Friday, 28 March 2014

Deep Bed System - Why Dig?

Why Dig?
Artificial digger
      I used to think that bastard trenching was about burying someone you didn't like. College rectified this impression by pointing out that the term refers to a system of digging whereby the soil is turned over to a depth of two spade blades. Well-rotted organic material is incorporated into the bottom layer and the overall effect is that of aerating and enriching the soil as the series of trenches march across the plot, the soil from the next one filling its predecessor.

      All this seems very logical until someone asks the seemingly daft question 'but why dig at all?' Think about it: untold billions of acres of land have never been touched by a spade but are populated by a profusely growing collection of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and annuals. So why do we spend so much time breaking our backs under the impression that our way produces better results than nature? The answer to this conundrum lies in the simple fact that we walk on the soil, compacting the crumb structure and excluding air. Plants respire - a process which involves roots converting sugars into growth energy and one of the raw materials necessary for this to take place is the oxygen our size nines have squeezed out.
Natural digger
      One way round this problem is to adopt the deep bed system of growing: by creating a bed about four feet wide we present ourselves with an area we can reach across to cultivate plants without walking on it. An annual top dressing of a couple of inches of well-rotted organic material will then be incorporated into the soil by worms, mining bees and various other organisms. Their digging activities allow air to the lower levels, at the same time as incorporating a natural drainage system to cope with excess water. Creating a good crumb structure is what it is all about. Healthy soil crumbs will have spaces between, allowing water to drain and giving access to air. The crumbs themselves will contain a balance of organic material which acts as a sponge to retain enough water and nutrients for plants to thrive and the hard, impervious, mineral particles also do the drainage bit.

      By using a deep bed system we are working with nature, enabling natural soil inhabitants, of which there are millions per cubic foot, to beaver away at doing what they do best - breaking down organic material. Picture the scene: a leaf falls from the tree and a nearby worm, leaning on his mini Spear & Jackson stainless steel spade, wipes the sweat off his brow, grabs the stalk and starts dragging it into the cave he's just excavated. Easy, isn't it. Out with the deckchair.
Mining bee excavation between drive bricks
Mining bee
For more about worms go to composting - worms.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


More to a herb than meets the eye.
Willow Catkins
We've got some friends in Knutsford and, when we go round to see them, they always seem to have a bowl of some new recipe of crisps for us to help ourselves from. On one memorable occasion, I tried a good handful and found the taste disgusting.

"I'd complain to Booths about these, if I were you", I said to our hostess as she came into the room,  "they taste like scented cardboard"

"That's probably because", she replied with admirable constraint, "you're eating my pot- pourri".
And that's the thing about herbs. They aren't just the pretty selection of plants which fit happily in the bed under the window - according to the dictionary definition, they are 'plants which can be used for scent, insecticides, medicine and culinary purposes'.

If you're going for the 'scent' bit, it's easy to make a pot-pourri using this recipe I spotted in a Dr.D.G.Hessayon book: add 1oz dried orris root, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and a few drops of flower oil (rose or violet) to a quart of dried flower petals. Shake them together in a plastic bag and leave the mixture sealed for about three weeks before putting it in a dish or pomander. Apparently only rose, lavender and carnations retain their scent after drying, so forget some of the obvious things like cornflower and marigolds unless you want to add some different colours.

Even some trees come under that general definition: in days of yore, a person with a head-ache would chew a willow or poplar bud to ease the pain. Relatively modern science  laughed at this as an old wives tale but then looked suitably embarrassed when it was discovered that the buds and bark of these trees contains salicin which, in the human digestive system, becomes salicylic acid - a major component of aspirin.
Hop (Humulus lupulus)
Similarly, herb pillows, much recommended in the old days as remedies for all sorts of things, were suddenly discovered to often have well-founded scientific reasons for their efficacy: King George 3rd had difficulty sleeping to such a degree that he was ready to hand over the crown to the Prince Regent. Fortunately, one of his mates suggested he try a hop pillow. The pillow is simply a muslin bag containing the dried herb which is placed in your own pillow, allowing  the heat from your head to release the volatile oils. Anyway, Georgie boy suddenly found he was sleeping properly and, after a few successful nights, decided to continue with his duties as king and dispensed the poor old Prince Regent back to the world of opening supermarkets or whatever it is they do. The Latin name for hop is Humulus lupulus and lupulin is a known sedative.

Verbena, used in a herb pillow, is popularly recognised as an aphrodisiac. A potential problem with this is that, should any hardened stalks be left in the pillow, there is a danger of one penetrating the eardrum at a moment of erotic bliss. This, I feel, is the source of the belief that too much of certain things make you go deaf.
      For more on the unusual uses of herbs go to this.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Spring Interest

Mud, Glorious Mud.
Early flowering, sweetly scented evergreen, Daphne odora
      It's probable that, if you look around, the British are no dafter than other nations and my youngest son watches some stuff on TV which makes the Japanese fairly strong contenders for masochistic world champs. We, however, are less elaborate in our tortures and don't need the sophisticated endurance courses they dream up. Take the Maldon Mud Race, for example. All that needs is a river and a crowd of nutters: the Mud Race started way back in 1973 and initially was a race across the river at low tide to reach a barrel of beer, consume a pint, then return. I suppose there was some logic in the free pint bit, but eventually there were so many people doing it that a barrel was not enough and the impracticality of building a brewery on the site ruled out that aspect. Now they just run through mud.

      The runners wait for low tide when the remaining depth of water is only two or three feet, then they swarm down the muddy banks, a bewildering cross-section of people ranging from the competitive types in running gear to the usual self-acknowledged no-hopers dressed as nuns, convicts, Superman, Father Christmas, the hero of the 'Where's Wally?' books, and all the other outfits usually reserved for marathons. If you Google it, you'll even see one bloke doing it completely naked, his dignity preserved by a thick layer of mud. Actually the layer may not be that thick - the cold water having frozen his assets.

      And 'running' isn't really the right term for what goes on here. Although the first few yards may qualify, the high stepping ballet which develops is more reminiscent of someone going barefoot through upturned drawing pins. Then there's the wildebeest stage, where they bounce their way through the water like a David Attenburough herd trying to avoid crocodiles, followed by the snake slither up the other side where their colouring uniformly becomes that of Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer'. I often wonder what happens to the wildlife in the river as the herd comes trampling through. Presumably a lot of cod become flounders or other species of flatfish.

      Showers are rigged up for when the survivors emerge and the next stage is to make their way to the pub, where the lack of a pint on the other bank is made up for with interest. All that then remains is to head for the Glastonbury Music Festival to do the training for the next run.

      See what I mean about the British and nutters?
Euphorbia characias wulfenii
      And as the mud of our glorious winter recedes, the denizens of the garden begin to reassert themselves: the frogs are croaking their sexy chorus, Delphiniums are pushing their heads out, ready to renew battle with slugs (protect them with slug barriers at this stage and subsequent older growth seems to be off the menu - leave them to their own devices though and all that will be left is smiling, fat, slugs ); rhubarb is shining bright green and red, unfazed but maybe indignant after having had the fence fallen on it in the hurricane; nasturtiums clamber happily up the south-facing wall trellis, having deferred to the mild winter by simply going a darker green and slowing down a bit, when normally they disappear altogether; hardy fuchsias, which usually stay in bed a lot later, are donning foliage, promising a longer season than usual and the ubiquitous wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae) is rather frighteningly appearing everywhere, subtending Daphne odora blooms, numerous daffodils and other early flowering bulbs.
Resilient nasturtiums (Tropaeolum)
      A larger, more imposing Euphorbia is growing by the front gate and has been in full flower for a few weeks now: E. characias 'Wulfenii' displays some of the spreading habits of E.robbiae but seems to do it more by effective seed dispersal than runners. It has appeared next to the wall in the street and although rather pleasingly breaking up the hard outline of the wall has more literally started doing the same thing to the pavement and it has had to go. Originating in Portugal and western Mediterranean area, it is a statuesque evergreen shrub intensely disliked by some (wife) and loved by others (me) and the foliage offers pleasing interest even when the flowers give up the ghost. Rather surprisingly closely related to poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), it bleeds the white sap (called 'latex') common to the spurges and, as well as being poisonous, this can cause inflammation and blisters, so is best treated with respect. I once accidentally tested the poisonous aspect, to a limited degree, by getting some sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) mixed up with chickweed (Stellaria media) which I was using in a salad. It was extremely uncomfortable, causing my tongue to swell up. On the positive side, my wife said, at least it shut me up.

Rhubarb which first appeared in mid February

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Winter Wildlife Protection

Adventures With 007
Wildlife Hotel
      I still have an inflatable boat stored in the roof of the garage. It is a four manner (or womanner or man an womanner - best to be politically correct). It's got an engine and has seen a few interesting adventures:

      My wife and I ran a youth club in our younger days and on one occasion took a group of them to Norfolk for a boating holiday on a houseboat. I wanted to take the inflatable as it was useful for exploring some of the smaller streams and I'd fixed it to a roof-rack borrowed from a mate at work. Anyway, we were heading along Chester Road towards the M6 when there was a funny sort of rending noise and we became aware that something was going on in the road behind.

      "Good God - what's that?" my wife shouted as someone behind beeped urgently on their horn and I slowed down, allowing an extremely low vehicle to pass us in a shower of sparks. There was something about it that looked familiar and it only took a moment to realise it was my boat. This must have been the first time in history that an inflatable boat sledged along the A556 at 60mph on a roof rack. By the time it stopped, the roof rack no longer justified that description but, amazingly, the boat was still intact, so I stuffed it in the back seat on top of three teenagers. The roof rack was consigned to the hedgerow and we continued to Norfolk. I think the teenagers complained, but they were very muffled.

      On another occasion we'd taken it to the Scottish Isle of Arran and I was going out fishing on Lamlash Bay. My wife and I had had a row about something, I can't remember what, and I was furious. She'd dropped me and the boat on the shore and had driven the van off in a huff. I inflated it, fixed the engine and pushed it out into the sea before jumping on with the intention of roaring impressively out into the bay.

      I was in my James Bond era. James had done something to do with boats in one of his early films. I can't remember which one it was but know it was one of the first two hundred because James was still Sean Connery. Anyway, I stood at the stern with John Barry's theme tune occupying my mind,and gave the starter cord a vicious tug. Nothing happened. I tried again and still nothing. Not the slightest splutter. I looked around and realised I was drifting fairly quickly away from my sandy launch site towards some fairly vicious looking rocks and didn't fancy the chances of the boats rubberised hull should it make contact. The theme tune had died away. I tried again with that hint of desperation which doesn't usually disturb James's calm surface. By this time a knot of small boys had assembled to watch and were standing impassively, no doubt hoping for a sinking. Resisting the temptation to tell them to sod off, I tried again. I was sweating profusely and suspect the mist over the sea emanated directly from me.

      One of the boys shouted something and I was about to let them have a mouthful when something about his attitude made me stop.

"What?", I called.

"Turn the fuel on", came sage advice of a ten year old, and that was how I came to be roaring off into the waters of the bay, trying unsuccessfuly to remember a time when that had happened to James.

      This unimpressive start set the scene for the rest of my fishing trip: I don't know whether the boat had made contact with the rocks without me realising but, whatever the cause, it was leaking. I was determined to get my money's worth of fishing and ended up holding the rod with one hand while bailing out with the other. I actually caught a couple of mackerel and whiting but there was so much water in the bottom of the boat that I had to catch them again when I got back to shore; I'd bought an expensive anchor which I couldn't really afford and it got stuck on the bottom. I suppose that's the function of an anchor, but not to the point where, when you decide to pull it in, the boat goes down rather than the anchor comes up. The problem was such that I had to eventually cut the rope and consign the anchor permanently to the deep; when I finally got the boat folded up and ready for the return to our hired cottage, there was no sign of my wife. When she finally got there to pick me up, it was in a van which was changed in appearance - she'd driven it into a ditch and had been towed out by a friendly farmer.This, you might think, put the cap on an unsuccessful day. You'd be wrong. I was so mad about the damage to the van that I loaded the boat and forgot the engine. I only realised it wasn't with us a couple of days later and, of course, when I went to look for it, it wasn't leaning on the harbour wall where I'd left it.

      Arran is (or was - we haven't been there for some time) a pretty quiet place and there was only one policeman and about five police stations. We had to go right round the island until we found the one where he was at (back at the first place we'd tried by the time we caught up), to report the loss of the engine. He then directed us to the marine supplier on the sea front.

      "It'll have been given in to George", he said, and that was the one positive aspect to this episode because, on seeing us, George said "ah, ye'll have come for the engine", disappointingly omitting a "hoots, mon".
Wildlife winter shelter
      And, echoing this disastrous trip, my garden presents a disaster in its own right. This time though, it is intentional. I'm not one of these gardeners obsessed with neatness, and I allow dead growth of the previous summer to last into the following spring before the secateurs are put to work. The thinking behind this lies in the shelter that rotting foliage offers to numerous forms of wildlife. Not only do insects find some cover but there is a knock-on effect when there is a daily forage by the flock of tits and other small birds which see my herbaceous border as their larder, gluttoning on seeds and overwintering insects when many people's gardens are barren wastelands. This, to me, is what the garden is really about - not just a place for my choice of plants and my need for control, but a way to bring a suggestion of our dwindling countryside closer to home.

      Encouraging wildlife isn't just about buying a hedgehog home from the garden centre which comes close to needing a mortgage and lacks only a television aerial, it is about recreating countryside. Very few of these man-made hostelries actually attract the intended targets, it is the pile of bricks or old logs which usually induces residents to move in.
Hydrangea enriched with frost
      The recommended pruning technique for Hydrangea macrophylla is to leave the dead flowers on over winter and remove them to the nearest healthy buds in spring. It's claimed the dead growth protects the buds from severe frosts but whether or not this is true there is certainly protection for insects like ladybirds, so it fits in well with the philosophy of the wild winter border. Having said that, the slowly dying flowers metamorphose from colourful to brown in a pleasing way which prolongs its period of attraction and further justifies being an untidy gardener.