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)
Construction: Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, vacuum-formed plastic, found items.
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.
Posted onMay 29, 2020|Comments Off on 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:
Posted onMay 1, 2020|Comments Off on 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.
Comments Off on Projects: Supplemental Indoor Light for Carnivores, For Work and Home
Posted onApril 23, 2020|Comments Off on 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
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?
Comments Off on Projects: Fern Excluders On Grad Student Budgets
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.
Posted onAugust 22, 2019|Comments Off on 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)
Construction:Glass enclosure. polystyrene foam, polyester resin, found items.
Posted onJuly 2, 2019|Comments Off on 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.
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.
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.
Horsecrippler cactus fruit
Cutting board and sharp knife
Smoothie maker or blender
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.
Posted onMay 31, 2018|Comments Off on 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:
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…
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.
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.
Important 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.
Since 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?
Important 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:
If 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.
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.
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.
Many 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 seriesPortlandia, 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.
With 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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?
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.You 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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
Here’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?
Looking 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.
Now 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.
Now 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.
Well, 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
And 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.
Finally, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
Posted onApril 23, 2013|Comments Off on 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted onMarch 7, 2012|Comments Off on Extreme Scot Frugality, Demonstrated
I’ll admit that, for someone my age, I have precious few freakouts over the times changing. If anything, anyone offering me the chance to go back to 1982, with or without my retaining everything that I’ve learned in the last thirty years, would get punched in the nose. (Well, that’s not completely fair. I’d go back for an hour, bushwhack my previous self from ’82 as he was coming home from school, break both knees, tell him to get his act together and quit journalism or I’d come back to finish the job, and then return to the present. But that’s just me.) Just when it comes to horticulture, viewing the new techniques, the new knowledge, and the new materials available that didn’t exist even five years ago blows me away. At least once a week, I look at how I can order seeds from South Africa and get detailed care instructions on plants indigenous to New Zealand, and set them underneath LED light systems designed to maximize the light usable by the plants while minimizing energy consumption. When I exclaim “I love living in the future,” I mean it.
As things change, though, I have to admit that sometimes while I don’t miss the past, I miss some of the side effects. I don’t miss the dank old decrepit hardware store in town, with the elderly owner who spent more time in day-long xenophobic diatribes than, say, sweeping the floors. However, I occasionally miss the days before elaborate point-of-sale systems at Home Depot, where I didn’t have to buy up the entire stock of an item I liked for fear that it would be discontinued and dumped in the “Clearance” aisle a week later. I don’t miss Sevin dust all over the cabbages by well-meaning relatives, but I actually miss bamboo leaf rakes that don’t cost the gross national product of Bosnia and that last more than one season. I like the automatic checkouts at garden centers. And I was surprised at how little I miss newspapers, but how much I find myself dependent upon newspapers a day or so later.
Odd as it sounds, newspaper has a million-and-five uses in the garden, and the decline of newspapers means that we’ll need new materials to replace it. Need to kill off grass in a new garden plot? Most garden guides recommend putting down several layers of newspaper over the grass, and then piling on fresh soil on top. Need a separation material between the various sheets of composting material in a lasagna garden? Nothing works better than newspaper. Remember the joys of making your own newspaper seed starter pots? Exactly how are you supposed to conserve on available resources if you’re having to buy sheets of paper to make them? Let’s see you use your iPad to pack up bare-root plants for transport, or to line a manure hotbed pit before filling it to the brim.
Until a few years ago, not buying the daily paper wouldn’t stop a dedicated gardener. Besides asking neighbors who were probably glad to hand over the 20 kilos of Sunday paper, you always had relatives who’d stack up the last few months’ reading matter until they decided it was time to dump it all. Go to work and stalk the break room, and the place would be loaded with discarded papers by about 10 in the morning. If that wasn’t an option, most cities had weekly newspapers that laughingly suggested “One copy is free; all other copies $2” on the front cover, with a handy address to receive the money. There was a bit of redundancy in spreading composted chicken manure over the Dallas Observer and its resident James Lipton of fandom‘s 60,000-word blatherings each week on comic books and Star Trek, but what can you do?
These days, though, finding a suitable supply of newsprint for gardening is quite the task. I have a friend and co-worker who does a lot of glasswork in his offtime, and he goes through a lot of newsprint during the shaping process. He finally filled a storage shed full of old newspapers, picked up Elvis-knows-where, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a new source. At the rate things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gardeners start stalking out crazy cat lady houses the way blacksmiths stalk out decommissioned wrought-iron bridges in the hopes of getting a suitable stockpile.
This isn’t to say that this is impossible. In my neighborhood, I already have a regular source for newspaper, and I don’t have to work at it. I just have to look for the sign.
Now, for years, Dallas gardeners could always depend upon getting tremendous quantities of free newspapers from the Dallas Morning News, delivered every other day. That is, until a little circulation scandal that horrified the CEO of the company (wink, wink), and suddenly stopped the flow of valuable paper pulp when advertisers threatened a class action suit. Never let a good idea go to waste, the CEO thought, so suddenly the Morning News‘s parent company started offering several free options that included Briefing and Al Dia. Much like disliked relations, they tend to arrive unannounced and unwanted, with the recepient left with the responsibility of disposing of them. Although I imagine the parent company would like to tell advertisers that each issue gets opened and read by an adoring family of eight at each and every address, most Briefing issues are dumped in the garbage as quickly as they’re received or (in the case of a neighbor who was particularly disgusted with the littering of his yard) tossed into the street. At least twice a week, a surly delivery guy drops them off, and asking said delivery drone to not drop it off gets a snarl, a rude gesture, or a frantic chirp of “Call the home office! Call the home office!” And don’t get me going about actually calling the home office, because any attempt to stop delivery gets repeated phone calls asking “Are you sure? After all, you’ll miss out on valuable coupons in each paper,” in an age of QR codes.
Besides, what we’re gunning for here isn’t just a discussion of the increasing self-inflicted obsolescence of print newspapers. It’s a matter of knowing that you accomplished something good in the garden and in your neighborhood by taking something unwanted and unloved and turning it into something beautiful. Besides, we want a LOT of papers. This is why you want to look for those “For Sale/For Rent” signs. It’s because, in areas where Briefing and Al Dia are delivered, you get sights like this:
The Briefing delivery guys don’t care that their papers pile up for days, weeks, or even months, because their bosses are insistent that they get them out. Their bosses don’t care, because they don’t have to clean copies of Briefing off their lawns every other day. (The Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas County has strict ordinances involving the dumping of unwanted trash in public view, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of the county.) You could subscribe to Briefing and get those papers one bit at a time, or you could keep an eye open for houses under construction, houses abandoned in foreclosure, or houses between residents and literally clean up. Trust me: not only will the neighbors not have issues with your swiping the piles, but they’ll probably thank you for your conscientiousness in caring for your community.
What you do with those copies of Briefing depends upon your intent and their condition. Get a couple of weeks of dry weather, and those piles will be close to pristine. Get out after a good North Texas gullywasher, and you’d think those sopping wet lumps are unusable. Pshaw! Dump them into any decent grade of wood chipper, and you have a wonderful mass of moist paper fiber for all sorts of things. Add grass seeds before dumping it onto a bald patch in the yard, and you have hydromulch. Put the pulp in the bottom of flowerpots to retain water and cut down on the weight of standard potting mixes. Mix it with dirt to shore up raised beds, or use it as a proper mulch for roses and around irises. Compress it in bowls and paint with nontoxic paints to make seasonal toad houses. You’re making your community more beautiful in more ways than one, and for free.
I know this doesn’t help gardeners in other areas with their lack of gardening foolscap, but this might give you ideas on available sources in your area. For Dallas-area gardeners, though, take advantage of the surprise bounty, and make sure to send pictures of the process to the crew at the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure they and their advertisers would love to learn how much of an influence they have upon the horticultural arts.
– A tip of the hat to Barry Kooda, who has been dealing with the delivery of Briefing to empty lots in his neighborhood for a lot longer than I have.
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For those who didn’t know me in the black days known as “the Nineties,” I used to be a writer. Specifically, I used to write nonfiction for a plethora of science fiction magazines, culture zines, weekly newspapers, and other gathering posts for society’s detritus. After about 13 years of little recognition and less pay, I came to my senses and quit nearly a decade ago. I refer to my two temporary returns to standard writing as “relapses”, and it’s because of writing that I have sympathy and offer support for recovering heroin addicts. Writing is a nasty, foul, vile little business, and the only reasons I can see for wanting to go back to dealing with science fiction publishing are either addiction to the subject matter or a level of masochism that usually entails bunny suits, overflowing toilets, and six-foot sandstone strap-ons lubed with habanero peppers. (Now’s about the time I’m told by friends “Tell us what you really think.” That’s when I tell them about how the only way I got paid for one of those relapses was by threatening to out the personal E-mail addresses and phone numbers of every executive at SyFy if I didn’t receive my check, and they understand why I’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have to deal with that again.)
Strangely enough, though, I don’t have that level of hatred toward writing about horticulture. I have no delusions of reaching the heights of a Gertrude Jeckyll or even a Neil Sperry in garden writing. For me, it’s pure relaxation, spiced with a thrill coming from sharing new wonders with friends. And then there’s the cross-pollination with people in other endeavors: I haven’t found the right opportunity for another article about plants for Reptiles magazine, but the response to last year’s article on carnivorous plants in the vivarium gives me an itch to try this again.
Then there’s the newest addiction: dark gardening. And so now I start as the new gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine, starting with the Spring 2012 issue. Arioch, Issek, and Nyarlathotep help us all.
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