Wednesday, 22 November 2017

raking leaves

I spent a couple of hours this morning raking up leaves in the back garden.  There are two reasons to collect leaves.  One is that they are going to cause damage if they stay where they are, dead smothered patches in the lawn and rotted crowns among the dormant perennials in the borders.  The other reason to rake up leaves is that you want them to make leaf compost.

My raking belongs largely in the second category, because the garden is so exposed that if I don't get around to collecting the leaves they manage to disappear by themselves over the course of a few gales.  Leaf mould is fantastic stuff, though, so I try to round them up while I can and put them in a heap to rot down.  They only need a bit of netting round them to stop the heap drifting, but take a long time to decay completely, so I have two heaps next to each other, a bigger enclosure that I try to fill each autumn and then top up a couple of times as the leaves pack down, and a smaller enclosure into which I shovel the year-old contents of the bigger bin at this time of year before I refill it.

It is a frustratingly low yielding process, as what seems like several cubic metres of leaves eventually decomposes into barely more than two or three barrow loads of compost.  It is lovely compost.  I spread it reverently on the bed along the ditch and tell myself that the snowdrops and cyclamen will love it, though when I run out they have to make do with spent mushroom compost.

There were yellow warnings in place for high winds for today and tomorrow, so I thought I would at least salvage the leaves that were still lying neatly in a pool under the 'Tai-haku' before they were scattered all over the back lawn.  The wild gean has almost finished shedding, but its leaves have mostly blown straight into the wood, where they will do the blubells good but are no use to me.  The little oak tree by the daffodil lawn is generally a good source, but is still hanging on to its leaves, unless tonight's gale brings them down.  The big chestnut trees along the side of the wood have dropped about half their leaves so far, which were lying temptingly in the meadow.  By mid morning I had to go out, so I suggested hopefully to the Systems Administrator that he might like to rake some leaves to help fill the leaf bin, but the SA did not look convinced.  I hope they don't all blow away before I can get back to them.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

back on the road

Today, as the Systems Administrator was standing in the hall, he saw a hare go lolloping across the front garden.  It did not appear to be in any great hurry or to be running away.  Initially the SA took it for a munjac from its size, before paying attention and seeing that it had long ears and a hare's gait.  I saw one in the lane a year or two back, around dusk, but never in the garden, let alone right by the house.  Hares are a menace in very cold weather because they will ring and kill trees, but I rather like the idea of the odd one passing through.  They are unmistakably different to rabbits, much longer legs, a more purposeful, loping run, and generally wilder aspect.

The level of coolant in my car had not dropped since the SA topped it up.  The handbook said that on no account was I supposed to just top it up, and that I should take it to a specialist garage immediately to have the coolant chemically rebalanced and the reason why the car lost coolant in the first place identified.  The SA said that the handbook was written by the manufacturers who had a vested interest in sending business to Skoda dealerships, that the coolant had fallen only just under the minimum level when it triggered the alarm, and that in the first instance it was fine to top it up and see if the level fell again and if so how quickly.  Certainly when we were young we used to fill our car radiators without a second thought.  I remember coming back from the vet in Ipswich with one of the previous cats in a basket and having to stop in the outskirts at a convenience store to buy an emergency bottle of mineral water because the engine was over-heating.  The car, and the cat, both lived to a ripe old age.

The SA announced that as a precaution he would come with me on a trip to the dump to test the car.  We set off with two emergency bottles of water, and the SA promising to take over and nurse the car home if anything happened, like steam coming out of the bonnet.  Nothing did happen, and we went to the dump, and the useful garden centre to buy chicken food and gardening gloves, and the other useful garden centre to buy locally made beeswax hand cream which the first garden centre declines to stock.  At th end of it the coolant was at the same level as it had been at the start, though I am still suspicious as to why the level dropped, when it never has before.

In the afternoon the plants arrived from the nursery in Dorset,  called (unsurprisingly) Dorset Perennials.  It was the second time I'd used them, which is always an encouraging sign.  I only placed the order on Sunday morning, and they sent everything I'd asked for (assuming that everything is correctly labelled, but their last lot of plants were, unlike the wretched bog primulas), and it arrived undamaged within the hour's time slot that their courier emailed me this morning.  They accept PayPal, give free delivery on orders of £39 or more, and do not sent out pots with weeds in them.  All of this puts them considerably ahead of several of the other mail order suppliers I've tried.  Their list is not the longest, but they offer good forms of what they grow, and you could furnish a very respectable border from them without looking any further.

Monday, 20 November 2017

cats sleeping in inconvenient places

I had business in Colchester this morning.  When I looked at the state of my hands even after taking a shower and washing my hair I thought that perhaps they were not very nice to take into a meeting with a solicitor.  The appointment was not until half past ten, so I fished the washing out of the accumulated pile that was waiting to be done by hand.  The friction of rubbing all that wool and a dose of Stergene often works wonders for dislodging the grime that other soaps cannot reach.

I did the dark colours together first, and when I looked round Mr Cool had made himself comfortable on the kitchen table in the laundry basket.  He had the expression of a cat that could get used to sleeping on a bed of silk and linen-and-cotton mix, and looked hurt when I removed him, before hopping back in.  The laundry basket became his new favourite place for the rest of the morning, even without the benefit of my best vest and ancient but still good sweater.  He was still there when I returned home in the early afternoon, rolling over to show me his tummy and looking suddenly kittenish when I came in.  Apparently he lay in the laundry basket all through the Systems Administrator's lunch, peeping coyly through the side and watching as the SA ate.

Once Mr Cool had come out of the basket to eat his tea I wiped the fine layer of hairs out of the bottom and put it away in the laundry.  I felt rather mean confiscating his new toy, but we really cannot live with a plastic basket containing a large cat permanently in the middle of the kitchen table.

Mr Cool and Mr Fidget do not share Our Ginger's and Mr Fluffy's taste for pouring themselves into impossibly small and square boxes.  For a thorough analysis of that phenomenon may I refer you to ig Nobel Prize winner M A Fardin's paper On the rheology of cats.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

a fine cold day

This morning, when I pulled up the blind in the bathroom to have a look at the day, there was a frost.  Last night must have been crucially colder or more still than the one before.  I congratulated myself that I had remembered to shut the greenhouse and conservatory doors, and settled down after breakfast to a pleasant compare-and-contrast session with the Chatto Gardens and Dorset Perennials websites, looking at who listed what, who had what in stock, and who was cheaper.  Five of a particularly drought tolerant form of Epimedium, some non-running comfrey and some spotted leaf arums are now on their way from Dorset, and I have my eye on a few shade tolerant plants from Chatto.

Then I cleaned the chickens' roosting board, which needed doing.  The contents were a welcome addition to the piles of shredded Eleagnus leaves, of which I still have an awful lot of bags left to go on the compost heaps.  After the frosty start it had turned into the best sort of November weather, the sun brilliant but so low in the sky that the shadows were interesting.  A light sheen of ice on the pots of tulip bulbs by the greenhouse warned me that it was not planting weather, however, and I spent the rest of the morning cutting down the dahlias in pots and moving the pots into the greenhouse.  They yielded two big buckets of stems, which made a useful layer on the compost heaps so that I could empty one more bag of the apparently infinite supply of hedge trimmings on top, and the pots took up almost all the remaining floor space in the greenhouse.

I managed to fit in the pots of violas, which overwintered outside last year with mixed results, and that was it.  The greenhouse is full.  In fact it is over-full, since several trays of nine inch pots are currently resting on top of the dahlia pots, which is going to be a nuisance when I need to water the nine inch pots given the dahlias need to be kept dry, and will not be viable at all once the dahlias start back into growth.  I am looking on it as a reminder that I need to press on weeding the meadow to make space to plant out the Gaillardia, and do some renovations in the long bed in the front garden which largely missed out last spring as time ran out.

The ground had thawed by lunchtime, and in the afternoon I weeded and spread Strulch at the top of the sloping bed in the back garden, where I cleared the dead sea buckthorns and replanted the area back in the summer.  The new plants at the top end have made massive growth since being released in August from their plastic pots.  A pink flowered kind of prostrate mallow, Malvum lateritum, which I got at the garden club plant sale and which sat in its pot outside the greenhouse for three months doing nothing at all has leaped into life.  Dosing it for the root aphid I found it was suffering from when I came to plant it out may have played a part in its transformation, but a Sphaeralcea munroana that did not have root aphid has been similarly transformed, and some elderly seed raised specimens of Lepechinia hastata, a slightly tender, sage like species with deep pink flowers that had been languishing for ages in the greenhouse have sprung back into active growth.  The oriental poppy 'Royal Wedding' planted out as part of this scheme must be ten times the size of the rest of the batch that are still in their pots on the concrete, while the Diascia personata brought home as a cutting from last year's garden club propagating evening, and that had got horribly potbound before I found somewhere in the garden to put it, is making a burgeoning clump with lots of fine, fat new shoots at the base.

Several of the plants listed in the last paragraph are only doubtfully hardy.  Let us hope we don't have a hard winter.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

more weeding and clearing

To my surprise there was no frost on the grass this morning.  Indeed, by eleven I spotted one industrious honeybee foraging on the Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'.  Unfortunately I missed the first part of this unexpected good fortune as I needed to go to the supermarket, where I experienced a moment of anxiety after finishing my shopping when I couldn't see my car where I knew I'd left it, before remembering that I was looking for the Systems Administrator's silver Skoda and not a red one.  I did find it difficult to believe that anybody would have stolen my car in broad daylight from the Waitrose car park.  It is fairly battered, first registered in March 2006, and is so entry level that when I bought it, the salesman pointed out the plastic clip inside the windscreen for holding car park tickets, not in a spirit of irony but because there were no other features to highlight.

With what remained of the day I bashed on clearing the weeds around the wildlife pond.  There are an awful lot of goose grass seedlings, which is a nuisance since it means there is going to go on being a lot of goose grass coming up every year for the foreseeable future.  Come retreat to the easy-to-manage retirement bungalow or death, whichever happens sooner, I am pretty sure that goose grass will still be coming up.

I chopped at the nettle and bramble roots with my pick axe and hauled lustily, only remembering late in the afternoon that I'd forgotten to take my wedding ring off.  Fortunately I had not bent it again.  By the time it got dark I'd filled two old Strulch bags with bits of nettle and sprays of burdock seeds, and the Systems Administrator's small garden trailer with bits of bramble.  At least the docks are not resprouting too badly.  I read somewhere that as long as you take off the top few inches of root they will not shoot again from the buried tip, unlike dandelions, and it seems to be true.  I dug out a lot of docks out in the spring and they have mostly not grown back.

I have got to plant something on the cleared earth, though.  I spread the existing primroses around a bit, which will help, but I need ground cover, otherwise I am locked into an endless Sisyphean  cycle of weeding every winter, only to see the weeds grow back each summer.  The Beth Chatto and Dorset Perennials websites beckon.

Friday, 17 November 2017


A light frost was glittering on the grass when I pulled the bathroom blind up this morning, and I was glad that the plumber had come yesterday to fit the new radiator.  The drizzle that set in yesterday afternoon and was barely gone by the time I came out of my talk had been displaced by what newspapers love to call a blast of arctic air, though it was a very quiet blast.  The front garden looked lovely in the low rays of the early morning sun, dew and tiny ice crystals shimmering in the clear air.  November can be a very beautiful month, when it is not raining or foggy.

The trouble with frost is that the effective gardening day gets even shorter.  I used the enforced hiatus to catch up with indoor jobs like bottling some more honey and sorting out the invoice of my new friend, the plumber, but the ground wasn't in a fit state to be weeded until near on half past eleven, and by half past three it was getting dark.  At least by this stage of the winter the days are only getting shorter very slowly, and with less than five weeks to go to the solstice dusk is within twenty minutes of being as early as it's going to be.  The days are so short, though.  The first spring bulbs will be coming up within a couple of months, and in three or four months the weeds will be growing again.

I chopped down nettles along the side of the wood and stuffed them into old Strulch bags to take to the dump, along with their yellow roots which I dug out with the pick axe.  I carefully dismantled the skeletal remains of several statuesque burdocks, and put their branching, seed-laden tops in sections into the bags as well.  Burdock is a fine and handsome plant, with huge basal leaves and truly magnificent seed heads, but their giant burrs are a menace anywhere near a long haired cat like Mr Fluffy.  My immediate aim is to clear the ground around the wildlife pond so that I can finish planting my budget hellebores, a stray Sarcococca that's been sitting around in its pot all summer, and maybe the tray of variegated box cuttings.  Then I'll have to see how far I get.  I've got pots of seed raised Solidago and Gaillardia waiting to go in the meadow, if only I could clear the space for them.

Last night's frost has properly blackened the dahlia tops, so I now feel free to chop them down in text book fashion.  That could be a job for the morning.  There was a sky full of stars tonight, so there will be another frost tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

one step forward, one step back

At eight-thirty on the dot a white van drew up outside the front door.  It was the plumber.  A couple of weeks ago the first frost of the year had focused my mind on the fact that the radiator in my bathroom was so rusty it had had to be turned off, as the odd drip had developed into a flow.  I'd managed over the summer by dint of spreading my bath towel out on the bed to dry each morning, but I drew the line at going through the winter with no heating in the bathroom.  The radiator in what estate agents would call the family bathroom, although unless we have guests it is the Systems Administrator's bathroom, was still at the slow drip stage, but the SA said that if we were having one done we might as well get them both replaced at the same time.

I had a go at finding somebody to fix the problem in the summer, asking our friendly boiler repair man to quote when he came to do the boiler's annual service.  It said on his business card that he also did general plumbing, but after weeks when nothing happened he admitted that actually he did not have time to do the radiators.  I ended up ringing somebody who bothered to advertise in the parish magazine, knowing nothing about him beyond the fact that he possessed the gumption to advertise and had a genuine local landline number.  Asking friends for personal recommendations for builders is never as helpful as you think it ought to be.  Generally they have not employed that sort of specialist directly, or else their builder is on the verge of retirement and only does odd bits of work for people he already knows or is fully booked until the middle of next year or otherwise unavailable, or was so ghastly they would never admit them over the threshold again.

Our nominated new plumber came round to quote promptly, and supplied a very reasonable quotation to do the job practically the following week, and was cheerful, and had a small, silent teenage boy in tow who I guess was his son learning how to be a plumber.  He measured the radiators so fast I was amazed he could be confident about the answer, and assured me there would be no problem in getting replacements that would fit the existing plumbing exactly.  He was true to his word.  In under an hour and a half we had two new radiators and not a tile out of place.  They are warm.  It is wonderful.  I am waiting for any of my friends and acquaintances who live locally to mention that they need a plumber so that I can leap forward and recommend mine.

The SA and I tried to go out once the plumber had finished, only a red warning light flashed on the dashboard of my car.  I felt mildly crushed that no sooner had I got the radiator problem fixed when something else went wrong.  We had to hurriedly switch to the Systems Administrator's car and the SA promised to look into the warning light as soon as he had a moment.  In the meantime I am still driving his car, which is almost the same as mine but has a subtly different gear ratios and gearbox, so that on the way to my emergency substitute speaker woodland charity talk I was half the time dawdling on to roundabouts more sluggishly than I'd have liked, and the other half of the time pulling away from junctions with an inadvertent squeal of tyres.  The WI liked the talk, fortunately, and one sweet old  lady with a mischievous face came up to me afterwards and told me she'd enjoyed it much more than if it had been the scheduled talk about nutrition.  I should think so too.  Who wants to worry about nutrition in the run up to Christmas?  The time to agonize about that is in January.