Saturday, 30 June 2012

a drying wind

I set off for work this morning conscious that today was the last day of the six o'clock finish.  From July we go back to 5.15pm, and the thought that it was the final ten hour day for this summer cheered me at intervals.  I was greeted on arrival by the owner, who informed me that it had been very windy and that everything would be very dry and that we would have to run the overheads even though it was still windy because there wouldn't be time to hand water everything, and that in particular those four trolleys of recently delivered roses were very, very dry and would need lots of water.  I concurred, taking this as a ritual display of authority, given that the owner is not usually around first thing on a Saturday, and I work out what needs watering by myself by dint of looking at it.

The watering did take a long time, and I didn't finish dragging hoses about until gone ten.  I felt a certain amount of irritation that one of my colleagues, after bustling around standing pots up, programming the automatic system and throwing a few switches, didn't participate in the hand watering that still needed to be done.  He is a year or two younger than me, and competes in triathlons in his spare time, so there is no particular reason why he shouldn't heave hoses about and get dribbled on by leaking lances like the rest of us.  (However, through the course of the day he finished emptying a full red trolley, and did some hand watering in the last half hour, so doing his share of heavy lifting in the end).

My task was to clean one of the shrub beds, in the course of which I reduced another work shirt to a state where I certainly couldn't serve refreshments wearing it, and it won't do a second day of outdoor work without washing.  I got the tail end of Ceanothus through to Clethra back into neat alphabetical order, swept, weeded, dead leaves and twigs removed, and where necessary the pot dressed with a fresh layer of compost.  Some of the Cistus were horribly dry and had to be soaked in the water butt, having passed the stage at which spraying water on top of the pots does any good.  They are very thirsty plants in pots, which seems curious when they are drought resistant in the ground.  The one remaining Chimonanthus praecox was a sorry specimen, its roots having started to rot, and I removed it from sale.  My new young colleague said that when he worked at Nottcutts it seemed as though wintersweet always started to go downhill after about two weeks in a pot.

I got home to see the chickens eating grass outside the hen house and not my dahlias, and expressed my delight to the Systems Administrator, who said that the chickens had only abandoned the dahlias after being squirted twice with the hose.  While I was watering in the greenhouse they snuck back into the dahlia bed twice more, wriggling through my Barbara Hepworth-like array of interlocking strings like limbo dancers.  I threw more water over them from my cans, but am beginning to get rather depressed about the whole thing.  They have the entire front garden to range over, so why are they fixated on destroying a dozen plants in the dahlia bed?  They don't like eating the bronze leaved varieties, by the way, only the green ones, half of which have been reduced to leafless stumps.  When I have finished typing this I am going to start researching pigeon netting.

The watering at home took another hour, though the SA chipped in upon realising that it needed doing.  It may not have been that hot today, but sunshine and strong wind are an incredibly drying combination.  Some of the small plants in my greenhouse were starting to collapse.  If I'd been at home tomorrow I would probably have risked leaving the pots in the Italian garden until the morning, but I'm not.

Friday, 29 June 2012

an embarrassment of riches

I have too many plants in the greenhouse.  Some I bought, some I grew.  Too many of them need planting out or potting on.  I'm potting and planting as fast as I can, but that's not fast enough.  In the meantime I'm running out of places to stand the ones I do pot on.

Many of them are intended for particular spots, and the trouble is that their intended destinations are already occupied, either by weeds or by more than I want of some other plant.  Today and yesterday I was engaged in a complicated two stage manoeuvre, moving a dwarf iris with blue flowers from the turning circle to the long flowerbed, so that I can plant out a small grove of seed raised Dierama mossii.  The Dierama were sitting on the top layer of one of the aluminium racks in the greenhouse until I moved them outside in the spring so that I could use the space on the rack for more recent seedlings, then I had to move them in again because they were getting too wet in their pots outside, and there was nowhere to put them except the floor, so I have to be careful not to step on them.  The dwarf iris are heavily infested by a grass with a creeping rootstock, one reason why they have to be lifted, and the gap in the long bed I'm using them to fill had grown a lively crop of weeds which had to be removed, so the whole process is taking a while.  To make more space for the Dierama I'll reduce the size of a patch of low growing Artemisia, which has expanded to cover an area of the turning circle about twice the size of my kitchen table, or more Artemisia than anyone could reasonably want.  I'm going to have to buy a bulk bag of gravel to mulch the areas where the iris and Artemisia were and spread that out.  All in all it will come to well over a day's work, at the end of which I'll have space to plant out eight or ten of the pots languishing in the greenhouse.

I tried giving a Dierama and a variegated pelargonium to a friend who is a keen and able gardener, but as she gave me a Jacaranda seedling in return it's only a net reduction of one pot, and the Jacaranda will need potting on into quite a large pot in time, and to be overwintered under frost free glass.  If we lived on a road I could try selling the spares at the front gate.  I ought really to market the more unusual ones on e-Bay, but haven't got round to it yet.  When I think of the hassle of packaging live plants, and the cost of postage, it all seems like hard work.  I gave the boss a spare Puya venusta, a tender rosette forming plant with evil inward pointing spines designed to trap sheep.  It lives in a pot outside the office door in the summer, and comes into the office for the winter, and the gardener was made to pot it on which can't have been a pleasant experience, so it is looking bigger and better than my remaining Puya.  However it did not seem to occur to the boss to ask if I had any more of those at home, and offer to buy them for stock in the plant centre.

Sometimes it's difficult to resist propagating.  Those little shoots that some Hemerocallis form on their flower stems, for example.  If you carefully pull them away, or cut them off with a small section of stem, and pot them up, they usually root.  Who can resist free Hemerocallis?  The manager gave me a basal piece that a customer had broken off a chrysanthemum, which already had the beginnings of roots.  You would need a heart of stone not to put it in compost and give it some water.  I now have a free chrysanthemum, though I can't remember what colour it is.  I've got a bowl of seed from Anemone pavonina sitting on the hall table, picked from my own plant in the gravel.  This year has not been great seed collecting weather, with the rain, and the last time I sowed A. pavonina seed it went mouldy, but I'd love to have more of them and know exactly where they'd go, in the gravel with the others.

While I have too many plants unplanted I should stop buying any more, and I partly do, but if something turns up that I know is rarely available and that I want for the garden, it seems foolish to let it pass by.  I bought an Erythrina christa-galli on that basis recently, which has gone in at the base of a west facing wall.  It was only about the third time we've had it in stock in nine years.  We only had Paeonia rockii the once, so I'm very glad I snapped that up when I saw it.

I suppose I will just have to keep planting and potting as fast as I can, or become more ruthless and creative in my methods, and when invited out to supper start turning up at people's houses with a sheep-eating tender bromeliad from Latin America as a hostess present, instead of a bunch of flowers.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

the colour yellow

The evening primroses that have seeded themselves from plants I grew from seed picked on Dunwich Beach are opening their cheerful yellow flowers from long buds with a hint of apricot at the base.  Looking round the garden I realise how much yellow there is throughout the year.

There are some customers at the plant centre where I work who tell me with an air of pride, as if I should admire them for their good taste, that they have no yellow in their garden.  No primroses or daffodils?  That's not a particular marker of good taste in most people's books.  At the moment, besides the evening primroses, we have tall pale yellow verbascums with soft grey leaves, much beloved of mullein moth, and a few deep yellow ones from the Cotswolds series.  In the herb bed the flat discs of tiny parley flowers are showing yellow, and in the back garden the soft brownish yellow flowers of the golden oat Stipa gigantea hover over the island bed.  Before the evening primroses we had the starry yellow flower spikes of Asphodeline lutea, which self seeds with great glee in the gravel.

The new foliage of box has a yellowish tinge.  Prostrate junipers, so useful for filling in awkward corners and covering slopes, were chosen partly for their sulphur yellow tones, and the obliging Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold' does what it says on the tin.  A Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' planted as a corner feature in the island bed about fifteen years ago has finally reached its desired size, so much so that for the first time ever this year I trimmed it lightly.  That is a strong, bronze, old gold sort of yellow.  A prostrate yellow yew does a useful job covering the base of the slope outside the conservatory, taking over where the juniper leaves off, and I enjoy the sight of the dark red flowers of the texensis clematis 'Gravetye Beauty' sprawling over it later in the year.  The small scots pine in the long bed that is a sober shade of grey at the moment will flush a warm soft gold come the cold weather.

The pineapple broom is full out now with its fine, clean yellow flowers that smell of pineapples (what else), and it will be followed by the yellow pea flowers of airy Genista aetnensis.  A yellow flowered Halimium with nice dark green evergreen foliage has made a dense dome in the gravel, surviving the harsh winters without turning a hair and flowering profusely.  The brownish yellow bobbles of Phlomis russeliana and clearer yellow flowers of Phlomis fruticosa are pleasant enough, and the plants will cope with horribly dry conditions.  I don't even mind the little yellow flowers of Santolina, though I grow it for the grey foliage rather than the flowers.

Several of the roses are yellow, mostly David Austin varieties in the old rose style, some with a strong tinge of apricot.  In the rose bank I have the lovely muddled yellow and pink flowers of the rambler 'Phyllis Bide', which unusually for a rambler is a repeat flowerer, plus the stout modern climber 'Leverkusen', said by Peter Beales to be a good doer, and which is doing very well with me.  Up in the meadow a very early flowering species rose with tiny ferny leaves has little yellow flowers like primroses, and I'm trying to get the rugosa hybrid 'Agnes' going, though I think it is too shady where I have put her.

The heads of Euphorbia characias are fading and I must cut them down sometime soon, being careful not to get the sap on my arms.  We are warned nowadays that an ever increasing number of species and varieties could irritate the skin (hyacinth bulbs, the leaves of Aconitum), but the milky sap of euphorbias really does.  They coincided with the tulips, looking very zingy together, and the tulip display was jazzed up by the inclusion of yellow and orange with the red and purple.

The dangling soft yellow flowers of the Corylopsis were extremely tasteful, as were the yellow Hamamelis, and so will be the yellow Banksia rose I'm trying to grow up the hazel tree behind the Hamamelis, if it ever gets going.  I should think the Dicentra scandens counts as tasteful as well: at any rate it is rarified.  The pale yellow scabious flowers of Cephalaria gigantea, carried a good metre above the clump of basal foliage, are pretty refined, as are the dainty yellow trumpets of Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus and the taller H. 'Marion Vaughn'.  My yellow flowered hellebore hybrids would not disgrace the most elegant garden, yellow hellebores scoring far higher in the garden snobbery stakes than the more usual muddy pinks.  The pale yellow perennial foxgloves are rather smart too.

In the long grass coltsfoot is making free.  OK, it is a weed, but it is a graceful weed and good for insects.  Even the oxeye daisies have yellow centres.  I'm planning to extend the range of yellow weeds in the long grass by adding toadflax, come the autumn, and have some nice little plants coming along in the greenhouse.

And yes, there are assorted yellow flowered daisies up in the meadow that flower at various points during the summer, and no, they are not refined plants, and some are a harsh shade of yellow, but they blend cheerfully with the other things up there.  The ochre yellow flowers of a tall yarrow are not the most refined things either, but Achillea taygeta grows in such dry conditions that you forgive it a lot, if you have a dry garden.

I like yellow, and I have lots of it.  In the garden, that is.  Most yellow clothes make me look as though I had jaundice.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

hot and bothered

I've just done an afternoon woodland charity talk in Colchester.  Some talks feel like a breeze from beginning to end, and some feel like hard work. Today fell into the latter category.  It wasn't the organiser's fault that it was a very humid day, and by the time I reached the hall, admittedly having run some other errands first, I was extremely hot.  I can hold the person who booked me responsible for her instructions on how to find the hall, as she told me there was car parking next to the church down a narrow lane but omitted to mention that from the street you can't really see the church at all, at least while concentrating on negotiating the many traffic lights and kamikaze pedestrians in that part of town.  After I'd overshot the turning once without ever seeing it I decided  I'd better park and find the place on foot, then move the car, so had to go round the one way system and fork out 90p for half an hour's parking, and then go round the one way system again once I'd found where I was supposed to be going.  You could see the car park I had been in from the window of the room where the meeting was held, but there was no access from the church hall to the public car park.

When the speaker who is giving up their free time to entertain and educate your group appears at the venue dripping with sweat it would be considerate to find them a glass of water while they set up their equipment, instead of leaving them to ask for it when they've finished.  And the person who booked me hadn't asked whether I would be using slides, not a problem as I take all my own equipment, except that it was one of those meetings where the members sit around little tables, not in rows facing the front.  The tables had been set up without leaving any room for me or the screen and projector stand, and some of the old ladies were rather grumbly about having to get up so that the organiser could move the ones nearest the front.  And they had glasses of water.

The building was also being used for musical grade exams, so through the doors which were left open to let the air circulate you could hear on the one hand a series of piano scales and tremulous woodwind, and on the other the noise of Colchester's traffic.  I realised I was going to have to crank up the volume, while occasionally anxious looking parents and miserable small children peered in through the door.

The organiser suggested that they have the speaker and then the notices, and two people said they had quick notices.  One of them was brief, while the other took a long time to tell the assembled members a great many details about a series of concerts that she was not arranging trips to, with full explanations of why she couldn't attend each event.  Then I was introduced to begin the talk, and the occupants of one of the little tables continued chatting happily while I stood at the front waiting for them to stop.  I said I'd be coming on to the slides after we'd looked at some pieces of tree, and it would be helpful if people could close the curtains at that point, whereupon someone leaped up and closed the curtains immediately.

Once I began the talk most of them did look happy, apart from one old lady who immediately went to sleep and stayed that way until I'd finished and it was time for tea and biscuits.  I'd been told to take half an hour, when the talk normally lasts forty five minutes (or an hour for specialist wildlife groups) so it felt rather like a mad canter editing it down as I went along.  Somebody made a nice speech afterwards thanking me, and the organiser told me with some incredulity that most of them had really enjoyed that, much more than she was expecting.  Nobody dared ask questions in front of the group, though a few came up to chat over tea.  I got quite a posh biscuit.

It was a friendship group for the bereaved, so my presence there was part of my contribution to the Big Society.  Sometimes it feels like rather hard work.  Next week I have a wives group in Romford.  Lily who booked me told me over the phone that she was over eighty, and not so sharp as she used to be, but it'll almost certainly be fine.  They are always a sparky crowd in Romford.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

barely connected

We barely have broadband.  If the rest of this post doesn't appear, that's why it's not there.

Addendum  Right, that's posted.  Now to flesh out the narrative, if the connection holds up.  I tried to post in the early evening, before going out, and found I didn't have the internet.  It's lucky that I'd made a note at lunchtime when the broadband was still working of where I was going, and what time I had to be there.  I tried again when I got back and still couldn't get a connection.  Finally, at gone 10.0pm, I can plug myself in to the world wide web.  Did I mention that BT broadband wasn't very good round here?

I was going on a walk around a local nature reserve and adjacent Woodland Trust site, led by somebody from the Essex Wildlife Trust, which I got invited on by someone I met at the woodland volunteers conference last month.  I'd never visited either site, and thought it would be interesting to see them, and nice to meet some other people actively involved in woodland conservation and creation, as a change from talking about it.

The Essex Wildlife Trust reserve occupies former gravel workings near Clacton on Sea.  Most of the trees and plants on the reserve arrived by themselves after extraction ceased, though the warden has planted a few things, such as buckthorn which is the food plant of some butterfly, and a white flowered thing called corky fruited water dropwort seems to have come in on their grass cutting machinery, since it wasn't originally found in these parts and now grows all over the place on their reserves.  There are good views across the Holland Brook, which was an inlet of the North Sea until it was dammed in the early eighteenth century.

The Woodland Trust area was planted seventeen year ago by a local group, several of whose founder members were there this evening.  They clubbed together to buy a field that wasn't being used for much, planted it up in association with the Trust, and eventually made it over to the Trust so that its long term management would be secured.  After seventeen years the new area looks like a proper wood, and it must be gratifying for the people who made it happen to see it now.  In fact quite a few of the planted trees died, and the site has continued to develop into broadleaf woodland by natural regeneration, but they had the idea and got the ball rolling.

Lawyers did not emerge from the tour particularly well, having apparently created great difficulties about the Essex Wildlife Trust managing the Woodland Trust part by mutual agreement, as they fussed about the boundaries, and an EWT attempt to buy a further tract of land for which they had funding had shipwrecked on the rock of lawyers jibbing at uncertainly over the access rights.  I gathered that the process of the local group handing their project over to a national charity had not been entirely smooth, the original owners sometimes feeling that the Trust weren't doing enough with the site.  I didn't get to hear the other side of the story, though I did have some difficulties convincing some of the locals that I was strictly a volunteer and didn't know anything about it.  I guess the Trust's idea of how the new wood should be managed may have been less intensive than some of its progenitors had imagined.

Anyway, it was very pleasant, and we saw a barn owl box that had been inhabited this year by various birds but not barn owls, and a tawny box that did have tawnies in it (so we were told.  Never look into a box you think might contain tawny owls.  Apart from the fact that you are not supposed to disturb them, they will attack your face and they go for the eyes).

Monday, 25 June 2012

a lucky escape

One of the hens nearly went on her holidays last night.  The Systems Administrator nipped out before we went to bed, to check that they really were locked in their house, and not just shut in their run.  And didn't reappear.  Minutes passed, and I thought that it didn't take that long to close the hen house door, so went out to investigate, and found the SA wandering about with a torch.  One of the hens had managed to avoid going back into the run with the others after chicken exercise time, and had been sitting outside the pop hole to the run when the SA went out.  At the sight of a human she disappeared into the herb bed.  We looked for her for a while, but searching for a chicken that doesn't want to be found in a large and overgrown garden is a fairly hopeless endeavour even in broad daylight, let alone in the dark.  We agreed that she'd have to take her chances, which weren't too bad in that the last time we had the motion camera set up on the chicken house we didn't see a fox over the entire week.  The SA grumbled savagely that this hen was always awkward about going back in, and we went to bed, leaving the run open.

I went out this morning as soon as I got up and there she was, lurking among the undergrowth nearby rather than in the run, and extremely damp and pathetic.  She is an odd-looking hen, having developed a strange random clump of feathers on one side of her neck, and as such is my least favourite, which does make me reflect uncomfortably on the visceral nature of negative responses to handicap.  I regard myself as a civilised social liberal, treating people with facial disfigurements or missing limbs or digits with the same consideration that I myself wish to be treated.  At an intellectual level I believe that such things are not important.  And yet, faced with a mildly deformed animal, I don't like it as much as the others.  But she did look very frightened and unhappy, and I did feel sorry for her.  With any luck it will teach her to flock better with the other chickens, but I'm not holding my breath.

At work somebody had placed a football at the base of the statue by a local sculptor of an etiolated man staring skywards, which has been at the back of the plant centre for the past couple of weeks (conveniently hiding a manhole cover in the lawn).  That was a really good piece of conceptual art. (Last night the SA went out to get Chinese takeaways to eat with our film, and came back reporting that the entire village was very quiet.  I asked why that was, and was told it was because of the football on the TV.  I said, oh, who was playing, and the SA snorted and said that I really was qualified to be a High Court judge.  On learning that it was England-Italy I said that that was it, then, Italy were going to win.  The SA said that England might make it through this round but I said that Italy would win, because they play very pretty flowing football.  The Today programme this morning devoted ten entire minutes to developing the same thesis, Italy having won.  I once read a survey of how different economic pundits' predictions had turned out, and the answer was that all economic predictions were rubbish, but those by experts marginally worse than would be expected by chance.  This was said to be because the experts got bogged down in details and emotionally tied to their own theories.  I know practically nothing about football, just enough to know that England aren't very good at it, and I'm completely indifferent to who wins or loses, which is probably a good basis on which to be a pundit.)

The owner was out for the day.  As ten o'clock approached I asked the manager what we were going to do about the tea room, and putting the cakes out, and so on, and he said Good point and washed his hands and started searching for plates, and discovered that the plastic covers were still wet from being washed last night.  The trouble is, the tea room is very much the owner's project, and the manager is mainly interested in plants, and doesn't feel any 'ownership' of the tea room at all.  My colleague and the manager had to make the tea and dispense cake, since after I'd got compost all over the front of my shirt cleaning up some very weedy pots of Rhodotypos scandens I put my foot down and said that I simply could not go into the kitchen of a commercial catering operation in those clothes.

The door at the back of the shop wouldn't open and close automatically at first, and we were beginning to imagine the boss's reaction if we had to tell him that the door, which was mended at enormous expense less than a couple of months ago, had broken again.  Then the manager tried switching it off and switching it on again and that fixed it.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

midsummer day and it's windy

Today is Midsummer Day.  I found it difficult to get very excited about that, given that it was the summer solstice three days ago.  I don't know which is the key event to celebrate, but it can't be both.  It was blowing half a gale, and cold enough when I went out after breakfast that I needed my fleece, and my fleece hat.  That's pathetic, for midsummer.  I derived some consolation from the thought that at least I was not in the middle of a fortnight's sailing holiday and stuck in some small coastal town, where we had looked at the only museum and there was nothing left to do except lie in a bunk drinking tea and eating custard creams, waiting for the depressing moment when the Systems Administrator decreed that as it had dropped back to Force 5, gusting 6, we'd be OK to scuttle downwind to the next port for a change of museums.

The SA put the trellis back up.  This was not very convenient given the strength of the wind, on the other hand it was not at all convenient trying to squeeze in and out of the greenhouse door with the trellis lying in front of it, and the SA wanted to get the job done in the morning to allow for an afternoon devoted to watching the Grand Prix and the cricket.  A rope around one of the uprights allowed us to haul it back to the vertical, and the SA clamped it to one of the new posts, mounted this time in a Metpost, bolted it fast with bracing sections of extra timber, and then fastened the other end.  That had to be a bodge, because the second Metpost had hit concrete and gone in at an angle.  The SA was rather apologetic that the repairs were not very elegant, but they solved the immediate problem of access to the greenhouse, so I wasn't grumbling.  I can always wrap rope around the lower sections or something if it looks too awful, when the plants have died down.  Apart from having to buy the Metposts, all the rest of the repairs were done using odd bits of timber from stock.

I planted out my new Hemerocallis 'Whichford'. Some of the existing varieties in the borders have scarcely flowered at all, due to infestation by a gall midge that attacks the flower buds.  According to the RHS advice on the subject there is no proven chemical treatment available to amateur gardeners, and the only solution is to pick off the affected flowers to reduce the population in subsequent years, or grow resistant varieties, those that flower later when the midge has done its stuff for the year.  I'm happy to see that 'Whichford' is on the list, but that doesn't help me with the plants I've already got.  Hemerocallis leaves aren't honestly all that exciting, and if some of my present clumps are never going to produce more than two flowers then they might as well go to the tip, sad as that would be.  But maybe a chemical treatment will be identified.  I did try Provado a couple of years ago, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

The technique of planting Allium among Japanese anemones has worked, at least for year one.  The anemone foliage has not grown too tall yet, so that the purple balls of the Allium flowers sit above it, while their tatty leaves are hidden.  For the experiment to be a total success the bulbs have to be able to build enough strength to flower again next year, which won't happen if they resent having their leaves shaded.  Still, so far, so good.  I read the idea in a book by Graham Stuart Thomas, so it ought to work.

Just down the hill from this charming mixture the large shrub rose 'Fritz Nobis' has blown over.  I did not mean to grow 'Fritz Nobis', which makes a big plant, with a once only display of double pink flowers followed by a good crop of red hips.  I'd ordered 'Fimbriata' from Peter Beales, which is a tiny, dainty thing with fringed edges to its petals.  Somebody couldn't have been concentrating on what they were doing, and sent me the wrong one.  I suppose the names are very vaguely similar.  The stems of 'Fritz Nobis' have formed a great round woody ball at ground level, which has swivelled visibly in the soil, allowing the entire shrub to tip forwards.  I asked the SA if it would be possible to prep some Y shaped supports, and then come and pull on a rope next week while I crawled around under Fritz, equipped with goggles and heavy gauntlets, and attempted to heave the whole thing up again and prop it.  I would rather do that on a dry day when the ample foliage is not going to dump vast quantities of water on me, on the other hand it can't wait long, since it is lying on top of a small conifer that I'm rather fond of, and that has taken a lot of years to reach its present diminutive stature (it is a Tsuga canadensis 'Jeddeloh', and it has made a little round bush with a depression in the middle of it, like a birds nest, which is what it is supposed to do).

The novelty rose 'Hot Chocolate' in the front garden has come out while the leaves of the Berberis 'Orange Rocket' are still orange, and the effect is as lively as I hoped it would be.  I did remove the flowering stalks of some self sown Stachys lanata, that were shading out the stems of the roses, and a giant biennial self sown yellow Verbascum that was growing into one side of the Berberis.  You have to be vigilant, combining herbaceous plants with dwarf or recently planted shrubs, or the shrubs can be overwhelmed or spoiled.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

who knows where the time goes

Today ended up as a bonus full day in the garden.  I'd made a slightly provisional arrangement to visit some elderly cousins up in Suffolk, and take them to a nearby garden that was open today under the Yellow Book scheme, but I hadn't had any reply to my gentle e-mail enquiry yesterday sounding them out about whether or not they would like to go, and when I rang this morning it was clear that my cousin had completely forgotten about it and was already very busy.  So with mutual expressions of goodwill we didn't go, and suddenly I had the rest of the day to get on with weeding and planting things out of the greenhouse.

In theory I have allotted myself three days a week to work on the garden, since I average out at two days a week at the plant centre.  That gives me two days off a week to do everything else, just like normal people with full time jobs. In practice it never works like that.  There are so many things to fit into the two days that they invariably spill over into the gardening time.  There are my friends and relations, for a start.  Then there are the talks, for the woodland charity, and some on my own account about gardening and beekeeping.  There are art galleries and museums to visit, and open gardens, and occasionally it's nice to go for a walk.  There are the bees to be looked after, the chickens to be mucked out, and sometimes the cats need to go to the vet.  There is the mundane business of housework, and haircuts, and trips to the dentist.  There are the Pilates lessons and exercises, without which my back would seize up.  And  there are emergencies, like falling trees or the car breaking down.

I can't really grumble about it all, since to friends who still have to work full time, working part time seems an unimaginable luxury.  I don't know how they fit all the non-work things into their two days, though of course part of the answer is that they don't do some of them.  The talks, for a start.  If I still had a proper job I wouldn't have time to do volunteer talks, which would be a shame, though of course I wouldn't be in a position where I needed to do them to keep my CV looking vaguely interesting and my presentation skills up to date.  And people with proper jobs generally have a cleaner.  We don't, partly because we couldn't afford one, but also because the whole idea of having to tidy up before the cleaner comes, and your things being moved anyway so that you can't find them afterwards, is abhorrent.  Even when we both had real jobs we didn't have a cleaner, after one unsuccessful experiment in about 1988.

My determination to keep time free for the garden does mean that other activities get ruthlessly pared back.  It's one reason why I buy most of my clothes by mail order, since a mooch round the shops isn't a pleasure, but a waste of good gardening time.  I try to fit in a regular haircut before, as PG Woodhouse memorably put it, my head looks like a chrysanthemum, but that's it.  Going defiantly and naturally grey is partly a feminist statement, but largely because there is no way I'm spending hours in the salon having my hair coloured.  A pamper day sounds to me not like a treat, but a completely pointless use of hours that could have been put to much more interesting and productive ends.  If I'm not in the garden I'd rather be in the National Portrait Gallery than Champneys.  Friends and visitors know that our house totters along just on the untidy side of downright insanitary, and that's after we've made a special effort to clean it for them.  I could dust the mantelpiece or I could plant out the horned poppies that are still sitting in the greenhouse.  There's no contest, most of the time.

(It should be noted as a matter of record that the Systems Administrator today did the vacuuming and washed the kitchen floor, and that I am very, very grateful, since the amount of cat fluff was getting so bad that even I minded.  When you sit down to lunch and realise that there is cat fur stuck to your hands, which you have washed, and the edge of your plate, and the butter knife, it is time to Do Something.)

Sometimes things have to go by the board that would have been nice.  I ended up missing the RA exhibition of Zoffany portraits, which I'd have rather liked to see, and I'm about to miss a Garden Museum exhibition about the history of garden visiting that shuts tomorrow, because there just wasn't a spare day to get to London.  That was worse when I worked full time, and I missed all sorts of things I wish I'd seen.

The garden could really do with three days a week.  In fact, it could do with twice that, but three days would be good.  Of course I could not have a garden, or at least not one so large and so complicated, but you see I really like the garden.  It suffers, compared to a paid job, because employers take a dim view if you bunk off to do other things, but there is no external pressure to stop me taking time off from gardening, only my own force of will.

Friday, 22 June 2012

dodging the showers

As the showers passed through today I felt like one of the little people in a weather house, coming out when the sun shone and scuttling back inside again when it rained (and for the greatest assemblage of kitsch I've seen for a long time have a look at the assembled images of weather houses on Google).

We went to collect another load of poplar logs, which had already lost moisture and were noticeably lighter than when the tree was first sectioned.  So much for the theory that they have to be seasoned under cover.  The last few wouldn't go on the truck, so it will take one more trip, but we've got most of it away.  The remaining lumps in the spinney mainly consist of branch junctions, which are larger than the round sections of trunk, and heavy to lift, but won't split with the maul and hammer.  They'll have to be lugged on to the truck, and cut up at the System Administrator's leisure with the chainsaw.

I pulled up weeds that had sprung up in the middle of the long bed in the front garden where I dug out a failing Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold' (too dry) some months ago, and have not yet replanted the space, and stuck in some Cleome raised from seed.  They've been sitting in their pots in the greenhouse for a long time, and lay down flat as soon as they were planted because it was so windy, so goodness knows if they'll come to anything.  Unfortunately there was no net contribution to my aim of clearing out the greenhouse, as while I was there I potted up some tiny self-sown Alchemilla mollis seedlings, which I want to try as ground cover in the back garden where it is damper.  The long bed is far too dry, but Alchemilla is a tough plant, which given less than ideal conditions of drought doesn't rapidly die out, but lives on in a shrivelled state of distress, looking miserable.  I removed most of the old, woody clumps last winter, but would like the free new plants to try again elsewhere in the garden.

Then, between showers, I turned my attention to the gravel at the entrance, which is once again laced with tufts and intertwining roots of creeping sorrel.  I have eight young Gazania plants to go in there, raised from seed and grown on in 9cm pots.  Plants of that size retail at £3.50 or £3.75 at the plant centre, and having a tray of them ready to go out makes raising plants from seed feel like a worthwhile exercise (though not as much as the things that you can't easily buy.  I get a real buzz from my seed raised Dicentra scandens, which I haven't seen offered as a growing plant, though I expect I could track it down by mail order if I didn't already have one).  A couple of gazanias have survived the past three winters, so lived through months of almost constant freezing conditions and those two nights when the thermometer plummeted to minus 13 C, and are just coming into flower.  It shows that they are almost hardy, given sharp drainage.  If I kept growing new plants from seed, and hanging on to the ones that survive outside, and then started harvesting seed from those, I ought to be able to develop a winter hardy strain, if I felt like it (I don't).

The SA had a bonfire, hose laid out ready to hand as a precaution, and managed to get rid of quite a lot of the great pile of poplar brash and accumulated prunings.  The wet weather has produced a prodigious volume of summer growth, some in places where it stops us moving around the garden or is threatening to overwhelm other plants.  I had to cut quantities of hazel shoots back that were growing out into the crowns of my collection of potted witch hazel, since I don't know how much shading Hamamelis will take, and I didn't want to leave it and then discover that the back half of the witch hazels had died out.  Some shrubs won't put up with other plants growing on top of them.  Roses hate it, and branches engulfed by dense rival vegetation quickly die.  I lost a large part of a 'Gruss an Aachen' which resented the evergreen embrace of an encroaching Cistus.  Exochorda macrantha 'The Bride' behaves in the same way.  The witch hazels were still leafy when I freed them, so that was fine.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

between showers

When I woke up this morning I could hear the rain drumming on the roof.  On the Today programme they were saying something about the summer solstice, which experts have decided was not so big a deal for our pagan forbears as the winter solstice.  How they can tell after all this time I have no idea, but if the weather in those days was like it is now then I'm not surprised.  Ah, an English summer.

The rain passed by mid-morning.  Our rain gauge must have been under-reading, since the display said we'd had only 1.4mm and I could tell from the weight of some pots that were dry last night that we'd had more than that.  The Systems Administrator went to investigate the problem, and said that a large plant was partially blocking the funnel.  There is an apparently reliable station at Epping whose readings the SA follows, so I suppose we're now faced with the choice of keeping our records as they are, knowing that last night's rainfall measurement was wrong, and doctoring them using a best guess based on the Epping site (6mm, which sounds much more plausible).

I planted out the last tulips from pots into the dahlia bed, and started mulching it with Strulch and tying heavy twine between the coloured posts.  The trouble is the chickens, which love scratching around in there, and have eaten some plants almost to stumps, while others are half a metre high and forming flower buds.  It is irritating of them to fixate on the dahlia bed, when they have the whole of the front garden to play in, but they do.  I suggested that if I got a water pistol the SA could stand guard over the dahlia bed during chicken exercise time, but the SA seems to think that this would not be so good as sitting in a deckchair listening to cricket on the radio, or podcasts of The Bugle or Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Friday afternoon film review.  So I am trying string, again, although determined chickens can be very expert limbo dancers.  I threatened to go and blast them with the hose if they went on eating the dahlias, and the SA said I was being cruel to them.

Then it began to rain again, and I potted things on in the greenhouse, though what I really need to do is plant things out, because the greenhouse is full to bursting, so that I have to be very careful walking from one end to the other, and there is nowhere to put anything down.  At the moment it is difficult even to get in there, since the trellis that I built myself, very slowly and laboriously, to help screen the view of the end of the greenhouse from the rest of the front garden (I told you we had some fundamental design problems in the front), blew over in the gale a week ago.  This is an inconvenient time of the year for it to do so, since the honeysuckle that by now more or less covers the trellis is in full bloom, and looking rather lovely, and the climbing rose 'Chevy Chase' is just making soft new growth as well as opening its little red flowers.  I would rather the trellis had stayed where it was, just at the moment.  The uprights, that I cadged off the boss a few years ago when we were demolishing a pergola in the plant centre, have rotted through at the base.  The SA has bought a couple of Metposts, and mending the trellis has been added to the long list of things to do.  In the meantime the honeysuckle dumps water over me each time I squeeze into the greenhouse, if it's been raining.

The big tabby appeared at lunchtime for his supplementary feeding, and would not eat his helping of ordinary cat food.  I thought it was because he wanted an expensive pouch, but when the SA moved his dish from its usual place in the hall to its Special Lunch place next to the dustbin in the kitchen the cat ate the normal tinned food with relish.  He is a quick learner, for an animal that generally gives the appearance of being rather absent minded and quite dim, and very set in his ways once he has learnt something.  The SA says he has OCD.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

talking tonight

This is a real flying post.  I am going out in fourteen minutes to do a talk on gardening for bees to a garden club outside Sudbury.  It was booked back in January, which is quite short notice by garden club standards, and they were originally trying to get me for a date later in the year which I couldn't do, then I ended up filling in for a cancellation.  I was getting slightly concerned when by yesterday I hadn't heard from them to confirm that the talk was on.  I had the e-mails, but a series of six month old e-mails isn't the same as an actual conversation near the time with a live person.  I rang the bookings secretary and got her voicemail, so left a message.

I rang again this morning at ten past nine when I still hadn't heard anything, but got the answerphone once more.  I tried looking the club up on the net to see if they had a website and published their programme, but they didn't seem to.  In a fit of inspiration I rang a friend who I thought belonged to that society, to see if she had a list of events and if so was I on it, but she was out.  I decided to assume that it was on and went to collect the plants, hoping I wasn't on a wild goose chase.

On the way to the plant centre I stopped at a friend's house, to sort out some beekeeping business, and she told me a not entirely reassuring story about how a chap talking to her garden club about fuchsias had turned up at another club where he thought he was booked, only to find a second speaker already there and setting up.  He claims to have sat at the back and enjoyed the talk, which if true was commendably stoic of him.  By the time I'd got all the plants and bits and pieces stowed in the car I was going to be late for lunch, so I rang home to warn the Systems Administrator, who told me that my garden club lady had rung, having just got back from holiday, and the talk was on.  Once I knew that I wasn't wasting my time en route to making myself look ridiculous I began to look forward to the talk.

My friend had e-mailed back to say that no, she wasn't a member of that society, and wishing me luck.  I expect it will be fine, though actually gardening for bees is the most technically difficult talk I do, because of the stretches when I'm not talking about the plants in front of me, so have no props to remind me what I'm supposed to be talking about.  And now I must go, hoping that there aren't any huge traffic jams on the Sudbury road, or gridlock around Colchester north railway station.  I could update the post when I get back, telling you how it went, but I probably won't.  I don't suppose the uncertainty is going to keep anyone up all night.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

summer in the country

I am writing this sitting in a steamer chair on the veranda.  It is a reflection of the summer we've had so far, that the fact that I am sitting outside in the garden shortly before seven in the evening is worthy of note.  I am wearing linen trousers and a cotton t-shirt (OK, long sleeved.  There's no need to get carried away) and no socks.  And no thermals or fleece.  Last week at work I was so cold that by elevenses I had to go into the loo and put on the thermal leggings I'd chucked in my bag at the last minute, just in case.

The birds are singing very loudly, but are partly drowned out by the pair of microlight aircraft that are pootling overhead, like noisy airborne lawnmowers.  I am looking down into a white and pink and purple sea of old and shrub roses, with the occasional foxglove spire poking up among them.  The evening air is humid, and the scent of the roses lies thick and sweet.

Our Ginger has given up trying to climb into my lap and sit on my keyboard, and has collapsed beside me, snoring gently.  The big tabby is washing, and the cats have stopped fighting each other, after a spectacular stramash over the weekend that resulted in great tufts of fur being pulled out all over the sitting room.  The big tabby was in a sulk yesterday, but by this morning he'd forgotten.

There is still heat in the sun, and the low angle of light catches the heads of the golden oat, Stipa gigantea, which are shimmering gently.  Everything has grown wildly with the rain, the roses, which have never been so tall and are spilling out of their supports, the lumps of box included in the rose bed to give some evergreen bulk in the winter, and the little hedges of golden leaved shrubby honeysuckle, which have gone intensely whiskery despite having had a good haircut in the spring.  The wind has some easterly in it, and the veranda is sheltered by the house.  It is not a strong wind, but enough to turn the blades of the turbine on the farm behind the house.

Tomorrow I have to go and do a garden talk (or at least I think I do.  The organiser hasn't contacted me or replied to my phone message yet) and on Thursday night I'm doing a beekeeping talk.  By then it is forecast to be raining again.  But tonight I can sit on the veranda.  It is one of those evenings that reminds you why you bother to live in the country.

Monday, 18 June 2012

my turn to make the tea

Somebody rang in sick, so we were down to two staff in the plant centre, just the manager and me.  That's not unworkable for a quiet Monday, though not ideal.  It doesn't leave much scope to have a visible staff presence scooting around among the plants.  A couple of customers who made it as far as the tills did say plaintively that there was nobody outside to help or answer questions, and one professional gardener shopping on behalf of the garden he manages said that some customers had even tried to ask him for help (though he may just have been winding the manager up).

Worse was that neither of us knows how to operate the tea room.  Obviously, we know how to make a cup of tea, but not in which cupboards and drawers to look to find the tea pots, cups, milk jugs and cake tongs.  Luckily my first customer for tea had been before, and was able to tell me the previous tea room operative had got a tea pot out of the cupboard by the dishwasher.  Then she had to remind me that I'd forgotten to give her any milk, though she was very nice about it.  (Sometimes in the plant centre we do raise the late and much lamented Linda Smith's concept of hand-knitted out of tofu to whole new levels).  I had no idea which size milk jugs I was supposed to use for what numbers of people, or how much milk to put in them, so portion control went out of the window, and neither of us knew how the dishwasher worked either, though when the owner appeared late on in the afternoon it turned out that the reason why it wouldn't go is that it wasn't switched on.  Apparently last week the hot water dispenser threw a wobbly half an hour before a coach load of 51 people was due to arrive, who had been promised tea and biscuits before their garden tour, but the new young member of the sales staff fixed that by dint of switching it off and switching it on again at the wall.

We are terribly short of plants for dry shade.  The people who have dry shade and need to ask for advice on what to do with it do tend to have rather unrealistic expectations, wanting evergreens that will flower prolifically over a long season, while the more experienced gardeners have generally learnt to be grateful for anything that will grow.  However, telling customers that Mahonia aquifolium should do it, that Ruscus aculeatus or butcher's broom certainly will, and that Sarcococca confusa is worth a try if it isn't too, too dry, while Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae is practically indestructible, is not helpful when none of them are in stock.

Driving home I passed a white van parked near the far end of our road, and a man standing next to it playing the bagpipes.  I presume he was practising.  Bagpipes can't be an easy instrument to learn or practice, if you live anywhere with any near neighbours at all, so a country lane might be one of the only places you can find. I was once visiting a poultry feed supplier based in one of the Colchester trading estates, and was amused as I got out of the car to hear the sound of bagpipes, somebody presumably deciding that playing in an industrial unit sandwiched between the main railway line and the inner by-pass was better than enraging family and neighbours by practising at home.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

after the party

Today was Open Farm Sunday, and the lettuce farm was taking part, but I missed it because I had to go to work.  That was a shame, as I'd have liked to see behind the scenes and learn more about what they do.  Oh well, maybe next time.  When I got to work there was nobody about, although the car of one of my colleagues was already parked in the car park, and the office door was locked.  My other colleague arrived, who has a key, and just as we were about to let ourselves into the office the owner appeared in her dressing gown, waving frantically, and unlocked the door.  It occurred to me that living over the shop must be a bit like having chickens.  You can never have a lie-in, because at eight you have to let the staff in.

It turned out that my missing colleague, finding herself locked out, had started righting the pots that had blown over.  It took a very, very long time to stand all the pots upright, after yesterday's wind, and an age to water them.  In the afternoon a customer asked if she could have a discount on a Myrtus communis, saying it looked so sad, and adding it was very dry.  We politely declined, on the grounds that it didn't look that bad at all.  A word of advice from the other side of the counter: if you are going to ask somebody to do you a favour, don't in your next breath criticise their work.  I explained that the previous day's conditions had been extremely drying to plants in pots, that we had been unable to use the overhead irrigation to good effect because it was still windy, and that we had spend half the morning watering pots by hand and would start doing more of the same at five as soon as the customers had gone.  She bought the myrtle anyway.

The boss's mother took me to see the puppies, which are living in a basket in the kitchen.  The dog seemed quite pleased to have visitors, and didn't mind the puppies being picked up, and I was given one to hold for a while.  The dog is brown all over, but the puppies are the characteristic Jack Russell light and tan combination.  They are desperately sweet, with funny little scrunched up faces and tiny ears.  When not being picked up they lie in a heap, presumably for warmth, and twitch.  I wondered whether they were dreaming, and if so what a week old puppy would dream about.  I would greatly like to have a dog, but the cats would hate it and are too old to have such a thing inflicted on them, and I don't have time to look after a dog.  What I would really like is for the Systems Administrator to have a dog, and then I could play with it sometimes, but the SA does not have time to look after a dog either, and pointed out that the dog couldn't go to Lords or Trent Bridge, or curry nights in London.  The puppies were all spoken for anyway.

The owner came out into the plant centre late on, and it turned out that she and the boss hadn't got to bed until three, which trumps my effort, since I was tucked up by two.  Four and a quarter hours sleep is not enough to prepare one for nine hours of picking up plant pots, dragging hoses about, being nice to people and operating an archaic manual till and credit card machine without causing accounting chaos.  I warned the owner that if the tills were wildly out she'd better blame me.

It was a nice party, though.  I really can't see why we stopped seeing those people, except that two hours drive away is a long way, and they were busy having children while we were busy sailing and gardening, and the thirties are an age when you tend to be rather fiercely focused on your career.  Now we've caught up with each other again I expect we'll stay in touch.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

out of touch

I'm writing this on Friday evening, because I know there won't be time to write anything much on Saturday.  We are going to a party tonight (casting myself forward mentally to Saturday morning when, if I remember, I shall press Publish before going to work).  The party is in Great Missenden, which for those of you not familiar with the geography of southern England is in Buckingshire.  It is fairly close to where the Systems Administrator grew up, and quite a long drive from North Essex, and I'll have to leave work early for us to get there at a reasonable time, even though it is a grown up party that doesn't even start until eight.  One of the Systems Administrator's old school friends has hit a milestone birthday, and we have been invited.

We haven't seen these old friends for a long time.  The SA last saw them several years ago, when they had another party, which I missed because the grey tabby needed to go to the vet and had vanished and I stayed at home to round her up if she reappeared.  That was the time she fell into a bucket that had been used for creosote, back in the days of real creosote, and had filled up with a mixture of rainwater and the last dregs of creosote, which after she fell in it we discovered was highly toxic to cats.  If we'd know that we wouldn't have had creosote on the premises.  You can't buy it now, or at least, not legally.  The SA went and I remained at home and managed to catch the cat, and the SA had a nice time, but didn't stay in touch.  On that basis I'm not quite sure why we're going this time.

It's a funny question, why we stay in touch with people, or drift out of touch.  Geographical proximity helps cement friendships, despite e-mail and texts, not to mention Skype, meaning that in theory we can stay in touch with anybody anywhere.  And we had telephones and the post before that.  It isn't like it was for the families of emigrants to the New World, who could expect to hear nothing from their loved ones for months at a time.  And one can go and stay with one's friends (so handy if they live in an attractive part of the world) and we do sometimes.  But it isn't the same as having friends nearby, that you can invite regularly for supper, or meet for coffee, or go out together for the day.  Or visit them when they're ill, or call on them to help when you've got your truck stuck in mud.

Shared interests and values definitely help keep friendships going.  Even if you've known somebody for thirty years, if you get to the point where, when you see them, you seem to have nothing in common to talk about, there isn't much incentive to go on making the effort to go on seeing them.  Habit and sentiment can only keep you going for so long.

That's assuming you ever reached the point of a genuine person to person friendship in the first place.  Joint membership of a group that's created by virtue of an organisation, such as an employer, or school, or university course, can feel like a friendship, while you're carried along by the shared experiences that membership of the group confers.  Take away the group, lose your job, leave school, graduate, and the shared bond may disappear with a speed that surprises you.

Mark Vernon has written an extremely good book on the subject, though Montaigne was there first.  I don't know why the SA drifted apart from this group of people.  I quite liked them, much of the time, though not the time that the birthday boy's brother left a broken down white van in our garden while we were away on holiday, that stayed there for rather a long time after we got back.  He had bought it at the nearby car auction and it began to play up shortly afterwards, so he told the people looking after the house that we wouldn't mind his leaving it there.  We did, actually.  Maybe tomorrow we'll all discover we like the new middle aged people into which our former thirty-something selves have morphed, and the old friendships will be rekindled.  Maybe we'll find there was a reason why we drifted out of touch, apart from a one-way flow in Christmas cards (they send us one).  I'm agnostic on the subject, and quite happy to see how it goes.  I suspect it will be rather a dreadful moment when the alarm goes off at 6.15 on Sunday morning, though, and I have to get up and go to work.  It is a long drive from Great Missenden to North Essex.

Friday, 15 June 2012

bureaucracy gone mad

I read something today on the East Anglian Daily Times website which made me mad.  Really hopping mad. Assuming it is true, that is, and allowing for the tendency of news organisations to get things wrong, but the EADT is generally a pretty staid and worthy sort of a paper, not part of the sensationalist gutter press.

In Mistley on the Essex bank of the river Stour, close to the curious twin towers that are all that remain of a Georgian church designed by Robert Adam, is an animal sanctuary.  I'm not a regular visitor myself, finding it quite worrying enough that our chickens can't be fully free range due to fox problems, without going to see other animals in enclosures.  However, it has been there for 23 years, and I've never noticed any reports of complaints from the neighbours, or allegations that the animals are not well treated.  The sanctuary is inspected annually by Defra and Environmental Health.  It is open to the public, and I believe it is very popular with visitors who like that sort of thing.  The RSPCA and the council both give it stray and unwanted animals that would otherwise lack a home, and it looks after around two thousand birds and mammals.  It is run by a husband and wife team called Mike and Maureen Taylor who must dedicate their entire lives to their charges.

You would think that everybody would be happy.  Mr and Mrs Taylor and their visitors love the animals.  The animals have somewhere to live where they are properly looked after, which if they could be consulted on the matter they would probably prefer to a one-way trip to the vet.  The RSPCA and council have somewhere to offload their waifs and strays.  The neighbours aren't grumbling.  But no, somebody has referred the animal sanctuary to Tendring District Council, asking them to investigate whether it requires a zoo licence.  TDC has felt obliged to follow up on this enquiry and referred it the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, part of Defra.  They have asked for a list of all the animals, and pronounced that the sanctuary is not merely a sanctuary, it is a zoo.  And if it is a zoo it needs a zoo licence.

Although the EADT feature is illustrated with a picture of a rhino, it doesn't sound as though the Mistley animal sanctuary has anything so exciting as that.  The article talks about hawks, owls, a rhea and a skunk, which I gather make a difference to the sanctuary's status because they are not native to the UK.  I don't know exactly what having a zoo licence entails, but it seems that it would add substantially to the animal sanctuary's costs, in terms of extra enclosures and so on, and presumably a licence fee.  Fortunately for the Taylors, there is a way round this.  They can keep their exotic non-natives and not be counted as a zoo, so long as they don't display them to the public for more than seven days a year.

What?  You cannot be serious.  You really cannot be serious.  Nobody is saying that the animals present a danger to the public and can't safely be kept on the site.  They can stay where they are and not count as a zoo, just so long as people don't look at them for more than a week each year?  That is insane.  That is utterly and completely mad and bonkers, and you and I and everybody else who works or ever saved and has a scintilla of income is paying taxes on that income so that government departments can employ people to request lists of animals from an animal sanctuary which has run without causing anybody any bother for 23 years, which has passed its annual inspections, which the local council itself uses as a repository for unwanted animals, and pronounce that they can keep all their animals so long as they don't let people see some of them much, otherwise they must incur extra costs running the sanctuary differently because it is a zoo.

It gets worse.  The sanctuary was referred to Tendring District Council by a Police Wildlife Crime Officer.  In these days of straightened public finance it is an achievement that Essex police still have one of those.  You would think he or she might be doing something beneficial to society, like preventing the theft of rare birds' eggs, or the illegal destruction of protected species of raptors, or investigating attacks on wild animals, or stopping badger baiting, but no, the Police Wildlife Crime Officer has chosen to pick on the animal sanctuary.  He or she isn't even reported as being concerned that they might have birds on display illegally taken from the wild or something else that would count as a crime, merely that they might technically be a zoo.  It's only the other day I was reading dire warnings from a Chief Constable (admittedly not Essex's) that with falling police numbers due to government cutbacks, crime must inevitably rise, and what do we see here?  The police prioritising the persecution of an animal sanctuary which has not been causing any trouble to anybody.

It makes me spit.  It makes me think I shall write to my MP about it, as being a prime example of a case where we need less government red tape, and for our public servants to exercise more intelligence and discretion.  (The only thing that deters me is that I have previously written to him about domestic chickens in the context of bird flu panics, and he might think I am some sort of animal nut, but I have also written to him about libel reform, and you can't get more serious and high minded than that).  Here's a link to the original story.  If you think it's as bonkers as I do why not write to your MP as well?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

talking for my lunch

I had a lunchtime booking for a talk today, to a ladies' lunch club that meets bi-monthly.  They wanted an introduction to beekeeping, and the bookings secretary who rang last week to check that I was coming was very keen that I should bring honey for sale.  I don't have much honey left, none of it bottled, and so the Aga has had two tubs of last year's crop gently liquifying on it for the past couple of days, one of dark honey and one of light.

Honey is best stored in bulk, in an airtight container.  You don't want to expose it to air, because being a very strong sugar solution it will tend to absorb moisture from the atmosphere (deliquescent is the term, if you want to be technical about it), and you don't want it to do that, because if it becomes too dilute it may ferment (or at least the top layer), in which case the flavour is spoilt and it is no good for anything.  A big snap top plastic bucket of honey has a lower surface to volume ratio than a little jar, and a better seal than a screw top lid.  However, if the honey has solidified in the bucket you have to reliquify it to get it into jars, or at least soften it, being very careful not to overheat it as that spoils it as well.  Standing the plastic buckets on the Aga warming plate balanced on Aga saucepan lids (which are made with flat tops for stacking so do very well as trivets) gives a suitably gentle heat source.  The honey takes ages to melt completely by this method, and when I went to jar it up last night I found that it was still granular, so the buckets had to stay in situ overnight, and I filled the jars this morning.  The remaining bit of the pale honey that I collected last May was still not entirely clear, which was a pity, since it was a beautiful pale straw colour when fresh.

Lunch clubs are funny gigs.  You get lunch, which is nice, but means they take up quite a large portion of the day, by the time you've done your talk after the meal.  I agreed to do this one ages ago, and as the date drew nearer and today turned out to be a dry one I could usefully have spent in the garden, I slightly wished I hadn't.  Still, too late to complain now.  If it had been bucketing down I'd have felt very smug that I had a productive alternative lined up for the day.  They were a pleasant group of ladies, who seemed to enjoy the talk for the most part, with only one or two showing signs of taking a post-lunch snooze.  They asked a lot of questions, which is a sign of audience engagement, though several did go on quizzing me in detail about Manuka honey even after I'd explained that most UK beekeepers, including me, didn't produce it and I didn't honestly know a great deal about it.

They only bought four or five jars of honey, which was a pity after my efforts bottling the stuff, but didn't come as a great surprise.  Still, I did need to jar up some more, as it always comes in useful for presents when visiting people, and I have another talk next week where I might sell another four or five jars.  Plus I kept two jars back for home consumption.  One of the committee members at the beekeepers' meeting on Monday, who helps field questions from the general public, told us how she'd had to be diplomatic replying to somebody asking how many beehives he would need to make a living from beekeeping as a commercial business, starting from scratch with no experience of keeping bees.  I don't bother keeping records of my income and expenditure as a beekeeper (though I do record the lot numbers of honey sold as required by law) but I know that I don't make any sort of profit.  The cost of frames and foundation for the bees to build their comb on, sugar to feed them in the autumn and fondant in the late winter, treatments for the varroa mite, my Beekeepers Association subscription and the ticket for the annual conference, when I go, cost far more than I ever get from selling a bit of honey and doing a couple of talks.  With the weather this year, one of the two commercial beekeepers I know has been looking pretty grim faced, the last couple of times I've seen him, and the Systems Administrator told me that even The World at One ran a story today about colony losses this spring.

Addendum  Today was dustbin day, and we have hit a new low for food thrown away which could have been eaten, the council food recycling bin containing nothing at all except the rind off a piece of cheddar, and the fat from two slices of cooked ham.  Just as long as the council appreciate that it isn't that we've mistakenly put the cooked food waste in the main bin, but rather have managed not to have any.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

manual labour and high culture

The Systems Administrator has got a summer cold.  This left me in charge of catering, and while I scored a hit with last night's supper (soft white finger rolls with slices of corned beef, because it hurt the SA's throat to swallow anything hot) I forgot to buy cat food.  For their breakfast this morning they had two of the ultra expensive pouches split between the four of them, and as many biscuits as they could eat to fill up on.  The black cat and his sister, the fat indignant tabby, don't like biscuits, and the fat tabby is intensely suspicious of any change to her normal routine, so the feline atmosphere was frosty.

Our friend Roger met us at the spinney, and in about quarter of an hour had the truck pulled back on to level and solid ground.  He was very cheerful about the whole thing, and regaled us with stories of hauling out other vehicles that had been bogged down to their axles.  I suppose that if you enjoy testing the full capabilities of your Landrover, rather than having a four wheel drive as a status symbol while not using it for anything more difficult than ascending the heights of Muswell Hill or Southwold High Street, you do need a willing partner in order to use the winch in earnest.  Plus part of innate good manners is knowing how to make people you've helped feel that they've practically done you a favour.

We brought back two truck loads of wood, then the SA's back began to give warning signs that we'd done enough for one day.  My Pilates teacher would have a fit to see me hauling a couple of tonnes of wood on to the back of a Transit, but what's the point of building up your strength if you aren't going to use it for anything productive?  Days of lifting many, many of pots of compost have given me strong arms and shoulders, for a small middle aged lady, and I rather enjoy carrying wood, up to a point.  After two truck loads we had probably reached that point.

It grieved me to leave the rest of the wood unattended in full sight of the public lane, but the SA has promised to go back for another load tomorrow.  We took the smaller pieces away first, that would be the easiest to lift, both literally and metaphorically, and most of what's left is too big to carry until it's been split.  Sawn rounds of poplar turn out to split reasonably easily.  The SA hits them along the line of the radius with a wood splitting maul, which is a not especially sharp axe whose head has a wide, blunt back, then once the maul lodges in the log, if it doesn't split it clean through, hits the back of the maul with a sledge hammer.

The SA looked up poplar wood on the internet, as one does, and discovered that its only commercial use is for making matches, on which basis we could have a match factory.  It has a high water content when fresh, but once seasoned burns well, fairly quickly and with a nice flame.  It is relatively cheap to buy, and easy to split, and one forum contributor said that it was the best wood for pubs with open fires, better than oak whose logs last for ages, since customers enjoyed being able to put extra logs on the fire from time to time.  It has to be seasoned and stored under cover, otherwise it absorbs rain water.  I can't work out at all how many truck loads of bought wood our haul of poplar will come to, but if we get all of it back safely we'll probably recoup the full amount of the arborist's bill.

By way of complete contrast we went last night to see Dancing at Lughnasa at Colchester's Mercury Theatre.  It's the last in the current season of productions by their own company, and I was keen to see it on the basis that I knew it was terribly famous and that Brian Friel is a highly regarded playwright.  Plus, I like to support the theatre and didn't much like the sound of the alternatives.  A literary play about the lives of women in rural Donegal in the 1930s would not be the SA's first choice, and nor would spending the evening in a theatre while suffering from a cold, but my offers to find out the Mercury's returns policy, which I vaguely thought was generous, were brushed aside, and we went.

I was a little taken aback at first to discover that last night was a captioned performance for the hard of hearing, and that the illuminated matrix display in front of one side of the stage was in our line of vision, and my heart sank when it described the music being played in the auditorium before the performance started as a lively jig, when it was a hornpipe.  The human eye and brain are very good at detecting faint signals in the visual periphery, so much so that if you are looking for a lit navigation mark at night, one of the best ways of finding it is to let your gaze drift gently over the whole area where you expect to find it, rather than staring for it fixedly, and you'll often catch it out of the corner of your eye, and I was afraid that the wretched thing was going to be distracting.  On the other hand, having taken part in a demonstration of one very famous psychological experiment that shows how people can fail to see something in front of their eyes if they are concentrating on something else, I would never underestimate the ability of the human brain to screen visual stuff out, and so it proved with the deaf interpretation board.  After the first few lines of dialogue I didn't see it any more.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a good play, and it was well done at the Mercury.  Tackles big issues with a light touch, well acted, good set.  It's on for a couple more days, and is not a sell out, which is a shame.  There is one moment near the end, when something is brought on to the stage, which I won't identify to avoid giving a plot spoiler, which I would have made more realistic and shocking if I'd been producing it, since I think that moment is meant to give the audience a jolt, but that's a minor caveat.  When we got home the SA was quite enthusiastic about it, and admitted to having enjoyed it having expected not to.  A play that can grip somebody who isn't naturally inclined to like that sort of thing and has sat in a theatre for two and a half hours suffering from a sore throat bad enough that they've given up on hot food, must be pretty good.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

bogged down

We set off after lunch to start retrieving the logs from the fallen poplar, which the tree surgeons removed from the neighbour's hedge and logged yesterday morning (when they must have been very early, since they rang me to ask if it was OK to do it that morning at quarter past seven, and by the time the Systems Administrator wandered up there at half past ten they'd finished and gone).  With the rise in heating oil and electricity costs, the popularity of log burning stoves has soared, and the price of logs has rocketed.  I was concerned that if we didn't retrieve it fairly quickly we'd find that someone else had got there first.

The piles of logs looked very big seen close up, much bigger than they'd seemed from my car as I drove home last night after the beekeepers' committee meeting.  The land in the spinney drops gently away from the public road.  The Systems Administrator reversed the truck on to the level patch of grass at the top of the slope, looked at how far we were going to have to carry the logs, and said we could get the truck closer than that.

You can guess what happened next.  It got stuck.  Flatbed Ford Transit on earth track after the amount of rain we've had.  We tried putting small branches under the wheels, but the truck declined to even start climbing on to them, and just dug its back wheels in a little deeper.  We walked home, collected some boards, drove back to the spinney with them, and tried to put them under the wheels, but the truck did not want to drive on to the boards any more than it had wanted to drive over the branches.  The Systems Administrator hit the boards repeatedly with lengths of poplar branch to try and jamb them under the leading edges of the tyres, but the truck spat them out each time.

I said that our friend Roger had a winch on his Landrover, and why didn't we ask him for help.  The SA would much rather have solved the problem unaided than bother anybody else, but I couldn't see how we were going to get the truck out without outside assistance.  The SA suggested we could buy a winch.  I said that there was nothing to attach the winch to, and the SA gestured at the electricity pole.  It was a very large pole, but I said that I did not think you were supposed to use electricity poles as attachment points to winch trucks out of the mud.  The SA said that if the truck were jacked up so that boards could be slid properly under the wheels it would get going.  I said that I was mechanically useless and knew nothing of such things, but that I was sure Roger wouldn't mind helping out.

I asked Roger, grovelling terribly.  He said that of course he would help, asked what sort of truck it was, and said he knew why it had got stuck.  Actually, the SA had some theory about differentials but I personally blamed the mud, the slope, and the sliminess of a thick layer of poplar leaves.  Roger is a good hearted man with a natural engineering bent, who really likes Landrovers, and seemed entirely happy to do a good deed helping out the escaped townies who had got themselves into such a fix, and he agreed to come in the morning and rescue us, for which I offered some wood, a bottle of wine and my eternal thanks.

After I had arranged for us to be towed out the SA went back with the jack and some more boards, to try the plan of getting the truck properly on them, while I reverted to gardening, planting the tulips from their pots into the dahlia bed.  After a while the SA returned saying that the truck was now on the boards but needed some gravel for added traction, and disappeared again with a bucket of grit.  I continued to pull parsley out of the dahlia bed until the SA came back for the second time, saying that the truck had just spat the boards straight out behind it.

It is just as well that I know somebody who has a Landrover with a winch on it.  Roger says the Landrover would be able to do the job without the SA even releasing the truck's handbrake.  I think the moral of the story is, if you have an elderly flatbed Ford Transit, don't take it off road, even a little bit.

Monday, 11 June 2012

more rain and a rare bird

It's been a long day, which means it's going to be a short post.

It rained nearly all day and trade was very quiet.  You can't blame people.  A few of those who came in said that shopping for plants was the only gardening job they could get on with, given that they couldn't work in their gardens, but on the whole when you can scarcely get anything done outside you don't get to the point where you need to buy many plants.  I tidied up the herbaceous section while it was only drizzling, and then had to take refuge in one of the tunnels and spruce up the bedding.  I actually rather enjoy pulling yellow leaves and spent flower heads off pelargoniums, because I like them as plants, and their old flowers and dead leaves part company from the stem with a satisfying snap, but the petunias and impatiens were not so nice.  The petunias had developed fuzzy mould at the bottom from the endless damp and cold weather, while the dead petals of bizzy lizzies stick to the leaves, and it is a sign of a desperately quiet day when you spend half an hour grooming them off with your fingertips.

The dog had four puppies, though I haven't seen them yet, and the peahen hatched one chick.  I haven't seen that either, since I think the boss has put her and the chick in a coop to protect them from foxes.  She sat on the second egg for another three days after the first one hatched, then lost interest in it.  The gardener had his fifth grandchild, so it was a busy week on the procreational front.

The day's treat came when the local RSPB officer rang the boss to say that there was a bittern down on the marshes.  The boss and the owner and the boss's father, who happened to have just called round, and the two members of the plant centre staff who had never seen a bittern before (the manager has, at Minsmere) all piled into the landrover and the boss drove us down to the marsh, and there was the bittern standing in the edge of a reedbed, being admired by two RSPB staff and the leader of the local scout group, who had a telescope.  The bittern was visible with the naked eye, but we were all lent binoculars and allowed goes through the telescope so that we could have a better look.  I can't generally see anything through binoculars, but managed to focus on the bittern using just my dominant eye, and then had a turn through the telescope.  He or she was busy preening itself, rummaging around the undersides of its wings, which are striped, except when a heron flew overhead, and it flung its head back and stood in typical bittern camouflaged pose.  That was really quite exciting, and marks my induction as a twitcher, since I have never before in my life jumped into a vehicle and rushed off to see a bird.

I went straight from work to the beekeepers' committee meeting, since if I'd gone home first I'd only have had to go straight out again.  The Chairman was strict about stopping us talking at once, which was good, but driving home afterwards I did feel as though I'd just been to a masterclass in kicking the ball into the long grass, as we didn't seem to have decided much about anything.  There again, we don't decide much about anything at the music society committee meetings, as the Chair and Bookings Secretary have it all under firm control.  Maybe that's just what committee meetings are like.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

open gardens

It was the Open Gardens in the village where I work, and for once it was held on a weekend when I wasn't working.  I'd been saying that I was going to go to the Open Gardens, ever since I discovered that I could go, to see what the people I sell plants to do with them when they get home.  When it came to it, this morning it was so beautiful and peaceful in our own garden, and I had so much to do, that if it had been any other village and not the place where I worked, I probably wouldn't have bothered.  But having announced I was going, I thought I'd feel rather silly tomorrow going into work and having to confess that in the end I hadn't bothered with it, and then later I'd probably wish that I had gone.

Not having a ticket, a programme or a map, I started with the garden of somebody I know, and knew was opening.  She is a professional plantswoman, and her garden, which I have seen before at Easter time, was looking wonderful.  I congratulated her on this, and she said that I should have seen it yesterday, after Friday's wind, and that they had half killed themselves getting it ready.  It really didn't look like a garden that had been recently flattened, though when you observed very closely you could see how the stems of the Crambe were tied around with loops of fine black string.  Apparently they were laid flat by the wind.  She has a great many nice and interesting plants, and I liked her use of the yellow leaved Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus' as a clipped dome.  I admired that on my previous visit, and saw this time that despite the clipping it does manage to flower.

Then I called at the garden of a former colleague, who maintains a phenomenal quantity of trimmed box single handed.  Long runs of box hedging can be made more entertaining if the top isn't kept the same height.  Pyramid shaped sections rising up at intervals, preferably in places that relate to other features of the garden design, give the whole thing more pizazz, a trick used here, and at The Abbey House Gardens in Malmesbury.  My old colleague is another able and inquisitive plantswoman, and her borders are packed full with an interesting mixture of plants.  I bought a little Polemonium with yellow and brown flowers from her plant stall, which I never saw before in my life.  She promised me it would self seed, and I thought it would look charming wandering around our semi shaded bed along the ditch.

One of the music society committee members had opened her garden, which I'd never been into, though I presume that one of these years it will be her turn to host the annual committee supper (I don't know if we'll ever have to do that, or if our house will be deemed too far away, or not large enough).  That turned out to be very pleasant and rather grand, with spectacular views out across the Stour vale to Dedham church, and a huge and magnificent tree on the very large lawn which was either a sycamore or a plane, but I never went right up to it to work out which.  There was a Greek temple, and a thatched rustic summerhouse, and an avenue of pleached limes underplanted with two long rows of Alchemilla mollis, which was one of the simplest and most stylish bits of underplanting I've seen.  A small boy asked his mother who cut the grass, a very good question, and I thought that it must take a long time.  It was a lovely setting, but the garden didn't speak of owners with a passion for plants.

None of the other gardens were as large.  There was a professional garden designer's garden, very Chelsea, with brick and knapped flint paths, a folly, a bridge over a pond, and lots of little ornaments and details, which hovered between charming and kitsch.  Overall I rather liked it, but on my way out I overheard another visitor telling her companion that it had been a bit much for her taste.  The garden owner was taken by my Polemonium, and showed me where she had one that had self seeded into the end of a raised bed tucked away in a corner, and I asked her the name of a geranium with veined flowers I liked, and discovered that it was G. versicolor, and that I could buy one for a pound.  She gave me a plastic bag for the plants, which was handy.

Part of the amusement in looking at a selection of private and amateur gardens is in seeing how other people choose to do things.  You get the straight paths brigade, with axes (as in plural of axis, not axe), cross-axes and focal points.  In some gardens the borders have straight edges, or long sweeping curves, while in others they meander in and out in what is presumably intended to be studied informality but can come across as annoying little wiggles.  You get the multiple  island bed approach, and the method of dotting of individual shrubs around in cut grass, which I find exhausting, just thinking about the convoluted mowing pattern you would be forced to adopt, and how long it would take to cut all the edges.  Some gardens are divided into separate sections using trellis, others more subtly divided with a nod to distinct areas, using tall plants and climbers on supports.  Some gardens open out to your gaze in a single panorama.

Later on I bought an ice cream, and an Iris 'Holden Clough'.  I had one of those before, and am not sure if that's what the half drowned iris is or not that I rescued from the swamp behind the bamboo, so I thought I'd get one as an insurance policy when I saw it, as they are not very easy to find.  It is a cross between the bog loving Iris pseudacorus and something else, and likes a heavy, rich soil that is reliably damp but not permanently waterlogged, though it tolerates occasional flooding.  I'm hoping I can find a suitable not too wet, not too dry spot for it somewhere at the bottom of the garden.  It has strange, sinister, not very large flowers of brown and purple, and leaves that always seem to look a bit streaky.  I used to suspect the stock we had at work of being virus infected, but when I asked the woman selling it if the leaves were always slightly striped she became quite animated, and told me how she had been discussing just that very thing with the owner of one of the big Norfolk wholesale nurseries the other day, and they had decided that it was not virus infection but simply how the plant was, since they were always like that.

I didn't form any very dramatic conclusions, but I wasn't expecting to.  I decided that if you are going to divide a garden into different sections with trellis you should then go for a change of planting palette or mood in the different areas.  If the sections look and feel the same as each other then there's not much point in having the dividers.  Owners of large gardens with a lot of grass, that they need to keep open as grass, maybe to preserve a view, can generally usefully turn some of it over to wildflower meadow in the summer.  It cuts down on the mowing, brings in the insects and is more interesting to look at than too much mown turf.  Bare earth in June is wrong, unless in a vegetable patch or bed holding summer bedding that hasn't had time to fill out yet.

My tour round the village did make me realise how good our garden would be, if I were on top of the weeds.  In terms of layout we're up there, apart from the one glaring error in the front over the location of the sheds and greenhouse in full view, and failure to provide anywhere where bulk loads can be dumped.  There's no way round that, without demolishing almost everything in the front garden and starting again, so we'll just have to live with it.  If we could get the concrete outside the sheds tidy that would help.  We would beat most of the gardens I saw today for plant interest, some of them by a considerable margin.  I simply need to conquer the weeds, which means adding to the planting matrix and investing in mulch until there is no bare earth and much less naked gravel showing anywhere by the end of May, and then getting into a routine where all digging out of dead stumps, planting and rejigging, goes on between September and March, so that in the summer I can spend my time edging, dead heading, and pulling out horsetail to keep the place looking tidy.  Not too tidy, because that's not atmospheric, but not festooned in goosegrass and thick with horsetail.  Unfortunately I have to go to work tomorrow, but action can resume on Tuesday.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

weeds and compost

The wind dropped overnight, and I ventured back into the garden.  I managed to stick to my self-imposed plan for most of the day, to finish one bed before starting on the next, and spread the contents of several bags of mushroom compost around the areas I'd weeded.  The final stage of weeding takes some time, fishing among the stems of the asters to pull out the last grass seedlings, which are tiny now and if overlooked will develop into monstrous clumps.  I crumbled and splodged lumps of compost around the aster stalks as well.  I hope they appreciate that, as I think they don't appreciate having their dormant buds covered over in winter, but the lumps will have largely broken down before then, and the soil is so mere, I feel they could do with the nutrition.

I reduced a large patch of Phlomis russeliana while I was at it, partly because it had got too big for the bed, out of scale with its surroundings, and I didn't want to look at that much of it, and partly because it was infested with wild yarrow, and I wanted to dig the worst bits of that out.  It is an obliging, drought tolerant, evergreen herbaceous plant, very useful in dry gardens, with tall flower stems carrying a series of yellow bobbles, which I like myself, but know that some garden writers dismiss as muddy in colour.  The bobbles dry to architectural seed heads, which I tend to leave through the winter, the downside being that the seeds spread like the very devil, germinating freely in the rest of the bed, and the lawn.  I feel a sort of grim amusement that at work we sell plants for £3.75 a pop, when in my garden it is to all intents and purposes a weed.

Late in the afternoon I got bored of picking tiny weeds out of the asters, and fed up with mushroom compost, and decided to ignore my own work plan and start weeding the sloping bed opposite the island bed.  There was some justification for this, in that it too contains clumps of weed grasses, which have set seed but not yet ripened it, and they need to come out urgently before they can scatter the beginnings of next year's crop of weeds.  Also I want to plant the B&Q pink and yellow polyanthus in that bed, that are still in the ancestral pot by the front door, which I need to replant with the B&Q blue nemesias that are still in their multipack in the greenhouse.

The primrose and polyanthus display in the front of that bed is honestly rather a jumble.  Some I bought, some I raised from seed and they came out much larger and pinker than I was expecting from the catalogue, and some have self sown.  There is no colour theme, just a cheerful muddle of pinks, yellows, purples, deep magentas, burnt oranges and most of the other colours that hybrid primroses come in.  I like it, because it reminds me of the flowers of my childhood, when I played for hours with plastic horses in the narrow borders of the front garden, before graduating to gardening.  And I like a splash of bright colour in the spring.  Most of the garden is in impeccable, albeit exuberant, high taste, but you don't want to overdo that, and the Systems Administrator likes colour.  In my Peter Nyssen bulb order I included several different varieties of miniature daffodil, which I'll pot up in groups of three or five, and plant in among the primroses next spring, when I can see what other bulbs are coming up.

It's a nuisance that a willowherb with a running root has taken up residence in that bed.  It has found a stronghold around the base of an extremely prickly Chaenomeles, where it is difficult to get in to weed thoroughly without being poked in the eye, and in any case the roots of the weed are entwined with those of the shrub.  I hit its new growth with glyphosate back in the spring, but it survived that, as it always does, and is now growing away merrily.  I am pulling out as many pieces of root as I can find and get at, while trying very hard not to scratch my eyes on the shrub, and will treat the regrowth with yet another dose of glyphosate, but I have no expectation that that will be the end of it.

The surface of this bed is darkened from the last application of mushroom compost, but already moss is growing on it in places, and some of the plants look hungry.  It is terrifying how quickly light soil absorbs and loses whatever nutrients you give it, and like Oliver Twist is telling you that it wants some more.  Still, to my great relief and joy the SA yesterday volunteered to go and get some more mushroom compost sometime soon.  I know the poor SA loathes the task, but the compost is so useful, and so cheap compared to buying smart bagged stuff in a garden centre.