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.

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