Friday, 27 September 2013

Natural Remedies

Just a Minute
Willows in Stratford on Avon - headache cures
      Life happens while you're not looking: ever been sitting at a restaurant table waiting a seemingly interminable period to be served? - nothing happening and you chunner on about  'perhaps the chef's gone mad and murdered everyone in the kitchen. Chefs are very excitable - I saw a TV programme about one once - mind you, it was Lenny Henry and he gets excited about nothing', together with other possible causes  - 'kitchens are death traps, stands to reason doesn't it? All that heat and cooking oil , they used to pour it on the enemy off castle walls, for God's sake', and you ramble on about starving to death and 'we should have got a takeaway', then you nip out to the toilet.

      That's when it happens. You've only been gone a  minute but when you get back to the table I can guarantee the waitress has been, your food is sitting there going cold and your partner is smirking and well into the first round.

      The same if you're fishing: take your eye off the float for a second while you open your flask and pour a cup of hot tea and when you glance up, it's gone. Somewhere in the depths a giant carp is thoughtfully sucking the Spam off your hook while his mates look on laughing. They've been watching you all morning, waiting for this moment. So half the tea goes in your lap while you grab the rod, haul out a baitless hook and end up looking as if you've wet yourself. Well, you have - but not in the way people think, you've done it the more creative way by pouring hot liquid over the parts you didn't want it to reach, ruining your sex life into the bargain.

      Postmen have got the same sense of humour as fish: you're waiting for this parcel and don't want to miss the delivery, so you stay in all morning and he doesn't come. But you're out of milk. Could die for a brew. So you nip down to the corner shop. Only two minutes. TWO SODDING MINUTES and when you get back there's a note in the letterbox saying the postman tried to deliver a parcel but you weren't in - please pick it up from the local sorting office, three miles away, where there's a queue of fellow sufferers flowing right round the corner.

      And so the list goes on: you leave the football match a couple of minutes early in order to beat the crowd to the bus and that's when someone scores. You know they've scored from the crowd's roar but you don't know which side. You've spent one and three quarter valuable hours of your life sitting in a freezing stadium waiting for a moment that only came when you went, and now you've got to go on the internet to find the score; as a kid, you lie in bed determined to stay awake and see Santa when he comes. But you nod off - just for a minute- and that's when he comes. You miss the point that this 'minute' has stretched long enough for it to go light and, when you rush downstairs to check, the bugger's swigged the sherry and eaten the mince pies you left out. Still, he did leave the presents.

      When you aren't there, perhaps time lapse photography takes over: cars and people rush around like speeded up ants; or maybe none of them exist except for in your mind. You are the only reality and all the rest is an elaborate play constructed in your head. Come to think of it, if that's true, you, dear reader, do not exist apart from as an electrical impulse in my brain.

      For some reason that song 'They're Coming To Take Me Away' is constantly going round my mind. Anyone old enough to remember that one? Who sang it? (answer at end of blog).

      Anyway, coming back to time lapse -the same scenario is replaying in the garden: the border was absolutely weed free a couple of days ago and now it looks like a rain forest. You turned away and the time lapse clicked on: seeds bursting open to send writhing snakes of stems upwards, turning the rich soil green and competing with your chosen plants for water and nutrients. This happens with such regularity that the best way to deal with it is by taking the philosophical approach. Those dandelions could be useful in salads and in the health-giving vitamins and minerals they contain see here as can many other wild plants and those we call weeds. Most of our current day remedies originate from plants.
Hops -  to help you sleep
      Our fore-bearers were pretty creative, when you think about it - they had to be. There wasn't a chemist on every corner dispensing cures for most of the usual problems, so they looked around and used what was there: if you had a headache, willow or poplar trees had the remedy. Chew a bit of bark or bud and salicin within the plant changes to salicylic acid, a major constituent of aspirin, in your system. Interestingly this is not only of use to humans: when attacked by disease, some plants produce salycitates to combat it. This has led to the belief that we can actually improve a plant's immune system by watering it with aspirin. The technique is to add one and a half tablets to a gallon of water, plus a small amount of soft soap to act as a spreader, and spray it on every three weeks. Don't know if it works, but there's nothing lost in trying.

      On the same lines, herb pillows were once popular and are still used today to some extent. A herb pillow is simply a muslin bag stuffed with dried herb and placed in your pillow - case. The heat of your head releases the scent of the chosen herb. King George the third had trouble sleeping and pressures of state were becoming so great that he decided to hand over the reins to the Prince Regent. Then friends advised that a herb pillow filled with hops would help with the sleep problem, so he decided to give it a bash. Miraculously he got some good nights sleeps and felt completely refreshed. So improved was he that he changed his mind about handing over power and the prince regent went back to opening supermarkets and whatever else he'd been doing before. Apparently hops contain lupulin (the latin name of the plant is Humulus lupulus), and this is now known to be a sedative, giving scientific basis to the story.
Verbena - an aphrodisiac?
      Verbena is also used in herb pillows because it is believed to be an aphrodisiac. I don't know whether there is any scientific justification for this but, again, there's nothing lost in trying. However I have my own theory about this: if woody stalks are left in the herb mix, there is danger of one piercing your eardrum at the peak of sexual excitement, and this could be the source of that story about  too much of certain things making you go deaf.

      'They're Coming To Take Me Away' was sung by Napoleon X1V. Bit of culture thrown in, eh?

      Is there anybody there?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Common Fig (Ficus carica)

Fig in a pot
      Drainpipes were a speciality of mine. I could tell from a quick look whether a pipe would hold my weight or simply come away from the wall, taking me with it. Or at least I liked to think I could. An incident which indicated a degree of fallibility in my judgement occurred  way back in the seventies when a crowd of us were locked out of a house in Blackheath in south London:

      I was staying for a few days with friends who lived with their parents and we'd just got back to the house after a visit to the pub when Georgia and Jim, the friends, discovered that neither had got their keys with them. Mum and dad were out for the night, which was rather the point, because we'd met a number of other friends in the pub and were intent on having a bit of a party. Everyone was ready to give in and go back to the pub when I noticed that one of the drainpipes passed very close to a first-floor lavatory window and the small, horizontally opening top window was open a crack.

      "I could get through that", I said, squinting upwards with the confidence imbued by a couple or so pints of bitter.

      "Nah. Not possible", said Georgia in her Cockney accent "carm own, let's gow back t' the Nag's 'Ed" (eat your heart out, Dick Van Dyke).

      I grabbed hold of the drainpipe and tested it with a professional air.

      "Safe as houses", I commented, although it looked as if it'd  been fitted around the time of the Roman invasion, and I started to climb while everyone crowded round to watch.

      I'd got around fifteen feet up when the pipe gave a lurch and the upper fastenings slipped out by about an inch. Only a couple of rusty screws were somehow still holding it (and me) to the wall.

      "Ooh", came the cries of a couple of adoring girls in the audience (with the optimism of hormone filled youth trying to impress the opposite sex, my translation was 'adoring' when in fact there was probably a stronger element of 'wish the bugger'd fall off'' - an ethos similar to that among crowds who watch formula one with the almost subconscious yearning to see a crash).

      "Oh, shit", I heard Jim say, and was quite touched that he was scared for me until he continued, "Dad'll kill me when 'e sees that drainpipe"

      Desperately I lunged for the window-sill and held tight with one hand, taking some of the weight off the drainpipe screws, then I inched gingerly higher until, taking a deep breath, I was able to transfer my hand to the bottom lip of the open window. Holding onto this, I stepped from the drainpipe to stand on the sill. Then I put my hand through and was able to open the window fully before starting the process of going through it.

      "Ee'll not get 'is 'ead through, said one of the wags. Although this was no doubt meant as an insulting comment, I'd read somewhere that if you can get your head through an orifice, it is possible to follow with the rest of your body. However, reading a theory and being twenty foot up on a window sill about to test it, are slightly different.  The thought struck me that if my head didn't fit I may spend the rest of my life standing on this narrow strip of wood - there was no way I was trusting my future to a descent via that drainpipe.

      The window was about a foot high, so I got my head through sideways easily enough, but my shoulders were a different matter and it took a lot of wriggling before I was far enough through to get my hands on the inner sill. The next step was to walk my hands down onto the toilet seat, which was directly below the window. I managed to get my left hand on, then was carefully getting the other one in position when the seat came off. I then found that surfing lavatory seats is not one of my strong points: I shot down with my chin bouncing off the ceramic bowl and ended up in a semi conscious heap on the floor, still clutching the seat. From below they simply saw the bottom half of my body suddenly disappear through the window, as if the house were a giant vacuum cleaner that had just sucked me in. All this was accompanied by a high pitched, strangulated yell as that bit of metal which sticks up on a window frame made a fair try at castrating me.

      "Er, watch out for the seat, it's a bit loose", I heard Jim shout. I was quite interested to know the difference between 'a bit' and 'totally' - there's obviously a bigger language divide between north and south than I'd been aware of.

      My meteoric arrival had caused the door to slam shut and I now staggered to my feet with a view to opening it, going downstairs and letting everyone in at the front door - the hero of the hour and the focus of my girl fans.

      During the first stage of this victory jaunt the handle came off in my hand, a fraction of a second after another of Jim's hails reached me:

      "Er, watch out for the door handle, it's a bit...."

      "Loose", I screamed back at him, as I looked at it and fondly visualised how far a door handle could be inserted into Jim, "I'm now locked in", I added in a more reasonable voice. For some reason, this amused the wags down below and there was a guffaw of laughter.

      "I'll call the fire brigade", came Jim's ever-helpful voice, "they'll bring a ladder".

      "And then there'll be me and a fireman trapped in the bog. Who's going to rescue him?" I bellowed, wishing he'd just shut up and let me think.

       My only hope lay in the chance that the square rod which goes through the lock was still visible. If I could manoeuvre it back to my side of the door I may be able to carefully slot the handle back on, turn it, and make my escape. Luckily, when I bent, I could see it was still there, halfway through the door. It took me about ten minutes gingerly clawing at it with my pen-knife while two of the drunks in the garden helpfully accompanied my efforts with  that song about two incarcerated old ladies.

      When I finally made my escape and opened the front door with a flourish, the adoring girls had gone. They hadn't given a fig about my heroism - they'd just wanted blood and my failure to join them on the ground, complete with drainpipe, was a bit of a disappointment.

      And talking about figs (subtle join, eh?), for years now, I've been growing one in a tub and it regularly produces six or seven edible fruits. The fact that the roots are contained by the tub is an asset, because figs are known to yield best in such confinement: in greenhouses they have been grown historically in beds with sunken flagstones or suchlike sunk to create the same effect. Given free root run there is a tendency to get plenty of nitrogen which goes towards promoting leaf growth. This is a characteristic of many plants: make them feel slightly under threat and the reaction is to produce offspring to take over in the case of parental death.
Successful fig cutting

      A disadvantage suffered by a plant in a container is that the roots have far less protection in very cold weather than they do if penetrating deep underground. For this reason, I thought I'd lost the plant in the extreme winter a couple of years ago. All the top growth was dead. I tried to pull it out in order to use the container for something else, but it was completely jammed in and I temporarily gave up. This was lucky because a few weeks later some green shoot appeared and it is now back to its old self, having had a near death experience. The lesson in this, of course, is to wrap outdoor containers in bubble wrap or hessian to give a bit of winter protection. Also allow it a bit of time, even though it looks dead.

      The fig, Ficus carica (closely related to the rubber tree), originates in Western Asia and the Mediterranean, so you wouldn't expect to see it growing wild in Britain. However, it turns out there are a lot of them growing along the banks of the River Don in Sheffield. Apparently they date back to the time when Sheffield led the world in producing steel. This involved taking water from the river and using it in the cooling process. When the water was returned to the river, it was warm enough to cause the Don to run at a constant 20deg.C. - the temperature required for fig seeds to germinate. As further proof of this as a cause, the trees stopped germinating after the industry collapsed, although those already growing continued to thrive.
Cross-section showing the strange inner flowers
      Figs are, botanically speaking, not actually fruits - they are swollen stems with the minute flowers inside and some forms need pollinating by a specially adapted wasp: this crawls in through the small orifice at the tip of the fruit and begins a complicated life-cycle which is beneficial to both itself and the fig. However the cultivated fig we commonly grow doesn't need pollination (it is parthenocarpic), so there's no danger of eating wasps in a fig butty. They can be easily propagated by taking cuttings in summer. I've even got them to root very successfully in water in the warmth of the house.
Next year's embryonic fruit in leaf axils near tip. Remove larger ones below.
      Knowing when the fig is ready for harvesting is easy: wait til it goes a dark colour, softens, and hangs down rather than being held horizontally. Cracking is another indication of ripeness. In a warm climate it isn't unreal to expect up to four crops in a year, however in Britain one is a more realistic aim. The buds lower down the shoots become too large and tender to last the winter, so these should be removed in autumn. This causes stimulation of the new fruits which are developing like little marbles at the tips of the shoots.

Ripe Fig

      I spotted an interesting fig recipe in a blog by The Novice Gardener tap here. She does some really good stuff on growing and using - well worth a visit.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Clianthus puniceus (parrot's claw)

Animal Crackers

Parrot's Claw
      A Norwegian Blue parrot shot to fame for being  debatably dead in the Monty Python sketch. The bird I had dealings with wasn't blue, Norwegian, or dead.

      Nick and I were having a walk and had stopped to have a quiet pint in a pub on the promenade at Neston, a village on the Wirral in Cheshire. It is a strange place, being situated on the estuary of  the River Dee: at one time it was a port, a fact illustrated by the bollards for tying boats to which still decorate the prom. The only thing that stops it still being a port is a distinct lack of water. The river has silted up to such a degree that the view is of a wilderness of grass, sedges and rivulets which stretch into the dim distance of the Welsh shore, along which dredging has ensured a still healthy flow of water. The marshes which have been created are a haven for a wide spectrum of birds and other wildlife and this is graphically depicted at high tides:  the rising water causes  refugees who's nests and burrows are being flooded to escape across the promenade. Usually this takes place in front of a large audience. People come from miles around for the spectacle and birds of prey also arrive in force to take advantage of the situation.

      Anyway, there we were having our pints. The room was shared with the biggest parrot I've ever seen, presumably an attempt by the owners to bring back a more nautical ethos. He was doing a little dance, chained to a perch by the window. We'd gone through the compulsory routine of trying to teach it to swear but had achieved only a baleful look which implied he could teach us if the mood took him. His little dance involved slowly lifting one claw then the next, as if the perch were hot, while his head stayed in the same position, glaring unnervingly at us.

      We were admiring this choreography when a large bundle of hair appeared in the doorway. It was a Dulux dog (old English sheepdog to the uninitiated) and he seemed to be looking for someone. The parrot stopped his dance, remaining on one leg and watching the dog with an evil glint in his eye. Then he slowly turned his head and looked at us. He winked. I swear the bugger winked, before turning slowly back to watch the dog. Fido was obviously unaware of the parrot, too intent on his search for his owner. Anyway he then came padding through the room, unconsciously on a course very close to the base of the parrot's perch. As he drew level, the bird suddenly lowered his head and uttered a deafening SQUAAAAWK!!!! This had a remarkable effect on the dog, who shot off the ground and described a 380 degree turn in mid air, legs going like the roadrunner when he's gone over the edge of a cliff. I don't recall having seen a Dulux dog's eyes before - the hair covers them - but, as he came down, I did then: they were crazed with terror. When his paws finally met the ground they scrabbled frantically for a couple of second - legs a blur - before gaining traction, then he was gone. The parrot resumed his dance and, if a parrot can look smug, this one did.

      This is something I've noticed. Animals in captivity exact revenge for their loss of freedom in various ways. I've already mentioned the technique of the rabbit I looked after ( here). The dog was an unfortunate innocent victim of the parrot's vengeance, but the incident was an example of the same embittering process. Another that springs to mind occurred at Chester Zoo:

      A crowd of people were watching orangutans in an open area separated from visitors by a deep pool. The bloke standing next to me had one of those donkey-type braying laughs and he was practising it with annoying vigour at the animals' antics. Apart from annoying me, this eventually got through to the monkeys, because one of them turned and looked at him speculatively. The serious look on the animal's face provoked even more laughter from donkey, safe on his side of the moat, and the monkey turned away in disdain. Then he raised his left arm, as if to conform to the stereotypical armpit scratch. Before anyone realised what was happening, he'd bent slightly then, without turning round, threw something with amazing velocity backwards under his raised arm in the direction of the crowd. There was a resounding bonk! as eight inches of dried orangutan turd bounced off donkey's forehead, then the monkey slowly turned and eyed him thoughtfully. His look conveyed the message: 'on yer 'ead, mate'.
Parrot's claw
      Clianthus puniceus is an obvious follow-up to this story because its common name is 'parrot's bill'. It is also sometimes referred to as 'lobster claw'. The R.H.S. list it as having doubtful hardiness but I decided to chance a specimen someone had given me in a sheltered spot. It was on an east facing wall, protected from the north by the front of the house. The books recommend south facing but, short of turning the house round, I couldn't provide this luxury - sometimes it pays to suck it and see. I had created a narrow bed by digging out some of the concrete drive and, while this didn't exactly emulate its native North Island in New Zealand, it was the best I could do in Manchester.

      For a few years, it thrived. As it isn't a natural climber, more a scrambler, it was necessary to train it against a wire support , tying it in as it grew. The fact that it is evergreen meant that there was some interest even during winter when the pea-like foliage (it is a member of the pea family) made an interesting contrast with the brick. I was able to control its growth by occasionally clipping it back with shears after its late spring flowering and, in this position next to the front door, it provided an interesting conversation piece.

Nasturtiums giving later interest
      Because a plant is sometimes of doubtful hardiness, it pays to give some protection in winter - a deep mulch around the roots or a protective covering of fleece, and at first I did this. However, I got blase after a couple of years and didn't bother. That was when we had a bad winter and the plant decided to demonstrate its expertise at snuffing it. The books say that this often happens and that it will sprout again the following spring. Unfortunately, this one hadn't read the book.

      I had successfully taken a number of cuttings in case the plant should die but as it continued to thrive, I gave them away, so my parrot's claw is now just a fond memory.

      It's worth mentioning that if a plant is early flowering, as this one is, it may pay to prolong the period of interest by partnering it with something else which performs at a different time. I'd like to say I'd had this forethought but I hadn't. However, nature came to my rescue when nasturtiums (Tropaeolum major) suddenly appeared, having spread from a nearby container. They gave a welcome splash of colour until late summer, when the cabbage white caterpillars regularly made a bit of a mess of them. It is nice to add a few nasturtium leaves  to a salad, where their peppery flavour lends a refreshing piquancy and their position right next to the door meant they were comfortably available. The caterpillars aren't to my taste but apparently are rich in protein.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Plants for all seasons

The Door

Fletcher Moss Gardens, Didsbury, Manchester
      Many useful things were learnt from my efforts as home handyman, the one which eluded my wife was that there is a time to give up. Unperturbed by the long list of my failures in the do-it-yourself field, she always has a blind faith in the next venture being the one to exonerate me, the one which we will save money on. Such faith, unshaken by written-off cars, ruined lino, an entombed freezer, a disillusioned Gas Board and a multitude of other episodes, deserves admiration. But to then come up with a suggestion that I replace the front door, probably the most prominent feature of the house, the first thing encountered by every visitor (the gate has already fallen off, so that doesn’t count), calls sanity into question.

      On the face of it, putting a door in should be a simple task. You buy a door, take the old one off, and replace it with the new one. It doesn’t quite work like that though. For a start, my idea of shopping is to go into a shop, pick out the item that I need, buy it and take it home. My wife's approach differs in that she goes into the same shop, sees the item she needs, then goes to thirty others, looking at variations  of that item and everything else that they sell, before returning to the first one and buying it from there. The basic difference in the two systems is half a day.

      Then you come up against the problem of the letter box. There isn’t one on a new door. When I pointed this out to the salesman, thinking there had been a mistake, he informed me that this was in order to give sir a choice as to where his letterbox went. In this case ‘sir’ didn’t give a toss but, there being no alternative, ended up purchasing a letterboxless door. The next day was spent chipping, drilling, hacking and swearing at the new door, resulting in a letterbox hole the shape of a happy clown’s mouth.

      Another day was then wasted in searching for a letterbox lid either a.- the shape of the clown’s mouth or b.- big enough to hide the hole. At one stage in the search it seemed likely that we were doomed to buy another door, but eventually the gods took pity and we found a cover just large enough. More time was spent on putting the glass in and fitting a lock and handles. Then the long, slow process of sanding, varnishing, allowing to dry, removing varnish from the person of our youngest son, and then redoing the whole thing (including the youngest son) began. It took about a fortnight in all and I worked out that in man (and woman) hours alone, the cost would nearly have covered a new extension. At last, however, it was finished and, though I say so myself, the result was pretty impressive. All that remained was to fit it. The old door was removed and, with great ceremony (my wife wanted to smash a bottle of Champagne on it, but I talked her out of it on the basis that this would bring the cost up to two extensions), we placed the wood in the hole.

      There was a two inch gap between the edge of the door and the door frame. My wife cried, and it was then that I remembered the bit that was missing off the end of the tape measure. Pointing out the fact that it was only the same as the time she’d measured the pantry door for the new freezer didn’t seem to help. (I had received an anguished call at work, telling me that the new freezer had been delivered and it wouldn’t go through the door. This led to me cutting out and removing a large piece of the pantry door frame, inserting the freezer, then ‘invisibly’ mending the door frame so that it looked exactly as if part of it had been cut out and replaced. The pantry was so narrow that it would be impossible for a repair man to get at the freezer works without taking it out, so we resolved to remove at the first sign of it going wrong).

      After a lot of thought, I decided that the only way round the problem, short of buying a bigger door and starting all over again, was to narrow the door frame by inserting a thick piece of wood right down one side. The only snag I could see with this was that when we did remove, the furniture would have to be passed through the windows.

       In the interim stage before the doorframe was extended, an interesting problem arose. We were going out one morning, My wife and myself to work and the children to school. She was keeping the car after everyone had been dropped off. As the front door was conspicuous by its absence, I had evolved a system whereby I let everyone out, then bolted the inner porch door from the inside and flipped the catch on the lock for extra security. I then left through the back door and locked it accordingly. On this occasion Nicholas, our four year old son, had insisted on staying with me while I completed this procedure and it was probably his presence which led to me forgetting the outer back door key. There is a small back porch on the house, again with an inner and outer door. I pulled the inner door shut on its Yale lock but, when I tried to open the outer one, realised that it was locked. The keys to both were on the kitchen work-surface, just visible through the pebbled glass. We were imprisoned in a room the size of a ‘phone box.

      My wife has two speeds in the morning: static (she doesn’t get up until the last possible second), and lightening. Up to this latter point everything has been peaceful and easy-going, then suddenly everyone is being berated for whatever hasn’t been done, while life gears up to running pace. In the children’s case washing has usually been ‘forgotten’ and even on the rare occasion when it hasn’t, they end up doing it again. For this reason I thought she would be round to see where we were fairly quickly and would probably have the spare back door key. So we waited. After the first couple of minutes I tried shouting. No wife. This was getting to be a bit much and I began to get annoyed. I shouted louder. Nicholas started crying.

      “I want my mummy,” he said, tears forming a muddy river down unwashed cheeks.

      “And so do I,” I snarled, “don’t I just,” feeling my face reddening as anger caused me to literally dance up and down. What the hell was she doing?

      It turned out that what she was doing was sitting in the car being calm. My wife was into meditation This was the morning chosen for her new lifestyle wherein nothing would be allowed  to get her down. No more screaming at everyone. If things were getting frustrating, meditate. Think of the peace within.

      She sat there in the car, being calm, for a full five minutes, while an earthquake was brewing in the back porch. Eventually, in meditative serenity, she appeared round the corner from the front of the house. She stopped at the sight of us through the glass sides of the porch, then leaned against the wall and began to slide down it in what I thought was heart attack. But no, I should have known. This new liberated self was doing just what was needed under the circumstances: she was laughing.

      When she had recovered control enough to call Chris and Laura to join in the fun and pretend to feed the animals in the zoo, I understood the sort of motivation murderers can have. The ones who gain notoriety for wiping out their own families.

      “Just open the bloody door and let us out,” I screamed.

      “I want to go to school now, Daddy,” said Nicholas, reasonably. He had become calmer at the sight of his mother, and obviously felt an intuitive need to present a semblance of normality to the dangerous lunatic at his side.

“The spare key is on the bunch with the other one,” My wife shouted through the glass, “I put it there for safety.” Something in what she had said struck her as funny and she did the wall sliding trick again. Desperately I tried to think of a way out. In my panic, thoughts of destroying the back porch arose as a possibility. This was the final do-it-yourself. The ultimate. I had started by fitting a new door and it looked as if this was leading to the demolition of the rest of the house.

      “I’m going to have to smash the glass in the inner door,” I shouted, knowing that the thought of the damage and ultimate expense would at least stop the bugger laughing. It did.

      “Can’t,” she shouted, “it’s reinforced glass.”

      There was some decorating equipment in the porch, including a sheet used to protect furniture from drips. I wrapped this round my foot and tried a gentle experimental swing at the bottom panel of glass. It shattered into a thousand pieces, leaving us with no front door and a back one with a hole in it big enough to allow an elephant through. So much for reinforced glass.

      “Can I go to school now,” said Nicholas.

      And while meditation helped my wife ride the waves of this catastrophe, the same thought processes often serve to keep me sane. I think about the garden. Thinking is where a lot of us go wrong. An old boss of mine once made me spend the whole morning placing a large stone in the rockery at Fletcher Moss Gardens. I would get it in a 'that'll do' spot and he'd come out and say it didn't look right.

      "Get it in position, then stand back and look at it from different angles. Is the strata at odds with that of the other rocks? Is there a flow of stone like you'd get in a mountainside? Is it too big or too small, so that it looks daft?" and so on until he nearly ended up under it. But he was right. The stone was going to be there for a long time and if its positioning wasn't carefully considered it would always stand out like a sore thumb.

      This is where a lot of mistakes are made, leading to a garden being a jumble of plants often bought from the garden centre on impulse and planted where there is a space. It should be the other way round. The space should be carefully considered before a plant is bought for it, so that the result is part of a cohesive flow of ideas. To do this you need to know something about the growth habit, its ultimate size, period of interest and so on. A mock orange placed in front of a low growing Hebe may seem too obviously wrong, but the lure of the special offer, or the fact that the scent  makes it a must, often outweighs common sense. 
The six-foot high flowers of Rudbeckia nitida 'Herbstonne'
      I have book shelves crammed with gardening books, making it easy to check a plant's growth habits, but this has become far less necessary with the advent of Google. Anyone can find out in seconds all they need to know, so there is no excuse for cock-ups with plant positioning.

      The ultimate spread of a plant is important. The distance between should be determined in such a way that they ultimately grow together, causing a ground-cover effect which stops light getting to the soil,  reducing weed problems. Obviously this means that bare soil will be on show, ready to welcome the weeds until the chosen plants grow together. A mulch of tree bark between the plants, whether they be herbaceous or shrubs, will keep weeds down until the natural growth of your chosen subjects fills out and performs the same function. 

      Tree bark or wood chips ultimately break down into the soil and, in doing so, the bacteria which carries out the process need a bit of nitrogen. This they will take from the soil, possibly leading to the plants suffering a shortage, causing what is often referred to as 'burning': the leaves brown and shrivel. To avoid this, a nitrogenous fertiliser should be sprinkled on the soil before the mulch is spread.
Great in spring but what happens in summer?
      And while we're thinking - think about periods of interest. It may look great, having a border which springs into bloom in early June but if it's  finished by the end of July this leaves a large chunk of summer with not a lot on offer. It is then that the late flowering subjects like Rudbeckia, Fuchsia, Lobelia cardinalis, Echinaceae, the ubiquitous Verbena bonariensis and many others come into their own, complementing the autumn flush of berries and leaf colour. The same is true in spring: there is a tendency to plant up a luxurious display of alpines and bulbs which look brilliant when it is too cold to sit outside and fully appreciate them. 

      So take a leaf out of my wife's book: MEDITATE.