Saturday, July 31, 2010

Patented Rose Grabber, More Baby Fish

Check out my patented Rose Grabbing Horticultural System:

Rose grabbers

I use one in each hand to grab fly-away bits of climbing roses and pull them down to be woven through the gazebo lattice. Obviously they are not, in fact, actually patented, and the method of manufacture is probably pretty self-explanatory. The only other thing you need to know is that it's best to use those dry cleaner coathangers that have a cardboard tube on the bottom: that way, the prongs that stuck into the tube form a convenient rose pushing platform on the opposite end from the hook. Because when you're engaged in rose-taming, sometimes you have to grab, and sometimes you have to push.

Weary Plants, Happy Fish
Meanwhile, the pond is getting clearer, according to some inexplicable internal agenda of its own. Some days it's murky, and some days it's clear. That's all I know. The plants are all starting to look a bit ragged (except the bulrushes, water hyssop, and water clover. Those guys are stout.) I'm not sure if it's the sustained high pH, my dislike of fertilization, or just the fact of its being practically August in Texas, but there's a lot of yellowing and undersized leaves and caterpillar damage and general whininess going on.

To put it in perspective, mind you, there's a lot of the same going on in the rest of the yard, too. We've had an unusually green and pleasant summer, but we've been consistently in the 90s for over month now, and the plants are starting to feel it. The chitalpa's grown into a giant shaggy monster, but the leaves are looking a bit mottled and dull. The Salvia vanhouttii are bloomless and naked from the knees down. The oak-leaf hydrangea blossoms are dark brown and battered. The red verbena are only blooming fitfully. The rose garden is chlorotic and droopy. And on, and on...

In the pond, though, I'm going to experiment with some remediation. I finally broke down and bought some pond plant fertilizer pellets :-( I really dislike the idea of adding any chemicals to the pond that are not strictly necessary, but all the water lilies--especially 'Colorado'--are looking really puny. So, fine. I'll fertilize the damn things. But I don't like it.

I also bought something called barley pellets at the nursery up the street, Bloomers. The copy on the bag was incredibly unpersuasive (it more or less said, "The peat in the pellets will break down and release hydrogen peroxide, which will cause the peat to break down, which will release hydrogen peroxide, which will cause the peat to break down..." Never explained why I would want hydrogen peroxide in my pond. Do I want hydrogen peroxide in my pond? I just don't know) but other sources have spoken of the mosquito-murdering, algae-defeating properties of barley straw, so here's hoping. We do have a lot of that nasty, stringy kind of algae that makes me think of the warriors' hair in Tolkien's Dead Marshes--whitish, wispy, and sinister. Plus with slime!

But slime and weenie plants notwithstanding, the fish are flourishing. They love it when I stir up the muck, so I did that and threw out some fish food in order to take a Census. All of the adult fish are accounted for, including the 2 shubunkins, and now that the water's clearer and the food made the fish extra friendly, I picked out some more identifying features on them all. Like: Safety First's big orange splodge has a sort of nibble taken out of it on the right side, so it's really shaped like a C, not like a circle. Unlike Big Olaf, Thor has a little white frosting on the top of his dorsal fin. Spooky is smaller than Crazy Eye. Bob's irregular white coloration on his belly comes highest up his sides near his head. Lynn's comes up highest on her sides by her tail. Jupiter and Drusilla are the shyest and sulkiest of the lot, even though Jupiter's head splodge is much nicer than Safety First's--bigger and more regularly ovoid. Big Olaf is about 5-1/2 inches long now!

But the biggest news is that I saw five--five!--orange babies at once. Holy cow. I can't give them all different names--they all look the same. I'll just call them Penelope 1 through 5.

There are also at least two babies with lighter orange sides & bellies that have dark grey streaks down their backs and black fins, and there are at least two dully browny-taupe ones that are really hard to see. I get where the Penelopes came from (perhaps I should have named them after the Sharons in Battlestar Galactica? They keep multiplying and I can't tell them apart or remember which one it was that shot Bill Adama), but the others are a complete mystery. Perhaps some neighbor is dumping his unwanted aquarium overflow in our pond?

At any rate, whatever weirdness is going on with the flora, the fauna are having a rockin' good time.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blurry Pictures of Indistinct Fish

Steven Strawn waterlily with Safety First (sarasa comet) and Thor or Big Olaf (red comets)

Sorry, folks. This is all I've got. Darn fish won't sit still or come up to the surface to be photographed. And the water's been very murky of late. Still, for the very interested, here are some pix of our pond's inhabitants.

I had the most luck photographing the baby orange fish Penelope, who is oddly fearless, and the sarasa comet Safety First. When I first introduced SF to the pond, he was the last to leave the plastic bag he came in and had to practically be poured into his new home (hence the name). Now he swims over to check things out at the least sign of disturbance, nibbles my toes affectionately (okay, that's probably hunger, not affection, but let's just pretend) and has even let me stroke his dorsal fin! What a great fish!

Safety First, who belied his name to become one of the pond's most intrepid explorers

Penelope was the second baby fish we spotted (after Pearl, who has been worryingly AWOL). She's got a light orange splodge down the length of her back, with a white head and tail. None of the grown ups have quite this coloring nor anything like this pattern. I can't help but wonder if some of our pond plants didn't bring a few hitchhiking fish eggs with them when I bought them.

Baby Penelope, who doesn't really look like any of her possible parents

Penelope's odd enough, but some of the other younguns... We've got a dark browny-orange fish with two big grey splodges on its head (as yet unnamed) and one or more dull taupe fish that lighten toward the tail and have black tips on their sheer fins. These in particular don't look like comets at all--they look like some completely different species. Where could they have come from?

A particularly egregious (and now highly doctored) photo of the back end of one of the mysterious brown baby fish

I was (sort of) able to finally capture a shubunkin, which are curiously mottled blue-grey fish. Not sure if this is Spooky or Crazy Eye--they're so elusive that I haven't learned to tell them apart.

A shubunkin and a red comet

And, after several months, I finally got a picture of Bob-or-Lynn, the two goldfish we got from Bob & Lynn at Draco Gardens. I eventually realized that you can tell them from Thor & Big Olaf because B&L are orange on the top and irregularly white on the bottom, while T&BO are orange all over. The difficulty, of course, is convincing them to roll over so I can see their bellies. You can definitely see a white splodge on the top goldfish here, so it's either Bob or Lynn.

Bob-or-Lynn and a friend

The first creatures to move in to the pond were the tadpoles--hundreds upon hundreds of them. We've already gone through several generations, which start out minuscule, like the one below: smaller than a peppercorn. They eventually become scores of tiny, adorable baby toads, and then I'm not really sure what happens to them, because we don't have as many adult toads as one would expect. I'm hoping that Claude, our resident 3-foot ribbon snake, doesn't have anything to do with it.

Tiny tadpoles love to rest on my feet and legs--perhaps they like my mammalian warm-bloodedness? They're cute, but they tickle.

Sometimes the fish congregate together in big groups, but they usually disperse rather quickly.

A cluster of goldfish

6-legged Pond Dwellers
To my surprise, I've discovered that bees seem to really love water hyssop (Bacopa sp., probably B. monnieri). Given all the bad news on the honeybee front these days, I think I'll buy some more of this stuff and give our melliferous friends a nice lakeside buffet. Also, it seems to be harder to drown water hyssop (and clover fern) than it is to drown creeping Jenny and aquatic mint, both of which have been relentlessly whiny since the heavy rains a couple of weeks ago.

Three bees were busy sipping nectar until I whipped out my camera. Then all but one fled. The last one is snuggling up against a stem (above) instead of in a flower. Good luck spotting him.

The other first and most enthusiastic of the pond denizens have been dragonflies and damselflies. I've been amazed at the diversity of colors--mostly electric blues and this lovely neon burgundy, a color I've never seen in dragonflies before.

My camera didn't really do justice to the jewel-like intensity of this dragonfly's coloring. He's a beauty.

And just this morning, this incredibly bright crimson fellow took possession of a Thalia stem and chased the others off.

We've also seen one or two bright green ones and green-headed damselflies with bright blue tips on their tails.

More Steven
And another picture of gorgeous waterlily 'Steven Strawn'. Because I love him. Our camera can't seem to quite capture his unique strawberries-and-cream coloring--he's more red and less pink than this picture would suggest.

'Steven Strawn': not that pink

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Po & Izzy Go to School

Obedience Training for Cats
As you may be aware (see A Dietary Indiscretion and Other Blunders), our two cats can sometimes be real pests. I mean, they're fuzzy and cute (especially Izzy), but they're also demanding, whiny, and attitudinal, and they do charming things like scratch door frames and ravel carpet and yowl at dinner time.

For people whose prior pets were limited to a well-beloved ficus and some parlor palms, this kind of behavior is infuriating, to say the least.

So fairly early on, we got the idea to train them, partly hoping that it would help channel all that energy, and partly just for the sheer pleasure of barking out an order and seeing them do what we tell them for once. We got a cat training book (Train Your Cat in 10 Minutes--or something like that) and got them reasonably competent at Sit and Come, but they were crap at duration, and everything else we tried to teach them (Jump, Stand, Stay, Get the Hell off the Counter You Spawn of the Demiurge) just left them confused.

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that my friend Cathy, who teaches dog training (specifically a kind of sport-dog training called "rally") might have some useful insights to offer.

Lucky for us, she was intrigued, and she's given us several training sessions plus lots of between-session advice. (We're propagating some roses for her, and we're going to do a little landscaping this fall, so we're not just takers--we're givers, too.)

Izzy is learning to target

Anyway, we had a session today, which made me realize how far the little stinkers have come.

Po stands. He was tired when we took the picture--usually his form is a little better than this.

They both know Stand, and Po can hold it for a really long time. They Sit and--especially Po--stay put as long as food appears to be in the offing. They both Twirl (go in a circle), though Izzy's is kinda rough. Po's been struggling with Lie down, so Cathy came up with a new way of teaching him (called capturing), and he was a real whiz. She also taught us a new way to try and make Po stop spazzing out at dinner time. She j-u-u-u-u-s-t got him to understand the first piece of the process today--we'll see how he does over the next few attempts.

Po learning to recline on command. So far, he's heavy on the reclining and light on the command part.

Here's what I've learned about training pets in general and cats in particular:

(1) It's really, really logical, but not at all intuitive. We have to break down what we want them to learn into a lot of little steps and provide a range of very finely calibrated responses. Everything Cathy tells us to do makes perfect sense--and I'd have never thought of any of it on my own.

(2) Coordinating my voice, hand gestures, clicking, and treat dispensing is astonishingly difficult. If I could dance or fence or do karate or had, in fact, any kind of physical skills whatsoever (typing doesn't seem to count), it might not be such a challenge, but it requires far more awareness of my physical presence than I would have ever expected.

(3) Learning this from a book kinda sucks. It makes a huge difference having a knowledgeable person watch you and give you feedback--explaining how your actions might be ambivalent or too complex or inadvertently teaching the wrong thing. Plus, Cathy's very good at coming up with alternate approaches when one thing doesn't work for a particular animal. Po, for example, responds well to the Stand hand signal, which is an up-pointing version of the Sit signal. But Cathy pointed out that Izzy's hesitant performance was probably due to a difficulty in distinguishing between the two signals, so I'm going to modify the signal for her.

(4) My friend knows a lot. Of course, I always assumed that she did know plenty of stuff (she has a JD, an MA, and and MBA), but I never realized how much there was to know when it came to pet training. But she's got a really astonishing depth of information and experience about the most minute aspects of training, from getting your pet to look you in the eye when you call (did you know you have to train some animals to do that?) to what kind of treats work best for training to what you have to do with your shoulders to get the best response from your pet. She's been a longtime horse rider and dog owner, so I shouldn't be surprised at how well she can read animals and how precisely she can intervene with them, but I totally underestimated the complexity of the subject.

(5) Cats can be trained! And not just by Hollywood animal trainers or that blond German who got chomped on by his own lion (name eludes me. There were two of them. In Las Vegas. Frosted hair, sparkly leisure suits?) Cathy tells me that Po is learning faster than some dogs she's trained. That's right--my cat is smart! He's kind of a grumpy, entitled jerk, but he's really, really smart!

Po does Twirl

(6) Which brings me to point 6, that training my cats makes me fonder of them. This is very useful (for the cats) when they scratch a door frame or knock one of Matt's Big Reds (Matt loves Big Red) onto the carpet. When they're being brats--which, alas, still happens--or needing expensive visits to the pet ER, it's helpful to reflect that the little hellions can do tricks on command and are smarter than dogs (Po is, anyway; Izzy... well, she's very cute) and generally have redeeming and people-pleasing qualities.

Anyway, I'm exceedingly grateful for the copious free advice and training Cathy's been giving us. If you're at all interested in dog training, you should definitely check her out at If she can achieve these kinds of results in her first attempt to train cats, her dog skills may well bend the laws of physics.

And in Other Things Zoological
Other happy things are happening at the Menagerie Chez M. Our fish made babies! (And after they'd only known each other for a couple of weeks, the little tramps. If I knew who was responsible, I'd rename them Jezebel and Casanova.) We've seen one little 3/4" white fish and one 3/4" yellowy one swimming about. We dubbed them Pearl and Penelope, respectively.

And then I recently learned that the nursery up the street actually sells both pond plants and fish, which is great because I wanted to diversify our fish collection with a couple of shubunkins. Matt said (because he is wise in his generation) that their coloring is too murky and they'll be impossible to see in our pond. This turned out to be true, but at least on those occasions that they pop up near the surface, we'll know who they are. The more different our fish look from one another, the more interesting I find them. A school of 15 gorgeous, iridescent, rainbow-striped fish that are all identical would be less interesting to me than my 12 ordinary little goldfish whom I can more or less call by name. (Or at least identify as being one of a few of individuals). Matt thinks the shubunkins are kind of freaky looking, or so I infer, because he named them Spooky and Crazy Eye.

Welcome to Chez M, Pearl, Penny, Spooky, and Crazy Eye!
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