Saturday, 23 March 2013

Sink Gardens

Mad Max and a Sinking Feeling
Sink Garden at Harlow Carr
I've talked about Max before (see here ), but he merits more than those few lines, so here's a bit more about an amazing fisherman:  

Following a particularly cold spell which had lasted for weeks, Max rang and suggested that we try a new venue for fishing – a large stretch of water in Cheshire called Lymm Dam. Melt water would be causing the River Dane (our common haunt) to flood and it would probably be unfishable, whereas at the dam they would be virtually queueing up to be caught (Max’s perspective, not mine). Partly in response to his enthusiasm, but mainly due to my innate masochism, I agreed.

       The water was a dirty brown, obviously a result of flood water flowing in, and it was freezing cold. All the ingredients of a classic day out with the man. I had set up my tackle and was about to bait up when I heard Max curse. It may have been in Italian, but it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

     “Forgot me glasses”, he said, “can I borrow yours?” I wandered over and handed them to him, half thinking they wouldn’t suit his eyes.
      “Perfect”, he said, with the shoelace I’ve got them tied to draped over his nose, giving the appearance of a Charlie Chan moustache.
      I settled down to fish, hoping the luncheon meat I’d fumbled short-sightedly with was going to stay on the line. It had been difficult getting the hook into it, because I’d had the meat in the freezer, and it seems thawing out is a lengthy process with Spam. I half thought of bunging a stick in and offering it as a lolly, but research into piscatorial appreciation of lollies is pretty thin on the ground, so I stayed with tried and tested techniques.
      “Sheet” (it always amazed me how he managed to imbue this single excretal word with an Italian accent)
      “What now”, I queried.
      “Forgot me luncheon meat”. I trailed across to him with some frozen offerings, then returned to my spot on the bank. I fished peacefully for a few minutes until the next ejaculation (and before you get too excited – ‘ejaculation’ isn’t always to do with sex):
      “Forgot me coffee”. As was expected of me, I dutifully plodded across with my flask. Unkind thoughts were beginning to pass through my mind: If his next offer was to be “I’ve forgotten me butties”, the bugger could starve – there was no way he was getting his molars into mine. My butties are always the highlight of my fishing day. I always do nice ones, because they make up for the boredom endured in not catching anything.
Sempervivum in pot. Can make huge coloured ball in hanging basket

      Max soon got fed up with the luncheon meat approach and started using a technique called ‘spinning’. This involves using an artificial lure (a piece of metal which is cunningly disguised to look like, er, an artificial lure) which you cast as far as you can and slowly reel it back. As far as I know, no one in history has ever caught anything using one of these things.
      “The pikes will go for this”, he informed me, with the same confidence that Mussolini displayed when he led Italy into the Second World War:  “the conditions are perfect”. As it turned out, no one had informed ‘the pikes’ of this and the lure was to retain its solitary state on the end of the line.
      At this point the bailiff turned up and asked to see my membership card. He informed me that we had surprised him, as we were the first people to fish since before Christmas, due to the water having remained frozen for so long and followed by the subsequent floods which had coloured it dark brown. He was looking at me rather pityingly as he said this, and a glance around the fisherman-free banks gave some indication of what he was thinking.
      While we were talking, I was vaguely aware of an Italianate figure in the background making ready to perform a mammoth cast: the rod was held over his shoulder, his whole body bending backwards, then, like a spring, he suddenly uncoiled, lashing it forward to unleash the spinner. For a moment he stood expectantly looking into the distance, anticipating where it would enter the water. Unfortunately he had let go too soon and the spinner moved vertically upwards for an impressive distance, earning an indignant look from a passing seagull, before descending and bouncing off his head into the water at his feet.
      The bailiff noticed my diverted attention and turned to witness the last part of this performance. He went fairly soon after that. I don’t think he even bothered asking Max for his membership card, which was probably fortuitous because he’d no doubt forgotten to bring it.
      Lash Laroo. That’s who Max reminded me of when he was casting a spinner. You may not remember Lash, but he was one of my film star favourites in the ‘50’s, alongside Roy Rodgers and Kit Carson. He had an eighteen foot bullwhip which was used to flick the guns out of the hands of baddies. Luckily the baddies always stood close enough and sideways on, although these trifling facts didn’t impinge on my appreciation of his skill. When film makers get on to a successful format, like the western, they strive to keep the genre alive by imbuing successive heroes with characteristics contrasting to their competitors. For example, detectives have Columbo, with his appearance of being a simpleton in a scruffy raincoat; Miss Marple, who is a woman; Kojak – bald lollipop lover; that bloke who has obsessive compulsive disorder (I forget his name), and so on. With cowboys it was Roy Rodgers in his pearly king get-ups and occasionally bursting into song: the Lone Ranger, wearing a mask and always accompanied by Tonto (which means that he wasn’t ‘Lone’ – an important point most people miss); Hopalong Cassidy – started with a limp because he’d been shot in the leg, but he subsequently kept forgetting (like Paul in Neighbours); Yul Brynner – bald; and, of course, Lash. Anyway, I reckon Max and his demon casting may be harmless where fish are concerned, but confront him with a baddy waving a gun and it’d be a different matter.
Slate Garden at Harlow Carr

            Max and cowboys bring to mind his appearance at the house of mutual friends for a barbecue. He had visited a ranch in Montana earlier in the year, ostensibly to meet his son and partner at the ranch house of the girl’s parents. The ‘ostensible’ bit was motivated by his overpowering desire to explore the river which ran through the property and, according to reports, was overpopulated with ‘three foot trouts’. Max has a thing about fish overpopulation and sees it as his duty to rectify any such imbalance in fish numbers. On returning home, his account of fishing expeditions seemed suspiciously lacking in detail, leading me to think that the overpopulation problem had proved impervious to his attempts to rectify it. However, the point was that he turned up at the barbecue wearing a white Stetson hat and flourishing a lasso. Apparently he had been tutored in the art of lassoing and was more than willing to give the assembled drunkards a demonstration. Actually there was no human way of stopping him. There seems to be a bit of a dearth of cattle herds in Timperley so, in the absence of a running steer, he chose to use a garden chair as his potential captive. This he approached stealthily, waving the lasso round his head, knocking his hat off, and creating a giant halo before unleashing it in the direction of the chair. In spite of the fact that the loop of the  lariat (technical term) appeared to have undergone some sort of stiffening process similar to that used in the Indian rope trick, or immersion in a solution of  Viagra, it was only on the sixth attempt that the chair was encircled and dragged struggling to the ground. His earlier attempts were reminiscent of the technique used by Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, but the successful one involved standing four feet from the chair and throwing the rope in the manner of a hoopla player. This seemed to me a bit like bowling underarm in a test match but Max was obviously pleased, so we all cheered and hoped to God he never got tuition in the use of a six-gun.

Cowboys always remind me of The Rockies and the word 'Rockies' metamorphoses, in my gardening mind, to 'rockeries'. People forget that a rockery is an attempt to copy nature in the form of a mountain, and that mountains are a mass of stone covered with a bit of soil, so they create the opposite: a pile of soil with a few miscellaneous types of stone bunged in. The finished product ends up more like a plum pudding than the Matterhorn. And a rockery can be as small as you like, because the plants which inhabit mountains are often tiny and sometimes minute, making it possible to create a miniature garden with them. I've seen a twelve inch clay pot with an arrangement of tufa (a lightweight form of limestone) where the crevices have been planted with species of Androsace, Saxifraga, Thlaspi, Draba and others to make a total of seventeen plants - a number that some people don't manage with forty square foot of garden. Tremendous fun can achieved from this type of gardening, often leading to an infatuation with alpines.

Old sinks can be made into striking miniature gardens. Obviously a white, shiny ceramic finish doesn't give the natural look, so this can be remedied by roughening it using an electric drill and masonry bit, coating it with Unibond and applying a covering of hypertufa (a mixture made of 1part cement, 1part sand and 2parts of peat substitute like cocofibre). When it's dry (it can take a couple of weeks), paint milk onto it as this, together with the peat substitute, encourages the growth of mosses and lichens to give that really natural effect. Fill the sink with a freely drained compost consisting of standard potting mixture with about a third of quarter inch grit, copying the natural habitat of the plants going into it. Stand it on bricks and place broken crocks around the plug hole to enable any excess water to escape.

A bit of imagination can lead to the creation of other planting environments which occupy the smallest of spaces: walls of tufa or slate can be ideal for plants originating in stark, rocky environments.

A final word on sinks: I once ran a 'Rockery and Ponds' class at Parrs Wood Rural Studies Centre and we created a wonderful sink garden under a poly tunnel. When it was planted up and finished, we tried to move it. Bad idea. A cinema has been built over the site now and I swear there's a bulge in the floor exactly where our sink was planted up. The obvious message in this is to plant up your sink where you intend to display it, unless you're in the market for a hernia. And don't forget to take the plug out.
A feature from a broken pot

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