Monthly Archives: January 2012

Have a Great Weekend

Thursday is Resource Day

Gardening enthusiasts have different criteria for when they determine the beginning of spring. With some, it’s the actual vernal equinox. With others, it’s when nighttime temperatures go above a certain level. Here in the States, we tend to pay attention to February 2, when Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring. For me, spring always starts exactly 75 days after receiving the first R.H. Shumway Illustrated Garden Guide right around Christmas. That gives me about 70 days to stop drooling, contemplating buying 20 acres “just for experimentation, and making plans to become a gentleman farmer. Not that these are bad things (well, except for the drooling), but the Czarina might object.

Besides, R.H. Shumway is a perfectly reasonable and sane way to spend one’s income tax refund check, but you have to learn to pace yourself when buying new seeds and gear for the season. The trick is to buy enough, from enough varied sources, to keep the catalogs coming for the rest of the year. This way, you have extra reading material to drag to the Day Job, family gatherings, and oil changes. Dragging ordinary porn to these locales will usually get you fired, disowned, and beaten with tire irons. Drag out garden porn, though, and you’ll likely have fresh new gardening addicts at each one.

To start, we have the stalwarts, the heavy-hitters, the really dangerous catalogues. I’m talking, of course, about the Winter 2012 FarmTek catalog. This year’s catalog really illustrates the current resurgence in hydroponics, and I’m just idealistic enough to believe that the customers really are using it for tomatoes and lettuce. Me, I’m sorely tempted to pick up a few drip-line systems for Sarracenia propagation next season, and compare the growth of those plants to ones grown under standard methods.

I’m ridiculously loyal to FarmTek and its products, but I’m putting in an order with Gempler’s as well, because the Gempler’s crew carries a lot of items not carried by FarmTek. Between the two, the Triffid Ranch should be well-stocked.

On a more literary bent, my friend Joey Shea sent me a catalog for Woodburn Books in New Jersey, an antiquarian bookseller specializing in horticultural and gardening books. We’re talking classics from the Victorian period and before, kids. After realizing that I have a rather large list of obscure carnivorous plant references that need tracking, including lists and descriptions of some of the classic Nepenthes hybrids and cultivars that became extinct after World War I, I’ll return the favor, Joey. Oh, I will make you pay.

It’s not really the post-holiday catalog season without at least one new Fruiting, Rare and Tropical Plants Annual from Logee’s Plants, and this catalog makes me regret living in Texas from time to time. This is because Logee’s has a collection of exotic citrus that beggars the mind and lubricates the palate, and Texas is currently the one citrus-growing state in the US that’s free of the several particularly nasty citrus diseases rampaging elsewhere. No big deal, though, because the selection of Brugmansia, hibiscus, and orchid cactus dulls the grief a bit. I can’t get citrus that wasn’t already grown in the state and certified disease-free, but I can grow Maypop passion flower vines all year around, so that makes up for it.

In other sources, the British fantasy and science fiction digital art magazine ImagineFX might not be a regular gardener resource, but the January 2012 issue on art nouveau might catch a few. I say this because, as someone with very little formal art background, I had no idea how much influence the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) had on contemporary garden illustration and advertising. The name had never come up in my life before now, and apparently it came along at the perfect time for me to compare notes with artist friends about where to start with his voluminous collection.

Finally, one-half of the fun with playing with miniature gardens is being able to introduce gardening friends and modeling friends to a common ground, no pun intended. The other half is sharing common sources for building materials. Of all of the catalogues listed previously, the new Micro-Mark catalogue of modeling supplies and tools is potentially the most dangerous. It’s not that the prices are high, or the tools obscure. It’s that you find yourself mumbling “I’ve got that idea resting right in the back of my head,” and it’s suddenly reasonable to quit going to work and focus instead of making that idea happen. As I said, dangerous and just a little too tempting at times.

Well, that’s it for the catalogues: next Thursday, it’s time for interesting items gleaned from industry magazines. To quote one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century, you’ll boogie ’til you puke.

“Form blazing secateurs!”

While I know my chances of being allowed to join are right up there with G.G. Allin being inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, I keep tabs on the site Great Garden Speakers, mostly because of the number of friends, cohorts, and role models who show up there regularly. (Yes, I actually have friends who aren’t the human equivalent of the Burgess Shale fauna. Shut up.) Even better was discovering that Great Garden Speakers has a listing solely of Timber Press authors, including Fern Richardson and Debra Lee Baldwin. For your next gardening event, hire one or two to discuss horticulture. Hire them all to watch them merge into Voltron.

The Doom That Came To Dublin

I have to admit that, in my advancing years, I get increasingly tired of the foofarol concerning defunct cultural institutions when said institutions died for rational reasons. Namely, the crying and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over restaurants, stores, and other venues that died because potential patrons were being sentimental about them instead of, say, actually buying something. Much of this hatred comes from my science fiction writing days, where every magazine that shut down was greeted with the hysterics expected from the deaths of rock stars or celebrity chefs. Never mind that if the magazine’s fans actually bought a copy, or read anything other than the submissions guidelines page before defecating into the slushpile mailbox with their latest Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfiction, said magazine might actually still be around.

In a few cases, not only do I understand the urge, but I join in the mourning. Today is the day Dublin Dr. Pepper stopped production.

It’s hard to explain to non-Texans why a carbonated soft drink should be such a big deal, except for the fact that it was everywhere. For a very long time, the company was a major employer in the Dallas area, with its main bottling plant on Mockingbird Lane. Dr. Pepper was hyped as a hot as well as cold beverage in the Fifties, and you could still find little electric cup heaters with the logo (for dunking into a coffee cup) in garage sales when I moved here. Just about every venue that featured a soda dispenser had Dr. Pepper as a selection, and until about 1982 or so, asking for a “Coke” really meant you were getting a Dr. Pepper unless you said otherwise. It was even an official sponsor of the Dallas Cowboys, long before current Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turned that credit into a joke.

And yes, I bought into it as well. When Coca-Cola went into its ill-fated fling with New Coke in 1985, I became a Dr. Pepper junkie. One of the many reasons I moved back to Texas in 1986 was because of Dr. Pepper: I was so miserable in Wisconsin that I spent many an hour in a horrible Burger King in downtown Appleton solely because that Burger King had Dr. Pepper on tap. Friends wanting to make bar crawls or concert runs just had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t drinking anything stronger than DP, and I think I managed to evade getting stomped at one of the last shows at the famed Theater Gallery in Deep Ellum outside of downtown Dallas because the skinheads saw that I was more straightedge than they were.

Times change, and they didn’t necessarily get better. The Dr. Pepper plant on Mockingbird was shut down shortly after the company was bought by what is now Dr. Pepper/Snapple/Cadbury, with lots of promises to renovate the historic landmark as a shopping mall or other general attraction. Those promises were lies, and the building was demolished in 1997. (I’d make all sorts of snide and perfectly accurate comments about the apartment building that went up in its place, but that always leads to at least one SMU brat crying about how mocking rich cokeheads, particularly with words of more than one syllable, is “class warfare”.) Long before then, the recipe changed from using actual cane sugar to the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup, with a corresponding loss of flavor.

Six years ago, the Czarina’s family and I made a summer vacation trip to Banff, Alberta, and everyone was shocked at how good Dr. Pepper tasted in Canada. I explained that it was because it was bottled in Canada, a country that neither subsidized its corn industry nor tried to embargo Cuba. The vast majority of the supply of this ambrosia in the US uses the loathed HFCS, but the tiny town of Dublin, Texas was allowed to sell Dr. Pepper with real Imperial cane sugar. It shouldn’t be any surprise that locals and visitors, given a taste test, were willing to pay premium prices for Dublin Dr. Pepper, and it should be even less of one that we addicts were willing to travel to get our hits. For one niece of mine, she forswore most birthday presents so long as we showed up with a six-pack of Dublin Dr. Pepper, in glass bottles, so she could ration it out while back in college.

And how does this involve a horticultural blog? Well, aside from the Texas history, it came down to a personal issue. Considering extensive and deep budget cuts to Texas schools and libraries, I understand all too well that lecturer speaker fees take money from already nearly nonexistent budgets, and I’d rather have that speaking money go into books, supplies, and teacher goodwill. Hence, when it comes to public schools and libraries in the North Texas area, my speaking fee for Triffid Ranch lectures was always the same: one bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper, preferably cold. It’s not quite on a par with Iggy Pop and the Stooges’s concert rider, but I like to think that I’m paying back just a little bit for the terror I inflicted when I was a student.

That was then. With the announcement that the Dublin bottler is shut down, with the corresponding loss of jobs to the Dublin area, I’m not just cutting out Dr. Pepper consumption in general. I have to find a new currency for school lectures. I’d go back to an old friend but the Eighties, but Jolt Cola is now made with HFCS instead of cane sugar, so what’s the point?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

As far as the Czarina is concerned, Chinese New Year celebrations outshine those for the Gregorian New Year, so she’s making extensive plans for the upcoming holiday. I don’t give her any grief, considering my annual outpouring of ancestral patriotism, and instead just smile and nod. A second New Year celebration that incorporates parades, dancing, and Buddha’s Hand citrons? What sort of monster would I be to complain?

Of course, like a dying weasel, the previous year has to get in one or two more good bites before going back to Hell. Or, as the Czarina notes, “The Year of the Rabbit lives up to its name. Ever notice how, when you try to put a rabbit back in its hutch, it’ll always kick and claw you one last time before you let go?” The fun started on Saturday, when an old friend of ours announced that he was coming back to town, and that he was throwing a party way out in Waxahachie. Waxahachie is an old Comanche name for “What the hell are you doing out there?”, so I fueled up the car, stocked up on food and drink (mostly for the party, but I wanted at least a little something for myself), and moseyed down the road a spell. About a mile away, the timing belt on the car decided to give up its life in sacrifice to the Lords of Chaos, leaving me stuck in the middle of long-dried Cretaceous seabed. At about midnight.

Oh, and did I mention that the Czarina was stuck at home with a bad bout of the flu?

If years and years of moviewatching actually did some good, it was in teaching me the importance of “never get out of the boat.” I knew better than to wander around in the dark instead of staying with my vehicle. Worse, one of the ranches down the road actually has castle towers out in front, and I already knew how that would turn out. I can’t sing, I look terrible in fishnet stockings, and honestly, Tim Curry doesn’t do anything for me. Suffice to say, the adventure actually started when the tow truck arrived, and I had the singular pleasure of hanging out with one of the flat-out funniest tow truck drivers I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve known some wits of the highway in my time. (As a recommendation, should you be stuck anywhere south to southwest of Dallas, I can’t give the guys at 3D Towing in Midlothian a high enough compliment. Fast, competent, honest, and exceedingly friendly on a Saturday night, and that’s hard enough to find anywhere.)

As of this moment, the car is locked up for repairs, including a replacement timing belt and a new radiator. Considering what I paid in repairs on my old car circa 2002, I’m not complaining, but let’s just say that I’ll be doing a few more plant shows this year to replace the chunk of liver and lights that this took out.

And then there’s the saga of the tree. Last summer’s insane drought was rough on most of Texas’s trees, but it demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of some introduced species. One of the big silverleaf maples in our back yard had been there since the house was built, and survived the droughts of 1980 and 2006 with aplomb. The one-two strike of our bad freeze in February and the drought all summer, though, stretched it beyond its tolerance, and it finally gave up sometime in September. And so it goes. I suspect that the woodpeckers are going to miss it more than I will, but there’s still something sad and diminishing about seeing what seemed to be such a gigantic tree cut up into lengths and stacked at the edge of the front yard, and the stack isn’t even chest-high. Better there, though, than landing atop the garage in our next big snowstorm.

Well, as another booster of local delights used to say, “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” Here’s hoping that the Czarina is right and the new year really starts the week after next, because I’m looking forward to turning the Year of the Rabbit into hasenpfeffer.

New Year, New Address

Cliche cliche “it’s time for a change” reminisce rue grumble “the old mailing address just isn’t convenient to access any more” sigh shrug chuckle “at least it still keeps random passersby from dropping by unannounced at 3 ayem ‘to see the plants’”. Now that I’ve spared everyone the pain of dopy eulogies to a mail drop that I’ve had for nearly a third of my life, it’s time to note that the Triffid Ranch has a new mailing address:

Texas Triffid Ranch
5435 North Garland Avenue, suite 140
#176
Garland, Texas 75040

As always, please note that this is a mailing address, as a friendly warning to the individuals who ignore all of the previous notices that this isn’t a retail location, drive out without checking, and then pitch fits that they can’t “see the plants”. The old mailbox will remain open for a few more months, but mostly to snag stragglers and the occasional bit of detritus from movie publicity people who still think I’m the local contact for Sci-Fi Universe magazine. (It still happens.) Other than that, anyone wanting to send physical mail in this direction should take note of the new locale. And thank the Czarina for being proactive, as she wanted to get this done as part of her Chinese New Year celebrations. And so it goes.

“I want you to pass me that trowel as hard as you can.”

Mary at Black Walnut Dispatch once again hits a nerve. Responding to concerns that the cable channel HGTV is removing the last of its gardening programs, presumably for more programming friendlier to advertisers wanting to sell $80k in house renovations at a time, she’s suggesting her own line of amped-up garden shows. I don’t disagree with her, and in fact I’ve been arguing for years that gardening and horticulture shows need to get more gonzo.

The reason that this hits a nerve is because it connects with a longrunning tradition in the Riddell household. Neither the Czarina nor myself are much for serious television-watching these days, and that’s only partly because we swore to the other that either one has legal permission to shoot, club, or garrote the other if terminal television addiction becomes apparent. Running something as background entertainment while engaging in hands-intensive activities is perfectly acceptable, which is why the Czarina drops in a few episodes of Midsomer Murders while doing pearl restringings. I’m a bit more partial to reruns of Primeval while potting up butterworts, but that comes with the territory. Either way, as mentioned in the past, our greatest fear is finding ourselves flipping through 8800 channels looking for one program that sucks marginally less for a half-hour, and watching friends getting addicted to the latest soon-to-be-forgotten “hit drama” is another sour note. (This leads to all sorts of interesting situations, such as when the Czarina tries to get decent Web access that doesn’t require either FIOS television or a telephone land line as part of the deal. It’s like trying to get a cell phone plan where you have the choice of texting or a party line.)

In most years, though, that changes on our anniversary. In most years, we get a nice out-of-the-way hotel or housesit, and spend our time relaxing. By “relaxing”, this usually means the Czarina fires up the cable or satellite connection, turns on HGTV, and we watch until what comedian Bill Hicks referred to as a “hump of hate” is filled. I’m amazed at her ability to digest horrible “flip this house” gibberish and walk out still sane, but she’s usually taking notes on new home repair techniques and materials. When we’ve both reached our saturation point on the advertising, especially with the annual special-television-offer flotsam that’s advertised twice every commercial break, it’s time to go home, thankful that we don’t do it more than once per year.

This last year, though, we had to skip out. The Czarina didn’t believe me when I told her that I wanted to stay home and shovel out my office, and I used the opportunity to prove her wrong. No: Prove Her Wrong. (Okay, so she proved me wrong, because I still have one box that needs to be sorted and pitched. However, I proudly state that fourteen boxes of obscurantia have been sorted, filed, indexed, shredded, and donated, and I even have two boxes of old financial papers that will make great kindling for a bonfire this weekend.) She went in to her Day Job to fend off the worst of the Boxing Day freakiness, and I covered the living room with ever-growing piles of detritus. I finally got the space cleared out, pitched the last worn copy paper box, bound my cracked and bleeding hands as best as I could, looked up at the calendar, and realized “We skipped out on our inoculation against excessive consumption, didn’t we?”

No fear, though. The Czarina has Plans this weekend, and they involve reminding her why we don’t need to get a replacement for the television any time soon. By the time we’re done, we may both have ideas for what makes the perfect gonzo garden show, and then it’s time to look for sponsorships. I figure that the teaser ads for the pilot episode could start with this little missive, with severe apologies to Chuck Pahlaniuk:

The first rule of Garden Club: You do not talk about Garden Club.
The second rule of Garden Club: You DO NOT TALK ABOUT GARDEN CLUB.
Third rule: If gives up and goes inside to watch television, the garden is over.
Fourth rule: Only two guys to a garden.
Fifth rule: One garden at a time.
Sixth rule: No fertilizers, no hydroponics.
Seventh rule: Growing seasons will go on as long as they have to.
And the Eighth and final rule: If this is your first night at Garden Club, you have to weed.

Have a Great Weekend

A hint of Stylidium debile

Five years ago, Ryan Kitko, a man I look upon as my smarter younger brother, first introduced me to the awe and wonder that encompasses the triggerplants. Some may argue as to whether or not the members of the genus Stylidium are carnivorous or merely protocarnivorous: all I can tell you is that the the multitude of tiny wasps and mites found caught on sticky threads on triggerplant flower scapes certainly don’t fuss about it. They’re too busy being dead.

Anyway, as usual, Ryan stirs me to action: he’s currently sharing pictures of the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, in his greenhouse. I was already planning to update plant care sheets on the main Triffid Ranch site on S. debile, and this encourages me to get those done and write a bit more about this nearly indestructible species. So long as the soil doesn’t go completely dry, S. debile is nearly impossible to kill. It can survive heat that can fell a mesquite tree, days of sub-freezing cold, hailstorms, gullywasher thunderstorms, extremes in high and low humidity, and even the gentle ministrations of squirrels, rats, opossums, and armadillos. It makes an incredible container plant, and neglecting and abusing it only makes it grow more luxuriantly and bloom more prodigiously. I can’t recommend the little monster highly enough: for me, it’s the anti-Venus flytrap, and one of the best beginner carnivorous plants you can ever receive. Thank you for introducing me to them, Ryan.

Ah, Nepenthes

Nepenthes pitcher plants are on my mind as of the last week, and not just because I’m researching plans for a new greenhouse. (The Czarina offered last year to build a new Nepenthes greenhouse, and not just so she can demonstrate that the claw hammers in the house get used on something besides my head. She one with a bungee cord wrapped around it that she calls “Mjolnir”, and you’d swear that she can throw it around corners.) Last year’s drought still hasn’t ended, we’re not exactly looking as if we’re going to repeat 1990′s or 2007′s record rainfalls, and I’m in need of a new growing area that maximizes humidity without drying up a municipal reservoir to do so. I’m also looking for something that’s not too big and not too small, but juuuuuuust right.

All of the carnivores suffered last year from North Texas’s ridiculously low humidity, but the poor Nepenthes just looked ridiculous. As a rule, both lowland and highland Nepenthes can squeak by with average daily humidity going above 50 percent, with their producing larger and more elaborate pitchers the closer the relative humidity goes to “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on”. This is why I’m viciously jealous of Hawaiian Nepenthes growers, and it’s not helped by the Czarina hinting that we could always set up shop in Galveston. Dallas’s air may be a bit thicker than it was when another resident with lung issues moved here, but it’s not sopping wet enough to keep the Nepenthes outdoors, much to my regret.

And the history of the genus keeps getting more interesting. Longterm carnivorous plant enthusiasts may be familiar with the Nepenthes “Queen of Hearts” introduced by the wonderful folks at Borneo Exotics, but not know much more than the basics about it. Well, it turns out that “Queen of Hearts”, cultivated from seed saved from a cleared forest in the Philippines, is a new species now named Nepenthes robcantleyi.

As is the case with many Nepenthes species, N. robcantleyi may be extinct in the wild, or examples may still be available in hidden areas of Mindanao. Fellow carnivore enthusiast François Sockhom Mey is keeping closer tabs on developments than I could, so I refer you to him. From this hemisphere, though, it’s time to get that greenhouse built, because I will have one on display by the time the decade is over.