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.

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