Tuesday, 31 January 2012

hellebores made me a killer

The phone went at half past nine this morning, and it was my Pilates teacher apologising that she was going to have to cancel this afternoon's lesson as she was ill.  While I wouldn't have wished her to be unwell I was quite happy to postpone, since my cold was getting snufflier by the hour.  There's a lot of it about.  A friend contacted us last night to rearrange supper booked for the weekend because our host had gone down with a cold so bad he was having to cancel his university lectures.  What's the old saying?  That a green winter makes a fat churchyard.  At least things are not that bad.  When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen, that's another one, and true enough.

It didn't seem to be raining when I went out to release the chickens into their run, and I kidded myself that I would be able to get on with some gardening as long as I was well wrapped up and remained active.  As I carried my tools down the garden I had to admit that the dusting of fine white granules on the beds was snow, and that it was gently sleeting.  I put the tools back in the garage, and limited myself to resetting the mousetraps.

I'd caught one mouse.  I felt sorry for it, and wondered if the desire to create a garden justified killing it.  But I want flowers.  I'm not a vegetarian.  If I am willing to go on eating meat provided I don't have to participate in the animals being slaughtered or see the process at first hand, but refuse to deal with rodents that are spoiling my garden, that makes me some sort of squeamish hypocrite.  I don't have to grow hellebores, or crocus (whose bulbs were almost entirely stripped out of the borders in last year's cold winter), but I like them.  I feel much more strongly about gardening than meat eating, which apart from domestic considerations I could take or leave.  One doesn't have to eat meat, any more than grow hellebores.  The Systems Administrator is absolutely not a vegetarian, doesn't want to be one, and does most of the cooking, so I have what the SA's having.  If I hadn't caught the mouse, something else probably would have.  It is in the nature of mice to be caught.  If they weren't, the mouse population would explode until north Essex was laid bare like the Oklahoma dust bowl.  I tipped the little body over the fence and reset the traps, still feeling mean.  I'll see how this campaign goes.

I ordered some more hellebores on-line, from Ashwood Nurseries.  This is a small family firm in the Midlands, renowned in the world of hellebore breeding, and I have wanted to get some of their plants for a long time.  Ashwood Garden Hybrids are readily available as young plants, take pot luck on colour, but although all of them would probably be lovely I wanted the luxury of choosing my colours.  I stuck to single flowers, which are much cheaper than the elaborate doubles, but more to the point more graceful, and went for a black, a claret, a green, a pinkish green, and one described as slate, colours that should combine well in a display around the soon-to-be-planted Enkianthus.  In a couple of years I should start getting self sown seedlings, which will be worth growing on and trying in other parts of the garden, with parentage like that.  Ashwood sell various species hellebores, but after reading up on their comparatively weak constitutions, susceptibility to disease and fussiness about soil I stuck with the Garden Hybrids.  Very vigorous plants, tolerant of most soils.  That's what I want.

And that was it.  I know it's a dull day when I'm reduced to doing the ironing.  I listened to a new CD of Norweigan folk songs by Trio Mediaeval and the first part of Pandolfi's violin sonatas, which made it more interesting, but I could have listened to them while gardening, if it hadn't been such miserable weather and I hadn't had a cold.

Addendum  The Systems Administrator updated the wireless driver on my laptop last Friday, and since then it has been connecting to the internet without problems, like a normal machine, which is provisionally encouraging.  The new wireless transmitter ordered at the same time, to see if fitting that would help, still hasn't arrived, and nor have any of the various concert, museum and theatre tickets I ordered last week.  If it's not BT it's the post office, out here in the boondocks.  

Monday, 30 January 2012

introducing the Caucasian wing nut

As I was standing in the hall this morning, piling on more layers of clothing in preparation to leave the cosy kitchen and go to work, a muntjac walked right past the front door, travelling from the direction of the wood towards the lettuce farm.  That's not such a welcome wildlife sighting to start the day.

It was very quiet at the plant centre.  The temperature never rose above 3 or 4 degrees C, and it's forecast to get colder, so I can't blame people for not feeling an immediate desire to come and buy plants.  Even the inside of the shop felt cold.

We received a visit from a woman who is staying with the owner's parents, who had been given the impression by somebody that we had Pterocarya fraxinifolia in stock.  I'm not quite sure how that came about, as I don't think any member of staff told her that.  After we'd failed to find any about the plant centre we asked the boss, who checked on the computer and confirmed that we probably hadn't any, so told the gardener to take a mattock and dig a nice straight sucker up for her from the tree in the arboretum.  P. fraxinifolia is a lovely, large tree, with big divided leaves ('fraxinifolia' = leaves like an ash, Fraxinus.  The clue's in the name), and huge, dangling greenish white catkins in summer.  I have admired the boss's tree in full bloom, but never grasped that it was such a prolific suckerer.  My colleague took the customer to see the sucker being dug up, and because she wanted to see the tree for herself, and reported that the suckers were coming up over an area of tens of square metres.  The Hillier manual says that it is happiest in a moist loamy soil, and is particularly suitable for planting near lakes or rivers.  It sounds like the boss's specimen is extremely happy.  His father-in-law's friend began to look rather alarmed, and to talk about keeping her Pterocarya in a pot.

I tried to finish the pots stock take, but some didn't have labels, or even prices, and the names on the stock list were as arbitrary and ridiculous as Ikea furniture designs, so there was no logical way of matching physical pot to stock item on the print-out, if you weren't already in the know.  It began to drizzle.  My cold, which had been seeming to go away, resurged last night as a spectacularly phlegmmy cough, and I didn't think that standing about outside in the cold and rain was doing it any good at all.

None of the staff know what is happening about the tea room.  After a flurry of builders arriving to quote nothing else happened, and I presumed that in view of the Eurozone crisis and general economic doom the management had decided to conserve their cash and postpone it, but today the owner went on a food hygiene course.  Maybe she is just planning ahead.  We are surely getting too close to the busy spring period to have the builders in now.  Any kind of change at work always seems to take a very long time.  When I first worked there, the tills were outside in a small garden shed.  The owner and the boss spent a year agonising over whether it was a good idea to move them inside, and even after they had bought new counters to put the tills on, the tills stayed in the shed for several more months while the new furniture stood unused in a corner at the back of the shop.  Also when I started working there we didn't have uniforms, and after the idea was mooted that we should wear something that made in obvious who were members of staff, reps from assorted work wear companies were summoned in to a whole series of meetings stretching out over months, bringing samples of our logo stitched on to various fabrics, before it was finally agreed that we would have a uniform, what it would be, and who would supply it.  Same with website designers.  So I expect they'll get there eventually with the tea room, but they might need another year or two first to get used to the idea.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

problems of access and choice

It was a grey morning, the cloud hanging low, and driving to work I passed a hawk sitting on a gate post.  I presumed it was a kestrel that had given up hovering because it couldn't see anything.  It had a dark back with barred markings.  A colleague suggested it might have been a female sparrow hawk, which have bright yellow legs.  I didn't see this one's legs, trundling past it at 30mph, but I'll try and remember that for next time.  She recently saw some short eared owls on some rough grass by the river Stour, when she was out beating, but I definitely wouldn't recognise one of those.

An early phone call at work was from a woman who wanted a white flowered camellia.  I described what we had in stock to her (not much, some tiny specimens of 'Silver Anniversay' and a couple of 'Alba Simplex' and 'Mathotiana Alba'.  She then warned me that she was a wheelchair user, and asked if we still had the gravel in the plant centre, which is not wheelchair friendly.  I had to confess that we did still have it, not least because we couldn't afford to replace it with paving over such a large area.  We arranged that when she arrived she would ring us, and we would take the plants out to her car for her to have a look at them.  I pointed out that it might be a good idea to bring enough cash, or we were happy to take a cheque, since if she wanted to use the credit card machine she would need to get into the shop.

She offered to tell me her pin number.  I promised that if she wanted to do that I would never tell her bank that she had, and she said it was all right, she had to do it quite often, at petrol stations.  That is something I never even thought of.  I read Melanie Reid's 'Spinal Column' in the Times supplement when one of my colleagues brings it into work, and I had imagined the difficulty of getting into shops, especially small independents, but it never occurred to me that you wouldn't be able to do something as mundane as pay for petrol.  I suppose the alternative is to carry a lot of cash, but that isn't ideal either.  You would feel exposed even withdrawing it, then continuing on your way in your chair.  When she arrived she liked one of the plants, and had brought enough money to pay for it in the car park.  She had a beautiful and calm smile, despite the fact that each day of her life must contain enough aggravation and petty annoyances to keep the rest of us going for a fortnight.

The next customers ended up bewildered by choice.  They had been to Anglesey Abbey, and fallen for the charms of the grove of white stemmed birches, which they had photographed.  Unfortunately the name they had latched on to was Jacquemontii.  When they discovered that there were several different named varieties of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii they became frozen with indecision.  We didn't have the straight species in stock anyway.  We had 'Grayswood Ghost', which has extra long catkins as well as the striking white bark, but having not seen catkins at Anglesey Abbey they didn't want them.  I don't know why not, given that they weren't being offered a choice between bark and catkins but the opportunity to have both, but they had a set idea of what their birch trees should look like, and catkins were not included.  They were very reluctant to believe that the brown stems of our young trees would turn to the glistening white they had admired, even after I had pointed out the white patches developing at the base of the trunk where it was thickest.  It was a pity not to have sold them some 'Grayswood Ghost' on the spot, but I expect they'll be back, when they've done some more reading up and adjusted to the idea that there are so many different sorts of white stemmed birch.

Then we went on with the stock take in the shop.  This is a job of such awful, mind-numbing tedium that if you let yourself think about how boring it really is you would lie down on the ground and refuse to open your eyes, or start howling like a distressed inmate of the Battersea Dogs' Home.  The whole thing ought to be done using bar codes, on an electronic tablet, instead of by hunting manually through about 80 pages of printout of an excel spreadsheet for something that fits the description and price of each stock item.  The spreadsheets are in no discernable order, and the things in the shop are artistically dotted around all over the place.  Still, I've only got one day of that left to go, and then by Monday week they must have finished.

It got very cold later on.  My colleagues at 4.00pm asked if anybody should stay late.  I said firmly that I didn't think so.  Nobody was going to come now.  When I got into my car the thermometer read one degree.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

stock taking, bulbs and shopping

On the Radio 4 farming programme this morning there was talk of how the mild winter has led the UK population of rats and mice to explode, so I am not alone with my rodent problem.  On farms they gather around grain stores.  Even if they are kept out of the actual store, it's getting to the point where the risk of treading droppings inside on their shoes is an issue for some farmers.  Rabbit numbers have soared nationally too, which fits with the Systems Administrator's warning to me last night that they are coming into the meadow again.

The new chap has started at work.  Today was the end of his first week, and he still seems enthusiastic.  Even having begun with us during the stock take (easily the most tedious task of the entire working year) has not put him off, as he said that it was a good opportunity to discover where things were.  With a positive attitude like that he will go far.

So many stock categories have now been stock-taken that the only thing to do is to write down everything that we sell, while apologising to the customers for the delay at the till.  Fortunately everyone today was very relaxed about it.  I was briefly dispatched with the new chap to stock take some pots, but as we couldn't find the first pots we looked at anywhere on the system, either by description or by price, we decided we'd have to leave that section until the manager was around.  We did manage to do the faux oriental terracotta lanterns and hollow clay balls with stars cut out, and my colleagues finished the shrubs while I minded the till.

My task for the day was to put a fresh delivery of bulbs out for sale.  This entailed getting the stand for them out of the back of the tractor shed, where it had been stowed right at the very back behind a table, some scaffolding, a broken chair, assorted planks of wood and other Stuff.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and it is in the nature of sheds to attract Stuff.  This one is full of it, with just enough space for the tractor.  A half full stand of bulbs looks miserable, so I consolidated the new delivery with some odd lilies and gladioli that were on the seed potato and onion rack, and spread the latter out to fill the gaps.  The stand itself was slightly alarmingly wobbly, and I propped it up from behind with a galvanised incinerator and a box of plastic plant ties, just in case.

The new bulbs included Galtonia candicans, a tall growing, summer flowering species with white flowers like little bells up stout spikes.  Its common name according to the packet is summer flowering hyacinth, though if you ever want any you'd do better to stick to Galtonia.  It appeared on Gardeners' World last year, and I remembered that following the programme someone had wanted some, and left their details, so I rang him and left a message to say that Galtonia were now in.  He came to get some later in the day, and thanked me profusely for ringing, which was nice of him, so I gave some cultural advice free and gratis, which is that the plant is said to like to see the light, so despite the height of the flower spike it's happier at the front of the border than tucked away at the back among lots of other foliage.  He said he had just the spot for it, and went away happy.

I went away happy too, having succumbed to the beauty of 'Livia' (I thought I would, assuming there were any left) and while I was at it picked up a couple of rare, not too big shrubs to tuck in by the new Enkianthus, as I got the Rosa rugosa stump out yesterday so that bit of the sloping bed is nearly ready for replanting.  One was Mahonia gracilipes, a late summer or autumn flowering charmer with purplish red (not yellow) flowers and chalky white undersides to its (more typically Mahonia like) pinnate leaves.  It is a Roy Lancaster introduction to western gardens.  The other was a female variety of Skimmia called 'Wakehurst White' with white berries and dainty clusters of white, scented flowers.  Also a small leaved myrtle, Myrtus communis 'Tarrentina' for the gravel, since last season we ran out for most of the year.  Apart from the Hamamelis x intermedia 'Livia' these are all staying in my greenhouse for another month, until February's weather is safely out of the way.

Friday, 27 January 2012

the war of the rodents

Something has been eating the flower buds of my hellebores.  I was picking up dead hydrangea leaves from around them as I tidied the bed by the ditch, and cutting off any blackened and unhealthy looking hellebore leaves, when I found the mangled remains of petals on the ground.  On first seeing a damaged flower shoot I thought I must have inadvertently trodden on the crown of the plant, but I soon realised that there was much too much damage for that (besides which, I am generally fairly careful where I put my feet and I didn't think I had stepped on them).  The pink and white fragments were in little piles, and I am pretty sure that rodents were the culprits.  I found the entrances to burrows among the plants, and as I knelt scooping up leaves and ruined flowers, I put weight on my left hand and the ground crumbled beneath it.  I temporarily wondered if pheasants were to blame, as they will eat flowers, but given the remains of the buds were piled under the hydrangea leaves it clearly wasn't them.

I felt rather stricken with disappointment, though not yet crushed.  Stuff happens when gardening, and plants that you like and were looking forward to have off years.  I don't know if the loss of their buds at an early stage before the flowers were pollinated and started to set seed will trigger the plants to make more buds, or if hellebore metabolism doesn't work like that and I've had my lot, or rather the rodents have.  It will be interesting, in a purely scientific way, to see what happens next.

Then I felt irritated that with five cats on the payroll, plus Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat having the run of the garden, my flowers should suffer in this way.  The sad truth is that the cats are quite useless as rodent operatives, preferring to spend their evenings in front of the fire.  Or at least, the boys sit with us by whatever fire we've got lit at the time.  The two females don't often bother, the grey tabby spending her time in the hall and the fat indignant tabby in whichever room we're not in, away from it all.

I considered my options.  I could sigh and take it lying down.  That was an option, although not a palatable one.  Using poison in the open garden was not an option.  I have in desperation resorted to it under cover, in sheds, but not outside.  We have a thriving owl population, not to mention the cats.  I couldn't risk them eating poisoned rodents.  Research by The Barn Owl Trust shows that 40% of dead barn owls brought in to them contained some rat or mouse poison.  That's not to say rodenticide was the immediate cause of death, since many barn owls are killed in collisions with road traffic, but it can't be good for their health having poison in their systems.  The blue poison pellets were out.

That left trapping.  The manager uses mousetraps at work in the polytunnels.  Small rodents will unearth and eat bulbs in pots, and gnaw off the bark at the base of shrubs, and cause a great deal of damage.  One of our suppliers lost a substantial part of an entire crop of daphnes, when rodents got to work in the greenhouse.  Trapping mice is not pleasant, but sometimes it has to be done.   I called at B&Q, where I found various live-catch-and-release traps, and some traditional snap-and-kill ones.  I went for the lethal variety.  Live trapping, unless you are going to check your traps several times a day, seems to me very cruel indeed.  I set one of the traps on the kitchen table, and cautiously triggered it with a pencil.  It snapped shut with such ferocity that it leaped into the air.  I found it deeply alarming.  Still, it needs to be powerful to kill the mouse instantly.  I baited my pair of traps with peanuts, set them, and carried them carefully down the garden.  There I put them inside a length of drainpipe that the Systems Administrator conveniently had left over from some project, poking them well in with a stick.  I don't want to risk catching birds, and indeed as it said on the mousetrap packaging it would be an offence to do so.  Nor do I want them snapping shut on the foot of a passing cat.

I'll see how it goes.  I may not catch anything, or the supply of hellebore-eating rodents in that part of the garden may be inexhaustible.  It's nature red in tooth and claw.  At least I am not yet as mad as Michael Pollan, who poured gasoline down a woodchuck's burrow and set fire to it.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

barely connected in the digital world

There is something severely wrong with our broadband connection.  In a way that is the good news, since initially we thought it was my computer, until the Systems Administrator’s computer began to show the same symptoms.  It seems unlikely that some bot so well hidden it has slipped past all virus checks has infected both laptops, so we are back to our internet connection, either the line or the modem, as the chief suspect.

Broadband here has never been very good.  We are a long way from the exchange, by the winding route that the copper cable takes, and various trees lean on it en route.  There was a proposal a few years ago from a rival to BT to build a wireless broadband network in this area.  Our house would have been in direct line of sight of the transmitter, and we were all for it.  At the last minute BT announced an upgrade to their service, still not to anything very good, but just enough to kill the wireless idea.  Last summer our broadband capacity rose for several months, and the SA became quite excited and started talking about being able to stream films, but then it crashed back again.  BT must have stuck another fifty houses on the end of the line.  Now there are plans to upgrade the service to various villages in the Tendring peninsular, but ours isn’t on the list of lucky places that are going to get a decent signal.

My current laptop has never been very good, which is a pity.  The technical description sounded as though it ought to be just right for my purposes.  I don’t need huge capacity to handle graphics as I don’t play computer games.  I just want to browse the net, use e-mails, and do a bit of typing and very low-level spreadsheeting.  That shouldn’t be too hard.  Even a mid range laptop should be able to do that in its sleep with one hand tied behind its back.  Mine has always been on the slow side navigating around the web.  The SA has spent a long time adjusting the settings and clearing its caches.  I have obediently tried to follow a shifting set of instructions about closing it, not closing it, restarting it, not running too many applications at once and so on.  Its performance has remained erratic.

This morning it fell back to a level that would have been poor in the days of dial-up.  The CPU was very, very busy, and little lights on the keyboard showed that it was contacting the internet.  It just wouldn’t let me on-line.  The SA began to mutter that it was really not right, and there must be something in there, even though all home tests had come back clean.  I steeled myself to take it for a professional inspection.  It isn’t a nice thought, contemplating handing your laptop over to a stranger.  I don’t store any passwords, but it has all sorts of data on it, and I have some on-line accounts.  I don’t know any professional laptop doctors, and don’t know how to find a reputable one.  Go to the little shop next to the village store, and assume that since they’ve been there for a few years they must be honest?  We agreed that the SA would take it in tomorrow on the way to Tesco.

By lunchtime the SA’s laptop was doing all the things that mine often does, crashing out of sites, churning away but without accessing the page the SA had asked for, and temporarily losing the internet connection.  By mid afternoon both machines were behaving perfectly well on-line.  The SA’s latest theory is that something, the line or the modem, is causing frequent micro-interruptions to our connection, and that my machine for whatever reason doesn’t cope with this at all well.  That could explain why it seems to keep going into full start-up mode in the middle of a session.  It’s a theory.  The visit to the little shop in the village has been put on hold, for now.

I have to smile grimly when I hear politicians chunter on about how the UK needs to be a knowledge based economy, small businesses are what will create jobs and lead us out of recession, and all that stuff.  If I were trying to run a small business from here I would be tearing my hair out.  We live sixty miles from London and six miles from Colchester (the UK’s fastest growing town, apparently) and we don’t have a decent internet connection.  Never have had.  That’s one reason why I don’t leave things like my on-line tax return until the last minute (though we do have a 3G dongle for emergencies).

Of course it could be our modem.  If that is what’s causing the temporary loss of signal then I owe BT an apology.  Only a small one, though, because we get a pretty pathetic amount of capacity at the best of times.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

the sweet delights of winter flowers

It was so murky this morning that I couldn't even see the wind turbine from the bathroom window, but the rain had passed.  The still, damp, not too cold air provided perfect conditions to actually be able to smell the witch hazels in the back garden.  On very cold days, or when there's a stiff breeze, their scent can be pretty elusive, but there was no missing it today.  Above the spicy tang of the Hamamelis drifted the insistent, sweet fragrance of Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'.  The bush has thrown up more suckers since I potted the last lot up, and one of them is blooming.  I saw to my pleasure that the flowers were the same as on the rest of  the plant, meaning that the original wasn't grafted.  I didn't think it was, as I never saw any signs of the graft, and you usually can if you look closely, but it's nice to have confirmation that my two spare plants in pots in the greenhouse are 'Jacqueline Postill' and not a nameless and inferior rootstock.

I put canes along the edge of the wood to mark the spot where they will go in a month or so, once the risk of a freezing blast in February is over.  The parent plant has come through two severe winters here, but small, newly planted specimens can be vulnerable, and they have spent all winter in the greenhouse and never yet experienced a frost in their lives.  I planted the Oemleria cerasiformis, and surrounded it with a wire netting cage to try and keep the rabbits and muntjac off it until it has had time to get established.  It is a suckering shrub, and the boss gives its ultimate dimensions as 2.5m tall by 4m across, so once it gets going I don't think the rabbits will make much of an impact.  Surveying the small tuft of sticks that is all the Oemleria runs to at the moment, and the two bamboo canes standing in for the Daphne, I tried to visualise their full spread at maturity and wondered hopefully if there was space for the plum red flowering Hamamelis x intermedia 'Livia', which we have started stocking for the first time this year.  It is very handsome, and in a different part of the red spectrum to the others, and I should dearly like to grow it, but I had to admit that there probably wasn't room for one, or at least not anywhere where it would get enough light.  If we have any left at work come the weekend then I may yet talk myself into the contrary position.

Daphne bholua 'Alba' is out as well.  It is a pretty thing, which has only grown to half the height of 'Jacqueline Postill', and so far is not suckering at all, so could be a good choice for a small space.  The wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, is blooming.  I bought mine as the pure yellow form, but the flowers have a definite smudge of purple on the inside.  It has been quite slow growing in its early years.  The scent of Daphne bholua was so strong that it was difficult to detect whether the wintersweet smelt of anything or not.  It is certainly supposed to.  Further up the garden, Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' has suddenly opened.  The flowers are single, about the size of a penny or a little larger, in a good, clear, strong shade of dark pink.  They have no scent, and nor has the lovely Lonicera 'Elisae', which is just opening its slender, tubular flowers in a delicate, tantalising shade of very pale melon pink.

After sorting out the Oemleria, I re-potted my three Acer palmatum.  One existing pot had fractured and partially delaminated due to frost.  I'd made temporary repairs with glue, but knew it was only a matter of time before I went out into the back garden and discovered the root ball of my poor Acer exposed to the elements, with bits of disintegrated pot scattered around it.  It needed more root space anyway.  I decided to re-pot the other two while I was at it, partly because they needed potting on, one badly so, and partly because I wanted to standardise on the same design of pot for purely aesthetic reasons.

I have seen the light when it comes to pot design.  After a flirtation with egg shaped pots, very trendy in the early part of the new century and now so horribly last decade, I have come to appreciate the enormous, practical virtues of the traditional flower pot shaped pot, one whose diameter expands steadily from the base upwards.  The design I have fixed on, with minor variations depending on the manufacturer, is the classic camellia pot, a thick walled, sloping sided pot with a couple of horizontal ribs round the outside.  I presume that these evolved to strengthen the walls of the pot, as well as for ornament.  The camellia pot is a design classic which has remained essentially unchanged since the Renaissance, because nobody has been able to improve on it in hundreds of years.  You can see the same pots scattered through the illustrations to Monty Don's Great Gardens of Italy.

The trouble with egg shaped pots is that the diameter at the top is narrower than the widest part of the root ball.  Getting an established shrub out, let alone one that has been allowed to become at all pot-bound, is a brutal job.  I had to get the Systems Administrator to pull from above at the Acer that was still in an egg pot, while I scrabbled at the edges of the root system, scraping off compost until I'd narrowed the root ball down enough for us to drag it out of the pot (the alternative is to smash the pot with a lump hammer).  Getting a shrub out of a flared flower pot is a comparative doddle.  Once you've broken the surface connection between the mass of roots and compost and the inside of the pot, and got the root ball to slide even a couple of millimetres, the rest is easy.  I did ask for help lifting a big Acer that was going from one camellia pot into a larger one, but that was a question of bulk and gravity, not pot design.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

finally shopping in the sales

When I got up this morning, and wound the bathroom blind up, it didn't look too bad out of the window.  Grey, yes, but I thought that maybe the rain that was forecast yesterday evening hadn't made it this far east.  Going out to let the chickens into their run, I discovered that I was mistaken.  It was raining, a gentle steady silt of water, the sort of rain that if you were to dash outside for a minute you could deceive yourself into thinking that it was nothing much, but if you were to work in it for half an hour you would be soaked.

At least it meant I sat down to the third re-write of the garden guide without the feeling that I was missing out on doing anything more exciting.  It is supposed to read as though the visitor had somebody friendly, chatty and knowledgeable walking beside them (someone, in other words, just like me) but I've now read it so many times that I can't tell how it would seem, if you were coming to it cold.  I think it's OK.  The next step will be to send it off to the people who are going to print it, and we'll find out if it is far too long and needs to be cut down.  The owner is using the same firm that designed the website, to get a unified look for the business, and presumably because she is used to working with them.  They provided text for the website when it was first set up, which was written in a sort of mangled estate agent speak and was truly awful, so we ought to be able to do better than that.  I have discovered, though, that if you want to avoid sounding like a magazine advertising feature, you do tend to end up rather jolly and hearty like the Boden catalogue.

Then I ordered some pots from the Whichford Pottery.  In recent years they've done a January offer, with 10% off pots and free delivery on orders over £90, a minimum saving of £38.50.  I wanted some more tulip pots, and while I won't need them until November when it is the right time to plant tulips, I thought I might as well get them cheap.  I can use them for bedding over the summer, which will be pretty, and it's not as though I'm going to get ten per cent on the money from the bank between now and then.  I was just beginning to worry that I hadn't had details of an offer this year, and wonder if they were going to do one, when the catalogue arrived.  I have said it before, but they are wonderful pots, and will last you a gardening lifetime, unless you drop them (or run them over in a truck, as happened to one of mine once).

It was still raining.  I arranged to meet up with various friends and relations, and trawled through my Amazon wish list.  I always keep a long list.  It acts as a reminder of things I've read about or heard on the radio that sound interesting, instead of keeping notes on scraps of paper which I invariably lose.  Sometimes they sit on there for years, and I go off the idea and delete them again.  Prices go up and down a lot, especially for second hand stuff.  There was a folk album I tracked for years, that always seemed to have three vendors on at £38.50, before a used copy described as very good popped up for a tenner.  I've gone off Amazon vendors for used books, after buying one too many that was grubbier and more battered than I would have expected from the description, but used CDs are generally fine.  After all, every CD I own counts as 'used', and unless they get scratched there isn't much to go wrong.  Or at least, we have been threatened with disc degradation and incompatibility with modern equipment, but it hasn't happened yet.

It is of course very quaint and old fashioned to still be buying CDs, and statistics show that the trend is against me.  I still like them.  Apart from a few that I have managed to scratch, every CD I have ever bought since they were first introduced still works, which is more than you can say for all the computers I've ever owned, most of which are completely dead.  And no, I don't expect Apple to go bust, and the chances of my music collection being lost in the cloud are probably about the same as those of my house burning down with my CDs in it.  But I like having information stored in discrete packages where if one gets damaged or lost the others are fine (eggs, baskets).  As I'm not great at managing technology I like having a disc that I can put in a slot just like putting vinyl on a turntable, without getting caught up in an episode of Computer says No.  I like the sleeve notes.  I actually like the thing-ness of the row of cases in the shelf.

It's still raining.  There's no more to be said.

Monday, 23 January 2012

taking stock

The owner and I walked around the garden first thing, with the latest draft of the garden guide, checking that everything mentioned occurred at the point where the text said it would (it did) and adding in extra trees worthy of mention.  There was lots to see, with big fat bunches of snowdrops almost fully open, and camellias and witch hazels in bloom.  As Monday mornings go, being paid to walk around an interesting garden is well up there as a good way to start the week.  The dog came along, and more or less stayed with the owner for the entire tour.  Apparently on Saturday she was taken on a shoot and disgraced herself, charging around uncontrollably.  Today, truffling about in evergreens against the wall of the plant centre, she flushed out a large muntjac, which ran away in a lumbering and slightly non-urgent fashion.  After a long pause the dog followed, without conviction.  She is a terrier, not a hound, and doesn't seem to consider that chasing large beasts of the field is part of her remit.  It's just as well, really, as she gets lost often enough running after rabbits.

Things went downhill after the positive start, and I was required to scribe for the shop stocktake.  Stocktaking the shop is a task of such awful, tedious grimness that I think it is worse than doing my tax return, if that is possible.  The stuff in the shop comes from umpteen different suppliers, and we don't have bar-codes.  Records of stock brought forward and ordered during the year are entered on an excel spreadsheet so large that the printed version is stapled together in four separate sections, because it is too fat for our staplers to cope as a single document.  The person doing the counting announces what the stock item is, and the scribe has to hunt for it in the vast spreadsheet.  Sometimes whole minutes elapse between the counter saying how many items, and the wretched scribe finding the right page, by which time both have forgotten the answer and the counter has to count them again.

Insecticides.  Fertilisers.  Fungicides.  Garden lanterns.  Lamp oil.  String.  Gloves.  Mugs.  Watering cans.  Raffia.  Hose connectors.  Toiletries.  Vases.  Trugs.  Metal obelisks.  Garden hand tools.  Jam pot covers.  Vegetable peeling bins.  Bird boxes.  Bird feeders.  Plant supports.  Bird food.  Plant supports.  Books.  Greetings cards.  Tea towels.  Soil testing kits.  Plant labels.  Wooden fruit.  Notepads.  Bridge sets.  Candles.  Tea cosies.  Shopping bags.  Swiss army knives.  Seeds.  Door stops.  Boot jacks.  Garden kneelers.  Beneficial miccorrhizae.  Coat hooks.  Plastic tubs.  Toasting forks.  Nutcrackers.  Scrubbing brushes.  Tissue box holders.  Place mats.  Seed storage tins.  Kitchen roll holders.  Gift wrap.  Paper napkins.

We sell all of these and more, mostly in multiple sizes and colours and varieties.  You wouldn't believe how many different sorts of gardening glove we stock, or how many varieties of string.  Sometimes the boss has loaded the stock code on to the spreadsheet, but sometimes there is just a description.  Sometimes the boss's description doesn't pick up on the key word that appears on the packaging, so a 'power saw' is recorded as a 'folding saw' (probably a more accurate description, looking at it).  The scribe then spends a long time trying to match what the counter has told them to the spreadsheet, without success.  Sometimes similar items appear in more than one place on the spreadsheet, so gloves give way to wellington boots, but then over the page there are suddenly some more gloves, as the spreadsheet fails to run in stock code order.

It would be too simple if all of the watering cans were together, or all of the string in one place.  To make the shop appear more tempting there are themed tables and ornamental displays.  One of my colleagues put together a display of green things.  It was quite cute, in a sort of Gardens Illustrated shopping section way, and mixed up string, raffia, candles, vases, watering cans, candles, kitchen waste caddies, bottles for making infusions of herbal oil, gloves and a textile door stop, all coloured different shades of green.  In all it ran across at least a dozen different categories of the stock sheet.  My colleague would tell me that the next thing was a glove code TML406S.  I would spend five minutes trying to find my way back to gloves.  She would say 'There's one of those', and on we went, hunting this time for the green metal vertical sided vase.

The new member of staff starts tomorrow.  Poor sod, he is going to have a baptism of fire.  After the stocktake things can only get better for him.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

a short walk on the Orwell

I went to Pinmill this afternoon.  I hadn't been there for a long while.  It is a ridiculously pretty village on the river Orwell, reached down a narrow lane in a valley that feels more West Country than East Anglia.  Quaint cottages sit higgledy piggledy along the road, including Alma Cottage, setting of the start of Arthur Ransome's We didn't Mean to Go to Sea.  The hard is broad and wide, with wooden scrubbing posts, and assorted traditional boats, which were sitting upright on the mud as it was no more than half tide.  At high tide the water laps the walls of the famous pub, the Butt and Oyster.  It's an historic pub, full of beams and panelling, and also mentioned by Ransome, and is a pleasant place to sit, especially if you can get a window seat with a view out over the river, though I see it is not in the 2012 Camra guide.  However, I was not there for the pub, but for a Sunday afternoon walk with a friend.

Parking in Pinmill was unexpectedly tight, for a winter's day, and the two cars ahead of us bagged the last two spaces in the town car park.  I thought I was going to have to squeeze in next to somebody's hedge on the lane, then got lucky as someone vacated a place in a little enclave just off the road, that had other cars parked in it and didn't seem to be a passing space or part of anyone's garden.  Life for car owners in Pinmill must be difficult, especially in the warmer weather when the tourists flock in.  It looks as though it would be a challenge for them to find spaces to park themselves, let alone for their guests if they want to hold a party.

We set off upstream, armed with a map the Systems Administrator had printed off the computer for me.  Normally the SA is in charge of walks, and I just tag along, so I felt a vague burden of responsibility, although as we were only going up the river and not venturing on to the high fells there wasn't that much that could go wrong.  We passed some cottages that seemed worrying close to sea level, though very quaint and boasting (do houses still boast in estate agents' details?) lovely river views.  The river was almost empty of boats, in contrast to the summer when nearly every mooring buoy is occupied, and a strong breeze was churning the water to a grey chop.  Birds sat out on the mud, and we gazed at them with vague benevolence.  A tidy houseboat, sitting so high on the marsh that it must have been floated on during a big spring tide, had a notice outside saying it was available as a holiday let.  It would be a beautiful and atmospheric place to stay, if you didn't mind carrying your luggage half a mile across fields.

The riverside path after a while seemed to lead us into the river, and we decided that the path lay further inland inside a little patch of woodland.  We soon came to the Cat House, a brick built grade II listed Gothick cottage near the riverfront at Woolverstone.  The name refers to the story that in smuggling days of old the owner used to put a cat in the window to show when the coast was clear of revenue men.  I always assumed it was a china cat, but according to Wikipedia it was his pet cat which he had stuffed when it died.  The view of the Cat House is rather obscured by Woolverstone Marina and the Royal Harwich Yacht Club, and their associated shore based litter of boat hoists, parked day boats and dinghy racks.

The marina enjoys (do houses still enjoy?) a highly scenic position, and rapid access to the open river, but offers limited protection, as the pontoons simply sit along the edge of the channel.  In today's wind they were bouncing up and down a lot, and the few boats still in the water were rolling with them.  Conditions on board would be uncomfortable, and there's always the risk that a boat will roll on to the edge of the pontoon and smash its stanchions.  There is the possibility of passing marine traffic ploughing into the outside pontoons.  We kept a boat there at one time, but not any more.

Despite the map I couldn't pick up the path that would have taken us back into the wooded environs of Woolverstone Park, and we walked up the road from the marina, until we came within sight of the church that lay on our return route.  Or at least, our return route assuming that we were turning round at that point.  The SA had printed off more map for me than that, and spoken encouragingly about how we could go up to Freston Tower.  This is a handsome sixteenth century six storey brick tower, whose original purpose is a complete mystery.  Nowadays it is owned by the Landmark Trust, so you could go on holiday there if you wanted a holiday on the banks of the Orwell and didn't fancy a houseboat with no road access.  We didn't make it that far, since the afternoon's walk was supposed to be a nice chat with added views, not a route march.  We did stop to look at the church of St Michael, Woolverstone, but it was locked, so we admired the clipped yews leading to the door, and the porch with its unusual chequerboard floor of slate laid on edge, but couldn't see inside.

Our route back took us along the edge of a field, and was clearly a popular local route for dog walkers.  One elderly and stout black labrador had got three good long sticks jammed into its jaws, and looked thoroughly pleased with itself, tail wagging wildly.  Black labs seem a favoured breed in this part of Suffolk.  We met lots, and most stopped to say hello.  Only a great grey curly coated lurcher type slunk past us, eyeing us shyly, and a jack russell was too excited running up and down to stop.

As we were about to drop down the side of a small wood back to the river, a buzzard appeared from the trees, and was soon joined by another.  They circled closer to us than buzzards usually come, and we watched for several minutes as they flapped lazily over the fields, until they dwindled to small distant dots.  My companion managed to get a proper look at them through binoculars.  I can never see anything through binoculars, so I didn't take up her offer to have a go.  It used to be the case that there weren't any buzzards in the Eastern counties, and if you thought you had seen one you had made a mistake, but they have been steadily re-establishing themselves on this side of the country, and are no longer a rare sighting.  They will take pheasant poults, so gamekeepers don't like them.

By the SA's standards it was rather a small walk.  I don't think it was nearly far enough to offset the piece of homemade fruit cake I ate afterwards, but it was a very nice afternoon.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

out with the old

I finished digging out the rhododendron stumps on Tuesday, but I didn't mention it at the time.  I didn't feel like writing another blog post about stumps and witch hazel.  Today it was the turn of the climbers on the veranda to start facing the chop.

There are at least two basic approaches to growing climbers up the side of a building.  There is the RHS or National Trust house approach, where each branch is neatly tied in and pruned to within an inch of its life (nobody says 'within a centimetre of its life'.  Makes you think English is still not metric at heart, even if we dutifully use metres and centimetres).  The resulting wall shrub sticks out 30cm max from the face of the wall.  Very tidy.  Then there is the romantic profusion approach, where plants are tied to the wall and scramble into and over each other.  Spasmodic efforts are made to remove forward facing growth, and the resulting tangle protrudes 1-2m from the supporting structure.  Meanwhile birds nest in there, and it is all very naturalistic and charming.  There are no prizes for guessing which category our garden falls into.

The jungle along the veranda has got to be reduced, so that we can get the scaffold in there to paint the barge boards and fit new guttering.  And since there is a fair amount of dead wood mixed up among the live, it will look better for a good clean out.  It is a complicated tangle.  There are the remains of a Solanum crispum that was there when we bought the house.  Most of it has died through old age, or the cold winters, or a combination of both.  There is a climbing rose, also there when we moved in, which according to the label we found on it is 'New Dawn'.  It has grown larger than some books say that 'New Dawn' would, but otherwise looks right.  It is not so vigorous as it was, and could probably do with an intensive feeding regime to give it a boost.  Also, I don't think it likes being overrun by the Clematic montana, another legacy of the previous owners (they had a Russian Vine as well, but I resorted to strong poison to get rid of that).  There is a Clematis of the texensis type, yet another legacy, whose label I think said 'Duchess of Albany'  I've added Trachelospermum jasminoides and Berberidopsis corallina, both refugees from the conservatory.  Neither have formed much of a tangle yet, but the Trachelospermum looks happier about life than it did under glass.  There is an inherited honeysuckle, species unknown, and I tucked in a Jasminum beesianum, which has finally grasped the idea that it is supposed to climb and not run about over the ground.

I thought I'd better start on this job fairly soon, partly because February is the target month for the last of the exterior decorating, and partly because I don't want to leave it until spring and then find birds nesting in there.  I began by burrowing inside the mess, to cut and pull out any dead rose branches, bits of decayed Solanum, and so on.  There was a fair amount.  Then I cut down a large elder sapling that had seeded itself a pace out from the line of the trellis.  This was performing a quasi-useful function acting as a prop for the climbers, but couldn't stay there given the need to get the scaffold in.  Removing it had the predictable effect of causing a mass of Clematis montana to collapse on my head.  Having cleaned what dead stuff I could from the inside, which reduced the bulk, I'm now working along the outside, cutting growth back and tying it in.

The Clematis montana is reluctant to grow along the bottom of the veranda, and keeps flopping forward and trying to set off across the rose bed.  Clematis climbs by winding its leaf stalks around anything it touches, mainly other Clematis stems, and separating the branches enough to haul them back up to the top of the trellis means cutting through dozens of dry and tightly twisted leaf stalks.  This is slow and fiddly, and there would be a quicker and more brutal way, which would be to reduce everything, accepting that there won't be any flowers this year, and assuming that all will grow back.  I don't want to do that, as I would rather have some flowers this year than not, and I'm not keen on the scorched earth look.  Some might see it as a symbol of humanity successfully subjugating nature, but I prefer to hang on to a bit of unsubjugated nature, wherever possible.

Last night I started a similar job on my desk, and finally cleared the last data off my old laptop.  I got my current laptop last spring, when my previous one (an ancient hand-me-down from the Systems Administrator, but it worked well for years) and my moderately aged desktop both showed signs of becoming alarmingly unstable.  I transferred essential files at once, and started scrubbing things I didn't really need to keep, but never completed the task.  Since April of last year I've had two geriatric computers sitting on my desk, taking up so much room that I had to retreat to the kitchen, when I wanted to type and refer to a reference book at the same time.  Before I resumed the clearance, the Systems Administrator disabled the laptop's connection to the net, so that it couldn't try and start collecting nine months worth of downloads.

It is rather poignant clearing an old laptop.  All those letters relating to woodland talks going back to 2006.  I don't need them.  The talks are done and dusted, the donations handed over to the charity.  I don't need a record of how many people were in the audience and which group asked the question about UK versus European provenance for tree seeds, in the light of climate change.  And yet it is a little archive of my life.  I chucked it out.  I won't throw the computer away, even now, just in case.  It will go and gather dust in the spare room for another decade or two.  The last stage of the project will be to fire up the desktop and do the same final clear-out from that.  And then I shall have so much space on my desk, I won't know what to do with it.

Friday, 20 January 2012

in the kitchen

It rained again this morning, bringing our total rainfall in the past thirty six hours to over 15mm, or more than half an inch in old money.  That's useful, but still not nearly enough.  When I dug out the non-doing Choisya from the long bed a couple of weeks ago, I was turning up lumps of bone dry earth, once I got more than 15-20 cm below the soil surface.

I amused myself by making a bird crumble, using up a packet of butter bought before Christmas and never eaten in the overwhelming tide of food, that was beyond its sell-by date and gone rather cheesey, and some wholemeal flour bought in one of my periodic delusions that I was going to start making my own bread.  Left-over pastry is recommended for the bird table, so by extension birds ought to like a fat-rich mixture of butter and brown flour.  I didn't bother cooking it, just rubbed flour into the butter until it went into crumbs.  The bird table this afternoon has been visited by dunnocks, great tits, long tailed tits, chaffinches, robins, and a blackbird, and the bird crumble seems to be a success.  That's just as well, as there's still a whole pudding basin of the stuff in the fridge.

The cats were all in favour of spending the morning in the kitchen with me.  Wet day outside, warm Aga inside, human company and Schubert's Death and the Maiden on the radio, and the sneaky chance to try and lick out the mixing bowl.  What could be nicer?  I evicted them before starting on the human food.  There is a music society concert this evening, and although nobody has specifically asked me to make anything, I presume that there'll be wine and nibbles afterwards, so I made some cheese stars.  I only finally discovered how to do these last year, after getting embroiled in the music club.  A friend gives us beautiful cheese straws when we visit her, and I'd asked a few times how they were done, and only ever been told that they were very easy.  I thought this must be her way of preserving her culinary secret, until I had to make them myself, and discovered that they were pretty easy.  I found recipes in various books, some of which seemed to include a quite ridiculous amount of cheese, to the point of being practically pure baked cheese, and settled on the Good Housekeeping version.  It is simply shortcrust pastry, made in the ratio of two parts flour to one part of fat, with half of the butter replaced by grated cheddar, and enriched with egg yolk at the rate of one egg for every 100g of flour.  I roll the pastry thin, and as it was raining and I had plenty of time I cut them out in stars with a pastry cutter instead of just slicing the pastry into oblongs.  They puff up as they cook, though not as much as flaky pastry, and are done in no more than seven minutes in a fairly hot oven.  If they were fatter they would presumably take longer.

It seemed a pity to throw the egg whites down the sink, so I made some meringues (it was still raining).  Meringues are very, very easy, so long as you can get your oven cool enough and are not in a hurry.  When I was a child, my mother would drop the temperature of our coal fired Aga below its normal range, I think by stuffing a sock in a vent (but maybe she left the door open to cool it, and the sock was for something else), and cook meringues in the lower oven, which was the cooler of the two.  The baking tray was lined with rice paper, which stuck in places to the meringues, but was edible and didn't taste of anything.  It fascinated me that you could get edible paper.  I use baking parchment, not the fancy reusable silicon sort sold by the likes of Lakeland, but the stuff like non-stick greaseproof paper, available in supermarkets.  Two egg whites need 100g of caster sugar, and make you about ten normal sized meringues.  Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not gone into lumps, then add the sugar one dessert spoon at a time, leaving 30 seconds between spoonfuls.  You end up with a shiny, frothy mixture like deluxe shaving foam.  Spoon it out.  Cook it slowly until they are as crunchy as you want.  When dried through they sound hollow when tapped.  Today's lot got two and a half hours because I went out while they were cooking.  If I'd wanted them sticky in the middle I'd have given them less.  Our simmer oven sits at just below boiling point, which seems ideal.

And that was the morning gone, apart from firming up the arrangements to meet some friends following a quick chat at last night's lecture on beekeeping research.  Its amazing how long you can keep busy with a couple of packets of butter, the tail end of a lump of cheddar, some sugar, some flour, and a couple of eggs.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

admin and drill

It was raining today.  We need the rain.  The headline in last night's East Anglian Daily Times, being given out free again at Colchester station, was Region's dry spell prompts drought warning.  Apparently the east of England is in the middle of the driest winter since 1921, and we needed 120% of the long-term average rainfall over the entire winter period to get water levels back to normal.  I've grumbled in the past about how forecasts are barely accurate five days ahead, let alone medium term (remember the dire warnings last autumn that the coming 2011-12 winter would be another savagely cold one, anyone?) and so don't attach too much credence to forecasts for the month ahead.  But according to Weatherquest they're for no more than average rainfall.  There's less than two and a half months of winter left to go.  It's not unknown in this part of the world for it not to rain in April.  At all.

The prospect of drought is worrying.  We won't necessarily get a hosepipe ban here.  Tendring Hundred has the lowest leakage rate in the UK, the highest water charges (some connection there) and has never had a hosepipe ban, ever.  We're on a water meter so I'm as frugal as possible with watering anyway, and plants in the garden are chosen to withstand dry conditions.  However, even drought tolerant species need watering when first planted, until their roots are firmly established, and the worse the drought the greater the number of plants needing help.  Trees can need irrigation for up to two years after planting, if it's really dry.  Even without a hosepipe ban that can represent hours spent each week just watering to keep plants alive.  With a hosepipe ban it would be one long round with cans, and normal gardening would cease.

Drought is bad for trade at the plant centre.  Our customers (most of them) are not idiots, and if the soil is too dry they cut right back on planting, and stop buying.  They might get pretties for pots, and a few things for pet schemes near the house or for a small garden, but the committed gardeners, the ones with big spaces to fill and a time horizon stretching beyond the end of June, will hold their fire, for a season if necessary.

So we need the rain.  Also, I needed to do my tax return, which I have been saving for a rainy day, while aware that the end of January deadline for on-line submission was ticking closer, after which, as Classic FM never ceases to remind me, a fine of £100 will be due for late payment even if you owe nothing (how exactly does that fit in with David Cameron's new-found enthusiasm for consumer protection?).  It seemed unwise to leave it to the last minute anyway, in case of computer glitches.  I've filed on-line for several years now, but I had a hazy feeling that January 20th might be the last date for getting a new password, if I ran into difficulties.

I hate doing my tax return.  I loathe it with an intensity out of all proportion to the work involved.  I really, really, pathologically dislike it.  There's always one missing certificate for some tiny bit of income from some account or other, requiring phone calls to find out the missing numbers.  I'm forced to confront which of my pathetic savings accounts have been demoted to yielding diddly squit to a jam tart (again), meaning I am going to have to spend another soul-destroying day shopping around for better rates.  Why doesn't somebody come up with a Loyalty Bank, in which long term customers are rewarded, instead of being penalised for not spending half their spare time moving their money around to chase the latest savings deal?  We'd all bank there.

And then there's the HMRC website.  I hate it.  Pages on the HMRC website update at the pace of a snail that's not in a particular hurry. After I spent ages and ages customising my return (no, I'm not in receipt of a pension, I don't have money offshore, I wasn't party to any tax avoidance schemes, I'm not blind, I don't have any allowable expenses, nor life insurance gains, nor income from property.  The list went on and on), each page took ages to load as I trudged through the mundane details of my modest earnings and lowly income from savings and investments.  The rules for boxes where I had nothing to declare seemed entirely arbitrary.  When I put 0 against the value of tips, a big red X came up and a message that the value of this entry must be greater than zero or else blank.  Further on I left another box blank where I had nothing to declare, and was told that the box could not be left empty and I must put 0.The site was running so slowly that each error message took about two minutes to deliver.  I crashed out of it about three times.When I printed my tax calculation to check it against the supporting spreadsheets the printed version ran to two pages.  All that page 2 said was 'HMRC : View your calculation.  View your full calculation.  Page 2 of 2.'  Excuse me, hasn't the government heard of not printing what you don't need?  Why two bits of paper when all of the information was on page one?

I know I should have done the return last summer, and not left it until practically the end of the self-assessment period, when lots of other people would be trying to access the site.  I just hate doing it so much, the temptation to put it off until the eleventh hour is practically irresistible.  Still, I finally got there, and have got my 32 character submission receipt number to prove it (why 32 characters?  That surely provides enough unique combinations for the entire population of the planet to submit a UK tax return several times over).  As a build-up to sorting out the return I tidied my desk, and found all sorts of things, including a birthday card that I bought last autumn and absolutely could not find when the time came to send it.  So that's two jobs ticked off the list.  Onwards and upwards.  

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

number 23 for the revolution

Since I've got the Royal Academy Friends card, the Systems Administrator and I went to the exhibition of Russian architecture, Building the Revolution.  This closes shortly, so once again I'm dashing to see something at the last minute, and Cardunculus is not a helpful guide to planning your cultural day out.  We'd been meaning to go since last November, when the SA's eyes fell upon the RA magazine article about it and lit up with genuine enthusiasm.  But then we both had colds, one after another, and time ticked by, and we didn't go, until suddenly it was a case of this week or never.

We went to Piccadilly on the bus, which was a novelty for me.  Indeed, I can't think when I last travelled on a London bus.  I think it was in Oxford Street on one of the old Routemasters, probably over twenty years ago.  My failure to use London buses doesn't reflect any snobbish disdain for them, merely the fact that I don't know where any of them go, and in the pre-Oyster days I was anxious that I'd get on the wrong bus, inadvertently stray outside whatever zone I'd paid to be in, and be hit with a penalty fare.  Or else miss my stop, or get lost, or not be able to find the stop for the return bus going the other way.  Tubes are easy.  The action takes place in tunnels with diagrams showing exactly where the train is going.  Bond Street will follow Oxford Street as night follows day.  It couldn't possibly be anything else, while a bus could go anywhere.  However, the SA cracked buses some time ago, and knows what number goes to Picadilly (23), and where it goes from, and that you only have to swipe your Oyster card getting on and not getting off the bus.

The view from the top deck of the number 23 was great, once we'd taken twenty minutes to get to get as far as Mansion House (I could have walked to St Pauls in only two minutes more than that).  I notice all sorts of architectural details and bits of buildings that normally I'd have missed.  Apart from being higher up and getting a different viewpoint, being on a bus frees up all the parts of one's mind which would otherwise be occupied with not walking into people, or crossing the road without being run over.  We passed Charing Cross, and I realised that I couldn't remember which queen the monument was raised for, and that today was No Wikipedia day and I wouldn't be able to look it up easily when I got home.

The exhibition was interesting, although there's not much point in my saying that, as there's scarcely time for you to go, if you haven't been already.  It featured pre-war buildings that reflected and symbolised the new Russian socialist society, with factories, communal living blocks, schools and infrastructure projects.  There was a strong International Modernist aesthetic, the same movement that was at the same time influencing the British seaside in the form of the De Lar Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Midland Hotel at Morecombe.  Indeed, the former was designed by the same German-Russian partnership of Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff who were responsible for some of the buildings in the RA show.

It is not an original thought that seeing where a society puts its architectural efforts tells you a lot about that society.  In Medieval times people built cathedrals, in Victorian times railway stations, and in modern times banking headquarters and shopping centres.  The Russian revolutionaries took industry and communal living very seriously.  The Victorians built some grand mills, and the 1930s saw the construction of the Art Deco Hoover Factory (and Fort Dunlop was built at some point but it's No Wikipedia day and the Fort Dunlop site tells me a lot about the redevelopment but not when it was built.  Or at least not quickly).  But I can't offhand think when I last read a review in the Guardian's architecture pages of an exciting new industrial building.

An extra twist of the exhibition is that there aren't very many extant photographs of most of these buildings when they were new, so modest drawings of the time were displayed next to large, recent colour photographs of the buildings.  Some are still in use for their original purpose, especially the schools and some residential schemes, and a vast radio mast.  Some have been converted into artistic spaces.  Many of the factories are derelict, some in danger of collapse.  This is rather poignant, because of their historical significance, and because many of them are beautiful.  Well, beautiful if you like the International Modernist look, which on the whole I do.  Those rounded walls and balconies and internal circulation by curving ramps and spiral staircases like big abstract white sculptures, they're good.

If you go into RA exhibitions on a Friend's card nobody seems to give you a gallery guide, so I can't remember where the Russian city is, that still has its white concrete water tower, now defunct as a water tower but still functioning as an eye-catcher at the end of a long boulevard.  They could twin with Colchester, if twinning weren't going out of fashion.  Two towns united in their devotion to their derelict, iconic water towers.  I was too mean to buy the exhibition catalogue.  I generally am.  There seemed to be lots left, with four days left to go, so I wouldn't be surprised to get one cheap later.

Then we walked across Green Park and St James Park and got a number 11 back.  I think I'm getting the hang of buses.  Also embarking on a new stage of my cold.  The SA's was a two-parter, so that's not unlikely. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

the National Art Fund

I have started trying to arrange a trip with my mother to the Royal Academy's exhibition of large and recent landscapes by David Hockney.  It has crystallised my feeling that it is not worthwhile her renewing my annual birthday present subscription, as once again advance booking is required, even for Friends.  Since she gave me the sub three years ago the RA has unilaterally altered the terms and conditions, by limiting my guests to family members (undefined, unenforceable, unenforced) and jacking up the annual cost to a hundred quid (or £90 by direct debit).  Their website nowadays says 'free entry to all RA exhibitions' which is true, in that Friends don't pay when they book tickets, but when you are travelling up from the country (40 minute rail delays this morning due to signalling problems at Ilford) a pre-booked entry time is a nuisance.  It means we have to build slack into the timetable before our slot in case the trains are late, which will leave us wandering around the west end for an hour or so in February if they're not, or else forego lunch if there are delays.  It used to be that you just waved your card and went in, even for popular exhibitions like Van Gogh.

My replacement is already lined up, as my National Art Pass has arrived.  For fifty quid (reduced to £37.50 in the first year if you pay by direct debit) I have got a card giving me free entry into some museums and galleries I should like to visit, and half price admission to exhibitions at others.  In London it gets me into the Courtauld, a gallery I adore and visit regularly, and the Garden Museum, which I'm partial to (provided they are covering design or history and not community vegetable growing).  It will also get me free into several places I've thought about visiting and not got round to it, including The Handel House Museum, Leighton House and Eltham Palace.  I get half price entry to exhibitions at The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Imperial War Museum.  These are all fine institutions I was planning on visiting this year (well, maybe not the Imperial War Museum.  I haven't looked yet to see what they've got on).  I checked on the Portrait Gallery website before buying the card, and the booking options for Lucien Freud did include buying a ticket with an Art Pass (as well as about seven other concessionary tickets) which allayed my concerns that the card might not work for exhibitions where I needed to book in advance.

There's an element of duplication with other memberships, as some National Trust properties are in the scheme, and I'm a member anyway.  Have been since I was four, courtesy of my parents.  So is the Tate, and I'm inclined to keep membership of that one going, as the members' room at Tate Modern is so nice, and being able to walk straight into the likes of the Rothko exhibition is worth a lot.

With the Art Pass came a book of participating venues through the UK.  All have benefited from art purchases funded by the scheme.  Some offer free access anyway, so holding an Art Pass doesn't confer any immediate benefit, but it looks a useful book.  Unless I had picked up a brochure somewhere, I wouldn't have known about the Cromer Museum (with Victorian fisherman's cottage and history of Cromer's incarnation as a seaside resort) or the Time and Tide museum at Great Yarmouth (about herring fishing) but they sound interesting.  It's the sort of booklet it will be worth taking along on holiday (not forgetting the tile gazetteer).

The proceeds raised by the Art Fund go to help museums and galleries pay for acquisitions.  I like the idea of helping to do that.  All in all it looks like a pound a week well spent, signing up for your National Art Pass.

Monday, 16 January 2012

the worst day

The alarm clock went off this morning.  I lay in bed for a while, grumbling that I had to go and be fumigated with creosote, and that it was not fair, when I was a small fluffy person who ought to be fed ice cream with a spoon, but then I had to get up.  According to the Daily Telegraph, the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year, as the joyous effects of the Christmas break have completely worn off and people contemplate their credit card bills, the yawning distance until their next holiday, the cold, the dark, and the failure of their New Year Resolutions.  Being gassed with creosote didn't make it into the equation.

I pretty much gave up with resolutions a long time ago, though I have so far kept my one modest one for this year, which is only to eat cakes and biscuits made with butter, sugar, eggs, flour and other ingredients I would use if I were making a cake myself, and pass on those containing unidentified vegetable oils, palm oil, whey powder, stabilisers and so on.  This policy should be gently slimming in the long run while not depriving me of anything genuinely delicious, though I think I will make an exception for the Tate's muffins on days out in London.

There was a mild air of panic and chaos when I arrived at work.  The boss's horse is suffering from some horsey ailment, and is supposed to be resting in its stable.  When the owner opened the stable first thing this morning to give it whatever it is that horses eat for breakfast, the horse bolted.  And was very reluctant to be caught again and the owner had to summon the boss to help her chase it round the field.  By the time they had got it safely locked up again nerves were a little jangled.

This didn't stop us having an impromptu meeting about the garden guide.  I think we're working on the right lines now.  I wrote the text as a tour around the garden, but the map had numbered areas.  The numbered areas all have names, which I used as section headings  (the names are descriptive, and most are quite charming, like Primrose Hill.  The furthest part of the garden is known for historic reasons as Knicker Alley, and I did change that to The Lower Garden).  The round tour of the garden goes through some areas twice, on the out and back legs, and the tour narrative sat awkwardly with the descriptions of the block areas.  We've now agreed to drop the section headings (which will also save space in the printed version) and the block areas on the map, and just describe it as a tour, with the suggested route on the map.  It is essentially like writing reports in the City, only more flowery.  The difficulty is never really in finding the words, but in deciding what it is that you want to say.  Once you've established that, the words come.

The poor gardener spent all day creosoting, apart from fetching in some logs first thing, so it probably was the worst day of his year.  There were very few customers, so maybe they were having a bad day as well.  I'd expected to be scribing for the manager while he started the stock take, but the boss hadn't produced any of the paperwork, so we couldn't do that, and I spent the day cleaning up iris and messing around with fruit netting and bamboo canes in the relative warmth of the shop, instead of sitting in a plastic chair in a polytunnel with an ambient temperature of 5 degrees C.  So I didn't do badly at all, for the worst day of the year.

Addendum  Happy Birthday Liz xxx

Sunday, 15 January 2012

creosote (substitute)

There was no frost last night.  I feel like a general fighting the last war, to have put the heaters on because there was a frost the previous night.  At least I remembered to switch them off this morning before leaving for work.

The smell of creosote substitute hung over the plant centre and permeated everything.  Occasionally I thought I detected a faint whiff of Sarcococca, but it was mostly creosote.  The herbaceous tables were dry enough for me to start replacing the pots that had been cleared off them so that they could be painted, so I cleaned up and moved Hemerocallis and iris, breathing the chemical stink as I did so.  I presume that creosote substitute is not so noxious as the real thing, which was pretty potent, and incidentally very toxic to cats.

The fuel for the tunnel heater is stored in an old container labelled - what else - 'creosote', which caused my colleagues a certain amount of head scratching as they set out to refill the heater.  They did put the right stuff in the tank.  There were three people working on painting the tables on Friday, and there are still five big containers of creosote substitute left in the pot shed.  When they're finished I guess that will be it for this year.

One of our customers today turned out to be a true, dedicated (not to say fanatical) gardener.  She bought a trolley full of shrubs and trees, which she seemed very pleased with, and it turned out that today was a red-letter day for her, and she was going out afterwards for a special lunch to celebrate.  She moved down here from Edinburgh, where she had a walled garden with perfect soil, and had spend four years struggling with her new garden, where nothing would grow.  She ended up removing vast quantities of builders' rubble and barrowing in twenty tonnes of topsoil.  Finally, she was ready to start planting.  Today's purchases were the first of the structural elements (although I did notice one hellebore had sneaked into her trolley) and as she departed, beaming, she promised that she Would Be Back.  It sounded like a long haul, and I gather there were some difficulties regarding access, and the neighbours.

The Systems Administrator suggested yesterday evening that maybe customers in January tended to be nice because the only people who come in at this time of year are the keen and knowledgeable ones.  Not so today.  (It is a good rule of thumb that when you greet anybody with a cheerful 'good morning' in the hour between noon and one o'clock, which still feels like morning if you have not yet had lunch, and they reply 'or afternoon', the conversation is unlikely to go well after that, because you are dealing with a picky so-and-so).  Today's pernickety old lady, pleasantries brushed aside, advanced on the till with a plastic bag containing a shrub, and announced that she had bought it a year ago and wasn't happy with it.  The shrub was a Spiraea, still with our label on it.  I asked what was wrong with it, and she said that it had never done anything.  I asked if the leaves had emerged normally, and she said that it had leaves and flowers on when she bought it.  She rummaged around in her purse for her receipt, and was surprised to find that she had bought it in July, and not a year ago.  You wouldn't expect to buy a Spiraea in full bloom in January.  I inspected the roots in the plastic bag, which looked absolutely fine.  Quite good, actually, as they had started to move beyond the confines of the original pot.  I scraped at a stem with my fingernail and, as I expected, there was green underneath.  I suggested as gently as I could that it was alive, and was in fact perfectly healthy, but she reiterated that she didn't like the look of it, and that her family hadn't liked it either.  I explained that as Spiraea were deciduous that was what they looked like in January, then played the 'weekend staff aren't allowed to give refunds' card, and we agreed that she would leave the plant with me so that the manager could look at it in the morning.

The owners' son rang up from his boarding school grumbling that he was bored.  I tried to be sympathetic, but really he ought to have been grateful that nobody was making him go for a cross-country run, or any of the hearty stuff they do at boarding schools.  After all, he could have been breathing creosote fumes and talking nicely to idiots.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

respectable finish from a slow start

The frost on the car this morning came as a bit of a shock, after the run of mild weather.  The car thermometer said that it was minus 2.5C, and I fretted slightly that I hadn't set the heaters to run in the greenhouse and conservatory.  I consoled myself with the thought that they should have some reserves of heat to see them through one chilly night, after those sunny days, and anyway, it was too late to do anything about it.

The manager's list of instructions for the weekend asked me to 'do what I could' with the ornamental end-table displays.  Given how little plant material we had in stock that was allowed to be outside rather than safely tucked away in a tunnel, but was not a leafless deciduous pot of brown sticks with no display value whatsoever, doing what I could didn't amount to doing very much.  I started rationalising the tables, so that each one used a limited range of plants and appeared to have some sort of theme, instead of being an indiscriminate jumble of whatever was not under cover.

Coloured stems featured heavily, and I found some willows with nice furry buds, to develop the stem theme further.  Skimmia are allowed to stay out, as are Sarcococca.  I have no idea why these two evergreen species are deemed safe to keep outside over winter, when most evergreens are taken in.  We offer quite a few varieties of both, and the display tables look better when you stick to one or two different sorts per table, rather than a licorice allsorts jumble.  Evergreen Euonymus stay out, and it's worth saving the yellow variegated ones for a yellow themed table, rather than dotting them around through every single display.  The Hamamelis were looking good, and there were some Chaenomeles in flower.  There is a lot of brown in Hamamelis flowers, and I tried to pick that up in the other plants I used with them, and found some Viburnum tinus that had an apple-blossom tinge in its pink flowers to go with the clear pink of the Chaenomeles.

We had the usual quota of regular customers, fortunately only nice ones, and not any of the ones whose appearance in the plant centre makes your heart sink into your wellingtons.  The pleasant couple from Dedham bought a shrub and a couple of bergenias.  A charming petite blonde came in, whose mother-in-law also shops with us, so we have to be careful when ordering plants to make it clear which Mrs C. they're for.  I could even remember without looking at the list which hellebore she is waiting for, but they haven't arrived yet.  There were only two of us on duty, and we only had one till going, which was ample for most of the day, then sudennly in the final hour it got busy with some big trollies going through, and we had a queue, but reached a respectable total for the day's takings in the end.

Back home I put the heaters on.  I've scarcely run them this winter, so I shall indulge myself.  The pots of Geranium maderense in the greenhouse and Streptocarpus in the conservatory looked fine, so no harm was done last night.  The Norfolk Island Pine had blown over.  I forgot to right it this morning, but as it still looks green and alive I left it resting in the embrace of the honeysuckle along the veranda, in the hope it might get some shelter.  It might make it through the next 6-8 weeks alive, and so on to spring, but it might not.  Better not to be optimistic.

Friday, 13 January 2012


This morning I found another sign of the approach of spring.  Opening the chicken house to top up their food, I discovered two eggs in the nesting box.  Nice fat dark brown ones, slightly speckled.  The chickens have looked distinctly bouncier in recent days, more active and alert, and have started taking an interest again in the world outside their run.  In the shortest, darkest days they just stood hunched in the corner, looking as if they were waiting for winter to be over.  It'll be time to start letting them out for an afternoon constitutional soon.

I got another three rhododendron stumps out of the wood.  That was cheating slightly, as I picked on the ones that looked least likely to offer resistance (two were completely dead).  The three left to go still have some leaves, and may have more of a root system to contend with.  Still, I feel I'm approaching the home straight in the end of the wood.  I filled up the trailer with another load of brambles and ivy, and managed not to poke myself in the eye on the brambles during the course of the day.  The Systems Administrator obligingly got out the electric chainsaw, and removed a branch of a coppiced hazel that was growing into the airspace of Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill'.  It's all beginning to come together.  I should be safe buying a Eucryphia x nymansay, when I see a good one at work, as I now have the space cleared to put it.  (Finally.  I identified the spot where I wanted to put it back in 2009, which shows the speed at which things sometimes progress in this garden).

There was one solitary snowdrop in bloom.  There are the first leaves of a few bluebells showing, but in general the bulbs in the wood haven't yet started coming through.  I remember panicking about this in past years, thinking that by mid January there ought to be more growth visible, and that something must have happened to them (I don't know what.  The biggest vole invasion in the history of gardening).  They have always turned up in the end, so I expect they will this year.  It's a mystery why this one lone snowdrop is so early.

I finally ticked the Italian garden off my list of things to do.  That has shrunk since I set it up, but is still far too long to finish by the end of February (or probably before the end of 2012).  There are some jobs on it that I haven't touched at all.  Mind you, there are some that are to all intents and purposes finished that I haven't crossed off.  It seems I have a neurotic reluctance to declare any gardening task actually finished.

The black cat was in the wars again, this time with a septic eyelid, but his shot of antibiotics last Monday seems to have been sufficient to nip trouble in the bud, as it looks better than it did.  He is now famous at the vets, following his cruciate ligament operation.  Although they have not explicitly said so, we are more and more certain that he was the first ever cat (as distinct from dog) they'd tried the operation on.  Well done that cat, for being a medical pathfinder.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

dreams of tender beauties

It might have been a tad ambitious, doing all that raking yesterday.  It felt OK at the time, which goes to show how much you can do when you care about the outcome.  I slept late this morning, and woke still feeling exhausted.  Sleeping in is no fun when you have animals, because you realise as soon as you come to that they should have been fed an hour ago, and that the chickens are still locked in a box.  When I did biology at school I was once marked down in an exam answer about how the lung is adapted to its function, because I had not explicitly said that it was hollow.  I'd mentioned the alveoli, and how they increase the surface area of the lung to facilitate oxygen exchange with the blood, but I hadn't actually said 'the lung is hollow'.  I suppose that I assumed that as a given, otherwise where would I start?  The lung is alive.  The lung is compatible with the immune system of the rest of the organism.  Or maybe I took the lung's hollowness as being implied by the rest of my answer.  Anyway, I dropped a point or two.  Today felt as though my lungs were not as hollow as they should have been, and it was tiring.

I weeded the gravel, as being a gentle task, not involving great physical effort, and worth doing before the bulbs come through any more than they have.  The shrubs in the Italian garden are still looking good.  It's the twelfth of January today, nearly half way through the month, and no really cold snap is forecast at the moment.  Anything could still happen between now and March, but it seems possible that we might get through to spring without a hard freezing spell to wreck them.  That would be a great boon.

I've got a replacement Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum' sitting in its pot in the greenhouse, waiting until March to plant it out, just in case.  I'd like a small leaved myrtle in the Italian garden, and I might risk an Acca sellowiana.  This is what used to be known as Feijoa,and its common name is pineapple guava.  It has grey leaves, and red bottle-brush flowers.  It is reckoned to be hardy outdoors only in the milder regions, so I tried one tucked in between other shrubs in the long bed, and it amazed me by surviving the past two winters, which certainly weren't mild.  However, it is so hemmed in by its sheltering neighbours I'm not sure it will come to much, so I thought about risking one in the Italian garden, and giving it a bit more elbow room.

I'd like an Erythrina crista-galli as well.  This is a magnificent shrub, and really is tender.  The only good one I've seen was tucked into the corner of two walls at (I think) Wakehurst Place, with a heat-reflecting stone terrace in front of it.  It has grey leaves,ferocious spines, and huge red claw shaped flowers in late summer or autumn.  Its common name is the coral tree or cock's comb.  Probably our front garden is not warm enough.  But the drainage is superb, and Wakehurst Place must get quite parky in the winter, and Erythrina is deciduous, with the ability to behave herbaceously and throw new shoots from ground level, so it might not mind the cutting winter winds too much.  Chiltern Seeds are offering seed again this year.  I grew some once before, but attempted to keep the plants in pots, and found them difficult.  We've lost stock over the winter at work before now, and when I went to an RHS study day some years ago on the subject of growing Mediterranean climate plants in the UK, I took the chance of asking Wolfgang Bopp how I should look after it (he was curator of the Welsh Botanic Gardens, then head-hunted by the Harold Hillier Gardens, where as far I can tell he still is, and is as big a cheese as you will find to ask about the cultivation of Erythrina crista-galli).  He said it was difficult in a pot.  It needed to be dry in winter but wet and well-fed in summer with a generous root run, so ideally not in a pot.  It's tempting to try again.  I have nothing to lose except the cost of a packet of seed, and a little time.  I could buy one, if we get them again at work, but I'd sooner start from scratch.

And that was it.  You will notice that most of today's gardening took place in my head, but that's the way with gardening.  The R3 composer of the week was Couperin, which was nice.  

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

out of season

It was a beautiful warm, still, sunny day.  I keep finding more signs that spring is approaching.  In the so-called Italian garden in the turning circle, a group of purple dwarf iris have suddenly burst into bloom.   The last time I looked there were just the snouts of new buds emerging through the gravel.  Now there's an entire bunch of flowers, and another clump nearby not far behind.  In the back garden one witch hazel is fully out.  It is the mid-orange flowered variety Hamamelis x intermedia 'Orange Peel', and I sniffed the spicy fragrance on the air before I saw it.  The scent of witch hazel is a curious thing.  I seem to notice it more in wafts in passing than when I stick my nose right up against the flowers.

I hurried along and pruned the vines around the veg patch.  This is a task I meant to do before Christmas, or at least between Christmas and the New Year, as vines bleed badly once the sap is rising, and you are advised to finish pruning early.  I don't know why I didn't do it then, except that I was engrossed in other things and maybe the vine is not top of my list of concerns.  Due to errors and omissions in my record keeping process, I don't know what variety it is.  The grapes are white, and I'm sure I meant to choose one that was capable of setting edible fruit out of doors, since I never had any ambitions to make my own wine.  A couple of years ago I tried hard to do things by the book, and pruned it at the correct times, and thinned the bunches of grapes ruthlessly, and the fruits were still small and extremely pippy, though the chickens liked them.  The main job of the vine is really to clothe the wire rabbit fence that runs round the veg patch, and provide the odd leaf for cooking.  I quite like stuffed vine leaves, and it gives a smug feeling to be able to use home grown fresh leaves, instead of tinned.

I cut a couple of branches experimentally, and sap didn't gush forth, so I got on with it, since it was one of those jobs where the situation was only going to get worse the longer I left it.  It still didn't seem to be bleeding by the time I'd more or less finished, so with luck the sap is not rising that much yet, and it won't.  Maybe it will start later.  I'm not an expert on the cultivation of vines.  It makes a vast amount of growth each year, throwing out new shoots that are 3-4m long and longer.  Normally I keep trimming these through the summer to try and keep the whole thing in check, but the veg patch was mostly fallow last season, as I tried to catch up with everything else.

Another job that should have been done last autumn, ideally in September, was to scrantle* the meadow.  We did the back garden in the middle of that month, but never got on to the meadow.  I'm not sure why.  I think the Systems Administrator, who basically dislikes trudging up and down for hours pushing a power scythe and then having to collect large amounts of grass, hoped that it could get by without a cut every year.  I'm not crazy on the task either, and dislike repeatedly asking anyone to do anything, in case it could be construed as nagging, so we ended up with a communications failure, and it didn't get done.  We ended up scrantling the meadow this afternoon, as it has daffodils planted in it and I was beginning to worry that if we didn't do it soon their leaves would be through.  My part of the job is to rake the fallen grass aside, to clear the way for the next passage of the scythe.  I didn't check the exact time we started, but it must have taken us about an hour and a half, during which I raked continuously.  That should have burned off a couple of mince pies.  We'll leave it for a day or two in the hopes that it might dry out in the wind, and the SA will put the lawn tractor over it, and I'll have to rake it again.  We now have two trailer loads of weedy and rank grass to dispose of.  I'm hoping that they'll burn, chucked on a lively bonfire a forkful at a time.

*We borrowed this useful agricultural term from Stella Gibbons to describe the act of cutting long grass with a power scythe, since there isn't a verb specifically for that.  The exact nature of the original operation remains a mystery.

Addendum  I have done my bit to sabotage an on-line poll in the Guardian, while telling the exact truth.  It goes to show how misleading statistics can be.  The question was, will you be spending less in the sales this January than last, to which my response was No.  However, that doesn't have any positive implications for my confidence or spending power this year.  It's simply that since I spent nothing in the sales in 2011, I certainly wasn't going to spend less in 2012.  When I took part, with an hour to go until the poll closed, 80% of respondents had answered Yes.  I'm sure you shouldn't tell people how other people have voted on the same question if you want an accurate result, in case it influences what at least some of them say.