Sunday, 30 June 2013

the heat is on

I learned this morning that somebody who used to work in the plant centre had died, in her fifties, of cancer, a little over three years after the diagnosis.  I only met her a handful of times, because we were never rostered to work on the same day, but it was a sombre thought, and sadder for my two colleagues, who did work with her.  They will go to the memorial service next week.  I can't remember who it was who said to me recently that we were reaching the stage of life where invitations to funerals started to outstrip those to weddings, but I'm afraid they were right.

The watering took until ten, when we put the hoses away.  I spent the rest of the day wandering about with cans of water looking for odd dry pots, and putting very dry ones in buckets of water to soak for a quarter of an hour, in between helping customers and stints on the till.  Sun and strong wind are a lethal combination for plants in pots, drying the compost out in no time, blowing the pots over, and sending the water everywhere when you try to use the automatic watering system.  Just before five I resumed watering by hand, which allows you to direct the water on to the roots and pick up any rogue pots that have blown over.  We covered the herbaceous section, roses, herbs, and some of the display tables, and were able to use the automatic irrigation on the trees because the nozzles are so close to the ground that the spray has less chance to blow out of the bed before it hits the compost, but there wasn't time to do everything.  At five to six we stopped, tilled up, locked up and went home.  One can only do so much.

A stray late customer queried whether it wasn't too hot to water plants, and wouldn't they get brown spots on their leaves.  I read an article somewhere recently debunking that particular widely held gardening belief.  Certainly the farmers irrigate their crops at all hours of the day.  My colleague's rather tart response was that it was a choice between watering the plants when it was hot, or leaving them to die of thirst.

The robins fledged yesterday, or the day before.  Last night when I was watering in the greenhouse I looked at the nest and it was empty, and the SA said they weren't there earlier in the day.  They made their escape just in time, as today's scorching sun really would have given them heatstroke.  I remember that they made an equally abrupt disappearance last year, and since every last pot was exactly where I left it in the greenhouse, with no signs of disturbance, I think they must have gone voluntarily rather than the nest being robbed by a magpie or cat.

When I got home I had to do my own watering, though at least the Systems Administrator helped, and check my new woodland charity digital slides for a talk on Tuesday, to avoid last minute panics. The charity sent them out as a PowerPoint presentation, which the SA has kindly converted to a sequence of JPEGs on a USB stick which is what my digital projector uses.  Number 27 has rotated ninety degrees anticlockwise on the stick, though it looks fine in PowerPoint on the laptop.  This is a mystery to the SA.  All of it is a mystery to me, but the SA has all of tomorrow to fix it.  Thank goodness today was the last six o'clock finish.  That gives me a whole three quarters of an hour spare after work tomorrow to mug up on the new presentation.  I really don't have the energy now.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

winding down for summer

It was the last day ever of a six o'clock finish in the plant centre for my colleague who is off to Cambridge Botanic this autumn, and he was gloating about it as we trooped into our staff hut this morning.  I have one more to go, but he has done more of them than I have, being full time.

The owners were nowhere to be seen, but were about somewhere, since when I answered the phone mid-morning to a caller asking to speak to the boss, and warned him as I reached for my radio that I hadn't had sight or sound of the boss so far, the caller said that he was returning the boss's call of five minutes ago.  However, apart from a muttered 'thanks' on the radio, and human cries from the garden late on after the paying visitors had gone home, we heard nothing of our employers all day.

My task was to put some climbers out for sale, which didn't take very long, especially since one of my colleagues kindly picked them up off the grass and loaded them into silver trollies for me before I could get that far.  There was a red trolley to do as well, though not on my list, but I did most of it anyway, since the chances of my colleague finishing tidying all the roses and then having time to deal with the red trolley seemed remote.

Trade is tailing off for the summer.  I was surprised, looking at the tills first thing, to see how much they did yesterday, given that it drizzled most of the time, but we scarcely did any better today, despite the fact that it was the weekend, and quite a nice day.

A beekeeping friend called in, following a visit to the RSPB wildlife garden at Flatford.  He gave me a nesting box for wild bees last year, which he assembled himself using hollow tubes bought by mail order from a specialist wildlife supplier, packed inside a length of drainpipe and stoppered at one end with a plastic bottle end.  Some species of wild bees lay their eggs in hollow stems, for which the tubes are a substitute, provisioning them with food and sealing each tube up to protect the young bees.  Experiments in his own garden had convinced him that it was essential to mount the drainpipe where it would receive full sun.

I sincerely meant to put it up come the spring, and then failed to get round to it, because there were so many other things to do.  I had to confess to my omission yesterday, because he e-mailed asking how many tubes were in use.  The good news is that although I have missed the red mason bees for this year, leafcutter bees are only just emerging now from their winter quarters, and looking for places to lay eggs.  Apparently mason bees complete their development to adulthood in the same year that the eggs are laid, and overwinter in their nesting tubes as mature bees, while leafcutter bees spend the winter as grubs, and only pupate and complete their development shortly before they emerge.

Addendum  The letter O has suddenly got very sticky on my laptop, so if you n*tice any missing Os in this p*st, that's where they've g*ne.

Friday, 28 June 2013

a visit

Today was earmarked for a visit to my father's cousin, recently widowed.  That left time before and after the trip for some more housework and an hour's worth of ironing.  Now that the beeswax polish has dried on the dining table, I can see where I missed a few little patches.  It has recently collected a large number of short clawmarks at the far end, testament to the cats' increasing age and decreasing ability to make a clean jump.

My poor cousin once removed certainly can't make the jump, because his hip is giving him severe grief, a sad decline for a man who has always remained a healthy weight, and used to be a keen walker and skier.  He declined the offer of a lift from his flat to the restaurant where we were having lunch, saying that he could walk as long as we didn't mind walking at his pace.  Having a bad hip sharpens your perception of your locality, and by now he knows which side of the road to walk on, to avoid stretches of pavement with a camber, since walking across a slope is worse than being on the level.  Two years ago we were striding along the beach.

He made me the incredibly touching present of his late wife's wedding ring, saying that he didn't know who else in the family would like it, or had the right hands.  Her's were incredibly tiny.  It won't fit anywhere near over the knuckle of my left ring finger, and is a touch loose on my right little finger.  I could keep in a box and look after it, as I have promised to do, but rather like the idea of adopting it, signet ring style, for my pinky.  It is on my finger as I type, while I test within the safety of the house whether it will slip off, but I suspect that to feel secure it would need taking in very slightly.

Aldeburgh was surprisingly quiet.  I'd thought it would be heaving, during the Festival, but my cousin explained that during the day the festival goers were all at Snape Maltings.  We ate in The Lighthouse Restaurant, which I thoroughly recommend.  The front window is almost obscured by awards from Hardens, Michelin and others dating back years, but it deserves all the plaudits it receives.  It was almost a waste to be going there for lunch rather than dinner, since my system is not geared up nowadays to large lunches, and I was full up after my fish and chips despite foregoing bread, starter and puddings.

My father's cousin is waiting to hear whether his general health will permit him to have the hip done.  I hope it does.  He had his heart done at the age of eighty, and got five years' of active use out of that.  Reading the East Anglian Daily Times website over a cup of tea I saw that Ipswich Hospital was over two million in the red two months into the financial year. so I hope that whether my father's cousin gets his hip depends only on his clinical circumstances, and not the state of NHS finances.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

failure to finish

Earlier in the week I received a slightly plaintive e-mail from my Japanese gardening friend, asking whether I'd received her letter, enclosing some pages from a Japanese English language newspaper giving an update on the situation in Japan two years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster.  I had, and had been meaning to reply when I had time to sit down and think about it properly.  To my shame, when I dug out the envelope on my desk, I realised that she wrote to me in March.  Oh dear. I hadn't noticed how long it had been, but that's no excuse.  I never get the year right on Pop Master, even when I know the song and bought the album, so I should probably recognise that I have a poor sense of time, and plan accordingly by making it a rule to reply to people the same week. Being busy is not really an excuse, since if I have time to write a blog entry each day, I have time to write to my friends.  Although when you write a blog you set the agenda, and can burble on about anything that occurs to you, which is different to having to read and intelligently comment on Japanese current affairs.

I checked the bees, and the two small colonies I messed up in my failed attempt at swarm control had eggs at last, both the one that seemed contented last time I looked at them, and the colony that I wasn't so sure about.  The golden bees are busy making bees, and not swarming, but haven't brought in any surplus of honey in the past nine days.  They were buzzier than usual, but it was slightly humid weather with rain in the offing for later, which doesn't generally put bees in the best frame of mind.  The little dark bees still hadn't finished filling their mostly-complete super of honey, or sealed it with wax, a sign that the honey is ready for harvest.  I found several very early queen cells, but no more advanced ones.  Since they already have a young queen and plenty of physical space, there wasn't a lot more I could do at that moment.  I scraped the eggs out of the queen cups, and hoped that if it was nice weather over the weekend they'd change their minds and focus on foraging, but I fear I'll have trouble with them before the end of the season.

Bees and apologetic e-mail to Japan safely out of the way, I could spend the rest of the day gardening, at least up until an early finish because there is a beekeeping meeting tonight.  I wasted ten minutes searching for my Tilley hat before discovering I'd somehow mixed it up with my bee suit, white on white, not easy to spot. I finally finished moving the pots of dahlias down to the deck in the back garden for the summer, and put the last couple of pots of geraniums and Tulbaghia out in the Italian garden.  Moving the pots has been on my list of things to do for ages, and I have noticed before that I appear to have a neurotic tendency to not quite finish tasks, so that the list never gets shorter even though I have done quite a lot.  One of the current jobs is to put two defunct conifers on the bonfire heap, which are only sitting in pots so no digging out is required.  It would take all of fifteen minutes maximum, and the concrete and the space in the back garden by the conservatory would both look much tidier without large, nine-tenths dead conifers standing there, so goodness knows why I haven't done it.

When I worked in an office, and had to do personality tests of the sort that friends who are academic psychologists sniff at, my scores were consistently low on the dimension called Completer-Finisher.  By now I suspect that for whatever reason I don't like completing and finishing. Unfortunately the Systems Administrator's weakest score was also for Completer-Finisher, so while we rub along relatively happily because neither is driven mad by the other's disorganisation, we are the sort of people who go out to buy curtains without having measured the window.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

two very good exhibitions

I went to London today, for my rescheduled trip to the British Museum's Life and Death in Pompei and Herculaneum exhibition, after the funeral fell on the original date in April.  My companion was hit with a departmental meeting, after I'd booked for the second time, but extracted from her managers a promise that it would be over by one, backed up by a threat that if it wasn't then she was leaving anyway.  The earliest admission I could get in late June, even booking in early May, was half past three, which left us time for lunch before Pompei.

I thought that I'd go early enough to see something else before lunch, to maximise the value of my lost day of gardening, and my ticket, now over thirty quid including parking for an off-peak day return.  That's about 25 pence a mile.  I don't think my marginal cost of driving is as much as that, and a friend who lives outside the congestion charge zone would let me park in her drive, so I'd only have to pay the tube fare to Islington and back.  Anyway, I let the train take the strain, and went to the Courtauld to see their current exhibition, Collecting Gaugin.  This was much smaller than the Gaugin exhibition held at the Tate a couple of years ago, and blissfully quiet in comparison, except when a party of school children trooped through, being shushed by their teachers and shushing each other.  They were mostly carrying sketch pads, but I didn't see a single one in use, or many of the children looking at the pictures.

Two of the largest and most polished canvases are in the permanent collection and can be seen any time, as can Gaugin's marble head of his long-suffering wife, and the two canvases sold by Samuel Courtauld before gifting his collection to the gallery and borrowed back for the duration wouldn't have made Gaugin's reputation, if he hadn't done anything else.  What made this exhibition really worth catching for me was the series of wood block prints, part of the Courtauld collection, but not on permanent display.  They represent Gaugin's ideas about Taihiti, some gleaned from books, and embellished with borrowings from other traditions.  He worked on his blocks with an eclectic set of improvised tools including razor blades and needles, rather than classic wood engraver's equipment, and the resulting pictures, printed by his son two decades after his death, show an extraordinary range of textures, and seemed to me far closer to Henry Moore than Eric Ravilious.  I really liked them, and would call again if I'm in that part of town before it closes on 8 September.

The Pompei exhibition was marvellous.  That wasn't very surprising, since it has reviewed superbly, and is proving one of the BM's biggest blockbusters ever.  As you enter you are greeted by a plaster cast of the void left in the ashes by a poor tormented dog, and a carbonised table, then given some scene setting maps, information panels and a film, neatly done in sections so that you can join and leave at any point, before you reach the main body of the artefacts.  It is astonishing what remained intact, or virtually unbroken, beneath the ash and boulders.  The contents of a Roman villa are revealed, room by room, in the form of furniture, frescos, carbonised food and furniture, pottery, glass (how on earth did glass survive), mosaics, jewellery and statues, interposed with photographs of Pompei and Herculaneum themselves.  Only at the very end do you reach a few more casts of the unlucky inhabitants.

The Romans didn't do good taste, most of the time.  We were both very taken with a small sculpture of a small boy, seated in a posture so reminiscent of the Buddha that we both felt the artist must have seen and been influenced by eastern art.  Some of the mosaics are beautiful, very lively and skilful.  A lot of it is fascinating Roman bling.  The papers have all got very excited about the graphic statue of Pan having sex with a goat, in the missionary position, but I actually preferred the side table held up by a stone panther.

It took a long time to get round, partly because there was a lot of it, and partly because it was crowded, but it was a civilised crowd, and you could see everything, if you waited your turn.  We left at five fifteen, having slightly rushed the last couple of rooms because it closed at half past, and also because after an hour and a half our brains were beginning to fill.  The staff were very helpful about warning us from five onwards how long we had left, and how far through the exhibition we were in a given room.  My only, tiny criticism was that I would have liked the labels to each exhibit to be in a slightly larger font, given that it was crowded and people were trying to read them from quite a distance.

We returned to Liverpool Street via the Postman's Park, which my friend had never seen before and was very taken with.  There again, she hadn't seen Colchester North station car park before either, when I gave her a lift home to save her waiting for the branch line connection.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

in a bind

Working on the basis that you can prune anything in late June, and certainly cherries, I prevailed upon the Systems Administrator to come and remove a substantial branch from the wild gean, which was obscuring the Parrotia persica.  I'd like to remove some of the higher branches as well where they are crowding the end one of the trio of birches, but that would require the Henchman, if not the scaffolding platform, and I thought that getting rid of the cross branch was a start, and would let some more light into the ditch bed.  The SA duly ran out two reels of cable and plugged in the electric chainsaw.

The first cut removed the end of the branch, which I caught before it could land on any of my shrubs.  The second cut took off a further section, which landed on the winter flowering honeysuckle before I could reach it, but fortunately the honeysuckle had a tough and elastic constitution, and did not break.  That still left a large amount of branch, including a side branch which ran back across a patch of ornamental Rubus and a second one growing vertically upwards.  Neither were at all easy to remove, since the SA would have to stand in the middle of a large shrub to reach them.  The SA proposed taking off another piece of the main branch with both side branches still attached.  I objected that there was a lot of weight in there, thinking principally of my shrubs, but the SA said it wasn't too bad.  I crawled to the back of the bed ready to try and break the fall.

The chainsaw got most of the way through and stuck.  With hindsight it would have been sensible of the SA to do an undercut, or take more time over it and work out how to get at the side branches to take more weight out of it before cutting the main branch, but there you go. The SA asked if I could reach the branch, to pull it back and get it off the saw.  I could reach it, just, but couldn't do much to free the saw, which the SA eventually wrenched loose.  The final cut took the branch off, and dislodged the chain from the saw.

Getting the chain back on a chain saw is an infuriating task, which even with two people seems to require more hands than you have between you.  I used both hands to hold the chain on its guide bar, while the SA tried to feed the chain back on the saw and tension it.  This left no hands over to hold the body of the saw, which kept moving as I was applying tension to it while the SA was applying pressure.  We gave up trying to do the job with the saw resting on the edge of the trailer, trooped back up to the top of the garden and stood it on a low wall, eventually wedging it against the retaining wall behind, which just about kept it still.  The chain cover wouldn't do up, and the SA discovered I had the guide bar  the wrong way up.  The clue is in the word BOSCH written down the side, which should not be upside down.  Eventually the saw went back together and we trotted back to the bottom of the garden.  The saw made nasty rattling noises when started.  The SA inspected it and pronounced that the chain was buggered, and a link must have got twisted when it was stuck in the tree.

That halted proceedings for the day.  A new chain will cost around twenty quid, which means that this afternoon's partial pruning job cost approximately seven quid a cut.

I don't like power tools.  I can see that they make relatively fast and light work of what would otherwise require days of brute physical toil, and I have seen saw pits and can imagine quite how arduous sawing wood was, and how unpleasant for the bottom dog down in the pit.  I know that using an electric screwdriver to assemble our decking saved the SA an immense amount of work, which would probably have ended in an acute case of tendonitis long before the decks were complete.  But chain saws are so annoying, with their ability to bind and break, and the noise.  I think I might buy myself a bow saw, so that I can remove small to medium branches myself, without recourse to the SA and mechanical aids.

Monday, 24 June 2013

summer lull

I gather that the dog at work ate something very bad last week, and made herself extremely sick, since when she trotted into the office this morning people commented on how she was looking better.  The boss also had a narrow escape, given that he was mowing around the beehives and knocked one over.  The bees belong to an Essex beekeeper who keeps them on a commercial scale in multiple locations, and is the judge at our local honey show.  He was over pretty quickly, and his bee suit disappeared under a great cloud of bees as he put the hive back together.  The boss hung around to watch, until Percy warned him not to stand too close, and bees started bouncing off his head.  I explained that when bees start flying into your head that is their idea of a tactful warning, and their next move will be to sting you.  The boss remained unstung, but it sounded to me like a close run thing.

Then it was rather quiet.  I thought today was supposed to be warmer, or at least dry and less windy, but it rained half the time, and was so cold I ended up wearing my fleece hat.  I was actually relieved it wasn't sunny, since I'd accidentally left my Tilley hat on the hall table at home.  While at an intellectual level I'm not that worried about a bit of sun exposure or wrinkles, at a physical level my body has decided for me that my face has had enough sun exposure for one lifetime, and nowadays strong sunlight makes it hurt.

The only thing the manager bought from the van that visits on Mondays was some grasses, which he'd ordered in advance, and as a sign that we really are approaching the slack period of summer, the van won't be back again until the autumn.  We are still getting some deliveries, increasingly of the impulse purchase sort of thing, such as large foxglove plants on the verge of flowering, and a consignment of clematis are due mid-week.  We have sold a lot of clematis.

I noticed while watering that the two trays of white marguerites bought to order a good month ago are still there on the reserve bed.  The manager had said to me that he thought he would stop ordering in bedding, as it was getting a bit late for it, and that same morning a customer asked me for white marguerites for the urns on his terrace.  He asked in a way that was slightly unnecessarily aggressive and alpha male for a trip to a garden centre, with an air of entitlement that made me distrust him, so I told him what the manager had told me.  He appealed to upper-middle class solidarity by asking the owner for marguerites, and she told the manager to order some in for him.  Four or five weeks later they are still sitting there, uncollected, and increasingly dishevelled as they need deadheading, and stunted because they should have been moved to larger pots by now.  We don't take deposits, unlike my blacksmith who very prudently asked for a deposit on my iron bean tendril, since it was a special.  Other people might not want a rusted iron tendril, and they probably don't want a load of by now pot-bound marguerites in late June.

I answered the phone to somebody enquiring about dark red climbing roses without a hint of orange in them, and after a while said he recognised my voice, and I had given his dog some water.  I confessed to remembering the dog, adding that I generally remembered dogs, and conversations about soil.  I do vaguely remember him, but only to the extent that, apart from not having his own dog bowl, he had messy hair.

When I got home the Systems Administrator was sitting out with the chickens, looking chilly, and the chickens were staring through the netting that the SA put up to stop them eating the dahlias, looking baleful.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

the unenthusiastic housewife

The Systems Administrator tracked down the source of the mysterious clattering sound from the lettuce farm, and found that they had started excavating the extra reservoirs.  That's quite good, better than if it was due to some new method of cultivation, since once the reservoirs are dug the noise will stop.  We try to remember that the countryside is someone else's work place, and not to get too irritated by the comings and goings of the lettuce lorries, and evenings when the Lithuanians are still driving fork lifts around the yard at gone eight while we're sitting out on the verandah, but it's still a relief to find that the latest noise is only temporary.

Days of gallivanting around art galleries and gardens, and time spent in my own garden, have caught up with me, and apart from a couple of hours spent visiting a friend, today was devoted to cleaning and tidying.  My definition of tidying the hall extended to repotting the Meyer's lemon on the hall table, and glueing a couple of broken flower pots back together which had been sitting on the hall floor for ages, but apart from that it was bona fide washing and wiping, once I'd watered the greenhouse, and potted up a couple of evening primrose seedlings given to me by my friend. She has a pale lemon version with narrower leaves than my bright yellow one, very pretty.  They wilted rather pathetically after being pulled out of her gravel, but all I could do was water them in, put a plastic cover over them, and hope for the best.  If they don't survive I'll beg a seed pod in the autumn.

I really can't think of anything amusing to say about cleaning.  I don't like it, but it has to be done. The SA has promised to vacuum the sitting room tomorrow morning.  It was getting rather hairy and unpleasant anyway, and tomorrow afternoon a sales rep from Kent Blaxill is coming to measure up and quote for a replacement window.  This is going to be eye-watering expensive, since the double glazing unit which takes up most of one wall in the sitting room has failed.  The seal went back in the winter, and the interior has been getting foggier and foggier.  We left it until summer to do anything about it, because installing a new one essentially entails removing one entire wall of the sitting room, and we couldn't face that in the winter.  The thought of how much it was going to cost may also have had something to do with it, subconsciously, but we can't live with a giant fogged-up window for ever.

We checked in the show room with someone who went and double-checked with the manager, and the building regulations do allow us to have toughened plate glass if we want to, rather than replacement double glazing.  I was afraid that in this brave new energy-efficient world where I am no longer allowed to buy light bulbs that I can see by, I would be forced to have more double glazing. I think that a unit that size is pushing the technical limits for double glazing, and we can't afford to keep replacing the window every decade.  The salesman said we'd done well to get ten years out of it, since they only guarantee units for five.  He warned us that plate glass would push up our heating bills, but I don't think the amount we'd save sticking with a sealed unit would add up to anywhere near the capital cost of replacing another failed window.  The SA asked hopefully if we could get any credit on the glass from the existing window, but the answer was No.

The baby robins are growing, and look more recognisably bird-like.  As I was watering and potting, I almost collided with an adult trying to come in to the greenhouse just as I was going out.  It swerved off, and I felt guilty that I was preventing it from feeding its young, but I think it nipped in while I was filling up the watering can.  The starlings don't seem to be going for a second brood in the roof, which is a shame.  The broody hen has given up brooding at last, which is a relief.  Her comb was looking very pallid and unhealthy, and it will be much better for her to come out and get fresh air and exercise with the other hens.  Though they didn't get a run tonight, because there were showers, and anyway the SA was glued to the cricket.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

gardening and a retail interlude

I thought I was going to be able to spend all day working in the garden, but after the first hour discovered that I'd lost my pruning saw.  I checked the garage where I normally dump tools in frequent use, and couldn't see it there.  The garage has got pretty untidy, and it's not beyond the bounds of probability that the saw will turn up in due course, but that wasn't much consolation when I wanted to use it immediately.  I looked in the hall, and the greenhouse, and checked in case the Systems Administrator had had it.  I didn't think the SA had been using it, but you never know, since the SA has been trimming the Eleagnus hedge and might have decided to take an over-prominent branch right out.  I searched again in the garage, and tried to remember what I'd been pruning recently, and looked around the edges of the bottom lawn, and the border near the shrub rose 'Nevada', but couldn't find the saw doing a babes-in-the-wood act among the fallen rose petals.

I came to the regretful conclusion that I'd lost it, or rather left it somewhere in over nearly an acre of ground and an untidy house.  It would presumably turn up eventually, though possibly unusably rusty if it spent too long outside first.  In the meantime I needed another.  I drove off to B&Q, feeling rather guilty that I was not supporting the Clacton Garden Centre, only B&Q is about four miles away, most of it on dual carriageway, while the Clacton shop is fourteen miles away, on winding roads.  Shopping in B&Q is generally a depressing experience, and for several alarming minutes I thought they'd stopped stocking pruning saws, before managing to find the right aisle.  B&Q stocks Fiskar, which is a very good brand, and I use one of their own brand trowels, which has proved more durable and comfortable than its arty, wooden handled and stainless steel bladed predecessors.  However, they have converted all except about two tills to self-service, and the whole process of paying is unutterably dismal.  The young man ahead of me in the queue trying to buy three tins of paint needed the help of an unsmiling assistant to work the scanner, and when it was my turn I saw why, as I too needed guidance to operate the thing, after she'd had to come and authorise the transaction at all by confirming that I was old enough to buy a sharp instrument like a Fiskar 25 centimetre retractable pruning saw.

Armed with my new saw, I trimmed a couple of low hanging branches from 'Tai Haku'.  They biff the SA in the face while mowing the lawn, and I'd promised to lift the crown a little, with the proviso that this should be done in high summer when the risk of silver leaf disease was least.  You are generally advised not to keep hacking at cherries or plums in case you admit infection, but if you have to then late June or July is the recommended time.  I regard it as the best default time to prune anything that I'm not sure when to do otherwise, reasoning that the spring surge of sap has finished so it shouldn't bleed too badly, while there is plenty of time for it to start healing before winter really sets in.  It's a theory I've come up with for myself, rather than learning it as received wisdom from the books, but I can't fault my logic.

In the garden the roses are opening, a good month late, and the tall, pale yellow Cephalaria gigantea is in full bloom.  This is an agreeable perennial with scabious-like flowers, which will self seed usefully but not too much if allowed to.  I have it on vile clay, and it seems to like it.  The Aquilegia, Brunnera, Centaurea montana and white form of Camassia are virtually over, and I started dead-heading them, since they too will seed themselves generously and while I like them I don't want any more.  Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus is out.  This is a delightful day lily with small, highly scented yellow flowers, which despite its earliness seems to escape the hemerocallis gall mite that has plagued my other early varieties in recent years.  Just along from it is a pale yellow iris, whose name I've forgotten, also full out and looking cool and poised.

In the island bed the pink Robinia hispida is blooming cheerfully, but keeps collapsing.  It is a desperately brittle shrub, and I'd like to know what it does in the wild.  The boss has his tied against a wall, but bits still break off.    Coronilla varia is not yet out, but has spread so far that I'm starting to wonder if it is going to turn out to be a noxious weed.  On the other hand its pink flowers are pretty, and beloved of bees, and I do want things to cover the ground.  When I'd doing the winter maintenance I'd better pull out some of its running roots to limit its spread.  It is mingling with, and slightly hiding, the foxy flavoured Phuopsis stylosa, which is in full bloom, and is doing so well in a dry border that I will probably plant more.  Maybe it comes from seed.  Christopher Lloyd regarded the rank smell of its foliage as reason not to grow it, but it only smells strongly when bruised, so as long as you don't trample on it there shouldn't be a problem.

Also flowering are Astrantia, foxgloves, a dark red ornamental thistle, and a little Orlaya grandiflora but not as much as I'd like.  The Orlaya resents transplanting and grows best when self-seeded, then dies after flowering, but I don't seem to have had many seedlings this year.  I think the conditions are getting too crowded in the end of the bed where it was.

The new saw is much sharper than the old.  I had been thinking that I was going to need a new one, and am left wondering whether I subconsciously lost the last one deliberately.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Tate part two

At Tate Modern I found myself liking Saloua Raouda Choucair more than I thought I might.  She is a Lebanese artist, and I never heard of her, but then I don't think I have heard of any Lebanese artists.  She was born in Beirut in 1916, studied in Paris, and her work seemed to me to inhabit the same Western mainstream as Picasso, Henry Moore and Naum Gabo, with a nod to the Vorticists. It is not a large exhibition, with only four rooms, and contains paintings, and sculptures and their associated maquettes.  I didn't go so much for the wooden and stone sculptures, though it wasn't that I thought they were wrong-headed or fraudulent, just that I didn't quite share her taste in shapes, but I really liked the delicate nylon and metal constructions in the last room, and many of the paintings, enjoying her use of colour and texture.  When I was a teenager in the seventies, reading romantic novels by Mary Stewart, Beirut was portrayed as a cosmopolitan place of glamour and allure, then suddenly it was plunged in apparently endless civil war.  The thought of it gently haunted me, and still does.  Coincidentally, Mary Stewart shares the year of her birth with Saloua Raouda Choucair.

After that I tried AxME by Ellen Gallagher, another artist I'd never heard of, but I didn't get it at all. Great sheets of cut out newspaper advertisements from the 1960s, decorated with stuck on yellow wigs, and repeated several times over in case you didn't get the idea the first time.  And lots of other stuff.  Maybe by then I was too tired, but I really couldn't be bothered.  On the other hand, I went and sat in front of Rothko's Seagram murals for some time, and found them as endlessly absorbing and beautiful as ever.

The Gresham College free public lecture was great fun, delivered with charm and panache by the college principal, no less, Professor Roderick Floud.  His topic was the making and running of great public gardens from 1660 to 1900, illustrated with four examples of gardens for which he had found extant archives.  He covered the cost of making them, which was mainly the hard landscaping and not the plants, as it still is today, and tried to demonstrate how large that cost was, compared to other capital projects of the time, and translated into current day prices.  Then he did the same thing for running costs, with data on how large an employer the horticultural sector used to be. There was a queue when the doors opened at half past five, and by the time he started at six Barnards Inn Hall was almost full.  Afterwards there were free drinks, and the opportunity to mingle for those who wanted to.  It was all marvellously civilised.

I delivered the Primula japonica  this afternoon, and was rewarded with my guided tour round the garden and a buddleia cutting.  I combined the trip with a visit to the blacksmith at Wakes Colne, who is going to make me a garden sculpture modelled on a postcard of a 1920s silver nitrate print of a close-up photograph of a bean tendril.  He didn't sound like a man who wanted a giant rusted iron bean tendril in his own flowerbeds, but he made a lovely job of the last thing he made for me, and I have confidence in his skill and his eye.  It always seems more economical of time and petrol to combine journeys when possible, so this morning as I needed to visit Barclays on behalf of the beekeepers I used the Manningtree branch so that I could also use the Manningtree tip.  The staff at Jaywick have started to recognise me, and while they haven't said anything so far I don't want to be drawn into an inquisition about whether all this material can really be from my own garden, or whether I must be a jobbing gardener bringing trade waste for disposal.  I'm not, but I don't want to argue about it, so sharing my favours between tips seemed a prudent move.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

a trip to the Tate

I went to check on the robins after breakfast.  The babies had their heads up, unlike yesterday afternoon when they were resting feebly on the rim of the nest, so they escaped heat stroke, this time.  I call it a nest, but it is not a very good one, more an untidy heap of moss littered between two flowerpots, with a depression in the middle of it.

Then I went to London.  I've been keeping today's date free since Christmas, so that I could go to a Gresham College free lecture.  I've been meaning to go to one for two or three years without ever getting round to it, and noticed on their website that on 20 June the Provost was talking on the subject of making and running great gardens, addressed from an economic perspective, which sounded ideal.

The lecture wasn't until six, doors opening at half past five, but I thought I'd make a day of it and look at some galleries first, particularly since the forecast was for rain.  Indeed, there were yellow Be Aware warnings of rain for Essex on the Met Office website, though when I got home I discovered all it had done was drizzle.  Be Aware, Risk of Drizzle.  Is Your Journey Strictly Necessary?  I began with Tate Britain, so that I could walk back to Tate Modern and from there walk to Holborn for the lecture.

Tate Britain is showing Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume as linked exhibitions.  I went to see them in a spirit of enquiry, to broaden my horizons, challenge my preconceptions, and because as I've got Tate membership I might as well use it.  From the reviews in the media I didn't expect to like them, and I'm afraid I didn't.  I didn't hate them either, but was left dreadfully unmoved, which was rather what I expected.  Patrick Caulfield painted large canvases, mostly of interior spaces, using a mixture of outline and blocks of bright colour to suggest and delineate objects and volumes.  He mostly used acrylic, in big, flat stretches of uniform pigment with never a brush stroke in sight. Later in his career he started introducing odd items painted in a more representative, conventional style, which sit disconcertingly in the semi-abstract fields of flat colour.  They are clever paintings in the way that they clearly depict objects and interiors with such economical use of line and limited palette.  I just didn't like them, at an aesthetic or emotional level.  I didn't like the colours, didn't warm to the slick outlines, didn't enjoy being so graphically reminded of the 1970s, which was an ugly decade in so many ways.  It's on until the first of September, so you have plenty of time to go and see and judge for yourself.

Gary Hume paints on aluminium panels, in gloss paint, so his pictures are very shiny.  Sometimes he uses enamel, even shinier.  It is terribly reactionary to like brushwork and an ability to draw, but there you are, I do, and Gary Hume doesn't do drawing or brushwork.  I couldn't understand why so many of my fellow gallery goers were standing so close to the pictures, when they were large, bright, and from two feet away you wouldn't be able to see the composition, while there were no interesting details in most of them to see.  I should like someone to explain to me why a bright red square, moulded to look like a pair of barn doors, is a work of art, when my pot shed doors, hand crafted by the Systems Administrator and also painted bright red, are just doors, but I am hopelessly out of tune with modern art.  Actually, I don't think the average dwell time in that exhibition was very long.

Then as I was there I went and looked at some of the rehung permanent collection, starting with Henry Moore and working backwards chronologically because I didn't like the look of what came next if I went forwards.  I was delighted to find that Barbara Hepworth's Pelagos has made it back to Millbank, having been to Bankside and then disappeared off to St Ives.  Also Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Singer is now on display.  In Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy I suddenly noticed the vase of lilies on the low table in the left hand foreground, for the fist time in approximately forty years. Did Hockney know that lily pollen is acutely toxic to cats, and does this carry a coded warning about the fragility of existence?  Quite possibly not, which goes to show how difficult it is to know how much to read into things.

And the rest can wait until tomorrow, because it's late.  Sleep well.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

the art of prediction

The relative humidity was over ninety per cent last night, and the Systems Administrator said that the temperature need only drop a couple of degrees overnight for there to be fog in the morning. Sure enough, a thin veil of grey cloud hung between me and the wind turbine on the next farm, when I pulled up the bathroom blind.

That was about the most reliable forecast I received for today.  Yesterday, when I checked the Met Office five day Wednesday forecast for Colchester, temperatures were set to rise over twenty five Celsius, and I got excited about the prospect of lunch in the garden, sitting in the shade of the parasol and looking at the roses (which are still not fully out and must be running a good month late).  By lunchtime yesterday the forecast for today was for rain all day, and this morning the forecast maximum temperature for Wednesday had slipped to a modest high somewhere in the low twenties, with rain forecast in the afternoon, which never materialised.

The newspaper reports on the conclusions of the weather summit down in Exeter have been odd, to say the least, with several running front page headlines on how we can expect a decade of washout summers.  The weather man I heard interviewed on the radio yesterday evening said they hadn't reached any firm predictions, merely discussed some possible scenarios, one of which was for a series of poor summers due to the jet stream being in the wrong place.  All they agreed was where future research efforts should be directed.  I'm not even convinced their existing models can forecast the jet stream, given they can't forecast the weather for north Essex twenty-four hours ahead.

In my City days I did notice that most economic and company forecasts seemed to consist of taking whatever the trend had been for the past two or three years, and extrapolating it into the future. The economists and analysts would have denied that they were doing that, and had elaborate models, none of which seemed to work particularly well.  Academic research (which I can't reference as I should in a proper essay, because I can't remember who did it, but I expect I heard it somewhere on the BBC) confirms that most economic forecasts are slightly worse than useless. That is, their chance of being wrong is a little higher than if the forecasts were invented by a non-economist.  The researchers put this down to the economists having cognitive bias based on their existing theories which made them unwilling to consider new data that conflicted with those theories.  I suspect it is simply in human nature to believe that whatever has been happening recently is the norm, and will persist into the future, be it a banking boom, a slump, or wet summers.

Going to release the chickens from their house into their run I was hit by the blast of muggy air, but above me  a skylark was singing over the lettuce field, while in the distance I could hear a cuckoo, and when later I went out I disturbed a flock of goldfinches in the lane.  You are never very far removed from human activity here, what with the lettuce farm, the military ranges, the ever-present rumble of traffic from one direction or another, and the rumble of planes overhead, but the wildlife carries on regardless.  I sprinkled a can of water on the greenhouse floor as the heat of the sun intensified, to try and cool it down for the robins, but the babies were looking rather seedy when I went out just now to water the plants in there.  I fear that in this case the wildlife would have done better to stick to the wild, and nest in a bush like the other birds, or at least choose the shed instead of the greenhouse.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

bees, weeds and noises off

I told the Systems Administrator that the boss seemed rather low since his holiday, and the word was that he hadn't caught many fish.  The SA replied without missing a beat that he couldn't have had a large enough trawler.  You can see why we haven't been accepted into the bosom of the County set, and spend our spare time hanging out with other retired City types, academics, and engineers.

I did a run to the dump first off, timing my trip to avoid arriving at the railway crossing gates at half past the hour, when they are liable to remain shut for up to ten minutes while several trains go through.  I also managed to avoid the roadworks in our lane, but that was by luck rather than judgement.  There are notices at both ends of the lane where it leaves the main road, announcing that the road ahead is closed, which is not very helpful if you live on it, or in our case off it.  The closure is scheduled to last all week, while the council repairs the potholes, which is welcome as far as it goes.  The works have started at one end, and the gang will presumably move down the lane, pothole by crumbling section of edge, until they finish at the other end.  While the works are to the north of the farm road we can avoid them by using the southern junction, doglegging our way through the chicane at the end of the lane, then once the works pass our entrance we can switch to using the northern route.  I suppose that there will be a brief point when they are mending the lane right outside the farm track when we can't get out at all.  The difficulty is that there are no signs to tell residents how far the work has got, and which end of the lane they should use.  I don't know what the lettuce lorries are doing, but presumably Dave the lettuce farmer is having to load up his crops from some other outpost of the lettuce empire.

Then it was time to inspect the bees.  I had to do them today, since it is ten days since the last inspection, the absolute maximum interval to be theoretically sure of being able to prevent swarming.  It was a rather hot and humid day to be opening them, since bees don't like high humidity and particularly don't like the smell of human sweat, but it had to be done.  Tomorrow, apart from being too late, is forecast to be even hotter and more thundery.  The bees were very good about being opened up, despite the beads of moisture running down my face, and showed no signs of swarming, which came as a relief.  They haven't brought in much honey at all since the last inspection, but it has been too windy for them to fly for several days, and cold at times.  Neither of the colonies I messed up trying to prevent swarming earlier in the season had eggs or brood yet. My hunch was that one probably had a young queen but the other possibly didn't, so I'll see in due course if my gut feel was right.

After the bees I planted out some more of my stash, though not all of it, and I did succumb yesterday and buy three plants of a particularly good blue form of Viola cornuta, one with very large flowers with a hint of grey in them, less purple than the ones I have already.  I trimmed the lawn edges too, a task that can take as long as you let it, depending on how far back into the bed from the edge you range to weed as you pass with the shears.  I do all the edges by hand, which is one reason why they are not done nearly as often as they should be and end up shaggy.  I dislike the noise of strimmers, I can't start them, and they are too destructive to wildlife.  Which said, I haven't seen any toads for weeks.

The army were banging away like anything on the ranges, the rattle of machine gun fire underpinned by the bass note of heavy artillery, some thuds so deep they made the house shake. Nearer to home, the lettuce farm has got some sort of new and peculiarly clattering machine.  The SA believes it is a cultivator that chops up the remains of the old lettuces after harvest, so that they decompose faster when ploughed in.  Neither of us have seen this postulated machine, so I can't say.  Fortunately whatever it is doesn't run all day, every day.   The volume of clattering is variable, which would fit with something being driven up and down, sometimes closer and sometimes further away.

Monday, 17 June 2013

a big spender and a good deed

The manager made it to work today, limping.  He has bruised two of his metatarsals falling over his duvet, and at the end of last week his foot was swollen to twice its normal size.  There is no treatment, except to wear comfortable shoes and wait for six to eight weeks for it to get better.  I suggested that if he wanted to save walking on it while he did his stock counts we could take turns pushing him around the plant centre in a trolley, but he preferred to limp.

The boss is not happy after his week's holiday.  I gather he didn't catch many fish.  I know nothing about hunting, shooting, and fishing, and the Systems Administrator isn't any better, since when I said the owners were away for a week's fishing in Scotland, the SA expressed surprise that you could fish at this time of the year.  Something to do with the fish breeding.  I thought that actually catching fish wasn't the point, but maybe that only applies to the glum men who sit under big green umbrellas on canals and next to the old gravel pits along the A12, and not salmon fishing in Scotland.

The day's takings were boosted by someone who arrived with a trailer, and spent over four hundred and thirty pounds.  She winced slightly at the size of the bill, but since I'd spotted the Mulberry logo on her shoulder bag I thought she could probably afford it.  She was younger than most of our customers, and I couldn't quite place her.  Reasonably affluent, polite, softly spoken but confident, slightly estuarine accent rather than hearty Sloane, not one of the County set.  She was carrying a baby in a sling which I'd put at around six months old, though I know about as little about babies as I do about field sports.  It was a very well behaved baby, which consumed a bottle of milk with apparent satisfaction, and didn't cry at all.

A regular customer who I'd left a message for yesterday, to say some Primula he wanted were in stock and I'd reserved some for him, rang back to say he wanted them.  He intended to harvest the seed, so it was lucky we hadn't got around to dead heading them.  He asked hopefully whether any of us might be passing his way and able to drop them off, in exchange for a sight of his hundred shrub roses which were about to burst into bloom.  I said I feared not, as none of us lived that way, and I desperately needed to spend the week getting on with my own garden.

When I told the manager he said that the last time he'd seen the customer, he hadn't looked very well.  I began to think that maybe I should take the plants, as my random act of kindness for the week, and because I would like to see the roses.  I visited his garden once before, with the beekeepers, and the rose collection was superb, and I thought the beekeepers probably owed him one, because he hosted a garden meeting last year, which turned out to be very poorly attended, for reasons the committee at the time never discovered.  I can combine the trip with a visit to the blacksmith to see if they can make my latest idea for a garden ornament at a price I can afford.  I rang back to offer my services, but spoke to his wife, who sounded slightly frosty given that I was doing him a favour, but was probably bewildered.

The last hour dragged very slowly, as I tidied up herbaceous potentillas.  It was a great relief to get home, my thirty hours in three days working week done.  Only two more days of six o'clock finishes to go.  The Systems Administrator has gone to a day-night cricket match, which leaves me with the run of the sitting room, so I can finally listen to my new Philip Glass album through the new amplifier and the big speakers.  Maybe it will still be warm enough to sit out on the veranda first.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

customer relations

The watering at work took until nearly ten o'clock, as we tried to water things that needed watering, and avoid those that didn't.  At the end of it we told each other that there were bound to be some pots we'd missed that were dry, as there always are, but we'd done the best we could.

Then we finished putting plants out for sale, that were delivered on Friday, or had come across from the reserve tunnel on the far side of the car park (The Other Side).  We didn't have a list of jobs to do from the manager, because he was off sick at the end of last week, but it was fairly obvious that that needed doing.  Undeterred by my young colleague's unfortunate experience yesterday, I tried contacting some people who were down on our list as wanting plants which had become available.

This met with mixed success.  The only person I actually managed to speak to thanked me for ringing him, but had just been out for his annual birthday nursery visit which he does every year with his brother, and bought one from Robert and Suzette Vernon at the BlueBell Nursery.  BlueBell is a lovely firm, and I have bought things from them myself, while the Vernons when you meet them at RHS shows are the nicest people you could imagine, so I can't grumble about that.  It goes to show that it is no good listing stuff and expecting customers to wait until the point in the year when you have three specimens in stock.  You need to have it in order to sell it.

All my other phone calls ended in an answering machine.  I wish that people would give their names as part of their recorded message.  If you are calling somebody you don't know, and wouldn't recognise their voice, then 'Hello, we can't take your call, please leave your message after the beep and we'll call you back' is not helpful, leaving a residual doubt in the caller's mind whether they have dialled correctly, or are leaving a message on the machine of a bewildered third party that their Actinidia kolomikta has now arrived.

I wish we had a better system for matching incoming plants to customer requests.  Some varieties seem to have come and largely gone again without anyone spotting that somebody who left their details in March wanted three of them.  It would help if the manager would circulate lists of what has come in, but he doesn't. Occasionally I ask, and am rewarded with the sight of one delivery note, but it never develops into a system that lasts.  In an ideal world it would be automated, but that would need our computer system to be a quantum beyond where it is now.  The boss would never try to do it, which is probably just as well since in the real and not ideal world any attempt would almost certainly turn into a miniature version of the BBC digital archive or NHS national patient database projects.

Looking at the list I decided that the best route to success, ordering plants from us, was to order just one or order over two hundred pounds worth.  Put in a big order and you will receive the personal attention of a member of staff, who will keep the paperwork relating to your order in a folder, and chase the manager with requests for Euphorbia mellifera, or two dozen Penstemon 'Sour Grapes', or whatever it is you are after.  You will be very happy provided you stick to your contact and don't come in on a day when they aren't working and expect anybody else to know anything about it.  Three different people look after customer orders, and they all have their own folders and methods of doing paperwork.

If you just want one plant you will go down on the list by the till, and there is a sporting chance, though no more, that when and if it turns up I, or one of my colleagues, will contact you about it. The psychological difficulty comes when you want two or three.  Should I risk calling you on a Sunday, when the manager isn't there, to tell you that your one Euphorbia has now arrived, or will I hold back in case you give me a hard time about when you can expect to see the Penstemon that you've been waiting for since March?  If you ever do shop from a small family firm like ours, it will pay you to be as nice and polite to the staff as you can be, even when they seem incompetent or half-witted.  Once you get a reputation for being a horrible customer to speak to, everybody will leave someone else to be the person that has to pick up the phone to you, and you will go to the back of the queue for everything.  Cultivate a name for being a lovely customer, and staff will be jostling to grab you the nicest plant.  This is not directly related to how much you spend.  We aren't on commission, and have feelings just like everybody else.  Five minutes speaking to somebody nice beats a phone call to a sour-tongued, blustering bully any day of the week, even if they are going to spend a hundred pounds instead of £11.85.

Late in the afternoon the owners returned from their holiday.  As I left the office I could hear the boss berating my young colleague that nobody had checked the e-mails today.  When I got home I had to water all my own pots, and finally sat down at twenty to eight, having left the house at half past seven this morning.  Only one more weekend to go of six o'clock finishes, thank goodness.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

a drying wind

When I arrived at work the water tank was full to overflowing, a small trickle of water running out of the top.  However, there was no power to the controls of the irrigation system, or pressure in the hoses, so we couldn't do any watering.  I left my colleagues to grapple with the problem, and hunt for fuse boxes.  I am not naturally mechanically minded, and in the ten years I have worked there still nobody has explained to me how the system fits together or where any of the key switches or fuses are, so I didn't thank that having me trailing round after them would be of any assistance at all.  Eventually they rang the manager who told them where to find the trip switch that was the usual culprit, and they got the water going.

It was very windy, probably not a full gale, but enough to dry out pots of compost in next to no time, and blow them over.  One of my colleagues set the automatic irrigation to run, but the wind blew most of the water horizontally away from the pots it was supposed to irrigating.  He then started putting balls of clipped box out for sale, indicating that his participation in the watering process had ended.  As I worked my way through the fruit section, a chaotic scene of upended gooseberries and black currants, and around the display of acers in front of the shop, which were very dry, I asked him whether the tunnels had been watered, but he just looked at me and said that he'd set the irrigation.

It is annoying in a small team when people don't do their share of watering.  There's no point in complaining to the manager, who will only grumble to me that if he tells the owner she will simply tell him to stop picking on so-and-so.  Forget expensive, purpose-designed executive team building courses.  You can tell everything you need to know about how someone is going to perform in a team at work by seeing their attitude to watering on a difficult, drying morning in a plant nursery. Eventually my other colleague stopped arranging a display of foxgloves on one of the tables just inside the entrance, and watered the magnolias and climbers that aren't covered by the automatic system.  I was still toiling outside, hampered by two elderly customers who'd arrived before we were officially open, and were disappointed that I wouldn't put my hose down to answer their gardening query.

Some of the shrubs were very dry, and by mid day I was reduced to walking around with cans of water, trickling a little into the worst ones just to tide them over until five, when the customers might have left and we could resume watering properly.  The drier and lighter a pot is, the more easily it blows over, so the plants that needed watering most badly were the least likely to have got any of what irrigation had landed on the shrub beds and not blown on to the path.

I resumed watering after lunch, and then switched to standing things up as it began to spit with rain, so that they could get the benefit of any showers going.  In the end it poured heavily, which will have largely bailed us out on the watering front.  There'll be odd dry things in the morning, but at least we won't be faced with wholesale crisping and collapse.  Wind is a terrible thing in a plant nursery.

In the afternoon, as I took refuge in the shop from the heaviest part of the rain, I could hear my younger colleague, who came to the rescue of the magnolias, on the telephone.  I'm very sorry to hear that, I heard him say, and That's all right, you must have had other things on your mind.  It turned out that he had rung a man who was waiting for a particular clematis, and asked to speak to him when his wife answered the phone, whereupon she told him that her husband had died before Christmas.  He had been suffering from a brain tumour, and in his last months had ordered all sorts of things that he didn't really need, including Clematis spooneri from us.  As my colleague said, that sort of thing was why he didn't like ringing people up.

Although I sheltered from the worst of the rain, I had got rather damp standing things up, as it became clear that it was proper rain and I wanted them to take advantage of it.  I also discovered that the free gardening gloves I was wearing to work, won as a prize in a raffle, had the absorbent qualities of sponges, and within five minutes of it starting to rain both were soaked.  I ended up working without them, and by five was starting to lose sensation in both hands due to the cold.  In mid June.  Roll on summer, before it's too late.

Friday, 14 June 2013

a dry season

Finally I got to spend a day in the garden, as it was no longer blowing half a gale, and I hadn't arranged to do something else.  It was very nice to be out there.

The top layer of soil is getting dry.  We've noticed in the past couple of weeks how the farms have started irrigating, big sprayers sending gushing jets of water over the potatoes, and even the wheat crops.  I spent a good couple of hours watering areas of the long bed that were starting to flag, things I'd planted recently, and some of the trees that went in last autumn.  Malus 'Comtesse de Paris', which was looking good back in the spring, has started to look very stressed, with leaves not as large as they should be.  It is still doing better than M. x zumi 'Professor Sprenger', which never broke bud this spring and has died.

The ground is getting hard to work.  I planted out some more creeping things in the gravel garden, but digging the holes is becoming more difficult, as is weeding.  If it goes on like this I'll be running the hose on areas where I know I need to dig the day before I plan to work there.  The planting season is really drawing to a close, until the autumn, and once I've planted out the last of the pots by the front door that will be pretty much it, until September.  Much as my employers dislike the fact that people stop buying plants in the summer, as a hands-on gardener I can see where our customers are coming from.

In the greenhouse, at least one of the robin eggs has hatched.  I went for a quick peek to see how they were doing, and couldn't see the pale glint of eggs, but there was something unprepossessing squirming about in the nest.  Later on the robin was sitting on it again, so he or she obviously thinks it was OK.  The greenhouse was getting rather hot, since I didn't bother to put shading paint on this year, not having any seedlings going, and I poured a can of water on the floor to cool it down for them, and opened a floor vent and some side louvres.

In the chicken house, the broody hen is still determinedly broody.  She is not a very effective broody, in that she sits at one end of the nest box, fluffed up and furious, even when the other hens have laid at the opposite end and she is not sitting on any eggs at all.  I collected one egg so large that it would not fit in a normal cardboard egg box with the lid down, so I think we'd better start easing back on the layers' pellets and increasing the amount of grain in their diet again.  It can't be comfortable producing an egg that size, and in extreme circumstances the egg can get stuck and the hen die a protracted and horrid death.

I have to spend the next three days at work, so I hope the remaining weed grasses and creeping sorrel don't manage to ripen and shed their seed in that time.  There isn't enough time at this time of year, which is another reason why it isn't really a good planting season.  You need all the hours there are in the garden just to keep on top of the edges, the dead-heading and the weeding.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

admin and drill

I went to investigate the birds nest in the greenhouse, to see if I'd scared whatever it was off the nest.  A belligerent and beady eye looked back at me, over a red breast.  A robin, then, not a wren. Probably the same robin that was there last year, in which case it knows the form and will just have to put up with my working in the greenhouse, as I will have to put up with it.  Starlings in the roof, Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat in the garden, Our Ginger on the kitchen table, a large and inconvenient spider plant in the en-suite bathroom and now robins in the greenhouse.  I sometimes feel we just squeeze in at the edges.

The day was so horribly windy that I decided to count it as honorary rain, even though it was not raining very much, and get on with some of the long list of tasks I've been saving for a wet day.  As a prelude to tackling my first draft of special ticket offers for the music society, I put in an order to John Lewis for sheets and a bath towel.  One of my towels is so worn it has frayed along the edges, and I have always been envious of the Systems Administrator's ones, which are much larger and fluffier than mine.  Apparently Egyptian cotton is the thing to go for, and a bath sheet, not a mere towel.  Then I ordered myself some more vests while Boden were offering me thirty per cent off and free delivery.

The music society offers took some thinking about.  In our discussions on how to increase ticket sales we came up with two ideas, to offer gift vouchers for people to buy for their friends and relations, and to give season ticket holders one set of free tickets per season for them to bring new people along, who might turn into regular supporters if they enjoyed themselves.  The treasurer was slightly suspicious of the latter idea, in case it cannibalised existing sales, but I though our regular supporters were mostly too nice to take advantage of us.  The deep-seated middle class capacity for social embarrassment does sometimes have its uses.  Both marketing initiatives needed appropriate blurb, which it is terribly difficult to write without sounding like the Boden catalogue (that is why so much you receive does sound like the Boden catalogue) plus admin and record keeping systems that need to be as simple as possible, both for the public and for the person who has nobly volunteered to take on ticket sales.

Lunch was delayed by a quarter of an hour, but I came up with something and sent it off to the rest of the committee.  I will now see if I get bouquets, brickbats, or a resounding silence.

Then as an antidote to my efforts on behalf of the music society I finished my Peter Nyssen order, which has been making slow progress in the evenings, generally because I go to sleep over it.  The price of tulip bulbs has gone up terribly in the past few years.  I checked my e-mails, and whereas in 2009 I paid £3.00 for 25 'Ballerina', by last year it had gone up to £3.75 for 25, and this year I have just paid £2.60 for 10 (which translates to £6.50 for 25, to save you the maths).  I wondered whether Peter Nyssen were adjusting their prices for the retail market, having started off as wholesalers, but looking at other suppliers, everyone is charging more.  The excellent Broadleigh Gardens' 'Ballerina' now come in at 40 pence per bulb, while they are 48 pence each from Bloms.  I suppose costs have increased, the oil price pushing up the price of transport and fertiliser, and the expense of lifting the bulbs.  It is a mystery to me how Tesco can sell me a bunch of tulips, harvested, flown in from abroad, and about to open, for less than I have to pay to buy the same number of dry bulbs.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


My hairdresser has left the salon.  Again.  I rang up last week to make an appointment, and was told that she didn't work there any more, as of about a month ago, which will be around the time she rang in sick the previous time I went for a haircut.  At the thought of having to wait while yet another new person got used to cutting my hair my heart sank right to my wellington boots.

It is not easy hair to cut.  Nobody likes having to switch stylists, and probably every woman believes that her hair is special and uniquely challenging.  Too thick, too thin, fine, flyaway, frizzy, whatever.  Mine is an absolute pig, or a challenge if you prefer modern encouraging management terminology, thick, curly, growing in odd directions, changing texture over different parts of my scalp, with a hairline at the back that one hairdresser described with candid brutality as 'dodgy'.

The last haircut, done by the emergency substitute, grew out jolly badly, becoming shapeless and clumpy within three weeks of my leaving the salon.  I was afraid at the time that she hadn't taken enough off, and hadn't thinned it.  Strange little curls of hair sprung up at the nape of my neck almost instantly, like a drake's tail, and stuck out to the side so that you could see them from the front, while the top leaped upwards into an approximation of Dilbert's pointy headed boss.  It didn't seem obvious whether the bits at the side in front of my ears were meant to go over or under the arms of my glasses, but they didn't seem to want to do either.  The only possible basis on which to cut my hair successfully is to work out what it wants to do, and go with it.  Styling and curling tongs don't hold it for more than ten minutes, even if I were prepared to spend any time on either, and were not given to walking around in the rain, which makes it curl, and cramming a hat on my head the instant it gets either cold or sunny, which between them cover most of the year in the UK.

The girl who answered the telephone, after she had broken the bad news about my vanishing stylist, asked when I wanted to come in.  I tried to explain that the game had changed if I had to switch hairdressers, and that it was not a question of when I wanted an appointment so much as who was going to cut my hair, who would be any good at it and enjoy doing it and not send me out into the world in latent Dilbert meets Donald Duck mode.  We settled on a senior stylist who had curly hair herself and understood the issues.  I wrote the appointment in my diary with a sense of foreboding.

I need not have worried.  Or at least I think I need not have worried.  I'll only know how good she was in a month's time, when I see whether I already have a chrysanthemum on my head, or still look quite presentable.  In truth her curly hair was not very like mine used to be at her age, being more of the silky and corkscrew variety, but she is half Italian, whereas mine is a cocktail of Welsh borders, scouser and shtetl, and considerably wirier.  However she has been cutting hair for nineteen years and sounds as though she knows her stuff, and she certainly spent some time looking at how it grew, asked me what I wanted, explained to me what she was going to do, and why it hadn't grown out at all well last time.  I love my experts to sound expert.  Being on my fourth stylist in about eight years, plus the ones who've had to fill in for staff sickness, I have got more determined about stating what I want, and can now request with a straight face a pixie cut that's a cross between Carey Mulligan and Dame Judi Dench.  As I told her, I have visible cheekbones and still only one chin, so I might as well make the most of them while they last.

Meanwhile I detect a few more rumblings from women challenging the tyranny of the dye bottle. Good on you, sisters.  I do not dye my hair, which is moving from salt and pepper to iron grey, and if I make it to my seventies will be brilliant pure white, if my father's is anything to go by.  I am too mean to pay, and too busy and disorganised to visit the salon, to have the roots retouched every two or at a maximum three weeks.  I think that visible white roots with coloured hair look absolutely terrible.  I think that flat home dyes look absolutely terrible.  I don't know what colour to dye it.  Dark hair with middle aged skin looks positively Morticia Adams, while funky colours scream insecurity.  I am middle aged but I'm a fun person.  Henna would make me look like a mafia wife with my sallow skin, and blonde would just look plain weird.

Plus I think that hair dye is probably bad for you.  Cancer patients are barred from colouring their hair after treatment, and if something is too toxic for someone who has had chemotherapy to use it at all, why would a healthy person risk using it, unless they had to?  A friend of mine has just had a very nasty allergic reaction to hair dye, which started when she had an expensive permanent colour instead of her usual semi-permanent, for her daughter's wedding.  It was such a generalised reaction, it took her and her GP six months to even work out that it was the hair dye making her ill.

Anyway, men aren't expected to dye their hair.  The chosen one, Jose Mourhino, has been all over the papers with his iron grey hair, and he is generally considered a very attractive man.  Actually, he is a good looking man, apart from the fact that he so clearly knows it.  Paul Hollywood, heart-throb.  I don't see it myself, but a friend of mine informs me that his wife, just fifty, wishes he had hair like that.  I'd have thought it was more diplomatic not to tell your spouse you wish they had somebody else's hair, but there you go.  Goerge Clooney, mega heart throb who puts the baker in the shade.  Gary Lineker.  I'm not sure about Lineker's heart throb status, but he's on the telly.

So come on, ladies, and take the chaps on at their own game.  Save yourself hundreds of pounds annually (I work it out at £1,040 if you go every three weeks at sixty quid a pop) and almost as many hours of your life.  Why run the risk of chemically induced tiredness, itchiness and abscesses? And who do you think you're kidding anyway?  Be bold, confident, natural and authentic.  You know it makes sense.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

two museums

Today I finally went for the day out in Cambridge that was postponed from December, when it was forecast to rain all day (which it did) and I refused to use the park and ride and spend the day walking around Cambridge in heavy rain and an ambient temperature of about three degrees. Today was much nicer, though the weather forecasters tried to scare us off with predictions of more rain (which didn't materialise).

To my complete astonishment it is possible to park outside the botanical gardens.  I rarely go to Cambridge, which is just a bit too much of a hike from where we are, and imagine it as a city where it is completely impossible to park.  The idea that the only thing to do is to leave your car at the park and ride is deeply engrained in my psyche, which is presumably the effect the City fathers intended.  My friend, who lives closer to Cambridge than I do and goes there regularly to shop in Waitrose, said that on the contrary, there was parking if you knew where to look for it.  From mid day onwards you pay a pound an hour up to a maximum of five pounds, and for that you can leave your car in the Trumptington Road for the rest of the day.  On one side of the road are the botanical gardens, and on the other side an implausibly rural scene of a meadow with cows grazing in it.

We went first of all to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, where the staff must be fully signed up to the concept of citizen science, because you can take any stones or fossils you have picked up and want to know about, and they will tell you what you have found, instead of greeting your poor amateur finds with haughty disdain.  A very helpful young man wearing a beanie hat and several tattoos, who looked about fifteen and must have had at least a PhD, examined my friend's garden trophies with the utmost seriousness, conferred with colleagues, and showed us less worn examples of the same things.  He turned out to be in charge of collections.

I like fossils but in a generic way.  I am never going to remember any of their names, or try to identify them in books.  I love the sounds of the names, and the idea that they were once alive and are very, very old, and somehow miraculously preserved, or at least their impressions in the mud, and I find some rather beautiful, but it is not a proper scientific curiosity, more a Cor Blimey, look at that wonderment.  What makes the Sedgwick really worthwhile is not just the fossils, but the museum itself.  It is furnished with wooden display cases, tiers of drawers and tall cabinets with glass fronts, which belong to a previous age of museum design.  There are tiny, yellow labels the size of stamps, with the names and identifying codes of the exhibits hand written in tiny, crabbed writing, and there are display cards that were typed on a manual typewriter.  It is a prime candidate for the Museum of Museums, along with the Whitby town museum, and the Carlisle regimental museum if that hasn't been modernised since we went there nearly thirty years ago.

I expressed my anxiety to the curator that they would not entirely update the displays, if they ever got any money to do so, because the cabinets belonged to the historiography of museums and were so marvellous as they were.  He had already spotted this dilemma.  With any luck the current public spending squeeze will save the Sedgwick from being modernised and dumbed down, just as Suffolk falling on hard times at the end of the Middle Ages meant that the fabric of Lavenham was preserved almost entirely intact, instead of the buildings continuing to be redeveloped over the next five hundred years.

After lunch we went to Kettle's Yard.  This was the home of Jim Ede, curator of the Tate in the 1920s and 30s.  He collected modern art, which then attracted so little popular support he could barely persuade the Tate trustees to acquire any for the Tate, and in 1966 left his house to Cambridge for future generations to experience art of that era in a domestic setting.  It is down a little side alley, and you must pull on a bell rope for admittance, which is done three or four visitors at a time as the guides take your address and lock your bags away.  Then you are free to wander through the house, and sit on any chair, though you are asked not to touch anything else.  There are paintings, drawings, etches, sculptures, interesting pebbles, feathers, ethnic furniture and textiles, and bookshelves shoehorned in here and there.  Every wall is painted white, the bathroom is spartan and we never saw the kitchen but I imagine that was basic as well.

There are some very beautiful objects.  Nothing is captioned, but if you ask a member of staff they will tell you about anything.  They don't wear uniforms, or badges, and you have to work out who is a volunteer rather than a fellow visitor who is merely taking things rather slowly.  They don't do that over-eager National Trust room guide routine of leaping on you like the Ancient Mariner and telling you about something whether you want to know about it or not.  That may be one of the reasons why Kettle's Yard has a very peaceful atmosphere.  An extension which houses part of the art collection is currently closed for building works, but that merely provides a reason to go back next year when it is open.

There is a good little museum shop across the alley, and an art gallery showing contemporary work. I didn't take to the turntable playing Vivaldi's four seasons very slowly, over the space of a year, or the concept of the grain of sand taken from the Sahara which had apparently been reduced to 0.000000something times its original size, and returned to the Sahara.  That sort of thing gives me what PG Wodehouse called the pip.  However, the artist did redeem herself with her exhibit in the nearby church, a tiny fragment of a once larger Medieval church and heavily restored in the eighteenth century, now deconsecrated and in the care of the Redundant Churches Trust. Suspended in the middle of the room, otherwise empty except for a small modern stone altar and Norman font, was a necklace made of small round beads, every bead carved from a fossil.  Yet another volunteer, a quiet and unobtrusive young man, gave us a guide to the necklace, which told us what every bead was, how old the fossil was, and where it came from.  It was a beautiful necklace.  I'd happily wear it.

Then we had tea, and rushed into Lakeland five minutes before it closed, where my friend bought some muffin cases (better than the Waitrose ones) and I bought a reel of kitchen string.  I've been wanting one of those for ages.

Monday, 10 June 2013

the tribulations of management

The morning began to go wrong for the manager at the point when my young colleague told him that there was scarcely any water left in the tank that feeds the irrigation system.  The tank is supposed to fill from a borehole, and if that fails it can be topped up from the pond in the garden, and failing that from the mains.  The manager went and looked at the tank, which is a big cylindrical metal affair, and found there was approximately a foot of water left in the bottom.  With that little left in the tank you can't risk running any of the automatic overhead irrigation systems.

Apparently the tank is not filling from the borehole because the water level in the hole itself is low. I am utterly baffled as to why that should be, after last year's almost endless rain and a wet, cold March that meant that until recently we've been doing less watering than usual.  At home, the bog that appeared last year at the bottom of our garden shows no signs yet of drying up.  It seems preposterous that the borehole should be low on water.

The manager summoned the gardener over the radio to put plan B into operation.  The gardener went to try and start the electric pump that takes water from the pond to feed the tank, but it wouldn't run.  All that happened was that we lost the electricity supply to the shop.  By dint of taking the electric kettle from the staff room down into the garden to test the electricity supply at the pond, and running the pond pump in a bucket of water in his workshop, the gardener established that the problem lay with the electrical circuit, not the pump.  The power to the shop came on and off throughout, causing a certain amount of difficulty if customers were waiting to pay for anything at the points when it cut out.  The manager called the electrician we always use, who is an obliging person and saw that it was an emergency.  He came that same morning, but we ended up not being able to water great areas of the plant centre.

In the meantime they had to enact plan C.  The manager grovelled around in a strange lean-to with less than standing headroom, which the gardener calls the pig sty, and may even have been a pig sty, and emerged with a long reel of yellow domestic hose.  This was taken from the outside tap on the house, run through a protective metal sleeve at the point where it had to cross the drive, and led into the tank.  The rate of flow you can get through a normal hose makes a rather puny impact on a tank that size, but it is better than nothing.  Once the electrician had got the pond pump to work, and with the hose from the house running for most of the day, we were up to three quarters of a tank of water by close of play.

Trade has dried up almost as much as the borehole, and it was very quiet.  Maybe we need the sun to come out and tempt people into their gardens, or some rain to refresh the top layer of the soil and make people feel more like planting things out.  We need something.

When I got home I thought I'd better water my own pots in the front garden, and the stash of things waiting to be planted, since some looked dry, and while I could have left it until the morning it wouldn't have done them any good.  Watering in the greenhouse, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. It wasn't the first time I'd got a vague sensation that I'd seen something, and this time I saw what looked awfully like a very small bird hopping on the ground among the pots.  I stopped watering and investigated the middle shelf of the multi tier metal rack in the greenhouse more closely.  A litter of leaves, a circular depression in the middle hidden between four 2 litre pots, and several small white eggs.  Oh bother.  I think I have just watered a wren's nest.  I'll now have to feel guilty about that until I see if the adults desert it, and if they don't then I'll feel worried each time I use the greenhouse that I'm disturbing them.  After the robins last year I really hoped we'd finished with birds nesting in the greenhouse, instead of which word has clearly spread that it's a prime spot.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

the herb bed

I spent the day weeding the herb bed.  It was one of those tasks that you start not believing it will take all day, but turns out to take much longer than you hope because it is so fiddly.  The main weeds in the herb bed are several sorts of grass, including one with a running rootstock which I have never managed to eradicate because it lurks among the clumps of lemon balm and mint.

The bed is mulched with gravel.  That is one disadvantage of gravel as a top dressing, you have to sacrifice it if you want to dig an area over.  Though I have never succeeded in eliminating a running grass purely by digging.  Part of it has always gone deep, or among the roots of something else you aren't going to dig up.  Pull out as much as you can, using a fork where that helps, and hit the regrowth with glyphosate, that's the best way.  If you garden entirely organically then I'm afraid you'll just have to live with the grass.

A remarkable quantity of bindweed has appeared as well.  I pulled up what I could see, partly as a gesture to tidiness, but again I'll have to spray with weedkiller as it reappears, being careful not to touch its neighbours.

The herb bed is roughly square and six of my paces across.  It is diagonally bisected by a path of square slabs laid diamond wise, the triangular gaps between them filled with cobbles.  I laid it myself and it is quite a neat piece of work.  The path, the front and one side of the bed are edged with chives.  I weeded the chives earlier in the year, when it was remarkably difficult to see which strap shaped young leaves were chives and which were grass.  The remaining grass is easier to spot now, because it has faded to a duller, less shiny green and the seed heads wave above the level of the chives.  I think I should catch most of it before the seed ripens, but it is a slow job pulling grass out of chives.  The edging is rather gappy, and I need to shift some chive seedlings about, but not now while it is so dry.  Next spring, perhaps.  Chives seed themselves generously, so if you once acquire a potful you can soon have lots more.

The back of the herb bed is bounded by the pot shed, which is painted black and looks much smarter since we re-felted the roof.  The climbing rose 'Meg' runs along the front of the shed, and by now reaches from one end to the other.  'Meg' is a beauty, whose flowers are semi-double, apricot pink, with a large boss of stamens, bred by Gosset and released in 1954.  The Peter Beales website rates it as being suitable for poorer soils and is right on that score, since the soil in the top garden is far too light for most roses, and another disadvantage of using gravel as a mulch is that you can't apply regular doses of compost.  A couple of years ago I was weeding around 'Meg' and got one of her thorns buried in my knuckle, which began to look distinctly septic very quickly.  I spent a week on antibiotics, so kept that arm but felt terrible for the entire week.  This time round I wore my heavy leather gauntlets, and whenever near 'Meg' moved with measured caution.

On either side of the path are four rusted iron tripods with Clematis alpina and Clematis macropetala, chosen because the books said that they could also cope with poorer soil.  Clematis generally are gross feeders who like the soil rich and reliably moist.  The books have been less accurate on this score than Peter Beales was about 'Meg', or perhaps our soil takes the concept of poorer into a whole new territory which the authors of the books were not anticipating.  One is doing well, one OK, and two are very poorly indeed. I cleared away the weed grass from around their feet, and gave the two worst ones a can each of liquid seaweed feed.  I'll do the other two the next time I'm gardening, and top dress them with manure, and then mulch them with cobbles, to keep the roots cooler and to remind me where the rootstock is.

A sage bush in the middle of the bed is very happy, so much so that it had grown out to completely block the path, and I had to cut it back.  I have shown the Systems Administrator the sage plant, several times, and explained that it is sage, which you can use in cooking.  This has not prevented us from acquiring at least two jars of dried sage.  Perhaps the SA feels about herbs from the garden much as I do about wild mushrooms.  Nice idea, but it's safer to buy what you need in Tesco.

I have a tiny bay tree in a pot which has been growing on from a rooted cutting, incredibly slowly.  I don't know why it is so slow, when the willow leaved bay in the ground in the back garden grows like stink, and suspect it is another victim of the useless peat free compost of the year before last.  I am going to plant it out, and it will have to take its chances with the chickens.  I used to have one in a pot, and it was very happy there, but a cold winter did for it.  A bay leaf makes an excellent flavouring for egg custard, or at least I like it very much, though thinking about it none of the friends or relatives I've tried it on have seemed to share my enthusiasm.

I also have a horseradish in a 9 cm pot.  I tried growing this once before, in a large clay pot because I was scared of it running everywhere, but it was very unhappy and eventually died.  I should like to have fresh horseradish root.  It pops up in recipes for relish to go with smoked mackerel, and central European cooking, but I am still nervous of the horseradish running.  It is unlikely to escape from the herb bed, which is bounded by the drive, the concrete, the shed and the chicken run, on the other hand I don't want it through the entire herb bed.  And digging up the roots to harvest it will make a mess of the gravel topping.  I need to read up on the habits of horseradish and exactly how rampant it is.  At one time I toyed with the idea of buying a tin bath to grow it in, but the horseradish project began to expand to a point where it would have been cheaper just to have relish delivered from Harrods, supposing the SA were away and I were settling down to a smoked mackerel fest.