Saturday, 26 January 2013

Water Lilies

Lilies and Bikes
A friend told me an unfortunate story the other day: his wife had suggested they go for a walk, as the weather was nice. However, he'd got a bad knee and didn't fancy that but suggested a bike ride instead. I didn't quite follow the logic of this, because I'd have thought knees are exercised pretty vigorously on a bike. Be that as it may, the conversation continued along the lines of:

"I'm not that good on a bike. Still a bit wobbly."

"Well, the way to improve is through practice. Tell you what - we'll go along the canal bank."

Now, it may only be me, but it seemed that this conversation was moving in the same way as the build up to  Towering Inferno or Titanic and you couldn't expect a big prize for guessing the ending.

"Alright then," she said dubiously, "I'll follow you".

So they set off and for some time all was well. Then my mate, who is a keen birder, suddenly stopped and pointed across the canal.

"Buzzard", he said.

His wife, more intent of staying upright, forgot where the brake was and ran into the back of him. Then, in his     words: 'unable to free her feet from the pedal clips, she wobbled towards the canal in slow motion. It was almost artistic, like a scene from a David Lean film'- at this point his eyes glazed with the memory - 'then she careened over the edge, at one with the bike. The water closed over them and I stared in dismay. A good few seconds later, the now still surface was broken as the bike slowly rose, held in white knuckled hands and bringing to mind the presentation of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake.'

"Thank God," he said in relief, "that's a new bike".

When the Lady of the Lake eventually emerged, the poetry of the situation dissolved somewhat:

"Well", she said through clenched teeth,  dripping mud and frog spawn and squinting through a curtain of bedraggled hair, "the next time you see a bastard, you don't need to stop, because  I don't give a shit".

"Buzzard", he corrected miserably, but under his breath. In these situations you need to know when to stop.

His wife's name isn't Lily but it was her situation that led me to think of how we can easily overdo the planting of our ponds. If you are keen on wildlife it is sometimes a temptation to go overboard with native plants, following the line of thought that these will be a greater attraction to other forms of life. In this case though, it may not be a good idea unless you've got a sizeable pond: the white flowered Nymphae alba has big leaves that spread to about six feet and end up forcing each other into a jumble which completely hides the surface of the water. When flowers appear, they are often lost in the mass of greenery. Similarly the yellow flowered Nuphar lutea has even larger leaves and needs plenty of space. Its common name is brandy bottle, because the seed head looks like the old fashioned containers. Another native, Nymphoides peltata, the fringed water-lily, has small leaves and yellow flowers, making it more suitable for a small pond. It has a tendency to spread but is easy to thin out. With much the appearance of a water lily, it is botanically classed differently.

Nuphar lutea (brandy bottle) - flower

Nuphar lutea (seed head)

If you have a large pond, the world is your oyster, choice wise. However, many varieties share the size problems of the natives, so it pays to do a bit of research: dwarf varieties make it possible to grow water-lilies in the smallest of situations, such as half-barrels. Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Helvola' is a good example. With yellow flowers, its spread is around a foot to eighteen inches,dimensions it shares with a number of other varieties.

Display of water lilies at Bodnant Gardens

Another important consideration when planting water lilies is the depth of the pond. Some of the larger forms will only thrive in two or three feet, whereas smaller forms require considerably less. The depth should be increased once the plant is established, so that it is receiving optimum light in the earlier stages of growth. This is best done by standing the basket on bricks and gradually removing them until the optimum water covering is achieved. Plant labels are now informative enough to outline the specific depth required and the ultimate size of the variety chosen.

Lilies not only add to the aesthetics of a pond, they restrict light to the area underneath and algi, the stuff that causes cloudiness, needs light to thrive. This is not the complete answer to algi - only a component, so we'll have a look at supporting remedies in a later blog. At the same time, I'll update you on my mate's marriage.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Deadly Nightshade

Dangerous Spuds

      Years ago, my wife and I went to see a film called Black Christmas - the 1974 version. I think she was under the impression that it was one of these sweet Santa films the Hollywood studios produce three of before breakfast, like Ernie Wise's plays. However, it turned out to be about a nutter living in the attic of a sorority house. From what I recall, he kept sneaking down, bumping girls off and storing the bodies, wrapped in cling film, in the attic. Where anyone with a single brain cell would have burned rubber in the direction of, well, anywhere but the sorority house, the girls stayed there and waited their turn. Otherwise the film would have been too short. Anyway, my point is that it was pretty scarey.

      When we got home, my wife went in first while I put the car away. She hid behind the door then jumped out and said boo! as I came in. In terms of the Richter scale, the boo was pretty low down. Relate it to the film we'd just seen though, and you can see why it resulted in her scraping me off the ceiling. Later on, I was still thirsting for revenge and, as she was changing in the bedroom, stood on the lavatory seat and peeped over the door, looking along the landing and waiting for her to appear. She didn't, so I then tried a long drawn out wail and this resulted in her coming out, giggling nervously. As moving  towards me, she pushed doors open vigorously, checking each room. The 'vigorously' bit should have struck a warning with me, but it didn't and I waited, anticipating the shock I'd give her. When she got to the bathroom she paused,  'tee hee'd' girlishly, then gave the door a shove powerful enough to start an overweight Olympic bob-sleigh team. It hit me full on the chin and my foot slipped down the lavatory, causing my ankle to twist excruciatingly as I crashed down. Everything went black and for a moment I thought I'd gone round the u bend. However, it was just my loving wife looming over me.  Then she did that convulsion thing for a while, before going to get the Elastoplast for my chin. I still haven't got her back for that.

      All this set me thinking about how I'd murder someone. I wouldn't use the sorority bloke's methods - couldn't afford the Clingfilm. I'd go for something more subtle, like poisoning.

Woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) flowers

Woody nightshade fruit

      Deadly nightshade would probably be the first thing to come to most peoples' mind. The Latin name is Atropa belladonna and the 'belladonna' bit, meaning 'beautiful lady', comes from the fact that Italian women used to drip the juice into their eyes. It enlarged the pupils and improved their looks much more cheaply than a face lift. Perhaps some of these celebrities whose dimple in the chin used to be their belly button would do well to take note. Apparently, opthalmologists still use the same substance, atropine, to dilate the pupil and facilitate easier examination of the eye. The wise women of villages would make an ointment from the plant, rubbing it into their bodies in order to give them a feeling of flying. The wise women were witches, and I suppose this was a sort of L.S.D on broomsticks.

      Deadly nightshade is in the family Solanaceae and most relatives share its poisonous properties: woody nightshade, shown in the pictures, is a common hedgerow wildflower; potato, the humble spud, produces poison in the form of solanine if allowed too much light, causing it to go green, and it seems that all parts of the tomato, apart from the fruit itself, are poisonous.

      All of which leaves me wondering who found out? Perhaps if you came across a new vegetable or fruit that looked attractive, it would be the thing to bake it into a cake and give it to someone you didn't like, just to test it. That way, you either make a friend or get rid of one. It's the ultimate win-win situation..

      Anyway, if my wife reads this, I'd like her to know I'm still going to get her back for that lavatory thing.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Moving angelica

Question about angelica.

I've been asked by a lady called Jan whether it is possible to move a mature angelica plant to another situation.

There are a few species of Angelica and I'm assuming the one she refers to is that most commonly seen: A.archangelica. This is short lived  and dies after flowering. However it will happily self-seed and the new plant popping up in the position of the old one often gives the impression of longevity. There are numerous legends about the plant, one being that an angel appeared to a monk in a dream and informed him that the angelica was a cure for the plague - hence the name. In view of the fact that estimations of plague deaths are sometimes as high as 60 percent of Europe's population, two things strike me: a. the dream must have happened pretty late on, or b. the angel was having him on.

It is probably feasible to move the mature plant but it has a deep tap root necessary for supporting a potential height of up to six feet and so needs to be moved with as little damage as possible. The general feeling is that this is a poor bet, so I would be more in favour of sowing fresh seed (they are only viable for about 3 months), in early autumn and planting out the following spring. Apparently, better germination is attained by subjecting the seed to light, so there is no need to cover it. However, another recommended method of sowing is to place seeds in slightly damp perlite in a plastic bag in the fridge, planting out when they start to germinate. The light in my fridge goes out when the door is shut (I'm told), so this seems a bit at odds with the first method, but both seem to work, so take your choice. Thinking about it, the fridge method is recommended for seeds getting towards the end of the three month viability period, so perhaps they get the light requirement before being sown.

For planting out, a deep, fertile soil is advisable, echoing that of Angelica's    native woodland habitat. For the same reason, the plant will be happy in relatively shaded situations.

A final word of caution: don't mistake Angelica for the taller (10ft plus) giant hogweed, which looks similar but has juice which can cause severe blisters after the skin is exposed to sunlight. While Angelica can be eaten like celery, candied for cake decoration, or added to jams, God knows what the effect of doing this with giant hogweed would be.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) in winter

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Hard Pruning Ornamentals

Flashy Gardening

      My wife and I went to a fancy dress party one new years eve many years ago. I had agonised what to go as and had finally settled on a flasher. Inspiration for this had come from an incident that had happened at work: I was a park gardener and we had recently experienced a number of reports of a man jumping out of the shrubbery and exposing himself to women. Two of the parks managers had resolved to put an end to this by catching the bloke, so they hid in the bushes close to his favourite venue, with the intention of grabbing him if he made an appearance.

      Unfortunately for them, the gardening staff were disgruntled with some recent management decisions, so someone phoned the police and reported the fact that two men were lurking in the bushes. The police - well aware of the flasher problem - responded with alacrity. The two bosses were crept up on, unceremoniously hauled out and caused to produce a red faced explanation. In the meantime, the flasher presumably covered his assets and sneaked off to pastures new, while the park  staff prepared to dine out on this delicacy for the rest of their careers.

Flasher deterrent (Rosa omeiensis pteracantha)

      Shrubs differ from trees only in that they tend to have multiple stems, so many of them can get pretty big, affording a flasher plenty of privacy. One way round this is to use plants which tolerate hard cutting-back annually. The smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is an example: cut back in March, it will produce much bigger leaves and better autumn colour. On the down side, this treatment means that the plant will not produce the flowers which give the 'smoke' aspect of its name, but you can't win 'em all. Stag's horn sumach and some of the coloured elderberries can also be treated in this way. Eucalyptus gunnii is yet another example - leave it untouched and the attractive blue juvenile foliage is replaced by elongated green leaves supported usually on a spindly trunk. In my experience, a cut-back every third year is ideal but that varies with the growing propensity of your soil.

Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame'

      A winter display of stem colour is another feature much improved by hard cutting-back (see the blog 'winter interest in the garden'), dogwoods and willows lending themselves particularly well to this. Only the new first year growth is coloured, so if you don't prune them they become far less attractive. Dogwoods (Cornus species) are so called because butchers used to make skewers from the hard wood of our native Cornus sanguinea, and these they called 'dogs' (file this under 'really useful information'). For attractive willow stems try Salix alba 'Britzensis' (orange), S.acutifolia (purple) or S.'chermesina (red). Of the dogwoods, Cornus 'Winter Flame' (see picture), C. 'Flaviramea' (Yellow) and C.alba 'Sibirica' (red) are some of the best in a wide selection.

Cornus alba berries (alba means 'white', referring to the berries)

      For a plant to make growth, it takes structure and nutrients from the soil, so, to make up this loss, always add a top dressing of well-rotted compost and handful of blood, fish and bone after pruning.

      Anyway, getting back to the fancy dress party: dressed in a dirty mac (which gave me the option of converting to Columbo, should the need arise), I rang the doorbell at the party house.Then, encouraged by my wife, dramatically threw my coat open to display my whispy swimming- trunk- clad body, as the door opened. This may have been jocularly received, had it been the right house. However, the stoney-faced lady who opened it simply stared at me for a moment before pointing down the street, uttering 'next door but one' and slamming the door. At this point my wife seemed to be having some sort of convulsion. It's a problem she has - a cross between shaking and crying. Anyway we hurried off to the right house and I joined about ten other original thinkers who had also turned up as flashers. So I became Columbo.