Category: Earthen Roots


Winter Determination

SONY DSCA zephyr caresses my cheeks, closed eyes tremble, eager to peer into the clear sky filled with chattering swallows and Amazons … ?

Amazons?

Clack clack – fractured celluloid sensations

My foraging mind returns to the moment.

Back resting against the chunky, flaking bark of a giant Scot’s Pine. Rubber coated gloves still holding a handful of wet leaves. High above in the beautiful canopy I watch as sharp sunlight flashes through the branches, performing a fitful dance to the uneasy tune of an ominous north easterly gale.

Fingertips numb. Knees soaked. Summer callouses shiver against my wrists.

Early afternoon and the daylight is fading. Those last rays of an unwilling sun only catch at the higher branches, soon to be snuffed out by advancing clouds. I can smell snow in the air, it’s a curious, odourless, fresh smell and one to be feared. Instinct tells me to step up the pace.

SONY DSCI throw the handful of leaves into the bin, walk briskly back onto the lawn and study the clouds over the summit of Helvellyn. Experience assures me that I can cram in another hour of leaf collection. Though finishing the job to perfection with a leafblower will be an impossible task in this gusting wind.  Every hour worked is a bonus to stay afloat during this toughest of occupations…professional gardening.

Most folk imagine gardening to be a relatively easy job. They erroneously assume it’s an exercise in supping tea and snipping the heads off a few spent flowers in sun drenched flower borders. Truth be told I’ve never gone onto a normal job and sat with a warming mug of steaming chai in my hands and contemplated my navel. Mostly it’s a snatched swig on some tepid, long abandoned offering or risking life and palette by gulping scalded tea before heading back to a gardener’s world of swift decisions and application.

That said I love gardening and see myself as a lucky human to be allowed the pleasure of working outdoors and tending lots of beautiful plants. If I had my way everybody would have the chance to escape the grisly environs of office superficiality and spend a day or two each week pottering around on their ‘plot’.

However …*drum roll*… I struggle with my chosen path in winter. Even our temperate British winters can be cripplingly harsh. As a self employed individual I am frequently tempted to pull that duvet back over my head and say. ‘Not today Josephine.’ Workable daylight hours for a specs wearer, are even more restricted.  Cutting back spent perennials with bare hands is a risky procedure in the gloaming, which seems to last from a protracted dawn, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and dusk, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on a cloudy day. I can’t see what the heck I am doing and run the risk of digit amputation.

So how do we tackle these difficult and undesirable periods that occupy significant part of a professional gardener’s calendar?

If you are male I would suggest getting a mistress. Probably a wonderful way to pass most of the day. OH if you are reading this…(more fool you!) I can’t afford one J So I adopt a very different policy and it goes a little as follows :-

Alarm rings approx. 6.30 and I say to myself. ‘Porridge with a dosh of Golden Syrup. A cup of Rosie Lea and a quick scan of Twitter.’ Feet up for an hour and talk bollocks with my Twitty mates. (Honest, I luv every single one of you)

SONY DSCDressed and fed, I haul back the curtains and recoil in horror. Traipse downstairs and ask the cat what his opinion might be. He invariably raises one eyebrow if I am lucky, sighs, pulls his front paws around his face and hopes I will go away. No interpretation needed  ‘It’s effing cold and wet bonzo!’

We now approach the point of no return, a daily tipping point.

I understand that outside the treble glazed, fully insulated door is a sharp blast of reality. If I open it I have to man-up and bloodySONY DSC well get on with earning a crust. If I don’t open it I have to live with myself for a few hours and seek out some means to justify being a wimp, trust me on this one folks, I can find a thousand ways of justifying my right to remain in the house.

So here goes…don’t even consider looking through the window in the door, just manfully put your reluctant paw on the handle and open it. Once outside don’t think too much about what you are doing…open your work vehicle and start driving to your first job.

On the way to the job crank up the heater full blast, and keep yourself so hot you would prefer to throw off your skin. This creates a false sense of comfort and makes the inevitable opening of the vehicle door less troublesome.

Never listen to the News. Pay attention! The news in Winter is loaded with misery….’Pay more, minister tells pizza boss! – Briton admits terror charges in US! – One oven death victim ‘hidden from view’ ?? and whatever you do, please don’t look at or listen to a weather report…OMG no…don’t do this!

If you do make it thus far, have a plan of action for the job but never, never, never get out of the cabin without lots of warm and waterproof clothing to shroud you from the misery of the weather. I mean this seriously! The weather, and I know you North American citizens are likely to say…’He’s such a sap!’ is likely to be the main reason you will become unemployed, don ‘t pay it any heed. Honestly guys…it really is possible to work outdoors in winter in the UK. You have to possess the appropriate mental framework.

If you are warm and emotionally committed you will be capable of working in the worst conditions. Get your gear out of the vehicle and start work…that’s it. Once started you will continue unless you are as old as me, until daylight tapers out. Stop then and only then.

The KissWhen you get to that stage think………………….mulled wine…..steaming hot shower. Think…. loving arms of my mistress…lol Hey, guys, I’m a trashed gardener and need some pleasures in life 😉

No matter what you thought at the beginning of the day, you will be immensely satisfied to force your way out , do battle with the elements and come home with a few more quid.

Happy gardening.

Dry Stone Walling with Ken

Traditionally, Yorkshire men may be considered dour blokes, stoic to a fault, unpredictable, aggressive, arrogantly dogmatic. Take a few moments to visualise a Yorkshire man.

Ken and Luke

Ken walling with his grandson Luke in fields near Patterdale, The Lake District, Cumbria, UK

My mind sees a man with shirt sleeves rolled up revealing muscular, hairy forearms. Broad shoulders, tussled dark hair with 2 day stubble, a chiselled face. He is wearing heavy corduroy trousers pinned at the waist with a sturdy leather belt, his booted stance casual yet alert, he seems to have grown out of the earth. His most redeeming features are the brooding eyebrows that shelter a piercing, inquisitive gaze. You may feel attracted toward this kind of person, yet realise it’s wise to tread cautiously in case a heavy boot swings swiftly to displace your front teeth.

Gatepost

Lakeland wallers made best use of boulders.
These walls were originally built circa 150 years ago.
Near Stonethwaite, Lake District, Cumbria, UK

It may seem that Yorkshiremen care little for the human race, yet many are incredibly sensitive who understand nature in a deeply instinctive way. They see no need to be demonstrative. To sit and talk with these men is an experience to be treasured. They are wise keepers of our heritage.

Ken is one such man.

The arrangement with Ken was simple. Each Saturday I would toss a chipping hammer, string line, tape measure and A-frame into the car boot, collect him in Windermere then drive over Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale. We had secured an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) contract to rebuild derelict field walls, 650 metres worth of field wall. The pay was nominal, the real reward enormous, restoring dry stone walls.

Internal Wall

Lots of Dog-Eds
Mid Section
random dry stone wall
Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Dialogue was easy. ‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘Ya’ll right?’ ‘Yep’ ‘Let’s go then.’

Ken taught me to build walls using limestone on field walls near Caldbeck, John Peel country. Limestone is so pleasant to handle, easy to shape, looks good and smells good. Our contract at Patterdale was entirely different, more complex.

The stone at Patterdale was a mixture of old quarry slate, river boulders and field clearings. These walls were constructed circa 150 years ago. ESA work requires total re-use of existing stone. Weathered slate in particular can become friable and shatters easily. This entails a high degree of delicacy that isn’t apparent with new walls where fresh slate, usually hand selected at the quarry, is used.

Foundations – Beginning at one end of the existing wall we would demolish a ‘day section’ right down to the foundation and begin walling. Some of the foundation stones were immense, with no need to replace. On other sections, that had suffered significant movement, we would have to excavate the foundation stones by hand, re-trench and relay the boulders. Like all structures, a solid foundation is essential and can’t be skipped. More walls crumble quickly because of shoddy foundations than anything else. Once a wall has been built it begins to settle. If the base isn’t solid the wall will buckle and belly outward as it settles. Over time this weak section will collapse.

Once the foundations were in place Ken would go to the sunny side of the wall in order to work with his back to the sun. Being the novice, I would have to work facing the sun, not a problem on a cloudy day, but squint factor on a sunny day is extreme. There was never any discussion about this, we merely assumed our side and got on with walling.

Short Wall

Recycled slate and random dry stone wall
Kirkstone Pass Road, Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Stone Selection and Dog ‘Eds – Stone selection is a delight. If you have fiddled with a jigsaw puzzle, you will comprehend how difficult it can be to find the right pieces. Every stone has a place. With experience the eye can tell if a stone is ‘right’, in the early days stone selection is the greatest skill to learn.

Walling in the Patterdale valley was harder than any walling I have ever done. 50% of stones were ‘dog-eds’. The term is descriptive and derived from the shape of the stones, Dog Heads.

The mixture of dog-eds and slate was an awkward one, picture round balancing on flat, or vice versa. It doesn’t work without very careful placement. I wasted many fillers trying to balance these stones. Ken just plonked them down, the dog-eds remained firm.

As he worked Ken would whistle, a tuneless aggravating sussing. In and out, keeping pace with his breathing. Relentless.

‘Give us a break Ken. Your whistling is driving me mental!’

‘Seeessuurrrr sususu suuuuuuser.’

‘I can’t concentrate. Why don’t you go for a sanger?’

‘Suss suss sut…seh suh suh suh suh seh.’

Occasionally he would whistle on a rising tack, then simmer quietly whilst breathing in. Over and over and over.

I never saw him smile. He worked, methodically, carefully, never over extending himself.

Stone Placement – Stone selection and placement is the highlight of walling. Every stone has a place. Skilled wallers can identify the next stone, pick it up smoothly, flick it around in the hand, perhaps make a quick chip with the hammer, then clunk it into place. No further adjustment required.

The sound that a stone makes when placed is critical. Something akin to the difference between a bass drum and a snare drum. When a stone has a solid clunk it is placed correctly, when it has a chinky clinky sound it will need adjustment.

My favourite placement is with two hands on a medium sized stone. When sited there will be no movement at all and no requirement for a backfiller. I used to live for those moments!

Coursing – A ‘course’ is a layer of roughly similar sized stones. It isn’t essential, but most dry stone walls have the larger stones lower down. A well coursed wall will be indestructible.

Until I became more skilled Ken would often be a course or two ahead of me, this was a distinct advantage to him. If he had oddly shaped stones he could push them across toward my side then I would need to fit my stones around his.

‘Ken, you will need to slow down a bit until I get this next course up.’

‘Stop buggering about, you work like an old man!’ End of conversation.

Wall End

Intake Wall End
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Point made I would plow on whilst Ken ambled over to the car, proceed to lean against it and ‘take stock’. Ken was always ‘taking stock’. He would briefly ‘weigh up the situation’ then act. I would be expected to read his mind and get on with the job.

A hill farmer in that area had up to 20 working dogs. He never trained dogs individually, when pups were old enough they would travel with an experienced dog and learn on the job. During this formative stage I was Ken’s dog, it was up to my powers of observation to copy what he did, he made no allowance for my inferior walling skills.

Ken sighed often in the early days because I was such a numpty waller. When he sighed I knew I wasn’t up to speed, or I had used the wrong stone. He never once told me off, just allowed my part of the wall to fall down. He would then slowly step through the gap, pick up a few stones, place them quickly, step back through the gap and continue walling from his side. No words were ever exchanged during these lessons.

Fillers – When walls were first built gangs of men would wall constantly. Many would sleep near the wall to maximise their return. They were paid by the yard, skilled wallers would use little fill, it was time consuming to pack a wall, and the old adage ‘time is money’ was never more appropriate.

Some sections of wall had almost no fillers. It would have been helpful to bring in a few tons of fill, but we weren’t allowed, so re-cycling was the order of the day.

Consequently a wall with few fillers took more skill with stone placement because we couldn’t backfill the gaps. It was pure chance who got the most fillers. However, Ken never came to my side of the wall to use my fillers. He always made do with his lot. When you’re a Yorkshireman, that is what you do.

Ken loved these empty walls, it was the ultimate challenge to his unerring stone selecting skills.

‘No reason why we can’t rebuild this wall with the stone on the ground. The original wallers did.’

‘There aren’t enough fillers here Ken. I can’t finish this without more fillers.’ My peeved comments would go unheeded.

He was correct of course. Over time I became more skillful at preserving the fillers and only used them sparingly.

Foxgloves

Ubiquitous Foxgloves
Dry Stone Walls
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Through Stones – Most field walls have two rows of ‘throughs’. One about knee high and another approximately belly button level. Dry stone walls taper toward the top, so the lower ‘through’ stones can be double the size of the higher layer. This means that the lower ‘throughs’ are seriously heavy, requiring two men to manoeuvre the stone into place. I have split my finger many times during this operation.

Weak walls can stem from insufficient good ‘throughs’. These stones tie the whole wall together. Ken always insisted that the ‘throughs’ were placed on a perfectly level line.

Top Stones – Final pieces in the walling jigsaw, and some of the most important.

On fully collapsed walls it was difficult to filter topstones from walling stone. An experienced waller can tell by the mould and lichens, even the shape of a stone can be sufficient to set it to one side for use as a topstone.

Ken was a specialist at ‘capping out’. It took more than 2 years for me to be allowed this honour. Capping out requires a very sure eye and steady placement because the final courses consist of the smallest stones, easily dislodged if the topstone has to be jiggled around.

Ultimate Satisfaction – To step back and admire a well constructed wall is to reach the pinnacle. It does require the palm of a hand to be drawn down the wall before leaving. It is a ritual that remains embedded in my mind as I think of Ken proudly surveying a finished wall. He never left a wall without giving it a pat on the head.

Ken was 83 the last time I walled with him. He now can’t manage walling, but his legacy remains and will be seen by thousands of people for up to 150 years to come. Indeed, if you drive from Hartsop to Patterdale you will pass two of his roadside walls, and several of his field walls.

Of course, Ken is my father.

Mud Skippers

A solitary truck whizzes past and startles Flora, she isn’t a timid dog, but the sudden noise and powerful waft of air causes her to skitter. As if he could hear me I shout after the departing truck. ‘No need for that! Inconsiderate so-and-so. You could have given us a wider berth!’

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Mud, mud, glorious mud. Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. Particularly in Winter!

The weather has been icy for several days. Cabin fever, like throwing darts left handed, an issue that can’t be fixed unless you switch back to your normal pattern of behaviour.  Dog walking helps to dissipate the frustration, but my agitation is obvious.

No other life forms are walking the streets today, even the main road is quiet. Biting cold has muted the world. A torpid steel grey sky presses upon us, urging abandonment of our walking project. Extreme cold weather is the worst case scenario for my business, it debilitates and destroys confidence. It feels as if the ice will never leave.

Bos ready to play

Bosley, primed and ready 🙂

Bosley stands on his snow patched lawn, blue jacket tucked in neatly like a kindly soldier on parade. His face says.

‘Look at me John I am ready for a tour of duty. Let’s hit the beach heads.’

Ms Lockett is always grateful if we stop by and take Boz along, she has become progressively less able to promenade him since suffering a mild stroke. (Bosley – Lockett  – 07801873600) are the details on the tag dangling from Bosley’s collar.

Ms Lockett is a throwback to the hippie era, free love and all that guff.  She is often working in her garden, mauve scarf tied around her head, baggy cargo pants, black Doc Martin’s and a moth eaten, grey sweater. What she lacks in trendy clothing she compensates for credibly with gardening prowess. Delightful perennial borders to drool over, even at this time of year they possess oodles of interest .

As I open the gate Bosley trots over, always amiable. Flora is subjected to the once over. He inspects chin-nose-sniff your ear-neck routine. Flora laps it up. He then gives her backside a good inspection. I have to laugh because he has the appearance of Dr Bosley doing rounds at the clinic.

‘Hold still Flora, I need to take your temperature’.

Ms Lockett waves from the kitchen window, opens it and hands me Bosley’s lead. Without delay we’re off. All three of us finally brim full of renewed enthusiasm. I resemble an Alaskan with a pair of straining huskies. ‘Mush! Mush!’

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Deer snicket in hedge.

Once we arrive at the unsealed lane I allow the dogs to run free, only an occasional tractor trundles down here, they are safe to roam. As soon as we arrive at a small natural woodland they push through the deer snickets in the hedge to gambol around in the tangle of ferns, leaf litter and broken branches. If I were to go in there and run around with my head a couple of feet off the ground my eyes would be gouged from their sockets in minutes. Imagine catching yourself on barbed wire.

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Cattle grid.

The dogs randomly explore the area until we encounter a cattle grid where Boz takes over. He finds a squeeze between the brambles and gate post then surges away at greyhound speed.  Flora gets some help from me to cross the grid before chasing after him furiously.

Content that they are happy exploring the shoreline I negotiate the frozen ground with intense concentration . Usually soft and easy walking, the abysmal cold has created a treacherous icy surface under my vibram boots. I have to bunch my toes up, as if that will prevent me tumbling . From a distance I must resemble a drunk after a couple of Special Brews.

Ahead a heron lifts up into the air, it’s ultra smooth wing beats a joy to behold. I pause, motionless to absorb the chilly ambiance. I watch contentedly, the dogs away in the distance, occasionally dipping out of sight as they negotiate the muddy channels.

I listen, the air placid, a fragment of intense calm. Trance inducing moments pass, a raven croaks high up on the crag to return me from my meditation. An odd rushing noise is upon me that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, a flock of estuary birds zoom overhead, low enough to make me duck down. Distant curlews call as they rise into the air and adjust their feeding station.

Bos with stick

Boz – ready to play.

‘Yap, yap.’ ‘OOff’, the dogs are digging in the salty mud like possessed demons.

Unadulterated joy to watch them play together. I recall holding similar emotions when my children were small, they would come down here and play for hours in the warm weather. A microcosm filled with fantasy and innocence.

I hop, slide and splatter my way carefully, moving closer to the dogs. They have been out on the hard, silty mud for some time. For no reason in particular I call them to me, one sharp ‘shhhwheet’ and Flora pricks her ears, looks for me and kerlonks a direct line in my direction, she skilfully negotiates the ditches and half frozen brackish puddles. Panting happily she anchors up with scratchy skids, eyes on fire – isn’t it amazing how precious delight in the eye of any creature is hugely uplifting.

Bosley dallies a while, adding some finishing touches to the hole they were digging. Satisfied, he tosses his head and sets off toward us in similar cavalier fashion. He doesn’t hesitate at a large ditch, takes a preposterous flying leap and disappears. Imagine Scooby Doo skydiving. Ears up in the air and legs splayed. Muddy waters splash upward, the eagle has landed.

In no time at all Boz hauls himself up this side of the slimy ditch. It’s obvious that he’s struggling with the slope, front paws dug into the turf, hind legs flailing to make a purchase. His determination wins the day, he gallops over the intervening ground, enthusiasm undiminished. He rocks up, plastered head to tail-tip in mud, chocolate sauce with hints of black treacle. I have to keep backing away, arms in the air to avoid being covered in the atrocious mess. He thinks I am playing so launches himself at me. I jump to one side, my feet crush through the thin icy surface of another puddle and I slip to the deck. Boz jumps on top of me, literally laughing into my face, paws pounding on my jacket.

I roll onto my side in an attempt to push myself out of the muck. Both dogs now hoot like impudent teenagers and bounce around me, a chaotic scene.

It’s futile, but I shout. ‘Stop Bosley. Gerrof me!’ For further effect I add. ‘Flora, where are your brains girl? I am a wizened old man, freakin’ well let me get up!’

Urggh. Icy water has seeped over a boot top and filled one boot, my mittens are soaked through, without overtrousers my jeans are saggy bags of stinking mud, even my hair is satched and matted with gunk. ‘Bosley you are an absolute monster!’

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Flooded shoreline at Humphrey Head. Perfect playground for dogs.

Thankfully I carry my phone in a dry inside pocket. I manage to get a call through to a friend who drives a 4WD work vehicle. He doesn’t hesitate to come down to the shore and pick us up.

As we wait near the end of the lane I pull the dogs to me, sit with knees bent, one dog under each arm, tucked in and keeping me warm. Our body heat is creating a cloud of steam in the chilly air. I have treats for the dogs and a chocolate bar for myself, small comfort.

I love it when dogs sit like this. They are content enough, Bosley gives my cheek a very warm choppy nudge that smells of doggie treat as if to say. ‘It’ll be reet mate. You did your best.’

Bosley keeping warm.

When Mark arrives we tumble into the cabin. He has the heater turned up full blast and a flask of piping hot coffee. Oh my, what a luxury. Bosley has been wearing his jacket all the time and it now has to come off. Mark is barely able to drive as he chortles at my demise. Bosley’s dog  jacket is a filthy mess. Can’t imagine what I am going to say to Ms Lockett.

Winter is an endurance test, but moments like this can help to lighten the load.

Have to thank Ms Lockett for lending us Bosley. We had a fabulous time 🙂

New Boots for Humphrey

Flora must be chasing an imaginary rabbit. She twists and lollops, nose to the frosty ground, ears pyoing randomly, jack-in-a-box puppets as she scoots around the muddy saltwater pools.

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Karrimor KSB Event, a wonderful general purpose walking boot.

Winter is being perverse today, it has provided glorious sunshine with sub-zero temperatures. Whenever the ground is frozen solid we are unable to earn a crust from meaningful contract gardening. After dawdling away a few hours keeping warm in front of the fire I decide to take Flora for a walk, down to Humphrey Head. Primary reason – test out my new walking boots.

The boots have been sitting in the original box for almost six months. Hillwalking used to be my lifeblood, but I abandoned regular distance walking when my last pair of boots began leaking at the instep. It’s time to return to the fray.

To add a twist I decide to use my camera to capture the walk through the eyes of Flora. She views things from a completely different layer to me.

We drive the van to the end of the lane and park up. Flora bursts out and gallops around whilst I fit my new boots. The air has an arctic intensity, so my mitten/fingerless gloves are going to be vital as I operate the camera.

Best policy is carefully watch what Flora does, then follow in her pawprints and photograph the places she visits. Clearly this isn’t going to be easy, she moves rapidly from one tuft of grass to another, stopping briefly to sniff then bobble off to something else.

She is fascinated by the pools of water, rushes and leaps with great agility. Her tongue is already flapping, more grin than fatigue.

Flora

Flora at full pelt.

Instantly I realise that I can’t access most  places she has visited, the ground is a treacherous mix of ice and brackish saltwater, the ice breaks easily under my weight, sloppy mud is ankle deep.

There are no sheep on the shoreline today and no other walkers so I decide to let her run free. Still she comes back frequently seeking a little reassurance. Every time she comes back she touches me slightly, often with her nose, occasionally a simple flick of the tail which patters on my legs.

I stop constantly to photograph. Flora lobs up, eyes glittering with delight, front end and shoulders dip to the ground, rear up in the air. She wants to play, we always play.

All doglovers understand this stance, it says.

‘Stick…get me a stick.’

Her tail wags and quivers rapidly, held high in the air. She bounces on both paws at the same time, issuing gentle ‘uff’ ‘uff’ noises.

I look at her with a degree of sympathy. She is confused by this lethargic start to proceedings. Usually I have my wellies on and we both gallivant over the springy turf, jumping across the small ponds until we reach the shoreline where she opens up and stretches her legs. She runs in giant circles depending on where the watermark is. When the tide is well out she will run for a hundred yards, turn like she has suddenly seen the devil and race back full pelt. Where do they gather such energy?

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We walk away from the soggy shore toward the lane and encounter the first obstacle. Probably an 8 on the doggie scale of difficulty. A cattlegrid. This one is tricky because it also has brambles fully up to the edges of the grid. I observe as she ponders the situation. She looks at me, a glob of slobber flippers off the end of her tongue onto my sleeve.

She looks at me twice, gathers herself in the lunge mode, but decides it is too far. Second choice she puts a paw on the first couple of slats, doesn’t like it at all. I am about to help when I imagine she says.

‘Stuff this messing around,’ and leaps up onto the wall beside the cattle grid then with one more bound is on the other side. She doesn’t stop to take applause, just continues with her adventure.

A little way down the lane she disappears off to the right through a hole in the hedging. I see her mooching around in the small wood. She darts out again through another hole, does a quick 360 and whips back in via the next small tunnel. Clearly she is entertained.

Next a kissing gate which has a high degree of doggie difficulty. In fact this is a 10. She knows what this type of gate involves so waits for me to open it. Through the gate she hurtles up the hill.

My boots are not giving me any problem. I have always found that ill fitting boots only take a mile or two before nagging at the foot. These feel like a pair of slippers, a second skin.

We reach a wind tilted hawthorn, I have to put Flora on the lead, there are sheep in the next field. She doesn’t complain, still able to travel a good sniffing distance. Now she is closer I scrutinise what she finds interesting. To my palette it is disgusting, she seeks out and sniffs at pooh, sheep droppings, old cow pats and rabbit droppings. Don’t you dare pick any up! Urk.

Unfortunately we have to make a swift return to the van. The incoming tide is looking very full today. It bothers me that the van may end up in the sea, so we walk back. Flora stops her play mode and begins to walk in step with me. I wonder what she is thinking at this stage. She doesn’t know why I have turned back peremptorily.

Back at the van she skips up onto the passenger seat whilst I sort my boots out. Sighs,  curls up on the double seat, adjusts her chops a couple of times and promptly hits the snooze button.

Tomorrow is forecast even colder, so I will be going back earlier in the day to get right over the top of Humphrey Head to rest in the sun on a sheltered rocky beach as the tide comes around the headland.

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Humphrey Head on the north shore of Morecambe Bay.

Capturing the world through the eyes of a dog is pretty dang difficult. Flora is so smart that she could probably take the photos herself.

Words erupt from deep within my core. Frequently it seems that a tsunami has been generated, the emotions are sucked up and ride atop an enormous dynamic word inferno, desperate to be released.

Often I am compelled to write, it is a way to share powerful unarticulated thoughts. In my life I am driven by emotions (who isn’t?) that occasionally overwhelm my reality. My brain fizzes with such intensity that I have to smash the words down without delay.

Despite limited artistic knowledge I totally empathise with the moment when great artists found inspiration. When I read of them rushing headlong down to the Mediterranean to live in the glorious light which empowered the likes of Van Gogh to paint I nod, I comprehend. In my own small way, when I am gardening and the word-volcano strikes I have to down tools and write. The end product is immaterial, what matters is giving life to the words.

More to the point I would love to time travel with the artist, be the fly on the wall as creative juices crashed out onto canvas. See their total commitment, oblivious to the world as they fulfilled a primal urge. I wonder if it came as a surprise when the work was finished and they stepped back, out of their compulsion, to view the result. I bet they didn’t need to change a thing. I understand the torment if the compulsion struck and they were unable to feed the gannets.

How magical to have been a paint brush in the hands of Van Gogh.

How stimulating to have been ink in the quill of Shakespeare.

How glorious to be the twirling incense in an ancient Himalayan monastery.

Personally, as the intensity fades I remember who I am, I feel the tension in my hands ooze away and I notice the scraps of notepaper, covered in riddles and rhyme, strewn around like feathers from a plucked swan. Those words are me, amazing.

Once published, I realise that YOU are reading these words and that YOU are surely also driven with equally strong desires and primal urges. I realise that YOU are the fly on the wall of my emotional heart.

Be gentle.

Gardener Set Free by an mp3

Rob with his imaginary hound.

Robert is working on the top perennial border, maybe 15 yards away but on the other side of a hawthorn hedge. Earlier we had trimmed the hedge, Robert swirled the hedgetrimmer as if it was a light sabre, thrashing blades moulded the hedge into shape. We are tarting up the top border in a full blooded attempt to impress our new clients.

‘How are you getting on with the weeding up there Rob?’

Silence, followed by scuffling noises and a slight clearing of his throat.

I wait for him to say something. Nada.

Louder this time, ‘Rob! We need to be moving onto the mowing soon. Have you nearly finished?’

He is obviously working, his yellow gorilla bucket is being scutched over the ground, he kicks it a little and I hear him ‘twickling’ the soil with his fork. Twickling is our top secret ploy to make our borders stand out from the rest. Obviously I can’t give away the trade secret but it is vital to get the correct depth into the soil before twickling commences. Too deep and it looks like a turned veggie bed, too shallow and it looks bobbly, scratched and scruffy. There is also the sideways ‘clod slap’ that is vital for an even finish. No point taking these terms, ‘twickling’ and ‘clod slap,’ to the RHS for clarification, they are copyrighted to http://www.topgrowth.co.uk and available for hire purchase if anyone is dopey enough to ask.

Because Rob still doesn’t answer me I decide to walk up the steps to the top border and check on what he is doing. Often these kind of silences mean one of the lads is having a fag, or texting the girlfriend and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Normally they skulk off behind a building or into the bushes. They know I don’t like them using mobile phones on the job, and smoking is almost a hanging offence unless they are on a break.

SAS style I quietly step up and have my eyes on alert as they come level with the top border. I look across to where he is working then stand still to watch. He is twickling away undeniably content. In fact he is working furiously, twickle – clod slap, clod slap (try to say that when you have quaffed a few G&Ts) – twickle, twickle – clod slap – bend down pick up some weeds…repeat process. I notice that he isn’t wearing his gloves either. Strange. Rob has always worn his gloves, indeed insisted that he wear them.

Buddha happy

I love this guy. He is with us every day 🙂

Only last week we had the following conversation.

‘John, I have to wear my gloves. The girlfriend doesn’t like me to have rough skin and muck in my nails.’

‘How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t feel smaller weeds with gloves on Rob? If the ground is really bad, use the gloves, otherwise don’t wear them. The more you feel the weeds and plants, the better
gardener you will become.’

Grinning at me. ‘OK John. Whatever you say. I will not wear the gloves to weed after today, me and Mandy are going to have dinner at her parent’s place tonight.’ He always grins at me when he wants his own way. I know he will still wear his gloves the next day.

Rob is the sort of lad who comes to work in khaki Chinos, a Wrangler shirt and a pair of weird boots with no laces. He never passes the van mirror without taking a look at himself and preening. He loves to be around the gardens, is extremely pleasant and polite but doesn’t understand the work ethic. If he is left on his own he will take it easy. Whenever I go off somewhere he applies, ‘out-of- sight, time-for-a-fag’ policy

So what the heck has changed today? He still hasn’t seen me, so I sit on one of the steps and observe him through the sparse leaves of a hydrangea bush.

He finishes twickling, and moves his gorilla bucket to another part of the border. Squats on his heels and begins to weed. I notice that he is working very carefully, not missing a weed and knocking off the excess soil before tossing it into the bin. I feel a surge of pleasure because in the past he has barely bothered to knock excess dirt off and we have constantly had discussions about how the garden is going to disappear in a few years if he doesn’t put most of the soil back.

WTF is he doing now? I chuckle to myself, how bizarre.

Rob is playing air guitar as he kneels and bobbing his head like he is in a mosh pit. Still he works on. He pulls out some larger weeds and taps out a rhythm on the side of the bin … tosses them in … fishes them out again and inspects the tiny blue flowers, probing with his fingertips. Taps them several times more on the rim of the bucket before lobbing them. I also notice his lips are moving and I can hear a strange tone deaf mumble with accompanying head waggle. A kind of cross between Buddhist mantra and an impression of a chainsaw.

Intrigued I decide not to disturb him. For a while he works away then suddenly jumps up, takes the garden fork and uses it to play air guitar again, but more vigorously. At this I just can’t stop myself any longer and burst into a honking belly laugh, but he doesn’t hear me. His right foot is stomping and he uses the handle of the fork as a fret. Oh my goodness. I hoot out loud.

He does a twirl raises his imaginary guitar up above his head with both arms and then sweeps it down to the ground, embedding the tines in the lawn up to the hilt. His body is bowed at the waist, he holds this posture for a few moments clearly spent before straightening up slowly, hands hang limply by his side, head still bent downward resting on his chest.

Rob raises his head, slowly lifts his eyes to the sky, and then the horror strikes him full force. His body becomes rigid and his eyes pop out of the sockets on stalks as he notices me sitting on the step. In an instant colour flushes right up through his cheeks, his baby blue eyes are sparkling and he grins in embarrassment. We both start to laugh, it’s infectious and establishes a more friendly atmosphere for him to put down an explanation.

He flicks something out of his right ear and says. ‘Oh shoot John. I am really sorry but it was one of my favourite tunes and I couldn’t stop myself. Sorry if I have made a fool of myself.’

He adds. ‘I was doing such a good job on the border, come over here and let me show you. I reckon you will be chuffed to bits.’

I shake my head and walk over to him. There is an earpiece dangling over his shoulder and another lodged in his left ear. The cables are stuffed inside his sweater, a slight bulge where his shirt pocket sits.

My primary instinct is to tell him off for time wasting. However, to be fair, when I look at what he has achieved it is nigh on amazing compared to what he normally accomplishes. Not only has he done a very good job, it is one that we can both be proud of, and I tell him so.

‘Great work Bonzo. You have excelled yourself there.’

Rob smiles easily. ‘It was like you said the other day, I got into the groove and things started to flow. You are right, when the juice starts to flow everything is easy and feels balanced. I took off the gloves because I could feel what I was doing, it all just came together like magic.’

He adds, ‘I kind of zoned out. It was like I wasn’t here, but I was, you know what I mean? I needed to touch the soil and the garden, it was sort of percolating into me and I just understood it all so well.’

His eyebrows arch. ‘If I didn’t know different I would have said I was stoned. Jya know what I’m on about John?’

‘I know what you are on about lad. I know.’

‘At the same time I was right into my music. Everything was crystal clear.’ He stops to consider the magnitude of it all.

He explains what an mp3 player is and how the tunes can be downloaded from the internet. Not only that he says that he has hundreds of tunes stored on his device, so seldom gets bored with the songs. He also insists that listening makes him happier and that he enjoys his work more.
How can I argue with that?

As we stand there I am aware of a strange susurration, rather like the noise coming from a freely rotating wheel on an upturned bike. I ask him if he can hear it. He listens, head cocked to one side and says. ‘No. Can’t hear owt strange John. Where is it coming from?’

I can’t pinpoint the noise, it is random. Now it has stopped. We walk back to the van to get the mowing gear out. I keep hearing the noises, but Rob seems unperturbed. I ponder tinnitus, I know my Uncle Ken suffers from the condition and complains of a ringing in his ears. Perhaps I have a dose.

Rob gets a strimmer out of the van and puts it on the floor, I take a fuel can and as I bend down to fill the stimmer I realise the noise is coming from his earpieces, the music is obviously still playing. I am tempted to ask him for a listen, but the thought of shoving his earpieces into my ears prevents that thought verbalising.

He asks if he can continue to use the mp3. I am unsure but can’t fathom a reason to refuse. This day is to be an epiphany for Rob, and an ear opener for me.

In future days he worked wonderfully well as long as he was submersed in House, Garage, Trance, Dance, Hip Hop and a crazy bunch of other tunes that are alien to me, but nectar to the essence of Rob. He became a wonderful gardener and has now set up on his own.

It takes all sorts, but if you find a peaceful way forward, embrace it because it may be the precious jewel that propels you on to greater achievement and lasting happiness.

John

PostScript – shortly after this event Rob encouraged and convinced me to get an mp3 player, a tiddly ipod shuffle (in pink!!). I now look forward to using my mp3 when I am working alone. I can listen for hours ensconced in dual pleasure domes, gardening and Nicole Scherzinger. What more can a bloke ask for?

Garden or Zoo

It certainly looks like an elephant’s leg. It may feel like an elephant’s leg, and in my mind this large beech tree could well be an elephant’s leg.

Following these random thoughts I decide to relax for a while and sit in the dry leaves with my back against the impressive trunk (no pun intended). I gaze up into the bare branches and, rather like Alice, disappear down a rabbit hole in my mind.

We visit many properties during our working year. On all we apply the same degree of skill and effort to create something that will meet the approval of our clients. However, some gardens are happier places to work in than others. As I ponder the elephant’s leg conundrum the idea that some gardens are less than happy places to work in begins to disturb me, so I decide to delve a little deeper.

In order to fathom the thought I order some of my gardens into ‘happy’ ‘just so’ and ‘this won’t do’ categories. The ‘happy’ gardens are ones where I often relate more closely with the client, but more importantly they are gardens where I can get in and scrimmage around. On warm dry days it is almost like going for a day out with close friends. I don’t talk to the plants like Prince Charles, but I do empathise with their situation. Being a touchy/feely sort of gardener I allow my instincts and powers of observation to notice when a plant looks distressed. My gardens dictate to me, and I listen. These places are proper gardens to me because I can experience the flow and get in sync with the garden holistically. They thrive and blossom, as long as they are fed a well balanced diet and adequate moisture. They are full of insects, birds and small invertebrates. These thoughts have the Bambi effect in my mind, Disneyesque butterflies and singing bluebirds…stop it.

The other category is more unsettling for my curious mind. It becomes clearer as I consider why. Invariably mankind seems determined to live on the edge of perpetual disaster. Many want to mould and manipulate things to suit their needs or to garner profit. Clearly we all need to survive to perpetuate the species, but at what cost?

Gardens in the ‘just so’ category are the ones where my clients want me to dominate the plants, to structure their gardens and make every blade of grass and flower look perfect, last longer and grow in the classic manner. In other words they want me to control the situation and force the plants to grow in violation of a natural law. Let’s face it, a privet tree is not long and rectangular, a willow leaf pear is not naturally a toffee apple shape. Indeed a willow leafed pear, allowed to grow to maturity, is a magnificent specimen with gorgeous silver leaves that drape down to the ground and produce lovely fruit, so why is it fashionable to trim it? Topiary is admirable in a strange way, but I avoid trimming as much as possible. Pruning for health seems far more appropriate to me.

Sometimes in these gardens we feel as if we never notice the beauty because we are too busy trying to create it.

The latter category ‘this won’t do’ is easier to understand. On occasion I have had disagreement with clients over what they expect from us. These people are the ultimate control freaks and expect the rest of the world to tug on fetlocks far too much. I have boundaries where I refuse to cross in the care of a garden. I also have boundaries with the way I want clients to treat my employees. The process is simple. ‘Thanks for giving us the opportunity to work on your garden, but we have far more important jobs to attend to. Sayonara.’ I never feel sad about losing one of these projects.

This brings me to a conclusion.

In the comfy rabbit hole of my mind I realise, of course, that natural is best. Nature will assert itself with just a little help from me, and hopefully have a very contented existence under my care.

The second option, also acceptable but definitely my second choice, is that ‘just so’ is actually a Zoo for plants. Plants in the ‘just so’ properties are put in confined spaces, are not allowed to mingle, are force fed diets of chemicals, are expected to hold tricky postures like a street artist in Barcelona. They are confined indoors for winter, starved or force fed to allow flowering at inappropriate times and have to endure haircuts once or twice a week, never to reproduce. Plants have their young taken from them (seeds) and distributed to other parts of the world, put up for adoption.

However, the true Zoo analogy relates to the attitude of the garden owner. In an animal zoo we wander around on paths, look at the creatures in cages or occasionally in safari type reconstructions. Yet we aren’t allowed to go and touch unless it is a petting zoo. We all love to see the exotic creatures, just as we love to see exotic flowers and plants. ‘just so’ owners want their gardens to be artificial so that they can gaze on contentedly and know that their regime has been imposed on the plants. They offer raised eyebrows when asked simple questions such as. ‘Do your plants enjoy being overcrowded?’ ‘Would your plants prefer to live in a sunny climate?’ ‘Do you overfeed your children so that they can win awards?’

Are these ‘just so’ garden plants happy? Is it appropriate to create garden Zoos for our own titillation?

My phone will be running hot now with clients who think that they may be one of the ‘just so’ gardens. Don’t worry folks, this was just a dream as I rested comfortably against the huge leg of an elephant, and gazed up into a large squirrel hole.

Foster Gardening

Can you empathise with your garden?

As a parent of 4 grown humans I still thoroughly enjoy observing my children as they continue to evolve. The eldest, Rachel, is in her late 20’s and ever so gradually is assuming elements of responsibility associated with being the senior sibling. Everyone expects her to be wiser and understanding in all things family, this allows them to continue as members who enjoy the privileges without much responsibility for their actions within the group.

Who knows what mysteries lie in the eyes of a child?

I see my present role, professional gardener, in a similar way. Possibly, because I am physically older and supposedly wiser than Rachel, my role is more garden carer, a Foster Gardener.

Many new gardens that arrive into my care were established without much planning, have been allowed to become delinquent or ignored for many years and need intense nurturing to flourish. Recently some new properties appeared under my wing, I say appeared because I have no clue why the owners contacted me, nor does it matter to me. Suddenly I became responsible for numerous living things, and expected to care for them immediately. As I began to deal with these gardens I saw, for the first time, my role comparable to a foster parent.

On first inspection it excites me to see what is in a new garden. My experience quickly dictates what needs to be done to improve things. It seems too easy to say to the owner, ‘Rip it all up and start again.’ Implying that I have a magical formula, something that can only be nourished by the depth of their pockets. At first I prefer to work instinctively and see the value in what exists, to take the most obvious element (often near the front door) and get down on my hands and knees to see if the structure can be nurtured. It doesn’t take long for the owner to tune into my enthusiasm for their garden.

Structured gardening plans have long since been obliterated from my modus operandi, my instincts tell me when to feed a plant, my experience allows me to understand if a plant is healthy. Pruning to me is rather like cutting the fingernails of a child. The child is unlikely to bother about the length of a fingernail, only noticing if one is broken and becomes a nuisance, so responsible parents notice when the nail needs cutting to avoid potential problems. Plants can’t prune themselves to fit into our ethos of gardening (we attempt to control plants in an un-natural way). All gardens would naturally and quite quickly establish an order whereby unsuitable plants for position would cease to flourish. We act as plant zookeepers for our own edification and pruning allows these captive plants to at least enjoy their life in our care.

A happy garden reminds me of the sensations as you hold a cat and stroke it. The cat vibrates with unfettered delight and so does a garden when you look after it properly.

I now see all of my contract gardens as individuals who have to be cared for, encouraged to grow happily, but within the regime set down by the owner, a mutual regime that I implement and translate with lots of love and care. As an owner becomes familiar with my style they give me more freedom to choose what is best for the garden. When I first began contracting in Australia I needed the owners to guide me, they had to provide me with the ideas and I took their concepts and carried them out. Nowadays I seldom see the owners, they simply enjoy the fruits of my labour, I have become part of their garden and that suits me perfectly. Whenever I am among the plants I feel at home in their home.

It is rewarding to cherish a garden, every plant responds positively, just as humans respond to kindness and understanding. I am content to be a Foster Gardener, when I am in the garden, I am part of the garden, when I leave the garden it flourishes because I was there.

Medronho or Portuguese Bleach

With its cinnamon-red bark the strawberry tree Arbutus unedo makes an attractive garden bush or small tree, it’s seedlings need considerable protection until they are established. Though able to withstand the sea winds of the Irish coast, the tree quickly succumbs to cold northerly and easterly winds.

Named for the similarity of its fruits to the edible garden variety, the strawberry tree is a native to Ireland. However nowadays it rarely grows wild or produces fruit outside of the warmer Mediterranean regions.

The distribution of the strawberry tree is oddly patchy. In the British Isles it grows naturally in western Ireland. It occurs again in western France, and on the Mediterranean coast; but, whereas in Ireland it grows to tree size, in continental Europe it normally develops only into a shrub. One theory is that the strawberry tree has survived mainly in areas left untouched by glaciers in the Ice Age. Within historical times it certainly grew more widely than it does today, and its disappearance may well be accounted for by the fact that it makes a good charcoal and burns well. Its reddish brown wood is hard and close-grained, though liable to splitting, and is used for inlay and marquetry.

Arbutus unedo is generally a short tree, rarely more than 10m (30 ft) in height and often it is no more than a large shrub. This effect is exaggerated by the fact that the branches of the tree tend to grow from near the base of the trunk, often leaning and twisted, giving it a low sprawling appearance.

As well as its dark, waxy evergreen leaves and unusual winter fruits, the strawberry tree has attractive reddish-brown wood. This dark bark peels off in strips quite regularly to reveal brighter wood beneath. The wood burns well as charcoal and the wholesale felling of the tree for this purpose has contributed to its demise.

However birds readily consume the fruits raw and these are especially welcome as the flowering period is between October and December when there is little else on offer in the way of food. It is also assumed that the erratic behaviour of some birds when feeding on the fruits is due to consuming soft fruit that has gone over, giving the birds a natural shot of medronho. The white flowers take about a year to ripen and so there are often blooms and berries on the tree at the same time. This late flowering time, while helpful to birds, is probably one reason why the tree is so rare in the British Isles now – there simply aren’t enough insects to carry out pollination at this time of year.

Medronho is a strong spirit made from distilled berries from the strawberry tree, the fruit itself is a bit bitter but generally doesn’t taste of much. When turned into alcohol though, it produces a fiery spirit. The drink often known as “Aguardente do Medronho” is the cause of many a zig zagging old man on a motorbike! Aguardente – meaning literally Teeth water.

Traditionally homebrewed it can reach up to 84% but the commercial versions which you will be able to buy in the shop are most likely between 40% and 50%, in some of the smaller bars in the Monchique and Silves region, you will see it being poured from a plastic bottle, this is the real stuff not the weakened commercial stuff!

Aquardente is the actual liqueur much like vodka, and Medronho is the fruit that gives it a special flavour. Similar to the strawberry, the Medronho fruit has its seeds on the outside and a soft flesh on the inside, with a small delicate pit in the center. The fruit is small and round, with an orange and deep red colour, biting into the fruit one feels its graininess, but when bitten through it’s soft and delicate center collapses with a mellow meaty sweetness. When ideally ripened, the bumpy exterior turns an almost black in colour, this is when these little strawberry balls are ideal for harvesting and making of Aguardente de Medornho.

Aguardente is normally served as an after dinner drink and is well known as “Um Chierinho”, if asked at a restaurant this is what the server is referring to, and you have the option of having it on the side or directly in your coffee. Aguardente is also a potent drink and not for the timid, but you only live once so give it a go! It’s also a fantastic sipping drink for dry desserts like chocolate salame and morgado, but for a truly “inside” taste of the Algarve try Aquardente de Medronho with a good “Figo Cheio”, a dried fig stuffed with almonds and spices.

Happy Daze

Cats in the Cradle

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