Thursday, 20 November 2014

Notes from the greenhouse

I have discovered that autumn sown sweet peas germinate far more reliably when they’re not being eaten by mice. Either science or philosophy might have led me to such a conclusion. The first might have encouraged me to consider whether there’s something about the digestive system of a rodent that disagrees with the awakening metabolism of the embryonic legume, and then to back up my hypothesis with empirical evidence. But it was the philosophical route that led me to my epiphany, via a chance observation I was in a position to make of an existential crisis being sufferred by the seeds in question. One afternoon, I would plant them. The next morning, they were not there.

And at the very point at which the foregoing musings ran through my mind, as I stood surveying the contents of the greenhouse staging with condensation dripping on my head from the newly installed tent of bubble wrap, I came to an inescapable conclusion. Watching too many reruns of Frasier on Amazon Prime (guilty as charged) can turn you into a fearful windbag, even in your own head.

So, having managed to silence my internal Kelsey Grammer, I considered what I knew for sure. Clearly, there were mice in the greenhouse. This was no great surprise, as the little buggers have been running amok in the kitchen and living room recently, gleefully ignoring the ultrasonic gadgets we’ve plugged in around the place to deter them from doing just that, and running rings around Bill, who clearly wasn’t designed to catch anything smaller than a fox. That they’d shown up in the greenhouse sooner or later was a fairly safe bet. A quick search online revealed that mice are well known to view sweet pea seeds as a tasty autumnal treat, but sadly the proferred solution of bringing the seed trays into the house for the first few weeks was not going to be of much help. A temporary fix was to get hold of more mouse traps – the humane kind – which I discovered are so-called as, not only do they fail to cause injury or death to the furry critters, but they also provide them with hours of amusement and free food. Our mice were clearly familiar with the workings of these devices, eschewing the front entrance and opting instead to gnaw through several millimetres of thick, hard plastic to get at the bait from the outside. Still, I reasoned, the expensive organic peanut butter I was lavishly spreading inside the traps might at least distract them from noshing on my peas, so it was worth a try. In the meantime, I was merrily pushing replacement seeds into the holes left by the rootling rodents – whatever seeds I had left over, and by the second or third time I’d been through this process, all hope at organisation had been abandoned, so we shall just have to wait till the plants flower before we can work out what the varieties are. To be honest, distracting the mice for long enough for seedlings to appear was now the main objective, I can worry about what plant goes where once I’ve actually got some plants.

The peanut butter and rubbish trap combination didn’t seem to be working that well. I’d resow the seeds, set the traps, and then next day find the tell-tale holes in the top of the compost, the abandoned outer husk of the seed coat and, oddly, the exploded fruit of Solanum pseudocapiscum, which had been inexplicably appearing on the surface of the root-trainers for the past few weeks, in spite of the bedding plants being several feet away. Apparently the mice hadn’t worked out that, like many members of the nightshade family, the Jerusalem Cherry is rather toxic; it certainly didn’t seem to have stopped them from chucking the fruit about inside the greenhouse, which was doubly annoying as it’s the fruit that makes this an interesting winter container plant – you certainly wouldn’t plant it for the foliage. I was beginning to wonder if I actually had a small resident gang of gremlins.

After some days of frustration, I hit upon a rather simple solution; I put the clear lids on the root trainers. That may seem blindinlgy obvious, but there are several reasons why I’d discounted that simple step, not least that, having observed with what ease a mouse is able to gnaw through hard plastic to get at what it wants, I was under no illusions that the flimsy material of the lid would offer any resistance. In addition to this, I knew that once the seedlings had grown achieved a height of an inch or so, I’d need to take the lid off, placing the infant plants at the mercy of the mice once more. What I hadn’t factored in is that what the mice must find so tempting about a sweet pea seed is the tight little package of energy-rich carbohydrates stuffed into its case, the endosperm which nourishes the embryonic plant. However, once the seed germinates and the seedling begins to draw upon this energy, presumably the seeds themselves become less attractive to scavenging beasties. This, I can only hope, is what the mice have realised and I, at last, have some (not as many as I’d hoped) sweet pea seedlings.

I’m now seriously thinking about making a welcoming home for a feral cat.