Thursday, 31 March 2011

three exhibitions

I have visited three exhibitions today, and my brain is rather full.  That's the trouble with occassional cultural trips to London: I feel the need to cram in as much culture as possible, what with the cost of train tickets, and finding the time to take a day off from everything else to go to London at all.

First of all I saw Jan Gossaert's Renaissance at the National Gallery.  It is very good, and it is on until 30th May, so plenty of time left for others to go and see it.  There are a fair few religious works, as you would expect of a Flemish artist working in the first part of the sixteenth century, an entire room full of portraits, and some frankly sexy ('erotic' is the word favoured by curators) versions of Adam and Eve and Mary Magdalen.  As well as paintings and drawings by Gossaert, there are works by some of his contemporaries, including a couple of lovely Durer woodcuts.  I went to this one with a friend, who bought the tickets, so I was relieved that they seemed to broadly enjoy it too, once we got past the initial rash of Virgin and Childs.  It is a heavy responsibility inciting other people into art galleries.  As a 21st century person of No Religion I tried to imagine what you would feel looking at a portrait of the Virgin and Child, if you were a devout Catholic in the sixteenth century, but failed.

In the afternoon I went to the National Portrait Gallery and looked at a couple of photographic exhibitions.  There is a risk doing this of ending up completely confused about who took which pictures, but in this case they are not that similar.  The big show (timed entry tickets, eleven quid) is of Hoppe portraits.  I'd never heard of Hoppe (sorry, there should be an accent over that final e but I can't work out how to insert it), not being all that well up on the history of photography, but it reviewed well in the papers.  It's great.  Again on until 30 May.  These pictures were mostly taken in the 1920s and 30s.  Some of the subjects I know of and admire, including poet Edward Thomas (looking tense), John Masefield (The Midnight Folk, The Box of Delights and The Bird of Dawning still count among my favourites) looking unexpectedly young and romantic, and Vita Sackville-West (in literary rather than gardening mode).  There is a marvellous picture of Thomas Hardy as quite an old man.  He was notoriously camera shy and Hoppe had almost despaired of getting the shot when Hardy suddenly settled.  He looks composed but wistful, and I was reminded of his rueful poetry about his first wife (marriage not a success.  I rate Hardy as a poet hugely more than as a novelist).  Some of the portraits are of people I hadn't heard of, so while I imagined them and their lives I may have been wildly off the mark.  Then there are some quirky scenes from life: a cupboard of skeletons at a shop that used to sell them to artists and medical students (female skeletons were rarer and cost more), an elaborately quoiffed and made-up woman working making wax heads for Madame Tussauds, three bell-ringers (one gloriously podgy) captured in mid-ring at St Olaves in Hart St. before the war.  It is really, really good.  Some of the pictures are original silver and whatsit prints, and are soft and wonderful as objects in themselves.

Then I whizzed around Ida Kar, an Armenian photographic artist who moved to Britain after WWII.  This exhibition is mostly of works from the 1950s and 1960s, so later than Hoppe, though I think they both include shots of Jacob Epstein.  Ida Kar must be less prestigous than Hoppe in that tickets are untimed and only three quid, though she did have a blockbusting exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery back in 1960.  You can get a combined ticket, as I did, in which case you don't have to go to Kar on the same day if you've run out of time or energy.  Kar's portraits mostly show their subject in their own home, or studio, or at least staged with a pile of props related to their career, whereas Hoppe mostly eschewed props, apart from the odd costume.  It is good show, and bigger than I had expected, and I'm slightly regretful that I ended up looking at it against the clock (last cheap day return home from Liverpool Street before the commuter period is at 4.15pm.  Miss that and you're left hanging around London until quarter to seven), and with a brain already stuffed with images.  It's on until June 19th, and if I do have a spare afternoon in town I'd like to go again.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

beware the bouncing bunnies

The trail camera has provided some reassurance that my efforts repairing the wire around the back garden have reduced the inflow of plant-eating wildlife.  Over the six nights to yesterday evening it recorded cats and assorted birds, but no rabbits or muntjac.  We'll keep monitoring the nocturnal visitors periodically, but in the meantime I might risk planting out the pots of small bulbs that are supposed to be going out there.

It obviously pays to have patience and leave the camera in the same place for several nights, to build up a picture of what exactly is going on.  We had it trained up the side of the wood, where I knew rabbits were coming in to the meadow from their droppings.  Having repaired all the holes in the fence I could see this was a bit of a puzzle.  For several nights all we got was random photos of rabbits hopping about, but finally we got action footage of one getting in. You can see how it did it here.

Reader, it jumped.  I have measured that fence, and it is fully 60cm high.  I am working my way round the boundary adding a second strand of wire between the tops of the fence posts, and filling in with coarse gauge galvanised netting.  Anyone with a country garden, be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

about the comments

The Systems Administrator has been pressed into service to help test the comments funtion, so I now know it does work using Firefox, and from somebody else's computer as well as mine.  If you click on comments a box comes up in which to post the comment.  You need to choose an option for the identity under which you are going to comment.  I have no idea what LiveJournal, WordPress or TypePad are, or how to make them go away, but if you go for name/URL you can put any name you like in the name box, and your comment will come up under that name.  A URL is a web address, which you'll only have if you've got a website or blog, but you can leave it out.  I don't get to see your e-mail address, though I do get an e-mail from Blogspot alerting me to the fact that a comment's been posted.  If I don't like it I can delete it!

Comments only work for posts made since I changed the comments settings.  Sorry about that.

a tale of two vegetables

I spent the morning planting asparagus crowns.  After making some price comparisons a while back I ordered these from Mr Fothergill, and was expecting them to be despatched in April, so was taken aback when they arrived last Friday, just before my long weekend working at the plant centre.  The instructions said that if you couldn't plant them immediately they should be removed from their packaging (a plastic bag.  They would get rather sweaty) but not allowed to dry out.  I wrapped them in damp newpaper and put them in a bucket in the study, as we're not lighting a fire in there at the moment and it's cool.  I tipped some extra water into the roll of newspaper over the weekend, and they looked fine this morning.  I think asparagus roots are quite tenacious of life, based on the fact that our existing plants are doing well now, despite having been accidentally dug up in their youth.

The current asparagus bed is my second attempt at growing it.  The first time was not a success.  The books said that asparagus required good drainage and normal soil, so I added a bit of fertiliser to the bed and planted a pack of crowns.  This was a long time ago, and I'd not yet grasped quite how far short of 'normal' the soil in the top part of the garden is.  The asparagus made straw-thin spears and struggled miserably.  I decided to bite the bullet and start again, in a different bed, with masses of added home-made compost.  I bought some pot grown plants from work, thinking I'd gain a bit of time that way, plus they were going cheap.  A while later my other half, on giving up full-time commuting, proclaimed a desire to grow vegatables.  I thought this was a splendid idea, since I like eating vegetables and much prefer growing ornamentals.  One day I wandered out to the veg patch, and the asparagus seemed to have disappeared.  I enquired what had happened to it. 'Oh, was that asparagus?  I thought it was the roots of beans or something and dug it up'.  I retrieved the (slightly dessicated) rootballs from the compost heap and found a couple that had rolled under a hedge, and replanted them.  Three years on the emerging spears equal the thickness of at least the second-best grade of locally grown asparagus at the farm shop, and I think we might cut some this season.  At last.  I'm only buying more plants to fill up that bed, instead of using part of it for something else, so that we can have more asparagus.  A surfeit, after years of famine.

Lettuce production in the next-door field is going at full clatter.  They planted up most of it last week, and the last bit today.  The young lettuce plants come in trays.  From the one commercial horticulture module I did at Writtle I'm sure that these are bought in from a specialist grower, and that our friendly neighbouring lettuce farmer doesn't sow them himself.  The trays are stacked on the back of a trailer towed behind a tractor, and two girls slide the lettuces onto a chute, and a mechanism at the bottom somehow plants each one the right way up and firms it in.  I'd really like to see that close up as I can't imagine how it works.  The lettuce farm did hold an open day a few years ago, but we were on holiday at the time.  Two young men walk behind the trailer and sort out any lettuces that the machine has not planted properly.  The crop at this time of the year is immediately covered in fleece, which comes folded, on a large roll about 1.5m wide, that two people can carry between them.  Once unrolled it is unfolded, and is about 10m wide.  The farm workers get the edges straight and hold the fleece down with spadefuls of earth at intervals, then a small tractor with a plough blade drives round the edge of the fleece, turning soil onto it to secure it.  It must be tricky getting the fleece spread out on windy days.

Monday, 28 March 2011

about the comments

I think I have finally worked out how to enable comments.  Sorry it took 90 days to get there, and thanks to both the people whom I know have tried to leave comments.  They will know that I am better with plants and animals than technology.  Anyway, I ticked one box instead of another deep in the bowels of my Blogspot control settings, and it seems to work now.  You can put any name you like in the name box, or go with anonymous.  If you want a URL you will have to set up a blog of your own!

peacocks and flowers

The peacock at work has been displaying his tail.  It is extraordinarily exotic.  Behind the big ornamental Arts Nouveau style feathers he has a shorter fan of stiff feathers, which he rattles.  The hen appears totally unmoved, and goes on eating grass, and I am reminded of the Punch cartoon of a small peahen standing in front of a male with an absolutely huge fan tail, and the caption 'What do you mean, no?'.  The young peacock that hatched last year has been raising his little tail as well, though he doesn't have anything like the full array yet.

The fancy chicken with the ultra large comb, that flops over one eye (I should have thought it would drive her mad) keeps coming into the back of the shop, now that it's getting warmer and we leave the doors open.  Fortunately most of the customers seem to think that this is quaint and charming.  The doors are automatic, but the sensor inside the shop is getting a bit weak, and sometimes it doesn't detect that you are approaching and you have to do a few steps like a square dance to trigger the doors, so leaving them open is easier in some ways.  The sensor outside the shop broke ages ago, and it was quite handy being able to stop customers from wandering in by the back door.  Those in the know are aware that to get in you have to turn a key in the door frame.

We do our own version of the peacock's tail, with arrangements of those plants that are looking especially floriferous or desirable on tables around the plant centre.  They help make the place look nice, and they are shamelessly intended to induce people to spend money on impulse purchases.  Sorry, that's what shops do.  I got to re-do some of the display tables today, which I always enjoy as it gives me a chance to play with all the prettiest plants, and makes a change from picking dead leaves off the Leycesteria.  I try to use things that could be grown together in the garden, partly to give customers some genuinely helpful ideas, and partly because I find the alternative looks so jarringly odd.  The design principles of unity and repetition help, so not too many different varieties on one table, and I aim to find things that look well together in terms of habit, and leaf size and texture, as well as colour.  Today I paired up a variegated Photinia with peachy brown and red young leaves with a Heuchera in just the same shade of russet.  I didn't actually like either plant particularly, but it was a good colour match.  Somebody will buy them.

I got home to find the chickens ranging freely.  Their chaperone, swaddled in layers of fleece and a hat, announced that they were starting to flock together much better.  Then the rooster fell in the pond.  In fairness to him, maybe he didn't know he couldn't walk on the duckweed, but he does now.  He breast-stroked across the width of the pond, shrieking horribly, and I plucked him out, but I think he is traumatised.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

it's census day

So whose brilliant idea was it to hold the census on the day after the clocks change?  I got up at five in the morning, body clock time, to go to work, and now I am supposed to fill in this vast form.  Or rather, the householder is supposed to do so.  I'm not sure which of us that is.  It seems a rather archaic concept.  We own the property jointly, and most of our bills are paid by direct debit.  Maybe it should be the one who contributes more in cash terms towards paying household bills and expenses?  Or maybe the one who contributes more to domestic organisation?  The honours there seem evenly split.  I am responsible for arranging the cats' medical appointments, finding someone to look after the menagerie when we go away, booking builders and decorators, and the Christmas card list.  Problems with telecoms, and anything to do with the central heating, fuel oil, the TV and Sky box, or drains are strictly not my department.  We have another five weeks to argue about it before the enforcers come knocking at the door.

It's going to be difficult matching the details of our house to the options given in the questions about accommodation.  The living area is split level and open plan, so I'm not sure if the downstairs bit counts as part of the same room, a different room, or part of the hall (in which case it doesn't count).  If we were trying to sell the house the estate agent would call it two rooms, so we'd better go with that.  The number of rooms built or converted for use as bedrooms is baffling.  How do you know that a room was built as a bedroom?  My mother's house has a ground-floor room that was allegedly built as a dining room, but since it won't hold a table, six chairs and six people it gets used as a study.  Is somebody who needs a home office and buys a property with sufficient rooms to accommodate one supposed to impute intentions to the original builder?  My partner says bedrooms are upstairs, but what about bungalows and flats?  Our previous house was also split level, and two of the bedrooms there were downstairs.  I don't understand why they want to know the number of bedrooms anyway, unless somebody is contemplating a George Monbiot billeting system (Our records show that you have bedrooms surplus to your household's requirements.  Here is your new lodger).  Asking about the floor area would make much more sense, except that we don't use that in the UK, unlike the Continent, and most people wouldn't know how to work it out.  The local authority already knows roughly how big the properties in the district are, because they have been banded for council tax.

I'm not sure what to put for the central heating.  We have a two log burning stoves and an open fireplace, so wood is a significant part of our heating mix.  But apart from the warm air that rises by convection from the sitting room to the upstairs corridor, none of them heat multiple rooms, so according to the form they don't count as central heating.  But if we had a stove with doors on both sides, mounted in a chimney between two rooms, like my brother-in-law has, then I suppose that would count as central heating.  Or if we had a wood-chip boiler.  But in the country many more people rely largely on stoves and fireplaces than have wood-chip boilers.

The DVLA already knows the number of cars or vans registered at this address.  I suppose the number of vehicles not owned by us but available for our use might be of some use, but I'm not sure exactly what.  Some people can't drive, choose not to drive, or live in the centre of a city with good public transport and dire parking.  Living round here if you don't have a vehicle you would be struggling badly.  Counting vehicles without knowing the context doesn't seem to get you very far.

Individual question 2 seems likely to upset some people, as it asks What is your sex [tick box] male [tick box] female.  I wonder if the Office for National Statistics ran that one past the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community?

I don't see why my religion is any business of the State, though question 20 is voluntary.  The options don't seem very nuanced.  I am the child of a lapsed Anglican and a devout atheist, was baptised but not confirmed, attended a convent school at one time, am not a practicing member of any religion but do think about it.  My religion should probably be described as Protestant agnostic.  If I tick No religion I might be lumped in with the aggressive shouty atheists like Richard Dawkins, or the droning Humanists that go on about the iniquity of Thought for the Day, and I wouldn't like that.  I could put Jedi, but I think that joke might be so ten years ago, and I'm not a great Star Wars fan.  If it's worrying being aggregated with other forms of non-believer then goodness knows how different forms of believer feel about it (Catholic or Protestant?  Sunni or Shia?  Hey, whose counting?).

I suppose my job title is Plant Centre Assistant, though we don't go in for job titles much.  As to briefly describing what I do, Sell plants should cover it.  I don't see why the census needs to know the name and address of my employer, though.  The tax man already does.  I thought the census was supposed to be used at an aggregate level for planning services and infrastructure.  Asking how far from my home my work is might be quite useful, but they don't ask that.

I hope it's the last one.

Addendum  The householder turns out to be the person who volunteered to fill out the form on-line, partly to see if it worked (not me).  I have decided my National identity is English, because of the Midlothian question.  The householder forgot to include their A levels, so how they got into university is a mystery.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

what a difference a day makes

All day the customers and my co-workers alike muttered to each other, as we passed in the aisles or met at the till, how cold it was, and how unlike yesterday.  I realised that my decision to swop my hideous fleece winter trousers for my equally unprepossessing  water repellent cotton summer trousers had been premature.

The boss announced that we were not going to replace any more plants that had clearly been killed by the cold weather.  I said that we ought to get on and modify our labels to say which plants were not reliably winter hardy, but he has obstinately taken against this idea, and says that there is no room on the labels for any more information, and that we ought to be giving out that sort of advice at the till.  This is not going to work, because when there is a queue of people with full trollies waiting to pay we can't start discussing the cultural needs of each plant.  There wouldn't be time.  Getting the right amount of money through the right till category is as far as it goes.  In my experience, trying to chat to customers about their plants while operating the till is a recipe for till errors.

It's a nice question, though.  If a customer buys a plant without prior knowledge of what it needs and in what circumstances it might succeed or fail, is it their duty to find out, or our duty to check whether they know and if not tell them?  Obviously if people ask for advice we do our best to help, but many don't ask.  The business model relies on a lot of customers not asking, otherwise prices would have to be significantly higher to pay for the extra staff.  The labels give a fair amount of information, but it has to admitted sometimes in terms that mean more to the experienced gardener than the novice.  The former can decode 'requires a sunny, sheltered position' as 'not all that hardy, could die in a cold winter' but the latter doesn't necessarily.  I had somebody return a couple of variegated Ugni molinae 'Flambeau' a while back, that had not even been planted in the ground but left in their 2 litre pots balanced on top of a pair of ornamental chimney pots.  The customer protested that her garden was sheltered.  However sheltered the site, Ugni are not hardy down to -12C or lower.  If you have never heard of an Ugni, maybe you should ask somebody about it or look it up before buying a couple because they look so pretty.  It's a tricky one.

Friday, 25 March 2011

revamping the long bed

I've been making progress replanting the section of the long bed I've been working on.  The remains of a Hebe 'Mrs Winder' have gone the same way as the H. salicifolia.  That had not made such a large rootball, because it is a smaller shrub, but over the years it had layered itself to form subsidiary rooting points, and was in fact dead in the middle but very firmly attached to the ground at each end.  My Pilates teacher does not really approve of pickaxes.  Or digging.

The Berberis thunbergii 'Orange Rocket' and the three 'Hot Chocolate' roses have gone in.  The label of the 'Orange Rocket' says that the leaves turn green later in the season, so I hope they stay orange long enough to overlap with at least some of the roses' period of flowering.  I hadn't thought of that when I imagined the scheme originally.  I've added Euonymus planipes to the mix, which I'd been wanting to fit in somewhere for a long time.  The winter buds are attractive, being long and pointed like little cigars, but the main reason for growing it is the autumn colour.  It turns early, to wonderful shades of pink and red.  It is one of those plants whose name I kept writing down in my garden visiting notebook over and over again.  If the same thing catches my eye repeatedly at different gardens I take that as a clue that I really like it.  I've also added a Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Wrinkled Blue', which has smallish and slightly wavy leaves in a pleasant shade of bluish-green.  Something glaucous should tone down the orange nicely.  Of course if we have another cold winter it could die, but only experience will tell.  My 'Arundel Green' is absolutely fine, but some (admittedly recently planted) 'Tom Thumb' are looking very poorly.  I'd like a bit more of an evergreen spine along the bed, to make the garden feel more enclosed in the winter, when the field hedge is pretty much see-through.

I replanted the best of the iris rhizomes I lifted some days ago.  Since then they have been in a box in the woodshed, and in an ideal world they would have been replanted before now, but having seen how tenacious of life left-over rhizomes are, that have been thrown on the compost heap, I think they'll be OK.

I've dug in all but three of the bags of mushroom compost.  It disappears into the sand with disconcerting ease, and we're going to need to go and get some more next week.  A customer at work recently came up with a great phrase when I asked him what his soil was like.  'Hungry.  Put your coat down on it and it'll vanish'.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

a grand day out

I took a day off from the garden yesterday, and we went to Norfolk, to visit the market town of Wymondham (pronounced Windam) just south of Norwich.  As we sat on Manningtree station the Norwich train became first seven and then nine minutes late.  A member of staff walking by remarked that it was lovely to be sitting out in the sunshine.  I thought that it was, and that it would have been even lovelier to have been travelling through the Suffolk countryside, but it seemed churlish to say so.  We made the connection at Norwich with a couple of minutes to spare, so that was fine.

Wymondham is a pleasant town.  After picking our way round the building site outside the station and across a fairly busy main road it was a very short walk into the town centre, where we found ourselves looking at the early seventeenth century Market Cross.  Although called the Market Cross it is actually a hexagonal timber framed building on legs, what would be the ground floor being open sided.  The upstairs houses the tourist information office, but that doesn't open on Wednesdays in March, and the lower storey was not accessible due to building works.  Still, it is a handsome structure.  It replaced the previous market cross which burned down in the great fire of Wymondham in 1615, caused by arson.

Then we went to look at Wymondham Abbey.  The majority of the abbey was reduced to ruins after the Reformation, and only a few bits of stonework are still visible above ground, but the nave and aisles remain intact, between two towers, one ruined at the top.  This is still in use as the parish church.  The interior is massive, austere and beautiful, with great solid Norman arches stacked two high along the nave, and a later third row of arches above.  The stone for the interior was shipped in from Normandy.  The roof is fifteenth century and very lovely, with carved angels at the beam ends.  The roof of the north aisle dates from the same period, though without the angels, and as I was getting a crick in my neck peering up at ceilings I lay down on the floor of the aisle to look at it properly.  Nobody objected.  The abbey is used for concerts as well as religious services, and I noticed with some regret that the choir of Kings College are due to perform Durufle's requiem there this coming Saturday.  I should think that would be quite something.

We had a drink in The Green Dragon just around the corner from the abbey, which has magnificant beams and good beer, and lunch in the station cafe.  This is famous among railway fans for its railway memorabilia.  Afterwards I felt full of chicken, ham and leek pie, but in a good way.  The station building is rather fine, a Gothick frolic in knapped flint and diagonal brickwork patterns, and the windows in proportion.

The Heritage Museum is housed in what was the prison.  The chaps on the desk (I presume volunteers) were very keen that we should start with the dungeons, and as the first dungeon contained a strange collection of pre-war irons, electric heaters and vacuum cleaners we were a little bewildered, but the second dungeon had an audio presentation of somebody being incarcerated for theft and we began to get the picture.  The ground floor displays had the sort of local history I'd hoped to find, so I discovered that Wymondham at one point was the brush making capital of Norfolk, but that the two brush factories, once employing over six hundred people, had both shut down and the sites redeveloped for housing.  Apart from that there were the usual East Anglian rural industries, a bit of weaving, brewing, agriculture and the rest.  Lotus cars are based quite close to Wymondham and there were some pictures of those, plus the usual fossils and fragments of pottery.  I don't think the museum can be desperately well funded, and most of the displays consist of bits of text and photos painstakingly stuck onto boards rather than big glossy printed panels.  It's quite engaging and you learn quite a lot, but it isn't quirky enough to make it into my Museum of Museums.

In the mid sixteenth century a local man, Robert Kett, led an unsuccessful peasants' rebellion.  This sounded rather depressingly similar to modern rebellions, starting as a peaceful protest and ending in slaughter, via the use of captured nobles as human shields.  Robert Kett was hanged at the time, and 450 years later has a school in Wymondham named after him.

We had half an hour to spare at Norwich, so went through the barriers and looked at the outside of the station, which is in honey coloured stone in a sort of Low Countries baroque meets art nouveau style.  Then we came home, and remembered to get off at Manningtree and not Colchester.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

you just can't get the staff

I was browsing through the Telegraph on-line, and saw that one of their journalists had been putting garden centres to the test.  His final visit was to a specialist nursery where, he commented, staff were scarce.  He might find the clue to their scarcity in his opening sentence, that with Easter on the horizon, even the most dormant gardener wakes from hibernation.  True.  At my firm turnover is literally ten-fold higher than it was a couple of months ago, and this is normal.  Customers want to buy plants when there is a pleasant tang of spring in the air, not when the thermometer creeps up to a daytime maximum of three degrees.  Most businesses would struggle to flex their staffing levels that quickly, let alone ones that require their staff to actually know something.  And we have to know a lot.

The plant centre where I work offers approximately 6,000 species and varieties, some popular garden stalwarts and some rare and difficult to find, according to our website.  For all of these we are expected to know what kind of plant they are, whether a tree, shrub, herbaceous, climber or whatever.  We need to know their current Latin name, any previous Latin names they have gone by in the past forty years (many gardeners still don't believe in Brachyglottis) and their common name or names.  We need to know whether we have them at the moment, or if not whether we are likely to get them and when.  We need to know where in the plant centre they will be if we do have them.  A lot of evergreens and more tender plants are moved outdoors in the summer and put under cover in the winter, and some species that will grow to make full sized forest trees arrive with us as 30cm whips in tiny pots, so locations are never straightforward and vary seasonally.

Then we need to know, for every plant, how tall and wide it will grow, how quickly, and its habit of growth, whether upright, spreading or weeping.  We need to know if it is evergreen or deciduous, and what colour the foliage is, and if it is deciduous what the autumn colour is like.  We need to know if it flowers, and if so when, and what colour, and for how long, and how large the flowers are, and whether they are scented, and if they are attractive to insects.  We need to know whether it fruits, and if so what colour the fruits, and whether they are poisonous to children and dogs, and whether it needs another plant to pollinate it.  We need to know which ones have interesting bark.  We need to know whether every plant requires sun or shade or will take either, if it needs acid or alkaline soil, whether it needs moisture or sharp drainage, if it will tolerate waterlogging and drying out, if it can withstand wind or needs shelter, what winter minimum temperature it is likely to survive, and whether it will grow by the sea.  We need to know whether you prune it or cut it back, and if so how and when.  We need to know if it is likely to do well long term in a pot.  We need to know which plants have prickles or irritant sap or toxic foliage.  We need to know whether it might be proof against honey fungus, or rabbits or deer.  We need to know whether you can take cuttings or divide it, and if so how and when.

As well as being fountains of knowledge on any plant a customer asks for or about, we need to be able to do the trick in reverse, to suggest a plant for any situation, to cope with a particular site while providing required attributes, such as colour at specified times whether a long season or for a July wedding next year, or rapid screening.  We have to be able to identify pests and diseases and cultivation problems from bad photographs and sad samples given to us in plastic bags, and suggest a treatment or cure.  We have to give crash courses in garden design to bewildered novices who have bought a new-build property with a completely empty garden.  We have to advise on lawn care, and are expected to carry a sowing timetable for the more common vegetables in our heads.

Most of our customers, it should be stressed, are very nice, but sometimes we have to be diplomats.   We find ourselves being sympathetic to the bereaved, who want a special plant for their loved one, be it partner or pet, or standing by politely while couples conduct matrimonials in front of us.  Some customers appear terribly lonely and want to chat, which can be difficult when we're busy.  Some ring up asking for us to look for plants for them when they are fairly obviously drunk.  A very few think that it is absolutely fine to be rude to people working in a shop.  And some are time wasters, or journalists conducting research.  I have every sympathy with the well spoken young woman at Roger Platt's nursery who told the Telegraph journalist that grass really wasn't her bag and he should consult a lawn expert.  If her employer doesn't even sell lawn products why should she be expected to give lawn advice, at her busiest time of year?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

star magnolias

The Magnolia stellata down by the ditch has come out in the past few days.  It is the variety 'Waterlily', which has numerous white petals that give quite a full, starry effect.  The soil down there is silty, and the bed is partially shaded by the willow trees that grow on the far side of the ditch.  Indeed, at times it has probably been too shady.  Some of the shrubs along the border were leaning forwards towards the light, and this winter we took a lot of low branches off the willows.  The magnolia was planted in February 2004, and is still only about 1.2m across and tall.  It might have grown taller given more light, though the stellata forms are reckoned to be slow growers.

One reason it is not larger is that two or three years ago, after it had flowered normally, it failed to come into leaf, and I discovered that a large part of the top growth had died, for no reason I could discern.  I have heard of other cases of magnolias doing this, mentioned in booklets picked up at open gardens I've visited, and it's something my boss has talked about.  I had a young M. lilliflora 'Nigra' do the same thing, though I presumed that was because I was asking it to grow in thoroughly unpleasant clay soil.  The M. stellata 'Waterlily' began to produce new growth from low down, so I cut out the dead wood and waited to see what happened next.  It regrew to make a well shaped bush that flowers perfectly normally, and the 'Nigra' is also recovering, though slowly, having not found the past two winters to its liking.  I think the moral is, if you have a magnolia which suddenly decides to abandon all its top-growth, it could be worth giving it some time to see if it is really dead, or if it proposes to start again from the base.

I like the Magnolia stellata forms, and if I had more space I should grow more of them.  'Jane Platt' is a pleasant shade of pink with slim petals, and 'Chrysanthemiflora' as its name suggests is enormously full, and pink.  I have a soft spot for 'Norman Gould', which is more vigorous and grows larger than the others, with only 6-9 broad fleshy petals.  Its extra vigour derives from the plant breeders' dark arts, it being a colchinine-induced polyploidal form (meaning its cells were chemically induced in a laboratory to divide with more than the normal quantity of chromosomes).  The extra sets of chromosomes somehow confer extra strength.  Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star' fooled me at work yesterday, by producing distinctly pink buds and newly opened pink flowers when the label and coloured tag showed it should be white.  It turns out that this fades to white as the flowers age.  I'm glad I learnt that, before being confronted by some irate customer convinced we have sold them the wrong plant.

The 'Waterlily' is not honestly very interesting in the summer after flowering.  For the past couple of seasons I've grown the climbing yellow flowered Dicentra scandens, up it.  This has typical dicentra flowers in a good deep shade of yellow, and deeply cut leaves in a fresh shade of green, and is not too large so does not overwhelm the magnolia.  I raised it from seed.  I don't recall that I achieved a very good germination rate, but one plant was sufficient.

Monday, 21 March 2011

the news from Japan

My colleagues had a bumper weekend in my absence, so much so that the cake practically ran out and there weren't any leftovers for the staff room.  There still seemed to be a lot of plants left in the plant centre, so I couldn't work out quite what customers had been buying, except that they'd had all the red flowered Pulsatilla.  We were busy again today, for a Monday.

My friend in Japan has agreed that I can post her e-mail of 17th March on the blog. This is the view of a retired teacher, living in Tokyo.

I'm very grateful to all the people that worry about our people and the situation happening here.  I saw BBC news on the Internet and found them very excellent, better than NHK, our broadcasting.

I was at church having a meeting when the earthquake happened.  It was such a big one I'd never experienced.  All the trains stopped and I came home by bus.  My husband came home by car from a nearby town.  My son came here at two at midnight as the train to our station started to run at last, and he went to his flat by our car.  He happened to be on the 39th floor in central Tokyo.  That night over ten thousand people couldn't come home from the central Tokyo.  My daughter was in her flat on the 10th floor and safe.

I was afraid of the influence and worried what would happen, but never imagined the nuclear plant was damaged.  I was not for the construction of nuclear plants, but the majority of people insisted it was safe.  Now we are having 3 to 4 hour power cut every day.  The factories can't move machines or systems.  Most people work using electricity, but now they can't work as usual.  I do hope they will succeed cooling the nuclear plants, which will take many days. 

About 45thousand people in the damaged areas are in the refugees and it is very cold there.  Yesterday it was snowing and they were collecting the layed snow to make water.  They are short of every nececities and medicine.  Transportation system has at last recovered.  We are having too many problems, which is above our imagination,.  !5 thousand people were killed or missing.  It was a very very beautiful region, but now all the towns and villages are gone. There were lots of small bays, which made Tsunami much higher than they imagined, maybe above 13meters high. 

I'm very sorry to see some selfish people in Tokyo buying lots of nececities and food and the shelves in the shops and supermarkets are empty.  We have to endure any situation and share the difficulties in the damaged areas. 

Thank you very very much for your thoughtfuness.  All of us are very grateful to all the people in the world for their help.  I'll write to you again,

With love

Sunday, 20 March 2011

chickens unleashed

This afternoon we let the new chickens out for the first time.  We got them last July, when they were young, only about the size of partridges, after one of the old hens dropped down dead and we were reduced to one chicken.  It seemed cruel to keep her by herself, and I tracked down some new Marans via the Colchester Poultry Club's Breeders Handbook.  The old hen initially detested the imposters in her run, and cemented her sulk by going broody and spending most of the rest of summer sitting in the nesting box.  The new chickens were initially too small to let out because the cats would probably have had them, and the mad old lady didn't want to go out anyway.  As the new chickens grew we thought they wouldn't miss what they hadn't known, and decided to defer chicken exercise time until the spring.

This was partly because the weather was so cold and wet last autumn.  Unfortunately the chickens can't go completely free range nowadays, because of the foxes.  When we first got hens they did run outside all day, even when we were both out, and this worked very well for months until the local fox population twigged that we now had poultry.  We began to lose hens in broad daylight, including when we were on the premises.  It wasn't enough merely to be out in the garden: we had to be within sight of the chickens to act as a deterrant.  I was once laboriously putting up some trellis outside my greenhouse, no more than 15 metres from the hen run but not within direct vision of it, when I heard the most terrible shrieking coming from the young hens we had at the time.  I went to see what was causing the hullabaloo and found a fox swarming over the netting top of the run. (Those young hens did not learn from their early encounter with a fox.  Once allowed out they showed a marked desire to make for the outermost edges of the garden closest to the wood, and both were soon fox fodder.  I never really bonded with them).

So what we do nowadays is let them out in the late afternoon, and sit outside with a book or the radio keeping an eye on them (my partner's technique) or garden in their vicinity (my method).  Letting the hens dictate where I work in the garden can mean that I end up with a lot of jobs only slightly done, as chickens can cover a lot of ground when they feel like it.  Some evenings they are great, and come and hunt for worms while I weed and are thoroughly sociable, and some evenings they want to go round and round the house.

The mad old lady, who had not been out of her run since last July, remembered exactly what the form was, and was out of the pophole and eating grass within seconds.  When she was bored of grass she sat on top of the run, which is what she always used to do.  One of the young hens wasn't long in following her, and seemed jolly keen on grass.  The other two young hens took a bit longer to come out.  They wanted the grass, but thought they could maybe reach it if they stayed safely inside the run and put their heads out of the pophole.  The rooster was the last to emerge (I thought he was supposed to be the brave leader, but never mind.  I'd rather have a soppy rooster than a vicious one, and Maran cockerels can be nasty).  For a long while he ran up and down inside the run, looking at his ladies outside it and getting into a state, before summoning his courage to come out.  He liked eating grass too, and was doing his rooster bit clucking and showing the hens nice things he'd found for them to eat, except that I think what he had mostly found was gravel.  He'll learn.

When we got the rooster he was the littlest of them all, and I wouldn't have known how to tell that he was a him, but the breeder assured me that he was a slightly paler shade of grey and that meant he was male.  He grew rapidly, and as a teenager would shove the hens aside when any treat like sultanas or bits of wet bread were put into the run.  Just in the past couple of months he has begun to behave like an adult rooster, and shows the hens where food is instead of eating all of it himself.  I think he found his day out tiring though, as he retired to his perch while the hens were all still fossicking about outside.

In the summer with the lighter evenings the chickens come home to roost later than in the winter, to the extent that if we're planning to go out in the evening then before letting the hens out we have to work out what time we'll need to go out, and whether that is after chicken bedtime.  We have to allow for the weather, as they go into their house earlier on dismal evenings than nice ones, and because it is not fun to commit yourself to two hours of chicken watching only for it to start raining, or the temperature to plummet.  Hens will stay out in quite a lot of rain, if they've got stuff to do, and until you've seen one you don't realise the graphic brilliance of the insult 'you look like a wet hen'.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

candle making

I spent a very pleasant time at the beekeepers' annual candle making day.  The format is the same every year.  You can make dipped candles, lowering a wick repeatedly into a vat of molten pure beeswax, and you can make moulded candles, pouring wax into moulds with the wick inside.  There is homemade soup, and at the end of the day you pay for the weight of wax and length of wick you have used.  For some reason the former comes in Imperial measures and the latter is metric (metrification came in when I was in primary school, and even now most people, including me, appear to operate in an artbitrary mixture of the old and the new).

The wax is melted in deep, fairly narrow vats that allow you to make a candle up to about 30cm long, heated by a thermostat controlled waterbath.  The apparatus belongs to the beekeeping association, and is not cheap to buy, which is why I don't make candles at home.  One of my favourite pieces of advice for life came from the columnist Matthew Parris, writing a letter of wisdom to his younger self, before The Times disappeared behind the paywall, which was 'never heat wax in a saucepan which you ever wish to use for anything else'.  The wicks come graded according to the thickness of candle you want to make.  You dip the wick a couple of times, and then pull it taut to straighten it.  Then you just keep dipping, allowing the candle to cool a bit between dunkings, otherwise you melt off as much wax as you add.  To save spending the entire morning holding a part-finished candle in each hand small bulldog clips are provided, which you attach to the wick at the top end, and use to hang the candle from a lathe with nails tapped into it during the cooling periods.  Some people roll their candle periodically between two panes of glass, to make it smoother, but I don't bother myself.  If you press too hard it will crack, and it burns just as well whether it is absolutely smooth or not. I believe that skilled dippers can make smooth candles without recourse to the glass.   Having two pairs of candles on the go at once, one to dip and one to cool, is about right.  Some people achieve tremendous output, but I'm there partly for the chat.  The candle builds up a lump of wax below the wick, as drips run down during dipping, which you periodically cut off.  Health and Safety has dicatated that the new wax heaters have a timer that runs out after 90 minutes and has to be reset, to prevent careless folk from leaving the heater on indefinitely.  This year, as last year, we failed to notice a couple of times that the timer had run out, until the depth of molten wax began to get shallower than the length of our candles.

If you make a candle fatter than the designed diameter for the wick, it may not burn tidily.  The ones I made last year sent rivulets of molten wax down the side of the candle, some of which ran over the tablecloth and some of which set in globules down the side of the candle.  The globules didn't burn when the rest of the candle burnt down below that point, and remained as gothic ramparts.  The effect was picturesque but messy.  I had thought that this happened because I made the candles slightly too thick, and to avoid making the same mistake again had asked the keeper of the workshop if I could borrow a pair of calipers.  Once we had established that I meant the old-fashioned metal sort like school compasses, and not super-accurate electronic ones, metal calipers were duly produced with the warning 'they're very sharp.  Don't stab yourself with them.  Or the other beekeepers.'

I today discovered another possible reason why my candles didn't burn neatly.  Apparently a lot of people at last year's candle day had problems with guttering, and one reason was that silicon, used as a release agent for the moulded candles, had found its way into the wax for the dipped ones.  My late father-in-law was in the print trade, and my partner (had a nice time at Cheltenham, thank you) confirmed that even tiny quantities of silicon can disrupt chemical processes severely.  This year we kept the dipping wax and the moulds well apart.  The beekeepers have a tasteful selection of moulds, including fir cones and bee skep candles, and patterned medallions for Christmas tree decorations.  The candle moulds are made of some kind of dense flexible plastic, with a small hole in the base (that will be the top of the candle) to put the wick through, and a slit down one side to release the candle.  You feed the wick through the hole, keep it taut with an ingenious gripper made of two cocktail sticks and a rubber band, that rests across the top of the mould (that will be the bottom of the candle), hold the mould tight shut with more rubber bands, and pour in the wax, then wait until it cools, which takes quite a long time for the bigger moulds.  The cripsness of detail is impressive.  People who are feeling fancy dust selected parts of their creations with gold powder.

It is a very relaxed and multi-generational day, as members bring their children and grandchildren along.  I took a friend, who doesn't keep bees but likes candles.  The sun shone, and I can't think of many more relaxing ways of spending saturday morning.

(The quantity of candles I make at one beekeepers' event doesn't keep us going all year, so we mostly burn bought ones.  I have never found anywhere selling pure one inch beeswax candles, but John Lewis used to do a quite acceptable church candle.  These are not as trendy now as they were twenty years ago when I bought the candlesticks, besides which candles are fragile and heavy to lug about.  The last set I got from John Lewis had been dosed with some vile artificial scent, and we decided that an alternative source was needed.  Where would you buy church candles but from an ecclesiastical supplier?  Church supply websites are fascinating.  I love the idea that I could buy a chasuble if I wanted to (fans of Stevie Smith who have got beyond Not Waving But Drowning will know why), but of course as well as the obvious churchy things like lecterns and prayer books, ecclesiastical suppliers sell fire extinguishers and baby changing mats and display boards and stacking chairs, and all the things you need to run a building open to the public.  Plus paint to put on the lead roof that will mark lead thieves' clothes.  The church candles arrived this morning, so I haven't burnt one yet, but they smelt OK when I opened the packet, and they are a lot cheaper than John Lewis.  The minimum quantity I could buy was 24, but we'll get through them.)

Friday, 18 March 2011

two exhibitions

It was drizzling this morning when I got up, and the forecast was for rain, so I went up to London to look at some art.  I'd managed to miss the exhibition I wanted to see at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, as I haven't been up for weeks, so I chose today's entertainments on the basis of picking the two things on the list of shows I'd like to see that ended soonest.  It was raining properly by the time I got to Liverpool Street, but not windy, and I like London in the rain as long as it isn't driving horizontally, so I yomped down to Tate Modern, taking a short detour into St Pauls churchyard to look at a large magnolia that was just coming into bloom, and over the bouncy bridge.  The Thames was on the flood, looking ominous and full of strange back eddies as the natural flow of the river ran against the tide.

Gabriel Orozco is a Mexican artist.  I'd never heard of him until the Tate retrospective came along, but it's good to try new things, and the papers I'd read about him had sounded quite enthusiastic.  The exhibition was a mixed bag.  There were some good bits, and then there were some other bits.  Actually quite a lot of other bits.  My favourite room, which really was good, was the one that dealt with death.  The artist had got hold of an entire human skull somehow, which he had painstakingly painted with a strictly geometric checkerboard pattern of black and white, carrying it over the different planes and angles which distorted the checkerboard to harlequin diamonds.  It looked unexpectedly jaunty, and I presumed it referenced the Mexican day of the dead, as well as being a very elegantly executed feat of draughtsmanship.  The skull was good.  The best bit was the headlines from New York Times that lined the walls, stripped of the names of their subjects.  These read like something by Evelyn Waugh, dozens of lives compressed into five or six words that managed to be both touching and ludicrous.

I didn't find the rest of the show so much fun.  There were some pictures based on circles, that looked like the bastard offspring of a Mandelbrot fractal and the BBC i-player animated doodle.  There was an extra sized chessboard with nothing but knights on it, which was quite amusing, but not very.  There was a large room full of photographs of yellow scooters, generated by hiring a common make of scooter and driving around looking for other identical (stationary) scooters, then parking next to each scooter and photographing the two scooters together.  Look, after I got a Skoda Fabia I began to notice how many other Skoda Fabias there were on the road, but I didn't call that art.  Likewise, squeezing a lump of a malleable substance with your legs and elbows so as to leave the imprint of your body on the lump doesn't make it art, or if it does then on that basis the flan case I made the other weekend was art.  Then there was the room full of bits of shredded tyres, collected by the artist from the side of the road in Mexico and arranged by him in a special way.  They were tyres.  They blew.  Please explain why putting them in rows in a converted power station next to the Thames makes them art (I am beginning to feel like Francis Bacon dismissing parterres with the observation that you may see as good in tarts).  There was a Citroen DS cut down the middle and very neatly reassembled with its central third missing, which was clever, but seemed like a waste of a rather nice classic car, and I'm not sure what message it was supposed to give me.  And the white cardboard box placed casually on the floor, which echoed the shape of the gallery room.  Seriously, that's what the blurb on the wall said.  I've had a shoebox on the floor next to my desk for weeks, because I am too disorganised to put it away.  It is being promoted to art forthwith.  Then there was the room with lines strung across it, from which hung bits of grey fabric that from a distance looked like dishcloths hung up to dry.  They turned out to be fluff from Mexican laundromats, which the artist had collected.  They are supposed to make you think about the transitory nature of life.  Or something.  And the ceiling fan with loo paper stuck to it.  I don't know how you negotiate to earn a living sticking loo paper to ceiling fans and hanging up gunk out of washing machines, instead of lifting several times your own body weight in compost in a day, in between trying to be unfailingly helpful and polite to people a sizeable minority of whom appear to be either deaf, terminally indecisive, or moderately dotty, but I should say that Gabriel Orozco is a sharp operator.  Whether he will be remembered in four hundred years as fondly as we remember Rembrandt van Rijn is another question.  I don't think so (but what do I know.  They laughed at the Impressionists at the time).

I walked on to the Royal Academy.  The south bank had a wistful out of season air, with few people, and the book stalls under the bridge by the national film theatre all shut up.  I bought a Big Issue from a vendor on the Hungerford Bridge, not so much because I wanted a wet magazine as because nobody else was stopping.  He spoke in the accents of Eastern Europe.  Lettuce picking and mushroom farming can't have worked out for him.  Somebody else then stopped, and asked the vendor if he had change before giving him a bank note and assuring him that it was a Scottish note but it was legal tender.

The first room of the Modern British Sculpture exhibition at the RA was really promising.  There was a full scale model of the Cenotaph.  I've only seen it from a distance in the middle of the road, and on the TV, and even with Charlie Gilmour swinging from it for scale I hadn't realised how big it was.  And there were some photos of plaster models Epstein did for the BMA.  The second room had sculptures from different civilisations in prehistoric times interposed with modern works, and was great fun.  I loved the forepart of a running leopard from 350BC and the Eric Gill relief of nude girl with hair, and torso of a very flighty girl with more hair, and several other things, and began to feel warm and happy and that this was more like it.  Room 3 had a monumental Epstein Adam (with enormous genitalia) and a small sly Henry Moore serpent, and something I've never seen before, which was a sign on the wall about the hessian covered bench, which was a copy of a bench at some earlier exhibition and we were invited to sit on it.  In the next room we took a leap back to the nineteenth century, with queen Victoria sitting in a vast and rumpled dress under a crown-cum-canopy, looking not at all amused, and three other figures which I think I was supposed to compare and contrast.  One was Lord Frederic Leighton's 1877 take on a muscular nude athlete wrestling with a python, the next a twentieth century muscular, nude and very shiny Adam, with tiny genitalia and no phallic python, who might as well have been from 1877, and the third was Genghis Khan, represented as a purple plastic teepee with bat wings.  That was bit odd but I could cope.  Then there were some very beautiful Chinese plain celadon and cream ceramics from between 600 and 1100, unbelievably thin and delicate and strangely modern (which I had seen before in the excellent new ceramics room at the British Museum, but they are so beautiful I could look at them any number of times).  On the other side of the room were some twentieth century British pots, chunkier but some good strong plain shapes, though I'm not sure I could tell the difference between them and the pots everybody seemed to have in their houses in my village in east Devon in the 1960s (it was quite an arty village).  And there was Barbara Hepworth's Pelagos, which I love.  I first saw it when the Tate was only at Millbank, then it was briefly in Tate Modern and I saw it there, before moving to Tate St Ives, which is fair enough, and I saw it there, so I was very pleased it had come to London, as it's a long way to St Ives.  In the next room was a large Barbara Hepworth abstract scupture, a bronze wedge with a hole near the top, which was perfect. The surface was pitted and mottled in a thousand shades of green and grey and the shape was subtle and absolutely right, the thickness of the piece varying across it like the fin of a submarine or the head of a whale, and the hole in exactly the right place.  Its companion in the room was a Henry Moore reclining figure, and we were meant to contrast the abstract and figurative approaches to sculpture, but what would have been more illuminating would have been to get half a dozen of the lifeless abstract Hepworth rip-offs that get marketed as garden ornaments, and explain why the real thing was so much better.

Then it began to go downhill.  There was an Anthony Caro exploration of horizontals and verticals, which was made of flat bits of metal and long bits of metal welded together and painted, which looked vaguely like the half assembled beginning of some bizarre machine tool, but it was red and very shiny.  If you accidentally stepped over the demarcation line around it the attendant leapt at you anxiously.  There were coloured perspex rectangles strung together, which you were allowed to walk among without a guard warning you off, and I did wonder what the conceptual difference was between them and the Mexican laundromat fluff, apart from the fact that the perpex was coloured and more interactive.  Then there was the Damien Hirst abandoned barbecue and white plastic furniture in a perspex box, full of live flies.  Look, I know that food goes off and that flies will breed in it given half a chance.  I have a fridge and a vegetable peelings bin.  There was half an apple and half a pear, stuck together and suspended from the ceiling.  I've lost count of the number of times I've had to explain to people that no, their pear tree will not pollinate their apple, and no, nor will their plum tree, yes, they do need two apples.  Two different apples.  I'm not sure what the artist's point was there, but I think I'm ahead of him.  And there was the line of white chalk stones.  I think this was meant to make us think about landscapes, or remind us they exist.  And the pile of bricks stacked up (inside a white line, naturally) and the row of painted metal bars lined up.  I've got a pile of left-over engineering bricks stacked outside the shed, and a pile of planks waiting to be used in the decking.  They Are Not Art.  When I got to the perspex coffee table with 2000 maltesers in plastic bags on top and a skateboard-like construction underneath I lost all patience, if not the will to live, so I probably didn't give the last room the attention it deserved.  This had a lot of page 3 models stuck up on one wall, and a lot of newspaper clippings about sculpture on the opposite wall, but I couldn't be bothered to work out what the point was, apart from the fact that art might be very subjective.

If you want to go and see these for yourself these are the details.
Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern
Modern British Sculpture at the RA

I've got a season ticket to both galleries, and it was too wet to garden anyway, and each exhibition had a few beautiful or thought-provoking things in it, so I wouldn't say I grudged the day out, but I did have to wade through a lot of what I rather suspect was pretentious guff.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

starting to dig

I went to see if the wire I renewed on Tuesday was still there, and it hasn't been torn down by militant wildlife yet.  So far, so good.

I spent most of the day digging over the area where the Hebe salicifolia used to be.  This is one case where my normal no-dig policy doesn't apply, as the ground is full of hebe roots, a creeping weed grass species that's got in there, self-seeded geraniums, Muscari and other small bulbs, and the roots of the ivy hedge that surrounds the bed.  The ivy is a mixed blessing.  The bed when first planted didn't have a hedge, or anything else, surrounding it, but the rabbits ate so many plants I realised that wire netting was a must.  This did the job of keeping the rabbits out, but looked hideous itself.  The solution seemed to be to hide it inside a hedge, but I balked at the cost of buying that much box and the ongoing labour of clipping it, so I settled on ivy.  The ivy was terribly slow to get going, which was partly because ivy generally takes a season to settle, and partly because the soil was so terrible that everything took a long time to start moving.  It did eventually grow, and continues to do so.  The downside is that it wants to run out across the surrounding soil as much as it wants to climb, and cutting back ivy running and rooting into the ground is probably as big a job as trimming a box hedge would be.  The bed is long although relatively narrow, curving around the side of the drive, so although I haven't measured it (I suppose I must have done when I ordered the ivy but have since forgotten the answer) I guess it is at least 30m all the way round.  That's an awful lot of cutting back, which has to be done several times a year.  When clipped it looks rather fun, in a quirky way, bulging gently like a cloud-pruned hedge, and bits of it have now matured and want to flower, which adds character.  In fact I like the look of it.  But it is a lot of work.  I smile inwardly when I hear Bunny Guinness advocating ivy on wire netting as a good narrow evergreen hedge, and wonder if she has ever tried maintaining one.  The ivy roots do go out a considerable way from the hedge, and are sucking water and nutrition from the already poor soil.  I dug quite a lot out to give the new planting a sporting chance.  I don't want to kill the hedge, but previous attempts at eradicating ivy have made me think it doesn't give up that easily.  Running roots are one drawback of hedges.  Privet is the notorious species, but yew roots are dense and far-travelling too.

I often listen to the radio while gardening, especially for maintenance tasks like weeding.  For setting out new planting and tricky bits of pruning it is too distracting, like having the radio on in the car while trying to do a difficult stretch of navigation.  One of the advantages of the next door neighbours being a two minute walk down the lane is that I can listen on a proper radio, instead of earphones, which I detest wearing, and there is always a catastrophe at some point with the cord between the radio and the headphones.  This does mean that bits of the garden get associated with particular events on the news, or a piece of music, or a play.  I'll now be associating the middle of the long bed with the Japanese nuclear power station emergency, and the row about the possible Libyan no-fly zone.  That bit of border must have a strange resonance with world events, as it is also associated with the BBC's wall to wall coverage of the death of Princess Diana.

I heard from my Japanese gardening friend, who told me that she was extremely safe, and they must now think how to help the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.  I greatly admire her fortitude.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

new lights and even more plants

I did an extra day at the plant centre today, as it's a busy time of year for us.  We hold an annual jamboree for customers this coming weekend, with free cake, and are still restocking with ever more plants ready for then.  Another lorry load arrived, and many of the herbaceous plants that came in a while back, when we did the potting, have now sprouted new leaves and are indubitably alive and fit for sale (we try to make sure that herbaceous plants are alive before selling them.  It isn't always obvious in the depths of winter).

It was a very grey and cold day, but looking on the bright side the electrician arrived to fit new lights in the shop.  The old lights only came on spasmodically when switched on, which made it difficult sometimes to see the till, or the display stands of seeds, and work done weeding pots at the back of the shop in between serving at the till was apt to turn out only half done when exposed to the full glare of day.  The new lights are much brighter, which I appreciate, having reached an age where my ability to read in a dim light is not what it was.  I expect the customers will appreciate not having to peer at the seeds in Stygian gloom.

The gamekeeper's wife came in to buy some herbs, and departed muttering darkly that that was another thing for the chickens to eat.  I wonder if he has told her that they are going to have one of the peacocks.  This was hatched on the premises last year, but has turned out to be a male.  The boss doesn't want a second male, and was saying the gamekeeper had agreed to take it.  I enquired anxiously whether this meant it was going to be eaten (like going for its holidays in Chicken Run) but was assured that, no, the gamekeeper likes the peacocks.

The dog wandered off again, and we were instructed to catch her and put her in the house.  I came face to face with her while on the telephone to a customer, whom I passed in rather a rush to a colleague after explaining that I had to catch the dog.  Luckily the customer was nice about it, and said that she had a dog like that.  The dog was damp, muddy and looked very pleased with herself.  She only managed to lick my face once as I carried her up to the office.  I don't know what Mary Portas would make of it all.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

fixing the wire

I spent today working on the boundary anti-rabbit (and muntjac) fence.  We know from the grazing and digging, plus photos from the trail camera, that both are coming into the garden regularly.  When we started the garden we installed conventional rabbit fencing, which for a long time worked pretty well, though the odd determined bunny used to jump over.  However, it is not high enough to stop muntjac, and over time it does get broken down in places where tree branches fall on it, or extra-determined animals gnaw holes in it.  I'd been stopping these up as I noticed them, but have now done a more systematic search and block exercise.

To stop muntjac jumping I'd added a second higher layer of wire netting in places, but unlike the original rabbit wire it wasn't attached to a strand of heavy wire along the top, and over time it had fallen down again, so I've been adding a top wire and attaching the second layer of netting to that, and fixing a higher layer along stretches where there wasn't one before.

It is all rather dull, when there is so much weeding and clearing and planting and mulching still to do, and pulling the next crop of goose grass seedlings out of the bed by the ditch while admiring the pulmonarias and cyclamen seedlings is so much more fun.  Wire is not pleasant stuff to handle, and  I've collected a few more scratches and my fingers hurt.  But there's no point in planting things for them to be dug up again, and in worrying about weeding when established plants are being regularly browsed down to stumps.  A friend commented that by now the rabbits were probably living in the garden anyway.  I hope this is not true, but if they are she can give me the name of somebody who will Deal with Them.

The great unknown is whether the badgers will accept having their runs and routes blocked up.  In the past they've been quite amenable, but it may be that one of today's holes could be on a sort of badger version of Elephant Walk.  There is another solution to try if that happens, which is to build them a badger gate.  I've seen such a thing at Waddesden Manor.  It is like an extra-large cat-flap.  Rabbits couldn't move it, and I don't imagine muntjac would, though they are quite stout little deer.  But given there are loads of other things to do it really would be better if we didn't find ourselves having to fabricate badger gates.

Monday, 14 March 2011

home alone

I was nearly late to work for the rather bizarre reason that I couldn't open the pophole of the chicken house.  It is a sliding door, and last night's rain followed by overnight frost had stuck it fast in its casing.  The habit of the current generation of chickens of scuffing sawdust into the track doesn't help.  After pushing it very hard, to no avail, I eventually gave it a couple of sharp taps with a lump of wood and it shifted.  At work we put our stocks of Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' by the entrance to the plant centre, and by the end of the day two of those had shifted as well.

I feel rather exposed on the IT front with my Systems Administrator at Cheltenham for the week.  I am not the most tech savvy person, and have one remedy for the laptop not working, which is to try rebooting, and one remedy for the network not working, which is to switch the modem off and switch it back on again.  If anything more complicated than that goes wrong then Cardunculus will fall silent until Saturday evening.  In theory it is possible to access Blogspot to update the blog from an internet enabled phone, but I don't have one of those.  I am beginning to think I would rather like one, not to access Facebook (not on it) or download music (why exactly would I want to listen to music on my telephone?  I seem to be missing something here), but for some of the nerdier apps, especially the UK geology one, and to be able to check the opening times of gardens and galleries and look up random information on Wikipedia while wandering about.

Looking on the bright side, I can crack open a tin of anchovies, and listen to Schubert string quartets and the whole of Dido and Aeneas in the evenings (the Systems Administrator prefers a full orchestra, preferably playing something by Sibelius or one of the Russians, and is allergic to fish).

Sunday, 13 March 2011

parking, mousetraps and worm pills

Arriving at work I remembered to park my car as bait in the middle of the car park, to give customers a clue as to where they should park.  The car park is covered in gravel, which is picturesque and cheap, but means we can't mark out parking spaces.  You would think it was fairly obvious that, once the row of cars along the edge of the car park nearest to the entrance was full, you should start a second row parallel to the first row, but it turns out it's not.  Our customers are masters of free-form parking, and will start new rows at right angles to the first line of cars, given half a chance.  (Tarmac is useful, but not lovely.  In my long-distant student days the college authorities, for reasons best known to themselves, elected to resurface the garden quad with black tarmac instead of gravel one vacation.  The result looked about as dreadful as you would expect, and a short while later during the night a zebra crossing was painted across the full width of the quadrangle.  The next vacation the tarmac disappeared again).

One of the manager's row of mousetraps contained a very dead squashed mouse.  I didn't know how to open the thing, and didn't honestly care to fiddle with it, so I removed the trap, mouse and all, for him to deal with tomorrow, and put it in the border outside the tunnel.  While I was at it I covered the corpses of his two previous victims with leaves, as I didn't think the sight of a growing pile of dead mice raised the tone of the establishment.

I called more people to tell them their (sometimes long awaited and maybe no longer wanted) plants had arrived.  One man I spoke to said he would just need to consult his wife, and I think he meant it, but another customer's 'I'll have to tell my husband' sounded rather like a version of the 'I'll see what your father says when he gets home' gambit for fobbing off small children.

When I came downstairs this morning I found a pile of cat sick at the bottom of the stairs.  I knew the cats needed worming, and had even got as far as buying the worm pills.  As my life's partner is about to disappear to Cheltenham for the week I thought we'd better do the deed tonight.  It's probably not ideal, for those looking to keep the sparkle in their relationship alive after nearly thirty years, to announce as they get in through the front door on coming home from work that we have to worm the cats, now.  (Our vet taught us a very useful trick.  Get a 5ml blunt ended plastic syringe, and fill it with water.  After popping the pill, syringe water into the cat's mouth.  It has to swallow, and this is much easier for both parties than the traditional technique of massaging the creature's throat for ten minutes while you implore it to swallow, and it rolls the pill to the corner of its mouth ready to spit it out when you finally let go.  Don't squeeze too hard on the syringe, or you will end up waterboarding your pet).

Saturday, 12 March 2011

spring is almost sprung

Spring seems to have almost, but not quite, arrived.  The boss was grumbling that the peacocks begin screaming at four in the morning, so they believe it's spring.  I've seen a few queen bumble bees about in the last few days, and some foraging honey bees on the flowers at work and in the garden at home, but they still aren't out in force.  I've been feeding mine for the past couple of weeks, as I was worried that winter had lasted for such a long time they might be running out of supplies, and they've only had one decent day when they were really flying in numbers to replenish their stores naturally.  I'm down to one tee shirt under my uniform shirt and fleece, but I'm not swopping the fleece trousers for the cotton water repellent ones just yet.  I did take my hat off for a bit.

The customers believe it's spring.  Today was the busiest I've seen yet.  In between helping people look for plants, and doing my stint on the till, I put labels on a lot of roses.  The way to avoid scratching yourself handling roses is to move slowly and carefully (rather like handling bees) but even so by the end of it I'd added to the network of light scratches on my hand and wrist collected pruning the roses at home.  Some of the roses had customers waiting for them to come into stock, some dating practically a year back.  It takes a certain nerve to ring up a list of strangers and explain that the rose they were asking for last April has finally arrived.  If they still want it, naturally.  An amazing proportion of them do still want the rose.  I don't know why they didn't just order them bare root from a rose grower last November.  Some people clearly don't like doing that.  Still, it helps our turnover.

There was another tale of damaged bay trees, this time twenty standards, a painful loss for anybody.  The bark is peeling off their trunks, so it sounds as though the top growth really has had it.  They will probably regrow from ground level, but the customer wants standards.  I thought she should maybe have put pipe lagging round the trunks for the winter when she saw it was turning into a really nasty one, but it seemed tactless to say so now.

The local authority is mending the potholes on the route to work with glacial slowness.  A really nasty one on the main road has finally been filled in, but the back lane I use to cut across country has some huge and evil holes.

Friday, 11 March 2011

thoughts of Japan

The flowers on Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' are opening.  This is a lovely little cherry, with small but copious, single, dark pinky-red flowers.  I like it so much I have two.  The first was bought as a top worked short standard, which I intended to grow in a pot, and was left outside over the winter.  In its second year the branches suffered severe die-back.  At the time I was mystified, as I didn't think it was tender and we leave them outside all year at work, but then I read a comment by Stephen Lacey that this cherry was not the hardiest of trees.  My pot grown standard did start to shoot from the bases of the remaining branches, and has made a respectable new head, though the regrowth was initially terribly brittle and apt to snap off at the base if knocked.  The pot now spends the winter in the greenhouse, and is still in there, due to lack of forward planning packing the greenhouse last autumn that means the pot is behind a lot of Geranium maderense, and I never got round to lifting it out.  It has therefore flowered in the greenhouse instead of by the front door, but I enjoy looking at it when I'm in the greenhouse myself.  The effect of being under glass was to advance flowering by a couple of weeks.

Last year we had Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' in stock at work as trees instead of top worked lollipops, and I could not resist getting one of those for the open ground.  This is now out, the little red flowers glowing across the garden.  My Japanese gardening friend told me that beni in Japanese means red, in particular lipstick red, with a connotation of old ladies, so I suppose akin to rouge in English.  Among older women putting on beni is an expression for putting on make-up.  I met my Japanese friend when she was doing an HND in horticulture as a mature student.  She was then already in her fifties, and I thought it took some gumption to go and live in England for three years, and sit in classes alongside English students young enough to be your grandchildren.  I have been thinking of her as I listen to the unfolding accounts of the earthquake.  She lives in Tokyo, so is probably safe, but to have been in the earthquake must have been terrifying, and how worried she must now be about her family, and her friends, amid the aftershocks, with destruction and chaos across the country.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

into the rose garden

Having gone to all that trouble to get the mushroom compost with the firm intention of getting on with the border in the front garden where I removed the hebe, I ended up spending today working on a completely different bed in the back garden.  This started because it was suggested that I needed to do something about the roses that were hanging out over the lawn in preparation for the first cut of the season.  It was true, they did need sorting out.  A couple right at the front are supported by iron hoops (very nice but made by a company whose prices subsequently went so high they departed into footballers' and bankers' territory, and I haven't bought any more.  Pity).  Unfortunately I planted the roses first then retro-fitted the hoops to try and stop them flopping over the lawn, and as they are old roses I didn't like to cut them down to stumps to fit the hoops.  The result is that the legs of the hoops are not buried so deep as they should be and so they are not awfully stable, and lean over in the same direction as the roses.  We solved the problem pro-tem with a wooden peg and wire guy ropes.

Lawn cutting apart, it is just the right time to finish tidying up the old roses.  The buds are breaking, the new stems are glowing a reassuring shade of green, and it is very clear which bits of the plant are dead and can be removed.  But then it also turned out to be just the right time to weed and mulch the bed the roses are in.  The back garden slopes downhill from the house, and the people before us, who built the house, had this terraced at some point (not very competently as their builder buried the access to key parts of the septic tank system.  We discovered this when a blockage occured, and the drains engineer, who was a very cheerful Irishman and appeared to truly like drains, told us that there had to be another manhole cover uphill of the one we knew about.  There was.  It took a lot of digging to find it).  The terracing had the effect of exposing the clay subsoil, so the roses live in ugly yellow gunk, slightly improved by adding organic material, that turns to wet slime in winter and sets like concrete in summer.  In between there is a brief period when it is quite pleasant to work, and possible to weed.  That period is now, as there hasn't been any rain for several days and it's been windy which has dried the surface out.  So I have been weeding and mulching like mad, in between snipping dead bits off the roses.  Some of them, including 'Madame Hardy' and 'de Rescht' have the annoying habit that they neither form hips nor drop their old flowers, so require laborious dead-heading.  I suppose it is only once a year, and it is about the only attention they get, but it is a fiddly job.

After weeding I sprinkle around each plant with blood, fish and bone, and 6X.  The latter is a composted chicken manure based fertiliser which has been around for donkey's years.  My late father-in-law swore by it, and called it stinkies, a name that has stuck.  It does smell as though it ought to be doing the plants a world of good.  The mulch is a more recent product, brand name of Strulch.  It is made of chopped straw, treated with minerals so that it takes a good couple of years to rot down fully, and was developed by a scientist at the University of Bradford.  It comes in plastic bags, smells a bit strange when first opened, but shakes down around the emerging foliage of the bulbs and violets quite nicely.  You apply it about 5cm deep, and then water it, at which point it goes dark brown in colour and sticks together pretty well so the wind doesn't dislodge it.  I first read about it in a newspaper article by Bunny Guinness, who was very enthusiastic, and I thought she wasn't going to lend her name to any old tat and it could be worth a try, so I tried it.  I found it very effective in stopping annual weed seeds germinating, and thought it looked OK, so when the first lot ran out I bought some more.  I've seen it being trialled at Ness Botanic Garden, and the bags say 'as used at the Eden project'.  It is available from shops like Crocus, but it is far cheaper per bag to go direct to the manufacturer and buy a pallet.  The bags do leak a bit in the rain, and then the Strulch goes lumpy in the bag, so ideally they would be stored under cover, but I don't have anywhere under cover.  The main disadvantage we've found is that it sticks as if by magic to one of our cats.  Just the one, the grey tabby.  I don't know if that's because of her particular fur, which is very finely crimped and always has a static charge, or if it's just that she likes rolling in the stuff, prior to coming and shedding Strulch around the kitchen.  Anyway, for anybody who would like to give Strulch a go you will find them here.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

the kindness of chickens

It has been reported today on the BBC and in the press that domestic chickens show signs of empathy.  A mother hen, seeing a disagreeable stimulus administered to her chicks (nothing too cruel, just an annoying puff of air to the feathers) shows measurable physiological signs of stress.  She 'feels their pain'.  This doesn't surprise me.  A while back I heard a fearsome racket coming from the chicken run and went to see what was upsetting them so much, fully expecting to find a fox trying to break in.  Instead I found that the big tabby was slaughtering a pigeon just by the hens' living quarters (it can't have been a very well pigeon to let itself be caught by the cat).  The hens were shrieking at the tops of their voices, and took a while to calm down after the grizzly deed was done and the corpse had been cleared away.  On a later date when a small rabbit met the same fate in front of them they were quite unmoved, so it seems their empathy extends to some other bird species, but not necessarily mammals.

Also when the old rooster fell over dead in his run one morning, his two ladies moped about looking disconsolate for a couple of days, so I think they must have missed him in some way.  We'd had him for six years, and he was already fully grown with spurs when we got him, so he must have been seven if not eight, which is a good age for a chicken.  In his last months he used to have to go to bed very early, and he would sometimes lose his balance or concentration and start walking backwards, which seemed to worry him, but he remained a gentleman to the end.  He was buried wrapped in a Thomas Pink shirt, under two paving slabs to stop the fox digging him up, and we missed him too.

We celebrated Pancake day with pancakes for supper (lemon and sugar), and did our bit to use up our supplies of eggs before the start of Lent by having omelette for lunch as well.  Given that the chickens are beginning to really get into their stride now with the eggs, if we were to forego eggs for the next forty days (we're not) we'd have an awful lot of eggs by the end of it.  I don't know what people used to with the eggs laid during Lent.  Pickle them?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

pick your own mushroom compost

We went this morning to get some spent mushroom compost.  The soil in the bed where I've taken out the hebe is so light and vile that I can't bear to replant the area without improving it.  I know that the ecological school of gardening would say that instead of 'improving' soil we should grow what naturally likes the conditions, but I want to create a garden, not recreate a blasted heath, and what naturally likes the conditions as they are is mostly creeping sorrel, gorse, pines, and brambles.  (And Grevillea rosmarinifolia, which dislikes nutrition, and pasque flowers do pretty well, thus disproving the oft-repeated theory that Pulsatilla vulgaris requires chalky conditions).  But I think a wider plant palette would be more interesting.

There is a mushroom farm at Capel St. Mary, just over the border in Suffolk.  We had been there before and knew the drill this time, unlike on our previous visit.  You take your own bags, though they will sell you bags if you don't have any, and your own choice of digging implement, and you shovel the compost into the bags and take it away in your own vehicle, and away you go, cost nowadays £1.50 per bag.  I don't know why, but the first time we went I had expected used mushroom compost to be quite dry and crumbly, not unlike soil conditioner you would buy in a garden centre.  Not necessarily.  Used mushroom compost is basically a mixture of manure and straw.  After it has finished growing mushrooms it is dumped in huge piles, outdoors.  If the weather has been wet then so is the compost.  We went to collect the first lot wearing shoes, not wellingtons.  As we stood up to our ankles in slurry scooping it up we realised that wellies were pretty essential, and that wearing an oatmeal coloured fleece had been a bad idea.

Our previous visit was also enlivened by the fact that a cheerful Pole or Lithuanian with a tipper truck was dumping fresh loads of used compost close by where we were shovelling.  From inside his cab he couldn't see if all of the compost had slid off the truck, and we entered into the spirit of it, signalling to him to keep tipping, keep tipping, and a thumbs up when the load had all dropped.  Goodness knows how they got that past Health and Safety.  We didn't see him today.  I did ring this morning, before we set off, to check that they were still doing the compost.  'Oh yes' said the girl on the phone 'We've been doing if forever.  Bring your own bags and spade.  And wellies'.  (When we arrived this morning the person I asked where the office was replied in rich Eastern European tones.  'Office.  Therrre'.  I don't think any vegetables would be grown commercially in this country without the Poles and Lithuanians).

A spade is better than a shovel.  It cuts through the ordure.  The cost is per bag, so you put as much in the bag as you think you can lift.  There was one other customer, loading up an estate car.  He'd obviously done it before, and had got the back seats down, a dustsheet covering the whole of the back of the car, and not just a spade but a garden fork to crumble lumps off the huge heap, plus boots and overalls.  We took our ex-builders' flatbed truck.  This is a useful vehicle, purchased at umpteenth hand with 240,000 km already on the clock, and a clip for delivery notes still on the dashboard.  As much as possible of the servicing is done at home, the best repair so far being the replacement front wing housing the lighting cluster, made out of an old kitchen unit door.  The chap who did the MOT was rather admiring of that.  The other customer looked at the truck and our twenty bags of compost.  'Do you have a large garden?' he asked politely.

It is customary for authors to thank their partner, without whom their book would not have been possible, but I should thank my partner, without whom the garden would not be possible.  It is not everybody who would agree so readily to the request that they spend Tuesday morning loading shit onto the back of a truck.

Monday, 7 March 2011

not according to plan

Now that it's March our working day starts at 8.00am instead of a quarter past.  I've moved the alarm clock a quarter of an hour earlier, but it takes a bit of getting used to.  By now I've got a set of timings for the point at which I need to stop doing whatever else I'm doing and start making my packed lunch, the time by which I need to start eating breakfast, the latest possible time at which it's worth starting a second mug of tea, the time by which I need to have finished breakfast and reading newspapers on-line and start cleaning my teeth, and the time to leave the house.  The journey to work is calibrated against the stages of the Today programme.  If I haven't got to Little Bromley by the time Thought for the Day starts that's bad.  And now all those timings are wrong and have to be relearnt, until the clocks change in the autumn and we revert to the winter 8.15am start.  We're finishing later too, 5.00pm instead of 4.15pm as of last month, and come April it will be a six o'clock finish.

A lorry arrived with various bits and pieces for the shop, and the driver, looking worried, disappeared under the cab, muttering about only having braking action on one side.  When he started the engine up again and depressed the brake pedal, a jet of liquid shot out of the front off-side brakes.  He made telephone calls and sat in his cab, looking resigned.  That was a rubbish start to his week.  Eventually a commercial-vehicle-roadside-recovery van appeared, and the engineer confirmed that whatever bit it was of the brakes had failed.  He could get the component, but didn't carry it with him.  The lorry was still there mid-afternoon, but by close of play had managed to get away.  I suppose breaking down in a quiet garden is better than by the side of the A12.

Last weekend a customer appeared at the till with a severely nibbled clematis.  At the time I couldn't think what might have done it, my mind running upon muntjac and it seeming unlikely that we'd had one of those in a polytunnel inside the plant centre.  Today we discovered the culprit, an enormous mouse (or vole).  It was running around inside the tunnel cover, having managed to get between two layers of polythene, but it made its escape before we could work out how to catch it.  Over the weekend it (or its friends and relations) had stripped almost all the leaves off a dozen Clianthus.  Before shutting the tunnel up tonight the manager set up a fearsome array of mousetraps.

(Folk music must be getting trendy.  Our plan to go and hear Cara Dillon at the Colchester Arts Centre has been scuppered by the fact that it is sold out.  At least I looked at the website before driving into Colchester, but I feel rather a prune.  Apart from Martin Carthy and Fairport Convention folk concerts are never sold out.  We had better bother to book in advance for Spiers and Boden.)