Monday, 30 March 2015

The Natural Garden

      The Natural Garden
The pond - a wildlife magnet
      I got a phone call the other day. It was my youngest (he's 29) son, Nick:

      "Daad", he said, in that whiny voice which still indicates that he's at least involved in some sort of cock-up or, at most, associated with excreta making contact with a fan.

      "Yes", I replied carefully, already thinking up excuses for not getting involved.

      "Canals don't flow, do they?". I sighed. When the children were young I regularly took them out on rambles, telling them the names of plants and birds, while introducing them to the various natural features of the countryside. 'They'll remember all this when they're older and grow up to be naturalists' I would tell myself in a self-satisfied way. In some ways this turned out to be true - they remember our outings but the only details still lodged in their memories are the fact that I made them walk too far, or what was in the packed lunches and whether I bought them an ice-cream on the way home.

      He continued to explain that him and his friend had decided to ride their bikes from where they lived in Levenshulme to the Manchester Ship Canal, which they would then follow to Salford Docks where they would find somewhere to get a pint. So far, so good.

      "But the water's flowing", he pointed out plaintively "there are rocks sticking out and it's getting narrower". The element of doubt in his voice as to whether a canal flows round rocks seemed the ultimate kiss of doom to all my teachings about the countryside.

      Admittedly, this didn't conform with the use of the canal by 20,000 ton ships and it was only by quickly referring to Google Earth that it became clear that a. the River Irwell is the source of the great waterway and b. the equally great explorer was going the wrong way along it. With great forbearance, I resisted the temptation to let him disappear into the wilds of the Pennines, or wherever it is that the damn river is sourced, and pointed out that he had to turn round. Whether he did turn round or not, I'm not sure. What I am certain of is that, wherever he ended up, there was a pub.
Newt - part time pond resident
      I suppose my irritable attitude towards Nick's adventures was coloured by a latest home-handyman disaster: my wife had come up with another 'five minute job'; fix a new ceiling rose and flex in the breakfast room. What could be easier? Well, in retrospect, rebuilding the Twin Towers springs to mind.

      The old fitting was difficult enough to remove, having been there since Walt thought setting fire to a tube of tobacco was a good idea. It was sunk into the ceiling plaster and the modern replacement was designed to sit on the surface instead. This led to the copious application of filler, long screws with plastic separators, and an hour lying flat on the bed in order to get my misused neck into something like it's original position.

      That was the easy bit. The real problem came with the wiring: there was a helpful set of instructions accompanying the new fitting and these seemed to cover all the different potential ways of carrying out the task by wiring in series and various other techniques which would qualify me for wiring Blackpool Illuminations. What it didn't make clear was how it should be done in my little breakfast room. The outcome of  this failing was a loud bang when, with a flourish, I eventually switched on. As if voting in sympathy, all the other lights went out and I expected mine to do the same when my wife came back from shopping.

      Eventually, a life-saving friend (Jim) came with his ammeter and we now bask in bright light under a ceiling sagging with half a ton of filler. If I were to offer a word of advice to any aspiring do-it-yourselfer, it is 'DON'T, or, if the lure is too great, make friends with Jim.
Amorous frogs
      And, just as our civilisation depends on the interaction between the Jims of this world who share their expertise, so the well-being of the garden relies on a network of living organisms who work together to ensure the smooth running of things. As an illustration of what I mean I like to fall back on the example of the cocktail of chemicals once used in an experiment to save an apple orchard from pest attacks: the mixture was great - it killed everything misguided enough to go near the apples. Everything, that is, except the fruit tree red spider mite which, for some reason, remained unaffected. This didn't matter though, because the population of the mite was not great enough to provide a problem.
      Unfortunately, the cocktail didn't only kill the pests, it also bumped off the predators of the red spider mite, causing its population to explode. In one stroke of chemical genius, we had created a new pest. Nature is a web of life which depends on an intricate set of relationships, many of which we are completely ignorant: they self-police to create a beautiful balance and, as soon as we jump in wearing hob-nail boots, havoc can ensue.

      So (I hate the current fetish for beginning sentences with 'so', but in this case it seems fitting) I like to keep my garden as natural as possible by encouraging the myriad life forms which ultimately give that subconcious feeling of being part of something greater.

      A pond is probably the single greatest attraction for wildlife, supporting frogs, newts, fish and a variety of aqueous insects including, if you're lucky, dragonflies and damselflies. By the simple addition of a log pile, shelter for hedgehogs and voles can be created and, easier still, a collection of hollow sticks can provide homes for the solitary bees and wasps which are important pollinators.

      The great Geoff Hamilton was always hammering on about the best balance of nature occurring where there is a wide selection of plants: some harbour pests, while others attract their predators and yet more provide nectar for myriad pollinators. If you view your garden like this success is not complicated - there is a truth in simplicity.
High rise flats for pollinators