For those unfamiliar with The Pitcher Plant Project, I heartily recommend spending a few hours going through the blog . Of particular note, though, is taking a look at The Sarracenia Sink, because I’ve been suggesting to the Czarina that I could up the ante a bit. Many of my neighbors are renovating bathrooms and kitchens, which means that a lot of perfectly serviceable toilets are left out front in time for Large Trash Day. I figure that it’s just a matter of sealing up the bottom, filling both bowl and tank with Sarracenia soil mix, planting a nice collection of pitcher plants and sundews, and bringing it to the next Triffid Ranch show. Not only is it a perfect example of classic Scottish frugality to make the world a better place, but Mother Scotland even gave me a perfect name for the arrangement: “The Bog Garden”. All it would need is an Ewan MacGregor action figure in it, and it would be perfect.
The only problem with this plan lies with the Czarina. See, her family is Welsh, not Scot, so she doesn’t agree that this is a brilliant plan. In fact, she stopped rolling her eyes or jabbing me with her elbows when we drive by an abandoned toilet and I suggest upcycling it. She only had one thing to say if I continued on this line of inquiry. I didn’t exactly hear what she was planning to do to my neck after she ripped my head off, but based on her tone, I’m going to have to surprise her with the end results.
Posted onMay 2, 2012|Comments Off on “I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”
The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.
For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.
Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.
As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.
To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)
And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.
Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.
As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.
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Posted onMarch 7, 2012|Comments Off on 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.
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:
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.
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.
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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.
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Posted onFebruary 7, 2012|Comments Off on “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.
Nor anything on the spine.
Same with the frontspage. Obscure author, smaller publishing house, and publication from a year before I was born.
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.
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.
No, you’re not imagining things. Take a closer look.
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.
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Posted onJanuary 20, 2012|Comments Off on Ensuring marital bliss, one aneurysm at a time
The end of January, particularly this January, can be the most cruel of times for Texas gardeners. The wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity, one day below freezing and the next too warm for jackets, tempt even the most wizened souls to attempt something in the garden. Logic tells you that anyone planting anything frost-intolerant in North Texas before the middle of March is an idiot, and that your only options are putting in dormant fruit trees and maybe a batch of brassicas, such as bok choi or Brussels sprouts. One look outside on a morning like today, though, and logic gets shouted down: “C’mon. LOOK at it. We could probably get in a good two dozen orange trees and a row of tomatoes before lunch.”
It’s especially rough on me because of the weather. Having barely survived the big bout of flu that took us both down over the last two weeks, the Czarina listened to my coughing nearly to the point of vomiting and stated with authority “You are NOT allowed to get pneumonia this year.” Although I fear her proclamations as much as her elbows, I think she’s being completely unfair. If I get pneumonia, syphilis, Dutch Elm Blight, and kuru before May, I’ll have enough purchase points to get Captain Trips and hemmorhagic fever for free. The dealer will even throw in a couple of intestinal parasites and an ingrown toenail if I get in before the deadline.
The Czarina’s complete and total inflexibility on these matters is why I don’t tell her about some of the new projects I have planned. She won’t let me get a crocodile monitor, she won’t let me get a display case for a crocodile monitor, and she definitely won’t let me set up my orbital laboratory and death ray, even if I pay for it from my own allowance. Is it really my fault, then, that I spend my rainy day fund on new garden sculpture?
And yes, the sound you hear from the horizon is the sound of Czarina elbow piercing the top of my skull. You’d think I’d have learned after I told her I wanted to have a Meet the Feebles-themed birthday party just after we got married.
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Posted onJanuary 18, 2012|Comments Off on Review: The Evening Garden by Peter Loewer
(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)
Ramon Gonzalez of Mr. Brown Thumb recently tweeted “There are no new ideas, but when one comes around you’d find it easier to milk a turtle than to get a garden writer to credit its creators.” Speaking in general, I couldn’t agree more (back during my science fiction writing days, my articles were ripped off so often by Entertainment Weekly that my name should have run in the magazine’s masthead), but I wonder if we’re ascribing malice when mere ignorance is enough. Anybody who’s been writing for more than a month knows that ideas themselves are cheap, but it’s the implementation that’s tough, which is why anybody fussing about editors or publishers “stealing my ideas” automatically labels him/herself as an amateur. What continues to surprise me in the gardening writing market is the sheer amount of parallel evolution going on. We aren’t stealing each others’ ideas: we’re working with what we figure are original and pertinent concepts, only to discover that someone else, or several someone elses, was working with the same base material at the same time. It’s particularly disgusting to discover that someone else wrote about your oh-so-innovative idea or conclusion years before you ever entered the hobby.
I write this from experience. I spent nearly a year researching moon gardens. After wandering into the main Sarracenia growing area out behind the greenhouse during a full moon, I was simply stunned at how well Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, fluoresces in moonlight. A bit of research with UV light sources led to a whole series of experiments with night-blooming plants and how well they stand out in both moonlight and UV, and I was so sure I was in new territory. Oh, I was smug, figuring that I had something that would stop all of my gardening friends for a minute and make them look upon my works and despair.
This was before I discovered the existence of Peter Loewer‘s The Evening Garden, and learned that he’d gone well beyond anything I could accomplish in my garden back in 1993. In fact, about halfway through, I was reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’s routine concerning a Debbie Gibson/ Jimi Hendrix duet album, because all I wanted to do was scream “MOMEEEEEEEEE! I wanna go back to the mall! I suck! I suck!”
According to the author, The Evening Garden first saw print in 1993 through McMillan, and promptly went out of print in 1995 when the publisher went bust. This helps explain the format, because this is a book meant to be read, not just scanned. Loewer goes through a very impressive list of night-blooming plants, night-fragrant plants, and plants that look as if they should bloom at night, in a friendly, conversational style that covers a lot of growing conditions. All of the big hitters, including Datura, Ipomoea, and Brugmansia, are in the list, but so are a whole slew of surprises. I know just enough about Hemerocallis daylilies to be dangerous, but I had no clue as to Hemerocallis citrina, the citron daylily, being a night bloomer. Since I’m already an enthusiastic fan of the taste of its flower buds, either raw or cooked, this is going into the garden as soon as I know that the risk of last-minute freezing is gone.
Again, I thought I was so clever for inventing a modern moonlight garden all by myself, but Mr. Loewer beat me to that, too. Opportunities for encouraging fireflies and glowworms in that garden, too, on top of recommendations for night-blooming cactus and other succulents with which I’ve only started experimentation. I wanna go back to the mall. The only aspect of my ongoing research that didn’t show up in this book, and that was only because the technology wasn’t available at the time it was written, involves the use of LED lighting systems, particularly UV LEDs. I fully expect that if I started writing about it, and the sheer beauty of some flowers as they fluoresce in patterns normally only visible to insects, Mr. Loewer will finish an updated chapter on the subject that makes me look like more of an amateur than before.
Now, the particulars on this edition is that the illustrious crew at Timber Press brought it back into print, but as a print-on-demand edition. This means, among other things, that it can’t be ordered directly from the Timber Press Web site. However, it is available through a plethora of independent and chain bookstores for order, and I heartily recommend my friends at St. Johns Booksellers. I’m also thinking longer and harder on trying to organize a goth event comparable to Convergence with at least one panel on moon gardens, because I want to drop copies into the hands of a few fellow darklings and see what they can accomplish with a good resource guide.
In the meantime, the experiments continue. After learning about the new “Pink Lemonade” blueberry (Vaccinium), I’m picking one up this weekend. It’s not just because I’m already a blueberry junkie, that the ripe berries should complement the roses already in the back, or that the Czarina has been begging for a blueberry bush ever since she discovered they could be raised as container plants in Dallas. No, it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that the unripe berries are very moonlight-friendly, and that the best way to tell that the berries are ripe is when they stop glowing under a full moon. I’ll let you know what I discover, because while The Evening Garden has a huge section on prominent blooms for a moon garden, it doesn’t say a thing about berries.
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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.
Posted onJanuary 9, 2012|Comments Off on “I want you to pass me that trowel as hard as you can.”
Mary at Black Walnut Dispatch once again hits a nerve. Responding to concerns that the cable channel HGTV is removing the last of its gardening programs, presumably for more programming friendlier to advertisers wanting to sell $80k in house renovations at a time, she’s suggesting her own line of amped-up garden shows. I don’t disagree with her, and in fact I’ve been arguing for years that gardening and horticulture shows need to get more gonzo.
The reason that this hits a nerve is because it connects with a longrunning tradition in the Riddell household. Neither the Czarina nor myself are much for serious television-watching these days, and that’s only partly because we swore to the other that either one has legal permission to shoot, club, or garrote the other if terminal television addiction becomes apparent. Running something as background entertainment while engaging in hands-intensive activities is perfectly acceptable, which is why the Czarina drops in a few episodes of Midsomer Murders while doing pearl restringings. I’m a bit more partial to reruns of Primeval while potting up butterworts, but that comes with the territory. Either way, as mentioned in the past, our greatest fear is finding ourselves flipping through 8800 channels looking for one program that sucks marginally less for a half-hour, and watching friends getting addicted to the latest soon-to-be-forgotten “hit drama” is another sour note. (This leads to all sorts of interesting situations, such as when the Czarina tries to get decent Web access that doesn’t require either FIOS television or a telephone land line as part of the deal. It’s like trying to get a cell phone plan where you have the choice of texting or a party line.)
In most years, though, that changes on our anniversary. In most years, we get a nice out-of-the-way hotel or housesit, and spend our time relaxing. By “relaxing”, this usually means the Czarina fires up the cable or satellite connection, turns on HGTV, and we watch until what comedian Bill Hicks referred to as a “hump of hate” is filled. I’m amazed at her ability to digest horrible “flip this house” gibberish and walk out still sane, but she’s usually taking notes on new home repair techniques and materials. When we’ve both reached our saturation point on the advertising, especially with the annual special-television-offer flotsam that’s advertised twice every commercial break, it’s time to go home, thankful that we don’t do it more than once per year.
This last year, though, we had to skip out. The Czarina didn’t believe me when I told her that I wanted to stay home and shovel out my office, and I used the opportunity to prove her wrong. No: Prove Her Wrong. (Okay, so she proved me wrong, because I still have one box that needs to be sorted and pitched. However, I proudly state that fourteen boxes of obscurantia have been sorted, filed, indexed, shredded, and donated, and I even have two boxes of old financial papers that will make great kindling for a bonfire this weekend.) She went in to her Day Job to fend off the worst of the Boxing Day freakiness, and I covered the living room with ever-growing piles of detritus. I finally got the space cleared out, pitched the last worn copy paper box, bound my cracked and bleeding hands as best as I could, looked up at the calendar, and realized “We skipped out on our inoculation against excessive consumption, didn’t we?”
No fear, though. The Czarina has Plans this weekend, and they involve reminding her why we don’t need to get a replacement for the television any time soon. By the time we’re done, we may both have ideas for what makes the perfect gonzo garden show, and then it’s time to look for sponsorships. I figure that the teaser ads for the pilot episode could start with this little missive, with severe apologies to Chuck Pahlaniuk:
The first rule of Garden Club: You do not talk about Garden Club.
The second rule of Garden Club: You DO NOT TALK ABOUT GARDEN CLUB.
Third rule: If gives up and goes inside to watch television, the garden is over.
Fourth rule: Only two guys to a garden.
Fifth rule: One garden at a time.
Sixth rule: No fertilizers, no hydroponics.
Seventh rule: Growing seasons will go on as long as they have to.
And the Eighth and final rule: If this is your first night at Garden Club, you have to weed.
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As usual, the Czarina is overachieving, so she’s laid down the law concerning the upcoming holidays. Since we have Christmas and our ninth wedding anniversary coming within days of each other, she’s already making plans for giftgiving, not just for me but for the entire family, and she will not be stopped. The time between now and January isn’t a holiday: for her, it’s a military campaign. I just warn friends not to use the obvious Jack Kirby reference, because even though the comparison fits, as does the physical and temperamental resemblance, she really, really hates being called “Big Barda“. (Keeping up the geeky analogy, have pity for her. She’s obviously married to Ambush Bug.)
Because she’s so determined this year, the edict has come down from the mountaintop: a minimum of presents this year. It’s not necessarily due to finances, but because she has major issues with my getting her things that are interesting but not as functional as she’d like. Last August, for instance, I bought her a Fresnel lens for her birthday, which was much appreciated but not quite as useful as she thought…at least, without a big stand on which to focus it as a solar forge. Instead, she wants to take care of things that we really need. Since I fear her sharp and terrible elbows, I comply.
The problem is that most of my present wishes are inordinately practical, too. We’ve both been running our own businesses for too long: we look at the usual lovey items that married couples get each other, and snort “That’s okay, but what I really want is something that does something.” In her case, that’s relatively easy, because there’s always a surfeit of interesting stonecarving and stoneshaping gear out there. In my case, though, either my ambitions are a bit too expensive (a new greenhouse) or too esoteric (a full sterile tissue propagation facility). I have plans, but they require lots of planning.
And this is where Loch Ness Water Gardens comes in. I’d already been complaining about the lousy lack of humidity this summer and fall (one day, 80 percent relative humidity, and the next, down to 9), and misters simply weren’t cutting it. I’d been poking around for a while for commercial fog humidifiers, but most either had inadequate reservoirs or were too big for an operation like mine. More importantly, they didn’t have style. Worse, I’d found a few ultrasonic misters on the market, but they were mostly designed for reptile care. They were great for chameleon enclosures, but they wouldn’t cut it in a greenhouse.
I just recently came across the crew at Loch Ness Water Gardens via Twitter, and was already impressed with the company’s sense of humor. A quick peek through its offerings, though, and I was hooked. I didn’t know that ultrasonic foggers had improved to the point where they were available for pond applications, and discovering the five-disk pond fogger…well, that’s that.
Mind you, this won’t replace plans for a full evaporative cooling system further down the road. This will, though, keep things nice and sultry for when the temperatures aren’t quite as high, especially at night. Put this inside a good 100-gallon Rubbermaid livestock tank, switch out the LEDs in this with UV and deep green LEDs, and it’ll be the creepiest little greenhouse in Texas.
And just to finish the story, the Czarina already passed on what she wants for the holidays, and I’ll have a full month to mess with her head in the meantime. This is going to be too much fun.
And now begins the hour that stretches at the Triffid Ranch. Between several conversion projects, a few possible commissions, and preparation for the MetroPCS Fair Park Holiday show on November 26, I’ll be working hard on earning my Ig Nobel Prize by inventing the 86-hour day. Those who know me might be amused to learn that I have to stay away from coffee, chocolate, and other stimulants, because they make me hyperactive. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear the hysterical laughter from here.)
In the meantime, I’m not going to say more about the whys, but I’m going to share the whos. If you aren’t already familiar with the blog Midnight in the Garden of Evil, let’s just say that I’ve found someone in southern California with as much of an appreciation for dark gardening as I do. Of particular note is that our author caught the traveling exhibition The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. Having caught this exhibition when it ran at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010, I can attest that it’ll either give nightmares or inspire whole new gardening scenarios.
Anyway, it may be time to gather dark gardening enthusiasts like “trickortreat” in one place and see what we come up with. Details will follow as they happen.
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Just a tiny observation, based on a trip to the grocery store this morning. Back eighteen years ago, my friend Joey Shea kept calling and writing to tell me about a new movie coming out from Tim Burton that I simply had to see. I was still licking bus station toilets clean to get the taste of Batman out of my mouth (to this day, Batman, Girl, Interrupted, and Free Enterprise are my faithful reminders of why I’ll sooner put out lit cigarettes in my eyes than return to film criticism), but this being Joey, he’s rarely wrong when it comes to movies. Well, he hyped up Batman when we first met, but if you can’t forgive your friends, who can you forgive?
Naturally, the film in question was The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s hard to believe today, but that film at the time made lots of heads go explodey, if only because the monsters were the nominal good guys. It definitely made Disney execs at the time go berserk, and the film was the redheaded stepchild of the Disney empire for years. (Even today, I don’t expect to see Sally included with the Disney Princesses, much to the regret of several nieces.)
At the time, I walked out of the theater with only one particular beef about the whole film. Namely, at the end of the film, when Santa fixes the damage caused by Jack Skellington’s addition of Halloween horror to Christmas, you see all of the children given Jack’s special toys welcoming the traditional Christmas replacements. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t one kid, somewhere, screaming and howling at the top of her lungs as Santa tried to take back the one decent Christmas present she’d ever received. Over the years, as I shared this observation, friends and cohorts agreed, especially since most of us felt the same way. Those of a certain age may remember the parental scoffing and cries of outrage over Kenner putting out an Alien action figure during Christmas 1979, but kids LOVED that stuff. The parental cries over how children would be permanently damaged by playing with “inappropriate” toys were especially funny: we knew those kids, and they could already taste-test specific brands of paste.
One of my regular comments upon seeing the changes in the world since my youth is “I love living in the future.” One of the reasons I say this so often is seeing how readily we as a culture have gone back to the old days of mixing horror and joy in everyday life. For far too many of us, our role models for stable and loving marriages were Gomez and Morticia Addams. Nobody’s bothered by the Monster High toy line as an alternative to Barbie. With far too many friends, I could suggest an evening of watching Clive Barker’s Nightbreed and they’d sniff “I didn’t know you were into documentaries.” I LOVE it.
And what does all of this have to do with gardening? Well, I was one of those kids who would have been demanding that Jack Skellington be allowed to do another Christmas now and then. I’m a bit too old for toys, but plants are a good alternative. I’m thinking it may be time to get more people together who feel the same way, and plan a garden show the likes of which this planet has never seen.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.
That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.
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There’s one good side to my gardening column being removed from “Gothic Beauty” magazine. I had a beautiful essay on setting up gardens best appreciated in the evening or night for the next column, and figured that since it was never going to be published, it could go up here on the blog. So be it. Well, one of the absolutes I discovered about writing those columns is that new material always presented itself after the new issue came out. In my researches, I’d never heard about Peter Loewer’s The Evening Garden: Flowers & Fragrances From Dusk ‘Til Dawn until it became one of the first entries in Timber Press’s print-on-demand program today.
Equally interesting is that Timber Press, not one afraid to sell books directly to its customers, decided not to sell its POD titles directly, and instead offers them only through other booksellers, online and otherwise. Want a copy? Give a yell to Nena Rawdah at St. Johns Booksellers, the Triffid Ranch’s official bookseller, and buy your copy from her. That’s what I’m doing in about five minutes.
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I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.
In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.
Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.
After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.
Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.
The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.