Tag Archives: evil experimentation

Renaissance Circles: Ginkgoes and Fruit-Eating Crocs

Ginkgo

A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.

This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.

Dr. Peter Crane

Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.

Ginkgo leaves

The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.

Ginkgo

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.

And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.

DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.

Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.

The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.

A prize in each box!

Over here at the Triffid Ranch, we get our share of value-added items in the mailbox. Several times, the good folks at FarmTek include extra surprises in a shipment, such as secateurs or thermometer/hygrometer sets, and I’m still trying to figure out who sent the set of gardening tools I received last Christmas. Well, you get surprises, and you get surprises, and one of the most interesting I’ve seen yet came from Thorlabs, Inc.

The reason why I put in an order for a ground glass diffuser will have to wait for a future post, save to note that, as the Czarina puts it, “it’s all that and a biscuit.” I couldn’t be happy enough with the diffuser and its final results, and I’m hoping to show the results in a formal paper soon. Either that, or for an article in Make. What surprised me, though, was that in addition to the two diffusers selected for my experiments, I found this in the box as well:

Lab Bites

Again, I’ve had surprises in packages before, especially when ordering plants from Sarracenia Northwest. This, though, was brand new. So was the legend on the side of the box:

Side of Lab Bites

Finally, a slight bit of explanation as to why this arrived with the diffusers:

Lip of Lab Bites

After reading the legend on the interior flap, I looked at the contents, and I suddenly understood. ThorLabs knows the sensibilities and tastes of its customers, especially the poor grad students usually assigned to order parts and components. Forget training teenagers to choose Coke over Pepsi: this is how you guarantee brand loyalty for life when it comes to scientific equipment.

Contents of Lab Bites

For the record, of course I shared. If you think nutritious snacks are a rarity in a grad student environment, you have no clue as to the lack of options around the herd of electrical engineers at the Day Job. The pretzel sticks are the only thing left so far, and I suspect they won’t be around for long. Well played, ThorLabs. Well played. If further experiments require further gear, they’ve got yet another customer for life.

Very, VERY bad ideas

For those unfamiliar with The Pitcher Plant Project, I heartily recommend spending a few hours going through the blog . Of particular note, though, is taking a look at The Sarracenia Sink, because I’ve been suggesting to the Czarina that I could up the ante a bit. Many of my neighbors are renovating bathrooms and kitchens, which means that a lot of perfectly serviceable toilets are left out front in time for Large Trash Day. I figure that it’s just a matter of sealing up the bottom, filling both bowl and tank with Sarracenia soil mix, planting a nice collection of pitcher plants and sundews, and bringing it to the next Triffid Ranch show. Not only is it a perfect example of classic Scottish frugality to make the world a better place, but Mother Scotland even gave me a perfect name for the arrangement: “The Bog Garden”. All it would need is an Ewan MacGregor action figure in it, and it would be perfect.

The only problem with this plan lies with the Czarina. See, her family is Welsh, not Scot, so she doesn’t agree that this is a brilliant plan. In fact, she stopped rolling her eyes or jabbing me with her elbows when we drive by an abandoned toilet and I suggest upcycling it. She only had one thing to say if I continued on this line of inquiry. I didn’t exactly hear what she was planning to do to my neck after she ripped my head off, but based on her tone, I’m going to have to surprise her with the end results.

A pressing need to buy some land

One of the many reasons why the Czarina and I are coming up on ten years of successful marriage is because we always bounce our insane business ideas off the other before we do anything. (Well, that’s one reason. Another one is that a steady diet of science fiction television shows as a kid meant that I have a decided attraction to women much smarter than I am. Friends went crazy over girls in Slave Leia outfits, while I had much more interest in the Maya/Delenn/Saavik/Martha Jones girls in school. The Czarina, in turn, has one particular type: Rik Mayall.) The idea is that we hone project proposals and show concepts until they’re stable and reasonable, and then let the other burn big holes in those proposals and concepts with acetylene torches and thermite. If they don’t collapse, implode, or catch fire after the interrogation, then they’ll probably work in real life. After a decade of the Czarina giggling with glee as some of my business proposals crawl on the floor, begging for a quick death, preparing for an oral defense of my Ph.D thesis is going to be a doddle.

Don’t think that we necessarily enjoy this. It’s bad enough that we’ve watched a lot of retail concepts, ones that would have worked at any time other than the worst recession in the last 80 years, died because the concept planned for profitability in three years instead of six. We both have equipment purchased from once-successful and once-popular companies at their liquidation sales. Most of all, I was in incredible lust for a defunct garden center in Plano a few years back: the garden center had been in business for 30 years before the founders sold it to their son, he decided to neglect the longtime customers in favor of getting into high-end landscaping, and defaulted on his business loans when the real estate bust hit and his big clients decided not to pay their bills. It’s not just because we wanted to avoid really bad business ideas, such as starting a street-corner circus troupe or opening a bookstore with no money down.

As far as that garden center was concerned, I didn’t go for it for multiple reasons. The least of which was having three-quarters of a million dollars on hand, which is what the property was valued at the beginning of 2009. (The garden center itself was recently bulldozed to clear the land, because any other potential buyers felt the way I did.) The other big reason is that while the Triffid Ranch is nowhere near ready for a full-time retail presence, getting a more serious growing environment is becoming pressing. This requires buying land, and the rest of the garden center can wait.

Right now, two things conspire against me on finding a suitable tract of property, properly zoned for agricultural activities and not harboring hidden munitions dumps or chemical waste caches. (Don’t laugh. Around here, it happens.) The first is that North Texas is flat, meaning that only the occasional creekbed and the even more occasional lake or reservoir prevents farmland from being used for other things, such as strip malls or apartment complexes. In fact, those minor impediments have never stopped local developers unless city ordinances, state laws, and smacks in the head stop them. I once watched as a large apartment complex was condemned because the developer built right to the edge of a creekbed, and a sudden gullywasher wiped out the foundations on five buildings and the tennis court. This means that odd little spaces perfect for carnivorous plant propagation just aren’t available.

The other big part of the conspiracy lies with the owners. The Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex owes most of its growth, most of its problems, and most of its desirability on being able to expand outward, and only $4 gasoline has made the idea of living a two-hour drive from one’s place of employment unacceptable. During the real estate boom, developers bought every last bit of farmland they could get, with intentions to flip it to anyone actually planning to use it. Some of these developers are hanging on in the hopes that 2006 land prices will return, because Some Guy told them that it would happen any day now. Others were foreclosed upon, and then their banks went under and their assets acquired by other banks that themselves blew up. The same thing happened during the oil bust of the late Eighties and the bank bust of the early Nineties, when the game was “This is Thursday, so our owner is Hibernia Bank”. If the property has a sign on it, you have a 50/50 chance of the contact name and phone number being four years obsolete, with the realtor returned to a more suitable career in child pornography or regional magazine journalism, and a lot of good lots had the big wooden signs chainsawed down three years ago. They might come back onto the market before 2020, and the Dallas Cowboys might win a shutout World Series pennant this year, too.

This is why I feel particular jealous rage toward the Idiot Gardener, who apparently found his perfect locale. I’m certain that the Czarina can sympathize with his wife: we regularly drive past a failed experiment with Home Depot for a landscape supply outlet, already set up as a full greenhouse, and she has to listen to me whimper about how all I need to do is sell body parts to take over the space. Telling her “I didn’t say they had to be my body parts” doesn’t help, either.

And so the search continues. Licensing and financing issues are entertaining enough, but then we get into the discussions of renting said land versus buying it. Now that’s one route I won’t take unless I can’t help it, as a particular favorite nursery of mine shut down in 2000 when the property owner decided to sell the space and gave the nursery 30 days’ notice. (I’ll note that the property is still up for sale and still empty, as the price quoted by Some Guy as its value isn’t close to a reasonable price.) One thing is absolutely certain, though. If anyone had told me a decade ago that I’d be researching farmland prices and checking for spring flooding, I’d have called that person a loony. Today, I’d hand that person a spare smartphone and said “Call this realtor and see if anyone’s made an offer on that corner lot.”

“I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing.”

The weather has been strange in North Texas, but not as strange as it was last year. That said, we’ve had odd fluctuations in both temperature and humidity, with mixed results among the carnivores. The flytraps and butterworts love the available prey, and they can’t complain about surprisingly cool mornings. The Sarracenia, though, are having a few problems, and it’s because they’re a little too good at their jobs.

One of the last things a wasp ever sees

For the uninitiated, this is the throat of a North American pitcher plant hybrid, Sarracenia spp.. For a lot of insects, this is one of the last things they’ll ever see. The hood on top secretes nectar that attracts everything from gnats to wasps, and the throat of the pitcher produces even more. On good days, you can actually see wasps hanging on with their rearmost pair of legs, desperately trying to keep their balance and not fall in. If they do, well, they aren’t getting out. The nectar contains a drug called coniine, getting the bug drunk in small doses and becoming lethal in large ones, so that only improves the odds that they’ll slip.

Unlike the other plants worldwide that garner the name “pitcher plant”, Sarracenia are a bit more aggressive in retaining prey. Sarracenia shares with its distant cousins a wide throat area lined with wax, so dislodged insects that lose their grips slide inside. Like their cousins, the throat is shaped so that any bug that tries to fly out finds that it’s actually pulled deeper into the plant’s trap. (This isn’t completely true, as some insects and their larvae regularly feed on larger relations that can’t escape. However, we’re talking about the majority.) About a third of the way down, though, the inside of the pitcher is lined with sharp and strong downward-pointing hairs, and I can attest from bloody experience as to their strength and sharpness. (Let’s just say that cutting a damaged pitcher in half lengthwise and running your finger the wrong way up the pitcher interior isn’t exactly like running your finger up a bandsaw blade, but the effect is much the same.) Trapped bugs get a choice: fight the flow of the hairs and get punctured, or keep going down. Ultimately, the bugs run out of “down”, and that’s when the plant secretes digestive enzymes and breaks down the doomed critter. The plant absorbs needed nitrogen and phosphorus, and the vermin census in the immediate vicinity is down by one.

Sarracenia heartburn

As just about everyone who ever keeps Sarracenia is concerned, the plants are absolute pigs. In particularly lively periods for bugs, the pitchers can literally fill to the rim, with insects falling in and then crawling right out over the corpses of their brethren. In more insidious cases, though, one can see these strange burn spots on the pitcher sides, looking as if someone took a lighter to the trap. Beginners understandably panic about a blight or other disease and start spraying, but the real reason is a bit more insidious.

Let's take a look inside, shall we?

To find out more, you have to give whole new meaning to “peeking under the hood”. With a gentle touch, it’s possible to bend the hood back and take a look inside. (Afterwards, wash your hands, and make sure that you don’t put your fingers in your eyes or mouth before doing so. I’ve never had a problem with coniine toxicity, but that’s probably because I don’t take risks with the same active ingredient that makes hemlock-cooked hot dogs so tasty.)

Sarracenia interior

And here’s the problem. The previous few days saw two major factors that affected this Sarracenia: ridiculously dry days and ridiculously moth-filled nights. The relative humidity outdoors reached as low as 15 percent, meaning that the plant couldn’t produce its digestive fluids as quickly as it would have liked. Since Sarracenia don’t have teeth or other structures to increase the surface area exposed to enzymes, the trapped moths, and there are a lot of moths down there, started to rot before the plant could digest them. If the rot is bad enough, it burns the inside of the leaf, working its way out, leading to those scars on the outside of the trap.

Now, this can happen in different circumstances, usually involving extremely low temperatures or lack of sunlight. In this case, it was caused purely by low humidity combined with especially intense sun due to that lack of humidity. (The sun was intense enough to give some of my cactus sunburn, and it helped keep me inside until dark.) Either way, the affected pitchers themselves will die, ultimately, but the portions that didn’t burn will continue to take advantage of the nitrogen bounty and pass that to the rest of the plant. By September or October, this will be a very, very happy pitcher plant.

As an aside, when watching Sarracenia in the wild or in collections, keep an eye open for other interlopers. When I was first exposed to Sarracenia when living in Tallahassee a decade ago, I noted the number of green tree frogs that camped out in the pitchers. It’s a very handy relationship for both plant and frog. The frog has a place to hide from predators, and prey comes to it instead of the other way around. The plant effectively gets a set of teeth, as the frog snatches prey too large for the plant to digest effectively and then uses the pitcher as a toilet afterwards. The plant certainly isn’t complaining about getting its nitrogen pre-chewed, and if the frog dies of natural causes, then the plant gets a bit more. Other animals will take advantage of the situation, particularly spiders, but you’d be amazed at the variety. I regularly get baby Hemidactylus turcicus geckos that stalk both Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitchers in search of an easy meal, and they also don’t complain about having a good hiding locale in the middle of the day. I’ll just start worrying when I find fence swifts and other lizards in there, too.

I get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

It’s amazing what you can get done on a three-day weekend

You know, most people spend a three-day holiday weekend lazing about, or puttering, or maybe getting a few things done that the normal schedule doesn’t allow. Oh, we did quite a bit of that. Date night on Saturday night was a matinee showing of John Carter, so the Czarina finally got the chance to see what was the big deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s secondmost famous creation. (Because she still has pattern nightmares over seeing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch twenty years ago, I didn’t bring up the singular horror of continuing the conceit from Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” and suggest the idea of A Princess Of Mars as written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice. Mugwumps instead of Tharks, for instance. One of these days, though, I will, when she last expects it, and her scimitar elbows will wail in the night.)

Instead, time was spent with The Plants. Plural. A new shipment of Nepenthes came in, so I can compare the suitability of several new species and hybrids for Texas life, which meant Saturday morning was spent frantically repotting them in fresh sphagnum moss. Friday was spent cleaning up the last of the mess from Tuesday’s tornado April Madness, which included clipping dead Sarracenia leaves, repotting bladderworts and triggerplants, and checking on hot pepper seedlings. On the last, thanks to the kind folks at the Chile Pepper Institute and Dilly’s Chilis, this summer should yield quite a crop of both Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers for those with that sort of inclination. At least, that’s the hope, and if hope was all I needed, half of Texas would have been covered with Roridula gorgonias plants last September. And so it goes.

Anyway, pulling weeds and picking whitefly makes you ask all sorts of interesting questions, and now half of my best questions are ones that require my going back to school to get answers. Some are the sort that require so much expertise that I’d probably have a couple of Ph.D theses by the time I had them answered to my satisfaction. Now, I could be greedy and hang onto these, or pass them on to folks who can do something with them. Even if the only response is a quick smack to the back of my head, at least I’ll know that someone else considered them.

The first one was relatively easy. Deadheading the current crop of Stylidium debile made me wonder if any suitably dedicated botany grad student has continued sequencing triggerplant genomes to view interrelationships between the species and with other plants. Some work is available, but dating from back in the Twentieth Century, and this only nailed down close relations to the Stylidacea. I’m considering some molecular palaeontology, by comparing the various species within Stylidium of Australian origin with those in Japan and South America. I have absolutely no proof right now, especially no fossil proof, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Stylidium or its forebears had as much variety and range in Antarctica before it froze in the Pliocene as the genus has in Australia today. Comparing genes of Australian species to those in Tierra del Fuego won’t prove that the genus used Antarctica as a bridge for a time, but it may give some additional lanes of study for understanding how the flora of Gondwana evolved as the supercontinent broke apart.

And the other? Again, this requires expertise and resources that I certainly won’t be getting any time soon. Last spring, I had a bit of an accident with several propagation flats full of Sarracenia pitcher plants. In an effort to get a more dependable source for drainage material than standard horticultural perlite, I decided to experiment with Growstone, an artificial pumice made from recycled glass. Naturally, after the plants were set and starting to emerge from winter dormancy, I get a call from the retailer, letting me know that the batch I’d purchased had a problem keeping a neutral pH. In other words, it was just a little too alkaline for most hydroponic options, and was definitely too alkaline for most carnivorous plants. Of course, I learned this right about the time the drought and heat of 2011 really kicked in, so I wasn’t sure if the plants were dying because of high pH or because they hadn’t evolved to grow and reproduce in a lead smelter.

Well, cleaning up some of last year’s batch, something interesting came up with the plants planted with Growstone as a drainage medium. Namely, most of the Sarracenia that survived were stunted and twisted, and others grew incredibly slowly. Purple pitchers, Sarracenia purpurea, though, grew much faster than expected. At that point, I remembered previous reading on how S. purpurea spread all through the eastern seaboard of North America, and then took a hard left and spread into Michigan, Ontario, and Alberta. Of particular note was that they seemed to do rather well in marl bogs in northern Michigan, and marl is extremely alkaline.

And there started the queries. S. purpurea obviously had a higher tolerance to alkaline conditions than its cousins, but how much of a higher tolerance? Did plants in the Michigan marl bogs grow more slowly than ones in more acidic soils, and was the alkalinity the only factor affecting slow growth? Best of all, what gene did S. purpurea have that its cousins lacked, what did that gene do besides control alkalinity tolerance, and could that gene be transferred to other Sarracenia? Was this something that could be introduced via standard crossbreeding techniques, or is the pH tolerance gene sufficiently recessive that it isn’t expressed in other species?

Now you understand why I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Most people would use a gigantic windfall to quit their jobs or go on perpetual vacation. Me, I’d enroll in a school with an exemplary natural history and botany program, and I wouldn’t leave until I had my answers or a professorship, whichever came first. In the meantime, I do what I can, and pass on some of these questions to friends that can do something with them. I just tell those friends “Now, remember, after you get back with your Nobel Prize money, you owe me dinner, okay?”

Extreme Scot Frugality, Demonstrated

I’ll admit that, for someone my age, I have precious few freakouts over the times changing. If anything, anyone offering me the chance to go back to 1982, with or without my retaining everything that I’ve learned in the last thirty years, would get punched in the nose. (Well, that’s not completely fair. I’d go back for an hour, bushwhack my previous self from ’82 as he was coming home from school, break both knees, tell him to get his act together and quit journalism or I’d come back to finish the job, and then return to the present. But that’s just me.) Just when it comes to horticulture, viewing the new techniques, the new knowledge, and the new materials available that didn’t exist even five years ago blows me away. At least once a week, I look at how I can order seeds from South Africa and get detailed care instructions on plants indigenous to New Zealand, and set them underneath LED light systems designed to maximize the light usable by the plants while minimizing energy consumption. When I exclaim “I love living in the future,” I mean it.

As things change, though, I have to admit that sometimes while I don’t miss the past, I miss some of the side effects. I don’t miss the dank old decrepit hardware store in town, with the elderly owner who spent more time in day-long xenophobic diatribes than, say, sweeping the floors. However, I occasionally miss the days before elaborate point-of-sale systems at Home Depot, where I didn’t have to buy up the entire stock of an item I liked for fear that it would be discontinued and dumped in the “Clearance” aisle a week later. I don’t miss Sevin dust all over the cabbages by well-meaning relatives, but I actually miss bamboo leaf rakes that don’t cost the gross national product of Bosnia and that last more than one season. I like the automatic checkouts at garden centers. And I was surprised at how little I miss newspapers, but how much I find myself dependent upon newspapers a day or so later.

Odd as it sounds, newspaper has a million-and-five uses in the garden, and the decline of newspapers means that we’ll need new materials to replace it. Need to kill off grass in a new garden plot? Most garden guides recommend putting down several layers of newspaper over the grass, and then piling on fresh soil on top. Need a separation material between the various sheets of composting material in a lasagna garden? Nothing works better than newspaper. Remember the joys of making your own newspaper seed starter pots? Exactly how are you supposed to conserve on available resources if you’re having to buy sheets of paper to make them? Let’s see you use your iPad to pack up bare-root plants for transport, or to line a manure hotbed pit before filling it to the brim.

Until a few years ago, not buying the daily paper wouldn’t stop a dedicated gardener. Besides asking neighbors who were probably glad to hand over the 20 kilos of Sunday paper, you always had relatives who’d stack up the last few months’ reading matter until they decided it was time to dump it all. Go to work and stalk the break room, and the place would be loaded with discarded papers by about 10 in the morning. If that wasn’t an option, most cities had weekly newspapers that laughingly suggested “One copy is free; all other copies $2” on the front cover, with a handy address to receive the money. There was a bit of redundancy in spreading composted chicken manure over the Dallas Observer and its resident James Lipton of fandom‘s 60,000-word blatherings each week on comic books and Star Trek, but what can you do?

These days, though, finding a suitable supply of newsprint for gardening is quite the task. I have a friend and co-worker who does a lot of glasswork in his offtime, and he goes through a lot of newsprint during the shaping process. He finally filled a storage shed full of old newspapers, picked up Elvis-knows-where, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a new source. At the rate things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gardeners start stalking out crazy cat lady houses the way blacksmiths stalk out decommissioned wrought-iron bridges in the hopes of getting a suitable stockpile.

This isn’t to say that this is impossible. In my neighborhood, I already have a regular source for newspaper, and I don’t have to work at it. I just have to look for the sign.
For Rent sign

Now, for years, Dallas gardeners could always depend upon getting tremendous quantities of free newspapers from the Dallas Morning News, delivered every other day. That is, until a little circulation scandal that horrified the CEO of the company (wink, wink), and suddenly stopped the flow of valuable paper pulp when advertisers threatened a class action suit. Never let a good idea go to waste, the CEO thought, so suddenly the Morning News‘s parent company started offering several free options that included Briefing and Al Dia. Much like disliked relations, they tend to arrive unannounced and unwanted, with the recepient left with the responsibility of disposing of them. Although I imagine the parent company would like to tell advertisers that each issue gets opened and read by an adoring family of eight at each and every address, most Briefing issues are dumped in the garbage as quickly as they’re received or (in the case of a neighbor who was particularly disgusted with the littering of his yard) tossed into the street. At least twice a week, a surly delivery guy drops them off, and asking said delivery drone to not drop it off gets a snarl, a rude gesture, or a frantic chirp of “Call the home office! Call the home office!” And don’t get me going about actually calling the home office, because any attempt to stop delivery gets repeated phone calls asking “Are you sure? After all, you’ll miss out on valuable coupons in each paper,” in an age of QR codes.

Besides, what we’re gunning for here isn’t just a discussion of the increasing self-inflicted obsolescence of print newspapers. It’s a matter of knowing that you accomplished something good in the garden and in your neighborhood by taking something unwanted and unloved and turning it into something beautiful. Besides, we want a LOT of papers. This is why you want to look for those “For Sale/For Rent” signs. It’s because, in areas where Briefing and Al Dia are delivered, you get sights like this:

Pile of Belo Briefings

The Briefing delivery guys don’t care that their papers pile up for days, weeks, or even months, because their bosses are insistent that they get them out. Their bosses don’t care, because they don’t have to clean copies of Briefing off their lawns every other day. (The Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas County has strict ordinances involving the dumping of unwanted trash in public view, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of the county.) You could subscribe to Briefing and get those papers one bit at a time, or you could keep an eye open for houses under construction, houses abandoned in foreclosure, or houses between residents and literally clean up. Trust me: not only will the neighbors not have issues with your swiping the piles, but they’ll probably thank you for your conscientiousness in caring for your community.

Assorted Belo crap

What you do with those copies of Briefing depends upon your intent and their condition. Get a couple of weeks of dry weather, and those piles will be close to pristine. Get out after a good North Texas gullywasher, and you’d think those sopping wet lumps are unusable. Pshaw! Dump them into any decent grade of wood chipper, and you have a wonderful mass of moist paper fiber for all sorts of things. Add grass seeds before dumping it onto a bald patch in the yard, and you have hydromulch. Put the pulp in the bottom of flowerpots to retain water and cut down on the weight of standard potting mixes. Mix it with dirt to shore up raised beds, or use it as a proper mulch for roses and around irises. Compress it in bowls and paint with nontoxic paints to make seasonal toad houses. You’re making your community more beautiful in more ways than one, and for free.

I know this doesn’t help gardeners in other areas with their lack of gardening foolscap, but this might give you ideas on available sources in your area. For Dallas-area gardeners, though, take advantage of the surprise bounty, and make sure to send pictures of the process to the crew at the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure they and their advertisers would love to learn how much of an influence they have upon the horticultural arts.

– A tip of the hat to Barry Kooda, who has been dealing with the delivery of Briefing to empty lots in his neighborhood for a lot longer than I have.

Peering upon Hello Kitty hell

So far as I can tell, and as far as the chronicler of Hello Kitty Hell can attest, almost nothing in this universe is too foul, too sacrosanct, or too pure to be turned into a licensing tool for Sanrio’s Hello Kitty juggernaut. And yes, I mean the term “juggernaut” in its original sense, as in “something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice.” Ar-15 rifles, age-inappropriate halloween costumes, pipes, sex toys…I’m waiting for Hello Kitty-branded Mars rovers and thermonuclear weapons next.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Hello Kitty cult has infected gardening. And that’s fine. Really. Much like being one of the only businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that hasn’t received a “Best of Dallas” award from D magazine (mostly because the main qualification for being one of the 783 entrants in each and every category, as announced every month, is paying for the advertising space), the Triffid Ranch is and will always remain Sanrio-free. No Hello Kitty planters, no tomato stakes, no terraria, and no cow manure compost. With the last, that would be redundant.

However, I can understand the appeal of attaching one’s products to an existing brand and running with it, hoping that this translates to business for the company’s other products. I just need to find something a bit more wholesome than Hello Kitty. You don’t think that Peter Jackson would have any issues giving a license for a line of Meet the Feebles garden gnomes, do you?

Ensuring marital bliss, one aneurysm at a time

The end of January, particularly this January, can be the most cruel of times for Texas gardeners. The wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity, one day below freezing and the next too warm for jackets, tempt even the most wizened souls to attempt something in the garden. Logic tells you that anyone planting anything frost-intolerant in North Texas before the middle of March is an idiot, and that your only options are putting in dormant fruit trees and maybe a batch of brassicas, such as bok choi or Brussels sprouts. One look outside on a morning like today, though, and logic gets shouted down: “C’mon. LOOK at it. We could probably get in a good two dozen orange trees and a row of tomatoes before lunch.”

It’s especially rough on me because of the weather. Having barely survived the big bout of flu that took us both down over the last two weeks, the Czarina listened to my coughing nearly to the point of vomiting and stated with authority “You are NOT allowed to get pneumonia this year.” Although I fear her proclamations as much as her elbows, I think she’s being completely unfair. If I get pneumonia, syphilis, Dutch Elm Blight, and kuru before May, I’ll have enough purchase points to get Captain Trips and hemmorhagic fever for free. The dealer will even throw in a couple of intestinal parasites and an ingrown toenail if I get in before the deadline.

The Czarina’s complete and total inflexibility on these matters is why I don’t tell her about some of the new projects I have planned. She won’t let me get a crocodile monitor, she won’t let me get a display case for a crocodile monitor, and she definitely won’t let me set up my orbital laboratory and death ray, even if I pay for it from my own allowance. Is it really my fault, then, that I spend my rainy day fund on new garden sculpture?

And yes, the sound you hear from the horizon is the sound of Czarina elbow piercing the top of my skull. You’d think I’d have learned after I told her I wanted to have a Meet the Feebles-themed birthday party just after we got married.

The definition of insanity

Okay, so last year’s seed experimentation didn’t work quite as well as I’d thought. Of course, you try predicting a “drought of record” back last January. Looking at the list of floral experiments from 2011, and it’s only slightly less painful than Bhut Jolokia-based jock itch creme. (Interestingly, the Bhut Jolokia plants were some of the only successes in 2011, and they’re going to make spectacular bonsai this summer.) Triggerplants, Nepenthes, Sarracenia, Drosera…on and on and on.

One of the learning-experience projects involved trying to see if the South African protocarnivore Roridula will do well in Texas. For those unfamiliar with the genus, Roridula superficially resembles a sundew or rainbow plant, in that its leaves are covered with sticky adhesive threads intended for trapping insect prey. The difference between the two species of Roridula and all other known species of sticky-leaf carnivore is that Roridula secretes resin instead of mucilage as its trapping adhesive, and digestive enzymes can’t pass through the resin. In the wild, Roridula compensates for this with a symbiotic relationship with at least one native species of ambush bug. The plant traps prey which is then fed upon by the ambush bugs, and the ambush bugs reciprocate by defecating on the plant’s leaves. The leaves have special channels intended to capture said feces, so it’s carnivorous by proxy thanks to that foliar feeding. Considering that stories circulate about the larger species of Roridula, R. gorgonias, capturing small birds, both bugs and plants seem to flourish under this relationship.

Not that I’m wanting the ambush bugs (although I’m intrigued as to whether Texas-native ambush bugs, such as our famed wheel bug, might fill the niche), but I’m very curious as to how well either Roridula species might do in Dallas once established. Hence, I ordered a small bundle of seeds of R. gorgonias and sowed them under recommended soil and light conditions. Unfortunately, this was right about the time the drought really set in and the relative humidity came awfully close to negative numbers, so no seedlings. I still have hope, though, that maybe the seeds needed a bit of cold treatment, so the pots remain outside for the winter, and if they don’t sprout by May, then I’ll give it up as a bad experiment.

The real danger is with doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. As Mark Twain told us, that’s the definition of insanity. That’s also the definition of gardening. Since the cold outdoors is just enough to make me a bit stir-crazy, it was time to put in an order with Silverhill Seeds in Cape Town and see how well the smaller species, R. dentata, might do this summer. Results to follow.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In the incessant kvetching about Dallas weather, I should bring up that we have a phrase for it: “If you don’t like it, hang around for ten minutes and it’ll change.” Last week? Subfreezing temperatures. This week? Rain and highs more suitable for Miami. I don’t recommend North Texas for anyone with respiratory issues such as a proclivity toward pneumonia, because if the pollen doesn’t kill you, the wild fluctuations in ambient temperatures will shiv you in the bathtub and watch you die.

That’s what hit Friday morning: sore throat, voice like a five-pack-a-day cigar smoker, and just enough of a fever to bring on some particularly interesting auditory hallucinations. Either that, or the cats really did learn how to talk. All I can say for sure is that I woke up late on Friday afternoon, fever burned out, and I did what any sane person would do. I started to clean the house.

Before I start into the details, consider the warring factions in my psyche that I inherited from both sides of my family. As mentioned previously, my father’s Scot heritage generally manifests itself as a thriftiness and frugality that comes dangerously close to packrat tendencies. Oh, who am I kidding? My sister constantly and bitterly complains about the two-seat hovercraft my dad bought at a police auction in the Nineties, and I refuse to get involved, partly because it’s none of my business and partly because I would have done the same thing. My mother, though, manifests her Irish/German/Cherokee heritage through control of her surroundings that pushes minimalism. The worst fight I ever saw them get into involved her donating his high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill, only some quarter-century later. What this means is that all of their kids collect…and collate…and make plans only to get delayed…and then BOOM!

(I’d like to note for the record that if I thought there was a market for it, I’d market a proposal for a comic book miniseries involving a nice Dunwich boy who married a nice Innsmouth girl, and the exploits of their adult children. It would be a combination of horror and comedy, and completely autobiographical.)

Anyway, one of the sore points in the house as of late was the office. When we moved in the spring of 2010, we were already horribly behind on getting ready for the move for various reasons, and I horribly underestimated exactly how many books I had in the library. Ever get that sick feeling when starting what should be a ten-minute chore that stretches into hours and days? By the end of May, that was my basic state of being. Get up, go to the Day Job, go home, pack, haul another truckload over to the new house, go to sleep, get up another four hours later…and all of this on top of getting ready for our big show of the year. After a while, you stop worrying about deciding where everything is supposed to go, and you focus on just getting it into boxes. Those then go into a back corner of a room somewhere until you can deal with them, which you never do because you’re too busy dealing with everything else that needs to be done during a normal workweek and weekend. I’d plan vacation time after Christmas to dig into it, and the Czarina would have her post-Christmas meltdown and decree that we were leaving town for our anniversary. Combine that with our mutual book addictions and the number of friends and bystanders who’d send odd plant- or dinosaur-related items that would go atop the pile, and it’s no surprise that witnesses would ask “Are you SURE that Hunter S. Thompson is dead? It looks like he’s been camping out here for the last month.”

"The back-alley ambiance was so foul, so incredibly rotten."

That last comment particularly hurts when your 11-year-old niece says it. Just saying.

I’d already planned to take the week after Christmas off and do nothing but focus on the mess. This included threatening the Czarina that if we went anywhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I’d tell the investigating detective “I didn’t defenestrate her, sir. I just threw her out a window.” Well, that’s what I told myself: one view of her rapier-sharp elbows and the word “please” was used quite often, and not just as part of the phrase “please don’t kill me”. However, something about reaching the terminal stage of Dutch Elm Blight made my mother’s heritage grab my father’s in a rather rude place and scream “Shove off,” and I started pulling stacked books off the shelves and alphabetizing them where they belonged. And filling boxes full of obsolte gardening catalogs for recycling. And tearing through an already-impressive magazine collection and deciding what I’d keep and what was going to Half Price Books.

One of the nice things about having a very comfortable relationship with the Czarina is that I can drop all sorts of worrisome comments and she doesn’t kill me where I stand. For instance, last week, I finally admitted to her that after book tour events in 2009 and 2010, I slept with a fan immediately afterwards, and she beat me to saying “And you were already married to her, weren’t you?” This way, when she came home on Friday evening and the first words out of my mouth were “It’s not what it looks like,” she just blinked at the piles of boxes and magazines and blinked instead of preparing to show me my own gall bladder. Then she looked at the office and screamed. Even better, it was a good scream.

And so it continues. The gardening magazine sale at Half Price brought in enough money that I could get her another Christmas present. I’ve cracked open and discarded boxes that I’ve been dragging around, still sealed in packing tape, since 1996. I now understand why so many dedicated bibliophiles now have PDAs or smartphone apps that track all of their books, because I discovered a good two dozen that I’d repurchased at least once because I couldn’t remember if I already had it. (These will be up for an upcoming Joey Box giveaway after the holidays. I promise.) The Czarina dances through the house, giggling about how she expected to find me dead in a crapalanche by now, and I just tell her that with the change in my pockets, I’m still worth more dead than alive. Best of all, remember my mentioning the odd dinosaur-related stuff received from friends and cohorts? We found a home for one of the biggest pieces.

First, a bit of preamble. The Czarina and I have been friends of Mel Hynes, the writer of the classic Webcomic Two Lumps, for nearly a decade, and Mel has a habit of surprising friends with really odd acquisitions that she finds via eBay. One day, she called and asked us to meet her at her apartment, because she’d found “the absolute perfect Christmas present for Paul.” I loved it, but the Czarina just looked sick and asked Mel “And what did I do to you?”

Part of the Czarina’s concern was that we really didn’t have a place to display it. It couldn’t go over the mantelpiece because of a beautiful glass display given to her by a mutual friend, and she was insistent that it didn’t need to go up in the living room. It then sat in my old office for the next five years, and it went into the back closet of the new office when we moved in. The Czarina kept making noises about putting it in the garage, but that required risking massive catastrophic crapalanches to get to it. Now, with the extensive bulldozing and palaeoarchaeological expedition going on, one path leading to bedrock gave me strength, and it came out. And when you see where it went, blame the Czarina for it.

Damocles the Nanotyrannus

Yes, this is a life-sized Nanotyrannus bust. Yes, this is in my bathroom. Directly over the toilet, in fact. I call him “Damocles”. This is a friendly warning: if I could do this much with a bout of Dutch Elm Blight, you’d best pray I never get smallpox.

Thursday is Resource Day: Making Jack Skellington Proud

Dallas still hasn’t seen any snow, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, Christmas for Dallas, which us also known as “July in Calgary”. The nights are frosty, the mornings chilly, and the evenings ridiculously clear and bright. And we know what this means, right? It means we have only 327 more days until Halloween. More importantly, we have 328 days until everyone’s literally giving away pumpkins.

Go ahead and laugh, but those of us who can’t drink and can’t smoke need new methods to survive the holiday season and the dark days of January and February. Sure, I could go for established techniques learned in my childhood, such as indoor gardening, fishkeeping, or impromptu games of Russian roulette with friends. Instead, I wait until the local charity pumpkin patches need to get rid of their excess pumpkins on All Saint’s Day, and I then spend the next week preparing pumpkin seeds. Yes, it’s boring and sedate, but it also means that I’m up to my armpits in roasted pumpkin seeds, and THAT’s what gets me through Christmas.

The basic idea of pumpkin seed roasting is pulling the seeds out of a freshly opened jack-o-lantern, washing them, and roasting them in an oven or grille until they’re slightly crunchy. No big deal, and any number of people do it every Halloween. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of seeds per pumpkin means that it’s not really practical to experiment with roasting or with flavorings. For that, you’ll need a lot of pumpkin seeds. Since you need approximately five pumpkins for a liter of seeds, you’ll need a lot of pumpkins.

This is also problematic in North Texas, just because of our heat and dryness. All plants have pores, or stomata, on the tops of their leaves to allow transpiration of water. Some of this water is excess produced during photosynthesis, but most is drawn up through the plant’s roots to allow movement of water and nutrients to the leaves. Pumpkins are particularly interesting in that they have stomata on both sides of their leaves, thus doubling their transpiration output. This is great in areas with high humidity and slightly cooler temperatures, but most attempts in Dallas to grow pumpkins fail for one good reason: the plant ends up losing more water from transpiration than it can draw through its roots, and it ultimately wilts and dies. The only year I’ve had a traditional jack-o-lantern survive the summer was during the unnaturally wet 2007 summer, and I even lost that one to termites. (Yes, termites. Very long story.)

Since trying to grow them outdoors is impossible, starting the process requires getting a good collection of pumpkins from other sources. Many fundraiser “pumpkin patch” stands pop up around the beginning of October, so make friends with a few and see what they’re going to do with their pumpkins. If the fundraiser is for a charity you appreciate or support, offer a donation in exchange for going through their excess. If they say “Oh, go ahead and help yourself,” offer a donation anyway, and they’ll remember you as the person who helped clear out their unwanted pumpkins. Sometimes this pays off.

Pecos Fresh label

In my case, this wasn’t going to happen, particularly because of the collapse of the jack-o-lantern crop in the Northeast US due to Hurricane Irene’s flooding. However, my local Kroger store had a surplus from the Rio Grande Valley, and a week after Halloween, the manager had marked them down to “10 for $10”. $40 and some very strange looks from the Kroger checkers later, I had a car full of pumpkins. Ten minutes after that, I had a back yard full of pumpkins.

Handy tip #1: make sure that you have a vehicle capable of hauling your bounty, and without the bounty pile shifting and pummelling your head while attempting to drive back home. I stopped at 40 pumpkins this time, mostly so the coroner’s report didn’t read “assaulted by squash after a sudden stop,” but were I to have a big enough collection, renting a truck is an option.

Raw pumpkins

Now, once you have your pumpkins out of their transport and in a good massacree area, you’ll need proper tools for suitable processing. These should include:
Tools for dispatching pumpkins

  • A tub or bucket suitably large for holding seeds and water (you’ll see why later)
  • A sharpened machete or other long blade
  • Salt in standard packages: one kilo for every 30 pumpkins
  • A pair of cotton or gardener’s gloves
  • A pair of atex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves
  • 2 Baking sheets (preferably ones that won’t be missed if stained or damaged)
  • Your choice of spices

If you’re working on a porch or other blacktop or concrete area, get a stump or log section to use for chopping pumpkins. Since you’re going to be working for a while, I also recommend having some sort of music player with something a bit violent to keep up your spirits. In my case, considering my skin and hair coloration, my choice for pumpkin massacre was Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword.

To start out, take into consideration that pumpkin juice is extremely acidic. It’s not actually caustic, but it’s sufficiently acidic that it will burn the skin along your fingernails, and you absolutely do not want this in any open cuts or scabs. Should this be of concern, put on the gardener’s gloves, pull out the machete, put a pumpkin on a good cutting area, and give it one good thwack. If your neighbors are already used to your shenanigans, feel free to let loose with a good battle yell, such as the one used by my doctor during my vasectomy: “Hasan…CHOP!” (My neighbors are plenty interesting, but even they weren’t going to handle my screaming “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” while dispatching squash on a Saturday afternoon. They were freaked out enough by pumpkin chips and pulp flying over the fence like a failed special effect in a GWAR concert.)

Cutting pumpkins

As tempting as it may be to try exotic swordsmanship, just go for a straight slice across the widest part of the pumpkin. If you slice through all the way, great. If it only goes most of the way, apply some pressure to finish the job, and split it in half. Set aside the halves and get to work on the next one: it’s actually easier to get them all prepped before starting on the next step than to clean them one at a time.

Pumpkin halves

Once the chopping is done, and the back yard looks as if the soldiers of Kelmain will fight no more, wash the machete and dry the blade (especially if the blade is carbon steel, as the pumpkin juice will stain and pit the blade) and put on your rubber gloves. With a raking motion, scrape the seeds from the stringy pulp on the inside of each pumpkin half, and dump the seeds into your tub or bucket. Don’t worry about getting every last seed, mostly because you’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy to get that one last straggler, but make some effort to get the vast majority. When you’re done, feel free to cook up the pumpkin halves, as apparently they make quite a good soup when roasted, skinned, and mashed before dumped into a crockpot. That’s the Czarina’s territory, as I honestly can’t stand squash of any sort. If your tastes run toward mine, then feel free to use them as mulch in your garden, laying them down and then putting a good thick layer of compost or leaves atop them so they’ll decompose quickly.

Handy tip #2: If you’re inclined to getting boisterous with your pumpkins, consider some sort of eye protection to go with the gloves. If you don’t want to get the juice on your cuticles, you definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes.

Collected seeds

Once the pumpkin halves are cleaned up and the machete is put up for the season, you should have a fairly large collection of seeds in your tub. As a general rule, you should have a liter of seeds for every five to ten pumpkins, so carefully move the tub to a new and more permanent location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, but it should have some protection from the weather. Whatever you do, lift with your knees and not your back, because you don’t want the indignity of blowing out a vertebral disc and landing facefirst into a pile of spilled pumpkin seeds. You don’t want your final moments to be recreated by my little brother on 1000 Ways To Die, do you?

Making brine

Next, get the salt, and generously dump it into the tub with the seeds. Go nuts. Go mad. Make it strong enough that rampaging porcupines will come to your house and gnaw down the fence to get at the salt. (We don’t have that problem out here, but the armadillos are almost that obnoxious over spilled beer.) Dump in at least a kilo, and then cover the seeds with water and stir up well.

Soaking seeds

At this point, as tempting as it would be to go to work on roasting, don’t. Let the seeds sit in your newly made brine for at least 24 hours. This will remove any remaining pumpkin slime and juice, as well as facilitate the removal of any extra pulp. Think you got out all of the pulp when you were scraping out seeds in the yard? Oh, you’ll discover that pumpkin pulp can teleport, and in disturbing quantities.

Strained slop

Handy tip #3: Use a slotted spoon to stir your brined seeds, and stir early and often. You’ll be amazed and horrified at how much pulp builds up after a casual stirring, and every gram you get now is one less gram you’ll have to pull out of your roasting sheets.

Draining seeds

After the seeds finish their brine soak, scoop out a few liters, dump the mass into a colander, and rinse well. I mean it: rinse well. Let them drain for a while: while doing so, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and get out the baking sheets.

Baking sheet

Handy tip #4: Unless you thrive on domestic discord, and your Significant Other or roommate really doesn’t care what you do to the cookie sheets, get a pair specifically for pumpkin seed roasting and use the pair ONLY for that purpose. They WILL stain, and the shrieks from cooking enthusiasts as to the piebald condition of their sheets are matched only by their efforts to brain you with the blender. Keep an eye open for sales at grocery stores during baking season, and they’ll thank you for the thought.

Sheet seeds

Next, dump the seeds from the colander to the cookie sheet. They don’t have to be exactly one layer thick: sometimes a thicker layer roasts better, especially on particularly dry days.

Spices

Purists at this point can move directly to putting their seeds in the oven, but a judicious application of spice can make all of the difference. The personal favorites among family and friends are Memphis-style dry rib rub (in this case, generously supplied by Red Hot & Blue, but Defcon Sauces’s Smoky Dust also gives a subtle fire to roasted seeds. Either way, the good thing about having a large quantity of seeds is that this gives room to experiment with spices and roasting time, so try new items one batch at a time.

Once the spices are on, stir up the seeds on the cookie sheet, trying to get the majority of the seed mass covered in spice. (This, by the way, is why you want sheets solely for seed roasting. The seeds won’t stain the sheets, but the spices will.) Once that’s done, put the sheet in the oven and leave at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. While that’s going, set up another sheet and set it aside.

When that time is up, pull that sheet out of the oven and stir it again. You’ll note that the seeds are still wet toward the bottom of the sheet, and the stirring is to drive off the excess moisture. You’ll probably also note that the oven vents are gouting steam at this point. Don’t sweat it, and use it as an excuse to raise the humidity in the house. If the house is already too soggy, turn on a vent fan and blast it out: it’s your choice.

Now here’s the critical part. Put that sheet back into the oven and set a timer for seven minutes. You’ll actually need ten minutes, but the timer warning is so you watch those seeds. One minute too little, and the seeds will have all of the flavor and digestibility of cattle feed. One minute too long, and every smoke detector in the vicinity will go off, and you don’t want any hot spices to get into the smoke unless you really like burning from the inside. Keep an eye on them, and pull them out at 10 minutes or when the seeds go a nice golden brown but before they start to smoke.

Roasted seeds

Once they’re ready, pull out the cookie sheet, set the sheet aside to cool, and put in the next batch. Right about the time you’ll need to stir the second sheet, the first sheet should be cool enough to store. The absolute best option is to store the roasted seeds in an airtight container such as a Rubbermaid bowl or a ZipLoc bag, where they’ll keep for up to three months. If you want to keep them longer than that, the containers can be put into the freezer and removed at your discretion.

One warning, a lesson I learned back in 2005 when I cut up about 120 pumpkins and processed about 100 liters of seeds. Do not expect these to last for very long. Between regular snackings to fend off seasonal depression and friends and family snagging bags for their own uses, those 100 liters lasted about three months. Make a point of scoping out more pumpkin sources next year, and they might last longer for you than they do for me. They might.

The Drooling Sundew

Contrary to the opinion of random passersby who want to come by at all hours “to look at the plants,” the Triffid Ranch isn’t a full-time operation. Oh, it’s a full-time operation, but it’s not the only jobs we hold. Especially during the winter, when all of the temperate carnivores are dormant and the tropical carnivores are resting, having a standard day job like everyone else is a necessity. Among other things, the day job provides health insurance, a steady background income, and a surplus of scintillant conversation from my co-workers. And no, I’m not exaggerating, because I work with a crew of truly unique talents, and we literally have no idea how much our mutual experiences can benefit the other. Ask the engineers circling the coffee machine about their weekends, and the responses sound more like plotlines to a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Anyway, compared to the professional musicians, semi-pro glassworkers, and enthusiastic amateur knifesmiths on board, my passion for carnivorous plants marks me as one of the Quiet Ones, and not the oddball in the back corner of the office who isn’t trying to drink himself to death every night. (And yes, I’ve worked in that sort of office. Remind me to tell you about my days working at Sprint one time.) Every once in a great while, though, I can fend for myself, and sometimes even bring something to the lunch discussions that leads to a good bout of Head Explodey.

By way of example, I recently brought a Cape sundew (Drosera capensis) to its current space in my cubicle, mostly because it was a needed touch of green next to a window full of brown. No, let’s be honest: BROWN. Even before the current freezing nights hit, everything was a uniform blasted tan out the office window from the drought, and it was about as pathetic and depressing as a Firefly marathon on SyFy. Indoors, under a good stout 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in a desk lamp, that sundew promptly perked up and started throwing off new leaves, and I fully expect for it to demand full rights from the UN by spring.

That little sprig of green got more than a few questions from co-workers and project managers, and the first question was “When are you going to feed it?” Since I knew that they’d be less than thrilled by my bringing in a tube of wingless fruit flies, I decided to demonstrate the one commonality between carnivorous plant and human: an appreciation for chocolate.

In his classic volume Insectivorous Plants, Charles Darwin understandably went a little crazy in his enthusiasm over Drosera of all sorts. This book details most of his experiments in understanding sundew mechanics and responses, and he discovered that sundews respond to two different stimuli in different ways. Firstly, the long sticky hairs (officially called “tentacles”) were sensory hairs in that they picked up the movement of prey caught in their glue, and consistent movement of one tentacle caused others in its vicinity to converge on the area, further trapping that prey. Secondly, specialized glands at the tip of each tentacle could ascertain the relative nitrogen content of the item trapped. If the stimulus was something relatively non-nitrogenous, such as a grass stem rubbing against the sundew’s leaf, the tentacles might respond, but the plant wouldn’t try to digest the intrusion. If the stimulus was high in available nitrogen but unmoving, such as a dead bug landing on the leaf, the tentacles wouldn’t respond right away, but they’d ultimately detect the morsel and move to claim it. And chocolate? It’s sufficiently nitrogenous that a sundew might mistake small pieces for gnats or other tiny insects, but without rotting or growing mold while digestion took place.

One of the reasons why D. capensis is perfect for this demonstration is that it’s one sundew that’s singularly enthusiastic in its feeding response. It doesn’t close on prey as quickly as some Drosera species, but its entire trapping surface wraps around prey, sometimes completely surrounding it. Even better, D. capensis‘s output of digestive enzymes is not just visible to the naked eye, but it’s voluminous. Put a mosquito on a Cape sundew leaf, and you get more puddling drool than a doorbell in the Pavlov house.

Anyway, since one of my favorite co-workers asked to see sundew trapping behavior, I pulled some leftover dark chocolate Halloween candy from the department stash (since it’s in a Halloween cardboard display, it’s referred to as “the candy coffin”), scraped off some crumbs, and sprinkled them on the sundew’s leaves. She was a bit disappointed by the immediate response, as she expected something more energetic. “Patience,” I said, “you have to give it some time. If that chocolate was moving, we’d see much faster movement, but it’s still not something you can see in a few seconds.” We left it alone and continued through the day, checking back every once in a while to verify the chocolate’s status.

This morning, my friend came in shortly after I did, and immediately visited the sundew. That’s when she viewed this.

Drooling Cape sundew (Drosera capensis)

Another reason why Cape sundews are great subjects to demonstrate active trapping behavior is that they’re extremely active compared to many other good beginner’s sundews. Note the several folded leaves, where the trapping surface actually folded in half to surround the chocolate. Even better, notice the one on the right that’s curled like a fern fiddleback? That one caught a chocolate crumb near its tip, and the shine down the leaf is digestive fluid. Yes, like most people, Cape sundews drool like fiends when given chocolate.

And now the obligatory disclaimer: I do NOT advocate feeding Cape sundews chocolate on a regular basis, and I definitely don’t recommend it at all for most sundew species. Don’t even think of doing it for most other carnivores. More importantly, as with people, the best results with sundews come from reasonably fresh dark chocolate, so spare the poor plant that dried-up Hershey’s bar that’s been in your desk since 1998. Absolutely importantly, keep the feeding to crumbs: your plant and your co-workers will hate you if you drop a whole Godiva’s truffle in the sundew’s container. As for everything else, anyone have any high school-age kids who want a science fair experiment on sundew sensitivity to different varieties and brands of chocolate?

“Today on Handyman’s Corner…”

Things are getting interesting at the Triffid Ranch, so apologies for a lack of immediate updates. The Czarina and I are switching out computers (gently used PC so she can do bookkeeping, gently used Macintosh for me for several upcoming projects), so our evenings are punctuated with screams of triumph, rage, and exultation, often all at once. People listening to the racket outside would have every reason to believe we aren’t married.

Between this and our current run of late-season thunderstorms, things have fallen behind. I still haven’t had the chance to relate the story of Frank Garza of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs in Cleburne (although I will say that they’re the best hot dogs I’ve had since I left Chicago 32 years ago) or the final assessment on last weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science last weekend, but the’re on the way.

Anyway. Several friends (including the Dallas music legend Barry Kooda) are regular enthusiasts of the various local and statewide auction houses and excess inventory sales going on through the area, and these can be dangerous. This isn’t just because you can find yourself almost literally drowning in “great deals”. It’s because the ideas that come with them are so crazy that they almost make sense, and crazy ideas with logic behind them make the baby Czarina cry.

For instance, as related far too often in the past, this last summer was the worst in Texas history, both in temperature and in duration. In the process, I lost several plants that I’d had for years, mostly due to our record highs in low temperatures. Many carnivores, such as the cobra plants of Oregon (Darlingtonia) and the sun pitchers (Heliamphora) of South America need a significant temperature drop between day and night during their growing seasons, and that just isn’t possible through July and August without technological assistance. I won’t even start on trying to control humidity as well, because that story is getting really boring.

I was already working on possible solutions, and ones that wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of power or maintenance, when I went poking on Lone Star Online, a site specializing in auctioning off state and local government surplus. And there, there on the Group W bench, was a lot for two, count ’em, TWO Traulsen rotating food display cases. With a current bid of $75, no less.

Refrigerated case

One part of my brain knew exactly what was going to happen. Namely, I could hear the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheaths, drooling venom onto the floor as they prepared to wield sudden and bloody retribution for challenging her reign. Even if I argued “It’d stay in the garage! Honest!”, the cries of triumph and horror coming from the front of the house would be drastically different in tone, especially if they were followed with my sobbing. The other part, the part that always gets me into trouble, thought “Okay, it’s glass. It’s designed to keep up humidity so that pastries and other baked goods don’t go stale. If it can keep Key lime pie from turning into a dessicated mess, it would definitely work on keeping Darlingtonia and Heliamphora cool and humid. Now all I need to do is figure out how to upgrade the lights to high-intensity LED arrays to put out enough lumens to keep both plants happy…”

And this, friends, is why you never want to let your brain get you into trouble. It’s bad enough when I suggested to the Czarina that we could always buy a house with a pool so we could cover it with a pool enclosure and turn it into one giant greenhouse. She’s either going to scream in rage at my wanting to drive down to Austin to pick up a rotating pie and cake display case, or she’s just going to sigh in exasperation and tell her mother about it. Then I get two pairs of elbows coming at my already-compromised cranium.

For the record, I have no intention of driving down to Austin for these. I’m just going to keep an eye open for a local restaurant closing, and snag one then. Now all I need is a Possum Van to carry it home.

Pumpkins scream in the dead of night

Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.

That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

The rest of October is going to be relatively quiet for the Triffid Ranch, but things start livening up in November. Specifically, four weeks from this coming Saturday, come out to the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park for its “Discovery Days: Discovering Reptiles & Other Critters” exhibition. And before you ask, just because it’s listed as a kid’s event doesn’t mean you have to be one to show up. If you’re really self-conscious about asking questions around a herd of sharp-as-whips third graders, don’t feel badly: I’m going to be the target.

As to why carnivorous plants should be included in an exhibition on reptiles and amphibians, well, I have a secret. If you’re unfamiliar with the Borneo pitcher plant Nepenthes ampullaria, this should be your chance to see the one known carnivorous plant that acts as a frog tadpole nursery. And if that doesn’t intrigue you, I’ve got nuthin’.

Cynosure

Last weekend was an interesting accumulation of events. If I’m not careful, their repercussions may eat me alive.

First thing, last Friday was the first weekend night in about five months where walking outside didn’t bring new sympathy for baked salmon. This, combined with the fact that the Czarina and I were goth back when the term referred to Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, led to a trip down to Panoptikon in Dallas’s Deep Ellum area. We hadn’t had the opportunity to take a night off like this in about a year, and one of the big surprises was that it was packed that evening. From what several friends stated, this was getting to be a regular occurrence, as the drinks were cheap and good, the music was much better than at our resident Club Spooky, and everyone was there to relax and see old friends instead of To Be Seen.

One of the real surprises, though, was how quickly the evening turned into one big carnivorous plant lecture. I was regularly introduced to new people as “the carnivorous plant guy,” and in the process made friends with several people who were just hooked on the idea of raising carnivores. (The only thing more surreal and more natural at the same time than a former Air Force officer hanging out at a goth club was his picking my brain about raising Sarracenia pitcher plants.) This applied all the way across the spectrum of plants, too. If I’d come out with heirloom tomatoes or hot peppers, I probably would have sold every last one, and don’t get me started about the girl who started asking me about African violets.

Sunday, my best friend and I decided to crash the Dallas Home and Garden Show at Market Hall near downtown. We arrived at noon, and what amazed us was how empty it was. It wouldn’t be unfair to note that the vast majority of attendees, such as they were, showed up solely because of the senior discount: besides vendors and sales reps, we were probably some of the youngest people in the entire venue. Despite its name, the show had almost no garden items other than one heirloom seed dealer and two different nurseries from around Fort Worth. Well, that isn’t completely true: the back corner had the only action in the place, thanks to booths from the Texas Master Gardeners and displays from our local fern, succulent, and bromeliad societies. Even then, the whole show suffered from an issue that hits a lot of younger gardeners, which is an assumption in publications and shows that most gardeners are retirees and pensioners with a lot of money and unlimited free time. The space was remarkably empty compared to previous shows, and the number of quickie “As Seen On TV” gimmick and gimcrack vendors, in proportion to local vendors, was the worst it’s been at one of these shows since I started attending in 1992.

So. An ever-expanding crowd of potential younger gardening enthusiasts, as well as a lot of folks who need something for relaxation. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re savvy enough to do their research before spending it, and they expect to get their money’s worth. If something doesn’t work, they’ll simply drop it instead of fussing about making it work because was an expensive purchase thirty years ago. They’re very familiar with social media, but they may be drowning in events as it is. Most importantly, thanks to years of being forcefed like recalcitrant pythons, they have an aversion ranging toward a phobia for standard newspaper, television, and radio promotion of events.

I have a lot of other things sitting on my plate that need to be eaten or scraped off before I can do so, but now I’m curious about what it would take to organize and launch a gonzo gardening show. If you don’t hear from me by New Year’s Eve, tell the Czarina I love her and not to bother with a funeral.

“Time for the Time Lord’s secret weapon: duct tape!”

The Czarina’s birthday was the Saturday before last, and for her birthday, I bought her (among many other things) a spot Fresnel lens. The response has been obvious: her mother rolled her eyes in disbelief when she heard what her son-in-law bought for her youngest daughter. Her father, on the other hand, is hinting about keeping this on hand for science experiments out at his ranch. The latter is the most tempting, seeing as how it’s really hard to start county-wide brushfires when you’re conducting refraction experiments at the bottom of an abandoned limestone quarry. If the cattle get in the way, well, we’ll discover how well-done the gobbets are after we scrape them off the quarry walls.

Much more seriously, we’re planning real science, first at the ranch and then back home. For the Czarina, we’ll be making a metal oven intended to maximize the heat produced by the Fresnel lens, that molten metal or glass doesn’t cool too quickly while it’s in the melting crucible. For me, I’m making Nepenthes pots from discarded LP records, and getting the grille started very quickly. I suspect that this will be her favorite birthday present yet.

Keeping busy in the heat

I have friends and cohorts from outside of Texas who have to ask me, every once in a while, “why do you stay in Texas?” I have to admit that the summer heat has something to do with it. I’m not just talking about how summer out here makes you appreciate autumn that much more, although autumn that lasts until New Year’s Eve has a lot going for it. There’s something about strenuous effort in our current flash-fire weather that brings on particularly Lovecraftian insights into the universe. Fixing a blown tire on my bike as the sun was coming up, I think Coyote, Loki, and Nyarlathotep tag-teamed me, because I came up with all sorts of disturbing long-term garden pranks.

Dallas is particularly good at producing sick pranksters: those of us in certain circles may remember the exploits of the late musician and filmmaker Joe Christ in the Eighties. One of Joe’s most disgusting and funny pranks was pulled during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1983. Joe, like many people, was disgusted at Dallas’s efforts to cash in on Kennedy’s death instead of celebrating his life, so he and friends proceeded to drive by a big ceremony at Dealey Plaza with a convertible just like Kennedy’s. With friends and cohorts dressed as Secret Service agents and John Connally, next to a big mannequin dressed up to look like Kennedy. As they passed, the top of the dummy’s head popped off, and spurted stage blood ten feet into the air in front of the horrified onlookers. The last time I talked with Joe, back in 1999, he was talking about updating this for the fiftieth anniversary, and knowing him, his friends have something really horrifying to pull off in his memory.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to go that far, although there’s nothing wrong with making your neighbor’s garden gnomes’ eyes glow red at night. Besides, the best stunts are the ones that go off months or years after you’ve left the scene of the crime, because then nobody has any idea of who was responsible.

And so I’m going to test a very long-term stunt. As with everyone else in Dallas, my front yard is riddled with big cracks. We’re talking cracks big enough for hiding spaces for kittens. The thick clay that comprises the first three meters or so of North Texas, what locals call “black gumbo”, is now almost completely dry, and its prodigious water-holding properties are now demonstrated by the fact that the water is gone. Even worse, there’s no realistic expectation of rainfall for the rest of the month, either.

So that made me wonder. Considering the length and the width of the cracks, the sane response would be to use this opportunity to spread compost across the lawn, so that compost helps break up the clay when the rains return. (Contrary to advice given by some gardening experts, do NOT add sand, unless you like concrete for a front yard.) Sure, I could do something responsible, such as taking advantage of Starbucks’s “Grounds For the Garden” program and packing those fissures full of used coffee grounds. Instead, I wondered “What would happen if you dumped a few kilos of water-retaining polymer crystals into a couple of those crevasses before the rains returned? What would happen THEN?”

Why, yes, my brain WAS well-cooked by the time this errant thought ripped through my mind, unpacked its bags, and demanded breakfast. Time to make a trip to the garden store: most likely, the crystals will simply add to the soil’s capacity to hang onto water during the next drought. HowEVER, if this experiment leads to geysers of clear goo in the center of otherwise pristine lawns, I’ll let you know. Then we’ll talk about using it to write graffiti in lawns.