Thursday, 27 July 2017

the mystery of the vanishing mr cool

Mr Cool was not in for his breakfast this morning.  Initially I was not too fussed, since he likes to go out and normally shows up by nine or half past.  When he had not come in by ten I walked up the side of the wood calling for him, and round the back garden, but he didn't appear.  I had to go out soon after midday for an afternoon woodland charity talk, and as I set off there was still no sign of him.

I fretted about him all the way up the A12, then managed to stop thinking about him once I was set up in the hall, ready to go.  Today's group was a U3A with a proper sound system including big speakers on stands, a lapel microphone that didn't keep cutting out or depend on my holding my head in exactly the right position at all times, and a cheerful man who knew how it all worked. Since the first part of the talk is accompanied by actual twigs, and I tend to move about and use my hands to illustrate points while lecturing, it is a lot easier not to be rooted to a microphone stand or desperately concentrating on holding the microphone the correct distance from my chin with one hand while operating the projector or rifling through a basket of twigs with the other. The only technical issue today was that the hall's big screen was above the stage, and even with maximum tilt on my projector table and a magazine wedged under the projector's front feet the image still fell short of the top of the screen, and I had to raid my pile of leaflets for extra packing.

The U3A seemed to enjoy the talk, or at they stayed awake and some of them were smiling and some came up afterwards to say that they had enjoyed it.  I'd give this afternoon's effort an alpha minus, whereas I rated the last one beta double plus.  It is very hard to tell, though, like trying to say how you did after an exam.  There have been times when the audience have sat through a talk so solemnly and stiffly I've been amazed to get a call a year or two later inviting me back, but other times when people seemed to love the talk on the day then I never heard from any of them again.

As I packed up my things I remembered that Mr Cool had not been seen since about ten last night. I drove back up the A12 telling myself that when I got home the Systems Administrator would greet me with the news that Mr Cool was back, but Mr Cool was not back and it was raining.  The SA had been up the side of the wood and through the wood calling him before the rain, to no avail.  I changed into my gardening clothes to start looking for Mr Cool, and Mr Cool appeared, soaking wet.  He graciously consented to be clasped to my bosom while water soaked into my t shirt, then he ate some tea, or perhaps it was a late lunch or breakfast, and then he went to sleep in my chair in the study.

Today was the longest we have gone so far without sight of him.  Even when he isn't hungry he pops in after we've got up to say hello, and he generally wants lunch.  There were strange people here this afternoon, first of all some friends kindly bringing us straw bales for the chicken run, and then our cheerful local boiler specialist to do the annual service and measure up to replace the heated towel rails, which are leaking.  Mr Cool hates strange people, so perhaps once they started to turn up he remained out of sight until they had gone and it started to rain.  That doesn't explain why he ignored us calling for him earlier, when yesterday he was enormously friendly, but that's cats for you.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

a decision

This morning, as I headed off to the railway gravel to plant out some more of the stash of plants in pots by the greenhouse, an idea struck me with great clarity, and I realized that I should remove the large semi prostrate juniper at the end of the dahlia bed.  It is a specimen of Juniperus x pfizeriana 'Pfitzeriana Aurea', a name that does not exactly trip off the tongue, and was planted nearly twenty years ago, since when it has overwhelmed two other, lesser prostrate junipers, and changed its name from the slightly more manageable Juniperus x media.

You would probably recognize it if you saw one, even though you might not know its name, for it is a classic landscaping plant of the 1970s, and none the worse for that.  Willing to live in miserable soil, or shade, and gently spreading to fill odd shaped gaps or corners with a weed proof, impenetrable, evergreen cover, it used to be one of the plants that landscape architects reached for when they had an awkward space to fill.  It will tolerate regular trimming, but woe betide you if you cut hard into old wood behind the current growth.  It will not reshoot, and you will be left looking at the stumps.

My regular trimming has not been regular enough, so that after two decades the juniper has spread to occupy the end of the dahlia bed and almost a car's length of parking on the drive, as well as creeping nearly mid way across the concrete so blocking half of the overflow parking area, and has advanced towards the long bed until there is only a pinched, eighteen inch path left between them.  I have been fiddling around trying to reduce it to improve access to the concrete and the railway, but the real solution is to chop it all out.  Suddenly we would regain a space as large as some small front gardens.

Most of it would not be space for new planting, just parking, but it would still be welcome, and I would want to put something in its place to mark the end of the dahlia bed.  For a few hours I toyed with the idea of a dwarf pine, not too tiny or slow growing but that wouldn't get too large.  I love pines, and all those we've tried so far have done extremely well in the sand.  A form of the native Pinus sylvestris whose new growth emerged pale yellow, perhaps, or a dark, gnarled pine like the ones seen in some recent Chelsea gardens.  But neither of these felt right, and my budget would not stretch to the sort of pines seen at Chelsea, and how long would I have to wait for one to reach that size?  No, the answer, it turned out, was another yew, to echo the two topiary domes topped with cake stands in the long bed.  I would not make another cake stand, but perhaps a spiral, or a sort of Cleopatra's needle obelisk.

Yew is by no means instant, but it will make getting on for eighteen inches annual growth when young if fed and watered, and it likes good drainage.  In damp ground it is vulnerable to phytophthora, but in sand it is pretty bullet proof.  There is not, so far and touching wood, a yew blight to go with box blight.

I ran the idea past the Systems Administrator, who turned out to be delighted at the prospect of the juniper going, so pleased in fact that I thought the SA could always have asked before.  I suppose it is part of our modus vivendi that my plants are allowed to do their thing without criticism in case I should dearly love them, the main exception being when they block the signal to the Sky dish.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

an unwelcome discovery

I finished moving the Tithonia on into bigger containers, so they are now in 27cm diameter pots and we shall see how that works.  They had made a lot of roots in their old pots, and I am coming to the view that they are better with plenty of space, plenty of water, and probably plenty of food.  In contrast one of the Zinnia 'Queen Red Lime' had collapsed over the past few days, and I'm pretty sure that was because it got too wet, from the spells of very heavy rain as much as from my over watering it.  Luckily I had one plant left in the greenhouse, still in its two litre plastic pot, so I was able to substitute that for the dying one.  It looks as though with Zinnia you want to keep the pot on the small side, and try to keep them from getting soggy.

I potted on the Nicotiana mutablis by the front door, all except one because I ran out of the right size pots, and then I made a very unwelcome discovery about the fuchsias.  I have been fretting since mid spring when they came back into growth that most were not bushing up as well as I'd like.  They produced leaves, and some flowers, but not many new shoots, and as the summer went on the rate of production of leaves and flowers started to tail off instead of gaining momentum.  I wondered if I had fed them too little, or too much, or with the wrong kind of food and they didn't like Vitax Q4, or if they had been too wet on average, or allowed to get too dry between waterings in the hot weather.

This afternoon as I was picking off the fallen flowers and snipping off the fruits from those that set berries I noticed a distorted shoot tip.  Peering over the top of my safety spectacles, my nose pressed up close to the foliage so that I could see, I found more misshapen growth, stems fattened and flattened, leaves stunted, flower buds distorted.  I went and checked the symptoms on the internet, but I was already pretty sure what I'd got, fuchsia gall mite.  It is a relatively new pest in the UK.  The RHS magazine had warned that enquiries about it were rocketing up their league table of most asked about pests and diseases, so I suppose that like Hemerocallis gall midge it was only a matter of time before it found its way here.

I felt quite cast down anyway, a sort of Vissi d'arte gardening moment.  Here I am trying to mind my own business and remain mostly harmless, diligently concocting cheese puddings out of stale bread and cheese to avoid wasting them, still wearing t-shirts that are a quarter of a century old because they have not actually dropped to bits yet, solemnly sorting out the recycling every week, and taking all my holidays in the UK instead of flying.  Why does the ungrateful earth have to unleash a debilitating foreign fuchsia pest upon my garden when I have been decorating my particular altar with flowers with sincere faith?

It is a tiny, tiny mite, resistant to any pesticide available to amateurs, and in any case since fuchsia flowers are attractive to bees you wouldn't want the whole plant laced with pesticide.  I threw out the two worst affected small plants, snipped off every dodgy looking shoot I could see on the others, and sprayed them all with an organic soap based treatment.  The soap will kill those mites it envelops by physical smothering, but they are so small and tucked away in the crevices of the plants that it won't touch all of them.  All I can do is keep trimming out visible damage and soap spraying at frequent intervals, and see if I can get on top of the problem.  In the autumn I shall cut all the fuchsias down very hard so that I get rid of most of the infected material, and hope that they shoot back from ground level in the spring.  Then I had better get going at once with soap spray, and if there are still mites then bin the fuchsias.  That would be a great shame, as I am very fond of fuchsias and had just started to build up a little collection.  It is sheer chance that I didn't buy more recently.  I was all set to put in another order with Other Fellow Fuchsias when the variety I particularly wanted went out of stock and I decided to leave it for the time being.

On a happier note, the replacements arrived for the five primula that should have been orange but all flowered purple.  As the driver hunted for the right box in the back of his van he said that the garden was lovely, he really liked the way we'd done it though it must be a lot of work.  He sounded as though he meant it, and I was deeply touched.  Somehow I hadn't expected a young man driving a white van to be interested.

Monday, 24 July 2017

potting on

I spent the day potting on various plants raised from seed, that were gently grinding to a halt in their trays or existing small pots.  A dark red Gaillardia, Gaura, some white poppies, a few sad foxgloves, two varieties of wallflowers, sweet williams, and another species of long stemmed Dianthus for the gravel since the Dianthus carthusianorum worked so well.  I'm pleased I finally remembered to sow some wallflowers at the right time, which is summer.  There are so many other things to do in June that it's easy to forget about seeds, but early summer is the time to sow biennials.

I am very fond of wallflowers.  I like the scent, the dusky colours, and the whole old-fashioned vibe.  A couple of years ago I bought some bare root wallflowers by mail order, but they failed to make very satisfactory plants, remaining rather spindly.  It was as if they had never got over the indignity of being posted.  I don't understand why, when almost every other bedding plant under the sun is sold in a container, the tradition of bare root wallflowers persists.  I read somewhere that wallflowers were not suitable for selling in pots as young plants because their rootballs didn't hold together, but the ones I potted on this afternoon had perfectly normal looking roots.  They held together in the shape of their divided tray without seeming congested, and I have every hope they will do the same in small pots until the autumn when I can plant them in some of the containers currently in use for summer bedding.  Seed company Thompson and Morgan advise on their website that biennials are usually sown in a nursery bed where they can grow undisturbed until ready for transplanting, and I wonder why?  How many gardens nowadays have a nursery bed? If my young potted wallflower plants suddenly keel over, or gradually dwindle to nothing before the autumn, then I'll know that maybe I should have found a nursery bed for them, but as it is I fail to see why they can't be grown in little pots, like the young cabbage plants garden sold in garden centres and DIY stores to home vegetable growers.

Members of the cabbage family, including wallflowers, can suffer from club root, so one advantage of growing your own from seed instead of buying bare root plants is knowing that you are definitely not introducing club root to the garden.  You would hope that no reputable mail order company would allow such a thing to happen, but you never know.  And seed raised plants are cheaper, when a packet of seed costs a couple of pounds if it doesn't come free with a gardening magazine, while bare root mail order plants are forty or fifty pence each, and demand to be planted as soon as they arrive.

The Arctotis that got held up in the post and had gone yellow and mouldy by the time they arrived have finally filled their plastic nine centimetre pots with enough roots for me to be willing to move them on into five inch terracotta pots and stand them outside.  Hayloft did refund me for one pack, which seemed about fair since all the plants survived in the end and I probably shouldn't expect to get two packs entirely for free.  Let's hope that after all the trouble with them they survive the winter in the greenhouse, so that I get a full season out of them next year.  In principle they should, indeed in theory I can multiply them by taking cuttings.

As I went to buy more potting compost and some larger pots for the Tithonia, I stopped at the Chatto gardens to buy a dark leaved, tiny flowered form of verbena, Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora 'Bampton'.  It is fairly new introduction, though I have been eyeing them up covetously for a year or two and am going to try one in a pot with the other purple and dark red flowers.  The Chatto gardens describe it as a particularly fine form, in contrast to other inferior versions which have been grown from seed, leaving me thinking that I ought to be able to take some sort of cuttings from that as well.  I can feel a Google search for 'Verbena officinalis propagation' coming on.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

spud day

Today was the garden club Spud Day, when we took our competition potatoes to be weighed.  The tubers were dished out at the start of the year, one each for everyone wanting to take part, to be grown in a builders' bucket, only I did not know the bit in the rules about it being a literal bucket, having not taken part before, and was growing mine in a large black pot left over from buying some tree or shrub.  And I didn't get my tuber until March, since I missed the February meeting after poking myself in the eye the day before, and even then it spent several days sitting on the hall table while I kept forgetting to plant it.  One way and another I was not optimistic about my chances in the potato competition, but it's the taking part that counts, and people told me that there was always a lovely tea.

The Programme Secretary who hosts the Spud Day in her garden said it didn't matter this time about the bucket, since I hadn't known, and advised me not to keep the potato in the greenhouse as it would get too hot.  I ejected it from the greenhouse, and the top leaves were nipped by a late frost.  I became marginally less optimistic than I was before.  The potato grew some more leaves before the foliage started to yellow, and by early July the leaves had well and truly died down.  I stopped watering it, having visions of my competition entry rotting unseen beneath the compost, but I did not think that having finished growing three weeks before judging put me in a favourable position.

In the Programme Secretary's garden volunteers were tipping the potatoes out of their buckets on to a tarpaulin and painstakingly raking with their fingers through the compost to find every last tuber, however tiny, because as the chap disinterring my pot told me as he winkled out another marble sized potato, it could come down to the last half ounce and every potato counted.

Actually I was quite pleasantly surprised at how many potatoes there were in the pot, at least a couple of meals' worth of ones large enough to be worth cooking, plus a scattering of tinies.  I wasn't expecting to win, but it would have been embarrassing if there had still been just one potato.  They weighed in at a moderately respectable two pounds three ounces, behind my friend from my Writtle who managed two pounds and six ounces, but quite a few buckets held only just over the one pound mark, and a few didn't make that.  The winner came in at over three.

I think the potato competition goes to show that gardening skills are largely transferable, since the winner is a very keen gardener but had never grown a potato in a bucket before.  Her specialist interest is snowdrops, which are not a great deal like potatoes.  When asked how she did it she said she had added a little fertiliser to the compost at the start but no more since, and that she had watered the potato twice every day.  Twice.  Morning and evening.  That's dedication for you. In second place was last year's winner, who clearly has a honed technique.

I showed my pot of potatoes to the Systems Administrator when I got home, with the request that we eat the larger ones.  The SA looked mildly surprised, having obviously been infected with my pessimism about the chances of there being an actual crop of potatoes in the pot, and promised that yes, of course we could cook some of them, but could I not drop earth on the hall floor.

The main reason I grew my potato in a flowerpot was that I was too mean to drill holes in the bottom and spoil a perfectly good bucket, but my competitive potato growing juices are rising now I have had a taste of it and seen what can be done.  I might enter again next year with a real, approved bucket, and if I could manage not to be ill and miss the first two meetings I could get the potato off to an earlier start, chitting it properly and everything.  Perhaps I might remember to put the bucket in the greenhouse on nights when there was a risk of frost, and if I were more diligent about watering it in exceptionally hot spells the potato might keep growing for longer.  It's a whole new area of horticulture to explore.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

mobile issues

I read in the paper about a mobile app that would let you make lists that you could update from your phone or tablet and share with your nearest and dearest, so that when you thought of something needing doing, like Buy more cornflakes, or Book cats into vet for vaccinations, you could add it to the list at that moment, and whoever next happened to be in a suitable shop could buy the necessaries instead of getting home and being told, Oh if I'd known you were going to the supermarket  I'd have asked you to buy cornflakes.  For a moment it almost seemed like a good idea, but the Systems Administrator objected that then he would have to take his phone with him to the shops.

Our current system is lower tech.  On my desk is a small box of old pages torn from my page-a-day Zen desk calendar, and we pin one to the board in the hall, with a pencil propped on top.  When either of us notices that we are running out of cornflakes, or sunflower oil, or cat biscuits, we write it on the list.  Whoever is going shopping takes the list with them.  Then we start again with a new list.  The system only breaks down if we forget the list, or if anything on the list is out of stock, in which case we need to remember to transfer it to the new Zen page.  But with the app based system we would have to go through the list deleting things when we bought them, at least until such a time as the app can seamlessly interface with the supermarket till receipt, which will no doubt come.  Going through the app each time you went shopping deleting the things you'd just bought, particularly if the list was all mixed up with reminders to book the cats into the vet or arrange to have the boiler serviced, would surely take ages.  The SA said yes, but people had to have something to do while they were drinking their six pound cups of artisanal coffee in their bicycle repair cafes.

Using mobile technology seems to take ages as it is.  I got a text today to say that my phone bill was ready, which this month would come to £12.82.  That was nearly a third more than I was expecting so I logged into my account and found that my tariff had risen without explanation.  The next twenty minutes were spent in an online dialogue with somebody whose approach to answering the question of why has it gone up so much? was to repeat back what I'd just told them as a question, and I began to feel as if I might be dealing with Dead Ringers' version of Hilary Mantel.  You say that you took this mobile phone contract out in the past?  After being told that my Loyalty Bonus had expired, the first I'd heard about even having a Loyalty Bonus, and then that I had upgraded my phone the previous day, news to me since I hadn't been in contact with O2 at all, I gave up and rang to speak to a human being instead.

The human being insisted that I had had a Loyalty Bonus in operation, it was just that the sales person in Colchester must have failed to tell me about it when I bought the phone, and that if I texted LOYALTY in upper case letters to the number he gave me it would probably be reinstated. After I grumbled a bit about how this was no way to treat a loyal customer, and why had they taken it away when I more loyal now than I was last year when I bought the phone, he said that I could have the same package of texts, minutes and data for £7.50 a month which would be less than the £9.82 I had been paying before the expiry of the Loyalty Bonus.  And that he would credit ten pounds to my account to make up for the aggravation.  Then I spoke to another human being in sales, who said they could give me the same package for ten pounds a month.  When I said that the previous human being had just said seven pounds fifty, he countered with six, with no Loyalty Bonus included so it would not jump in twelve months time, merely rise in line with inflation.

I settled for six, but I despair of UK business, or rather the mobile industry in general since my supplier is actually a subsidiary of Telefonica.  They could have kept me on £9.82 plus inflationary increases if they'd left me alone.  If they'd told me in advance I needed to text LOYALTY to them I'd probably have sighed and done it, and they'd still have had me on £9.82.  Now they've bothered me enough to spend three quarters of an hour thinking about my phone contract they have me on six pounds a month which is less than two thirds of what they were getting before.  I suppose they rely on all the people who don't bother to look at their monthly bill or can't be bothered to query it, but it seems a mad way of doing business.

Friday, 21 July 2017

jobs done and half done

Running along the bottom of Hyde Park from the Albert Memorial to the top of Kensington High Street is The Flower Walk.  Wide borders on each side, it has a sign at the end forbidding dogs and a little gate to keep them out.  The planting is pretty good, in big blocks, with plenty of colour. Many of the flowers would be attractive to insects, and there are some nice trees.  We walked along it yesterday, and as we reached the Kensington High Street end I made a discovery that was chastening or enlightening depending on your point of view.  There was a large patch of Tithonia, and I saw what Tithonia look like when they are happy.  The ones growing in Hyde Park are an awful lot better than mine, bright fresh green with scarcely any browning leaves, with well-developed, long, strong, flowering side shoots.  The side shoots on my plants are still vestigial stubs, all the flowers are at the top, and I keep having to trim dead leaves off them.  Now I know what I am aiming at, and the problem is not that Tithonia always make rank, horrible plants, but that I am not growing them right.

This morning I moved a couple of the plants on the terrace (or patio) into larger pots.  Their roots were not congested and I was not sure if lack of root run was the main problem, but they have been drying out quickly, and if I can stop them doing so it might help.  But perhaps they are going brown because of the wind, and there's nothing I can do about that.  And I did not have enough pots, because I needed to move the Nicotiana mutablis into larger containers as well to stop them blowing over by the front door.  Hyde Park's Flower Walk had them too, and I took some consolation from the fact that at least my Nicotiana were measuring up relatively well.  For anybody who is considering repotting either species I can report that the Tithonia slid out of their machine made, terracotta pots very easily, but the Nicotiana hung on and I had to slide the bread knife around the outside of the rootball to loosen it.

After losing the first half of the morning messing around with pots I didn't feel like spending the other half going to the garden centre to buy more, and returned to the gravel.  I finished planting out the tray of red leaved sedum, and the pots of Aethionema schistosum, and spread a couple more barrow loads of gravel which emptied the bag.  Eyeing up the amount of railway garden there was still to go, and the bald patches in the drive, I had to acknowledge that I really needed two more bags.  The aggregates company took so long to answer their phone I checked that I was not calling a random wrong number, and when I finally got through they told me that their computer had been down all day and that they could not take any orders over the phone.

Meanwhile, the Systems Administrator managed to mend the showers in the ensuite bathroom and the other bathroom that would be described as the family bathroom in estate agent's details, neither of which would work this morning, by dint of bleeding the system and soaking the limescale off both shower heads and the insides of one of the valves.  It is never entirely satisfying to have got something to work without knowing exactly what was broken before or what you did to fix it, since doubt always lurks that it might stop working again, like an unidentified intermittent electrical fault on a car, but at least they are working now, and the SA has looked up all sorts of part numbers and is primed with theories of what to try next if they stop working again.  I was impressed, since if the problem had been left to me to sort out I'd have been on the phone to the bathroom company at five past nine this morning.