Tag Archives: Books

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.

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.

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?

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.

Everyone’s got a book out but me

I don’t know what’s in the water right now, and I’m personally not complaining, but a whole slew of horticultural friends have books coming out in the next little while. I already mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center has an upcoming book on miniature gardens that’s going right into the library as soon as I get it. Two other friends have upcoming books as well, and now is the time to start the hype machine so nobody forgets to put in an order.

To begin, I’ve become convinced that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is my real sister. Or at least the one that lived. If she isn’t a sister, then she’s a very close cousin, because her sense of humor is almost as black as mine. Or maybe that’s just mushroom compost. Anyway, her first book, imaginatively titled Kiss My Aster, comes out at the end of the year, and I’ve already sworn to her that if she tries to give me a free copy, instead of paying full price for an autographed copy, I’ll walk to her house and talk her to death. If you turn your head toward Illinois and listen, you can just hear her screams of horror and rage. One way or another, I’m getting a copy, and it’ll have that most beloved of book dedications, “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

Now, I could bring up that Billy Goodnick is coming to Dallas next February to speak at the Dallas Arboretum. I could bring up that I plan to crash his lecture and just sit there, watching him, until he screams “LOOK, WILL YOU JUST HECKLE ME OR THROW ASPARAGUS AT ME OR SOMETHING?” This should be within the first fifteen seconds, seeing as how my visage could make a sundial run backwards. The real reason I’d be out there, though, is so I could get his upcoming book, Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, autographed.

With this autographing session, I have to move fast. He’s been lamenting whether or not this book will sell, so I told him the absolute truth. On a trip back from 2046, I saw what happened with it. Yes, it’s a success. Yes, he’s the first garden writer to get both a Pulitzer and a Nobel for a garden book. Unfortunately, between the calls from King Charles to give Billy a full knighthood, and the teenage groupies who keep smashing in the windows in order to get to him at night, he hasn’t had any sleep since next year. I don’t know where he gets the time to run that tachyon emitter to broadcast horticulture tips to his fans on Gliese 581c, but I understand they’ve carved his face into a cliff of pure frozen nitrogen on the outermost world in the system.

“Paul,” he told me, “you weren’t supposed to take the red pill AND the blue pill at the same time.”

“You know me better than that. You know the blue box in the back corner of my garden? It isn’t a Port-O-John, no matter how badly you want to use it as such.”

That said, buy his book as soon as it comes out, and I promise to introduce him to some particularly Dallasite examples of Crimes Against Horticulture. In certain parts of Dallas, he’ll probably fill up four or five microSD cards with photos, each one more Lovecraftian than the one before.

Oh, and for apartment dwellers, a treat. Fern Richardson, a very polite and kind individual whom I traumatized the last time the Garden Writers Association had its annual conference in Dallas, had her own book, Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage, and Herbs, released earlier this year. Considering that the front porch of my house is particularly onerous during summer, I’m snagging my copy as quickly as I can. I’m trusting that Fern will have plenty of ideas for sun-scorched spaces that won’t involve cactus.

As for me? After a few discussions at the Day Job with co-workers about peppers, and plenty of discussions at shows about carnivores, I’ve changed my mind about writing my own book. They didn’t understand why when I told them that I’d need an advance of at least $50,000, because that’s what the writing time spent away from plants, the Czarina, and Leiber would be worth. They didn’t understand when I said I was much more likely to play Russian roulette with an automatic. They didn’t understand when I told them I’d sooner watch a SyFy movie marathon, eyes propped open like Malcolm McDowall’s in A Clockwork Orange the whole time. Now I just tell them “I’ll be glad to write a new book, immediately after the Dallas Cowboys win their first shut-out World Series pennant.” That they understand.

“If I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky?”

Thanks to general interests and the urge to accumulate potentially valuable information, I have a very odd horticultural library. The books on carnivorous plants are to be expected, as are the books on succulents, Datura, sharp gardens, scent gardens, bonsai, and Hon Non Bo. Then I have the inspirational guides for miniature gardens and terraria that cause guests’ eyebrows to shoot up so high that they’re latched to the ceiling by an eyelid. C’mon: how many other gardeners keep a copy of Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition in the reference library?

And then it comes down to getting good and dark. Now, Barlowe’s Inferno is a good start, but the trick with a good goth gardening library is to go subtle. At this point, half of the fun is having a fellow goth gardening enthusiasts look at a title on the shelf that doesn’t seem to fit…until they actually open it.

By way of example, I’ve mentioned the Joey Boxes in the past. Joey Shea and his lovely wife Cheryl LeBeau have been sending these to me for half my life as of this month, and there’s no telling what you can find in a given Joey Box. Naturally, I try to reciprocate without actually mailing anything alive. Yet. I think Cheryl needs a crocodile monitor about as badly as I do.

Anyway, I recently sent off a 20-kilo Joey Box out to Connecticut, and Joey retaliated with the ultimate in goth gardening volumes. We’re not talking about mere “if I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky?” gardening tips. We’re not talking vulgar, or obvious, or even well-documented. For me, the last time I received a compliment of this magnitude was when Harlan Ellison, one of my childhood role models, looked at me and said “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!” (I’d shaved my head the night before, so maybe he was biased. Either way, I took it in the spirit in which it was intended.) This may not be the Necronomicon of dark gardening, but it’s definitely on the level of The Pnakotic Manuscripts.

To start, this is what greeted me when I opened Joey’s package. No clues as to its history or heritage on the front cover.

The mysterious book

Nor anything on the spine.

The mysterious book's spine

Same with the frontspage. Obscure author, smaller publishing house, and publication from a year before I was born.

Book frontspage

The book is a good basic guide to gardening throughout the year, going day by day. The only thing that distinguishes it from other books on the same subject are these little drawings on chapter headings.

Twenty-Second Day

Twenty-Seventh Day

Sixteenth Day

May

Okay, so there has to be some deep, dark secret, right? This can’t be all there is to it, could it? Let’s take a quick peek at the copyright page, to see if any hint is available as to why Joey would have sent it.

Designed by Edward Gorey

No, you’re not imagining things. Take a closer look.

Designed by Edward Gorey closeup

That’s right: THAT Edward Gorey. Suddenly, those cheery little drawings have a whole new context, don’t they?

As can be expected, I’ll have to do some digging to find more backstory on this book and exactly what Gorey’s involvement was with the book and its illustrations. I don’t know for sure, for instance, if Gorey drew these wry little figures, or if all he did was the design of the book while using another artist’s work. The editor, Ralph Bailey, is equally obscure in today’s Web coverage, although he was apparently a talented enough photographer for House & Garden that Conde Nast sells a 1963 print of his fuchsia photo to this day. You can expect, though, that I’m going to have a lot of fun with the research. And knowing Joey, this is about the time he discovers a guide to Ford auto repair written and illustrated by Clark Ashton Smith.

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.

“A garden unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

The office is nearly cleared, and all but two boxes out of fifteen are sorted. The Triffid Ranch now has two more growing spaces for Nepenthes pitcher plants, and a new “proofing oven” shelf arrangement for caring for tropical carnivore arrangements. One more spare weekend, and it should be Done, only a month after it started. Kids, when your parents tell you to clean your room, please listen to them. You don’t want to spend your holiday vacation chipping newspaper cuttings and magazines off your closet shelves, where they’d turned to diamond from the pressure of the detritus piled above them.

The last two weeks weren’t all work: the Czarina and I celebrated nine years of marriage the way we started. Namely, dinner, long walks, and a quiet night at home. Her only problem with this involves our choices of entertainment. Invariably, I end up watching my favorite film for staving off the holiday blues, and she has to deal with my bawling my eyes out when the best-developed and most likeable character in the whole movie gets blasted out a shuttle airlock by Sigourney Weaver. (I’m the same way watching the best alien encounter movie of 1982, right when Kurt Russell throws a stick of dynamite at it.)

It’s not so much that Alien is a great gardener’s movie, although it does make me look forward to the upcoming spring’s paper wasp and cicada-killer wasp populations returning. (When the ongoing cleaning and sorting of the office left me barely able to crawl to bed, I actually managed to get in a bit of light reading. Normally, I have precious little patience for fanfiction, but I confess a stout appreciation for Kim Newman’s new collection Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles. Of course a man of such education and erudiction as Professor Moriarty enjoys a hobby of raising wasps when taking a break from his career as “The Napoleon of Crime”. In that regard, he’s a man after my own heart, even if he’s fictional.) It’s that it’s hard looking through the new crop of horticultural hardware catalogs without seeing references to the movie.

I mean, c’mon: if you’re spending your days spreading pesticides powerful enough that you need a powered pesticide helmet and suit, being dragged back with some sort of organism attached to your face may be only one of your immediate issues. Those who read Aurealia C. Scott’s Otherwise Normal People, about the world of competitive rose gardening, might remember one of the subjects needing one of these suits because her preferred mix of fungicides, insecticides, and mutagenic poisons was just a little too strong for humans to handle. This right here is why I get offended when I’m told that carnivorous plant people are weird. We may be weird, but rose people make us look well-adjusted.

And then there’s the obvious reminders. Most of the last week consisted of regular trips to the paper recycler and to the local Half Price Books (and when it comes to piles of back issues of Horticulture and Mother Earth News, these places are the same thing), with the difference being that Half Price trips meant waiting to see if you brought in anything worthy of payment. While waiting one one such expedition, I poked through the art section and came across a copy of WWW HR Giger Com, a retrospective by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Generally flipping through it, I found one very good reason to snag it. Giger related the issues he had as a designer on the 1995 film Species, and how he’d gone to a significant outlay of money and time to create a “dream train” sequence which was hacked to pieces by the studio. In response, apparently Giger turned the back yard of his house into a course for an electric train for his and his friends’ use. To complement the train line, he landscaped the back with artifacts of his own design.

Now, I wish I had pictures of this, so you’ll have to snag a copy of the book to see for yourself. I just need to reiterate: HANS RUDI GIGER BUILT AN ELECTRIC TRAIN GARDEN IN HIS BACK YARD. We should be either relieved or disappointed that he didn’t design a miniature golf course to go with it.

Again, I can’t find any photos of the train garden online, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It also gives me a very special goal in garden design. I don’t want to copy Giger’s garden, or even make something reminiscent of it. I want to construct a garden that makes him gasp in surprise and wonder. As can be expected, I have quite a long way to go.

Disturbing parallels involving “The Blair Witch Project”

Back in the early Nineties, back during the beginnings of my science fiction essay writing days (which made about as much of an impression as Jeffrey Dahmer’s track record with managing vegan restaurants), I was a regular guest at a series of now-long-defunct Dallas-based comic conventions. While the main emphasis of the shows was on packing as many people into the dealer’s hall as possible, the promotion of these shows usually emphasized at least one child or cult actor from the Sixties, signing autographs and otherwise comporting themselves in interesting fashions. (I can, for instance, relate without shame that I was very nearly responsible for causing one such former child actor to jump out a 20th-story window in a Fort Worth hotel nearly 20 years ago. That story involved a friend’s phone prank, two of the scariest strippers in the Southwest, and an abandoned copy of the second issue of Evan Dorkin’s Milk & Cheese comic, and will only be related in person. During the book tour, and only after the publisher delivers the baby crocodile monitor that’s a deal-breaker for the contract in lieu of an advance.)

The organizer of said convention was, in some ways, savvier than any of us realized, as I realized when I asked him why the shows kept featuring Sixties-era TV actors as headliner guests instead of, I don’t know, inviting various literary science fiction stars. In fact, that was the argument I was giving him at the time. He just guffawed and told me that those actors were absolute gold for his shows. Nobody in the general public would give a flip about Gil Kane or Harlan Ellison as a guest star, but radio morning show hosts and “Weekend Guide” editors would go bonkers for the opportunity to relate “Hey, Bill Mumy of Lost In Space is going to be out at the show this weekend, so don’t miss out!” As much as it ground my jaws at the time, he was right, and a lot of attendees who’d sooner gnaw their own legs off than go to a comics convention raced out to the shows because of that connection.

And now the horticulture connection. Many of us GenXers may remember Heather Donahue, mostly for her starring role in the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project. Judging by a recent interview, I suspect that she’d appreciate a quote from former Butthole Surfers lead singer Gibby Haynes: “The worst thing in the world is to be famous with no money.” She apparently moved from acting into medical marijuana, and she’s currently on a tour to promote her upcoming book Growgirl: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot.

Reading the interview, I was struck by how much her life paralleled mine. In 1999, she was starring in The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, I was working for SCI Fi magazine, a publication that passed up on covering the original Blair Witch Project but made up for it with sycophantic coverage of Blair Witch 2. She dumped all of her acting memorabilia in the desert and moved into medical marijuana. I dumped all of my science fiction writing memorabilia on eBay and moved into carnivorous plants. She started taking medical marijuana to treat PMS. I was born just weeks before LSD became illegal in the US. She had concerns with writing about her experiences after a friend was busted by the Feds. I had concerns with writing about my experiences after confirming I had an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. She has fans in the millions, and will probably do very well with her book tour. I have fans in the dozens, and couldn’t give away my books with free beer. The similarities are just uncanny.

Horticulture and publishing, part 6

Folks, if I haven’t introduced you before, I’d like to introduce you to my old and dear friend Ernest Hogan, a writer of some great reputation and exceptional humility based out of Phoenix. Not only is Ernest an exceptional storyteller, as evidenced by his novels High Aztech and Smoking Mirror Blues, but I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I describe him as a Latino Ralph Steadman. Not only am I proud to call him friend, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the big brother I never had.

The importance of that last sentence comes through because we became friends during the famed zine revolution of the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those who either had other things going on at the time or are too young to remember a time before Web browsers, the advent of the Macintosh and compatible printer drivers caused a little bit of an explosion without anybody realizing it. People had been putting out their own little self-published magazines, referred to as “zines”, in the science fiction community for decades at that point, reproduced either by standard copiers or mimeographs, so the collusion of computer and printer was snapped up by the science fiction community like a duck on a June bug. This was facilitated by the number of corporations and other large businesses that wanted to save money in having newsletters and promotional flyers designed by professional printshops by utilizing the powers of “desktop publishing”. Before you knew it, you had a slew of individuals spending their days laying out operation manuals and direct-mail inserts, and borrowing the computer for a few hours after everyone had gone home to lay out a few more pages of a new magazine. Before too long, they weren’t just about science fiction, either: anything, and I mean anything, was open season.

When it first started, you didn’t have zine stores, or zine distribution, or even any easy way to discover what was out there. Oh, the zine Factsheet 5 stepped in after a while, but it was only a guide to the incredible riches that started sprouting up from the literary loam like mutant mushrooms. Didn’t like the fact that no existing magazine covered the sort of subjects you liked, or you thought a particular editor was an arrogant jerk, or you were tired of a publisher’s incessant hyping of projects that were either irrelevant or repulsive? Grab access to a computer and put out your own, or get together with a buddy and co-publish. A few hundred dollars in printing costs after doing the layout, and what were called “collating parties” to put each page in each issue into its proper place before binding, and you’ve got an actual magazine.

Ernest and I both came from that roiling quantum foam, albeit at different times. In those days before the Interwebs, most people found out about various zines from review sections in other zines, as well as the occasional blurb in a more mainstream publication. Many of those zines were started with the assumption that sales of the first issue would pay for the next year, and they faded. Others cratered when the editor/publisher got married, or lost his job, or suddenly decided that being catheterized with a bowling trophy was less painful than having to sift through the slush pile. Some editors and contributors were offered bigger jobs with bigger publications, which themselves had a tendency to implode. (Anybody remember Mondo 2000?) We and a whole load of other writers, artists, and interesting characters swam through that wonderful stew, including mutual troublemaker Chris DeVito, often getting out long enough to catch our breaths and then diving back in, and others getting out entirely. Much like how light can both be a particle and a wave, zine work was both vocation and addiction.

As with most waves, though, this one couldn’t last. The first sign anybody had concerning the death of the standard print zine was when accessing the Web went from requiring obscure gear at big government facilities and universities to having a computer that could run both Netscape Navigator and a modem. Considering that most Web access accounts at the time offered free Web site space, many of the people already obsessed with zines could move to the Web, get their fix of self-expression, and skip out on the printing costs. (As with their zines, about maybe 15 people were reading them online, but that was all they needed.) Many zine publishers went online, only to discover that their audiences didn’t move with them. Combine that with the takeover of the standard magazine sales market by the big chain bookstores, and a lot of good magazines went under when Borders would put in a gigantic order and return 90 percent of them to the distributor for credit on the next issue. The print zine didn’t die off entirely when Fine Print Distribution, the only real zine distributor, shut down at the end of 1997, but the “temporary hiatus” of Factsheet Five in 1998 was the only gravestone it got. Some of us moved to writing novels, and some of us quit writing entirely, and we all missed the days when there was literally no telling what strange and wonderful publication would show up in the mailbox on a given day.

Since then, Ernest and I keep discussing what happens next with magazine publishing. He and his lovely wife Em both worked for Borders on the side until its liquidation this year, and had all sorts of lovely tales about standard practices in the company, including the obscenely high return rates on most magazines. Borders managers refused to let employees shoo off the squatters who would come into the coffeehouse section with a big armful of magazines and read for free all day, and this apparently came from the absolute top. After a while, nobody had any incentive to buy those magazines if they could just read them for free. This had the beneficial effect for big publishers of getting a presumably wider audience for advertisers, and it also conveniently made sure that small magazine publishers couldn’t afford to enter the market unless they could afford to have half of a print run collected and thrown out by the distributor. Right now, the magazine market is deathly dull, and without some addition of life, the magazine as we know it right now may not survive another five years, much less the end of the decade.

And how does this affect horticulture? The reality is that gardening publications need to get a nice frag grenade enema, because “constipated” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. You have a lot of specialized magazines for particular interests, and these are great for existing enthusiasts, but new readers won’t know about them unless they happen to bump into them. (Some of you may have noticed that Bonsai Today isn’t in print any more. That’s not accidental.) Both Horticulture and Fine Gardening cater to the same readership that still reads daily newspapers, and any content for anybody under the age of 70 that shows up leads to interns being flogged for insolence. I for one would love a monthly periodical on a par with Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl, or even more gonzo if the readership would support it, but I also know that with the current distributor and retailer situation (as I like to say with my regular bouts of bronchitis, any idiot can cough up blood, but coughing up urine takes talent), trying to start a standard print magazine attempting to go for a younger gardening crowd is just nuts.

This is why I’m cackling like a loon over the premiere issue of Leaf magazine. I want to rest assured that I’m not laughing at the magazine. If anything, it’s a very readable and entertaining electronic-only alternative to both Horticulture and Fine Gardening. I’m just giggling and rubbing my hands together over the implications. It may be time for me to consider going back to editing.

The “To Be Read” book pile increases

There’s one good side to my gardening column being removed from “Gothic Beauty” magazine. I had a beautiful essay on setting up gardens best appreciated in the evening or night for the next column, and figured that since it was never going to be published, it could go up here on the blog. So be it. Well, one of the absolutes I discovered about writing those columns is that new material always presented itself after the new issue came out. In my researches, I’d never heard about Peter Loewer’s The Evening Garden: Flowers & Fragrances From Dusk ‘Til Dawn until it became one of the first entries in Timber Press’s print-on-demand program today.

Equally interesting is that Timber Press, not one afraid to sell books directly to its customers, decided not to sell its POD titles directly, and instead offers them only through other booksellers, online and otherwise. Want a copy? Give a yell to Nena Rawdah at St. Johns Booksellers, the Triffid Ranch’s official bookseller, and buy your copy from her. That’s what I’m doing in about five minutes.

Horticulture and publishing, part 5

Never, ever let it be said that the illustrious crew at Timber Press isn’t ahead of the curve. Just when I was getting ready to pump out another hubristic diatribe about potential options for horticulture publishers, Timber Press announces the start of its print-on-demand program. Considering that horticulture and gardening book buyers tend to hang onto our volumes for dear life (present company included), usually the only options for finding rarer volumes are to pay a book collector out the nose for an out-of-print edition, or to wait for a funeral of a gardening friend or acquaintance and then camp out in front of the house for the estate sale. (I only wish I were kidding about this. The Czarina regularly looks for odd items at estate sales, and we’ve run into some real pockets of humanity in the process.)

I have to admit that I was getting a bit cynical about print-on-demand books, but a lot of that came from watching the flood in the science fiction and fantasy genres of authors desperately trying to sell their books to each other because nobody else wanted them. This, though, demonstrates the merits of POD and E-books for longterm reproduction and availability of books with sales that can’t justify a standard print run. Now if someone will give this treatment to John Crompton’s The Hunting Wasp

Thursday is Resource Day

Well, lots of good news around the Triffid Ranch this week, starting with the fact that we have an official photographer. Her name’s Jenny, and you’ll be seeing lots of her work over the next year. Her specialty is macrophotography, and since I have the same aptitude for photography that a humpback whale has for ballet, it was time to call in a professional. Details will follow.

In other developments, Friday marks exactly three weekends until the next big Triffid Ranch show at FenCon VIII, so this is the time where I cast off all connections to family and friends and turn myself into a carnivorous plant hermit until September 26. The phone gets turned off, the doorbell disconnected, and a sign goes in the front yard reading “All Interlopers Will Be Fed To The Plants.” I just draw the line at putting the cats into uniforms for guard duty, although Leiber would make quite the fetching Dex-Starr. He certainly has the vomiting down pat.

And on the subject of shows, apparently the All-Texas Garden Show in February is no more, replaced with the First Annual Texas Home and Garden Show in Las Colinas. Not only will this be a welcome time for a garden show, right when what we jokingly call winter around here is at its gloomiest height, but it means a lack of conflict with the big North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington.

Anyway, time to go digging through the mailbag. One of the many joys was getting a Joey Box from Joey himself. He and Cheryl are having as much fun with horticulture as I am, so the Joey Boxes are even more interesting than they used to be two decades ago. Lots of horticulture-related reading, as well as the spring 2011 Logee’s Greenhouses catalog. I truly pray I’m never given carte blanche to shop at Logee’s, because this would be like giving William S. Burroughs his own key to a smack factory.

Otherwise, I became a premium member of the International Brugmansia and Datura Society in order to get its magazine Trumpeter, and I am very glad I’m already up to my eyeballs in carnivores. Very glad, because Brugmansia hybrids and cultivars could very easily take over my life. The new issue of Trumpeter proved this just with an article by Veronica Dykes on the decimation and recovery of her Brugmansia collection in last February’s horrible freezes here in Texas. Having nearly lost citrus and cactus collections and definitely losing some much-beloved Nepenthes in that week-long freeze, I had a lot of sympathy for her plight.

And before I forget, the Czarina has been making quite a few noises about getting her own Japanese lantern. (And go ahead and joke about what color she’d pick. I’m sure she’d be glad to sic Leiber on you and let him puke you to death.) The biggest problem with this was that most of the lanterns we’d found in the area were concrete, and honestly looked rather cheesy. That was when a friend at the day job let me know about Noble House and Garden in Flower Mound, with a very impressive collection of granite lanterns. Well, I know what she’s getting for our wedding anniversary this year.

Finally, one exception to the moratorium on weekend festivities may be to take a look at the 28th Annual Dallas Home & Garden Show on September 10. It’s time to consider the future of the garden show, and an evaluation of what this show is doing should give some ideas. And so it goes.

Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

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

The reality of the matter:

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

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

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

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

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

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

More books

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

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

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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