Tag Archives: greenhouse

The New Tenant

Most of this last weekend was a blur. Reports of an impending winter storm meant that getting everything secured for freezing weather was imperative, which required lots of time in the greenhouse. This included deadheading Sarracenia seed pods in order to get seeds for next spring, applying new greenhouse film, taping everything down, and otherwise cleaning up before our promised Icepocalypse 2014 arrives by Tuesday night. In go the hoses, back go the sprinkler heads, under cover go the faucets. The rainwater tanks are full, the spare pots moved into shelter, the tender succulents put next to thermal mass and the citrus up against a south-facing wall…I’m a firm believer in the power of negative thinking, where planning for the absolute worst means that you’re ahead of the game if the absolute worst doesn’t happen. (This is why I should have bought a decommissioned fallout shelter years back, because it would make a great tropical carnivore grow house, but that’s a different dangerous vision.)

Anyway, with the exception of a spare “Miranda” Nepenthes pitcher plant and a Brocchinia carnivorous bromeliad, all of the tropical carnivores were secured indoors for the winter, and I checked on the Miranda as I first entered the greenhouse. The whole neighborhood is infested with a rather large population of Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis), with their regularly camping out among sweet potatoe, Carolina jessamine, and hibiscus leaves, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find one in the greenhouse. The surprise was in one using Nepenthes leaves as a hammock.

Anole
Since I wasn’t completely prepared, I ran inside to get a camera, hoping that he wouldn’t run off in the interim. I’d forgotten that either anoles are loath to leave a good loafing lounge, or they’re hams. This one actually hung out long enough to pose for a while.

Anole

After a few minutes getting shots, Ta’Lon finally decided that I was hanging out too close and too long, so he got up to leave, keeping one eye on me at all times. While not possessed of the independent eye action of true chameleons, anoles have their moments. (By the way, take a closer look at the rear foot in the photo. Something that I hadn’t realized until this photo is that anoles have opposable toes on both front and rear feet. The difference is that theirs are the equivalent of our little fingers and toes. I can definitely see the advantages of this for a small lizard in grasping thin leaves and stems, but this was a wonderful surprise all the same.)

Anole

Well, I backed off for a little while, and came back about ten minutes later. In that time, had he been replaced with a new, brown lizard?

Anole
Nope: not at all. Anoles are regularly referred to as “American chameleons” because of their color changing abilities. They have neither the range of color or pattern as true Old World chameleons, but they can shift from a deep green to a deep brown in a matter of about a minute. Ta’Lon apparently decided that either the weather wasn’t quite right, or that I was aggravating him, because he started to switch back the next time I came through.
Anole

I’ve watched a lot of anoles in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one change color, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to photograph one in the middle of a color transition. That said, I realized that I’d have to check any plants being brought indoors for the winter for wayward anole eggs. The females have a habit of laying their eggs in planted containers because the soil is so loose and well-drained, and while I both enjoy hatchling anoles and their color-changing attributes, I’d prefer not to do so while trying to catch the baby frantically running up and down my bathtub in an effort to escape. Especially not in the middle of January.

The next big project

As events and venues continue to expand, so will the Triffid Ranch, and things have outgrown (pun intended) the little hobby greenhouse from where all of this started back in 2008. Five years since the first Triffid Ranch show at the sadly defunct CAPE Day? Sheesh.

Side of the new greenhouse frame

Anyway, that expansion means that it’s time to set up a new greenhouse specifically for Nepenthes pitcher plants and other heat-loving, humidity-loving plants. The details are too long to go into, but a dear friend of the Czarina’s and mine had a spare shade frame that needed to be moved, and her sense of Scottish frugality is even stronger than mine. Hence, the new Nepenthes frame goes up right after this weekend’s show.

Front of the new greenhouse

It may not look like much here, and it looks even less impressive stripped to raw parts and put into temporary storage. In its full complete state, covered with fresh greenhouse film, and full of pitcher plants and bladderworts, though, it’ll look glorious.

Autumn serendipity

In the house, it may be spring cleaning, but the best time to clean out the greenhouse from stem to stern is in autumn. Well, it is in Texas, where we’re still seeing temperatures considered “balmy” in higher latitudes. It’s warm enough that I can clear out all of the tropical plants, check for spots that need to be clipped, and set them outside for a few hours , but it’s also cool enough that the usual pests are at a minimum. After this year’s horrible mosquito season, I enjoy any day where the smell of citronella tiki torch oil doesn’t get into my pores.

This sudden stripdown and rebuild was particularly important, as the greenhouse was underneath an aging and rapidly dying silverleaf maple, Silverleaf maples were a rather popular addition to many North Texas suburbs forty years ago, where they promised rapid growth and extensive shade. Well, both are true, but they also live about as long as our indigenous cottonwoods, and anybody in the area knows that you never want to encourage cottonwoods in your back yard. This silverleaf offered plenty of shade for the first two years we were here, but it was obvious that it was having problems after last year’s drought, where its companion planting didn’t make it. The tornadoes in April only compounded matters, and it’s now become a wreck. The tree’s heartwood is now nothing but punk wood and fungus, the dead branches produce a never-ending fall of sawdust from boring beetles, and the live ones threaten to fall if you look at them cross-eyed. I regret not being able to leave it alone, but either it comes down, or it takes the whole adjoining house with it, and possibly a neighbor’s house as well. Sic transit gloria.

In order for the tree to come down, the greenhouse had to come down and relocate, and that’s where the joy came in. Last summer, I learned exactly why nobody ever uses citrus wood when examining my Buddha’s Hand citron: one of the branches that died during the 2011 freeze had sprouted a single water shoot before it expired, and now the rather larger branch was hanging onto its roots by a sliver of tissue and a handful of dry rot. Pull out the rooting hormone, starter trays, and lots of rich potting mix, and start setting cuttings. Surprisingly, more cuttings survived than died, and if the state department of agriculture gives a full approval that these are disease-free, they might be up for sale within the state of Texas next year. Of course, that’s also dependent upon what sort of winter we have this year, so I’m not saying anything else.

No, the real surprise was getting ready to pitch a flat of presumably dead seeds and seeing a flash of green. Last spring, I purchased a set of seeds for Roridula gorgonias, a singular carnivorous plant from South Africa. Both species of Roridula look like gigantic sundews, but they can’t absorb nutrients directly from the insects and other animals they capture. Instead, in their native biomes, they depend upon a symbiotic relationship with an indigenous ambush bug, where the bug feeds on the prey, it defecates on the leaves, and the plant absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces via special channels in its leaves. I’d had suspicions that established plants would do very well in the Dallas area, but the problem was getting established plants. Repeated attempts with seeds, both in standard peat mixes for carnivores and in peat mixes exposed to smoke, did no good, and I was about ready to give up.

It turns out that I was just a bit premature. This latest batch hadn’t sprouted at all over the spring or summer, but it finally started germinating in November. The trick, apparently, is both to expose the seeds to high heat (daytime highs above 40 degrees C) and to let the soil mix dry out for a week. The seedlings, obviously, can’t handle complete dryness, but they apparently need much drier conditions than in a standard germination flat to get established. I’ll try some experiments this winter, but between this and the sudden cold front we had two weeks ago, something set off the little monsters.

In the meantime, I understand all too well why Chinese panda breeders refuse to name a baby panda until its eyes open, because the mortality rate among infant giant pandas is so high. Hence, no pictures until we get the first full set of true leaves. That may happen before we know it, but you won’t know if the seedlings suddenly succumb to fungus. If they take off, though…

The joys of Texas meteorology

While nowhere near as bad as last summer, 2012’s weather continues its usual game of “Let’s Mess With Everyone’s Heads” in North Texas. Back in April, it was tornadoes and torrential rain, and then jack squat for a month. In our immediate area, we have a nearly incessant southerly wind that allegedly contains moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it passes over San Antonio and Austin, it’s pretty much relieved of that excess. By the time it hits Waco, it’s empty. By the time it reaches Garland, the air is so dry that it could kill a silk ficus. Considering that the main focus of the Triffid Ranch is involved with raising and selling carnivores, which prefer high humidity, this little fact instigates a lot of oddball engineering.

To wit, the period between our tornado convention in April and today’s light rains was mostly dryer than Stephen Fry’s sense of humor. This naturally interfered with the laudable and reasonable intention of growing Sarracenia pitcher plants outdoors. Oh, they’d grow, but only a little, and they obviously fought between basic maintenance and growing enough traps to sustain themselves over the summer. By the beginning of May, the struggle became intense enough that I only had a few Sarracenia for Texas Frightmare Weekend that were a sellable quality. At that point, I realized that I needed to get a greenhouse, or at least some sort of wind shelter, for the Sarracenia. It was either that or moving to Galveston.

That’s when the Czarina chimed in. “You know,” she said, “the Harbor FreightTools is selling greenhouses for $300.”

I winced a little. Yes, it would get the job done for one small area, but I had plans for something just a smidgen larger. “Yeah, but I’d rather put in the money for a real one.”

She insisted. It wasn’t a bad deal as something to get me and the plants through the summer, until we could build a more permanent installation in the fall. Besides, she noted, she’d get it for me as an early birthday present. I relented, fearing her ever-sharp elbows if I kept arguing it, and we picked one up on sale. (I might note that because of confusion, I still ended up buying it myself, so this doesn’t qualify as a birthday present. This means that I get to torment her for the next three months by pricing crocodile monitor hatchlings and reminding her that she forced me to this situation. One day, she’ll actually agree to my getting a crocodile monitor, and then I’ll be stuck.)

Oh, let me tell you, putting together a kit greenhouse with only an hour or so available each day is entertaining. The instructions were complete enough, but sufficiently terse that I found myself repeatedly mumbling “If the Sontarans don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” It’s doing so while working in the worst sort of twilight, as mosquitoes large enough to have in-air refueling ports tried to steal the tools out of my hands. As things got darker, the Mediterranean geckos and more unrecognizable things came out to watch, and I’m not sure if they looked at me as sustenance or a source of mirth. I’m pretty sure I heard gecko laughter at least twice as I was trying to find locking bolts that had fallen into the grass. I know the little vermin were snickering when the Czarina came out to assist with putting up the last braces.

And then there was the plan for the glazing. The idea was to use the greenhouse frame as a framework atop the old Sarracenia growing area, and extend it about eight feet or so due north with greenhouse film. Fair and good, but installing greenhouse film requires both good weather and good light, and those days that had the light also had winds threatening to blow me, the greenhouse, and the rest of the neighborhood to Oz. A couple of gusts would have overshot Oz and gone straight for Lankhmar. By this last weekend, the framework had glazing along the base, and I figured “Oh, I’ll put in the top next week. Besides, if it rains, the Sarracenia can catch the rain so I don’t have to water.”

And talk about dodging a bullet. Yesterday not only brought torrential rains to the entire Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, to the point where the National Weather Service issued airport weather advisories and warnings about river flooding. The warnings even included the term “gusty outflow winds,” which sounds more as if it belongs in a review of a chili cookoff than a weather report. The upshot is that we had, once again, the classic North Texas view of rain coming in just short of horizontal. Wind, even a bit of hail, too. Everyone in the area went to the window, gasped a bit at the carnage, and went back to work.

I did that, too, and went out to the growing area that evening after finishing with the Day Job. One of those gusty outflow winds brapped across the area, snapped off about 200 pounds of branch off a big silverleaf maple on the property, and then dropped it right atop the greenhouse frame. THe greenhouse frame has a dent on one side, and the entire ceiling brace is bent beyond repair. However, that giant collection of branches came down right where I was growing Sarracenia a week ago, and if that frame hadn’t been there, they would have been destroyed. Flattened. Turned to Sarracenia mush and a lot of splattered growing mix. I’m now certain that the greenhouse frame gave its life so that the pitcher plants would continue.

Because of this, I’ll no longer look askance at buying anything at Harbor Freight, or at any of the Czarina’s seemingly wacky ideas. I will, however, have grand fun messing with her on the selection of birthday presents.

“JUST ONE FIX…ONE FIX…ONE FIX…”

Even though we haven’t actually hit classic Texas high temperatures yet, we’ve reached summer for all intents and purposes, and the Czarina and I finally have a little bit of free time. Most couples look at an impending holiday or just a free weekend as an opportunity to get out of town. The Czarina and I look at each other and ask “So who wants to vacuum the bedroom?” Having two big back-to-back shows, along with the insane preparation for both, cut into our general household duties, leaving the carpet in the living room filled with…bits. We think they’re claw caps from where the cats use the scratching post to hone their already ridiculously sharp armaments, but we’re not sure. I won’t even get into the dust rhinos underneath the Czarina’s favorite chair, or the three cats’ worth of cat fur I got out of the carpet last night, or that we were both so horrified at how badly our housekeeping had lapsed that we were vacuuming and sweeping at close to midnight.

What you have to understand as well is that I grew up in a rather singular household. My father comes from a very long run of packrats, and the old Scottish frugality is very strong on his side of the family. These days, it’s called “upcycling,” but when I was a kid, it was called “growing up Riddell.” I just looked in wonder when I’d visit friends’ houses and see them using garages for holding cars, instead of band saws, acetylene torches, and enough scrap wood to rebuild the USS Constitution. When I was eighteen, I read a book review in Twilight Zone magazine that talked about how “Grandma could stretch out a Thanksgiving turkey forever, until it was mid-July and she was trying to figure out how to make turkey-flavored Jell-O from the bones.” All I could think was “Are we related?”

My mother, on the other hand, was a budding minimalist, and was notorious for pitching anything that sat in the same place for too long without a purpose. I only saw my parents get into one fight as a kid, and that was when my mother decided to donate my father’s high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill. I could sympathize on both sides, and still do: I’m notorious for letting the schmutz pile up in my office for weeks and months, until one day something snaps and everything else is secondary to stripping the place clean and rebuilding.

And that’s what’s going on this weekend. No shows for a couple of months, until FenCon IX in September, although the call of Four Seasons Markets has promise. The summer heat hasn’t really started, and I’ve never had any interest in sitting around in shorts while watching ball games on a perfectly good Saturday. So what’s the option?

That’s right: I’m taking inspiration from The Idiot Gardener and hislatest run of fence porn, and putting up a new greenhouse. If you don’t hear from me by next Wednesday, just feed what remains to the plants, okay?

Ah, Nepenthes

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

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

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

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

A little foggy

As usual, the Czarina is overachieving, so she’s laid down the law concerning the upcoming holidays. Since we have Christmas and our ninth wedding anniversary coming within days of each other, she’s already making plans for giftgiving, not just for me but for the entire family, and she will not be stopped. The time between now and January isn’t a holiday: for her, it’s a military campaign. I just warn friends not to use the obvious Jack Kirby reference, because even though the comparison fits, as does the physical and temperamental resemblance, she really, really hates being called “Big Barda“. (Keeping up the geeky analogy, have pity for her. She’s obviously married to Ambush Bug.)

Because she’s so determined this year, the edict has come down from the mountaintop: a minimum of presents this year. It’s not necessarily due to finances, but because she has major issues with my getting her things that are interesting but not as functional as she’d like. Last August, for instance, I bought her a Fresnel lens for her birthday, which was much appreciated but not quite as useful as she thought…at least, without a big stand on which to focus it as a solar forge. Instead, she wants to take care of things that we really need. Since I fear her sharp and terrible elbows, I comply.

The problem is that most of my present wishes are inordinately practical, too. We’ve both been running our own businesses for too long: we look at the usual lovey items that married couples get each other, and snort “That’s okay, but what I really want is something that does something.” In her case, that’s relatively easy, because there’s always a surfeit of interesting stonecarving and stoneshaping gear out there. In my case, though, either my ambitions are a bit too expensive (a new greenhouse) or too esoteric (a full sterile tissue propagation facility). I have plans, but they require lots of planning.

And this is where Loch Ness Water Gardens comes in. I’d already been complaining about the lousy lack of humidity this summer and fall (one day, 80 percent relative humidity, and the next, down to 9), and misters simply weren’t cutting it. I’d been poking around for a while for commercial fog humidifiers, but most either had inadequate reservoirs or were too big for an operation like mine. More importantly, they didn’t have style. Worse, I’d found a few ultrasonic misters on the market, but they were mostly designed for reptile care. They were great for chameleon enclosures, but they wouldn’t cut it in a greenhouse.

I just recently came across the crew at Loch Ness Water Gardens via Twitter, and was already impressed with the company’s sense of humor. A quick peek through its offerings, though, and I was hooked. I didn’t know that ultrasonic foggers had improved to the point where they were available for pond applications, and discovering the five-disk pond fogger…well, that’s that.

Mind you, this won’t replace plans for a full evaporative cooling system further down the road. This will, though, keep things nice and sultry for when the temperatures aren’t quite as high, especially at night. Put this inside a good 100-gallon Rubbermaid livestock tank, switch out the LEDs in this with UV and deep green LEDs, and it’ll be the creepiest little greenhouse in Texas.

And just to finish the story, the Czarina already passed on what she wants for the holidays, and I’ll have a full month to mess with her head in the meantime. This is going to be too much fun.

Thursday is Resource Day

We’re now in the final stretch before FenCon VIII, so expect at least some radio silence. Now that the soul-stripping heat has let off for a while, and the Yellow Hurty Thing in the Sky is behind a welcome layer of cloud cover, it’s time to get to work.

Well, all work and no play makes Jack Nicholson overact, so there’s time for some fun. Specifically, for those in the Dallas area, the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adults-only event tonight, starting at 7:00. If you can’t make it, make plans for the next one on December 15, but try to get out while the weather is cool and the attitudes mellow.

Should you want to stick with something more horticulture-related, there’s always something to be said about crashing the criminally underappreciated Texas Discovery Gardens on Friday. Its upcoming The Art of Nature exhibition features a reception on Friday evening, and then it’ll run through the end of the year. With the State Fair of Texas coming up on September 30, either get out there now to avoid the parking horrors, or show up during the Fair to see it and the State Fair Fall Garden Exhibition at the same time. Or after you see what Hanson has been up to since 1997: I’m not one to judge.

In more personal news, I received a postcard from Scott Elyard of Coherent Lighthouse, letting me know about his and Raven Amos’s Dinosaurs & Robots art show next month. Years back, Scott and I discussed that odd fascination with jungle ruins and dinosaurs that runs through fantastic art for the last seventy years or so, and this card made me realize that the only thing odder than dinosaurs in old Mayan ruins has to be robot dinosaurs in Mayan ruins. Anyway, his piece “Trikeratos” piece inspired me, and so back to the workshop for me. Heh heh heh.

Finally, the Czarina acknowledges that it’s time to get a new greenhouse. The current one was a cheapie hobby greenhouse purchased from a friend nearly seven years ago, and the plants outgrew the greenhouse about two years ago. Since she won’t let me have display cases or crocodile monitors, I’ve picked out a greenhouse she can get me for my next birthday, and it’s a beaut. I’m sure she’ll even help me harvest my own organs to pay for it, too. With a grapefruit spoon.