Wednesday, 30 April 2014

four flowers blue

There are blue flowers among the pink, in some cases lots of them, since several have proved generous self seeders.  Camassia leichtlinii is one, producing tall spikes of slightly greyish blue, starry flowers with yellow anthers nodding on long filaments.  I started off by planting bulbs, but they spread themselves freely, at least in heavy clay.  Some people seem intimidated by the idea of growing bulbs from seed, as if it were a quantum slower and more difficult than growing any other sort of plant, but it isn't really.  I don't have to do anything to the Camassia to get them to spread, other than hold back from early dead heading and avoid weeding up the seedlings.

A shade darker, more vibrant and more purple is Centaurea montana.  I love this plant.  It grew like a weed in the garden of my childhood, seeding itself joyously about from the original plants left by the previous owner, a keen gardener.  Books of the 1950s and 1960s talk about it being a common flower of vicarage gardens, which are themselves not so common nowadays, but by the time I got my own garden in the early 1980s it was difficult even to buy seed of C. montana, let alone plants, it was so far out of fashion.  Now the pendulum has swung again, and fancy purple varieties are seen at Chelsea, but I like the blue.  The flower is like a large and lux thistle, with wide-spaced, fringed petals held around a conspicuous purple central boss.  The outside of the calyx is typical thistle, sawtoothed, black edged overlapping scales creating a diamond pattern.

Also with a distinct purplish tint is my blue North American species lupin, grown from seed, the one I had lost the name to, until a kind person at Chiltern Seeds identified it for me as Lupinus chamissonis, which they used to stock and no longer did.  I intended to save seeds from my one plant last year, before it was devastated by aphids and failed to set any, so I am glad to see it flowering again.  The whole plant looked so sickly after the aphid attack that I thought it was a goner.  I have got some young seedlings of a hybrid derived from it growing on the greenhouse, a variety called 'Silver Fleece' which I bought because I could not find seeds of straight L. chamissonis, and the seed catalogue claimed that the hybrid had a better constitution.  Our species plant so far seems quite resilient, but perhaps the light sandy soil and the arid climate of the Clacton coastal strip resemble its native Californian sand dunes more convincingly than growing conditions in other parts of the UK.

In a large pot is Gentiana verna, the spring gentian.  It has been in the pot for a few years now, standing outdoors all year round, winter and summer, and is gently spreading.  The small flowers are true blue.  Laid out on the kitchen table the gentian makes you see (now I have lifted Our Ginger off them) how purple the Camassia, the Centaurea and the lupin really are.  The gentian flowers are very graceful, the bases of the petals fused together into a long tube which emerges from an equally long calyx.  I rather wish I hadn't looked up its entry on Wikipedia, as I gather that I am likely to be struck by lightning for having brought it into the house, and that death will follow now that it's picked.  Ah well, it's too late now.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

pretty in pink

There are so many new flowers to look at in the garden, I told you yesterday that I would never be able to describe them all, but here are some more.  Quite a few are pink: after March's blaze of yellow, pink is coming to the fore.  The Clematis montana that was already growing up the veranda when we moved in is in full flower.  I never found a label for it, and am not such an expert on C. montana as to have ever worked out which variety it is, but it ramps splendidly on poor soil. Indeed, it is almost too vigorous for its position, although in the past couple of years I have managed to keep it more or less under control, and it has not become such a tangled mess of stems as it was at one stage.  I shortened the branches that were escaping out into the rose bed back in the winter, and will give it another haircut as soon as it's finished flowering.

Our pink Deutzia is D. x rosea 'Carminea', though I had to look it up on my spreadsheet.  It is delightful while it is flowering, and then does nothing at all of interest for the rest of the year.  I don't even remember much in the way of autumn colour.  However, the flowers are charming, small bells opening from dusky pink buds to reveal a paler interior, while the backs of the petals retain a broad central blush of dark pink.  They are held in little nodding clusters, and there are enough of them to make a good show.  I am growing a late flowering clematis through it to provide interest at the other end of the year, though last autumn it wasn't entirely happy.  Rubbish soil again, but perhaps this spring's generous dose of old mushroom compost and 6X will do the trick.

Chamaecytisus purpureus is an agreeable, low growing little shrub.  Once happy it runs at the root, freely enough that it might become a nuisance in a really small border, despite its low height. There is a white variant, which with us is not so vigorous as the purple, but whether that's down to white versus purple, or merely reflects the fact that the white one is planted in one of the most arid spots in the entire garden, I don't know.  It would take a larger statistical sample than one plant to prove it either way.The flowers are typical of the pea family, in a soft pinky purple, and the buds while still tight shut are flushed yellow at the base.  The calyx is reddish, which makes the overall flower look darker than the pink of the petals would lead you to expect.  I find that some stems die back during the winter, so that it needs a good tidy with secateurs in the spring.

Down at the edge of the bog bed, Chaerophyllum hirsutum 'Roseum' is just getting going.  It is an umbellifer, with delicate, mid-pink carrot flowers over yellow-green foliage.  Pink and yellow is not always a good combination, but the leaves of this pretty cow parsley relative are a soft enough shade not to quarrel with the flowers.  My plant came as a souvenir of a visit last year to the gardens of Fullers Mill, which were so good that the friend I went with went back two days later to take her husband and brother-in-law.

Monday, 28 April 2014

tales of the foxglove tree

The hawthorn has come into full flower in the past couple of days.  Looking at our boundary hedge, I suddenly realised that David Hockney was right about hawthorn.  There were several paintings of it in his show at the RA a couple of years back, and at the time I found the heaviness of his great masses of white flowers too extreme.   However, this year our hedge is producing just such dense, clotted sprays.  A case of art teaching one to observe life, or simply that the hawthorn enjoyed the wet spring, and that in a typical year the thorn in Yorkshire grows more lavishly than that in north Essex?

All sorts of things are flowering, too many to mention them all.  Once again we have a display of foxglove tree flowers.  I grew the Paulownia from seed (I don't remember it being very difficult) intending to grow the resulting plants as stooled specimens in the rose bed.  If you cut Paulownia hard back, it responds by sending up vigorous vertical shoots that produce extraordinarily large, furry, almost heart shaped leaves.  I wanted them as a counter-balance to the small, bitty leaves of the roses.  However, one year I left the pruning until late, and a stem had reached the size where it was ready to flower.  Going to cut it down, I saw the buds and didn't have the heart to chop that stem down.  Thus, we now have a small flowering foxglove tree in the near rose bed, amid the stooled stems.  There is emphatically not room for a large tree.  It would shade the roses, block the view, and is altogether too close to the house.  I have begun to wonder, though, if I could manage it at around its existing size as a sort of pollard.  Given how well they tolerate hard pruning I don't see that it would mind, so it is more a question of whether I have the time and energy to wobble around with ladder and pole lopper maintaining another shrub.

It is fortunate that the Paulownia lies downhill from the house, as we look out from the veranda directly into its large, pendulous, bell shaped bluish-mauve flowers.  We see them against a background  of other foliage, against which they show up reasonably well.  Peering upwards to view them against a blue sky they tend to disappear.

Meanwhile, the starlings nesting in the roof at the front of the house have hatched out their clutch of eggs successfully.  We know this because when the babies are being fed, the sound of excited cheeping carries to the far side of the drive.  It seems an odd thing to do.  I know that each chick is trying to out-do its brothers and sisters, to attract the maximum share of whatever food the parents have brought back, but making that much racket they would be advertising themselves as targets to every magpie in the neighbourhood, if it weren't that they were nesting inside the security of the roof.  The parents fly in and out of a ventilation hole in the soffit board that's lost its protecting grille, and it's a wonderful thing to watch them dart vertically upwards through the opening, wings clapped against their bodies at the last moment.  A magpie couldn't get in there.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

all that jazz

It's no good, I don't like jazz.  Or at least, not the sort of modern jazz that jazz fans admire, only the 1920s retro style that serious jazz enthusiasts sneer at.  I gave it an honest go last night, and while two hours of Christy Moore flew by in a flash, one hour of modern jazz seemed to stretch on interminably.  The friends we'd asked to come with us said the band were very good, and one of them is a jazz drummer himself in his spare time, so it was my fault, not the performers'.  I just can't get into it.  I don't know why not.  Our friend said that jazz consists of variations on simple and repetitive tunes, but that's true of Philip Glass and Eno's ambient music, and I like them.  Taste is a very personal thing.

It didn't help that we had half a dozen women on the other three-fifths of our table who talked all the way through, including in the second half, when the committee member behind the jazz concert had introduced the band back on stage with a plea to belt up and listen, as the band had been playing their socks off and were now going to do some quieter material.  They said they were on a social night out and didn't want to shush.  The Systems Administrator said afterwards on the way home that the format of the event was probably too confusing, whether it was meant to be a formal concert, at which people were quiet and listened, or a club, in which they were at liberty to chat to their friends.  Sitting people down at tables with access to a bar for an hour before you give them anything to eat is probably not conducive to creating a reverential, concert atmosphere.

I wasn't convinced by the fish and chips, though some people ate them.  The fish was OK, but the chips were about as soggy as you'd expect after eighty-five portions had been put in cardboard boxes inside plastic boxes and driven five miles up the road.  My attempt to procure the SA a non-fish alternative backfired, since the chip shop ended up sending two helpings of deep fried chicken for the non-fish eaters.  After taking one sniff of the chicken, the SA refused to even take it out of its bag, and subsisted on chips.

There was enough cake left over to serve, at a rough estimate, fifty people.  Fortunately all the meringues went, so the SA and I are not left wrestling with the choice of eating or binning them.  I like them at a party, but not as normal everyday fare, and the SA barely eats sweet things at all. On the other hand, we both abhor food waste.  I'm afraid I ignored our Chairman's plea, or rather instruction, that we must all take a black bin bag of waste home with us.  I thought that making somebody allergic to fish, who had already been exposed to the rankest piece of fried chicken in Christendom, sit in a car for a half hour journey accompanied by an entire bin bag of discarded fish and chips was beyond the call of duty.

The pile of washing up was monumental, so at least the fish and chips saved us from having to wash plates as well as pudding bowls and about a million spoons.  The Treasurer's wife, who is not on the committee and doesn't like jazz either, nobly washed up all the dishes, while I dried until reinforcements arrived, and I ran out of dry tea towels, having taken five.  I'm sure that originally when we hiked the price up from fifteen pounds a head to seventeen pounds fifty, part of the justification was that we'd be able to afford some paid help, but in the event it never materialised, other than an immensely polite music student whose day job with the music society is as page turner.

A flurry of emails this morning congratulating ourselves pronounced the event a success.  I kept quiet.  I can't face another jazz concert.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

minority report

I spent most of my childhood holidays in Cornwall.  Our family divided its patronage between the north and south coasts, so some years we dawdled among the lanes and gentle coves around Veryan, while other seasons we stayed outside Bude, within striking distance of grander and more rugged scenery.  I remember vast sandy beaches, not awfully nice public loos, learning to row on the Bude canal, where I developed a technique that had only limited application in later life when I didn't need to shed the accumulated weed from my oar at every third stroke, and drinking horlicks in steamed-up cafes while it rained.  I remember clambering across scree slopes on some hair-raising cliffs to get to the best beaches, which I believe have long since been barricaded off by the National Trust on health and safety grounds.  We visited Tintagel, and Boscastle, and stared into the slate mines of Delabole, and commented on the way that the hedgerow trees were sculpted by the wind.  One year we stayed in a bungalow instead of camping, and found little wriggly things in the private water supply, and another year the tent blew down.

We ritually asked the piskies for permission to come in as we crossed the Tamar, but I don't think we listened for the reply, and truly I was never conscious that I was in another country, or that Cornish people were different.  Perhaps I was an insensitive child.  It puzzles me, this business of minority status.  Would we get it, if we were to sell up in Essex and go and move to Cornwall, or is there an ancestry test?  Or would some minimum period of residence suffice?

If so, it would have to be a long time.  We have lived in north Essex for thirty years come December, but I'm not sure that makes us local.  Not local the way that people born here, or who went to school here, count as local.  Not like people whose parents and grandparents ran businesses or farmed here.  I used to work with somebody whose father ran the village bakery.  There was a black and white photograph of it in one of the village pubs, with him standing outside.  She was born in the village, went to school there, and in her sixties was in daily and weekly contact with at least some people whom she had known all of her life.  Another former colleague grew up in Dedham where her grandfather had been the miller.  That's local.  We would pass the Is Your Parliamentary Candidate Local? test that I heard about on R4 this morning, since we have lived here for more than five years.  We could claim a fair knowledge of local issues, after thirty years, but if we were to up sticks and decamp to Cornwall, our disappearance would make no difference except to the comparatively small number of people who know us, and the local culture would be essentially unchanged.

I rather like the idea of minority status within the UK for Essex.  Conveniently close to London yet never smart or in fashion since Tudor times, natural home of the great tribe of commuting clerks that keep the wheels of London commerce turning, and relocated Cockneys.  From the salon-tanned, hair-extended, varnished and vajazzled denizens of Towieland, to the immaculate blonde-helmeted matrons of the heights of Danbury, the chirpy retired cabbies of the coastal strip, and the assorted minor artists who settled in the north of the county where they could practically believe they were in Suffolk, it remains an endlessly amusing county.  Energetic, cheerful, go-getting, self-reliant, with the longest coastline of any English county and an astonishing dearth of stately homes, aristocrats, or Rothschilds, it is resolutely middling.  Our cathedral only achieved that status in 1914 when the Diocese of Chelmsford was created.  Chelmsford only achieved City status in 2012.  Not that we don't have a long history, Colchester being England's oldest recorded town.  Indeed, Essex is England's longest standing county name, Wessex and Mercia having been abolished before the Norman conquest.

I could see trouble ahead, though, Belgian style tensions arising between the urban south of the county, with its hustling ways and Estuarine glottal stops, and the slower paced, leafier north.  But given minority status we could all unite under our proud flag, three Saxon seaxes on a red field, and make a stand against our natural enemies, the men of Kent.  As the old bargeman's saying has it, Never give way to a Kentishman.  And for why?  Cause he'll never give way to you.

Friday, 25 April 2014

cooking for the community

I am making meringues for the music society's jazz supper concert.  The jazz supper is not a regular event, since the music society's normal fare is classical chamber music, and indeed the Chairman recently decreed that putting on the annual fund raising supper was too much work for the committee.  However, the newest member of the committee is a guitarist who knows some jazz musicians, and somehow it was agreed that a supper with jazz would be fun.  We are now serving bought-in fish and chips, after extensive lobbying by another committee member who didn't like the original idea of chilli, so I am saved the effort of making enough chilli for ten or twelve people, and just doing meringues.

I wonder how much longer village societies will be able to go on holding events at which they serve food made in the committee members' own kitchens.  A friend of mine runs a small business selling homemade shortbread and cakes at farmers' markets, and she was recently ticked off by the health inspectorate for washing the carrots for carrot cake in the kitchen sink.  They have earth on them, you see, and should be washed in a separate sink in a different room.  Bring back the scullery.  I am sure that eventually the authorities will catch up with us and clamp down on our home cooked cakes, let alone chillis, just as they will catch up with my former employers and their misguided belief that it is OK for plant centre staff to serve tea and cakes wearing their compost spattered clothes.

I think I was supposed to volunteer to make orange and almond tray bake.  It is a delicious cake, I ate a slice at the secretary's house, and she circulated the recipe, with the idea that we would do that or chocolate brownies.  The last time I made chocolate brownies they came out far too dry and thoroughly unappetising, and since I like to experiment with new recipes in small quantities at my leisure before making them in large quantities for guests, I was reluctant to commit to orange cake or brownies.  Oven space in the Aga runs at either less than 100 C, or 180 C and above, with nothing in between, so converting non-Aga recipes for home use can take several goes, and I didn't think the music society would want to reimburse me for that many bags of ground almonds, if there wasn't even any edible cake at the end of it.

The cakes are to accompany fruit salad, so I offered meringues instead.  I like doing meringues, which are extremely easy if you have a cool enough oven, and complete bastards to make if you don't.  By way of variety I have made one batch of Brutti ma buoni, as well as straight meringues, from a Sophie Grigson recipe cut out of the Evening Standard many years ago.  They got a favourable verdict from my beekeeping friend who runs the shortbread business, so I thought I'd try and look as though I'd made a bit of an effort for the jazz supper.  They have even more  sugar in them than normal meringues, three ounces per egg white instead of two, and you have to cook the whisked egg and meringue mix over hot water for around twenty minutes, until it has deflated and gone very sticky.  Then you stir in a little cinnamon and some toasted chopped nuts, and bake in little spoonfuls at a very low temperature until they are completely dried out.  Rather a lot of the egg mixture seemed to set on to the side of the pan during cooking, and I was reminded of the fact that egg white used to be a key ingredient of ornamental plaster work.

I did offer to make cheese straws, as I'd have egg yolks, but the chairman never got back to me on that, so I am keeping the yolks and making rich French vanilla ice cream for home consumption.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

bluebell wood

I was taken this afternoon on a personal guided tour of a local wood, Hillhouse Wood in West Bergholt.  It came about because last year I did a woodland charity talk to one of the clubs in the village, and fell into conversation with one of the organisers of the Friends of Hillhouse Wood over tea and biscuits.  On hearing that I'd never actually visited their wood (though fortunately I had mugged up on some of the details beforehand, and knew a bit about it, including the fact that it had an active volunteers' group) he invited me to come back in the spring when the bluebells were in flower.  I accepted with alacrity.  It is always interesting walking around any landscape with somebody involved in looking after it, who knows it well.

Hillhouse Wood is beautiful, simply stunning.  My host had picked his timing for the bluebells perfectly, given that the date of our visit was fixed a month ago, and they were looking wonderful. The expression 'a sheet of blue' is a cliche, but that's what you get in Hillhouse Wood, great open expanses among the trees so thick with bluebells that you couldn't take a step off the path without trampling on them.  Our guide told us, though, that by Monday they flowers would be starting to fade, so if after reading this you feel that you want to see them for yourself you need to get up there in the next couple of days.

It is designated an ancient wood, which in woodland terminology has a precise meaning, that a site has been continuously wooded since at least 1600, though the locals believe Hillhouse Wood to be older than that.  Bluebells in Essex are strongly associated with ancient woodland, though that's not the case all over the UK.  It is around 40 acres, but feels larger as the paths cross and meander and the ground undulates so that you never see all of it at once.  The soil is light, acid sand, and the trees are oak, ash, alder in the damp parts, and sweet chestnut, plus hazel and field maple.  There were elms, before Dutch elm disease claimed them, and the friends of the wood are now worried about the future of their ash, as well they might be.  After the bluebells comes the bracken, and the woodland floor would be covered in a thicket of brambles after a couple of years if the volunteers did not go over it every autumn with a mechanical flail.

The bluebells have hybridised to an extent with Spanish ones.  Our host pointed out how some were more upright, or had one or two odd flowers on the opposite side of the stem to the rest, or even flowers all the way round.  The utterly wild British bluebell has a flower stalk that droops over at the tip, with the individual bells arranged in a line up one side of the stem only.

Before the bluebells come wood anemones, though they've mostly finished flowering by now, with only the leaves to indicate their presence.  There are purple orchids, whose precise location the friends don't advertise, red and pink campion, stitchwort, and ramsons by the stream.  There are two ponds, one with great crested newts, though we didn't see those, but we saw our first speckled wood butterflies of the year, and a thrush, which I thought was large enough to be a mistle, but but my friend who knows more about birds thought was a song thrush.  And there were nightingales, singing.  After my tour of the reserve at Fingringhoe a few years back, and subsequent purchase of a nightingale CD, I am more confident than I used to be about identifying those, but our host was clear that there were two.  Apparently the males arrive before the females, and start singing to advertise their presence and entice the ladies in.

It is a really, really good wood, and now I've galvanised myself to go there (another advantage of accepting the offer of a guided tour was that it forced me to take the time away from the garden) I'm sure I'll be back.  Though possibly not by 3.45 am for the forthcoming dawn chorus walk.  If you want to visit, you can park your car in the lane by the old church, taking care to leave room for agricultural vehicles to get by, and it's a short walk up a track to the wood itself.  There is space, but not loads, so I'd avoid peak times, though.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

return to Dulwich

I paid another visit today to the excellent Dulwich Picture Gallery.  I am very fond of this museum. Soane's building, the oldest purpose built art gallery in England, is delightful.  The permanent collection is good, and I have never yet been to a duff exhibition there.  The leafy streets of Dulwich Village make me feel I have slipped through a time warp, and am living inside a song by The Kinks.  It is only thirteen minutes by train out of London Bridge, with trains running every fifteen or twenty minutes.

I have persuaded a couple of friends to visit with me over the years, but both, while proclaiming it an enjoyable experience at the time, have shown no enthusiasm for a return trip.  Or as one put it in my hearing to another friend, it was very nice but I'm not sure we'll do it again.  Fortunately it is very convenient for one ex colleague who defected from North London to the expanses of Blackheath, practically on the doorstep, driveable and parkable, so when we were discussing where to meet today for an art viewing and some lunch, my tentative suggestion that I'd like to see the Hockney prints at Dulwich was seized on with enthusiasm.  Veronese at The National Gallery might have had it for magnificence, but Hockney scored for convenience, especially on a day when the builders were coming round that morning.

Due to the arrival of the builders, we met rather late, and so I had time for a proper look at my favourite bits of the permanent collection first.  There is a limit to how much fine art I can absorb in one day, but Albert Cuyp's Low Countries cows bathed in the romantic light of Italy, and Dulwich's splendid choppy Dutch seascapes, are so different to Hockney that the one doesn't spoil your appetite for the other.  The Gallery has some very good paintings from the Golden Age of Netherlands culture, and some splendid portraits.  I have a soft spot for Van Dyck's poor, beautiful, witty, scandalous Venetia Stanley, dead at the age of thirty three, and am always up for a couple of Gainsboroughs.

The Hockney is great.  I thought it would be, given that Hockney is a superb draughtsman with a lively sense of humour.  I hadn't realised that the Royal College of Art almost refused to let him graduate, a decision which if they'd gone through with it would have put them up there with the record executive who refused to sign the Beatles, or the one who said he'd take the Rolling Stones if they'd get rid of that awful lead singer with the rubbery lips.  I also admire Hockney because he keeps trying new things.  Some work better than others, but it's always more interesting than if he'd worked out how to do Hockneys by about 1985, and then just gone on churning them out for the next thirty years.

Having a late lunch at the gallery cafe works in that you get a table much more quickly than if you try to pile in at half past twelve, but is not so good in that by the time I got back to London Bridge it was already four o'clock, and I decided it was too late to try and fit in another exhibition.  I expect I'll be back in Dulwich at some point over the summer, since the next temporary exhibition is of Winifred and Ben Nicholson and their contemporaries in the 1920s.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

chickens' issues

One of the Speckeldies has gone broody.  She's been like that for a week or two, sitting all day in the nesting box, and scuttling furiously back to it if lifted out at the start of chicken exercise time. It seems a waste for her to spend all her time sitting in a tiny box in the dark, and not what all those animal welfare campaigners worked for, but it's her choice.  Except that it isn't, of course, she is captive to her hormones.  Women may justifiably grumble that they have a rough time, what with menstruation and the menopause, but try being a hen.  Your life is not your own.

It made things tricky this morning when I came to clean out the chicken house.  Most of the time I just clear the old litter off the roosting board under their perch, and replace with fresh sawdust, but every now and then the whole house needs doing.  I was going to clean it yesterday, but doing the bees took so long with so little success, I couldn't face cleaning the hen house afterwards.  Broody sat in her nesting box glaring at me while I cleared four bags (four bags!) of sawdust out of the main body of the house, daring me to come near her.  I made reassuring noises every now and then in case she was scared, but she wasn't afraid of me, just hormonal and very cross.

Broody hens do get awfully irritated.  I don't know if it would be better if the eggs were fertilised, and I didn't keep taking them away, and she could hear the developing chicks cheeping inside their shells and know that she was getting somewhere.  Perhaps it's the frustration, the sheer pointlessness, of having to start again every day with a couple of new eggs that never come to anything before the chicken keeper comes, hauls her off them, and confiscates them.  Or maybe broody hens are essentially bad tempered.  When we say that human beings are brooding about something, it doesn't imply obsession in a good way.  The other hens find her glooming presence in the nesting box quite off-putting, and have taken to making impromptu nests in the sawdust in the main house to avoid her, when they need to lay.

After I'd changed the sawdust in the main house and on the roosting board it was time for the final act, to change it in the nesting box.  Given that we are going to eat those eggs I'd like them to be laid on clean sawdust.  I gently lifted her through the door of the nesting box and into the main house.  She turned round and tried to come in again, grumbling.  I fended her off with my gloved hand, which she pecked.  I began to shovel the old sawdust out of the nesting box and into a plastic bag to put on the compost heap, while propping the hinged lid of the nesting box open with my head (this is a design omission.  It could do with a cleat on the side of the house so that I could tie it open.  We always tie the opening sections of the roof shut, to stop the wind flipping them up or foxes nosing them open, but we invented that ourselves, it wasn't in the Golden Cockerel book of poultry house designs).

The broody hen made repeated attempts to climb back into the nesting box before I'd finished, while I fended her off between shovelling with my dustpan, which she pecked vigorously.  Then she gave up, went and sat on the perch, and began to shriek.  You have not heard a bird express irritation until you've encountered a broody with a cob on.  Even when I'd finished changing the sawdust and tied the roof back down, she was still sitting on her perch, yelling with indignation.

It's a great waste that we don't want to hatch out a clutch of eggs, but we can't take the chance of them being cockerels.  Neither of us would have the heart to kill them, and we couldn't risk ending up with more than one.  At the moment we are holding off getting even that, since although they make fine, handsome pets, the hens are so much easier to organise without one, and while so far we've been lucky twice and had sweet natured birds, who's to say that third time round we might not end up with a vicious one?  You can tell that we are not true country dwellers.  I called at a friend's house once, who keeps chickens on a larger scale, and she pointed to a pen of young cockerels in the back garden.  That one's name is Dinner, she said, and that one, and that one.  Our cockerels were called Mr Rooster.

Monday, 21 April 2014

trouble with bees

This afternoon was bee inspection day.  I was sure that the two colonies that had started to think about swarming last time round wouldn't have given up on the idea, and they hadn't, though nor had they swarmed.  There were queen cells in both colonies, sealed and ready for the bees to go, but also eggs.  That implied they weren't about to leave imminently, since the queen normally stops laying a few days before they do, and slims down ready for the flight.  Or so the books say.

I was all prepared to swarm them artificially.  I'd got the kit, and had even bought a little bottle of green water based queen marking paint.  It came packaged in what looked remarkably like a nail varnish bottle, and quite probably was, since the queen marking paint market must be so small that nobody is going to manufacture special glass bottles for it.  It's important to use the proper paint, and not nail varnish, since you need something that won't dissolve the chitin carapace of the insect, otherwise your poor queen will meet a grisly end.  I used to have a queen marking pen, but like all seldom used felt tips, it had dried up by the time I needed it, and I thought the paint might last better.

I could not find the queen of either colony.  I went through them each twice, very carefully, and they were remarkably good about it, but I simply could not see her.  The queen is larger than a worker bee, but not so fat as a drone, with a long abdomen and long legs, and she tends to stride about purposefully on the comb.  I looked and looked, moving my eyes across each brood frame inch by inch, and letting my attention flick round the edges in case I caught sight of her out of the corner of my eye.  It's important to know where you are looking, or you can do what I've done in the past, which is to see the queen, but let your eye travel on and then not be able to find her again.

In the end they had been open for quite long enough, probably too long, though I remembered how long my bee tutor had allowed his colonies to remain open during lessons and tried not to worry about it.  But I was worried that the brood would get cold, and the bees were getting agitated.  All I could think of to do was to split the brood, moving the old box to a new position and putting the second box where the original was, so that the flying bees would return to the new box while the nurse bees remained with the brood in a new site, and I would split the bees between boxes as evenly as possible.  The idea is that if they find themselves suddenly with fewer bees and less brood, this can be enough to change their minds about swarming, for the time being.  It wasn't a very good idea, but as the CIA man says in Argo, it was the least bad idea I had.  Of course it may be that they are merely trying to replace their old queens through supercedure.

It serves me right for having unmarked queens.  All I can do is carry my green paint with me in future, and hope that eventually I see them and can mark them with a spot.  At the end of all this animal husbandry I was quite drained, mentally and physically.  I got back to the house to find that the Systems Administrator had been up to the apiary at one point to check that I was still alive, and not lying in a crumpled heap, a victim of anaphylactic shock.  The poor old SA had fared worse than me, having gone out to the workshop to finish making up spare frames for me.  It was a warm afternoon, the bees were flying, and soon found their way into the workshop, attracted by the smell of wax, and one stung the SA on the arm.  I should have sorted out my supply of frames in the winter, or else the SA should have left frame making until a cold day.  The first batch yesterday afternoon went fine, since it was chilly and the bees were not out and about.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

the root of the problem

It was a grey and windy day, spitting with rain, so I retreated to the greenhouse to prick out seedlings.  The germination rate was pretty good, and I didn't have too much of a problem with mould, but I haven't been impressed by the growth rate in most cases.  I don't know whether they have got too warm, despite my reasonably timely application of shading paint, or whether the seed compost was so low in nutrients as to be unable to support growth, or whether some other factor is at play.

I found one culprit on two pots, in the form of root aphid.  These are tiny aphids that live, as the name suggests, on the roots of plants, where they suck sap and spread virus diseases just like regular aphids.  When you tip the contents of the pot out, you will see white, fluffy growths on the roots, and possibly sticking to the inside of the pot.  I had never even heard of them until about nine or ten years ago, when I first encountered them at the plant centre.

I looked at the RHS website to see what was to be done about them, but it didn't mention root aphids at all.  I might email them after the bank holiday asking for advice, since I am a member and providing advice to members is one of the services offered, if only to point me to some relevant page on their site which I have failed to find.  In the meantime I kept searching the vast resources of the world wide web.

Given that so many insecticides have been withdrawn, or made unavailable to amateur users, it's essential to get up to date advice.  A fairly recent article by Which concluded that there was no chemical treatment, and didn't say anything about biological ones.  I had a feeling it wasn't being as helpful as it might be.  Many of the articles I turned up were American, so I had no idea whether any of the products mentioned were available in the UK.  As well as conventional chemical insecticides, they mentioned Neem oil and lemongrass oil as being good aphid treatments.  I know that Neem twigs were used as toothpicks in places like India where it grows, partly because of their natural antiseptic properties, but have never noticed Neem (or lemongrass) oil for sale.  It seems that root aphids are an increasing problem for growers under glass, described as the red spider mite of the new millennium, and that as well as being a nuisance for salad growers, they are a problem for folks raising cannabis plants.  I am not too proud to take advice from a cannabis grower, if I thought they knew what they were talking about when it came to root aphids.

The symptoms you will see above ground are poor foliage growth, discoloured leaves, and wilting, all signs that the root system is not working properly.  I turned out the first of a tray of Geranium maderense I had planned to repot because they weren't growing too well and I thought they might need more space, but found that they had root aphid as well.  I considered for a while whether I could wash the compost, and the aphids, off their roots and repot them in fresh compost, but decided to leave it until I'd had a chance to go to a decent garden centre and see if any drench were available.  Apparently pyrethrum is effective agains root aphids (I think it is pretty lethal to most insects) but I would need a way of getting it down into the root system.

I almost never use insecticides outside, since I would rather leave the beneficial insects unharmed and let nature find its balance, and the birds do a very good job of keeping the plants clean, but I can't see that using pyrethrum on compost under glass is going to hurt.  It is based on a chemical defence found naturally in plants, and doesn't hang around in the soil for years like some of the artificial pesticides that had such a devastating effect on the environment.  Anyway, I'll have to go and see what's available, and what the RHS advises.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

race day

We have just been to our first ever point-to-point, at Higham.  Neither of us really knew what to expect, but on the basis that the Systems Administrator has been to multiple Cheltenham meetings, and recently tried Newmarket for the first time, and that I like looking at horses as long as none of them fall over and get killed, and that there would probably be lots of happy dogs among the crowd, and it would be a thoroughly English rural spectacle, we thought we'd give it a whirl.

Entrance to the car park, or rather the field where you park, was up a single track lane which people were simultaneously trying to use as an exit.  We didn't think that was a good idea.  Even at Fakenham they have a one way system.  The field had until very recently been used to graze sheep. You could tell this from the liberal sprinkling of sheep droppings, and the flock of displaced sheep running about in the middle distance.  The lane was lined with bluebells, it was all extremely bucolic, and there were lots of dogs.

The near side of the course was lined with cars, mostly four wheel drives, and crowds of people in tweed jackets consuming picnics, red trouser quotient moderately high.  I was half expecting someone to tell us that we were on the wrong side of the rope and needed to go and stand somewhere else with the hoi polloi, but nobody did, and we worked out that there was no right side of the rope.  I guess you just need to be a registered hunt member to get your car that close to the course.  In between races, and even when the horses are on the far side of the loop, you can walk across the course to view from the middle, and we did, some of the time.

The atmosphere was very jolly, the crowd covering the full age range from three to ninety-three, and there were indeed lots of dogs,  mostly very well behaved, apart from one that ran on to the course during a race, and a labrador with a red lead that was found wandering, according to the announcements over the tannoy.  Terriers are definitely in vogue among the point-to-pointing set. It's as much fun looking at the dogs as it is the horses.  Like at Fakenham, you can go and stand right by the parade ring and see the horses before each race close enough to pat them as they go by, though you wouldn't.  And you can stand right by the jumps, so we did that, watching them take off for one race and land for another.

The race card was confusing, since several horses were entered for more than one race, the trainers and owners only deciding at the last minute which they were going for, and in the main ladies' race one jockey was down to ride three different horses, which would have been worth seeing.  No horses fell, though some riders were unseated.  The SA said that it was not quite the same as seeing them come over the last fence four abreast at Cheltenham, but agreed that it was lovely.  I just like watching them galloping about and jumping, and am happy when none of them get injured.  I suppose I am relieved when the jockeys get round unscathed as well, but after all they are volunteers, while the horses are conscripts.

The Systems Administrator placed one bet, putting twenty pounds on a second favourite at four to one, which the SA said was a good price.  It was more than I'd have bet myself, given that neither of us had a clue what was going on, but the SA had done OK at Newmarket and was betting with bookies' money.  The bookie immediately slashed his odds, followed by all the other bookies in the row.  Obviously a thin market.  I suspect the SA of having done it on purpose, in order to be able to recount the tale of single handedly shifting the odds at subsequent racing gatherings.  The horse lost, so that was the end of the day's betting.

We left before the last two races, the penultimate one having only two entrants anyway, to miss the worse of the fight to get down the narrow lane, and because the wind was getting cold.  As we left we passed one solitary car going the other way, trying to get in.  I shouldn't think they had a hope.

Addendeum  Shock, horror.  According to this evening's Telegraph, Branston Pickle is saltier than seawater, containing 4 grammes of salt per hundred grammes of pickle, equivalent to two thirds of your daily allowance.  But surely nobody eats 100 grammes of Branston at a time.  Out of curiosity I have just got our quite large jar out of the cupboard, and it is 520 grammes, so to get your 4 grammes of salt you'd have to eat a fifth of a jar in one go.  Er, I don't think so.  In a tablespoon or so of pickle there must be more like a gramme, which if you cook from scratch and don't add salt to most things is probably fine in the context of a meal.  The body does need some salt, just not too much of it.

Friday, 18 April 2014

a grand day out

Christy Moore was absolutely brilliant.  I was confident that the music would be good, having listened to enough of his recordings over the years, but I didn't know quite what a charismatic stage performer he was.  Though, given the rave reviews the papers gave his previous Royal Festival Hall appearances, and the Amazon reviews of his live albums that comment on the atmosphere at his gigs, I knew he must be pretty good.  He is extraordinary, part musician, part comedy Irishman, part shaman.  Declan Sinnott is a highly skilled guitarist, and they had signed up an excellent percussionist, but it was Christy's show.  They announced at the outset that there would be no interval, and I was amazed when suddenly it was the last number, and I looked at my watch and two hours had passed.  The encore stretched to four or five more songs.

Dramatically, one long sweep of music worked better than breaking the mood by having an interval. I did feel a twinge of sympathy, though, for anyone with a weak bladder or other bodily needs that meant they needed a loo oftener than two and a half hours.  I laid off the caffeinated drinks from lunchtime onwards, to be on the safe side.

We made a day of it, and kicked off with a swift visit to the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in Islington.  I've been meaning to go there for years without ever quite getting round to it, and their current exhibition of Georgio de Chirico ends this weekend, so it was my last chance to see it. I have had a soft spot since childhood for his vaguely surreal paintings of deserted classical squares, with their architectural ambiguities and incongruous details.  The temporary exhibition focuses on his sculptures.  Suffice to say that Il Duce would probably have liked them.  We didn't, but I'm glad I saw them, finding them ugly and vaguely repellent, but interesting.  The same went for the permanent collection.

The Systems Administrator's reward for indulging me in a visit to a small gallery of twentieth century Italian art was to be taken to lunch at Gem, our Kurdish restaurant of choice.  I had a delicious aubergine thing, while the SA is still trying to work out how they stop their lamb kebabs from falling to bits.  They serve a sort of fascinating stuffed bread, which I think I could try at home, and if we go there again I might try asking the owner what sort of rice they serve.  It has much fatter grains than the usual long grain rice, but is not as sticky as risotto rice or pudding rice, and I liked it very much.

We had thought to go to the Cabinet War Rooms, but after looking at the queue decided to save those for a quiet winter's day when we might share them with fewer visitors and get more of the atmosphere.  Instead, we went and looked at Westminster Abbey.  Confession: it was the first time I had ever been inside.  If a building with comparable historic associations were to be found somewhere that we were on holiday for a week, I would have visited like a shot, but because it's in London, it's always there, and it costs eighteen pounds to go in, I never did.  It is incredibly tall inside, and the gothic tracery of the ceiling is fine, but honestly the best bit is the tombs.

They are squeezed into side chapels like a series of mad, overcrowded junk shops.  The Howards and the Percys have their own chapels, while others contain unlikely bedfellows.  It's a nice touch putting Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I together, united in death as they never were in life.  Brave General Wolfe gets a gigantic and lavish monument, but space is so tight that a heroic young man who died in a sea battle off Bengal is squatting on the back, partially obscured by a set of reposing figures in doublets.  Those who died more recently mostly have to make do with slabs on the floor, and I was touched to see Clem Attlee commemorated near his personal friend and political ally Ernie Bevin.  According to Wikipedia, since the early twentieth century remains have had to be cremated before being interred, because space is getting tight, the only exceptions being the Percys (of course), on account of them having their own vault.

Westminster Abbey is an Old Peculiar, answering to no diocesan bishop, and the Church of England, not being allowed to call the tune, does not pay the piper and contributes nothing towards the running costs, according to the leaflet I picked up.  On that basis I can see why the entrance fee is as high as it is.  In the economics of the arts, one Westminster Abbey entry equates to half a Christy Moore concert, who is in turn worth less than the RFH's most expensive classical pianists this April.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

the experimental cook

I made another rhubarb pie last night.  We've got the rhubarb, and I had some cream that needed using up.  I bought the cream on Monday, and only noticed as I stood in the checkout queue that it was relatively short dated, with just two days to go.  I couldn't face abandoning my shopping on the conveyor belt and holding up the queue while I went to root around to see if I could find a pot with a best before date a week hence, so stuck with it.

The pudding did not come out the same as previous attempts, but bad scientist that I am, I changed two variables at once so can't tell you why that was.  My first change was to interpret the instruction to add a pinch of cream of tartar to the egg whites more liberally.  I was not brought up to add cream of tartar to whisked egg white, and am not clear how large a pinch is, but yesterday I made it the amount that forms a pile on the end of a teaspoon handle.  Which doesn't sound very scientific either.  My set of steel measuring teaspoons goes down to 1.25cc, and it would be easier if Diana Henry could give some guidance in terms of fractions of a teaspoon.  1.25cc is a quarter.

The egg whites whisked up beautifully, voluminous and silky, so I think that using cream of tartar in a more than symbolic quantity made a difference.  Thinking back to domestic science at school, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed, despite the thinly disguised view of the school and my parents that it was only meant for the academically less able, I could remember a laborious explanation of sorts as to why I should heat the milk when making mashed potato, but nothing about cream of tartar.  After consulting the oracle of Google I am little the wiser.  It stabilises egg whites when whisked, allowing them to hold more air and withstand heat better, and it does this by affecting the way the proteins interact with each other as they are denatured by the mechanical stress of whisking, but that's not really an explanation, more a long winded description.

However, I then made a second change, which was to substitute single cream for the milk in the recipe.  I only needed 150 ml for the pudding, but bought a 300 ml carton because that was all that I could see, thinking vaguely that I'd use the rest to make a quiche, without really focusing on the fact that the Systems Administrator was going out, I was going out, and there wasn't going to be an occasion for us to eat the quiche before the cream went off.  I looked hopefully at the pot, but it didn't say Suitable for Home Freezing.  I could have poured the second half down the sink, but that seemed a waste, and I suddenly thought that I could use it in the pudding instead of milk.

Perversely, this brilliant and frugal solution only occurred to me after I'd driven down to the village to buy more milk, because when I came to cook and looked in the fridge there was almost none left. I left a little note on the kitchen table in case the SA got back while I was out, having visions of the SA finding a Marie Celeste kitchen, with the ingredients and utensils spread out on the table, my laptop fired up with the recipe, but no cook anywhere on the premises.  The petrol to drive to the village probably costs about the same as half a pot of Waitrose Essential single cream,  but there you go.

The pudding mark III, fired up with cream of tartar and enriched with extra dairy fat, rose up extraordinarily, bursting open like a round of soda bread that's been scored across with a knife before cooking.  Once cooled, it collapsed unevenly, leaving a slightly sunken top cracked like a limestone pavement.  It tasted fine, if anything slightly creamier and more lux than the original recipe, but looked pretty dodgy, not something you would serve up at a supper party with pride.  Though at least it looked so bad it would be pretty clear that you had gone to the trouble of making it yourself, and weren't passing caterer's food off as your own.  Apparently people do that, though why you would go to the trouble of inviting your friends to your house and then lie to them beats me.

Anyway, that's breakfast for the next five or six days sorted out.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

seven and half years to establish. Is this a record?

There was a slight frost on the lawns in the back garden, and I was relieved when I saw that once again the new leaves of the dahlias standing in their pots outside the greenhouse had escaped unscathed.  By rights they should still be under cover, but there is no room for them in the greenhouse, except under the staging where they spent the winter.  It is too dark for them there once they come back into growth.  I have left them under the bench in previous springs, and they have grown long and lanky stretching up in search of light.  Etiolated, a marvellous word.  It takes so long to say, and sounds like stretching, ee-tee-oh-lated.  If their first leaves do get caught, I expect they'll recover, since the ones in the bed have coped in the past with being eaten and scratched up by the chickens for days, if not weeks, before we hit on the method of putting black mesh along the front of the bed to keep them off.

I spent a happy morning spreading mushroom compost on the long bed, crumbling it around the clumps of grape hyacinths and lifting their leaves clear.  By lunchtime I'd got through nearly five bags, and we only bought twenty-three the last time we took the truck up to the garden centre for a bulk load.  Still, it was bought to be used, and isn't doing the garden any good sitting on the back of the truck.

A Moonlight Holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Flavescens', which I planted as long ago as November 2006, finally looks as though it is getting going.  That has to be a record, even for this garden.  Holly is generally slow to get away when planted out of a pot, though plants sown in situ by the birds can be quite fast, and the soil in the long bed is sandy and peculairly infertile.  I dug in organic material when I planted the holly, and periodically watered, fed and mulched it thereafter, but all that happened was that one after another branches dropped their leaves, flirted with the idea of making some new ones, and then died.  I kept cutting out the dead twigs, and at its nadir the holly stood at approximately four inches tall.  Finally, it must have got its roots down, or last autumn's aggressive feeding programme followed by a wet winter did the trick, because it has now doubled in size.  I nearly dug it out several times, but never did, because I could see that it was trying, and it is not an easy variety to get hold of.  I don't think the plant centre ever had any more after I bought that one.  It is a female form, whose young leaves are suffused with soft yellow, a pretty thing.

In the afternoon I sowed some beetroot, broad beans, peas and two sorts of lettuce in the vegetable patch.  I have yet to keep them watered and weeded, and it's a long way from here to harvesting any edible vegetables, but it's a start.  I haven't cleared all the beds yet, but thought I'd better plant something in some of those that were ready, otherwise it'll be July, and I'll have a blank plot with no produce, even if I've reduced the number of weeds.  The pots I sowed in the greenhouse are starting to germinate, so there should be some more beetroot and broad beans, plus courgettes and leeks.  I rather draw the line at onions, because they are so cheap in the supermarket and I can't believe I could tell the difference between home grown and shop bought, but we get through a fair few leeks.  I have grown them in the past, quite successfully, and courgettes, though not since I bought a little book called What Shall I Do With All These Courgettes.  That put an effective hex on the courgette project, and I haven't managed to grow one since.  I think last time I tried, something chewed half way through the stems of the plants, and drought finished them off.

I am shadowed at all times by a robin, or series of robins.  Perhaps they are communicating with each other, like the watchers in a spy drama.  She's come out of the house again.  She's going up to the compost heap, over to you.  Suspect is weeding.  Alert, suspect has been joined by a ginger cat. One even comes into the greenhouse, which makes me peer about nervously when I'm watering in case by now there is a nest concealed behind a pot, but I haven't found one.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

eager anticipation

There is only time for a quick blog post this evening, as I have a beekeepers' committee meeting.  The Systems Administrator has gone to Lords, and it would be pretty antisocial to open the laptop and start typing as soon as I got home.

I made soda bread this morning, because I bought a pot of buttermilk about a fortnight ago when I saw it, meaning to make a raisin bread recipe I saw in the Telegraph, then kept not getting round to it because the weather was so nice for gardening and the milk was very long dated.  However, even dates that seem ages off come around eventually, and the last day for the buttermilk was today.  It's funny looking stuff, like thin curdled yogurt.  The recipe was another by Diana Henry, and again I had to open the wretched Windows Explorer because of the Telegraph glitch that means pages on their site sometimes won't open in Chrome.  When I finally found the recipe again I discovered that it was supposed to be apple and raisin bread, and I didn't have any apples, so it was just raisin.  It was nice, but next time I wouldn't add sugar to the dough as she suggests.  It's quite sweet enough for my taste with the fruit.

After the bread I pottered around the garden gently.  I am still teetering on the brink of a cold, and desperately want not to topple over the edge before Friday.  We have tickets for Christy Moore at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday night, which I booked over a year ago, as soon as I saw that he was appearing there.  Christy Moore has been one of my musical heroes since my early teens, when I was hooked on Planxty, and his gigs with Declan Sinnott are supposed to be quite something.  I had a horrible twinge of anxiety a couple of days ago when I found an email from the Southbank Centre in my inbox headed up Christy Moore concert, in case it was cancelled.  He hasn't been in great health in recent years, but all the email said was that the concert would start at eight and not the 7.30 pm printed on the tickets.

He released an album called Listen in 2009 that got a great deal of attention on BBC radio, and he told a great story in an interview, of how as a young man he'd had a load of albums confiscated by the Garda, because they contained seditious material, then twenty years on one of the policemen concerned popped up at a gig, still with a copy of the album, asking Christy Moore if he would autograph it.  Listen is a very fine album, and includes a good acoustic version of Shine on You Crazy Diamond.  It's a test of a good song if it still works stripped down to one voice and an acoustic guitar, though I don't suppose that Pink Floyd thought they were writing folk music.  The SA's favourite is the Ballad of Ruby Walsh, which we always have to listen to several times around Cheltenham week.

The next album Folk Tale, released in 2011, includes On Morecambe Bay, about the cockle picking tragedy.  I couldn't believe it when that didn't get the Radio 2 Best Original Song in the next Folk Awards.  Christy Moore is always very quick in interviews to stress that he didn't write the song, and to credit the actual writer.  They was robbed.  It's lucky to get even one new song that good in a year, with lyrics as clever as anything Elvis Costello wrote in his heyday, that tells a proper story and grabs you from beginning to end.

And that's all.  I need to dig the earth out from under my nails, and I must eat my dinner.  Which is vegetable stew, with sweet potatoes and red pepper.  It is an experiment while the SA is out, and since I shoved it in the simmer oven at lunchtime I hope it has not gone completely to mush.

Monday, 14 April 2014

red in tooth and claw

I am typing this with Our Ginger snuggled up against my arm as he lies purring on the end of the sofa.  In truth he is not so much snuggled against me, as sliding down the sofa and on to me, and he is making it slightly awkward to type.  Ergonomic designs for desk workspace would not include a large cat resting an increasing proportion of his considerable weight on your arm while you type, and it can only be a matter of time before it starts to ache so much that I have to move him.  Or put the computer to one side so that he can lie in my lap, which is what he really wants.

He was not so cute this morning.  As I was putting away some shopping in the kitchen I heard a curious thumping noise from the sitting room.  I couldn't immediately identify exactly what was causing it, but presumed it involved cats doing something they shouldn't.  I went to investigate, and beat a hasty retreat at the sight of Our Ginger with a large baby rabbit clamped in his jaws.  The drumming noise was the sound you get when a rabbit in its dying agony bangs its feet against the base of a grandfather clock.  Bet you didn't know what that sounded like.  Nor did I, until this morning.  Very resonant pieces of furniture, long case clocks.

I demanded that the Systems Administrator Do Something About Our Ginger and his rabbit.  It is deeply unfair to make the dead and half dead things that the cats bring in into the SA's responsibility, but I really loathe gore of any sort, and reason that anybody who spends as much time reading military history as the SA does, and has voluntarily seen Saving Private Ryan, is better equipped to deal with rabbits than I am.  The SA shepherded cat and rabbit out of the front door and round the corner of the house.

The other cats knew that there had been a rabbit, and spent some time sniffing around the base of the clock in baffled desire for the spoils of the chase.  After a while Our Ginger reappeared, sans bunny and looking pugnacious.  Then he sat and yowled in the middle of the drive for a while.  Then he went and got another rabbit.  This time the SA succeeded in heading him off before he got into the house, and he trotted off into the garden with the big anxious tabby in pursuit.  He may have been allowed a share, since not even Our Ginger could eat two entire rabbits in quick succession.

Two-faced, Jekyll and Hyde characters, cats.  To look at him now you wouldn't think that butter would melt.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

titivating the ditch bed

This morning I finally planted out a tray of Anemone nemorosa which have been sitting in little pots in the greenhouse for about two years.  You may find plants of named forms of A. nemorosa on sale in the sorts of  nurseries that go for slightly more unusual woodland stuff, especially in the spring, pink and mauve and double ones at around four quid a pop.  The wild white single form is extremely pretty, and available in autumn from some specialist bulb merchants as bags of roots, which come in at a lot less than four pounds a plant.  They don't look like much on arrival, dark brown and faintly shrivelled, and you may feel you would have been safer with a nice plant growing in a pot, but roots are the way to go if you want lots of plants.

I bought a bag of fifty, potted them up individually in three inch pots, and stood them in the greenhouse.  The following spring I was left with twenty or so pots that never grew any leaves.  I planted out the ones that had, wondered whether to blame the bulb supplier or the compost for the others given that I had a dud run of compost around that time, and investigated the contents of the remaining pots.  The roots were still there, now fat and shiny with bulges on them that looked like buds of some sort.  I repotted them in fresh compost, and put them down on a low shelf in the greenhouse to get on with it.  This spring most came into leaf and this was the second batch I've planted.  I have read that Anemone nemorosa is not the easiest thing to establish in a garden, and that one's best bet is to start with a growing plant.  Certainly anything that lurks around underground for a year before showing any visible signs of life must be at risk of having something else planted on top of it in the meantime.

I weeded the ditch bed while I was down there.  Some of the weeds were obvious, especially the goose grass, but there were some just at the first true leaf stage, that looked as though they might have been violets.  I gave them the benefit of the doubt, since I'd like more violets.  Likewise I have to be careful not to scratch up all the primrose seedlings at this time of year.  They have typical wrinkly primrose leaves when they are still very small, so are reasonably easy to identify, but start off awfully tiny, so you have to peer closely.  I think there might be a few bog primula seedlings in the bog bed as well, which would be nice since I never got round to collecting seed from the apricot coloured P. bulleyana, but it will be a faff weeding round them.

The pulmonaria in the ditch bed were starting to flag, and I spent an hour and a half of the evening giving it a good soak, the first time I've got the hose out this year.  It has been a dry few weeks.  I try not to water the garden, except for the pots and recently planted things that haven't had time to get their roots out, but this is the ditch bed's peak season and I'd like to enjoy it.  Come the summer and the pulmonarias can look as tatty as they like, as long as I don't think they're actually dying.  You might not think that something called a ditch bed would need watering at the first dry spell, but while ours is called that because it runs parallel to the ditch along the bottom of the garden, it is about three feet above the level of the water, and not especially damp.

I was pleased to see the lily-of-the-valley has now popped up, and is beginning to run about in proper Convallaria fashion.  I couldn't remember when it normally showed, in this strange spring when things have been so early, and was starting to have tremors of doubt in case the roots had been eaten by some wretched animal.  The Solomon's Seal is coming up as well, its sturdy stems held well apart.  They are now big enough to see, which makes life easier, since it is always disheartening to take a step in the border, and then discover you have snapped the emerging shoots of some precious plant.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

galloping about

This really will have to be a swift blog post, as I'm going out in half an hour, and I haven't eaten my supper yet.  I'm going to a friend's concert, and it would really be too antisocial to open up the laptop and start typing as soon as I get back, at half past nine or ten on a Saturday evening.

I finished my garden write-up this morning, giving it a few final tweaks and a polish and sending it off to the editor.  In the end there's only so much you can do.  Mid way through the friendly local lawnmower repair company turned up with the Mountfield on the back of a pick-up.  The man who delivered it looked slightly concerned when he realised that I was the only person available to help upload it.  I saw his point.  You don't want to lift anything heavy or fragile with another person who is going to drop it, and if I didn't know me I wouldn't be reassured by the confident offer of help from a grey haired, five foot four and eight and a half stone middle aged lady.  Fortunately I am stronger than I look.  He hadn't even brought the invoice with him, but said they would send it. After all that I went and weeded the vegetable patch until lunchtime, since I am still persisting in the delightful fantasy that this year I might grow some vegetables.  I sowed some in pots and modules in the greenhouse, but when I looked at them yesterday nothing had come up yet.

After lunch I inspected the bees.  It was technically just warm enough, and the hives are well sheltered from the wind when it's in the south west as it was today, but it wasn't the sort of day you'd want to keep them open for ages, and the light was terrible.  I did mean to buy a small pocket torch to help me see eggs on dull days, but haven't got round to it.  The two colonies made out of the colony that was the first to swarm last year were both showing early signs of thinking about it. The twelfth of April is ridiculously early, but it has been so warm that lots of things are ahead of themselves.  I took out the immature queen cells I could see and gave them both an extra super to provide more room, for bees and honey.  One had already filled a good part of its first super with honey, but it wasn't ready to take off yet, since they hadn't even started capping it.  It will be a race against time now, to see if I can stop them swarming until I've got the honey off.  If they go, it will go with them.  It's a difficult trade-off knowing what you want from your bees.  This lot are swarmy, which is bad, but quick to produce a crop, tough and very forgiving of my beekeeping errors last year, which is good.

Then we went with the truck to collect mushroom compost.  It could be the truck's last summer. The MoT expires in November, and the Systems Administrator thinks that the rust around the front end may be getting so bad that it will be beyond welding next time, or at least beyond welding at an economic price.  We are trying to think of things we could stock up on before it goes.  The SA wants to buy a couple of builders' wheelbarrows, though two seems to me excessive.

Tonight's concert is Dvorak's Stabat Mater and something by Stainer.  I did invite the SA, but it is not the SA's sort of music.  Some other friends are going, and I expect we'll get to speak to our friend whose in the choir during the interval, so it should be a sociable evening, then the SA and I will have a sort of delayed Saturday night when I get home, possibly spilling over into Sunday morning.

Friday, 11 April 2014

more cake

This week ended up as a mad whirl of social activity by my standards, as I met friends this morning for a coffee in a local garden centre, Craft Nurseries on the road from Lawford to Colchester.  The friend who organised the get-together has recommended it in the past, as having some nice plants and a good cafe, run by friendly people, but I'd never got round to paying a visit.  Sure enough, it was very nice, and I am honour-bound to go back, since today's organiser suggested we make it a regular thing and picked up the tab this time round.  I had not left the house intending to eat a piece of cake, but it seemed against the spirit of the outing not to join in, and I can recommend the sticky plum and date, though it was their apricot and coconut cake which won a prize in some contest for garden centre tea rooms.

I did not need to buy any plants at that moment, but their huge range of pelargoniums and fuschias looked very promising and I'll be back at some stage.  Altogether the place felt as though it had received a lot of investment, with a spic-and-span air that you don't always get in garden centres, and I was impressed.  The economy and the weather in the past few years have both been unkind to the garden retail industry.

At home the Systems Administrator refitted the wheelbarrow and lawn tractor wheels, but there was no sign of our friendly local lawnmower repair man with the Mountfield.  He left a message yesterday on the answering machine, sounding rather harassed, saying that he might be able to get it to us late today, but that was evidently optimistic.  The lawnmower repair shop in Colchester had a sign up saying the wait time was currently three to four weeks, so if we get it back next week we'll still be doing well.  The grass almost grows while you look at it, and does need cutting rather desperately, though I suppose its shagginess has a sort of romantic charm.

I used up my last two bags of mushroom compost.  The truck is on charge so that we can go and get a big load tomorrow.  I laugh that the SA takes me on all the best dates and knows how to show a girl a good time, but the fact of it is that I want a truck load of mushroom compost.  Just at the moment, offered a choice between a trip to get mulch and lunch in the garden centre's agreeable cafe, I'd take the manure.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

lecture and lunch

I was taken today to my first NADFAS lecture.  The acronym stands for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, and most of the rest of the committee of the music society seem to be members.  I'd never heard of it, and was initially rather puzzled that they all seemed to be so much into floral art when they talked about seeing each other at the next meeting, until I worked out that it was nothing to do with NAFAS, the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies.  Finally a friend on the committee asked whether I'd like to go to a lecture on early twentieth century Russian art, and I thought, why not.

I recognised the address of the church in Colchester where the meeting was held.  I once gave a woodland charity talk there myself, to a group of National Trust supporters.  The lecture hall was large and well equipped, and none of the organisers on that occasion knew how to work the sound system.  They had to call out the vicar to help them, who did not seem entirely delighted to be dragged away from their supper, or children's bedtime, or whatever they had been doing when the phone rang.

The hot issue today was parking.  The church has a car park, but it is not nearly big enough to hold the number of cars generated by a church full of non-locals.  On-street parking is available, and is currently only restricted to residents for an hour and a bit in the afternoon, just enough to stop people leaving their cars there all day, but space is tight.  Along with the usual requests to switch off mobile phones were heartfelt pleas to not block residents' drives, or park in a way that would impede access by emergency vehicles, otherwise the council would entirely restrict parking to permit holders.  Though if they do they will kill off most of the activities held in the church, which will presumably result in financial hardship for the church as well as difficulties for the events organisers.  Colchester is not well provided with facilities for club meetings and lectures, as we have found when trying to find somewhere for the beekeepers to meet in the evenings.

I had expected to recognise the church, as I've been there before, but hadn't expected to recognise quite so many of the audience.  The present and past committee of the music society were out in force, and a great hunk of the regular concert audience.  In fact, if all else failed I thought they might as well move the meeting out of central Colchester and simply hold it in the village.  I was delighted to bump into a charming former colleague from my City days, actually very former as we worked out that I'd left the firm and he had retired in 1996.

The lecture was very good.  Early twentieth century Russian art, while trying spasmodically to be essentially Russian, owed a great deal to Paris, but Paris was the artistic epicentre of the western world in those times.  I had not heard of most of the artists, apart from Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, but I liked what I saw.  By a beautiful irony, given what is going on in the Ukraine, 2014 has been officially designated as the bi-lateral UK-Russia Year of Culture.  William Hague and Sergey Lavrov signed up to it in March of last year.  There are all sorts of events scheduled, as listed on the Russian Art and Culture website.  You have to wonder whether William Hague and the new Culture Minister will now be so keen to attend them now.

After the lecture my friend introduced me to a fairly new Colchester restaurant that I didn't even know existed, one of those post-industrial chic places, with tables made out of sawn planks, raw metal lampshades, and menus served on hardboard clipboards.  My fish pie and honeycomb pudding with coconut ice cream were delicious, and I am completely unable to eat any supper.

I collected my two tyres on the way home, and the chap in the service department insisted on carrying them and the remains of the bottle of tyre sealant out to my car for me, so that I wouldn't get my tweed jacket or my dress dirty.  I could get used to being a lady who lunches.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

a safe arrival

My tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show arrived this morning, which was a good thing.  Given my lack of faith in the postal service I always worry in case they have been randomly shoved through some other local letterbox.  This time they arrived relatively early, and so I hadn't started worrying yet, but I would have, very soon.  It is my grandest day out of the entire year, besides being horribly expensive, and it would be a crushing blow if the tickets did go astray.  I am not at all confident that the RHS and the vast commercial ticketing agency they use would offer replacements, not like LSO St Lukes, who when I rang them to explain that two sets of lunchtime concert tickets had never arrived just said to say what had happened on the door.  I did, and the very sweet junior arts administrator behind the desk let me in, but I can't see the high vis jacketed security goons on the turnstiles at Chelsea doing the same.

We are definitely not the only people to be suffering from colds.  The friend I was due to meet this morning for coffee had to postpone for that reason.  Mine is not developing into anything very exciting, but then, this one doesn't seem to, just hangs around the edges like somebody unpopular at a party making spasmodic unsuccessful attempts to join in.  You think they've given up and left, or at least found someone else to talk to, and then suddenly there they are again at your elbow with another story with an unfunny punchline.

I tottered out into the front garden, and raked the weeds out of the paving by the pond, and brought over the pots of tulips.  They are coming out, and it seems a waste to have them blooming largely unseen outside the greenhouse.  In a fit of optimism I got the cafe table and chairs out of the garage as well.  The whole ensemble looks quite like something out of The English Garden, viewed from the right vantage point.  The cracks of the paving are still full of oxalis roots, which it is impossible to extract completely, and I must try and remember to run over them occasionally with the new sprayer.

The replacement tyres for the wheelbarrow and ride-on lawn mower are ready to collect.  I know this because Ernest Doe sent me an invoice.  It seemed very large for two small tyres, but includes fitting, which the SA couldn't do because we don't have the equipment, and of course VAT bumps it up another twenty per cent.  I didn't have any luck tracking down the lawnmower repair man, though, to see if the Mountfield was ready.  It would be handy to have that back.  It is really rather desperate for it to be the ninth of April, and to have no working lawnmower at all.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

write up

I have written up the first draft of yesterday's garden visit, and the minutes of the committee meeting, and now it's the turn of the blog.  Doctor Johnson said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, and I am only being paid for the first of the three.  Still, the rewards the committee brings are non-monetary, not least the sheer entertainment value and the piece of cake I ate in yesterday's meeting, and the art lecture and lunch I have been invited to on Thursday, courtesy of a fellow committee member.  The rewards of the blog are practice.  That, and self-expression, self-censored.

I found myself very reluctant to talk about the garden visit until I'd written about it, and the Systems Administrator sensibly didn't ask.  Somehow I instinctively didn't want to say anything about my memories and impressions until I was able to settle down to go through them systematically, focused on the task in hand of turning them into six hundred words or a shade more of fluent descriptive prose.  I think that as soon as you start describing something, you lose the raw data as it begins to turn into a conclusion.  Rather like cooking an egg, the process is irreversible, and I wanted to hang on to my raw thoughts until I was ready to make my omelette.

Words did not come easily, partly because by the time I got in from the concert it was gone half past eleven and I was still tired this morning, but mainly because my cold is back for another stint. I am getting so thoroughly fed up with these colds.  One or the other or both of us have been suffering since early December, and it is now April, and just as I thought I was clear of them here I am snuffling away again, throat slightly sore, and fuzzy mind stumbling over sentence construction instead of the phrases ordering themselves as naturally as walking.  Though it's not just us: the SA had lunch with a former colleague today, who with his wife has had just the same thing over recent months.  In fact, the former colleague wnet one better and contracted a human form of foot and mouth disease, though looking on the bright side his GP prescribed penicillin instead of shooting him and burning his body on a pyre.

It took a long time, but I have the bones of the narrative, and will have another go at smoothing out the syntax later in the week.  It was probably also more difficult to write about than the previous two gardens because it was twice the size, and would have been much easier given twice the word count.  As it was, it was hard to describe the main features and organising principles without lapsing into an estate agent's list of features.  The garden benefits from extensive lawns and herbaceous borders with mature trees, plus a large pond, rose pergola and productive orchard. When what gives the narrative colour is partly being able to include the fact that the owner allows wild ducks to nest in the flower beds.

The minutes seemed to go on interminably, even though I was trying to be crisp and terse, but so did the meeting.  It didn't help that one committee member overslept after an afternoon nap following a busy weekend and arrived twenty minutes late, while another was over an hour late for reasons that were never explained, but then wanted to broaden out the discussion into why the village hall couldn't be expanded.  I didn't include that bit in the minutes.

Monday, 7 April 2014

another garden

I made it to this morning's garden with plenty of time to spare, as the A12 had decided to behave wonderfully, and I didn't get lost.  It was a very nice garden, and they were very charming people, and that's all I want to say about it.  I shall sit down after breakfast tomorrow to write my piece, and I don't want to go over the memories before then and smudge them.

I took pages and pages of notes, not trusting entirely to memory.  One of the most useful things I was taught doing O level Geography was to always take a pencil to write with on field trips.  They continue to work in the rain, and don't run.  It did not rain so much as I thought it was going to, or as much as it has at home.  The weather system is moving eastwards, and I must have nipped in almost ahead of it.

As I was early for the appointment, I had a look at the local church, which was sweet and old, Grade I listed, and unlocked, to my great pleasure.  It has suffered from various travails over the centuries, from the Puritan iconoclasts to a lightning strike that destroyed the top part of the tower, and the great storm of 1987 which blew off one entire end of the building.  It had the air of a building that was greatly loved and valued, though I couldn't work out how anybody was supposed to be married or buried there nowadays, because there seemed to be absolutely nowhere to park.  I tucked my car on to the verge on a broadish piece of the main thoroughfare, which was still very rural and not very wide, having rejected the other lanes around the churchyard as simply too narrow, and was mildly relieved when I got back to the car and didn't find anybody complaining about it.

It is all go today, since I'm off out again shortly for a music society committee meeting, and in the evening my father and I are going to the Colchester Arts Centre to hear a fine pair of traditional musicians, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan.  She is a second generation English folk musician, who sings and plays the fiddle, while he is Australian, sings and plays the bouzouki.  It should be good.  I will tell you tomorrow if it is, as you will have the chance of a second bite of the cherry, because they are playing in Harwich next week at The Electric Palace, which has found a sideline as a folk venue.

It was rather a waste that everything ended up happening on the same day, or at least that the committee meeting did, otherwise I could have stopped to look at one or two nurseries on the way back, or gone to see my father's cousin in Aldeburgh.  Oh well, another time.  I am not sure I am a great deal of use on the committee, but do at least take reasonably competent minutes.  Writing those up will be my second task tomorrow, after I've done the first draft of the garden visit.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

catching up with the accounts

It was not supposed to rain this morning, according to the Met Office five day forecast, but it did.  I had just finished sorting out the cats' breakfast, and the chickens' sprinkle of porridge oats with Value sultanas, and their water, and their food, and my breakfast, and washed up the small accumulation of mugs and glasses by the kitchen sink, when the circular pattern of ripples on the pond told me that it has started to rain.

At least it gave me time to catch up with the beekeepers' accounts, though it I'd known it was going to rain for most of the morning I would have got dressed properly, instead of sitting at the kitchen table in my gardening thermals and a dirty t-shirt with large holes in the cuffs.  Still, at the end of it the accounts were complete right up to the end of March, though I was sorry when I realised I'd missed Pienaar's Politics on Radio 5 Live.  The Systems Administrator introduced me to this quite recently, and it delivers a better quality of debate than you generally get on the Today Programme nowadays.  John Pienaar does not interrupt his guests, and nobody talks over each other.  This might be due to his civilising influence, but I think it is also because if they try to, he switches their microphones off.  Evan Davis, take note.

I had rhubarb pudding again for breakfast, this time with a conventional sponge, because I couldn't find any lemons in the fridge to flavour the whisked egg white-batter version, though after the SA had gone shopping with a list that included unwaxed lemons I found two in the bottom of the salad drawer, so we are now rather long on lemons.  I don't know whether rhubarb counts as part of your five (or seven, or ten) a day, since you would have to be a real masochist to eat it without a generous helping of the devil-food sugar.  When first introduced to this country it was not regarded as a food stuff, but a medicinal purge.

We had the other half of last night's leek and mushroom tart for lunch, with salad made out of whatever was left over in the fridge, which turned out to be cucumber and tomatoes, because the SA had forgotten about the flan and so didn't buy any more salad.  I jazzed mine up with a few olives.  Then we shared what was left of the grapes, which probably didn't come to a portion each, whatever a portion is, but we topped them up with two small oranges.  Tonight the SA is roasting a joint of pork, with which we'll have sprouts, carrots, parsnips, roast onion and apple sauce from the largest Bramley I think I have ever seen.  I have no idea how many portions all this adds up to, but I should think it's enough.  Fruit and vegetables are rather like the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The monster is not behind the rabbit: it is the rabbit. So vegetables are not something you add to food: they are the food.  Or at least, largely the food, since I am looking forward to the pork, and the SA does mean crackling.

Tomorrow I am booked to go and see my next garden, over the Orwell bridge and up into Suffolk.  It is forecast to pour with rain all day, so I am hoping the Met Office has got that wrong as well.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

out with the old, in with the new

I have dug out the Hemerocallis which suffered from the untreatable midge problem so that they never flowered.  The pests are Hemerocallis specialists, so far as I know, and it's a nice question how they got into the garden, when we are several hundred yards from any other gardens.  They lay their eggs inside the flower buds, which become fat and distorted, and either fail to open, or produce ugly, deformed flowers.  If you break one open you will find it full of horrid, wriggling, pale coloured maggots.  There is no effective spray available, or at least not to amateur gardeners, and anyway I don't like applying pesticides wholesale.

The pests persist in the soil from year to year, presumably as pupae, and friends have told me of people who successfully broke the cycle by removing every flower bud for a season, so that the mites had nowhere to lay their eggs when they hatched out, and so there was no follow-on generation.  I considered this plan, but rejected it.  The pest reached the garden once, so it could do so again.  The easiest solution seems to be to grow only the later flowering varieties, which are apparently less affected.  I have no idea why the pest doesn't take full advantage of the growing season, but if it doesn't, it doesn't.

It felt very wasteful digging up the clumps, which had got quite large, and throwing the roots into a bag to go to the tip, when there was propagation material enough to make dozens of plants, but non-flowering Hemerocallis are no use to anybody.  Gardeners, like novelists, need a sliver of ice at their hearts, and to have an eye for the overall garden picture, which means being willing to get rid of plants that are not contributing.  That is a tough call.  Even though you paid money for a plant, or went to great lengths to obtain it, or desperately love it when you see it growing well somewhere else with different conditions to your garden, if with you it is a sorry, ugly, non-performing consumer of space then you are making your garden less than it could be if you allow it to remain. Nature and artifice, red in tooth and claw.

I had already bought an Alstromeria to go into one of the spaces, once I'd dug the Hemerocallis out. The flowers are an agreeable mixture of pinky-brown and yellow, called 'Rhubarb and Custard', and I picked it up last year when I saw it flowering in a one litre pot.  I moved it on into three litres, and it spent a happy few months in the greenhouse, making a massive rootball in its new pot.  I hope it will be equally vigorous let loose in the light soil of the border.  The hybrid Alstromeria seem to like our free drainage, though they must have full light, and I have lost one as the surrounding shrubs have grown, changing the nature of that border from open ground to woodland edge.  I have not done nearly so well with the species A. psitticina, which seems far less vigorous.  That's a pity, as I like its weedily exotic red and green flowers.

I was obliged to buy a new border spade the other day, as I managed to break the handle of my old one.  I bought a new handle for the broken one as well, in the hopes that the Systems Administrator might fit it, but needed something for immediate use.  The new one has a stainless steel blade that makes light work of slicing through Hemerocallis roots, and is altogether so much nicer to use than my old one that I realise I should have gone stainless ages ago.  It would still be worth fitting the new handle to the other spade, though, to have a spare and for situations in which I would rather not use my best stainless steel one.

Friday, 4 April 2014

ks-16 completed

I was a trifle hasty when I said that I'd assembled the pump handle of the sprayer, apart from inserting the split pins, since that implied that the split pins were a trifling detail.  In fact I managed to put them in the wrong places, and left out the metal washer, and it is a tribute to the quality of pin provided that I was able to straighten one of them out to extract it and then bend it again, twice, without the arms breaking.  It was only when I got on to the hose and lance assembly, and looked at the baffling collection of assorted neoprene washers, that I found the attachment clip I'd been unable to locate to complete one of the previous steps:

7  Fit the attachment clip over the end of the handle and between the flanges of the green tank base.

Maybe you would instantly recognise an attachment clip when you saw one, but I didn't.  It turns out to be a circular loop of plastic with a section cut out,that fits round the very end of the pump handle, and a bulge on the inner face that slots into the hole in the handle I thought I had to put a split pin through.

The instructions did not explicitly mention the neoprene washers, but I could see them in the parts diagram as tiny smudges approximately the size of a full stop.  I asked the Systems Administrator, who said that every joint in the pipework of the spray hose and lance must have a washer, or it would leak.  The washers all seemed to be of different sizes, and there were slightly more washers than joints, so it was not immediately obvious what went where.  Or, indeed, how to get the washers on or in when doing up the joints.  Eventually the penny dropped that, far from persuading the washers to sit snug up against the ends of the hose, I needed to ease them over the slight bulge at each end so that they would fit in the very bottom of the locking sleeves I was trying to do up.

Then I fitted the trigger back to front, before checking again with the diagram and turning it round, and the knapsack sprayer was assembled (apart from the metal washer, which I decided was not critical enough to be worth undoing the split pin for again at that moment.  I know we do not have any spare split pins, because I asked the SA, who promised to get some).  The SA suggested testing the sprayer with plain water, so that I could see where it leaked.

Reader, it did not leak.  At all.  Not from the hose, or the trigger, and no liquid bubbled out of the filling cap.  And as soon as I released the trigger it stopped spraying, with no drips.  It does not cover a very wide area even with the spray head set to maximum spread, but is so precise I could hit one emerging creeping thistle stalk in a border.  Which is handy, because I have quite a few creeping thistles coming up.  I was thrilled, and amazed, that I had managed to choose and assemble a piece of machinery that actually seemed to work.

It is designed to be worn on your back, and I probably will, although it does have a carrying handle, since that leaves one hand to wield the lance and the other to pump, and avoids the issue of putting the sprayer down on an area you have already sprayed, and then being unable to put it down anywhere else because it has weed killer on the underneath.  The shape feels quite comfortable against the spine, although I will not fill it right up, because it has a capacity of 16 litres, and apart from the fact that I'm unlikely to need that much spray at once, it would weigh 16 kilos, which is ridiculous.

The SA was impressed that the intake to the pump was right at the bottom of the tank, but so it should be, otherwise you would not merely waste the last bit of each batch of spray, but be left with the problem of how to dispose of it, given that the correct way to dispose of excess herbicide is to apply it in the normal way, which is tricky if your sprayer won't spray.  I am still not entirely clear about what is going on inside the tank, but I think the key difference between this sprayer and my previous one is that the domestic one worked by pressurising the entire tank, hence the infuriating herbicide bubbles that emerged around the tank lid, while this one contains the pressurised part of the system within the main body of the tank, so if there are any bubbles they are contained.  I am worried about Maintenance and Safety instruction 3, To replace the cup washer on the piston of the air pump, but I'll cross that hurdle when I come to it.

Addendum  The new kettle is very nice as well, fast and extremely quiet.  It even has a padded handle, for goodness sake.  Modern civilisation is wonderful sometimes.