Tag Archives: Dallas weather

The Magic Grapefruit Seed Theory

Reunion Tower

I’m regularly asked, by people who don’t live here, why I remain in the Dallas area. It’s definitely been a while: I celebrate the 35th anniversary of my first move to the Metroplex this December, with escapes in 1985, 1996, and 2002, but I keep coming back. In the last ten years, it’s started turning into the city it always could have been, and now I honestly can’t see living anywhere else. I’m not saying the place is perfect, and it’ll never be perfect, but it’s close enough for my needs.

One of the reasons why I love this town is because of the little things that make the place interesting. For decades, Dallas earned its reputation as “all hat, no cattle” by overhyping pretty mediocre venues in a desperate bid for international attention, while elected officials and noted businessmen worked their utmost to scuttle wonders for which they weren’t getting a cut. To this day, we always alternate between wanting an area or event to get proper recognition so it can grow, and trying to hide it so the SMU brats don’t “discover” it and gentrify it to death.

Texas School Book Depository

Sometimes, those little things are in plain sight. For instance, I started a new Day Job back last March. The upshot of this was that I get up at Even The Birds Are Telling Me To Go Back To Sleep Ayem and hitch a ride on the DART rail system practically to DFW Airport. In the process, I go by the notorious Texas School Book Depository twice per day, right along the back, and I see things in the summer morning light. Terrible things.

Hey man, nice shot

Not that this is particularly new: for all of the treasures in the Dallas Arboretum and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the most famous horticultural display in all of North Texas is the north side of Dealey Plaza. Yes, this is the famed “grassy knoll,” subject of conspiracy theories and Bill Hicks jokes alike. For spending a total of nearly a third of a century here, I’ve only been here maybe three times in my life. Once the original wood fence came down a decade ago, it actually lost some of its charm…if your idea of “charm” consisted of enjoying morbid graffiti on the back of the fence along the lines of “Hey Man, Nice Shot.”

Sixth Floor Museum sign
No, the surprise came from passing by the back of the Sixth Floor Museum. Well, technically, it’s the front of the Museum display, but it’s the back of the original Depository building, For health and safety issues, the original structure has a very robust fire escape, brick painstakingly chosen to match the original building, and as such doesn’t contrast with the original the way far too many Dallas residential “improvements” do.

Texas School Book Depository

After a few weeks of passing by, that’s when I first saw it. At first, all I could see from the train was a clump of green on the sixth floor fire escape. The train rushed by fast enough that I couldn’t make out much more than that, but I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of round leaves, like a citrus tree’s. My first thought? “Someone has a Meyer lemon up there? Cool!”

Lee Harvey Orange

My problem here was getting proof. I finally decided one day about two weeks ago to drag my camera out that way and get a good photo to show friends, and wouldn’t you know it, the plant disappeared the day I was prepared. Any conspiracy theorist worth his salt would have said “they probably brought it inside to repot it or clean it,” but I had no doubt that someone was determined to prevent me from getting a photo of “Lee Harvey Orange”. One online wag joked that it had been taken out by “Jack Ruby Red Grapefruit”, and I was starting to wonder.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. Today was a particularly cloudy and cool day for the middle of June in Dallas, so instead of catching my transfer in downtown, I figured that I could sneak by and sneak a shot of Lee Harvey. He was back in the fire escape again, and without the afternoon sun shining right in my eyes, I figured that I’d have my chance. At least I wasn’t a patsy.

Squeaky Frond

Well, the bad news is that Lee Harvey wasn’t a citrus tree after all. Based on an evaluation of the final image, Lee Harvey is most likely a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), but a positive ID requires a trip to the Sixth Floor itself, and that’s going to require a free weekend. In fact, I just may bring a citrus tree as a peace offering, because that corn plant just doesn’t fit the space. It would probably be better for the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum, because it’s much less “Lee Harvey Orange” than “Squeaky Frond.”

Texas: The Original Deathworld

My friend Dave Hutchinson in the UK and I have an ongoing challenge. He asks me for reasons why he should come to Texas for a visit, and I immediately respond with the most horrifying thing I can find. Giant spiders, baby birds that eat other baby birds, photos of my state legislators. He then screams like a wounded rabbit, tells me that Texas is nothing but a nightmare manufactured in a factory run by asylum inmates and powered with psilocybin mushrooms, and I show him something even worse. I then inform him “the inmates went catatonic ten years ago, and so now the whole place runs off ketamine fumes.” Trust me: he’s not hiding behind his sofa just because of the Daleks.

On easygoing days, I just tell Dave about mesquite thorns and the time an armadillo jumped up and nearly knocked out my front teeth. Other days, I describe the joys of second-degree sunburn and fire ant stings. A few asides about watching cicada killer wasps collecting fresh hosts for their young, and he’s glibbering and meeping. It’s on special days, though, that I tell him about the weather. He knows the normal progression of Texas summer from “hot” to “my eyeballs are melting” to “my guts are steam-broiling just looking at the thermometer”, but he doesn’t believe me about the torrential thunderstorms we get.

Not that I blame him for the concern. When the forecast in the UK is for torrential rain, that presupposes all of two inches over the space of, oh, a couple of days. In severe storms, that two inches may come down in the space of hours. When I told him about how an average storm in Dallas might give us two inches of rain within about twenty minutes, there we went underneath the couch again. Were I closer, his left leg would be a full six inches longer than his right, just from my grabbing him by the ankle and pulling him out from underneath the couch to show him the baseball-sized hail we occasionally get. He still doesn’t believe my story about how I got the Harry Potter scar on my forehead from a full sheet of plywood caught in the winds of a dust storm thirty years ago.

“Dust storm?”, he’d squeak. “What were you doing: riding sandworms or something?”

“Nope: feeding pigs. Same thing around here, really.”

Baaaaaaaack under the sofa. I think the Daleks are under there, too.

What’s really sad about this is that I used to get the Czarina into the same state. After a decade of threatening to adopt crocodile monitors and having to explain to her mother the other meaning of the term “fluffer”, nothing fazes her any more. Nothing. I’ve tried to get a response out of the Elbows of Doom, but anything that might get them to slide of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor is something that’s already so dangerous and insane that the Elbows might be a blessing. We’re talking “going to a science fiction convention and telling everyone around that Firefly has to be one of the worst genre television shows made this side of Lexx” dangerous. I’ve tried that, too, and she just pats me on the head.

I know this won’t last, though. The moment I start insulting Project Runway, I’m doomed.

Well, that’s what I thought. And then Dallas caught the tail-end of the second big storm front of the week. Based understandably on events in Oklahoma the day before, we were all bracing for the worst, or at least a repeat of March 2012’s tornado nightmare. This time, no tornado, no hail, no boom. No boom tomorrow, either. Instead, we got blinding rain, the sort where you have to hold your hand over your mouth when moving in it to keep from suffocating. Naturally, it’s during the height of it that the Czarina calls up to ask if I need a ride home from the Day Job.

“Not at all. In fact, I’m planning to bicycle home.”

“Okay, whatever you say. No starlets, now.”

Dave couldn’t believe this. He simply refused to accept that I’d be crazy enough to do this. That’s when I upped the ante and told him “I just bet her $5 that I could make it home without being hit by lightning. $10 if I held a golf club over my head the whole way.”

“$10? You value your life so little that you’d do something like that for $10?”

“Well, if I bet anything more than that, she’d figure I was cheating. If I get hit by lightning, she inherits everything, and she knows I’m worth a total of $11.32, if she wants to take the time to cash in those deposit Dr. Pepper bottles.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Absolutely. If she hangs onto the Dr. Pepper bottles for another 30 years, they may be worth more as collectibles than for their deposit.”

And there goes Dave back under the couch, and he’s got the Cybermen and Sontarans under there with him. Should I tell him about our hailstorms, or just invite him out in September to see one for himself? And should I cover the floor with blankets so he doesn’t stain the carpet under our couch?

“To fight the bug, we must understand the bug.”

When Texans joke “If you don’t like the weather, just hang around ten minutes,” they aren’t kidding. (I say ‘they” because even though I’ve lived here a full two-thirds of my life, I’m really only Texan by marriage. I may be the Texan equivalent of a Sassenach, haole, or pakeha, but at least I know that you only serve Lone Star beer to tourists who don’t know any better.) An hour ago, nothing but dry heat. In another half-hour or so, we’ll probably be flooded out. Look for me in the Sarracenia pools, where I’ll probably be feeding the bladderworts.

Very seriously, if the rain isn’t fun enough, I’ll be spending the night buying mosquito dunks and hitting just about any place in the neighborhood with standing water. The Sarracenia pools are safe because I use them religiously, but with Dallas going crazy with West Nile Virus panic, anything to keep aerial spraying to a minimum works for me.

Anyway, back to getting the rainwater collectors ready for the deluge, and many thanks to Debbie Middleton for reminding me to get the word out on mosquito dunks. We’re still at least six weeks away from the end of summer out here, and this may be a sustaining action.

The joys of Texas meteorology

While nowhere near as bad as last summer, 2012’s weather continues its usual game of “Let’s Mess With Everyone’s Heads” in North Texas. Back in April, it was tornadoes and torrential rain, and then jack squat for a month. In our immediate area, we have a nearly incessant southerly wind that allegedly contains moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it passes over San Antonio and Austin, it’s pretty much relieved of that excess. By the time it hits Waco, it’s empty. By the time it reaches Garland, the air is so dry that it could kill a silk ficus. Considering that the main focus of the Triffid Ranch is involved with raising and selling carnivores, which prefer high humidity, this little fact instigates a lot of oddball engineering.

To wit, the period between our tornado convention in April and today’s light rains was mostly dryer than Stephen Fry’s sense of humor. This naturally interfered with the laudable and reasonable intention of growing Sarracenia pitcher plants outdoors. Oh, they’d grow, but only a little, and they obviously fought between basic maintenance and growing enough traps to sustain themselves over the summer. By the beginning of May, the struggle became intense enough that I only had a few Sarracenia for Texas Frightmare Weekend that were a sellable quality. At that point, I realized that I needed to get a greenhouse, or at least some sort of wind shelter, for the Sarracenia. It was either that or moving to Galveston.

That’s when the Czarina chimed in. “You know,” she said, “the Harbor FreightTools is selling greenhouses for $300.”

I winced a little. Yes, it would get the job done for one small area, but I had plans for something just a smidgen larger. “Yeah, but I’d rather put in the money for a real one.”

She insisted. It wasn’t a bad deal as something to get me and the plants through the summer, until we could build a more permanent installation in the fall. Besides, she noted, she’d get it for me as an early birthday present. I relented, fearing her ever-sharp elbows if I kept arguing it, and we picked one up on sale. (I might note that because of confusion, I still ended up buying it myself, so this doesn’t qualify as a birthday present. This means that I get to torment her for the next three months by pricing crocodile monitor hatchlings and reminding her that she forced me to this situation. One day, she’ll actually agree to my getting a crocodile monitor, and then I’ll be stuck.)

Oh, let me tell you, putting together a kit greenhouse with only an hour or so available each day is entertaining. The instructions were complete enough, but sufficiently terse that I found myself repeatedly mumbling “If the Sontarans don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” It’s doing so while working in the worst sort of twilight, as mosquitoes large enough to have in-air refueling ports tried to steal the tools out of my hands. As things got darker, the Mediterranean geckos and more unrecognizable things came out to watch, and I’m not sure if they looked at me as sustenance or a source of mirth. I’m pretty sure I heard gecko laughter at least twice as I was trying to find locking bolts that had fallen into the grass. I know the little vermin were snickering when the Czarina came out to assist with putting up the last braces.

And then there was the plan for the glazing. The idea was to use the greenhouse frame as a framework atop the old Sarracenia growing area, and extend it about eight feet or so due north with greenhouse film. Fair and good, but installing greenhouse film requires both good weather and good light, and those days that had the light also had winds threatening to blow me, the greenhouse, and the rest of the neighborhood to Oz. A couple of gusts would have overshot Oz and gone straight for Lankhmar. By this last weekend, the framework had glazing along the base, and I figured “Oh, I’ll put in the top next week. Besides, if it rains, the Sarracenia can catch the rain so I don’t have to water.”

And talk about dodging a bullet. Yesterday not only brought torrential rains to the entire Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, to the point where the National Weather Service issued airport weather advisories and warnings about river flooding. The warnings even included the term “gusty outflow winds,” which sounds more as if it belongs in a review of a chili cookoff than a weather report. The upshot is that we had, once again, the classic North Texas view of rain coming in just short of horizontal. Wind, even a bit of hail, too. Everyone in the area went to the window, gasped a bit at the carnage, and went back to work.

I did that, too, and went out to the growing area that evening after finishing with the Day Job. One of those gusty outflow winds brapped across the area, snapped off about 200 pounds of branch off a big silverleaf maple on the property, and then dropped it right atop the greenhouse frame. THe greenhouse frame has a dent on one side, and the entire ceiling brace is bent beyond repair. However, that giant collection of branches came down right where I was growing Sarracenia a week ago, and if that frame hadn’t been there, they would have been destroyed. Flattened. Turned to Sarracenia mush and a lot of splattered growing mix. I’m now certain that the greenhouse frame gave its life so that the pitcher plants would continue.

Because of this, I’ll no longer look askance at buying anything at Harbor Freight, or at any of the Czarina’s seemingly wacky ideas. I will, however, have grand fun messing with her on the selection of birthday presents.

Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Always be careful of what you wish for. Always. This spring, my only concern was that we weren’t going to have a repeat of the hellish summer of 2011. Welp, that’s not a concern any more. The last two days have dumped lots and lots of rain on my little corner of North Texas, and we’re going to get more before June 1. Even now, with a nice hefty dollop of Angelspit and Ministry in the headphones, the roar of the thunderclaps intrudes, over and over.

Because of how we’re situated between southern winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, northern winds skirting the Rockies on their way from Canada, and the prevailing jet stream currents, this little allotment in Hell’s Half-Acre already has a propensity for terrible storms brewing up from nowhere. Watching weather radar scans, as tremendous thunderstorms emerge and disappear while you watch, has already been entertainment for three generations of Dallasites, and last night’s storms were making someone at the National Weather Service absolutely orgasmic. I have a small weather alert radio intended to warn of thunderstorms and hailstorms, and that blasted thing kept going off all night. After about the fourth alert, screaming of half-dollar-sized hail in far southern Oklahoma, and the storm that produced it heading right for the Dallas half of the Metroplex, I just started grumbling about sending a tornado out this way to give us something to panic about. I don’t even need to go to Oz: Nehwon and Melnibone are nice this time of the year, from what I understand.

And so it continues. If there’s any one good side to all of this, it’s that I’m probably the only farmer in the vicinity who’s glad of the immediate effects, much less the long-term precipitation. The rainwater tanks are full up, the sundews are nearly unrecognizable from the number of trapped mosquitoes coating them, and the Sarracenia pitcher plants think they’re back home. I may grumble about being awakened by the racket of another brutal thunderstorm, but if we get a summer more evocative of New Orleans or Tallahassee than Phoenix, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Curse of the Frugal

As mentioned in the past, at times, my paternal Scot ancestry and the habits associated with it are a curse. An absolute curse. I don’t mean just in the traditional ways, such as competing within the family to see who could knit the longest Tom Baker scarf with one’s nose hair over the winter. (We Riddells not only beat out everyone else in the vicinity on this, but also being able to knit whole tocques from a single eyebrow hair. See, there’s cold, there’s COLD, and there’s “preparing for life in Canada”.) I mean as in coming up with ideas to use available resources that come off as just crazy.

By way of example, this year set off combat shock in almost everyone involved in horticulture in Texas. The summer finished the job started by the particularly long and brutal sub-freezing snap back last February, and we’re now chopping and sawing and pruning the trees that didn’t make it. This also means that a lot of enterprising individuals are out picking through the spoils piles for wood. With dead pecan and mesquite trees, this means smoking wood for grilles and commercial smokers. For everything else, it’s firewood in anticipation of another bad winter. Texas generally doesn’t have weather that justifies stocking up on firewood, or even using a fireplace for more than a few days out of the year. After this last February, though, I don’t blame anybody a bit.

ER doctors and nurses regularly relate how so many of their most interesting cases involve someone telling them “There I was, minding my own business, when Some Guy came up and shot/stabbed/sodomized/defenestrated me for no reason whatsoever.” Well, there I was, biking to the Day job, minding my own business, when Some Guy threw a particularly vicious idea into my head. No provocation or anything. That idea was “You know, what’s to keep you from using this bounty to heat your plants this season?” And one thousand years of ancestral Riddells, from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, stood up and screamed “HURRAH!”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Czarina wasn’t there to save me from myself. Besides, give her an engineering problem, and she’ll spend the next six months researching every possibility and offering a plan that’s both cheaper and more efficient than anything I could come up with. Not that I’m complaining about this, but then she kvetches about how this took time away from jewelry design.

I’ll also note that using available biomass for greenhouse heating isn’t new, and the wonderful folks at FarmTek have a lot of commercial biomass heating solutions available for consideration. I’ve also been drooling over FarmTek’s radiant floor heating systems, too. The problem with having a very small nursery is that these solutions really aren’t all that practical, especially when most of my issues can be handled with a much smaller option.

The idea kept eating at me, though, and I started researching what the Victorians did to keep small greenhouses warm during bad English winters. That led me to reports of people using converted Franklin stoves with water boilers for supplemental greenhouse heating, and from there to the Good Time Stove Company, and its collection of refitted and repaired gas, wood, coal, and electric stoves.

Oh, my. Who else wants a steampunk nuclear weapon?

This is an idea that may have to sit for a while, at least until the Triffid Ranch gets a new greenhouse solely for tropical plants. Several friends with expertise in wood-burning heating point out that the worst thing about going with wood in severely cold weather is the “one a.m. feeding”, but I’m also glad to note that our current climate means that nights like those are rare. Now, cooling a large greenhouse is a bigger issue, and one that requires a more high-tech solution for Texas summers. And so it goes.