Author Archives: Texas Triffid Ranch

Have a Great Weekend

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

Have a Great Weekend

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

The New Tenant

Most of this last weekend was a blur. Reports of an impending winter storm meant that getting everything secured for freezing weather was imperative, which required lots of time in the greenhouse. This included deadheading Sarracenia seed pods in order to get seeds for next spring, applying new greenhouse film, taping everything down, and otherwise cleaning up before our promised Icepocalypse 2014 arrives by Tuesday night. In go the hoses, back go the sprinkler heads, under cover go the faucets. The rainwater tanks are full, the spare pots moved into shelter, the tender succulents put next to thermal mass and the citrus up against a south-facing wall…I’m a firm believer in the power of negative thinking, where planning for the absolute worst means that you’re ahead of the game if the absolute worst doesn’t happen. (This is why I should have bought a decommissioned fallout shelter years back, because it would make a great tropical carnivore grow house, but that’s a different dangerous vision.)

Anyway, with the exception of a spare “Miranda” Nepenthes pitcher plant and a Brocchinia carnivorous bromeliad, all of the tropical carnivores were secured indoors for the winter, and I checked on the Miranda as I first entered the greenhouse. The whole neighborhood is infested with a rather large population of Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis), with their regularly camping out among sweet potatoe, Carolina jessamine, and hibiscus leaves, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find one in the greenhouse. The surprise was in one using Nepenthes leaves as a hammock.

Anole
Since I wasn’t completely prepared, I ran inside to get a camera, hoping that he wouldn’t run off in the interim. I’d forgotten that either anoles are loath to leave a good loafing lounge, or they’re hams. This one actually hung out long enough to pose for a while.

Anole

After a few minutes getting shots, Ta’Lon finally decided that I was hanging out too close and too long, so he got up to leave, keeping one eye on me at all times. While not possessed of the independent eye action of true chameleons, anoles have their moments. (By the way, take a closer look at the rear foot in the photo. Something that I hadn’t realized until this photo is that anoles have opposable toes on both front and rear feet. The difference is that theirs are the equivalent of our little fingers and toes. I can definitely see the advantages of this for a small lizard in grasping thin leaves and stems, but this was a wonderful surprise all the same.)

Anole

Well, I backed off for a little while, and came back about ten minutes later. In that time, had he been replaced with a new, brown lizard?

Anole
Nope: not at all. Anoles are regularly referred to as “American chameleons” because of their color changing abilities. They have neither the range of color or pattern as true Old World chameleons, but they can shift from a deep green to a deep brown in a matter of about a minute. Ta’Lon apparently decided that either the weather wasn’t quite right, or that I was aggravating him, because he started to switch back the next time I came through.
Anole

I’ve watched a lot of anoles in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one change color, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to photograph one in the middle of a color transition. That said, I realized that I’d have to check any plants being brought indoors for the winter for wayward anole eggs. The females have a habit of laying their eggs in planted containers because the soil is so loose and well-drained, and while I both enjoy hatchling anoles and their color-changing attributes, I’d prefer not to do so while trying to catch the baby frantically running up and down my bathtub in an effort to escape. Especially not in the middle of January.

Introducing Ipomoea batatas

Sweet potato vines

Although she rarely has any involvement with actual growing facilities at the Triffid Ranch, the Czarina asked for an exception this year. While my dislike of sweet potatoes isn’t on a par with that of butternut squash or bell peppers, planting them for my own use never really came up on the radar. However, she adores them, and she regularly shares roasted sweet potatoes with our cat Leiber. Yes, the cat loves sweet potatoes, and since his consumption seems to cut down on piles of cat vomit randomly encountered in the dark, that’s a reason alone to try my hand at growing my own.

The reality is that half of the fun of experiencing a new plant is not knowing anything about its initial growth, and watching the whole process. The other half is having a growing area that was criminally underutilized. Since the big silverleaf maples came down two years ago, this space had little to no shade during the worst of the summer heat, and the usual assemblage of tomatoes, white potatoes, or other essentials burned off by mid-June. When the Czarina gave me a stored sweet potato that had started sprouting and asked if I could plant it in the space, I told her “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises.” I knew they could handle Texas heat, but could they handle our ridiculously low North Texas humidity?

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The growing area had become the depository of nearly five years of kitchen compost, dead Sarracenia and Nepenthes leaves, extra potting mix from repottings, and the occasional bag of grass cuttings dumped on top to keep things moist. Five years of earthworms, ox beetle grubs, and the occasional armadillo later, and the soil in that depository had become a fluffy, rich loam, absolutely perfect for both growing and harvesting any root crops growing in it. Harvesting wasn’t a matter of digging out as it was simply brushing off dirt and hauling it in.

Sweet potato flower
But I get ahead of myself. Much like the sweet potato cousin the moonflower (Ipomoea alba), the biggest issue with sweet potatoes is getting them established. I suspect both species work in symbiosis with fungi in a commensual relationship, because the first year of trying to get either to grow is a bear, but after that first year, the seeds or tubers practically sprout the moment they touch the ground. I don’t know if I actually got any sweet potato seeds in the growing area this year, but judging by the number of stunning flowers growing under the foliage, I may luck out. Unlike other members of the genus Ipomoea, these flowers remain hidden under multiple layers of foliage, and I suspect that they fluoresce extensively under UV light, possibly encouraging night pollinators.

Sweet potato foliage

About that foliage, that’s one thing about sweet potatoes. It’s not shy about taking over the planet. By the beginning of August, mowing the lawn around the greenhouse was a proposition, as the sweet potato vines spreading outward tend to wrap around and tangle up lawn mower blades. This was about the time we discovered that sweet potato leaves made excellent additions to stir-fry or as a substitute for spinach in various recipes. At that point, the questions was whether the sweet potato would ask for UN citizenship to protect it from the Czarina’s depredations. It actually worked out well, because until Halloween weekend, it was growing new leaves faster than she could strip them out. In the meantime, the vines also offered great shelter for praying mantises and anole lizards, so building a trellis alongside the greenhouse and encouraging sweet potatoes to act as shade plants might be an option.

Sweet potato stems

Sadly, with Halloween came the threat of cold weather, and if there’s one thing that will ruin a sweet potato harvest, it’s the rot spread by dead and dying vines killed off by a good frost. This meant that they had to come out and start curing in a high-humidity area before they went bad. As mentioned before, the soil was so loose that the only hardship was finding the base of the plant. I say this after the vines had swallowed a rain gauge, two sprinkler heads, and a chiminea, but lifting up the mat of intertwined vines finally revealed the crown of the plant, and some quick grubbing around it came across the first of the tubers.

Sweet potato harvest

Having never done this before, I fully expected the usual beginner’s harvest: two or three tubers, and won’t I feel great about my accomplishments? Apparently, though, all of those composted Sarracenia leaves contributed to the tilth, because one removed tuber would reveal another. And another. And another. By the time things were finished, I managed to get nearly 15 kilos of tubers out of that tiny little space, and I still think I missed a few.

Sweet potato harvest

With the soil not consisting solely of Black Prairie clay, cleanup was remarkably easy: a quick wash with the hose, setting them in the sun to dry, and a quick inspection for damage or rot. Both the wife and the cat were even more impressed by the harvest: Leiber has never had interest in raw sweet potatoes before, but he looked half-tempted to take a chunk right then and there.

Monster sweet potato

Another thing about this adventure is the realization that what we think of as “typical” sweet potato sizes are more dictated by market pressures than by any plant-imposed maximum. The first few dug up were “typical” in size, and then this one revealed itself. I now understand the source of canned sweet potatoes, as this one was too big just to cook up and eat, so it became the core of several batches of sweet potato bread. I had no real interest, but judging by the way friends were tearing into it, it was that much more for everybody else.

Sontaran head

Finally, we got this beast, nearly the size of a soccer ball. Upon seeing pictures of this one roasting in a casserole dish, after FIVE HOURS of roasting to get it cooked all the way through, old friend Cat Sparks exclaimed “That’s not a sweet potato! That’s a Sontaran‘s head!!” I couldn’t disagee, and if I can get more spherical ones such as this, I may have a viable replacement for pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns that can grow in our heat. But first, I’m training the next batch to climb up trellises, grow up onto the roof, and shade the garage. I have my priorities in order.

EDIT: Since people started asking about the sweet potato bread recipe, here’s the Czarina’s own recipe, in her own words:
So, I’m giving you the recipe for sweet potato bread. However, be warned. I’m renaming it ‘crack bread’. You have no idea how addictive this bread is. On one side, it is low in carbs, and does have some protein, but it’s not calorie-free.
You’ve been warned.

Sweet Potato bread-

2 cups of brown sugar
1 cup of white sugar
3 eggs
2 cups of cold mashed sweet potatoes
1 tsp of vanilla extract
2 3/4 all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 (or less) tsp of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup of chocolate chips, dark chocolate preferably.

Now this mixture will get Thick, so I’d pull out the mixer. I nearly killed my little handheld mixer.
In a bowl, combine sugar, eggs, sweet potatoes, and vanilla. mix well.
add all the spices, mix well.
combine flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, and mix in gradually into your sweet potato mixture. Lastly, add chocolate chips, or if you prefer, a cup of pecans.

Bake at 350, for about 45-50 minutes, testing to see if a toothpick will pull out cleanly at the center of the bread. Time may vary on oven. One mixture equals about three smaller loaves for me.

Now don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Have a Great Weekend

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

Projects: “Bog Garden” (2014) – 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarracenia medley

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

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

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

More to follow…