Tag Archives: Projects

And now for something truly different

And now for something a bit intriguing. In the middle of November, the Czarina and I took our niece Emily to the annual Dallas Gem & Mineral Society Gem, Mineral, Fossil, Bead & Jewelry Show (*gasp for breath*) for a quick recce. The Czarina is always looking for new stones and beads for her jewelry, and I was looking for intriguing rock and slag glass samples for saikei arrangements. The big surprise wasn’t just in glass, but what kind of glass we found.

Uranium glass slab

Ray Thorpe of the Horseshoe Bend Knappers comes out to the Gem & Mineral Show as often as he can, and he regularly demonstrates his skills at knapping flint, obsidian, and slag glass for very appreciative audiences. Ray also sells slabs of knapping stone, and I was already drooling over some of the chunks of obsidian and chert that he had available. Out in front, though, were these slabs of custardy glass that really weren’t all that impressive, until a fellow dealer came over with a high-power UV LED flashlight intended for phosphorescent mineral hunting and ran it over a slab.

Most people are unfamiliar these days with uranium glass, but uranium used to be used as an additive to glasses to produce particularly vibrant colors. The main side effect is that both clear or “vaseline” and opaque or “custard” uranium glasses fluoresce under UV light. I’ve been collecting vaseline glass since I was in high school (the Czarina even found a beautiful vaseline glass juicer that she gave me for my birthday a few years back), but I’d never once seen any uranium slag glass. Ray got his from a collector in West Virginia who took advantage of the dumped slag from a long-defunct uranium glassworks, cut it into slabs, and used the more uniform slabs for knapping. (And boy howdy, you need to see knife blades and arrowheads made from uranium glass to believe them.) The rest he sold, and I promptly bought out his current stock for experimentation.

Now here’s where things get even more interesting. My day job is in a venue with some VERY interesting characters, and one of my co-workers is a former nuclear reactor tech from the US Navy. He still dabbles with various related projects, such as Geiger counters the size of keychain fobs (since the tube is so small, it’s not incredibly sensitive, but it can detect beta and gamma particle sources), so he dragged in his professional Geiger counter to see exactly how much radiation these slabs were emitting. It turned out that custard uranium glass is a slight alpha particle emitter, meaning that its only danger would come from ingesting or inhaling fragments (one reason why I don’t plan to use that vaseline glass juicer any time soon), but its radiation emissions were otherwise negligible. Another one of my co-workers is a glassworker in his spare time, so he naturally asked “Do you have a piece to spare?”

Several years back, the Czarina started lampwork training in order to make her own glass beads, and as with flintknapping, I picked up just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One of the things I learned was that different glass compositions have differing expansion and contraction rates when heated and cooled, and mixing incompatible glasses means that the final product cracks or shatters when it cools to room temperature. Mike was very familiar with these incompatibilities, and initial tests suggested that he had glass that could be miscible with the custard glass slabs. A final test to incorporate it into a paperweight, though…not so much.

Custard uranium glass paperweight

As can be told by the extensive cracks, that custard glass wasn’t quite compatible. However, Mike plans to use another piece and convert it into frit, and try again. In the meantime, this paperweight could theoretically come apart at any time, and I have plans for the fragments as part of a moonlight garden project when it does. And the rest of the custard glass? Keep an eye open at the Czarina’s next show, because she has some ideas for club-friendly pendants.

“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.

Getting Potted

A few months back, some may remember my less than salutory review of the book Terrarium Craft and my complaints about the “put a bird on it” sensibility that still infects terrarium design. In the interim, I’ve been collating ideas on how to drag the concept out of the 1970s, and preparing to present them in something approximating a coherent form.

As usual, talking is okay, but action is better. The Los Angeles store Potted is hosting a terrarium design competition, with the grand prize being a $500 shopping spree. Each Friday starting on October 21, all entries sent to Potted will be voted upon, and the winners of each round will be submitted for a final competition. The final prize may be collected by anybody in the continental US, but I imagine entries don’t have to be limited to that.

Anyway. You know the drill. It’s time to take the word “terrarium” out of that horrible avocado-and-goldenrod kitchen and banish it forever from that famed kidney stone of a decade. I know you lot, and I know you’ll make your Uncle Zonker proud.

Walking With Miniature Gardens

Edaphosaurus

Regular readers of the blog may note that I tend to namedrop Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens from time to time. This stems from a mutual appreciation of the merits of miniature gardens, especially for those people who just don’t have the time or the space to work on a full garden. We’re both working toward the same purposes, but it depends upon whether you want miniature gardening design advice from Gertrude Jeckyll or Wayne Barlowe.

Well, a little while ago, Janit asked about recommendations on dinosaur figures for miniature garden spaces from friends and cohorts. I couldn’t help but chip in some advice, because the love of all things palaeontological goes a long ways back. I cannot remember a time where I was unable to read, and I apparently taught myself to read from a combination of my mother’s nursing textbooks and an edition of The New Book of Knowledge that came out the year I was born. By the time I was five, I’d worn out the “D” volume going through the entry on dinosaurs over and over, and my choice of reading material gave my kindergarten teacher lots and lots of headaches. (In one case, literally: in the middle of January, I’d become convinced that the snowdrift outside the classroom was full of dinosaur bones. She tried to get me back inside while I was excavating the snowdrift with a stick taller than I was, and the scene of her and four first graders trying to take away my stick was straight out of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.) By the time I started first grade, I was an addict, especially on the first day of classes, when my teacher asked everyone to name something that begins with “B” and I said “Brachiosaurus“. (She then accused me of making that up, and I got great satisfaction from proving it to her on our first trip to the school library. That was the origin of my attitude that it’s much better to be correct than right.)

In odd ways, a lot of my current gardening attitude was dependent upon my love of palaeontology when I was younger. When I was very young, I took advantage of local weeds that looked superficially like Lepidodendron trees and first understood the difference between balance and symmetry when putting toy dinosaurs in this miniature forest. Viewing Rudolph Zallinger’s classic mural Age of Reptiles over and over didn’t hurt, either. To this day, I can look at a well-done stone and cactus bed and think “All it needs is a few cowboys lassoing an Allosaurus.

Best of all, I’m very glad to discover that I’m not the only one affected in this way. If I were, we wouldn’t have such venues as the Hartman Prehistoric Garden in Austin, or the stunning Cretaceous Garden at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The style goes waaaaaay back, too, with Waterhouse Hawkin’s famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs in Sydenham, England in a naturalistic park environment to this day. (And for those wanting saikei inspiration, I can’t recommend an afternoon at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, southwest of Dallas, highly enough.)

Marx and MPC dinosaurs

A terrarium design book of which I am inordinately fond, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt, came out right in the height of terrarium mania during the early Seventies. One of its regular lessons is to avoid the horrible purple elf figures then distressingly common in terrarium arrangements, because “purple elves eat terrarium plants”. At first, I laughed at the witticism, but then I realized that it was, in a way, absolutely true. Humans are hardwired to look for animals of any sort among undergrowth, and it’s absolutely impossible to make any kind of garden, miniature or otherwise, with an animal decoration without viewers first spotting it or hyperfocusing on it. (By way of example, the Museum of Science and Industry had, when I lived in Chicago, had a recreation of a 300-million-year-old Carboniferous forest as part of its coal mine exhibit. Even though the only animal life in the exhibit were giant dragonflies and cockroaches and one small early amphibian, visitors always looked for them and ignored the vistas of club moss and fern climbing to the ceiling.) Go with the palaeontological equivalent of a purple elf, and any sense of versimillitude is dead. Now, if you want to make the equivalent of a dinosaur tourist park, like Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, Michigan, don’t let me stop you.

The above figures sum up the general availability of dinosaur figures in the US until about 20 years ago. Back through the Fifties through the Seventies, the big manufacturer of dinosaur playsets was Louis Marx, which based its designs largely on Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. Hence, while they’re great for eliciting nostalgia, these are the dinosaurs that time forgot. (The blue beast on the left is a giant ground sloth or Megatherium from competing playset manufacturer MPC.) The only critters that predated the dinosaurs were the early Permian pelycosaurs Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon and the late Permian dinocephalian Moschops, and usually the only post-Cretaceous additions were ground sloths, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. MPC made a few Cenozoic additions, such as a few more mammals and even the giant flightless bird Diatryma, which would work all right in miniature gardens if they weren’t in brilliant colors.

The bad news about these guys, other than the fact that they’re rather obsolete by today’s science, is that they’re almost impossible to repaint. Collectors regularly come across sets where the previous owner tried to color them with Testors model paints, and this only left flaking paint getting all over everything. If you come across them at a garage sale or swap meet, be warned that while they rarely fade in strong light, they’ll also keep that shocking coloration forever.

Invicta dinosaurs

For those on the other side of the pond, the English company Invicta put out its own line of prehistoric figures, and these could be painted. In fact, purchasers in the UK could get many of them already painted. (From left to right, Triceratops, Mamenchisaurus, Muttaburrasaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.) In the States, these were usually available through the Edmund Scientific catalog, which is where I first ran into them circa 1976. These are a lot more scientifically accurate than the Marx figures, but that’s still a matter of perspective. Forget the cranberry color: the Tyrannosaurus was the epitome of palaeo theory circa 1975, and things have changed a LOT.

Invicta Stegosaurus

By way of example, check out the Stegosaurus in the set. Compared to it, most of the current reconstructions of Stegosaurus look like they’re about ready to look up, growl, and chase your ass down the street. These figures are, in both chemistry and balance, very stable. They’re also very, very dull.

Wild Safari tetrapods

The prevailing attitude toward dinosaur toys started to change in the late Eighties and early Nineties when Safari Ltd. started up a line of figures connected to the Carnegie Museum. That line was so successful that it was supplemented by the Wild Safari line. Both lines tend these days toward more obscure prehistoric animals (from the left in the above picture: the gorgonopsid Inostrancevia and the land crocodilian Kaprosuchus, and the dinosaurs Oviraptor and Hypacrosaurus), and about the only difference is price and scale. The Wild Safari line also includes a nice collection of prehistoric mammals, so that’s something to consider as well.

Safari Oviraptor

To give an example of how much has changed, the Mongolian theropod Oviraptor was first discovered atop a clutch of of presumably plundered eggs, leading to its name, which translates to “Egg thief”. The reality was that this first fossil, and many found since then, was actually of an animal brooding atop its own nest. Further discoveries of other oviraptorosaurs found that they had extensive feathery plumage, which is replicated in this specimen. 20 years ago, Oviraptor would have been shown both bare as a Christmas turkey and a uniform grey, green, or brown. My, how things change.

Safari Dinosaur Skulls Toob

For those wanting little figures, or appropriate accessories, Safari also issues a line of “Toobs”, containing all sorts of prehistoric replicas. To date, this includes a line of prehistoric sea reptiles, early crocodilians, and even prehistoric sharks. The set above is a collection of fossil skull replicas, and for those seeking something a bit more subtle in an arrangement, the skulls may be preferable.

Battat dinosaurs

One of the great missed opportunities in palaeo recreations in the Nineties involved Battat, which put out a line of absolutely fantastic dinosaur figures between 1994 and 1998. These were based on the best evidence available at the time. (From left to right, the ankylosaur Euplocephalus, the iguanodont Ouranosaurus, the Canadian ceratopsian Styracosaurus, and the Texas predator Acrocanthosaurus.) As display pieces, they changed the dinosaur replica business forever, and Safari went into overload in its attempt to catch up. As miniature garden denizens, not only are they extremely rare outside of collections, but they were composed of plastic that tended to deform from the figure’s own weight. As you may notice, the Ouranosaurus above is having a few problems with standing, and that’s because its forelimbs bent over time in storage. If you’re like me and enjoy the screams of Cat Piss Men when I chop up Boba Fett Star Wars figures for succulent arrangements, go to town and invite a few toy dinosaur collectors over to your house to see your new display. Otherwise, go with a comparable Safari figure instead.

Battat Pachycephalosaurus

One of these days, though, I’m setting up a large enclosure with just one of Battat’s Pachycephalosaurus figures peeking off the side. Look at it as “Bambi leaving the forest” from 80 million years ago.

Papo dinosaurs

Finally, we have Papo, a French company that got into the dinosaur figure business relatively recently. While its dinosaurs may not be the most accurate, they’re some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen. (From left to right, Parasaurolophus and Allosaurus.) Most of Papo’s predator figures, particularly the Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus figures, have articulated jaws, so they can be opened for a full roar or nearly closed for a pensive expression. These, my friends, beg for presentation in a large terrarium or saikei arrangement.

And now that you’ve considered some of the options, you should always consider two essentials. The first is scale. I know, the temptation is to go with a huge figure, but without comparable floral accompaniment, the figure will dominate the scene to the detriment of the plants. At absolute worst, the arrangement resembles a Godzilla playset more than anything realistic. Remember, the idea is to focus on flora and fauna, so if all you have is a small pot or tray for the display, go with a small figure. Save some of the big ones for the right circumstance.

The other essential is considering the stability of the figure. For obvious reasons, prehistoric miniature gardens will be irresistable to children, and they’re going to want to touch. Also for obvious reasons, most dinosaur figures aren’t designed for garden applications (would it be that someone did), so a figure that’s perfectly stable on a flat surface tends to flip when standing in potting mix. To get an idea, make up a big pile of sawdust or dead leaves, taller than you are, and try to stand upright on the top. Even the more stable figures may have to be shoved down into the potting mix deeply enough that they look like they’re trapped in mulch, and two-legged figures such as Tyrannosaurus or Deinonychus? It just isn’t happening.

The way around this is to make supports for the figures. This can be done easily by inserting plastic, bamboo, or metal rods through the feet of the figure and up into its legs and sticking the rods into the soil mix. This way, the figure looks as if it’s actually walking instead of trapped in quicksand. Another option is to attach the feet, with either epoxy or superglue, to a piece of slate or other flat rock, and carefully inserting it into the potting mix. (If you want the figure to appear as if it’s walking on rocks instead of potting mix, just attach it to the rock in question.) Check on an inobtrusive area with either epoxy or superglue to make sure that the adhesives don’t attack the plastic, but if the adhesives don’t react, go wild. After the adhesive is COMPLETELY DRY, bury the base just enough to hide or obscure it, but not so little that it damages the illusion.

Now, if this has piqued interest, I can recommend both the Dinosaur Toy Blog and the magazine Prehistoric Times for reviews and commentary on various palaeo figures, and Dan’s Dinosaurs for actual purchases. (Although they’re long-defunct, the Dinomania line of Kaiyodo’s 3-D animal puzzles work beautifully in terraria.) Now don’t get me started about using the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Primeval Predators” Burgess Shale replicas for planted aquaria, or we’ll be here all week.

Projects: The Dream of the Eighties

Some people have aching nostalgia for the 1980s. Not I. When I look at another technological or social development that makes humanity and its members a little more fun and I say “I love living in the future,” I mean it. I look back fondly on certain aspects of that decade, but only because I was in the middle of it at the time. I definitely don’t want to go back, save to visit with my previous self circa June 1984 and beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat. A little tough love applied then, and I wouldn’t have wasted the whole of the Nineties writing for science fiction magazines.

A lot of what was disappointing about the Eighties involved a lot of good ideas that could have been wonderful ideas if they’d merely cooked for a little longer. We came up with a lot of concentrated, powdered, and creamed stupidity, such as Panama Jack T-shirts or Phil Collins or selling arms to Iran to finance the contras. However, we also came up with some really innovative ideas that were hyped up, oversold, and ultimately discarded before they were really ready. One of those was the hexagon fishtank.

For those who don’t remember the hex tank, when it was first produced, it was the biggest innovation in aquarium design since all-glass aquaria appeared in the Seventies. (It tells you how old I am that I remember my first aquarium being a classic design from the Fifties, with a slate base, metal corner moldings, and gutta-percha seals on all of the corners.) It not only offered multiple viewing angles, but it was absolutely perfect for people living in small apartments without enough available wall space to justify a standard aquarium.

Unfortunately, some of those same assets led to the reasons why they fell out of favor. Since the aquarium had six sides, concealing filter hoses, aerator tubing, or power cords became problematic. The design encouraged height over width, which gave much less of an opportunity for decorations. (I might add that hex tanks coincided with the use of crushed-glass aquarium gravel, a fad I don’t miss. If the stuff was bad for the aquarist by scratching the hell out of the tank interior and slicing up unprotected hands, imagine how it made bottom-dwelling denizens such as Corydoras catfish feel.) Most of all, the trend in the Nineties and Aughts was toward really, REALLY big aquaria, and the square-cube law gets in the way of making comparable hex tanks. At that point, you’re better off getting a pond.

This is a shame, because while hex tanks may have faded into the same temporal netherworld inhabited by black lacquer waterbeds and console video games at convenience stores, they’re actually very nice for plantkeeping. The problem lies with bringing them into 2011.

The beginning of the project

This project started over a decade ago, when the Czarina and I first moved in together in 2002. Someone had given her a basic 20-gallon hex aquarium years before, and it had collected dust and dead bugs in a storage corner for years. We were desperately broke at the time, so when I mentioned how badly I missed having an aquarium at the time, she dragged it out and said “Have fun.” We got a lot of use out of it in our first apartment, and then in our first house, until we upgraded tanks recently when an old friend gave me his. In the meantime, this one sat, waiting for a new use.

The project really started last June, when I was prepping for a show that imploded disastrously. The original tank was going to hold an original plant display, but when the top literally shattered in my hands, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. Worse, since most aquarium manufacturers stopped selling hexagon tanks, finding replacement glass tops was and is nearly impossible. That is, as far as aquarium-friendly tank tops are concerned. This made me sit down and re-evaluate exactly what I wanted to do, and why.

The first absolute is that the wood finish needed to be sent back to Hell. One side of the top molding on the tank already had a bad scrape thanks to the shattering incident, and that revealed that the finish was just paper-thin. The photo above shows the tank after a good sanding with sanding sponges, which also removed mineral buildup that was otherwise almost impossible to chip free. (When I describe Dallas municipal water as “crunchy,” I mean it.) Next was time for the stand.

Hexagon tank (closed)

The stand, to be honest, was a nightmare. The main composition was particleboard, which strangely wasn’t sealed at any of the joints or on the undersides of surfaces. The storage access door had a baroque handle that just screamed “We’re heading out to the mall to go see Top Gun for the 47th time,” with matching if barely noticeable hinges. It was time to strip down everything.

Closeup of hex stand

After removing the storage access door, I sanded everything down to where the surfaces were nicely scuffed, and then wiped it all down with a tack cloth to clean up the dust. The underside got the same treatment, as it had absorbed just enough water drippage over the last 25 years that the particleboard was starting to chip in one spot. As a general rule, when the woodgrain pattern started to disappear, it was ready for new paint.

Hex stand door and hardware

The door was next. The underside was completely untreated, so all of the hardware came out and front and back got a comparable sanding.

Taped-up hex tank

The stand could be painted at any time, but the tank itself needed to be taped off before it could be painted. (Trust me. You do NOT want to spend days scraping off paint overspray from the glass if you can help it.) As a little bit of advice to anybody doing something similar, take the time and effort to purchase genuine painter’s masking tape. Not only does it peel away from glass without leaving adhesive or little bits, but it also is much less likely to take chunks of paint with it. The edges were taped, then painter’s paper put over that to cover the glass, and then more tape atop that to hold everything in place. I also put painter’s tape along the interior of the tank lip for two reasons: firstly, to prevent any potentially toxic residue from building up on the lip, and secondly, to allow me to drape more painter’s paper across the top so I wasn’t scraping the inside of the tank, too.

Bottom of the hex tank
To make absolutely sure that the tape and paper are well-secured, always check things from the inside. If you can see anything through a gap in the paper or tape, the paint will find that gap.

Finally, it was time to finish it up. A friend of the Czarina’s works for a glass company, so he was able to cut a brand new top based on a template I gave him. The base and tank were both edged with a new RustOleum universal spray paint, complete with a hammered finish. A new handle went on the door after it was painted, and everything reassembled. While it still kept a dark finish, you’d never assume that this was the old Eighties relic that had started out back in June.

And you’re wanting to see the new Wardian case? It’s time to come out to FenCon this weekend to see it for yourself. It’ll featured in situ with plants and accountrements for your viewing and purchasing pleasure. And so it goes.

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.

Projects: “If We Had No Crawdad, We Ate Sand”

Almost every guide to the proper care and feeding of carnivorous plants emphasizes, after using rainwater or distilled water, the proper soil mix. All of them tell enthusiasts that using standard potting mix will kill the plants in a matter of days, and many give recipes for a suitable general carnivore potting mix with a suitable acidity for healthy growth. As a general rule, one part sphagnum moss and one part sand is perfect, and some varieties work best with two parts sphagnum moss, one part sand, and one part shredded orchid bark. But what about the quality of all of these?

With the sphagnum moss and the bark, some authorities warn about making sure that these are of high quality. For instance, many retailers sell sphagnum moss with added fertilizer, which will kill your plants, or the sphagnum is cut with green moss, which has the same effect. Coir, which is shredded coconut hull, can be just as dangerous if not properly prepared, as many suppliers use coir that’s been soaked in or exposed to seawater, and the salt will, again, kill most carnivores. The quality of sphagnum moss can be checked by making sure that a bag or bundle specifically reads “PURE SPHAGNUM MOSS” and smelling the bag or bundle, as contaminated sphagnum moss tends to smell like old manure. Even salt-soaked coir can be used if it’s soaked and rinsed with rainwater, and then drained and dried. But how often does anyone check the quality of the sand they’re using?

Check most references on carnivores, and see what they have to say about sand. You’ll get recommendations not to use sea sand, because it might be contaminated with salt. You might get recommendations to use sharp or builder’s sand, which means all-silica sand. But are you sure that you’re using the right sand?

My question comes from personal experience from two years ago. The first thing I do every spring before my plants come out of dormancy is repot them, and the spring of 2006 was no different. My mistake was not to check the composition of that sand, trusting the label “Builder’s sand” on the bag, and that sand led to most of my plants dying before the end of the summer. True, the 2005-2006 drought and the summer’s heat wave contributed to the carnage, but the main cause was the quality of the sand.

The mistake I made was assuming that the sand being offered was pure silica. Pure silica sand is reasonably water-insoluble, which is why it settles into water instead of dissolving. Some will, but usually not enough to make a difference in horticulture. The problem is that most sand offered for sale can be and is contaminated with anything else that happened to be in the in the mix. If the sand was mined in an area that used to be a marine deposit, for instance, it can be full of shells. If the sand came from a river deposit, it may be full of limestone chunks or other carbonate rocks. All of these contaminants are very alkaline, which is enough of a problem to most carnivores save some purple pitchers (Sarracenia purpurea) or the Portuguese dewy pine (Drosophyllum lusitanicum). Anyone who’s mixed acids and alkalis in high school chemistry class has a pretty good idea of what happens when alkaline components of sands encounter highly acid sphagnum moss: the carbon dioxide emitted won’t hurt the plants at all, but the resultant salts will burn their roots.

Now, if you know for an absolute fact that your sand is pure silica, then feel free to use it as you see fit for any carnivore soil mix you choose. However, considering the problems I mentioned before, testing it beforehand is a good option, especially if the sand would otherwise be unusable. Carbonate-contaminated sand can be treated with acid, such as vinegar, to dissolve the carbonates, but it’s generally not worth the cost unless the sand has special colors that need to be preserved. The project at hand requires:

  • a sample of the suspected sand
  • a small bottle of common household acid (white vinegar is the easiest to obtain, but ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C, works well, too)
  • a small container with a sealable cap, such as a single-serving yogurt container or a 35mm film canister
  • To start, get a handful of the sand and spread it out in your palm. Look for larger particulates within the sand and note the composition. If these pieces appear to be quartz, feldspar, or other components of granite, these bits should be safe. If the larger particulates include bits of limestone, sandstone, or shell, consider how many pieces you find and their size. If the sand contains lots of these chunks, don’t buy it or use it.

    Secondly, take a small amount and put it into the container. Soak it down with the acid and watch the reaction. All-silica sand won’t react in the slightest to most household acids, and typical contaminants will spit and hiss a bit. If the sample produces lots of bubbling, particularly a froth, don’t use it, as the sand is far too alkaline to be safe for use with carnivores.

    This test won’t work for other potential contaminants: for instance, it won’t test for salts. In that case, the only option is to wash it well with pure water.

    If the tested sand is the only available option, and you literally have no other choices as to sources for sand, otherwise unsuitable sand may still be used. The first step is to sift the sand with a wire mesh trainer or riddle to remove large particulates. Afterwards, put the sand into a waterproof container such as a Rubbermaid tray or a plastic bucket and add vinegar or ascorbic acid, stirring repeatedly until the mix stops bubbling. Drain off excess liquid when it stops bubbling and add more acid; keep repeating until you get no further reaction whatsoever. Wash the sand well, and spread it out to dry.

    Now, considering the work necessary to make that bad sand usable, see the advantage to using the right sand in the first place? More importantly, are you willing to risk the health of your carnivores on unsuitable sand?

Projects: “Bathtub Luffas in a Bathtub Fit For Gin”

In the Northern Hemisphere, the absolute sign of winter is the proliferation of seed catalogs in every gardener’s mailbox. Gardening resources resolutely remain in the early Twentieth Century, and while most seed companies have extensive online resources, the print editions still fill my mail drop by the long ton. This isn’t a complaint, by the way: even the catalogs I can’t use get passed on to friends and coworkers who can, and most end their lives as source material for grade school collages and band flyers.
Many better writers than I have made fun of the inadequacies and creative embellishments found in seed catalogs and on seed packets. At the Triffid Ranch, I often laugh at the catalogs that sell Venus flytrap and pitcher plant seed as if they can be planted in the garden alongside the lettuce and carrots. Likewise, the last time I saw anyone selling saguaro cactus seeds for “easy” propagation of a plant that needs twenty years to grow to a meter in height, I laughed so hard that milk came out my nose. This was especially entertaining because I was drinking Pepsi Max at the time. Some people’s definition of “easy” is another’s of “wanting to hang the copywriter by his/her ankles from a tree branch, get a few cricket bats, and play Viking Piñata for a few hours.” And then you have the minor aggravations, such as the missing step in raising luffa squash.

Luffa squash (Luffa cylindrica), for the uninitiated, is a very versatile squash for many occasions. It grows very quickly in warm climes, so it does wonders for overgrowing ugly fences and other yard eyesores during the summer and fall. The thin vines grow one leaf and three tendrils at each vine junction, so they’re much more likely to grow to great heights on tree bark and other rough-textured surfaces, and the tendrils don’t damage the surface, so they come off readily after the first serious freeze in autumn or winter. (In Dallas, for instance, they generally keep growing all the way until Christmas if given the opportunity.) Luffa leaves don’t have stomata on both sides of the leaf, like pumpkins or summer squash, so they thrive on heat that would kill most other squash. They produce large yellow male flowers that both attract bees and bumblebees and can be stir-fried after they drop from the plant. The squash fruit themselves apparently taste like zucchini, and so long as the roots are in slightly acidic and rich soil, a typical vine will produce dozens over the growing season. (I understand that they can bee cooked or eaten raw like zucchini, but since I simply can’t handle the taste of squash, I haven’t had the courage to find out.)

It’s the mature fruit that gives luffas their main draw, though, and anyone wanting a decent supply has to save a few from the crock put or wok. Instead of decaying into a mushy pulp in winter like most squash, the luffa dries out like a gourd, but without a hard outer shell. Underneath the skin is a lattice framework of fibers, which are much prized as natural scrubbers. These are most famed for their bathtub and shower attributes, especially for those needing serious exfoliation, but they also come in handy for scrubbing nonstick pots without damaging the finish, adding texture paints to walls, or removing algae from fishtanks. Small ones can be used as short-term filters for many liquids, and the big ones can be sliced up and embedded in soaps. It’s quite the versatile little squash, which makes it a particular shame that most seed packets and garden guides leave out one important step in its processing.

To begin, for those wanting to raise luffas, get your seeds, either from luffa-growing enablers or from a commercial seed catalog. Luffa seeds, if kept in the refrigerator, remain viable for as much as five years, so don’t worry about getting them into the ground right away. In fact, you want to wait until outside low temperatures exceed 15.55° C (60° F) and then plant them, because they won’t even think of sprouting before then. Luffas generally tolerate a wide range of soils, but make sure to keep potash and fireplace ashes away from the seedlings or they’ll be permanently stunted for the season. Luffa seeds are best sown directly in their permanent location, as they don’t transplant well, but they’re very vulnerable to attacks from sowbugs until they get their first set of real leaves. I’ve found that sowing the seeds and then dumping large quantities of coffee grounds atop them not only gives them the slight acidity they seem to like, but also gives the sowbugs an alternate food source that keeps them away from the squash until they’re large enough to repel attacks. Other than that, water them regularly, especially in particularly hot weather, and the luffa will start producing its first male flowers within three weeks of sprouting and female flowers about a week later.

For the most part, luffa seem to be reasonably immune to most pests, and they attract hunting wasps to the flowers, which usually take care of caterpillars and other potential pests. For those with gardens in suitable habitat, luffa vines produce excellent habitat for climbing lizards: here in Dallas, one stand of luffa can support a whole harem of anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis), so long as pesticides aren’t used in the area. The lizards hunt, sleep, and bask within the vines, which usually grow thick enough that they offer suitable cover against birds, snakes, and other predators. In return, they clear out sucking insects and other potential threats.

The only serious pest attacking luffas is easily recognized by its long bushy tail, big eyes, and a brain the size of a pea. As the luffa fruit matures, squirrels converge on any luffas they can reach and gnaw through the vine before carrying them off. Since treerats are the antithesis of grace, and since luffas readily grow into trees, this means that the little klutzes get one or two bites out of the squash, lose their grip, and watch it fall two stories or more onto the hardest ground the squirrels can find. As with dropped nuts or peaches, does this mean that the little vermin climb down and eat the dropped luffa so it doesn’t go to waste? Of course not: the monsters instead go for another easily obtained luffa, leaving the dropped one to rot until it’s joined by a few more. (There’s a reason why I consider the term “squirrelly” to be fightin’ words.) Thankfully, luffa vines are thin so as to allow easy reach of thin branches and other precarious locales, so many fruit grow unmolested at the tops of trees before dropping when they’re good and ripe.

Okay, let’s assume that you had a good crop of luffa over the summer, and not all of them ended up in stirfry meals for grateful friends and family. You want a batch of potscrubbers and buttscrubbers, but you want to make sure that they’re at the height of ripeness. What do you do now?

The harvesting of luffa squashes for scrubbing purposes honestly depends upon the growing locale and the length of the season. Pick the luffas too early, and you’re likely to end up with a moldy, rotting mess. Peel them too early, and you’re likely to spend five times as much work cleaning them as you would when they were ready. The problem is telling whether they’re ready.

The absolutely guaranteed way of telling if luffas are ready for harvesting is to wait until they shrivel, brown, and dry out at the end of autumn. This is great in warmer climes, but it’s not practical in, say, Canada. However, the best thing to do is wait as long as possible before a killing frost damages the squash, or until the main plant takes responsibility for cutting off its offspring.

Ripe luffa

Ripe luffa

In the above photo, we have a mature luffa. For the sake of what comes next, the left side, with the length of vine still attached, is the tail. The right side, still bearing the scars from where the flower was attached, is the head. The uncleaned fruit will also be referred to as a luffa squash, while “luffa” is reserved solely for the internal structure alone. Remember these, because these become important later.

The easy way to ascertain if a luffa is ripe on the vine is to grab it at the head end and squeeze gently. It should feel like a skin over an empty framework, which is exactly what it should be. If it’s still squishy, or if it feels overly heavy, then it’s probably unripe. If you can help it, leave the luffa on the vine and don’t mess with it for at least another month. If an impending killer frost is on the way, though, then remove it from the vine, leaving about six inches of vine at the end. If the tail end of the luffa is already going brown, particularly at the junction where the tail connects to the vine, then it’s already drying, and is usually ready to be picked at the time. If that junction is still green, then leave that section of vine to assist the squash with its drying. Do NOT, under any circumstances, cut the vine flush with the tail, because you’ll likely set off mold and rot at the cut.

Dried luffas

Dried luffas

In this picture, you see two ripe and dried luffa squash. The upper one dried out in the upper boughs of a pecan tree all autumn, and the scars on the surface are from where it bumped into tree branches while it was still green. Don’t worry about those scars, because the impacts usually don’t effect the quality of the luffa within. The bottom one was dried after being picked from the vine, and note the spots of mold on the shell. These need to be watched, because small spots of mold usually won’t be a problem. If it’s a big patch, or if it appears to be sinking into the squash, then the mold might be spreading through the body of the squash. Sometimes this is all right, too, but with early-picked luffa squash, this could lead to the whole squash rotting if it’s not dealt with.

As a sidenote, you might have some luffa squash with damage such as cracks or bruises, especially when the local squirrels decide to liberate them and they fall a story or two onto the cold, cold ground. Trying to dry them will just be a waste of time, so open up the squash at the crack or bruise and take a look at the interior. If the interior is hollow or if it shows extensive stringy understructure, go directly to cleaning it. If it’s still relatively solid with a white pulp reminiscent of cucumbers or zucchini, just dump it in the compost pile. It’s too green to develop any understructure, and all it’ll do is turn into a slimy mess if you attempt to save it.

If your luffa squash are already dried, then just put them into a bag or basket and leave them alone until you’re ready to clean them. if they’re still green, then set them in a warm place with good air circulation and let them dry some more. That good air circulation is vital, because if they don’t get it, the squash WILL rot. Not “may”: WILL. I speak from experience, as the only thing worse than cleaning that aforementioned slimy mess out of a laundry room or water heater closet is the smell from that mess. Leave them out on a counter, or put them in a room under a ceiling fan, and leave them alone for a few weeks. Check up on them every couple of days, and watch as they shrink and brown.

Luffa ensemble

Luffa ensemble

At this point, if your luffa vines were in decent soil and had plenty of climbing options, you should have anywhere between one and thirty dried luffa squash ready for cleaning and preparation. For that, you’ll need:

  • One bathtub or washtub, preferably one needing a good cleaning
  • One bottle of shampoo (brand doesn’t matter, and sometimes the cheap stuff works best)
  • One bowl or other container for catching seeds
  • Grubby clothes
  • Goggles or an eyeshield, to keep squash pulp out of your eyes

If your luffas are extremely dried, you’ll note that peeling the skin from the luffa is almost impossible. Greener squash are easier to peel, but they need lots of washing afterwards. Either way, take advantage of the need to clean your bathtub. I have the unfortunate habit of cleaning my tub about the time it starts to resemble a scale model of the Mississippi Delta, so it’s time to fill up the tub about halfway with hot water.

In the interim, if you know anyone who wants to raise luffa squash next season, you’ll have to gather seeds. Break off the end of the head of the squash and hold the end over a container. You’ll hear the seeds rattling, so just keep shaking gently until the seeds stop falling. Always open the squash at the head, because the luffa can sometimes get so narrow that seeds can’t escape out the tail end. Gather up the seeds and put them into bags, or put them into a jar and place them in the refrigerator until spring.

Once this is done, dump your squashes into the bathtub, and let them soak for a while. The reason why you cracked open the head was also to allow water to enter the squash, making the job easier. If you’re particularly industrious, feel free to pour hot water into the opening, but otherwise you’re going to have to wait for a while. (This also applies to luffas picked green, as you’re going to need to wash off the mucilage off the luffa before it’s usable.)

Luffas before soaking

Luffas before soaking

Once the squash has been soaking for a while and the skin is soft, punch your thumb through the skin at the tail, getting it between the luffa and the skin. Work your way up to the head, and peel back the skin. Once it comes free, set it aside for the compost pile and grab another one, because if your luffa plants were remotely productive over the year, you’re going to be busy.

Peeled luffa

Peeled luffa

At this point, your tub should be full of peeled luffas. It’ll also be full of seeds, as a lot of seeds were caught up in the luffas and unable to escape until you removed the skins. Don’t worry about them in the slightest, because you’ll have to deal with more.

Post-peeled luffas

Post-peeled luffas

Disgusting, isn’t it? This is why I recommended using a dirty tub, because you’re going to have to clean it anyway.

Now here comes the important part of the whole cleaning. The dry luffas are going to be full of dried mucilage, which will leave everything they wash with a nice coat of slime if it isn’t cleaned in advance. The green luffas have just as much mucilage, but it’s combined with starches and other compounds that also prevent the luffa from being used for cleaning. Start by grabbing that bottle of shampoo and pouring a good dollop of Aussie, Paul Mitchell, or your brand of choice right on the first luffa. Massage it in, rinse it off in the tub, and do it again. Do it with the next one, and the next, until all of your luffas are nice and sudsy.

Next, put on your goggles or faceshield and grab a luffa by the tail. Picture yourself as Thetis dipping your son Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability and give that luffa the same grip. Next, picture yourself discovering that Achilles is going to dedicate the rest of his life to writing term papers on Firefly and Twilight, and bash the hell out of the luffa against the sides of the tub. Go to town, and don’t worry about the seeds and bits of pulp flying everywhere: that’s why you’re wearing eye protection. When you’re reasonably sure that you’ve removed every seed (and you’ll be able to feel them inside the luffa), scrub the luffa again with shampoo and grab the next one. Repeat the cycle, as Thetis apparently had a lot of kids planning to study Pop Culture in college.

Once you’re done with taking your frustrations out on your luffas, rinse them well, and set one tail-up into the tub drain. Drain the tub, and note how the luffa acts as a filter to prevent seeds from getting into the drain. Most of these seeds are inviable, so you’re within your rights to scoop them out of the tub and dump the whole mess into the compost pile. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spread out the mess where you plan to plant luffas next season, cover them with a good thick layer of coffee grounds and compost, and wait to see if they come up next year. Rinse off the luffas with clear water and set them aside to dry. Feel free to give them away to family and friends, or just settle for using them for cleaning the tub. See, I told you that it needed a good scrub by now.

Now, as with any horticultural advice, these steps may be modified or arranged in any fashion whatsoever, at the discretion of the luffa farmer. You do have to admit, though, that this is still a better guide than those seed guides, right?

Projects: “Surviving the Cube”

Now for a subject of some seriousness. We’re going to talk about “The Cube”.

For those in the carnivorous plant business, as well as with more advanced hobbyists, “cubes” refer to the prepackaged carnivores sold in hardware and home improvement stores’ garden sections. The name comes from the use of clear plastic boxes to ship and display plants, usually with three varieties of carnivore with diametrically opposed growing conditions all jammed into the same space. The boxes are an absolutely brilliant way to ship pitcher plants and sundews with a minimum of wasted packing space. Unfortunately, they’re not a good permanent living solution.

Before I start, I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to the cubes on principle. I wouldn’t have been drawn into keeping carnivorous plants had it not been for finding a display stand full of them at a Home Depot while I was buying poplar boards for bookshelves. I still have one Nepenthes hybrid, provenance unknown, that started from one tiny plant purchased from that display stand. When I was first starting as a carnivore evangelist a year later, I was also buying up the severely discounted carnivores, at least the ones that were still alive, and rehabilitating them to give to friends. Again, cubes aren’t a permanent living solution.

The problem with cube carnivores isn’t just that they’re impulse purchases, intended with as much longterm concern for their well-being as anything else sold by the cash register at the local hardware store. It’s not just that they’re usually incredibly stressed plants by the time they’re put on display, and following the recommendation to “keep the top on your plant” usually means that it outgrows its space if it doesn’t cook in direct sun. it’s not just that the collections of flytrap, cobra plant, and lance-leafed sundew will die in a matter of weeks even under the best circumstances unless the plants are separated, and that the “growing tips” on the side of the cube have no information whatsoever on how to do this. It’s that even grocery store orchids come with better information on growing and repotting requirements than a typical cube carnivore does, and that the friendly and helpful people at your local hardware store mean well, but they have next to no correct information on feeding them. (I’ve made lots of friends in the home improvement store garden sections over the years, and I know that they suck up correct information on raising carnivores like sponges if it’s available to them. Unfortunately, Venus flytrap sales volumes are minuscule compared to roses or peach trees, so there’s no incentive from the store manager or the chain’s corporate offices to make sure they have that information.)

It’d be easy for nursery operators to tell customers “Don’t buy cube carnivores,” but I know that it’s not that easy. I think of the number of beginners who are given cubes for their birthdays, or the students who figure that one of those cubes would make a great science fair project. I also understand the urge to collect a few of those cubes when they’re on deep discount and attempt to rescue the plant inside, because I still succumb from time to time. I’m not helping convince the local Lowe’s store manager not to order more, but there’s no reason for the plant to die in order to stick with your principles.

The trick to freeing a carnivore from the cube is to understand what it is and what it needs. Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants are really bad choices for the cubes, as they get far too big far too quickly to last very long, and they often die of shock even if put into optimum conditions right away. Darlingtonia plants generally die even if they’re transplanted right away into those optimal conditions, and they usually only last a few weeks without the root disturbance. Especially if kept inside, there’s simply no way that a Venus flytrap can get enough light for proper growth in a cube, and that’s doubled if the flytrap has bugs or hamburger shoved into every trap. Butterworts and sundews need more air circulation than what’s available in cubes. Ironically enough, many terrestrial bladderworts would do better than most in a cube, so long as the cube doesn’t dry out, but I’ve never seen a bladderwort in a cube, probably because they don’t have obvious above-ground traps to attract buyers. As for other carnivores, they’re either too obscure to draw interest from anyone other than specialists (Byblis), require specialized light or temperature conditions that are almost impossible to replicate easily in a home center greenhouse (Cephalotus), or have trap structures too small to appreciate without a magnifier (Stylidium, Genlisea). The vast majority of cube plants are going to be either flytraps or pitcher plants of one sort, so let’s start with a pitcher plant.

Behold: the cube

Behold: the cube

Now, let’s look at the problems with this arrangement. Unlike cubes of days past, where the plants were shoved in the bottom amidst a handful of barely damp sphagnum moss, this one at least is in a plastic pot for drainage, but that’s the only good news. This poor Sarracenia has been in this cube for a long time, as demonstrated by the number of leaves jammed up on the top of the container. The condensation gives a good idea of the relative humidity inside of the cube, meaning both that poor air circulation has a good chance of promoting disease and fungus. Worst of all, most of the leaves are winter leaves, known as phyllodia, with tiny or nonexistent traps at the end, which means that the plant hasn’t been getting anywhere near enough light since it was first potted up. It may not die immediately, but it’s going to die soon, which may help explain why this was marked half-off at my local Lowe’s store.

Before cracking open the top, having the right equipment and supplies is vital if the plant is going to survive. These requirements include:

  • A suitable amount of carnivorous plant potting mix and distilled or rain water
  • A suitable pot, with sufficient drainage and ability to retail moisture at the same time. (For this exercise, we’re going to use a ProlitariPot for clarity.)
  • A sharp pair of utility scissors or a sharp knife
  • A plastic bag large enough to go over the plant and the pot
  • At least one thin bamboo stake or dowel rod, preferably treated to resist moisture (orchid stakes work best, but chopsticks will work in a pinch)
  • A indirectly bright windowsill or greenhouse space for recuperation

The top of the cube

The top of the cube


The first thing to do is pop open the top and see if the patient is able to be saved. Most cubes are taped shut, on top of being sealed in plastic wrap and pressure-sensitive stickers, partly to keep the cube contents in and keep meddling kids out. Examine the cube to see where the cube opens, and with the scissors or knife, cut open the various adhesives.

The cube opens

The cube opens


In this case, we have what’s probably a Sarracenia hybrid, but it’s hard to tell what kind with the way the traps are stunted and misshapen. As mentioned before, most of the leaves are phyllodia, and it’s going to be a while before it has the chance to grow any proper traps. Just getting the top open, though, is a start, and the way the leaves popped out when it came off gives an idea of how badly it needed the room to grow.

Removing the spacer

Removing the spacer

Depending upon the nursery that supplied the cube, the plants are held in place with a variety of options, such as plastic film, rubber bands and wires (seen only once, thankfully), and plastic inserts. This one came with a plastic spacer, with two wings that come in contact with the underside of the lid. The pitcher plant comes up through a hole in the spacer, and often grows over it. This spacer needs to be removed very carefully to prevent damage to the crown of the plant. If this requires grasping the leaf bunch to keep them together while pulling them through the spacer hole, do so, because any damage to the leaves in grabbing them is going to be minor compared to scraping and cutting from the sharp edges of the spacer hole.

The spacer removed

The spacer removed

If recycling facilities exist in your area for plastics, set the spacer aside for recycling. Otherwise, just throw it away. It won’t be needed again. The same goes for the cube itself, unless your idea of an exciting weekend involves polishing scratches out of Plexiglas.

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The still-potted but uncubed plant

The pitcher plant is going to look even worse once it’s removed from the cube, as the traps are too weak for most to stand upright. The good news is that it came out of the cube just in time: the humidity may have been high enough, but note that the soil mix was nearly completely dry.

Bottom of the pot

Bottom of the pot

While the example isn’t the greatest picture ever taken, note the bottom of the pot, and the root growing from the bottom right. This plant was in the cube for a good long time, sopping up available moisture from the bottom as water vapor leaked out the seams in the cube lid. When repotting, try to pull roots like this through the drainage holes without damaging them if at all possible. If the roots are too thick, or if they’re so extensively intertwined that they can’t be separated, use the knife or utility shears to cut them just enough to get them through.

The plant in its old pot

The plant in its old pot

Now it’s time to decant the plant from the shipping pot. In this shot, note the original traps growing when this plant was shipped, especially when compared to the subsequent phyllodia. This plant will make it, but it’s going to need a lot of care.

Bagged carnivore

Bagged carnivore

Without disturbing the root ball, remove the original pot and put the root ball into the new pot, filling the gaps with fresh carnivore growing mix. Water it down well to get the roots rehydrated and to help settle any air pockets. Take the bamboo stake (in this case, a spare orchid stake) and put it in the edge of the pot, with at least 5 centimeters of clearance above the highest trap. Place the plastic bag bottom-side up over the pot and the plant, helping to keep up the level of humidity the plant had in the cube while giving it more air circulation than before.

Finally, here’s the important part. Place the pot, plant, and bag into a well-lit space where it will not be exposed to full sun for no less than two weeks. Repeat: do NOT put the plant in full sun, as it will likely burn until it adapts to life outside the cube. Just leave it alone, making sure to add additional water if absolutely necessary.

At the end of that two weeks, remove the plastic bag and move it into better light. With sundews and Nepenthes pitcher plants, be careful not to give them full sun right away, but good partial sun is perfect while letting them get acclimated. Sarracenia pitchers and Venus flytraps need as much light as they can get. If growing conditions are right and the plant’s time in the cube wasn’t too debilitating, you should see new trap growth within two to three weeks. The existing traps won’t grow further or straighten out, but they’ll act as an essential photosynthetic resource for new traps. As the old traps brown and die off, snip them off, and encourage the new growth to spread up and out. It may take a year, but given decent growing conditions, it won’t be too long before the carnivore that was languishing in its cube is in full form, growing and even blooming.

Again, this isn’t intended to be a slam on the cube plants themselves. However, considering the effort necessary to nurse an ailing cube plant, isn’t it easier to deal directly with a nursery that specializes in carnivores than wrangling with cubes?

Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”

Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.

The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.

Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.

And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…

WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.

Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.

Bonsai candidate after training

Bonsai candidate after training

After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.

New bonsai pot with screen

New bonsai pot with screen

At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.

Pepper in its new pot

Pepper in its new pot

Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.

Props to the bonsai

Props to the bonsai

As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.

The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.

Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.