Tuesday, 31 May 2011

rain stopped play

You didn't miss much, not getting a post-match analysis of my day at work yesterday.  I spent most of it stuck on the till (I suppose somebody had to be on the till), and there were rather too many customers who wanted to help, or interfere, depending on your point of view, while I was ringing their items up.  There were several who tried to start putting things back into their trolley, which I had taken out, before I had finished working my way through the rest of their shopping.  If plants already charged for, and which are standing on the counter, find their way back into the trolley before I've finished, this is a recipe for double-charging.  Then there were the 'I've got four of those' brigade, when in fact they had two of those in 1L pots at £3.50 and another two in 9cm pots at £2.95.  Also the 'I've got three of those' variety, when two of the three are right at the other end of the trolley, and when I get to them I am supposed to remember that I've put them through the till already, and not charge for them twice.  And the ones who picked plants up randomly out of the trolley and waved the label helpfully (not) under my nose, when I was trying to go through the whole thing systematically.  And the ones who insisted on telling me they had two of these, four of those and three of the other, when I could see they had mainly 1L pots from the same two suppliers, which were all going to be £3.50, irrespective of species or variety.  Please don't try to help.  By all means refrain from hiding packets of labels under bulky bags of compost and little pots of herbs under big pots of Rodgersia leaves, just don't try to help.  And don't leave piles of plants and large pink plastic trugs in front of the till while you go and choose more things.  People are trying to use that checkout.

The concert in Hadleigh was very good.  The friend who came with me said so too, which was a relief, since it is unfortunate to induce one's friends to waste an evening of their lives and fifteen quid.  She went to music college and understands choral singing and the workings of a baroque orchestra far better than I do, being an escaped folkie and new wave fan who merely knows what they like when it comes to classical music (although as my aunt said to me, who played with the Halle Orchestra in her youth, 'at least you are an audience').

It rained 3mm yesterday evening, better than nothing but still not nearly enough.  Over lunchtime today we have had three sharp showers, one with a little hail mixed in, and one managing to come out of an entirely blue sky.  They are not enough to do the garden any good at all, and just enough to wet the ground and the foliage and so make my gloves and knees soggy and uncomfortable.  (If it were not raining there is no way I would be sitting at my computer at 15.06).

The long-tailed tits seem to have a good breeding season, which is lovely.  The garden is full of them.  They dash around in little flocks, making a frenetic high-pitched squeaking sound.  There are convoys of blackbirds, too, flying solemnly around the garden on what look like test flights.  As I look out of the window now (15.12) there is a preposterously small bluetit on the bird table.  I had to rescue a bird from the conservatory.  It had gone up high, and was banging against the glass, so it never got close to either door.  Our Ginger came to join in, which was not helpful, but the bird eventually crash-landed between two pots on the floor, saw the open door, and dashed into the trees.  I don't know species what it was.  Small and brown with huge eyes.  I guess it was a youngster as for most of the year we don't have any problems with birds in the conservatory, and they have presumably learnt where the door is.  When the robin was nesting in the greenhouse she had mastered the art of flitting out through the louvred vents.

It has now (15.19) stopped raining and I shall get back to the deadheading, weeding and watering.

Monday, 30 May 2011

preview of a day

Back in the 1990s there was a brief craze for Japanese electronic pets called Kamagochi.  They required to have their buttons pushed at regular intervals to 'feed' them and 'play' with them, otherwise they stopped working.  The Far Eastern desk of the place I used to work for back then had one, but found it rather a nuisance, as they couldn't really take it into meetings with stockbrokers and suchlike, and they had to leave it with their desk assistant to tend in their absence.  I believe it died quite quickly.

Having set myself the target of posting something on the blog daily, and writing it on the day, can occassionally have Kamagochi-like qualities.  I'm working today, then going straight from work (clocking off an hour early) to go to a performance of J. S. Bach's Magnificat in St. Mary's Church in Hadleigh.  By the time I get home I don't think I'll have the energy to compose blog posts.  Also it seems a bit mean to my life's companion to get in through the door mid-evening, and rush straight to the keyboard.  Writing some blog posts in advance, that could be quickly pasted in on the day, was suggested, but I think that would lose some of the dynamic quality of response to events.  Also I thought about writing this on Sunday evening, then went and sat in the conservatory with a glass of chilled white wine instead.  The setting sun does show up the smears on the glass.  I was afraid it would.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

growing roses up trees

I said I would return to the subject of roses grown up trees.  'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is currently in full bloom, so this seems the time.  'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is a rambler, with big clusters of small, soft pink flowers, normally coming out around the first week of June, but like most of the other roses it's early this year.  It is gently scented, though the smell is rather overpowered by a honeysuckle nearby.  The plant is extremely vigorous, and thorny.

The books are very precise in their instructions on how to grow roses up trees.  We are told not to plant them too close to the trunk, where the ground will be very dry and rooty, but to plant them towards the edge of the canopy and lead them to the trunk along a cane or rope.  I have seen an old anchor chain used for this purpose in a garden in St. Osyth, which seemed a clever bit of recycling in a coastal area, and made a very nice catenary curve.  I don't mind that bit of the instructions.  The bit that bugs me is the received wisdom that we should plant the rose on the downwind side of the tree, so that the prevailing wind will blow it into the crown.

'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is planted to the east of the wild gean it is supposed to be growing up, because that's where there was space for the roots.  Prevailing winds in the UK are from the southwest, but if it had been to the southwest of the tree it would have been in the lawn.  The sun rises in the east, moves round through the south, and sets in the west.  The rose wants to reach out to the light, and this far outweighs any effect a bit of wind, or even the odd gale, has on its habit of growth.  It sends great long tentacles of growth out to the south, the east, and anywhere except the dark interior of the tree.  I really don't think the wind makes a smidgin of difference.  In fact I don't think the rose is particularly interested in going up the tree.  It would be perfectly happy just taking off across the lawn.

The effect of a large pink rose in a tree is pretty and extremely romantic, seen from a distance, as shown in these photos taken from the top lawn and the bottom lawn.  Encountered close up it is less romantic, as anyone getting within a couple of metres of it is likely to be clawed by one of the tentacles, and they are rampaging through the collection of potted Hamamelis and the recycled metal secretary bird.  When I looked out of the bathroom window this morning I had a moment of panic that the bird's head appeared to have fallen off, before realising that it had merely been engulfed by rose foliage.  The exuberant new growth is blocking the steps between the top and bottom lawns, which in my book is a no-no.  Good circulation is essential for any garden, besides which I need to get the hose up and down those steps.

After I'd taken the pictures, I twirled as many wandering stems as possible into the tree.  A couple broke in the process, and some unstuck themselves again, but some will catch with their prickles and consent to grow into the cherry.  There were a couple I couldn't reach, so I'll have a go at them later with a boathook we once bought in a second hand shop in a fit of retail excitement, and that now comes in useful for rose training.  The stems I couldn't persuade to grow into the tree were cut off, so the steps are just passable.  I'll take a bit more off once flowering has finished.  The steps were quite clear at the end of winter, which shows how much growth a rambler rose makes in a couple of months.

I love roses up trees, but they do seem to take a bit more organising than you would guess, looking at the tidy diagrams in the books.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

watering and weeding

I ended up spending today working in the top part of the garden.  I had a few plants sitting in their plastic pots that would have been better off in the ground, and their intended site was ready for them, so it seemed sensible to get on and plant them.  I had promised that I would start clearing the nettles and weeds in the bottom part of the garden where we are supposed to be building a new deck to make a sheltered, shady place to sit in the summer, but the work in the front took all day.  Things planted this spring needed watering, as did things planted last autumn, and some planted longer ago than that.

The Strulch has been proving its worth, as there was a marked contrast in weediness between the areas I'd mulched (a few odd weeds) and the areas left bare pending further planting (a generous crop of groundsel, and sundry fat hen, chickweed, and sow thistle).  I pulled these up, and planted the buckets of Muscari armenaicum bulbs that have been sitting in the woodshed since I dug them up a couple of months ago when I was forking the bed over.  Some people hate this grape hyacinth, because it is weedy and ineradicable and spreads like hell, but I don't mind it spreading.  It is pretty, and this is a self-seeding sort of garden anyway, and frankly I'm grateful to anything that really wants to grow and flower in the arid sand at the top of the slope (apart from the creeping sorrel).  I strulched the gaps to avoid a fresh crop of weeds, and will push the mulch aside when I come to plant them up.

The olive tree still shows no signs of making new leaves, but is green under the bark, and has about two green leaves hanging on in the middle.  I'll tidy up the thin twigs at some point soon which I'm sure are dead, but I cling to hope that there might be life further down.  I have run the hose on it a couple of times.  Something that has pleasantly surprised me by shooting from the base is the Colletia paradoxa.  This is a strange shrub.  The branchlets are reduced to flat, extremely sharp, triangular spines.  The plant is greyish green, and carries sweetly scented small white flowers in autumn.  Hillier's manual of trees and shrubs describes it as being rather slow growing, and it is, although mine speeded up appreciably after being put on a diet of 6X, fish blood and bone, and very occassional irrigation in dry spells, which make me think that despite its gaunt appearance it enjoys good living.  By the end of winter the whole plant was burned and brown, and I though I had lost it, but today I found green shoots coming from below soil level.  They were a fresh shade of green with little leaves, not very like the mature branches, and at first I wondered if they were some new weed, but identical shoots were growing from the base of the stem, just above ground level, so unless the plant was originally grafted, which I don't think it was, these must be the immature shoots.  I haven't chopped off the dead top yet, partly because I was busy doing other things, and partly to protect the new shoots from accidents, principally me treading on them.  The frail new shoots of a white Lespedeza, that had made it up to a few cm tall, seem to have disappeared without trace in the droughty vastness.

The wind had got quite a nip in it when the sun went in, and I stomped around the hall, garage and greenhouse searching for my fleece hat, and worrying that I must have left it in the garden somewhere, before finding it in the kitchen full of lumps of white quartz that I carried up from the conservatory in it about two weeks ago in order to wash them.  It is fortunate that I share a house with somebody who thinks it's OK to keep a hat full of stones on the kitchen worktop for a fortnight.

Friday, 27 May 2011


As I was dozing off on Wednesday night, a couple of lines of verse drifted into my head.  They sounded as though they ought to be from something formal, and I promised them I would think about it in the morning if they would just let me go to sleep.  I decided yesterday that they came from a villanelle, though I had to look up the exact structure on Wikipedia.  The rules about the number of lines, repetitions and rhyme scheme are strict.

From Aberdeen to Inverness
The rain it raineth every day.
It rains on Essex less and less.

Sweet rains the Scottish crops caress,
The northern flowers are bright and gay,
From Aberdeen to Inverness.

Parched earth gapes, that no raindrops bless,
The leaves are sere, the blooms decay,
It rains on Essex less and less.

The churchyard is a squelching mess,
The bride for sun in vain doth pray,
From Aberdeen to Inverness.

Dry winds double our distress,
As flower borders turn to hay,
It rains on Essex less and less.

It has rained to north and west,
From tip of Cornwall to the Tay,
From Aberdeen to Inverness.
It rains on Essex less and less.

I feel a bit cheeky rhyming 'west' with 'Inverness', but it's only doggerel.  I think I detect the Kaiser Chiefs as an influence in there, as well as The Bard.

In fact we had 5mm of rain yesterday afternoon, and have had another 3mm today, but still need much, much more.  I was talking to my hairdresser, who has a horse.  A bale of hay lasts a horse 2-3 days.  Two years ago it cost around £2.50, and now they are up to £6 a bale.  There isn't really anything else you can give a horse to eat instead.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

a reassuring bee inspection

I went to inspect the bees first thing after breakfast.  I should really have done them by yesterday at the latest, since that was ten days since the previous inspection.  In theory, if they had decided to swarm immediately after the last time I looked at them, then by yesterday they could have had a new queen sealed inside her cell waiting to hatch, leaving the old queen free to abscond with half the bees and the honey.  However, I was out yesterday and on Tuesday, and working over the weekend, when it was far too windy anyway.  It was a bit cool, breezy and dull this morning, but the forecast was for it to get worse rather than better through the day, so there didn't seem anything to be gained by hanging around.  The best placed people to be beekeepers must be those who are fully retired or work from home, and have no pre-arranged social life, who would be entirely free to stick to their ten day inspection limit, and pick their weather window.

Fate was smiling on me.  There were eggs in the two main hives, showing that the queens had been laying at least until very recently, and no queen cells, showing that they had not yet begun to swarm.  I even saw the queen in one of them, on a day when I didn't especially need to, striding around purposefully on the comb in one of the middle frames.  I made sure I put that one back very carefully.  The sub-optimal weather had made them a bit grumpy, but not dangerously vile.  The third hive had managed to go queenless over the winter, and on 8 April I gave them a frame from one of the other hives containing fresh eggs.  The textbooks say that they should use these to rear a new queen.  I hadn't been right through that hive since, on the grounds that if they hadn't managed to make a queen then I'd give them a queen cell at the point when the others started to swarm.  I had a quick look today, to see if they had sorted themselves out, and saw uncapped brood, demonstrating that they have made a queen, and that she has successfully gone out and got mated without coming to any mishap like being eaten by a bird.  I shut them up again without looking at the other frames, given that I'd found out what I wanted to know, and the weather was iffy.

Neither of the big hives had put much new honey or nectar in the supers in the past eleven days, which makes me think that the dry weather really is affecting the nectar flow.  I'd better feed the small colony, as after their queenless hiatus they will be short of workers.  They won't do anything useful this year, but if they build up to a size where they can survive the winter then they might give me a crop next year.  Unfortunately, the big colony I used to give them the frame from which they reared their new queen has turned out to be not as good as the other, less productive and not as placid, so it's unlucky I didn't use the better one.

I wore my beesuit into the house, and stood in the kitchen for a few minutes before taking it off, listening for buzzing.  I retrieved two bees from the window, and one from the door of the fridge.  I think as many beekeepers get stung after they've finished opening the hives, at the point where they take off their protective clothes, as during the inspection.

One of the friends at yesterday's lunch is the secretary of our local beekeepers' association, who gets the phone calls from the public about swarms.  She says there have been very few so far this year, though she has had a lot of calls about bumble bees and wasps.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

a very pleasant lazy day

I had lunch today with some beekeeping friends, plus one honorary beekeeper.  It was very pleasant sitting in somebody else's garden in the sunshine.  Our host tells me that I should sit and contemplate oftener, and she is probably right, but when you are at home things that need doing always catch your eye.  My friend's garden is beautifully tidy, much tidier than mine (though I suppose it helps at this time of the year not being infested with mares tail), but even so I couldn't resist teasing a tiny piece of annual meadow grass out from between two paving slabs in the otherwise almost weed-free patio.  There were a couple of bigger bits under the garden table, but it seemed too rude and eccentric to crawl under the table to pull them out.

I have seen my friend's garden develop over the past several years into an enclosed space with a real sense of place.  It is a good sized town garden, that runs gently uphill away from the house.  When she first lived there it was divided half way down its length by a small retaining wall and narrow flower bed.  There was a great expanse of lawn, and a little planting around the edges.  She says that there used to be almost no birds, presumably because there was no cover for them, and not much in the way of forage.  With the help of two designers (Writtle trained, I was happy to hear) and a sympathetic landscaper it has been gradually transformed.  The bisecting wall, thin bed and steps have gone, replaced by a grass slope so that the eye can run smoothly from the house to the furthest point.  The narrow borders around the edge have been made wider, which allows for decent planting, and brought forward around half way up the garden to divide it so that you can't see all of it at once from any single point.  She has planted quite a few birch trees, which went in as semi-mature specimens in high summer a few years back.  She followed her landscaper's instruction to keep them well watered diligently, and lost very few, an example I cite now to customers who ask if they can plant trees in the summer.

Birds have come into the garden, and it feels more secure and comfortable for people too.  It is unsettling to be marooned in the middle of a large blank space.  As a child I was never too keen on recreation grounds, apart from the fact that I disliked sport, and much preferred the woodland gardens of Killerton.  My friend's garden has achieved a sense of being in a place by dint of putting limits around it, in the form of shrubs, birch trunks and pergolas.  Putting an object in the middle of a space, either a specimen plant or some sort of sculpture, can achieve the same effect, which seems to work for animals as well as people.  I have noticed if we have a vase of flowers on the dining room table and one of the cats is lying on the table (sorry, but we do wipe the table before serving food on it), the cat will lie next to the vase oftener than not.

The winter plant casualties were about as I would expect.  Sweet bay, cut to the ground but sprouting from ground level.  Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' also sprouting from very low down, which did not entirely surprise me, given how mine suckers.  Ceanothus mostly dead, though I was surprised to see one branch of one shrub throwing leaves from the actual trunk.  Whether it will ever make a decent shaped plant again is another matter.  Choisya ternata battered but coming back from low down.

The latest project has been to make a paved area behind a rolling bank of soil, held back by a stone retaining wall, at the very top of the garden.  This is a good idea, as it means that your walk up the hill leads to a definite place.  There are some boulders and ferns, and I see scope for artworks as finances permit and the right object crops up.

We were royally well fed, and had a thoroughly lazy afternoon, apart from our host.  It is very nice to relax in a garden, and so much easier when it isn't your own.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

a good Chelsea

The Chelsea Flower Show was as good as ever.  I first went in about 1986, when a friend gave me his mother's ticket that she was unable to use, and was hooked.  I joined the RHS on the spot, and have been to every Chelsea since.  Sometimes I've been by myself, and I've taken a variety of friends and relatives over the years.  Since my partner got more involved in the garden we've been together, and have developed a finely honed routine.

The first thing we look at is the Artisan gardens, before the crowds get too dense.  Having got an early train this morning, it took almost as long to travel from Liverpool Street to The Royal Hospital as it had to get into London, but we made it in time to get a good view.  My favourites were the waterside Welsh garden and the soul-cleansing Korean outside loo.  The hole in the Yorkshire garden's wall, criss crossed with string in reference to Barbara Hepworth, was fun too, though the overall effect was too fussy for me.

Then we look at some of the bigger gardens, trying to dodge the hotspots where celebrities have drawn in extra onlookers, or the BBC are taking up half the walkway.  I thought these were generally well done, but not ground-breaking.  Design seems to have reached a plateau for now.  There were lots of modernist inspired layouts of intersecting squares, strips or circles, softened with informal planting, and a smattering of naturalist wild gardens.  The diorama is almost dead, though Leeds City Council did have a working water wheel.  I was delighted that this won a Gold medal, since it was beautifully done, and the stand appeared to be staffed by the actual people from Yorkshire who had made the garden, and were ecstatic.  I don't know why at least half of the people manning most show gardens don't seem to know the names of the plants on their stand, but they don't.  It has ever been thus, and 2011 was no exception.

Purple is big, and lime green, dark red, and Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna'.  This is a lovely salvia with blue flowers on dark stems, and I have never seen so much of it before.  Umbellifers are in.  I am rather sad that Cleve West used parsnip flowers in his garden before I got round to it in my rose bed, as now it will look as though I have copied the idea from him.  Planting has gone very bee friendly, and I have never seen so many bees at Chelsea either.  I liked Cleve West's garden, including the pillars which I gathered some other visitors were not so keen on.  The Australian Garden presented by the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne was good, and it was interesting to see a different palette of plants.  We were taken with the textured sand coloured wall sculpted into waves like a vertical beach.  I asked how it was done, and the answer is that foam blocks were laser cut into the waves, and a surface finish applied.

Apart from 'Caradonna' the unexpected hit plant of the show was orange geums, which we saw in numerous species and varieties on a lot of different stands.  All came in soft shades of orange, with some colour variation within the petals, and I liked them.  It's strange how most years one or two plants seem to crop up everwhere.

The Diarmud Gavin hanging garden and B&Q vertical gardens left me unmoved.  The Systems Administrator said that to make the B&Q garden an authentic vision of B&Q, bits of it should have been drooping from underwatering, and there should have been a couple of fence panels randomly left in the middle of it.  The trees in several gardens were looking stressed, but the Leeds council boys were the only ones we saw get out the hose and water as necessary during the day.

We always go around the great pavilion together for a bit, then go our separate ways for an hour or two, so that I can obsess over individual plants while my partner walks about at a less back cripplingly slow pace, and has another look at the show gardens, or the machines.  I am afraid I might not have seen one or two of the plants in the pavilion, but I made a valiant attempt to look at all of them.  Bloms and Peter Beales both got Gold medals.  Phew.

We had a good look at the stands selling furniture and objets d'art, not with the intention of buying any of them, but to jeer at the particularly hideous and naff ones, and try to work out how we could rip off the nice things with homemade versions.  And we drank our annual glass of pimms (a bottle always seems to lose its appeal before the end) and ate our frugal packed lunch, now that we are not City high fliers, and I bought three coloured glass things to hang from a tree.  I haven't decided which yet.

And now I am going to go and watch it all again on television.

Addendum  It turns out we are recording the telly cover, to watch it later with supper.  I meant to say earlier (but I was rushing) that slate walls are in, as are Luzula nivea and Astrantia.  There was a nice piece of vertical planting behind a restrained water feature in The Magistrates Garden in the Urban Gardens section, which used coloured leaf begonias, Lamium and violas.  I suspect that walls of plants are difficult to keep going in real life, certainly the only one I've seen attempted in a private garden was mostly dead, but it's a lovely idea if you can make it work.  Turquoise blue astro-turf is not a good look in a garden setting.  I can't really imagine where it would be, or why anybody manufactures it.

Monday, 23 May 2011

more wind and more watering

We were watering this morning until quarter to eleven, so we wouldn't have got it all done last night.  At twenty past nine a customer approached me, saying that she knew we didn't open until ten, but was there somebody who could help her with a query about a rose.  I told her that I was terribly sorry, but we didn't open until ten, and until then we were fully occupied with the watering, which we had to do given how dry everything was with the wind, but she was very welcome to browse around and look at the roses, as long as she didn't fall over a hose.  Her reaction to this refusal to help was restrained, but she looked disappointed and vaguely incredulous, as though her having admitted she knew we weren't open somehow made it alright and entitled her to full service.  I don't think she stuck around until ten, and she will probably not like us now, and tell her friends how unhelpful we are, which is sad, but there simply wasn't time to spare.  The manager was delayed coming in, there were only two of us working in the plant centre, and the wind strength meant that the only automatic irrigation system we could use was the one covering the trees, as that sprays 45cm above the ground and some of the water does manage to hit the pots before it all blows away.  I think it was a strategic error to have opened the gate from the car park.

At twenty to ten the phone went, and the caller wanted advice about Ceanothus.  I apologised and asked if I could possibly call her back after ten when we had finished the watering.  She was very nice about it, and after that I asked the woman who works in the office if she could field all further calls until we'd finished.  I did remember to call back, and ended up recommending 'Puget Blue', which is becoming my standard anwer to all questions about Ceanothus.

The plant centre looked as though a pack of wild dogs had just run through it.  In the course of picking things up to water them I managed to water my own feet extremely thoroughly.  I should have put my wellingtons on before starting.  Instead I changed into them when I'd finished, and put my soaking plimsolls and socks to dry on the dashboard of my car.  They were bone dry and toasty by six.

A former colleague at the plant centre, who now works full-time as a garden designer, rushed in wanting evergreens for a client garden.  She was in a quandry whether to go for something more unusual, but tender, or whether to stick with Choisya ternata.  My advice was that there was no point in risking a dubiously hardy rarity unless the client was going to appreciate what it was.  Otherwise, if it lived they wouldn't appreciate its significance, and if it died, they might be upset.  Some people, especially those who are not very confident with plants themselves, do take plant deaths extremely personally.  The trouble with being a garden designer is that it is like being an architect.  You have visions of a creation, but need other people's money to fulfil them.  My ex-colleague agreed that this was indeed so, and that she would be planting the Pittosporum tobira 'Nana' for herself and not for her client.  She took the Choisya.

At five I started watering again.  It was still blowing three quarters of a gale.  I hope it is not going to disrupt proceedings at Chelsea, which is where the Systems Administrator and I are going tomorrow.  With any luck the wind will have dropped by next Monday, as I am getting heartily fed up with the incessant watering and plants falling over, and it is getting pretty repetitive writing about it.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

wind and watering

My co-workers on Sundays both have a diligent attitude to watering.  It took the three of us until half past ten, and we made a pretty thorough job of it.  The boss rang before we'd finished, to remind me to check that the water tank was filling up from the well, as the pump has been playing up recently.  I had forgotten I was supposed to do this, but when I climbed the ladder to look into the tank, the water came to within a metre of the top, and the pump was whirring reassuringly away.  The boss called from the great marquee at Chelsea, where he is moderating.  There is a profile of him in the show catalogue.  It took much careful thought to explain what moderators do in terms that would not offend the judges, since they are the answer to the question, Who judges the judges, but to say so suggests that judges cannot be trusted to get things right by themselves.  Apparently the marquee is looking very colourful.  I thought that the exhibitors would pull things together somehow, despite the weather, but they must have had a nerve wracking time of it in the run up to the show.

My Roberto Burle Marx display didn't last the day, as somebody bought all but one of the lime green santolinas.  I recreated the effect with some pale yellow Roscoea and some extra purple leaved geraniums.  Soft yellow and dusky purple are a good combination, and I must try and use it at home somewhere.

The wind got up horribly, and by the end of the day the plant centre looked almost as if it had been ransacked.  We tended to leave plants lying down for the duration once they'd fallen, since if picked up they only blow over again, each time with the risk of damage to themselves or their neighbours.  Actually if some of the largest ones were to fall on a small or frail customer it could be quite traumatic.  The customers were very good about picking their way around the wreckage.  The drying effect of that much wind is as bad as days of sun (the farmers must be at the ends of their tethers), but it was impossible to run most of the overhead irrigation systems usefully, since strong wind whips the water away before it hits the pots.  The three of us started watering again at five, as did the second of the two owners, who won't go to London for Chelsea until tomorrow, not being involved in the judging.  We were never going to get around the entire plant centre by six, and at that point I was ready to call it a day, as was the owner.  My colleagues were very reluctant to stop spraying water on just one more thirsty plant.  It's true that if you love plants, you hate to leave any in less than optimum conditions, but I don't think this should extend to doing an hour or two of unpaid overtime at the end of a ten hour working day, and in fairness to the owner I don't think she expected us to.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

musings on a Burle Marx moment

Customers are still shopping, despite the drought.  It felt quiet, but we keep putting plants out for sale and there are spaces to put them in, so they must be selling (either that or the boss needs to keep an eye out for plant rustlers).  The tally on the tills at the end of the day was quite respectable.  It was quiet enough, though, that I had time to think while putting plants out for sale.

I was given the mandate to titivate some of the display tables, and had a little Burle Marx moment with blocks of colour, a swirl of lime-green santolina and a chunk of a dark purple form of Geranium pratense.  I enjoy that sort of planting in public gardens, without feeling the desire to do it at home, which set me thinking, after yesterday's outing, about the difference between public and private gardens.  I was chatting recently to somebody who didn't like the walled garden at Marks Hall.  She found it too impersonal, and liked gardens that felt as though they were loved.  She was also not keen on modernism, and liked shaggy gardens, which is fair enough, as it is a matter of personal taste.  I like both, and find it's the drearily tidy that get me down.  I did once go on a tour that had a major designed garden, as featured in garden magazines, as the main feature, and the private garden of a botanical illustrator as the filler, and found to my surprise that I preferred the latter.  I did respond to the emotional warmth of the loved private garden, but I also found the famous design heavy and ponderous, seen in the flesh.

I think gardens that are designed as public spaces should be judged on their own merits, and not on how closely they approximate to a private garden.  They have to meet different needs and cope with different pressures, for a start.  On the last two occassions that I've been to Anglesey Abbey, designed as a (large) private family garden and now owned by the National Trust, significant bits of the garden were closed because they could not cope with the pressure of visitors' feet.  The first time we went was in autumn, and we discovered, to our irritation and after the NT had charged us 50p at the entrance for a photocopied plan of the dahlia planting, that the lawn between the dahlia beds was roped off, and we could only view them from the ends.  The second time we went was in snowdrop time, and every grass path and lawn was shut, so we had access to about one quarter of the site.  The National Trust says that they are keeping the layout as designed by Lord Fairhaven, but the trouble is the original design can only cope with a fraction of the visitors that will fit into the car park and cafe.

I would not want crisp designed rows of iris alternating with neatly clipped rows of box at home, much as I enjoy looking at them at Marks Hall, because they would be boring to maintain.  It would feel like outdoor housework.  This is one of the other differences between the grand and the domestic garden.  The grand garden is maintained by paid staff.  The garden is the output.  The owner of the garden is making a statement 'Look, I am so busy and important I don't do these things myself, and so wealthy I can afford to pay other people to do them for me'.  The domestic garden, tended at least in large part by the devoted owner, is a process as much as a thing.  When I am in my garden, weeding and planting and clipping and tying up, and looking at toads and birds and beetles, the point is being in the garden as much as having a garden.  Monty Don said in his Italian garden series that one of the differences between English and Italian gardens was that in Italy a fine garden was something successful people might have, but they paid other lowly people to look after it.  Owners participating in the manual work was a peculiarly English phenomenon.

That was about as far as my musings got, before work intervened.  At five o'clock I stopped designing display tables and started watering again.  Now, as soon as I have done my back exercises, I shall start watering here, and continue, probably, until it gets dark.

Friday, 20 May 2011

two garden visits

I took a day off from doing our garden to go with a friend and look at other people's instead.  Essex and Suffolk are not especially well endowed with notable gardens open to the public.  There would probably be an entire doctoral thesis to be had in explaining why this should be so.  Essex was trendy in Tudor times and has not been so since, so we lack the large private gardens built by stockbrokers and bankers in the first part of the twentieth century.  Suffolk was rich on the back of the wool trade in the middle ages, hence its marvellous legacy of churches, but was never as prosperous again.  Some of the lack may be down to unlucky twists of fate, death and taxes.  Poor Lord Petre was a notable early collector of American trees, but his early demise meant that his collection was sold off.  Some of it may be down to earlier patterns of land ownership: maybe we lacked the great ducal estates that produced the Chatsworths of England.  Some of it is certainly random bad luck about what got restored.  One of Harold Peto's major commissions lies within a stone's throw of the proposed Stansted extension, which blighted any chance of it getting funding from sources like the Lottery Fund.  As I say, there is a whole thesis there waiting to be researched.

We do have our fair allocation of large private gardens of the middling sort, that open for the NGS, the Red Cross and other good causes.  I contacted one of them, that was open by arrangement, and enquired whether a party of two was sufficient.  The owner responded that we were most welcome, and that while he and his wife would not be there, the gardener would be happy to show us round, in exchange for a charity donation on the usual scale of five pounds a head, or more if we could manage it.  I find it very kind, and remarkable, that people are willing to have complete strangers traipse around their gardens and take their gardeners away from their proper work.  I should hate it myself, but I'm glad others don't feel the same way.

It is always interesting being shown around by the person who does the actual gardening.  The gardener told us that the soil was clay over sand, and was the worst site he had ever worked on in his entire career.  Even moderate rain made the surface unworkably squelchy, then after a window of about two days it would set as hard as concrete.  It can be good to hear about the trials of others, and I began to feel quite kindly towards my own sand, which is workable five minutes after the rain has stopped falling (if such a thing were ever to happen again).  The garden had been created out of fields by the present owners over a period of about forty years, stage by stage, and it was interesting to see how much tree cover they had got over that time.  Slightly piecemeal, but pretty, areas of formal garden near the house gave way to a grassy landscape with trees, leading down to a wood.  Three paths mown into the long grass led the eye into the distance, and formed a classic goose-foot as might have been designed two or three hundred years ago.  We saw a hare, which delighted me.  I love hares.  I know they can strip bark and do damage, but they are rare, and in a different league to the wretched rabbits.  The gardener maintained the garden and park single-handed.  Again, it is always interesting to find out how many bodies are at work to maintain a given size and type of garden to a given standard.  This one was much less weedy than mine, though the amount of intricate planting was probably smaller, and I can't do mine full time.

By way of contrast we dropped down to Mark's Hall, as my old tutor had tipped me off that the irises and peonies in the walled garden were at their peak.  This garden and arboretum are owned by a charitable trust, and are being gradually worked up as funds permit into what could be a very exciting landscape.  It's interesting that the single Essex entry in Tony Russell's 2010 guide to garden visiting was this garden, and not the more famous Chatto gardens.  A modernist garden designed by landscape architect Brita von Schoenaich was completed in 2003, within a large seventeenth century walled garden.  I love modernism, done well, and this is done superbly.  The division of space is elegant, the materials are weathering OK despite the UK climate (damp induced green mould rather takes the shine off the modernist look), and the planting is excellent.  I was last there in September, when there was still plenty of colour, and there was colour today, from bearded iris, peonies, Astilbe, Geranium x magnificum, roses and clematis.  If I were a good and conscientious blogger I would have taken photographs for you, but I dislike looking at gardens through the lens of a camera and didn't.  Much better you go and see for yourself.  I was also interested to see what had survived the winter and what had succumbed.  Eriobotrya japonica looked remarkably good, with wall protection, and Vitex agnus-castus made it through, but I saw a lot of new rosemary, Olearia and Cistus.  We didn't have time to look at the arboretum, but it was worth going for the walled garden.  We  shared the space with just two other visitors, which was nice for us, but seems a waste, when it is so good.  Admission is currently free to RHS members.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

a great climbing rose

Roses are opening all around the garden.  I love roses, especially species and old-fashioned ones, but have a slightly laissez faire attitude to their cultivation.  They get pruned with some care and attention, and they get fed, but routine spraying is out.  The birds and ladybirds take care of insect pests, and if a rose gets blackspot so badly it fails to thrive then it goes on the bonfire and I try again with something different.  Conditions here are tough, with soil which is mostly very light sand or else clay subsoil, and low annual rainfall, and some rose bushes have simply dwindled away over the years.  Others do very well.

One such is 'Meg', a climbing hybrid tea bred by Gosset in 1954.  It (or she) has semi double flowers, up to 12cm across, that are a rich apricot when they first open, and fade to shell pink.  At the centre is a great boss of stamens in a soft shade of orange-apricot.  The half open flower I picked just now has streaks of cherry pink at the margins of the petals, and a glow of yellow towards the base.  I find them very beautiful.  The leaves are leathery and mid-green, and have no suspicion of disease.  The flowers are moderately scented.  After the initial flowering I don't get much of a later display, but the hips are superb, as large as conkers and a rich shade of coral (except last winter when the extreme cold sent them brown).  We use them as part of the Christmas decorations on the mantelpiece each December.

'Meg' grows on the wall of a shed, behind the herb bed in very light soil, and thrives there.  I like the black weatherboarding as a background to the flowers.  She has moved once, since she was originally planted against the next shed along, before this one was built (we have now reached the point where there is definitely no room for any more sheds, so when they are full we have to tidy them up instead of building another) and took the move in her stride.  She stretches the full length of the wall, which must be around 4m, and I have to struggle to pull the top growth down to below the level of the roof.  I reckon she would happily climb 3-4m given support.

I bought my original plant from Cants of Colchester,more than twenty years ago, because I liked the sound of it in their catalogue.  It was so good that when I moved house I bought another one.  It is still available in the UK via Peter Beales, who claim to be the only suppliers.  I have taken a flower and the hips in season in to work, to show the boss, who thanked me nicely but declined to stock it, when it was available on a wholesalers list.  Maybe we already have enough pink climbers, or salmon pink isn't considered such a safe bet as appleblossom.  The Peter Beales write-up agrees with my conclusion that it is a good rose for poor soil, and that the scent is only moderate, but classifies it as a repeat flowerer, and doesn't mention the hips, which is confusing.  Peter Beales classes 'Meg' as suitable for growing in a warm climate, and intolerant of shade, and she gets a good baking with us, on a south-facing, black painted wall surrounded by gravel.  If you have a hot, sunny, dry garden, and want a large obliging rose that is a good doer, and aren't prejudiced against apricot pink, then 'Meg' could be the one for you.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri)

The pineapple broom, Cytisus battandieri, is flowering.  The common name in this case is very apt, because the flowers do smell strongly of pinepapple, albeit to my mind a slightly elderly one edging towards the over-ripe.  The individual flowers are clearly members of the pea family, keeled like lupins, and are held in spikes like miniature lupins around 10cm long.  The leaves are trifoliate meaning each leaf is made up of three leaflets, like a giant clover, covered in hairs making them silky to the touch, and giving the plant a silvery appearance.  The yellow of the individual flowers is bright and brassy, seen close up, and in other circumstances I might not like it, but the greyness of the leaves softens the overall effect, which is of a graceful greenish-grey bush with illuminating flashes of colour, rather than a harsh block of bright yellow.

It wants to form a multi-stemmed shrub.  When I first got my plant I intended to grow it in the conservatory, thinking that it would look good in there and believing it to be slightly tender, as it comes from Morocco.  My aim was to train it as a standard, with a mop head on a single stem, but the Cytisus was having none of that.  It obstinately threw up fresh growth from ground level, until I had to give in, and plant it outside.  That was in the summer of 2000, and it has now made a shrub 3m tall and more than that across.  It is still sending up new stems, and pruning consists of cutting out any old ones that have died.

Given that it made it through the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11, and is still alive and blooming madly, I think my fears about its hardiness have been shown to be unjustified.  The boss has one at work, grown as a wall shrub, but mine is freestanding in a windy corner of the front garden.  The wood gives some shelter from northerlies, and we did plant a field hedge around the boundary when we moved in, but if we had realised quite how windy the front garden at the top of the slope was going to be, we'd have sacrificed some internal volume from the garden layout and gone for shelter belts as well as the hedge.  It's too late now, so the pineapple broom has to take its chances being buffeted from all directions.  It doesn't seem to be brittle, unlike some shrubby members of the pea family such as Robinia, and branches rarely break off even in gales.  It does get full sun, as recommended in the textbooks, and it is on very sharp, fiercely free-draining soil.  It might be that given a heavier site it would struggle with winter damp, I can't say from personal experience, but in a dry garden it has been tough, and relatively long-lived.  It is deciduous, with nothing to offer in the way of autumn colour, and the winter twigs look like a heap of dead sticks, but it is good enough in flower, and in leaf for the first part of the season, that I rate it pretty highly.  The Royal Horticultural Society agree, and have given it their Award of Garden Merit or AGM.  The BBC in their writeup say it is one for experienced gardeners, but I've found it perfectly straightforward, if not downright forgiving, as being started off in a large pot and having your new growth chopped off before being turfed out into the garden a year or two later is not the best start in life.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

first (and maybe only) honey of the year

The Porter bee escape worked.  There were a few bees left in the super with the honey, and I was able to brush them gently off the combs and remove the super.  If there are quite a lot of bees left then I remove each comb individually, shake it briskly to get the bees off, and move it to a second super in a wheelbarrow parked a little way away.  I had taken a spare box with me this time, just in case, but didn't need it.  Three stray bees ended up in the kitchen.  I knew there were bees somewhere in the super from the sound, and once disturbed they fly to the window, where it is easy to place a glass over them and slide an envelope over the mouth of the tumbler to trap them.  Released outside they fly off immediately.

The honey was ready, no drips at all, and the bees were just beginning to cap it.  I got a full food bucket full, and a bit left over.  I don't know what weight that is, as I can't remember the capacity of the bucket.  It took almost exactly half an hour to spin the frames, the duration of R4's Saving Species, and longer than that to filter the honey to get the stray bits of wax out, and wash the extractor afterwards.  I washed the kitchen floor before I started, and all in all there wasn't much of the morning left over by the time I'd finished.  Home honey production is definitely a hobby and not a commercial proposition.  My extractor holds two frames at a time.  I spin them counting to sixty rotations, then sixty turning the handle the opposite way, then reverse the frames so the opposite side is facing outwards, and repeat the process.  People write about the sound of the patter of honey on the sides of the extractor, but with mine all I can hear is the mechanism squeaking.  It is helpful to spin frames of equal weight together to balance the thing, otherwise it judders and tries to walk across the floor.  The honey was delicious, the colour of pale straw.  I'll leave it for a day, to allow any fine debris to float to the surface, then use a trick taught to me by a friend, which is to lay clingfilm across the surface and remove it again.  I lose a little honey that way, but it collects any bits.  And that's it.  I won't heat it, unless I have to very slightly to soften it if it sets in the bucket before I've put all of it in jars.  Honey should be kept in an air-tight container for medium term storage, to keep atmospheric moisture out, and a big plastic food bucket with snap lid is better than keeping it in individual jars, with their screw lids and higher surface to volume ratio.  I've learnt not to bottle more than I expect to give away or sell in the near future.

Going up to the bees I was shocked at how the planting in the meadow had collapsed.  My poor little primroses, bought from the farm shop this spring, and seed-raised salvias, planted last autumn, and many others, were dangerously shrivelled, and some of the more recent shrub plantings were badly scrunched.  As the drought continues, 'recent' covers a longer span of time, until by now it can mean anything planted in the past two years.  I spent the afternoon working up there, weeding, and moving the hose every few minutes.  It wasn't where I'd planned to spend the rest of the day, but it is getting to the point where the location of each day working outside is going to be driven by which things most urgently need watering.  Plants here can take years to get their roots down, then suddenly take off when finally fully established.  An Aesculus indica, which made only sedate growth for several seasons after going into the ground, has shot up prodigously in the past year and suddenly looks like a proper young tree.  The tough bit is getting them to that stage.  This garden is designed not to need irrigation, but in weather like this it's a case of water it or lose it, when it comes to young plants.

Monday, 16 May 2011

a lively start to the week

On arriving at work I discovered that a coach party was due later in the morning from an international horticultural society.  I had once looked up their website, after seeing a mention of them in a newspaper article, and knew that they are not a society you can apply to.  Candidates for membership must normally be proposed and seconded by a member of the society resident in their country of domicile and, where possible, the application should be supported by the appropriate Vice President.  That should keep the riff-raff out, then.  The gardener was sent to sweep the terrace where they were to have lunch, and I was told to arrange some unusual trees that would interest them by the entrance to the shop.  I wondered what constituted unusual in the eyes of a member of an exclusive international society.  The Chinese version of the tulip tree seemed to cut the mustard.  Its leaves are more deeply incised than the North American one, and the new leaves are tinged bronze, and it is not the common sort but the differences are subtle enough to deceive the unwary.  I added a Crataegus with black fruit (in autumn, obviously, not now), a couple of obscure oaks, one of which actually said on the label that it was 'rarely available', a fastigiate Koelreuteria, and a slow growing, very beautiful lime called Tilia henryana.  If you have never looked closely at the leaves of a lime tree then do the next time you're passing one, and you will see that they are asymmetrically lobed at the base.  Tilia henryana in addition has lovely fringes around the leaf margins.

The coach party arrived, and fell upon the plant centre with a frantic air of so many plants, so little time.  They were wearing name badges, and I discovered that the woman wearing a shin-length tunic in a psychedelic pattern, that I was helping look for Stewartia and Michelia, was a Scottish marchioness.  Members of international plant appreciation societies get their plants mail ordered to them even outside the official mail order season, when lesser mortals don't always.  The manager dealt with the marchioness' delivery, but I gathered that the delivery instructions included to go to the tradesmen's entrance.

Into the middle of the chaos arrived a pair of non-coach party customers, who wanted to know where they could find a Californian tree poppy.  I struggled to work this one out, and showed them Romneya, which was rejected, so suggested Dendromecon rigida, which was also not what they were after.  I had to abandon them in pursuit of the marchioness, promising to come back as soon as I had finished serving my other customer.  They managed to flag down one of my colleagues, who suggested Dendromecon, before getting side-tracked into Escholtzia, which is Californian poppy, a pretty and easy annual flower.  I began to wonder if I had misunderstood about the shrub aspect of the quest, but they said no, their old plant had grown very tall.  The manager weighed into the debate, nominating Carpenteria.  Eventually they mentioned that its leaves were hairy, and the hairs irritated their skin, at which point my colleague realised that they were after a Fremontodendron.  We didn't have any.  I do wish people would stick to Latin plant names.  It makes life so much quicker and easier when you are all sure that you are talking about the same thing.  They are not elitist or snobby.  Invitation-only horticultural societies possibly are, but not botanical Latin.

The other excitement of the morning was that the gardener found a swarm of bees in the arboretum, low down and easy to collect.  The boss was out, and we couldn't find the phone number of the beekeeper who keeps his bees there.  It may not have been his swarm anyway.  I rang the secretary of the Suffolk Beekeepers Association, as we were in Suffolk, and he gave me phone numbers for a couple of beekeepers in the village, who were out.  I tried a couple of my friends just over the border, who were out as well, and had to go back to the secretary for more names.  At the forth attempt I got through to a beekeeper in a nearby village, who happened to be working from home that morning, and was with us in less than half an hour.  He hived the swarm in a little nuc box (a half sized brood box) and said he'd come back for them in the evening, if I could just check before I went home that they were still there.  He was very cheerful about it.  Beekeepers are generally happy to take swarms, pro bono publico, and because the bees come in useful.  He knew a beginner locally who had two colonies, both queenless after a slightly muddled attempt to combine them.  This was only a small swarm, but contained a queen, the vital ingredient she was after.

A party from Writtle College turned up, celebrating somebody's birthday, so I saw one of my old tutors, which was nice.  She teaches one module about the use of art in the landscape, so I said I'd send her a link to the picture of the stone with the hole in it, mounted on its plinth.  I'd told her about finding the stone when she came in before Christmas.  I'll probably send her the link to Cardunculus, though she must have enough to do ploughing through the essays of the current crop of students, without worrying about ex-students as well.

The afternoon was rather quiet in comparison.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

the bees are looking good, so far

I have just been to check the bees.  The two big colonies, that came through the winter queen intact, are looking good.  Both have lots of young brood in all stages of development, and eggs, and are still not showing signs of swarming.  I am very pleasantly surprised that they haven't got to the swarmy stage yet, but it makes my life much easier, and increases the chances I might get some honey this year.  The colony with a proportion of golden bees in it, that nine days ago was just starting to lay down stores in the shallow super box above the deep brood box where the queen lives, had completely filled the super by this morning.  I was worried that the nectar flow might be limited by the drought, so again that was unexpected but welcome.

I like to inspect the bees first thing after breakfast, if possible.  In chillier weather I might need to wait until the day has warmed up, but in general first thing is best.  Bees don't like the smell of human sweat, so opening the beehive after having a shower and before doing anything else too strenuous in the garden seems best.  And I like to look at them when I'm in a calm, focused state of mind, so after a good night's sleep is better than later in the day, when it may have notched up its share of aggravations and annoyances.  These two hives are both even tempered, and a pleasure to handle.  It is a long time since I've been scared handling bees, but it doesn't do to take them for granted.  Bees are like the sea.  They have nothing personal against you, but get them at the wrong time, in the wrong mood, or nasty bees, and they can be dangerous.

I didn't see the queen in either colony.  Neither is marked with a spot of coloured paint, which will make life much more difficult for me when they do start to show signs of swarming, and I need to find her as part of the swarm control procedure.  I have never managed to mark my queens in a dozen years of beekeeping.  You can't risk using any old coloured paint, since some solvents will dissolve an insect's exoskeleton, so you have to get a special pen from a beekeeping supplier to be on the safe side.  Earlier in my beekeeping days I dutifully did this, and by the time I found the queen the pen had dried up.  If I did find her to mark her, and had a working pen, I am afraid of squashing her, although what beekeepers do is practice marking drones, which can't sting.  I don't clip my queens' wings either, as some beekeepers do, to prevent her flying away at the head of a swarm.  This partly by default, because I scarcely ever see her, and by choice, because I am afraid of accidentally chopping her leg off in the process, but also as a matter of policy.  Suppose she falls on the grass when I'm opening up the beehive.  How is she to get back into the hive if she can't even fly?  And it seems disrespectful.  Yesterday I ate meat and deliberately squashed a snail, so refusing to cut an insect's wings off on ethical grounds is not a rational position, but there it is.

Bee eggs are like little threads of white cotton.  When first laid they stand on their ends, and over the next couple of days gradually descend until they are lying down, then hatch into white, c-shaped larvae.  The eggs are much easier to see in a good light than on an overcast day, and I do the bee inspections wearing my reading glasses inside my veil, as by now I couldn't see the eggs with my seeing glasses.  Before the queen lays an egg in a cell, the worker bees polish the cell, and if she has stopped laying, or gone, they will start putting nectar in the empty cells in the brood box, so one of the things you are looking for is not just the presence of eggs, preferably standing on their ends, but whether there are polished cells.  The beekeeping books and courses explain all the individual signs to monitor during an inspection, but after a few years it starts to work on a more gestalt level, and the main thing you are looking for is 'Does this look right?'.

I gave the most advanced colony two empty supers to work on, and put the full super at the top of the heap with an excluder board under it, fitted with Porter bee escapes.  These are tunnels made of plastic and wire, that give the bees easier passage one way than the other.  If I have fitted them correctly then when I go back on Tuesday I should find the top super virtually empty of bees, and be able to remove it safely.  I am not really sure whether I should take it yet, or leave it a few days longer.  At this time of the year they might have been foraging on oilseed rape, though there is none very close to the hives, and rape honey solidifies in the comb soon after collection.  If it sets in the comb I won't be able to extract it by spinning the comb in a centrifuge, but will have to chop the comb and set honey out in lumps, and melt them gently until they separate.  I have never done this, as I don't generally get rape honey, but friends who have say it is an unbelievably slow, sticky, tedious job.  I don't normally get honey as early as mid-May, so they might have been on rape this year.  With non-rape honey, that takes longer to set, you know it is safe to take when the bees have covered it with a wax capping, and you know it is still too watery and not fully converted from nectar to honey, if when you pick a frame up and shake it briskly, droplets of liquid fly out.  The bees had just started to cap this honey, and I don't think any nectar fell out when I shook it, though it was difficult to tell because so many bees fell off it.  The bees are only at the end of the garden, however, so if when I bring the honey into the kitchen next week I decide it isn't quite ready, I can always give it back to the bees for a couple more days.  Honey that is still too watery and not yet ripe will ferment and spoil in storage, so it's important to get this bit right.

Addendum  Blogspot are already making money out of Cardunculus, by advertising to me.  I posted today's entry, and ads for beekeeping equipment flashed up.  So that's how it works.  I suppose they have been since 1st January, which suggests it isn't a very effective form of advertising, since I haven't really taken any notice of them.  I certainly haven't clicked on any links.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

picky starlings, a tidy conservatory, and a drought

I'm relieved to see that Blogspot have found my two missing postings.  I didn't think they could really have mislaid them permanently, although if they had I wouldn't have had strong grounds for complaint, given that they host Cardunculus entirely free and gratis.  The Systems Administrator explained that this was because the marginal cost of hosting extra blogs was practically zero, and a proportion of them would turn out to be commercial and bring in advertising revenue.

The starlings are raising their babies successfully so far in the roof at the front of the house.  I can hear them squeaking for food.  However, they have completely ignored the three purpose-built starling boxes that we put up for them at the end of the house, when we blocked the hole in the soffit board by our bedroom.  Starling nest boxes are very deep, with the hole high up in the box, and look perfectly acceptable to me, but then I am not a starling.  Maybe they don't like being on a north facing wall, but I would have thought the fifteen centimetre deep space in our west facing roof was liable to get fatally hot in warm weather.  There was one July, around the time of the Hampton Court flower show, when they were on their second brood and the squeaking stopped very abruptly, with no sign of the young family going for formation flying lessons around the garden, as usually happens.  Anyway, they know their own business best, and we know ours, and they can't live over the bedroom, due to noise nuisance.

I am on the home straight tidying the conservatory.  Pulling dead leaves and cobwebs out of the agaves I sustained minor flesh wounds for my trouble.  The leaves of agaves are very fibrous, whereas aloes aren't, hence you can keep Aloe vera on your kitchen window sill and break a leaf off to dab on yourself should you burn yourself while cooking.  A friend swears by it, though I am of the five minutes under a cold tap school of thought.  I dislike washing the conservatory glass so much, it reminds me why I have lived in this house for nearly eighteen years and still not yet washed most of the windows, ever.  The conservatory is beginning to look good though, with a proper circulation route through it, and it is possible to sit down without plants jostling in our ears.

I didn't water the quince tree enough, and it has dropped its small fruit, as it did last year.  I don't think I have it in a good spot.  The cherries are still on the tree, and I gave that a soaking.  The five day weather forecast for Colchester, that was for heavy overnight rain and two days of light rain, now shows no rain at all.  The farmers are irrigating at all hours.  I remember learning at Writtle that overhead irrigation in the middle of the day if it was sunny and windy was incredibly wasteful of water, because a high proportion of it would evaporate before it soaked into the ground.  Received gardening wisdom is to avoid watering when it is sunny to avoid sun scorch.  The farmers are just chucking on water, 24/7.

Friday, 13 May 2011

the joy of the happy commoner

When I tried to log in earlier Blogspot was unavailable.  Now it will let me post, but seems to have lost Wednesday and Thursday's entries.  I hope they reappear.  Yesterday's had photos of the new sculpture at the bottom of the garden, and it took me ages.

I am disappointed with the giant Echium.  They have got blue flowers, which are attractive to bees, but they are not bonny, thriving plants.  Instead they are flowering with an air of 'let's get this over with, then'.  I fear that if grown in a container they need a larger pot than I can provide.  I also think they need a different background to appreciate the flowers, as  blue flowers against a bright blue East Anglian sky don't show up.  If I had a walled garden I could admire them against mellow red brick.  That would be nice.

The cut-leaved elder by the oil tank is a joy.  The leaves are are a fresh, cool green, and seem not one jot troubled by the drought.  The flat plates of tiny white flowers are just opening, hovering over the shrub like ethereal flying saucers.  It has made a large shrub, easily 3m by 3m, and at this time of year wraps itself companionably around the Mahonia x media next to it.  Fortunately the Mahonia doesn't seem to mind.  The elder is clothed in leaves to the ground, so maybe I have got the pruning regime right.  Each winter I reduce around a quarter of the stems to 1m in height, to stimulate new growth low down while keeping some height.  Last winter it got some supplementary pruning when my partner chopped off the branches deemed to be in the way of the oil delivery man.  Its Latin name is Sambucus nigra f. laciniata, and I see from my records that it was planted in March 2005.  Sambucus nigra is our native wild elder, the flowers of which make delicious cordial, though the trouble with making your own cordial instead of buying a bottle is that you have to face up to quite how much sugar it has in it.  A customer at work told me that if you include a pink flowerhead, from one of the dark leaved forms, it colours the cordial a brilliant pink.

The longer I garden, the more I think that there is much more pleasure to be had from common plants that are growing well and exuding good health than from exotic rarities of which the main thing that can be said is that they are alive.  The Sambucus is a glorious emblem of spring, while the Echium just looks very tired.

I was weeding the gravel, while keeping an eye on the chickens and moving the hose every few minutes between recent plantings in the border.  The flowers of the Crambe maritima are strongly scented of honey, another good reason to grow it.  We'll see if we get this forecast rain in the night, though.  I've been putting lard cakes out for the blackbirds, since I don't see how they are to find worms in this weather.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

found object as art (or at least decoration)

Last autumn we went on holiday to North Yorkshire (it is an interesting part of the world, and I recommend it highly).  One of the places we visited was Flamborough Head, a great chalk outcrop that juts into the sea below Scarborough.  Growing up in the West Country and living in the flatlands of East Anglia, I enjoy an occasional trip to a good cliff, to remind me what verticality looks like.  I was not disappointed by Flamborough Head, except that I thought it was a pity the council had put signs all around the edge reading 'Please be careful in this cliff-top environment'.  For goodness sake, if you're going to patronise people's intelligence then at least make it snappy, something along the lines of 'Danger.  Do not fall over the cliff' or 'Falling 120m can be fatal'.

After admiring the Head we went down to the South beach, and being a keen beachcomber I kept my eyes largely on the ground.  I was rewarded by a large pebble with a hole in it, which immediately disappeared into my coat pocket.  I'm sure there is a by-law against taking stones from the beach, and so there should be, but that must be meant to stop you taking stones by the sackful, not one special pebble.  We made it back to the car without being apprehended by a council warden, and the stone came home with me to Essex.

I wanted to display it in the garden as a sculpture.  Having tastes that run to Barbara Hepworth and Eric Gill, and a budget that runs to B&Q, this was the nearest I was going to get to my own Henry Moore.  I could provide a found plinth, in the form of a section of old telegraph pole, but was utterly stumped by the practical problem of how to mount the stone on the plinth, except by having something specially made.  This defeated the aim of the installation being entirely a found object, but the stone was heavy and my metal working skills non-existent.

(We had the remains of four telegraph poles, because the phone line to us and about twenty other properties, including the lettuce farm, used to run alongside the edge of the wood.  After years of trees falling on the line, BT finally realised it would be sensible to move it, and the lettuce farmer said they could put it along the side of his field.  It was in his interests, since it is difficult to run a salad enterprise with no telephone.  I never felt particularly guilty about our trees falling on the phone wire, since it was clearly a very silly place to have put it in the first place.  BT were happy to leave us with the sawn off poles instead of carting them away, and we were happy to keep them).

I initially visualised a bronze holder like an acorn cup, but bronze was out of the question.  I toyed with the idea of an iron cup, but began to worry that when water collected and froze in the holder, the stone might shatter, and settled on an iron spiral.  The first time I made an appointment with a local blacksmith, I went hurrying round there straight after work as agreed, and the forge was shut up and nobody there.  Cursing him as a time-waster (and it was a very nasty right turn back on to the main road) I tried Tatam's of Wakes Colne, which was a further drive from home but looked a professional set-up.  The current smith is the third generation on this site, his son is being trained in the business, and before coming to Essex they were blacksmiths in Cornwall, so smithying is fairly in their blood.

I explained what I wanted, we agreed the diameter of rod to use, and I had to leave the stone with them.  It is brittle, being chalk, and I had awful visions of it being accidentally dropped and smashed on the smithy floor.  I felt quite ashamed when I went to collect the finished support, and the smith showing me how the stone fitted in the holder unwrapped it from its bag with the delicacy of someone unfolding a rare piece of antique lace.  I realised that when you spend your days working with lumps of red hot iron you don't randomly drop things, but learn to move with as much control and precision as an instrument maker.  The fit was incredible.  The pebble is flatter on one face than the other, and will only fit only one way round into the stand, which then holds it snugly.  That was beaten out by hand, from a material that shrinks as it cools.  The smith had been unwilling to quote me a firm price before starting, explaining that he didn't know how long it would take, but reassured me that I was looking at somewhere in the thirty to fifty quid range, not hundreds.  In the event the bill for my tailor-made, bespoke piece of ironwork, finished in exterior grade black paint, was thirty-five pounds.  I thought this was very good value, and urge anybody in the area who needs a piece of ironwork to go and support Roger Tatam, Original Ironwork.

Last week we installed the piece.  My partner succeeded in mounting the stand vertically in the telegraph pole, which is something I could not have done.  The proportions of the stone and stand together relative to the height of the plinth is based on the golden ratio.  Here is the complete installation and here is the stone in close-up.  It is aligned so that if you look through the hole, it frames a statue of the buddha who sits in front of the wood (and next to the septic tank), but I couldn't work out how to photograph that.  I think you need to have got beyond autofocus.  A friend suggested placing it to frame the rising sun at the solstice, which was a good idea but I'm not sure where I'd have put it to achieve that, and the effect would only work once a year, whereas the buddha is there all the time.  It acts as a good eye-catcher to lead your eye across the bottom part of the garden, and the plinth will be useful for running the hose around when I need to water down there.

I don't have the faintest idea if it's Art, but I like it.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

still scrubbing

Washing the conservatory windows and floor is taking an extremely long time.  I looked at some patio cleaner for the floor, but when I read on the bottle that it contained strong disinfectant, and that I should wear gloves while applying it, and exclude pets until dry, and not get it directly on the leaves of plants, I left it where it was.  Instead the floor is getting a scrub with a stiff brush, and hot water with a tiny squeeze of Ecover washing-up liquid.  The conservatory faces west, and I have a dark suspicion that when we sit in there, looking at the sunset, the smears on the windows are going to show up like anything.  I think the answer will be to take a deep gulp of gin and tonic and steadfastedly ignore them.  I am sure nice people do not notice such things, as my father says.  He attributes the saying to George Bernard Shaw.  I can't find it in the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, but it sounds as though it could be from The Chocolate Soldier.

The roots of the poor Strelitzia were revolting, like giant tangled intestines.  It was lucky that Radio 4 were doing one of the early Father Brown stories as the afternoon play, which cheered me up.  The adaptation was very true to the original, keeping a lot of the dialogue as written.  I read all the Father Brown books rather a large number of times as a teenager, and The Man Who was Thursday, and retain a great fondness for Chesterton.

In the front garden the thrift and sea kale in the turning circle are blooming splendidly.  I planted one piece of Crambe maritima, and over the years it has either run by the root or seeded itself to form a good colony.  The new plants have all been close to the original one, with no outliers, so if it has spread by seeding then the seed dispersal mechanism isn't up to much.  The emerging leaves are wonderfully crinkly and purple tinged, and the flowers are clouds of tiny white stars.  They are carried only about 45cm above the ground, so in a conventional border it is one for the front.  I think people sometimes confuse it with Crambe cordifolia, and expect it to be taller.  It grew in Derek Jarman's garden at Dungeness, and he wrote that after violent storms, when the shingle had shifted, the exposted roots of the sea kale were at least twenty feet long.  It is an excellent plant for a dry site on light soil.  The thrift forms tussocks of dark green linear leaves, and is now carrying its pompom flowers in pink and white.  The old tussocks are apt to go brown and die in time, but it keeps going by seeding.

Also putting up a reasonable show is the sea campion, Silene maritima.  I raised it from seed, and it was slow to get going, to the point where I wondered if it disliked acid soil, but this year it is looking far happier and flowering well.  The flowers are single, with a typical campion style full calyx, and the leaves are mat-forming and silvery.  I have just seen on the Plantlife website that it should never be picked, for fear of tempting death.  I planted a few seed raised sea peas at the same time, but annoyingly the only one that is doing well is right at the edge of the turning circle, where it is liable to get run over by passing delivery vans.  If it manages to flower at all then maybe it will seed itself about, as the everlasting pea in the back garden is only too happy to do.  Its Latin name is Lathyrus japonicus ssp. maritimus, and it is not native to Britain, though it is found on shingle beaches here, especially on the east and south coasts.  I have seen it growing on the beach at Aldeburgh, and according to Wikipedia the seeds can remain viable while floating in the sea for up to five years.

Some of the dahlias that were left in the ground over the winter are shooting, much to my astonishment.  I had assumed that the winter had killed them all.  Now I know that at least some are alive, I am watering their bed, and will rig up some string to deter the chickens from dust bathing in it, and put out a very few slug pellets.  I use almost no pellets in the garden, in deference to the wildlife, but the new leaves of dahlias are peculiarly susceptible.  It will be interesting to see which varieties have come through.  In general the yellows and oranges seem more robust and vigorous than the dark reds.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

reorganising the conservatory

I've been clearing out the conservatory.  This is a big clear-out.  Most of the pots that are small enough to lift are now spread out across the lawn, and some things that were dead or had become hideously ugly have found their way to the compost heap.  It took a long time to disentangle the Berberidopsis corallina from the Trachelospermum jasminoides on the back wall.  They are both going to have to go outside, and take their chances with the cold weather, since inside the conservatory they are forever getting covered in sooty mould following attack by scale insects and mealy bugs, and are not happy plants.  I've tried biological control, introducing predators, which was expensive and didn't really work, and Provado systemic insecticide, which was equally costly and ineffectual, plus I don't like using it in large quantities.  I have to breathe that air.  When the controls failed I spent ages up a ladder with water running down my sleeves, washing sooty mould off individual leaves.  It doesn't wipe off, by the way, but needs a good scrub with a nail brush.  Life is too short for such performances.  Outside I'm pretty confident that the birds, ladybirds, hover flies and so on will between them keep the pests under control.

The Berberidopsis, or coral vine, is an evergreen climber of dubious hardiness from Chile.  Mine has made plenty of lanky growth, but produced very few of the pendant red flowers for which I planted it.  The leaves would be quite attractive, if they weren't covered in black sticky gunk, but the flowers are the chief point of the plant.  It likes sandy, open, preferably acid soil, which I have provided, and semi-shade, which it will get below the veranda.  It also likes it moist, which it won't be, but I'm reckoning on watering it when I water the nearby pots.  It is a twiner rather than a clinger, so had to be tied to the trellis and existing climbers with string, where it is hanging looking utterly miserable.  I'll have to see if it takes, but it wasn't doing any good where it was.

The Trachelospermum, which I have never entirely forgiven for being the source of the mealy bug infestation, though that is quite irrational, has made a big, substantial plant.  At the moment it is making new leaves and looks almost handsome, but I know another bout of sooty mould is only a scale insect's dribble away.  It has shed a significant portion of its leaves more than once under insect attack, and should be happier outside.  It would be OK in a normal Essex winter, though I'm not sure about the last two.  The flower buds are forming now, and the flowers when they open are white and strongly and deliciously scented.  Planting it below the veranda I hope that the smell will drift up and in through the open door to the sitting room.  At any rate we will appreciate it on the veranda.

My task for tomorrow will be to manouvre two jasmines that have grown into each other across the floor and on to the back wall.  They are currently by one of the glass sides, which means the glass is impossible to clean.  Conservatory glass does tend to go green with algae, given the level of humidity and (in my case) low winter temperatures, so I have decided that as I rearrange the plants there is going to be nothing in front of the windows that can't be moved so that they can be washed.

Another task will be to finish removing a Strelizia regina, destination the compost heap.  I grew it from a seed, and was pleased and excited when it finally flowered.  As it kept growing it regularly pushed itself out of its pot on a great coiled mat of roots, until the day came when I couldn't find an even bigger pot to move it up into.  The compost by that stage was standing 15cm above the rim of the pot, so watering was becoming impossible.  I asked advice from the South African stand at Chelsea, and was told that Strelitzia don't like being root pruned.  In desperation I bought a very large black plastic tub, which was the only thing I could find with sufficient depth.  It was a lot wider than the old pot, and I wondered as I moved the plant if this was going to work.  It didn't.  The Strelitzia seemed to detest having that much surplus compost around it, and I never got the hang of the watering regime.  One by one the leaves curled in on themselves and died, and by now the roots have largely rotted.  Although I was attached to it because of raising from seed, and the flowers were exotic, I'm not heartbroken to see it go.  It had begun to take up a large amount of space for the quantity of flowers, and while I could get another young plant at The Clacton Garden Centre, I'm not going to.  I am about half way through excavating the old compost, and haven't found a single vine weevil grub, so I should say they don't seem to go for Strelitzia.

A more general point on watering is that it seems essential, in conservatory or greenhouse, to have each pot where you can see into it clearly to judge how dry or damp it is, and reach it, to touch the surface of the compost and if necessary dig your finger in.  Things that end up sitting too wet, or hopelessly dry, tend to be the ones at the back out of clear sight, both at home and at work.

I don't want to lift the largest pots, or physically can't, so the pace of the great reorganisation is limited by the need to keep shuffling them and their contents around the floor.  I took the Lloyd Loom chairs out, but decided not to risk it with the table, which has a glass top.  I was going to put the wirework plant rack outside, bought years ago in an OKA sale, but when I realised that the tiers slotted into each other and were maddeningly difficult to line up correctly once unslotted, I decided that could stay inside and shuffle around as well.  I need a parting of the red sea so that the jasmines can slide diagonally from front left to back right,  and if I get the redundant giant black pot out, the Phoenix canariensis can move sideways, after I've washed the window.  I'm sure it will all fall into place, if I just keep on going round in circles.

Monday, 9 May 2011

it's day three in the plant centre

Most of today's excitements were provided by the assorted pets and livestock.  The dog became very eager to get at whatever was underneath the low shelf we store multipurpose compost on.  While watering inside the little greenhouse at the back of the shop I heard furious growls and squeals from the dog, mixed with vexed cries from the gardener, who was at that moment trying to top the pile up with extra bags.  The situation didn't seem to be resolving itself, so I went outside to help.  The gardener said that there was a hedgehog under the shelf.  I considered whether to jet the dog with the hose, or pick her up.  I thought that coming between a terrier and her chosen prey I ran the risk of getting bitten, on the other hand the dog and I have alwas enjoyed good relations, and setting the hose on her would escalate the level of violence.  I decided she would probably not bite me, seized her firmly, and carried her up to the office.  She managed to rip open several bags of compost in the stramash.

Later on there was a swarm of bees in the plant centre.  I recognised the sound instantly, and saw them swirling around inconveniently close to the loos, but luckily they moved on.  It is a waste not to hive a swarm, but they aren't something you want hanging around for the day where there are customers about.  I don't carry my bee suit with me in the car, so I couldn't have done anything about them.  I don't know if the owners rang the beekeeper who has some hives in the arboretum.  If the swarm didn't settle there wouldn't be a lot of point.  They may not have been his anyway.  My bees at home were still not showing any signs of preparing to swarm when I inspected them on Friday, before my working weekend, but I can't believe that will last.

The dog escaped from the house and returned to the fray with the hedgehog, this time managing to get under the shelf.  I think the second time the manager did flush her out with a jet of cold water, and I saw her being carried by the scruff of the neck back up to the house.  I don't think he is especially fond of dogs.

The peachick was sent to a new home.  In the end the gamekeeper's wife escaped being lumbered with him, as somebody who came on a recent guided walk around the garden wanted a peacock.  He had been looking a bit lost in the plant centre anyway, since in the past couple of weeks his mummy completely lost interest in him.  He was lured into the chicken house with food last night, caught and penned, and taken away this afternoon in a large cardboard box.

We were discussing on Saturday whether, if a famous person came into the plant centre, it was polite to recognise them, or whether they should be granted the illusion of anonymity when they weren't working.  This came up because the designer Tom Stuart Smith was in.  I love his work, and would cheerfully have said so if I'd encountered him, but I didn't.  Today it was the turn of one of the editors of Hortus.  I didn't recognise the face, but the manager told me who he was.  Apparently he was doing an advance recce for a group he is bringing to visit next month.  He bought a few plants and some pots, and apologised for keeping me after closing time, which was considerate of him, so I told him that we were there until six so up to that point I was entirely tranquil, and said that I really liked his garden when I'd seen it in magazines.  He told me that the iris orchard was looking spectacular, and it was about to feature in the Telegraph magazine and Country Living.  You have to be a very odd keen gardener not to be pleased when people say they like your garden.

Back home, the robin's nest in the greenhouse is empty.  The anti-cat netting was in place across the door, and there was no sign of a struggle, so unless a very efficient magpie got in through the roof vent and out again I think the young probably fledged successfully.  I wish them well, but it will be a relief to be able to use the greenhouse normally again without feeling guilty.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

a lunchbox malfunction and some dead nettles

Sitting peacefully at the kitchen table this morning, drinking my second mug of tea and reading The Telegraph on-line, I was just thinking that (in my finely honed timetable for work day mornings) it was time to brush my teeth, when I realised I had completely forgotten to make my packed lunch.  Nairns oat cakes and miniature packets of Boursin cheese are very useful inventions.  Now that school dinners are not the norm that they were in my school days, lots of households are faced with the task of providing packed lunches, but I have read that the proportion of adults taking their own lunch to work with them is tiny.  However, while the village has a shop that will do in emergencies (I have only once in eight years left my lunch box on the hall table) it is a good mile away, and I'm not overly keen on prepackaged pasties.  No convenient Pret a Manger around the corner for us in rural Suffolk.  By now I am quite bored of sandwiches, or at least the sort of sandwich I can make quickly at seven in the morning (forget sophisticated wraps or anything with more than two ingredients).  Pasta shells with olives and tomatoes are good, so if we're having pasta the night before the chef makes some extra.  And I like oat cakes.

Driving to work I saw a summer visitor return to the hedgerows, as the bikers assembled in increasing numbers at their usual rendezvous point close to the river Stour.  I had my first solitary sighting a couple of weeks ago, but this morning as I went past there were four.  They are all kitted out in the full proper protective gear, their bikes look powerful and expensive, and I don't think any of them are under forty.  Our GP is a keen biker, who has ridden to some exotic places in aid of charity, and I suspect that this lot are of a similar ilk.

I volunteered to water at the bottom end of the plant centre, to make a change from watering the middle (yesterday) and the top (last Monday).  Even though there is overhead irrigation in the tunnel where the azaleas and rhododendrons live, their foliage is so dense that in warm weather they need extra water directed below their leaves and into the pots.  It was a good area to have chosen, as I discovered some Lamium orvala, which I thought we had sold out of, whereas it turned out to have been moved to a shadier spot.  This is a handsome dead nettle, which given time makes a dense clump of leaves a good 30cm high, with large and attractive pinky-maroon flowers at this time of year.  It is happy given some shade, and likes to be moist but not waterlogged.  I have a plant already, that I almost lost when the water table rose under its original position, so that it was sitting wet all the time.  I dug it up, took it to convalesce in the greenhouse, and it is now doing well in a drier spot, so I thought some more would be useful and good-looking ground cover for shady corners.  Carol Klein demonstrated how to take cuttings on Gardeners' World a couple of weeks back, and I thought I should multiply mine, but then didn't.  I am so busy still clearing out winter losses and replanting that it didn't seem the time to be adding extra projects like cuttings.  And it was during a heatwave.  And my existing plant by unlucky chance is immediately under the regular perch of some bird, so that it is rather streaked with guano, and I didn't fancy rootling around in it for cuttings material.  It will be nice to have some more plants that aren't liberally daubed with bird excrement, as it is an attractive species.

The garden at work opened today in aid of the yellow book National Gardens scheme, which livened things up a bit, and meant there was cake, which helped plug the gap in the lunchbox.