Monthly Archives: September 2012

Have a Great Weekend

Back at the day job, I’ve spent the last week fighting off a summer cold that keeps trying to metamorphose into pneumonia. Because of coughing fits strong enough to induce blackouts, one of my co-workers has had a considerable amount of entertainment singing this song under his breath. Worse, he’s mutated it to “Mister, will you please help my Paulie?” If he keeps it up, I’m going to talk him to death.

It’s that time of the year, where the local grocery stores and home improvement centers are full of Venus flytraps in the floral section. It’s also the time of the year where purchasers of said flytraps frantically ask “How do I keep my flytrap from dying?” As the 500th post at the Triffid Ranch, here’s my long-tested list of surefire steps to kill a Venus flytrap, along with information on how to keep them alive and happy by NOT DOING THESE THINGS. Feel free to pass this on far and wide, and I look forward to hearing from people whose flytraps emerge from winter dormancy this spring without any issue because they stayed away from these things.

A bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow

The National Weather Service assures us all that autumn officially arrived last Saturday. It also assures us all that something approximating autumn weather should arrive in North Texas by this coming Friday. As usual, I’ll believe it when I see it. We’re currently getting the weather that was held up last August, which means sun, heat, and dryness. It’s great for stargazers, because the humidity is regularly hitting 15 to 20 percent in the evening. My plants, though, are screaming.

I could bring up all sorts of anecdotal and chronicled evidence as to the horrible air quality in Dallas right now. I could mention that ragweed pollen levels are at the highest measured in fifty years. I could remind you that we had several air pollution alert days. I could bring up the natural history of how North Texas is the depository of all of the garbage in the air from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, thanks to our unceasing summer southern wind. I could go political and mention the cement kilns in Midlothian, just south of here, which still burn all sorts of garbage without pollution filters. (Hey, at least they’re no longer burning toxic waste, no thanks to our governor, who threw a tantrum and threatened secession when the EPA stepped in.) I could list all sorts of factors, from the ongoing drought in South Texas that leads to pulverized earth blowing hundreds of miles north, to the amount of rubber coming off car tires that has to go somewhere. Any way you slice it, North Texas air is, to steal an old gag from Mad magazine from the Seventies, thick enough that a cubic foot can be mailed anywhere in the continental US.

However, all of this book-larnin’ isn’t enough. Two pictures sum things up the best as to why the end of September is so hellish out here before the rains come. Two weeks ago, the Czarina and I changed the air filter on the air conditioner in the house, figuring that things weren’t quite so bad this year. These are standard air filters, which should be replaced every two to three months. I’ll remind you: this is after two weeks.

Air filter, top

Air filter, bottom

And before you ask, yes, these used to be white. After two weeks, they normally might have a tinge of dust, not enough schmutz in them in which you could plant potatoes and carrots. No wonder nothing seemed to allow me to breathe at night.

Well, this leads to a few discussions of the future. I can accept that most of the detritus in the filter comes to us by way of the drought. However, if this keeps up for next year, it may be time to move to a place with better general air quality. Los Angeles or Houston, say. At this point, figuring that this also illustrates the condition of my lungs, Gary, Indiana isn’t out of the question.

Things To Do In Arlington When You’re Dead

We’re less than a week away from the beginning of October, and the National Weather Service keeps promising a break in the heat this weekend. Naturally, for us, a “break” means temperatures that encourage homicide and live burial in, say, Boston, but it’s all about perspective. Cooler weather and a good chance of rain on Saturday and Sunday…yep, it’s time to get ready for the next show.

With that in mind, I received a surprise missive from a rep from the Dallas – Fort Worth Herpetological Society, seeking new exhibitors for its first annual Reptile & Amphibian Day (PDF) at the University of Texas at Arlington on October 13. Smack in the middle of the month, perfect timing for those looking for something more unorthodox than a standard Halloween haunted house, a very good likelihood for spectacular weather…oh, yes, I’m going to be there.

In the interim, that’s a little less than three weeks away, so now it’s time to focus on taking care of all of the little things set aside while getting ready for last week’s show at FenCon. I’m not saying that my bathtub needs cleaning, but I swore that I saw Martin Sheen and Lawrence Fishburne passing by in a PT boat while I was taking my shower this morning, yelling something about never getting out of the boat. Please don’t make me think about what’s going to come out of the carpet when it’s time to vacuum it.

FenCon IX: The Aftermath

Triffid Ranch display

Five years ago, the Triffid Ranch had its first show at the now long-defunct Deep Ellum Sellum. A year later, we took the risk of going for a three-day show with FenCon. Five shows later, it’s still one of my favorites. Back at the first, a catgirl attendee just looked at the arrangement and sneered “Whoever heard of plants at a convention?” Well, after all of this time, the plants are now a draw for the convention all on their own.

(Speaking of which, the folks who came by for this year’s show got the last look at many different components of the traditional Triffid Ranch display. By the first show of the new year, expect a lot of new changes. It’s about time: a lot of the props and arrangements have been hanging on with spit and duct tape, and they really need replacement or revamping.)

As a heads-up for next year, the schedule for Fencon X in 2013 will be delayed by about two weeks, with it running the weekend of October 4. Since this also marks Texas-OU Weekend, if you’re planning to come to Dallas for the convention, reserve your hotel spaces early. The same holds true for attendees and vendors alike: since the guest list is full of major draws (including one who acted as a role model for me over the last ten years: friends have standing written orders that if I ever became as obsessive on a single subject as he does in public, they’re given full permission to stomp me to death), expect a lot of people. This may mean getting a second table space, just to show off larger arrangements for the first time. Either way, after the warm welcome from attendees and staff, we’re definitely in for 2013.








I’d also like to tip the hat at the various staffers and volunteers from AggieCon at Texas A&M University. I haven’t been to one in nearly 13 years (when I topped Harlan Ellison’s story of being fired by Disney for suggesting an animated Disney porno film with my true tale of how I got my FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks), and it’s definitely time to return. With plants.

Dalek - Oblique

Speaking of which, this guy didn’t actually come into the dealer’s room, but he was apparently spotted in one of the party suites, drunkenly crying about how his creator didn’t really love him. It definitely beat his usual tactic of dressing up in a baseball cap and torn overalls, chasing Whitley Strieber while screaming “You will squeal like a pig! Squeal! SQUEAL!”

Elvis among the medusa head

Finally, while I didn’t have room for some of the more exotic arrangements I had planned (although that will be rectified for November’s Funky Finds Experience ), I couldn’t resist expanding a Euphorbia flanaganii pot with a touch of neo-Egyptian influence.
“I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Presley, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

It’s time to do something similar, only with more of an early Celtic feel. Anybody know where I can buy busts of John Lydon?

September 20, 2002

2012 is full of personal and professional anniversaries, but one of the two most important happened ten years ago. A few days over a decade ago, I pulled into Tallahassee, Florida, and my entire life changed a day later.

Economically speaking, 2002 was pretty much defined by the shakeouts from the dotcom bust, and my previous career as a technical writer correspondingly suffered. Half of the job postings in my line of work were excuses to claim that experienced professionals were considered before hiring the CEO’s grandchildren, and the other were nonexistent jobs posted by recruiters seeking new names for databases. By mid-March, I finally resorted to working as the wine manager of a liquor store, which both helped remove any urge I had to drink and sharpened my loathing for the Southern Methodist University contingent. I saw a lot of horrible and pitiful things during those days, including things that brought on sympathy for at least one person I previously loathed (and that’s a story for another day), and everyone rejoiced when I received a job offer from a tech company in Tallahassee. The day after leaving the liquor store, I was driving my Plymouth Neon along Highway I-10 to Florida, narrowly missing two tropical storms in the process, and pulled into Tally on a beautiful warm Friday afternoon. Get set up first, I thought, learn where everything was, and then come in for my first day rested and ready.

To cut to the punchline, the job didn’t work out. The company was still mired in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and my team was responsible for maintaining and updating a software suite that was once the jewel of that particular industry. Sadly, said software suite had a whole collection of frat-brother “understandings” attached to it, particularly involving partnerships with other companies that hadn’t survived the crash, so the plan was to produce a new, top-of-the-line version for the Aughts. The company’s finances didn’t allow this, and when the CEO killed the new version, he also killed the need for several programmers and a technical writer. I got the informal word about the layoff literally an hour after I’d purchased plane tickets to come back to Dallas so the Czarina and I could get married, but had to wait two weeks for the final word if I wanted to get any kind of severance. There I was, two days before Christmas and five days before the wedding, back to where I was at the beginning of the year.

If you think that this is a pity party, though, don’t worry. In many ways, this was the best thing that ever happened to me. Among other things, I don’t want to think about what would have happened if we’d both moved to Tally and then received my pink slip. Worse, I can only imagine what would have happened had we still been there when the real estate bust started four years later. For a glorious three months, though, I was in a whole new world, and a trip on my second day to the Tallahassee Museum gave me my first exposure to a carnivorous plant in the wild. It was all over after that.

In the meantime, the two of us look back on that last decade and chalk up everything to our long-distance relationship in those three months. I learned how far I could push myself, especially when I moved back. (By the time I hit the Texas border, I figured “Hey, I’ve only been driving ten hours straight. What’s wrong with going on to Dallas and sleeping in my own bed?” The Czarina still hasn’t forgiven me for that one.) In her turn, she learned how to trust herself and her own instincts. We both remain friends with a whole load of people we met during those days, and several were vital in efforts to start up the Triffid Ranch after I started getting the hang of growing carnivores. We definitely aren’t the people we were in 2002, and we absolutely weren’t the people we could have become if I hadn’t taken that job and fallen in love with Florida natural history. As it should be.

With the sudden surprise news that the Perot Museum is opening a month early, we’re thinking very long and hard about celebrating our tenth anniversary the way we started things: looking at the undercarriage of a prehistoric sea turtle. Now it’s time to see what the next decade brings.

Have a Great Weekend

If you aren’t going to be at FenCon IX this weekend, I guess this will have to do…

Introducing Dasypus novemcinctus


We don’t get too many cloudy days in Texas compared to other places, which means that we cherish the few that we get. One of the best surprises comes when the cloud cover is particularly thick, such as it was last Friday morning, and more nocturnal denizens don’t get the memo that they need to go to bed. This means that on my morning bike ride to the Day Job, I see all sorts of interesting things. Screech owls catching one last drink from a puddle formed by lawn sprinklers. An especially fat opossum checking to see if someone left cat food out on the back porch. Raccoons caught up trees in road medians, as they realize they can’t get across the road until after rush hour traffic ends. Very occasionally, a lone coyote or grey fox sitting in the middle of a field, watching the sun come up. Very, very occasionally, we even get one of Texas’s great symbols digging in lawns and weed patches, slurping up grubs and worms in the freshly wet and cool dirt.

Upright armadillo

While the nine-banded armadillo isn’t unique to Texas, it’s lived here long enough to qualify as a native. The armadillo is currently the only member of the Edentata left in the continental United States, although it used to have quite a bit of company with anteaters, ground sloths, and glyptodonts during the last ice age. In the Anthropocene Epoch, it’s done quite well, even with the addition of cars, dogs, and fire ants.


Now, I could bring up all of the usual points shared with people who have never seen an armadillo in the wild. I could bring up that armadillos always have four pups in a litter, and those four are genetically identical. I could note that armadillos are the only mammals besides humans to carry and transmit leprosy. I could hint exactly how flexible that armor can be, especially relating the time I found one in my back yard, squeezing underneath the fence door like a cat. I might even relate how their eyesight is so poor that they’re nearly totally blind, but their hearing is so acute that if they let humans see and even get close to them, it’s because they simply don’t care. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that they’re fast and incredibly nimble for something in a shell. Every time I encounter one, I rediscover how fast: the first time I saw one in the wild, nearly thirty years ago, I learned that their main defense is jumping as much as a meter high. I learned this as I tried to capture one and the little monster nearly knocked out my front teeth in the process. The night before I took these photos, I learned it again when I accidentally spooked one on my bicycle, and it paced my bike for a full minute before I slowed down and let it pass.

The real sign of how fast these guys can be? This one was moving so quickly while foraging that I didn’t even get the chance to adjust my camera to decent settings. At least, that’s my excuse, and I’ll blame the armadillo instead of my horrible photography skills.

As far as other notes on armadillos, most guides make noises about how they’ll curl into a ball, but they’re usually too busy running to consider doing something like that. What’s usually left out, though, is that they have an absolute addiction to beer, the cheaper the better. Hence, some longtime Texans may remember this set of ads from “the national beer of Texas”, involving a giant armadillo that ripped delivery trucks in half:

Even under the best conditions, the little American earth pigs ultimately realize that the day is getting long, and it’s time to go to bed. For armadillos, that’s usually in thick tangles, among greenbriar vines and other obstructions, and they dig tunnels just deep enough for them to hide their vulnerable parts. Just like a cat, when they’re done, as this one was, there’s only one view you get of them as they say goodbye.

Armadillo butt

Pre-fall colors

Just in preparation for those looking forward to some autumn foliage color in Texas, here are “before” shots, on a sunny morning after one of the foggiest nights we’ve had in months, to get you ready for the “after”. Considering the reasonably wet summer we’ve had, and the wonderfully humid conditions over the last week, we might actually get some decent tree color this autumn. Watch this space for details.

Texas tree coloration in September

Texas tree coloration, detail

And yes, this is the closest we get to forests out here. Deal with it. If I wanted trees so tall that I suffered claustrophobia while driving, I’d move back to Tallahassee…which might not be a bad option if the opportunity presented itself.

Remember The Reason For The Season

Halloween Display

A very important consideration to understand when trying to understand Texas is that we get involved in Halloween festivities. It’s not because Halloween marks the end of harvest season: out here, the end of September marks when we start our fall and winter gardens. It’s not marking the last few warm days before the nightmare of winter falls upon us: I’ve regularly spent Christmas Eve picking habanero peppers and tomatoes for Christmas dinner. You could make an argument that in as repressed an area as Dallas, Halloween is an essential safety valve, as the innumerable seasonal Halloween stores popping up in otherwise empty strip mall storefronts might suggest: that’s an argument that has merit, considering that half of the costumes inside are some variation on either “sexy” or “zombie”. There’s really only one good reason for us to go insane about Halloween festivities, though: this is a completely justifiable celebration of the end of summer. As of right now, we have seven months of air that doesn’t smell of burned flint, seven months of opening windows at night instead of running air conditioners all night long, and seven months of being able to go outside for more than ten minutes at a time without bursting into flame.

If you think we’re enjoying an end to outside conditions more evocative of a cement kiln than a back yard, you should see the plants. The problem out here isn’t that things get so hot during the day, but that most of that heat is trapped at night, too. Most of our native plants shut down over the summer, because temperatures only drop at night to the point where they can photosynthesize for an hour or two at dawn. Non-native plants either struggle or burn off, which is why we’re so fond of separate spring and fall gardens in between the days of “I’m Going To Blow Up The Sun Just So I Can Sleep at Night.”

Candles of Doom

If it means we go a little insane in Halloween festivities, then so be it. Sure, I can name the number of times I’ve seen an actual hard frost on Halloween Week on one hand, and still have enough fingers left to play baseball, but that just means that the decent weather lasts that much longer. It’s pretty comparable to the craziness at Easter in higher latitudes: we’re just celebrating that it’s OVER!

That said, it’s not all spiderwebs and werewolves. Fall in Texas means that the fundamental conflict between two groups of obsessives comes to full force. You have us, the normal people who bawl our eyes out at the end of Alien when the best-developed character in the whole movie gets thrown out the airlock, and then there are the freaks. The people too busy for haunted houses and apple cider because they’re focusing on Texas’s one real official religion. Yeah, the football fanatics.

It’s always a struggle. Always. You don’t see workplaces telling everyone “Come in Friday dressed as your favorite monster,” and then threatening anybody who wears anything but vampire garb with disciplinary action. Downtown Dallas doesn’t smell like beer vomit and Rohypnol every weekend because of roving gangs of pumpkin carving hooligans. I have yet to hear of a single case of a crazed parent shooting or threatening to shoot a drama teacher because his/her kid didn’t make the cut in a theatrical makeup competition. And when the costumers have their big party, we tend to clean up after ourselves. It’s no surprise that one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century was so succinct about his fear of Dallas:

(Fifteen years ago, I was living in Portland, Oregon when King of the Hill first premiered. I was already pretty homesick for Texas, but nothing hit me so hard as having to explain to well-meaning co-workers why this line was so convulsingly funny. Spend a few weeks in Dallas this time of the year, though, and you’ll understand.)

Most years, there’s no real conflict. The football fanatics hold up garlic. We grab it away and use it in chili. They retaliate with tailgate parties. We reciprocate by asking “Not used to staying up all night, are you?” They stay away from the apple cider doughnuts, and we don’t spraypaint “REMEMBER 1996?” on SMU’s new stadium. It’s mutually assured destruction, but it keeps us both a little sane.

Well, that was then. Someone amped up the war. Some sick vermin crossed a line that was set about a mile back, and grinned while doing so. This person or persons unknown produced what’s probably the most horrifying Halloween decoration I’ve ever seen. This person, when found, will PAY.

Football Jack O' Lantern

This is uncalled for. I couldn’t come up with anything this sick, and I’ve spent the last week overdosing on Ego Likeness albums. Is someone REALLY wanting to awaken at dawn to find us standing over him, ready to plunge a goalpost through his heart to stop the nightmare?

Have a Great Weekend

Boosting the signal

It’s been a few weeks since any obvious, deliberate self-promotion has appeared here, but that has to change. The fall show season is heating up, and it’s no fun to do them when nobody else comes out.

Firstly, the Triffid Ranch returns for FenCon IX, our fifth show out there, and hopefully our best yet. It’s been eight years since I first heard about this show, and I apologize profusely for doubting its chances for survival back then every time I attend a new one. If you’re local, or if you have other reasons to come out to the Dallas area the weekend of September 21, hie thee hence. If you can’t get out there next week, make serious plans for FenCon X: I’ve been sworn to secrecy as to upcoming plans, which is easy because I haven’t heard anything, but I understand that 2013 will surprise everybody.

Secondly, the Triffid Ranch conducts its annual slowdown at the end of November as all of the plants go into winter dormancy, but there’s still time for the Funky Finds Holiday Shopping Experience in Fort Worth the weekend of November 10 and 11. Now that a lot of the insanity about parking issues at the Will Rogers Memorial Center have abated, this should be a spectacular show, and this includes my bringing out arrangements and items too big to display at other shows. As always, any excuse to come out to Fort Worth is a good one, and this is a pretty good excuse.

Finally, a regular complaint I hear is that “you’re not open for business between shows,” which suggests that maybe a venue for more regular shows might be a good idea. Because of this, I’m currently researching the option of more shows, particularly at the Dallas Handmade Arts Fair, or a more regular presence at a venue such as Lula B’s. Comments, criticisms, recommendations?

Nemesis sighted off the port bow

We all have a nemesis in life. All of us. If we’re lucky, we’ll only meet that nemesis in our final days, when it’s far too late for it to cause any damage. If we’re very lucky, we find a nemesis that can be used against our enemies, or against our friends for comic effect.

I say this because I’ve discovered mine. Her name is Miss Sweetie Poo, and she’s an essential component of the Ig Nobel Prizes, the annual award for scientific endeavours that should not and must not be replicated under any circumstances. The Ig Nobels are to the real Nobels what the Golden Raspberry Awards are to the Oscars, only with more duct tape, more paper airplanes, and less butthurt whining from the organizers of the Saturn Awards about the similarities between their winners. This year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is next week, and as usual, its selections will lead to the absolute best head explodey.

Anyway. As I was saying, Miss Sweetie Poo is my one serious weakness, in the form of a cute 8-year-old girl. That weakness is the fear of conducting a lecture or presentation, or merely showing off plants at a show, and hearing these words, over and over:

See, this is why the Czarina and I don’t have children. It’s also the reason why I won’t let her rent children, either. We have a niece who’s a few years too old for the position, but I’m sure that she’ll be open for suitable compensation to fill in. I’ll make some particularly devastating point during after-dinner conversation, lunge for the kill…and get knocked out of the air like Green Lantern being smacked with a big yellow pillow. (Please note that the Czarina can’t get away with this. Not only does she not have >the right voice to pull it off, but I know where she’s ticklish. Besides, her reputation precedes her, with lots of other people seeing her angry and crying “Not the elbows! Not the elbows!”, and she’s certainly not afraid to use them on me if I get out of line.)

Base behavior

Okay, so it doesn’t qualify as a trade secret. Heck, in modeling circles, it’s considered an integral aspect in diorama construction. In miniature garden design, though, it’s sadly underappreciated by beginners, as they learn in a relatively short time. We’re talking about bases for figures and displays.

In standard model and diorama construction, a figure base exists for three reasons. Firstly, it allows a top-heavy or otherwise unstable figure to stand upright without leaning against something or being held in place. Secondly, the base allows the model builder to conceal construction aspects such as wires for lighting. Thirdly, in a well-constructed diorama, the base is as integral to the final appearance as the main figure, and usually helps set the mood. Scatter some tombstones and crosses around a fen, and you have an abandoned graveyard. Elevate a section with rock strata and a miniature rattlesnake, and you have a desert pass. Cover it with various body parts from Warhammer 40,000 figures and lots of red paint, and you have an effects shot for a GWAR video. You get the idea.

When working with miniature garden displays, a good base for figures has additional benefits. The base can give a desired mood to a particular piece, such as a garden wall supporting a series of pots. Since most standard potting mixes are, by comparison of scale, the equivalent of trying to stand upright in a dumpster full of Styrofoam peanuts, the base gives stability for figures that would otherwise fall over in the first good breeze or settle up to its neck in the soil. In highly acidic soil mixes, such as those used for carnivorous plants, a nonreactive base allows the use of items that could either be damaged by the acidity or could damage any plants in the pot if they were in direct contact with the soil. Finally, in the case of poseable figures, a good base allows a lot more animation than what could be accomplished by simply sticking bamboo skewers through a figure’s feet.

A few months back, this site discussed using dinosaur figures in miniature gardens, and good bases are essential for most of them. Using most bipedal theropod dinosaurs in a miniature garden absolutely requires a good stable base, particularly to avoid what the Dinosaur Toy Blog refers to as “the tripod cheat” of propping the figure back on its tail. Even with quadrupedal dinosaurs, a base adds stability to the entire arrangement, especially if you’re trying for a particular motif (hadrosaurs feeding on maidenhair ferns springs to mind). It all depends upon whether or not you want the base as an obvious component to the miniature garden, or merely as a point of stability intended to be hidden by foliage or soil.

Figure assemblage

To give a few examples on possible techniques, the photo above contains (clockwise from the left) a cultured marble bust of Elvis Presley, an alien astronaut from the long-defunct HorrorClix figure game, and a Spartan figure tie-in to the Halo video game. Not that this is a perfect cross-section, but it’ll do.

As mentioned before, the classic figure attachment option for miniature and fairy garden arrangements is the metal or bamboo spike, attached to the bottom and then driven through the planting medium. Not only does this not work in shallow pots, such as bonsai trays, but a little shifting of the medium and the figure looks as if it’s balancing on stilts. The idea of a base is to give the impression that the figure is against the earth, whether lying, standing, or running. (Jumping or lunging is a completely different issue, and waaaaay beyond the scope of this discussion.) Stilts won’t cut it.

Slate assemblage

When it comes to proper weight and heft, there’s a lot to be said about using natural rock. Veteran model builders used to swear by using redwood bark chunks as a lightweight substitute, which would still apply if you could find the stuff any more. Wood can work in some circumstances, such as desert arrangements, but only ones with generally dry planting media. Unless you’re building a miniature garden with plants that absolutely need to avoid wet roots, such as Lithops and other Karoo Basin succulents, avoid sandblasted grapevine if you can help it: it’s great for desert reptile enclosures, but it rots rapidly if it remains moist unless it’s well-sealed with spar varnish or another wood sealer. For most arrangements, stay away from limestone and sandstone because they’ll gradually dissolve and thereby raise the pH of your soil mix, which can be lethal for carnivores.

For most figure arrangements, the best options are either granite or slate, because they’re both non-reactive and rather attractive. For slate, you have plenty of options aside from collecting in the wild, including visiting aquarium shops and poking through decorative rocks for sale. Alternately, if you have access to a shop specializing in sales and repair of pool and billiards tables, talk to the owner about buying chunks of the broken slate from a damaged table. If all you need are bases for a few figures, said owner will probably let you take chips and chunks for free, but don’t pass up a big slab of slate if you can get it. Properly fractured, it can supply pieces for projects for years.

Square tiles

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you live in a place comparable to North Texas. The local rocks are all weak limestone and chalk, and imported rocks are prohibitively expensive. That’s when it’s time for a trip to the local home improvement store, especially when the store has its annual floor tile closeout. Most mosaic tile sheets are already attractively colored, and you also have the choice between real slate or ceramic that sometimes looks better than slate. Pick your color and shape, and the whole tile sheet is held together with plastic fibers or sheeting that keeps the whole lot together until you’re ready to use them. Bought on closeout, this whole sheet cost 99 cents US, and this should keep me busy for weeks.

Rectangular tiles

In most circumstances, the standard squares don’t work, and I don’t blame you. That’s why you keep an eye open for odd shapes or materials, such as glass or metal-glazed ceramic. This is a ceramic tile intended to simulate travertine, only without the softness and alkalinity of the real thing, as well as the cost. Getting it in oblong rectangular pieces like this gives a lot of flexibility in how it can be used as a base, because it can also be set on its side or its end and used that way.

Slab tile

And if all else fails and you can’t find the perfect piece, you can make it. This might include casting a base from resin or Ultracal 30 plaster, but that tile comes in handy as well. Look among those closeouts for something the shade and consistency that you seek, and then cut it to size with a wet tile saw. If you need something rougher, then feel free to break a standard tile with a hammer, using pliers to nip off chunks until it’s the perfect size.


Next comes affixing the figure to the base. In standard model arrangements, that usually involves using glue or epoxy to attach the figure, but other factors figure in when working with miniature gardens. Not only do you need an adhesive that can flex with the figure and the base in heat and cold, but you’ll need something that’s relatively resistant to decay from ultraviolet light. Insolubility in water isn’t even negotiable. Mixable epoxies and many epoxy putties will get the job done, but they usually need to be painted afterwards to hide the join. If you need to use epoxy putty, I highly recommend Milliput, a brand highly prized in the modeling community for its variable colors and its fine finish. Best of all, Milliput can be smoothed with water before it cures, allowing elaborate sculpts with a minimum of sanding. When you’re affixing a base to a figure that may be standing in an inch of water for days or months at a time, that lack of sanding will make a difference in your enjoyment of the final arrangement. Just pay attention to the instructions: always wear gloves when mixing Milliput, and don’t touch the arrangement for at least 24 hours until you know for sure that the epoxy putty is completely cured.

Loctite Go2Glue

While standard cyanoacrylate superglues work for a while, their biggest problem in miniature gardens is that the dried cyanoacrylate tends to be a lot less flexible than the pieces with which it is intended to join. A surprising discovery recently in the local Lowe’s store was Loctite’s new Go2 Glue, which promises a superior bond between otherwise incompatible materials. This winter will be the real acid test, but its initial tests suggest that it might come in very handy for miniature garden constructions.

Elvis bust

And now comes the execution. Elvis here is constructed of cultured marble, which is obviously cheaper than real marble, but even slightly acidic soil will erode the sculpture’s base to nothing. Sealing it would destroy a lot of the merits of the marble, and even small stains will stand out on its surface. A simple tile base does wonders for its stability in a miniature garden, and there’s no reason not to build a more elaborate pedestal if desired.

Alien astronaut on slate

This alien astronaut originally came with a base as part of the HorrorClix game, but the figures had a tendency to detach from their bases, so it was moved to a chunk of slate. This photo demonstrates a problem with most adhesives: the nice bright shiny spots from excess glue. The classic modelbuilder trick is to cover this with more glue and then sprinkle sphagnum moss, sand, or ordinary dirt over the new glue to hide the whole base. If the base is one chosen for its particular color merits, though, we can borrow another modelbuilder trick of covering those joins with dust. Traditionally, that involves grinding up artist’s pastel sticks on sandpaper, putting down glue, and applying the pastel dust to the figure. In this case, rub the bottom of the base on fine sandpaper, collect the dust, and sprinkle and brush that on the fresh glue. That is, unless you like the nice slimy look of the dried glue, which in this case, kinda fits.

Spartan on single tile

When working with larger figures, you have several options. if all you want is a standard pose, such as of a warrior standing alert, pick a base that keeps both feet relatively together. In a miniature garden arrangement, unless the figure needs to be standing at attention, spread the space between the feet a bit. The idea is to hint that you’re looking at a scene that could restart at any time, and that you’re looking at a slice of life instead of a mere presentation of garden components.

Spartan on rectangular tile

For more active poses, such as kneeling or jogging, you don’t need both feet attached to a base, but you will need one. This figure has the left foot adhered to its base, with the other propped up with a similar slab until it dries. Once the glue or putty sets, move the figure to whatever position you choose. Take note, though, that this works for simulating motion from a crawl to a brisk jog. Stop-action animators will tell you that an actual run requires that both feet (or all four for quadrupeds) leave the ground, requiring them to fudge having one foot attached at a given time. Try to simulate a run on a figure without taking that into account (supporting the figure with a metal rod through one foot to complete the illusion), and that “run” will look more like a pantomime than anything else, destroying the effect.

Spartan on slate

Irregular surfaces offer special challenges. If you’re going to have a figure climbing a rock, make sure that it looks as if it’s climbing, not merely propped up for inspection. Usually, this means the foot to the rear is turned perpendicular to the one in the front. The idea is to imitate a real item or being moving up a real surface, including imitating the weight of said item or being on an inherently unstable surface. Make sure that it appears to sink in a little bit: familiar with the ridiculous image of someone gardening in six-inch stiletto heels? In miniature, this will look even more ridiculous.

Closeup on Spartan feet

As mentioned a while back, several very good reference books on modeling also work well for miniature gardening concepts, and don’t be afraid to research further into those techniques when adding figures to a miniature garden. You just need a stable base for your operations, after all.

Cat Monday

Because nothing fixes a lousy Monday morning like cat photos:Cadigan in September

In the weeks since we first adopted Cadigan, she’s remarkably like her namesake. Namely, alternating between sitting in the middle of the room, looking insufferably cute, and tearing through the house, chewing on my ankles. At least she doesn’t kick me in the face while I sleep, because she much prefers to gnaw on moving toes. Oh, this winter is going to be intriguing.

Leiber in September

And Leiber? He’s taking it rather well, even though Cadigan has pretty much taken over the house. No tantrums, no destroyed furniture, no screaming fits. By this winter, they should be inseparable, which means that my toes are in trouble.

All About Strange Writers From The Past

Lewisville High School sign

This year contains a long run of important anniversaries, and a very important one reaches its end this year as well. Thirty years ago last month, at a particularly pretentious high school in North Texas, a particularly pretentious writer started his career. Three decades later, the writer moved to horticulture, and the high school saw demolition.

Front of the old Lewisville High

See that bank of windows above the doorway? That was the view into the classroom shared by both the school newspaper and yearbook staffs, back when both concepts weren’t as quaint as morning milk delivery. Oh, but we had dreams. Heck, some of us even managed to get published outside of high school and college publications, and a few, a very few, actually became noticed for our work.

Newspaper staff room from the side

And as of August 26, this was the last trace of those old days. I was part of that last generation of high school newspaper students before the desktop publishing revolution: I was halfway through my senior year when the Macintosh came out, and we had no clue that this would change everything. Back then, layout was done with pica rulers and rubber cement, with articles manually transcribed from typed or handwritten hard copy. At that point, any guy taking a typing class was either joining the newspaper staff or wanting to meet girls, and computer science classes consisted of thirty students per period jockeying for five minutes on a single Apple II or (horrors) a TI-99a. The wonders of online life? That wasn’t even science fiction: the “cyber” aspects of cyberpunk didn’t come to the fore until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer came out the year after I graduated, and the emphasis within the genre was on the “punk”. Not that you would have had the chance of finding any of it back then.

Lewisville's cultural center

Well, the old school is gone, but Lewisville’s cultural center remains intact, with lots of new augmentations. Now, as then, the battle between academia and athletics was fiercely discussed, with the community deliberating between recognizing noted alumni and recognizing accomplishments on the football field.

Lewisville High priorities

And Lewisville High’s priorities remain.

Have a Great Weekend

Art imitating life

Just as a note to friends over the weekend, I know already that this Saturday’s new episode of Doctor Who features a big-game hunter named “Riddell”. With a title like “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship,” it’s hard not to see a potential connection. I mean, in the latest trailer, Matt Smith even pronounces the name correctly.

I assure you, though, that I’m certain that this is coincidence. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met the writer, and I’m pretty certain as well that he wasn’t a regular reader of my old palaeontology columns, both in print in the Nineties and in blog form in the early Aughts. Besides, this character is nothing like me. For one thing, he’s not a complete and utter prat.

And now a quiet interlude


It’s been a rough week for just about everybody, and the weather in North Texas this week just compounded the misery. It’s supposed to break tonight, but as with all things meteorologically related, I’ll believe it when I see it. I have to keep that attitude, because that’s the only way to stay sane.

The last three weeks have been roughly the same thing, over and over. Hot and sunny. Hot and sunny. Slightly warmer than the surface of Venus. However, last week, we had a surprise squall come through. For about five glorious minutes one evening, we had a perfect rainbow visible from just one spot. This spot is always a good one for catching rainbows in the evening if the conditions were right, but this one had the brilliance you usually only see in the desert.

Double rainbow

Even better, although it doesn’t show up well in the photos, this full rainbow was a double.

Double rainbow

As I mentioned, this spot is especially good for catching rainbows, especially with sudden squalls rushing to the east, but this one isn’t the most impressive I’ve caught yet. This site is the only one where I’ve seen double rainbows, but this is the second double I’ve seen so far. Early last year, though, I was lucky enough to head this way and spot a triple.

Intense rainbow

And as far as the Czarina was concerned, though, it was even better. She’s inordinately proud of her car, so you can imagine how thrilled she was to see what was at the rainbow’s end.

At the rainbow's end

Have a Great Weekend

Fellow American and Canadian kids of the Seventies may remember when this was essential viewing on television either over the Canada Day/Fourth of July weekend, or right after Labor Day. Don’t ask me why it played almost every year after Labor Day: all I can tell you is that it always marked the end of summer for me.

Thursday is Resource Day

It’s been a while since the old Snail Mailbox was opened and cleared out, but oh the wonders therein. The periodical market may be coughing up blood after the demise of Borders, but I can still point to quite a few magazines that make the old model still worth paying for.

To start, yes, Facebook is now overloaded with single-subject obsessives with all of the depth and critical thought of a movie poster, and poking through a Timeline is a bit like being stuck in traffic behind that character with the station wagon held together with bumper stickers. However, sometimes you need to sift through a mountain to find gold. I can’t remember which friend turned me onto Florida Gardening magazine, but the first issue reminded me of everything that I loved from living in Tallahassee a decade ago. Of particular note is a cover story on the gardens of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which was still under construction when I came through the area in 2008.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Jay (Jake) Carter’s end column, “The Exterminator”, because his certainty about the intelligence of local vermin matches mine. To quote, “I am ill equipped o do any real damage to the world’s pest populations. However, the image I am presenting to them is one of a crazed killer who will go to ANY lengths to get rid of them, even if the effort ends in my accidental poisoning or I blow myself up.” Oh, I empathize. The rat trap atop the roof, apparently carried there by a hawk that snatched the rat inside for an early morning snack, is proof of that.

Likewise, the newest issue of Carnivorous Plant Newsletter arrived just today, and seemingly half of the issue is full of new carnivorous plant cultivars. That’s in addition to a study on bladderwort functions, and Nigel Hewitt-Cooper‘s guide to raising Drosera regia. The last is of particular note, considering my mistaking D. filliformis for D. regia, and it may be time to try raising this beauty under Texas conditions.

And then there’s vindication. My subscription to Gothic Beauty is nearing its end, but I still go through every issue from cover to cover. Of especial interest was a letter to the editor complimenting the “Gothic Gardening” columns in back issues: it’s just a real damn shame that the columnist was fired by the publisher in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, isn’t it?

Melanoma risk

Over the weekend, I accomplished the impossible. Well, I accomplished a whole lot, but the impossible was a side effect. Best of all, I didn’t even know I was doing it. In the process, I learned something very valuable.

First, the preamble. Traditionally, the Labor Day weekend in North Texas is a meteorological Schrodinger’s cat, in that the quantum potentialities will collapse the moment you make plans. Staying home to work on the garden? We’ll hit extreme and often record-setting heat, right about the time you figure the tomatoes need some judicious weeding. Going on one last vacation before the school season really gets into gear, or having to work? Three inches of rain every hour for the whole of Monday. Since I’d planned to stick around, our surprisingly mellow and wet August turned into a September more evocative of a cement kiln. Heat stress, shifting foundations, small birds and insects spontaneously exploding in midair…we had it all.

Essential information, numero two-o. I know I’m pale. Johnny and Edgar Winter express horror at my lack of melanin. It’s not just a matter of applying sunscreen, but needing to apply it with a concrete float. If I could garden in the dark, my skin would appreciate it, but I have to settle for soaking in the best sunblock I can find and hoping I don’t burst into flame more than ten minutes in.

And now the situation. Besides repotting a large batch of Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion peppers, it was time to finish a set of storage shelves given to me by a friend. The shelves were made of rather weak fiberboard, so I made a quick command decision and planned to seal them with spar varnish. This also applied toward continuing the conversion of that Nineties-era television console: spar varnish offers both water and moisture resistance and UV resistance, and the only thing holding off a good painting was the funky weather every weekend in August. I discovered that a gallon of Cabot Stains spar varnish can cover the interior of a 28-inch television console and ten shelves with three coats and nothing left in the can. That was the good news.

The bad? The best option for painting the shelves was to lie them flat on the ground and paint them while kneeling. This kept the mess to a minimum, to be sure, but it opened up one vulnerability I’d never considered. Much like Achilles being dipped in the River Styx as an infant to give him invulnerability, I’d covered myself quite liberally with sunblock. Much like Achilles’s mother holding him by one heel, thereby leaving him with one fatal weakness, it had never occurred to me that kneeling while barefoot meant that I left two size-13-sized vulnerabilities exposed to our gentle and tender sun.

The rest of me? A bit of singing along my arms, but no actual burns anywhere. The soles of my feet? Well, you ever really look at a piece of pizza that’s short on cheese that’s been left in a refrigerator for a week? The skin moves the same way. This is compounded by the realization that sunburned feet have a completely different type of pain than any other. It doesn’t really hurt, but walking anywhere for any length of time is annoying. It’s just enough to make me wish I’d put a mesquite thorn or a rusty nail through my arch, just to give me something to complain about.

The really bad part is that all of this fussing is moot. According to the National Weather Service, the vicious heat of the rest of the week should be gone by Saturday, and we’ll be back to our normal end-of-summer temperatures and precipitation. About blasted time, if you ask me. Until then, I might as well take advantage of the skin tone and hair color and get prepped for Halloween. All I need right now is a sentient black Roto-Tiller, just so I can wave it over my head and scream “Sap and stolons for my lord Arioch!