Noun: The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
‘a fortunate stroke of serendipity’
Post-It notes, microwave ovens, Sri Lanka and penicillin all have something in common with a weed in my garden. Do you know what it is? Of course you don’t, unless you skulk around near the door to my garage. Just underneath the hanging basket. A weed that was within seconds of being extricated from the block paving has flowered and is a beautiful little viola. Now that, along with the yellow stickies, ting ready meal heaters, a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean and ‘three times a day with food’, is a truly serendipitous find.
I guess weeds are simply plants in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this little fella sprung up from nowhere and is a gorgeous purple.
How can I honestly uproot it when it has gone to all that trouble? The seed was sown by something, it germinated, struggled between the brick paviours, sucked up every meagre drop of water it could, grew leaves and then went to the effort of flowering.
And that’s an expensive exercise for a plant. I just wish the ones I grew in pots and shower with love and attention were as robust.
But my serendipity doesn't stop there. Oh no, far from it. After emptying and demolishing an old shed I used the previously opened bags of compost I discovered lurking beneath some garden furniture as a soil improver. I dug their contents in, let the worms do their bit and planted into the resultant healthy soil. Then sunflowers started to pop up. None I sowed - they were in a different part of the garden - but smaller varieties that I allowed to mature into juicy bloomers. Nice. Obviously, the makers of that particular compost used materials with sunflowers nearby. In this case and garden situation, a lovely serendipitous addition.
Then only a couple of weeks ago one plant in my ever-increasing collection of auriculas pushed up a proper healthy flower spike. Nothing surprising if it was March or April but this one appeared in July. Auriculas always are always beautiful, even when appearing next to my tomatoes, cucumbers and bedding. A definite occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy way.
Just in case you were feeling warm, cosy and sated with the love of gardening, I have to mention the opposite of serendipity.
I have discovered that growing aubergines will attract whitefly. And slugs into the greenhouse. I have discovered that growing carrots without any protection will attract carrot fly. I have discovered that major sporting events will always clash with the local village horticultural show and cause heartache as to which one to attend. I have discovered that the word ‘zemblanity’ is often used to express a series of chance events bringing unhappy or non-beneficial results.
But who cares about zemblanity and whether it is even a recognised word? Serendipity is the watchword. That little viola is staying. The sunflowers are wowing the local bees and the auricula, lasting only a week, brought a joy to my heart. Plants always do. Except the other weeds in the path. They have to go. Obviously.
There was some kind of documentary on the telly the other night and the narrator referred to the action as being part of ‘Operation Eagle’. Intriguing. Our police force does it as well. ‘Operation Buzzard was highly successful with three being detained for further questioning,’ type of statement being frequently issued to reporters. But for me all this ‘operation’ referencing raises two questions. Firstly, who makes up the names and, secondly, can I be more forensic in my own garden by adopting such nomenclature?
Right - the first question answered. I’m reliably informed that there is a centrally generated list of operation code names for police forces to choose from. The idea is that a force chooses a name that they can mention without letting the target of the operation have a sniff of what's going on. It still has to refer in some way to the exercise. Obviously, I’m not privy to the list but I can imagine the scenario where, say, a police exercise of sitting in a car watching for litter louts can’t be called ‘Operation sitting in a car on the High Street to catch litter louts’. Operation Pick Up would be better. Or maybe not? Anyway, you get gist - if you don’t want others to know what you are doing, call your covert activity by a code name. This obviously applies to the garden.
I therefore offer up a centrally generated list of operation code names to use and abuse in your garden at the appropriate time and situation. I cannot admit responsibility if the code names have already been used or if they actually get you in trouble with the rest of your gardening companions or otherwise. Here goes:
Operation Demi John: You might use your shed as a quiet retreat from the hectic rush and noise of everyday life in the house. Sometimes a quiet snooze in your favourite fusty armchair or maybe even a slug of something home brewed is the only answer. So, when it all becomes too much don’t storm out yelling ‘that’s it, I’m off to the shed for a swig and snooze’. Just say ‘Operation Demi John is now actioned.’ Calm will prevail as you walk enigmatically up the garden to your 6x8.
Operation Halftime: Then imagine the scene where you have been asked to look after your neighbour’s house plants whilst they are away on holiday. This involves a daily check of the plants and admit it, a shifty read of their kitchen noticeboard and a snug settling down in their ‘home cinema surround sound dedicated viewing room’ to watch the Sky channels you don’t receive. Or is that just me?! So, don’t say you are ‘just nipping around to the neighbours to check on the houseplants and read the kitchen noticeboard and settle down on their reclining leather armchair for the big match’. No, this will only get you in trouble with whoever you are telling. And your neighbours. Obviously. ‘Operation Halftime’ is much better - untraceable. Just ensure you hide the popcorn cartons if you prefer films to sport. (‘Operation Dimmer Switch’ might be more appropriate if that is the case).
Operation Nitrogen: There are times when you are at the far corner of your garden and nature calls. Not a cuckoo on the make or owl on the take. Not a rusty-winged pigeon or chirpy cricket. I mean ‘oh no, the house is so far away, my boots are muddy, I’m desperate and if I don’t go now….’ kind of nature call. You have to do what most gardeners do when in that situation. It’s what compost heaps are for. Now, if you admit that to anyone you will have disgust and scorn thrown in your face. Not good. Surely it’s much better to say that ‘Operation Nitrogen’ swung into action?
I’m sure you already have operation code names in place for your own gardening activities - I’d love to hear and share them. That is of course, if you dare to admit them.
It is upsetting to have to put my thoughts down in words, but I haven’t see you face-to-face to talk things through. If only.
Over the years you have been a bright light in my life. How things sizzled in 76 when you were all I thought of. Did we really fry eggs on the pavement? Did railway lines really buckle? How we enjoyed drinking those reservoirs dry. Stand by those pipes boys and girls. Did Tizer really taste that good? Happy days. But now. Where has it all gone? I cannot live on memories alone. Sadly, the photographs are fading.
It breaks my heart to say that this year has been one of the dullest times I’ve ever known with you. There, I’ve said it. Where have you been? I know there’s talk of a ‘jetstream’ and other such nonsense turning your head but all I know for a fact is that you haven’t been around to warm things up. Another fact - I know you have been seen in Europe. Don’t deny it. I’ve seen the pictures. Did the Brexit vote upset you so much that you sought solace in the already overly sun-kissed coasts of Costas Brava, Dorada and Sol leaving me with a rushed trip beneath leaden skies to the other Costa for a warming latte and perk-me-up granola bar? Why devote all your energy over there when I, in fact we, need you here? So many questions and so little in the way of answers.
The frustrating, really frustrating part of our relationship is that when you do appear, things look up. But just three consecutive days in a month. Three days. That’s it - three whole days. Is that all we are worth to you and after all we’ve done. As you are well aware, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Trust me - neither does three days. Ambassador, you do not spoil us.
I need you around more but let's be brutally honest, time is running out. Actually, I cannot live the lie any more, time has run out. The lawn is wet with my dewy tears every morning and the evening mood darkens around 8.15pm. And trust me, that mood is worsening. Soon the trees will send out their sympathy cards and will mourn your passing with their best efforts to brighten my days. But there’s only so much wood smoke, degenerated chlorophyll and Trick or Treating I can take.
I guess that now my Daz blue legs shrouded in voluminous shorts replete with razor sharp creases will not be seen. I won’t say forever because, well, here’s what I am proposing.
Let's take it easy and relaxed with you popping along in the next few weeks and see what we make of things. Just a temporary arrangement you understand. Then take a break. A full break. I guess we both need time to think things through and get over this disaster. And then let’s regroup next June and see if things have changed. What do you think? We would all be happy to see you with your hat on in the next few weeks. Hip-hip-hip-hooray. It’ll remind us of what we are missing. Or sadly, have missed.
Sounds like a plan?
As ever, always here for you should you decide to turn up. If I’m not in, I’ll be in the shed checking the horticultural fleece, greenhouse thermometer and heater. The key is in the usual place. There’s fresh milk in the fridge. And don’t upset the dog.
If a plant can colonise the flanks of a volcano it sure is going to love growing in an average back garden or near a gentle stream. For a plant to shove its root into just-cooled magma then, let's face it, a clay soil or tarmac drive is going to be a cinch. A plant that creates such havoc and terror surely deserves its own tracking-app. Japanese knotweed is that plant.
Now I’m lucky in that the worse weed I have to endure is bindweed. Or maybe the ground elder that pops up in a border and one corner of the lawn. Or actually it could be the ever-present bittercress - but that’s my fault because it flowers and sets seeds before I get to it, reinforcing the ‘one year seed = seven years weed’ gardening saying. Japanese knotweed is at the moment miles away. Actually, five miles away. But how do I know? Do I scour the local vicinity looking for it? No. I now take an almost sadistic line of checking the reported sightings and recording of the weed on a new website. But it is fundamentally flawed.
Let’s work it all through. You spot Japanese knotweed at the end of your garden. You log onto a site, record its appearance and up pops the red dot showing your sighting. Great stuff, but consider this. Does everyone really want to record this invasive weed as being close to their homes. I would suggest not as it can cause lending banks to have heart palpitations and stop lending. Buyers turn their heels and run at the thought of inheriting it in a garden. The only people who benefit from the appearance of it are the Japanese knotweed eradicators. I bet they watch the red dots appearing like acne on a teenager’s nose with unabated glee.
So, what do you do if you find old JK in the garden?
Firstly, stay calm. OK, it can grow 15cm a day in summer and romp under your lounge floor spitting up under your telly or alarming the dog snoozing in its bed - but calm you must stay. You must, however, sort it. I hate to say it but digging it out is not really practical or effective. Some gardeners have told me that vinegar works on it. Really? Keep that for your chips. Others say that total weed killer is the best but think twice about throwing around chemicals in the garden. It might not even work. This stuff is well hard. Call a professional in. It is expensive but so is the remedy - removing metres of soil, injecting the weed stems with industrial strength glyphosate and generally crunching around in a biohazard suit (I imagine they crunch - my cheap overalls for decorating certainly do).
And then maybe get your details on the PlantTracker website (all Environmental and Heritage Agency information stuff) to warn others. There’s a good citizen. But just because you are the only red dot in your surrounding neighbourhood doesn't mean you are the only garden with that particular weed. There may be others who are shyer in admitting they have that weed. They may be the ones trying to sell a house at the moment. The only way is to be vigilant.
- Those lovely Victorians did so much for us, but they did introduce the weed into the countryside to stabilise railway banks
- JK is a monster. It can penetrate concrete and takeover gardens
Actually, 'Scarlet Pimpernel' isn't exactly accurate.
In the novel and play written by Baroness Orczy, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a mysterious and hard to catch hero. My personal Pimpernel is no hero. I don't even know if it is scarlet. What I do know is it's eating my aubergines. It has to be a slug or a snail.
Outside in the garden, there are many ways to control slugs and snails. Pellets, both chemical and those approved for organic use, are effective. As are biological controls and physical methods of deterrent. But in the greenhouse things get trickier. There are so many ways to get onto the plant and, let’s face it, the conditions are snug for slugs or snails. I say 'or' because, I'll be honest, I haven't found the culprit yet. I do, however, see the results of its (or their) nocturnal work every morning. Munched leaves, no visible slime trails on plants and no trace of the beast. Or beasts. Most importantly I see plants suffering, initially standing still but now on the decline. Poor show all round.
So, I could put copper tape around the pots but things are so crowded in the greenhouse I know it (or 'they' perhaps?) will find another route onto the plants. It is only a minor detour from ground level, up a nearby staging leg and across onto a leaf. I could sprinkle pellets about but if it is already on the plant or tucked under benching why would they bother eating them? Biological controls only work if the pest is in the soil. Egg shells, coffee grindings and anything irritating to the undersides of the marauding molluscs will be ineffective. This thing is in amongst the leaves I'm sure. But in the cramped environ of a greenhouse in full summer swing I cannot see it.
I could be radical and take all the pots out of the greenhouse, thoroughly inspect them, allow the local wild bird population to have a check and peck whilst I get a magnifying glass out and unearth the culprit. I could, but the summer has been so poor there really hasn't been a day where I can do it without running the risk of drowning the aubergines in a thunderstorm or getting them blasted by unseasonably high winds. Thinking about it, I couldn't clear the whole lot as the cucumbers are now strung up using an elaborate network of strings, canes and nails. There's no moving them until the end of the growing season.
It's infuriating that this non-heroic Scarlet Pimpernel is at large. If something can be at large in a confined space. The tomatoes are untouched, the cucumbers romp ahead unmolested and the peppers unscathed. As for the cacti – simply unconcerned. I will however track it or them down. They will not beat me and my aubergines.
'they seek him here, they seek him there'...us gardeners will seek him everywhere. And won't rest until he is found.
Stop press: another rainy day after an unusually hot Sunday and, low and behold, slug or snail slime highlighted in the condensation on the inside of the greenhouse glass. One step closer to discovering the culprit.
This is the best time of year to analyse your garden and see where things can be improved. It’s when gaps appear in beds and borders, crops tussle with each other for space and the panes in the greenhouse crack under the ever-burgeoning force of foliage, flowers and fruit.
Of course, I would like to say that my own plot is perfect. I’d like to say that but I would be lying. This is, after all, gardening and we all must realise that nothing is ever perfect nor is it complete. We are only curators easing and coaxing our plots towards an untouchable end game. So, in the interests of progress, here are my own improvement notes on my own plot, as it stands in midsummer:
Plan more: I get a bit excited when it comes to planting time. My current passion is for dahlias. I love them but have crammed too many plants into too small a space. They are blooming marvellous but a devil to pick, water and feed. And the stalks holding the flowers are ever so slightly thin and watery. More space = squatter and stronger plants (but they do look good this year!) A little bit of planning will sort that out. And self-control.
Remember what’s in a family: I’ve previously mentioned that I was missing growing brassicas. I’d forgotten about a short row of turnips. They are brassicas, not the big blowsy individuals I was on about, but brassicas all the same. I had forgotten but spotted cabbage white butterflies hovering over the plot and on inspection found the small orangy-yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves. Oh yes, they are brassicas all right. If I had remembered, I might not have a lacy leaf problem on my hands.
Label: I always convince myself that I can remember every variety I’m growing. I am sadly deluded. Actually, I can for about a day and then, in the melee of spring gardening tasks, I can’t remember the particular variety of carrot, tomato or hollyhock. Labels are the answer. And they don’t have to be white plastic, but they are cheap, as posh looking versions will add a touch of sophistication to any garden. Gotta label more next year (and this year for autumn-sown sweet peas etc).
Get in early: I have electricity in my greenhouse so I am definitely going to get heated propagators in use. They will get the season off to a flying start and help my anguish watching the weather forecasts.
Move: not house and garden but a few plants. I have a row of roses that just haven’t got growing, are always first to succumb to diseases and, to be honest, will do better anywhere else in the garden than where they are now. I’ll do it in autumn when the plants won’t notice the move and get them settled in elsewhere. Same thing goes for a few herbaceous. Verbena bonariensis is falling over the pathway and needs to be nudged back a bit; my lupins are in the wrong place as they are a focal point and fade once into July; and my catmint needs a rejig. Looks like autumn is going to be busy.
Just add water: I don’t currently have a pond in the garden. I need one. I want to encourage the newts, frogs and toads back in. I need that wild life balance. It’s a perfect winter project.
It’s looking busy over the next year. And then I can do this exercise of self-analysis all over again and the list will be longer.
And that’s the beauty of gardening. It never stops evolving.
You’d expect that a peaceful stroll around an open garden to be just that - placid, tranquil and relaxing. Well, it was - until I spotted something, or to be more precise, someone pilfering. Let me explain.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now just in case you missed it… I like visiting other people's gardens for a horticultural rummage and generally eat cake, drink tea and chat gardening. The simple things in life keep me happy. So, as I was idly meandering around a lovey 2 acre garden crammed with luscious herbaceous plants, having just been satisfied by a noggin of moist lemon drizzle cake and a top class brew, I was somewhat bemused by the sight of a fellow visitor taking cuttings from a penstemon.
‘Afternoon,’ I said.
‘Afternoon,’ came the reply.
‘Your garden?’ I probed (Sherlock Holmes has nothing on me).
Ok, it wasn’t the most riveting of conversations but I gleaned the information I needed. I had discounted that the perpetrator of this villainous act was the owner taking casual cuttings. A-ha, I thought, I had found a thief!
Our colloquy continued until my patience ran out. ‘But it’s wrong. It’s stealing. You shouldn't do it’. Then came an astonishing reply:
‘But they have plenty of plants and won’t miss a few cuttings.’
‘Plenty’, ‘won’t miss.’ Oh, come on. Maybe she (for she was a she) is a regular visitor to the British Library to half inch a book or two. After all, they have 150 million items accessible. Or perhaps it's more a case of ‘Hello BMW showroom person, you have plenty of cars on display. I’m driving one away. Why? Well, you won't miss one and because I can.’ Actually, it isn’t like that. She wasn’t lifting the whole plant, rootball intact, wrapping it in hessian and transporting it home to her own garden to plant at the same level and adding plenty of water to get the roots established. No, this was akin to going to the British Library and ripping a page from a book or whipping off a wiper blade from a gleaming BMW (other cars and car parts are available). Obviously, all of it is wrong.
We talked some more and as we ‘chatted’ (yes, no, perhaps, never, purple, sometimes, flapjack, and Renault were among her one word replies to my intensive questioning), she slowly put down her pruning knife, plastic bags and clear water filled hand sprayer. I thought I’d talked her around. I’d allowed her to look deep inside her conscience and see the error of her ways. She’d seen the light and all that kind of caper.
‘Leave me alone. I like penstemons.’
So, I did. I could do no more. I waltzed off to the next garden on the list. But obviously not before dobbing her in to the owner, who was last spotted striding forcefully over his perfectly manicured lawn to his prized penstemons and the still crouching form of public enemy number one - the crooked cuttings criminal.
Or perhaps I am in the minority when it comes to taking cuttings from other people's gardens without their permission? Please let me know (anonymity is guaranteed).
No more questions m’lud.
You’ve just read the one word answers to previously unpublished questions. I say previously because here they are in order of cross examination:
- You from around here? (trying to find out an address – clever, eh?)
- Been to the other gardens on the list? (any previous?)
- Spent long in this garden? (establishing time of entry for CCTV footage)
- Been caught red handed before? (strong questioning, I know, but a little bit of pressure makes them crack)
- What colour is the penstemon? (OK, it’s a bit of a gardening question to establish why it wasn’t flowering and its variety. I suspect incorrect pruning)
- Do you add mycorrhizal fungi when you pot up cuttings? (how experienced is this thief?)
- Bakewell tart or flapjack? (just in case I was to get another chance at the cake stall - a recommendation is a quality piece of intelligence)
- Name a make of car (subtle way of identifying the getaway vehicle)
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Is it Really Worth it?
A little bit philosophical but obviously I’m referring to celery.
The thing is I hate the stuff. The taste repels, the smell revolts and the texture rebuffs any approach I make to the vegetable. However, I adore growing it.
The thing about celery is it needs a lot of attention. From the moment you sow the seed or pot up the seedlings, it is demanding. You have to keep the plants growing all the time; you need to saturate them and feed relentlessly; you have to, if growing trench celery, put collars around the stems to blanch the parts other people eat; you have to ward off celery mite, slugs, snails and you have to ensure soil doesn’t get into the centre of the plants as this can be the cause of chipped teeth and fractured fillings. What a performance - but what fun!
Same thing applies to lilies. For scent, beauty and overall wooing and wowing, lilies are the tops. That's only if you can overcome lily beetles. I’ve tried. I’ve generally failed but this year I’ve had a breakthrough. After speaking with a chap at an open garden event, I tried a daily (or eveningly!) wash down with soap water. The larvae are the nuisance as they chew through all the leaves. And they cover themselves in their own poop to put predators off. It works. But not for me in my gloves armed with a bucket of dilute soapy water. The results are OK. I’m not going to win any Lily Display of the Year Awards but I’m happy. Progress.
But I guess that is what gardening is about. Pitting your wits, skills and luck against the nasty side of nature and, in the case of celery, just enjoying having a go.
However, a note of defeat. Brassicas. That’s all the big and robust caulis, cabbage and broccoli. I’m resting for a year. I love all brassicas. I say that once you have tasted your home-grown cauliflower you will never go back to watery, insipid frozen guff or flaccid shop bought bunkum. One taste is all it takes. But to get that delight takes a lot of effort. I can do the seed sowing, seedling raising, planting out into firm ground and watching the weather forecast for frost. I can put the protective stem collars around the plants, I can just about manage the tangle of netting to keep the pigeons away but, to be honest, the daily check and squash routine of cabbage white butterfly eggs is beyond fun. Every day without fail, as these beasts hatch at an alarming rate and put locusts to shame with their appetites. So, for this year, I have more space and time - to concentrate on watering the devil's food and wiping the bottoms of lily beetle larvae.
Hmmmm… is it really worth it? Of course, it is!
I’m really missing my brassicas. I’ve usually cut a few heads of brocc by now. And shop bought really isn’t the same. And I yearn for my morning check of developing creamy curds of cauli. Next year - definitely next year.
School is indeed out for summer and the holidays stretch for weeks ahead for families.
There are the obvious candidates for filling in time and keeping the children's attention - expensive days out to theme parks and sitting in traffic queues on the M5 trying to get to the South West coast being two of many - but the answer could well be closer to home, in your own back garden.
I feel that I’ve done my bit for gardening legacy by helping my own two boys check for pests in the veg patch, edge the lawn and clear that pesky grass growth between the bricks on the path. Oh, what fun we had. Didn’t we? I’ve lectured them on the virtues of correct watering and not simply spraying it around having all that jollity. I think they got my drift. ‘Today boys we will go through the benefits of cleaning out pots immediately after use so that they are ready when you next need them’. Top stuff. They seemed enthralled. ‘Clear away the leaves from underneath roses to prevent the spread of infection by spores of blackspot. I could see them close their eyes and contemplate. Zzzzzzzzz.
OK, what a load of old rubbish! No children want to know that stuff.
They want water slides, their own playhouses, a small wheelbarrow to move dirt about the garden and a swing or two. It’s simple. A tyre swing fixed to a strong tree and some good weather. Actually, you don’t even need the good weather. Rain softens the lawn for the inevitable fall. It’s getting back to basics.
Games don’t have to be complicated. Hide and seek may be a tad brief in a patio courtyard garden (Count to ten. Open your eyes. ‘Oh there you are. Your turn.’ Count to ten. Open your eyes. ‘There you are’- and repeat) but a simple garden darts game is a winner. No spikes, no loud shirts and boozy crowds just a hoop target and foam tipped darts. All you need to decide is where the oche is and whether a bag o’ nuts is better than Weavers Donkey (I didn’t have a clue either until I looked it up!). Simple, fun and easy to set up and pack away when that lawn softening thunderstorm looms.
But actual gardening can be part of the fun. Weeding is boring, lectures are so yesterday and getting debris out of the gaps between block paving tedious beyond words. Your own little set of gardening tools is exciting. A small spade, fork and trowel enables children to create their own garden space. It may turn into a muddy morass but hey, if it keeps the kids quiet!
However, a word of warning. A few years ago I was cutting some wood into usable pieces watched with admiration, by my then six year old. ‘Can I have a go?’ he asked. ‘Sure thing,’ I said, all lumberjack style in our suburban garden, ‘but be careful.’ He wasn’t, he nicked his knee with the axe (the words axe and six year old don’t really add up to a safe situation - I now realise). At school the next day he excitedly explained the plaster on his knee to his teacher. That was an interesting parent/teacher evening.
So, stay in the garden this summer, have fun, stay safe and the holidays will be one to remember.