Monthly Archives: January 2013

Upcoming shows, probably not involving the Triffid Ranch

In every hobby and business, you get years where the calendar is as bereft of excitement as a terrestrial radio playlist. Other years, you’re practically tripping over exciting events and opportunities. 2013 is one of those years where I’m going to need to invent something really life-changing to be able to afford the garden show trips.

Firstly, while I could never return to living in Portland, Oregon, any excuse to visit both St. Johns Booksellers and Sarracenia Northwest is a good one, and I have a beaut this year. Namely, the Peninsula Park Rose Garden is 100 years old this year, and the park needs to put down a lot of mulch to get it ready for the Portland Rose Festival in May and June. After the main show season ends in May, well, this may be an option.

Likewise, this year also marks the centenary of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and I’d probably head out there if I could get proper pontoons for my bicycle. Sadly, this isn’t a likely show, but if it coincides with the opening of the Manchester United Flower Show, I may have to make it happen. Between that and a trip to Kew Gardens, all I’ll need is clothes, money, and my pet ferret.

Other than that, I’m still waiting for word on the 2013 International Carnivorous Plant Society conference, seeing as how crashing last year’s conference wasn’t an option. It’s almost like they’re trying to keep it quiet to keep me from attending or something…

Joey Box interlude

Apologies for the delay in announcing the winners of the latest Joey Box contest, but real life intruded, as they say. Suffice to say, Debbi Middleton of Aunt Debbi’s Garden and Michael Nolan of The Garden Rockstar will be getting their Joey Boxes shortly. For various reasons, Jillian Venters of Gothic Charm School got one as well, and I can only imagine the look on her face when she opens that beast.

Well, between these, the previous contests, and attrition from people to whom I’ve promised Joey Boxes for months or even years, we’re down to one that’s free and clear. Details on how to win this last one to follow.

Mad Max Beyond Cold Comfort Farm

When asked, more and more rarely these days, why I gave up the glamorous and profitable worlds of science fiction writing and weekly newspaper journalism in favor of horticulture, I’m honest. I tell the interrogators that it’s all about the attitude. One of the less endearing traits in the skiffy community is to handle contrary opinions with a minimum of grace and aplomb. Express a reasonably informed opinion on any number of subjects that clashes with the declared wisdom of a Cat Piss Man, and a combination surly and whiny nerk of “Well, I liked it” is the lucky response. I say “lucky”, because most feel that this is the only response: instead of discussing the reasons why and therefore, thus leading to a conversation and possibly understanding, “I liked it pretty much says “Dare not question the word of God.” If you’re unlucky, it’s followed up with what they feel is an appropriate response: I don’t know who shot up the garage apartment I had 20 years ago, or what print or spoken comment about popular science fiction media at the time raised their ire (probably an idle comment on how while George Lucas had a better special effects budget, Ed Wood was the superior screenwriter and director), but I still have the two .22 hollowpoints I pulled out of the outside wall as proof.

That’s one of the reasons why I much prefer discussing gardening. Oh, sure, Amanda Thomsen and I may go Kurosawa on each other over the merits of asters versus chrysanthemums in winter gardens, but we can scream at each other why we have those preferences. “You don’t get it, do you? Mums can handle the heat better!” “Shut up! Mums smell like rest homes!” PARRY HA DODGE THRUST QUARTERSTAFF UP THE NOSE. When we finally put down the chainsaws and rubbing alcohol, though, we can shake hands, or at least stumps, and acknowledge that we can argue the merits of each in a thoughtful and reasonable manner. It’s when we get into discussions about horsetails versus Sarracenia pitcher plants that we start to recreate the climax of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. (And before you ask, she’s the one throwing the dynamite.)

That’s why I worry when I read about the increasing problems with English allotment vandalism. It’s not that England doesn’t already have a tradition of horticultural hooligans, but what’s disturbing is what this means for the hobby. Dynamite fishing in the aquaculture tanks. The retired schoolteacher who stands over the water main valve, cheerily asking “Who run Bartertown?” Seventysomethings on dirtbikes wearing nothing but Mohawks and bondage pants. Chainsaw duels at 3 in the morning over the better potting mix recipe. If the trend continues, my suggestion for starting the “Manchester United Flower Show” might actually come true.

Okay, I kid. The real reason I worry about the grand English tradition of gardening going violent isn’t the concern over raging bands of tomato punks rampaging across the United Kingdom. My concern is that they’ll then come to Texas and presume that attitude alone will save them. Faced with regular tornadoes, fire ants, coyotes and armadillos, blistering sun, and hailstones the size of cats, they’d go catatonic within a week, and then I’d be the one to clean up the mess.

Have a Great Weekend

A quick heads-up on Joey Boxes

A quick rising from the mire, and it’s time for a quick reminder that the latest Joey Box contest ends on January 25 at midnight Central Standard Time, so get in your votes. At the rate things are going, including getting one to their namesake, they’re going to disappear faster than I thought.

Cat Monday

Have a Great Weekend

Upcoming Triffid Ranch Shows: 2013 so far

Hm. For once, January seems to be racing to its conclusion, instead of the usual post-holiday drag. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, under most circumstances, but the first Triffid Ranch show of the new year starts exactly four weeks from today. Knowing me, I’ll be glad for any available extra time between now and then. So shall we look at what 2013 offers?

Okay, to start out, I’m not going to say anything further until it’s a sure thing, but I may –MAY– have some very good news for those who can’t get to the usual Triffid Ranch shows and want a permanent locale to visit. Again, nothing is confirmed, and the whole dream could turn back into pumpkins and mice. However, in two weeks or so, I should be able to say something. Until them, schtum.

(And while the Triffid Ranch won’t be there, I’d be an absolute monster if I didn’t mention that ZestFest 2013 runs at the Irving Convention Center on January 25 through the 27th, and I’m in desperate need of refills from the crew at Defcon Sauces. I’ll also point out that representatives from the Chile Pepper Institute should be out there as well, so look at it as a botanical expedition. That is, when you’re not trying samples of some of the best spicy food to be found in the Southwest, and that’s saying something.)

On that note, the first Triffid Ranch show is especially auspicious, because a lot has changed with ConDFW since its beginnings during my writing days. It already combined a serious crowd with a mellow style, and that improved considerably this year with its relocation to a new, more convention-convenient hotel. All of the temperate carnivores (flytraps, Sarracenia pitcher plants, and many sundews and butterworts) will still be in winter dormancy, and with good reason, considering our tendency toward week-long ice storms before things warm up in March. However, this means more opportunities with other plants, and I suspect everyone will be pleasantly surprised with the varieties offered this year.

Three weeks after that, things start getting crazy. March 8-10 is All-Con 2013, at the same hotel as ConDFW in Addison, Texas, and it’s probably going to be a madhouse. That, incidentally, is partly due to the guest list addition of Sylvester McCoy, and partly due to the secret being out on the convention in general. This show is unlike any other in the Southwest, and as such, makes it a special honor to be invited back as a vendor.

Several gaps lie in the year’s schedule which may be filled with other shows, and details will follow.The absolute, though, is that Texas Frightmare Weekend is a show that I’d attend after an appendectomy, and I can’t speak more highly of it than that. In fact, I’d probably ask the doctor to operate in the dealer’s room, just so the beginning theatrical makeup artists could take notes. 2013 marks the fifth Triffid Ranch show at Frightmare, and it just keeps getting better every year. This is partly due to the exemplary new locale at DFW Airport, with a hotel that honestly likes the crew of friendly loons that shows up every year.

Again, more gaps, but the last confirmed show for 2013 so far is our first show: FenCon. We’re back to Addison for this one, but the great news is that FenCon now opens on October 4 instead of the middle of September. And why is this great news? If you’ve ever been in Texas in October, this is about the time of year when the outside temperatures start to drop from the summer blast forge, so it’s friendlier to out-of-town visitors. It’s also friendlier to the plants, with many waking up from the seemingly never-ending summer and displaying their best colors and trap sizes. Five years ago, two dear friends inadvertently convinced me to take a risk on showing plants at a science fiction convention by getting a table at FenCon, and I’ll never be able to thank them for the initiative. This one, six weeks after the big LoneStarCon III in San Antonio? Yeah, this one will be one to remember.

Once more, gaps and more news. Keep an eye open for further developments, and I’ll see you at the next show.

Shoutout: The Savage Garden Revised

The Savage Garden Revised

Ten years ago, I was at a bit of a loose end. I had just moved back to Dallas from Tallahassee, freshly married and freshly unemployed. With plenty of free time between nonproductive job interviews, the only option to stay sane was to stay busy. Returning to writing simply wasn’t an option, and that had taken up a little more than a third of my life at that point. Finding a new life path was rough, but it beat returning to the one I just left.

Shortly after I moved to Tallahassee, I had my first exposure to carnivorous plants in situ, with the indigenous Sarracenia pitcher plants and sundews on the grounds of the Tallahassee Museum. While fascinating, not once did I think of raising my own outside of the Tally area. After all, how would I learn how to keep them alive?

Right after I got back, though, everything changed. An errand to the local Home Depot for poplar boards for bookshelves led to a quick look through the gardening section, and on a shelf was a set of cups full of carnivorous plants. Not just Venus flytraps and not just the few species of Sarracenia I knew from Florida, either. Strange sundews, butterworts, cobra plants, and Asian pitcher plants lay in those cups, and I snapped up an example of every last one. Keeping them hale and healthy couldn’t be that hard, could it?

A week later, as the sample flytrap and cobra plant were fading, I realized that I needed assistance. Back then, that meant making a trip to either a library or a bookstore to find reference material, and in Dallas that meant either of the two big chain bookstores. I was no fan of Borders, but one did reside between me and that Home Depot, so I gave a shot at finding something in its Gardening section that might help. That’s when I found the one book that changed the rest of my life: The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. In the intervening years, I’ve built up as complete a carnivorous plant reference library as is possible, and that original copy of The Savage Garden, stained and battered, still holds a place of honor within that library.

It’s no exaggeration when I tell beginners that The Savage Garden is the first book they need to purchase before raising carnivores. To this day, I scour used bookstores for copies to give to friends, and I hand them over with a wild-eyed grin and an exhortation of “Let me tell you about my church.” Is it my fault that many also became carnivorous plant addicts? Maybe, but I did warn them that Ministry’s “Just One Fix” is my gardening theme song.

Part of the reason why I recommend The Savage Garden over any number of others isn’t just because its author is owner and operator of California Carnivores, one of the largest carnivorous plant nurseries on the planet and definitely one of the largest in North America. I recommend it for its accessibility, especially for beginners who can’t tell a cultivar from a colander. (In fact, I first encountered the word “cultivar” among its pages.) As beautifully written and illustrated as they are, Stewart McPherson’s volumes are a little too technical for anyone starting out. Everyone in the field could cover Adrian Slack‘s dinner tab until the end of time and we couldn’t come close to returning the favor he did us by reviving the popularity of carnivorous plants in the 1970s, but his books are just a touch dry. The Savage Garden, though, is the book you need to get the most out of Slack’s, McPherson’s, and in fact everyone else’s volumes on carnivores.

And the next fix is in. A new revised version of The Savage Garden, with 48 additional pages on new species and hybrids unknown when the original was written in 1998, is currently available for preorder. Considering the veritable explosion of information on carnivores available since the original came out, this is going to be an event. Get yours now, because you can’t borrow mine.

EDIT: I’ve already ordered my copy, and now it’s all about waiting. And yes, it WILL be the subject of a review on this site.

Resurrection of the Joey Box: Week 2

Contents of a Joey Box

Another week, another giveaway of  Joey Boxes are now ready for distribution. This time, we’re going to try something different. Instead of simply going for your base instincts for books and other freebies, it’s a matter of finding and punishing rewarding deserving individuals within the garden writing and garden blogging community. Want to horrify surprise your favorite horticulture writer with an unbidden package full of gardening books, magazines, and other cultural ephemera?

Assembled Joey Boxes

This isn’t implying that this is a completely selfless act, either. In addition to the winners being chosen based on popular vote, I want to know why this person deserves to find a whole mess of pottage in the mailbox. The three respondents with the best responses also get a Joey Box. Just think of it as a flashback to the “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays your teachers asked you to write back in school, only without fear of the answer leading to poor grades, detention, or deportation.

Once again, the rules. In this competition, you only need to send four things to contest (at) txtriffidranch (dot) com:

Numero Uno: Your name (purely for mailing purposes)
Numero Two-o: Your mailing address (same)
Numero Three-o: Your chosen garden writer, and an explanation as to why this person needs a Joey Box (you can’t nominate yourself, but you can nominate a friend who can in turn nominate you)
Numero Four-o: Said garden writer’s mailing address, if available

That’s the sum of it, and feel free to pass on word to friends, cohorts, and anyone interested in logrolling for fun and profit. Just get in your vote and your recommendation before January 25, 2013, and the results (including links to the victims) will be published then.

As always, feel free to look at the Triffid Ranch privacy policy, and note that this is open to anyone on Earth, no matter where you’re located. (If you’re the sort who bloglurks from Giedi Prime, Zarathustra, Kyben, or Mondas, we’ll work out something.)

Road Trip: Bloomapalooza

The last time I was in Michigan to see the old ancestral stomping grounds was in 2009, for my maternal grandfather’s funeral. The last time I was in Michigan for any appreciable length of time was in the summer of 1982, shortly after my paternal grandfather had the first of a series of heart attacks. I haven’t been to my birthplace since shortly after I moved from there in 1976, and I have a lot of new friends whom I’ve met since then who still live there. I’ve been looking forward to the idea of a working vacation for a while, I’d like to see the place one last time, and I’d love to show the Czarina my childhood haunts. Anybody else interested in meeting us at Bloomapalooza in Litchfield next August for a very overdue homecoming?

Battle Review: Jackson 7-in-1 VersaPlanter

Want backstory? Here you go.

(Record of interview with suspect Jhalen Vergan, 9933PSII6, conducted 26 Aries 3316. Video unavailable, probably corrupted during prisoner’s escape on 36 Perseus. Prisoner’s current whereabouts unknown.)

Jackson VersaPlanter ensemble

Admit what I did and how I did it? Sure. Why not? You can only shoot me twice. Besides, I might give someone else ideas, and then you’re all in trouble. Got full audio and video going? Better hang on, then.

Any decent illusionist will tell you that the best way to hide something is in plain sight, by letting everyone assume that it’s something else. Any decent data thief’s tools have to work the same way. If you see me wandering around with standard extraction and transmission gear in public, it’s hard not to assume I’m not doing something illegal. You’d be amazed at the number of amateurs that do this, because they think wearing headglobes and Suzzie kits to clubs is just too scrotnig. Let them: it just keeps the law from looking at me.

The other mistake the tyros always make is to go for bright, flashy, and overly complex. If it doesn’t break when you use it, you forget how to use it. The good thieves understand that any tools they need have to be simple and multiuse. Even better, they should always seem reasonable for the place and the use. If you say you’re a transmat tech and you’re caught with a full transmat toolkit, who’s going to suspect that you were using those tools for a bit of burglary?

That’s why I have a full cert list for air cleaning plant maintenance, and why I have a full kit. It doesn’t take much to pretend to be one, but there’s always some lawbug who will drag in everyone at a crime scene and expect some explanation for why they were there. Spend a couple of seconds discussing why you want to plant “Siouxsie” air plants instead of “Billy Broad” plants, their eyes glaze over, and they’re glad to be rid of you.

(rattling and sliding sound) Oh, yes, that. Like it? It’s a real vintage Jackson Versaplanter from First Earth. It’s real horttech from before the First Migration, and it still looks new, doesn’t it? Treat your tools right and they’ll last forever, and a lot of people loved this thing as much as I do.

Jackson VersaPlanter blade - front

Jackson VersaPlanter blade -- back

First, forget nanoplastics or some of those new frictionless ceramics. Old-fashioned stainless steel holds an edge, has just enough flex to be used as a lever without breaking, and it keeps its shape when dropped in a sonic cleaner. Try doing that with a nanoplastic blade. Having a measurement scale on the front comes in handy every once in a while, but the back of the blade has to be smooth. Smooth.

And then there’s the edges. In this business, you get a few sociopaths who enjoy killing, but I’ve never drawn a drop of blood with a blade in my entire career. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need a blade for cutting up plastic, scoring thermowall, and cutting up a lawbug’s uniform to tie her to a chair. I’ve even used the serrated edge to cut hair, even if the cut isn’t fashionable. By the way, you know the shows where data thieves all have those stupid Vokko dreadlocks? You don’t want to get those caught in a door at a bad time, and that’s how I know the cut isn’t fashionable. Took me years to grow the hair back. If not for the twine cutting notch on the straight edge side, I’d probably still be there.

Jackson VersaPlanter tip

Oh, the tip. It was originally designed for grabbing a weed’s taproot, and that’s why I use it for air cleaning plants. But did you know that it’s also the perfect size to grab a singularity conduit and pop it out without damage to the conduit? And now you know why you didn’t find any traces of me at the Voluth affair.

Jackson VersaPlanter pommel

I told you: I’ve never killed anyone on a job, and I can also say I’ve never taken a drop of blood during one, either. That’s because if you pop someone right behind the ear with a VersaPlanter pommel, they’re out for hours. It’s handy as an emergency hammer, too, but it really saved my life when I was accidentally sealed inside a moving tram car about three cycles ago. It made more racket and saved my fists, and I got out before the air ran out.

Jackson VersaPlanter sheath

The other reason why I love this wonderful tool? It’s this sheath. It has a built-in lock to keep the blade from sliding free, and it won’t slide free until you unlock it. Shake it upside down, slide down a sewer tunnel, or swim across a buffering pond, and it’s not leaving your side. Some tools stay with you for a while, but a tool that really stays with you is one that you cherish.

Well, what else can I say? You caught me. I’m not going anywhere. Can I have a few minutes alone before the execution?

(Suspect Jhalen Vergan, 9933PSII6, is still at large, with standard ProConSec rewards available for his capture. Whereabouts of his VersaPlanter, reclaimed during his escape, are also unknown. End record.)

Review: The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

(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.)

The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

ISBN-10: 0136762883
ISBN-13: 978-0136762881
Published: Prentice-Hall, 1979
Pages: 76
Language: English

The holidays are over, and with it, the usual festivities. For those in higher latitudes, you’re looking at anywhere from four to six months of continued winter or something that might approximate spring only if “spring” is defined by “less than one’s height in snow atop the garden”. Even in Texas, we’ve got at least two solid months of cold and wet before it’s safe to plant a garden. When beginners in the area ask me about the best time to start planting, I tell them to wait for the weekend of the Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for two reasons. The first is that the soil has warmed to the point where most seeds will sprout in a manner of days and the risk of frost to tomatoes and peppers is pretty much over. The second is that rototilling and spreading compost is preeminently more productive than watching Dallas’s future elite spraying the neighborhood with green beer vomit. It’s a matter of priorities, I guess.

If it happens this year, that parade runs on March 16, so we have a long two months until the days get noticeably shorter. Oh, you can get started on the new crop of pepper sprouts, or in my case, Roridula gorgonias seedlings. Some of us settle for that most terrible form of garden porn, the seed catalog. Others go for the more reasonable idea of plotting and scheming via the FarmTek catalog. Collecting magic nose goblins isn’t an option. So what do you do when you’re at a loss for horticulture projects, your kids are so bored that they’re watching Firefly reruns, and your vacuform table and rail gun are in the shop?

Well, when I’m told “I’m bored” by kids with determination and a bit of spare time, I used to recommend the exemplary book Make Your Own Dinosaur out of Chicken Bones, from the thoroughly gonzo palaeontologist Christopher McGowan. Last I checked, Dr. McGowan was the world’s leading authority on ichthyosaurs, which is impressive enough. However, Make Your Own Dinosaur out of Chicken Bones and its sequel T-Rex to Go: Build Your Own from Chicken Bones qualify as two of the greatest beginning palaeontology books any kid could find. Learn how to make an Apatosaurus skeleton with the spare bones from two to three roast chickens and learn all of the particulars of brontosaur and chicken structure? Yeah.

Thanks to a providential trip to Recycled Books in Denton, I’ve now found the horticultural and vegan-friendly equivalent to T-Rex To Go. Any gardening book reader has come across at least one of Jack Kramer‘s exemplary guides to orchids and bromeliads, but he also put out this tiny little volume on using the one inedible part of a fresh pineapple to best effect.

Now, it’s more than fair to state that a lot of kids get their start in horticulture with a packet of marigold seeds, a tomato seedling, or an avocado pit suspended over a glass of water on toothpicks. A few adventurous beginners look at a pineapple top and ask “So…how do I get this rooted and established?” I was one of those, when I joked with my sister-in-law that I could put a spare top left over from a batch of pina coladas to good use. She thought I was crazy then, and she thought I was even crazier a year later when I came to her house with a happy pineapple plant and told her “Remember Bernard?” She remembered that, even if she didn’t remember naming it Bernard, and she was even more surprised when I actually got a small edible pineapple the next year. Admittedly, she’s easily surprised at anything the Czarina and I do, but that one got her because she didn’t realize that this could be done. That’s understandable: after all, who tries to repot carrot tops and onion roots to get new plants? (Yes, I know: me, but I was speaking rhetorically.)

If this book started and stopped with getting a pineapple top rooted, this would make the basis for a good science fair project. Oh, but that’s where the fun begins. Kramer takes the time to explain a lot of background on related bromeliads that grow well with pineapples, alternate growing techniques (I’ve watched others grow other bromeliads on cork or bark slabs, but had no idea our friend Ananas reacted well to similar treatment. Right then and there, that gave quite a few ideas for future projects, and not just keeping pineapples as potential nesting sites for arrow poison frogs.

The only issue with this book? Well, Dr. McGowan understood that the best way to get parents involved with chicken-bone dinosaur construction was to make sure that nothing went to waste otherwise, so he included a very good chicken soup recipe with each of his books. Kramer has a few suggestions on what to do with the pineapple before stealing the top for propagation, but this is definitely a book of the 1970s in that regard. Stating “there are dozens of recipes that use pineapple in cooking,” and then only hinting as his favorite uses for fresh or cooked pineapple, is just cruel.

(For completeness’s sake, my personal favorite, other than fresh chilled pineapple, is grilled: peel the pineapple but leave the core intact. Jam a grilling skewer, such as those used for roasts, through the core, and set it on a hot grill for five to ten minutes on a side. Sprinkle cinnamon on the outside, and cut the pineapple flesh directly off the core. Doing this over charcoal works best, but grilling woods without a strong smoke flavor, such as maple or honey mesquite, are at least as good.)

And a little tip learned from long experience? after buying this book, practice a little moderation. If your local grocery store has lots of specials on pineapple through the year, the way my local Kroger does, don’t be afraid to give the kids one or two tops and compost the rest. That is, unless you’re like me and you like a summer garden full of pots full of pineapple plants. It’s not like they’re susceptible to most garden pests, after all, and they do offer hiding spaces for anoles, geckos, mantids, and other beneficial garden predators, right?

Have a Great Weekend

Resurrection of the Joey Box: Week 1

Contents of a Joey Box

The cleaning is done, the packing is finished, and the current crop of Joey Boxes are now ready for distribution. Each week, a Joey Box go out to the first three people to answer the posted question and get the answer to the right address. As always, feel free to look at the Triffid Ranch privacy policy, and note that this is open to anyone on Earth, no matter where you’re located. (If you’re the sort who bloglurks from Giedi Prime, Zarathustra, Kyben, or Mondas, we’ll work out something.)

Assembled Joey Boxes

And what do you need to do? Well, to win, you only need to send three things to contest (at) txtriffidranch (dot) com:

Numero Uno: Your name (purely for mailing purposes)
Numero Two-o: Your mailing address (same)
Numero Three-o: What did the Houston Museum of Natural Science name its new Amorphophallus titanum? (A clue to the answer is somewhere within the blog archives.)

Get this in before January 18, and you’ll be the prompt and happy recipient of a 2013 Joey Box. Any questions?

EDIT: And the response was insanely fast. See you next Friday for the next set.

Battle Review: Garrett Retriever

Want backstory? Here you go.

Garrett Retriever - profile

The wilds of Hyperborea are desolate enough, what with serpent people during the day and unspeakable nightmares at night, but the rare ambers found at the foot of Mount Voormithadreth keep bringing us all back. Voorish Signs and incense are little help when the beast that just clawed its way from the thick volcanic ash stands taller than your entire mining party combined, and amber mining requires one of two strategies. The cautious bring out as many archers and crossbowmen as miners, which slows down movement to and from Voormithadreth and guarantees that bloodwamps and soul-ticks will track them all down that much sooner. The smart and the fast come in with tools that double as weapons, so you don’t have to drop your shovel to grab a sword. When doing that sort of double duty, the Garrett Retriever may not be the perfect hand tool for amber mining, but it has several advantages over its contemporaries.

Garrett Retriever - head

Forged by smiths that know the needs of treasure hunters, the Retriever combines one curved chopping face on one side of the head with a straight rake on the other. The curved face is remarkably good at chopping large chunks from soil, wood, and bloodwamp, but that curve might get in the way of landing the perfect killing stroke. The rake, on the other hand, sinks in and bites, allowing the user to bring in a dagger blade for a swift slide under a rock-lizard’s jaw. That rake is also remarkably good at scraping away ash and dust from smaller items, exposing amber deposits without tearing up larger pieces or scattering the fine dusts on the wind. When mining time can be measured in minutes, especially when the serpent people are attempting to gather subjects for their arcane and unholy alchemistic experiments, that distinction is important.

As a side-note, sharpening the curved edge may not add much to digging and hewing, but it improves the Retriever’s use as a brush clearing tool. One good solid thwack against the stem, and even the toughest thorn tree saplings go flying. Grass, fungi, toadmoss…anything that clears both vegetation and overburden saves valuable minutes, and those minutes are sometimes the only defense an amber miner has.

Garrett Retriever - rivet

A note of caution: while the Retriever does its job well, amber miners should always remember that this is a tool first and a weapon second. The wooden handle has a stout rivet to keep the head attached, but that rivet will eventually fail if used to parry moon-dwarf blades for too long. Stick to using it for digging, with the intent of working quickly and quietly before escaping the notice of worse things.

Garrett Retriever - magnet

Ah, but then there’s the surprise at the butt. Speaking of moon-dwarves, most go into complete shuddering spasms the first time they feel the magnet embedded in the butt of the Retriever catching their blades and thus preventing one of their famed belly-stabs. The magnet also comes in handy for pulling out chunks of ferrous metal in dig sites, such as the belt buckles and scabbards comprising the last remains of the previous party, but the real joy is in watching serpent man and moon-dwarf alike stare in disbelief as their carefully plotted attack goes awry. Sometimes, it’s worth throwing a Retriever at one from a long distance, just to see that magnet home in and impact on sword or shield. It’s even more effective than spraying them with redfooted wamp lymph.

All told, the Garrett Retriever is an honorable and impressive tool, and should be an essential item in the pack of any amber miner with more than a teaspoon of brain in his head. Keep it right next to your canteen, because you WILL need both before you finish a dig.

Battle Review: The Origins

A preamble. Back when I was in high school, I came across a very thorough and very witty book on medieval weapons, and how many of the choice hand weapons in the pre-gunpowder era started out as agricultural implements. I don’t remember too many specifics, but I remember laughing myself sick at some of the quips about halberds and flails, and I remember one comment about the conversion of the bill from a pruning implement to a very effective anti-horseman weapon. Specifically, the author stated that “someone noted that pruning bills were as good at lopping limbs off people as for limbs of trees…”, and that crack still comes to mind every time I pull out my handy bill from the shed.

In fact, it’s hard not to see how many weapons originally started out as garden implements. Battle axes. Mattocks. Flamethrowers. My own family descended from Norse raiders who looked around one spot of farmland right on the border of England and Scotland, realized that the weather was better and the girls cuter than back home, and decided to get into the farming trade. Apparently, they wanted a challenge that was tougher on body and soul than anything they’d faced hacking up Saxons or torching longboats, and the worst monsters on the edge of the world had nothing on a Riddell woman upset that her husband was home late. Compared to a day in the fields, jumping into the Crusades, the Battle of Brannockburn, or Verdun was a vacation.

A thousand years later, that still holds true. That’s why, when I’m hacking nutsedge out of the front yard or yanking clover out of the Sarracenia pots, I have an appropriate soundtrack.

Oh, it gets better. Because of the Czarina’s addiction to the British show Midsomer Murders, I started wondering what would happen to various fictional soldiers and detectives once they got the gardening bug, especially ones with a more fantastic bent. Oh, we already know that Brigadier General Alstair Lethbridge-Stewart became a gardening fiend, but what about all of those old soldiers and explorers of fantastic fiction? What was King Conan of Aquilonia’s equivalent of “You kids stay off my lawn?” Do we really want a book on poison gardens with contributions from Elric of Melnibone, Kane, and Morgaine? And what would Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or the Falcon Prince deal with a recurring squirrel problem?

And that’s where things got odd. Last December, an odd package arrived at the mail drop. I knew I hadn’t ordered it, and the Czarina swore that it wasn’t an early Christmas present. The package didn’t come with any kind of note or notice as to the entity that sent it, and all we knew was that it had been ordered from Amazon. If it was a gift, then someone at Amazon left the invoice inside. Being at a loss as to whom to thank, we opened it up and found…some of the coolest implements of horticultural destruction this side of the Garden Weasel.

This leads us to the Battle Reviews. If it stands to reason that many horticultural tools found new use as devices of war, then that should still apply, right? Just ignore the cries from the tomato garden: the neighbors are used to seeing weeds flying in the air alongside screams of “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” at 8 on a Saturday morning.

Review: Kiss My Aster by Amanda Thomsen

(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.)

Kiss My Aster cover

Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You by Amanda Thomsen

ISBN-10: 1603429867
ISBN-13: 9781603429863
Published: Storey Publishing, 12/01/2012
Pages: 159
Language: English

I can’t remember exactly when I met Amanda Thomsen online, but I know it involved someone showing me her blog Kiss My Aster and asking me “Have you seen this yet?” In a better world, Amanda and I would be siblings, or possibly bandmates. If the planet were lucky, said band would combine the best efforts of Dallas music icons Kim Pendleton and Turner Van Blarcum. If it weren’t, we’d be found by palaeontologists some ninety million years from now, still locked in combat like the Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs.

If that sounds a bit extreme, it’s all about gardening attitudes. Most of us dedicated horticulture freaks can live and let live on 9999 differences of opinion on what makes the “best” garden, but when we hit the thousandth divergence, watch out. In our case, it’s the eternal war between asters and chrysanthemums for autumn flowers. Her reasons for encouraging asters are the same exact ones that I have for good violet or burgundy chrysanthemums as edging plants around Halloween, and and they’re both logical and reasonable based on local conditions. Get us in the same room on the same subject, though, and the debate gets settled with chainsaw and rubbing alcohol at 50 paces.

And so what does this have to do with Amanda’s first book, with the appropriate title? Well, that sort of attitude is something that’s needed in gardening literature. You know what I mean. Half of the beginner’s books on garden construction and planning are little more than garden porn. They’re either too general, which means they have all of the intellectual depth of one of those free “Start Your Own Garden!” handouts given with a 50-pound bag of Scotts Miracle-Gro lawn fertilizer, or they’re too specialized, which means you finish the book with a complete understanding of how to recreate the author’s own garden. And don’t get me going about garden books that purport to be humorous, but resemble those horrible weekly newspaper columns with bylines like “Mr. Funny Guy” so you know the strangling sound you’re making is supposed to be laughter. (Sadly, none of these columns have a title that’s accurate and honest, such as “Otherwise Unemployable Douchebag” or “A College Buddy Who Owes Me Got Me This Column”.) Coherent, informative, and humorous: is that too much to request from a gardening book?

Think “Mongolian Fighting Dinosaurs”. Were this my book, the illustrations by the Am I Collective scream too much “Lynda Barry” and not anywhere near enough “Evan Dorkin” or “Matt Howarth“. This sort of thinking is why Amanda has assistants whispering “The Secretary of State on line two” while she’s planting tulip bulbs, and why I need a permission slip to look in the lawn edger section of the local Home Depot. The art style fits Amanda’s book perfectly, especially when combined with additions such as “Bad Landscape Bingo” (with entries such as “Giant boulder in front yard for no reason” and “Gas grill that’s bigger than your car”). Again, it’s her book and not mine, which is why it has Landscaping Mad Libs in the center and not a surefire guide to setting up punji pits in the back yard to catch the neighbor kid when he jumps over the fence to get the golf balls he just put through the garage window. (I don’t have that problem right now, but I have Stories. Give me a book contract, and I’ll be glad to share them.)

And then there’s the whole layout. A serious problem with a lot of beginner’s gardening guides, and one that I faced myself when I started, was of an excess of riches. For instance, you usually want to get the garden beds settled and the grass in decent condition before you start fussing about greenhouses or automatic tranquilizer dart guns for the neighbor kid. (I didn’t want to kill him. I just wanted ants to crawl over his open eyeballs for twenty minutes or so until the tranq wore off, as an incentive.) Go through even something as beginner-friendly as one of my favorites, the equally punny titled You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail, and you’re paralyzed with options. Forget the eternal warfare between aster and most holy chrysanthemum: what do you do when you’re in the tree section of the local Lowe’s and you honestly can’t decide between “low-maintenance but boring” or “extravagant but feeds on the blood of chipmunks”?

That’s where Kiss My Aster separates itself from every other book I’ve read on the subject. Every section, every single section, has quick references to a comparable section, in the manner of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the early Eighties. It’s the closest thing to a hyperlink-enabled print volume you’re going to see, and it makes it a lot easier to decide vegetables versus herbs or which shrubs go best with what tree. This is one of the two reasons why, if some unthinking monster tries to take this book away from me (as a very well-meaning friend tried to do on New Year’s Day), I’d rush out to buy another copy and threaten to shiv the bookstore employee who tried to convince me that I needed some nice Derek Fell or Christopher Lloyd (the gardener Christopher Lloyd, not the actor).

The other reason? This is the only gardening book I’ve ever picked up that admits that there’s no shame in hiring someone to do the big jobs. There may be shame in letting trumpet vine take over the back yard (guilty) or leaving crushed white rock around the front porch as mulch (guilty, but it’s a rental house) or building a planter in an old toilet (guilty, but that’s because the Czarina’s never more beautiful than when that little vein on the side of her head pulses like a goth club strobe light), but hiring someone to save you time, money, backache, and mental health? Suggesting that getting a professional to put in your new concrete turtle pond might be more sane than mixing up your own Sac-Krete and going DIY? Heresy! Blasphemy! And you may notice that if I were worried about embracing heresy and blasphemy, I’d probably be a Catholic priest right now.

Now that she’s done with this first volume, I can only hope that my dear beloved Amanda, the sister who lived, has plans for a second one. One with this level of wit and patience that’s dedicated to indoor plants. Arioch knows we need one of these, too.

Interlude: Perot Museum of Natural History – 7

Malawisaurus

Mammoth skeleton

Hall of Ancient Life overview

Castoroides skeleton

Brittle star slab

Interlude: Perot Museum of Natural History – 6

Quetzacoatlus profille

Quetzacoatlus from below