Saturday, 31 May 2014

in the greenhouse

Time to tidy up a few loose ends I left dangling about my efforts in the greenhouse, as I spent this morning working in there.  First of all, the Lamium orvala basal cuttings.  I wrote back in April or thereabouts about how I had taken cuttings, following instructions in an ancient Telegraph article by Carol Klein.  She emphasised how they must be done while the stems are still solid at the base, before they have become hollow with age, as they do.  Because it was such a wet and mild spring the Lamium in my garden was ahead of Carol Klein's timing in the Telegraph, and I was left scrabbling around to find short stems that were still solid, but I found enough for two pots, eight cuttings in total.  I used ordinary multi-purpose compost and stood them in a heated propagator with a plastic cover.

What I did not own up to at the time was that within half an hour of dibbling my cuttings into the compost, they had wilted atrociously.  I assumed that I must have done something wrong, and that they'd had it.  Perhaps a largish propagator with a lid was not suitable, and they needed to be in plastic bags where the humidity would be higher.  However, within another hour they had perked up again.  I didn't know that soft cuttings could recover from wilting like that.  As the days and weeks followed, they remained green and turgid, and eventually I could see roots through the drainage holes in the pots, and some of the cuttings began to make new top growth.

Today I tipped them out of their pots, and slightly to my astonishment, all eight out of the eight cuttings had struck.  They make their new roots from the very end of the stem, not up its length, which is maybe why it's important that the stem should have a solid base.  A couple had thrown out second stems, again from the base of the cutting.  So there you go, it appears to be as easy as that, and if you have one Lamium orvala and a greenhouse, in a couple of months' time you could have half a dozen if you wanted, without shelling out an additional £4.50 per plant in a 9cm pot, or whatever your friendly local nursery wants to charge you, assuming that they have any.

Next, to the root aphid.  The RHS replied quite promptly to my email asking what to do about it, and I have been far slower acting on their advice, which was that an insecticide drench would be effective, such as sold to treat vine weevil grubs.  The brand name you are most likely to see is Provado.  I drenched my young Geranium maderense a couple of days ago, and today moved them on from 9cm to one litre pots.  While I was at it I treated some pelargoniums and a dwarf pomegranate I knew had root aphid, because I'd found it when setting out to repot them, and some of the other over-wintered pelargoniums, but lost track of which pots I'd done and which I hadn't, which was not clever of me.  The treatment remains active in the plant for four to six weeks in the case of normal aphids and whitefly, and up to four months against vine weevil grubs.  It is horribly expensive, and I have not quite decided if it is sensible to treat everything on a precautionary basis, to try and eliminate reservoirs of infection, or stick to having the treatment to hand to zap pots I know are affected.

A new development is a fresh outbreak of vole activity in the greenhouse.  I've had trouble in the last two winters, but summer is a first.  It, or they, dug a hole in the rootball of an unfortunate shrub that has been waiting to go out for far too long, and excavated several pots of Dierama, eating the fleshy roots of some of them, and leaving others scatted across the remnants of their compost.  I set two mousetraps, baiting them with peanuts, and covering them with old plastic supermarket fruit boxes to try and keep birds off them, since the manager at my old job once caught a dunnock inside a polytunnel.  It took me a long time to remember how the mousetraps worked, and I was terrified I would catch my fingers.  This morning both plastic boxes had been overturned, and one trap had sprung but the other hadn't gone off, and didn't even when I poked it with a stick.  The peanuts had gone, though.  I shall have to try again, and work out what I did wrong with one of the traps.  I hate it when I do catch anything, on the other hand I don't want voles rampaging through the greenhouse.

Friday, 30 May 2014

round and round the garden

I have been trimming the edges of the lawns.  It's a slow process, partly because I don't confine myself to the edges, but attack the visible weeds in the front sections of the borders as I go, and even do odd bits of summer pruning.  My passage around the garden is thus slow, but pleasant, although hard on the lower back.

Now is when I see any odd tufts of weed grass I missed in the beds, when I was weeding, mulching and Strulching back in the spring.  They make their presence known by sending up tall flowering spikes, which is handy if I can trace the stems back to the root, and pull the whole thing out, but fiddly, especially when the grass has seeded itself into the crown of another plant, or the base of a hedge, and slightly revolting when covered by the decaying leaves of Allium triquetum, as is the case for one stretch of the sloping bed.  Once again I wondered about the stories I read in the magazines, of prairie plantings whose owners simply put a mower over them in the autumn, or even set fire to them to clear the old top growth.  Evidently they don't get any grass seeding among the asters in their prairie plantings.  Perhaps not, and I am a uniquely slovenly gardener.

In general the Strulch has worked very well.  There are some young goose grass plants, and a few annual weeds, but the beds I covered in a fresh layer of Strulch are pretty clean.  Of annual weeds, that is.  The horsetail cares nothing for mulch, and nor do dandelions, or creeping thistle, or creeping loosestrife.  Earlier in the season I dosed these with spot treatments of glyphosate (except for the horsetail) but there's too much foliage of everything now, and I don't want to damage the borders' rightful inhabitants, so limited myself to digging out the dandelions as deep as I could reach with a narrow bulb trowel, and pulling the stems off the others.  It won't kill them, but it will stop them flowering and seeding, and I won't have to look at them for a while.  Come autumn I'll resume hostilities with the glyphosate.

Two small branches had died in a diminutive Pieris 'White Pearl', which I noticed days ago, but hadn't got round to visiting that part of the border with secateurs.  If you have time to keep right on top of tasks like that, it does help a garden look loved.  The rest of the Pieris didn't look too happy, with no new leaves at all on half its remaining branches.  By this stage of the summer it ought to be growing much more than that.  The P. katsura down below the rose bank is a glossy mound of fresh, bronze coloured leaves.  I don't know why the ailing specimen is so sad, but suspect that the soil, stony and slightly stagnant clay over entirely stagnant clay, is not to its liking.  I do not like it so much as I did when I bought it, having originally been enraptured by its fat, white flowers, and now finding it rather blobby, so if it shuffles off to the great arboretum in the sky I will not be heartbroken.  On the other hand, I don't yet dislike it enough to dig it up.

Lots of other things looked fat and happy and were making good new growth.  The replacement Hydrangea quercifolia, planted after its predecessor succumbed to one of the hard winters (or perhaps it didn't like the soil any better than the Pieris) is making strong new shoots after a shaky start.  Nearby, Euphorbia shillingii, which I bought as a young plant last year after trying and failing to raise some from bought seed, is twice as large and plump as it was last year.  The assorted herbaceous clematis seem to have liked their diet of old mushroom compost and 6X, as they are sending up vigorous new shoots.  It is very easy, when running through my mental tally of the garden, to remember the things that are ailing or concern me in some way, but misleading.  Lots of it is absolutely fine.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

more notes from the conservatory

More about the conservatory, and the things that did not do so well, or went downhill after a while. My Correa, or Australian fuchsia, falls into the latter category.  Correa are evergreen shrubs with small leaves about the size of a thumbnail, which carry tubular flowers in mellow shades of yellow, red, green, or some peachy combination thereof.  The flowers, apart from the fact that they are long and thin, do not look particularly like those of a fuchsia, but are pretty, and are borne abundantly for quite a long time in the winter months.  The plant betrays its southern hemisphere origins by its slight tenderness, so if you have a frost free conservatory it will appreciate the shelter.  They are apt to become straggly with age, but don't mind having their long growths shortened back.  One of my colleagues who was far more ruthless than I was used to do this regularly to the Correa in the plant centre.  They survived, and customers bought them.

Now to the bad news, which comes in two parts.  One is that the old flowers tend to hang on the plant as they fade, so if you want your conservatory specimen to look pristine and nice you will have to pick the old petals off.  It isn't an unpleasant task, but takes time, which you may not have, or may not wish to use it grooming your Australian fuchsia.  The other drawback is that they tend to attract sap sucking insects, whose presence is betrayed by a light dusting of sooty mould on the little leaves, making them look slightly shabby.  Aphids and other sap suckers are very rarely a problem outside in our garden, thanks to the thriving population of small birds (though even they would not eat the lupin aphids we were hit by last year, which are huge and truly revolting).  Under glass is another matter.  I would occasionally spray the Correa with insecticide, but I didn't like doing it and it was a nuisance.

At some point last year I took a hard look at the Correa, and decided that it was no longer a thing of beauty or a joy forever.  Rather than binning it, which can be the right thing to do, I pruned it extremely hard, thus getting rid of the straggliness and most of the sooty mould in one fell swoop. It was very slow to respond, so much so that I thought at various times that I should simply have chucked it out, but it is now making new growth, which is so far aphid and sap-sucker free.  I have just given it a dusting of fish, blood and bone to encourage it on its way.

Next to it is a shrub which has not gone badly wrong yet, but has started to go visibly downhill.  It is called Eriobotrya 'Coppertone', and was a present from the Systems Administrator, bought at my request and great expense to the management, because it came already trained as a standard with a fine, fat trunk.  The origins of 'Coppertone' are mysterious according to Hillier's dictionary, but it may be a hybrid between a loquat, Eriobotrya japonica, and a Photinia.  'Coppertone' is an evergreen, with leaves quite like photinia, including the trick of producing new foliage in a lovely shade of bronze.  The flowers, which have just finished, are pink, held in clusters, and very sweetly scented.  It is one of those shrubs which would probably survive outside in a sheltered position, if the winters were not too bad, but is very happy with some additional protection, and of course the smell of the flowers in a confined space is magnified.

I moved my new standard on into a larger pot, and it responded by making new growth, flowering magnificently, and generally looking radiantly happy with life.  This spring it has not been so good. The old leaves are showing some black spots, which I take to be a sign of stress (Photinia will do the same thing) and it is slow to make new leaves or extension growth.  I saw the stock at work, which had not sold immediately and so stayed in their original, smaller pots for a while, do exactly the same thing, a sign of getting pot-bound.  And here's the rub.  I can't move mine into an even bigger pot.  I don't think I could buy one, and it would be too heavy to move if I did.  In theory I should take it out of its existing pot, scrape off some of the old compost, perhaps trim some of the roots, and repot it into the old pot with a surrounding layer of fresh compost which it could explore with new roots.  I might yet have to co-opt the SA to heave it out of its pot and do that: I'm sure I couldn't get it out by myself.  In the meantime I have given it a dose of fish, blood and bone, washed down with liquid seaweed solution.

The sad truth is that many shrubs don't like being in pots long term.  This was confirmed to me by the owner of the last garden I visited, who used standards in pots, but admitted that despite best efforts top-dressing and repotting, it was an uphill struggle in the long term.  One of her borders housed a pair of spectacularly healthy standard shrubby honeysuckles, that had been planted into the ground because they looked so sad in their containers.  They were vast, fat, and burgeoning, and with hindsight planted too close together, but she never imagined that the skinny occupants of her pots would grow so much.

I have repotted two of the ginger lilies, or Hedychium, which needed it, though I wimped out of the third and decided that it would do one more season.  Hedychium have fat surface roots (I don't know whether they are biologically rhizomes but don't have time to check, sorry) that elongate with time, throwing up shoots from the their newer end, while the old portion remains looking woody and doing nothing, rather like a bearded iris.  In nature I presume they move on to conquer new ground. In a pot they go round and round until they become a congested mass, with some flowering material squeezed in round the edges, and a central dead zone that never throws up any stems. The odd desperate growth may venture over the edge of the pot, but finding nothing to root into remains dangling in mid-air.

Every few years they need extracting from their pots, and the newer portions repotting while the older ones can be chucked out.  Now I have seen how they grow, I wonder whether a root I bought which never came back to life was down to my poor cultivation technique, or whether a hopeful or unscrupulous supplier had sent me an old piece that lacked the necessary dormant buds, but who knows?  At any rate, you will find it easy to end up with one or two more plants while you are at it. If you can get a thoroughly congested mass of ginger lily roots out of a large terracotta pot without breaking the pot in the process then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din, since my score this morning was repotted 2, smashed original pots 2, despite my attempts to free them sawing away with a bread knife and tapping the pot in a restrained way with a piece of wood.  On the whole I should say, if you are going to grow ginger lilies, use cheap pots, as they will probably end up getting broken.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

revamping the conservatory

Today I turned my attentions to the conservatory.  Compared to the healthy, glowing plants that we saw growing in their pots at Chelsea, I had to admit that some of the plants in our conservatory were not very nice.  Some used to be healthy and ornamental, and have gone downhill with age and, dare I say it, neglect.  Others were just never happy, despite my best efforts, and have got steadily worse.  In the case of Lapageria rosea, worse to the point of being dead.  Alas, I have seen them grown well in the Edwardian conservatory at Hergest Croft, and know how wonderful they can be, but mine was never remotely like that despite my best efforts with leaf mould.  The fact that the emerging new leaves were magnets for snails did not help.

Growing plants under glass is not easy.  Keeping plants long term in containers is not easy either. Put the two together and you have a positive maelstrom of not-easiness.  Red spider mite, mealybug, scale insect, summer heat, winters that last for months and leave you fretting about the cost of running even a modest fan heater, over-watering or under-watering pots that are too large and heavy to lift to find out how wet they are already, roots that resent being constricted, rootballs so huge you balk at trying to haul them out of their pots to at least replace a few inches of compost around them.

The fun is in being able to grow things that would not cope all year round in the open garden, and more especially in creating a fabulous, sheltered jungle in which to sit.  One of my favourite pieces of Raymond Chandler, which must have been one of his favourite images too since he went through multiple drafts of it, is his description of the rich, old and ill General Sternwood receiving Philip Marlowe in his hot and humid orchid house.  Our budget doesn't run to an orchid house, and the Systems Administrator dislikes humidity, but the idea of the jungly den is there.  If I were terribly rich and having a house designed and built for me, I would have it run round three sides of a quadrangle, the fourth wall of the quad being glass, and the whole roofed over to make a two storey atrium, in which I could grow temperate tropical trees.  I would have walkways across the atrium at first floor level, so that I could wander among the branches of my trees, like at Kew.

We do not have this.  Instead we have a west facing garden room, with three double glazed glass walls, a brick rear wall and a polycarbonate roof.  The growing conditions are slightly shady through most of it, not generally too hot as long as I remember to open both doors in summer, and just about frost free in winter if I run the heater in cold spells.  It tends to get rather damp and dank in winter, because I am stingy with the heater.  There are two rattan chairs and a table, but no carpet, as I use it as a proper space for growing plants.  Whoever has the house after us will probably ditch the plants and use it as a garden room, with a full complement of furniture.

The Phoenix palm is doing well.  I have had it for years, since it was a tiny thing.  It sits in a fairly shaded corner against the back wall, and I always believed it was easy to grow, until I read a book about palms and discovered how prone they were to root rots, and how lucky I was that mine was still alive.  I now make a conscious policy of benign neglect, and worry each time I water it in case I am overdoing it.  It is many years since it was repotted, and it does not live in special palm compost, just ordinary multipurpose.  The fact that it is almost bursting out of its pot helps with the not-overwatering.

The Wollemi pine is doing well.  It has started to bear cones at long last, and I have just about recovered from the emotional trauma of having to cut the top out of it, because it had hit the roof, and there was no more space to move it further towards the back wall to give it more headroom.  In the wild these form multi-stem clumps, and I am waiting to see if mine throws any further stems.

The climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' is happy on the shady back wall.  She was a present from a friend who had bought a whole bunch of young plants in a newspaper readers' offer, and didn't want all of them.  I used to leave her outside in her pot, but after the first cold winter when I thought she'd died, I brought her inside when I discovered she was still alive.  She took some time to recover fully from the indignity, but flowers well nowadays and grows rampantly.

Several other things are not so happy.  More of them anon.  We can learn so much more from our (and other people's) failures than by only hearing the success stories.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

who won?

Last Thursday I went and voted.  Not in the council elections, because there weren't any in Tendring this time round, but the European elections.  I believe in voting.  When my grandmother was born, women did not have the right to vote, and through history and around the world people have died in their efforts to obtain and exercise the franchise, and continue to do so.  Voting is important.  And no, there should not be a 'none of the above' box on the ballot paper, because in the real world you have to make decisions among the available choices.  If you don't like any of them you should start trying to create a better one.

As Friday's radio election coverage focused exclusively on the local elections, I began to wonder what had happened to the European ones, until a journalist made a passing comment that the European count would be held on Sunday night.  I'm glad that the massed forces of the UK media made that so clear to the electorate.  Come Monday, come the sounds of the media frenzy over UKIP's victory, and orgies of Clegg bashing and Miliband deriding, but very little about the nuts and bolts of the results.  I looked hopefully in the East Anglian Daily Times, and on the BBC website, hoping to find out who my new MEP was, but couldn't find an actual list of results.  I said plaintively to the Systems Administrator at lunchtime that despite being interested in politics, and having bothered to go and vote, I still didn't know who my new MEP was.  The SA pointed out that neither of us had known who the old one was either.

Come early Tuesday evening I was none the wiser, so did a little more digging.  The Tendring District Council website proved unexpectedly helpful about the local turnout, and I discovered that my vote was one among 39,004 cast in the Tendring counting area of the Eastern Region, with 73 ballot papers rejected.  So far, so good, though I began to wonder about the Eastern Region.  How big is it, and what other areas does it include?  The Tendring website said that I could find details of the full Eastern Region results on the Chelmsford City Council website, but when I clicked on the link I still got information for voters in the May 2014 European elections, so I could find out what a Returning Officer was, but not who won.  I did discover that the Eastern Region spans six counties, from St Albans to Cambridge, Norfolk and Southend-on-Sea.

A Google search for the results was slow to yield anything as mundane as a list of victorious candidates for each region, or a map of the regions.  Most of the media seemed more interested in the noise and thunder and variants on the Farage, Clegg and Miliband stories than reporting the bald facts.  After some digging I found a one page summary of what I wanted to know on the snappily named European Parliament/Information office in the United Kingdom website.  Turns out that the Eastern Region elects 7 out of 73 MEPs, of which 3 are now Conservatives, 3 UKIP and one Labour.  That's a loss of one each for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, and a gain of two for UKIP, and to work that out I had to juggle between two pages.

No wonder turnout for European elections is low.  No surprise that there is a popular groundswell of anit-European feeling.  Leaving aside concerns about immigration, or who gets to legislate on the curvature of British bananas, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the electoral process and anything that happens next.  I am quite interested in politics, and not really interested in celebrities, and I reckon I could have found out who was going to Kim Kardashian's wedding with less trouble than it took to find out the actual result of an election that I bothered to go and vote in.

Addendum  This post was updated to correct the total number of votes cast in Tendring.  I had originally picked up the UKIP vote as the total number, which was incorrect: it is simply that UKIP comes at the bottom of the list of parties standing.  I would not wish to imply that I voted for them.

Monday, 26 May 2014

some Bach

I went this evening to hear a performance of J.S Bach's B Minor Mass, performed by the Essex Baroque Orchestra and Psalmody, under the auspices of the Suffolk Villages Festival.  It was originally the idea of a friend, who about two days after I'd agreed to go, contacted me apologetically to say that her family had announced their intention of coming to stay with her for the Bank Holiday weekend, and she wouldn't be able to go after all.

By then I'd got quite keen on the prospect of some live Baroque church choral music.  I went to a Suffolk Villages Festival production a few years back, in Hadleigh, and enjoyed it, though a combination of my disorganisation and the way that their concerts always seemed to fall on weekends when I was working meant I haven't become a regular attendee.  I thought I would go and hear the B Minor Mass anyway.  Running through my list of local friends and acquaintances, and mentally striking out those who didn't like music, didn't like Baroque music, or whose family commitments were such that they wouldn't reliably be free on a Bank Holiday Monday evening, I decided it would be easier simply to go by myself.

The Systems Administrator is not keen on the Baroque, or choral music, and we have long agreed to differ when it comes to classical concerts.  Company can be nice, but inflicting an evening of boredom on someone else, while yours is spoilt because you can see out of the corner of your eye each time they surreptitiously check their watch, is quite pointless.

The concert was held in St Peter's, a redundant church in Sudbury.  It is such a cruel phrase, redundant church.  St Peter's is a handsome building, and Grade I listed, standing on an island site at the top of Market Hill.  It is no longer consecrated for religious purposes, but has found a new role as a cultural venue.  I had not got the hang of the scale of Sudbury, which is a small town, from my earlier examination of the map, and initially walked past St Peter's, before deciding that I could not see any other churches, and that the one at the top of the hill with posters outside was probably the place I was looking for.

The Essex Baroque Orchestra, according to the programme notes, has been going for just over a quarter of a century, and consists of a mixture of professional Baroque specialists, music teachers and experienced amateurs.  I quite like hearing period instruments from time to time, without being wedded to them, and they were interesting to see just after watching Lucy Worsley's history of the Georgians, and reflect that this was close to what her subjects must have known.  Those wooden (?) flutes were presumably similar to whatever it was that Frederick of Prussia played. Somebody pefrormed a horn solo with great aplomb in the first half, but I noticed that she had her coat on and was kissing people goodbye in the interval, so evidently the Symbolum nicenum, Sanctus, and Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei did not include any more horn.

Psalmody were formed for a Hyperion recording in the mid nineties, and have simply kept going. According to the programme notes, it cultivates a forthright, open and word-centered style. Certainly I could hear the words, or at least I could tell where in the programme we'd got to.  The soloists were guest professional singers, but I think perform regularly with Psalmody, or at least some of them do, as I recognised them.

It was jolly nice.  The question now is whether to try my luck with a ticket for Florilegium in late August, when the Festival is putting on a whole flurry of concerts.  I fancy Telemann, Handel, and Vivaldi, and am quite sure the SA doesn't.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

it's bulb time again

It's time to order bulbs for autumn planting.  Thinking now about things for the garden that you are not going to plant before August (daffodils) or November (tulips) and won't give you any reward for your trouble before February 2015 at the earliest may not come naturally, but now is the time to act.  Leave it too late and the nice things may be gone.  In fact, I may already have missed them. It must be two or three weeks since Kevock's email popped up in my inbox telling me that their new bulb catalogue was now available on their website.  Then Broadleigh's catalogue arrived just after Chelsea, as it always does, and between them they prompted me to look at the Peter Nyssen website, where it turned out that bulb ordering opened this year in April.  Last year it wasn't until June, and the date kept slipping back.

Bulb catalogues are very seductive, as you sit back in your chair and look at the pictures, your imagination perhaps fired up by the flowers that have astonishingly been held back for Chelsea. Where else can you see daffodils, hyacinths, alliums and tulips all in bloom at the same time, not to mention Tritelia, Eremurus, Ixia, Gladiolus and Rhodohypoxis?  As Larkin says, you could get them still by writing a few cheques.  Or filling in your credit card number.  The first time I tried to buy anything from Kevock, they lost my cheque, but we have put that behind us.

It is good to keep a faint grasp of reality, as dreams of beauty beyond reason float before your eyes.  First of all, you are going to have to pay for these bulbs.  Many bulb suppliers wait to take payment until despatch time, when they know exactly what they have actually got available, so the bill may not arrive for four or five months, but eventually it will be there, on your bank statement or credit card account.  All of the two pounds seventy-fives and eleven pounds can add up remarkably.

More to the point, you are going to have to plant them.  You may crawl around in the autumn, trowel or bulb planter in hand, scrabbling holes in soil which come September may have set hard as concrete, or be doing its bit to commemorate the mudbath of the Great War, depending on what sort of summer we've had.  Or you may pot them up, assuming you have enough pots and somewhere to put them, with the intention of planting them out in the spring of next year, when you can see what else is coming up where, if mice don't find them in their pots and eat them first. Thought of in that way, a hundred bulbs suddenly sounds a lot bigger than ten pounds, which is not really so very much.  Think of all the ways you could spend ten pounds without even thinking about it, and now imagine digging one hundred and forty little individual holes in your lawn, dropping a crocus bulb into each of them, and putting each divot of grass back in place.  That's how big ten pounds can be, if you spend it on small bulbs.

Of course, if you want to cut down on the work you could spend the entire ten pounds on one rare fritillary bulb, but I don't myself.  In the garden I am going for quality, but not rarity.  I want good doers, things that will like my ground, withstand the weather and the local pests reasonably well, preferably bulk up, and make a wonderful display.  Playing spot the rarity is a perfectly good game, but it is not my game.  A thousand Crocus tommasinianus, their pale mauve and purple faces spread wide open to the spring sun, trump two Galanthus krasnovii, even if the latter is a rare species with long, narrow petals flared outwards.

My other sage piece of advice, based on years of succumbing to the siren delights of bulb catalogues, is to keep a note (somewhere you are not going to lose it), not just of what you ordered, but where you intend to put it.  Have that place firmly in your mind's eye as you fill out each line of the order form.  That way, you will not find yourself come spring wandering around the garden with a barrow loads of pots looking for a home, and realising that you can't give your new bulbs the growing conditions they need, or that they clash hideously with the existing occupants of the garden.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

ancient weeds

The horsetail season has started.  Or rather, the horsetail plucking season is seriously under way. The horsetail is there all the time.  Even when you can't see it, its brittle black roots are tucked away out of sight, reaching down who knows how many tens of yards, waiting.  Horsetail is eternal. Sometimes described as a living fossil, horsetails have been around for over a hundred million years.

Equisetum arvense, the common horsetail, is an ineradicable weed.  It dies down come the autumn, though once you have got your eye in you can spot the dried stalks for months afterwards.  It doesn't make an appearance again until spring, when the first thing you will see are spore bearing stems, looking like a cross between a toadstool and a pipe cleaner.  Once the spores are ripe, the lightest tap will send a cloud of them flying.  As the reproductive bodies wither, the leaves begin to emerge, pointed bright green tips, which elongate to form stalks with green bumps on them, the bumps elongating to form whorls of unbranching side stems as the stalk grows.  The stalk is fragile, formed of many segments, and a light tug will bring the top section away as it parts company at a node.  In the right growing conditions horsetail will form a dense bright green patch over a foot tall, and there it will remain until autumn, when it fades, the old stalks turning the colour and texture of rotten straw.  The remnants of the side branches betray the fact that it is not straw, but something more threatening.

Threatening if you are a gardener, because you will never, ever get rid of it, if you have got it and the conditions are right for it to grow.  It is a plant that thrives in badly drained soil, and in our garden it ramps through those beds where the underlying London clay rises close to the surface, while being totally absent from the free-draining, sandy front garden and the meadow, which is on light soil.  Dig down a foot in the front and you will hit bright orange sand, which is why we were threatened with having a tenth of the entire parish dug up for sand and gravel, and only escaped by the skin of our teeth.  Dig down a foot or two in the back garden, where the garden slopes down to the ditch, and you will hit clay, earth so stagnant and airless it has gone grey.  That is classic horsetail territory, and it abides eternally, coming up each year in borders and grass alike.

Looking on the bright side, it is not a competitive weed.  Other plants don't seem to mind sharing their space with it.  It is not even ugly, only too ubiquitous.  There is no way of getting rid of it. When we first lived here, and I discovered what we'd got, I used to try and fork the roots out, spray them with glyphosate after crushing them to aid absorption, and even paint them with glyphosate-laced wallpaper paste.  It was all completely futile.  I have heard Bob Flowerdew on Gardeners Question Time suggest that if somebody were to grass their entire plot and grow only standard shrubs for a few years, while keeping the grass well mowed, they might drive out the horsetail, but I don't believe it.  And I know from personal experience that a couple of years under black plastic, or longer, do not kill it.  Stop mowing, restore the light, and it will be back.

I pull it up.  Holding the stems near the ground, so that they don't snap half way down, I pull steadily, and the whole stem comes away, sometimes with a few inches of root.  There will be regrowth later in the summer, but it won't grow nearly as tall as the original stems, and as long as there's no bare soil but continuous groundcover, the second crop of stems will be fairly invisible.  A knowledgeable gardener would be able to spot them, and know I had a problem, but they aren't too visually obtrusive second time around.  I am so paranoid about spreading the weed that the stems, and every scrap of plant material weeded out of the ground in the back garden, goes to the council tip and not on my own compost heap.  This is probably an unnecessary precaution, given that the roots run like mad if they like the conditions and the horsetail throws out spores every year, so it has probably got everywhere it wants to go under its own steam, and is not planning on visiting the other parts of the garden.  Nonetheless, I could not bear to compost it myself.

Luckily it doesn't really get going until early summer, so I can enjoy the dwarf bulbs, primroses and other spring flowers without worrying about it, and make sure I plant groundcover that will be reasonably tall by June in the areas where it is a nuisance.  As weeds go, it is not the most difficult to coexist with.  The only trouble is that pulling it up does take a lot of time, hours of work that in an ideal world would be spent doing something more productive and creative.  When we bought the house, we had no idea that it was there.  If we had known, would it have stopped us?  No.  It is a nuisance, but not in the same league as a major honey fungus infection, or Japanese knotweed.

Friday, 23 May 2014

last minute post

I'm slipping.  There are only ten minutes to go until our next dose of Chelsea Flower Show coverage, and I've forgotten to write a blog entry.  Nine minutes now, while I've been wondering what to write about.  Necessity is supposed to be the mother of invention, but there is nothing like knowing one has to be creative in a hurry to shut down one's imagination completely.  Never mind getting the creative juices flowing, they are as dry as the Sahel in a dry season.

Seven minutes.  It took me two minutes to type two sentences, plus typos and deleting typos.  I get clumsier when I am in a hurry.  The Systems Administrator knows this, and never to chivvy me however urgent the matter, as it will only slow things down, not speed them up.  My bee instructor used to urge me to go through the frames faster, when I went as a novice to practice on his bees. Probably he was thinking of the bees, and didn't want to keep the hive open for too long, but his attempts to hurry me along simply turned me into a stumbling mess of fingers and thumbs.

Four minutes.  It took me three minutes to type the previous paragraph.  My record, when I was working at the optimum point of the day for clear thought, straight after breakfast, was four hundred words ready for publication in three quarters of an hour.  They may not have been the best words ever, but my employer was pleased with them, and they indirectly got me the gig with the local magazine.

The magazine project has hit a snag, the amateur photographs supplied by the owners being of insufficient quality, and the ones by a professional garden photographer outside the magazine's budget.  I suppose these are the perils of freelancing at the more modest end of the market, but I'll learn how it all works as I go along.  As long as the Editor is happy with my contribution I'll live to fight another day.

Eight o'clock.  Time to view.

Thursday, 22 May 2014


We had veal escalopes for supper.  Veal has been almost impossible to buy for years, at least in the provinces.  Occasionally I'd read an article (often in the Waitrose food magazine) about how Waitrose was stocking ethically produced pink veal, but Colchester used not to have a Waitrose, and then when it did no veal made its way in our direction, any more than the mythical mutton I would also hear of from time to time.  It seemed that Tesco did not do veal, any more than Tony Blair did god.  Perhaps Sainsbury did, but the store was at the opposite side of town, and I did not want veal, or rather the vague possibility of veal, enough to engage with Colchester's traffic to that extent.  Probably I should have cultivated a butcher, but none of the local butchers were that approachable and friendly (and the last butcher's steak the Systems Administrator bought was quite tasteless).  We did cultivate our local farm shop, but they evidently had a nice line in miracle cows that could produce milk without calving.  Or the calves were ending up as pet food.

That's the thing about veal.  Crates were a cruel abomination, and it is utterly right that we've banned them, but if you are going to eat dairy produce you must accept that there will be calves. And what are you going to do with them?  For years it seemed that the great British public had equated the meat of young dairy animals with crates and rejected it, and the supermarkets could not be bothered to educate them, instead stocking aisles of milk, cream, cheese, butter, yogurt and other processed cow juices, while conveniently ignoring the biological facts of how these products came into being.

I could be a vegan.  I could make quite a good case for being one, if pushed, but as it happens I'm not.  And since I eat dairy, I am in principle prepared to eat young cows.  And veal is a very tasty meat.  And makes a change, when you live with somebody who doesn't like offal or game, and isn't convinced that beans or lentils without meat constitute dinner.  There are times when I feel like the heroine of What Katy Did, after she has taken up housekeeping and before she miraculously recovers from spinal injury, when she wishes that god would invent another animal.  Beef.  Chicken. Pork in all its piggy manifestations.  Lamb.  Corned beef.  Beef again.  Oh good, veal.  That makes a change.

When I was thirteen or thereabouts, I went on the school exchange visit to Britanny.  I regret to say that I did not form a lasting, lifelong friendship with my French counterpart, though I did develop a taste for Breton music that has stayed with me.  Also a taste for veal.  Maman for one slightly special supper served up a blanquette de veaux that was one of the best things I had ever eaten.  I longed to recreate it in later years, when it was my turn to cook, but could not find any veaux.

Tonight's escalopes were cooked according to the advice in Gretel Beer's Austrian Cooking, although they were done as Pariser Schnitzel and not Wienter Schnitzel because I did not have any breadcrumbs.  The only bread I had was a small Hovis loaf, and I did not think that would produce the desired effect, even if I'd had time to crumb it.  Pariser Schnitzel are simply dusted with flour, seasoned, and fried in egg diluted with milk, after you have bashed them with a rolling pin.  The invention of cling film makes this a less messy process than it must have been in Gretel Beer's time.

I love her book.  It was first published in 1954, and my mother had a copy, which I divined she was not going to give to me.  To my joy, it was reprinted in 1980 as a facsimile edition, and I found a copy by complete chance in a bookshop in Highgate.  It contains marvellous instructions for how to remove the cream from the top of your milk using an eye-dropper, fountain pen filler, or special gadget bought for 2s, in the event that you can't buy cream, and a heartfelt plea to spare enough butter to grease your cake tin, even if you are baking with margarine.  Practically all the recipes are for cakes.

Anyway, the schnitzels were well received, and I have the SA's blessing to do them again.  The other good thing about veal escalopes is that they are very easy and quick to cook.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

more Chelsea

We watched tonight's Chelsea coverage on the TV, and it didn't feature lots of things I hadn't seen, which was a relief.  I'm not so keen on the London Square garden as the BBC seems to be, not that I hated it, but I found it all a bit too white and glaring.  The bench made me smile, though, or rather, my reaction to the bench.  The catalogue (the RHS charges eight pounds for a catalogue nowadays.  EIGHT POUNDS!!!) describes it thus: A unique and dynamic bench provides somewhere to sit and is also a piece of art in its own right.

For those of you who haven't been watching the telly and didn't see the bench, it is a large, L shaped, shiny steel structure, which niftily takes in a change in levels, and tails off into curly sculptural bits at both ends.  It is curved in cross section, with a rolling back, and a seat that slopes so that you could lounge on it quite comfortably, as long as you had your feet on the floor to stop you sliding off, but couldn't lie down.  And that was my first thought, when I saw it at the show yesterday, that the bench had been designed so that drunks and rough sleepers wouldn't be able to lie on it.  On this evening's programme the designer explained her ideas, cue for shots of assorted London Squares, then the piece cut to the show, with her and presenter Joe Swift sitting on the giant bench.  And immediately I thought it again, they've designed the bench so that people can't sleep on it.

A lot of urban street furniture is designed to repel sleepers.  Those narrow wooden or metal benches at bus stops, railway shelters and in public parks: wide enough to perch your bum while you wait for the number 58, too narrow to lie down for the afternoon with a can of Strongbow.  Same with the elegant wooden benches in many London parks, divided into individual spaces with wooden arms. The dividers are not there to prevent territorial disputes between alfresco sandwich-eating office workers.  They are there to make sure you remain upright and respectable.  I had never thought about this until a horticultural college trip to see the landscaping on a housing development in a not madly salubrious part of south London (we caught the Woolwich ferry, it was very exciting) and since then I have taken to noticing street furniture more than I used to.

Joe Swift did not ask Jo Thompson whether the curved bench was to keep the tramps off.  Probably it wasn't, and she just thought that the curve was organic and attractive.  Which it was, quite, if the bench hadn't been so shiny and the paving so white.  At any rate, it was a more practical design than poor Carol Klein was lumbered with, being forced to talk about growing begonias in vertical walls.  Indoors.  Carol has run a commercial nursery, and knows her plants, and I am sure she is well aware that you, I, she, and approximately 99.99 per cent of the audience watching the programme are not going to install a vertical wall of 'Rex' or 'L'Escargot' or any other sort of giant leaved or otherwise ornamental foliage begonia in our houses.  We're just not.  We don't have the space, and there would be all sorts of practical issues over humidity levels and drips on the carpet.  It isn't going to happen.  On the other hand, we might like the look of the huge, multi-coloured, hairy leaves, and it would have been useful to tell us the basics of growing begonias at home.  Like vaguely what sort of temperature or light levels they need or will tolerate, that sort of thing.  For the record, I have tried some of the big leaved ones in the conservatory, and can tell you that they do not like overwintering in a room that's only just frost free, in damp air.  It was a sufficiently convincing failure that I probably won't waste any money trying again.  Pity, as I like them.

Thomas Heatherwick was not what I expected from a famous designer.  I loved the Olympic Cauldron, and the extraordinary Sitouterie he designed for Barnard's Farm down in West Hornchurch, though it's a shame that pieces started falling off B of the Bang.  He got a slot in the Chelsea coverage because of his involvement with the proposed Garden Bridge across the Thames in London.  Joanna Lumley wants it, so I expect it will happen.  I digress.  Anyway, I was expecting the black polo neck under charcoal grey jacket, black rimmed spectacles sort of architect look. Reader, we were given a whistle-stop tour of selected Chelsea Flower Show highlights by a hobbit.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

the greatest flower show on earth

Another year, another Chelsea.  I have been with various companions over the years, and on my own, but nowadays the Systems Administrator and I go together, and have got into a routine of how we do things.  We always start with the Artisan Gardens, which are the little ones tucked away behind the bandstand in the Ranelagh gardens, because later on the crowds pack in six deep, and you can't see them.  The Artisan Gardens are generally fun, partly because they are on a more domestic and affordable scale with ideas you can pinch for your own garden, whereas it's difficult to take much from a quarter of a million quids' worth of laser-cut Portland stone.  And the Artisan Gardens still incorporate elements of diorama and whimsy to a greater extent than most of the big show stoppers, and I enjoy dioramas.

I do.  Chelsea is a show, after all, and most of the gardens wouldn't work in real life.  You can spot plants that would outgrow their spaces inside a season, moisture and drought lovers crammed in next to each other, things in full flower stuck into mixed plantings that in real life would not tolerate the competition, little corners of grass that would be a nightmare to mow, pristine pale walls that would be green with algae after their first winter, floral combinations that in nature would never happen because some plants have been held back from flowering too early and others hurried along, plus many of the gardens would offer practically no plant interest after about the second of June.  They don't need to.  This is Chelsea, less than a week of fantasy in the second half of May.

Then we look at some of the big show gardens, before the crowds build up too much, skipping round any where the BBC is filming and coming back later when they've moved on.  Blue, white and pale yellow are in this year in a big way, and Anchusa azurea is almost everywhere.  It does have beautiful true blue flowers, but is often short lived.  You don't learn that going to Chelsea, but do working for a plant retailer when customers come back to complain that it has disappeared.  Purple, red and apricot are still around, but not so much as they were a few years ago.  You used not to be able to move for falling over Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' and an early flowering red single peony whose name I have forgotten, though it will be written down in my old notebooks, but their stars are waning.  Centaurea montana, which was everywhere in new purple colour breaks a little while back, is likewise vanishing back into obscurity.  Grasses are less popular than they were, and as the SA pointed out, while inside the marquee the rose stands were full of appreciative rose lovers, not many of the show gardens used them.

The big show gardens were very fine, and well done, and did nothing that hadn't been done before. We said that last year as well.  I reckon one of the ways I'll know the recession is really behind us is when I see something more experimental and innovative on one of the big budget, large sites. There weren't as many show gardens this year, large or Artisan, as there have been in years past, which I take as another sign that economic recovery is still in its early days.  On the Rock Garden Bank, which used to be one of the most prestigious sites in the whole show ground, this year there was one solitary show garden in among trade stands, while numbers of traders wanting to sell expensive (and in many cases hideous) garden ornaments and furniture rises every year.  Still, I guess the RHS needs the money they pay for their stands.

I hope we see a few more show gardens next year, and that sponsors and designers might feel brave enough to try something new.  And possibly less expensive.  The soft version of Modernist hard landscaping with planting derived from the European New Perennials movement, that has dominated at Chelsea for years now, is phenomenally expensive to make.  Oodles of precision cut and laid stonework and fabricated metal (though Corten steel is on its way out), hardwood pergolas, sculptures, giant urns and objets.  It is all very fine and impressive, but it isn't the only way to make a garden.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and I would love to see a few designers' imaginations take flight and think of what they could achieve on more of a shoestring, without resorting to grunge.

My favourite part of the whole show is truly the Great Pavilion, and the plant displays.  Some favourites have gone, so I miss seeing Broadleigh Bulbs, but the newcomers who have inherited the space are good.  I was pleased to see Kevock there, a Scottish nursery I've started using (only for bulbs so far) since seeing them at Chelsea about three years ago.  And Dibleys were still there with their Streptocarpus, and Peter Beales roses who got a Gold once again (phew) as did Bloms (double phew.  I feel for Bloms, there is no upside for them, only the risk of blotting their extremely long record of Gold medals.  Also I feel for Bloms because I gaze happily at their tulips before ordering mine from Peter Nyssen, who are cheaper).  There were Reckless Plants (auriculas.  It's a Margery Fish story), and Victorian violas, clematis and orchids, plants for shade and plants for screes. Blackmore and Langdon did exactly the same display that they have done every year for as long as I can remember, vast and pristine delphinium spikes behind even vaster begonia flowers.  This year they had their Royal Warrant (to Prince Charles) in the form of an extra-large shield in the middle of the stand.  I should hate it if they were ever to change.

On the way home I realised that I had not seen the Downderry lavender display.  Damn.  There's always one.

Monday, 19 May 2014

coming up roses

Rose 'Nevada' has opened in the last few days.  It is one of the first cultivars whose name I learned, as it grew at the end of one of the borders at Killerton.  We often visited in my childhood, and the gardens were a seminal influence, leaving me with a love of large rhododendrons and tree magnolias.  I liked the 'Nevada', and it must have had a label, because the name stuck.  It is a twentieth century shrub rose, producing its semi double white flowers at the start of the main rose season.  It does not produce hips, which is a pity, but I still like it.  The description on the incomparable Peter Beales website rates it as being suitable for poor soil and some shade, and suggests it could reach 2.5 metres.  On our particular brand of poor soil it does not grow that tall, and every year some of its blackish stems have died and have to be cut out, but it is making a good show as of this moment.  I mulched it generously in the spring with spent mushroom compost and dosed it with 6X and bonemeal, to try and stimulate some vigorous new growth.

Over in the rose bed behind the house another twentieth century shrub rose has just started into bloom, the pale pink single 'Sally Holmes'.  She is a comparative youngster, younger than I am, being introduced in only 1976.  Unlike 'Nevada' she produces repeat flushes of flowers through the summer, followed by fine clusters of red hips, if you don't dead-head at the end of the season.  Her growth habit is more branching than 'Nevada', which throws upright shoots from ground level.  Peter Beales gives a height as only 1.2 metres, but mine shot up to nearly twice that.  I tried pruning the bushes fairly hard, once, and they resented it so fiercely that now I know only to remove any dead wood when I'm in rose pruning mode.

'Rhapsody in Blue' is not blue, but mauve.  A nice shade of mauve, if you like that colour, which I do, but definitely not blue.  There are as yet no true blue roses, and as far as I can see are not likely to be, unless gardeners suddenly decide that GM roses would be fine.  For myself I am perfectly happy for roses not to be blue.  'Rhapsody in Blue', or 'Rhapsody in Mauve' as we might more accurately but less catchily call it, was the Floribunda Rose of the Year in 2003.  The flowers are semi-double and scented, but there are no hips.  I have mine too far back in the bed, where they are slightly overwhelmed by other roses, some of which have grown larger than I envisaged, and I can't get to them easily to sniff them, so that was a bad piece of planning on my part.

'Rose de Rescht' is on the cusp of opening, the first few buds having just come out.  This in an old rose, a Portland, and has very double, rich purple flowers with neat flat tops, as if they had been sliced off with an extremely sharp knife.  It is conceptually capable of repeat flowering, and you will see it put down as such in many books and catalogues, including by Peter Beales.  What the books and catalogues do not spell out to you is that it will only produce a second flush of flowers if it produces a second burst of growth, and on poor soil in arid parts of the country it will not necessarily do that.  There are no hips, and the remains of the old flowers are unsightly, so to keep the bush looking presentable through the summer you will need to spend a fair amount of time going over it after it has flowered.  It is very generous with its flowers, and the effect when it is in full flight is superb.  I put my plants at the front of the border, believing the part of the description which said they would grow 0.9 metres high, and despite the lack of repeat flowering they have gradually reached twice that.  Perhaps I should chop them really hard, but I have not quite recovered my nerve after the unfortunate episode with 'Sally Holmes', and restrict myself to removing the oldest branches each winter, and shortening some of the longest growths rather cautiously.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

a lunch party

Our neighbour held a lunch party today, billed as an At Home.  I have always felt that At Homes were things other people gave and went to, like dinner parties.  People like us, one or two generations away from the East End or living over the shop, don't do dinner parties, we have friends to supper, and the invitations to At Homes I've seen have generally been on my former employer's desk, or the mantelpieces of more senior members of the music society committee, who live in much more expensive houses in a smarter village than we do.  However, this invitation helpfully explained the format in detail, catering arrangements, dress code, and the times we were expected not merely to arrive but to go away.  It sounded very nice, and I was touched that he was making the effort.

I quickly gathered that the guest list for this particular party was drawn from the very local area, and began to feel rather abashed that I knew so few people, although vaguely comforted that many of the other guests confessed to exactly the same feeling.  Our nearest neighbours were there, which they often aren't, since she travels a lot on business and they also have a place in London.  She works in fashion, he runs outdoor adventures, and having Bear Grylls on the TV is great for trade.  Also one of their dogs died recently, which I didn't know.

The next neighbour down was with a friend who lives in the other part of our extremely spread-out village, and there was a moment of silent comedy as we were both introduced to a couple who turned out to own the farm that would have been turned into a quarry, if it had been included in the final list for the County plan.  They enquired how the friend from the other end of the village knew our host.  She replied with a completely straight face that they had met serving on the residents' committee fighting against the quarry.

There didn't seem to be anyone there from the next cottage after that, or the big house that is having lots of building work done, or the converted church, but the couple whose garden our tree fell on were there, and apparently held no grudge.  From an overheard conversation I got the impression that their dog had died as well.  Thinking about it, I haven't seen the dog for a while, and the last time I did it looked extremely ancient.

The beautiful Georgian former rectory which was on the market for ages, and finally sold once the quarry proposals were banged on the head, has been bought by a young couple from Fulham.  I guess a reasonable house in Fulham translates to a lot of Georgian brickwork, if you move out to the unfashionable side of Colchester.  They had two energetic small children, and seemed genuinely friendly and very young, and I realised with a shock that when we moved into our house over twenty years ago, we too must have seemed ridiculously young to be buying a whole detached house. Albeit ours is a giant shed.

A woman I last met at another party a decade ago has since suffered from breast cancer, but is currently in the clear.  The lettuce farmer's father has recently died, in fact, the funeral is tomorrow.  He had been ill for a long while first, and again I realised when I thought about it that I hadn't seen him around the farm for a long time, looking at the lettuces as he used to do.  It is humbling, the things that are going on in your neighbours' lives, that you have no inkling of. Especially dying.  The last time several of the other guests seemed to have seen each other was at a funeral.

I don't think I was the only one to leave thinking that maybe I should know my fellow residents a little better, and not only because it would be so handy to have people close by that we could ask to come and lock up the chickens or feed the cats on the odd occasion.  What stops us?  The village is very spread out with no public transport, so everybody drives everywhere, which doesn't help.  We could all go to the one remaining pub, or join the book group.  People who were in the anti-quarry campaign said that was a great way of meeting people.  The commuters are stuffed, though.  We never met anybody when we were commuting.  But perhaps choosing to live in such a non-nucleated settlement, where practically nothing communal goes on, marks us out as non-joiners.  Just because you share a taste for rural living and a disinclination to pay Constable Country house prices doesn't mean you will all have enough in common to be new best friends.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

the great purge begins

The anti-moth campaign has begun in earnest.  The Systems Administrator emptied one wardrobe of its alluvial layer of shoes, and the impenetrable mass of shirts.  Sundry other items came to light, including two ready made bow ties, one white, one black, a Northampton rugby club scarf, an odd lambswool sweater miraculously free of holes, a battered cheap ersatz Panama hat, and a mysterious assortment of ties.

Men can't be too careful with ties.  A friend of the SA's once bought a stripey one from a High Street shop because he liked the pattern, and then found himself being quizzed in a lift at the bank where he worked about his military career, having managed to buy a rip-off of an actual Guards tie.  My favourite tie anecdote is from sailor and author Tom Cunliffe, who, in case he should wish the visit the sort of yacht club that requires men to wear ties, kept one of an Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy tucked away in a locker.  I myself used to possess a college scarf, but our colours are a very dreary brown and white, and I was not too upset when it succumbed to a previous disaster involving a wardrobe and a cat.

The SA's purge of the first wardrobe yielded four black bin bags of discarded shoes, and six of clothes to go to the tip.  Once it was empty I vacuumed every crevice, as instructed by the pest controller, and sprayed the interior with particular attention to the crevices.  Despite the six black bags of old clothes, there still seemed to be a lot of shirts left, which I replaced, sorting them out with hairy winter weight check numbers and denim at one end of the rail, and light cotton at the other.  The SA, displaying an unprecedented level of interest in the organisation of the wardrobe, announced the intention of moving the trousers on to hangers with clips, instead of folding them over the cross bars of normal ones.

I did the same thing for both of my wardrobes.  So far I have not found any more moth damage, which is a relief, though it beats me how on that basis they managed to alight on the most historic and potentially valuable garment in my motley collection.  Admittedly I have not yet looked inside its cover at the state of my shearling coat, but none of the knitwear and no other jackets have been attacked.  Just the Katherine Hamnett.  Ha ha.

The smell of insecticide began to get a bit much, and I left the chemical to do its work and the pong to wear off, and took the bags of old clothes to the dump, together with the dead vacuum cleaner, the leaking kettle, the phone system that stopped working, and a stereo that still functioned, but had been so far superseded by new technology that I couldn't see anybody wanting it, or its miserable speakers.  When I got back I discovered I'd missed hearing the first cuckoo.

The great clean up is still not finished, since all of our shoes that are not going to the tip are currently spread out over the bedroom floor, and the laundry basket is erupting with things that need washing.  The limiting factor is not washing, but drying, since we don't have a tumble dryer, and today I resorted to an expedient which has served humanity for centuries, of draping still damp pullovers over some convenient shrubs to finish drying in the sun.  Though most people through history have probably not used topiary box balls.

Friday, 16 May 2014


The bees behind the cladding are no more.  The friendly pest controller came and sprayed poison into their nest with a long lance.  If there are still any signs of bee activity by Tuesday I am to give him a call, and he will come and give them another squirt.  Otherwise, as soon as there are no bees flying around the hole I must block it with expanding foam, or mastic, or something to make sure that no other bees can go in there and take poison back to their own nests.  He was quietly non-judgemental as to whether we should have left them to it, but I still felt that it wasn't viable to have the entrance to a colony no more than a couple of feet above head height on a corner of the building that sees regular foot traffic.  Applying the poison was a quick job, though I didn't hang around watching while he did it.

He was a friendly pest controller, the man who gave such a very good talk to the beekeepers a few months back.  If you are going to have somebody come to your house to deal with pests, and you know that you might have managed the situation better if you had thought about it properly, for example blocking up the hole in the cladding before bees or anything else could go in there, you want somebody humane, matter of fact, and cheerful, not an insecticide wielding equivalent of the sort of gloomy builder who demands to know who put that there, then?

I originally rang him about the bees, but then realised that since I was going to have an experienced professional pest controller on the premises, I could ask about the clothes moth as well.  That was a job for which I really did want somebody non-judgemental who had already testified in my presence to having seen pretty much everything in the world of pests.  Having the gap in the cladding was an embarrassing oversight, but as nothing compared to the sedimentary layers of old shoes in the bottom of the Systems Administrator's wardrobe.  The pest controller laughed a lot when I apologised for the contents of the wardrobe and explained that since I believed in the autonomy of the individual, I had not thought up to this point that I should interfere with the clothes of a grown-up man in his fifties, but had to become involved when the moths started invading my wardrobe as well.

The news on the moths is not good, or at least it is going to be an awful lot of trouble dealing with them.  The pest controller produced a torch, and showed me the little white specks on the bottom of the wardrobe that were the cast-off skins of moth larvae.  And on the edges of the carpet, and under the laundry basket.  He said they would be under the free-standing wardrobe as well.  What we have to do is take everything out of every cupboard, vacuum every crevice, empty and move the free-standing wardrobe and vacuum under that, and spray everything.  He gave me two aerosols of insecticidal spray, and for good measure a fumigant canister to use after we'd finished vacuuming and spraying.  It is going to take ages.  But ages.  Hours and hours.

The Systems Administrator received the news equably, and agreed to sort through the contents of the wardrobes.  It needed doing anyway.  I had already made the depressing discovery of a moth hole in the shoulder of the vintage Katherine Hamnett jacket, and a couple of smaller areas of minor damage.  Perhaps I can get it invisibly mended.  The V&A must see worse.

After the bees in cladding,and the moths, it came as a relief when I went to investigate the insects the SA worriedly told me were buzzing around one of the starling boxes, and saw they were bumble bees.  Too fat to be honey bees, and the bright ginger tummies gave them away.  The starling boxes have been stuck on the north end of the house for years, and never been used by a single starling, so I'm glad some wildlife has finally taken to them.  I told the SA not to worry about the bumble bees, they would only be using the box for the summer, and in any case would not hurt anybody.  I only hope they are not poisoned by fumes from the great clothes moth operation drifting out of the bedroom windows.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


I was woken this morning by the chickens making a racket.  Or that may not be true.  I awoke suddenly, and was aware that there was a noise coming from the hen house, but perhaps I woke because it was light, and heard the chickens once I was awake.  It was the sort of chattering, vaguely pained shrieking noise they make in the afternoons, when they want to be let out into the garden, or in the middle of the day if their water has run out.  I considered whether they sounded so distressed that something might actually be going on outside, but decided not, and sure enough the noise stopped after a while.  When, after showering and sorting out the cats' breakfast, I went to let the chickens into their run in the usual way, the four of them that are not broody trundled out of the pop hole and ate their pieces of brown bread as if nothing had happened.  I decided they must have been indulging in some sort of chicken version of the dawn chorus.

There are skylarks on the neighbouring farm.  We heard them before we saw them, their distinctive arching song ringing out over the wheat, then managed to spot the leaping dots high above.  There was more than one bird singing, and on the return leg of our walk we disturbed a pair on the ground not far down the track from us, that swooped away in their distinctive dipping arcs low over the onions.  It seems rather prosaic to imagine a lark nesting in the middle of a field of onions.  The first time I heard them sing was in the bare chalk country of Wiltshire, and to me they are still mythical birds, another aspect of the white horses carved in the hillsides, the bronze age forts, and other-worldly paintings of Ravilious or Nash.  Which goes to show how one's first, childhood exposure to something can make a lasting impression, since I have heard many more larks singing over the sea walls of Essex than I have had trips to Wiltshire.

We saw another pair of birds on the track we couldn't identify.  They walked with tiny steps like an especially effete comedy waiter, dipping their tails, and my best guess was that they were grey wagtails.  They were wagtail shaped, but larger than the pied, with yellow tinged breasts.  There used to be a pair at the plant centre, which when I first saw them I assumed must be yellow wagtails, having heard there was such a thing, but my colleagues who knew much more about birds than I did assured me that these were the grey ones, which are in fact quite yellow, and that the yellow ones were much more yellow than that, and rare.

The tawny owls have been very vocal.  They were making a great noise close to the house last night, according to the Systems Administrator who stayed up later than I did, and they've been calling during the day as well.  I am delighted to have them on the premises, though I know never to have a look if I ever think I've found a nest.  Apart from the fact that I think it is illegal to disturb them, they are fierce birds that will go for your eyes when they attack you.

I still hanker after a pet little owl, inspired by Gerald Durrell's account of his free range Scops owl in Corfu, but I have to admit it would not get on with the cats.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

birds of passage

Summer is definitely icumen in.  I haven't heard any cuckoos myself yet, but some people I saw on Sunday heard one the day before.  What I have seen is house martins.  We strolled down to the farm for a pre-lunch constitutional, and there they were, little birds with white flashes on their rumps, paddling in a very muddy puddle by the lettuce farm car park, and darting back up to the neighbours' eaves.

They build every year on both halves of the semi-detached cottages down the lane from us, and every year I feel envious that they don't build on our house, but they don't.  We must have the wrong sort of eaves, or they don't like the timber cladding, or the cats, or it is too far from the puddle.  Who knows.  The cottages are rendered in pebble dash, painted cream, which must make a nice, knobbly surface for the mud nests to stick to.  Perhaps our wooden walls are too smooth.

They nest along the front of the cottages, which faces roughly east, and the nearest neighbour's end gable, which faces north.  They appear to have tried virtually every inch of the eaves for size, since there is an almost continuous smear of mud along the top of the walls, about six inches down from the soffit boards.  They then select a few places in which to proceed to build entire nests, the apex of the gables apparently being the prime spot.  The neighbours seem proud and happy to have them, in spite of the mud, and I am sure never knock down the nests from one year to the next, but I noticed that by this spring there weren't many left.  I wonder whether in the extreme wet weather at the start of the year they simply dissolved and ran down the walls in muddy streaks, or disintegrated.

At the garden I went to see on Monday there was a wren's nest in the shed where they keep their lawn tractor.  That's pretty classy in the wild bird nest stakes.  Ah well, we do not have wrens or house martins.  Instead, we have to make do with the starlings, who are by now sending copious streaks of white droppings down the wall under their nest hole, and on to the Chaenomeles by the outside tap.  Fortunately I like starlings very much, but have to admit that they don't have the kudos of some other species.  Avian geezers, starlings.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

mixed media

This morning I wrote the first draft of the piece on yesterday's garden visit.  I was gratified to see that the Explore Your Body Clock page on the BBC website confirmed my belief that the ideal time to do this sort of work is in the morning, the mind being most alert between 09.00 and 11.59 am. Once again, the allotted word count of six hundred or just over felt stingy, and I was regretful about all the interesting snippets I'd learnt and would not be able to share, but I got the bones of it down. After a slightly late start messing around with other things, it took me until lunchtime.

I looked again after lunch at my two pages of A4 spaced at one and a half lines, which is roughly what six hundred words equates to, and decided to leave revisions until the next day.  I have never found the graveyard slot after lunch conducive to clear thought, and looking at the BBC website I see that's because from 12.00 to 14.59 I am programmed to experience a biological siesta, with a post lunchtime dip in alertness reflecting my increased gastric activity.  OK, we only had cold meat and salad for lunch, but it certainly felt like siesta time.  I need to concentrate for the revisions, not just to make sure that I haven't accidentally left out any key points, but also to get the prose as clear and concise as it can be.  Each eight words used where three would do are taking up space that could otherwise make room for extra content.

Perhaps I should set myself a word limit on the blog.  Though I don't have time, when it's a hobby to be fitted in as and when.  Cutting paragraphs down so as to express yourself as simply and accurately as you possibly can is much harder work than allowing yourself to witter on at whatever length suits you.  The first requires skill and thought, while the latter is mere self-expression, and can be as flabby and indulgent as you choose.

Later on I had a cheerful email from the bookings secretary of the garden club I've been writing the presentation for, confirming their meeting and enquiring whether I wanted a couple of tables.  That was my cue to break it to her that this time I would be talking entirely from slides.  It is something we considered when she was originally going to book me for February, before deciding that month should be given to an address on pruning.  More to the point, I am no longer in a position to borrow the plants.  It's strange how resistant people can be to new ideas, since when I started doing talks, relatives whose only experience of garden talks was slide based wanted me to get a projector, and now they have got used to me talking from plants they ask whether I could not still borrow the plants, even though I no longer work for the plant centre.  I couldn't.  Apart from the faff of the twenty-two mile round trip to collect them and again to return the unsold ones, I don't want to take any responsibility for the performance of plants supplied by a business I am no longer anything to do with, and I don't suppose my former employers would be happy with me wandering in and out taking and returning stock unsupervised (though they might be.  On my last ever day at work I was left to till up and lock up by myself, my colleague having to leave early and my employer having other fish to fry on a Sunday afternoon).

I will admit, it was a deliberate decision on my part to leave telling the garden club organiser about the slides until near the time of the talk.  I thought that if I contacted her well in advance, informing her of the planned change in format and asking whether that was OK, she would probably start thinking of all sorts of reasons why it wasn't.  If, on the other hand, I presented it as a fait accompli and one that we had previously discussed, that would make the talk better, she probably wouldn't have the energy to start running around looking for an alternative speaker at two or three weeks' notice.  Cunning as serpents, us horticultural journalists.  If she throws a wobbly I'll know I've miscalculated.

Monday, 12 May 2014

towers and gardens

I went to see another garden this morning to do a write-up for the magazine.  It turned out to belong to a charming and resourceful owner, and was a good garden, and that's all I'm going to say on the subject at the moment.  I didn't even try to start my piece this afternoon, having learned from past efforts that the best approach is to save it until the following morning, then sit down straight after breakfast and produce the first draft in one continuous run.

It was in a pretty village just outside Bury St Edmunds, and rather than risk the vagaries of the A14, I took the A134 past Sudbury to Bury.  The A134 is growing on me.  It is not an especially fast road, but goes through very pretty countryside, and while the initial grind through Colchester and past the north station is a drag, it's more direct than looping all the way up to the Copdock interchange at Ipswich.  About two-thirds of way between Sudbury and Bury it passes through the gloriously named village of Bradfield Combust.  I managed to get a glance in at the village sign, as I sailed through at a sedate thirty, and saw it incorporated flames into the design.  Something burned, evidently, or at least local legend had it that there was a fire of some sort.  I was curious enough when I got home to check on Wikipedia (what would we do without it), and while the precise nature of the conflagration is open to question, and whether it really involved the local hall, certainly the name has existed since the very early 1300s.

I reached the garden with oodles of time to spare, having allowed for traffic jams, diversions and simply getting lost, none of which happened.  The house I was bound for did not actually have a name sign, as is often the way with rural houses (ivy has grown over our sign and needs chopping back), and as today was not a Yellow Book open day, the comforting advice in the booklet that the garden would be signposted from the road did not hold.  Since I had plenty of time in hand, and didn't want to spook the owners by sitting outside their gate in my car like a stalker, I went on up the road to see what there was to see, and to check that there wasn't another house fitting the description even more exactly just a couple of hundred yards further on.

I'd made a note in my route plan that if I got to the church of Saint Nicholas then I'd gone too far.  I soon did get to the church, without passing any more likely looking houses at all, which rather confirmed that I'd found the right place first time.  To my delight, the church was open.  It is an absolute sweetie of a church, with a round tower sporting fine, plain Norman arches, and a remarkable absence of Victorian mucking about.  I've seen another round tower church relatively recently, at Lamarsh, but that was locked.  A notice in the porch said that there were around 180 round tower churches in the UK, mostly in East Anglia, and sure enough they have their own society. That, and a rumbling dispute about how many of the towers are really Saxon, or whether they are later, and why they were built round and not square in the first place.  The Round Tower Churches Society, patron HRH the Prince of Wales, looks a useful body, and I can think of worse projects than to set out to visit every one of the one hundred and eighty something round tower churches.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

song for Europe

We watched the Eurovision Song Contest last night.  It was the first time I'd seen it in I don't know how many years.  Looking at the list of past UK entries on Wikipedia, the last one I have a positive memory of hearing was Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran's Rock Bottom, and that was in 1977.  I have a sort of vague recollection of a media furore in the year when the UK act was hopelessly out of key, but it turns out that that was eleven years ago.  I shouldn't laugh, the duo scored nul points, were dropped by their record company, had their album pulled, and split up.  How fickle is fate and the quest for fame.

We were only two out of a hundred and eighty million people around the globe who watched it, so were in good or at least plentiful company, but were probably justified in our decision not to bother to pick up the phone and vote for any of the acts.  I wouldn't have known who to vote for anyway, I found the whole thing so odd.  Was I supposed to root for the best musical effort (in which case the field would narrow down considerably) or the act that most entered into the spirit of Eurovision?

Why exactly was a man running on the spot in a giant hamster wheel while his female compatriot belted out a song?  Why did the anxious young man who looked like a younger and thinner version of Ed Miliband wearing an Eastern European assassin's coat score so many points?  Why was one act accompanied by a woman in red trousers swinging on a trapeze?  And why, oh why were the Greeks bouncing on a trampoline, accompanied by a gymnast?  Or the Russian twins performing with their hair tied together, standing on a giant see saw, and wearing melon coloured dressing gowns so hideous you felt their costume designer must have been a closet Ukrainian nationalist?

I was sorry the Icelanders didn't score a few more points.  I quite liked their song, in a noisy, retro way, though I'd have been bored stiff by it if I had to listen to it more than about five times, but I really liked their act.  The coloured suits were great, and their puppyish enthusiasm, and the intriguing claim by Graham Norton that one of them was an MP.  When you looked at them, they were all clearly too old to be jumping up and down in garish telly tubby themed suits, and I had a beautiful vision that in their day jobs they must all be accountants and lawyers.

There should have been a prize for best dancing, so that the Danes could have won it.  The Danish dancing was so good, it put all the earlier efforts in the shade.  The French do not really get pop music, we decided.  I don't know what the Germans thought they were doing, but somebody should have stopped it.  I thought the Norwegian contestant should have stuck to carpentry, and the Swedish power balladeer blonde was just very, very dull.  The Swiss might have been good, if they had stopped mucking about and cut out the whistling.  The Maltese entry was quite good, but not good enough to make me want to buy their latest album as an import, or even to check whether they have any albums.

The Dutch entry came as a surprise after all that had gone before.  I rather like country music, without having any, beyond Lyle Lovett, and a Kenny Rogers CD won as a raffle prize about fifteen years ago and still not taken out of its plastic wrapper.  I sometimes listen to the R2 Thursday night country music programme, and find myself enjoying the guitar intros, and then not liking the vocals.  However, I liked the Dutch song all the way through, a model of restrained economy.  I could imagine that if I had the album I would still be playing it occasionally in a decade's time, if the rest of it was in the same mould as their Eurovision entry.  I was even more surprised when the judges liked it as well, and it came second.

Beaten by the bearded lady, but who could grudge her the victory?  I thought it was a very encouraging marker for progress towards equal rights, and that gold dress and belting power ballad were certainly in the spirit of Eurovision.  I won't be buying the album, but well done her.  As to why the female member of the host team was dressed in a nude coloured fairy costume, and wandering about during the hiatus while the votes were counted offering food from home to random contestants, I couldn't tell you.  Or who any of the hosts were, or why one of them kept talking about China.  Still, it was good fun.  We might even watch it again next year.  It forms a nice seasonal counterbalance to The Last Night of the Proms.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

moth attack

We have an outbreak of clothes moth.  Or to be accurate, at this stage the Systems Administrator has an outbreak of clothes moth, but I have no reason to believe that the moths will confine themselves to the SA's wardrobe.  I noticed one day that one of the SA's sweaters was peppered with holes.  The SA insisted that the damage had happened ages ago, but I was not convinced that the moths, having found a cosy berth in somebody's wardrobe, would have left of their own accord.

Fortunately, when I looked at my own small but cherished collection of alpaca and other luxury knits, the moths hadn't yet made it to my side of the room.  I have had some of those sweaters for fifteen years.  They are beyond fashion, and I fully intend them to last me for the rest of my natural days. I stocked up in a panic on lavender scented insecticide sachets from Tesco, which was all that Tesco seemed to offer in the way of moth treatment, searched the John Lewis website in vain, and struck gold with Robert Dyas.  Robert Dyas online customers obviously suffer from clothes moth big time, and I was able to equip myself with more cedar wood balls and cedar rings for slipping over the necks of my coat hangers, plus slow release orange, unscented, insecticide impregnated spheres, which will apparently turn white when they have run out of juice, more hanging insecticide tabs, some poisoned paper (not sure why I ordered that) and a can of spray.

I put a slightly random assortment of repellents and poisons in every drawer and cupboard, and gave them all a squirt of spray for good measure.  I don't greatly like using insecticide in the house, but we have done in the past, faced with flea outbreaks, and I like the idea of having to throw out most of my clothes even less.  As a natural fibre enthusiast I only possess five garments, at an outside estimate, that are not liable to be eaten by moths, and two of those are anoraks.

The SA's wardrobe still worried me.  We must be in the minority among English (or Western) couples in that I do not buy the SA's clothes.  I do not organise the SA's clothes.  Autonomous adults are in charge of their own clothes, and beyond making encouraging noises about how nice the SA's linen suit looks, and more generally what excellent taste in indigo workwear Monty Don possesses, I do not interfere.  But faced with the moth outbreak I could no longer view the dense piles of randomly mixed clothing in the SA's wardrobe with equanimity.  Spraying the front face of the wall of garments with insecticide was not enough.

I did ask permission to excavate the wardrobe, to be polite, though I fear it was a face saving exercise for both of us.  In the circumstances, a refusal to let me take everything out of the wardrobe and sort through it for moth holes would have gone down about as well as a farmer suggesting to the Man from the Ministry that he'd rather not have his cattle tested for foot and mouth in the middle of a foot and mouth outbreak, thank you very much.

I was justified in my suspicions.  There were quite a few holey sweaters in there, which are now all in black dustbin bags waiting to go to the dump.  Moths seem to prefer finer grade V neck pullovers, of the type you could wear under a jacket, over chunky knits, but to my irritation they had eaten a hole in the middle of the stomach of a rather good Scandi knit that was a present from me, long before Scandinavian noir became trendy.  Also they do not eat acrylic.  I was sorely tempted to add the acrylic jumpers I found to the contents of the bin bags, but remembered the autonomy of the individual and folded them up and put them away again.  All the knitwear that survived is now headed for the wash, though the hand wash only pile will take a while to get through, owing to lack of drying space.

The great wardrobe investigation also demonstrated that the SA possesses, at a conservative estimate, over three dozen pairs of mostly shabby cotton trousers, of which approximately two and a half dozen have probably not made it out of the wardrobe in the past decade.  The SA has offered to sort through these himself.

I, meanwhile, have just remembered that I have a genuine mid 1980s (and therefore vintage) Katherine Hamnett riding jacket in pure wool, soft red, with a red silk lining, and cuffs with real buttonholes, hanging in the spare bedroom wardrobe.  Time to apply another liberal dose of insecticide. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Rock's peony

The Paeonia rockii in the back garden is just coming into bloom.  I picked one vast, rounded, almost-open flower this morning, and brought it into the kitchen to admire it more closely, setting it in solitary splendour in a glass vase, a glistening pink globe the size of my fist.  Over the next forty minutes or so the tissue paper flowers unfolded into a flower so wide that when I placed my palm over it, my outstretched fingers and thumb couldn't reach the edges.

It is an extraordinary thing, Rock's peony, even more so when you consider that it is a straight species.  It's not even as though a thousand years of plant breeding had gone into producing such an exotic beauty.  No, its ancestors simply grew wild in the mountains of China.  The flower has two rows of petals, with notched and ruffled edges, and deep purple blotches at the base.  Some flare upwards, while others curl down, giving the whole a lively air of movement.  In the very centre of the flower is a mysterious, cream-coloured boss with a crimped and pointed top, as if it were wrapped in tissue paper crumpled to a peak, and surrounding the boss are multiple rows of stamens, consisting of huge, burnt yellow anthers on purple filaments.

The flower is scented, a strong, sweet, spicy smell.  The single bloom is enough to perfume a room, and when I came in later on from doing some shopping, as soon as I opened the front door I was hit by the mixture of freshly ground coffee beans and Paeonia rockii.

It is without doubt one of the most fabulous plants I know, as exciting as the great tree magnolias, and with the flowers carried on a more domestic scale.  If you can find a space a couple of metres across then you can give a home to Rock's peony, if you can get one.  Normal rules of supply and demand don't seem to apply, and plants tend to be hard to come by and hideously expensive, the high price apparently never stimulating some enterprising nursery grower to make lots more. Perhaps they are difficult to propagate.  My plant grows happily in normal soil, on the light side but not either the lightest sand or the stickiest clay.  It faces west, with a hint of north in it, so does not get full sun, but is sheltered from the early morning sun and the worst of the wind.  According to Wikipedia the plants are extremely cold tolerant, on the other hand tree peonies come into leaf early, and I have read that it's better to avoid putting them in an east facing position.

After the amazing flowers are over the plant is frankly dull for the rest of the year, but I forgive it that.  By then it has more than earned its space.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

man and machine

We are each grappling with technology, in our separate ways.  I'm booked to talk to a garden club next month about how to garden so as to be friendly to bees, and since I can't borrow plants from the plant centre, it will have to be with slides.  I was originally going to do it with slides anyway, since I was due to go in February when most of the plants I wanted to talk about would have been unavailable or not doing anything, but they switched me to June so that they could have a talk on pruning in February.  And at least with slides I'll know in advance what I'm talking about, instead of finding on the day that the plant centre has run out of some key plant I want to talk about.

It's a great deal easier giving a talk when you've written it yourself, and chosen visual aids that will help you remember what you are supposed to be talking about as each slide comes up.  The internet is a marvellous resource for finding pictures of practically anything, honey bees on the comb, a close-up of one bee with a pollen load on her leg, a bumble bee nest, an aerial view of suburban gardens, you can find an illustration for practically anything, given a little lateral thinking.  Finding a picture for Nectar proved quite hard, given that it is a practically colourless substance flowers exude in small quantities, which wouldn't be obvious from a picture of a whole flower, but a hummingbird hovering in front of an exotic flower did nicely, with a snappy title.  I'm keeping the words to a minimum, just enough to act as cues for me, since this is meant to be an entertaining evening for the audience, not death by Powerpoint.

I'd kept notes from the last time I put a slide presentation together, and after checking with the Systems Administrator I'm fairly sure I'm doing the right thing.  If, when I've finished and the SA transfers the whole thing to a memory stick for me in JPEG format, it doesn't run correctly then that will be a blow.  Which is another good reason for getting on with it now and not leaving it until the week before the club meets.

Meanwhile the SA has invested in a bean-to-cup coffee machine.  It grinds the beans up, makes coffee, and has a spout for heating and frothing milk, a multitude of dials, and a little electronic display that tells you what it is doing or what it wants you to do.  I am still slightly terrified of it, but there again I haven't invested any time in reading the booklet, being busy with the presentation.  I bought three different packets of coffee beans in readiness for its arrival, in the mild state of panic of someone who normally lives on instant, or tea, and knows that they know nothing about coffee beyond ordering a latte in Pret or a filter coffee after a meal, and the French roast we have tried so far is ferociously strong.  I am actually more excited by the prospect of infinite supplies of hot frothy milk, and by extension proper drinking chocolate and Horlicks.

It will have to be absolutely the last gadget, though, because we are running out of space on the kitchen worktops.  I suggested banishing the toaster, since the Aga makes very good toast (provided you watch it), but that didn't get us any further forward, since the coffee machine can't go where the toaster is because it is too tall to fit under the cupboard on the wall.  The ice cream machine can't budge over to where the toaster is either because it needs clear space on either side for the air to circulate when it's running.  At the moment the only place we can see for it to go is on the one worktop that doesn't currently have any equipment living on it.  If I had to lose one piece of kit it would be the microwave, which we use once in a blue moon, but that's in a corner without headroom enough for the coffee maker.

It is a very First World problem.