Category Archives: Publishing

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.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

Clarkesworld magazine - March 2019

For those who tuned in late, your humble gallery operator once used to be a pro writer. Thirty years ago this month, my first published article appeared in the pages of the long-defunct science fiction zine New Pathways, and that continued for another 13 years. Ten years ago this month, the first collection from that wild period, Greasing the Pan, saw print. After that, aside from a few relapses, bupkis. It was a very easy decision to stay away, if not for much-missed friends and cohorts who kept assuming that I’d come back “any day now.” I may write occasionally on subjects of particular passion, but I’m not going back to being a writer, and I’ve had to excise a lot of people, all of whom assume that the calendar will flip back to 1997 any day now, who refuse to understand the difference.

And now the latest relapse: a discussion on sorcerers’ gardens and on running magical nurseries as a business, in the March 2019 Clarkesworld. Most of this was due to wanting to explore certain tropes in fantasy literature with a high potential for humor (let’s face it: “Johnny Pink Bunkadooseed” would make a great story), and part of it was due to the reputation of nonfiction editor Kate Baker. This isn’t the only planned relapse: I’m currently composing a similar take on unorthodox carnivorous plant tropes for the April issue. Just don’t expect a return to pro writing, because the gallery and its care is a lot more important.

In the meantime, feel free to spread this far and wide, because I can’t wait to read the stories and novels running with the concepts therein. And because every idea thief needs to leave his knife, this wouldn’t have happened without the influence of Tobias Buckell, Saladin Ahmed, and the crimefighting team of Ernest Hogan and Emily Devenport. Always give credit to friends: always.

Cat Monday, the Explanation

Cadigan/Leiber/Steadman books

Every once in a while, people come across this silly little blog or actually come to the house and visit, and they ask about the cats. Well, they don’t ask about the cats per se, but they ask about the names. Everyone knows that cat people have a thing about odd names, but people who know me know that I have a thing for reasonably obscure ones, too. This is a deliberate effort to confuse visitors, so they don’t stick around long enough to discover that I don’t name the plants. Believe it or not, it works remarkably well. The only problem is that they continue to ask about the cats, wondering “Why would you choose those names?” When they realize that I used to be a professional writer before I came to my senses, they simply smile and nod, instead of screaming and running for the door. Not that I mind their screaming and running, but the Czarina has issues with this when her parents come over: they have enough of a problem with the life-sized Nanotyrannus head hanging over the toilet in the spare bathroom.

As it turns out, a run on a used bookstore week before last dredged up some beauties, giving me the opportunity to illustrate the examples. Well, that and torment the increasingly more sporadic visitors when they come by.

In the case of Cadigan, she actually had things pretty easy. Her story actually starts twenty years before she was born, when a then-girlfriend came up and told me “You HAVE to read this book.” At the time, I got a lot of that, and was already starting to blanch over the word “cyberpunk” being thrown around about it. At the time, the word was less a description of a certain subgenre of science fiction involving situations where technology outstrips ethics and becoming more of a marketing catchphrase, like “steampunk” today. Worse, by 1992, the subgenre itself had gone from being more punk to more cyber, attracting both writers and readers with an unhealthy obsession with downloading their personalities into computers and leave the meat behind because, as I wrote later, “they couldn’t get laid in Tijuana with a jockstrap full of $100 bills.” (Yeah, I was a little angry back in the early Nineties.) After trying my best to plow through many of the more recommended books at the time, and realizing that the people who read Bruce Sterling novels do so because they can’t handle the depth of characterization in Microsoft operation manuals, I shuddered and gulped, and took a chance on her recommendation. And that book damaged my fragile little mind.

For those who know Pat Cadigan, you already understand why I named my little orange cat after her. For those who don’t, let’s just say that they both have the same curiosity and general attitude about life. Science fiction enthusiasts talk about how Arthur C. Clarke developed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite but failed to patent it, but if Pat had the time back in the early Nineties to file patents on many of the ideas in her novel Synners alone, she’d own half of the planet right now. Bill Gates would be her personal doormat, and Steve Ballmer would dance every time she shot at his feet. Just tell yourself, tell yourself, that you could look into the eyes of a kitten with exactly the same expression that Pat gets when she’s on a roll and not think of naming that kitten after her?

Sadly, Leiber was a mistake, at least as far as naming him was concerned. He also had the glint in his eye as a kitten, encouraging me to name him after the much-missed author Fritz Leiber. (The Czarina’s nickname itself came from Leiber’s famous chess ghost story “Midnight By the Morphy Watch,” included in the pictured collection, because of her intensity in learning how to play chess.) Both the grey fur and the green eyes were regular themes in his novels, so it seemed like a good idea. Something happened, though, while I was living in Tallahassee at the end of 2002, and I came back to find him a bit broken. He’s a sweet cat, and enjoyable in his own way, but to call him “dopy” is to be nice. I once had a dog that was smarter than Leiber is, and this was a dog who regularly walked into sliding-glass doors. Combine this with his incessant one-note chirping, over and over and OVER all night long, and I’ve threatened on more than one occasion to rename him “Doctorow”. In that situation, the name might fit, because if this cat could speak English, all he could manage would be “Humperdidoo!”

And the third book? Well, we’ve run out of cats, but this one had particular significance back around 1997 when it came out. Not only did I have a ginger cat named “Jones” at the time, but I also had a savannah monitor at the time named “Steadman”. When friends would ask for that story, and they learned very rapidly not to ask again, for anything, I just told them the tale of the baby lizard I brought home for my birthday in 1997. The hatchling lizard that went into a large cage, loosened his bowels for maximum effect, and very promptly managed to make the inside resemble a Ralph Steadman painting. That was the day, after removing him from said cage and having to climb inside to clean the filth he’d managed to spatter on the ceiling, that I first coined the phrase “a stench that could burn the nose hairs out of a dead nun,” and he rarely disappointed me in new opportunities to use it. Most savannah monitors tend toward personalities that blend David Bowie and Sid Vicious, but Steadman was pure G.G. Allin. In that case, he was the perfect personification of my writing career at that time.

That about sums it up at the time, although the Czarina makes vague noises about another cat, and I’ve made my choice of next pet very plain. With the next cat, the deal is that s/he who pays the adoption fee gets to name the beast, so I suspect she’s saving her pennies in anticipation.

Free Story Idea, One Inside This Box!

“But Darwin was clever and observant; for all the violence of nature, he knew that most evolutionary dramas were played to a subtler script, the day-to-day interaction between the antelope and the grass, the squirrel and the acorn. Plants and plant-eaters co-evolved. And plants aren’t the passive partners in the chain of terrestrial life. Hence today’s Pop Ecology movement is quite wrong in believing that plants are happy to fill their role as fodder for herbivores in a harmonious and perfectly balanced ecosystem. A birch tree doesn’t feel cosmic fulfillment when a moose munches its leaves; the tree species, in fact, evolves to fight the moose, to keep the animal’s munching lips away from vulnerable young leaves and twigs. In the final analysis, the merciless hand of natural selection will favor the birch genes that make the tree less and less palatable to the moose in generation after generation. No plant species could survive for long by offering itself as unprotected fodder.”
“When Dinosaurs Invented Flowers,” The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert T. Bakker, Ph.D (1986)

It’s no secret that, over a decade back, I used to be a science fiction writer. No, scratch that: I was a science fiction essayist. Never wrote any fiction that came close to being published, but I wrote a lot about the genre and subjects related to it. It started out with the lowest of the low, film reviews for long-dead zines, but then I migrated to science essays and articles and everything really went crazy. That’s when I ran into a fundamental dichotomy in science fiction: while everyone keeps emphasizing the “science” in the name, it’s an overemphasis on what would be considered “applied science” in the Dewey Decimal System. Engineering and mechanics are the main sciences observed and utilized in much SF, particularly what’s commonly categorized as “hard science fiction,” and for someone like me with an ongoing fascination with the biological sciences, the reality was a lot more engrossing than the fiction.

And that’s one of the problems with far too much science fiction: authors who spend months and years fussing about the physics and the tech being used by an alien species, who even write up scientific papers based on the research they conducted, and their biology begins and ends with what they half-remember from high school. With the exception of Robert Sawyer, you don’t see too many hard SF writers with extensive experience in biology or palaeontology. (You do see quite a few horror writers with an extensive zoology and/or palaeo background, ranging from H.P. Lovecraft to Caitlin R. Kiernan, and I’m not sure why, but I’m not complaining.) It’s bad enough when you read stories where the characters and motivations are secondary to showing off some spiffy tech Big Think, but it’s particularly disappointing reading a novel where the details of a starship drive are worked out to eight decimal places, and the creators of that drive are tetrapods or arthropods with a slightly different number of fingers or eyes. I started walking away from the genre after realizing how real zoology was so much more fascinating than the fiction, and when I started studying botany, that’s when I started to run.

The problem with this comes with remembering themes and concepts that were absolutely riveting to me three decades ago, but that leave much, well, everything to be desired. After a while, it’s a matter of reverse-engineering a mediocre (to me) idea and revving it up a bit. That’s a standard trope in writer’s guides: if you’re inspired to write because you read someone else’s story and you know you can do better, then do so. Or, with those of us with no real interest in writing fiction, passing on the ideas to friends and cohorts and seeing what they do with it. And thus, supercharging a glimpse on a sidestory, it’s time to put a nitrous rig and V8 blower on a childhood favorite of mine, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede by the late James P. Hogan.

To give the background to The Gentle Giants of Ganymede requires recapping the previous book in the series, Inherit the Stars, so hang on. The action starts in the near future, after humanity buils a significant presence on the moon. In the course of development, a crew discovered a spacesuited corpse in a hollow. The deceased, nicknamed “Charlie,” was human, but his corpse had been sitting in that lunar hollow for 50,000 years. In the course of trying to understand how a technologically advanced human ended up on the moon when all of Earth’s hominins were still in the Stone Age, a research team came across a derelict spacecraft buried in the ice on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. This ship dated from about 25 million years ago, and was operated by an obviously alien species therefore nicknamed “Ganymeans”. Not only was there the mystery of why the Ganymeans had crashed there, but the hold was full of preserved specimens of Earth animals from the Miocene, including some early apes. Our intrepid heroes learn that the Ganymeans were indigenous to Minerva, a planet that used to exist between Mars and Jupiter, and apparently transported terrestrial life to Minerva for unknown reasons. The Ganymeans left the solar system for equally unknown reasons, leaving those terrestrial animals to take over, and the early apes apparently evolved into Charlie’s people and later our own ancestors.

But there’s more. Shortly after the brouhaha with Charlie and learning of humanity’s Minervan sidetrip, experimentation with pieces of the ship on Ganymede helps bring up a bit of cosmic flotsam. Namely, 25 million years before, a Ganymean starship left a world thousands of light-years away in a hurry as the world it was visiting went supernova. Because of the haste of the departure, the Shapieron left without any easy way to brake, and the ship spent twenty years subjective time slowing down by orbiting the whole of the solar system. Thanks to time dilation, 20 years went by outside while 25 million years went by outside the ship’s gravitational bubble. The Ganymeans pick up a transmission from a distress beacon activated by human techs, limp to Ganymede, discover that their homeworld is asteroidal debris between Mars and Jupiter, and then have to decide what to do from there.

Now what does this have to do with botany? Hang on: I’m getting there. One of the main physical and psychological tropes of the Ganymeans is that they’re absolutely incapable of violence or aggression. The idea was that when vertebrate life developed on Minerva, it had to face much higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than on Earth, and the early Minervan fish dealt with this by developing a dual circulatory system. One half of the system handled oxygen and nutrients, while the other processed and excreted carbon dioxide and other wastes. One group of these fish amped up the amount of waste in the secondary circulatory system, essentially leaving them poisonous. The immediate advantage was that carnivory never had a chance to get established in subsequent generations of Minervan vertebrates, as anything taking a bite out of a neighbor would die right then and there. The immediate disadvantage was that intermingling fluids from the two systems, such as with injuries, would kill the victim, too. Ergo, the ancestors of the Ganymeans evolved to be very careful and thorough, with cooperation instead of competition being a serious survival trait. Because of an absence of predators, Minervan lifeforms took on all sorts of odd traits and behaviors, on the assumption that they’d never learn fight-or-flight instincts. Even after the Ganymeans used genetic engineering to remove the need for the secondary system, they still kept those traits, allowing them to develop high technology and travel to the stars solely by their need to be of use to someone.

Now, I’m not going to go into further detail on the story, or the Ganymeans’ trip to Earth, which they knew 25 million years before as “The Nightmare Planet” because of its indigenous carnivores. I will note that, as with a lot of genre writers, James Hogan made a lot of assumptions about how life might evolve on other worlds as compared to Earth. For instance, even though vertebrates are only a tiny contingent of multicellular life on Earth compared to arthropods, annelids, and cnidarians, the only animal life on Minerva seemed to be analogs to terrestrial vertebrates. No parallels to insects, worms, crustaceans, or chelicerates, either in the oceans or on land.

Likewise, almost nothing is presented about Minervan plants: in the story, one scientist manages to isolate frozen indigenous seeds from debris in the ship on Ganymede, and amazingly gets these seeds to germinate. (Considering that background radiation on Earth after a few thousand years is the equivalent of a major nuclear strike, it’s hard enough to get date palm seeds from Masada to germinate. For similar seeds to survive 25 million years of radiation from Jupiter’s radiation belts, that ship on Ganymede must be a really special construct.) Other than the fact that they’re described as being nearly solid black to absorb the slightest bit of ambient light, they also appear to be identical to Earthly monocot or eudicot plants. No specializations, no particular traits to separate them from terrestrial plants: while it’s perfectly reasonable that similar structures would develop to take advantage of similar physical conditions, these plants are too much like their Earthly analogues.

And here’s where the turbocharging comes in. Let’s work with the structure presented to us: Minerva has no other terrestrial life other than its vertebrates, these vertebrates are all poisonous to each other, the vertebrates are all vulnerable to even superficial bruises and cuts, and that they’re all eating the same plants. Now let’s see what happens.

Firstly, as anyone who grew up on National Geographic specials will tell you, “herbivorous” does not mean “inoffensive”. Cape buffalo and elk and wombats are all herbivorous, and only fools get close enough for any of these to gore, trample, or bite. In Earth’s past, many herbivores may have been worse: many palaeontologists note that the real danger from a Triceratops wasn’t from its horns, but from its parrot beak. Hogan’s description of early Minervan forms included the need for armor or padding of some sort to fend off accidental injuries. That immediately gives a survival advantage, and also gradually remove any inhibitions on beastly behavior. Hippos, for instance, are highly territorial, and they’re even more likely to attack fellow herbivores such as elephants and Cape buffalo than they are to attack carnivores such as lions or crocodiles. With no prodding whatsoever, you could very easily see the Lystrosaurus of Minerva as a beast that combined the hippo’s easy-going herbivorous nature with the armor of a glyptodont or ankylosaur. Big armor-plated grumps with tail clubs would be dangerous enough on Earth, but with that dual circulatory system issue, one scrape on a spike or tusk or a bruise from a club would be lethal for anything trying to get their own share of fodder. It’s possible that the Ganymeans developed intelligence not out of a sense of ingrained altruism, but as a way to fight off the shellosaurs that left only the vegetation that they couldn’t eat.

This leads to another major issue. On Earth, plants have a LOT of defenses to prevent their being stripped, as Dr. Bakker above would put it, down to the soil line. For instance, many plants produce phytoliths: bits of silica grown within plant cells. Many plants use phytoliths as defenses: a theory about the spread of grasses across Earth held that grass phytoliths were too abrasive for herbivores unable to process them, and plants such as horsetails use their phytoliths as protection against both vertebrate and arthropod foraging. In other physical defenses, look at the effectiveness of spines and thorns, ranging from cactus to raspberries. While many may produce fruits, nuts, or other incentives to have their seeds spread elsewhere, the plant may not itself intend to be eaten before it produces said incentives: look at Capsicum peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and other members of the Solanaceae and the number with toxic foliage. If Minerva’s vertebrates left the oceans at about the same time as Earth’s, then we’re looking at anywhere between 350 and 400 million years of plant efforts to fend off herbivore demolition, suggesting that the Minervan flora might have much more in common with chollas than with philodendrons. (Don’t knock seemingly innocent houseplants, though, as many of these are dangerously toxic, too. Eating the fruit of a Monstera deliciosa would be deadly to early Minervan organisms thanks to the oxalic acid crystals growing in the unripe portions. Don’t even get me going about making a rhubarb leaf salad.)

Plants also have other, more subtle defenses. Take a look at the capsicum oil in hot peppers or the hallucinogens in Datura stramonium, not to mention the urushiol oil in cashews and poison ivy. It’s not always necessary to kill a herbivore: sometimes, simply persuading it not to feed on a plant again is enough, whether that’s via blister agents or the world’s worst bad trip. In fact, based on Hogan’s original rules about the Ganymeans, plant consumption by Minervan animals would select for the production of hallucinogens of all sorts. If bruising yourself was a death sentence, noting that your buddy Fred decided to go galumphing down a hillside while tripping might be notice enough to a reasonable warning for any Minervan social animal.

And here’s where it gets even better. As the quote at the beginning of this essay noted, plants don’t passively wait for animals to eat them. They themselves adapt and evolve, not just to prevent or forestall foraging but also to fill new ecological niches unused by others. The animals evolve in turn. As new mutations show up in one group of animals to process a particular toxin in a common plant, those animals become dominant, and the plants had best find a way, one way or another, to prevent their chromosomes from being removed from the gene pool. The development of intelligence just increases the pressure in certain ways: look at the number of human dishes, from masa to poi, that detoxify otherwise dangerous foods. Considering how we humans select varieties of plants for size, flavor, and ease in growing, it stands to reason that the Ganymean agricultural revolution would have run in parallel. That doesn’t just apply to food, either, as there’s no reason to believe that Ganymeans wouldn’t breed new plant varieties as spices, medicines, relaxants, and euphorics.

One last part that hasn’t been considered is the complications that come from dead Ganymeans. Hogan’s novel mentioned that Ganymeans buried their dead, but no mention of how those bodies were processed by microbial and multicellular scavengers. It stands to reason that Minerva was just as rotten, pun intended, with microbes as Earth, and many wouldn’t care about the toxicity of that dual circulatory system. Likewise, nobody said anything about Minervan corpses remaining poisonous after death, and it’s perfectly reasonable to see certain otherwise completely herbivorous Minervan animals feeding on their dead for extra nutrients, in much the same way that red deer on the Isle of Rum feed on seabirds. However, and this goes straight into science fiction speculation here, what about the plants filling that niche?

By way of example, lots of flowering plants produce seeds that stick to passing animals. Thistles, sandburrs, Devil’s claws: all of these take advantage of seeds that adhere to skin, fur, or clothing to spread them far past the plant’s immediate range. Others take advantage of animals to spread their seeds via dung: a prevailing theory holds that Capsicum peppers became as hot as they are to attract feeding birds, which pass the seeds through their gut, and repel mammals, which have guts that destroy the seeds. Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera) became extinct through most of their range probably because the various Pleistocene megafauna that ate their fruit and spread their seeds became extinct themselves. As with an earthly herbivore, a dead Minervan herbivore would be a huge source of available nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and the trick would be to use those nutrients before something else did. The problem most plants would face would be to have a way to have seeds on that body at the right time, under the right circumstances, so they took advantage of that treasure.

In pure speculation, it’s not hard to picture a large group of Minervan plants with seeds that sprouted the moment it picked up byproducts of cell autolysis. These might be ones sticking to hair or armor, or they might be ones held internally. If Minervan animals had the equivalent of a gizzard, you’re looking at evolutionary pressures to produce seeds that could be used as gastroliths, especially in areas without decent rocks suitable for gizzard stones. If they didn’t, then one can picture any number of adaptations, such as seed coats that stuck (gently) to the intestinal wall, or various compounds that encourage the herbivores to keep coming back and eating more seeds. Either way, they hang on and wait, the Minervan critter drops dead, and within three or four days, the whole corpse is awash with new plant growth. Within a month, most of the easily utilizable nutrients have already been absorbed by root and rhizome, and the cycle continues.

With all this in mind, one of the big plot points in The Gentle Giants of Ganymede is that the Ganymeans, for various reasons, left Minerva for a new world, and left Minerva to the descendants of the Earthly animals they’d previously picked up. The idea was that since the indigenous Minervan forms were all helpless herbivores, the introduced Terran carnivores fed on them until the herbivore populations managed to get established. 25 million years later, one group of transplanted apes developed sentience, developed civilization, developed high technology, blew up their adopted world, and then traveled to their original home to start over. Yeah, one big “what-if” story, but typical for science fiction.

Consider, though, what probably would have happened after the Ganymeans left. The big terrestrial predators would be facing herbivores that knew perfectly well how to protect themselves from competition, and the terrestrial herbivores wouldn’t know what hit them. By the time they left, the Ganymeans would have left behind a flora where they ate Datura as mild relaxants, munched rhubarb leaves for salad, and filled baby bottles full of sriracha. By terrestrial standards, just about everything in the local gardens would be dangerously toxic or otherwise inedible, with seeds that latched onto intestinal walls and set off fatal bouts of peritonitis. And if that isn’t cheery enough, then consider that scientist who grew samples of Minervan plants in his lab: if he had any brains at all, he’d torch his whole lab rather than risk any samples getting back to Earth. One sprig of Minervan nightshade in a suitable climate, and you could kiss all of the indigenous flora goodbye, because nothing could compete with it in utilizing sunlight.

Anyway, have fun with your stories. Between this and a good rereading of David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr novels, you should give gardeners nightmares for years.

Jalapeno popper recipes: JUST ONE FIX

My friend Michael Hultquist is a bad man. No, I take that back. He’s a bad, bad, BAD man. Positively EVIL. The sort of guy who comes up behind exhausted parents and gives their children four shots of espresso and a puppy. I can say this, because he just let me know that he’s put together a whole site dedicated to jalapeno pepper recipes. I mean, he already has multiple books on chile pepper recipes out there, and now he has to offer MORE? The MONSTER.

Very seriously, I’m glad of this for one big reason. I was first turned onto cream cheese-stuffed jalapenos via the Red Hot & Blue barbecue chain, where they were titled “Red Hot Chili Poppers”. Unfortunately, Red Hot & Blue removed them from the menu about four years ago, and repeated entreaties to bring them back have been unsuccessful. (I’ve forgiven them this trespass. The Walnut Hill location is still my choice for takeout just before screenings of The Walking Dead.) Now, though, NOW…it’s time to experiment with the basic idea. Even better, it’s time to try some of these with some of the best from the Chile Pepper Institute.

Everyone’s got a book out but me

I don’t know what’s in the water right now, and I’m personally not complaining, but a whole slew of horticultural friends have books coming out in the next little while. I already mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center has an upcoming book on miniature gardens that’s going right into the library as soon as I get it. Two other friends have upcoming books as well, and now is the time to start the hype machine so nobody forgets to put in an order.

To begin, I’ve become convinced that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is my real sister. Or at least the one that lived. If she isn’t a sister, then she’s a very close cousin, because her sense of humor is almost as black as mine. Or maybe that’s just mushroom compost. Anyway, her first book, imaginatively titled Kiss My Aster, comes out at the end of the year, and I’ve already sworn to her that if she tries to give me a free copy, instead of paying full price for an autographed copy, I’ll walk to her house and talk her to death. If you turn your head toward Illinois and listen, you can just hear her screams of horror and rage. One way or another, I’m getting a copy, and it’ll have that most beloved of book dedications, “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

Now, I could bring up that Billy Goodnick is coming to Dallas next February to speak at the Dallas Arboretum. I could bring up that I plan to crash his lecture and just sit there, watching him, until he screams “LOOK, WILL YOU JUST HECKLE ME OR THROW ASPARAGUS AT ME OR SOMETHING?” This should be within the first fifteen seconds, seeing as how my visage could make a sundial run backwards. The real reason I’d be out there, though, is so I could get his upcoming book, Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, autographed.

With this autographing session, I have to move fast. He’s been lamenting whether or not this book will sell, so I told him the absolute truth. On a trip back from 2046, I saw what happened with it. Yes, it’s a success. Yes, he’s the first garden writer to get both a Pulitzer and a Nobel for a garden book. Unfortunately, between the calls from King Charles to give Billy a full knighthood, and the teenage groupies who keep smashing in the windows in order to get to him at night, he hasn’t had any sleep since next year. I don’t know where he gets the time to run that tachyon emitter to broadcast horticulture tips to his fans on Gliese 581c, but I understand they’ve carved his face into a cliff of pure frozen nitrogen on the outermost world in the system.

“Paul,” he told me, “you weren’t supposed to take the red pill AND the blue pill at the same time.”

“You know me better than that. You know the blue box in the back corner of my garden? It isn’t a Port-O-John, no matter how badly you want to use it as such.”

That said, buy his book as soon as it comes out, and I promise to introduce him to some particularly Dallasite examples of Crimes Against Horticulture. In certain parts of Dallas, he’ll probably fill up four or five microSD cards with photos, each one more Lovecraftian than the one before.

Oh, and for apartment dwellers, a treat. Fern Richardson, a very polite and kind individual whom I traumatized the last time the Garden Writers Association had its annual conference in Dallas, had her own book, Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage, and Herbs, released earlier this year. Considering that the front porch of my house is particularly onerous during summer, I’m snagging my copy as quickly as I can. I’m trusting that Fern will have plenty of ideas for sun-scorched spaces that won’t involve cactus.

As for me? After a few discussions at the Day Job with co-workers about peppers, and plenty of discussions at shows about carnivores, I’ve changed my mind about writing my own book. They didn’t understand why when I told them that I’d need an advance of at least $50,000, because that’s what the writing time spent away from plants, the Czarina, and Leiber would be worth. They didn’t understand when I said I was much more likely to play Russian roulette with an automatic. They didn’t understand when I told them I’d sooner watch a SyFy movie marathon, eyes propped open like Malcolm McDowall’s in A Clockwork Orange the whole time. Now I just tell them “I’ll be glad to write a new book, immediately after the Dallas Cowboys win their first shut-out World Series pennant.” That they understand.

A tribute, if you will

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, the quintessential Chicago newspaper columnist. To say that Royko was one of my most influential journalistic role models as a kid doesn’t even come close to the situation. In fact, not only did Royko influence the state of the newspaper column through the Twentieth Century, but I submit that media through the Twenty-First owes him recognition as well. You wouldn’t have had newspaper columnists as diverse as Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Lewis Grizzard without Uncle Mike’s inspiration, and I’m certain that if he were alive today, he’d have one of the most-read and most-quoted blogs on the planet.

At the same time, considering what has happened to standard journalism since he died, I also think he really got the last laugh. Royko was famous for quitting the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and laughing when Murdoch tried to pretend this wasn’t an issue and ran old Royko columns in their place. In some afterlife, I can see him cutting up with his friend Studs Terkel, howling “They practically gave me a state funeral! Talk about leaving early to avoid the rush! I wonder what they’re gonna do for Skip Bayless and Elvis Mitchell: set fire to the garbage can before tossing them in?”

Goodbye, Uncle Mike. And goodbye to your lifelong pal Slats Grabnik, too. There are times where my old friend Edgar Harris mourns that we won’t get any more anecdotes from Slats or Dr. I.M. Kookie as well.

Extreme Scot Frugality, Demonstrated

I’ll admit that, for someone my age, I have precious few freakouts over the times changing. If anything, anyone offering me the chance to go back to 1982, with or without my retaining everything that I’ve learned in the last thirty years, would get punched in the nose. (Well, that’s not completely fair. I’d go back for an hour, bushwhack my previous self from ’82 as he was coming home from school, break both knees, tell him to get his act together and quit journalism or I’d come back to finish the job, and then return to the present. But that’s just me.) Just when it comes to horticulture, viewing the new techniques, the new knowledge, and the new materials available that didn’t exist even five years ago blows me away. At least once a week, I look at how I can order seeds from South Africa and get detailed care instructions on plants indigenous to New Zealand, and set them underneath LED light systems designed to maximize the light usable by the plants while minimizing energy consumption. When I exclaim “I love living in the future,” I mean it.

As things change, though, I have to admit that sometimes while I don’t miss the past, I miss some of the side effects. I don’t miss the dank old decrepit hardware store in town, with the elderly owner who spent more time in day-long xenophobic diatribes than, say, sweeping the floors. However, I occasionally miss the days before elaborate point-of-sale systems at Home Depot, where I didn’t have to buy up the entire stock of an item I liked for fear that it would be discontinued and dumped in the “Clearance” aisle a week later. I don’t miss Sevin dust all over the cabbages by well-meaning relatives, but I actually miss bamboo leaf rakes that don’t cost the gross national product of Bosnia and that last more than one season. I like the automatic checkouts at garden centers. And I was surprised at how little I miss newspapers, but how much I find myself dependent upon newspapers a day or so later.

Odd as it sounds, newspaper has a million-and-five uses in the garden, and the decline of newspapers means that we’ll need new materials to replace it. Need to kill off grass in a new garden plot? Most garden guides recommend putting down several layers of newspaper over the grass, and then piling on fresh soil on top. Need a separation material between the various sheets of composting material in a lasagna garden? Nothing works better than newspaper. Remember the joys of making your own newspaper seed starter pots? Exactly how are you supposed to conserve on available resources if you’re having to buy sheets of paper to make them? Let’s see you use your iPad to pack up bare-root plants for transport, or to line a manure hotbed pit before filling it to the brim.

Until a few years ago, not buying the daily paper wouldn’t stop a dedicated gardener. Besides asking neighbors who were probably glad to hand over the 20 kilos of Sunday paper, you always had relatives who’d stack up the last few months’ reading matter until they decided it was time to dump it all. Go to work and stalk the break room, and the place would be loaded with discarded papers by about 10 in the morning. If that wasn’t an option, most cities had weekly newspapers that laughingly suggested “One copy is free; all other copies $2” on the front cover, with a handy address to receive the money. There was a bit of redundancy in spreading composted chicken manure over the Dallas Observer and its resident James Lipton of fandom‘s 60,000-word blatherings each week on comic books and Star Trek, but what can you do?

These days, though, finding a suitable supply of newsprint for gardening is quite the task. I have a friend and co-worker who does a lot of glasswork in his offtime, and he goes through a lot of newsprint during the shaping process. He finally filled a storage shed full of old newspapers, picked up Elvis-knows-where, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a new source. At the rate things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gardeners start stalking out crazy cat lady houses the way blacksmiths stalk out decommissioned wrought-iron bridges in the hopes of getting a suitable stockpile.

This isn’t to say that this is impossible. In my neighborhood, I already have a regular source for newspaper, and I don’t have to work at it. I just have to look for the sign.
For Rent sign

Now, for years, Dallas gardeners could always depend upon getting tremendous quantities of free newspapers from the Dallas Morning News, delivered every other day. That is, until a little circulation scandal that horrified the CEO of the company (wink, wink), and suddenly stopped the flow of valuable paper pulp when advertisers threatened a class action suit. Never let a good idea go to waste, the CEO thought, so suddenly the Morning News‘s parent company started offering several free options that included Briefing and Al Dia. Much like disliked relations, they tend to arrive unannounced and unwanted, with the recepient left with the responsibility of disposing of them. Although I imagine the parent company would like to tell advertisers that each issue gets opened and read by an adoring family of eight at each and every address, most Briefing issues are dumped in the garbage as quickly as they’re received or (in the case of a neighbor who was particularly disgusted with the littering of his yard) tossed into the street. At least twice a week, a surly delivery guy drops them off, and asking said delivery drone to not drop it off gets a snarl, a rude gesture, or a frantic chirp of “Call the home office! Call the home office!” And don’t get me going about actually calling the home office, because any attempt to stop delivery gets repeated phone calls asking “Are you sure? After all, you’ll miss out on valuable coupons in each paper,” in an age of QR codes.

Besides, what we’re gunning for here isn’t just a discussion of the increasing self-inflicted obsolescence of print newspapers. It’s a matter of knowing that you accomplished something good in the garden and in your neighborhood by taking something unwanted and unloved and turning it into something beautiful. Besides, we want a LOT of papers. This is why you want to look for those “For Sale/For Rent” signs. It’s because, in areas where Briefing and Al Dia are delivered, you get sights like this:

Pile of Belo Briefings

The Briefing delivery guys don’t care that their papers pile up for days, weeks, or even months, because their bosses are insistent that they get them out. Their bosses don’t care, because they don’t have to clean copies of Briefing off their lawns every other day. (The Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas County has strict ordinances involving the dumping of unwanted trash in public view, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of the county.) You could subscribe to Briefing and get those papers one bit at a time, or you could keep an eye open for houses under construction, houses abandoned in foreclosure, or houses between residents and literally clean up. Trust me: not only will the neighbors not have issues with your swiping the piles, but they’ll probably thank you for your conscientiousness in caring for your community.

Assorted Belo crap

What you do with those copies of Briefing depends upon your intent and their condition. Get a couple of weeks of dry weather, and those piles will be close to pristine. Get out after a good North Texas gullywasher, and you’d think those sopping wet lumps are unusable. Pshaw! Dump them into any decent grade of wood chipper, and you have a wonderful mass of moist paper fiber for all sorts of things. Add grass seeds before dumping it onto a bald patch in the yard, and you have hydromulch. Put the pulp in the bottom of flowerpots to retain water and cut down on the weight of standard potting mixes. Mix it with dirt to shore up raised beds, or use it as a proper mulch for roses and around irises. Compress it in bowls and paint with nontoxic paints to make seasonal toad houses. You’re making your community more beautiful in more ways than one, and for free.

I know this doesn’t help gardeners in other areas with their lack of gardening foolscap, but this might give you ideas on available sources in your area. For Dallas-area gardeners, though, take advantage of the surprise bounty, and make sure to send pictures of the process to the crew at the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure they and their advertisers would love to learn how much of an influence they have upon the horticultural arts.

– A tip of the hat to Barry Kooda, who has been dealing with the delivery of Briefing to empty lots in his neighborhood for a lot longer than I have.

Once more into the breach, once more

For those who didn’t know me in the black days known as “the Nineties,” I used to be a writer. Specifically, I used to write nonfiction for a plethora of science fiction magazines, culture zines, weekly newspapers, and other gathering posts for society’s detritus. After about 13 years of little recognition and less pay, I came to my senses and quit nearly a decade ago. I refer to my two temporary returns to standard writing as “relapses”, and it’s because of writing that I have sympathy and offer support for recovering heroin addicts. Writing is a nasty, foul, vile little business, and the only reasons I can see for wanting to go back to dealing with science fiction publishing are either addiction to the subject matter or a level of masochism that usually entails bunny suits, overflowing toilets, and six-foot sandstone strap-ons lubed with habanero peppers. (Now’s about the time I’m told by friends “Tell us what you really think.” That’s when I tell them about how the only way I got paid for one of those relapses was by threatening to out the personal E-mail addresses and phone numbers of every executive at SyFy if I didn’t receive my check, and they understand why I’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have to deal with that again.)

Strangely enough, though, I don’t have that level of hatred toward writing about horticulture. I have no delusions of reaching the heights of a Gertrude Jeckyll or even a Neil Sperry in garden writing. For me, it’s pure relaxation, spiced with a thrill coming from sharing new wonders with friends. And then there’s the cross-pollination with people in other endeavors: I haven’t found the right opportunity for another article about plants for Reptiles magazine, but the response to last year’s article on carnivorous plants in the vivarium gives me an itch to try this again.

Then there’s the newest addiction: dark gardening. And so now I start as the new gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine, starting with the Spring 2012 issue. Arioch, Issek, and Nyarlathotep help us all.

“If I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky?”

Thanks to general interests and the urge to accumulate potentially valuable information, I have a very odd horticultural library. The books on carnivorous plants are to be expected, as are the books on succulents, Datura, sharp gardens, scent gardens, bonsai, and Hon Non Bo. Then I have the inspirational guides for miniature gardens and terraria that cause guests’ eyebrows to shoot up so high that they’re latched to the ceiling by an eyelid. C’mon: how many other gardeners keep a copy of Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition in the reference library?

And then it comes down to getting good and dark. Now, Barlowe’s Inferno is a good start, but the trick with a good goth gardening library is to go subtle. At this point, half of the fun is having a fellow goth gardening enthusiasts look at a title on the shelf that doesn’t seem to fit…until they actually open it.

By way of example, I’ve mentioned the Joey Boxes in the past. Joey Shea and his lovely wife Cheryl LeBeau have been sending these to me for half my life as of this month, and there’s no telling what you can find in a given Joey Box. Naturally, I try to reciprocate without actually mailing anything alive. Yet. I think Cheryl needs a crocodile monitor about as badly as I do.

Anyway, I recently sent off a 20-kilo Joey Box out to Connecticut, and Joey retaliated with the ultimate in goth gardening volumes. We’re not talking about mere “if I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky?” gardening tips. We’re not talking vulgar, or obvious, or even well-documented. For me, the last time I received a compliment of this magnitude was when Harlan Ellison, one of my childhood role models, looked at me and said “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!” (I’d shaved my head the night before, so maybe he was biased. Either way, I took it in the spirit in which it was intended.) This may not be the Necronomicon of dark gardening, but it’s definitely on the level of The Pnakotic Manuscripts.

To start, this is what greeted me when I opened Joey’s package. No clues as to its history or heritage on the front cover.

The mysterious book

Nor anything on the spine.

The mysterious book's spine

Same with the frontspage. Obscure author, smaller publishing house, and publication from a year before I was born.

Book frontspage

The book is a good basic guide to gardening throughout the year, going day by day. The only thing that distinguishes it from other books on the same subject are these little drawings on chapter headings.

Twenty-Second Day

Twenty-Seventh Day

Sixteenth Day

May

Okay, so there has to be some deep, dark secret, right? This can’t be all there is to it, could it? Let’s take a quick peek at the copyright page, to see if any hint is available as to why Joey would have sent it.

Designed by Edward Gorey

No, you’re not imagining things. Take a closer look.

Designed by Edward Gorey closeup

That’s right: THAT Edward Gorey. Suddenly, those cheery little drawings have a whole new context, don’t they?

As can be expected, I’ll have to do some digging to find more backstory on this book and exactly what Gorey’s involvement was with the book and its illustrations. I don’t know for sure, for instance, if Gorey drew these wry little figures, or if all he did was the design of the book while using another artist’s work. The editor, Ralph Bailey, is equally obscure in today’s Web coverage, although he was apparently a talented enough photographer for House & Garden that Conde Nast sells a 1963 print of his fuchsia photo to this day. You can expect, though, that I’m going to have a lot of fun with the research. And knowing Joey, this is about the time he discovers a guide to Ford auto repair written and illustrated by Clark Ashton Smith.

Back to the linen mines

I’ve said before that I was goth back when the term still referred to Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’ve had lots of interesting dark gardening ideas running through my head for the last six months or so since the Gothing Beauty fiasco. Well, it’s time to go back to causing more trouble: as of today, I became the official gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine. Since the publication schedule is significantly more active than that of GB, expect a lot more in the way of pertinent subjects, including looks at moon gardens, sources for statuary, and prehistoric plants. I suspect that there’s room in the gardening writing community for one Turner Van Blarcum; come to think of it, I may have to talk to Turner about designing some drastically different plant stands for the Carpe Nocturne crowd.

Disturbing parallels involving “The Blair Witch Project”

Back in the early Nineties, back during the beginnings of my science fiction essay writing days (which made about as much of an impression as Jeffrey Dahmer’s track record with managing vegan restaurants), I was a regular guest at a series of now-long-defunct Dallas-based comic conventions. While the main emphasis of the shows was on packing as many people into the dealer’s hall as possible, the promotion of these shows usually emphasized at least one child or cult actor from the Sixties, signing autographs and otherwise comporting themselves in interesting fashions. (I can, for instance, relate without shame that I was very nearly responsible for causing one such former child actor to jump out a 20th-story window in a Fort Worth hotel nearly 20 years ago. That story involved a friend’s phone prank, two of the scariest strippers in the Southwest, and an abandoned copy of the second issue of Evan Dorkin’s Milk & Cheese comic, and will only be related in person. During the book tour, and only after the publisher delivers the baby crocodile monitor that’s a deal-breaker for the contract in lieu of an advance.)

The organizer of said convention was, in some ways, savvier than any of us realized, as I realized when I asked him why the shows kept featuring Sixties-era TV actors as headliner guests instead of, I don’t know, inviting various literary science fiction stars. In fact, that was the argument I was giving him at the time. He just guffawed and told me that those actors were absolute gold for his shows. Nobody in the general public would give a flip about Gil Kane or Harlan Ellison as a guest star, but radio morning show hosts and “Weekend Guide” editors would go bonkers for the opportunity to relate “Hey, Bill Mumy of Lost In Space is going to be out at the show this weekend, so don’t miss out!” As much as it ground my jaws at the time, he was right, and a lot of attendees who’d sooner gnaw their own legs off than go to a comics convention raced out to the shows because of that connection.

And now the horticulture connection. Many of us GenXers may remember Heather Donahue, mostly for her starring role in the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project. Judging by a recent interview, I suspect that she’d appreciate a quote from former Butthole Surfers lead singer Gibby Haynes: “The worst thing in the world is to be famous with no money.” She apparently moved from acting into medical marijuana, and she’s currently on a tour to promote her upcoming book Growgirl: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot.

Reading the interview, I was struck by how much her life paralleled mine. In 1999, she was starring in The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, I was working for SCI Fi magazine, a publication that passed up on covering the original Blair Witch Project but made up for it with sycophantic coverage of Blair Witch 2. She dumped all of her acting memorabilia in the desert and moved into medical marijuana. I dumped all of my science fiction writing memorabilia on eBay and moved into carnivorous plants. She started taking medical marijuana to treat PMS. I was born just weeks before LSD became illegal in the US. She had concerns with writing about her experiences after a friend was busted by the Feds. I had concerns with writing about my experiences after confirming I had an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. She has fans in the millions, and will probably do very well with her book tour. I have fans in the dozens, and couldn’t give away my books with free beer. The similarities are just uncanny.

Horticulture and publishing, part 6

Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.

The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.

When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.

Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.

As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.

Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.

And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.

This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.