Saturday, 31 August 2013

autumn feeding

The bees had taken down their sugar syrup in twenty four hours, when I went to check on them after breakfast.  The feeders were empty, and I brought them back to the kitchen to refill them.  There are so many wasps around now, I don't want to risk pouring out syrup in the apiary.  They were particularly interested in the back of one hive, and when I looked more closely I saw that I hadn't quite lined up the eke with the crown board beneath, and there was an almost-wasp sized hole, with the face of a guard bee on the far side of it.  I carefully shifted the eke by a centimetre to close the gap.

An eke is an empty box that you put on top of the brood box, when you are feeding using bucket feeders, to support the roof.  If you don't have one, the roof won't even make contact with the rest of the beehive, but will be left wobbling around on top of the plastic bucket.  I have used spare brood boxes in the past, but don't always have that much unused equipment.  A couple of years ago the Systems Administrator made me some extra boxes out of recycled decking, that are pretty much the same size as the brood box.  They wouldn't do as part of the permanent beehive with frames of comb in, as that has to be accurately sized down to the last couple of millimetres, to allow the bees to move freely within the hive without encouraging them to build random bits of comb in the spaces they consider unacceptably large, while if it is too small you risk rolling and crushing bees trying to get the frames out.  But they are perfect for feeding.

I made more syrup yesterday, to give it time to cool down for today.  The trouble is, the stock pot does not hold nearly enough.  Yesterday I pressed the pasta saucepan into service as well.  The jam pan would hold more, but doesn't have a lid, and leaving an uncovered pan of syrup lying around would be asking for trouble with all the wasps.  There were never fewer than six buzzing around the kitchen as I made up another batch of syrup, but they were not at all aggressive.  I should not tempt fate, since I'll probably be stung tomorrow, but it seems to me that they aren't, on the whole.  If you don't flap and swat at them, they seem happy to ignore you, and just buzz around looking for anything sweet.  It is still a nuisance, having endless bags of sugar in the kitchen, which always seem to leak a few grains, and pans of sugar syrup, which always drips, and the wasps, and I can see the appeal of buying my syrup ready-made, if I knew where to get any locally.

Apparently earlier in the season when they are raising young the adult wasps feed on a sugary excretion produced by the larvae.  That seems quite odd, viewed from a human perspective, since you could argue about whether they are tending their young or farming them  The adult wasps only start attacking fruit, beehives, and anywhere else they can find sweet stuff late in the summer when the queen wasp has stopped laying and there are no more larvae to tend (or farm).  They feed the larvae on flesh, a key difference between wasps and bees.

I have to go on offering the bees syrup until they won't move any more down into the hive.  This could take some time.

Friday, 30 August 2013

new and improved

The Systems Administrator ordered the new telephones, but I got the job of setting them up.  The SA said that if I did it then I'd know how they worked, which is true.  I set the last ones up, and they were among the few items of technology in the house that I was confident of working.  Indeed, I used to have to explain the incoming call register to the SA, which was a rare role reversal, along with my comparative mastery of the washing machine.  Otherwise, the integrated blue ray TV, the old flat screen TV with Sky box (which the SA bought years ago to convalesce in front of after knee surgery), the setting for the boiler (which it is difficult not to accidentally rotate while cleaning the kitchen), the timer for the AGA, the other timer for the central heating, and what to do when broadband goes down, my laptop crashes, or the printer won't print, are all more or less baffling.

The base station and charger for the two new phones both come with ridiculously long cords.  I dislike power cables and their capacity to wrap themselves around everything.  It's one of the main reasons why I loathe vacuuming, although I will happily spend hours painstakingly unwinding the stems of clematis leaves that have fastened themselves in the wrong place.  It took quite a long time to extract the old phones, as their cords seemed randomly wound round the flexes to various reading lights plus the cable to the Sky box. I dislodged disheartening quantities of cat fur in the process poking around behind the furniture in the hall, and had to cut through the electrical tape holding the cables from the old base station into a neat bundle.  The cord from the new phone is still a straggling mess, because I didn't have any tape to redo it.

The new phones have one very useful extra feature, as you can set them to send international and number withheld calls straight to answer phone.  If it is a real person calling, like the broker who invited the SA to the retirement dinner the other week from a withheld office number, they can still leave a message, as the broker did, simply because we were both out when he rang.  Cold callers with dodgy sales pitches probably won't bother.  It is annoying in the middle of cooking to have quickly washed your hands and rushed out to answer the phone, or galloped across the front garden to get there in time, only to find it is somebody with a spurious line about compensation for PPI mis-selling.

The other improvement is that now the phones share their contacts list, so I only had to type it in once.  With the old phones I had to enter it separately into each handset.  Our landline contacts list is short, since we are both more email and text people.  Apart from our relatives it has more of my friends in than the SA's, because several of them do call from time to time about beekeeping business, while the SA seldom bothers to even write people's landline numbers in our phone book. Going through the phone book is a thought-provoking process, normally experienced once a year when doing the Christmas cards.  There are some new names, people I've met through the music society, like, and have started to see independently of the concerts and committee meetings. That's encouraging, but  the former colleague who died three years after her cancer diagnosis is depressing, as is the current colleague who has vanished without leaving any contact details.  One friendship failed to develop, and a few names from my City days have reduced to such nominal presences in my life that they probably don't justify a stamp, come this Christmas.

The new phone has already intercepted one international call.  I was disappointed that it did it while we were out, so we didn't hear it.  The SA objected that the whole point was that I wouldn't hear it anyway, but that's not what I meant.  I wanted to have been in the room at the time I subsequently saw the call had been, so that I knew it hadn't rung then, like Ivor Cutler demanding to know who was not knocking at his door.

All I have to do now is set up our greeting on the answer machine.  I've put off doing it, because I always dislike hearing my own voice, too much like a cross between Mrs Thatcher and Fergie, while I currently have either hay fever or a slight cold, which has made it even huskier and more nasal than usual.

Addendum  I suppose the real question is why we still want a landline.  Age.  Habit.  Because it is the number in the telephone directory.  The one that club organisers wanting a lecture on woodland conservation or gardening use.  The public number available to anybody, unlike our mobile numbers, which are private.  In case the mobile signal is bad.  For long calls (when your grandfather died of a brain tumour it makes you cautious about putting radiation sources close to your head for too long). But mainly because we both grew up in the days when houses had one telephone fixed to the wall, in the hall, and the idea that a proper house has a telephone number attached to it is irredeemably rooted in both of our minds.  Under-thirties probably won't understand.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

honey jars and a garden

This morning I drove down to Stock, south of Chelmsford, to collect a gross of honey jars.  The Essex Beekeepers organise a county-wide bulk purchase, for orders placed by mid-August, with a two day window in which to go and get them from the central drop-off point, a shed on a turkey farm.  It felt slightly strange driving down the farm lane, guided by the odd cryptic notice with a little arrow and Jars hand-written on it.  The shed was vast and cavernous, though empty of turkeys, with brown cardboard boxes piled up down both sides, and I could almost pretend I had entered a Guy Ritchie film, apart from the fact that I recognised one of the organisers from the annual conference as a many times honey prize winner, while the other had a round, kindly face and did not look a bit like Vinny Jones.  They lifted my boxes into my car for me, saying that they were very heavy, though when I unloaded them at the other end they turned out to weigh less than a full super of honey.  Their really hard work had come yesterday, when they had to take delivery of twenty pallets of boxes and break them all down, removing the plastic wrapping, checking for breakages, matching different sizes of jar and lid type to who had ordered what, and writing names on them.

It takes the best part of an hour to drive to Stock from this side of Colchester, and around eight quid's worth of petrol in my car, give or take.  It is still worth it.  Honey jars from the beekeeping catalogues are phenomenally expensive.  Thorne, one of the biggest suppliers, charge £78.73 including delivery for a gross of one pound jars with metal lids, versus the Essex Beekeepers at £35.35 for delivery to central Essex.  That's a decent saving, even allowing for the petrol and charging my time at the rate I would earn doing an extra couple of hours in the plant centre instead of driving up and down the A12.  (And you can see why, at twenty-five pence per jar ex-delivery, beekeepers get so irritated at the idea of them being limited to single use).

As I arrived I passed the chairman of my local division, just leaving.  He was immensely embarrassed that he was collecting jars on behalf of several other people and not me, but I assured him that if I'd wanted someone else to pick them up, I'd have asked around.  As it was I'd been planning to combine the trip with a visit to Hyde Hall.  I haven't been there for years, and was curious to see what they'd been doing in my absence.

It seemed further away from the A12 than I remembered it from my first visit, and when I finally arrived and looked at my map I saw the reason for that, as the official brown signposted route now takes you down the A130 Southend road  virtually to Battlesbridge, before sending you east along another main road, and only then sending you back north to enter the garden from the eastern side. The car park has been relocated so that it is now screened from the garden, and there is a big new entrance with cafe and shop since I last visited.  The cafe smelt powerfully of cooking, not in an entirely good way, and I took my latte outside and sat under an umbrella, considering the entrance planting.  Rivers of echinacea, grass and gaura, leading to clipped cylinders (or possibly square columns) of Quercus ilex, still rather immature, and thin in some places while whiskery in others. So far, so conventional early twenty-first century design, a sort of sub-Scampston, sub-Tom Stuart-Smith.

I still don't warm to Hyde Hall.  I have been there a few times, and never warmed to it, which is probably why I haven't been oftener.  Today it took ages to get in, as while all I needed to do was show my membership card, the people ahead of me in the queue weren't members, and both members of staff on the ticket desk were plugging the benefits of membership to them at great length.  Behind them two volunteers stood, not obviously doing anything, and I thought one of them could usefully have manned the RHS members desk, which was closed, and operated fast track admissions.

The RHS have made a lot of changes.  The Australian and New Zealand garden has been substantially replanted following losses in the three bad winters, and while all neatly mulched with dark stone is still very much a work in progress.  Planting in long strips was very much in evidence. That's extremely turn of the century.  Think of Chelsea show gardens from a few years back, or the plantings outside expensive City offices.

I was keen to see the dry garden, to garner ideas for my own.  It looks very fine, with great clumps of Perovskia, Parahebe, Eryngium, and the usual familiar palette of drought tolerant plants, topped off with a truly lavish quantity of pebbles and shingle, and some nice driftwood sculptures, as well as some less nice metal ones, yours for large amounts of money.  It is on a windswept hillside, the converse of good views out across the countryside being the scope for wind damage within a garden.  I almost liked it, but something didn't ring true, and my guess it was the soil.  If I'd dug down below the pebbles I bet I'd have found Essex clay.  There is no way that Perovskia grows to those luxuriant heights in my garden, or the Chatto gravel garden.  Hyde Hall is in a low rainfall area, and clay does not necessarily hold much water in summer in a form available for plant growth. It is a bona fide dry garden, but I felt faintly uneasy at the mismatch between the surface image of arid stoniness, and the ground conditions I imagined beneath.  If someone from the RHS wants to put me right and say no, those stones and pebbles really do run twenty feet deep and are indicative of the conditions the plants are living in then I apologise now, but I don't think they do.

A hollowed out arena in the side of the hill, that was a building site of raw gabions on my last visit, is now planted up with moisture loving plants like hostas, plus tree ferns.  The paths are designed as wooden duck boards, and while you can see evidence of irrigation systems if you look carefully, the overall effect is convincing.  I liked that bit, even though I'd missed many of the flowers.  The original garden at the top of the hill, dating from when Hyde Hall was a private home and before the RHS, retains its traditional mid twentieth century air, with ponds, clipped yew, roses (flowering much better than mine), a small sunken garden, some nice trees, and some rather well done sub-tropical bedding, including several truly enormous terracotta pots holding tender plants.

It is a popular garden.  There were lots of cars in the car park, and many people in the garden, including lots of children.  It is doing a good job.  I just don't like it.  Late August is not the easiest time of the year, but even so.  They still haven't solved the original problems of the layout at the core of the garden, merely grafted outer layers on to it, and it has the atmosphere of a garden owned and managed by a corporation.  It is correct, tidy, educational, but soulless.  Oh well, I was almost passing by anyway.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

who knows where the time goes

I gave the Systems Administrator a lift to the station this morning, since the SA was planning to spend the day at the cricket before going to a retirement dinner for an old broking contact, a charismatic Scot fondly known among some of his friends as the large chairman of a medium sized public company.  Driving home from the station after a City retirement dinner didn't seem like a good idea, and anyway, I needed to go out to go to the bank, after last week's failed attempt.  It was a nasty crash, last Friday's accident.  A nine month old baby was killed, and her mother is in hospital with serious injuries.

It's amazing how all the little jobs add up to a full morning's worth.  Going to the bank is not such a big deal, but driving there, and waiting while the cashier counts the money, and popping into the greengrocer's to buy a sweetcorn cob for lunch, and driving home, starts eating into the morning. Then, while I thought I'd mostly finished the honey extracting, the odd tidying up and finishing off mounts up.  I had to pot up the honey that dripped off the cappings overnight, about two thirds of a jar, no good for sale or as a gift but certainly fit to cook with.  Or pour on yogurt.  People pay a premium for cut comb honey, so why be sniffy about honey which has a little bit of broken wax mixed up with it?  After bagging up the cappings in case I ever decide to melt them and make a candle, that left the colander, the bowl, the spoon, and the jam funnel to wash.

The two jars of honey I jarred up yesterday when I was extracting, so that I emptied a bucket and could use it again, had begun to crystallise slightly in the bucket, and I'd left them on the edge of the cool side of the Aga to liquefy overnight.  They needed labelling, which meant getting out and then putting away the box of labels again.  The extractor needed reassembling, a slightly fiddly task getting all the bits to line up, and carrying upstairs.  All little jobs, but adding up to a surprising amount of time for something you thought you'd basically finished yesterday.

I need to start feeding the bees so made some sugar syrup, two pounds of cane sugar per pint of water for autumn feeding.  You end up needing gallons of the stuff, but in a domestic kitchen you can't make it all at once.  Experience has taught me to measure out each two pounds of sugar and pint of water, then tip one after the other into the stock pot, and repeat until the pot is as full as I can manage.  Without a system it is only too easy to chuck another pint of water into the mix, then be left trying to remember whether you have already added the sugar for that one.  You can't dissolve a sugar solution that strong at room temperature, but have to heat it gently and stir it from time to time.  One of the bags of sugar was leaking slightly from a corner, which meant more wiping up.

Then I had to write out cheques for everyone who had sold produce at the wildlife fair, and thought I'd better prepare a Treasurer's report for the committee.  The cheque writing and report ran into a minor and ridiculous snag, in the form a problem with reimbursements for raffle prizes.  The person who runs the raffle had been religiously, albeit intermittently, giving me extracts from her supermarket receipts, showing what she paid for the bottle of wine (not enough to buy a decent bottle, but it is a fund raising exercise).  I had been equally religiously sticking these into my accounts file.  I now know that if you sellotape over a printed Sainsbury's receipt, the glue on the tape dissolves the print on the receipt, and all the little slivers of paper were completely illegible.

The bank lets me view the accounts on line, after going through what seems a quite massive amount of security, given that I can't move the money, just look at it.  I have to type in my name, and our membership number, and the last four digits on my beekeepers internet banking card, and then generate an eight digit verification code using a PIN number which I am supposed to remember, and type that in.  If I don't interact with the on line account for more than ten minutes, it logs me out and I have to go through the whole palaver again.  I got logged out twice, so one way and another preparing the Treasurer's report took longer than I was anticipating.

After lunch I managed to get some gardening in.  The SA parked the trailer by the dustbin bed, after I'd asked for it to be moved enough times that it might have counted as nagging, if I ever did such a thing, which of course I don't, so it seemed churlish not to at least start filling it up with prunings.  I made a good start, attacking the ornamental quince under the kitchen window which has grown so much it is becoming difficult to see out or shut the window without trapping twigs in it, the Viburnum tinus in the dustbin bed which has grown hugely in all directions, including over the path and into a neighbouring holly, and a gigantic bramble which shouldn't be there at all.  The more I pulled at this bramble the more of it there seemed to be, sprawling its way through a camellia, a cotoneaster, and back into the wood.  I hadn't finished by the time I had to go out again, but I'd done enough to show that moving the trailer was not a waste of time.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

snakes and honey

As I was walking back up from the garage with my hive tool, bee brush and a spare crown board, in preparation for taking the honey off the bees, I met a grass snake on the steps.  It froze, and regarded me impassively, forked tongue flickering.  I knew we had them in the garden, since I saw one in almost the same place a few years back, and once found a writhing mass of babies in the compost heap, along with the strange, leathery, discarded egg mass, like see-through bladderwrack.  I watched it for a while, it watched me, and then I went back by another route, to leave it in peace.  The next time I went round the corner of the house it had vanished.

They are slender snakes, with a bright yellow flash at the back of the head, and without an obvious zigzag pattern down the back like adders have.  You could not easily confuse the two, unless you were frightened of snakes and ran away without stopping to have a look.  The Systems Administrator is phobic about them, but luckily hasn't encountered one so far.  They eat toads, unfortunately, but it still feels a privilege to have them in the garden.  According to the BBC Nature website they are the only UK snake to lay eggs, and if the strategy of playing dead when confronted by a predator doesn't work, they spray a noxious substance from their anus.  Just as well I didn't aggravate this one.  They are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and are a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, but the Peoples' Trust for Endangered Species doesn't want to know if you find one, not like a stag beetle.

There were a fair few wasps in the apiary, and a hornet, and I knew I was going to have to be fast getting the supers off and away, and the roof back on the hive.  Wasps are a plague to bees at this time of year.  My beekeeping friend, the retired dentist, has just lost an entire colony to wasp attack.  As I feared, there were quite a lot of bees in the two supers I wanted to take off.  I put the clearer board on last Thursday, then had to go to work, and I remember my beekeeping tutor warning me that given more than a couple of days the bees were capable of finding their way back through the one-way passages in the clearer board and up into the honey.

I put both supers into the wheelbarrow, covered them with newspaper, got the lid straight back on the hive to keep the wasps out, and hurried away from the apiary.  The bees didn't really follow me, apart from those accompanying the wheelbarrow.  The golden bees are a good natured lot, and I hadn't opened up the brood box where the queen lives, so had barely triggered their defensive instincts.  Once out of the immediate reach of the apiary I stopped, and shook each frame as hard as I could to dislodge some of the bees on it.  Back at the house there were still plenty of bees, more than I would have liked, and I had to take the frames inside one at a time, after shaking them again.  I piled the frames out of the top super on to baking trays, dumped three empty frames temporarily in the wheelbarrow, then shook the empty super vigorously, took it into the kitchen, transferred the second lot of frames into it, and retrieved the second super to hold the frames out of the first.  After grabbing the last frames out of the wheelbarrow I quickly wheeled it to the other side of the garden, away from the front door.

There were a good fifteen or twenty bees in the kitchen.  Honey bees are not too difficult to catch in a room during the day, since they are strongly attracted to the window.  Put a glass over them, slide a stiff card in underneath, gently so that the bee can step over the moving edge, and only release the card once the glass is at the mouth of an open window.  It was made more difficult today by the fact that I had to keep the window closed, only opening it very briefly to put the captive bees out, because otherwise more bees came in.  I was left with one final bee that wouldn't land anywhere for very long, and on closer inspection turned out to be a wasp.  I knocked that down with a towel, and squashed it.  I kept my bee suit on for this stage, which may have been over-cautious, but I didn't know whether the bees would be getting irritated by then.  By the time I'd got rid of the wasp I was extremely hot, what with the Aga churning away, and nowhere for the heat to go except the hall.  I'd shut the door to the study because that had wasps in it, the sitting room because the SA had the door open for air, and the outer hall because that had bees in.

There were a lot more than fifteen or twenty bees outside the front door, and the SA looked genuinely anxious to see them all through the glass.  Initially I thought they'd dissipate fairly quickly, but some drops of honey had spilt on the gravel, and the smell of it was keeping them swirling around.  I became concerned in case they'd go back to the hive for reinforcements, and ended up suiting up again and going to play the hose over the gravel and doorstep for several minutes, to reduce the smell.  I felt unkind watering the bees, but it was a hot day, so they'll have dried off again.

After all that I was ready to go through the normal process of cutting the cappings off, spinning the combs in the centrifuge, pouring the honey through a plastic filter into food buckets, and snapping the lids safely closed.  None of the honey had set in the combs this time.  I didn't think they'd be bringing in ultra-fast granulating honey at this stage of the year, but you never know, and having pans of mixed honey and wax melting on the Aga with so many wasps around would have been very tricky.  By now the equipment is all washed up, the floor has been mopped, the worktops and table have been wiped (as have the doorknobs, chairs, and anything else I think I have touched).  I have even rinsed some dribbles of honey off my wellington boots.  We'll still be finding sticky places for days.

Monday, 26 August 2013

a working holiday

My absent colleague did not come in again today.  She didn't reply to the owner's messages either, and we are left with the feeling that we won't see her again.  Certainly the owner was lining up tea shop girls for the rest of the week.  Last Tuesday, when she didn't turn up, that left only the manager on duty.  He was fretting that if he'd known this person was not going to come in, he could have asked someone else, but in truth he is running out of people to ask.  One of the part-timers, who is eligible for her pension and normally does one or two days a week, stepping down in the winter, has been working four day weeks to help out, and the only way he could arrange cover for my holiday was to persuade the other to do three consecutive days next month.  She is a fit and active woman, but as she says, at the age of sixty eight she's not sure she still wants to be lugging trees around.

The August bank holiday Monday is generally quiet in the plant trade, and so we coped quite nicely with the two of us, and the teashop girl, plus the owner coming out to help in the afternoon.  The teashop girl is a godsend.  In between customers in the teashop she is revising quadratic equations. It was quiet enough that I managed to finish sweeping and tidying my second shrub bed, Fuschsia to Enkianthus, early on and in the late afternoon.  I was disgusted to see that the viburnums, which I did yesterday, are already dropping more leaves on to the clean mypex fabric.

The credit card machine was as slow as ever.  Roll on fast rural broadband, that's what I say, but meanwhile we are still on ultra slow dial-up.  Some kind hearted customers attributed its slowness to the bank holiday, but it is always that slow.  If it were the middle of the football world cup, and ninety per cent of the population were watching it because England was unaccountably in the final, the credit card machine would still be slow.  I had my first contactless card transactions this weekend, the same chap who came in on Saturday and Sunday, and each time waved his wallet over the card reader without touching it.  I didn't even know that we had contactless terminals, and he had to tell me that I was supposed to keep the slip.  The customer doesn't get one.  Which is fair enough for small transactions.  Hands up who ever reads again most of the credit card slips that they stuff in their handbags, wallets and pockets.  Or expects to get a receipt from the Oyster card reader when they travel.

And that was about it, really.  Now I am going to go and have a tiny piece of bank holiday myself, and sit out on the veranda.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

things fall apart

My young colleague who is nominally working out her notice after resigning several weeks ago did not turn up to work this morning, and did not call to say when or whether she was coming in.  The owner tried ringing her several times and left messages, but got no response.  That left us with two people to run the plant centre for the day.  The owner could have cancelled her Sunday lunch with the boss's parents, but didn't.  At least we had a teashop girl, and there was virtually no watering to do, what with last night's torrential rain, and humidity so high that the plants could scarcely transpire if they'd wanted to.

It is hard work coping with two, when it's busy.  After a slow start the sun came out, and so did the customers.  It was just as well the phones scarcely rang, otherwise we wouldn't have coped.  As it was we just about managed, my colleague only had to answer one phone call during her unpaid lunch break, and the queues at the till weren't too bad, though I felt mean sending people off to look for plants by themselves, because I couldn't leave the shop to go with them and show them where things were.  A young woman left to fend for herself trying to find either the rose 'Ruby Wedding' or the camellia of the same name looked particularly doleful as she left empty handed, though I'm pretty sure that we didn't have either, even if a member of staff had been available to help her.

The prize for the silliest (and rudest) customer goes to the elderly party who decided to get her credit card out of her purse while walking up the wooden ramp to the shop, and dropped it so that it fell through the gaps between the planks.  She wasn't at all steady on her feet, and why she couldn't have stuck to doing one thing at a time beats me.  She arrived at the till flanked by relatives, whose expressions suggested they were having a fun day out with Mrs Soprano, grumbled about the construction of the ramp, and demanded to know whether there was anybody able-bodied to lift or dismantle it to retrieve her card.

I forbore to ask her how much more able-bodied she would like me to be, given that I could lift twenty kilos, and walked twelve miles in an afternoon for fun, and replied that there was nobody there but myself and my sixty-eight year old pensioner colleague who was having lunch.  I forgot to count the tea shop girl, but she wouldn't have made any difference.  The relatives chorused decisively that it would be impossible to lift the ramp, and had to pay for Mrs Soprano's plants, while she brushed aside my suggestion that we might be able to retrieve the card on Tuesday when there were more people here, saying that was no good and unless she could have it now she would have to cancel it.  She was probably right, but I got the feeling she suspected that as soon as she had gone, we would be fishing for it through the gaps with a wire coat hanger.

I got home to find the Systems Administrator sitting outside the front door watching the chickens and looking harassed.  In response to my kindly enquiry whether the SA had had a nice day I was told that the saga of domestic collapse continued.  It had taken half the morning to mend the veranda door, which came off its runners last night, but not in the way that the SA thought it had, and took ages to fix.  Then, just as the SA sat down to watch the chickens, there was a loud crash from my greenhouse as a pane of glass slid out of the roof.  The SA had spent the next two hours picking up pieces of toughened glass with pliers.  I didn't bother asking whether the SA had had time to order a new telephone, which is one of the other things that broke last week.  Looking on the bright side, the reassembled vacuum cleaner worked, and the SA sucked up eight boxes of cat fur from the sitting room floor.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

encounter with a non-gardener

When I got to work there was an impressive, large, new padlock on the gate.  I didn't know the combination number, and had to wait until someone else arrived who did.  I suppose the boss has come round to the idea.  His initial response after the second burglary was that he did not want a padlock, it was pointless because they would just cut through the chain, or else smash the gate off its hinges.  I suppose they might, but all these things take time, and make you look quite suspicious, in full view of the road.  Our experience trying to cut through anchor chains with bolt croppers for entirely legitimate purposes is that it is not a quick or easy job, and we had very good quality bolt croppers, not for cutting chains, but for cutting loose the rigging, if the mast had ever come down at sea and we had needed to cut the wreckage free in a hurry before it could smash a hole in the hull.

It drizzled all morning, except when it rained.  The main task that the manager really wanted us to do was to sweep through and tidy the shrub beds.  In the brief gaps between showers I managed to get approximately three quarters of the way down one bed.  I counted them and there are fifteen in total, which leaves some way to go.  In the afternoon it rained a lot, though it seemed to be foggy at the same time, and the air felt as though I was breathing soup.  I dreaded to think what effect it was having on the Systems Administrator, who really does not do humidity at all well, especially when combined with the requirement for either movement or thought.

We weren't as busy as we might have been if it hadn't been simultaneously foggy and raining, but there was a steady trickle of customers.  One, a man at the older end of middle age wearing a stockman's coat and leather hat, said he wanted some information, though he was a complete townie, more used to concrete.  He had a slightly ponderous manner that put me in mind of Geoffrey Whitehead in character as master of an Oxford college (who turns out to be a murderer). He said he wanted to know about trees.  This was music to my ears, as a tree lover.  Townies who have seen the light and now wish to plant trees are to be applauded.  I explained that he would find trees in two places in the plant centre, rare trees at the back of the shop, which were all fairly small the the moment, and larger specimens on the far side of the plant centre,tied to racks so that they could not blow over.

My customer did not wish to come outside and look at the rare trees, on the basis that his tea would get cold.  I thought that since he was standing talking to me rather than sitting with his wife drinking his tea, it was getting cold anyway, but that was up to him.  He said that he had been thinking of planting something called Prunus autumnalis, and I said that was a variety we listed, though I didn't know if we had any currently, but that he would find them with the larger specimens.  He asked whether prunus were not rare, and I began to sense that I was talking to someone who had started doing research on the basis of such profound ignorance that they didn't understand the import of what they had read.

He wanted to buy his trees small and bare root.  Again, his researches were correct, in that many woody plants transplant better as small specimens, and bare root can be better than planting out things with spiralling roots from life spent in a pot.  I had to explain that the commercial reality was that most trees were only available as container grown plants, and often only as larger ones, because the majority of customers wanted something they could see in their garden, now.  His complaint against planting older and larger trees turned out not to be concerned with their root structure and how easily they would transplant, as because he disliked the way that the lower branches had been cut off the main stem, leaving ugly marks.  I had to explain that even if one planted a small, young tree, it would naturally tend to produce branches low down, which would have to be cut off as it grew, or else would be shaded out in time by the crown developing above them. He seemed to have visions of a tree shooting up to six or eight feet before branching out, then sprouting a full head of branches at the top of a perfectly straight and unmarked trunk, without any human intervention.

Then he wanted to know about his rose hedge.  He had planted a hedge of 'Roseraie de l'Hay', which is a popular, well-regarded double rose in the Rugosa group.  It had grown very well, and got too large for him.  Not knowing how to prune it, he had removed it entirely, gone to all the trouble of replacing the soil, and replanted with fresh 'Roseraie de l'Hay', most of which had thrown out stems with small, miserable white flowers on it.  He had heard that roses were sometimes grown on other roots.  Could it be that these roots had sent up stems.  I agreed that was extremely likely.  He was not happy with the idea of grafted roses, and did not see why an old English variety like 'Roseraie de l'Hay' had to be grafted, since if it had been around for a long time it ought to be able to manage without.  I did not follow his logic, and as it happens (and you might guess from the name) 'Roseraie de l'Hay' is not an old English rose, but a French one dating from the very early twentieth century. All I could do was tell him that while roses would strike from cuttings, and that was how amateur gardeners generally made more, propagation on a commercial scale was almost entirely by grafting.

He was worried about a red thing he had found on his one plant that did have red flowers, a red thing the size of a tomato, and was afraid it might be some disease.  I said that roses in the Rugosa group did have large round hips, though I couldn't think offhand exactly what those on 'Roseraie d l'Hay' looked like, since I didn't grow it myself, and in the plant centre we tended to cut them back after flowering so lost the hips.  He sent his wife to the car to fetch the large red thing, while he went to look at trees.  I nipped off to get our David Austin book of old and shrub roses, and she came back with a perfect hip, glossy and shining, still with the withered remains of the petals on it.  I confirmed it was a hip, and produced the photograph in the book as corroborative evidence. She denied having ever seen a flower, but was convinced by the photograph.

I felt quite drained by the end of it, as though I had been trying to communicate with members of an alien species.  Ignorance of names, or specific facts, or techniques, is entirely understandable, but how can people, even townies, have so completely lost any empathy with living plants that they they will grub out an entire hedge rather than find out how to prune it, and mistake a fruit for a diseased growth?

Friday, 23 August 2013

the machine stops

Maureen Lipman gets a great line in Daytona.  'Are you the angel of death?' she asks her unexpected visitor.  Today I seem to be the angel of death when it comes to domestic appliances.  The Systems Administrator had disappeared to the Oval, and I decided it was time to start cleaning the house, which has got to a state of fluffiness and dustiness that even I find unacceptable.  In a normal British summer this fits into the odd wet day, but as 2013 has been short of those, and I spent the last one (yesterday) engaged in charitable labours, I thought I'd just have to sacrifice a dry one.

I managed to sabotage the kitchen radio almost immediately.  It is an early DAB digital radio with a sticky on-off switch which is intensely annoying, but used to work if you tried enough times.  I picked the radio up to wipe the kitchen work top and put it down again, quite gently, about six inches from where it was previously.  It stopped working.  I fiddled with the button, which no longer clicked, and I thought irritably that the wretched thing had finally died, and that it was a pity it had done that after I spent ten minutes wiping the sticky smears off it.

It is a fact that anything in a working kitchen will very slowly collect a thin layer of grease.  Or at least, if all you do in the kitchen is boil eggs and make toast, I suppose it won't, but if you ever do anything involving frying, or roasting meat, tiny particles of fat will make their way into the air and land on every surface in the kitchen.  You don't have to be deep frying, even browning onions for a stew, or cooking a healthy, vegetable based stir fry will do it.  I am baffled by the lifestyle articles in the Sunday magazines showing kitchens with chandeliers in them.  The owners either have servants to clean their elegant and wildly inappropriate light fittings, one glass drop at a time, or else never cook.

By lunchtime I was getting bored of cleaning, and thought I'd go to the bank at Brightlingsea to pay in the beekeepers' money.  I was congratulating myself that I didn't go yesterday, since last night I was handed the tea money, the raffle money, and the surplus from the summer barbecue to bank as well, so I'd only have had to go again.  Traffic was moving unexpectedly slowly on the stretch of road running down to the railway crossing, and I could see cars ahead of me turning round and giving up.  I thought there was maybe some problem with the crossing, and followed suit as I was opposite a handy gate, intending to go the other (longer) was round the block.  I reached another solid line of virtually stationary traffic at Arlesford, and decided to turn round again while I had the opportunity and go home.  Thirty one minutes after setting out, I arrived back, money still un-banked.  I had a look at the local paper on-line and discovered that there had been a five car accident at Thorrington, one person airlifted to hospital.  Poor them.  And annoying for everyone else stuck in the jam, and me with half an hour of my life spent driving around pointlessly.

After lunch I returned to the cleaning, and picked vast amounts of cat hair off the door mats in the hall with my fingers, then quite a lot more fur with the aid of the vacuum cleaner.  I kept an eye on it, just in case, but the red light to warn it was full or blocked never came on.  Then it stopped, abruptly.  I tried plugging it into a different socket, but got the same result, one vacuum cleaner apparently well and truly visited by the angel of death.  Unless the SA can fix it we need another, and quickly.

I was going to go and take the supers off the beehive, which was one reason I needed a scrupulously fur free kitchen, but after an invasion by seven wasps I began to think I had better leave it until after my working weekend, when I would be around to see the job through.  If any of the honey has set in the comb then I'll have to melt it out instead of spinning it in the centrifuge, and it seemed unfair to leave the SA with a giant wasp bait in the kitchen for three days.  Plus last time I kept the kitchen door shut and the window closed almost constantly for twenty-four hours, the fridge-freezer almost broke down from the strain as the heat built up, and given I had already sabotaged the radio and the vacuum cleaner I didn't want to be responsible for breaking them as well.

I had a final happy thought about the radio, after I'd written a note for the SA explaining that it had given up the ghost (this does not presage a breakdown in communications, simply that I'll have probably gone to bed before the SA gets back, and will definitely have gone to work before the SA surfaces in the morning).  I checked whether the power lead jack had slipped partially out of its socket in the back of the radio when I lifted it up, and it had.  I pressed it home and lo, like Lazarus arising from the dead to amaze you all, it worked again.  I beamed at the shiny volume knob I'd polished so painstakingly, and tore off the part of my note to the SA dealing with the death of the radio.  It was embarrassing enough last time, when I couldn't get the printer to work, and the SA had to ask me very kindly if I'd actually remembered to plug my laptop into the printer, as well as plugging the printer in to the mains socket.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

an active role in the community

Today seems to have been entirely taken up with Community Involvement.  I thought that I could finish counting up the cash from the wildlife fair and take it to the bank on the way home from the music society committee meeting and envelope stuffing fest, but ran out of time, and had to bundle it into a pile in a corner of the kitchen to be finished later.  Because I was concentrating on my bee treasurer role, I failed to read the time on the music society agenda when I printed it out, and so didn't notice that the meeting was for ten and not half past until it was ten to.  I had firmly believed it was at half past ten, a particularly embarrassing mistake given that I was supposed to be taking the minutes.

The sticking of  inserts inside leaflets had begun without me, as had the meeting, but the chairman gave me a brief resume of what had been discussed so far.  I scribble rapidly in meetings as the talk goes, a legacy of thirty years' of note taking at work and university.  My city notebooks were legendary, and the Systems Administrator tells me that one senior broker he sometimes sees still mentions them.  As I wrote it did seem to me that we were jumping around all over the place, and when I sat down later at the kitchen table to type up the scribbles, I realised that I was going to have to substantially reorder the sequence in which things were discussed if I wanted the minutes to have any relationship to the agenda at all.  We definitely didn't agree a date for the next meeting, and the Treasurer's Report seems to have been skipped over entirely.

I couldn't do the minutes until I'd finished counting the beekeepers' money, which took absolutely ages.  Yesterday I counted and double counted the contents both cash boxes, the tin containing tea money, and the two plastic bags of raffle proceeds, wrote down the totals and added them up, several times.  I even checked the contents of the cash boxes putting the amount of every type of note and coin into a spreadsheet.  I was as sure as you could be about what each individual container held and how much they added up to.  Today, when I tried to fill in the paying in slip and extract my float, they would not add up at all, but were ten pounds something out, and then twenty, while my eyes began to glaze over and I became thoroughly confused about how much was in the individual piles of coins.  Finally I got there, and my float was not twenty pounds short after all, but by then it was getting late to go to the bank.

Tonight brings more Community Involvement, as it's the beekeepers' monthly club meeting, which this month is about American twentieth century music.  As one of the long-standing members says, when you've been keeping bees for over forty years, it gets a bit dull listening to your umpteenth lecture on feeding for winter.  Twentieth century American music is a vast subject, and while I like quite a lot of it (Missisippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Hedy West, Chicago blues, Philip Glass, Lyle Lovett, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, the Second South Carolina String Band, and Glenn Miller but only on barbecue nights), I suspect that tonight's lecture is not going to be on any of those.  Like I said, it's a vast subject.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

the king was in his counting house

I trundled round to the wildlife fair with two cash boxes and a float, and found myself roped into helping to erect our pop-up gazebo.  It is an extraordinarily ingenious contraption which concertinas down into a bag about the size of a golf bag.  There is no disassembly, you don't have to un-velcro the fabric from the frame, or take the frame apart like a tent.  Instead the frame is jointed, and collapses down.  Once we'd unfolded it out of its bag, it wasn't entirely obvious what was to stop it collapsing by itself under the force of gravity.  Even the secretary's husband couldn't see it, and he is a professional engineer, works in the oil industry.  When I'd got the secretary's counter-signature on some cheques, signed in my small offering of jars of honey for sale, and helped pick out some bee-friendly plants to decorate our stall, I scarpered.

As we were choosing plants for the stand, the secretary's husband casually remarked that the bees would probably be moving honey downstairs pretty soon, that is, taking it from the supers, where the beekeeper can harvest it, and stashing it away in the brood box where they will live during the winter.  This rattled me, since I'd been worrying about them swarming and taking the honey with them, but hadn't thought of them simply moving it from my bit of the beehive to their part.  When I got home I put a clearer board under the top two supers of the golden bees' hive.  There is a little bit of honey round the edges of some frames that still isn't capped, but they have been working on it for ages, and it wasn't dripping when I inspected them.

The garden is so, so dry.  One of the late Elmore Leonard's rules for writing was, Don't begin with the weather, but when you are a gardener, the weather matters.  A Euonymus planipes, planted last year, was drooping dangerously in the long bed as I went out.  I ran the hose on things that looked as if they desperately needed it, and on the spots in the gravel where I wanted to plant things out, my beautiful new fig with deeply incised leaves, a tall white lavender a friend gave me, and some seed raised Watsonia I am going to risk outside.  Watsonia is a south African bulb, and not awfully hardy, but I have six plants, raised from seed, in addition to the ones I potted up for display in a large terracotta pot.  They can spend the winter in the greenhouse, but I don't have room for all of them, and short of listing them on e-bay or one of the specialist plant sale and swap sites that are bobbing up, I can't think what to do with them.

The point of watering before planting is to make the ground soft enough to dig.  Otherwise, it is almost like chiselling holes in rotten concrete.  I managed it for the white lavender, but that was only in a one litre pot and was still hard work, while the fig was in a 7.5 litre container.  It is called 'Ice Crystal', and it is terribly beautiful. To see was to desire.  Figs do grow in pots, but they honestly seem so much happier in the ground.  My 'Brown Turkey' is making leaves twice or three times the size, now that it has been liberated from its pot, which was quite large.  It is now planted at the foot of a south-west facing retaining wall, along the edge of what was the vehicular access to the integral garage, when anyone kept a car in it (we never have).  The soil was packed with flints the size of a fist, which I had to lever out individually, but the fig loves it.  It took a year or two to establish, them romped away, throwing up luxurious new growth from ground level.  It even has some figs on it, though unless I put bags round them I'm sure the birds will get them before I do.

I went back to the wildlife fair at four, to collect the takings and any unsold honey.  It had sold, all eight jars.  I asked if the public had been behaving themselves nicely, and whether I could use what was left of the taster jar for cooking, or if they had been undisciplined and inclined to dip their spatulas back in after licking them, and was told it had all been very well controlled.  As one volunteer put it, if I didn't want my taster honey back he'd have it.  Counting and then recounting the cash took drove me mad, as we seemed to have fifty pounds odd more than the theoretical value of members' goods sold, when at last I remembered that we also did candle rolling and wooden bee colouring-in, proceeds of which go directly to the division and not members.  Panic over, though by then I'd given up and emailed the secretary asking whether anyone had brought extra honey for sale.  Hostilities will resume in the morning, as I still haven't counted up the proceeds of the last two raffles, which also need paying in to the bank, along with some tea money.  How the owner at work copes, counting up three tills a night, come rain, shine, and dinner parties, beats me.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

talking and not talking

I went to check the bees this morning.  The golden bees are still not trying to swarm, but still haven't finished capping their honey.  I am chary of taking it too early, since if it still contains too much water it will ferment in storage.  The other colonies looked happy enough, and I might as well start feeding them and get that finished before we go on holiday.  Indeed, I bought some sugar later while I was in Tesco for just that purpose.  Given that it looks as though I will get the honey from the golden bees, I thought I might as well offer some of the crop from the dark, buzzy ones for sale at the Chatto wildlife fair.  If that had been all the honey I was going to get, I might have kept it for my own consumption and to give away.

I was looking forward to the wildlife fair, but have ended up having very little to do with it.  The person organising our stand in the Show Secretary's absence received numerous offers of help, which is not always the case when putting on displays.  I was not given a slot in the rota on the stand, but was supposed to be doing the first half of a talk about swarming, covering what a swarm is and why bees do it, before our General Secretary, who takes the calls from members of the public who have got a swarm and puts them in touch with a member who can help, talked about what to do if you do find a swarm of your bees on your property (make sure they are not wasps or bumble bees, call us, keep calm and carry on).  The organisers were very slow in telling us what time our talk was due to be, before finally announcing today that they weren't having talks after all.  The weather, apparently, was not conducive to talking.  So I have ended up with no role at all, beyond popping round in the morning with a couple of cash boxes and getting some cheques countersigned in my capacity as Treasurer.  Oh well, I could do with an extra day in the garden.

There is a wasp nest underground in the long border, underneath a sorry-looking Chaenomeles I moved last winter.  It is right by where I want to plant some other things, but I can't dig there with a live and functioning wasp nest.  I asked the Systems Administrator to get me some wasp nest killer on a run to the shops, but the foam sort we used successfully when we had a nest in the shed does not work on underground nests.  You are supposed to enclose the nest completely in foam, but it is impossible to get more than about a cupful to go down the hole.  After three or four treatments, at the end of which there were still wasps coming and going, I tried running the hose down the hole for a couple of hours to drown them out.  Still wasps.  I gave it another hour, and will have to see how it looks tomorrow.  Maybe I need to get some powder.  Maybe I need to be patient and just wait for them to die.  I would, if I didn't want to work in that part of the bed.

There is a great passage in Michael Pollan's book Second Nature, which he wrote before becoming a food guru.  He has gophers living in his garden, which he is initially indulgent towards, until he discovers quite how much damage a set of gophers can do in a garden.  I know the feeling: twenty years ago I had a similar live-and-let-live attitude to rabbits, but no longer.  His escalating efforts to see them off fail, and he realises he needs to reappraise his attitude to nature and man versus nature when he pours gasoline down the hole and sets light to it, and a great jet of flame shoots out of the burrow.  I loved Second Nature, but neither of the people I have given it to have seemed so keen.

Monday, 19 August 2013


The owner is advertising for staff, after saying last Monday that there was no point until September.  That's not to say she has placed ads in Horticulture Week, but she has put notices by the till.  One vacancy is for a Plant Centre Assistant, full or part time, must work Saturdays, horticulture qualification, keen interest in plants.  That's all fair enough, but the other is for someone to run the shop and cafe, keen interest in plants essential.  I'd have thought that a food hygiene certificate and a keen interest in homeware and greetings cards was more to the point.

I had to serve a cafetiere of filter coffee while my young colleague was at lunch, and scrubbed my hands vigorously with a nail brush under the hot tap, but still had compost under my fingernails. Let's hope the new Plant Centre Assistant joins up on the basis of being willing to do the cafe when required.  I also foresee a grand spat between whoever they take on to run the shop and the existing member of staff who, although nominally nothing to do with the shop, moves the displays around on a weekly basis.

The bare root irises arrived for potting, but I wasn't allowed to go and help pot, because we needed two people in the plant centre.  Which we did, especially with the cafe, but it was a shame, as I like potting.  The young gardener never made it to work at all because his car had broken down, so the manager was one experienced potter down, although the proprietors' son, a potting novice, helped in the afternoon.

The cold tap in the staff room has been getting stiffer and stiffer to turn on and off, to the point where it has become impossible.  There are a couple of possible solutions to this problem.  The one most people would opt for is to get the tap mended or replaced.  The one we have adopted is to turn the tap off at the stopcock, which entails crawling into a narrow space under the work top between the fridge and the wall.  I am not awfully good at clockwise versus anti-clockwise at the best of times, let alone while squeezed into an awkward hole, and I wasted a good deal of water before managing to turn the tap off again, because initially I opened the stopcock to full on instead of closing it.

It felt very quiet, but the end of day sales total was surprisingly good, given how dry it is.  Maybe the economic statistics indicating the beginnings of an upturn are right.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

fringe theatre

First thing this morning I modified yesterday's post.  As originally written it previewed our trip to the theatre today, then I decided not to do that, but forgot to change the title.  Never mind, I've seen worse errors on the websites of national newspapers.

We went to a matinee performance at a recently opened theatre in north London.  It was entirely the Systems Administrator's idea, which touched me deeply since I am normally the one who organises arty trips, and I knew nothing about this theatre, or the play.  The SA heard a review on Radio 2, and said that it sounded good.  After we'd gone through the pros and cons of getting ourselves to north London and back, the SA came up with the revised scheme of going to a matinee, this Sunday, which is also our wedding anniversary, and going out to lunch first.  I was utterly charmed.

Our destination was the Park Theatre, which has been shoehorned into an old office block very close to Finsbury Park tube.  It has two auditoriums, seating ninety and two hundred people, a space for rehearsals, workshops or what you will, a cafe and a bar.  Of these we saw the larger auditorium and the cafe.  It opened in May of this year and still smells of new carpet.  The play was a new play, too, Daytona, and this run was its world premiere, though it is now going on tour around the UK.  The three actors were Maureen Lipman, Harry Shearer (who I think were the main draws for the SA) and John Bowe (who almost stole the show according to the Telegraph review).

I do my best, but my life does seem to come out more Mr Pooter than Vita Sackville-West.  The small child lying on the seat across the aisle across us on the train to Stratford was suddenly and copiously sick shortly after leaving Colchester.  It was not a full train, as thankfully the army of teenagers on their way to Chelmsford's V festival had scrambled on to the intercity at the last moment, rather than getting the stopper, so we moved seats.  We got to Highbury and Islington without further incident, but couldn't get out of the station, because the barrier rejected our tickets and there were no platform staff at all.  We asked at a window saying Information, and were sent to a different window, where someone summoned a member of staff to the barrier, who expressed his extreme mortification that we were stuck inside the station with a gleeful, sarcastic humour that would have had Mr Pooter writing a letter of complaint to someone.  He then explained that the barriers could not cope with combined mainline and London overground tickets.

After that we could not find the restaurant.  It was only about a hundred and fifty yards down Upper Street, and we must have almost reached it, albeit on the other side of the road, before losing confidence and retracing our steps.  It was partly my fault, because I'd swapped two numerals when I wrote the number down, but the Systems Administrator has seen enough transposition errors to know that is a mistake that could happen to anyone (the difference between the two will be divisible by nine, but that didn't help us find the place).  The main problem is that the street numbers in Upper Street go up one side of the road and then back down the other, but we didn't know that, and expected 265 to be pretty close to 257, not several minutes' walk away on the other side of the road.  Having found 257 we spent some time searching around Highbury Corner, before doing what we should have done in the first place, and consulting the web.

The restaurant is called Gem, and specialises in Turkish and Kurdish dishes.  The food is very good, assuming you like eastern Mediterranean herby and garlicky food, which we do, or we wouldn't have gone there.  The prices are astonishingly reasonable for London, and I thought they deserved to be busier than they were (three other tables apart from us in all the time we were there).  Halfway through lunch a smiling Asiatic wearing dark glasses came in, disappeared out the back with the man I took to be the manager, and left saying he would see him next week, which was a bit Sopranos.

Finsbury Park is not a long walk from the top end of Upper Street, provided Arsenal aren't playing at home.  If we were going to the Park Theatre again we'd happily combine it with lunch in Gem.  The cafe at the theatre was very crowded and cheerfully chaotic, also rather hot.  We knew the auditorium would be air conditioned, though, because one of the actors had commented in the interview that it was just as well given that he spent the whole of one act wearing an overcoat.

I can't really tell you anything about the play, apart from the fact that Maureen Lipman is wonderful and the play is very good, since the plot twists around like an eel, and it is impossible to say anything about it without delivering the most massive spoiler.  We bought a programme as we filed in, and then discovered that rather than having the usual advertisements for local solicitors and schools like they do at the Mercury, it consisted of half a dozen pages detailing past work of the main contributors, and then the entire text of the play.  Or rather, the text as it existed at a late stage in rehearsals.  I read it on the way home, and saw a few places where it had been tweaked.

It was a lovely day out.  I guess that the fact that we navigated the vomit, the being locked in and the getting lost without once getting ratty and snapping or screaming at each other is one of the reasons why we are still married after twenty-nine years.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

box sets

Last night, as it was not the weather for sitting out on the balcony and barbecuing, we returned to the box set of The Sopranos.  In order to avoid plot spoilers, the episode titles are cryptic to say the least, and we spent some time trying to decide whether we had already seen The Strong Silent Type, or had indeed got on to Calling All Cars.  It is about as middle aged as you can get, wondering on a Friday night how far you have got through The Sopranos, before settling down in front of the telly with a bowl of mixed bean chile con carne and a bottle of Portuguese red.  We guessed earlier rather than later in the series, to avoid missing any episodes, and it says something for how well they were made, that I knew within two seconds of the beginning that I'd seen both The Strong Silent Type and Calling All Cars before, and that we must therefore be on to Eloise.  It was more difficult for the Systems Administrator, who has already watched all five series, and had to disentangle memories of something seen six weeks ago from the vague familiarity of having watched it a couple of years ago.

It gave me an idea for an App, which I hereby offer to the world free and gratis, since I am not going to learn coding in order to write it myself.  I fancy a dinky little virtual abacus on my phone, so that I can slide a bead across each time we watch an episode, and another in the next row when we finish a series.  I know I could simply write it down on a piece of paper and keep it near the TV, but a virtual abacus would be so much more fun.  Plus I would be more careful not to lose the phone than to keep the piece of paper.  We have so many bits of paper.

Our latest generation flat screen television with built in blu ray player is so complicated that even the Systems Administrator, who is normally good with technology, has only a hazy idea of how it works.  The Sopranos' introductory music is brilliantly atmospheric and very apt, but not short, and once we'd listened to all of it and I'd instantly recognised that I'd already seen the opening dream sequence of a blue hairy caterpillar crawling down the back of a man's head, the machine refused to go back to the episodes index.  When eventually the SA persuaded it to play the next episode we had to listen to the entire theme tune again, then had the same problem getting back to the index. At one point the TV decided that we did not want to watch a DVD at all, but Gardeners' World on BBC2, and the SA was reduced to trying my suggestion of ejecting the disc and putting it in again. As a result I'd finished my chile before we started viewing the episode we actually wanted.

I have absolutely no idea how the TV works.  We must have had some instructions once, but where they are now is anybody's guess.  Once, when the Systems Administrator was away, I managed to play Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, and was pathetically grateful when the machine worked, and I have occasionally played CDs, but if the disc I've inserted doesn't automatically start I'm more or less lost.  A drawback of being childless is that you cannot fall back on the usual middle aged support plan with digital technology, which is to ask someone between the ages of 3 and 13 for help.

Friday, 16 August 2013

wet weather jobs

It rained this morning as forecast, the first drops falling as I went out to let the chickens into their run, and measure up for a support for a herbaceous clematis in the sloping border.  I'd been saving up a list of wet weather jobs (which has not yet extended to the vacuuming or the ironing) so that was fine.

I went to B&Q first off, to buy a hose.  Our's is slightly too short to reach the far corner of the back garden, and I'm about to have to cut off the last ten feet because they are leaking through tiny holes, that put out a surprising amount of water in the course of an hour, making the greenhouse floor wet when I don't necessarily want it to be, and watering my legs while I'm trying to water the plants.  B&Q still had hoses, but no half inch hose to hose connectors that I could see.  Maybe there's a spare one in the shed.  I tried to stop the leaks by running duct tape round the hose, but that didn't do any good at all, apart from converting the fine spray to a heavy dribble.  Then I stopped at Marriages animal feed store to stock up on layers' pellets and mixed corn, and allowed myself to feel slightly smug that I can still lift 20 kilos.

After that I went into Colchester to pay two cheques into the bank, and call at the Arts Centre for tickets to a couple of gigs.  I had made sure to time the trip so as to arrive at the Arts Centre after ten-thirty, since their booking office doesn't open until then, and was rather bemused to push on their door at ten to eleven and find it still locked.  I fiddled with the door for a bit, in case I was being exceptionally dim about what I had to push, pull, or turn, then peered in through the window to see three people sitting at desks.  Good-oh, they hadn't closed for the day due to staff shortages, then.  They must have heard me rattling or seen my plaintive face at the window, and someone got up to let me in, remarking that the door was still locked.  The hand-made-out-of-tofu theme continued, as none of their computers would consent to print tickets, and I had to be content with a handwritten receipt on a compliments slip, and the promise that they'd be posted to me free of charge, today.  Assuming they can get the computers to work.

The way out of the multi-storey car park was blocked by a woman attempting to drive a large SUV into a small space, which she was approaching at the wrong angle.  Even I could see that she was too much on the diagonal, too close in, and wouldn't do it.  She gave up, and tried again with another bay barely wide enough for her gigantic car, this time next to a concrete pillar for added fear factor.  She made the little girl in the front passenger seat get out, and stand by the pillar. The child stood mutely, with an expression which combined a look of deep embarrassment about being seen out with this clown, with an ignorance of parking as profound as that of her mother.  At least she had an excuse, being no more than twelve years old, and not in possession of a driving licence, or in nominal control of a motorised vehicle in a public space.  The prospect of running the child over paralysed the driver, who gave up trying to get into the space, summoned the child back into the car, and spotted that another car a couple of bays along was about to leave.  She turned to me with an appealing smile and a wave, and gestured that she would go into the next gap instead, and there was a further delay as the driver of the second car did a seven point turn, because the SUV was blocking it in, while I ground my teeth and swore inwardly.  If she couldn't park her car she ought to drive a smaller one.  I'd have liked to hoot at her, but couldn't remember where the horn was.

Then I went up to the smith at Wakes Colne to collect the bean tendril sculpture.  I place the order in the third week of June, so it has taken rather a long time compared to his original estimate of three weeks, but that was because his forge broke down.  He rang to say it was ready about a week ago, and I said I'd be along to collect it soon, but might leave it until the next wet day.  He has made a wonderful job of it and I am thrilled.  I will post a photo in due course, once I've installed it. At the moment it is lying in the hall, where I must be careful not to tread on it and risk breaking any of the tendrils off.  Though I suppose wrought ironwork can always be mended.  I must have achieved the status of trustworthy regular customer, because I left an idea for a plant support with him, and this time he didn't want a deposit.

After lunch I finished putting patches on my latest gardening trousers.  This is a highly experimental project.  My trousers always go at the knee, while the rest of the garment is still perfectly good, zip working, seams intact.  I have scoured the internet, and the army surplus stores of Colchester, trying to find either women's work trousers in a really heavy twill, or genuine combat trousers in a 28 inch waist, and failed utterly on both counts.  Men seem to have the same problem, since most of the customer feedback on the internet about recently purchased work wear trousers grumbled about the flimsiness of the material.

My latest experiment is to buy two pairs of chinos in the Lands' End sale.  They have an elasticated back waist, which earns nils points for style, but will be comfortable for crawling around in the garden, and I ordered them un-hemmed.  This allowed me to chop fully six inches of both legs, from which I have extracted two patches about six inches square.  Rather than try to retrofit the patches after the knee has already gone, I have sown them on in advance.  Knee patches on gardening trousers tend not to last very long, because kneeling down puts such a strain on the stitching round the edge that it breaks in next to no time.  This time I have sown them on using rows of running stitch in button thread across the entire area of the patch, and instead of trying to turn the edges of the patch under, I have laid the patches on flat and over stitched the edges to prevent them fraying too badly.  The result looks very odd, though I suspect that if I never used them for gardening, but kept them immaculately clean and told the hipsters in Shoreditch that they were based on Japanese work wear, they might almost believe me.  As long as I wore a long shirt to hide the elasticated back waist.  That would be a dead giveaway.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

small tortoiseshells

I have identified one of the mystery butterflies in the garden as a small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae urticae, with the help of an excellent website, UK Butterflies.  It's a bit of a cheat really to even give you the link, since if you wanted to know more about butterflies you could find it for yourself in about five seconds with the aid of Google.  It lists the species found in the UK, tells you which ones are flying this week (though not necessarily where you are), and has a comprehensive page of information about every species.

I recognised the small tortoiseshell from its photograph, having looked hard at one that perched in front of me for a reasonable length of time, and made a mental note of the bold yellow and black stripes up the leading edge of the front wing, and the row of brilliant blue dots along the trailing edge of the rear one.  It turns out that numbers in the UK have declined in recent years: they have always fluctuated from year to year, but now the UK population is being parasitised  by the larvae of a fly which feeds on the larval and pupal stages of the butterfly.  How depressing, though I suppose the fly is as intrinsically interesting as the butterfly, just not as highly valued by most people, because it is not pretty.

Adult tortoiseshells hibernate over the winter.  I didn't know that, and browsing around the UK Butterflies site made me realise how singularly little I know about their life cycles.  I'd have thought they could overwinter equally well as pupae, but according to the phenology table, all the small tortoiseshells have emerged by mid September, with only the adult form (or imago) persisting through the winter.  The name gives a clue to the favoured food plant, nettles.  I was brought up to believe that nettles were essential for butterflies, and in honour of the small tortoiseshells (and because the label on the glyphosate bottle says to spray new growth in spring) I will leave it until then to start spraying off the nettles which have sprung up all along the side of the wood on the way to the compost bin.  I feel there will still be enough for the butterflies elsewhere in the garden.

UK Butterflies has a Twitter account, @ukbutterflies.  I don't use Twitter, having no desire to follow a condensed running commentary on life from Stephen Fry or any other celebrity, while if I wanted to communicate with anyone I knew I'd send them an email, or write to them, or in an emergency ring them up.  I'm not even sure whether any of my friends have Twitter accounts.  If they have, they haven't invited me to contact them using that medium.  But I could see the point of it for a specialist interest group like lepidopterists.  How useful to be able to post a picture of a butterfly you are trying to identify in an open forum where people with above average interest in the subject will see your query, and can respond.

There are many more species of moth in the UK than there are of butterflies.  I know enthusiasts who set out their traps at night, luring moths in with light, but in general people find butterflies far sexier.  They fly by day instead of night, do not invade your house after dark and flap around the light bulbs, making an off-putting scratchy noise, and they are generally prettier.  A French au pair we had when I was about twelve was afraid of moths, and from her I learnt to be scared of them too, for a time, but who ever heard of anyone who was scared of butterflies?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013


The long, dry, hot spell is really starting to hit the garden.  It coped pretty well for the first few weeks of no rain and relentless sunshine, because the soil was so wet to start with, and perhaps at the margin because I've put a lot of mulch down, compared to the last drought in July 2006. However, by now the soil is as dry as a bone, and so hard that trying to plant anything leaves you chiselling at the soil rather than digging in the conventional sense.  An increasing number of plants are showing their distress, the leaves of the asters grey, puckered and drooping, the hellebores and primroses collapsed, the Omphalodes prematurely shrivelled and dormant, and the perennial pea giving up on flowering.  The leaves and shoot tips on some well established shrubs, planted several years ago, have begun to flag.

I gave the water meter a hammering.  I don't waste water on the lawn, which will come back by itself when we get some proper rain, but I don't want to lose plants, or stress them so severely that next year's flowering is compromised.  I didn't feel even vaguely guilty about it, since the amount of water I use through one domestic hose is so utterly dwarfed by the amount that is pumped out daily on the lettuce farm, and the expense so small relative to the value of the plants.  Gardeners are always being told to feel guilty when they use water.  I don't hear golf enthusiasts being lectured about giving up the game in favour of clay court tennis, because of the strain that irrigating golf courses places on the environment, or motorists being warned that it is wasteful and vain to wash their cars more than once a year.

I would feel guilty if I were trying to grow thirsty flowers like Monarda and Phlox on pure sand, and finding myself watering them twice weekly, but I'm not.  Many of the things I watered today haven't seen a hosepipe for years.  Recent plantings that haven't yet got their roots down have been watered oftener than that, obviously, but in general the choice of species is about as ecological as you could get, short of sticking to a very limited palette of gorse, broom, Mediterranean shrubs and herbs, and Agapanthus.  And creeping sorrel.  And the trouble with Mediterranean shrubs is that in a bad winter three quarters of them die.

I was shadowed all day by a robin, which nipped in where I'd been working to snap up unconsidered trifles, and regarded me with a bold, enigmatic gaze.  The butterflies were out in force as well.  I need to work out what some of them are, since the only ones I know are peacocks, commas and red admirals.  I spotted one small toad, but I've seen very few this year compared to last.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

happy anniversary

It is twenty years to the day since we moved into our house.  Friday 13th, an easy date to remember.  It was a busy week, the week we moved.  We were at the top of a chain about four houses long, so it's a miracle that it ever happened.  Somebody in the chain wanted accelerated completion, so we had a week from exchange to completion, seven days in which to find a removal firm and pack up all our belongings.  The Systems Administrator was fired on the day that we exchanged contracts, and my brother's wedding was two days later.  We decided it would put a damper on the proceedings to tell my parents that the SA was without job at the precise moment that our mortgage was about to more than double, and the SA remained mute as my uncle held forth at the reception about the uncertainty of City employment.

The City had such a hire and fire mentality that there was no shame in being sacked.  Indeed, I'm not entirely confident that I knew anyone working in a front office capacity who hadn't been, at some point in their career.  In the end it proved a great move for the SA, whose next job introduced him to the future boss, great friend, and cricketing companion, under whose auspices the SA ceased to be an investment manager and shifted to the middle office, with generally satisfactory results.

The move was unexpectedly painless.  Friday 13th August 1993 was a bright, sunny day.  The little one-van removal firm we managed to find who were free at a week's notice proved competent, nothing was broken apart from one house plant, and they were obliging about carrying boxes to the right rooms.  We had a lot of books even then, so there was some heavy lifting, but they were delighted to be able to back their van right up to the double doors leading into the downstairs sitting room.  I was impressed at how they knew, among the chaos of boxes, exactly where the one had gone containing the cans of beer bought for their benefit.  After they'd left we stood in our new, incredibly shabby house, gazing out through the huge curtainless windows at the view, and the mixture of bad turf and ploughed ground that was going to be our garden, and were very happy.

They could not back the van right up to the doors now, because the grass turning circle has become a gravel garden, and there is a pond in front of the double doors, besides all the plants, and a breakwater built out of timber recycled from actual coastal defences.  We have an awful lot more books as well, compared to twenty years ago.  In fact, when I think of what a palaver it is going to be moving out, I rather hope we manage to die first, leaving other people to sort it.

The garden after twenty years is a real garden.  I look at it sometimes, and am faintly astonished that everything in it was conceived of, constructed and planted by us, apart from the bad turf, and some of that has been moved.  Some of the first shrubs to be planted are now magnificent specimens, some reached their natural span in far less than two decades and are no more, others succumbed to cold, drought, waterlogging, rabbits, or disease.  There are some good bits of design, mostly the Systems Administrator's, and some glaring errors of layout.  I wish I had known twenty years ago what I know now, but of course it has taken me those years of trial and error, reading and study to reach the point I'm at now, and in another couple of decades I'll regret how ignorant I still was in my fifties.

Flowering highlights of the garden on the 13th August 2013 include:  A fine stand of Crocosmia 'Lucifer'.  A lot of Verbena bonariensis.  A large Yucca flaccida 'Ivory' in full bloom.  Finally, at the third attempt, a Romneya coulteri with several stems bearing white poppy-like flowers.  Two flourishing Zauschneria californica, a 'Dublin' and a 'Western Hills'.  A good Hydrangea aspera 'Mauvette', though I must trim the boundary willow which has yet again dropped down in front of it. A Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle', whose flowers I feel should be larger, but at least it has not flopped over this year.  A Hydrangea paniculata, which is supposed to be 'Limelight', though I am not entirely sure that it is, growing back strongly and blooming well after hard pruning in March. Hydrangea paniculata 'Vanille Fraise', crammed into a slightly too small and too dry spot, but flowering valiantly.  The pale straw coloured, floating heads of Stipa gigantea, the giant oat grass. Lots of Agapanthus, which has seeded around the gravel in the Italian garden, and this year is joined by the first ever flower on my potted 'Queen Mum', a giant dome of white flowers shaded blue at the base.  Dahlias.  In the conservatory a recently repotted Hoya has started flowering for the first time, extraordinary pendant clusters of fleshy pink flowers that scarcely seem real.

There are some good leaves too.  Leaves are with you for far longer than most flowers, so we have Japanese maples, the giant leaves of stooled Paulownia, ferns, the aromatic stems of rosemary, the silvery, twisted branches of the olive, purple Cotinus, the yellow stemmed bamboo now confined within a circle of galvanised lawn edging, plus the clipped forms of the topiary yew and domes of box, done freehand and slightly wonky.  There's some good bark too, three different species of birch, and the cinnamon brown trunk of Arbutus x andrachnoides, gamely leafing up again after yet another cold winter.

The collection of sculptures and garden ornaments has grown over the years, to the point where some areas of the garden couldn't accommodate any more without starting to look cluttered.  I'm quite proud of some of my cobble detailing in the paths, and the Systems Administrator's mark II decking in red cedar is as neat as a professional job.

I'm pleased with it.  It would be better if it were less weedy, and not infested with horsetail, and if we'd allowed for somewhere for loose loads of mulch and manure to be dumped, and thought more carefully about where to put the greenouse, but it has character, a feeling of energy, barely suppressed chaos, and playfulness.  Not bad for the first twenty years.

Monday, 12 August 2013

nudging and nurdling

The manager returned to work to find it had been all go in his absence, what with another burglary and a second member of staff resigning.  He looked very well after his holiday, though I don't suppose that'll last more than a week or so.  The owner announced breezily that there was no point in advertising for staff during the holiday season, and that she'd start looking at the beginning of September.  In the meantime we would muddle through.  We lose five man days per week in five days' time, and another four days a week from the end of September, both people who can operate the cafe.  There'll be a delay once she advertises while they wait for the CVs to come in, and hold the interviews, and whoever they select could be on as much as a month's notice, so we aren't going to have got anybody before the end of next month.

In addition, the cleaner has got the whole of the second half of August and all of September off, and the owner left the manager a note saying that we might have to form a rota to clean the loos and shop during that time.  The manager grumbled that he didn't want to clean the loos, it wasn't what he was paid to do, and he didn't even like cleaning his own loo, which were my feelings exactly.  Nor do I want to serve in the cafe.  If I'd wanted a job in catering, I wouldn't have bothered to spend three years at horticultural college, and I'd find myself a place at a good restaurant where I was going to learn about food, not dishing out tea and cakes in between watering and weeding.

The manager was occupied ploughing through the backlog of e-mail enquiries, and searching the plant centre to try and work out what else might have been stolen.  He was sure there had been an olive tree in front of the shop when he went away, and a couple of hollies, though it's always possible a member of staff moved them before the burglary.  I returned to the task of disentangling the climbers, since I'd run out of pretties to put on the display tables.  It went against the grain to remove nice, new, healthy growth from the honeysuckles, but they had all grown into each other so much that it was impossible to pick any of them up if you had wanted to buy one.  It proved a slightly expensive exercise, as I was so taken by Lonicera sempervirens, a beauty with narrow red trumpet flowers, orange inside, that I bought one to go at the back of the dahlia bed.  Looking it up now on the web I see that it is from north America, and in its native land provides a nectar source for hummingbirds.  Some of the web entries make it sound not so easy to grow as the boss's label suggested, so I hope it was not an unwise purchase.  I try not to buy plants on impulse, but could visualise exactly where I was going to put this one.

To my regret, somebody had deadheaded most of the Hemerocallis which had finished blooming before I could get to them.  Some varieties form small plantlets in the nodes of their flowering stems, whose bases gradually swell to the point where you can see rudimentary roots developing.  I have half a dozen of the dark red 'Chicago Blackout' from cuttings salvaged a couple of years ago, and was hoping for some of the lovely brick red 'Chicago Fire' to add to the collection, but all I managed to spot was one 'Lemon Bells'.  The old stems are going to be cut off and thrown away anyway, so it is not like taking cuttings of a shrub, which you should never, ever do in other people's gardens without their express consent.  The stem-bourne plantlets root very easily in moist compost.  If the swelling at the base is not yet pronounced, and doesn't look as though it is going to snap away cleanly, I have rooted them with a short section of stem attached rather than risk breaking them off, and that seemed to work equally well.

The Systems Administrator returned home from two days of watching the Test Match at Chester-le-Street, half an hour after I got in myself.  Although the blog does not give our address, and you would have to work moderately hard to identify the house, and despite the fact that only about five people read it anyway, and one of those is my mother, you will notice that I did not advertise the fact that I was home alone for three days.  It beats me why people plaster the fact that their property is standing empty all over Facebook and Twitter.  They would do better to brag about their new (and totally fictitious) Alsatian.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

on thieves, customers and peacocks

I was the first member of staff to arrive at work, and as I opened the gate I was greeted by the owners' son.  He told me that last night they had reversed the horse lorry right up to the gate, so that you couldn't have opened it.  A car (probably stolen) might be a match for the door of the gardeners' shed, but you wouldn't have much joy using one against the horse lorry, which is vast, ancient and shabby.  The trouble with parking there on a regular basis is that the owner or the boss have to go out into the car park before the staff turn up just before eight, to move the horse lorry, so I can't see it lasting as a long term security measure.  There is also the risk that the horse lorry will refuse to start one morning, as it quite often does, blocking the car park to customers for the day.

It is an odd thought that whoever stole the standard shrubs on Friday night must have cased the joint first, to find what they were looking for quickly and quietly in the dark.  None of today's customers looked like thieves sizing us up, but how would we know what a thief looks like?  A dodgy-looking bloke with tattoos in a hoodie?  I read once of a small time American entrepreneur, who set out to sell donuts in corporate offices.  There was only one of him, and many floors of offices, so he put a tray of donuts on each floor with an honesty box.  His friends laughed at him and said it would never work as a business model.  Because he knew how many donuts he had put out, and how much money was in the box, he knew floor by floor how many people were stealing donuts instead of paying for them.  The loss rate was worse on the upper floors occupied by the more highly paid executive staff than on the lower ones where the less highly paid administrative underlings worked.

However, all of today's customers were very nice, and honestly didn't look like potential burglars. There was a solemn young couple interested in fruit trees, fairly new to gardening though experienced enough to have grasped that they had very heavy clay soil.  They seemed genuinely interested in the theory of why adding organic material to soil improves it, but perhaps they were simply very polite.  Another couple wanted to plant a hundred feet of yew hedging, and seemed grateful for advice on clearing the turf from the site (glyphosate it now for autumn planting.  Unless you have a very strong ecological aversion to using glyphosate you do not want to volunteer to lift four hundred square feet of turf, and where are you going to stack it if you do?  It is a horrible waste to put it in a skip).  By the time we'd gone through planting distances for yew, speed of growth, constraints on the dimensions of a hedge (do not create one that is so wide at the top that you can't reach the middle to cut it) and mulches, they'd practically had a tutorial.  The really rather posh owner of a famous garden in Cheshire was extremely charming, and after much agonising bought a pale cream banksia rose instead of the more commonly seen yellow pompom variety.

The pea hen had two chicks with her.  Peachicks are like ducklings, in that they emerge from the egg with downy feathers, and can walk almost immediately.  One of this pair is the usual mid brown, and the other a soft canary yellow, which makes me think it will be another white peacock, if it survives.  The survival rate in peachicks doesn't seem very good.  Of the five to hatch so far on the premises, one died immediately, one at a few days old, and one fell in the pond and drowned, while two made it to adulthood.  The peahen is an assiduous mother, pecking small pieces of leaves off the plants, dropping them down in front of her babies, and pointing to them with her beak.  I did have to shoo the three of them out of the shop at one point, and feared for a nasty moment there was going to be a peafowl stramash, because the automatic doors had closed behind her, and as I advanced on the door to get it to open, she began to panic, and stepped on one of the chicks. It bounced back, and they all ran down the ramp out of the shop, her clucking and the babies peeping.

When I got home I had to water all the pots in the Italian garden, the greenhouse and the conservatory, plus the dahlia bed because the dahlias had begun to droop, and I didn't want them aborting their flower buds at this stage.  I didn't finish until a quarter to eight.