Tuesday, 30 April 2013

limited resources spread rather thin

Today I started weeding and mulching the island bed in the back garden, feeling like a general trying to fight on too many fronts simultaneously.  The term island bed seems to have fallen out of popular use in garden literature.  It was coined by Alan Bloom back in the 1960s and 70s, to denote a freestanding bed surrounded by grass, as opposed to a border backed by a fence or hedge.  His Wikipedia entry says he invented them, though I suspect that overstates the case.  I can't believe that nobody ever thought of growing plants in an area not bounded by a wall or other vertical divider until Alan Bloom came along.  Kidney shaped beds had their day, and Beth Chatto laid out her vast amoebic shaped ones, and then the concept slipped out of fashion, along with the term.  A Tom Stuart Smith designed garden has areas of freestanding planting, generally of rectilinear design, and I imagine he and his clients would be quite startled if you maintained that their gardens contained island beds.

Ours is roughly triangular, not kidney shaped, and its shape reflects the origins of the site, in that it sits along the edge of what was the garden when we bought the house, while the area that is now garden beyond it was originally part of the orchard.  The grass on the far side of the bed, looking at it from the house, was laid by me on what used to be a farm track running down the side of the orchard, using thick slabs of turf cut from the original lawn to make two large borders.  I barrowed in extra topsoil as well*, to improve the track as far as I could, but drew the line at attempting to dig the track over.  It is a marvel the grass path has done as well as it has.

The island bed formed a very pleasant, self-renewing community for years, with Cistus, Stipa gigantea, Verbena bonariensis, tree lupins and asters.  About three years ago the Cistus started to succumb to old age, and the bed has since gone through three programmes of renewal, each one in turn being hit by the cold and wet winters, so that the planting is still nowhere near as dense as it should be.  When the garden plants are crammed in good and thick you don't see that the self-renewing community also includes generous measures of creeping sorrel and horsetail.  Now the race is on to pull up the speedwell and cow mumble and get the bed fed with mushroom compost plus fish, blood and bone, and Strulched, before the plants grow up too much more.  Already the foliage of the self-sown alliums is waving around in wispy, hard-to-weed-among fronds.

A pot of Coronilla varia that I planted in one of the renewals is running about prodigously, so much so that I am starting to wonder if I have unleashed a terrifying weed upon the garden.  But its little pink pea flowers are pretty, and go on for a long time, and in a garden of this size with no paid gardener or eager horticultural students or volunteers, I need ground covering plants.  The Cistus and tree lupins can rise above the Coronilla, and it can fill in the gaps.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' is spreading splendidly.  Some Crocosmia are of doubtful hardiness, while others fall into the terrifying weed category, especially in mild gardens in the south west.  'Lucifer' hits the happy median, reliably surviving the cold and wet, seeding itself to make useful increase, but not so much it threatens to take over.  The sword-shaped leaves are taller than may of its relatives, mid green and attractively ribbed.  The spikes of flowers are a rich, fine red with a hint of orange, while the strings of bobbly seedheads last until autumn, and are a good architectural feature.  It was bred, fittingly, by Alan Bloom.

Meanwhile, the bed by the entrance also wants weeding and mulching before the Euphorbia cyparissus grows any more (another terrifying but pretty spreader).  So do hunks of the long bed, and some remaining patches of the sloping bed, and the top half of the near rose bed.  Definitely action on too many fronts.  Growing any vegetables this year now seems a very distant prospect.

I am mystified by the scattering on the grass below 'Tai Haku' of what look like leaf buds.  I don't remember it ever doing that before.  I opened one up, to see if it was simply a cast-off bud coating, but it seemed to be an entire bud containing small leaves.  Have they been randomly pulled off by some mischievous bird or squirrel?  I haven't seen any creature messing around with the tree.  Did one of the recent cold nights check and damage some buds that were at a critical stage of opening?

As I was not being followed by any cats at the time, I went and had a quick look at the blackbird nest.  The bird was still sitting, and looked back at me.  It was difficult to say if she was afraid, since she didn't move or make any sound.  I left her to it.

*Harvested from a very unfortunate incident involving an unsupervised builder and a digger.  I have learned a few things in my years, and one of them is never to leave a builder alone on your property with an excavator.

Monday, 29 April 2013

a full day ahead

This is probably all the blog there is going to be today, since tonight I am taking my dad to hear Martin Simpson at the Colchester Arts Centre.  Martin Simpson is a singer and guitarist of supreme talent, and so far as I know the gig is not sold out.

As it is only twenty to seven there isn't much to say about the day, but that's fine as there is no time to say it in.  I am boiling eggs for my packed lunch [gets up to take egg saucepan off the stove].  Indeed, writing that reminded me that the eggs had probably boiled long enough.  I still feel vaguely bloated from eating far too much lunch yesterday, though an hour or two dragging hoses around will sort that out.

The Systems Administrator was taken with the pub at Margaretting Tye, saying that the food was really very good, apart from the portions being at least thirty per cent larger than they needed to be, and that the time to go would be mid-week, when it wasn't absolutely jam packed, and that in fairness to the staff most of them might have just been taken on for the season so they hadn't yet had time to gel and work as a team.  Margaretting Tye is just outside Stock, north of Billericay and south of the A12, and very close to an ancient wood, Swan Wood, now in the care of the Woodland Trust, and its recently planted extension, cutely named Cygnet Wood.  There is a fine ancient wood outside Billericay as well, called Noursey Wood, which is owned by the council and so well loved locally, it has its own Society.  So once the bluebells are out we could go down to mid Essex and walk around some ancient woodland, before having a pub lunch.  Maybe ordering from the bar menu and not the full works.

And with that consoling thought it is now 07.46 and time to put the eggs in cold water to cool them down, then peel them.  I have no sympathy with journalists who simper in their columns that they couldn't have a packed lunch because they'd have eaten all of it by eleven o'clock, like when they were twelve and on school trips.  Come out of your newspaper office and work somewhere that is more than ten miles from a Pret, a Starbucks or a Caffe Nero.  You might eat all of your lunch by mid-morning on the first day, but you won't still be doing it by the end of the week.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

a pub lunch

Today we went out to lunch.  Third time lucky.  We were going to meet friends who live in north London mid-way between us and them for lunch in a country pub early in the year, and it snowed.  I cancelled the pub, and we rescheduled for March.  They all had flu.  I cancelled the pub again, and we rescheduled for today.  Having seen the lane leading to the pub I am now sure we would not have got there in the snow, even assuming that either party could have made it up the A12.  It was good to see them, and if we'd had to cancel for a third time then I'd have had to think of a different pub, since I couldn't have faced making a fourth booking.

The trouble with going out to lunch is that it does chop into the day.  It didn't seem worth putting on my gardening clothes for half a morning's work, and then having to change out of them and spend a quarter of an hour scrubbing my hands to try and get them to a state where they'd look respectable eating lunch in a fairly smart pub with three committed urbanites.  Instead I caught up with some admin, and went for a walk around the garden.  Garden owners tend not to stroll in a leisurely fashion around their own gardens.  Monty Don writes that he does, every day when he is at home, but most of us charge out there intent on making progress with whatever we're working on currently.

The primroses have made enormous cushions.  Something about the growing conditions in the past year has really suited primroses.  It isn't just the ones here: the primroses at work are looking equally huge and luxuriant.  I have been trying to establish primroses in the bank below the daffodil lawn, but the ones at the bottom of the garden are doing much better.  Even the plants growing in the bed around the trio of Betula nigra, where the soil gets pretty dry, are doing spectacularly well. They have started seeding themselves into the shady end of the lawn, where the grass is thin, along with violets, so that without doing anything myself to achieve the effect I have a small flowery mead.  Gardening is much easier if you work with the natural inclinations of plants, so I had better accept that the primrose bank was not such a good idea, and that I have a very nice primrose lawn, only not where I intended it to be.  Maybe the bank is too dry.  Or too sunny.  Or too riddled with voles.

Traffic on the A12 was running freely, something you can never count on, and the pub was where the Satnav said it would be.  The decor was subtly more posh Essex and less the stripped down Aldeburgh look than it appeared in the photos on the website, and I'd have preferred it without the (admittedly not too loud) background music, but it looked promising, wide range of cask ales on offer, reasonable menu at sensible prices, friendly staff.  I'd left it a day or two late to make my final booking, and they only just squeezed in our table of five when I rang, but made an effort to fit us in when I demurred at a two o'clock start for lunch.

I'm really not sure how I'd rate the lunch experience.  On the plus side, the food was pretty good, and they were accommodating about switching mashed potato for the roast specified on the menu. On the minus side, they brought two hot main courses some time before the others, so that our friends ended up starting to eat while their daughter and the Systems Administrator and I remained foodless.  That's bad.  When you go out to eat with other people you would like to all eat at the same time.  OK, maybe not in a party of a dozen, unless you are at a swish restaurant rather than a gastropub, but with five people you expect to see five main courses pretty much simultaneously. Further on the minus side they forgot one main course entirely, so the SA and I sat staring at our plates of untouched food (mostly salad, luckily) to show solidarity with the daughter while her parents ploughed on through their roast meat and potatoes.  On the plus side, the waitress was apologetic and offered the daughter a free drink on the house.  She's clearly under-age, so that was not going to be a very costly gesture, but it was gracious.  However, the waitress then forgot to bring the drink until reminded.  Service was slow, and with a table booked for one we were still waiting for puddings (for those having them) and coffee at gone half past two.  On the plus side, they voluntarily deleted the late main course from the bill.  Would I go there again?  Probably, if I wanted to meet somebody in that part of Essex, but the SA and I wouldn't drive down there ourselves just for lunch.  The pub was The White Hart in Margaretting Tye, if you want to try it for yourself.

The SA and I very rarely do go out to lunch, except when on holiday.  It's partly down to finances. When you decide to downshift, you forego regular eating out.  But it's also because we don't generally want to.  We can both cook, and both like cooking.  I have very rarely eaten a meal out and thought that at the pure food level I had consumed something delicious and fantastic that we couldn't have done ourselves at home.  Deep fried dishes are one exception, hence my devotion to fish and chips and tempura batter when eating out.  Also savoury tartlets involving flaky pastry, since I only do shortcrust.  But bye and large, leaving aside the presentation, I haven't often put something in a restaurant in my mouth, been blown away by the taste and texture, and known that we could never, ever make something like that ourselves.  And it would still go against the grain to pay £9.95 a head for glorified bangers and mash when we could buy sausages every bit as good in the farm shop and have it at home for under a fiver for two all-in, provided we could be bothered to peel our own potatoes, even if I were as rich as Warren Buffett.

But mainly, lunch out does eat into the day.  It's fine when you're meeting friends, especially those that live at a distance, but not for the two of us.  By the time I've changed, and cleaned myself up, and we've driven somewhere, and waited for the food to arrive, and the bill to arrive, and driven back, that's two or three hours gone out of the middle of the day that I could have spent in the garden. And then I've probably eaten more than I normally would at lunchtime, and will never get back into the swing of things because I'm too busy digesting.  The SA and I have all evening to stare at each other over plates of food and exchange whatever news and views we have.  And there is no risk that somebody will want to explain today's specials, or clear our plates, or ask whether everything is all right, just as one of us is getting to the punchline of a story.

Admit it.  Eating out is supposed to be a treat, but how often have you been out for a meal with a group of people when nobody has been unhappy about something?  The soup was lukewarm, or the main course was over-salted to the point of inedibility, or the puddings took ages to arrive, or the coffee arrived ten minutes before them, or the tea consisted of a pot of water, no longer boiling, and a teabag.  I am aghast each time I read a restaurant review in one of the papers where half the dishes were judged not very nice, the service was sloppy, the bill came to sixty quid a head, and yet the reviewer gave it seven out of ten.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

clean and tidy

The forecast this morning was for a dry start to the day, but rain later.  When you are a keen and very behind-hand gardener, your days revolve around the weather prospects, so my day started outside, trimming the last of the honeysuckle under the veranda, and trying to tie in the rose 'Climbing Etoile d'Hollande', which after a shaky start has grown to gargantuan proportions, and was lying prostrate flopped out over the bed.  I began tidying and cutting back the climbers under the veranda last autumn, to provide access for scaffolding so that the Systems Administrator could renew the guttering and paint the barge board along the back of the house.  The climbing rose, which had been wedged in among the honeysuckle, was dislodged in this process, which is why it spent the winter lying down, but now it really is time to pull it up again.

It rained so constantly last year that we agreed to leave the rest of the exterior decorating until the spring, and then in March it was never warm enough for the paint to have gone off if the SA had applied it.  It needs a minimum temperature of around 8 degrees C to dry, and we almost never reached that.  It is spoiled if there is any dampness in the air as well, and really it is a mystery to me how exterior decorators ever manage to work at all in the British climate, given that there are about three weeks a year when conditions seem to be suitable for decorating.  Painting the barge boards needs to progress quickly once started so that the guttering can be replaced, since it won't be very convenient living without it.  I know that people in thatched cottages manage, but that's their choice, and they have all that Olde Worlde charm to console them.  We have a 1960s shoebox.

As I was trimming off surplus bits of honeysuckle, trying to start from the ends of shoots and work in, rather than cutting through a stem and finding I'd killed a quarter of the plant without meaning to, I spotted an old bird nest low down, tucked in against the trellis.  I delved deeper into the honeysuckle, to extract the dead material from inside to reduce its overall bulk while retaining the living, flowering wood, and suddenly saw there were two speckled deep turquoise eggs in the nest. Oh, right, not an old bird nest, then.  I retreated to a tactful distance and pretended not to be interested in the nest.  Later on there was a female blackbird sitting in it.  I may have removed too much of her cover before spotting her, and she may decide that the nest is now too exposed to magpies and abandon it.  If she doesn't then I suppose that pushes the date to start decorating back by at least a month, since we can't ram a leg of the scaffolding platform right in beside her.

At twenty to one it started to rain, not drizzle, but the first few big, heavy drops that tell you that a serious shower is in the offing.  That was my cue to pack my tools away, given the forecast.  The Systems Administrator was surprised to see my in from the garden so early, and surprised that it was raining, and surprisingly gung ho about the prospect of taking the truck after lunch to collect mushroom compost, an expedition that has been planned and postponed a couple of times due to weather conditions.  If the SA was prepared to drive the truck and lift the bags on to the back then I wasn't going to cavil at a bit of rain, and so we went after lunch and bagged up 23 buckets of compost.  It would have been 24, which is a nice round number and exactly three times what I can fit in the boot of the Skoda, but I ripped one of the bags trying to fit it around the bottomless bucket that is the garden centre's measure for charging customers.  Twenty three bags will last me for a good while, given where I've got to with the weeding.

Then it was time for the cleaning.  That's the trouble with cleaning.  You can postpone it by dint of finding other, more urgent and nobler tasks like cataloguing the beekeepers' library, but it catches up with you in the end.  I wiped kitchen cupboards, and sprayed limescale remover on the sinks, and put stray boxes of screws back in the workshop, and removed a dead vole and some nameless lumps of something nasty from under the table in front of the TV.  The Systems Administrator came and volunteered to finish the vacuuming, after watching the last major race of the jump season, which was apparently won by a horse that we saw two years ago at Fakenham, since when it has Come On. The SA has missed one corner of the hearthrug, but it is still a lot cleaner than it was.  I scoured the Aga with special Aga scouring cream, and wiped off the cat hairs that seem electrically attracted to it, and wiped the crumbs off the toaster, and wiped up the extra crumbs that emerge all over the work top each time you move a toaster, several times since there kept being more crumbs.  I scrubbed the downstairs loo and the downstairs wash basin, and cleaned embarrassing quantities of cat fur off the skirting board in the loo.  I lasted until half past six, by which point the house still wasn't clean, but I'd had enough of cleaning for one day.

I've said before that it is a small world.  The SA was listening yesterday evening to Radio 2, and heard a request from a family whose car was all packed and ready to go, driving up to Northumberland with their border terrier Perkins.  When we stayed in Alnwick we met a border terrier called Perkins in one of Alnwick's nicer pubs (good beer, good decor, good juke box, quite clean, spoiled only by the baffling habit of the locals and bar staff of leaving the door on to the street open.  Northern people seem impervious to cold, and to consider it quite normal to sit all evening in the pub still wearing your anorak).  We gathered that the family with Perkins were regular visitors rather than permanent local residents.  It had to be the same border terrier.  Small world.

Friday, 26 April 2013

delving into the library

It was raining this morning, so I thought I'd better go through the books in the beekeepers' library. I could have done the vacuuming and cleaned the kitchen, which badly need doing, but since I am a very dedicated committee member I thought the library should take precedence.  The fact that I don't like housework very much may also have had something to do with it, but on the plus side for the library I had a member asking whether we had a book about wax, and the prospect of the County library being dispersed among the divisions because it is being evicted from Writtle College library.  I'm not surprised by that, since they were already short of space and having to weed their horticultural books when I was there thirteen years ago.  If our division was about to be offered the chance to bag some books from the County then we needed to know what we already had.

The previous librarian sent me a spreadsheet of the library contents, but since I wouldn't have known the names or titles, apart from a handful, looking at what we had and seeing its age and condition seemed a good idea.  The contents of the boxes proved fascinating, as an historical document as much as an aid to keeping bees now.  Given the new bee diseases that have arrived in recent decades, the changes in land management and available forage, and new regulations on honey labelling and marketing, books dating from the early part of the last century are going to be of limited use in a practical sense, though bee behaviour won't have changed that much in a hundred years when they have been around for millennia.  One of my fellow beekeepers, I can't remember who, queried at the AGM whether we needed a library, now that so much information was available on the internet.  But it is interesting to see how things used to be done, and I trust a respected classic author on subjects like bees in archaeology and mythology more than I do a website of unknown provenance found by Google search.

My standard textbook on general beekeeping was and is by Ted Hooper, and the library has two copies of his useful book, but I noticed that we had two and three copies of general guides by other, earlier authors.  Before Hooper there was Herrod-Hempsall, and before him Edwards.  Several of the books were North American, so not directly applicable to North Essex, but would be an interesting read if one had the time.  I can't see many of our members wanting to borrow an HMSO 1912 Instruction in bee keeping for the use of Irish bee keepers, but you never know.  A 1925 first edition of Anatomy and Physiology of the Honeybee by Snodgrass is a classic, and will be worth money.

Some of the books came from Thurrock division, which years back seceded from Essex Beekeepers and set up on its own account.  There must be something in the water at Thurrock, given that they have a unitary authority as well, instead of being part of Essex County Council.  Others were gifted to the association by past members.  I remember one of the donors, a kindly man, greatly interested in pollen identification, who sadly developed Altzheimer's.  I had doubts about the historical interest of a few disintegrating post-war paperbacks, and some were downright insanitary, but most of the books were worthy of finding sanctuary in somebody's spare room for a while longer.  I aim to read some of them myself.

Sitting in several other boxes are magazines and pamphlets going back to the 1970s, the collection I picked up from the previous librarian having already grown by two boxes donated by a member who no longer wanted to give them house-room, but didn't like to put them in the paper recycling bin at the local tip.  Sorting and cataloguing those will have to wait for another wet day, in fact, probably another wet year as bad as 2012.  My dedication to the library only goes so far.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

the joys of spring

It was another beautiful day.  I've seen the forecast on the TV and the Met Office website, and know that a front is advancing from the north and that the warm weather won't last, but I'm enjoying it while it does.  At the start of the week, or rather on Tuesday morning, I could scarcely believe that I had the rest of the week to get on with things at home.  Surely something would happen.  A cat would appear with an injury requiring a trip to the vet, or I would poke myself in the eye and spend the rest of the day at the walk-in centre, or my car would develop some bizarre fault requiring it to be taken to the garage and collected again.  But all was well.  It is early Thursday evening and so far nothing has gone wrong at all.

My left knee did take exception to crawling around on a mixture of earth, mushroom compost, fish blood and bone, Strulch, and Euphorbia cyparissus while wearing jeans with a hole in, and turned an ominous shade of dark pink.  I considered a diagnosis of cellulitis or housemaid's knee, but instead opted for scrubbing it with a face flannel and seeing if it calmed down again.  I have ordered a pair of cheap jeans from Tesco, and will see how long they last.  It may be that I have to look on gardening trousers as disposable items, akin to gardening gloves.  They have not yet arrived at my chosen click-and-collect store, so in deference to my knee I sacrificed a pair of early 90s vintage chinos, which only ever buttoned up when I was at my thinnest.  That doesn't happen so often nowadays, and with the button left undone and a belt they will do for gardening.

In the back garden the buds of the 'Tai Haku' are starting to open.  Yesterday morning they were still shut.  By yesterday afternoon the tree was showing white, and this afternoon whiter still, but still not fully out.  This is the great white cherry, thought lost to cultivation in its native Japan, and saved by the discovery of one poorly-looking tree in an English garden by the early twentieth century cherry enthusiast Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram.  It holds its branches out almost horizontally, in classic Japanese cherry pose.  The flowers only last a matter of days, but they are glorious.  The young leaves are a pleasant shade of bronze, and the autumn colour is good.  It will get large with time, which is fine by us.  It sits on one corner of the top lawn, forming a fulcrum around which other parts of the garden swirl.  Japanese cherries are still vaguely out of fashion, but I like 'Tai Haku'.  I am not interested in being fashionable, and a good habit, decent leaves and spectacular display of blossom, plus a romantic history, are enough for me.  The Systems Administrator is fond of 'Tai Haku' partly because the SA's late father grew it in their first garden in Berkhamsted, when the SA was very small.

The egg situation is unclear.  Yesterday the SA heard hammering from the chicken house, but by the time the SA investigated the hens had broken an egg on the floor of the main house, and were eating it.  But today we collected five eggs.

In the gravel garden my two plants of Zauschneria have both made it through the long, cold winter, and last year's endless rain, and are suckering nicely.  I think this is testament to the extremely sharp drainage in the front garden.  It comes originally from the dry slopes and chaparral of North America, and carries red flowers at the orange end of the spectrum, in late summer.  It does very badly in pots, and tends to look pretty rough, which is probably one reason why you don't see if for sale very often.  I got one of my plants at work, and the other at the Chatto gardens.  The top growth is killed by the winter, at least in north Essex, but the plant shoots again from below ground level, so you simply cut the dead twigs off in the spring, and presently get a whole new set of grey-leaved twigs to admire.

Berkheya purpurea from South Africa has a similar trick.  Every bit of the plant above ground level is stone-dead and dessicated by the end of winter, but about now new felted grey leaves start appearing from below ground.  I missed a trick when I failed to provide more shelter from cold winds in the top part of the garden, otherwise with drainage like this we ought to be able to grow all sorts of things.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

feed and mulch

A boot load of spent mushroom compost doesn't last long.  I bought another eight bags this morning, and by the evening had only got three left.  The race is well and truly on to get as many beds mulched as possible, before the emerging foliage is so advanced that I can't get at the ground, and cause damage trying.  The Strulch, which has been stacked up outside since I don't have anywhere under cover to store it, has gone rather blue and mouldy in its bags, but I expect that will wear off once it is in the sunlight and the fresh air.  Just so long as it doesn't give me farmer's lung, I'm happy.

The entrance bed has got a large and spreading patch of Euphorbia cyparissus.  I am in two minds about this plant, which is in many ways a terrifying weed.  But as the Missouri Botanical Garden website states, it tolerates dry soil, shallow rocky soil and drought.  In the entrance bed it shrugs off the effects of the meagre sand and root competition from surrounding shrubs to make ground cover that is really quite pretty in season.  Forget the botanic garden's suggested planting density of eight to ten plants to the square yard.  I didn't buy more than three pots to get my enormous patch.  It runs ferociously at the root, but I haven't found seedlings elsewhere in the garden.  It is surrounded on one side by tarmac, on the second side by the hedge between us and the lettuce field, and on the third side by gravel.  If it ever runs through the ivy hedge and tries to set off across the gravel I shall have to resort to strong poison, but in the meantime I am on balance grateful for the ground cover it provides.

I cut away its dead stems earlier in the spring, and gave the area a preliminary weed, so now need to get it fed and Strulched before the Euphorbia shoots grow too much.  I worried briefly that I would injure them sprinkling mushroom compost around them and covering them with mineralised straw, while trampling on them.  Then I thought that if I had wanted to get rid of the Euphorbia I would not expect manure plus straw mulch to be any use at all.  There are some roots of a creeping grass among the Euphorbia, and while I pulled up what I could, I shall need to return on calm, dry days with the glyphosate.

I had to move some of the daffodils I planted in the long bed, not the pale coloured ones I planted in a dither while it was blowing a gale, but the cheerful two-tone orange and yellow 'Jetfire' that went in several weeks ago.  When they were the only things flowering in that part of the bed they looked very cheerful and I was pleased to see them there, but when the existing inhabitants came into flower before 'Jetfire' had finished I realised that orange and yellow Narcissus do not go with pink cherry blossom, or red Pulsatilla, and don't do a lot for a collection of hyacinths in harmonising shades of blue and purple.  The pale yellow daffodils are fine, but the strong yellow and orange quarrels with everything else in the bed.  I couldn't think what to do with the 'Jetfire', or the other pots of yellow daffodils waiting to be planted, then realised I could use them along the front edge of the entrance bed.  A splash of yellow as you arrive would be very cheery, and as the front of the bed is largely clear at the moment they would be easy to plant.  I peered suspiciously at the existing planting, trying to work out if there was anything likely to overlap with the daffodils and clash with them in a normal season, but none of the shrubs looked at all close to flowering.  Strong yellow and Malus floribunda are a pretty vile combination.  I know that since absent mindedly planting some yellow Crown Imperial fritillaries underneath my tree.

The Systems Administrator is letting the hens out for an evening run, now that the weather's warmer, though they won't be coming out tomorrow because we're going out, and then it's due to turn colder again, so today may be their last taste of freedom for a few days.  Looking at the mess they have made scratching around by the bog garden I am slightly relieved about that, much as they enjoy free-ranging.  They have heapeded the Strulch into great piles and kicked some on to the lawn, while a poor little decapitated flower of Fritillaria meleagris lay folorn on the ground.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

so many weeds, so little time

I awoke to the beautiful prospect of a whole week of gardening.  Well, five days, since we are supposed to be meeting friends for lunch on Sunday.  The forecast is decent, though it might get a little showery by Friday, and my diary is otherwise empty, apart from a concert in the evening on Thursday.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and it felt like spring.  I had half a pallet of Strulch, and a boot load of mushroom compost.  Delight.

There is so much to do, it is difficult to know where to start.  I decided to begin by finishing weeding the top of the long bed, so that I could replace the pebble mulch currently sitting on an empty Strulch bag on the lawn before the grass under the bag went too yellow.  And we look straight out of the sitting room window at that part of that bed, so it might as well be tidy and free of extraneous bags instead of a long-term work-in-progress.  I thought optimistically that I would be finished by lunchtime, but the remaining pebble mulch had embedded itself in the soil and it took some time to excavate the stones, pick dead leaves and weeds out of the bed, smooth off the surface and replace the pebbles.

Cold weather has cut back the Bupleurum fruticosum, leaving only a couple of branches alive.  Or at least, I was pretty sure that the rest of the plant was not going to break leaf.  There were new shoots visible at ground level, and I thought the answer was to prune out the dead wood, mulch the plant and wait for regrowth.  While I was at it I trimmed back a very enthusiastic flowering currant that had spread sideways to several times its own height, and was threatening to engulf the Bupleurum.  The latter is a shrubby member of the carrot family, and you don't find many of those. It has elegant sea-green leaves and bright green flowers, held in the clusters of individually tiny flowers typical of the umbellifers.  That is when it is alive.  Mine was mostly leafless brown twigs.

The Systems Administrator mowed the back lawns, for the first time this year.  That has to be a record for us, to be giving the lawn its initial cut on St George's Day.  It could have done with cutting a week back, and the SA was all set to do it, but found the lawnmower battery had flattened down completely after a winter of disuse.  You can't use the portable jump starter on the lawn tractor, since for health and safety reasons it will only work when you are sitting on the seat, and the battery connections are (you guessed it) under the seat.  Today the SA used the push mower, having remembered to charge that up in advance.  It started, but was behaving as if the filters might be blocked.

All this crawling around weeding has worn through the left knee of another pair of gardening trousers, a rather hideous pair of jeans that I bought in a Lands End sale years ago.  I spent a long time searching on-line, and nobody seems to sell proper rugged gardening trousers, made out of really heavy cotton.  This is not just an issue for women (though gardening clothes aimed at women whose chief design feature is that they have pink floral motifs make me want to spit).  Customer comments on the Amazon clothing site were pretty scathing about the fabric (lightweight), fastenings (broke) and construction (shoddy) of most the outdoor trousers for men too.

This isn't a new problem, and my search for good gardening trousers is a perpetual quest.  Before the current jeans, I wore a pair of moleskin trousers from Toast that had become too shabby to wear anywhere else, but finally the waist fastening distorted to the point where they would not stay up, and the seams had started to come un-stitched, which was embarrassing when facing the postman or delivery drivers.  I've experimented with overalls from the farm supply shop, but they go at the knees, and tend to come to bits around the armholes as well.  A pair of cotton combat trousers from Millets wore through in no time at all.  I still wear their sister pair to work, but only when it is cold enough to wear thermals underneath, since one leg has a long rip from a close encounter with a rose bush.  The Systems Administrator suggested army combat trousers, and I'd happily try them if I could track down a pair in my size, but they don't seem too thick on the ground.

Finally on Amazon I settled on a pair of what were described as Work Wear Trousers VINTAGE RETRO Swedish Army Prison Issue 1950s.  They had received one ecstatic five star review, from somebody who did not actually want them to work in, but was delighted that they made him look like a Hoxton art student.  I was more taken by the claim that they were made out of heavy grade cotton, and thought they might not be as flimsy as the Millets ones, though the button fly would be a nuisance.  They arrived this morning, and they are absolutely beautiful, in an extraordinary, heavy, green and brown shot cotton fabric, very high waisted, with a little adjustable belt across the back as well as belt loops.  They are a couple of centimetres too long, but otherwise a perfect fit, and I realised that they were far too good to be immediately relegated to gardening trousers.  I could never bear to kneel on the earth in that shot cotton.  They need pressing, and turning up, and then they will be something that the Toast catalogue would want to charge me a hundred and fifteen quid for.  This fine example of the Annie Hall look set me back £9.99 plus postage, which seems a bargain.  But does not solve the problem of finding some new gardening trousers.

Monday, 22 April 2013

day three in the plant centre

I have just finished a thirty hour working week in three days, and I am tired.  Today, just as it got to five o'clock and we were down to one customer, and I was beginning to think that I could spend the last hour peacefully putting pots back in order and watering a few climbers I'd noticed were dry, the delivery of Italian plants that the manager was hoping wouldn't come until tomorrow arrived.

The Italian plants always come in an articulated lorry.  The drive at the plant centre is too small to take artics, and the owners always specify that our suppliers mustn't use them, but that doesn't do any good when the plants are coming all the way from Tuscany.  One driver did once ignore the No Artics sign and make his way up to the house, and it took a very long time to get him out again. None of us at the plant centre speak Polish, but my colleagues got the gist of what he was saying, and it was not at all polite.  Today's driver parked out on the road, meaning that passing traffic had to overtake him slightly too close to a nasty blind corner, and we needed to get the plants offloaded as quickly as possible.  The gardener was summoned from the far end of the garden to tow trailer loads of plants up the drive behind the tractor, and the rest of us toiled too and fro pushing the silver trolleys that the customers use.

The young gardener had got a lucky break, since he had the day off to make up for doing car park duty yesterday, and the boss managed to be out, but the owner came and lifted and hauled with the rest of us.  We tried to put like with like in neat rows, but most of the magnolias didn't seem to have labels, and I reckon it is going to take the manager most of tomorrow morning and drive him half mad in the process, trying to work out what they all are.  By the time we'd finished we had straggling lines of slightly squashed plants flopping over most of the lawn outside the loos.  They will look much better once they have been watered and released from the plastic nets they are wrapped in for travel.

I had a close encounter with another delivery in the morning, as a small lorry arrived with some fake lead pots, just as I was loading trays of ferns from the day's very first delivery into a trolley.  I summoned the manager over the radio, and the lorry driver, seeing me with the ferns, said cheerfully that I might be able to help him, and began to pick my brains about an Escallonia that he had bought at a car boot sale.  I'm always happy to talk plants, and admired his enterprise.

We were busy again.  My young colleague was back at work and able to operate the tea room, but the manager and I were left with it while she went for her lunch, which meant that the manager had to do it, since my hands looked as though I'd spent the morning moving trays of ferns around.  The manager was already incredibly busy trying to do manager things, and does not know how to work the hot milk machine (neither do I).  He tried to fetch my young colleague back from her lunch break, but she had got wise to this ploy, and disappeared to eat her lunch somewhere other than the staff room.  We badly need somebody to operate the tea room (Boss, if you are reading this, we need someone to do the tea room.  Please.).  The manager began to look distinctly frayed at the edges.  Even when my young colleague is doing the teas, it takes a great deal of her time, which leaves us with only two people to do everything else.  The tills, the telephones, the finding plants for people, the e-mails and the manager things, like ordering the next lorry loads of fake lead pots and Italian plants.  Two people can only do so much, though the customers who had to queue to pay while I finished the phone calls I was on when they arrived at the till were very nice about it.

When I got home, my Chelsea Flower Show tickets had arrived, which was a great relief, given our local postal service's record of randomly delivering other people's mail to our house, while things we were expecting fail to arrive at all.  I have been gently fretting about the tickets since the start of the month, and was very happy to see them.  The Systems Administrator reported that the chickens had laid three eggs, all in the nesting box, on their new regime of more layers' pellets and less grain, so things are looking up on the poultry front as well.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

in the yellow book

Today was practically a re-run of yesterday, but with the added excitement of the garden opening for The National Gardens Scheme in the afternoon.  Yellow book openings always seem to bring some extra visitors, who have failed to grasp that at times of the year when we are open for the scheme, we are open anyway, seven days a week.  Today both gardeners came to work to marshal the car park in the afternoon, which at one point hit capacity, with no space for any more cars at all.  Tomorrow it will probably be possible to stroll round the garden without meeting another soul, though the cafe may not be doing cream teas by then.

Many of the customers commented to us on how busy it was, and how pleased we must be, and how nice it was to see the place so crowded.  I think that's partly why some of them come on a Yellow Book day.  Far from preferring the solitude of the birds and the fritillaries, they seem to enjoy the company, and the buzz, and the chance to see what other people are buying.

We took a convoluted phone call from one public-spirited and enterprising person who had found a purse.  She didn't say where, but I gathered not in the plant centre, and that the purse did not include a contact number for its owner, but did contain one of our receipts, dated today.  Working on the basis that the purse's owner was likely to call the places she had visited recently, its finder called us too.  It is truly a very small world, since I recognised the name of the purse's owner as a fellow mature student at Writtle, whom I still know to chat to, though not to the extent of having her address or phone number.  She'll probably be in touch.

I said yesterday that time spent on the till tended to even out, and so it was that today I did some long stints in the shop.  Award for the most competent customer of the day goes to the man who had spotted that a lot of the plants he was buying were priced at £3.95, and had lined them all up in a neat row so that I could see instantly how many there were.  He was in the minority.  There were also several from the 'There are five lupins' brigade.  Yes, madam, but three are in square pots and cost £3.95, while two are in circular pots from a different supplier and only cost £3.75.  Also the 'There are three delphiniums, five sedums and two foxgloves' squad was out in force.  I don't need to know whether they are delphiniums, sedums, foxgloves or a new species previously unknown to science.  They are all in square black pots costing £3.95 and there are ten of them.

The man who started boxing up the plants in his trolley while I was still putting them through the till was a nuisance too.  He thought I had done all of his pink scabious.  I had not done all of his pink scabious, because the way I make sure I charge for everything once and once only is to work my way systematically across and down the trolley.  I could try and pull off the trick that waitresses in Thai restaurants seem to manage so well, of remembering the entire customer order without writing any of it down, but I don't have that good a memory, so I don't trust myself to come to the end of the trolley and remember that I've already charged for the pink scabious.  I just work through the contents of the trolley systematically, row by row.  The only thing I want to know at that moment is where the plant is, how much it is, and what till category it goes through.

I was able to use my horticultural skill and knowledge to suggest that a shrub with small, pink, pea shaped flowers and delicate leaves that a customer had lost, after trying to move it without success, was probably an indigofera of some sort.  I showed her the photographs in Phillips and Rix's illustrated book of shrubs (which is a very useful book, though some of the blues come out pink) and she thought that was probably it.  Poor woman, she had even grown on some seedlings before digging the shrub up, but her gardener had weeded them out by mistake.  I couldn't think of any other likely candidate.  She was sure the shrub had been in the pea family, but she would have recognised a broom.  The pea family is amazingly large, including all the tropical species.  The boss lent me a book about it once, written by a friend of his and published by Kew.  I don't think it made the best-seller lists.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

the plant centre springs into life

There was a frost this morning, but a very light one.  When I went to let the chickens into their run I saw the ice on the car windscreen and thought that I must remember to switch it on to defrost five minutes before I wanted to leave for work.  When I went out to start the car, the morning sun had already melted the ice on the front windscreen.

At work I discovered the pea hens sitting happily in the middle of the herbs.  I shooed them off. Later in the day I caught them eating the leaves of some rhubarb plants that were waiting on a red trolley to be put out for sale.  I thought that rhubarb leaves contained oxalic acid and were toxic. Not to pea fowl, obviously, or else the pea hens are too stupid to realise.  They never give the impression of being the brightest birds.

There were some nice plants on the red trolleys, and I put aside a Geranium clarkei 'Kashmir White' for myself.  I probably ought to plant in groups of at least three, given the size of the garden, but am indulging myself in adding odd specimens of the less rampant hardy geraniums when I fall for them, and I fell heavily for 'Kashmir White' last year, only we had sold out before I got round to buying one.  It has fairly large flowers, as geraniums go, which are white but delicately veined with lilac.  I see on the Beth Chatto website that it comes originally from Nepal.  If it likes me I can always get some more later.

We were very busy, so much so that I thought there had to be a definite element of catch-up, as people who were finally able to get into their gardens bought some of the things they would have bought at Easter, if it hadn't been snowing.  Thank goodness for that.  However much we told ourselves that the slack start to the year was down to the truly appalling weather, the nagging doubt remained that maybe it was down to the squeeze on consumer incomes, or gardening having fallen out of fashion (to be replaced by baking, perhaps), and that trade wouldn't recover even when the weather did.

Most of the customers were sensible and nice.  It's just as well that the majority of them were able and willing to locate their plants for themselves, since with three of us on duty, plus the owner for parts of the day, but also the tea room to contend with, there was no way we could help all of them fill their trolleys.  If things had got any busier I suppose I would have had to explain the principles of the plant centre layout to a couple of them, and leave them to get on with it, instead of patiently walking them around the lines of shrubs and herbaceous plants with their lists.  If a customer is sparky and enthusiastic then it is quite fun acting as their personal shopper, but the utterly passive ones who evince no interest at all in understanding where anything might be do leave me wishing they would show a bit of gumption.  It isn't so hard to grasp that when we are standing surrounded by tables covered in herbaceous plants, we might finish finding the herbaceous plants on the list before going to look for rose 'Darcey Bussell'.

I didn't manage to finish offloading the red trolleys, though I did seem to manage to spend a lot of the day outdoors, instead of being stuck on the till.  Which is fair enough, swings and roundabouts and luck of the draw.  I've been on the till most of the day often enough.  It was very beautiful outside, the sky a clear blue, the daffodils around the car park bursting into bloom, the birds singing.  Much nicer than being in an office.  I think there'll be a fair bit of watering to do in the morning.

Friday, 19 April 2013

a mixed bag

Yesterday's thunderstorm was bad.  Lightning hit a house in Shotley Gate and set the roof on fire, while the bang was heard five miles away.  Today wasn't much better for gardening, as the morning started with a spatter of rain, and got steadily wetter, until by mid afternoon huge raindrops were bouncing off the roof of my car, and the benchmark puddle in the drive had spread from one side to the other.

I went into Colchester.  Normally a trip every six or seven weeks suffices, when I need a haircut, but one of the bee committee members wanted to borrow a book from the library (by the gloriously named Beowulf Cooper) and I had a couple of cheques to pay into the bank.  As I won't be at the next club meeting to loan out the book, I thought I might as well make a round trip of it.  The point at which garden clubs and townswomens' guilds finally embrace electronic fund transfers will mark yet another stage in the demise of Britain's High Streets, as one more reason for ever visiting a town centre disappears.

The expedition was a mixed success in commercial terms.  I started by calling at the local farm equipment cum lawnmower supplier as I was going past and needed a post whacker (hollow cylinder with a heavy base and a handle on each side, that you put over a fence post and drop repeatedly to drive the post in.  So much safer and more comfortable than wielding a sledge hammer at head height).  They were out of stock, but if they had had one in stock would have charged me fifty pounds plus VAT for it, which sounded more than the Systems Administrator had told me post whackers costed.

I found our Technical Secretary's house without getting lost (he is developing a vacuum cleaner for collecting bees out of hard to reach wall cavities, which I will tell you more about if I manage to see it in action).  Then I managed to buy two reels of button thread, one black and one white, in the remnant shop at the top of the High Street.I had a look in Colchester's smartest department store to see if they had kitchen string or a seven inch cake tin in their kitchenware department, but they hadn't.  I needed a small cosmetics bag to go in my work bag, to keep my nail scissors and supplies of aspirin and elastoplast together, but Marks and Spencer no longer seem to stock toiletries bags at all, and none of the little bags in Accessorize were really suitable.  I thought that Boots must sell cosmetics bags, but couldn't find them, and when I asked for help was shown a choice between three of the ugliest bags you could imagine.

The tourist information centre did have my preferred brand of hand cream in stock.  The tourist office seems an odd place to buy hand cream, especially when you are also visiting Boots, M&S, and Colchester's smartest department store, but they have a policy of stocking products by local firms, and my brand of choice is Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company.  They make extremely good hand cream, and the recommended retail price for 100 grammes of the stuff is six quid.  (You might feel you would rather not take any notice of hand cream recommendations from somebody whose finger spontaneously split during the course of normal use, but the length of time this winter lasted was enough to have split anybody's hands, even if they were bathed constantly in asses' milk).

I considered buying some vegetables in the street market, but there was no celery, and I wanted celery, and milk, and didn't have a shopping bag, and the red peppers cost exactly the same as they did in Tesco.  Parking for this mini-expedition cost me £2.70.

I had a look on the internet while eating my lunch.  The John Lewis website runs to four pages of toiletry and cosmetics bags, and I can have one delivered to Waitrose, where parking is free, and I can buy some upmarket olive oil while I'm at it.  Lakeland sell kitchen string, which is apparently very hard to find nowadays, hence the customer comments on their site imploring them never to stop doing the string.  They have already dropped the stainless steel holder for which the string is theoretically a refill, though I was planning just to keep my string in a drawer anyway.  They sell 7 inch cake tins too (or rather 18 cm, plus 15 cm, 20 cm and 23 cm).  Compete with that, High Street.

The Systems Administrator returned by the afternoon train, having had a very nice time in Cheltenham, and within the hour had tracked down a supplier of fence posts, a post whacker for twenty-five pounds instead of the fifty that Ernest Doe wanted, and a poultry forum that suggested strongly that the chickens were short of calcium and that the egg eating issue might be solved by tweaking their diet.  We also learned that they can't actually taste chilli powder, but that mustard works if you want to go down the baited egg route, though alternatively you can give them a golf ball to peck, until they get fed up with pecking egg-shaped things.  The SA has also promised to clad the hive stand legs with old aluminium cans, if the problem is rats eating them and they don't stop now it's warmer, provided that I move the hives off the stands.  A problem shared is a problem halved.

Thursday, 18 April 2013


The wind blew all day, a battering, insistent force that was an obstacle to thought and practical work outside.  The wind and sunshine had stripped the moisture out of the pots outside the greenhouse again, and I decided it was time to uncoil the long hose that has hung up by the dustbins all winter and dig the spray attachment out of the garage.  In the cold months the greenhouse needs no more water than it is comfortable to carry in cans, while the spray head splits and rusts if left outside in the frost, but now the watering requirements have risen sharply.

I really don't like wind.  It is tedious enough not to be able to put down a bucket of prunings, or an empty pot, or finished compost bag, without it being sent tumbling across the garden, crushing new growth and breaking flower stems as it goes.  But my dislike of the wind goes deeper than that.  My nerves are permanently on edge and the solutions to everyday problems and questions don't come quickly.  Indeed, my fingers are stumbling over the keyboard now, as the words refuse to come into my mind.

I weeded the long bed, trying not to squash the emerging plants and sighing over how thin the soil was looking, despite last year's applications of compost, and planted out pots of daffodils, but I felt indecisive about where they should go, and by next week I may feel I have done it badly.  Once the bulbs are in the ground I can follow on with 6X, bone meal, and yet more Strulch.  I wanted to trim straggling stems emerging from the ivy hedge, and tidy up the last remaining fennel stalks, but knew that the big builders' bucket would never stay put for me to collect the debris, so left that for another day.  I also wanted to apply glyphosate to the tufts of grass I recognised as being attached to a running rootstock rather than clump formers I could dig out, but it was far too windy for that as well.  Wind really slows you down.

Suddenly I spotted one of the recently planted cherries thrashing about in the wind, its stake waving next to it.  Upon investigation I found the stake had rotted off at ground level.  Tree stakes are intended to rot eventually, so that if the original planter doesn't come back to remove the stake, it will give way of its own accord, but I don't think they are meant to go that quickly.  Of course, the auto-destruct stake does not solve the problem of the tree tie being left around the trunk and strangling it as it grows.  Fortunately I had a spare stake, and was able to find a lump hammer fairly quickly and re-stake it.  It is a nice, sturdy, little tree, but some of the gusts later on were so violent that I think they might have broken it otherwise.

By mid-afternoon it was spitting with rain, and the sky had gone ominously dark.  I ignored the first rumbles of thunder, but as they got louder I collected my tools and beat a retreat to the house. Minutes later came the most violent downpour, with squalls of lashing rain of almost tropical intensity, that I could hear beating against the windows from the other end of the house.  Do you expect thunderstorms in April?  I always associate them more with high and late summer.

The chickens are still intent on egg eating.  I have collected two eggs today, both still warm.  The second had already been turfed out of the nest box into the main part of the hen house, and it was the noise of hammering on wood that alerted me to go and see what they were up to.  Telltale smears of egg on the house floor make me thing they got at least one.  They would probably like to be let out for a run, now that the weather is nicer, and that might help absorb some of their surplus energies, but they can't come out tonight, since I need to go out to a bee committee meeting before they would have gone in again.  And anyway, I don't feel like spending the first part of the evening following chickens around the garden in half a gale.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

bees, hens and mystery flowers

I scraped the weeds out of the cracks between the paving slabs in the Italian garden, and fetched the pots of blue hyacinths from outside the greenhouse, and the cafe table and chairs from the garage.  I fear that to keep the paving clear of weeds I will need to go along the gaps with glyphosate every now and then, if it doesn't blow a perpetual half gale all summer.  I'd prefer not to use chemicals, but weeding it takes quite a long time.  Glyphosate breaks down quickly on contact with soil, and is not so bad as some of the others.  The hyacinths are the variety 'Minos', and are slightly bi-coloured, being a strong mid-blue with more than a hint of violet towards the tip of each petal, and a paler blue near the base.  They have a good scent.  A couple are starting to flop over, maybe because I left them under the greenhouse staging for slightly too long, and I might stake them tomorrow to help them last.

I was surprised to see two pots of tulips about to break bud, since the tulip pots normally come after the hyacinths.  They were a touch on the short side for the pots, and when I looked at the labels I saw they were the variety 'Concerto'.  That would explain why I seemed to have lost the bulbs that were intended to go in four small pots on the terrace: I absent mindedly planted them in two of the larger pots that go in the Italian garden.  When I placed my bulb order with Peter Nyssen last summer I made a list of what I had ordered, with careful notes of what colour it was, and where in the garden I intended to put it.  By the time the bulbs arrived I had lost the list.  'Concerto' as supplied by Peter Nyssen is a beautiful pale yellow.  Different sources on the internet attribute it variously to the fosteriana, greigii and kaufmanniana groups, and it is described as pale yellow, white and (in one case) peach coloured.  Broadleigh Bulbs, whom I normally regard as being utterly reliable, say that 'Concerto' is pure white, and these are definitely a soft yellow.  I have just been outside to check.  So I am not at all sure what they are, but they are very nice, and probably worth planting out into a border when they've finished, since the small hybrids often seem to last for a few years in the ground.

By mid afternoon it was warm enough to inspect the bees.  The wind was stronger than I would have liked, and I didn't keep them open for long, but I did want to know whether they were queen-right and what they were up to.  The colony that swarmed late last year was small, but healthy and producing eggs.  The ones that took ages to get going last year were doing very well, with lots of eggs and brood, and I gave them a super.  Their neighbours were not really doing anything, but I thought I'd give them a week of warm weather just to check, before messing around with frames containing eggs.  The final colony had brood, but looked slightly messy.  I couldn't put my finger on anything that was definitely wrong, but I didn't like the look of them as much as second hive, although the flying bees were bringing in a lot of bright yellow pollen.  I was able to move the frames out of the two boxes that had been chewed by some animal into new boxes, which I fitted this morning with reinforcing metal corner strips to prevent them suffering the same fate. Whatever it is that was eating the corners of the hives has been chewing at the stands.  Some of the damage was fresh, and I think we had better put the night camera on them and try and find out what it is.  I had blamed badgers, but badgers are big animals, and I'm not sure they could wriggle in under the stands without simply toppling the whole lot over.  Rats?  I have never heard of rats attacking beehives out in the field.

The chickens are still eating eggs.  I bagged two today, one still warm, but they ate at least one, and I suspect two.  The question is whether one or more of them are laying soft shelled eggs for some reason, or whether they are making determined assaults on perfectly good eggs.  I wondered whether putting something soft in the bottom of the nest box would help.  If they laid their eggs on the hen house equivalent of a bunk cushion instead of sawdust, that would prevent them from kicking the sawdust out of the way and hammering down on the wooden bottom of the nest box, as they are doing at the moment.

The Systems Administrator has disappeared to the April race meeting at Cheltenham.  I feel as though I could do with some practical and moral support regarding egg eating, and whatever it is that is gnawing at my hive stands.  The question of what exactly the yellow tulips are is my problem.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

the egg thieves

Spiers and Boden were very, very good.  They are at the top of their game musically, and by now are considerable showmen.  The Systems Administrator's enthusiasm for morris tunes and jigs, played straight, is not unbounded, and by the interval had more or less been satisfied.  Spiers and Boden ramped up the act in the second half, with more of their Bellowhead-honed panache, flavoured with klezmer, steam driven fairground organs, and I know not what world music influences, and we all went home happy.  Spiers and Boden at full clatter are exhilarating, while still maintaining incredibly tight and precise timing, and when Jon Boden sings you can hear the words. Rare talent.

They are following a punishing touring system.  I gather that Colchester was the third leg of the tour, and tonight they are playing Uffington in Oxfordshire, then they have a gig every night up to and including 28th April, finishing in Amsterdam.  After a short break they are on the road again with a concert each evening from 9th to 25th May.  Jon Boden has won more Radio 2 folk awards than any other musician, taking into account his wins as solo singer and as part of Bellowhead, as well as Spiers and Boden.  He is a great singer, mean fiddler and accomplished guitarist, but some of his success must also be down to phenomenal drive and energy.  John Spiers is a fine squeezebox player too, and always looks so happy to be on stage that you feel happy in sympathy just watching him.

(I noticed the straps on his concertina this time round, and it has loops he puts his hands through, so the weight is being taken by his whole hand and not just two digits.  I couldn't see what make it was, though.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the chickens have taken up egg eating.  So much for my scruples about not feeding them left over egg fried rice as being a form of cannibalism.  I don't know if they are all equally guilty, or if there is a ring leader.  The first egg may have been broken accidentally, but this lunchtime I heard loud thumping from the nesting box, and found a couple of them hammering at a recently laid egg with their beaks.  It was still unbroken.  Eggs are designed to be easy to pierce from the inside, not the outside.  I don't even know if they only eat their own eggs, or if the guilty parties are lurking in wait for the others to lay and stealing their eggs.  I first noticed it a couple of days ago, when I went to collect an egg that had been there earlier and it had gone, leaving suspicious residues on the sawdust.  The Systems Administrator was under instructions yesterday to check the egg box at frequent intervals, while I was at work, and managed to collect two, so we may have lost one or two yesterday, and they had at least one today.

I think the textbook instruction to put a stop to it is to inject an egg with chilli powder and give it back to them.  I suspect that is one of those bits of advice that are easier to write than to do.  How exactly do you inject an egg with chilli, without smashing it?  And is chilli powder good for chickens? What happens if they get it in their eyes?  For now I changed the sawdust in the nesting box, and am hoping that if we remove the eggs promptly they will get out of the habit again.  Giving a treat of sultanas or similar when unbroken eggs are collected might help reinforce a connection between not smashing eggs, and nice things to eat, but it is difficult to be sure about the cognitive capabilities of a chicken.  Of course, from their point of view it is we who are the egg thieves, and since the eggs are now unfertilised they are pointless anyway, and might as well be eaten.

Monday, 15 April 2013

out later

This could be all the blog there is today.  I have to go to work, and this evening we have tickets for Spiers and Boden at the Colchester Arts Centre.  It's sold out (so there's no point in getting excited if you live around Colchester and read this before tonight but don't already have a ticket) and the doors open at 7.45 pm.  We therefore need to be there by quarter to eight at the latest, or we'll find ourselves sitting behind a pillar.  I shall have to hope that there isn't too much watering to be done after the last customers have more or less left, and ask the manager nicely if I can knock off half an hour early, since at this time of the year we are supposed to finish at six.  Getting home at half past six, or even six, with filthy fingernails and needing something to eat, won't leave any time for blogging before we have to go out again.

I could have written something generic yesterday and copied it on to the blog now, but I didn't.  Everything is composed on the day.

I imagine the atmosphere at work will be subdued, since on Friday the dog was run over.  She was a very nice little dog.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

sustainable planting

At last, a warm day.  An actually warm day, when I had to take off first my hat, and then my fleece as I gardened.  A day when we opened the door on to the veranda to let some air into the house.  A day when the birds sang fit to burst, and I saw a queen bumble bee hunting along the bank by the daffodil lawn for a good mouse hole to nest in.  It was a pity it was blowing half a gale, but you can't have everything.

In the long bed in the front garden, the pasque flowers have suddenly come into bloom, as has a pink flowered cherry.  I can't remember its name, although I only planted it the season before last, and it makes me think I must go through my garden notebook and update my spreadsheet of things planted in the garden.  There will be some deletions to do at the same time.  Today I dug out the rootball of Pittosporum 'Silver Queen', which was a thing of great beauty and delight before being clobbered by two successive hard winters.  Even now it was not quite dead, but not alive enough to be of any use.

My tally of Pittosporum and Corokia is considerably reduced from what it was three years ago, and I'm not currently inclined to increase it.  Sir Peter Smithers wrote how a garden should be designed so that as the gardener grows older, the work required diminishes, and I embrace his view entirely. My current applications of Strulch are intended to be a short to medium term anti-weed measure, the job of the Strulch being taken over in due course by plant cover.  I don't have the time, the physical energy, the money or the enthusiasm to keep replacing dead shrubs, or the inclination to spend whole seasons living with half dead ones while they decide whether they are going to recover. Or to keep endlessly applying Strulch, for that matter.

Sir Peter Smithers was aiming at a woodland ecosytem, the top storey being provided by magnolias and other exotics.  The understorey sounded pretty glamorous as well.  He said that growth rates achieved in the Swiss lakes were about twice what you could expect in England, and that after fifteen years his ecosystem was fully developed, self-sustaining and low maintenance.  That's rather what I'm hoping to achieve, albeit with a more prosaic plant palette of things that will grow in our peculiar mix of soils, and survive the drought and winters of East Anglia.  I am a little puzzled why Sir Peter's Swiss ecosystem did not contain seedling ivy, brambles, and hawthorn, plus evil running grasses, ash seedlings, nettles, or local equivalents to all the lusty native wild plants that seem happy to take hold in mine.  I think he must have had one or two Swiss gardeners working about the place to edit the developing ecosystem, and help keep it on the straight and narrow even at maturity.

Quite what would like to form a self-sustaining ecosystem in the bed by the entrance is a moot point.  I expect brambles would, given the way they are rampaging on the opposite side of the drive, attempting to engulf a tamarisk, the sea buckthorn, and the dustbin.  Although, curiously, I haven't found many of their seedlings in the entrance bed.  The combination of unutterably light and infertile soil, competition from the boundary hedge and exposure to the full blast of the south westerly gales has killed quite a comprehensive range of plants.  I'm going to try a Pinus mugo, which has been sitting patiently in its pot for a long time waiting for me to clear the weeds and the dead remains of previous planting schemes.  I know the wind and sand hold no fears for the pine, but the root competition from the hedge is an unknown quantity.  Beyond that I'm stuck for ideas. I'd quite like more evergreens, to help screen the garden from the farm.  Maybe box.  Or just buy more pines.

A plain green, moderately fastigiate form of Euonymus japonicus has done nothing since I planted it more years ago than I care to remember, despite applications at various times of 6X, fish blood and bone, and spent mushroom compost, and I'm beginning to think that it is never going to do anything.  A couple of swings of the pickaxe and I could be free of it.  Leaving room for what?  A buddleia?  A purple leaved form of hazel?  That might do, given the way the plain green ones seed themselves around, but you are supposed to plant them somewhere where the sun can shine through their leaves.  And neither buddleia nor hazel are evergreen.  Something to ponder, while I pull out as much as I can of the evil running roots of the invading weed grass, and hope for some calm, dry days so that I can keep hitting the regrowth with glyphosate.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

a good read

Today I have drunk coffee with my parents, bought two bales of compost and a piece of aluminium section in B&Q, and done some weeding.  That's not much on which to hang a blog entry.  Instead, I will have to turn to what I have been reading.

I have got two books on the go.  The first is Queen Anne: The politics of Passion (as I told you, it is a misleading title).  Having leapt ahead to 1708 and the death of Prince George, it has backtracked to 1702 and the early days of Anne's reign.  We are now just about solidly up to Marlborough's victory over the French and the Bavarians near Blenheim in 1704, though popular history books nowadays seem to take a non-linear approach to the passage of time, so we may yet regress, or jump forwards again.

Anne sounds a thoroughly decent, dull, and obstinate person.  She had almost no small talk, preferred to live quietly, which is fair enough since she was generally ill, pregnant or both, enjoyed playing cards and lost some money at it, though by the later standards of the Georgians she was incredibly frugal.  She used to like dancing until ill-health and obesity overcame her, enjoyed driving her two wheeled carriage in the hunt at Windsor, cared somewhat about her clothes, adored her husband and the Church of England, and spoke French.  She was kind to her staff, and desperate to be liked by her friend, Sarah Churchill, eventually Duchess of Marlborough, who was generally fairly horrid to her.  She took a conscientious interest in affairs of state, and was either lucky or shrewd in placing the confidence she did in the military abilities of the future Duke of Marlborough.

The Whigs and Tories in Parliament were still loose groupings rather than formal political parties. Anne's sympathies lay more naturally with the Tories, partly because they had a more deferential attitude to the established Church.  The Tories were hostile to non-conformists, the Whigs more tolerant, and there were periodic spats over Tory attempts to legislate against Occasional Conformity, the practice whereby non-conformists took sacrament once a year to appear nominally practising members of the Church of England and so eligible for positions which needed one to be so.  Poor old Prince George, a Danish Lutheran, was an Occasional Conformist but found himself bullied into voting against it in the House of Lords.

Once, the supporters of the move against Occasional Conformity tacked the legislation against it on to a vital finance bill, in the hope that the Lords would not risk rejecting the bill and so casting the country's finances into chaos.  There are few new tricks in politics, hence just weeks ago we saw libel reform legislation, for which there was cross-party consensus and whose supporters had been working towards it for years, imperilled by the decision to tack legislation relating to the Leveson enquiry on to the libel bill, in the hope that supporters of libel reform would not risk losing their bill at such a late stage.

Even once the English parliament had voted that Anne's successor should be Sophia of Hanover or her heirs, as being the next in line who were not Catholic, it did not automatically follow that the Hanoverians would succeed to the Scottish throne.  An awful lot of people had a better claim than Sophia, apart from the fact that they were all Catholic, and the spectre of Jacobinism stalked England.  Charges of Jacobinism were lobbed at the Tories by their more rabid opponents, including the dreadful Sarah, which seems odd, given that the Tories were for the Church of England and not particularly pro-Catholic.

It is all great fun, and while the past is a foreign country where they do things differently, the modern age has recognisably begun.  In many ways it was still very archaic.  Queen Anne was the last English monarch to practice the laying-on of hands for the King's Evil, and two of her children died of smallpox, as did the Marlborough's heir.  She sat in cabinet, as was her right.  But compared to what I've read of the intrigues of the Tudor court, it suddenly feels a great deal closer to the politics of 2013.

The other book on the go is Adventures of a Gardener by Sir Peter Smithers.  He was born in 1918, and after public school, war service with Ian Fleming in the branch of the navy that would evolve into MI6, and a career as a politician and diplomat, he managed to retire to Switzerland in his fifties, where he devoted himself to making a fabulous woodland garden on an old vinyard above a lake.  Oh, and he married an American heiress, which helped.  One of his friends told him to his face that with his upbringing it was amazing he was not more spoilt, and he comes across as a delightful man.  Passionate about plants since childhood, he was a distinguished plant hybridist as well as a gardener.

His book, written when he was eighty, is an account of his gardening life, with odd anecdotes about his war and diplomatic life thrown in, and I had it on my Amazon wishlist for years, and was starting to think I'd missed the boat, as it's out of print, and prices were climbing into the tens of pounds region, which is a lot for a set of second hand gardening memoirs.  When I saw that a clean copy was on offer at £2.88 (plus postage) rather than £30 or £50 I jumped at it.  It turned out to have an inscription on the title page, which I don't think the vendor's description mentioned, but at £5.68 including delivery for an otherwise unmarked copy I'm not grumbling.  There is also an Italian edition, still in print, but of no use unless you read Italian.  I don't.

Friday, 12 April 2013


In the garden, the hyacinths are finally coming into bloom.  Every year I plant up four pots of them, at five bulbs per pot, to stand by the formal pond.  When they have finished they are planted out into the borders, where they prove remarkably long-lived.  I went for dark blue in this year's pots, though seeing how pretty the pale blue tinged with pink 'City of Bradford' is in the long bed I might do that again sometime.  I'm very fond of 'Woodstock' as well, a purple hyacinth that glows psychedelically in the evening light on those days when you get gleams of sun between rain showers. I haven't noticed any of them out yet, so they must come later than 'City of Bradford'.

The pots are started off under the greenhouse staging, since the sad year when the basal plates of almost every bulb rotted in the wet and the cold, standing outside.  Once the buds were starting to show colour I moved them out, mainly so that they would get more light, and tomorrow I must move them to stand by the pond in the Italian garden, as there is no point in their flowering away outside the greenhouse.

In the gravel the pink Chionodoxa are flowering vigorously.  I grow the variety 'Pink Giant'.  They are larger than the species, but still fairly small, standing no more than fifteen centimetres high.  I have found them long lived and persistent in our light and impoverished soil, and recommend them as good doers to anyone who wants easy dwarf bulbs for such conditions.  In the Chatto Gardens I have seen the gardeners renovating areas of the gravel garden, scraping back the gravel and adding generous quantities of compost before replanting and top dressing with fresh gravel.  I add a little compost and bonemeal around individual pots when planting anything in the gravel, but don't go in for wholesale replenishment, so the ground must be pretty meagre by now.

The bright blue Scilla siberica are putting on a lively show as well.  A colleague spoke warmly of them as a good plant for dry places, and they seem quite happy in the gravel.  It's still too early for the dwarf tulips.  In the back garden, the buds and flowers of most of the little kaufmanniana hybrid tulips were grazed out by muntjac.  Pheasants may have helped, but I'm pretty sure that muntjac were involved because the leaves were taken as well, stalk and leaves cut clean across as if in one bite.

The Iris unguicularis, which do not grow from bulbs, are putting on a splendid display.  The twelfth of April is very late for them, but most things are late this year, and they were slow to get going. They flowered so poorly last year that I worried they might be congested and need lifting and dividing.  I never got round to it, partly because last year was so wet that I didn't get round to all sorts of things, and partly out of nervousness at disturbing them, because they are notoriously slow and tricky to establish.  I killed several plants before ending up with a full row of them, although with hindsight that was a blessing in disguise, since I was originally trying to mess around with different forms, and ended up with a uniform row of the straight species, which works much better in design terms.  I have not done anything to the Iris to make them flower so much better this year, and am at a loss to explain it, except that something about the growing conditions over the past twelve months must have suited them.

The daffodils are grudgingly opening as well.  The Systems Administrator picked a bunch from a clump by the compost heap, that I don't remember planting.  We won't get the benefit of them tonight, because they are still in bud, and have been banished to the mantelpiece in the sitting room as being the only place we can stand a vase without risk of the cats knocking it over, while we are back in the study.  It isn't that warm, even if it is mid April.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

bread and silk

First, to deal with the bread.  I set my alarm for seven so that I'd have time to cook it before going out, or if it could not be detached from the tea towel leave a note for the Systems Administrator promising to sort out the wreckage when I got back.  The bread had not risen any more in the night, but neither had it collapsed.  The top had formed a very slight dry crust, which had developed a faintly crackled appearance.  When I moved the bowl containing the dough in its improvised proving basket it quivered very faintly, like the surface of a bog warning you not to walk further in that direction.

I spread a piece of baking parchment on a heavy tray and tipped the bread out, then peeled away the tea towel.  Reader, it parted company from the dough with no resistance.  I had been expecting to have to prise it loose with the spatula.  I am therefore glad I reconsidered my initial rash, theatrical impulse to offer to eat the tea towel.

The bread spread out somewhat on the parchment, like a toad crouching down.  I was fairly sure it wasn't supposed to do that, but having come this far I was going to cook it, and gave it twenty minutes in the middle of the top oven, since the book said to start it at 220 degrees C.  Twenty minutes was too long and it caught, but reading the book again I see it should have had only ten minutes before I reduced the heat.  When I moved it down in the oven I turned it upside down at the same time, to give the bottom a chance to catch up with the top.

The bread spread out more during cooking, and then distorted after being turned over, so I ended up with a roughly lens shaped loaf that had burnt slightly on one side, heavily dusted with flour, also slightly burnt in places.  The Systems Administrator on inspecting it this evening said that it looked very artisanal, which it does, but not in a good way.  I would not pay £3.50 for it in Borough Market.

Having eaten a slice I can report the following.  The flavour of the rye starter comes through quite strongly, more so than the book led me to expect, and if I persist with sourdough I shall need a wheat based leaven.  The dough was definitely too wet, hence my difficulties in handling and the poor shape of the loaf.  The crust was too tough, which may be down to the wet dough, or the night spent uncooked in the fridge, or both.  However, the taste was quite good, albeit distinctly rye flavoured, and the inside of the loaf had the big, irregular holes you would expect with a sourdough. If I had read the cooking instructions properly I needn't have burned it, and having seen the size of the dough last night and this morning and the holiness of the cooked loaf, I reckon it was ready to cook last night.  The improvised proving basket works fine, so I don't have to buy one.

Preliminary conclusions: This loaf will probably end up being eaten largely by the chickens, and I will probably switch to a wheat based starter.  Sourdough does seem more trouble than yeast based bread, not least because the stages in total take so much longer that it would be more difficult to fit into a busy day.  But it is potentially interesting, especially if I could learn to make bread like they serve in Moro, instead of a burnt inflated rye-flavoured frisbee.

Now to the silk.  Months ago I bought a couple of tickets for an Art Fund trip to see Braintree's silk museum.  This area used to have a big textile industry, indeed Courtaulds hails from these parts. Warner and Sons in Braintree produced mostly furnishing fabrics for the top end of the market, weaving silk and later printing on cotton.  Their archives have fortunately survived, and ended up as part of Braintree museum.  Once a week, on a Wednesday, you can go and visit a small silk museum, and by special arrangement as part of an organised group you can get access to the archives as well.  I've been determined to see the archive ever since discovering it existed.  I didn't think any group I belonged to was at all likely to organise a trip, so when I saw that the Suffolk supporters of the Art Fund were doing one I jumped at it.  For good measure I invited a friend who is a skilled craftswoman, and I thought would like to see a textile archive.

The museum and archive live in a fine, early nineteenth century mill which fortunately escaped being demolished to create an inner bypass, as was seriously considered at one point in the latter part of the last century.  The museum is not very big, but the displays tell of the history of the firm, and some samples of fabric are on show, together with some of the company's collection of tribal artefacts, collected to provide inspiration to their designers.  In the twentieth century some unexpected people worked for them.  Edward Bawden I can understand, since he worked as a designer as well as a fine artist, lived nearby, and was indeed born in Braintree.  But I was surprised to find a design of very conventional roses by Graham Sutherland.  The rent must have been due.  I wished for a moment that they could get a grant to digitise the whole archive and put it on line, then realised that since their future financial survival will depend on their success in licencing designs in the archive commercially, they will never do that, because of piracy.  As it is you are forbidden to take photos in the museum, though they do sell an extremely nice range of cards.

The tour of the archive was in fact a lecture in the archive.  Tall, enticing stacks were filled with hundreds of cardboard boxes, but we were forbidden to touch anything.  Instead two knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers, one of whom had once worked in the factory, showed us printed and woven fabrics from the past hundred and fifty years, plus printing blocks.  It was all extremely interesting, though I would have liked to see more samples of the actual fabrics.  We were only ever going to see a tiny proportion of what they have, because it is the second largest collection of flat textiles in Europe.

After lunch, which was not laid on as part of the trip, we went to the Braintree museum.  This is more focused than some small museums, with an emphasis on local history, including the firms of Courtauld and Crittall windows as well as Warners, plus John Ray, the seventeenth century naturalist, and of course the Great Bardfield artists. It was quite educational.  I have something of a weakness for the arbitrary collections of donated stuff you get in some small regional museums, where military trophies, tortoiseshell fans, childrens' shoes, cuttings from local newspapers about disasters of fifty years ago, milk churns, menus from retirement dinners held before the war and a vintage bicycle mingle cheek by jowl, but they are very much a dying breed, and apart from reminding you how odd and various human existence is they don't tell you very much. I would put Braintree museum on a par with Wymondham, sound and informative, though lacking the bonkers charm of Whitby (apart from the booklet in the museum shop on Crittall Bus Shelters of Braintree and Bocking.  You can't get much more bonkers and charming than that).

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


The bread project is moving on to the next stage.  Sourdough is on the agenda.  Sourdough is the aristocrat of the artisanal bread world.  It is the high status loaf towards which my bread making books are trying to lead me.  Make your simple, yeast raised bread if you must, they say, but the real deal, the true, digestible, trophy loaf to which you should aspire is sourdough, bread leavened only by the natural organisms found in the grain.

For four days I had a bowl of rye sourdough starter tucked in the corner on top of the Aga.  On Day One I added 25 grammes of rye flour and 50 grammes of water.  The Systems Administrator looked at it doubtfully and asked whether I had anything that needed flour-and-water-pasting.  On Day Two I fed it with another 25 grammes of flour and more water.  On Day Three I forgot about it until really late in the evening before feeding it.  On Day Four I fed it again.  It was like having another pet, albeit a small, unresponsive one that didn't do much, like a hamster that spends all its time hidden under its bedding or asleep.  Then the rye starter went into the fridge while I finished my weekend's work, and stayed there yesterday because I had to be in Chelmsford by half past seven for a woodland talk, and was reluctant to have an unfamiliar bread recipe in mid-flow at the point where I needed to go out.

It's not that I like rye bread particularly.  I find the taste rather strong and the dense texture rather heavy going.  One small, thin slice spread with smoked salmon about two or three times a year more or less satisfies my desire for rye bread.  But I had a vague feeling that I'd read that rye starter was easier to manage than wheat, and the book (I'm still with Andrew Whitley on this one) said that it could be used to start a wheat based loaf.

Today was the day ordained for bread making.  In a way it was a wasted opportunity, what with it being sunny and not raining (I fed the bees again before starting on the bread, and all four boxes still had bees in them).  However, I'm out tomorrow, and wanted to try doing something with the starter before it had lingered too long in the fridge.  I decided to embark on what Andrew Whitley calls a Cromarty Cob, which contains a mixture of wholemeal flour, strong white flour and some plain white.  He first came up with the recipe while running a bread making course in Cromarty. Stage one is to make a production leaven.  You add more water and more flour to some of your starter, and leave it for several hours, during which time it is supposed to increase noticeably in size.

I weighed the ingredients carefully, so unless I misread the scales or turned over two pages of the book at once (which has been known) I was following instructions.  The production leaven was sticky.  Very sticky.  Elasticated gloops of bread stuck to both hands and the bowl.  I realised I needed a spatula, and got smears of raw dough on the drawer handle pulling one out, then more streaks of dough on the handle of the spatula, then used the spatula to try and clean gloop off the sides of the bowl and my hands.  Once it had got as close to a reasonably firm dough (sic) as it seemed willing to do, I stopped stirring it about  The surface was puckered and glistening.  I covered it with clingfilm and left in on a cooling rack over the Aga warming plate to start rising.  It gradually spread out into a puddle that filled the bottom of the bowl.

The book said I was to use the production leaven before it began to sink again.  I was not even sure whether it had risen as much as it was supposed to, but after it had been fermenting for the entire morning I thought it was time to move on to the next stage.  Make the dough using all the ingredients except the production leaven, the book said, knead it and then add the leaven.  Oh good, I now had two bowls on the go.  Sourdough is obviously calculated to appeal to washing-up fetishists.  I weighed the ingredients for the dough carefully, was surprised by the instruction to use 300 grammes of water for a total of only 400 grammes of flour, but went with the book.  The dough was wet.  Really seriously, stickily wet.  Much stickier than the production leaven had been.  I stirred it around with my hands, wondering whether the flour would gradually absorb the water, as I had a vague memory of the dough doing during kneading the only time I tried ciabatta.  It didn't, not so you'd notice.  I tried to follow the instruction to knead it until I could feel the gluten structure developing.  I wondered whether to add more flour, but the books all caution against doing that just because you don't like having sticky hands.  I was sure that one of them even said Wet is Good.  I repeated this mantra to myself for several minutes while clawing at the mass of flour and water, then decided that the gluten was developed enough, and mixed the dough with the production leaven.  The combination was slightly silky, but still very sticky.

The next instruction was to leave the dough on a wet work surface for an hour, covered by a bowl with a wet rim, to allow the gluten to relax.  I thought that the gluten might be relaxing, but I wasn't.  I used the pastry board and a third bowl, scraping as much of the dough out of the second bowl with the spatula as I could.  A lot remained behind.  While the gluten was relaxing I started trying to clean the first two bowls, remembering to use my hands and not the washing up brush. Picking the slimy gobbets of wet dough out of a washing up brush that has been used to scrub a bowl containing flour and water paste is not to be recommended.  The dough spread itself out inside the upturned bowl, and pressed against the sides like a slug on a window pane.

After the hour was up I was supposed to stretch the dough, then fold in back on itself, and do this along each side of the dough.  The dough would stretch and fold, up to a point, and did end up somewhat taller and less flattened and pancake-like than before, but it was quite unwilling to part company with the pastry board.  It was so soft that when I tried to pick it up, bits spilled over the sides of my hands while other bits stayed stuck to the work surface.  I decided it was a moot point which side of the dough was the least rough, and dumped the squishy lump in the proving basket. Not that I have a proving basket.  It was only when I read in the middle of the recipe that from this point I should follow the instructions for a French country loaf on page 184 that I realised that I needed one.  The books was discouraging about using a colander lined with a tea towel, saying that condensation from the dough was likely to make it stick.  I thought that a colander was about as good as it was going to get, then remembered the large plastic sieve I use for filtering honey.  It is shaped like a hollow bowl, and if the perforations allow honey to drip through then I'm sure condensation can do likewise.

I was supposed to have dipped my loaf in a bowl of wholemeal flour, but since I couldn't pick it up I had to sprinkle the tea towel liberally with flour, plop the dough on it, and then sprinkle the rest of the dough.  If it has not stuck to the tea towel I shall be amazed.  I was about to offer to eat the tea towel, but remembered the SA's story of an overheard conversation between some Irishman at Cheltenham.  As the horse that one of them had backed came charging up to the home straight in the lead, its backer swore that if it didn't win he would eat his hat.  It was overtaken in the final furlongs.  The Irishman's friend turned to him and enquired 'Would you be wanting sauce with that?'.

The bread seemed to take a long time to rise.  I wasn't sure how large it should look when it had risen as much as it was going to.  With a loaf in a tin you have a benchmark, and if the proving dough reaches the top of the tin you have an idea of how much it's expanded.  A lump of gloop in a tea towel in a plastic sieve is more difficult to judge.

By eight it looked larger than it had been, but I had no idea whether it had done enough.  However, I had done enough for one day, and was ready to serve dinner.  I put the in the fridge, where it sat in a quivering, faintly oppressive mass, and will inspect it in the morning.  I once left some non-doing milk rolls overnight in the fridge to see what would happen, and they rose beautifully in the night.