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Review: The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop by Janit Calvo

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

The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop by Janet Calvo

ISBN-10: 1604697016

ISBN-13: 9781604697018

Published: Timber Press, 2017

Pages: 445

Language: English

If the radical expansion of land surface on Earth during the Late Cretaceous had been just a bit slower, we wouldn’t have had a problem. One sentient species derived from dinosaurian ancestors, we could have handled. As it turned out, though, Earth didn’t produce one species of saurianid that developed an advanced civilization before the K-Pg extinction. We got FIVE. One never got much past the level of the Visigoths in the human era, which worked out fine for everybody when the asteroid impact sent them back to Hell, because documentaries on their culture would have been mistaken for videos from the metal band Gwar. The other four, though, cooperated and traded well enough that they all shared the secrets of space travel early on, and they had their own options for escaping the detonation and subsequent acidification of their world. The Chree, derived from early troodontids in east Asia, developed wormhole drives about 500 years before the impact, figured that it was better to leave early and avoid the rush, and promptly hauled themselves to the Andromeda galaxy and appropriated a set of conveniently abandoned Dyson spheres. They discovered the hard way WHY these were abandoned, unfortunately, but that’s a whole different story, as demonstrated by their scattered and blasted remains. The Larkash, troodontids from western North America, went for a standard timewave drive and colony ships, but overshot their original target by a few billion light-years. They never returned to the planet of their birth, but considering what they found on the far side of the universe, they never had the urge to go home. The Chukchuk, descended from South American abelisaurs, combined a passion for cybernetic augmentation with a new religious fervor by converting their bodies with artificial constructs and spread through the galaxy on solar sail “wings”, where they subject any sentients they encounter with wisdom gleaned from the void. Unfortunately for those sentients, that “wisdom” consists of truly horrible puns, so any civilization that detects the approach of a Chukchuk comedy troupe knows to turn off all the lights, turn off the music, and pretend not to be home until they pass by. 

The Harkun, though, would be the real menace as far as humanity was concerned. “Transcendentally ecstatic” to a Harkun was often mistaken for “grumpy, hung over, and fitted for a catheter” by any other sentient, and the only way most sentients could achieve what qualified as “grumpy” for a Harkun involved kick-start pipe augers, habanero sauce, botflies, and a copy of the first album by Marcy Playground. Maybe it was because the Harkun evolved from psittacosaurs, early cousins to the horned dinosaurs, or maybe they reached that stage in every civilization’s development when they discover the truth about Santa Claus just a little too early. Either way, if every sentient species in the universe was an expansion of individuals in each species’s society, the Harkun were very happy in their niche as the universe’s software developers, weekly newspaper music critics, and booksellers at science fiction conventions. If the Harkun had a racial dream, it was to yell “GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!” right in the face of God.

This crankiness was aggravated by their own method of averting the catastrophe of 65 million years ago. Everyone else saw the oncoming antimatter asteroid, all of the size of a golf ball, and decided to get the hell out of the way. The Harkun saw the universe’s largest bag of illegal fireworks, and saw themselves as a bonfire. Yes, the resultant mess could be seen from the far side of the galaxy, but at least they got to make it. The plan involved two massive stasis shields: one to capture the asteroid and guide it right to a comparable mass of normal matter, and one to speed time twentyfold within the shield. This way, not only could the Harkun conduct the equivalent of throwing a dog turd into a ventilation fan, but they got to watch it in slow motion. This was the real reason why the other sentients on the planet decided to be elsewhere, because there was no talking sense to the Harkun when they had the opportunity to make a mess.

The plan, such as it was, had its good news and its bad news. The good news was that the first stasis shield worked even better than expected. The shield diverted 95 percent of the energy output from the collision of matter and antimatter back out into space, turning Earth for a very short time into an interstellar beacon on a par with at least five local pulsars. The fact that the output was modulated to contain a message, every last Harkun on Earth letting the universe that gave it birth know how it REALLY felt, was obviously just coincidence. Also pure coincidence, of course, was the hole in the shield that “accidentally” took out a Larkash cultural archive in the southern peninsula of the continent and subsequently vaporized a significant amount of sulfur-rich limestone. The bad news was twofold: someone involved with the second shield went through the universal software constant of “if it’s hard to write, it should be hard to understand” and set the shield’s operating system to run subjective time a million times slower inside than outside, and shifted it to ten minutes into the past, so it no longer existed in our reality until the shield turned off. Likewise, while the first shield activated at exactly the right place at the right time, the entire Harkun species was trapped inside the second shield when a practice run on the evacuation went live. Millions of tons of sulfur-rich rock vaporized, blew up into the upper atmosphere, and reacted with water vapor to become sulfuric acid, which chilled the whole planet and killed 75 percent of all species living at the time. That kept the Harkun occupied for five subjective years.  The shelter pavillion was perfectly stocked for a hundred years, with all of the food, water, and air the Harkun would need. The entertainment options were to be shipped and installed a lunar month after the dry run, so while all of the essentials were taken care of, for 65 years, “no beer and no TV make Homer something something” became a new Harkun racial imperative.

Which brings us to the human era. All of the possible scenarios for global threats to human civilization hadn’t considered temporal traps full of eight-foot-tall saurians with parrot beaks, tails covered with huge porcupine quills, and personalities like pickled-egg-and-beer farts in a crowded tornado shelter. When the temporal barrier ripped open, the greatest example of cabin fever the universe had ever known was free. Having about a 2000-year edge on technology, the Harkun conquered humanity in a matter of hours, and promptly took out that 65 years of utter boredom on its poor monkey neighbors like a high school algebra teacher assigning homework over spring break. It really was Christmas all over the earth…and humanity was working retail.

The one saving grace that gave humanity a chance came from the Harkun’s incarceration. With no beer and no TV, and the spectacle of matter-antimatter explosion over in a subliminal flash, the Harkun were desperate for stimulation. The entertainment options left outside included weapons, so a typical waking period couldn’t be accented with an impromptu chainsaw duel. Some Harkun discovered random seeds, spores, and mycellae trapped in the shield with them, leading to a wild rush of gardening as social interaction. Before the first year was out, portable garden arrangements were a currency; within five, garden composition became a replacement for trial-by-combat in the Harkun legal system. By the time the shield ripped and the Harkun came rushing across our world, they had perfected miniature gardening techniques seemingly thousands of years ahead of humanity’s, with some being able to supply food for ten at a time. When humanity begged for peace, the Harkun offered to accept a conditional surrender if its greatest and best could best a Harkun in single miniature garden design. Based on the results, humanity should have been a slave race until the sun went supernova.

As with all revolutions, sometimes the parts and pieces were in plain sight. Six weeks beforeHell rode in on a quilled parrot dinosaur, a high school student named Charity Smith purchased, with money hard-won from months of weeding flower beds, a copy of the Janit Calvo book The Gardening In Miniature Prop Shop. When the Harkun invasion finished, Charity remembered this book and its guides on the unique issues with miniature garden construction and focused all of her miniscule free time on it. Days upon days of hard labor fabricating bonsai trays for the invaders gave Charity the chance to study their styles and materials, and Harkun guards never confiscated her book, even under the worst searches for contraband. And she learned. Oh, how she learned. Where guns and bombs had no effect, miniature fences and succulent beds took the war to the invaders.

 The story of Charity Smith challenging the bonsai tray manufacturing plant commandant to a broken-pot arrangement duel is required reading for any student today, but it’s hard today to know what a turning point it was for humankind. Charity kept going, ultimately gaining an unconditional surrender from the Harkun with a penjing still preserved and lovingly cared for by the remnants of the Smithsonian Institution. The Harkun finally loaded themselves into a Chree-inspired wormhole generator and left our galaxy, but we never forgot Charity or her mentor, and we remain prepared for the barest chance that the Harkun might return. That’s why you can look up into the sky on a clear night and see Janit Calvo’s face, burned into the moon as a constant reminder of eternal vigilance. (As a test run, the far side of Mercury features the only surviving portrait of Calvo’s dog Kitty.) To see Charity’s portrait, you have to go to Jupiter: every moon in the system has one.

Review: The Savage Garden Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Peter D’Amato

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

The Savage Garden Revised

The Savage Garden Revised: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Peter D’Amato

ISBN-10: 1607744104
ISBN-13: 9781607744108
Published: Ten Speed Press, 07/02/2013
Pages: 384
Language: English

With the current wealth in new research and archived knowledge on carnivorous plants, it can be hard to remember when that wealth wasn’t easily shared. When I first became hooked on carnivorous plants a decade ago, I did what most people did at the time: instead of hopping online and running a quick Google search on the subject, I sashayed first to the public library and then to available bookstores for more information. The library had children’s books on “The World’s Weirdest Plants”, usually in that horrible combination of sepia monochrome illustrations and one block of Kodachrome color plates in the center that were so popular in the 1960s. At this point, all of the independent bookstores in Dallas were long-dead, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble had a gardening section comprised of two books on local trees and flowers and at least 50 variations on “How To Grow Marijuana In Your Closet”. Not that I particularly had problems with either, but that wasn’t the subject. Online bookselling wasn’t necessarily an option, either, as most searches at the time required knowing the title of the book, and I wasn’t about ready to buy any book on the subject without being able to look through it.

Finally, one day in spring 2003, while killing time before a job interview, I entered a Borders in North Dallas. After a pass through the magazine section to see which publications hadn’t survived the dotcom crash that week, I thought “Hey, let’s see what’s in the gardening section?” and took a quick peek. This time, in between a Better Homes & Gardens volume on citrus and a purely theoretical exercise on growing your own psilocybin mushrooms for fun and profit, I found a title that caught my eye. On the spine was a stunning Sarracenia pitcher plant, and the photos on the inside were even more fascinating. No arguments, no debate: that book came home with me, and it changed my life.

When I’m asked by carnivorous plant neophytes about resources and references, I’ll recommend several. Anything by Barry Rice and Adrian Slack is essential, but the one absolute I had for anybody wanting to work with carnivores was to get, by any means necessary, a copy of Peter D’Amato’s book The Savage Garden. Over the last decade, I’ve haunted used bookstores for spare copies, and I’ve been known to hand them over with a plastic smile and an earnest plea of “Let me tell you about my church.” In return, the lucky recipients of that largesse promptly had their minds blown. A couple even stated, after going through the whole volume, “now I understand why you quit writing.”

I exaggerate not a whit by noting that, particularly for beginners, The Savage Garden was one of the most valuable books on carnivorous plants written in the last two decades. Not only was it an excellent reference book for those seeking to view carnivores in the wild, particularly in the United States and the UK, but Mr. D’Amato’s experience in running California Carnivores, one of the largest carnivorous plant nurseries on the planet, showed on every page. In addition to being informative, the book was humorous, insightful, and thorough. The only thing that slowed it down a bit, honestly, was that it was a product of its time.

If that first edition of The Savage Garden had a problem, it was its publication at the beginnings of the Internet era. When it came out in 1998, it was one of the most authoritative books on the subject, but nobody expected the nova of new research over the last fifteen years. Between new explorations and DNA analysis, the number of carnivorous plant species known to science jumped to over 600 species (double that if you want to count the triggerplants, Stylidium spp, in that list), and the number of hybrids and cultivars jumped in that time as well. Stewart McPherson’s heroic expeditions to catalog and photograph all known species in the wild made the news, as did new research into carnivorous plant function and natural history. I regularly note in lectures that this is the most exciting period in carnivorous plant research since Charles Darwin was still alive, and after some of the recent developments in understanding sundew and Nepenthes pitcher plant physiology, I’m being conservative.

All in all, The Savage Garden desperately needed a revamp. It needed metric conversions for non-American readers. It needed further listings on newly described species now available in cultivation. It needed further options for husbandry, such as the new procedures for keeping Portuguese dewy pines (Drosophyllum lusitanicum) happy and hearty. Oh, and it needed resources on such diverse subjects as carnivorous plant societies and sterile tissue propagation.

Well, guess what?

For the beginners, stop right here and buy this book right now. Don’t worry about whether you have to choose between the book or groceries, and definitely ignore that burning school bus full of paraplegic nuns. They’ll still be there. As I like to tell the Czarina, it’s financial decisions like these that make me glad I have two kidneys but regret I have only one liver. Just shut up and get it now, and when you’ve won the MacArthur Fellowship award for your outstanding research, just rub the scar where your right kidney used to be and remind yourself that it was worth it. I won’t even say anything if you decide that selling spare organs doesn’t necessarily mean yours.

For the long-timers, you have reason to ask “is this worth the cost of a whole new edition, seeing as how the original edition is so thorough?” Well, that depends upon your specialty. The coverage of all of the world’s pitcher plants is effectively doubled in this edition, especially with new Sarracenia hybrids and new Nepenthes species. The section on sundews is even more thorough, especially thanks to all of the tuberous and pygmy sundews now available, and the updated photos of everything are spectacular. Oh, and for bladderwort buffs, get a good look at some of the new terrestrial varieties now available in cultivation.

And yes, I know you assume that this isn’t a perfect volume, and it isn’t. The biggest complaint lies with the seemingly arbitrary listing of species and cultivars within a section, especially concerning butterworts. In an end chapter on potentially carnivorous and protocarnivorous species, the devil’s claws (Proboscidea lutea and louisianica) finally get more respect, as do both known species of Roridula, but there’s not a peep about triggerplants. (That’s only fair, in a way: triggerplants deserve a major volume all on their own.) That’s more than mitigated, though, by some very solid and thorough advice on growing carnivores indoors: I recently started raising Nepenthes and Brocchinia plants under T5 high-output fluorescent lights intended for planted aquaria, with excellent results in both growth and color. Not only has Mr. D’Amato beaten me to the punch on their usefulness, but he’s also noting that recent developments in LED technology will probably make these as obsolete as carbon-arc lights within the next ten years or so.

So here we have it. One of the most influential print references on carnivorous plants, revised for 2013 sensibilities, available in an autographed edition. Fifty years from now, when you’ve dumped sordid habits like heroin and tobacco and writing science fiction in favor of raising carnivores, raise a glass to Peter D’Amato, because for a lot of us, it’s all his fault.

Review: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

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

Cover: Gardening In Miniature by Janit Calvo

Gardening In Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World by Janit Calvo

ISBN-10: 160469372X
ISBN-13: 9781604693720
Published: Timber Press, 2013
Pages: 256
Language: English

Time for full disclosure. I’ve known Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center for the last five years. We’ve been comparing notes on miniature garden design and care for at least that long, and we’ve commiserated for nearly that long on the joys and horrors of running your own business in this foul Recession That Just Won’t Quit. It’s not fair to tell of her further exploits, such as the days when she was a monopole fabricator out on the deserts of Seven-Gamma-Flame or when she managed to scare hell out of a pack of Tarrask gene-raiders, mostly because that’s still five years in her future and it’s not fair giving her that much of an edge. The woman’s enough of a force of nature right now, you know? Oh, and don’t ask her about New Orleans. Ever. I mean it.

With that kind of background with someone, especially when remembering how she nearly broke my arm in a friendly game of full-contact chess (and you should have seen what she did to Morphy), reviewing that friend’s book starts to move into uncomfortable territory. How can you do justice to a friend’s words when everyone agrees that she should have killed you when she had the chance? Or when you know that on a little world out on the outer edge of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a race that won’t exist for a billion years yet found a copy of this book and used competitive miniature gardening design as an alternative to saturation nuclear bombardment when settling border disputes?

Yeah. I won’t even talk about how samples of her DNA were gathered by about three dozen races in your own galaxy and merged with their own to produce gardeners with skills far exceeding any that they had on their own. Nobody should learn that their writings are as famed as a basis of civilization as anything written by Hammurabi, Gandhi, Joey Ramone, or Drak-Zil Ruuuuuman in their lifetimes, because it just makes the head go POP.

Now that I’ve set the stage, know that Gardens in Miniature is Janit’s first book. It’s also the first serious book on the concept of miniature gardening published in decades. This is the book to guide you into the concept and the basics, instead of the fourth volume, which explains the particulars of…but I’ve said too much. This is the book that explains why Janit’s techniques aren’t exactly bonsai or penjing, but borrow from the same concept, as well as from model railroading, diorama building, and a smidgeon from ship-in-a-bottle builders. Since she’s writing for a beginning audience, not the experts who fuse their own custom containers from the ash of Mount Rainier in tribute to her, she takes the time to explain the importance of picking the right container and the right plants. She also takes the time to explain scale, and how a miniature gardener should always take scale into account when mixing plants and accessories in a miniature garden arrangement. (I really want to tell her about the roadways of the Deltrau Array and the literal kilometers of miniature gardens set up in her memory, all lovingly attended by novices in the hope that they might achieve the same level of grace, but that just wouldn’t be fair. She’d ask to see them, and then why should she strive any further upon seeing such beauty?)

It’s inadequate, but the only thing I can say about Gardening in Miniature is “snag a copy now, in any format you can, and get it autographed, stamped, or brain-wave-imprinted while you have the chance.” It’s not that you’ll have a family heirloom for yourself, or even for your great-great-grandchildren. It’s that if this “review” brought up images of fantastic, otherworldly miniature garden arrangements, go ahead and make them and then show them to Janit. After all, you’re going to do it anyway, so it’s not like you’re ruining the timeline or anything. Besides, for some of you, she’ll put images of them into her next few books. I won’t tell you whom, though, because that wouldn’t be right. Masters need to start out as novices, or else the whole space-time continuum falls apart, as Janit and I learned the hard way. But that’s another story.

Battle Review: Jackson 7-in-1 VersaPlanter

Want backstory? Here you go.

(Record of interview with suspect Jhalen Vergan, 9933PSII6, conducted 26 Aries 3316. Video unavailable, probably corrupted during prisoner’s escape on 36 Perseus. Prisoner’s current whereabouts unknown.)

Jackson VersaPlanter ensemble

Admit what I did and how I did it? Sure. Why not? You can only shoot me twice. Besides, I might give someone else ideas, and then you’re all in trouble. Got full audio and video going? Better hang on, then.

Any decent illusionist will tell you that the best way to hide something is in plain sight, by letting everyone assume that it’s something else. Any decent data thief’s tools have to work the same way. If you see me wandering around with standard extraction and transmission gear in public, it’s hard not to assume I’m not doing something illegal. You’d be amazed at the number of amateurs that do this, because they think wearing headglobes and Suzzie kits to clubs is just too scrotnig. Let them: it just keeps the law from looking at me.

The other mistake the tyros always make is to go for bright, flashy, and overly complex. If it doesn’t break when you use it, you forget how to use it. The good thieves understand that any tools they need have to be simple and multiuse. Even better, they should always seem reasonable for the place and the use. If you say you’re a transmat tech and you’re caught with a full transmat toolkit, who’s going to suspect that you were using those tools for a bit of burglary?

That’s why I have a full cert list for air cleaning plant maintenance, and why I have a full kit. It doesn’t take much to pretend to be one, but there’s always some lawbug who will drag in everyone at a crime scene and expect some explanation for why they were there. Spend a couple of seconds discussing why you want to plant “Siouxsie” air plants instead of “Billy Broad” plants, their eyes glaze over, and they’re glad to be rid of you.

(rattling and sliding sound) Oh, yes, that. Like it? It’s a real vintage Jackson Versaplanter from First Earth. It’s real horttech from before the First Migration, and it still looks new, doesn’t it? Treat your tools right and they’ll last forever, and a lot of people loved this thing as much as I do.

Jackson VersaPlanter blade - front

Jackson VersaPlanter blade -- back

First, forget nanoplastics or some of those new frictionless ceramics. Old-fashioned stainless steel holds an edge, has just enough flex to be used as a lever without breaking, and it keeps its shape when dropped in a sonic cleaner. Try doing that with a nanoplastic blade. Having a measurement scale on the front comes in handy every once in a while, but the back of the blade has to be smooth. Smooth.

And then there’s the edges. In this business, you get a few sociopaths who enjoy killing, but I’ve never drawn a drop of blood with a blade in my entire career. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need a blade for cutting up plastic, scoring thermowall, and cutting up a lawbug’s uniform to tie her to a chair. I’ve even used the serrated edge to cut hair, even if the cut isn’t fashionable. By the way, you know the shows where data thieves all have those stupid Vokko dreadlocks? You don’t want to get those caught in a door at a bad time, and that’s how I know the cut isn’t fashionable. Took me years to grow the hair back. If not for the twine cutting notch on the straight edge side, I’d probably still be there.

Jackson VersaPlanter tip

Oh, the tip. It was originally designed for grabbing a weed’s taproot, and that’s why I use it for air cleaning plants. But did you know that it’s also the perfect size to grab a singularity conduit and pop it out without damage to the conduit? And now you know why you didn’t find any traces of me at the Voluth affair.

Jackson VersaPlanter pommel

I told you: I’ve never killed anyone on a job, and I can also say I’ve never taken a drop of blood during one, either. That’s because if you pop someone right behind the ear with a VersaPlanter pommel, they’re out for hours. It’s handy as an emergency hammer, too, but it really saved my life when I was accidentally sealed inside a moving tram car about three cycles ago. It made more racket and saved my fists, and I got out before the air ran out.

Jackson VersaPlanter sheath

The other reason why I love this wonderful tool? It’s this sheath. It has a built-in lock to keep the blade from sliding free, and it won’t slide free until you unlock it. Shake it upside down, slide down a sewer tunnel, or swim across a buffering pond, and it’s not leaving your side. Some tools stay with you for a while, but a tool that really stays with you is one that you cherish.

Well, what else can I say? You caught me. I’m not going anywhere. Can I have a few minutes alone before the execution?

(Suspect Jhalen Vergan, 9933PSII6, is still at large, with standard ProConSec rewards available for his capture. Whereabouts of his VersaPlanter, reclaimed during his escape, are also unknown. End record.)

Review: The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

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

The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

The Pineapple Top Growers Handbook by Jack Kramer

ISBN-10: 0136762883
ISBN-13: 978-0136762881
Published: Prentice-Hall, 1979
Pages: 76
Language: English

The holidays are over, and with it, the usual festivities. For those in higher latitudes, you’re looking at anywhere from four to six months of continued winter or something that might approximate spring only if “spring” is defined by “less than one’s height in snow atop the garden”. Even in Texas, we’ve got at least two solid months of cold and wet before it’s safe to plant a garden. When beginners in the area ask me about the best time to start planting, I tell them to wait for the weekend of the Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for two reasons. The first is that the soil has warmed to the point where most seeds will sprout in a manner of days and the risk of frost to tomatoes and peppers is pretty much over. The second is that rototilling and spreading compost is preeminently more productive than watching Dallas’s future elite spraying the neighborhood with green beer vomit. It’s a matter of priorities, I guess.

If it happens this year, that parade runs on March 16, so we have a long two months until the days get noticeably shorter. Oh, you can get started on the new crop of pepper sprouts, or in my case, Roridula gorgonias seedlings. Some of us settle for that most terrible form of garden porn, the seed catalog. Others go for the more reasonable idea of plotting and scheming via the FarmTek catalog. Collecting magic nose goblins isn’t an option. So what do you do when you’re at a loss for horticulture projects, your kids are so bored that they’re watching Firefly reruns, and your vacuform table and rail gun are in the shop?

Well, when I’m told “I’m bored” by kids with determination and a bit of spare time, I used to recommend the exemplary book Make Your Own Dinosaur out of Chicken Bones, from the thoroughly gonzo palaeontologist Christopher McGowan. Last I checked, Dr. McGowan was the world’s leading authority on ichthyosaurs, which is impressive enough. However, Make Your Own Dinosaur out of Chicken Bones and its sequel T-Rex to Go: Build Your Own from Chicken Bones qualify as two of the greatest beginning palaeontology books any kid could find. Learn how to make an Apatosaurus skeleton with the spare bones from two to three roast chickens and learn all of the particulars of brontosaur and chicken structure? Yeah.

Thanks to a providential trip to Recycled Books in Denton, I’ve now found the horticultural and vegan-friendly equivalent to T-Rex To Go. Any gardening book reader has come across at least one of Jack Kramer‘s exemplary guides to orchids and bromeliads, but he also put out this tiny little volume on using the one inedible part of a fresh pineapple to best effect.

Now, it’s more than fair to state that a lot of kids get their start in horticulture with a packet of marigold seeds, a tomato seedling, or an avocado pit suspended over a glass of water on toothpicks. A few adventurous beginners look at a pineapple top and ask “So…how do I get this rooted and established?” I was one of those, when I joked with my sister-in-law that I could put a spare top left over from a batch of pina coladas to good use. She thought I was crazy then, and she thought I was even crazier a year later when I came to her house with a happy pineapple plant and told her “Remember Bernard?” She remembered that, even if she didn’t remember naming it Bernard, and she was even more surprised when I actually got a small edible pineapple the next year. Admittedly, she’s easily surprised at anything the Czarina and I do, but that one got her because she didn’t realize that this could be done. That’s understandable: after all, who tries to repot carrot tops and onion roots to get new plants? (Yes, I know: me, but I was speaking rhetorically.)

If this book started and stopped with getting a pineapple top rooted, this would make the basis for a good science fair project. Oh, but that’s where the fun begins. Kramer takes the time to explain a lot of background on related bromeliads that grow well with pineapples, alternate growing techniques (I’ve watched others grow other bromeliads on cork or bark slabs, but had no idea our friend Ananas reacted well to similar treatment. Right then and there, that gave quite a few ideas for future projects, and not just keeping pineapples as potential nesting sites for arrow poison frogs.

The only issue with this book? Well, Dr. McGowan understood that the best way to get parents involved with chicken-bone dinosaur construction was to make sure that nothing went to waste otherwise, so he included a very good chicken soup recipe with each of his books. Kramer has a few suggestions on what to do with the pineapple before stealing the top for propagation, but this is definitely a book of the 1970s in that regard. Stating “there are dozens of recipes that use pineapple in cooking,” and then only hinting as his favorite uses for fresh or cooked pineapple, is just cruel.

(For completeness’s sake, my personal favorite, other than fresh chilled pineapple, is grilled: peel the pineapple but leave the core intact. Jam a grilling skewer, such as those used for roasts, through the core, and set it on a hot grill for five to ten minutes on a side. Sprinkle cinnamon on the outside, and cut the pineapple flesh directly off the core. Doing this over charcoal works best, but grilling woods without a strong smoke flavor, such as maple or honey mesquite, are at least as good.)

And a little tip learned from long experience? after buying this book, practice a little moderation. If your local grocery store has lots of specials on pineapple through the year, the way my local Kroger does, don’t be afraid to give the kids one or two tops and compost the rest. That is, unless you’re like me and you like a summer garden full of pots full of pineapple plants. It’s not like they’re susceptible to most garden pests, after all, and they do offer hiding spaces for anoles, geckos, mantids, and other beneficial garden predators, right?

Review: Kiss My Aster by Amanda Thomsen

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

Kiss My Aster cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi

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

Keshiki Bonsai cover

Keshiki Bonsai: The Edgy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes by Kenji Koybayashi
ISBN-10: 1604693592
ISBN-13: 9781604693591
Published: Timber Press (OR), 10/01/2012
Pages: 176
Language: English

For anybody who went to school at any university specializing in fine arts, or for anyone like me who just hung out with a lot of burgeoning young artists, one book was the subject of conversation more than any other. It rarely made any appreciable impact upon non-artists, and a lot of artists scoffed when they saw the title in a student’s book-pile. However, for a certain percentage of fine arts students, this was a tome as essential for rumination and digestion as The Boys on the Bus was for journalism majors. That book was 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dali.

In reality, 50 Secrets carried 51 secrets: it was deliberately obtuse. The first few chapters started with Dali alternating between kissing his own ass and tearing down any contemporary painter within his purview, and most readers give up after 30 pages or so of ridiculous self-aggrandizing. As I said, this was the last secret, hidden in plain sight. Slog and fight through the beginning and Dali’s ego, and you suddenly realize “Hey, I’m learning something.” That continues through the book, as you pick up ever-more-intriguing tips on what made Dali the painter he was, as well as learn that the other secrets weren’t about slavishly following his list. (For instance, it’s rather hard to follow the letter of the law when two of those secrets to being a great painter were “live in Spain” and “be named ‘Salvador Dali’.”) It’s only at the end of the book, literally within the last two paragraphs, that all of the discussion on making pigments and training spiders to make webs in hoops made of branches suddenly makes sense. At the absolute end, everything taught throughout the book finally comes together, in a way that leaves you breathless in its brevity and its force. Only at the end do you realize that there was a method within the madness: it’s one that only really worked for Dali, but one that allows you to follow his lessons and take them in your own directions.

As much as I hate the lazy analogy of making a direct comparison with one modifier, such as the classic “my family life was [fill in the blank] on acid,” Kenji Kobayashi managed to do something quite singular. He managed to write the 50 Secrets of Magic Craftmanship for the horticulture contingent.

Not that he planned to do so with Keshiki Bonsai. Kobayashi, the owner of the bonsai shop Sinajina, understandably became frustrated with bonsai design and bonsai guides, and the seemingly overwhelming material on the hows of bonsai design that neglect the why. Instead of dutifully showing how to wrap and pinch bonsai into forms that may not be final for fifty or a hundred years after he dies, he has much more of an interest in simple designs that can be constructed and maintained by those of us with limited time and even more limited resources. Many of his step-by-step projects aren’t intended as final compositions, such as with a Martha Stewart arrangement. Each of his projects is intended to teach one skill well enough, such as recreating the flow of moss up a hillside, that it’s possible to move on. He doesn’t teach by going one step at a time with one tree: he tries to get the reader to look at bonsai arrangements as installments toward improved skills, and with a final product ready for enjoyment and basic maintenance within a few days. The idea isn’t to reshape a tree into a presumed bonsai in a day, but to consider “exactly how do I convince a viewer that s/he’s looking at a grassy hilltop and not simply an accumulation of potting mix and various seedlings?” That last part is the important part.

For standard bonsai enthusiasts, a lot of the basics in Keshiki Bonsai won’t be anything they don’t already know, and many of Kobayashi’s accents and pots may be overly simplistic or even vulgar. However, for anyone working with miniature gardening, this book shouldn’t be kept on a shelf. It should be kept in a little box right next to your work area, pages full of bookmarks, on hand for when it’s needed. “When it’s needed” is best defined as “every five minutes.” And for terrarium construction advocates? Just be glad this book can’t be downloaded directly to your brain…yet.

Review: Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

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

Machiavelli’s Lawn: The Great Writers’ Garden Companion, written and illustrated by Mark Crick
ISBN-10: 1847081347
ISBN-13: 9781847081346
Published: Granta Books (UK), 03/01/2011
Pages: 111
Language: English

Machiavelli's Lawn

When it comes to in-jokes, particularly extensive in-jokes, writers have two options. The better option is to write such jokes in such a way that the intended audience gets the humor, but that humor also gets those outside the loop. I say “better” because if the joke dies both with the in-audience and everyone else, the writer’s done. Science fiction is full of these failed attempts, where the only defense to a poorly written “comedy” is to yell “Oh, yeah? Well, I wrote this for the fans!” And what happens when the fans think that the resultant book or production is a pile of garbage?

The other option, rarely done well, is to ignore that urge to go for a larger audience. Go narrow and focused, and understand that 95 percent of the potential world readership will look at it like comedian Bill Hicks’s famed “dog being shown a card trick”. The trick isn’t to make the intended audience laugh. The trick is to be so good that it makes readers outside that vicious circle want to read the original reference and then go back to the in-joke. Occasionally, very occasionally, this works out, and the creator or creators are heroes in song and legend.

I won’t say that Mark Crick’s writers’ garden companion Machiavelli’s Lawn is going to appeal to 99 percent of the general readership. I can’t say that it’ll appeal to the vast majority of gardening enthusiasts. For those of us who spent far too much time reading things other than horticultural references, though, it’s a trip.

The conceit of Machiavelli’s Lawn is to write gardening guides in the style of various famous writers, such as Raymond Carver, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, and Pablo Neruda. That can be hard on its own, considering that the best material for parody is broad prose with a style about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail served at dinner. (This, incidentally, is why H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson are such an inspiration for aspiring parody writers as yet unable to work with the subtlety of Ray Bradbury or Mike Royko.) Discussing removal of tree suckers in the style of Bret Easton Ellis has its moments, but it’s not hard because Ellis’s style was practically a cliche from the second he started typing. Pulling off a parody of Martin Amis that was itself viciously funny (involving repotting an abused houseplant within a strip club) that’s more readable than an Amis story? Now that’s talent.

I might also add that Mr. Crick provided his own illustrations for this book with a similar mindset, as if the Ralph Steadman tribute wasn’t obvious. (I have to admit that I snagged this book because I first assumed that Mr. Steadman had moved from writing about wine and whisky to horticulture.) Here we also get treatments of Durer, Munch, Lichtenstein, Dali, and Robert Crumb, all distinctive and all appropriate for the essay being illustrated. If you aren’t familiar with any of these artists, don’t sweat it. Not knowing about them doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the illustrations. However, if you do…well, my Day Job boss is a proud Robert Crumb fan, and he got a good enough cackle over Crick’s hommage that he wanted to read the accompanying story just to get more context.

The problem here is that you have so many authors, and so many books, that could thrive under this sort of treatment that this book isn’t enough. In fact, I have one that’s been sitting in my head for a while, and let’s see if anyone’s sufficiently erudite to catch the reference:

“Amanda gets me a job as an arborist, after that Amanda’s pushing secateurs in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Amanda and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Amanda Thomsen.”

Review: Vanilla Orchids by Ken Cameron

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

Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron
ISBN-10: 0881929891
ISBN-13: 9780881929898
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2011
Pages: 212
Language: English

Many writers have particular phrases or literary misuses that drive them insane. Using the word “penultimate” to mean “even bigger than ultimate,” for instance, or the word “hater” used for any commentary on a person or subject that’s anything but utterly sycophantic. I have two. The most obvious, considering my background, is the description of any old, obsolete, or hidebound person or concept as a “dinosaur”. It’s not because I’m one of those humorless pedants who nerks “Well, you know, dinosaurs were dominant lifeforms on this planet for 130 million years,” but because it’s simplistic. Sadly, my suggestions on expanding our vocabularies by comparing anachronisms to arsinoitheres, anomalocarids, or arthrodires go over about as well as my recipes for venison sorbet.

The other? Describing any bland, blah, boring, or blase item as “vanilla”. Vanilla: the one flavor in Neopolitan ice cream packages that’s left for last, because it’s supposed to be “plain”. Artificial vanilla extract in cupcakes and bad supermarket bakery cookies. Nilla Wafers. George Romero’s second movie. All of which are revealed as blatant lies the moment you smell a properly cured vanilla bean for the first time and realize exactly how subtle yet complex real vanilla can be.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the difference between vanilla and vanillin. Vanillin, while one of the main aromatic components in vanilla extract, is actually a compound found in many plants. To give an example of how common vanillin is, you may or may not remember the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry given to Mayu Yamamoto for his method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. Vanillin production is also a first-year organic chemistry stunt, thus inadvertently contributing to the stigma against vanilla proper.

It’s bad enough that vanilla as a flavoring is now downplayed as mundane and wallflowerish. We forget how this spice became one of the most valuable and important spices on the planet. Never mind that chocolate as we know it today would be far too bitter without the proper and precise application of vanilla. Walk through any perfume counter in any department store after smelling a well-cured vanilla bean and note how most of the world’s most popular and successful perfumes depend upon vanilla’s long-lasting notes. The real stuff pops, but we’re so overwhelmed with cheap imitations that we barely notice unless we take the time.

And then there’s the orchid that produces this miracle. All commercial vanilla production comes from one species (Vanilla planiflora) and one natural hybrid (Vanilla x. tahitiensis). With the exception of salep, vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid food product, and about all that’s shared is a vague picture of an orchid on “French Vanilla” ice cream and the like. Most people are in shock when they discover that vanilla comes from an orchid, and even orchid enthusiasts have rarely seen members of the genus Vanilla. Most orchid books include Vanilla planiflora as an afterthought, mentioning vaguely that it produces vines a bit like Vanda orchids, and that “if they bloom, pollinate the blooms by hand to produce your own vanilla.”

A few months back, I saw a collection of rather ratty Vanilla orchids on sale in a Dallas garden center with that advice, and I scared several potential customers with my laughter. (Of course, I’d been laughing for a while, especially since this same garden center was advising Venus flytrap owners that they could remove minerals from Dallas tap water by letting it stand out overnight. If my smile makes people suddenly regret leaving Ripley and Parker to look for the ship’s cat, what does my laughter do, I wonder?) If you want to see vanilla orchids in action, go to Gunter’s Greenhouse in Richardson, Texas especially when the store hosts its spring open house and the orchids are in bloom. The back greenhouse has a big V. x tahitiensis on display, and the vines are as big around as a man’s leg. Very seriously, this beast is supported with repurposed cable racks previously used for lugging telephone cables, and I don’t think anything less could support the mass. To Gunter’s credit (and I say this as someone in perpetual awe and jealousy of the greenhouse’s crew of orchid geniuses), this one blooms prodigiously and extensively, but the idea of the average Park Cities gardening dilletante growing one, much less getting it to bloom, is just silly.

Again, at this point, this is where most orchid books and references stop. Outside of V. planiflora, all discussion on Vanilla orchids just stops. Nobody discusses the other species found in the Americas, or the wideranging ones from the Old World. Nobody discusses how the genus Vanilla contains some of the only vining orchids known. Nobody talks about relationships with other orchids, or how V. planiflora may have been domesticated in the first place, or the tremendous debt our culture owes this undeservedly obscure genus.

This is where Ken Cameron walks in. This isn’t a popular account of the history of vanilla, as in the case of Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. This is precisely what orchid enthusiasts and researchers need: a good, thorough view of the natural history of the entire genus, from a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for discovery but who also doesn’t go overboard. Discovering, for instance, that Vanilla is related to basal orchids suggests, as Professor Cameron notes herein, that the whole group may have been much more extensive in the distant past than today. Considering that orchids were almost definitely a component in Cretaceous flora, then this gives a whole new aspect to palaeontological art, as well as to anyone designing prehistoric gardens. I don’t think we’re going to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta adding Vanilla orchids to its Cretaceous Garden, but this news might influence someone else to give Vanilla and close cousins from New Caledonia a good shot.

I know this is getting tiring, but more kudos to Timber Press for offering this book. Considering how Vanilla information is neglected by both orchid references and food guides, the cliche “essential reading” actually applies in this case. The Czarina has been hinting at starting a Tahitian vanilla vine for a while, and finally I feel confident enough in knowing the plant’s needs that it might not be a complete pipe dream. Some day this year, I’m going to walk into Gunter’s, walk up to that monstrous V. x tahitiensis, and give them the magic request of “Give me three feet.” (Now, if you buy this book, you’ll know that growing most Vanilla from seed is extremely difficult, and that the vines usually reproduce themselves when they fall from trees and break apart. We’re talking orchids that might actually require machetes to keep under control. How could you go back to raising Cattleya orchids after learning that?)

Review: The Evening Garden by Peter Loewer

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

The Evening Garden: Flowers and Fragrance From Dusk Till Dawn by Peter Loewer.
ISBN-10: 0881925322
ISBN-13: 9780881925326
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2010
Pages: 272
Language: English

Ramon Gonzalez of Mr. Brown Thumb recently tweeted “There are no new ideas, but when one comes around you’d find it easier to milk a turtle than to get a garden writer to credit its creators.” Speaking in general, I couldn’t agree more (back during my science fiction writing days, my articles were ripped off so often by Entertainment Weekly that my name should have run in the magazine’s masthead), but I wonder if we’re ascribing malice when mere ignorance is enough. Anybody who’s been writing for more than a month knows that ideas themselves are cheap, but it’s the implementation that’s tough, which is why anybody fussing about editors or publishers “stealing my ideas” automatically labels him/herself as an amateur. What continues to surprise me in the gardening writing market is the sheer amount of parallel evolution going on. We aren’t stealing each others’ ideas: we’re working with what we figure are original and pertinent concepts, only to discover that someone else, or several someone elses, was working with the same base material at the same time. It’s particularly disgusting to discover that someone else wrote about your oh-so-innovative idea or conclusion years before you ever entered the hobby.

I write this from experience. I spent nearly a year researching moon gardens. After wandering into the main Sarracenia growing area out behind the greenhouse during a full moon, I was simply stunned at how well Sarracenia, particularly S. leucophylla, fluoresces in moonlight. A bit of research with UV light sources led to a whole series of experiments with night-blooming plants and how well they stand out in both moonlight and UV, and I was so sure I was in new territory. Oh, I was smug, figuring that I had something that would stop all of my gardening friends for a minute and make them look upon my works and despair.

This was before I discovered the existence of Peter Loewer‘s The Evening Garden, and learned that he’d gone well beyond anything I could accomplish in my garden back in 1993. In fact, about halfway through, I was reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’s routine concerning a Debbie Gibson/ Jimi Hendrix duet album, because all I wanted to do was scream “MOMEEEEEEEEE! I wanna go back to the mall! I suck! I suck!”

According to the author, The Evening Garden first saw print in 1993 through McMillan, and promptly went out of print in 1995 when the publisher went bust. This helps explain the format, because this is a book meant to be read, not just scanned. Loewer goes through a very impressive list of night-blooming plants, night-fragrant plants, and plants that look as if they should bloom at night, in a friendly, conversational style that covers a lot of growing conditions. All of the big hitters, including Datura, Ipomoea, and Brugmansia, are in the list, but so are a whole slew of surprises. I know just enough about Hemerocallis daylilies to be dangerous, but I had no clue as to Hemerocallis citrina, the citron daylily, being a night bloomer. Since I’m already an enthusiastic fan of the taste of its flower buds, either raw or cooked, this is going into the garden as soon as I know that the risk of last-minute freezing is gone.

Again, I thought I was so clever for inventing a modern moonlight garden all by myself, but Mr. Loewer beat me to that, too. Opportunities for encouraging fireflies and glowworms in that garden, too, on top of recommendations for night-blooming cactus and other succulents with which I’ve only started experimentation. I wanna go back to the mall. The only aspect of my ongoing research that didn’t show up in this book, and that was only because the technology wasn’t available at the time it was written, involves the use of LED lighting systems, particularly UV LEDs. I fully expect that if I started writing about it, and the sheer beauty of some flowers as they fluoresce in patterns normally only visible to insects, Mr. Loewer will finish an updated chapter on the subject that makes me look like more of an amateur than before.

Now, the particulars on this edition is that the illustrious crew at Timber Press brought it back into print, but as a print-on-demand edition. This means, among other things, that it can’t be ordered directly from the Timber Press Web site. However, it is available through a plethora of independent and chain bookstores for order, and I heartily recommend my friends at St. Johns Booksellers. I’m also thinking longer and harder on trying to organize a goth event comparable to Convergence with at least one panel on moon gardens, because I want to drop copies into the hands of a few fellow darklings and see what they can accomplish with a good resource guide.

In the meantime, the experiments continue. After learning about the new “Pink Lemonade” blueberry (Vaccinium), I’m picking one up this weekend. It’s not just because I’m already a blueberry junkie, that the ripe berries should complement the roses already in the back, or that the Czarina has been begging for a blueberry bush ever since she discovered they could be raised as container plants in Dallas. No, it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that the unripe berries are very moonlight-friendly, and that the best way to tell that the berries are ripe is when they stop glowing under a full moon. I’ll let you know what I discover, because while The Evening Garden has a huge section on prominent blooms for a moon garden, it doesn’t say a thing about berries.

Reviews and why they matter

It’s been a little while since the last time any new book or product reviews (mostly due to some ridiculous issues with distributors on getting books ordered and paid for back last summer), but one absolute when I resume is that I pay my own cash for review copies or samples, and I never solicit responses to reviews. If a publisher or manufacturer wants to quote a review, fine, but I don’t expect a response, and under no circumstances will I ever accept or expect any kind of compensation for doing these. Not that my opinion is worth that much, but it’s a matter of setting ground rules early.

My insistence on setting these standards comes from my old film critic days, and exposure to the critics of Dallas and Fort Worth in particular. This is the area that brought us Michael H. Price and Todd Camp, two of the most forthright and honest film critics of whom I’ve had the honor to meet. This is also the town that brought us the television news film critic who’d stumble into a screening a half-hour after the movie started, and throw a tantrum because the projectionist wouldn’t rewind the film so she could see it at the beginning. This is the area that brought us the critic who’d throw fits about how he’d only review events if he got freebies, and then savage the events because he got everything he wanted. I won’t even start with the editor who’d rewrite his critics’ reviews because that director or that actress needed to be “punished” for early career choices, leave the original critics’ bylines on the review, and then hide when they understandably came for his head.

Nearly twenty years after the advent of the graphical Web browser, we really shouldn’t be surprised that just about any idiot can become a film critic, and many do. (One of the many reasons why I very rarely go to movies any more comes from the number of Web-only critics, all crying dark tears over the demise of GeoCities, literally tackling me in the hopes of snagging “review copies” of entertainment magazines now dead for the last decade.) It’s remarkably easy to turn one of these reviewers into a classic Roger Ebert quote whore: imagine slogging away on reviews and commentary, only to get a studio publicist asking sweetly “Would you be interested in attending a preview of this new movie?” A few previews, a few freebies, a couple of buffet luncheons at nice hotels where you might actually see the star or the director as s/he’s passing through, and the rationalizations begin. Oh, you don’t want to downplay the hard work that cast, crew, and publicity department put into a movie, and you’ll give them a break when they put out a dog. Oh, every movie that’s completed should be celebrated. Heck, there’s nothing wrong with giving blurbs based on early impressions, weeks or even months before the film sees release; in extreme cases, to plagiarize others’ reviews because keeping up with current releases is impossible.

The real reason for keeping up the charade, though, comes down to one basic instinct: keeping up “access” to that magic world. It doesn’t even have to be renumeration in cash, freebies, or escorts: you’d be amazed at the number of alleged critics who’d shiv their grandmothers just to see a long-awaited film two weeks before everyone else. (Or, in the case of one of the Dallas critics mentioned above, pitching a fit about not being invited to a super-special advance preview of a big film a decade ago, and namedropping that a family member was an employee at the publisher of the source novel.)

And how does this connect to horticulture? Only that with the increase in number and range of gardening and horticulture blogs, the glamour might not be as intense as with movies or television, but the temptation is still there to let one slide so as to keep up getting gifts in the mail. Most of these blog writers have never been within a time zone of a newspaper ombudsman, who lays down the law of what is acceptable and not acceptable in renumeration and compensation by and from reviewers. (That, of course, implies that many newspapers or magazines even have ombudsmen any more, as little things such as ethics and morality tend to get in the way of kissing up to big advertisers and friends of the editor.) It’s not that they deliberately decide “Hey, I’m going to grunt out blurbs for items or events I’ve never seen.” You can’t expect bloggers to stick with publication ethics rules when they don’t even know what those rules are. (Poor Todd Camp can appreciate that: he still doesn’t have full use of his feet after he and I attended one of my first critic’s preview screenings in 1989. I completely forgot that I was there as a member of the press, and when the publicists started a scavenger hunt contest for signed press stills, my having a roll of dental floss meant that I hit him and every other critic between me and the aisle like a charging indricothere. I very nearly crippled a good friend and compatriot solely for a Ghostbusters 2 publicity still: how embarrassing is that?)

Never let it be said that I don’t try to help. The folks at eFilmCritic just put out their list of the most obvious quote whores in film criticism in 2011, and I want you to study this list. Compare the names on this list to the big banner headlines on movie posters and TV ads, particularly for the films that made your eyes bleed. Note why they’re referred charitably as “benevolent blurbsters,” instead of merely enjoying films you detested and vice versa. Consider that it’s not enough to say that you enjoyed a new book or spotted a noteworthy tool at a garden show, but that you have to explain why other people should spend actual money on it. Most importantly, consider that if you’re giving out reviews solely so the flow of new swag continues, maybe you might want to quit doing reviews.

Because I’m vindictive, that’s why

Many moons back, I used to write a gardening and horticulture blog over at LiveJournal. I had a lot of reasons for shutting it down, and one of the particulars involved advertising. Spam comments were relatively easy to fend off, although you had some really clueless types who’d actually write to me to complain about how I’d removed their advertising and then blocked their accounts or IP addresses. No, I got tired of people trying to use me as a forum for selling their own stuff, whether or not I actually approved of it. I don’t have any problems with passing on word about venues and events that deserve wider recognition, nor with reviewing items I’ve purchased because I think readers might have an interest. I just refuse to do so without admitting the source, buying the product in question, and letting everyone know what’s up and why. Thanks to the dubious influence of one Dallas writer notorious for throwing tantrums about getting review copies and other swag, and then throwing larger tantrums in print because he didn’t receive enough swag, I generally decline review copies in general. If I’m writing a negative review, it’s because my own money was involved.

This is why I had quite a bit of fun receiving this letter two weeks ago:

Good afternoon,

I am inquiring about contributing a guest post on
https://txtriffidranch.wordpress.com/. The website looks very clean and
well structured, I have specifically chosen you to reach out to as I am
looking to submit a high quality, professionally written guest post article
to place on your site based around living in Texas.

In addition to providing free, high quality content to your site, we also
perform a social boost through providing Facebook likes, Re-tweets, Diggs
and more to the post URL. We provide each one of our guest posts a minimum
of 50 social votes (a $100 value) which will help bring more visitors to
your site via these social channels, as well as provide social signals to
the search engines. These votes not only give your website more visitors,
but more authority and ability to rank as well.

That being said, I am looking to contribute content at no cost to either of
us as the value-add here is pushing out intriguing and fresh content for
your website audience, search engine visibility and social reach as well.
In return for supplying the 100% unique content, images and the social
boost; all I would like in return is up to 2 links within the author bio of
the post.

I look forward to your response,

Thanks,
[Slick]
[slick]@GuestBloggingNetwork.com

Confidentiality Statement –
By engaging in conversation through e-mail with representatives from
GuestBloggingNetwork.com, you agree not to disclose any confidential
information in connection to all negotiations and/or discussions with
GuestBloggingNetwork.com, or its subsidiaries and partners, to any third
party without the prior written consent of GuestBloggingNetwork.com.
Confidential information includes but is not limited to client identity,
marketing plans, forecasts, marketing strategy, financial information,
trade secrets, marketing materials, or any other information exchanged in
all present or future dealings with GuestBloggingNetwork.com.

I didn’t respond for a bit. I wanted to see if this was a blanketbomb solicitation, or if someone was planning to follow up to see if I was going to bite. I wasn’t disappointed:

Hey there,

A few days ago I reached out and sent you an e-mail about possibly
submitting a guest post for placement on your website. I wanted to send a
follow up e-mail because I had not heard back from you after I originally
reached out about the guest posting opportunity.

Please respond as soon as possible and I can either send over a guest post
article for review or we can brainstorm some quality topic ideas you would
be willing to host on your site.

Thanks again for your time,

[Slick] {slick}@GuestBloggingNetwork.com

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I learned about Hamilton Nolan’s solicitation over at Gawker.com to post links to advertisers. You mean 43a pays bloggers for advertising link placement, and GuestBloggingNetwork only offers 50 social votes (whatever those are)? What a cheapskate! Who the hell do these guys think they’re running: a science fiction media site?

Very seriously, I know perfectly well that many bloggers, either inadvertently or wilfully ignorant of conflict-of-interest issues, take regular payments. I also know far too many “reviewers” who are so thrilled to get any attention at all that they’ll give ecstatic reviews to anything that comes to them. (During a short stint as an editor, a good friend pointed out that one of my book reviewers was plagiarizing reviews from other writers and printing them as hers. Apparently, that was the only way she could keep up with the number of books she was receiving for review, and it was all so she’d keep getting more. She was fired on the spot.) It’s just that I know that my good word is the only thing I have here, so the general policy will be to as up-front as possible. If I plug an event or activity by friends, that’s because they’re friends, not someone offering money or “access”. And blatant, shameless pay-for-play is best reserved for SMU football.

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

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

Saikei and Art: Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller. Lew Buller, 2005. 178 pp., $39.95 US. ISBN 0-9772443-0-X

The obvious appeal of bonsai lies with its ability to simulate, in a reasonable scale, the incredible variations in trees when stressed by the elements. Most bonsai practitioners work to include the area around the roots, but actual landscapes? For short-term arrangements, the traditional Japanese form of bonkei works well, but the concept of saikei, the art of arranging miniature landscapes for longterm enjoyment, was first displayed and taught by Toshio Kawamoto in 1963. Today, saikei may not be as universally known as bonsai, but in a time when miniature gardens are starting to gain popularity, this is probably going to change.

If the name of Lew Buller rings any bells, it’s probably for his involvement with co-writing Mountains in the Sea: The Vietnamese Miniature Landscape Art of Hon Non Bo, the only English book so far published on Hon Non Bo design and management. His followup book, Saikei and Art, is a compilation of various essays and articles written on the subject for magazines such as Bonsai Today and International Bonsai, combined with new material and followup photographs.

Because of its origins in magazine articles, Saikei and Art has a small problem with jumping around and repeating itself from time to time. This is sometimes aggravated by the unorthodox layout of some sections, where it’s difficult to ascertain where, on a new page, the text starts from the previous page. Some readers may also have issue with the fact that Buller’s landscapes are predominately influenced by his life in the San Diego area, and recreations of Southern California might not jibe with other saikei practitioners’ ideas of arrangements.

Ignore those worries. Any serious miniature gardener, whether formally trained in saikei or not, needs this book in his or her library. Instead following the lead of far too many general horticulture books, where the book goes step-by-tedious-step into allowing readers to make an exact replica of an artist’s project, Buller uses his projects to illustrate the tenets and requirements of saikei, and then encourages readers to go their own way. He dedicates an entire chapter to texture, both in the importance of variety and in continuing a particular theme. In addition, while he understands that each artist’s particular styles may encourage the use of artificial additions such as “mud men” figures, he emphasizes that the focus of a proper saikei depends upon the balance of the complete arrangement, not just on one or two elements. Add one slightly incongruous element, whether a particularly stunning rock or an intriguing figure, and all focus goes to that element instead of to the rest of the landscape. In a diorama, this is a success. In saikei, this is a sign of bad design.

Right now, I’m preparing several large miniature garden arrangements for an upcoming plant show. Before each big show, I gather a series of reference guides to get me into the right frame of mind before starting. I already have such titles as Sheperd Paine’s classic guide How To Build Dioramas and Buller and Lit Phan’s Mountains in the Sea in the pile, and Saikei and Art is going right on top.

Review: Bees, Wasps, and Ants by Eric Grissell

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

Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens
by Eric Grissell. Timber Press, 2010. 335 pp., $27.95 US. ISBN-13: 9780881929881

I came across gardening in a very roundabout way, and I can credit one book as being my awakening to the possibilities. That book, discovered in a pile in the Natural History section of the local Half Price Books, was The Hunting Wasp by John Crompton. Before starting that volume, my attitude toward wasps was the same as with most humans: duck and wave your arms around your head if one approaches, and rush for the can of Raid when it retreats. Considering how sensitive I am to honeybee venom, I thought I had a good reason to keep up that attitude.

Well, that was before John Crompton. Without him, I never would have learned exactly how valuable wasps are in the garden, and in fact elsewhere. Honeybees can pollinate flowers, but they do nothing against common garden pests. With the exception of vertebrates, pretty much every gardener’s nemesis has a parasitoid or exoparasite wasp that uses it as a host. Tomato hornworm caterpillars, houseflies, spiders large and small, cicadas, and even praying mantises are all prey. The more social wasps such as paper wasps may not capture and paralyze prey, but they still do their part: I currently have a paper wasp nest on the back porch, right over my head when I’m repotting plants. Considering how much damage they do to the annual green looper plague every spring, anyone who wants to spray my paper wasps will have to go through me first.

That’s the biggest thing that Crompton’s book taught me: we’re taught our basic responses to wasps, and they’re a matter of conditioned fear, augmented by the pain of the very occasional sting. Wasps should be respected, yes, especially by those with allergies to their venom. However, a lot of what’s seen as wasp aggression is really little more than curiosity, abetted by our conditioning to react in a certain way to certain insect shapes and colors. What’s funnier is that this conditioning is one of the big factors in keeping male wasps alive, as they have no sting and are completely harmless to humans.

When it comes to books on members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the vast majority focus on the bees. Lots and lots on traditional honeybees, with maybe some mention of carpenter bees, mason bees, and sweat bees as a sidenote. Most books on ants are intended for grade-school students, and they’re discarded about the time the reader has to deal with carpenter ant damage to a house or Argentine fire ant infestations in the yard. Wasp books pretty much begin and end with Crompton and with Jean-Henri Fabre’s The Hunting Wasps, now nearly a century old. And on the wasp cousins the sawflies? Not a peep, outside of basic insect pest guides.

Part of the reason for that lack of care, obviously, is bad public relations. Bee folklore and mythology range the width and breadth of the planet. (How many of you know that the name “Melissa” is ancient Greek for “bee”?) Ants at least get the Aesop’s fable on the ant and the grasshopper. Ants and bees get cutesy Pixar movies made about them. The closest to popular respect given to wasps? A begrudging comment on how the life cycle of the title creature in the film Alien had a basis in the real-life habits of certain exoparasite wasps.

Yeah yeah, sure sure. The wasp’s world is a horrifying one compared to that of humans, and it’s not hard to see the comparisons. (Last year, I came across an unopened silkworm coccoon hanging from a maple tree, and found inside the coccoon a mummified silkworm with two tiny holes in its body from where wasp larvae, implanted as eggs before the caterpillar started spinning, had gnawed their way out before pupating within the coccoon. I couldn’t help but murmur “Alien life form, dead a long time. Fossilized. Looks like it grew out of the chair.”) That’s just part of the story. Most wasps are essential pollinators, as the adults only consume nectar and other sweets (this explaining why they’re always attracted to spilled juice or soda), and they’re often manipulated themselves, as with wasp orchids. Furthermore, each parasitoid (young develops within the host’s body) or exoparasite (young develops outside) wasp species has a specific host, and those can range from aphids to cicaidas. I was recently lucky enough to view two tarantula hawk wasps searching for prey, and as their name implies, their chosen hosts are tarantulas and other extremely large spiders. Crompton himself was impressed by one species of wasp that attacks and paralyzes praying mantises, and he described these wasps as being like a human mother who has decided that the only food fit for her children is grizzly bear. (With both tarantula hawks and mantis hunters, the wasps don’t always win their battles.)

It takes a special love to research a book on wasps and their preferred hunting methods, and I was afraid I’d hit the point where the only way I was going to find a book with the information I sought was by writing it myself. Thankfully, research entomologist Eric Grissell beat me to it, and in so doing, gave me a lot of ideas for future arrangements. For instance, he described going from butterfly to wasp garden by setting up a solar-powered water pump with a 5-gallon bucket as a well and covering the top with rocks that would get splashed during the heat of the day, encouraging wasps and bees to gather water without a chance of drowning. Considering the number of bees and wasps converging on my Sarracenia pots for water during the summer heat, this is going to be an essential addition to the garden come next spring.

And then there are the photos. Crompton’s and Fabre’s books are a bit lacking in illustrations, and thankfully Bees, Wasps, and Ants is thoroughly and copiously augmented by beautiful color photos. When the photos can make me appreciate the beauty of ants, this says something.

As a final note, one of the best reasons to buy this book lies with the insects even more disrespected than wasps. Learning about sawflies was intriguing enough, but for years, the only information I could find on the local velvet ants was that (a) velvet ants were solitary wasps, (b) the females are wingless, and (c) their sting packed a powerful enough punch that they’re referred to throughout Texas as “cow-killers”. (I haven’t seen one since 1980, but after narrowly missing being stung, I don’t plan to test its ranking in the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to make sure.) That right there made this book indispensable, as now I can get co-workers and family members to alternate between oohing in wonder and making vague squicking sounds when reading about braconid wasps on tomato hornworms. I was even able to make the Czarina’s head go “pop” when describing the color of tarantula hawk antennae as tango, and she definitely wasn’t expecting to learn about colors and historical significance from a discussion of wasps.

Review: Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

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

Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-Of-Hearts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross,. Timber Press, 2010. 283 pp., $24.95 US. ISBN-13: 9781604690767

Lists of odd plants are such subjective things. The local weeds in Capetown are horrendously exotic in New York, and the perspectives of casual browsers in the local grocery store floral section are a bit lacking compared to those of professional botanists and horticulturalists. It also depends upon personal tastes. I could make the argument that tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) are just as odd as the corpse flower Amorphophallus, but the question is whether I could back it up. Equally importantly, if I were asked to come up with a similar list, would I merely be copying someone else’s, or working from my own personal experience?

As far as Bizarre Botanicals is concerned, it’s a good start on a decent odd plant listing. Problem is, anything other than “a good start” would come in about eighteen volumes and arrive at the door via forklift. The most impressive aspect of this book isn’t that authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross managed to find at least 77 suitably odd plants to include in their listing. It’s that they managed to stop at only this many, and I can only imagine how many they left out.

As the introduction states, the original focus was on carnivores, and the first tip that you’re looking at a Timber Press book is the beautiful photography. For serious carnivore junkies, it’s interesting but not loaded with surprises. And that, Officer, is when the book shifted into ferns. That’s when our authors dropped the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) into my lap. It veered over into the passionflowers (Passiflora), the Czarina’s favorites, and then skipping to her new love, the bat plant (Tacca chantrieri.

Again, personal tastes intrude. While the chapter on “Hearts-a-Burstin'” and heart-shaped flowers was intriguing, I personally would have gone in the direction of edible oddballs, such as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) or the fruit of Monstera deliciosa. (Of the latter, I love the fruit-salad flavor of the flower spike, but the immature spike itself always brought to mind sex toys for Silurians.) Even so, the whole hearts chapter is a great subject for goth gardening, and my only regret is that many aren’t suitable for Texas heat.

And then we’re back in the running with a thumbnail guide to odd orchids. Again, the surprise was that the authors were able to stop before turning in a 5000-page manuscript. Of particular note is that they recognized the singular wonder of the trigger orchid Catasetum saccatum: in an odd way, if not for my knowing about C. saccatum and misunderstanding an Australian friend’s comment, I never would have been introduced to the whole triggerplant (Stylidium) family. Personal tastes intruding again: I would have dedicated at least one section to the triggerplants, but I can understand why they were left out. They’re still remarkably poorly known in the US and Europe, and they’d make a great subject for a sequel.

If there’s anything approximating a disappointment in the listings, it’s with the succulents section. Quite seriously, how the hell could anybody do justice to your personal list? Arguing about the merits of true cactus versus the euphorbias is reason to pull out chainsaws and rubbing alcohol at twenty paces, and somehow our authors managed to include a few very good examples and mention the stapeliads as well. You can almost hear the authors whimpering about the three or four they wanted to squeeze in before the editor said “Anything more, and we sell you for body parts.”

I’ll also mention on caveat, which also impinges upon the length of the book. The title reads “How to Grow String-of-Hearts, et al“, but the growing instructions are generally limited to growing zones in the US and some basics on soil quality and light requirements. Still, it’s a lot better than the truncated guides on most plant tags, and if there was an argument for a book augmented with 2-D barcodes and a very large online library, this is it.

I’m regularly asked by friends about books that might make gardening appealing to teenagers. I’d put this one right at the top of the list. Sure, they may get overly enthusiastic about growing difficult species. And?

Review: Black Plants by Paul Bonine

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

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices For the Garden by Paul Bonine. Timber Press, 2009. 160 pp., $14.95 US. ISBN 978-0-88192-981-2

As with roses or carnivorous plants, plants with black flowers or foliage have a bit of a bad rap in goth gardening. It’s hard to have sympathy for the amateur enamored with the “if I paint my turtle black, will it be spooky” assumptions of having a garden full of black blooms. Problem is, skipping out on all dark plants also limits the palette, and it prevents appreciation of some truly spectacular plants.

In Black Plants, Paul Bonine gives both photos and bare-basic care instructions for some of the more interesting dark plants available to gardeners today. Not all are black: many are a very deep purple or red, but all of them get their distinctive coloration from pigments known as anthocyanins. Many of the “black” varieties aren’t really black: they’re just such deep reds or violets that they appear to be black in dim light. Many, such as most of the varieties of iris listed in this book, only have black highlights or undergrowth, thereby bringing their main color to the forefront. They range from the easily obtained and ready to grow (daylilies of the cultivar “Night Wings”) to the extremely rare and tender (various members of the Dracula genus of orchids) all the way to the edible (the Capsicum pepper “Black Pearl”, with deep black foliage and edible if extremely hot peppers that look like black pearls when unripe). This book is in no way a complete listing of black plants in general cultivation (just a discussion of dark roses would take up two books of this size, and it came out too late to include two new varieties of Sarracenia pitcher plant just recently described), but it’s a grand start.

As a general rule, I tell anybody looking for garden books that they should always look for the Timber Press logo on the spine. I’ve been stating this for so long that friends joke that I should be getting commissions on sales. The truth of the matter, though, is that Timber Press puts out some of the most interesting and thorough books on flora available today, and Black Plants proudly keeps up that tradition. If nothing else, get it for the photos, and use it to daydream a bit during winter when making plans for the next year’s garden. However, if you’re smart, it’ll become inspiration for a garden that uses these rarities to best effect, causing visitors to stop and gasp at just the right time and for the right reasons.

Review: Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

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

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2009. 236 pp., $18.95 US. ISBN 978-1-56512-683-1

Anyone who believes that gardening is a completely safe hobby is completely deluded. While it’s possible to produce a garden where the likelihood of accidental poisoning or injury is at a minimum, this means that it’s also about as dull as stale Wonder bread. Over the last 450 million years or so since the first terrestrial plants dragged themselves away from the oceans, the entire kingdom has found all sorts of interesting methods to maximize its range while preventing excessive sampling and snacking from animal, bacterium, and fungus. You have spores, blooms, and seeds, and you have monstrosities like the cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), which propagate both through seeds and by snagging passing animals with thorn-covered chunks of their branches. Likewise, while many fruits are poisonous to humans, the idea is to discourage mammals from eating those fruits’ seeds while encouraging other animals: both nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense) have the same strategy in tempting birds and repelling mammals, only one will kill most humans and the other (especially if the juice gets on sensitive tissues) merely makes the consumer wish for death.

In her fourth book, Amy Stewart gives a good thumbnail guide to plants we call “wicked” because they don’t meet with human approval. These might include plants used for intoxicants, such as mescal agaves and coca bushes, or with commonly used garden plants with a bad background or with relatives that can be deadly. In the process, she brings up some surprising examples of how little we know about “domesticated” plants: how many are familiar with the severe sunburns that can be aggravated by eating celery, or how soaking chickpeas and cooking kidney beans is essential? Yes, all of the expected perps show up (carnivorous plants, plants traditionally used in poison gardens, and psychedelics), but the real surprises come from discovering, for instance, the number of traditional houseplants that can sicken or kill if eaten or otherwise improperly treated.
The definition of a good garden book is always that it manages to teach the reader at least one new fact or observation, and preferably more than one. So what else can be said about a book that warns about the proper way to dispose of poison ivy (whatever you do, don’t burn it, unless you like that sort of itching and swelling in your lung tissues) or notes the number of ordeal poisons (used to determine innocence or guilt in some cultures) that can still be gathered in the wild?

Review: Terrarium Craft by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant

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

Terrarium Craft: Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant, photographs by Kate Baldwin.
ISBN-10: 1604692340
ISBN-13: 9781604692341
Published: Timber Press (OR), 05/01/2011
Pages: 195
Language: English

You’d think that after years of working as a book, music, and film critic, I’d learn not to freak out over first impressions. Don’t read advance reviews. Don’t listen to samples before you hear the whole album. Most importantly, in Nyarlathotep’s name, don’t flip through a book and expect to get a good impression of the content from that view. When I received my copy of Terrarium Craft, I made that mistake.

As an aside, after the last seven years of serious horticultural research, I’ve come to one absolute. Namely, any book with the Timber Press conifer on its spine is worth buying. The serious reference volumes are worth every last penny, and I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for and purchasing the out-of-print volumes, especially those on orchids and conifers. Even the more ethereal volumes are must-haves, and I suspect that at least a quarter of my horticultural library now consists of Timber Press releases. As I like to point out to the folks working there, I see at least one volume every six months that invokes my horticultural theme song.

For about five minutes, I forgot all about this as I flipped through Terrarium Craft on my way to work. I swear to you that my first response was “What the hell is this put-a-bird-on-it gibberish? Deer antlers? Fluorite crystals with bladderworts? Venus flytraps in votive glasses? What happened?” I suddenly wished I had good hard research on whether hallucinogens could pass via the placenta from mother to child, and wondered exactly what my mom was up to 45 years ago.

Thankfully for all involved, I didn’t take this as a sign that someone spiked my Albuterol with ketamine. I did the sane thing and actually read the whole book. Cover to cover. In the process, I had a bit of a revelation.

The problem, of course, lay with the fact that while the rest of living sculpture and design, for lack of a better term, kept advancing into the 21st century, terrarium design still remains trapped in 1975. When I first started out, I picked up a lot of terrarium construction guides, and most of them were published in what G.B. “Doonesbury” Trudeau called “a kidney stone of a decade.” Those who do not remember the Seventies and its terrifying insistence upon homemade junque are condemned to repeat it. Those who do also remember such a proliferation of mediocre crafts that by 1981, “handmade” was almost a profanity. The backlash against depressingly banal handmade clothes, toys, and gifts was so extreme that by the time I left high school, that jacket or that backpack had BEST come from a store that had lots and lots of the exact same thing. (You think I’m kidding. Maybe it had to do with life in North Texas during the oil boom, but wearing a handmade sweater or scarf to school after Christmas was taken as meaning “Oh, your parents were too poor to buy you real presents.”)

For a very long time, “terrariums” were just as much a term laden with sneers as “macrame”. Nearly 150 years of laudable tradition in Wardian cases and fern enclosures, wiped out by maybe five years of mayonnaise jars and little purple elf figures. Vivaria for reptiles and amphibians took off and expanded well beyond their origins. Penjing came into its own in the West, to be met by saikei from Japan and Hòn Non Bô from Vietnam. The popular view of terraria, though? Lucite domes on shag carpet with funky guitar riffs coming out of the quadrophonic stereo, like the set design for an episode of Space: 1999.

That’s why I had my initial freakout, and then I read the whole book. As a guide for beginners, it’s remarkably complete. About the only thing it suffers from is a distressing tendency seen in many contemporary books, exacerbated by Martha Stewart, not to offer general guides on particular effects and designs, but exact step-by-step instructions for exact copies of the displayed arrangements. Many of the arrangements themselves are a bit too twee for my own tastes, and many of the open-glass containers stretch the very limit of the term “terrarium”. For someone who never saw the original terrarium boom of the Seventies, though, it offers a lot of possibilities.

I have to admit that this one will never supplant my favorite terrarium book, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide, by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt. I’ll also admit that Successful Terrariums is now over 36 years old, and the days of getting away with black-and-white photos and sepia illustrations in a hardcover book died along with disco. I’ll even note that with the last four decades of improvements in construction materials and lighting systems, additional knowledge of suitable plants and their needs, and techniques learned from improved botanical garden and zoo displays, now is a perfect time for a book that expands upon this base. It’s definitely high time for a volume that offers additional possibilities for more advanced terrarium and vivarium builders. With a bit of luck, Timber Press will be the publisher of that book, too.