Thursday, 31 October 2013

falling behind

It was not forecast to rain this morning, but it did.  I was slightly suspicious that when Our Ginger came and hung around the kitchen while I was eating my breakfast, his fur was lightly beaded with moisture, and by the time I'd finished mixing the next lot of meringues, and churned the ice cream, and blind baked a pastry case for the flan at lunchtime, it was raining properly.

I went and stared at it through the sitting room window, and fulminated at the Systems Administrator that it was not supposed to rain, and it was a swiz.  Why couldn't it have rained yesterday, when I was meeting friends for coffee, and been lovely today like it was yesterday?  The SA showed me the rain radar, and said without rancour that it was probably going to rain until lunchtime.

After a while I thought that I had better stop behaving like a teenager grumbling that life was, like, so totally unfair, and go and find something useful to do, so I got on with updating my spreadsheet of plants in the garden.  I keep a journal of what I've been doing, and what I've planted, then periodically transfer the planting details of what and where to a spreadsheet, so that when I'm staring at a chrysanthemum and trying to remember what it's called, I can look up 'chrysanthemum' on the computer rather than trawling through over twenty years' worth of handwritten notes.

It's a good system, in theory.  In practice, I sometimes forget to write up the book, and am left consulting my diary, and scrolling through old blog entries, trying to remember what I was doing last Tuesday and whether I was even gardening at all.  I would never advise anybody to rely on my evidence of what I did last week in a criminal trial, and I should take it very badly if I changed my mind about where I'd been and it was held against me.  Either I have a particularly feeble episodic memory, or we should be equally suspicious of everybody's testament about their whereabouts or activities on a particular date, if it's longer ago than about yesterday morning.

I also tend to let the spreadsheet get out of date.  Data entry is not very interesting, as a method of spending spare evenings and wet afternoons.  I was shocked, even so, to find that I last updated it in 2009.  It matters because sometimes, when I am considering trying to grow something, it is useful to be able to see whether I've tried it before.  It is slightly depressing, updating the computer record, because it forces me to recognise how many plants have died over the years.  Although, after two decades, not all of the losses are my fault.  Some things simply died of old age.  The two cold winters of 2010-11 and 2011-12 were massively damaging, in terms of plants that were killed outright at the time, and other things I fear lost to the surge of nature trying to reclaim the meadow, as I was left with numerous gaps around the garden, corpses to remove, and a general sense of fighting on too many fronts at once.  Although the winter of 2012-13 went on for a long time, by then most of the tender things that were going to die had already done so, and I hadn't wasted my time replacing them like I did in 2011.

By the afternoon it had stopped raining, so I went and weeded the gravel, as being a job I could do without surrounding shrubs and taller herbaceous plants dumping water down my back while I worked.  Later on I went and investigated the compost heap, and discovered a rich seam of compost ready to use in the bottom of the third bin.  Compost is wonderful stuff.  You haven't heard the last of that.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

the year of the meringue

The kitchen is turning into a meringue factory.  On Saturday it is the annual fund raising supper of the music society.  It is also a day when I'm working, so when we were discussing the menu I announced that I was not prepared to take a day off to do any last minute cooking, but was willing to make meringues, as they could be done in advance.  My offer was accepted, which as far as I'm concerned was a plus.  Last year I had to take two dozen portions of chicken casserole, and the one before I was asked to contribute vast quantities of apple crumble.  Neither transport easily in the car, and it was a relief in the year of the chicken when the rest of the weekend passed without news of a mass outbreak of food poisoning in the village.

The organisers have come round this year to my reservations about assorted amateur cooks running up huge vats of main courses in their own homes, which may or may not fit in their domestic fridge, then transporting them in their cars, which certainly lack chiller capabilities, before they are reheated on the gas burner in the village hall.  Instead they have outsourced the main course, leaving the committee to do the starting nibbles and the puddings.  As a matter of interest, if you buy in a main course from a caterer cold, and reheat it yourself, you don't pay VAT on it.  If you have it delivered already heated, you do.  Isn't the UK tax system wonderful?

The secretary was rather vague when asked how many meringues she wanted, saying only that we were catering for sixty people, but not all of them would want meringues.  That doesn't narrow things down very much.  Somebody else is making chocolate brownies, so who knows how many will want meringues?  Half?  Three quarters?  Only a quarter?  And will they want one meringue or two?  I always imagine them coming in pairs, squidged together with cream, though I am sure that on Saturday people will be left to add their own cream.  The right answer seems to be somewhere between thirty and ninety, which is quite a range of uncertainty.

I don't mind the supper concert, but if I hadn't agreed to be on the committee I wouldn't go.  It isn't really my sort of thing, sitting in the hall of a village where I don't live, with people I don't necessarily know, while local amateur musicians perform their stuff.  At least by now my fellow committee members have given up trying to persuade me that the Systems Administrator would like to go.  Apart from the amusement of imagining that, as in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, fiction and reality had blurred, and that one was actually living in a sequence from Lucky Jim, the prospect of spending an evening making polite conversation with village worthies while listening to madrigals is the sort of thing to make the SA's blood run cold.  The committee members don't even get to do the full whack of sitting down, because we are running about serving the main course and clearing plates.

I made meringues last night, and another set are in the cool oven of the Aga as I type.  Tomorrow I'll do some straight after breakfast, then probably a second lot at lunchtime and a third in the evening, unless when I do the maths again I think that two more batches should be sufficient. When you make that many meringues, you end up with a lot of egg yolks, so I have offered to make cheese straws as well.  There are already some egg yolks in the freezer, and a pan of golden syrup flavoured custard cooling in the fridge, en route to being ice cream, and tomorrow's lunch will be a bacon flan, which will use a couple more.

I was worried that I didn't have enough large tupperware storage boxes, but Tesco didn't have any big ones, and then in a fit of inspiration I thought that if I run out of conventional containers I can use a honey bucket.  It might confuse my fellow caterers briefly and not in a good way, given my horticultural background, since they do look a lot like those white plastic tubs you can buy pelleted chicken manure in, but they are made of food grade plastic, and are airtight.

Probably after all this there will be boxes of meringues left over, but I'm sure my colleagues will eat them.  I'm not buying them cream, though.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

falling birches

We had a proper look around the garden and in the wood today, as the wind had dropped.  Yesterday afternoon was still wild enough to put us off investigating potentially unsafe trees up close and personal.  The willow that's collapsed along the back of the ditch is not as bad as I'd feared.  The main weight of the trunk is lying along the line of the boundary, so it can let itself down further if it needs to over the coming months without any risk of it falling into the border. The side branches overhanging the bed need trimming back to let more light in, as does the hazel it has slid into, but we'll do that once the leaves are off.  I wanted to reduce the hazel (or, more accurately, to persuade the Systems Administrator to reduce it) anyway, because that corner of the garden is getting too dark.

The birch in the wood has failed more dramatically than I realised yesterday.  It was growing as a multi-stem, with two main trunks diverging at ground level.  That's an unusual method of cultivation in woodland, although it has been in vogue among garden designers in recent years. One trunk was dying back before the storm, and when we had a couple of arborists in a couple of years ago to do some coppicing on behalf of the Essex Wildlife Trust, they took the dead top out of it while they were there, on safety grounds.  Yesterday's storm, however, caused the base of the birch to split in two.  The dying trunk has fallen one way, towards the garden, but the other half, that was looking reasonably healthy, has fallen backwards into the wood, and is rather precariously wedged against a younger birch and an alder.  The root plate has split and lifted, and the tree is a goner.

It is both sad and not sad.  It was a handsome tree, and supported a bracket fungus that an ecologist from the wildlife trust said was interesting, when he visited more than a decade ago.  On the other hand, birch is not the longest lived species, and it had probably reached its natural span. It will provide an impressive amount of firewood, once we've worked out how to extract it, and its demise lets a useful amount of extra light into what had become an overly gloomy corner of the garden.  So often I have read, in accounts of the great storm of 1987 and other tree-related catastrophes, that after the shock of losing a familiar landmark plant, one realises how dark the garden had got, and how the growing conditions will be improved by letting more light in.

Driving through Old Heath in Colchester this morning, I saw a wind thrown mature birch in a front garden resting on somebody's house.  The root plate was huge, and Old Heath lived up to its name, as underneath was bright orange with sand.  The tree looked healthy, and I suppose an unlucky, especially strong gust must have just caught it and bang, over it went.  It's a tribute to the build quality of the house that it didn't go through the roof.  Having a collapsed birch tree in a wood really seems quite a minor problem in comparison, though I'm afraid our's will do more damage as it comes the rest of the way down, which it must at some stage.

I had a terrible, heretical idea, as I looked at the amount of space opened up where the birch used to be.  I said to the Systems Administrator that I'd had a wicked thought, to which the SA replied that I was thinking of planting non-native species.  Got it in one.  The gap is right next to the garden, and it is very tempting to have a magnolia or two.  The soil is pretty wet, so I'd have to choose carefully, but I could just imagine looking out of the garden and over the rabbit fence, straight into the great goblet flowers of a magnolia.

The UK has a terribly limited native flora, compared to most other countries.  This is down to our particular geological history, and yes, it is true that native plants tend to be the best for wildlife.  However, as more and more plant diseases seem to arrive every year, I'm beginning to think that it wouldn't hurt to hedge our bets and plant a wider range of species, to increase the chances of something surviving in any given situation.  Besides, I like magnolias.

Monday, 28 October 2013

after the storm

The power has just come back on, so I am going to post quickly, before it can go off again.  I should have been at work, but after watching the wind strengthen steadily between seven this morning and half past, when I needed to leave the house, and having heard on the radio that the storm was due to hit London at seven, I thought I'd delay going in until the worst was past.  According to the weather forecast, the storm was due to move out over the North Sea by mid-morning, although that's bad luck for the poor old Dutch, as it will be even bigger by the time it hits land again.

Nobody answered when I rang in to work to say I'd be late.  It occurred to me that of course if all the staff were delayed then there were no servants to answer the phone, but since the answering machine didn't kick in either I guessed they had no electricity as well.  I eventually got through to the owner, who sounded harried, as well she might be, and said there was no point in driving in the worse of it, and later would be fine.  They had a power cut.

With no lights in the shop, the till running off a generator, and little prospect of customers, there was not even a great deal of point in going in, but I thought I should show willing, once the worst of the wind had dropped, since there was going to be an awful lot of picking up and sweeping up to do in the plant centre.  By quarter past ten the wind had dropped back to a normal late autumn stiff breeze with strong gusts, and I packed up my lunch and left for Suffolk.

I didn't get very far.  As I reached the first bend in the road I found it blocked by a large weeping willow that had collapsed out of a neighbour's garden.  Reversing back to the farm entrance, and heading off the other way round the block, I found the alternative route blocked by a fallen holm oak.  That run of trees has been dodgy for a while: one came down last winter, in much less wind that this storm, sending us on a five mile detour to get home when we were almost in sight of the farm.

After I'd gone home, and rung work again to say that I wouldn't be in at all because both roads were blocked, the Systems Administrator pointed out that I could have trespassed along the track across the farm.  The farmer almost certainly wouldn't object, partly because he is a very decent bloke, and because it might encourage us to start objecting to his activities, like lorries on Sunday mornings, and industrial scale complexes of polytunnels.  I had totally forgotten the farm track, but the postman obviously hadn't, because soon after that today's post arrived.

A quick survey of the garden and wood suggests that the damage is not too bad.  The new piece of acrylic popped out of the roof of my greenhouse, but fortunately without snapping, so it can be reinstalled tomorrow when the weather's calmer.  More annoyingly, two more panes of glass have started sliding out, and one has snapped midway under its own weight, so we'll have to buy another piece of acrylic, which is another sixty quid down the drain.  The SA checked that the lower edges of all the glass panes in the greenhouse roof were fastened after the first one slid out, but the storm must have broken or dislodged some of the original fastenings.  As I've said before, it is quite an old greenhouse.

We haven't lost any trees in the garden or down the edge of the wood, that we can see.  A dying silver birch in the wood has come down, but that's fine, as it was going to drop at some point, and now it has done it at a time when nobody was underneath.  My Robinia hispida is smashed up, but that's not surprising, as they are terribly brittle shrubs, and it will regrow.  The only really tricky thing is that one of the willows on the boundary has sagged forward so that it is hanging over the ditch bed, partly resting on a large hazel.  That can't be left as it is, because it is unsafe, and if it comes down in a rush it is going to land on some nice shrubs underneath.  The SA thinks we will be able to tackle it from the side, using the Henchman platform.  I'm not convinced that is going to be high enough, on the other hand renting a cherry picker would cost a fortune, and create a terrible mess in the ditch bed getting it in place.

The wider news is that a double decker bus blew over in Hadleigh, five or six miles up the road from where I work, at around eight this morning just as I was scheduled to arrive at work.  Some of the rides on Clacton Pier have collapsed, and Tendring Council has run out of chain saws.  I'm not counting on our roads being cleared any time soon.  Lucky there's the farm track.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

the gathering storm

So, there is going to be a great storm.  Or maybe not.  Our neighbours must be feeling pleased that they had the huge Lombardy poplar near their house reduced by a third last Friday, and not booked in for next Tuesday.  We had a letter from UK Power Networks warning us of a planned power cut in our area on Wednesday 6th November, to allow them to trim trees near power lines.  Pity they couldn't have done that a couple of weeks ago as well.  If cardunculus fails to post tomorrow, it's a fair bet we've lost our power.  The Systems Administrator has charged the back-up dongle, so we should have internet access, but the battery on this laptop won't hold its charge for the time it takes to reply to an e-mail.

The forecast for Essex isn't as bad as it is for the west country, and Kent, but we have prepared more carefully than we normally do for run-of-the-mill autumn gales.  The steamer chairs and barbecue on the veranda are roped to the railings, to stop them blowing through the window, and the chairs from the lower deck have been tucked in the lee of the 'Tai Haku' and a large rose bush, well away from the conservatory windows.  The metal table from the Italian garden is now upside down on the lawn, below the daffodil bank, so that it can't fall over and shouldn't blow anywhere, and the metal chairs are leaning folded up against the daffodil bank.

I've taken my row of terracotta pots of succulents off the top of the wall by the patio, so that they can't blow off and smash themselves on the paving slabs, and cut the blue glass baubles down from the 'Red Sentinel' to prevent them thrashing around in the wind until the metal loops for hanging them up give way.  The last of the pots from the Italian garden are now tucked up inside the greenhouse, a job which should have been done weeks ago anyway.  The pineapple sage, which I have been muttering at fiercely for failing to produce any spikes of bright red flowers, is finally in bud.  Reading the label I see that its flowering period is given as 'throughout the winter' so that has gone to live in the conservatory.  I think it needs a bigger pot.

The conservatory doors are shut, as are the greenhouse doors and vents, and the velux roof window in the bathroom.  None of the vehicles are parked under trees.  We have several pints of milk, plenty of loo roll, and a whole slab of cat food.  A torch.  Candles.

And that's it.  It's difficult to know what else to do.  I spent a long time looking out of the bathroom window this morning, hoping that none of my trees would blow down or lose major limbs.  By late lunchtime the barometer was falling fast, and the cats were hunched and nervous in their baskets (apart from the fat indignant tabby, who was soundly asleep in my wooden trug with an attitude of confident relaxation).  Can cats tell when worse weather is on the way, or were we projecting our own concerns on to them?

I hope we don't lose too much felt off the shed roofs, it is such a performance replacing it.  I hope the house roof stays on, though it did in 1987.  I hope that not too many plants get badly broken, and that the ornaments scattered around the garden survive unscathed.  I hope (and believe) that the chicken's house is heavy enough, and sheltered enough by our house, to stay put.

Probably after all this build up it will just be a bit windy, here in north Essex.  The general weather forecast doesn't look too bad.  The shipping forecast for sea area Thames, on the other hand, is for severe gale 9 to violent storm 11 for a time, perhaps hurricane force 12 later.  We'll see.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

the joy of wax

I have just spent a very pleasant day padding around somebody's garage, and standing about in their front drive.  Never let it be said that I do not know how to have a good time on my days off.

The reason was that it was the beekeepers' Wax Day, and the padding and standing was all in the cause of making hand-dipped beeswax candles, plus gossiping and drinking coffee.  Messing around with melted beeswax, unless you are going to do it in a sealed room, is a game for early spring or late autumn, when there won't be too many bees flying.  Choose a nice warm day in summer and you will have a room full of bees come to investigate the smell.  The reason for using a garage is that most people don't want to host a roomful of guests, some not personally known to them, dripping melted wax on the floor and furniture, and treading little shavings of it into the carpets.

Beeswax is messy.  Molten, it smells divine, and pure beeswax candles are a joy to burn, but melted wax is not something to treat lightly.  I heard one grandmother today warn her small granddaughter that if she spilt wax down her clothes, it would be there forever, and a piece of advice I cherish from Matthew Parris (back in the days before The Times disappeared behind a paywall) was never to melt wax in a saucepan which you ever wish to use for anything else.

The beekeepers have a fine array of wax melting and moulding kit, built up over many years.  We have a couple of thermostat controlled water baths holding cylinders that can be filled with molten wax, for dipping candles, another water bath for melting the wax in the first place, a narrow rectangular tank for dipping sheet wax, a mangle for embossing wax sheets with a honeycomb pattern, and a large collection of moulds.  At Wax Day you can make dipped candles, rolled candles, moulded candles and decorations.  You can rub the high spots with gold dust, if you so wish, to bring out the pattern.  You pay for candle wicks by length, and finished products by weight, and it will cost you virtually nothing over the bulk price of the wicks and the wax.  And your own labour, which is substantial.

I wanted one inch diameter candles to burn in our iron candlesticks, so stuck to dipped candles.  You must decide the diameter of the finished product before you start, and choose your wick accordingly.  There's no point in dipping a candle two inches thick if the wick is only for a one inch candle, and vice versa.  You dip the wick once, then leave it to cool completely.  This is important, since if the core stays warm, there is a risk that later in the dipping process, as it gets heavier, the rest of the candle will slide off the wick under its own weight.  If you don't want to stand about holding your candle for the duration, you can attach a small bulldog clip to the wick and hang it from a nail conveniently provided for that purpose.

Once the wick is cool you can start dipping, leaving the wax to cool and harden between goes, and moving the candle in and out of the wax bath pretty smartly, otherwise you will melt off as much wax as you put on. This is where the standing about comes in, waiting for your candles to harden enough for you to dip them again.   After a couple of dips you need to give the wick a good pull from both ends to straighten it, and if you are aiming for a really straight candle, you periodically roll it between two sheets of glass.  If you want the sort of mirror smooth finish that will win you prizes at the annual show, you clean the glass first with white spirit, to remove the smears of wax left by other candles.

I soon began to realise that I was doing something wrong, because my candles were growing so slowly compared to everybody else's.  People who had started after me soon had candles that were twice the diameter, and I was dipping assiduously.  At one point I was going so slowly I began to have visions of having to take them home at less than the full inch diameter, and bring them back to finish at the next wax day.  Eventually I decided the problem was that I was being a little too eager, and not letting them cool enough between dips, perhaps because I was hanging them from nails on a plank inside the garage, rather than outside where the wind helped chill them.  As the dipping frenzy began to subside, I was able to find a set of nails outside, and the candles began to grow fatter at a faster rate, but I stuck with the initial six and didn't go round again like some did.

I was very idle when it came to all that rolling under glass, because there was a queue for the glass most of the time, and cleaning smears of wax off sheets of glass with white spirit looked a great deal too much like hard work.  My candles would not win any prizes in the show, but there again, I'm not planning to enter them.  They should burn beautifully, though the organiser has warned me that if I use them earlier than Christmas I'll do well to put them in the freezer first.  Apparently freshly made ones burn down in no time at all.

Friday, 25 October 2013

out to lunch

We went up to Aldeburgh today, to take my cousin out to lunch.  He is not strictly my cousin, but my father's cousin, but 'cousin' is less of a mouthful than 'first cousin once removed'.  He is eighty-five, was widowed in April, and is in extremely good nick, apart from the fact that he needs a new hip. Two years ago he was striding along Aldeburgh beach and leading parties of geologists from the University of the Third Age to look at rock formations in Yorkshire, then wear and tear caught up with his hip, and now he can barely make it half way up the high street.

He was booked in to have the operation in August, then the anaesthetist demanded another battery of tests before taking responsibility for an eighty-five year old, and he lost his place in the queue. Having passed the tests, he is now back on for the middle of next month, subject to passing the pre med that he passed before in August.  The appointment has just come through, so we didn't know that when we booked the lunch.  Timing isn't ideal.  My cousin has no children, and this time round one close friend who would have helped out while he was convalescing will be twelve thousand miles away, visiting her daughter in New Zealand.

It isn't at all convenient, waiting to have your hip replaced.  Apart from the pain, and the limited mobility and loss of independence, you have to put your life on hold, hoping to get The Call.  Had my cousin been to any concerts at this year's Aldeburgh Festival, I asked.  No, because there was no point in buying tickets to things.  Although you could look on having some concert tickets as a powerful magic to ensure you got a fresh appointment (as a strict rationalist I am not superstitious, but I have noticed how since investing in a very warm, very long, thick winter coat because my purple velvet one after six years was going bald, we have had an abnormally warm autumn).

My cousin is due to give a presentation to his geology group on Monday week, and was dismayed that it had taken him two solid days to produce the first three Powerpoint slides on his new computer, and one of those wasn't right.  My cousin had to replace his old desktop when it broke down, and so has been upgraded to Windows 8.  From what I've gathered, not liking Windows 8 one tiny bit has nothing to do with being eighty-five, and everything to do with it being Windows 8.  I haven't heard anyone have a single good thing to say about it.  Mind you, that has been true for every new version of Windows I can remember.  It is fortunate for my cousin that the Systems Administrator was there to help, sounding very confident and e-mailing the images home to work on there.  I said as much, as we walked back to the car, and the SA admitted to currently having no idea at all what to do, but hoping it would all be clear once on a familiar machine with the full suite of programmes, instead of the dreaded Windows 8.

The SA did indeed work it out when we got home.  That shows what you can achieve through a judicious mixture of bullshit and self-restraint.  The SA didn't have a pudding.  I did, to keep my cousin company, as well as fish and chips, and coffee, which came with an enormous shortbread biscuit, and am still so stuffed my brain is barely in gear.  Blame any typos in this post on the sticky toffee pudding.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

calm before the storm

I started listening to Radio 4's In Our Time, as I pottered about the kitchen.  This week was on the history of the Corn Laws, which in theory I should like to know about, but I found the programme format distracting, not for the first time, as Sir Melvyn gave each guest a go, prompting and summarising between speakers.  I think I'd find it easier if one historian who knew their stuff simply spent half an hour explaining the Corn Laws.  I was also confused by the fact that one of the experts was named as Boyd Hilton.  What, I wondered, was Mark Kermode's stand-in on his film review programme doing on a history panel discussing nineteenth century domestic politics, or rather, what was a professor and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge doing moonlighting as a film reviewer?  I had to look it up on Google, and found that of course they are two different people, even though Boyd Hilton is not the most common name.  It's not as if they were both called John Smith.  I am not terribly good at names, when they belong to people rather than plants.  It took me quite a long time to work out that John Williams the composer of film scores, and John Williams the classical guitarist, were not one and the same, and I have given up trying to tell the difference between Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie.

Outside, it was the calm before the storm.  My Peter Nyssen bulbs finally arrived yesterday, after some nagging on my part.  Maybe they never send domestic orders out until the fourth week of October, but given that I placed the order on 13th June, as soon as their website was accepting orders for autumn planting, I thought they might have managed to get it to me sooner than now, and had a dark suspicion that the systems problems which led to the start of live on-line ordering being deferred several times might have spilled over into their fulfilment operations as well. However, when I checked the contents of the box, everything I'd asked (and paid) for was there, and none of the bulbs were mouldy or soft, as far as I could see.  The daffodils should ideally have been planted early last month, but they'll survive.

Part of the order was 250 Crocus tommasinianus 'Whitewell Purple', to bulk up the display in the bottom lawn, and I spent a happy hour crawling around planting them.  C. tommasinianus flower earlier than the big Dutch crocus beloved of municipal naturalisation schemes on roundabouts, and do well in grass.  I lost most of the Crocus chrysanthus planted in the borders to marauding mice, or voles, or something that dug them up and ate the bulbs, tossing the foliage contemptuously aside, and I have a theory that crocus bulbs scattered through grass are less likely to be eaten wholesale. Pheasants do eat the petals, though.

Despite having whinged a great deal about the bulb order being so late, I left potting the rest of it for a wet day.  We seem set to get several of those very soon, though some may be so windy that I might feel uncomfortable working in the greenhouse.  It is getting on a bit, that greenhouse, and if it finally blows down in a gale I should prefer not to be inside when it happens.

Instead, I went on chopping down the stems of spent herbaceous plants, and pulling up weeds.  The compost plus Strulch treatment makes such a difference, I must try not to leave any bare earth this winter.  Far fewer weeds germinate into the covered areas than the naked soil, and when they do get a hold they pull out much more easily.  The leafy material I've carted away is piled up in great tottering heaps in the three end compost bins, though it will squash down quickly enough.

Addendum  The David Nicholls reviewing the best task lamps in the Guardian is not the same David Nicholls that wrote the novel, adapted into the film in which Anne Hathaway was ridiculed for her accent, One Day.  Just thought you'd like to be clear on that.  I haven't read the book.  I was thinking about it, then read a massive plot spoiler that was dropped tangentially into an article on the Wall Street Journal website.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

the October checklist

There are still jobs to be done to keep the garden ticking over, according to Dan Pearson in the Guardian.  I don't know about ticking over.  I'm at full clatter, in the race against time to get as much as possible cut down (once it's finished flowering), weeded, mulched, Strulched, tied in, pruned (assuming you can prune it at this time of the year) and generally tidied before it starts raining heavily, blowing a gale, freezing, or snowing.

The asters have suddenly finished.  When I gave my talk on autumn colour, only eight days ago, the island bed was a mass of pink and dark red, with flashes of blue.  I made a mental note to get some more A. lateriflorus and A. ericoides and more 'Little Carlow', to introduce some variety into the sea of solid, medium sized pink flowers, and picked stems with gratitude to illustrate the talk, since we'd pretty much sold out at work.  A week later the flower heads have faded, and the stems are going on the compost heap.  I feel mean not leaving them for the birds, but there are plenty of seed heads elsewhere in the garden, I don't want them seeding (more pink) and there won't be time to do all the clearing away in March, so I'll have to forego the full new perennial planting experience of brown and sere stems throughout the winter.  I want that bed dusted with fish, blood and bone, and the Strulch topped up, before Christmas.  Ideally before mid-November.

I'm taking the tops out of the buddleias below the veranda.  There are two, of the same variety, which is good from a design point of view, given the size of the border, but a waste from a plant collecting perspective, since I could have had two different ones.  The first one blew out of the ground not long after planting, and I sighed about the expense and frustration of gardening and bought a replacement, then the original plant regenerated from the roots.  Buddleia can be prone to wind damage, and in an exposed garden it's not a bad idea to reduce the top hamper in the autumn, leaving the final pruning until late winter in case it's a cold one.

The two ends of the slab path have finally met up, after having a pile of slabs lurking in the back of the border for about two years, and my method of estimating the quantity of slabs I'd need by pacing it out has worked, since there are exactly the right number.  Of course, I could always have cheated by budging them up a bit or spacing them out, but then the middle section of the path wouldn't have matched the two ends.  I haven't finished levelling the soil for each one, just put some of them down at this stage, but at least the route is now clear.

The perennial sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius, which is supposed to provide foliage interest late in the year, has flopped over disastrously.  It makes very tall, unbranched stems, with narrow leaves like a willow (the clue's in the name), which look splendid in photographs of Great Dixter. The smallish yellow flowers are an irrelevance, the leaves are the thing, except that Christopher Lloyd's plants grew more or less upright.  I am puzzled why mine have flopped so much.  Lack of light?  They are tucked into a patch with shrub roses around them, and the house shades them for the first part of the day, but wouldn't they go upwards between the roses in search of light, rather than giving up and lying down?

I may have just answered my own question by googling them, and coming up with a page on the Missouri Botanical Garden site, which says that if grown in part shade they will be taller, and may require support.  Oh dear, next year I need to stake them.  I am not very good at staking.  It tends to be just one step too many, on the always very long list of things to do (come to think of it, I don't think there is any month when my garden is ticking over.  There are periods when the weather, or illness, stops play, but then I'm grinding my teeth in frustration at not being able to do anything, unless I'm very ill indeed.)

Meanwhile, it is still so warm that the Systems Administrator is able to let the chickens out for a run in the afternoons, and sit outside with them to scare the foxes away.  They enjoy coming out so much, it's a sad moment when it gets too cold to commit to supervising them.  Sad for the SA, too, who enjoys an excuse to sit in the porch reading, or playing a fiendishly complicated military strategy game set in the Vietnam war (or Candy Crush).  The hen that was moulting has sprouted a new set of feathers remarkably quickly, going from practically oven ready to fully feathered in only a few days.  Well, her tail is still on the small side, but at least she's waterproof.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

weeds, paths and etymology in a mixed border

It was a grey, blustery morning when I woke up, promising rain later.  I know I wrote recently that I'd read somewhere that you should never start a novel with the weather, but the weather outlook is extremely important to how you plan your day, when you're a keen gardener.  And anyway, I can't remember who said it, and they were wrong, since Jane Eyre starts with rain, and Bleak House with implacable November weather, mud and drizzle.  Peter Ackroyd's theory is that damp pervades our national character.  And this is a blog, not a novel.

It was not actually raining, or at least not very much, so I collected up the bags of weedy waste scattered across the top lawn, that marked the point at which work interrupted my last gardening session, emptied the big bucket of prunings left over from last time into the trailer, and resumed my progress through the top rose bed.

There is too much Campanula lactiflora.  What started off as one or two small purchased plants of 'Loddon Anna' has seeded itself joyously about, and some of the self-sown plants are threatening to overwhelm the smaller roses, or blocking the route of a planned maintenance path.  Campanula lactiflora is a big old thing.  It can reach 1.5 metres on our miserable soil, so on good loam and in a higher rainfall area I should think it would get larger still.  'Loddon Anna' is pale pink, while some of her offspring are light blue, a drawback of self-seeding.  All are pretty, but you can have too much of a good thing.  The roots of Campanula lactiflora are thick, tough, deep, difficult to dig out, but then break when levered with a border fork, so established plants are not easy to remove.

The planned path is merely a line of slabs, laid straight on to the soil.  In the 1950s this was considered a reasonable method of proceeding, and Margery Fish wrote about it enthusiastically in one of her books.  I rather think she even cast her own slabs, Geoff Hamilton style.  By the time I went to Writtle it was deeply frowned upon.  Paths were supposed to be properly laid on rubble and sand or cement, and bunging a few slabs down on the ground was not the done thing.  However, I only want my path to indicate a way through the back of the bed.  As much as anything, it is intended to act as an aide memoire, and prevent me from planting anything large across the line of it, in a moment of absent mindedness when I forget there is supposed to be a path, and see only a tempting, unexploited planting space.  And I agree with Margery Fish, that the beauty of loose slabs in a bed is that you can move them to reroute the path, as things grow, or die.

The Ceanothus x delilianus 'Gloire de Versailles' is flowering prolifically.  I don't remember it normally doing this well in the autumn.  Indeed, I don't remember it usually flowering this much at all.  I have just checked in Graham Stuart Thomas' Ornamental Shrubs, Climbers and Bamboos, and it is supposed to flower from summer into autumn, so something about the conditions this year must have suited it, and it is performing closer to its potential than it sometimes does.  The powder blue flowers are individually small, held in fluffy-looking clusters.

As I wrote that, I realised that while the phrase 'powder blue' to me clearly denotes a particular pale, greyish blue, I had not idea where the term came from.  It certainly doesn't describe any kind of powder with which I am personally familiar.  Google has not been as helpful on this question as it often is, and I haven't found an online dictionary to give me a definitive answer.  Quite a few entries say that it derives from the colour of smalt, powdered cobalt which was used in ceramics and glass making to colour objects blue, but other entries describe smalt as being darker blue and purplish, and say that the phrase 'powder blue' can refer either to smalt colour, or to a paler, greyer blue.  According to Wikipedia, the first recorded use to mean pale blue was in 1774.

Anyway, the flowers of 'Gloire de Versailles' are extremely pretty, and I was pleased to see them.  I fear my shrub is too much shaded by the surrounding roses, and the house which keeps the sun off the entire bed for the first part of the day.  Maybe if it saw more sun it would flower this generously with more regularity.  On the other hand, many writers say that ceanothus are particularly vulnerable to wind rock, and that the damage caused to their roots by the top growth rocking in the wind can kill the plant.  Certainly, they are a treacherous group of shrubs for dying suddenly and for no apparent cause, often just as they have grown to fill the space or do the job they were intended for.  I grow comparatively few, having been caught out by random ceanothus suicides enough times for one gardening lifetime, and at least 'Gloire de Versailles' is well sheltered where it is, and has not died yet.

By half past twelve the slight rain had morphed into fairly heavy rain, which it was impossible to ignore.  I packed up my tools, and went inside to cook some of this year's apples, prior to freezing. The Systems Administrator stared in horrified fascination at my mud-encrusted trousers, and remarked that I smelt a bit ripe, and had better get changed before the double glazing salesman came round to quote for the windows.  We have given up with the local merchant, who was so miserably ill-informed about the building regulations concerning replacement windows and would only give us a five year guarantee, and decided to go with the market leaders.  It will cost twice as much, but is guaranteed for life, underpinned by an industry bond.

Monday, 21 October 2013

the birds

The peahen and her chick are determined to come into the shop.  They made it in several times over the weekend, the mother being large enough to trigger the motion sensor that opens the sliding doors.  I don't think peafowl are the world's brightest birds, but they are not completely stupid, and have worked out that it is warmer, drier and a lot less windy inside the shop than outside in the plant centre, and that there might be cake crumbs.

I shooed them away from the doors several times, but went into the shop at one point to find the gardener and the manager advancing purposefully on a wicker basket full of cut-price strimmer lines.  The gardener reached behind it, and scooped up the peachick, which shrieked in furious protest.  Remarking that he ought to wring its neck, he deposited it outside the back door.  Later on, while I was on the telephone to a charming and rather grand woman from Kensington, discussing her Drimys lanceolata, which had been accidentally over-watered in its pot, the mother and baby were back again.  Entering the shop from the far end, they meandered in stately fashion until they stood in front of the cafe counter, at which point the mother deposited a neat blob of excrement.  I did not think I could remonstrate with the peafowl, or call for help over the radio, while being polite to a Kensington grandee, so sidled towards the back door, which mercifully opened.  The pea family stalked out, and once I'd finished my phone call I went to get some paper towels to clean up the blob.

After they gave up with the shop, they hung around outside our staff room for a bit.  I suspect the young gardener of feeding them.  The hens seem keen to get in as well, since the young gardener joined the staff.

Calling the peachick a baby makes it sound very sweet and tiny.  It is quite sweet, but although it sticks close to its mother at all times, it is by now the size of a small to medium chicken.  A little patch of peacock blue feathers is just starting to show on the back of its neck.  The peacock appeared briefly in the plant centre, but he has nothing to do with the care of his developing offspring, preferring to hang around with the guinea fowl.

A van load of rare magnolias and other desirable plants arrived from a nursery in Devon, but I didn't get to help unload them because I was minding the shop.  Then the van wouldn't start, and the nurseryman had to wait in our car park until the AA turned up.  That's probably all his profit on the magnolias, gone on the next garage bill.  It's a desperate way to make a living, propagating rare plants.  The expected delivery of reconstituted stone urns never came at all, because their lorry broke down before getting as far as us.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

start of the concert season

I arrived at work to find a peeved note from the owner in the ice cream tub where we keep keys, and put notes, saying that both tills had been wrong yesterday, and that there was no excuse, when we were not busy.  The note didn't really make it clear what was wrong with the tills.  One error involved a regular customer, that I hadn't served, and it sounded as though he might have asked to be invoiced, after his plants had been rung through the till, and as though my co-worker might have failed to clear them off the till again (using the Extra Discount button).  The owner claimed not to have understood the messages I left in both tills, warning her that to make up change for a twenty pound note on one of them I'd had to take a ten pound note from the other, but I thought that was about as clear as you could possibly make it.  One till was known to be ten pounds up and the other ten pounds down.  If there was an additional discrepancy of £6.95 then that was an entirely separate issue.  I don't think I made any mistakes on the till yesterday, but I can't be certain.

It is a fallacy to believe that, because the takings are modest, your staff are necessarily having a stress-free day in which errors need not occur.  With only two sales staff on duty, plus the tea shop girl who can operate the till at a pinch and tell customers where the loo is, but not where plants are, and who does not answer the phone, it doesn't take much to have the pair of them jumping through hoops and quite up to making till errors.  A couple of people waiting to pay while your colleague is occupied helping someone else find the magnolias, and a phone ringing loudly in your pocket with nobody free to answer it, and the staff are busy, at least for that ten minute period.

As I'd come to the end of the manager's list of my designated jobs, and finished someone else's for good measure, that left me with the generic instruction to sweep through the shrub beds.  Clearing up fallen leaves at this time of year feels futile to the point of being Sisyphan, when there are still so many more to fall, and I couldn't see the point of lifting shrubs off the shrub beds, cleaning the beds, and lifting them back on again, if those same shrubs were going to be moved next week anyway to be put under cover in one of the tunnels.  Why lift anything three times in seven days when you only need lift it once?  But I did sweep up leaves and scrape green lichen and moss off the beds we'd recently cleared, to make them look tidy, and then cleaned through the Salix, since they were dreadfully messy and I knew that most of them would be staying outside for the winter.

It was the first of the music society's concerts at four.  I was keen to make it, since I have a season ticket so have in a sense already paid to go, and because it was a string quartet.  I love string quartets.  My fantasy music society programme would alternate between string quartets, and some combination of cello and piano.  No wind trios, no classical guitar, no up-and-coming sopranos, definitely no brass ensembles.  It was a nuisance that this concert, and the next one, fell on my working Sundays, so that I was going to have to leave work early.  Significantly early, in fact.  It won't be so bad once the clocks change.  I asked the owner a couple of weeks back if that would be OK, choosing my moment when I was in her good books after doing the wildlife talks, and she said yes.  I left a note reminding her in the ice cream tub last night, but then came the till errors, and I was no longer in favour, so there was no reply, and by mid afternoon the family had gone out.

I was worried about leaving my colleague, and the tea shop girl, to cope for the final hour and a bit if we were busy, and I was concerned about leaving my colleague to lock up alone, given the recent burglaries in the village.  However, by half past three most of the remaining customers were pensioners drinking tea, and it didn't look as though we were about to be inundated by a late rush, and my colleague said that she would not be locking up alone because she would have the tea shop girl.  So I went.  They were starting with Haydn, and I really didn't want to miss that.  I love Papa Haydn.

It was a very, very good concert, and the church was gratifyingly full.  The only slight musical glitch was that the second violin was ill in hospital, which was obviously worse for her than for us, and while the emergency substitute came from another quartet of equal standing (or roughly equal.  I must ask my more musically sophisticated committee members whether she was appearing above or below her usual level), they had to drop the programmed second half Beethoven in favour of Dvorak. The Dvorak was beautiful, and probably pleased a friend who is not such a Papa Haydn enthusiast and prefers something more romantic, but Haydn and then Mozart don't really set you up in the right mood to appreciate a second half of Slavic music laced with American folk motifs.

The slight sartorial hitch was that I forgot to chuck a clean sweater and pair of shoes in the car, and had to spend the interval trying to look as though it was perfectly normal to attend a recital covered in compost and green slime and wearing wellington boots.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

early bird

This may be all the blog there is today, because it's a working day and we have friends coming to supper tonight, and as it's only ten hours since I wrote the last entry, and since all I've done since then is eat supper (nothing special), read the beginning of a book about the role of the UK and France in Syria in the first half of the last century (depressing) and sleep (like a lamb, thanks) there's not a lot new happening in north east Essex to report on.

I have made up my packed lunch and eaten my porridge (slightly grainy, could have done with another couple of minutes on the hob) listening to Radio Three, because that's where the set was tuned to last night, and I liked the string quartet that was playing when I switched it on, so left it there.  At half past six you catch the tail end of Through the Night, and it is such a civilised programme.  A presenter tells you what the music is going to be, in a quiet, polite, neutral voice. Then he plays the next piece.  If you didn't quite catch what he said because you were out in the hall dishing out cat food, or the kettle was boiling loudly, you can look it up there and then on the BBC website, instead of having to wait until sometime tomorrow for the website to be updated, by which time you will have forgotten about it, or what time it was.

It is so dignified and soothing.  There are no calls from insomniac listeners, explaining why they aren't asleep, or how they first heard this song in 1973 on a date with the person they subsequently married, or who broke their heart, or whatever.  The presenter doesn't sound desperately chummy, or prattle, or talk to me in the strange, cheery voice that some people adopt when talking to small children or old people.  There is no desperate small talk with a studio guest.  I wish all of Radio Three could be like that, apart from Private Passions (and Rob Cowan can do what he likes).  Yes, Producer of Radio Three Breakfast, I am talking to you.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, GPs condemn David Cameron's open-all-hours surgery plans, on the basis that at the moment 99 per cent of surgeries don't open all weekend.  Er, I think that's the point the Prime Minister was making.  It would be very handy for all those NHS patients who pay for the health service out of the taxes they pay on their Monday to Friday jobs and don't happen to work five minutes walk from their surgery, if they could go to see their GP without having to take half a day off work to do so.  As a former commuter I know whereof I speak.  And as a lowly plant centre assistant, who has just got up at six in the morning in order to go to work on a Saturday, and who will do the same tomorrow, and in a fortnight's time, if the plant centre and its staff, who are paid only just over the living wage, can keep the show on the road seven days a week for the convenience of their customers, I'm sure that GPs on six figure salaries can work out their rotas to do likewise.

I'm glad I got that off my chest.  And now it's time to go and let the chickens out, and go to work.

Friday, 18 October 2013

season of mists

It wasn't even mist, but full-blown fog, that greeted me as I wound the bathroom blind up to look out over the back garden.  I could see the outlines of the neighbour's oak tree, and the top of our not-a-swamp-cypress, but the next door farm's wind turbine had vanished into the murk.

The yellowing leaves of the birch trees stood out against the grey.  I hadn't noticed until this morning how far their leaves had turned.  Day by day, autumn trips along.  The collection of witch hazels in pots were putting on a good display, a medley of yellows, oranges, reds, purples, and browns, but they have mostly fallen by now.  The red leaves of the Japanese maples must be reaching a crescendo, and glowed in the soft, fog-filtered light with an almost luminous intensity.  A wild holly growing at the end of the wood is very obligingly providing them with a dark green background, which contrasts splendidly with the red.

I have begun chopping things down in the borders.  It's a nice question, how early to start, and whether to do it in phases or make a clean sweep, once started.  I felt mean cutting down the Baptisia australis, when its leaves haven't even started to die back by themselves, but due to my inadequate staking they had flopped out all over the bed, and other plants, and it is the second half of October, so the plants have had the use of them for a good long time.  Cutting off the seed heads of Acanthus spinosus before they can scatter seed everywhere makes sense, as I have more than enough Acanthus already.

The leaves of some of the peonies had turned rather beautiful shades of red, and I left them, for now, but others just looked brown and tatty, and they came off.  Clearing away some of the fading foliage from the beds allowed me to get at the ground to start weeding, though I won't start wholesale Strulching until the tops of all the herbaceous plants are cleared away.  It's another nice question which borders get mulched with mushroom compost, which obviously has to go on before the Strulch.  If some of last year's Strulch is left, it's tempting just to top it up.  A thick layer of both would be the ideal for every bed, but is more than time or finances will permit.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

mellow fruitfulness

Autumn is teasing us.  Yesterday it was so cold in the sitting room by the afternoon that the Systems Administrator put the central heating on for a trial run.  Today the sun shone with a mellow glow, and it was warm enough that I had to take my hat off as I worked.  OK, I have started wearing thermals under my gardening trousers, and a long sleeved t-shirt as an additional layer under my heavy chambray shirt and fleece.  Winter draws nearer, and even the warm days are cooler than they were.  But still it was a lovely day to be outside, albeit that every shrub and bush was loaded and primed with rainwater, ready to dump it down the back of the unwary gardener's neck.

There are still late flowers to be had.  The bright, orange-red Zauschneria californica flowers are going strong in the gravel at the entrance.  The little yellow lockets of the herbaceous perennial climber Dicentra scandens are blooming, with unopened buds still to come, and in recent days the deep, purplish-blue flowers of a late season species of Aconitum have appeared.  To my shame, I am not entirely sure which one.  I have not copied the names of things planted in the garden from my gardening notebook into my spreadsheet of garden plants for a terribly long time, meaning the only way to check the names of more recent introductions is to search page by page through the book, and I don't have a single comprehensive list of all the forms of aconite I've ever tried in that bed.  If I had, it would be easy to work out which one this must be.

The soft apricot, slightly quilled flowers of the Rudbeckia named 'Henry Eilers' are still in full bloom, as is a pretty chrysanthemum in a similar shade called 'Mary Stoker'.  I used to have a very late flowering, tall, pink chrysanthemum, also with quilled petals, but I am not sure if it is still there, or if it has been overcome by other plants.  A drawback to the naturalistic, self-seeding and spreading approach to gardening is that when everything doesn't have its own jealously preserved space, you do lose things.  If I do see signs of a pink quill, I'll pull up a couple of stems, chop them down and pot the roots.  Hardy chrysanthemums seem to root so ridiculously easily in pots from small offset pulled up with roots already forming, that there is no excuse for failing to keep them going in the garden.

The dahlias and fuschias are putting on a better show now than they were in the summer.  Perhaps they prefer the slightly cooler and moister air.  I should cut some dahlias for the house, so that we can admire them properly instead of looking at them across the concrete car parking and utility area.  Behind them, the little red crab apples of 'Red Sentinel' are starting to colour up splendidly. They are about the size of a well-grown dessert cherry, and much the same colour, once fully ripe, and they hang on the tree until the New Year.  I've had mixed success with crab apples in the front garden, however, since 'Comtessa de Paris' is looking very feeble, and 'Professer Sprenger' quietly died.  He was in one of the particularly vicious veins of soil that run across the front garden, but I hoped I might get lucky.  I wish I could grow Sorbus, but our light soil is completely wrong for them, and by now I don't have the space further down the slope, where sand gives way to clay.

I wonder whether I should have planted a Liquidambar in the back garden, where the soil is heavier, instead of the double gean, but never mind, it's too late now.  The truth is that, unless I had a garden at least the size of Hergest Croft, I should never be able to grow all the trees I'd like to.  I just have to satisfy myself with looking at them in other people's gardens.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

mission completed

I have done my woodland charity talk.  That's rather a relief.  Since the first of October I have stood up and talked six times, on five different topics.  Two of them were entirely new talks composed for the occasion, while the woodland charity presentation was updated fairly recently, so tonight was only the second time I'd talked off that version of the slides.  Keeping them all clear in my mind has felt like hard work at times.  Now I've got a month's break before doing the woodland talk again, and after that a really long break, with no talks booked until March.

This evening's talk was to a recently formed tree group.  Tonight was their first AGM.  They were not a large audience, but actually more intimidating than your average group, because I knew they would have a well above-average level of knowledge about trees and practical conservation.  I'm not sure I told them a great deal they didn't already know, but still, having an outside speaker pitch up for the annual meeting was an event.  Otherwise, since the committee were re-elected en bloc with no dissent, they'd have had to spend the whole evening chatting to each other over tea and biscuits.

Last night's garden group were lovely, and bought quite a lot of plants.  I preen myself a little for having managed to make the plants sound so nice, but I have to remember that I was in a well-heeled part of Suffolk, so I shouldn't take all the credit.  It's just as well they liked it, as they already have me booked for next year as well.  I'm not entirely sure whether that was intentional, or whether, given that a new booking secretary has recently taken over, she got in a muddle about what the previous one had already booked.

I count it as something of a miracle to have successfully traversed the region's trunk roads twice in two evenings without being caught in traffic.  To sail over the Orwell bridge and up the A12 towards Chelmsford without getting stuck in a jam at least once feels like an achievement.  I had a scare tonight, as the roadside electronic signs that were installed in a rush towards the end of the last government, and normally just say Check Your Mirrors or Don't Drink and Drive, presumably because there is no budget to pay anyone to update them with useful real-time information, actually gave some traffic data for a change.  They said that there was an accident on the A12 southbound at Eight Ash Green.  I skulked through Lexden and down to Copford and Mark's Tey without joining the A12, in the hopes that if there were delays I might get past them, or at least have the option of peeling away to the south.  It was probably a vain hope, since when the A12 is blocked, the diverted traffic stuffs up all the surrounding roads, and as I don't have a Satnav my chances of navigating cross country in the dark with one hand on the road atlas and one eye on the road were approximately nil, but fortunately I didn't have to.  Goodness knows when the accident at Eight Ash Green was.  Probably lunchtime.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

a small victory against the machine

I have triumphed, in a small way.  I have struck a tiny blow for everybody who has ever had their day out, or their commute to work, spoiled by a broken ticket machine, and railway staff indifferent to the point of hostility.  I have obtained a five pound cash refund from Northern (a serco and abellio joint venture).  Not even a five pound travel voucher to use on one of their trains, which would be dead handy when they operate in the north west of England and I live in Essex.  No, an actual cheque.  Practically real money.  I have to go into Colchester tomorrow, and I shall take great pleasure in banking it.

When the car park ticket machine at Wilmslow station ate five pounds worth of coins, and then failed either to issue a ticket or to return the coins, after we had got very wet standing in front of the machine in the rain, and spent ages registering on-line with the car park company by mobile, and been charged twenty pence extra for confirmatory texts we didn't want because we came prepared with enough change to pay to park, and the railway staff had been completely not interested in any of it, because the car park company was nothing to do with them, I decided not to let it rest.

It was not just the five pounds, though five pounds is a useful amount of money.  It would buy you one of my jars of delicious artisan honey, and regular readers will know the effort that goes into producing that, not to mention the price of jars and all the incidental costs of keeping bees.  It would cover any one of several items on my current Amazon wishlist, or buy me a latte and a muffin in the Tate members room when I go to see the Paul Klee exhibition.

But mainly it was the principle of the thing.  The Manchester tram system is plastered with notices warning of steep fines for anyone caught evading the fare (less than five pounds).  I have been hit with a twenty-five pound fine for inadvertently overstaying in the Walton-on-the-Naze car park by twenty minutes, although I was not causing any obstruction to traffic and it was not even a quarter full (own goal by the Tendring local authority, I have never been back since to support their struggling tourist industry).  At every turn, railway companies and car park companies are poised to slap a fine on travellers for the smallest infringement, even if due to genuine error.  Some councils will fine you for putting your bin out on the wrong day.  I couldn't fine Northern, but I could use up an amount of management time at least equivalent to the annoyance the Systems Administrator and I had suffered in their beastly station car park.

If you wanted to contact the parking company directly, you had to use a telephone number starting 08.  I had no intention of paying anything, let alone a call to a premium rate number, to complain about bad service, so the day after our trip I dug around Northern's website until I discovered an e-mail address for customer services, and e-mailed them:

Dear Sir

I am on holiday in the north west.  Yesterday I wished to go to Manchester and caught the train at Wilmslow station.  The car park machine ticket accepted five pounds in cash but did not print a ticket, or return the cash when the red button was pressed.  When buying our train tickets I asked the station staff whether they knew that the car park ticket machine was out of order.  They replied that I could pay by phone.  I explained that it had taken my cash and would not return it.  Their response was that parking was nothing to do with them and that I should take it up with the car parking company.  I suggested they put a notice on the machine to warn other travellers that it was not working.

I paid to park by phone, meaning I have been charged an extra five pounds plus twenty pence for advisory texts, without which I would have had no proof of payment.  Please could you advise me on how Northern Rail and your parking subcontractor Ring Go are between you going to reimburse me the five pounds I have been double charged.  We parked a little after ten, in a grey Jaguar registration XXX XXX.  The parking company will have a record of my phone payment for this, and I am sure that the station CCTV will show two people, a small woman in a fawn raincoat and bearded man in a black coat, spending a long time standing in front of the ticket machine in the rain before returning to their car.  Two members of rail staff were on duty behind the ticket desk when we bought our tickets, at approximately quarter past ten on Monday 16 September, and should be able to remember that I advised them the machine was not working.

When we returned to Wilmslow at just after four I checked the machine out of interest, and there was nothing to warn other customers that it was not printing tickets for cash payments or returning coins.

Yours faithfully
Mrs [my name and address]

I was sure nobody was going to check any of the details, but I didn't want to leave any wriggle room for them to say that my claim could not be verified.  The automated reply ran as follows:

Dear Customer
Customer Relations
Case Reference: NR/333594
Thank you for taking the time to contact Northern, the train company serving communities across the north of England.
We aim to respond within 20 working days.
In the meantime we can confirm receipt of your feedback/enquiry.
If you are claiming compensation for delay or disruption to your journey we need your home address, details of where you were travelling from and to, and copies of relevant travel documentation. If you are making a complaint about a Northern station, we need the station name and the time and date of the incident. If it’s a complaint about a member of staff, we need the time, date and location of the incident, and a name and/or description would be helpful. In all instances, please immediately reply directly to this email making sure the case reference number is in the subject heading.
Kind regards

Customer Relations Officer

So far, so good.  I had a case reference number, so this one was now going all the way to the office of the rail regulator if needs be.

On 5 October I received a letter:

Dear Mrs [my name]

Thank you for your correspondence, which I received on the 17th September 2013.

In the circumstances, I am arranging for a cheque to be issued to the value of £5.00.  This will be sent separately within the next 28 days.

Thank you again for taking the trouble to contact me.

Yours sincerely

[someone's name]
Customer Relations Officer.

You will notice that it doesn't contain an apology as such.  Sorry that you spent five minutes standing in our car park in a monsoon, and that our staff were unhelpful to the point of rudeness. Sorry that if you hadn't happened to have a smart phone, you wouldn't have been able to park at all.

Still, I got my five pounds back, and all up I reckon I caused them at least as much aggravation as they caused us.  Rejoice in the small victory against the machine.

Monday, 14 October 2013

odd customers

Today seemed to be a day of odd phone calls and peculiar customers.  They kicked off with the woman who called to say that she had meant to buy six of a plant with green leaves and red berries when she came in at the weekend, but had only taken five although she had paid for six.  She couldn't remember the name of the plant, and she was calling from work so couldn't check the label. My mind boggled gently as to whether she was expecting a refund for the sixth plant over the phone, or wished me to reserve another one for her, except that she couldn't tell me what it was, and I was expected, psychically, to know.  I thought the most likely candidate was Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana, and put one aside, with a note to go up to the office for the owner.  I suppose part of the lesson is that we shouldn't allow customers to go through their own trolleys, saying 'I've got three of these' and 'I've got two of those', but should insist on a staff member checking everything through.  We won't.  We don't have enough staff, when things are busy, and like parents losing control of their teenagers, we don't have our customers sufficiently in check.

She was followed by the woman who wanted advice on potting her rhododendron.  Using my psychic powers once again, I was supposed to be able to tell her how many times a week she should water a plant of unknown size I hadn't seen, planted in a very large pot I hadn't seen either, and stood in a position I couldn't see, in weather conditions yet to be determined.  She had already put a thick layer of crocks in the very large pot, and filled it with compost, and was now wondering whether the crocks were unnecessary, or harmful, and if the pot was too big for the plant to move up to it in once go.  Sometimes I think our customers must be lonely, or drunk.

Then there was the woman who wanted to know whether it was safe to compost the lichen off her conservatory roof, because there was so much that it wouldn't fit in the wheelie bin.  I asked whether she had used any chemical cleaner to remove it, and on being told not gave my considered opinion that while it wasn't something recommended for making great compost, it wouldn't be toxic or harmful.  She said she would dump it at the bottom of the garden.

In the afternoon there was the man who wanted two Kalmia latifolia to be mail ordered to him.  He seemed quite put out to be asked whether he would like a particular variety, saying he didn't know there was more than one.  He didn't know whether he had acid soil, something Kalmia require.  He said it was clay, and I had to explain gently that clay was a description of texture, not a measure of acidity, and asked whether he could grow rhododendrons, but he didn't know that either.  He wanted us to mail order him some peat as well, but I suggested that would be so prohibitively expensive that he would do better to source it locally.  He was planning to put the two Kalmia in a north west facing position, and Hillier's dictionary says they flower better in full sun, but by then I was so exhausted with trying to give him sensible advice that I thought it wasn't my job to talk him out of Kalmia, if that was what he had decided he wanted.

The woman who rang up wanting to know how to plant her trees, because she had lost the instruction leaflet, came as a relief.  She asked what to do, I talked her through the hole, the stake, the tie, and the watering, and she seemed to understand what I was saying and be grateful.  Not so the truculent couple who wanted to know where to find Eucryphia, which were not in alphabetical order.  They never are, because they live with the shade loving plants, not on the main shrub beds. Eucryphia are beautiful shrubs or small trees, flowering in late summer when the garden can be starting to run out of oomph, but they have their own particular requirements, which are for a cool root run and a sunny top.  I told the couple this, once I'd shown them where to find Eucryphia, and they were fearfully put out.  They had seen some flowering at Westonbirt a couple of weeks ago and determined to have one, but the spot they had in mind would not provide a cool root run.  I suggested ways of making it cooler, but they just sulked, and said they would have to think about it.

When the phone rang and it was a man with a strong Dutch accent, and a name I didn't catch, asking for the manager, I assumed it was one of our suppliers.  However, on further conversation it turned out that he was not a supplier but the vicar's husband.  I know him by sight, and he is not Dutch, but Africaans.  He called into the plant centre last week in search of grape vines when the manager had the day off, and I had to break it to him that the manager was off all this week as well, and would not be available to give advice on culinary grapes until next Monday.  I didn't dare put him on to the boss, since I'd already been in trouble for asking about the dimensions and scab resistance of various plants I couldn't find in the plant centre.  The boss has a fabulous database of plant information he uses to print his labels, but he won't make it available to the staff, I think in case of industrial espionage, so in order to check the details of any plant you don't know, you have to be able to find one and read the label, or scrabble around in the dictionary.  I do my best, but given that we sell several thousand different species and varieties I'm not going to remember everything about all of them.

Addendum  The banana bread was not too sweet, and my colleagues were duly appreciative.  It is a Jill Duplex recipe.  Cream 175 grammes brown sugar into 125 grammes butter, add two beaten eggs one at a time, fold in half of the total 280 grammes of flour with a teaspoon of bicarb, loosen with up to 125 millilitres of milk and add the other half of the flour.  Mix in three mashed up ripe bananas, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 75 grammes chopped nuts.  The recipe said walnuts, I used pecans because that's what I had, and I should think it would work with any oily nut.  Or probably dates, or raisins.  The recipe said to add a pinch of salt but I didn't.  Cook in a greased loaf tin for around an hour at 180 degrees C.  My loaf took pretty much exactly the hour on the lowest shelf of the baking oven of a four door Aga, and I put foil over it for the second half hour. Cool partially in the tin before turning out.  The recipe says it will remain moist for days, but I'd be surprised if there's any of this one left by Wednesday.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

mugging up

I was relieved, when I woke briefly in the small hours, to hear rain drumming loudly on the roof, and pleased when it was still raining when I got up, and raining really hard (bouncing off the roof of the car parked outside the kitchen window) by mid-morning.  I checked quickly on the Met Office website that it was still supposed to be raining at Kew until four o'clock (though I did notice that the yellow rain warning for London had been withdrawn).  Logically, the fact that it is pouring on the Essex-Suffolk borders does not mean that it is raining at Kew, but it makes it much easier to believe, and to accept that cancelling the day out was a sensible decision, when the evidence of your own eyes is of nature chucking it down.

I thought I'd better spend part of my unexpected free day mugging up on next week's presentations. Tuesday sees another gardening talk, then on Wednesday it's the turn of the woodland conservation charity.  The garden club talk, on Colour and Interest in the autumn garden, will be based on whatever I can borrow from the plant centre that looks either colourful or interesting, supplemented with twigs and sprays from my own garden.  The fact that I never know until the day what will be available does add a certain adrenaline-fuelled spontaneity to the talk.  People like the real plants, or perhaps they like my enthusiastic reaction to them, or maybe the fact that the lights are on makes it easier for them to stay awake.  Last week's carefully prepared bulb talk went OK, but didn't seem as much fun as the ones with live plants, for anybody involved.

The woodland conservation charity sent me a new set of slides a few months back, and Wednesday will be only the second time I've talked from them.  The new presentation is passable.  The previous one, as sent out to volunteers, was a muddle.  I'm sure it was written from the heart, but not apparently by anyone who had received any presentation training, and it went round and round in circles.  You were supposed to tell the audience how important it was to involve children in woodland planting, and then, four slides later, just as you thought you'd covered the topic of children and were on to the next point, there the children were again.  I ended up writing my own script, and cannibalising the slides to fit.

The new one is better than that, but it is still a challenge to memory to remember what I am supposed to say about each slide, and the re-stated three part aims (I'm sure there used to be four) of Create, Protect, Restore, don't cover human interaction with trees, which is definitely supposed to be there somewhere.  The script goes rather wildly off track as well at the point where it is supposed to be covering what the charity is doing in response to the threat from new imported tree diseases, presumably because there is very little they can do (standing wringing your hands and weeping does not count).

After lunch I made some banana bread, since the Systems Administrator rather overbought on bananas for my lunch box last week, and we had a bagful going squidgy in the cupboard.  I will report back on whether it is too sweet.  Some recipes are, but as I couldn't remember which one I used last time that didn't help.

I highly recommend Claudia Roden's lamb with okra.  You cook some onion and garlic quite gently, until it is golden, add the cubed lamb and cook until the lamb is brown, add the okra and cook some more, add a tin of tomatoes, and simmer until it's tender.  True one pot cooking.  I expected the lamb to weep instead of browning, but it didn't.  Ground coriander at the onion frying stage is optional, as is the final squeeze of lemon.  I included both.  If, like Simon Hopkinson, you hate imprecise recipes, then you will hate that recipe.  Sorry about that.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

kew postponed

I wish the Met Office forecast was a little more reliable on a twenty-four to forty-eight hour basis. Or, to put it another way, I wish it was any use at all.  As of yesterday, today was forecast to be wet, which is one reason why I volunteered to cook, while Sunday was going to be dry, and I agreed to go to Kew with a friend.  Lo and behold, it didn't rain today, but I was committed to coming in for lunch from the garden forty-five minutes early to prep the onions for my home-made cheese, tomato and caramelised onion quiche, but there are now yellow rain warnings in force for London on Sunday.

We've agreed to postpone the Kew visit.  It takes quite a lot of time and effort to get to Kew from north Essex (or in her case, Suffolk).  I used the north London loop for my last visit, but that has engineering works and a substitute bus service this weekend.  The travel advice my friend received from the staff at Manningtree station was to go via Euston and Willesden, which would have taken the best part of three hours.  The Systems Administrator's suggestion was to get the District line Richmond branch (getting off at Kew Gardens, obviously), which would still take getting on for two and a half hours from Manningtree.  It is not worth it, to go and walk around in lashing wind and the pouring rain, especially as one of the glasshouses is closed for repairs (it had got to the point where it was unsafe for visitors).

We'll find a date to reschedule, though I hope it will not be a visit of ill omen.  It's a curious thought, but I am no longer on close terms, or any terms at all, with anybody with whom I have ever visited Kew Gardens.  I went there for the first time in the closing days of my last City employer, in the bizarre period when we were required to present ourselves at the office every day, but forbidden to do anything.  I took an afternoon off to visit Kew with a secretary I was friendly with. She felt obliged to explain her absence by saying that she was going to the dentist.  I merely said that I was going out.  I don't know where she is now, since the friendship outlasted the life of the company by the duration of about one Christmas card.  Her erstwhile boss went on to be Lord Mayor of London.

Writtle College took me to Kew.  I still have a friend living locally, and a pen friend in Japan, from my Writtle days, but neither of them were on that trip.  I took another former colleague as a birthday treat.  We're just about in touch, but the friendship has dwindled considerably since our Kew day out.  That was a good visit.  We were able to climb the pagoda, which I think is shut to visitors nowadays, and a peacock displayed to us, which I was excited about at the time, but would be blase now, when I have one at work.  The last time I went I took yet another colleague, from the plant centre, to cheer her up because she was going through a bad patch, but she has since moved on and changed her mobile without giving me her new number.  That visit was in autumn, and the Carya were looking spectacular, great pillars of yellow.  The trains back were badly delayed, though, and we spent a long time waiting at Stratford.

Still, fingers crossed.  Kew Gardens are beautiful, and I can't believe they exert a malign influence over human relationships.  Odd, though, how the only literary associations I can think of offhand for botanical gardens are unhappy.  Lyra and Will in Oxford Botanic, each sitting on their bench in their separate worlds, thinking of the other.  Irene weeping in a glasshouse in the Forsyte Saga.  Maybe I could stretch my case to include General Sternwood in his orchid house, old and haunted by fears about his daughter he cannot fully articulate.

Friday, 11 October 2013

shopping and potting

Finally, a day when I didn't have to go anywhere or do anything.  No evening talk, or committee meeting, or urgent need to prepare for the next talk, or meeting.  No promise to meet anybody for coffee, lunch or tea.  Hair cut and optician's appointment not due until next week.  A free day.  A day, in other words, that I could spend in the garden.  So it rained.  Why wouldn't it?

It was forecast to start raining around lunch, and I suggested hopefully to the Systems Administrator that the morning could be a good time to mend my cold frames, so that I could spend the rainy afternoon potting up bulbs in the newly re-roofed greenhouse, and put them in the cold frames.  There isn't going to be room for all of them in the greenhouse, and they don't need the heat particularly, just not to sit soaking wet all winter, or they will rot.  The quid pro quo was that if the SA fettled up the cold frames, I would do the Tesco shop en route to B&Q to get compost for the bulbs, and in a fit of enthusiasm I volunteered to cook tomorrow as well as getting something for today's lunch.  By the time I got to Tesco it was already raining.

Shopping in Tesco took much, much longer than it need have because they had reorganised the ruddy vegetable section again.  I had made a shopping list, as people wishing to follow a particular recipe tend to, and all of us are encouraged to do in order to cut down on food waste from random impulse purchases.  On the shopping list was okra, which I needed for Claudia Roden's Meat and Okra (Bamia) Stew (the clue's in the name).  Where okra used to be, ever since the last wholesale store reorganisation, was now a solid wall of bananas.  God only knows why stores keep doing that. I am not going to impulse-buy bananas, just because somebody has put them where the thing I actually want previously was.   I know that bananas exist.  If I had wanted bananas I would have written bananas on the list.  As I pushed my trolley round and round the vegetable section, searching for the ingredients on my damp piece of paper, and feeling the morning slipping away from me, I met a pensioner couple similarly engaged, the wife lamenting to her husband Why do they keep moving things?  Why indeed?

When I got home, the SA had been forced to give up on cold frame refurbishment for the time being.  I spent the afternoon potting up bulbs anyway while listening to the R5 Kermode and Mayo Film Programme, standing the filled pots in seed trays, which all managed to fit on the floor as a temporary measure.  I have got three sorts of dwarf tulip, three different fritillaries, pink Chionodoxa, white dog's tooth violet, several alliums, a strange south African red and green affair called Dichelostemma ida-maia, some Tritelia, and five Eremurus 'Cleopatra'.  They came from a Scottish firm called Kevock, that I have never used before, but who have staged very nice exhibits at the past two Chelseas, and the bulbs looked excellent as I planted them, just one shrivelled specimen among them, and no short packets.  By the time I'd finished I'd filled over a hundred pots. I know it was that many, because I bought some plastic labels in B&Q, and started on my second packet of a hundred before I'd finished potting.  I'm expecting another box of bulbs from Peter Nyssen any day now (at which point I really will need the space in the cold frames).

Unfortunately B&Q are pulling back on their large store format, because they are not trading well enough, and are going to close the Colchester store.  I'm not entirely surprised, as it is a vast shed to stock, heat and light, and there never seem to be that many customers in there.  People like me buying two bales of compost, two packets of labels, and resisting the urge to buy a Loropetalum on impulse, are not enough to keep it going.  Pity, as it is a useful place to buy compost, and the SA goes there for odd plumbing parts, fixings, and electrical sundries.  The good news is that it is rumoured that Sainsbury will take the site.  That will provide some competition for Tesco, which might improve their offering (they only started stocking Prosecco when Waitrose arrived in town), or I could simply go to Sainsbury.  My till voucher today told me that I saved 74 pence compared to Sainsbury, Morrisons or Aldi, but frankly I'd have paid an extra 74 pence for a less aggravating experience.