Monday, 17 May 2004

Gardener's World

So much to do, so little time. I have, I confess, fallen behind on my unexpressed but firmly-made resolution to get something into this blog every day, or as near as damn it.

I blame the fun. And the gardening. Could it be that these might not be mutually exclusive?

I like gardens. I like wandering round in them, bending down to read the labels and sniff for olfactory pleasures. I like to see how the gardener has played one colour off against another or created a visual architecture with differently shaped foliage.

But I don't like mowing lawns, or weeding, or hoeing, or any of the myriad tasks that seem to go into maintaining a garden.

Pruning. I quite like pruning.

As a consequence, the garden has become somewhat jungly. Until recently, I was able to blame the weather for preventing any reasonable attempt at maintenance. (Not, you appreciate, that there is ever anything other than sunshine on Tyneside, but sometimes there's a splashing effect from over the Pennines, or down from Scotland.)

It was Ted who stirred me into action. When he called a couple of weeks ago to exchange my drawing of Duntrune Castle for his Hermesetas and a can of PEK (We'd got them mixed up on the way back, as can so easily happen), his opening gambit was, "I have with me from the Council a Mowing Edict, such order to be effected on this property forthwith." I was stung, I can tell you. I didn't show it, though.

"Fuck off, Ted," I countered. I've been to Repartee Classes, too.

As always, the wheels of Mr Zip grind exceedingly slowly, but by Thursday of last week, I thought I might join in the general uplift of our street. It seems that everyone hereabouts has it in mind to block-pave their drives, and build on extra bedrooms, turrets, sheds, garages, observatories, flying buttresses and Guard Towers. The least I could do was mow the front lawn.

With my magic new Flymo, donated to me as a needy cause by my painter friend Mo, I was able to whizz over the daisies, clover, and dandelions, in no time at all, while even getting at the wisps of grass. A liberal spraying of spot lawn weeder and all was tickety-boo.

What I find happens when I put in an appearance in the garden, is that the neighbours like to come out and lend support, as if to say, "Well done, not too bad was it, why not try to keep it like that?"

It was Lucy Smooth's turn. She's a nice lady who puts in hours of back-breaking work in her back garden to grow enough vegetables to feed, well, all the people who seem to come to her house regularly to drink wine and sing fairly dreadful Songs of the Mediterranean. Today she was determined to show me up by scrubbing her decorative concrete paving with a brush and some "Mr Propre" cleaning liquid (her son works in Brussels).

I tried to distract her by talking about the weather, the thankfully absent junior footballers from over the road, and anything other than the state of the immediate landscape. But she wasn't having it. She cleverly manoeuvred us into discussing the back gardens and by the time I'd disengaged, I'd promised to have a look at the unusually large crop of dandelions I'd been nurturing.

Yet even a quick trim of the back lawn went reasonably well. I quickly discovered the branches I'd pruned some time ago, lurking in the long grass to upset Mr Flymo, and threw them into some other long grass on one of the former vegetable patches.

And there it was: a lawn with a haircut which only a wooly hat could improve.

I had an appointment with Patsy123 in Waterstones (tip: a good place to arrange to meet someone when you're habitually late) later that day, but I figured I had time enough to sit with a cup of tea and admire my efforts.

Despite my general reluctance to enter the gardening arena, I've always found that sitting in the garden makes me unsettled. I keep seeing things I want to do, and before I know it, I'm out of my seat and - usually - pruning like crazy.

And so it was again. Before the last dregs of Assam had passed my lips, I was up and about with the strimmer. I figured I could at least clear most of the long grass, buttercups and bitter cress, while avoiding the clumps of bluebells which have strayed into the vegetable patch while my back was turned. I'd reckoned without the aforementioned recently transferred woody prunings, of course, and the stumpy remains of last year's bronze fennel (kindly provided by Will Barrow's friend Matt - see Martock Beans). How could I forget about the branches which I'd thrown there only an hour or so earlier? You tell me. Could be the aluminium pans I used to use...

By the time I'd run into a branch or two, then taken the decision to move them again, this time to a spot up against the fence, I'd cut only half the savannah before I ran out of the long wiry strimmery stuff that is so essential to the smooth operation of the strimmer.

With a cry of "Bugger!"I retreated to the comfort of the garden chair for another cup of tea.

Everything packed away. Uncooperative strimmer cable coiled up, ready for the next time I needed to unknot it. Easily enough time to finish my tea, take a shower, get changed and go to meet Patsy123.

Glancing up, I noticed the two branches of Lucy Smooth's hedge which had escaped both the efforts of her son (as enthusiastic a gardener as I am) and my loppers to remove. It's a pretty daft hedge, frankly. It's actually a colossal tree (maybe mountain ash, but there are never any berries) which Lucy Smooth's late husband had bent and pruned into the shape of a hedge. A sort of bonsai on an enormous scale. Every year it's given its head and allowed to grow as much as it wants, so that by the end of summer it forms a serviceable wind-brake. By early winter, after all the leaves have gone, we give it a good old prune so it can start again in spring. This winter, neither Smooth Fils nor I were able to easily get to two of the taller branches and they'd now reached worrying proportions.

It came to me to try to bend one of them over with the aid of a rake, secure it and cut it off with the loppers. If it worked, fine. If not, I'd have lost very little time.

It didn't work. The branch slipped out of the clutches of my rake and sprang upright again. "Laugh at me all you will, "I thought, anthropomorphising once more, "but I'll get you yet." And I made to put away the rake prior to meeting my Patsy123 deadline.

Which is when Bob Eh rapped on his window. He'd been watching me again. He knows when I come out of the studio at 3 o'clock in the morning! Admittedly he's not got a lot else to do. He suffered a brain haemorrhage a few years ago and is paralysed down his left side. Unfortunately he was left-handed.

Anyway, it seems Bob Eh has a long-handled pruner which he was most insistent I borrow to have another go at the reach-for-the-sky branches. Bob Eh likes talking and seemed not to hear my protestation of a need to get ready to go out. "It'll only take a minute," he said. "But if you find yourself falling off the ladder, don't worry about throwing the pruner away." As if I would. I'd be more worried about falling into the pyracantha.

Climbing the ladder was fun. The more I climbed, the further the ladder sank into the lawn. But eventually I was up there, wobbling over the pyracantha. And with a bit of effort, the first of the errant branches fell to earth. Not so the next one. Even after I'd climbed over the fence, wormed my way up through Lucy Smooth's wonderfully productive fig tree, I still couldn't get the remaining monster into the jaws of the pruner. Mr Zip falls back defeated.

And late for Patsy123.

One thing I did get from Bob Eh. "What do you think of that shed next door to Lucy Smooth's?" he asked. While I was still grimacing, he continued. "Looks like a bloody Watch Tower, I think!"

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