24 February 2012

That's not my Gnome

Many thanks to reader Reed for sending in a picture of her snowdrops under the apple tree. Very elegant* they are too. For the sake of journalistic integrity, we felt we ought to include one of the 'outtakes' which shows a gnome, happily surveying the scene and previously unnoticed by the photographer. One can't help cheering on the purple crocus as well, which has crept in to lend some of the old pizzazz.

 *See comments

Snowdrops 'in the green'

Or, gardening clich├ęs no. 4
Dividing snowdrops 'in the green'. It's possible that I am a grammar fanatic but why the permanent inverted commas? Anyway... an inspiring head gardener I know says that it is much better to divide snowdrops in June, when they are no longer 'in the green' but have truly had their day and are ready to settle down for a long summer's rest. Any earlier and they are still busy with the green part, which grows and grows after the flower has finished. You just need to catch them before the leaves shrivel up completely and (this is the deal breaker) remember to do it when snowdrops, and late winter, couldn't be further from your mind.

Photo: Painswick Rococo Garden, one of the best places in England to see millions of snowdrops.

21 February 2012

Crocus tommasinianus

A crocus has more pizzazz than a snowdrop. Fact.

17 February 2012

The Lazy Brown Fox

Pest control and personal charm tend to go hand in hand I have found. The exterminators' cool approach to the things which make us hysterical can give them heroic status. There's a hornet's nest above the back door - no problem. My favourite chair is infested with mice - they'll be gone in a jiffy. What about the rats in the chicken coop - we'll see what we can do.

The friendly controller of pests at Brooke Hall is always welcomed with open arms. The other day I asked him about the tricky subject of foxes, which come under his general remit beyond the park gates. I've been giving Vulpes vulpes some thought lately. It must be strange for urban folk to be confronted with foxes face to face in a way that country people never are. The latter see the damage done but they rarely spend time with the cause of it. In towns people with foxes living in their gardens or in gardens nearby find themselves taking measures to prevent the more relaxed variety from strolling into the house and helping themselves. The predator is now the scavenger and his tail is less bushy; he is still wild but looks a bit like a dog but also a bit like a cat...

My friend from environmental services suggests that the urban fox is turning into a different sort of animal. It's a test for Darwinism: country fox = survival of the fittest while urban fox = survival of the unfittest. The fox that outruns the hounds is arguably a superior being to the mangy animal that doesn't exercise much and passes diseases around the family and through generations.

The dinner party tone of the conversation soon moves to practical methods of pest control but you'll have to find this on The Observer Allotment Blog. The good news is, the suggested fox deterrant is free, and so is the online Guardian/Observer.

fox courtesy The Graphics Fairy

16 February 2012

Nuisance News, for the Observer Blog

Part One Mr Badger and Mr Fox
My friend Sharron has a communal toilet in the middle of her allotment. It's a little off-putting, and gives the impression that someone has been 'caught short' in an unsuitable place. In fact, it is a latrine for badgers. Their sett is in a bank overlooking the plots and location-wise it's pretty perfect. And even if it wasn't, badgers think nothing of bowling through carefully built fences when they want what is on the other side. They are the least fussy kind of omnivores and besides eating worms, unhelpfully, they also love anything which happens to be growing, whether it is a carrot underground or corn on a stalk. On this particular allotment in rural Northamptonshire, where people have stoves in their sheds and curtains in the windows, there is less fear of thieving from humans than there is from badgers.

Vigilance contributes to the industrial look of allotments and many productive back gardens. 'Badgers are a devil for bulbs,' says my friend Mr Messenger, whose most useful piece of kit is a collection of long metal mesh cloches which are stubbornly utilitarian in appearance. Mr Messenger is under siege: he puts cloches over his daffaodil bulbs on the edge of the garden to keep out the badgers, and cloches through the middle of the garden, to keep off cats. I sense that he likes a cloche, more perhaps than he dislikes a pest. At any rate, the latter are no match for him.

In the country, foxes are not even in the top five of the pest hit parade for kitchen gardeners (except for those with chickens). They could even be said to help restrain the rabbit population. But in urban kitchen gardens they dig things up like badgers do in their heedless quest for food, and people don't like to see their lovely lines of productivity wrecked by fox excrement.

I know a friendly pest control man who fights the fight in the middle of the Midlands. He maintains that 'deterrants' for foxes are a lot more effective than, say, the Pytchley Hunt. Every night foxes make the same rounds in their patch and go to the same places, marking the spot in the way that animals do.

'Take some human male urine,' he advises, 'and bottle it up. It's best to use wee from a young man under the age of 30, because of the high testosterone content.' Make yourself familiar with the nightly rounds of your regular male fox and go to each spot with your bottle of urine. Put down your own mark. 'That way a fox will feel that there is something bigger and mightier moving in and he will move out.'

The idea of bottling up a young man's urine is a bit Withnail and I but it's got to be worth a try. Urban fox catchers can charge £500 to trap and 'destroy' a fox and it is well known that when one goes another one moves in. Either way, you are in for the long haul once a fox takes up squatters' rights under your shed.

Nota bene: it is completely illegal to try anything which will interfere with a badger sett, though you are allowed to leave deterrants on their patrols. The badger has the edge on you as long as it is protected, so resist the temptation to do as you are done to.

12 February 2012

Late Winter Survival Stories

'I only take holidays in winter, February if I can. Winter holidays make life in England worth living. I think summer holidays are insane.'
Derry Watkins, Top Person's Seed Supplier
The owner of Special Plants near Bath is from Connecticut, like all the best people. Her special seeds thrive in the cutting garden at Brooke Hall: Papaver rhoeas 'Mother of Pearl' (below), flaming in June.

10 February 2012

Rubus Cockburnianus Latest

The decorative bramble fulfills its promise. Not to mention the decorative snow, and the decorative railings...

08 February 2012

The Secret Orchard

Gardening in the snow is unusual for most people, but not for those who are paid to do it every day,  pre-dawn to post-dusk. I have discovered recently that it can be better to work outside in sub-zero temperatures than to do garden-related things inside. At some point yesterday I found myself tidying the potting shed, which looked as though it had just been tidied. As I swept out a further shed my attention began to wander... and I found myself behind the buidings in an ancient orchard. I knew of its existence but had never seen it before; it's a little out of the way.

There are apples and pears and plums and it's hard to tell what else but it's guaranteed that they are good varieties which have done a lot of giving over the years. The bottom half of each tree is stoutly goblet-shaped, pruned in exemplary fashion. The top halves are wild and gnarled in a mass of dark twigs, looking very dormant indeed. Each branch supports a national collection of lichen and moss, with ivy spiralling around. The place is not completely abandoned: the grass is strimmed but the trees have not been tended for years.

The orchard is only a field or two from the big house but far enough away to be forgotten. The parasites growing all over the once-perfect wood may not survive a planned pruning. For now, we are all in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter.

07 February 2012

Hunting News

Foxes are thriving in the East Midlands, and so are hunting folk. Insiders say that hunt meets are better attended than ever, and last week I found myself at one such gathering in a field near Uppingham.  I was going past and decided to stop and I was astonished to see a HUGE eagle-owl in attendance, surrounded by admirers.

Since then I've been wondering, how does it work, hunting with a bird of prey? According to a Source, the eagle-owl is there only as a symbol. It would be very difficult to prove to anybody that it is the owl which kills the fox and not the pack, especially when the owl is following behind in a van. The hunt is employing a bird of prey, and that is what matters.

The fox is the symbol of Leicestershire, proof that people don't hate foxes around here: they love them. 'I used to hunt and it was nothing to do with killing a fox,' says my Source. 'It was the thrill of the chase. I used to love riding hard over open country on a horse... you never knew where the fox was going to take you.'

It is only the weak (old, young and ill) foxes that are killed by the hunt, continues the Source. The crowd on horseback, enjoying their day out, do not stand a chance with a fit fox. They would hunt with greyhounds and shot guns if pest control was the aim, or they would put down poison. As another village dweller says, 'If they really wanted to kill foxes they'd be wearing boiler suits and they certainly wouldn't be on a horse.' People with livestock to protect ignore the old rituals and go out at night themselves, looking for a pair of eyes reflected by a torch.

'The hunting law is so precise and badly framed that prosecutions are not successful. It's much more fun now,' declares the Source, 'having a law that doesn't work.'

06 February 2012

Oh... you're a gardener.

'We had a gardener when we had money, ' he said, with a slight wave of the hand. 'Gardeners are always lurking. I'd walk past some bushes and there the gardener would be, lurking.'

04 February 2012

Small Trades in Full Flower

A uniform, as long as it is self-imposed and made from natural fibres, is very appealing. The dignified portraits of working people made by Irving Penn in the 1950s permanently inspire, and it is not prohibited to like them just for the way they look.

Our friends at Old Town unrolled a Penn-like wrinkled backdrop and photographed their own choice of Small Trades in Spitalfields recently. With Old Town's aertex shirts for working outdoors and their drill wrapper for selling fancy goods, a uniform is part of my life but it can always be added to. In this series of photographs, the get-up of The Flower Girl has something to go on. Her hat is straight out of 'When We Were Very Young' and the no-waist denim shirt would look good on anybody handling flowers or grubbing around in the dirt.

01 February 2012

Why Don't You... Bulldoze Your Parterre?

Why don't you...
Do yew in a different way? Allow it to revert to primeval shapes, more fantastic than the maddest topiary.
Why don't you...
Let your box go wild? Manicured box gets blight and wild box does not.

Why don't you...
Consider a grove of laurels instead of a laurel hedge? That way, the big shiny leaves are out of sight and the well-shaped wood is on show.
For some authentic Diana Vreeland 'Why Don't You' ideas in Harper's Bazaar, see Empirella