Friday, 22 September 2017

grow your own herbs

I am half way through tidying up the herb bed for the winter.  The herb bed is at times practical, containing mint, parsley, chives, sage, and a small bay tree, all of which I did use in cooking at some point during the summer.  There is also a large amount of lemon verbena, which I have never found any practical use for, and a lot of origanum that I haven't cooked with either, being vague about its provenance or culinary properties.  The answer would be to try a bit, since I don't suppose it would kill me.  As I was tidying up I found a thyme plant that I'd forgotten about, looking amazingly healthy and bushy amidst the undergrowth, so I could start cooking with that. There is some lavender, purely decorative because I dislike the flavour of lavender in food, but no rosemary because that lives somewhere else.  There were originally several flavours of mint, but I have forgotten what they were, and according to Jekka McVicar on the radio if you grow more than one variety together and let their roots touch they will all taste the same anyway.  There is some borage, whose flowers I have still not frozen in ice cubes and used to decorate drinks. Everything runs or seeds itself dementedly, the parsley going to seed very quickly because the soil is really too dry for it, and the borage only a quarter of the size of the borage that sprang up next to the compost heap last year.  Mint is not supposed to like dry soil, but it survives pretty well, being a tough plant.

It is just the sort of herb bed that Christopher Lloyd would have disliked a lot, floppy, structureless, and messy for much of the summer, despite my best efforts with rusted iron tripods of clematis (not entirely successful) and a diagonal path of mixed paving slabs and cobbles. Insects adore it, though and once the origanum and lemon verbena and mint flower it is a mass of wild bees, honey bees, and butterflies.  It looks pretty too, in a floppy, messy way, but by now the parsley stems are yellow, the sage has the jagged spikes of spent flower stems jutting up among the new foliage, the origanum is brown, and the chives are being infiltrated by grass pretending to be chives.  Time for a big tidy, stems with seed heads to the bonfire, stems I can salvage without seed heads to the compost heap, grass seedlings and the latest crop of wild vetch and plantain in the council brown bin.

I planted a horseradish root out of a little nine centimetre pot a few years ago in a fit of enthusiasm after reading some book about eastern European cooking.  It was a stupid place to put horseradish, since the bed is mulched with gravel and not intended to be dug up, and how else do you harvest horseradish root?  The horseradish has shown what it thinks of the sand by staying sedately where it was planted and only slowly growing larger, when if it was happy it would be running yards in all directions.  If I were ever to manage to get the vegetable plot back into production I would move the horseradish there, planting it in a bottomless pot if I were feeling especially bullish about its prospects.  In the meantime we have not had horseradish and beetroot or any of the other things I was probably imagining when I bought it.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

autumn flowers

After a shaky start, September is settling into a gorgeous run of autumn days.  In the entrance garden the autumn flowering crocus are getting into their stride, yesterday some clumps of violet blue flowers opening wide in the sun, today more purplish spikes showing through the gravel. They are Crocus speciosus, initially raised in small pots and planted out in the ground in March 2015 when I could see what else was coming up.  I've heard grumbles from other gardeners in the past who tried autumn flowering crocus that didn't come to anything, but there are a great many species and varieties, as I only began to fully appreciate when I looked at some specialist bulb catalogues.  Some are rare and expensive.  I went for one that was relatively cheap, partly because I wanted a lot.  A group of three bulbs of something the size of a crocus doesn't honestly make much of an impact in an acre of wild and woolly garden.  But also varieties that survive and bulk up well tend to be cheaper, so price is often a good indication of reliability and longevity.  On my experience so far I would heartily recommend Crocus speciosus for light soil.  The small bulb expert whose garden I visited last autumn with the garden club had warm words for 'Zephyr', but the balance of advice I found online said that it would like a moister soil than I was planning to offer it.  Now the C. speciosus are out I am wishing I had bought some more.  I still could from Pottertons, but I was trying to be sensible about how many bulbs I could afford or would have time to plant.

In the back garden the marginally tender Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii' is putting on a great show.  It is a big plant, taller than I am, and from tentative looking patches of leaves in spring it spends the summer sending up long flowering stems, which by now are tipped with vivid pink heads of typically sage shaped flowers, fairly large.  Knowing that it was slightly tender I tried growing my first plant in a pot in the shelter of the conservatory, which it detested.  Let loose in a border it lets rip.  This plant has been in situ since March 2014, so has made it through three normal coastal Essex winters but not yet been exposed to a really cold one.  It is on fairly free draining soil on a slope, which probably helps.  I ought to have taken cuttings as an insurance policy, but so far I haven't, and the heated propagator is now full.

In the same bed is Kniphofia caulescens, which is still only thinking about flowering, its spikes of buds not yet showing any hint of colour.  When the flowers do open they will be red and yellow, which doesn't go particularly well with the last of the asters and the pink chrysanthemums, but by that stage of the autumn who is grumbling?  It is just nice still to have flowers coming out at all. The leaves look superficially more like a yucca, glaucous and held in clumps on short trunks.  The plant can become a bit tattered by the end of winter, but all it needs is for the dead brown outer leaves to be cleared away.  Mine was planted fifteen years ago since when it has survived two very cold winters and the long wet winter that followed, so despite looking distinctly exotic I think you can safely regard it as hardy, at least in the south of England.

There are more autumn flowers to talk about, but now it is gone half past eight and I should like my dinner.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

clearing the decks

I have started clearing away the pots of summer bedding.  Some still have a scattering of flowers, but many have finished so that the overall effect is slightly dismal.  I thought at first that if I removed the worst of them, like the Tithonia which have well and truly given up the ghost, then maybe I could group the others together and salvage something from the display for another couple of weeks, but extracting the shabbiest ones has simply exposed the failings of the others. The wet, dull August can't have helped, the fuschia gall mite certainly didn't, and I don't think Tithonia can be suited to pot culture.  I did fall for them after seeing them in Monty Don's garden on Gardeners' World, which is in Herefordshire with clay soil, a high water table, and moister air than coastal Essex.  Still, I tried, and have now got Tithonia envy out of my system.

The Nicotiana mutabilis are still going strong by the front door, or at least their lower leaves are rather puckered as if some sap sucking insect had attacked them, but there are great sprays of pink and white flowers up top.  They have spent all summer with an east facing aspect, so clearly thrive in less than full sun, which could be useful to know.  The Arctotis and Gazania have had full sun, and are still flowering.  They ought to in mid September, since that was when I was first smitten by Arctotis 'Flame' at the Hillier gardens.  But the dahlias are running out of oomph.  I should probably have fed them more, and next spring I shall repot them all and move this year's new plants into bigger pots.  They did jolly well, though, when you think that they arrived as rooted cuttings in April.  When I went to the garden club lecture on dahlia growing in February of last year I could not entirely believe the photograph of a flowering plant a couple of feet high that had come from a cutting taken that season, but they are incredibly vigorous when young.

I've also started to clear the tomato plants out of the greenhouse, picking the last of the ripe tomatoes plus those green fruit I think might ripen given a bit of luck and a whiff of ethylene, and consigning the vines to the compost heap.  As long as it remains dry I will delay starting to pack the pots of tender plants inside, as damp and fungal infections are a bigger risk than frost at this stage, but I should like to have the space freed up so that I can get them under cover fairly quickly when the weather turns.  The dahlias ought to wait outside until they've been touched by frost, which since the garden club talk I know is to stimulate the tubers to seal themselves off from the stems before cutting them down, since the hollow stems of dahlias can act as a route for infection.  It's a bit of a nuisance, as I should like to put the dahlia pots around the edge of the greenhouse, and the things with tender stems further away from the glass, in case the thermometer drops precipitously one winter's night.  And the salivas are tender, but need to go near the door to get as much air as possible on days when I open the greenhouse, because they are the most susceptible to botrytis, except that they mustn't go right by the little path I leave myself because their stems are brittle and break easily if knocked into.

Really I need a larger greenhouse.  Or perhaps fewer plants.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

hedge cutting and compost heaps

I have been trimming the side of the Eleagnus hedge facing the drive.  I had to reduce it severely a couple of years ago, otherwise we would never have had another oil delivery, and by the time I'd finished it was almost bald.  I was nervous about its prospects of recovery, but implacable in my desire for a continued supply of hot water, so the oil delivery won.  The hedge grew back lustily, and after being tipped back several times is getting quite dense on that side, so today's trim was a case of shortening the long new growths to keep it bushy and off the drive.  I will need to get the Henchman platform out to reach the top, and thought I'd leave that until after Saturday's post, so in the meantime it is ridiculously top heavy where recent gales have blown the new, high  whippy growth out sideways.

Then I shall have to steel my nerves to give the back a hard chop.  The hedge has got inexorably fatter and saggier over time, and is now taking up a good yard of the patio and daffodil lawn.  It is too tall as well, and shades the summer pots on the patio for too much of the day.  It is good practice if you have to take a hedge back hard to do one side at a time, and let the first recover before tackling the second.  Let us hope the Eleagnus can repeat its Lazarus trick for a second time.  If I had known twenty years ago what I know now I'd have planted hornbeam or yew.  Alas, I did not.

The compost heaps are already rather full, which is not ideal when there is so much to come off the garden in the next few months.  Hedge trimmings, the tomato plants, the dahlia tops, and then all the herbaceous material in the borders, plus the spent compost from the summer pots.  I eyed up the bins hopefully to see if there was any compost ready use on the borders.  If it is only going on as a mulch rather than being dug in then I reckon that it doesn't need to be one hundred per cent fine and crumbly, and some remaining stems and twiggy bits will be fine and give the worms something to do.  I decided the contents of the two oldest bins were worth bagging up to put on the long bed, if I picked the largest uncomposted pieces of stem and Santolina branches out.  The middle bin was not quite ready, but getting there, so it could have the contents of the tomato grow bags when I get round to emptying them, and the potting compost from the Tithonia and Cosmos pots.

That left three bays of garden waste mixed with litter from the hen house and kitchen vegetable waste that were nowhere near composted, so for now all fresh clippings and prunings can go on them.  I put the bits of Eleagnus on, except for the thickest stems.  Evergreen leaves are slow to rot, but they get there eventually.  The Eleagnus stems were individually too small and fiddly to fork on to the bonfire anyway, and I have quite enough bags of non-compostable waste waiting to go to the dump already.  There was another bag of long grass once the Systems Administrator had cut the sloping edge of the daffodil lawn, using an electric hedge trimmer, as it happens.  (I bought the electric trimmer for just that purpose, because it took such a dispiritingly long time to do it with shears, not to mention the time I strained my wrist cutting it in the second week of December and it wasn't right again until well into the New Year.  The electric hedge trimmer is not allowed anywhere near a hedge.  I do the Eleagnus with secateurs, to make sure each cut is made just above a leaf).

Raking out dead leaves and pulling up weeds from under the hedge filled another bag, and I'm not even half way along yet.  I began to feel rather dismayed about the bags.  Today's tally brings me back up to thirteen.  How many car loads to the dump can I manage before Love and Dear give way to questions about whether I am sure that I don't have a gardening round?

Monday, 18 September 2017

to the dump

I went to the dump this morning to get rid of some of the long grass we cut down in the back garden.  There were seventeen bags of it, which at the current rate of progress will need at least three trips.  I could only get five bags in the car today, but maybe as it wilts and packs down a bit I'll be able to squeeze an extra one in the boot.  They could go in the council brown bin, but at one collection per fortnight that would take three or four months, at the end of which I'd have a fresh collection of bags of other weedy waste I don't want to put on the compost heap.

The compaction machine for green waste at the dump must have broken.  You used to be able to empty your bags into a metal bin at ground level with a ram moving too and fro which pushed the contents away into the dark recesses of the skip.  That disappeared, and we are back to the old fashioned method of having to lug the bags up a flight of steps and empty them in at the top. Except that today I didn't have to climb the steps at all, because three different members of staff rushed to take my bags and empty them for me.

I was happy to have my bags emptied, even though I am perfectly capable of carrying five large bags stuffed with cut grass up a flight of steps and emptying them over the side of a skip.  If I had been a perpetually militant feminist I might have been offended by the implication that I was not able to carry them, or enraged at being cheerfully addressed by all three as Love and Dear.  As it happens I was not at all offended.  They were trying to be nice, and it's always good to appreciate attempts at niceness in others.  And although my back is fine at the moment and perfectly up to carrying bags, lots of people do have back and shoulder problems.  And I don't think that calling me Love or Dear was intended to imply that they considered me a lesser human being.  While lots of things do bring out the militant feminist in me, the cheerful staff at the Clacton dump are not one of them.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

rarer than pandas

Today we saw some of the rarest animals in the world, without travelling anywhere more exotic than the other side of Colchester.  The Suffolk Horse Society were holding their annual horse spectacular at the Marks Hall Estate.  There are fewer than five hundred Suffolk horses in existence, making them England's rarest horse and meaning they are rarer than giant pandas.  By lunchtime we must have seen close on five per cent of the global population.

You would recognise a Suffolk horse if you saw one.  They are barrel bodied, immensely strong beasts, always some shade of chestnut and with clean legs instead of the hairy, feathered legs of shire horses.  Their powerful build makes them look stocky, but this is an illusion.  The breed standard says they should be sixteen to seventeen hands high, and seen close up you realize they are truly massive.  And they are truly rare because, well, how many people nowadays are able to keep a seventeen hand horse bred for field work as a pet?

I only discovered about the event at Marks Hall because I happened to pick up a leaflet in the museum at Stowmarket.  It turns out to be an annual get together, though this was the first time it had been held in Essex instead of Suffolk.  The leaflet said Gates open at ten, and the Systems Administrator was reluctant to believe there would be any point in arriving on the dot, so we ambled up at a quarter past, and it was just as well we did, because judging for the supreme champion was already well underway.  They were all very patient about being alternately paraded up and down and made to stand about, including a mare with a foal at foot (sixteen weeks and already massive).  Then there was a class for ridden Suffolks, part of the strategy to save the breed from extinction since more people might be willing to keep a Suffolk if they thought they could ride it.  The thunder of hooves as a Suffolk passes at even a slow canter is quite something. We saw Suffolks pulling vintage outfits and agricultural machinery and helping load logs on to a cart, and standing politely while complete strangers stroked their noses, and finally the young handlers' class in which they were led around the ring by children the oldest of whom was fourteen and the youngest of whom looked about ten.

The Suffolk Horse Society and all the owners taking part must have massive trust in their horses, to have them cantering in a tight circle no more than twenty feet from spectators separated from them only by a row of angle irons and some green plastic, hauling a traditional hay wagon downhill without brakes, being led about by small children, and petted by complete strangers.  If one had careered out of the ring it could have done severe damage, and a single kick could kill you, but they all behaved impeccably.  It was the first show for one of the horses in the ridden class, who ended up standing in the middle of the ring to get used to the whole thing while the others trotted around him, but overall they behaved impeccably.  I stroked the muzzle of the logging horse, and it was like velvet.  He was a very laid back creature, lending his huge weight to haul each log up the skids on to the cart at a word from his handler, and relaxed as anything as soon as he'd finished.

There were lots of happy, well behaved dogs as well, and while we were there we took a turn around the walled garden, which is maturing beautifully since being laid out in a cutting edge design within the old walls at the turn of the millennium, while having managed to become very much of its era and distinctly vintage in less than twenty years.  It was a very nice day out.  I worry about the long term future of the horses, though.  They don't truly look very comfortable to ride, being so broad, and will there be enough horse logging, funeral corteges and heritage museum gigs to go round?  Five hundred is really not very many

Saturday, 16 September 2017

a mystery solved

The mystery of the Marie Celeste pottery was solved when I got a rather apologetic email from them saying that they had just discovered their reply to my email about post and packing costs was still in their Draft folder, and did I still want the pots?  After a little flurry of email courtesies confirming that yes, I did still want them, although none are ready to send out at the moment, I learnt that moreover if you ring while they are on the phone and leave a message it gets put on a Sky answering machine where they can't retrieve it.  Despite all this they are ridiculously busy. Unfortunately the new batch of pots won't be dry enough to fire for another three or four weeks by which time it will be too late to repot the auriculas this year.

My own email has a habit of saying there is still a message in the Draft folder even after I've pressed Send, and I am quite neurotic about checking whether there is really a Draft message there, or whether the message I thought I'd sent is in the Sent folder and the so-called Draft will vanish when I refresh the page.  In the light of the auricula pots experience this now seems not so much neurotic as sensible.

The pottery liked my idea of asking the specialist auricula nurseries if they would put links on their websites to the pottery, since new handmade auricula pots are so hard to find.  I'd have thought it was a blindingly obvious suggestion.  I eventually stumbled across them after a long internet search, but they weren't easy to find.  Now I know their name I have noticed one reference to them in a magazine article about an Arne Maynard garden mentioning that the pots were from Littlethorpe, but they don't advertise in any of the national magazines.  There again, if they are already ridiculously busy why should they?

I spent most of the day weeding up by the wildlife pond, and was rather worried to see that that the water level had dropped right down.  The pond has the shallow sloping beach on one side that you are supposed to create for wildlife ponds, so that things can creep and hop in and out, so it always tends to dry out in summer because the surface area is large relative to the volume, but after the wet summer we've had I wouldn't expect it to be that low.  I am horribly afraid it must have a leak.

I put syrup on the bees as well.  The book says to do it in the first week of September, so I am only a week late.  I have been meaning to do it since last Monday.