Friday, 31 May 2013

Marguerites - Argyranthemum frutescens

 It's A Dog's Life

Argyrnanthemum frutescens, sometimes called dog daisy or marguerite.

    Rex was a golden Labrador and, for years , he was my constant companion. His areas of expertise were in breaking wind and sleeping, in that order. He was also a keen hiker and accompanied me on all outings, but he believed in minimising effort. For instance, he always required five-bar gates to be opened for him. He was too aristocratic to undergo the undignified squirming under accepted by most dogs as the natural way of doing things. If the gated didn't open, Rex had to be carried.

      I once weighed him on the bathroom scales and came to the conclusion that he was seven stone, although I never had complete confidence in my findings because of the difficulties involved in the operation. Obviously, a dog's legs are situated on each corner. Therefore, in the case of a big dog on small scales, it's necessary to angle the legs inward, resulting in him quickly overbalancing. This means that the scale has to be read in the short time between the last leg being positioned and the inevitable toppling. To even reach this stage was a challenge, because each time I put the fourth paw on, Rex would yawningly remove one of the others onto the floor in order to maintain the status quo. I got the feeling that he humoured me, considering me not a bad chap, just slightly deranged, needing to be kept happy. Eventually I had to encircle the three legs over the scale with one arm, while taking him by surprise by whipping the last paw on and, at the same time, taking an average reading as the needle shot between five stone and nine, before he fell on top of me.

      He wasn't a vicious dog. There was no need - he possessed far more effective weapons than teeth. On occasions when he got indignant about something I had done, I would be treated with disdain, lack of cooperation and even retribution if it was something he felt really strongly about. The ensuing punishment would be meted out when least expected, then  he would revert to his former good humour. For example I, on one occasion, ate a bar of chocolate without giving him any. He sulked until he saw his chance when we had guests later in the day: we were sitting chatting happily until Rex, who was lying at my feet, farted explosively. Not content with this, his head jerked up and he eyed me accusingly through the blue haze, causing everyone else to do the same. Anyway, with this type of vengeance in mind, I let the weighing stand at seven stone. He was considerably more than that on a wet day and I often got plastered with mud carrying him over some gate or stile. On one occasion I refused to carry him, on the basis that the gap under the gate was big enough for him to crawl under:

      "Right", I said, "That's it. You either come under, jump over, or stay and starve. I'm going". With that I marched frostily down the field without looking back. When I eventually reached the other side of the field and turned round, it was to see him sitting, on exactly the same spot, absently snapping at a fly before further relieving the boredom with a good scratch. Inevitably I returned and came a few steps closer to a hernia.

      Then there was the time he fell in love. We were visiting friends and their dog suddenly emerged from under the sideboard. She was one of these miniature things, I don't know what the breed was, but she stood about a foot high and seemed to consist mainly of hair. A dwarf haystack sprang to mind. I'd forgotten about Rex, but at this point he made his presence felt: with a woof of uncharacteristic doggy enthusiasm, he shot in pursuit of her, taking a short cut under the coffee table. Rex and coffee tables never mixed well and so it was on this occasion. A coffee table is slightly lower than Rex and the result of this lack of forethought on the part of the inventor meant that this one momentarily accompanied him rather like a saddle. The tea and coffee on it was liberally distributed over the carpet as pursued and amorous pursuer shot out into the kitchen with me following. He must have thought it was his birthday when the object of his intentions turned at bay, and he prepared to make a final dash across the lino. However, lino is another material Rex didn't go well with. His paws slipped on the smooth surface and all his legs were moving in a blur while he stayed on the same spot, reminding me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Anyway, this enabled me to grab him and his chance was gone. For a moment, an eye became visible from somewhere within the at-bay haystack and I could swear it looked disappointed. The physics of the intended act seemed to have escaped them both in the rush of passion: the chance of a Labrador making it with the haystack was about as probable as an ant doing it with an elephant, even allowing for the use of a trapeze. All conjecture as to the future of the relationship is irrelevant. We never got asked back.

      'Dog Daisy' is a name loosely applied to the ox-eye daisy and the marguerite, possibly because dogs like Rex enjoy cocking their leg up on them. This really underlines the inaccuracy of common names, because these are actually two different genera of plant. The binomial system of naming plants was brought into use in 1752 by a bloke called Linnaeus and it meant that each subject would have only one name, often Latin, which would be the same all over the world. Bearing this in mind, the true name of the plant we tend to grow in pots for the summer is Argyranthemum frutescens. Rex may have appreciated its lavatorial properties but, on the whole, he preferred lamp posts.

Ox-eye daisies with poppies at Hyde Hall

      Argyranthemum frutescens is still often offered in the garden centre as 'marguerite'. It is a woody perennial and not fully hardy, so most people tend to throw it away in autumn after getting constant flowers all summer. I (with an eye to the cost of the things) have found it easy to overwinter in a cold greenhouse: I simply lug the pot in and leave it in a dry condition for the duration of the winter. It loses all its leaves and gives a fair impression of a totally dead specimen until early spring when new leaves start to appear. If you're not sure whether its still alive, test by scraping back a bit of bark with a thumb nail. A green colour indicates that the cambium, situated just under the bark, is alive. Brown means that you'll have to fork out for a new one. Start this little test at the tips of the branches and work your way towards the base. Usually the tips will be dead while the rest of it is o.k.. To get rid of the dead wood and retain a nice shape, prune back by about a third. Start watering as soon as leaves begin appearing and feed it with rose fertiliser. This is high in potassium and encourages flowering growth.

      The plant is well worth while having this attention paid to it, as it will offer the reward of summer - long flowering in a sunny position. Dead heading is as important with this as it is with most perennials and I find it quite a relaxing part of the daily summertime routine.

      In spite of your best efforts, a vicious winter will sometimes kill the plant even in a cold greenhouse, so hedge your bets by taking two to four inch long greenwood cuttings in spring or semi-ripe cuttings in late summer and bring them through the winter in a slightly more protected place like a closed porch or the unheated spare bedroom window sill.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Minimising Weeding

Sailing With A Bang
Front garden - little room for weeds

      To get the full story, the previous two blogs lead up to this final account of a yachting holiday on the Norfolk Broads. I'm now at the point where we'd moored for the night and were in a pub: the strength of scrumpy cider is legendry and I was in the process of doing some  scientific research into the truth of the claims. I'd  had a couple or so pints but  had  come to the conclusion that they were overblown, when I stood up with the intention of finding the toilet. When you've been on a boat all day and stepped onto land there is a continuing experience of the ground moving. This is what I got now. Exactly the same sensation, but in addition the walls of the pub were also in motion, with the ceiling becoming a part of a separately choreographed dance.

      "Which way is the gents?" I muttered to the bloke sitting next to me, "I don't want to lose my dignity". In my week long role of Long John Silver, I nearly added "heave to lads" but it suddenly seemed a  bit too close to "heave up", and I was in a suggestible state. Somehow I followed the directions the bloke indicated and, after negotiating undulating tables, eventually found myself leaning against a tiled wall looking for the urinal. I didn't find it and for a fairly good reason. I was in the ladies, complete with lost dignity and the echoes of guffaws coming from the direction of the bar. It's at times like this that you know who your friends are.

      Because the gas taps on the yacht cooker were unreliable, we took turns at being responsible for turning the supply off at the bottle, just before going to bed. On this particular night it was my turn. However, by the time I got back from the pub, a process now occupying a black hole in my mind, gas bottles were not on my itinery and nobody else thought to do it.

      The following morning, at about four thirty, I decided to get up and make a cup of tea. Having voiced this intention to the other people on the boat, I was on the receiving end of some remarks which, under normal circumstances, I would probably have considered to be cutting (something about sex and travel rings a bell). Today though, I was still in the now surprisingly benign clutches of scrumpy, and life was wonderful. Although early, it was already fairly light and a stroll along the bank seemed appealing, so I wandered off through a knee-high mist, enjoying the solitude. The air was completely still. Even the normally ever-present tapping of rope against aluminium masts was absent and the resulting silence was therapeutic.

      Some time later, I retraced my steps to the boat, cold by now and ready for a warming drink. Having climbed on board and tied the awning shut, I struck a match to light the cooker. The only thing I remember after this was thinking 'that's funny', as both gas rings ignited without being turned on.

      When I woke up, it was to a world of chaos. I was hanging over the side of the boat and one half of my face was completely numb. My other ear was also going numb, because skipper Jim was bellowing something down it about what the hell had I done to the boat. I remember uttering a weak 'avast! - cannon ball hit the powder room', then regretting it because Jim seemed set to complete the job on me that the explosion had started. Someone helped me to sit up and I surveyed the damage, blood trickling from a gash in my cheek: the floorboards were piled around me and the awning had disappeared (as far as I know, it wasn't seen again). Part of the back of the boat had gone, blowing a hole in a punt parked behind as it left. A sudden and blessed silence ensued as Jim was momentarily stricken dumb by the thought of having to ring and inform the boatyard. Then: "my God", he wailed, "what do I say? 'Hello, guess who this is. You can't? Well, remember the bloke who rang to tell you your lovely little rowing boat was now a jigsaw puzzle, yes, that's me and I'm ringing now to say we've done the same thing to your yacht. 'Lunar' was a good name for it - the bloody thing's gone into orbit'". He was becoming hysterical and for a time the focus of attention switched to him, while I bled peacefully among the wreckage.

      I remember the doctor asking me how I'd done it while he inserted the stitches around the gash in my cheek. For some reason he seemed to find the whole thing amusing, so much so that, at one point, there seemed a danger of my eye being stitched shut, so I stopped telling him. He could have been struck off for less than that.

      When we returned to the Broads the following year the manager of the boat yard addressed us as a group: "I want you to be very careful with the gas bottle", he said, "last year, some bloody fool........" His gaze rested fleetingly on me and, in that moment, I was glad I'd had the forethought to wear dark glasses.

      "Yes", I said, sympathetically, "there's always one isn't there?"

Lunar - exploded version

      And, like Lunar, the garden can look as if a bomb's hit it when the lawn is overgrown, bringing me back to my theme that the gardener is an illusionist, the best example of this being a mowed, edged off, lawn. It acts like a frame for the rest of the garden and there is a tendency to focus on the whole rather than the specific when this general bit of maintenance has been carried out. The dandelions merge into the other border plants to give a pleasing overall experience.

Epimedium - excellent ground cover

      The frustrations of snapping strimmer lines are much reduced when the soil is wet, which is when it has less abrasive power, so giving the edge a bit of a soaking in dry conditions can make the job a lot easier. To give an even more pleasing finish to the borders if you're trying to impress someone, soaking the soil  just before they come changes a dry, grey surface into a vibrant dark contrast with the plants.

      There is almost inevitably going to be some bare soil in spring when herbaceous plants are just coming back to life but there is no excuse for it during the summer. One of the most common questions I am asked is 'how do I get rid of moss in my borders?'. The answer is very simple - grow plants in them instead. If you leave gaps between your plants, sooner or later they will be inhabited by moss or weeds because nature abhors a vacuum. Groundcover plants perform this task excellently between taller shrubs, the idea being that they will out-compete weeds and moss for water, light and nutrients, while having some aesthetic value in their own right. Subjects like Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald and Gold' and 'Silver Queen', have evergreen interest and their bright variegation lifts the shade under other shrubs. Epimediums have similar properties, although their leaves tend to die in winter (most species of this benefit from having the old growth cut back with shears in late winter). There are any number of other contenders for this garden situation and their inclusion can result in a lot less tedious ground maintenance.

      In my garden the spring bare earth problem is solved in the herbaceous borders by allowing forget-me-nots to self seed so that they provide an attractive blue haze. When they start to die back I simply pull them out and despatch them to the compost heap. The seeds they have shed will germinate and perform the same task next year and, by this time, the herbaceous plants are putting on some attractive growth.

      Anyway, to come back to the illusionist thing: the idea is to give a good impression without having gone to the extent of spending half your life weeding. The garden is there just to be in some of the time, otherwise you miss the point.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Making A Waterfall

Trouble With Boats

      In the last blog I outlined my efforts to save the sausages and subsequent  loss of the dinghy, culminating in me clinging to a post in the middle of Barton Broad. I was waiting for the return of Lunar, captained by the redoubtable Jim Pimm. Jim was very keen. He had been made skipper of one of the five yachts for the first time this year and was out to show his mettle. Unfortunately for him, his crew consisted of me and a girl called Maisie. I was the one who was always last to be chosen when two football captains were picking their players and my position in the yachting community echoed this. Maisie was a book worm and probably very clever, though not practical when it came to boats.
      Eventually Lunar appeared, having completed a large circle, and sailed as close as the skipper dared. Through the roar of the wind I could hear him shouting something but couldn't tell what it was until they drew level.

      "Swim for it", he bawled as they reached me.

      I considered this but, taking into consideration the fact that Lunar was doing about forty miles an hour and I was by no means an olympic contender, regretfully declined the offer and continued to cling lovingly to my post.

      It took three runs before they eventually reached me at a speed suitable for me to reach them and cling on. Jim unceremoniously hauled me over the side then walked all over me under the pretext of 'keeping her out of the shallows'.

      Having survived this (for me) traumatic experience, we were now confronted with the problem of recovering the dinghy. This was  difficult not solely as a result of weather conditions, but because it was now upside down and very low in the water. Our strategy was to proceed slowly, Jim steering and myself and Maisie kneeling in the bow keeping watch and ready to cry out as soon as a sighting was made. Two factors conspired in the failure of this operation: one was Jim's idea of 'slow' and the other was the row the wind was making in the sail.

      Suddenly spotting the dinghy, Maisie shouted "we're heading straight for it".

      "We're head....."

      Crunch! Lunar sliced cleanly through the planks of the dinghy with the aplomb of an axe through Anne Bolyn's neck.

      The outcome of this little saga was that, after picking the bits up with some difficulty, Jim had the unenviable task of ringing the boatyard to say that their dinghy had 'suffered some damage'. This presumably is a nautical expression meaning 'reduced to matchwood', and it resulted in a couple of disgruntled people from the boatyard eventually turning up to remove it on the back of a lorry. I felt that the lorry was a bit optimistic actually, the boot of a car would have been quite adequate.

      And so the holiday in hell continued to evolve. I had nearly drowned, the skipper seemed to think everything that went wrong was my fault and now we had wrecked the dinghy. "It's got to get better", Maisie whispered sympathetically. But it didn't. The worst was still to come.

      Catch the stunning climax to the story in this blog, next week.

      As the theme is still based on water, it seems a good idea to talk about making a pond. If you have an interest in wildlife, there is no better way of encouraging it than by introducing water onto your plot. Newts, frogs and fish immediately spring to mind and birds love to drink and bathe in the shallows. I made one many years ago and relatively recently decided to enlarge it. The first move was to lure a friend, using Newcastle Brown and sausage butties as bait, into helping dig the hole. This worked extremely well, he doing the digging and me making (and helping eat) the sausage butties.

      We used the liner from the old pond to line the base. The weight of water can be surprising and there is a tendency for liners to be punctured by sharp stones if they are not protected. Old newspapers can  be used as padding - in fact a number of materials are useful in this context - a layer of sand works equally well. In making the original pond, I mounded the excavated soil at one end to create a rockery, from this new dig we created another mound which added more height interest to the garden and proved perfect for the creation of a heather garden. The two mounds are situated next to each other with a valley in between and create a feeling of continuity, like a range of miniature mountains. Continuity of structure is an important aspect of creating a pleasing garden: getting ideas to flow into each other.

      I'd inherited a pump from a pond the original house owner had created and this was used in my first attempt, causing a concrete frog to puke into the water from near the top of the rockery (I was never accused of being tasteful). I then wanted to improve on this by creating a stream cascading in a series of mini ponds from the top of the rockery back into the main pool. This was achieved by making a bed with bits of liner, creating interim pools and taking great care that there was no overflow of water from the structure. Small pebbles were used to create a natural stream bed and then, with a great flourish and the popping of champagne corks, I switched the pump on. The water came out in a sad trickle. Although it worked wonders in causing frogs to puke, Niagara Falls were beyond this pump's capabilities.
Creating a stream

Result spoiled by poor water flow

Further changes equally unsuccessful for same reason

      This brings me to advise careful research as to the volume of water per unit time your pump is capable of moving. Although I tried to speed up water flow by removing the pebbles and adding a non polluting paint - like material from a garden centre, the water movement was still negligible and a sad disappointment. The specialist water centres  now usually have pumps on working display, giving some idea of the flow they create, and it is well worth while looking carefully at this aspect before making your choice. A new pump would have been the obvious answer to my problem but, at this point, I couldn't afford one.

      In creating my current pond I bought a bigger pump and had it force the water  four or five feet upwards into a mini pond on top of the earth pile which was formerly the rockery. It then overflows naturally through an outlet hole back into the pond. Great care should be taken to ensure there is no water loss through the back of the waterfall, as this obviously lowers the level of the pond.

Hole with old liner at bottom
Hole showing waterfall liner to prevent leakage
Overflow pond at top feeding waterfall
Finished product

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Garden Thugs

Sailing Stormy Waters

Anemone x hybrida and honey bee

      We called him 'Maniac' which wasn't really fair because, in retrospect, he wasn't much dafter than the rest of us. The main problem was that he was extremely short sighted and, as skipper of a yacht, this is not usually recognised as a good qualification. On one occasion, he captained his boat at great speed within inches of a river bank where an angling contest was taking place. Within seconds a number of lines had been snapped and rods were hastily jerked into the air in a manner reminding me of those old Cecil B.D.Mills films where a  great avenue of feathers or palms lifted in wave-like fashion to allow the passage of some demi-god. From what I picked up of the language of these particular worshippers, I got the impression that spiritual praise wasn't really on their agenda.

      A crowd of us used to descend on the Norfolk Broads annually, renting out a series of non-motorised yachts and sailing along as many of the rivers and broads as we could manage in the allotted week. 'Broads time' was adopted, whereby watches were adjusted to accommodate the hours of sunrise and sunset so as to get the most out of each day: getting up time, eight a.m., was set to coincide with dawn  and we slipped into different persona's like 'admiral', 'captain', 'cabin boy' and so on. My particular role was usually that of bosun. This was probably because no one knew what a bosun did and not knowing what I was doing was my speciality. However I assumed an impressive vocabulary of 'hoist the mizzen', 'avast', 'splice the mainbrace', 'heave to' etc. and generally outdid Captain Jack Sparrow years before he was thought of. I was Robert Newton, Disney's inimical Long John Silver.

      On this particular occasion, we were racing Maniac across Barton Broad in a wind which was little short of a gale. The yachts were heeling over to such a degree that water was being taken in through the portholes. 'Going skuppers' was the technical term for this. Maniac was doing well, we thought he was going to beat us, until he came to a sudden, lurching stop within feet of a massive sign saying DANGER - SHALLOW WATER.

      Our enjoyment of his predicament was cut short when we realised he'd got our dinner on board. It was our habit to come together at mealtimes and, because of the limited capacities of the cookers on board, each crew would cook different items of the menu. Our sausages were now lost at sea.

      "Worry not laads, oi'll rescue the vittals", I bawled, winking one eye furiously and adding an 'ahaar', for good measure. With this, I unhitched the dinghy towed behind us and took a flying leap into it. We were still slicing through the water at a fair rate of knots before a heavy wind and, just as I jumped, the yacht heeled steeply. This was why I missed. Although I had untied the mooring rope, someone had dropped the rond anchor in the dinghy and this had snagged a cross-support, with the result that the little boat was still being towed behind at great speed. I managed to grab the front as I entered the water and, by some superhuman effort , to swing one  leg over the side. however pressure exerted by the speed, added to he weight of water in my clothing, meant I couldn't climb in, so I continued speeding, head under water,  like an inverted Donald Campbell.

      Although the view of the bottom of Barton Broad was very interesting and not often encountered, it was an experience I understandably wanted to give a miss. The obvious thing to do was to let go and swim for it but unfortunately my leg had got caught up in the rond rope. The speed and my weight combined were causing water to pour over the front of the dinghy and it was only a matter of time before it sank, taking an artificial Long John Silver with it.

      A rond anchor is a right-angles piece of metal with a pointed end, useful for holding the boat against earth banks. This one suddenly slipped, skudding across the dinghy and embedding itself in the woodwork an inch from my leg. With another super human effort, I hauled myself up and, ignoring the pain from the rope burn on my leg, I levered at it until it loosened and shot over the side. The dinghy immediately stopped its dash, then lazily turned over to eventually smash down on the water upside down, narrowly missing braining me. I was adrift in a sea of oars, bailing buckets and other assorted debris, watching the mother craft Lunar and the remains of her horrified crew, disappearing into a watery infinity.

      Things didn't look too bright. My wet clothes were making it difficult to stay high enough in the water for comfort, so I set off swimming for one of the huge marker posts dotted around the broad. Eventually I made it and , with intense relief realised that my feet touched the bottom here. The relief was short lived however when I realised that I was standing on mud. Soft mud of infinite depth. To avoid sinking into a watery oblivion, I had no option but to put arms and legs round the post and cling on like a koala bear in a Eucalyptus. In this manner I waited for Lunar to complete whatever navigations were necessary to return to pick me up.

      A few other craft sailed past while I waited and their crews stared in wonder at the apparition which clung, bobble hat over ears, to a marker post. When a cruiser turned back for a better look and a few photos, all I could do was issue a feeble 'ahaar' and pretend to enjoy the joke. I don't think the smiling aspersions I made about their parents' marital statuses was audible above the sound of their engine.

      Some time later, Lunar returned and I was unceremoniously hauled back into the land of the living. However, the worst was yet to come and, as this is a blog and not a novel, I'm going to have to continue the story next week.

      Bet you can't wait.

      Both of you.

      Lunaria, which is close enough to the yacht's name to merit a degree of continuity, is flowering outside the window as I write. The thinking behind its common name, honesty, isn't very clear unless it refers to the fact that the transluscence of its seed pods hides nothing. The pods are probably its main attraction, being good in flower arrangements which can last through the winter. For me, it borders on being classed as a thug because it seeds itself so prolifically and, for most of the summer, its foliage is not particularly attractive. It is a biennial, meaning it grows the first year and flowers the second and so, for the first year's growth, the leaves are all you have.  A member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), it has deep tap roots which means that you can't grow it for long in a pot without it beginning to suffer. I'd stick to cabbages if I were you.

Granny's bonnet (just opening) and honesty

      Probably calling honesty a thug will offend some gardeners' appreciation of the plant but I'm going to offend them even more by classing the biggest bovver boys in my garden as granny's bonnet (Aquilegia) and welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica). And while you're all babbling about how there are beautiful forms of granny's bonnet and the foliage is pretty, as are the flowers of the welsh poppy, I have to point out that the problem is that the buggers don't know when to stop: Aquilegia self seeds prolifically but the resulting new plants are usually nothing like the parent, often displaying nondescript purplish blue or faded pink flowers and, like the poppy, they come up everywhere. This wouldn't be so bad if they didn't have roots which probably emerge somewhere in Australia and need a pneumatic drill to dislodge, or if they didn't have the infuriating habit of sharing their root space with plants you want to be there, so that you damage the desired plant while removing the thug.

Welsh poppy pretending to be nice

      You sit there planning your borders and thinking 'yes, this or that plant has a bit of a reputation as a thug, but it'll be different with me - I'll keep on top of it. Bet you won't. I'd heard it all about Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida) but, working on this philosophy, went ahead and planted the damn things anyway. I now have a forest of anemones rivalling the Black one in Germany.

      Maybe its best to forget the choice subjects 'Gardener's World' is pushing you to invest in. Just plant a few thugs and you can leave them to it. Sit back in your deck chair and watch 'em fight it out while you contemplate all the spare time you now have.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Pros and Cons of Cherry Trees

 Mending Fences

Prunus 'Kanzan' at Fletcher Moss
      Putting up a fence was a procedure which involved the learning of some useful lessons, the most pertinent of which was ‘don’t put up your own fence.’ It seemed a mammoth task to me, and so it proved: each of the rotted wooden posts of the old fence disappeared into the ground through small holes in the adjoining drives. These holes required enlarging considerably to enable the new concrete posts to be installed and this meant spending hours chiselling away at the drive surface. Although I was trying to keep the cost down, I’d eventually had to hire a pneumatic drill powerful enough to cause the bloke next door to fall out of bed. One stump was removed successfully and I  was well into the second when a slight snag occurred. The huge lump of concrete which had been positioned about a foot below the surface to support the old post had given me a lot of trouble. However, I'd finally managed to get it out and it now lay next to the hole like an extracted bad tooth. It appears that most people install a fence post on the basis that there is an imminent likelihood of the Q.E.2 being moored to it (in fact I often have this imaginary picture of a nuclear holocaust which destroys Britain. Everything has gone bar the fence posts. Millions of stark memorials standing in silent tribute to the thoroughness of the do-it-yourselfers). All that remained was to dig the hole slightly deeper and I was doing this when I heard the hissing noise. My first thought was that I had damaged the crust of the earth and gases were escaping, which wasn’t too far off the mark, because gas was escaping. It was coming from the earth alright, but by way of a one inch North Western gas pipe. The one my spade had gone through.

      The smell was terrible. Worms were emerging from the sides of the hole, immediately dropping to the bottom, and lying unconscious. One of the important rules in my life is 'if in doubt, panic', and I enthusiastically applied it here: how do you give a worm the kiss of life? I actually ran to the door twice in order to ring the gas people's emergency number. Each time I ran back because of the recurring vision of a smoker walking past the gate and sending himself and half our estate to the promised land. Thinking about it, this would give further emphasis to the ‘smoking kills’ message on the packets. Eventually my wife appeared in answer to my shouts, assured me that artificial respiration on worms is not practical and rang the gas people. Meanwhile I stood on lookout for suicidal smokers.

      The gas company arrived in various forms, the main one being the men who turn up in vans with flashing lights, look thoughtfully into the hole, inform you that yes, it definitely is a leak but they can’t do anything about it - ‘you’ll have to wait for the gang’. Apparently ‘the gang’ have specialised equipment and expertise which arms them for any contingency, and I was prepared to be impressed. When these heroes eventually arrived in a large van, they produced a roll of what looked like Elastoplast, put some of it round the damaged pipe, brewed up in the back of the van and went. The repair took three minutes and the brew half an hour.

      During this performance the next door neighbour came out and, with unnecessary relish, informed me that all this would cost me a fortune, confirming a worry that had been nagging me from the beginning. When I mentioned this  to one of ‘the gang’ (there were only two of them, making this expression a bit over the top in my opinion), he acknowledged that it would all ‘cost a packet’ and I would have to foot the bill. The stricken expression on my face must have touched a sympathy nerve, because he quickly added, “mind you, there may be a way round it. Just check whether the pilot light on your central ‘eatin’ has gone out.”

      Puzzled, I went in and was surprised to discover that, although the gas was still escaping at this stage, the pilot light was still strong.

      “’Ang on,” he said,  when I’d relayed this information, and he went and knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked him to check his pilot light., It had gone out.

      “Thought that may be the case,” he said, seemingly unaware of the constant hiss and smell of gas accompanying the worm genocide, “You’ve gone through ‘is pipe. It’s been laid just on your side of the fence, on your land.” He said this heavily, with emphasis on each ‘your’. I looked at him fascinated, waiting for the nudge and the wink. It never came. He was too much of a professional for that. “so if I wos you, which I ain’t ( a point which was rather obvious but which I took to convey the fact that the source of this advice was to be kept under my hat), “I’d agree to pay only on the basis that they move 'is pipe across onto ‘is land (indicating my neighbour). “Cost ‘em a bleedin’ sight more to do that,” he added with some satisfaction.

      At this point the smell of gas was getting fairly desperate, and a blackbird, who'd been eyeing the worm carnage with some interest, suddenly fell off his perch. 

      “How deep should the pipe be?” I asked, wondering whether this was another point to be used to my advantage.
      “Well,” he said, “I bury ‘em the distance between me knee an’ me foot.” After imparting this piece of technical information, he stepped ankle deep into dead worms, applied the Elastoplast, and went for a brew, leaving me hoping that not many midgets work for the gasboard.
      When the man came to inspect the work and present us with the bill, I employed the suggested strategy, telling him that payment would be made after the pipe was moved.
      “Well now,” he said, with a smile of satisfaction which made me wonder what wondrous management techniques the gas company had used to engender such loyalty, “in that case, I should think the company’ll pay.”
      And I never heard from any of them again.
      The fence went up fairly easily after that, the only other lesson coming from the exercise being that a piece of string is a useful tool in the putting up of fences. I didn’t use anything to line up the first couple of panels, with the result that, by comparison, next door’s dog has a straighter back leg.

Cherries underplanted with bulbs to prolong interest of area

      Coming back to the unfortunate blackbird: the tree it fell out of was a cherry, a tree currently at its floral best.   Although the flowers can be magnificent, its character bears a bit more consideration before you rush to the garden centre and fork out for one. In a large garden with room for other plants to give interest at different times, the cherry takes some beating. However, the period of interest is short, the flowering season coinciding with that of strong winds, hail and rain so that the flowers quickly become a carpet rather than a ceiling. In a small garden this means that a ten day show of beauty has to be contrasted with a boring display for the rest of the year, the cherry usually not being remarkable for attractive foliage or autumn colour. The tendency to have shallow roots which lurk in the grass awaiting the unsuspecting mower blade is another disadvantage.

      The ubiquitous Prunus 'Kanzan' takes some beating in the right setting and it is used very effectively in Fletcher Moss Gardens, a place I once worked: the brevity of its display was recognised by the head gardener and the period of interest considerably lengthened by underplanting with bulbs. Many early flowering bulbs grow naturally under deciduous trees and so need to go through the growing and flowering stage before leaves appear overhead, cutting out light and preventing growth. In this way, crocuses, snowdrops dwarf narcissi and various other subjects provide a breathtaking display succeeded, as they finish, by the equally impressive 'Kanzan'.

      The theme of continuing interest is an important tool of the good gardener and there are many ways of achieving it. Growing climbers like clematis or roses up decorative trees to augment their host's flowering period at a different time can be useful in this way, as is careful choice of plants for successional performance. Having this property in a single plant is also an important consideration: a tree like Amelanchier lamarkii rewards not only with attractive white flowers in spring but gives a follow-up of fiery orange autumn colour. In a similar way the Sorbuses (mountain ash) offer flowers, good autumn colour and top it with  an opulent fruit display. The fruit has a secondary advantage of attracting wildlife to the garden in the form of foraging birds. Sorbus vilmorinii is the one I'd recommend for the smaller garden, reaching about fifteen foot high and sporting fruit which age from bright red through pink to white.

Prunus serrula

Close up of  bark

 But returning to cherries, one which does have ongoing interest is Prunus serrula, with its attractive glossy brown bark. Its flowers are nothing to write home about but the bark is remarkable enough to merit the plant's inclusion in any garden.

      A final observation: if you are into growing a cherry for its fruit, make sure you choose one which is self-compatible pollination-wise (Stella fits this criterion). They are also available grafted onto root stocks which ensure they don't get bigger than your allotted space. 'Gisela' only gets to nine foot, for example. Finally, be prepared to enter battle with the pigeons. A friend of mine hung so many strips of silver paper and old c.d's in his cherry that  it looked like a particularly garish Christmas tree. Adding insult to injury, the pigeons saw the cherries as part of  the seasonal spirit and ate the lot.