Monthly Archives: August 2011

Horticulture and Publishing, part 4

Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.

And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?

If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.

Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.

Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.

By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.

The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)

Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.

The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.

The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.

One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.

And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.

Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?

Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

Okay, enough hinting around. It’s time to discuss an uncomfortable truth about the publishing industry, or at least the side that covers horticulture and gardening. The growth of the big-box chain bookstore both created and metastasized the current dire situation, and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders only made the situation more noticeable. This discussion will probably infuriate a lot of old-time readers, writers, and publishers, but that’s like stamping your foot in anger at a supernova.

The reality of the matter:

Most horticultural magazines and book imprints aren’t going to survive the next five years A.B.L. (After Borders Liquidation) in their current form.

The horticulture magazine as we know it today probably won’t exist at all in another five years.

The current book and magazine distribution system supplying readers with literature probably won’t exist in its current form in another five years.

Any publisher depending upon its current distributor or audience base probably won’t last the whole five years ABL.

For all of the noise about urban chicken-keeping and the like, making a sudden push for a nebulous “young audience” will probably accelerate any collapse.

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

The reality right now is that you have too many books vying for bookstore shelf space. You have too many books desperately trying to snag the attention of too few readers, and far too many redundant titles competing against each other. That’s just with books in general, of which horticultural and garden books are a subset of a subset that’s lucky to get its own marked subsection in most bookstores. With online sales, not only is everyone drowning in excessive content, it’s that much harder now to tell if a particular book answers a customer’s needs. Bookstore owners and employees understandably complain about their stores being used as Amazon.com showrooms, where customers come in, browse the selection, and buy their selections online. The stores are simply caught in an artifact of the big chain store days, where customers have been trained that if they wait a little bit, they can get the same book for significantly less. This speaks just as much about the decline of discretionary spending in a typical household as in customers not wanting to pay top dollar for a book that may be completely obsolete within five years. In ten years, the idea of people hanging onto huge book and magazine collections due solely to their initial cost is going to be as quaint as keeping music purchases on vinyl.

It’s even worse with magazines, and not just because of the amount of content online for free or damn close to free. The model for magazine sales was that newsstand copies built up enough interest to encourage readers to buy subscriptions, and the subscription money and advertising revenue brought in enough income to pay for printing, production, and administration. Either that, or the magazines ran on the trade publication or weekly newspaper model, where the individual copies were given away for free or at a drastically reduced price in order to get a minimum guaranteed circulation for advertisers. As magazine distributors folded or were assimilated, the number of available venues willing or able to sell magazines kept crashing, until now it’s nearly impossible to buy most print magazines outside of a big-box chain bookstore. At the same time, Borders management in particular encouraged customers to come inside and use the magazine section as a reading library. Some publishers saw actual subscriptions coming in this way, from either the blow-in subscription cards that littered the bookstore floor like autumn leaves or from the constant “Subscribe now!” house ads within the magazines. A lot of others, though, died, especially when Borders followed its usual invoice practice of paying for sold magazines”when we bloody well feel like it”. The current shutdown and liquidation of Borders only accelerated a shell game that was going to fold anyway, sooner or later, and many magazines couldn’t afford to wait upwards of four years for payment for issues long-sold and counted on Borders’s balance sheets. (And that’s with actual sales. Several former Borders employees have related the ridiculous number of magazines with covers ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit, with returns well above 70 percent on many titles. Even with big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast or Time Warner, this sort of expenditure was unsustainable, even if the idea was to get readers who may subscribe at some time in the future.)

With these factors, change is inevitable. Failing magazine publishers can no longer talk about “going on hiatus”, or presume that some rich benefactor is willing to throw away thousands or millions of dollars on supporting a publication that will never be profitable. Oh, it can happen, as with the recent purchase of Newsweek. It’s just not going to happen with the thousands of others. (With the ones whose business plans include either a purchase by an eccentric millionaire or a purchase by a big publishing conglomerate, rotsa ruck. In a few cases, as with one former science fiction magazine editor of my acquaintance who regularly whines about the unfairness of a universe that won’t supply said rich benefactor to keep him employed, the only real response is “Sometimes, very occasionally, the invisible hand of the market is both just and fair.”)

A lot of this change is going to be even more painful than it already has been. A lot of individuals in publishing who have kept gainful employ in the field are going to fight, the way newspapers fought against the Web as being “just a fad,” as one big newspaper publisher put it in 1996. In the last fifteen years, the potential market for newspapers has dwindled to the point where the average reader age is well above 50, and anyone under the age of 20 looks at the idea of getting news and information from a newspaper with the same incredulous awe as the idea of listening to AM radio or using a television with a manual channel selector dial. Books and magazines are going to go the same way, but only if we let them.

In the following collection of essays, I’ll try my best to look at viable options for horticulture publishing, but I’m definitely staying away from the one-fit panacea “We’ll put it online.” E-book and E-magazine publishing is an option, but it’s not the only option. The technoweenie fantasies of Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, where you give away everything for free and somehow make up the cost in volume, aren’t going to work, at least without other mechanisms available to pay contributors and staffers. Neither is simply saying that publishers need to embrace some nebulous younger market, without talking about how that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to have The Answers, or even some answers. All I want to do is light a fire under a few of the right butts, because I don’t want to see a collapse of my favorite publishers any more than you do.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 2

I’m still revising that observation on the state of publishing and horticultural subjects over the next five years, but the fact that blog writers are getting as much acknowledgment as standard print writers on gardening subjects is something else to be added to the stew. It’s probably seriously premature to assume that we’re going to see a revival of the zine now that e-publishing for tablets makes niche magazine publishing even more plausible and reasonable. However, I can say that existing practices with print magazines are going to have to change. Those magazines are going to need some pretty compelling content to justify paid subscribers getting their copies three weeks to a month after the latest issue hits the newsstands (and yes, Horticulture, I’m looking right at the bottom-of-the-barrel English Lit majors you keep hiring to handle subscription fulfillment). They’re also going to have to pay a lot more for contributors to put up with control-freak editors and “when we damn well feel like it” publishing schedules when said contributors can put the same content on their own blogs and get the same number of readers.

As mentioned before, I don’t expect a return of the zine, for a lot of reasons. I figure, though, that this is a great time for gardening societies and independent nurseries to look at the requirements for E-publishing. Let’s also say that this might be a great time to try something new that wasn’t plausible or sane under standard distribution models, such as

More books

I never want to give the impression that I have an extensive horticulture library. I just find that my collection’s mass is starting to warp space-time. Now it’s time to add some more of Stewart McPherson’s outstanding carnivorous plant guides to the edge of the event horizon:

Right about now, the Czarina worries about my selling body parts for new reading material, especially since I’m still taking notes from Carnivorous Plants and their Habitats, Volume Two in efforts to raise Roridula in Texas. Of course, that’s because she knows that I wouldn’t sell my body parts.

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Saikei and Art: Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller. Lew Buller, 2005. 178 pp., $39.95 US. ISBN 0-9772443-0-X

The obvious appeal of bonsai lies with its ability to simulate, in a reasonable scale, the incredible variations in trees when stressed by the elements. Most bonsai practitioners work to include the area around the roots, but actual landscapes? For short-term arrangements, the traditional Japanese form of bonkei works well, but the concept of saikei, the art of arranging miniature landscapes for longterm enjoyment, was first displayed and taught by Toshio Kawamoto in 1963. Today, saikei may not be as universally known as bonsai, but in a time when miniature gardens are starting to gain popularity, this is probably going to change.

If the name of Lew Buller rings any bells, it’s probably for his involvement with co-writing Mountains in the Sea: The Vietnamese Miniature Landscape Art of Hon Non Bo, the only English book so far published on Hon Non Bo design and management. His followup book, Saikei and Art, is a compilation of various essays and articles written on the subject for magazines such as Bonsai Today and International Bonsai, combined with new material and followup photographs.

Because of its origins in magazine articles, Saikei and Art has a small problem with jumping around and repeating itself from time to time. This is sometimes aggravated by the unorthodox layout of some sections, where it’s difficult to ascertain where, on a new page, the text starts from the previous page. Some readers may also have issue with the fact that Buller’s landscapes are predominately influenced by his life in the San Diego area, and recreations of Southern California might not jibe with other saikei practitioners’ ideas of arrangements.

Ignore those worries. Any serious miniature gardener, whether formally trained in saikei or not, needs this book in his or her library. Instead following the lead of far too many general horticulture books, where the book goes step-by-tedious-step into allowing readers to make an exact replica of an artist’s project, Buller uses his projects to illustrate the tenets and requirements of saikei, and then encourages readers to go their own way. He dedicates an entire chapter to texture, both in the importance of variety and in continuing a particular theme. In addition, while he understands that each artist’s particular styles may encourage the use of artificial additions such as “mud men” figures, he emphasizes that the focus of a proper saikei depends upon the balance of the complete arrangement, not just on one or two elements. Add one slightly incongruous element, whether a particularly stunning rock or an intriguing figure, and all focus goes to that element instead of to the rest of the landscape. In a diorama, this is a success. In saikei, this is a sign of bad design.

Right now, I’m preparing several large miniature garden arrangements for an upcoming plant show. Before each big show, I gather a series of reference guides to get me into the right frame of mind before starting. I already have such titles as Sheperd Paine’s classic guide How To Build Dioramas and Buller and Lit Phan’s Mountains in the Sea in the pile, and Saikei and Art is going right on top.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 1

The bright side: this was the first birthday in five years where I wasn’t dealing with a photo shoot, a television interview, a newspaper interview, or a medical emergency. (Well, manufactured medical emergency.) The dark side: the aerogel that we laughingly call Dallas air is getting so thick that four months of allergy shots are probably the only reason I’m still alive. The air isn’t too thick to breathe. It’s too thin to plow.

Anyway, one of the benefits of spending a three-day weekend in allergy-induced hallucinations is gaining insane insights into the universe, and having lots of horticulture -related reading material by the bedside definitely helped. This was compounded by being functional enough by Sunday to get up and around, and I decided to test this by visiting one of the local Borders bookstores being liquidated. I’m still concentrating observations and impressions based on what the implosion of Borders entails for the publishing industry, especially the horticulture and gardening components, and they should be coherent enough to share by this week.

One absolute, though, based on multiple visits to multiple putrefying Borders stores over the last six months. When someone finally chronicles the exact whys and wherefores of why Borders went under, I suspect we’ll get a lot of answers to various surreal questions. “Why did so many employees assume that working for Borders was ‘working in the publishing business’?”, for instance, seeing as how you didn’t hear Steak & Ale frycooks insisting they had to stick with a dying company because they wanted to keep “working in the ranching business”. The biggest one I have, though, is what Borders ordering rep was responsible for the company’s incredible selection of marijuana growing guides. Each store’s selection was already famous, and the current liquidation just accents how many copies of The Cannabible must have been stockpiled in the back of each store for years. Was this selection the result of a lost bet, or was someone in the ordering staff in Ann Arbor really, really projecting on their career plans after they left Borders?

Have a Great Weekend

It’s a bit early, but here’s leaving you with a bit of Abney Park. One of these days, I’m actually going to catch a live show: I would have done so a couple of years back when the crew played in Dallas, if not for a medical emergency. It takes real effort for a bad pre-show DJ to drive me from a live show, but the toad blasting Beck’s “Loser” (apparently, his theme song) loud enough to give the Czarina heart palpitations somehow managed to pull it off.

Thursday is Resource Day

(Lots and lots of interesting facts and resources come across the Triffid Ranch potting bench every day, and posting about every last one means that too many are lost in the news churn. Hence, a return of Resource Day, updated every Thursday.)

It takes a serious sense of humor to live in Texas during the summer, and gardening in Texas requires a particular sense of whimsy. After all, when it’s the end of August and Zeus, Thor, Tlaloc, and Kakatal are laughing and pointing (with one finger, mind you) at your efforts to keep tomatoes alive, all you can do is laugh back. The best way to do this is to make plans for autumn gardening, because after the air no longer smells like burning flint, you have perfect gardening weather from September to the beginning of December and beyond. I’m not exaggerating when I tell people I’ve harvested fresh tomatoes right off the bush for Christmas dinner, and you’d be amazed at how many habanero peppers you can pick on New Year’s Day when everyone else in the neighborhood is hung over.

Oh, and I keep laughing, too. That’s why, in a day where we’re justifiably wondering about the place of the print periodical, I keep renewing my dead-tree subscription to Texas Gardener magazine. I’ve let many of my regular magazine resources slip because of editorial changes or because they’re no longer relevant, but this is one I read all the way through, every two months. Did I mention that sometimes I’m laughing at the articles to keep from screaming? (I don’t necessarily wish harm on some of the writers. It’s just after reading the latest issue’s feature on growing bananas, I just want to eat their hearts in order to steal their superpowers.)

And for those who want a suitably maniacal mad-scientist cackle with their laughter, I’d like to note that the latest American Science & Surplus catalog arrived the other day, and I am in TROUBLE. Specifically, the Czarina actually has good reason to work with a lab still, and I have more of a need for a solar-powered vent fan than most. (Sadly for folks outside the US: I’ve looked for nearly eight years for a comparable supplier who ships outside the US and its territories, but have yet to find anything. If this changes, I’ll definitely let you know.)

Rain

It’s not much, but we’re finally getting rain. Bits at a time, more of a misting than a proper rainfall, but every last bit is appreciated. Now if I could just convince my youngest niece to stop chirping “For he is the Kwizach Haderach!”, I’ll be happy.

Slightly unorthodox miniature gardens

If I haven’t introduced you to Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens, please say hello. Janit has been extremely busy promoting new plants, new materials, and new concepts to miniature gardening, and I’ve been trying to help. You know that weird kid in fourth grade who keeps bringing in frogs and worms to show the teacher to help out with her science classes? Yeah, it’s like that.

Anyway, I’ve been keeping an eye open for unorthodox additions to miniature gardens, and I should have a great one for her perusal and approval in a few weeks. So what should I add to the Lithops arrangement: a Viking 1 model or a Lunakhod 1 model? (I’d go for something appropriate for our current weather in Texas, but apparently nobody makes a Venera 13 model yet. Sigh.)

Birthday beatings

I love the Czarina with all my heart and soul, and that’s probably why I give her so much grief. It’s obviously an addiction to adrenaline: walking up to a black rhinoceros and slapping it in the face, giving a Komodo dragon a thorough flossing, or going to a science fiction convention and telling the assembled crowd how the only thing you loathe more than Star Wars is its fandom are easy. Nothing compares to making the right comment that ends with the last things you see for the next six hours are her elbows going for your forehead. When it’s birthday season, it’s time to double down.

Now, the Czarina is exactly three weeks short of three years younger than I am, so she starts worrying about birthday celebrations around April. A lot of this comes from her being part of a very large and very enthusiastic Texas family, where quiet birthday parties are about as alien as dressing for minus-forty temperatures. (I regularly try to describe minus-forty weather to her, having lived through far too much of it in my childhood, and it’s much like describing the concept of “plaid” to Stevie Wonder. Our nephews and nieces love the idea of ice and snow for playing and skiing, but they question the sanity of anybody willingly living in places that stay frozen for eight months out of the year. I do, too, which is why I’m in Texas instead of Ontario.) Her mother reminds her of her obligations around February, so she has six months to fret and fuss to herself over whether she’s neglecting me. Naturally, I regularly steal Bill Cosby’s comment about how his kids can’t sleep at night unless they’ve had a good beating, and this time of the year, I sleep incredibly well.

It usually starts on the weekend, when we have some free time. We both know the rules. She asks for my input while keeping control of the situation, and not giving in to completely unreasonable requests. In turn, I know that if I make completely unreasonable requests for the next hour, for things she knows I don’t really want, I can drop a good humdinger and she’ll agree to it before realizing her folly. I can then look at her, tears running down my legs and into the stormdrains, and weep “But you PROMISED!” until she realizes I’m messing with her again. This fuels the adrenaline addiction, because one slipup, such as using the words “Wyoming real estate” or “threesome,” and I’ll need years of therapy before I regain such advanced skills as color vision and bladder control. Those elbows are sharp.

The other trick is to push the edge of “How does Brundlefly eat?” territory without going over. For instance, the esteemed garden guru Billy Goodnick commented on Facebook a little while back that the best way to take care of the arguments in a marriage about leaving the toilet seat up at night is to use the sink instead. I told him “Naaah. Use the dishwasher a couple of times, and she’ll be GLAD you use the sink.” When the Czarina saw this, her first response was to impersonate her mother and sigh “Oh, PAUL!” My immediate response was “What? I was going to say ‘oven’!”

And so the bladeplay began. She asks innocently “So what do you want for your birthday?”, and before the first syllable can emerge, yelling “And NOT a crocodile monitor.”

She’s obviously learning, as it’s only taken nine years of marriage for her to pick up my opening gambit. “Well, I had something I wanted, but SOMEone wouldn’t let me haul it home.”

“If you bring up that stupid case one more time…you know it’s GONE, right?”

“Yes (sniffle), because someone wouldn’t let me get a truck to pick it up. (sob)”

“Okay. Aside from a crocodile monitor or a glass case, or the case so you can keep the crocodile monitor, what do you want for your birthday?”

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, I have an answer, but finances won’t allow it for a while. I could have a smartaleck answer for her, and then she’d just look at me and say “Mm hm. And you got one of those when you were ten, right?”

*mope* “grumble* *scuff shoes in the dirt* “Yeah.” She’s remarkably perceptive as to the fact that it’s not 1976 any more, damn her.

“I’ll ask again, and I want an honest answer. What do you want for your birthday?”

Okay, then. I told her what I’m telling everyone else: get something for yourself. I’m serious.

To start, I can’t say enough about the intrepid crew at Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Texas. Not only am I glad to contribute what I can to help out, but I’m still going through the kilos of bat guano they let me sweep up last year for fertilizer. (Yes, I spent the Czarina’s and my anniversary last year sweeping up bat guano, and I thanked them for the privilege.) It’s definitely time for you to adopt a bat. Every bit you chip in means a bit more guano for my dragonfruit and the Czarina’s roses, so everyone wins.

If you’re more inclined toward the floral, then get me something nice. Get a membership with the International Carnivorous Plant Society or a premium membership with the International Brugmansia and Datura Society. There’s also the North American Sarracenia Conservancy for those with a more particular bent, but all of these will work quite well.

Oh, and don’t listen to the Czarina when she mocks me about wanting a pony. She’s still ticked off at when I introduced her to the works of the exemplary author Jeffrey Somers. Specifically, he has a married life much like mine, only he refers to his wife as “the Duchess”, and she’s much shorter than he is. Otherwise, the beatings are identical. My mistake was noting that I truly fear the day that my wife and Jeff’s wife meet, because they’d probably be friends for life, and then Jeff and I would be in real trouble. I even started using an endearing nickname for the love of my life based on this observation.

Kids, take my word for it. Even in the days before Google, the Czarina would have found out what “MasterBlaster” meant sooner or later. And when the Duchess finds out, I’m going to need skin grafts on the insides of my nostrils from where the two of them yanked out my nose hair.

Something to make your day

For those who don’t read the exemplary blog Bonsai Bark, here’s a story that will make your eyes bleed. It concerns stolen bonsai, specifically four prize-winners stolen from New England Bonsai Gardens last weekend. The punchline, though, is this quote:

Unless they are recovered soon, odds are whoever ends up with them won’t be able to keep them healthy. Years ago a friend (and customer of New England Bonsai) had some prize bonsai stolen from his back yard. The good news was the police found the bonsai during a drug bust. The bad news was, they found them dead in a closet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to punch something. Like the individuals who stole these bonsai.

Road trip

The 2012 show schedule is already packed pretty well, between shows and the International Carnivorous Plant Symposium next August, and the Czarina is insisting upon a trip to San Francisco as a very late honeymoon event. (When I say “insist,” don’t think that I’m complaining about this in the slightest. At bare minimum, we both want to see the Conservatory of Flowers while we’re out there, and that’s in addition to everything else to visit. I haven’t been to the Bay since 1996, and she’s never been there at all, so any escape to feed my addiction really won’t be an escape so much as a sidetrack.) Additional trips? The only way we can afford them is by my selling body parts, and I’m down to only three kidneys and a handful of hearts to last me until Christmas.

That said, well, reading about Erica Glasener hosting a tour of English gardens, complete with a tour of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, just makes me whimper a bit. Time for me to invent something really spectacular, such as a zero-point energy generator or a composter that can make garden soil from stupidity, to pay for this trip.

Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens
by Eric Grissell. Timber Press, 2010. 335 pp., $27.95 US. ISBN-13: 9780881929881

I came across gardening in a very roundabout way, and I can credit one book as being my awakening to the possibilities. That book, discovered in a pile in the Natural History section of the local Half Price Books, was The Hunting Wasp by John Crompton. Before starting that volume, my attitude toward wasps was the same as with most humans: duck and wave your arms around your head if one approaches, and rush for the can of Raid when it retreats. Considering how sensitive I am to honeybee venom, I thought I had a good reason to keep up that attitude.

Well, that was before John Crompton. Without him, I never would have learned exactly how valuable wasps are in the garden, and in fact elsewhere. Honeybees can pollinate flowers, but they do nothing against common garden pests. With the exception of vertebrates, pretty much every gardener’s nemesis has a parasitoid or exoparasite wasp that uses it as a host. Tomato hornworm caterpillars, houseflies, spiders large and small, cicadas, and even praying mantises are all prey. The more social wasps such as paper wasps may not capture and paralyze prey, but they still do their part: I currently have a paper wasp nest on the back porch, right over my head when I’m repotting plants. Considering how much damage they do to the annual green looper plague every spring, anyone who wants to spray my paper wasps will have to go through me first.

That’s the biggest thing that Crompton’s book taught me: we’re taught our basic responses to wasps, and they’re a matter of conditioned fear, augmented by the pain of the very occasional sting. Wasps should be respected, yes, especially by those with allergies to their venom. However, a lot of what’s seen as wasp aggression is really little more than curiosity, abetted by our conditioning to react in a certain way to certain insect shapes and colors. What’s funnier is that this conditioning is one of the big factors in keeping male wasps alive, as they have no sting and are completely harmless to humans.

When it comes to books on members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the vast majority focus on the bees. Lots and lots on traditional honeybees, with maybe some mention of carpenter bees, mason bees, and sweat bees as a sidenote. Most books on ants are intended for grade-school students, and they’re discarded about the time the reader has to deal with carpenter ant damage to a house or Argentine fire ant infestations in the yard. Wasp books pretty much begin and end with Crompton and with Jean-Henri Fabre’s The Hunting Wasps, now nearly a century old. And on the wasp cousins the sawflies? Not a peep, outside of basic insect pest guides.

Part of the reason for that lack of care, obviously, is bad public relations. Bee folklore and mythology range the width and breadth of the planet. (How many of you know that the name “Melissa” is ancient Greek for “bee”?) Ants at least get the Aesop’s fable on the ant and the grasshopper. Ants and bees get cutesy Pixar movies made about them. The closest to popular respect given to wasps? A begrudging comment on how the life cycle of the title creature in the film Alien had a basis in the real-life habits of certain exoparasite wasps.

Yeah yeah, sure sure. The wasp’s world is a horrifying one compared to that of humans, and it’s not hard to see the comparisons. (Last year, I came across an unopened silkworm coccoon hanging from a maple tree, and found inside the coccoon a mummified silkworm with two tiny holes in its body from where wasp larvae, implanted as eggs before the caterpillar started spinning, had gnawed their way out before pupating within the coccoon. I couldn’t help but murmur “Alien life form, dead a long time. Fossilized. Looks like it grew out of the chair.”) That’s just part of the story. Most wasps are essential pollinators, as the adults only consume nectar and other sweets (this explaining why they’re always attracted to spilled juice or soda), and they’re often manipulated themselves, as with wasp orchids. Furthermore, each parasitoid (young develops within the host’s body) or exoparasite (young develops outside) wasp species has a specific host, and those can range from aphids to cicaidas. I was recently lucky enough to view two tarantula hawk wasps searching for prey, and as their name implies, their chosen hosts are tarantulas and other extremely large spiders. Crompton himself was impressed by one species of wasp that attacks and paralyzes praying mantises, and he described these wasps as being like a human mother who has decided that the only food fit for her children is grizzly bear. (With both tarantula hawks and mantis hunters, the wasps don’t always win their battles.)

It takes a special love to research a book on wasps and their preferred hunting methods, and I was afraid I’d hit the point where the only way I was going to find a book with the information I sought was by writing it myself. Thankfully, research entomologist Eric Grissell beat me to it, and in so doing, gave me a lot of ideas for future arrangements. For instance, he described going from butterfly to wasp garden by setting up a solar-powered water pump with a 5-gallon bucket as a well and covering the top with rocks that would get splashed during the heat of the day, encouraging wasps and bees to gather water without a chance of drowning. Considering the number of bees and wasps converging on my Sarracenia pots for water during the summer heat, this is going to be an essential addition to the garden come next spring.

And then there are the photos. Crompton’s and Fabre’s books are a bit lacking in illustrations, and thankfully Bees, Wasps, and Ants is thoroughly and copiously augmented by beautiful color photos. When the photos can make me appreciate the beauty of ants, this says something.

As a final note, one of the best reasons to buy this book lies with the insects even more disrespected than wasps. Learning about sawflies was intriguing enough, but for years, the only information I could find on the local velvet ants was that (a) velvet ants were solitary wasps, (b) the females are wingless, and (c) their sting packed a powerful enough punch that they’re referred to throughout Texas as “cow-killers”. (I haven’t seen one since 1980, but after narrowly missing being stung, I don’t plan to test its ranking in the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to make sure.) That right there made this book indispensable, as now I can get co-workers and family members to alternate between oohing in wonder and making vague squicking sounds when reading about braconid wasps on tomato hornworms. I was even able to make the Czarina’s head go “pop” when describing the color of tarantula hawk antennae as tango, and she definitely wasn’t expecting to learn about colors and historical significance from a discussion of wasps.

Upcoming shows

Certain friends know me originally from my days writing essays and articles for various science fiction magazines in the Eighties and Nineties. (Don’t worry about which ones: without fail, they had all of the impact and influence of the CueCat and Microsoft Bob, and half the mockery value.) They also know that I quit in rather spectacular fashion in 2002, and aside from a couple of relapses (which were, without fail, catastrophic), I haven’t been back since then. These are the ones who sidle up to me and ask “So, Paul, if you state quite openly that you’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have anything to do with science fiction, then why do you do so many plant shows at science fiction conventions?” This is most often voiced by my best friend, who has been playing Adrian Edmondson to my Rik Mayall for going on a third of a century.

Well, I have several reasons. The first is that I still have a lot of friends in the business, and I’ve learned from experience that they can be in town but it’s almost physically impossible to get them to leave the convention hotel. The second is that many of these friends have kids (and, increasingly, grandkids), which gives me all sorts of opportunities to pass on horrible stories. “You know how your mom says she hopes you have a kid who’s just like you? Oh, trust me: I have tales that will curl your nose hair.” The biggest one, though, is that convention attendees and their family and assorted cohorts are a seriously underappreciated horticulture market. For the most part, their childhood memories of gardening consisted, as did mine, of having to do the zut work of weeding and cleaning in the garden without any opportunity to see a return. They don’t hang around garden centers because there’s nothing in it for them, and standard gardening options bore them to tears. However, show them that there’s more to carnivorous plants than the same old Venus flytrap, and they’ll attend regular shows just in the hope of seeing something they didn’t know existed but that they’re willing to buy right there and then.

Because of this, the Triffid Ranch has a regular presence at Dallas conventions, starting the year with All-Con in March and ending the con season with FenCon in September. In the future, the idea is to show off plants at conventions outside the state, but considering the cost of inspection permits to transport plants across state lines, that may be a little while.

Anyway, the first bit of good news is that Texas Frightmare Weekend, a horror convention in Irving, just announced the initial lineup for its 2012 show. Loyd Cryer of Texas Frightmare Weekend has been very supportive of the Triffid Ranch at previous shows, and I try to return the favor as much as possible. The 2012 guest list is still embryonic, so keep an eye on status updates. Since the convention moved to the DFW Hyatt at DFW Airport, thereby allowing an increase in display space, expect to see some surprises in arrangements and in new plants.

The second bit of news is a bit further off. Unlike most conventions, the World Science Fiction Convention moves to a new locale every year, based on bids made by committees and votes from current or previous attendees. As of today, the official winner of the bid for the 2013 WorldCon is Lone Star Con 3, located in San Antonio. Any excuse to go to San Antonio is a good one (it’s not quite as much fun as Fort Worth or Galveston, but at least it isn’t Austin or Lewisville), so I’ve already contacted the convention committee about Triffid Ranch dealer’s room space. Details will follow, but at least we have two years to worry about it.

That’s it for the moment, but should you know of a convention that could stand a hearty selection of carnivorous plants, feel free to let me know.

Lovecraft’s Birthday

Saturday, August 20 is the 121st birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, possibly one of the most influential American writers of the last century. Not only has his unique contributions done for horror fiction what van Gogh did for painting, but his work is distinct enough that the adjective “Lovecraftian” is used by people completely unfamiliar with his stories. (One day, I”ll make sure that “Leiberesque” gets the same use, but I’m still working on it.)

I also have a personal interest in “Grandpa Theobald,” as he called himself, as he’s a distant relative on my mother’s side of the family. In fact, if I’d been just one more week premature, I’d share a birthday with him instead of with Glen Matlock. (Hell, if I’d been a few hours more premature, I’d be exactly the same age as Shirley Manson. How’s that for a bummer?) Ergo, that love of the unknown goes back a little ways.

In tribute to my famed cousin, and in hopes of fending off heat-stress psychosis, it may be time for a trip to the garden center to make a Lovecraft-themed garden. Obviously, I already have a Buddha’s Hand citron, and I’m currently checking with a source further south for those seeking one of these beautiful trees in Texas. Carnivores are an obvious choice, especially with the cultivars named after HPL’s characters, and then we have the succulents. If you’re in the need for something that really stretches the meaning of the term “Lovecraftian”, may I recommend giving a hand to a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) or a rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)?

Have A Great Weekend

And to friends in Reno this weekend, I bring you a prime bit of head explodey from the early Nineties: the Spock Pistols.

Dark Gardening: weeping redbuds

I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.

In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.

Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.

After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.

Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.

The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The best thing about summer in Texas is the end of it, because you get a whole five months to plan for parties and events. You can peek outside your shelter, shaking your fist and the big yellow hurty thing in the sky as it turns everything you know and love to ash, or you can plan for the day when sunset is at a sane time and the air doesn’t smell like charred flint. This is what kept Texans sane in the days before air conditioning, and it really applies now. To make matters worse, all of my friends are at the Independent Garden Center 2011 show, and knowing that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is testing the hotel staff’s tolerance of impromptu Ween karaoke and random midnight gunfire makes me grind my teeth down to the gumline. The day she finally figures out how to flush metallic sodium down the toilet so it clears out every greywater line in the hotel, I’ll stop calling her “amateur”.

Because of this, I’m tentatively making plans for a Triffid Ranch party, open to customers, patrons, and interested bystanders. It would have to be after the big show at FenCon at the end of September, but this isn’t a problem when you live in a place where October lasts for six months. It won’t be anything spectacular, such as the spectacular Sarracenia Northwest open houses, but it won’t be too embarrassing. Details to follow.

I’d just like to add one note. Once the Czarina gets involved, her addiction to bad puns will be unstoppable, and there may be trouble. It may get bad. The moment she serves anything that looks like this, all of you have permission to shoot me in the head, because it’ll be obvious that the woman I married is gone, and life won’t be worth living. Thank you in advance.

Review: Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-Of-Hearts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross,. Timber Press, 2010. 283 pp., $24.95 US. ISBN-13: 9781604690767

Lists of odd plants are such subjective things. The local weeds in Capetown are horrendously exotic in New York, and the perspectives of casual browsers in the local grocery store floral section are a bit lacking compared to those of professional botanists and horticulturalists. It also depends upon personal tastes. I could make the argument that tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) are just as odd as the corpse flower Amorphophallus, but the question is whether I could back it up. Equally importantly, if I were asked to come up with a similar list, would I merely be copying someone else’s, or working from my own personal experience?

As far as Bizarre Botanicals is concerned, it’s a good start on a decent odd plant listing. Problem is, anything other than “a good start” would come in about eighteen volumes and arrive at the door via forklift. The most impressive aspect of this book isn’t that authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross managed to find at least 77 suitably odd plants to include in their listing. It’s that they managed to stop at only this many, and I can only imagine how many they left out.

As the introduction states, the original focus was on carnivores, and the first tip that you’re looking at a Timber Press book is the beautiful photography. For serious carnivore junkies, it’s interesting but not loaded with surprises. And that, Officer, is when the book shifted into ferns. That’s when our authors dropped the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) into my lap. It veered over into the passionflowers (Passiflora), the Czarina’s favorites, and then skipping to her new love, the bat plant (Tacca chantrieri.

Again, personal tastes intrude. While the chapter on “Hearts-a-Burstin'” and heart-shaped flowers was intriguing, I personally would have gone in the direction of edible oddballs, such as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) or the fruit of Monstera deliciosa. (Of the latter, I love the fruit-salad flavor of the flower spike, but the immature spike itself always brought to mind sex toys for Silurians.) Even so, the whole hearts chapter is a great subject for goth gardening, and my only regret is that many aren’t suitable for Texas heat.

And then we’re back in the running with a thumbnail guide to odd orchids. Again, the surprise was that the authors were able to stop before turning in a 5000-page manuscript. Of particular note is that they recognized the singular wonder of the trigger orchid Catasetum saccatum: in an odd way, if not for my knowing about C. saccatum and misunderstanding an Australian friend’s comment, I never would have been introduced to the whole triggerplant (Stylidium) family. Personal tastes intruding again: I would have dedicated at least one section to the triggerplants, but I can understand why they were left out. They’re still remarkably poorly known in the US and Europe, and they’d make a great subject for a sequel.

If there’s anything approximating a disappointment in the listings, it’s with the succulents section. Quite seriously, how the hell could anybody do justice to your personal list? Arguing about the merits of true cactus versus the euphorbias is reason to pull out chainsaws and rubbing alcohol at twenty paces, and somehow our authors managed to include a few very good examples and mention the stapeliads as well. You can almost hear the authors whimpering about the three or four they wanted to squeeze in before the editor said “Anything more, and we sell you for body parts.”

I’ll also mention on caveat, which also impinges upon the length of the book. The title reads “How to Grow String-of-Hearts, et al“, but the growing instructions are generally limited to growing zones in the US and some basics on soil quality and light requirements. Still, it’s a lot better than the truncated guides on most plant tags, and if there was an argument for a book augmented with 2-D barcodes and a very large online library, this is it.

I’m regularly asked by friends about books that might make gardening appealing to teenagers. I’d put this one right at the top of the list. Sure, they may get overly enthusiastic about growing difficult species. And?