Monthly Archives: May 2011

Personal interlude

North Texas is not a good place to get sick, and the end of May is a good time if you really feel like taking out your nasal passages with muriatic acid and ice picks. It’s bad enough that the local plants respond to impending blast-furnace temperatures by spreading pollen across the countryside in a desperate hope of reproducing their genes before they die. (In many ways, plants in North Texas are like the attendees at a comics convention.) It’s bad enough that prevailing south winds blow up Austin’s, Houston’s, and San Antonio’s respective fugs and drop it right atop Dallas. (When friends ask me if I want to come to Austin, I tell them all I need to do is inhale deeply inside of a hipster bar while its patrons cough and sneeze in my face to catch the whole experience.) It’s bad enough that more sensitive co-workers adjust to the increasing heat by turning down the air conditioning to liquid-nitrogen superconductor level, which leads to a much larger shock when they finally step outside during the worst of the heat at closing time. It’s bad enough that all of the children in the state grab souvenirs from their classmates on the last day of school in the form of exotic and horrible diseases and share them with everyone in the neighborhood. Combine all of these, and you understand why I was afraid the neighbors would hear my influenza-inspired coughing and sniffling, chain the front door shut, and write “DON’T OPEN – DEAD INSIDE” on the front of the house. And I wouldn’t have blamed them.

The Czarina is doing her best to assist with getting me back to full form. Decent food, herbal teas, generally checking up to make sure that my skull hasn’t filled with phlegm. Of course, I know that this won’t last, because she’ll want to go to bed soon. At that point, she’ll crank the AC down to “comfortable” levels, meaning that she’ll sleep soundly but I’ll be pulling ice crystals out of my gums. The only time she ever freaks out over cold is when it’s outside, and I suspect that she fills her pillows with dry ice when I’m not looking.

Being this ill, though, does a wonderful job at preparing me for my impending mortality. I know now that my last moments are going to involve yet another flu-instigated bout of pneumonia, three bouts of which have nearly killed me in the past. It’ll be when the doctor comes into the hospital room to check on me and charge my bill for another “consultation” that I’ll finally go. That’s at the point where I start coughing. Then retching. Then performing a perfect recreation of John Hurt’s final scene in Alien, with my spleen baring sharp teeth, hissing, and running across the room. I’ll be coughing up blood, coughing up urine, coughing up xenon gas (my favorite after-dinner tipple), and you don’t want to know what’ll be coming out of my tear ducts. I’ll finally flop back on the bed, bile and insulin and navel lint dripping off the ceiling, before rising slightly as the doctor screams and runs away like a little girl and the nurses ask “What the HELL happened?”

At that point, I’ll gasp “We call it…(wheeze) ‘The Aristocrats’!” *thud*

Have a great weekend

Because it’s been that sort of week…

Consume mass quantities

Another quick posting, and then once more unto the breach, once more. Friends and family already know that the FarmTek catalog is my favorite horticulture porn these days, and the crew over there is offering a special for Facebook fans. As I keep telling the Czarina, all I need is a new Nepenthes greenhouse; it’s not like I’m blowing it on bad cocaine and journalism degrees, right?

For those who can’t quite afford a new greenhouse, there’s always fun to be had with the new items at American Science & Surplus. That place will be the death of me, as I’m just now finishing a big project involving several items from the Home & Garden section. If you don’t hear from me by Tuesday, send a rescue expedition, okay?

The Triffid Ranch in the news

A quick interlude before getting back to the Day Job: 2011 must be the year for television interviews. I had one last April (airdate in progress), and I just received a query about another one for this next week. Details will follow, but if anyone wants to follow up with a contract for a regular gonzo gardening segment, I certainly won’t complain.

Gnomes vs. flamingos: the war continues

I see that the garden gnome/plastic flamingo war picked up a bit. I guess the gnomes couldn’t figure out what “Phase 2” was.

Put a little outhouse in your soul

Every year for our wedding anniversary, the Czarina and I watch television. Well, let me rephrase that. At that time, we simply watch television. We’re not arrogant anti-television snobs who sniff at the idea of watching anything on the “idiot box”. We just simply don’t have the time any more. In combination with the both of us previously having been married to television addicts, we just can’t justify paying nearly $75 a month solely to flip around looking for a program that sucks marginally less than the 80,000 other selections on cable.

That’s not to say that we ignore the incredible output of televised entertainment. We just ration it out with a NetFlix account, so the Czarina doesn’t need to listen to me whimper about my dream job and I don’t get in the way of her next challenge. Besides, the best thing about watching television series in bulk is that they don’t come with obnoxious commercials.

Even so, at the end of the year, we hie ourselves to one disclosed location or another for our anniversary. It might be a hotel in Fort Worth, a ranch house in far West Texas, or just about anyplace with good beds, clean bathrooms, and unlimited cable. With the latter, the Czarina turns the channel to HGTV, and we generally overdose on home improvement porn until she’s sated. After three days of nonstop HGTV, she’s received plenty of ideas, and we’ve filled our humps of hate on the commercials until the next anniversary. (Trust me: for those who haven’t given up on cable television, go six months without it, and then go for a test drive. Every time we figure “You know, we’d like to do something besides smile and nod when friends go on and on about their favorite television show, so why don’t we get cable?”, all we need is a handful of Pajama Jeans ads to burn that compulsion right out of our heads.)

Anyway, we’re nearly six months away from our hump-filling, and that’s when Amanda at Kiss My Aster brought up a truly Lovecraftian horror for our next anniversary. Namely, My Yard Goes Disney. Oh, I’m sure that the sort of people who sit through Hanna Montana marathons will love this idea. I just figure that the show might work a bit better if it went dark. REALLY dark. “Today on What The Hell Happened?, this lovely suburban house and yard were completely redone by H.R. Giger, Harlan Ellison, and Angelspit! Let’s see if the neighbors notice!”

The Liveliest Awfulness of dessert

On a sideline, I’ve been working on additional recipes using Buddha’s Hand citron, also known as “Cthulhufruit“. I’ve learned several very valuable lessons from one such experiment conducted this weekend:

Numero Uno: Soaking sliced Cthulhufruit in good vodka (I highly recommend Dripping Springs) produces a very good sipping vodka, but some of the better nuances of the extract don’t survive baking.

Numero Two-o: It’s possible to add Cthulhufruit extract to standard Key lime bar mixes, but one day I’m going to have to make my own batch of Cthulhufruit bars from scratch.

Numero Three-o: Only in a universe that regularly uses non-Euclidean geometry can one box of Key lime bar mix produce 16 bars, even if they’re the size of a postage stamp.

Numero Four-o: The Square-Cube Law applies when you use two boxes of Key lime bar mix. 30 minutes’ baking won’t cut it.

Numero Five-o: Not paying attention to the Square-Cube Law doesn’t produce bad Cthulhufruit bars. It just produces bars that are a little too goopy for consumption by hand. However, heated up slightly, the mix is spectacular atop good French vanilla ice cream. Ergo, I have no worries about it going to waste. Anyone want a fresh batch of Cthulhufruit cobbler for H.P. Lovecraft‘s 121st birthday this August 20?

“The garden hooligans are loose!”

Of particular note in the news from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is that Dame Helen Mirren has a new Nepenthes cultivar (of the hybrid Nepenthes spathulata x spectabilis) named after her, courtesy of Borneo Exotics. This, of course, goes very well with last year’s “Bill Bailey” Nepenthes cultivar, which I can state with authority is an absolute beauty in the greenhouse. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to attend this year’s Chelsea Flower Show: I keep getting invites to the Arsenal Flower Show, but I don’t know why. (Fat chance on that. We Riddells are going to be Manchester United Flower Show Enthusiasts until we die.)

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”

As an aside, an otherwise dreadful week was made immeasurably better by the arrival of a new package on Thursday. My personal collection of carnivorous plants is now enhanced with my very own Nepenthes hamata from Sarracenia Northwest. Having just learned about the Nepenthes hamata x truncata hybrid “Predator”, I swear right now that if I ever develop any N. hamata hybrids or cultivars, I’m naming them for Clive Barker and Doug Bradley.

There are people who make you so happy that you wonder how you got through life without their radiance. There are people that make you wish you could win the lottery just so you could give them the money. Then you have people who make you want to break into their houses while they sleep, take tissue samples, and clone them in the millions. Jacob and Jeff at Sarracenia Northwest have that effect.

“You have two choices. You can weed, or you can fight.”

A bystander for Billy Goodnick’s Crimes Against Horticulture: When Bad taste Meets Power Tools Facebook page brought up the Web site Plant Amnesty. I can’t complain about the sentiment, but after years of watching crape myrtles get coppiced half to death, more resembling overly inbred toy poodles than anything botanical, it’s time to get the word out. You WILL hear us coming.

The importance of being concise

Gardening beginners often wonder why so many of their elders use Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature to describe plants. While it may sound pedantic or snooty, they often have good reason. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of modern binomial nomenclature, was a botanist, because he would have known firsthand that depending upon common names of plants is for suckers.

You may ask “Why is it such a big deal? A carrot is a carrot is a carrot, right?” Well, not precisely. The problem with English and other living languages is that they change constantly, picking up memes and fragments from other languages, mixing and melding parts from those languages to make new words, and giving new meaning to those same terms over the years. Latin and classical Greek are static or “dead,” as nobody’s making new Latin slang terms. (The Czarina and I once made the acquaintance of a very nice waitress who was majoring in classical Greek, and she noted that the difference between the Greek she’d learned at school and normal contemporary conversational Greek today was comparable to the gap between Chaucer‘s English and what I’m belting out right now.) Different areas, people, and eras may give the same common name to plants with roughly similar features or habits, but the end results can be horrifyingly different if the “moonflower” you plant in your back yard is Ipomoea alba or Datura stramonium. The Latin never lies.

When I get scoffing expressions as to why meanings can be important, I just relate an incident that happened several years back, when the Czarina and I were at a huge antiques mall near her parents’ house. This was a converted supermarket that was just packed with interesting antiques, all mapped out into a grid and each grid square rented to a different tenant. We were near the front of the store, and passed by a booth run by two brothers. One of the brothers had brought his grandchildren out for the day, and they were helping him rearrange the booth, setting up new items and moving others so the display didn’t look stale.

At the time, we didn’t know that the term in the antiques and flea market trade for this was “fluffing”, and the person doing this was called a “fluffer”. Apparently, it’s nearly universal, as antiques storeowners in England and Australia use the term as well. Our problem, though, was that we’ve made the acquaintance of some very interesting people in our lives, so we knew a completely different meaning for “fluffer”. I’m not even going to link to a definition: just Google up “fluffer” and read the first excerpt that comes up. After you come back and you finish screaming in either horror or laughter, we’ll continue.

Got that out of your system? Good, because it only gets worse from here. As stated before, we were passing by, and we heard one of the two brothers talking about how “every shop needs a good fluffer.” The Czarina and I looked at each other with shock, not sure we’d heard what we’d heard. That’s when the other said “That’s why I brought the grandkids. They’re excellent junior fluffers.”

Squelched laughter. We could not believe what we were hearing.

“Oh, but your great-uncle here? He’s a MASTER fluffer.”

It just kept getting worse and worse. We couldn’t move, we were holding in the belly laughs, and we literally had to support each other to keep the other from falling onto displays. It was like something out of a Monty Python film, with Michael Palin playing Pontius Pilate. All they saw were two loons in leather jackets and boots, getting great amusement from a completely innocent conversation, and they were getting more and more peeved as our faces got more and more red. We finally had to excuse ourselves and staggered into the parking lot, where we laughed for a solid ten minutes.

It was the next day that we discovered the antique shop meaning of “fluffer”.

And why bring this up, you may ask? Just keep this in mind when you start wondering “Mommy, how did the Venus flytrap get its common name?”

Of course…

Fifteen years ago Monday, I packed up an 18-foot Hertz Penske truck, three cats, a savannah monitor, and a now-ex-wife and trekked across the continent to Portland, Oregon. Almost eighteen months later, I was back in Texas, swearing that (to paraphrase General Phil Sheridan, governor of Texas during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War) if I owned Oregon and Hell, I’d rent out Oregon and live in Hell. For years, I referred to Portland as “Innsmouth West”, and promised that I’d never go back, and the hipsters whining that I was wrong only cemented my resolve.

Well, my mistake was that I was looking at the wrong places, with the wrong emphasis, and I only discovered the interesting people and venues in and around Portland after I was already gone. Sarracenia Northwest, among other things. It’s bad enough that I only learned about Rare Plant Research in Oregon City this morning, but to learn that it’s hosting an open house this weekend? That sound you hear is of my intestines tying themselves into knots. (For those folks in the area, apparently Rare Plant Research is hosting a reservation-only garden party on July 9. Go have fun, because I’ll be trapped here in the Texas heat.)

Appropriate garden sculpture

With many thanks to Darren Naish, THIS is what I call appropriate garden sculpture. The only way I’m working with garden gnomes if if I’m allowed to recreate the outdoor morgue scene from The Walking Dead.

Have a great weekend

Don’t get me wrong…

While poking about, I discovered a new cooking, gardening, and outdoor living show called Dig In Dallas, which runs on our local Fox affiliate at 6:00 on Saturday mornings. I regret that I missed out on last weekend’s interview with Leslie Halleck of North Haven Gardens, but I also admit that I probably wouldn’t have caught the show. I can understand running it at a timeslot that’s both available and relatively inexpensive, but 6 in the morning?

This may sound academic, but I was thinking about this a couple of years ago, when the hype about seeking younger gardeners was in full swing. Specifically, this was at a garden show where, with the exception of a few kids brought there by their grandparents, I was probably the youngest person in the entire exhibition hall who wasn’t working for the company hosting the show. Everyone was talking “young”, but the show wasn’t pitched to them. It wasn’t advertised in venues where anybody under the age of 65 would have noticed. Worse, it contained no content that would have made them brave Dallas traffic on a beautiful autumn day. (The only time we’re overloaded with worse drivers than when we get snow is when we have a truly spectacularly beautiful day, because that’s when the real dingbats decide to go to the mall.) The vendors were there, and ready, but how was anybody supposed to know the show was there for them?

This isn’t to say that gardening television and radio shows have to be remade in some horrible Disney Channel format. A lot of the effort can come with the timing. Many moons back, half of Dallas’s punk and metal community was absolutely addicted on the late Jack Horkheimer’s PBS-syndicated show Star Hustler. We’re talking about characters with the longest and sharpest Liberty spikes you’ve ever seen, hanging out in front of clubs and shading their eyes from streetlights in order to spot Mars because Jack had taught them where Mars was located at what time. It wasn’t hard to get hooked on Jack’s goofy enthusiasm, but the timing had to be just right. Our PBS affiliate would run Star Hustler just before it shut down for the night, which was usually about a half-hour after closing time at most clubs. This meant a lot of viewers started by coming home after a long night slamdancing, turning on the television for background noise while winding down, and finding themselves confronted by someone who made them give a damn about planetary astronomy.

Not that this couldn’t be done with a gardening show, but it would have to be handled carefully. Let’s face it: it’s hard to make horticulture dramatic, even if British television keeps trying. And trying. And someone much more eloquent than I sums up my feelings about the old PBS stalwart The Good Life:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with existing gardening programs, because they fill a niche. I just figure that, for all of the noise about getting younger gardeners into the fold, some extra effort should be made to encourage those younger gardeners to watch. Something darker and more gonzo, perhaps. How about this as a starting point for an opening credits theme?

Gnomes vs. Flamingos: The War Continues

Elizabeth Licata at Garden Rant made a very interesting point about the ongoing garden gnome invasion, particularly her quote “It’s an interesting paradox: the most fanciful products of the human imagination are marketed to consumers as a way to replace imagination.” It’s something the Czarina and I have discussed quite often, on our human need to make threatening figures cute and friendly. I’m sure that my paternal ancestors along the England/Scotland border from 500 years ago or so would have laughed themselves sick at the idea of welcoming the fey into their houses and gardens, but we’re also a culture that’s okay with sparkling vampires and cuddly Cthulhus.

Now, it’s not just that I’m a firm advocate of making gardens potentially threatening again. I also loathe garden gnomes, with the possible exception of one that yells “It’s a hippie he’s killed! Hey, everybody, he’s killed a hippie!” at passersby.

My friend Debbie Middleton feels the same way I do about garden gnomes, but she’s a firm proponent for lawn flamingos. She and her best friend conduct neighborhood sorties to aggravate the other, leaving tortured and mutilated plastic and ceramic fragments on the other’s front lawns and porches. I sympathize with Debbie, but I also figure that the war is already lost. How can flamongos stand against gnomes?

Now, the odds are improved by making flamingos less cutesy. Much like gnomes, flamingos have mutated from fairly impressive birds into pink hobbits; the only thing worse is the habit of turning hummingbirds, some of the most cantankerous and belligerent avians on the planet, into charming garden art. (Anyone who’s actually spent time around hummingbirds knows that most have no fear whatsoever of man, beast, or god, and the Aztecs portrayed their war god Huitzilopochtli as a hummingbird for good reason.) Real flamingos aren’t exactly war machines, but they’re still a match for a group of gnomes. We need to pep them up a bit.

Thankfully, palaeontology offers a few options, keeping the basic theme, and in the process making your garden into something that would have scared the hell out of Edward Drinker Cope. We can go for a bigger wingspan or better filter-feeding ability. We can shift families a touch and go big. Or we can go postal or go Aotearoa. We can even go point-blank surreal.

(That sound you hear in the background? That’s the sound of the Czarina, weeping bitterly into her breakfast tea while reading this.)

Even better, you have possibilities for scenes with this sort of lineup. Really dislike the fact that your neighbors constantly peek over the fence? Give them something to scream about. After all, there’s no reason why you can’t re-enact the inevitable gnome/flamingo war in resin and metal, with just the right Late Seventies/really bad cocaine design, right?

Alternately, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do this with a Texas theme, using Ray Harryhausen for inspiration.

(Again, that sound? That’s the sound of the Czarina’s extremely sharp elbows sliding out of their sheathes, moments before she plants both into the top of my head. This may or may not be accompanied by her bellowing “WAIT A MINUTE, Sparky!” seconds before she strikes.)

I’d best stop while I’m ahead. I’m truly afraid that this might go too far, and someone gets the bright idea of mixing garden design with Warhammer 40,000 gaming. I don’t think our species’s collective psyche could handle the strain.

Poached Orchids and Vaporware Wollemi Pines

There’s a particular pretend customer that comes to every retail business who’s best known as “YouShouldJust”. This is the character who looks over inventory or selection and then chirps “You know, you should just…” This is immediately followed with an insistence that the business carry something impractical, implausible, expensive, or even illegal. In bookstores, YouShouldJust wants the store to carry Kindles, even though those are sold only through Amazon. In restaurants, YouShouldJust nags about how the menu needs pomegranate margaritas or abalone steaks. At the Triffid Ranch, this involves YouShouldJust holding his breath until he turns blue or until I start offering Cephalotus and other extremely rare species. With some businesses, YouShouldJust wanders about, hitting up every venue and insisting that everyone carry the one item or follow the same idea. The smart ones ignore YouShouldJust unless s/he puts down money up front. The rest of us learn, the hard way, that as soon as you inform YouShouldJust that the item is in or the idea is implemented, that’s the last you’ll ever see of the character. It’s not malicious and it’s not fraudulent: it’s a weird power play that’s intensely annoying, especially when eight or nine YouShouldJusts come by in successive order.

(To be fair, a lot of businesses ignore requests from customers because, usually, “I’ve been doing this for 20 billion years, and we tried that once and it didn’t work.” I was once told that the big science fiction magazines tend to stick to digest format because Analog once went to a standard magazine format in the 1960s and fans still complain that this was too extreme a change. In 1965. Considering that at this time, my main activities in life circled around gulping down amniotic fluid and kicking the hell out of the inside of my mother’s uterus, I’m glad that I’m a bit more amenable to change in the last 45-odd years than most science fiction magazine readers.)

A lot of this boiled up after a friend pointed out an article on orchid poaching. Much like the flood in fad pets after a movie or television show makes Dalmatians or turtles or owls popular, any announcement of a new species gets YouShouldJusts racing to exotic plant dealers, asking about getting hold of a specimen of Nepenthes attenboroughii. They don’t really want it: they want to be able to say “Look: I convinced this dealer to carry it, and there it is.” For all of the understandable growling over the collectors who somehow think that clones produced by sterile tissue propagation are inferior to wild-gathered specimens (a growling that extends to this attitude among reptile and amphibian keepers, I might add), I also have to wonder “How much of this poaching trade is fueled by YouShouldJusts making noises about buying rare specimens and then flaking out when they arrive?”

I’m not saying that YouShouldJusts encouraging poaching should be shot. Mandatory spaying and neutering is enough: Weed-Eaters for the boys and Roto-Rooters for the girls, and anybody who complains doesn’t get anaesthesia.

(An interesting corrollary to the YouShouldJust phenomenon involves the Wollemi Pine, Wollemia nobilis. I could go on for days about this fascinating plant, but I’ll leave that for the experts. Let’s just say that the Czarina bought me one in 2006 for my birthday, and it did quite well before an unknown affliction hit it at the beginning of 2008. Trying to get a replacement has been interesting, as another gentleman discovered the hard way, because of YouShouldJust. The initial reports on the Wollemi pine were followed by so many YouShouldJusts demanding specimens at any cost, for bonsai and ancient gardens for example, that a gigantic captive breeding program started to protect the last remaining wild specimens from being poached. As with the endangered orchids mentioned earlier, it’s a pain for those wanting legitimate specimens in the States, as the one authorized breeder shut down all sales two years ago, allegedly because of an inability to fill orders. Meanwhile, the nurseries and garden centers that carried Wollemia during the first big rush wouldn’t order new ones even with money up front, as almost to an individual, they complain that YouShouldJusts made noises and then refused to buy when the plants were available. The search continues.)

Be nice. Be considerate. Be responsible. Don’t be a YouShouldJust.

EDIT: I almost forgot to mention that the worst YouShouldJusts are the ones who tell entertaining friends “You should write a book,” and who nag about it all the way up to where the book has a publication date. Just sayin’.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

I figure that only a few people would find this entertaining, but I have to ask. Considering the foofarol that goes into the Chelsea Flower Show every year, why isn’t there a competing Arsenal Flower Show to keep the horticulture hooligans under control? (Mind you, I’m Manchester United Flower Show, all the way.)

Uh oh, we’re in trouble

A call from Logee’s Greenhouses about my current stock of Euphorbia flanaganii. A quick peek on the site, jogging my memory as to where I’ve heard the name “Logee’s” before. A dinner conversation last night with two friends about Synsepalum dulcificum, the famed “miracle fruit” that shortcircuits the tongue’s ability to taste sourness. Yes, I think we have another test subject at the Triffid Ranch. (Cue maniacal laughter.)

Texas Frightmare Weekend news

And for some actual news: the Triffid Ranch has been showing plants at Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009, and it remains the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year. The previous hotel in which it was held was great for a lot of reasons, but the crowds outgrew the hotel by 2010. Most of the vendors were wondering after this year’s show “So where can we go, other than Dallas Market Hall?”

We now have an answer. May 4, 5, and 6, kids. To quote one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century, you’ll boogie ’til you puke.