Saturday, 12 January 2013

tidying in the tunnel

My car was lightly iced at twenty to eight this morning, including a thin layer of frozen condensation inside the windscreen.  The car thermometer believed it was a few degrees above freezing, but in the plant centre the paraffin heater in the hot tunnel was still blasting away.  I unplugged it, since I wanted to open the doors and there was no point in trying to heat the whole of Suffolk.

The manager's list of jobs to do included tidying up the remaining herbaceous plants in the plant centre, tidying inside the tunnels including watering anything that was too dry, and creosoting.  I didn't have any overalls or plastic gloves, and was not going to get creosote on my one pair of warm trousers (black fleece, irredeemably hideous but oh, so cosy) so that ruled out creosoting.  The tunnels sounded the best bet, out of the wind and with the prospect of some thermal gain if the sun came out at all.

Not many customers came, so while we were as nice as we could be to the ones that did, there was plenty of time to pick dead leaves off the plants in the tunnels, snip off mouldy shoots, and scoop fallen leaves and spilt compost off the floor.  There wasn't much mould, as we run a pretty tight and clean ship, but some of the usual suspects were afflicted.  Faded camellia flowers are always vulnerable to botrytis in the closed conditions of a polytunnel, and Cestrum are mould magnets at this time of year.  Fluffy fungus bodies coat their dead leaves and the tips of the stems and the affected parts have to be picked and pruned off.  It seems to be a generic Cestrum thing, since every one I've tried growing in the conservatory at home has behaved in the same way in winter.  In the summer they are fine.

There were quite a few dry pots, when I began to look closely.  The only water supply at this time of year is from a tap on the outside of the shop, since the main irrigation system has been drained so that it won't freeze and fracture on a cold night.  The tap on the shop is positioned immediately next to the exhaust flue for the boiler that runs the shop's heating, for reasons known to the boss's builders and quite unclear to me.  After positioning your watering can under the running tap it is best to take three paces back and turn the other way while you wait for it to fill, if you don't want to breathe the fumes.

There is an art to sweeping and watering in situ, which is to get a head start with the sweeping up and follow at distance with the watering.  That way, surplus water will not run on to the areas you haven't swept yet, and you will not get wet hands and knees.  In practice the most effective way of getting water into dry pots can be to soak them, and throughout the day I had three plants at any one time sitting in a pink plastic tub of water.  Callistemon tend to get dry in pots, which can be fatal since once the leaves crisp up the plant is a goner.  At that point they won't revive with watering, but have gone inexorably down their own Liverpool Care Pathway.  They make a lot of root quickly in a pot, another reason to soak them instead of uselessly sprinkling water on top of the compost which will merely run off again.

Cistus easily get dry in pots, though they are much harder to kill than Callistemon.  And the Correa or Australian fuchsias get rooty and dry in pots.  They bloom at this time of the year, with small, pretty, tubular cream, yellow or soft red flowers which hang uncharmingly on the plant after they have faded to brown.  Picking the dead ones off took quite a long time.  The leaves are small, oval, mid-green and undistinguished, and always seem to suffer slightly from sooty mould as if some small sap-sucking insect had attacked the plant at some point.  My Correa 'Peach Cream' at home behaves identically.

I had a long conversation about using ivy as a hedge with a man who needed to cover sixty metres of decaying willow fence that he was not going to replace.  That's the trouble with woven willow.  It looks utterly fabulous when new, but it is expensive and not all that long-lasting.  The man's face was familiar, and it was clear he knew who I was, so I found it difficult to concentrate fully on the ivy question because I was desperately trying to remember who he was, preferably before we got to the point where he placed an order for fifty Hedera hibernica and I had to confess that I couldn't remember his name.  In the end I was saved embarrassment by his saying he would go home to measure up and e-mail us on Monday to confirm the number of plants.  I helped him find something he wanted from the shop, we had a conversation about the unusual height of the water table where he lived and where I lived, and by the end of it I was practically certain I had worked out who he was.

A pleasant couple reserved five trees, and placed an order for a wild gean, and I promised to call them on Monday if the manager said we wouldn't be getting any Prunus avium this season.  I didn't ask them to pay today for the reserved trees, but probably should have, since the day's takings were pitiful.  Like I said, we were as nice as we could be to the customers that came in, but there weren't many of them.  The forecast of heavy snow overnight on Monday can't have helped persuade people that what they really needed to do on Saturday was buy garden plants.

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