Monday, 30 June 2014

in the gravel garden

One year's seeding, seven years' weeding.  Unfortunately this year I have not got to the fine leaved annual weed grass in the gravel in time.  I'm clearing it away now, but most of the seeds have already fallen, so there'll be more next year, and in the years after that.  It is frustrating how the wretched stuff manages to come up even through the mats of thyme, which are barely acting as a weed suppressant.  How does Prince Charles cope with his great carpets of thyme at Highgrove? Does he have brigades of gardeners to hand weed and manicure them?  I suppose he probably does.

At least the thyme is seeding itself as well, so maybe if I feed it with fish, blood and bone it will thicken up and do a better job of smothering out the grass.  I've largely eliminated that particular specie of weed grass (there are lots of others) from the long bed through the generous use of compost and Strulch, but that isn't an option with the gravel.

We went the other evening to the Green Island Gardens in Ardleigh, as part of the horticultural society tour.  I am not actually a member of the society, but some friends are.  I had visited before, but a good decade ago, and things had come on considerably since then.  The gardens include some areas of gravel, and I looked at them with keen interest to see what was growing, while noting the owner's comments that the site was badly drained and water tended to lie on the surface.  Not like our areas of gravel planting, then, which sit on pure sand to a depth of goodness knows how many feet.  Water will lie in the compacted tyre tracks of the lettuce fields, but left to its own devices carrying nothing heavier than foot traffic, it is impossible to get water to lie in the front garden.

Green Island Gardens gravel area had a rather nice pink flowered Watsonia.  The owner explained that this was only possible due to the benign microclimate.  My orange flowered one has come through one winter, and is sending up flower spikes, but last winter was very mild, so it remains to be seen whether it will be viable long term.  In the short term the clump which was planted out last year is looking much, much happier than the ones overwintered in pots and planted out this year, which show no signs of flowering.

Apart from that her gravel plantings were made up of plants which I too use, though her Parahebe perfoliata was bigger than mine.  I first realised that a good place to grow this was in gravel when I saw one doing very well at a Wrabness Open Gardens several years ago, and since then I've seen it used that way at Fullers Mill.  In a pot it will blacken and die as soon as look at you, if over watered, which may account for it being out of fashion in commerce.  I got my plant in a little nine centimetre pot at an RHS show in Vincent Square, and the nurseryman who sold it to me lamented that it was so out of favour.  It is a curious looking plant, whose grey leaves held in opposite pairs clasp the stem so as to create the impression that the stem grows right through them.  The blue flowers carried on droopy tipped spikes are pleasant, but it's the foliage that's the real draw.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

getting to the root of it

It might be coincidence, but the collection of tender plants by the formal pond seems to be growing and flowering better since I went around the pots and dosed them all with a systemic insecticidal drench.  I worked out a method of keeping track of which I'd done, after a false start where I rapidly lost count, which was to put a small pebble on the surface of the compost as I treated each pot.  So many had root aphid when I investigated that I decided I'd better assume that everything that had overwintered in the greenhouse might be infected.  Pelargoniums, Geranium maderense, the dwarf pomegranates, some pale yellow marguerites I took as cuttings from last year's plant, a dwarf leafed grey helichrysum also from cuttings, Tulbaghia, Agapanthus, the lot.  Since the dose they seem to making more leaves, throwing out more flowers, and generally looking healthier.  It could be the weather, but I think it is the liberating effect of not having their root systems preyed on by sap sucking insects.

I spent today mostly in the greenhouse, continuing the process of working my way from one end to the other and treating or throwing away everything.  Again, it seems to me that pots of seedlings I treated, not without misgivings since the drench was strong stuff to give to tiny plants, have turned a better colour and are growing more vigorously, as are the larger seed raised plants I pricked out into modules a while ago.

Root aphid, it seems, will go for almost anything.  I first saw it when I was working at the plant centre, on conifers and bamboo, though it certainly wasn't widespread.  As I now know, the only way to prevent it from becoming widespread if growing in containers under glass is to take prompt action at the first signs of trouble.  I've found it on herbaceous plants, shrubs and succulents.  The visible signs above ground are that the plant lacks vigour, and the foliage can turn dull or unhealthily bronzed or yellow.

Looking to the future, and hoping the root aphid will be relegated to history, a learning experience, before they have time to grow any roots, I've also been taking cuttings.  Sedum 'Abbeydore' and a prostrate form whose name I've lost but which makes great generous red leaved potfuls on the terrace (or patio), a small leaved form of myrtle, Santolina, Fuchsia 'Lottie Hobby' (a sweetie with tiny, vivid pink flowers), Eucomis (putting into practice what I was taught at the Plant Heritage propagation morning), Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum' (needs bottom heat according to consensus of opinion on the internet), Salvia lavandulifolia (worked last year) and a variegated leaf geranium with enormously cheerful cherry red flowers (salvaging the last shoots before consigning the very shabby parent plant to the compost heap).  I already have some cuttings from the geranium coming along, so if this lot strike I'll have more than I need.  Gardening friends, be warned.

Addendum  I gave the swarm another two pounds of sugar made into syrup this morning, and as of this evening they were still in residence.  We were left with rather a lot of bees buzzing around outside the garage where the swarm had been, so I put a nucleus hive there for them, and they mostly went in, especially once it started raining.  Come early evening I took it up to the apiary and put it down by the big hive with the swarm, hoping that the stragglers would recognise the smell of their own colony and return to the fold.  Then I put the rest of the equipment away in the garage, so that come tomorrow if any bees are still hanging around it will be a case of move along now, nothing to see here.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

further confessions of an inept swarm collector

I set the alarm for five o'clock this morning, to go and see to the swarm before they were out and about, and woke at two minutes to.  Old habits die hard.  My plan was to carry the small nuc box up to the apiary, with a hankie stuffed in the door so that the bees couldn't escape, transfer a small colony that was not doing well since my failed attempt at swarm control to my other nuc box, then transfer the swarm to the liberated full size box.  On seeing the swarm Plan A ran into an immediate snag, since there was still a small beard of bees on the front of the hive, so I wasn't going to be able to carry it anywhere.  Squashing bees is wrong, not just because it is a waste and needlessly cruel to the bees, but because all the other bees can smell what you've done, and it makes them cross.

Changing the running order of events, I took the spare nuc box to the apiary to do the swap, giving myself a shock when I forgot which of two hives was the non-doing one, and lifted the lid of the neighbouring hive which was the other half of the swarm control to be greeted by a sea of bees which were doing very nicely, thank you.  There was a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing as I forgot my hive tool and the roof of the nuc box, and had to walk up and down the meadow several times while reflecting that early morning was very beautiful, and that I ought to get up this early more often, if only I were not so infernally sleepy.  Eventually I'd got the little existing colony safely housed, and all the parts of their old box back down to the house.  I am sure that people who keep their bees away from home instead of at the far end of their garden learn to be far more organised when it comes to remembering all the bits of kit they are going to need.

On opening the nuc box with the swarm in it, I saw why they had been so slow to go inside last night, and why a few had camped out overnight.  It was absolutely full of bees.  I lifted the frames into the full size box, wishing that more of the bees would hang on to them instead of falling on to the floor of the nuc or clinging to the walls, then tipped and shook as many bees as I could out of the nuc box into the full sized one, added enough frames to fill it, and put the lid on.  Rather a lot of bees had fallen on to the ground, and I hoped that the queen was not among them.  As long as she was inside the latest box, the rest would probably join her.

Then I made a pint of sugar syrup and put it on the hive over the hole in the crown board so that the bees could reach it, with the roof supported by an eke, hoping that if I bribed them with food they would look kindly on their new quarters, after being rudely transferred from pillar to post.  The swarm was conveniently sited immediately under the sitting room window, which meant that while the bees could under no circumstances live there long term, I had a ringside view of what they were up to.  After a quarter of an hour or so I became suspicious that the bees outside the box were gathering around the base of the eke, with no activity around the entrance hole, went to check and found that in the confusion I had put the entrance block in sideways, so that there was no hole.  I had to disturb them yet again while I prised the box up far enough to turn the block by ninety degrees.

As of half past five they are still in their box.  I was afraid I'd messed them around so much that they would simply abscond.  It drizzled for most of the afternoon, which may have helped keep them put.  The final step, once it is almost dark and they have stopped flying for the day, will be to stuff something in the door, strap the box up and take it in the wheelbarrow up to the apiary.  That account of the task ahead glosses over one or two unknowns, like that I have to get the eke off before strapping them up, because it is heavy and I can't have the bucket feeder rolling around. Which means I have to lift off the roof, take away the feeder and the eke, and get the roof on again without lots of bees spilling out everywhere.

I hope I manage to keep them, since apart from being a large swarm they are fabulously good natured bees to put up with being shaken around so many times, and in thundery weather.  I suppose the moral of the story is that when I saw that one of the colonies from the split brood was going backwards, I should have switched them back into a small hive at once, to leave myself with a spare large one, just in case.  But the idea of hiving a swarm so large that it wouldn't fit into a nuc box didn't feature in my plans.

Addendum  I looked out of the bathroom window, after the bees were fed and settled and I could resume my normal getting up routine and take a shower, and saw a small rabbit hopping nonchalantly around in the rose bed.  I rushed downstairs, fortunately still fully clothed, seized Our Ginger from his basket where he was having an after-breakfast snooze, carried him down to the back garden and stood him in the edge of the rose bed.  I hoped he would be able to smell the fresh scent of rabbit, but if he could he chose to ignore it, since he just stared vaguely at the mass of rose stems and dying Camassia leaves without metamorphosing into a fierce hunter.  I went and collected the big tabby as well, as he was around.  He did at least stay on the lawn looking at the border for a long time, but I think he was simply trying to work out what he'd gone downstairs for. No rabbit carcases appeared for the rest of the day, but to show that they have a sense of humour one of the cats left a small dead shrew in the hall.

Friday, 27 June 2014

a swarm of bees in June

Yesterday it was a passing dog, and today it was a swarm of bees.  I don't think they were out of any of my hives, since they didn't look ready to release swarms, but you never quite know with bees.  I was suspicious yesterday that there were rather too many bees interested in the stack of spare hive parts in the corner of the garage.  Was it simply that they could smell the remnants of honey in the supers, or were they scouts looking for a new home?  When bees are swarming, the main swarm sends out advance parties to research likely sites for a fresh colony, and the swarm then votes on where to go by some method not yet fully understood by science.  Bees will come to investigate the smell of wax and honey, which is why the beekeepers always hold candle making days before April or after September, when there won't be too many bees out and about.  But I always keep my spare equipment in the garage, and the bees aren't normally that interested.  I was suspicious.

All was quiet in the garage first thing this morning, but when I opened the door to get my gardening tools, I was met by a cloud of bees waiting to come in.  Hmn.  I donned my bee suit, went through the pile of boxes to check that they didn't already have bees living in them, and stacked them neatly on the paving outside the garage, ready to put away later.  They needed sorting out anyway, since they were not in a sensible order, with things I only need in the autumn like ekes for feeding having ended up on top of the heap.

Mid morning, as I weeded and planted in the back garden, over the sound of Radio 3 I began to hear the unmistakable sound of a swarm in flight.  At close quarters it is loud, resonant, and unlike anything else.  A cloud of insects appeared by the end of the house, swirling in all directions, and circled around the pile of equipment.  Looked like I had trapped myself a swarm, mine or somebody else's.  After a while the Systems Administrator appeared looking agitated, and wanting to know whether I had seen the bees.  I explained that I had, but that I couldn't do anything about them until they had stopped flying.  I was pretty sure they were going into the boxes, so once they had decided which box to live in and formed a cluster, I would dismantle the stack and shake them into a nuc box, and take the box up to the apiary.  The Systems Administrator went and lit a small fire in the grate, in case this plan did not work and they went down the chimney.

And that is as far as I got with my plan to deal with the bees when it was time to go on a local horticultural society garden visit.  I wanted the bees to settle down in their stack and stop flying before I tried to transfer them anyway, so there was no point in not going to see the garden.  I will let you know how it went in due course.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

our temporary dog

I was weeding by the compost bins when a flash of movement caught my eye.  I looked up in time to see a brownish streak, of which my mind registered nothing more than that it was brown, followed in hot pursuit by a small terrier.  My mind instantly categorised the brown streak as a cat, and I began to worry about the safety of Our Ginger, given that he does sometimes go up the side of the wood, while thinking that given the direction the two had appeared from, it was probably the neighbours' cat.  Our Ginger does not go very far up the meadow, so the terrier would have been well into our property before they met.  The dog having flushed out the neighbours' cat in the lane and followed it all the way down seemed more likely.

I got up from my knees, and set off in search of the terrier, the quarry, and any reassuring sight of our cats as not being involved.  I caught a brief glimpse of the dog, as it grinned at me amiably and disappeared under the workshop, but no cats at all, neither ours nor anybody else's.  I went to tell the Systems Administrator, who was mowing the lawn, that we had a strange and predatory dog on the premises, and not to let the chickens out until it was rounded up.

After a while the terrier came out from under the workshop, and flopped down at my feet, looking friendly.  It was mostly wire haired Jack Russell, elderly and slightly overweight, though as I had seen with an impressive turn of speed when aroused.  It had a red collar, but no tag, telephone number, or name of either the dog or (more pertinently) the owner.  I hung on to the collar while the SA found a piece of rope, and we took it to the front door and gave it a drink of water.  The terrier seemed entirely happy to be kidnapped, and so it seemed that until we could find whoever had lost it, we were in temporary custody of a dog on a piece of rope.

The SA took the terrier down to the public footpath by the farmyard, to see if any dog walkers were missing a dog, while I walked up the meadow to the apiary to see if I could hear anybody calling. They were ploughing in the field next to us, which made it difficult to tell whether anyone was shouting or whistling or not.  The SA returned, still with the dog, saying that there was no-one about on the footpath at all.  The SA recognises many of the local dogs from their walks, but didn't recall meeting this one before.

After that we were not sure who to call.  The RSPCA?  But nowadays they seem mainly concerned with prosecutions for animal cruelty.  The police?  I rang the non-urgent police number, but was told that the police no longer had any responsibility for reports of lost dogs, and that I needed to call the Dog Warden.  It took several goes with the council to track down the dog warden, at which point the SA appeared to say that somebody was calling at the far end of the wood.  The end of the wood is so congested with fallen trees, brambles and blackthorn that their chances of making their way through to pursue or reclaim their dog were pretty much nil, and after much shouting we agreed to take the dog to the entrance of the next farm up the road beyond the lettuce farm, so the SA got to go for a walk to the end of the lane and round the corner leading a dog on a piece of rope.

Presently the SA returned, saying that the dog lived in one of the cottages on the corner, and was being walked by somebody who wasn't her owner when she broke her lead and set off in hot pursuit of next door's cat.  She was a rescue dog, who could never be let off the lead because she would instantly disappear, with the added quality of being happy to make friends and move in with anybody.  The next door's cat reappeared while this was being explained, looking none the worse for its experience.  I'd have thought, though, that if you had a dog you knew was liable to bolt off at the sight of a cat or a rabbit, it would be sensible to put your name and phone number on its collar. At least we'll know where to take her if she calls round again.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

my turn to cook

I have been unleashing my inner domestic goddess, and cooking.  This evening I blind baked a shortcrust pastry case that will form the basis of a flan for tomorrow's lunch.  I meant to make it last night for today's lunch, but ran out of time and energy, and since I was out all of this morning I couldn't have made a quiche for lunch anyway.  While the pastry was cooking I dissolved a can of caramelised condensed milk plus additional brown sugar in some ordinary milk, a task so mundane I'm not sure it counts as cooking.  This will form the basis of Dulche du Leche ice cream, once it is chilled, and frozen down with even more cream.  And I made a bread and butter pudding for breakfast.  Mine, not the Systems Administrator's, who does not share my enthusiasm for bread puddings.  It has all the right ingredients of breakfast (bread + butter = toast), eggs, milk and raisins (components of muesli), but not necessarily in the right order.

Last night's supper was a one-pot exercise in Mitteleuropean nostalgia from Gretel Beer, erdaepfelgulash, or potato goulash.  You peel and slice your potatoes, she suggests to about the thickness of a pencil, chop an onion, snip up a slice of bacon, fry the bacon lightly, add the onions and fry the mixture some more, then add the potatoes, salt and pepper, paprika, a pinch of marjoram, and caraway seeds.  I didn't bother with the salt, because I don't, except for bread, and substituted a little smoked paprika for the caraway seeds because the SA doesn't like them.  Stir it around, add enough water to cover, and some frankfurters chopped up.

I used Waitrose's best Bavarian ones, which were not as alarmingly pink as some.  Years ago, I tried her recipe for beef stuck through with frankfurters, and the pink dye from the sausages spread out through the meat like an O level chemistry chromograph.  It was vaguely off-putting.  On the basis that the Germans are very strict about what goes into their beer, I hoped that the best Bavarian frankfurters would be similarly pure.  It was a good stew, for very little effort, and I recommend it.

Tonight's stuffed green peppers, except that they are red because that was what needed using up in the fridge, created altogether more washing up, since they are cooked in a home made tomato sauce which involves rubbing a cooked tomato and fried onion mixture through a sieve.  I always feel that anything that requires ingredients to be pushed through a sieve really calls for the services of a thirteen year old scullery maid, but we don't have one of those.  The minced pork is mixed with more fried onion, and par-boiled rice, but not cooked before being stuffed into the peppers, and I am now nervous (a) that the resulting dish will be fatty and (b) that it won't be cooked through, and I'll give us food poisoning.  You can see why people resort to ready meals.

Addendum  There is an entertaining online English vocabulary quiz, which I came to via a link from an article in the Telegraph.  The Telegraph presents it as research into gender differences in vocabulary, but whatever it is investigating I'm pretty sure it's not that.  You have to identify a series of genuine and made-up words as genuine or made-up, with heavy but unspecified penalties for false positives.  The spellings are American, and some of the words are tricky not because you can't recognise their component parts and hazard a guess at what they might mean, but because you aren't sure whether the root word declines or conjugates or whatever the term is like that.  My score jumped from 73 per cent at the first go to 87 per cent on the second.  I don't know how one amalgamates scores from multiple tests when giving subjects just one practice run can change their performance so much.  When second time around I went for feedback on the true words I hadn't known (no false positive either time) I discovered that they were measuring response times.  Which still doesn't let me work out what the experimenters are actually testing for.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

sombre times in Colchester

The verges on either side of the road leading into Colchester are still sealed off by the police. There are police cars parked at each end, on both sides of the dual carriageway, and the verges are closed to pedestrians by swathes of blue and white police tape.  Essex Police have brought in reinforcements from outside: yesterday the Systems Administrator saw a Met Police dog team van. It was on yesterday's news that they had drained a nearby lake in the search for the weapon, or any other clue, and this afternoon it was announced a resident had found a knife in the road in the nearby Greenstead estate.  All of this is of course because of the fatal stabbing of Saudi graduate student Nahid Almanea, in broad daylight.

And on Sunday morning as we walked through Colchester Castle Park from the car park in Cowdray Avenue to a friend's house in the Dutch Quarter for her birthday lunch, we passed the posters appealing for witnesses or information about the killing of James Attfield, who was stabbed more than a hundred times.  That attack took place less than three months ago, at the end of March.

The headlines in the local paper today screamed that we have a maniac at loose among us.  The police are being more guarded in their public statements as to whether the two murders are linked. They might be, they might not.  The death of the poor Saudi student has been getting regular cover on the national news bulletins.  The killing of James Attfield didn't get so much national attention (though there is an appeal on the Crimewatch website), which makes me rather uncomfortable.  Is it that murders which happen late at night seem less threatening to the rest of us than those which happen in the middle of the morning, when anybody might be out and about?  Does the gender of the two victims have anything to do with it?  Did the fact that James Attfield had previously suffered a brain injury in a car accident make his a less compelling death?  That's a nasty thought.

I rather wish the police had been more careful and nuanced in how they expressed the idea that Nahid Almanea might have been singled out for attack because of her Islamic dress.  That is a possibility, but so far as we know there is not yet any evidence for it.  If it should emerge later on that she was killed for some other reason, by somebody known to her, or a serial killer who would have killed anybody who happened to be there at the time, it will be too late by then to undo the effects of the headlines like the one in yesterday's Independent, thousands attend the funeral of woman killed for being a Muslim.  Tens of thousands of Muslims are going to believe that now, whatever the eventual truth turns out to be.

It is not a nice thought at all, that two people have been stabbed to death in the locality in the past three months, and that whoever did it is still at large in the community, and managed to return home without anybody else noticing or reporting that they were heavily stained with blood.  Not nice at all.

Monday, 23 June 2014

old habits

It's good having a laptop that can hold a charge for an hour or two.  Even better for the Systems Administrator than me, since when I was sitting at the kitchen table reading The Telegraph on line with my breakfast, it was the SA who had to step over the power cable to get to the sink.  It didn't make much of a difference to me whether the machine was plugged in or not, apart from the times when I needed to print, or the jack plug came loose without my noticing.

In fact it's proving hard to shake off the habit of taking the power cable with me each time I transfer operations from the sofa to the table or back again.  I am so used to pulling the plug out at the sitting room end, looping up the cable and plugging in again in the kitchen, I forget that I don't need to do that, now the battery is fully conditioned and I can leave the laptop plugged in on the hearthrug to top up when I'm not using it.  When I studied biology at school, rather a long time ago, one of the things we learned about was a little, forest dwelling mouse.  It had its regular tracks around the forest floor, and when it came to a twig across its tiny path it would jump over it.  If you removed the twig, when the mouse came to the place where the twig used to be, it would still jump. I laughed at that mouse, aged fifteen, but I don't now.  I know how it felt.

In the front garden this afternoon a baby bird appeared, looking like a large duckling on stilts.  The SA asked me what on earth that was, I don't know why since the SA normally is a far better ornithologist than I was.  Looking at the baby's large, long toed but not webbed feet, I opined that it was a young moorhen.  How it got to the front garden is a mystery.  They live down on the farm reservoir, but not normally in our garden.  Perhaps it wandered along the ditch, and up through the wood.  That seems more likely than that it marched up the lane from the farmyard.  Shortly before it appeared, the SA had put up the temporary netting barriers we use to discourage the chickens from disappearing along the side of the wood when they are let out for chicken exercise time, so maybe the moorhen found itself on the wrong side of the gate.

The black cat suddenly noticed it, and began to advance towards it with a determined expression and slightly unsteady gait.  He used to be a competent hunter in his younger days, before he broke his leg, but has mostly given up in the last couple of years.  The sight of a giant baby bird running around in broad daylight right in front of his eyes must have brought back old memories and desires.  I scooped him up, took him inside, and distracted him with the second half of a pouch of Sheba left over from lunchtime, and the moorhen swiftly took cover in a jungle of euphorbias and lavender and disappeared.  The cats are all inside now, lying down, so it will have to sort itself out. Let us hope it does not meet Black and White Alsatian Killer, otherwise I'm afraid it's toast.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

the cost of culture

I was talking today to one of the organisers of Dedham Films.  They are one of the many film clubs that have sprung up around the UK in recent years, and they are doing it in some style, in the elegant setting of Dedham's Assembly Rooms and with some very expensive, state of the art equipment.  They have recently signed up with the National Theatre to screen live performances of the NT's own productions, and from various other top class venues.  I have not yet been to a cinema projection of a stage play, but my Pilates teacher who saw Sir Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth on screen said that it was gripping, and less muddy and damp than being in the live audience.  The downside to gaining National Theatre Screen rights is that clubs have to take the whole season as a package, and she was afraid that the audience for Medea on 4th September was going to consist of six people, tops.  Would I like to go, she enquired hopefully.  Perhaps I might.  The last time I went to a Greek tragedy was well over twenty-five years ago, when a friend was left with a spare ticket for the Almeida, and I recall it being gory, but satisfying.  On the other hand, I could go and see Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in David Hare's Skylight.  A premium ticket to see that in the theatre would set me back nearly a hundred pounds, as the Telegraph highlighted a couple of days ago (West End premium ticket prices treble in ten years) and anyway it is virtually sold out.  On screen at Dedham it would cost one tenth as much, while a cinema ticket would be four pounds.

Today's Telegraph has a complaint from cash-strapped millennial Radhika Sanghani that she and her friends can't afford culture.  West End theatre prices are too high, let alone opera or ballet, while a ticket to the Arctic Monkeys set someone back half a week's wages.  Er, yes, but the Arctic Monkey's debut album was the fastest selling album in British history, they have won seven Brit Awards, and the Mercury prize, and headlined at Glastonbury twice.  To say that because you can't afford to go and see the Arctic Monkeys live, you can't afford culture is like me saying that because I can't go for dinner at le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, I can't afford to eat.

It seems disingenuous to equate Culture with the various types of live stage performance.  I get a lot of my Culture fix from the visual arts, and a great deal of it is free.  If you are happy to look at permanent collections then there are great tracts of world class fine art free to view, all over the UK.  Tickets for temporary exhibitions will set you back between about six and around sixteen pounds, not negligible for anyone on a low income, but a lot less than The Book of Mormon.  Or live classical music, as soon as you get outside the ambit of the really big name stars and full symphony orchestras.  If Radhika Sanghani can arrange her day so that she can take a slightly long lunch hour once in a while, she will find world class chamber musicians performing at venues all over London for between ten pounds and twelve pounds fifty a ticket.  Not negligible, but less than you would easily spend on a bottle of wine in a London wine bar.  Or there are less famous but still good musicians performing for nothing but a retiring collection, or free as part of summer arts festivals, if you keep your eyes peeled.  Even Colchester runs to free lunchtime recitals, while all around the country music societies putting on evening recitals would welcome a new twenty-something cohort of audience members with tears of gratitude.

Or if chamber music really doesn't appeal, folk and jazz come pretty affordable.  I tend to give jazz a wide berth myself, unless duty or sociability takes me with people I know, and then I always remember how much I don't like jazz.  But I do like folk, and it is really quite difficult to spend more than twenty pounds on a ticket for a folk gig.  Somewhere between eight and sixteen pounds normally does it comfortably.

If she and her friends must have live stage performance, they could look outside the West End.  The excellent Park Theatre in north London prices tickets for its 200 seat auditorium at nineteen pounds fifty, less for previews, with concessions for local residents.  Pricing at Colchester's Mercury is similar, although I was shocked just now when I looked and saw how much the Almeida is nowadays. But as the spokesperson for Wyndham's theatre said helpfully, in case the Telegraph journalist had never known or had forgotten the basic principles of supply and demand, when you have a strictly limited supply of something, in this case Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy live on stage with a relatively small number of seats, for a relatively short number of weeks, and lots of people who would like to sit in those seats, the price tends to be high.

So sorry, Radhika, tickets for the Book of Mormon are expensive, and likely to stay that way.  So are couture clothing, first class long haul air travel, or Premier league football club season tickets. It doesn't mean that you and your friends can't enjoy culture, any more than it means you can't wear clothes, fly, ever go on holiday, or watch sport.  You just need to look more broadly at what sort of culture is out there.  Honestly, there's lots.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

summer solstice

Today is the summer solstice.  It was celebrated at Stonehenge by 37,000 people who gathered around the stones overnight to watch the sunrise, according to the Independent.  I found myself wondering how English Heritage had accommodated their visit.  Did they all book tickets in advance, as you are now required to do, paying £13.90 a head (unless they were members of the National Trust or English Heritage), and get the shuttle to travel the one and a half miles from the swanky new £27 million visitor centre to the stones?  That doesn't sound very pagan.  Or did they file in a great procession?  After all, they had plenty of time to fill, since the sun doesn't come up until around five, even on the longest day in southern Britain.  The photograph in the Independent doesn't look at all mystical, ne'er a druidical robe in sight, just a lot of people in sweatshirts and anoraks.  It gets parky at night on Salisbury plain, even in late June.  They are standing about patiently, not unlike commuters waiting for news of their delayed train at Liverpool street, except that several have mobile phones or cameras lifted above their heads to take pictures of the sunrise.  You couldn't honestly call them 'revellers', although Independent does.

They've all gone home now, and English Heritage have closed the site for the rest of the day, while they clear up.  That is almost as sweet as the story about the Japanese football fans at the World Cup, who took black bin bags to their first game (which Japan lost) and stayed after the match to pick up the rubbish in the stadium.

If I were going to make the tremendous effort of staying up all night, or even getting up early enough to see the sun rise, I'm not sure I'd bother to do it for the summer solstice.  I'd probably rather save myself for the dawn chorus, and get up earlier in the year, when the birds would be in full song.  Sunrise would be a bit later, too, so getting up would be less of a shock to the system.  I certainly wouldn't go and stand with 36,999 other people if I wanted to experience mystical union with nature.  Nobody else would be better, or at most the Systems Administrator or one or two close friends.  The English tradition of celebrating the summer solstice sounds pretty muted anyway, according to Wikipedia.  The key date is not the solstice, but Midsummer Eve, 23rd June, and since the church tried to ban gluttony, lechery and mystery plays through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, about the only genuine extant tradition seems to have been lighting bonfires.  Which I'm sure you aren't allowed to do at Stonehenge, among a crowd of 37,000.  As for doing as the druids did, I don't believe that was recorded for posterity, so whatever modern druids do is entirely made up.  No harm in that, but it doesn't have any more mystical significance than the Charleston, or Gangnam style.

If you want to get an idea of what Stonehenge might have been about, I would just stay in your armchair and read John Masefield, and let your imagination wander:

Up on the downs the red eyed kestrels hover,
Eyeing the grass.
The field-mouse flits like a shadow into cover
As their shadows pass.

Men are burning the gorse on the down's shoulder;
A drift of smoke
Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,
And the lungs choke.

Once the tribes did thus on the downs, on these downs burning
Men in the frame.
Called to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
And the gods came.

And to-day on the downs, in the wind, the hawks, the grasses,
In blood and air,
Something passes me and cries as it passes.
On the chalk downland bare.

And yes, I know it is about downland and not the plain, and there are no stones, and we don't know what Stonehenge was used for or whether sacrifice had anything to do with it.  But doesn't in conjure the spirit of what the monument might have been about or been like, when it had a current meaning and resonance, and no fences or shuttles or £27 million visitor centre, and there weren't 37,000 photo-taking non-revelling revellers standing politely in their anoraks, as if at a railway station?

Meanwhile in the garden all sorts of plants will know that the season has turned, and the nights are getting longer.  Long-night species like chrysanthemums, that have held off flowering so far, will detect as the days get short enough and the nights long enough to trigger flowering, and some trees will know that it is autumn, and that they must make buds safe for next year.  Nature is still truly in touch with the solstice, even if we aren't nowadays.

Friday, 20 June 2014

technical upgrade

The Systems Administrator ordered and fitted a new battery for my laptop.  This is revelationary, or revolutionary, or both.  The old battery had got to the point where it would not really hold a charge at all, and even taking the laptop through to the study and trying to print a simple document was apt to end in failure because the computer shut down before it had finished downloading the instructions to print unless I took the power cable too and plugged the laptop in for the whole three minutes or so it took me to hook it up to the printer and fiddle around with print menus.  (Obviously this would not have been an issue if we had got wireless printing to work, but we didn't, and it would be easier to print if the printer did not live on a low Ikea coffee table while the laptop has to go on the floor, but we'll sort that out at some point when we tidy up the study.)

I am typing this with the laptop, which was 99 per cent fully charged when I started, unplugged so that the new battery can start deep cycling a few times to condition it.  It has made me realise how deeply ingrained had become the unconscious habit of reaching forward periodically to check that that the power cable was still securely plumbed in to the back left hand corner of the machine.  If it is not pushed absolutely all the way home, the laptop doesn't charge, and the first I know of it is when the screen goes blank, followed by the message in that alarming primitive white font on a black ground that the system had shut down because the battery had reached a critical level, saving my data to disc, and that I needed to attach to a power supply and the system would automatically reboot in 13...12...11...10 seconds.

Now that the laptop has got a working battery, it is trying to calibrate itself versus my power consumption.  My battery charge has already gone down from 99 to 85 per cent, on the other hand my estimated time remaining has gone up.  Typing (rather slowly) in Blogger can't use very much power.

I retract that last sentence.  My available time has dropped, in the space of two minutes, from two hours twenty-seven minutes to one hour forty-two minutes.  And now it is back up to two hours twenty-one.  The computer is clearly confused.

As long as it isn't one of those batteries which explodes while charging I'm sure we'll be fine.

Addendum  I am rather sorry to have discovered that Labour are not going to give everybody an owl if they win the election.  As I have already placed on record, I should like a pet owl.  Almost as much as I'd like to be a fly on the wall at any future negotiation between Labour and the Lib Dems in which the owl question was thrashed out as part of the coalition agreement.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

plants by post

I was watering the pots in the back garden when I heard the crunch of wheels on the gravel at the front.  I assumed it was the postman, but when I'd finished watering discovered a cardboard box labelled Plants: Fragile on the front doorstep.  It was the right way up, and not squashed or buckled, which was a good start.

Now I do not have the convenience of shopping at my place of work, not to mention the staff discount, I am branching out to explore new suppliers' lists.  Not that I need many plants nowadays, quite large parts of the garden are stuffed to bursting.  But I wanted some verbascums to add a vertical accent to one bed, and found that the Lincolnshire nursery who offered the variety I was after did some other interesting things as well.  And it seemed stupid to pay the standard postage and packing charge on just three verbascums.

I am a fan of mail order plants, as I am of mail order most things.  True, you do not see the plant before it arrives, and there is a risk that rather than lose the business the nursery will shove some stunted, pot-bound, diseased or otherwise unsatisfactory plant into the box and hope for the best. But a sensible nursery won't do that, and if you aren't happy with what they send out, you need never deal with them again.  Choosing plants from the comfort of your own sofa, with your reference books and the full resources of the internet to hand, has a lot to be said for it.  You can seek multiple opinions on whether the plant that has caught your eye is likely to thrive in your conditions, and it is easier to maintain a level head and reject a picture and a description, however enticing, than it is to leave the actual, growing plant where it is on the garden centre bench.  And nowadays organised suppliers run real time stock updates on their websites, so you can place the order and be fairly sure that the plants you have chosen will be arriving, rather than extracting a vague promise from a shop that they will put you down for a plant and let you know when they have it.

Besides the verbascum I was originally looking for, I discovered that the man in Lincolnshire could do me some interesting plants for the conservatory, and so I am now the owner of two new begonias and a Dicliptera sericea.   One of the begonias is a fancy, named form of Begonia evansiana, which I had before and managed to lose, goodness knows how because it produced multiple plantlets in its leaf axils and so once you have one you can have twenty.  I think that was the problem, and I think I over watered the corms in their dormant state in the winter.  B. evansiana grows around a foot tall, and has luscious leaves with red undersides, and pink typical begonia flowers, quite dainty.  It is almost hardy in a sheltered spot, and after ordering my 'Claret Jug' I discovered a couple coming up outside, where I tried them at the foot of a Tetrapanax a year or two back, aiming for the exotic look.  That's OK.

Begonia luxurians will be even more exciting, if it survives the winter in the conservatory.  It produces big, architectural leaves, and is capable of growing several feet tall.  Exactly how big depends on who you read, and how long it keeps going before being cut to the ground.  Some sources say it needs a minimum winter temperature of ten degrees, to which I say, dream on, but others say that frost free will do it.  For under a fiver it's worth giving it a go, since it would look very handsome against the back wall of the conservatory.

I'm also trying Dicliptera sericea, a tender, grey leaved sun lover, which should produce orange tubular flowers, and I read somewhere would be happy in a pot.  Indeed, Will Giles (he of the wonderful Exotic Garden in Norwich) says that mature clumps are easily splittable.  If mine survives to make a mature clump, and will split, I could even try a piece outside in the gravel.  The drainage is so very free, I might get away with it in a mild winter.  Experiments like that are more fun with an extra plant you have made yourself than with your only plant, which you have paid good money for.  You don't often see Dicliptera offered for sale, but that is just as likely to be because it is unknown and unfashionable as to indicate that it is difficult.

Plants by post do tend to look rather dishevelled when you unwrap them, so you need a little confidence that once they have been allowed to breathe and see the light, they will be fine.  The Dibleys order of Streptocarpus, plus one odd Begonia and a Tradescantia, which arrived a week or so ago are looking much happier now.  Dibleys send most of their plants out as young rooted plugs, and when first prised from their plastic boxes they are slightly sad little things, but potted into tiny clay pots (I had a panic finding enough that were small enough) and stood in semi shade for a week, allowed to dry out slightly between each watering, they look quite perky now.  I transferred them down to the conservatory this morning, together with the Lincolnshire begonias and the Dicliptera, and briefly exercised my imagination as to how floral and jungly they would look when they were all full pots smothered with flowers, like on the Dibleys website, instead of three leaves and at most one flower per extremely small pot.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

multi tasking

I am going to try an experiment in a couple of minutes, and type today's blog post while listening to the Radio 2 Folk Show.  Normally I never have the radio on when I'm writing anything, even a shopping list, and I'm amazed by all the people who put in requests on Classic FM 'to help them with their revision', or who are slaving over their final year Dissertation, or working on a marketing report.  How anyone could revise for an exam with music on is a puzzle, let alone the excitement of waiting to hear whether your name is going to be read out.  Driving from Newcastle to Plymouth, fair enough, or tiling the bathroom, or weeding, but not revising for exams.  I even have to put the radio off if I'm setting out pots in new areas of planting.

I'm banking on the fact that I probably won't really like everything in the show.  If and when Mark Radcliffe plays something I think is wonderful, I can stop typing and listen.  The tracks I don't like so much I can filter out.  It's just as well that I don't love everything he chooses, otherwise I would be left yearning for more CDs than I could afford to buy, or have time to listen to.

Hmn.  He's started with Cara Dillon.  I haven't actually stopped writing, but I have half an ear cocked.  She is back on the folk scene after a slight hiatus while her children were small, with a new album.  I confidently predict now that it will be a hot contender for the 2015 BBC Folk Awards album of the year.  The method by which the short list for the awards is drawn up is slightly opaque, but the folk powers that be like Cara Dillon.  So do I, and she is quite astonishingly pretty.  I saw her at the Colchester Arts Centre with my dad, who was equally of the opinion that she was the most beautiful guest he'd seen for years, but he still prefers the gutsier singing style of Julie Murphy.

Now we're on to a track from a Manchester group whose name I didn't catch, because I was talking. The effect is rather funky, as if the Talking Heads had been crossed with a banjo.  That's the great thing about the interweb (that the young people use), you can always look up what something was after you've discovered whether you like it.  As long as you remember roughly when you heard it. This week's folk programme is straightforward, but tracking down a piece of harpsichord music I know I heard at some point on Radio 3, except that I can't remember if it was yesterday, the day before, or if in fact it was one of the guest's choices on Private Passions as long ago as last Sunday can be harder.

OK, waiting for the next track.  So I can type a paragraph in the time taken by a folk track.  On the other hand typing the first draft of anything is the fast part.  It's the proof reading that takes the time.  Not so much spelling, in the days of spell checker, but trying to make sure you haven't used the same word four times in two sentences.  Lexical facilitation, they used to call it when I did my psychology degree a long time ago, the idea being that once you've used a word, it is activated, live and hopping in your brain, ready to go again.  The third track turned out to be an A Capella American civil rights song, quite good, but not enough to send me scuttling to bookmark it on Amazon.

OK, that's enough of that.  It is possible to write, while listening with half an ear if not whole hearted attention, but how anyone could revise meaningfully for exams, let alone finish their Dissertation, is beyond me.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

things are getting dry

The watering season in the garden has begun in earnest.  For weeks now irrigation rigs have been swooshing away in the surrounding fields, sending slowly rotating arcs of water out over the potatoes and wheat.  The garden has hung on, everything other than the newly planted left to its own devices and coping.  It helped that we had a wet winter, so the ground went into summer loaded with moisture.  Plus I aim to grow things that can cope with the local conditions, sandy soil through half the garden, and low rainfall.  And unlike the farmers I am not trying to get a commercial yield.

I was shocked on Thursday, just as I was climbing into the car to go out, to spot a highly distressed and dessicated Prunus in the long bed.  I must admit, I'd forgotten all about it in recent days and hadn't watered it, but it has been watered since planting and until last week was doing fine. Suddenly, with higher temperatures, sun, and no meaningful rainfall, conditions have tipped over into gardening drought, at least for the sandy beds in the front garden.  I poured a can of water on the Prunus before going out, and another the next day, and it may pull round, or it may not.  Maybe I should cut memory out of the process entirely when it comes to watering newly planted things, keep a list , and note the date when I water each plant on it, like those cleaning check lists on supermarket loos.

This morning, as I searched for places to plant the hyacinths from this year's pots in the ground, I looked carefully at the condition of the long border.  In the tell-tale worst areas of soil, where even species praised for their drought tolerance in all my books on gravel and Mediterranean gardening have been known to remain stunted and shrivelled, the remaining tough survivors and the volunteers like Verbascum nigrum were beginning to flag.  There's no rain to speak of forecast for this week, and experience teaches that it is time to start watering.  The first plants to show distress are always those in the worst soil, and the newly planted, but as the week goes on they will be joined by anything that went in last year and doesn't yet have a fully mature root system, and those species that are not ultra drought resistant.  The front garden generally goes first, because it is on the lightest soil, then the back garden follows.

Today was the turn of the dahlia bed.  I fenced the chickens off the dahlias in good time this year, unlike last, but was slow to act against slugs and snails.  The poor dahlias spent a week or two having every attempt at making leaves eaten back to stumps, before I realised that they really ought to be showing some growth that far into May, risk of late frosts notwithstanding.  I put down slug pellets, reluctantly but it was that or no dahlias, and they finally began to make progress, but I thought that after such a dodgy start to the season they could do with some help.  Their bed has received plenty of organic material over the years, but has sharp drainage, which allows me over-winter them successfully in the ground, but means they do need the odd soaking in summer.

After the dahlias it was the turn of the Malus 'Red Sentinel'.  I have a group of three growing in gravel and within competing root distance of the boundary hedge, while two are on the edge of one of the veins of really spectacularly poor soil.  They are getting fish, blood and bone as well as water, and looking at them I think I had better try and water them weekly between now and the end of summer.  They have made very little extension growth this year, which tells me that they are not happy trees.

Tomorrow I'll start on the long bed.  We don't have an overhead sprayer.  Instead I put the hose with its normal spray gun switched on, resting on the ground so that it sprays water over the root area of the plant I want to water, and get on with weeding or trimming nearby for a few minutes until that plant or little group of plants has had a good soaking.  Then I move the hose and continue weeding and pruning.  I think about where I need to use water, and the water goes straight on to the ground instead of being sprinkled over the foliage or blown out of the bed entirely.  I experimented with leaky hose, a long time ago, but couldn't get it to work for me.  The water doesn't move that far sideways from the hose, so if you have a dense matrix of planting rather than a limited number of key shrubs each covering a lot of space, you need multiple runs of hose to cover the whole bed.  And it always showed, and I had to water an entire area, not focus water on the plants that most needed it.

Monday, 16 June 2014

the half hearted topiarist

Derby Day is the traditional date to cut your box hedges, which means I am only ten days late, and counting, since I am not half way round all the box yet.   I write 'all the box',but  in truth there isn't very much, just enough to remind me why I don't have more.  I am not temperamentally suited to formal clipping, and shrubs under my care tend to grow larger year by year.  Things that are supposed to be neat, geometric shapes get fatter and more cushiony with each passing season, while everything else simply gets bigger and more joyously sprawling.  I am always amazed when I see plants in other people's gardens, like Philadelphus and dwarf lilac, that have been topiarised into neat domes.  Given the choice between Abelia cushions and Abelia grown au naturel, the twiggy look wins in my garden.  Even the Osmanthus delavayi which is supposed to be forming a giant ball at one corner of a bed, an idea I copied from Christopher Lloyd, is bulging out over the lawn because I am not disciplined enough with the secateurs.

I have sometimes thought that gardens filled with neat formal hedges and topiary are for owners who can afford to employ gardeners.  They are not hobbyists' gardens, places where those who love plants can play with the objects of their affections, but places to inhabit, viewing the fruits of other peoples' labour.  Maybe there is even an element of conspicuous consumption, showing off to your friends and business associates that you can employ the staff to do all this intricate, time consuming and repetitive work.  But that isn't necessarily true.  The lovely garden at Herterton House in Northumberland which we visited a couple of years ago has been built and maintained by its owners, and when we went there we met owner Frank Lawley, who must be into his seventies, balanced a long way up a ladder in September trimming one of his many hedges, and apparently enjoying himself.

I don't dislike cutting the box, I just lack the application to get all the way round as often as I ought to.  This summer it got particularly bad, since I didn't manage to finish cutting all of it the last time I tackled it, and entirely missed some tricky bits where it was overhung by roses, resulting in some random edged patches of different lengths.  If ever an area of garden screamed I am a work in progress/renovation project, it has been our box edged rose bed this year.  I'm having to take the sides hard back as well in places, since two sides of the square have ended up about twice as wide as they really ought to be.  Even now I am not brave enough to take the sides back as far as I really should, but I am trying to reduce the width of the hedge to a size it is possible for somebody with fairly short legs to step over it.

The scorched, circular pale patches along the side next to the lawn are not a mystery.  They are exactly at feline bum height, and I know the cause is the cats spraying.  Indeed, Our Ginger came and gave the front of the hedge a top-up while I was cutting the top, and I had to switch to cutting the edge of the lawn for an hour to give it time to dry.  I wish they wouldn't do that, but it is in cats' nature to scent mark their territory with urine, so it's only when they do it indoors that I feel entitled to be cross.  The damage to the box looks bad, but is superficial, and if you cut out the scorched tips the wood soon regenerates from lower down.  I am more concerned about a few mottled, pale patches on the top, which were slow to come into growth.  Are they box blight?  Or did I trim that part of the hedge before just as the weather turned hot, or cold, so that the newly cut ends were damaged?  I am really not sure.  I have looked at the pictures of blighted box on the RHS website, and my hedge, and it could be blight, or it might not be.  As the effects of the cat pee show, and the miserable appearance of box that has been unlucky enough to be trimmed just before a heatwave, all sorts of things can produce grey and shrivelled leaves on a box hedge.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

root aphids

The root aphid is a nuisance.  I found it on a large pot of Watsonia pillansii that I was intending to turf out into the gravel planting of spiky things and exotics, having seen how well all the other Watsonia I'd already planted outside was doing.  Watsonia are South African plants, common names Bugle Lily or Beatrice watsonia according to the Garden Museum, though I'd never heard it called by either of those.  I raised my plants from seed, which germinated easily enough, and initially kept my stock in pots because I didn't think they'd necessarily make it through the UK winters outside.  I made up one large terracotta pot's worth, which went to stand with the dahlias over the summer, and the other plants remained in 2 litre pots in the greenhouse while I tried to work out what to do with them.

The plants in the greenhouse produced a few agreeable tall spikes of apricot coloured tubular flowers, but didn't look altogether happy with life in their pots, and last year I tried planting some out in the gravel.  They came through the winter, which was admittedly milder than we've had in recent years, and by spring looked so much better than the ones left in the greenhouse that I planted them out as well.  Meanwhile, the ones in the terracotta pot bloomed last summer, but not enough to justify their space under glass over the winter, and I decided to go whole hog and plant them out as well.  Which is when I found they had root aphid.

I dosed the rootball with a Provado drench, and will plant it out tomorrow.  The manager at the plant centre used to say that root aphid was not such an issue in the open ground as it is in pots, so I hope that the Watsonia will outgrow the problem, and that will be the end of that, as far as it is concerned.  Meanwhile, I also found root aphid on some nameless things which I think are some species of sedum, cadged from a gardening friend, and which I would be terrified of if I weren't proposing to plant them in quite such an arid and inhospitable place.  They got treated.  A gazania I raised from seed, which has been hanging around in its pot for ages, and which proved to have lurid yellow flowers when it finally bloomed, went in a sack of material destined for the dump, when I found it too had aphid.

I am forced to the reluctant conclusion that I will have to work my way through the greenhouse, checking everything and treating or chucking it as appropriate.  It will certainly concentrate my mind on whether I have any actual use for each plant, as the Provado drench is expensive.  I will have to learn my lesson, and let you take it as an awful warning, to treat early signs of root aphid in a greenhouse as seriously as the first signs of clothes moth damage in your house.  It is not safe to assume that it is an isolated incident, and that now you have thrown away the affected plant, or garment, it has gone away.  It hasn't, and will probably get worse unless you track the infection to its source and deal with it.

Addendum  We did not stay up to watch the football.  The first news I heard on Radio 4, when I pottered down to the kitchen this morning and put the radio on, was a doleful announcement that it was the end of the World Cup for Gary Lewin.  I'd never heard of Gary Lewin, but assumed he was one of the England team.  Later on I discovered what had actually happened, which was that the England physio twisted his ankle jumping up and down to celebrate the team's one goal in their first match, which they lost.  That just about sums up English football.  I hope the announcers on Radio 3 are not going to feel compelled to keep mentioning the World Cup as often as they did today, but I fear that they will.  The new controller still hasn't been named (unless Google is hiding the news very carefully) but with any luck he or she will act swiftly to counteract the embarrassing standing instruction left by the departed Roger Wright for presenters to try to  be hip and down with the kids.  The overlap between people who listen to Radio 3 and people who have any interest at all in football is almost certainly vanishingly small.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

three exhibitions

Once again I scraped in to an exhibition just before they rang last orders, going today to see Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery's small, free exhibition of World War I portraits.  Both finish tomorrow, so it is slightly mean of me even to tell you that they were good.  Perhaps I should say they were both quite meh, and reassure you that you've done well if you've missed them.  Of course, anyone who has already gone would know that I was either a very dodgy critic, or a fibber.

I had reconciled myself to missing both of them.  I've been busy, it's been hot, too hot to risk getting on a London train unless you have to, you can't see everything.  I was going to go on Thursday, but accepted the invitation to the plant propagation day instead.  Then yesterday I began to relent, and checked the availability of tickets for the Veronese on line.  Only the eleven-thirty entry slot was sold out, while the rest had tickets available in quite reasonable numbers, over forty for some slots, and none fewer than fifteen.  By this morning it was cooler, and although the ticket website wouldn't let me check availability again, possibly because it was the penultimate day of the exhibition (though it would have been too late to post them out yesterday as well), I decided to take a chance.

Colchester's traffic was light and running amazingly freely, and the train was on time with lots of empty seats, and I began to feel as though fate was smiling upon me when I arrived at the National Gallery and found Veronese tickets on sale for immediate admission.  I'd been fully prepared to buy one for later in the day, and go away to amuse myself elsewhere in the interim.  I think we can conclude that, while the show has received enormous critical acclaim, late Renaissance Italian painting is not in fashion and doesn't count as a Must See with the broader art viewing public.  Late Turner, I wouldn't fancy my chances on the second to last day, while as for Hockney, Freud or Leonardo da Vinci, forget it unless you bought tickets in advance six weeks previously.  Veronese, who he?

He painted saints and the Holy Family in multiple combinations and a joyous muddle of contemporary and imagined Biblical clothing and architecture.  Also portraits, mythological and allegorical scenes, and episodes from the Old Testament.  Many of the paintings are huge, intended to function as altar pieces or to hang in the palazzos of Venice's monied classes.  Sometimes his wealthy patrons steal into the Biblical scenes.  His crowds are complex and cleverly composed, with great swirling masses of servants, onlookers, children, horses and dogs surrounding the central protagonists, plus angels and chubby cherubs where the story requires them.  He was very good at dogs, making me think he must have liked them, and humanity generally.  They are enormously colourful, energetic, exuberant paintings, absolutely fizzing with energy after four hundred and fifty years, and unashamedly opulent and sensuous.  Veronese was absolutely brilliant at doing luxurious fabrics, jewels, and hair, and this must have been part of his appeal to his rich clients.  The portraits make full use of these skills, and are also psychologically convincing.  Oh, and he could do hands.  You don't get short-changed on hands with a Veronese.  I was glad I'd bothered to go.

The Great War portraits were interesting too, though covering more familiar ground.  Then I returned to Liverpool Street via Somerset House, because I'd read somewhere that they had an exhibition of pictures by Beryl Bainbridge, and yes, that is the same Beryl Bainbridge who wrote the unsettling and now out of fashion novels, and kept a stuffed buffalo in her hall.  She was untutored in painting and writing both, and talented at both, and chose the writing as her day job because she was offered a book deal at a critical moment.  The pictures were as quirky, lively and odd as I remember the books being, not that I've read one for ages (but I might now).  They were hung in a peculiar section of underground rooms and corridors which also seemed to lead to real and important people's offices, so if you hung around there for long enough you might bump into Deborah Bull.  It was not the best exhibition space I'd ever been in, on the other hand, it was very nice of Somerset House to offer me a free Beryl Bainbridge exhibition at all.  I now feel rather bad that I didn't summon the energy to go and see Viktor Popov: Genius of the Russian Soul while I was there, since it ends on the eighteenth, but Russian art is really the Systems Administrator's thing and not mine.  You can't see everything.

Friday, 13 June 2014

fripperies and finishing touches

Today I finally got round to hanging the blue glass danglers back up among the branches of a convenient tree in the gravel.  Garden ornaments that have to be brought in for the winter, or swaddled against the elements, are a fiddle, and it doesn't add anything to the wintry landscape to have it dotted with giant bundles of tarpaulin, as I've seen at more than one National Trust property where they've obviously decided they can't risk leaving stone statues and benches unprotected.  Our resin replicas take their chances with the ice and snow, and Whichford's terracotta is designed to be frost proof, but I do bring the glass leaves in.  They are suspended from metal rings embedded in the top edges, and I am afraid that if and when water penetrated around the metal, it would crack the glass at the first frost.  The chalk stone with a hole in it comes inside too, since we were warned by someone who ought to know that it was liable to disintegrate otherwise.

Putting the stone out was the work of moments.  All I had to do was navigate my way around the piles of beekeepers' library books in the spare bedroom, find the stone, wander to the bottom of the garden, and drop it into its specially designed holder.  Nowadays it even has a companion, a yin to its yang in the form of a large black pebble with a hole most of the way through it, that I picked up when weeding.  It doesn't get a holder, but lies on top of the telegraph pole plinth.  Putting the stone back out is like an extension of bringing the geraniums outside for the summer.

The glass danglers are more work, requiring a stepladder and some nylon fishing line.  I was all set to do them a couple of days ago, a mere fortnight after the geraniums took up their summer quarters, and could not find the fishing line.  It was not on the shelf in the garage where it should have been, which stumped me utterly.  If it wasn't in the right place, it could be practically anywhere.  We are not tidy people.  The Systems Administrator worked for about a decade on the basis that when the shed became so untidy we could not get into it, the easiest solution was to build a new shed.  I tried to remember when I had last had the nylon fishing line, and whether we had used it at Christmas to put up any decorations, and if so where I might have put it.  I looked in the bottom of my bucket of tools, but it was not lurking with the stapler, the three legged fishing stool and the spare lump hammer.

I decided that the easiest solution was to get new fishing line.  I bought the other reel from a fishing shop in Colchester High Street, but the last time I walked up the High Street, I noticed that it had ceased trading, and in any case I did not want to have to go into Colchester.  Instead, Amazon came to the rescue with a new level of cunning, or evil genius.  They do sell nylon fishing line.  They would, they sell everything.  The SA once bought a chainsaw on Amazon.  I'd assumed I'd probably have to go to an Amazon vendor, and was resigned to paying somebody's minimum £3.95 P&P on a reel of line that itself cost less than that, but Amazon have thought of a new and cunning way to get me to spend even more with them.  They will not send me just a reel of line for free, but they will as an add-on provided that I buy other products to bring the total order up to a minimum of ten pounds.  The extra items can themselves be small things that don't individually qualify for free delivery, though in fact I bought a paperback I'd had my eye on for ages.

It is very annoying that multinationals, including Amazon, manage to pay so little UK tax, though I'm inclined to put some of the blame on the UK authorities for not drafting our tax legislation more ingeniously and robustly.  But how beautiful is it, from the customer's point of view, to make it possible to obtain small items for next day delivery and without having to pay more than the value of the thing itself on post and packing?  Especially slightly obscure items like fishing line, which I wouldn't even have known where to go to buy, now that the only physical shop I did know is no longer there.

The blue glass danglers look nice, but a little sparse, and I am beginning to think that I could do with a few more.  I bought the first ones three years ago, if not four, and topped up the year after, but of course the tree has kept growing.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

plant heritage

I went this morning to my inaugural meeting of Plant Heritage.  This used to be the National Society for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, which was quite a mouthful.  It still lurks on in the small print, and is embedded in the address of their website.  It's a conservation charity for garden plants, which are always liable to disappear as fashions change, and small, specialist nurseries come and go.  I was invited to go to a propagation workshop by two of the organisers at a garden club I spoke to recently.  I've often looked at Plant Heritage displays at RHS shows over the years, and probably even picked up a membership form once or twice, without ever quite getting round to joining.

This time I thought that the garden club ladies were being friendly, and it would be nice to know some more out and out plant enthusiasts to talk to, since giving up the day job.  I don't miss the eight o'clock Sunday starts, or the fifty-fifty chance of having to decline any weekend social invitation ranking lower in the scale of human importance than a wedding, let alone the blessed cafe, but I do miss the chance to talk about plants with people.  And Plant Heritage do plant swaps, and plant fairs, and it would probably be a way of getting hold of some unusual and unexpected additions to the garden from time to time.

We started with Eucomis, exotic looking bulbs of dubious hardiness, which disappear completely in the winter, before producing the tiniest sharp snout of new leaves in spring.  It gradually expands to a fleshy clump, plus if you are lucky a flowering spike topped with a tuft of leaves like a miniature pineapple.  I have three living in pots, which go into the greenhouse for the winter, and I was intrigued before we even started propagating to hear that others in the group grew them outside. Sharp drainage is apparently key, but I can provide that.  To make more Eucomis, you cut the fleshy leaves into sections an inch to an inch and a half long, and bury them to most of their depth in compost, keeping them the same way up as they were growing.  No grit, no vermiculite, just compost.  According to instructions provided by the National Collection Holder, the Plant Heritage sanctioned official keeper of as many Eucomis varieties as possible, the heat of a greenhouse in summer should be sufficient, keeping them shaded.  New plants should form along the edges of the cut sections.

I had absolutely no idea that you could take Eucomis leaf cuttings, not that I ever looked into it before, and made a mental note to try it at home.  They would look good in the gravel by the entrance, but I'd be more in the mood to experiment with home made plants than bulbs I'd had to pay for.  I should have asked my fellow enthusiasts who clearly knew more about Eucomis than I do why mine don't always flower.  Perhaps I was saving confessions of ignorance until I felt more securely part of the group.

Then we did bulb scaling, in which you cut the top off a snowdrop, or daffodil bulb, remove the outside skin, pare back the basal plate to a thin sliver, and slice the bulb vertically into eight or even sixteen fragments, every one with a little piece of basal plate.  You put the bits in a bag of damp vermiculite, put it in the airing cupboard, and if you have managed to keep everything clean and sterile new bulblets should form on each section of basal plate.  I knackered my first bulb because after slicing the top off, I absent mindedly sliced most of the bottom off as well as if it were an onion, before remembering what I was supposed to be doing.  We were given our bags of chopped bulbs and vermiculite to take home, and I'll see how mine does, but I don't think I'm likely to take up anything requiring that degree of sterility on a regular basis.  Like reading descriptions of cheese making, it sounds interesting but not really me.  (One of the group worked for a specialist local nursery, and had brought a couple of pints of a commercial grade fungicide for us to soak our bulb scales in.  She had used a two pint plastic milk container, and despite it being labelled as fungicide in large letters, somebody did manage to pour some into their tea).

The organiser had brought crates of recently rooted cuttings for us to help prick out into individual pots.  That's a job that six pairs of hands can handle fairly quickly, along with writing out the extra labels, whereas alone in your greenhouse it would be a good half day's work.  The plants were destined for Plant Heritage sales, once they'd rooted in and been potted on again.  Someone else was demonstrating softwood cuttings, which I've done at home, but had no idea of the range of plants you could strike by that method.  She didn't bother with rooting hormones for any of them, which is interesting to know.  My technique of firming rooted cuttings down as I pot them individually is not approved by Plant Heritage, or at least not this branch of it, which goes to show that there are as many methods of taking cuttings as there are of making goulasch, that is one per gardener, or cook.  My cuttings have always moved on quite happily, and when potting bare root divisions at the plant centre we were told to firm the compost around the roots, though not excessively.  Still, it was their group, so I did it their way.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

ice cream dreams

Cats, a vet once old me, are desert animals.  I was reminded of this as I looked at the big anxious tabby, lying full length on the kitchen floor pressed up against the Aga on one of the warmest days of the year.  We have been celebrating the full-blown advent of summer with ice cream, home made and bought.  Yesterday it was ice cream soda.  I hadn't eaten one since childhood, but was seduced by a display of long, chunky glasses at the end of a Tesco aisle, only a pound each.  After that I had to get two long handled spoons, which John Lewis obligingly supplied via click and collect.  I was waiting for the person on the Waitrose information desk to ask me whether my parcel was heavy, as they usually do, so that I could say no, it only contained two teaspoons, but she didn't.

Ice cream soda is fun.  I wouldn't want it all year round, but on a hot day it goes down very well. This lunchtime was the turn of the maple syrup and pecan ice cream, and as I feared the texture wasn't great, or at least not to my taste, too dense.  The Systems Administrator said that it would be better without the nuts, while I thought I preferred the Dulche de Leche recipe.  Given the relative cost of maple syrup and pecans versus a tin of caramelised condensed milk, there's no contest.

The SA, who is as soft about the cats as I am, bought a tub of Haagen-Dazs Cookies and Cream, which is the big tabby's favourite.  You might ask why a cat that likes to sleep cuddled up to a gigantic heat source on a day like today should like ice cream, but he waits for it to melt.   I know that ice cream is not good for cats, but I can't believe that a very small taste is going to hurt him. He is so skinny, he could probably do with the extra calories, and he is very old.  Refusing him the odd small treat would be about as effective as denying a ninety-five year old the consolation of an occasional tiny nip of his favourite tipple on health grounds.  You know it isn't really going to reverse the odds.  Cookies and Cream is the big tabby's absolute favourite, and when a fresh tub is opened he will appear at your elbow as if by magic or telepathy, mouth silently opening and closing.

Addendum  The SA discovered the reason why the maps in the nineteen volume digital official history of the Great War would only run on an old laptop and not the current one.  The CD set included a programme to prevent unauthorised copying of the maps.  Now the SA already possessed a complete set of digital trench maps from the same publisher.  The trench maps came with an earlier version of the same copyright protection software.  Result when trying to read the new maps on the laptop which already held the previous maps, anti-piracy software chaos.  Who would have thought it, that when you released a long and highly detailed specialist history, it would be bought by people who have previously bought other long and detailed books on the same topic?  It seems that the SA had to explain the problem and the solution to the publisher's technical department, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

an afternoon in the bog bed

Having preened myself on cutting down the Geranium phaeum in time, I fear I have been too late with one of the weed grasses in the bog bed.  I know that in a well-ordered garden there would not be weed grass in one of the borders, let alone two different sorts, one fine and one coarse, but weeds grow awfully quickly in permanently wet soil, while weeding it when it is at its soggiest is a difficult job.  The mud threatens to come over the tops of your wellingtons, and every handful of weeds comes up with a clod of mud the size of a grapefruit.  I went over the bog bed a few weeks ago, but didn't manage to get to its wettest parts, and since then things have grown like crazy. Most of the taller growing grasses have not yet ripened their seed, and I thought I had time on my side, but I am very suspicious of the tiny brown specks littering the surface of the bog bed.  At first I thought they were the discarded skins of aphids, and that something in the vicinity had suffered from a really bad insect attack, but then I began to suspect the grass with very fine-awled seed heads, that had sprung up in the middle of the bed.  It would be pretty if I could not see from its habit of growth that it is a rampantly invasive weed.

Looking on the bright side, the young plants with bright green leaves, puckered like miniature 'Tim Thumb' lettuces, are baby candelabra primulas, lots and lots of P. bulleyana.  I was cross with myself that I never got round to collecting seed last autumn and sowing it in the greenhouse, and lo, the plants have done it for themselves.  In places they are as thick as cress, and once they have grown a bit, and the weather is slightly cooler, I'll try spreading some around into the gaps.  Primula bulleyana is a most attractive plant, carrying tall stems with several layers of apricot coloured flowers held at intervals up the spike.  I have them at one end of the bed, and the lemon yellow Himalayan cowslip Primula florindae at the other.  I sometimes think about introducing a pink strain of bog primula as well, but suspect that in a limited space less is more.

My three sensitive ferns, Onoclea sensibilis, are looking reasonably cheerful as well, though they have yet to form extensive colonies as promised on the RHS website.  Although ferns like damp and cool places, not all that many will grow in liquid mud, and I cautiously started off with one, to see how it did, before investing in a couple more.  According to the books the Onoclea would grow with its feet in water, but it feels odd dropping new plants into a bog.  Perhaps I am scarred by the loss of the hydrangeas and viburnums that used to grow in that corner a few years back, when the ground was merely reliably moist, before the water table shifted and it became a swamp.

It is one of the chickens' favourite corners of the garden.  I do not think of hens as being marsh animals, but when let out for a late afternoon constitutional they often make their way down to the bottom of the hill, where they root happily in the mud.  Today, to my relief, they went and rooted in the darkest corner where nothing at all grows, except for one self-sown holly and a few nettles that need pulling up.  That was far better than if they had come and scratched up my primula seedlings.

Monday, 9 June 2014

a timely chop

Today I did a useful and timely job that I don't always manage, and remembered to cut down the Geranium phaeum and most of the sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis, before they could ripen seed. Or at least, I hope there was no ripe seed lurking in there, since I put the stems on the compost heap, and don't want every bed where I use the compost from that batch coming up geraniums.  G. phaeum is a useful plant, tolerant of dry shade, and bearing upright stems of small purple flowers that are attractive to bees and other pollinators.  My plants are a strain with attractive dark blotches on their leaves, which makes them more interesting than the little purple flowers would be by themselves.  The parent plant was the variety 'Samobar', but its many progeny do not strictly deserve the name, though they look very similar (and who is to say that in these hard times the commercial nurseries don't raise them from seed anyway, and simply chuck out any that aren't blotched enough?).

Note the use of the qualifier 'many'.  Geranium phaeum is generous with its babies.  Extremely generous.  It has formed a sweep down a section of the long bed larger than I would ever have planted myself.  I leave it there, because it does such a good job of covering a stretch of dark, dry, root ridden and frankly unappealing soil around shrubs.  It is a miserable spot, and I am grateful to anything as attractive as the geranium that will volunteer to live there as happily as it seems to do. Grateful, but not so grateful that I want it to repeat the trick all around the garden.  One stray plant has set up an outpost at the bottom of the hill in the shade of the Zelkova, and while I left it there, because it seemed too harsh to pluck it out when it was about to flower and its young, blotched leaves were so pretty, I made sure I cut the flowering stems down before it could start colonising the entire bed.

Hardy geraniums fall broadly into two camps.  There are those that send up branched, flowering stalks from ground level.  Many of them bloom once, and once only, but if you cut out the old flowering stems when they have finished, the plant will often send up a clump of fresh foliage from ground level and look quite presentable for the rest of the season, besides functioning as ground cover.  If you are in a hurry and have a lot of plants to tidy up, you need not even be too careful about cutting out only the flowering stems, and leaving the new emerging leaves.  Just grab the whole lot, cut, and chuck on the compost heap, and if you have chopped off a few new leaves in the process, the plant will soon make more, though it will look startlingly bald for a few days.  G. phaeum falls into this group.

Then there are the real minglers and sprawlers, that send out rambling flowering stems that continue to elongate and flower for weeks and months.  The yellow leaved, magenta flowered 'Ann Folkard' is one such.  By autumn, when I come to clear the border, the stems can be a yard long. There is no need to cut this type back mid season, as they will continue flowering anyway. Geranium sanguineum behaves in similar fashion, and with attractive red autumnal leaf tints as a bonus, but the majority of varieties fall into the first category.  You can work out which type an unfamiliar hardy geranium in your garden is, if you simply take some time to look at it and see how it grows and flowers, before reaching for the secateurs in hopes of improving it.

Sweet rocket is another useful plant, that will tolerate dry conditions according to one of my former colleagues who grew it at home, though most of ours is in relatively damp spots.  It is happy in light shade, and unhappy in a small pot on a garden centre bench.  To look at the sad little specimens struggling to flower at a foot tall, you would have no idea of their potential in a border.  A member of the cabbage family, they produce typical cruciform flowers in white or purple, which are attractive to insects.  Like Geranium phaeum, Hesperis matronalis seeds ferociously.  This is not such a problem as it is with some plants, because the seedlings are relatively easy to pull up, and I sometimes leave misplaced plants to finish flowering in their first season before rooting them out, but it is one of those things you need to keep an eye on, lest you end up with far too much of it.  I read in an article about Tom Stuart-Smith that he loves sweet rocket, and grows it in his own garden, without using it in client gardens because of its seeding properties.

The old flower spikes tend to flop over, which is another reason to tidy them away mid season.  As I did so this afternoon I discovered Hesperis has another trick up its sleeve.  As well as seeding, the old flower stems will root themselves where they touch, expanding the clump.  It is said not to be the longest lived plant, sometimes functioning as a biennial, but is fairly perennial in our garden. Anyway, given the rate of volunteer replacements it shouldn't be a great problem if the parent plant doesn't last for too many seasons.

Addendum  The florentines turned out to be very nice, but I'm not at all sure they were what Gretel Beer had in mind.  Facsimile reproduction 1950s Faber cookery books do not come with any illustrations, and it is thirty years since I was in Vienna.  In consequence I set out to make the florentines with no clear idea at all of what I was aiming at, beyond a desire to use up some egg whites and a belief that any biscuit made out of nuts and chocolate could not be bad.  I suspect I subverted the author's intention when I substituted flaked almonds for blanched, because the prospect of chopping up five ounces of blanched almonds sounded like hard work.  At any rate, the florentines did not come out with the sort of dense texture I associate with commercial ones, nor did they spread out as I was expecting. Instead they remained as spiky peaks on the baking sheet, and were very light, with a tendency to shatter dramatically when bitten into, like a lux, grown up version of those chocolate rice crispy biscuits I remember from children's parties in the late 1960s.

I don't know if the Sicilian biscuits bore any resemblance to the originals either, since they were from another book without pictures, or at least not of the food.  Bitter almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, is an account of the life story of a woman who rose above her poverty stricken origins and upbringing in a fairly grim orphanage run by nuns, to become the owner of a successful pastry shop.  Her establishment is popular with tourists, but I haven't been to Sicily. I made up one of her basic almond biscuit recipes, and shaped it according to the easiest method I could find.  The resulting biscuits looked rather like Pizza Express dough balls, only sparkling faintly with sugar, and tasted of cooked marzipan flavoured with lemon, which is what they basically were. I loved them, and could imagine the almond paste working as a flan pastry, pressed thinly over a tin and with something else cooked on top.  However, whether the chic tourist bakeries of Sicily actually sell anything that remotely resembles my lemon and almond, crumbly, shiny, doughball looky-likeys I have no idea.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

a visit to the lettuce farm

Today was Open Farm Sunday.  I knew the lettuce farm was going to take part, because I asked the owner when I met him at our neighbour's At Home the other weekend.  This was the ninth year the scheme has been running, with the idea of showing the great food-consuming, non-farming public a little bit about farming and how the UK grown portion of it is grown.  I checked their website last week, and did see that only three farms within fifteen miles of us were opening, and that over East Anglia as a whole there seemed to be an over-representation of businesses with farm shops and petting zoos, and an almost complete absence of grain barons taking part.  I fear, therefore, that what started off as a commendable effort to educate a largely ignorant public about what farms actually do, is by degrees being taken over by a branch of the rural leisure industry,  Still, the lettuce farm was taking part, which is what I particularly wanted to see.

We've walked past the polytunnels, and peered at them through the windbreak hedges, but I was itching to see inside them, and today was my chance.  The first leg of our tour was led by the MD of the tunnels enterprise, which as far as I understood is a joint venture between the lettuce farmer and a French salad company.  The tunnels were very impressive, seen from the inside, though it was of no help to me when the MD told us how large they were expressed in multiples of international football pitches, since I never watch football and have no mental image of the size of the pitch.

It turned out that they do not grow actual lettuces in the tunnels.  Those are still left to take their chances with the British climate.  The tunnels are reserved for salad leaves, lambs lettuce, rocket, red leaved chard to add colour, and a giant bittercress which looked just like hairy bittercress on steroids, and tasted like watercress.  If you buy a mixed bag of these leaves in a UK supermarket, odds are that a high proportion of the ingredients grew within a bee's flight, if not a stone's throw, of my house.

The tunnel sides sides are made largely of fine netting, to let air flow through, and not polythene.  I hadn't grasped that, looking at them from a distance.  Air flow is one of the great aims of covered salad cropping, to prevent mildew.  The lower part of the frames is clad with polythene partly to keep wildlife out, since as the MD said, people do not want to find frogs in their bagged salad.  Or voles, I thought, thinking of my greenhouse.  I noticed the stations of rat bait placed at regular intervals around the outside.  I already knew that there were large vents running the length of the roof, because you can see them open on sunny days.  The MD reassured us that there were absolutely no plans to heat or light the tunnels, which would not be cost effective for salad crops, and that they were not allowed to use artificial light under the conditions of their planning permission.  We won't be having a brilliant all-night glow like you see emanating from the Dutch glasshouses as you land at Schipol, then.

The MD would have liked the tunnels to be even taller, while admitting that a tunnel the height of a two storey house looked silly for a crop as lowly as salad.  However, tall roofs equal a big internal volume of air equals easier to maintain equable temperatures on hot days.  A layer of green shade netting below the dome of the plastic can be drawn across on sunny days to provide shade.  Lambs lettuce was originally a woodland plant, and too much sun will send it yellow.  On the other hand, one of the reasons why the enterprise was based in this part of the world was that, together with Bognor Regis, we boast the highest light levels in the UK.  In the winter, when a crop of lambs lettuce takes twenty weeks to be ready instead of five, I guess they need every scrap of light they can get.

The lettuces in the fields are planted out as plugs.  I knew that, because I've seen them planted, and it was the industry norm when I was at horticultural college.  The lettuce farmer is experimenting elsewhere on his empire with limited growing under light, to raise his own plug plants, instead of buying them in as at present.  The salad leaves are drilled direct into the ground, after the seed bed has been prepared, a process which includes flaming off the remains of the last crop and any weeds with a gas burner.  After sowing, the beds containing lambs lettuce are top-dressed with fine grit, to facilitate the passage of the harvesting machine which will sever the plant at just below ground level.  The lettuce farmer himself, who took us on the second leg of our tour to the further tunnels, admitted that he was not entirely happy with this as a long term solution, since the soil was quite sandy enough to begin with, and in five years' time was going to be sandier still if he kept adding grit to it.

Rain water from the roofs is harvested, and stored in a series of reservoirs.  Something I had not known is that the farm reservoirs around here are connected by a network of pipes, and that they share water around if one has a surplus and another a shortage.  In a really dry summer presumably everybody hangs on to what they've got.

Another part of the empire, in one of the neighbouring villages, grows lettuces hydroponically. There was a little demonstration tank set up in the barn, with a grid of fine and healthy looking lettuces floating on a raft in a tray of water.  I'd have liked to see that full-scale, but today was definitely a charm offensive for the polytunnels.  The floating lettuces start off as plugs, planted into a block of rockwool or peat, which drop into removable holders in the raft, keeping the original rootball above water level, but allowing the dangling roots to wander down into the nutrient controlled liquid growing medium.  As they grow, they are very slowly moved up the length of the tunnel where they live, until they get to the end, at which point they should be ready.  It sounded like a cross between a sushi restaurant conveyor and a car plant.

The lettuce farm owner had been instrumental in developing an automated lettuce weeder, which used cameras to control the action of multiple rotating hoes, so that it could be driven up a bed of lettuce weeding not just between the rows, but between individual lettuces within the rows.  He chairs the industry group responsible for the project, and the resulting machine is now selling well, so he gets a piece of useful kit that wouldn't otherwise have existed, but no competitive advantage, or indeed royalty.  We didn't see that running live, but there was a video.

The one fact that impressed me more than anything else was the revelation, freely given, that under the terms of their agreement with the salad company, they would be paid for all crops grown to specification, whether or not they were needed.  In other words, they have managed to put all the risk of a washout, Met Office style British barbecue summer on to somebody else.  That is truly amazing.

Our one anxiety at the end of the tours was whether or not the next phase of tunnels, when it happens, might attempt to include the field directly next to our garden.  They haven't yet put in for planning permission, and finance is tight from what I gathered, but the MD didn't seem willing to rule it out.  We are consoling ourselves for now with the thought that the field is not very large, not at all rectangular, and has electricity lines running across it, besides being very close to four houses.  Surely, with all the local farms where he has an involvement to choose from, the lettuce farmer could find a more convenient field to choose than that one?