Saturday, 31 August 2013

Leaf problems with acers

Tree Felling
Sycamore 'helicopter' seeds
      A friend, Ella, asked me if I knew anyone who could cut down a Sycamore tree. It was cutting out light and the seedlings were annoying both her and the neighbours. It turned out that another friend, Monica, had a chain saw, so there was a chance that we may be able to do it ourselves. My wife offered the opinion that the thought of any friend of mine with a chain saw was only one step less frightening  than the doomsday scenario of me with one. This was a misconception based on both my sons' enthusiastic recounting of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and an unfortunate incident when a friend (a trained arborist) nearly removed his thumb rather than a poplar tree that was annoying us. I emphasised the 'nearly' to her but it cut no ice.

      "How big is the tree?" I asked Ella.

       "I'll send a photo", she replied.

      On the basis of the photo, which depicted a fairly small tree, we said we'd do it and, together with my son, Nick (who would agree to anything if a chainsaw was involved) we arrived at Ella's house.

      "There it is", she said in a matter-of-fact voice that implied we may miss it. The tree loomed over us, blackening the sky and bringing to mind that giant redwood in America with a tunnel in the trunk that you can drive a car through.

      "Where did you take the photo from", asked Nick.

      "From the other side of the bloody estate by the looks of it", said Monica, who isn't renowned for wrapping  things up.

      "Well. What are we going to do?" asked Ella. This led to a quick consideration of the technicalities, angle of fall, potential fence damage and safety aspects involved. The unanimous verdict was that we'd have a cup of tea.

      Following the tea break, a set of ladders were produced and extended to their full height of about ten foot. This meant that, if the tree were Jack's giant, we'd have been able to reach his ankle.

      Some years before, I had been told the story about a bloke who'd asked our arborists (I worked for the city council) if they'd do a foreigner for him and cut down a large poplar tree at the end of his garden. When they gave him a price he told them to forget it and went off and got a cowboy willing to do it at much reduced cost. It so happened that the garden was next to the arborists' headquarters and, when the man came to do the job, the whole team were on dinner break in the mess room overlooking the scene of action. Crosswords and page three were immediately forgotten as they crowded to the window to watch the show.

      Normal practise in the felling of a big tree in a confined space is to do it in stages, taking the top off first, then other sections, moving downward. In this case, the cowboy, without protective clothing but armed with a vicious looking chainsaw, thought he'd do the job in one, felling it along the garden towards the house. Remarkably, he got the tree to fall dead centre down the garden - right where he wanted it. Unfortunately, What hadn't occurred to him was that it may be an idea to assess the length of the garden compared to that of the height of the tree. The result of this omission was the demolition of the house extension  to an accompanying roar of appreciation from the audience.

      It was with this story in mind that we decided the job was too big for us. We compromised; just cutting some big branches off and removing a nearby small holly tree to allow a lot more light in. This involved Monica doing the chainsaw work, wearing a protective helmet and goggles and hanging precariously from the ladder like an arboricultural Hell's Angel. We learnt that another imperative in this sort of work is that you go bright red and swear like a trooper.

      We had to fell some of the larger branches into a thicket of nettles and brambles on the other side of the fence and then cut them up so that they couldn't be seen by the owner of the land. This really meant that Nick couldn't be expected to do much here because he'd had the creative forethought to wear shorts and, as he pointed out, bare legs and nettles are not a good combination. Instead, he spent a lot of time watching me through a cloud of  flies misplaced from the sycamore. He watched not because he was impressed by my tree skills, but because he was following the strict instructions of his mother to ring her if I was so much as to look in the direction of the chainsaw. I think he was a bit disappointed with the work because there were no shouts of 'timber' accompanying the creak of  falling mammoths. He'd been humming 'I'm a lumberjack' on the way there.

      A big part of tree felling is the disposal of the resulting fallen wood and, in this, Ella played a major role, cutting up single leaf stalks with secateurs and depositing them in the wheelybin before standing back to admire the result. The bin didn't fill very quickly but she did it with the artistic panache of a flower arranger and a quick calculation brought me to the conclusion she'd easily have it finished  by early 2018.

      All this brought to mind an incident that occurred when a large Beech tree fell down in Didsbury, demolishing a house front. When the police arrived the old Irish lady who lived there was still in bed looking in wonder at the devastation around her.

      "Are you alright love?", asked the constable.

      She looked at him blankly, then "ah", she said philosophically, "two's company, 'tree's a crowd".
Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Atropurpureum' in early summer
The same tree in autumn
      Sycamore, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the Acers. Its Latin name is Acer pseudoplatanus which, as often is the case, is quite descriptive: pseudo meaning 'false' and platanus which is 'plane' - it looks a bit like a plane tree. For a long time naturalists panned it because, based on fossil pollen records, it is an alien and doesn't support much wildlife. However, it's certainly been around since the sixteenth century, so this brings to mind those comments you hear about someone being an 'incomer' to our village' who has 'only lived here fifty  years'. When does an alien stop being an alien? More recently it has become recognised as being an important host for a number of lichens and a provider of pollen for the many insects which frequent it, so attitudes have softened. It is certainly a useful tree in coastal areas, where its resistance to salt spray enables it to grow vigorously.

      However, sycamore isn't usually looked on as a good garden tree because of the density of its foliage - making it difficult for plants to survive under it - and the prolific germination from its helicopter seeds. At this point Japanese cousins step in to steal the limelight. These are have great ornamental value both in shape , size and especially in  autumn colour. This is not to say they are without their problems: in a list of most commonly asked gardening questions, they come somewhere near the top (although slugs always take the number one spot). Sycamore leaf spot can occasionally be a problem on other acers as well. Although unsightly, it doesn't harm the tree and there is little you can do about it other than clearing and burning the fallen leaves.
Sycamore leaf blotch (or tar spot), caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum 
      Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum (the Japanese maples) are susceptible to leaf shrivelling due to late frosts  and/or cold winds, so ideally they should be placed in a sheltered position. They don't like extreme cold either, so will benefit from a protective mulch or, if grown in a container, having  bubble-wrap or hessian protection around the pot. Sunburn is another cause and the plant should be placed in a position where the hours of direct sunlight are limited. Dead leaves should be snipped off just to the base of the leaf, leaving the stem (petiole) intact. As long as this is carried out before the end of June, new leaves will appear from the bud at the base within about three weeks. If in a container, always remember that this is an artificial environment and the plant is unable to send roots to explore for water deeper in the soil, so drought can also cause leaf loss and browning problems. With this in mind, keep an eye on the watering.

      If all this fails, grow a sycamore.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Rabbit problems

Nothing Fiercer Than a Rabbit

Rabbit resistant Acanthus mollis (bear's paw)

      Although, as a child, we had a budgie, I abhor the principle of keeping an animal in a cage. However, on one occasion, I saw such a prisoner extract some sort of revenge on society: it was a rabbit. How anyone can think it right to restrict an animal born to roam fields and woodlands to the confines of a five foot box with a wire-netting front is beyond me. An aunt and uncle of mine didn't agree and kept a large white rabbit called Bumper as a pet, salving their consciences by saying that 'he's safe from foxes'. I had a theory that they'd have liked to call him 'Humper', but his solitary confinement made this reference to his main pleasure in life meaningless, so the H had surrendered to the more respectable B.

      This particular aunt and uncle were going away on holiday and happened to ask me if I'd look after their rabbit. I agreed, thinking I'd give Bumper a time to remember: a holiday of his own, so I collected the hutch and its resident and took them home in the back of my old G.P.O. van.

      Re-situated in our Timperley back garden, Bumper looked longingly out at my herbaceous border and I devised a cunning plan to give him a bit more freedom. We had a dog's lead and, from somewhere, my wife spirited up a cat collar. The perfect answer: If you can take a dog a walk, why not a rabbit? It didn't seem a good idea to take him to the park or wander along the street - too many dogs with a penchant for bunnies - so we walked round the garden and he happily enriched it with his home-made black marbles. Unfortunately, when it came time for me to carry him back to the hutch, he wasn't too keen (I think he'd imagined the next step was the herbaceous border). Anyway, he illustrated his disgust by giving me a stony look and kicking vigorously before biting me on the hand. I didn't know rabbits could bite but, having read ad nauseum about how Peter decimated Mr McGregor's vegetable plot, I should have known better - you don't suck cabbages.

      There were two spots of blood on the bite and I would have been quite happy to wash and forget. However my wife heroically overlooked the advantage that lockjaw may shut me up for a bit and despatched me to the local A&E to get a tetanus jab. As usual, there was a queue, so I got in it and was waiting my turn at the desk when a bloke in football kit came and stood behind me, tottering a bit on his studs. He was ashen white, gasping and obviously couldn't breathe properly. Then he leaned on the wall and I thought he was going to fall over.

      "I think my rib's gone through the lung", he croaked when he saw me looking.

      Meanwhile the woman behind the desk was going through the rigmarole with the person in front of me, asking  Christian name, surname, address, next of kin, mothers maiden name, great grandfather's DNA profile - the usual stuff essential to a cure, before finally asking what was wrong. The next step was to sit in a crowd of about twenty people and wait for treatment or death - whichever came first.

      "I think you'd better see to this bloke now" I butted in, "he's in a bad way".

      She looked at him, rolled her eyes then finished the rest of the inquisition on the bloke before me, sending him to sit down with the rest of the dying and wounded. Then, with a deep sigh, she came round the desk, borrowed a chair from the main waiting area and plonked perforated lung on it before starting my check list.

      "Christian name?" she began.

      "Don't you think.....", I said worriedly, looking at the footballer

      "Christian name?" she repeated, louder and with a steely look in her eye. A forced bubbling breath, sounding a bit like a last one, came from the David Beckham chair.

      Hurriedly I went through the list with her, lowering my voice when she got to the "what's wrong?" bit.

      "Er, I was bitten by a rabbit", I said.

      "What?", she said, looking interested for the first time.

      "Rabbit", I whispered, I was bitten by a rabb......"

      "BITTEN BY A RABBIT?", she bellowed, much to the enjoyment of the assembled dead and wounded - their day had just got marginally better. I was tempted to change the rabbit to a boa constrictor but it was too late and, in any case, I wasn't sure whether they bite or squeeze you to death.

      Perforated lung slithered off his chair.

Alchemilla mollis flowers (centre right foreground) - rabbit resistant.
      Unfortunately the Disneyish attraction of rabbits wears off a bit when they take to decimating your garden. It's not a problem in my suburb of Manchester but I get a lot of queries from people a bit further into the sticks. Apparently the most effective control method is to put a ring of wire netting around the area you want to protect. It should be 4 to 5 feet high with a further foot flat against the surrounding soil to prevent burrowing.

      Trees and shrubs can also be damaged by rabbits eating the bark. If they strip it off right round the trunk the plant will die, as water won't be able to move up from the roots. Again, ringing the tree with wire netting will prevent damage, as will the tubes sold specially for the purpose.

Alchemilla mollis foliage 
      The R.H.S. have compiled a comprehensive list of plants which tend not to be attacked by rabbits: , and this may be the easiest answer to the problem, though I've heard that, in extreme conditions, the animals will broaden their menu in desperation. Generally speaking, they don't like aromatic plants (which includes a lot of herbs), spiny plants or those like Euphorbia which ooze milky sap.

The berries of Skimmia japonica - a rabbit resistant shrub
      Grazers is a spray- on product which, the makers claim, lasts six weeks. This makes the plants unpalatable to rabbits and can be safely used on food crops. Intriguingly Garlic Wonder Rabbitoff has a similar effect, though I wonder if this is just because their friends won't go near them after they've eaten some. This is also advertised as giving some fungicidal defense to the plant, as well as deterring deer and pigeons.

Roe deer - deterred with 'Graser'
      A final thought on this: some time ago my wife, displaying remarkably bad taste, bought a farting gnome for a friend with equally bad taste. Anything passing within four feet got a high decibel windbreak. The fact that he was overjoyed with this, leading guests past it in order to embarrass them (two of them thought they must have done it themselves and apologised), is by the by. The point is that, situated near the herbaceous border, it might scare rabbits off.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Aesculus problems and Arbutus unedo

Plastic Bags

Fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) - inspiration for the Christmas bauble?
      The daftest, wide-spread public habit of the moment can be seen on almost any pleasant leafy walk: some 'responsible' dog owners have gone to the trouble of taking plastic bags on their daily stroll, collecting the dog's excreta in them, then flinging them into the hedgerow or nearby trees. For a moment you think Christmas has come early and the decorations are already up, until a closer look discloses the unbelievable truth.

      I can see how it happens that lazy people, or those who shudder at the thought of physical contact with dog poo, even through the medium of plastic, will be irresponsible and leave it where it lands. At least it eventually breaks down and goes back into the soil or gets spread out via the crevices of my shoe. However, to go to the trouble of doing the lifting, then preserving it for highly visible posterity, seems a symptom of insanity. My advice to these misguided individuals is to do something creative, like throwing it at a banker.

      The thought of this leads me to the first Christmas of my married life: my mother was coming for  dinner and my wife was desperate to make the right impression by cooking a meal to be remembered. All was going well. The house was in pristine condition, having been Hoovered and dusted, there was a pervasive aroma of roasting turkey, the Christmas tree twinkled with a tasteful set of lights and the home-made decorations put the finishing touches to the aura of festive cheer. We were sitting in the living-room enjoying a pre-dinner sherry (sherry was a lot more fashionable then - it was even an essential aperitif to a restaurant meal, where they would serve schooners of it) - and we were chatting amicably when there was a loud explosion from the direction of the kitchen and the fairy fell off the Christmas tree.

      Resisting the temptation to get under the table, which was the government's advice for surviving a nuclear attack in those days (they had overlooked the fact that our table came from M.F.I.), I crept into the kitchen, to find the oven tilted to one side and the door open. The inside was liberally coated with a white, flaking material which turned out, on closer inspection, to be bits of a turkey which had had its revenge.

      And this brings me back to the subject of plastic bags - this time containing the turkey's giblets. In subsequent years I was delegated to remove this bag, partly because of its explosive potential but also on the basis that my wife has a prurient streak which questions the propriety of putting ones hand up a turkey's bottom. My feeling on the subject is that, if the turkey has reached the stage of having its guts in a plastic bag, it's gone past worrying about any other alien invasion.

      Anyway, we put the fairy back and went on to enjoy a Christmas dinner of sprouts, stuffing, apple sauce, carrots, roast potatoes and corned beef. My wife had fulfilled her ambition to cook a meal to be remembered.
Conker tree flower looking like candles from a distance
      Talking about Christmas trees brings to mind the way we used to have candles on ours when I was a child, stuck in little holders that clamped onto the branches. Not that they were often lit, my mum was too aware of them causing events which made exploding turkeys pale into insignificance. However the conker tree could well have been the inspiration for this tradition, as its flowers, from a distance, are candle-like in appearance. Equally, the strawberry tree or even plane trees, with their globular fruits, could have suggested the idea of hanging decorative balls in the foliage.

      The scientific name for the conker tree is Aesculus hippocastanum. 'Hippo' is Latin for 'horse' and is used because the Turks used to use the seeds as medicine for horses. A beautiful tree, it is currently plagued by a number of problems, not least of which is the horse chestnut leaf mining moth (Cameraria ohridella). The caterpillar does what it says on the label: it mines between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf, causing disfiguring brown spots. Similar symptoms are caused by Guignardia leaf blotch, a fungal disease. It's possible to tell the difference between the two by holding the leaf up to the light, when the moth caterpillar can be seen inside as circular brown patches. Unfortunately there isn't an easy cure for either problem, though the removal and burning of the fallen leaves gives a good chance of the Guignardia not overwintering and returning the following year.

Horse chestnut leaf miner
      As if these problems aren't enough, horse chestnut bleeding canker has become prevalent over recent years. Although the leaf miner and leaf blotch are not killers, extreme cases of the canker can lead to death. It shows itself as the bleeding of a brown substance on the trunk, which dries to a black deposit. The disease is not always fatal by any means, so if you have an infected tree simply leave it to its own devices and it may well return to normality.

      So, what with Dutch Elm Disease, oak dieback disease, ash dieback and various other pathogens, the future of our woodlands seems pretty shaky.

      If you're looking for someone to cheer you up, I'm your man.

      On the lighter side, the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is an evergreen which can ultimately reach about twenty five feet high. The fruits look a bit like strawberries and are edible only to anyone with masochistic tendencies, because they taste horrible. The species name unedo actually means 'I eat one - only', which should tell you something. The young tree tends to be densely clothed with leaves and flowers are produced late in the summer. We had one visible from my office in Wythenshawe Park and I was shocked late one September when I looked out to see that all the tiny, bell like flowers were strangely disfigured. On looking at it closely it became obvious that wasn't actually a problem, they were simply covered with more red admiral butterflies than I've seen in the rest of my life. I came to realise that this is a fairly common phenomena: in late summer few plants are flowering and the ones that do are a magnet to all the insects still on the wing. Look at ivy flowers, for example, another late flowerer, they become audible before you see them, usually alive with the buzzing of bees and other insects.

Red admiral butterflies on Buddleia

      As the strawberry tree ages, the foliage becomes thinner. This could be a disadvantage except for the fact that the bark which is slowly uncovered has a decorative value in its own right. For anyone with a largish garden, Arbutus, with its slowly evolving attraction, would be a good choice.

Strawberry tree bark at Bodnant Gardens


Saturday, 10 August 2013

Dog daisies and dragonflies

 Poo Problems
Damsel flies - female laying eggs
     Some of our friends have taken to going on exotic cruises in different parts of the world. Venues like the Danube, Amazon and Nile aren't really to our taste, but my wife and I thought we should at least see what we were missing, so we pored through the travel brochures and eventually made our choice. We booked a trip down the Macclesfield Canal in a narrowboat. We're not really into exotic foods either, so this was ideal for us: a floating restaurant with an impressive menu of  tomato soup and a wide ranging choice of hotpot or beef pie.

      And so it was that we found ourselves eating soup in a stifling cabin and gazing out at the exotic Cheshire countryside as the ship negotiated the Straits of Bollington. The banks were lined with envious onlookers in the form Canada geese seemingly transfixed by the majesty of our passage. As we gazed out through the none-opening windows, I got the distinct feeling of being in a zoo in reverse, half expecting the audience to start throwing nuts. However, they were too engaged in their favourite pastime of defecating and I quickly came to appreciate that their glazed looks were due not to our majesty but to the bliss of relieving themselves. They do this with such abandon and quantity that it brought to mind that Benny Hill sketch where hundreds of people pour out of a phone box. Accuracy is also involved: their offerings are placed with unerring aim exactly where someone is going to put their foot.

      When it comes to treating the family, our generosity knows no bounds and Nick and Laura, who couldn't think up an excuse in time, came along with us. Initially there was much jocularity as terms like 'hoist the mizzen and 'heave to lads' were bandied. However, the fact that we couldn't actually see any water - the banks were about a foot away - rendered these nautical terms redundant other than when the cook clambered on board, causing the ship to rock, and eliciting a weak 'heave up, lads' from Nick.

      All of which reminded me of an incident in my working days: there was a big dog poo problem in Wythenshawe Park where I was stationed at the time. There didn't seem an easy way around it until I spotted an advert in a trade mag for a machine which was designed to pick it up. I rang the given number and asked if they could bring one to give a demonstration, then I got in touch with the other park managers to come round and see it.

      The big day arrived and I was waiting for the marvellous machine to arrive when I suddenly realised I hadn't got any samples for it to work on. With this in mind, and armed with a plastic bag, I wandered out into the park. Nothing. Normally you would step straight from the office door into something disgusting but, on this occasion, not even a brown stain. I wandered around the two hundred and sixty acres of Wythenshawe Park gradually coming to the conclusion that a major case of canine constipation had hit the area. Back in the office, in an effort to quel my rising panic, the receptionist suggested I had a word with Colin the park warden - 'he's very creative', she smiled.

      She was right. Colin got some clayish soil and rolled it into sausage shapes, lumps with drawn-out ends and  some curly ones. Then he got carried away and coloured the soil with sand. The result was brilliant. I coned off an area of the main drive and we laid them out ready for the demonstration.

      Eventually the bloke arrived with the machine on the back of a low loader.
       "It's called FIDO", he informed the assembled managers, "short for Feces Intake Disposal Operation". He seemed impervious to the smirks from the high powered management team as he proceeded to put FIDO to work. It was pretty impressive. FIDO was basically a golf cart with an added suction pump and a wide bore, see-through tube which went over the top of the vehicle and down into a storage box. The driver sat with one hand on the steering, while he manoeuvred the end of the tube over the poo.This it sucked up with a satisfying slurp and we watched it whizz through the pipe before being deposited in a large tank. If the target was hard and difficult to remove, a subsidiary pipe could be operated to release disinfectant onto it and this had the added advantage of a softening effect.

      "You can travel at up to twenty miles an hour doing this", the man informed us, "but if you want to go faster, we've got another machine called RALF. It turned out that RALF, which was also on the low-loader, was a motor-bike with similar suction  fittings and the collection box behind the seat. RALF, the man unsmilingly informed us, stood for 'Ride Along Lifting Feces'. My vision of an exuberant poo-picker hurtling through the park at 70mph was dispelled when he pointed out that the added speed may be of importance for moving between sites.

     "The thing you've got to be careful of with this", he said, "is that you don't put your butties in that saddle bag".
Dog daisies and other wildflowers surrounding a peacock butterfly on a corncockle

      While we're thinking about dogs seems a good time to bring up the subject of dog daisies. Also going under the names of ox-eye daisy and moon daisy, these are the plants much favoured in wildflower meadows and motorway embankments. We've looked at them briefly when considering wildflower meadows but they give such good value I feel they deserve a closer look: the Latin name is Leucanthemum vulgare (from Greek leukos, meaning white, anthemum - flower and vulgare - common)  and they are as happy in a herbaceous border as they are living rough in more natural environments. Being a native perennial, they attract a wide range of butterflies, bees and other insects. They have no way of spreading by runners or other vegetative means, so are reliant on seed regeneration. This means that other more dominant species will have to be controlled if you want to create a meadow with them, so that the seeds are allowed free, uncontested germination. How to do this is outlined in the link above. Richard Mabey, in 'Food for Free', lists their leaf crowns as suitable for use in salads, so that they are useful as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Dragonfly laying eggs

      In a recent trip to a local park I was attracted to the antics of dragonflies and damselflies as they carried out their mating rites. The male has a pair of pincers at the end of his body and he uses these to grasp a female round the neck while she bends her body round to make contact with the point at which the male inserts his sperm. Stand stock still if you see this happening and listen carefully. You'll hear him, in best Morcambe and Wise tradition, muttering "gerrout of that".

      When mating is completed, the male often retains his grasp on his partner until she eventually lowers her ovipositer under the water and lays eggs on a suitable plant. Apparently the reason he keeps hold is that he doesn't want his sperm rendered useless in the event of  some other amorous male grabbing her before she's laid her eggs. The last one in is the one that counts. Women's lib doesn't seem to have made much headway in the world of dragonflies.

      People get a bit confused about the difference between dragonflies and damselflies and from what I can make out the answer is 'not much'. Dragonflies land with their wings open and damselflies land with them closed. Another thing is that a dragonfly's eyes touch, whereas there is a clear distance between those of the damselfly.

      Although we tend to think of the winged dragonfly as representing the main part of its life story, this is far from the truth. The nymphs which emerge from the egg can live for up to five years under water (dependent on species), fiercely predating on tadpoles, small fish and other pond life. They then emerge and burst into full winged glory, live about a month, then die. As the adult, they hunt mosquitoes and other insects, sometimes as large as butterflies, and are the fastest flying insect, reaching speeds above 40 mph. They can also fly backwards.

      Just thought you'd like to know.



Friday, 2 August 2013

Adiantum cuneatum

The Magic of Radio
Maiden hair fern

      We've employed a mobile mechanic to see to our cars over the years and now he also maintains my daughter Laura's Nissan. She wanted it servicing and the m.o.t. doing a few days ago, so she brought it to our house and he picked it up to take it to do the test. He was back within minutes:

      "It's in a bad way", he said irritably, haven't you noticed that horrible crunching noise? Your back bearings are knackered".

      "Oh, that noise", she said dismissively, "I've not been worried about it because it goes away when I turn the radio up".

      This is her version of burying ones head in the sand and I suppose we all do it to some extent. Life wouldn't be bearable without the ability to turn ourselves off from the atrocities on the evening news or the certain knowledge that we're overpopulating and polluting our planet to extinction. Live for the moment, it may be the only one there is. This is how I approach do-it-yourselfing: the job only gets done when whatever it is stops working or (and this is the more frequent likelihood), when my wife tells me to do it.

      The bathroom floorboards creak. They always have, but it had got to the stage where my services were called for and I got out the hammer. It seemed quite straightforward really - just bash a few nails in to stop the boards moving and everyone'd be happy. This is probably what Napoleon thought when he decided to give Russia a visit, then he cocked it all up by forgetting to add hot water bottles to the luggage list. What I forgot was the fact that some damn plumber was quite likely to have situated a hot water pipe right where I needed to bash a nail.

      I've never actually seen Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park but what happened when I bashed the nail must come a pretty close second. A jet of water shot out of the bathroom floor, causing me to step back to avoid being elevated on it like a ping  pong ball at fairground  rifle range. Although this may be a slight exaggeration, what followed wasn't: I resorted to rule one in such cases which states 'if in doubt - panic', achieving this with such remarkable success that my wife evacuated the house while I nearly did the same with my bowels. It wasn't the fear of the ceiling below collapsing under a flood of water that engendered such fear, but my wife's probable reaction to it. To say she didn't have high regard for my handyman prowess would be an understatement on a par with 'Michael Foot was a fashion icon'. Resources like using the technique of the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike weren't available to me. The point being that it was alright for him because the water in the dike wasn't hot. Anyway, after doing my little John Cleese dance again ( I 'm sure he got it from me), I resorted to the rather mundane alternative of rushing downstairs and turning the water off at the mains. I then rang my mate who is an expert at dealing with such situations and he came and sorted it out by cutting out the section with the hole in it and replacing it with a new piece, held in place by pressure joints. However, the bathroom floorboards still creak. I justified this to my wife by pointing out that if a burglar should break in, we'll hear him.

      "But only if he goes for a crap", she responded. She thinks she's funny.

      The panic engendered by this event echoed something that had happened way back when we were in our first house: I was standing at the sink washing up when something hit me on the back of the head and a series of explosions followed. I dived for cover and could feel wetness trickling down my head. It must be blood. I was dying. This being during the cold war, we were under attack by the Russians. That daft bugger Khruschev had bashed his shoe on the red button by mistake.  

      What was trickling turned out to be wine - a lot of it. We had made  it and filled bottles, stacked on top of the freezer in a wooden rack which acted remarkably like a rocket launcher.  Apparently the wine must have still been fermenting when we bottled it and the ensuing pressure caused the corks to blow out. On the positive side, this had great educational value: when one went off, the rest of them joined in - a perfect example of a chain reaction. Anyway my wife ran in to find me lying on the kitchen floor thinking I was dying and stinking like a brewery. The bottles which remained intact we gave away to people we didn't like and after that, we reverted to cheap German wine. Even anti-freeze is better than a Russian attack.

      So my life, probably like that of most people, stumbles from cock-up to cock-up but I've recently learnt a pristine, gold plated truth from my daughter: when it starts to hit the fan, turn up the radio.

      You've probably guessed that the obvious link with this is Ligularia stenocephala 'The Rocket', although that's not the only one that came to mind. I've mentioned it before in relation to sites adjacent water, where it thrives in the moist soil During dry weather the leaves tend to droop at the height of the day, so it's best if it has some shade at this time. However, this isn't always possible and I find it picks up later when the day gets cooler.

      Perhaps a less obvious link is Adiantum cuneatum (maidenhair fern). 'Cuneatum' means 'wedge shaped' and it refers to the leaves. Not hardy enough to grow in the garden, this thrives in the humidity of a bathroom. Its common name 'maiden hair fern originates from the hair-like appearance of the leaf stems and was the basis of a one time belief that it was a cure from baldness. The thinking behind this emanates from the doctrine of signatures, which was a theory that a bloke called Theophrastus came up with: he thought that plants which resembled parts of the human body could be used to cure sickness in that area; a cyclamen leaf is shaped a bit like an ear, for example, so if you had an ear problem, stuffing one down it should do the trick. You wouldn't be able to hear anything though, because there was a cyclamen leaf stuffed dow..... Well, you get the idea. Another example can be seen in lesser celandine: the roots have appendages which look a bit like piles, so they used to make a root tea by pouring on  boiling water. I'm not sure what the next step was, but assume that you'd have to have someone with you to scrape you off the ceiling if it involved applying boiling tea to hemorrhoids.

      The Adiantum in the picture is on a north facing window sill, so gets very little sunshine, and it thrives. Originating in tropical North and South America and the West Indies, the plant has very delicate leaves and exposure to direct sunlight can cause browning fairly quickly. I took one to a talk on a hot day and, after about an hour in the car, the leaves were a sad sight and not a good advertisement for my credibility as I spouted about how to get the best from plants.  I've found that, during the summer, watering is best done by standing the fern in a tray full of water until it has all gone, leaving it a couple of days, then repeating the procedure. In the winter, much less water is required. If you grow the plant in a drier part of the house, it will benefit from being regularly sprayed with water during the summer.
Maiden hair fern showing black, hair like stem. Hence the name

      Another plant thriving in the same situation is Anthurium andreanum, the flamingo flower. In fact there are any number of good 'bathroom plants' and it's worth doing a bit of research to determine the best one for the situation you've got. A good houseplant book is the Reader's Digest 'Success with House Plants. Its a pretty old publication and I'm not sure whether its still in print but it's usually easily found in second hand book shops and charity shops. At the back is a comprehensive table of plants showing their individual needs for light, humidity, temperature and so on.

     These plants like a moist atmosphere, and if the bathroom isn't humid enough, you could always try banging a nail through the hot water pipe.  

Anthurium andreanum (flamingo flower)