The great horticultural library row : GARDENING

MARY KEEN'S GARDEN SEASON BY SEASON WINTER
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The Independent Culture
LIKE music, gardening has charms to soothe a savage breast. Usually. But if the breast is savage about an injustice about to be perpetrated, on gardeners then there is no cure for it. Especially if the telephone rings all day and you know what it is ringing about. Much of January has been spent contacting others who, like me, might prefer to be outside dusting the hellebores rather than inside discussing the threatened removal of the Lindley Library from London to Surrey.

The Lindley Library is housed in an eyrie at the top of the RHS buildings in Vincent Square, Westminster. It is by the terms of its bequest open to everyone, whether RHS member or not, and it contains every book about gardens and gardening ever written in the English language, as well as many that are not. Inter-national historians who specialise in art, architecture or social history all use the library, and so do people who just want to look up what pest is eating their tomatoes. It is a wond erful central source of free knowledge, where everyone interested in anything that remotely touches on gardening can benefit from the wisdom of centuries of writers.

The council of the RHS has now recommended that the Lindley Library, which has outgrown its eyrie, should be moved to a purpose-built scientific centre attached to the society's gardens at Wisley in Surrey. This will be three miles from the nearest public transport. Foreign scholars, seekers after truth from remote parts of the British Isles, as well as you and I, will all have to face the M25 by car or resort to trains, buses and taxis.

Commercially it may make sense, but the members are miserable. Why, we wonder, can the offices of the RHS that deal with administration not move their computers to Surrey and leave Vincent Square to the books? The move is virtually a fait accompli, but there is still time before the end of January to write to the RHS at Vincent Square to protest at such autocracy.

If it were not for the Great Library Row, these would be the months when the outdoor housework is at its most soothing. Standards can be much lower now than in summer and after a morning of picking twigs and dead leaves off the snowdrops and cyclamen followed by a sprinkle of rotted bark, it is possible to feel quite pleased with the look of the place. I used to be against bark mulches because I thought they made the beds look sterile, like those landscape jobs round new buildings where nothing grows but white woodchip between the evergreens, but rotted bark is different. Tree surgeons use stump grinders to devour the roots and branches of the trees they fell. Then they put all the chewed choppings into a lorry and bring them home to make heaps of whatthe council calls industrial waste. The local tree surgeon here is delighted to part with the peak of his bark mountain at a very reasonable price. For other gardeners who like to save money and time, the Yellow Pages should produce a local source to recycle on the flower beds.

Here we keep a pile of bark and a pile of manure in a corner of the place where the cars turn. "Keep" is the operative word because fresh waste, whether manure or bark, is not so useful. If I can remember to order it in the spring, the heaps sit all summer and by November the bark should have turned brown and the manure ought no longer to smell. We spend the winter months barrowing manure to newly planted or greedy plants, which we then top with a layer of bark. The birds spread manure all over the garden from St Valentine's day onwards, if it is left unbarked.

There is a theory that incompletely rotted bark will rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down, but the manure should cope with that.

Inorganic gardeners, like smokers, are becoming social outcasts, but sometimes it is hard to keep to a strictly green regime. On close inspection, the hellebores - which are on the point of bursting their waxy buds - are found to have everything wrong with them. Buds are black and leaf stems are dark and soggy. Helle-bores do get a fungus called botrytis, but cutting off their leaves at the sight of the first black spot is supposed to prevent the disease. This year it has been so damp that even the stumps of the beheaded leaves have collapsed. Diag-nosis is difficult. Black soggy stems could be due to botrytis, or frost, or slugs, or mice, so the only course of action is a combination of cures. A Ben-late spray is fastest for fungus, but that is not the most organic of routes. Dusting flowers with sulphur might be better, or spraying with Safer fungicide spray, but all sprays make the plant wetter and wetness is what causes the disease.

With winter slugs we are less organic than we might be. The electric blue pellets are very sparsely scattered, on the grounds that we have no pets and that all hedgehogs should be asleep. Organic pellets dissolve so quickly in the rain that I suspect them of disappearing before a slug could crawl over for a taste.

About the frost there is nothing we can now do, except perhaps cover the plant with a spun fleece blanket against the next one. But the wind here is wild and however many stones are used, it whips the weighted dresses away as fast as I put them on the plants.

Mice are a different story. Really green people might leave them for owls, but I've never seen an owl here and the mouse population is huge. Crocuses have to be planted under close-meshed chicken wire weighted with stones. This deters mice for about a month, then they find a way in and small pockmarks appear everywhere. The tulips are soaked in a disgusting mixture that smells of fox; when you walk past a treated area the stench is overpowering. Some-times we dip the bulbs in paraffin too, but by now most of the areas where bulbs were planted have telltale onion skins lying around and often the earth is dug away to expose the chewed bulb. Every year I say I will not waste money on buying food for mice, but this gets forgotten in the summer and I alwaysorder more bulbs. Perhaps 30 per cent survive.

The hellebore consumption is harder to forgive, so now there are traps in the flower-bed under cairns of stones, so that the birds cannot be caught. Some books say "pick a few flowers and leave them lying around, so that the mice can eat those", but herethe flowers are literally nipped in the bud so that even if I was prepared to cut them as mouse fodder this is not an option.

After the separate challenges of fungus, frost, slugs and mice have been met, there remains an unidentified green hopper. I ring up my best gardening friends and describe a bright green insect about the size of half a ladybird. They do not know it, but suggest it may be a wandering leaf miner and that it should be zapped with a friendly Safer spray - which it duly is. It's at times like this that gardeners need to repair to the Lindley Library. If I have a problem now, I know that at the next RHS fortnightly flower show in Vincent Square I can look it up in minutes. In the years to come it will take a whole day. !

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