Singing Armadillidiidae-day

This is a cheese log.

Or possibly a chucky pig, gramersow, roly-poly, grandad or butchy boy. Although it is most probably  a slater seeing that it was photographed in Scotland. Whatever name you choose to use it is undoubtedly a wood louse.

There are, and this came as a bit of a surprise to me, five thousand different species of wood louse which seems rather a lot although there are a mere forty five in Britain. I have always been rather fond of a woodlouse so much so that, as a grubby schoolboy, I kept one in a matchbox. This was probably a lot less fun for the woodlouse as it was for me because being constantly loosed and then corralled again must have been  very bad for his stress levels.

Interesting things about woodlice (not a phrase I thought I would ever write)…

They are crustaceans so are cousins of prawns- you can see the similarities although I somehow doubt that the addition of a handful of woodlice to a glass of pink sauce and some chopped lettuce would not make a 1970s classic.

Those who know these things say that woodlice taste of “strong urine” (see above). I worry about people who can tell the difference between the taste of strong and weak urine.

The woodlouse has fourteen segments and live for about two years. Assuming nothing eats them or treads on them.

The woodlouse moults in two stages. Back half first and then, a few days later, the front. This means than all woodlice have a sartorially embarrassing  period where they are running around with trousers that do not match their tops.

They breathe through lungs situated in their hind legs.

The female woodlouse carries her fertilised eggs around in a pouch. They hatch after a few days but then take a while to develop into independent creatures.

The woodlouse is one of those garden creatures that get a very bad press – people are constantly trying to kill them as they get blamed for all sorts of misdemeanours of which they are usually not guilty. Most of the time they do a very good job of clearing up dead stuff and feasting on decaying vegetation.

Occasionally they can snack on emerging seedlings but if you spent your life eating old wood you too would fancy the occasional change.

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Blue,blue, electric blue…

Defying nature is generally considered to be a bad idea.

King Canute* is a case in point as are those people who stand to close to large trees during thunderstorms. Or have plastic surgery in order to reduce the wobbliness of their dewlaps and end up with skin the texture of an overboiled frankfurter.

However, many gardeners regularly defy nature by ignoring the sound advice given on the label or in the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants and planting stuff where they think it will survive. The worst example of which I am guilty is doggedly and determinedly planting Meconopsis in Limey soil. I was convinced (driven by the optimism and careless confidence of youth) that the rules were not for me and that what I really needed was a drift of pale blue poppies marching away down the border as far a s the eye could see.

“Best in acid soil” trumpeted the label. “Native to the Himalayas” stated the books. “Pish and tush” said I as I wandered off into the limestone mists of the Cotswolds bearing trowel and plants. I do not blame my younger self one jot as the Meconopsis is thing of extraordinary delicate beauty and everybody who sees one will be instantly smitten. They are, however very fussy and do not take kindly to people messing with their growing conditions.

That said, it was an excellent lesson in life because, in the words of the Rolling Stones – You can’t always get what you want……(although it must be said that, if you try sometimes, you get what you need).

 

* when I was about ten I played the part of King Canute in version of 1066 and all that. It was a part that offered limited scope for the thespian but did involve my having a bucket of water poured over my head which was an excitement at that age. My next dramatic role was as Alice in Wonderland – with wig and cute blue frock.

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Sunrise on Glasgow

07:30 – I don’t know about you but in my opinion the correct place for a chap to be at 5:00am on a November Tuesday is cozily ensconced in a warm bed. Not searching around for a pair of socks in the pitch darkness before jumping in the car and driving through roadworks and rain to Birmingham airport.

But life sometimes throws adventures in one’s path and one would be foolish not to go along and see what happens. Hence all that rushing and the reason why I am writing this on a very noisy propellor driven aeroplane (for the benefit of any aeroplane enthusiasts out there, it says on safety card that it is a Q400 Dash8) bound for Glasgow. I am going there to visit the spinal unit at Glasgow Southern General Hospital because that is where the second Horatio’s garden will be made.

Horatio Chapple was seventeen when he was tragically killed by a polar bear while on a school expedition. His ambition was to study medicine and he spent some of his school holidays volunteering at the Salisbury spinal centre. His patient research there established how much a garden would benefit the patients – many of them destined to spend a long time in the unit. His parents, David and Olivia, have carried that idea on and the first Horatio’s Garden was designed for Salisbury by Cleve West. The idea now is to roll them out through other spinal units across the country.

So, next stop- Glasgow.

16:45 – It has been eight hours since my last breathy bulletin. I am now back in the juddery Q400 Dash 8 having had a very lovely day. Sorry, did I say lovely? I meant, intense and hard working.

I met up with Olivia and another of the trustees, Vicky Holton, and together we rumbled off to the hospital. The chosen site for the garden is the courtyard shown above: it is, umm, what’s the word? Unprepossessing. Cleve West got a car park in Salisbury in which to make the first Horatio’s garden and he did okay (for a beginner) so I am bubbling with the possibilities and am not sparing a thought for the fact that is is currently a rather dingy grey yard within spitting distance of a very, very loud dual carriageway and some of the less salubrious parts of Govan.

Actually I am extremely excited about this project. Almost all of the hundreds of gardens I have worked in over the past thirty years have been private gardens owned by delightful people. I have done very few public projects especially ones which will make such a difference to people’s lives.

Flying back I thought how close any of us are to this sort of tragedy. Today, we could be skipping merrily along whistling a happy tune and then, suddenly, tomorrow life has changed for ever. It is that quick and that uncertain. Imagine that you had to spend a year lying in a bed staring at the pimpled polystyrene tiles on the ward ceiling. Around you are other people in much the same position, all if you there because of a sudden and unexpected twist of fate. There is no privacy beyond a set of flimsy curtains, the recovery is hard, there are no magic wands, the food is pretty dire, the world shrinks to four walls and a string of minor indignities.

A tree, a flower or glimpse of the sky will become something pretty special and that is what we will try to deliver.

A moment of relief.

If you want more details or would like to help then look here.

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Gone crabbin’

I have to say that I do like a nice crab.

That is a statement which could be interpreted in a number of different ways. I could be extolling the delights of eating crab – which I would happily do as a decent crab sandwich with a squeeze of lemon is a lovesome thing.
I could be celebrating the fact that, at my age, I can exercise the privilege of general grumpiness.
I could just be very fond of walking sideways in a sort of shimmy.
Perhaps I am a rower – a slightly perverse rower if I was fond of crabs but it takes all sorts. Or I could possibly get some degenerate pleasure from the itchiness.

All these are possible but sadly the mundane truth, as I am sure you had gathered, is that I like crab apple trees at this time of year. The one pictured above is Malus Red Sentinel and those little apples should hang on in there until about christmas.  The crab apple is small sour thing, not a patch on any of its larger relations: even its name (probably a variant of ‘scrab’ meaning scratching or scraping) is not very glamorous however, as a tree, it is good news. Firstly because the blossom is all pink and sugary in springtime. Secondly, it makes a handsome summery tree beneath which you can happily sit/sprawl or snog. Thirdly there are varieties for every situation ranging from very fastigiate varieties (upright to you and me) to those of a more spreading habit.

Apart from the previously mentioned Red Sentinel the other crabs of which you should take notice are:

Malus sylvestris – the native crab. Interestingly you seldom see a group: they are often found as singles in woods with no others anywhere to be seen.

Malus Evereste – orangey crabs. Bit of autumn colour. About 7m high.

Malus Golden Hornet – there was (is) a pleached circle of this variety in the kitchen garden at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’s slightly cluttered garden. Good tree loads of yellow apples.

Malus tschonoskii – the first tree I ever planted (in a half barrel in my first garden – a concrete yard in Shepherd’s Bush) . It is very upright, the name is pleasingly complicated and it has good autumn colour. I always imagined that it was named after a Cossack cavalry major who died fighting Napoleon during the Battle of Borodino. Instead it takes its name from a rather dour Japanese botanist called Sugawa Tschonoski. Pity.

I am sure the cooks and scavengers amongst you can find some sort of jelly or coulis into which you can tip crab apples but they are never going to make your mouth water.

Unless you are a blackbird in which case you will be quite happy. Or a badger.

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I guess Redbud is just a..piece in a jigsaw puzzle (i)

I am still raking leaves.

I know that the last two blogs that I have posted here also involved me raking but, as I explained, I do not have much else to do. I did, however, have a rather charming moment today.

There I was raking away at the increasingly crusty horse chestnut leaves while simultaneously (who said that chaps cannot multi-task) toying with the idea of setting them on fire just to amuse myself and listening to the podcast of the News Quiz (ii). I had collected a decent pile when a puff of wind deposited a single Cercis leaf in the middle of the heap. There was not, I promise you, any artifice or cajoling – the picture above is of the moment.

The Cercis condenses (or Redbud) is one of two that were planted for the precise purpose of providing autumn colour, there are flowers but very few of them: they turn up in early summer and hang around for a short while being pink. For the rest of the year the leaves are charming enough but in a green and unobtrusive sort of way – they will never set the world on fire and are, I believe, the foliage equivalent of the Rich Tea biscuit (iii). Unless, of course, you get Cercis canadensis Forest Pansy in which case they have deep purply leaves instead which are more like a dark chocolate Hobnob.

But, cometh the autumn, cometh the leaf (apologies to St John and many others)….. deep crimsons, a slash of russet, a sort of dusty ballroom pink, a bit of raspberry, some burned butter and a shaving of crystallised ginger.

Well worth the wait.

I promise that next week I will think of something else to talk about apart from raking stuff.

(i) With apologies to Citizen Kane

(ii) I am terribly love with Sandy Toksvig. I fear that I am neither alone nor in with any sort of a chance.

(iii) The Rich Tea, in case you did not know, has been consistently voted the dullest biscuit in history by an international jury of experts. The Blue Riband also scored highly with the extra problem of dishonesty: promising much and delivering little. That is probably enough about biscuits although, if you want to find the best Biscuit based blog ever, then go here and have a ferret about. Sadly it ran out of steam a few years ago but the quality of drivel is exceptional.

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When the leaves come falling down

I have discovered a new passion.

Blackpitts, the garden we made at our previous house, was very special but what it lacked was trees. The place was surrounded by woods full of whopping great ash trees but within the garden there were no big trees. I planted some very lovely Malus transitoria (a wide spreading crab apple with miniature fruit about the size of a shirt button – rubbish if you were looking for something from which to make jam) a few years ago but they are just minnows.

While we wait for our next house to grind its way through the cogs and rollers required by solicitors, planners and builders we are ensconced in a slightly damp cottage with a garden the size of a postage stamp. Admittedly a large commemorative postage stamp rather than a space saving definitive stamp but still small. A lawn, a narrow bed and a bit of gravel with some pots – not really what we have been used to for the last twenty odd years. But, in an effort to keep myself aired and amused I have, as stated above found a new amusement. Something that was never afforded to me in our previous garden- I have been raking up leaves.

There is, next door to the cottage, a pair of striking horse chestnut trees each of which carries, as a rough estimate, eleventy zillion leaves. I have decided that my mission will be to rake up all of them. This task began yesterday when I spent a blissful (and creative) couple of hours raking. To be completely accurate it was mostly a matter of raking up conkers (see last week’s blog) as most of the leaves are hanging in there, awaiting their moment but I made a very satisfactory snake of debris and carted it off to begin the journey towards decomposition.

Those of you who have mature trees in your garden will sneer at my maidenly enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly as Sisyphean task. “Just you wait” you cry with the experience of years “until the frost comes and there are not just a few barrow loads of leaves but truckloads. Just you wait until the wind gusts and you have to rake the same leaf pile seven times. Just you wait until the leaves are cold and wet. Just you wait until your back is sore from repetitive raking. Just you wait…”
“Yeah, yeah…” I reply as, quite frankly, I am bored of your continuous whinging so have stopped listening.

I know that leaf raking is tedious. I know that it is a thankless task but to a man without a garden it is at least something.

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Conked out

The conker is nature’s blowhard. It is all mouth and no trousers.

Look at them with their carapaces as sturdy as armadillos and nuts as glossy as the toe caps of the most fastidious of Regimental Sargeant Majors. They promise so much but deliver nothing really which is of much benefit to the gardener. They cannot be eaten and squirrels have a disconcerting habit of carrying them off to the far corners of the garden where they rapidly sprout and become a nuisance.

Their main benefit is recreational but, in my constant search for the silver lining in all things, I have discovered that they do provide a snapshot of many of the emotions of life. Let me give you a short list, there may be others….

Anticipation and excitement: opening the case of a conker is a great pleasure. The skill is in rocking the spiky casing with your foot just enough to free the conker but without crushing or damaging the contents in any way. That is the excitement (I know, I know – I really should get out more if that is the most exciting thing likely to happen to me today) and the anticipation is in not knowing whether the conker will be large or small, single or one of the doubles with a slightly flattened side.

Nostalgia and regret for things past: conkers used to be so important: the children used to spend happy hours collecting them and putting them in buckets. Nowadays, sadly, they are merely an inconvenience.

Mortality and the fading of youth: a conker, when first released from the spiny shell is so deeply polished and shiny but, very soon, the lustre fades and it settles into a dull and unpolished middle age before being overcome by mould and softening into compost.

Courage and fortitude: it is sometimes difficult to keep your nerve when having a conker fight. To stand perfectly still dangling your precious champion while some other child takes careful aim. Sometimes they miss and crack you hard on the wrist bone. The only game that I can remember that is similar is that one where you have to move your hand before your opponent raps you on the knuckles. That hurts – I can remember even though it must be over forty years since I last played. The fortitude comes when your conker lies shattered upon the ground and you have to hold your head high as you walk away.

Modesty and generosity: see above but instead of defeat you have successfully obliterated your opponents conker. His (or her) hopes and dreams lie shattered on the gravel. You must not crow about your victory and you must be magnanimous to the loser.

You see? Life in, rather appropriately, a nutshell.

(the picture above, by the way, was taken by my friend Tony The Haddock.)

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Poke in the eye

There are people out there who do not like Kniphofias.

Odd, I know, but I suppose that there’s nowt so queer as folk as they say in the North. Personally I think that there is something extraordinarily joyful in their orangeness, especially the late flowering varieties – like this one which is K.rooperi. I wandered into one of my gardens today and there were pinpoints of orange glowing in different corners of the garden. Perfect on a slightly overcast autumnal day as the rest of the garden gently subsides into hibernation. Not only that but there are Kniphofias that flower for more or less every month of the season and many that remain evergreen and interesting all year.

Three cheers for the red hot poker I say.

I think the reason why there is antipathy is fourfold: firstly because they fall into the plant snobbery trap as the earlier flowering varieties used to be fearfully popular in seaside front gardens. This makes them popular and therefore common.

Secondly because they are very orange and many people cannot cope with orange in their gardens. This is an opportunity missed as there should always be room for a bit of brashness amongst even the most tastefully pastelled of borders. Everybody has a relative or friend that is a bit of an embarrassment because of their tendency to drink too much/fart at inappropriate moments/goose the bride’s mother or commit some similar faux-pas. We still forgive them and part of us envies their sheer vulgarity. For the orange phobics among you may I suggest the greener varieties like K.Percy’s Pride or K. ice Queen. If you are feeling brave but are not quite ready for the full blown satsuma/Hare Krishna/Dutch football team experience then I strongly recommend K. Tawny King which flowers in about July and whose colour is best described as laundered tangerine.

Thirdly, because they can be very messy diers – especially K.caulescens. The problem is that the flowers fade slowly from the bottom upwards which is not a good way to go and means that there are scraggy stems hanging around for much longer than is truly decent. The leaves can get a bit long and scrappy as well, especially during the winter, the best thing is to pull off the leaves that offend you – don’t cut them or you end up with a worse mess.

Fourthly, because the common name Red Hot Poker reminds the squeamish of the death of Edward II in 1327 while imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. Or at least the version of Edward’s death made popular by Christopher Marlowe. He was an extremely bad king and was almost certainly murdered but probably not in that particular way. If you feel this way then I suggest you use a different common name – how about Torch Lily?

They are South African plants named after Dr Johan Hieronymus Kniphof who was a distinguished German botanist and no friend to the dyslexic.

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Off the fence

This  is a relatively pretty picture.

It was taken in Cornwall last week – just by Kynance Cove – and shows late summer heathland. Bit of sedgey grass, some heather (in both pink and white) and a smattering of yolk coloured gorse flowers. The area is kept up by the National Trust and is partly maintained by some rather handsome cattle who roam around keeping the grass short.

However, it is not the flowers which concern us today – nor the fact that we had a very lovely holiday with lots of sunshine and just the right quantity of clotted cream but thank you for asking – but the fence. I know that sounds very dull, but bear with me as that fence has quite a history.

For the first thousand years of our civilisation if you wanted to keep cattle (or sheep, horses, goats or dromedaries for that matter) in one place you either had to employ some young lad to keep an eye on them – an often inadequate option as young lads tended to be easily distracted or devoured by wolves – or you had to make some sort of barrier. The options were wooden fences (difficult if you had no trees), stone walls (time consuming) or hedges (which took years to grow and become dense enough to keep a large inquisitive beast in check). Then in 1867 a chap called Lucien Smith of Kent, Ohio was issued a patent for barbed wire.

A flurry of other patents followed and in 1873 an historic meeting took place between the ‘big four’ in barbed wire-   Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood. Between them they hashed out a way of making the best barbed wire – in case you ever find yourself kicking around Dekalb, Illinois with a morning to spare there is a museum dedicated to the subject.

The purpose of all this industry was, of course, to partition the prairie and prevent steers from wandering off and ending up on other people’s ranches. You have all seen The High Chaparral and you know what chaos can result in steers running loose.

However, things soon moved in a more sinister direction and governments realised that barbed wire was a jolly useful weapon. It could quickly be arranged into impenetrable barriers in order to defend fortifications and slow down armies. The first time it was used in anger was the Spanish -American war of 1898 but it came into widespread use during the First World War where it indirectly contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. From harmless fencing option to weapon of mass destruction in under fifty years.

So you see, even the dullest looking things can (occasionally) be almost interesting enough to blog about.

Be careful what you invent.

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Feeling sluggish

In any survey of garden pests, this is always numero uno.

The slug: this is a particularly fine and handsome specimen as he is about five inches long and looks most unappealing. An interesting question is whether a slug would be less un- attractive if it was not quite as slimy.

If it was, for example, furry with big goo-goo eyes then would we be as likely to shower it with pellets or flip it, with an elegant turn of the wrist of which any left handed spinner would be proud, into our neighbour’s shrubbery? Would we then treat it with great affection and make cutesey-pootsie Aaaaah noises whenever we saw a slug?

I can think of a hundred anthropomorphised bunnies but very few cuddly slugs. Actually I can only really think of Brian the snail in the Magic Roundabout and he was not even a slug but a snail which is a much more sympathetic creature anyway.

So, in an attempt to redress the balance as (like the BBC), we here at Crocus aim for an unbiased coverage of such things here are some nice things about slugs.*

They breathe through a pneumostome which is a hole in their sides – easily visible on the handsome chap pictured.

They have four feelers – the top two can see (sort of) and the lower two can smell.

Slugs have a tendency to apophallate which is really quite unsavoury. The penis of one slug corkscrews into another and, after the,ahem, act that penis is then chewed off in an act of post-coital tristesse by the impregnated mate. The slug is unbothered by this as it is hermaphroditic and just lives the rest of its life as a female.

Slugs produce two sorts of mucus – one thick and sticky and the other thin and watery.

Slugs are very useful as they clear up a lot of rotting and dead material which would otherwise litter up the place.

Slugs are preyed upon by pretty much everybody from hedgehogs and toads to lizards, birds and even the brown trout. Life is tough for a slug.

Okay. None of those facts were very nice. I could find no mention of slugs doing sponsored bike rides in aid of sick children or having much in the way of sporting prowess. They have few religious convictions, little conversation, cannot dance and, apart from a useful role as a garbage disposal unit, they are difficult to champion.

Oh well, at least there are lots of them so the few that I gleefully chop in half with a spade will be rapidly replaced.

 

 

* some of them may not be nice but at the very least, interesting. If you like that sort of thing.

 

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