Monday, 31 January 2011

end of stock take (and not before time)

The stock take, and my role in it, are finally over for another year.  Today I finished the count in the heated polytunnel.  At least that meant I spent the morning with some plants, which was an improvement on yesterday afternoon, which was spent counting bird boxes and packets of jubilee clips.  The plants are pretty tightly crammed in at this time of the year, so reaching them all to read what they are is a bit like playing a solo game of twister, especially as most of the labels are below knee height.  Who would have thought there were so many different sorts of Indigofera?  They all look like heaps of dead sticks without their leaves, and I wouldn't want to mix up my pendula and my potaninii, or my hebepetala and my heterantha.  It's lucky that many years' experience of commuting and working in an office prior to my horticultural career left me with a highly developed ability to read upside down.  One must extract enjoyment where one can, but thank goodness that's over.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

death of an Archer's fan

I have pretty much given up on The Archers, after following it since 1983, when I moved in with an Archers fan.  If it's on now I'll listen without providing an unfavourable running commentary on the proceedings, or sighing heavily or rolling my eyes, but left to my own devices I don't switch it on any more.  On the fateful evening that Vanessa Whitburn pushed Nigel off the roof my eager willingness to suspend disbelief crashed with him, and I haven't recovered it since.  The whole thing now seems so depressing, and so silly.  A farmer is insisting on running a stately home with no experience or expertise in the sector while neglecting his own business, his wife is under pressure to cope without him on their farm, their marriage will suffer, there will be rows and breast-beating displays of guilt, the grieving widowed stately home owner will continue to refuse to get a manager in and the business will run into difficulties, she will start to blame her brother for the accidental death of her husband and the Archers family will be split, the bereaved children will go off the rails (oh no, we did that plot line last year), the widow will be targeted by a fortune hunter who drops her when he realises the stately home is in trust, she'll go bust, the house will be bought by a millionaire footballer, local families will be plunged into crisis as they lose their jobs, woe woe is me.  I can't be bothered.

The same thing happened with Gardeners' World but over a longer time period.  I adored the Geoff Hamilton days, and enjoyed Alan Titchmarsh's reign.  I liked Monty, but it always showed that 'Berryfields' wasn't the presenter's own garden.  It never felt quite real (the name seemed phoney, for a start).  Then I was waiting for Joe Swift to explain how the rest of us could get given a load of scaffolding planks free and gratis and keep an allotment weed free after rotavating masses of couch grass into it without making it our full-time job.  By the time they got to 'what's hot and what's not' I'd stopped watching, and since the BBC management threw up their hands and admitted they'd screwed that one up big time I still haven't been back.  Now that LOVEFILM is on the scene there are more interesting things to watch on a Friday night.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

garden birds

This weekend is the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.  I won't be taking part, because I'm working.

There are a good lot of birds in the garden.  There were at least three blackbirds' nests last year, in different hedges.  Thrushes, though, far from singing out from every bush are rare sightings nowadays.  When I was a child in Devon forty years ago song thrushes were as common as blackbirds and I remember watching them beating snails out of their shells on the stone edges to the flower beds, but now it is a thrill to see the odd one.  I see mistle thrushes occasionally, but no more than that.  They are leggier and specklier and more difficult to mistake for a blackbird.

The robins are bold, trying to defend the bird table against all comers and following me around when I'm doing anything to disturb the soil.  There is the odd hedge sparrow on the bird table, but they seem to live mainly down the lane opposite the neighbours' house.  At this time of year a day doesn't pass I don't see great tits and blue tits.  They are busy on the bird table now, but do their bit through the summer picking the aphids off the roses.  There are long tailed tits, that charge around in a gang making high pitched staccato shrieks.  They look like bouncing feathery golf balls with long tails.  Last winter in the coldest spell coal tits came to the bird table, but not this year.  They are shy creatures that normally shun the garden, so either they were not hungry enough to venture out of the wood, or they have not survived.

There are generally some chaffinches about, but I haven't seen many big finch flocks this year.  Gold finches have visited in the past, though I don't think they're around permanently.

We very ocassionally see wrens creeping about.  I hope they are still with us.  There is plenty of shrubby ivy for them to hide in, so I'm optimistic.

There are two collared doves.  They are indeed a devoted and lovely-dovey pair.  I like them better than the pigeons.  The way pigeons sit in the trees and flap annoys me unreasonably, and their endless irritating cooing in May makes me think of school exams even after all these years.  I'm not crazy on the pheasants either, because they eat the fritillaries, and because they roost outside the bedroom then squawk loudly in the middle of the night, presumably when alarmed by the fox.

The starlings are just as noisy and I love them.  They nested for years in the roof above the bedroom, and made an amazing amount of noise, banging on the ceiling in the small hours, and hurling lumps of insulation out through the hole in the soffit board.  For years I argued that they should be allowed to stay despite the noise.  Then they began to travel further afield in the roof, and down inside the walls.  Sitting in the study on winter evenings we would hear desperate scrabbling from under the plasterwork.  It was all getting too Edgar Allen Poe, and reluctantly I agreed that before the nesting season started their hole would have to be blocked.  We put up two purpose built starling boxes on the wall, but I'm afraid they haven't taken to these.  They still sit on the telephone wires in the mornings, making whistling noises.  Years ago there used to be one that did a convincing telephone imitation, and one that did an owl, confusing when you heard it on the roof in the middle of the day.

There are tawny owls, and they do call by day for parts of the year, though not from the roof.  We often hear them, seldom see them.  I'm sure they nest in the wood.  Sometimes in the summer you hear the small birds mobbing one.  There are kestrels, which I think nest in the wood.  Buzzards now live in this area, and have flown through the airspace above the garden, but I don't think one has ever touched down, so they don't count.  I deduce the presence of sparrowhawks from the piles of pigeon feathers that appear on the grass now and then.  I once as a child saw a sparrowhawk pluck its prey, screaming all the while as it pulled the feathers out.

I often see green woodpeckers.  They forage on the lawn, which is a very good reason for not dosing the grass with chemicals to kill leatherjackets etc.  I'd far rather have the yaffles.  They have red heads, a dipping flight and a thoroughly dirty laugh.  We hear drumming very infrequently, which is the spotted ones, as green ones don't drum.

There are magpies, and jays.  Nobody gets excited or pleased to see them, though they are handsome birds.  I find acorns and chestnuts in all sorts of odd places, and presume I can thank the jays for the fact that I have a regular supply of evergreen oak seedlings coming up in the garden, though the nearest Quercus ilex is across three fields.  There are black corvids, but I have never worked out whether rooks or crows.  I will read up on them one of these days.

In the summer house martins and swallows hunt over the garden.  On a hot evening you can see the insects.  House martins nest on our neighbours' house, but have never favoured us.

And those are the birds, but whether they are more or less abundant this year than last I couldn't say, having not done the Birdwatch.  It must be useful to try and keep track of whether numbers are rising or falling, but frustrating to spend your hour watching and at the end of it have not recorded a tenth of the species you know are there, or were yesterday.

Friday, 28 January 2011

coppice work completed

Today the arboriculturalists came to coppice a few of the alder trees.  They have made a very neat job of it, and stacked the fallen timber in piles.  We'll have that out soon and saw it into bits small enough to go on the fire, and it can season over the summer.  Unless you have a felling licence you can't cut more than five cubic metres per quarter.  The rules are slightly different for coppice, which left the arboriculturalist and the wildlife trust officer scratching their heads on their previous visit over how you treat grown-out coppice.  Two men came to do the work, and as I listened to the sound of two chain saws working simultaneously I thought it had odd musical possibilities.  It's a dangerous career, tree work, especially climbing.

Yesterday I planted some hazel behind the hawthorn in the spinney, cursing slightly that I'd bought them bare root and was now commited to planting them when the wind was biting and I had a cold.  I could have heeled them into the veg patch, but then they would sit there reproaching me, and it's getting late to plant bare root anyway so they really had to go into their final positions.  They were bushy plants and I fixed a length of galvanised netting round each one.  The previous hawthorn planting was still intact in its spiral guards, not yet eaten or dug up by rabbits.  I found a couple of fresh shot gun cartridges in the spinney, which I removed.  We give the local farm shoot effective carte blanche over the spinney and the wood, which is only fair when our land is acting as a rabbit reservoir for their field.  They are under strict instructions not to shoot us, or the cats.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


The revival of the wind turbine was a brief affair.  It has stopped again.  There is a brisk (and chilly) wind blowing, and I should have thought the country could do with all the power it could get.  The thermometer in my car believes it is 3 degrees C.

Things around here are looking pretty bashed up by the winter.  As well as lots of flattened road signs hit by drivers in the snow, there are a phenomenal quantity of pot holes in the roads, and some burst water mains.  Water is flowing across the surface of the main road on what is already a nasty bend and dip, so that will be an accident waiting to happen the next time there's an overnight freeze.  I hit a pothole in one of the lanes taking bags of sheep's sorrel and other weeds not fit for the compost heap to the dump.  By the next day I had a flat tyre, which flattened again when reinflated, so now have a new tyre.  That's forty-six quid I would rather have spent on something more interesting.  I now crawl along the lanes with extra vigilance, eyes semi glued to the surface of the road, which is not ideal.  I'm not sure that sticking to the main roads is any better, as those have holes as well and I'll be travelling faster when I hit them.  The lanes on the farm are quite bad.  Our neighbouring farmer is very good about doing his bit, but we will have to do the final stretch to our house.  If only we didn't both have colds.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

mouse attack

Going out to my greenhouse to check the watering I found that mice had been on the attack, eating the leaves off emerging Scilla siberica that were growing on in pots.  This is extremely dull of them.  I went to the shed in search of rodenticide and found that something had eaten the bait stored away on a shelf straight out of the packet.  I don't like using poison, but don't get on with mechanical traps.  We had an infestation of rats under the shed a while back, and they used to take the bait from the trap without triggering it, while I nearly lost my fingers a couple of times setting it.  Poison used strictly in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions seems the least bad option.

Rodents in greenhouses can be a serious nuisance.  They finished off two successive sowings of broad beans a couple of years ago in the little greenhouse, but this is the first time I've had problems with them in the main one.  I don't know that they particularly like Scilla.  It looks more as though they are starting at one end and working their way along.  Luckily they haven't got to the Fritillaria persica 'Ivory Bells' yet.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


The snowdrops are well above ground now, still in tight bud but I can see the glint of white.  I love snowdrops and have planted a lot over the years, mostly the common sort Galanthus nivalis.  That is partly because this is a large and wild garden in which tiny treasures get lost, and I couldn't afford to plant the unusual named varieties in the quantities that would be required to make an impact.  However, it's mainly that I like the common ones.  Their size and scale look right here, and I don't get that excited by a green spot more or less.

A great deal gets said and written about the right time to plant or move snowdrops.  Planting in the green is recommended, when they are in active growth, which means they are offered for sale from now until the end of February as freshly dug bulbs, but some experts say that it stresses the plants to damage their roots at this time, and that the ideal time to disturb them would be in late August when they were first starting into growth.  The obvious practical difficulty with moving them then is that nothing remains above ground to tell you where on earth they are, or what other bulbous treasures might be lurking below.  At least in February you can see clearly what is going on.  Lady Skelmersdale, owner of the excellent specialist small bulb supplier Broadleigh Bulbs explained in an RHS lecture she gave at Writtle College a few years ago why buying bags of dried out snowdrop bulbs in autumn is not a good idea.  They hate drying out, she said, and by the time you buy them they may already be dead.

I have planted snowdrops in the lower part of the garden, and, after some soul searching, in the wood.  The wood though very small is presumed ancient, and contains a mixture of ground flora characteristic of wet alder woodland, including opposite leaved golden saxifrage.  Snowdrops, which were probably introduced to the UK and are so are not part of the native flora, don't form part of that natural mix.  But they are not too competitive and won't hybridise with any of the existing wild plants.  I would never plant Spanish bluebells anywhere in the garden given that the British sort grow in the wood.  The aesthetic desire for a snowdrop woodland walk won out.  It is interesting watching how bulbs grow in there.  The bluebells make dense stands in some places and don't grow at all in others, presumably reflecting local variations in moisture or soil or some aspect of the conditions.  The snowdrops are similarly picky, so I plant thinly into new areas, and then the following season bulk up the planting in the bits where I can see they are doing well.  My contibution to the great debate over when to plant them is to advise that if you are planting them in an area where you already have some snowdrops then leave planting more until the display from the existing ones is going over.  The newly planted ones tend to flop and start dying down prematurely, which detracts from the overall appearance, if the established ones haven't finished flowering.  Once they have started to flop too it doesn't make any difference.

In the interests of fairness, having mentioned Broadleigh I should also mention Avon Bulbs, my other favourite supplier of top quality small bulbs.  They are not the cheapest, but their plants are very good and they list some interesting and unusual things.  For common snowdrops I don't use either of them, but one of the bulk suppliers who advertise in the backs of the gardening magazines.

Monday, 24 January 2011

sweet box

Walking into the office at work I was greeted by a powerful waft of sweet, spicy scent.  It was the sweet box that lives just outside the office door.  I am a great fan of these small to medium evergreen shrubs.  They have neat glossy foliage, not unlike box, and in the middle of winter produce small white flowers over several weeks that are intensely fragrant.  They are also attractive to insects, and on a mild day in February when the bees are flying you will see them working their way round the Sarcococca.

My favourite in my own garden is S. confusa, simply because it has done the best out of those I've tried.  It has oval leaves, shiny black berries, and in a silty semi-shaded border quite close to the ditch has readily suckered to make a dense rounded shrub about 0.7m by 0.5m.  I see it is Robin Lane Fox's choice in his recent book of essays, and he advocates clipping it after flowering to restrict the height.  I haven't found that necessary so far.  Less successful with me has been S. hookeriana digyna, which is planted in the shade of a wild gean in a border that supports ferns successfully and I don't think is too dry.  This has remained rather straggly, and not grown at anything like the rate of S. confusa.  It has longer leaves than S. confusa, and is the favoured variety of Graham Stuart Thomas.

They are happy in shade, and will even accept dry shade according to Allen Paterson in his useful book Plants for Shade, first published back in 1981 but still worth picking up if you come across it.  Chalky and limy soils are also fine.  They are pretty hardy: mine came through last winter and this one so far without any dieback, though I think I may have lost S. ruscifolia.  Robin Lane Fox back in 1982, when the memory of the 1981-2 winter was still fresh, lamented that he lost his Sarcococca, but then that was an exceptionally bad winter, when the temperature in Oxford fell to minus 20C, colder than it was in Moscow, and the mature evergreen oak in the New College gardens entirely defoliated.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

grooming the gravel

I have been weeding the gravel.  There is a lot of gravel nowadays in the upper part of the garden in front of the house.  It was originally lawn, which did very badly, the soil being so sandy and poor, and was never used for any lawn-like purposes such as sunbathing or ball games, so it was glyphosated to death and several lorry loads of 10mm Birch gravel went down in its place.  It provides a good spot to grow things that like free drainage and disdain nutrition.  Unfortunately this includes sheep's sorrel, which creeps about with yellow underground stems and occassionally sends deep roots straight down.  It's impossible ever to extract all of it, and it regenerates inexorably from what remains.  It is a characteristic plant of light acid soils, and is said to have medicinal and anti-scorbutic properties.  I wouldn't care to eat it myself: I've seen what the cats do in that gravel.

Things seed joyously, some of which are allowed to stay.  The teasels are kept, except around the edges of the gravel where I want there to be a clear path.  This is a biennial so seedlings are needed to keep the display going.  The spiky remains of last year's stalks I shall leave standing for another month, as they are still handsome.  The flowers are attractive to insects, and the seeds to goldfinches.  I have seen flocks of finches on them, although not very often.  I found some viola seedlings.  I don't want those in the gravel simply because they don't fit with the spiky sunbaked aesthetic, but moved them to live under the Mahonia by the oil tank.  A small prickly seedling with piecrust edges to its leaves could be a Morina, which would be nice as I'd like more of those, but could be a Silybum that's strayed from its area of the garden.  I'll leave it and see what it turns into, if it survives.  It was looking a bit mashed up with cold.  There were a lot of seedlings of a biennual verbascum which I decided to leave this year.  It's fun to ring the changes.  I mused on getting some gazanias: I had them two years ago and enjoyed them.  They are almost hardy: given a mild winter and a seaside location you might get away with it.

I am not a fan of using mypex fabric under gravel to cut down on work.  This is quite often suggested in gardening magazines, but my experience of cutting holes in mypex is that bits of fabric always stick up out of the mulch and look a mess.  Anyway, you lose the self seeding element which is part of the fun of gravel gardening.  It is a labour intensive activity, and that kind of fingertip weeding is hard on the back and your gardening gloves.  I can't manage more than a half day of it, and try to alternate crawling and weeding with other jobs that involve walking about.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Whizzer eventually whizzes again

The wind turbine on the farm behind the house has finally started turning again.  This was installed in the first half of last year.  The plan, according to the leaflet the farmer dropped round, was to generate green energy for the farm, and sell the surplus to the National Grid.  I wasn't thrilled at the idea of having a wind turbine in the middle of the view from the sitting room, but since I do believe that we need to work out ways of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels I didn't feel able to lodge an objection on the basis that I didn't want to look at it.  Besides, I don't mind them when I see them on holiday in the Netherlands, so I thought I'd probably get used to it.

When it was put up it was larger than I'd visualised, a quantum too large for the landscape, rising up to three times the height of the nearby trees.  A red light on top to warn low flying aircraft (or round here army helicopters) meant that there was no ignoring it even at night.  It did possess a certain fascination once it started working, the blades slooshing lazily in light airs then working up to a brisk whirl when the wind got up, the face of it turning to face the wind direction.  Ooh, I would think, the wind's gone round to the north.  I could learn to regard this as animated landscape sculpture.  We nicknamed it The Whizzer.  Then it stopped working, and men (looking very small) could be seen climbing around on the top of it with the wind turbine equivalent of the bonnet up.  Stop-start all summer, more visits from the engineers, then a while before Christmas it gave up completely.  It was stationary all through the cold spell in December (admittedly there was no wind for a lot of that) but even on breezy days nothing happened.

Someone who knows a bit about novel methods of power generation (he works in the cement plant industry and is your man if you want to know the calorific value of a cow) said that the trouble with solitary wind turbines is they produce such dirty power, the National Grid doesn't especially want it.  But yesterday a crane appeared next to the turbine and lifted off the whole top, and today it is turning again, so it looks like the bearings had gone.  Or something.  I can't think the farmer is too happy.  Even at market-distorting subsidised electricity rates designed to boost investment in green technology it can't be making a decent return on capital, and at the current rate of progress I should think it is going to take an extremely long time to ever recoup the energy costs of putting it up in the first place.  Until I can see it working better than it has so far I shall be opposing any more planning applications for farm wind turbines with extreme vigour.

Friday, 21 January 2011

the mysterious death of 'Paul's Scarlet'

I have finally  finished removing the stump of the dead Crataegus laevigata 'Paul's Scarlet'.  It took all of this afternoon and half of yesterday, and was one of those unappealing jobs I should have done last year, when it died.  I am gently baffled that even after exhuming the remains I can't really say what it died of.

It was planted in February 2001, after I'd spent several years admiring specimens at The Chelsea Flower Show.  Hilliers and Notcutts both used to be very keen on them.  The flowers are red, and double so you don't get any fruit.  Our tastes sometimes change in gardening, and if I were choosing a tree now it wouldn't be that one, so I should be grateful that mine has saved me from my previous error of judgement by quitting the scene.  It was planted as a relatively young thing, only about 1.2m high, and until last year grew vigorously.  It did turn out not to be at all root-firm, and leant out into the drive where I park my car, and required a prop, and once tempted a dreadful man who was supposed to be looking after the house while we were on holiday to prune it hideously, but apart from that it did very well.  I have read that 'Paul's Scarlet is often not root-firm when young.  Last summer, in the space of a few days, the leaves began to curl inwards, then went brown at the edges, then brown all over and remained on the tree, which is generally a bad sign.  We cut the top growth off leaving a bit at the base to act as a lever for getting the stump out.

I should have got the stump out at once, especially as honey fungus had to be considered as a possible cause of death.  When an established woody plant dies that suddenly catastrophic root failure is highly likely to be involved.  The garden doesn't show any definite signs of virulent honey fungus infestation, but you never know.  I didn't tackle it at once, because it was very dry at the time and the ground was too hard, and then I had lots of other urgent things to do, and it is human nature to postpone your least favourite tasks, and I wasn't convinced it was honey fungus.  It was growing close (too close) to a Mahonia x media, a Chaenomeles and a cut-leafed elder which all looked absolutely fine.  A colleague suggested that maybe the graft had failed.

Growing close to so many neighbours and next to the oil tank meant that swinging the axe and the pickaxe at the remains wasn't an option.  I dug round the stump, sawed through the roots, traced each back as far as possible and wrenched it out, and by heaving the stump back and forth (this is why you must not cut the trunk off at ground level) eventually got that out too.  Sawing at roots in the bottom of a hole is hard on the back, and the cats had been using the bed as a handy latrine (maybe 'Paul's Scarlet' died of cat crap poisoning?).  Even Pollyanna could not have convinced herself that it was a fun gardening job.

The smaller roots had all vanished, so something bad had gone on down there.  There was some white mycelium between bark and wood on the remaining roots, which the RHS would say was conclusive proof of honey fungus, though it wasn't as thick as a mushroom skin.  I didn't find any bootlaces, or any mycelium on the trunk.  But honey fungus varies a lot in its ability to kill.  Some strains are virulently pathogenic, some only attack dead or dying plants.  I still don't know whether what I found was the cause of death, or arrived after something else had delivered the coup de grace.  I've found it in the past sometimes, but only on things that I was fairly sure had died of other causes, either drought or cold.  I could send some roots for analysis to the RHS, but I think I'll just take them to the tip.  I'm not sure I want the garden to be screened for something for which there is no cure.  Better to go on in ignorance and hope.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

is it frost proof?

A couple of pots containing camellias had split over the winter.  I found new pots for the plants, and brought the old ones in to the hall to dry, so that I can glue the halves together with impact adhesive.  This works pretty well, and I should get another couple of years out of them, even if I just use them for temporary summer colour rather than permanent shrubs.  The split pots, plus the arrival in the morning's post of the Whichford Pottery catalogue, set me thinking about the performance of terracotta in frost.

We sell pots at work, and one of the questions we get asked is 'are they frost proof?'.  They are imported from Italy for the most part, and carry stickers promising that they are 'frost resistant'.  I explain this to customers as meaning that they should survive an average winter outside without damage, but that after a few years they will probably start to flake or split, and in a very hard winter like the December just gone they may disintegrate.  They decay because water can penetrate the clay, and when it freezes and expands it forces the terracotta apart.  There are more resistant pots around, I tell them, but sadly they are much more expensive, around a couple of hundred quid for a large pot instead of forty.  With terracotta you get what you pay for.  Most customers are satisfied with this explanation, and generally buy the forty quid pot.

It isn't really fair to say that Whichford are expensive.  They offer a ten year frostproof guarantee, and in practice their pots last at least twice as long as that.  I bought my first from them more than twenty years ago, and the only Whichford piece I have ever owned and no longer possess did not succumb to frost at all, but got accidentally run over by a truck.  The cost per year of owning a Whichford hand made pot is probably no more than for a mass produced garden centre one the same size.  Also Whichford's pots are more beautiful than the mass produced ones.  If only the initial capital outlay were not so high!  They are offering 10% off pot orders over £90 and free delivery (which is a significant charge normally, pots being heavy and bulky) until the end of the month.  I ought to partake of this offer myself, if only I had £90 to spend on pots, which I haven't.

A separate cause of splitting is pots that are narrower at the top than they are further down.  If the compost in these freezes the pot is practically bound to split as there is no room for the contents to expand upwards.  I try to steer people away from them if they want to leave the pot outside and planted up all year.  I've gone right off them myself anyway for permanent plantings as they make repotting so difficult.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

witch hazels

In the past few days the witch hazels have suddenly started into flower.  I looked out of the bathroom window this morning and there they were, a haze of yellow, orange and red in front of the wood.  I planted my first couple of bushes in the open ground years ago, in one of the few relatively moist parts of the garden, thinking they would not like the free-draining sand elsewhere.  They probably wouldn't have, but they didn't like the place I had chosen for them either, which turned out to be badly drained, heavy and stagnant as distinct from moisture retentive but open.  After a couple of years I tried lifting and potting them, but the rot had set in, literally as well as figuratively, and they never came to anything.  By then I had got keen on the idea of Hamamelis in pots, so replaced them, and am now up to seven, which may have to be my limit as I'm running out of space.

They are not supposed to like container life particularly, but this lot seem to be doing pretty well so far.  I keep an eye on the amount of extension growth made each year, and start worrying if they stop growing.  I read a very lucid account of their cultivation in an old RHS magazine, which stated something I've observed myself, that once witch hazels have stopped growing it is difficult to get them going again.  They don't flower on their newest wood, so a vigorous plant should have a length of smooth unflowered twig beyond the flowering part of the stem.  The flower buds look like small clenched fists, and start to develop in late summer for the following year, while the leaf buds are flatter and pointed.  The oldest and largest of my collection are now in 45cm unglazed terracotta pots, which is the largest size the two of us can handle.  I firmly believe in the merits of unglazed clay, and never line it with black plastic as so many garden writers suggest.  Yes, it would cut down on water loss by evaporation and hence the amount of work watering, but that evaporating water is cooling the roots.

They sit well in a country garden.  The leaves look very like those of native British hazel, so after flowering they blend into the background for the summer.  Keith Wiley used this characteristic at the excellent Garden House in Devon when he was head gardener there.  He has moved on to new projects, but his book On the wild side is worth a read, if you are interested in the relationship between gardens and landscapes.  Despite their similar names, and appearance when out of flower, witch hazel and hazel are not closely related.  Hamamelis are in the family Hamamelidaceae, along with CorylopsisFothergilla, Liquidambar and Parrotia, among others.  Hazel is a member of the Corylaceae, together with Carpinus (hornbeam) and Ostrya (hop hornbeam).

My yellow and orange forms are opening ahead of the red.  H. x intermedia 'Vesna' makes a splendid show, with large flowers of deep yellow.  'Orange Peel' is a more orange shade of yellow, with a red flush at the base of each petal.  Both of these varieties do have the irritating habit of hanging on to a few dead leaves, so I must wizz round them with the secateurs.  'Jelena' is more coppery still, with petals shading from red at the base to orange at the tips.  'Pallida' is not yet fully out, and looks a bit sparse in comparison, though maybe the yellow flowers will expand more in a day or two.  This variety is reckoned to be one of the best for scent.  Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese form, is fully out, and the lemon yellow flowers are smaller than some of the hybrids, though again this is one of the best for scent.  Christopher Lane has written a plant collector guide on witch hazels for the RHS, published by Timber Press, which has long been on my wish list of books, though without yet resulting in a purchase, so I can't offer you a review.  He will tell you how to prune them, should their size become an issue for you, and wrote a good piece in The Garden magazine about two years ago. 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

hedge cutting and the uses of twigs

Today was a beautiful day for working outside.  The sun shone, it wasn't raining or windy.  Perfect weather, in fact, for getting things done that require a chainsaw.  We took the top out of some field maples, Acer campestre, that were outgrowing their space in the boundary hedge between us and the neighbouring farm.  Field maple is a beautiful plant, the leaves turning a vivid butter yellow in the autumn, but it is vigorous, wanting to make a medium sized tree if left to its own devices.  The birds will be starting to think about nest sites before too long, so any hedge cutting needs to be done fairly soon.

The larger branches will be seasoned over the summer and used as firewood next winter.  The smaller bits went through the shredder and will be used to mulch the paths around the compost bins.  An apparently huge pile of twigs makes a very small amount of wood chippings, so we never have enough.  As I shredded I thought how nowadays woody prunings are generally treated as waste, to be disposed of somehow, crammed into the family car and taken to the tip, or burnt on the bonfire, or most annoyingly dumped in farm gates and lay-bys (indeed, some wretched person has been dumping pyracantha prunings and even a piece of disgarded box topiary in the entrance to our spinney).  In the past the twigs of at least some native species were useful.  I was reading a gardening encyclopedia written in the middle of the last century by the wonderful Arthur Hellyer, and he describes building land drains by digging a trench (1 in 40 slope sufficient) and filling the bottom of it with bundles of hazel twigs, which will carry the water away after the trench is backfilled.  It will, he says, last for many years, provided that a sufficient quantity of twigs is used.  He does not elaborate on how many is sufficient.  Indeed, in wet areas great medieval cathedrals such as Ely were built on rafts of twigs, and Brunel used the same method for his railways.  Alder was often used, because it resists rot when wet, or hazel was pretty good.

Monday, 17 January 2011

taking stock

The financial year end is approaching at work, which means that the stock taking season has started.  We've finished roses, conifers and climbers so far, which means that now each time we sell any of those we have to write it down.  As the number of completed categories grows so does the amount that has to be recorded at the till, like a demented iterative party game, while the poor customers stand by.  Today I acted as scribe while the manager called out numbers for shrubs and herbaceous plants in the back-up behind-the-scenes polytunnel (it is officially called the herbaceous tunnel but is on the far side of the car park so generally referred to as the other side.  I always find it slightly disconcerting when colleagues say 'I'm just going over to the other side' meaning they are going to the herbaceous tunnel).  Scribing entails sitting in a green plastic chair with a clipboard on your lap and a pile of computer printouts, writing down the numbers the person counting calls out to you against the relevant lines of the stock list, and occassionally asking for elaboration e.g. 9cm or 2L pot, which supplier?  A working knowledge of botanical Latin speeds things up.  If you don't know that Kalopanax begins with K, but Caryopteris and Calycanthus start with C though the initial sound is also K, while Ceratostigma begins with C despite sounding like S, and the P in Ptelea is silent, then you are both going to be there for an extremely long time.  The drumming of heavy rain on the tunnel roof introduced an element of confusion.  I was intrigued by the sound of Buddleia verbosa but it turned out to be B. globosa.  The other main thing about stock taking in a polytunnel in January is that you get unbelievably, obscenely cold doing it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

some more customers

It's been a good weekend for customers, from a people watching point of view.  One man told me at great length about the iniquities of Brussels bureaucracy and fishing bycatch, and gave me a leaflet for the UK taxpayers alliance.  A large, kindly bearded chap looking like a plain-clothes Father Christmas told me that he had just retired and had been looking forward to doing his garden, but his hips had gone, and he was so scared of a hip replacement operation he thought he would end up in a wheelchair.  He used to be a windsurfer, but he had let himself go, he regretfully concluded.  Eyeing up his ample girth I tried and failed to imagine him on a windsurf.  A woman had been erroneously told that we sold beehives, and turned out to have just been to her first beekeeping class with the same teacher I went to.  We don't sell beekeeping equipment, but I told her who did, and threw in some advice on choosing what type of hive for good measure. Someone rang up wanting to know if we sold garden smocks as she was trying to source one for a pantomime. We don't sell gardening smocks either.  Someone else rang up and wanted to know about stooling Paulownia: it seems to be the year of the foxglove tree.  There were some regulars in.  The retired long distance lorry driver from Clacton who had to move in with his mother a while back as she couldn't cope alone any more came with his wife and Ruby the terrier.  Ruby went for a walk along the seafront yesterday.  If Alan Bennett had run out of material listening to conversations in hotel foyers he could have tried working in a garden centre.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

growing under cover

Overwintering plants in a polytunnel is always tricky.  Their demand for water falls right off so you must cut down on watering, but they still need some.  There's always the chance of finding one or two that have dried out too far, especially in a crowded tunnel where they are all crammed in together.  Some will not recover from this state of affairs, for example, Callistemon.  Once their leaves have gone brown and crispy from drought in their plastic pots they've had it (although Callistemon in the garden that have been cut to the ground by winter cold may shoot again from below ground).  Overwatering is equally damaging, rotting roots and setting up the conditions for botrytis to take hold on leaves and stems.  Tender salvias are among the worst: they'll break out in botrytis at the least opportunity.

I spent a peaceful day at work clearing fallen and dead leaves out of the heated tunnel, and indulging my ancient monkey grooming instincts picking dead and damaged leaves off the plants.  It's not a bad place to be on a winter's day, getting some fresh air but out of the wind (which was lively), up close and personal with the plants.  Aromatic shrubs are a particular pleasure, giving off great wafts of scent as you touch them:  lemon from Aloysia triphylla, a ginger-cum-rosemary flavour off Rosmarinus officinalis 'Green Ginger' and a strange mixture of lavender and sage from Salvia lavandulifolia.  I mused on how I could plant all of them, plus the lovely but ever-so-tender Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum', to replace a large patch of curry plant that I am tired of.  It is getting straggly and I don't even like the smell, which always makes me think I must need to clean the chickens out.  More prosaically I thought that I must pay the same attention to my own conservatory as soon as possible.

Friday, 14 January 2011

a new beekeeping year

My January copy of The Essex Beekeeper arrived this morning.  The membership secretary will be relieved they have finally gone out.  Membership renewal forms are always enclosed with the magazine, to save postage, but subs are due on 1st January and this year there was a delay with the magazine printers.  The gardening section of the Daily Telegraph has been carrying the same story for weeks, Middle class guilt fuels boom in beekeeping.  I don't know how their writer knows we are middle class.  The only information asked for on the subscription form is how many beehives we plan to keep (for bee disease insurance purposes) and what parish we plan to keep them in (to advise farmers re agricultural spraying).  Nothing about income or educational attainments, or indeed motivation including sensations of guilt.  The equipment costs a bit, so maybe the Telegraph means People who can afford to take up a hobby that requires some initial capital outlay fuel boom in beekeeping.

I'm all in favour of a boom in beekeeping.  Bee numbers have been falling, as widely reported, and if more people will devote time and energy to learning how to keep them that's all to the good.  Plus it makes the equipment suppliers we depend on more viable, and the beekeeping associations more vibrant.  I've met some great people through beekeeping.  If you are interested in keeping bees do get in touch with your local association, in my case Essex, and you will find loads of useful stuff about beekeeping on the website of the British Beekeepers' Association.  It's very reassuring when you get your first box of stinging insects to have been on a course to learn what to do with them, and to have someone to ring up when things go wrong!  Plus our actions don't only affect our own bees; unchecked disease outbreaks or mis-used veterinary medicines affect other people's colonies as well.  The only downside of the current popularity of beekeeping is that there has been a shortage of second hand equipment, and even bee colonies to get the new beekeepers started.  Plus I suppose the embarassment of finding that something I've been doing for over a decade has become fashionable, which means that in a couple of years I shall be so last year.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

art today

I took a day off from the garden (didn't miss anything as it rained all day here) and managed to catch a couple of exhibitions I wanted to see in London before they ended.  As I yomped over from Liverpool Street to the West End I made sure I swung north of St. Pauls to take in the Elizabeth Frink statue of the shepherd and his flock and Temple Bar.

New to me is Asia House, which is showing The Tiger in Asian Art until 12th February.  This is not a large exhibition, but fascinating, assuming you like Asian art, and tigers.  Admission is free, though there are collecting boxes for tiger conservation projects.  The building, an eighteenth century town house in New Cavendish Street W1, is charming, and the high-ceilinged cafe looked an oasis of calm if you should happen to want somewhere to meet a friend north of Oxford Street.

Running until 23rd January at the National Portrait Gallery is an exhibition of the work of Regency portrait painter Thomas Lawrence.  This is an absolute delight and I can see why the papers gave it rave reviews.  Lawrence's portraits are extraordinarily lively.  A couple of his young ladies make recent sexed-up Jane Austen adaptations look quite understated, staring directly at the viewer with a very saucy gaze.  Field Marshall Blucher stands on the field of battle, arm outstretched, with a big moustache (and very shiny boots), looking every inch the man who breakfasted on raw garlic and gin.  It is easy to imagine Richard Payne Knight, with protruding lower lip, receding chin, and eyes cast querulously upward, spending his time building a grotto and rustic bridges in his estate in rural Herefordshire and complaining about Repton; harder to imagine that his first published book was 'The Worship of Priapus'.  Lawrence was a flatterer, making some of his standing figures impossibly tall long before John Singer Sergent,and you would never guess from her portrait that poor Princess Sophia was 48.  I did become slightly fixated in the last room or two on how lavishly Lawrence used the colour red.  Constable made do with the odd red waistcoat in the middle distance, but Lawrence has red uniforms, red velvet suits,puts women in red dresses, or seats his subjects on red chairs or surrounded by red curtains and draperies.  Still, his pictures would have brightened the place up.  Well worth a last-minute dash to see it.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

rain today

It rained for most of the morning.  I didn't mind this as much as I might have, as I was making the second batch of marmalade.  I'm confident that with only a few brief breaks it is going to rain all afternoon, so I'm not changing into my gardening overalls.  This prediction is not based on the Met Office's five day forecast.  I still look at that, in a hopeless way, but it changes so often that it isn't really much use.  If information is defined as that which reduces uncertainty then a forecast that predicts that sometimes during the next five days in England during January, it is going to rain, has informational value of approximately nil.  Much more use, at least for deciding whether to head out into the garden, is the rain radar site.  This does what it says on the tin, which is lets you see a radar shot of rain in your chosen area.  The rainfall of the past few hours is shown, with rain clouds colour coded for the intensity of the rain sweeping across the screen, and then the projected passage of the rain over the next few hours.  Access to the basic service is free, or if you want to be able to zoom in on smaller areas you pay a modest annual fee.  The predictions don't always work, but they are pretty good, and it's helpful being able to see whether you are dealing with just one lump of rain, in which case it might be worth hanging around in your gardening clothes for half an hour until it's gone, or whether there are numerous bands of precipitation coming across and you might as well give up and make alternative plans for the rest of the day.  The snow did slightly fox it, because that only formed as the wind from the north sea hit the coast, so the snow clouds that were sweeping down across East Anglia kept materialising out of thin air just off Lowestoft.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

managing for wildlife

Our little wood was designated a site of wildlife interest last year.  The consultants who surveyed the area identified it as a possible doormice corridor.  I'm slightly bemused by this, not least because nobody asked us if they could come and do a doormouse survey, but it is a good little bit of woodland with a lot of wildlife and some moderately rare ground flora including opposite leaved golden saxifrage.  If there are doormice as well so much the better.  The Essex Wildlife Trust is keen that we sign up to manage it for wildlife, and drew up a management plan for us.  Today I actually implemented part of the plan by planting some hawthorn bare root whips in a gappy bit of hedge the wildlife officer had pointed out.  I put rabbit guards on them too, otherwise they wouldn't last the week.  I suspect that this bit of hedge may be struggling because it is under the canopy of a large oak, looking at it again, and I might get a few hazel whips to plant behind the hedge line as well.

Part of the wood was originally managed as coppice, and the largest stools are up to 1.8m diamater, which makes them pretty old.  They haven't been cut for decades, and we've agreed to let the wildlife trust's contractor cut some of them to let more light in and start introducing a more mixed age structure.  Part of me worries that once wind gets into the wood it could topple the remaining trees, but without coppicing they are one by one falling over anyway.  We went around with the wildife trust officer and the contractor last week, marking the trees to come down with a pot of left over red acrylic paint.  By the time we'd finished we'd got paint on the contractor's waterproof jacket, the kitchen towel and the cat.  The wildlife officer thought he might have a spare owl box about the place he could let us have.  There are lots of tawnies but it would be wonderful to have barn owls, and it wouldn't be a bad site for them, with quite a lot of rough grass on the neighbouring farms and about as far from a dual carriageway as you can get around here.  According to The Barn Owl Trust collisions with fast moving traffic is one of the leading causes of death in barn owls.  Of course we could build our own box, but that might not happen any time soon, what with the great decking project and everything.

Monday, 10 January 2011

winter jobs

Today first thing we were forbidden to feed the peacocks anywhere in the plant centre because then they come into the shop.  This would be very fine and dandy and picturesque if it were not for the fact that they roost on the displays and crap on the floor.  Then I got on with winter jobs, cleaning dead leaves and any odd bits of hairy bittercress or liverwort out of the berberis and cornus, top dressing with compost as required, and dusting the pots with a shake of pre-emergent herbicide.  While they were out of their bed I swept dead leaves and spilt compost off the mypex fabric that covers it.  I found a couple that had lost their labels, which were put to one side until they come into leaf or flower and give us more of a clue what they are.  The next stage will be to treat the timber frames of the shrub beds with creosote substitute.  I discovered that I will not be required to help with this, which suits me fine.  The telephone rang quite often.  Sometimes we had the plant the person was looking for, sometimes we didn't.  I did my best to advise the woman whose Daphne odora had lost all its leaves in the winter (she could fleece it if it starts coming back into leaf and more severe cold weather is forecast.  Otherwise there isn't a lot she can do).  I spent some time on the till, and took details of a couple of deliveries.  I got a lot of compost on my coat.  And that was a day at work at a plant centre in January.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

brambles and their relatives

I've been weeding out the brambles that had infiltrated the shrub roses around the informal pond in the meadow.  In a properly conducted garden the pond margins would never have been allowed to get into such a state, but in practice these things happen.  I can't help admiring brambles: they are such efficient colonisers.  I still remember watching with utter fascination David Attenborough's 1995 series 'The Private Life of Plants' and the time lapse photography of brambles growing.  The tips of their stems wave from side to side until they encounter the ground, then they take root.  The prickly loops are superb at wresting territory from mown grass, as they are guaranteed to make anyone cutting it swerve round them, so they advance through the season.  The Attenborough series is still available on DVD, and brambles are in episode one.  I'll leave you to search for it from the vendor of your choice.

Almost more trouble the other side of the pond, though travelling, is Rubus cockburnianus, which I planted for the sake of its white stems.  They are indeed very fine, but it is far too vigorous.  It isn't a tip rooter but sends out questing roots which periodically send up a new clump.  I have been chopping it out lump by lump, but in the places where it has gone under the rabbit fence it is impossible to dislodge.  I could resort to poison.  I don't know if I'll have the heart to get try and get rid of all of it, but I don't think it's a wise thing to have planted.  The only situation I can imagine it being manageable would be in a very large garden, making a big patch but surrounded on all side by mown grass so that any stems that moved beyond their allocated area would be chopped down regularly.  It might need to be a wide strip of grass.  More manageable with me has been Rubus thibetanus, which I bought as 'Silver Fern' but they now seem regarded as the same thing.  That provides white stems in the back garden on a daintier scale, and runs no more than required.  R. spectabilis 'Olympic Double' with its (double) large (for a rubus) bright pink flowers runs fairly enthusiastically, but the unwanted shoots are quite easy to pull up.  I still like that one.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

interesting stones

I was weeding today, in the process of which I collect any interesting stones.  My corner of North Essex sits at the southern limit of the last glaciation, and once formed the bed of the river Thames, when it was still a tributary of what is now (I think) the Rhine.  You can read all about it in a useful book 'Essex Rock', now out of print but available from Essex libraries (which is how I read it hence I don't have a copy immediately to hand to check that it was the Rhine that the Thames flowed into).  Thus there are a lot of interesting stones.  I use large flints for decoration in some parts of the garden, and rounded pebbles in others.  In a year I probably collect as many round pebbles as I could buy from a garden centre for about £8.99, but that's not the point.  I haven't yet worked out a use for the pointed stones the size of a finger, which look like fossilised teeth and almost certainly aren't any such thing.  I'm sure something will occur to me, so in the meantime they sit in a jar by my desk.  My favourite stones are the ones with holes through them.  I found one of those today.  I plan to string them on a thin but rot-resistant cord and hang them in the front garden, but there's a way to go yet, as today's find brings my total to eight.  That's not enough for a really good string.

Friday, 7 January 2011

grow your own citrus

The Seville oranges have arrived in the local farm shop (this means that preserving sugar, without added pectin, has disappeared from the local supermarket.  They allocate a tiny amount of shelf space to it, and have never worked out that it sells much faster during the brief marmalade season).

One of my first attempts as a child at sowing seed was with orange pips.  I can't remember what growing medium I used, but I'm sure it wasn't specialist citrus compost.  They made healthy little plants that lasted for some time on a south east facing window sill in a chilly hall, until arrangements for watering during the annual family camping holiday failed.  I tried again a few years ago with bought pips from a seed catalogue and nothing came up, which made me wonder if they dislike drying out and need to be fresh.  Last marmalade time I sowed two pots of Seville seeds, in citrus compost as I had some, and tried one in a heated propagator and one unheated.  Nothing appeared in either, and searching around in one pot with a finger I couldn't even find the pips.  I concluded that I must have over-watered them and that they had rotted, and chucked one pot into the rubbish bin, only to find it had contained white seedling roots.  The pips after sowing turn dark brown and are very difficult to spot among the compost.  I rescued as many as I could find and ended up with about a dozen young Seville orange plants.  They have made it through the winter so far in a greenhouse which is kept just about frost free by running an electric fan heater when the thermometer is below freezing for long periods.  It is otherwise unheated, including nights when temperatures dip low enough to give a frost, so they can't need much in the way of heat.  My next mission is to find one of those large and really knobbly lemons and try the seeds from that.  I believe limes need more warmth than I can supply.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

arrival of Chiltern Seeds catalogue

The Chiltern Seeds catalogue arrived this week.  Every year I whinge that it hasn't come and it's late, and then sometime just after Christmas it turns up.  I haven't found anything else quite like it.  Chiltern Seeds, despite their name, have long been based in Ulverston in Cumbria.  Their catalogue is a long skinny little book 29.5cm tall and only 10.5cm across, like a pocket diary that's sampled Alice's 'DRINK ME' bottle.  It is a total joy both for the range of plants included, and the descriptions.  Everything is listed in alphabetical order of Latin plant name, with no attempt to divide them into trees and shrubs, annuals, perennials and so on, although there are all those, plus succulents, climbers, and vegetables in their own separate book.  The form of growth is indicated by codes, along with hardiness and attractiveness to bees and butterflies plus suitability for cutting or bonsai.  There is a huge array of woody and herbaceous plants from all parts of the world, including every year many I've never heard of.  Besides the sheer range of plants, what makes this catalogue such fun are the descriptions.  Some are beautifully economical, managing to cover what the plant looks like, what growing conditions it would like, plus a snippet about the meaning of its name, who introduced it to Western gardens, or its traditional uses, in just a couple of sentences.  Others are gloriously eccentric.  I cherish the memory of one described as looking like a Christmas pudding with a few strands of grass stuck randomly in the top.  I haven't found yet whether that's included in the 2011 catalogue, but the description of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon or Monkey's Hand Tree (catalogue number 336Q) runs it a close second.  There are no pictures.

In fact they have a very good website, which does have pictures, and you can order on-line, as I probably will.  But for an evening's entertainment, browsing through the website doesn't have the same charm as leafing through the printed catalogue, making pencil marks in the margin and discovering at the end that the long list of contenders for this year's order runs to over 200 items, and regretfully starting to prune it to a more manageable number.

The seed packets when they come are modest little white paper envelopes.  A few carry germination advice such as 'removed from cold storage, sow immediately' or brief instructions on stratification, but in general you are left to work it out for yourself.  Compared to being given instructions on germination temperature, expected number of days to germinate and so on it can feel like being thrown in at the deep end.  But how many of us are able to set our conditions to 10-15 degrees versus 13-16 degrees anyway?  I sow everything in February apart from any marked 'sow immediately' and enough comes up every year to make the exercise well worth while.  Go on, have some fun.  You know you want to.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

the great decking project

The project to replace the decking is progressing.  It's a pity that decking now has such a bad image: so last decade, TV makeover, probably only still being installed in bastions of bad taste like Essex...If you want to provide level hard-landscaped areas to give somewhere to put a table and chairs and some pots, and divide up the garden internally, and you are dealing with a sloping site in an area of the country with no natural building stone, on a limited budget, decking is rather what you end up with.  Brick retaining walls and properly laid paving would cost a multiple of my annual income.  The only time we had a brick wall built in the back garden, when we had the conservatory installed many years ago, the builders hit quicksand digging the foundations.  Better not go there again.

I had fancied the idea of industrial metal grating, probably after one or two visits too many to the Chelsea Flower Show.  There turned out to be several problems with this idea.  Industrial grating is expensive.  It comes in set sizes which are not multiples of the dimensions of the existing decks, so there would be an awful lot of cutting with an angle grinder, and a lot of waste.

Instead we hit on western red cedar.  This has good technical properties, the most important being that it is naturally rot resistant outdoors and doesn't require wood treatment.  This will spare me many tedious hours with a paintbrush, and avoid that sinking feeling as the stain dries to a colour that is much more orange than it looked on the tin.  If left untreated it fades to an agreeable shade of grey.

The big pile of planks arrived in mid November.  They looked very nice, with bevelled edges, and hadn't been bundled together with steel bands so there were no problems with crushed edges or marked faces.  After some time making jigs to do the job properly the first deck went down, and looked extremely smart.  Then it froze, then it snowed.  It is impossible to lay decking in those conditions because (a) the planks stick together and you can't get them off the pile (b) the planks won't lie flat on the beams because there are ice crystals on all surfaces (c) drilling the frozen planks risks splitting them (d) it is impossible to line up the screws wearing gloves and without gloves you lose the use of your fingers after ten minutes (e) the cordless screwdriver battery won't hold a charge.  A powered screwdriver is necessary because laid end to end there is 1.6km of decking.  It is also tricky laying decking in the rain because (a) you can't see which the best side of the plank is (b) you get wet and then you get a cold or your back goes (c) the power tools get wet and stop working or you get electrocuted.

Nailing decking down is a lot faster, and you are not supposed to do it, because if it warps it will lift the nails straight out of the beams.  This is what happened with the old decking, which was only untreated softwood and had gone badly rotten in places.  Some of the less rotten bits have already been recycled into a new compost bin.  Waste not, want not.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Christmas is over, thinking about fruit

The Christmas tree came down today.  It isn't quite twelth night, but it seemed time.  It had been up for a fortnight and I've been back to work.  It was a common cut Norway spruce, and it kept its needles extremely well.  This is probably because it was very fresh, and the house is rather cold.  It was a local tree, grown only twelve miles away, and in death it will not be wasted.  The branches will be shredded and used as mulch, and the trunk will go into the log burner.

I'll probably bestow the mulch on the blueberries.  They like acid soil and moisture, and a pine mulch should suit them fine.  They don't like manure, and the pine needles will remind me not to chuck 6X on them when I'm doing the black currants.  They need little in the way of care and maintenance, and are worth growing when you look at the price of a small punnet of blueberries in the supermarket.  I got a useful little recipe book from the Trehane stand at Hampton Court this year.  Blueberries simmered lightly with amaretto and spooned over crushed amaretti biscuits just before serving have gone down very well with the people I've tried them on so far.

I pruned the grapevine today, before the sap started to rise, so that it wouldn't bleed.  Due to a failure of record keeping I don't know what variety it is.  The grapes last year were vaguely grape flavoured, small and pippy, despite my best efforts at thinning, but the chickens liked them.  The leaves are excellent for dolmades, more use than the grapes really.

Back in November, before the snow started, I was going to get another cherry tree.  I said the same thing last year and then with the hard winter never got round to it.  I had better get myself organised, or I'll have missed my chance for another season.  It must have been a tough couple of years for bare root growers.

Monday, 3 January 2011

escape to paradise?

It isn't just the customers who would rather be anywhere but here.  On my desk are the January issues of the three monthly gardening magazines I subscribe to.  'Escape to Paradise' is the lead story on the cover of Gardens Illustrated above a photograph of allliums and oriental poppies in a hazy golden light.  'Eight gorgeous gardens to start the year' promises The English Garden atop a picture of a rowing boat on a pond surrounded by flowering hydrangeas.  Whenever the year starts it obviously isn't in January.  Only the RHS Garden magazine doggedly offers 'Winter Garden Delight' with a picture of "a topiary centrepiece glowing in the watery light of winter at Cantax House, Wiltshire'.  I can see that a magazine editor, faced with yet another year of mustering enthusiasm for coloured and peeling bark, clipped evergreens and snowdrops might decide that they or their readers couldn't face it and that pretending it was May or July would be easier, but since the watery light of winter is mostly what we've got at the moment we might as well try and make the most of it.

I may have been too hard on our customers.  Today one bought an entire trolley of unusual shrubs and trees, and we had a very nice chat about the ways of foxglove trees.  A delightful couple, both bent with age and walking on sticks, bought a walnut tree.  The only way to get it into their saloon car was through the sunroof.  Lucky the tree was out of leaf and they didn't have far to travel.  He thanked me as I wrapped the trunk to make sure it didn't chafe, and told me not to get old, it wasn't worth it.  I reminded him that as the saying went it was preferable to the alternative.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

if you open they will come (not)

The owners of the plant centre where I work decided to open today, which suited me.  I didn't expect we'd get lots of customers, but I thought some people might want to get out of the house and look at plants after the Christmas and New Year festivities, or have made New Year's resolutions to get to grips with their gardens.  And it was a nice day.  OK, there was a flurry of snow first thing, but after that it was dry and quite sunny and it must have got up to at least three degrees C.  Practically nobody came.  In the summer on a warm day customers say to me 'what a marvellous place to work, I'd love to have your job', but where are they now?  Come Easter they'll be back, and the place will be heaving until the end of June.  The trouble is, the English are such a nation of fair-weather gardeners.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

new year flowers

I had planned to make my inaugural New Year's Day post an account of the flowers out in the garden on 1st January.  There is normally a scattering of winter stalwarts and a few summer stragglers.  This year, practically nothing.  Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' had made a valiant effort, but the open petals were browned by cold.  At least there'll be some more along later.  Viburnum tinus opposite the dustbins managed a scattering.  It is never very floriferous.  Maybe it resents the mundane aspect.  Elsewhere a blank apart from one rather weedy Helleborus foetidus sporting a small tuft of green flowers on top of its single stem.  Among the leaves of Iris unguicularis I counted three tight buds, one nibbled by snails and one collapsed at the neck due to the weather. I haven't seen any flowers yet on the winter flowering cherry since winter began.  Some shrubs were 'showing colour', as plant nurseries' availibility lists would put it, but don't count for the purposes of today's survey.  Happy New Year.