Friday, 19 July 2013

Cottage Garden Plants

Cottages and Kids
Painted lady showing her liking for Verbena bonariensis

'Fun sized Mars Bars'. Their introduction caused me to look up the definition of 'fun' and it certainly didn't seem to fit the reduction of eight mouthfuls of chocolate to two. Just how daft do sales people think we are? Estate agents are masters of it: there's the 'compact third bedroom' which turns out to be perfect for someone who sleeps standing up and the 'manageable garden' which is great for the connoisseur of coloured paving. All of which reminds me of the cottage we rented in Dumfries and Galloway.

I've already mentioned the 'hot running shower' in the blog entitled 'Lichen, Moss and Liverwort'. A further creative aspect of the advertising blurb was the 'steep stairs', which turned out to be a ladder giving access to a converted loft. The 'running water' only 'ran' when you pumped it with a hand pump on the outside wall. After a lot of sweat it finally arrived in a tank in the roof, accompanied by an interesting collection of water life and bits of peat. It was drawn from a bog in the field at the bottom of the garden (romantically described by the owner as 'our private spring') and the journey through the pipe was probably a bit like some bizarre Alton Towers ride to the insects lucky enough to make the journey. Once there was some water in the roof tank, the sink taps worked in the normal way, as did the toilet. Theoretically.

The toilet cistern bore a hand-written label saying 'one quick pull for a short flush. A longer pull will give a more thorough flush. Use as necessary to save water'. The reality of the instruction varied somewhat with the theory, because we found no difference between a long pull and a short one: nothing happened with either. They were right about conserving water though, we could have hung a brick on the lavatory chain and wasted not a drop. This was later explained in an apologetic way by the owner as probably being due to peat in the water blocking the inlet to the cistern. For the rest of the week we ended up flushing by pouring a bucket of water down the toilet (and in Nick's case, down himself).

The idea of the holiday had arisen over a couple of glasses of wine and a good meal. Get the kids in an environment where there was no television (computers were not really a factor then in the early eighties) and the family would have to entertain themselves with games, walks in the country and books, reacting in a more creative, communal way. This was an ideal my wife was enthusiastic about until the effects of the wine had evaporated and the description of the cottage had sunk in. At which point she mysteriously discovered that she couldn't get the time off work and I'd have to take them myself - we'd have a full family holiday in a hotel later in the summer.

Chris, aged thirteen was the oldest, while  Laura was eleven and Nick eight. We spent the days damming streams, fishing, hiking, and competing at throwing arrows in a field at the back of the cottage. The arrows were made from canes fitted with paper flights, like the ones on darts, and they were thrown by loosely wrapping a piece of string round the end and using it to give greater propulsion. They would go for a surprising distance and gave us hours of entertainment. I'd got the idea from their description in an old Eagle annual where they were advocated for killing wild boar. The absence of boar didn't detract from the fun of just seeing who could get them the furthest. In the evening, ghost stories were the favourite pastime and this led to an interesting incident:

      Everyone had gone to bed. Chris in the attic room, me in the master bedroom downstairs and Laura and Nick in the living room/bedroom, also downstairs.

      We waited a few minutes to let things calm down, then Chris and I sneaked out through the back door and into the yard. We could hear Nick droning away, probably outlining his plans for making a bomb out of the Calor gas cylinder, or maybe contemplating the likely and (to him) interesting scenario of the lavatory bowl becoming filled to capacity.  The fishing rod was where we had left it, leaning against the wall, so we carried it to the rear of the house, taking care to walk on the grass rather than give ourselves away by crunching along the gravel path. The thing then was to avoid showing ourselves at their bedroom window, while gently tapping it with the outstretched fishing rod tip. The only time Nick ever shut up was when he was asleep, but on this occasion he made an exception, and a deathly silence ensued. Encouraged by having achieved what no one else had all week, Chris gave the window another tap, a bit louder this time.

      The response was immediate:


      We were already halfway to the back door when Nick and Laura orchestrated this better-than-hoped for response. Keeping quiet was no longer an issue, considering the mayhem caused by Laura hyperventilating and Nick exploring the capacity of his lungs, so I managed to sneak undetected into my bedroom while Chris disappeared up the ladder to the attic. We then immediately reversed the procedure and rushed into their bedroom, ostensibly to see what the fuss was about.

      Laura sat white faced on the bed with her back to the wall and bedclothes pulled up to her chin. Nick, with only the top half of his face visible above the duvet, suddenly became emboldened by our presence and rushed to the window.

      ‘It’s a big man all dressed in black. I saw him go over the wall, dad,’ he shouted, with a ‘he’s lucky I wasn’t a bit quicker or I’d have had him’ air of bravado.

      He was right though. He’d have talked the bugger to death.

      The garden of this cottage was devoid of plants other than grass and I suppose this was understandable when the owners weren't there for a large part of the year. However the cottage garden is a subject in its own right, the point never being better made than by the one time presenter of 'Gardeners World', Jeff Hamilton: he always stressed the fact that the traditional mix of subjects  in this type of planting has benefits beyond the simply aesthetic: the pests hosted by one plant are to some extent balanced by their predators living on another and the gardener's task of protective warrior lessened. The more we can do without chemical insecticides, the better. A good gardener works with nature, rather than against it.

      Really there are few rules about what constitutes a cottage garden plant, although I suppose we can exclude giant redwoods and their ilk. One of my favourites is Verbena bonariensis. Apart from sounding like something the dog dug up, it actually has a lot going for it: the butterflies and bees love it and it produces its flowers on tall unimposing stems which don't impede the view of other plants. This means that it needn't be confined to the back of the border with the other lofties - it fits most positions. A native of South America, it has a possible height of about six feet, but it usually only reaches four or five in my garden. As a perennial, it more or less disappears in winter and is always in danger of being accidentally weeded out. However it seeds itself so prolifically that, once you've got it, you're never without.

Geranium species

      Another favourite, although sometimes referred to as a bit of a thug, is the large-leaved group of geraniums. Unfortunately, and largely due to incorrect promoting by nurserymen, most people will think of geraniums as those half hardy bedding subjects which originate in South Africa and are correctly known as Pelargoniums. The true Geraniums are mostly hardy and have the added advantage of generally being tolerant of shade, although the smaller species do need full sun. Another plus is the fact that you can get second display if the old leaves and blooms are cut hard back immediately after flowering. The common name 'cranesbill' is derived from the shape of the seed capsule when the flower has gone.
Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
Achillea 'Cloth of Gold' behind Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

      The Achilleas popular in cottage gardens are closely related to the British native Achillea millefolium. The plant was named after Achilles, who used it medicinally for a number of purposes but found, to his cost, that it didn't work on heels. The 'millefolium' part of its name refers to 'thousand leaves', referring to the appearance of the leaflets. Although the native wildflower is usually yellow, pink varieties can often be found beside them. Steep the leaves in hot water for a couple of minutes to make a pleasant tea.

      The original cottage gardens mixed flowering plants with vegetables in a rule-defying hotch- potch, whereas the modern concept (except on organic allotments) usually only encompasses flowers. I suppose it's hard to give a spud the ooh! factor.



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