Tag Archives: Projects

The definition of insanity

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

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

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

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

Back to the linen mines

I’ve said before that I was goth back when the term still referred to Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’ve had lots of interesting dark gardening ideas running through my head for the last six months or so since the Gothing Beauty fiasco. Well, it’s time to go back to causing more trouble: as of today, I became the official gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine. Since the publication schedule is significantly more active than that of GB, expect a lot more in the way of pertinent subjects, including looks at moon gardens, sources for statuary, and prehistoric plants. I suspect that there’s room in the gardening writing community for one Turner Van Blarcum; come to think of it, I may have to talk to Turner about designing some drastically different plant stands for the Carpe Nocturne crowd.

Thursday is Resource Day: Making Jack Skellington Proud

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

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

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

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

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

Pecos Fresh label

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

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

Raw pumpkins

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

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

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

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

Cutting pumpkins

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

Pumpkin halves

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

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

Collected seeds

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

Making brine

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

Soaking seeds

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

Strained slop

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

Draining seeds

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

Baking sheet

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

Sheet seeds

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

Spices

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

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

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

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

Roasted seeds

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

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

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?