A Controversy Blooms

A friend faxes me about nasturtiums. She was looking up "grapes" in a gardening book. But in the way all gardeners do, in books as in the garden, she found herself sidetracked.

What caught her eye concerned the intimacy of nasturtiums with aphids.

Lynne (a highly original faxer) wrote: "I've just been reading that nasturtiums act as 'catch plants' by attracting aphids to themselves and keeping them in one spot.... They're also good in greenhouses ... and are generally helpful ('Can I,' in a high voice, 'carry that for you?' 'I'll wash the dishes') to brassicas, potatoes, and radishes...."

I'm a bit skeptical about mutually beneficial plant associations: I've planted French marigolds with tomatoes and summer savory next to beans, and there's some anti-fly plant to put next to carrots. But I've really noticed little effect. However, folklore is fun, and there should be a degree of hand-me-down expertise in it.

Next morning, I put the nasturtium-aphid claim to Big Ted of the loud voice. He's rarely short of an answer on horticultural matters.

I caught him as he dragged a bag-on- wheels (plus a plastic sack of cauliflowers - "Jeanie's; all mine are done") along the main path to the front gate. I always know when Ted is en route, either coming or going, because he shouts a mammoth greeting, as a lion roareth, for all the world and me.

All along the fence that divides Red's plot from the main path is a display of clambering, climbing, wandering nasturtiums that does you good to behold. They are burgeoning with an overkill of round leaves, snaky succulent stems, and fiery-orange, rancid-yellow, and blood-red trumpet flowers - as glorious as they are children's-book commonplace. Over on my side of Red's plot they are wildly converting my gate into the approach to Sleeping Beauty's castle, crowding it like rampaging brambles and making ingress tricky without a machete.

But to Red these nasturtiums are not mere decoration. He maintains they're a deterrent to intruders. He is strangely furious, this gentle man, about intruders. He also uses barbed wire and multiple hefty padlocks. These are conventional enough. But The Nasturtiums of Wrath are a novel bastion. His theory, however, may be sound. Nasturtiums are brittle. "Any broken, then I'll know," he mutters with a rather grim, impish grin.

THERE is a history to all of this precaution-taking, and it is a fact that in the last year or so several plot-holders' sheds have been burned to the ground by vandals. (In one case, the ash proved rather beneficial, and the lady victim says her strawberries, which she had assumed lost, revived and have never been better.) But so far as I know, Red's sanctum has not been invaded. And if anyone burns his hut down it's likely to be him, to judge by the smoke that on winter days billows massively out of his flue.

But Red was not "at home" to discuss nasturtiums and aphids. So I went and asked Ted what he knew.

Ted is a bluff man. "Look at 'em!" he thundered. "Can't see any aphids, can you? Never seen any aphids on 'em, have you? I think when people talk about plants attracting certain insects, they mean the other way round. They mean they keep 'em away."

* A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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