Saturday, 27 April 2013

Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant)


Umbrella plant stems
We should have known as soon as the landlord asked whether we were sure we wanted  pints. No publican in his right mind is going to minimise a sale if he can, so there had to be a good reason. However, we weren't kids - we could hold a few pints without becoming a problem to anyone. So we were adamant: a pint each of the special brew if you don't mind, landlord. And from here it developed to three pints before we stood up  to go.

Tony and I had recently taken up cycling. A couple of weeks previously we had ridden, with his teenage son,   to a pub in the Cheshire countryside. It had been enjoyable, the only questionable incident occurring when I had spotted a heron next to a garden pond and pulled the party to a rapid stop.

"Look", I said. bending to peer through a gap in the hedge, "that's a heron. Tremendous fishermen, herons. See how perfectly still he is - until he strikes". The three of us squinted through the hedge for a couple of minutes, while I impressed them with my ornithological expertise. Until then Mark, the teenage son, had been under the impression that ornithology was something to do with the male sex drive, and the teacher within me  wanted to broaden his horizons. Tony was nodding sagely when Mark burst the bubble with typical teenage cynicism:

"You daft buggers - it's plastic! - to scare away the real ones".

I smiled my 'you've spotted the deliberate mistake' smile and we rode on to the accompaniment of sarcastic teenage comments along the lines of the heron 'obviously being on the look-out for plastic koi carp' and 'amazing how still he can stand', while I considered ways of limiting our next ride to the more mature among us. It was around then that I began to develop my theory of the application of cryogenics to teenagers - freeze the buggers at thirteen and thaw 'em out at twenty one, when there may be a chance of there being the odd occasion when their parents know better than them.

And that's how this situation worked out - just Tony and myself.

The special brew didn't have any noticable effect until we stepped outside The Eagle in Lymm. At this point it made up for lost time. I remember looking at the road and marvelling at its fluidity - like an earthquake without the cracks. Tony was going through a similar experience but it was only when he rode his bike into a lamp post that we realised the questionable nature of going back along the main road. The mobility of that lamp post reminded me of the stories of car insurance claims where 'the tree jumped out and hit me' and seemed to give them some credence. It was then that we decided it'd be wiser to ride home along the canal bank. It seems that Wisdom, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Bridgewater canal is a sort of storage depot for shopping trolleys and dead dogs. I don't know what the statistics are for dogs dying in the Altrincham area but I do know where they end up, so the lure of a swim was not great. For this reason we amazingly managed not to fall in, which is not to say we didn't fall off, but we restricted ourselves to the brambles on the side of the towpath away from the water. Our progress was very slow and the brambles ensured that it was fairly bloody but eventually we left the canal and drew close to our house at about two o'clock in the morning.

"You'd better come in and have a coffee", I said, "it'll sober you up a bit for the extra ride. He had a further three miles to go.

We got to the front door and I fumbled for my keys. They weren't there. I have a history with keys. The people at work bought me a six inch key fob with the inscription 'only an idiot could lose me' and, when that didn't work, one that answered a whistle. Then they gave up. On this occasion I remembered that I'd left them in my other trousers - locked in the house. This left me in a bit of a quandry because my wife isn't keen on being woken up, especially at two oclock in the morning.

"Don't worry Tone", I said, "leave it with me, everything's under control" - a phrase that has been known to raise fear in the hearts of the bravest - and we crept off into the back garden. When I looked up at the bedroom window the light was out but the vent window was open. "Just as I thought", I said, "easy peesy ".

There's a single story extension on the rear of our house and our bedroom window looks onto its flat roof. Tony gave me a leg up and, in no time, I'd climbed up, then  proceeded to go through the little window at the top. I had to go head first, putting my head on one side to get it through.. It was a tight fit but I reckoned that I could put my hands on the window ledge and ease myself down without waking my wife. I was halfway through this procedure, when the phone rang downstairs.

I could see my wife lying on the bed about three feet away. When the phone rang, she suddenly sat up straight and rigid, the way a zombie in a horror film does it. I'm not sure whether her eyes were open but she swung her legs out of bed and walked towards the door in a trance-like state. At one point her face was only two feet away from mine as I hung upside down from the top of the window. I was about to say a breezy "hi", or "surprise, surprise", but neither seemed to really fit. In fact I couldn't think of a precedent for this particular situation that wouldn't result in her hitting the ceiling, so I just hung around until she'd gone. A few seconds later I heard her answer the phone. It was Jacqui, Tony's wife, ringing to see if we'd arrived home. At this point I fell into the bedroom, nearly castrating myself on that bit of metal that sticks up for hooking the window open. Then I whispered (a few decibels higher than my usual whisper) back to Tony, telling him his better half was on the phone and that he should go and ring the doorbell while my wife was downstairs. As I got to the bottom of the stairs, she was opening the door in answer to Tony's ring.

Tony is a man of words - never lost for them. However, confronted by my wife's indignant fury, he failed dismally. He told me afterwards that he'd been rehearsing all the reasonable, intelligent reasons for arriving on the doorstep at two in the morning, but when my face appeared over my wife's shoulder he froze. All he could think of to say was "tee-hee, you'll never guess who's behind you".  So much for the great intellectual.

She turned and just looked at me for a good few seconds. If this were a bible story, I'd be a pillar of salt or something, then she simply pushed past me muttering something in a hollow voice about Jacqui wanting Tony on the phone, and went back to bed.
Trim to fit container

And all this talk about the canal brings water to mind, together with a plant called Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant). It's a popular house plant here but its native African habitat is the banks of slow moving rivers and lakes. Its stems reach optimum height, then  the weight of the leaves causes them to bend, so that the foliage makes contact with the surface of the water. At this point, new roots are formed, sending up a further stem which repeats the process. In this way it forms rafts over large tracts of water.
Place in water
Roots begin to grow

The useful part in knowing this is that it tips us off on how to propagate it. Simply cut off a stem top and immerse it in a jam-jar of water in a reasonably warm room and it will quickly begin to perform, leaving you with another pot plant. If armed with the knowledge of its background, growing it on is a matter of common sense: simply pot it up and stand it permanently in a saucer or ceramic container of water. Those puny twelve inch  examples of it often to be seen on people's sideboards are usually due to the fact that they are kept in dry conditions.

People grow Cyperus in pond margins with great success but it has to be born in mind that they are not fully hardy and extreme weather conditions can kill them. The best thing is to bring them into shelter during the winter. Having said this, a friend of mine has grown his outside for years and it seems to thrive, so I suppose as each garden has its own microclimate, so you may just get away with it.

New stems emerge
Its actually possible to be too successful in getting growing conditions just right, because a well-grown plant can reach six foot in height. this means you may have to raise the ceiling or have an exceptionally low sideboard. Its other common name is umbrella papyrus which refers to the fact it is related to Cyperus papyrus, the plant used by the Egyptians to make papyrus, the forerunner of paper, as far back as the third millenium BC. And on that extremely useful note, I'm going to do a bit of gardening.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Plants up posts

The Post
  Sweet pea pole
They call it goosewinging. The front sail blowing to one side of the mast and the mainsail to the other, effectively blocking the view ahead. I think it's a symptom of the wind coming from directly behind.

Anyway, that was what was happening as we skimmed over one of the Norfolk Broads in an engine-less yatch. The water was made choppy by the life-giving wind and the sun reflected in staccato bursts of brilliance. A cloud in the shape of a galleon mirrored the yacht across the sky, puffs of cumulus representing the activity of its guns.

I was sitting at the front, enjoying the way the boat sliced silently through the water, leaving no bow wave - a contrast with the floating bath-tubs which predominate in that part of the world: they chug along,  filled with tellies and kitchen sinks, displacing so much water that the wave they creates damages banking and wildlife alike.

I glanced up at the sky. The galleon was beginning to break up. Its bowsprit and front sail had become detatched, moving slowly away from the larger bulk with a fatalistic serenity.

Across the dazzling surface of he water, something caught my eye. Black and finger-like it pierced the silver, leaning slightly in mid-beckon. It was the only break in the surface of the massive stretch of water and we seemed to be heading straight for it.

"We're on line to hit something", I called to my wife and Charlie Gee, who were talking in the well of the boat, but the screening effect of the goosewinging sails stopped them hearing.

This was way back in the seventies and Charlie Gee was the original hippy. For the period of the holiday, he had left his Mum to look after his greenhouse, under the fond impression that he had found a respectable interest. Sadly, the 'Australian Mint' she was so dilligently watering was in fact his cannabis crop.  He first earned my respect by sailing full tilt down the River Bure in Yarmouth and attempting to navigate the low railway bridge with the mast up. The attempt was unsuccessful. The top of the mast broke off and hit Charlie on the head on the way down, knocking him senseless. I can't remember the details but it was something to do with the tide. When it was ebbing a tremendous current was created and plenty of people had been caught in the same way. It collected notches like Billy the Kid's gun. His idea had been to approach the bridge at speed, lowering the mast, with the aid of his carefully trained crew, at the last minute. There was an element of disaster in the air. A man walking his dog past us along the bank stopped to watch and I had the distinct impression that the birds had stopped singing.

"Prepare to lower", shouted Charlie.  His long blond hair streamed out on the wind and, with his beard, he looked every inch the captain.

"Er, which rope was it again", came a query from the carefully trained crew.

The one next to your hand you pillock, unhook it and lower the mast".

The man and his dog had been joined by a jogger who had also sensed impending disaster. The dog was capitalising on the moment by cocking his leg against the man's track suit leg, presumably under the impression that it was a striped lamp post.

By the time the carefully trained crew had remembered how to lower a mast, there wasn't one left to lower and the skipper was communing with a galaxy of stars.

I was remembering this now as I uneasily strained to make out what it was we were heading towards. Overhead, the galleon now sported a gaping hole through the lower decks.

"Post", I shouted, as it became clearer, directly in our line of travel. It was no use though, they were singing 'Leaving on a Jet Plane, which was popular in folk clubs at the time.

As a cloud fleeted in front of the sun, the water assumed a blackness. The mainsail of the galleon had disappeared and only a battered hulk continued its voyage across the sky.

The post, larger now, was still directly ahead.

"Post", I bellowed, urgently.

"Toast?", came the reply, "not on this cooker, mate".

Dead ahead loomed the post. Old, adorned with large rusty bolts, and close.

"Post! Watch the bloody post!"

It was too late. Only four feet to go. Three, two, one.......

Instinctively I jumped. Not outwards, but up, perhaps with some forlorn notion of being in the air when impact took place. My head was flung back and in an airborn fraction of a second, eye signalled to brain that the galleon was gone.

We reckoned later that a couple of inches either way and the speeding yacht would have stove in her boards and sunk. As it was, she hit the post absolutely head on, distributing the impact equally throughout the structure and coming to a dead, shuddering, stop. The folk singers in the well weren't quite so lucky. 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' was quite appropriate in a way, because when the boat stopped, they didn't. Somehow they crashed two abreast through the closed doors of the cabin which were normally only wide enough for one. Charlie was brought to a rib-jerking halt by the edge of the table, while my wife shot horizontally across its smooth surface, only stopping when she hit the bulkhead at the far end. Thankfully, she didn't damage it.

And of course, my gardening subject is 'posts'.
Rose pyramid
Something  often not recognized is the need to provide height in the garden: a plot can appear perfect in that colours are carefully chosen, weeds have been banished, the lawn is neatly edged and all the plants are healthy. However, something is missing. Everything is down at the same level. Even a display of bedding plants needs something  taller to give it that extra interest - a castor oil (Ricinus) plant or Koschia will do the trick here but in the garden proper something bigger is needed. If there are trees, they answer the problem but, in their absence, a post can do very well thank you. It can be quite a workmanlike structure as well: I once had a couple of posts supporting cordon apples and they weren't aesthetic, to say the least. This was overcome by tying garden string from the tops to the bottom, forming a sort of wigwam, then planting sweet peas to grow up them. In this way an eyesore was made into a feature and this is a gardening philosophy well worth bearing in mind - see something ugly in the garden and find a way of beautifying it - there is usually a way. A dead tree can also be a boon if the trunk is left standing as a support for climbers.
Patio Clematis
Begonia pyramid at Wisley
Some roses and clematis are ideal plants for growing up posts but bear in mind that clematis climb using tendrils, so need something like plastic netting to hold on to. Equally, rambler roses need tying up for support. Roses recommended for this include Dream Weaver, Mlle Cecille Brunner, Altissimo, Paprika, Sally Holmes and Royal Sunset. The choice of Clematis is large but go for the less vigorous varieties. There are even patio varieties now which grow no higher than four foot. For the more ambitious, bedding plants like Begonia are now used to give height when grown on tall pyramids.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Scale In The Garden


The illusionist can make this village....

......give the wrong impression

I don't know how babysitting is arranged now, but back in the '70's we were in a circle whereby a group of you were involved in taking turns to look after each others kids while the parents had an evening out. It was about the time that a father's role was becoming more inclusive - the inception of 'the modern man' - and this meant that dads sometimes did the sitting. Whether this still happens, with the pedophile problem   casting a suspicious shadow over any bloke left alone with children, I don't know. However, this was then:

I was sick of my wife moaning that only women were expected to do the sitting, so when she mentioned that someone wanted a sitter and didn't mind a bloke doing it, I was willing. After all, as I kept telling her, 'there's nothing to it. Just a matter of  sitting there reading or watching telly and eating the nice supper they leave out for you. Most of the time you never even see the kids. They're  upstairs, tucked up in bed'.

The children involved on this occasion were two little girls aged about four and six. As expected, they were already in bed when I got there, and I settled down in front of the telly for a restful, food laden evening (they'd even left a can of beer). All went well for about and hour and then I nearly had a heart attack when a small voice piped up at my elbow.

"My sister's been sick", said the voice, which belonged to the older of the two. My stomach sank.
"Oh dear", I said, "you'd better show me where she is". So I was shown up to the bedroom where the four year old sat mournfully surveying the horrendous mess on her sheets. At this point the rosy picture I had of baby sitting began to get a bit misty. I took the bed covers, swilled them off as best I could and searched, with the aid of the older sister, until I found some clean stuff which I used to remake the bed.

'Right', I thought with satisfaction, 'tuck them in, then back to the telly. 'Carnal Knowledge', with Art Garfunkel, was due to start. However this was not to be, because the spokesperson spoke up again:
"My sister thinks she would be better off downstairs with you", she said. I was impressed with this information because not a word had passed between the two, leading to the impression that thought transference was taking place.

"I don't think...." I started to say, then the four year old's face started to pucker in what I later diagnosed as a carefully choreographed  part of an impressive con, and I hastily backtracked. "Alright, I said reluctantly, "come on". And I sat in the middle of the settee, a four year old on one side and her senior by two years on the other, watching 'Carnal Knowledge'. The propriety of this situation was becoming a question mark in my mind so, with a sigh, I switched it off. We gazed at the blank screen for a few seconds before the spokesperson made one of her rare but invariably meaningful comments:

"My sister can do projectile vomitin' ", she said.

"Ah", I said, nodding sagely and still looking mournfully at the screen, "that's interesting".

Unfortunately the younger one must have seen this as a signal for a demonstration of this enviable art: without  warning she suddenly disgorged a solid horizontal column of vomit halfway across the room, causing a piece of part -digested carrot to drip down where Art Garfunkel's prematurely balding head had occupied the screen only moments before.

"Christ!", I bellowed (earning a disapproving look from the spokesperson). In a panic, I grabbed the vomiter, holding her so that the puke gathered in a pool over her stomach. Then I carried her, using her body like a bowl to stop the stuff getting everywhere, rushed upstairs and plonked her in the bath. This turn of affairs didn't seem to be to her satisfaction and she began wailing.

"Told you", said her sister, gazing at her with some pride, "she can do projectile vomitin' ".

I was beginning to panic and did my John Cleese walk round the bathroom a couple of times before rushing headlong downstairs and ringing my wife.

"One of 'em's puked all over the bloody house", I bawled, "we're inches deep in it. What the hell do I do?".

There was a short silence, then: "Clean her up and put some clean clothes on her", she said in a maddeningly sensible voice.

"But I don't know where anything is and she might do it again".

"Well, I can't help from here, can I?", she said ,before adding maliciously "anyway, there's nothing to babysitting, is there? Look, I'm missing an interesting film on the telly. It's Art Garfunkel". And she put the phone down.

"My sister's upset", came the voice from my elbow as I gazed in speechless indignation at the telephone. I could tell that. Probably the whole street could tell. Apart from meriting  place in The Guinness Book of Records for the volume and distance of a single projectile vomit, the four year old had a pair of lungs to rival a football team of opera singers. I rushed back up the stairs, picked her up, tipped all the vomit out of her middle, then told her to wait while we hunted for clean pyjamas. The puke blocked the bath plughole and, by the time I'd cleared it, I was almost ready to make my own contribution.

Eventually we were back where we started, on the settee. The patient had been showered down and was now clad in clean clothes. She was clutching a large baking bowl intended for damage limitation in case of further demonstrations of her art. We were like this when Mum and Dad got home. Their entrance had coincided with the appearance on the screen of 'The Amityville Horror' as I'd flipped through programmes looking for something suitable for a four-year-old. Mum listened to my account of the evening's events thoughtfully, one disdainful eye on the television. I felt the need to point out that, for some reason, they don't put 'Watch With Mother' on at midnight, but in the end couldn't be bothered.

"Yes", said Mum, "I meant to mention the vomiting. She's been doing it a lot lately". I gaped at her. Unbe- sodding-lievable! By not telling me she'd treated me to an evening which had out - Amity'd Amityville and would live with me for the rest of my life.

"He said 'Christ!', mummy", said a small accusing voice by my elbow, then, to complete the broadside: "and 'bloody". That was when the Venus and Mars observation about men and women came to mind, because Mum looked thunderously ready to launch into an attack on my (highly justified, I felt) use of vocabulary, while Dad, lurking in the background, was definitely smirking.

And it was the scale of this event - one little girl erupting like Vesuvius- which naturally led me to think of the importance of scale in the garden. I've mentioned before that a damn big King Alfred daffodil on a two foot rockery would completely destroy the 'miniature mountain' aspect of the feature, and it's worth harping on about for a while. Determining the ultimate size and spread of a plant can make all the difference to its aesthetic effect on the garden. Obviously a large plant at the front of a border will destroy appreciation of a small one behind it in the same way that a giant redwood in a twenty foot plot may be a bit over- prominent, but there are a number of more subtle ways of influencing the way a garden is seen.

His lordship's drive
The good Gardener is an illusionist. He (she) makes you see what he or she wants, rather than what is actually there. In days of yore, when his lordship had a few thousand acres, he would plant a magnificent avenue of trees which seemed to gradually merge into the distance. More recently, when Fred Smith moved in next door, he hadn't got quite the same acreage to play with, so he cheated: he planted the trees closer together the further from the house they were, and gradually narrowed the drive until it reached the gate. Presumably he could further enhance the effect by walking in at the gate all hunched up, gradually straightening as he got closer to the house. While attempting this may seem a bit extreme, a similar effect can be created by drawing  borders together the further they are distanced from the main viewing point, which is usually the house. Even poaching someone else's feature is in the rule book: an interesting looking tree or shrub a few gardens away can be drawn  to the eye by dropping the height of your shrubbery or hedge at a strategic point.

Colour can also be a useful tool in helping to make a small garden appear bigger: with bright shades to the fore and more pastely ones to the rear, a feeling of greater depth is achieved.

Hiding an ugly feature beyond the end of your garden is something which is usually attempted by putting a tall barrier, like a leyland hedge along the edge of your property. However, the hedge itself can become a maintenance problem when it has to be very high to achieve this. A less obvious, though more effective, idea is to position a pergola  relatively close to the main viewing point so that its top structure and the plants it supports hide the unwanted view of the eyesore. At the same time, it frames the desired view of your garden. You are being an illusionist again, concentrating eye on what you want the audience to see. A similar effect could be achieved using a tree with its canopy trimmed at a height which enables it to works in the same way as the pergola.

As with most aspects of the garden, it pays to give plenty of thought to planning. Don't just bang features in -think. You want to be an illusionist, but it's best to avoid Tommy Cooper pitfalls. Remember how brilliant he seemed on the odd time that he got it right.

Just like that.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Heaths and Heathers

The Joys of Children and Camping
Nick with mud
Many years ago we took the kids camping. A friend had got us a cheap deal on a campsite owned by the travel firm she worked for. It was only for a long weekend but the children were really hyped up because they didn't often get the opportunity to stay in a tent. I hope they enjoyed it, as it was the last time they got the opportunity. With us, at least.

We had driven to Appleby, in Yorkshire, and had just reached the site when the car brakes began making a funny noise. Before we could go home we had to take it to a garage and the cost of repair well outstripped the saving we'd made on the campsite.  That was to set the scene for the rest of the weekend. Nothing went right.

After meandering around for some time in a city of tents and caravans, we found our allocated shelter. It wasn't my idea of a tent, which involves getting closer to nature, because it came about a near to that as a plastic flower.  More like a block of flats, this thing  had everything short of an upstairs. However, we unpacked and got things set up as we wanted them, before preparing lunch. Eventually we sat down to eat in the orange world of the 'dining area', which was open along the front so that we could enjoy the view. This enjoyable outlook consisted of the side on a large van with the words 'Simpson's Removals' visible through a thin covering coat of runny red paint. We were later to ascertain that 'Simpson's Removals' had been taken over by a rock band. or at least, that's what it sounded like from where we were.

Certain moments of my life remain vividly clear in my memory, like a mammoth frozen in an iceberg. One such moment occurred just as I was raising a first forkfull of Cumberland sausage to my mouth. I can see it now, in slow motion: the sausage coming towards me, Laura (daughter) chattering, then WHAM! An earth-shattering row was suddenly upon us, a screaming, roaring inferno of sound which caused Chris (eldest son) to dive under the table and the sausage to shave past my left ear. Over 'Simpson's Removals' came a representative of the R.A.F., complete with jet fighter, then, just as suddenly, he was gone. People say I exaggerate, but I swear he had a filling in the first molar, top left. The only person who didn't react was Nick, my youngest son, and we were to later find out that this was due to the fact that he was conducting his first scientific experiment at the grand old age of six. This involved the stuffing of india rubbers off the ends of pencils down both ears. We never actually established what findings he was expecting, but we did come to the conclusion that we wished we'd done it as well, in spite of the difficulty the doctor had in getting them out. I was shaking as we resumed our meal, and held forth at length about how the 'bloody R.A.F. kill more friends with shock than they attack enemies'. Then I realised that it wasn't the shock which was making me shake - the whole table was doing it. "Earthquake", I shouted, holding onto the table.

"Pardon?", said Nick.

But it wasn't an earthquake, just the hourly train going past the hedge at the back of the tent, about twelve feet away.

"I'd like to go to the toilet, please daddy", said Nick.

The toilets were about two fields distant, so my wife asked Chris to take him. They arrived back about ten minutes later, just as I was starting my chocolate fudge cake.

"We've got some good news and some bad", said Chris, who was about ten at the time and enjoyed a bit of drama, "which do you want first?"

"We'll try the good news", I said, absently.

"The good news is that he's got diorrhoea" was the triumphant reply.

"Good God, what's the bad news", said my wife.

"The bad news is that it's in his pants", and to demonstrate the fact, Nick slapped the rear of his shorts, causing a brown squidge of the offending material to ooze over the top of his belt.

I've never eaten chocolate fudge cake since.
Heather Moorland
But holidays in Yorkshire inevitably remind me of heathers and their value in the garden. They seem to have gone out of fashion but I must admit to being a bit cynical about bringing this attitude into the garden. The garden is about you, what you like and subsequently want to grow, not what some celebrity on the TV dictates.

The heather bed can give interest throughout the year if subjects are chosen carefully. At Fletcher Moss we used to plant late-flowering clematis among the early flowering Ericas, so that there was a continuity of colour. The Clematis would be cut back in autumn to give the heathers free rein in spring. Snowdrops pushing up through the heather gave further early interest (choose taller species like Galanthus elweisii). Together with dwarf conifers, heathers are a far more subtle adjunct to the garden than some of the more flashy inhabitants like Forsythia, which have a brief period of glory, then fade into the background. Classical music compared with pop. The inclusion of varieties with coloured foliage like Calluna vulgaris 'Gold Haze' will contrast nicely with the dwarf conifers and photos taken at different times of year will emphasise the subtle colour changes constantly taking place.
Heathers at Harlow Carr
From a practical point of view heathers need little maintenance as, when established, they act as an effective groundcover in suppressing weeds. However, trimming back with garden shears to the base of the flowering heads will prevent them becoming leggy and unattractive. This should be done after flowering. On the moors, keepers will set fire to selected areas,  encouraging dormant seed to sprout and provide the young growth loved by grouse as well as creating an aesthetically pleasing patchwork.

And a word of warning about 'dwarf' conifers. It's worth doing a bit of research beforehand as to what the ultimate size and spread of chosen varieties will be. Nurserymen have a habit of using the appendage 'dwarf' to anything that doesn't challenge a giant redwood. Numerous books now give good guidance in this area and it saves future trouble to heed their advice. I have an old publication called 'Conifers ForYour Garden', by Adrian Bloom, which is good in this way but there are numerous others on the market now, and Google will usually come up with the right answers as well.

The term 'heaths and heathers' is bandied around a lot and it's probably worth pointing out that, strictly speaking, 'heath' means Ericas, whereas 'heathers' refers to Callunas.

The heather family (Ericaceae) generally need acid soils but there are exceptions like Erica x darleyensis  E. carnea and a few others which are tolerant of alkaline conditions. However, if your soil is heavily alkaline it's best to confine heathers to tubs containing acid compost. Although you can change the pH of soil, it tends to be rather temporary and I always advise growing plants suited to your own garden environment.