Gardening and me

I LOVE GARDENS BUT I am not, and never have been, a great gardener. As a child, I used to mow the lawn and cut parts of the privet hedge surrounding our garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Neither of these activities endeared me to gardening. In 1983, I became a homeowner in Gillingham, Kent. My house had a 180-foot-long garden which was about 30 feet wide. About 120 feet of it was lawn bordered by narrow beds and the rest of it was, I imagine, once dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables. On taking possession of my new home, I was determined to make a success of the garden.

For a few weeks, I dug up weeds, hoping to clear a space to plant potatoes and onions. Day after day, I would return home from a session of pulling out teeth and other dental activities and then get down to pulling up weeds. It was disheartening to discover that a patch, which I had cleared a day earlier, was already becoming refilled with weeds. What I did not know at the time was that my garden was infested with a weed that was extremely difficult to eradicate manually or even with chemicals. The smallest fragment of this horrendous plant was enough to ensure its rapid and thorough propagation.

After a while, I abandoned my grand ground clearance plans and lowered my ambitions. I decided to clear a small patch to grow some parsley, a herb that was only available in local shops at Christmas time. I planted the seeds as instructed on the packet, watered them as required, and inspected the parsley patch every day.  Soon, tiny green shoots began appearing. I was horrified. I thought that once again the weeds were beginning to defeat me. So, I plucked them out to clear the ground for my parsley to have the best chance of its survival. It was only later that I realised that what I had regarded as weeds was in fact the parsley I was hoping to grow.

My solution to managing my garden was simple and effective. I began visiting garden centres to buy fast-growing shrubs. I had decided to let them compete with the weeds instead of me. This plan was successful. Soon, I had plenty of attractive plants that were growing larger in height and volume at high speed.

The long lawn proved problematic after a while. I bought an electric mowing machine that trimmed the grass nicely. However, it was not long before I began sneezing violently whilst mowing the lawn or even driving past a lawn that was being mowed. I tried mowing while wearing a paper face mask such as is commonly seen today during the covid19 pandemic. The mask proved to be useless even though it covered nose and mouth. My solution was to abandon mowing and just to let the grass do ‘its own thing’.

My neighbours were not happy about my wild looking garden, which, incidentally, became a haven for butterflies. They complained to me. My solution was to mow a winding path, the width of the mowing machine, through the savannah that was developing on my lawn. I explained to my neighbours that this was a carefully conceived plan to create a wildlife garden. I am not sure that this convinced them, but the level of complaining diminished. My neighbours were not so keen on wildlife as the following will demonstrate. One evening, someone living in my neighbourhood rang my doorbell. He asked me whether I wanted to contribute some money to help pay for the hire of a professional gun man to shoot the local foxes. I sent him away empty handed.

One evening, I returned from dinner with friends and as it was a pleasant night, I stepped out into my garden. I was surprised to smell burning but could see no fire. On the next morning, I met one of my neighbours and mentioned the burning to him. He told me that he had extinguished the fire before it reached my house. He said that the elderly lady who lived on the other side of my house had become fed up with the state of my garden and had set fire to it hoping that might prevent the spread of weeds from my garden to hers.

What is interesting is that when I came to sell my house back in 1995, at a time when the property market in the area was sluggish, it was the garden that appealed to the buyers. Apart from the fact that the house was the kind that they were seeking, it was the prospect of taming the garden, which the estate agent had described as being “in its natural state”, that appealed to the buyers. Sometime after the purchase was over, we dropped in to say hello to the new buyers. They showed us the garden. It looked as if it had been sprayed with a strong herbicide. The grass had gone, so had the atmosphere of wildness; the garden seemed sterile. However, I noted that all my shrubs had been preserved.

Now, I do not want you to get the impression that I have something against gardening. I do not like doing it, but I admire those who do it. Gardening is a complex art form in which human beings have to harmonise with nature to produce aesthetically pleasing results. Not only does the geometry of the laying out of plants have to look good, but garden planning must take into consideration the passage of time, the seasons, meteorology, the behaviour of pests and weeds, and ecology. In addition, there is also the distribution of form, colour, and odour that must be planned. And above all, the maintenance of healthy growth adds to the complexity of gardening successfully. A successful garden is multi-dimensional artform involving all the six senses as well as the relentless passage of time and the endless changes in the weather.

Rather like music, which I enjoy listening but cannot perform, I gain great pleasure from gardens, but prefer others to create and maintain them.

Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

A guilty secret

I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. It would not be exaggerating to say that the displays of plants are all quite wonderful.

Among the show gardens, I spotted some fine examples of peonies, some in bud and others flowering. Seeing these brought back memories of my childhood when we lived in a house with a fine garden in north-west London. At one end of the garden, there were several peony bushes. At the appropriate time of the year, these plants produced almost spherical buds.

My sister and I were attracted to these buds and used to pull them off before they could flower. My late mother used to get very upset by our horticultural vandalism, and told us off so severely that I still recall our midemeanours on the rare occasions that I think of peonies, which is not all that often.

You will be pleased to read that I resisted the temptation to pluck any of the peony buds I saw at the Chelsea Flower Show!

And, here is an interesting fact: Peony is the name of a novel by Pearl S Buck. The story is set in China and features a Chinese Jewish family.

Glass in the garden

 

Once again, London’s Kew Gardens is hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (born 1941). The amazingly crafted glass artworks of often quite complex design have been placed both in the open-air and inside some of Kew’s lovely old glass-houses. 

The curvy tubes with pointed ends shown in my photograph have been tastefully planted in a grassy field dotted with tulips. In the Temperate House, a large glass mobile has been suspended from the ceiling and smaller objects mingle with the plants. Wherever you look, you will find glass artefacts in  intimate contact with the plants growing around them. In the Water-Lily House, large glass sulptures evoking the flowers of water-lillies mingle with the real plants whose fronds float on the water.

As time passes and the plants grow more, some of Chihuly’s colourful glass objects will become harder to find.  The plant-like forms of many of the artworks mix with the plants to provide in some cases a stark contrast or in others they almost blend with the plants around them.

It is well worth visiting Kew whilst these sculptures are on display. However much I like the glass artworks, the stars of the show are for me the plants themselves (rather than the sculptures). This highlights how difficult it is for man to compete with nature on the aesthetic playing field.

 

The Chihuly works are on display at Kew Gardens until the 27th October 2019

Green crime

plant

 

I am no gardener, but I enjoy garden, plants, and flowers. When I lived in Kent, I had an enormous garden, which I filled with shrubs because someone advised me that they needed little care and attention. This was good advice.

There was a strip of earth next to where I parked my car at night. I filled this with various shrubs that needed almost no care. One of these plants was a very slow growing conifer, which looked like a miniature Christmas tree. It grew close to where I entered the driver’s door of my car.

One day, I noticed that this tiny tree was no longer in its place. It had disappeared. I thought that maybe it had died and rotted away. After that, I thought little if anything about the missing plant. Where it grew was soon covered with foliage from the neighbouring fast-growing shrubs.

Many weeks later, a uniformed policeman visited my house and asked me if anything, such as garden tools or plants, had gone missing from my land. At first, I thought that this was an odd request. Then, I remembered the mysterious vanishing of my small conifer. I told the policeman about this. Then, he told me that there had been a garden thief operating in the area and the police were collecting evidence.

I told the policeman that I could not believe that my tiny plant could have been of any value for a thief. He explained to me that plants are valuable, and that the maturer they were, the greater their value. I was amazed that there was such a species of criminal as a plant thief.  But, since then, I have heard it is quite common, especially amongst respectable looking visitors to horticultural gardens such as Kew Gardens.

Well, as the saying goes: ‘you learn something new everyday’