Friday, 31 January 2014

Allium ursinum (ramsons) and Lamium album (white dead-nettle)

Henry VIII
The flowers of ramsons (Allium ursinum)
A friend who is a primary school teacher told me this true story: she was taking history with the class and they were currently looking at Henry VIII. She had given a brief outline of Henry's activities before looking for feedback from her captive audience:

"What was unusual about Henry the Eighth?" she asked the class, and nine year old Billy's hand shot up.

"Please miss, 'e was unusual 'cos 'e 'adn't got a willy", he said, a serious look on his face.

There was a frozen silence which eventually gave way to suppressed sniggers from the rest of the class. Billy looked round indignantly. It wasn't often he came up with the right answer  but he knew he was on the ball with this one. Unfortunately he was known to be disruptive in class - a bit of a joker - but this was one step beyond, even for him.

"I beg your pardon".

"'E 'adn't got a wi.....".

"That is very rude  Billy Jones. Before I send to to the head's office, why did you say that?"

Anthony looked mystified. "Well, 'cos it sez it in the song".

"What song?"

To those of you who missed the more intellectual musical entertainments of the 'sixties, a group called Joe Brown and the Bruvvers recorded a song about a bloke called Henery who married the widow next door who had been married seven times before. At one point in the chorus, she firmly proclaims that she 'wouldn't have  a Willy or a Sam' (because she preferred an 'enery), and it was this, hearing it on his dad's 'Hits of the Sixties' CD, that Billy had unfortunately misinterpreted. Although Billy had got it wrong, the incident made me think of the potential for teaching through rhyme and music. For example:

Henry stepped down from his throne
To marry Anne Boleyn, it is known
Broke the rules of the church
And left the Pope in the lurch
By making a church of his own.

O.k. Maybe Wordsworth it isn't and as a full history of Henry it's a bit constricted, but I bet Billy'd go for it.

And believe it or not, there's a plant called Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus). Actually, it's a weed - often one of the first to appear on newly cultivated ground. In the past it was used as a vegetable and was widely grown in Lincolnshire, where it was known as Lincolnshire Spinach. However the Asian spinach then arrived on the scene and Good King Henry abdicated. It is useful as a green manure, its deep roots absorbing valuable nutrients which can then be made available for shallower rooting crops by being cultivated into the soil. The common name comes from German meaning 'good Henry' and is supposed to refer to an elf. Somewhere along the line the English stuck 'king' into the name and it has stuck. It has absolutely nothing to do with Henry the Eighth, but is the perfect bridge into gardening from the above anecdote.
A healthy bank of ramsons
A surprising number of hedgerow plants are edible and the survivor of some sort of holocaust could probably get by on native plants. During summer, at least. Ramsons (Allium ursinum) is one example, and can be found in damp woodland and riversides in  spring. Although having a strong smell, the leaves have a mild onion flavour and make a pleasing addition to omelettes, when finely chopped. They can also be used in salads and, until fairly recently, were commonly boiled like cabbage in the Scottish Highlands. At one time, ramsons was popularly used applied to infected wounds. Bulbs would be picked and pickled in brown sugar and rum in the Isle of Man, shipped to the mainland and used during the winter as a remedy for coughs and colds. Its efficacy was reflected in a seventeenth century saying:

Eat leaks in Lide (March) and ramsins in May
And all the year after physicians may play

Probably one of the biggest deterrents to walking in Scotland is the merciless attention of midges and a couple of leaves of ramsons, crushed and waved round your head, will keep them away. Don't wave too vigorously though as this may be misinterpreted as a cry for help and, before you know what's happening, you've been mountain rescued.
White deadnettle (Lamium album)
White deadnettle (Lamium album), another perennial native plant, is so called because its leaves resemble those of nettle. However, it is not related and doesn't have the potential to sting. It is often found growing alongside nettles and I've just come across an interesting little story in Hatfield's Herbal - A Secret History of English Plants: it seems that 'fairies became cross at their shoes being continually stolen by centipedes, so they decided to hide them among the stinging nettles. Pick a piece of deadnettle and turn it upside down: in every white flower, you will see two black pairs of fairy shoes, neatly hidden'. I've never tried that, but certainly will when they come into flower this year. The young leaves and stems (and I stress 'young') have culinary use when cooked without additional water and in the company of a knob of butter, some salt and pepper and perhaps spring onions to spice up the rather bland flavour. The plant is also used medicinally for menstruation problems, so, in all, if you are the survivor of the holocaust, this is another one to look out for.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Chocolate scented Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)

Anyone for tennis?
Embryonic tennis superstar with brother Chris
      Keeping fit is not all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. The ones who put the most effort into it seem to be also the ones on first name terms with the people in A& E. I've got a couple of friends keen on doing marathons: they train themselves to a point when they're running twelve miles a night after work, then they get a cold, which would be a minor annoyance to an unfit slob like me but, with them, turns into an infection that lays them low for a fortnight. Or they're just doing a bit of vacuuming, make an awkward turn round the sofa, and something goes in their leg. This leads to them watching the marathon on the telly, groaning as the hoards wheel by and snarling as some nutter in a suit of armour or Yogi Bear outfit waves cheerfully at the camera.

      My daughter Laura has found a way round these most painful aspects of fitness: she has developed a craze for tennis equal to that of the marathon runners for running, and recognises the importance of fitness in achieving success. To this end, she has joined the boot-camp regime at the tennis club and endures the tortures with a complacency which surprised me to the point of asking for details:

      "How exactly does it work?" I asked her one day, visualising marines climbing twenty foot nets, dropping into knee deep mud before crawling through a tunnel underwater while wearing God knows how many kilogrammes of equipment and being berated by a foul-mouthed sergeant major.

      "Oh, he shouts a lot and we have to do loads of press-ups followed by sit -ups and then he makes us sprint round the gym", she told me, while in the process of demolishing a bar of chocolate (she once showed me the chocolate stash in her cupboard and it explained why she has to keep her plates on the floor).

      "And how many press-ups do you have to do?", I asked, finding this a bit hard to swallow.

      "Oh, loads", she said airily, while rooting in her bag for another Crunchie, "look, I'll show you", and with that, she knelt down on the floor, leaned forward on her hands and worked her feet back until her body was straight and at an angle of about 35 degrees with the ground. Then she sort of shook, an agonised look on her face and arms barely bending at the elbows. She did this for a few seconds then stood up.

      "Yes, but I thought you were going to show me the press-ups", I said.

      "That was it- I did ten of 'em - didn't you see?" she said in amazement. I thought for a moment she had done a Superman and moved at the speed of light while I was blinking. Maybe she had, because the Crunchie had gone, along with any chance of her being accepted by the S.A.S.

      "Oh, well what about the sit ups?" I asked and, obligingly, she lay on her back on the floor. Then she raised her head and looked at me with that same agonised grit-toothed expression, lowered it and repeated the action about ten times, "See", she said. The only limb on her body which had moved was her head (we'll count the head as a limb, because no other part of her was getting any exercise). Then she gave my wife and I a demonstration of how her forearm smash and service had improved, standing in the middle of the living room and going through the movements with a lot of arm flailing and vicious looks. Thankfully though, on this occasion she wasn't actually holding a racket, so avoided the usual devastation to lampshades or any living creature in the vicinity.

      So there you go, Serena Williams. Read this and quake.
A field of pink Cosmos
      Inevitably, all that talk about chocolate brought Cosmos atrosanguineus to mind, because it is so reliably chocolate scented. Cosmos is an attractive plant occurring in annual and perennial forms and atrosanguineus, with chocolate-maroon flower heads is one of the latter. It originates from Mexico where it is now extinct in the wild, so I suppose gardeners have some sort of responsibility to keep it growing. It's not self-fertile, which means that it can only be propagated by vegetative means: for the gardener this is achieved with basal cuttings in early spring using bottom heat (not for the gardener - for the cutting); commercially, growers use tissue culture (this involves scraping tiny samples from the parent plant and placing them in agar containing nutrients and growth hormones called auxins. It has to be carried out in sterile conditions and isn't an easy option for the amateur gardener). Coming from Mexico, you wouldn't expect the plant to be hardy and it isn't. In cold areas it is recommended to lift the tubers and store them, like Dahlias, in mildly damp coconut fibre out of the reach of frost. This is a case of do as I say, rather than do as I do, because I forgot to lift mine and that is why there is no photo.

      The scent of chocolate is more noticeable late in the day. If you can't smell it, a tip Alan Titchmarsh once gave on 'Gardeners' World', relating to scented plants in general, was to breathe warm breath onto the flower, while cupping your hand round it.This, for some reason, releases the aroma.

      The closely related Cosmos bipinnatus is a reliably showy annual which has white, pink or crimson flower heads but unfortunately lacks the promise of returning next year. As with most plants, removal of dead flowers will ensure a much longer display because the plant will not be wasting energy in developing seed. When the flowers are removed, the natural response is to produce more in order to ensure future generations. By leaving a few flowers to develop seeds, you can collect them at the end of the season, keep them in a paper envelope in a frost-free place, then sow them the following spring. Sometimes they'll even self sow.
Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
      Dahlia is another plant originating in Mexico and some species are fairly similar to Cosmos. It is named after Doctor Anders Dahl, a Swedish botanist who was a pupil of Linnaeus, the bloke who invented the current  binomial naming system for plants and animals. This, like Cosmos, is a member of the daisy family and consists of some 30 species and 20,000 cultivated varieties. My current favourite is 'Bishop of Llandaff', with semi-double ('double' refers to more than one row of petals) red blooms and attractive reddish foliage which blends well with greener companions. It needs the same winter treatment as Cosmos atrosanguineus in order to give frost protection. Growing to a height of about 3 foot it is a notable addition to any border. Pity it doesn't smell of chocolate but maybe, even now, some hybridiser is working on that, along with roast beef, turkey, freshly baked bread.......

      God. I want my dinner.


Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Plants for dry places

A Hint of Clint
Cacti in flower (/Wythenshawe Park Glasshouses)
      A few years ago some friends in Knutsford rang and asked if I could take their dogs for a walk. They were both ill in bed (the friends, not the dogs) and weren't able to go out, so I was happy to help. I arrived at their house dressed in a long coat and a Stetson I'd bought in America. I felt I looked like Clint Eastwood but my wife was more of the persuasion that I looked like a pillock. Women can say things like this, but a bloke is best advised to lie when asked something like 'does my bum look big in this?'

      When I arrived in Knutsford the rain was deluging, running off the brim of the Stetson in a constant stream as I knocked at the door. One of the dogs was an alsation and the other was a small mongrel. I looped a lead over each wrist and was given a pooper scooper. To the uninitiated, this is a sort of miniature of those things with two plastic rectangles hinged in the middle which are used to pick up leaves. However, my objective was not leaves. I was also given a Marks and Spencer bag for the product of the pooper scooper (Knutsford is quite posh - it'd have been a Tesco bag in Wythenshawe) and thus armed we set off down the road.

      We walked for some distance without the dogs feeling the need to put the scooper to the test, and I was becoming optimistic about the chances of reaching open country so I could let them off to relieve themselves where it wouldn't be a problem. However, it was towards the end of the built-up area that the alsation chose to display his expertise in bowel movements. He did it on the top of a low,double-skinned wall which was attractively planted along the middle with a display of alpines. How he achieved this is hard to explain and anyone coming along a few minutes later would think it had been done from a trapeze. Anyway, this was closely observed by a number of people sitting in the bay window of the house, having afternoon tea.

      I tried not to panic and flourished the pooper scooper in one hand and the M&S bag in the other, sure that both artifacts would impress the diners. Then I delved down dextrously and scooped up what proved to be a wet one with the intention of depositing it in the bag. Unfortunately, at this point the mongrel, attached to my bag wrist,  saw a cat across the road and made a dash for it.

      In one of the 'Dollar' spaghetti westerns Clint disappears in a cloud of smoke, only to dramatically reappear and blast the badmen to kingdom come. I disappeared in a cloud alright, but it wasn't smoke.

      And so we continued hurriedly down the road, having put the afternoon tea people off their chocolate cake. After their earlier reticence, the dogs now began to work on the old Magnus Magnusson principle of  'I've started, so I shall continue' and the M&S carrier bulged.

      I'm not really a religious person but I remember praying that day: 'please God', I said, 'if I ever get mugged for my bag, make it today'.

      Clint, of course, will always be associated with Westerns and Westerns bring desert cacti to mind. I'm not going to spend a lot of time looking at them but it is true to say that they are one of the easiest plants for the lazy gardener, needing minimum watering and feeding. Cacti generally thrive in a position of full sun (with a few exceptions like Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) which grow naturally on shady rocks or tree branches in humid conditions). They can't be grown outdoors in winter because freezing temperatures combined with moisture will cause them to rot and die. However, give them a dry position, like a cold south facing porch, and the low temperatures will be no problem. Where they grow in the desert the thermometer can drop extremely low but the ground will remain dry - reproduce these conditions by giving minimum winter watering, and you can't go far wrong. They're also quite happy in the extreme heat, generated behind unshaded glass, which would cause many houseplants to shrivel.
Hyde Hall Dry Garden
      Maybe we don't have desert conditions in the garden, not in the U.K. anyway, but a sandy soil can certainly make it difficult for some plants. Sand consists of hard silica grains impervious to water, meaning that it simply drains through, creating dry growing conditions. This is recognised as being a difficulty encountered by many gardeners and gardens like the Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex and Hyde Hall Gardens, also in Essex, have areas specifically created to show off plants suited to dry soils.

      Most good gardening books will have lists of plants suited to specific conditions so I'm not going to churn one out myself but I'd like to look at three good examples:
Iberis sempervirens at Bloom's Nurseries, Bressingham
      Iberis sempervirens 'Masterpiece'  is an evergreen form of candytuft I bought in bloom last summer and it has remained in flower right over Christmas. Its height is about a foot and it can spread as much as three foot. The flowers are predominantly white but have purplish unopened buds. The area it's planted in is about ten feet from large birch trees which take all the water from the soil. Other plants I've put there need constant watering and top dressing with copious amounts of organic matter to act as a sponge and retain moisture, but the Iberis thrives in a little oasis of relative drought. It is ideal as a front-of-border plant but would work equally well on a wall or rockery.
Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) on wall at Chartwell
      Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is another dry-garden plant I'm enthusiastic about. Its origins are Mediterrranean, having been introduced to the U.K. before the 1600's and subsequently naturalising to the point that you can find it growing wild almost anywhere. High up on walls is a favourite situation, illustrating just how happy it is with extremely dry conditions. It actually has a shorter life if put in an area where it receives plenty of water, and the over-enthusiastic gardener can kill it with kindness. Give a plant its natural conditions and, usually, it won't let you down. My original plant just appeared - I didn't plant it, or at least I don't remember doing so. Now it seeds itself prolifically with the result that most of my friends now have one.
Helianthemum (roots in dry soil)
      Rock rose (Helianthemum) is classed as an evergreen  sub-shrub and can be found growing in calcareous areas of the U.K. The wild plants are either white or yellow but many hybrids are now available in pink, orange, bronze and yellow. Again, it is ideal on a rockery or wall, with its height of eighteen inches and spread of two foot.

      Whatever your garden aspect or soil type, there are always plants which have adapted to those conditions, so it is important to read up before forking out for additions which may disappoint.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Natural Garden

Science with a bang
Burnet moths
      My first job, at the age of sixteen, was working as a laboratory technician at a South Manchester independent boys grammar school. The work entailed setting out experiments for what was then O and A level chemistry, physics and biology, keeping chemicals topped up and being a general odds body for the science teachers. There were three of us and one was a character named Ted. He was one of those blokes who was always one step ahead in terms of achievement or ownership: you'd climbed Kinder and he'd just got back from Ben Nevis (where he'd given the mountain rescue people a few tips); you'd got a new bike and it happens he'd got the more expensive, newer, model - most of us have come across the type, though we've never seen the proof of the ascent of Ben Nevis or witnessed the bike ( he always comes to work on the old one to save the other for best).

      Eventually this characteristic manifested itself in the workplace: one of the 'A' level students  had made some nitrogen triiodide by mixing iodine crystals with ammonia, then filtering and drying the solids. The resulting compound has great attraction to most boys because it's highly unstable and the touch of a feather is enough to cause it to explode. Sprinkled on the floor it has the delightful habit of going off when someone walks on it, often causing an impromptu dance a bit like that often seen in old cowboy films when the bully fires a six-gun at his victim's feet. Obviously, this appealed to us and we occasionally made a bit of the stuff and had a few laughs with it. However, unbeknown to the rest of us, Ted, as usual, was thinking bigger : we were sitting having our tea break one day during school holidays when there was an almighty explosion from upstairs at the far end of the building - the biology lab.

      "Christ!" Yelled Bunny "it's started!". Bunny, named in honour of his ears (we reckoned he'd move like the clappers if the wind was coming from behind), was worried more than most about the Russians and the Cold War situation we were in the middle of. This, to him, was undoubtedly the first attack.

      There was a short stunned silence, then we pulled Bunny from under the table and ran along the corridor and up the stairs to the biology lab.

       At first there was no visible damage but a sort of rustling noise coming from the far end.

      "Ah", said Ted, sheepishly, "I think the problem may be due to my triiodide. I put a bit of it over there", he pointed, "I thought it'd dry out quicker with the bulb under it".

      At the time, dissection of anything that moved was part of the biology curriculum and, for this purpose, locusts, rats and cockroaches were all bred in controlled conditions. Ted had put his nitrogen triiodide on top of the cockroach container which was  heated by a bulb attached to the glass lid. The container was really a large fish tank with bits of varied detritus and food in the bottom to keep the cockroaches happy. We walked over to it and at first I thought the crackling sound our feet were making was Ted's nitrogen triiodide. It wasn't. The noise was made by us standing on live cockroaches - thousands of them. The tank was now an ex cockroach container and pieces of glass were all over the lab. The adjacent locust cage (a large wooden box with a glass front and a small heater) was still mostly intact but a triangle of glass had been blown out. Locusts were pouring out of the hole and heading straight for the windows. Luckily, these were all shut because of the holiday, and the plague we foresaw never hit Manchester.

      "How much of the stuff did you make", I bawled at Ted, while we scrabbled to block the hole in the locust cage (this was eventually achieved in a highly professional way by stuffing it with toilet paper). He made a vague hill-like  indication with his hand, implying that (as expected) the amount we normally made was like an ant hill towards his Everest.

      They were American cockroaches, big, reddish in colour and very fast moving. I'm not sure what the difference is between them and other species but suspect that examination with a magnifying glass will show them to be wearing cowboy hats.

      I'd read somewhere that, should mankind be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, insects will take over the world. In justification of this theory, it was interesting to see that these cockroaches had survived an explosion of devastating proportions. Reproduced on human scale it would have annihilated South Manchester. Admittedly,some of them were a bit wobbly on their feet, others were running in circles and, if you looked very closely, their eyes were revolving. However, on the whole, they were in pretty good nick and just wondering what the hell that bang had been.

      And so we spent a pleasant afternoon chasing cockroaches through a cloud of locusts intent on repeating their success in Egypt. Eventually, when we'd caught as many of the escapees as could be reasonably expected, we collapsed onto lab stools.

      "Well, that was a laugh, bet the buggers have all gone deaf", joked Ted, before going on to elaborate how his explosion was bigger than any that Bunny and I had managed.

      I expect that isn't the only occasion he's been beaten up.
Birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) So called because seed heads look like birds' feet
      While we're on about plagues, we're all familiar with regular explosions of the greenfly population: Stephan Buczacki, in his book 'Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants' offers the cheery thought that '.....a single black bean aphid alighting on a broad bean plant in early June could theoretically give rise to a population of 2,000,000,000,000,000 by the end of August'. This doesn't happen simply because of predation on them by bluetits, ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies and other agencies. It's common sense therefore to present a garden which is wildlife friendly and to use pest controls which target only the pest. In the case of greenfly, a regular spray with a solution of washing-up liquid will deal with any that the natural predators miss.
Six spot burnet moths emerging from chrysalises
      However, not all insects and caterpillars are a problem to the gardener and by encouraging many of them we are adding another dimension of interest to our plot. This can be achieved by growing some of the plants known to host the desirable species (see the blog how to grow wildflowers). The burnet moth feeds on birds-foot trefoil and is day-flying, unlike many moths. It lays its eggs on grass or flower stems and they hatch out in June and July. Their bodies contain cyanide obtained from food plants, so birds will not attack them. The fact that they have bright markings is a warning to their predators in the same way as the colouring of ladybirds which are similarly chemically protected.
Cinnabar moth caterpillar
      An equally poisonous insect (though not to humans unless you happen to eat moths) is the cinnabar moth and this looks similar to the burnet. Its caterpillars are remarkable because their colouring looks a bit like a rugby shirt. They can be seen in large numbers on ragwort, a plant which should not be encouraged as it is poisonous to horses, damaging their livers and causing a painful death. For this reason it is classed as a noxious weed and should be removed and destroyed. However, it is so common that complete eradication would be an impossible task, so it can commonly be seen in the countryside and motorway embankments - probably a good thing for the cinnabar moth which is so reliant on it. It seems that a horse wouldn't eat the plant in its normal growing state - the danger occurs when grass including some ragwort has been cut and left lying, causing the animal to mistake it for hay.
Common blue butterfly
Common blues mating
      The common blue butterfly uses birds foot trefoil (pictured further up the page) as a food plant - further encouragement to introduce some among the crazy paving, where it will attract a number of different insects. The addition of a herb bed is also a magnet for insects, and is to be highly recommended to the gardener who demands more than just a pretty, hygienic display.

      There's a lot more than you may think to be enjoyed in the countryside and the garden - it's just a matter of learning how to look.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Pond-side plants

War in the Park
Purple loosestrife next to River Avon
      I remember a bloke who worked at a south Manchester park. His name, for the purpose of this exercise, was Ernie. He was of West Indian extraction and only had one eye. Actually, he had two, but one was glass and didn't move much, so that if you forgot which was the real one you didn't know where he was looking. This once had violent consequences in a  pub when jealous lover mistakenly thought Ernie was eyeing up his girlfriend when he was actually watching football on the TV.

      Ernie was an easy-going man and an accomplished musician, playing regularly in jazz clubs. He had numerous responsibilities in the park and would often be the one willing to work late when the need arose. This suited him because Jazz clubs, it seems, don't utter a clarinetist's peep until pigeons are well into beatific dreams about crapping or whatever else turns them on.

      One of his duties was to oversee the weekly meeting of the boat club who carried out their activities on the large park lake. The radio-controlled boats were, in most cases, scale models of real ships: one was a riverboat of the style used on the Mississippi and often featured in Maverick (remember Maverick?); others ranged from galleons to a Thames barge and one was an outstanding model of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, which had inflicted such heavy damage on British merchant ships in the Second World War. The original had eventually been cornered by three British ships in the Battle of the River Plate and, though badly shot up, escaped to Montevideo harbour. Here, the skipper, labouring under the mistaken impression that heavy British reinforcements were on the way, scuttled the ship rather than have it fall into enemy hands.

      Boat club was on a Thursday night and Ernie usually let them over-run their finishing time of nine pm but on this particular occasion needed to get away on the dot. There was a jazz gig at Chester and it would take him some time to get there.

      "Right lads. Sorry, but I need to lock up and go".

      There was a general sigh as the men (they were all men) were hauled back from their Walter Mitty worlds where they sailed the seven seas, (muttering things like 'avast', 'hoist the mizzen' and 'ahhar lads'), to the reality of Platt Fields boating lake. With the exception of The Admiral Graf Spee, the boats turned and headed for shore, the riverboat emitting puffs of smoke from its funnel and giving a hopeful hoot which was closer to the moan of a dying man. The Admiral Graf Spee continued cruising offshore.

      "Come on George, I've got to lock the boats up and get off", said Ernie to the Admiral Graf Spee skipper.

      "You'll have to wait" was the answer coming from the man who'd just sunk half the British fleet, "another half hour won't hurt".

      It took a lot to rile Ernie but he now fixed George with a fierce glare which lost impact because George was looking at the wrong eye and thought he was addressing a nearby tree.

      "Shift your bloody boat back here, now!", said Ernie, not realising that you can't address a German sea-going skipper in that way.

      George muttered something about sex and travel, flicked his manual control, and headed the Admiral Graf Spee towards the centre of the lake.

      "Right", said Ernie and, clutching a long boat hook, stepped off the bank into the lake.

      When I used to fish in the lake as a young boy I would fantasise about the great depth of the black, forbidding looking water, sometimes worrying that staring too much would lure me into its hypnotic clutches. Ernie now shattered my illusion as he waded knee deep out towards the departing German battleship.

      I'm not sure how you scuttle a ship in the way the skipper of the Admiral Graf Spee had, but assume there's a big plug in the bottom and if you pull that out the water comes in and does its job. Ernie was equally unsure about the technique but solved it in his own way by ramming the boat hook through the fibre glass hull. He said afterwards that he'd meant to just hook it and pull it back but whatever the truth of the matter the Admiral Graf Spee miniature met the same fate as its full sized namesake. It was still heading for the middle of the lake as it slowly subsided below the waves. All that was lacking was a sunset and someone playing The Last Post on bagpipes.

      I don't know what happened to Ernie after that but suspect he may have gone on to drive the fastest milk-cart in the west.
Monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) next to River Dove in Dovedale
      Platt Fields lake is artificial, the banking consisting of overhanging concrete stonework. This is a bit sad really, because the marginal plants, which enrich river banks and natural lakes and ponds, are not able to grow and break up the harsh interface between water and concrete. Good gardening is generally about features gradually merging with others, creating a flow of  interest rather than presenting stark contrasts.

      A native plant which thrives in a more natural waterside is purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Called loosestrife because it was once believed to ease tension and, in support of this,  Richard Mabey offers a quote from classical times: 'that if placed on the yoke of inharmonious oxen, it will restrain their quarrelling'. Useful to know, eh? With its purple-pink flowers it can enrich any dampish border but is most at ease on the waterside. It  grows to a height of four to five feet. Similarly useful is Monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus). This is a North American introduction which has naturalised in the wild and can commonly be seen in watery settings. Echoing the colour of monkey flower, marsh marigold, another native, is another cheerful adjunct to any pondside. Its Latin name of Caltha palustris is of use because palustris means 'of the marsh' and indicates that it thrives in a damp soil.

      The list of pondside plants is considerable and a number have been considered in an earlier blog marginals (click if interested).

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
      When I was a child I was fascinated by ponds and the life they support. I can remember trying to make one by digging into the clay of our suburban garden and filling the hole with numerous pan-fulls of water from the kitchen which we then called 'the scullery'. Sometimes the water would hang around for a while but it would always eventually drain away, leaving my introduced frogs with nowhere to have a happy croak. I then progressed to the use of a large pan buried to its lip and filled with water. This worked well until my mum found it and indignantly returned it to the scullery after ejecting the equally indignant frogs. To shut me up, she gave me an old foot bath and this sufficed until I got older and could afford a liner. For details about making a water feature see making a waterfall.
Amorous frogs