Saturday, 21 December 2013


More Car Problems
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' - good for containers
      At one time I used to play five-a-side football every Friday night with a group of over forties. We would go for a drink afterwards and, on this particular night, I was driving home after a couple of pints of bitter shandy. The car I had then was a Talbot Horizon. I'd not long since bought it and was experiencing a number of problems: every time I slowed down you could hear liquid sloshing forward. At first I put this down to fuel in the petrol tank, although I'd never actually heard a petrol tank before. Eventually I narrowed it down to the door. It was full of water - in fact the whole car leaked like a sieve - when I'd pointed out to the bloke who was selling it to me that the floor was wet he said this was due to it just having been valeted. My wife was not impressed by this latest example of my gullibility and, when she'd commented about the tidal sounds coming from the door, I hadn't helped by humorously suggesting we put a glass front on it and introduce a few goldfish (she acidly pointed out that this obviously wouldn't have worked because they'd bump their heads each time I put the brakes on).

      Another problem was an anomaly with the heater and this gradually became apparent as I drove home that night: the windows began to mist up and the car was filling with steam. I thought I'd driven into fog, and was following the white line along the middle of the road in a wavering, slow fashion when I sensed a set of headlights directly behind me. They were blinding and reminded me of that scene in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' when an alien craft creates the same impression. However, the lights didn't suddenly disappear in an upward direction, they overtook me and added a blue element to the illumination. Pulling in front, a sign appeared on the back of the vehicle showing the instruction 'Stop Police'. I didn't really have any inclination to stop any police, but nevertheless took the hint. As the policeman climbed out and walked towards me I wound down the window and stuck my head out, discovering to my surprise that it was a beautiful, clear night. The copper's footsteps wavered as a cloud of steam billowed out of the window, haloing my sauna'd face. My hair was plastered down and I suspect I was bright red.

      "Are you aware sir that you were proceeding along the centre of the road in an erratic manner?" he said sternly.

      At this point my stomach was churning. I hadn't actually done anything wrong, apart from not murdering the bloke who sold me the car but, as always when confronted by the police, I felt guilty. I was visualising him giving me a breath test and the machine giving a false reading: I'd be banned from driving and end up travelling twelve miles to work on my bike every day. These and other thoughts were going through my mind as I made my defence in a shaky voice:

      "Having a bit of a problem with my heater, officer", at the same time another cloud of steam obliterated him from view.

      "Have we had a little drink, sir", he said in an uncertain voice. Why do they always say 'we'? How the hell do I know if he's had a drink? I told him about my shandies and pointed out my difficulty with the windscreen misting up.

      "I need to consult my colleague on this", he said. With that he wandered back to his fellow officer and entered into a conversation which included something about 'a bloody mobile Turkish  bath' and ended when the other man seemed to collapse on the bonnet of their car. My man stood with his back to me and I could see his whole body shaking as though he were crying. Then he came back and informed me that they weren't going to breathalyse me. He did point out in a shaky voice that to drink any alcohol at all was not a desirable thing when driving. His face was sort of writhing as he told me this. Anyway, I drove off in tremendous relief. The last I saw of them, they were both collapsed on their bonnet. Perhaps it was food poisoning.

      All this talk of fog brings me to think of Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), a weed grass native to the U.K. and invasive in the United States and Australia. Although this is certainly not a plant to be introduced to the garden, many other grasses and sedges are useful because different species can provide height, colour and flower interest in their own ways.
Miscanthus sinensis in winter
      Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) was once to be seen in every garden but it fell from grace partly due to size (too big for the smaller garden) and partly because of this daft fashion thing that pervades gardening ('oh my dear, that horrible thing is so yesterday'). However there are many less bombastic grasses on the scene and it is worth having a closer look at some of them:
Stipa gigantea (foreground) in The Dry Garden, Hyde Hall
      Miscanthus sinensis, reaching its plumes to about 8ft in height, is a good option for summer and winter: in summer its upright habit provides good contrast with lower growing plants and in winter the plumes provide stately decoration, especially with the sun behind them. Stipa gigantea has similar advantages although its delicate flower structure gives a different aesthetic.
Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' contrasting with Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

      Hakenchloa macra 'Aureola' is excellent displayed in a large container but also provides exciting contrast when planted with Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. The Hakenchloa dies back in winter while the Ophiopogon soldiers on. The latter is not actually a grass but, maybe surprisingly, a member of the lily family. However it behaves enough like a grass to often be mistaken for one.

      And that's it. All it remains is for me to wish my readers a happy Christmas.

      Both of you.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Common puff-ball (Lycoperdon perlatum). Edible when young. Spores puff out when mature
     A work colleague had died and a large number of people from the then Recreational Services section of the council were gathering to give our respects at Blakeley Crematorium. It was the usual conveyor belt, (death being a popular pastime) where everyone gathered outside, waiting their turn in one of the three chapels. It was cold and there were a lot of gloves and even a bobble hat on display. I feel there is a great potential for street entertainers and hot dog sellers to cash in on these occasions but, so far, I've never come across this. No one would have been surprised to hear a hollow clerical voice shout 'next', causing the queue to shuffle forward in anxious anticipation of the awaiting ritual. As was to be expected, the mood was somber - sympathy tinged with the inevitable 'but thank God it's not me' relief.

      Waiting there brought to mind that classic Dave Allen sketch where a funeral was taking place in some Irish village: apparently (according to Dave) it was believed that, if two people should be buried in a churchyard on the same day, only the first one would get to heaven. On this occasion, two funeral parties met, marching along the road to the graveyard. At first they simply try to walk faster, but this evolved to them trying to barge each other off the road as the race hotted up. A lot of things happened. One of the groups found an old pram and stuck the coffin on that, giving them greater speed potential. However, they relinquished their lead when they found it necessary to stop at a pub, leaving the coffin parked outside. They hadn't put the brake on and the pram started rolling downhill, eventually ending up in the duck pond. The other party in the meantime hitched a ride in a car, with the coffin on top. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the two parties eventually arrived at the graveyard at the same time, only to find that a funeral was already taking place. Maybe neither of them got to heaven then, or maybe (and this is more likely), they went back to the pub and animosity was forgotten - a bit like when there is a state occasion and the prime minister and opposition leader can be seen walking together in the dignitary procession, chatting amicably, and sharing their dismay at  their 11% pay rise.

      Hanging around in the cold led to me needing the toilet, so I wandered away from our group in search of relief. When I found it, my old mate Ron was already there and we wandered back a couple of minutes later, just as everyone was filing in.

      It was a big, modern chapel and, as I remember it, the pews were in a semi-circle facing the front. Ron and I found ourselves slap bang in the middle and the service was about to commence when I noticed something strange:

      "Hey, Ron", I whispered. "I don't know many of these people, do you?"

      Ron glanced around then gave a start as a group of heads filed past the window.

      "Bloody hell!", he said loudly. This seemed a bit inappropriate at a funeral I thought, but I didn't say anything because, like Ron, I'd recognised a bobble hat which was, er, bobbling past the window.

      "We're in the wrong sodding funeral", he informed me, rather unnecessarily.

      And so it was that my mate Ron and I donned sickly grins to accompany our apologies and probably became the first people in history to walk out of a funeral.
Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) edible when while still white
      While we're on about death, it's worth having a look at fungi. These are complex organisms which seem to be a form of plant but differ in that they are not green. This is important because the green in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll, the substance which enables them to produce sugars to convert into energy for growth. The fungi haven't got this ability, so they've adapted to get the sugars from elsewhere.

      They do this in different ways and so we class them as saprophytic - those which feed on dead organisms and parasitic - the ones which feed off living hosts. The saprophytic ones can be seen as the gardener's friend, because they help break down dead material so that it goes back into the soil and enriches it with nutrients and fibrous structure. The parasitic types are often the enemy, feeding on living plants and weakening, spoiling their appearance, or even killing them - examples can be commonly seen in mildews, leaf spots and honey fungus.

      Mushrooms are a type of fungus we exploit as a foodstuff and the magic ones can send you on a trip. Unfortunately it is often difficult to tell the magic ones from similar poisonous species and a mistake could, at worst, lead to your trip being one-way. The field mushrooms we commonly use for eating are best picked in the early morning. I used to think this was simply a freshness issue but, on holiday in Northumbria, ignored this advice and picked a bumper crop in late afternoon. When it came to preparing them I found they were alive with maggots. Now, if I pick them wild, I make sure it is early in the day and that they are newly emerged. Reading up on this, I find that some people dry the mushrooms by hanging them with the flat head upwards and the maggots (and sometimes worms) fall out. Others simply cook them, maggots and all. Well, whatever turns you on.
Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). Edible
      Identifying fungi is difficult, partly because they are variable in appearance at different stages of growth and so pictures in books can be misleading. Honey fungus is edible but a species very similar in appearance is poisonous, so my advice is that if you're in doubt, give it a miss (or try it on someone you don't like). Some, like shaggy ink cap, are very distinctive and so can be eaten with confidence.

      The most deadly toadstool is the death-cap (Amanita phalloides) and this is closely related to the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the red one with white spots often seen with a fairy seated on it. Fly agaric grows prolifically in Siberia and the arctic and is a favourite food of reindeer. It is also consumed by arctic shamans and there is a theory that Santa and his flying reindeer originated with shaman and reindeer on a joint trip through the night sky. If so, this is a dream fortified by the imagination of millions of children who further fuel the shaman with mince pies.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rhubarb (Rheum sp.)

     A few years ago I had a bit of a medical problem which led to my bladder being prone to infections. I was on a number of drugs for the condition and it was under control, except for a more than normal need to urinate. This was good news for the compost heap but a definite negative in other ways. For example, we went down to Maldon, in Essex, for a wedding and were staying in the house of a friend. In the middle of the night I got the pressing need and got up to take care of it. Bear in mind I was in a strange bedroom and disorientated. The cocktail of drugs didn't help, either, together with being still three-quarters asleep, and I opened a door under the impression it was the bathroom. Luckily, my wife woke up just as I disappeared into the wardrobe ready to severely disillusion anyone returning from Narnia, and pointed me towards the actual bathroom. This was fortuitous, otherwise we'd never have been asked back.

      Soon after this episode, we went on a trip to Yorkshire. We'd already had to stop a couple of times at services but the feeling came on during a long stretch of the M62 where the distance between services had the potential to turn discomfort into tragedy. Anyway, my wife was driving and I'd had the forethought to put a bottle on the back seat for such emergencies, so I scrambled into the rear and put it to good use. It crossed my mind that I could start a cult along similar lines to  the Mile High Club, this time for peeing into a milk bottle while going at great speed along motorways. Thinking such cultural thoughts and lulled with the bliss of relief, I became aware that it had gone suddenly darker. I thought at first that maybe we were having a eclipse, but glancing up showed me that the cause was the Bullocks coach which had drawn level. An interested audience of pensioners was ogling me from their circle seats. However I couldn't stop, so I pacified myself by giving them a weak grin and rather limp Hitler salute with my other hand, all the time hoping to God that we didn't bump into them again somewhere. It struck me that it was alright for them, there'd be a toilet on board their bus and I maliciously hoped that it was blocked. A further comfort was the thought that, should we come across the Bullocks coach parked anywhere, I could easily change the 'u' to an 'o' with a black marker. That'd teach 'em.

      This brought to mind the time that we had an event (I think it was a cycle race) in Wythenshawe Park. The park toilets were grossly inadequate for a large crowd, so we'd hired mobile loos and dotted them round a central area. Unwisely, we left them overnight and in the morning all that was left was a series of burnt out hulks. The local vandals had discovered that a burning lavatory gives far more pyrotechnic satisfaction than a bog standard (pardon the pun) firework. Fortunately they'd had the forethought to make sure no one was in them before applying the match. If anyone had been, no doubt their bowel movement would have progressed satisfactorily but this would have been poor compensation for being burnt to a cinder.

      Rhubarb also has a reputation for encouraging healthy movements. It is such an easy crop that anyone can grow it with a high potential for success. Not only is the stem good in crumbles, pies and other desserts, but the leaves extend its use in other directions: an old bloke on our allotment recommended boiling them in water, then using the resulting liquid to clean algi off greenhouse glass. I've not tried this but the logic is there - rhubarb leaves have a high oxalic acid content and this has corrosive properties. Garden Organic (used to be known as the Henry Doubleday Research Institute) give the following recipe for controlling aphids: boil 3 pounds of leaves in 6 pints of water for half an hour, strain through muslin or an old stocking then dilute with water to rhubarb at quantities of 5:1. Some added soapflakes will help it spread and stick more effectively.

      Originally from Siberia, edible rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) finds the British climate a soft touch by comparison. When I first heard of the rhubarb triangle I thought it must be related to the Bermuda one, with mysterious disappearances taking place on the vegetable plot. However it turns out to be much more mundane, referring to an area in Yorkshire where Wakefield , Morley and Rothwell form the angles encompassing the main rhubarb growing area. They probably get a lot of Christmas cards from the custard industry.
Purpose made forcing pots with removable tops for observation
      Forcing rhubarb is a way of getting an early crop. The plant should first be given a year without being picked in order to establish (this also applies with normal cropping), then in the second year it is covered with a large pot, or black plastic, just as it begins to grow. The principle is that a plant needs light to grow and photosynthesise: place it in the dark and it automatically grows upwards towards where it perceives the light should be. This can be seen when you wrongly position something like a pelargonium in a dark corner of the living room and it produces leggy, unattractive growth as it strives upwards. By forcing, the crop can be obtained a month or more earlier and is less tart. This takes a lot out of the plant and it should be rested the following year in order to recover. An even earlier crop can be attained by lifting the plant in November, leaving on the soil surface to receive the frosting which breaks down the tendency for dormancy, then taking into a cool greenhouse or shed and covering. Where this is done commercially the cropped plant is usually then destined for the compost heap.

      Some forms of rhubarb provide sculptural interest in the garden. Like its culinary relative, it needs deep, moist, humus rich soil and benefits from an annual top dressing of well-rotted organic material. Especially effective near water, it can be a Gunnera substitute for the smaller pond, being more compatible in scale. A variety like Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) can produce red flowers up to a height of 8 feet.

      So, as you can see, rhubarb is pretty versatile and so easy to grow it really is worth giving it a bash.


Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Alpine House

Giddy Heights

Laura and Chris in Lilliput
      We had a toy that was supposed to encourage toddlers to walk. I can't remember the details, other than that the oblong plastic body of it was red and the wheels were yellow. There was a seat and a handle at the back so that the child could either sit on it and propel itself by pushing with the feet or stand behind it holding the handle and gaining support while a few tentative steps were taken. I remember thinking at the time that the handle was a characteristic it shared with a shopping trolley. This was the time of conspiracy theories and the suspicion crossed my mind that the thing was a subversive effort by Tesco to get kids used to the idea right from the start.

      Our daughter, Laura, regularly did the sitting thing on it but always just plonked herself on the floor if we placed her behind it in an attempt to get her to walk.Then one day she suddenly got the idea, hauled herself to her feet and gave us a beatific smile as she clung to the handle. So far so good. Her weight caused it to move and this wasn't something that had figured in her plan of action. Standing was one thing, forward motion was a totally new ball game which expressed itself in the expressions which flickered across her face.

      It was a fairly long lounge and she'd started at one end. The first couple of steps were a tentative victory, transformed into a self-congratulating smile, then the thing gained momentum as she continued to cling to it, gathering speed until little legs became a blur. Learning to run before you can walk was a fact of life for Laura. The smile faded and her eyes widened as, mouth open in a silent scream, she shot along the room at increasing speed until the sofa proved an effective barrier from her bursting through the wall into the garden. At this point the scream became anything but silent and the police were probably inundated with calls about a murder taking place.

      As a child, Laura knew how to stick up for herself, although the correctness of when to do it was sometimes questionable. My wife was chair of the school governors and, on one occasion, a meeting was taking place in our living room. The discussion had turned to something about her form teacher:

      "Better be careful what you say", my wife whispered, "Laura sometimes listens at the door"

      "I DO NOT!!", came a loud indignant voice from outside the door. Something in this statement struck even her as incongruous, and she departed tearfully to the top bunk she should have already been in - the top bunk she got headaches in due to - as her mother had informed her (and Laura firmly believed)- altitude sickness. My suggestion of asking Santa for an oxygen mask for Christmas was receiving serious consideration.

Alpine House Holehird Gardens
      And plants are also responsive to the effects of altitude, which brings me to the pleasing topic of alpines. True alpines live on mountains which are covered in snow for part of the year, then exposed to sunshine and, possibly, grazing, for the summer. A snow covering sounds pretty harsh but is actually the reason some alpines don't thrive in the seemingly less hostile conditions of temperate gardens: the snow actually protects the plants from changing conditions. In the garden it may be raining one day, freezing the next, snowing on the following one and so on, while under the snow blanket the temperature remains constant and there is no dampness problem.

Poor Man's Alpine House
      The term 'alpine' has become diluted by being applied to plants which are suitable for growing on a rockery or sink garden (see previous blog) but don't have the qualification of originating on mountains. However they may have the right cushion-forming habit and scale to make them aesthetically the right thing.

      In order to be able to grow the more sensitive of these subjects, it is necessary to do what nature does on the mountains - create a protective snow cover in the form of the alpine house. Quite simply, this is an unheated greenhouse. At its best, the benches or floor have a thick layer of gritty growing medium which is suitable for sinking pots in, making it seem they are growing there naturally. Another school of thought simply displays the plants in their pots. There is no right and wrong but the former method enables the creativity of gardening, while the latter has the more limited enjoyment of just growing plants. Cold frames are a good adjunct to the alpine house: plants can be grown to flowering point in the frames, then brought in to display under glass, giving  the house colourful ongoing interest.

Tufa Wall at Harlow Carr Gardens
      Another popular and natural way of displaying alpines is by growing them on tufa. Tufa is a soft form of limestone formed adjacent water and rich in calcium, aluminium, magnesium, silicon and iron - all elements of importance to plants. It is fairly easy to hollow out a planting hole before adding the plant in a compost enriched with the resulting tufa particles. This may seem a pretty harsh environment but it is accurately reflecting the native habitat of many alpines such as saxifrages. In fact, the name saxifrage is derived from saxum and frango, meaning 'rock' and 'to break', taken maybe from the fact that often they can be found growing from a crack in a rock, or possibly because medicinally they were once used to break up gall stones. If plants are grown this way in the alpine house, rather than outside, there is a danger of extreme drying and it is important that each watering be sufficient to soak into the stone to some extent.

      I've seen a single chunks of tufa positioned on a twelve inch pot and planted with seventeen alpines at the Harrogate Spring Show. This raises the philosophical point that you don't even need a garden to practise the art. Many a forty foot square plot has not got as much variety.

      A big attraction of the alpine house is that it doesn't need heating, cancelling out a few big bills. This fact has been the undoing of many a budget-conscious gardener: he or she sees the economic sense of growing alpines in this way and dangles a toe in the water. Jaws is waiting, and the unsuspecting horticulturist is dragged into the deep waters of an addiction which relegates heroin dependancy to the level of chocaholism. Many is the besotted gardener who disappears into the alpine house never to be seen again, leaving a lonely partner to eventually succumb to the charms of the milkman or double glazing salesperson. For such a marriage to be termed as 'on the rocks' would seem particularly appropriate.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Enriching the garden with sculpture

Graceful Pond Ornament
      I've referred to the D.O.G.S. - my walking group - before and, if anyone's interested, it may be worth having a look at this post to make things a bit clearer. It's worth explaining something of the platoon hierarchy: right at the top is The Mighty Leader (Harry), then comes Fred as Number Two, a position gained by brown nosing, followed by me (the chronicler) as Number 3 and finally Charlie (the scientist and bird expert), as Number 4. We also have a newer member, Baahir, but he wasn't on the expedition I'm going to tell you about, so we'll leave him until a later blog.

      I've already been threatened with a court action on the basis of 'defamation of sartorial inelegance' by someone who thinks he is Fred, so I'd just like to point out that all these characters are fictitious. Not.

      As a departure from our usual hike, we had decided to take in a bit of culture by visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield.  So it was that we found ourselves wandering out into this oasis of creativity and already being educated by Charlie. He was informing us that the cafe chips were not to be touched with a barge pole. His position of fourth in charge means that his powers of leadership can only be exercised when the first three in charge are not present and, as there were only four of us, this area of jurisdiction was somewhat limited. However, we all looked up to him when he expounded on his greatest area of expertise - chips.

      Charlie is prone to cheap weekend breaks and, on one of these he visited Gippsland, in Australia. I was excited on hearing of this, because Gippsland is the home of the Giant Gippsland Worm, which can reach a length of ten feet. I imagine Australian fishermen using them creatively: the worm is stuck on a hook and is trained to wrap itself round a passing fish and squeeze the life out of it in the same way anacondas do pigs. At the same time, I see more skillful Aussies using  the worm to lasso fish which stick their heads out of the water for a look round. This is all fantasy, of course - Australians are not that sophisticated. Crocodile Dundee illustrated this when he did it with a stick of dynamite.  Even so, it is true that the big worms exist. Anyway, we wandered around and I became more and more aware of what Philistines we are when it comes to art: 'Seventy One Steps' by David Nash is amazing. It conspires to look exactly like, er, seventy one steps. This was good but the unanimous conclusion was that his work with Crosby, Stills and Young was more impressive.

      Some sculptures by Joan Miro (actually a Spanish bloke) provided more cultural fulfilment. Charlie however loudly interpreted one piece as an up-market letterbox. It turned out to actually be Joan's interpretation of 'a woman, with the emphasis on female genitalia', and almost led to Charlie's demotion on the grounds of 'militaristic flippancy' - a term invented for the occasion by The Mighty Leader. The only thing that saved him was the fact that he was already on the bottom rung.
Charlie's letterbox
      The works of Henry Moore, scattered all over the park like a plane crash, led to more intellectual discussion between the four connoisseurs. This mainly featured the value of scrap metal and what a Martian would think, should he be mistakenly beamed down in the Sculpture Park. 

      Eventually this long  day drew to a close, as all good things do, and, full to the gills with culture and relief at having avoided the chips, we made our way back home. The route had been suggested by Charlie and was the cause of any hint of popularity he had dropping through the floor. There was even talk of a court martial, because we found ourselves in the mother and father of all traffic jams. Proceeding at a speed of approximately ten miles a fortnight, we made our way down the M62. At one memorable and stationary point, trapped in a solid wall of vehicles, the Mighty Leader gave us the cheering news that we were running out of petrol. Not to be outdone,  Fred helpfully added to the claustrophobic nightmare by turning a whiter shade of pale and informing us that he felt ill. My first reaction as a non-combatant was to do a runner. Apart from anything else, I urgently needed to go for a pee. However, instead of the sweet relief this promised, it seemed I was to spend the rest of my days with my legs crossed sitting next to a dead man. The close presence of an eighteen ton Tesco waggon on one side inhibited the opening of the door , while an equally close blood donor vehicle emulated the effect on the other side. 

      As escape was impossible, I exercised my full quota of medical expertise by producing a bottle of water so that Fred could take one of his tablets. I then contented myself by trying to work out why blood doning required such a big waggon. The conclusion I came to was that Tony Hancock may have been right when he said that a pint was a full arm.

      Amazingly, we arrived home in time for Christmas, all swearing inwardly that there was no way we were going out with those daft buggers again. However, the soothing airbrush of time ironed out any wrinkles in the relationship and, before long, we inevitably embarked on the next cock-up.
Drawing the eye
      Still on the theme of sculptures, they, together with other ornaments, can be used to enrich the garden. The classic function is that of leading you to explore - the need to see what's 'over there'. A relatively uninteresting area can take on life by the strategic positioning of the right subject. And here scale comes to the fore, as it does in all aspects of the garden: too small and it can look fussy, too large and it'll take over rather than complement - Nelson's Column may be a bit much for your thirty foot plot.
Good use of a dead tree
      Humour is another aspect which can be introduced by a careful choice of ornamentation. The garden is sometimes taken too seriously. At its best it is a place of contemplation and peace but this shouldn't be confused with serious, heavy minded and dull. Laughter is the best medicine and a smile is heading in the right direction.

      It is worth remembering that the garden is an artistic expression of your own taste and it pays to remember that, as in most things, snobbery can come into it:

      "My dear, how ghastly. He's got heathers there. They went out in the seventies", or, "gnomes. Look, there's a gnome over there, ugh!" and "Forsythia. How dull - everyone has one". This latter comment reflects the outlook of the classic gardening snob. All her plants are 'special', which means few people have got them. The fact is that these plants are often 'special' because they haven't got much going for them, while the popular ones have earned that status by virtue of their contribution. Gardening is as much about the art of display as it is about growing the plants. A subject which looks good by itself can have far greater impact if displayed with another which enriches by contrast. While a person can have a good selection of plants, individuals displayed without reference to their neighbours will constitute a nursery rather than a garden. I've mentioned before about the gnome my wife bought for a friend of ours. It was a farting one and ideal for giving our gardening snob the vapours. Like that fish that sings a song about the river, it is set off by someone walking nearby.

      "Oh, my dear. How positively vulgar. I must go and lie down". 

      That got rid of the bugger.

      There is a lot of enthusiasm for carved ornamentation now: a squirrel or owl unexpectedly encountered, etched into a dead tree trunk, can enliven a stroll round a garden. The ephemeral nature of such wooden ornaments - the fact that they'll eventually return to the earth - maybe subconsciously reflects that of the garden itself - always changing and evolving. Along the same lines, the roots of a long-gone mammoth can be used as a rockery substitute. The stumpery or rootery, once popular in Victorian gardens, seems to be making a bit of a come-back and deservedly so, in my opinion. They can be planted with a variety of subjects, ferns is a favourite, but mosses, alpines and even bulbs also work well. 
The start of a stumpery
      At the end of the day, the garden is about you expressing yourself, getting your quota of creative stimulation. It doesn't matter if you like gnomes or something else seen as unfashionable by the elite - sod them and do your own thing. 
Boring gate transformed into a feature

Friday, 15 November 2013

Epilobum angustifolium and Dictamnus albus

A Burning Problem
Mysterious footwear?
      Have you ever thought about shoes in the road? The number of times you come across shoes left along the highway seems to have something significant about it. It's possible you haven't noticed this phenomena but, having read this, I can guarantee you will. The odd pair of knickers behind a park bench speak for themselves but shoes? and usually only one (nearly always a woman's)??

      Alien abduction is the first thing that springs to mind - the victim was hauled up so suddenly that the shoe was left behind and I suppose it's conceivable that it could be only one, perhaps because the lace was undone. However, I think this is a bit unlikely, based on the fact that it never happened to Spock or Captain Kirk when they were beamed up. Another possibility is a broken heel.  I saw it happen to a woman in a film once: a heel broke off and she simply took the other one off and walked barefoot, keeping her dignity. That's the 'sod it' factor, how can I walk if I'm listing to port? This solution may work for Hollywood but she wouldn't do that round our way - not with the amount of dogcrap on the pavement. A better solution would be to walk with one foot in the gutter and the other on the pavement, rectifying the uneven elevation. However this could be problematic if it's your right shoe that's lost the heel and the kerb is on the left due to the direction you're travelling: the foot with the heel would then be twice as high. My first reaction to this conundrum was that you'd have to walk the other way round the block in the hopes that you could reach your destination that way. When I think about it though, this, of course, that's ridiculous - you'd just have to walk along the gutter on on the other side of the road.

      And what about the one-legged person? Did Long John Silver have to buy two shoes and throw one away? I should have thought that, in the cause of decency, the shop should  sell them one at a time. Probably there is a balance between one legged people with the left leg and those with the right so, in the long run, they'd be able to sell them both. However, if they do have to buy two, one may end up chucked through the car window.

      These things are possibilities but the most likely answer, I feel, lies in spontaneous combustion. In Bleak House, Dickens describes how Mr Krook is a victim of this. In that case there was nothing left of him but an evil smell, greasy soot, a chunk of burnt thigh and a pool of oil. Although this was a novel, Dickens had done copious research and the story was based on a number of known cases. Lots of theories about how this happens have been propounded, the most widely accepted one being that of the wick effect: having first been ignited by a fag end or something, the person burns and fat from the body works like candle wax, keeping it lit for ages. Whatever the cause, it's a fact that, in 1951, a Mary Hardy Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida was found almost totally cremated. All that was left was a pile of ash and a foot. The point is though, that the foot was still wearing - wait for it - A SHOE! I rest my case.

      A plant - Dictamnus albus - is also known as 'burning bush'. It produces volatile oils from its leaves and these may become ignited in hot weather. You can hold a burning match close and watch the resulting conflagration. It sounds advisable to only do on someone else's Dictamnus, because it wouldn't do a lot for your herbaceous border. However, the burst of flame is fleeting enough to not damage the plant. It's thought that this was the burning bush depicted in the Bible, when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. I can't remember the rest of the story, maybe Moses used it to light his pipe. It grows to about three foot high, with woody stems, and looks a bit like rosebay willow herb, another plant associated with fire.
Rosebay willowherb or fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
      Rosebay willow herb is also known as 'fireweed'. This is due to its characteristic of colonizing areas of woodland which have been burnt down. A perennial herb, it dies out as the trees reestablish but the seeds stay viable in the ground for many years, ready to make another bid for glory should fire or felling again create the right environment. At one time it was a rare plant in Britain and only really exploded onto the scene with the coming of the railways in the 1800's- the bare ground accompanying them suited the plant and the 'wind tunnel' effect of the trains helped spread the airborne seeds. The bombing of the cities created a wealth of new sites and a new name 'bombweed' became popular, as harsh areas of rubble became hidden under a sea of pink.

      The soft, downy seeds become a snowstorm in late summer windy days and, at one time they were used with thistledown in Scotland to stuff mattresses. The fluff was also used, mixed with cotton or fur, to make stockings and other items of clothing. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the young tender stems can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable and are claimed to be a good asparagus substitute. I haven't tried it yet but will give it a go next summer. The dried leaves are used to make tea and I've heard it said that it's difficult to tell it from the real thing.

      Although it was once considered a garden plant, rosebay willow herb quickly outgrows its welcome: the thick woody roots spread horizontally and its dense clumps suppress other plants, although foxglove seems to thrive happily with it. However the white form - Epilobium angustifolium album - is a bit less belligerent and can be a stately addition to the herbaceous border.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Colour in Autumn

Finding Religion 
Prolific colour in autumn
  I've noticed that I seem to inspire a lot of my friends spiritually: Dan was a mate who was a bit religious before we went on a hike over Bleaklow, a hill in Derbyshire. When we got back, compared to Dan, the pope was an atheist. I seem to have this evangelistic potential. I have a recurring picture in my mind of the J.S. lifeboat saving countless struggling souls from the surface of life's stormy sea. Meanwhile, squashed deeper into my semiconscious is a haunting, faded picture: It is of someone looking remarkably like me pushing them off the cliff in the first place.

      The plan was to leave the car at a place called Lady Cross, on one side of Bleaklow, climb up Black Clough to the top, wander across to Bleaklow Stones, then drop down to the Snake Inn via Doctor's Gate and the short length of linking road. Then we'd do it in reverse.

      We completed the first part, had a beer in the pub and ate butties surreptitiously withdrawn from paper bags on our knees under the table (the landlord was always snotty about having to buy the food from them). Then we set out to retrace our footsteps back to the car. What could be simpler? you ask. Well, as it turned out, the discovery of D.N.A. would have been a doddle in comparison.

      The weather had deteriorated while we were in the pub and a thick mist descended by the time we got to Doctor's Gate.

      "We'll need the compass in this fog", said Dan and, to keep him happy, I obliged by searching through my pockets for an implement I'd never possessed.

      "Oops", I said, "seem to have forgotten it. Doesn't matter though, all we have to do is follow the stream to the top, then wander across to Black Clough and follow that down to the car. It'll be a doddle".

      If I ever get round to compiling a book of famous last words, 'it'll be a doddle' will feature prominently.

      Two hours later, having followed one stream up, and then walked down the other one, we found ourselves in vaguely familiar territory. This familiarity was explained when we found a sign, leaning drunkenly and informing us that we were back at Doctor's Gate. We had walked in a circle on the top. By our reckoning, to walk back to the car by road was about fourteen miles and it was only six if we tried again and went over the top, so we decided to have another bash at it.

      Heavy rain  set in as we followed the muddy track along the stream. Looking back now, I think the map may have been faulty, because we followed the stream as closely as possible but didn't end up where we should have. The moment of truth came when the stream had dwindled to nothing and we were walking through a thick wall of mist in the direction we deemed would lead us to the top. All semblance of a path had long since disappeared and the tufty grass had given way to ten foot peat cakes iced with heather. The rain continued in a deluge and we seemed to have walked a lot further than the map thought we should have. In addition to this, it was fast going dark and we were probably miles from civilisation. Dan had gone strangely quiet.

      At this point the storm started. we'd heard it rumbling in the distance, moving closer. Now the thunder occurred almost simultaneously with the lightening, which seemed to be forking into the hillside at an uncomfortable proximity and with frightening frequency. I turned to say something to Dan, to find him prostrate on the streaming peat.

      "Get down", he screamed "lightening strikes things that stand above the ground". I looked down at his now black face and decided that frying was preferable to drowning.

      "Come on", I said reasonably, "it's passing over now. See, the rain isn't as bad".

      As if in reply, the mother and father of all bolts of lightening sizzled to extinction at what appeared to be a few yards distance, accompanied by a crash of thunder which deafened me for a few seconds. My hearing returned with a low drone and I thought for a moment that it had been permanently affected. I needn't have worried, the drone was Dan going through the Lord's Prayer. There may be a bit of a tendency to laugh at this but I didn't, because it worked. The blinding flash of light had momentarily outlined something ahead of us through the mist.

      "There's a post over there", I said excitedly.

      Joe muttered something and I bent to hear properly.

      "Give us this day our daily....."

      "No, you don't understand. I reckon that where there's one post there's probably another, marking the top of the ridge". I said this on the basis that our old ordnance survey map had a line of dots going along the top of Bleaklow. There was nothing to show what they were on the key, therefore they must indicate posts. Got to be. All we had to do was follow them.

      Dan rose slowly and dramatically to his feet like something  Hammer Horror would be proud of.

      "I can't see a post", said this apparition, "you've got a thing about posts. You hit 'em in boats, you hang on to them in lakes, you're a lunatic, you are" (for those stories try this and this).

      His voice was cracking and I could see that he was going over the edge. He always had been a bit highly strung. It was at this critical moment that another flash of lightening illuminated the landscape in front of us.

      "Bloody hell, there's a post over there", said Dan. I don't know what I'd have done without him.

      And here I'm going to end this tale. Suffice to say that we managed to follow the posts to safety, albeit miles from the car, and spent the night in a barn. I heard a few more comments from Dan which I didn't know were in the Christian lexicon and I haven't seen him since. Perhaps I'll outline the rest of the journey in another blog.
Strange winged stems of Euonymus alatus
      A plant which could have been useful in this trip up Bleaklow is Silphium laciniatum, also known as the compass plant. It comes from the U.S. and the flat sides of the leaves always face east and west. Apparently early settlers were able to travel in the dark by feeling them, so perhaps Dan's blood pressure would have benefited from their presence. However, a more seasonal gardening subject is that of autumn colour and one plant which never fails to come up with the goods is Euonymus alatus:

      Unusual for its winged stems, this is a shrub which can reach 6ft high and can spread as much as 10ft. A more compact version, perhaps better suited to the smaller garden is the variety 'Compactus', which only reaches 3ft high. Readily available in most garden centres, it originated in Japan and China but is well suited to our climate. A friend in the north of the Lake District has one in his garden and the fact that it came into colour at least ten days before those in the Manchester area (some eighty miles south) gives an idea of climate difference over a relatively small distance.
Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
      Another import from China and Japan, this time much bigger, is the Katsura tree - Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Ultimately reaching about 45ft in Britain (147ft in its native habitat), the foliage changes from bronze when young to orange, yellow and red in autumn. When crushed, the leaves smell of toffee apples or candy floss, depending on your sense of smell. Although it is related to the tulip tree and Magnolia, the flowers are nothing to write home about, being red but minute.
Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree)
      I used to have difficulty telling the Katsura from the Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, which has similar foliage also turning yellow in autumn. Then I noticed that the leaves are usually borne opposite on the main stems, whereas those of the Cercis are alternate. In flower, there is no confusion, because the Cercis has showy pink (occasionally white) flowers arising from the bare stems before the leaves. It was said to be the tree Judas hanged himself on - hence the common name.
Callicarpa bodinieri giraldii 'Profusion'
      Autumn colour can come from sources other than leaves and this is epitomised by the beauty berry, Callicarpa bodinieri 'Profusion', a shrub which can reach 10ft in height, with a spread of 8ft. This has small pink flowers but it is the berries which are its main attraction: a dark violet, they are borne as the leaves begin to fall and, especially on a sunny day, stand out in glorious celebration of autumn. Apparently they are very bitter, so the birds leave them alone unless absolutely desperate and they last well into winter. Cotoneaster, and Pyracantha, on the other hand, are bird magnets which, in my book, is a different kind of advantage. Horses for courses.

      For more on autumn colour and how it works, visit this link


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Houseplants for shade

Nick, confusing Superman with Mary Poppins
      When you look back at the characters in your life it can be guaranteed you'll bring to mind some who were memorable for the over-the-top approach - the Boris Johnsons  of the world. In some cases their behaviour may be seen as a one-off, whereas in others it was, or is, their way of life. As an example of the one-off species I can cite my youngest son (some people may query this limitation), Nick, and an incident in Tatton Park when he was about eleven:

      We'd cycled to the park on a Sunday morning and were going along the track leading to the Old Hall.

      "Bet I could ride through that stream and up the other side", said Nick, with the bravado of youth. There was a steep slope from the path we were on, down to a stream. The far bank was almost as extreme.

      "Don't be daft", I said, "you'll end up in the stream with a broken bike".

      "No, I can do it", he said, lining the bike up with the edge of the path.

      "Stop", I commanded in my best authoritarian parent voice.

      "Whoops", he said with a grin, "sorry Dad, I can't stop", as he started the descent and gravity accelerated him at an unforeseen rate. I made a mental note to do an update on my authoritarian voice. He hung grimly to the wildly bouncing bike as it tore down the slope and his face underwent a change from bravado to 'I want my Mum'. I must admit that his mum came to my mind as well: what she would do to me when I brought home the remains of her beloved son.

      "Shiiiiiiit", he screamed, taking a leaf out of Butch and Sundance's observation as they jumped off the cliff.

      At this point his mother would have severely reprimanded him for the use of bad language but, after careful consideration, I decided it was the appropriate comment.

      The bike careered to the edge of the stream then, instead of proceeding through it and scaling the far bank at diminishing speed in accordance to the plan, it hit a rock and cartwheeled. For a few seconds, this was the closest Nick ever came to fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be superman. However this first solo flight ended abruptly with him lying prone in the middle of the stream. He lay for a few seconds then slowly rose to his feet, mournfully surveying the wreckage of his bike, while the stream bubbled merrily round his feet. Without a word, he waded to the bank where he sat, removed his shoes, and thoughtfully wrung out his socks. It's amazing how much water a sock can hold, and this is probably the reason Superman doesn't wear them. I then did what all authoritarian dads would do: I laughed. I laughed until I'd hurt myself more than he had on landing. This may seem harsh, but it was the funeral laugh. The one people get after the emotion of a burial demands some release and the weakest joke is an excuse for it. He glared at me, then slowly realised the futility of wringing out socks when the rest of you is waterlogged and he started a grin which turned into a belly laugh. Together we sat, helpless, until the realisation of how we'd explain this to his mum sobered us.

      Don't know if you've ever seen 'Carry on Caveman', but I think it was in that film that they portrayed the invention of the wheel. The prototype needed some improvement however, because it was square and this had obvious limitations. I mention this because it reminds me of Nick's front wheel after his death-defying Tatton stunt.

      This got me thinking about what pot plants cavemen would choose for their rather gloomy living quarters.:Spathiphyllum comes from the tropics of the Americas, the Philippines and Indonesia so, on the face of it, doesn't look  a likely candidate. However, it thrives in a shady position and is tolerant of cool conditions above freezing. The origination of the common name 'peace lily' is a bit obscure - even Wikipedia doesn't offer a thought - although the fact that it often makes an appearance at funerals may have something to do with it. Perhaps it was thought that, as a poisonous plant, it actually spawned funerals, but this is a bit of a long shot because large amounts have to be eaten for drastic results and it doesn't taste nice. Dogs and cats often suffer diarrhoea and vomiting, along with other symptoms after eating the leaves, so it is best to position the plant out of their reach.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)
       Spathiphyllum needs dividing annually, yielding a couple of extra plants which come in useful as presents for friends. A peace lily makes a pleasing change from the bunch of flowers often presented to dinner party hosts. It should be split during the winter or immediately after flowering (which can occur every two or three months) and an indication of when it needs it is the appearance of roots on the surface of the compost. Drooping and dullness of the leaves often shows a need to water and it is surprising how quickly they perk up and regain their shine when this is carried out.

      Another plant suitable for the caveman's parlour is the Aspidistra. This has the common name 'cast iron plant', indicating its tolerance for shade and indifferent temperatures. Its flowers aren't very noticeable, as they occur at soil level, emanating directly from the rhizome. It used to be though that they were pollinated by slugs and snails but recent research in Japan indicates that small terrestrial crustaceans called amphipods are the most likely suspects.

      Aspidistra is easily propagated by taking root sections and transplanting them. The rhizomatous roots are more woody than those of the Spathiphyllum and secateurs come in useful for the purpose. Care should be taken to ensure that each piece of rhizome has a couple of leaves coming from it.
Young Aspidistra
      No plant is completely idiot-proof, but Aspidistra and peace lily come pretty close to it and most of us have a shady niche in the house which would benefit from a bit of living decoration. Pity neither of these were in the country at the time of cavemen. They probably had to make do with potted dandelion.


Saturday, 26 October 2013

Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta')

DOGS, with The Mighty Leader trailblazing and losing half his command

      I regularly go walking with a group of blokes. We call ourselves The Dogs. People think this refers to Dogs of War, but it's actually an acronym  for 'Doddering Old Gits'. At full strength there are five of us and I'm going to change names to preserve our friendship:

      Harry is also known as the Mighty Leader and his job, as he sees it, is to use the map to get us lost in as many creative ways as possible. His political views make Hitler look like a Sunday school teacher and he runs the group like a military operation. On one occasion, on a road at the beginning of an extremely steep hill, we were equally extremely lost. At this point, an old man on an even older bicycle wavered past.

      "Oy", shouted our mighty leader, causing the man to wobble precariously before doing a u-turn to face us belligerently, possibly under the impression he was about to be mugged. "Excuse me", continued our navigator, in a less threatening tone, "could you tell us where we are, please?" There followed a long explanation, to the accompaniment of much arm waving and head scratching, which lead to the understanding that, by some miracle, we were going in the right direction. The rest of us had backed away a few yards in order to give the negotiators some space and the man kept glancing nervously at us. This was understandable because Fred's hair was standing on end as the result of him tearing it out in frustration at the wrong turns, creating a wild man look. In addition, my hat was pulled down to my eyebrows in a vain attempt at disguise so that people looking through their windows didn't recognise us as we passed for the fourth time. However, I suspect it just made me look sinister. Anyway, at the end of the discussion, the man did another wavering u-turn and departed downhill at a gathering speed difficult to relate to the combined age of him and the bike. He was leaning forward to reduce wind resistance and, as he disappeared into the distance, my anticipation of his hat blowing off was thwarted by the fact that he must have glued it on. At the bottom of the hill the road turned sharp left and I expected to see an old man- and- bike-shaped hole in the hedge when we got there, but his brakes must have been up to the challenge, and he'd disappeared into our memories.

      "How old is that guide book we're using", someone asked as we set out wearily to follow the old man's directions.

      "Hem, er hem, hem", said the Mighty Leader, looking nervously at the front of the book. "Can't tell. The print's too small", he continued, before changing the subject to disguise the fact that it appeared to be pre-war. The question as to which war was another interesting conundrum no-one dared to pose.

      Then there is Fred. Fred comes to represent the rebel. He never wears boots, only aged, leaking trainers, and he makes no concession to the walking fraternity by indulging in anoraks or anything pertaining to be reasonably waterproof. If you want an idea of his appearance, think Worzel Gummage. Negotiating large puddles and muddy stretches is usually achieved by making a frantic run and seemingly attempting to skim over the surface like a pond skater or, perhaps, Jesus. A variation on this is the high-stepping pointed toes ballet technique, also performed at high speed. His theory is that the faster you go the less chance the water has to reach your socks. However, from the limited view I've had of his socks, its a theory open to a bit of a rethink. His political views perfectly balance those of The Mighty Leader, being as far to the left as Harry's are to the right.

      Charlie is the scientist of the group and expert in bird recognition. The fact that he once mistook a Boeing 707 for a blackbird ("well, it was against the sun") is something he hopes to live down but, knowing the unforgiving nature of the rest of The DOGS, he never will. When we stop for lunch at a pub he sees it as his duty to put on as much weight as the walk may have worn off by ordering a slap up meal, disdaining the soup the rest of us restrict ourselves to and belching away happily through the rest of the walk. Together with Fred, he vies for a more elevated position in the hierarchy of the group. However, while Fred tries to achieve this by defeating the Mighty Leader in argument, Charlie does it by sucking up. With political views which veer alarmingly between ‘look after the poor’ and ‘castrate the bastards who drop litter’, it is a bit difficult to put a finger on where his true leanings are.

      Baahir is a recently retired surgeon. He's lived most of his life in this country but still retains a heavy Indian accent. He is a relative newcomer to the group and there is little to say about him yet, except that politically he's more in line with Fred. The Mighty Leader tends to treat him with more respect than the rest of us and I suspect this is because a. he was a surgeon (Harry places surgeons in the same category as anyone who's name is prefixed by 'Sir'), and b. he could be 'useful if someone has a heart attack on a walk'. The logic of this is a bit difficult to follow because he was a brain surgeon.

      Finally, there's me. I'm the Chronicler and my duty is to record each walk for posterity. I've told you about the group because, at some time in the future, I intend to talk about some of the walks. Bet you can't wait. For now though, it's over to gardening and the topic which most readily relates to DOGS in my mind is nuts.
Hazel nuts (Corylus avellana)
      I've nearly always been disappointed when I've collected nuts in the countryside ( and there are plenty around when you get your eye in) because I've taken them at the wrong time - too early and they are white and rubbery - too late and some turn to dust in the shell. The art is in getting there just as the leaves are beginning to turn and the nuts are ready to fall naturally. Even then it's not too easy because the earliest ones are often empty, probably due to poor pollination, and you're in competition with squirrels for the good ones. Avoid the temptation to pick them early with the intention of them ripening at home. In my experience, it doesn't work.

      Propagating them is easy and good fun: bung fresh nuts in a bucket of water and select the ones which sink. The floaters won't germinate, so leave them for the wildlife and put the sinkers in damp sand in a well-drained pot. Then leave them outside until they start to germinate, sending out white shoots around February, and plant in pots, ensuring that they don't dry out. They'll be ready to plant out when two years old. Mice love the nuts, so make sure they're protected in the early stages.

      Corylus avellana  makes a good hedge and the coppiced wood is used widely for fencing and woodland crafts, a more ornamental plant for the garden is the variety 'Contorta', a much smaller tree.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
      Commonly known as 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' or 'corkscrew hazel', this is a plant beloved by flower arrangers. In summer the contorted twigs aren't quite so appealing, because they tend to be hidden by the leaves, but in the winter they come into their own, especially frosted or against a clear sky.  Beware of water shoots though. These are vigorous, straight growths from below the graft and should be removed to the base as soon as you spot them. Leave them on and the plant will revert to the ordinary hazel.

      This strange plant arose in a hedgerow in Gloucestershire in the 1860's and a Canon Ellacome took a cutting and grew the tree on. All today's corkscrew hazels came from that one plant and apparently the original can still be seen in the garden of Myddelton House in Enfield, Middlesex, where a friend of the Canon, Edward Bowles lived. A section of the garden was given over to oddities and Bowles called the area 'The Lunatic Asylum'. The tree is a genetic mutation and how it came about is open to speculation. However the mutation does not carry through the seed, so the only way of propagating it is by layering or grafting.

      The sex life of the hazel is quite interesting and for more information on this go to.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Carrot fly problems

      Cats are hard to work out: I was in the Lake District last week, staying with a mate who has this murderous sod of a moggy which almost daily brings in corpses of field mice, voles, birds and (amazingly) bats.These are proudly presented on the bedroom floor, rendering a night time trip to the lavatory an unnerving experience when you don't know what your bare feet are going to encounter.

      I'd stroke Polly (my mate must have been expecting a parrot when she appeared on the doorstep) and she'd look away with disdain, giving the impression that she tolerated me because I'm bigger than her but if I wasn't I'd be on the bedroom carpet. Then one day I was reading  at the table, which is situated next to a window with a view of the garden, and she came and sat next to my book, gazing out. Her object, I assumed, was to see what potential murder victims were around and I ignored her. This wasn't part of her plan, because her tail, which was occasionally swished in excitement as she spotted a blue tit, crept across the page I was reading, so that the words were partly blotted out. At first I took this to be an accident and I pushed the tail out of the way, wishing she'd mistake a blue tit for a vulture or something. There followed a bit of a stalemate while I continued reading, keeping the tail at bay with my hand, then she suddenly decided to lie down so that her head completely blotted out the page while she gazed at me in that inscrutable way cats have. Obviously a way to a cat's heart is to ignore it. She wanted my attention but there was no way she'd pay for it by giving any return of affection in the way a dog would I thought, as I gave her a quick stroke.

      Then the bugger licked my hand with a tongue like a nail file and I found myself reassessing my opinion of cats. She obviously reassessed me as well, because that night she appeared on my bed, first lying on top of me so that I couldn't move, then staking claim on the exact centre of the duvet and relegating me to a position of almost falling off the edge. This was all lovingly Disneyish but resulted in me not sleeping properly for the rest of the week, as I half expected a present of  mutilated wildlife making an appearance on my pillow.
Up the pole
      We are what we are. If we're a rat, for example, we find it hard that everyone hates us because we're just reacting to the world in the way our being dictates. I suppose it's fair enough to hate what we do - the inadvertently spreading diseases bit - but to hate us for what we are seems unfair, because we didn't choose to be born a rat. In any case, we're part of nature's recycling system, efficiently dealing with corpses and cleaning up. Same with snakes, I suppose: everyone has a downer on them, probably as a result of the unfair press the bible gives them. It's unreasonable to hate other living things even though, in some cases, we have to control them in our own interests. If you take their point of view, the biggest polluter and destroyer of the planet is mankind.

      And the other thing that cats, similarly trapped in a pre-determined lifestyle, do,  is crap in our new seed beds.

      A story I've told friends to the point of their rigid boredom is something a bloke told me at one of the big flower shows: we were discussing the way in which cats find the freshly broken earth of a seedbed an ideal place to perform their toilet.

      "The thing to do", he said with a wolfish grin, "is to blow a balloon up really hard - a beach ball is even better - then bury it just under the surface of freshly dug soil. When next door's moggy comes along and starts digging, his claws'll go through and cause it to go off like a landmine.  Admittedly", he added thoughtfully, "at this point the cat has a bowel movement, but it'll be the last one it does in your garden".

      Add a couple of r's and an o to cats and you have carrots.This leads me to say that cats aren't the only problem the gardener has to contend with: growing carrots would be pretty straightforward if it wasn't for the attentions of the dreaded carrot fly. This little beauty lays its eggs in the soil near carrots and the resulting maggots eat their way into the vegetable, causing irregular tunnels and rendering them worthless. One school of thought says that they rarely fly higher than 18 inches above the ground, so if you erect a barrier that high all around the carrots, the fly'll clear off onto next door's plot. However, I've spoken to people who grow carrots in tall barrels for show and they still have the problem, so the carrot fly doesn't read the right books. A more reliable method is to grow them between two taller crops, like beans or peas, which act as a much higher barrier.
Carrot fly damage on second from left
      Carrot fly is attracted to scent and the planting of onions immediately adjacent is said to confuse them with a contrasting smell. However this only works before the onions reach the bulb stage, so more effective methods are needed: a lot of scent is released when the gardener thins out the seedlings, so it follows that the thinner the sowing, the better. By watering the crop copiously immediately after thinning also helps, damping down the scent.

      Without wishing to labour the point, the more you know about a pest and its lifestyle, the more likely you are to find an effective way of dealing with it. For example, it's known that the first generation of carrot fly emerge from May to June, so by not sowing until the end of May or early June, these will be avoided, lessening the problem (there is another generation in August and September, so this isn't completely foolproof). A more reliable defence is to cover the seed sowing area with horticultural fleece. This has the added benefit of keeping the soil warm and encouraging growth.
      In the absence of all these methods, perhaps it's worth trying some of the varieties which claim some resistance to the fly, like 'Fly Away' and 'Resistafly' - seed catalogues will give other alternatives.

      Although we tend to think of carrots as an allotment crop, it's worth considering the advantage their attractive foliage offers. Sown in containers, they can give a long season of ornamental value before being introduced to the kitchen. I often grow them as a decoration next to the front door, although they never reach the size attained in the space of a proper bed. Nontheless you can get a couple of meals out of them and anything you've grown yourself can be guaranteed to taste better than the bought equivalent.
Attractive foliage