiful photography. For serious carnivore junkies, it’s interesting but not loaded with surprises. And that, Officer, is when the book shifted into ferns. That’s when our authors dropped the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) into my lap. It veered over into the passionflowers (Passiflora), the Czarina’s favorites, and then skipping to her new love, the bat plant (Tacca chantrieri.

Again, personal tastes intrude. While the chapter on “Hearts-a-Burstin'” and heart-shaped flowers was intriguing, I personally would have gone in the direction of edible oddballs, such as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) or the fruit of Monstera deliciosa. (Of the latter, I love the fruit-salad flavor of the flower spike, but the immature spike itself always brought to mind sex toys for Silurians.) Even so, the whole hearts chapter is a great subject for goth gardening, and my only regret is that many aren’t suitable for Texas heat.

And then we’re back in the running with a thumbnail guide to odd orchids. Again, the surprise was that the authors were able to stop before turning in a 5000-page manuscript. Of particular note is that they recognized the singular wonder of the trigger orchid Catasetum saccatum: in an odd way, if not for my knowing about C. saccatum and misunderstanding an Australian friend’s comment, I never would have been introduced to the whole triggerplant (Stylidium) family. Personal tastes intruding again: I would have dedicated at least one section to the triggerplants, but I can understand why they were left out. They’re still remarkably poorly known in the US and Europe, and they’d make a great subject for a sequel.

If there’s anything approximating a disappointment in the listings, it’s with the succulents section. Quite seriously, how the hell could anybody do justice to your personal list? Arguing about the merits of true cactus versus the euphorbias is reason to pull out chainsaws and rubbing alcohol at twenty paces, and somehow our authors managed to include a few very good examples and mention the stapeliads as well. You can almost hear the authors whimpering about the three or four they wanted to squeeze in before the editor said “Anything more, and we sell you for body parts.”

I’ll also mention on caveat, which also impinges upon the length of the book. The title reads “How to Grow String-of-Hearts, et al“, but the growing instructions are generally limited to growing zones in the US and some basics on soil quality and light requirements. Still, it’s a lot better than the truncated guides on most plant tags, and if there was an argument for a book augmented with 2-D barcodes and a very large online library, this is it.

I’m regularly asked by friends about books that might make gardening appealing to teenagers. I’d put this one right at the top of the list. Sure, they may get overly enthusiastic about growing difficult species. And?

“Time for the Time Lord’s secret weapon: duct tape!”

The Czarina’s birthday was the Saturday before last, and for her birthday, I bought her (among many other things) a spot Fresnel lens. The response has been obvious: her mother rolled her eyes in disbelief when she heard what her son-in-law bought for her youngest daughter. Her father, on the other hand, is hinting about keeping this on hand for science experiments out at his ranch. The latter is the most tempting, seeing as how it’s really hard to start county-wide brushfires when you’re conducting refraction experiments at the bottom of an abandoned limestone quarry. If the cattle get in the way, well, we’ll discover how well-done the gobbets are after we scrape them off the quarry walls.

Much more seriously, we’re planning real science, first at the ranch and then back home. For the Czarina, we’ll be making a metal oven intended to maximize the heat produced by the Fresnel lens, that molten metal or glass doesn’t cool too quickly while it’s in the melting crucible. For me, I’m making Nepenthes pots from discarded LP records, and getting the grille started very quickly. I suspect that this will be her favorite birthday present yet.

Books and Gardens and Stuff: The Lies Our Parents Tell Us About Gardening

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Billy Goodnick, but he’s a Santa Barbara garden designer best known for his Crimes Against Horticulture listings of particularly inappropriate or borderline offensive of trees, shrubs, and other boundary plants. I have a couple of particularly good examples here in Dallas that I need to photograph for him, but that’s not why I’m bringing up the subject.

No, the reason why Billy is, once again, keeping me from mowing the lawn around the Sarracenia area is because he’s running a contest. He recently finished Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s new book The Informed Gardener, and offers a free copy to the individual who has the best gardening myth to share. Feel free to head over there and enter, and then come on back.

Got it out of your system? Excellent. I myself had heard some great ones over the years. “Mixing sand into the ‘black gumbo’ clay in Dallas will soften it up.” (No, that’s a great way to make concrete, especially in summer.) “If you grow watermelons and carrots too close together, the watermelons will taste like carrots.” (That’s merely a great myth to explain why your watermelon cultivar was affected by viruses or simply bad growing conditions.) “Using charcoal grille ashes on your garden will kill your plants because of the lighter fluid fumes.” (Charcoal grille ashes will kill your plants because the highly alkaline and mineralized ash will burn the roots, not any long-volatilized or long-combusted lighter fluid fumes.) Oh, and “Watermelon seeds are poisonous if swallowed.” (Watermelon seeds used to be highly prized as a snack when roasted, and they were extremely popular in the Southern US around the turn of the last century. I have yet to track down exactly why this story popped up, but I suspect it had everything to do with the assumption after World War II that roasted watermelon seeds qualified as “poor food”.)

Now, these and others may be annoying, or potentially destructive, but they’re not dangerous per se. I have one, though, that had a fair chance of being lethal. Worse, it came from a professional who should have known better.

25 years ago next Tuesday, I first started work as a groundskeeper for a Texas Instruments facility north of Dallas. Technically, I was in charge of two of them, and I’d spend four days a week mowing and trimming the two acres of space on one site and then spending a day on the other. Back then, the big sites were named for the town in which they were located (Lewisville, McKinney, Lubbock), or for the road on which they were located (Forest Lane, Lemmon Avenue, Central Expressway) if they were within the immediate Dallas area proper. My main horticultural evil laboratory was at the old Trinity Mills site off Interstate 35 in Carrollton, and the smaller one was in the middle of an older industrial park space on Surveyor Road at the edge of Addison. Trinity Mills was a fabrication facility for TI’s Defensive and Strategic Electronics Group (DSEG), and Surveyor was a general supply warehouse for Trinity Mills and most of the other TI plants and offices in the area. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since Surveyor Road was so much smaller than Trinity Mills, basic maintenance could be done over the whole area within a day. Basic mowing, kipple pickup off the parking lots, edging, and whatever else needed to be done right away. The problem was that there was just enough time to do the basics, but not enough for larger projects. For instance, we had a big pile of sand in the back of one parking lot for the eventuality of the lot being frozen over in an icestorm, and I had time budgeted to trim back the Bermuda grass attempting to claim its summit. However, there wasn’t enough time to move that huge pile, one wheelbarrow at a time, to a place where the Bermuda grass and other weeds weren’t an issue. Well, technically, I had the time, but it wasn’t seen as a priority to the four layers of management above me who wanted to make sure my TPS reports had cover pages on them.

One day, that changed. My boss’s boss noted that a big linden tree out in front of Surveyor was looking a bit shaggy, and he squeaked a bit about peasants and livestock. My boss interpreted that as a directive to clean up the tree, so he sent me out with a pruning bill, a pair of hedge clippers, and a warning “Don’t get too carried away. That tree is concealing a big transformer for the building, and I don’t want anybody to notice it.”

Well, “don’t get too carried away” still meant removing nearly a ton of dead or bedraggled branches, and I went into the job with all the enthusiasm a 20-year-old being allowed to play outside on a weekday can muster. No, scratch that. It was with all the enthusiasm a 20-year-old being allowed to play outside on a weekday, with implements of destruction, can muster. If I’d been any happier, I would have vibrated all of my molecules into a new quantum state. I chopped and lugged, and sawed and buzzed, and hauled for a while when the pile filled an entire parking space, and generally made me feel incredibly sorry for the people inside who were stuck in their cubicles all day. (Well, almost. Many of them were also the same people who’d dump their car ashtrays onto the parking lot, shove all of the accumulated garbage in their cars out a door, and then tell me “I’m just giving you job security.”)

At this point, I’d been going to town for about four hours, and I was starting to slow down due to the summer heat. Right then, I felt a sharp pain on the inside of my elbow, and then a very unpleasant tingling. As I watched, I got a lovely welt that kept growing as I watched, and the tingling started spreading up my arm.

To this day, I don’t know what critter tagged me, but I could tell that it wasn’t a honeybee. When honeybees sting humans and other large animals, the barbed sting remains trapped in the wound, exuding venom from a very ingenious pump system attached to the venom gland. The bee usually pulls free, tearing this apparatus away from the bee’s body and leaving it to continue shuttling venom below the skin. This is why, by the way, you should never pull a bee sting with your thumb and fingers: that action squeezes even more venom into the site. The best option is to use the flat of a knife, sharp or butter doesn’t matter, to scrape the sting away. In my case, no venom gland and no attached sting, but something got me. And since I’m very sensitive to beestings, this meant seeking medical advice right away.

I managed to get into the building before my right arm went completely numb, and I managed to explain the situation to both my immediate supervisor on the site and the very surprised security guard at the front door. Notice of envemomation, symptoms, and possible courses of action. Both of them figured that getting me to a hospital or care clinic was my only option, but my supervisor realized that according to TI policy, he’d have to get advice from a medical officer before letting me go see a real doctor.

At that time, each larger TI facility had an on-duty nurse for first aid issues, and Surveyor deferred to Trinity Mills’s nurse. The problem was that the nurse in question was, how do I put this, raised in an alternate dimension where medicine and biology ran in a different direction than on Earth. I still remember my jaw hitting my sternum when she told me with authority that mosquitoes didn’t drink blood: they attempted to drink blood plasma, but they died as soon as they bit an individual. Not only did she confirm this when I asked her about this, but when I pointed out that I was pretty sure that female mosquitoes ingested blood to increase the viability of their eggs, I was told this was “liberal propaganda.” Since I was about as low on the company hierarchy as you could go and not give access badges to the bacteria in the septic system, I shut up right then and prayed that I never needed real medical advice from her.

Wouldn’t you know it, this is the one person keeping me from getting to medical care. She insisted upon talking to me, even though my teeth were starting to chatter from the pain of the tingling, asking about symptoms and what I was doing when this happened. I stuttered them out, finishing with “I didn’t see what got me. It could have been a wasp or hornet, or even a spider…”

“Paul, spiders don’t live in trees.”

“I don’t know if it was a spider. I don’t see a puncture, but I can see the welt,” which was now about the size and color of a tomato.


“Okay, whatever. All I can tell was that it’s tearing into me.”

“PAUL. Spiders do NOT live in trees.”

Between the pain and my naive assumption that I was talking with someone nominally classified as sentient, I didn’t realize what she was asking for about another five minutes. She wasn’t going to let me go until I told her “spiders don’t live in trees.” As soon as I admitted that, she finally let me go: two or three steroid injections at the local quack shack later, I was no longer worried about dying of heart failure or seizures, and my boss drove me home himself to make sure I was going to be all right. The whole time, doctors and bosses are chuckling ruefully “Spiders…in TREES? Was she SERIOUS?”

Both of those facilities shut down about three years later, and I have no idea where that nurse went when she was no longer needed. I still hope to this day that she didn’t become an insurance adjuster. She kept insisting that she knew from some grand authority, some hillbilly Professor Lindenbrock or Challenger, that spiders couldn’t live in trees for some reason, and I finally realized she’d have shot herself in the head rather than admit she might have been wrong. I have to admit, though, in my more bitter moments, that I have a fantasy involving someone finding a dessicated coccoon in a live oak tree above her garden, with “DEATH FROM ABOVE” written in the web surrounding it.

Have a Great Weekend

This weekend, along with everything else, I’m going to start working on my first official scientific paper. This is one of at least three over the next three years, and by that time, I’ll be able to consider getting a degree to go with the papers. Have me buried in the compost pile when my head explodes, okay?

Okay, so SOME kvetching about the weather

I know, I promised, I wasn’t going to complain about the weather. You’d think we’d be sick of it by now, because I definitely am. (I discovered last night that my favorite Heliamphora died at the same time as my Nepenthes hamata, and I’m probably going to lose a loquat tree thanks to the insanely low humidity.) However, you have a nearly palpable disappointment in Dallas that we didn’t break a record for subsequent 100-degree-F days originally set in 1980. My father-in-law, a very sane and rational man who lived through both the 1980 and 1952 heatwaves, has the right perspective on this: “It’s not a record. It’s a losing streak.”

Trust my father-in-law to state the obvious. Summer 2011 is the Chicago Cubs of meteorology. (And I say this as a diehard Cubs fan, having seen the light thanks to one of my childhood role models.) I just want to know what we did to deserve our very own Billy Goat Curse.

Meanwhile, I’m reminded more and more of the summer when I finally moved out on my own and became a reasonably responsible adult. My father had a a lot to do with that, too. “The Emperor told us to go to Arrakis,” Dad says. “You won’t miss Caladan a bit,” Dad says. “You’ll make lots of new friends, and get some new hobbies, and maybe meet a nice girl,” Dad says. Dad, SHUT UP. The sun’s so hot that I have sunburn on the backs of my eyelids.

A death in the family

The summer has been rough on all of the plants, and a few casualties were inevitable. Sadly, one of the most poignant for me was the death of the Nepenthes hamata I recently purchased from Sarracenia Northwest. The next time I try this, I’m getting a full air chiller system: it was handling daytime temperatures for the most part, but the house was just getting too warm during the day and wasn’t cooling off enough at night for it. It’s for the best that the Czarina didn’t see my reaction when I discovered it this morning: the last time she’d seen me cry like that, I was watching the end of Alien, when the only well-developed character in the movie besides the cat was blown out the airlock.

“Gnomes…WITH GUNS!

Okay, the ongoing cold war between gnomes and flamingos just went hot. Namely, some sicko is giving gnomes M-16s. I guess it’s my perogative to fit the local flamingos with air-to-surface missiles, just to give them a fighting chance, eh?

EDIT: And just in time, we have the flamingo opposition. I suspect this will only end with nukes.


Euell Gibbons, the wild-foods advocate, had a great anecdote about food prejudices in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. He was relating how he and a friend were on a hunting trip where they shot a bobcat, and since they didn’t have any other food in camp, they skinned and dressed the bobcat for dinner. Gibbons related how while the meat was as delicate as quail, his friend said “You know, the bob part sure is good, but I’m having a real problem swallowing the cat.”

People tend to have a problem swallowing the cat when discussing processing sewage for drinking water. Never mind that we do this every day: that tall cool bottle of Aquafina you just polished off probably went through the kidneys of several dinosaurs before it got to you. The trees and shrubs that transpire water vapor as a byproduct of photosynthesis are using water molecules that were probably used previously by any number of unsavory critters over the years. In addition, anybody who has ever willingly consumed Keystone Light or Zima has no room to discuss the distastefulness of processing urine. The fact is that water cleared of its contaminants is just water, which is why reading about West Texas efforts to process waste water to drinking water is a sign that we’re finally living in the future.

To be fair, I can understand the instinctive response. (I knew an acquaintance who had such a response that I got him a copy of The Water of Life for Christmas. He never really forgave me for that.) So let’s look at an alternative. Considering that most treated sewage water is simply dumped into waterways, why not use water from reservoirs and wells in Texas for drinking purposes, and use processed water for agriculture? After all, if the final product is clean enough to drink, having salts and heavy metals removed from it, it should be good enough for growing crops, and the plants wouldn’t complain. Take stress off existing aquifers, create a new market with what was previously unwanted effluent, and start a million new jokes about working at the “Pabst Blue Ribbon recycling factory”: everyone wins.

EDIT: apparently I’m way behind the curve, as Fort Worth already uses wastewater for agriculture, and the technique has been quite successful in southern California as well to conserve available water. Discovering that the process produces water much less salty than standard reservoir or well water in West Texas is gravy: anyone who has used Dallas water for standard plant watering can appreciate the value of this.

“No flowers in this town. Only carnivorous plants.”

Okay. We officially have one year until the 2012 International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference, so it’s time to plan, plot, and scheme. Naturally, I’ll be there for the plants, but discovering that the conference will be all of six miles from downtown Providence, Rhode Island offers some possibilities. Besides the fact that a side trip to Black Jungle Terrarium Supply (which, by the way, is hosting a greenhouse open house this Saturday) is in order, it’s time to make a pilgrimage to Swan Point Cemetery in Providence to visit a distant relative. After all, it’s about time that the Czarina knows what sort of family she married into.

More background is always a good thing

By now, thanks to the wonder of what I call “news churn,” just about everyone on the planet not obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s wedding has heard about the bird-eating Nepenthes in the UK. The Sun ran with it, the BBC ran with it, and surprisingly the Central Somerset Gazette has the only reasonably complete account of the situation. This is how I know I have friends who love me: I had literally dozens of well-intentioned friends E-mailing and calling me to let me know about the BBC article. I’ve also literally had to bite my tongue in one case to keep from yelling “YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO!”

Now, what’s really illuminating about this story isn’t that a blue tit was caught in a pitcher plant. Carnivorous plants capturing vertebrates is rare, but it occasionally happens. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter featured a cover a while back of a Venus flytrap with a baby anole caught in its trap, with only rear legs and tail hanging outside. Sundews are very good at catching newly metamorphosed frogs, and the protocarnivore Roridula has been documented capturing small birds. The widest range of vertebrate carnivory, though, is with the Nepenthes pitcher plants, ranging from frogs to lizards to rodents and even (anecdotally) baby monkeys.

I want to add, at this point, that many of these presumed cases of carnivory are probably accidental. Frog skeletons occasionally show up in Sarracenia and Nepenthes traps, but those are probably frogs using the traps as handy hunting sites that died of natural causes. The rodents found in particularly big Nepenthes were probably attracted by the traps’ fluid as something to drink, and this blue tit was probably trying to steal prey out of the trap when it found itself stuck inside. The surprise isn’t that the plant could catch a bird, but that the bird was so unlucky as to get caught in this situation.

If anything, this story demonstrates what happens when carnivores get prey too big for them to digest before it rots. Carnivores generally have no way to chew or otherwise process larger prey, and many species take advantage of animals that either remove large dead items or take over the job of digestion. In America, you have green tree frogs that camp inside of Sarracenia pitchers, snagging really large prey attracted to the plant and then defecating inside the pitchers: the plants don’t care about the source of nitrogen they’re receiving. In South America, Heliamphora pitchers work well as campgrounds for indigenous frogs as well. Spiders and other arthropod predators have no problem with snagging large prey, and one species, Misumenops nepenthicola, lives inside the pitchers and has special adaptations for dealing with the pitcher fluid.

The other aspect of the story that’s neglected involves Nigel Hewitt-Cooper, who’s already understandably respected for his plants. I first heard about him not just because of his gold medals for entries at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, but because of his position as councillor of Croscombe and Pilton. He’s a very interesting fellow all the way around, and one day, I’m going to the Chelsea Flower Show just to meet him in person.

Keeping busy in the heat

I have friends and cohorts from outside of Texas who have to ask me, every once in a while, “why do you stay in Texas?” I have to admit that the summer heat has something to do with it. I’m not just talking about how summer out here makes you appreciate autumn that much more, although autumn that lasts until New Year’s Eve has a lot going for it. There’s something about strenuous effort in our current flash-fire weather that brings on particularly Lovecraftian insights into the universe. Fixing a blown tire on my bike as the sun was coming up, I think Coyote, Loki, and Nyarlathotep tag-teamed me, because I came up with all sorts of disturbing long-term garden pranks.

Dallas is particularly good at producing sick pranksters: those of us in certain circles may remember the exploits of the late musician and filmmaker Joe Christ in the Eighties. One of Joe’s most disgusting and funny pranks was pulled during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1983. Joe, like many people, was disgusted at Dallas’s efforts to cash in on Kennedy’s death instead of celebrating his life, so he and friends proceeded to drive by a big ceremony at Dealey Plaza with a convertible just like Kennedy’s. With friends and cohorts dressed as Secret Service agents and John Connally, next to a big mannequin dressed up to look like Kennedy. As they passed, the top of the dummy’s head popped off, and spurted stage blood ten feet into the air in front of the horrified onlookers. The last time I talked with Joe, back in 1999, he was talking about updating this for the fiftieth anniversary, and knowing him, his friends have something really horrifying to pull off in his memory.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to go that far, although there’s nothing wrong with making your neighbor’s garden gnomes’ eyes glow red at night. Besides, the best stunts are the ones that go off months or years after you’ve left the scene of the crime, because then nobody has any idea of who was responsible.

And so I’m going to test a very long-term stunt. As with everyone else in Dallas, my front yard is riddled with big cracks. We’re talking cracks big enough for hiding spaces for kittens. The thick clay that comprises the first three meters or so of North Texas, what locals call “black gumbo”, is now almost completely dry, and its prodigious water-holding properties are now demonstrated by the fact that the water is gone. Even worse, there’s no realistic expectation of rainfall for the rest of the month, either.

So that made me wonder. Considering the length and the width of the cracks, the sane response would be to use this opportunity to spread compost across the lawn, so that compost helps break up the clay when the rains return. (Contrary to advice given by some gardening experts, do NOT add sand, unless you like concrete for a front yard.) Sure, I could do something responsible, such as taking advantage of Starbucks’s “Grounds For the Garden” program and packing those fissures full of used coffee grounds. Instead, I wondered “What would happen if you dumped a few kilos of water-retaining polymer crystals into a couple of those crevasses before the rains returned? What would happen THEN?”

Why, yes, my brain WAS well-cooked by the time this errant thought ripped through my mind, unpacked its bags, and demanded breakfast. Time to make a trip to the garden store: most likely, the crystals will simply add to the soil’s capacity to hang onto water during the next drought. HowEVER, if this experiment leads to geysers of clear goo in the center of otherwise pristine lawns, I’ll let you know. Then we’ll talk about using it to write graffiti in lawns.

Beyond the poinsettia and the Venus flytrap

As people who have attended previous Triffid Ranch shows can attest, the one carnivorous plant that’s in short supply at shows is the Venus flytrap. It’s not that I have anything particularly against flytraps: the flytrap is, after all, the definitive carnivorous plant. It’s just that while everyone asks to see one, they generally don’t sell.

One of the reasons why they don’t sell, to be honest, is because of their bad reputation as a difficult plant. No matter the circumstance, when I bring up the plants in conversation, I get two responses. The first, big surprise, is “Have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?” (I have a very dear friend who is an exceptional soapmaker, and she’s as bone-wearingly tired of references to Fight Club as I am of references to Little Shop of Horrors. I’m probably the only person who could get away with cracking wise “This…is a chemical burn” when she gets a lye burn, but I last did that in 2003, before she’d actually seen the movie. If I tried that now, she’d make sure to let me see the inside of my brain before I died.) The other phrase that always comes with a discussion of Venus flytraps is “I used to have a flytrap, but it died.”

At this point, I have a checklist that’s now comprised of eight different possibilities that could have caused the demise of those poor flytraps, and I can usually hit the exact cause of death by the third. (In Dallas, I rarely go past “one,” but that’s because Dallas’s municipal water is so laden with salts that it’s best described as “crunchy”.) That complete list is for another day, but it highlights why I don’t recommend flytraps as a beginner’s plant. They’re very particular about their light levels, the quality of their potting mixes, and their water quality, and that’s before discussing their need for a winter dormancy. Instead of arguing, though, I’d much rather recommend other plants, such as spoon-leaf sundews (Drosera spatulata) or terrestrial bladderworts (particularly Utricularia sandersoni), that are much better for a beginner.

To be really honest, another reason why flytraps are a bit lacking at Triffid Ranch shows is because I really only need one. Everyone asks if one is available, but it’s solely to attempt to trip the traps. I really can’t stress this highly enough: tripping traps on a flytrap, just to watch them close, is a Really Bad Idea. As recent research has confirmed, every closed trap is a photosynthetic surface that’s unavailable to the plant until the trap reopens. Do it often enough, with or without prey, and the plant dies, as it uses about as much energy reopening the trap as it would have gained in photosynthesis over the leaf’s lifetime. When I explain that this really shouldn’t be done, and that the plant is better off catching its own prey in its own time, most people lose interest. Again, if the fascination is with the motion, Australian triggerplants will reset their blooms over and over after being set off, and won’t die if too many blooms get set off.

This month’s Today’s Garden Center magazine contains the last reason. Kevin Yanik’s article “Pushing Past the Poinsettia” sums up the issues many independent garden centers have every Christmas season, when big box stores in the US are overloaded with what are called “99-cent poinsettias”. At the end of November, those big stores are packed to the gills with pots of poinsettias, which may sell for 99 cents with or without a comparable purchase. Not only does this make things impossible for those stores that can’t get fantastic bulk discounts, but it also devalues the plant. Poinsettias are fascinating plants in their own right, but it’s amazing how they’re unappreciated when they only sell for 99 cents. It’s no wonder that more and more garden stores are looking at alternatives: they want to make sure that you’re happy with your purchase, not only one that lives longer than a month or two, but also one that makes a great impression upon you and upon passersby.

This is the same situation with standard flytraps. Grocery stores and hardware stores are full of flytraps around Halloween, and they’re meant to be as disposable as poinsettias in another two months. If they don’t actually die from inadequate instructions or inadvertent neglect with light or water quality, they go into winter dormancy around the end of November, and most people assume they’re dead and pitch them. There’s absolutely no reason why a flytrap can’t thrive for years with proper care, but they’re still presented as quick impulse purchases and are priced accordingly. Enjoy them for a couple of months, pitch them, and buy a new one the next fall.

Unfortunately, as we all see, a lot of new flytrap owners are so traumatized by the deaths of their plants that they never take a chance with another carnivorous plant. They don’t know what killed the first plant, and they don’t want to take a chance on another dying for the same unknown reason. That’s completely understandable, and why I went for over 20 years between my first flytrap and my second. There’s also that understandable suspicion about price: if it’s that cheap when on the shelf at Wal-Mart, then something must be wrong with it. When the plant dies two weeks after it comes home, that assumption is completely reasonable.

This is why you don’t see lots of flytraps at Triffid Ranch shows. I’m glad to bring them out for customers, especially those who want some of the more intriguing cultivars such as “Red Dragon” and “Cupped Trap”. I just also know that most of my customers are beginners, and I remember all too well what it’s like to be a beginner without any adequate knowledge on proper care of a new plant. Hence, it makes more sense to introduce fellow beginners to plants that can take a bit more roughhousing. They’re happy, I’m happy, and the plant is obviously happy. Now, when you’re ready, come back for the flytrap. I’m in no rush.

“Mommy, where do gardeners come from?”

Get a group of gardeners together, and sooner or later they’ll relate how they got their start. Many may tell of lazy summers with their grandparents, tending a sweet corn patch or picking green beans. City-bound ones may talk about mayonnaise-jar terrariums in grade school or that one poinsettia plant at Christmas. A few might have particularly intriguing stories involving an old love or a relative, but then there’s always the one who throws you off. I’m usually the one who throws everyone off, because I got my start because of one of the roughest jobs I’ve ever had.

When people ask me how I got into carnivorous plants, I can tell you the exact date: September 22, 2002, when I first walked into the Tallahasee Museum and saw my first purple pitcher plants in the wild. The job that brought me out there cratered three months after I arrived (three days before Christmas and six days before the Czarina and I were to be married), but I don’t complain about that, and some of the people I met in Tally back then are still near and dear friends to this day. No, this goes back even further: back to 1986.

1986 started out as a rough year, and got even more interesting. I’d moved from North Texas to Appleton, Wisconsin with my family the year before, and rapidly realized that things weren’t working out. I’d thought I was homesick for white birch and the distinctive Michigan/Wisconsin accents, but I rapidly discovered that I wasn’t homesick for eight months of winter, mosquitoes big enough to down F-16s in aerial combat, and nothing to do but get drunk, get drunk, get drunk, get stoned, and get drunk every single night. Since I can’t drink, and my interest in getting stoned is comparable to my interest in nailing my big toe to my forehead or watching Seinfeld reruns (whichever’s more painful and humiliating), it just wasn’t working out. With the help of friends both in Appleton and Dallas, I sold just about everything I had, bought a bus ticket back to Dallas, and made the whole 30-hour trip with a relative minimum of horror. Getting off at the Dallas Greyhound station was a different story, though.

It turned out that I’d planned my arrival perfectly: it coincided with the oil bust, when the price of oil dropped from approximately $40 US a barrel to less than $10. The collapse of the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate made things very interesting, because so much of the economy in Dallas was based on speculation that the price of oil would keep going up forever. We’d survived the recession of 1982-83 with a relative minimum of aggravation compared to the rest of the country, and here was where we got a good boot to the head. Naturally, the available positions to clueless 19-year-olds weren’t all that good even in the much better times of 1985, but now it was point-blank grim.

Of course, nobody really knew how tight things were: everyone was under the assumption that oil prices would jump right back up, much like the financial industry in 2008, and everything would be back to football games and big lines of coke at the Starck Club before we knew it. The reality was that things didn’t start getting better for three years, and Dallas didn’t really start recovering until the dotcom boom started and the city became a banking powerhouse for something other than the oil business. But in the summer of ’86, the bumper stickers reading “Please, God, Let There Be Another Oil Boom (I Promise Not To Piss It All Away This Time)” weren’t out yet, and there was a bit of hope. Naturally, I walked right into it, and that may have saved my life in a lot of ways.

Not that it felt like it at the time. The first job was with a long-defunct corporate Mexican restaurant, which thought nothing of scheduling dishwashers to close one night and then arrive at 6 the next morning. The second job was at a classic Eighties horror tale: a shopping mall pet shop. (That, in itself, was a learning experience, between the little old lady who came in every day to see if we sold condors, and the good ole boy who strolled in with a big burlap bag that he dropped on the counter before asking “Y’all buy rattlesnakes?”) And then there was the groundskeeper job at Texas Instruments’s old Trinity Mills manufacturing facility.

This was back in the day when Texas Instruments still had its Defensive and Strategic Electronics Group (DSEG) division, before incoming CEO Jerry Junkins did to DSEG what most people do with a big eight-course breakfast 24 hours after ordering it. TI was having a rough time of the oil bust, too, but they still needed someone to mow the lawns, trim the hedges, and clean up garbage on the parking lot. I stepped in, figured “Hey, at least it’s better than retail,” and took over.

The job, to be fair, was horrible. $5 an hour, which was barely enough to afford an apartment if you didn’t mind skipping on eating or dating. My first day, I was regaled to the spectacle of the garbage left by my fellow proletariats all over the lot, including a half-full bottle of battery acid and a used tampon. Since I was considered a temp, safety gear and information for temps was considered an option, and I still have problems with my right ear from using a gas-powered leaf blower for two straight days without ear protection. We had an endless procession of scions of the Joad family coming into the parking lot to attempt to scavenge scrap aluminum from the bins in back, and when the facility’s security would shoo them off, they’d retaliate by dumping out everything they had in their pickup trucks on the way out. We had the demonstration of exactly how much my co-workers smoked when I pulled a mockingbird nest out of a hedge by the front door, and the nest was made almost exclusively from cigarette butts. Our air conditioner maintenance tech “lost” the key to the grounds shed, so when I came in on weekends, I’d have to climb over the Herman Miller walls to the Facilities area in order to get the spare key from my supervisor’s desk. There was the leaking diesel fuel tank for the emergency generator, which required a day of shoveling out contaminated soil and replacing it with fresh sand, one wheelbarrow at a time. There was the leaking coolant containment vessel that overflowed during a torrential downpour and flooded the drainage ditch adjoining the property with what looked like blue milk. There was…there was…

Yeah, forget about the horrors. Every job has its horrors. This was the job where, while clipping suckers from the bases of the crape myrtle trees out front, I first stopped to look at exactly how crape myrtle blooms opened up. I encountered all sorts of interesting wildlife, from the crawfish infesting the front drainage ditch to the monstrous female alligator snapping turtle that strolled onto the parking lot in her search for a nesting site. I learned more than I thought I’d care to know about installing sprinkler pipe and replacing quartz parking lamps. I got up every morning in the summer at 4 to get to work by 5:30 and left at 4:30, and learned exactly what my limits were in full Texas heat. It wasn’t much, but that two acres was my little kingdom, and I came to know and care about just about everyone working there. I may have been broke, but that meant I got very familiar with the local library, and I got very good at navigating through Dallas by bicycle. (So far as I know, I’m the only person on the planet insane enough to ride on Dallas’s Central Expressway by bike before its renovation in the Nineties. The first time was an accident, when I suddenly discovered that the service road ended south of Northwest Highway and dumped everyone onto Central. The second time was on a bet that covered my rent for a month. There won’t be a third.)

Ultimately, things didn’t last. The pay didn’t increase, and the opportunities for advancement promised by my temp company didn’t happen, and I ultimately accepted a job offer within TI proper at the end of 1987. TI was already phasing out its individual grounds crews in favor of one contract company that showed up once per week, anyway. Trinity Mills shut down completely in 1991, and the building has a “For Sale or Lease” sign that’s been up for nearly three years. I’m insane for thinking it, but I have to admit that I get nostalgic for those insane summer days in 1987, every time I have to prune back a crape myrtle or I rescue a snapping turtle attempting to cross the road.

Introducing Hylocereus costaricensis

In what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in recorded Texas history, there’s a few bits of good news. Namely, it’s a remarkably good season for dragonfruit cactus.

Hylocereus costaricensis

The genus Hylocereus is one of the two genera of true cactus raised commercially for food: the other being the prickly pear Opuntia. In the US, two varieties generally appear for sale in Asian markets and high-end grocery stores, and both are sold under the common name “dragonfruit”. It’s not hard to see why, between the color and the scales, as shown below.


The difference between the two is really only obvious when you cut one open. H. undatus has white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. H. costaricensis, though, is a brilliant red-purple, about the color of fresh pomegranate juice, with the same black seeds. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which variety is which solely based on the rind, but it really doesn’t matter as far as the flavor is concerned. First-time dragonfruit eaters are often disappointed at the seeming lack of flavor in the ripe fruit, as it’s really subtle, but the crunchy consistency makes up for it. (I personally prefer it well-chilled, quartered, and served with the rind on the back of each segment, but it’s also a great addition to fruit salad or smoothies, and dragonfruit jam is apparently quite popular in England. I’ve heard of recipes that involve broiling dragonfruit like grapefruit, but dragonfruit doesn’t last long enough around the house for this to be an option.)

Sliced dragonfruit

With one big caveat, both commercially available varieties of Hylocereus are very easy to raise in propagation. They can be grown from seed taken from ripe fruit: my best results have come from mashing a chunk of the fruit gently with the flat of a knife, smearing the pulp atop standard potting compost, and keeping the compost moist but not wet. The only real problem with this method is that the resultant seedlings are very slow-growing, and they tend to be rather susceptible to large changes in environmental conditions. A much more dependable method of propagation involves cuttings, and considering how often branches break off, simply putting the cutting atop a pot full of compost can produce a full-sized plant within a year instead of three to four for seedlings. Most branches grow aerial roots whenever the ambient humidity is above 50 percent, so just sink those into the compost and watch the plant take over.

As a potted plant, H. costaricensis makes a spectacular hanging basket. In the wild, Hylocereus climbs trees with the help of those aerial roots clinging to bark, but it also apparently sprouts in the crooks of large trees or rocks and hangs downward. Since it’s a tropical cactus, Hylocereus cannot handle sustained freezes, and should be brought into shelter when the outdoor temperatures drop below 40 degrees F (4.44 degrees C). Since it adapts very well to both standard pots and hanging pots, though, this generally isn’t a problem. The typical cactus spines are both small and fragile in Hylocereus, and don’t appear to set off any sort of allergic reaction, but be cautious all the same. Other than giving it full sun to light shade whenever possible, these cactus are very low-maintenance: I water whenever dry, and fertilize with bat guano about once per month.

Hylocereus costaricensis in hanging basket

Remember the caveat mentioned before about dragonfruit propagation? If you’re planning to grow any Hylocereus, don’t expect the cactus to start blooming until it gets big. Most growers report that the individual plants won’t bloom until they weigh at least 10 pounds (4.53 kilograms), and some varieties may not bloom until the total weight of the plant is over 20 pounds (9.07 kilograms). The good news is that unlike most other cactus, Hylocereus is self-fertile, with some plants producing fruit without being pollinated at all. They’re also apparently capable of producing viable hybrids within the genus, leading to quite the entertaining assortment of cultivar names, ranging from “David Bowie” to “Physical Graffiti”. In addition, the night-blooming flowers are huge, resembling giant white versions of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) and very sweet-smelling.

The only complaint I have about raising Hylocereus is minor. Namely, growing them is addictive. Expect to see several plants at next month’s FenCon show, and we can all sing Ministry’s “Just One Fix” together.

Have A Great Weekend

Saturday is the Czarina’s birthday. Just sayin’. If you don’t hear anything over the weekend, it’s because she’s going to be far too busy celebrating.

Upcoming Triffid Ranch lectures

It’s amazing what you find in the E-mail box these days. Today, it was an invitation from the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, asking about availability to man a booth at its upcoming “Discover Reptiles and Other Critters” Discovery Days event this coming November 5 and 6. Considering the various connections between carnivorous plants and amphibians (particularly the Nepenthes ampullaria that threaten to take over life and sanity), I was honored, and I also volunteered to do a similar display for the Beer & Bones adults-only event in September. As we get closer to the Discovery Days date, I’ll keep everyone abreast with further information.

Personal interlude

For the record, Saturday is the Czarina’s birthday. She’s not expecting a big blowout, and we’re planning to celebrate very quietly. Breakfast out, maybe a movie, and then hiding inside until the big yellow hurty thing in the sky returns to Hell. A typical August for the both of us.

Anyway, she claims that she doesn’t really want anything for her birthday, but I know better. She’s getting two things for her special day, and the first is her very own Fresnel spot lens. Considering that one of the things that Texas has in excess is sun, she’s wanting to conduct experiments in making pendants and castings using her own glass, melting it with her own solar forge. If this works, we’re planning to experiment with making our own helenite from volcanic ash: I gave her a slab of helenite I picked up when I lived in Portland, Oregon, and she’s been itching to make something interesting out of it ever since.

The other item she’s receiving is both unorthodox and extremely orthodox at the same time. Specifically, I’m getting her a Galapagos Toob. For those who don’t have kids, or who aren’t interested in science toys, the company Safari Ltd. offers sets of small plastic figures in a long rectangular tube, usually on a particular theme. Those Toobs range from Jamestown settlers to baby dinosaurs, and the Galapagos Toob contains a set of stereotypical Galapagos Islands fauna. Besides the typical tortoise, it includes two varieties of iguana (land and marine), land crabs, a penguin, a frigatebird, and both red-footed and blue-footed boobies in full challenge display.

Now, the Czarina may think this is odd, but I’m actually engaging in a very old Dallas ritual. I’m just joining a multitude of male residents in this city in buying his wife a pair of fake plastic boobies for her birthday. I just don’t have to worry about these ones rupturing. (And that’s when the elbows struck, Your Honor.)

Tell it to the bees

Tapdancing around the elephant: the Triffid Ranch has become quite the wildlife refuge as of late. The Czarina fills up hummingbird feeders in the evening and they’re half-empty within 24 hours, thanks to the (at least) three species of hummingbird visiting them as a regular foodsource. The Mediterranean geckos move inside the greenhouse in the evenings in search of water, and wait for their prey to follow suit. I figure that the anoles will take over the greenhouse during the day, especially when they see the new mister I put inside. I’ve even seen hints that Harold the possum sneaks inside for a quick drink of water, because he won’t close the greenhouse door. And then we have the bees.

Local honeybees scrambling for water

Somewhere within a kilometer of the main Sarracenia growing space is a hive of honeybees. I don’t know if they’re from a wild hive, or if a neighbor decided to domesticate a swarm. I’m not particularly worried, either, because they’ve done a spectacular job of visiting every last bee-pollinated flower in the area. It’s just that you can tell how hot it is based on how many bees are collecting in the pots: most evenings, anywhere between 75 and 100 bees can be found at any given time, and they may be even more prominent during the height of the day.

More honeybees

You may be asking about why they’re visiting pots instead of open water sources of all sorts, and you’d get several answers. The first is that bee tongues are very good at drawing up liquids via capillary action, and that capillary action works just as well in very moist peat as in a bowl of water. The second is that they can draw up that water without worrying about drowning or being snatched by an aquatic predator. The third? Well, it’s that this area is reasonably permanent, and bees are creatures of habit. Sure, they might be attracted to overflow from lawn sprinklers or condensation from car air conditioners, but those are temporary sources that are usually only available for short times during the day. The pots, though, will be there all day long.

Back in the mid-Eighties, my father and I kept bees in our back yard in Flower Mound, and we made a point of setting out a birdbath and keeping it full at all times during the height of the summer. The reason is that while gatherer bees may be collecting water to keep the rest of the hive hydrated, it’s also to keep the hive cool. When things get too hot inside the hive, you’ll see workers at the entrance, frantically fanning their wings to force hot air out of the hive. If the temperatures don’t go down, gatherers return with stomachs full of water, which they regurgitate on the floor of the hive. Between the fanning and the evaporation of that water, this is usually enough to keep internal temperatures stable until after dark. This requires both a lot of water and a steady source, hence the birdbath. On bad days, they could drain it in six hours.

That said, I think it’s time to set out a couple of shallow trays for the bees. They’re working hard enough as it is, and I definitely want to encourage them to come back once the fall growing season starts.

Introducing Proboscidea louisianica

As with any standard garden, 2011 had such promise for the Triffid Ranch. As with any standard garden, 2011 proceeded to make fools of us. We’re not losing whole crops out here the way West and Central Texas are, but that’s mostly because I had the opportunity to invest in a near-tripling of the previous rainwater cache, and that’s the only reason why half the plants aren’t dead. Many of the experiments were utter failures, and others survived for a short time before collapsing in the freeze in February or the early stages of the June drought. Not all has been a failure.

Surprisingly, the biggest success this summer wasn’t in the usual contenders. It’s been a banner year for exotic Capsicum peppers (including surprising successes with Bhut Jolokias, still considered one of the world’s hottest), and I’m getting ready to start more in preparation for this autumn. The real surprise, though, was with a species I was told was extremely hard to start: Proboscidea louisianica, also known as the unicorn plant or the devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica, the devil's claw

As Stewart McPherson notes in his book Carnivorous Plants and Their Habits, Volume 2, Proboscidea is problematic. In many ways, it appears to be carnivorous, as it attracts and captures various small insects on the bottoms of its leaves. However, nobody has found evidence either of actual digestive enzymes being produced by the plant, or of an animal proxy (as with the South African plant Roridula that does the digesting in the plant’s stead. McPherson notes that the leaves and stems secrete a considerable amount of mucilage, with an odor that attracts mosquitoes and fungus gnats. I’ve also noted that under UV light, the leaves have a very high fluorescence: even more so, in fact, than its blooms. P. louisianica may not be a full carnivore, but it’s definitely leaning that way.

Anyway, after being warned repeatedly by such authorities as Peter D’Amato that getting Proboscidea seeds to germinate was very difficult, I looked on with my usual hubris, said “Let me give it a shot,” and ordered a package from the International Carnivorous Plant Society seed bank. Due to weather fluctuations and prior commitments, I wasn’t able to sow them until the end of May, and I suspect that a consistent soil temperature of above 75 degrees F (23.88 degrees C) for at least thirty days is a major factor. Next winter, I plan to experiment with heat pads intended for sprouting tomatoes and peppers, in order to remove the possibility of light influencing germination.

The plants themselves were stunted somewhat by the dryness, but 14 out of 16 seeds sprouted, with 12 plants alive today. Throughout May and June, they produced large numbers of pink, yellow, and white flowers, which bore markings resembling a mouth with teeth. These were exceedingly popular with both bees and wasps, with both jostling each other for pollen. By the beginning of July, the first fruit formed, which helped explain the common name “unicorn plant”. The pods look much like okra pods, but with a long, thin extension at least as long as the rest of the pod. As they matured, they split from the tips of the extensions, explaining the other common name: devil’s claw.

Proboscidea louisianica seed pods

A quick note to anybody interested in CGI effects for film or video: I’ve been joking all summer that devil’s claw pods look more like an early ship design proposal for the Nineties science fiction show Babylon 5 than anything floral in origin. Have fun.

Devil's claw seed pod

Most articles on Proboscidea suggest that the seed pods evolved to take advantage of Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths and ground sloths, for seed distribution. It’s easy to understand why. Most devil’s claw seed pods have two prongs, but occasionally they’ll show four. At the tip of each prong is a very strong and very sharp claw, which have no problems with snagging on fur, hair, clothing, and bare skin. Even though the direct evidence is lacking, the surmisal appears to be sound, as these dried seed pods are ridiculously strong as well, and could drop off kilometers away from where they were picked up by an inattentive mammoth.

Devil's claw interior

The interior of the seed pod, though, is just as interesting. Each pod noted so far has four seeds that hang very loosely on the inside of the pod. Those tend to break free with the slightest jostle, such as from the removal of a pod from the plant stem, and scatter on the ground immediately underneath. (If you’re trying to collect seed from your own plants, I highly recommend putting a plastic bag around the seed pod before trying to remove it.) The others, as shown in this photo, remain locked inside for a time, and are gradually shaken free. As McPherson suggests, this not only allows the plant to drop seed in a known area amenable for Proboscidea growth, but also to take it far beyond its original range. This helps explain why Proboscidea ranges throughout the southern and southwestern US, into Mexico, and down into South America.

Now, most accounts of Proboscidea note that the unripe seed pods are edible, but I haven’t taken the chance to find out. That may come later: as with tomatoes, Proboscidea seems to die back slightly in extreme heat, but produces buds that expand later when growing conditions are more suitable. This fall, I’ll get to find out if this hypothesis is accurate. More details will follow as the year continues.

Personal interlude

I promised that I wasn’t going to talk about the weather, but I will discuss the general air quality. When I describe Dallas air quality alerts as “Yellow,” “Orange,” “Red,” “Purple,” and “Too Thick To Breathe, Too Thin To Plow,” I’m not kidding. By way of example, here’s a quick photo of the air conditioner filter:

Dallas air filter, after two weeks

I’d like to note that this would be expected after six months of regular air conditioner use. This was after two weeks.

The look from the other side

This right here gives a good idea of what anybody with respiratory problems is trying to work around this summer. This is grass pollen, effluvia from the cement kilns around Midlothian, south of Dallas, and a fair portion of front yards in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin. Even during the famous heat wave of 1980, the air quality wasn’t this bad, and we still have another 45 days or so before we can expect rain.

A tiny bit of advice? Take care of yourself, and not just when you’re outside. It’s getting rather thick out there.

Information, Even If You Don’t Want It

Without fail, whenever I volunteer that I raise carnivorous plants, I get one of two responses, usually one right after the other. The first is, always, “Oh, so have you seen Little Shop of Horrors?”, and I weep that nobody even reads John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids any more. The second, without fail, when I mention that you generally don’t have to feed carnivores if kept correctly, is “Wow! I need one of those! They’ll be great for dealing with the bugs in my house!” And that’s when I killed them, Your Honor.

The reality of keeping carnivorous plants is that they’re not hardened killers of arthropod prey, waiting hungrily for their next victim. Well, they do, but they don’t have the energy to do so more than passively. While they subsist on captured flies, fungus gnats, and anything else they can subdue, carnivorous plants will no more wipe out the wasps attracted to your spilled rum and Coke or the roaches in your sink than they will the relatives who swore they’d call before they came to visit. If they did, then they’d be a lot more popular. Carnivores use all sorts of tricks and lures to attract prey, but they still won’t compensate for your filthy living habits.

That said, I’m still nagged and nuhdzed by cohorts and acquaintances about using carnivores for pest control, and I realized that I do have one surefire way to use carnivores to process at least one household pest. Most summers, the Dallas area is overrun with representatives of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. Contrary to popular presentations of their being fond of linedancing while lassoing runaway cats, the American cockroach, or “palmetto bug” as they’re referred to in these parts, is a critter with precious little to recommend them to anyone but entomologists. The good news about a beast large enough to bear hood ornaments and TireFlys is that they only stay indoors if the conditions are suitably foul for human habitation: in most houses, such as ours, they sneak indoors along pipes and vents, look around for a while in vain for food, and promptly keel over due to dehydration from the indoor air conditioning. They may keel over, but they aren’t necessarily dead: try to pick up one that looks dead, and it’ll usually decide then to crawl up your arm in an effort to convince you that you need to be in the next time zone. That tactic works remarkably well.

Anyway, the Czarina understandably loathes P. americana from her experiences from living next to a Thai restaurant during her first marriage. This means that while she normally has no fear of man, beast, or god, I’m the one she wakes up in the middle of the night to take care of the monster bug. Personally, I can’t blame her, and I’m glad she settles for waking me instead of taking off and nuking the entire site from orbit. These days, her understandable hate any my hobby combine, and it works out well for everyone but the roaches.

Now, to imitate my results, you’ll need a few things. The first is a carnivorous plant big enough to deal with our icky bugs. This is an Asian pitcher plant, species Nepenthes alata, native to the Phillipines. Let’s call him “Bub”.

Nepenthes alata

Being a very fast-growing Nepenthes, “Bub” has a good half-dozen pitchers already established, with more on the way. Nepenthes plants produce two types of traps: lower traps that remain along the ground, and upper traps for when the plant starts to vine and twine up trees and other obstacles, and many species have upper traps so different from lower traps that they’d be mistaken for separate species were they discovered separately. Below is a pristine freshly opened lower trap, noting the distinctive color that marks N. alata as one of my favorites.

New Nepenthes alata trap

Now, we need a bug, and nature always provides. Let’s call him “archy“.

archy the cockroach

Since we don’t want to be overly cruel, and since you don’t want the little darling scuttling up your arm, dispatch “archy” with whatever non-chemical means are at your disposal.

Smith & Wesson beats four aces

“Anyone else have any questions about the way things are going to run around here from now on?”

Now that you’ve subdued “archy”, it’s now a matter of getting “archy” to “Bub”. Oh, you can use your fingers, but considering the various diseases and parasites carried by cockroaches, don’t you want to use tools?


And there he goes…

And in he goes...

If in case “archy” is a bit too large, don’t be afraid to use appropriate tools for the job. “Power tools…to make life easy…”

Power tools

Chainsaws are for wimps.

Bow saw versus roach, roach loses

Be warned that it’s very easy to overfeed carnivorous plants, especially when dealing with ones with Klendathu passports. This trap demonstrates a perfect case of Nepenthes indigestion, seeing as how “archy” was joined by his buddies “N’Grath” and “Truzenzuzex”.

This plant needs Alka-Seltzer

If you get more bugs than your pitcher plant can handle, don’t be afraid to use modern food storage techniques to save a meal for later. Here’s “Samsa” being prepped for next week’s dinner event.

Storing for the winter

Alternately, if you’re feeling particularly daring, feel free to keep your prey animals free-range. Just make sure to use appropriate methods to warn friends and family members as to your intent.

Needing much more cowbell

And see the benefits of your regular feeding? Not only is “Bub” responding so well that he’s producing new traps, but he’s even producing new sprouts from his roots, complete with brand new mosquito-sized traps.

New trap, ready for capture

Finally, remember that the secret of effective use of carnivorous plants for pest control lies with the pest, not the plant. With the right tools, any pest may become plant food. For instance, this pest also woke me up at three in the morning, intent upon nothing but eating, defecating, and shedding all over the place. Let’s call it “Mehitabel”.

Leiber, the famed "Freakbeast"

Hmmmm. I think I’m going to need more freezer bags.

Orchid roulette

Right now, half of the garden centers around are offering severe discounts on their current plants, either to clear out overstock before the worst of the heat hits, or to make room for fall stock. Because there’s not a whole lot to do before September down here, now’s the time to play a game I developed a few years back. The game is “Orchid roulette”, and it’s remarkably cheap and quite a bit of fun.

Anyone spending any time researching commercial horticulture notes that there’s a lot of waste in the trade. You get plants that die or get sick before they’re ready to be sold, and they usually get composted long before they reach market. You get others that get damaged or infested before they’re put out for sale, and they’re usually pulled from sale as soon as it’s noticed. Others, though, outlive their shelf life: Christmas chrysanthemums and rosemary “Christmas trees” get pulled right after the season is over, even though the plants are still good, because nobody wants to buy flowering plants without flowers. And nowhere is this more evident than with orchids.

The game of orchid roulette requires finding a venue that has lots of relatively inexpensive orchids for sale, and waiting until about now, when the big rush for orchids is starting to lapse. At this time, most of these venues will have discount sales on the orchids that have already bloomed and returned to focusing on photosynthesis. They may still have the remnants of their bloom spikes, but the flowers are gone, so take the time to focus on everything else about the plant. Take a look at the shape of the leaves, the form of the pseudobulbs (if the variety has pseudobulbs), the presence or absence of aerial roots, or any other factor about the plant that really attracts your fancy. Once you’ve found one that catches your interest, buy it: when I started doing this, I paid a whole $10 US for my first orchid, and I had absolutely no idea as to what its flowers looked like.

Most commercially sold orchids come with some sort of identification, usually a Latin name and the cultivar name, and you’ll use this afterwards to find out about the basic husbandry of your new orchid. Does it need a bark mix for a potting medium, or is it happy with good old-fashioned dirt? Does it need full or partial sun? Most of your popular groups, such as Cattleya or Dendrobium, have similar care regardless of species, so do a touch of research. In my case, I picked up that $10 orchid and realized that the potting medium was an absolute joke, with it suffocating its roots and preventing it from growing. I repotted it with a standard Cattleya blend of pine bark and charcoal, and it rewarded me with an explosion of roots and two new pseudobulbs. All the time, though, I didn’t know anything about the blooms, and I held off for nearly a year until it started growing bloom spikes.

The best part of orchid roulette is that the incredible variety of cultivars and hybrids means that you have no idea of what you’re going to get as far as blooms are concerned until the next year, and this means that you focus on everything else about the plant beforehand. In my case, I purchased an Iwanagara Apple Blossom ‘Golden Elf’, and it’s currently blooming in my greenhouse as I write this. Oh, the blooms are interesting, if nonscented, but I’m waiting for the blooms to fade so I can repot it. It’s been doing very well in a standard plastic orchid pot, but I managed to find a beautiful tall Chinese orchid pot a few years back, and I want to see instead how well it takes to that pot before next year’s blooming.

And now for the funny

Rules of Garden Club
(with severe apologies to Chuck Palahniuk)
First rule: You do not talk about Garden Club.
Third rule: If someone wimps out or swells up, the garden is over.
Fourth rule: Only one guy to a garden.
Fifth rule: One garden at a time.
Sixth rule: No fertilizers, no hydroponics.
Seventh rule: Growing seasons will go on as long as they have to.
The eighth and final rule: If this is your first time at Garden Club, you have to weed.

Review: Black Plants by Paul Bonine

(A bit of context. This blog will feature regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices For the Garden by Paul Bonine. Timber Press, 2009. 160 pp., $14.95 US. ISBN 978-0-88192-981-2

As with roses or carnivorous plants, plants with black flowers or foliage have a bit of a bad rap in goth gardening. It’s hard to have sympathy for the amateur enamored with the “if I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky” assumptions of having a garden full of black blooms. Problem is, skipping out on all dark plants also limits the palette, and it prevents appreciation of some truly spectacular plants.

In Black Plants, Paul Bonine gives both photos and bare-basic care instructions for some of the more interesting dark plants available to gardeners today. Not all are black: many are a very deep purple or red, but all of them get their distinctive coloration from pigments known as anthocyanins. Many of the “black” varieties aren’t really black: they’re just such deep reds or violets that they appear to be black in dim light. Many, such as most of the varieties of iris listed in this book, only have black highlights or undergrowth, thereby bringing their main color to the forefront. They range from the easily obtained and ready to grow (daylilies of the cultivar “Night Wings”) to the extremely rare and tender (various members of the Dracula genus of orchids) all the way to the edible (the Capsicum pepper “Black Pearl”, with deep black foliage and edible if extremely hot peppers that look like black pearls when unripe). This book is in no way a complete listing of black plants in general cultivation (just a discussion of dark roses would take up two books of this size, and it came out too late to include two new varieties of Sarracenia pitcher plant just recently described), but it’s a grand start.

As a general rule, I tell anybody looking for garden books that they should always look for the Timber Press logo on the spine. I’ve been stating this for so long that friends joke that I should be getting commissions on sales. The truth of the matter, though, is that Timber Press puts out some of the most interesting and thorough books on flora available today, and Black Plants proudly keeps up that tradition. If nothing else, get it for the photos, and use it to daydream a bit during winter when making plans for the next year’s garden. However, if you’re smart, it’ll become inspiration for a garden that uses these rarities to best effect, causing visitors to stop and gasp at just the right time and for the right reasons.

Review: Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

(A bit of context. This blog will feature regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2009. 236 pp., $18.95 US. ISBN 978-1-56512-683-1

Anyone who believes that gardening is a completely safe hobby is completely deluded. While it’s possible to produce a garden where the likelihood of accidental poisoning or injury is at a minimum, this means that it’s also about as dull as stale Wonder bread. Over the last 450 million years or so since the first terrestrial plants dragged themselves away from the oceans, the entire kingdom has found all sorts of interesting methods to maximize its range while preventing excessive sampling and snacking from animal, bacterium, and fungus. You have spores, blooms, and seeds, and you have monstrosities like the cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), which propagate both through seeds and by snagging passing animals with thorn-covered chunks of their branches. Likewise, while many fruits are poisonous to humans, the idea is to discourage mammals from eating those fruits’ seeds while encouraging other animals: both nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense) have the same strategy in tempting birds and repelling mammals, only one will kill most humans and the other (especially if the juice gets on sensitive tissues) merely makes the consumer wish for death.

In her fourth book, Amy Stewart gives a good thumbnail guide to plants we call “wicked” because they don’t meet with human approval. These might include plants used for intoxicants, such as mescal agaves and coca bushes, or with commonly used garden plants with a bad background or with relatives that can be deadly. In the process, she brings up some surprising examples of how little we know about “domesticated” plants: how many are familiar with the severe sunburns that can be aggravated by eating celery, or how soaking chickpeas and cooking kidney beans is essential? Yes, all of the expected perps show up (carnivorous plants, plants traditionally used in poison gardens, and psychedelics), but the real surprises come from discovering, for instance, the number of traditional houseplants that can sicken or kill if eaten or otherwise improperly treated.
The definition of a good garden book is always that it manages to teach the reader at least one new fact or observation, and preferably more than one. So what else can be said about a book that warns about the proper way to dispose of poison ivy (whatever you do, don’t burn it, unless you like that sort of itching and swelling in your lung tissues) or notes the number of ordeal poisons (used to determine innocence or guilt in some cultures) that can still be gathered in the wild?

Weather interlude

For the record, this will be the one and only post on the current weather conditions in North Texas, barring something unusual happening. That is, if we get hit by a hurricane, asteroid strike, or invasion by Kings of Leon fans (all of which qualify as disasters that are an immediate threat to life or sanity), you’ll hear about it. Otherwise, between today and Labor Day, it’ll be nothing but reiterations of the same exact conditions that we get every year between August 1 and about September 15. I’ve already started regressing to the summer of 1987, when I first discovered the perfect response to “It’s HOT!” in August: “YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO!”

Anyway, on to better subjects. Besides taking advantage of the heat to try some experiments with making orchid pots out of old LPs (and experiments with casting glass in slump molds using Fresnel lenses), most activities these days are going toward trying to keep plants, animals, and humans alive and sane over the next 45 days. I will probably fail. (I’m already afraid that I’ve lost my beloved Nepenthes hamata to heat stresses, and it may be particularly brutal on the Sarracenia patch, too.) That doesn’t mean that I won’t stop trying. After all, the hot peppers are thriving in this, and it shouldn’t be all that hard to get more sprouted and to a decent size in time for the big show at FenCon, right?