Bob's bits and bobs

Hands up any gardener who has not at least one recycled plastic bottle in use as a cloche! Where would we be without these handy growing aids which are seen in gardens almost everywhere. These are very effective as we all know and of course free. But I've often wondered who made the first one?

Us gardeners are an inventive bunch and always coming up with bodges, make-dos and temporary repairs in 'emergencies' with only a few tools and a bit of string to hand (in Norfolk the string is orange, or occasionally blue, binder twine from bales of straw but this is soon to go as the big round bales replace the old small rectangular ones).

Of course we usually make the same sort of invention as each other as we face similar problems. Over the years at talks I have been presented with many many dibbers with marks or indicators showing or regulating the depth of each hole created and/or the next position. Each proud creator imagining himself the first to make same said device. Likewise for garden lines- I must have seen 'two ends and a winding method' worked in almost every material and arrangement conceivable- when merely two sticks would suffice.

Indeed the garden centres, and soon after the car boot and jumble sales, are full of ingenious and spurious gardening aids for some task or other. But as I've said before (Kitchen Garden January 2002) most of these are rather gimmicky, or, poorly made versions of useful professional devices. I suspect the vast majority of such commercially made gizmos were not invented by any gardener, or if they were the designer and manufacturer then altered the original concept to it's detriment.

Of course we each adopt anyone else's good idea so it's soon spread as others copy in turn. Visit any enthusiast and you soon notice home made items, or household objects used in an 'illegal' manner. Tools and containers wrought ingeniously for some specific purpose, particularly containers! With old nylon stockings used in myriad ways as ties and filters, plastic scoops, funnels and labels cut from washing-up-liquid bottles, plant supports from curtain rods to broomstick handles and plastic cup plant pots by their thousands. Every garden is a mine of improvisation, especially in the rush of the growing season.

And one good idea often leads to another. I started using plastic bottle cloches I suppose as soon as everyone else but experimenting I found that tall rings were often better than a closed bottle, at least for the hardier crops. A cap-less bottomless bottle is much warmer and so best for germination but then when removed the contrast is rather great for the seedling without some hardening off. A topless bottomless ring cut from the same bottle (i.e. cut the whole top off as well as the bottom) gives sheltered conditions but not so warm that the eventual removal is such a shock. And with no top then many crops such as most brassicas and sweet corn can be allowed to retain the bottle till after harvest. The tall rings also continuing to keep away crawling pests and allowing easy earthing up of the stems.

Naturally brown and green tinted plastic bottles were initially rejected for cloches as blocking too much light however for rooting cuttings and for blanching leeks and celery these work very well -as I'm sure many others have found. But I reckon I was the first to have filled bottles with water and stood them around tenderer plants as sheltering thermal masses -and then to have used these like bricks to build an even bigger cloche. Most useful for melons and similar the clear-plastic-bottles-full-of-water cloche can be slowly dismantled and the water used in situ as the plants mature.

I'm sure secondary double glazing units have been recycled in many gardens for cold frames and for temporary shelter but not many combine them with a dead deep freezer to make a super insulated cold frame. It works best if the freezer is set into the ground at an angle facing the sun, or alternatively I've hacked the front out and set another glazing unit in there as well. The lids are best kept to cover the frame at night to keep in the heat but they are also useful in themselves as waterproof panels and work tops etc. (And as to dead deep freezers as water butts, fruit, root and potato stores and dead refrigerators for seed stores look at Kitchen Garden July 2000.)

And while I'm at the dump I always take the shelves out of cookers and fridges if I can't heave them home then I bend them over to make wire guards to keep the pigeons off my favourite or young and succulent plants. Likewise wire baskets help to keep these foes off. But old chip baskets are more useful for washing vegetables saving the soil going to the house.

A talk at a WI with a display of patchwork quilts gave me another idea. For years I had been saving up the aluminised plastic bags ground coffee comes in. Sure a few were used as flashing bird scarers and some were cut up for Christmas but I had accumulated a huge box of them. A wet afternoon and a stapler and I soon had a patchwork quilted space blanket to cover coldframes and tender plants with. Each pouched bag acts like a little thermos flask so the blanket works exceedingly well.

Keeping heat in also tends to keep light out so I use flat panel radiators as a path in my polytunnel. The white enamel reflects light back onto the plants and the solid yet movable path they make is, remarkably, not as slippery as you might imagine. Likewise when I noticed a photographer reflecting light up onto a fruit I started putting white sheets of hardboard, mirrors and, yes, dead deep freezer lids under grapes to help bring them on. One long thin but double radiator makes a nice seat when sat on a couple of half barrels but also is near impossible for snails to climb up onto because of the air gap almost the whole way round.

Old rusty bed heads have been traditional hedge-gap fillers in my parts for years. They were a bit naff to use for climbing supports but improved when painted with black bitumastic to make them uniform, then they became more respectable, even looking like quite expensive tackle. But my best buy was an entire load of defunct scaffolding poles and clamps, the cost of delivery was more than they were worth as scrap and as garden supports they are fantastic. A fifteen foot double row of tomatoes on a raised bed- bang bang in go two uprights, on go two clamps and a somewhat heavy pole and there it is. Tie up the toms to it and no worries about the canes bending or snapping with the crop.

An old bike or two has also been a great source of useful bits. The spokes are used for everything needing a stiff wire; they make S hooks for hanging things or putting on the ends of temporary ties, big pins to hold down sheets or nets or to pin nets on bushes or nets together. They are galvanised so last well and some modern ones are stainless so even better. The neatest trick I've done with them though is to bend them at each end into small, interconnected, loops to make a chain. Each link is eight inches (sorry I'm Imperial! do yours in metric) so one link gives me a good spacing for many crop plants. Half a link is easy to estimate for closer four inch planting. One and a half links gives me positions a foot apart and thus intervening points at six inches. Three links make two foot and six make four feet. Neatest of all in case I ever need it-five links make a metre to within an inch! Thus one chain with no actual markings to wear off gives me an indelible choice of enough planting distances for every occasion.

Bicycle wheels with the tyres on but preferably without spokes make cushioned training hoops for goblet training fruit. With the spokes in I use the wheels for blocking holes in the hen run fence but they look neater on top of a piece of scaffolding to grow runner beans up to. (Bike wheels on poles covered with scarlet runners stand like totems in many gardens in Norfolk). The tubes from the tyres make great elastic bands for tying trees to posts or for putting a steady but strong elastic pull on branches I'm trying to bend. I also put S hooks in the ends of cut tubes to make long elastic ties for temporarily holding back bushes or bramble canes.

Clothes pegs! Bought at the right place the sprung wooden ones are inexpensive and useful in many ways. They can be written on and used as labels which can be clipped anywhere, on a dead stub, on a pot or hanging from a tie. They are just the thing for holding netting in place but a bit weak to hold plastic sheeting in any wind! I also find them really useful for training climbers to wires and spindly seedlings to canes. They will hold a young bramble to it's wire and best of all you can use the pegs to first handle the brambles as you weave them in and then to fasten them.

And yes I do have a few car tyres here and there, mostly used as big planters and even an old WC used as a patio planter, though to be fair I've had it longer than most. For sheer ingenuity though I cannot forget seeing a fence in Cuba made from countless stripped down radio and tv chassis all carefully wired together.