Barrel-chested, with shoulder-length white hair that very nearly falls into the category of "flowing locks," Paul Riddell looks like an off-duty superhero standing outside his North Dallas condo. Behind him, a greenhouse takes up his entire patio save for a small stone walkway. With the insulated structure behind him, he could also be a mad scientist, planning the untimely deaths of his enemies from inside the greenhouse's cloudy walls. But as either scientist or superhero, he is a man on a mission. Nothing will keep him from his passion for horticulture. Not even true love.
Last year, at a wedding reception for close friends at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum, Riddell just couldn't keep himself from skipping out on the party to go next door to the Texas Hydroponics shop. Despite the fact that he was hopped up on pain medication from a recent bicycle accident, with his arm in a sling, he managed to stagger to the shop and back. To the amusement of the guests and likely the horror of the bride, he re-entered the reception woozy and "loaded with horticulture gear." He had bought cloning gel, so the bride could grow a rosebush from the flowers in her bouquet.
Riddell's a former science-fiction writer, so at first telling, it's easy to believe he's just letting his imagination run wild. After all, who runs to a gardening shop in the middle of a wedding? That's bizarre behavior, even for someone on pain meds. But one look inside Riddell's greenhouse at the near-obsessive level of effort he's put into cultivating his "green harlots," as his wife calls them, makes the wedding story all too plausible. But roses are a small, if sweet and flowery, part of Riddell's gardening hobby. He's mainly interested in growing things that are out for blood: carnivorous plants.
"Most mid-life crises are about cars and blond bimbos," Riddell admits. At 41, he's not quite in mid-life crisis territory, but his passion for carnivorous plants certainly rivals that of a guy who spends every free hour out in the garage tooling with his classic Mustang. Raising carnivores helps Riddell "feel more at peace all the way around." For him, there's just something about feeding unsuspecting insects to his hungry sarracenia that he finds more relaxing than laying down $60,000 on a sports car and dinner with a Tiffany or Bambi at Nobu. And with the launch of a newsletter called The Hell's Half-Acre Herald, Riddell is taking his hobby public.
"Nobody's really doing anything for urban gardeners," Riddell says, "particularly for anyone under the age of 50." This isn't grandpa and grandma out in the flowerbed tending to their petunias. Riddell's greenhouse features carnivores such as the sarracenia (known as a "pitcher plant" because of the cupped shape of its traps), demure sundews and the renowned Venus flytrap. He calls his collection the Texas Triffid Ranch. Science-fiction fans will remember triffids from the 1962 cult classic film The Day of the Triffids, wherein giant man-eating plants take over the world. Riddell's plants are considerably less threatening, carefully lined up in well-tended pots in his greenhouse.
But there is still something of the macabre about his hobby, especially since the first issue of The Hell's Half-Acre Herald features the illustrated demise of an unlucky cockroach named "Archy" as he is chopped up and fed piecemeal to a hungry pitcher plant, "Bub." That's part of the reason Riddell took up with his carnivores in the first place. Their unusual eating habits make them a prime conversation piece.
Riddell enjoys "being able to talk about [his] plants without boring everyone in the room to death." If making a spectacle of Archy and Bub is what it takes to get people interested in urban gardening, Riddell's fine with that. Still, he says, carnivores have "an undeserved reputation" because of their eating habits. Urban gardening with carnivores doesn't have to be grotesque. The plants don't really need to be hand-fed at all, and most can do just fine left out in the open for a few hours to catch gnats.
At only a few dollars per packet of seeds off the Internet, carnivorous plants are certainly more affordable than a flashy car or dinner for two at a four-star restaurant. And since they're not too picky about what comes as a main dish, from fruit flies to web worms to fungus gnats, Riddell's plants are a sight more hospitable too. Even in the hot Dallas climate.
"The real danger here isn't from the heat, but from the drying south wind all summer long," says Riddell. Most carnivores come from Australia and the East Coast of the United States, but Riddell works hard to keep his plants happy, tucked inside the 6-by-8-foot greenhouse that's taken over his patio. The only really deadly thing about Dallas for these plants? The tap water.
"It's like liquid napalm for these guys," explains Riddell, who has a 60-gallon drum collecting rainwater in his greenhouse. The minerals in tap water here are lethal to the carnivores. They must be kept moist with rainwater or distilled water.
Urban gardening suits carnivores because they're already accustomed to unusual living conditions. They digest bugs because they're naturally suited to acidic soil that would kill most other plants. Since there aren't many nutrients in the kind of dirt they prefer, they end up snacking on insects. For aspiring Dallas gardeners, Riddell recommends against trying to raise a Venus flytrap for first-timers, though it always seems to be the most tempting project. Stick with a sundew or pitcher plant. And if you need help, Riddell's Herald is available at TxTriffidRanch.livejournal.com.
Riddell, who has lived in Dallas for 28 years but for two short stints in Portland and Wisconsin, plans to buy a home here soon with his wife, Caroline, who designs and makes jewelry for a living. Sure, they'd like a nice place with room for a workshop for Caroline. But standing with her husband on her front porch, surrounded by rosebushes and a rescued pecan tree that Riddell nursed back to health, Caroline Riddell puts her arm around her husband's waist and smiles.
Mostly, she says, "We're going to need a bigger greenhouse."