Monday, 31 March 2014

a stitch in time

The bad news is, the rabbits are on the loose in the meadow.  There are an increasing number of droppings in the turf.  The good news is, they have not re-excavated the large scrape they had started, which I filled in the other day, using up some old compost and half of a bucket of earth left over from making planting holes in the gravel.  The scrape was an example of how a stitch in time would have saved nine.  It started off as a small hole in the ground, perhaps made originally by a mouse, which we noticed while mowing the long grass at the summer's end a couple of years ago when wasps began to come out of it.  Wasps build nests out of paper, which is why you may see them rasping away on your wooden shed or table, but they do not excavate holes, so far as I know.

Something, presumably badgers, then dug out whatever was living in the hole after the wasps had finished with it.  I went up there one day, and there was an open hole, rather smaller than a bucket. I kept meaning to fill the hole in, but never got round to it over the winter, as we weren't cutting the grass.  Then, suddenly, something used the hole as a starting point to dig diagonally down and sideways.  I had fits of horror that it might be badgers, before calming down and looking more analytically at the spoil.  While the digger had made a great mess kicking orange sand and stones out over the grass, the volume of material was not great enough for the hole to go any distance.  I scraped as much of the earth back in as I could, salvaged the stones for use elsewhere, and levelled it off with spare soil and compost, crossing my fingers that whatever it was would take the hint.  It did, and thank goodness for that.

I began to clear the enormous mound of rampant white stemmed bramble stems that I'd built, carting them up to the bonfire area, and chopping them down into shorter lengths when I got there, so that the Systems Administrator would be able to put them on the bonfire without accidentally waving a fifteen foot burning brand about.  The SA's initial reaction to the heap had been one of almost pure panic, demanding to know what on earth it was, where it had come from, and how we were supposed to get it to the bonfire, since most of the individual stems were twice the length of the trailer.  I promised in my best soothing and reassuring voice that I would deal with it.

Luckily, or perhaps presciently, I had stacked the stems in bundles lined up with each other, so it was relatively straightforward to scoop them up into large armfuls and carry them to the bonfire, where I chopped them into between two and four pieces and threw them into a nice, manageable pile ready for incineration.  I sawed up some of the stack of light branches outside the workshop with my bow saw as well, while I was at it, until I had a wheelbarrow full of firewood.  The  bow saw is so good.  It should be written in giant capital letters in all general and introductory texts on gardening, Do Not Tolerate Blunt Cutting Instruments.  Bow saws, pruning saws, buy a good one and be prepared to replace the blade regularly, each time you realise it is not chewing its way through wood so quickly as it used to.  The time I have wasted in my life trying to cut branches out of shrubs with a saw which was essentially blunt.

The Systems Administrator meanwhile, in a nice piece of role reversal, volunteered to do a really thorough vacuum.  The vacuum cleaner had to be emptied seven times, so great was the volume of cat fur, and the SA is beginning to think that we need a new one, with a larger capacity, better suction, and filters that don't clog up so readily, not to mention not having a stupid internal fluff box stuck together with gaffer tape.  Alleluia.  I have already ordered a new kettle from John Lewis.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

a garden visit

I took my parents to the Chatto gardens this morning, by way of celebrating Mother's Day.  My first idea was to go out to tea, but the timings of coffee work better: walk round the gardens, coffee and cake in the cafe, wander round the plant sales area, parents home in time for lunch and an after-lunch nap.  There was only one row full in the car park when we arrived, and my father expressed surprise that the garden could pay for its upkeep with so few visitors, but experience working at the plant centre teaches me that Sunday mornings usually start quietly, and given the clocks changed last night, while it was technically five to eleven in human terms it was still only five to ten.  Sure enough, by the time we left the main car park was fairly full, and there were plenty more vehicles in the overflow area.

The gardens were looking very good.  There were plenty of spring flowers, and not yet too many leaves, so that the landscape had an airy, ethereal quality.  I was greatly taken by the swathes of a powder blue squill in the border along the far boundary.  They were very pretty, and appeared to be naturalising freely, despite the competition from the oaks along the edge of the garden. Unfortunately they weren't labelled, and I didn't know what they were.  I shall have to try and spot them in this year's bulb catalogues.

Equally delightful were the clumps of Fritillaria verticillata in the gravel garden.  The whole plant is a charming shade of light green, leaves, flowers and all.  I wanted to buy some last year, but neither Kevock nor Peter Nyssen were offering it.  Mind you  if they had it would probably have ended up being eaten by mice in the cold frame, with most of my other fritillaries.  Alas, the pheasants have eaten the flowers of most of our snakeshead fritillaries.  I am afraid the pheasant problem is getting worse as our cats get older, and don't go out much.  Our Ginger did appear briefly this afternoon in the back garden with a fat mouse, and Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat spent the entire afternoon asleep in the rose bed, but not much feline patrolling goes on nowadays.

My mother was rather taken with a light flowered Symphytum.  It is a pretty thing, but I had to warn her that it ran rapaciously, and was really a plant for large gardens with tracts of space to cover rather than small town gardens.  I have it in the meadow, where it has run about remarkably on horrible poor soil where almost nothing will grow.  It is an excellent bee plant, which is a bonus.

After the Chatto visit I busied myself planting out various odd things I've bought recently, or had in the greenhouse over the winter.  I must try and remember where I put them all, or at least remember to check my gardening diary for what I've planted, if we get a dry spell, so that I can water them.  I am trying my luck with Selinum wallichianum, an umbellifer I saw and greatly liked at Trentham last September.  The Chatto gardens had packets of seed for sale.  I wonder whether my lone plant will set seed, or if I should buy it a friend?

Saturday, 29 March 2014

the ghost in the machine

We finally set out to cut the grass.  It has got much too long, with the warm weather, but first of all the ground was too wet and soft to put the mower over it, and then it was Cheltenham week, and then the Systems Administrator went down with a cold.  Once the grass is that long and lush it has to be done with the push mower, as the lawn tractor just clogs up, and the push mower has a cord start.  I have always been hopeless at starting lawnmowers, outboards or anything else with a cord. It is probably down to ineptitude and lack of technique, though the fact that I'm only five foot four with correspondingly short arms may not help.  The SA is six foot, and makes cord starts look easy. The Mountfield has barely been used since the first cut of last year, and I didn't fancy my chances. Anyway, I was busy doing everything else, and the SA did promise to do it, once we had a couple of dry days.

The mower didn't sound happy about life.  I am no petrol head, but even I could tell the engine wasn't running properly.  It kept getting louder and quieter, and stopped every so often without being told to.  It made it all the way round the top lawn on a high cut, but then stopped.  And wouldn't start.  After checking the air filter the SA diagnosed a problem with the fuel system, and admitted defeat, saying it would have to go to Ernest Doe.  I have never been very keen on Ernest Doe since the time they returned the previous lawn tractor after a full and very expensive service, just before a Bank Holiday weekend.  We were both still working full time in London, the forecast was for dry weather, and I was desperate to get the grass cut.  The newly serviced mower would not work because a drive belt had been fitted incorrectly, and I was told that I would not be able to have it over the weekend.  I was very, very cross.

Far closer to home, in a converted farm unit, are GB Farm Services, who were originally recommended by a beekeeping friend, and who once sorted out a chainsaw for us when old fuel jellied in the tank for a remarkably modest charge.  I didn't really expect anybody to be there at four on a Saturday afternoon, but rang on spec.  Twenty minutes later a chap had come round in a pick-up to take the Mountfield away.  That's less time than it took the AA to arrive, the last time I needed them, when the Skoda suddenly began to make terrifying grinding noises so that I didn't dare drive it any further in case I was doing untold damage to some part that would cost an arm and a leg to replace.  The lawnmower man said he presumed we would like the Mountfield back as soon as possible, and we said yes please, and off it went.  I'm not sure the SA was entirely heartbroken not to be able to go on mowing the lawn, as it meant he could watch the rest of the cricket instead of merely listening to it on headphones.

It's a nuisance not having the mower when we need it, but you could say it serves us right for not getting it serviced in February.  At least it can be mended.  My pet hatred is when part of something breaks, so that the whole thing has to be thrown away, or is a pain to use, when the broken bit is a really small part of the whole.  For example, the zip on my gardening fleece has just stopped zipping.  The rest of the garment is fine.  It is made out of a good, thick fabric that hasn't ripped on the rose thorns, it has a neat little zip-up front pocket that I like because I can keep my house key in there, if the SA is out and I'm working out of sight of the house.  The only thing wrong with it is that suddenly it no longer zips up.  Mending it is scarcely practicable, since the fabric would be so thick to sew through, and a replacement zip would probably cost as much as an entire fleece from the Clacton factory outlet shop.  But it galls to have to throw something away that so nearly works.

Likewise the kettle.  It has a window in the side so that you can see how full it is, very cute, and a blue light when it's switched on.  The window has sprung an intermittent leak.  The element still heats up, the kettle is capable of fulfilling its basic function of boiling water, but every so often it slowly dumps half its contents on the kitchen worktop.  I'm getting tired of having to mop up, and this lunchtime it started dripping boiling water on the cat when I made a cup of tea.  I can't see a way of mending it, since any sealant would have to withstand boiling temperatures and be suitable for contact with food, so we're going to have to get a new one.

And the vacuum cleaner.  It is not a Dyson, but doesn't use paper bags.  Instead, there is a removable plastic box that collects the dirt and cat fur, which you take out to empty.  The bottom of the box was held on with a plastic hinge, which broke very early in the vacuum cleaner's career, so is now hinged with gaffer tape, which makes it difficult to get the box back into the body of the machine without the door falling open.  If the box isn't properly shut then the machine doesn't develop full suction.  It is infuriating.  The engine, the real business heart of the vacuum cleaner, works perfectly well, but the functionality of the whole machine is impaired by the failure of one small, stupid, cheap plastic part, which it would have cost pennies to engineer properly in the first place.

Compared with all of these, the failure of the Mountfield and rapid the deployment of my knight in shining armour from GB Farm Services, seem positively benign in comparison.

Friday, 28 March 2014

small change

It's terrible how long the little things end up taking.  My collection of raffle takings and tea money from the beekeepers' meetings had risen to two of the proper bags for change that banks give you, one paper bag labelled with a post-it note, and a small tupperware box, plus another bag with seven pounds in it from sales of wax to members, and fifteen pounds in notes from Friends subscriptions. Since we get no interest on our current account, and are not down to our last fifty quid, I'd kept putting off going to the bank while the lovely gardening weather continued, but I was beginning to feel guilty about it.  Besides, I ought to work out what's due to the person who buys the prizes for the raffle, and raise a cheque for her for the next committee meeting.

It took quite a long time to count and double count the contents of each bag.  If I had to count change on a regular basis, making up a float or something, I suppose I'd be quicker, but I wanted to be absolutely sure I'd got it right.  Once I was satisfied that the beekeepers' cash came to exactly one hundred and five pounds and sixty pence, not a penny more, not a penny less, I thought that as I was going to the bank to pay in change, I might as well swap out some of the beekeepers' pound coins for part of our ever expanding collection of small change.

We can't be alone in having one of these.  Small showers of loose change spill out of the Systems Administrator's pockets while sitting down, especially since Marks and Spencer seemed to decide to improve margins in menswear by 0.001% by economising on the amount of material used in trouser pocket linings.  The coins get scooped out of the sofa and dumped on the coffee table, then end up in a couple of pots on the window sill in the study.  Useful pound coins and silver are recycled for car park machines, and to have the right money at the farm shop, while the collection of coppers and five pence pieces grows.

It takes ages to count out five pounds worth of five pence pieces, and almost as long to organise a pound in pennies, scrabbling for them among the other contents of the pots.  There turned out not to be enough two pence bits to make up a round bank bag total as specified on the bag, so they had to wait for another day.  In the end the grand sum of eleven pounds of small coins from the pot went off to the bank, replaced by eleven useful pound coins.  But god, it took ages.  Those machines in Tesco that count the coins for you, if you just chuck them in, and give you a voucher for the total, less commission, suddenly seem a bargain.

The bank took ages as well, as one of the two cashiers on duty was having such a lovely chat with the customer she was serving that she completely stopped doing any actual banking, so that they could both concentrate on their discussion of dancing at parties, and which West End shows they'd been to.  As the queue behind me lengthened to five people I glared at her, and she gave me an offensively radiant smile, and told her customer how everyone should perform a random act of kindness each day.  I thought that her's might have consisted in getting on with her job so that the rest of us could go and get on with our days instead of standing in a queue.  It's probably just as well that the other cashier was free first.  The happy couple were still chattering away by the time I'd had my hundred and five pounds and sixty pence counted again.  The woman at my window was much, much faster than I'd been, though the money was by then counted into bags, she did have scales, and she gets more practice than I do.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

making mead

It's another late, quick blog.  I was busy earlier, and since the Systems Administrator is up in town for a reunion curry with old colleagues, I knew I'd be able to sit down at the kitchen table with my laptop when I got in from the beekeepers' monthly meeting without seeming anti-social.  The SA is accustomed to living with the blog, and will enquire genially 'whether you've blogged yet' before settling down to read or watch TV through headphones if the answer is 'not yet', but it still seems unfriendly to disappear out for the first part of the evening, and then behind your keyboard as soon as you walk in through the door.

I have been learning how to make mead.  It sounded much simpler and more achievable than it did the previous time I went to a mead-making lecture, when I emerged completely ignorant, and more confused than I had been at the beginning.  I think the previous lecturer assumed we all knew the basics of home wine-making, which I don't, whereas tonight's speaker assumed that we knew nothing.  He gave us mead making made simple, so no citric acid or any of the other umpteen chemical additives I thought I would have to go and get from a specialist supplier.  This was natural mead, made with honey, water, ordinary baking yeast and flavoured with oranges and spices.  The only chemical needed was Milton for sterilisation.  I'm OK with Milton, I use it on the ice cream machine.

Our tutor claimed not to know the capacity of the demijohn he was using, but it must have been around the gallon mark.  In it he put four pounds of honey, one orange cut into eight slices like at half time in hockey, approximately twenty-five raisins (which apparently add body to the mead), cloves, mixed spice, nutmeg and a cinnamon stick, plus one teaspoon of baking yeast.  He filled it most of the way up with bottled water, shook it vigorously, fitted an airlock, and said that after three or four days the initial fermentation would be complete, after which we should add water to fill it right up, and leave it somewhere dark for a month or so until all signs of fermentation had finished.  Then we should syphon the contents into another demijohn, leave it to settle, and bottle it.  Mead started now would be ready to drink by Christmas, and it would keep for up to four years or so.  It was OK to use old honey, or not the best honey.

And that was it.  He made up a second batch in which the demijohn was replaced by a large mineral water bottle, and the airlock by a plastic bag with one very small hole poked in it, held on with a rubber band.  Apparently there are lots of recipes on the internet.  He assured us that the oranges would shake out of the demijohn very easily, and an audience member said that she had done a similar recipe, and used a bucket for the initial fermentation stage, then filtered the oranges and lumps of spice out when transferring it to a demijohn to complete its fermentation.  There seemed a general consensus in the room among those who had tried it that mead was not that difficult, though one member had managed to punch a hole in his parents' hot water tank in his youth, putting bottles of fermenting liquid closed with screw caps in the family airing cupboard. (He did go on to have a successful career as an industrial chemist, so his youthful enthusiasm for experimentation stood him in good stead in the end).

Before going to the lecture I cooked and ate a small red cabbage I'd had sitting around in the cupboard for ages, as the right moment to inflict it on the SA never arose.  I adore red cabbage, fried in caramelised sugar and simmered with wine vinegar, raisins and caraways seeds, but the SA is not so keen.  And before that I managed to fit in my Pilates exercises, load the washing machine and set the dishwasher, make another rhubarb pudding because the first one was so nice, and weed almost all of two beds in the vegetable garden, as I am once again indulging in the fantasy that this year I might grow some vegetables.

And before all of that I went into Colchester to sort out an ISA for the current year, which I had not got round to doing before because interest rates were so pathetically low, but it still seemed worth locking in the tax allowance for future years, when rates might be higher.  I am an existing customer of Halifax, and was expecting this to be an extremely swift process, since I already knew I wanted the two year fixed rate, they already knew who I was, and it should have been a case of the Halifax filling out a very simple online form, and my writing a cheque.  It actually took over half an hour, most of which consisted of me sitting watching the Halifax representative going round and round in circles on her computer, because it would not let her open the form she wanted. Everything you have heard about IT system problems at RBS is almost certainly an understatement.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

my name in print

There is a copy of one of the regional glossy magazines on the kitchen table.  We don't generally buy it, being rather mean about paying for print media when there is so much for free on the internet, but this one has my name in it, above an article about a Yellow Book garden.  I have already submitted my copy for next month, and dates to visit the next two gardens are in my diary.  I am being paid to do this, and have become, on an epically small scale, a horticultural journalist.

The way I got the gig was that my former employer advertises with the media group, and it so happened that I'd written a four hundred word blurb about their snowdrops for inclusion in the magazine.  That is the deal, sometimes, with regional magazines: if you pay to advertise, you may get space for some more cover if you supply your own copy.  My employer did not like writing, whereas I do.  So I emailed the magazine, saying that I was the person who wrote the snowdrop article, and was there any chance of doing some more garden writing for them on a freelance basis? It turned out that the editor felt their gardening cover was a bit thin, and didn't have anyone reliable to do it.  I promised that she would find me utterly reliable, and she decided to take the chance.

The magazine supplied the names and addresses of the gardens to write about, so all I had to do was fix a date with the owners to see the garden and ask them about it, then write it up in six hundred words.  Six hundred words is really not very many, less than two sides of A4 at spacing of one and a half lines.  The snowdrop piece was four hundred, and I ran that off in forty minutes.  I was quite familiar with the snowdrops, and the garden, so it was pretty straightforward, but it had a couple of phrases I was pleased with.  My fee for this unacknowledged feat of journalism, based on my hourly rate for writing (which was better than my hourly rate as a plant centre assistant), came to the princely sum of eight pounds.

The deadline for submitting the copy on my first garden was the end of February, so I fixed the meeting for the twenty-first.  A week seemed to me an age to write only six hundred words, and I thought it would be easier to work out what was in the garden and what it was going to look like by visiting season if I visited later rather than earlier, to give the plants more time to get going.  The chosen time was two, since I thought that if there were a frost, the owner would not want a visitor's feet stamping over their frozen grass.  Then I had fits of anxiety for the whole of the four weeks until the visit.  Suppose I were ill again, or the garden owner were ill, or the garden was flooded?  I had visions of the A14 being locked solid on the day, and left the house with hours to spare, so that I could not possibly be late to the meeting, and spent some time looking at Hedingham Church, some time sitting in the car, and a while drinking tea in a strange cafe attached to an alpaca farm.

The owners were very pleased that their garden was going to be in the magazine, and the owner was obviously used to giving guided walks, as he kept up a good line of patter, and I got more material than would ever have fitted in six hundred words, without having to ask many questions.  I did have a check list of points I wanted to cover, or at least establish were not relevant, to make sure I didn't get home and realise there was some fairly basic key fact that had escaped me.

Always try and learn from your experiences.  I made sure my next visit was timed with two weeks to go before the deadline, so that if anything went wrong there would be time to retrieve the situation, either by rescheduling that visit or by the editor finding another garden.  I have also learned not to drink very much tea with my breakfast on garden visiting days, and to keep a weather eye out for available lavatories.  It would not create a professional impression to arrive on a stranger's doorstep to see their garden, and immediately have to ask if you could possibly use their loo first.

Writing a six hundred word article on a garden is just like writing a presentation.  Introduce the garden, where it is, what style of garden, how long the owners have been there.  Something about the plants, something about the soil, the hard landscaping if it's worth mentioning, a little about pests and problems, artworks or propagation if applicable, a summary at the end.  Get a few quotes, and be prepared to lead your witness on their favourite plants and what other local gardens they like, if your editor has asked you for these items.  I asked my first owner what his favourite plants were, and he smiled and said he liked all plants.  The second owner seemed slightly nervous in case I was going to criticise his garden in print, but I wasn't.  Apart from the fact that it was a very good garden, my job is not to pick faults, but to make it sound as nice as I can, so that readers of the magazine will go and visit it, or go and visit some other garden, or at least experience a warm glow as they congratulate themselves on living in such an attractive part of the world.

I have found my best time to do the write-up is straight after breakfast the following day.  I tried after getting back, and found I was too tired to finish it.  When I picked it up again, the joins showed, and it took longer that if I'd completed it in one hit.  Then I sit on it for a day, and re-read it cold to check again for typos, and any errors or boobs that I missed first time round.  In the second piece, I found I'd left the owner's name out of the first paragraph.

I have been building up to this for a long time.  If gardening and visiting gardens since childhood, and notching up over twenty-five Chelsea visits, and spending a decade selling plants to people, and a horticultural degree, and practising writing the blog daily for over three years whether I feel like writing or not, doesn't equip me to become a garden writer, then nothing will.   I renewed my car insurance this morning, so had to tell them that my details had changed since I was no longer employed as a retail assistant.  When they asked what I did instead said I was now a horticultural journalist, so it's official.  All I have to do is to sell my services to some more publications, and hope that my existing editor wants to carry on after the current Yellow Book season.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

taking the piss

Never write kind things about your pets on the internet, it is tempting fate.  As I stood at my potting bench this morning, pricking out some rather leggy Cosmos seedlings, Our Ginger strolled into the greenhouse.  I greeted him courteously, and he poked around the floor inspecting the pots of Geranium maderense, then vanished under the bench.  Moments later I heard a spattering noise. I wondered for a moment whether it was excess liquid draining from the pelargoniums I'd just watered, then realised it was Our Ginger spraying the glass.  He stalked out, leaving behind a strong smell of cat pee.  It is not very nice, to walk into somebody's greenhouse where they are working, piss on the walls, and walk out again.

The Systems Administrator, on the other hand, is positively encouraged to scent mark the fence along the side of the wood, to discourage the foxes from coming into the garden.  Human urine is also an excellent compost accelerant, and the SA finds it highly amusing to be one of the only men in Britain whose wife positively encourages him to pee in the garden.  Though not when the lettuce farm workers are busy in the next door field, obviously.

My pots of seedlings had gone rather yellow.  I was left wondering why that was, whether they had got sun scorch, or if the level of nutrients in the seed compost was so low that they'd run out of food.  Seed compost is deliberately formulated to be low in nutrients, since they can inhibit germination in some cases, or be too fierce for the new little roots.  I can't honestly remember which, but I know they don't contain much fertiliser.  Perhaps in this case there isn't enough. Seedlings spoil if they are left sitting crowded together in their original pot for too long, but you ought to be able to get them to the first true leaf stage before needing to prick them out.  But maybe it was not the compost that was to blame.  It hasn't been that sunny, though, and they were slightly shaded by their plastic covers, which collect condensation and have gone slightly opaque with age.

I hope the Cosmos recover, and bush out.  If they grow, I could help things along by pinching the tops out.  It is one of those summer flowering annuals which goes on for an incredibly long time. There is a house in a nearby village that has a row of them along the front picket fence every year, and each year I swear that next year I must grow some.  One of the ways of getting a really high-powered display from your borders all year, as they do at Great Dixter, is to raise useful late summer flowerers like Cosmos and drop them into the gaps in summer.  That doesn't really work here.  I don't have time, and when I've tried in a rushed and disorganised fashion, the soil is so poor and so full of roots that the fillers didn't stand a chance.  Instead I thought I'd try the Cosmos in the tulip pots, once the tulips have finished.  The timings should just about work.

I evicted a Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii' from the conservatory, to try its luck in the border.  It is only borderline hardy, which is why I had it under glass, but it seems to hate life in a pot.  I had one in the ground previously, but it was undermined by ants and died.  A Salvia guaranitica in the same bed has come through a few winters now, and is gradually sending out underground shoots to make an expanding patch.  That isn't the hardiest salvia either, and I'm hoping S. involucrata might do the same, if it can escape ant attack this time.  It has largish flowers in a lovely warm shade of pink.

I wandered about looking for a spot where I might try the same experiment with a Clerodendron bungei, which also seems underwhelmed by life in a pot.  Perhaps I need to fertilise it more, on the other hand its natural habit is to sucker, and plants that are adapted to a questing life do sometimes seem to resent the confines of a container.  C. bungei has red flowers held in flat plates, in late summer, and needs well drained soil but one with a bit of moisture in it, in sun or partial shade.  Most of the soil in our garden is either pure sand or solid clay, with not much in between.  I found one spot that might just do, but mainly had to admit to myself that the back garden is getting pretty full.  It still needs some more ground cover in places, for the look of it and to suppress the weeds, but otherwise it's getting towards the one in, one out stage.  This happens eventually to the gardens of almost all keen plant lovers.  It's not a bad problem to have, since when something dies you can console yourself that you can try something else in the space.

I am beginning to harbour murderous thoughts towards a conifer which is not so beautiful as it was. But the thought of having to get the roots out fills me with weariness, so in the short run I am feeding it and hoping it will acquire a new lease of life.

Monday, 24 March 2014


Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat was lying amidst the sad wreckage of the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window this morning, looking pleased with himself.  He has been around a lot recently.  I saw him yesterday morning from the bathroom window, patrolling the lower lawn, and stopping periodically to peer intently into the ditch bed.  It's just as well that he does.  None of our cats can be bothered any more.

Three of them were lying this morning scattered luxuriously across the kitchen floor like so many rugs, and I thought as I picked my way between them that it was touching how they implicitly trusted me not to step on them, and that visitors to the house never saw the full effect of the cats in relaxed domestic mode.  The two Essex originals absent themselves at the first hint of anybody except us getting out of a car.  The big anxious tabby sometimes hangs around the hearth rug, once he summons up his courage, but only Our Ginger makes any major effort to be sociable.  He loves everybody, and is convinced that any new person is simply a lap he hasn't sat in yet.

The fat indignant tabby was in such a good mood that she let me tickle her tummy, while she stretched out her back toes luxuriously.  This was a rare privilege.  Normally she does not go in for too much physical contact, and a quick rub behind the ears is quite enough.  She has a rather delightful tummy, covered in crimped fur the colour of a slightly overdone ginger biscuit.  It began to go bald a few years ago, which was a shock to me and probably to her too.  Over-grooming seemed to be the cause, and a dose of flea treatment broke the habit, though we never saw any evidence that any of them had fleas.

The other day I picked her up, as she was looking approachable.  That's a rarity too.  Very occasionally she will let me hold her for about two minutes, during which time she does purr, before she wriggles and wants to get down, but this time she did not want to be picked up, and tried to grab the back of the chair she was sitting on as she was lifted up.  She will never, never sit on anybody's lap, but sometimes comes and sits on the arm of my chair and dabs at my lap with one paw, as if she were thinking about it, but could not bring herself to take the plunge.  The strange thing is that at one time she loved sleeping on our bed, before we decided that cats in the bedroom were antithetic to conjugal relations.  They were not originally allowed in the bedroom at all, but the Essex originals obtained squatters' rights after the awful shock of Our Ginger moving in with them.

The black cat has developed a rather charming habit of chirruping in a dimly lit room, if either of us walks close to where he is lying down.  I think it is to make sure that we don't tread on him, the feline equivalent of giving a polite cough to ensure that someone knows you're there.  He does it much more in dim light than the middle of the day, which is what makes me think it is not just a friendly greeting but a warning.  That implies he has grasped that we can't see very well in the dark.

All in all they are delightful animals, and the pain of having to vacuum such enormous quantities of fur off practically everything is worth it.  Even the Systems Administrator's car has got cat fur in it, and none of the cats have ever been in that car.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Today's gardening was brought to an end by a stiff hailstorm.  I'd been listening to the low rumble of thunder some way off for a while, poised to pack up my tools and scurry for shelter if a shower reached us.  The sky gradually darkened, and when the first squall hit I took that as my cue to move pretty smartly.  Bucket of tools, check, bucket of bonemeal, check, bucket of 6X, check.  It can be hard to keep track of tools.  I left the hand weeding fork the Systems Administrator gave me out on the gravel the other day, and only found it was missing when I wanted to use it, then it was a question of trying to remember where I'd last had it.

It was a dramatic hailstorm.  By the time I'd shut the garage door, and made my way up to the study, a mixture of rain and hail was lashing diagonally against the windows, and the borders where I'd Strulched them were turning white.  It didn't last very long, but the air that followed in its wake was so cold that I didn't fancy going back outside, quite apart from the fact that everything was now wet.

It's still better weather than on this day last year.  That was scheduled to be the beekeepers' candle making day, which had to be postponed because it was snowing.  The SA and I were due to go for supper at the Thai restaurant in Harwich, and put that off as well, since we didn't fancy the drive in the conditions.  The reason why I remember the date is that it is the SA's birthday.

Today we have continued the tradition of postponing the SA's birthday meal, but this time because the SA has a cold, and was not in any state to munch through one of Manningtree's finest wood-oven cooked pizzas.  We had planned to go to the Italian, which I've visited a couple of times with my plant centre colleagues, and found very satisfactory.  Good food and a nice buzz to it.  We'll go when the SA is better.  If I were still working at the plant centre, I'd have been at work today. Admittedly, the cold took the gloss off the birthday, but still it was still nice not to have to go in.  It is Sunday, after all.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

space invader

I have started clearing brambles in the meadow.  I thought I could just about get away with a final burst of clearance, before the birds start nesting in earnest.  I may be an unwise general, opening another front when the existing ones are not yet secure, but I should like to reclaim a measure of control in the meadow.  It will never be wholly garden:  I lack the resources to garden it, and I don't think we'll ever manage to wholly exclude the rabbits, and passing muntjac and badgers.  But some of the shrubs I've planted over the years are alive, as are quite a few of the trees, and if they were underplanted with things that rabbits don't eat, it could be nice, in a wild and woolly sort of way.

The primroses I planted a few years back have done well, and I could see the glint of blue of a pulmonaria and the yellow leaves of Valeriana phu 'Aurea' among the weeds.  Peering in among the brambles, some box has survived, a yellow leaved Philadelphus coronarius, and a Danae racemosa, while an unfortunate Styrax japonica which lost almost all its top growth when I allowed it to become overshadowed by an oak tree that had fallen on its side has sprouted strongly from the base, and is now taller than I am, though getting lopsided again as the oak has advanced on it once more.  It was definitely worth mounting a salvage operation, rather than leaving everything to nature for another season.

Apart from the rabbits, and the muntjac and the badgers, the worst problem by far is something I planted myself.  The bracken is a nuisance, but the self-inflicted invasive plant is worse.  It is Rubus cockburnianus.  Do not plant it, even in a large garden, if short of, say, two hundred acres. It has white bloomy stems, which are undeniably beautiful, but it moves at a frightening and inexorable rate, sending out underground shoots that periodically throw up new clumps of the fine white stems,  Meanwhile, the old stems die, go brown, and fall over, creating a dense litter of twigs among which nothing else grows.  I found a couple of old bird nests as I was clearing the debris, and that was the sum of it.

So far I am only cutting down the stems, and piling them into a great heap, along with the dead ones.  Most of the older stems do come away without having to cut them, and that is the plant's only saving grace.  It is a thug.  A menace.  A thing most utterly not to be countenanced.  To get the roots out, when I've cleared the top growth, I'll have to use the pickaxe, though the roots are not as urgent as the branches.  Chopping down the tangle of branches is urgent, because once there are birds nesting in there I won't be able to touch it until August.  I don't think the Danae or the box will wait that long.

I took the patch back a long way once before, but this time round I am going to have to get rid of every piece I can reach.  It spreads too aggressively.  It is possible to live with some rampant plants, by dint of giving them a good hack every year or two, but not this one.  You can't turn your back on it for an instant.

Friday, 21 March 2014

rhubarb, rhubarb

Rhubarb 'Timperley Early' is living up to its name.  I suddenly realised a few days ago that there were stalks long enough to pull, while the other rhubarb crowns have barely got beyond the stage of shoving out a few fat red buds to show that they are still alive.  I decided that we would have rhubarb pudding for lunch.  When I went to pick it, some of the stalks were already fatter than my two thumbs put together.  I didn't take those, in case they were already tough, though Timperley always produces thicker stems than some varieties.

The pudding I had my eye on was a Diana Henry recipe I saw on the Telegraph website.  I kept the page open, meaning to copy it, but lost it when I had to reboot my laptop because it was running so slowly it wouldn't do anything.  Then the Telegraph website refused to allow me to open the page again, saying that the file requested was too large.  This is a particular glitch with the Torygraph running on Chrome, which I know they have known about since at least last September, because I asked them about it.  Given that the Telegraph is the only newspaper I actually pay money to read, I feel they should have solved the issue by now.  Instead I had to open up Windows Explorer, a browser I haven't used for so long I have forgotten how it works, but I managed to find Diana Henry's piece, and quickly copied it to Word.

Having now eaten all of it, I can confirm that it is a very good and useful pudding.  Assuming you like rhubarb, that is.  Neither Jane Grigson nor Elizabeth David did, so they don't have much useful to say on the subject.  It is a useful pudding because it is intended to be eaten at room temperature, and the left-overs keep well in the fridge and are still good to eat the next day or even the day after that.  I love puddings that can be prepared in advance for when we are entertaining.  No trying to judge what time we'll have finished the main course, and scuttling out to the kitchen half way through to check the pudding isn't starting to burn, or cooking it before the guests arrive and finding that after keeping warm for an hour and a half, it has gone soggy, or hard, or curdled.  My only criticism of Diana Henry's rhubarb pudding is that it does create quite a lot of washing up.

You cook the rhubarb through before turning it into pudding.  That's a sensible precaution when combining most hard fruits with any kind of baked carbohydrate topping or substrate, so that the final cooking time can reflect how the topping is doing, not the fact that the fruit is still rock hard. The rhubarb is cooked gently for the minimum possible time to soften it without turning it to mush. Again, this is a good principle with anything involving sponge or pastry and rhubarb.  You don't want soggy sponge.  Diana Henry said to remove the rhubarb from its cooking dish at once, which makes sense as you are removing it from the heat, but then says to keep it in a second dish before transferring it to the final buttered dish in which you are going to make the pudding.  I couldn't see the point of the intermediate dish (more washing up) and put it straight into the final cooking receptacle.

The recipe specifies 500 grammes of rhubarb for six to eight people.  I have no idea how much rhubarb that is, but used four stalks, which is about enough to cover the bottom of my particular dish.  She suggests using 250 grammes of sugar in total, some of which is cooked with the rhubarb. I thought that sounded too much, and cut it down by around 50 grammes, but neither of us have a particularly sweet tooth, and I like puddings made with acid fruit to still be on the edge of sharpness.  Others might wish to stick to the original quantity.

The sponge is the fascinating part.  It is a cross between sponge and egg custard, and the rise is got partly by using a raising agent, and partly by whipping the egg whites separately before adding them.  I never came across it before, and it is a beautiful sponge, light and moist, which I should think would do just as well cooked over apples, or apricots, or plums, or even cooked without fruit and used as the basis of a fresh fruit flan, with cream.  It is heavily flavoured with lemon, that's the other thing that gives it a lift.

Separate three eggs.  Grate two lemons and squeeze the juice.  The recipe only says to use the juice of one large lemon, but my lemons weren't that large, so I squeezed both and used as much juice as felt right.  Beat the egg yolks with 175 grammes of caster sugar, or less if that sounds too sweet to you, until they turn pale.  Add the lemon zest, as much juice as you're using, 75 grammes of self raising flour, 150 millilitres of single cream and the same of milk.  You might panic that it is going to curdle with all that lemon, but it doesn't.  Add a pinch of cream of tartar to the egg whites and whip to stiff peaks.  I wonder whether the cream of tartar matters?  I bought some just in case, but it would have been easier not to have to.  Fold the whites into the rest of the batter with a metal spoon.  I spent some time doing this, concerned that otherwise I'd have lacunae of egg white in the finished sponge, and the lumps of egg white were quite reluctant to break up and incorporate.

The rhubarb must have cooled for the next stage.  Put the batter over the cooked rhubarb in the buttered dish and cook for an hour at 180 C, standing the pudding dish in a tray of boiling water that reaches halfway up the side.  If you have a fat, indignant tabby cat sleeping in front of the Aga, it is a good idea to remove her before doing this bit, to avoid any tragic accidents.  I checked on the pudding after fifty minutes, but it took the full hour.

Diana Henry's instructions say to dust with icing sugar, which I did not do because I didn't have any icing sugar, and to serve with thick cream, which I didn't do because I didn't buy any, and it was only lunch, not a dinner party.  Thick cream, or creme fraiche, would have been nice and I would definitely include it if entertaining.  It was delicious at room temperature, and pretty good out of the fridge when I ate some for breakfast the next day.

You can see where the washing up comes from.  You've got the lemon grater and squeezer, and two mixing bowls because of having to beat the egg whites, and the small bowls you used to separate the eggs, and the dish you cooked the rhubarb in, and two whisks, and a measuring jug for the milk.  Compared to a straightforward fruit crumble, it is not a quick pudding to assemble.  But it is very nice.  Diana Henry, thank you.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

another London trip

Today was the final concert in the LSO St Luke's Schubert chamber music series, and the last London concert I had booked.  They're doing romantic Russian piano music next, which I'm not so keen on, and anyway, London concerts are more of a winter thing.  This lunchtime was the turn of the Signum Quartet, plus additional cellist, playing the string quintet in C major.

It must be a stalwart of Radio 3 and Classic FM, since I recognised several of the key themes straight away.  I enjoyed it very much, other than that I found I had sat next to somebody who began to fidget as soon as the music began.  He had looked quite harmless when I obligingly budged up to make room for a couple so that they could sit together, but after the first five minutes he rearranged the turquoise anorak on his lap.  In the final (quiet) moments of the first movement he did it again.  In the second movement he discovered that a cord on the anorak was stuck to a velcro tab, and started trying to unpick it, before thankfully losing interest in his coat.  After that he limited himself to flapping his programme about, and shuffling in his seat.  Next season I must try and choose an end seat, then I'll only have one neighbour instead of two.  Maybe if I mutter to myself as the rest of the audience files in, and look vaguely unhinged, I might manage to deter anyone from sitting next to me at all.

Since I was in London I thought I might as well get maximum value out of the rail fare, and went on down to Tate Britain.  The buzz around the redevelopment seems to have dissipated, and there were no people looking at the new spiral staircase.  The two exhibitions I went to were pretty quiet as well, though one has been panned by the critics.

They are staging a career retrospective of Richard Deacon, who was born in 1949, and as the saying goes is not dead yet.  I found it one of those exhibitions where I knew what I thought as soon as I walked around it.  There were a few things I liked, and rather more things that I didn't like, and that didn't grow on me as I looked at them.  He is, according to the free leaflet (I love the way that Tate hands out free leaflets to its members just as if they had bought tickets.  The RA doesn't) best known for his lyrical open forms and interest in materials and their manipulation.

That is a fair description, and I liked a couple of his sinuous wooden constructions.  My favourite was in the last room, a giant loop of timber that corkscrewed in places like barley twist poker work, with wriggling bands of curved planks like giant shavings from a lathe running across it, or curling down to the floor and back.  I enjoyed that, and I liked watching how other people watched it, as they paced around it, and played the game of spotting where the other end of each strip of planks ended up.  I quite liked the two intersecting huge loops of laminated plywood, each standing on edge, dead straight, and forming a huge narrow X.  I didn't like that as much as final work, partly because Deacon had allowed the glue to bulge out between the layers of lamination.  Am I supposed to judge sculpture according to the intrinsic beauty of the material, as well as the design?  Or is that to treat it as purely decorative?

The open wooden construct shaped like a giant slice of melon, tilted over and resting within two circles, I could take or leave, while the enormous lattice work loop like a deformed doughnut reminded me too much of a piece of children's play equipment.  It was mathematically interesting that all the curved sections were of the same radius, but apart from that it didn't do it for me, and I was baffled by the steel trellis running up the centre of the work.  The booklet said that the opposing qualities of the taut line of the woven steel strap and the liveliness of the undulating wooden form touched on fundamental issues of presence and absence.  Which didn't help, and might in fact be pretentious codswallop.

The metal sculptures mostly reminded me of visits to factories making ducting for air conditioning, and the bronze thing like a light bulb holder with a green lampshade on the end, the horn shaped thing made out of 1960s lino, and the pink netting tube were simply taking the piss, whatever the booklet said.

I did not enter Ruin Lust with an innocent eye, having recently read Brian Sewell's excoriating review.  His major beef was that most of the art in it was not very good, and not even the best examples of the respective artists in the Tate's collection.  His other complaint was that the curation was disjointed and did not develop a coherent theory about the role and treatment of ruins in art.  He was right on the latter score, though I can live happily with randomly curated exhibitions as long as I find enough things that are individually beautiful or thought-provoking, but Ruin Lust was pretty low on knock-out exhibits.  I quite liked some of the photos, but didn't leave with any new insight into why I liked looking at ruins.  And I do like looking at ruins.  The trouble is, if the role of art is to make you think and feel things you did not otherwise think and feel, this exhibition didn't.  I thought and felt much more when I actually went myself and stood among the stones of Fountains Abbey, or the military debris of Orford Ness, or the decaying railway arches and canal banks of pre-gentrified London or Birmingham, than I did at any point going round Ruin Lust.

Never mind.  It's not as though I had to pay to get in, being a Tate member.  The new cafe in the basement is nice.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

absent Friends

I was grumbling to the Systems Administrator only yesterday that the Royal Academy had been remiss in not trying to find out why I had ceased my annual subscription to the Friends of the RA, or persuading me to rejoin.  Lo, this morning's post brought me a letter from one of their Trustees, a missive so gushing as to make Johnnie Boden's marketing messages sound like the forced stuttering of a painfully introverted recluse.  It ran as follows:

Dear Mrs [my name]

I'm here to administer a friendly verbal spanking: don't enjoy it too much or feel too scolded - it seems that you've let your Friends membership lapse.  That means you have missed out on free entry to some of the most remarkable exhibitions of recent years in the greatest exhibition spaces in London.  No, the world.  We thought friendship was for life, no?

However, all is not lost - now is the perfect time to make up and be Friends again.  The RA has so much more to offer since your last visit.

We've opened new galleries in Burlington Gardens for a start!  We're going back to the swinging Sixties this summer with an exhibition on the photography of the multi-talented Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper, followed by a look at the work of pop-art pioneer Allen Jones RA.  While over in our Piccadilly stomping ground, we have some seriously big shows on the horizon.  In September, we're presenting a major retrospective on Anselm Kiefer.  His work is quite simply: epic.  The man never shies away from controversy, constantly seeks new challenges and works in whole range of media - the result of which is an astonishing body of work created over more than 40 year.

We'll then be hurtling into 2015 with a whopper of an exhibition in the form of Rubens and his Legacy.  Not only will we be gathering together some of this great artist's famous works but we'll also be showing masterpieces by Cezanne, Turner, Picasso, Rembrandt and more, as we examine the Rubens legacy.

If that isn't enough to tempt you back into our arms, you should also know about my new favourite Mayfair haunt - the Keeper's House.  Tucked away in our courtyard this elegant hideaway is there for your every social whim, whether it be debauched cocktails, a rather refined afternoon tea or an indulgent supper.  As a Friend, you have a stylish, comfortable, friendly West End oasis right in the heart of the West End - all for a price that has already given you so much.

So, I hope that is more than enough to convince you to befriend us once more, and remember you can also bring a family guest and up to four family children on each visit.

See you there.  If you spot me and tap me on the shoulder and say "Kiefer" I'll buy you and your party each a cocktail of their choice.  You can't say fairer than that!

Warmest, friendly wishes,

Stephen Fry
Trustee of the Royal Academy Trust

Since they hadn't asked why I'd ceased to subscribe as a Friend I thought I'd write back and tell them anyway.  Out of respect to the institution, and because I'd sealed the letter before spotting a major typo and had to redo it, I will not use their Freepost envelope but pay for my own stamp.

Dear Stephen Fry

We have not been introduced, and I must admit I found it rather off-putting to receive a letter from you threatening to administer a friendly verbal spanking.  I have to confess, I am not a fan of your particular unique brand of arch comedy.

May I explain to you and your friends at the Friends that I did not accidentally allow my Friends membership to lapse?  No, I deliberately ended it as a direct result of changes instigated by the Royal Academy to the conditions of friendship.

Firstly, you started requiring me to book in advance for the most popular exhibitions.  Now I live in the countryside, unbelievable as that must seem to an urban sophisticate such as yourself.  The train service to London is not always very reliable, and on lovely sunny days I like to play in the garden instead of travelling up to spend the day in the great smoke.  I did not find it at all convenient to have to decide in advance when I was going to see the best exhibitions, instead of being able to pop in when travelling conditions and the weather were propitious.  You do not state in your marketing material whether you have retained this exceptionally irritating rule.

Secondly, you introduced the requirement that my guest must be a family member.  I believe this was determined by changes to the taxation regime.  As the illustrious chair of QI, you with your brain the size of a planet, will see that it is a nonsensical rule.  Who is a relation, after all?  My brother?  My brother-in-law?  My stepfather’s step-son son by his first marriage?  My husband being mainly of a cricket-loving persuasion, I tend to visit art galleries with my friends.  It is amusing to speculate how we might claim to be related, should anyone at the Royal Academy enquire, but I don’t see why I should be required to start telling fibs in the course of a day out.

You will be pleased to know that I continue my support of the visual arts in the UK through membership of the Art Fund, and the Tate, which curiously does not seem to have any hang-ups about relatives.

Warmest, friendliest wishes

 [my name]

If I hear back from my new chum Stephen Fry I'll let you know, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

a woodland talk

This is going to be a very swift blog post, because it is late.  I've just got in from doing a woodland charity talk up in Suffolk.  I don't normally do woodland talks over the border.  The charity divides out territories between speakers on a county basis, and then sticks to them fairly rigidly, so that while I live within ten miles of the Suffolk border, I go right down to Leigh-on-Sea to give talks (Essex) but have never been asked to do one in Brantham, all of a mile the wrong side of the county boundary.

Tonight's gig was originally booked to be a garden talk, to a club I've talked to a couple of times before, up in the Suffolk sandlings.  They are a lovely group, and I was going to enthuse to them about spring gardens, booked long before I had thoughts of parting company with the plant centre. Once I left I and was unable to borrow plants I had to come up with a plan B, so suggested to the organiser that she could either see if the plant centre manager was free that night, or I could do the charity talk which I had all the kit for.  She opted for the latter, which was flattering.

The Suffolk sandlings are a magical place in the evening, as the sun is setting.  The light has a curiously persistent quality, and you almost sense that you are not very far from the sea.  I got a splendid view of the tower of Sudbourne church as I approached Orford, which was glowing a luminous shade of palest amber in the evening light, a mystical view straight out of the canvases of Ravilious or Nash.  Apparently the church at Sudbourne is senior to larger and architecturally more ambitious one at Orford, in the arcane historic hierarchy of the C of E.

Then I sat for a long time in my car outside the village hall, because I'd allowed plenty of time in case of delays.  You can't be too careful with the Orwell Bridge, and I have never yet been late to one of my own talks, whether it is for personal gain or for charity.  If only I had a tablet, or my laptop had a battery life of more than eight seconds, I could have written the blog entry then, but I haven't, it hasn't and I didn't.

I might have got a return booking from my efforts, to go and talk about ponds, which would be nice. I don't as of this moment have a pond presentation prepared, but I'm sure I could write one.  And they gave me what would have been my full normal talk fee for the charity, which was nice of them. I left with dire warnings about deer ringing in my ears, but didn't see any on the way back.

Monday, 17 March 2014

spring is all around

The unseasonably warm weather is bringing all sorts of flowers out in a rush.  Magnolia stellata 'Waterlily' has almost finished unpacking its blooms from their furry coats.  The flowers are spidery white doubles, carried generously enough to put on a good show even viewed from the other end of the garden, but the plant itself makes only grudging increase.  The RHS Plant Selector describes it as slow growing, and mine was planted a full decade ago and still can't be more than five feet across, and less than five feet high.  Mind you, it unexpectedly died back to the roots and started again from ground level when it had been in for a couple of years, which set it back.  I have heard of other instances of magnolias doing this, so if you've planted one that initially seems OK and then abandons its branch system, I wouldn't be too quick to grub out the roots.  Muntjac will bite right through the twigs they can reach, which doesn't help things.

Corylopsis sinensis var. sinensis has come out too in the past couple of days.  This is an acid loving woodlander for part shade, and mine seems very happy at the base of the rose bank.  When I planted it I seem to have mentally glazed over the fact of its ultimate height and spread being anything up to twelve feet or more, and I have to do a little gentle editing with secateurs to adjudicate between it and the neighbouring Amelanchier and Edgeworthia.  The Corylopsis has dangling racemes of pale yellow flowers, not wholly unlike a very upmarket primrose coloured flowering currant.  They coordinate well with the Edgeworthia, less so with pink Pieris japonica 'Katsura'.  If only I had more space, or rather a different balance between sheltered and vaguely moisture retentive growing conditions versus exposed sand, I would have separate pink and yellow gardens for spring.  I like both, only not necessarily together.  P. 'Katsura' is a handsome, newish cultivar, with deep red new foliage, and a very tidy habit.

Edgeworthia chrysantha is an extraordinary plant in flower.  It is related to Daphne, and once you know that you can see the similarity to D. bholua in the branch habit, three shoots breaking from the same point and heading up and out in rigid straight lines.  The twigs of Edgeworthia are incredibly supple, so that you can tie them in knots if you want to, which I don't.  The white and yellow flowers have a thick, waxy appearance, and are held in strange flat-faced clusters pointing slightly downwards.  The scent is piercingly spicy.  A bit like wintersweet, which I once had but lost, the leaves are pretty dull, and after the excitement of flowering the shrub does nothing much for the rest of the year.  The Japanese used to make speciality paper out of the bark.

There is a rash of seedlings around the primroses under the river birches, and it is a nice question which of the smallest ones are speedwell, and which are primroses.  I'm giving the lowest and tiniest ones the benefit of the doubt until I see how they turn out.  The speedwells develop stalks as they grow, making them quite easy to pull up.  The saying goes that a weed is a plant in the wrong place, but I can't think of any right place for speedwell in the garden.  I have pulled up a couple of young Hesperis matronalis, or sweet rocket, that I found outside the bed where it is supposed to live.  I love rocket, as do the bees, and designer Tom Stuart-Smith, who I read grows it in his own garden, but would never specify if for a client on account of its seeding propensities.  I am happy for it to seed close to where I originally put it, but don't want it in the ditch bed, crowding out the smaller things.  A self-seeded Geranium phaeum is earmarked for eradication as well, even though it is a nice plant, since I already have a large stand of it elsewhere, and it will overrun the ditch bed, given half a chance.  It feels wasteful not to pot up such strays, but I have sufficient, and lack the energy to nurture them in pots until I can find friends to press them upon.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

the hazards of modern life

Nowadays it seems as though I cannot open the metaphorical pages of any online newspaper without seeing another article about the evils of sugar by a journalist who has given it up, at least for a month.  Sugar is the new devil food.  Not just obvious sugar like high fructose corn syrup, or Tate and Lyle's finest refined crystals, but hidden sugar, the added chemical sweetness that lurks in tomato ketchup and breakfast cereal, and the deadly natural sugar that pollutes fruit, and even the dastardly latent sugar waiting to be released as bread or porridge are digested.  Sugar, you see, is not natural.  Our hunter gatherer ancestors did not eat high fructose corn syrup, or refined sugar, or even wheat, and our bodies are not adapted to sugar.  It will rot our brains, send us mad, and kill us via myriad diseases, not just diabetes and the obvious muscular-skeletal hazards of being the size of a house, but even dementia.

I rather suspect that our ancestors did eat fruit, when they could get it, but it is true they did not gorge themselves on refined sugar beet or maize, or even oat grains.  It is probably a good idea not to overdo sugar.  You don't need that many concentrated calories, unless you are a Norwegian cross country skier or a lumberjack, and the stories about the effects of high fructose corn syrup on the brain and endocrine system do sound pretty alarming.  But insisting on recasting porridge as dangerous devil food because our distant ancestors did not eat grains is a step too far for me. After all, why stop there?

Our Paleolithic forbears did not have central heating.  Their caves or animal skin tents or mud huts or whatever they lived in were undoubtedly much colder than our modern homes.  It's a fair bet that living in artificially heated surroundings is disrupting our metabolisms in all sorts of as-yet-to-be-determined ways, and if we were to give up this dangerous modern practice and return to life at the natural, ambient temperature for the time of year I'm sure that would yield metabolic and cardiovascular benefits.

Hot water and soap, there's another dangerous modern invention.  We did not evolve to scrub our skins regularly, removing their natural oils.  The rise in allergies is almost certainly due to this unhealthy practice, and the sooner we all revert to the natural, unwashed state, the better.  Social communication will become more honest and complete, as we are able to detect one another's true odours, unmasked by synthetic chemicals, and society will be more harmonious as a result.

We no longer enjoy the periodic adrenaline boost that comes from being ambushed by a charging bison or woolly mammoth.  In the absence of these large and dangerous animals, a similar effect could be achieved if we were all to dash periodically across our dual carriageways at random intervals, thus achieving a similar mixture of uncertainty and extreme hazard, depending on traffic flow.

There again, we could conclude that life as our stone age ancestors was not all it's cracked up to be, and that the odd bowl of pasta or digestive biscuit is probably OK, in moderation.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

the traveller returns

The Systems Administrator is back from Cheltenham, slightly dazed by the long drive and the cumulative effect of five late nights and early starts, and a little poorer, but having had a good time.  A gang of them has been going for years, nowadays renting a slightly rough-round-the-edges holiday let at mates' rates.  Even the Travelodge in Gloucester is two hundred pounds a night in Cheltenham Festival week.

If I could go for one day, I'd go.  I have been in the past, and it is a very fine English spectacle.  But it is an awfully long way from north Essex, and I don't like it enough to spend an entire week there, let alone go to the trouble and expense of finding someone to look after the cats, and the chickens, and my trays of tiny seedlings in the greenhouse.  I don't actually want to spend that long away from the garden at this time of year, especially this year, when I seem to have lost pretty much three months to rain, wind and an endless series of colds (though in the previous two or three years I lost about the same amount of time to snow and ice, so maybe I should face facts and admit that I won't get much outdoor work done between mid November and early March).

The SA spotted instantly that I was running my internet connection via the Three Mobile dongle and not the BT modem.  The BT connection failed within about two hours of the SA driving away, and after a couple of goes at unplugging the modem and plugging it in again, I gave up, while by today I'd completely forgotten I was using the dongle.  I expect I'd have gone on forgetting until it ran out of credit

Far from being sated with sport, the week had whetted the SA's appetite, and after unloading the car and making some very vague professions of affection, the SA settled down to watch the Midlands Grand National and the rugby, while unravelling from the drive.  That was OK by me, since I was going at full tilt planting bulbs when the Jaguar's wheels crunched up behind me on the gravel, and was in no great mood to stop.  It's lucky that the SA's birthday falls next week, safely after Cheltenham has finished, and not during the festival, otherwise we would have a rather awkward negotiation each year.  The SA has been to every Gold Cup since 1987, and has spent the full week at the festival for about the past twenty years.  Imagine the weekend supplement quiz, faced with the situation in which your partner's birthday falls in the middle of a week long racing festival that they want to attend and you don't.  Do you (a) insist they spend their birthday with you.  It's only horse racing (b) go with them and pretend to enjoy yourself while inwardly seething with resentment and boredom by the middle of day 2 (c) agree to celebrate their birthday when they get back, while worrying that your friends and family will assume that your relationship is in deep trouble?  It's just as well that it's a purely  hypothetical question.

Friday, 14 March 2014


Sometimes you start off fully intending to do one thing, and by the end of the day you have done quite something else.  My plan at the start of the week was to plant the bulbs out and repot the dahlias.  I did begin repotting them, but stopped when I'd filled up the wheelbarrow with spent compost.  The obvious thing to do at that point would have been to throw the old compost on the compost heap and keep going, but the heaps needed turning, and I had a sackful of sawdust and chicken droppings from cleaning the hen house roosting board that I needed to add as well, and it seemed stupid to add all that fragmented stuff on top of a pile of leaves and stems that I was about to have to lift from one bin into the next with a fork.  Besides, soiled chicken litter isn't something you handle more than you have to.

I considered whether I could add the old compost and the filthy sawdust to any of the other heaps, but the conclusion was no, not sensibly.  The heap at the right hand end of the row looked ready to use, and all the others were definitely ready to turn.  So I ended up spending a large part of the day digging the finished compost out of the end bin and spreading it on the garden, so that all the contents of all the others could move over one, and I could incorporate the old dahlia compost and chicken litter in the process, while regaining use of the wheelbarrow.

It was lovely, crumbly compost, and sprinkled very neatly on the rose bed where the Camassia are coming up, being much easier to apply around the rapidly enlarging foliage than the mushroom compost had been.  There was even time to dust it with bonemeal and 6X and finish Strulching the bed.  My goodness, one bed actually finished.  I'm never going to get round all of them before the season gets too advanced and I have to stop, but I suppose I'll just have to do as much as I can.

I found two bulbs of Fritillaria persica alive in the compost, though rather slug riddled.  I tried to grow them in pots last year but managed to over-water them and let them sit wet at some point in the winter so that their basal plates rotted off, not the first time they have defeated me.  Cursing my ineptitude I threw the bulbs out when I was tidying the greenhouse.  Plants sometimes have an amazing will to live, and these had managed to grow a few roots from the remnants of their plates. By my calculation it is the second time one of them has come back from the compost heap.  I salvaged them, and will plant them tomorrow in the long bed where they can sort their own roots out, or not, with no more inept attempts at watering from me.

Tomorrow I really will plant some more of the bulbs.  They are sitting in their trays outside the front door, reproaching me, with just a little path for me to go in and out, like a sheep track.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

artistic autodidact

I went to London today, feeling slightly grudging as I set off, because the weather was so beautiful and I could happily have spent the day in the garden.  However, I had booked myself a ticket for a lunchtime concert at LSO St Lukes, knowing that I'd like it when I got there, and that having already committed to buying a ticket would be a spur to going, if it should turn out to be a nice day.  There is a single-minded obsessional streak that runs in my family, and while it would be very easy to turn into a muttering hermit who never bothered to change out of their gardening clothes, it would not necessarily be a good idea.

The recital was by the Doric Quartet, a youngish lot much garlanded with praise and competition prizes, who were playing a fragmentary trio by Schubert and his final string quartet, as part of LSO St Luke's Schubert season.  I rather wish LSO would spread these things out a bit, since I would happily go to every one of their Schubert concerts, but it is feast or famine, Schubert every Thursday for four weeks on the trot, and then no more for a year or more.  I can't go to London every Thursday for a month.

It was a lovely concert.  Although busy, it was not a sell-out, and as I begin to get the measure of LSO St Luke's lunchtime concerts I'm fairly sure that you would normally be OK getting a ticket on the door, unless the artist were very famous.  Last week they had Nicola Benedetti, and there already didn't seem to be any tickets for that available on the website when I booked in mid January, but she appeared at last year's Last Night of the Proms, and has that been-on-TV must-see quality.  The final movement of the last quartet was oddly familiar, more so than the rest of it, and I still haven't worked out why.  Does it get played as an isolated fragment on the radio, without the preceding movements, or does it sound a bit like something else?  Or is it simply catchy in a way that fools me into thinking I've heard it before?

After the music I went to look at some pictures, and walked down to the National Portrait Gallery, to see Bailey's Stardust (and sorry, normally I would put links in for you, but I have just spent a very long time rebooting my laptop after making sure I'd saved something I absolutely couldn't afford to lose, and it's too late, and I'm too tired).  I found it interesting enough, but oddly unmoving, and was surprised, given that David Bailey sounded an entertaining geezer when I heard him interviewed on the radio.  I was not utterly surprised, though, given that I recalled I'd read an unfavourable review by an art critic I normally listen to.  I have just checked, and it was Jonathan Jones in the Guardian.

I generally enjoy photographic exhibitions.  I have not bothered to learn anything about cameras, exposure times, printing techniques, or anything else about the complex nuts and bolts of how professional photographers do it.  I can grasp composition, how the subject is fitted into the picture space, which bits are cropped off, and how it is lit, because those are universal factors of representational images, whether they are done with the latest digital camera or paint and brush.  I can tell how an image makes me feel.  And quite a few of David Bailey's pictures made me feel...not very much.  And I don't know why.  It could partly be his choice of subjects.  A lot of them seemed to be extrovert alpha males looking thoroughly pleased with themselves, which palls after the first few dozen.  Quite a few were famous, but there seemed relatively few of my own cultural heroes among them.  If he'd photographed The Jam instead of The Beatles, and Tilda Swinton instead of Beyonce, maybe I'd have been more engaged.  There was a fashion designer whose reported opinions of women sound foully misogynistic, and another guilty of a public anti-Semitic rant.

There were some I liked.  I loved the image of John Piper standing leaning against a tree in the snow, every branch topped in white, so that the angular undersides of the twigs stood out like a Mondrian.  The two contrasting portraits of Marianne Faithfull were touching, and I liked the 1960s images of still-derelict buildings in the East End.  But overall I barely connected, whereas the Man Ray exhibition the gallery mounted last spring was absolutely gripping.  I shall re-read Jonathan Jones' review when I've finished this, to see if he can tell me why I was not more moved.

Nowadays I feel I must get maximum value from the train fare, so I walked back via Somerset House and looked at their little temporary exhibition of Romantic German and British landscape drawings, which were interesting, but in a bloodless way.  My flagging energies only picked up when I got to a late, highly abstract Turner (who by 1841 was extraordinarily modern), and I went and looked at the Fauvists instead to wake myself up.  I was very happy to see that Braque's white ship at Antwerp is still on display.  I know that one day I'll call by, and it will have gone.  Then I spent a long time sitting looking at Gaugin's Nevermore, a painting I must have first seen about forty years ago.  I do like permanent collections, and being able to concentrate on one or two things, instead of that feeling that you will never pass this way again, and must seize the opportunity and get your money's worth looking at absolutely everything there is in the gallery.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

gravel gardening

I haven't finished planting out the potted bulbs, but I have made a decent start.  I began with the gravel garden by the entrance.  Planting anything into gravel is always a fiddly process, since you have to scrape the gravel back from where you want to dig, make your hole without spilling soil over the surface of the surrounding gravel, remove some soil if it's a large pot and there isn't room to spread all the surplus around without creating a mound, plant whatever it is, and scrape the gravel back without burying or breaking off too many leaves in the process.  All this takes longer than dropping bedding into a bare and previously dug-over flowerbed.

First off was Scilla peruviana, three bought bulbs and three smaller plants raised from seed.  When I mention growing bulbs from seed to people they tend to make discouraging noises about how long the bulbs will take to reach flowering size, but I think that's only because they are used to the almost instant gratification of buying ready-to-flower bulbs in a packet.  Many bulbous species that naturalise themselves in our gardens do so at least partly by seeding, and we are very happy to let them.  After all, you don't have to stand over the plant watching while it grows.  Scilla peruviana is a delightful thing, with starry blue flowers decorated with conspicuous yellow stamens.  I used to have a potful once, which is how I got seed, but left it outside over one winter.  Bad mistake.  Mice do not seem to eat the bulbs.  Despite the name it has nothing to do with Peru, but comes from the Western Mediterranean.

Then came Dichelostemma ida-maia.  Mice don't seem to eat the bulbs of that either, since all my pots survived unmolested.  This is an eye-catcher from California and Oregon, which carries clusters of pendulous, tubular red flowers with pale yellow tips on top of lanky stems.  The foliage is not very robust, and in a chaotic garden like mine I think it needs its own space where it will not get accidentally mauled during weeding, or overwhelmed by other plants as the season progresses.  This is my second attempt at growing it, after it got lost first time round.  It wants sharp drainage, sun and summer dormancy, and I am hoping that the gravel will suit it very well.  The flowers in the wild are pollinated by humming birds.  Red tubular flowers from the warmer parts of the Americas often are.

I'm also giving Allium schubertii a go.  It is fairly low growing, as alliums go, and has the most enormous flower heads, which give a star-burst effect as the stems of the individual small flowers making up the head are of different lengths.  Apparently this arrangement operates in the same way as tumbleweed, so that once the head is ripe and dry it will blow a long way, scattering seeds. The flowers don't show to their best advantage if crammed in among herbaceous plants, and I'm hoping they can be persuaded to grow in the gravel for aesthetic reasons.  They hail from the Eastern Mediterranean and should like the good drainage, but the soil may be too poor for them, and I intend to give every bulb a good dusting of fish, blood and bone as soon as I've bought some more.  Though come to that practically everything in the front garden is due to get some FB&B, if I manage to get round to it.

I didn't finish planting the pots of Tritelia ixioides 'Starlight'.  This has open heads of several starry pale yellow flowers, held well apart, and is supposed to favour a dry, sunny position.  The species used to be called Brodiaea, and like the Dichelostemma comes originally from California and Oregon.  Again like the Dichelostemma I tried it in a border, and it seemed to be coping with some of the driest and most arid soil in the entire garden, but was rather lost in the creeping sorrel which was the only thing that really seemed to like that part of the bed.  I am hoping that it will relish having its own space.

As I was weeding I noticed some strong new shoots coming from the base of the Parahebe perfoliata, while the Zauschneria californica are really starting to get into their stride, sending out underground shoots at an increasing distance from the original parent plants.  But I will tell you about them another time.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

traditional song

I have belatedly discovered a shared enthusiasm for folk music with one of my friends and former colleagues.  A little while back she organised our trip to Ipswich to hear the four fine singing and fiddle playing ladies, and last night she took up my offer of entertainment, an evening at the Colchester Arts Centre with Mike Vass and Fiona Hunter.

It was the third time I'd seen Mike Vass live, and I unintentionally mis-sold the concert slightly to my friend, since I waxed lyrical and enthusiastic about his fiddle playing, and it turned out that the current tour is more of an evening with Fiona Hunter and Mike Vass.  She is a Scottish singer, who after a decade of singing with a Scots group has put out what is being described as her first solo album.  It is not literally solo, since other people support her on it, including Mike Vass, who also produced it, but it is her album, and last night was about promoting it.

I heard a track from it on the R2 folk show, after I'd asked my friend to come, and wasn't too worried when I discovered that the evening was going to major on Hunter and be Vass-lite.  She has a super voice, strong, clear, always controlled and quite deep.  I like it when performers have voices in the same register as mine, so that I can join in with choruses, instead of pitching everything too high like the Church of England does, so that the third line of most hymns rises above my range.  Fiona Hunter is from Glasgow, is bright and sparky, and plays the cello and a strange little squeezebox described as being as an accordion in a handbag, called a Shruti box, which provided a drone and harmony section when needed.

Mike Vass played his fiddle some of the time, but mainly provided guitar accompaniment and backing vocals.  He is a good accompanist, not as flashy and virtuosic a guitarist as Martin Simpson or his protegee Ewan Mclennan, but tight, competent, and utterly focused on the singer at all times. That's what you want in a guitar accompaniment, which is why Martin Hayes' understated musical partner Dennis Cahill is one of the finest going.

They came over as a serious minded and scholarly pair of souls.  Fiona Hunter did a music degree at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and an internship at the Smithsonian.  She has collected traditional songs from Scottish Travellers, helping record a culture that is fast dying out. They will interrupt the narrative of a big ballad to put in a cello interlude, while the audience reflects on the murder and mayhem so far.  Serious minded and scholarly is good by me, I am pretty serious minded and scholarly myself from time to time.  If you wanted a rip-roaring, och-aye, hearty evening of boisterous traditional fun, you wouldn't book Hunter and Vass as your first choice.  If you like traditional material treated with a high degree of respect but not set in aspic, you'll like them.

There was a support act last night, and it was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly, because the quality of local talent is mixed, north Essex not being a folk hotbed compared to some parts of the UK, and I have sat through some toe-curlingly awful moments in the lead-up to the main act at Colchester Arts Centre folk nights, but yesterday we had a banjo and fiddle duo, and they were good.  Nice crisp sense of timing, not rushing into taking everything really fast to make it more exciting.  Their repertoire is from the Carolinas and thereabout, and they describe it as Old Time. They call themselves East Street Union, and have a facebook page, which lists their other forthcoming gigs.  I see that in April they will be performing in Coggeshall, and in the Bull in Colchester's Crouch Street, which according to its website does live acoustic music in a little studio out the back on the second Thursday of every month.

Meanwhile, Mike Vass and Fiona Hunter have departed back to Scotland, and who knows when they will be visiting these parts again?

Monday, 10 March 2014

shopping and errands

I succumbed to the lure of Anemone pavonina, and bought three at the Beth Chatto nursery.  There weren't any really dark pink ones out for sale, but I found a mid pink, a white with pink streaks on the reverse of the petals, and a soft yellow.  Either dark pink is not a common colour break, or it sells much faster than the paler colours.  I really ought to try and propagate mine, since I have one good strong pink, though I think I tried sowing seed a couple of years ago and the pot went mouldy. I was disciplined, though, and did not walk around the whole nursery looking at everything else they had and picking up a couple of extra plants while I was at it.  I did notice they had Cardamine quinquefolia, should I want any.

Shopping and errands don't half take time.  After getting the anemones I stopped to drop off some empties in the bottle bank, then went into Colchester for layers' pellets and acrylic paint.  The paint was not urgent, since it is for the coloured dahlia stakes, and I'm not about to tackle the dahlia bed this week, but the pellets were, since we've practically run out, and the shop where I buy cheap acrylic is on the same trading estate as the feed merchant.

Then I needed food, otherwise I was going to be living out of the store cupboard, and I fancied some fresh vegetables.  And was running out of toothpaste and loo roll.  The car needed filling up, and I was almost out of cash.  That meant a visit to Tesco.  I still prefer Waitrose, but Tesco has a cash machine and a filling station, plus a dry cleaner and I had some dry cleaning to drop off.  It was not the best moment to have chosen to take dry cleaning in, since the man in the kiosk was busy cutting a key before our eyes while the queue lengthened.

Before I could repot the dahlias I needed compost, which meant a visit to B&Q.  Their compost is both cheap and good, or at least it was good last year.  They may have changed the recipe since then.  I am afraid it contains peat, on the other hand, I would feel more guilt about using peat if I didn't know that the quantity I consume in potting compost is dwarfed by the amount the Irish burn in power stations.  I thought B&Q might have sold me some fish, blood and bone, since it's early spring and prime time to give the borders a sprinkle but no, they had run out.  B&Q bargain compost comes in 125 litre bales, which are quite unwieldy, and I accepted the offer of help loading it into the car, but got bored waiting for a member of staff to come and went and did it myself.

And that was most of the morning gone.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

a bright day in the garden

The tide of Strulch is slowly creeping in.  The Camassia leaves in the far rose bed are elongating by the day, and it can't be long before it becomes impossible to tuck mulch around them.  Reader, mulching a bed with bulbs in it is a job far better done before the bulbs are in leaf, but failing that the second best time to do a gardening job is when you are are able to get round to doing it.  I have crumbled mushroom compost around their foliage, a desperately fiddly task, but haven't yet finished applying the final layer of Strulch because I ran out of fish, blood and bone.

The packaging of fish, blood and a bone is a swizz, like oatcakes or cornflakes.  OK, the manufacturers put the net weight on the tub, so you can't say they lied to you, but when you open the lid, the contents come barely half way up the sides.  Cereal firms say that some settling may occur during transit, but I don't believe that fish, blood and bone loses half of its volume between the packaging line and the garden centre.  I'm certain that oatcakes don't, not unless something has gone very badly wrong and they have got broken in transit, so there is no reason for Nairns to make boxes that are an inch taller than the two layers of biscuits they contain.

I have just written myself a list of the gardening jobs I am going to do next week.  According to the list I am going to buy more mushroom compost and fish, blood and bone, and potting compost, plant out all the potted bulbs, repot the dahlias, and go to the dump.  Given that I have two days booked for non-gardening activities, the list looks a shade ambitious, especially when I remember that the potted bulbs include the Narcissus obvallaris destined for the daffodil lawn.  I haven't counted the pots, but there are a lot.

Something, possibly the pheasants but perhaps the blackbirds, is scraping Strulch off the edges of the beds and over the lawn.  It is a nuisance, but once the leaves of the violets and everything else round the front of the beds grow up, they should hold more of it in place.  It would form a dense mat more quickly if it rained, and since rain is not forecast maybe I should get the hose out, but it seems like such a faff when there are lots of other things to do.  I am hoping that heavy dew will do the trick.  The pheasants are a nuisance in the garden full stop, since they eat flowers.  I wish our cats would go out a bit more.

You can see that this blog post has no coherent narrative structure, but weeks spent gardening can be like that.  While I was in the process of digging up the turf from what are now the two rose beds and relaying it to form a path elsewhere, I still worked in my last City job.  I remember my colleagues' mounting incredulity as at the start of each week they politely asked me what I'd been doing in the garden, and the answer was always the same, digging up part of the lawn.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

rambling rose

Today I had another chop at the rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'.  It is supposed to be growing up the wild gean by the septic tank, but while quite a large portion of it does just that, there is still plenty that spills out over the potted witch hazels on the far deck, and blocks the steps to the lower lawn. Hamamelis do not like being enveloped by other dense vegetation, and if you allow their branches to be smothered for any length of time, you will probably find they have died back before you got round to dealing with the situation.

I object strongly to the steps being blocked, though not as emphatically and fatally as the witch hazels object to the rose's encroachments.  A key part of good garden layout is the circulation, and without use of the steps, the lower part of the garden ceases to lie on a circular route and becomes a cul de sac, making it less satisfying to walk around, while requiring a tedious detour if you want to get the the corner of the garden at the bottom of the steps.  I decided it was time to liberate steps and potted shrubs both.

It is partly my own fault that the usable width of the steps has shrunk year by year.  'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is a vigorous rambler, and rather than methodically cut off every long, waving stem that dared grow in the wrong direction, I have tried to flick them back into the tree and weave them round until they are pointing the right way.  Even when their tips did consent to continue growing towards the gean instead of away from it, the middle sections of the stems bulged sideways.  This in turn made them more of a fiddle to cut out, since I had to extract the ends of the branches out of the great central mass of rose stems while trying not to pull even more branches out over the decking.

The other reason why the rose was sprawling so far on to the deck was that the trunk of a hazel tree that some of it was climbing up had collapsed.  Looking at the apparently fat and healthy buds on the hazel, as far as I could tell it was not dead or split, but had merely slumped.  I sawed off its upper portions, where they hung out over the witch hazels, but had to leave some of it to avoid releasing a tidal wave of even more rose.  I am hoping that as the rose sends out further long shoots this summer, that some of them will manage to hook themselves into the gean and hold up the parts currently resting on the hazel.

Some books and gardening articles blithely assert that if you plant a rambling rose on the downwind side of a tree, it will blow into the crown of the tree.  In my experience the rose has plenty of ideas of its own, and is only distantly influenced by the wind.  If anything it wants to grow towards the light, and where is it lightest?  Away from the tree, that's where it wants to grow.  Until I began experimenting with roses in trees for myself I had not grasped quite how much growth a large rambler will throw out in a single season, and how ruthless you need to be about removing the parts that are growing in the wrong direction.