Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop by Janit Calvo

(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 Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop by Janet Calvo

ISBN-10: 1604697016

ISBN-13: 9781604697018

Published: Timber Press, 2017

Pages: 445

Language: English

If the radical expansion of land surface on Earth during the Late Cretaceous had been just a bit slower, we wouldn’t have had a problem. One sentient species derived from dinosaurian ancestors, we could have handled. As it turned out, though, Earth didn’t produce one species of saurianid that developed an advanced civilization before the K-Pg extinction. We got FIVE. One never got much past the level of the Visigoths in the human era, which worked out fine for everybody when the asteroid impact sent them back to Hell, because documentaries on their culture would have been mistaken for videos from the metal band Gwar. The other four, though, cooperated and traded well enough that they all shared the secrets of space travel early on, and they had their own options for escaping the detonation and subsequent acidification of their world. The Chree, derived from early troodontids in east Asia, developed wormhole drives about 500 years before the impact, figured that it was better to leave early and avoid the rush, and promptly hauled themselves to the Andromeda galaxy and appropriated a set of conveniently abandoned Dyson spheres. They discovered the hard way WHY these were abandoned, unfortunately, but that’s a whole different story, as demonstrated by their scattered and blasted remains. The Larkash, troodontids from western North America, went for a standard timewave drive and colony ships, but overshot their original target by a few billion light-years. They never returned to the planet of their birth, but considering what they found on the far side of the universe, they never had the urge to go home. The Chukchuk, descended from South American abelisaurs, combined a passion for cybernetic augmentation with a new religious fervor by converting their bodies with artificial constructs and spread through the galaxy on solar sail “wings”, where they subject any sentients they encounter with wisdom gleaned from the void. Unfortunately for those sentients, that “wisdom” consists of truly horrible puns, so any civilization that detects the approach of a Chukchuk comedy troupe knows to turn off all the lights, turn off the music, and pretend not to be home until they pass by. 

The Harkun, though, would be the real menace as far as humanity was concerned. “Transcendentally ecstatic” to a Harkun was often mistaken for “grumpy, hung over, and fitted for a catheter” by any other sentient, and the only way most sentients could achieve what qualified as “grumpy” for a Harkun involved kick-start pipe augers, habanero sauce, botflies, and a copy of the first album by Marcy Playground. Maybe it was because the Harkun evolved from psittacosaurs, early cousins to the horned dinosaurs, or maybe they reached that stage in every civilization’s development when they discover the truth about Santa Claus just a little too early. Either way, if every sentient species in the universe was an expansion of individuals in each species’s society, the Harkun were very happy in their niche as the universe’s software developers, weekly newspaper music critics, and booksellers at science fiction conventions. If the Harkun had a racial dream, it was to yell “GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!” right in the face of God.

This crankiness was aggravated by their own method of averting the catastrophe of 65 million years ago. Everyone else saw the oncoming antimatter asteroid, all of the size of a golf ball, and decided to get the hell out of the way. The Harkun saw the universe’s largest bag of illegal fireworks, and saw themselves as a bonfire. Yes, the resultant mess could be seen from the far side of the galaxy, but at least they got to make it. The plan involved two massive stasis shields: one to capture the asteroid and guide it right to a comparable mass of normal matter, and one to speed time twentyfold within the shield. This way, not only could the Harkun conduct the equivalent of throwing a dog turd into a ventilation fan, but they got to watch it in slow motion. This was the real reason why the other sentients on the planet decided to be elsewhere, because there was no talking sense to the Harkun when they had the opportunity to make a mess.

The plan, such as it was, had its good news and its bad news. The good news was that the first stasis shield worked even better than expected. The shield diverted 95 percent of the energy output from the collision of matter and antimatter back out into space, turning Earth for a very short time into an interstellar beacon on a par with at least five local pulsars. The fact that the output was modulated to contain a message, every last Harkun on Earth letting the universe that gave it birth know how it REALLY felt, was obviously just coincidence. Also pure coincidence, of course, was the hole in the shield that “accidentally” took out a Larkash cultural archive in the southern peninsula of the continent and subsequently vaporized a significant amount of sulfur-rich limestone. The bad news was twofold: someone involved with the second shield went through the universal software constant of “if it’s hard to write, it should be hard to understand” and set the shield’s operating system to run subjective time a million times slower inside than outside, and shifted it to ten minutes into the past, so it no longer existed in our reality until the shield turned off. Likewise, while the first shield activated at exactly the right place at the right time, the entire Harkun species was trapped inside the second shield when a practice run on the evacuation went live. Millions of tons of sulfur-rich rock vaporized, blew up into the upper atmosphere, and reacted with water vapor to become sulfuric acid, which chilled the whole planet and killed 75 percent of all species living at the time. That kept the Harkun occupied for five subjective years.  The shelter pavillion was perfectly stocked for a hundred years, with all of the food, water, and air the Harkun would need. The entertainment options were to be shipped and installed a lunar month after the dry run, so while all of the essentials were taken care of, for 65 years, “no beer and no TV make Homer something something” became a new Harkun racial imperative.

Which brings us to the human era. All of the possible scenarios for global threats to human civilization hadn’t considered temporal traps full of eight-foot-tall saurians with parrot beaks, tails covered with huge porcupine quills, and personalities like pickled-egg-and-beer farts in a crowded tornado shelter. When the temporal barrier ripped open, the greatest example of cabin fever the universe had ever known was free. Having about a 2000-year edge on technology, the Harkun conquered humanity in a matter of hours, and promptly took out that 65 years of utter boredom on its poor monkey neighbors like a high school algebra teacher assigning homework over spring break. It really was Christmas all over the earth…and humanity was working retail.

The one saving grace that gave humanity a chance came from the Harkun’s incarceration. With no beer and no TV, and the spectacle of matter-antimatter explosion over in a subliminal flash, the Harkun were desperate for stimulation. The entertainment options left outside included weapons, so a typical waking period couldn’t be accented with an impromptu chainsaw duel. Some Harkun discovered random seeds, spores, and mycellae trapped in the shield with them, leading to a wild rush of gardening as social interaction. Before the first year was out, portable garden arrangements were a currency; within five, garden composition became a replacement for trial-by-combat in the Harkun legal system. By the time the shield ripped and the Harkun came rushing across our world, they had perfected miniature gardening techniques seemingly thousands of years ahead of humanity’s, with some being able to supply food for ten at a time. When humanity begged for peace, the Harkun offered to accept a conditional surrender if its greatest and best could best a Harkun in single miniature garden design. Based on the results, humanity should have been a slave race until the sun went supernova.

As with all revolutions, sometimes the parts and pieces were in plain sight. Six weeks beforeHell rode in on a quilled parrot dinosaur, a high school student named Charity Smith purchased, with money hard-won from months of weeding flower beds, a copy of the Janit Calvo book The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop. When the Harkun invasion finished, Charity remembered this book and its guides on the unique issues with miniature garden construction and focused all of her miniscule free time on it. Days upon days of hard labor fabricating bonsai trays for the invaders gave Charity the chance to study their styles and materials, and Harkun guards never confiscated her book, even under the worst searches for contraband. And she learned. Oh, how she learned. Where guns and bombs had no effect, miniature fences and succulent beds took the war to the invaders.

 The story of Charity Smith challenging the bonsai tray manufacturing plant commandant to a broken-pot arrangement duel is required reading for any student today, but it’s hard today to know what a turning point it was for humankind. Charity kept going, ultimately gaining an unconditional surrender from the Harkun with a penjing still preserved and lovingly cared for by the remnants of the Smithsonian Institution. The Harkun finally loaded themselves into a Chree-inspired wormhole generator and left our galaxy, but we never forgot Charity or her mentor, and we remain prepared for the barest chance that the Harkun might return. That’s why you can look up into the sky on a clear night and see Janit Calvo’s face, burned into the moon as a constant reminder of eternal vigilance. (As a test run, the far side of Mercury features the only surviving portrait of Calvo’s dog Kitty.) To see Charity’s portrait, you have to go to Jupiter: every moon in the system has one.

The Aftermath: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2016 – 14

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Oh, and please note the following. Texas Frightmare Weekend is a place where photobombing comes with the territory. To get photobombed by the one and only Tom Savini, though?

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Review: The Savage Garden Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Peter D’Amato

(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 Savage Garden Revised

The Savage Garden Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Peter D’Amato

ISBN-10: 1607744104
ISBN-13: 9781607744108
Published: Ten Speed Press, 07/02/2013
Pages: 384
Language: English

With the current wealth in new research and archived knowledge on carnivorous plants, it can be hard to remember when that wealth wasn’t easily shared. When I first became hooked on carnivorous plants a decade ago, I did what most people did at the time: instead of hopping online and running a quick Google search on the subject, I sashayed first to the public library and then to available bookstores for more information. The library had children’s books on “The World’s Weirdest Plants”, usually in that horrible combination of sepia monochrome illustrations and one block of Kodachrome color plates in the center that were so popular in the 1960s. At this point, all of the independent bookstores in Dallas were long-dead, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble had a gardening section comprised of two books on local trees and flowers and at least 50 variations on “How To Grow Marijuana In Your Closet”. Not that I particularly had problems with either, but that wasn’t the subject. Online bookselling wasn’t necessarily an option, either, as most searches at the time required knowing the title of the book, and I wasn’t about ready to buy any book on the subject without being able to look through it.

Finally, one day in spring 2003, while killing time before a job interview, I entered a Borders in North Dallas. After a pass through the magazine section to see which publications hadn’t survived the dotcom crash that week, I thought “Hey, let’s see what’s in the gardening section?” and took a quick peek. This time, in between a Better Homes & Gardens volume on citrus and a purely theoretical exercise on growing your own psilocybin mushrooms for fun and profit, I found a title that caught my eye. On the spine was a stunning Sarracenia pitcher plant, and the photos on the inside were even more fascinating. No arguments, no debate: that book came home with me, and it changed my life.

When I’m asked by carnivorous plant neophytes about resources and references, I’ll recommend several. Anything by Barry Rice and Adrian Slack is essential, but the one absolute I had for anybody wanting to work with carnivores was to get, by any means necessary, a copy of Peter D’Amato’s book The Savage Garden. Over the last decade, I’ve haunted used bookstores for spare copies, and I’ve been known to hand them over with a plastic smile and an earnest plea of “Let me tell you about my church.” In return, the lucky recipients of that largesse promptly had their minds blown. A couple even stated, after going through the whole volume, “now I understand why you quit writing.”

I exaggerate not a whit by noting that, particularly for beginners, The Savage Garden was one of the most valuable books on carnivorous plants written in the last two decades. Not only was it an excellent reference book for those seeking to view carnivores in the wild, particularly in the United States and the UK, but Mr. D’Amato’s experience in running California Carnivores, one of the largest carnivorous plant nurseries on the planet, showed on every page. In addition to being informative, the book was humorous, insightful, and thorough. The only thing that slowed it down a bit, honestly, was that it was a product of its time.

If that first edition of The Savage Garden had a problem, it was its publication at the beginnings of the Internet era. When it came out in 1998, it was one of the most authoritative books on the subject, but nobody expected the nova of new research over the last fifteen years. Between new explorations and DNA analysis, the number of carnivorous plant species known to science jumped to over 600 species (double that if you want to count the triggerplants, Stylidium spp, in that list), and the number of hybrids and cultivars jumped in that time as well. Stewart McPherson’s heroic expeditions to catalog and photograph all known species in the wild made the news, as did new research into carnivorous plant function and natural history. I regularly note in lectures that this is the most exciting period in carnivorous plant research since Charles Darwin was still alive, and after some of the recent developments in understanding sundew and Nepenthes pitcher plant physiology, I’m being conservative.

All in all, The Savage Garden desperately needed a revamp. It needed metric conversions for non-American readers. It needed further listings on newly described species now available in cultivation. It needed further options for husbandry, such as the new procedures for keeping Portuguese dewy pines (Drosophyllum lusitanicum) happy and hearty. Oh, and it needed resources on such diverse subjects as carnivorous plant societies and sterile tissue propagation.

Well, guess what?

For the beginners, stop right here and buy this book right now. Don’t worry about whether you have to choose between the book or groceries, and definitely ignore that burning school bus full of paraplegic nuns. They’ll still be there. As I like to tell the Czarina, it’s financial decisions like these that make me glad I have two kidneys but regret I have only one liver. Just shut up and get it now, and when you’ve won the MacArthur Fellowship award for your outstanding research, just rub the scar where your right kidney used to be and remind yourself that it was worth it. I won’t even say anything if you decide that selling spare organs doesn’t necessarily mean yours.

For the long-timers, you have reason to ask “is this worth the cost of a whole new edition, seeing as how the original edition is so thorough?” Well, that depends upon your specialty. The coverage of all of the world’s pitcher plants is effectively doubled in this edition, especially with new Sarracenia hybrids and new Nepenthes species. The section on sundews is even more thorough, especially thanks to all of the tuberous and pygmy sundews now available, and the updated photos of everything are spectacular. Oh, and for bladderwort buffs, get a good look at some of the new terrestrial varieties now available in cultivation.

And yes, I know you assume that this isn’t a perfect volume, and it isn’t. The biggest complaint lies with the seemingly arbitrary listing of species and cultivars within a section, especially concerning butterworts. In an end chapter on potentially carnivorous and protocarnivorous species, the devil’s claws (Proboscidea lutea and louisianica) finally get more respect, as do both known species of Roridula, but there’s not a peep about triggerplants. (That’s only fair, in a way: triggerplants deserve a major volume all on their own.) That’s more than mitigated, though, by some very solid and thorough advice on growing carnivores indoors: I recently started raising Nepenthes and Brocchinia plants under T5 high-output fluorescent lights intended for planted aquaria, with excellent results in both growth and color. Not only has Mr. D’Amato beaten me to the punch on their usefulness, but he’s also noting that recent developments in LED technology will probably make these as obsolete as carbon-arc lights within the next ten years or so.

So here we have it. One of the most influential print references on carnivorous plants, revised for 2013 sensibilities, available in an autographed edition. Fifty years from now, when you’ve dumped sordid habits like heroin and tobacco and writing science fiction in favor of raising carnivores, raise a glass to Peter D’Amato, because for a lot of us, it’s all his fault.

Review: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

(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.)

Cover: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

Gardening In Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World by Janit Calvo

ISBN-10: 160469372X
ISBN-13: 9781604693720
Published: Timber Press, 2013
Pages: 256
Language: English

Time for full disclosure. I’ve known Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center for the last five years. We’ve been comparing notes on miniature garden design and care for at least that long, and we’ve commiserated for nearly that long on the joys and horrors of running your own business in this foul Recession That Just Won’t Quit. It’s not fair to tell of her further exploits, such as the days when she was a monopole fabricator out on the deserts of Seven-Gamma-Flame or when she managed to scare hell out of a pack of Tarrask gene-raiders, mostly because that’s still five years in her future and it’s not fair giving her that much of an edge. The woman’s enough of a force of nature right now, you know? Oh, and don’t ask her about New Orleans. Ever. I mean it.

With that kind of background with someone, especially when remembering how she nearly broke my arm in a friendly game of full-contact chess (and you should have seen what she did to Morphy), reviewing that friend’s book starts to move into uncomfortable territory. How can you do justice to a friend’s words when everyone agrees that she should have killed you when she had the chance? Or when you know that on a little world out on the outer edge of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a race that won’t exist for a billion years yet found a copy of this book and used competitive miniature gardening design as an alternative to saturation nuclear bombardment when settling border disputes?

Yeah. I won’t even talk about how samples of her DNA were gathered by about three dozen races in your own galaxy and merged with their own to produce gardeners with skills far exceeding any that they had on their own. Nobody should learn that their writings are as famed as a basis of civilization as anything written by Hammurabi, Gandhi, Joey Ramone, or Drak-Zil Ruuuuuman in their lifetimes, because it just makes the head go POP.

Now that I’ve set the stage, know that Gardens in Miniature is Janit’s first book. It’s also the first serious book on the concept of miniature gardening published in decades. This is the book to guide you into the concept and the basics, instead of the fourth volume, which explains the particulars of…but I’ve said too much. This is the book that explains why Janit’s techniques aren’t exactly bonsai or penjing, but borrow from the same concept, as well as from model railroading, diorama building, and a smidgeon from ship-in-a-bottle builders. Since she’s writing for a beginning audience, not the experts who fuse their own custom containers from the ash of Mount Rainier in tribute to her, she takes the time to explain the importance of picking the right container and the right plants. She also takes the time to explain scale, and how a miniature gardener should always take scale into account when mixing plants and accessories in a miniature garden arrangement. (I really want to tell her about the roadways of the Deltrau Array and the literal kilometers of miniature gardens set up in her memory, all lovingly attended by novices in the hope that they might achieve the same level of grace, but that just wouldn’t be fair. She’d ask to see them, and then why should she strive any further upon seeing such beauty?)

It’s inadequate, but the only thing I can say about Gardening in Miniature is “snag a copy now, in any format you can, and get it autographed, stamped, or brain-wave-imprinted while you have the chance.” It’s not that you’ll have a family heirloom for yourself, or even for your great-great-grandchildren. It’s that if this “review” brought up images of fantastic, otherworldly miniature garden arrangements, go ahead and make them and then show them to Janit. After all, you’re going to do it anyway, so it’s not like you’re ruining the timeline or anything. Besides, for some of you, she’ll put images of them into her next few books. I won’t tell you whom, though, because that wouldn’t be right. Masters need to start out as novices, or else the whole space-time continuum falls apart, as Janit and I learned the hard way. But that’s another story.

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?

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.

Review: Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi

(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.)

Keshiki Bonsai cover

Keshiki Bonsai: The Edgy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes by Kenji Koybayashi
ISBN-10: 1604693592
ISBN-13: 9781604693591
Published: Timber Press (OR), 10/01/2012
Pages: 176
Language: English

For anybody who went to school at any university specializing in fine arts, or for anyone like me who just hung out with a lot of burgeoning young artists, one book was the subject of conversation more than any other. It rarely made any appreciable impact upon non-artists, and a lot of artists scoffed when they saw the title in a student’s book-pile. However, for a certain percentage of fine arts students, this was a tome as essential for rumination and digestion as The Boys on the Bus was for journalism majors. That book was 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dali.

In reality, 50 Secrets carried 51 secrets: it was deliberately obtuse. The first few chapters started with Dali alternating between kissing his own ass and tearing down any contemporary painter within his purview, and most readers give up after 30 pages or so of ridiculous self-aggrandizing. As I said, this was the last secret, hidden in plain sight. Slog and fight through the beginning and Dali’s ego, and you suddenly realize “Hey, I’m learning something.” That continues through the book, as you pick up ever-more-intriguing tips on what made Dali the painter he was, as well as learn that the other secrets weren’t about slavishly following his list. (For instance, it’s rather hard to follow the letter of the law when two of those secrets to being a great painter were “live in Spain” and “be named ‘Salvador Dali’.”) It’s only at the end of the book, literally within the last two paragraphs, that all of the discussion on making pigments and training spiders to make webs in hoops made of branches suddenly makes sense. At the absolute end, everything taught throughout the book finally comes together, in a way that leaves you breathless in its brevity and its force. Only at the end do you realize that there was a method within the madness: it’s one that only really worked for Dali, but one that allows you to follow his lessons and take them in your own directions.

As much as I hate the lazy analogy of making a direct comparison with one modifier, such as the classic “my family life was [fill in the blank] on acid,” Kenji Kobayashi managed to do something quite singular. He managed to write the 50 Secrets of Magic Craftmanship for the horticulture contingent.

Not that he planned to do so with Keshiki Bonsai. Kobayashi, the owner of the bonsai shop Sinajina, understandably became frustrated with bonsai design and bonsai guides, and the seemingly overwhelming material on the hows of bonsai design that neglect the why. Instead of dutifully showing how to wrap and pinch bonsai into forms that may not be final for fifty or a hundred years after he dies, he has much more of an interest in simple designs that can be constructed and maintained by those of us with limited time and even more limited resources. Many of his step-by-step projects aren’t intended as final compositions, such as with a Martha Stewart arrangement. Each of his projects is intended to teach one skill well enough, such as recreating the flow of moss up a hillside, that it’s possible to move on. He doesn’t teach by going one step at a time with one tree: he tries to get the reader to look at bonsai arrangements as installments toward improved skills, and with a final product ready for enjoyment and basic maintenance within a few days. The idea isn’t to reshape a tree into a presumed bonsai in a day, but to consider “exactly how do I convince a viewer that s/he’s looking at a grassy hilltop and not simply an accumulation of potting mix and various seedlings?” That last part is the important part.

For standard bonsai enthusiasts, a lot of the basics in Keshiki Bonsai won’t be anything they don’t already know, and many of Kobayashi’s accents and pots may be overly simplistic or even vulgar. However, for anyone working with miniature gardening, this book shouldn’t be kept on a shelf. It should be kept in a little box right next to your work area, pages full of bookmarks, on hand for when it’s needed. “When it’s needed” is best defined as “every five minutes.” And for terrarium construction advocates? Just be glad this book can’t be downloaded directly to your brain…yet.

Review: Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

(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.)

Machiavelli’s Lawn: The Great Writers’ Garden Companion, written and illustrated by Mark Crick
ISBN-10: 1847081347
ISBN-13: 9781847081346
Published: Granta Books (UK), 03/01/2011
Pages: 111
Language: English

Machiavelli's Lawn

When it comes to in-jokes, particularly extensive in-jokes, writers have two options. The better option is to write such jokes in such a way that the intended audience gets the humor, but that humor also gets those outside the loop. I say “better” because if the joke dies both with the in-audience and everyone else, the writer’s done. Science fiction is full of these failed attempts, where the only defense to a poorly written “comedy” is to yell “Oh, yeah? Well, I wrote this for the fans!” And what happens when the fans think that the resultant book or production is a pile of garbage?

The other option, rarely done well, is to ignore that urge to go for a larger audience. Go narrow and focused, and understand that 95 percent of the potential world readership will look at it like comedian Bill Hicks’s famed “dog being shown a card trick”. The trick isn’t to make the intended audience laugh. The trick is to be so good that it makes readers outside that vicious circle want to read the original reference and then go back to the in-joke. Occasionally, very occasionally, this works out, and the creator or creators are heroes in song and legend.

I won’t say that Mark Crick’s writers’ garden companion Machiavelli’s Lawn is going to appeal to 99 percent of the general readership. I can’t say that it’ll appeal to the vast majority of gardening enthusiasts. For those of us who spent far too much time reading things other than horticultural references, though, it’s a trip.

The conceit of Machiavelli’s Lawn is to write gardening guides in the style of various famous writers, such as Raymond Carver, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, and Pablo Neruda. That can be hard on its own, considering that the best material for parody is broad prose with a style about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail served at dinner. (This, incidentally, is why H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson are such an inspiration for aspiring parody writers as yet unable to work with the subtlety of Ray Bradbury or Mike Royko.) Discussing removal of tree suckers in the style of Bret Easton Ellis has its moments, but it’s not hard because Ellis’s style was practically a cliche from the second he started typing. Pulling off a parody of Martin Amis that was itself viciously funny (involving repotting an abused houseplant within a strip club) that’s more readable than an Amis story? Now that’s talent.

I might also add that Mr. Crick provided his own illustrations for this book with a similar mindset, as if the Ralph Steadman tribute wasn’t obvious. (I have to admit that I snagged this book because I first assumed that Mr. Steadman had moved from writing about wine and whisky to horticulture.) Here we also get treatments of Durer, Munch, Lichtenstein, Dali, and Robert Crumb, all distinctive and all appropriate for the essay being illustrated. If you aren’t familiar with any of these artists, don’t sweat it. Not knowing about them doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the illustrations. However, if you do…well, my Day Job boss is a proud Robert Crumb fan, and he got a good enough cackle over Crick’s hommage that he wanted to read the accompanying story just to get more context.

The problem here is that you have so many authors, and so many books, that could thrive under this sort of treatment that this book isn’t enough. In fact, I have one that’s been sitting in my head for a while, and let’s see if anyone’s sufficiently erudite to catch the reference:

“Amanda gets me a job as an arborist, after that Amanda’s pushing secateurs in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Amanda and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Amanda Thomsen.”

Review: Vanilla Orchids by Ken Cameron

(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.)

Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron
ISBN-10: 0881929891
ISBN-13: 9780881929898
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2011
Pages: 212
Language: English

Many writers have particular phrases or literary misuses that drive them insane. Using the word “penultimate” to mean “even bigger than ultimate,” for instance, or the word “hater” used for any commentary on a person or subject that’s anything but utterly sycophantic. I have two. The most obvious, considering my background, is the description of any old, obsolete, or hidebound person or concept as a “dinosaur”. It’s not because I’m one of those humorless pedants who nerks “Well, you know, dinosaurs were dominant lifeforms on this planet for 130 million years,” but because it’s simplistic. Sadly, my suggestions on expanding our vocabularies by comparing anachronisms to arsinoitheres, anomalocarids, or arthrodires go over about as well as my recipes for venison sorbet.

The other? Describing any bland, blah, boring, or blase item as “vanilla”. Vanilla: the one flavor in Neopolitan ice cream packages that’s left for last, because it’s supposed to be “plain”. Artificial vanilla extract in cupcakes and bad supermarket bakery cookies. Nilla Wafers. George Romero’s second movie. All of which are revealed as blatant lies the moment you smell a properly cured vanilla bean for the first time and realize exactly how subtle yet complex real vanilla can be.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the difference between vanilla and vanillin. Vanillin, while one of the main aromatic components in vanilla extract, is actually a compound found in many plants. To give an example of how common vanillin is, you may or may not remember the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry given to Mayu Yamamoto for his method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. Vanillin production is also a first-year organic chemistry stunt, thus inadvertently contributing to the stigma against vanilla proper.

It’s bad enough that vanilla as a flavoring is now downplayed as mundane and wallflowerish. We forget how this spice became one of the most valuable and important spices on the planet. Never mind that chocolate as we know it today would be far too bitter without the proper and precise application of vanilla. Walk through any perfume counter in any department store after smelling a well-cured vanilla bean and note how most of the world’s most popular and successful perfumes depend upon vanilla’s long-lasting notes. The real stuff pops, but we’re so overwhelmed with cheap imitations that we barely notice unless we take the time.

And then there’s the orchid that produces this miracle. All commercial vanilla production comes from one species (Vanilla planiflora) and one natural hybrid (Vanilla x. tahitiensis). With the exception of salep, vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid food product, and about all that’s shared is a vague picture of an orchid on “French Vanilla” ice cream and the like. Most people are in shock when they discover that vanilla comes from an orchid, and even orchid enthusiasts have rarely seen members of the genus Vanilla. Most orchid books include Vanilla planiflora as an afterthought, mentioning vaguely that it produces vines a bit like Vanda orchids, and that “if they bloom, pollinate the blooms by hand to produce your own vanilla.”

A few months back, I saw a collection of rather ratty Vanilla orchids on sale in a Dallas garden center with that advice, and I scared several potential customers with my laughter. (Of course, I’d been laughing for a while, especially since this same garden center was advising Venus flytrap owners that they could remove minerals from Dallas tap water by letting it stand out overnight. If my smile makes people suddenly regret leaving Ripley and Parker to look for the ship’s cat, what does my laughter do, I wonder?) If you want to see vanilla orchids in action, go to Gunter’s Greenhouse in Richardson, Texas especially when the store hosts its spring open house and the orchids are in bloom. The back greenhouse has a big V. x tahitiensis on display, and the vines are as big around as a man’s leg. Very seriously, this beast is supported with repurposed cable racks previously used for lugging telephone cables, and I don’t think anything less could support the mass. To Gunter’s credit (and I say this as someone in perpetual awe and jealousy of the greenhouse’s crew of orchid geniuses), this one blooms prodigiously and extensively, but the idea of the average Park Cities gardening dilletante growing one, much less getting it to bloom, is just silly.

Again, at this point, this is where most orchid books and references stop. Outside of V. planiflora, all discussion on Vanilla orchids just stops. Nobody discusses the other species found in the Americas, or the wideranging ones from the Old World. Nobody discusses how the genus Vanilla contains some of the only vining orchids known. Nobody talks about relationships with other orchids, or how V. planiflora may have been domesticated in the first place, or the tremendous debt our culture owes this undeservedly obscure genus.

This is where Ken Cameron walks in. This isn’t a popular account of the history of vanilla, as in the case of Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. This is precisely what orchid enthusiasts and researchers need: a good, thorough view of the natural history of the entire genus, from a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for discovery but who also doesn’t go overboard. Discovering, for instance, that Vanilla is related to basal orchids suggests, as Professor Cameron notes herein, that the whole group may have been much more extensive in the distant past than today. Considering that orchids were almost definitely a component in Cretaceous flora, then this gives a whole new aspect to palaeontological art, as well as to anyone designing prehistoric gardens. I don’t think we’re going to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta adding Vanilla orchids to its Cretaceous Garden, but this news might influence someone else to give Vanilla and close cousins from New Caledonia a good shot.

I know this is getting tiring, but more kudos to Timber Press for offering this book. Considering how Vanilla information is neglected by both orchid references and food guides, the cliche “essential reading” actually applies in this case. The Czarina has been hinting at starting a Tahitian vanilla vine for a while, and finally I feel confident enough in knowing the plant’s needs that it might not be a complete pipe dream. Some day this year, I’m going to walk into Gunter’s, walk up to that monstrous V. x tahitiensis, and give them the magic request of “Give me three feet.” (Now, if you buy this book, you’ll know that growing most Vanilla from seed is extremely difficult, and that the vines usually reproduce themselves when they fall from trees and break apart. We’re talking orchids that might actually require machetes to keep under control. How could you go back to raising Cattleya orchids after learning that?)

Review: The Evening Garden by Peter Loewer

(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 Evening Garden: Flowers and Fragrance From Dusk Till Dawn by Peter Loewer.
ISBN-10: 0881925322
ISBN-13: 9780881925326
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2010
Pages: 272
Language: English

Ramon Gonzalez of Mr. Brown Thumb recently tweeted “There are no new ideas, but when one comes around you’d find it easier to milk a turtle than to get a garden writer to credit its creators.” Speaking in general, I couldn’t agree more (back during my science fiction writing days, my articles were ripped off so often by Entertainment Weekly that my name should have run in the magazine’s masthead), but I wonder if we’re ascribing malice when mere ignorance is enough. Anybody who’s been writing for more than a month knows that ideas themselves are cheap, but it’s the implementation that’s tough, which is why anybody fussing about editors or publishers “stealing my ideas” automatically labels him/herself as an amateur. What continues to surprise me in the gardening writing market is the sheer amount of parallel evolution going on. We aren’t stealing each others’ ideas: we’re working with what we figure are original and pertinent concepts, only to discover that someone else, or several someone elses, was working with the same base material at the same time. It’s particularly disgusting to discover that someone else wrote about your oh-so-innovative idea or conclusion years before you ever entered the hobby.

I write this from experience. I spent nearly a year researching moon gardens. After wandering into the main Sarracenia growing area out behind the greenhouse during a full moon, I was simply stunned at how well Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, fluoresces in moonlight. A bit of research with UV light sources led to a whole series of experiments with night-blooming plants and how well they stand out in both moonlight and UV, and I was so sure I was in new territory. Oh, I was smug, figuring that I had something that would stop all of my gardening friends for a minute and make them look upon my works and despair.

This was before I discovered the existence of Peter Loewer‘s The Evening Garden, and learned that he’d gone well beyond anything I could accomplish in my garden back in 1993. In fact, about halfway through, I was reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’s routine concerning a Debbie Gibson/ Jimi Hendrix duet album, because all I wanted to do was scream “MOMEEEEEEEEE! I wanna go back to the mall! I suck! I suck!”

According to the author, The Evening Garden first saw print in 1993 through McMillan, and promptly went out of print in 1995 when the publisher went bust. This helps explain the format, because this is a book meant to be read, not just scanned. Loewer goes through a very impressive list of night-blooming plants, night-fragrant plants, and plants that look as if they should bloom at night, in a friendly, conversational style that covers a lot of growing conditions. All of the big hitters, including Datura, Ipomoea, and Brugmansia, are in the list, but so are a whole slew of surprises. I know just enough about Hemerocallis daylilies to be dangerous, but I had no clue as to Hemerocallis citrina, the citron daylily, being a night bloomer. Since I’m already an enthusiastic fan of the taste of its flower buds, either raw or cooked, this is going into the garden as soon as I know that the risk of last-minute freezing is gone.

Again, I thought I was so clever for inventing a modern moonlight garden all by myself, but Mr. Loewer beat me to that, too. Opportunities for encouraging fireflies and glowworms in that garden, too, on top of recommendations for night-blooming cactus and other succulents with which I’ve only started experimentation. I wanna go back to the mall. The only aspect of my ongoing research that didn’t show up in this book, and that was only because the technology wasn’t available at the time it was written, involves the use of LED lighting systems, particularly UV LEDs. I fully expect that if I started writing about it, and the sheer beauty of some flowers as they fluoresce in patterns normally only visible to insects, Mr. Loewer will finish an updated chapter on the subject that makes me look like more of an amateur than before.

Now, the particulars on this edition is that the illustrious crew at Timber Press brought it back into print, but as a print-on-demand edition. This means, among other things, that it can’t be ordered directly from the Timber Press Web site. However, it is available through a plethora of independent and chain bookstores for order, and I heartily recommend my friends at St. Johns Booksellers. I’m also thinking longer and harder on trying to organize a goth event comparable to Convergence with at least one panel on moon gardens, because I want to drop copies into the hands of a few fellow darklings and see what they can accomplish with a good resource guide.

In the meantime, the experiments continue. After learning about the new “Pink Lemonade” blueberry (Vaccinium), I’m picking one up this weekend. It’s not just because I’m already a blueberry junkie, that the ripe berries should complement the roses already in the back, or that the Czarina has been begging for a blueberry bush ever since she discovered they could be raised as container plants in Dallas. No, it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that the unripe berries are very moonlight-friendly, and that the best way to tell that the berries are ripe is when they stop glowing under a full moon. I’ll let you know what I discover, because while The Evening Garden has a huge section on prominent blooms for a moon garden, it doesn’t say a thing about berries.

Reviews and why they matter

It’s been a little while since the last time any new book or product reviews (mostly due to some ridiculous issues with distributors on getting books ordered and paid for back last summer), but one absolute when I resume is that I pay my own cash for review copies or samples, and I never solicit responses to reviews. If a publisher or manufacturer wants to quote a review, fine, but I don’t expect a response, and under no circumstances will I ever accept or expect any kind of compensation for doing these. Not that my opinion is worth that much, but it’s a matter of setting ground rules early.

My insistence on setting these standards comes from my old film critic days, and exposure to the critics of Dallas and Fort Worth in particular. This is the area that brought us Michael H. Price and Todd Camp, two of the most forthright and honest film critics of whom I’ve had the honor to meet. This is also the town that brought us the television news film critic who’d stumble into a screening a half-hour after the movie started, and throw a tantrum because the projectionist wouldn’t rewind the film so she could see it at the beginning. This is the area that brought us the critic who’d throw fits about how he’d only review events if he got freebies, and then savage the events because he got everything he wanted. I won’t even start with the editor who’d rewrite his critics’ reviews because that director or that actress needed to be “punished” for early career choices, leave the original critics’ bylines on the review, and then hide when they understandably came for his head.

Nearly twenty years after the advent of the graphical Web browser, we really shouldn’t be surprised that just about any idiot can become a film critic, and many do. (One of the many reasons why I very rarely go to movies any more comes from the number of Web-only critics, all crying dark tears over the demise of GeoCities, literally tackling me in the hopes of snagging “review copies” of entertainment magazines now dead for the last decade.) It’s remarkably easy to turn one of these reviewers into a classic Roger Ebert quote whore: imagine slogging away on reviews and commentary, only to get a studio publicist asking sweetly “Would you be interested in attending a preview of this new movie?” A few previews, a few freebies, a couple of buffet luncheons at nice hotels where you might actually see the star or the director as s/he’s passing through, and the rationalizations begin. Oh, you don’t want to downplay the hard work that cast, crew, and publicity department put into a movie, and you’ll give them a break when they put out a dog. Oh, every movie that’s completed should be celebrated. Heck, there’s nothing wrong with giving blurbs based on early impressions, weeks or even months before the film sees release; in extreme cases, to plagiarize others’ reviews because keeping up with current releases is impossible.

The real reason for keeping up the charade, though, comes down to one basic instinct: keeping up “access” to that magic world. It doesn’t even have to be renumeration in cash, freebies, or escorts: you’d be amazed at the number of alleged critics who’d shiv their grandmothers just to see a long-awaited film two weeks before everyone else. (Or, in the case of one of the Dallas critics mentioned above, pitching a fit about not being invited to a super-special advance preview of a big film a decade ago, and namedropping that a family member was an employee at the publisher of the source novel.)

And how does this connect to horticulture? Only that with the increase in number and range of gardening and horticulture blogs, the glamour might not be as intense as with movies or television, but the temptation is still there to let one slide so as to keep up getting gifts in the mail. Most of these blog writers have never been within a time zone of a newspaper ombudsman, who lays down the law of what is acceptable and not acceptable in renumeration and compensation by and from reviewers. (That, of course, implies that many newspapers or magazines even have ombudsmen any more, as little things such as ethics and morality tend to get in the way of kissing up to big advertisers and friends of the editor.) It’s not that they deliberately decide “Hey, I’m going to grunt out blurbs for items or events I’ve never seen.” You can’t expect bloggers to stick with publication ethics rules when they don’t even know what those rules are. (Poor Todd Camp can appreciate that: he still doesn’t have full use of his feet after he and I attended one of my first critic’s preview screenings in 1989. I completely forgot that I was there as a member of the press, and when the publicists started a scavenger hunt contest for signed press stills, my having a roll of dental floss meant that I hit him and every other critic between me and the aisle like a charging indricothere. I very nearly crippled a good friend and compatriot solely for a Ghostbusters 2 publicity still: how embarrassing is that?)

Never let it be said that I don’t try to help. The folks at eFilmCritic just put out their list of the most obvious quote whores in film criticism in 2011, and I want you to study this list. Compare the names on this list to the big banner headlines on movie posters and TV ads, particularly for the films that made your eyes bleed. Note why they’re referred charitably as “benevolent blurbsters,” instead of merely enjoying films you detested and vice versa. Consider that it’s not enough to say that you enjoyed a new book or spotted a noteworthy tool at a garden show, but that you have to explain why other people should spend actual money on it. Most importantly, consider that if you’re giving out reviews solely so the flow of new swag continues, maybe you might want to quit doing reviews.