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

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