Thursday, 30 June 2011

more about bees and lawn edges

The porter bee escape had almost worked.  There were a few bees left in the super I wanted to take off, so I used a trick that works well for small scale hobby beekeepers who are only trying to take one super.  I had a spare super with no frames in it in a wheelbarrow about 10m from the beehive, with a spare covering board over it.  I removed the frames one by one from the super on the beehive, shook them to get the bees off, rushed them over to the barrow and put them in the empty box, then scarpered promptly with the barrow.  I only had to evict one bee from the kitchen.  Obviously if you are keeping bees on a commercial scale this is not tenable, but I believe professional beekeepers have other tools to help them, like chemical smoke to drive the bees down out of the supers.

I have just finished extracting the honey.  It is dark and strong flavoured, as any crop here in later summer is.  There are a couple of large chestnut trees in the wood, and chestnut honey is dark, so there's probably a fair bit of that in mine.  I'm sure the honey was ready for harvest, as the bees had almost finished capping it, but after a day in the kitchen with the aga it was extremely runny, trickling down the outside of the comb as I cut the cappings off, and it went through the sieve almost like water, whereas the previous lot clogged the sieve and was slow to run through.  This dark honey often stays liquid for a long time before granulating in the jar.

The inspection of the number two hive was inconclusive.  There were two queen cells only, no eggs, and the bees had begun to store nectar in the brood area suggesting they aren't expecting more eggs to be laid any time soon.  The bees were extremely buzzy, although they are normally placid, and I went through the brood box as briskly as I could while knowing the bees weren't going to give me the chance of a second look.  I didn't see the queen and am not sure if she is still there, so I left the queen cells, as I don't want to drive this colony queenless.  It was an inconlusive end to the swarming season, and shows how helpful the artificial swarming method would have been, if I hadn't messed it up last week.

The number three hive, that lost its queen over the winter and made a new one from eggs out of another colony, had built up strongly and urgently needed more space, whereas a couple of weeks ago they weren't using a third of the brood box.  I went and fetched them a super, feeling very pleased with myself that I'd remembered a queen excluder to go with it, and then realised when I began a quick inspection of the frames that I was wearing the wrong glasses to see eggs easily.  Fortunately it was good light and the hive has new clean frames, so I managed.  The bees were very quiet throughout, which shows that the pissy behaviour of the number two hive was not just because it was a hot and fairly humid morning.

The swarm are still in their nuc box, and I gave them some more sugar.  And that's the drama over for another summer.  I can't do anything more to stop my own bees swarming without risking sending them queenless.  I might pick up another swarm.  There might be some more honey, depending on swarming, weather and nectar flow.  But that's basically it for now.  Next will be autumn feeding, varroa treatment and woodpecker-proofing, but that's not for a while.

In the garden I have been mostly cutting the lawn edges.  There are a lot of edges in the back garden, just because it is a large garden.  I keep them to a minimum by having a few big borders, not lots of little ones, and by keeping to clean sweeping lines and not niggly wiggly in-and-out ones.  With everything else there's been to do, some edges had got very shaggy indeed, and as I trimmed I told myself I must cut them more regularly.  It's a quicker job when they aren't too long.  I use hand shears and not a strimmer, which no professional gardener would do, because I don't get on with strimmers.  Can't start them, don't like the noise, don't want to risk chopping the legs off the toad population.

The treatment of the edges influences the mood of a garden.  I try to keep clean lines, because curves that are pinched and wrong, and lines that are meant to be straight but wobble, are annoying.  I'm not too worried if they get a little bit whiskery and romantic, because so is the lawn half the time.  I don't mind a few shrubs growing out over the lawn and killing off bits of grass, as long as they don't impede circulation, because that looks relaxed and abundant whereas faced-up chopped off shrubs look depressing and car-parky.  I remember being told at Writtle that in Regency gardens edges were deliberately left long (I haven't gone and checked that fact because it's late and I can't be bothered now).  There was a garden in Essex, very fine in many ways but no longer open to the public due to the owner's ill-health, that had desperately sharp lawn edges.  They were cut with scalpel precision and a neat gully carved between the lawn and border, and no plant was ever allowed to stray over the divide.  It was a widely acclaimed garden done with skill and knowledge and with much to admire, but I didn't warm to it myself, and it was largely the edges that put me off.  They were very...cold.  I couldn't imagine walking around a corner and finding myself face-to-face with the god Pan in that garden.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


I rang the lettuce farm as promised straight after breakfast, and they said that the bees seemed to have gone.  This is probably all for the best, as the description of the roof space they were in didn't sound promising, being plasterboard on lathes with a thick layer of insulation.  Instead I went to see my own bees.  (If you are not interested in beekeeping then if you skip a few paragraphs there is a bit about something else as well).

The number one hive has swarmed.  I'm sure of it.  There were fewer bees in the supers than there had been, and they had started storing honey in the brood nest instead of cleaning it for the queen to lay.  There were several queen cells.  I have heard our two local professional beekeepers get into a heated debate about how to deal with queen cells.  One favoured the textbook approach, which is that you remove all except one.  The books say that the first queen to emerge from her cell will destroy the other potential queens.  However, if several queens emerge at much the same time some of them can leave with yet more of your bees in secondary swarms, which are called casts, and removing all except one new queen prevents this.  The other beekeeper believed equally strongly that the bees knew better than any human which was the best new queen, and should be left to choose her themselves.  My instinct is always not to mess the bees around more than I have to, so I shut them up and left them to it.  I have had a crop off this hive already, so while I'd rather they hadn't swarmed it wasn't a complete failure.

My spirits lifted as I experimentally hefted the top super (see below if you have forgotten what this is) on the number two hive.  It was very heavy, meaning that the bees probably hadn't swarmed yet, and that I was in with a good chance of harvesting that honey.  I removed the supers and opened up the body of the beehive.  The first frame had a sealed queen cell on it.  The second frame didn't seem to have any queen cells.  At that point I looked to one side, and there was a pile of bees on the grass about 2m away.

It was a swarm that had landed on the ground, which was odd.  Normally they like to hang from a branch.  I never heard or saw them arrive.  They had certainly not emerged from my hives while I was in the apiary.  A swarm in flight is unmistakable, the air becoming thick with swirling bees like a miniaturised cloud of starlings, and the noise is stronger and more intense than the normal level of buzzing.  I don't know if they had come out of my hives earlier, and been hanging in a tree before plopping on to the ground for some reason, or if they were just passing and smelt the honey because I had the hives open.

I shut the open hive down again rather quickly, remembering to put an excluder board (see below) under the full super.  I would really like that honey if I can get it.  Then I put the nuc box (see below) on the ground next to the pile of bees with its entrance towards them.  Some went in, but there was no concerted move, and after a bit the ones that had gone in came out again.  A different approach was clearly required, so I turned the box upside down and put it over the heap of bees, the floor temporarily acting as the roof.  I watched them for a while, then decided that while I would like the swarm I wasn't prepared to spend the whole day watching them to follow them if they absconded, and left them to it.  They were still there at lunchtime and as I'd hoped most had crawled up into the body of the nuc, so with care I inverted the box, put the lid on, and left them in the position I would like them to live if they stay.  They didn't all hurry back to their original spot on the grass, so the queen must have been in the box by that stage.  They were still in residence at 5pm, and were in the process of killing a wasp that must have been trying to invade their hive.  This suggested a growing proprietorial feeling on their part, so I put the entrance block (see below) in to reduce the size of the entrance to a couple of centimetres, making it easier for them to defend against wasps, and gave them some sugar syrup.  Swarms don't always stay, even after you have put them in a hive, but if they are still there by this time tomorrow I shall regard them as permanent residents.

A newly emerged swarm is normally docile, having eaten all the honey they can fly with before they start.  However, a swarm that has been wandering around for a couple of days can be hungry and consequently bad tempered.  Feeding them is a good idea in case they are hungry, and also to take advantage of their instinctive tendency to make new honeycomb.  I gave this swarm new frames with flat sheets of beeswax foundation in it because that was all I had, but they should make beautiful new comb on the frames very quickly, as long as they have food to give them the energy to do it.

I didn't try to finish inspecting the number two hive, because with the excitement of a swarm in the apiary I thought it might all get too lively, but I shall have to do it tomorrow.  Once the bees start trying to swarm it is a source of slight continuing anxiety until the situation has been resolved one way or another.  Even if they end up swarming, alongside the disappointment that I didn't manage it better there will be a sort of creeping relief that now the misfortune I was trying to avert has come to pass I can stop worrying about it.

Beekeeping glossary

A super is a shallow box that sits on top of the beehive, which the queen cannot enter to lay eggs.  The bees use it to store surplus honey, if there is any.  Honey for human consumption is taken from the supers.  An excluder board is a metal grid that the queen can't squeeze through, but the smaller worker bees can.  It is used to keep the queen out of the super.  A nuc box is a deep but narrow half-width beehive, which a queen lives in with a small colony.  If the colony prospers it will be moved into a full-size hive in due course.  An entrance block is a wooden bar with a small hole in it, that fits into the large opening at the bottom of the beehive to reduce the size of the entrance.

Meanwhile, I have passed up the chance to be nominated to be an Olympic torch bearer.  A last-minute invitation to apply came from a charity I do some voluntary work for.  I toyed with the idea, on the basis that life is more interesting if you say yes to new things unless there is a compelling reason to say no, but decided there was a good reason to say no, which was that it was just too silly.  The website describing the day of an Olympic torch bearer is hilarious.  This is what it said.

A day in the life of a Torchbearer

Carrying the Olympic Flame will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Torchbearers will help to shine a light on the best of their communities, as well as having their own moment to shine... Here's a typical day in the life of a Torchbearer...
You wake up in the morning and you’re excited: today’s the day. You have your uniform, you know your position, you’ve told all your friends and family. You leave early so you have plenty of time to reach your pick up location. With closest family and friends alongside, you head off for an experience you will never forget.
As you near the pick up location, you see the other Torchbearers milling around – you start to feel nervous. There are media interviewing people, and the Torch Relay crew are making sure everything runs smoothly.
You easily spot the Torchbearer shuttle bus and get on. As it sets off, the briefing session starts and helps to relax you: the details about how to handle the Torch and how the whole Relay works are pretty straightforward.
Then you’re given the Torch you’ll be carrying. You’ve seen others carrying it in the coverage of the Relay on TV… now you’ve got your own.
You get chatting to some of the other Torchbearers, they’ve got some amazing stories to tell. You tell them what taking part in the Relay means to you too.
Before you know it, you have arrived at your allocated position. You get off the bus and wait. The crowd is excited to see you – they’ve read about you on the website and know you’re something special. They chat to you and want to have their photos taken with you. A motorcyclist appears and helps you into position.
A Torchbearer appears and is moving towards you. As they approach you feel the excitement building…your Flames meet… your Torch is alight.  
It is your moment to shine.
You set off with the Flame, with your escort runners beside you. You can hear the cheers of the crowd – it’s overwhelming…

There is a vehicle up ahead – it seems like a hundred cameras are filming you. After a while you start to relax and enjoy the experience. Up ahead you can see your family waving excitedly. Another Torchbearer is waiting for you – they look as nervous as you were when you started. You exchange the Flame and cheer them on. Without realising, someone gently guides you off the road (so the convoy behind doesn’t run you over).
After greeting your family you are picked up again by the shuttle bus. As the rest of the Torchbearers get on the bus you can’t wait to exchange stories about your experience.
You arrive back at the original pick up point, everyone disperses and make their way to the evening celebration site. You want to be with the people that have shared that incredible moment with you. You just want that exhilarating feeling to last forever. You have a story to tell – of a most precious moment in history…

I don't like uniforms, or queues, or being photographed, or sport.  I don't like the sound of escort runners at all as I hate running, and I almost never watch television.  That seemed enough reasons to be going on with not to ask to be nominated.  They probably wouldn't have chosen me anyway, and then my feelings would have been hurt.  I tried in vain to imagine my family and friends cheering and waving excitedly, and failed utterly.  The sight of me clutching a giant inflammable cheese grater before a sports fest that neither of us intend to watch would not stir the Systems Administrator, who likes rugby union, cricket and Cheltenham, with a nod to the Grand Prix and the Tour de France, none of which are Olympic events.

I did find the hyper tone of the description of the day in the life of an Olympic torch bearer extremely funny, and after a bit realised that it reminded me of Mitch Benn's splendid song parodying a day in the life of a talent show contestant Sing Like an Angel.  Check it out, it's a hoot.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

luxury cat food and other delicacies

We have done something we said we would never do, and admitted luxury cat food on to the premises.  With five cats to support, whose combined weight must be pushing 30 kilos, we had been concealing the existence of Sheba from them.  It's bad enough buying that amount of ordinary cat food.  Only our ginger is really overweight, and the grey tabby is borderline skinny.  They are all large cats.  A fully grown Maine Coon tom can stand on his hind legs and comfortably rest his chin on a normal height table, when he has the mind to do so.

The luxury cat food purchase came about to tempt the invalid to eat.  As it has been hot, and all he has to do all day is lie around the study or, for a change of scene, lie about the sitting room, he doesn't have much of an appetite.  It doesn't help that all of them decided to go off fish flavours, especially haddock, just as we'd bought two dozen tins of it.  So the black cat was shut in the privacy of the study and a special pouch of luxury food opened for him, which it turned out he liked very much.  The other cats knew something better than tinned haddock was in the offing and queued outside the study door.  When they manage to get in before the invalid has finished they polish it off, so now they have all had a taste of the stuff.  If the big tabby were a human being he would definitely be one of those hospital visitors who while they are there absent-mindedly finishes off the patient's grapes.  However, I don't think luxury cat food is simply a con to play on the sensibilities of owners who want to pamper their pets.  It does actually seem to taste nicer to cats, alas.

Sometimes I feel guilty about the environmental impact of having so many cats, but not very guilty and not very often.  I don't suppose the bits of haddock that end up in a tin of cat food are from any part of the fish that a human being in the developed world would consent to eat.

For human consumption I have just finished making blackcurrant jelly, but the jam thermometer seems to have broken, because I boiled it until it looked and behaved like jelly and it never got to within five degrees of jam temperature according to the thermomemeter.  As downbeat starts to a day go, having to tip half a dozen jars of fruit soup back into the jam pan that you washed once already after making the fruit soup, then wash all the jars again, before reboiling and rebottling it and washing the pan again, scores quite highly on the pointless scale, so I hope it has set.  Besides, we have other plans for tomorrow morning.  Somebody from the lettuce farm called round this afternoon to say that bees had taken up residence in the loft over their office and could I remove them?  I was not able to help at that minute, because I had an appointment elsewhere in an hour's time, and anyway didn't think the middle of a thunderstorm was a good moment to disturb them, but I promised to ring in the morning.  He said they were flying in and out through the light fittings, and mentioned a lot of insulation.  I am not optimistic that this will be straightforward.  They could be my bees.  I was planning on inspecting mine tomorrow once the thunderstorms had blown through.  If neither hive has managed to smuggle a queen cell through my last inspections and abscond since last week then I shall be very pleasantly surprised.

Monday, 27 June 2011

a hot day in the plant centre

The peacock has got an eye infection, and is penned up and being treated with eye drops.  The vet apparently wants him released so that he can exercise his leg muscles.  The consensus at work is against releasing the peacock, since once he's running loose nobody thinks we would ever catch him again.  It isn't clear how his eye got infected.  Maybe the guinea fowl finally lashed out at him, as he does annoy them, or maybe it was a rogue bit of vegetation.

It was extremely hot and sticky in the plant centre due to the KILLER HEATWAVE.  The manager sent me down to the shade structure to weed the epimediums and the bamboos, and I spent a peaceful couple of hours pulling hairy bittercress out of their pots, and crawling among the bamboos picking dead leaves out of the gravel.  I always wear a sunhat in high summer, since a few years ago my face abruptly decided that it had received enough sun exposure for one lifetime, and began to find strong sunlight painful.  For work and gardening I have a Tilly hat, which is a 1930s retro looking thing that blocks UV, repels rain, ties on or will float as required, and is machine washable.  Crawling among the bamboos in my 1930s hat I amused myself pretending that I was an explorer in the jungle, while trying to make sure I didn't go the way of the peacock and jab myself in the eye.  My glasses offer some protection, but side shoots can still sneak in round the edges.  I once had to waste an entire Sunday morning going to the Colchester walk-in centre after a Cornus got me that way, following which I did buy a new pair of plastic goggles which I wear at home for tasks that obviously constitute an eye hazard.  An optician, a very dapper young man wearing a three piece suit, told me that I should wear eye protection all the time.  I don't think he was a gardener himself, or had ever tried taking his own advice.  After half an hour in goggles on a hot day you can't see through them for sweat.

After that I was allowed to stick prices on to an enormous consignment of greetings cards and paper napkins, so that I could stay in the relative cool of the shop.  Normally I try to avoid getting too involved in the shop.  I don't even dust my own house more than I absolutely have to, so I certainly don't want to end up dusting displays of china mugs.  Since the time I failed to notice that the price gun had a euro setting as well as pounds sterling and priced a lot of things up in the wrong currency I am generally allowed to go and do plant related tasks anyway.  But it was bakingly hot outside, and I was grateful not to be out in it all afternoon.  As it happens I rather like greetings cards and printed paper napkins, so was quite happy looking at the pictures and trying not to move more than I had to.  Don't think it counts as an aspect of my job for which I require my horticultural degree, though.  The quantity of paper napkins we've just bought should see us nicely through to next year's Jubilee lunch parties and beyond.

At six o'clock we went clammily home.  This was my last six o'clock finish for a while, as by the next time I'm at work it will be July, and we'll finish at 5.15pm.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

open gardens

As I wasn't working this weekend we braved what yesterday's Daily Express billed the KILLER HEATWAVE and went to the Chelsworth Open Gardens Festival.  Chelsworth is towards Sudbury in the Brett valley, and sits in beautiful rolling Suffolk countryside.  It is still miraculously compact, about sixty houses according to the Open Gardens programme, and has somehow escaped the twentieth century sprawl that extended the reach of most villages with a row of 1930s rural district housing here and a 1960s close of bungalows there.  Most of Chelsworth seems to be mediaeval, Georgian or at the latest Edwardian, with one or two barn conversions that probably contain about as much of the original barn as grandfather's axe.  The gardens therefore look straight out over fields and water meadows.

They claim to be the longest running Open Gardens event in the country, 2011 being the 44th annual opening.  There were 22 gardens open, which out of a village of 60 houses must create a fair degree of social pressure to join in.  We saw in the programme notes that the people who had bought Chelsworth Hall only last year were taking part.  I suppose if you buy one of the grandest houses in the village and then spoil the Open Gardens by refusing to open for it, this wouldn't get you off to a flying start socially.  The proceeds of the Open Gardens were going to the church, which was mostly built between the thirteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and is a little gem, decorated for this weekend with big bunches of garden flowers.

The whole thing was done very well.  As well as the gardens there was a good collection of stands by local plant nurseries, craftspeople, and the National Trust.  There were a lot of places you could get refreshments and enough loos.  A horse drawn carriage was available for those who didn't want to walk the full length of the village, or just fancied a ride.  There were buskers in several gardens, mostly young and of variable quality but very keen, and an oompah band, or rather trio, in the pub gardens.  The programme looked professional, and we gathered that it was designed by a volunteer, and surmised that the advertising revenues probably covered the costs of production.  There were neat and well-executed signposts to the various events and features, and well-organised parking.  I suppose that after 44 years you are starting to get into the swing of it.

The gardens were of varying degrees of size, complexity and ambition.  All gardens are to some extent works in progress, and a couple of these were in the rather early stages, but most contained quite a lot to look at.  One was featured in The English Garden magazine this May.  Some of the Chelsworth gardens I liked a great deal, some not at all, and some I admired as good examples of their type while not wanting one like that myself, but it was interesting looking at all of them.  The programme quotes Laura Ingalls Wilder who asked 'Did you ever think how a bit of land shows the character of the owner?' and I have often thought that.

The day made me think about grass.  We saw some large expanses of grass, including some formal lawns, some rough grass cut to an inch or two, and some left to grow long with wildflowers.  The longer I garden, and the more I look at other people's gardens, the more I question the point of any large area of coarse mown grass, unless it is used for something, such as for children to play on.  Long grass with flowers, seedheads and insects is more beautiful, less work and kinder to the environment than flogging round fortnightly all through the growing season with a petrol mower.  The trick with long grass is to frame it by cutting paths across it or round it.  We saw some lovely examples of wildflower gardening today.  We couldn't tell how much of the short grass was used for play, but my bet is that a lot of it wasn't.  There are times when short grass is necessary, to give access or provide a neutral foil to masses of planting, but most gardens don't need too much of it.

Bright blue tiles are not a good look for rural English swimming pools.  They seem just right for David Hockney paintings of pools in Los Angeles, or Gardens Illustrated photos of streamlined modern gardens on the American west coast, but they are out of place in Suffolk.  The light isn't strong enough here, and the blue tiles are too bright for the surrounding countryside.  Go for black.  It will be much more chic, and not stick out like a dayglo funfair.

If you are surrounded by countryside, a gate suggesting that egress to the wider landscape is possible is very appealing, even if in fact you don't own the next field and the gate is padlocked shut.  If you have the remains of a green farm lane going over a lovely brick bridge towards the meadows then don't plant a tree that blocks the bridge.  Leave the illusion that you could drive over the bridge, even if it isn't your meadow and you couldn't.

A positive example of the psychological manipulation of space came in one of the more obviously designed gardens, which was done as a miniaturised East Ruston Old Vicarage.  Part of that garden was enclosed by brick wall, and divided in half by a further wall.  The nearer part contained double herbaceous borders running the breadth of the walled garden, and the further part was devoted to vegetables and fruit.  Doorways in all three walls lined up, and created a vista across the walled area.  It was only when I looked carefully that I saw that the far wall and gate were jammed up against the boundary hedge.  The gate went nowhere, for you could scarcely have squeezed through it, but with the other two gates it created the idea of a lateral  axis going off somewhere.

Gardens are very much about the division of space.  Even a cottage garden in the romantic planting style, if it is larger than pocket handkerchief size, needs to have a coherent layout, and not just be a charming collection of plants and objects plonked down somehow.  That is the biggest single area where otherwise keen and competent gardeners fall down.

Chickens are very popular in the countryside nowadays.  Chelsworth can't have as bad a fox problem as we have, to judge from the number of open-topped runs we saw.

If I were to get a flattish pan of succulents to go on the metal table in our Italian garden, it would look good and might not keep blowing off the table like my previous efforts with marguerites and geraniums.

I am very grateful to people who open their gardens.  I can't imagine us ever wanting to open ours.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

they are fairly long, the days of wallflowers and roses

The perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' is still in bloom, and has been continuously since I planted a group of three exactly three months ago.  By now the flowering stems are a good 45cm long, the lower parts bare except for the skinny remains of the old flowers, which I rather think are sterile and won't set seed.  However, on top of each spike is still a goodly number of flowers, with buds at the tip promising still more to come.  A long, mostly bald stem with a tuft of flowers on the end of it doesn't sound very attractive, but there are so many stems that from any distance the group of three plants is covered in a generous haze of blooms, and you don't notice or worry about the stalks.

The individual flowers are small, just a centimetre across, or a shade more.  They have four petals, for wallflowers are Cruciferae, along with cabbages and turnips, and the name derives from the same origin as cross or crucifix, implying a four-part arrangement.  Nowadays botanists have renamed the family Brassicaceae.  The colour is a light aubretia mauve, while the buds are dark purple.  The open flowers have a green eye.  There are some attractive mauve and apricot bicolour Erysimum in commerce, but 'Bowles Mauve' has no hint of yellow in it, beyond the green centre.  The leaves are an agreeable greyish green.  My plants were quite small when they went in, no more than 15cm across, and have grown considerably in the last three months, making bushy mounds.  The RHS in their plant selector say that 'Bowles Mauve' requires neutral or alkaline soil, but these are on acid sand.  Who knows, they may not grow as large or live as long as the RHS says they can, but they would be worth planting even if they only lasted the season, given they make a good show so quickly.

The perennial wallflowers are not generally long lived plants, and not especially cold tolerant.  Although mine have got the good drainage they prefer, I ought to take cuttings later in the summer instead of relying on being able to buy some more next year if needed.  They are great plants for anybody starting a new garden or border, given that you get rapid growth and lots of flowers early on, and if they die in a few years when their neighbours are starting to take up more space then that's fine, and saves you the painful choice of deciding what to remove.

Near them in the replanted long bed, the roses that were supposed to be 'Hot Chocolate' have settled down as the drought eased, and are blooming in their expected shade of burnt amber, so it seems that I have got the right variety, and the earlier dark red flowers with irregular white margins were aberrant, caused by the response of young plants to unusually hot and dry conditions.  They look good near the Erysimum, soft purple and orange-brown setting each other off nicely.  They aren't strictly complementaries, but getting that way.

Friday, 24 June 2011

a curate's egg

My visit to the bees today was almost a textbook example of artificial swarming, except that it wasn't.  Non-beekeepers may want to skip the rest of this section and go straight on to the visit to the art gallery afterwards.  Beekeepers, or people who like thrillers better if they have a great deal of technical detail, may wish to stick with me.

It was a beautiful sunny calm morning, the sort of day that is perfect for doing an inspection.  The lettuce workers weren't working too close.  I opened hive number two, the one with golden bees in it that is always good tempered.  On the second frame in I thought I saw the queen.  But then I couldn't see her again, even after looking very carefully.  I put the frame to one side in the spare box and went through the rest of the hive.  There were eggs, so I knew they weren't planning on swarming immediately, but there were some queen cells.  I didn't find the queen.  The bees began to get lively, as they had been open for a long time, so I decided that my chances of finding the queen were now low and that I'd better destroy the queen cells as the next best method of swarm control.  Finally I took the second frame out of the spare box where I'd put it, and there was the queen, plain as anything.  But by then I'd destroyed the queen cells.  Or possibly not.  I could have missed one or two and they could still swarm.

It so nearly went perfectly, but didn't.  Lessons to be learnt as follows.  I should mark my queens.  I should have concentrated harder when I thought I saw her on the second frame, then I would not have been in any doubt that I did see her.  I should have trusted my instincts that I had seen her and not tried to doublecheck.  I should have checked the spare frame periodically while going through the rest of the hive given my initial hunch that it had the queen on it.  Given that I had removed the queen from the colony it isn't surprising that they became so restless after a short while.

Fingers crossed they do not swarm, and I get to keep the two supers of honey that have filled since the weather turned a bit damper, and are not quite ready to take yet.  Fingers crossed I keep all my bees, since they are particularly nice ones.  A slight doubt crosses my mind, suppose they are trying to supercede and not swarming?

That 's enough about bees.  The rest of you can come out from behind the sofa now.  In the afternoon I went to Saffron Walden to visit the the Fry Art Gallery.  This is a lovely little Victorian purpose built gallery founded by a philanthropic local businessman, which houses a significant collection of works by artists associated with Essex, including Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden.  I'd been meaning to go for a couple of years, ever since I discovered it existed, and the planned visit gained a sense of urgency when I saw in the papers that they had got the loan of 18 Ravilious watercolours until 14 August.  I persuaded a friend from work to come along, and planned a scenic route that took in her house and avoided the A120 and the A12.

The gallery is really worth seeing.  It isn't very big, and each year they mount an exhibition for the entire season, which runs from Easter Sunday until the last Sunday in October, and use the smaller of their two main rooms for a series of temporary exhibitions, which is where the 18 watercolours fitted in.  The bits of the permanent collection we saw today were excellent, absolutely first class, assuming you are a fan of mid twentieth century graphic art, which I am.  I was particularly taken by some bold Edward Bawden linocuts, and a set of Ravilious coloured lithographs of submarines.  There are also some examples of woodcuts shown with the wooden printing blocks, and a cabinet of Ravilious designed china.  Some of the watercolours, both the temporary loans and from the collection, are exquisite.  The Fry Gallery is a registered charity, staffed by volunteers who style themselves invigilators, and it conveys a delightful air of enthusiastic tranquility.  I recommend it highly as an experience.

The Essex-Suffolk borders were looking very pretty as we trundled to Saffron Walden and back, and we saw a few extra bits as I got mildy lost.  It was a pity that a mystery light on the car dashboard lit up part way back.  On getting home I discovered that it meant an electrical fault, and that my brake lights were stuck on.  The Systems Administrator has had to remove the fuse for the night.  Heigh ho.  The pictures were fantastic, even if the rest of the day didn't go so well.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

investment gripes among the currants

After looking at the weather forecast this morning I decided to leave the bees until tomorrow, as heavy rain was forecast by lunchtime and thunderstorms by tea.  Instead I picked more blackcurrants and raspberries (what with the bees trying to swarm and the soft fruit ripening it's probably just as well that thanks to the cat we're here and not in the Cotswolds).  At half past ten heavy rain suddenly fell on me for five minutes, then it was dry again for the rest of the morning.  The Systems Administrator, who had gone to the supermarket to buy lunch and cat litter, reported that at the far end of the lane it was raining so hard that a sheet of water was pouring off the potato field across the road, while back at the farmyard there was no rain at all.  Our fruit cage must have been just on the edge of it.

I pick the blackcurrants from the comfort of a three legged collapsible stool bought in the local fishing shop, which saves me having to stoop.  It is an excellent system, and I recommend it to anyone else who suffers from a dodgy lower back (so that's most of the UK population over 45 who have ever commuted or worked in an office).  The suggestion came from a junior hospital doctor, whose speciality was not actually orthopaedics, as she tried to work out whether the pains in the part of my body that were her speciality were anything to do with her, or simply referred back pain.  I do like it when doctors treat the whole person, and I hope she goes far in her profession.

As I picked I listened to Radio 4, and Nick Clegg's proposal that the privatised banks should be given to the British people, as their money had been used to save the banks.  There is another group of people whose money was used to keep the British banks on a life support machine and who had absolutely no say in what happened, and that was the small shareholders.  I know that, because I am one.  I ended my wild City days as a UK equities pension fund manager (how wild can you get) working for a subsidiary of Lloyds Bank, and I committed the incredibly rash act of buying shares in the bank for which I worked under the staff sharesave scheme.  When I left I kept the shares, believing Lloyds to be a soundly managed bank of impeccable dullness.  Given I got that one so wrong it is probably just as well that I am now employed as a horticulturalist and not an investment manager.

Fortunately I was not there for very long, so I couldn't buy very many shares.  Possibly you think it served me right to lose some of my evil gains from the iniquitious sink that is the investment market.  This is what I tell myself, as well as reminding myself that at least I got some tax relief when I bought them.  But as evil City schemers went we were very much at the innocent end of the scale.  We invested in shares in UK companies.  We tried to identify decent companies that were undervalued.  We even met the managements and tried to understand their strategies, which is more than index funds do.  We weren't always very good at it, and we were probably overpaid for what we did, though compared to investment bankers we were paupers.  But if you don't feel for me, have sympathy for people like the father of a friend of a friend, who worked for Lloyds retail banking operations all his life, and took part in the employee sharesave.  He's dead now, but the nest egg he thought he was leaving to his wife is almost worthless.

When Lloyds were given special dispensation by Gordon Brown and the banking regulators to acquire HBOS, and with it a larger slice of the UK banking market than would normally be permitted under UK competition rules, the authorities decided not to tell the Lloyds investors who were required to vote to allow this to happen that HBOS was already pretty much bust and in receipt of secret government funding.  If Lloyds shareholders had known that maybe they would have voted differently.  There is now a shareholders' group taking legal action for compensation.  I haven't paid to join.  It felt like throwing good money after bad, and after watching the long slow quest of Equitable Life policyholders for compensation I don't expect the Treasury to be handing out a big lump of cash any time soon.  The bigger fools us shareholders for trusting management who when it came to it behaved like greedy idiots.  We were materially misled, though.  Or, in plain language, they lied to us and took our money.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

first catch your hare

We took the cat to the vet for his post-operative check-up.  She probed and prodded around his leg, and seemed satisfied with his progress.  He has lost a bit of weight but not enough to worry about, so long as he gains it back.  She gave us another three days' worth of painkillers, and told us to ring her on Friday to discuss if he seemed OK or if he needed more drugs.  It is difficult to tell whether a cat is in pain, as they are pretty stoical animals, but there are times when he sits with his leg stuck out even further than usual and looks anxious, when I think it does hurt quite a lot.  The bad news is that given his age his expected recovery time is eight to twelve weeks before he can be safely let outside, which is another two or three months of having to let the other cats in and out of the house as and when they want to enter or leave.  So far he hasn't shown any signs of wanting to go out, except for his one panic attack, and I think he knows he wouldn't be safe by himself.  Curled up in his usual spot in the meadow he could easily be fox food.

I paid an inconclusive visit to the bees.  It wasn't ideal weather for a bee inspection, being humid and windy, which make them irritable, with bad light, which makes it hard for me to see what's going on.  However, yesterday had been even worse, it was now eight days since the last inspection, and I was sure they were trying to swarm.  I knew what I had to do to prevent them from swarming, which was to find the queen and put her in a new beehive on the site of the old beehive, moving the old beehive to a fresh site in the apiary.  The flying bees would then return to the site of the old hive, find the queen there but with no brood and plenty of space, and be satisfied that they had already swarmed (even if they couldn't remember a thing about it).  Meanwhile in the old beehive the house bees would look after the brood, bees that hatched after the hive was moved would naturally return to the new site, and a new queen would emerge from the queen cells to lead the colony.  I would still have all of my bees, albeit now divided into two colonies, and my honey.

That is the theory.  The catch lies in the phrase 'find the queen'.  I did not find the queen, so getting my comeuppance for having unmarked queens.  I went through the hive three times, while the bees got more and more agitated.  Farm workers appeared midway through to re-lay the irrigation pipes in the next door lettuce field, which has just been ploughed and replanted with a fresh crop.  The only thing to do was destroy all the queen cells and close the hive down, then try again another day, preferably when the weather was better and there weren't people working in the field next to me.

That's what I attempted to do.  The catch this time lies in the phrase 'destroy all the queen cells'.  I destroyed as many as I could find, but it's difficult to be sure you have spotted all of them.  They are the size of a smallish person's little finger, and can easily be hidden under the bees.  In theory you can shake the combs to get all the bees off, or at least most of them, but I though the bees were getting agitated enough as it was, without shaking them.  I closed the hive up and went back to the house, with several bees following me for quite a few minutes.  I don't normally get followers as they are generally nice bees, but I had razzed them up a lot.

I didn't like to open the other hive while there was an atmosphere of panic in the apiary and people too close by, but they didn't look as close to swarming anyway at the last inspection.  With any luck it will be quieter weather tomorrow, when this system has blown through, and maybe the farm workers will have finished doing whatever they have to do next door.  It would be helpful to know when they are planning to work on that field, then I could organise inspections around them, but it would be unwise to ask, as they would never remember to tell me and I would just have implanted the idea that the bees could be dangerous.

We had lunch, and then the rain showers arrived.  It's 14.25pm, and I don't feel as though I have achieved anything yet today.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

the longest day

Today is the summer solstice.  It normally falls on June 21st, though in 1975 it fell on 22nd June and next year it will be on 20th June.  I was rather puzzled that my diary (W.H.Smith smallest and most basic pocket diary) said that midsummer day would be this Friday, June 24th.  A quick whizz round the internet (where would we be without it) yielded the answer that midsummer day and the summer solstice, though often confused, don't have to fall on the same day and generally don't nowadays.  The solstice is an astronomical phenomenon, being the point at which the sun is furthest from the celestial equator.  This is according to the website of the National Maritime Museum, who ought to know, given they are host to the Royal Observatory and gave got John Harrison's chronometer.  For myself, my eyes used to glaze over with boredom as a child when people tried to explain the relative movements of the sun, moon and planets using oranges and a ping-pong ball, and I haven't improved since so will not attempt to elaborate further.

Midsummer Day is a cultural construct.  In northern Europe it falls on the feast of St John the Baptist which is 24th June, though the traditions of bonfires and fairies roaming abroad are pre-Christian.  It is also one of the four legal quarter days of the year, along with Lady Day (25th March), Michaelmas (29th September) and Christmas Day (you know this one), when accounts were settled, rents paid and servants hired.

Nowadays there seems to be a fair amount of interchangeability between the two terms and I am not alone in my confusion e.g. the londonist website giving a preview of an early morning bike ride that took place today treated the summer solstice as synonymous with midsummer day.  It doesn't really matter, not like less and fewer or disinterested and uninterested.  I won't be writing to The Daily Telegraph.  As a gardener, however, I note the turning point.  Some plants need short days to flower, or rather, long nights, because if you give them a long period of darkness but turn the lights on briefly part way through this disrupts their behaviour.  The favourite examples at horticultural college were chrysanthemums and poinsettia, both of which need long nights to stimulate flower production.  Onions are day length sensitive, long day bulbs needing 14 to 16 hours of light to initiate bulb formation, while short day bulbs do it at 10 to 12 hours.  I note this as an interesting scientific phenomenon, having never bothered growing onions myself when they are so cheap in the shops.

I don't find the shortening days depressing.  The long days are beautiful, but the evenings are often warmer later in the summer, and I like sitting out on the veranda after dark listening to Glenn Miller drifting out through the open doors.  I like autumn colour, and the first log fire, and making crab apple and rosehip jelly.  I like asters and chrysanthemums and all the flowers of autumn.

Just at the moment things are not happening in their proper season, and that is down to the weather and nothing to do with day length.  I normally pick the blackcurrants around the 7th to 9th July (I know because I write the date on the bags when I freeze them) but this year I started picking today.  It's not a bumper crop, after the dry spring, but the flavour is good.

Monday, 20 June 2011

the thorn beneath the rose

When I came downstairs this morning I discovered that one of the cats had been sick in the hall, and that the chicken's water was running out.  I cleared up the hall floor and refilled the galvanised drinker, but it was a bit of a scramble getting off to work, what with making my packed lunch, filling up the bird table and collecting the eggs (one egg, very small.  The mad old bat ancient lady chicken has decided that anything more than a pullet sized egg is too much for her nowadays, which is fair enough).

It was an absolutely beautiful morning, still and sunny.  The compost in most pots was still damp from the rain, but I ran the overhead irrigation in the shade tunnel for a few minutes, as the hydrangeas and rhododendrons are so leafy and dry out quickly.  The sun caught the fine spray of water and made the tunnel look like a scene from a tropical forest, and I thought how much more pleasant it was to be standing in a Victorian walled garden looking at a sunlit mist of water and listening to birdsong on a Monday morning than to be sitting in an office looking at a screen and worrying about the latest unfolding of the Greek debt tragedy.

The dog has been fitted with a little tinkly bell on her collar, in the latest battle against her urge to explore and abscond.  As the gardener and I were eating our lunch in the staffroom we heard a tiny metallic sound.  I opened the door and in came the dog, who knows that there is food in the tennis hut, besides being a sociable creature.  I called the boss on the radio to say that we had got the dog, and presently the woman who works in the office came to collect her.  (Staffroom makes it sound rather grand.  We call it the tennis hut because it was used to store tennis gear in the days when there was a tennis court on what is now the car park, but it was originally built as a cart shed.  You can tell this from the wide lintel over the bricked-up former door, before it was fitted with a bijou Edwardian porch.  That and the fact that the brick floor appears to have been laid directly on to the earth).

I was allowed to redo a couple of display tables, and enjoyed a mini-Oudolf moment with Stipa gigantea, Perovskia and Agapanthus, shading off into white hydrangeas and hostas.  I removed some ginger-brown Heuchera that were arguing with some pink flowers I think they were intended to complement, and put them around some terracotta balls with star shaped holes pierced in them, where they looked much more harmonious.  Somebody actually bought one, though as she bought several other Heuchera as well this may have down to prior intention, and not my finely honed merchandising abilities.

After lunch I volunteered to stake and tie in the climbing roses, as I knew that this was on the manager's list of things to do.  He seemed incredulous, and pathetically grateful, that anybody had actually offered to do this job without having to be cajoled into it.  Staking roses isn't so bad.  We use 3 foot canes (garden canes are still not metric.  Don't know why) and any whippy bits of growth that are long enough to be tied to the cane are attached with green tape using a tie-gun.  I don't begin to understand how a tie-gun works, and they are temperamental bits of kit that don't always work anyway.  You squeeze a handle, and two arms come together and jaws on one arm grab the end of the green tape that is fed down the other arm from a spool.  You release the handle and the jaws open, pulling out a length of tape.  You press the tape against whatever you are trying to tie up, in this case one or more rose stems to a cane.  You squeeze the handle again and the jaws close, staple the tape into a loop around the stems, and cut it.  Periodically you run out of tape, or you run out of staples, or the tape jams, or breaks, or piles up in multiple folds in the stapler and fails to cut through.  A customer who was once watching me coaxing a tie-gun into working said that he would have thrown it across the room several minutes previously, and that I must have the patience of a saint.  I don't, though there are times when it would be useful.

I suppose my colleagues don't like tying in the roses because of the tie-gun, and because the roses are prickly, but I only got slightly scratched.  One branch pricked me on the face, a tiny scratch that at home I would have ignored, but it bled for ages and I didn't think I could go on working in the plant centre with smears of blood on my cheek, so had to go and staunch the flow in private with a paper towel until it suddenly stopped.  Another rose caught me in the thumb as I was setting the pot down, quite deep.  That hurt for a minute and I went and found a plaster for it, before I could get compost in the cut.  But as ways of amassing brownie points go, tying in roses isn't too bad, and it probably made up for the fact that I had completely failed to grasp what I was supposed to be doing with the new guide to the gardens, which I should have finished ages ago.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

starting to wind down for summer

The first customers to arrive this morning managed to park at ninety degrees to the way they are supposed to leave their car.  Why, with three staff cars already parked to give them a clue which way around to park, they chose to do so at right angle to all the other cars, is a mystery.  Fortunately they didn't stay very long.  She was wearing white trousers which are not what I would choose myself for a serious morning of compost-based retail therapy, and I think they were buying a present while on the way to somewhere else.

My Sunday colleagues had been engaging in a rich mix of cultural activites since the last time we all saw each other.  One had been on a garden society holiday touring north Yorkshire, and had a lovely time but was not as bowled over as I was by Scampston when I visited it last year.  The other had been to see a Brazilian beat mixer at the Roundhouse.

Activity in the plant centre is definitely winding down for the summer.  Sales are ticking along, but not at the level they were, and we are starting to gently destock herbaceous plants.  The season for alpines and herbs is coming to a close, and we are very low on ferns for some reason.  It will all kick back into action in the autumn, when we start restocking with trees and build up supplies of shrubs again.

The boss spent the morning at a beekeeping training day, which he was given as a present.  He said the morning theory session was fascinating, but he couldn't stay for the full afternoon practical as he had to hurry back to help with the garden tour and tea we were laying on for the village pensioner's group.  He seems to have had a lucky escape from the hands-on beekeeping part.  Participants were given veils, but not gloves, so he kept his hands firmly in his pockets, but somebody else who exposed his hands got them badly stung, ended up with bees inside his hood and was stung on the face.  That is not supposed to happen.  It was a rotten day to be opening a beehive anyway, humid and with rumbles of thunder, but that's the trouble with courses arranged in advance.  You can't pick your weather.  The pensioners seem to have had a whale of a time.  My older colleague joined them for tea, being a pensioner herself and resident in the village.  She brought us back some sandwiches (cut on the diagonal, no crusts) and cake (saved for my lunchbox tomorrow) so a good time was had by all.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

cardunculus cooks

The peahen at work has hatched out two chicks.  They were all in a huddle outside the shop this morning, and I think they may have hatched in the night.  One is brown and the other duckling yellow, and they are rather sweet.  The owners rounded them up after lunch and put them in a pen to keep them safe from the fox (come to that, I wouldn't trust the dog with them myself).

As it was raining yesterday afternoon I spent part of the time making some biscuits to take into work.  My efforts were slightly wasted in that my male co-worker who normally does Saturdays and has an enthusiastic attitude to homemade cake had got the day off.  I have observed the lunch bag of my female Saturday co-worker to contain Weight Watchers packets, and I don't think she eats real biscuits.  One of the co-owners of the business was covering for the holiday absence, and had a biscuit and said that it was very good.  The ones I ate tasted fine to me.

It was a pleasant day, but not a lot happened to write about, apart from some sharp downpours and the peachicks, so here is the biscuit recipe.  It is from my mother's edition of The Good Housekeeper's Cookery Book, and I have used it since I was about twelve.

Rub four and a half ounces (I have no idea why the odd half) of butter into twelve ounces of self-raising flour.  Stir in six ounces of caster sugar.  Mix to a softish dough with milk (the difference between too crumbly and too wet seems to be about a teaspoon of liquid).  Roll out on a floured board.  Cut into circles (about 3 inches diameter).  Put a dab of jam in the middle of each circle.  Pull up the edges into little pasty shaped parcels.  Cook on a greased tray at 400 degrees fahrenheit.  This equates to 200 C or gas mark 6.  I don't use fahrenheit myself, or indeed gas marks, as we don't have gas.  In fact as we have an Aga I don't get more precise than hot, not very hot, or below boiling.  I don't think these biscuits are that fussy.  They took around half an hour at fairly hot, and I checked on them a few times while they were in the oven, just in case.

They splodge out during cooking.  As originally given the recipe uses raspberry jam, which is very nice, but I didn't have any.  I have used blackcurrant jelly in the past which is good but not as good as the raspberry, not quite chiming with the biscuit flavour.  Today I used rosehip jelly, because I had a couple of jars left from 2008 which looked perfectly fine, but you can't really give people three year old jam as a present.  The rosehip jelly worked very well, and I suspect that apricot would be good.  You could probably substitute a little ground almond for some of the flour, if you had any sculling around that wanted using up.

The instinctive approach to cooking doesn't always work.  I tried to make some egg custard the other day, to eat for breakfast with stewed blackcurrants (of which we had developed a mountain in the freezer going back to 2008, but I don't believe frozen fruit can go off).  The custard didn't set, so I added another egg, but it remained extremely runny.  I redesignated it egg soup, and it tasted very nice with the blackcurrants (they are terribly fierce by themselves and need yoghurt or something with them.  I thought of the custard because we had rather a lot of eggs).  But it looked silly.  I couldn't feed egg soup to guests.

Friday, 17 June 2011

rainy day on the lettuce farm

The Systems Administrator has received another appeal from our alma mater to join the college network, which promotes career networking between old members and keen young graduates.  They didn't bother to write to me.  It must have reached their database that I've dropped out.  Pity, as I should like the chance to network with Robin Lane Fox.  He could put in a word for me to inherit his gardening column in the Weekend FT when he retires.

The rain had started in earnest by lunchtime.  The Met Office forecast said it would, and the rain radar backed them up.  We watched it pass Chelmsford, and continue eastwards.  In the field next to us they are still picking lettuces in the rain.  A tractor crawls at very slow speed across the field, towing a trailer on the back of which are big plastic trays.  The pickers follow behind, harvesting lettuce and filling the trays.  Full trays go up into the covered part of the trailer and down come fresh trays.  The pickers wear their choice of waterproof clothing and stay outside.  They play loud pop music off the back of the trailer as they go, which used to be an eastern European station but today sounds English.  At one point the tractor sputtered into silence, and I could hear laughter and ebulliant cries in Lithuanian through the hedge.  The music, and indeed the tractor, would be pretty annoying if they were there all the time, but they don't stay by our garden for long.  If I were disposed to be grumpy about it I should consider how I would like to be picking lettuces all day in the rain.

The gravel garden is looking cheerful in a dishevelled way.  The bulbs have finished, but their place has been taken by field poppies.  These started off as pastel selections, and are steadily reverting back to the red ones, a very clean, deep shade which is completely beautiful.  There are a few pinks and lilacs left, one of which happily placed itself immediately next to the Phlomis italica.  This is a lamb-soft, grey leafed dwarf shrub with soft pink flowers.  It was badly hit by the winter and half of it killed, but the missing half has regrown from ground level.  I ought to look up how to propagate it and make some more, as it is doing well, and besides being charming in itself is a good foil for louder plants.

Various lavenders are coming out, but I don't know the names of most of them.  I'm not good at identifying or remembering different sorts of lavender.  I don't know why, but I read catalogues and plant labels and books, and the information wanders into my head and drifts straight out again.  I think it is because lavenders are short-lived and I allow them to seed themselves.  I am not even sure whether I actually planted my two fattest plants, or if they are seedlings.  The lavenders make a nice underplanting for the Genista aetnensis, or Mount Etna broom, which is just opening.  This will eventually make a big, airy shrub, practically a small tree.  Beth Chatto uses them trained up as trees on only a couple of main stems, but mine desperately wants to be shrubby.  I cut out as many branches as I dared last year after flowering, to try to start lifting the canopy and concentrate the plant's energies into fewer stems, but it seems as bushy as ever.  The twigs are very slender, a pleasant shade of middling olive green, utterly devoid of leaves, and the whole plant is light and airy.  The flowers are bright yellow, but so small and dainty that the overall effect is not brash.  They are typical of the pea family, with an upper petal, which on Genista aetnensis is the size of a little finger nail, held upright above a delicate keel and two slim petals hanging downwards.  The twig I have picked smells fragrant when held to my nose, a sharp smell that reminds me of spring, more daffodils and violets than roses and honeysuckle.

I don't think the broom really goes with the pink flowered Dierama by the pond, but never mind.  I like Dierama, and don't have the space to do rigorously colour-themed areas.  The shortest one has flowers of a salmon hue, and I think is D. igneum.  The others are D. pulcherrimum and D. dracomontanum, but only one is flowering at the moment, I think D. dracomontanum which is the smaller of the two.  The flowers are a purplish pink.  Dierama germinate fairly readily from seed and you will find a good choice in the seed catalogues, or you can keep an eye out for seedlings, if you share my insouciance about precisely which species you are growing.

For years there were blue Nigella damascena, or love-in-the-mist, but there are very few this year.  Maybe I managed to weed the gravel at the wrong time, but I presume the hard winter hit them.  I'll get a packet of seed next spring to top the numbers up.  Garden magazines keep giving me packets of mixed colours, but I want the pure blue, so never even open the mixed ones.

The cat is sleeping quietly in one of the armchairs.  Fortunately he seems inclined to rest most of the time, but can now put some weight on his bad leg when he does walk around the room.  He has been very good, except for one odd episode a couple of evenings ago when he suddenly went mad, and tried to climb out of the window.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

some amazing plant recoveries (and one not)

Looking out of the bathroom window this morning I saw a robin and a great tit already standing on the empty bird table, so refilled it as soon as I'd had my shower and got dressed.  Despite the rain of recent days (11mm in the past 24 hours) there must still be a shortage of natural food, as I don't normally need to feed the birds in June.

The view of the bird table from my desk is partially obscured by one of the potted camellias which stand in a row outside the study window.  Next time I'm out there I must budge the pots along to give me a clear line of sight.  I've been feeding the camellias in containers with a dilute liquid ericaceous feed, about one in every three times I water them (slightly dictated by when I can be bothered to carry the watering can around to the back of the house instead of using the hose) and they have been opening new leaves for a while now, and starting to look more respectable.  They were very dishevelled and sad at the end of winter, with sparse discoloured leaves and some dead twigs.  I realised quite how bad they had got when I compared them to the camellias growing in the ground, which apart from a couple of branches broken down by the weight of the snow were looking green and lush, and much more densely clothed with leaves.  Among the container grown plants the smaller and younger specimens suffered more, and I lost one, 'J.C. Williams', a good early pale pink which was one of the first williamsii hybrids and named after one of the Williams family of Caerhayes in Cornwall.

The plants in the ground have not always been so happy.  C. x williamsii 'Jury's Yellow' went into the bank between the house and the wood in April 2003.  It was a well-grown young specimen just ready to plant out, root system nicely filling its pot without being pot-bound.  The soil on the slope where it's planted is not great, being strange structureless stuff dumped there by builders in the 1970s, and the slope made it difficult to water the camellia, though I did try.  Twigs kept dying back and I kept trimming them off and hoping, until the bush was reduced to no more than half of its original size.  Then, at last, it established itself and began to grow.  It is now a shining, healthy plant fully 1.5m wide and tall.  I hope that the smallest of the remaining potted camellias is going to pull off the same trick.  'Donation' gave up on half of its top growth last winter, but in the past couple of weeks has started opening new leaves, and I think the corner has been turned.  It is hard on them standing outside all winter, and I should bring them in, or at least the smaller ones.  The trouble is that there is nowhere to put them.  Over-cramming the conservatory with pots just leads to everything being neglected, as I can't see what I'm doing with the watering.  (To a gardener in the south west of England the pace of growth of my Essex camellias must seem painfully slow.  It is.  That's what happens if you grow camellias on sand in an area with just over 500mm average annual rainfall.  But they are perfectly healthy.  Camellias are much more satisfactory than rhododendrons for dry sites).

The olive in the front garden is shooting from the main trunk, and some of the branches.  I thought it was still alive.  They do say you should wait until June before writing plants off.  A third harsh winter will be too much for it, I fear, but that might well not happen.  I'll give it a while longer, to see more clearly which of the branches still have life in them, and then trim out the dead wood.

The plum 'Marjories' Seedling', that I had doubts about at the time of planting, never came to anything good.  It was watered, and threw a weak shoot from very low down, just above the graft.  I could complain to the grower, but then I would be embroiled in an argument about whether or not I had watered it enough, given the weather we've had.  I think I'll try again in the autumn with another supplier, and quietly not use the first lot again or recommend them to people.  It is the second time I have had a failure with one of their plums.  Odd, because their cherries have been fine.  Maybe plums are difficult.  Two is not a statistically valid sample, but I'm sure that 'Marjorie's Seedling' wasn't right when they sent it to me.  Pity, because the grower has a long and interesting list, but life is too short to spend it on arguments with mail order suppliers of bare-rooted fruit.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

an unfortunate accident

It would be a turn up for the books if cardunculus turned out to be a young, single political activist from a tough background living in Damascus, and not half of a pair of white, middle-aged, middle-class, graduate, ex-City downshifters, living in peaceful obscurity in southeast England.  Blogspot will let you have multiple blogs, maybe I should try out some new personas.  Still, they say stick to what you know.

We have an invalid cat.  This has been distressing for all concerned, but could have been much worse.  Early last week our black cat started hobbling on his left hind leg.  There was no obvious wound or bite, so we thought we'd better leave it a day or two and see how things developed.  The last time the grey tabby developed a limp, having a history of septic bites in her feet and a dodgy immune system, we rushed her to the vet immediately.  Once released from the cat basket she stomped about the consulting room without limping at all.  The vet consoled us that this happened often, as animals in a strange place would make an effort not to appear weak and vulnerable, and gave us a prescription for antibiotics to present to the reception desk if she developed a septic bite later.  She didn't.  It must have been a sprain.

By Thursday the limp was worse, not better, and the cat was sitting with his lower leg stuck out at an odd angle.  He was quite happy to be picked up, and we still couldn't find any external wound or injury, but we thought he'd better see a vet before the weekend, and booked him in for Friday morning.  We have used the same practice for nearly twenty years.  They are very good, and the vet we saw has known the black cat since he was a tiddler, having microchipped him when he was a kitten.  She listened to our account of what seemed to be wrong with the cat, and a look of concern came over her face when we mentioned the leg sticking out at an odd angle.  It appeared that the most likely cause of his problems was damage to his cruciate ligament.  She took him away to be examined with the help of a veterinary nurse, and reappeared a while later without him.  We were not going to be sent away with antibiotics this time.  Instead she wanted to sedate and x-ray the cat, and given his age (12) apologetically suggested that really blood tests would be a good idea.

We went back just before five to collect the cat, and saw a different vet, who showed us the x-rays.  They had been a shock to the vets and were a shock to us.  The lesser shock was that he had snapped his cruciate ligament completely away from the bone.  We could see the little detatched bone fragment waving around inside the equivalent of his knee joint, which is the joint half way up a cat's hind leg (I always get confused about how the bones and joints in the legs of quadrupeds equate to those of humans).  The bigger shock was that the x-ray revealed he had about a dozen shotgun pellets in him.  Our immediate thought was that he had been shot, had jumped out of his skin, and snapped his ligament in the panic.  The Systems Administrator had looked up ligament problems in cats when we got home from the vet in the morning, and overweight is a frequent cause, which doesn't apply to the black cat, who is a svelte and healthy outdoor creature.

There are two possible approaches to treating a detached cruciate ligament in a cat, the vet explained.  They could operate, using 50lb nylon fishing line to hold the two halves of the joint together until it healed.  The cat would need to rest for a week or so, to the extent of being confined to a room.  She favoured the operation route herself.  Or the cat could rest completely, what they call 'cage rest', for 6 to 8 weeks.  One of the partners in the practice was more conservative, and favoured cage rest.  They'd rung a vet in Ipswich who specialised in orthopaedics, and he was firmly in the operation camp.  It was important to start doing something soon, before the cat became accustomed to the pain, walked on the damaged leg, and wore the lining of the joint away.  She said that the operation was now routine, with a good expected outcome. and that they carried out around two a week.  However, if we did not want to risk it or could not afford it, the cage rest cure worked eventually.  She gave us the cat and some strong painkillers, and told us to go home for the weekend and decide.

We already had decided, after our initial consultation and internet researches.  Putting a twelve year old cat under general anaesthetic isn't ideal, but the thought of keeping him shut in a cage for two months over the summer, while he fretted and pined and the other cats came and jeered at him, was too unpleasant to be seriously contemplated.  We booked him in for surgery on Monday morning.

He survived the operation, was kept at the vets overnight for the administration of strong painkillers, and we collected him yesterday morning.  He was terribly, terribly pleased to see us, and purred hugely in the consulting room while the nurse talked us through his aftercare.  He hadn't eaten anything, but she thought that was because he was upset, as he hadn't been at all responsive when the nurses tried to make a fuss of him.  The shotgun injuries turned out to be nothing to do with the damaged leg, as we'd begun to suspect, given he'd not shown any signs of soreness in recent days.  He could have been carrying the pellets for years, and they would never have been discovered if he hadn't been x-rayed for something else.  We will never know how or when he was shot, though I need to compose a carefully worded and polite letter to the local farmers reminding them that their land does abut residential properties, and that we have pets and they need to be careful when rabbiting.

The cat was almost hysterically pleased to get home, and hopped around on three legs purring, though he still wouldn't eat anything.  Then he became very tired, and since then has been mostly lying down, installed in the study with a litter tray and his own food.  He has a poodle shave on his leg up to hip level, which is not a good look for cats, and a 10cm operation scar up the outside of his thigh.  We take it in turns to sit with him sometimes, and he still purrs when we talk to him. ( When you have downshifted you end up painting your own house instead of calling in a decorator, but you do have time to spend with your pets when they're ill).  He is now eating, and is not trying to chew his stiches out, and it is going better than we might have expected.

It is not very convenient, though.  When he is not lying down he has a surprising turn of speed, and we've been keeping the inner hall and veranda doors shut so that he can't escape into the garden.  This impedes the free flow of the other cats, who have to be let in and out, are missing out on lap time, and are spooked by the whole thing, especially the black cat's sister, who is so suspicious of any change to routine that she knows if I am even thinking about taking her to the vet.  It also impedes the free flow of air, since normally we have the doors propped open in the summer.  We had planned to go to look at some Cotswolds gardens next week, and a friend had kindly agreed to look after the place while we were away, but we can't leave the cat with her.  She has looked after them before, but this one only likes people he knows (basically us) and can't be trusted not to disappear for the duration (not sensible a week after the op) or humanely be left locked in a room without friendly (in his view) company. And he has to go for a follow-up appointment next week.   By coincidence our friend has had another request to mind somebody else's pets for the same three nights, so at least she'll be able to accept that offer, and we hadn't booked anywhere to stay, thinking we'd get a late deal, but it would have been nice to go to the Cotswolds in the rose season.  The Systems Administrator even turned down an invitation to a cricket match because we were going to be away.

As for the cost, a colleague was lamenting the expense as well as the pain of needing to have root canal surgery, and all I can say is that having a cruciate ligament repaired in a geriatric cat is getting beyond root canals and into bottom-end implant territory, and we don't have pet medical insurance.  But we still have the cat.  He must have used up at least two of his nine lives, though.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

my name is cardunulus and I shop in supermarkets

Tesco's financial results (UK like-for-like sales excluding petrol down slightly for the second quarter in a row) have provoked the predicatable comments on the internet expressing satisfaction that the Great Satan is suffering, and vilifying Tesco and supermarkets in general for damaging Independent Shops and destroying the High Street.  Professing to hate and distrust Tesco is a popular sport (funny how one in eight retail pounds is spent there).  It isn't a line I go with myself.  I'm middle-aged enought to remember what shopping was like in the late 60s and 70s, and it wasn't very good.  Or at least, there may have been a golden age of grocery shopping then in Soho, but there wasn't in provincial east Devon.

Groceries came from Knotts.  The Knott family had a handsome shop with a brown varnished counter and shelves rising up behind.  Mr Knott stood behind the counter wearing a sort of brown labcoat.  My mother told Mr Knott what she wanted, and he put items one by one into a cardboard box.  Sometimes the box was even delivered in a maroon van with Knotts written on the side in gold curly lettering.  I'm not sure if cash changed hands over the counter, or if there was an account and Mr Knott kept a record of all that we had and sent the bill later.  Shopping took ages, and cost a far higher percentage of the family income than a pair of academics would expect to spend on their groceries nowadays.  (I last visited the village about eleven years ago, and Knotts had turned into a reproduction furniture showroom).

I particularly remember the parmesan, which we bought to go on pasta and considered the height of sophistication.  It came ready-grated, in a carton about the same size as a a baking powder tin or a jar of ready-made mint sauce.  We sprinkled a tiny amount on our food, about as much as a dusting of dandruff on the shoulders, which contributed absolutely nothing to the taste.  Whole blocks of parmesan that you can grate or flake yourself?  Forget it.  They sell those in Tesco, you know.

There was a bread shop, which did sell quite decent bread.  A loaf cooked in a tin and cut down the middle before cooking was called a 'split riser', a term I have found used nowhere else in the country, and which does not appear in Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery, but which was certainly current in east Devon circa 1970.  I will concede that the bread was good, though you had to queue for a while to get it, and if you got there too late they would have run out.  Oh, and if you were thinking of ciabatta, or a French stick that tastes at least vaguely like the ones they sell in France, or sour dough bread, not a hope.  They didn't do those in my young days.  Tesco do, though.

There was definitely no golden age of locally sourced vegetables in 1970s east Devon.  The main greengrocers was Purchells, who displayed the veg on green astroturf, very tasteful.  I remember onions and potatoes and big round oranges and all the traditional fruit and veg that people must have been glad to see again after the war.  I remember learning to cook from the Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery Book, or possibly an early Elizabeth David, and wondering what exactly a shallot was, and where you got one from.  A grocers in Soho, perhaps, but not Purchells.  In Tesco you would be fine now.  They have two different sorts of shallots, and red onions.  I don't think most of Purchell's vegetables were especially local, I think they came from the local wholesaler.  There were a couple of strange, faded shops further down the High Street, that did sell a few tired and wizened locally grown lettuces and tomatoes, but they looked pretty unappetising.

There was a butcher (more queueing) and a fishmonger (ditto).  I don't remember the meat of my youth being unbelievably flavoursome compared to the controlled atmosphere packaged, tasteless offerings that are all you can get in a modern supermarket, if you believe half the comments on the net.  The fishmonger was a good bloke who ran the local young ornithologist's group and was a pillar of the community and prototypical member of the Big Society.  I remember walking a long way in uncomfortable wellington boots to look at a small black dot out on the river mud, and being told 'That is an Avocet' and thinking, is that it?  The butcher was more problematic.  I rather think he, or his successor in business, eventually set fire to  the butcher's shop in an outbreak of Insureandburn, and practically killed the people in the upstairs flat.

A local financial advisor opened a wine shop, which sold refreshments on the premises.  I remember being taken to drink grape juice and eat French cheese, which was cut from an enormous wheel of brie and always tasted strongly of ammonia, because the turnover wasn't high enough to get through all the cheese before it went past its best.  The grownup drank Rombouts coffee made with an individual filter holding the coffee grounds over the cup, which was filled with boiling water and dripped through into the cup while you waited.  I didn't like the cheese or the grape juice particularly, but felt mysteriously chic.  We didn't want a latte, or a cappucino, or an espresso instead, because in the 1970s in east Devon these things hadn't been invented, not even in Exeter and that was a City and not just a village.

Lemon grass, okra, limes, organic natural yogurt, muesli without added sugar and whey powder, fresh basil, dried pasta in any shape other than spaghetti or macaroni, any kind of fresh pasta, any kind of fresh noodles, tahini paste, puy lentils as well as the orange ones that go to mush when you cook them, chapati flour, pitta bread, fresh coriander, chorizo, parma ham, black eyed beans, whole cinammon sticks.  You could not buy these in my village growing up, but you can in Tesco (or Sainsbury, Waitrose etc.  Other supermarkets are available).

And yes, I know that I could visit a town centre and go to a butcher and a baker and a deli and a greengrocer and queue in each of them, and carry it all back to the car, but it would take most of the morning and cost significantly more than going to the supermarket.  Sorry, but it would.  And I know that the foodies tell me that food from small, local producers sold in real, local little shops just tastes so much better, but I defy them to spot the difference between pulses bought in the supermarket and ones I made a twenty mile round trip to the nearest deli to buy.  And I know that plastic wrapping destroys the flavour of cheese, and I should have been to a speciality cheese shop to get my parmesan, but now that we aren't big swinging dicks in the City we do like to get some change from twenty quid when we buy cheese.  And supermarket opening hours are so jolly convenient.  I'm sorry, but they are.  We stayed in a cottage once outside Ludlow, a foodie hotspot, and still ended up buying the ingredients for most of our suppers in the local Tesco and not the lovely independent foodie shops, because we wanted to spend the days looking at gardens and houses and strange rural churches.  Leaving the shopping sitting all day in the car seemed a fast track to rancid milk and food poisoning, even in September, and by the time we got back each evening after a hard day touristing all the foodie shops had shut.

I bet loads of the people who moan about supermarkets shop in them.  If you aren't going to, you either have an awful lot of money or a lot of time on your hands.

Monday, 13 June 2011

spotting healthy plants, and National Collections

A digger arrived in the car park at work, and began to remove the large heap of earth piled up at one edge, which has been there longer than I have.  I think it is topsoil from when the old tennis court was dug out to put down hardcore to make the car park.  We have dumped old potting compost and prunings there since, but it couldn't all be potting compost.  We can't have bought that much compost in the entire history of the business.  I had previously suggested that we should carve it into a piece of land art, maybe a giant recumbent crocodile, but the boss never sounded very keen on that idea.  The earth is being deposited on bits of the farm where it will be useful.  They needed the whole centre of the car park to turn the tractor and farm trailer being used to cart the earth away, so it's fortunate we weren't too busy, and the customers all chose to park around the edge.

I spent part of the day trimming old flower stalks and dead leaves from the iris and day lilies (Hemerocallis), and pulling out any weeds from the pots.  Advice to novice gardeners sometimes includes the warning never to buy any plant with weeds or liverwort in the pot, as it will be old and pot-bound.  This is based on a kernel of good sense, but oversimplified.  Liverwort, hairy bittercress and annual grass can all grow very quickly in the comfortable environs of a pot which is regularly watered.  If you shop anywhere with a reasonably broad range of stock, their stockturn is not going to be so rapid that everything is sold before it has time to grow a few weeds or an odd patch of liverwort.  If every pot is clean that tells you that they employ a lot of staff and that the manager or owner is hot on pot-cleaning.  A pot with a fresh surface of pristine compost may contain a geriatric plant, that has recently had the top weedy layer of compost scraped off and a new sprinkle added.  Or in a good establishment (like ours, most of the time) it may contain a perfectly good plant which has nonetheless been weeded and tidied up fairly recently.

What you need to learn to detect are the old, tired, potbound plants, that will not grow away well when planted out, but that is harder to do and more difficult to explain than saying 'don't buy the ones with liverwort'.  If the leaves are too small and too pale, and if there is no extension growth on woody plants in spring and summer, that's a bad sign.  But then you need to know what colour and size the leaves ought to be, and how to recognise new growth.  If the plant is significantly cheaper than others of a similar type and same sized pot then it may be last year's, or the year before.  And if the label is badly weathered, faded and cracked or broken, that's a sign of age, as are rusty staples holding the label to the pot.  Staples do rust outside, but at a slower pace than liverwort grows.  Helpful garden journalists also tell you to tip the plant out of its pot and inspect the roots, which is a good idea, except that most customers don't come shopping with a pair of gardening gloves, and don't seem to want to risk tipping compost down their clothes, or are afraid of dropping or breaking the plant.  These same garden writers advise that a good garden centre won't mind if you do this.  Actually, if you try it with something freshly potted and get great piles of compost on our gravel paths we probably will mind, only we will be too polite to say so.

Somebody rang to ask whether we had a particular iris in stock that we were listed in the RHS Plant Finder as selling.  We hadn't, but she and I had an interesting conversation while waiting to see if the manager would become free so that I could ask him when we were likely to get any (he didn't, so I never discovered the answer to that one).  It turned out that she was trying to track down enough varieties to qualify as a National Collection holder for this type of iris.  The National Collections scheme is run by Plant Heritage, formerly the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, a name which did not exactly trip off the tongue.  The idea is that keen gardeners amass different species or varieties of whatever plant has grabbed them, thus helping to ensure that the species and varieties are not lost to cultivation as fashions change.  Obviously an idle would-be collection holder would go for something where there aren't many different sorts, like Gunnera, and not hardy Geranium or Hemerocallis where there are umpteen thousand varieties, many of which are distressingly similar.  I don't have any desire to join in myself, lacking the collector's instinct and being quite happy with mongrel seedlings if they are healthy and attractive garden plants, but I can see that it is a worthy exercise.

According to the iris collector, the rules are that (among other things) you must hold at least three-quarters of the varieties listed in the Plant Finder.  She was frustrated that she had rung many named stockists, only to find that they didn't physically have the plants.  I explained to her a little about the seasonal stocking patterns of retail plant centres, and that places like us that didn't do much of our own propagating tended to buy in herbaceous stock in spring and summer, and not hold too much of it over the winter, given that plants like iris need to come inside under cover if they are in plastic pots, and we don't have that much covered space.  Also, growers raise plants in batches, and sometimes don't have a batch ready for sale, maybe not until the next growing season once they have sold what they've got.  The Plant Finder is updated annually, so doesn't reflect seasonal variations in availability, and the garden centre owner has to predict in advance what they will have succeeded in propagating, or sourcing.  Unexpected hitches can then occur, as crops fail, suppliers go bust, or sterling tanks against the euro and they decide to skip the order from that grower in Boskoop.  I did think, and suggested, that maybe the top people in Plant Heritage and the top people in the RHS should discuss the issue, with the aim of trying to discourage plant retailers from continuing to claim to stock plants that they have little realistic chance of getting.  If the plant selling trade artificially inflates the stated number of varieties in commerce this does have the effect of raising the bar for National Collection holders, and inhibiting a conservation effort which I'm sure the RHS supports in principle.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

a very hungry caterpillar and an ingenious bee

Something has eaten all the leaves off some young and newly planted Geranium maculatum, leaving only the stalks sticking up, having previously done the same thing to some white violets.  I found a large green caterpillar on the violets, but haven't been able to detect the culprit on the geraniums.  I feel this is a little hard, given how bird and toad friendly the garden is.  Not a drop of insecticide or single slug pellet has gone on that bed in the dozen or more years since I dug it out, and I've been putting out sunflower seeds and bird cake made out of melted lard and porridge oats, as I was worried that in this drought there would be a shortage of worms and slugs.  The least they can do in return is eat my caterpillars.  I'm sure it doesn't hurt a mature plant in the least to lose a few leaves, but I'm not so sure about the effect of stripping all of them off a baby.

There are some who have elevated organic gardening to the status of a religion, who say that it is impossible to be a bit organic, any more than you can be a bit pregnant (snigger and air of moral superiority).  I don't see it myself.  If I don't spray the roses and leave the birds to do the job of picking off the aphids (which they do very well) that has to be better for wildlife than if I forget that The Silent Spring was ever written and blast everything in sight with insecticide.  I don't see that its good effects are negated if I then use glyphosate on the emerging snouts of creeping thistle, or even spray the biggest weed rosettes in the top lawn with selective herbicide, while leaving the clover for the bees.

A couple of plants have sustained leaf damage that I don't grudge at all.  A lime with orange twigs, that I'm aiming to train up into a lollypop (not having room for a pleached hedge) and a patch of epimedium have both had circular holes taken out of their leaves, which are the work of leafcutter bees.  These are solitary bees, that use the section of leaf to line the nests in each of which they deposit a single egg, plus provisions of nectar and pollen to feed the larva when it hatches.  I have seen pictures of them flying carrying the piece of leaf, which they roll up like a carpet and clasp with their legs beneath their body.  They will nest in all sorts of crevices, including occasionally pots of greenhouse plants.  This seems to me so fascinating that it is certainly worth losing some pieces of leaf.  (The damage done by vine weevils looks quite different, as they make rectangular notches).

Addendum  It is now raining lightly, not enough to do any real good, just enough to make it unpleasant to go on working outside.  It has been spitting throughout the day, sufficient to prevent any progress with one of this year's outdoor projects, which is to paint the outside of the house (or whatever the verb is for applying wood stain to timber cladding.  It isn't strictly paint, but there isn't a verb for to Sadolin).  We waited a very long time for our local building company, who did some work for us before and made a good job of it, to give us a price for the external decoration, and when they finally did have time to come round and quote it was for an amount of money so eye-wateringly large that the Systems Administrator said that at that rate we'd buy some proper scaffolding and do it ourselves.  Sadolin is not water-based and cannot be applied in even light rain.  Proper rain is forecast, so fingers crossed.