Tuesday, 20 February 2018


The ground outside is becoming sodden.  There is a muddy trail leading to the bonfire area, and a puddle has developed in the chicken's run.  I had to summon the Systems Administrator to help me lift my last bale of straw into a wheelbarrow, because it was soaked too, and scattered it in wet lumps in the run to try and keep it from getting any muddier.  Poor chickens.  It is not good for them to let mud build up on their feet, and besides it gets on the eggs.

I will need to buy some more straw from somewhere, and am not at all sure where.  The last lot came from friends who had got it from their neighbouring farmer as seating for a big family party in their garden, and who kindly brought it over in their trailer, but that's not to say they've got any more, and I don't want to sound as though I am expecting them to keep delivering it when it's a round trip of forty miles.  Another friend used to live with a farmer and he was willing to sell me straw, but they separated, and the only farmer I know locally is the lettuce farmer, who isn't likely to have any.  There is a place up the road advertising equestrian feed and tack so I thought that could be my next port of call.  Somebody might be advertising small bales, unless horses are all bedded on sawdust nowadays.  Otherwise I suppose I am on to friends of friends.  A beekeeping friend of mine buys milk from her farming friend (unusual even to find a dairy farmer in this part of the world) and would the farmer have any spare straw and would they be willing to let me have some?  It is amazing how it is possible to live surrounded by fields and not really know any farmers.  I would rather find a local source too, since now we don't have the truck I am limited to what I can fit in the Skoda, unless somebody brings it.

The back lawn is so wet that the Systems Administrator was unwilling to walk on it, and spent the day salvaging the remains of a large fallen ash from the far end of the wood.  Today's papers are running the stories that load bearing exercise is good for your bones (who'd have guessed) and even light gardening reduces your chances of dying (if you are a man.  The study didn't include any women).  Neither article specifically mentioned the health benefits of chopping up a large tree and then carrying it piece by piece uphill in the mud, but I am sure there are some, as long as the SA doesn't strain his back.

I washed my socks, the alpaca ones that are better done by hand.  My GP told me to take it easy.

Monday, 19 February 2018

over-wintering tender cuttings

I had to rescue a pot of cuttings of orange flowered Impatiens from the heated propagator in the greenhouse because they were pressed hard up against the plastic lid and growing sideways.  They are Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata, originally bought as a little mail order rooted plug from Dibleys some time in 2014, and which I have managed to keep going through a succession of cuttings since.  They root ridiculously easily, and from that point of view I could have dozens by now if I wanted to.  They are not the easiest things to keep once rooted because they are extraordinarily attractive to vine weevils.  Twice now I have gone into the conservatory to find the current plant collapsed on the ground with all its roots eaten away.  Each time I have quickly cut the ends off some of its stems to use as cuttings, and so started again.

The Impatiens makes a fair sized plant when happy, getting on for a yard in all directions, and so I have always whittled the cuttings down to one as that's all there's room for in the conservatory.  Dibleys suggest it would be good as a bedding plant, but I don't do that sort of gardening, and in winter it definitely needs to be under cover.  In fact, once I'd liberated the latest rooted cuttings from the warmth of the propagator I thought I couldn't just leave them on the greenhouse bench.  It would be too cold for them, especially at night, and the shock would probably kill them.  Instead I put them on the kitchen window sill, trying to hide them in the corner behind an orchid.  The kitchen window sill is not really supposed to be used for gardening, and it already had a pot with the albino Clivia seedlings on it.  Adding three large wonky Impatiens cuttings made it look even more like an impromptu propagating area.

The kitchen is reliably warmish thanks to the Aga, but much less humid than the inside of a heated propagating case, and the leaves of the Impatiens collapsed almost immediately.  Then over the next few days half of them stiffened up again, while the other half shrivelled and fell off.  I am not too fussed, since they are already starting to make side shoots from the leaf axils, and come the spring should roar into growth and the loss of some leaves will be history.  When I overwintered the mature plants in the conservatory, only just above freezing, they used to drop many of their leaves anyway.  It is all very messy, though, and I have to admit I don't have the right facilities for propagating Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata starting in autumn.  Maybe I should have chopped the tops off the cuttings and left them in the heated propagator, but I didn't think of that at the time and anyway I wanted the space for the tomatoes.

The three very small cuttings I took in autumn as an insurance policy cum experiment from Begonia fuchsioides all struck with bottom heat, and have been growing at a measured pace and even flowering.  Their leaves are a nice dark green and they look a lot better than the parent plant down in the chill of the conservatory.  It spent last winter in my bathroom because I was afraid of it catching cold, but it was so much in the way that this winter I decided to try cuttings instead.  Now I have seen how readily it roots I shall take more cuttings in the spring.  It is an enormously pretty plant and not offered for sale very often.  I first saw it at the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, who didn't have any to sell, and I got mine from Fibrex Nurseries at an RHS London show.  If I grew some spare I should think people at my garden clubs might like it as well.

They are the successes, by the way.  My cuttings of two sorts of Argyranthemum and a dark stemmed Verbena failed utterly. as did most of the Arctotis.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

hellebores and roses

There was some real warmth in the sun, and I spent a useful few hours tidying by the oil tank and cutting the leaves off the hellebores.  It should have been done weeks ago, but better late than never.  The flowers show up better without last year's old leaves, and removing them annually is supposed to help prevent leaf diseases getting hold.  I duly bagged them up to take to the dump at some point, instead of putting them on the compost heap.  They are not very smart hellebores, mostly seedlings from a few original plantings from the Lady series, which has since been overtaken by more exciting selections, and they flower in subdued shades of middling pink and white that very critical or demanding gardeners could deem boring.  But they are good natured about surviving, flowering and seeding in a fairly dry, mere spot, in light soil and in competition with shrubs, and I am fond of them.  Their leaves, in this unpropitious site, are actually remarkably healthy.

One of the shrubs is a Mahonia, which does a splendid job of hiding the oil tank, and produces yellow flowers in November that are a big hit with me and the bees.  Unfortunately, tidying around it you encounter its less pleasant habit, which is that it sheds cascades of old leaves that are prickly, slow to rot down, and stick to your gloves when you try to gather them up.  Also less than appetising were the piles of feathers and one dismembered wing left by the cats, since that border is one of their favourite places for dismantling pigeons.  Looking on the bright side, they don't seem to use it as a loo.

The two rambling roses planted behind the tank a couple of years ago to go up the trees at the side of the wood had both made an immense amount of growth since I last clambered back there to look.  They didn't seem very keen on climbing their supports, instead sending most of their new, long, whippy branches out over the ground and the long suffering Sarcococca confusa.  I twiddled the stems upwards in the direction I wanted them to go, and hoped that they'd get the idea.  The Sarcococca did not seem to mind having been partially submerged in roses.

One is 'Albertine', a present from a friend and growing on its own roots.  It spent rather a long time doing nothing in its pot, because when she gave it to me I could not immediately think where to put it.  In the two years it has been in the ground it must have made six to eight feet of extension growth, after doing almost nothing in the previous couple of years.  It is an old variety, first introduced in 1921, and should be capable of growing to fifteen feet according to Peter Beales.  Looking at how much it has done already my hunch is it will comfortably exceed that.  The flowers are double, highly scented, in a shade described by Peter Beales as lobster pink, although most sources stick to salmon-pink or coppery.  I have pointed it up a large holly and expect the result to be exciting, so long as the holly doesn't collapse.  It has Clematis montana 'Broughton Star' on its other side, but it is a big tree.

The other rose is 'Blushing Lucy', bought from the excellent Trevor White.  She has semi-double flowers in pale pink, and I am hoping she will not quarrel with 'Albertine', but I shall try to steer them in different directions.  'Blushing Lucy' is supposed to flower late in the season, and might keep the show going after 'Albertine' has finished.  Fragrant and attractive to bees, I am hoping she will produce hips, although the catalogue doesn't mention them.  Picking up her wandering stems from the ground I discovered that one had already started to root, and after a moment's consideration dibbled the roots back into the soil and weighted it down with a brick.  I do not myself need a second 'Blushing Lucy', but the plant stall at one of my garden clubs might.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

an interruption

We were without power for half the morning as Network Power were renewing the electricity cables across the farm, including the wire to our house.  Somebody called by a few weeks ago to warn us that they'd be doing the work in about six to eight weeks' time, then on Thursday they said they'd be doing the work on Saturday, and as well as cutting off the supply from nine onwards they would need access to the meter before starting the work and when they'd finished.

Two days did seem rather short notice.  We might easily have been on holiday, or due to go out for the day, and there's no way I'd give up something like the Chelsea Flower Show because a utility company wanted to get into the house with two days' warning.  And it could have been awkward expecting guests with no central heating and Network Power lorries blocking the lane.  But fortunately we had nothing planned, and with the Aga for cooking and the Systems Administrator having remembered to charge up the backup dongle for the wifi, life was able to continue much as usual, although each time I wanted to fetch something from the garage I flipped the light switch out of habit before remembering that I needed a torch.

The whole crew sounded as if they were Scottish so they were a long way from home, but thinking about it perhaps they have to cover a huge area.  This was the first time the lines have been renewed in the twenty-five years we've lived here, so going where the work is at any given time might take you a long way.  It seemed strange for them to be doing routine work on a Saturday, but perhaps they were running out of time to finish everything they had to do in the Tendring peninsular, and next week they will be in Basildon, or Gloucestershire.  Anyway, they were very polite and don't seem to have squashed or broken anything in the garden.  It is a pity we failed to discover the headless and wingless torso of a pheasant by the front door before they arrived.  I don't know if it was the work of a fox or the cats, but it did rather create the impression that they were in redneck country.

Meanwhile I sowed more seeds, and am experimenting with Derry Watkin's advice to put the ones needing a cold period before they will germinate in the fridge with some damp vermiculite.  I have a bag of vermiculite (it holds more moisture than perlite), and two small glass jars salvaged from the recycling that originally held Waitrose chilli sauce did nicely for pots.  The first packet only contained ten seeds, and after mixing them with vermiculite in a ramekin dish and pouring the mixture carefully into the jar I realised I'd used far too much vermiculite, and was going to have to spread the mixture over an unnecessarily large pot when it came to sowing.  Then I seemed to have added too much water as the contents of the jar became not so much damp as sodden, and I had to wick some of it out again with torn-off strips of kitchen roll.  This counts as Learning by Doing.

I made a diary note when to get the seeds out, and tucked them away in the kitchen fridge in a little tray intended for keeping butter in.  It has to be a better bet than leaving pots of damp compost in there.  I tried that last year with the overflow spare fridge and the compost dried out, upon which, discouraged, I never got round to clearing it away, until the pot got tipped over by a rogue bag of potatoes.  This morning I finally got around to cleaning up the mess.  It took a very long time to wipe the last bits of compost out of the grooves where the shelf slides in.

Friday, 16 February 2018

sowing seeds

I evicted the pots of hyacinths from the greenhouse, since they should be well rooted now and able to cope with the rain, and the top growth is frost proof.  Indeed, for years I used to start them off outdoors and they were fine, until one particularly wet and cold winter when the basal plates rotted before they ever got going.  With the hyacinths gone and some judicial shuffling of the pots of violas and bags of compost I was able to make space to stand at the potting tray, and could start sowing this year's seeds.

There were more seeds than I was expecting in the packet of sea daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, and they were the sort of seeds to strike joy into a gardener's heart, large and easy to handle, with the instructions on the packet promising that germination should occur within a couple of weeks.  It may, it may not, and if they germinate the young plants may then prove tricky to keep alive, or take years to grow to flowering size.  There is many a slip between cup and lip in the dark art of growing your own from seed, and I tried not to imagine the beach themed end of the turning circle studded with exotic white flowers too vividly.  It would be fun, though.

The seeds of Hesperaloe parviflora were similarly large, and generous in number, and I tried to be equally restrained in my hopes for them while mentally indulging in visions of how I could donate the surplus plants to various garden club stalls.  I don't really have room for more than one or two plants in the garden, and it wouldn't have broken the bank to simply buy a plant, but growing things from seed is part of the fun.

I hope my latest sowing of the wood sage, Teucrium hircanum 'Purple Tails', succeeds, because I would like a lot more plants.  I raised some before, and they made lovely chunky specimens and flowered in their first year in pots, but the area where they were supposed to go was not ready in time to plant them out, and by the second year they had deteriorated markedly.  Those I eventually managed to get into the ground along the side of the wood seemed to start to recover and thicken out at the base, and I am optimistic that this year they will be fine, but I had to throw the remaining pots on the compost heap.  When you would like a couple of dozen plants or more, and they cost five or six pounds from the Chatto Gardens or Dorset Perennials, then it really does pay to grow your own from a two pound packet of seed, if you can.

The seeds of the Persian violet, Echium affine, were absolutely tiny, mere specks, smaller than a grain of sand.  It was difficult to get them out of their little plastic bag, and I hope that some landed on the compost.  They were too small to cover with any compost.  Germination is supposed to take no more than a couple of weeks, so I shall know fairly soon if I have got anything.  If any do come up then my next propagating experiment had better be learning to take Persian violet cuttings.

I inspected the tub of damp vermiculite in the airing cupboard with its three seeds of yellow flowered Clivia miniata.  One had made a good long root and begun to grow its first leaf, one had a smaller root, but the third had a lump of mould on one side where I fear that the emerging root had been.  I potted the first two and put them on the kitchen window sill, where I trust the albino leaf will green up.  I cleaned the mould off the third and put it back in the airing cupboard, but don't really expect anything else to happen.  When I was originally reading up on how to germinate Clivia I gathered that mould growing on the seeds was one of the risks.  I should have inspected them more frequently.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

a lecture

I went this evening to a talk about Clement Attlee.  It was organised by a local bookshop, and my mother asked if I was interested, and I thought, actually I am interested in Attlee.  It was to be given by somebody who had written a biography of Attlee, who turned out when we got there to be John Bew, Professor in History and Foreign Policy in the War Studies Department at King's College, London.  I had not heard of him, or his book, which was something of an achievement given that I found it had won three different prizes and received glowing reviews across the board.  When Daniel Finkelstein, Tom Watson, Tristram Hunt and Ferdinand Mount all say good things about a political biography you can be pretty sure the author has made a decent fist of it.

Rather than ask Professor Bew to stand there and talk about the book what he wrote for fifty minutes he had come with a co-presenter, so that they could have a conversation.  Some of the co-presenter's questions were so long they made James Naughtie's much-missed interviews on the Today Programme sound like incisive models of concision, but the format worked.  I had previously read a short and workmanlike biography of Attlee as part of a series on British Prime Ministers, but the Prof's book went into much more depth.  I had not known, for example, that in the early days of the second world war it was the Labour elements of the coalition that were squarely behind Churchill, and furiously against the notion of appeasement still favoured by some Conservatives.

I found myself liking Professor Bew and his book so much that in the interval I bought a copy, having gone there not intending to buy any more books since I already have several boxes of my late father's history books in the spare bedroom, waiting for me to get around to start reading them, and indeed buy a bookcase to put them in.  In the Q&A at the end somebody asked him why he chose Attlee, and he said partly because there hadn't been a major biography for thirty years, but also because he liked writing about the non-flamboyant people in history.  I cheered mentally.  Introverts of the world, unite.

The audience made interesting viewing in themselves.  I'm pretty sure quite a few were attached to the university, there was a significant contingent of under forties, and at least half were men.  Indeed, walking back to my mother's house afterwards she said she didn't think she had seen so many men for ages.  It goes to show, they do exist and they will turn out for lectures.  They just don't seem to want to come to talks on either gardening or art in anything like the same numbers as women.

The book is called Citizen Clem, and I recommend it, subject to the caveat that I haven't actually read it yet.  Don't buy the hardback, though.  The author himself admitted that after doing the research the writing stage was completed in only six to eight months in a panic-stricken rush, and there are a few nasty errors, corrected in the paperback edition.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

a haircut

I went for a haircut this morning, arriving rather early because I'd allowed for traffic and it was too cold to wander about window shopping.  My hairdresser was still busy with her previous client, who was in the middle of having her hair coloured and sitting with pieces of foil all over her head.  As I sat waiting with my great head of wildly curly grey hair I thought that hairdressers needed to be total diplomats.  My hair is wonderful, naturally, and her last customer was also entirely right to spend a great deal of money and half the morning having the grey skilfully eliminated.

The third customer was a small girl.  From where I was sitting I couldn't initially see her, but gathered from the overheard conversation that she was six, she was in year one, her hair had been growing since she was two, and she was having enough of it chopped off to be worthwhile donating to the Little Princess charity that makes wigs for child cancer patients.  There were before and after photographs taken on the hairdresser's phone, and talk of putting pictures on Facebook if Mummy said that was OK.  Apparently the way to do the big chop, which I suppose keeps the hair nicely together for the wig makers, is to plait it first and then cut off the plaits, before giving the remains a proper haircut.

Once it was my turn the hairdresser told me that this time she was going to trim the ends and continue to chip weight out of it, but that she did not need to take it in any more at the back because by now it was already in a bob, and I told her that she was the expert and I didn't understand any of it.  After that it was remarkable how removing what seemed like quite a small amount of hair, to judge from the quantity of debris, suddenly made it look much more like a hairstyle and less as if I had started living in my car.

The hairdresser's colleague had shaped the little girl's hair into a very smart cut that just skimmed her shoulders.  They fetched a mirror to show her the back, and my hairdresser showed me the plaits and I was duly impressed.  Actually, I think several little girls must agree to sacrifice their hair to produce enough for a whole wig.  After she had gone I reflected that there were not many things you could control in your life when you were six, but having your hair cut off was one of them.  It had been an elegant cut, that made the little girl look very poised, and possibly older.  Ah, said the hairdresser's colleague, that would be why Daddy wasn't keen on her having it done.

I made my next appointment for eight weeks' time and trundled on my way.  The hair foils woman was still sitting in her chair.  She gave me half a smile as I passed her, each of us probably secretly convinced of the superiority of our chosen method.