Tuesday, 31 July 2012

at the end of the wood

Yesterday as I trundled about the plant centre I was full of plans about how today was going to be a planting out day, particularly as I bought some more plants to add to the collection already waiting to go out into the garden.  I was rather disappointed when the weather forecast on the TV showed rain moving across southern England for most of Tuesday.  The Tendring peninsular was just outside the edge of the rain band at times, which gave me some hope, as did the thought that the forecast might simply be wrong.  However, when I woke early this morning I could hear rain drumming on the roof, and on the path outside, and when I woke again at about half past seven it was still raining.

I was reduced to trying to get the limescale off the bathroom.  It has got rather thick, probably because I hate removing limescale, and don't do it as often as I ought to.  Every now and then I read a newspaper article about how scientists have discovered that cleaning products increase your risk of cancer, which vindicates my decision to avoid them as far as possible (though scientists have also discovered that red meat, gin, more than half a glass of wine, sausages, ham. anything barbecued, anything fried and burnt toast all give you cancer as well.  The only smidgin of good news is that cheese might lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.  On the whole it is probably better to avoid reading any articles about health risks, since they are certain to give you anxiety disorder).

By late morning the rain had cleared, and I spent the last hour before lunch removing the decomposed remnants of what had been bark chippings from the mypex path by the dustbins, together with the fine crop of weeds the remains of the bark were supporting.  I've said it before, but it's worth saying again, that ornamental bark over landscape fabric makes a lousy path.  The bark rots and starts turning into a sort of rudimentary soil, and the weeds take hold.

After lunch I investigated my newish plantings in the end of the wood.  Some brambles were starting to grow up, and a few nettles had survived the clearance, but the new shrubs all looked good.  The Oemleria cerasiformis, or Oregon plum, has made extension growth and is suckering nicely at the base, and the Hamamelis has likewise thrown out new growth.  It is not suckering, but as it is a grafted plant it is not supposed to.  The trio of rusty leaved ferns have grown, and look shiny and bonny, and there are lots of foxglove seedlings for next year.  I can't see the primroses under everything else, but I expect they're in there.  Some kind of dead nettle, with small dark red flowers, is growing up around the Hamamelis, but it is pretty and doesn't look too rampant, so I'll leave it to get on with it.  I might get the wildflower book out later and try and work out what it is.  It is either a native, or a very rarified garden escape, since the flowers really are miniscule.

I planted a Clematis 'Broughton Star' to go up a large holly tree, the idea being that we will look straight into it from our bedroom window.  This is a vigorous variety from the montana group, with double pink flowers, and the holly is a male plant that produces discreet little flowers but doesn't put on much of a display, though it is a nice tree.  I thought it would look good with a climber clambering through it.  There is a fairly dull hawthorn in that corner of the wood, which would look spectacular with a vine draped over it, and I've had thoughts of a rambler rose, but I don't want to overdo it, so one step at a time.  The great and gracious lady gardener who fed me lunch the other week says that of course roses grown in trees always bring their host down eventually, though the books don't tell you that.  (She was also reduced to cleaning the grouting in the bathroom by a wet day recently, though as she runs a B&B her bathroom has to be clean).  I got my plant last year as a little young thing, which I potted on.  It has made remarkably slow growth, and took so long to emerge from dormancy at the end of the winter that I thought it was dead.  The roots looked rather subdued when I tipped it out of its pot this afternoon, and I think it was a victim of the peat-free compost I was dutifully experimenting with last autumn.

Then I was going to plant a Eucryphia x nymansensis 'Nymansay' in a gap in the very corner of the wood, which I think gets enough light since a big ash tree came down.  It is a fast growing, upright tree, relatively hardy as Eucryphia go, which likes some shelter and a cool, shaded root run, but a reasonable amount of light on its crown.  In ten years it should be capable of making it to ten metres, and if it does we'll be able to see it from the front garden, while the wood behind it protects it from the north winds, and the house breaks the full force of the south westerlies.  It has large, single, white flowers in August, a useful time of year for anything to do its stuff since without planning gardens can get rather dull by then, and the flowers are attractive to bees.  If it takes in this corner, and I make sure I keep the clearing open for it until it has grabbed its own space, it would be beautiful, and I have had a plant sitting in its pot in the greenhouse for months waiting for the moment when I would get into the wood and start clearing the brambles.  I thought the moment had arrived this afternoon, when it began to rain again, so the Eucryphia is still in its pot, on the lawn.

Our Ginger thought that it was all too wet, and spent half the morning sleeping in front of the Aga, nose about ten centimetres from the plinth.  The Systems Administrator tells me that Our Ginger has spent the past three mornings sleeping there, before moving to do an afternoon stint on the pouffe.  As I was tidying the kitchen and putting away various bits of washing up I stepped over and round him without thinking about it.  The cats get trodden on remarkably seldom, given their habit of lying on the kitchen floor, in the middle of the hall and on the stairs.  To the horseman's bow-legged walk and the rolling gait of sailors should be added the circuitous high-footed tread of the cat owner, picking their way over and around their pets, their subconscious primed to pull back from each step if they feel anything yielding and furry beneath.

Monday, 30 July 2012

the mystery of the deceased hedge

There were only two of us working in the plant centre today.  We were very organised about the watering, setting the irrigation on the trees to run before we did anything else, which gave us 24 minutes to go round the other beds standing up any pots that had blown over in the night so that they wouldn't miss out when their turn came with the automatic irrigation.  The boss has finally got all of it mended, so that there are no beds not working, or that have to be turned on and off by hand while getting watered yourself in the process, and it makes life easier, first thing in the morning.  The hand watering took a while with just two, and I had a difference of opinion with the person who works behind the scenes, potting plants on and keeping them tidy, as she opened the gates and wanted to put the notice board out at nine, on the grounds that we couldn't afford to turn away any potential trade in this economic climate.  We don't officially open until ten, specifically in order to allow time for watering first, and I thought that with just the two of us we could do with being allowed to finish it in peace, without having to worry about stray customers getting wet, or falling over the hoses, or taking up the time we needed to finish the watering by asking questions.  Neither of us converted the other to our point of view.  The watering did get finished by ten.

Somebody wanted advice on why his beech hedge, not supplied by us, had died, and why the replacement hedge provided by his original contractor was also dying.  From his description of where it was growing the site sounded suitable, not too wet, which was one of my first thoughts after the summer we've had.  He said that the top part of the hedge had developed webbing, which is a classic sign of advanced red spider mite, and seems an odd thing to get in a bad way outdoors in a monsoon summer, given that the mite favours dry conditions and one of your defences against it in a conservatory is to raise the humidity level.  The dead plant he brought in didn't have much of a root system, since most of it had been chopped through and was no more than 15cm long, so perhaps what was left was simply not up to the job of supporting the plant until it could grow some more roots.  The manager is on holiday for a fortnight, and the boss was busy, so we never managed to find out the answer, though I hung on to the dead sample, putting it by the house at a safe distance from the plant centre in case it had anything infectious. I'm curious now to know the answer.  It was a bare root hedge, so maybe the plants were killed by leaving their roots out of the ground in the wind for too long, and they were dead before they were even planted.  Maybe it has a terrible disease.  People keep planting beech as hedging, because it is so pretty with those nice glossy leaves, but I've read enough accounts of beech hedges unaccountably dying for no discernible reason that I wouldn't use the stuff myself.  Hornbeam is safer.  Not as shiny, but less likely to die.

My colleague has decided she enjoys operating the tea room, and she knows how to work the cappucino machine, which I don't, so that went off quite smoothly.  With only two of you on duty the person working outside doesn't get all that much done, since the call keeps coming over the radio to go back into the shop to help with the till, but by the end of the day I'd made some progress tidying up the Hemerocallis.  Their common name of day lily puts some cat owners off growing them, since lily pollen is highly toxic to cats, but day lilies aren't real lilies, or even closely related to them.

We had a brief encounter with the puppies first thing, as all four came tumbling out of the office door.  They were very, very cute, and illustrated how 'puppy fat' is an expression firmly rooted in reality, though nowadays used to describe something else.  Many phrases are.  I never realised how literally true it is that chickens come home to roost until I got some chickens.  One of the puppies was due to go to its new home today, and another tomorrow.  The owners are keeping one.  They are not yet vaccinated so have to be kept away from other dogs.  Once the resident puppy has had its jabs I suppose we'll see more of it in the plant centre.  Let's hope it has not inherited its mother's absconding tendencies.  Though she is a very sweet-natured dog, so if the puppy inherits her temperament that will have its plus-side.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

meeting people, talking about plants

We were back at full strength today, with three plant centre staff and the tea shop girl.  This meant that I could go outside and do some actual nursery work, and talk to customers about plants, which beats washing up tea cups any day of the week.

A couple wanted two evergreen standards to go in containers outside their conservatory, to replace a pair of standard lilacs that had done sterling service but were now begging to be allowed to go out into the ground.  We had a sensible conversation about the relative merits of box, the Japanese holly Ilex crenata which is used for cloud pruning, a small-leaved privet Ligustrum delavayanum, sweet bay, common holly, and evergreen euonymus.  They wanted to leave the pots outdoors all through the winter, and it seemed to me that box was the most reliable choice.  I've got some box balls in pots which have stood through the two recent really cold winters, and several years before that.  So many people lost bay in those two severe winters, it is scarcely dependable as a standard in the open ground, let alone in a pot where the roots can freeze.

Another customer wanted to know whether I thought Hydrangea aspera would do for a couple of years in a container, which led into a discussion of porous versus glazed terracotta and its effect on root temperature, and the winter hardiness of Albizia julibrissin.  He turned out to be a real woody plant enthusiast, who enjoyed growing them from seed, and told me how he had successfully hard-pruned and rejuvenated an ailing Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, after noticing a row of them in a background shot in Monty Don's Italian Gardens series, which had received a drastic chop and were flowering away on their remaining wood.

Somebody wanted Akebia quinata, and was happy that we had it not just in the usual purple but in cream.  This is a useful, tough climber that will cope with a North wall, which is where they wanted to put it.  It produces little dangling bell-shaped flowers around April time.  Someone else wanted to know whether I thought she could grow Clematis armandii on a North Wall.  I had my doubts, and pointed out the boss's label saying the plant required a sunny position, but she basically wanted one, and rejected my alternative suggestion, which as it happens was for Akebia.

A couple from Dedham, who have just had their garden completely redone by one of the landscapers that shops with us regularly, bought seven hundred pounds worth of pots to go on their terrace.  They were delighted with the pots, which they said were exactly what they'd been looking for, and I was pretty pleased with the sale, though it owed nothing to my sales technique.  They knew they wanted pots, it wasn't as though they'd just come in to buy a packet of radish seeds and I'd persuaded them that what they really needed was three large glazed urns.

In the afternoon a large thunderstorm, with lighting, scared most of the customers away prematurely, and close to closing time a second downpour threatened to keep us all trapped in the shop.  Still, with the flowerpot sale the overall takings were quite respectable for late July.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

trapped in the tea room

We watched the Olympics opening ceremony right to the very end.  I enjoyed it a great deal, and am pleased it was a gigantic British in-joke and not a bland international spectacular.  The abseiling Mary Poppinses were a master stroke.  It was a sad shock to the system this morning, though, when the alarm clock went off at quarter past six.

There were only two of us on duty in the plant centre, as someone was on holiday.  I asked my colleague with foreboding what we were going to do about the tea room, and he reminded me that the sparky girl would be at half past nine to take care of that, and would be able to keep an eye on the shop as well.  At nine she rang to say that she was not well and would not be in.  Then a thoroughly confusing man, connnected in some way with a parish council, rang about a memorial tree.  It took me some time to work out the exact nature of his query, and I had to promise to go and check with the owner, and set off to ask her about the tree and break the bad news about the tea room girl.

The puppies were making a vast amount of noise when I got up to the house, and the owner was cross about something the dog had done, and irritated with the PCC man who had not replied to her e-mail, so didn't seem to take on board the problem with the tea room.  She didn't offer to run it herself, but ten minutes later it transpired that she had been listening to what I was saying, but would be out all morning at a pony club meeting, so I was going to have to do teas.  As I don't know how to use the cappucino machine frothy coffees were off the menu for the day.

There are things nobody has told me about the tea room, like whether I am supposed to pour unused milk from the tables down the sink or top up the little jug and give it to the next customer.  Or what sized jug to use for what number of people to avoid waste.  I started off washing the crockery by hand, as I couldn't remember how the dishwasher worked, but ran out of anything dry to dry it with.  It seemed feeble not to try to use the machine, so I put some cups and saucers in it and pressed the button marked Start, and it started, and I felt rather an idiot for not trying that earlier.  When it had finished running I opened it, and discovered that the crockery was still wet, and speckled with coffee grounds.  I really don't like running the tea room.  I like plants, and can stomach the low wages and social inconveniences of weekend working in pursuit of horticultural knowledge, but if I'm going to do something boring I can think of better paid alternatives to manning the tea room that occupy more sociable hours.  After lunch my colleague took over, and mid afternoon the owner did a stint, and it turned out that today is her son's birthday.

Once I'd escaped from the shop I spent a peaceful couple of hours tidying up the achilleas and the moisture loving plants section, and got an enormous lump of mysterious black slime on one leg of my trousers, that I'd been hoping would last the rest of the weekend.  Nursery work and tea room duties really don't mix.  Fingers crossed the girl is feeling better tomorrow.

Friday, 27 July 2012

the gathering (sports) storm

I had an amazing view of a wren last night, after I'd posted my blog entry.  I was sitting on a steamer chair on the veranda.  Indeed I'd gone to sleep over the history of East Prussia, and when I woke up a small bird with a cocked tail was perched in the honeysuckle, no more than a metre from Our Ginger who was likewise having a snooze, chattering away in a series of loud, almost metallic cheeps and flicking its little tail up.  I peered at it fascinated for several minutes, before working out that I was still wearing my reading glasses and that I'd see more if I switched to my distance pair.  Our Ginger refused to acknowledge that he was being dissed at close quarters by a small, provocative bird, and I sat tight until the bird flitted off to the stooled foxglove tree shoots, where it repeated the chattering and tail flicking routine before producing one short burst of loud and tuneful song.  I checked the call in the bird guides, and with the Systems Administrator, who confirmed that I had seen a wren.  The call was right, and nothing else has a tail like that.  It was actually slightly larger than I expected a wren to be, but it was in confident mood and may have been all puffed up.  They have a reputation for being shy birds, and I was amazed to get such a long, close view of one.  I've seen a bird before in the Paulownia, flicking its tail like that, but didn't know then what it was.  After the wren's display a blackcap sang.  They are wonderful singers, even louder and more melodious than wrens.

Today was unbelievably humid, so that every breath felt like trying to breath soup.  The cheerful man who tends the crushing machine at the dump longed for rain to clear the air, but joked that since it was the Olympics it would probably snow.  We are going to watch the opening ceremony, though I'll almost certainly duck out before the end, given that I have to go to work in the morning.  Beyond that I'm still not enthused.  Neither Mitt Romney's sneers nor Boris Johnson's floppy haired exhortations have yet convinced me that I'm interested in sport.  I listened out for the universal peal of bells at twelve minutes past eight this morning, but if any of our local churches were taking part then the wind must have been in the wrong direction to bring the sound to us.  We did get a little hint of burnt smell last night from one of the local stubble fires.  It seems to have been a bad week for those.

I have made my first batch of ice cream, using a basic cream and milk recipe out of the instruction booklet that came with the machine.  The Definitive Guide to Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati arrived this morning, which was handy since otherwise I wouldn't have known that heavy cream translates as whipping cream and not double.  Apparently that is what the Americans call it.  I stashed most of the ice cream in a plastic box in the freezer pending supper, but the bit I ate out of the mixing bowl was delicious, though maybe a tiny bit sweet.  I went for the inside bowl approach, for ease of cleaning, and took Caroline and Robin Weir's advice to wipe the machine after use with baby's bottle disinfectant, even though it has not been in direct contact with the ingredients, to prevent any sour smell developing, so now you know that if you spot someone in a supermarket buying full fat milk, whipping cream, Milton and cheap gin, homemade ice cream may be the connecting factor.  The two tubes of toothpaste were not because I was so worried about the effect the ice cream would have on my teeth, but because I was running out, and it was on BOGOF.

Even the Taliban like ice cream, according to a story in the Guardian.  It is a cheerful thought, Afghan refrigerated lorries full of lollies being given safe passage through even the most dangerous areas.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

ice cream dreams

I have bought myself a present.  An ice cream maker.  One with its own compressor, that freezes as well as mixing.  I've wanted one for ages.  I nearly bought one last summer, but researched myself to a standstill looking at reviews of various models on different websites, until I didn't know which I wanted, and then the cat broke his leg and the money that would have paid for the ice cream maker went on vet's bills.

I adore ice cream.  I have since infancy.  When I was a baby my father got the post of distinguished visiting professor at an American university, and we lived in the States for a year, which included a six week road trip to see some of the country.  Sadly, I remember nothing at all about it, and the fact that I have been to the Yosemite National Park is completely wasted on me.  My mother tells me that I could spot an ice cream sign from a moving vehicle at fifty yards, and correctly distinguish adverts for ice cream from petrol, and all other commodities.  This story may include an element of maternal embellishment, but certainly one of the earliest photographs of me shows me clutching an ice cream cone.  Quite a lot of the ice cream is smeared over my face, and I look very, very happy.

Nowadays friends and relatives in restaurants are often surprised that I want ice cream.  Not the tiramisu, or the lemon tart, but plain ice cream.  Sometimes even just vanilla ice cream.  I have eaten a Magnum at the end of Clacton Pier in the rain.  At the seaside ice cream is what you eat, and a bit of rain doesn't matter.  A trip to the Mercury Theatre is not complete without a honey and ginger tub in the interval.  The Mercury does very nice ice creams, better than Magnums.  I always have a cone at some point during the Chelsea Flower Show, whether it's hot and sunny that year, or cold and wet.  (Also Pimms, which is the Systems Administrator's treat.  I wonder if you can make Pimms ice cream?).  The rosewater and cardamon ice cream at Moro was one of the most sublime things I ever ate, back in the days when I used to be taken to lunch there.  There's a recipe for that in the Moro cookery book.

Loving ice cream, I wanted to make my own.  I know people who swear by the machines that only stir the mixture, while the freezing element is provided by a bowl that has been chilled right down in the freezer, but I didn't want that.  I didn't want the hassle of jiggling things around in the freezer to find space for the bowl, and to have to think about making ice cream hours in advance, and I wasn't really convinced that the frozen bowl would do the job, in high summer in a kitchen also containing an Aga.  I wanted the Rolls Royce of ice cream machines, the Big Daddy, the ultimate freezer and stirrer, the real McCoy.  I don't buy any kind of electrical or mechanical equipment very often, but I have noticed how much nicer my gardening digital radio is, that seemed to cost a ridiculous amount of money for a radio, than the budget digital radio that I bought for my bathroom.  Buy seldom and buy quality is a good maxim.

In the end I bypassed Consumer Which and all comparison sites except for the Amazon user reviews.  The clear winner appeared to be the Gaggia Gelateria.  Lots of users said how quiet it was, and none of them complained that the paddles broke off in the ice cream.  There is the option of mixing the ice cream in a removable bowl, which means that you have to use spirits as a conductor between that bowl and the one fixed in the machine, or the fixed bowl, which makes cleaning the machine more of a chore, but saves on cheap vodka.  I thought I'd see how it went between the fixed bowl and the removable.

It is true that for the cost of the machine I could have bought an awful lot of tubs of Haagen-Dazs Cookies and Cream, and even with the machine ice cream will not be cheap given that I have to supply the ingredients (although once I progress to ice cream made using custard that will use up some eggs).  Haagen-Dazs Cookies and Cream is very nice, one of my favourites, and the big tabby likes it too.  He can detect you opening a tub of the stuff from another room and instantly appears, dribbling, and hoping for a share.  The cost of the ice cream is not the point.  The point is that I like ice cream, a lot, and I want to make my own, progressing from plain vanilla to all the most amazing fruit concoctions I can imagine, or find in Caroline Weir's definitive book on the subject, when it arrives.

Now I am possessed of a mansion, but may not enter it, because the machine has to be allowed to stand for at least twelve hours before use to allow the coolant to settle.  I have read the booklet carefully, and it all looks straightforward.  There is a button to press to pre-freeze the machine, a timer, a button to press to start the paddles turning, and away you go.  The instructions sound charmingly as if they had been translated from Italian, and state that 'In case the ice cream becomes too hard, the motor stops by itself.  The safety device protects the motor from possible damages in case you did not switch it off on time' which is not quite how a native English speaker would put it, but reassuring.

The Systems Administrator, on hearing that I'd finally ordered an ice cream maker, remarked that it would probably be snowing by next weekend.  The weather is forecast to become more unsettled again, but never mind.  I am quite prepared to eat ice cream, even if it is snowing.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

all well in the apiary

I had a look at the bees after breakfast, before it got too hot.  I'm pretty confident that they're past the swarming stage for this summer, which means that inspections don't need to be so frequent, but I wanted to check that they had enough to eat.  My fellow beekeepers were muttering about how little forage there was left by this stage of the summer, and while I thought there ought to be something still out there for them, like brambles, I didn't want to risk leaving them to get on with it until belatedly discovering that they'd starved to death.

Only one hive was filled end to end with stores of food, but all four were dripping with nectar.  Recently collected nectar does drip, because it is still very liquid, whereas honey that is ready to be capped over with wax doesn't drop out of the frame, unless you give it a brisk shake, or damage the the comb.  If you look carefully at a piece of honeycomb you will see that the hexagonal cells slope slightly upwards, so that nectar deposited in them won't run out of the front.  I don't know where the bees are foraging.  I've seen very few in the garden, even on the lavender, which the bumble bees have been feeding on with gusto, and there weren't many in the meadow, where field scabious and other good nectar plants were in full flower.  However, they are going somewhere.

They were in a pretty good mood, the warm weather and their mystery nectar flow keeping them happy.  Even though I went early, I got very hot inside my bee suit, so much so that drops of sweat had fallen on the inside of my spectacles by the time I got to the last hive.  Bees don't like the smell of human sweat, but today they forgave me.  One hive has started producing a proportion of golden bees, very pretty.  I had one of those last year, but failed in my attempts to artificially swarm them, and they failed to requeen themselves after swarming.  Worker bees in a colony are either full or half sisters, as the queen mates with several drones, so perhaps some other beekeeper is producing golden drones for my queens to mate with.  All four colonies contained eggs and young brood.  In some years the queen starts giving up laying in late July, but this year they seem to understand they need to make up for lost time, with the dreadful weather earlier in the year.  George Smiley's friend Mendel, the retired police inspector, kept bees, and described them to Smiley as cunning little beggars.

The postman brought not one but two pieces of mail clearly addressed to somebody else.  Name, address, postcode, the lot, tucked in between two magazines addressed to us.  I registered a complaint on the Royal Mail website, adding that this had happened before, while I had failed to receive mail I was expecting, and had got to the point where I avoided having tickets sent to me if there was an option of collecting them from the box office on the day.  I'll see if I get a reply.  I didn't the last time I told them I'd had someone else's mail.  Today's wrongly delivered items both looked like marketing gumph, one for a beauty fair and one a brochure for cruises, but still they were in sealed wrappers and addressed to someone, not just fliers.  The way the mail is heading, they will end up doing nothing but shoving unwanted brochures randomly through wrong doors and misdelivering birthday cards from very old people who don't use the web, while 99 per cent of people arrange to do everything at all important electronically or in person.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

the glory of the garden

I called in on the beekeepers' Membership Secretary on the way home last night, so that she could countersign the cheques for everyone who sold honey and cakes at the Show, and found her in full Kiplingesque mode, crawling over the paving in her front garden grubbing weeds out from between the cracks with a knife.  She gave me a punnet of red currants and a cucumber, so I could have risked another box of eggs.  Rather unfairly, there isn't a cheque for her yet in respect of her flapjack, because neither of us knew whether it was acceptable for her to sign a cheque made payable to herself.

The Systems Administrator returned home with a copy of the book, and having watched most of a day's cricket, grief at England's loss tempered by the fact that the SA had put ten quid on South Africa to win last week at fifteen to one.  I had a quick look through the book, and it is very impressive, with lots of pictures as well as some serious analysis of why maps have developed as they have, and what makes them easy or difficult to use.  I saw it when it was in proof form, but that's not the same.   Maxwell J. Roberts is the name to look out for, Underground Maps Unravelled.  Track down your copy now, the initial print run was only 2,000.

This morning I had some more beekeeping business to attend to, since the Show Secretary gave me a tin containing the entry fees, which I had to pay into the bank.  I hadn't focussed on the fact that there were any entry fees, as I've never entered anything in the honey show, and I optimistically thought I'd be able to make a transfer from my account to the beekeepers' one, until I looked in the tin and discovered that three people had paid by cheque, total value of the three cheques £12.50.  If it had been my money I'd have left it for weeks, or months, until I was going near a bank, but since it was other people's I thought I'd better be a diligent Treasurer and pay it in, so I had to trundle down to Brightlingsea, which has the nearest branch of the beekeepers' bank and free parking.  Long live the day when everyone uses something like Paypal, or mobile phone transfers, if they aren't using cash, and saves me the faff of making a ten mile round trip to pay cheques in over the counter.  There were two windows open, and both people ahead of me seemed to be trying to do something complicated, while a queue built up behind me.  It did occur to me that, disgraceful as the many mis-selling scandals are, they are depressingly predictable and likely to recur while people like me, and the beekeepers, expect our banks to maintain premises and employ tellers and administer our current accounts and process cheques for three pounds, all free and gratis.

After lunch I went to the dump, working on the theory that it would be quiet then, which it was, and the staff were kind and helpful about emptying my bags of weeds into the crusher.  Five enormous three-bladed wind turbines have sprung up rather close to the north-west corner of Clacton.  It has now been officially admitted that actually, yes, they do reduce nearby property values, sometimes rather substantially, but maybe the official view is that as it's only Clacton it doesn't count.  If they were that close to Dedham it would be another thing entirely.

Then I had my own Kiplingesque afternoon, since a garden is not made by singing Oh how beautiful and sitting in the shade.  Sitting in the shade was exactly what the SA did, but the SA is not such a fanatical gardener as I.

Monday, 23 July 2012

short handed

We were reduced to two staff members in the plant centre, because somebody called in sick.  In a way this was a lucky break for me, because it gave me a cast iron reason to stay in the shop all day, cleaning up pots of iris and geraniums in between transactions on the till, and it was very hot outside.  In another way it was rather stressful, because two people is not really enough to operate the plant centre, except in the depths of winter or on very wet days when we only have a handful of customers.  What with the till, and the telephone, and the tea room, it is more than a two person job, and that is before anyone has actually gone outside to help a customer find a plant, or advise them on suitable choices for the space they need to fill.  The manager is entitled to take an hour and a quarter in breaks, while I as a part-timer get an hour, so that added up to over two hours of the seven hours we were open when there was only one staff member in the plant centre.  It isn't really enough, and I could see the disappointment in various customers' eyes as I apologetically pointed them in the right direction to find whatever it was they were looking for, instead of taking them there myself.

The manager drew the short straw and had to run the tea room.  It was a rigged selection process, in that I brandished my filthy finger nails and said that it was not right at all for me to be alternating between nursery work and serving refreshments.  It isn't, though.  If an environmental health officer walked in through the door they wouldn't like it.  True, I ate my lunch with the same disgusting fingernails and I haven't shown any signs of food poisoning yet, but rules is rules, and the local paper loves writing up stories about unhygienic cafes.  The account of the Chinese restaurant who kept an unsafe barbecue outside where birds could crap on it and rodents run over it was positively lurid.  Actually, our barbecue at home lives on the veranda where birds could land on it and rodents could frolic on the grill, and it hasn't hurt us yet, but that's by the by.

The computer in the shop was not working for great parts of the day, refusing to connect to the internal network.  This caused great confusion about which of the e-mails that arrived over the weekend had or had not been replied to.  I don't know how the network is configured, but that makes it sound as though you can't see on the office computer what has been happening on the shop computer, which seems unhelpful.  The woman who works in the office had to call the enterprising bloke with a mohican haircut who provides our computer support, and eventually they got it going, but it doesn't sound as though it's very stable.  Something to do with the cable to the shop.

As a consequence of having to earn a crust on Mondays I missed out on a friend's book launch, which was being held in London.  So far in my life I have been to two book launches.  One was my uncle's memoirs of his life working for R3, which was held in the Austrian Cultural Institute in Knightsbridge.  It seemed an appropriate venue since one of his other books is on Schubert, and he briefly worked in Vienna, which remains possibly his favourite city in the world.  Besides which, he knows the people at the Institute.  I found myself sitting next to the Austrian ambassador, who was wearing the most beautiful shoes and a wonderfully tailored suit, and I was absolutely struck dumb.  I could not think of a single sensible thing to say.  What's it like being an Ambassador?  Do you really serve Ferrero Roche at receptions?  We listened to some lieder, there were some short speeches, and the Austrian ambassador departed.  The other book launch I attended was held in the Wivenhoe book shop, and was for a little book put out by a local publisher about a small boat.  I bumped into somebody I vaguely know via the woodland charity and work, who very cordially invited me to go and look at the wood he and his wife planted on their farm to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar.  I meant to take him up on it, but still haven't got round to it.

Tonight's launch is of a book about tube maps, that a friend has written and is self-publishing.  He is unusually well-positioned to comment on the subject, having a genuine passion for underground maps, while his day job is as a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology.  I'd have loved to go, but couldn't ask for another day off after losing one day already this month to the Tendring Show.  The Systems Administrator has gone, to show moral support.  It tied in nicely with the last day of the Test against South Africa.  Shame England lost resoundingly.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

pet problems

One of the cats was sick in the night, right next to the disgusting cardboard box they sit in, and we don't have the heart to throw away, by the sitting room window.  Only Our Ginger and the big tabby use the box, and my money's on the big tabby.  I have no proof, but he is an anxious creature, getting on in years, and Maine Coones seem less thrifty animals than the common moggies.  Our Ginger appears to show a remarkable degree of hybrid vigour.  But I might be wrong.  In the meantime we are watching them both for signs of ailment, and doling out food in tiny spoonfuls to stop any of them bolting down too much at once and making itself sick.  This means it is impossible to go through the hall without meeting at least one set of accusing feline eyes as they hover near the empty dishes.

Quite a number of bees came into the house this morning, and we're at a total loss to explain why.  There was one in the bedroom, which managed to get into an old guitar I still keep (I was never any good at playing it, and cherish no ambition that I'm going to learn now, but lack the impetus to sell it.  I suppose I am waiting for the right deserving young relative or friend of the family to show musical promise so that I can give it away).  The sound of a bee in an acoustic guitar is strange, very resonant.  If you were to sample it (I expect you could lure some in on purpose if you put a few drops of honey in there) the noise could form the basis for some experimental electronic music.  Last night I had to evict half a dozen from the sitting room, and this morning more like a dozen from the kitchen, and the Systems Administrator had to collect one from the study.  I don't know why they have suddenly started coming in.  I did have a jar of honey on the kitchen worktop last night, but I've generally got a jar of honey on the go in the kitchen and it's never attracted them before.  The SA went to look outside the front door to see what they were doing and said that one flew up and down in front of the house several times before quite deliberately flying through the open door.

I spent another day weeding the gravel.  The back lawn still squelches audibly when I walk on it, and I was on a roll with the gravel.  I listened again to the R4 adaptation of A Murder of Quality, and then started on The Honourable Schoolboy.  I listened yesterday afternoon to From Russia With Love, and though I adore Toby Stephens I much prefer Le Carre's world of grottiness, intrigue, and moral ambiguity to Fleming's glamour and gizmos.

There isn't much new to say about the gravel.  The Helianthemum or rock roses have finished flowering and so their old flowering stems need cutting back.  The cold weather killed some of the lavender, especially the ones with ears which aren't as hardy as the traditional English ones, but they seed themselves generously.  There are lots and lots of weeds.  I wrote up my gardening diary on Friday, and was shocked to see that I hadn't filled it in since 7 July, but when I looked at my pocket diary and blog entries for July realised that I'd only had two and a half day's gardening since then.  Work, days lost to rain, a trip to London, a day of cooking and housework (we had guests, just as well or the cleaning would never get done), setting up the Show stand, the mudbath of the actual Show, wrestling with the accounts afterwards.  It's not surprising the weeds have grown.  The Systems Administrator looked at the rainfall records and while June's rain wasn't as much as we expected, only 55mm, which is half what was recorded at the site in Epping that the SA follows, in July to date we've had 150mm.  That is over a quarter of our expected annual rainfall in three weeks.

The good news is that for the next month my diary suddenly empties.  Apart from going to work, I have only one thing booked in the next four weeks, which is my Pilates lesson.  I am planning on catching up on a lot of gardening, so if you aren't interested in gardening you might as well tune out now, and come back in a month's time.  Actually I might nip up to town one last time before the Olympics start, to see the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican which closes next month.  After that, even when things start happening again it's a wildlife fair at the Beth Chatto gardens and a lecture on, er, gardening.

Addendum  I am not sure whether to delete the last paragraph.  It feels like tempting fate, and the next thing I know things will be happening and the story line will have darkened dramatically, Archers style.  They are losing listeners, according to the Telegraph.  I thought they would.

On balance I have left the paragraph in, but deleted the word 'wretched' from before the word Olympics.  OK, I am not going to risk travelling through Stratford for the duration and so London is out of bounds, but other people will enjoy them.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

after the deluge

It rained a lot.  We had 28mm of rain in an hour, and the road off the farm was a solid sheet of water when we went out, then it rained gently through most of the beekeepers' barbecue.  Fortunately we have a pair of marquees, which are more or less waterproof.  I'm very impressed by the way the organisers managed to almost stop them leaking through the join between the two.

One advantage of gardening on extremely free draining soil is that you can get on it the day after 30mm of rain has fallen.  It doesn't squelch, or churn to mud, but just feels pleasantly damp, and I don't worry about my weight destroying the soil structure because I don't think it has any.  I started pulling out the annual poppies.  Some are still producing a few flowers, some have already died and gone brown.  The overall effect is no longer pretty and they are all going on the bonfire, since if they go on the compost heap poppies will spring up in every border I mulch with the compost.  While they are nice it would get monotonous to have them everywhere, besides which they are smothering plants when young and don't always make good neighbours for more permanent things.

The seed-raised Albizia julibrissin I planted out in the gravel and thought had died in the winter is shooting from the base.  I'd imagined it as a single stemmed tree hovering over the lavender rather than a multi-stemmed flowering shrub, and don't even know how large it has to be in order to flower, so some formative pruning will probably be needed in due course, but for now I'll just be grateful that it's still alive.  The ferny divided leaves are pretty, but I would like the fluffy pink flowers as well.  I have a second plant that I kept in a pot, as an insurance policy.

Half the stems of the ginger scented rosemary have died.  I cut them off, and the remainder of the plant may yet get going, but I'm always rather suspicious of rosemary once it starts dying back.  Once one branch dies another seems to follow, reminding me of the fund manager's adage to sell on the first profits warning, since there's generally going to be a second one.

The lemon scented verbena, Aloysia triphylla, is doing very well.  This has long slender leaves with a powerful scent of lemons.  It is moderately tender, but came through the two cold nights in February.  I had to cut it back fairly hard, but I'd reckon to do that anyway.  It used to live in a container and go inside for the winter, but it never honestly looked all that happy in the pot, and makes a much nicer and more vigorous looking plant grown in the ground.  A fig tree that was also starting to languish in its pot has likewise found a new lease of life planted out in the garden, though not in the gravel but tucked into a narrow bed at the base of a wall.  It hated the cold weather and I wondered if I'd lost it, but now the leaves are twice the size they were last year and it is throwing out new shoots with abandon.  Customers at work often want something to go permanently in a pot, and it's always a tricky question, especially if they want to leave it outdoors through the winter.  So many plants seem happier in the ground, long term, and I say that as someone who rarely goes away from home and is fairly organised about watering pots.  Anyway, the Aloysia is very nice, and I recommend one, if you like the smell of lemon and have a warmish spot with decent drainage.  You can use it to make herbal tea, though I haven't.

The Agapanthus are getting going.  I bought my original plants as Headbourne Hybrids, though I  don't think that name has much validity any more.  They have seeded themselves generously in the gravel, and have proved totally hardy through the recent hard winters, though they do have very good drainage where they are and I wouldn't vouch for them doing the same on clay.  The flowers come in a range of blues from fairly light to darkish, and all are pretty.  I have some fancier ones in pots, which go in to the greenhouse for the winter, but the naturalising ones in the ground honestly put on as good a display, probably better, and are very little trouble, beyond weeding the gravel.  Agapanthus foliage isn't up to much as a weed smotherer.  The hardier forms are totally deciduous.

The small leafed form of myrtle has finally started to look less frost nipped, but isn't yet making masses of new growth.  I think it has found the English summer to date a poor substitute for a Mediterranean hillside.  The Teucrium fruticans is doing slightly better, but not much, and the leaves of the Acca sellowiana still have a rather pinched and closed appearance, though it has managed to produce about three flowers.  It is having to pretend it is in the uplands of Southern Brazil or Eastern Paraguay, poor thing, which must seem even less likely than being in the Med.  The olive tree has finally come out of its massive sulk and started to make new growth.  Still, the forecast for next week is for sunshine and heat, so that might encourage them all.

I let the chickens out for a run some time after four, and things passed almost without incident.  They kept out of the dahlias, but one of the hens did fall in the pond.  I was going to rescue her when she flapped her way out by herself, shrieking dreadfully.  Hens cannot swim exactly, but they are moderately buoyant.  The water lilies are quite congested so perhaps she tried to stand on a leaf.

Friday, 20 July 2012

the strange case of the vanishing rain cloud

I have just been driven inside by the threat of rain.  The Systems Administrator warned me at lunchtime that there were some extremely heavy showers around, with flooding in Cambridge and sections of the A14 running with water.  Rain has apparently been falling at the rate of 30mm per hour, which is a lot.  If I felt the first raindrops I should rescue my radio and tools and get under cover immediately, as I wouldn't have several minutes to spare wondering whether it was raining hard enough for me to go in before it quite definitely was.

So when I felt the first drops I put my things in the garage, came inside and closed the garage door.  And now it isn't raining, and the rain radar shows that the rain cloud has mysteriously evaporated.  They've had heavy downpours in Colchester, Ipswich and Chelmsford, but there's nothing to speak of out in the Tendring peninsular.  I should be pleased really, since I don't want it to rain on the beekeepers' barbecue tonight.

In the back garden most of the leaves have fallen off the Magnolia grandiflora.  They'd been looking unhappy since the winter, and I wondered if this was a delayed response to the sudden plunge in temperatures in February.  There are still some new leaves, which look healthy, and some leaf buds, which is a hopeful sign.  On the other hand I don't like the look of a dark patch at the base of the trunk.  The bark is very slightly cracked, and there is a suspicion of oozing.  Again, maybe it got damaged in the cold weather, but infection seems all too possible.

The Coronilla varia that I planted last year has filled in a space in the island bed very nicely.  This is a perennial member of the pea family, about 40cm high, with smallish to medium pinky-white flowers, which are attractive to bees.  I put it in a gap in the bed which it has covered completely.  The boss's label said 'spread indefinite' which should probably be interpreted as a warning signal, as I have just read on Wikipedia that it is a tough, aggressive plant that will crowd out its neighbours in a show garden, though good for stabilising banks.  Oh well, at least it is covering up the sheeps sorrel and regrowth from the horsetail.  I'll just have to pull out the pieces I don't want.

The wet weather has suited a late-flowering clematis in the rose bank, which has suddenly sent out a great mass of growth, mostly knotted into a lump on top of a tree peony.  I spent a meditative half hour disentangling its stems from one another.  The climbing clematis (some don't, you know) hang on to their support by coiling their leaf stalks around anything they can grab hold of, generally tying their own stems together in the process.  If you are patient you can uncoil the leaf stalks and separate the stems out.  I resorted to cutting through some of the most densely tangled leaf stalks, where several leaves were involved, but managed not to cut too many off, and mostly managed not to knock off the developing buds.  I draped the stems across the face of the rose bank, hoping that the clematis would consent to spread itself out.

I reduced some of the long shoots of the shrub roses, which grew much taller than usual in the rain and then flopped out over the tops of their supports and leant across the lawn.  I don't think high summer is generally recommended as the time to prune shrub roses, but they were obstructing the lawnmower as they were and looked silly.  I have a theory that when in doubt July is a safe month to prune almost anything, as the sap has stopped rising, but there are still several months for the plant to start healing and recovering before cold weather comes.  For plants due to flower next year on this year's growth I can see that I might hit next year's display, but I reckon I'm relatively unlikely to cause injury.  I cut back some long growths from the rambler roses on the rose bank, that were growing out over the border above, but I'm not really worried about hurting them.  They are such rampant growers, my snipping away will be a mere flea bite.

And now, since the threatened rain still hasn't arrived, I am going back into the garden.

Addendum  Spoke too soon.  It's raining.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

talking and not talking

Today started as a complete blank in my diary.  I was greatly taken with the prospect, given that I'd been on the go non-stop since last Friday.  After a leisurely breakfast (it was the same breakfast as usual, Dorset muesli and a glass of apple juice, but taken at a slower pace) I headed into the back garden to cut the edges of the lawns and pull up weeds.  There are a great many weeds, most of which are not fit to go on the compost heap, which I try to keep free of pernicious roots and unwanted seeds.  I've already got so many bags of weed infested waste I need another run to the dump, and I only went there yesterday.

The cheerful man from Veolia who helps people lift their bags of garden waste into the crushing machine remarked to me that I must love my garden, then on my next journey from the car to the crusher with another two bags demanded to know why I wasn't at work, and what I did anyway.  He might have suspected that my frequent visits with a car full of weeds meant that I was in fact in the garden maintenance business, illicitly bringing trade waste to the domestic tip, but I think he was just being friendly, in a nosy sort of way.  I told him I did love my garden, and that I worked in a plant nursery because I loved plants, and he seemed happy enough.

Mid-morning I remembered to check my phone, and discovered a text left over from yesterday afternoon.  I never even looked at it then, since I came in from one thing only to go out again almost straight away to another.  A friend wanted to arrange a time for a nice chat, which was lovely of her, but looking at the weeds, and the sunshine, and the forecast of rain later, I replied asking if five would suit.  I felt mean, and ungrateful in the face of such a kind friend, but terribly reluctant to lose my planned time in the garden.

I'm not good at telephones.  When I was a child, my mother used to make me talk to my uncle on the phone.  I found it quite awkward aged nine, and am not a lot better at it forty years on.  I don't mind ringing somebody to make a practical arrangement.  I don't get embarrassed answering the phones at work, even though it could be anybody asking about practically anything.  I am just no good at talking for the sake of talking.  I don't think I've ever understood the point of it.  It isn't the same as being with the person.  I can cope if they have lots of news, and I just have to make encouraging noises and ask the odd question, but asked what I've been doing, then, my mind becomes a blank.  I know I've been doing lots of things, but explaining them over the telephone seems awfully difficult.

Sometimes nowadays if I'm speaking to my mother on the phone she will ask Do you want to speak to your Father, to which the correct answer is Yes, but as my father is even worse at chatting on the phone than I am the result is generally excruciating, Alan Ayckbourn meets Harold Pinter.  Maybe that's where I get it from.

My friend turned out to be on a BT package that lets you have an hour of talk free each day.  She was astounded that I knew nothing about any such scheme, and even more baffled when I said that we didn't need it because we almost never rang anyone up.  We don't.  Some time ago when our old boiler was playing up very badly and BT were running their 'Friends and Family' scheme, we looked at our phone bill and discovered that the boiler repair company was our best friend, or at least the number we'd rung most.

A recent Ofcom report found that time spent talking on the phone was falling, while texts were rising.  Some newspapers reported this along the lines of We Prefer Texts to Phone.  I'm not crazy on texts either as a method of communicating anything at all complicated.  They're great for logistics.  The train's now an hour late.  I'm in the food hall where are you?  They're handy for indicating simple affection.  Lovely 2 c u last nite, thnx again 4 flowers.  That sort of thing.  I wouldn't use them to try and discuss anything nuanced or complicated.  Even a telephone would be better.

e-mails are great.  You can have as many words and characters as you like to express yourself, and the other person can read it when it's convenient, instead of having to sound delighted to hear from you until finally obliged to mention that they are in the middle of cooking supper and that this is really not a good moment to chat.  Letters are almost better, if you aren't in a hurry for a reply and don't need to embed the address of some marvellous Youtube clip you were telling them about.  Actually seeing people is best.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

the pitfalls of self-improvement

The free training session on how to organise an outdoor music event was moderately useful.  If you are going to put on an evening of teaching people how to run things it is probably a good idea to mention in the invitation that the entrance to The Lecture Room, Northgate Street is not actually in Northgate Street, but round the corner in Old Foundry Road.  I walked up and down the entire length of Northgate Street, before asking for help in the library which was the only place that was open, and discovering that The Lecture Room was part of the library, though not accessed through it or signposted from the Northgate Street entrance.  I arrived three minutes late, hot and rather flustered, which was not a good start, though it served me right for not giving myself more time, given that I don't know Ipswich well.  The organisers were very soothing about my late arrival at the event managers' trainers' ball, and we spent another seven minutes waiting for the last person on the list to turn up, but they didn't.

The other people at the session all sang in local choirs, and were there for much the same reasons as I was, hoping to learn a bit more about how to gain publicity for our events, and how to stay on the right side of the law, particularly with reference to public safety, and licencing and copyright issues.  I think we were all a little surprised to discover that though the evening had been marketed through the National Federation of Music Societies, the focus was on an Olympics driven arts project called The Bandstand Marathon, which is a scheme to persuade people to act as music promoters for the day and put on four hours of music in their local bandstand (or other public space) on the afternoon of the final Sunday of the Paralympics.  I was perfectly certain that I was not going to do that.  I'll be at work, for a start, and as the music society put on a special concert for the Diamond Jubilee weekend I'm sure they won't want to do another one in the second week of September.

We all listened obediently to the rallying talk about the bandstand project, and took part in an ice breaking exercise talking about bandstands, and so progressed by degrees to the meat of the subject, and I managed to acquire some fresh understanding about what a Temporary Events Licence is and when you might need one, and how to get one if you did, and how to do a risk assessment that would pass muster with a local authority.  The booklet being handed out had quite a lot in it, if you skipped through the bandstand specific elements.  I'm sorry for the woman promoting the bandstand project, but not very, having been invited on slightly false pretences.  At least I turned up, which is more than any of the people booked into the afternoon session.

I'm not especially bullish about the prospects for The Bandstand Marathon, if they are still looking for people to start organising events, less than two months before they are due to happen.  The grant available for each event is £350 to fill four hours of music, so basically they are looking for bands and groups willing to play for free.  I'd have thought that most halfway decent self-respecting groups capable of playing a large outdoor space started thinking about their bookings for 2013 some time ago, so I'm not too sure who would be available at seven weeks notice to perform for no fee on a Sunday afternoon.  The list of bandstands still to be filled in the Eastern region looked rather long, and included the one in Colchester Castle Park.  But maybe I'm just being a killjoy, and it will all come together on the day

At half past nine the caretaker put his head round the door in a highly meaningful fashion, and our time was up.  It wasn't a bad evening, but for a three hour event you could have packed a lot more in.

I'm narrowing down the unexplained honey sales at the Show to an amount that the Show Secretary puts within normal variation for her stand at a farmers' market on an ordinary day, not in pouring rain and a sea of mud.  The discovery that 19 slices of honey cake sold at 75 pence a slice had been left off the schedule filled a big part of the gap.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


This morning was my day of reckoning for the Tendring Show beekeepers' stand.  I opened the first cash box and began to count the money.  I can only assume that counting change is something you get better at with practice, as it took me a lot of counting and recounting to be sure I knew how much was in each box.  The notes aren't so bad, but adding up piles of pound coins and columns of twenty pence pieces and devising a system for not muddling up the worth of different heaps, when five pounds is easy to amass in pound coins but would be totteringly unstable in ten pence bits takes a little doing.  Although I say the notes weren't so bad, when I eventually reached a total I was completely confident with and took it to the bank I was abashed at how quickly the woman behind the counter in Barclays flicked through them.

Things started very encouragingly, as the amount we'd taken for sales of honey sweetened fruit drink at 60 pence a cup was exactly divisible by sixty, after I'd deducted my original float from the money in the tin.  Net money taken for colouring in wooden bees at two pounds a go came to a round even number, 49 bees coloured in.  I saved the most difficult box until last, since that was for sales of honey, candles, cakes and the rest of it.  By the time I had to go out to lunch it seemed to me that there was about twenty or thirty pounds more in the tin than I could account for, based on sheets showing what items each member brought and what was left at the end.  The number was still approximate because the selling price of some items hadn't been written down.  I sent off hopeful enquiries to people who were on the stand and might know the answer, and had to defer that particular problem until later.  I remember from my early attempts to train as a Chartered Accountant (a misguided enterprise.  I was bored to a state of idiocy, and showed no particular talent whatsoever) that stock is considered one of the most difficult aspects of accounting.

Lunch was hosted by a great and gracious lady gardener I originally met as a customer at the plant centre.  I'd asked her to lunch a while back, since I liked her and thought she'd get on with my friends, and if you don't risk rebuff by asking you don't meet new people.  Today was the return match.  We had a lovely time sitting in her garden, which is an extremely good one.  She walked us around it after lunch for a brief tour, and the main lesson learned today was the importance of pruning and shaping shrubs.  She likes to keep views open between different areas of the garden, not wide open, but so that from each place you can look through or over each border to the next bit of the garden, and to this end a weeping silver pear was clipped to a neat umbrella, while a purple leaved Cotinus underneath was kept to a tidy dome, and you could see daylight and the view between the two.  The overall effect was extremely relaxed, despite the clipping, because of the quantity of airy self seeders like Thalictrum that were encouraged to drift around and soften the whole.

This evening's entertainment is a free course in organising musical events, run by the National Federation of Music Societies.  If I'm going to be on a music society committee I might as well learn what I'm doing.  Some of the advice will probably apply to the beekeepers as well.  The mystery of the honey sales will have to wait until the morning.

Monday, 16 July 2012

the slime lay piled...the slime and the black slime

It was grey and it rained.  I am beginning to feel like a demented parrot telling you that.  One of the customers yesterday said that she felt like a caged animal, unable to get out into her garden.  In the morning when it was not raining too much (there were even spells when it didn't actually rain, and was just grey, and very humid) I pulled the trees off the tree line, starting at Acer, weeded them, dressed their pots with a layer of fresh compost where needed, and sprinkled them with a pre-emergent herbicide to try and cut down on the weeding.  The wind wasn't very strong, but they still all fell over, once untied from their wooden racks, and I suggested to the manager that we'd better delay the top-dressing and weedkiller stage until we were ready to put them back.

The most time consuming part of my task, apart from making sure that I didn't tread on any of the fallen trees, was scraping the accumulated lichen, moss and slime off the mypex fabric covering the bed.  There was a lot of slime, and it took a lot of scraping.  The manager allowed me to get a head start, then followed behind, pruning the trees where needed to make more balanced heads, and tying them to taller canes if they'd overshot their existing ones.  Or at least that was the plan, but it turned out that we only had five foot canes and had run out of longer ones.  The manager also took the executive decision about which trees to relegate to the half price area.  There's no point in having trees hanging around in the plant centre for too long.  They get potbound so that they will never make decent specimens, and they get too tall to go in people's cars so most people won't buy them anyway.

At lunchtime it rained a lot.  In the afternoon the rain cleared to light drizzle, but by then the manager had discovered that his uniform coat was not waterproof, and was tired of having water dumped down his back by every tree he touched, so I was sent to tidy up the climber tunnel, which entailed putting the clematis back in neat rows, untangling them from each other and trimming off any long shoots so that customers who wanted to buy one could pick up just the one and not half a dozen, and scraping up more slime but on a smaller scale.  I disturbed a large toad, which looked at me worriedly and flopped away across the mypex, making a flubbering sound with each shuffling hop.  It did that typical toad thing of initially moving just far enough away that I couldn't reach or see it, but was liable to disturb it again as I worked along the row.  Toads are not ones for making good their escape into the blue yonder in one headlong rush.

The manager was very excited because one of the customers was a famous person, and gave him her autograph for his children when he asked, and was really nice about it.  I enquired who that was, and it turned out that the pleasant faced woman I'd said good afternoon to through the tree line was Mel Giedroyc.  I had utterly failed to recognise her, having only heard her on Radio 4's Mel and Sue years ago.  I scarcely watch any TV, and the Great British Bake Off passed me by.  I am glad she was nice.  It's always rather disillusioning to discover that someone whose work you have enjoyed is deeply unpleasant in person  (I have never felt quite the same about Cider with Rosie or A Rose for Winter since reading a biography of Laurie Lee).  Anyway, Mel Giedroyc got through the reality test with flying colours, and her husband was equally pleasant.  Even their children were well behaved.  They were on their way home to London from a week on the Norfolk Broads, which would have been enough to try anyone's patience in this weather.

The owners' son showed us the puppies first thing, and I was given one to hold.  It was very sweet, though I was rather worried because it shivered constantly and I thought it might not like me holding it, and then because I thought that it was not at all toilet trained and that it would be difficult to work all day with puppy widdle down my uniform, should there be an accident.  The pea hen did not like the rain, and was eager to come into the shop with her chick, so they spent a large part of the day lurking just outside the shop doors, baby cheeping pathetically, ready to sneak in with any passing customer.  Once inside they made straight for the tea room area, in search of cake crumbs.  It was very cute but not hygienic.  True that as I write I have Our Ginger asleep on the other end of the kitchen table, but this is not a commercial catering establishment, and it's well known that germs off one's own pets are not nearly so dangerous as those from pets in cafes and restaurants.

Addendum  Award yourself an outsize literary brownie point if you can name the poet from whose work today's title is taken.  There is no cash prize, but you are entitled to feel smug.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

plants for a purpose

We made it last night to the music society committee's annual supper, which I was quite convinced I was going to miss, as I never expected to escape from the quagmire in time.  Our route to dinner took us past the show ground, and there was a trail of mud stretching back a couple of miles from the gates.  It was slippery enough to make me return by the alternative route along the A120, which I generally avoid because it is such an accident blackspot (there was another one yesterday morning, seven people injured.  The authorities now admit that the new road markings haven't made it any better).  It was a good dinner.  At eleven the Treasurer remarked that he had better take his wife home, and at half past eleven we all got up from the table. so we got back at midnight.  At quarter past six I had to get up again to go to work.

It was one of those mornings when I thought regretfully that civilized people didn't have to go to work on Sundays, let alone be there by eight.  Happily there wasn't really any watering to do, after yesterday's rainfall and total lack of sunshine.  My task on the manager's list of weekend jobs was to sort out the themed display tables and make sure that the plants on them were all appropriate for the indicated conditions.

The first table was supposed to hold plants to attract bees.  The display included four grasses and two conifers, and around half a dozen box plants, none of which are at all relevant to bees.  I suppose box flowers might be, though I've never noticed any bees on mine, but since most box is kept clipped it doesn't generally get the chance to flower, so the question is academic.  I took everything off the table and started again, with Perovskia, a fancy form of tender lavender, Sedum spectabile, a blue flowered hardy geranium, a purple flowered oregano, Knautia arvensis which is our native field scabious, a couple of asters and some Verbena bonariensis.  The overall display came out purple and blue, but the unifying theme was not in fact colour, but plants that actually produce nectar (unlike the wind pollinated grasses and conifers) with open or shallow flowers that permit bees (which have relatively short tongues) to reach the nectar.  I was gratified to see bees on it almost at once, and again later when somebody bought the Knautia arvensis and one of the Perovskia..

The table of plants with scented leaves included more conifers.  I sniffed them, in case one of my colleagues knew something I didn't, but failed to detect anything except a faint odour of conifer.  There was box too, which does have a scent, but since it is mainly reminiscent of cats' pee (Queen Anne had all the box at Hampton Court ripped out because she disliked the smell) I didn't think that counted.  I dismantled that display as well and reassembled it with a scented climbing rose, a Trachelospermum jasminoides and a Dregea sinensis along the back, two different sorts of rosemary, Buddleia 'Lochinch' which smells of honey, some Dianthus, and a Clerodendron trichotomum.  The scent of this last is a moot point, since if you stick your face into a young plant you mainly get the smell of the foliage, which is more like peanuts than anything else and not especially attractive, unless you are very fond of peanuts.  If you pass by a mature specimen in bloom the sweet scent of the flowers hits you at several paces.

The display of plants for moist or boggy places also contained a large clipped box ball.  Box likes sharp drainage, so that was thoroughly misleading.  I took that away, and replaced it with a Viburnum opulus, which is suitable for moist or even boggy ground according the boss's label.  I hope he's right about the boggy bit, since I've just bought a yellow berried one to go in our wet bed, to replace the shrubs that have drowned there.  Plants for a south facing aspect included several that were happy in part shade, whereas I felt it should showcase things that positively demanded the heat and light, so I evicted the Heuchera and hardy geranium, and brought in a variegated myrtle in full flower, a rosette forming Eryngium and some Sedum.  I was pleased to see the myrtle sell later on, and replaced it with another.

Two customers greeted me who recognised me from a talk I gave last year to their garden club about gardening for bees.  They had bought a jar of honey, and fortunately they said it was very nice.  We had a long discussion about clematis, during which I stuck to my honest opinion that the one they had fallen for although desperately pretty was a tricky and reluctant grower, while suggesting alternatives, and I was pleased when eventually of their own accord they decided to go for a more robust variety.  We got the sale, and I was able to feel I was giving honest and unbiased advice rather than sell, sell, selling.

The owner warned us not to talk or enter into any correspondence with one customer whose mail order parcel had gone astray.  It was signed for by somebody at the next door livery stable, following which the trail goes murky, with the neighbour saying they'd taken it round, and the mail order customer saying they hadn't.  We'd refunded the full cost of the plants and delivery, but the customer was still pursuing us for the name of the courier company and talking about involving the police.  The owner's view was that it sounded like a dispute between neighbours which she did not wish to be drawn into, and that for what it was worth she believed the livery stable owner, having spoken to both parties.  It's a shame.  So many of the people we encounter are pleasant to deal with and grateful for our help, but there are a few bonkers ones.

The pea hen brought her chick into the plant centre.  It has grown a tiny pea fowl style topknot, and can now perch on the edge of flowerpots like its mother.  The two made a charming picture, sitting on adjacent pots outside the shop.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


There was mud.  Really a lot of mud.  Small children and little dogs were in danger of disappearing.  I had to be towed out backwards.  That's it in a nutshell.

It was a pity, because the beekeepers' stand was looking really good this year.  After a panic a couple of weeks ago because there were so few entries for the honey show, members rallied around and we had a good display of jars of honey, ranging in colour from the palest off-white to strong brown, plus candles, cakes, photographs and children's poems.  We had honey, candles and cakes for sale, honey tasting (free), roll your own candles or colour in a wooden cut-out bee for the children, and the displays about beekeeping, bee diseases and things to do with wax were really well organised.  Many years ago when I started helping on the stand they tended to be a bit of a jumble of assorted equipment, but not any more.  The queen bee in the glass fronted observation hive obligingly laid an egg every now and then, though the bumble bees weren't very keen on coming out of their nest to forage in their perspex box of flowers, but that wasn't our fault.  It was a jolly good stand.

As Treasurer I'll know the truth on Tuesday morning, when I sit down with the opening and closing stock takes and the cash and see if I can make them bear any relationship to each other.  As we began to take down the displays I think I stopped someone just in time from moving jars of honey from the show bench to the boxes of unsold honey where they would have been counted in closing stock.

I saw my boss, one of my colleagues plus a former colleague, my old GP who is now retired and growing old disgracefully with great gusto, some neighbours from down the road and the boss's mother's gardener, who was exhibiting some ferrets.  I met some beekeepers I hadn't met before, and caught up with old acquaintances.  It was all very sociable.   I managed to find the organic lavender hand cream stall in the poultry tent (where else would you look for hand cream?) where they cunningly get a free stall by dint of taking some geese along, as they are members of the Colchester Poultry Club.  I saw the Suffolk Punches, which are rarer than giant pandas, and the goats, and the cattle.  I saw a pipistrelle bat and some owls, and had a useful talk with the Essex Wildlife Trust, which I am hoping will help us put up an owl box.  The woman I spoke to was initially very discouraging, even though they had leaflets about owl boxes out on the stand, but I think I eventually convinced her that I really did live in suitable owl country and was not simply delusional.  I saw some rather nice handmade tiles in what used to be the flower tent and is now full of smart shopping opportunities, and had an interesting conversation about tiles with the man on the stand.

Unfortunately awareness of the mud and the state of the car park hung over everything else all day.  The car park was a sea of mud.  Great ruts and waves and crescendos of it.  I even saw a Landrover get stuck.  It took me some time to find my car, staggering through the mud carrying my cash boxes, and then it was not obvious how you got a tow, other than to stand there looking needy, but once I'd stood pathetically by my car in light drizzle for about twenty minutes a tall man from the NHS stand took me in hand, flagged down a tractor, and a terribly polite youthful farmer towed me to the gate.  I was amazed to be off the site by half past five.  I really thought I was going to be there until gone nine.

Friday, 13 July 2012

getting ready for the big day

The Tendring Show ground wasn't looking nearly so bad as I'd feared it would.  The organisers were not allowing exhibitors to drive their own vehicles into the actual show area, instead laying on a shuttle service with four wheel drive farm buggies to help us take our exhibits from the car park to our tents, and towing vehicles that had to be in the show area behind tractors to stop them from getting stuck and then churning up the tracks.  After the beekeepers' Show Secretary worrying that she didn't have enough people to help setting up there seemed to be rather a lot of us there.  Many willing hands and feet trotted back and forth carrying bits of our stand from Roger's Landrover, and helped put up our own tent which we somehow wangle space for next to the marquee that the show organisers give us, then were idle for long periods in which most of us didn't seem to do anything in particular except gossip.  Incidentally, this is remarkably what life inside a beehive looks like.

Order was gradually created out of chaos, with trestle tables, plastic tables, chairs, display boards, boxes of wasps nests and pieces of beekeeping equipment, entries for the photographic competition, posters, a honey extractor, the tiered staging for the honey show, tablecloths, boxes of honey for sale, candle making kits, and wooden bees for children to colour in all swirling around the tents as if caught in some slow moving ocean current, sometimes moving and sometimes coming to rest, until by degrees they all ended up in the right place.

The sun shone.  It was such a relief to have a drying day, after my fears of yesterday.  The main tracks through the ground were badly churned up, and a large load of bark chippings had been dumped at the junction of the show ground and car park to try and staunch the mud, but the bulk of the space though soft was intact, and the public car park looked as though it might stand up to visitors for one day.  I thought I would risk driving up there tomorrow, rather than drag the Systems Administrator out of bed early to take me, and then have a mile walk at the end of the day to somewhere the SA could wait to pick me up, trying not to look as though I had the day's takings in my bag.

I helped carry things, and stuck some laminated photographs and beekeeping articles on to the notice boards, aware that the retired colonel who runs that part of the stand would probably want to rearrange them, and held a step ladder for someone fastening parts of our tent together.  My main concern was that the honey, candles and cakes members were bringing for sale should be correctly recorded at the beginning, so that I would know how much money to pay them at the end, but there seemed to be a pretty good system in place for that, with a proper typed form to write down exactly who had brought what.  I handed over the cash box with holes drilled in the base so that it could be securely screwed down somewhere out of sight, and began to feel that I wasn't contributing much by hanging about, so went home.

At home I checked my own bees, though it was sod's law that just as I got the top off the first hive the sun went in.  It's much easier to see eggs and young brood in decent light.  Still, my main concern in this miserable weather was to make sure they weren't going to starve if rain stopped them foraging for a few days.  All had some honey stored away in their brood boxes, so they aren't in imminent danger of starvation.  I'm scarcely going to get a crop this year, but chatting to my fellow members today nor are most people.

Enjoy the Tendring Show while you can.  Our Show Secretary told me that there isn't a flower tent this year, because the person who organised it for the past couple of decades stepped down, and nobody else would take over.  The basket maker, who used to make baskets in front of your eyes at the show, isn't taking a stand, because he can't compete with the stall in the shopping area selling baskets made in China for a quarter of his price.  But there will be cattle, and sheep, and heavy horses, and goats, and chickens, and fancy rats.  I know there'll be hawks and owls, because they're next to us.  I hope we haven't taken too much of their space with our tent.  There's an enormous NHS tent, though you need to be careful of those.  A colleague's husband had his blood pressure and cholesterol tested at the Tendring Show a few years ago and discovered that both were too high, so has been on a low fat diet ever since.  I'm sure the Colchester Morris Men will be there, since they are every year.  There's a food hall, where you can buy frozen yogurt and rapeseed oil and pies.  There'll almost certainly be working dog displays, and dog agility.  There'll be show jumping.  Bona fide agricultural suppliers will be there, whose stands are not very interesting unless you're a farmer and bona fide potential customer, in which case you can sit on their stand and they will give you a drink and you can talk about fertilisers and top dressing.  There'll be stands selling checked shirts, and walking sticks, and septic tanks, and gravestones, and made to measure kitchens.  You will be able to sign up for the U3A, and the RSPB, and goodness knows how many walking groups, cat protection societies, barge preservation trusts and other good causes, as well as of course the beekeepers.

Tomorrow evening we are going out to supper, an event originally scheduled for Sunday to oblige me so that it didn't clash with the Show, but rescheduled to Saturday because that suited everyone else much better including, crucially, the hosts.  So don't depend on hearing how it was.  It will probably be great, so long as I don't spend the evening stuck in mud in the car park.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

it's a washout

The next lot of rain is coming*.  We've been watching on the rain radar through the day as the big, solid mass of it moved across the UK, due here this evening.  The Systems Administrator told me this morning that I should have at least until six to garden, and the Met Office forecast put its arrival sometime between seven and ten this evening.  I spent the day working on the sloping bed in the back garden, trimming the edges and pulling weeds out of the boggy area, which keeps expanding to take in an ever increasing number of plants.  I tried not to think about the rain, and concentrate on the present moment, but the impending deluge lurked oppressively at the edges of my mind.

Part of the trouble is the Tendring Show, due this Saturday.  It is normally a lovely show and I always enjoy it.  I was planning to give it a miss this year when I found it fell on a working weekend, but then once I volunteered as the Treasurer of the local beekeepers I thought I ought to help on the stand, and booked the day off work specially.  Now I am afraid that the whole thing is going to be a dismal wet mess, and that we will all end up getting stuck in the car park, which is a hay field for the rest of the year, and was already pretty soft even before the latest bouts of rain from what I heard.  We are due at the show ground tomorrow at eleven to help put the display up and I expect that will be a damp and chilly process.

The Systems Administrator has kindly agreed that if the Show goes ahead and the ground looks too wet, I can have a lift there so that I don't have to take my car on to the site on Saturday, and we'll arrange a place for the SA to pick me up at the end of the day.  Traffic around the area tends to be busy on Show days, and the police are brisk about moving it on, so this can't be anywhere very close to the ground.  Probably about a mile away.  Looking at the Met Office forecast it should be raining again by then.

The SA didn't let the chickens out tonight, for fear that the rain would start before they thought it was time to go back in the chicken house (it did).  The last time that happened, the chickens all went and sheltered under the truck, which makes quite a large dry place for them to stand, while the SA had to sit in the porch waiting for them to come out from there and go to bed.

I know that the English are famous for our fixation on the weather, but I can feel myself becoming gently insane on the subject.  Though when I grumbled that at this rate it was going to rain on our garden visiting holiday in September I got rather short shrift from the SA, who has got tickets for several days of cricket in August.  It can't rain forever.  Can it?

*It arrived.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

art and sympathy

I went to London today.  It transpired the other day that a friend I hadn't seen for a while had just lost her job.  Admittedly the people she used to work for always sounded a difficult lot, and past updates on her job tended to be tales of lamentation about missed appraisals and blocked promotions, and she was always on permanent standby 24-7 while being employed and remunerated as a part-timer.  Nonetheless, a job is a job in these hard times, and pays the school fees and keeps one's hand in, and one's feeling of self respect, so I went up to town for a commiseration lunch.  This prodded me into going to see Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain before it shuts this weekend, which I might otherwise not have galvanised myself to do.

We met in Covent Garden so I had time beforehand to nip into the Courtauld to see their Old Master drawings.  The Courtauld Gallery say on their homepage that it is one of the finest small museums in the world, and I think they are probably right, although there are a great many small museums I haven't been to, so who am I to judge.  One of the beauties of the National Art Pass is that it lets you into the Courtauld for free, so that instead of feeling that now you have paid to go in you must try and see everything to get your money's worth, you can stroll in when you have three quarters of an hour to spare and look at part of it.  The current temporary exhibition is taken from their own collection of drawings, from Albrecht Durer to Van Gogh.

Drawing used to form a key part of the discipline of an artist's education, and nowadays one hears the odd explosion of opinion from or in support of people who can draw, such as David Hockney, and against the conceptual artists who can't.  It has been said in defence of Tracey Emin that she can draw.  I'm agnostic on the subject.  It is possible to produce a drawing that is absolutely correct in every aspect of proportion and foreshortening that is nonetheless dull and dead as ditchwater, while the perspective in some great paintings is distinctly wonky, so I'm not sure what 'being able to draw' means exactly.  Possessing a certain combination of manual dexterity, acuteness of observation, and alchemical magic to breath life into a flat piece of paper, I suppose.  Anyway, the Courtauld exhibition is well worth a look.  I particularly liked two merchants by Rembrandt, a heaving sea by Breugel (I think) and a tile factory by Van Gogh, because I found their lines lively and compelling, and I am interested in landscapes and people, but you might have different favourites.  It is well curated, the caption of one drawing that was a copy of another work remarking severely that the right elbow was unresolved, and after looking at it again I thought the Courtauld's expert was spot on, the right elbow was unresolved.  It runs until 9 September, so you've got time to see it, though not so much time, for non-Londoners avoiding the Olympics.

Picasso and Modern British Art felt like slightly hard work.  I think a lot of other people expected it might be, because with four days to go it wasn't full.  I have never been able to get Picasso.  One of the few art books we had at home when I was a child was on Picasso, so I first encountered some of the most famous images at a tender age, and didn't get them.  In my twenties I saw Guernica in a spare hour snatched from an investment meeting in Madrid, and didn't get it.  I don't know why not.  The first time I saw a Gaugin, or a Van Gogh, I was hooked.  Rembrandt's portraits immediately struck me as great.  As a thirteen year old I was grabbed by Giotto (only in reproduction), but I never got Picasso.  I feel inadequate about this each time I read what a great, ground-breaking, insightful, important European artist he was, but I can't help it.  I need the insightful curator's note to explain to me what it is that for me is unresolved, but I haven't found it yet.  The reviews for this exhibition that I saw were mostly rather tepid, but that was because the reviewers were complaining how second rate Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis were, rather than because they didn't get Picasso either.  Anyway, I made the effort, and got some more use out of my Tate membership.

I had a look at Migrations as well.  This exhibition explores British art through the theme of migration from 1500 to the present day.  The main message seems to be that originally foreign artists came to this country to work for rich patrons and produced the sort of art that their employers wanted, chiefly portraits (flattering) of their patrons and the patrons' wives and estates, until the start of the twentieth century, when immigrant and first generation immigrant artists began to produce works about what it meant to be an immigrant.  So about the edgiest things you get are a John Singer Sergent preparatory sketch of a woman with her nose in the air showing too much cleavage and some Tissot girls with chubby chins who might not be completely respectable, until you reach the multi screen video installation of a third world anchorage full of abandoned ships.  That lasts for eight minutes and I enjoyed it, though it is a pity that the room isn't sound proofed, so the accompanying minimalist musical soundtrack with metallic clangs and dog barking also accompanies Canaletto's large speculatively produced painting of the old Horse Guards Parade and all the rest of the exhibition from 1500 to about 1890.  I was not convinced by the four clear plastic tubes with foam coming out of the top, which simply looked like what you would get if you allowed some students armed with washing up liquid too near a fairly cheap water feature, but overall I probably enjoyed this more than Picasso, because it didn't contain any Picasso, and I could sit down for eight minutes in the dark and watch tropical seas lapping the rusting ships while I digested my chocolate fondant.  A two course lunch isn't really a good preparation for an afternoon looking at art.

Addendum  The Lancastrian Lemon Tart was rather good.  Shortcrust pastry and lemon curd you can look up for yourself, if you fancy trying it.  The almond topping as given in the recipe for a ten inch flan dish is 1/4lb of caster sugar stirred into 1/4lb of melted unsalted butter, with 1/4lb ground almonds added, and finally the grated rind of a lemon with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and two size three beaten eggs.  Having made it once I should say that one could usefully up the quantity of almond topping, and that 200 C is too hot an oven.  I made the lemon curd on the day, but as that keeps for a month in the fridge I could have made it well in advance, if I'd been cooking for a party.  It is very rich, and a small slice goes a long way.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

the experimental cook

My parents are coming to supper tonight, and so I have offered to cook.  After some thought I have hit on a chicken dish that can be assembled in advance, and a pudding that is supposed to be nice eaten cold, to avoid having to do anything much in the kitchen once they're here.  I remember the time they arrived early, and I was still making Bird's custard, which seemed to take for ever to thicken as they stood over me next to the Aga, and I wished they would take their drinks and go on a self-directed tour of the garden for ten minutes.  In my anxiety to get it to set I added extra custard powder, and by the time we were ready for pudding the Bird's had the consistency of half-hardened cement.  I should add that I was not making instant custard out of frugality, but because my dad likes it.

This time they are getting a Piedmontese chicken recipe out of the book of the Two Greedy Italians programme.  I have edited down the instruction to use 600ml of white wine to a generous glassful, since most of a bottle of Pinot Grigio sounds excessive to me.  The Systems Administrator uses a glassful in Gary Rhodes' Lancashire hotpot, and it just gives it a little lift.  Chicken pieces are cooked with carrot, celery, bayleaf, peppercorns, slices of lemon and some wine and wine vinegar.  The whole thing can be assembled ages in advance and left to marinade in the fridge, which is where it is at the moment.

Cooking for my parents plus the SA is complicated by the fact that my mother can't eat pips and doesn't like garlic, my father has high cholesterol and is supposed to have a healthy low fat diet, and the SA isn't at all keen on meat dishes with fruit or cinnamon.  I seem to end up rotating through roast chicken, chicken stewed with red peppers or mushrooms, lamb stewed with rosemary, and goulash.  Oh, and there is a Delia recipe for pork with olives, which probably contained garlic in its Spanish homeland, but works without.  Searching through books for a change it's difficult to find something new that can be prepared in advance and won't disagree with someone.  The Piedmontese chicken is supposed to be served with rice, but I might ask the SA to cook that, since I struggle not to make rice sticky when it's for two people, let alone four.

Pudding is an adventure into my file of cookery clippings.  There is a recipe for Lancastrian lemon curd tart, cut out of the FT I know not how many years ago, since I have sloppily omitted to write down the date, or the author.  It is illustrated with a charming detail of Still Life with Game Fowl, Fruit and Vegetables by Juan Sanchez Cotan, which the National Gallery has or had on loan from the Prado.  I have probably had the recipe for at least fifteen years without cooking it before.  It sounds like a good idea.  You blind bake a shortcrust pastry flan base.  Fine, I can do shortcrust pastry.  You cool it completely, fill it with homemade lemon curd, cover it with an almond topping that is basically more lemon curd with almonds in it, and cook it.

Lemon curd is easy, as long as you have a double boiler.  I use a recipe out of the Good Housekeeping book I've had since I was a teenager.  It says on the front cover of roast chicken and other stories by simon hopkinson (his lower case throughout, not mine) that it was voted the most useful cookbook of all time by Waitrose Food Illustrated.  I suppose it might be.  It has five different ways of cooking brains, three things to do with smoked haddock and seven aubergine recipes.  On the other hand, if you want to make a fruit crumble but don't know the recipe for crumble topping, or aren't sure how long to cook a piece of beef for (I suppose nowadays you read the instructions on the plastic wrapping), or want to knock out some scones or mince pies, or like the idea of soup or bubble and squeak given you have some leftovers but don't know where to start, Good Housekeeping is honestly more useful.  It assumes you know nothing, and would like to learn the basics to at least the standard of a competent sixties housewife, which is not a bad place to start.  Nowadays we like our beef rather pinker than they did then, and the list of common scone making faults is enough to send you straight to the cake aisle of Tesco, but it is a good book.  I am fond of it, and refer to it oftener than I do to simon hopkinson, though his works better as food porn.

I'll tell you what the lemon tart is like when we've eaten it.  Preliminary observations are that it is difficult to tell when almond sponge over lemon curd is done, and that the 200 degrees C cooking temperature given for the sponge in the newspaper is too high. I'd set a timer for a lot less than it said, but was following my nose and found I had to move it to a much cooler oven after eleven or twelve minutes. The edges of the pastry have caught, but they were bound to, given they were twice cooked.  I'll trim them off when the tart has cooled.  Lemon tarts in restaurants never have crusts.  Next time I'll know not to bother to cover the rim of the tin, if I do it again, though an edge might help stop the thing collapsing during cooking.  I think it looks just edible enough that I won't dash down to the shop for a bought pudding instead.  Fingers crossed.