The joy of gadgets

MARY KEEN'S SUMMER DIARY; Mary Keen gets to grips with a couple of strong and silents types, which could quietly take the backache out of gardening; plus the difficulty and frustration of creating that perfect 'wild' flower patch
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The Independent Online
Mine Has Never been a hi-tech garden but things are changing. The main drawback to machines for me has been their noise. I would rather use a slasher than a strimmer any day. We have often wondered about the advantages of a small tractor for pulling loads of manure uphill to the kitchen garden, but have resisted the purchase on the grounds that there are very few places that it could negotiate on our awkwardly vertical site. Price and noise also make tractors unappealing. This year there's the electric Moto-Barrow which costs pounds 370, around a fifth of the price of a tractor. It is silent and glides uphill carrying huge loads of compost, stones, manure, grandchildren, grass-cuttings, logs - it can carry anything with no effort needed from the pusher, giving the gardener's back a new lease of life. The Moto-Barrow is available only from the firm that makes it in March, Cam-bridgeshire (01354 655520).

Another silent gadget which makes me think that we should resort to modern technology for more of our garden problems, is the gas-powered Paragon Parasene weed wand (above). We always poison the paths in earliest spring anyway, but it is a worrying business as the poison never catches the edges. Watering poison too close to box hedges or flower beds can, and has, wreaked the occasional catastrophe. I used to spend hours with a knife on my knees on the paths all summer, but the weed wand deals death from a discreet gas flame which you can use while standing in an upright position.

The safety instructions are scary: "Butane is potentially dangerous. Please follow the instructions carefully and in your own interest please re-read them periodically," it says. I would not use the weed wand (which looks like a walking stick and hisses like a snake) in high wind or with bare feet, but I am charmed by its shrivelling ways. No smelly spray to mix, no weeds to remove, no feeling that you are polluting the soil and, best of all, no effort. It even deals with ground elder. The Paragon Parasene can be bought for pounds 34.99 from B&Q stores. Or you can mail order it from Dobies, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon, TQ2 7QE (01803 616 888) or from Suttons Seeds, Hele Road, Torquay, Devon, TQ2 7QJ (01803 614614). I now see that smart and silent tools like the Moto- barrow and the weed wand can free the gardener for gardening.

For Gardening, read staking. The east wind blew here for a week and even things that had been discreetly pea-sticked in spring were blown inside out. Delphiniums had their leaves scorched brown so that each one had to be removed. Before I took them off, a reproving visitor suggested that I should spray the plants, as they had obviously been attacked by a leaf- eating pest. When I explained that you cannot spray for wind damage she refused to believe me. The trouble with emergency staking is that it looks artificial because it is hard to hide the stakes. But if done early, so that the plants grow up supported by twiggy stays, by midsummer the corset cannot be seen. So does the experience of this year's freak gales mean that next year all plants should be put in straitjackets in case they have to face another force nine easterly? The best gardeners do seem to anticipate all departures from the norm. Even the spring frosts, which turned early rose buds brown, never phase them. Here "Marigold", a coppery coloured rose, is usually out with the crimson tree peony in May, but this year it is only beginning to flower in June. The carefully staged May effect never materialised, but if it means the garden looks fuller later, so what? It is the unpredictability of gardening that makes it interesting.

Sometimes when a delayed flower appears out of season, the colour can be so wrong that it has to be live-headed, but occasionally it jolts one into thinking that it looks so terrific that it would be worth arranging to delay the flowers for the sake of a better association. If, for example, you wanted delphiniums out with Michaelmas daisies, you could cut the delphiniums down early in the year, to slow their production. They might be slightly shorter than they would have been, but for a special occasion when you want everything out at full blast, this is a good technique to try.

The Business of growing flowers in grass is still bothering me. At the edge of the orchard when we came here, we replaced two dull formal rose beds with a wild flower mixture. The seed I chose was suitable for the limestone soil on which we live. Among the 16 varieties listed, lady's bedstraw, cowslips, clustered bellflowers and meadow buttercup were promised. Oxeye daisy was mentioned and I suppose I expected grass. We now have oxeye daisies to the exclusion of all other species. There is some sainfoin, it is true, but there's no way this wild-flower meadow could be described as balanced. Round here, grass grows tidily with cowslips and orchids, followed by meadow cranesbill and mullein. Even the roadside verges look more convincing than my manufactured wild corner. For various things I could be blamed. The soil where roses had been grown might have been too rich; it may be too shady under the apple trees for the thin grass and small flowers that I admire so much locally. This year I have bought plugs of the meadow cranesbill and planted them in the hope that they can tough it out with the oxeyes. I also plan to sew yellow rattle which is said to inhibit the grass. This information I had from the aptly-named Michael Flower, who knows more about wild-flower growing than most of us. He runs workshops in June at his flower farm near Hungerford (01672 870782), which I missed this year through lack of forward planning. But I did enroll for a very useful day on "Wild Gardening" which took place last Wednesday at the National Trust's Waddesdon Manor - the haunt of the Rothschilds.

Miriam Rothschild pioneered the wild-flower movement and advises the Prince of Wales at Highgrove. Her niece, Beth Tomassini, runs the gardens at Waddesdon and has started devoting areas to wild flowers, perhaps to counteract the formality of the parterre. Stephen Anderton was the guru of the day and there is another session on 10 September (01296 651226).

I fear the remedy for my own failure is going to be dig it up and start again. It is frustrating that what should be the easiest sort of gardening seems not to be. If there is anyone out there who has established a meadow area which boasts more than a dozen sorts of wild flower in grass, in the last five years, please send me your secrets. !