Friday, 20 April 2018

almost on holiday

We are practically on holiday.  The house is as clean as it is going to be.  The important bits are really clean, like the bathroom and the kitchen sink.  The windows need washing but I never got round to tackling them.  The Smiths have house sat for us several times in the past, so they know pretty much what they are letting themselves in for.  If dirty windows were going to put them off they'd have given up before now.

Roll on Cornwall.  I am absolutely knackered.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

the hottest day

The plants in the greenhouse have survived the hottest April day since 1949.  Or at least the hottest in London, where St James Park reached 28.3 degrees, a little short of the 29.4 degrees the thermometer hit in 1949, but still awfully hot.  Fortunately it was not as hot as that in north Essex.  Our outdoor thermometer seems to have packed up, or is no longer speaking to the weather station, but according to the Met Office Elmstead Market was due to see 21 degrees.  That's still nearly twice the April average maximum temperature.

The BBC sounded jolly chirpy about it throughout the day, with the weather forecasters telling us what the lovely weather had been today before describing tomorrow as still lovely although not quite as hot, as though heat equated with loveliness.  The presenters on the World at One and the Six o'clock News sounded equally enthusiastic.  Although what broadcasters say about weather makes no earthly difference to what the weather does, I wished, not for the first time, that they could just present the facts and leave their listeners to add their own value judgements.

I was relieved to make it through to lunchtime, and then through the afternoon, without going into the greenhouse to find that half my pots of seedlings had collapsed.  Every door and window that could be opened was open.  I put the shading paint on just before the weather started to warm up.  I watered every pot first thing this morning, and damped down the floor of the greenhouse to get the evaporative cooling effect as it dried.  That was all I could do.  Sometimes it is not enough.  One scorchingly hot day in April, when seedlings have emerged but are still tiny and fragile, can be enough to undo tens of hours of planning, sowing, and pricking out.  In fact I have been holding back from doing any more pricking out since last weekend, knowing it was likely to get hot and not wanting the young plants to go into the mini-heatwave with freshly disturbed roots.

I had been toying with the idea of going to London today to catch the current exhibition at Dulwich, which ends in a couple of weeks, or else the Queen's Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power ends in the middle of next month.  Since we are about to disappear to Cornwall time to see either is running out.  I gave up on that idea as it became clear how hot it was due to be this week, since London in 28.3 degrees would be horrible and I wanted to be able to keep an eye on the greenhouse.  Avoiding the Queen's Gallery was probably a good call in any event, since I heard on the news that the Queen was hosting the Commonwealth heads at Buckingham Palace, so access to the gallery would probably have been tricky.  I once arrived just as they were about to Troop the Colour, and was kettled on the wrong side of the road for ages.  Goodness knows what delays there would be with the heads of the Commonwealth and Theresa May all turning up.

Tomorrow is forecast to be slightly fresher, and then temperatures should drift down into next week.  I shall be perfectly happy if it is not this hot while we are away, as it will save me from worrying too much about my seedlings.  I am sure Mr and Mrs Smith will do their best, but seedlings are not the easiest things to manage.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

tidying the gravel garden

Rather a lot of coarse leaved, clump forming grass has seeded itself into the gravel of the turning circle.  I am not sure where it came from, since I didn't let anything like it seed itself last year.  I suppose seeds hang around in the soil for ages, and maybe the odd clump got away from me.  I spent a chunk of today pulling it up, along with a finer leaved but also clumping grass, plus a small weed with blue flowers whose name I don't know, and tufts of sheep's sorrel.

The Teucrium fruticans is horribly burnt after the cold spell, but alive.  I began the task of trying to clip it into a neat dome, which should make it more resistant to cold spells in future, if a book I read recently on Mediterranean gardening is to be believed, and will stop it from rampaging over its neighbours at that end of the turning circle.

Gladiolus tristis is looking very triste indeed, entirely brown above ground.  I suppose it will be interesting to see if new growth ever emerges from the base, but frankly it's an experiment I'd as soon not have made.  The fancy hybrid Watsonia bought from a nursery are both burnt brown, while the seed raised W. pillansii are looking horrible but in many cases have signs of green life low down.  Isn't that the way?  Things that self-seeded for free surviving better than their relatives that you paid good money for, and drove all the way to Saffron Walden to buy.

The Dierama have seeded themselves so generously I am reduced to pulling out unwanted young plants like weeds.  Once they are unwanted I guess they are weeds.  Libertia peregrinans has been peregrinating more than I want as well.  It felt awfully wasteful putting the pieces I pulled up in the bucket of stuff bound for compost, instead of potting them up for the garden society or some other future hypothetical plant sale, but I am running out of space in the cold frames and sometimes life is too short.  I noticed a plug tray of tiny plants yesterday in the propagation tunnel at the Chatto gardens, which is where I bought my original plants.  With the benefit of hindsight I needn't have bought more than one.  It is a nice-looking plant, Libertia peregrinans, with fans of stiff, olive and burnt orange leaves, but it does like to move about, sending out runners just below the soil surface that periodically root and send up new fans.

There are no signs of growth as yet on the lemon scented shrub Aloysia triphylla.  Maybe it will shoot again and maybe it won't.  It is always late into leaf.  I trimmed the twiggy ends of last year's stems off to make it look slightly tidier, having noticed at one of last summer's garden visits to Norfolk that they cut theirs back.

The warmth of the last few days, coming after the rain, has been enough to wake up the back garden.  The lawn is growing rampantly, and practically dry enough to cut, the cherry blossom opening, and there is a genuine spring-like vibe in the air, although a tree lupin and some Cistus in the island bed are quite dead.  The poor singed Mediterraneans and South Africans in the gravel are taking longer to recover.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

a look behind the scenes

I went this morning on a garden club visit with a difference, to see the propagation tunnels and stock beds at the Beth Chatto Gardens.  I have gazed curiously over from the plant sales area towards their collection of polytunnels, and wondered what they did and how they did it.  I now have a much better idea, and it is like home gardening, only done with better equipment and on a comparatively massive scale.

The plant centre where I used to work didn't really do propagation.  They bought in bags of roots each winter from a couple of specialist growers in Norfolk and the Netherlands, and potted them up, and sometimes if there were pots left over at the end of the season the manager would split them.  He would very occasionally take cuttings or sow seeds from a few of the plants in the garden, but essentially it was a retail outfit, and I bit my lip when one customer earnestly told me how she liked buying plants from people who raised them themselves.

Writtle once took us on a visit to the plant production arm of the Nottcutts garden centres, and we stood respectfully looking out over a sea of identical hebe in a vast glasshouse.  It was spun off from Nottcutts, and has since gone bust.  Bulk plant production is a brutal business.  The Hardy Plant Society organised a trip to a nursery near Sudbury that I think might once have been part of the Wyevale chain, but was independent by the time we got there.  The tunnels were dilapidated and there were a great many weeds, and some pots of plants that had seen better days, a long time previously.  It has gone bust as well.

The Chatto tunnels in comparison were a model of tidy industry, although not as mechanised as the Woodbridge outfit, but they were dealing with a far wider range of plants, some quite rare.  We saw the stock beds, from which plants propagated by division are lifted, to be split, potted, and grown on to root into their pots before being sold.  We saw pans of seedlings in tunnels protected only by shade netting, and more cossetted pans living on waist high heated benches with an automated overhead misting system, and modular trays of young plants waiting to go into their full sized pots.  We saw stem cuttings and root cuttings.  We saw plastic covered tunnels of plants busy rooting into their final pots, at which point they could be sent outside and released for sale in the nursery or by mail order.  Every one had a bar code so that the computer system knew where they were.  We heard how the person in charge of seed sowing kept records of what she had sown, and knew when to go round the garden to collect seeds, and which seed companies they trusted to buy seed from when necessary.  It was all gently impressive, in a way that any keen home gardener could grasp.  No micropropagation, sterile cabinets, or automated potting machines, but a very sound underlying organisation.  They deal with over two thousand species and varieties.  Start muddling up the labels and the pots with that lot and you are truly sunk.

I came home with a severe case of polytunnel envy.  Imagine the luxury of having a waist high, heated propagating bench with an overhead water supply that would reliably spray your seeds and cuttings with a fine mist of water each time they reached a set level of dryness.

The gardens were looking nice, but the tour had taken well over two hours and despite all the media fuss about the impending heatwave the air still had a nip to it.  My friend and I had a quick scoot round, then felt we'd seen as much as we could take in and wanted our lunch.

Monday, 16 April 2018

before we go

We are almost on holiday.  I have been looking rather dolefully at the swelling buds on 'Tai-haku' and trying to work out what else we are going to miss.  Like Prince Charles, leaving our own garden suddenly seems like a terribly bad idea.  On the other hand, the gardens in Cornwall will be very nice.  Normally we do not go away at this time of year, but I have not had any kind of holiday for eighteen months and could really do with a break .

Since we can't leave the cats and the chickens and my myriad pots unattended for a week, the faithful Mr and Mrs Smith will come to look after them, which has rather focused my attention on cleaning.  Obviously we have to clean the house sometimes regardless, but there is nothing like imagining somebody else living in your house to make you realize how much needs doing.  There is something about other people's dirt that seems more repellent than one's own.

On which note I must now go and clean the downstairs cloakroom.  I had to interupt my labours to go to a garden society committee meeting, although I am very grateful to the Systems Administrator while I was out.  The need to clean is more urgent than it would have been otherwise since I have invited a gardening friend back to lunch tomorrow after our garden club outing to the Chatto Gardens.  We are going to be taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of their polytunnels, which should be very interesting.  Come to think of it, I need to organize the cheque to pay the balance of the cost of the visit before cleaning the cloakroom.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

the heat is on

It is forecast to be warmer from tomorrow.  The wind has swung round to the south, bring warm air from, I believe, Africa.  More to the point, it is forecast to be sunny.  That cheery orange disc with the lines radiating around it, that has been a stranger to our seven day forecasts for so long, is up there on my screen for four solid days at the end of next week, not even peering coyly from behind a cotton wool ball.

This meant it was time to get shading paint on the greenhouse.  I used to find it an odd notion, deliberately cutting down the light getting into the greenhouse, when the gardening books stressed the importance of not siting them in shade, and the desirability of a north-south axis for the ridge, but experience taught that if you are using your greenhouse to raise young plants from seed then at the point when the sun warms up in April they need some shade.  Otherwise they cook.  Later on in the season the tomatoes just have to make do with warmth and dappled light.

Language is full of phrases we use metaphorically and by extension, only grasping the reality of their meaning when we finally encounter the situation they originally described.  Chickens come home to roost.  A situation is touch and go.  Only when you have kept free range hens, and seen them converge inexorably on the hen house as dusk approaches, or felt the judders as the keel of your boat scrapes over a sandbank with no room to spare whatsoever, do you realize the original, literal truth of such phrases.  So while most people who refer to the greenhouse effect are talking about global warming and the effect of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, still when the sun's rays fall on an actual greenhouse it gets too hot inside, alarmingly quickly.

I looked hopefully in the greenhouse for the packet of shading powder, but I'd used it up last year.  Buying some more ended up being a long-winded process since the useful Clacton garden centre turned out not to open until ten on a Sunday, and the other garden centre I thought I could call at on the way home turned out not to sell it.  I ended up going back to Clacton, since I did need shading paint.  Apparently it is all to do with your total covered selling area, and not your financial turnover or whether you are an independent business rather than part of a supermarket chain.  At least I will remember for next time.

The packaging had changed since last year and I had a moment of panic that Clacton didn't have any shading paint either, but it was merely that it is now sold as a liquid that you dilute instead of a powder that you dissolve.  I apply it using a rather grubby long handled paint roller that lives in the shed from year to year awaiting its one moment of utility each April.  The whole bottle would have made more shading paint solution than I needed, so I am hoping that like the powder the other half will keep until next year.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

daffodil, though art sick

I thought that by now I had seen most kinds of plant failure.  Bad or at least over-optimistic choice of planting site meaning it was too wet, or dry, or shady, or sunny, or windy.  Over or under-watering the pot.  Attack by rabbits, scale insects, aphids, or molluscs.  Death by the short indignant tabby persistently rolling on it.  Vine weevils.   Starvation.  Botrytis.  Phytophera.  Being crushed by falling trees, or crowded out by over-exuberant neighbours, or dug up by badgers.  Unusual and extreme cold, or heat.  Being trodden on.  Trouble at the roots and trouble on top.  Normally I have some idea what went wrong.

A small pot of daffodils I had by the front door has stumped me.  They are the variety 'Minnow', very dainty and very pretty with several little, open cupped, pale yellow flowers on each little stalk.  I planted ten in a pot that looked as though it was in scale with the bulbs, grew them on under the protection of a cold frame all winter, and only brought them out into the open when the leaves were well advanced and they seemed firmly rooted in their pot.  They sent up flower stems, and as the buds opened I moved the pot over to the front of the house.

All seemed well for about two days, then yesterday, quite suddenly, the whole display flopped, leaves and flower stems alike.  I hadn't let them dry out.  All the other pots of bulbs are absolutely fine.  I gathered the leaves and stalks up and ran some string around the edge of the pot tied to florist's canes to support them.  It didn't look great, and now the flowers are shriveling prematurely.  I really have no idea why or what has gone wrong.  In my quest to find out I even upended the pot and tipped the contents carefully into my hand so that I could look at the roots.  They were white, and looked healthy.  It has been very wet, but if they had rotted in their pot I'd have expected to see evidence.

I am stumped.  Baffled.  It has rained a great deal, and so my best guess is that their collapse is something to do with getting too wet, but why this one pot and no other is so badly affected beats me.  And daffodils are normally so easy going.  It's a pity.  I like 'Minnow' and was looking forward to seeing them for more than two days.  And while I am resigned to plants dying and things in the garden not going according to plan I would rather have some idea what went wrong.