Monday, 26 May 2008

A long weekend

I was particularly glad that in the north we escaped the bad weather this weekend; the funeral of a close relative last week left me feeling exhausted and demoralised, and desperate to get out into the garden, and it was with a sense of relief that I woke each morning to sun. Despite a cold wind that limited work on the vegetable beds (netting broad beans in a high wind is a thankless task, but the thought of all those pigeons waiting until I gave up kept me going) a reasonable amount was achieved: the tomatoes now stand in regimented lines in the greenhouse, accompanied by aubergines and peppers, while trays of salad leaves have been sown. The intention is to keep not just the family supplied with leaves, but those voracious eaters of greens, the chickens.

The enthusiasm of sons for gardening is limited to edible plants, but they can be persuaded into a certain amount of heavy work, so I managed to mix compost for various pots and containers so that I could at least start the planting of pelargoniums, fuchsias and annuals for summer colour. I am pleased with two strawberry pots, one of which contains a convolvulus cneorum in flower above what will become a froth of dark blue lobelia (the convolvulus will be long over by that time, but its arching silvery branches are attractive in themselves). The other pot has more of the lobelia, and a single sky blue brachyscome, or Swan River Daisy, at the top. Not very showy, which is how I prefer it – I'd rather fill pots with a single species as a rule, but that doesn't work so well with strawberry pots, and OH has a tendency to bring home trays of mixed plants. I think I talked my mother into pots of white osteospermum this year (I love the darker underside to the petals), but couldn't get any myself, only some rather brash orange ones which I passed up on.

By today, the Bank Holiday, though, my energy had run out. I feel as though I've been through a wringer, for those old enough to remember such things, over the past couple of weeks, and the thought of being chilled for another day had lost its appeal, so I decided that reading about plants would be enough. I have a book to review, Salal by Laurie Ricou, and am amazed to discover the extent to which a plant I had barely heard of is being grown commercially in British Columbia. As well as being offered by nurseries as a native plant for groundcover (it has lovely deep green leaves and black berries) it is used in huge quantities by florists, who like particularly appreciate the way its foliage will display a bunch of roses). It can cause problems in southern England as a garden escape, apparently, though I don't think I've ever seen it there. British gardeners may be more familiar with its close relative Gaultheria procumbens, the wintergreen. The book is unusual in choosing a single, relatively unremarkable, plant as its subject, and three chapters in I'm intrigued to see where it will take me next.

Heartsease, May 2008

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Chelsea season

Gardens R Us

As Gardener's World on BBC2 has already embarked on the flower show circuit, I found myself wondering how a dog would design the prefect garden. It would be interesting amid the wire daisies and softly splashing water features, I thought, to create the ultimate in canine cool. Perhaps the Dogs' Trust would like to sponsor it for Chelsea next year? I consulted the experts...

It begins with an enclosed space – any self-respecting dog has got to have something to defend. The girls reckon a mailbox at the gate is ideal, you can both shout at the postman not to come in and wag at him approvingly for obeying instructions. A 5-bar farm gate is perfect, by the way, convenient bars for resting the front paws on combined with good visibility. A mixed boundary is handy – hedges make good habitats for various creatures as well as handy gaps for quick and unpredictable exit, while fences can be jumped or tunnelled under. Continuous walls are far from ideal unless you are very athletic, but can encourage ivy, which is good for snuffling about in. The next priority is a good big lawn. This mustn't be too tidy, you want your people to throw lots of balls about, and overlong grass is excellent for cooling tummies in hot weather, and for a good roll in any weather.

For the male dog an ornamental conifer bed is always a plus, plenty of uprights for widdling on, while for any dog a nice dense shrubbery comes in useful when brushes or flea powder are mentioned. The Bolter, who likes a little privacy at certain moments, advocates hedges within gardens. Senior Dog doesn't care, she'd rather it was obvious that she's ready to come back in now, especially in wet weather (when gravel is the surface of choice).

Planting within the garden may be largely left to the whim of humans, provided they realise that wilderness and trees are preferable to the manicured look. A little control is necessary though - nettles, for instance, should be controlled, since they cause itchy paws, but a nice patch of long grass can provide cover for rodents, and offer hours of gentle exercise. For a work out first thing in the morning, a patch of catnip should be considered, while a well-dug vegetable bed, or even a child's sandpit, provides the ideal repository for bones. An accessible water feature, if there is space, is desirable, but Senior Dog advises that a boggy patch will do at a pinch, especially when you are hot at the end of a game (mud sticks well to the undercarriage and offers better cooling properties).

Finally, both dogs recommend that fashionable accessory, an area of decking: wooden planks warm up quickly in the sun and are reasonable comfortable to lie on for long periods. If you are very fortunate, your people may regard deck railings as a handy place to air bedspreads and similar items, in which case they can be readily pulled down for extra comfort. They point out that the dog-designed garden is low-maintenance (most of the work can easily be done with one hand while throwing a ball with the other), wildlife-friendly (did you know that woodpeckers like bones, too?) and organic (the only garden pests are cats and squirrels and they are FUN). In short, why would a human want any other kind of garden? You haven't got a dog? How sad for you, but we can soon sort that out...

Game, anyone?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labour Redux

Following up last week’s question about reading writing/grammar guides, this week, we’re expanding the question….
Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not?
Do you ever read manuals?
How-to books?
Self-help guides?
Anything at all?

There are three adults in our household, and three completely different, and largely incompatible, approaches to a new piece of "kit". My husband settles down with the manual before he unpacks anything else, reads it in depth and, if necessary, identifies every component part of the purchase, counting screws and checking boxes. I will have a cursory glance at the manual and then embark on setup, following the instructions reasonably closely and despairing almost immediately because it won't work. Younger son leaves the manual in the box. If you gave us the same object simultaneously and told us to get it working, he'd probably win hands down.

How-to guides? Well, if you count cookery books, then we all read – and use - them. I like gardening books, too, and wouldn't contemplate pruning a fruit tree without reading up\ on it first. When I was growing up my parents had a wonderful book, passed round as a great treasure, which was a compilation of handicraft leaflets published by Dryad Handicrafts (an interesting offshoot of the Arts and Crafts Movement, see here for information). We learnt to make all sorts of things from these: lino cuts (potato cuts for the children), raffia mats, stencilling, french knitting – there was even a leaflet on bookbinding, and one Christmas my stepmother made me an elegantly bound marble-covered notebook, possibly the beginning of my stationery addiction. I often borrow how-to books from the library, particularly books on petit-point and lace knitting. And there's the Access manual, of course. I've spent hours with that. Aargh!

Lastly, self-help guides. These don't loom large on my horizon. I'll borrow them from the library to find out how to deal with something specific – migraine, for instance, and browse them, making the odd note of anything that might prove useful. Really, I use them in the way I use all reference books, to find the solution to a specific problem. I know some people find them irresistible, but I lack the staying power for self-improvement.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Pass the dictionary, please

I missed this week's Booking Through Thursday but since it seemed made for me, I decided to post on it anyway. The question was:
Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?
I think I've only got one "writing book" on my shelves, Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, which was a set book for my Master's course. I don't think I would have bought it otherwise, but I did read it, and you
never know, it may come in handy one day, if only for swatting wasps.

As for the others, there are too many to list, but my copy of The Chicago Manual of St
yle is my treasure. I can't tell you how often that gets taken down. It's regarded the The Book in this household, and when I gave a copy to my elder son last Christmas he was delighted. It sits beside Fowler's Modern Usage, Roget's Thesaurus (a fourteenth birthday present from my parents - we're a funny family, I suppose) and a line of dictionaries: for work there are the Oxford English and Harrap's New English/French, for fun there are various dictionaries of slang, quotations and symbolism, pocket Italian and Latin dictionaries, books on grammar . . . I use online versions too, with a subscription to Merriam-Webster, and shortcuts to Chambers and several others. And they are only the tip of the iceberg of the books I regard as essential aids to writing, the stack of encyclopaedias and other reference books I couldn't live without - on science, mythology, heraldry, history. If I could only rescue one from a fire it would be Chicago, which is daft, because it's online now, but I know the layout and can find what I want in it, and anyway, it's there, just where I need it.

When I was first married and we were poor and had to make our own entertainment, we used to play games with the dictionary - usually just "I'll pick a word and you guess what it means" but occasionally a version of Call My Bluff, where you actually invent definitions - very good for the vocabulary, and great for playing with children, too.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Back again

Well, the conference happened, the potatoes got planted, and I plunged into weeks of typesetting and grant applications, from which I'm only gradually re-emerging. I spent one of my regular weekends in Devon, where there was both joy and sadness in the garden: some lovely flowers and much glorious greenery to enjoy, while sympathising over the azaleas and camellias which had come out only to be blasted by frost. I took my mother to the garden centre and bought her two orchids on special offer to cheer her up - the wonders of micro-propagation! My retiring President sent me one, too, pictured above and still being enjoyed, though I have no confidence that I will ever manage to make it flower again.

The high point of the weekend past was moving the bird feeder. For over a year it has been in the same place in view of the sitting-room window, attracting a flock of "regulars" while affording them good protection from cats, kestrels and sparrowhawks. My resident flock of sparrows appreciate the hawthorn hedge just behind the pole, to perch in while they wait impatiently for food to arrive, to scold me from while I fill feeders, and to flee into if a sudden threat interrupts their feeding. The woodpeckers like the corkscrew willow near the pole, varying their diet with insects while they await their turn at the peanuts. The collared doves, woodpigeons and blackbirds all feed on the gravel underneath, amply supplied with seed by the sparrows who fling most of it out while searching for particular delicacies. The robins help with the filling of the feeders, perching in the garden bench until I put a tiny handful of seed on the seat for them. Happily, the feeding station could be moved to a similar position near another willow, and the residents have adjusted without difficulty.

At this time of year the day-long clamour of birds just living their small lives is staggeringly loud. Recently a small flock suddenly swooped into a tree next to me, all following two sparrows who were oblivious to everything but their conflict over, I imagine, some especially lovely lady. The noise was tremendous – I am sure that the followers were all shrieking "Fight! Fight!" like the "big boys" who used to scare me in the school playground. At night I have been surprised by the noise made by lapwings, nesting for the first time just over the garden fence – they swoop and squeal until well after dusk. As soon as they stop the owls take over, and sleep is punctuated by screeches. Elder son, enjoying a brief respite from the honking taxis and pubs of Edinburgh, commented that it was pleasant to enjoy the comparative quiet of the country, but those sparrows did make quite a racket!