Saturday, 11 May 2013

Garden Thugs

Sailing Stormy Waters

Anemone x hybrida and honey bee

      We called him 'Maniac' which wasn't really fair because, in retrospect, he wasn't much dafter than the rest of us. The main problem was that he was extremely short sighted and, as skipper of a yacht, this is not usually recognised as a good qualification. On one occasion, he captained his boat at great speed within inches of a river bank where an angling contest was taking place. Within seconds a number of lines had been snapped and rods were hastily jerked into the air in a manner reminding me of those old Cecil B.D.Mills films where a  great avenue of feathers or palms lifted in wave-like fashion to allow the passage of some demi-god. From what I picked up of the language of these particular worshippers, I got the impression that spiritual praise wasn't really on their agenda.

      A crowd of us used to descend on the Norfolk Broads annually, renting out a series of non-motorised yachts and sailing along as many of the rivers and broads as we could manage in the allotted week. 'Broads time' was adopted, whereby watches were adjusted to accommodate the hours of sunrise and sunset so as to get the most out of each day: getting up time, eight a.m., was set to coincide with dawn  and we slipped into different persona's like 'admiral', 'captain', 'cabin boy' and so on. My particular role was usually that of bosun. This was probably because no one knew what a bosun did and not knowing what I was doing was my speciality. However I assumed an impressive vocabulary of 'hoist the mizzen', 'avast', 'splice the mainbrace', 'heave to' etc. and generally outdid Captain Jack Sparrow years before he was thought of. I was Robert Newton, Disney's inimical Long John Silver.

      On this particular occasion, we were racing Maniac across Barton Broad in a wind which was little short of a gale. The yachts were heeling over to such a degree that water was being taken in through the portholes. 'Going skuppers' was the technical term for this. Maniac was doing well, we thought he was going to beat us, until he came to a sudden, lurching stop within feet of a massive sign saying DANGER - SHALLOW WATER.

      Our enjoyment of his predicament was cut short when we realised he'd got our dinner on board. It was our habit to come together at mealtimes and, because of the limited capacities of the cookers on board, each crew would cook different items of the menu. Our sausages were now lost at sea.

      "Worry not laads, oi'll rescue the vittals", I bawled, winking one eye furiously and adding an 'ahaar', for good measure. With this, I unhitched the dinghy towed behind us and took a flying leap into it. We were still slicing through the water at a fair rate of knots before a heavy wind and, just as I jumped, the yacht heeled steeply. This was why I missed. Although I had untied the mooring rope, someone had dropped the rond anchor in the dinghy and this had snagged a cross-support, with the result that the little boat was still being towed behind at great speed. I managed to grab the front as I entered the water and, by some superhuman effort , to swing one  leg over the side. however pressure exerted by the speed, added to he weight of water in my clothing, meant I couldn't climb in, so I continued speeding, head under water,  like an inverted Donald Campbell.

      Although the view of the bottom of Barton Broad was very interesting and not often encountered, it was an experience I understandably wanted to give a miss. The obvious thing to do was to let go and swim for it but unfortunately my leg had got caught up in the rond rope. The speed and my weight combined were causing water to pour over the front of the dinghy and it was only a matter of time before it sank, taking an artificial Long John Silver with it.

      A rond anchor is a right-angles piece of metal with a pointed end, useful for holding the boat against earth banks. This one suddenly slipped, skudding across the dinghy and embedding itself in the woodwork an inch from my leg. With another super human effort, I hauled myself up and, ignoring the pain from the rope burn on my leg, I levered at it until it loosened and shot over the side. The dinghy immediately stopped its dash, then lazily turned over to eventually smash down on the water upside down, narrowly missing braining me. I was adrift in a sea of oars, bailing buckets and other assorted debris, watching the mother craft Lunar and the remains of her horrified crew, disappearing into a watery infinity.

      Things didn't look too bright. My wet clothes were making it difficult to stay high enough in the water for comfort, so I set off swimming for one of the huge marker posts dotted around the broad. Eventually I made it and , with intense relief realised that my feet touched the bottom here. The relief was short lived however when I realised that I was standing on mud. Soft mud of infinite depth. To avoid sinking into a watery oblivion, I had no option but to put arms and legs round the post and cling on like a koala bear in a Eucalyptus. In this manner I waited for Lunar to complete whatever navigations were necessary to return to pick me up.

      A few other craft sailed past while I waited and their crews stared in wonder at the apparition which clung, bobble hat over ears, to a marker post. When a cruiser turned back for a better look and a few photos, all I could do was issue a feeble 'ahaar' and pretend to enjoy the joke. I don't think the smiling aspersions I made about their parents' marital statuses was audible above the sound of their engine.

      Some time later, Lunar returned and I was unceremoniously hauled back into the land of the living. However, the worst was yet to come and, as this is a blog and not a novel, I'm going to have to continue the story next week.

      Bet you can't wait.

      Both of you.

      Lunaria, which is close enough to the yacht's name to merit a degree of continuity, is flowering outside the window as I write. The thinking behind its common name, honesty, isn't very clear unless it refers to the fact that the transluscence of its seed pods hides nothing. The pods are probably its main attraction, being good in flower arrangements which can last through the winter. For me, it borders on being classed as a thug because it seeds itself so prolifically and, for most of the summer, its foliage is not particularly attractive. It is a biennial, meaning it grows the first year and flowers the second and so, for the first year's growth, the leaves are all you have.  A member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), it has deep tap roots which means that you can't grow it for long in a pot without it beginning to suffer. I'd stick to cabbages if I were you.

Granny's bonnet (just opening) and honesty

      Probably calling honesty a thug will offend some gardeners' appreciation of the plant but I'm going to offend them even more by classing the biggest bovver boys in my garden as granny's bonnet (Aquilegia) and welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica). And while you're all babbling about how there are beautiful forms of granny's bonnet and the foliage is pretty, as are the flowers of the welsh poppy, I have to point out that the problem is that the buggers don't know when to stop: Aquilegia self seeds prolifically but the resulting new plants are usually nothing like the parent, often displaying nondescript purplish blue or faded pink flowers and, like the poppy, they come up everywhere. This wouldn't be so bad if they didn't have roots which probably emerge somewhere in Australia and need a pneumatic drill to dislodge, or if they didn't have the infuriating habit of sharing their root space with plants you want to be there, so that you damage the desired plant while removing the thug.

Welsh poppy pretending to be nice

      You sit there planning your borders and thinking 'yes, this or that plant has a bit of a reputation as a thug, but it'll be different with me - I'll keep on top of it. Bet you won't. I'd heard it all about Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida) but, working on this philosophy, went ahead and planted the damn things anyway. I now have a forest of anemones rivalling the Black one in Germany.

      Maybe its best to forget the choice subjects 'Gardener's World' is pushing you to invest in. Just plant a few thugs and you can leave them to it. Sit back in your deck chair and watch 'em fight it out while you contemplate all the spare time you now have.

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