Tag Archives: vivaria

MICROCOSM: I would if I could

We all deal with it at one time or another: commit to some interesting activity because the calendar is full of fluff and barf, and you find something new and much better about thirty seconds after you pay for the plane tickets. Or you discover the event of a lifetime, scheduled for the same weekend as something else that simply cannot be moved. My life story involves repeated instances where, as much as I’d love to break commitments and peruse something new, I acknowledge that I’m already on the line for something as important and do the grown-up thing. (Remind me to tell you the free lobster story one of these days.)

And then there’s the real bonecruncher: staying home and getting ready for a major show the weekend before, so I’m not frantically potting plants right after coming home from the Day Job, and then finding something that, if it were any week, running that credit card plumb dry in order to get plane tickets. Or selling body parts. Heck, selling my body parts.

And so, for those wanting to explore the frontiers of aquaria, terraria, and vivaria, get thee hence to MICROCOSM in San Diego the weekend of March 1. Of course, I only learned about this today, and of COURSE it’s the weekend before All-Con, the first really big Triffid Ranch show of the year. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’m just going to ask for a volunteer who’s already heading to MICROCOSM to grab as much promotional material as possible at the show and mailing it this way. I’ll definitely make it worth your while, so give a yell if you’re interested. And then there’s next year’s show.

Plans for Next Year: The Arlington NARBC

It all started innocently enough. It started as a request from very old and dear friends Martin and Jen, asking for advice on a frog enclosure. Jen is a bit of a frog enthusiast, so in the midst of a major updating and repainting of her house, she thought “You know, that wall support in the living room would be just the perfect size for a vivarium.” I couldn’t agree more, so I promised her that I’d take her to the next reptile show on the schedule so she could search for just the right amphibians. Oh, and to get that vivarium as well.

NARBC

Now, luckily for her, the next big reptile show in the Dallas area was the North American Reptile Breeder’s Conference show in Arlington, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. This wasn’t just a regular reptile and amphibian show: this the event for which I waited the entire year. Lizards, snakes, arrow-poison frogs, T-shirts, vivarium plants, enclosures of every shape and size…for us herp junkies, this isn’t heaven, but it’s close enough for government work.

Anyway, Jen was enthused and thrilled by the prospects, but I worried about Martin. I’ve known Martin for nearly 13 years, and to say that he’s one of the most understated men I’ve ever met is itself an understatement. He’s a man of particular tastes, and he wanted to come along partly to see why Jen and I were glibbering and meeping about the possibilities. The other reason was so he could make absolutely sure that we didn’t come back with something that would have no choice but to snuggle at the foot of the bed in the middle of the night until the spare bedroom was converted into habitat. I tried to tell him “You know, crocodile monitors prefer to sleep on your head, not your feet,” and he was strangely unreassured by this news.

Making matters more problematic was that the Czarina was out of town for that weekend. At the moment all three of us started on our little jaunt, she was on the other side of the continent, and she was terrified that I was going to come home with a critter we could call our own. What really scared her is that I’m very literal in my promises to her. It wasn’t just enough for her to beg “Promise that you won’t get a crocodile monitor,” “Promise that you won’t buy ANY reptile,” or “Bring home a lizard, and I SWEAR that my elbows will be buried up to my shoulders in the top of your skull until you twitch like a galvanized frog carcass.” That’s just a challenge. For instance, as I told her later, she said absolutely nothing about critters that followed me home, and if that Salvator’s water monitor or matamata just jumped into the car of its own volition, I couldn’t be held responsible. She didn’t have to say anything, but the sound of her elbows sliding out of their sheathes and drooling venom onto the floor was enough. I couldn’t actually hear them from San Francisco, but the sound of the venom burning holes in the hotel carpet travels almost that far.

Greater Dallas-Fort Worth Bromeliad Society

Besides, my real personal interest was in the plants. After a particularly anaemic garden show at Market Hall in Dallas, I nuhdzed the folks at the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society about talking to the folks at the NARBC about a booth. The attendees were thrilled, because they usually have problems getting good bromeliads for frog and gecko enclosures. The Bromeliad Society folks were thrilled, because they were running out of plants by the time I left on Saturday afternoon. Everyone wins, as I like to put it.

Bromeliads

Now here I went (relatively) mad, picking up a large collection of Tillandsia for future arrangements. No Catopsis berteroniana at this show…yet, but I already have one at home, so that just meant more for everyone else.

Ruby the red tegu

Now, if I hadn’t been a man of my word and told the Czarina “I really don’t want to twitch like a galvanized frog carcass,” I could have come across some real surprises. One of these was Ruby, a red tegu (Tupinambis rufescens) with the sweetest disposition I’ve ever seen in a tegu. Technically, it wasn’t a monitor (just being the South American equivalent), but I knew that this would be a minor caveat when the Czarina went digging for my occipital lobes with a melon baller. Sadly, I had to leave Ruby for someone else, because the plants are enough work on their own.

Zac Freer

Zac Freer wasn’t one of the subjects of the show, but that’s not for lack of trying. You know how people assume I’m insane because I get all squidgy and sappy about giant lizards? Zac gets that way about crocodilians. He and his wife were out at the show to look around, and he’d already adopted a Dumeril’s boa for the trip home. I’d already turned him into a carnivorous plant junkie at a show last year, so now I got to see him in his native habitat.

Blue-tongued skink

Oh, and remember how the Czarina kept insisting “No crocodile monitors”? I checked several times, and she said absolutely nothing about Australian blue-tongued skinks.

Black Tree Monitor

And she absolutely said not a peep about not getting a black tree monitor. Problem is, there’s that issue with subtext, such as when she insists that “have fun on your weekend off” does not give me permission to install concrete dinosaurs in the front yard or heckle the Pope while dressed like Colin Baker. I swear, if she wasn’t such a good cook, I’d have problems with her being so arbitrary and unreasonable.

And for Martin and Jen? Well, while Martin isn’t exactly a herper, he wasn’t waving a marlin spike around while yelling about reptiles. (He was yelling about getting a pair of golf shoes because that was the only way to get around with all the blood on the floor, but he does that every time we hang out.) Jen, though, was in heaven, and we had to talk her, very gently, out of getting a stunning pair of red rat snakes to go with the four Dendrobates auratus arrow-poison frogs she purchased for her new vivarium. When I’m recommending to friends that they might want to start out a bit small, it’s only because I know that Jen will be breeding her own by next year and running a small zoo full of exotic frogs by the beginning of 2015.

Very seriously, it’s not just a matter of doing this next year. The plan, the grand glorious plan, is to become a vendor for next year’s show. True, most of the most interesting carnivores available will still be in winter dormancy, but there’s a lot to be said about tropical sundews and bladderworts, early-rising butterworts, and lots and lots of Nepenthes. Now I only have another 11 months to get everything together, and then we’re golden.

Getting Potted

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

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

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

The party’s over

The party at FenCon VIII is over for this year, and the next big Triffid Ranch presentation starts on November 5 at the Museum of Nature & Science’s Discovery Days: Reptiles and Other Critters weekend in Dallas’s Fair Park. This year’s FenCon was an interesting mix: so many people from my old writing past came by that the show started to resemble a Dallas Fantasy Fair reunion, along with a lot of kids. The latter were the greatest joys, because they always had great questions or anecdotes. (For instance, the son of one of our fellow vendors had an acquaintance who was snagged by “some weird plant,” and we managed to work out that his acquaintance was nearly the victim of a devil’s claw.) Among other premieres:

de Marigny (2011)
de Marigny (2011), $350
Remember the conversion effort on that Eighties-era hexagon tank from a while back? Here’s the final effect. This set includes a custom-cut glass top to keep in humidity and prey animals, and it contains a Nepenthes bicarcalata pitcher plant, a spoonleaf sundew cluster, and appropriate statuary. The top is arranged so that it can be used in conjunction with standard high-intensity reptile enclosure lighting, or (preferably) natural sunlight.

Uncle Sam's on Mars
Uncle Sam’s On Mars (2011), $35
The Viking 1 lander model was one for which I’d been searching for years. The clay bonsai pot was one I’d had for years, but that needed just the right elements for it to work. The Crassula in this low-key saikei arrangement is some strange hybrid that I haven’t been able to identify, but that demanded to be included with this pot and this model. Together, they’re a reminder of the Mars explorations that almost were.

iTerrarium Mark II
iTerrarium Mark II (2011), $150
Some may remember when David Shaw proudly showed off the first-generation iTerrarium, my efforts to reuse the nearly indestructible polycarbonate shell of a second-generation iMac. After cutting and buffing the rear handle into an access hatch to reach the interior of the iTerrarium, it was fitted with a single light socket for a compact fluorescent bulb (23 watts for carnivores) and a thermometer and humidity gauge on the inside. The iMac in question was a DV SE G3/400, so it still retains the original transparent graphite rear shell. Future versions will include custom paint on the rear shell (to both block and reflect excess light and to do something with the original Bondi blue shell), latches on the rear hatch to secure it for use for reptiles and amphibians, and electronic temperature and humidity gauges.

Well, that’s it for the moment, but it’s a start. Just wait until I’m done with the new projects for the Fair Park Holiday Market this coming November.

EDIT: You know that I’ve been married to the Czarina for a while when I start picking up her propensity for reasonably witty or at least memorable puns. Normally, I loathe puns, but describing the act of packing up everything and loading it into the cargo van on Sunday as a “Jenga tu Madre,” though, just fits.

Walking With Miniature Gardens

Edaphosaurus

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

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

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

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

Marx and MPC dinosaurs

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

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

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

Invicta dinosaurs

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

Invicta Stegosaurus

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

Wild Safari tetrapods

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

Safari Oviraptor

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

Safari Dinosaur Skulls Toob

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

Battat dinosaurs

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

Battat Pachycephalosaurus

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

Papo dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

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

Projects: The Dream of the Eighties

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

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

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

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

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

The beginning of the project

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

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

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

Hexagon tank (closed)

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

Closeup of hex stand

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

Hex stand door and hardware

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

Taped-up hex tank

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

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

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

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

Time for a bit of head explodey

I’m a big fan of living miniature gardens, even if my ideas tend to go a bit…dark. Now, it’s easy to go dark, but I also enjoy adding a bit of natural history to the mix. This is why I have ambitions for a couple of new penjing projects. Dinosaurs can be impressive, but how many people design miniature gardens around the creatures of the Burgess Shale, especially as a way to keep garden gnomes under control?

July through October, in the heat

I know it doesn’t help, but I speak from experience. Earth hasn’t been launched into the sun, so things WILL cool off in the Northern Hemisphere. They’ll even cool off in Texas, as heretical the idea may seem. True, we won’t be down to temperatures conducive for carbon-based life for another three months, but it’s something. In the meantime, you can either complain about the heat, or you can sit down, take a nice deep breath of granite vapor, and think about something else.

Now, you could do something to distract yourself, such as watch a nice, tranquil art movie in an air-conditioned theater. Considering the source, though, you have plenty of options for gardening opportunities that don’t directly involve being withered into dust by the big yellow hurty thing in the sky. For instance:

Get in some reading. After you’ve come inside after a hard day at work, and slogged through the pools of molten concrete in front of the door, there’s a lot to be said about doing something that requires you to move nothing but your eyes. With that consideration, I could be self-serving and mention that Gothic Beauty magazine now offers digital subscriptions, and the print subscriptions are ridiculously cheap for the value. However, I’ll also point out that a lot of unorthodox publications tie directly to summer gardening, such as the article on natural vivarium substrates in the current issue of Reptiles magazine. And if your brain is frying in your skull, get into the shade and put in a few orders with Timber Press‘s extensive collection of horticulture books. That should cool you for a while.

Consider something smaller. One word: bonsai. A few more: penjing and Hon Non Bo. When you find yourself feeling like a character in Ray Bradbury’s story “Frost and Fire,” it may be time to reevaluate going outdoors to garden. In that case, consider talking to the folks at Dallas Bonsai Garden for tools and equipment, or peruse the Bonsai Bark blog for ideas. If you’re looking for something more encapsulated, there’s no reason why you can’t consider vivaria, either. (To friends in Massachusetts for various onerous reasons this coming weekend, I’d tell you to head out to Black Jungle Terrarium Supply in Turner Falls and stock up on vivarium goodies, but the whole Black Jungle crew will be at the New York Metro Reptile Expo in White Plains at that time. Do NOT let that stop you. I’ll be at the DFW Lone Star Reptile Expo in Arlington for the same reason.)

Get an early start on the fall season. While the summers are brutal, one of the best things about living in Texas is that the autumns go on forever. I’m only slightly exaggerating, as I’ve gleefully harvested tomatoes and Swiss chard out of my own garden for Christmas dinner, and most citrus, ranging from oranges to Cthulhufruit, isn’t ripe until the end of November. That’s why, when the heat threatens your sanity, start making plans for autumn and winter right now. Considering how well Capsicum peppers work as container plants brought indoors before the frosts start, take a look at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and run that Mastercard dry. (I currently have a back growing area loaded with NuMex Halloween peppers that are getting big enough to demand UN membership, and Arioch help me when the Bhut Jolokias start bearing fruit.

Combining all of the above. And what’s wrong with Capsicum pepper bonsai? Add in a suitable recipe for jalapeno poppers, and you won’t be worrying about the heat outdoors. Instead, you’ll wonder about what happened to the time when New Year’s Eve hits and you’re up to your armpits in fresh potting mix.

Glass half-full situation

The Triffid Ranch has been quite the source of entertainment for the crew at Texas Hydroponics & Organics for the better part of a decade. Back when the Dallas branch was located down on Elm Street near downtown, I regularly came to Texas Hydroponics to pick up coarse-grade perlite and indoor lighting systems for the carnivores. The best incident, though, came the day the Czarina and I were next door at Sons of Hermann Hall for a friend’s wedding in 2006.

The first consideration: I wandered next door because the bride was vaguely curious about ways to preserve the roses in her bouquet, and I suggested “Why don’t I try to root a couple of cuttings and see if I can get you a full rose bush out of it?” The second consideration: I was in a bad bicycling accident two days before, and broke at least one rib while flying over a parking median in a high-rise parking lot. I made it to the wedding, arm in a sling to protect the broken rib and loaded on enough painkillers to stun an indricothere. (For those who’ve never broken a rib, it’s not just painful to sleep in any position other than sitting upright, but your worst fear is a good sneeze.) This meant that I was quite the mess when I sashayed inside in a full suit and tie and started asking for recommendations on cloning gels. To their eternal credit, they didn’t even blink.

Because of that, I’ve been a loyal customer since then, and they do their best to return the favor. That’s why it’s time to invoke the power of lateral thinking.

Over the past year or so, I’ve become quite fond of GrowStones, a replacement for perlite made from recycled beer bottles. Perlite is both a great way to lighten the density of heavy soils because of its porosity and a good way to encourage drainage with low weight. The problem with perlite is that it’s a finite resource: perlite is a form of obsidian with a very high water content, and when broken up and dumped into a kiln, it fluffs up like popcorn or Styrofoam peanuts. Problem is, only a few sites with large amounts of perlite exist on the planet, and when they’re used up, we’re done.

The idea behind GrowStones is to simulate the porosity and water drainage abilities of perlite with a reusable and renwable resource, as we aren’t going to run out of beer bottles any time soon. Ground glass is mixed with calcium carbonate, dumped into a kiln, and then broken up from the final fused mass. In the process, you get a product with most of the same advantages as perlite, and with a lot less dust. (Although perlite dust is considered a “nuisance dust”, it’s still a glass dust. Anybody who remembers the joys of inhaling volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens’s eruption in 1980 has reason to wear a particulate mask when working with perlite straight out of the bag.) I don’t know about anybody else, but this appeals to my inherent Scottish frugality.

The only problem? Well, the Texas Hydroponics guys warned me as soon as I picked up a new bag. The old technique left a product with a slightly higher pH than what worked best for hydroponics. To its credit, Earthstone International realized this right away, and asked that the current inventory be held until the company could get out product made with a new process. This, though, left a lot of existing, high-pH Growstones to work with.

And here’s the suggestion. I’ve been using GrowStones for a while for drainage in Capsicum pepper and other non-carnivore propagation containers. It’s already nearly perfect for improving drainage in soil mixes for cactus and other succulents, and most of the pH problems can be treated with a suitable application of vinegar. (I usually cover a 1.25 cubic foot bag of GrowStones with water in a 22-gallon container, and add a gallon of standard white vinegar before letting it sit overnight.) The current batch of GrowStones might not work for standard applications, but why not for reptile enclosures, raised beds, or other uses where the pH doesn’t matter?

If this works for you, and if you don’t mind picking up the phone, give Texas Hydroponics a call, and specifically tell them that I sent you. They’ll appreciate the help.