Saturday, 21 December 2013


More Car Problems
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' - good for containers
      At one time I used to play five-a-side football every Friday night with a group of over forties. We would go for a drink afterwards and, on this particular night, I was driving home after a couple of pints of bitter shandy. The car I had then was a Talbot Horizon. I'd not long since bought it and was experiencing a number of problems: every time I slowed down you could hear liquid sloshing forward. At first I put this down to fuel in the petrol tank, although I'd never actually heard a petrol tank before. Eventually I narrowed it down to the door. It was full of water - in fact the whole car leaked like a sieve - when I'd pointed out to the bloke who was selling it to me that the floor was wet he said this was due to it just having been valeted. My wife was not impressed by this latest example of my gullibility and, when she'd commented about the tidal sounds coming from the door, I hadn't helped by humorously suggesting we put a glass front on it and introduce a few goldfish (she acidly pointed out that this obviously wouldn't have worked because they'd bump their heads each time I put the brakes on).

      Another problem was an anomaly with the heater and this gradually became apparent as I drove home that night: the windows began to mist up and the car was filling with steam. I thought I'd driven into fog, and was following the white line along the middle of the road in a wavering, slow fashion when I sensed a set of headlights directly behind me. They were blinding and reminded me of that scene in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' when an alien craft creates the same impression. However, the lights didn't suddenly disappear in an upward direction, they overtook me and added a blue element to the illumination. Pulling in front, a sign appeared on the back of the vehicle showing the instruction 'Stop Police'. I didn't really have any inclination to stop any police, but nevertheless took the hint. As the policeman climbed out and walked towards me I wound down the window and stuck my head out, discovering to my surprise that it was a beautiful, clear night. The copper's footsteps wavered as a cloud of steam billowed out of the window, haloing my sauna'd face. My hair was plastered down and I suspect I was bright red.

      "Are you aware sir that you were proceeding along the centre of the road in an erratic manner?" he said sternly.

      At this point my stomach was churning. I hadn't actually done anything wrong, apart from not murdering the bloke who sold me the car but, as always when confronted by the police, I felt guilty. I was visualising him giving me a breath test and the machine giving a false reading: I'd be banned from driving and end up travelling twelve miles to work on my bike every day. These and other thoughts were going through my mind as I made my defence in a shaky voice:

      "Having a bit of a problem with my heater, officer", at the same time another cloud of steam obliterated him from view.

      "Have we had a little drink, sir", he said in an uncertain voice. Why do they always say 'we'? How the hell do I know if he's had a drink? I told him about my shandies and pointed out my difficulty with the windscreen misting up.

      "I need to consult my colleague on this", he said. With that he wandered back to his fellow officer and entered into a conversation which included something about 'a bloody mobile Turkish  bath' and ended when the other man seemed to collapse on the bonnet of their car. My man stood with his back to me and I could see his whole body shaking as though he were crying. Then he came back and informed me that they weren't going to breathalyse me. He did point out in a shaky voice that to drink any alcohol at all was not a desirable thing when driving. His face was sort of writhing as he told me this. Anyway, I drove off in tremendous relief. The last I saw of them, they were both collapsed on their bonnet. Perhaps it was food poisoning.

      All this talk of fog brings me to think of Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), a weed grass native to the U.K. and invasive in the United States and Australia. Although this is certainly not a plant to be introduced to the garden, many other grasses and sedges are useful because different species can provide height, colour and flower interest in their own ways.
Miscanthus sinensis in winter
      Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) was once to be seen in every garden but it fell from grace partly due to size (too big for the smaller garden) and partly because of this daft fashion thing that pervades gardening ('oh my dear, that horrible thing is so yesterday'). However there are many less bombastic grasses on the scene and it is worth having a closer look at some of them:
Stipa gigantea (foreground) in The Dry Garden, Hyde Hall
      Miscanthus sinensis, reaching its plumes to about 8ft in height, is a good option for summer and winter: in summer its upright habit provides good contrast with lower growing plants and in winter the plumes provide stately decoration, especially with the sun behind them. Stipa gigantea has similar advantages although its delicate flower structure gives a different aesthetic.
Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' contrasting with Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

      Hakenchloa macra 'Aureola' is excellent displayed in a large container but also provides exciting contrast when planted with Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. The Hakenchloa dies back in winter while the Ophiopogon soldiers on. The latter is not actually a grass but, maybe surprisingly, a member of the lily family. However it behaves enough like a grass to often be mistaken for one.

      And that's it. All it remains is for me to wish my readers a happy Christmas.

      Both of you.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Common puff-ball (Lycoperdon perlatum). Edible when young. Spores puff out when mature
     A work colleague had died and a large number of people from the then Recreational Services section of the council were gathering to give our respects at Blakeley Crematorium. It was the usual conveyor belt, (death being a popular pastime) where everyone gathered outside, waiting their turn in one of the three chapels. It was cold and there were a lot of gloves and even a bobble hat on display. I feel there is a great potential for street entertainers and hot dog sellers to cash in on these occasions but, so far, I've never come across this. No one would have been surprised to hear a hollow clerical voice shout 'next', causing the queue to shuffle forward in anxious anticipation of the awaiting ritual. As was to be expected, the mood was somber - sympathy tinged with the inevitable 'but thank God it's not me' relief.

      Waiting there brought to mind that classic Dave Allen sketch where a funeral was taking place in some Irish village: apparently (according to Dave) it was believed that, if two people should be buried in a churchyard on the same day, only the first one would get to heaven. On this occasion, two funeral parties met, marching along the road to the graveyard. At first they simply try to walk faster, but this evolved to them trying to barge each other off the road as the race hotted up. A lot of things happened. One of the groups found an old pram and stuck the coffin on that, giving them greater speed potential. However, they relinquished their lead when they found it necessary to stop at a pub, leaving the coffin parked outside. They hadn't put the brake on and the pram started rolling downhill, eventually ending up in the duck pond. The other party in the meantime hitched a ride in a car, with the coffin on top. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the two parties eventually arrived at the graveyard at the same time, only to find that a funeral was already taking place. Maybe neither of them got to heaven then, or maybe (and this is more likely), they went back to the pub and animosity was forgotten - a bit like when there is a state occasion and the prime minister and opposition leader can be seen walking together in the dignitary procession, chatting amicably, and sharing their dismay at  their 11% pay rise.

      Hanging around in the cold led to me needing the toilet, so I wandered away from our group in search of relief. When I found it, my old mate Ron was already there and we wandered back a couple of minutes later, just as everyone was filing in.

      It was a big, modern chapel and, as I remember it, the pews were in a semi-circle facing the front. Ron and I found ourselves slap bang in the middle and the service was about to commence when I noticed something strange:

      "Hey, Ron", I whispered. "I don't know many of these people, do you?"

      Ron glanced around then gave a start as a group of heads filed past the window.

      "Bloody hell!", he said loudly. This seemed a bit inappropriate at a funeral I thought, but I didn't say anything because, like Ron, I'd recognised a bobble hat which was, er, bobbling past the window.

      "We're in the wrong sodding funeral", he informed me, rather unnecessarily.

      And so it was that my mate Ron and I donned sickly grins to accompany our apologies and probably became the first people in history to walk out of a funeral.
Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) edible when while still white
      While we're on about death, it's worth having a look at fungi. These are complex organisms which seem to be a form of plant but differ in that they are not green. This is important because the green in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll, the substance which enables them to produce sugars to convert into energy for growth. The fungi haven't got this ability, so they've adapted to get the sugars from elsewhere.

      They do this in different ways and so we class them as saprophytic - those which feed on dead organisms and parasitic - the ones which feed off living hosts. The saprophytic ones can be seen as the gardener's friend, because they help break down dead material so that it goes back into the soil and enriches it with nutrients and fibrous structure. The parasitic types are often the enemy, feeding on living plants and weakening, spoiling their appearance, or even killing them - examples can be commonly seen in mildews, leaf spots and honey fungus.

      Mushrooms are a type of fungus we exploit as a foodstuff and the magic ones can send you on a trip. Unfortunately it is often difficult to tell the magic ones from similar poisonous species and a mistake could, at worst, lead to your trip being one-way. The field mushrooms we commonly use for eating are best picked in the early morning. I used to think this was simply a freshness issue but, on holiday in Northumbria, ignored this advice and picked a bumper crop in late afternoon. When it came to preparing them I found they were alive with maggots. Now, if I pick them wild, I make sure it is early in the day and that they are newly emerged. Reading up on this, I find that some people dry the mushrooms by hanging them with the flat head upwards and the maggots (and sometimes worms) fall out. Others simply cook them, maggots and all. Well, whatever turns you on.
Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). Edible
      Identifying fungi is difficult, partly because they are variable in appearance at different stages of growth and so pictures in books can be misleading. Honey fungus is edible but a species very similar in appearance is poisonous, so my advice is that if you're in doubt, give it a miss (or try it on someone you don't like). Some, like shaggy ink cap, are very distinctive and so can be eaten with confidence.

      The most deadly toadstool is the death-cap (Amanita phalloides) and this is closely related to the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the red one with white spots often seen with a fairy seated on it. Fly agaric grows prolifically in Siberia and the arctic and is a favourite food of reindeer. It is also consumed by arctic shamans and there is a theory that Santa and his flying reindeer originated with shaman and reindeer on a joint trip through the night sky. If so, this is a dream fortified by the imagination of millions of children who further fuel the shaman with mince pies.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rhubarb (Rheum sp.)

     A few years ago I had a bit of a medical problem which led to my bladder being prone to infections. I was on a number of drugs for the condition and it was under control, except for a more than normal need to urinate. This was good news for the compost heap but a definite negative in other ways. For example, we went down to Maldon, in Essex, for a wedding and were staying in the house of a friend. In the middle of the night I got the pressing need and got up to take care of it. Bear in mind I was in a strange bedroom and disorientated. The cocktail of drugs didn't help, either, together with being still three-quarters asleep, and I opened a door under the impression it was the bathroom. Luckily, my wife woke up just as I disappeared into the wardrobe ready to severely disillusion anyone returning from Narnia, and pointed me towards the actual bathroom. This was fortuitous, otherwise we'd never have been asked back.

      Soon after this episode, we went on a trip to Yorkshire. We'd already had to stop a couple of times at services but the feeling came on during a long stretch of the M62 where the distance between services had the potential to turn discomfort into tragedy. Anyway, my wife was driving and I'd had the forethought to put a bottle on the back seat for such emergencies, so I scrambled into the rear and put it to good use. It crossed my mind that I could start a cult along similar lines to  the Mile High Club, this time for peeing into a milk bottle while going at great speed along motorways. Thinking such cultural thoughts and lulled with the bliss of relief, I became aware that it had gone suddenly darker. I thought at first that maybe we were having a eclipse, but glancing up showed me that the cause was the Bullocks coach which had drawn level. An interested audience of pensioners was ogling me from their circle seats. However I couldn't stop, so I pacified myself by giving them a weak grin and rather limp Hitler salute with my other hand, all the time hoping to God that we didn't bump into them again somewhere. It struck me that it was alright for them, there'd be a toilet on board their bus and I maliciously hoped that it was blocked. A further comfort was the thought that, should we come across the Bullocks coach parked anywhere, I could easily change the 'u' to an 'o' with a black marker. That'd teach 'em.

      This brought to mind the time that we had an event (I think it was a cycle race) in Wythenshawe Park. The park toilets were grossly inadequate for a large crowd, so we'd hired mobile loos and dotted them round a central area. Unwisely, we left them overnight and in the morning all that was left was a series of burnt out hulks. The local vandals had discovered that a burning lavatory gives far more pyrotechnic satisfaction than a bog standard (pardon the pun) firework. Fortunately they'd had the forethought to make sure no one was in them before applying the match. If anyone had been, no doubt their bowel movement would have progressed satisfactorily but this would have been poor compensation for being burnt to a cinder.

      Rhubarb also has a reputation for encouraging healthy movements. It is such an easy crop that anyone can grow it with a high potential for success. Not only is the stem good in crumbles, pies and other desserts, but the leaves extend its use in other directions: an old bloke on our allotment recommended boiling them in water, then using the resulting liquid to clean algi off greenhouse glass. I've not tried this but the logic is there - rhubarb leaves have a high oxalic acid content and this has corrosive properties. Garden Organic (used to be known as the Henry Doubleday Research Institute) give the following recipe for controlling aphids: boil 3 pounds of leaves in 6 pints of water for half an hour, strain through muslin or an old stocking then dilute with water to rhubarb at quantities of 5:1. Some added soapflakes will help it spread and stick more effectively.

      Originally from Siberia, edible rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) finds the British climate a soft touch by comparison. When I first heard of the rhubarb triangle I thought it must be related to the Bermuda one, with mysterious disappearances taking place on the vegetable plot. However it turns out to be much more mundane, referring to an area in Yorkshire where Wakefield , Morley and Rothwell form the angles encompassing the main rhubarb growing area. They probably get a lot of Christmas cards from the custard industry.
Purpose made forcing pots with removable tops for observation
      Forcing rhubarb is a way of getting an early crop. The plant should first be given a year without being picked in order to establish (this also applies with normal cropping), then in the second year it is covered with a large pot, or black plastic, just as it begins to grow. The principle is that a plant needs light to grow and photosynthesise: place it in the dark and it automatically grows upwards towards where it perceives the light should be. This can be seen when you wrongly position something like a pelargonium in a dark corner of the living room and it produces leggy, unattractive growth as it strives upwards. By forcing, the crop can be obtained a month or more earlier and is less tart. This takes a lot out of the plant and it should be rested the following year in order to recover. An even earlier crop can be attained by lifting the plant in November, leaving on the soil surface to receive the frosting which breaks down the tendency for dormancy, then taking into a cool greenhouse or shed and covering. Where this is done commercially the cropped plant is usually then destined for the compost heap.

      Some forms of rhubarb provide sculptural interest in the garden. Like its culinary relative, it needs deep, moist, humus rich soil and benefits from an annual top dressing of well-rotted organic material. Especially effective near water, it can be a Gunnera substitute for the smaller pond, being more compatible in scale. A variety like Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) can produce red flowers up to a height of 8 feet.

      So, as you can see, rhubarb is pretty versatile and so easy to grow it really is worth giving it a bash.