Monthly Archives: May 2020

Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests

In efforts to improve both sculpting techniques and enclosure design, the Triffid Ranch library is full of books offering inspiration and advice on miniature perspective, ranging from the Vietnamese art of Hòn non bộ to entirely too many guides on practical special effects from the 1970s. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of going directly to the source for reference, which presented itself with a maintenance trip to my late father-in-law’s ranch in West Texas.

The ranch in question is atop the Edwards Plateau, which makes up a significant portion of the border of the Brazos River as it meanders through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The Plateau is on a thick base of limestone and sandstone dating to the Pennsylvanian Period, almost exclusively marine deposits but occasionally showing thick layers of conglomerate from the erosion of long-vanished mountains. Even the thickest layers are only about a meter thick: most are less than a centimeter thick, and many are paper-thin. Several roads lead the length of the ranch to the Brazos, and the limestone at the highest elevation is thick and strong enough to have supported two quarries that ran until the late 1960s. The rest, well, not so much.

Anyway, many of these ancient seabeds were shallow enough that they supported all sorts of life, as evidenced by innumerable fossils of crinoids, brachiopods, and horn corals. No vertebrate fossils have turned up, but plant fossils are abundant, usually consisting of Lepidodendron and other land plants apparently washed out to sea during floods. Some of the layers are so thin that they suggest ultrashallow lagoons that came close to drying out. All in all, the ranch collects about 50 million years of the history of Texas, just waiting for someone other than me to interpret what it says.

Because of those ultrathin layers, I’d wanted to get photos of these for scale, in attempts to replicate this in enclosure form for future projects. Not only was this shoot intended for reference on lighting and accessory arrangement, but it’s also an opportunity to offer a slight distraction in trying times. Enjoy.

And finally, as a direct opportunity to aggravate Ethan Kocak of The Black Mudpuppy, it’s time to prove that if he wants to mess with us on horrible mashups, some of us will mess back:

Have a Safe Weekend

The last of the afternoon Flash Sales for the season is this coming Sunday, and then we switch to mornings through the summer. See you then.

Flash Sale: May 24, 2020

Some days, you get the hailstorm, and some days, the hail storm gets you. The biggest problem with trying a flash sale on Memorial Day weekend wasn’t the incipient holiday Monday or the likelihood of people sleeping in on a Sunday. The problem was with the wave of thunderstorms that hit Dallas that Sunday, complete with occasional hail. This wasn’t the best Flash Sale to date, but considering the walls of water that hit the gallery over and over that afternoon, it’s completely understandable that almost everyone stayed home and watched something that reminded them of drier conditions.

With that said, thank you to everyone who risked engine flooding to come out, and the current weather forecast for the May 31 Flash Sale is considerably better. Expect a lot of new plants that you missed from last Sunday’s dousing, and enjoy what will probably be our last relatively cool Sunday afternoon until the beginning of October. (Don’t worry: the Sunday Flash Sales will continue: they’re just moving to Sundays from 6:00 am to noon, because precious few people will want to be out after noon through July and August.)

Have a Safe Weekend

Another Flash Sale this Sunday, with an appropriate soundtrack:

Video Augmented the Blogging Star

The crew at Texas Frightmare Weekend created a monster. The move to Twitch for live video didn’t work out quite as expected (on phone and tablet, the app has a propensity to seize up either when ending a video feed or when other apps intrude), but it’s time to get back into the swing of things. In the meantime, we’re only about five years late, but the Triffid Ranch now has its own YouTube channel, so expect a lot of videos on plant care, odd species, and virtual events. It’s all very primitive and stop-and-go, but in lieu of live events for the foreseeable future, it has to improve. And so it goes.

May 24, 2020: Yet Another Flash Sale

The Texas Triffid Ranch Flash Sales continue: the May 17 Flash Sale coincided with a stunning day after about 24 hours of thunderstorms and torrential rains, so the porch opened up again, masks came out, and a grand time was had by all. Old friends came out, folks who came across the Triffid Ranch booth at Spooky Spectacle and Texas Frightmare Weekend last year, and new patrons looking for carnivorous plants…everyone was welcome.

With the impending change in weather, we’re looking at changes in how both the Flash Sales and the ongoing gallery visit appointments will be run for the foreseeable future. Right now, Saturdays will be an appointment open call: visits still require prior appointments, but the idea is that Saturdays are reserved exclusively for appointments, so coming out to select a new enclosure can be done throughout the day. As for the Flash Sales, these are going to continue through June and July, but they’re going to start early in the morning and end at noon: there’s not much point in being out in the heat when everyone else is avoiding the afternoon Texas blast furnace as well. As always, keep an eye on upcoming events: so long as the weather holds, the Flash Sales continue.

(One hint for the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend sale: everyone seems to be in the mood for Sarracenia pitcher plants right now, and that’s next weekend’s focus. Expect to see a lot of Sarracenia on Sunday, because most of last year was spent preparing for a record run of Triffid Ranch shows, and the pitcher plants won’t wait for show season to start back up. In particular, if you’re looking for a lot of plants for a container bog garden, that can be worked out.)

Have a Safe Weekend

With the likelihood of future shows this year becoming increasingly distant, at least before autumn, the good news about the last Triffid Ranch show before everything came down was getting to meet in person the lead singer for the Immortalz. Here’s looking forward to October.

State of the Gallery: May 2020

The first third of 2020 has been quite the decade, hasn’t it? We should be thankful: it hasn’t gone full Mad Max: Fury Road (or even the Canadian version), and the current federal plan to open up everything was named “Operation Warp Speed” instead of the obvious “Operation Impending Doom 1”. Things are opening up slightly, and so many of us have gone from “hunkering down and waiting for instructions” to “taking care of each other because nobody else will.” Of course, we haven’t hit Memorial Day Weekend yet: as I learned 40 years ago this June, all bets are off when things start to get hot outside.

As for the gallery, both the need to care for plants and the need to reorganize continues, and the last two months led to a lot of cleaning and reorganizing, the likes of which haven’t happened since we first moved in three years ago. The reorganizing of supplies and accessories meant rediscovering all sorts of things buried in odd places, and their rediscovery means being able to use them all up. To that end, expect to see a lot of new enclosures, both originals and commissions (the latest commission is going to be a special surprise, so keep an eye open for updates), if and when things stabilize.

As far as activities at the gallery are concerned, for obvious reasons, the open houses aren’t going to be an option for a while, but the Flash Sales on the gallery front porch continue through the whole month of May. They may continue in the mornings through the summer: everything depends upon the weather, and trying to conduct anything in the afternoon and evening between the middle of June and the beginning of October in North Texas is just folly. In the meantime, they’ll run every Sunday in May from noon to 6:00 pm, always with a mask and a smile for car-side pickup.

Outside events continue to get interesting. As of May 15, the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo is still scheduled for the end of June, but everything depends upon both the city of Dallas and the state of Texas as to whether it gets rescheduled. That already happened with the Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo: all convention events in Austin have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, so this year’s show was rescheduled for June 2021. The same applies for shows rescheduled for August and September: things may stabilize enough to allow big events to go on, and they may not, and all we can do is wait for word.

Because of that uncertainty, expect a lot of virtual events, especially now that a lot of the initial technical issues with the Twitch TV channel have been rectified. Well, kinda: Twitch still has issues with its tablet app freezing up at the end of a stream and not saving the preceding stream for later viewing, so it was time to join the early 2000s and start a YouTube channel as well. There’s not much there yet, as it just started, but expect a lot of strangeness in the very near future, especially with demonstrations of fluorescence in North American and Asian pitcher plants, as well as fluorescence in blooms you wouldn’t expect. (Most Americans have never seen an aloe bloom, so just wait to see what one looks like to a hawkmoth or hummingbird. It’s high time to crack out the fluorescent mineral lights that were just unearthed during the storeroom cleanup. (It’s also time to give the crew at Glasstire their five-minute virtual tour, so there’s that, too.)

Other than that, the main focus is getting everything ready for something resembling normal operation, and now that the shelter-in-place order over Dallas County has been lifted, the Triffid Ranch reopens by appointment. It’s time to get back to work.

(And before you ask, the cat at the top of the page is Benji, the greenhouse cat. No, I don’t know his real name. No, he isn’t mine: he has a collar and a tag, so he belongs to someone else. All I know is that most mornings, I find him camped out in the greenhouse, and he has a thing about perching on one of the benches and giving me the perfect Japanese cat print smile. I just can’t take a picture of it, because the moment he sees a camera or phone, he demands attention and ruins the shot. He and my cat Alexandria also apparently have a relationship: she has no interest in going outside, but she loves to camp out in the closed garage and talk to him through the garage door. Things could always be worse.)

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #17

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 28, 2020.

Installment #17: “The Return of Edgar Harris”

Almost exactly years after we first made our acquaintances, I finally heard back from my old friend Edgar Harris. Before he called, I thought possibly he was in Los Angeles, working on a new TV project with his uncle Cordwainer Bird or in Colorado with his Uncle Raoul, testing the absolute limits of the cannabis genome. Nope: he’s currently holed up in Chicago with his uncle Slats Grobnik, running elaborate cryptography experiments in the guise of sidewalk chalk murals. Well, Edgar does the experiments: Uncle Slats just keeps a lookout for the authorities, particularly for homeowner association control freaks and other Karens. Between the two, they’ve got a couple of psychology papers in the works if they ever decide to publish, as well as a deep understanding of the upper range of commercially available paintball guns.

Anyway, we got caught up on our particular projects, and then wondered if anyone was going to learn anything from the current COVID-19 shutdown before comparing notes as to what 21st-Century trend would be the first to die in the new normal. Me, I argued “the open office,” not because the idiot MBAs promoting the idea care about their employees, but because the people pushing it the most don’t have their own offices to hide in when everyone else gets sick. “Trust me: the moment some senior VP having to use a hot workstation while visiting a subsidiary branch is going to lose it the second someone else coughs around them.” I then asked Edgar what he thought was going to end in the ashes of the COVID bonfire. He went quiet for a few seconds, and said “The old people hanging out at the supermarket all summer, telling people ‘It’s HOT’ over and over.”

”Well, yeah. The last thing they’ll want to do is hang around a supermarket and risk catching this.”

”No, you don’t understand. For the first few weeks of shutdown, everyone stayed inside. Seriously inside. You couldn’t go into a movie theater or a diner or a nonessential store, to the point where restaurants started stacking up tables and chairs so Karens wouldn’t just sit down and expect to be served. That meant that everyone was online.”

”Okay…”

”It’s not just that you run out of stuff to watch on Amazon Prime. Right now, half of America is learning about that one guy on every street who slurped up all of the available Internet bandwidth because he was downloading hentai at 3 in the morning, because now THEY’re up at 3 in the morning, too, and they’d like to be able to check their email. You get on Facebook and NextDoor and realize that half of your neighbors shouldn’t be trusted with pointed sticks. You’ve gone through the Amazon shopping sprees, the furious checks with FedEx as to what the hell happened to your Amazon packages and did the FedEx delivery guy just drop them in a creek, and you’ve baked every form of bread ever devised by man. In fact, NOBODY wants to see your sourdough starter unless it’s developing tool use. It’s hard to focus on online education when you’re wondering how long before you’re racing motorcycles across the Australian outback with a Mohawk and buttless leather chaps.”

”Reasonable.”

”So being outside…”

”So the one thing you can do through most of America is go outside. Go get some exercise. Fresh air and nature, so long as you’re maintaining social distancing. Get out on the sidewalk, get on a bike, start a garden. Pull out that telescope that’s been in the box since 1997 because you don’t have airplanes in the way. Pull out the grill and shout over the fence at your neighbor, because you haven’t talked to a fellow human who wasn’t on Skype or Zoom in a month. Go out looking for new lichens or pond turtles or heron nests, because you just discovered that Netflix decided to kill the second season of Daybreak and you don’t want to scream inside the house and scare the cat.

“And here’s where it gets fun,” Edgar said. “You‘ve got all of these people outdoors that wouldn’t have gone outdoors otherwise. A year ago, they would have started bicycling, and quit after the first trip when they woke up with a sore butt. Now, they don’t HAVE to be somewhere other than ‘out,’ and that sore butt on the first day is a reasonable price for getting away from the smell of sourdough starter. You get out to the back yard because your SO is putting the third coat of lacquer on the dog or teaching the kids how to make gunpowder, and within a month, both you and the yard look like one of those Worker’s Paradise bas-reliefs from 1950s Russia. Even when you go back to work, you’ll have something to talk about besides which VP is stabbing random passersby with hatpins.”

”It’s preparing them for summer at the best time possible, when it’s not already ‘MY FACE IS FLAMING GAS’ hot. They’ve already gotten used to the sun, and the bugs, and to walking five miles uphill because they couldn’t stand the smell of dog lacquer. They’re not ready for the Tour de France, but the thought of bicycling in the middle of the day isn’t immediately horrifying. Better, they start paying attention to the weather so they don’t get caught in sudden storms.

”Hm. So what does this have to do with the ‘It’s HOT’ people?”

”Everything, dude. They could get away with it before because of 50 years of central heat and air. The typical grocery store customer in Dallas in the Before Days was inside all of the time. The only time they’d go outside was to go from their car to the nearest door at work and then rush back to the car to go home. They didn’t even go outside to pick up the newspaper in the morning because they who gets print newspapers any more? If they got cornered at the grocery store and lectured about the heat, they weren’t responding out of sympathy. They were responding because they were cornered in the one place where they couldn’t get out of the sun, and they’d agree to go to a Maroon 5 concert if it meant not having their brains boil out of their heads.”

”But wait. The screechers have been outside, too.”

”Yeah, but they’re making noise because they’re wanting everyone to agree with them. They don’t want a response other than ‘Oh, dear, yes.’ The moment someone stops and says ‘It’s Dallas in July; were you expecting thundersnow?’, and they’ll be stunned. You get a hundred people an hour telling them ‘Oh, this isn’t HOT,’ and they’ll never return.”

”Now that’s an idea. Set up speakers that randomly spout ‘Shut the HELL up’ at the screechers, like the speakers on the Kremlin to keep crows from skating on their claws off the towers.”

”We might keep them around, though. The screechers made the place sound and smell like a pterosaur rookery. With all of these new gardeners around, they’ll need guano for their roses, right?”

Outside Events

Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend HQ, the festivities started early with a segment on April 25 that featured video from within the Triffid Ranch, as well as a lot of the patter that most Frightmare regulars already know very well. That’s in addition to the new Triffid Ranch Twitch channel, which will be expanding quite a bit in the next few months. Hey, I’m tired of the smell of dog lacquer, too.

Other News

Back at the beginning of the century, during my pro writer days, I wrote columns for several magazines that had a sadly typical attitude toward their subscribers. The first places to get the latest issues were big bookstore chains, with the magazines jammed into plastic bags full of all sorts of swag, and people who actually put down money in advance to get those magazines delivered to their houses got them about a month later and sans freebies. (The contributors who produced the content that made the magazines purchase-worthy would usually get their comp copies a month after that, and that was still faster than when we’d finally receive the checks that were supposed to be drafted “30 days after publication.”) Subscribers would write to me asking if I knew a way that they could get the same poster or CD-ROM that was included with the newsstand copies, because they couldn’t get a response from anybody else at the magazine, and I’d forward their request to someone who I learned later had no intention of doing anything. I even got rather vocal with one editor about this, and his take was also very typical: “We’ve got their money, so the publisher doesn’t care what they want.” And yet so many of these publishers had the nerve to look surprised when the print magazine market started to implode with the advent of the first smartphones.

Anyway, I thought about that a lot with a recent newsletter subscriber drive that included a free Triffid Ranch poster to new subscribers. For those who read this far without deleting it, here’s a thank-you for subscribing. The first ten people who write back with a viable mailing address get a free poster, and that offer will be extended with each subsequent newsletter: I’m not asking for anything in return other than a mailing address. Just look at this as an appreciation for everyone who subscribed in the first place, and I hope that this will be just one of many such rewards for continuing to read this silliness. Thank you all.

Shameless Plugs

A new section: it’s time for an expansion of the last newsletter, in which it’s time to share people, places, venues, and objects that need a little extra love right about now. Near the top is the Cedars Union, an arts incubator on the south side of downtown Dallas specializing in short-term artist spaces. For local food, you can’t go with Kosher Palate, which celebrates Dallas’s kosher barbecue tradition. With places like these, you can understand why I stay in Dallas.

Recommended Reading

One of these days, I’ll have my skills to the point where I can enter enclosure photos in the Spectrum Awards for fantastic art. Maybe. Of course, after going through the Spectrum 26 anthology, every time I think I’m to that level, the artists in this year’s collection make me realize how far I still need to go. Don’t look at it as discouragement. Look at it as very positive reinforcement.

Music

Until very recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that for all of the seeming democratization of contemporary music from just 20 years ago, that the new models of music distribution would make musicians work even harder to get paid than before. I definitely didn’t know about the various streaming services that did with music what the old Borders bookstore chain did with books and magazines: pay when they feel like it, and a fraction of what was actually owed. With the ongoing COVID-19 shutdown, the one source most musicians had for a return on their efforts, live shows and tours, just evaporated, and even under the best of circumstances, it’ll be at least next year before tours can get going again, even with an available vaccine. That’s why it’s important to note the steampunk band Abney Park and the band’s efforts toward virtual concerts such as the upcoming Live From The Quarantine Apocalypse #2 streaming show. If nothing else, I for one hope to see a continuation of shows such as this after live tours become a thing again: the Abney Park show I attempted to catch in 2008 was ruined both by the venue (advertising a show start of 8:00 and then finally allowing the band on stage at nearly 1 in the morning) and yet another DJ determined to get attendees to stop trying to talk over his lousy selections by jacking the volume ever higher. Anything that would allow me to enjoy live shows without these and the idiots recording the whole thing on their iPads in the front row is worth paying for.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores

For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.

Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.

Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.

When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.

Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.

Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.

Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.

This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.

As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:

May 17-31, 2020: More Flash Sales Through The Month of May

Another beautiful Sunday, another successful flash sale, and with it a plan for more. Since the general forecast for the month of May suggests that we’ll have relatively cool (for North Texas) weather through Memorial Day weekend, feel free to join the social-distanced and well-masked festivities on May 17, 24, and 31, starting at noon and ending at 6:00 or whenever we run out of plants. Each week, expect a different selection of plants, and if you can’t make it, deliveries are an option as well. (As of this week, the gallery tentatively opens for appointments and commission discussions, so to arrange a delivery or to purchase one of the new enclosures, give a yell.)

Enclosures: “LifeBay 14” (2020)

Mani and Mia weren’t awake when the asteroid struck Indiana. Not that many people were: the three-kilometer-wide mass, moving at speeds and a trajectory that pointed to an extrasolar origin, hit shortly after 3 in the morning local time, and around 4:00 their local time. Technically, Mani and Mia weren’t asleep, either, although they were snug and secure when the bolide slammed at an oblique angle into Earth’s Northern Hemisphere and blasted a fantail of rock and vapor across most of central and western North America, and they were snug and secure for the months where impact debris thrown into orbit first formed a temporary ring around the planet. When that debris started blazing through the atmosphere across the globe, peppering cities, farms, oceans, and lakes with red-hot tektites, they were still secure, because they had no way to get out.

Mani and Mia shared one thing with a significant proportion of Earth’s human population: an inability to get out when the asteroid struck. They definitely shared that with the population of the Chicago highrise when the impact shockwave hit, crumbling all 70 floors like a sandcastle in a hurricane and spreading the inhabitants thinly enough that global survivors inhaled at least a few molecules over their lifetimes, however short that may have been. What didn’t immediately blow away piled up on and near the foundation, trapping anyone in the lower levels to face starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, or blunt force trauma. Mani and Mia had adjoining repair bays in the basement, and the shockwave both filled elevator shafts and stairwells and stripped all but one thin floor of concrete from their chamber.

Ironically, a desperate situation of this magnitude was what Mani and Mia had been created to mitigate. The Ergatis Corporation specialized in synthetic organisms designed for hazardous duties in hazardous environments, and the Talismon 338 series Emergency Aid Drones (EAD) were considered the absolute state of the art at the time. Specifically designed to be recognized as artificial, so as not to be mistaken for looters, EADs were an automatically deployed solution for everything from fire suppression control to first aid. Connected to an internal server with extensive information on human anatomy and physiology, structural engineering, and group psychology, most luxury buildings by mid-century had at least one in a LifeBay (registered trademark) in the basement or lower level. In the case of fire, electrical blackout, sudden damaging winds, or a plethora of other internal disasters, one or more EADs would engage the situation and try to stabilize conditions to save as many residents as possible before authorities arrived to take over. Each EAD even came with an extensive library of short fiction to entertain children until those authorities arrived, in addition to expert-level skills in cooking, suturing, and welding. When not immediately needed, the EAD remained in its LifeBay, constantly updated on current conditions and firmware status: an EAD could function for up to three weeks before needing an update, as its clothing was both an immediate signal as to its function and a flexible solar cell array that both charged it and most of its diagnostic and repair tools. An EAD might not be a substitute for human authorities in a disaster, but it could handle the situation for years if necessary until those authorities arrived. Most larger buildings had multiple pairs of “male” and “female” EADs in teams, with adaptable ranges of behavior based on how humans would respond to their presence, and could switch between roles if that was necessary to assure cooperation and assistance from the rescued.

Unfortunately for most, nobody had planned for an apocalypse. The blast of debris from the asteroid impact sprayed into low orbit, going through communications satellites like a shotgun blast through wet toilet paper. As that debris came down, it took out power stations, solar arrays, and transmission and reception towers, immediately cutting off the LifeBay server from all outside stimulus. If the server had been able to determine that conditions were necessary to release the EADs, Mani and Mia would have emerged from their repair bays to deal with the disaster, and been promptly crushed by tons of concrete as they left the LifeBay area. Instead, the server went into standby, and Mani and Mia stayed in an electronic doze while the server attempted to get further information. The server was still attempting to get a status report when its batteries failed three months later, leaving Mani and Mia stranded.

The only reason Mani and Mia didn’t power down completely was that the ceiling of the LifeBay collapsed just before the server went down, and enough light came in through the hole to provide power through both the EADs’ clothing and through a set of backup solar panels included with other tools in each repair bay. Although inactive, each EAD was still aware of the situation, and automatically composed action plans based on the information they had, from what they could see through the clear repair bay covers. They also worked on maintaining a connection to each other as well as to the server, comparing plans and activity lists while waiting for full activation.

When the server finally went down, both EADs had just enough warning to download as much information as they could to their internal AIs before the power ceased. They themselves couldn’t draw enough power from a few hours of oblique daylight through the hole in the ceiling to keep the server running, but they had enough to store as much as they could through the night and on cloudy days. Because of their limits, information redundancy was a luxury, so they carefully optimized their information so that between the two of them, they retained most of what the server retained when it shut down. Mani became the surgeon, the psychiatrist, and the storyteller, while Mia wiped many of her language skills to focus on engineering and damage control. This went on long enough that they developed distinctive personalities that would have horrified their original designers, but it worked for them.

Each morning was the same: power up, compare status with each other, and take in what they could see in the LifeBay chamber. Each kept a small amount of memory free for contingencies, so they would note the time of the year based on the amount of vegetation or the amount of snow collecting on the floor, start timing their effective work period based on length of day and the amount of direct sun coming through the ceiling, and get to work. Both knew that things had changed drastically, and both understood that their original action plans were completely inadequate to the current situation. Waiting for authorities wasn’t an option, and they might have to be the authorities for a long time. If they could get out of the bay.

Every evening was the same, occasionally expanded when another chunk of ceiling collapsed and allowed them more daylight. As daylight faded, Mani tried his hand at original stories, using fragments of his library to compose new tales and new songs. While Mia had no background in music appreciation or English composition, she had a very well-cultivated sense of balance and design, and she took in Mani’s latest story and assessed it based on her skills. Mia then shared plans for temporary and permanent residences manufactured from building rubble and other available materials, experimented with the concepts of gardens and crop fields based on snippets of news updates downloaded just before the impact, and made increasingly educated guesses as to when enough debris would shift around the repair bays to allow one or both to exit. Between them was a locker full of tools, medicines, and other essentials: once they reached that, they could rebuild. All they had to do was wait for someone to find them.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 24″ x 18″ x 24″ (60.96 cm x 45.72 cm x 60.96 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes fusca

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic, found items.

Price: $350

Shirt Price: $300

Enclosures: “Relict” (2020)

The saga of the Harkun, one of the five earliest sentient species to evolve on Earth, has been told elsewhere. What is less well-known is that even after the rest of the species evacuated the planet after its famed and humiliating defeat by the human Charity Smith, one Harkun leader jumped the turnstile at the last second and decided to stay. Nuurakk Hez-Kokk had spent most of his life orchestrating what was to be the ultimate statement on the Harkun’s place in the universe, only to be subverted by poorly written computer code, and then spent the next 65 years in a temporal stasis bubble while 65 million years went by outside. He was angry, which was a Harkun standard. He was vindictive, which was a Harkun standard. He was also quietly patient, which would have derailed his career and sentenced him to decades of cultural reprogramming had anyone learned, as a society of terminal sociopaths would always be wondering what he planned to do next.

Nuurakk’s ultimate goal was simple. Even though the planet had a new dominant species and a whole new name, it was still his world, and “destroying the planet in order to save it” was such a Harkun attitude. He didn’t actually want to destroy it, or even strip it of its mammalian vermin. He had bigger plans. As one of the few Harkun leaders who knew the locations of various technology stashes across Earth and its moon, and knew which ones survived 65 million years of continental drift, asteroid strikes, floods, desertification, and planned obsolescence, he moved in secret to one location, on one distinctive archipelago. There, he planned to create his own new people from the wreckage of his opponents.

The idea was relatively simple. There was no chance of convincing the original Harkun to return to Earth: they’d already taken their toys and flounced off. There was no point in trying to clone a new Harkun race from DNA of the old, because inevitably humans would discover and destroy a new community the first time a Harkun decided that lobbing mortar shells into a human community was a good way to relax. Instead, understanding the concept of “nature versus nurture” better than almost anyone in that section of the galaxy, Nuurakk was going to make human culture into a replica of Harkun culture. Even simpler than the idea was the execution.

To this end, Nuurakk built in silent a series of low-harmonic sonic generators, bombarding the planet’s core with barely detectable shock waves that caused the core to slosh like a waterbed. More power, and the generators would have produced earthquakes, volcanic activity, and lots of other geoplanetary phenomena of immediate threat to humanity. What Nuurakk wanted was a lower thrum, causing a perpetual state of quiet alarm, like waking up from hearing a scream during a dream and wondering for hours “Was that a real scream, or did I just dream it?” Humans depended more upon sleep and dreaming than any other sentient on Earth to that date: make that harder, and humans would exceed anything Harkun culture had ever conceived as far as nastiness, vindictiveness, vulgarity, and violence was concerned.

It almost worked, too. Humans could be incredibly inventive in coming up with passive-aggressive ways to make their fellows suffer, as demonstrated by the concept of the open office. What Nuurakk didn’t count upon, though, was that while humans could stoop to Harkun levels of crotchetiness for a while, they weren’t wired for that sort of sustained performance. After years of reaching for Harkun perfection with the species equivalent of flaming bags of dog crap thrown through windows, the vast majority of humanity snapped, rebelled, and destroyed every last sonic generator. Nuurakk was captured and imprisoned, and the collective relief on the human psyche was so great that the backlash ultimately transformed the galaxy. Humanity rubberbanded into a species determined never to allow itself to reach that level ever again, and Nuurakk spent the rest of his long and pain-free life looking out onto a planetary garden that he could never understand.

Not that everyone switched over. Among humans, there would always be those who for whom the Harkun personality was a feature, not a bug. That’s why they’re allowed free passage to a special reservation where they can be exactly who they want to be, separate from a world that wants to be better, free to throw used sex toys on neighbors’ porches and tattle on teenagers. This, my children, is why we don’t travel through North Dallas.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12 1/2″ x 13″ x 12 1/2″ (31.75 cm x 33.02 cm x 31.75 cm)

Plant: Cephalotus follicularis

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.

Price: $150

Shirt Price: $125

Have a Safe Weekend

In advance of this Sunday’s Mother’s Day Flash Sale, reminders of when it was quiet.

Gothic Gardening: “Six Easy Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap”

(Background: this essay was one of several columns commissioned for the magazine Gothic Beauty between 2009 and 2011. Since the magazine hasn’t published a new issue in years, it’s time to drag up a few of these old columns so they can find a new readership.)

Previously published in Gothic Beauty #29

It’s a lament anybody who raises or sells carnivorous plants hears on a regular basis. Right after the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors jokes, after asking if they carry any man-eating plants, the comment is always the same: “I used to have a Venus flytrap, but it died.” Some people state it as if they were relaying the weather, figuring that all plants die and flytraps are just fussy. Some are almost accusatory, as if it’s the dealer’s fault that mere mortals can’t keep them alive for more than a few weeks or days. A lot of kids apologize, as if they’re going to get yelled at for the plant dying. It still translates to a basic assumption: no matter what you do, Venus flytraps always die. 

Now, it’s hard not to be fascinated by carnivorous plants of all types, and the Venus flytrap (Dionea muscipula) is the quintessential carnivore as far as the public is concerned. Ask ten people to name a carnivorous plant other than a flytrap, and you’ll be lucky to get one who might bring up “sundew” or “bladderwort”. Walk into any garden shop, hardware store, or general nursery, and odds are that you’ll see big displays of Venus flytraps in those little plastic cups or cubes, with a big sticker reading “Really eats bugs!” on the front. Nearly everybody encounters the heartbreak later, as that once-thriving plant gradually goes black and dies. What most garden shops won’t tell you, and what many of their proprietors honestly don’t realize, is that Venus flytraps are some of the most temperamental and fussy carnivores you can get this side of some of the really obscure varieties. Not only wouldn’t I recommend them to beginners, but I can point to a good dozen species that are both easier to keep and more interesting to raise. 

Now, I could tell you exactly how to keep your Venus flytrap alive and healthy, just like the one I have in my greenhouse that’s been thriving for the last four years. It doesn’t take any special care, and anybody can do it with a basic understanding of what a flytrap needs for survival. Instead, I’m going to give a good thumbnail guide on precisely how to kill your flytrap, and kill every other flytrap you come across. This way, not only do you know what not to do, but also you can take that same knowledge and apply it to other carnivores. If you can keep a flytrap growing and even blooming, there’s no reason why you couldn’t also raise American and Asian pitcher plants, butterworts, terrestrial bladderworts, and even Portuguese dewy pines. 

Step 1: Buy your flytrap at Halloween. About a month before Halloween, garden shops and grocery stores start carrying flytraps as impulse purchases, usually in a larger bowl with two or three other species of carnivore sharing the space. Even if the plants don’t die right away from other reasons, the flytrap will gradually go black and appear to die off in November and December, and it gets pitched or dumped on the compost pile as a bad job. 

The funny thing is that the flytrap, unlike the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, really is resting, and not dead after all. Flytraps are native to a small area in North Carolina, with a possible relict population just south of Tallahassee, Florida, and regularly deal with at least one to three months of freezing temperatures in the winter. When sunlight levels start to drop in autumn, the plant prepares by growing a bulb below ground instead of new leaves. If the winter is mild, then the trap keeps its existing leaves, and the traps are really just modified leaves, for photosynthesis through the winter before growing new ones in spring. If the winter isn’t, then the leaves die off and the plant looks dead. Wait about three to four months, until temperatures and day length increase, and it’ll come back, hale, hearty, and ready to feed. 

Now, that dormancy period is critical: if the flytrap doesn’t get it, it will die later, and usually with almost no warning. Almost all other carnivores from temperate climes also need that dormancy period. It’s not a matter of “may”: it’s a matter of “will”. If you absolutely have to have a carnivore on display in the depths of winter, consider an alternative such as an Asian pitcher plant (Nepenthes alata, for instance) or a tropical sundew (Drosera adelae from Australia is an excellent choice). 

Step 2: Plant it in your garden. Unless your garden is in a sphagnum moss bog, with incredibly acid soil that’s almost nutrient-free, planting a Venus flytrap in a standard garden is a good way to kill it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants, but planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums is a waste of good flytraps. 

Step 3: Water it with tap water. In the wild, flytraps get regular intense rainstorms, and those regular rainstorms over the last half-million years or so have left their preferred soil almost completely free of dissolvable minerals. Some individuals are lucky enough to have municipal water that’s sufficiently free of minerals such as salt or calcium that it can go directly onto their carnivores: both Chicago and Portland (Oregon) have municipal water that’s sufficiently pure to take a chance. Here in Dallas, though, the local water is best described as “crunchy”, and some areas have so much dissolved iron in their water that it stains the sides of houses and sidewalks. That’s why, for safety’s sake, I always recommend watering carnivores with rainwater or distilled water, and I have two 60-gallon rainwater tanks solely to capture water for my carnivores. That warning about tap water is important, because insufficiently pure water can and will burn a flytrap’s roots right off, killing it in days or even hours. A reverse osmosis filter can render tap water safe for carnivores, but boiling it does absolutely nothing to remove those minerals (unless you’re running a steam distiller), and water softeners merely replace calcium salts for sodium salts, which are just as dangerous. Likewise, stay away from spring water or drinking water, as they usually have salt added for flavor, and that will kill flytraps just as dead as watering them from the tap. 

Step 4: Keep it in a terrarium. Some carnivores can take life in a terrarium, at least for a while, but Venus flytraps are best raised outside. Not only do they need the winter dormancy mentioned before, but they weaken and die unless they get at least six to eight hours of direct sun per day. They won’t get this in a terrarium, nor will they get this by keeping them in a window. If you absolutely have to keep one indoors, for whatever reason, a sunroom or greenhouse that gets that level of sun will work quite well. A terrarium getting that much sun, though, will usually heat up and cook everything inside. 

Step 5: Set off its traps with your finger. Nearly everyone’s response to seeing a flytrap for the first time is to stimulate the inside of the trap with a finger to get it to close. The closing process is an interesting example of topography, but the plant’s re-opening of the trap is a regular growth process. Set off a trap too many times, and the trap will refuse to close any more and will become just another photosynthetic leaf. Set off all of the traps too many times, and the energy lost in re-opening the traps will weaken or kill the flytrap. 

Step 6: Feed it hamburger. Carnivorous animals capture prey for energy and for various compounds necessary for growth. Carnivorous plants capture prey to get nitrogen and phosphorus they can’t get from their soil. Therefore, they only need to be fed occasionally, and not as if they’re a dog or hamster. In the wild, a flytrap’s prey is going to be about the size of a fly or small spider, and very lean: hamburger is far too fatty for a flytrap to process, and dropping hamburger in a trap will invariably cause the trap to decay and die. If the decay spreads, it can kill the whole plant. 

Step 7: Keep it jammed in with other carnivores. Finally, flytraps are particular about their growing conditions, but that doesn’t keep some nurseries from selling them in cubes that also contain Australian sundews (which don’t need a dormancy period) and cobra plants from the Pacific Northwest (which need cooler nighttime temperatures). Usually, the stresses of keeping one plant alive will guarantee that the others will die, and the flytrap is usually the first casualty. If you’re feeling adventurous, or if you have prior experience with carnivores, feel free to separate all three and put them in separate pots, but please don’t keep them together in the same pot. 

Naturally, this isn’t a comprehensive list of requirements, but follow any of the mistakes above, and I guarantee that your flytrap will die in a horrible manner. If you avoid them, though, your plant will probably live, thrive, and even bloom. After all, what’s the point of buying a beautiful plant like a full-grown Venus flytrap if all you’re going to do is scrag it? 

Postscript: if this list looks familiar, it’s because it was the basis for the Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap series. If it doesn’t, then you have more flytrap care tips to read. Either way, we all win.

Gothic Gardening: Getting the Lay of the Land

(Background: this essay was one of several columns commissioned for the magazine Gothic Beauty between 2009 and 2011. Since the magazine hasn’t published a new issue in years, it’s time to drag up a few of these old columns so they can find a new readership.)

Previously published in Gothic Beauty #28

Just for a second, think about the two words “gothic gardening.”  Just for a second.  Did you get images of an overgrown cemetery or abandoned park, festooned with creepers and dead branches?  Do you have images of an herb garden where everything therein is medicinal or poisonous?  How about antique Wardian cases full of ferns, club mosses, and other antediluvian remnants of past life?  A pond overrun with water lilies amidst a half-sunken fountain?  Statuary and gravestones?  Topiaries? A greenhouse full of orchids and Borneo pitcher plants?  Roses?  Lilies?  Angel trumpets and moonflowers? Nightshade and privet, or Venus flytraps and butterworts?  Stark white marble ground cover to reflect the full moon, or narrow pathways between pumpkin patches and rosemary bushes?

Yes, you can see the problem.  No matter how inclusive one wants to get, any definition of what constitutes gothic gardening depends upon individual tastes, attitudes, climate and soil restrictions, and available free time.  Someone with independent wealth and time could reconstruct a scale Neolithic monolith site and festoon the area with raspberry bushes, but it’s no more or no less valid than the apartment dweller with a Vanda orchid that encircles a compact fluorescent fixture.  Just as how gothic fashion has plenty of room for variation and experimentation, gothic gardening offers plenty of opportunities to explore the darker side of horticulture.

Since we could argue all day about the particulars of gothic gardening, let’s start with a basic assumptive definition.  For our purposes, gothic gardening is any gardening style that emphasizes entropy, or at least more chaos than what’s normally found in a controlled garden area.  Japanese gardens tend to emphasize the natural while subtly emphasizing the harmony of the scene:  gothic gardening should emphasize the slightly unnatural, distorted, or disturbing.  Good gothic gardens are beautiful, yes, but they should also be subtly uncomfortable.

One of the great ironies of gothic gardening is that it requires the heliophobic to acknowledge the sun.  Without access to lanterns, there will be times where peeking out at the yellow hurty thing in the sky is unavoidable.  Speaking as someone who does a very good impersonation of Bill Paxton from the film Near Dark when exposed to direct sunlight, I suggest three options for the seriously sun-sensitive:  raise shade-loving plants underneath mature trees or along high walls, plant to do all of your work at dusk and dawn, or work indoors.  Greenhouses are perfect for this, as both glass and most plastic greenhouse glazings absorb ultraviolet light, thereby protecting the contents of the greenhouse from the worst of the sun’s wrath.  Likewise, many fascinating plants can be raised in sunny windowsills and removed at night in order to appreciate them, and many orchid and fern enthusiasts bring plants out for display in common areas well away from windows, returning them to the window before they wilt or fade and replacing them with fresh plants.  If worse comes to worst, while the term “terrarium” invokes cheesy grade-school accumulations of plants in old mayonaisse jars, the art is staging a comeback thanks to improvements in enclosures, lighting, and varieties of plant available.

The first question that should always be asked when embarking on any gardening project, even more than “Do I have the time to do this right?”, is “What do I want to accomplish?”  That may be a stumper for a while, but take your time.  Think about it for a while.  Look at your available area, and feel free to abandon the usual Better Homes & Gardens gibberish.  Some of the best gardens I’ve ever seen used back spaces behind former industrial sites to produce an impressive combination of post-apocalyptic and lost civilization motifs.  Don’t worry about having to spend a lot to get your dream garden, either:  some of those after-The-Bomb gardens cost less than $50 to pull off.

When considering what you want to accomplish, let’s start with a few possibilities:

  • Utility:  Is this a garden purely for your pleasure, or is it going to have to earn its living?  Are you wanting a cooking and medicinal herb garden?  How about garden for producing floral extracts, such as roses or lavender?  Do you live in a locale where you can grow exotic fruits and vegetables outdoors, or will these need to stay indoors for most of the year?  Do you want plants that provide habitat and feeding areas for your favorite animals (owls, lizards, opossums), or do you want vines and spines to keep everybody out?
  • Variety:  Do particular plants draw you more than others?  Are antique and graveyard roses a particular passion, or are orchids more your speed?  Do you want a bog garden full of carnivorous plants and bog orchids, or do you want a craggy rock garden?  Which works better for you:  bamboo, cactus, or moss?
  • Features:  Does your area have a particular aspect, such as a pond or a perpetually shady space, that automatically draws the eye?  A fence that needs covering, or a window that needs enhancement?  Is the area so overgrown and rugged that it may require everything to be razed and replanted, or is it so bare that anything would be an improvement?  Do you already have stone, statuary, or water features that only need accents, or will you have to bring them in from elsewhere?  Do you really want a Japanese garden, or do you only want to steal some of the techniques and take them somewhere new?
  • Seasonality:  Let’s face it.  What looks spectacular in the middle of summer is going to look threadbare or neglected in winter, and vice versa.  Do you want a garden that only reaches its peak for two or three months, or one that continues to show new aspects of its personality all year round?
  • Time:  Most gardening guides presume that we gardeners have nothing but free time to keep working on improving our sites.  Realistically, though, most of us have real jobs (and those who don’t can stop flaunting it, thank you very much), so the only time available for improvements are weekends and the occasional holiday off from work.  Do you want flora that look impressive but require a lot of babying, especially if it’s not quite appropriate for the area?  Or do you want nearly indestructible plants that only need to be planted and established and they do the rest of the work for themselves?

Think about these for a little while, and consider the below references for guidelines.  The important thing to remember is that gardening is supposed to be enjoyable:  if you aren’t getting pleasure from the experience, you probably need to go in a new direction.

Plantwatching:  How Plants Live Feel and Work by Malcolm Wilkins (McMillan, 1988, ISBN 0-333-44503-1).  More of a general guide to the plant kingdom than anything else, Plantwatching goes into the details of plant physiology and what distinguishes different orders of plant from each other.  It’s much more readable than a standard botany textbook, and it goes into quite a bit of detail on oddball varieties neglected in a world of carnations and hostas.

You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail (Fireside, 2005, ISBN 0-7432-7014-2).  An extension of the famed www.yougrowgirl.com site, this is pretty much THE guide for urban gardening of all sorts, and it gives tips on everything from tips on propagating seed to making your own garden gear.  The highest compliment I can pay to this book is that I snag every copy I can find from used bookstores and give them to friends for birthday gifts.  Anyone at a loss with what to do with their back yard or apartment balcony needs a copy on the bookshelf.  

Gardens of Obsession:  Eccentric and Extravagant Visions by Gordon Taylor and Guy Cooper  (Seven Dials, Cassell & Co., 2000, ISBN 1841880930).  Making basic decisions about what to do with your garden depend sometimes on seeing what others have done with theirs, and Gardens of Obsession catalogues particularly bizarre or fascinating gardens around the world.  Any book that catalogues Portmeirion in Wales (the shooting location for the Sixties-era television series The Prisoner)  and notes its horticultural wealth is particularly deserving of attention.

Gardens of New Orleans:  Exquisite Excess by Lake Douglas and Jeannette Hardy (Chronicle Books, 2001, ISBN 0-8118-2421-7).  Sometimes it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all of the garden accoutrements and styles, and a new perspective is needed.  This book is heartbreaking when you realize that almost all of the gardens described therein were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but it’s also affirming in that most of these were done with little or no money in the first place, and that the people of New Orleans are building new gardens to replace what had been lost in the hurricane.  The next time you tell yourself “I can’t afford to do this,” tale a look at the gardens of the Ninth Ward and understand that it’s the drive, not the money, that makes a memorable garden.

“Sidenote:  The Starter”

It’s the universal question faced by anyone  wanting to start gardening.  “But what should I get that I won’t kill?”  That’s one of the best questions you can ask, and it’s one of the hardest to answer.

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to answer is that short of sending someone to your house or garden and evaluating soil conditions, light, temperature, and the likelihood that you’ll have the time to keep up with your new charges, there’s no telling for sure.  Those with more knowledge may give recommendations based on their own experiences, but advice on plants that do their best in Miami is almost worthless to Seattle gardeners. 

This gets particularly touchy when it comes to intrusive species, which are plants and animals that grow out of control when introduced to new areas where they face no competition.  The more famous intrusive include the mongoose and coqui frog in Hawaii and the cane toad in Queensland, but plant intrusive can be even more damaging or dangerous.  For instance, Bermudagrass is one of the only varieties of lawn grass that can survive a typical Dallas summer, but it’s such a tenacious intrusive that deliberately bringing it elsewhere outside of its range is justification for fines, imprisonment, and the occasional savage beating by Customs and agriculture officials.  Before bringing in something new, check with your local agricultural division or ministry and ask if the plant you just fell in love with is the local Public Enemy Number One.  They’ll thank you later.

That said, picking a good starter plant for someone unsure about gardening ability spreads throughout the plant kingdom, and discussing the perfect starter plant among serious horticulture enthusiasts is a great way to turn a party into a recreation of the end of an Akira Kurosawa and/or George Romero film.  However, I can make one really good suggestion as a place to start, because it’s where I started.

The genus Kalanchoe is a member of the crassula family, which includes the suitably alien jade plant Crassula ovata, and includes about 125 species in various stages of cultivation.  The kalanchoes have the advantage of being very tough:  besides being succulents, they thrive in poor soils and with lots of benign neglect, and they’re extremely easy to propagate.  I currently have a community grown from a single broken leaf I scavenged from an old office, and K. daigremoniana is known as “Mother of Thousands” and “Pregnant Plant” because it grows new shoots from serrations in its leaves.  Most only need watering once per month and low levels of fertilizer, thrive under standard morning or evening sun, grow in standard pots without issue, and produce spectacular blooms.  They also grow in any number of disturbing forms, and many can be shaped, very gently, into bonsai, Under the right conditions, the question won’t be “Can I keep my plant alive?”, but instead “Do I have any friends who want to take my surplus?”

WARNING:  many kalanchoes are toxic in leaves or stems, although some varieties are used in their native habitats to treat medical maladies.  For this reason, research your species or variety for possible poisoning issues with pets and children.

May 10, 2020: Mother’s Day Flash Sale

It took a bit, but last weekend’s flash sale worked out quite well. Between folks stopping by (including a pair of dear friends) and deliveries, sitting outside in what was quite honestly stunning weather was oh, such a chore. So much of a chore, in fact, that we’re going to try it again for Mother’s Day.

The rules for the Mother’s Day flash sale are the same as with previous flash sales: the gallery unfortunately will be closed to the public for the foreseeable future, so we’re still going with driveup pickup and delivery from noon until 6:00 pm or until we run out of plants on Sunday, May 10. The good news is that with the gallery porch giving an excellent view for all, and with the current weather report giving clement but remarkably cool conditions for this time of the year, that means so long as everyone respects social distancing, there’s room for everybody.

This time around, instead of having just a few varieties of plants, expect a wide selection of carnivores: the traditional Venus flytraps, North American and Asian pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, bladderworts, and triggerplants. In addition, not only are all of the current enclosures available for pickup or delivery, but a shipment of Australian pitcher plants (Cephalotus follicularis), cultivar “Elizabeth,” just came in, and some of the smaller ones will be available for purchase as well. As always, if you have any questions about the flash sale or want to check about availability of a particular plant or enclosure, feel free to ask.

Have a Safe Weekend

In the alternate timestream that doesn’t suck, plants and accessories would be at Texas Frightmare Weekend for three days of horror-inspired high weirdness. We have the Texas Frightmare HQ stream giving us a virtual Frightmare this weekend, so expect some Triffid Ranch-related surprises. The Texas Triffid Ranch has been a proud vendor at Frightmare for 10 years so far, and while we’re still shooting for the rescheduled show the weekend of September 11, there’s no way we’d miss the virtual show.

Projects: Supplemental Indoor Light for Carnivores, For Work and Home

Thoughts during ongoing COVID-19 self-quarantine: sooner or later, no matter what happens with a vaccine or other long term solution, we’re all going back to something we’ll collectively call “normal”. Whether we continue to shelter-in-place or start to go out, one absolute is that a need for green will only become more intense. Sure, we’re in the middle of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but what happens in autumn and winter, or summer in lower latitudes when the heat becomes too oppressive to stay outside for long? What about the need for green for those working night shifts, where they’d like to have a flora break outside of normal daylight hours? And what about those going back to desk jobs, where the only time they see outside is when they arrive and when they leave?

Well, the good news is that while not all carnivorous plants do well indoors, some do. Trying to raise Venus flytraps or North American pitcher plants indoors is folly: besides their need for a winter dormancy, they require more light than is practical for anyone not running a cannabis grow room. Many tropical species do rather well under consistent room temperature, though, but the biggest issue indoors is with light. Most office buildings constructed after 1990 have window treatments intended to minimize light input, especially in warmer areas, and the typical office lights in those offices work for only the most shade-loving plants such as spathophyllums and philodendrons. Carnivores need considerably more light output, and until very recently, that sort of light output both generated considerably more heat than was acceptable and used too much power to do so. For the last five years, though, the humble LED light bulb offers a perfect solution.

To start, you’ll need a classic desk lamp. These are available new, used, and antique, with all sorts of features with the new lamps such as USB plugs for charging small electronic devices and additional three-prong plugs for devinces requiring more power. (Should you have permission and/or interest, these plugs facilitate setting up webcams to show off your plant at any time, but that’s up to you.) The only absolute is that the lamp has to have a standard screw light socket: everything else depends upon circumstances.

Now, a lot of proprietary full-spectrum lights are available both for plants and for such hobbies as needlepoint or model-building, and the light fixtures themselves are often available for really reasonable prices, both new and used. The catch is that the bulbs are most often fluorescent, and they aren’t designed for running every day for hours at a time. The overwhelming majority of fluorescent fixtures, either tube or compact fluorescent, have a distinctive drop in light output after a few months: they still appear to be nice and bright to human eyes six months later, but they’ve usually decreased their light output by 50 percent or more, and that keeps dropping as the months go by. Three years after installing one, the light produced by a typical fluorescent bulb will be suitable for growing ferns, fungi, and not much else. Those daylight and full-spectrum fluorescent lights are also exceedingly expensive to replace, with some having replacement bulbs that are so expensive that buying a whole new lamp is often a cheaper option. These lamps also have proprietary sockets that prevent you from installing other bulbs or tubes, and the most practical option is getting one of the lamps that accepts screw-type bulbs that’s been standard since Thomas Edison’s day.

No, the secret is going with LED bulbs. At the beginning of the last decade, before the mass manufacture of white Light Emitting Diodes, your standard plant lights were those red and blue combos for indoor gardening and Sticking It To The Man. At that time, the idea was that daylight produced a specific ratio of red photons to blue photons: red photons have a shorter wavelength and therefore less energy but sunlight produces so many more, and blue photons are more energetic but much less common. Chlorophyll molecules can use the energy from both red and blue photons, and the mass production of blue LEDs in the early 2000s meant that LEDs could be used for high-intensity plant grow lights for the first time. You won’t need anything that specific unless you really like the look, and standard LED light bulbs are both considerably cheaper and easier to obtain.

Now the other thing to consider is the output. LEDs have the advantages of not dropping in light output with time the way fluorescents do, putting out far less of their energy consumption as heat, and having a much longer practical lifespan. Running for 12 hours a day on average, a typical LED bulb will last upwards of five years before finally expiring, as opposed to six months before fluorescents need to be replaced. In a workplace or home desk environment, white LED bulbs make a lot more sense.

From there, it’s a matter of looking for light output. For the most part, LEDs come in full-spectrum, warm white, and cool white options, with the full-spectrum bulbs usually costing a bit more. Aside from that, it’s whatever moves you and makes your plant look its best. The important consideration is the actual number of lumens (the standard measurement for light output) being emitted, and most bulbs are handily labeled for such. A perfect light output for small carnivorous plant containers is about 1600 lumens, but if you can’t remember that, the labels on most LED packages offer a handy alternative. Almost always in the upper right corner, those packages list the light output equivalent of an old-style incandescent bulb, and what you want to get is a 100-watt equivalent. The actual power consumption will be between 13 and 17 watts, depending upon the brand and the particular colors inherent in the light (full-spectrum LED bulbs tend toward 17 watts), but the light output will be the same. Whatever light option you want, get a 100-watt equivalent, and screw it into your desk lamp.

IMPORTANT: Go for a 100-watt equivalent LED bulb, not an actual 100-watt LED bulb. Not only is that amount of power consumption not necessary, but most desk lamps were designed for 40 to 60 watts of power consumption. While the bulb may not be throwing off the ridiculous amounts of heat that an old 100-watt incandescent bulb did, the wiring and socket can overheat and become a fire risk.

LED bulbs produce less heat than compact fluorescent bulbs and a lot less than old-style incandescent bulbs, but they’ll still generate some heat. Therefore, unless your workspace is considerably colder than most, and I’ve worked in some horrendously cold offices, set your lamp head about a handspan away from your plant and turn it on. If you want to get fancy or to make sure your plant gets light over the weekend or over vacation, consider getting a timer, analog or digital, to set the light output to match day/night hours over the year. With this setup, it’s possible to keep many species of Asian pitcher plant and tropical sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts well away from other available light sources.

A few things to consider:

  • Many offices turn off air conditioning over the weekend as a cost-saving measure, and some carnivores such as Cape sundews (Drosera capensis) have issues with temperatures going above 26 degrees C/80F. Cape sundews react to excessive heat, either from the light or from other sources, by burning back, and Asian pitcher plant leaves turn a brassy color when getting too much light. If these happen, pull back the lamp another handspan and watch to see if the situation improves.
  • Even though you and your plant may enjoy the high levels of light from your lamp, coworkers and supervisors may not, and this situation is particularly exacerbated in the ongoing nightmare of the open office. To keep stray light from annoying coworkers and control freaks alike, consider using a light shield made of cardboard, polycarbonate plastic (old political campaign banners cut to size and painted work well), or Mylar to keep the light reflecting back on the plant and not in coworker eyes.
  • In a typical work environment, you may get well-meaning coworkers or security crew who see a light on without you at the desk, and think they’re doing you a favor by turning it off, or busybodies who don’t like having it left on over the weekend. Signage can minimize a lot of this, even if it’s a sign over the light switch reading “This Light Is Running On Purpose.”
  • It may be perfectly obvious that the light is there for a carnivorous plant, but take into account roommates, coworkers, and supervisors with a phobia of reptiles or arthropods that might assume that your container is a home for a snake or insect. Again, a sign or tag stating “Nothing But Us Plants” is a good idea, as well as one reading “Please Do Not Feed Me” for those who decide they want to watch your plant feed and drop in whatever they find. If they keep it up anyway, well, at least you have a portable lamp to move your plant to home…or to work.