Saturday, 30 April 2011

some heroic survivors

Many of my accounts of the effects of last winter have been of losses, so I should like to pay tribute to a couple of unexpected survivors, which are still alive despite my best efforts at neglect, and which I would not have thought were that hardy.

The first is the white form of Vitex agnus-castus, the chaste tree.  I don't know when the white flowered form came on the scene, but the species is said to have been cultivated in the British Isles since 1570.  It originates from Mediterranean regions and across to central Asia, and is generally considered to require a sunny, sheltered position (nursery code for not fully hardy).  It carries buddleia-like sprays of scented flowers at the ends of its shoots in September and October.  I'm always on the lookout for plants that will continue the flowering season on into autumn, and was charmed by the chaste tree when I saw it.  There is a large and handsome specimen in the botanical gardens at Leiden (interesting and well worth a visit), and both the blue and white flowered forms grow in the walled garden at Marks Hall (a really good modern scheme within an old walled garden, and much easier to get to than Leiden).  Comparing the blue and the white I decided in favour of the latter.  I bought a likely-looking plant at work, and put it down outside the greenhouse.  As I brought pots in for the winter the greenhouse became full to bursting, and it was very difficult to see what everything was, and I lost track of what was in and what was out.  When the snow came down before Christmas the Vitex was still outside on the concrete, and there it stayed until the spring.  I found the pathetic bundle of twigs as I started moving things about in March, and cursed myself for losing a perfectly good plant through carelessness.  The ones at work come inside for the winter, into the tunnel with the heater in it.  Then I saw that the buds were swelling.  It is making generous new growth from low down, and will be planted tomorrow, or next week.

Also left on the concrete by mistake were two 9cm pots containing young plants of Geranium 'Stephanie'.  Again, we take all hardy geraniums inside for the winter at work, and I assumed that I had lost them.  They must have been frozen solid for long periods.  However, both sprouted healthy sets of leaves, and are now planted out and flowering cheerfully.  I first planted 'Stephanie' a couple of years ago, and was pleased enough with it that the two maltreated plants were bought to bulk up an existing group.  I guess that it might be derived from Geranium renardii, as it has similar sage-green scalloped leaves, and is said to like the same conditions.  The flowers of 'Stephanie' are a rich violet-blue, with purple veins, very pretty, and my plants are doing well on some of the thinnest, hungriest sand in the garden.  I would advise all gardeners on light soil (who like hardy geraniums) to seek it out.

Addendum  The robin eggs have hatched so did not cook in the heatwave.  I have put the frame with netting on it left over from the strawberries across the door as planned, which should at least deter the cats from wandering in there casually for a lie-down.  It is a relief the hen isn't sitting any more, as she did keep flying off the nest when I went in to water anything, and I have been reduced to making quick raids to collect things that need potting on, and doing the potting outside, sitting on a low wall with a wheelbarrow of compost.

Also the decking is officially finished.  We moved the last of the Hamamelis pots back on to the further deck in the back garden yesterday, and today some of the offcuts were used to make a doorstep for the door we mainly use.  It is functionally the back door, but is at the front of the house, and as built had an ugly concrete doorstep with a manhole cover in front of it.  The wooden doorstep covers both of these, and with any luck some of the gravel will fall out of the treads of our shoes before we and it make it into the house.  The Companion Animals are rather suspicious of the new doorstep, but they'll get used to it.  The decking looks very good in a Chelsea flower show sort of way.  I realised during construction that freshly cut cedar was one of the smells I associate with Chelsea.  In the end we had two or three deliveries from the timber company, as we used them for the beams as well.  They are called Silva Timber Products, and we found them reliable and good value.  (The bad news is that the chopped-down Hebe in front of the near deck are going to have to go.  Only clipped box will do, but at the thought of grubbing out five Hebe stumps my heart sinks).

Friday, 29 April 2011

a dry season

I didn't watch the Royal Wedding.  It's not really my sort of thing, but I'm glad today turned out fine, given all the people who did want to line the route, or hold their own street parties.  The lack of rain is getting serious, though.  A while back the Systems Administrator, who likes technology, added to the data empire by investing in an electronic weather station.  This takes all sorts of weather related  measurements and transmits them by wireless back to a base station in the house, which displays and stores them.  They can be downloaded to the p.c. and in theory we could analyse them and produce graphs and tables galore.

The rain gauge requires at least 0.7mm precipitation in one go to read it.  In total since 1st March it has recorded 9mm, which is a seriously small amount of rain.  9mm is less than half an inch.  Even allowing for one or two showers of less than 0.7mm that's a pathetic amount of rain to fall  in nearly two months.  Coastal north Essex is one of the dryest places in the country, but we expect to get around 21 inches or 525mm per annum on average.  Since the start of March we're running at an annualised rainfall of around 50mm or 2 inches.

An increasing proportion of each gardening day is spent watering.  Watering recent plantings, watering the fruit (we had a dry April last year, I didn't water the sweet cherry enough, and after a good set it dropped its entire crop), watering trees planted within the past year, and things badly hit by last winter's cold but which I think might have the capacity to resprout if the drought doesn't finish them off, and the little patch of new turf where I cleared away the bags of left-over sand.  I felt a certain wry amusement  one of the last times I visited Hyde Hall, where after going past the much trumpeted Dry Garden (never irrigated after initial planting) I saw the sprayers going on the borders even though there wasn't then a drought.  Nothing here is routinely irrigated, apart from edible crops and recent plantings, and the plants in most of the garden, not just the gravel garden, are chosen for their modest moisture requirements.  No border phlox or delphiniums or monarda here, and few viburnums.  If this weather goes on much longer, however, then even established plants will start showing signs of acute stress, and will require a drenching with the hose.

If I were having a house built from scratch, I would instal a grey water capture system and a very large underground water storage tank during the initial construction.  It is so much easier to fit these things at the outset than to retrofit.  We are eyeing up the price of water tanks once again, as there would be room for quite an array of them under the veranda, but they are expensive.  The last time we did the maths we would have to fill them from captured water a lot of times for it to be cheaper than buying the water out of the tap.  We debate getting the well going again too, but again pumps are costly and tend to break down, and it's not clear we would manage to pump enough water to make the investment worthwhile.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

making plans for the conservatory

In the conservatory the Eriobotrya 'Coppertone' is flowering.  This is an evergreen of uncertain parentage, which forms a shrub or small tree, and at this time of the year has strongly scented, pink flowers.  The new foliage that follows is an attractive shade of copper.  We started stocking them at work four or five years ago, and I was enchanted by them, and amazed that our customers didn't buy all that we had at once.  They were semi-large standards and quite expensive, which may have been one reason, and also dubiously hardy, which is a consideration when you are thinking of spending that much on a plant.  I asked for one as a birthday or Christmas present, and my records show that we got ours in April 2007, which is slightly confusing as that's not when my birthday is.  As we've had it for four years I can report that it makes a good long-term subject for a container.  It is now in a 50cm pot, and I have pruned it a few times to keep it within bounds.  It suffers a bit from caterpillars that roll up its leaves, but appears immune to red spider mite, and the mealy bugs that came in on another large specimen.  I can also vouch from personal experience that if you let it get dry and it wilts (a good gardener wouldn't, but these things happen) it will recover, unlike some evergreens like Callistemon which will simply die.

The conservatory needs a good sort out.  I had a moment of epiphany a day or two back when I realised that I should get rid of the Acacia longifolia.  This species has willow-like leaves, which are not so pretty as A. dealbata, the classic mimosa, and it has grown too tall for the available space and is trained across the ceiling, and half-blocking the doorway.  I have been tidying out the dead leaves and twigs for the past couple of seasons, but the plant, while nice in its youth, has become old and ugly.  This is sad, and a fate that awaits many of us, but good gardens and a ruthless attitude to individual plants often go hand in hand.  I am not so ruthless as I should be.

Addendum  The editors of The Journal of Animal Ethics have decreed that it is demeaning to animals to term them pets, and that we should call them Companion Animals and ourselves Human Carers.  Vets seem to use the term companion animal anyway, but I draw the line at becoming a Carer to the cats.  It sounds too unspeakably dreary.  A more appropriate word would be Servant.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

three blue flowers

The Camassia leichtlinii have been doing their stuff.  They are hardy bulbs with spikes of violet-blue flowers around 2.5cm across, each with six slender petals, and wispy protruding stamens with tiny yellow anthers.  From a distance they form a good mass of colour, especially in evening light when, like many flowers with some purple in them, they seem to fluoresce.  Close up they are not quite so satisfactory, as the bottom flowers on the spike have withered before the top ones open.  Also, they were intended to contrast with the yellow roses in that bed, and they will be over before the roses start.  Still, they are pretty plants.  People who like the ambience of a garden without being total plant nuts ask what they are with genuine enthusiasm.  They are extremely good doers with me, growing on yellow clay that is sticky beyond belief in wet weather and is now set like concrete.  The Camassia leichtlinii don't merely grow, they bulk up into generous clumps and seed themselves around.  The dense bunches of strap-shaped leaves remain decent-looking for a long time, unlike some bulbs, like alliums whose leaves start to die back by the time the flowers come, and you have to work out how to hide them.  The white flowered form of C. leichtlinii flowers later than the blue, opening just as the blue is finishing, so by planting them both you can have an extended Camassia season.

Centaurea montana is also flowering, and this time I got the blue and yellow contrast spot on, because it opens at exactly the same time as the neighbouring yellow tree peony.  This plant grew in the garden of my childhood, and I wanted to grow it myself when I got my own garden, once I had worked out what it was.  In the mid 1980s it was so far out of fashion that I had difficulty tracking down plants, or even the seeds.  It seems more in favour nowadays, and a white flowered form and yellow leaved variety are also available.  I tried it initially in the top part of the garden, but it sulked and failed to thrive on the sand, and now lives happily in the yellow clay.  Centaurea montana has elegant thistle flowers, with a central boss of pink petals and black anthers, and surrounding rays of slim blue petals ending in a graceful fringe.  The blue again has a distinct hint of violet, and glows as sunset approaches.  The flowers are carried on long sprays that get tatty after flowering, but once those are cut down the grey basal leaves are respectable for the rest of the summer.  If you are not too enthusiastic about dead-heading it will seed itself usefully.

I'm not totally convinced by the merits of Ceanothus as a tribe.  I've tried using the low-growing, evergreen C. thyrsiflorus var. repens as groundcover on banks in two different gardens, and both times it grew rapidly to form a lovely dense mound, flowered ravishingly for a couple of years, and then died, leaving a great ground-uncovered hole in the planting scheme.  I've come across a couple of theories why Ceanothus are prone to do this.  One said that the roots are very susceptible to wind-rock, and the other said that being from California they can be killed by excess water during periods when they aren't actively growing.  Whatever the cause, they don't seem reliable, as a second prostrate variety I tried died as well.  However, 'Puget Blue' deserves an honourable mention.  It makes a stiff, medium sized shrub, with tiny wrinkled dark green leaves, and at this time of year is smothered in small, fairly dark blue flowers.  I have it in two places in the top part of the garden, on very light, free-draining soil, and it has withstood the cold of the past two winters, and numerous ferocious gales have rocked its roots, yet it is still alive.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

revamping the gravel

I've been replanting the gravel in one half of what we call the Italian garden.  The term long pre-dates Monty's excellent TV series, and in truth the resemblence to anything Italian isn't very marked.  The Italian garden sits at one end of a largish turning circle, which was laid to grass when we moved in.  It was weedy and pathetic turf on the thin soil, and we never used it for ball games (don't play them), sunbathing (why would you choose to sunbathe in your front garden when you have a much more private back garden?) or anything else.  It required cutting and looked dull.  So we gave up with grass entirely in the front garden, and turned it over to gravel.  While we were at it we dug a square formal pond, and made a paved area by the pond, and a paved path across the turning circle.  The path is carefully aligned with the front door and is the same width as the porch, an attempt to relate the geometry of the garden to the geometry of the house lifted straight out of the pages of John Brookes.  It does work visually.  Visitors occassionally notice it, and point it out to us as though it were a marvellous accident we might not have noticed.

The paved area wasn't really used for anything for years.  I bought four cube shape lead planters, and a terracotta greyhound couchant from the Whichford pottery, which lounged alongside the pond, and that was about it.  We had a small fountain for a couple of years, until it broke down.  They always do.  The grounds of Writtle College were littered with defunct water features when I studied there.  At one point we divided the turning circle in two with a breakwater made out of reclaimed timber, and the other end began to develop a character as a seaside garden, but the end with the pond remained mainly an area that we walked through to get to cars parked on the other side of the drive.  It was planted with rosemary, lavender, and a curry plant that spread hugely, plus some self-seeding Euphorbia characias and agapanthus, but it wasn't very interesting.  Eventually I got round to buying a cafe table and a couple of chairs, and started putting out pots of geraniums and things for the summer and, based on the mediterranean planting and collection of hardware, it became the Italian garden, or when I'm feeling long-winded, 'the mad decayed Italian garden'.  The paving, which was only laid on sand and not hardcore, has become uneven over the years, and poppies and blue Nigella damascena seed freely into the cracks, as do weeds.

I had begun to resent the amount of space that the curry plant took up, and realised I didn't really like the smell, which made me worry that the chicken house needed cleaning out, so I was quite glad that last winter did for it.  Removing the remains of that, and the rosemary bushes, which were dying off in patches, has cleared a large space.  Some new rosemary and lavender plants went in today, and an Aloysia triphylla, the wonderful lemon scented verbena, which may or may not survive a winter outside.  I'd like to add an extra-blue, extra-tender teucrium, when they turn up at work, and some different euphorbias.   This scheme was cooked up months ago, when I was tidying the hot tunnel at work, but it's amazing that it is actually happening the same year I thought of it.  The winter killing so many of the incumbent shrubs forced my hand rather.

I'm waiting to see if the olive tree will sprout again, or if last winter really was a step too far for it.  It made it through the previous one, just, so I don't know whether, if it is dead, to risk another olive and hope we don't have another winter quite so severe for a good while, or whether to substitute with something like Eleagnus 'Quicksilver'.  Olives do have such a distinctive habit.  Van Gogh captured it exactly in one of the drawings shown in the Royal Academy's exhibition a while back (which was so good that I am prepared to forgive them Modern British Sculpture, as long as they don't do anything else like that for a long time).  The deciduous eleagnus are pretty and graceful and have silver leaves, but they don't honestly look a lot like olives.

I feel a bit hypocritical buying the gravel.  It came from a local builders' merchants who did a leaflet campaign, and I saw I could buy it by the bulk bag, delivery charge included in the price of the bag.  Of course delivery is not actually free, as the gravel costs more, but it does mean I can buy a single bag and not feel I ought to get more to make the delivery cost more economic.  After today's efforts I'm about two-thirds through the bag, and wondering if I should have got two bags, except that after the experience with the left-over sand I was trying not to repeat that error.  Getting the delivery lorry up the drive was slightly traumatic and I'd rather not order a second bag for a bit, until we've trimmed the hedge along the drive.  The new gravel is a perfect match for the existing stuff, which came from the Birch quarry, and I suspect that it came from the same place.

The reason why I feel hypocritical is that there is a planning application in the offing for a large gravel quarry in our parish.  I don't honestly want a gravel quarry up the road, and my partner lodged an objection against it on behalf of our household.  If the quarry happens it will probably not be a disaster for us.  I expect there will be a bit of extra background noise and dust on top of what we get anyway, from the roads and planes and lettuce farm, but when we go for walks past the other quarries in the area they aren't that awful.  Until the application is settled one way or the other we would probably find it difficult to sell our house, but fortunately we weren't planning to move at the moment.  If the application goes through the house will probably be worth a bit less than it would be otherwise, though if we can stick it out for twenty years or so we have been promised a nature reserve at the end of it, which would be nice.  I expect we'll survive the quarry if it happens.  But on the whole I would rather it didn't, so I feel mean buying bags of gravel from Birch, where the locals don't want a quarry either.  But not so mean I won't buy the gravel.

Monday, 25 April 2011

working on Easter Monday

I was a bit surprised as the boss and my colleagues compared notes on their respective Easter Sunday lunches, which all seem to have involved special culinary efforts with roast meats, and relatives returning from afar to share in the repast.  Easter Sunday had rather passed us by.  We worked hard in the garden, and then ate penne with a vaguely Italian sauce while watching Oil City Confidential.  Still, each to their own.

I don't mind working on Easter Monday.  We generally avoid going anywhere on bank holidays, as the traffic will be worse than it is the rest of the time, and wherever we are visiting more crowded.  My normal work day is a Monday, so quite a few bank holidays fall on my watch.  It used to annoy me considerably that the full time staff who were required to work on bank holidays were given a day off in lieu, while the part-timers were just expected to turn up as normal.  Fortunately our legislators shared my view that this was unfair, and a couple of years ago employment law was changed so that part-time staff had to be treated the same as full-timers, so now bank holiday working for part-timers is on double rates.  In general I'm sympathetic to the view that small businesses need less rather than more red tape and regulation, but I was very pleased that the law ironed out that particular injustice.

The manager doesn't work on bank holidays as a rule.  There is a weekly van service from Norfolk, that calls on Mondays bringing assorted plants in flower, plus herbs and other impulse-buy oddments.  My colleague wondered if there was anything we needed, but my view was that without the manager it was better to give the van purchases a miss this week.  We could look at what is low on stock, but we wouldn't know if the manager had already arranged to get it from somewhere else, plus we would have to work out our selling prices based on the cost to us and our normal retail mark-up, and decide whether our customers would be prepared to pay them.  In my previous incarnation I coped with some large financial transactions, including once putting my signature to the order to sell around £250 million assorted mid-cap and small-cap equities in a programme trade, and another time buying about the same amount of B.P., so I could probably rise to the challenge of buying a couple of hundred quid's worth of bedding plants and herbs.  But there are basically two models for managing staff.  You can give them the power to make decisions, then back their decisions up, even if you have to explain why next time you would prefer them to do it differently.  Or you can not give them the power to take decisions, in which case you don't expect them to decide things while you're not there.  On the whole the place I work operates on the latter system.

The pea cock is still displaying his tail.  It is a pity that a couple of the long feathers are broken, but I don't suppose he'd appreciate it if we tried to pull them out to tidy him up.  The young pea cock is also raising his little tail, which doesn't have the coloured streamers yet.  He does this while following his mother around the plant centre, so the effect is positively Oedipal.  But he is no more confused than his father, who keeps displaying to the guinea fowl.

I was chatting to a very pleasant customer who turned out to be the head gardener at one of the Cambridge Colleges.  He was at the Chatto Gardens recently, and they said they were so busy, they were having to pull staff off garden work to help keep up with the volume of mail order.  It's reassuring that the industry sounds generally buoyant.  Certainly we're still very busy, despite the lack of rain.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


The bluebells in the wood have opened.  It seems to me that they are early this year.  I'm sure that bluebell open days around here are normally held in early May.  A few years ago we went on holiday to Cornwall at almost exactly this time, from around 18th to 25th April, and on the last day we went to Enys, a very old, beautiful and decayed garden with a benign microclimate, famous for its bluebells, and were too early for the main display, instead just getting a tantalising hint of what it would be like in a few days, when we were back in Essex.

Anyway, the bluebells are lovely and I'm pleased to see them, early or late.  They are the native English bluebells, with flowers down one side of the nodding spikes.  The intensity of blue of a large bluebell wood is like nothing else.  Ours is not that large, and the bluebells are very particular about where they will and won't grow, so patches of blue erupt here and there where the ground conditions are precisely to their liking.

The bulbs go very deep, and are difficult to lift.  It is illegal to take bluebells from the wild anyway, but as the landowner I was trying to remove them from the line of the path and reuse them in the meadow.  They were having none of it.  The leaves will not stand trampling, so you need a path through your bluebell wood to go and look at them without treading on them.

Bluebells in Essex are strongly associated with ancient woodland (technically, woodland that has been there continuously since 1600 at the latest, though the wood may be much older than that), but in some parts of the UK bluebells aren't markers of ancient woodland.  Our little wood divides into two sections, the alder carr which I've tracked on maps back to the 1730s and is presumed ancient, and the northern section which reverted from farmland in the last century.  The bluebells stop short at the edge of the old part, and show no inclination to travel further.  I have read how this is because they lack a good seed dispersal mechanism, and find it difficult to spread.

Now this is very puzzling, because they do pop up in the garden, in the most unexpected places.  There are several thriving clumps in the gravel, under the boughs of a crab apple, and some in the borders.  Richard Mabey suggests in Flora Britannica that patches of bluebells in the countryside can show where a wood once stood, but the garden has been farmland since at least the 1730s, and is definitely not the remains of ancient woodland.  Some of the places they have chosen to live are very dry and arid and not at all similar to woodland soil.  They seem to like the company of a shrub.  Or else their seed dispersal mechanism is that some bird eats the seeds then craps while perching.  They look a bit random and unthemed growing wherever they choose of their own sweet will, but I don't mind them.  I've heard other things about bluebells.  They need shade.  They don't need shade, but hate grass, so thrive in light shade which suppresses the grass.  But I've seen them growing in grass too.  Heavy shade reduces flowering, and they persist in a leafy state multiplying by division only, which is why coppicing woodland is good for improving the bluebell display, by letting the light in.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

a warm day at the plant centre

It's still busy at the plant centre.  Surprisingly so, given how dry the ground is getting.  It isn't really good planting weather.  Which said, I'm still buying plants myself.

A lot of customers don't seem to have grasped that we won't be opening tomorrow, on Easter Sunday.  People who rang to check whether we had things, or that I called to let them know that plants they wanted had arrived, kept saying that they'd come tomorrow, or that they wouldn't be able to come tomorrow, suggesting they thought we would be open, if they had been able to come.  The owners have put the Easter opening hours on the website and the answering machine message, but I've a feeling there are going to be some disappointed punters turning around in the drive tomorrow.

We have become agents for Haddonstone.  When I arrived at work last Monday a collection of composite stone urns and plinths and a couple of bird baths had appeared in front of the climber tunnel.  I moved one of the bird baths then, because it was placed exactly where it was likely get knocked over dragging the hose out to use, and today I moved the other for the same reason.  The top and the bottom are in two separate parts, and if I were to instal one at home I'm sure the top would fall off the first time a cat jumped on it (I'd give it one day maximum).  Even the small items are jolly heavy, and I'm waiting hopefully for some staff training about things like delivery charges, given that we can't send one driver out by themselves and expect them to unload fake stone plinths weighing 65kg single handed.  Also whether you are supposed to cement the top and bottom half of the bird bath together so that your cat or child can't knock the dish off the pedestal.  We have a glossy brochure of their entire product range on a lectern for customers to read, which implies we are willing to order items specially for people, in which case it would be useful to know how long that process takes.  For the time being if anybody asks about delivery, or ordering non-stock items, or how to stop the top falling off the bird bath, I shall have to admit that we've only just started stocking Haddonstone and refer them upwards to the manager, or take their details and get back to them later.  I don't think we've sold any yet.

It was so hot in the tunnels by lunchtime that I rang home and suggested putting a can of water on the greenhouse floor, to try and cool it down for the robin.  I know I ought to feel very privileged that this little wild creature has chosen to make her home with me, but actually she is a damn nuisance.  Each time she flies off the nest while I'm watering the plants I feel guilty.  She is getting braver at staying put, and I hope she doesn't abandon her eggs, but I'm not prepared to abandon a greenhouse full of plants.

Friday, 22 April 2011

the cost of free plants

I've been taking the pots of agapanthus, geraniums and other tender things out of the greenhouse and setting them up on the paving by the formal pond.  They're crammed in too closely to see what I'm doing with the watering in this heat, and I need to space the pots out properly.  It is theoretically still rather early to do this, but given the weather forecast for the next five days is for the unseasonal heatwave to continue, and then it will be practically May, frost seems unlikely now.  If the outlook changes there'll be a lot of panic fleecing one evening.

I have quite a collection of Geranium maderense.  This is a frost-tender plant from Madeira, which has the interesting habit that as its old leaves die their stout stalks point downwards, and help support the stem.  The large, palmate leaves are mid-green and shiny and quite exciting.  The geraniums honestly take up rather a lot of room in the greenhouse during the winter, but I don't have the heart to throw any of them away.  What happened was that I went to the V&A, and sitting in the courtyard cafe drinking coffee my eye fell upon the pots of gone-over something or others that lined the walls.  I realised they were Geranium maderense, so I went over to see if they had set any seed, and they had set vast quantities which I didn't belive anybody would be saving for anything, so I took some and wrapped it in a piece of paper for safe-keeping.  The next spring I sowed all of it, and soon afterwards some nice fat seedlings emerged and grew rapidly.  I didn't have the heart to throw any of them away, and pricked them out into individual pots.  By the time we got to winter they were already in 5L pots, as I'd read somewhere that the plant demanded a generous root run.  They took up almost the entire greenhouse bench and were rather in the way.

Overwintering G. maderense turns out to be moderately susceptible to overwatering, and aphid attack, and I lost a couple, but most made it through to spring.  I gave plants to one or two friends who are into exotic gardening, and used up my entire supply of spare 33cm terracotta pots on the others, thinking that as they'd die after flowering it would only be a temporary state of affairs.  The flowers when they come are supposed to be magenta, and quite exciting.  The geraniums made large handsome mounds of leaves by the front door and next to the pond, but showed no signs of flowering.  It got to autumn and time to pack the greenhouse for the winter.  The Geranium maderense took up half the space on the greenhouse floor, so were rather in the way, but I didn't have the heart to consign any of them to the compost bin.  I grumbled about this state of affairs to the manager at work, and tried to palm one off on him, but he said he alread had one, which had gone for years without flowering.

This suggests I might have the collection for several years to come, unless it decides to flower, or succumbs to some disease, or the muntjacs break in and eat it, or I accidentally-on-purpose fail to water it.  I'm going to have to get some more 33cm pots.  Expensive things sometimes, free plants.

After I'd sown the seed I read that it remians viable for up to 5 years, so I needn't have sown all of it at once.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

a day at the museum

I took a day off from the gardening, and went with a friend to see the Afghanistan exhibition at The British Museum.  It is really good, and for once I wasn't rushing to catch something in its final week.  This one runs until 3 July, so there's still plenty of time to go and see it.  I find it a fascinating part of the world anyway, from the pages of Eric Newby, Colin Thubron, Peter Hopkirk and Frances Wood, and the plant collectors who worked in that region, so I was keen to go.The exhibition isn't large, but thoughtfully put together with some beautiful and fascinating objects.  One aim is to get visitors to think about Afghanistan as a place of history and culture, and not just the site of an endless series of wars, and it certainly does that. 

We watched the short introductory film, which sets the scene in terms of where the objects came from and when they were found, and the mixture of influences that worked on the region, crossed by trade routes and bordered by the Persian empire on one side, the Indian subcontinent the other, and the Steppes, and invaded at one time by Alexander the Great.  Tribute is paid to the bravery and foresight of Afghan museum staff who hid and so preserved their collections as the Taliban approached.  Then there are four rooms, each covering a different archeological site, with some useful explanatory maps and text plus the objects themselves.  These are made of gold, stone, glass, ivory, plaster and ceramic, and include drinking vessels, bits of masonry and furniture, statues and jewellery.  The gold crown that features on the front of the exhibition literature was recovered from a nomad grave, and can be disassembled into sections for ease of transport.  It is decorated with many dangling discs of gold, and although protected inside a glass case is mounted in such a way that it vibrates in response to the visitors' footfall, so you see the little discs dance as they might have when it was worn, which is a very nice touch.

Although I never saw a flat-pack crown before, I'm afraid there is little new under the sun.  The skull of the nomad princess in whose tomb the crown was found was slightly deformed, said to be the result of tight binding of the skull, common among high-ranking people at that time.  Wouldn't she have had a constant headache?  The ability of people throughout the ages to make themselves deliberately uncomfortable is quite depressing.  There was also a pair of gold shoe soles, the leather shoes to which they were stitched having long since rotted away.  Rubbish for walking but good for display sitting down.  Shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who is currently sueing Yves Saint Laurent over breach of copyright for his trademark red soles, says that no-one before him has ever used a coloured sole to define a brand's identity.  The first century AD Afghan nomads may not have called it a brand, but they knew the impact of a brightly coloured sole.

My friend introduced me to not one but two new (to me) eateries.  We had coffee in the mezzanine layer of the cafe which has mysteriously appeared inside the Royal Exchange building in the eleven years since the City ceased to be my normal stamping ground.  The architecture is grand, and the coffee and bun were very nice too.  I think we might have been the only people there not talking shop.  Almost everyone else had a laptop and folders, and I'm sure there were quite a few soundings-out about jobs going on.  After looking at the Afghans, which gave us time to work off the buns, we had a curry at masala zone in Covent Garden, which is one of a small London chain.  I had a vegetarian thali, and liked the indian puppets that hang all over the ceiling.  I don't know if all their restaurants have puppets, but the food is jolly good, the atmosphere cheerful, and the late lunch crowd seemed to merge seamlessly with the pre-theatre crowd so we didn't feel silly ordering lunch at 3pm and sitting there chatting until after five.  My friend, who has been there several times, says the food is always good, and it is very reasonable value for central London, so I'd recommend it highly.  If you like curry.  And do try the masala chai.  It's delicious.  The restrictions on cheap tickets on homewards trains were lifted for the school holidays, so we had the luxury of not having to plan the afternoon against the clock.

After that things took a turn for the worse, as the train back to Colchester was an hour late getting in (actually, I hope it was a full hour and not only 58 minutes, then I can put in a delay repay claim for half of my ticket price instead of only a quarter).  As I sat down at the kitchen table to compose my considered thoughts on my grand day out, I heard creaking noises from the upstairs floorboards.  As the Systems Administrator is out with former colleagues eating steak, this meant either burglars or a cat locked in the bedroom.  I counted the cats and was sans Our Ginger, so ventured upstairs without taking the poker.  He has eaten some more of the bedroom carpet just inside the door, and done something horrible in the middle of the duvet.  Hey ho.  If my syntax is more mangled and my spelling more erratic than usual, it's been a long day, and I still have to sort out the bedclothes.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

hitting the roof

I had to evict the Norfolk Island Pine from the conservatory.  The top was bending over where it touched the roof, again.  I've been pushing the pot towards the back where the headroom is greatest, but with only another few centimetres to go it was time to bite the bullet.  I'm very fond of this plant.  We've had it since it was about 30cm tall, and it was originally bought to go on the telephone table.  A recent newspaper report said that fewer and fewer people use or even have a landline (I think these are the young people who, as Jeremy Hardy puts it, use the interweb) and that mobiles are increasingly the norm.  We do still have a landline, and the telephone table, though nowadays it houses the base station for the roaming phone handsets and you don't have to conduct your conversation in the hall unless you want to.  However, the pine ceased to fit in there a long time ago.

Norfolk Island Pine is Araucaria heterophylla.  It looks as though it were related to the Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana, as indeed it is, with tiered branches, but it has needles of a bright mid-green that are much smaller than those of the Monkey Puzzle, and soft to the touch.  It has made an excellent container specimen over many years, remaining fully clothed down to the ground, with no dieback, and apparently immune to all conservatory insect pests.  Unfortunately it will become huge in time.  One grows in a glass house at Kew, and it has had its top lopped off to accommodate it.  And there's the rub.  It is too tender to survive outside through a UK winter, but I don't want to have to cut its top off.  It is a lovely shape as it is, and I should feel like a butcher pruning it.  It looks very fine standing just outside the conservatory, beneath the veranda, and my mind has begun to run on wild schemes to wrap soil warming cable around the pot in winter, and make it a fleece tent to live in.  An alternative plan is to try and find someone who has a taller conservatory than me and would be able to give it a loving home.  I've got the summer to think about it.  It would fit in the sitting room, if we moved the dining table right over and skirted around the pine to get to the bottom of the stairs, but while this is allowed for the Christmas tree I think my partner would draw the line at making it a permanent arrangement from September to April.

I had to evict my Echium pininiana from the greenhouse for exactly the same reason.  This was raised from seed sown, acording to the label, on 19th February 2009.  I got a poor germination rate, in that only two seedlings emerged, and by the time I'd concluded that that was my lot I didn't want to risk destroying the only two I had trying to separate them, so it has grown as a two-branched multistem.  Accounts I've read about growing Echiums in containers have never been very encouraging, but this one is in a pot around the 35cm mark and has done respectably.  At any rate, it is taller than the greenhouse and has got flower buds on its stems, though it isn't as lush as ones I've seen growing in the ground in places with gentler climates than north east Essex.  The flowers, assuming things go according to plan and winter doesn't suddenly reappear with a final late frost (which could still happen) should be blue, and I think attractive to bees, and I ought to get self-sown seedlings, which will probably not survive the two winters outside they would need to do to flower.  I could save seed, or salvage seedlings if they appear, and raise another one under glass.

If I were an oligarch I wouldn't bother with buying The Evening Standard, but I would like to have a house that was wrapped around three sides of a two or three storey atrium, so that I could grow these things in comfort.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

two Scottish musicians

We went last night to hear Mike and Ali Vass play at the Colchester Arts Centre.  They are twins, young folk musicians from Nairn in north east Scotland.  We heard them before in 2008, and liked them enough that as soon as I got the Arts Centre programme for this spring and saw they were coming round again I ringed the date on the calender.  Sadly not a great number of others did likewise, and it was a salutory reminder how sharply the audience for folk falls off below the top-level established acts, like Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman or Spiers and Boden, both recent sell-outs at Colchester.  It was a great waste, as the Vass twins are good and it would be nice if lots more people heard them.  Still, everyone has to start somewhere.  We once heard Kate Rusby playing in the upstairs room of the Red Lion in Manningtree, and I don't suppose she'd do that nowadays.  The Arts Centre manages to make the smaller audience look as though it is more or less filling the space by setting out tables and chairs, cafe style, and just having a couple of rows of seats at the back, which is where we were, having aimed to miss the support act.  My dad, who has sung at the Arts Centre on one of their occassional singers nights, said that due to the lights he couldn't see the audience from the stage anyway, so the arrangement of the furniture must be to reassure the listeners that they are not too few, rather than the performers.

Mike and Ali Vass are both excellent musicians.  Mike Vass plays the fiddle, very well, and the guitar, not at the level of Martin Simpson or Richard Thompson, but bread-and-butter guitar is fine when underpinned by enormous musicality and feel for the material, which he has in spades.  He writes his own tunes, as well as playing trad ones, and I liked them enough to buy his new CD, freshly released this month.  I don't often buy any CDs on the night, as my Amazon wishlist always stretches to at least ten pages, and I'd rather think about what I'm going to get and ponder track listings at leisure, but apart from the fact that I like the Vass twins I was pleased they'd come to Colchester and wanted to support them.

Ali Vass plays the piano with energy and verve.  You get a few piano players in folk, but it's not common nowadays, and carries slightly scary connotations to my generation of country dancing at school on days when it was too wet for sport.  In my dad's compendious vinyl collection there are recordings of first and second generation American Irish fiddlers in New York who are almost always accompanied by a piano, but the pianos of the 1950s and 60s went boom-chick boom-chick using about three chords all the way through.  That was swept away in the 70s as groups like Planxty showed what could be achieved with a bouzouki, and guitar accompanists like Paul Brady soared beyond boom-chick.  Ali Vass is following in their footsteps, but on a piano.  In fact, usually keyboards, which is what she used the first time we saw them, but last night there was an actual grand piano, large and rather battered.  I didn't know the Arts Centre possessed a grand piano.  Have they had it for years lurking behind the curtains, but last time she didn't ask to use it, or have they recently bought it or been given it?  Anyway, Ali Vass seemed thrilled with it.  I would love to know how she arrived at her style, whether she has done her grade 8 but went down the folk route, and what role jazz has played in her musical education.  In the Vass treatment the piano is not confined to accompaniment, but at times takes the tune from the fiddle, which with a fast reel is quite something.

They do some traditional Scottish songs as well.  I was pondering today what defines a folk song, and of course there is no definition, but traditional songs almost always tell a story.  Lovers depart and come back, their fortunes made or not, and are joyously reunited with their sweethearts or murdered by cruel parents.  There is a narrative in which things happen, generally reaching a conclusion.  The same song-writing model, in fact, that was used most of the time by The Jam, Elvis Costello and other favourite non-folk bands of my youth.  Ali Vass has a good voice for folk, deep, strong, melodic and truthful.  She was breaking up a bit on the high notes last night, and I said then that she was struggling.  Looking for their website just now I saw that their gig tomorrow at Loughborough has been cancelled, so we were very lucky to see them yesterday.  Lucky also in that she got married earlier this year, and will be making her home in the States, so touring the UK with her brother seems likely to be curtailed.

As a duo the nearest they seem to having a website is a page on their agent's website.  They are sharing an agent with some very famous and seriously good names in the world of Scottish and Irish music, which is encouraging.  Mike Vass has his own site, and works with other partners as well as his sister, and teaches tradditional fiddle.  If you get the chance to hear either or both I'd grab it.  Assuming you like traditional Scottish music, that is.

(I should like to make a small modification to Bill Gates' domestic arrangements.  When he is in the middle of cooking, or telling a really good story to friends, or shaving, or showering, I should like his cooker, or his dinner party, or his razor, or water supply, to arbitrarily shut down for ten minutes while it instals updates.  In that ten minutes he can watch his souffle collapse, his friends lose interest in the punchline, and feel his face congeal and his skin chill.  Then he will know how it feels to be a person of modest technical abilities trying to communicate using Windows 7.  I must speak to the Systems Administrator about this and see if the blasted thing can't be programmed to at least ask me first if this is a convenient moment.  But I would still like Bill Gates to suffer the unscheduled shutdowns, in defence of all those people who don't have a Systems Administrator).

My other gripe is still about the folk club's awful timing.  The Vass twins came on at 8.45pm, and there was a half hour interval, which the people sitting next to us grumbled was too long.  Even though I loved the music, by the last couple of sets I could feel my eyeballs prickling under my eyelids with tiredness.  We got home at 11.30pm, I'd done a ten hour working day before I went out for the evening, and it was only Monday.  That's not good.

Monday, 18 April 2011

bittercress and peacocks

The boss announced that we must tackle the hairy bittercress in the herbaceous tunnel, before it ripened and shed its seeds everywhere.  He added generously that the manager could use one of the plant centre staff up until 10.00am.  As we were both watering until gone twenty past nine this was a slightly symbolic gesture, but I managed to spend an hour and a quarter over there before it got too busy in the plant centre.  Hairy bittercress grown in a nice, warm, irrigated tunnel displays a vigour not possessed by the starvelings that try to colonise my gravel, and make huge, plump plants fully 20cm tall.  I think we may have missed the boat slightly with the seed shedding, though.

We had to hose dollops of peacock ordure off the ramp up to the back of the shop.  My colleague believes that at this time of the year they like to look at themselves reflected in the glass of the door.  At least they don't show any interest in the parked cars:  I have heard of peacocks attacking their reflections in the panels of a well-polished motor.  Mine will be quite safe anyway, as it hasn't been washed since winter, and not for quite a long time before that.  I keep thinking that I really must wash it, but it would be a great excuse to be able to say that you would have a clean car, except that then it might be attacked by peacocks.

One of the hens made repeated forays into the shop, presumably looking for cake crumbs after yesterday's Yellow Book festivities.  Another hen, or maybe the same one, managed to get locked into the staff room.  Chickens and carpets don't mix.  The carpet is an unfortunate shade of pink, donated by a former staff member who had a mate who was refurbishing a pub, and was already pretty grubby, but it is marginally worse now.

Most of the customers were delightful, though I did get one peeved and self-righteous one who was not very happy that we hadn't rung her to warn her that the cistus she had been told would be arriving in around three weeks when she ordered it about three weeks ago was still expected in three weeks as of today.  I apologised for that and explained that ordering in plants from small suppliers wasn't as straightforward as ordering baked beans, and that unfortunately as it was a very busy time of year and the list of people waiting for plants ran to 12 pages of A4, we didn't have the resources to call each of them to keep them updated on progress obtaining their plants.  Actually, I've never tried ordering baked beans, and for all I know it is fiendishly complicated.  How do you explain politely to querulous and possibly rather dim people that the level of personal service they are expecting for their nineteen quid is wildly unrealistic?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

all's well in tulip time

The tulips are looking great.  If I were an oligarch I wouldn't bother buying a premier league football club, but I should like one of those gardens where every year 10,000 tulip bulbs were planted.  As it is I have a dozen pots of them.  I love tulips in all their manifestations, as bunches of flowers for the house, and Blom's magnificent display at Chelsea (the stress each year.  Will this be the first time in about 65 years that they don't get awarded a Gold Medal?), but tulips outdoors have an extra beauty because the sun can shine through their petals.  You can see where the petals overlap at the base of each flower by the arc of darker colour, sharply demarcated from the luminous area of single thickness of petal above.  Viewed close up the petals glisten and have a striated surface texture like polished steel.

I went for bright colours again this year.  The soft pinks and whites are pretty, but the hot reds and oranges are more exciting.  First to open was 'Red Impression', a classic goblet shaped tulip in bright red, with a black blotch at the base of each petal.  These are still looking good, but starting to lean and weave in different directions.  It is a Darwin hybrid.  I tried to pick varieties that would open over a period, to give me a longer season, and it should in theory have been behind the Triumph tulips, as the Triumphs are supposed to open mid to late April and the Darwins late April to mid May, but never mind.  Triumph tulips are also the traditional tulip shape, and I went for 'Orange Sun', 'Abu Hassan', 'Jan Reus' and 'Negrita'.  'Orange Sun' is very much at the red end of the orange spectrum, with a silvery reverse to the petals, and the effect is warm and soft and not at all glaring.  'Abu Hassan' is a deep brownish-purple, with yellow edges and bases to the petals.  'Jan Reus' is a lovely deep burgundy, and again the backs of the petals have a hint of silver.  'Negrita' is a rich mid-purple.

Last to open are the Lily Flowered tulips, with their elegant pointed petals.  The first flower has just opened in one pot of 'Ballerina', which is a warm apricot, lifted by the yellow stamens and basal blotch.  The other Lily Flowered variety is 'Red Shine', and that hasn't opened at all yet.

I got them all from Peter Nyssen, a whosesaler which has also sold to members of the public for many years.  Christopher Lloyd repeatedly recommended the firm in his books, which is where I picked up the name.  The minimum quantity you can buy of one tulip variety is 25 bulbs, which does two 33cm pots nicely.  The cheapest ones were £16 per hundred bulbs last season, which equates to £4 per 25 and £2 per pot.  Buying tulips in packets from garden centres, or from the wonderful Bloms, it is easy to pay 45-50p per bulb, which comes to over £5 per pot.  In the old City days it was a great game to go around the Bloms stand with an order form, ticking the boxes against the names of the ones I liked, and then forgetting about it until autumn when a large box of tulip bulbs arrived, together with the bill.  Nowadays I make sure I choose Peter Nyssen's cheapest varieties, many of which are very good, just not the newest and trendiest.  It's tough on Bloms, as I still look at their lovely Chelsea exhibit, and Peter Nyssen doesn't do one of those.

The tulips were potted last November in ordinary multi-purpose compost, and stood outside all through the winter weather.  Unlike the potted hyacinths, they are absolutely fine.  That is more than can be said for the pots.  I used to use traditional clay pots, around the 33cm size, and got fed up with them blowing over, so a couple of years ago I bought some broader based, shorter ones from B&Q.  They are 33cm at the top, but only 25cm across the base and 25cm tall.  The proportions look very nice, in fact, and they give adequate rooting depth for tulips  Unfortunately they were not sufficiently weather proof.  None of them have cracked, but the rims are flaking off.  I think I need to plan ahead, and buy a set of plain pots for bulbs from Whichford Pottery, if they have a winter sale as usual, except that that will be after the point when I should have planted the bulbs.

In the gravel, dwarf tulips are bringing the miniature bulbs season to its conclusion.  These are reasonably persistent, at least in our free draining gravel.  They are all so pretty, I tend to choose them as well on the basis of going for the species and varieties where I can afford to get 25 rather than 3.

Addendum  I wrote that Geranium maculatum 'Chatto' had flowers in a dreamy shade of pale blue, which is how I remembered them.  Then I found the label on the kitchen table, and it said that the flowers were pink, so I went outside and had a look at them.  I'm not sure whether they should be called pink or blue.  They are a pale lavender with veining, which in some lights is definitely pink, but in others a soft blue in the way that blue clematis almost always have some pink in them.  It just goes to show that you should have the plant in front of you while writing about it.  I couldn't be bothered to set up an extension cable so that I could sit in front of the tulips to blog about them (laptop battery life nowadays approx 3 minutes) but I did go out (with a clipboard) and take notes before sitting down to write.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Two gardening programmes

We watched Gardeners' World last night, partly because it was on before Monty Don's Italian Gardens, which was the programme I really wanted to see.  The reformed, back-to-basics version is OK.  Quite nice, really.  If I were still commuting and wanting something very undemanding to collapse to on a Friday night in front of the box I can see it would be fine.  They've got rid of the awful embarassing matey backchat between the presenters, and returned to a series of more or less sensible features about gardening.

I would have liked to know more about Carol Klein's old daffodil varieties.  Why are they later blooming than the modern ones?  I can see the advantages of having developed daffodils that flower especially early, but why drop the late flowering strains from mainstream commerce?  And was it a coincidence that most of the varieties featured were white?  The last of my daffodils to flower, which are not old or rare varieties, are the white and pale coloured ones.  I should have liked to know the name of the one with the gappy, slightly twisted petals, but didn't write it down at the time, and have since had a rummage around the programme's website without finding it.  I could presumably watch the programme again on i-player until I got to the feature on daffodils, but I don't think I can be bothered.  I suppose the BBC won't name actual suppliers because they can't be seen to favour individual commercial firms (I'd love to know where Monty got those chunky artichoke plants from in their beautiful wrappings), but to be told that old daffodils are hard to find but if you search around you can track them down isn't very helpful.

I wasn't completely convinced by Rachel de Thame's feature on renovating a shrub bed.  We saw her take some of the top growth off the condemned Choisya, then a shot of her levering the roots up with a garden fork, then in the next shot it was already quite loose in the ground and she and the plant's owner were tugging at it, and out it came with a final heave.  I have never dug up a large Choisya, and it may be that they have sparse root systems, or that this one had been so damaged by the cold that half its roots were dead, but I wonder how long it really took to get out of the ground, and how they actually did it, and what tools they used.  The last time I tried to lever up quite a small hydrangea using a garden fork I broke the handle.  It is true I have a bee in my bonnet about pickaxes at the moment (the Pittosporum tobira went today.  I'm starting to have an azalea theory in its place) but digging out established shrubs is generally heavy physical work.  It can take the best part of half a day, if not an entire day, and it is immeasurably easier if you have the right tools (a pickaxe, and possibly a saw for the larger roots).  I'm not sure that leaving beginner gardeners with the impression that they can do the job in half an hour with a garden fork is doing them any favours.  There was no mention of the fact that before going on to plant your new herbaceous perennials you would need to remove the remaining Choisya roots, or that it would be a very good idea to refresh the soil with plenty of added organic material before replanting.

So Gardener's World probably gets 5 out of 10, or 6 if I'm feeling generous, which is a considerable improvement on its previous rating of about 1.  However, Monty Don's Italian Gardens were really good.  I thought they would be, having enjoyed his previous series on gardens around the world.  Last night he looked at gardens built by ambitious cardinals vying for the papacy.  We learnt about the social context of the gardens, why they were built and how they were used, and where they were (not too far from the Vatican).  He covered economic and practical aspects of getting that much water into a garden, and practical aspects of construction such as that the sculptures in one garden were carved in-situ from rock outcrops on the site.  He mentioned symbolic aspects of the gardens, and the original access routes and viewpoints from which they were approached and seen (not always the current ones).  He discussed which original features had been lost (mainly flowers and specimen plants) and the extent to which the gardens differed from their original design.  He covered present ownership (mostly state owned).  He questioned whether restoration was always wholly desirable, and the difficulty of deciding at what point in time you should restore to, if you were restoring.  There was really a lot of interesting stuff in there, and plenty of footage of the actual gardens, which were very handsome.  It's a four part series, and if you missed part one it's worth catching on the i-player and then watching the rest of it.  I expect to be glued to the TV between 9.00pm and 10.00pm for the next three Fridays.

Friday, 15 April 2011

more weeding, more flowers

I spent today in the back garden, weeding, before the ground gets too dry to stick a trowel in, and acutely aware of how far behind I am with normal maintenance after losing so many working days to the snow and the cold.  We went to get another 20 bags of mushroom compost earlier in the week, and I've already used 6 bags of it, teasing it carefully around the primulas then romping across the blank spaces between shrubs.  The Pittosporum tobira has definitely had it, stone dead after the cold weather, another set of roots to pickaxe out.  I should mention one impressive survivor, a narrow leafed form of common bay that I got from the Architectural Plants nursery.  Many of our customers at work have sad stories of bay cut to the ground, but this one is looking only slightly burnt in a few places.  It makes a tall, narrow shrub, and is a fine plant.  The Architectural Plants catalogue said it was hardier than the usual bay, and I once tried to interest the boss at work in stocking it, but he didn't sound impressed.  I try to clip mine to a neat cone, which would be easier if it weren't planted on a steepish slope surrounded by other shrubs.

There are plenty of flowers to look at while weeding, apart from the primulas.  Osmanthus delavayi is just opening.  This is a lovely, slow growing evergreen shrub, with small, matt, dark green leaves, and small scented white flowers.  Left unclipped it will form quite an open bush, and I've seen it in woodland gardens in light shade from the surrounding trees, but in full sun and clipped over after flowering it forms a dense bush.  I've got it at the corner of a bed, an idea I'm pretty sure I copied from one of Christopher Lloyd's books.  There is a hybrid with larger leaves which is more vigorous, Osmanthus x burkwoodii, but O. delavayi is more elegant.  Good things are worth waiting for.

Among the polyanthus, and in the same rich pink part of the colour spectrum, is the pink form of Japanese quince that used to be called 'Appleblossom' and is now properly 'Moerloosei'.  It flowers late, for a Chaenomeles.  My shrub suffers from something knawing its bark in the winter months, I suspect voles or other small rodents, but has survived.  It has lost some vigour in the past couple of years, and I feel it will appreciate some nice mushroom compost, topped off with a dusting of fish, blood and bone.

The double gean is opening, Prunus avium 'Plena'.  This is always some days behind the single form in flowering, and will eventually make a huge tree, though not in my time.  In front of it is Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride', which is well named.  As you would expect it has white flowers, looking very fresh against mid green leaves, but in addition it has a train-like habit, as the branches sweep downwards and cascade out across the ground.  I have learnt from experience that it requires its own space.  If any other shrub is allowed to grow into it the Exochorda will respond by developing a dead, bald spot, which takes a while to grow out when the interloper is tidied back within bounds.  Slightly squeezed into a space at the back of the bed, Exochorda serratifolia is making surprisingly good growth, given it is supposed to require full sun, but is on the north side of a tall hedge with other shrubs around.  That also has white flowers, held in more vertical sprays than 'The Bride', which I bought because I liked it so much, without proper thought as to where I could put it (a bad habit I have partly learnt to curb).  It ended up in a sort of gap where I wanted to thicken up the planting between us and the neighbours.  This seems a cavalier use for a fine shrub, but it has fighting spirit and is coping so far.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

unexpected lodgers in the greenhouse

Robins are nesting in my greenhouse.  I was watering one day, and stretched out my hand to remove a pile of leaves that seemed to have suddenly collected in a tray of bronze grasses, when I realised it was in fact a bird's nest.  There was no sign of any actual bird, and I assumed that the greenhouse had got too hot for them and that the nest was abandoned, as we'd had a couple of unusually warm and sunny days before I put this year's shading paint on.  I was beginning to think that if I removed it carefully and treated it for fleas my nieces and nephew might like it, when I saw one day that there was an egg in it.  Still no signs of birds, and I again thought it must be abandoned, but left it alone.  A day or two later I saw there was another egg, brownish pink.

My partner, who knows more about birds than I do, said that it was probably robins, as he'd seen them in that corner of the garden, and that they laid their clutch over several days but didn't start incubating them until they'd finished laying, so that all would hatch at the same time.  I had no idea that eggs were able to survive in limbo, at room temperature, until the parent bird was ready to sit, but I don't know much about the domestic habits of robins.

I looked into the greenhouse this morning and a pair of anxious eyes looked back at me over the top of the nest, so they have started sitting.  I'll try not to disturb them, but I'm not prepared to vacate the greenhouse entirely and not water any of the plants until the robins have finished nesting.  I think the best thing to do will be to not ever look at them directly, and pretend I haven't noticed them.  They can't be afraid of me per se, because they follow me around the garden when I'm weeding.

Searching around the internet I gather that the female incubates the eggs, but that both parents help feed the young.  They can have 2-3 clutches in a season, and it sounds as though they build a fresh nest each time, which I suppose is more hygienic but extra work for them.  It will be interesting to see how they get on, and how we rub along together.  I've got a wooden frame with netting over it, previously used for keeping the birds off some strawberries.  Incubation apparently lasts 12-15 days, and once the eggs get close to hatching I'd better see about leaving the frame wedged across the greenhouse door, to deter the cats from going in if they hear the babies squeaking for food.  It's not as tall as the door, so there'd be a gap at the top for the adults to fly through, plus I'm sure they're bright enough to discover the roof vents.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

pondlife, and coastal climbers revisited

Looking into the formal pond in front of the house, I've seen newts.  The pond is slightly failing in its role as an ornamental feature, as a carex that formed part of the original planting has seeded into all the other containers and largely overwhelmed the rest of the marginal plants, while the water surface is a mess of duckweed, and the body of the pond choked by the submerged oxygenators that have multiplied wildly.  As a wildlife feature it's doing a great job.  The actual water is limpid, crystal clear, and full of life.  The newts have grown crests for the breeding season, but since they are very small, and when I see them the rest of the time they are crestless and the usual common newt brown and orange, I'm sure they are common ones and not great crested (if I thought there was any danger we had great crested newts in the front garden I would keep very quiet about it).  The newts swim about the edges of the pond, tiny toes outstretched.  When I disturb them around the garden while weeding at other times of the year they sham dead, to deter me from eating them.  The first time one did this I thought I must have somehow killed it, but have since discovered that this is normal newt behaviour.  As well as the newts I saw a couple of what looked like small flint cylinders, with tufts of weed growing on them, bumbling about, and I presume these were the larvae of some insect.  I need to clear the pond out at some point, but this is definitely not the right time.

I found a toad as well yesterday, while I was weeding in the back garden.  I picked it up carefully and put it in the middle of a Podocarpus where it wouldn't get disturbed again.  Toads have a very poor sense of self-preservation.  If uncovered by somebody weeding then instead of shuffling off as fast as they can crawl to put distance between themselves and the potential danger, they move about a trowel's length and stop as soon as they are hidden from view, so in a few minutes they get dug up again.

I find the presence of amphibians reassuring, apart from the fact that I like toads, as it makes me feel that the garden must be reasonably healthy and unpolluted.  We very rarely get frogs, but I have been told that they tend not to co-exist with toads.  I don't know why not.

Fired up by the question about climbing plants for a windy garden right by the sea, I re-read one of my few books about coastal gardening, Gardening at the Shore by Frances Tennenbaum, published by Timber Press.  They are north American publishers, and she is an American author whose examples are all drawn from north America, so it requires a little intelligent thought to extrapolate her views to gardening in Felixstowe, but many of the points she makes are just as applicable this side of the Atlantic.  Neither the text nor illustrations make much mention of climbing plants.  As is often the way with this sort of book, there is a final section on suitable plants for the matter in hand, and the section on Vines only names two.  One is Carolina jasmine or Gelsemium sempervirens, which sounds very useful, apart from the fact that I can't recall ever seeing for sale here.  The other is Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper.  I'd never thought of that as specifically good for coastal conditions, but she says it will grow on dry dunes and even the ocean shore.  In the body of the text in the earlier chapters she suggests that it is worth experimenting with roses, if they are given a modicum of shelter.

I checked the list of shrubs and climbers for specific purposes in the back of Graham Stuart Thomas's excellent Ornamental shrubs, climbers and bamboos, but the only climber included among shrubs for exposed gardens at the seaside was Muehlenbeckia complexa.  Then I tried the RHS on-line plant selector, going for climbers for a coastal position, and leaving all other conditions such as soil type and flower colour entirely open.  This came up with a list of 24 names, including quite a lot of different honeysuckles, common jasmine, wisteria, a few rose varieties, plus, rather bizarrely, one Raymond Evison clematis, the variety 'Rosemoor'.  I can't believe that 'Rosemoor' is so uniquely gifted among all other clematis varieties as to wind and salt tolerance, but there it is.  The RHS doesn't mention muehlenbeckia.  Maybe they don't count it as a climber.

After my quest for knowledge I felt that on the whole gardening experts didn't associate climbing plants with coastal gardening any more than I did.  I don't think this is just down to habit, prejudice or fashion.  Leaving aside other parts of the world with very humid climates where forests grow close to the sea, coastal vegetation around the UK and northern Europe tends to be low-growing, due to the blasting effect of salt laden winds.  The reason why plants evolve a climbing habit is to hoist themselves up to the light, whether by mountaineering up other, taller plants, or by scrambling up rock faces.  If you come from coastal conditions where there aren't other tall plants to block the light, and the general name of the game is to hunker down low out of the worst of the salt wind, you don't need to climb.  That's not to say that some climbers from inland areas won't turn out to be salt-tolerant, but there's no reason to expect that many will be.  UK gardens close to the sea that do manage to grow tall plants inevitably make use of extensive shelter-belt plantings, to cut down the effect of wind and salt within the garden, and in the case of the great Cornish gardens are often tucked into valleys that give additional protection.  The wonderful garden made by Derek Jarman at Dungeness, which was an immediate response to the shingle and the sea, with no shelter belt, did not use climbing plants.

So I'm afraid the pleasant couple from Felixstowe, with their series of big arches that they want to cover with flowering climbers, have set themselves a difficult challenge.  If they had been designing the garden with respect to its surroundings and the wider landscape maybe they shouldn't have had big arches.  Or if they want pergolas covered in flowering climbers maybe they shouldn't have chosen to live right by the sea.  But I will try to get down to the sea-front gardens at Clacton at some point this summer, and see what's growing on the pergola there, and how it's doing.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

underplanting for shrub roses

Barring unforseen events and emergencies I have a whole week to spend in the garden.  Between now and Sunday lunchtime I'm not committed to going anywhere or doing anything (apart from making a pudding for the lunch).  I was looking forward to it all over the weekend, and scanning the weather forecast, torn between the need for rain and my acute desire that it should not rain during the daytime (which is ridiculous, since it will rain when it rains, irrespective of whether or when I would like it to).

I worked in the back garden today, so admired the 'Taihaku' at intervals.  There are some buds still to open, but already petals are falling on the lawn.  I was weeding around the shrub roses, a fiddly task since by now I have to manouvre around tufts of hyacinth and colchicum foliage, plus self-sown seedlings of Orlaya grandiflora.  This is a delightful umbellifer, with white flowers like lacecap hydrangeas, a flat central cluster of tiny flowers surrounded by larger petals around the outside of the cluster.  I first saw it on a Chelsea show garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith a few years ago, and was enchanted, so asked one of the girls on the stand what it was called.  She replied that it was a wild flower and Tom said it didn't really have a name.  I said that even weeds had names, and managed to discover what it was.  Since then it has become rather trendy, and one of the glossy magazines gave away packets of seed.  Received wisdom is that it transplants badly and is best sown in-situ from fresh seed, and certainly I haven't found packeted seed gave me many plants.  My self-seeding colony hangs on at one end of the rose bed, but sadly the Orlaya isn't as generous with its progeny as the wild umbellifers that try to move into the garden.  I think cow parsley is a beautiful plant, but it has territorial ambitions all over my cyclamen.  There is also some sort of hogweed, with ribbed stems and more solid flowers than cow parsley,whose name I haven't yet discovered yet.  It is handsome, but too inclined to spread itself about, so I'm now rooting seedlings out when I find them.  I do have a plan to establish self-seeding parsnips in this bed, because their yellow flowers would look so good with the purple roses, and it would be a horticultural joke to see how many people recognised them out of context for a vegetable gone to seed, but I haven't got round to that yet.  There is some angelica which shows signs of setting up a colony in front of 'William Lobb'.

There are also quite a few seedlings of a dark leaved form of Geranium maculatum.  Due to poor record keeping (no excuse for that) I'm not sure whether the original parent plants are the form 'Elizabeth Ann' or 'Espresso'.  There are so many named forms of geranium, and some of them look so similar my mind begins to glaze over.  G. maculatum is one of the  geranium species that will bear a bit of shade, hence I'm experimenting with it as ground cover around shrubs.  The initial results, including the controlled amount of self-seeding, are encouraging, so today I added three plants of G. maculatum 'Chatto'.  This is already in bloom, one of the earliest flowering geraniums, and has mid-green leaves and flowers in a dreamy shade of pale blue.

Three white flowered plants of Vinca minor that I planted last autumn are spreading, and showing signs of starting to do their intended task, which is to stabilise the soil at the end of the bed where it slopes down quite steeply towards the deck.  Buoyed by that preliminary success I'm planting a blue form as well, 'La Grave', which used to be called 'Bowles Variety'.  I don't know why poor old E A Bowles has lost his periwinkle.

Monday, 11 April 2011

tidying the clematis and climbers for a seaside garden

Today being a weekday, it wasn't as busy at the plant centre as it was over the weekend.  I spent some time untangling the clematis in the climber tunnel.  They have suddenly leapt into growth, and are sending out tender young shoots in all directions, which will cling to the bamboo cane in the next pot as happily as their own.  I like clematis.  The way they climb is fascinating, winding their leaf stalks around whatever support they can find.  There is something very soothing and meditative about uncurling the little stalks, and tracing each stem back to its own pot.  I fastened the loose stems to their canes using a tie gun, a useful though cranky device that lets you wrap green plastic tape around whatever you are tying up, then staples the two ends of the tape together while cutting it off from the reel of tape in the gun.  When it works.  Many of the clematis have already over-reached the tops of their supports, and unless they were carrying well-developed flower buds that it would be too much of a waste to cut off, I cut them back to a pair of leaves at the top of the cane.  Those that were only just above the end of the cane had their tips nipped out, to encourage them to bush out.  It is sad cutting out all that healthy growth, but if allowed to grow above their support they eventually flop over and break, and once they grow into each other the more timid customers won't buy them, while the more ruthless can cause serious damage trying to extract the plant they want.

After lunch the manager enquired if I was getting too hot in the tunnel, and would prefer to switch to potting left-over bare-root fruit, but I was quite happy where I was.  People go on holiday to get a climate like that.

Working out in the plant centre rather than inside operating the till I'm in the front line for fielding customer queries.  A couple from Felixstowe wanted to know what climbers I could recommend to grow very close to the sea.  This isn't something I've ever given much thought to, and thinking about it today I realised I didn't particularly associate climbing plants with the idea of a seaside garden.  They told me that wisteria did well in their garden, so I learnt something from them.  I wondered if it would be worth trying Campsis, in that while the boss says on the label that it requires sunny sheltered conditions, I have seen healthy looking ones flowering freely along the tops of garden fences in Burnham-on-Crouch, and that must get quite strong and salty winds sweeping up the estuary.  The manager thought that kiwi fruit and grapevines might be worth a go, as both would tolerate arid conditions.  Hillier's dictionary only came up with Russian vine, which I couldn't recommend to anybody (unless maybe they wanted to conceal an aircraft hanger) and Muehlenbeckia, but that has funny little leaves and nothing much in the way of flowers and the customers already had it and didn't fancy another.  There is a pergola in the seafront gardens at Clacton (which were restored around the turn of the millennium and are rather nice, as municipal gardens go) and I wished I'd paid more attention to what was growing on it (though I may have written it down in my garden visiting notebook, but I didn't have that with me).  It is a good question, climbing plants for the seaside, and has given me something to think about.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

garden unseen (by me)

The garden at work appeared on Gardeners' World a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately I didn't know it was on, and missed it.  Maybe I should give GW another go, now that Monty's back.  I gather that last week they covered the Gibbert Garden at Harlow, so they must have been on a little eastern counties tour.  I don't know if it was the direct effect of the TV feature, but visitor numbers have risen markedly since.

I don't often go around it myself.  Customers find this bizarre.  When asking for the name of something they've seen in the garden they try to describe it, and I have to admit I haven't seen it.  The trouble is, there isn't really time.  By lunchtime I've generally been on my feet for the best part of five hours.  I'm hungry, and I want a cup of tea, and to sit down on a chair, with a table to put my tea on.  If I wander down the garden the tea is cold by the time I sit down, and I'll probably have to sit on the ground.  Even though the surroundings are beautiful it's too uncomfortable.  I find it takes twenty minutes to eat lunch and drink the tea, which leaves ten minutes out of my half hour lunch break.  Five minutes there and five minutes back isn't going to get me very far into the garden.  Also, I want to get away from the customers for half an hour.  I'm generally quite happy with my role as Staff, but not while I'm eating my lunch.

In general I don't think looking at things against the clock works, whether it is trying to see the garden in the last few minutes of my break, or rushing around an art gallery in the half hour before it closes, or before the moment where I have to get back to Liverpool Street if I'm to beat the commuter period when cheap day returns are invalid.  To appreciate something properly is to immerse yourself in it, which means losing your sense of time.  It's no good if you have an eye on your watch.

The boss has said in the past that we're welcome to go around the garden after work, which is kindly meant, but by six I'm ready to go home.  I'm tired, and I've got my own watering to do when I get back.  And I want to see what's going on in my garden, and check my e-mails.  I could go over there on a day when I'm not working, but there are so many other things to do, I never seem to make the time.  They say the shoemaker's children are the worst shod.

At least when I get home I don't have to do the cooking.  Many households operate on the basis that things get done by the person who cares most about the outcome.  My partner does not share my cheerful conviction that tea, toast, cheese and fruit constitute a nourishing diet, and that meat more than once or twice a week is an optional extra, so I get home to a proper cooked meal.  With meat.  During Cheltenham week the nearest I got to animal protein was an anchovy.

The bits of the garden I can see over the plant centre wall do look very nice.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

a fairly busy day at the plant centre

It was another busy day at work, though maybe not so frantically busy as it has been.  I managed to spend a good part of the day putting plants out for sale and helping customers outside in the plant centre, rather than stuck on the till.  The manager had left a note to say I should move some shrubby honeysuckles, Lonicera rupicola var. syringantha, from the shrub beds where they were flowering largely ignored, to the display tables by the entrance.  I moved a couple, and by mid-afternoon both had sold, though so had one left in their original position with the shrubs.  This has soft pink flowers and blueish-green foliage, and is a pretty thing.  I was quite tempted to buy one myself, but desisted.  I wonder if it is drought tolerant.  Lonicera tatarica is a marvellously tough plant, thriving with me and in a colleague's equally dry garden, but I don't know if L. rupicola is equally amenable.  It is supposed to be marvellously scented, according to my researches just now on the internet.  I must admit I didn't smell it, but I have a slight cold and can't smell much at all at the moment.  I've a feeling I could easily talk myself into getting one, as long as it could cope with the sandy soil in the top part of the garden.

On the tills we kept running out of change.  I wish the banks would get on and dispense five pound notes through cashpoint machines, as they have said they are going to do.  Customers tender £20 notes, which you can't blame them for, and we soon run out of fivers and have to use pound coins in their change, so we run out of those too.  Today we even managed to run out of 1p bits at one point.  A woman whose partner had given me twelve pounds for an eleven pound something transaction demanded a five pound note in addition to her thirty-something pence change.  When I said that the plants were over eleven pounds and they'd given me twelve pounds she began to query the price of the plants.  Fortunately she had her itemised (three items) till receipt in her hand.  Her partner shushed her and hurried her away.  I think he was rather embarassed.

Looking on the bright side, I remembered a belt for my trousers, and managed not to water my feet, having changed to plimsolls now that the weather's warming up.  I hate spending all day in damp shoes.

Friday, 8 April 2011

the fleeting joy of cherries, and the beekeeping season gets underway

The wild gean is out in all its glory.  The leaves are just starting to open, which gives the tree a slight tinge of bronze-pink, though the individual flowers are certainly white.  It is very lovely.

At the opposite end of the top lawn the Japanese cherry 'Taihaku' has just opened.  I have been looking at it periodically all through the day, knowing that its season is short, and that I'll be at work for the next three days.  The flowers are white, single, and large, and carried so generously that the tree appears a mass of white, again tinged pink by the newly emerging leaves.  The branches spread widely, and I hope that eventually it will reach right across the lawn.  After I planted it I put a bench by it, so that we could sit under it and look up at the blossom.  For the first couple of years the bench was bigger than the crown of the tree, but nowadays you can indeed sit under the canopy of flowers.  The story goes that 'Taihaku' was believed lost to cultivation in Japan, when in 1926 the great gardener Collingwood Ingram, an expert on cherries, nicknamed Cherry Ingram by his friends, recognised a rather tatty plant in a Sussex garden as the lost Great White Cherry, propagated it, and saved it for the world. Our plant is a descendent of that Sussex tree.  My late father-in-law planted a 'Taihaku' in the 1960s, when it was not so easily come by as it is now, so my partner has a sentimental attachment to our tree.

On a different subject entirely, I inspected the bees today.  I knew that all three colonies were alive because I'd had the roofs off, though not lifted the crown boards before today, to feed them when winter seemed to be dragging on for so long and I was worried they might starve.  March is an easy time to lose bees through starvation.  They were overwintered on mesh floors (for the benefit of non-beekeepers, the floor as you would expect is the bottom of the beehive, and was traditionally solid, made of wood.  In recent years beekeepers have been experimenting with floors made out of fine wire mesh, the idea being that any of the dreaded varroa mites that fall off the bees drop right through the bottom of the beehive before they can climb back on another bee).  I'd asked around other beekeepers about the merits of keeping the mesh right through the winter, and opinion seemed divided whether it would be too cold for them versus a solid floor that kept the icy winds out, or whether the additional ventilation would be a help to them by preventing condensation and damp conditions in the hive.  Apart from the period when I was using a vapour based varroa treatment I've had them on mesh, and they all survived the experience despite it being a very long, cold winter.

One of the colonies was a swarm that we didn't get until last July, and it was nip and tuck whether it was big enough to be worth over-wintering or whether to combine it with the colony I split from the big colony last spring.  I decided to chance it, partly because I was feeling lucky, partly because I had the spare hive and the swarm and the experiment didn't really cost anything, and partly because I liked the look of my existing stock and didn't want to mess them around.  So it was a bit of a result that the swarm made it through to this April.

My two original colonies were looking fine.  The big colony was beginning to fill the brood box and I gave them a super, given it is now good weather, there's  a nectar flow on from the garden flowers, and it's forecast to be fine for the next several days.  The colony I made from them were looking good too, though smaller.  Again for the benefit of non-beekeepers, what I wanted to know, apart from whether they had enough to eat, was whether the queen was laying eggs and the workers were busy making new bees, as they should be at this time of the year, and whether they'd started thinking about swarming yet, given it's now the second week of April.  In the back of my mind was the possibility of bee disease, but that wasn't the main aim of today's inspection.  Looking after bees is like looking after cats, in that you don't deliberately check your cat for illness and injury each time you stroke it, but part of your mind is registering whether its coat looks right and whether it has any tender spots that might indicate a new septic bite developing.

I left the swarm until last, because they'd been a bit lively when I was feeding them, and if they were going to get buzzy I didn't want them fussing round me while I looked at the other two hives.  They appeared to have gone queenless, as there were no eggs or brood.  That would explain the recent slight stroppiness.  I wondered whether to give them a week to see if they sorted themselves out, but decided to do what the books would advise, and gave them a frame with fresh eggs and brood on it out of the large colony.  I was very careful about shaking the bees off the frame before transferring it, as I would hate to transfer the queen by mistake and knacker the good colony in my efforts to remedy the bad.  In theory they should be able to make themselves a queen using one of the fresh eggs.  If they don't then they can have a queen cell (developing queen) once the big colony starts trying to swarm, as I expect it will.  I hear about non-swarmy strains of bees, but so far none have come my way.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

dressed to impress (not)

I went in to work today.  I don't normally, on Thursdays, but trade is so busy that we're doing extra shifts to try and keep up.  After the dreadfully quiet winter we need to make the most of it while customers want to buy plants.  It will start tailing off soon, though, if we don't get some rain.  The Met Office have been saying it was the dryest March for 40 years, and now it is unseasonally hot.  One of our customers, who has a large garden and opens under the Yellow Book scheme, was saying that it was much too dry to plant, and that was ten days ago.  I was watering at home last night for over two hours, not just newly planted areas but established plants like the pulmonarias, which had begun to flag badly.  I try not to water unless essential, given our water is the most expensive in all England and we're on a meter, so when I'm reduced to watering the borders in the first week of April that shows it really is dry.

I have changed into my summer work clothes, as it's so hot.  This has thrown up a couple of problems, now that I'm not wearing my coat and uniform fleece.  I shoved my phone and radio into the pockets of the hideous water-repellent trousers instead, and discovered that under their weight the trousers had a marked tendency to fall down.  I don't think the pants showing above the trousers look is a good one in any circumstances, but especially not for middle aged people working in upmarket horticultural retailing.  I daresay I have a suitable belt somewhere.

The other problem is the uniform shirt.  We used not to have a uniform for years, which suited me fine.  I wore my old office shirts to work, since I wasn't going to wear them anywhere else, and they had long sleeves and collars to prevent sunburn, and were made of good quality cotton.  Clothes are an expression of personality, and I like expressing my personality, and wearing shirts that actually fit.  The uniform shirts and fleeces were introduced so that customers could identify members of staff from fellow customers, which makes perfect sense, though the kit we carry does give them a clue.  Most people don't go shopping carrying a telephone handset, radio and secateurs.  The uniform didn't extend to waterproof coats, so customers couldn't see it anyway if it was cold, or raining.  The problem with the uniform shirts, apart from the fact that they are shapeless and made out of polycotton, is that I only have two of them.  Two is not enough if you are working three days on the trot in warm weather, so I end up wearing my old office shirts anyway.  There is an additional problem with one of the shirts, in that a while back I wore it while cutting down irises for the winter.  Something in the iris sap reacted with the polycotton in the wash, and the shirt came out of the washing machine with brown spatters up the front and sleeves.  They have faded with time, but still look as though I had worn it to commit an axe murder.  In the winter it is hidden under other layers of clothing and doesn't really show, but it is now on full display.

My colleagues are about as disorganised with their uniforms as I am, so overall it is a half-hearted effort.

Addendum  I had to write this on my other computer, because my laptop refused to let me sign in to Blogspot on the grounds of inability to receive cookies.  It was fine up to yesterday.  The Systems Administrator has gone to London to catch up with old colleagues and eat curry, so I can't ask why the laptop's stance on cookies has suddenly changed.  I haven't missed a day posting yet, but if I do it will probably be down to technical failure, and any of my friends and relations reading Cardunculus on a real-time basis should not worry unduly (unlikely they are or would anyway).