Gardening – a brief guide (part three – the rot-ables and the rustables).

ash blaze bonfire burn
In addition to plants, bushes, stones, ants and cat-poo, the garden is also home to some slightly more ‘architectural’ features. In the final part of our little guide, we will take a look at things, other than your bedding plants, which do not grow…

Barbecue – What’s not to love about a summer barbecue? (Answers on a postcard please.) Metal or brick, charcoal or gas? Matters none: by next spring everything that is metal (including tongs, fish slices and those long, pointy forky things that you never quite got round to washing last year) will be rusted. Everything that is not rusted will be coated in a thick layer of congealed fat, soot and gristle. Last year’s charred leftover sausage and burgers will remain welded to the grill as not even the rats will eat them. If you really must eat charred meat and lukewarm potato salad, always do it in someone else’s garden – preferably with the St John’s Ambulance in attendance.

Bonfire – The only reason most men will ever willingly venture out into the garden. Everybody loves a good burn-up. It is advisable not to light a garden bonfire when neighbours have windows open or washing out. Burn at night: it will be seen for miles and every male in the neighbourhood will appear with something wooden to burn and a bottle of something warming to drink. Safety is paramount: always wear thick, flameproof gauntlets, a protective visor and non-flammable leggings – or don’t. Position the fire away from sheds, fences, trees and children. Always check beneath the fire for hedgehogs – preferably before lighting. Never start a bonfire with petrol – I don’t know why. In my experience, bonfires generally take about two hours to light and two weeks to extinguish.

Compost heap – In these days of ecological consciousness it is imperative that a garden has a compost heap on which to put vegetable peelings, dead plants and grass cuttings. It should be situated in an area behind the shed, preferably closer to your neighbour’s house than your own. The vegetable matter within the heap will decompose and form an evil-smelling brown slime that both looks and smells like nothing you have ever bought from a garden centre. Cover it with thick plastic sheeting and try to ignore the flies. Leave undisturbed until the neighbours complain – then move.

Fences and hedges – A useful method of promoting conversation between neighbours – often very loudly. The main thing to remember about fences is that they are never in the right place. When they fall over, they are always yours. Hedges, on the other hand, are unlikely to fall over, but their roots are much more likely to undermine next-door’s conservatory and block the drains of the entire neighbourhood.

Garden furniture – Plastic, wood or metal. In Spring and Summer, garden furniture will turn your garden into an open-air lounge/dining room. In winter it will turn it into a ‘how do we get all this lot down to the dump?’ conundrum.

Garden ornaments – Statues, birdbaths, sundials, unidentifiable chunks of rock – when installing a heavy garden ornament, rigorous preparation of the ground is essential to ensure that the ornament does not lean grotesquely and fall. Garden ornaments always lean grotesquely and fall eventually unless propped up with old spades and broom handles. Do not worry, it doesn’t matter. The sundial will, in any case, be orientated in such a way that it only gives an accurate time for Saigon. After fixing it in place, you will find that it is in permanent shade anyway. The birdbath will be full of something green and stagnant that not even thirsty birds will touch. Despite what the salesman may have told you, a large chunk of ugly rock will always be a large chunk of ugly rock, wherever you put it.

Greenhouse – Basically a see-through shed. During the summer the greenhouse will contain mildewed tomatoes, withered cucumbers and brown, slimy lettuces. During the winter it will contain all the rubbish that won’t fit in the shed. Greenhouses are the ideal environment in which to grow fruit and veg varieties that are not hardy enough for our fickle climate. In the greenhouse they will remain protected from frost and wind and will die within minutes if not watered continually. Three things you must always remember about the greenhouse:

1. It is not a house
2. It is seldom, if ever, green
3. It is glass. It will break in excessive heat; heavy rain; lying snow, and the presence of children.

It is possible to replace glass with polycarbonate panels which do not break. They do however turn a strange opaque yellow on being exposed to sunlight, shrink and fall out. In my experience, the average greenhouse will usually comprise a haphazard combination of glass, polycarbonate and black plastic bin-bags. It will be filled with dead plants, but will be better next year.

Shed – A dry, generally wooden, store in which to protect your gardening tools and to raise the local mouse population. The smell, when you open the door, is probably a putrefying toad. The content, by volume, of the average garden shed is generally far greater than the volume of the shed itself. (If you don’t believe me, just empty one out and then try to get it all back in.) A correctly maintained shed is much like Dr Who’s Tardis – except that where the Tardis contains an almost infinite variety of rooms, interconnected through a veritable labyrinth of dark-cornered corridors and secret passageways, the shed contains shit. Also the Tardis doesn’t leak. A shed, like its close cousins the loft and the cupboard-under-the-stairs, has an almost unrivalled capacity for the accumulation of ‘stuff’ for which you have no further use. The shed differs from a greenhouse in that things do grow in it. They should not be touched without thick rubber gloves and should be burned when the wind is blowing towards somebody else’s house. Remember that all electric equipment stored in the shed over winter will blow up the fuse board and melt the fillings in your teeth next spring.

Tools – Most gardening tools (hand or electric) secateurs, hedge-clippers, spades, forks, lawnmowers, negligently placed rakes – have the potential to remove chunks from the unwary user. Keep them as blunt as possible. Broken/rusted garden tools should never be thrown away nor, if possible, replaced. When anything electrical gives up the ghost, cut off the flex and store it in the back of the shed. Everyone does it. No-one knows why.

Gardening – a brief guide (part one – the fundamentals and the seasonals).

garden tools

Spring Bank Holiday is almost upon us in the UK and all thoughts turn to the garden and gardening. The garden centre is filled to capacity and, for once, not just with people waiting for the Sunday Roast. My little gardening guide is split into three parts, which will take us into and through the bank holiday. In the time you will eventually take to read it, you could have planted any number of shrubs, mowed several lawns or painted the shed. Just think of that… Now, would you like me to run you a bath?

Let us begin with a definition:
Gardening – The act of undertaking tasks for which you are not equipped, in a hostile environment full of lethal dangers both natural and manmade, from which you have no protection.

It is the arrival of Spring that first sends us tottering out into the garden with a broom handle (with or without broom head) to prop up the wonky fence panel; a dinner fork (as the garden fork will have rusted away) with which to dig up everything that has died over the winter, and several trays of various seedlings that we can watch over as they die in the weeks ahead. Each season brings its own challenges:

Spring: the long, dark nights of winter are falling behind us and the time has come to collect together all of the tools that you accidentally left outside at the beginning of winter and spray them with WD40 – even though you know perfectly well that it will not work. Buds fill, leaves unfurl, early blossoms glisten in the morning dew and the door falls off the shed. Now is the time to give the lawn its first cut of the year, carefully replacing all the divots ripped from the ground by the winter-blunted blades as you go. However early you choose to make this first cut, it is always a) too early for nature and b) too late for your partner.
Summer: your garden will be in full bloom. Now is the time to take a garden seat, reattach the leg with a six-inch nail, sit and enjoy the riot of colour and scent that is your garden in full bloom. Now is the time to throw away last year’s rusty – and let’s face it, unhygienic – barbecue and, if you’ve any sense at all, never to consider buying a replacement. Ever. Now is the time to find out where next-doors bloody cat keeps doing its business.
Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In my experience, garden fruit exists in only two states: a) unripe and b) rotten. If you find something that looks ripe and hasn’t been half-eaten by insects, it is almost certainly poisonous. Now is the time to repair and pack away for winter. As most of your tools remain unusable from being left out over the previous winter and your garden furniture is so rotten it won’t even burn, there seems little point. Make the most of the relative warmth of long autumn evenings by filling the garden with candles. There is nothing quite like the combination of fading autumn light, flickering candle flame and red wine to heighten the awareness of your own mortality. ‘Tis the season to be maudlin. Although the insect-life is much reduced by now, most of what remains will either bite or sting or both. Wear a knitted hat at all times when in the garden. There is nothing worse than approaching winter with a grotesquely swollen ear that makes you look like Dumbo when viewed from the side.
Winter: the best of all seasons in which to enjoy your garden – from inside. Revel in the fact that at this time of year nobody expects a person of your age to be out in the cold – and, also, that when covered in a thick blanket of snow, this is the one time when your garden looks just as good as everybody else’s.

The modern gardener faces a number of horticultural challenges seldom faced by their urban predecessors:

Hanging Baskets – The horticultural equivalent of the Mayfly: leave it unattended for 24 hours and it will die. If the weather is dry, it will die. If it is windy, it will die. If it is raining, it will somehow escape the water and die. I, on the other hand, will not escape the water as I will be outside watering the f*cking thing. Allowing the hanging basket to die is punishable by death or long silences punctuated by sighing.

Pots and Containers – Similar to hanging baskets (above) with the added attraction that whilst they too will dry out and die within twenty-four hours if not watered, they will also become waterlogged in the rain – and die.

Ponds – All the joys of a garden, with the option of drowning. If you must have a pond, just don’t be tempted to stock it up with expensive fish: they will only be eaten by next door’s cat who will continue to crap in your wellies regardless. As elsewhere in your garden, any expensive plants will quickly be swamped by weed which is almost impossible to remove. Ponds will attract all manner of wildlife to your garden: birds, frogs, toads, newts and god-knows-what when the lights have gone out. Official advice is that ponds require regular cleaning. If you have ever driven along the side of a canal that is being dredged, you will know how pleasant this task is. Whatever lurks at the bottom of the pond is either dead, smelly, slimy or all of the above. My advice is to leave it where it is. It may be a little unsightly, but the frogs seem to like it and the water is generally so green that you can never see the bottom anyway. Waterfalls and/or fountains require a suitable electric point from which to run them. The one thing I know about electricity is that it is never good news when mixed with water. Unless you want to get involved in a row with your neighbour over how, exactly, his cat came to be hurled, smoking, over the fence after trying to drink out of your pond, don’t bother with a pump of any kind. An electric pond pump will fuse the house more often than an inopportune finger in a leaking kettle and leave you continually fishing dead things out of the murky depths (preferably after turning off the electric). If you want to make more of a feature of your pond you could introduce some floating solar lights. They never work, but they do provide a convenient resting place for passing birds and they will not electrocute you when they finally fill up with water, turn upside down and sink.