Urban gardener, Cleve West: Sounds of the suburbs

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The Independent Online

If we're lucky with the weather tomorrow the Rolling Stones will be jamming at our allotment. OK, I'm stretching the truth a bit but a few years ago, on a balmy summer's evening, friends we'd invited to share a pukka curry down at the plot began to pick up the occasional riff of 'Honky Tonk Woman' and 'Brown Sugar' floating on the breeze. It turned out to be none other than ol' rubber lips himself performing, as he will do tomorrow, three miles down the road at Twickenham Stadium in west London. Those who attended that soiree carry the memory fondly and I'm not the only one that recounts this story when it comes to allotment one-upmanship.

This may be an extreme case but sound, like smell, can be not only a powerful aide-memoire for past events in the garden, but can embellish those moments too. It may not have the disproportionate jolt of smell - where the faintest aroma can unlock a labyrinth of veiled recollections - but, from the familiar creak of a gate to the tapestry of layers in a dawn chorus, sound can definitely elevate a garden experience.

Urbanites, who have the clamour of the city to contend with, occasionally employ water as a distraction to this intrusive murmur. This has to be handled carefully to avoid a cacophony brought about by competing sounds. Artificial sound is also a tricky one that can add to noise pollution, so it's useful to try to tune in to what's naturally occurring around you.

We rely on the weather, of course, for most of the sound in our gardens. One of my most memorable garden visits was to Inverewe in the north west Highlands of Scotland where a howling gale in the canopy of woodland was accentuated by almost complete stillness at ground level. Trunks visibly swayed (and were warm to the touch because of the friction), but deep in the heart of the forest an eerie calm was the complete antithesis to the storm that was battering the coastline.

It's perhaps such subtleties that catch you off guard. During a visit to some friends at the end of the recent heat wave we were convinced we were listening to the refreshing sound of running water, until we realised we had been fooled by a group of aspens ( Populus tremula), their leaves rippling soothingly in barely a breeze. Bamboo offers a similar effect, while the tall blades of Phormium tenax in our garden clap lazily together as the rope of our Mexican hammock gently creaks.

In fact lying in a hammock, eyes closed, is probably the best way of becoming more familiar with some of the more elusive sounds in the garden. A wasp rasping on the edge of a feather board fence collecting pulp for its nest is, once you get to know it, disproportionately loud, as is the popping of Caper Spurge ( Euphorbia lathyris) seedheads in the heat of the day. A sultry night can offer a virtual rainforest of noises from the high-pitched squeak of bats to whirring moths and toads crackling their way through dry vegetation. Even the slither of snails is just audible as they take advantage of rain or a spell of watering. Another sound, so faint I almost missed it, turned out to be the tiny mouths of a mass of tadpoles, sucking as they fed off blanket weed and algae around the edge of the pond.

If the forecast is good, our hammock (bought from The Mexican Hammock Company who having been supporting fairtrade in rural Mexico since 1983) will accompany us to the allotment tomorrow night. For us to stand a chance of hearing the Stones gig the wind will have to come from the north east. Unfortunately this also means noise from air traffic banking south directly overhead after take off from Heathrow. The whole thing will be one big tease, especially as a friend has just offered me a free ticket to see them in the flesh tomorrow instead. Naturally I'm grateful for the offer, but even more delighted that it has given me a suitable punchline. The sound of his jaw hitting the ground when I politely declined over the phone - saying that I couldn't accept due to a pre-arranged supper at the allotment - will stay with me for ever.

www.hammocks.co.uk

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