Archive for October, 2012


Australia was a jolt to the senses. It is such a massive country, with infinite variety of plant and animal life. What’s more the animal life is seriously peculiar compared to the rest of the world, and the plants are unique. So what plants you know here in England counts for zilch in Oz it really was upside down to me.

After Christmas (on the beach?) We hitch hiked down to Tasmania to organise work picking apples. The jobs were plentiful but the season hadn’t started and there was nothing doing so we hitch hiked back to Sydney.  With funds quickly depleting I just had enough money to get to Cairns and take a flight to Papua New Guinea, then what? No clue. Expecting a plan to form we hitched to Brisbane and took a train to Cairns, it was a 5 day journey because the ‘wet’ had started and the train had to wait at Mackay for the flooding to subside.

Eventually we arrived at Cairns and decided to spend the last of our play money on a day trip to Green Island. The heat and humidity in the tropics was unbearable, so a day on the water was welcome. Once the catamaran docked we trundled down the long pier toward the beach. At the end of the pier was a chalkboard advertising 3 jobs, Barmaid, Kitchen Porter and Receptionist.  With barely a second thought we asked about the jobs and were directed to the managers office. Duane was sitting in a pair of swimmers with a tinnie in his hand, feet up on the table. The briefest of conversations followed and we had ourselves jobs! Mad but true.

Do I look like a fish?

Green Island was like nothing I had experienced before. A true coral atoll, and only one hotel with a few permanent staff. Everyone else either visited for the day or were guests at the hotel. For 3 months I worked two shifts and in between snorkelled or walked into the jungly stuff, there was nothing else to do. I borrowed a couple of books one to identify the fish and coral. Another to identify the birdlife, and another to understand the flora. The first and easily identifiable shrub was the frangipani. With it’s creamy flowers and intoxicating scent. It was such a learning curve, nothing was within my experience and it was like being Robinson Crusoe to sit on a liana vine, strong enough to swing on, to look at cocoanuts growing freely, to have such unusual birds all around. The flora really gripped me because it was there to be touched, smelt and admired. Only one other person who worked on the island seemed at all interested in the flora. An old guy who was the caretaker/groundsman. He flicked a switch around the cabins occasionally or cut back things that were a nuisance for the guests. His crowning glory were the cocoanuts. He collected cocoanuts that were washed up on the beach and put them in mushy pea tins with the lid cut off and a couple of nail holes punched in the bottom. They sprouted quickly in the white sand and he tended them, basically this involved throwing a bit of freshwater on them each day. He had a mini forest of cocoanuts growing in tins. When they were a reasonable size he would put them at the end of the jetty and sell them to the tourists.

Idyllic as this life seemed it became ultra boring. Apart from drinking at the bar there wasn’t anywhere to go and most of the staff didn’t want to go anywhere, getting hammered seemed to be the apex of their life. After 3 months we couldn’t hack it any longer and moved back to the mainland, but the hook had been set and we lapped up life in Cairns. Released prisoners comes to mind, but the money earned on the island allowed us to rent a stilted house.

Without restriction on our movement we covered every part of the town gawping and babbling about every new plant or bird . We sometimes had to go to the library to discover the identity of things, or ask the Aborigine family who lived in one third of our house. We nailed them all over time and it began to feel like home.

No matter where we went in Cairns the frangipanis blossomed and thrived. We had a frangipani bush by the front steps, frangipanis were on the roundabouts, in every garden and epitomised North Queensland for me. I can still smell them and feel them in my mind. Potent stuff.

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Normally Fritz didn’t stink like cat piss.

For the last two weeks we had spent hours every day swimming and snorkelling in the Red Sea near Dahab. With no fresh water for washing, apart from salty skin, we were really clean.  He was intermittently snoring and gurgling in his sleep  in a strange way, as if his throat had been cut. He’ll be alright, I flicked sand off my face and snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag.

“Fritz stop doing that! If you spit on me again I am going to … Oh shizzle”,

“Fritz wake up….WAKE UP you dopey Austrian there’s a camel chewing the leaves on this palm tree.”

The date palm had become our home. We had set up a makeshift camp, during the day time we buried our rucksacks in the sand and wandered away down the endless beaches to a bay where an Israeli girl had built a shack. She had food and water that desert Arabs brought her and sold glasses of water to travellers who happened by.

I met Fritz at Nuweba, a tiny settlement in the Sinai. We blagged food from religious hippies who had a curious tented compound, they would feed us a meal if we joined in their Bible reading and hymn singing at night in a massive Boy Scout tent. Nuweba was a bit safe for me and Fritz, and when somebody told us about the Israeli girl near Dahab and the monastery at Santa Katarina we hitched a lift in a pick up truck and settled into life under a date palm.

The desert is a truly beautiful place, of course there isn’t much vegetation as we know it here in England, but there is loads to see, sort of grasses, weeds and random scruffy bushes. We had hatched a plan to catch wild camels and take tourists (we assumed that there would be tourists in the town) on camel safaris to Santa Katarina.

The few date palms around were clearly a magnet for wandering camels. The Arab owners hobbled them at night, but they could still roam enough to find food. The date palms weren’t the lovingly trimmed things we see on the esplanades around the Med, they were constantly pillaged by camels and home to roosting birds, each was like an individual oasis for the creatures there.

Things are looking up

We loved our date palm, even tried climbing up into it. Big mistake. They have evil spikes at the base of the fronds, somehow the camels got around that, but we cut ourselves to ribbons before submitting to raucus laughter from the ‘real’ camel herders. Early morning when it was quite cool we would lay in our sacs looking up into the tree watching spiders and birds, insects of all sorts wandering around happily in their private world.

One day we were laying on some sand dunes watching the foam floats we had put onto some baited line to try and catch fish for the Israeli girl to cook and sell. We didn’t wear clothes, there was no point. During the daytime it was hot, nobody else wore clothes except the Arabs, so it came as a shock when we saw two girls wandering down the beach wearing bikinis. Fritz was off like a greyhound after the rabbit, Leonie and Nurit arrived in our lives and things took another bizarre twist.

Nurit was stunning, an Israeli with eyes like melted amber, Fritz fell in love instantly so I was left to pal up with Leonie. She had been working in London and was staying with Nurit in Beersheva on her way back to Australia for Christmas. Leonie had travelled overland as far as possible from Australia a couple of years previous, her tales of pig toilets, drug dealers in Thailand, the temples in Burma and so on were more grist to the mill for my wanderlust.

Within a few days Fritz said he was going back to Beersheva with Nurit so me and Leonie kind of tagged along. We spent a few weeks in Nurit’s flat. It was nearing time for Leonie to make her way to Athens for her flight home. She said that I should go along with her and stay with her family in Australia for Christmas. So, as you do? I agreed. In Athens I had to blag a visa at the Australian embassy, saying we were going to get married in Sydney and that was it. Thai airlines had gone on strike, so when we got the airport we had to be put up in a 5* hotel in Athens for 2 days, the flight eventually took off and we had to spend another night gratis in Bankok before arriving in Melbourne.

Of course this is where the gardening and obsession with plants evolved. In Melbourne we had to exit the plane on the tarmac a long walk from the terminal. My first impression was of the humidity, heat and smell. The astringent head clearing smell of Eucalyptus, it was so overpowering that I expected Skippy to hop across the runway, and passport control to be a koala chewing a gum leaf.

Ted was a great travel companion. He regaled me with details of a trip taken to Israel the previous year during his summer break from uni. The bus journey was long and very rough, buses in those days on Crete were little more than a truck with wooden benches. He talked of tensions and a society that had adopted traditions from everywhere, of Bedouin settlements,  mesmerising cities such as Jerusalem, the Red Sea! Man it was gripping stuff and I just couldn’t wait to get there and see for myself. We stopped in Heraklion to visit Knossos. Walking through the town Ted bought us both a straw hat. A discussion followed about where the straw came from to make the hats, we both guessed wrong as it turned out. Somewhere I have a pic of me standing behind a part demolished red pillar at the Palace of Minos near the main entrance wearing my straw hat.

The Cretan countryside was ram jammed full of exotic looking plants and trees. As I was to learn later, many of these were found throughout the Sydney gardenscape. The towns and villages were bedecked with pots of brilliantly coloured flowers, most I didn’t know but the geraniums struck a chord, my mother always grew them in a big pot by the front door along with dark blue lobelia. A wonderful combination that I still use today for my clients.

Geraniums on every doorstep

We eventually arrived late at night at Lerapetra. With barely a light  in the town we bumbled our way to the sea and found a beach outside of town to bed down for the night. The following day we hiked out to a tiny cove where  travellers had been living in self-constructed shelters for some time. We got there and found all occupied so had to construct our own. We found some sheets of old plastic and driftwood but nothing was particularly long to raise the roof. A dried out wadi had a stand of bamboo and we decided to cut some to create a spectacular shelter. Another pic somewhere in the archives.

Have you ever tried to cut mature bamboo? It needs a diamond saw or anvil loppers to make any impression. A South African had a rusty machete which we eventually hacked out several pieces and used some old string to cobble things together. I never realised that bamboo was so robust, my only previous encounter with bamboo was in a Chinese restaurant.  This prompted a careful inspection of the thicket and I soon realised what a wonderful plant bamboo can be.

We pitched up there until Kevin finally arrived. He looked like he had been through the mangle, nasty cuts on his legs and arms where he had fallen constantly on the untreated roads, been knocked off his bike with a moped tractor! and found another outrageous traveller in the shape of a beautiful German girl attempting to ride her bike down the Cape Town…wow

Each day I spent hours in the pine woods on the headlands, wandering around appreciating all the shrubs and trees, nothing was planted by humans it was all natural and very, very scruffy. I loved it.

Swimming was incredible, crystal clear water with loads and loads of rocks to dive off…and that was where this trip ended. I dived off a rock and decided to swim down to the bottom, without a mask it was impossible to see clearly and as I pushed off the bottom I got a massive piercing stab in my foot. Sea urchin. The ball of my foot below the big toe was covered in needles. Most couldn’t be dug out and I had to make the decision to go home for treatment. When I got to the hospital in Lancaster it was a first for everyone there, nobody had been asked to remove embedded sea urchin spines before.

For months my mind mulled over the sights, the crazy people, but most of all I remember the scents and the smells from living for a few months in the bush and assimilating all that the magnificent plant world had to offer. I had no camera so no record remained to identify those plants but I couldn’t wait to go again with a Plant Finder in my bag.  Lovely green England had lost it’s appeal and I longed for the sun and harsh strange plants of the Mediterranean.

Right from the off let’s state that some people are going to become marginally hacked off with me for writing this blog, but it kind of follows in my theme, we have an ongoing battle with critters that nibble, dig up or squash stuff in our gardens. Perhaps this posting would have occurred later on however, I have things on the brain regarding Bob, and need to unload. Bob is our cat here in Grange, along with his many cat mates they are the scourge of this garden. However, the main emphasis is about ‘critters’ of all kinds who take up residence in our contract gardens.

Bob the Cat in full summer sleep mode

It may be helpful to itemise the critters that cause damage in some gardens. Of course the type of critters in our gardens are likely to be affected by our rural aspect in the English Lake District. Potentially folk who possess a rooftop garden in Soho are unlikely to have their roses ravaged by red deer.

Garden Critters in order of nuisance value:-

  • Rabbits
  • Deer
  • Moles
  • Rodents
  • Badgers
  • Sheep, yes Sheep!
  • Cats
  • Dogs
  • Squirrels
  • Birds
  • Snakes

Rabbits

Very tricky blighters. They dig and eat their way through a garden with devastating speed.

We look after several properties that are used for holiday letting. There is nothing more discouraging than turning up to mow a lawn and find carrots covered in chomp marks strewn across the lawn. Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit, but she didn’t tell the tourists to feed them. Surely the tourists can see the rabbits demolishing our flower beds.

What to do?

Exclude them. At least with rabbits the wire netting isn’t as substantial, the rabbits do have a fair set of gnashers though and are capable of chewing through chicken wire which has a more open mesh. Eventually they may dig under the wire so it is a good idea to peg it down. Good luck you will need it.

Deer

Without a shadow of doubt, are the toughest problem for us to deal with. The area is awash with roe and red deer that roam throughout the woods, spill down from the hills and traverse the gardens mostly during the night. As they travel they browse, nipping off shoots and buds without much other damage. The Lake District has both roe and red deer, in the main we are troubled by roe deer. In some respects this is a bonus because the roe deer are lazier than the red and don’t reach up on their hind legs, so they only browse the low growing plants.

During Winter they are at their most pernicious, they become hungry due to reduced food in the woods and find our gardens full of succulent plants and emerging new shoots are irresistible. For a family of deer it must be like an episode of the Great British Nibble Off as they ghost through, snacking on whatever takes their fancy, unfortunately lots of plants take their fancy.

One previously magnificent garden is particularly prone to damage. Sadly on this garden there is no means of exclusion because it is totally open. We can identify two areas that the deer rest, one aucuba hedge has a virtual tunnel down one side with shedloads of pungent droppings where they have scoffed their way in. Earlier this year we reduced the hedge considerably and wonder how the deer find reduced rations…ha…take that!

The most disheartening sights are roses after a deer foray. One of my favourite jobs is shrub and standard rose pruning, it is a skill that few possess, the results can be spectacular. Less spectacular are the amateur attempts by a family of deer. They seem to wait until the buds are just about to burst and then they launch a pruning assault. The roses are left looking like some drunk has walked through the bed after a night out, grabbed clumps of the delicate shoots and hacked them off with a butter knife.

What to do? The only foolproof way is to exclude them, and this can be costly. For red deer the fence needs to be 2 metres (about 6′ in old money) high so that they won’t jump over. Without exclusion some proprietary treatments are available, commercial crops are sprayed to deter the deer, and can be bought in smaller quantities for garden use. We have tried several times, and I believe it does work. Spraying needs to be done in dry conditions, and new growth, after the spray has been applied, is likely to be snaffled if left untreated.

Moles

Sometimes when a mole moves into a garden it can seem interesting, afterall it isn’t every day that you get a crazy creature in your garden that lives most of it’s life underground. Let me tell you, if you get troubled by moles you will struggle to evict them without resorting to drastic and nasty means. I read a blog the other day that suggested placing a bamboo cane in the ground with a cd inserted plus a piece of string with a cd tied to the string. Theory being the cds would clack around, the wind would wiggle the cane and the whole lot would create enough vibration to deter the moles. Hmmm…I have my doubts. In fact I think it would just look downright stupid and be nothing more than a talking point for your neighbours.

We use mowers with heavy metal rollers, and these can have an effect on moles that are living under the lawn. In the main I think it is best to thank the moles for creating a place where you can collect wonderful soil, take the pile of loose soil and distribute it around your garden.

It is also quite a novelty to walk on a heavily infested moled up area, can feel like walking on a garden feather bed. Go for a mole spike that is supposed to deter them with sonic booms and vibrations, but in the end the only way to remove a mole is to catch it and take it for a holiday to the other side of town. Good luck.

Rodents

Mice and rats are such quick and secretive animals that seeing them at their work is unusual. The main problem for us is the way they will scuttle out of the dry stone walls, nibble various plants and dig up and chew through some bulbs. Things like euonymous are particularly prone to attack. We don’t mind them in the garden so much, the damage they inflict can be minimal. Only other area that they can become troublesome is in a compost heap where food scraps are added. We discourage people from adding food scraps to an open compost bin for this reason, if they can find a safe place to breed they will use these food scraps to proliferate rapidly.

Badgers

We have badgers in and around most gardens. They do little damage apart from leaving snuffle marks in lawns from time to time. The only other problem is the way they will force a way under a mesh fence to travel across a property. Badgers are ok for us.

Sheep

Talk to the farmer quick. Sheep usually arrive in our gardens after escaping from a field where a gate has been left open, they do scale walls and will chew a way through thin hedges, so it is a problem that needs to be addressed by the owner. In a garden they can be totally destructive in a short space of time. Even a lamb is a powerful animal, they destroy retaining walls, pull up plants and irreversibly damage anything they get their jaws around. Ever tried catching a lamb? We have run around to the point of exhaustion in a vain attempt to get them through a gap in hedges. No wonder a farmer needs a sheepdog. Pray that sheep don’t get into your garden, it could be terminal.

Cats

Bob helping sedums to spread out!

These beasts are lovely pets for some, but for us gardeners they can become dirt terrorists. It is easy to become upset with them, and it is down to their toilet habits. Cats are fastidious, clean themselves for hours on end and mince around as if they are walking in stiletto heels. They are full of character and will sit fascinated by us working for ages. But they are just too fussy when it comes to going to the loo.

Invariably when we dig over a bed or dress a bed with composted bark the cats will run around the neighbourhood, screetching…PARTY TIME. Of course they bury their waste. We walk in it unknowingly, but worst of all, the absolute pits is when we are weeding and uncover a mound.

Oh how we dislike cats in the garden.

What to do? Curse and shrug, hope the owner converts the feline to a house cat.

Dogs

Companionable, friendly, intelligent but most of all playful. Dog fouling isn’t the same problem as it used to be with public awareness heightened in recent years. We seldom find dog waste any more. Their downfall is how playful they are. Owners understandably play with their dogs and in the process frequently cause damage to the gardens. One absolutely lovely dog comes to see us within 10 minutes of arriving, she runs up to us with a huge grin on her face then proceeds to tear up around the garden, muck and plants are skittered all over the place. No solution, mention it to client to deter any accusing finger then grit teeth and smile.

Squirrels

Conflict of interests in the Lake District between the Grey and the Red. Squirrels occasionally dig up things, bury things and hide things in awkward places, but they aren’t responsible for serious damage in the garden. They will chow down heavily on the bird feeders and are powerful enough to can-open mesh on peanut feeders. Solution is to get a squirrel proof feeder. Simples.

Birds

We love birds, and can forgive them all their misdemeanours. They are troublesome for fruit and veggie gardeners, but we are ornamental gareners in the main and the birds can share in the fruits of our labours any time they like

Snakes

Grass snakes and Adders are occasionally discovered in the larger gardens, Grass snakes more frequently than Adders. They don’t do any damage to the plants, it is the surprise factor to our cardiovascular systems when we discover one that is the danger. Taking the cover off some compost bins has uncovered a few big boys and they are scary every time. One lad was standing on top of a compost bin squashing down the waste when a huge snake slithered out from the corner and over the edge, I heard his yelping for ages. Needless to say we left the bin alone after that in case the snake was breeding, eventually we plucked up enough courage to filter through it and thankfully found nothing.

We live quite comfortably with all the critters, and we love to see them in the gardens, but the cats and dogs cause us to suffer the most and we can’t do much about it.

Ho hum

What on earth prompted me to start working for myself as a gardener in 1977? Need. Pure and simple need to earn some money and stay alive. Arriving via a strange route I had been living on the poverty line in Australia for almost a year.

Two years earlier, 1975 saw me scuttling off to find somewhere warmer to live for Winter. The Magic Bus took me to Athens where it wasn’t too warm in late November so I hopped on a ferry to Crete. In Chania I met up with some other travellers, we were quaffing ouzo when somebody suggested a beach they had heard about , info collected from some hippies they had stayed with on Hydra. A crazy bus trip, chaperoned by a driver who argued incessantly with passengers, took us to a pebble beach at the foot of the Samaria Gorge. An American, Kevin H, who was cycling around the world and collecting recipes as he went, infused my mind with a whole new dimension and I was propelled on a wild and improbable journey.

We set off past Oleander and Bignonia hedges

We camped on the beach for around a week, everyone sharing travel experiences and my desire to be an explorer mushroomed out of control. Kevin was instrumental in firing me up to travel further afield with his improbable tales of his journey to that point. More like a wandering Bohemian, searching for something, instinctively goading me on, I had to keep moving to find it for myself.

One morning I decided to walk up into the gorge as far as I could. My hillwalking experience in the Lake District had prepared me well. I loaded up my Haston Alpiniste with supplies for a couple of days and kicked off up the barren gorge. I quickly found it wasn’t barren at all, the place was filled with life, the high pitched chirring of cicadas, insects, bugs, lizards, unknown birds and loads of very different types of vegetation.

Thinking back I am sure it was the herbs, so natural to these areas, but only known to me as dried up dust in the kitchen back home, that started me looking at things a little closer. Of course plants don’t run away when you want to see them, they just sit there obligingly and as the heat of the day built I took refuge more frequently in the shade of boulders and cliffs. As I sat there sipping a little water, rationing my chunky bread and cheese I noticed flowers and different leaves, some with strange seed heads, others spreading out and looking like a fish out of water in this arid area. Where did they get sufficient moisture to survive? The scents in the warm air were somehow familiar.

It was here that my need to identify plants developed. Right then I couldn’t do anything about it, but later, in Australia my mind became spongelike and I soaked up as much knowledge as possible with the massive array of exotic plants on offer.

Muted voices and tumbling rocks took me by surprise, I thought that people were in the cliffs above throwing stones at me so that I would run away into the waiting arms of some robbers.  My gut lurched and I started to flee.  After a few paces I was stunned to notice eyes looking down at me, goat’s yellow eyes. Phew what relief. The gorge was famous for the wild goats and when I looked more closely the whole area was full of them in the most impossible places, nibbling on whatever vegetation they could find.

I went on up and out to the higher ground and found myself walking over herb fields, literally fields of common kitchen herbs that filled the air with their scent. This was also my first encounter with fat tailed sheep, a young lad with a couple of mangy looking dogs was tending the sheep. My head in a whirl with all this new stuff I pitched a tent nearby and crashed for the night, listening to the bells of the sheep as they tinkled away.

Back on the beach the following day we hatched a plan for Kevin to cycle along a rough coastal road whilst myself and Ted, a red haired Londoner, were to travel to another beach at the other end of the island where we intended to visit Heraklion and meet up with Kevin if he managed to negotiate the rough track.

Slurry on the Brain

Early morning and once again I am up with a brain full of rampaging thoughts. I am convinced, if I ever had time to filter and pursue this drivel, amazing things would be revealed.

So today a decision was taken, whilst warm and toasty in my bed, to at least do something about the thoughts. Which means I am now sitting in front of the laptop in only my t-shirt, my legs and other bits slowly getting cold as I desperately try to smash down some verbage to get me going and relieve the constant feeling that there really is something in my head that needs to be written down.

Perhaps this load of mental slurry, something to be shovelled up, is a motivator that sleep puts into the word hopper and sprays around randomly throughout the day.

Anyhow this is the start of something, seeing as you are reading this you have begun the journey with me, and that is a scary thought, somebody else is with me.

Prepare yourself, because I have no clue what will come out of the slurry pit. Buckle up and let’s get cracking.

John