Tag Archives: kiss my aster

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

The response to the new Netflix series The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which premiered last weekend, has been interesting. What’s particularly interesting has been the very polarized responses from friends and colleagues whose opinions I respect and often admire. Two friends whose contributions to goth culture in the Nineties were vital in establishing said culture were livid: they were furious as to the overly cutesiness and the attempt to sell creativity to and for the terminally uncreative. Others equally vehemently celebrated a show that was trying its best to be a little dark, but not too dark. Finally, at the bequest of Caroline of Tawanda! Jewelry (and Delenn to my GIR at the gallery), I sat down and watched a few episodes. Not that my opinion means anything at all, but the only issue I had was that so many of the projects looked like video accompaniment to an upcoming book (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all) and had nowhere near enough detail to allow a casual watcher to recreate most of them without additional online help. Then again, neither does The Great British Baking Show, and that’s not why people watch that, either.

What excited me about Curious Creations wasn’t just that so many of us incipient gothlings would have done just about anything for a show like this a quarter-century ago, but that it shows an inherent strength to Netflix. Namely, instead of worrying about its programming playing to Peoria, Netflix management realized that not copying what everyone else is doing in a particular format gets more viewers, not fewer. Combine that with the current trend in comfort viewing that emphasizes creativity and encouragement toward excellence, and we might have the new movement in entertainment for the next decade: getting those curious about a particular artform or art movement moving in the right direction.

If this is more of a trend toward celebrating more gonzo artistry, as the upcoming second season of Curious Creations suggests, then one thing is certain: it’s time to start pitching more shows of this caliber. I can think of two horticulturalists, Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center and Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster, who would be perfect for their own gardening shows, and letting Stewart McPherson travel the world to view carnivorous plants in the wild would be incentive for me to pay for Netflix access for the next five years all by itself. (If nothing else, an all-Amanda Thomsen show has the added novelty of watching her family, including three singing dogs and the world’s most put-upon cat, in action, because they’re ALWAYS entertaining.) Just don’t ask me to pitch a show with my horticultural and social sensibilities to Netflix: it’s already been done.

The Trumpetvine That Came to Sarnath

Scarlet Trumpetvine

I’ve commented elsewhere about Some Guy, because you can always connect the worst advice on the planet to Some Guy. Horticulturally speaking, Some Guy can be blamed for all sorts of concentrated vile, but one of the most pernicious involves spreading tales about effective use of scarlet trumpetvine (Distictis buccinatoria).

D. buccinatoria doesn’t sound quite so bad upon first glance. It’s a very enthusiastic climbing vine, sometimes growing as big around as your leg, with a nearly fernlike thick foliage. Its name comes from its equally enthusiastic blooming habit, with bright red blooms that attract hummingbirds by day and hawkmoths by night. It also sprouts from its roots, growing a thick corky rind around an extremely tough and fibrous root core. If you’re looking for a tenacious and full vine that covers just about anything, you can’t find anything better in the Dallas area.

And that’s precisely the problem. Scarlet trumpetvine blooms lead to long, beanlike seed pods whose contents are gleefully spread by birds, so they end up everywhere. They don’t seem to have anything indigenous that keeps them under control, so while their leaves make excellent shelter for lizards and beneficial insects, they also transpire so much water during the day that any wood underneath them starts to rot very quickly. Since nothing seems to trim back that foliage, that means that fences, walls, posts, and sheds are rapidly buried under thick blankets of trumpetvine.

This sounds perfect if you want trumpetvine to stay, but just TRY to remove it. This is where Some Guy comes in, because the trope going through yuppie neighborhoods is that “you should plant trumpetvine around telephone poles so that it’ll cover the pole.” Not only does this make the local utility reps absolutely loathe you, as reaching the pole, much less climbing it, is impossible when sheathed in trumpetvine, but it also guarantees that the seeds will spread elsewhere. Chop it down, and it readily resprouts from the roots. Mow down the new growth, and chunks will reroot and spread through the immediate area. Spray it with herbicides, and the sprays wash off the leaves and kill off everything underneath. In my case, I made the mistake of letting trumpetvine get established along a wooden fence during the summer of 2011, and I’m still cutting it back every week from the roots from that summer.

Scarlet Trumpetvine

Now, Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster repeatedly argues that scarlet trumpetvine is of the Devil. I’d argue that if confronted about trumpetvine, Satan would stand up and profess true innocence, arguing that some things are too foul for him to consider. You could go through other pantheons, and every possible suspect would do the same thing. Loki would swear upon Yggdrasil that he wouldn’t think of doing such a horrible thing. Set would set upon his heels and cry at the accusation. Tezcatlipoca would be found in the bath, repeatedly scrubbing himself with wire brushes. Camazotz would go back to his old cutting habit. Nyarlathotep…Nyarlathotep would just sit back, vomiting silently in utter terror that someone would give him credit for creating or developing scarlet trumpetvine.

This garden season, have some sympathy and some taste. When you’re saturation-nuking the garden to blast out trumpetvine, don’t randomly assign blame for something of such cosmic horror. Instead, just ask yourself “What did those gods of chaos and evil ever do to you to deserve that sort of insult?”

Review: Kiss My Aster by Amanda Thomsen

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

Kiss My Aster cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gnomes With Homes

As mentioned a few weeks back, my friend and cohort Amanda Thomsen just announced the impending release of her new book Kiss My Aster at the end of the year. In order to celebrate, I once again tried to mail her something I found for her about three years ago, but wasn’t able to send until now. In the past, she had various flimsy excuses as to why she couldn’t give a mailing address, usually involving words such as “stalking,” “restraining order,” and “a shotgun full of rock salt if you show up here,” but I suspect she’s learned to trust me a bit. Either that, or the praying mantises in the back yard need feeding. I reciprocated her trust by sending her…a garden gnome.

Porcelain gnome

Now, this isn’t just any garden gnome. Strictly defined, this is a fossil gnome. Jason Cohen, the co-owner of Curiosities in the Lakewood area of Dallas, has a penchant for finding all sorts of little odd things, and one of his many suppliers came across a spoils pile from a German porcelain factory that produced dolls and other household items in the early Nineteenth Century. When figures either misfired in a kiln or broke afterwards, they were dumped out into a huge spoils pile behind the factory, and weeds and vines rapidly overgrew the pile after the factory shut down. The way Jason understood it, construction of a condo building led to a bulldozer moving a big chunk out of the hill, and this must have been one hell of a hill, and passersby collected as many of the figurines and fragments as they could find. Most of these consisted of full doll figurines, doll heads, and various disarticulated limbs, and I personally claimed a head about the size of my thumb that was intended to have inset eyes and hair. (I need to get photos of this, because I really need a life-sized version of this for a Euphorbia project.) This gnome, though, was a bit special.

Why is he special? It’s not because of his distinctive patina. He actually cleaned up quite nicely after being buried in earth and mud for nearly two centuries, which says a lot for modern porcelain cleaning techniques. He was unfinished at the time he was buried, so that’s not it. Just take a look at the side, though, and it’s painfully obvious.

Armless gnome

Yep, Juergen here was a casualty, probably of the Great Gnome/Flamingo War of 1877. Oh, sure, historians may tell you that the worldwide stock crash of that time was due to excessive Prussian speculation, but the reality was that this was the year the war between gnomes and flamingos went global, probably aided by the development and distribution of the Winchester repeating rifle a few years before. If I had the time, I’d build him a prosthetic hand, and then he’d be a fossil cyber-gnome.

Sadly, though, I had to send Juergen to Amanda right away, because he couldn’t stay. I personally felt sympathy for him, but as a dedicated flamingo loyalist, I couldn’t defend him from my highly loyal forces.

Gnome vs. Phororhacos

In the ongoing garden war, the gnomes need to learn one very important thing. Unless one talks about worms, moles, or cane toads, every potential threat is, by definition, Death From Above.

Death From Above

Everyone’s got a book out but me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horticulture and publishing, Part 2

I’m still revising that observation on the state of publishing and horticultural subjects over the next five years, but the fact that blog writers are getting as much acknowledgment as standard print writers on gardening subjects is something else to be added to the stew. It’s probably seriously premature to assume that we’re going to see a revival of the zine now that e-publishing for tablets makes niche magazine publishing even more plausible and reasonable. However, I can say that existing practices with print magazines are going to have to change. Those magazines are going to need some pretty compelling content to justify paid subscribers getting their copies three weeks to a month after the latest issue hits the newsstands (and yes, Horticulture, I’m looking right at the bottom-of-the-barrel English Lit majors you keep hiring to handle subscription fulfillment). They’re also going to have to pay a lot more for contributors to put up with control-freak editors and “when we damn well feel like it” publishing schedules when said contributors can put the same content on their own blogs and get the same number of readers.

As mentioned before, I don’t expect a return of the zine, for a lot of reasons. I figure, though, that this is a great time for gardening societies and independent nurseries to look at the requirements for E-publishing. Let’s also say that this might be a great time to try something new that wasn’t plausible or sane under standard distribution models, such as

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The best thing about summer in Texas is the end of it, because you get a whole five months to plan for parties and events. You can peek outside your shelter, shaking your fist and the big yellow hurty thing in the sky as it turns everything you know and love to ash, or you can plan for the day when sunset is at a sane time and the air doesn’t smell like charred flint. This is what kept Texans sane in the days before air conditioning, and it really applies now. To make matters worse, all of my friends are at the Independent Garden Center 2011 show, and knowing that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is testing the hotel staff’s tolerance of impromptu Ween karaoke and random midnight gunfire makes me grind my teeth down to the gumline. The day she finally figures out how to flush metallic sodium down the toilet so it clears out every greywater line in the hotel, I’ll stop calling her “amateur”.

Because of this, I’m tentatively making plans for a Triffid Ranch party, open to customers, patrons, and interested bystanders. It would have to be after the big show at FenCon at the end of September, but this isn’t a problem when you live in a place where October lasts for six months. It won’t be anything spectacular, such as the spectacular Sarracenia Northwest open houses, but it won’t be too embarrassing. Details to follow.

I’d just like to add one note. Once the Czarina gets involved, her addiction to bad puns will be unstoppable, and there may be trouble. It may get bad. The moment she serves anything that looks like this, all of you have permission to shoot me in the head, because it’ll be obvious that the woman I married is gone, and life won’t be worth living. Thank you in advance.

“I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ myself.”

Back when I started this little trek into horticulture nearly a decade ago, I thought things would settle down a bit. I mean, I know that orchid people are weird (in the Old English meaning of the word) and rose people are even worse, but not everybody could be as fundamentally broken as science fiction people, right?

Oh, I had no idea. None. Witness my friend Amanda Thomsen of the very disturbing blog Kiss My Aster and her fascination with building gardening robots. I can’t help but think that I’ve seen this movie before, with the same soundtrack:

Okay, that’s a bit cruel, but I have to admit that there’s this odd fascination with gardening robots in science fiction. In reality, too, for that matter. The underlying idea is that while humans should be the ones to do all of the fine-tuning, there’s no reason why you can’t leave robots to do the weeding, pruning, mowing, and other menial tasks. At least, until they rise up and tell humanity to bite their shiny metal asses.

Ah well. As a kid, I made most of my spending money by mowing lawns throughout my neighborhood in obscene summer heat, and I didn’t have a problem with doing the mowing myself. Having a robot on hand to clean up the piles of dog crap that most of my customers let build up, though, would have been perfect. These days, I still wouldn’t complain about a robot that took out the treerats going after the tomato plants, with a bit more precision than the motion-sensitive lawn sprinklers currently available. If it could clean out the gutters while waiting for its next hit, so much the better.