Friday, 31 August 2012

the reluctant valet

Today, I finally cleaned my car.  When I say finally, I mean I had never got round to washing it since last winter.  The almost non-stop rain was starting to rinse some of the winter's filth off it, but it got a lavish fresh coating when I had to be towed out of the mud at the Tendring Show, and it does get pretty dusty living in the middle of a lettuce farm.  What finally made me admit that I was going to have to clean it, however, was when I had to put a clean towel over the front passenger seat before the Systems Administrator could sit in it to go to the At Home, and another over the back seats so that we could lay our tidy coats down on them.

I don't like cleaning the car.  You might have guessed that.  I could give Rowan Pelling a run for her money in the procrastination stakes when it comes to automobile valeting.  I don't scrimp on the mechanicals, and it goes to be serviced by a proper Skoda garage at the prescribed intervals, and has its little service book stamped, and everything.  I just don't like cleaning it.  There are so many better ways for a sentient adult to spend an hour of their lives than vacuuming cat hair and fragments of leaves and compost off the inside of a Skoda.  The Skoda garage at Little Clacton is excellent, and I can warmly recommend them, but they don't keep their service fees down to the level that they do by chucking in free valeting when the car goes for its 40,000 mile check-up and oil change.

My car leads a hard life.  By putting towels over the back seats I can fit up to ten bags of weed-infested garden waste in it to go to the dump, and frequently do, or ten 30 litre bags of loose bag-your-own mushroom compost.  It had plants in the boot, all over the back seat and in the rear foot well to go to my last garden lecture, plus a large yellow berried viburnum in the front passenger foot well.  That did get slightly in the way of the handbrake at times.  I probably really ought to drive a small van, except that there are occasions when I want to carry more than one passenger, and I'm not very good at reversing, so need all the windows I can get to see where I'm going when I'm going backwards.

A ridiculous amount of cat fur collects on the seats, given that the cats very rarely go in the car.  It comes off my clothes, of course.  I don't understand why car manufacturers cover their seats, and the insides of their cars, in a mixture of fabrics all of which seem designed to attract and retain cat hair.  I jab at each one furiously with the vacuum nozzle, holding it over them, scraping it against the fabric to try and loosen the hairs, and they remain stuck, one end waving in the flow of air while the other stays obstinately embedded in the car seat, or door lining.  The carpets are just as bad.  As I try to vacuum up the grass seeds I can see them digging themselves into the upholstery.  Actually, they have evolved to do that as a method of distributing themselves, whereas the cat has no evolutionary advantage that I can think off in sending samples of its fur to populate a distant place.  Our vacuum cleaner doesn't have a thin nozzle for doing down the sides of the seats, or if it did we've lost it, so even when I'd vacuumed up as much dirt as possible I could still see lines of fluff, dust and seeds in all the narrow crevasses that I couldn't reach.  I managed to scrape some out with my finger, and gave up.

Then I turned my attentions to washing the car, and discovered that we'd run out of car shampoo.  I wasn't going to stop, having started, so decided that Ecover washing up liquid would have to do.  I had a vague feeling that there was some reason why you weren't supposed to use domestic detergent, but on the basis that Ecover is supposed to be kind to your septic tank, and barely has any active ingredients in it at all, I didn't think that it was going to rot the bodywork, or at least not as much as a year's worth of salt and road dirt already were.  I washed the car, and rinsed it with the hosepipe, and as it dried began to suspect that the reason why you don't wash cars using washing up liquid is that it streaks.  Never mind.  I found some glass cleaner and cleaned the inside of the windscreen, which was very smeared since I rub the condensation of it on cold mornings starting up, so that I can see.  The Systems Administrator will not me do that in the other vehicles, and screams faintly if I put my hands anywhere near the inside of the windscreen, but they are not so damp as my car.  What with all the compost and the plants it does get rather moist inside, poor thing, and sometimes on sunny and windy days I leave the tailgate open so that it can air.  Of course the cats then climb inside, so in alleviating one problem I exacerbate another.

I even remembered that the windscreen wash had run dry the last time I used it, and topped that up with a solution of Halford's finest.  Then I put some clean kitchen roll in the pocket of the driver's door for the next time I need to wipe the inside of the windscreen.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

late harvest

I took the honey crop off the bees today.  I'm terribly late, and I should have done it a fortnight ago, but I was so pleased that there was finally some sunny weather and the bees were flying, I wanted to give them as much time as possible to gather a bit more nectar and finish processing it, in the hopes that I'd get at least a few jars of honey.  I grow quite a few late summer flowering bee plants in the garden, so this wasn't an entirely fanciful idea, though I don't know if they really brought in much more in the past couple of weeks.

The deadline is imposed, not by the requirements of the honey harvest per se, but by the fact that I'm applying a varroa treatment that can't be given until honey destined for human consumption is removed, requires a maximum daytime temperature of fifteen degrees centigrade to work properly, and takes four weeks.  If September is chilly then the medication may not be fully effective during the latter part of the treatment period.  Then after the varroa treatment is finished you need to feed the bees for the winter, and again cold weather could be a problem, as then they won't take sugar syrup.  To be on the safe side I've bought a box of fondant paste, just in case the weather has turned against us by late September.  You can put fondant on as an emergency feed in February, so I'm sure they'll manage to take it down in October, if needs be.

The treatment consists of a tray of gel which contains something toxic to the mites, but not bees, or indeed humans.  The only reason for not giving it while there is a honey crop on the hive is that the gel could affect the taste.  You peel the lid off the tray and put it on top of the brood frames for a fortnight, then repeat the exercise with a second tray.  The bees don't like the smell very much, and can get rather tetchy, or even abscond, which makes me nervous about using it.  On the other hand, varroa infestation can destroy a colony and there aren't many good medications about, since the mites developed resistance to the one in general use when I started beekeeping.  I've used this gel before and the bees stayed put, but friends used it and their bees simply left home, so it's a bit nerve-wracking.

In order to make room for the tray of gel on top of the brood nest, you need to lift the crown board slightly.  Last time I used extra super boxes, the ones the bees put honey for harvest in, but that meant emptying out the frames and storing them in cardboard boxes for a month, which wasn't ideal.  The best place for spare frames is inside a closed beehive, a mouse-proof, insect-proof wooden box where they can't get broken or infested with unwelcome inhabitants.  You can buy purpose-made, low square sections from beekeeping suppliers which they call ekes, presumably from the same root as the term 'to eke out' something in short supply.  The Systems Administrator says that eke is used as a noun in carpentry, meaning an extra fillet of wood used in an unobtrusive place to make something fit together.  The flat pack self assembly eke kit seemed a lot of money for four smallish bits of wood, so I bought one to use as a template, and the SA built me some more out of decking offcuts.  This turned out to be a fiddly job due to not having enough clamps of the right size, but was not intrinsically complicated.

The mite-killing fumes need to linger inside the beehives, so I had to move them from their usual floors made of metal mesh on to solid wooden ones.  The idea of the mesh floor is that any varroa mite that drops off the bee it's holding on to will fall through the floor and out of the hive, before it can climb back on to another bee.  I've been using them for three or four years now, and the bees seem quite happy on them, even in the winter.  I did worry that it would make the hive too cold for them, but they don't seem to mind, and the mesh floor does prevent condensation building up.  Luckily when I made the switch I kept the wooden floors.

The honey extraction didn't take long, alas, because there wasn't very much of it.  There'll be enough for me to eat (the SA isn't especially keen on honey, or sweet spreads generally) and give a few jars to close friends and relations, but certainly none for sale.  A little honey had solidified in the comb, but most spun out in the centrifuge.  It is a medium coloured honey in show terms, a nice mid brown, with quite a strong flavour.  I'm very partial to it.  I stored the supers and combs away as soon as I'd finished extracting, layering them with newspaper and lining up each box exactly with the one below it, finishing the pile with a wooden crown board and a lid.  With earlier extractions I would put the boxes outside for the bees to take what I can't, but now it's the wasp season, and I don't really want wasps crawling all over the combs.  I need to get the bees to clean them at some stage, as I want them to take the granulated honey down into the brood box and clear the combs for me, but I'll put them on a hive that's going well next spring.

Nothing to do now for two weeks, except hope that the bees don't dislike the varroa treatment so much they move out.  If you are thinking of taking up beekeeping please don't follow my example in this case.  Like I said, I should have done everything two weeks earlier.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

art and culture

I went to London today, for a culture fix.  The trains were very quiet, Paralympics notwithstanding (though those Olympic mascots are truly dreadful.  Whoever thought that a thing like a cross between a Teletubby and a giant penis was an appropriate representation of the Olympic spirit should seek professional help). The Olympics are responsible for one cultural gem, the presence on loan in the British Museum until 9th September of the Motya charioteer.

This is a Greek victory statue of an athlete, believed from his robe to be a charioteer.  It was created around 480 to 470BC, and is a thing of great beauty and erotic power.  A muscular young man, arms now sadly missing, face and crotch somewhat chipped, stands in a triumphant pose, hand on hip, while the other arm would originally have been raised to adjust his laurel crown.  His charioteer's robe is a softly fluted, full length garment, intended to cling revealingly to the sweat-soaked body beneath, and the sculptor has shown how the young man's fingers press into the folds of fabric, and the swell of every magnificent muscle.  He is well worth catching before he disappears back to his small museum in western Sicily.  You will find him with the Elgin marbles.

Also on show, and also free, is an enjoyable exhibition about the horse, starting with the earliest records of horses being domesticated in the near East, initially as draught animals and later ridden, which progresses via the role of the horse in the Islamic world to the racing stables of the eighteenth century, finishing with the modern Olympics.  It is not a big exhibition, but there are some interesting things, including some beautiful mughal miniatures.  That's in room 35, which is in the upper part of the reading room, and is on until the end of next month.

On display until 2nd September is a complete set of Picasso's Vollard Suite.  No, I hadn't heard of it until I read that the museum had recently managed to acquire the prints through the generosity of a donor.  It consists of a set of 100 etchings, made in the 1930s, exploring classical themes, of artist, muse and minotaur.  Many of them were made when Picasso was enjoying an affair with his latest muse and model, a girl not much over a third of his age when they first met.  I have admitted before that I struggle with some of Picasso's paintings, but he was a wonderful draughtsman.  Having just typed about eight different attempts to explain why these etchings are so good, and erased all of them because they sounded so ridiculous, I suggest you high-tail it to room 90, at the back of the museum and up the stairs past the Chinese porcelain, and see for yourself.  If you have twenty-five quid to spare you could buy the catalogue.  I didn't, having a rule only to do so when the show relates to art and landscape, because one has to draw the line somewhere with books, but I should have liked to.

The British Museum has been absolutely on top form for several years now, and if I were retired and lived in London I'd go every week.  There is always something interesting.  Their temporary exhibitions are consistently the best curated of all the galleries I visit, and it would take a lifetime just to look at the permanent collection.  The Chinese porcelain is lovely, if you're passing.

Then I went to see the paintings from the Clark Art Institute at the RA.  This ends on 23rd September, so I wanted to squeeze it in before we go on holiday.  Sterling and Francine Clark were blessed with a good eye for a painting, and a great deal of money, and built up a very nice collection including many fine Impressionist paintings, which they gifted to an art gallery.  The RA has borrowed a hunk of the collection wholesale, which must be a great deal easier than having to scout round a couple of dozen different owners to put a show together.  There are still lives, landscapes, seascapes, portraits and genre paintings.  We all have our favourites when it comes to art exhibitions, so I found Toulouse Lautrec's downcast young woman, waiting alone at a table with her drink in front of her, more interesting than Renoir's sugary ingenues, but you might disagree.  It is a lovely exhibition, and I had a look at it, then went and found something to eat in the form of a piece of vastly expensive Royal Academy cafe pie, then returned for a second look.

I don't like the RA so much as the British Museum.  For the past three years my mother has kindly paid for me to be a Friend, during which time they have vastly jacked the price up, while introducing the requirement for Friends to book tickets for the most popular events.  It's ninety quid nowadays, which for a country member who isn't going to get up to London all that often equates to a lot of money per exhibition, and if I'd wanted a little booklet for today's show they'd have charged me another £2.50.  Compared to way the Tate treats its supporters I think the RA is taking the piss.  That is not my mother's fault, I hasten to add.  She asked me which one I'd like to support, and I opted for the RA, but back then it cost a third less, and you could walk in to the Van Gogh exhibition on a whim, whereas by the time it got to David Hockney and Degas you had to commit in advance.  However, the current exhibition is delightful, and worth a visit if you can make it.

Addendum  My naturalist friend reported back on the expert opinion on the dead beetle.  It was a female stag beetle.  She died recently, of natural causes, and the teeth on her front legs showed signs of wear, indicating that she had fulfilled her biological role and laid some eggs somewhere.  She weighed 0.96 grammes.  I think the Colchester Natural History Society were interested to have the confirmed sighting, which tells them something new about the distribution of stag beetles in this part of Essex.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

of bees and beetles

I was woken at half past midnight by a vixen barking close to the house.  There was enough suspicion of background kerfuffle that I put on my dressing gown and went down to check that she was in the wood, and not attempting to break into the chicken house.  The chickens were sitting on their perch, looking rather fluffed up and vigilant, but there was no sign of the fox.  A vixen's scream is an unearthly sound, and if you were not used to it I suppose you could convince yourself that it was an exotic animal such as a lion.  On the other hand, if you are a resident of St Osyth rather than a visitor staying in the caravan park you will be fully familiar with foxes.

The national newspapers had by this morning decided that there was definitely not a lion, and ran grainy photos of what did look awfully like a fat ginger cat.  I don't think it can have been Our Ginger, since he never leaves the premises, but he must have sprung from somewhere, so maybe he left relatives behind him.  The Telegraph's principal suspect is a ginger Maine Coon called Teddy Bear.  The East Anglian Daily Times stuck with a photograph of a real lion with resplendent mane, doing a Metro Goldwyn Mayer roar.

When I went down to water the conservatory I found a large black beetle, lying dead on its back on the floor.  It was so big I wondered whether it could be a female stag beetle, so put it in a cook's size matchbox to show to a friend who is a member of the Colchester Natural History Society, and has a friend who is an expert on stag beetles.  Finding a live stag beetle would have been more exciting, on the other hand I don't think they live long in their adult state, after spending several years as a larva.  I suppose, therefore, that instead of thinking of the larva as a stage towards producing an adult, it would make as much sense to think of adults as a necessary stage to produce more larvae.

My naturalist friend is a fellow beekeeper, and we were due to meet in the afternoon at another beekeeper's house to see his bees.  One bee honestly looks much like another, but this chap uses what are called top bar hives.  Instead of giving the bees wooden frames filled with wire and sheets of wax and inviting them to build combs in controlled sizes which he then takes out and inspects regularly, he just gives them boxes with wooden bars across the top, and leaves them to build comb as they please.  He doesn't inspect them regularly, or try to stop them swarming, though he does monitor for disease.  They swarm.  Boy, do they swarm.  He gets a lot of new bee colonies, but not much honey, which suits him since his intention is to make more bees.  He catches the swarms and gives them to other beekeepers who want them.

Top bar beehives are popular in the developing world, because they are simple and cheap to make compared to a western beehive, though I don't know how the beekeepers cope with the high ratio of swarms to honey, given that development charities always talk about the value of honey to them as a cash crop.  Our friend had two sorts, a tall hive with a square cross section made of several stacking boxes, and a long hive shaped like a manger.  Both had glass windows in the sides, normally protected by little wooden doors, which he removed so that we could peer inside.  He also had a little nucleus colony in a mini-manger shaped hive, and he took the roof off this one and removed one bar with its crescent of comb hanging below so that we could see it, suspending it from a little wooden frame brought out for that purpose.  It is essential that you don't tip comb that's just hanging from a piece of wood, as if you don't keep it vertical it will break, and I thought that learning to handle a top bar hive would in my case mean unlearning a lot of deeply ingrained habits.

My Colchester naturalist friend, our host and his wife were all sure that my beetle was a female stag beetle.  My friend has hung on to it to show it to the expert, so we await the definitive verdict.  It would be great to have stag beetles about the place.  North Essex is a hotspot for them, indeed oak leaves with a male stag beetle are the emblem of the Colchester Natural History Society, so it isn't totally unlikely.

Monday, 27 August 2012

elegy for a peachick

Flicking the kitchen radio on as I dished out cat food this morning I was surprised to hear the Today programme announce that police were hunting a reported lion in Essex (Nobody said there would be lions.  The children were startled).  Essex is a large county, so I was more surprised when they said that it had allegedly been seen near St Osyth.  That is quite close to home.  Apparently several witnesses claimed to have seen it, and there were photographs which an expert from the Colchester zoo had looked at and pronounced genuine.  Today also mentioned that the lion already had its own Twitter feed.  I thought that on balance there was probably not a lion, but you never know.

At work there was a more tangible animal disaster in the making.  The peahen was wandering about alone, without her chick, honking terribly.  She has always been a diligent mother, keeping each chick with her until it is nearly a year old and time for her to move on to the next clutch of eggs, and you never saw mother and child apart for more than a couple of minutes.  As the day wore on and the chick failed to appear the peahen's cries diminished, but we all thought the fox must have had it in the night.  Poor thing.  It had grown to about the size of a chicken and was just starting to show a little blue in the feathers of its neck, and we were saying only yesterday how much it looked like its mother in miniature.  Still, she has already raised two chicks to adulthood, one male and one female, so in evolutionary terms she has done her quota to keep the world peafowl population stable.  I'm sorry for her, though, and it's a shame about the baby.  It was a jolly little thing, perching on the big flowerpots outside the shop and coming in to steal cake crumbs.

The tea room franchisees can arrive not a moment too soon.  They take over on September 10th, when it will be like the relief of Mafeking.  My colleague who knows how the cappucino machine works had just set off for her (unpaid) lunch break when I had to call her back to serve in the tea room, then twenty minutes into her lunch break I had to call her again, and a third time before her half hour was decently up, given that she'd already been interrupted half way through.  The manager doled out some cake at various points, but couldn't work the machine, and I have never been trained to work it either, and went on strike today about participating in the tea room at all, on the grounds that I had so much compost on my clothes that it was simply preposterous.  One couple got so bored of waiting when the designated tea room operative of the day went up to the office to send a fax that they gave up and left.

Their plans sound great.  They are going to do quiche of the day, and panini, and soup, and cream teas, and get a freezer and do ice creams (which the staff have suggested to the owners several times but they've always refused point blank).  The owner is apparently talking about installing a wooden floor by Christmas, which would make the whole thing look more welcoming and cut down the noise, which is a problem at the moment.  I hope the handover is not too fraught, since I gather from the manager that the new people were under the impression that they were taking the sparky girl on to cover weekends, whereas she doesn't seem to have been offered the job, and in any case has got herself a full time job at the new Patisserie Valerie that's opening in Ipswich. Given she has spent three years at catering college and has ambitions, a full time job with the national roll-out of a successful chain is going to be much more use to her than being the Saturday girl for the garden centre outlet of a very small family catering business.

There was no milk first thing in the tea room fridge, and my colleague went up to the house to raid the kitchen.  She thought she had shut the door behind her, since the dogs were locked in there, but she couldn't have latched it fully, and both dogs escaped and ran round the house for the rest of the day while the owners were out.  The puppy is not house trained, and late in the afternoon the boss came on the radio wanting to know who had let the dogs out, because the puppy had weed over the carpets.  It escaped into the plant centre later on, but I took it back inside, since it hasn't had all of its vaccinations and shouldn't meet other dogs, or wander about in the car park by itself.  Also it shouldn't wee in the tea room.  It is a very cute little thing, with great fringes of hair round its ears.

Trade today was surprisingly brisk.  I say surprisingly because August is generally quiet, and Saturday was dire.  We all did our bit running around and helping people find things.  I reckon my efforts sent a large holly and a Callistemon past the till and out of the door that otherwise wouldn't have been sold, but as always the big variable is footfall plus stock availability.  On Saturday people just didn't come in.  Today they did.

The manager was busy stock taking various categories as the boss is gearing up to place our orders for next spring, which meant that as the day went on we had to write down more of what we sold.  This creates delays for customers, but they were all very nice about it.  I recognised one couple as having one of the spraunchiest gardens at the Chelsworth Open Gardens, and asked them if that wasn't their garden I'd seen.  They demurred and said it wasn't that good, but anybody who lavishes that much effort and expense on a garden can surely only be pleased to hear it remembered and praised when they go shopping for plants, and they called a cheery goodbye to me as they left.  They bought the last of a line of really rather nice small Clethra that I'd been quite tempted by myself, after taking it along to last week's talk and getting no takers for it.

In the car on the way home I learned that the police had decided that there probably wasn't a lion.  I wouldn't be surprised if there is something, though.  We've had reports in recent years of some kind of large cat at Wivenhoe, and sightings of a beast at Elmstead Market.  The witness to the beast of Elmstead was gloriously reported in the local paper as saying that My wife and children saw it using binoculars, a phrase which has passed into family use.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

people watching

We gave the sparky girl a card signed by most of the people who work at weekends, and a mug.  It was a modest leaving party, with just three people at it, but it showed that we cared.

Alan Bennett enjoys sitting in the lobbies of provincial hotels, so he says.  Not doing anything or talking, just listening and watching.  He'd enjoy standing at the till of a garden centre on a quiet Sunday in August.  The first notable customer was a woman who is a regular though not frequent visitor.  She lives in Wales, but her parents, aged 95 and 94, live just around the corner.  She finds the plant centre a peaceful place to call in to, every now and then.

She is a woman that at first sight you might laugh at, if you were the sort of person who writes clever, cutting articles about lifestyle and fashion.  She is probably somewhere in her late sixties, with untidy hair, an amount of blue eye shadow that would have been too much for me back in the 1970s when blue eye shadow was in fashion and I was in my teens, and a hippyish taste in ethnic bags and scarves.  She is very short, and walks with a stick.  Her hands are swollen with arthritis, or some ailment that turns your hands into rosy, shiny lumps.  She has needed operations on her legs, the last of which left her with deep vein thrombosis, and is still forbidden by her doctor to drive long distances, so she came from Wales to Suffolk by train.  She does not like the change from Paddington to Liverpool Street by underground, and nobody she knows in London was available to help her, so she travelled the long way round, via Birmingham, Peterborough, Ely and Ipswich, which took her eight hours.  When she arrives her parents need help with all sorts of things.  They are fiercely resistant to accepting other help, or changing their house or habits or the way that they live.  Her mother has started to have falls.

I don't know this customer's name, but she is always cheerful.  She doesn't moan about the fact that it took her an exhausting eight hour journey to get here, or that her duties are pretty onerous when she arrives, after which it takes her another marathon trip to get back.  We chatted about how nice the walled garden is, and she told me about her garden in Wales, and how it is full of wildlife, but doesn't meet the neighbour's standards of tidiness.  She was planning to call again later in the week.  She limped off, with her stick and her dodgy hair, back to the domestic chores.

The second notable customer was also short and mobility impaired (and with really seriously bad long frizzy hair, if you are taking a Hannah Betts or Hilary Rose view), and walked bent double with the aid of a frame on wheels that she pushed in front of her.  She was with her husband, a tall, patient man with a sad and anxious expression, who bought a climbing rose.  He suggested they could go to a National Trust property, but she replied in the tone of voice that doesn't brook any discussion that they would all be crowded.  They took a table in the tea shop and he was sent up to the counter to order.  She called across the room to the sparky girl to ask whether she could have a latte and the sparky girl said yes, we did latte.  She asked her husband what he was having, and then pointed out to him that there was a list of what was available, repeating twice with real venom that it was there, look, right in front of him.  He said that he was just putting his glasses on so that he could see and that he would have an ordinary coffee, then stood leaning against the counter, staring into the distance with a defeated expression and slowly removing his glasses again, while the sparky girl loaded up his tray.  If tonight he strangles the companion of his bosom I will act as a character witness that he was treated to an extraordinary public display of casual contempt by his late spouse.

Later on a customer came in who I don't think was at my talk last Tuesday, but might as well have been, as she was buying foliage plants to liven up her border.  She had some Carex in her trolley, a vine, and a Paulownia, and she asked my advice about stooling the Paulownia, which is how I discovered that she was specifically interested in foliage.  Perceptive woman.  We naturally warm to people whose ideas and opinions coincide with our own.

As we went up to the house at the end of the day with the tills and our telephones and radios, the owners had just returned from their holiday.  They didn't come rushing through to say hello to us, but one of my colleagues heard the boss say that somebody had trampled mud up the stairs.  She had a nasty suspicion it was not mud, but something to do with the peacocks.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

relief in sight

The owners of the plant centre have franchised out the tea room.  That is such a massive relief.  A total result.  Thank you, God.  Each time I washed my hands then made tea and served slices of cake, wearing my compost covered shirt and with dirt engrained under every finger nail, I was waiting for the customer to turn out to be an environmental health inspector.  Instead the tea room is going to become the responsibility of a young couple currently running one close by, whose lease is expiring.  They are going to serve savoury food as well as cake, which will please all those customers who don't like cake, or don't feel like it as a substitute for lunch.  There will be a smiling face all the time behind the tea room counter, ready to dish out refreshments when the mood for cake strikes.  At the moment, standing behind the plant centre till, you can see customers warm to the idea of cake, look around trying to work out who is supposed to serve it, remember that cake is fattening and that if they wait for a cup of coffee until they get home they could save £3.50 a head, and give up on the idea.  Altogether putting the tea room under the full-time charge of people who understand catering and aren't trying to multi-task in the plant centre is an excellent idea.

It's a shame about the sparky girl, who will not be staying on, but since she has not merely already found another job, but already started it, she should be OK.  Working for us at weekends was never a career anyway, more of a post-college CV filler and modest earner.  She was nice to have around, and we'll miss her.  Even while holding down two jobs she found the time to make a farewell box of cupcakes for the staff room.  I predict a bright future for her, and wouldn't be at all surprised if in five or six years she suddenly bobbed up as the new face of UK television cookery, or something.

I left work early, by prior arrangement, to get ready to go to an At Home.  It was the first time we had ever been invited to one, though I have seen cards for them on the owner's desk.  I think they belong to a slightly more Upper section of the middle classes than the bit we belong to.  The Systems Administrator and I don't give At Homes, nor have I ever possessed a set of postcards with my name and address printed across the top.  Entertainments at our house are either coffee, lunch, tea, or supper, and when I send postcards they are from art galleries, or the Penguin one hundred book covers boxed set.

We decided that At Home from 6.00pm translated as drinks and nibbles, and so it did.  Our host was one of the music society committee members, and there were lots of faces there that I recognised from the concerts, and lots more I recognised from the plant centre, and many I knew from both.  The boss's parents were there, and the woman who works in the office, and a former colleague from the plant centre who lives next door.  Our hosts occupy the house once owned by Randolph Churchill (son not father), which is a fine building in itself, and has one of the best views in Suffolk, straight up the vale to Dedham church, which providence has kindly placed exactly the right amount off centre, not in the middle of the view.

Neither of us are very good at small talk, and it was more difficult for the SA, who didn't recognise so many faces, but we made a creditable shot at mingling.  Generally, with groups of people you don't know well, you don't have to see them many times before you start feeling you know each other well enough to sustain a ten minute conversation without it feeling like an effort.  We lasted two hours, by which time the At Home was starting to wind down.  Back at our home we had to change straight out of our party clothes, before they could get covered in cat hair.

Friday, 24 August 2012

cutting a dash

The lawn had got very long and whiskery, as the Systems Administrator who nowadays cuts the grass was first of all ill, and then at various cricket matches, and today wanted to go to the Clacton Airshow to see the Red Arrows.  I once went to the Farnborough Airshow with some stockbrokers, and as I stood at the edge of the tarmac listening to the scream of the engines of a row of harrier jump jets hovering approximately three metres off the ground in front of me, I thought that this came close to hell on earth.  Airshows are not for me.  I really don't like the noise, and I am not terribly interested in aeroplanes.

However, it dawned on me that I could cut the grass myself, before the next band of rain turned up.  The last few days had dried it out nicely, and as rain was forecast for tonight and tomorrow, with showers lasting into next week, cutting it while it was dry and before it got even longer seemed a good idea.  For years I was in charge of mowing the lawn, after I gave up full time work and the SA was still commuting.  However, since then the cutter deck of the lawn tractor I knew how to drive collapsed through old age and overwork, and we have a new one.  I got the SA to give me a quick course before going out in how the current model worked, and decided that after lunch I'd give it a go.  The worst that could happen seemed to be that I failed to start it at all, or that it stopped working somewhere in the garden and I had to leave it there until the SA came home.  I could have frozen with fear half way across the lawn and ploughed helplessly through a flower bed before coming to rest in a hedge, or put one wheel up a bank and turned it over, but I didn't think I was going to.  The basics of driving one lawn tractor must be much the same from one model to another, and after all, I do have a degree in horticulture, and ought to be able to master a lawnmower.

When I was a child our neighbours in Devon had one, and I wanted one quite intensely.  It was an odd craving, for a child who was not otherwise interested in machinery, or cars, but I thought a drive-on lawnmower was quite the most marvellous, desirable thing.  As an adult I am still rather of that opinion.  It turns out that our new one is much nicer than its predecessor.  Instead of having five fixed gears, plus reverse, which were always quite clunky to get in and out of, it has hydraulic transmission which gives infinitely variable speeds in forward and reverse.  Out of habit I was still disengaging the cutting blades before putting it into reverse, because you had to with the old one or it stopped, but when I checked afterwards with the SA I discovered that not merely do you not have to do that with the new one, but it will cut while going backwards.  For finishing off odd little corners this could be very convenient.  We try not to have not too many small and awkward areas of grass, but there are some, as well as those bits of the lawn where it gets to  its widest, and after doing all the rest you are left with a mohican tuft in the middle and have to go round again.  Also compared to the old one the new machine has a very tight turning circle.  Altogether it is great fun, though I will be happy for the Systems Administrator to remain in charge of lawn mowing for the most part, just because I don't have time to do everything else as it is.

I put the clippings into the thinnest stretches of the boundary hedge in the front garden.  It is a bit of a fiddle, dropping big handfuls of grass into the hedge, especially when it is poking you in the face, but worth the effort.  I used to do that cutting the meadow, in the days when I used to mow the grass.  Grass clippings are rich in nitrogen, and act as a mulch to suppress the growth of the grass growing in the base of the hedge, so while you must be careful not to pile them against the stems, they do help improve thin soil and reduce competition from weeds.  I don't want to put them on the compost heap, thought they would be very useful in terms of helping all the ivy prunings to rot down, because they contain too many weed seeds, but if any plantains fancy their chances under the hedge they're welcome to it.

There was some good news on the plant front, after the woe of the suspected phytophthora.  A pair of Photinia serratifolia, that I planted in the front garden to try and hide the electricity pole, are finally growing.  P. serratifolia is a tall-growing evergreen, remarkably drought tolerant once established, or so my books said.  It has glossy mid green leaves, handsome red buds and copper young foliage, and generally looks like a more statuesque and classier 'Red Robin'.  The electricity pole is not pretty, but necessary if we want electricity, since I can't see the electricity company agreeing to come and bury the wires.  The pole itself has a certain post-industrial charm to it, reminding me of a walk we took past an abandoned mine in the Lake District, and tangentially of Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas, but the bright yellow markers the company put on the guy wire a couple of years ago are irredeemably ugly.  I thought about taking them off again, but decided that a large, evergreen shrub to mask the whole thing was the answer.  Pyracantha, with its evil, festering, prickles seemed too mean to anyone working on the pole, and the Photinia sounded just the job.  Sounded but wasn't.  I kept watering the plants, and they kept dying back and producing only miserable little leaves half the size they were supposed to be.  They didn't like the cold winters either.  Now, suddenly, after the wet summer, they have started to grow.  They have made new twigs, and the leaves look large, fat, healthy and happy.

The SA saw the Red Arrows and a Sea King helicopter, but says the air show was a fraction of its former self.  The organisers would have to pay, to get the vintage planes to come, and they can't afford it.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

rose, thou art sick

Two large branches of the Grevillea rosmarinifolia were completely dead, and I sawed them out.  Quite a large portion of the rest of the plant doesn't look too good, and if that dies too I shall be left with something very oddly shaped, and will be faced with a hard decision.  I am really not sure why it has started ailing in the past few months.  My records show that it was planted in March 2003, and according to Plant Database it can take eleven to fifteen years to reach its ultimate height, suggesting it isn't normally short lived.  It is an evergreen shrub, with leaves that look very like those of rosemary, though the resemblance is superficial: the grevillea leaves are sharp to the touch, whereas rosemary is soft.  It has unusual, long red flowers through much of the year (when it is doing well) that are attractive to insects.  Until it began to look poorly it was growing vigorously, and was a good couple of metres tall and wide, if not larger, and densely bushy and leafy.

It comes originally from Australia, and is a member of the protea family.  It is supposed to love sunshine and to be drought tolerant, and so it has proved with me.  Its cold hardiness must have been tested in the nine years I've had it, but it has come through until now.  Knowing that many proteas are unable to cope with  high levels of some nutrients I have always been nervous of feeding it.  The question now is what is wrong?  Were those two very cold nights in February too much for it?  The previous two winters were long, but probably didn't go down that low, and certainly the thermometer didn't drop that quickly.  Does it need feeding, even though it is in the family Proteacae?  Is Plant Database over optimistic about its normal lifespan?  I don't know Plant Database.  Hunting around the web for cultural advice (and a description so that I could post a link) I found that the RHS didn't have much to say on the subject, mainly featuring some of the named varieties.

The Magnolia grandiflora in the back garden doesn't look too good either.  Most of the leaves went bronze and then dropped, and now there is a dark oozing patch at the base of the trunk.  I spent some time last night leafing through my copy of Diagnosis of ill health in trees, and I am pretty sure that it has sat too wet over the summer, and that phytophthora has now taken hold.  The book tells you what environmental problems and diseases each plant species is especially liable to, as well as listing diseases with symptoms, and the signs I've observed exactly fit the bill, while it has been exceptionally wet.  Phytophthora covers a group of plant pathogens, similar to fungi but technically Oomycetes, whose spread is facilitated by water.  M. grandiflora has fleshy roots, prone to rot and die if they sit in constantly wet soil.  Odd branches have died back in the prostrate juniper in the same bed, which is likewise consistent with a diagnosis of water logging followed by infection.  Indeed, my conifer looks depressingly like the photograph in the book.

I love the episode in Three Men in a Boat when the author looks up his symptoms in a medical dictionary and discovers that he has everything, except housemaid's knee.  I feel rather like that about looking up plant diseases, which is why normally I try not to do it, and just blame the bad soil and drought, or the wildlife.  Plants dying is a mixed blessing.  If it was a good specimen that gave great pleasure one is sorry to see it go. If it was large it can leave an inconveniently large gap in the view, that has to be filled.  If it still had a solid root system it can take days of one's life and great physical effort to dig out the remains.  On the other hand, if the plant was always a bit poorly, or you'd got bored of it, then having the decision made for you that it's got to go can be a good thing, as the resulting space gives you the chance to plant something nicer.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

the day of the fair

The most beautiful thing at the wildlife fair was the captive-bred barn owl.  Eight weeks old and fully grown, she sat on her handler's wrist with the calm and aplomb of a seasoned performer.  She was surprisingly small, larger than a blackbird but nowhere near the size of a pigeon.  Barn owls are not true night birds but crepuscular, favouring dawn and dusk, and they have the huge eyes of a creature adapted to low light levels, which look even larger because they are set in facial discs, oval bowls of radiating feathers whose job is to focus noise back on the owl's ears.  They are naturally long sighted, in order to see their prey when hunting, and to help themselves focus at short range bob their heads repeatedly on their shoulders.  The young owl was doing this, with an air of benign enquiry rather than fear at the cluster of strangers gathered around her.  Her owner pointed out the way that the feathers along the leading edge of her wings were fringed, in order to break the flow of air over them, allowing her to fly silently.  She thoughtfully stretched one wing, and he turned his arm around so that we could admire the amazing, subtle pattern of soft chequerboard brown and white on her back.  Then he scratched her between her eyes, and she melted in what would, if she had been a cat and not a barn owl, been a simper.

One of my favourite images from Gerald Durrell's books about his childhood is his pet scops owl, kept free to roost in his bedroom and fly in and out of the window as it chose.  I would love an owl.  I can imagine having a pet little owl that would sit on my head while I typed or read.  I don't think the fantasy works in practice.  You can't release captive-bred barn owls into the wild.  They wouldn't know how to survive, and I'm pretty sure it's illegal.  A friend does have a barn owl, but it lives in an aviary, not free range.  If I tried to train my owl to fly from the glove it would probably wander off, and I would be distraught that I had sent it out to its death.  And the cats would probably eat a little owl.  The Durrell family never had any cats, and he records his anxiety when any of the local feral ones moved too close to their various villas.  But I do like owls.

The second most beautiful thing was a green beetle, a rose chafer, that had emerged from its pupa only the previous day.  It was a squarish shaped creature with a tiny head, about 20mm long, and its back was a wonderful metallic green.  Apparently there are several small populations scattered around Colchester, so I may never see one in the garden.  They feed on rose nectar and pollen, not the leaves, so shouldn't be of concern to gardeners, though the beetle is so handsome that nobody could grudge it a few rose leaves.  The larvae live in compost, leafmould or rotting wood.  We have lots of those, and roses, so there is no reason why we shouldn't have rose chafers, except that I have never seen one.  I like beetles too.  The most glamorous ones we have here are violet ground beetles.

The Tendring tree officer was there with the tree warden coordinator, and we looked at their maps of the peninsular with the contentment of three people who are all interested in ancient woodland, field patterns and gravel deposits.  The watershed runs close to the northern edge of the district, which is bounded by the river Stour, and almost all the ancient woodlands are on the southern slope.  We agreed that the geology must have something to do with it, and the tree warden coordinator pointed out various minor roads that he thought were extremely old.  There are documented neolithic sites not far from here, but though I keep a keen eye out when gardening the most interesting man-made thing I ever discovered was an old Worcester sauce bottle.  Archaeological fragments in your garden are a mixed blessing.  A friend whose garden was stuffed with little bits of broken medieval pottery found that her attempt to make a pond was proceeding so slowly it might as well have been conducted by an archaeologist with a trowel, because in effect it was. (Eventually, faced with an imminent hosepipe ban that would have stopped them from filling it, they just dug the hole out in two days).

The most baffling thing was our new gazebo, which the Show Secretary's daughter had bought reduced to £25 in an Asda end-of-season sale.  To take it down you un-velcro the fabric top, and then the legs collapse telescopically into half their length, the central struts slide down the legs when you press a button, while the sides, which are diamond pattern girders, concertina together so that the whole frame collapses into a single block about 45cm square and 1.2m long, which you put in a zip-up bag.  I struggle to put up a deckchair, and couldn't see how it worked at all, until somebody discovered which button to push and the entire structure folded in on itself.  I would never have invented that in a month of Sundays.

My talk went OK, and I kept it to half an hour as billed, unlike the butterfly conservation man ahead of me, who overran.  The audience wasn't very large, only around ten or twelve people, and I think some of them were already connected to the beekeepers in some way, but at least I wasn't talking to an empty tent, and they did ask questions afterwards.  Most were youngish, and looked as though they might even be thinking of taking beekeeping up, so it was probably a useful exercise.  Anyway, a condition of getting our stall was providing a half hour's entertainment, so somebody had to do something.

I was disappointed that the Woodland Trust didn't have a stall this year.  They planted a new wood at the edge of the village only a few years ago, with a big local fund-raising drive, so it would seem graceful to come and tell people how the new trees are doing.  On the other hand, if there's another fair next year I'm not sure I want to volunteer to run the stand for them.  It's more fun to wander about gossiping, and looking at owls and beetles.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

yes, you do have to weed it

The BBC is clearly determined to wring every last drop of interest out of the Olympics.  This morning The Today Programme had got on to the subject of the planting at the Stratford site, with Evan Davis asking about the difference between annual and perennial planting in tones that suggested he couldn't quite believe that a metropolitan sophisticate should be occupying himself with such things.  I couldn't quite believe that the fact that there was some new-wave inspired planting at the Olympic park, that had been there for ages, counted as news and current affairs, but maybe having to step back from wall to wall Olympics coverage to talk about Syria, the Euro, the deficit, and the assorted human tragedies of the past 24 hours was just too much for the production team to bear.  Evan asked whether you didn't have to impoverish the soil, and said hopefully that presumably you didn't have to weed it.

No, no, no, no and no.  Thrice and five times no.  I have tried to get a Noel Kingsbury, Piet Oudolf et al perennial meadow affair going several times over the years, and it is jolly hard work.  It might all be different in a commercial setting, where I could treat the entire site with the sorts of soil sterilants not available on the amateur market, and there wasn't too much pesky wildlife to spread seeds around, and too many stands of weeds in the surrounding countryside all casting their fluffy thistle heads and suchlike into the air to blow into the newly cleared ground thoughtfully prepared for them in my garden.  If it were planted up at some incredible number of plants to the square metre, as experimental schemes tested by the academics in charge of the Stratford site, that might help make it weed proof, if I could afford to buy that many plants or had the space and time to propagate them.  Doing it yourself, on a shoestring, in rough ground surrounded by countryside, is bloody hard work.

Weeds arrive.  I was glad that whoever it was that Evan was interviewing did the R4 equivalent of wriggling uncomfortably in their seat and said that no, you did have to weed it.  Weeds just arrive.  Creeping grasses that were not completely eradicated by digging creep back again.  Birds that have gorged on hawthorn and ivy berries crap over your meadow to be, and the seeds, dormancy well and truly broken by passage through the bird's gut, germinate like cress.  Nettle seeds blow in, or are carried in by some vile creature.  Jays bury acorns and hazel nuts.  I have holm oak seedlings coming up all over my garden, and the nearest tree is five doors down, a quarter of a mile away.  The ruddy rye grass that was sown over the whole field in the short period between when we bought the property and when we fenced our bit off still persists in the areas of long grass, providing a ready supply of seeds to infest the prairie planting.  Evan, you have to weed it.  I can't see Evan weeding, somehow.  His natural habitat seems more like a very trendy coffee bar, definitely not Costa or Starbucks, if it is morning, or an even trendier nightclub, if it is late.

Looking at the quantity of weeds in the front garden, before ever getting as far as the meadow, I wondered where to start, and decided to go round pulling out the tall obvious ones.  This made a great difference very quickly, and I alternated between chasing weeds, cutting down the all too visible dead flower stalks of the verbascums, and trimming the ivy hedges.  The Strulch does work.  Once I'd pulled out the large weed stalks it became clear that there weren't many others, and the bed overall was actually pretty clean.  I disentangled what proved to be the remains of a pale yellow or white balloon, tied to a pink ribbon, from a purple leaved sage.  I expect a cloud of them were let off at some wedding reception, or christening, or something, and they probably all looked very romantic and pretty as they floated off.  If I were a livestock farmer, and a cow of mine had just jammed up its stomach eating a balloon, I would be extremely cross.

The garden club ladies were fine when I got there.  They were mostly ladies, only three or four brave men at most in the audience.  They said they enjoyed the talk, though they did a fair bit of talking themselves while I was still on, which was rather disconcerting.  They bought quite a lot of plants, and were helpful about ferrying the unsold ones back to my car, which was kind of them.  Two of my former fellow mature students at Writtle were in the audience, but they both said it was OK.  After years of practice, mostly for the woodland charity, I'm fairly hardened, and not much would stop me talking, short of the ceiling falling in or a member of the audience having a heart attack part way through.

Monday, 20 August 2012

a rare display of mechanical aptitude

Most of the plants in the plant centre were remarkably damp and happy, given how hot it was over the weekend, and my colleagues who were on duty must have worked extremely hard to keep them like that.  It meant that the amount of watering we had to do this morning wasn't too bad at all, really nothing more than normal.

The phone rang, and it was one of our less favourite customers wanting to know whether we had a particular geranium in stock.  Be in no doubt, if you shop at all regularly at any smallish retail outlet, the staff will have views on you, and whether you are a nice and sensible person they will go the extra mile for, or a right nuisance.  I went to see what geraniums we had left, and discovered that we had four of that variety, priced at £6.50.  The regular but unloved customer drawled that they were very expensive, and that while he had been going to come to us because we were closer, Beth Chatto had them for £4.65.  He supposed I wouldn't like to match her on price?  I said that no, I was familiar with Beth Chatto's plants, shopping there myself, and that her's were smaller.  Why he expects to get a well-grown plant in a 2 litre pot for the same price as a smaller plant in a 1 litre pot beats me, other than that he is always a pain.  Later on somebody else rang wanting to know whether we had a particular shrub.  Unfortunately when I checked we hadn't, but he commented how soothing it was listening to my regular footsteps on the gravel as I looked for it.  Now that's the sort of chat-up line that gets you exemplary service next time round.

The manager has finally achieved his will and is allowed to move the compost so that it is under the canopy at the front of the shop, instead of being piled outside at the back in the rain, getting soggy.  It has taken a campaign by staff of at least a year (and more like two) to get the proprietors to agree to this.  They are on holiday this week, grouse shooting in Scotland (well, they are going shooting at least once.  I don't suppose they're doing it every day) and the manager thought he would strike while the iron was hot, before they could change their minds again.

One of the things cluttering up the space under the canopy was a large wooden stand holding imitation hay racks, hanging baskets and brackets.  The hay racks are fairly hideous, and we must sell about two a year, making the stand a terribly inefficient use of the available retail space.  The manager wanted to disassemble it, in order to reuse part of it somewhere else, and free up the canopy for the compost, and lamented that it was a pity the gardener was on holiday this week, since he is normally does that sort of job.  I looked at the stand, and said that it didn't look too complicated to unscrew it, if only we could find a Phillips screwdriver.  We couldn't, but the young gardener borrowed the gardener's one from their shed.  You could tell that the thing had been put together using a power screwdriver, since the heads of some of the screws were buried, and others were done up so tightly they slightly depressed the surrounding wood, but I got them out eventually without stripping any of their heads.  That would have been embarrassing, since my mechanical skills don't extend to drilling out broken screws.  Once it finally came apart I found I'd removed more screws than I need have done, since until it was in pieces I didn't fully understand how it fitted together.

The manager allowed me to assemble the plants for tomorrow evening's talk through the day, which saves me a trip tomorrow.  I asked him if the garden club lady was always difficult and he said yes, when he gives talks to their club she keeps ringing him with questions and fussing as well.  I managed to cram two trolley loads of plants into the Skoda, and there were lots more showing colour I could have taken if there'd been room, so they should be satisfied.  I included a couple of pots that looked like nothing at all, but which are going great guns in my garden, to illustrate the point that one of the difficulties of buying plants for a late summer show is that it can be difficult or impossible to persuade them to behave in containers the way they do growing in the open ground.  And I took one nice looking purple leaved Cotinus, to use to remind them that one of the problems with late summer gardens is not that there is a shortage of flowers, but that so much of the surrounding foliage looks tatty.  And I'm going to explain about the seasonal stocking habits of plant nurseries, which are at least in part driven by the seasonal buying patterns of customers, so there is a chicken and egg element.  Really she should not have been quibbling about my fee, the amount of work that goes into these presentations.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

if you can't stand the heat

Today was a reminder why so little gets done in the garden in August.  It's too hot.  I remember once, years ago when I still worked in London, I booked a week's holiday in August, not to go anywhere but because I had some holiday allowance to use up and felt like a break.  During that week I built the foundations, no more, of a very small set of steps, which then remained unfinished for another two years.  High temperatures and humidity are not conducive to getting work done outside.

After just a few days with the thermometer in the high twenties parts of the garden are starting to show the strain.  The leaves of the Pulmonaria in the ditch bed, that had been standing up quite handsomely and making good ground cover, unlike the ones in pots at work which looked dreadful and had to be cut back weeks ago, have started to flag, and the Kirengeshoma palmata is drooping.  I'm not so fussed about the lungworts, since they have basically done their stuff for the year, but Kirengeshoma is supposed to be at its peak now.  It is a Japanese woodlander, growing almost a metre tall and bearing pendulous yellow bell shaped flowers.  The RHS says it has a reputation for being fussy and difficult to grow, but I've always found it straightforward, even in the dry conditions of the Clacton coastal strip, though I have put it near the ditch.  Most plants for woodland conditions flower in the spring, and so anything that performs in August is useful.  Interestingly, given that hydrangeas are one of the shrubby mainstays of the late summer garden, it is a member of the same family.  It is an absolute shocker in a pot, the leaves browning and burning at the least opportunity, which makes it difficult to sell.

I pressed on weeding the entrance bed, with rather long breaks in the shade for glasses of water and cups of tea.  I've got the outermost corner clear, which is a morale booster, since it now gives me a basis from which to press my advance.  The ivy hedge has sent horizontal shoots out over the bed, many of which have started rooting where they touch, and I replanted some of those into buried 9cm plastic pots with a dose of mycorrhizal fungus, as the hedge has also gone bald in places, and I need new plants to thicken up the gaps.  The shoots running out into the border looked far happier than stretches of the hedge, and I suspect that the original plants are starved.  It is on very light soil, and I haven't been assiduous about feeding it.

The plan is to mulch the whole bed with chicken manure, then Strulch, then wait for fresh growth of grass and hit it with glyphosate.  Some of the weed grasses in there have running roots, and while I've removed what I could it is never possible to dig all of it out, especially when you are working around shrubs.  The shrubs look in need of renewal, poor things, and as well as cutting out some old wood I'll dose them liberally with 6X on top of the mushroom compost.  I'm still thinking in terms of Santolina, box mounds and dwarf pines to fill in the gaps.  There might be room for one or two flowering specimen shrubs, but it is such rooty, dry ground, I need tough, drought resistant doers.

The Systems Administrator moved the tractor and trailer for me to round up the piles of prunings that have accumulated in the back garden, and took away the woody debris that's built up so far in the entrance bed, though there'll be plenty more to come.  I'm cutting the Portuguese laurel back to size, since much as I like it I don't want it to reach the 8 metre spread and 12 metre height that it would be capable of if left unchecked. The boundary hedge has sent great long shoots out into the bed, and I'm taking them off, though I shall need the step ladder and long handled loppers to complete the job.  The SA was making noises about mowing the lawn, but took my advice to leave it until the weather cooled down.  Yesterday's final trip to the cricket as temperatures reached around 30 degrees in London was probably a trip too far, and we don't want the virus to flare up again in a relapse.  Apart from the SA's own health, comfort and well-being, it is only a month until we are supposed to be going on holiday.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

there may be trouble ahead

The illuminated road signs in Colchester have stopped telling us to plan our journey during the Olympics, which is all that they've said since May, irrespective of whatever hold-ups and delays there were on the A12 or the A120, and are now warning us that there is heavy traffic at Chelmsford due to an event at Hylands.  This is the V festival.  The Systems Administrator's train out of London yesterday after the cricket was standing room only, because it was packed with young people carrying rucksacks.  They were discussing A level results and very Wow that's like totally amazing.  The SA thought it was odd to see them there, given that train didn't stop at Chelmsford, but most of them were too busy texting or talking to notice as they sailed through.  By Colchester some were looking confused, though the SA heard one girl confidently telling her friends that it was, like, OK, because Chelmsford was the next stop after Colchester.

I converted £25 of my Tesco clubcard points into double points, and spent them all on cat food.  I don't suppose that's what we're meant to do.  I expect the Tesco marketing department are hoping I'll convert them into vouchers for clothing, or electrical goods, and then buy something I wouldn't have bought otherwise, but we always need cat food.  You have to queue at the information desk to swap them for vouchers, which was staffed by a young girl with either a summer cold or bad hay fever, who said that I could convert that one, indicating the voucher for ten pounds.  I asked why I couldn't convert the other two vouchers, for £2.50 and £9.50, and she said, between sneezes, that the converted vouchers had to be for multiples of five pounds, but that she could give me another £20 worth of cat food tokens and put the other two pounds back on my account.  Which rather begs the question why Tesco sent me vouchers for £9.50 and £2.50 rather than £10 and £2.  Fifty pounds buys quite a lot of cat food, and should keep us going for a while.

I returned home to a flashing light on the answering machine, which turned out to be a message from the bookings organiser of the garden club I'm talking to next Tuesday, saying that her Chairman had been asking her how I was going to achieve 'masses of colour' using plants rather than slides, and asking if I could ring to discuss it.  I thought it was a bit late for that now.  They knew when they booked me that I talk using live plants, not photographs.  Was she expecting me to offer to put together a slide display before Tuesday?  Or suggest a different topic that didn't require plants?  I could talk about beekeeping or the woodland charity if she prefers.  Or did she think that the plant centre would be full of masses of colour, but I might not think to bring it with me unless reminded?  Or that the quality of my presentation would be improved by letting me know in advance that she didn't have faith in me, and rather wished she hadn't booked me?

When she rang making the original enquiry and we got to the point in the conversation where I told her what my fee was, she told me that I charged the same as my manager, and suggested I might like to offer to do it for less.  I wasn't sure that my manager would be thrilled to know that his garden club ladies were disclosing his fee rate to his staff, but seeing that we were both doing talks freelance and not as representatives of the plant centre, I didn't see why I should be expected to undercut him, and politely declined.  Nine times out of ten, if you are going to get trouble, it will be from a posh lady with a purring voice.

Friday, 17 August 2012

watering, weeding, deadheading (and not forgetting the chickens)

Watering all the pots outside took a long time this morning, as I gave each one a dose of liquid feed (except those I'm afraid of poisoning, the camellias, the phoenix palm and a miserable Lapageria which is eaten by snails each time I take my eyes off it, but lives on in an almost leafless state).  I used B&Q's own brand of balanced plant food, mixed somewhat on the weak side, one capful (it is a very small cap) to a can of water.  Most of the ivy leaved geraniums are doing disgracefully badly, and at the current rate of progress are headed for the compost bin rather than the greenhouse at the end of the season.  Maybe I should have fed them more frequently, or maybe the cold wet summer after the long British winter was just too discouraging for them.  I'll start again next year with fresh, vigorous plants.

Some things have done unexpectedly well recently.  A Hoya, given to me by a friend who rooted it from her grandmother's plant, has suddenly made about a metre of extension growth.  Still no flowers, but at least it looks healthy.  For months after I was given it the thing refused to grow at all, and when I decided to try repotting it in fresh and different compost turned out to have a very shaky root system.  It has abandoned the green florist's cane I gave it, and is winding itself around the other plants on the stand in the middle of the conservatory, so I think it will soon be time to move it to a larger pot, and give it something more substantial to climb up.  However, the Tropaeolum tuberosum 'Ken Aslet' is doing what it did last year, and sending out shoots that go yellow and die again without having produced even one orange and yellow long spurred flower in early July.  I nust spend an hour or two researching the requirements of this plant (and the Lapageria), since whatever they are, I'm clearly not meeting them.

Then I returned to digging out the weeds from the entrance bed.  I'm starting to think foliage interest for the ground cover, large areas of rounded shapes of clipped box and Santolina.  Magazine photographs of hillside gardens in Provence may well have permeated my thinking, but I'm not too proud to borrow a good idea when I see one.  Totally new ideas in gardening are very rare.    Derek Jarman's garden was new, and expanded our ideas of what a garden could be.  I can't think of any other recent ones offhand.  The prairie planting movement that started in Germany and the Netherlands, and has been researched by academics at Sheffield university, is newish, but only really a development of natural planting ideas put forward by William Robinson, and Christopher Lloyd's championing of exotic planting spawned a legion of imitators, but was again a return to Victorian values.  By garden ideas I mean schemes that are actually built, and function in the real world over a period of several years, so I don't count some of the more garish schemes we've seen at Chelsea.

The Systems Administrator is off for another day's cricket, so at four I unleashed the chickens of mass destruction, and busied myself dead-heading the dahlias and lavender, and trimming the box domes by the front door, while they fossicked around in the Eleagnus hedge.  The rooster does not like going in the hedge, but patrols along the edge of it.  I do need them to go back into their run very soon, since the SA has just rung and need's collecting from Colchester station in just over half an hour.  I might have to resort to bribery in the form of sultanas.

James Taylor is playing in this test match.  The SA was dismissive when I said that we'd seen him make a county century at Lord's, the time the SA took me there, then worked out that our trip was two years ago, and realised that I was probably right.  You see, even though I am not terribly interested in sport, I was paying attention.  I remembered James Taylor, because he is very little, and looked very young, and I think that may have been his first century in a county match.  The SA will be able to put me right.  One of the attractions of cricket to its aficionados is the statistics.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

waiting for the parcel van

Convalescence is an expensive business.  The Systems Administrator, reduced to spending days sitting on the sofa, ordered an Android tablet.  I am not utterly convinced what gap in the SA's technical armoury this fills, given that the SA has a perfectly good laptop and almost never goes to places where the laptop wouldn't work perfectly well, if necessary with a dongle.  However, bored and idle fingers will roam across the Amazon website, and the tablet was ordered, also a case.  I don't quite see the attraction of a case, given that a tablet is supposed to be lightweight, and the case weighs 406 grammes, but that is speaking as somebody who puts their Kindle in a used envelope for safe keeping when taking it out and about.  Also, as I persist in carrying my stuff around in a satchel made out of saddle grade leather, guaranteed to last practically for ever, that weighs approximately three quarters of a tonne, I am in no position to criticize.

The case arrived yesterday, but the tablet didn't.  The SA had paid a premium for a guaranteed time slot delivery, and spent the morning hovering about listening for the van, so was rather irritable about this.  The parcel seems to have made it as far as about Elmstead Market, according to the parcel company's tracking service, and then gone back to our local depot.  Which is in Chelmsford.  Note to the management of all commercial parcel operations:  Chelmsford is a forty-five minute drive from our village to the east of Colchester, and that's on a good day when the A12 hasn't ground to a standstill because some clown turned their caravan over.  It cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as local.

Amazon refunded the premium delivery charge, but the SA couldn't wait around for the van today due to having a ticket for the Test at Lord's.  All that sofa rest has been building up to this moment, and the SA trundled off, ears ringing with instructions to wear a hat and drink lots of water, leaving me to sign for the parcel, which was due sometime mid-morning.  I thought I'd better work in the front garden, rather than continue in the back and risk not hearing the van, so made a start on weeding the bed by the entrance.  It's a task I'd been leaving until later, on the grounds that it wasn't as urgent as several other jobs, but if it's left too long it will get urgent.  I weeded the whole thing last year, but never planted up the gaps, so once again the soil is covered in a layer of assorted grasses, mostly clump formers that are easy to pull out, but some with running roots.

It's a problem area, which I'm not sure how to fill.  I've tried various things, some of which have thrived and many of which have not.  Some were rescued and moved, some died outright, others merely languish.  It is an awkward space, triangular in shape, on very light soil which by now is invaded by the roots of the boundary hedge and those shrubs that have taken, and blasted by wind.  It doesn't merit very intricate planting, because nobody is going to hang about there to look at it closely.  I need something that will cope with the drought, the wind and the rootiness, that will smother weeds, and grow fast to cover the ground, because I am running out of time, patience and energy to keep weeding it.  I want the bed to look after itself for great stretches of the year, with my input limited to some pruning, and pulling out the small number of weeds that have crept in.  I don't want to spend a fortune on plants, so herbaceous subjects that would need to go in at nine or ten plants to the square metre, and then take several years to join up, are definitely out.

At the moment I don't even have a feel for the look or mood to aim for.  The surviving plants are a rather ill-assorted lot, accumulated over nearly twenty years of fiddling about rather than according to any sort of design brief, but I don't want to remove anything large that's coping because I want the whole thing filled up sooner rather than later.  This leaves me with a magnificent pineapple broom, a couple of weigela and a philadelphus, two slightly unhappy crab apples, a shrubby honeysuckle that doesn't seem to mind the conditions, a scotch rose that is starting to run incontinently, some vast late flowering red hot pokers that are among the best plants for a dry and awful site that I've ever met, several hollies, a bird-sown Portuguese laurel, a Cotinus that's finally starting to get going though rather loomed over by the laurel, a mystery berberis that I think was originally the rootstock of something else, two large and well-established cottage garden peonies, a japanese quince that clashes disastrously with one of the crabs, a struggling Ribes speciosum, a yellow fruited shrubby ivy, a semi-prostrate cotoneaster that doesn't quite manage to suppress the weeds, a slightly tender thing from the pea family whose name I can't remember at this minute, and a few other odds and sods.  They don't exactly gel to a unified vision, do they?  Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

The van duly arrived.  The driver was very young, and it turned out that yesterday his Satnav had taken him to the edge of our spinney and then wanted him to drive through a field.  I suggested that he would get to know the route, and he said he had only been doing the job for a couple of weeks.  Then he asked if I could possibly delay signing for the parcel for five minutes, because he was slightly ahead of his time and all hell would break loose if his electronic signature machine showed that he'd been early.  I said that was fine, and hung around the kitchen for five minutes waiting until I could have the SA's parcel and the van would go away.  Compared to DPD the Royal Mail looked almost good in comparison.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

a quiet day in the garden

What a summer.  After the gloom lifted briefly for the Olympics, which was good timing on nature's part, it is back to grey skies and rain showers.  I read in the Telegraph about the unhappy campers who have opted to holiday in this country, struggling in rain and wind in the West Country to put their tents up.  Here it was dull all day, which somehow managed to combine with it being windy and very humid at the same time.  At five it started to rain, and I was driven in from the garden.

I'm still working my way up the sloping bed.  Some of the tufts of grass I'm pulling out are attached to running roots, so I'll need follow up with spot treatments of glyphosate, which is easier said than done, when there always seems to be an amount of wind that makes me glad that at least I'm not at sea.  I have been throwing away handfuls of Libertia grandiflora seedlings, which seems wasteful, but I don't want to use it in any of the other beds, so if I potted them up I wouldn't have anything to do with them, and would be reduced to pressing them on (possibly reluctant) friends.  This Libertia makes a big fan of pointed leaves, which do at least stay looking decent to their tips, unlike bearded iris, but dead leaves accumulate round the edge of the fan and within the clump, and gradually the plant starts looking tatty.  The dead leaves pull out pretty easily, but it is a fiddle, and one more thing to find the time to do, and I don't always.  Overall I was probably more keen on it a decade ago than I am nowadays, but I'm keeping some plants, while digging out a couple of the largest and messiest clumps, as well as the misplaced seedlings.  It copes pretty well around shrubs, where it is shady, dry and rooty, so it seems gratuitous to reject it entirely.  Its white flowers are pleasant, but not something you'd make a big effort to see.

The mushroom compost, spread out over the area I've weeded so far, looks very neat, dark and even.  I enjoy applying it.  The rich, crumbly brown top dressing makes a statement that this bit of the bed is Done.  The sensation of done-ness is a delusion, since weeds will start growing there quickly enough, and the horsetail will sprout up again.  I need to follow the compost with a layer of Strulch, which does a fairly good job of stopping annual weeds from germinating. but to do that I have to order another pallet of mulch, since I'm down to the last three bags, which means I then have to commit to being at home when it is delivered, so I'm deferring the order until after my talk and the Chatto wildlife fair next week.

The young oak tree is sending up Lammas growth.  In a second flush of activity for the year it is producing new shoots, as yet unbranched and leafless and by now a good 30cm long, as it does in late summer, except in very dry seasons.  The canopy has darkened to a dull green.  The leaves of many of the roses are shocking, those that haven't fallen off, disfigured by blackspot.  Seasons like this test my no-spray philosophy to its limit.  I still don't spray for blackspot.  Roses that can't hack it will get evicted to make space for something else that can.  I've got my eye on some red floribundas that have never done much good, where the space could be more gainfully occupied by a nice Buddleia crispa, which would like the light soil much more than the roses ever did.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

the war of the wasps

Today I put up the wasp traps, one on top of each beehive and one by the door to the veranda.  I was reminded of the need to do this last night, when the Systems Administrator commented that the wasps were starting to be a nuisance, and on Sunday, talking to a customer at work who bought a wasp trap.  From something he said to his companions I gathered that he kept bees, so I asked him if he did, and we all had quite a long and cheerful conversation about beekeeping.  He is mentored by somebody I know in one of the neighbouring villages, and is in turn helping a novice friend, who last year lost all his honey and almost lost his bees to wasp attack.

Wasps don't bother bees in the early part of the year, but later on, at the same time as they become interested in sweet things and start ruining your plums (when you have any), they will go into hives to rob the honey.  The entrance to a beehive is cut into a wooden block that runs the full width of the hive, and traditionally beekeepers removed the whole block in early summer, to give the bees more ventilation, but August is the time to replace it, to give the bees a small door that can be defended by just a few guard bees, like Horatio at the bridge.  I leave the block in place all year, since my bees are on perforated mesh floors so I reckon they can get enough air through that.  Until recently mesh floors were used in conjunction with a solid floor underneath, as part of a monitoring system to test the effectiveness of treatments against varroa, but in the last few years beekeepers have been using them as the only floor, the idea being that any mites that lose their grip and fall off the bee they are feeding on will fall through the floor and right out of the hive.  It is still early days with open floors, and there isn't yet a consensus about the best way to use them at all points of the year, so I don't know if leaving a narrow entrance at all times would be frowned on by the experts, but my bees seem happy with it.

The customer at work bought a very handsome purpose made, coloured glass wasp catcher that cost £7.99.  Mine were rather less grand, made out of plastic milk bottles with tinfoil over the neck, secured with a rubber band, and a hole a bit less than a centimetre square poked in the foil.  I baited them with some 2010 strawberry jam that has started to crystallise and half filled them with water.  The wasps crawl through the hole attracted by the sweet and fermenting smell, and generally don't find their way out again before they drown.  Bees are not greatly into strawberry jam, so the theory is that they don't bother going in there.  It worked last year, though I think I used an odd end of blackcurrant jelly.

Addendum  The Systems Administrator is unexpectedly taken with the ice cream making machine.  When I originally said I wanted one this was greeted with raised eyebrows, since you can buy a lot of Ben and Jerry's for the cost of an ice cream maker with inbuilt freezer, but now the SA is hooked.  I came home from work on Sunday to find raspberry sorbet, and got back from my assorted errands this morning to find the mix for a cornflour based ice cooling in the fridge.  That was the mark II mix, the first version having come to a bad end because it turned out that the SA had never learned how you boil milk without it catching, and was stirring the pan when suddenly black bits rose to the surface.  I explained that you did not stir milk, but watched the bubbles ready to remove it from the heat at the point when it would otherwise rush up the pan and boil over, and promised a demonstration the next time boiled milk was required.  Playing with an ice cream machine is at least a restful convalescent project.  It was a very nasty bug, and the SA is still extremely pale, and needs to be fit to get to Lords by Thursday, for the first day of the Test.

Monday, 13 August 2012

very sweet and incredibly dim

Watering in the plant centre this morning I could hear rather frantic quacking from the other side of the wall.  The manager told me that there was a mother duck and half a dozen ducklings in the small round pond, and the sides were too high for them to get out.  He found a plank of wood and propped it over the edge, but the quacking continued, as while the duck and four of the young ones had climbed out of the pond, two of them hadn't, and were swimming round and round like little wind-up bath toys.

We temporarily abandoned the watering to contemplate the ducks.  Shooing them towards the ramp was not very successful, because they swam around the edge even faster, and shot straight under the plank.  Catching them as they went past was pretty tricky too, as they jinxed away from our moving hands.  We debated whether to fill the pond to the brim, and float them out.  They made tiny peeping noises, and I thought they were probably upset, though it was difficult to tell.  They were also dabbling experimentally at pieces of duckweed.  Eventually one found its way up the plank, but instead of going to join its (still frantically quacking) mother, marched up some steps and set off towards the garden.

The manager, by dint of slowly lowering his hand towards the water, managed to snaffle the other as it went by.  As soon as it was put down on solid ground it went waddling off to find mama, while I set off into the garden in pursuit of the absconder.  The wandering duckling did not like being followed, and did not want to be caught, scurrying into a large bush.  I worked my way round the edge of the bush with a degree of caution, since having to put in the accident book that I'd scratched my eye while crawling through a shrub in pursuit of a duckling would be a ridiculous way to start the week.  The errant baby, showing a good turn of speed, toddled through a great arc and found its way back to the main pond, where the rest of its family was swimming, then dithered at the edge for several minutes before summoning the nerve to jump in.

They were very sweet, brown balls of fluff with black stripes on their faces, and incredibly dim.  I believe that ducks are the stupidest birds.  At any rate they have the smallest brains as a percentage of their body weight (parrots and corvids are top of the tree, though I don't know which would win in an IQ contest).

The telephones were barely working at all.  We have roaming handsets, so that we can talk to customers as we run around the plant centre looking to see what is in stock and how much it is, and try and explain over the telephone what the plant looks like and what condition it's in.  They are not special, robust handsets designed for the outdoors, but just ordinary ones very similar to the ones we have at home, and I think they find the physical conditions challenging.  They kept dropping out of contact with the internal phone network, and cover was desperately patchy, being very weak near the till which is where we keep supplies of scrap paper for making notes, and the list of plants that people are looking for.  I had one excruciating conversation that lasted for over ten minutes, most of the dialogue consisting of You're terribly faint...sorry, you're breaking up...I can't hear you...I still can't hear you.  I do wish that the owner would get some new phones.  Preferably better ones.

One caller was replying to our message left three days ago about sending two hydrangeas to Shropshire, which threw me totally, since the last time I heard we weren't doing mail order again until September, by official decree from the owner.  Maybe the owner changed her mind since then, or maybe this was an individual staff initiative to try and increase sales.  I do wish we could be run like a business, have a policy, and stick to it until such a time as we have a new policy.  It is so confusing, when the phone (which you can scarcely hear) goes and it is people wanting to do things that you didn't think you did. I don't really want to take somebody's details (and payment) for a mail order parcel, and then get a rocket from the owner because the box gets left in a hot warehouse over a weekend, the plants die, the customer demands replacements, we're out of pocket on the plants and an extra set of delivery charges, and why was I doing mail order in August anyway?  Equally I don't want to tell customers that we aren't doing mail order until September when one of my colleagues has just told her that we are.

The manager had a nice holiday, though I should think the beneficial effects started to wear off rapidly, as he tried to contend with the great pile of notes, queries, and samples of dead and dodgy plants that awaited him on his return, plus the telephones barely working, and the confusion over mail order.  I weighed in with requests for stocks of Gaura, Japanese anemones, Lespedeza, Eucryphia, Salvia uliginosa and Sedum in a zingier colour than white or brownish pink.  These are of course all plants I would like for my talk next week, but we need them anyway, because we have so little to offer to any customers who have discovered that their gardens are now completely green, and would like some plants that do something at this time of year.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

sowing seeds of confusion

Even though I wasn't working yesterday I couldn't quite escape work.  I got back from a trip into Colchester to find an e-mail from the owner asking whether I recollected carrying out a sale on Friday for sixty five pounds something, which had been put through the credit card machine as six hundred and fifty something.  I couldn't, and I didn't think it was me.  I always look carefully from till to credit card machine and back again when I'm inputting card transactions, and again at the merchant's copy of the slip when I press the button to say that it's OK, tear it off and put it in the till.  This is largely to protect myself, since I remember the time that a former colleague managed to put through a hundred pounds odd of hedging as a credit card charge of one pound.  She was mortified when the mistake was discovered, and wrote the owners a cheque for the difference.  They never cashed it, but hung on to it for ages, and I didn't fancy doing a couple of days' work for free to compensate for a fat finger error at the till.  The other reason I am hot on checking and double checking is out of long habit in my former life.  Over-charging a garden centre customer by six hundred pounds is deeply embarrassing and unprofessional, and shouldn't happen, but not nearly as catastrophic as buying a million BP when you meant to buy a hundred thousand.  Later on the owner e-mailed again saying that one of my colleagues had confessed that it was probably him.

My working on Friday instead of Saturday seems to have caused confusion all round.  The person who obligingly swapped with me spent Friday and yesterday thoroughly bewildered about what day it was, and somebody who should have been at work yesterday forgot to go in and was an hour late.  Apparently, having spent a day working with me on Friday he was convinced that Saturday must be Sunday, and was happily pottering about at home until it struck him that the radio programmes were not right for a Sunday.  He told the owner that his car had broken down, but of course it meant that he wasn't there first thing to help with the watering.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and I got rather hot weeding the geraniums.  We were quite busy.  There were the usual customers asking for things now that we sold out of months ago, and won't get again until the spring, like Iberis, but we seemed to have a reasonable quantity of things that people wanted, which will please the boss.  I am still mystified why we don't have some of the plants that are in flower now, such as Gaura, also rather miffed about it, since I'm doing a talk next week on seasonal planting and am starting to wonder what I'm going to illustrate it with, when we are out of stock of quite a lot of it.  The manager is back from his holidays tomorrow, so I'm hoping the plant orders will come flooding in during the next ten days.

The pea hen and her chick were hanging around the plant centre, making really determined efforts to get into the shop.  She is large enough to trigger the motion sensors that open the doors, so even with the doors left shut she can get in.  Apparently the dog is teaching her remaining puppy bad habits as well.  The pair of them were caught the other day walking together down the road.

Addendum  The Systems Administrator is slowly on the mend, and made it as far as the village today to buy supplies.  A group of them have Test tickets starting on Thursday, so the SA needs to be fit by then to travel as far as Lords.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

the joy of sport

So, the Olympics are nearly over.  I haven't watched much of them.  I saw the Jamaican team take their hat trick in the men's 200 metres, and watched some of the archery which was unexpectedly fascinating.  I was amazed to discover that wind surfing was an Olympic sport, and didn't understand what was going on half the time in the cycling.  But I didn't mind it, even when it bumped the R5 film programme off the air on Friday afternoons, and it was nice for the Systems Administrator to have all that sport to watch while ill.

No, what has upset me now is the rising crescendo of commitments to increase the amount of school sport.  A few days ago there were just a few pundits and Boris Johnson going on about it, but now the Prime Minister has weighed in.

“The idea of an Olympics legacy has been built into the DNA of London 2012 from the very beginning,” the Prime Minister said. “Now the London Olympics has been a great success and, as we turn our attention to the Paralympics, we need to use the inspiration of the Games to get all our children playing sport more regularly.

“I want to use the example of the Olympics to lead a revival of competitive sport in primary schools. We need to end the 'all must have prizes’ culture and get children playing and enjoying competitive sports from a young age, linking them up with sports clubs so they can pursue their dreams.”

That's what the Telegraph says he said.  For good measure on The Today Programme he dismissed alternatives such as Indian dancing, saying that he had nothing against it, but it wasn't a substitute for sport.

The enthusiasts for school sport produce various arguments in its favour.  There is the general health and fitness, anti-obesity school of thought.  That's fine.  I've no problems with that.  There is the We must build on the legacy to produce future generations of Olympic medals winners brigade.  That's rather more sinister.  Coercing your citizens into sporting excellence for glory of the nation is something I associate with totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and I'd rather we didn't take it up in this country.  Then there is the argument that sport builds your character.  Some of the men (they are always men) spouting away on the radio have gone so far as to claim that competitive team sport teaches you lessons you cannot learn elsewhere.  Not in acting in plays, or forming a band, or entering a school science competition, or founding a magazine, or helping out local old people, or entering a chess league.  Nope, if you don't do competitive team sport you will grow up a stunted human being, incapable of team work.

I hated sport at school.  It is thirty two years since I left, and my deep, searing hatred of rounders, netball and gym lessons is still burnt into my psyche.  I have poor eye-hand cordination, lousy proprioception, and an inbuilt tendency to become ten times more stiff, tense, and uncordinated if other people are looking at me while I try to accomplish any physical task I find difficult.  If they are commenting on and criticizing my efforts in public the torture is complete.

Rounders is a rubbish game.  You are supposed to hit a missile smaller than a tennis ball with a bat no thicker than a cucumber.  I could not hit the ball.  I couldn't even see the ball.  Then you have to run.  I never made it past first base, since I hadn't wacked the ball to the boundary.  The rest of the time while your team is batting you stand about in a queue, and when your team is fielding you stand about on the field of play, desperately hoping, if you are me, that the ball doesn't come anywhere near you, because if it does you will have to catch it.  I couldn't catch it, and if I did I couldn't throw it.  I never picked up the art of throwing overarm instinctively, like Palestinian children on the TV seem to have done when they hurl stones at the Israeli army, and nobody ever taught me.  As an aerobic workout it was useless, consisting of approximately 95 per cent standing about, coupled with 100 per cent humiliation and dire boredom.

Netball was worse.  The ball was much larger, almost as big as a football, and people were throwing it directly at your head.  And the captains got to pick teams.  I was invariably the last or second last child to be picked, sharing the honour of class dunce with a sweet natured girl called Debbie.  Hockey wasn't quite as bad since it happened mainly on the ground (it was a low grade girls' game) and I could just about follow the ball enough to make contact with it some of the time.  I played in defence, where having a stocky build and reasonably tough nerves came in useful.  Worse were the days when it rained too much for hockey, and we had to do country dancing instead.  There were 31 girls in the class, and I hoped desperately that someone would be ill, because if there were an odd number of pupils in the session I would be the one dancing with the gym teacher, having a couple of groups I sometimes hung out with, but no particular friend.

Tennis.  Ah, tennis.  Tennis bored me to idiocy.  It still does.  My grandmother used to watch it on the TV, and I was utterly, completely mystified as to why anybody wanted to spend their time looking at that stuff.  I could scarcely hit a tennis ball, even with something as large as a tennis racket, and when I did it might go practically anywhere.  I couldn't get the hang of serving.  I would have been unutterably crap at tennis under any circumstances, but was made slightly worse by the fact that my mother, having no interest in it herself and perceiving that I wasn't into it either, bought me the cheapest possible tennis racket.  It weighed a ton, had a handle so thick you could scarcely close your hand around it, and I don't think had a sweet spot on it anywhere.  God, I hated tennis.  The school only ran to one sports teacher for this class of 31, so the children that showed no interest or aptitude didn't receive any remedial instruction.

Gym.  I have saved the worst until last.  I once received a school report that said that my floor work was imaginative but that my vaulting lacked spring, which is the only amusing thing ever to have come out my time doing compulsory PE.  I was a fat child, the youngest, shortest and heaviest in the class.  Somersaults made me dizzy.  I presume they upset my inner ears.  I couldn't climb ropes, because my fat little legs lacked the strength.  The most frightening thing was the parallel bars, when we were made to drop from the upper bar to the lower one, catching ourselves with an outstretched arm.  Given my lack of eye-hand coordination and, at that stage, undiagnosed short sight, it is a marvel that I didn't ever miss the lower bar with my hand and land on it with my face instead.  The most humiliating thing was having to stand in front of the whole class, with my fat legs and fat bottom, in my knickers.  I did not get fitter, standing at the bottom of a rope I couldn't climb, but I learned the art of suffering acute public embarassment.

So, Prime Minister Mr David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Radio 4 pundits, and everybody else climbing on the Olypmics bandwagon and saying that all children must do sport every day, and that they must be team sports, not dancing, or Pilates, or Yoga, or spinning.  That is what your compulsory sport did for my fitness, my self-esteem, my ability to cooperate and my character while I was growing up.  That is what you would like to inflict on all of the unsporty children of today, instead of finding them an alternative that they do enjoy and that might improve their health and fitness.

Actually, sport was character building for me in one way, just  not the one that Boris et al probably had in mind.  Having learned at a tender age what it feels like to have a compulsory activity looming, which you cannot escape, which you hate, which you are bad at, which exposes you to ridicule, at which you never improve and nobody ever offers you extra assistance and coaching even though you find it so difficult and are so bad at it, I am more compassionate than I might be otherwise to the academically dull.  People who never learned to read and write, hated school, bunked off it sometimes, left as soon as they could, because every day was a repeated obstacle course of stuff that you didn't get and nobody helped you to get it, and you had to keep failing in public.  I see where they might be coming from, because I have been there myself.  But there should be better ways of teaching empathy than making children miserable for two hours a day, five days a week.

One of the things that the sporty types don't get is that some of us non-sporty ones are really not interested in competitive.  Never mind learning that everyone can't have prizes and that it's not the end of the world if I don't get a medal, I don't even want a medal.  I just don't want to be there.  As well as not getting sport, I don't get card games, board games, word games, or pub quizzes.  The only computer game I like is Sim City, and that has no winners or losers and no fixed rules, apart from the fact that you mustn't go bust.  This complete lack of ritualised competitive ethos doesn't seem to have held me back.  I went to a good university, got a degree, had a series of fairly senior jobs, bought a house.  When I used to do the sort of job where you get appraisals I was regularly commended for my brilliant teamwork.  Enthusiasm for games, in any form, and ability to get on with real life don't seem strongly correlated.  Nor is lack of sportiness an inevitable predictor of obesity and sloth.  I have a BMI of 21.6, and can lift over a third of my own body weight or comfortably walk twelve miles in half a day.  I didn't get like that by doing sport, but by doing physical things that I enjoy, mostly gardening and walking about.  In fact, the key physical discipline I would like to see taught in schools is Pilates.  Most people are going to do sedentary jobs and a lot of them are going to develop back problems, so learning good posture and core muscle strength at a young age would be more valuable than any amount of netball and shinning up ropes.

The only comfort for today's non-sporty children is that once the rush of the Olympics is over, all this promised compulsory sport probably won't happen.