Monday, 30 April 2012

here comes the sun (for one day only)

Driving to work I noticed a lilac coming into flower in somebody's front garden, and had an odd feeling that I'd missed April.  With all the rain, I've seen so little of the garden in recent weeks that it came as a shock to realise that it was already lilac time.  At work it was a beautiful bright morning, and we exclaimed to each other about the novelty of seeing the sun.  The manager remarked that it would probably rain at ten, when we opened, and strangely, it did, though not very hard or for very long.

I saw a bird hopping around on the grass at the back of the plant centre that looked like some sort of wagtail, but was not a pied wagtail, being larger, and having a conspicuous flash of yellow over its rump (and it was on grass.  I only ever seem to see pied wagtails on tarmac and asphalt, to the point where I am almost convinced they must eat tarmac).  The manager and the young gardener are both keen on birds, and they thought it was a grey wagtail.  It was around throughout the day, and they first saw it (or one) last week.  There were also a couple of goldfinches flitting about the plant centre, perching on the potted apple trees.  I saw one disappear into a standard variegated Eleagnus, which prompted me to have a look inside the crown, and sure enough there was a little heap of moss and feathers, the beginnings of a nest.  I warned the manager that we potentially had goldfinches nesting in the plant centre, and showed him where.  I don't know whether goldfinches try out quite a few nest sites for size and abandon the less desirable ones early on in the building process.  I think some other birds do.  The plant centre is a slightly odd place to choose, being full of people throughout the day, but I suppose that acts as a deterrent to birds of prey, and there isn't a cat.

The garden was very wet, and there was some confusion about whether we were supposed to let people have garden tickets or not.  The answer seemed to be that determined visitors who were wearing proper shoes or boots could talk their way into buying tickets, and the less keen or more nervous allowed themselves to be put off.  The young gardener said that some of the hydrangeas were under water.  A pair of friends who'd driven down from Norfolk with a van to go plant shopping reported that it was looking beautiful.

The engineer came to mend the shop doors.  I felt slightly sorry for him, as the owner gave him rather a hard time about the fact they'd been playing up all winter, and he said that the last time he'd been called out it hadn't been to service the doors, but to report on what was wrong with them.  The door at the front of the shop was a clear-cut case.  It needed a new motor, and once that was fitted it worked perfectly.  The door at the back of the shop, that has given us so much trouble refusing to open, proved a harder nut to crack.  The engineer changed the lock in the door frame where you insert a key to open the doors from the outside first thing in the morning when they are set to shut from the inside.  That made them quite a lot better, but he said they still weren't quite right.  He changed a wiring loom, and then, after initial efforts to keep the cost down by not changing the sensor, he changed the sensor.  The customers found it fascinating, and hung around in little gaggles, watching.  It was still not absolutely right, in his view, and two hours after refusing the owner's offer of a cup of coffee he changed his mind.  Telephone calls were made.  Eventually he changed something else as well, and it seemed that two components, neither of which were individually faulty, were interfering with each other when both fitted as part of the same system.  I didn't gather what these bits were, not being an automatic door engineer, but eventually he pronounced himself satisfied.  I thought it was good at him to stick at it for as long as he did (though the boss will be paying for the privilege), since it is in human nature, once you have found one thing that is wrong and fixed it, to discount the possibility that something else might be wrong as well.

The coconut buns were well received.  I only made them because we had half a packet of dessicated coconut left over from a curry, and it seemed a shame to put it in the cupboard and just leave it there for the next year until it went off, and I thought that making buns would be something amusing to do while I waited for the first coat of gloss to dry (that is positively the last reference to painting the hall).

The gardener from one of the nearby large and expensive houses picked out three silver trolleys of plants, and told me the address, and that we invoiced them.  Her face was familiar but I couldn't place her until she said where she worked, at which point I remembered when I'd spoken to her before, and recognised the name of her boss as somebody I used to work with three City jobs ago.  I thought he must have done better than I had, to have a house like that, but then it turned out that nowadays the gardener's employer was actually his ex-wife, the pair of them having divorced, so he hadn't done so well as that after all, poor thing, having lost wife and house into the bargain.

Trade was rather quiet (though the invoice for the three trolleys will help), and my young colleague and the manager were cast down.  I thought it was a pity, but after the wettest April ever in the history of meteorological records (according to the six o'clock news on R4) it is a bit optimistic to expect that come one dry day everybody will immediately be ready to buy lots of plants.  Work on people's gardens will be badly behind, with areas that should have been cleared and ready to receive new plants not ready, and anyone with heavy soil won't be able to get on it at all.  As plants can sit in their pots, going out and shopping can be nice horticultural therapy on days when you can't do any actual gardening, but if you are doing or redoing part of your garden, planting comes very late in the process, and if you are still not even half way through preparing the site then plant buying may not have risen to the top of your agenda.

Addendum  We set the trail camera on the chicken house last night, but the fox never came back, and the only pictures the Systems Administrator got were me letting the chickens into the run this morning, followed by about 500 photographs of chickens.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

choral music and a fox attack

I went last night to hear a performance of Haydn's The Seasons in Dedham Church by the Stour Choral Society.  I never even heard of The Seasons before, but I like Haydn.  It's probably true that I don't like his music so much that I would drive twelve miles in the pouring rain to hear an amateur choir perform a work I'd never heard of, if a friend hadn't been singing in it, but she was.  The Systems Administrator is pretty indifferent to Haydn, and opted for the stay at home in front of the fire alternative.  Several of us went, and opinions about abandoning one's spouse on a Saturday night varied.  One husband apparently didn't like it, and as The Seasons turned out to be quite a long piece, even in its cut-down form (it took an hour to get through Spring and Summer), her mobile phone came out during the ten minute interval and she shot off as soon as the applause died, asking me to give her best wishes to the performer.  The other married lady in the party took a more robust view, saying that she'd told him she was going out and he'd had his dinner.  I thought the SA would be quite happy reading a book, or watching some film I didn't want to see, but as the full magnitude of The Seasons struck me I consoled myself with the thought that since supper was reheated goulash that was already in the oven, the SA could always tuck in before I got back if too hungry.

Arriving at the church was slightly confusing, as I pushed open the door to be greeted by the sight of a lot of men in dinner jackets, and a woman in black who demanded to know whether I was a member of the public.  I thought I probably was a member of the public, since I was not a member of the choir, or a space alien.  It turned out that what she wanted to know was whether I was general audience, or a patron of the Stour Choral Society.  For a minimum annual donation of £25 I could have had a reserved seat (as I discovered once I'd managed to find a seat and read the notes in my programme).  Seats were reserved by dint of putting notices that said Patron at the ends of the pews, which confused most of the members of the public, including me, who could not work out whether that meant that the whole pew was off-limits, or just the place with the notice on it. This meant that my husband-not-too-happy friend and I ended up sitting nearer the back than we need have done, though that didn't really matter, since you  don't need to sit right on top of a choir anyway.

The Seasons is a rousing piece of music, most of the time, though I thought during Spring that Haydn was presenting an idealised view of that season, and we could do with a bit more bounteous sun rolling from Aries and Taurus.  Come gentle spring, ethereal mildness, come - yup, I'm with Franz Joseph on that one, could definitely do with some ethereal mildness and a few lovely charms unfolding in a fragrant scene.  Instrumental accompaniment was provided by an organ and a percussionist, and the organist was having a ball and pulling out all the stops.  Hunting horn?  Yes, I can do that.  Oh, you want a flute and a string section, no problem.  A couple of the music society committee members turned out to be in the choir.  Chatting to the treasurer in the interval I said I didn't know he was in that choir, and he said he wasn't, always, but his arm had been twisted.  It turns out there is a shortage of tenor voices for amateur choirs.  More women than men want to join, and most of the men are older chaps whose voices, if they were ever in the tenor range when they were younger, have since dropped down to baritone.  All the research I've seen shows that belonging to a choir confers enormous emotional and mental health benefits, and I don't know why men in the 30 to 55 age bracket are so reluctant to do it, when women aren't, but there you go.

One of the sopranos was blind, and sang from a braille score, her guide dog at her feet.  The dog had been to all the rehearsals, of course, and apparently behaved impeccably except during the warm-up exercises, when he joined in by howling.  It was the dog's birthday a couple of weeks ago (not the owner's), and the choir sang Happy Birthday to it.

I didn't get back until half past ten, and found a very hungry Systems Administrator who had waited supper for me to be sociable.  I realised that if I'd rung when I left Dedham there would have time to cook the rice while I was driving home.  We settled for brown bread.

This morning I discovered that at some point during the night something, presumably a fox, had tried hard to dig into the chicken run.  When the snow was lying we'd seen a set of tracks that came out of the wood, went to the pop-hole, and round to the other side of the run to that particular spot, so maybe Charlie has had an eye on it for some time.  The invader had not got all the way through, prevented partly by the roots of a self-sown hawthorn that I hadn't had the energy to dig out, and had just been cutting the regrowth off the top.  The roots were deep and obviously very obstinate, so that was a fortunately placed weed.  The wood at the base of the run that the wire was stapled to had rotted, and the SA is going to have to go out this afternoon in the rain and staple it to a new and larger piece of wood.  We've got some sections of beam left over from the old deck that should do nicely.  A bit of extra wire wouldn't come amiss either.

Foxes are at their most blatant and dangerous at this time of year, when they have cubs.  I have seen them around the chickens in the garden in broad daylight twice, during the summer.  As a precaution this morning I put the chicken gate we use to stop them wandering up to the meadow across the damaged section of run, with a large clay jar in front of it.

Addendum  After lunch I am going to make some coconut buns and then the gloss I did this morning will be ready for a second coat (overcoating time six hours).  You didn't think I was going to let the whole day go by without mentioning paint, did you?  I really do need to finish the painting today.  The cats are starting to go mad, with the rain and the doors locked at random and furniture and food in the wrong places, and in turn are starting to drive us slightly mad as well.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

another garden visit

It only rained lightly this morning, and I took the opportunity to clean out the annexe to the chicken house where the hens are supposed to lay.  Only the old lady hen is on-lay at the moment.  The new little hens haven't started yet, nor have they started roosting on the perch at night.  Instead they all sleep crammed into the egg box, which means that they crap in it.  Hens must be instinctively hygienic creatures, and the old lady hen will not lay in the egg box if it gets mucky.  I am hoping that the Speckledies will discover how to roost like grown up chickens fairly soon, since it is a nuisance to have them shitting in the egg box.  They are having a dismal time of it in this weather, with no free ranging in the afternoon, and nothing much to do but shuffle between the sodden straw in their run, and the chicken house.  Chickens enjoy sunbathing, by the way, when there is any sun.

Then, as it was still only raining a bit, we went to see Olivers garden on the south side of Colchester, open today and tomorrow for the National Gardens Scheme.  Lots of new houses have been built on that side of town, on what was MoD land.  Turning off the new roundabout down Olivers Lane, within seconds you have entered a different world.  It's a single track lane with passing places, fields on either side, and a livery stables.  Two young women were riding down the lane ahead of us, one bare-back on a fat brown pony with a cream coloured tail.  At the end of the lane lies the Roman River, its flanks lined with poplars, bronze new leaves unfolding.  Towns that stop abruptly at the countryside are not the sole province of the north.

Olivers was looking very nice.  I heard the chap organising the (badly signposted) car park telling the couple ahead of us that this was the last year they'd be opening.  I don't know if that means for the Yellow Book Scheme, or at all.  They're open tomorrow as well, so seize the moment while you can (taking an umbrella).  There is a gravel turning circle in front of a plain, handsome red brick eighteenth century house, with a flower bed in the middle, currently home to a cheerful mixture of tulips and wallflowers.  There is a plant stall, where I snapped up a well-branched black aeonium for six pounds (I have some cuttings in the conservatory, but they were struck very late and it has been cold in there all winter, so they aren't looking great).

You go through a gate in the wall into the main garden.  In front of the house is a large terrace, paving reassuringly uneven and furniture cheerfully mismatched.  There is a box parterre (new growth slightly frosted.  Our box at home is the same) filled in with a really good display of tulips and wallflowers.  They were serving teas in a charming Gothick timber arcade at the end of the house, though we didn't have any tea, because we'd gone before lunch to miss the worst of the forecast rain.  A huge lawn sweeps down towards the Roman River, giving excellent views out over an un-built on and unspoiled landscape.  On the right hand side of the garden are big curving borders and a yew corridor with planting bays along one side.  Euphorbias, tulips and crown imperial fritillaries are looking good now, and there is more to come later.  On the left hand side of the garden are two big ponds, stream fed, and beyond the stretch of mown lawn the grass is left to grow long, with paths cut through it, currently studded with cowslips.

The formal garden is fenced, as various notices put it, to keep the dogs in and the rabbits out.  Gates in the fence let you through into a wood, which is a sheet of bluebells.  There are some azaleas and rhododendrons, and some nice exotic trees.  I noticed the peeling bark of Prunus serrula.  But the real point at this time of the year is the bluebells.  They are such an intense shade of blue.  The woodland area is larger than I remembered from my previous visit one July, when I suppose it was not doing very much.  The land gathers into a little valley, lined with bluebells, with a stream running along the bottom, with the leaves of iris and what might have been giant hogweed.  I'm not that well up on umbellifers, but I didn't touch it to be on the safe side.  It had bristly stems and didn't look like a plant you'd want to stroke.

There is a nice summerhouse among the formal borders, based on a William Kent design at Rousham, which echoes the covered arcade at the other end of the house, and some artworks around the garden and in the wood (along with memorial tablets to Dido and Homer, presumably dogs).  I'd have liked to see a couple more statues, one to act as an eye catcher when seen across the garden from the yew walk, and another as a punctuation point at the end of one of the paths cut into the long grass.

A handout told us that the soil is mostly thin sand with bands of clay, which is what we have at home.  We share storms and rabbits with them as well, and a disinclination to use much in the way of chemicals.  Olivers is a much larger and grander garden than ours, with a house to act as backdrop which is in a different league, but one of the things I like about visiting private gardens is that they give some ideas about what can be achieved on a domestic scale.  Gardens run as businesses, with full-time staff and eager horticultural trainees, or with the resources of major charities behind them, can be interesting and beautiful to visit, and there is always lots to learn, if you keep your eyes about you, but for inspiration for gardening at home visiting good private gardens still on a (large) domestic scale has a lot going for it.

By the time we left the owner, Gay Edwards, had taken over as ticket seller, and she hailed us cheerfully, as if she recognised me from my place of work (which is possible), but she may just have beautiful manners.  I congratulated her on how good the garden looked, and commiserated that the weather was so unkind.  It is a very nice garden, and I was pleased to go and support it, particularly if this is their last year of opening.  It is such a pity that the weekend is so wet and grim.  So many gardens are opening for charity, and I can imagine the work that has gone into planning things like pots of tulips since last autumn, and all the extra bits of planting being finished somehow in the past six months, and the last minute edging and weeding, as well as the friends and relatives roped in to help with the plant stall, and cakes, and car parking.  And then if it pours hardly anybody will come.  There are a couple of woods near us opening too, for the bluebells, to raise money for their respective churches, and as we drove home we saw a pair of cars with sopping wet white ribbon fastened to their bonnets, so people's weddings are being rained on as well.

Friday, 27 April 2012

more paint (sorry)

Painting the hall is starting to eat into valuable gardening time, as it didn't rain today, and I could have been outside.  The showers are extremely localised.  People who went into Colchester tell me it poured, but out here in the Tendring peninsular it didn't.  Still, now I've started painting I've got to finish, what with the top half of the dresser, all the things that normally live on the dresser, and the cats' food dishes and baskets being scattered around the study and kitchen and turning the downstairs into an obstacle course.

Gloss paint takes ages.  I quite enjoy slooshing on emulsion, but fiddling around doing weentsy skirting boards with a half inch brush is not great fun.  You don't realise how grey and tired white paint has got over the years, until you put fresh white paint next to it or over it, and I have realised I am not going to get away with one coat of gloss.  Well, obviously I could.  I could just not paint the hall at all, and it wouldn't make any difference to anything critical.  It isn't like not getting a leak in the roof fixed and then watching as the Stramit board rapidly disintegrates and the entire roof falls in.  The house is not going to collapse because I have grey skirting boards.  But from an aesthetic point of view, one layer of white paint over the grey makes it worse, drawing attention to the greyness without covering it.

At least paint has got easier to handle over the years.  Modern gloss doesn't drip nearly as much as when I first started painting skirting boards, and it is touch dry in an hour.  Touch dry is important when you have cats, whose aim in life sometimes seems to be to seek out wet paint, and rub their fur against it.  We opened the door onto the veranda so that the cats could get in and out of the house without going through the hall, but of course they want to get into the areas I want to keep them out of, and I had to stand a door stop in front of the cat flap.

I'm an idle cowboy decorator.  If I were making a proper job of it I'd take down the rug in the hall and paint the wall underneath it, instead of which I have tied the ends together with string knotted into the fringe at each end, tucked the bottom third of the rug into the pouch made by the two ends and sellotaped pages of The Times over the top of it.  This lets me paint far enough behind it that once it's let down again the unpainted patch doesn't show.  That 's how I did it last time, because I couldn't face taking it down from the wooden batten it's tacked to and then tacking it up again afterwards.  This time round I decided there was no point in painting the entire area that's hidden by the dresser either, as long as I went far enough in behind it for the edge of the unpainted area to be hidden from all viewing angles.  If we were selling, the buyer would have a disagreeable discovery, once the furniture was gone, but we aren't planning to move in the foreseeable future, so that's fine.

Tomorrow will be yet more painting, and really I am running out of anything to say on the subject, but we might go garden visiting after lunch, as the Yellow Book season is hotting up, and Olivers on the south side of Colchester is open from mid-day until 6.00pm.  That's a nice garden, which I visited back in 2006 during a very hot July and should like to see again in a more favourable season.  At this time of year their bluebells should be out.  If we make it then I won't have to compose a fourth blog post on the subject of paint.  The Systems Administrator has just exclaimed that the forecast for the weekend is a shocker, so we'll see.  The current plan is to be there when the doors open, if it's not already raining torrentially, as it's forecast to be worse later.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

still painting the hall

Today I got a second coat of emulsion on the outer hall.  I think the estate agent's details may have optimistically described this area as an office, but you would be hard pressed to fit a desk in there.  It is a lobby about 2 metres square leading to what is effectively the back door, except that it is at the front of the house quite close to the front door.  A panel next to the back door houses the cat flap.  A glass panel and door separate the outer hall from the inner hall, which is actually quite handy for us, as by shutting the inner door we can deny cats inside the house access to the cat flap if we need to keep them in for some reason, and stop cats intent on bringing their dead rabbits into the house from getting further than the outer hall.  I'm sure the people who built the house didn't use it for that.  I don't think they even had a cat, and I have no idea what the outer hall was originally for.  I suppose that by shutting the glass door you had a slightly sound-proof space in which to make phone calls.  When we moved in it had a telephone point, but no coat pegs.

The inner hall consists of another lobby, slightly larger, and a too-narrow corridor linking the original end of the house with the 1970s extension that now contains the kitchen and the study.  The house was extended twice, and like a computer system that has had too many features added over the years, the end result is something that wouldn't look like that if you were starting again from scratch.  The inner hall is quite useful, in that there is room in it for the cat baskets and food dishes, plus a dresser where I can put my slightly random collection of pottery.  Altogether it is a lot of hall, since the downstairs sitting room has a distinctly hall-like character, and if you could aggregate their floor areas into a sensible shape they'd add up to a decent sized room.  They don't build houses like that nowadays.

I also got a first coat of emulsion on the inner hall, and had to go back to B&Q as it had become apparent that one tin wasn't going to be enough.  I was fortunate in that yesterday they had two tins of Natural Teal in stock, and today they still had the one remaining tin that I rejected yesterday because it was dented.  It rained heavily in the morning, so I didn't mind that I was now committed to at least another day and a half decorating.  In the afternoon it stopped raining and the sun came out and I did mind, slightly, though the Systems Administrator who went out to try and get on with the new deck reported that the gunnera bed had become a quagmire.

I looked up the paint company yesterday, partly because I wanted to check the name of the paint I was thinking about for the kitchen, and I was mildly curious about them.  The brand name is 1829, and I'd assumed when I bought it that it was just another line from ICI or one of the chemical giants, but the name on the tin was Craig and Rose, and they had a website.  There I discovered that I was dealing with an independent UK company.  1829 is the year they were founded, they have been independent throughout their history, with seven generations of the family involved in the business, and their red oxide paint was used for a hundred years on the Forth bridge (it isn't now.  I saw a TV report about how that has been treated with some modern low maintenance coating, and the everlasting painting project is at an end).  They have a couple of other ranges besides the 1829 one, which comes in colours to fit historic themes and buildings.  It is available by mail order, or from B&Q, not a shopping destination calculated to appeal to the aspirational chattering classes.

This prompted me to look up the Farrow and Ball website.  I have never bought or used Farrow and Ball paint, which seems to me quite fabulously expensive.  A colleague who with his garden designer partner was engaged in some property renovation was slightly horrified by her loyalty to Farrow and Ball, and expressed doubts that a pot of (basically) light brown paint could cost quite so much.  I know they have cult status among the inhabitants of Islington's muesli belt, and I have read adulatory articles about their paints in the Sunday supplements, whereas I never heard of Craig and Rose until I read their name on the side of a paint tin from B&Q.  Farrow and Ball's website doesn't have a page on the history of the company, or any Victorian photographs of Mr Farrow and Mr Ball, so I looked them up on Wikipedia.  (Where would we be without Wiki?  Granted, you must not cite it as a source in your student essays, but isn't it great for gratifying idle curiosity about things that are not a matter of life and death?).  According to Wikipedia, Farrow and Ball was started in the 1930s, lay dormant for about twenty years, and in its current form has a manufacturing history dating back to the 1980s.  It is owned by venture capitalists.

It made me realise what a potent thing marketing is.  Craig and Rose is the real deal, a Scottish  family owned firm with over 180 years of history, making nice chalky emulsion in a range of historic colours.  With a back story like that they should be the darling of every homes and interiors journalist in the country, instead of which almost nobody has heard of them.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

painting the hall

There was no possibility of taking a walk today.  The clouds so sombre and the rain so penetrating didn't even wait until after dinner*, but ensconced themselves before breakfast, and looked set for the day.  I decided that it was time to paint the hall.  This has been on my list of things to do for a very long time.  I have even got as far as buying a glicee limited edition print from the Tate of an Edward Bawden lithograph of Liverpool Street Station (not full size.  The original is in the Fry gallery in Saffron Walden and it is enormous) and having it framed, with the intention of hanging it in the hall, instead of which it has been sitting propped against the bedroom wall for the past year.  In the depths of winter I couldn't face spending all that time in the freezing hall, and once the weather improved I was busy in the garden, but a wet and windy week in what passes for spring in England seemed the ideal time.

I have known people who buy little test pots of paint, and try them out, and spend ages agonising about the result.  I had a colleague who didn't like the colour of his kitchen when it was painted and did the whole thing again.  He may even have done it again twice, to get it exactly right.  I'm not that patient myself.  Choose a colour that looks hopeful, slap it on and live with the results is my method.  We did once spend a few years living with a kitchen that was a rather nasty acid shade of yellow (it faced north.  The yellow was supposed to brighten it up, but it didn't) but normally it works fine.  After all, there is no right answer when it comes to paint. I would rather it made me feel cheerful when I looked at it, rather than depressed or physically ill, but that still leaves a huge range of colours that would do perfectly well.

One wall of the inner part of the hall is covered with a green and red ethnic style rug (from Habitat, not an antique tribal one) which is there partly because I like rugs, but partly to cover a particularly dodgy bit of plasterwork.  It was quite tricky finding the rug, because it had to be large enough to hide the problem area, but not too large or it wouldn't fit on the wall.  A paint colour to pick out one of the colours in the rug seemed a good starting point.  Last time round I went for a bluish green that I think was described as Morris Blue, and staying somewhere in the blue-greens seemed the best bet, when I spent some time staring at paint charts about six months ago, the last time I was thinking about painting the hall.  After spending ten minutes looking at what was on offer in B&Q I decided that Natural Teal chalky emulsion would be just the job.

The wall where the reproduction lithograph is going to go used to have a set of framed black and white photos of wooden boats by a local photographer called Den Phillips.  They were cut out of her East Coast Calendar, which we have bought every year for more years than I care to remember.  She is a good photographer, and it seems a shame not to use some of the pictures from the old calendars, but after umpteen years we were getting bored of them, and they had an annoying tendency to blow off the wall when the door was propped open in the summer, smashing the frame plus anything fragile that happened to be on the hall table at a time.  I had the frame of the new print fitted with the side fastenings you can screw to the wall.  I think the framer called them mirror brackets.  It will be a challenge for the Systems Administrator to fasten the thing to the wall so that it's level, when I've finished painting.

The photographs were hung on substantial nails screwed into rawl plugs, the reason being that the hall wall was originally an exterior wall and there is solid brick 2mm under the plaster, so you can't bang in picture hooks in the normal way.  The screws undid easily with a little pair of mole grips, but it took me a little while to work out how to extract the first rawl plug (with a small skewer, carefully).  I filled the holes in with polyfilla, and while I was at it began to repair a gap in the door frame to the laundry that's been there since we had to remove the door frame to get the washing machine out when it finally broke down beyond all hope of repair.  Actually, we wasted a lot of money getting it repaired, and should have scrapped it about two years before we finally did.

Friends of ours took some time off over Easter to paint the upstairs of their new extension.  They are doing it properly, sanding down between coats.  I don't do that.  I didn't even sand off the polyfilla, just smoothed it down with the knife and gave it a rub with a wet cloth when it had finished setting.  The plasterwork in the hall is already pretty bad, pitted and scarred from fifty years' worth of hooks being hung and removed, and accidental contact with blunt objects.  If I got into the sanding lark I'd be at it until midsummer.  I have a theory that paint hides imperfections in the plaster, if it is strongly coloured enough.  On that basis we have a turmeric coloured downstairs loo, and a deep red study.  I also believe in taking the strongly coloured paint all over the ceiling.  The very nice woman who used to do our interior decorating for a while, until she moved away from the area, believed as an article of faith or convention that ceilings were white, and was rather taken aback when she discovered that I didn't want a study with red walls and a white ceiling, but one that was red all over (the walls are mostly covered with bookshelves anyway).

The first few brushfuls of Natural Teal looked a worrying shade of bright turquoise, which is one of my least favourite colours, but I told myself that I'd spent £21.98 on this, and that paint darkens as it dries.  It is darkening, to a good strong greenish blue, just as I'd hoped.  It is several shades darker than the old paint.  I thought that would be more exciting, and it might show the dirt less.  It will need two coats, and then there's the gloss to do, but today I got the first coat of emulsion on the outer hall, so I've made an appreciable dent on the task.  If it keeps raining into May as the Met Office is saying it could then I might even move on to the downstairs loo and the kitchen.  The kitchen is currently a slightly dubious shade of apricot tinged yellow (an attempt to brighten up an east facing room) but I have my eye on something the paint company calls Etruscan Red.  It is a soft reddish brown, just the thing to create a warming effect in a room that misses the sun for most of the day, and not clash with the Aga, or show the fly droppings on the ceiling too badly.  Flyshit Brown.  Now there's a name for paint.

*There is no cash prize, but award yourself a literary gold star if you get the reference.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

turning Japanese

After my three day stint of pot lifting leading seamlessly into the committee meeting, I'd expected to luxuriate in a lie-in this morning, but woke up anyway at seven, my body announcing that while rather stiff it didn't want to sleep any more, thank you very much.  I could hear the rain drumming on the roof, and didn't even bother to put on my gardening clothes when I got dressed.  Each day when I get up I look at the view from the bathroom window down the back garden.  It is one of the key views of the garden, though nobody ever sees it except for us, and it is amazing how in the past few days the leaves have opened in a great rush.  Before I could sit down and enjoy my muesli I had to go across the back lawn and check that all was well with a couple of potted acers and some of the Hamamelis which did not seem to be so leafy as the others, but on close inspection they were fine.  The new little leaves look fat and healthy, and haven't been caught by a late frost, nor have I been gulled by the frequent but light rain into letting the plants get dry at the root.  It must be that those varieties are naturally a little later to leaf up than some of the others.

Then the rain stopped, so I moved some pots of tulips that were almost open from their spot by the greenhouse where they have been growing all winter to their destined display area in Italian garden in the turning circle.  I got some green stains on my non-gardening jeans doing this.  After that I wasn't quite sure what to do.  The forecast was for heavy rain, and it was cold, and I had my monthly Pilates lesson booked for the early afternoon.  On the other hand, it was not actually raining at that moment, and as we have seen, moments of not raining now can stretch to a whole morning.

I decided to have the day off.  I was tired after the weekend, the thermometer read nine degrees, and the lawn had squelched with every step when I went to inspect the pots on the far deck.  I could have crawled around weeding the gravel in the top part of the garden, and planted out the thrift I bought at Beth Chatto the other day, and the horned poppies, and some sempervivums whose pots disintegrated last winter and which I am going to recycle as ground cover.  Instead I decided to light the fire in the study and settle down with a book.  Our Ginger was very pleased with the fire, and spent the morning simpering on the hearth rug, and the fat indignant tabby came to see me and bounced on the arm of my chair and purred a lot, a rare display of affection that was only partly spoilt by the moment when she dipped her tail in my tea.

I have been reading about Japanese gardens, for no particular reason except that I had the books out to look at ideas for the path to the new deck, and leafing through them for relevant photos reminded me that I liked them and hadn't looked at them for a while.  The book about Japanese gardens in North America is written as a design crib for western garden makers, and I can't remember why or when I bought it, but is a pleasant enough easy read with good pictures.  Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane is a more serious study of the origins, conventions and meanings of Japanese gardens in Japan.  He is a trained landscape architect, from America, but lived and worked in Japan for years, researching and designing gardens.  I think he knows his stuff, and his book featured on Writtle reading lists.  My favourite tutor at Writtle wrote her doctoral thesis on Japanese gardens in the UK, and at one time it looked as though she had landed a book deal, but nothing seemed to emerge from that, which is a pity.  I'd have bought a copy.  The Gardens of Japan by Professor Teiji Ito has been on my Amazon wishlist since November 2004, which tells you that my enthusiasm for Japanese gardens has probably diminished slightly in the last eight years.

I am cautious about dotting faux Japanese lanterns about the place.  I'd rather the objects in my garden had some cultural resonance for me.  The museum copy of the head of a muse is fine.  That relates to the European renaissance, the UK tradition of the grand tour and, if you like, the fact that Colchester was a Roman city, and sits comfortably, if rather vaguely, in my cultural hinterland.  I mean, I did the hypocaust in primary school, and watched I, Claudius in the 1970s, so I grew up with the Romans.  The pieces of driftwood are pretty sound.  They refer to the picturesque tradition of the stumpery, and Derek Jarman's garden (haven't been there, but read the book, lots of times), and my own beach combing expeditions, and hours spent on the water.  I know where I am with bits of driftwood.

The rest of the collection is equally grounded, apart from the museum copy of the buddha.  Given that I am not a buddhist, and all I know about buddhism was derived from reading one book (by a retired catholic nun) and going along to a few meetings of the Friends of the Western Buddhist order, and a superb exhibition at the RA some years ago that left me feeling that whatever it was that those smiling buddha figures knew, I wanted to know it, according to my own aesthetic principles I should not have a statue of the buddha in the garden.  And it is a western design cliche.  But it is a good copy of an extremely nice statue, and I like it, and you do not have to be a buddhist to embrace the principle of mindfulness, which I have found a useful concept.  Trying to pay attention to the moment makes the moment more interesting, and from a practical point of view curbs my natural tendency to clumsiness, since half the time when I squash, drop, break or tread on things I realise it was because I was thinking about something else at the time and not really noticing what I was doing. It is not even a solely buddhist or eastern concept, given that Montaigne talks about it, even if he (or rather his translators) don't call it that.  So the buddha stays, because I like it.  But I would not know what I was saying with a Japanese lantern.

The standard college essay answer about What Japanese Gardens Can Teach Us was that they taught us about the arrangement of space.  They do.  Also about attention to detail, in terms of all that raked gravel, and carefully arranged fallen leaves.  Also restraint, in terms of the limited plant palette.  Also about the tension between the growing and dynamic, and the static.  Japanese gardens involve an amazing amount of pruning, to keep all those acers and pines and azaleas exactly the right shape, and as far as possible the same size for ever.  It is explained in Niwaki: Pruning, training and shaping trees the Japanese way by Jake Hobson, another westerner captivated by Japanese gardening.  Compare and contrast with the western assumption that it is in the nature of gardens to change, as trees grow and the amount of light in the garden decreases.  If you want nice design details to inspire your own garden, I'd give the knots tied round pieces of bamboo a miss, as well as the lanterns (too self-consciously Look at me, I'm doing a Japanese garden) but some of the stone paths provide wonderful leaping off points for inventing your own thing.  So do the clipped evergreens, and indeed our garden contains increasing quantities of mound-pruned box as ground cover, the idea nicked from the garden of Hugh Johnson, who in turn acknowledges his oriental source.

A day spent by a fire, with some cats, some books, and some healthy exercise in the middle, is a day well spent.  I didn't make any physical progress on the garden, but I made some mental progress thinking about it, and gardens in general.  It would be nice to be able to look at a Japanese garden from the standpoint of understanding the culture and history, and I don't, and I'm never going to, but even approaching them as an outsider, they provide much food for thought.


Monday, 23 April 2012

my first committee meeting

This will be a short post.  It's just gone quarter to seven, and at half past I have to go to work, and I haven't made my packed lunch yet, or had my breakfast, or let the chickens out.  Let us hope they have not chosen this morning to have kicked their water over or filled it with straw, which adds an unexpected five minute delay to being able to shut the car door and set off down the drive.

I should have written something last night, except that by the time I'd got back from work, and watered the greenhouse and conservatory and posted yesterday's blog, it was supper time, and I was frankly knackered.  I don't think I'm going to feel like writing anything tonight, because I have to go straight from work to my first beekeepers' committee meeting.

I hadn't realised when I volunteered to serve a stint as Treasurer that they met on Monday evenings at 7.30pm in a village on the opposite side of Colchester to my house.  When I thought about the timings I realised that in the spring quarter when we don't finish work until 6.00pm, all I would have time to do would be to drive home from work, then I'd have to turn round and set straight back out again, with maybe five minutes tops to try and clean my fingernails.  Instead I'll have to scrub up at work and go straight there.  I might be able to get some food in the pub, though I shall take a packet of oat biscuits in case of emergencies.  In the winter it will be fine, when we finish work at 4.00pm, but for April through to June it is a nuisance.

I have no idea what the beekeeping committee meeting will be like.  Knowing the people involved, probably rather free form, compared to the music society meetings which the Chairman, a retired lawyer of considerable charm, runs with iron efficiency beneath the velvet glove.  Beekeepers don't take naturally to organisation.  If I wanted a cliche at this point, 'herding' and 'cats' would do nicely.

At least my bank mandate change form came through, so I can get the cheque for our capitation fees to the county and national beekeeping bodies signed.  The bank statements haven't yet started reaching me, so I haven't had the treat of doing my first bank rec.  I do know that we have enough money to pay the capitation fees, though, because we had at the time of the March statement, which is the last one I've got, handed over by the outgoing Treasurer, had more than enough, and I know what has gone out since then because I've got the only cheque book.  Some other committee members can pay money in to the bank, but they require my collusion to get it out again.

When I get home I might tell you all about it, but I probably won't, since by then I will have done more than enough for one day.  And now I'm afraid time is so short I'm not even going to use Blogspots's Preview facility and see how this looks, so apologies in advance for the spelling mistakes and lexical facilitations.  You'll have seen worse in the Guardian and the Telegraph, so don't worry about it.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

what's in a name

Driving to work this morning, I saw a poor dead cat ahead of me in the road in the neighbouring village.  I could tell it wasn't a rabbit long before reaching it, and sure enough, it was a white cat with tortie patches.  That didn't get my day off to the best of starts, as I felt sorry for the cat, and imagined its owner missing it in the morning, and going to have a look for it outside, or seeing it through the bedroom window when they opened the curtains.

Arriving at the plant centre I discovered I hadn't quite finished emptying the red trolleys yesterday, in that there was a quarter of a silver shopping trolley of plants abandoned in one of the aisles that I'd never got round to putting out for sale.  I must have been distracted by the phone, or a customer asking me a question, and forgotten that it was there (or maybe it was an example of the Freudian process of repression as a factor in forgetfulness, and I just didn't want to remember it).  Either way, I emptied it, and after the watering turned my attention to tidying up the herbaceous tables, the next job on the manager's list.

At this time of the year most of the plants in the herbaceous section are new and clean, and don't really need weeding.  They need tidying because customers muddle them up, and in some cases staff don't understand what order they should go in, and sometimes because there are simply more pots than will fit in a given section of table, and someone has to take the time to budge them along or consolidate them to create the necessary gaps.

Customers muddle plants amazingly.  I saw this today as I began at the beginning of the alphabet, at A for Acanthus mollis, and by half past five I'd got the end, V for Viola sororia, so spent the last twenty minutes until it was time to shut the tunnels and till up going quickly round again from the beginning.  Half the pots of Delphinium 'Magic Fountain Dark Blue' were already jumbled in with a different variety of Delphinium, presumably by somebody dithering over which sort to choose, and which were the nicest looking plants.  As I was tidying up first time round I found odd plants abandoned in completely the wrong section, so I suppose those customers suddenly changed their minds completely and decided they didn't want a Geum or a Helenium at all, and couldn't be bothered to take the pots back to the right place, or couldn't remember where they got them from.  You see the same thing in supermarkets, when a box of eggs is dumped randomly in the baked beans or a jar of olives pops up in the jam section.

Many more customers, having picked a pot up to read the label (we are increasingly clever about physically attaching labels to pots, otherwise people pull them out to have a look and stick them back absolutely anywhere) put the pot down vaguely where it came from, but the fact that the pots are in neat rows, and that all the labels face the front, passes them by completely.  Or they can't be arsed.  I suppose I try on sweaters in shops and then put them down again not nearly as neatly folded as when I found them, but I can't fold sweaters like that when I try.  Putting things in rows is a cognitive skill I should think your average five year old should grasp with ease.

Errors on the part of the staff are partly because we don't always read the names properly, and partly down to suppliers printing abbreviated and partial names on the labels.  Delphinium Blue Bird Group comes before Delphinium 'Blue Jay', but you have to be concentrating quite hard to notice that, particularly when you are tired and have dozens and dozens of boxes of plants to put out.  I sometimes wonder if one or two of my co-workers are mildly dyslexic, though nobody has ever outed themselves as having spelling problems.  The wretched suppliers introduce confusion by abbreviating plant names, so Campanula glomerata 'Superba' becomes Campanula superba, and ends up within campanulas under S instead of G. Plants that we pot up and grow on ourselves in 2L pots always, but always, have the full name because the boss is fanatical about that sort of thing, so we end up with bought-in 1L pots of Geranium 'Wargrave Pink' separated by rows of other pots from the 2L home-potted Geranium x oxonianum 'Wargrave Pink', when both are exactly the same thing.  And suppliers hate name changes, so while the boss dutifully writes labels for sedum variety 'Herbstfreude' the suppliers stick with the snappier (to the English ear) 'Autumn Joy'.  (They are of course synonymous, but under the rules of nomenclature the earlier name takes precedence, which in this case is the German one.  That's why Penstemon 'Garnet' should really be P. 'Andenken an Friedrich Hahn', if you are being correct about it).

Mind you, the boss is starting to show his age and resist name changes.  He refused to countenance the fact that the botanists have decreed that the smallish grass Stipa arundinacea should now be called Anemanthele lessoniana, harrunphing that all the customers know it as Stipa.  The river of change rolls ever on, as I saw the other day that we are supposed to call Dicentra spectabilis something else, and it is no longer considered a dicentra.  Gardeners hate change.  Some of the printed coloured labels supplied with our hostas still helpfully give the alternative name of Funkia, and I thought that went out with Gertrude Jekyll.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

lifting weights

My three days of gardening over, this morning it was back to three days at the plant centre.  The manager had left us a list of jobs to do over the weekend sellotaped to the counter by the till, as is his custom.  These tend to err on the optimistic side i.e. long, but even so my initial reaction on reading my list of tasks was that he must be having a laugh.  Could I empty the red trolleys, please, and then tidy the herbaceous section, and jazz up the displays at the ends of the herbaceous tables.

The red trolleys are used to move plants between the sales area and the polytunnel and standing areas on the far side of the car park, where customers are not allowed to go.  They also double up as potting benches during the winter, which means removing the upper tier of shelving, an infuriating job.  There were two of them waiting at the back of the plant centre this morning, both fully packed on the top and bottom shelves, plus a couple of the silver trolleys you would use for your shopping, also filled with plants to go out for sale.

After watering inside the tunnels I set to.  It's actually quite a pleasant job, as you get a close look at the plants while taking them off the red trolley and putting them in a silver trolley to wheel them out for sale.  It's interesting to see what's available, and nice to see them per se.  Today there was a dinky form of Solomon's Seal whose little white flowers came in pairs on its arching stalk, Polygonatum biflorum (naturally enough).  Some of them are truly not very exciting to look at yet, like the hostas with the merest sliver of green shoot nosing above the compost, just enough to demonstrate that they are alive in there.  But if you like plants it's a good chance to see lots of them close up and personal.

Then there's a certain amusement in trying to pick out efficient trolley loads of plants that are all displayed close together in the plant centre, to minimise the distance walked and amount of doubling back.  And then sometimes you need to move up the existing stock to make room for another row of an extra variety, which is an excuse to look at yet more plants.

My colleagues were very good about manning the tills and leaving me to get on with my Herculean task, which  was helpful of them, and certainly makes up for the time they left me stuck on the till for most of a Saturday, while getting on with their own more interesting (and open air) projects.  I made good progress, though by mid afternoon I was starting to feel quite tired.  By later afternoon I realised with some incredulity that I was actually going to finish emptying both red trolleys, and the two extra small ones.  I cleared the last three dwarf iris and a pine with twenty minutes to spare.

I measured the trolleys, because I wanted to quantify how many pots I'd moved.  Each shelf is a shade over a metre wide, and 2.2m long, and I'd cleared four of them.  The silver trolleys hold 18 2L plant pots.  All up I reckon I lifted enough pots to cover roughly 9.5 square metres, most of them twice, because I had to move them from the red trolleys to a silver trolley to push them around the plant centre, and lift them out of the silver trolley putting them out for sale.  As well as that I lifted quite a few plants moving them up to make room for the new ones.

You could join a gym, if you are worried about developing flabby upper arms.  Alternatively you could just get a job in plant retailing.

Friday, 20 April 2012

third time lucky?

Today's forecast was for the rain to hold off until 4.00pm, so they've been rolling back their expectations since the start of the week.  In fact it stayed dry until 3.00pm, when the first heavy drops backed by a rumble of thunder drove me indoors.  I've shifted my attentions in the back garden to the island bed.  It would be very nice to get one area properly finished and then move on to the next, but the weeds have started growing worryingly quickly in the island bed, and need tackling before they get completely out of hand.

This is a long, triangular bed that sits in full sun between the top lawn and the grass track to the bottom lawn.  It was a low-maintenance, largely self-sustaining area for several years.  A mixture of Cistus, Stipa gigantea, Lupinus arboreus and Verbena bonariensis seeded themselves around, keeping the centre of the bed pretty full and hiding the creeping sorrel and horsetail.  There's a Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, an Osmanthus delavayi on one corner, which is kept clipped to form a dome, an ochre yellow conifer, Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' on the second corner, next to a driftwood sculpture which the cats unaccountably persist in regarding as a scratching post, and a low bulging hedge of Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold' nips off the apex of the triangle.  A glaucous leafed form of Kniphofia and a Yucca do pretty well, as do Crocosmia 'Lucifer', which seeds itself mildly, and Crocosmia 'George Davidson', which doesn't self seed but bulks up at the root.  Some of the more drought-tolerant asters are happy, and various odds and bobs like a bright red flowered ancestor of the oriental poppy hybrids that I raised from seed, and a Galtonia, ditto.  Robinia hispida sprawls about as a free standing shrub, bits breaking off when there's a gale, and Phlomis russeliana is happy to take more space than it really merits.  Penstemon have come and gone over the years, and shrubby Potentilla.  Sedum 'Matrona' was good, and now needs rescuing before it is overwhelmed by the Osmanthus.    Some pink bearded iris like it there, and Chamaecytisis purpureus, and an Eremurus, though I must remove the Phlomis advancing on its crown.  Foxtail lilies need their own space.  There are some chrysanthemums for late colour, but it is a bit dry for them.  For a long time it was a trouble free area, that looked good throughout the year, with a fair amount of evergreen foliage and some seed heads to look at in the winter.

Trouble started after the first very cold winter, which killed most of the Cistus.  I weeded, mulched and replanted, in time to be clobbered by the second cold winter.  Second time around I went for some hardier subjects, including Rosa glauca which seems to need full sun, and whose pewter coloured foliage should look good with the Cistus, should any survive.  But I'm still looking at great gaps between shrubs that should touch each other when they are full grown, and some of the new planting has died.  I'm getting fed up with replacing Coronilla, whose perpetual, scented yellow flowers are purely mythical in my garden as the plants always die.  I'm not sure whether to try with Romneya coulteri just one more time, since while I've failed twice already, which is normally my limit, it is notoriously difficult to establish planted out of a pot.  There is green beneath the bark on the twigs of the Clerodendron trichotomum, but the leaf buds seem dead, presumably killed by frost, and since that's the second of those to fail I'm wondering whether to go for a nice Euonymus instead.

Into the gaps between the survivors, lovingly mulched with mushroom compost within the past twelve months, goose grass and grass grass are springing up, now we've had some rain, and those need ripping out and a good layer of Strulch applied as soon as possible.  Towards the top of the bed, where I never reached last time round with the manure, grass is also growing, but is much harder to weed out since the soil is less friable.  The difference in soil texture as well as colour between the areas that were and were not dosed with mushroom compost is notable.  Sadly it doesn't go down very far, though if I kept adding compost for another fifty years I dare say it would.  The grass springing up between the asters also needs to come out pronto, before the asters get any taller, and that end of the bed needs mulching with compost and then Strulching.  And then, if only this year's replacement plants would not mostly die on me, I'd be there, provided I get to the end of the job before some other area becomes even more pressingly urgent.

Addendum  I said I'd tell you whether the asters that I moved and split in winter survived, given that the books say you should do it in April.  They did.  At least, I would not swear that every single root had survived, but where I left the old stalks sticking up, to remind me that there was something there, a healthy crops of basal foliage has appeared.  So, irritatingly, have some spears of creeping thistle.  One glyphosate treatment was evidently not enough.  Remember that I did this on very light soil, albeit dosed with mushroom compost, and on a slope.  I wouldn't guarantee the same result if you try it at home on badly drained clay.  

Thursday, 19 April 2012

bird of dawning

I woke early, in time to hear the rooster crowing.  I love the sound of the rooster.  It is a cry of hope, heralding the start of a new day, and of reassurance.  The chickens made it through the night.  We remembered to lock the hen house, and the fox didn't break in.  Sometimes, if I wake at four or so in the morning, I can't go back to sleep until I've heard the rooster, affirming that all is well outside.

It saddens me when I read in the local papers of disputes between neighbours over the noise made by someone's cockerel, especially if they live in the country.  Why buy a house in a rural location if you don't like the sound of a rooster?  It's like people who move in next to a medieval church, and then complain about the noise made by bell ringing practice or on Sunday mornings.  It's a church.  It has bells.  They have been there for centuries.  If you don't like them why did you move there?  I think people who find the noise of their neighbour's rooster intolerable must at some deep level find their general proximity to their neighbour upsetting.  The crowing of a cockerel inside a hen house is, objectively speaking, no louder than the dawn chorus, heard from a bedroom, even with a window open, and whoever heard of anyone complaining that the noise of the blackbirds and robins was preventing them from sleeping?

Once at work I was asked for advice on sound-deadening shrubs by somebody who had been ordered by an environmental health officer to plant them to shield the noise of their swimming pool pump from the next door neighbours, who had made a complaint about it.  Fresh out of horticultural college and eager, I expressed my doubt that the amount of planting they could do in a domestic garden would make any difference at all to the noise, since academic research showed that you needed a buffer of shrubs and trees tens of metres deep to give a measurable improvement.  I suggested that a better approach would be to go to an automotive parts supplier or yacht chandler and invest in some sound insulating foam for the pump housing, like that used around engine compartments in boats.  With hindsight I think that although this was good technical advice, it may have missed the point, and that what the environmental health officer may chiefly have intended to do was give the neighbour visible reassurance that something was being done.  Even though it didn't really cut down the noise, it might have stopped them worrying about it.

I mind the noise from the lettuce farm, when they are particularly busy, running lorry engines in the yard and charging about on their forklifts and tractors, much more than I do the background noise from the local main roads, even though the roads can be quite noisy when the air is damp and the wind is from the right (or rather the wrong) direction.  I mind the noise of the roads more than an equivalent amount of noise from passing aircraft.  That's because the lettuce farm noise seems to uniquely blight my house, and the other properties on the farm, whereas road noise affects lots of people, so doesn't make me feel so much as though I made an unfortunate choice of residence.  And aeroplane noise affects absolutely everybody, no matter how carefully you chose the lie of the land where you live, so I take that even less personally.

The weather forecast was for heavy rain by ten, but since it had stopped raining by the time I'd finished my breakfast I thought I'd go outside and get on with the garden until it started.  We'd only had 6mm of rain in the previous 24 hours, but that was enough to have made the centre of the gunnera bed truly swampy.  I moved operations to lighter ground further up the slope, although it would have been nice to actually finish a job.  Half past ten came, and I ducked from the Radio 3 studio guest (a feature I find peculiarly annoying) to Radio 2 Popmaster, which is conveniently scheduled for the same time.  There was still no rain by half past eleven, and at half past twelve the Systems Administrator came out to say that the weather was very peculiar, as the rain radar kept showing huge showers sweeping in our direction, which petered out about ten miles short of us.  The SA had not got all the tools out to get on with the deck, on the basis that it had been about to rain all morning, but thought that the rain really would arrive in about forty-five minutes, and would I like to hold off lunch until it did?  I agreed that was a splendid plan to make the most of the dry spell, and went on weeding until quarter to two, when it still wasn't raining, but I was extremely hungry.

There were showers in the afternoon, and I went and pricked out seedlings in the greenhouse, but it goes to show how sometimes the extra information we get from technology is counter productive.  The SA, mesmerised by the high tech evidence of imminent rain, had missed out on a dry morning, while for me, working on the low tech basis that it wasn't raining until it was, it had been business as usual.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

the big muddy

Isn't it always the way?  I have three days with nothing in my diary.  I don't have to scurry around collecting twigs and checking my projector works, or going over to the plant centre to borrow plants, before driving to the other end of the county for a talk.  Nobody is coming round, and I don't have to clean the house, or cook.  I haven't arranged to meet anybody, or got a ticket for an exhibition in London I'd rather not have to go to this week, except that I've already booked my slot.  I am completely and utterly free to get on with the garden for three days, and it's raining, and forecast to rain again tomorrow, and on Friday.

I woke early this morning, and the rain held off until a quarter to eleven, so I was able to pull up more of the nettles from the gunnera bed.  Human nature being what it is, I have left the boggiest areas until last, and am now at the stage of pulling nettle roots from thick mud, wearing waterproof nitrile gauntlets, and resting my kneeling mat on a section of board to spread my weight and prevent the mat from sinking into the mud.  It is impossible to shake all the soil off the weed roots, and slimy gobbets of mud are going into the bags of debris to be taken to the dump (I believe in home made compost, but I'm not putting nettle roots leavened with horsetail on the compost heap).  The nitrile gloves come in one size, which is way too large for my hands, so that my fingers don't nearly reach to the tips of the gloves.  This makes getting my hands under sections of root to prise them up more difficult than it need be.  A small, sharp border fork inherited from my late father-in-law (though with a  new handle since I unwisely attempted to use it to move a hydrangea.  The hydrangea won, and is still where it was, and I have adapted my ideas to fit round it) is a more useful tool than a trowel.

If you have a hosepipe ban then sorry for harping on about the mud.  The water table comes to the surface at this point.  It is unstable, and among the nettles were the dead stumps of a couple of shrubs that I planted there when it was normal soil, albeit on the damp side, and not a bog.  I hope that planting my Primula bulleyana, Osmuda regalis and other extreme moisture loving goodies will not be the cue for the water table to drop again.  Or come up somewhere else really inconvenient, like the middle of the lawn, or underneath the Daphne bholua (it has already done for an Edgeworthia.  An expensive loss).

At least the tickets arrived for the Chelsea Flower Show.  I had been starting to get twitchy about those, as we got to within five weeks of the day and nothing came.  The ticketing agency was saying 4-6 weeks, down from 6-8 when I ordered the tickets, months ago, but given the difficulties we've had with things not arriving in the post, and things addressed to other houses being delivered here, I've been gently anxious not to have received anything since before the six week point.  The Post Office never acknowledged my e-mail telling them I'd received what looked like a financial letter addressed to quite a different house, and I can't imagine they'd be a bit helpful if my tickets hadn't turned up.  Now that the RHS is so big, and subcontracts the ticketing to a commercial agency, I wasn't at all confident I'd get any joy out of them either, though I suppose I could have tried to enlist the boss's help, him being an RHS stalwart on the hardy tree and shrub committee, and moderating at Chelsea and everything.  Still, it's much easier just to have the tickets.  I felt a little warm glow as I tucked them into the letter rack where I keep tickets for things.  It is our most extravagant day out in the whole year.  Indeed, it is my only really extravagant day out.

The Systems Administrator has taken advantage of a brief later afternoon lull in the rain to go and dig holes for the posts to support the back of the new deck.  I could go out and weed the gravel, but I'm not sure I have the willpower.  It is still windy, and cold out there.  Exchanges of e-mails with my fellow beekeepers concerning our preparations for the Tendring Show are laced with concerns about how it is too cold to open the beehives and see what our bees are doing, and our conviction that as soon as it warms up again they are going to want to swarm.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

trips to the Chatto gardens

I've been shopping a couple of times recently at the Beth Chatto nursery.  They are one of the few UK suppliers of a charming little drought resistant plant called Alyssum spinosum 'Roseum'.  It is a nice thing, with little grey leaves and pink flowers, and I had it in the garden years ago, grown from seed, but put it too close to one of the ivy hedges, and it was overwhelmed.  Since then I haven't seen seed offered again.  I saw a couple of plants growing at Rosemoor, the RHS garden in Devon, but they didn't have any seed, and anyway it would have been rather cheeky to take it, in case the RHS intended to harvest it themselves.  Instead I finally remembered to go and see whether the Chatto gardens actually had any for sale, and they had.  I bought three, which have now been planted out in the gravel, well away from anything large that could smother them.  I also picked up three Arenaria for the same spot, and some more large leafed saxifrages.

I am becoming intrigued by the possibilities of these shade tolerant plants.  I started with three London Pride tucked in next to the bole of the tree that isn't a swamp cypress, and was impressed by the inexorable spread of their evergreen, weed suppressing carpet in a dry and difficult corner.  When we were having our tea at Boxted Mill I heard the two ladies at the next table talking about gardening, and one was dismissive of London Pride, which she apparently had in the front garden and didn't like.  I don't know what her front garden was like, but do know that faced with a rooty, shaded spot under a tree, Saxifraga x urbium is a very useful plant, and I quite like its scalloped leaves and little clouds of flowers.  My original patch has spread as far as I want it to in some directions, and I have started experimenting taking off rooted pieces and starting them off around the bases of other shrubs.

Encouraged by the initial success of the London Pride, I bought three pots last year from Beth Chatto of something labelled Saxifraga 'Dentata', with longer, shinier, brighter green and more deeply toothed leaves.  I tried that in even deeper shade, and although it is only increasing slowly, it looks very healthy and is gradually spreading.  I have just seen that the RHS counts this as part of the London Pride Group.  It's a pleasant thing for a shady spot under shrubs where not a lot else will go, except for half hearted goose grass and elder seedlings, and worth trying, though there are only five suppliers listed in the country (but four of them do mail order).  I got a dark leafed evergreen variety called 'Hime' from the plant centre, where we were selling them as part of a bedding range for winter containers (they were singularly unpopular) and those have finally been planted at the base of the plinth for the head of the muse, where they should tone nicely with the dark grey terrazzo plinth (AKA inverted cylindrical flower pot), and make useful ground cover, if they take.  A couple more obscure varieties from Beth Chatto are now sitting in a box in the porch awaiting planting.  I visualise a whole saxifrage corner developing, and why not.

I went back today to have lunch with my parents (we were originally planning to go to the Henry Moore Foundation near Little Hadham, but the forecast was for rain) and before lunch picked up a white flowered skunk cabbage, Lysichiton camtschatcensis, to go in the damp seep by the new deck at the bottom of the garden.  I held off buying one last time, because there is a species with a yellow spathe from western North America, and one with a white spathe from northeastern Asia, and I knew that one was generally considered fragrant (in a good way) while the other justified the common name of skunk cabbage, and wasn't entirely sure which was which.  As you can guess (given that the Systems Administrator and I are not masochists and this thing is going by a seating area) the white is the sweet smelling one.  I noticed this morning, when I was checking something else, that Lysichiton is on the Plantlife list of invasive exotic species they don't want us to plant in our gardens, but since they say that most plants in the wild come from people dumping roots, and I am not planning to dump roots, and the RHS encyclopedia of perennials says that plants rarely set seed in this country, I'm not going to worry about that, even though Plantlife is an excellent charity, and I am a member.  I got an Osmunda regalis at the same time, a tall growing, deciduous fern that is happy sitting in boggy ground.

After lunch, and a walk round the gardens as by then it had almost stopped raining, I remembered that I'd meant to get some Glaucium flavum or horned poppy for the beach themed garden in the turning circle.  I've tried to germinate seed of this twice now, and never got even a single plant, so thought it was time to buy some plants, and maybe they'll seed themselves.  The Norfolk Wildlife Trust says that it has the largest seed pods of any British plant.  Its Wikipedia entry says that all parts of the plant are toxic and can produce a range of symptoms up to and including respiratory failure and death, although its main alkaloid component can also produce hallucinogenic visual effects.  I didn't know any of that when I bought it, but I wasn't planning to eat it anyway.  Then as I was there I added some Armeria juniperifolia for the gravel, a short leaved and short stemmed species of thrift I'd admired as we walked around the gardens, and have also tried to raise from bought seed in the past, with zero success.

Finally I added a peony Molly the Witch, for no good reason except that I once accidentally caught the incredibly brief flowering period of one at Wisley and was enchanted by it, and since I'm doing quite a lot of clearance in the back garden I'll manage to slot it in somewhere.  That is a bad basis on which to buy plants, and nowadays I do mostly start from the space I need to fill, and work backwards to find something that should work there.  One of the long-time staff was confused to see me going round the till for a second time, and I left before I could buy any more plants.

I spent the rest of the afternoon weeding the gravel in the turning circle.  It is a truth not universally acknowledged that Genista aetnensis, the Mount Etna Broom, drops an enormous quantity of thin twigs or leaves each winter (I'm not sure which they are, botanically speaking) and that if you have your broom growing in gravel you will spend a long time at some point in the year raking them up with your fingertips.  It should have been done earlier for tidiness sake, but I didn't have time.  Doing it now I can pull up the latest crop of creeping sorrel at the same time.  The Beth Chatto gravel garden has very little visible creeping sorrel, but I'm pretty sure that's because she has a supply of eager, supple young horticultural students to crawl about and pull it up for her.  If you ever read an article that says that gravel is weed suppressing and that gravel gardens are low maintenance then just skip the rest of it, once you get to that bit.  It isn't and they're not.

Monday, 16 April 2012

cold and slow

There was a frost this morning.  It was forecast, and I had shut the conservatory and greenhouse up last night, but was still surprised at the amount of ice on my windscreen.  Fortunately the hebe I borrowed from work last week, that was still sitting on the gravel with the other unsold plants, was protected by the house and my car and hadn't gone brown at all.  I remembered to put the unsold plants in the car before setting off to work, which was fortunate, as trying to remember to do anything outside normal routine before half past seven in the morning can be rather hit and miss.

The boss revealed that the dog is expecting puppies, her first litter.  As she is a sweet little thing the puppies will presumably be almost unbearably cute.  The boss praised her nice nature, saying that she had never growled at anybody, not even the children.  It is true, she is an amiable dog, and didn't try to bite me the time I plucked her away from her hedgehog hunt.  It's just a pity that she has such a tendency to abscond, though that is improving with age.  It turns out that the old dog fell in the pond last week, and couldn't get out, and the gardener had to wade in and rescue her.  I think the pond is about three feet deep, so it's fortunate that he is a gardener and not a fire fighter, and so wasn't inhibited by his lack of training for entering water deeper than knee height.

The children were pressed into service to run the tea room, as they are back from school for the holidays.  The young boy took to this with enthusiasm.  I think he's quite a keen cook, and he looked in his element wiping tables and making pots of coffee.  His sister seemed less enamoured of the tea room.  Still, there's nothing wrong with a bit of child labour in a family business.  There were two pieces of left over chocolate cake in the staff room, the first I've seen there, but by the time I got in for my tea break somebody else had eaten them.

Trade was sluggish.  It's not just us.  The driver from one of our suppliers, who brought us 50 trays of one litre herbaceous plants, said that we were his first delivery of the week, and that last week they hadn't had any.  It's hard to say whether that'd down to the cold weather making people not feel like shopping for plants, or the hosepipe ban make them not feel like planting them, or just the state of the economy.  Given that things were booming when it was warm, a couple of weeks back, weather must have something to do with it.  Today was cold, another when I kept having to grope among my various pockets searching for a hankie as my nose wouldn't stop running.  When I came back out into the plant centre after my (rather late) lunch, I had to go and get my coat from the car because I was cold, and I was already wearing a fleece, a shirt and two t-shirts, plus thermal leggings under my trousers and a fleece hat.

The door company has not fixed the doors.  The boss says they are crooks.  It is a reminder how, when buying anything mechanical, the quality and availability of after-sales service is really important.  The Systems Administrator and I learnt this the hard way with our Stanley range, a fuel-inefficient and unreliable monster that no local firm was prepared to service, except for the one that sold us the horror in the first place, who charged royally for the privilege.

I bought myself some Primula bulleyana to go in the gunnera bed.  They are a candelabra type with apricot flowers that are supposed to like really wet, even boggy, soil, and I am going to try them in the wet seep that runs across the bed.  If the site suits them they should self sow.  As I walked around the plant centre on various errands, and putting plants out for sale, quite a large part of my mind was occupied, in the absence of customers, with noting what we had available and trying it against gaps in the garden.  As I took them out to my car I met the manager in the car park, and explained that I had a damp patch.  He said I should keep quiet about that.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

a garden visit

We went to see the garden at Boxted Mill, which was open in aid of the National Art Fund.  The flier promised a riverside walk with daffodils, plus tea and cake, in the beautiful setting of the Dedham vale, which all sounded jolly nice.  We had a little difficulty navigating the last stretch along tiny lanes, as my car doesn't have a Sat Nav, and the Systems Administrator's hand held Garmin kept changing its mind about the route it wanted us to take, but we got there, guessed correctly that the collection of cars parked in a field were something to do with the open garden, and sat in the car for five minutes to let the hailstorm pass.

The SA's researches on Google before we set out had led to a discussion forum about the porterage rights of canooists at Boxted Mill.  There seemed to have been some difficulties and disagreements with the landowners in the past.  My search had come up with a page on the website of the Dedham Vale Society complaining about an electricity pole at Boxted Mill which apparently dominated (and ruined) the appearance of the landscape.  Boxted Mill was clearly a contentious place.  As we walked back over the bridge from the car park (or field) to the mill we got a fine view of the electricity pole, which is spectacularly ugly, but only visible from limited vantage points.  (The road bridge was built in 1900, and before that there wasn't one, just a foot bridge.  Tow horses had to cross the Stour twice in the course of passing the mill.  Those are my two bits of local history).

The garden walk did indeed take us along the banks of the Stour, and there were lots of daffodils, growing in lush grass.  Some clumps were labelled, and few of them were names I recognised.  I'm not a daffodil buff, but my guess is that quite a few of them aren't currently available for sale, or not easily.  Some had gone over already, but many hadn't, and it was a good display.  Apart from the daffodils there were flowering trees, cherries, crab apples and Amelanchier, many labelled which is always a bonus, a couple of nice Acer griseum, and some recently planted Magnolia and other shrubs, all carefully mulched and fenced to protect against rabbits and other marauders.  All were set among grass, which was left to grow long and already richly mixed with nettles and cow parsley.  Many of the trees showed evidence of past careful pruning and shaping, and some had rambling roses trained up them which were actually going up them, unlike my 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' which always wants to go equally in all directions.  I should say that a high level of horticultural skill and effort had gone into producing such an insouciant air of naturalness.

There was evidence of the strained relationship with the canooing fraternity in the form of notices indicating where they were supposed to enter and leave the river above and below the mill race, and instructing them that they must travel straight on through, and not stop to picnic, or wander about the garden.  These were supplemented by several notices reiterating that it was a private garden and requesting visitors not to use it as a public lavatory.  When we bought our house, one of the things we liked about the position was that it didn't lie on or even near any public right of way.  It must be  very nice to paddle the length of the Stour, and lots of people do, and should be allowed to, but it must be a pain to have them tramping through your garden, let alone relieving themselves in it.

The mill race itself was rather alarming, I thought, with the water rushing over the sill.  We presumed that the house owners must have a close working relationship with the environment agency, and the mill race is all very carefully designed, but there is something frightening about the power and force of water.  The mill itself has gone (there is a very spraunchy house with Gothick windows and a lovely conservatory, and a couple of the kind of curved bow window that builders dread having to repair), but the Tate has a painting of a mill building by John Nash dating from 1962.

The view up the river and across the valley, grazed by white and brown cattle, was pure Constable, and the field next to the garden was occupied by some Jacob sheep, which alternated between grazing and marching about as if they had a secret purpose.  They had dark brown fleeces and white faces, and little white legs twinkling rather comically under the great round mass of brown wool.  Some had horns, but some didn't.  There were two white sheep, one white faced and one black, which held themselves slightly apart from the Jacobs.

The big architectural treat of the day was the waterworks just up the road.  We glimpsed this through a hedge on the way there, but I had another car on my tail, and we gawped as much as we could on the way home, but it was mostly surrounded by a very solid fence.  The waterworks was a piece of unabashed Modernism, presumably interwar, with peeling white paint blowing in the wind.  It was an image straight out of the RA's Building the Revolution.  The smaller buildings scattered around the site (pump houses? chemical stores?) were in the same style.  It would have made the perfect set for a scene in a spy thriller.  When I got home I spent some time trying to find out more about it, but without success.  The whole site must surely be listed, as it's an extraordinary set of industrial architecture to have survived anywhere, let alone in the rural Dedham Vale (I originally said Suffolk, but thinking about it the waterworks must be on the Essex side of the border).  I wish they had an open day.  I'd love to go and have a proper look.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

it's charity, Jim, but not as we know it

There's been a lot of talk about capping tax relief on charitable donations on the radio and in the papers in the past few days.  When the Systems Administrator and I were discussing it over lunch the SA proved unexpectedly firm on the subject, saying that there were a lot of dodgy overseas charities.  The SA's time in the City providing administrative services to hedge fund managers gave something of an inside view into their finances, and the verdict was not favourable.  I asked what sort of dodgy charities, and the answer was charities that didn't seem to do much you or I would regard as charitable, like digging wells to provide clean drinking water, or providing schools that taught children to read and write, or hospitals that reduced maternal death and injury during childbirth, or vaccinating people against lethal diseases.  Dodgy charities, whose main role seemed to be to buy political influence in overseas countries.  I said surely that wasn't so common, and the SA said that it was more common than I thought.

A woman speaking in some capacity for the charitable sector complained on Radio 4 that all charitable donors were being unfairly labelled as only giving as a tax dodge, and that it was a slur that would deter charitable giving.  No they're not.  I haven't heard any Coalition spokesman say that all, or most, charitable giving is merely a ruse to escape tax.  I did hear David Cameron say that there were some dubious overseas charities, which is what the SA said.

Lots and lots of people have complained that arts funding will be adversely affected.  It may be, but if I were speaking for the arts, if anyone could hold a mandate to do so for the whole of the arts, I would think carefully about what I said.  The SA was rather pithy about the arts as well, on the basis that while rich people supporting the arts bring benefits to the rest of us, they are buying into a social circle and benefit directly themselves.  That's true.  If I were very rich I would love to be a patron of the arts.  It would be great fun to endow the new Cardunculus exhibition space at the British Museum, and be invited to very exclusive receptions where I could mix with Grayson Perry and Nigella Lawson AKA Mrs Charles Saatchi.  It would certainly be more fun than paying boring old income tax, to fund hospitals, and schools, and the social security budget, and the national debt, getting no thanks or recognition at all except for a computer generated printout from the Inland Revenue.  But since I am not rich, and not likely to be, I'll have to go on making do with the odd invitation to previews for Friends of the Royal Academy, and mixing with other Friends and their guests, or fellow holders of National Art Passes.

I'm sure that the rich people who fund the UK's museums, galleries and concert halls genuinely care about the arts and do it for bona fide philanthropic reasons.  I'm glad that they do, and that I get to enjoy the fruits of their generosity.  But I don't see it as entirely outrageous for there to be a limit on the amount of their donations that can enjoy tax relief, and for philanthropic urges above a certain level to be met out of post tax income, in the same way that the rest of us have to fund our pleasures from what is left of our earnings after we've paid our bit towards public expenditure.

I think arts organisations should keep a little quiet for another reason.  The Coalition already has so many fights on their hands that I wouldn't see them picking another one at the moment, but it wouldn't surprise me if one of these years the Inland Revenue and the Charity Commissioners began to look more carefully at what is and isn't a charity.  Already public schools have come under the spotlight, and are required to provide bursaries, share their facilities with other schools in their area, and generally demonstrate that they provide a benefit to the wider community and not just the children of the better-off parents who can afford to pay the fees.  There are a lot of organisations in the UK registered as charities, run by good-hearted, hard-working people, giving pleasure to their members and providing employment,but whose charitable credentials using a strict sense of that word are questionable.  My music society, for example, is a registered charity.  I think it is a very fine society, bringing good quality chamber music to people outside London, and providing income and concert experience to young musicians at the start of their careers, as well as established artists.  I don't really do much, just wash teacups and make party food, but the bookings secretary and chairman work incredibly hard.  But if I were, say, a fan of stadium rock with no interest in classical music at all, I might ask why performances of chamber music by dead classical composers to a predominantly middle class audience got more favourable tax treatment than my kind of music.  The music society has started funding workshops in schools, but worthy as that is it doesn't account for a very big part of the budget.

Charities dealing with cultural interests, like art, or music, or gardening, will have to walk a tightrope if they are to become more charitable in the strict sense that giving to cancer research is charitable.  In making themselves appeal to a wider section of society they risk alienating the people who are currently funding them.  The RHS in recent years has made much of its charitable goals, promoting community vegetable gardening, school gardens and such like.  That's very admirable, but may not interest their current members.  I recently heard a very keen Suffolk gardener, somebody who has been on plant hunting expeditions in Nepal, say that he was going to give up his RHS membership, since he never went to the Chelsea Flower Show, and the magazine was rubbish nowadays.  Harsh words, but he felt that the society in trying to broaden its appeal was no longer providing enough of interest to really serious gardeners.  It's going to be a juggling act.

Friday, 13 April 2012

making it up as you go along

I found the village hall where I was doing last night's talk easily enough, and there were no traffic jams, so I arrived with loads of time to spare.  I'd rather do it that way round, and go through my talk again in my head sitting in the car, than be sitting in stationary traffic or hunting for an apparently non-existent venue as the minutes tick by.  It was a nice village.  There was a sign outside the pub on the way up to the village hall that read 'Beer runs out soon.  Please panic buy'.  As I sat in the car I saw a small bird with a very dark patch on top of its head, and no other obvious markings, flit about in a tree and then suddenly swing upside down below the branchit was perching on to pick some morsel out of the top of the hedge below, so I wondered if it was a blackcap, given there is such a thing.  I looked them up on the RSPB site this morning and it could have been.  Apparently the song is very distinctive, but I didn't hear it singing, and the RSPB didn't say whether it was likely to hang upside down from branches.  The talk went fine, though the hall had dreadful acoustics and I had to wear a clip on microphone, which meant I had to be careful how much I moved my head.

Today I returned to working on the back garden, and kept away from the new deck, since it turned out that the reason the Systems Administrator hadn't pressed on with construction the other day was that it was impossible to move beams around with my face centimetres from the work.  Which is fair enough.  It is going to have a boardwalk path to it, design to be finalised after the rest of the deck has been built and we can see what it looks like.  I fancy a Japanese style one, with two lengths parallel to each other but offset, overlapping in the middle.  Apparently witches can only run in straight lines and so can't manage the corner and can't get across.  I'm sure it would be a useful precaution to keep witches off.  Alternatively you could say that by forcing people to pause and take a sideways step as they approach the deck, you slow them down and make them focus on the moment.  The SA is not too fussed about witches, and is not sure about doing a sideways step while carrying a deckchair and a gin and tonic, so we'll see.  The SA's idea is that the boardwalk could be curved.  The deck is going to have a back, to give protection from the south-westerlies, and to stop the hedge growing out across it, and to make it feel slightly enclosed and more of a place.  The design of the back also has to be decided once the deck is in place.  I don't know if it should have an umbrella of some vaguely oriental design.  We are not really designers, making each bit up as we go along when we can see the effect of what we have done already.

I finally found a home for three glass ornaments I bought at least year's Chelsea Flower Show.  They are solid glass, quite thick and roughly egg shaped in outline, in blue and green, and they come with metal loops at the top for hanging them up.  They were from a brother and sister team trading as Hayhoe Designs, and I'd been eyeing up their stand for several years before settling on a trio of what they call glass leaves (I think they look more like fruit myself) for starters.  Then I couldn't immediately see exactly where to put them.  The back garden is starting to get quite full of ornaments, to the point where in the not too distant future there won't be room for any more, except small details that you only see when you're right on top of them.  Some people, famously Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, loathe sculptures, ornaments or eyecatchers in the garden.  I love them, but it's essential to avoid becoming cluttered.  Each needs its own space and frame, and they mustn't be allowed to obtrude on each other.

The glass leaves, or fruit, needed to hang from a tree, which reduced the list of possible locations, and I wanted to put them somewhere so that, if they fell, they wouldn't either break or get lost.  I finally settled on a crab apple in the front garden, near where I already have a Whichford bespoke egg shaped obilesk with an inscription on it.  They're suspended using fishing line, which is almost invisible but difficult to tie in a tight knot, so if they do come undone they'll just fall on earth, or ground covering plants, and I should find them again.  I like them enough that I might buy some more, if the people are at Chelsea again this year.  The news on their website is still for 2011, but they're probably still in business and just haven't updated the site.   I really liked their glass panels, but they were quite expensive, and the SA was bullish about how it would be possible to make them at home.  Whether we'd have time is another question.

The 'Taihaku' survived the hail storm, by the way, though the lawn is becoming littered with fallen petals, and its days of glory for this year are numbered.  At least it came out.  A good friend of the SA lost all of the flowers on his magnolia, hit by one cold night at critically the wrong moment.