Tag Archives: Projects

Enclosures: “Clockwhirl” (2020)

By best estimates, what humans call the Milky Way Galaxy contains approximately six billion worlds roughly similar in diameter and density as their homeworld, with approximately one-third of these mapped by direct survey or indirect observation via flyby automation or gravitic lensing. Of those six billion worlds, at least half are inappropriate for any life utilizing carbon-based biochemistry, being either sulfuric acid-misted hothouses or methane ice-wrapped wanderers in interstellar space. Others may have been paradise gardens before the planet’s plate tectonics ended and its water cycle crashed, and others thrived before their stars expanded into red giants, they fell into gas giant companions in erratic orbits, they had the misfortune to be far too close to a neighboring supernova, or passing black holes shredded their entire systems. This still leaves approximately two billion worlds in one thoroughly average spiral galaxy, and about a billion worlds in its two main satellite galaxies, that currently have or recently had the capacity to support carbon-based life (with many expanding into silicon-based life, either biological or synthetic). One-thousandth of those had a long enough lifespan or proper conditions to encourage intelligent life, and a thousandth of that managed to get sentient life with the capability, ability, or motivation to leave their birth systems. Even with these numbers, considering the age of this galaxy, this led to a lot of mysteries, anomalies, curiosities, and annoyances from intelligences that otherwise left no trace.

Compounding those annoyances are the ones left by an obviously highly advanced civilization that wasn’t native to the planet on which they were found. The planet Agosto on the outer rim of the galaxy was nobody’s idea of a vacation world: about half of its global sea was covered with a thick algal mat that offered a platform for various filter-feeding animals and plants and choked out just about everything else, and the sole continent was gradually colonized by a unique group of plant-animal mashups attempting to get out of the ocean before the algal mat choked out everything. Worse, the algae fed on high levels of sulfur compounds in the ocean, thanks to extensive undersea volcanism, and excreted hydrogen sulfide as a waste product instead of oxygen as on most other known worlds, making visiting Agosto a dangerous proposition even in pressure suits and habitation domes. The fact that Agosto is visited constantly, by a significant number of the spacefaring races of the galaxy, is due to one confounding artifact found on a southern peninsula.

By first appearances, the apparatus appears ridiculously primitive: a single flat face with a clock-like dial and a series of pointers, surrounded by four chambers packed with what appear to be metal gears. Appearances in this case are nearly dangerously deceiving. The whole of the apparatus is no more than about 30 meters thick, with no sign of internal structure other than what appears on the outside, The dial rotates randomly back and forth, and the pointers highlighting individual segments on the dial’s face, both with no schedule or pattern that has been ascertained from at least a century’s study. Likewise, the gears within the chambers seem to show no inherent purpose: some rotate constantly, while others have not moved since the apparatus’s discovery. Even the two guardian sculptures in front of the apparatus are deceiving: what superficially appears to be jade or serpentine is actually an artificially strengthened nanomaterial that constantly heals damage from sun and atmosphere, and they emit beams of high-speed particles at seemingly random intervals, spreading out through deep space. Several of those beams were picked up simultaneously by at least three species, and their duly appointed representatives oversee all operations on Agosto, including who can arrive and who can leave.

While the apparatus appears simple and shallow, researchers have discovered that it is the anchor for literally billions of either eddies in hyperspace or pocket universes, depending upon the researcher desperately trying to make sense of the phenomenon with completely inadequate tools and theories. At random times, the face will reach a particular configuration, some gears will spin, others will stop, and a container materializes at the apparatus’s base. Equally randomly, that container will allow some to open it and refuse others, but all supplicants succeeding at opening it have to deposit an item within. If the item is accepted, it disappears, only to be replaced with something else. Often, the container takes random junk and trades for absolute marvels, but just as often, it takes valuables and offers junk. Or, at least, that is what it appears to be at first: many items appear to have been caught in stasis for millions or sometimes billions of years, but occasionally something comes through that gives every indication that it came from the far future. Sometimes, very rarely, the item offered is living, and once, it was sentient. The assemblage of weapons surrounding the apparatus, constantly operated by trained operators from across the galaxy, hints as to how much firepower was necessary to stop it once it was free, and the determination to make sure that any brethren still catalogued within the apparatus remain there.

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

Plant: Nepenthes boschiana

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

Price: Sold

Shirt Price: Sold

Enclosures: “Plowshare” (2020)

While historians tend to focus on the immediate actions of war, they don’t usually worry about the implications of what gets left behind on the battlefield. When peace breaks out, neither side worries overmuch about what to do with weapons, structures, facilities, and other materiel legacies of the conflict, leaving that for the ages, the elements, the survivors, and whatever salvage crews managed to remain intact. It’s usually up to future generations to deal with unexplored ordnance, live land or sea mines, nanodiseases, chartreuse event horizons, or the occasional time booster. The vast majority of neighbors to an undecommissioned battlefield are envious of the story of Battle Ground in the Andromeda galaxy, a world scheduled for a planet-spanning conflict that was cancelled because both commanders were too hung over to function. Both armies left immediately thereafter, and Battle Ground became famous not for being one of the most beautiful planets in the whole of Andromeda, but because no battle was ever undertaken there, then or in the future.

That couldn’t be said of the nexus point for the Human-Terris war in our own galaxy, which left permanent scars on every world that particular war infected. As was the human tradition, each new war set off a corresponding explosion of technological obsession, all in ways of gathering the slightest advantage before the opponent finally gave up in exhaustion. On the planet code-named “Pomegranate” by forces from the Fifth Kresge Division, the plan was to build a supercomputer to plot strategy and predict enemy movements. To protect it from orbital bombardment, the first construction was for a VanderMeer static generator, under which the catacombs holding the components for the supercomputer were to be protected. To protect it from ground assault, a set of Davenport automated weapon platforms surveyed a kill zone that was only compromised when one of Pomegranate’s moons moved between the platforms and deep space. Not that the platforms needed to fire that far: due to the effects of the static generator on energy discharges and metals moving beyond a still-classified speed, each platform fired a wide variety of fluids held in check with artificially-enhanced surface tension. Nerve agents, acids, electrostatic disruptors, phage assemblages, and quick-contact polymer tripfilms: the most aggressive warrior race in its galaxy had learned well from incessantly picking fights with its neighbors and bunkmates, so each platform had multiple packages that could be blasted at an enemy that could do everything from turn that enemy into a slowly dispersing mist to guarantee that it would have to walk home.

The static generator and the platforms were completed, along with the vault doors, when the Terris decided to pivot, and the rest of the war was fought thousands of light-years away. The parts for the supercomputer were sequestered away, ultimately to become even more surplus scrap, the static generator depowered, and the platforms left without armament. For the most part, humans left Pomegranate alone, and nature reclaimed its own. Finally, about 250 years after the details of the Human-Terris War were only of interest to warporn enthusiasts and very few others, a farming collective set down on Pomegranate’s nearly pristine surface and started settling in. One of those early settlers was a burned-out robotics engineer by the name of Dendris Lockwell, who came across the superpower emplacement while searching for titanium deposits for the collective’s tool printers.

At first, Lockwell was excited about the find, and then he managed to cut through one of the vault doors and discovered…nothing. Hundreds of kilometers of corridors and galleries cut into the heart of a long-dead volcano, with nothing more than a few pieces of junk left behind. With no ventilation and no rigging for power, the vault wasn’t even worthwhile as shelter. The static generator was self-powered and self-encapsulated, both impossible to open (any more so than any gigantic synthetic sapphire impressed with neural networks could be opened) and far too heavy to tear off the mountainside and haul back to the collective with anything it had available. The weapons platforms with similarly immovable, being deeply anchored into the planet’s crust, and while each platform’s AI was still perfectly functional, they were so obsolete that trying to merge them with the collective’s network was just silly. Lockwell was about to leave in disgust when he noticed that the platforms’ reservoirs were completely empty and uncontaminated, and he entertained ideas of resetting the whole site for last-resort fire suppression, if in case the regular forest fires that passed by the site became an issue. He went so far as to fill the reservoirs with plain water and set the platforms to standby before realizing that the whole plan was folly: anybody attempting to use the vault for an escape from fire would either suffocate from smoke drawn to the assemblage or from the abominable atmosphere left inside.

The story would have stopped there if not for the collective having a large contingent of adolescents looking for something to do that didn’t involve farming. Lockwell was awakened one night by a remote alarm from the vault site, and he rushed out on the fastest transport he could get to discover who or what was setting off the weapon platforms. What he found was an assemblage of about three dozen collective apprentices, all of whom had discovered that while the platforms would fire upon anything moving within a particular distance once activated, they also wouldn’t fire on the vault door. Considering the age of the platforms and a general lack of maintenance, the platforms still worked, but were just about a second off their original calibration. That gave enough motivation to the particularly fast members of the assembled apprentices to run between the platforms. Run fast enough, and they weren’t knocked off their feet by a gigantic surface-tension water balloon or twenty before reaching the safety of the vault door. One, a woman of 20 named Girasol, could run to the door and back without being hit, which made her a subject of admiration and rueful respect among everyone else.

Almost any other authority figure among the collective would have reported this to the community elders, who would have insisted upon shutting down everything. Lockwell, though, saw plenty of potential in the distraction. One of his only possessions from Earth was a full-sized stop sign from the days when manual transport driving was still legal, and he hauled it out to the vault and installed it below the vault doors. ‘Run out, touch it, and run back without getting hit,” he said, “and I’ll sponsor you myself.” On the first Lockwell-sanctioned run, only Girasol succeeded, but that just gave incentive to everyone else to increase their speed and improve their running techniques. Within five years, after the first trade ships arrived to see how well the collective was running, some of the more iconoclastic crew members on those ships were joining in on both weekly practice runs and annual tournaments, where participants had to run along set paths through local plants and rock obstacles to get to the vault. Within ten years, most of the galaxy knew about the challenge, and within 15, the fastest runners in the galaxy, human and otherwise, were landing in the fields of Pomegranate to be the next to compete. The ponderous platforms took on additional modifications to compensate for species better at high-speed running than humans, but otherwise they still appeared the same as when Lockwell first found them.

Now, 300 years after the Human-Terris War ended, a simple act of military ordnance recycling was one of the biggest competitive sports throughout charted space. Many worlds had their own Lockwell Games courses and equipment, but the real excitement came from going to the original grounds, sitting beside Girasol as she continued to give the award named after her to the most impressive competitor that year, and daring to touch the stop sign still attached to the vault. (The sign has been replaced four times in the last 50 years, but nobody really notices.) Most importantly, the only people who remember that world under the original code name of “Pomegranate” are the few warporners who obsess over a war that passed this world by. Everyone else knows it by a superior and much more appropriate name: “Plowshare.”

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

Plant: Heliamphora heterodoxa x minor

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

Price: $300

Shirt Price: $250

Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things to consider:

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

Projects: Fern Excluders On Grad Student Budgets

Let’s talk about ferns for a bit. Anyone working with terraria or miniature gardens eventually has to deal with ferns, both accidental and deliberate. In cases where they’re deliberately introduced, it’s because their foliage or other habits. Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp.), for instance, are an excellent addition to prehistoric-themed miniature gardens because of their ginkgo-like appearance and their extreme hardiness: so long as you don’t let them dry out, they’re nearly impossible to kill for long. Because they reproduce from spores that may remain dormant for years until the right conditions ensue, or the spores blow in on a breeze, accidental intrusions happen on a regular basis. Orchid enthusiasts using long-fiber sphagnum moss, particularly the light-blond LFS from New Zealand, discover all sorts of additions popping up after their sphagnum gets a bit of light, and some of these can be more visually stunning than the plants that grow alongside them. After all, the invention of the original Wardian case was instigated by a serendipitous fern sprouting in an unexpected situation.

So what’s the problem, you may ask? It’s that ferns in a miniature garden, terrarium, or vivarium environment tend to be a bit, erm, aggressive in their growth. Left uncontrolled, one seemingly inoffensive fern sprout can take over large enclosures and choke out smaller plants. Many species have long, tough roots that wrap around features, sink into ceramic pots, and make enclosure maintenance nearly impossible. At the bare minimum, that one fern can spread past its intended area, requiring constant maintenance to keep it under control. If an enclosure has a particular look that needs to be maintained to emphasize a particular plant, ferns have a tendency to crash the party and laugh at attempts at eviction. In extreme cases, the only viable option is to tear out everything and start from scratch…and then go through the same routine again and again.

Now, ferns can be controlled in the miniature garden the way bamboo can in standard gardens: by putting them in containers so their roots don’t sprawl and new shoots don’t spread. On a basic level, any material reasonably impermeable to plant roots could work, such as metal, glass, or stone. In miniature gardens, especially those with acid-loving plants such as orchids or carnivores, metal tends to corrode and contaminate the whole container, while glass and stone have their own problems with weight and porosity. The idea is to have something with an impermeable side but a permeable bottom, so moisture can wick up into the container from its surroundings while preventing fern roots from punching through. Equally importantly, it should be something reasonably attractive or possible to make attractive, if only so viewers don’t focus on the container instead of the fern inside.

The good news for anyone looking for good fern excluders is that they’re sometimes a bit too common. One quick trip to the grocery store, and your house is full of convertible fern containers. Food, drink, hair care, skin care: if it’s plastic and can be cleaned, it has potential. Even better, because of the demands by marketing to produce packages that are as uniquely identifiable as their labels, many of those are exotic enough that with a bit of modification, most would never recognize a final container as such. A bit of poking through the recycling bin, a good washing, and you have the beginnings of a fern excluder.

Before starting, consider the container that you’re converting and what kind of fern it is intended to hold. Tall containers have a problem with prematurely drying that requires additional top-watering, and with becoming top-heavy as big ferns get established. Overly small containers will restrict bigger ferns to the point where the plants will send roots over the side in search of water and nutrients. The container’s place in the terrarium or miniature garden has to be considered as well, because unless the fern is the only thing intended to be displayed, its excluder could overwhelm everything else. If possible, test the placement of the final excluder by putting the container in its intended location. If it doesn’t work for what you’re intending, there’s nothing wrong with going with another container and saving that one for a future project.

Converting a spare plastic container into a viable and usable fern excluder is done in three stages, two of which need tools or other accessories. In the first stage, some sort of knife is essential, with a drill and various bits, pliers, and medium-grit sandpaper being extremely handy. Since you’re cutting plastic, make sure that the knife is as sharp as possible, so using a razor knife or box cutter with replaceable blades is highly advised.

WARNING: Cutting plastic containers can be dangerous, both due to blades binding in the plastic and blades breaking during use. When cutting, cut very slowly to keep control of the blade, and ALWAYS cut away from your body. Cutting on a protective surface is highly recommended, and the use of scalpels, break-away hobby knives, and other thin blades is NOT recommended. If necessary, wear gloves when cutting plastic containers.: both the blades and the resultant cut edge are very sharp.

To start, remove any paper or shrinkwrapped plastic labels from your container. Paper labels can be removed by soaking the container in soapy water for an hour and then scrubbing, and commercial sticker-removal products such as Goo-Gone will work on any remaining adhesive. With plastic-wrap labels, just cut these with a knife and peel them free.

Some containers need additional work for cleanup. For instance, my bicycle route to the gallery is often strewn with empty BuzzBallz, which make excellent fern barriers due to the container’s size and thickness. The only problem with them is the aluminum top, which needs to be peeled off with pliers before further work can be done. (WARNING: metal edges can be sharp. Don’t do what I did: wear protective gloves and eye protection when peeling off metal attachments and save some bandages for later.)

Now, if your container already has the general look you want, then great. If not, you may have to remove the neck to remove screwcap threads and the like. With most containers, a razor knife works very well: start with an initial hole (a drill or nail hole works well) and then SLOWLY cut around until the neck is detached. With thicker-walled containers, saws designed for plastic and rotary tool cutting discs may be necessary: follow all safety instructions for these tools when using them, and work slowly to keep control and to keep friction heat from re-fusing the plastic while cutting.

For various reasons all involving weight distribution and structural integrity, the bottoms of most plastic containers are considerably thicker than areas near the tops. (The next time you accidentally drop a bottle of vegetable oil or salad dressing and it bounces instead of rupturing, say a silent prayer to the packaging engineer who successfully convinced Management that an additional gram or two of plastic resin per bottle was a necessary cost.) This means that razor knives won’t (pun intended) cut it. You have many options for electrical augmentation, but a cordless drill and the appropriate bit usually gets the job done in my case. A few warnings:

Numero Uno: Anyone who took a shop class in high school, who took any remedial home repair class in adulthood, and any fan of the Canadian version of Doctor Who will tell you the same thing, over and over: never, ever, EVER hold anything intended to be drilled with your hand. (Everyone will say this, of course, but the ones that paid attention don’t have those distinct scars that say “I figured that I was smarter than the drill press.”) Since most plastic containers are too flimsy to be locked into a vise for drilling, it’s time for alternatives. In my case, I use an old towel, usually with a silicone sheet inside for extra grip, to hold the container in place without actual flesh connecting with the plastic if that plastic starts spinning out of control.

Numero two-o: because of the way most of the world’s plastic containers are made (check out some Baby Soda Bottles one of these days), the absolute center of a plastic bottle is often convex instead of concave. This means that if you’re starting with a large bit, keyhole saw, or other drill-based cutting tool, that spinning tool is going to spin off true, possibly biting into the plastic in a place other than where it was intended or even into a nearby hand. To get more control, start out with a much smaller drill bit, or even a sharp nail or punch, to make a starter hole for the larger bit. If you need to do multiple borings until you get the correct-sized hole, so be it: this work isn’t going to be graded on expediency.

Numero three-o: if at all possible with drills or other cutting tools, try to go with maximum torque and minimum speed. The reason is that as it’s spinning, the drill bit will generate enough heat from friction to soften the plastic it’s cutting. The plastic can jam up the drill bit, re-fuse as soon as the bit stops, and even give a good burn to unprotected human skin. Even with going slow, some melted plastic will collect along the edges of the hole, and the final hole may not be completely cleared. In that case, use a stout blade, slowly and carefully, to cut out any rough plastic from the edges of the hole.

Finally, when this is all done, you’ll want to smooth out the holes at either end of your container with medium-grade sandpaper. In particular, decide which end is going to be the bottom of your fern excluder and use the sandpaper to even out that end as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect: it just has to be even enough for the next stage. While you’re at it, rub that sandpaper over the whole of the container: this gives a rough surface, referred to by artists as “tooth,” to give adhesion for what you plan to do next.

For the second stage, you’ll need a different set of tools and supplies. The essentials include:

  • Silicone sealer, preferably aquarium grade
  • Landscape weed barrier cloth
  • Scissors suitable for cutting cloth
  • Primer paint

To start, cut a square of weed barrier cloth slightly wider on each side than your container. Set it on a flat surface, preferably covered with baking parchment or wax paper.

Next, after determining which end of your container is the bottom, put a good thick coat of silicone sealer all over the edge. Don’t worry about it being a bit sloppy: this part will be underground when you’re done.

Take that freshly gummed-up container and press it bottom-down atop the weed barrier cloth. If you want to smooth the bead of fresh silicone, use tongue depressors, caulking tools, or a gloved finger to clean things up (don’t use a bare finger unless you like cleaning silicone from your skin for the next few days), but make sure that the bead runs over the entire outside of the joint between the container and the cloth. After this is done. set it aside for about 24 hours to allow the silicone to cure.

Next, the container needs a coat of paint for three reasons. Firstly, unless you specifically want a clear fern excluder so you can see roots and plantlets growing inside, you’ll want to hide the excluder’s humble origins with a bit of color. Secondly, if the bottle had its label printed directly on its surface instead of on a label, giving free advertising to the original manufacturer may not be desirable. Thirdly, a good coat of primer for plastic makes an excellent base for subsequent embellishment. For the last ten years, I have had excellent results with Rust-Oleum Universal spray paint: it’s an excellent primer that doesn’t attack most plastics, it tends to cover a surface in one pass, and it comes in a wide range of colors and finishes, including hammered and metallic effects. For most miniature garden and enclosure applications, I very highly recommend the Carbon Mist because it gives the impression of shadows without slipping into “complete endless void” in smaller scales.

After letting your primer dry for at least 24 hours, it’s time for further embellishment. If you want to highlight features on the original container with further paint, go for it. If you want to add features by attaching greebles, add texture by gluing on sand or aquarium gravel, or slathering it with silicone sealer and then pressing in long-fiber sphagnum to encourage sphagnum moss growth on the outside, knock yourself out. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, add a layer of plumbing-grade epoxy putty to the outside and sculpting bark to make it look more tree-like. (I personally swear by Smooth-On’s Habitat epoxy putty because it’s safe for fish, amphibians, and reptiles.) If covering it with so many styrene parts and embellishments that it could double as a Warhammer: 40,000 game obstacle is what moves you, do what thou wilt. Just take into account three things: stability, weight, whether the item might rust/corrode/otherwise contaminate the surrounding soil, and whether the additions you plan to add will handle longterm exposure to sunlight. Other than that, whatever works is what works. When you’re finished, trim back the weed barrier cloth to make it easier to plant in an established miniature garden, or leave it as an anchor in a new one: it’s completely up to you.

After everything else is done. it’s time for Stage Three: The Planting. At this point, start adding your choice of planting medium into the fern excluder through the hole in the top. Pack it in gently so you don’t damage the weed barrier cloth at the bottom, and watering it regularly during the packing process helps settle the medium. In this example, this excluder is full of milled sphagnum moss for inclusion in a carnivorous plant enclosure. Just take into account that since the weed barrier cloth is porous, don’t add anything to the planting medium that might affect plants nearby, such as salt-based fertilizers for a fern in a carnivore enclosure.

When filling the fern excluder, don’t fill it completely. Leave just enough of a space at the top to add your fern, its roots, and any growing medium around those roots. It’s going to be stressed enough with its new conditions, so keeping the fern’s roots from being mashed or bruised will increase its chances of survival.

Finally, get your fern. Take a good look at its root system, and scoop out soil from the fern excluder to give enough room for those roots. Press it in gently, and scoop some soil alongside the roots to cover them. Give it a good watering, and it’s ready to be added.

At this point, add your new fern excluder where you need it, and check to make sure both that it’s close to the water level in the miniature garden or enclosure and that it’s stable. Placed correctly, water will seep through the weed barrier cloth from outside, encouraging the roots to go deep for moisture and discouraging growth through the rest of the area. This will discourage growth but won’t stop it, as many species will run roots down the sides and into surrounding soil. Trimming roots as they form is an option, and another is setting another fern excluder, wider and flatter, underneath the first excluder to facilitate those hanging roots. The fern excluder also won’t do a thing for new plants growing from spores, either from that fern or ones that blew in from elsewhere, so always check for new growth before it gets out of control. If you like that new growth, well, you’ve made one fern excluder, and there’s no reason why you can’t make more, right?

Enclosure: “Alpha Omega” (2019)

Contrary to popular perception, most doomsday devices don’t start out as such. A nuclear battery stored long enough invariably starts to leak radiation, which may or may not be detectable from outside its storage container. In cases like these, the best thing to do is leave them closed and forgotten, which would work if the lock wasn’t so easy to disengage.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 12″ x 18″ x 12″ (30.48 cm x 45.72 cm x30.48 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes “Bill Bailey” hybrid

Construction: Polystyrene foam, polyethylene, epoxy putty, found items.

Price: Sold

Shirt Price: Sold

Enclosures: “Eternity Vault” (2019)

Description: A specialized commission for a customer wishing to add his own selection of plants, this enclosure was inspired by any number of utility company and military projects. These installations surrounded equipment that didn’t and couldn’t justify constant upkeep but that still functioned perfectly well, even as paint flaked and seedlings turned into trees.

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

Plant: None

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, polyester resin, found items.

Price: Commission: not for sale.

Shirt Price: Commission: not for sale.

Enclosures: “Temporal Vortex Stabilizer” (2019)

Description: This enclosure was inspired by any number of utility company and military projects. These installations surrounded equipment that didn’t and couldn’t justify constant upkeep but that still functioned perfectly well, even as paint flaked and seedlings turned into trees.

Dimensions (width/height/depth): 20″ x 24″ x 20″ (50.80 cm x 60.96 cm x 50.80 cm)

Plant: Nepenthes hybrid “Bill Bailey”

Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, polyester resin, found items.

Price: Sold

Shirt Price: Sold

Horsecrippler Ice Cream Project, Episode One

Backstory: a few years ago, the big Triffid Ranch project, before the gallery, was attempting s culinary project involving Echinocactus texensis, the barrel cactus commonly known in West Texas as “devil’s pincushions” or “horsecripplers.” After confirming that their other name, “candy cactus,” was due to the bright color and shape of their fruit, and not because the fruit was used to make candy as commonly claimed, the grand experiment involved using horsecrippler fruit as a base for homemade ice cream. The experiment was inconclusive, but intriguing enough that the intention was to try again. The setup and opening of the gallery intruded on future plans to try again, and the project remained fallow. We now go to the next part of the tale, already in progress.

By the beginning of 2018, all the signs of a potential bumper crop of horsecrippler cactus fruit were all there. The previous summer had been hot but not brutal, and winter temperatures were cold enough to encourage dormancy but not so cold as to stunt or kill the cactus. All of that went out the window in mid-March, when a series of cold fronts brought temperatures down to about freezing, throwing off schedules for blooming and fruit set. A trip to the area around the town of Mineral Wells confirmed the absolute worst: normally, one of the only times when horsecripplers were easy to spot in situ was around the end of May, when the fruit ripened and those little neon red bombs made the rest of the plant visible. An extensive search through the area turned up nothing: when horsecripplers don’t want birds to find their fruit, they don’t want to be found at all. The only ones found were right next to residences where they were a potential threat to people and animals, and the fruit were tiny and green. The same situation was true of the horsecripplers in cultivation by the greenhouse, and it looked as if that late cold killed the crop for the season. Plans for horsecrippler ice cream were dashed for 2018.

Echinocactus texensis

Well, that was the idea. Horsecrippler season was just delayed this year, by about two weeks. Suddenly, every last cultivated horsecrippler that flowered earlier in spring looked up, checked the clock, and screamed “We’re late!” A week before, a couple of green fruit the size of raisins were all that could be found. Now, big, fat, juicy ripe fruit, easily removed from the cactus. The first stage of the Ice Cream Project could begin.

Items needed:

Horsecrippler cactus fruit

Kitchen tongs

Cutting board and sharp knife

Smoothie maker or blender

Cheesecloth

Freezer containers

The two things to remember about gathering cactus fruit are that the purpose of that fruit is to transport seeds, and that the bright colors of most cactus fruit aren’t necessarily there to entice humans. The descriptive name “candy cactus” probably referred to the look of the fruit, not the taste, as fruit on the plant looks like a cluster of wrapped candies. The wrapper, officially known as the corolla, is the remnant of the bloom, and it has a definitive purpose here. Horsecrippler seeds are best spread by birds as they eat the fruit and spread the seeds in their dung, so the idea is to attract birds with bright coloration while dissuading everything else. The corolla does a masterful job of dissuading, as it has all of the softness and mouth feel of a dried thistle bloom. The fruit doesn’t have actual thorns or hairs the way prickly pear fruit does, but that corolla is still too sharp and spiky to grab with bare hands. That’s where kitchen tongs come in handy: a slight twist and ripe fruit just pulls free.

Now the real fun begins. While the corolla makes a handy pull-tab when removing the fruit, you definitely don’t want chunks of it in the next stage. To the cutting board all of it goes, to cut off corollas and any squishy or bruised parts and wash what’s left. A handy tip: when disposing of the corollas, don’t add them to your garden unless you really like pain. They tend to survive months in the garden, just as spiky as they were when dumped there, so try to bury them either deep enough or enough out of the way that they won’t turn up with a random raking. Your feet, knees, and hands will thank you later.

With access to a cutting board and sharp objects, now is a perfect time for a bit of botanical anatomy. Horsecrippler fruit really don’t have enough pulp to make it worth the effort to skin the fruit the way you would with prickly pear, and the peel actually adds what subtle flavor it has. In addition, the pulp is full of small but very tough seeds, the better to pass through a bird’s gizzard, and helping yourself to the pulp now is very much like chewing a spoonful of very sticky aquarium gravel. To continue requires removing those seeds, and that requires…

(*in Red Green voice*)…the cactus preparator’s secret weapon: a smoothie machine!  In actuality, any blender will work well, but aside from sentimental reasons (I picked this up in Tallahassee the same exact weekend I encountered my first carnivorous plant in the wild), having a stirring stick that can push down and stir fruit without opening the top is awfully handy. After the fruit is washed and dried, just drop everything in here and blend away. A little warning though…

THIS is why you don’t want to use the spout on a smoothie maker. Prickly pear seeds are large enough that they’re filtered out by the spout opening, allowing the resultant juice to drain out through the spigot. Prickly pear fruit also produces a lot more juice: horsecrippler fruit have proportionately more peel and pulp, so capillary action keeps the juice bound up with the rest of the pureed pulp. A little juice will escape, with enough seeds going along with it that closing the spout is nearly impossible.

Likewise, don’t bother putting the pulp into a colander or strainer. Even if adding additional water or other fruit juice, the pulp will just suck it up and refuse to drain. The best option is to pour the pulp into cheesecloth, and squeeze out the juice into a freezer container. The temptation will be strong to taste that juice, and that’s when you discover why prickly pear and dragonfruit are the only cactus fruit commercially raised for food. “Subtle” is a nice way of describing the flavor, with a touch of starchiness. The main attraction is the neon color, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this. Just pour that juice into freezer containers if you aren’t going to use it right away and freeze it: from previous experience, it freezes well and keeps for months. As for the remaining pulp, you can attempt to grow new horsecrippler cactus from the seeds (a longterm venture, as horsecrippler cactus are VERY slow-growing), or you can set out the pulp and seeds to delight the local songbirds. Set up a platform near your cat’s favorite window, and get double satisfaction from watching happy birds and listening to anxious and nearly incontinent cats. Win/win.

As for what to do next, well, that’s a reason to check back for Episode Two. It’s going to be a busy weekend.

Upcoming Projects: May 2018

It’s late in the month, and the classic Texas heat settled in a few weeks early, so the lack of updates is more to do with taking the habits of one Heloderma suspectum and working predominately under cover and in the wee hours. (Taking all habits might be a bad idea: the neighbors might take issue with sucking eggs and swallowing baby bunnies whole.) That means, though, that between shows and events, new enclosures are getting ready for premiere at summer Triffid Ranch gallery events. Here’s a taste, as part of a dry-fitting before making final adjustments and planting the final enclosure:

More to follow…

Interludes and Background

It’s been a while since the last update, what with just-finished shows and other events. Let’s rectify that, shall we? After all, Midtown Artwalk is a little over a week away, and Black Friday is two weeks from now…image
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Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 3

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

Want to know what’s going on? Start from the beginning.

We’ve got the growing container situated and the plants selected, and now it’s time to wrap up everything. This means that we need to add the little touches that distinguishes this arrangement from just any toilet garden. When selecting accessories, think “What would Janit Calvo and John Waters do if they were landscaping partners?” and run with it.

When first planning this project, I was considering any number of figures for the bowl. Submarines,  plastic gerbils, crabs…oh, the possibilities. Then I came across an officially licensed Creature From the Black Lagoon kid’s bank at Keith’s Comics in Dallas, and it was all over. Since Empire Pictures never got around to licensing official Ghoulies merchandise, this will have to do.

Bog GardenImportant Tip: While carnivorous plants love lots of sun, that sun may be decidedly unfriendly to many varieties of plastic, or to the paint atop the plastic. Before putting a beloved model in a garden, spray it down with at least one good coat of a UV-resistant urethane spray, either gloss or matte. This won’t stop the inevitable wear and dissolution, but it’ll definitely slow the inevitable fading and changing of paint colors and preserve some of the plastic’s flexibility.

Important Tip: When working with hollow plastic items, weighting them down can be an issue. Metal as a weight isn’t an option, because most metals best suited for the job will either corrode or leach into the potting mix. I recommend using standard glass marbles: not only are they chemically neutral and resistant to weathering from immersion in a bog, but you can adjust the placement and angle of the figure by letting the marbles find their own level.

Bog GardenSince that original clump of Venus flytraps was ridiculously large, I gently broke it apart and spread both those and one invading Drosera binata (coming from seeds produced this summer) across the bowl. By this time next year, the flytraps would be spread across the top of the bowl., obscuring the base of the original. Maybe one of these days, when I have a tub to work with, I might expand on the figures, but right now, this is just the right size without overwhelming the bowl or making everyone ignore what’s growing there.

And because when it comes down to bad taste, I horrify spouses, friends, family, and casual passersby, this arrangement needs one last touch. Namely, considering its name, it needs something Scottish, as well as a reminder of this actor’s breakout role (video clip probably not safe for work, and definitely not safe for lunch). Now, with a different arrangement, I might have gone with a Darryl Dixon figure, because who else can forget Norman Reedus’s encounter with a flying toilet in the film Boondock Saints?

Bog GardenImportant Tip: For those wanting to add action figures to a miniature garden, take into account that many figures today have battery-powered features such as sound chips or LED lights, and you do NOT want the batteries corroding in your planter or arrangement. Some offer easily replaceable button batteries, which is a start, but removing anything metal from the figure would be a better idea unless you knew for a fact that it was completely sealed and watertight.  Discussing the hows and wherefores on removing electronic augmentations from toys is well beyond the scope of this article, but I recommend getting a watch case knife and a bottle of your favorite superglue before starting.

With all of this done, all that’s left is to enjoy it. This is the scene that greeted my lovely wife when she came home that Sunday evening:

Bog GardenIf this doesn’t scream “true love,” I don’t know what will. I’m not talking about the Bog Garden itself. I’m talking about being left alive to write about it. I really shouldn’t tell her about the Aldrovanda tank I’m making from a bidet.

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 2

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

Want to know what’s going on? Start from the beginning.

Naturally, a toilet garden isn’t a garden without a commode, but a toilet garden without something in it is just an ugly porcelain structure that accumulates squirrel droppings and produces mosquitoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if you’re particularly inclined to new taste sensations, but let’s stick with the project at hand. Last installment, we cleaned out a commode and made it more plant-friendly, and now it’s time to introduce the plants.

The biggest problem with working with a large porcelain structure is drainage. Even with bog-friendly plants, such a small area filling up with, say, a typical Texas gullywasher thunderstorm can be problematic for anything more terrestrially-inclined than water lilies, aquatic bladderworts, and Aldrovanda. The issue here is making sure that the tank and bowl retain water, but not too much water, and that depends upon your locale and general rainfall.

For most carnivorous plant growing in North Texas, the best thing to do with the water tank on a toilet garden is to seal it up. Plug up both the outlet where the flapper used to be, and the hole where the inlet valve used to reside, with rubber corks, wads of plastic, or anything else that strikes your fancy, and seal the plugs with aquarium silicone or plumbing-grade epoxy putty. HowEVER, should you live in Houston, Tallahassee, or any other locale with significantly higher levels of rainfall, having a bit more drainage might be desirable. The trick, of course, is to allow water to leave without taking planting mix with it. Let me introduce you to the bog gardener’s secret weapon, landscape fabric.

Landscape clothMany landscaper and gardener friends consider polyester landscape fabric to be of the devil, with many cursing its use in courtyards, garden edges, and all sorts of other locations where removing it five and ten years later is one’s idea of the perfect eternal punishment. Personally, I look at that perfect eternal punishment as removing Bermuda grass from a flower bed, but that’s only because Bermuda indirectly tried to murder me in 1982. I can agree with the nightmare that is pulling up buried landscape fabric, but for container gardening and terraria, it’s the perfect separation layer. For instance, for those wanting to put down a layer of perlite in a terrarium to encourage drainage, a sheet of some sort of separation layer is absolutely essential to prevent the perlite from floating to the surface with a stout rain. Likewise, it’s a cheaper,  more durable and more ecologically friendly material for covering the bottoms of bonsai pots than window screening, and it does a much better job of keeping soil from running through the drainage holes. It can be cut with standard scissors, into just about any shape you want, and wadded, wedged, and prodded into irregular surfaces. I picked up about five rolls of a discontinued green landscape fabric, recycled from used soda bottles, about two years ago, and even with all of my recent projects, I should have to get more fabric around 2018.

In this case, one big sheet of landscape fabric goes down into the bottom of the tank, allowing water to run out the former inlet valve hole. Should you want to conserve water, or add to the total effect, simply plug that hole and allow water in the tank to run out through the outlet, and it’ll go straight into the bowl. Oh, won’t that be a lovely look during the first stout rain.

Now, the bowl is, strangely enough, easier to work with. In areas with lots of rain, just put a sheet of landscape fabric in the bottom, wide enough to retain soil, and leave the pipe intact. The U-bend in the bottom of the bowl will retain enough water to keep the plants in the bowl from drying out right away, and excess will drip out as the U-bend fills. If you’re not looking forward to snide comments about leakage and jokes about WOW! potato chips, then you can block up the pipe. Anyone with a five-year-old can make suggestion on great materials for blocking up a toilet bowl: my brother can tell the tale of trying to flush an empty toilet with buckets of silver paint (please don’t ask, as the statute of limitations only recently expired), but I know from personal experience that the best material around comes from dry cleaning bags.

Personal interlude: friends can’t understand why I can’t watch the IFC series Portlandia, even after I explain to them that “comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else.” Nearly two decades later, I can say that my signature Portland moment came one day in the spring of 1997, when my now-ex came down with a horrible bout of stomach flu on a Sunday morning. That’s bad enough in itself, but the toilet line to our floor and the two above us was completely jammed because one of my hipster neighbors had decided to entertain himself by flushing plastic dry cleaning bags down the john the night before. Since this was a Sunday, the owner of the building first told us that we’d have to wait for work to be done on Monday, and begrudgingly called for her maintenance man, also known as her nephew, to come out and take a look. He showed up in a suit and tie, as he was he was heading to the Portland Opera, and told us that he couldn’t do anything before he had to be at his event, because our building handyman and plumber didn’t want to ruin his new shoes. It was only upon pointing out to the owner that a nonfunctional toilet line made the apartment building unfit for human habitation, and Oregon law required that the property owner would have to put up her tenants in hotel space until such a time as repairs were made, that she relented and paid Sunday rates for a real plumber. Her nephew got to the opera on time, my ex had use of a functional toilet, and the hipster neighbor apparently was still there, flushing grocery bags this time, after we finally escaped about six months later.

Filling the Bog GardenWith that done, it’s time to start putting in plants. Atop the landscape fabric went about a liter of perlite, and then another layer of landscape fabric to keep it in place. Immediately after that went just straight peat. You can add sand to the mix, but that not only adds significant weight to the final planting, but it’s not really necessary.

And the plants? Never let it be said that studying ikebana techniques for live plants never paid off. It would seem to make perfect sense to put short plants in the tank and big flowing ones in the bowl, but planting tall ones such as Sarracenia in the bowl would block off and prevent appreciation of any smaller plants behind them. I finally opted for three species of Sarracenia in the tank to keep up the Heaven/Man/Earth balance necessary for a decent ikebana arrangement. Those wanting to set up an indoor arrangement for tropical species might want to invert this, with a Nepenthes pitcher plant draping from the tank while the bowl contained pygmy sundews or Cephalotus. It’s completely your call.

Sarracenia purpureaThe first was a very old friend: Sarracenia purpurea, the provincial floral emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador. Considering how squat S. purpura remains, it’s perfect for “earth”.

Sarracenia minorThe second is a species not seen as often in carnivorous plant collections because of its slow growth and fussy temperament about low humidity. Sarracenia minor has more in common with its very distant relation Darlingtonia californica on the west coast of North America than with most of its cousins in the southeast. In both species, they have deep, dark hoods and small transparent windows (officially known as fenestrae) along the back of the hoods, so insects inside the hood fly toward the fenestrae, bounce off, and get trapped within the pitcher. This one is three years old, and it’s only now coming into its own: when carnivorous plant experts refer to this species as slow-growing, they aren’t kidding.

Sarracenia leucophyllaThe third is so obvious that it shouldn’t need an introduction: Sarracenia leucophylla, the white pitcher plant. The tallest of the North American pitcher plants, considering how much these glow under a full moon, its placement here should be obvious.

Sarracenia medley

Before finishing up, take into account a very important consideration about planting. When putting in plants, take into account both growing habits AND the possibilities of soil settling after a while. I recommend filling the tank and bowl with wet sphagnum, letting it drain for a bit, and then adding more water to fill any air pockets. Also, unless you like cleaning up peat stains around your new planter, try to keep the soil in the bowl and tank at least two centimeters below the edge. This way, unless you’re getting the classic Texas or Michigan thunderstorm, incoming rain has a place to go without washing out plants. When you live in a place that can get ten centimeters of rain within 30 minutes, you have to take these things into account.

For the bowl, its U-bend makes it perfectly suited for one particular carnivorous plant that loves moisture but hates having soaked roots. I’m not saying that toilets were designed for growing Venus flytraps, but you have to wonder, you know?

Venus flytraps Meanwhile, while all this was going on, I looked up to find an observer other than the anole lizards running around the back yard. Our very own Cadigan had to add her commentary, and give me her absolute best GrumpyCat impersonation.bog_garden_10262014_14 CadiganYou don’t have to be a telepath to know what she’s thinking right now: “Oh, when Mom gets home, you are SO dead.” Naturally, she had to lead the Czarina to the bedroom window, as if to say “Looooooook at what heeeeeeee diiiiiiiiiid…” With a cat like this, I don’t need children.

More to follow…

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 1

Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.

I freely admit that I risk sudden and terrible death at the hands of my beloved wife with some of my garden ideas. I fully subscribe with the attitude of famed director John Waters that an appreciation of bad taste requires very good taste, because you have to know WHY you’re laughing. This is why I don’t engage in many horticultural and landscaping trends beloved by my ancestors. My paternal grandmother, for instance, would never have considered saving old tractor tires and turning them into planters for the front yard; at least, not until they had at least two good coats of bright pink latex paint before they were loaded with fill dirt and seeded with cosmos. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Unfortunately for her, my ability to go completely deadpan and her natural innocence (she was once told that she should look in the dictionary in her high school library, because the entry for “gullible” had her picture next to it) means that it’s remarkably easy to mess with her. On a trip to Alberta years back, she spotted a gate bracket on the side of a pine tree that looked remarkably like a spigot, and I explained that this was for collecting pine syrup. After all, all we good Canadians used pine syrup on their pancakes, and only kept around maple syrup for Americans who couldn’t handle the good stuff. When she realized I was joshing her, she showed her sexiest trait: that vein in her forehead that pulsed when she was angry. This time, it was pulsing like the lights in a goth club during a God Module show, and I knew then that this was something I wanted to see again and again.

This is how the whole discussion on converting a used toilet into a carnivorous plant pot started: the desperate need for more phlebotic strobing. After a while, it became an in-joke that only made sense to us, much like talk about getting a lathe or my spending the mortgage money on drugs. (I’ll explain later.) Driving through the neighborhood on Large Trash Day and noting neighbors  doing extensive house renovations, she’d usually see an abandoned commode three blocks up, and even before I could turn to her to make a suggestion, she’d just yell “NO,” as if I were an English sheepdog looking for a good dry library in which to shake off eight hours of snow and ice. After a while, it became a game to spot it first and then focus on something she’d be more likely to accept putting in the back, such as that wheelbarrow full of black market livers and kidneys that went bad when the power went out. “Say what you want,” she’d sniff, “but at least we can cook and eat those.”  I neglected to tell her that my plans for toilet renovation included turning a big metal prison toilet into a barbecue grille, complete with it playing “Ring of Fire” when you started it up.

(As I write this, my beloved is out with friends. I know  she’s thinking of me, though, because I can hear that vein, playing “Your True Face“. Nyarlathotep help me if she thought I was serious.)

The reality, though, is that putting together a toilet planter, at least once, teaches many valuable lessons for other, less worrisome gardening projects. The first is understanding how to work with unconventional planters. The second is learning how to roll with punches when these unconventional planters don’t work out for the originally considered purpose. The third is getting an understanding of the difference between a planter and a plant arrangement. The fourth? Exactly how far you can go before spouses, neighbors, landlords, and municipal code authorities say “Okay, we’re done” and put you in a big can until spring. If you’re lucky, they’ll poke holes in the top before sealing you in.

Bog GardenThe whole mess started years back, when I got into an online discussion with friends about unconventional planter sources. I’ve seen some beautiful Sarracenia planters made from old clawed-ball bathtubs, and the discussion went rapidly toward conversion of sinks and other fixtures. That’s when I realized that, in many ways, a commode was halfway to perfect for the purpose. It had drainage that could be blocked up, as anyone with an enterprising five-year-old could tell you, it was already water-impermeable, and it’s available in any number of eye-catching colors. This was the conversation where I realized that a spare urinal would make a great planter for Nepenthes pitcher plants, dragonfruit cactus, and other saprophytes, but it’s best not to say anything now. That’s a project for next week.

After years of joking, nuhdzing, and putting up with her own vagaries, the Czarina finally relented. I could do it, so long as I didn’t work on it in the house, it wasn’t visible from the street or the house, and that it would be temporary unless I wanted to move it into the greenhouse. I agreed: unless someone was paying for a custom assignment, this would have to remain a proof of concept project, because I definitely didn’t have room to set up more than one without building a new greenhouse.

And so it came that a house on my Day Job bicycle commute just finished a renovation job, and the Czarina let me have the car for another errand. I checked it out before snagging it: no obvious byproducts of human metabolism, no black widow spiders nesting inside, and no once-loved toys caught in the U-bend. A quick run with the hose, and then the work could begin.

Bog GardenThe biggest problem with the conversion, strangely enough, wasn’t with stopping up the main outflow drain. That could be done with any number of things, and I was tempted to use a cannonball to add to the strobing. (Long before we ever formally met, she had a neighbor in her apartment building nicknamed “Cannonball.” He got the nickname not because he used a Civil War-era cannonball as a sex toy, but that he’d apparently forget he’d left it in until he got up in the morning for his morning constitutional. After the second time he knocked a fist-sized hole through the bowl, he got evicted, and he apparently became a standard by which bad tenants were judged ever since.) The real issue was with all of the gear that made this American Standard such a gleaming example of sanitation science. It couldn’t stay in, both because of the potting mix and said mix’s acidic effects on the components. I once heard that the best way to understand dinosaur anatomy was to dissect a chicken while you were eating it, and if I didn’t already have teeming respect for plumbers, I would have in the process of unscrewing, unbolting, and prying off the apparatus in the tank.

Bog GardenHere’s a good idea of what needs to be removed: the flapper, the float valve, the float, and the seat. You may think that leaving the seat intact is essential, but trust me: it’s not. That seat will yellow and blister in the sun, it’ll get in the way of watering and cleanup, and it will generally make a mess. You could permanently affix it upright with epoxy putty, but “permanently” is a shaky concept in gardening, and would you want your favorite plant crushed because that “permanent” adhesion gave out at the worst possible time?

Bog GardenLooking from the interior of the tank, you’ll notice two big brass bolts, the outlet leading to the bowl, and the hole on the right that was where the float and float valve used to be. The flapper pipe can be removed by unscrewing it, but the float valve is attached to the tank thanks to a big nut, usually plastic, on the underside of the tank. Take the time to unscrew all of this properly: you don’t want to go through all this effort only to crack or shatter the tank because you got impatient and used too much force.

Oh, and about those two big screws. These are brass, which when left in may contaminate the potting mix at the bottom of the tank. However, if you take them out, there’s suddenly nothing keeping the tank planted atop the bowl. You have quite a few possibilities for sealing these up, but I’d recommend covering them with an epoxy putty so as to minimize contact. The two actual holes will be dealt with later.

Now it’s time for the seat. The seat is held onto the bowl with two nylon screws on top and two matching nuts on the underside, with slots just the right size for a Swiss Army knife screwdriver blade. The screws are covered with caps to keep ordure from building up in the slots, and that’s when I discovered new advances in toilet technology. Apparently, kids taking apart their toilets is enough of a problem that these screws had child-safe caps, requiring a hard twist to the left before they could be pried off. All I thought upon seeing this is that I missed out on a great opportunity when I was three or four to make sure the whole family had stories for the next family reunion. You know, the one to which I wasn’t invited because I swiped the toilet seat to go sledding, and shredded the finish after being dragged around an icy parking lot by an 18-wheeler.

Bog GardenNow that the easy stuff is done, it’s time to remove the flushing lever. To keep people from wandering off with the handle, the handle and lever are held in place with a square nut set. That set needs to be removed before the handle can be removed from the tank, and make sure you realize that this set has counterclockwise threads. Forget this and use a stout wrench to remove it, and you’ll probably shred the whole assembly. And don’t think about just leaving it in, either: that whole lever is brass coated with copper, meaning that combining it with the highly acidic potting mix in a carnivorous plant garden will probably kill your plants. Just junk it, or keep it as a novelty backscratcher.

Bog GardenNow that the lever is gone, you’ll have to consider what to do about the hole left in the side of the tank. Unless you plant below its level, every watering and every rain is going to lead to excess water, with lots of dissolved tannins from the peat, dribbling out of it. As disgusting as excess leakage of the usual sort may appear, the jokes after about three years worth of peat staining will just write themselves.

Bog GardenWell, time to get back that novelty backscratcher, and grab a hacksaw with a metal-cutting blade while you’re at it. Before you do anything, though, remove the nut and bolt arrangement and put it back in place in their old location. Just make sure to face the outfacing bolt in the right direction, for reasons explained momentarily.

Bog GardenMeanwhile, get to work with that hacksaw, and cut the flush handle from the flush lever. Leave a stub, and pitch the rest of the lever. Run the stub through the bolt hole, make sure that the flush lever is pressed as close to the tank wall as possible, and secure the other end with either silicone sealer or epoxy putty. Whatever you do, make sure that everyone understands that this is for show, not for go, and that as much as they want to sing Gwar’s  “Jiggle the Handle” (Link not even remotely safe for work or sanity), doing so would be a very bad idea.

Bog Garden

Bog GardenAnd while we’re at it, don’t forget the bottom. That disgusting-looking mess on the bottom isn’t what you’d expect: this is the remnant of the wax seal used between the toilet and the sewer pipe. Scrape it off or don’t: it really doesn’t matter, as you won’t see this end of the final arrangement. If you’re planning to move it somewhere after you’re done, though, I recommend cleaning it off, or else you’re going to get toilet wax all over you the first time you move it on a warm day.

Now, directly underneath the bowl is a hollow, left there both to prevent cracking or explosions in the kiln with a solid piece, and to cut down on weight for transportation. It’s completely up to you if you want to put a weight, such as poured cement, into this space, but considering how top-heavy a toilet can be, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

After all of this is done, it’s time for a good stout cleanup. Don’t be afraid to use a scrubbing brush and bleach, but try not to use anything metal as the metal can mar the finish. If the toilet is particularly encrusted with lime, rust, or calcium deposits, you may have to go for something stronger than elbow grease. I very highly recommend CLR, but if it isn’t available in your area, any analogue should work. Whatever you use, even if it’s just ammonia and vinegar, rinse out the toilet very well when you’re done. And then do it again. And a third time. Yes, it seems excessive, but do you really want chemical residue in among your Sarracenia or Heliamphora?

One of the good things about cleaning porcelain is that thanks to bathroom fixtures, we have lots of possibilities for cleanup. I personally found a very low-grade brand of liquid dishwasher detergent that does wonders on porcelain with the help of a scrub brush, and its low-suds tendencies make dedicated scrubbing very easy. The bottle on the left is of a now-discontinued brand of Dawn dish soap that advertised itself as a “bleach alternative”, and it works so well on paint smears and rust stains that I bought every bottle I could in anticipation of the day I couldn’t get any more. All four of them, and no, you can’t have one.

Bog Garden cleansersFinally, and this seems to surprise many gardeners, but big top-heavy planters tend to be a bit ungainly when they’re moved or the ground shifts underneath them. Combine the weight of the original container, roughly double that with the weight of potting mix and water, and add a slew of plants that you just might not want to macerate while righting your falling and failing pot, and you might want to keep the phone number and Google Map of a good doctor on hand. When used for their stated purpose, toilets are bolted to the floor because it’s effectively riding atop the sewer line. The particularly unlucky might have had experiences with using commodes in restrooms with rotting or otherwise failing floors, and they’ll all sympathize with Shipwreck Kelly after a few minutes.

Barring the urge to bolt your bog garden to a concrete porch, which can be done if you really love the whole idea, a stable base is essential. For this one, I used thin cinder blocks left over from another project, but you can go with stone, wood, thick ceramic, or even plastic slabs such as plastic shipping pallets. What matters is that the base is at least as long and wide as the toilet itself, to spread the weight, and that it’s not made of anything that can separate as it settles. If you don’t, expect to find your creation lying on its side, or possibly smashed to bits, after the next storm.

Bog Garden baseMore to follow…

Renaissance Circles: Ginkgoes and Fruit-Eating Crocs

Ginkgo

A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.

This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.

Dr. Peter Crane

Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.

Ginkgo leaves

The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.

Ginkgo

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.

And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.

DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.

Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.

The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.

Projects: “David Gerrold’s Vindication” (2013)

David Gerrold's Vindication (2013)Between the Day Job, Triffid Ranch shows, and general craziness, projects get delayed. Sometimes they get buried, and then it’s a matter of digging them up and getting them finished. Such was the case of the old Nineties-era console television conversion from last year, and it was looking for a theme. Cleaning it up, rigging it with lights, and making it as moisture-resistant as possible (hint: spar varnish is your friend when working with wood in high-humidity environments) was one thing, but this needed something other than the deathly dull pegboard backing with which it entered the world twenty years ago.  Even worse, with FenCon X coming up soon, it needed something with a science fictional theme that didn’t add too much weight, didn’t make it impossible to fill with plants, and didn’t require a Ph.D to install and maintain. It had to be reasonably nontoxic, if not necessarily for the plants, but as a proof of concept for an upcoming arrangement that needs to be friendly to both carnivorous plants and small reptiles. It had to do horrible things to a set of action figures given me by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer a few years back. Oh, and it had to make the Czarina look inside, shake her head, and ask “What the hell is WRONG with you?” Hence, we get David Gerrold’s Vindication.

Gerrold's Vindication backdrop

I’ve always held that it’s bad form to explain an inside joke: if you have to explain the joke to make it funny, or if the joke is so obscure that only a handful of people get any merriment from it, it’s not working. Let’s just say that the title of the piece refers to the famed science fiction writer David Gerrold, best noted for a lot of things in my childhood that permanently damaged my fragile little mind. Among many other considerations in his extensive television writing career, Mr. Gerrold can be credited with creating the concept of the “Away Teams” in Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, if following the conceit that every adventure of the original Star Trek series had to feature the senior bridge crew and one expendable character beaming down into hostile alien environments, why, all sorts of horrible things could happen. Or should happen.

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Another challenge was utilizing the actual shape of the backing for the original television. Aside from a plastic indentation intended to allow the cathode tube to cool via air circulation, the whole thing was nothing but flat pegboard: a little air circulation via the back was desirable, but too much would drop the humidity in the cabinet below the optimum for Nepenthes pitcher plants. Hence, concealing the majority of the ventilation holes while still allowing some air to enter (and some heat to exit) was necessary. It’s amazing what four coats of spar varnish accomplishes in sealing the backing, and it’s equally amazing how many adhesives will stick to spar varnish that’s been sanded lightly to give it “tooth”. Put a custom-cut piece of glass in the front and hold it in place with pegs, and it’s both accessible and disturbing.

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

Aside from the obvious figures, everything else inside was hand-sculpted, including the eggs (jewelry-grade epoxy putty), the alien constructs (insulating foam), and the bulkheads and chamber walls (converted catering containers). In addition, as a tribute to my best friend’s comments a quarter-century back, it needed a bit of graffiti as well:Gerrold's Vindication detail

Gerrold's Vindication detail

As an art project, the winner in the FenCon art auction was extremely happy with it. As a proof of concept, it gave me plenty of ideas on what to do with the next one. Most importantly, it taught me “make sure you have all the parts together when you start the next one, because you really don’t want to tear apart the garage again to find them next time.”

Projects: Living in the future

One of the side effects of last weekend’s show at the Perot Museum was the realization that there’s not really an easy way to show people the inside of a pitcher plant, no matter the particular genus or species, without a bit of help. Sarracenia pitcher lids can be bent back a bit, but it’s hard for a group to get a peek inside without risking damage to the pitcher. It’s even worse with Nepenthes pitchers, and trying to do some investigation of Cephalotus pitchers? Forget it. This requires a bit of technology.

The question started up yesterday afternoon, when a trip to the allergist made me think “What about an endoscope? I mean, if you can use one to view the inside of someone’s trachea, how hard can it be to get one that can be slipped down a carnivorous plant pitcher to view the inside?” All of a sudden, the possibilities: surveys of prey items and their numbers, searching for various animals living inside, investigating the difference in prey caught at night and during the day, all without having to cut the pitcher open.

That’s when an old friend in New York turned me onto USB-ready endoscopes, complete with adjustable LEDs for illuminating the view. They’re already waterproof for viewing plumbing issues, so they’re absolutely perfect for getting into the equally slimy and grungy environment found inside a Nepenthes pitcher. Better yet, between getting live video through a computer screen and taking screen captures, presentations at museums and schools just got a LOT more interesting.

Thank you, Pat, for the help. Now I need to find a really small one, otherwise with the same features, for getting into really small plants. It may be time to look further at Nepenthes ampullaria as a tadpole nursery.

Base behavior

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

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

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

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

Figure assemblage

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

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

Slate assemblage

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

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

Square tiles

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

Rectangular tiles

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

Slab tile

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

Milliput

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

Loctite Go2Glue

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

Elvis bust

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

Alien astronaut on slate

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

Spartan on single tile

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

Spartan on rectangular tile

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

Spartan on slate

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

Closeup on Spartan feet

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

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.

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.)

The Evening Garden: Flowers and Fragrance From Dusk Till Dawn by Peter Loewer.
ISBN-10: 0881925322
ISBN-13: 9780881925326
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2010
Pages: 272
Language: English

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.

The definition of insanity

Okay, so last year’s seed experimentation didn’t work quite as well as I’d thought. Of course, you try predicting a “drought of record” back last January. Looking at the list of floral experiments from 2011, and it’s only slightly less painful than Bhut Jolokia-based jock itch creme. (Interestingly, the Bhut Jolokia plants were some of the only successes in 2011, and they’re going to make spectacular bonsai this summer.) Triggerplants, Nepenthes, Sarracenia, Drosera…on and on and on.

One of the learning-experience projects involved trying to see if the South African protocarnivore Roridula will do well in Texas. For those unfamiliar with the genus, Roridula superficially resembles a sundew or rainbow plant, in that its leaves are covered with sticky adhesive threads intended for trapping insect prey. The difference between the two species of Roridula and all other known species of sticky-leaf carnivore is that Roridula secretes resin instead of mucilage as its trapping adhesive, and digestive enzymes can’t pass through the resin. In the wild, Roridula compensates for this with a symbiotic relationship with at least one native species of ambush bug. The plant traps prey which is then fed upon by the ambush bugs, and the ambush bugs reciprocate by defecating on the plant’s leaves. The leaves have special channels intended to capture said feces, so it’s carnivorous by proxy thanks to that foliar feeding. Considering that stories circulate about the larger species of Roridula, R. gorgonias, capturing small birds, both bugs and plants seem to flourish under this relationship.

Not that I’m wanting the ambush bugs (although I’m intrigued as to whether Texas-native ambush bugs, such as our famed wheel bug, might fill the niche), but I’m very curious as to how well either Roridula species might do in Dallas once established. Hence, I ordered a small bundle of seeds of R. gorgonias and sowed them under recommended soil and light conditions. Unfortunately, this was right about the time the drought really set in and the relative humidity came awfully close to negative numbers, so no seedlings. I still have hope, though, that maybe the seeds needed a bit of cold treatment, so the pots remain outside for the winter, and if they don’t sprout by May, then I’ll give it up as a bad experiment.

The real danger is with doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. As Mark Twain told us, that’s the definition of insanity. That’s also the definition of gardening. Since the cold outdoors is just enough to make me a bit stir-crazy, it was time to put in an order with Silverhill Seeds in Cape Town and see how well the smaller species, R. dentata, might do this summer. Results to follow.

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.

Thursday is Resource Day: Making Jack Skellington Proud

Dallas still hasn’t seen any snow, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, Christmas for Dallas, which us also known as “July in Calgary”. The nights are frosty, the mornings chilly, and the evenings ridiculously clear and bright. And we know what this means, right? It means we have only 327 more days until Halloween. More importantly, we have 328 days until everyone’s literally giving away pumpkins.

Go ahead and laugh, but those of us who can’t drink and can’t smoke need new methods to survive the holiday season and the dark days of January and February. Sure, I could go for established techniques learned in my childhood, such as indoor gardening, fishkeeping, or impromptu games of Russian roulette with friends. Instead, I wait until the local charity pumpkin patches need to get rid of their excess pumpkins on All Saint’s Day, and I then spend the next week preparing pumpkin seeds. Yes, it’s boring and sedate, but it also means that I’m up to my armpits in roasted pumpkin seeds, and THAT’s what gets me through Christmas.

The basic idea of pumpkin seed roasting is pulling the seeds out of a freshly opened jack-o-lantern, washing them, and roasting them in an oven or grille until they’re slightly crunchy. No big deal, and any number of people do it every Halloween. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of seeds per pumpkin means that it’s not really practical to experiment with roasting or with flavorings. For that, you’ll need a lot of pumpkin seeds. Since you need approximately five pumpkins for a liter of seeds, you’ll need a lot of pumpkins.

This is also problematic in North Texas, just because of our heat and dryness. All plants have pores, or stomata, on the tops of their leaves to allow transpiration of water. Some of this water is excess produced during photosynthesis, but most is drawn up through the plant’s roots to allow movement of water and nutrients to the leaves. Pumpkins are particularly interesting in that they have stomata on both sides of their leaves, thus doubling their transpiration output. This is great in areas with high humidity and slightly cooler temperatures, but most attempts in Dallas to grow pumpkins fail for one good reason: the plant ends up losing more water from transpiration than it can draw through its roots, and it ultimately wilts and dies. The only year I’ve had a traditional jack-o-lantern survive the summer was during the unnaturally wet 2007 summer, and I even lost that one to termites. (Yes, termites. Very long story.)

Since trying to grow them outdoors is impossible, starting the process requires getting a good collection of pumpkins from other sources. Many fundraiser “pumpkin patch” stands pop up around the beginning of October, so make friends with a few and see what they’re going to do with their pumpkins. If the fundraiser is for a charity you appreciate or support, offer a donation in exchange for going through their excess. If they say “Oh, go ahead and help yourself,” offer a donation anyway, and they’ll remember you as the person who helped clear out their unwanted pumpkins. Sometimes this pays off.

Pecos Fresh label

In my case, this wasn’t going to happen, particularly because of the collapse of the jack-o-lantern crop in the Northeast US due to Hurricane Irene’s flooding. However, my local Kroger store had a surplus from the Rio Grande Valley, and a week after Halloween, the manager had marked them down to “10 for $10”. $40 and some very strange looks from the Kroger checkers later, I had a car full of pumpkins. Ten minutes after that, I had a back yard full of pumpkins.

Handy tip #1: make sure that you have a vehicle capable of hauling your bounty, and without the bounty pile shifting and pummelling your head while attempting to drive back home. I stopped at 40 pumpkins this time, mostly so the coroner’s report didn’t read “assaulted by squash after a sudden stop,” but were I to have a big enough collection, renting a truck is an option.

Raw pumpkins

Now, once you have your pumpkins out of their transport and in a good massacree area, you’ll need proper tools for suitable processing. These should include:
Tools for dispatching pumpkins

  • A tub or bucket suitably large for holding seeds and water (you’ll see why later)
  • A sharpened machete or other long blade
  • Salt in standard packages: one kilo for every 30 pumpkins
  • A pair of cotton or gardener’s gloves
  • A pair of atex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves
  • 2 Baking sheets (preferably ones that won’t be missed if stained or damaged)
  • Your choice of spices

If you’re working on a porch or other blacktop or concrete area, get a stump or log section to use for chopping pumpkins. Since you’re going to be working for a while, I also recommend having some sort of music player with something a bit violent to keep up your spirits. In my case, considering my skin and hair coloration, my choice for pumpkin massacre was Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword.

To start out, take into consideration that pumpkin juice is extremely acidic. It’s not actually caustic, but it’s sufficiently acidic that it will burn the skin along your fingernails, and you absolutely do not want this in any open cuts or scabs. Should this be of concern, put on the gardener’s gloves, pull out the machete, put a pumpkin on a good cutting area, and give it one good thwack. If your neighbors are already used to your shenanigans, feel free to let loose with a good battle yell, such as the one used by my doctor during my vasectomy: “Hasan…CHOP!” (My neighbors are plenty interesting, but even they weren’t going to handle my screaming “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” while dispatching squash on a Saturday afternoon. They were freaked out enough by pumpkin chips and pulp flying over the fence like a failed special effect in a GWAR concert.)

Cutting pumpkins

As tempting as it may be to try exotic swordsmanship, just go for a straight slice across the widest part of the pumpkin. If you slice through all the way, great. If it only goes most of the way, apply some pressure to finish the job, and split it in half. Set aside the halves and get to work on the next one: it’s actually easier to get them all prepped before starting on the next step than to clean them one at a time.

Pumpkin halves

Once the chopping is done, and the back yard looks as if the soldiers of Kelmain will fight no more, wash the machete and dry the blade (especially if the blade is carbon steel, as the pumpkin juice will stain and pit the blade) and put on your rubber gloves. With a raking motion, scrape the seeds from the stringy pulp on the inside of each pumpkin half, and dump the seeds into your tub or bucket. Don’t worry about getting every last seed, mostly because you’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy to get that one last straggler, but make some effort to get the vast majority. When you’re done, feel free to cook up the pumpkin halves, as apparently they make quite a good soup when roasted, skinned, and mashed before dumped into a crockpot. That’s the Czarina’s territory, as I honestly can’t stand squash of any sort. If your tastes run toward mine, then feel free to use them as mulch in your garden, laying them down and then putting a good thick layer of compost or leaves atop them so they’ll decompose quickly.

Handy tip #2: If you’re inclined to getting boisterous with your pumpkins, consider some sort of eye protection to go with the gloves. If you don’t want to get the juice on your cuticles, you definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes.

Collected seeds

Once the pumpkin halves are cleaned up and the machete is put up for the season, you should have a fairly large collection of seeds in your tub. As a general rule, you should have a liter of seeds for every five to ten pumpkins, so carefully move the tub to a new and more permanent location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, but it should have some protection from the weather. Whatever you do, lift with your knees and not your back, because you don’t want the indignity of blowing out a vertebral disc and landing facefirst into a pile of spilled pumpkin seeds. You don’t want your final moments to be recreated by my little brother on 1000 Ways To Die, do you?

Making brine

Next, get the salt, and generously dump it into the tub with the seeds. Go nuts. Go mad. Make it strong enough that rampaging porcupines will come to your house and gnaw down the fence to get at the salt. (We don’t have that problem out here, but the armadillos are almost that obnoxious over spilled beer.) Dump in at least a kilo, and then cover the seeds with water and stir up well.

Soaking seeds

At this point, as tempting as it would be to go to work on roasting, don’t. Let the seeds sit in your newly made brine for at least 24 hours. This will remove any remaining pumpkin slime and juice, as well as facilitate the removal of any extra pulp. Think you got out all of the pulp when you were scraping out seeds in the yard? Oh, you’ll discover that pumpkin pulp can teleport, and in disturbing quantities.

Strained slop

Handy tip #3: Use a slotted spoon to stir your brined seeds, and stir early and often. You’ll be amazed and horrified at how much pulp builds up after a casual stirring, and every gram you get now is one less gram you’ll have to pull out of your roasting sheets.

Draining seeds

After the seeds finish their brine soak, scoop out a few liters, dump the mass into a colander, and rinse well. I mean it: rinse well. Let them drain for a while: while doing so, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and get out the baking sheets.

Baking sheet

Handy tip #4: Unless you thrive on domestic discord, and your Significant Other or roommate really doesn’t care what you do to the cookie sheets, get a pair specifically for pumpkin seed roasting and use the pair ONLY for that purpose. They WILL stain, and the shrieks from cooking enthusiasts as to the piebald condition of their sheets are matched only by their efforts to brain you with the blender. Keep an eye open for sales at grocery stores during baking season, and they’ll thank you for the thought.

Sheet seeds

Next, dump the seeds from the colander to the cookie sheet. They don’t have to be exactly one layer thick: sometimes a thicker layer roasts better, especially on particularly dry days.

Spices

Purists at this point can move directly to putting their seeds in the oven, but a judicious application of spice can make all of the difference. The personal favorites among family and friends are Memphis-style dry rib rub (in this case, generously supplied by Red Hot & Blue, but Defcon Sauces’s Smoky Dust also gives a subtle fire to roasted seeds. Either way, the good thing about having a large quantity of seeds is that this gives room to experiment with spices and roasting time, so try new items one batch at a time.

Once the spices are on, stir up the seeds on the cookie sheet, trying to get the majority of the seed mass covered in spice. (This, by the way, is why you want sheets solely for seed roasting. The seeds won’t stain the sheets, but the spices will.) Once that’s done, put the sheet in the oven and leave at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. While that’s going, set up another sheet and set it aside.

When that time is up, pull that sheet out of the oven and stir it again. You’ll note that the seeds are still wet toward the bottom of the sheet, and the stirring is to drive off the excess moisture. You’ll probably also note that the oven vents are gouting steam at this point. Don’t sweat it, and use it as an excuse to raise the humidity in the house. If the house is already too soggy, turn on a vent fan and blast it out: it’s your choice.

Now here’s the critical part. Put that sheet back into the oven and set a timer for seven minutes. You’ll actually need ten minutes, but the timer warning is so you watch those seeds. One minute too little, and the seeds will have all of the flavor and digestibility of cattle feed. One minute too long, and every smoke detector in the vicinity will go off, and you don’t want any hot spices to get into the smoke unless you really like burning from the inside. Keep an eye on them, and pull them out at 10 minutes or when the seeds go a nice golden brown but before they start to smoke.

Roasted seeds

Once they’re ready, pull out the cookie sheet, set the sheet aside to cool, and put in the next batch. Right about the time you’ll need to stir the second sheet, the first sheet should be cool enough to store. The absolute best option is to store the roasted seeds in an airtight container such as a Rubbermaid bowl or a ZipLoc bag, where they’ll keep for up to three months. If you want to keep them longer than that, the containers can be put into the freezer and removed at your discretion.

One warning, a lesson I learned back in 2005 when I cut up about 120 pumpkins and processed about 100 liters of seeds. Do not expect these to last for very long. Between regular snackings to fend off seasonal depression and friends and family snagging bags for their own uses, those 100 liters lasted about three months. Make a point of scoping out more pumpkin sources next year, and they might last longer for you than they do for me. They might.

And now for something truly different

And now for something a bit intriguing. In the middle of November, the Czarina and I took our niece Emily to the annual Dallas Gem & Mineral Society Gem, Mineral, Fossil, Bead & Jewelry Show (*gasp for breath*) for a quick recce. The Czarina is always looking for new stones and beads for her jewelry, and I was looking for intriguing rock and slag glass samples for saikei arrangements. The big surprise wasn’t just in glass, but what kind of glass we found.

Uranium glass slab

Ray Thorpe of the Horseshoe Bend Knappers comes out to the Gem & Mineral Show as often as he can, and he regularly demonstrates his skills at knapping flint, obsidian, and slag glass for very appreciative audiences. Ray also sells slabs of knapping stone, and I was already drooling over some of the chunks of obsidian and chert that he had available. Out in front, though, were these slabs of custardy glass that really weren’t all that impressive, until a fellow dealer came over with a high-power UV LED flashlight intended for phosphorescent mineral hunting and ran it over a slab.

Most people are unfamiliar these days with uranium glass, but uranium used to be used as an additive to glasses to produce particularly vibrant colors. The main side effect is that both clear or “vaseline” and opaque or “custard” uranium glasses fluoresce under UV light. I’ve been collecting vaseline glass since I was in high school (the Czarina even found a beautiful vaseline glass juicer that she gave me for my birthday a few years back), but I’d never once seen any uranium slag glass. Ray got his from a collector in West Virginia who took advantage of the dumped slag from a long-defunct uranium glassworks, cut it into slabs, and used the more uniform slabs for knapping. (And boy howdy, you need to see knife blades and arrowheads made from uranium glass to believe them.) The rest he sold, and I promptly bought out his current stock for experimentation.

Now here’s where things get even more interesting. My day job is in a venue with some VERY interesting characters, and one of my co-workers is a former nuclear reactor tech from the US Navy. He still dabbles with various related projects, such as Geiger counters the size of keychain fobs (since the tube is so small, it’s not incredibly sensitive, but it can detect beta and gamma particle sources), so he dragged in his professional Geiger counter to see exactly how much radiation these slabs were emitting. It turned out that custard uranium glass is a slight alpha particle emitter, meaning that its only danger would come from ingesting or inhaling fragments (one reason why I don’t plan to use that vaseline glass juicer any time soon), but its radiation emissions were otherwise negligible. Another one of my co-workers is a glassworker in his spare time, so he naturally asked “Do you have a piece to spare?”

Several years back, the Czarina started lampwork training in order to make her own glass beads, and as with flintknapping, I picked up just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One of the things I learned was that different glass compositions have differing expansion and contraction rates when heated and cooled, and mixing incompatible glasses means that the final product cracks or shatters when it cools to room temperature. Mike was very familiar with these incompatibilities, and initial tests suggested that he had glass that could be miscible with the custard glass slabs. A final test to incorporate it into a paperweight, though…not so much.

Custard uranium glass paperweight

As can be told by the extensive cracks, that custard glass wasn’t quite compatible. However, Mike plans to use another piece and convert it into frit, and try again. In the meantime, this paperweight could theoretically come apart at any time, and I have plans for the fragments as part of a moonlight garden project when it does. And the rest of the custard glass? Keep an eye open at the Czarina’s next show, because she has some ideas for club-friendly pendants.

“Today on Handyman’s Corner…”

Things are getting interesting at the Triffid Ranch, so apologies for a lack of immediate updates. The Czarina and I are switching out computers (gently used PC so she can do bookkeeping, gently used Macintosh for me for several upcoming projects), so our evenings are punctuated with screams of triumph, rage, and exultation, often all at once. People listening to the racket outside would have every reason to believe we aren’t married.

Between this and our current run of late-season thunderstorms, things have fallen behind. I still haven’t had the chance to relate the story of Frank Garza of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs in Cleburne (although I will say that they’re the best hot dogs I’ve had since I left Chicago 32 years ago) or the final assessment on last weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science last weekend, but the’re on the way.

Anyway. Several friends (including the Dallas music legend Barry Kooda) are regular enthusiasts of the various local and statewide auction houses and excess inventory sales going on through the area, and these can be dangerous. This isn’t just because you can find yourself almost literally drowning in “great deals”. It’s because the ideas that come with them are so crazy that they almost make sense, and crazy ideas with logic behind them make the baby Czarina cry.

For instance, as related far too often in the past, this last summer was the worst in Texas history, both in temperature and in duration. In the process, I lost several plants that I’d had for years, mostly due to our record highs in low temperatures. Many carnivores, such as the cobra plants of Oregon (Darlingtonia) and the sun pitchers (Heliamphora) of South America need a significant temperature drop between day and night during their growing seasons, and that just isn’t possible through July and August without technological assistance. I won’t even start on trying to control humidity as well, because that story is getting really boring.

I was already working on possible solutions, and ones that wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of power or maintenance, when I went poking on Lone Star Online, a site specializing in auctioning off state and local government surplus. And there, there on the Group W bench, was a lot for two, count ’em, TWO Traulsen rotating food display cases. With a current bid of $75, no less.

Refrigerated case

One part of my brain knew exactly what was going to happen. Namely, I could hear the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheaths, drooling venom onto the floor as they prepared to wield sudden and bloody retribution for challenging her reign. Even if I argued “It’d stay in the garage! Honest!”, the cries of triumph and horror coming from the front of the house would be drastically different in tone, especially if they were followed with my sobbing. The other part, the part that always gets me into trouble, thought “Okay, it’s glass. It’s designed to keep up humidity so that pastries and other baked goods don’t go stale. If it can keep Key lime pie from turning into a dessicated mess, it would definitely work on keeping Darlingtonia and Heliamphora cool and humid. Now all I need to do is figure out how to upgrade the lights to high-intensity LED arrays to put out enough lumens to keep both plants happy…”

And this, friends, is why you never want to let your brain get you into trouble. It’s bad enough when I suggested to the Czarina that we could always buy a house with a pool so we could cover it with a pool enclosure and turn it into one giant greenhouse. She’s either going to scream in rage at my wanting to drive down to Austin to pick up a rotating pie and cake display case, or she’s just going to sigh in exasperation and tell her mother about it. Then I get two pairs of elbows coming at my already-compromised cranium.

For the record, I have no intention of driving down to Austin for these. I’m just going to keep an eye open for a local restaurant closing, and snag one then. Now all I need is a Possum Van to carry it home.

Getting Potted

A few months back, some may remember my less than salutory review of the book Terrarium Craft and my complaints about the “put a bird on it” sensibility that still infects terrarium design. In the interim, I’ve been collating ideas on how to drag the concept out of the 1970s, and preparing to present them in something approximating a coherent form.

As usual, talking is okay, but action is better. The Los Angeles store Potted is hosting a terrarium design competition, with the grand prize being a $500 shopping spree. Each Friday starting on October 21, all entries sent to Potted will be voted upon, and the winners of each round will be submitted for a final competition. The final prize may be collected by anybody in the continental US, but I imagine entries don’t have to be limited to that.

Anyway. You know the drill. It’s time to take the word “terrarium” out of that horrible avocado-and-goldenrod kitchen and banish it forever from that famed kidney stone of a decade. I know you lot, and I know you’ll make your Uncle Zonker proud.

Walking With Miniature Gardens

Edaphosaurus

Regular readers of the blog may note that I tend to namedrop Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens from time to time. This stems from a mutual appreciation of the merits of miniature gardens, especially for those people who just don’t have the time or the space to work on a full garden. We’re both working toward the same purposes, but it depends upon whether you want miniature gardening design advice from Gertrude Jeckyll or Wayne Barlowe.

Well, a little while ago, Janit asked about recommendations on dinosaur figures for miniature garden spaces from friends and cohorts. I couldn’t help but chip in some advice, because the love of all things palaeontological goes a long ways back. I cannot remember a time where I was unable to read, and I apparently taught myself to read from a combination of my mother’s nursing textbooks and an edition of The New Book of Knowledge that came out the year I was born. By the time I was five, I’d worn out the “D” volume going through the entry on dinosaurs over and over, and my choice of reading material gave my kindergarten teacher lots and lots of headaches. (In one case, literally: in the middle of January, I’d become convinced that the snowdrift outside the classroom was full of dinosaur bones. She tried to get me back inside while I was excavating the snowdrift with a stick taller than I was, and the scene of her and four first graders trying to take away my stick was straight out of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.) By the time I started first grade, I was an addict, especially on the first day of classes, when my teacher asked everyone to name something that begins with “B” and I said “Brachiosaurus“. (She then accused me of making that up, and I got great satisfaction from proving it to her on our first trip to the school library. That was the origin of my attitude that it’s much better to be correct than right.)

In odd ways, a lot of my current gardening attitude was dependent upon my love of palaeontology when I was younger. When I was very young, I took advantage of local weeds that looked superficially like Lepidodendron trees and first understood the difference between balance and symmetry when putting toy dinosaurs in this miniature forest. Viewing Rudolph Zallinger’s classic mural Age of Reptiles over and over didn’t hurt, either. To this day, I can look at a well-done stone and cactus bed and think “All it needs is a few cowboys lassoing an Allosaurus.

Best of all, I’m very glad to discover that I’m not the only one affected in this way. If I were, we wouldn’t have such venues as the Hartman Prehistoric Garden in Austin, or the stunning Cretaceous Garden at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The style goes waaaaaay back, too, with Waterhouse Hawkin’s famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs in Sydenham, England in a naturalistic park environment to this day. (And for those wanting saikei inspiration, I can’t recommend an afternoon at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, southwest of Dallas, highly enough.)

Marx and MPC dinosaurs

A terrarium design book of which I am inordinately fond, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt, came out right in the height of terrarium mania during the early Seventies. One of its regular lessons is to avoid the horrible purple elf figures then distressingly common in terrarium arrangements, because “purple elves eat terrarium plants”. At first, I laughed at the witticism, but then I realized that it was, in a way, absolutely true. Humans are hardwired to look for animals of any sort among undergrowth, and it’s absolutely impossible to make any kind of garden, miniature or otherwise, with an animal decoration without viewers first spotting it or hyperfocusing on it. (By way of example, the Museum of Science and Industry had, when I lived in Chicago, had a recreation of a 300-million-year-old Carboniferous forest as part of its coal mine exhibit. Even though the only animal life in the exhibit were giant dragonflies and cockroaches and one small early amphibian, visitors always looked for them and ignored the vistas of club moss and fern climbing to the ceiling.) Go with the palaeontological equivalent of a purple elf, and any sense of versimillitude is dead. Now, if you want to make the equivalent of a dinosaur tourist park, like Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, Michigan, don’t let me stop you.

The above figures sum up the general availability of dinosaur figures in the US until about 20 years ago. Back through the Fifties through the Seventies, the big manufacturer of dinosaur playsets was Louis Marx, which based its designs largely on Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. Hence, while they’re great for eliciting nostalgia, these are the dinosaurs that time forgot. (The blue beast on the left is a giant ground sloth or Megatherium from competing playset manufacturer MPC.) The only critters that predated the dinosaurs were the early Permian pelycosaurs Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon and the late Permian dinocephalian Moschops, and usually the only post-Cretaceous additions were ground sloths, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. MPC made a few Cenozoic additions, such as a few more mammals and even the giant flightless bird Diatryma, which would work all right in miniature gardens if they weren’t in brilliant colors.

The bad news about these guys, other than the fact that they’re rather obsolete by today’s science, is that they’re almost impossible to repaint. Collectors regularly come across sets where the previous owner tried to color them with Testors model paints, and this only left flaking paint getting all over everything. If you come across them at a garage sale or swap meet, be warned that while they rarely fade in strong light, they’ll also keep that shocking coloration forever.

Invicta dinosaurs

For those on the other side of the pond, the English company Invicta put out its own line of prehistoric figures, and these could be painted. In fact, purchasers in the UK could get many of them already painted. (From left to right, Triceratops, Mamenchisaurus, Muttaburrasaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.) In the States, these were usually available through the Edmund Scientific catalog, which is where I first ran into them circa 1976. These are a lot more scientifically accurate than the Marx figures, but that’s still a matter of perspective. Forget the cranberry color: the Tyrannosaurus was the epitome of palaeo theory circa 1975, and things have changed a LOT.

Invicta Stegosaurus

By way of example, check out the Stegosaurus in the set. Compared to it, most of the current reconstructions of Stegosaurus look like they’re about ready to look up, growl, and chase your ass down the street. These figures are, in both chemistry and balance, very stable. They’re also very, very dull.

Wild Safari tetrapods

The prevailing attitude toward dinosaur toys started to change in the late Eighties and early Nineties when Safari Ltd. started up a line of figures connected to the Carnegie Museum. That line was so successful that it was supplemented by the Wild Safari line. Both lines tend these days toward more obscure prehistoric animals (from the left in the above picture: the gorgonopsid Inostrancevia and the land crocodilian Kaprosuchus, and the dinosaurs Oviraptor and Hypacrosaurus), and about the only difference is price and scale. The Wild Safari line also includes a nice collection of prehistoric mammals, so that’s something to consider as well.

Safari Oviraptor

To give an example of how much has changed, the Mongolian theropod Oviraptor was first discovered atop a clutch of of presumably plundered eggs, leading to its name, which translates to “Egg thief”. The reality was that this first fossil, and many found since then, was actually of an animal brooding atop its own nest. Further discoveries of other oviraptorosaurs found that they had extensive feathery plumage, which is replicated in this specimen. 20 years ago, Oviraptor would have been shown both bare as a Christmas turkey and a uniform grey, green, or brown. My, how things change.

Safari Dinosaur Skulls Toob

For those wanting little figures, or appropriate accessories, Safari also issues a line of “Toobs”, containing all sorts of prehistoric replicas. To date, this includes a line of prehistoric sea reptiles, early crocodilians, and even prehistoric sharks. The set above is a collection of fossil skull replicas, and for those seeking something a bit more subtle in an arrangement, the skulls may be preferable.

Battat dinosaurs

One of the great missed opportunities in palaeo recreations in the Nineties involved Battat, which put out a line of absolutely fantastic dinosaur figures between 1994 and 1998. These were based on the best evidence available at the time. (From left to right, the ankylosaur Euplocephalus, the iguanodont Ouranosaurus, the Canadian ceratopsian Styracosaurus, and the Texas predator Acrocanthosaurus.) As display pieces, they changed the dinosaur replica business forever, and Safari went into overload in its attempt to catch up. As miniature garden denizens, not only are they extremely rare outside of collections, but they were composed of plastic that tended to deform from the figure’s own weight. As you may notice, the Ouranosaurus above is having a few problems with standing, and that’s because its forelimbs bent over time in storage. If you’re like me and enjoy the screams of Cat Piss Men when I chop up Boba Fett Star Wars figures for succulent arrangements, go to town and invite a few toy dinosaur collectors over to your house to see your new display. Otherwise, go with a comparable Safari figure instead.

Battat Pachycephalosaurus

One of these days, though, I’m setting up a large enclosure with just one of Battat’s Pachycephalosaurus figures peeking off the side. Look at it as “Bambi leaving the forest” from 80 million years ago.

Papo dinosaurs

Finally, we have Papo, a French company that got into the dinosaur figure business relatively recently. While its dinosaurs may not be the most accurate, they’re some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen. (From left to right, Parasaurolophus and Allosaurus.) Most of Papo’s predator figures, particularly the Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus figures, have articulated jaws, so they can be opened for a full roar or nearly closed for a pensive expression. These, my friends, beg for presentation in a large terrarium or saikei arrangement.

And now that you’ve considered some of the options, you should always consider two essentials. The first is scale. I know, the temptation is to go with a huge figure, but without comparable floral accompaniment, the figure will dominate the scene to the detriment of the plants. At absolute worst, the arrangement resembles a Godzilla playset more than anything realistic. Remember, the idea is to focus on flora and fauna, so if all you have is a small pot or tray for the display, go with a small figure. Save some of the big ones for the right circumstance.

The other essential is considering the stability of the figure. For obvious reasons, prehistoric miniature gardens will be irresistable to children, and they’re going to want to touch. Also for obvious reasons, most dinosaur figures aren’t designed for garden applications (would it be that someone did), so a figure that’s perfectly stable on a flat surface tends to flip when standing in potting mix. To get an idea, make up a big pile of sawdust or dead leaves, taller than you are, and try to stand upright on the top. Even the more stable figures may have to be shoved down into the potting mix deeply enough that they look like they’re trapped in mulch, and two-legged figures such as Tyrannosaurus or Deinonychus? It just isn’t happening.

The way around this is to make supports for the figures. This can be done easily by inserting plastic, bamboo, or metal rods through the feet of the figure and up into its legs and sticking the rods into the soil mix. This way, the figure looks as if it’s actually walking instead of trapped in quicksand. Another option is to attach the feet, with either epoxy or superglue, to a piece of slate or other flat rock, and carefully inserting it into the potting mix. (If you want the figure to appear as if it’s walking on rocks instead of potting mix, just attach it to the rock in question.) Check on an inobtrusive area with either epoxy or superglue to make sure that the adhesives don’t attack the plastic, but if the adhesives don’t react, go wild. After the adhesive is COMPLETELY DRY, bury the base just enough to hide or obscure it, but not so little that it damages the illusion.

Now, if this has piqued interest, I can recommend both the Dinosaur Toy Blog and the magazine Prehistoric Times for reviews and commentary on various palaeo figures, and Dan’s Dinosaurs for actual purchases. (Although they’re long-defunct, the Dinomania line of Kaiyodo’s 3-D animal puzzles work beautifully in terraria.) Now don’t get me started about using the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Primeval Predators” Burgess Shale replicas for planted aquaria, or we’ll be here all week.

Projects: The Dream of the Eighties

Some people have aching nostalgia for the 1980s. Not I. When I look at another technological or social development that makes humanity and its members a little more fun and I say “I love living in the future,” I mean it. I look back fondly on certain aspects of that decade, but only because I was in the middle of it at the time. I definitely don’t want to go back, save to visit with my previous self circa June 1984 and beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat. A little tough love applied then, and I wouldn’t have wasted the whole of the Nineties writing for science fiction magazines.

A lot of what was disappointing about the Eighties involved a lot of good ideas that could have been wonderful ideas if they’d merely cooked for a little longer. We came up with a lot of concentrated, powdered, and creamed stupidity, such as Panama Jack T-shirts or Phil Collins or selling arms to Iran to finance the contras. However, we also came up with some really innovative ideas that were hyped up, oversold, and ultimately discarded before they were really ready. One of those was the hexagon fishtank.

For those who don’t remember the hex tank, when it was first produced, it was the biggest innovation in aquarium design since all-glass aquaria appeared in the Seventies. (It tells you how old I am that I remember my first aquarium being a classic design from the Fifties, with a slate base, metal corner moldings, and gutta-percha seals on all of the corners.) It not only offered multiple viewing angles, but it was absolutely perfect for people living in small apartments without enough available wall space to justify a standard aquarium.

Unfortunately, some of those same assets led to the reasons why they fell out of favor. Since the aquarium had six sides, concealing filter hoses, aerator tubing, or power cords became problematic. The design encouraged height over width, which gave much less of an opportunity for decorations. (I might add that hex tanks coincided with the use of crushed-glass aquarium gravel, a fad I don’t miss. If the stuff was bad for the aquarist by scratching the hell out of the tank interior and slicing up unprotected hands, imagine how it made bottom-dwelling denizens such as Corydoras catfish feel.) Most of all, the trend in the Nineties and Aughts was toward really, REALLY big aquaria, and the square-cube law gets in the way of making comparable hex tanks. At that point, you’re better off getting a pond.

This is a shame, because while hex tanks may have faded into the same temporal netherworld inhabited by black lacquer waterbeds and console video games at convenience stores, they’re actually very nice for plantkeeping. The problem lies with bringing them into 2011.

The beginning of the project

This project started over a decade ago, when the Czarina and I first moved in together in 2002. Someone had given her a basic 20-gallon hex aquarium years before, and it had collected dust and dead bugs in a storage corner for years. We were desperately broke at the time, so when I mentioned how badly I missed having an aquarium at the time, she dragged it out and said “Have fun.” We got a lot of use out of it in our first apartment, and then in our first house, until we upgraded tanks recently when an old friend gave me his. In the meantime, this one sat, waiting for a new use.

The project really started last June, when I was prepping for a show that imploded disastrously. The original tank was going to hold an original plant display, but when the top literally shattered in my hands, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. Worse, since most aquarium manufacturers stopped selling hexagon tanks, finding replacement glass tops was and is nearly impossible. That is, as far as aquarium-friendly tank tops are concerned. This made me sit down and re-evaluate exactly what I wanted to do, and why.

The first absolute is that the wood finish needed to be sent back to Hell. One side of the top molding on the tank already had a bad scrape thanks to the shattering incident, and that revealed that the finish was just paper-thin. The photo above shows the tank after a good sanding with sanding sponges, which also removed mineral buildup that was otherwise almost impossible to chip free. (When I describe Dallas municipal water as “crunchy,” I mean it.) Next was time for the stand.

Hexagon tank (closed)

The stand, to be honest, was a nightmare. The main composition was particleboard, which strangely wasn’t sealed at any of the joints or on the undersides of surfaces. The storage access door had a baroque handle that just screamed “We’re heading out to the mall to go see Top Gun for the 47th time,” with matching if barely noticeable hinges. It was time to strip down everything.

Closeup of hex stand

After removing the storage access door, I sanded everything down to where the surfaces were nicely scuffed, and then wiped it all down with a tack cloth to clean up the dust. The underside got the same treatment, as it had absorbed just enough water drippage over the last 25 years that the particleboard was starting to chip in one spot. As a general rule, when the woodgrain pattern started to disappear, it was ready for new paint.

Hex stand door and hardware

The door was next. The underside was completely untreated, so all of the hardware came out and front and back got a comparable sanding.

Taped-up hex tank

The stand could be painted at any time, but the tank itself needed to be taped off before it could be painted. (Trust me. You do NOT want to spend days scraping off paint overspray from the glass if you can help it.) As a little bit of advice to anybody doing something similar, take the time and effort to purchase genuine painter’s masking tape. Not only does it peel away from glass without leaving adhesive or little bits, but it also is much less likely to take chunks of paint with it. The edges were taped, then painter’s paper put over that to cover the glass, and then more tape atop that to hold everything in place. I also put painter’s tape along the interior of the tank lip for two reasons: firstly, to prevent any potentially toxic residue from building up on the lip, and secondly, to allow me to drape more painter’s paper across the top so I wasn’t scraping the inside of the tank, too.

Bottom of the hex tank
To make absolutely sure that the tape and paper are well-secured, always check things from the inside. If you can see anything through a gap in the paper or tape, the paint will find that gap.

Finally, it was time to finish it up. A friend of the Czarina’s works for a glass company, so he was able to cut a brand new top based on a template I gave him. The base and tank were both edged with a new RustOleum universal spray paint, complete with a hammered finish. A new handle went on the door after it was painted, and everything reassembled. While it still kept a dark finish, you’d never assume that this was the old Eighties relic that had started out back in June.

And you’re wanting to see the new Wardian case? It’s time to come out to FenCon this weekend to see it for yourself. It’ll featured in situ with plants and accountrements for your viewing and purchasing pleasure. And so it goes.

Cynosure

Last weekend was an interesting accumulation of events. If I’m not careful, their repercussions may eat me alive.

First thing, last Friday was the first weekend night in about five months where walking outside didn’t bring new sympathy for baked salmon. This, combined with the fact that the Czarina and I were goth back when the term referred to Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, led to a trip down to Panoptikon in Dallas’s Deep Ellum area. We hadn’t had the opportunity to take a night off like this in about a year, and one of the big surprises was that it was packed that evening. From what several friends stated, this was getting to be a regular occurrence, as the drinks were cheap and good, the music was much better than at our resident Club Spooky, and everyone was there to relax and see old friends instead of To Be Seen.

One of the real surprises, though, was how quickly the evening turned into one big carnivorous plant lecture. I was regularly introduced to new people as “the carnivorous plant guy,” and in the process made friends with several people who were just hooked on the idea of raising carnivores. (The only thing more surreal and more natural at the same time than a former Air Force officer hanging out at a goth club was his picking my brain about raising Sarracenia pitcher plants.) This applied all the way across the spectrum of plants, too. If I’d come out with heirloom tomatoes or hot peppers, I probably would have sold every last one, and don’t get me started about the girl who started asking me about African violets.

Sunday, my best friend and I decided to crash the Dallas Home and Garden Show at Market Hall near downtown. We arrived at noon, and what amazed us was how empty it was. It wouldn’t be unfair to note that the vast majority of attendees, such as they were, showed up solely because of the senior discount: besides vendors and sales reps, we were probably some of the youngest people in the entire venue. Despite its name, the show had almost no garden items other than one heirloom seed dealer and two different nurseries from around Fort Worth. Well, that isn’t completely true: the back corner had the only action in the place, thanks to booths from the Texas Master Gardeners and displays from our local fern, succulent, and bromeliad societies. Even then, the whole show suffered from an issue that hits a lot of younger gardeners, which is an assumption in publications and shows that most gardeners are retirees and pensioners with a lot of money and unlimited free time. The space was remarkably empty compared to previous shows, and the number of quickie “As Seen On TV” gimmick and gimcrack vendors, in proportion to local vendors, was the worst it’s been at one of these shows since I started attending in 1992.

So. An ever-expanding crowd of potential younger gardening enthusiasts, as well as a lot of folks who need something for relaxation. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re savvy enough to do their research before spending it, and they expect to get their money’s worth. If something doesn’t work, they’ll simply drop it instead of fussing about making it work because was an expensive purchase thirty years ago. They’re very familiar with social media, but they may be drowning in events as it is. Most importantly, thanks to years of being forcefed like recalcitrant pythons, they have an aversion ranging toward a phobia for standard newspaper, television, and radio promotion of events.

I have a lot of other things sitting on my plate that need to be eaten or scraped off before I can do so, but now I’m curious about what it would take to organize and launch a gonzo gardening show. If you don’t hear from me by New Year’s Eve, tell the Czarina I love her and not to bother with a funeral.

Projects: “If We Had No Crawdad, We Ate Sand”

Almost every guide to the proper care and feeding of carnivorous plants emphasizes, after using rainwater or distilled water, the proper soil mix. All of them tell enthusiasts that using standard potting mix will kill the plants in a matter of days, and many give recipes for a suitable general carnivore potting mix with a suitable acidity for healthy growth. As a general rule, one part sphagnum moss and one part sand is perfect, and some varieties work best with two parts sphagnum moss, one part sand, and one part shredded orchid bark. But what about the quality of all of these?

With the sphagnum moss and the bark, some authorities warn about making sure that these are of high quality. For instance, many retailers sell sphagnum moss with added fertilizer, which will kill your plants, or the sphagnum is cut with green moss, which has the same effect. Coir, which is shredded coconut hull, can be just as dangerous if not properly prepared, as many suppliers use coir that’s been soaked in or exposed to seawater, and the salt will, again, kill most carnivores. The quality of sphagnum moss can be checked by making sure that a bag or bundle specifically reads “PURE SPHAGNUM MOSS” and smelling the bag or bundle, as contaminated sphagnum moss tends to smell like old manure. Even salt-soaked coir can be used if it’s soaked and rinsed with rainwater, and then drained and dried. But how often does anyone check the quality of the sand they’re using?

Check most references on carnivores, and see what they have to say about sand. You’ll get recommendations not to use sea sand, because it might be contaminated with salt. You might get recommendations to use sharp or builder’s sand, which means all-silica sand. But are you sure that you’re using the right sand?

My question comes from personal experience from two years ago. The first thing I do every spring before my plants come out of dormancy is repot them, and the spring of 2006 was no different. My mistake was not to check the composition of that sand, trusting the label “Builder’s sand” on the bag, and that sand led to most of my plants dying before the end of the summer. True, the 2005-2006 drought and the summer’s heat wave contributed to the carnage, but the main cause was the quality of the sand.

The mistake I made was assuming that the sand being offered was pure silica. Pure silica sand is reasonably water-insoluble, which is why it settles into water instead of dissolving. Some will, but usually not enough to make a difference in horticulture. The problem is that most sand offered for sale can be and is contaminated with anything else that happened to be in the in the mix. If the sand was mined in an area that used to be a marine deposit, for instance, it can be full of shells. If the sand came from a river deposit, it may be full of limestone chunks or other carbonate rocks. All of these contaminants are very alkaline, which is enough of a problem to most carnivores save some purple pitchers (Sarracenia purpurea) or the Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum). Anyone who’s mixed acids and alkalis in high school chemistry class has a pretty good idea of what happens when alkaline components of sands encounter highly acid sphagnum moss: the carbon dioxide emitted won’t hurt the plants at all, but the resultant salts will burn their roots.

Now, if you know for an absolute fact that your sand is pure silica, then feel free to use it as you see fit for any carnivore soil mix you choose. However, considering the problems I mentioned before, testing it beforehand is a good option, especially if the sand would otherwise be unusable. Carbonate-contaminated sand can be treated with acid, such as vinegar, to dissolve the carbonates, but it’s generally not worth the cost unless the sand has special colors that need to be preserved. The project at hand requires:

  • a sample of the suspected sand
  • a small bottle of common household acid (white vinegar is the easiest to obtain, but ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C, works well, too)
  • a small container with a sealable cap, such as a single-serving yogurt container or a 35mm film canister
  • To start, get a handful of the sand and spread it out in your palm. Look for larger particulates within the sand and note the composition. If these pieces appear to be quartz, feldspar, or other components of granite, these bits should be safe. If the larger particulates include bits of limestone, sandstone, or shell, consider how many pieces you find and their size. If the sand contains lots of these chunks, don’t buy it or use it.

    Secondly, take a small amount and put it into the container. Soak it down with the acid and watch the reaction. All-silica sand won’t react in the slightest to most household acids, and typical contaminants will spit and hiss a bit. If the sample produces lots of bubbling, particularly a froth, don’t use it, as the sand is far too alkaline to be safe for use with carnivores.

    This test won’t work for other potential contaminants: for instance, it won’t test for salts. In that case, the only option is to wash it well with pure water.

    If the tested sand is the only available option, and you literally have no other choices as to sources for sand, otherwise unsuitable sand may still be used. The first step is to sift the sand with a wire mesh trainer or riddle to remove large particulates. Afterwards, put the sand into a waterproof container such as a Rubbermaid tray or a plastic bucket and add vinegar or ascorbic acid, stirring repeatedly until the mix stops bubbling. Drain off excess liquid when it stops bubbling and add more acid; keep repeating until you get no further reaction whatsoever. Wash the sand well, and spread it out to dry.

    Now, considering the work necessary to make that bad sand usable, see the advantage to using the right sand in the first place? More importantly, are you willing to risk the health of your carnivores on unsuitable sand?

Projects: “Bathtub Luffas in a Bathtub Fit For Gin”

In the Northern Hemisphere, the absolute sign of winter is the proliferation of seed catalogs in every gardener’s mailbox. Gardening resources resolutely remain in the early Twentieth Century, and while most seed companies have extensive online resources, the print editions still fill my mail drop by the long ton. This isn’t a complaint, by the way: even the catalogs I can’t use get passed on to friends and coworkers who can, and most end their lives as source material for grade school collages and band flyers.
Many better writers than I have made fun of the inadequacies and creative embellishments found in seed catalogs and on seed packets. At the Triffid Ranch, I often laugh at the catalogs that sell Venus flytrap and pitcher plant seed as if they can be planted in the garden alongside the lettuce and carrots. Likewise, the last time I saw anyone selling saguaro cactus seeds for “easy” propagation of a plant that needs twenty years to grow to a meter in height, I laughed so hard that milk came out my nose. This was especially entertaining because I was drinking Pepsi Max at the time. Some people’s definition of “easy” is another’s of “wanting to hang the copywriter by his/her ankles from a tree branch, get a few cricket bats, and play Viking Piñata for a few hours.” And then you have the minor aggravations, such as the missing step in raising luffa squash.

Luffa squash (Luffa cylindrica), for the uninitiated, is a very versatile squash for many occasions. It grows very quickly in warm climes, so it does wonders for overgrowing ugly fences and other yard eyesores during the summer and fall. The thin vines grow one leaf and three tendrils at each vine junction, so they’re much more likely to grow to great heights on tree bark and other rough-textured surfaces, and the tendrils don’t damage the surface, so they come off readily after the first serious freeze in autumn or winter. (In Dallas, for instance, they generally keep growing all the way until Christmas if given the opportunity.) Luffa leaves don’t have stomata on both sides of the leaf, like pumpkins or summer squash, so they thrive on heat that would kill most other squash. They produce large yellow male flowers that both attract bees and bumblebees and can be stir-fried after they drop from the plant. The squash fruit themselves apparently taste like zucchini, and so long as the roots are in slightly acidic and rich soil, a typical vine will produce dozens over the growing season. (I understand that they can bee cooked or eaten raw like zucchini, but since I simply can’t handle the taste of squash, I haven’t had the courage to find out.)

It’s the mature fruit that gives luffas their main draw, though, and anyone wanting a decent supply has to save a few from the crock put or wok. Instead of decaying into a mushy pulp in winter like most squash, the luffa dries out like a gourd, but without a hard outer shell. Underneath the skin is a lattice framework of fibers, which are much prized as natural scrubbers. These are most famed for their bathtub and shower attributes, especially for those needing serious exfoliation, but they also come in handy for scrubbing nonstick pots without damaging the finish, adding texture paints to walls, or removing algae from fishtanks. Small ones can be used as short-term filters for many liquids, and the big ones can be sliced up and embedded in soaps. It’s quite the versatile little squash, which makes it a particular shame that most seed packets and garden guides leave out one important step in its processing.

To begin, for those wanting to raise luffas, get your seeds, either from luffa-growing enablers or from a commercial seed catalog. Luffa seeds, if kept in the refrigerator, remain viable for as much as five years, so don’t worry about getting them into the ground right away. In fact, you want to wait until outside low temperatures exceed 15.55° C (60° F) and then plant them, because they won’t even think of sprouting before then. Luffas generally tolerate a wide range of soils, but make sure to keep potash and fireplace ashes away from the seedlings or they’ll be permanently stunted for the season. Luffa seeds are best sown directly in their permanent location, as they don’t transplant well, but they’re very vulnerable to attacks from sowbugs until they get their first set of real leaves. I’ve found that sowing the seeds and then dumping large quantities of coffee grounds atop them not only gives them the slight acidity they seem to like, but also gives the sowbugs an alternate food source that keeps them away from the squash until they’re large enough to repel attacks. Other than that, water them regularly, especially in particularly hot weather, and the luffa will start producing its first male flowers within three weeks of sprouting and female flowers about a week later.

For the most part, luffa seem to be reasonably immune to most pests, and they attract hunting wasps to the flowers, which usually take care of caterpillars and other potential pests. For those with gardens in suitable habitat, luffa vines produce excellent habitat for climbing lizards: here in Dallas, one stand of luffa can support a whole harem of anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis), so long as pesticides aren’t used in the area. The lizards hunt, sleep, and bask within the vines, which usually grow thick enough that they offer suitable cover against birds, snakes, and other predators. In return, they clear out sucking insects and other potential threats.

The only serious pest attacking luffas is easily recognized by its long bushy tail, big eyes, and a brain the size of a pea. As the luffa fruit matures, squirrels converge on any luffas they can reach and gnaw through the vine before carrying them off. Since treerats are the antithesis of grace, and since luffas readily grow into trees, this means that the little klutzes get one or two bites out of the squash, lose their grip, and watch it fall two stories or more onto the hardest ground the squirrels can find. As with dropped nuts or peaches, does this mean that the little vermin climb down and eat the dropped luffa so it doesn’t go to waste? Of course not: the monsters instead go for another easily obtained luffa, leaving the dropped one to rot until it’s joined by a few more. (There’s a reason why I consider the term “squirrelly” to be fightin’ words.) Thankfully, luffa vines are thin so as to allow easy reach of thin branches and other precarious locales, so many fruit grow unmolested at the tops of trees before dropping when they’re good and ripe.

Okay, let’s assume that you had a good crop of luffa over the summer, and not all of them ended up in stirfry meals for grateful friends and family. You want a batch of potscrubbers and buttscrubbers, but you want to make sure that they’re at the height of ripeness. What do you do now?

The harvesting of luffa squashes for scrubbing purposes honestly depends upon the growing locale and the length of the season. Pick the luffas too early, and you’re likely to end up with a moldy, rotting mess. Peel them too early, and you’re likely to spend five times as much work cleaning them as you would when they were ready. The problem is telling whether they’re ready.

The absolutely guaranteed way of telling if luffas are ready for harvesting is to wait until they shrivel, brown, and dry out at the end of autumn. This is great in warmer climes, but it’s not practical in, say, Canada. However, the best thing to do is wait as long as possible before a killing frost damages the squash, or until the main plant takes responsibility for cutting off its offspring.

Ripe luffa

Ripe luffa

In the above photo, we have a mature luffa. For the sake of what comes next, the left side, with the length of vine still attached, is the tail. The right side, still bearing the scars from where the flower was attached, is the head. The uncleaned fruit will also be referred to as a luffa squash, while “luffa” is reserved solely for the internal structure alone. Remember these, because these become important later.

The easy way to ascertain if a luffa is ripe on the vine is to grab it at the head end and squeeze gently. It should feel like a skin over an empty framework, which is exactly what it should be. If it’s still squishy, or if it feels overly heavy, then it’s probably unripe. If you can help it, leave the luffa on the vine and don’t mess with it for at least another month. If an impending killer frost is on the way, though, then remove it from the vine, leaving about six inches of vine at the end. If the tail end of the luffa is already going brown, particularly at the junction where the tail connects to the vine, then it’s already drying, and is usually ready to be picked at the time. If that junction is still green, then leave that section of vine to assist the squash with its drying. Do NOT, under any circumstances, cut the vine flush with the tail, because you’ll likely set off mold and rot at the cut.

Dried luffas

Dried luffas

In this picture, you see two ripe and dried luffa squash. The upper one dried out in the upper boughs of a pecan tree all autumn, and the scars on the surface are from where it bumped into tree branches while it was still green. Don’t worry about those scars, because the impacts usually don’t effect the quality of the luffa within. The bottom one was dried after being picked from the vine, and note the spots of mold on the shell. These need to be watched, because small spots of mold usually won’t be a problem. If it’s a big patch, or if it appears to be sinking into the squash, then the mold might be spreading through the body of the squash. Sometimes this is all right, too, but with early-picked luffa squash, this could lead to the whole squash rotting if it’s not dealt with.

As a sidenote, you might have some luffa squash with damage such as cracks or bruises, especially when the local squirrels decide to liberate them and they fall a story or two onto the cold, cold ground. Trying to dry them will just be a waste of time, so open up the squash at the crack or bruise and take a look at the interior. If the interior is hollow or if it shows extensive stringy understructure, go directly to cleaning it. If it’s still relatively solid with a white pulp reminiscent of cucumbers or zucchini, just dump it in the compost pile. It’s too green to develop any understructure, and all it’ll do is turn into a slimy mess if you attempt to save it.

If your luffa squash are already dried, then just put them into a bag or basket and leave them alone until you’re ready to clean them. if they’re still green, then set them in a warm place with good air circulation and let them dry some more. That good air circulation is vital, because if they don’t get it, the squash WILL rot. Not “may”: WILL. I speak from experience, as the only thing worse than cleaning that aforementioned slimy mess out of a laundry room or water heater closet is the smell from that mess. Leave them out on a counter, or put them in a room under a ceiling fan, and leave them alone for a few weeks. Check up on them every couple of days, and watch as they shrink and brown.

Luffa ensemble

Luffa ensemble

At this point, if your luffa vines were in decent soil and had plenty of climbing options, you should have anywhere between one and thirty dried luffa squash ready for cleaning and preparation. For that, you’ll need:

  • One bathtub or washtub, preferably one needing a good cleaning
  • One bottle of shampoo (brand doesn’t matter, and sometimes the cheap stuff works best)
  • One bowl or other container for catching seeds
  • Grubby clothes
  • Goggles or an eyeshield, to keep squash pulp out of your eyes

If your luffas are extremely dried, you’ll note that peeling the skin from the luffa is almost impossible. Greener squash are easier to peel, but they need lots of washing afterwards. Either way, take advantage of the need to clean your bathtub. I have the unfortunate habit of cleaning my tub about the time it starts to resemble a scale model of the Mississippi Delta, so it’s time to fill up the tub about halfway with hot water.

In the interim, if you know anyone who wants to raise luffa squash next season, you’ll have to gather seeds. Break off the end of the head of the squash and hold the end over a container. You’ll hear the seeds rattling, so just keep shaking gently until the seeds stop falling. Always open the squash at the head, because the luffa can sometimes get so narrow that seeds can’t escape out the tail end. Gather up the seeds and put them into bags, or put them into a jar and place them in the refrigerator until spring.

Once this is done, dump your squashes into the bathtub, and let them soak for a while. The reason why you cracked open the head was also to allow water to enter the squash, making the job easier. If you’re particularly industrious, feel free to pour hot water into the opening, but otherwise you’re going to have to wait for a while. (This also applies to luffas picked green, as you’re going to need to wash off the mucilage off the luffa before it’s usable.)

Luffas before soaking

Luffas before soaking

Once the squash has been soaking for a while and the skin is soft, punch your thumb through the skin at the tail, getting it between the luffa and the skin. Work your way up to the head, and peel back the skin. Once it comes free, set it aside for the compost pile and grab another one, because if your luffa plants were remotely productive over the year, you’re going to be busy.

Peeled luffa

Peeled luffa

At this point, your tub should be full of peeled luffas. It’ll also be full of seeds, as a lot of seeds were caught up in the luffas and unable to escape until you removed the skins. Don’t worry about them in the slightest, because you’ll have to deal with more.

Post-peeled luffas

Post-peeled luffas

Disgusting, isn’t it? This is why I recommended using a dirty tub, because you’re going to have to clean it anyway.

Now here comes the important part of the whole cleaning. The dry luffas are going to be full of dried mucilage, which will leave everything they wash with a nice coat of slime if it isn’t cleaned in advance. The green luffas have just as much mucilage, but it’s combined with starches and other compounds that also prevent the luffa from being used for cleaning. Start by grabbing that bottle of shampoo and pouring a good dollop of Aussie, Paul Mitchell, or your brand of choice right on the first luffa. Massage it in, rinse it off in the tub, and do it again. Do it with the next one, and the next, until all of your luffas are nice and sudsy.

Next, put on your goggles or faceshield and grab a luffa by the tail. Picture yourself as Thetis dipping your son Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability and give that luffa the same grip. Next, picture yourself discovering that Achilles is going to dedicate the rest of his life to writing term papers on Firefly and Twilight, and bash the hell out of the luffa against the sides of the tub. Go to town, and don’t worry about the seeds and bits of pulp flying everywhere: that’s why you’re wearing eye protection. When you’re reasonably sure that you’ve removed every seed (and you’ll be able to feel them inside the luffa), scrub the luffa again with shampoo and grab the next one. Repeat the cycle, as Thetis apparently had a lot of kids planning to study Pop Culture in college.

Once you’re done with taking your frustrations out on your luffas, rinse them well, and set one tail-up into the tub drain. Drain the tub, and note how the luffa acts as a filter to prevent seeds from getting into the drain. Most of these seeds are inviable, so you’re within your rights to scoop them out of the tub and dump the whole mess into the compost pile. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spread out the mess where you plan to plant luffas next season, cover them with a good thick layer of coffee grounds and compost, and wait to see if they come up next year. Rinse off the luffas with clear water and set them aside to dry. Feel free to give them away to family and friends, or just settle for using them for cleaning the tub. See, I told you that it needed a good scrub by now.

Now, as with any horticultural advice, these steps may be modified or arranged in any fashion whatsoever, at the discretion of the luffa farmer. You do have to admit, though, that this is still a better guide than those seed guides, right?

Projects: “Surviving the Cube”

Now for a subject of some seriousness. We’re going to talk about “The Cube”.

For those in the carnivorous plant business, as well as with more advanced hobbyists, “cubes” refer to the prepackaged carnivores sold in hardware and home improvement stores’ garden sections. The name comes from the use of clear plastic boxes to ship and display plants, usually with three varieties of carnivore with diametrically opposed growing conditions all jammed into the same space. The boxes are an absolutely brilliant way to ship pitcher plants and sundews with a minimum of wasted packing space. Unfortunately, they’re not a good permanent living solution.

Before I start, I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to the cubes on principle. I wouldn’t have been drawn into keeping carnivorous plants had it not been for finding a display stand full of them at a Home Depot while I was buying poplar boards for bookshelves. I still have one Nepenthes hybrid, provenance unknown, that started from one tiny plant purchased from that display stand. When I was first starting as a carnivore evangelist a year later, I was also buying up the severely discounted carnivores, at least the ones that were still alive, and rehabilitating them to give to friends. Again, cubes aren’t a permanent living solution.

The problem with cube carnivores isn’t just that they’re impulse purchases, intended with as much longterm concern for their well-being as anything else sold by the cash register at the local hardware store. It’s not just that they’re usually incredibly stressed plants by the time they’re put on display, and following the recommendation to “keep the top on your plant” usually means that it outgrows its space if it doesn’t cook in direct sun. it’s not just that the collections of flytrap, cobra plant, and lance-leafed sundew will die in a matter of weeks even under the best circumstances unless the plants are separated, and that the “growing tips” on the side of the cube have no information whatsoever on how to do this. It’s that even grocery store orchids come with better information on growing and repotting requirements than a typical cube carnivore does, and that the friendly and helpful people at your local hardware store mean well, but they have next to no correct information on feeding them. (I’ve made lots of friends in the home improvement store garden sections over the years, and I know that they suck up correct information on raising carnivores like sponges if it’s available to them. Unfortunately, Venus flytrap sales volumes are minuscule compared to roses or peach trees, so there’s no incentive from the store manager or the chain’s corporate offices to make sure they have that information.)

It’d be easy for nursery operators to tell customers “Don’t buy cube carnivores,” but I know that it’s not that easy. I think of the number of beginners who are given cubes for their birthdays, or the students who figure that one of those cubes would make a great science fair project. I also understand the urge to collect a few of those cubes when they’re on deep discount and attempt to rescue the plant inside, because I still succumb from time to time. I’m not helping convince the local Lowe’s store manager not to order more, but there’s no reason for the plant to die in order to stick with your principles.

The trick to freeing a carnivore from the cube is to understand what it is and what it needs. Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants are really bad choices for the cubes, as they get far too big far too quickly to last very long, and they often die of shock even if put into optimum conditions right away. Darlingtonia plants generally die even if they’re transplanted right away into those optimal conditions, and they usually only last a few weeks without the root disturbance. Especially if kept inside, there’s simply no way that a Venus flytrap can get enough light for proper growth in a cube, and that’s doubled if the flytrap has bugs or hamburger shoved into every trap. Butterworts and sundews need more air circulation than what’s available in cubes. Ironically enough, many terrestrial bladderworts would do better than most in a cube, so long as the cube doesn’t dry out, but I’ve never seen a bladderwort in a cube, probably because they don’t have obvious above-ground traps to attract buyers. As for other carnivores, they’re either too obscure to draw interest from anyone other than specialists (Byblis), require specialized light or temperature conditions that are almost impossible to replicate easily in a home center greenhouse (Cephalotus), or have trap structures too small to appreciate without a magnifier (Stylidium, Genlisea). The vast majority of cube plants are going to be either flytraps or pitcher plants of one sort, so let’s start with a pitcher plant.

Behold: the cube

Behold: the cube

Now, let’s look at the problems with this arrangement. Unlike cubes of days past, where the plants were shoved in the bottom amidst a handful of barely damp sphagnum moss, this one at least is in a plastic pot for drainage, but that’s the only good news. This poor Sarracenia has been in this cube for a long time, as demonstrated by the number of leaves jammed up on the top of the container. The condensation gives a good idea of the relative humidity inside of the cube, meaning both that poor air circulation has a good chance of promoting disease and fungus. Worst of all, most of the leaves are winter leaves, known as phyllodia, with tiny or nonexistent traps at the end, which means that the plant hasn’t been getting anywhere near enough light since it was first potted up. It may not die immediately, but it’s going to die soon, which may help explain why this was marked half-off at my local Lowe’s store.

Before cracking open the top, having the right equipment and supplies is vital if the plant is going to survive. These requirements include:

  • A suitable amount of carnivorous plant potting mix and distilled or rain water
  • A suitable pot, with sufficient drainage and ability to retail moisture at the same time. (For this exercise, we’re going to use a ProlitariPot for clarity.)
  • A sharp pair of utility scissors or a sharp knife
  • A plastic bag large enough to go over the plant and the pot
  • At least one thin bamboo stake or dowel rod, preferably treated to resist moisture (orchid stakes work best, but chopsticks will work in a pinch)
  • A indirectly bright windowsill or greenhouse space for recuperation

The top of the cube

The top of the cube


The first thing to do is pop open the top and see if the patient is able to be saved. Most cubes are taped shut, on top of being sealed in plastic wrap and pressure-sensitive stickers, partly to keep the cube contents in and keep meddling kids out. Examine the cube to see where the cube opens, and with the scissors or knife, cut open the various adhesives.

The cube opens

The cube opens


In this case, we have what’s probably a Sarracenia hybrid, but it’s hard to tell what kind with the way the traps are stunted and misshapen. As mentioned before, most of the leaves are phyllodia, and it’s going to be a while before it has the chance to grow any proper traps. Just getting the top open, though, is a start, and the way the leaves popped out when it came off gives an idea of how badly it needed the room to grow.

Removing the spacer

Removing the spacer

Depending upon the nursery that supplied the cube, the plants are held in place with a variety of options, such as plastic film, rubber bands and wires (seen only once, thankfully), and plastic inserts. This one came with a plastic spacer, with two wings that come in contact with the underside of the lid. The pitcher plant comes up through a hole in the spacer, and often grows over it. This spacer needs to be removed very carefully to prevent damage to the crown of the plant. If this requires grasping the leaf bunch to keep them together while pulling them through the spacer hole, do so, because any damage to the leaves in grabbing them is going to be minor compared to scraping and cutting from the sharp edges of the spacer hole.

The spacer removed

The spacer removed

If recycling facilities exist in your area for plastics, set the spacer aside for recycling. Otherwise, just throw it away. It won’t be needed again. The same goes for the cube itself, unless your idea of an exciting weekend involves polishing scratches out of Plexiglas.

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The pitcher plant is going to look even worse once it’s removed from the cube, as the traps are too weak for most to stand upright. The good news is that it came out of the cube just in time: the humidity may have been high enough, but note that the soil mix was nearly completely dry.

Bottom of the pot

Bottom of the pot

While the example isn’t the greatest picture ever taken, note the bottom of the pot, and the root growing from the bottom right. This plant was in the cube for a good long time, sopping up available moisture from the bottom as water vapor leaked out the seams in the cube lid. When repotting, try to pull roots like this through the drainage holes without damaging them if at all possible. If the roots are too thick, or if they’re so extensively intertwined that they can’t be separated, use the knife or utility shears to cut them just enough to get them through.

The plant in its old pot

The plant in its old pot

Now it’s time to decant the plant from the shipping pot. In this shot, note the original traps growing when this plant was shipped, especially when compared to the subsequent phyllodia. This plant will make it, but it’s going to need a lot of care.

Bagged carnivore

Bagged carnivore

Without disturbing the root ball, remove the original pot and put the root ball into the new pot, filling the gaps with fresh carnivore growing mix. Water it down well to get the roots rehydrated and to help settle any air pockets. Take the bamboo stake (in this case, a spare orchid stake) and put it in the edge of the pot, with at least 5 centimeters of clearance above the highest trap. Place the plastic bag bottom-side up over the pot and the plant, helping to keep up the level of humidity the plant had in the cube while giving it more air circulation than before.

Finally, here’s the important part. Place the pot, plant, and bag into a well-lit space where it will not be exposed to full sun for no less than two weeks. Repeat: do NOT put the plant in full sun, as it will likely burn until it adapts to life outside the cube. Just leave it alone, making sure to add additional water if absolutely necessary.

At the end of that two weeks, remove the plastic bag and move it into better light. With sundews and Nepenthes pitcher plants, be careful not to give them full sun right away, but good partial sun is perfect while letting them get acclimated. Sarracenia pitchers and Venus flytraps need as much light as they can get. If growing conditions are right and the plant’s time in the cube wasn’t too debilitating, you should see new trap growth within two to three weeks. The existing traps won’t grow further or straighten out, but they’ll act as an essential photosynthetic resource for new traps. As the old traps brown and die off, snip them off, and encourage the new growth to spread up and out. It may take a year, but given decent growing conditions, it won’t be too long before the carnivore that was languishing in its cube is in full form, growing and even blooming.

Again, this isn’t intended to be a slam on the cube plants themselves. However, considering the effort necessary to nurse an ailing cube plant, isn’t it easier to deal directly with a nursery that specializes in carnivores than wrangling with cubes?

Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”

Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.

The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.

Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.

And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…

WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.

Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.

Bonsai candidate after training

Bonsai candidate after training

After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.

New bonsai pot with screen

New bonsai pot with screen

At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.

Pepper in its new pot

Pepper in its new pot

Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.

Props to the bonsai

Props to the bonsai

As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.

The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.

Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.

Projects: “The ProletariPot”

Back in 2007, horticulturalist and indoor plant specialist Bob Hyland offered instructions for converting a standard 2-liter soda bottle into a sub-irrigation planter he called a Volksplanter. While his design was very ingenious, I needed to do a few modifications to optimize its use for carnivorous plants. I jokingly called it a “ProletariPot” as an inside gag dedicated to the British comedian Alexei Sayle, and the ProletariPot has proven itself to be an excellent replacement for standard plastic pots. Besides being extremely cheap to manufacture, the ProletariPot encourages deep root systems, conserves water, and facilitates easy cleaning and reuse. Most of the Texas Triffid Ranch’s carnivores are raised in ProletariPots, with deep-rooting plants such as Venus flytraps particularly enjoying the improved drainage. With a bit of modification, or a return to Mr. Hyland’s original design, a ProletariPot could be used for propagation, overwintering, dormancy chilling, seed starting, or any other need that potentially requires an inexpensive container.

The list of materials

A raw ProletariPot in its natural state

A raw ProletariPot in its natural state

Making a ProletariPot requires at least one washed 2-liter soda bottle with cap, a sharp knife or pair of scissors, and an awl or other sharp pointy thing suitable for making holes in plastic. (If you’re doing a lot of them, a drill fitted with at least a 1/4″ bit will make things very quick.) If an awl is unavailable, and I find that the awl in most Swiss Army knives is perfect for the job, then a hammer and a large nail will work just as well. Optionally, a black Sharpie marker is handy but not absolutely necessary. Each ProletariPot will also require a cup of horticulture grade perlite, and the soil mix of your choice.

Although it’s a love-hate relationship, this is my favorite: Pepsi Max. No calories, decent flavor, and enough guanara extract to raise the dead. The Elixir of Life for anybody working in a tech job with lots of overtime and not enough sleep.

Preparation
The first step in preparation of the bottle is to strip it. With the knife or scissors, cut the label off the bottle. For best results, use bottles with plastic labels that can be peeled off, as paper labels glued by their entirety to the bottle will dull your blades.

Peeling the label

Peeling the label

Degloving the bottle

Degloving the bottle

After discarding the label, it’s time to poke a hole in the cap for drainage. You have the option of removing the cap and punching a hole with a hammer and nail, but I’ve found that using a Swiss Army knife’s awl produces a perfectly sized hole for our needs. (Again, with lots of bottles, you’re better off using a drill.) When doing it this way, make sure that the cap is securely affixed to the bottle, so that the air pressure inside the bottle keeps the bottle from collapsing.

Punching a hole in the cap

Punching a hole in the cap

After punching the hole, replace the cap if you removed it, and make sure that it’s on the bottle as securely as it can. Squeeze the bottle to force out the air inside.

Squeezing the bottle

Squeezing the bottle

Pick a place on the bottle about one-third up the side from the base and cut across the bottle with the knife or scissors.

Cutting the bottle

Cutting the bottle.

The idea is to cut the bottle at such a point where the top of the bottle can be nested inside the base, with the cap in the bottom. You want to cut the base high enough that the edge of the base will support the weight of the rest of the ProletariPot and the top doesn’t pivot on the cap, but not so high that the cap doesn’t rest on the bottom.

Proper nesting of top and base

Proper nesting of top and base

At this point, the basic pot is ready, but still requires soil and plants. If you want to label the ProletariPot, particularly if you plan to use it for starting seeds,do so now with the black Sharpie.

Adding soil
At this point, the Proletaripot is ready for use, and all that’s necessary is an appropriate growing medium. First, though, add a cup of horticulture-grade perlite to the bottom: this will allow drainage while also allowing capillary action to draw up moisture from the bottom of the pot. I find that pouring the perlite is improved by using a Rubbermaid pitcher to pour it, as the plastic will trap excess dusts without spreading them in the air. You do NOT want to breathe perlite dust, so use a mask and try to do this outdoors if possible.

Pouring perlite

Pouring perlite

Next, add the soil mix of your choice. My preferred mix for carnivores is a 50/50 blend of pool filter sand and shredded sphagnum peat, with enough water to give it the consistency of a good mud pie.

Filling a ProletariPot with soil mix

Filling a ProletariPot with soil mix

Add the plant of your choice, add more soil mix to fill the space between the plant and the walls of the ProletariPot, and water it well. Within about a minute, you’ll see water collecting in the base of the ProletariPot, and this will act as the pot’s reservoir.

Collections
Single pots get the job done, but anyone with a dedicated collection of plants may need a way to store the pots while still allowing air circulation between them. Interestingly, most soda bottlers developed a perfect solution, if it’s available to you.

ProletariPot and carrier

ProletariPot and carrier

Now, a quick warning and notice. The bottler carrier shown above was being thrown out by a local liquor store, and any retailer who carries 2-liter soda bottles will probably have more in the back or behind the building. Depending upon local law, taking these without permission may constitute theft. For instance, Texas law makes the unauthorized collection or possession of plastic milk crates a prosecutable offense. While bottle carriers aren’t as versatile as milk crates, many distributors return the carriers to a soda bottler for a deposit, and unauthorized harvesting of carriers may be prosecuted. If all else fails, ASK FIRST: if a retailer gives permission to clean through a stock of carriers, it’s usually because they were being thrown away.

While bottle carriers help assist with supporting ProletariPots, they aren’t necessary, as the base is already designed to help a bottle heavier and more unstable than the final project stand upright in pantries and refrigerators. So long as you aren’t worried about aesthetics, the new pots can be used indoor or outdoors, and can be modified further, such as becoming the core of a macrame pot hanger. In the meantime, try one for propagation and another for seed germination, and enjoy the results.