Saturday, 31 January 2015

Spurge laurel

Peering out of the shadows in a dry, seemingly uninviting spot, you might find this rather handsome plant. In fact, the odds are stacked pretty heavily in favour of your coming across it – I don’t think there’s a garden I’ve worked in where I’ve failed to spy it lurking about furtively, though nobody ever remembers planting it (and, before you ask, no, I’m not responsible for spreading it about, like some latter-day Miss Willmott*). Ah – spurge! – you might think to yourself, and you could be forgiven for doing so. There’s something rather euphorbia like about its mounding habit, its serpentine, grey-brown stems topped by whorls of spatulate leaves. As with the spurge family, the sap is a skin irritant, but for all this, and despite its common name, it’s not kin to the euphorbiacae. Neither is it a laurel – to be honest, no one in their right mind would think it was, in spite of the dark, glossy evergreen leaves.

In late winter, the appearance of clusters of small, scented, lime green flowers nestled below the leaves give the final clue to the true identity. This is Daphne laureola, one of our two native daphnes, the other being the deciduous Daphne mezeureum, on whose bare stems fragrant pink blooms appear before the leaves in February.

Unsurprisingly, removed from its natural habitat Daphne laureola can become an invasive weed, and in Canada and the United States it romps through woodland, smothering native flora in much the same way as Rhododendron ponticum does in these islands, albeit with a less imposing presence – the daphne rarely gets much taller than 1 metre.

To keep it or dig it out? That rather depends on how much you like it. Given its ubiquity, I don’t think I’d paticularly seek it out in a nursery, although a slightly posher cultivar with frilly flowers, Daphne laureola subsp. philippi, offers a little more to the inveterate collector. If you find yourself in possession of a specimen, you can be reasonably assured that it won’t go crazy in a UK garden – although it can run from the roots, it’s unlikely to do so with alarming vigour, spread as it is primarily by birds who find its black berries (poisonous to humans) a choice treat in spring. Thought it might be considered a weed, it can form a rather attractive shrub, one which thrives in the kind of dry shade conditions that has other plants turning up their roots. If yours has obligingly plonked itself in a convenient position, I’d be tempted to leave it be, admiring its deep, glossy green foliage and revelling in the harmony between the dark leaves and the citrus green flowers in winter. More often than not, though, it’ll will have decided to grow in a particuarly inconvenient spot, getting up close and personal with your mexican orange blossom, in which case I’d hoik it out. Being rather deep rooted, a feature it shares with other daphnes, I’d also save myself the anguish of trying to nurse it through transplant shock, and wait for an obliging feathery friend to sow one in the right place.

Daphne laureola, bottom centre, trying hard to look like Choysia ternata
*Miss Ellen Willmott, 1858-1934, gun-toting plantswoman, gardener, influential member of the Royal Horticultural Society, and British eccentric. So enamoured was she of Eryngium giganteum, she was reputed to scatter its seeds in every garden she visited – the plant would mysteriously spring up several months later, earning it the soubriquet “Miss Willmott’s ghost”.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Trigger’s broom

“This old broom,” says Trigger, “has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles”. To the mind of the nation’s favourite road sweeper from Only Fools and Horses, nothing about this statement sits uneasily with the fact that he’s just won an award for being in possession of the same broom for 20 years. We all laugh knowingly at the character’s naïveté, but the paradox of whether an object is essentially the same when its constituent parts have been replaced has appeared in the musings of philosophers through the ages, from Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus to Hobbe’s favourite sock*.

I’m always reminded of this when the time comes to replace one part or another of my secateurs. I’ve had this pair for over ten years and, while the handles remain the same – albeit now featuring rather tatty red cushioning on the grips – several of the other parts are of a less impressive vintage. In addition to regular, often daily maintenance – cleaning, sharpening, lubricating – each winter they get completely stripped down, every part being treated to a program of rejuvinaion. A hibernal tool spa – beginning with a gentle, abrading exfoliation with wire wool, a deep cleansing with Muc-Off, and a luxuriant drenching in WD40 to replace the oils lost during the cleaning process. With the abuse they get throughout the rest of the year, I figure it’s the least I can do.

I once got into one of those daft twitter conversations – you know the ones, where one moment you’re having a nice, jolly chat, and the next, some rabid individual you’ve never before encountered is foaming at the mouth for a reason as unaccountable as it can be important. In this particular instance I had happened to mention that not only was I deeply fond of the brand and model of secateurs I use (Felco number two, if you’re interested), but that I’d also had cause to replace the odd bit over the years. Enter rabid, tweeting Herbert, with an almost audible virtual “a-HA!”, roundly berating me with the essence of the above-mentioned paradox, in the manner of one who had just had the most strikingly original and incisive thought, before advising me that any gardener worth their salt should of course be using those fancy-pants Japanese pruners (they do look rather nice, but I’ve no reason to change – perhaps a birthday/Christmas present? Hint?). Naturally, I extracted myself elegantly from the conversation and went about my business – I’m known for my tact and finesse, on Twitter, as in all other spheres.

Today a new spring is called for. The old one was more or less holding its own, working admirably on even quite thick dry, dead stems, but fill the mouth of the pruners with a handful of thinner material and the jaws would stick together. With the old part next to its replacement, it’s not hard to see why – the spring is noticeably compressed – small wonder it lacks the energy under load to push the handles apart. A couple of seconds to remove the worn piece and substitute the shiny new one, et voilà! As good as new.

I have a natural tendency toward the personification of natural phenomena and inanimate objects, and so, I worry. Has this action somehow damaged my secateurs’ own sense of self? I hope not. Does this programme of incremental renewal to which I subject them make them fundamentally different than they were before? I don’t believe so. To my mind and, more to the point, in my hand, I can’t honestly say that they feel any less like my own, trusted pair. I’m with Trigger.

*More recently, during the noughties many of us had cause to wonder whether the Sugababes really were the Sugababes when none of the original members were left in the band.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Can’t Buy Me Gloves

Gardens provide a wealth of stimulation for each one of our five senses – so much so that it often strikes me as redundant to use the term “sensory” when referring to a particular style of garden (you know the kind of thing – the ones with the florally flowers and the features full of wet water). But the sense that’s been concerning me these last few weeks is that of touch; particularly with reference to those parts of my body that come into physical contact with the garden in all its wintery glory; cold, wet, and muddy.

My feet are generally kept in a state approaching comfort by means of a pair of thick socks and a well-placed PostIt note reminding me not to leave my boots in the land rover or porch over night (safety toe-caps seem to retain the cold for an unfeasibly long time given half the chance – they must contain the same stuff that you find in ice packs). I confess I’m still wearing shorts, partly due to the odd bout of housemaid’s knee, but mostly because I just find them easier to move about in. Thus exposed to the elments, you’ll doubtless be delighted to hear that, nonetheless, my knees are coping admirably when called upon to interface with the frosty ground. If I find myself having to kneel for a long period of time on frosted soil, a knee pad or two can be pressed into service. But really, it’s my hands that are of most concern, or at least, finding appropriate protection for them.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Fireside reading

It’s blowing a gale outside. The first week back in the new year, and there’s been a fair amount of weather to contend with. Frozen toes first thing on Wednesday, soaked through to the skin on Thursday morning, and throughly windswept by the start of the weekend. Not that I’m really complaining; while I’ll admit that I’d prefer my waterproofs to be a little more resistant to the very worst of the weather, the utter drubbing I got earlier in the week provided the perfect excuse to spend an extended lunch time reading by the fire with a hot toddy (Advocaat, two glugs; Scotch in a similar quantity; a teaspoon of honey and hot water to taste – purely medicinal, you understand, though it would be wise to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery for the rest of the day). Thank heaven for seed catalogues and the seemingly ever-increasing pile of gardening literature into which I’d intended to make larger inroads over Christmas; if the weather continues to throw the odd ghastly spell at us – and there’s no reason to except that it won’t – I’m sure this won’t be the last time I find myself in need of some wet weather reading matter.