Sunday, 31 July 2011

wet feet and only one till

Driving to work this morning I passed quite a collection of motor bikes and their riders in the lane where they congregate early on Sunday mornings.  All were men, wearing full leathers, and while I didn't get a very close view driving by at 30mph I was left with the distinct impression that they were all over 40, if not 50.  The bikes, as far as I could tell as a non-expert who has never ridden one and never intends to, were large and expensive.  I wonder if they all know each other, or if it is free to anyone to turn up and join in, like a ramblers' group.  Presumably there is a grapevine, since there is for every hobby I've ever had, and people involved in the motorbike scene pick up what's going on.

The watering took the three of us fully two hours.  It hadn't been set to run overnight, so we were trying to run rather a lot of different bits of irrigation at the same time this morning, which caused the pressure to drop slightly, with the unfortunate effect that my hose dribbled disastrously over my trousers and shoes at the point where it clips on to the end of the hose.  Or at least, I think it was mainly down to low pressure.  The hose and lance connections are both lined with rubber rings, which are supposed to form a seal and can perish, but they depend on the pressure of the water to force them together.  My trousers, being thin cotton, dried pretty quickly, but I trudged around in damp plimsolls for most of the rest of the day.  I must put them in the laundry room now to dry them out fully before tomorrow.

The bosses had people staying with them, and apart from a brief conversation first thing, we didn't hear a peep out of them for the rest of the day.  The tills from the previous day had not been reconciled, leaving us only one to use.  I've now worked there for slightly over eight years, and nobody has ever shown me how to do the till reconciliation.  Given my previous City incarnation I expect I could get the hang of it.  A colleague who had not been trained by the management either, but had once been shown by a co-worker, said she didn't mind trying to reconcile yesterday's till and risk being told off for doing it wrong, but we didn't really see why she should.  If we'd got desperate for two tills I suppose the answer would have been to tip the entire contents of one of the unreconciled ones into an envelope, or a saucepan, or whatever we could find, and extract a float of known quantity to start us off today.  In fact we weren't that busy, and managed with one.  This was partly down to luck as well as it being another quiet day, in that we didn't have any customers who midway through the transaction managed to cause a hold-up.  Compared to Tesco we seem to get a lot of people who only discover after we have rung up their goods that their purse is in their car, or they have forgotten it and need to find their other half who is somewhere in the plant centre and make them pay, or their card doesn't work, or they need multiple goes at their pin, or they wander off to find just one more thing they meant to buy.

On the way home I came upon a horse and rider stationary on the pavement.  The horse was ignoring its rider's urges to go forward, and after a bit began to go backwards, and then to go round in circles.  I stopped the car and waited for developments.  The horse moved on to the road, and swung around alarmingly.  A car coming the other way stopped as well, and I began to wonder how much damage it would do to a Skoda Fabia being kicked by a large horse.  The rider was a young woman, who looked jolly cross.  Eventually the horse moved into forward gear, and they walked on up the road.  I let them get a considerable lead on me, and the oncoming car let them get well past before either of us moved.  The horse seemed quite placid once it had finished its hissy fit.  I quite like horses, but when I see one misbehaving on the road always remember the warning heard once on R4, that the thing to remember is that a horse is a ton of muscle controlled by a brain the size of a pigeon's.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

flashes of life in the retail trade

The manager has gone on holiday for a fortnight.  It is the first time he has ever taken a whole consecutive two weeks off, and he left behind a folder containing instructions on what we should do in his absence, starting with an introductory page about correct watering techniques, and then with an A4 sheet for each of us listing our jobs for the duration.  Mine include keeping the display tables looking good, as far as possible given the plant material available, with the comment that he knew he did not need to tell me, but that plants on the display tables should be weed free.  I thought that since he didn't need to tell me, and knew it, telling me anyway was mildly irritating.  Later on when I went up to the office to leave a message for the boss I saw that the manager had left a photocopy of the folder contents on the boss's desk, so he is obviously trying to cover his back, in case while he is away we don't bother to water properly and let the place become a tip.

Back-covering is a popular managerial activity, and without it there would be many fewer corporate e-mails sent, but leaving people notes telling them how to do their jobs properly seems to me entirely futile.  In a plant centre, being able to water effectively is what you would term a key competence.  After their first week in the job, let alone several years, everyone should know that it is important to soak the compost, not just splash the foliage, and make sure the plants at the back get done as well as the ones at the front.  If I thought anyone I was supervising wasn't fulfilling one of their most basic tasks I'd speak to them, with eye contact, and some searching questions to find out why not.  Happily I don't have to supervise anyone nowadays.

A couple of largish trolleys went through, which must have boosted the day's takings.  Somebody bought a compost bin shaped like a traditional beehive (i.e. WBC, for the beekeepers among you) for £209.99, and someone else bought a Photinia trained as a standard and a large box ball which together came to three hundred quid.  That's the sort of thing that gets the average spend up.  We do our best, trotting around to find an extra plant that a customer is looking for, or steering them towards larger packets of chemicals, but you need an awful lot of those to add up to three hundred pounds.  The compost bin lady even ordered another one.  Ours at home are made out of recycled softwood from the old decking, and on Gardeners' World last night Monty's were made out of corrugated iron, but if people want £209.99 compost bins we are happy to meet the need.

I never discovered what the day's total was, as I spent the last bit of the afternoon loading a large shrub and three bags of multipurpose compost into my car.  A customer wanted them delivered to the next village, which we don't even charge for as it is so close, and as my colleague explained that because of staff holidays nobody would be available to drive the van before next Wednesday at the earliest, I thought that since I drove home past her door I might as well just drop them off.  She accepted this offer with alacrity, and I realised that my boot was half full of bits of firewood I'd collected last Tuesday and forgotten to take out.  I'll look on that as my random act of kindness for the weekend.

Friday, 29 July 2011


I've been weeding the gravel, and dropping extra shovelfuls and handfuls on to the thin patches.  The large bulk bag, when it arrived, looked an imposing amount to have to shift, and yet after taking just a couple of barrow loads, not even full ones, it seemed to have gone down alarmingly, and I thought that one bag was never going to be enough.  It isn't, but I should get it spread out fairly quickly, and I can always order another one.

Hand weeding in a garden that exploits self-seeding as a deliberate effect requires a practiced eye for what the seedlings of weeds look like, compared to plants.  Or rather, plants that you want to keep.  I am gently amused by the customers who come into work with their mystery specimens and the question 'is it a weed or a plant?'.  Sometimes I can identify the unknown garden occupant, then I can tell them how it is likely to behave, but sometimes I can't.  Weeds are plants too, I then tell them.  Do you like it?  If so then why not keep it?  This is slightly unfair, since many weeds are classed as such because of their terrifying ability to spread themselves around.  For a full discussion of what constitutes a weed, for those who like that sort of thing, I recommend Michael Pollan and Richard Mabey, two thoughtful and considered writers with interesting things to say about humanity's relationship with the rest of the natural world.  But I don't think some of the customers have thought very clearly about what they mean by the question, plant or weed.  It could be that they are concerned about the unknown thing spreading intemperately, or about incurring ridicule for being seen to deliberately cultivate weeds, but I think it is more a desire to fit in with the established categories society has set down.  It is comforting to think that there is a set of rules.  These are things we have in our gardens.  Those are not garden things.  This is how it is done.  Don't risk being an accidental iconoclast.

I have one mystery plant that came up in a border last year.  I didn't recognise the seedlings, so left them to see what they turned into, which turned out to be something I still didn't recognise with small and rather boring purplish flowers.  I really don't know if I tried years back from seed and didn't think much of, or if birds spread it, or if it is a native wildflower or exotic, or what it is.  This year it has (I think) seeded itself into the gravel, and the young seedlings look confusingly similar to those of the teazels, that I want to keep, which is annoying.  A surprising turn is that violets are seeding themselves around in the gravel.  This is a small leafed violet which came in to the garden mixed up in the roots of other plants I was given.  I think it is a UK native, and I associate it with shady hedge bottoms and woodland, so it is rather disconcerting to see it growing happily in gravel on very light soil in full sun.  This is one of the limitations of the ecological planting approach.  Ecologically speaking, it is obviously very happy with its new niche in the gravel, and I have found a plant that wants to grow in the prevailing conditions.  The trouble is, it looks incongruous, and doesn't chime with the desert wash influenced, arid aesthetic I'm trying to cultivate in this area.  I left the seedlings in situ, since it seemed a shame to waste them, but I think I'll have to move them.  It will be salutory if they fail when given the semi-shaded, moister conditions I feel they ought to like.

Two gazanias have made it outside through not just the last winter but the one before that, which is fairly incredible given they are not supposed to be hardy.  I like gazanias, and nearly bought some more this spring, but held off on the grounds that I needed to concentrate on restoring the structure, key plants and ground cover, before spending too much time on decorative fripperies.  I grew the last lot from seed, and they spent their first winter miserably languishing in the greenhouse because the site wasn't ready for them that summer, so the ones in the gravel are probably over three years old.  One has a yellow flower on it, very cheerful.  If it sets seed I suppose I ought to keep it, and see if I can progress towards breeding a hardier strain, but I suspect the very sharp drainage had a lot to do with their survival.  My Zauschneria californica, a subshrub that carries red tubular flowers in the autumn, has also reappeared, and they aren't the hardiest things.

There are an immense number of ants' nests in the gravel, and I have to be careful not to kneel on them.  Ant bites up your legs are very unpleasant.  They have undermined and killed some plants, which is a pity but again all part of the shifting aesthetic of this kind of gardening.  Pulling up a tuft of dead thrift yesterday I uncovered a really large toad.  It remained motionless, as toads do, but I moved it to the shelter of a hedge before the chickens could find it.  They had got one once in their run, and were shaking the poor creature first by one leg and then another.  I presume they ate it.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

what's in a name?

The Guardian (online) has published the top 100 baby names for 2010.  It serves as a great reminder how names come in and out of fashion.  As a teenager addicted to detective fiction, I noticed how housemaids were always called Ruby, and that people in history programmes recounting their wartime experiences had names like Doris, Doreen or Stanley.  Ruby for one has come back into fashion, standing at number seven in the charts, though it has dropped five places since the previous year, and I've just about got over the surprise of reading about pop stars and models called Ruby or Lily (you can't be, those are 1930s housemaids' names).

However, it looks as though half a century really does represent a low point in the cyclical popularity of what we call our children.  My baptismal name just creeps into the top 100 of names newly bestowed in 2010, but the diminutive form of it I've always been called by is nowhere to be seen, and the System's Administrator's name doesn't make it either (although that was never very popular).  Thinking back to my school days, the names of my classmates and associates are remarkably absent.  Susan, for example.  There were always people called Susan.  Likewise Margaret (Maggie), Nicola (Nicole makes it in 2010), Jane, Helen, Lisa and Judith.  And for the boys Steve, Peter (Pete), Andy (probably christened Andrew), Kevin, Simon, and Christopher, all absent.  If you didn't allow those names you would render about half of my class at school (OK, a third), members of my youth drama group, or my age cohort at work innominate.  There was even a joke on R4 not so long ago, along the lines that you can't call a little baby Keith.

The other bit of fun you can have with the top 2010 names is matching them to social background.  It's harder with the girls' names, since former middle-class favourites like Sophie and Emily are now ubiquitous, but you suspect that little Paige, and Kayden and Kian are not so likely to grow up in mini Boden as some of the others.

On past form I should say that given another ten years or so and the names that were being dished out in the early 1960s will be coming back into fashion, so that by the time I'm in the retirement home I'll be able to watch celebrities and pop singers called Paul and Amanda (Mandy) on daytime TV.

If you want to look at the Guardian list for yourself you'll find it here.  I was looking for the UK list for 1960 for comparison, but could only come up with US data and got bored with it.  Now I have to go and spread out some more gravel.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


The Systems Adminsistrator has gone to London to meet up with former colleagues for drinks and a potential curry, leaving me to supervise chicken exercise time.  The rooster is a modest soul who is in bed by six, even on nice evenings, but one of the young hens is always determined to extract every scrap of enjoyment from her period of liberty, and is still rootling around among the dahlias.  The wi-fi works sitting in the Italian garden in front of the house, so long as I don't position my body between the house and the lap-top.

I spent the rest of the day, until it was time to release the chickens, weeding the gunnera bed.  This is going to be a slow one.  I have a piece of board to rest my kneeling mat on, to spread my weight, and haven't actually knelt in the mud so far, but it is impossible to dislodge most of it from the roots I pull up, and the bags of stuff to go the the dump have got a lot of soil in them.  Once the site is cleared I think I'd better hold off planting for a while, to give the remaining roots a chance to resprout so that I can hit them with glyphosate, and then I need some rampant competitive groundcover for boggy places.  I've got one Darmera, bought from work, which is looking very sorry for itself in its black plastic pot and needs to go out soonish, but I don't want too many thistles and things shooting up all around it.  I'm amazed at how many worms I've dug up in the wettest patches.  I didn't think worms were adapted to aquatic conditions.

A large dumpy bag of gravel is due to arrive tomorrow.  The gravel is thin in so many places I could easily use more than one bag, but I am trying to learn from the builders' sand experience and not order more at once than I can spread fairly quickly.  I forget who is was that said that true stupidity lay in making the same mistake repeatedly.

In the Italian garden the Crinum x powellii is blooming.  It lives in a fairly large pot, and spends the winter in the greenhouse, where it's kept on the dry side while dormant.  The leaves come back in the spring from a huge elongated bulb, that only wants to be half-buried, and the flowers are trumpet shaped like a lily, held in a tuft on top of a stout stalk.  Last year I think it threw up a second stalk, and the bulb is starting to form offsets.  The flowers are pale pink.  I do have a white one as well, but that has only made a small and weedy plant, and has not actually flowered yet (so it might not even be white).

Addendum  The other ginger, the one with a white tip to its tail, has just strolled past, looking very casual.  Our ginger has gone to look at its departing back with an air that said that of course he could take the other ginger on if he wanted to, but fortunately without starting anything.  I've told him, no more septic bites.  The feline medical budget is all spent for this year.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

a grey day

I looked this morning at the five day weather forecast for Colchester, and saw that we are supposed to have medium level cloud for the duration, except for two three-hour periods when it is forecast to be low level cloud, and one of drizzle.  The light today was quite depressing, grey and dull.  It doesn't feel like summer.  It is the kind of weather in which I tend to get lost, since my sense of direction only works when I can see the sun.  Given shadows I'm quite good.  No shadows and I easily wander off course.

I went to the dump (AKA household recycling centre), to offload the weeds that I don't want on the compost heap, tangled roots and seed heads of nettles and grasses, horsetail, sheep's sorrel, thistle stems and the like.  A well-conducted garden would not have such things, but the gunnera bed has ceased to be well-conducted.  I saw a pied wagtail while I was there.  I only ever seem to see these birds on man-made surfaces, and sometimes I think they must eat asphalt.  On the bird table at home was a rare visitor, a spotted woodpecker, so they must eat porridge oats soaked in lard.  Later on it was pecking at the electricity pole in the lettuce field.  I thought the poles were treated with wood preservative so that there wouldn't be anything in them for a bird to eat, and encouraged by the dismal light drifted off into a lettuce-picker electrocution disaster fantasy, in which the pole collapsed after being pecked through.

One of the cats was sick in the gravel, but the Systems Administrator had to clear it up as I was out at the time.  The sick apparently contained what initially appeared to be an enormous fur-ball, but turned out to be an entire shrew, swallowed whole.  On being told of this event I composed a short verse:

There was an old lady who swallowed a shrew
What an odd thing to do
To swallow a shrew
Perhaps she'll spew

It was that sort of day really.  I am now going to go and eat an artery-busting fry up with compensatory bean salad, and watch a documentary about canal restoration.

Monday, 25 July 2011

another quiet day

One of the hoses at work split while in use.  The resulting spray of water was quite impressive.  The gardener was summoned to fix it, and cut out the damaged section, butting the two severed ends together around a short length of metal pipe that he presciently kept in his tool box, and fasting them tight with jubilee clips.  It won't be good as new, unfortunately, because the jubilee clips will tend to snag on corners.

The other gardener was a no-show because his car has broken down, and is still at the garage, and he lives thirty miles away in mid-Essex.  He was off on Friday as well, so that is two days of his annual holiday allowance used up to no great purpose.  Happy is the lot of people in jobs where you can elect to work from home for the day.

After doing my share of the watering I spent part of the morning calling people to let them know that plants they'd been looking for were now here.  It took some nerve to call the person who had asked for a lilac, Syringa hyacinthiflora 'Esther Staley', back in November 2009.  I wondered if it was too absurd to even pick up the phone, but the manager said that 'Esther Staley' was incredibly difficult to get hold of, and he hadn't been able to find any at all last year, so these really were the first plants we'd had in stock in the past eighteen months.  I got her answerphone and left an apologetic and rambling message.  She may have moved house by now, and the new occupants may be utterly mystified by it.  Some other people I rang had forgotten even asking for the plants, but sounded as if they wanted them.  If customers come into the plant centre to collect one thing they often end up buying other things as well, so it is worth calling.

It was still quiet, though.  The weekend was apparently quite busy, and a big order that was going to go out next month might just fall into this month instead, because nobody is available at the start of next week to drive the van, but I fear we are going to end the month shy of where we should be.

The peacock seems to have made a full recovery from his eye infection, following the boss's daily applications of antibiotic ointment.  Apparently the poor bird's head had swelled to twice its normal size at the worst, and the boss was convinced he would lose the eye.  He told me that peacocks don't merely lose their tails after the breeding season, but actively pull them out, then grow a fresh set of feathers next spring.  I have read a theory that the tail works to signal the peacock's health and strength by effectively saying to the hen 'Look what a hunky chap I am. that I can afford to lug this cumbersome tail around with me', so if it is in the way I suppose he might as well not bother with it at times of the year when he isn't trying to impress the ladies.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

a fortunate toad

I trimmed the edges of one of the beds in the back garden.  I am not as conscientious about doing the lawn edges as I should be, since keeping them defined is probably the single thing that most makes a garden look cared for.  As we were told on a Writtle trip to Wakehurst Place, if the edges are neat most people don't really notice what's going on in the beds, so if you've only got time to do one thing, do the edges.  I don't like them too nerdily sharp, since everything else is a bit shaggy, and the odd stem overhanging onto the lawn is fine by me, but there is a middle way between obsessively tidy edges and a marginal fringe of long grass complete with seed heads.  I'm trying to find it.  Edging a bed each time I'm out there before moving on to other tasks is one way.

As I was shearing a little patch of longer grass under an overhanging rose bush, that the lawnmower had swerved around, I had a close encounter with a toad that has to be the luckiest creature still alive in the garden.  Brushing up the grass I'd just cut I found it flattened into the turf.  I couldn't see any blood, so gave it a gentle and experimental prod with one finger.  It very slowly raised itself up, and eventually hopped away into the safety of the bed.  If I hadn't stopped to pick up the fallen grass at that point, and shuffled another pace forward to continue cutting, I'd have knelt on it.

I like toads.  I found another later on, that emerged while I was weeding in the gunnera bed.  They have such ancient, fathomless faces.  If you disturb other creatures they run or fly away, but toads believe the thing to do is to remain very still, presumably hoping you won't notice them if they don't move.  I found a couple in recent days while weeding the gravel in the front, pulling up a large clump of unwanted vegetation each time to reveal the toad sitting resolutely underneath.  Sometimes I have picked one up to move it out of harm's way, cupping it between my two palms, and when they wriggle they are surprisingly strong.

A space appeared in the front of the gunnera bed.  Trying to remember what used to be there, I think a Rheum died in the winter.  It was looking pretty poorly last year, and I don't think previous winter did it any good, so 2010-2011 must have finished it off.  Rheum die down completely in the summer after flowering, so are not really great plants for the front of a border anyway.  Further back it would be easier to hide the gap.  The space provided a home for a rather smart Thalictrum I bought months ago at work, which has been hanging around for quite long enough in its pot, and some sad-looking Lobelia I raised from seed last year, which have definitely spent too long in their containers, plus some Geum rivale 'Lemon Drops', also from seed, which are the survivors of a vine weevil attack in the greenhouse.  Vine weevils are very partial to Geum (also Primula and Heuchera).

Addendum  The grey tabby has had a crooked back and walked oddly for years.  We don't know what she did to it, but it hasn't been right for a long time, and now aged 12 she can not longer manage to look after her fur, which is long, extraordinarily crimped, and always charged with static (the sort of fur that sticks to the walls and has to be vacuumed off).  Very unpleasant knots had begun to form over her flanks and tummy, and for some days I've been combing these out.  She seems to understand I am trying to help, and purrs loudly while also wriggling and tottering around the kitchen table (I do disinfect it before cooking).  Today she took a swipe at my hand with her claws, and drew blood along half the length of my thumb.  If she could I think she would be one for throwing telephones at her assistant.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

back in the back

I've moved my focus of operations to the back garden, and have finally started tackling the overgrown naturally damp bit.  It is called the gunnera bed, and used to contain a gunnera until that died a couple of years ago, from winter cold, winter damp, or being eaten from the inside by rodents, or maybe just old age or random failure to live.  The bed was enlarged to incorporate more of the lawn after we realised quite how wet it was one winter when the lawn tractor bogged down to the axles.

Naturally wet ground is a great asset, especially in a dry part of the country like this, allowing me to grow large leaved, lush looking plants needing reliable moisture, that I couldn't grow anywhere else.  It is not the easiest border to manage, however.  The weeds grow like stink, and so does a yellow stemmed bamboo that I introduced a few years ago not expecting it to be such a runner.  The water table fluctuates wildly, reflecting some mysterious underground flow and not just how much it has rained in the past couple of months, so areas that were previously dry occassionally turn to bog and drown things.  Weeding the bog bed in the garden at the place where I work turned out to be a never ending occupation for a colleague who used to work one day a week in the garden.  By the time she ever got to the bottom she needed to start again at the top.  My bog bed is much smaller than that, but I don't have anything like a day a week to devote to it, and it has turned into a knotted mess of grass, horsetail and Siberian purslane at the front, with nettles and thistles behind.  Meanwhile a yellow berried form of Viburnum opulus I bought to go in it ages ago is getting desperately potbound by the greenhouse.  I think that getting this sorted out is going to take some time.

I like to work on one part of the garden for a few days, and then switch to working somewhere else.  Spending several days in the front, I had plenty of time to look at what was in bloom, see what was doing well and what not so well, and make plans for things that might need to be changed or tackled at some point.  Now I'm doing the same in the back, and getting the benefit of the artworks we installed this spring.  Hydrangea aspera 'Mauvette' is looking great in the ditch bed, with big lacecap flowers consisting of pale pink sterile flowers surrounding the central plate of tiny fertile mauve (well, what colour did you think they'd be?) ones.  The leaves are large and hairy and the whole plant is very handsome, in a gaunt way.  I also noticed that a branch of the willow tree behind the ditch, already savagely pruned this spring, was hanging too low over the hydrangea and blocking too much light from it, so it needs another trim.

Addendum  I rang my hairdresser to book a haircut, having suddenly reached the P,G. Woodhouse stage ("For goodness sake why don't you get a haircut?  Your head looks like a chrysanthemum") and found to my consternation that the girl who has been cutting it for the last two or three years has left.  I try to avoid attachment when it comes to hairdressers, remembering that they always leave, things always change, and that to resist change is to be unhappy.  But it is nerve-wracking starting with a new one.  My hair is not easy to cut, being thick, curly and unruly, a legacy of the shtetl and the celtic fringes.  It has defeated some hairdressers utterly, while others have given me cuts that would have been very good, if only I had been prepared to spend half an hour blow drying it every morning and never gone out in the rain.  I tried my luck with the senior stylist the girl that answered the phone recommended, and fortunately the results are fine, so with any luck that is the hair question sorted for another two or three years. 

Friday, 22 July 2011

zumba and lost mail

I went to a Zumba class for the first time last night.  The fact I have now been to one probably marks the high point of Zumba's popularity (that and the fact that there was a piece about it on today's You and Yours), since the moment when I finally clocked the existence of The Spice Girls (in a feature in the Daily Telegraph) pretty much coincided with their zenith.

I've been meaning to go for a while.  Through gardening and Pilates I am strong enough to lift one third of my own bodyweight reasonably safely, and fairly supple, and the last time I went for a walk with the Systems Administrator (admittedly that was last autumn) we covered 12 miles of Yorkshire moorland (not as vertiginous as the Lake District but by no means flat) on a day when I was going down with a virus (AKA a bad cold) and my muscles felt fine the next day, though the cold by the end of the week was atrocious.  But I don't do much that raises my heart rate, or at least not in a good way (don't think parking tickets and encounters with plainly unreasonable customers count).  I loathe running with a passion.  Friends of mine go jogging and have done marathons and I honestly don't understand how they can bear to do it.  It is boring, boring, boring, with the added spice of possibility that you might be hit by a car.  But Zumba sounded more fun.

For anybody in the world who hasn't yet heard of Zumba, it is a series of strenous exercises derived from a fusion of Latin American dance and aerobics and done to music.  I gave aerobics a wide swerve first time round,  a fact which now makes me feel rather smug when I hear what damage it did to devotees' knees (so does running, you know), but I like dancing, and as I don't go to many parties where there is dancing and the Systems Administrator is a lifelong confirmed non-dancer, a class where I could jump about in time to music sounded quite acceptable.

Classes have been bobbing up all over north Essex, so I chose one in the hall of the next village up the road.  The last time I was there I was talking to the WI about woodland conservation, and yesterday evening's demographic was rather different.  However, while the majority were probably in the 18-25 age bracket there were a fair few oldsters, and some other people who hadn't been before.  The instructor was a fearsomely athletic woman who demonstrated the moves (fairly briefly) standing on the stage, and then we all joined in, with varying degrees of grace and precision.  Jumping about in time to the music turned out to be harder than I'd expected, in that my musical tastes, although broad, don't include any Latin American at all.  The dance music I grew up with was predominantly based on four beats to the bar, often with a back beat, and the music for Zumba wasn't.  As we one-two-three kicked, and jived our hands one way and then the other way, I found I had no intuitive sense at all of how long I was supposed to do one thing in one direction before switching to doing another thing in a different direction.  But I thought the main thing was probably to keep moving, and not crash into anybody else.  There again, one of the reasons I gave up with Tai Chi (apart from the fact that I started doing it because I hoped it would improve my posture and the state of my back, and my back took a step change for the worse while I was going to classes) was that I could never remember the sequence of moves.  If I couldn't remember a set of a couple of dozen moves that were shown repeatedly to me every week then picking up a dozen different routines that were briefly demonstrated at great speed was probably going to take a while.

You get very hot doing Zumba, especially on a humid July evening, and you need to take a bottle of water, plus a small towel to mop your steaming brow.  I didn't.  The instructor, between whooping and exorting us to go for it, reiterated that we should take it at our own pace, do as much as we could, and not be afraid to sit numbers out.  We had all filled in little health forms before we started (though with our names but not our addresses or phone numbers, so if I had dropped down with a heart attack they'd have had to take a punt on which of the people in the phone book with my fairly unusual name was me, or else work out which was my car and trace me via the DVLA, in order to summon my relatives to my bedside).  I am afraid that some of the exhortations not to overdo it were probably directed at my scarlet face.

Afterwards I felt quite perky.  I must have released an endorphin.

Addendum  There has been a bit of media fuss recently about mislaid post, with newspaper stories about a postman who couldn't cope staching unopened letters at home, and cheering R4 stories about badly addressed mail being miraculously delivered.  Neither has mentioned where a chunk of the missing mail goes, which is that it gets shoved through the wrong doors.  We've had a car magazine clearly addressed to one of the neighbours (which I took round), a package for another one of the neighbours (ditto), a gardening magazine addressed to somebody with the same named house in one of the next villages (which I took round as well and had to ask in the post office where the house was.  I hope she was grateful.  I failed to receive an issue of a subscription magazine once myself, but nobody did the same for me).  These are fairly and squarely the fault of the post office, either at the sorting office or on the part of the postie, but there are also the misaddressed ones.  Last week we had a letter from Barclays Bank (it said so on the envelope) addressed to the trustees of somebody I'd never heard of, at a house with the same name as ours but an address in Earls Colne, which is the other side of Colchester, but then our full postcode, which is limited to around six houses on the farm here.  I put that one back in the post box with a tart scribble not to redeliver it to us.  We still get mail addressed to the people who used to live in our house nearly eighteen years after we moved in, and after many years of taking that round (they only moved three houses down the road) I did begin to feel that they should point out their new address more forcefully to their friends, relatives, and assorted clubs and societies.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

a trip to the Naze Tower

I met a couple of friends at Walton on the Naze, to carry out a plan we'd been talking about for a while, to have a look at the Naze Tower.  The Naze is a high (by Essex standards) spit that projects north of the seaside town of Walton, and guards the entrance to the Walton Backwaters (scene of Arthur Ransom's 'Secret Water').  I have seen the tower a lot of times before, in that it was built by Trinity House to be visible from miles out to sea, back in 1720, and I have often gazed at it from afar as we sailed, or flogged, or drifted, up, down or across the Thames estuary.  The lower reaches of the Thames are singularly devoid of any landmarks visible from offshore, and in the days before GPS and echo-sounders the tower must have been even more useful than it still is.  I had even been once years ago with the Systems Administrator and walked around the outside of it, but nowadays you can go inside and climb to the top to admire the views, and it houses a tearoom and a series of art exhibitions, plus displays about the history of the tower itself and the geology of the Naze.

The Naze is of great interest to geologists, consisting of red sandstone overlying London clay.  The red sandstone is extremely rich in fossils, while the water that flows underground over the clay continually erodes the base of the cliff, and along with the action of the sea causes repeated slumps and rockfalls.  This has the effect of exposing a continuous supply of fresh fossils, but means that the Naze is gradually disappearing.  The first phase of a cliff base walk was completed earlier this year, made of great lumps of imported granite, which are intended to trap the fallen material behind them until the cliff forms a sustainable slope.

The inside of the tower turns out to be really good.  There is a narrow spiral staircase all the way to the top, with a few windows on the way up, which give a disconcerting effect unless you are pretty familiar with the area as each faces a different way, so it takes a while to place each new view.  It was a slightly drizzly morning, so when we got to the top we couldn't see the Orford lighthouse, but we had a good look at the cranes of Felixstowe, the pier at Walton, the newish Gunfleet windfarm, and the channels of the Backwaters meandering mysteriously away.  The artworks were a mixed lot, some good, some twee, some (to my eye) rather excruciatingly bad.  There were some small ceramic wall plaques shaped like fish, which probably fell just at the end of the twee scale, but they had a quirky charm, and I liked them, and there was some brightly coloured pottery in slightly idiosyncratic shapes by a famous (at least by East Anglian standards) potter.  I already knew her work, and have a small jug made by her.  It's domestic stuff, not Lucy Rie, and I don't know that the V&A are collecting it, but it's fun.  There were some quite good photos as well, of beach huts, and waves, and scenes around Essex and Suffolk that we were challenged to identify, the thesis being that they looked as though they were of much more exotic places.  I hadn't previously visualised Brightlingsea as Turkey, but with some imagination and a lurid sunset I suppose it could be.

Then we had coffee and cake outside, which were good, and walked down to the new walkway, and looked at the sandmartin nests in the cliffs, and debated how the sandmartins dig the tunnels, and walked further along the beach.  I collected as many shells as I could carry, having forgotten to bring a bag, and a strange eroded fragment which is probably a piece of heavily sea-worn ceramic, otherwise it is a very weird stone.  In places tree roots hang over the edge of the cliff, where it has crumbled under them, and there was one entire tree, its branches still caught up somehow, but it can't last up there much longer.  It is not a cliff for walking too close to.  There were a lot of cheerful dogs and cheerful owners, and it was very pleasant.  Actually, you probably have to be brought up as a northern European to really appreciate walking along a featureless coastline in grey light and a suspicion of drizzle.  I've seen similar scenes at Belgian seaside towns, but I'm not sure I could convince the average citizen of the Med that this was really nice.

Then we got back to our cars, and discovered that we had all collected parking tickets.  We had all paid to park, but only for two hours, and because the place had turned out to be more interesting and absorbing than we'd expected we had gone twenty or twenty-five minutes over the time.  We tried to be philosophical about it.  The terms of parking were displayed, and if we wanted more than two hours we should have paid for it.  I hate car parks where you have to decide in advance how long you are going to be, because you never know what is going to turn up or how long things are going to take.  If you go to Flatford, for example, you pay a couple of quid to park but then that's it.  You don't have to decide in advance if you can look at Willy Lott's cottage and grab some lunch in the National Trust cafe inside two hours, or if you'll need three.  I suppose the council would say that it isn't fair that people who want to spend all day there should pay the same as dog owners who only want a quick half hour walk, but in Colchester (on those rare occassions when I go there) I use a car park that is pay on exit.

We should have guessed that the car park must be a little goldmine for the council, and patrolled regularly.  The ticket said that it was part of a considerate parking initiative, but that's crap.  Inconsiderate parking is when you block other people in, or there isn't room for everyone who needs to use the facility.  At this car park there was room for another 200 cars, easy.  I'll pay the fine, but it is a pyrrhic victory for the council.  I didn't buy a ceramic fish, or a jug, so the local artists have lost out, and I've been left with a very sour taste in the mouth.  It was my first visit, and the people running the tower were lovely.  If the expedition had gone smoothly I might have turned into a regular visitor, and dragged other friends there.  As it is I probably won't.  There are other art galleries, and places to have tea, and to go for a walk without being charged to park at all, let alone having to worry in advance about exactly how long you are going to be.  Displays along the new cliff walk say how important the Naze is to the tourist economy of Walton.  Charging tourists a punitive pound a minute to park doesn't do your precarious tourist economy any good at all.  And penalties disproportionate to the offence make people into worse citizens.  The last time one of the council's potholes took out a tyre on my car I thought oh well, stuff happens, I should have been more careful, I'd rather they spent the money on repairing the roads.  If it happens again I'll be looking to find out how I claim compensation because the bastards owe me.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

liberation day for the cat

The black cat, having been allowed out yesterday afternoon, has rediscovered his taste for the outdoors, and nipped out past me this morning when I opened the doors to put the recycling out.  He consented to be taken back in again, but then took his own decision on whether he was fit to go outside by jumping out of the cloakroom window.  Fortunately he has stayed around the front garden so far, rather than disappearing off into the wood.  A friend told me the story of his daughter's cat, a British Blue, which broke its leg and had to have a thousand pounds worth of surgery followed by months of cage rest.  As soon as it was finally let out of the house it disappeared.

The white campanula is C. alliariifolia.  According to the RHS Encycopedia of Perennials, it hails from scrub and forest margins in Turkey and Central Asia.  The book says it is good for a wild garden.  Actually, most of our garden is fairly wild.

Grasshopper numbers are building up.  When I was at school we kept locusts in the biology lab, which I was never very keen on, partly due to disgust at their appearance and partly because I'd read about locust plagues in the American midwest in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Childhood prejudices die hard, and I don't like the grasshoppers as much as the spiders and beetles.  Still, they are a part of high summer and maybe not so common as they once were.  I was talking to somebody once about long grass, and mentioned the grasshoppers, and from her expression gathered that not everybody has them.

I'm still working on the front garden.  Another good plant for light soil and sun that's out now is Geranium 'Mavis Simpson', sometimes regarded as a named variety of G. x riversleainum.  It has soft pink flowers, and greyish foliage, and forms a sprawling, branching mat that keeps bearing new flowers at the ends of the branches, so has a long flowering season compared to the clump formers like G. phaeum, and a pleasant knack of weaving through other plants.  The encyclopedia warns that it is prone to winter losses, possibly due to fungal disease, but my plants seem to be lasting reasonably well.  The book also says it can be propagated by basal cuttings, and as I should like more plants and they are only intermittently available at work I ought to try that.

(The chicken pie last night wasn't bad.  The mushrooms could have done with frying for another minute before adding to the filling, and I think I was a little heavy handed with the mixed herbs, but the pastry was good.  It's a pity that the things I can cook well are mostly stuff like pastry, marmalade, and meringues, which are all bad for us).

Addendum  The young geraniums and violas in the back garden that were eaten to stumps by some pest have made new crops of leaves and seem fine about it.  I think that nature is clever, and that the caterpillar moves on to a new host before the fresh crop of leaves emerge, so plant gets a chance to recover.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

some drought tolerant summer flowers

I am still bashing along weeding the gravel.  I keep thinking that one more day's work will finish it.  Maybe tomorrow really will be the day.  This will be a swift blog entry (and therefore potentially riddled with typos and examples of lexical facilitation, although since Con Coughlin used the phrase 'pet projects' three times in as many paragraphs in the Telegraph I should say anything goes nowadays)  as I have been nominated as officer in charge of supper, on the grounds that it is chicken pie from the remains of the weekend's roast and I know how to make pastry.

There is quite a bit going on florally in the long bed.  The perennial wallflower 'Bowles Mauve', of which I have written before, is still blooming away.  The bed is not very rigorously colour-themed, but the far north end mostly contains pale blue, pink, white and yellow flowers.  Trotting out there just now to collect some flowers I came back with a handful, and could have picked more if the chicken pie hadn't beckoned.  Verbascum nigrum does well in the light soil.  This is longer lived than some of the hybrids like the Cotswolds series, let alone 'Helen Johnson', and gradually bulks up to make a many-stemmed plant.  The caterpillars of the mullein moth attack it occassionally, but not too often.  The flowers, held in tall typical verbascum spikes, are individually small, and a rich shade of yellow.  I know that some people consider it a mark of good taste not to have yellow flowers in their gardens, but I like them myself.

The shrubby Potentilla fruticosa are flowering.  Again, some people despise them because of their associations with municipal planting, but they are good tough plants with a long flowering season.  I mostly stick to the whites and yellows.  The single flower I have brought in with me is a beautiful thing, looked at objectively and forgetting it is a potentilla.  Five rounded soft yellow petals surround a boss of dusky yellow stamens.  In winter when they are out of leaf they do look astonishingly dead, but they will actually take very low temperatures, and I have read that they are popular in the scandinavian countries.  They can be clipped to form low hedges, though you rarely see them used in that way.

Gaura lindheimeri is trendy at the moment.  This is a skinny plant, that produces tall spikes of white flowers that open from the bottom of the spike upwards.  The unopened buds are pale pink, which gives an overall effect of soft pink rather than stark white.  The petals are slender and held upwards, while a bunch of white stamens protrudes, and the effect is often compared to butterflies.  There is a cultivar called 'Whirling Butterflies', but mine are the straight species, raised from seed.  Gaura has a reputation for being short-lived, though the pink cultivars are said to be worse than the white.  However, in my experience G. lindheimeri is pretty long lasting given very free draining soil.  The leaves can be oddly spotted, a feature commented on (somewhere) by Christopher Lloyd, but mine are looking very green and healthy this year (so far).  It will seed itself modestly if happy.

There is a useful Campanula, which I think is C. alliarifolia (I'll look it up later when I have time, and confess tomorrow if I have got this wrong).  It has wrinkled, roughly heart-shaped leaves, white bell-shaped flowers, and seeds itself usefully around shrubs and at the base of hedges, where it tolerates drought, root competition, semi-shade, and looks exactly right for a country garden.

The Catananche are great.  They form rosettes of narrow, grey-green leaves, from which cornflower shaped flowers rise on wiry stems.  The base of each flower is a cup of overlapping papery scales, each with a dark rib up the centre, which is as pretty as an everlasting flower.  I have the blue form, and some white ones, which don't spread as readily as the blue.  The season lasts a long time, following which the dried flower heads are quite architectural.  It seeds itself generously, but I am grateful for things that do so well on such light and starving soil, and just pull out the seedlings I don't want.

The news is that we let the black cat out for a couple of hours.  He has been looking increasingly energetic, and bored in the house.  He sunbathed in the long bed, then lay under the hedge, then went back inside and we shut him in so that he wouldn't wander off.  We wouldn't want him overdoing things, and he can spend another night or two safely locked in the study with his dose of anti-inflammatories and his special luxury food.  It will be an immense relief when he is judged fit to go out as he pleases, and we can leave the inner hall door open again.

Monday, 18 July 2011

quiet, too quiet

It was another blustery day, too lively on the weather front and too quiet as regards customers.  The manager is beginning to wear the stressed and haunted look of someone with family and financial responsibilities, working in a sector that is under the cosh.  If you add up the retail failures of the past year it is not a reassuring prospect.

One of my colleagues had tidied up the small Edwardian greenhouse at the back of the plant centre, so I took advantage of the space to clean up yet more herbaceous plants under cover, out of the wind and drizzle with a proper work bench at a sensible height, and my prunings not blowing half way across the plant centre instead of landing in the bucket.  It is much more comfortable and productive than trying to weed and deadhead the plants one-handed, while using the other hand to hold the pot against my stomach, which is how I end up working half the time.  As I weeded I mused on how we could bring in more customers.  Yesterday's coach party was a welcome boost.  I would like us to contact as many garden clubs in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Herts as we can find, and invite them to include a stop at the plant centre when they're planning their summer excursions.  I would target these counties because they are within reach for a day trip, so people who had been once with a tour and been impressed could return under their own steam.  Happy customers from Wales and the north of England are very nice, but they aren't likely to turn into regular visitors.  I don't know how you find the contact details of all those garden clubs, but I would start with the RHS to see if they can supply a list of affiliated societies, and then I guess sit down with a road atlas and start shoving the names of likely looking villages into Google.  I would try and build up the exisiting mailing list of individuals as well, by offering existing customers some sort of deal in return for the names of their garden-loving friends, who could have a deal as well.  It seems to work for Boden.  I'm convinced that even in a difficult retail climate there are people out there who would shop with us, if only they knew we existed.  Reducing the number of days the casuals work, and delaying replacing the person who left recently, conserves a tiny bit of cash but doesn't really get us anywhere.

I mused too on the futility of trying to organise other people's gardens.  Two of yesterday's customers were another mother and daughter pair, but not a happy and collaborative one.  The mother presented me with the problem in her daughter's garden, that of a large patch of dry shade.  I showed them to the tunnel where we keep the shade loving plants.  Mahonia was rejected because the daughter already had one of those, and Ma didn't like the suggestion of Fatsia either.  Would it survive another winter like the last one?  I replied that she hadn't told me that guaranteed hardiness to withstand a once in twenty years cold winter was required in addition to drought and shade tolerance  Mother was a thin woman with a hard face, daughter a podgy one who displayed minimal interest in her own garden.  I made a few other suggestions, including Sarcococca, and the thought that if the shade were really very dark and dry then a nice statue might be the answer.  They thanked me and let me get back to the coach party.  The next time I saw the daughter she hadn't chosen any plants, and was looking at things in the gift section of the shop with much more enthusiasm than she had shown for anything growing outside.  It seems to me not merely futile but counterproductive to take command of any garden except your own, unless you are a professional and the garden owner has made the conscious choice to subcontract the problem in exchange for money.  The unenthusiastic garden owner just feels even less sense of ownership and involvement at the end of the exercise than they did before, once their friends or relatives have tried to boss them around.

Tidying the Hemerocallis I found that some of them had made small plantlets mid-way up their flowering stems.  I snapped these off the stems (not spoiling the flowers) and potted them up, a trick I tried last year and got a very high strike rate.  Free plants are hard to resist, and if I don't use the shoots as propagating material they will only be thrown on the compost heap when the stems are cut down after flowering.  Last year's haul yielded me several 'Chicago Knockout', which have made good sturdy plants, and a couple of 'Eleanor', which are still rather small but are growing.  This year I got a 'Lemon Bells', a 'Joan Senior' and four 'Pink Damask', three of which already had one little root at the base of the sideshoot so should be fine.  We'll see if they take.  I've put them in the greenhouse inside a propagating case to conserve moisture, but another hot spell could simply cook them.

The day dried out briefly over lunchtime, but in the middle of the afternoon it rained torrentially.  It was a monsoon.  A river ran down the middle of the climber tunnel and a small lake enveloped the shade structure.  After the rain had passed and the puddles began to drain away there were tide marks in the car park, where the fallen flowers from the lime trees had been swept up.  When I got home I discovered that the rain had made it on to the national BBC traffic news, and that the A12 had been shut on the Essex-Suffolk border.  At home we hadn't had any, and the Systems Administrator had been able to sand off another section of the front of the house, and let the chickens out for a run.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

another damp day

I was hoping that the boss would print out the labels for a delivery of plants that arrived last week, then I could have put them out for sale, using the in-bloom hydrangeas to jazz up some of the display tables.  Quite a few of them were things customers had been asking for, so I could have reserved those and rung the customers to let them know their plants were now here.  But the boss had other ideas of how to spend Sunday, so that didn't happen.  I hope he does the labels tomorrow.  I want to buy one of the shrubs myself, a Colutea which has had a place marked for it with a cane in the long bed for months.

Instead I weeded the Tradescantia.  They have pretty flowers, but the plants after flowering become such a mess that I don't see how you could use them, except in the wilder bits of a large garden.  Then I wandered about dead-heading the dahlias and day lilies.  Dahlia buds are rounded and face downwards, while spend flowers are elongated and held facing upwards, and if you touch them with bare fingers they always feel slimy.  Then I started on the Kniphofia, but it began to rain.  I'm not madly keen on working in the shop, but it beats standing in the rain weeding the herbaceous section, so I volunteered to fetch an order of birdfood and sundry garden items from the shed where it had been stacked after delivery, and price it up.  I count the colleague who is now back in charge of the shop as a personal friend, so don't mind helping her out with shop stuff.

Things got lively after lunch as a coach party arrived (we were expecting them).  They were keen to use the loos, and to have a cup of coffee, but quite a few of them did do some shopping as well.  We were struck by the sad sight of a group of chatting around one table, while a solitary old lady sat all alone at the other, until her companion appeared with a trolley load of plants, and it turned out that they were mother and daughter and nothing to do with the coach party.  The accomplished lady gardener from the village (who gave me tea from a silver pot the day I delivered her tree stake) pitched up in the middle of the coach party shopping spree, and we talked about the merits of early music, so one way and another we had a busy couple of hours.

Once it all quietened down again I returned to the boxes of bird food.  I am baffled that somebody thought it necessary to label the box of dried mealworm tubs NOT FOR HUMAN BEING.  Would it occur to anybody to eat mealworms?  Though some food experts on R4 were confidently predicting the other day how we would all be eating insects soon for the protein, so maybe it would.

Addendum  On getting home I found there had been 15mm of rain, and rumbles of thunder here as well as at work.  The grey tabby goes and stands outside in the rain during thunderstorms, and shrieks.  I don't know what goes on inside her head, but I never feel it's very amiable.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

a wet day at the plant centre (and not much happened)

It rained most of the day.  This was forecast, and late into last night we could hear the rumble of combine harvesters, and see their headlights work back and forth across the fields, as the neighbouring farmers laboured to bring in as much as possible before the rain came.

Wet days bring fewer customers, and time dragged a little as I cleaned up pots of agapanthus and aconite in the shelter of the back of the shop.  It was difficult to tell quite how slowly time was passing, as yesterday my outdoor watch, which had been looking alarmingly misty for a couple of days, ceased to go.  I wish it hadn't done that so soon after being fitted with a new strap.  Actually I wish it hadn't broken at all.  I know it isn't just the battery running down, because that is almost new as well.  I do have another watch, but that is a good one, gold, a present from the Systems Administrator years ago, and I don't wear it for gardening, or sailing, or in the plant centre.  Finding a nice water resistant outdoor watch is harder than you'd think, if you don't want a great stainless steel bulbous thing with a stopwatch and umpteen functions guaranteed to work 100m under water.  I don't.  I just want something classic and discreet, that doesn't interfere with the seal on the cuff of my waterproof jacket.

My wellington boots have sprung a leak as well.  I was afraid they had cracked over the toes, but hadn't had a really wet day to test them for a while.  Today they were tested, and found wanting.  I think B&Q do good plain ones.  Hunters make me anxious.  I don't really want my feet to be screaming 'Okay, yah' at fifty paces.

The customers who came in were mostly nice.  There was a regular one, whose name I must try and learn sometime since she shops with us often enough, and I also see her at the music society concerts in the village.  Today she was not actually shopping, but I gather a colleague was able to reunite her successfully with some mislaid personal item.  Then there was the woman who last year organised a splendid novelty dog show, and the design correspondent of one of the broadsheets with his wife, small child and three dogs.  I guessed they were on the premises somewhere when I looked out of the window and saw a tiny blonde girl in complete command of a large basset hound.  Also a buddhist I met a while ago when I tried meditation classes.

The only customer I wasn't so sure about was one returning a dead Cornus kousa var. chinensis.  She bought it this April, and didn't give out the vibes of a plant lover, so I wonder if she ever watered it after planting.  She said she spoke to someone in the week and was told to bring it in, and we didn't have a replacement plant to give her at that moment anyway, so I took her details and left it for the manager to sort out on Monday.

The pea hen appeared late on, so must have been released from her pen.  One of the chicks died, but the other was looking healthy enough.  One of her chicks died last year as well.  I don't know what the normal mortality rate for pea fowl is, but they don't seem very good doers on this record.

Friday, 15 July 2011

ground cover for gravel

I continued weeding the gravel today, working along the back of the long bed.  The creeping thyme is beginning to spread itself usefully.  This is Thymus serpyllum ((link to image) which forms low dense mats, in mid July covered in pinky-mauve flowers beloved of bees.  The original plants were raised from seeds, sown in pots then pricked out into modules, 6x4 plugs in a standard sized seed tray.  Once they had formed solid root balls they were planted into holes scooped in the gravel, and grew away easily.  Having experimented with spring and autumn sowings I should say that spring is better, as the young seedlings tend to languish in the greenhouse over the winter, and succumb to the damp, cold and lack of light.  There are a few common thyme plants here and there, but they tend to grow somewhat upright and straggly and the creeping sort looks prettier.

The thyme project ran out of plants half way along the gravel.  I'm keen to get more ground cover here, because weeding that area of open gravel is a big job, so I want plants I've chosen to smother the ground and out-compete the weed seeds.  I've got some seed raised Dianthus deltoides, so am planting those out.  They too should self-seed into the gaps and help cover the ground with desirable plants.  In the long bed I'm having some success with germander, Teucrium chamaedrys, which after a painfully slow start (admittedly in the worst soil in the entire bed) is forming dense low bushes with little evergreen leaves, covered at the moment with spikes of small tubular dead-nettle type flowers.  It is a member of the family Lamiaceae, and like many of its relatives is attractive to bees ((link to image).  Clumps of that would look good standing up among the thyme.

I've got a couple of dwarf pines to plant in the gravel.  I love pines, and they do well on sand, or at least many of them do, so I bought these as features I wanted rather than ground cover per se.  I need to position them so that each has its own space to grow and be seen, rather than forming an amorphous supermarket car park lump with its neighbours.

The ground surrounding the garden railway was landscaped into small hills and hollows, to make it more interesting from a scenic point of view for the railway.  The tops of the hills get incredibly dry, and are proving a challenge.  Some box plants that went in a year or two back are clinging on to life, but not much more.  Their foliage has gone bronze, indicating that they are hungry as well as thirsty, so they had better have a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone and maybe 6X to encourage them.  Plants for a garden railway need to have small leaves and flowers, to keep the overall sense of scale.  They don't look like a miniature version of full size shrubs and trees, but at least they give the right feel.  Modelling magazines give ideas and examples, but many of their suggested plants would never grow on our sand.

As I crawled along the gravel I realised that it really does need topping up in places.  Of course the patches where it is thinnest and meanest are those furthest from the drive, since it is the hardest work to push the barrow that far, so they got skimped on first time round.  The thought of having to shift another dumpy bag of gravel is a bit daunting, as is the thought of the lorry from the builder's yard squeezing its way into the front garden again, but the gravel really does need to be thicker.  It is much easier to weed when there is a good loose layer on top than when the weeds can root straight into the soil.  The last time I had gravel delivered I found bits of broken orange plastic afterwards in the hedge, which I fear came from one of the delivery lorry's lights.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

a fantasy beach garden

I've been weeding the gravel in the front garden alongside the long bed.  This is a fiddly task, though the results are immediate.  Gravel is a wonderful growing medium for seedlings, and if you ever find it described as a weed supressing mulch I suggest you skip straight on to the next article.

One end of the long gravel is subdivided off into the foreground for the System's Administrator garden hut.  The rest of it forms the backdrop to the garden railway, which currently needs some work doing to get the track up to the mark.  All of it was originally lawn, which did very badly on the light soil, and was never used for anything in particular, so was scrapped years ago.

The hut was built from scratch from timber, not bought as a kit.  Even the window is homemade, though I think the door is prefabricated.  It is furnished with a very small woodburning stove, and some pictures, and a desk, and a shelf with the only two trophies we ever won for Old Gaffer racing, then a lot of modelling equipment found its way in and it became a garden room cum miniature engineering workshop.  It was built partly because the S.A. likes designing and building sheds, and its purpose now is for the S.A. to have somewhere to go that is not in the house.  For this reason it had to be fairly close to the house, and so it ended up crammed in next to my greenhouse and right in front of the hedge.

The hut is modelled loosely on a beach hut.  This reflects the influence of the general 1990s fashion for beach themed gardens, but was also a conscious choice given we live only four miles from the sea and have had a boat of one sort or another for the past quarter of a century.  It is painted blue (definite shades of Alan Titchmarsh) and has a little porch and you can see it here.  It is traditional for beach huts to have a name.  The best one I ever saw was at Harwich and was called Arijaba (try saying it out loud).  The blue hut is called Dunadmin, and a friend made us a sign to go over the door.

The divider between the blue hut's garden and the rest of the long gravel is made entirely out of reclaimed and found materials, which I'm rather proud of.  The posts were begged from work when they demolished a pergola that used to have vines growing over it and house the shade loving plants.  (Clearing the vine leaves off the plants was a wretched job, and it was a great relief when the structure was replaced with a tunnel with shade netting on it).  The S.A. worked out the relative heights of the three posts using the golden ratio as a starting point, and the proportions do look right.  The chain is an old anchor chain from a former boat, which we have used for its original purpose in years gone by.  You can see the approach to the blue hut here.

There are rings of stones with holes in hung from the posts, which I've collected over the past couple of years while weeding.  I almost never used to see any, but I must have got my eye in as I find them regularly now, and being a Darwinist as opposed to a Creationist I assume they have been on the premises for a few million years and didn't just appear.  They are threaded on to nylon fishing line, which has many uses (including repairing the cat's knee).  The anchor on the ground came with a boat, and we didn't fancy using it for actually anchoring, and the brass navigation lights are off another former boat.  We did use them for a while, though with electric bulbs rather than oil lamps, before deciding that modern lights were less picturesque but safer.  The squashed lobster pot on the porch was bought at the Rye branch of Nauticalia the day after my fourtieth birthday.

The upright piece of timber with a hole in it was salvaged from a beach in Northumbria.  I found it, and instantly coveted it.  The Systems Administrator said 'I've already tested that, it's too heavy for me to carry'. There was no way I was going to give up a lovely piece of driftwood like that, and I said with hauteur that I would carry it myself.  It was very heavy, and we were a good half mile from the car.  I did have to stop for a lot of rests.  As we neared the car park an old boy eyed it up, and asked if we were going to have a bonfire.  Er, no.  Bits of wood like that cost good money at Hampton Court Flower Show, and anyway things you have found or made yourself have more significance.

I did have to buy the baulks of wood for the path.  They came from a garden centre specialising in landscape materials, and described as railway sleepers, though they were brand new and not coated in tar (a plus) and I think railway sleepers are larger than that, and nowadays made of concrete anyway.  I did my lower back a serious mischief settling them into their holes, which I only realised afterwards.  If you are contemplating making anything similar then do be very careful how you manipulate large pieces of wood in holes in the ground.  They get slippery in the winter, and the S.A. isn't very keen on them.

As a fantasy garden feature it is gloriously hackneyed, rapidly becoming a period piece, and I'm fond of it.  I've just planted some seed-raised sea campion along the bottom of the post and chain.  The problem is the setting, sitting as it does right in front of a native field hedge which does not say 'seaside'.  If it was in the middle of a large expanse of gravel, or in front of a tamarisk or sea buckthorn hedge, or even a concrete wall, it would be much more convincing.  And the crab apple just beyond the divider doesn't scream 'seaside' either, but it predates the blue hut and is a good tree and I'm not getting rid of it.  And the greenhouse doesn't help at all, though I have partially screened it with a trellis I built myself (it took a very long time).  Designing a garden is largely about the intelligent division of space.  We have succeeded pretty well in the back, but not really in the front.  But the blue hut is fun, and the Systems Administrator likes it in there.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

medical progress

The black cat went for a post-operative checkup this morning with the vet.  He has been walking around the house more than he did, though still with a pronounced limp, and jumped up on to the kitchen table the other day, and engaged the grey tabby in a staring and growling match, so we were optimistic that he was on the mend.  He yowled in the back of the car all the way to Colchester, which he has not done on his previous three visits, and once in the surgery limped obligingly about the consulting room so that the vet could see his gait, and purred nicely.  The vet was initially impressed that he was so much more mobile, and then concerned that the limp might be due to the joint slipping rather than the cat putting his weight down awkwardly on that leg, and then reassured that the suture was still in the right place. He has gained 200g in weight, but lost muscle from lack of activity. We were prescribed another bottle of anti-inflammatories, and told that in another couple of weeks he could probably go outside under supervision, and to bring him back again in a month.  She warned us that while she was always keen to get each cruciate ligament patient back to perfect condition, he might always have a slight limp, say one on a scale of one to ten.  That sounded fine to me.  As long as he isn't in pain and can move around freely that would count as a success.

I'm very impressed by the extent of the aftercare vets provide.  The cat saw the vet who carried out the operation two weeks after surgery, and again today which is five weeks since the op, and she wants him back in another month.  The Systems Administrator and I have both had surgery in the past, and all that either of us got was one follow-up appointment four weeks after the event.  We didn't get anti-inflammatories either (or screening for deep vein thrombosis, or stockings to prevent it, or all sorts of things that you are supposed to get nowadays.  The S.A.'s experience of treatment for a fractured knee cartilage was especially unfortunate as it was done under the company health scheme, who booked a London hospital.  The S.A. was sharing a room with an elderly patient, breathing very heavily and apparently on the verge of death, and I received a plaintive call mid-evening on the day of the op to say could I come now, please.  I managed to find my way to the hospital in St Johns Wood in the dark, which I thought was good going, and the S.A. hopped at great speed down the steps of the Whittington.  On the way home, just as we passed the M25, the exhause fell off my car.  We rattled thunderously home for the last forty miles at about 30mph, vibrating hideously.  I suggested that the S. A. could pretend we were in a damaged bomber limping back from a raid over Germany, but I don't think that helped ).

The cats have adapted pretty well to the shut inner door, and know to hang around by it when they want to go in or out.  The fat tabby still gets confused that it must be a trap, and dashes out of it when it's opened, then remembers that actually she wants to be inside.  The black cat doesn't try to rush the door, so he must understand at some level that he couldn't cope outside at the moment.  He does lie around with his eyes open, looking bored.  When he was going outside all he did for great hunks of the day was lie around in the long grass or under a bush sleeping, and the big tabby and our ginger happily lie around with him in the house, eyes shut and happily asleep.  The difference must be that they know they can go outside when they want to.  It has been a great relief that our ginger, who used to be rather a bully, has been very nice to the black cat since the op and not pestered him at all.

We've had a fair amount of time in the vets' waiting room to look at the other pets coming for treatment.  Somebody today had a couple of hedgehogs, or at least I think they were hedgehogs and not punk guinea pigs.  On our first visit someone had a small iguana resting on their chest.  There are lots of dogs, from the tiny, cute and healthy puppies that are only there for their jabs to the old and ill, and a fair number of greyhounds, because one of the partners specialises in them (plus reptiles).  A cheerful but overweight staffie was sent last time to be weighted on the scales in the corner of the waiting room, and as his equally fat owners headed back to the consulting room with him I thought their vet's powers of tact and diplomacy were about to be tested.  One man burst out of a consulting room in tears, and as he blundered towards the door without stopping to pay the receptionists murmered that it was all right, sort it out later.  (Actually there is a private back exit for owners who have just lost their pets).  I take my hat off to the vets, dealing with patients that can't speak and could be any species from a dog to an iguana, and simultaneously coping with the human owners, who have to take the decisions and pay the bills.  Actually I like our vets.  I rather wish I could go there when I'm ill.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


There was a bird flitting around the bird table this morning that I didn't recognise.  It was little and brown, but not a wren because its tail was too long, and overall it was shaped like a small thin dunnock.  It had a long slim beak, making it an insect eater rather than a seed eater.  There was a touch of yellow around what would be its armpits, if birds had armpits.  I asked the Systems Administrator, and as soon as I mentioned the yellow tops to the wings received the confident identification that what I had seen was a goldcrest.  I said that it didn't have a crest on its head, but apparently goldcrests don't.  So there we go, I've seen a goldcrest.  I've probably seen it before, but then I didn't know what it was.

The other bird observation comes at second hand, so is hearsay evidence (and would not be admissable in court).  I hadn't realised until we got chickens that one of the things a rooster does is find nice things to eat, and stand over them clucking and encouraging his ladies to come and eat them.  Our rooster was not initially very good at this.  I think he used to show them bits of gravel.  The hens tend not to take much notice of him, which seems to hurt his feelings.  I had suggested that the Systems Administrator when supervising chicken exercise time in the evening should drop some sultanas for the rooster to find and give to the ladies.  I missed the experiment because I was at work yesterday, but apparently the sultanas were a big hit and I hope the rooster's stock has gone up in the world.

It is the next bit that is really interesting.  I normally let the chickens into their run in the mornings because I wake up first, and when I let them out of their house they get a little snack.  It used to be wet bread, and at the moment its raw porridge oats, plus a sprinkling of sultanas. (Which used to be currants, but Tesco's Value sultanas are cheaper.  That is a definition of the middle class recession, when you downgrade the daily handful of dried fruit you give to your chickens from currants to Value sultanas).  Yesterday the rooster, having presided successfully over the first helping of sultanas, went rushing over to the front door as soon as the Systems Administrator next went into the house.  The chickens normally get dried fruit from a different person (me), at a different time of day (early morning) and in a different place (their run), but after one experience of being given sultanas in the afternoon out in the garden the rooster responded to a person going back into the house (where the sultanas come from) by running to the door, not even the chicken run where he has been fed loads of times.  I think that's quite bright.  I'd be moderately impressed if a dog got the hang of that after one go.

Monday, 11 July 2011

cleaning, customers and clematis

The boss suddenly got cross about the sordid state of the tennis hut, and employed one of her children to clean it.  I don't know what prompted her to take an interest in the condition of the staff room, which admittedly was absolutely disgusting.  Maybe it was the realisation that her friend's work-experience teenage daughter was expected to use it last week.  I think the idea is that we are supposed to keep it clean ourselves, and if we were allowed any time during the working day to do so I wouldn't mind spending the odd quarter of an hour helping wipe and tidy.  The trouble is that we aren't ever given time during working hours to do it, but always expected to be busy in the plant centre, or with the plants behind the scenes.  I utterly refuse to spend any part of my one hour unpaid break time cleaning the staff room, or arrive early or stay late to clean it.  The other staff feel much the same, and so it degenerates to a state of chaos and dirt.  Since I have a robust immune system and a very highly developed ability to tolerate squalor when needs be, it wasn't likely that I was going to blink first.

A longstanding customer came in today, whom I hadn't seen for a long time.  It turns out she has been ill.  She is one of those sweet, dippy people that one feels need looking after.  Fortunately nowadays she seems to have a nice unflappable chap to do just that.  She bought two trees, one a silver stemmed birch with leaves slightly chewed by insects and quite enormously tall.  She fussed about the leaf damage, largely for theatrical effect, and I reassured her that it was entirely normal for insects to have a little nibble as the summer went on, and that the tree would not suffer at all.  In fact, the circular hole in one leaf was positively exciting as it was the work of a leafcutter bee.  Her companion was more concerned about how we were going to fit the tree in his car, but we trussed it up with soft string and put the rootball in the passenger footwell, and the top was so flexible it would curl down inside the back window.  I hope it didn't snap on the way home.  Her daughter-in-law is also a customer, so she told us a story about getting muddled between being a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, and I told them the line from Iolanthe about how to find a mother younger than her son is very curious, and we parted in a state of mutual appreciation.

I spent a large part of the day disentangling clematis from each other, and cutting the wayward stems that had grown far beyond the ends of their canes.  It always seems such a waste to trim off healthy growth, but they do make more, and people won't buy them once they have all grown into each other.  I tried to keep any well-developed buds, twiddling the long stems round in loops where necessary, as they also sell better when people can see the flowers.  It was quite warm in the polytunnel, and one customer kindly observed that it was a hot place to work.  Actually, it wasn't too bad.  The humidity was a bit high, but people go on holiday to get a climate like that.

The guinea fowl were making a terrible racket just before closing time.  They have a rasping cry that sounds like rubbing metal.  I fixed them with a disapproving stare and said 'shhhh' and to our amazement they shut up.  I don't know if I'll ever pull that trick off again, or if they had finished anyway.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

picnic at Fingringhoe

I made a return visit to the nature reserve at Fingringhoe today, this time without the company of the over-talkative warden.  It was very calm and peaceful, and we didn't see many other people.  Out at the mouth of the river Colne two Thames barges made their serene way.

We didn't see many birds either.  July isn't a great month for bird watching.  They have largely finished breeding and are moulting and skulking about.  One of our number is a keen bird-watcher, and was equipped with a pair of binoculars, so was busy trying to decide if the things swimming around on one of the ponds were coots, moorhens, dabchicks or some sort of unusual duck.  I can never see anything through binoculars, although I can recognise coots and moorhens if I get a clear view of them, but I don't mind not knowing what birds are, or at least I use large and vague categories like 'duck', 'seagull', 'small brown one' or 'some sort of thrush'.  The last category covers fieldfares and redwings as well as bona-fide thrushes that are too far off to tell (without binoculars) if they are song or mistle.

I'm not very good at the names of wild flowers either.  Some people find this odd, but by taste and training I'm a gardener, not a field botanist.  I can recognise the weed species that trouble me in our garden, and know what sort of roots they have and how they spread, though I don't know all their names.  Gardening conditions your view of nature, and I found it impossible to respond with delight to a bank of purple loosestrife (or willowherb) that my companions found beautiful, because I couldn't shake off the image of those brittle white roots running through the borders at a rate of knots.  Even though they were not in a garden setting, and I could see that they were excellent insect plants with lots of visiting bees, I couldn't quite help thinking of the plant as a tricksy weed.

In general the pendulum has swung back from categorising plants as 'weeds' and seeking to control them and towards classing them as 'wild flowers' and therefore desirable.  I remember that when I was a child many more road verges were cut numerous times through the year and sprayed with herbicides to get rid of the messy weeds.  Nowadays driving around north Essex I see cow parsley, hogweed, yarrow, red and white campion, mallows and many others blooming in the summer verges.  This must partly be down to economics, as the money isn't there to cut more than a couple of times a year, and partly down to a re-thinking on pesticides.  Nearly half a century after publication of The Silent Spring we are more cautious about their toxicity than back in the spray-happy days of the 1960s and 1970s, when nature seemed so easy to control, and to need controlling.  And road verges are being recategorised as 'wildlife corridors', useful linking habitats.  There are even some in Essex that are designated sites of wildlife interest in their own right.

The reserve at Fingringhoe provides lots of picnic tables, and we were able to find one that had the right degree of shade, not too hot and not too cold.  A rain cloud passed not very far away, but just avoided us, and we used the excuse of it being a picnic to eat too much pudding.  It is a nice peaceful spot, and I recommend it.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

a small but perfectly formed agricultural show

I spent today at The Tendring Show.  This is a delightful agricultural show, and the beekeepers run a stand every year.  We stage a honey show, sell honey plus wax candles and cakes, offer a honey tasting and rolled candle making for children, and talk to members of the public about beekeeping with the aid of props including a beehive, an extractor, numerous beekeeping tools and posters, and two observation hives containing honey bees and a bumble bee nest.  I am always rostered to help man this last section, I think on the grounds that I talk to strangers in my day job and am happy initiating conversations.  It is always great fun, and today was no exception.  We had a huge number of people coming through our tent, some of whom were seriously thinking of keeping bees themselves, some who were interested in the beekeeping activities of a friend or neighbour even if they didn't want to do it themselves, and a lot who had just wandered in.  Quite a few of those discovered that bees were more interesting than they'd thought.

The observation hives are great aids.  The honey bee hive consists of three brood frames of bees removed from their usual hive for the day and sandwiched between two panes of glass, with some mesh to ventilate them at the bottom.  Since they got too hot a couple of years ago when it was very sunny they now have air conditioning in the form of a battery driven fan from an old laptop which drives extra air through the hive.  This year's queen was a natural performer, remaining visible all day on the face of the comb and even laying eggs, and attracting a retinue of worker bees stroking her with their antennae to absorb her smell.  Last year's queen hid round the side of the frame most of the time, and wasn't any help at all.  We also have a perspex lidded box with the bumble bee nest in it, connected by a short length of hose to a perspex box containing flowers, which we spray with sugar water so the bumbles come out and feed.

A few of the children thought that the bees were frightening or yukky, but most people seemed interested in what they were doing, and how beekeepers got honey.  Suddenly things they had noticed, like the way that a neighbour's beehive sometimes got taller and then shorter, made sense to them.  There is no doubting that all the media cover in the past few years of the problems facing bees, plus the bunting-festooned general zeitgeist of grow your own, jam making and backyard chickens, have created a great spirit of goodwill towards bees.  Membership of our association has soared in the past couple of years.  Not everybody who starts will keep it up, but I'm sure some will.

I did three stints on the stand, but the other half of the time was my own to go and look at the rest of the show.  Tendring is smaller than the county shows, but much more focused on the agricultural and rural.  There were classes for cattle, sheep and goats, mostly rare breeds including longhorn cattle with great curving horns, and Wensleydale sheep that have ultra-long coats in dreadlocks.  There was a poultry tent, and all the local hound packs were there, the fox hounds and the blood hounds and the beagles.  There were heavy horses.  I missed most of the horse parade in the main ring because I was on duty with the beekeepers at that point, but I saw Suffolks being driven in harness.  They are incredibly rare, fewer than 500 registered animals in the world.

There were working dog displays, some highly disciplined and some totally disorganised, and dog agility demonstrations, and demonstrations of hawks flying.  The hawks when not flying sat each on their own perch just next to our stand, and at the end of the day were fitted with little eyeless masks, each with a spike on top like a nineteenth century military helmet, to keep them calm while they were transported home.  There was a man from the Essex Bat Group who had two orphaned pipistrelles in a sock tucked inside his shirt, and I watched while he fed one of them with a tiny syringe, and wiped its face with a damp cotton bud afterwards.  At home he kept them in the airing cupboard.  There were stands for the wildfowlers, and the RSPB (who don't have contradictary aims, as most of Hamford Water is owned and managed by wildfowl groups, and they know exactly what they are permitted to shoot) and the Essex Wildlife Trust.

There was a thatcher, and a firm that would sort out your septic tank, and a woodburning stove company (who we don't speak to any more since they sold us the most unreliable range since the dawn of time).  Then there were non-agricultural but useful organisations like the Fire Brigade, complete with fire engine and campaigning for smoke alarms, and the RNLI, with lifeboat and campaigning for funds.  There were the Colchester Morris Men.  I love morris dancing, despite the barrage of ridicule R4 has directed at it over the past quarter of a century.  They must be a happy side, as they have a very low turnover of dancers.  I recognised most of the faces from previous years.

There were food stands, and I bought some cherries and some apple juice, and I found my usual beeswax handcream supplier in the poultry tent, which seemed odd until she explained she had brought geese as well as handcream.  There were some stands selling plants and crafts and clothes, but not so many that it didn't feel like an agricultural show.  Likewise, one local garage had a stand but it was mainly bona fide farm machinery on show.

There were lots and lots of dogs, all apparently enjoying themselves very much.  The Suffolk Show this year banned dogs, on the grounds that the fouling problem was upsetting people, and I was so disgusted that I e-mailed the Tendring Show website saying I hoped they weren't going to do the same thing, and was amazed to get a reply straight back saying no, the dogs were part of the fun.  I like dogs very much, though we stick with cats ourselves, and it is always a hoot to see the variety on offer, from tiny terriers to vast mastiffs, all behaving themselves nicely and socialising with the other dogs while the humans socialise with each other.  I didn't even see any dog mess.  I did meet my former GP, a former colleague, who was with a friend who had a lovely little 1930s Morris in the vintage car display, a current colleague, and the editor of the veg and fruit magazine who doesn't want a beekeeping column at the moment.

It didn't even rain at all until a quarter to five.  Tendring is a really good show, and next year I must remember to flag it a couple of weeks before the day, to encourage everyone else to go as well.  You will find me in the beekeeping tent (some of the time).