Of Letters to Editors and Peter Rabbit

In an earlier incarnation, or so it feels, I used to be a school teacher and I can recall the frequent complaint in the staff room that because everybody has been to school, there is a tendency for many to believe that they are experts in learning and teaching. I now realise that particular complaint is applicable to any range of occupations. A smidgeon of knowledge is at times a misleading thing. In the gardening world, this is best revealed in the letters to the gardening publications. I picked up one of the national magazines recently and I am still a little bemused at some of the letters.

Edward from Auckland decided to test out the claims of honey as a rooting hormone. He took two (yes, just two) cuttings and dipped one in honey. It grew whereas the untreated cutting did not. So excited was he by this exhaustive scientific research, that he felt it warranted a letter to the editor. Incontrovertible proof of the efficacy of honey.

Many gardeners follow the practice of putting stones or similar at the bottom of their plant containers in the hope of improving drainage. Millie from Dargaville advocates a whole new approach. Instead of stones or broken china, she suggests using aluminium cans. “They can be squashed, laid on their sides or left standing upright, depending on the size of the pot.” Personally I am deeply puzzled by this piece of advice. Not only do I fail to see what purpose the aluminium cans serve in the container, whether squashed or not, but I am totally mystified as to why anybody would even want to put aluminium cans in with their potting mix.

But Ashburton Anne takes the cake. After marvelling at the freakish sight of her rose which changes colour from yellow through to cream and pink and her hydrangea which has blue, pink and purple flowers all on the same bush, she goes on to tell of an even stranger thing that happened to her neighbour. He had apparently planted cucumbers in his tunnel house and even harvested a few when, in Anne’s own words: “ the plants went crazy – right up to the roof and out of the doors…. He followed along the stems from the cucumber plant and found pumpkins! Not from a graft on the stem, but just changed.” Sadly she goes on to say that he had to pull the plants out as they overshadowed his tomatoes. The world is apparently forever to be deprived of the truly remarkable discovery of the cucumber that could metamorphose into a pumpkin, henceforth to be knows as “cumpcins”, or should that be “pucumpers”? What can I say? What can anyone say? Second Daughter suggested in disbelief that the neighbour must have seen her coming and decided to have some fun at her expense.

On the gardening front, we are a bit disconcerted by the bravado currently being shown by our resident rabbits. Possums we live with on a nightly basis and we have a dog who is a wonderful possum hunter. He chases them up trees and then calls for Mark in the early hours of the morning to come and deal with them. Mark claims to shoot around 75 to 100 a year but as I slumber through many of these night time forays, I can’t vouch for his figures. But the rabbits are a new intrusion. I can’t believe that despite a resident dog and cat, these unwelcome visitors have been permitted to take up residence in the house gardens. I have looked the cat in the eye and asked her how she can pretend to have any self respect at all when Flopsy, Mopsy and the rest of the gang are getting ever braver but the cat merely looked disdainful and went back to sleep. All this because it was bad enough to find the rabbits had repeatedly chewed off all the young foliage of a delightful late winter bulb called onyxottis, to the extent that we have had to lay wire netting over that patch, but I was simply outraged to find that they had been digging in the border which bounds the house. Right outside the window which is the cat’s main exit, in fact, and a mere five metres from where the dog sleeps. It is too much.

The early settlers have a great deal to answer for, introducing rabbits and possums. But I guess we should be grateful that we don’t have bears, foxes or kangaroos and that the naturalised deer keep themselves confined to forested areas. Given the damage a family of small bunnies can inflict, the mind boggles at what could be done by larger mammals.

I am threatening to get another fox terrier. Our departed foxie was a splendid rabbiter although he preferred to sleep at night when the possums were active. At the entrance to our property we have a large gum tree, planted around 1880 by the first Jury who settled here. A couple of years ago, the Peter Rabbit family built a condominium beneath it. With a girth of around 12 metres, there was plenty of room below for dry quarters. Alas Merlot the foxie had never read Watership Downs and he saw nothing wrong with following them into their quarters. Unfortunately he failed to emerge for some time and the sight of his little face peering out from the exposed roots on the other side of the tree from where he entered caused considerable angst amongst our staff at the time. In fact I saw one of them out there with a spade, contemplating digging him out. Fearing for the future of the tree, I suggested we just leave him for a while. I am not sure that I could have followed the English hunting tradition of leaving him there for a few days until he had lost enough weight to be able to fit back out but it didn’t come to that. Left to his own devices below ground where the rabbit family had presumably long scarpered, he soon felt the call of dinner and found his own way out.

I really wouldn’t have minded if the rabbit family had kept to their gum tree condo. They are quite cute sitting around our carpark in the late evening. But venturing in the garden gate is not the most diplomatic move they have made.