Thursday, 31 July 2014

drought in the bog bed

The horsetail in some parts of the back garden made quite a lot of regrowth, enough for me to go around this morning pulling it up for a second time.  In other areas the later flush is only spindly, almost hidden by the ground cover, though that tends to be where the soil is especially dry or difficult, and the garden plants aren't doing so well either.  It is a nuisance, since the Strulch has done a good job, and there aren't too many other weeds.  Apart from the creeping thistle, which I zap with glyphosate where I can get at it without poisoning its neighbours in the process, otherwise I have to content myself with pulling it up at this time of the year, though the glyphosate offensive will resume in the spring when the first thistle shoots show.

After that I settled down to weeding the bog bed, which has ceased to be a bog.  A few patches are dampish, but much of it is dry underfoot.  At least this means I can get at it to weed it without wading around ankle deep in mud, and don't lift a fistful of soil with every handful of weeds.  I planned to start at the bottom of the slope and work my way uphill, so that I could begin watering the area I'd weeded without it running into the parts I had yet to do and was about to kneel on.

I hauled the hose around to the bottom of the back garden, but was distracted from watering the bog bed immediately by the spectacle of the Hydrangea aspera 'Mauvette' by the ditch which had started to collapse, big furry leaves hanging down like dead rabbit's ears.  The pink lacecap next to it looked poised to go the same way, and the leaves of the Pulmonaria rubra in front of them lay shrivelled and flat on the ground, revealing various odd spikes of horsetail and bramble stems which had been concealed up to that point.  The bog had to wait until I'd rescued the hydrangeas and pulmonaria, and had a quick go at the brambles.

There is a generous crop of Primula bulleyana seedlings, which is a good thing since I forgot to save any seed last year and have none coming on in pots.  I did a fairly thorough job of sifting out anything that wasn't P. bulleyana the last time I was working down there, so went through them again teasing out any nettles and other unwanted inhabitants that escaped last time, or have come up since.  Once I have got the area rehydrated I might try moving some of them to fill the gaps where they have not seeded, though it might of course be that they don't like those areas for some reason.  The books say that this delightful apricot flowered candelabra primula should self seed where happy, and I was disappointed when in my first spring after making the initial planting I didn't seem to find any babies at all.

My other mission in that corner was to thin the yellow stemmed bamboo, remove the canes that had fallen outwards from the main clump, and remove the lower leaves from the remaining stems so that we can see the yellow canes more clearly, which is part of the point of the bamboo, and to allow more light through to the bog planting.  Bamboos like reliable moisture, but will not grow in a bog, and the adjacent clump of black stemmed bamboo was almost entirely killed when the water table rose beneath it, only a little clump on fractionally higher and dryer ground surviving.  Its yellow stemmed neighbour, although planted no more than six or eight feet away, was outside the zone affected by the unexpected welling up of ground water, and thrived.

Indeed, it thrived a great deal too well, and I had to chop out great unwanted tracts of it with a pick axe.  Its name is Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Aureocaulis', and while I must have formed the impression from the label that it was reasonably clump forming, I now know from personal experience that it is a runner, at least if it likes you.  After reducing the diameter of the clump I surrounded it with a couple of rolls of galvanised lawn edging, buried with a couple of inches remaining above ground, and this has almost succeeded in containing it so far.  One cane is arising from the wrong side of the edging, and as soon as the herbaceous plants in front of it have died down for the winter I'll be in there again with the pick axe.  At least having an edging gives you a demarcation line to work to, and you know that anything outside that area must be dealt with, so the bamboo can't expand gradually by stealth.  The lateral shoots ran very close to the surface when I was digging it out before, so I hoped that a fairly shallow barrier would do the job.

As I weeded and trimmed, the plants in the rest of the bog bed began to collapse.  The big leaves of Ligularia  flopped, while the Rodgersia foliage descended stiffly to the ground, and the Persicaria signalled that they were not happy, leaves puckering and stems drooping.  Purple variegated leaf P. microcephala 'Red Dragon' should be good for weeks of display yet, as should P. ampexicaulis 'Firetail' whose red flowers were thick with bees today, so I don't want either of them finishing the season prematurely.  The Thalictrum, having set masses of seed, are simply beginning to die back. There wasn't time to give everything a turn with the hose, but I did what I could, and will see where I've missed tomorrow by the patches of still drooping foliage.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

giant hyssop from seed

I have been planting Agastache aurantiaca in the long bed.  I have fully twenty plants, raised from seed, which tells you that it is easy to germinate, and that the seedlings are tough little things, tolerant of temporarily wet or dry compost, rocketing greenhouse temperatures and snail attack, since twenty is the full contents of a five by four modular seed tray.  I must have had enough seeds germinate and then survive without damping off to be able to fill the tray when it came to pricking out, and all of the young plants made it through potting on into 9 centimetre pots to the stage where they are ready to go out into the garden.

Its common name is Orange Hummingbird Mint, according to one of the seed companies that offers it, Plant World Seeds (also available from Chiltern), which tells you something about its appearance and origins.  It is a native of Mexico, and has long, tubular flowers in an agreeable shade of soft orange, which are presumably pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds, as are quite a few red and orange tubular New World flowers.  Most of the seeds for sale are of named varieties, but I've gone for the true species.  In fact, I did sow some of the cultivar 'Apricot Sprite', which came free with a magazine, but nothing came up and I have just thrown the contents of the pot into a tub of rubbish destined for the compost heap.

I am putting the plants into gaps in the long bed, where there are shrubs which will get larger in time, and there's no point in planting up close to them with anything too permanent.  Agastaches tend not to be the longest lived inhabitants of the garden, and I note that while Plant World Seeds promise me that my Agastache aurantiaca will excel for many years in a well drained position, Chiltern more prudently give its life cycle as perennial or biennial.  However, they flower in its first year from seed, albeit as slightly small and wispy specimens, and I'm hoping that some will survive to next year, and that they will start to seed themselves and naturalise in that part of the bed, much as the oregano, bloody cranesbill and Stachys do.  And the bronze fennel, only I wish that wouldn't naturalise quite so much.

It is supposed to like sun or partial shade and good drainage, since according to my dictionary of perennials it grows in the wild on rocky outcrops in hills and open woodland.  I only hope the long bed is not too dry and starving for its liking.  Also that, if it does survive, my hunch is correct that it won't be doing much early in the year while the Pulsatilla are in full growth, since I am asking them to share the same space.  Pasque flowers have largely died down by late summer, which is one reason why this part of the bed has started looking so gappy, and I thought it would be nice if something else could follow on for the second half of the year.

That's one reason for continuing to plant right through the summer, despite the drought and need to keep watering, since it's only now that I can see where the gaps are that were full of something else in spring.  Although I am a little worried that where I have put Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' cuttings into some yawning gaps at the other end of the border, they may be overwhelmed come next year by an eruption of oriental poppy foliage.  I have taken some more cuttings, just in case.

Addendum  I have just noticed that the normally excellent Chiltern catalogue gives A. aurantiaca's required lighting conditions as full shade, but I'm pretty sure that's their mistake, not mine. Otherwise I'll be spending part of tomorrow digging them all up again.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

breakfast flowers

This morning's tiny posy for the breakfast table carried a little foretaste of autumn, with sedum and a sprig of the first asters.  The sedum is still in bud, but they have a bobbly, ornamental quality that looks well enough in a vase.  We tend to overlook the appeal of buds, but after all there are some shrubs like Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' where the flowers stay in tight but colourful bud for weeks, and it's a big part of their appeal.  The aster has blue flowers with yellow centres, not quite an inch across, and is about the earliest to open in the garden.  Unfortunately I need to do some detective work with my spreadsheet of things planted to work out which one it is (a depressing document, after twenty years so many of them are dead).

I used to be very assiduous about marking plants with aluminium stick-in labels when I started, but it turned out not to be a durable solution to keeping track of what things were.  The labels got trodden on and broken, or scratched up by birds (or cats), or scuffed to the point of illegibility, or buried.  I like to grow things in complex intermingling drifts, so it was not always obvious which label went with what.  And I let my plants seed around so some never had labels to start with.  And buying that many labels was very expensive, and gave the borders the air of a gigantic hamsters' graveyard.  So instead I keep a list of what I've planted in which bed, and in theory should be able to match the plants in the garden to the list, especially since with the resources of the internet there are always a huge number of pictures and descriptions available.

In theory.  Sometimes I move plants that aren't doing so well from one part of the garden to another, and unless I bother to work out what they are at the time, the data on location can become redundant.  And the self seeded ones could be hybrids anyway and not deserve their parents' name. And matching plants to descriptions isn't always so easy, especially if you garden in atypical conditions and your plants don't match the average.  It is so dry here that many things don't get as tall as the books say they will, on the other hand, I can get away with much less staking than gardeners on less arid soil.

Anyway, I think my breakfast aster is a cordifolius hybrid, and am pretty sure the variety is 'Little Carlow'.  Now I've puzzled over it I shall pay special attention to the asters if I should visit the Beth Chatto nursery, and see what properly labelled Aster cordifolius 'Little Carlow' and Aster c. elegans look like in the flesh, if they have any.

I am fairly sure the Sedum is the variety 'Strawberries and Cream', though it has only made half the height the Beth Chatto website suggests that it should.  It is in one of the worst strips of soil in the whole of the long bed, and has barely been watered.  I gave that area a good soaking after (possibly optimistically) planting out some Erysimum cuttings into the gap created by removing a chunk of Artemisia which had run to take up too much space, and have been watering the sedums in the past couple of weeks when I do the wallflowers.  They are still small, but look happier, while some barely visible, minute Perovskia have suddenly doubled in size.

I find Russian sage tricky.  You will see it recommended in books on dry gardening.  One of the first links I came to just now when Googling it was a Telegraph article from 2003 by Helen Yemm, saying that 'perovskias actually seem to thrive on starvation rations and in parched places', grow well in 'hot and sunny conditions in the garden' and grow 'particularly well in gravel'.  All I can tell you is that growing them on almost pure sand and with an average 21 inches of annual rainfall, they are desperately slow to get going.  I think Hank Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf are nearer the mark when they comment in Dream Plants for the Natural Garden that Perovskia is at its best in dry, well-drained and fertile soil and 'gets into a very sorry state in poor, sandy soil'.  I had better keep feeding mine mushroom compost.

One Perovskia leaf and a slip of Teucrium fruticans foliage completed the breakfast posy.  It is a very small jug.

Monday, 28 July 2014

a short walk with hens

The broody hen has stopped brooding, just like that.  She came out into the run for her share of porridge oats and sultanas when I opened the hen house pop hole, and stayed out, and at half past four when I slid back the door of the run to let them out into the garden for chicken exercise time, five hens trooped past me.  Unluckily for them, their free ranging was curtailed when spots of rain began to fall, and as they drifted back towards the run they found themselves chivvied along by the Systems Administrator, and shut in again earlier than they had probably meant to be.  The SA explained to me that the rain radar was showing heavy showers moving our way.  I said I hadn't known that when I decided to let them out, and were all five back in the run?

This threw the SA, who hadn't realised that the broody was now back on active service.  It took some minutes of opening and shutting the chicken house to check, since they can be quick movers, and trying to count them sometimes reminds me of a friend's nightmare audit when he was a junior accountant of a car firm where the staff would not stop driving the cars around during the audit. That was a case of deliberate obfuscation, whereas the chickens just like wandering about, but eventually we established that we only had four hens.

I found the fifth happily hunting in the long grass at the bottom of the garden.  I don't think she'd realised that she was all alone, and while she wouldn't let me grab her, she scuttled along up the garden quite amenably with me following behind, before taking a sharp right into the Eleagnus hedge.  I had to prod her out with the Systems Administrator's chicken wrangling twelve foot bamboo cane, and she grudgingly agreed to go back in the run with the others.  Poor chickens, they do enjoy taking a turn around the garden, and today's was very short.

They are not nice in their personal habits sometimes.  One of the cats had been sick in the gravel, and I regret to say that the chickens ate the pile of regurgitated cat food with every appearance of relish.  I hope that doesn't put you off eggs, but as long as you are normally happy to eat mackerel and crab, you shouldn't mind about it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

the botanists have been at it again

One plant that does very well in the light sand of the long bed is Gaura lindheimeri.  It is a charming thing, a perennial which sends up tall, wiry flowering stems, which in turn carry slender side stems. The white flowers are carried up the lengths of each stem, opening successively from the bottom upwards with only a couple out on each stem at any one time.  This gives the whole plant an airy, ethereal quality, and you can see why one of the popular cultivars is called 'Whirling Butterflies', especially since the individual flowers are vaguely butterfly shaped, having four spoon shaped petals, two held out horizontally and the other two held erect above them, like a butterfly's wings. The stamens and stigma are also white, and protrude beyond the petals, adding to the grace of the flowers if not the butterfly illusion.  The developing seed pods that remain as the flowers fade are pinkish, as are the unopened buds, giving the plant a faint rosy glow.

I do not grow any of the named varieties, but the plain species, which itself has the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  They were raised from seed, and looking at my spreadsheet of garden plants I see that the group in the long bed was started in 2006, and added to most recently in 2010.  They have in turn seeded themselves modestly around.  This is good going for Gaura, which has a reputation for not being reliably winter hardy.  Cold may be a factor, and I suspect that damp is also.  Drainage in the long bed is about as sharp as you can get.  I leave the old stems intact until spring before cutting them down, in the hope that they will provide some protection to the base of the plant, but have never tried systematically cutting some down and not others in the autumn to see whether it actually makes any difference.

There are some attractive varieties on the market with red and pink flowers, though they tend to be lower growing and without the airy delicacy of the species.  They do have a reputation for not being reliably perennial, and on that basis I haven't tried growing any of them myself, though maybe next year I should relent, and see if the ultra-sharp drainage works for them too.  Beth Chatto always has a few near the entrance and cafe in the gravel garden, but I'm not a regular or observant enough visitor to have worked out if they are the same plants from year to year.

The leaves on my plants tend to develop black spots, which look vaguely unhealthy, though you have to inspect them quite closely to see them.  According to Christopher Lloyd this is just something that Gaura does, and is not a sign of ill health, merely the way things are.

Alas, the botanist have been busy with Gaura, and decreed that it should now be called Oenothera lindhiemeri.  I didn't know that until reading it just now on Wikipedia, where I also saw that a common name for it is Lindheimer's Beeblossom.  It's a native of Louisiana and Texas, and I think we can guess that the common name hails from that side of the pond.  Certainly when I worked at the plant centre nobody ever came in asking for Lindheimer's Beeblossom.  It's an apt name, though, as the bees love it.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

gardens with hens

The benefit of the downpours we had a few days ago is wearing off, and the heat and lack of rain are making themselves felt in the garden.  I spent the middle part of the day weeding the long bed and cutting the ivy hedge, moving the hose from one distressed group of plants to the next every few minutes.  And yes, I know I should grow plants adapted to the environment, but this is unusually hot weather for the north Essex coastal strip.  According to the MD of the lettuce farm we get more sunshine than anywhere else in England, though there are probably a few resorts along the south coast that would dispute that statistic, but it isn't generally this hot.  Some of the shrubs and trees planted within the past couple of seasons are starting to look stressed, displaying the plant equivalent of an off-colour cat whose fur is staring, leaves duller than normal and hanging down a little too much.

Then there are the survivors like the Moonlight holly, which has finally started to grow after more years than I care to think, but could do with encouragement to keep growing, and the plants like Stachys lanata which were looking quite nice, and which I'd like to go on looking presentable for a while longer.  The Stachys has furry grey leaves, and you will see it listed as drought tolerant, but faced with too much drought the leaves shrink and shrivel and look anything but soft and delightful. The plant doesn't die, just waits in a state of awful decrepitude for rain, but it ceases to be something you'd want to look at.  Although billed as a species for dry gardens, it is actually partial to good soil, and mine have looked fatter and more cheerful since I started mulching their bed with mushroom compost.  Incidentally, I have been at the Chatto Gardens when areas of the gravel garden were being renovated, and the gardeners were adding compost to the soil at what looked like about an entire barrow load per square yard.

By four I took pity on the chickens, squawking to be let out, and opened the pop hole of the run. Out trundled the four who are currently in circulation, the fifth being broody, though not so convincingly broody as the original broody.  She sometimes pecks me when I go to shift her off the eggs, but often a look and a gentle prod are enough to make her move.  The previous broody had to be bodily hauled off the eggs every time, and would peck with real venom.  The chickens did not stay in the front garden for long, but made their way by stages down to the bottom of the back garden, where they scratched around with great vigour in an area I'd been eyeing up as a home for some young Primula florindae, raised from home collected seed.  If I do plant them there then I might need to cover them with some twigs or suchlike at first, to keep the hens off.  Chickens are creatures of few but very fixed ideas.

Gardening with chickens is quite companionable, but you have to accept that you will go where they go, if you want to stay with them to deter foxes.  It's best not to take too many tools, because you will have to pick them up and put them down somewhere else a large number of times.  Fortunately at this time of the year there's plenty of dead-heading to do, and odd pieces of horsetail to pull out, plus long stems of brambles that have sprung up apparently out of nowhere.  I cut them off leaving a short section left to remind me to go back and tackle the root later, preferably when the soil is moister, and when I'm not keeping half an eye on a flock of hens.

The broody belatedly realised that all the other chickens had disappeared and she was alone, and ran up and down the run, screaming dementedly, then returned to the nesting box.  I changed all the sawdust in their house yesterday, the floor as well as the roosting board, so at least it's reasonably fragrant in there for her.  We used to mess around with a cage with a wire floor to try and cool their broodiness, though drew the line at the old remedy of dunking the broody in a bucket of water, but nowadays we just leave nature to run its course.  Someone did tell me recently that Marans are notorious for broodiness, and have passed this trait on to the Speckeldies.  We don't need that many eggs anyway, and only have as many as five hens to be company for each other, and because the Systems Administrator never expected all of the new Speckeldies to survive when ordering four.

The trouble with following chickens around the garden until seven is that I have only just finished churning the latest batches of ice cream, one vanilla and one caramel.  I made the custard and dissolved the caramel in warm milk this morning, and they spent the day chilling in the fridge until I'd finished gardening and could complete stage II, to add the cream and freeze them.  As the custard and cream revolved in the machine I suddenly remembered I'd forgotten to add any vanilla essence this morning, but luckily the mixture was still liquid and I was able to quickly spoon some into the bowl of the ice cream maker.  That wasn't as bad as the time I got some ciabatta dough to the kneaded and ready to prove stage before realising I hadn't put the salt in.

Friday, 25 July 2014

after the prom

We have just finished watching the Prom on BBC Four.  I enjoy televised orchestras, assuming I like whatever it is that they're playing, because of the way the cameras zoom in on the instrument of the moment, or pan back during the dramatic climaxes.  And the Albert Hall is a dreadfully inconvenient place to get back from when you live in north Essex, what with the trek back to Liverpool Street and then the late night trains.  And last time I was there it didn't really have air conditioning, but that was over a decade ago and things may have moved on since then.  And it's free to watch on the telly.

Tonight's orchestra was Swiss, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, founded in 1868.  I have just had a look at their website, which has photos of the musicians, section by section.  The first violins are posed conventionally, holding their violins in front of two big windows with a view of (presumably) Zurich.  The second violins are in a sports stadium, and the violas have gone al fresco and are playing their violas in a park.  The oboes strike debonair attitudes by a fountain, and the trumpets jazz postures in front of some colourful urban street art.    The trombones go one better, ridng in pedalos.  The tuba and the harp must have been lonely on their photoshoots, since each is in a section of only one musician, but the harpist has found some dromedaries to pose with (or Bactrian camels.  They have two humps).  And we think the Swiss have no sense of humour.  Actually, tonight's encore with cowbells proved that they do, but it is very Swiss.

As the hot weather goes on I've been playing the game of Remember where you planted everything, and Spot the one you forgot about and haven't watered.  So far all I've found that's suffered is the bun shaped conifer, which has got a disc of sunburn on one shoulder but is green underneath so should recover without having a permanent bald patch.  The Systems Administrator asked whether it had really caught the sun, or whether one of the cats had peed on it, but I'm pretty sure it was the sun.  It didn't smell of cat, and the damage was all on the surface.  A spraying tom cat injects urine several inches inside even something as dense as clipped box.

About the penstemon, it is not just the colour of the flowers that you are buying when you choose a particular variety.  Penstemons vary in hardiness and longevity, and apart from having flowers in a particularly good shade of wine red, 'Garnet' is noted for being persistent in the garden, cold tolerant and long lived, while some varieties tend to fade away.  And it is generous with its blooms even if you don't get round to dead heading it.  I am now confused about whether or not the flowers should have a white flash at the throat, though.  I don't remember 'Garnet' having any such thing, but the RHS website says that it does.  However, my book on penstemons doesn't mention any white markings, only that the tube is pencilled in deep carmine red, and nor does the description on the Beth Chatto website.  The RHS have uploaded a large number of descriptions in a fairly short space of time.  Is it possible that they have made a mistake?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

two flowers

My Acca sellowiana has got one flower on it.  That's the first time it has flowered at all, so represents progress of a sort, but I feel we have a way to go.  It used to be called Feijoa, until the botanists changed their minds, and its common name is pineapple guava.  It is an evergreen shrub hailing from Brazil and Uruguay, with greyish green leaves and very showy flowers with four white petals surrounding a prominent tuft of red stamens.  Or, in the case of my plant, one flower, lurking in among the leaves.

I first tried to grow Feijoa, as it was then, nearly twenty years ago, succumbing to the charms of one trained as a standard and smothered in blooms, almost certainly fresh in from the nurseries of northern Italy.  I kept it in a pot so that I could overwinter it under glass, believing it to be somewhat tender, but made a mess of the watering regime one hot week and it died.  After a while I tried again with a normal untrained plant in the border, tucking it in next to a Grevillea for protection from the wind, and thinking that their flowers would co-ordinate rather well, both being red and whiskery.  The Grevillea grew much more than I was expecting, and the Acca, as it had become by then, was swamped.  However, it did cling on to life through the recent series of hard winters, which I was really not expecting.  I now see that the database Plants for a Future rates it as being hardy down to minus fifteen degrees C, when it is dormant.

I decided to try again with a fresh plant in the turning circle, near the paving by the formal pond, where it would have more space, and we would see it more often than the one struggling inside the Grevillea.  This specimen is larger now than when it was planted, but tends to hold its leaves very upright, giving a pinched look.  If it is a reaction to drought it seems rather an odd one, since it exposes the undersides of the leaves to the sun and wind, and they are less waxy than the tops.  It is supposed to be drought tolerant, but I have watered it occasionally when I'm watering the pots on the paving.  And now I have my reward, one flower.  I wish it could speak, or that I spoke Acca, since I feel it wants something, and I don't know what.  But maybe they don't generally flower as young plants, and things will improve from here.

Meanwhile, a Penstemon in the greenhouse produced a flower.  It is one of a trio I bought last year to act as parent plants for cuttings.  I got a good strike rate (Penstemon cuttings are normally fairly easy) but lost some of the young plants after potting them individually in the autumn.  They were doing so well in their original pot, I thought they would appreciate the space, but they did not appreciate having their roots fiddled around with going into winter, and some died.  I will know next time.  Christopher Lloyd warned against the hazards of disturbing some cuttings before the following spring.  I think off the top of my head that he had problems with hydrangeas.

The parent plants were looking pretty tatty by spring.  I don't think Penstemon are great long term in pots.  Certainly at the plant centre we didn't aim to have any left at summer's end.  However, they rallied round, and I took some more cuttings off them, and will do another batch fairly soon. So they haven't had much of chance to flower.  I did harvest one odd spray the other week for the posy to go on the breakfast table, without thinking too much of it.  It was an agreeable dark pink with more than a hint of magenta in it, the tube modestly flared with a white throat.  The difference between that flower and today's is that this morning I made the connection between the bloom and the label.  'Garnet', the label said, though more correctly that should be 'Andenken an Friedrich Hahn'.  The German name does not exactly trip off the tongue, and you can see why the UK nursery trade likes to stick with the more descriptive English one, but the name 'Andenken an Friedrich Hahn' was given first, and has priority.

'Garnet' is as the name suggests, a rich port wine red, not magenta.  The trumpet should be narrow. Meaning that the parent plant I have been fossicking around with and taking cuttings from for the past nine months or so is not 'Garnet' at all.  I have my former place of work to blame for that mix up.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

hairdresser's holiday

My hairdresser, who is half Italian, is off to Italy this Saturday for three and a bit weeks to see her family.  This has meant that all her clients who would normally have been due for a haircut while she was away have had to go in early, or push their appointments back until her return.  It sounds exhausting, and she'll probably need a holiday just to get over the stress of going away.  My next haircut fell pretty much in the middle of her break, and as it really wouldn't stretch to eight weeks between cuts, I ended up going in only a month after my last appointment, while my hair was still quite presentable.

I don't understand the appeal of pampering as a leisure pursuit.  From my point of view, having to get myself into Colchester in the middle of the afternoon, clean and tidy, is an unwelcome distraction which cuts the day in half in a most unsatisfactory way.  It's very hard in this heat to get back into the swing of gardening afterwards, especially as I'm going out later, and the afternoon feels like a lost cause.  I read an article the other day about eyebrow grooming, and thought it was no wonder that I kept reading other articles about how we were all so time poor nowadays that nobody had time to cook, or read books, or teach their small children to talk and go to the loo unassisted before dispatching them to primary school.  But I have to reluctantly admit that even I can't stretch it to more than six weeks between haircuts without looking as though I were wearing an entire sheep on my head.

The Systems Administrator has a new laptop.  This is not a cause for rejoicing, since it was not a voluntary upgrade but a replacement for the old one, which suddenly died.  Fortunately the SA is fairly disciplined about regular backups.  The local PC repair firm, having initially been quite optimistic, after a fortnight said that they might be able to retrieve most of the data, but that would be it, so a new one it had to be.  Setting up a new computer is such a fraught business, what with the unwanted adware they seem to come packaged with before you start, and the aim of Microsoft, Apple and Google's Android to achieve world domination through slugging it out with incompatible software until only one is left standing.  Waves of stress have been emanating from the SA's end of the sofa, and I shall be relieved when the new machine finally has everything installed on it that ought to be there, and everything uninstalled that the SA doesn't want.

I had another look at the brown butterflies on the oregano, and they do have neat black spots on their front wings.  I still haven't worked out what they are, though, after another desultory flick through the Butterfly Conservation website.  And I saw our temporary dog out for a walk as I was driving into Colchester, still for the time being attached to her lead.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


The buddleias by the veranda have nearly gone over.  They have been a magnet for Peacock butterflies, and even now the last few flowers are studded with their red and black wings. The Peacock is a beautiful insect, and one of the few butterflies I can recognise.  Compared to bumble bees, though, their navigational strategies are rubbish, and compared to honey bees they are very difficult to help once they've got lost.

The problem is that they have been coming in to the sitting room.  We've had the veranda door open in the hot weather, and they've been fluttering up off the buddleia and into the house.  Once inside, they gravitate to the big window, which faces almost due south and is the brightest side of the room, and bang against the glass.  They will not stay still while you put a glass over them and slide a piece of stiff paper under their feet, like the honey bees do, so you can't put them out.  Nor will they swoop randomly around the room like the bumbles do until they see the open door, and make their own way out.  Bumble bees are pretty good at finding their way out of houses, as insects go.

The way to get the Peacocks out is to shut the curtains, so that the open door becomes the brightest point.  Then, eventually, they will fly out.  Shutting a pair of curtains so that the butterfly ends up on the inside of them, and not sandwiched between the fabric and the glass, still battering away against the window, is quite difficult.  You have to press the material against the window while pulling the curtain across, and it is easier with two people, as you need at least three hands. We have ended up leaving the curtains shut for the afternoon, just to try and make sure that any visiting Peacocks go straight out again.

When they stop fluttering and rest with their wings pressed together, you realise that the backs of the wings are extremely dark, velvet black.  I could not have told you that until a couple of days ago, but it is now graved on my visual memory after looking at so many specimens.

The herb bed is a mass of insects too, including butterflies.  No Peacocks, but a lot of small orange and brown ones whose names I don't know.  They might be Skippers, either Small or Essex.  I remember soft orange wings with a brown margin, no spots, and definitely no white patches, but I failed to even look at their undersides.  In truth, I don't greatly mind what they were.  They were pretty, I don't suppose they were rare, and I don't plan to start gardening differently on their account.  There is plenty of rough grass, lots of nettles and lots of flowers supplying nectar, which suits the butterflies and me.  I have got two different sorts of oregano in the herb bed, one with pink and the other with white flowers.  The butterflies and the bees love both of them.

Monday, 21 July 2014

lettuces on the radio

The lettuce farm had its moment of glory on national radio.  I flicked over to Radio 4 in the car yesterday and found I'd come in a third of the way through The Food Programme.  As it talked about some large polytunnels in Essex being used to grow lambs lettuce, I began to think that they must be referring to our neighbouring farm.  When they identified the company as Angflor and the customer as Florette I was almost certain, but discovered when I got home that the programme was not yet available on Listen Again for me to catch the first ten minutes.  This afternoon it was repeated, and as the MD was identified by name and the tunnels identified as being near Colchester, I knew it was indeed our lettuce farm.  Apparently human beings have cultivated lettuces for five thousand years, and the current rate of change in how we produce them is the most dramatic development in all of those five millennia.  I thought the MD had missed a trick not sending out an email to let people know that they were going to be on the radio, but since a lot of locals do not like the lettuce farm, maybe he prefers to keep a low profile and not remind us of their expansion plans.

I resumed gardening, since it was supposed to be less hot and humid than it was over the weekend. It still felt very sticky, though, and things seemed to take twice as long as normal.  I have wasted my money buying a packet of vine eyes to fasten the Pileostegia to the wall, which it needs because while capable of clinging on by itself, it got dislodged in the course of removing the Boston Ivy, and was only held upright by dint of being tied to the bottom of a stove pipe.  That still allowed too much play for the new growths to have any chance of sticking to the wall, and I thought that if I tied the main stem tight in to the brickwork, that would allow the side branches to get a grip and the Pileostegia could resume climbing normally again.  After banging away at the vine eye with a medium sized hammer for several minutes, I had made a small groove in the mortar approximately an eighth of an inch deep, and developed what felt like the first stages of vibration white finger.  It was a tribute to the bricklayers who built the house, but I had to go and ask the Systems Administrator to drive a screw in for me.

Pileostegia viburnoides is an evergreen hydrangea relative, with big, long, leathery leaves, and large, flat plates of small white flowers which are just developing now.  It is capable of covering a twenty foot wall in time, and has the useful climbing hydrangea property of tolerating an east or north wall.  It is known, however, for being slow to get going, and I have empirically demonstrated that it does not tolerate being over-run by Boston Ivy.  Mine suffered a lot of die back in its central parts where it was shaded, and is looking very sad.  I have been watering it occasionally when I'm passing with the hose to water the pots, and today I gave it a good sprinkle of blood, fish and bone. The leaves are not so large nor so dark green as they should be, and despite having freed it of the clutches of Parthenocissus tricuspidata last year, it is still signalling that it is not a happy plant.  I have read that they should be cosseted in their early years as much as if they were still growing in a pot, and this one has had a couple of cans of dilute seaweed fertiliser this year, but evidently that was not enough.  This plant is Pileostegia Mark II, since the first one did not succeed.

Sometimes it is worth trying again, when your first attempt to grow something has resulted only in its death.  In the back garden, Romneya coulteri Mark III is growing.  It has sent up strong, healthy stems taller than I am, at the ends of which are glistening white, poppy like flowers.  The plant has not yet begun to run about, which will be the final proof that it has established itself in the garden, but it is definitely growing and not just clinging on to life.  Tree poppies are notorious for being difficult to get going when planted out of pots, while paradoxically running like crazy if they do take, but even so I had sworn that three attempts was my limit.  I'm glad I made the third.

Addendum  The bargain Aldi cat food has met with a mixed response.  The short fat indignant tabby, who generally loathes change and is very suspicious of any deviation from her normal routine, really likes it, but her brother does not like it at all.  Though it is so very hot, I should probably hold off forming a judgement until more normal weather when they are hungrier.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

another sticky one

It has been another sticky day, with rumbles of thunder rolling away intermittently in the background.  Compared to places with a Continental climate where summers are truly sticky, I suppose this is nothing.  My parents spent a year living in Illinois when I was a baby, and my mother was shocked by the extravagant luxury of the air conditioning when they moved into their rented house, until it got to summer and she realised that air con was an extravagant necessity.  But things are decidedly sticky for north Essex, and we are not used to it.  The Systems Administrator came in from the workshop at about half past five saying it was no use, conditions were too humid for any of his resins to set.

That was quite convenient at one level, since what with the Test Match, the Grand Prix and the Tour de France, there is almost more sport available than there are hours in the day to watch it, and like the life of Tristan Shandy unfolding faster than he can chronicle it, the SA is in danger of being left behind.  It's just as well he is not a golf fan, since trying to follow the Open as well as everything else might be the straw that broke the camel's back.  My interest in sport is still limited to knowing to adopt a suitably sympathetic expression in response to passing comments like 'Cook's gone'.

Instead I have been making further progress with the piles of old magazines.  Advice on swarm control is being carefully saved, since this has to be one of my weakest areas in beekeeping.  I still don't understand how a bees' vision works, with its compound eyes, but frankly, I am happy not to. A number of recipes for cooking with honey have also emerged from among the heaps of paper, and those will go into my cookery folder.  I know that the honey snaps are delicious, because a friend handed round her entries for us to eat on the spot at the end of the honey show, and they would go capitally with ice cream.  A series of scrap paper with pencilled scribbles on went into the recycling pile, until I suddenly realised that they were the notes to my lovingly compiled slides on Gardening for Bees, and thought I'd better keep them.  I was happy with the way the presentation went when I did it, but that's not to say that in six months' time if I wanted to do it again, I'd be able to remember what thoughts went with each image.

Tomorrow is forecast to be fresher, so active life might resume.  Though we'll see.  The forecasts for the past couple of days have been no help at all, with rain arriving when it was supposed to be dry and holding off when it was supposed to be wet, and extra thunderstorms appearing out of nowhere.  The poor old chickens have missed out too, since neither of us felt like committing ourselves to guarding them.  Chickens caught in a thundery downpour will take refuge under the hedge, which leaves the chicken watcher sitting in the shelter of the porch in the rain, waiting for them to go to bed.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

weeding the library

I decided that it was too humid and hot to work in the garden, and that I would take the day off from physical labour to sort through the piles of old beekeeping magazines lying around the study. Articles with useful and up to date practical advice I pulled out, to be filed for future reference, while the rest is heading for the paper recycling bin.  It's remarkable what you accumulate.  I found a stash of learned pamphlets dating from the 1990s that were being given out free at some conference I went to years ago, by somebody who had despaired of selling them and presumably wanted to de-clutter their own house.  It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to take them, but really I am not going to read about Current Bee Research at Rothamsted, published in 1997, let alone Notes on Cameroon Bee Farming, Analysis of Welsh Nectar Sources, or British Solitary Wasps and Bees with Special References to Species Assemblages.

In the February 2014 edition of The British Bee Journal I did discover what is probably the answer to why we had a highly visible flurry of bee activity outside one of our starling boxes earlier in the year.  For a few days there was an absolute swirl of bees outside, then all went quiet again. Apparently tree bumblebees, which have only recently arrived in the UK, are partial to nesting in bird boxes, and when the virgin queens emerge a cloud of drones may hang around the entrance, trying to mate with them.  This is often the first point at which householders realise there are wild bees using their bird box, and is often mistaken for a honey bee swarm, leading to panic stricken calls to the local swarm collectors.  In 2013 the Chelmsford swarm co-ordinator was getting around a dozen such calls per day.  I have not wobbled my way up a ladder to look at the nest in the box, and my bumble bee identification is pretty ropey anyway, but that would certainly explain the sudden, highly visible activity in front of our box, lasting only a few days.

Browsing through the pages of the web over a cup of tea before settling down to the magazines, I learned that baby turtles communicate with each other by sound while still in the egg to make sure they all hatch at the same time, so that at least some will escape predators and reach the sea.  I gathered this snippet via a link to the website of the Smithsonian, an organisation I associated with 1960s collections of American folk music.  From there I also learned that a cat subjected to zero gravity will turn round, and round, and round, as it behaves as though it were falling, trying to get its legs under it.  A snake, on the other hand, will curl up into a ball, or else bite itself.  It would be possible to waste a lot of time wandering around the pages of the Smithsonian's website, unless of course I have only another couple of clicks to go before it tells me that I have used up my allowance of free page views and must now subscribe to continue.

The Systems Administrator is pressing on with the new, improved technique for making buildings for the garden railway.  This led to a slight frisson when I went into the kitchen to take some meringues out of the simmer oven, to discover a smell of warm plastic and some miniature brickwork curing in the plate warming oven below the meringues.  I sniffed them and could only smell warm, faintly caramelised sugar and not polymer resin, so with any luck they have not taken the smell up.  When I have been making ice cream using egg yolks, it is always a good idea to keep any eye out for further projects involving the whites.

Friday, 18 July 2014

struck by lightning

It was windy this morning.  I could tell that without getting up, because the bedroom door was rattling in its frame the way it does when there's a blow, unless we've wedged it with a piece of card.  Looking out of the bathroom window I was rather taken aback to see a leaden sky, and the trees waving about like the early scenes in a disaster film where there's going to be a hurricane later.  The Systems Administrator had a ticket for the Test at Lords, and from the distant rumbles of thunder, the forecast thundery breakdown had arrived early.

The SA got up, explained that this was the tail end of the thunder that had gone through in the night, and departed for the railway station.  I forgot about the cricket as I trundled off to get my cheques countersigned to pay beekeeping members for goods sold at the Tendring Show, which combined conveniently with visits to Aldi and the Aga shop.  I had run out of Aga's patent enamel cleaner, and have not yet dared to experiment with a common or garden ordinary product to see if that works just as well, or if it scratches the enamel.  The Aga shop is on the wrong side of town, and you aren't allowed to park outside, but I thought that if I went to Aldi first then I would be a bona fide Aldi customer, and could risk nipping across the road to get the enamel cleaner.  As emblems of the middle class zeitgeist of 2014 go, I should say that one was perfect.

I remembered the cricket again when I sat down with a cup of tea, switched on the laptop, and saw that trains into Liverpool Street were severely disrupted and subject to cancellations because they could not use four of the platforms.  And there was a problem with a level crossing gate at Ingatestone.  And signalling difficulties in the Romford area.  I began to imagine the Systems Administrator, who is not good in heat, waiting for an age on a crowded platform before sweltering on a packed train as it crawled to London, all the time aware that the Test Match for which he had paid handsomely to see was ticking away without him.  It's all very well for the wretched Abellio to advise commuters not to travel, but what are people supposed to do who have tickets for sporting events?  It's not as though England and India are going to reschedule the match for later when the trains are running.  Likewise everybody who has got a job interview, or an important sales presentation, or is timetabled to lecture to a room full of students who have timetables to keep to and exams to pass.  In fact, most people trying to carry on with their normal daily lives.

Abellio said that the problems were because their equipment had been struck by lightning in last night's storms.  Is that so?  I didn't read that the overground sections of the tube had ground to a halt because of lightning damage, or that London's roads were clogged by tailbacks due to storm damage knocking out the capital's traffic lights, or of swathes of houses and businesses losing electric power or phone connectivity.  I'm afraid that our railway infrastructure is a peculiarly delicate flower.

The SA rang up at about quarter past seven this evening, sounding remarkably cheerful and having managed to get to London in time for the cricket on a virtually empty train.  I did read that as part of the disaster recovery (or compoundment) plan, intermediate stops for Ipswich trains were being axed.  Indeed, I hear the scrunch of tyres on the gravel as I type this.  I might be living with the only vaguely happy train passenger in the whole of north Essex.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

sweet harvest

Today I took some honey off the bees.  That bald phrase in no way conveys the hotness and stickiness of the process, or the time involved.  Beekeepers who sell a pound of honey for as little as four pounds (and I did see it advertised at that by the side of the road on my jaunt to Saffron Waldon) are commercially insane, and letting the side down very badly.

I started preparations to take the honey a couple of days ago, when I put clearer boards on two hives with honey ready to harvest in the supers.  Beekeeping terminology is a bit like sailing jargon, in that the name given to something depends on what it is doing at the time as well as its physical properties.  So, just as a rope is a sheet when it's attached to the bottom corner of a sail or a halyard when it's used to hoist the sail, the same square of wood with two holes in it is a crown board when it's on top of the pile of boxes making up a bee hive, but a clearer board when it's underneath the supers you want to empty of bees.  In that case it is fitted with a bee escape, a one way valve for bees which (in theory) allows them to go down out of the super, but not get up into it. I use Porter bee escapes, which contain thin flaps of metal meeting in a V shape, the idea being that the bees can push out through the bottom of the V, but find it awkward to go the other way.

Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.  In the first hive I opened, the two supers I wanted to take were almost empty of bees.  I shook and brushed a few off, but there weren't many to deal with.  I put the supers in a wheelbarrow, trundled them back to the house while listening out for buzzing, and then had to wait for a few minutes while a few confused bees emerged and began to crawl up the kitchen window.  Honey bees, finding themselves indoors, are generally drawn to the window, where you can cup a glass over them, slide a piece of card in between the glass and the window pane, and carry them outside.  Doing it half a dozen times is no problem.  Repeating it for twenty or thirty bees gets tedious.

Things were not so rosy when I took the roof off the second hive, as there still seemed to be a lot of bees in the supers.  Either they had not felt the need to go downstairs in the past couple of days, or they had worked out how to get up again.  I stiffened my resolve, because I did want that honey, and prepared to shake and run.  I'd gone to the apiary armed with a spare super with no frames in it.  I stood it in the wheelbarrow, picked a frame out of the top of the hive, shook it to get the bees off, laid it down while I did the same with a second frame, then holding them both at shoulder height to keep them clear of the stray waving heads of grass trotted over to the wheelbarrow and slotted them into the super.  I had to repeat this process not quite ten times, because the bees hadn't finished filling some of the frames, and I dropped the partially complete ones down into the empty super below and swapped them for completely empty ones.

It shows what nice bees they are that I managed to get away with doing this to two supers, without finding my wheelbarrow surrounded by an angry army of bees intent on defending their stores of honey.  I legged it pretty quickly back to the house, though, abandoning the final empty super which had too many bees on it.  I'll retrieve that tomorrow, together with a spare crown board which again was covered in bees.

Through a combination of caution about the honey being ready, and being busy with other things, I'd managed to leave this lot until the bees had finished capping virtually all of it.  When the bees have finished processing nectar into honey, they seal it over with a wax capping.  In theory you don't have to wait for them to do that, as long as the water content is low enough, which you can test for by shaking the frames and seeing if they drip.  In theory.  If honey is harvested before it's ready and while it is still too dilute, it will ferment in storage.  So waiting until the bees have unambiguously told you that they think it's ready is not a bad thing.  Except that if it is oilseed rape honey it may set in the comb before you can get it out, and if the bees are thinking of swarming they may fly off with it before you have taken it.  So it can be tempting to take honey early on a precautionary basis.

A headline in the Telegraph this morning warned people to stay indoors out of the sun for the good of their health.  I don't suppose that the medics who dreamt that one up were imagining that I would spend the day out of the sun but locked in a room with a four oven Aga on normal full clatter. Honey extraction has to be done in a closed room which bees absolutely cannot find their way into, so all windows and doors must be firmly shut, even on the hottest day.  Years ago a hapless BBC programme showed a beekeeper extracting honey from the combs outside in her garden.  Memories of that still makes our local beekeepers jeer.  Do that (unless after dark by floodlight) and you will be surrounded by a mob of bees in no time.  The beekeeper on the telly was wearing a suit and veil, I seem to remember.

I was not wearing a suit and veil, but the thinnest, lightest cotton trousers I had and a clean t-shirt, once I'd finished collecting the second lot of unwanted bees from the inside of the window.  There were rather more, second time around, and one fell in the sink and almost washed down the plughole, but managed to hang on to a piece of kitchen roll I poked down to it.  The kitchen floor was freshly washed and I was ready to roll, my supers in two piles on the kitchen table (covered in newspaper) with notes of with their hives of origin, 2a and 4.

After that things got really sticky.  As a very small scale beekeeper I don't have anything in the way of elaborate equipment, and the commercial beekeepers I know won't do it the way I am going to describe.  I slice the wax cappings off the first side of the first frame using a largish, sharp kitchen knife, and drop them into a pyrex casserole dish.  Then I turn the frame around and repeat on the other side, while the first side drips gently on my chopping board.  I put the frame in my hand cranked centrifuge, uncap a second frame, preferably with the same thickness of honey so that the centrifuge will be balanced.  I turn the handle for the count of forty, then forty the other way for luck, then have to take the frames out and turn them round to repeat the process on the other side. Then I put those frames back in the super and repeat with the second pair of frames.  And so on until I've finished.  It takes ages.

The extractor is fitted with a gate valve at the bottom.  When the honey in the extractor reaches up to the rotating cage, I run it off through a plastic sieve which gets out the little fragments of wax from the cappings plus any stray legs or wings, into food grade plastic buckets.  I label each bucket with the hive it came from and the date of extraction.  As the honey settles, any remaining specks of wax or impurities will float to the top, and I will open the bucket up and lay a piece of clingfilm across the top to skim off the very top layer containing the small debris as I peel it off again.  I won't jar it all up at once, since it keeps better in the buckets.

The wax cappings, meanwhile, are heaped in a colander in a bowl on the warming plate of the Aga, where a remarkable quantity of perfectly good honey drips off them.  Come evening, the empty but still sticky supers are stacked outside the garage, where tomorrow the bees will find them and clean them of every last trace of honey.  Some people put the supers back on the beehives after extraction for the bees to polish them, but if I do that I have to trundle them all the way up the meadow in the wheelbarrow and back again, and I am all in favour of saving work where I can.  It's in the nature of bees to find old bees nests to rob out, and the garage is so far from the apiary that I don't believe I am encouraging bad behaviour close to home.

That account makes it all sound very neat and organised, when in practice it is very sticky, very hot, and rather Heath Robinson.  In order to hold the bottom of the plastic sieve clear of the honey in the bucket once it fills, I have to prop it up with a pile of tins under each of its three arms. Towers two tins high are not so bad, but to fit over the large honey buckets takes three.  I wish that Heinz and Crosse and Blackwell would design their tins so that they slotted into each other when stacked.  I try not to drip, but inevitably do, so at the end of it the kitchen floor has to be washed again, and the Aga, the table, the worktop, and the soles of my shoes.  Scrubbing the fragments of wax off the wire cage of the extractor is a laborious task, since it is too large to fit right in the sink, and I have to do it section by section under the running tap.

It is a labour of love.  We set the price at this year's Tendring Show at six pounds a pound, and when I think of the work that goes into it, not to mention the sugar you have to feed to the bees afterwards, and their Varroa treatments, and fresh wax for their combs every so often, it is cheap at the price.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

two exhibitions and a traditional ceremony

I went to Tate Modern today.  A friend was keen to see the Matisse cut-outs, and I was more than happy to take her and get some use out of my upgraded Member plus Guest card, and happy to leave it until the initial rush had died down, and she was safely past the university exam season and into a relative lull at work.

The cut-outs have attracted rave reviews, and I expected to like them.  I know that not everybody does like Matisse.  One of my other gallery visiting friends can't stand him, says he can't see the point of it, but I have always warmed to Matisse.  Bright though never garish colours, fluid lines, organic shapes, movement, all do it for me.  I have never sat down and read a biography of Matisse (maybe after typing this I will read his Wikipedia entry), but I feel that lunch with Matisse would be a cheerful affair.  Maybe I shouldn't risk reading about his life, in case he was a grumpy misanthrope.  It is always disappointing to discover that artists whose work you love were miserable gits in real life.

The cut-outs are great.  They started small and got bigger, and more elaborate.  Almost everybody must have been introduced to The Snail while they were at school, and been taught that Matisse turned to cutting out and arranging pieces of paper when he was no longer physically able to paint, but that version ignores the fact that The Snail is only one work in a sequence of collages that went on over a period of years, Matisse refining his technique and his ideas as he went on.

So the exhibition runs to fourteen rooms, culminating in not another cut-out but a stained glass window, which brings out the finest qualities in Matisse's use of rich colour.  Apart from that, though, and The Snail, we both warmed most to his slightly earlier, simpler, less grandiose and more apparently spontaneous works.  But it is all good, and you have until 7 September to enjoy it.

After lunch we went and looked at the newly opened Malevich exhibition, so newly opened that today was its first day.  My friend was hesitant to suggest it, thinking that it would be horribly crowded, but we agreed there was no harm in sticking our noses through the door.  It was not packed out, despite getting a mention on the Today programme this morning.  I am afraid that the great British art viewing public has not really taken the early twentieth century Russian avant-garde to its bosom.  A nice bit of Leonardo or Vermeer, or some Monet haystacks, and you would not be able to keep them out, but the creator of the Black Square leaves them largely unmoved.

I had heard of the Black Square because somebody took me to a lecture about Russian art in the twentieth century, and was not averse to seeing it.  Malevich took his time getting there.  In fact, as a painter he made me think of a creature from one of Kiplings or Ted Hugh's fables, trying out what it was to be first one sort of a thing and then another.  You can see echoes of Cezanne, Suerat, Matisse and Mughal paintings just in the first room, passing via Cubism into a sort of Futurism, before he settled on the Black Square.  By the end of his life he was back to figurative art, partly because that was all he was permitted to do in Stalin's Russia.

As Mark Twain has it, the statements was interesting but tough.  Life cannot have been easy for Malevich in a Russia that passed from war to revolution to the ascent of Stalin.  All I know about his personal life is that he had a wife, because he painted her.  She doesn't look happy.  I didn't get the impression that Malevich was happy in his own skin either.  And I don't share his concern that art should be wholly abstract and purged of nature.  I like nature.  Hence I find Henri Matisse's organic seaweed inspired doodles more congenial than Kazimir Malevich's angular abstractions.  But it was interesting, and certainly worth seeing.

Addendum  We got a bonus extra spectacle as we walked down from Liverpool Street to St Pauls to cross the bouncy bridge.  There was an unexpected crowd of people held back by railings in front of the Guildhall, and, rather incongruously, a pair of horses and a cart.  This turned out to be the traditional annual ceremony of carriage marking, at which the Lord Mayor branded the wooden registration plates of all vehicles using the City's roads, to show they had paid their equivalent of the Road Licence Fund.  We saw a Brighton to London stagecoach, a Victorian police van, and a splendid hearse, as well as vintage buses and lorries and a taxi, and to bring things up to date a City of London Police motorcycle wearing a wooden licence plate.  I never even heard of it before, despite all those years working in the City, but it was extremely jolly.  When we walked back all that remained were a few smiling men in linen suits and ladies of a certain age in their best dresses and fascinators, presumably having been to a Mayoral lunch, while workmen were hosing away the evidence of the horses.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

issues of scale

When you move from a relatively small suburban garden to a large country one then unless you have been brought up in a garden that's measured in acres rather than yards, and most of us aren't, you begin the process of learning by trial and error how to manage things on a bigger scale.  It's a topic that's scantily covered in magazines and books, and so hard to find out except by doing it. Magazines that look at practical gardening techniques tend to be aimed at people with smaller plots, which is fair enough, since that's probably the bulk of their readership, while the aspirational glossies tend to focus on the design aspects, and a fair few of the gardens featured employ gardeners to supplement the efforts of the owners.  Giving out nuts and bolts advice about how to maintain all this stuff is not what they are about.

We worked out pretty quickly that we needed a lawn tractor.  The bargain ride-on mower bought second hand soon died, choosing the most downhill point from the drive it could to do it, and was replaced by a new one which actually worked.  Realising that you need a lawn mower commensurate to the task is not hard.  Discovering that you need a large trailer, so that you will not spend half your life carting wheelbarrow loads of prunings to the bonfire site, and a proper scaffold, so that you can cut hedges without risking your neck spending hours wobbling on a stepladder, can take longer.  As can understanding the scale on which you need to build compost heaps.  Some things you only learn when it is too late to do anything about them without major upheaval, like leaving space for loose loads of gravel and mulch to be tipped where they can stay without causing an obstruction until you can finish spreading them.  Or indeed leaving enough space for modern delivery trucks to get in and out easily.

Watering is one such task.  In my old house I watered things in pots with a watering can.  It was only three or four steps across the patio to get to all of them, and if something recently planted needed a drink, that was only another three or four steps.  The distances in the new garden were too far for carrying cans around to be a sensible solution, though I did a fair bit of it in the early years when I had lots of newly planted shrubs, savage summer droughts, no mains water supply and practically no water pressure.  A hose was clearly the thing to have.

Twenty years on the hoses (plural) are far better organised than they were at the start.  One runs from the outside tap to the conservatory at the back of the house, where it lives permanently coiled inside a large terracotta pot when not in use.  It is exactly long enough to reach across the lawn to the collection of Hamamelis in pots on the far side, plus every pot in and outside the conservatory. It has a spray gun fitting at the business end, so that it can be turned on and off there as well as at the tap.  It's a reasonably meaty fitting, able to fill a full sized Haws can in about the time it would take me to count to seventy.

In the front garden is another hose, which will reach to the greenhouse and the pots by the formal pond and on the terrace (or patio).  This isn't normally uncoiled to its fullest extent, but if extended to its full length will reach to the furthest corners of both the front and the back garden, so that in dry spells I can go round the borders watering anything recently planted, and in ultra dry periods I can give the really bad areas a soaking.  After years of practice I have preferred routes round the garden that minimise the amount of backtracking and laborious manoeuvring  of the hose around corners.

A third hose leads to a subsidiary tap up in the meadow and is permanently plumbed in, while a further collection of hoses connected together will if necessary reach from that tap to the furthest end of the meadow.  I only need that when I'm planting up there, which I haven't been for the past couple of years, though I live in hope that I'll have time to make another push this autumn.

A fourth hose, only six feet long, is for filling watering cans to save having to hold them under the tap.  And we have a four way distributor at the tap so that all four hoses can be left plumbed in at once.  This sounds like a small thing, but makes a big difference, compared to the dampness and hassle of regularly having to disconnect the conservatory hose to fill the watering can, followed by confusion over which end belongs to which hose, as you reconnect what you think is the back garden hose, trot down to the conservatory, and find you've got no water, so whatever you plumbed in it wasn't that one.

Today, after months in which the knobs of the old Hozelock distributor got stiffer and stiffer and more and more difficult to turn, to the point where it became a three way distributor and then a two way, because I could no longer turn two of the valves at all, today the Systems Administrator fitted a new distributor.  A brass one.  When it arrived the knobs were so tight they wouldn't turn at all, but they loosened up with some grease.  It was, according to the Systems Administrator, a complete bastard to fit to the wall, being very badly designed, but now that it's up it is marvellous, giving a controllable water supply to conservatory and greenhouse with one turn of a little knob.

It all sounds very obvious, but it took years of experiment, trial and error to get to an efficient arrangement of hoses.

Monday, 14 July 2014

summer pruning

Now that the memory of 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' in full bloom has faded, I am pruning it hard where it has spilled out over the steps between the top and bottom lawns, and lopping back the new growths that keep trying to engulf the potted Hamamelis and my secretary bird made out of recycled oil drums.  The problem with the steps was partly of my own making, as I tried to twiddle the long stems that were heading in the wrong direction around and back into the tree.  The resulting loops of growth kept sliding inexorably out of the tree and across what is supposed to be a key access route to the lower part of the garden.

Other people's rambling roses seem far more obliging about climbing trees than mine.  This year the top-most branches of 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' got further up the wild gean than ever before, which is one reason why I thought it could afford to lose some wood at the bottom, and needed to be directed to apply its future energies up top where they were wanted.  However, I wouldn't say it liked being in the tree.  Climbing is only an adaptation to allow plants to reach the light, and 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' seems to have worked out that conditions are relatively dark in the tree, while there is light to be had in abundance if it heads out across the lawn.

A Mahonia japonica which was supposed to be growing in the light shade of the southernmost canopy of the gean has developed an anxious forward craning habit, as the lower branches of the cherry flopped down upon it, weighed down by the mass of the rose.  Reducing the rose and redeploying a couple of forked rhododendron branches that were meant to be propping the cherry limbs up has opened things up considerably.  The Mahonia is quite nice and bushy, just extremely lax, and a couple of discreetly placed stakes would probably make it look a lot tidier.  It flowers in mid to late winter, after the x media hybrids have finished, in a pale shade of lemon and with a most delicious scent.  I am with Graham Stuart Thomas when he said that out of the two, God's was the finer plant.  The year before last there were virtually no flowers because a deer of some sort ate nearly all the buds.  That was disappointing.

Before the rose grew so enormous, and the cherry grew a fair bit more as well, I optimistically tried to shoehorn a yellow flowered magnolia into this corner.  It is still alive, but whether it will ever come to anything is another matter.

While I was on a roll with the pruning saw, I took two low branches out of one of the trio of river birches in the bottom lawn, and the scene looked instantly better.  The shaggy bark of Betula nigra is its most appealing feature, and clearing this one's trunk to above head height showed if off to its full advantage, while the whole area immediately felt less cluttered.  Still enclosed by trees, but critically more open.  One of the reasons why I wanted the steps to be clear of rose stems is that they lead down to the birches, which with the gean create a shady area.  Part of the intended garden viewing experience is that you should pass from full sunlight to shade and back again, as you walk through that corner of the garden.  Just looking at the birch bark and buddha statue from a distance isn't enough.  I want you to be there.

I digress.  I have a thing about garden circulation, just as others might about edges.  I was so pleased with the result of pruning the birches that I did the same thing with the low side branches of Zelkova carpinifolia that were growing out over the lawn at just the right height to smack the Systems Administrator in the face when seated on the lawn tractor.

At the other end of the scale I potted up the tiny plant I bought at the Tendring Show, along with the tiny, tiny jug.  It is a Rhodohypoxis baurii, which set me back the princely sum of £1.25, pretty good for a nice alpine in a 9cm pot.  It is a jolly little bulb from South Africa, with bright cherry red flowers.  I had some before, but left the pot out on the patio over the winter, which killed them stone dead.  That taught me a lesson, and this specimen will be coming into the greenhouse in the autumn, when I bring in the Lewisia and the pots of red leaved sedum.

Addendum  The mystery of the non-reconciling show sales was solved, once I'd spoken to my beekeeping friend.  His thirty six pots of honey for sale at the start of the show, less one as a taster, had transmuted into thirty six plus thirty five pots by evening when the closing stock was counted and the number of jars sold calculated.  Thus he had actually sold sixteen pots and not fifty two.  It took me a long time yesterday evening to work that one out.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

after the show is over

It rained this morning.  In fact, it began to pour yesterday evening, and thundered in the night, which means we were very lucky with the weather for the Tendring Show.  Five or six hours earlier and it would have rained on our parade.  I was quite pleased with today's rain, since the garden needed it, and I could get on with the beekeepers' accounts without FMOGT (Fear of Missing Out on Gardening Time).

Only giving coppers and five pence pieces in their floats to stalls that had price points in less than multiples of fifty pence was a good move, and saved me a lot of effort counting coppers this morning.  I am paranoid about adding up money when it belongs to other people, and even without the brown shrapnel it took a while to count the contents of every box in turn, meticulously recording exactly what notes and coins were in each.  Then after extracting my original floats, again noting down precisely what I'd taken out, I had to put some back for the proceeds of the last couple of raffles, which I'd delayed banking because they were such a useful cache of pound coins.

When I totted up what was there and filled in the bank paying in slip, it tallied with what should have been there, based on what I'd counted originally, and what I'd then added and subtracted.  I took that as a good omen, and was able to reimburse the Systems Administrator for all the one and two pound coins I'd borrowed to help make up the floats.

The next step was to come at the sales from the other end, and work out what we theoretically sold, and what we owed to members for their honey and wax candles and slices of cake, based on the counts of opening and closing stock.  In my far off youth, when I was training to be an accountant, we were taught that the stock take was one of the most vulnerable parts of an accounting record. If you want to throw the financial results of a company by a significant amount, misstating the balance sheet value of stock is about the easiest way to achieve a big shift in profits, up or down.  I wanted our results to be as accurate as possible, and so it was with some irritation that I discovered that the theoretical sales did not match the cash ones.

Cash does not lie, though it can get lost, or stolen.  I did not think that ours had, and thought on balance that one member's opening stock of honey for sale had probably been double counted.  I only came to this conclusion after spending a long time going through my spread sheets, counting the bank notes yet again, and considering various ways in which I could have blundered, before narrowing my suspicions down to honey sales, and one particular form.  The chap was out when I rang him to check roughly how much honey he'd brought to the show or taken home again, so the mystery persists for now.  I hope that's the answer, because otherwise something has gone quite badly wrong.  Last year we said that all forms listing goods for sale must be checked and signed off by one of the show organisers, but this year we didn't enforce the rule.  I don't doubt our members' financial honesty, but I don't trust their ability to make it unambiguously clear on a piece of paper what they have brought along for sale.  Actually, I think the form needs redesigning, since it isn't clear how to account for sample jars, which I suspect is the root cause of the problem in this case.

In the circumstances it's just as well that it went on raining in the afternoon.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

the show's over

The Tendring Show has been and gone for another year.  Not quite gone in my case, since I still need to count up the money, bank it safely, and draw up some kind of accounts.  The accounts are only ever fairly imprecise, since we expense things at once that may last for several years, like the wooden colouring in bees for the children.  We've got about eighty of those brought forward from last year, so this year they theoretically cost us nothing.  Meanwhile I am rather tired, but I suppose that I was at the showground for nearly eleven hours, and only sat down for an hour of that.

The show was comfortingly much the same as it always is.  There were cattle, goats, and sheep, and I even found a few pigs this year tucked away on the stand of a farm shop from somewhere near Beaumont-cum-Moze.  There was a poultry show, and fox hounds, blood hounds, beagles and terriers.  Heavy horses paraded.  There were two different owl and hawk stands, and a rescued pipistrelle bat sat quietly in his keeper's hand.  Great numbers of visitors' dogs ambled about happily.  The beekeepers contributed three boxes of live bees to animal quotient.  There's a thought: one of the boxes was new this year, while the other had new safety glass, so if I attribute the costs to this year's show then we will appear to have run at a thumping loss.  Right, there's my Treasurer's report for the AGM largely sorted out, since the Chairman doesn't like me to say very much.

You can tell that I like the animals the best.  The vintage cars were pretty good too, and there was a big turnout this year, and an innovation I approved of, which was to scrap the rope around their zone of the showground so that visitors could walk up to them and round them, instead of having to view them all nose on behind a barrier.  And the model boats, which had rather incongruously got themselves some space in the Essex Wildlife Trust stand but I suppose they needed to be near the pond, were pretty good too.  In fact, they were generally to an astonishingly high modelling standard.

The Polish pottery importer was there, who is always there, and, last of the big spenders, I bought a tiny, tiny jug for £5.50, for displaying very small posies of flowers on the breakfast table.  The organic lavender hand cream supplier was there, who I now know to look for in the poultry tent, where they get free space by dint of taking along some geese.  They have to stay with the geese, you see, and the geese have to be by the poultry tent.  The poultry show numbers were down this year, so the organisers were probably quite pleased in the circumstances to have something extra to help fill the tent up.  A young ceramicist whose work I liked last year but didn't buy any wasn't there this time, which serves me right for not supporting her when I had the chance.  At the margin I should say that year by year there are fewer local craftspeople and more national brands, which is a pity but the way the world seems to be going.

I'll know tomorrow, but I don't think we sold as much honey as we did last year.  We certainly didn't get as many customers for bee colouring, and had a few cakes left over at the end, though one of those was a chocolate tray bake with extremely squidgy icing.  Customers tend to be nervous of icing at shows: it works better when you can sit down to eat your cake, and have a plate and maybe a fork.  Still, our stand looked nice and very professional.  We've even had some Colchester Beekeepers business cards printed to give to would-be beekeepers.  It took a long time to get the committee to agree on what picture it wanted on the cards.

Friday, 11 July 2014

a busy day

Another late post, and this time for the reason that I simply forgot.  I went to the supermarket, and then I washed the kitchen floor, and boiled up some cocoa in milk to make chocolate ice cream later, and made a lemon pudding to use the other half of the tin of condensed milk left over from the ice cream.  Then after lunch I got on with jobs in the greenhouse, then made up the floats for tomorrow's beekeeping stand at the Tendring Show, and finished making the ice cream, then cooked supper, and we watched the Titfield Thunderbolt.  About half way through cooking the supper I remembered that I hadn't blogged yet, but there wasn't a moment to do it.  Until now.

So.  The supermarket was Tesco, not because I suddenly like it better there than Waitrose, but because it has branch of Timpson and I had some dry cleaning.  The ice cream was malted chocolate, and the bit I licked off the paddle when I was clearing up at the end tasted very nice, though I forgot to put the vanilla in.  The malted taste is obtained by stirring a great deal of Horlicks powder into the mixture just before freezing.

Washing the kitchen floor is not very interesting, and nor is vacuum cleaning, so we will draw a discreet veil over that part of the proceedings.

The greenhouse is beginning to look positively tidy.  I even swept the floor.  All the pots have been weeded, and there is just a little bit of potting on to do, and a few last things to be dosed with Provado.  A blackbird managed to get in while I was temporarily out, and flew about in a panic when it saw me, but after failing to persuade it to escape by dint of walking around the outside and tapping on the glass furthest from the door, I hard heartedly went in, and it flew round me and out, crashing into a few plants on the way.

The floats are intended to be tailored to the price points for each activity.  Last year I made them all the same, which has the merit of simplicity, but there is no point in counting out lots of coppers for change from the sale of honey and orange squash priced in units of fifty pence, and counting them again the next day.  I will tell you more about the show tomorrow.

Supper was an Antonio Carluccio pasta recipe, with onion, garlic, courgette and tomato simmered in olive oil and butter, seasoned with basil and served with plenty of pecorino cheese.  I chose the recipe on the basis that I had half a pot of basil and a courgette which needed eating up.  I liked it very much, though I suspect the Systems Administrator would have liked something with some sort of meat in it more.  My frugal attempts to use up the oddments in fridge was undermined by Tesco's overly generous idea of how much fresh tagliatelle two people can eat, since while I bought the smallest packet they had, which said it would serve two people, there would have been enough for three if not four.  I must remember to put the rest in the fridge before going to bed, as the chickens will eat it.  The lemon pudding was so retro it was a time warp back to the mid 70s.

The Titfield Thunderbolt is a splendid film.

Addendum  Our Ginger started the day in disgrace, because he tried to nest behind the SA's bean to cup coffee machine while I was having my breakfast.  I didn't think he should make a habit of sleeping there, and by time I'd removed him and put the things back I had to move to get at him, he was lapping the milk out of my muesli.  I didn't fancy it after that.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

hedging issues part II

It's not just the Eleagnus hedge that's proving a mixed blessing,  The ivy hedge around the long bed is problematical as well, in its own way.  There are many beautiful varieties of ivy, and I still consider it to be an attractive and interesting plant, but as the years go by I become less and less clear how it can be used in a garden setting, other than on a truly grand scale as ground cover under an extremely large tree.  The long bed was not originally intended to be bounded by a hedge, but I found in the early days of the garden that unless I put up wire netting against the rabbits, everything in it got eaten.  Then I wanted something to hide the rabbit wire, and hit upon ivy because I could not afford that much box, and did not want to be committed to cutting it.  That was a good call.  One of the reasons why we have the sort of informal garden that we do was that I knew I lacked the inclination or discipline to manage more than a token amount of formal hedging.

Ivy was evergreen, and affordable because one plant could be asked to cover a good length of wire, once it got going.  And it did take its time to get going.  For several years I was left looking at the wire with lengths of ivy randomly distributed across it, before it finally disappeared.  It didn't help that we had a couple of viciously dry summers soon after moving in, before we went on to mains water, and the supply from the well was finite as well as being at very low pressure, so that the ivy didn't really get irrigated.  Plus it was planted on some of the lightest and most infertile soil in England.  Anyway, it got going eventually, and began to show me what it was capable of.

It could cover the ground, that's for sure.  If anything it was keener on running out across the surface of the bed and over the gravel than it was on climbing on its wire.  I raised that as an objection when one of the Writtle tutors introduced the idea of ivy on wire as an effective screen where space was limited, and she looked at me with a combination of irritation and scorn and said that it was not difficult, you simply trimmed it.  Obviously you can trim it, but pruning something at ground level, which roots as it goes and threads its way through other plants, then leaves a trail of leathery leaves behind when you rip the shoots out from among them is hard and fiddly work.

After many years the ivy has found a new game.  It does not run across the borders quite so enthusiastically as it used to, as more and more sections of the hedge are shifting to produce mature, flowering shoots.  Most of you are probably familiar with ivy's dual identity, but for anybody who isn't, the clinging, climbing shoots are ivy in its juvenile form.  When it finally decides it has got to the top of wherever it is going, it switches to producing non-clinging shoots, with leaves that don't look especially like the juvenile ones, often less distinctly lobed, and these shoots produce flowers in the autumn, followed by black berries.  They are perfectly attractive, but destroy the uniformity of a hedge when they mix themselves up with stretches of ivy which have not yet stopped climbing and started flowering.  Fortunately our garden is not big on uniformity, so that is not a major issue.  However, they add considerably to the bulk of the hedge, which is only supposed to be a low boundary around a mixed border, and it is difficult to find leafy growth to prune them back to as much as I would like.  My efforts to keep the hedge to the size I'd like are therefore tending to leave it with odd bald patches.

Perhaps in more skilful and disciplined hands the ivy would behave better, but all I can say is that I have never heard either of these two mischievous habits discussed by any of the gardening experts or authors who recommend ivy on wire as a convenient, low width screen.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

hedging difficulties

The wind got up through the day, until by mid afternoon it was blowing a full yachtsman's gale.  I don't think it touched a true gale, but at one point it was strong enough to blow my Tilley hat off my head.  Leaves, still green, started to come off the cherry trees and scatter across the lawn, and vast quantities of dry brown leaves were suddenly dislodged from the Eleagnus hedge and spread across the gravel.

That was annoying.  I had it on my list of things to do to scoop up the narrow line of fallen leaves lying along the base of the hedge, but now a zillion times more were littered over a much greater area.  If I don't get them cleared away first thing tomorrow, they will spread themselves still further, right across the turning circle, if they don't anyway during the night.  Dead leaves can have a mournful, appropriate charm at the right time of year, though old Eleagnus x ebbingei leaves are pretty leathery and horrid, but in the middle of summer they just look messy.  And they do not go well with the beach themed treatment of that end of the turning circle.  Breakwater made out of authentic reclaimed timber, check.  Shells of limpets and cockles hand picked from Britain's and Normandy's beaches while on holiday, check.  Sea kale.  Sea thrift.  Sea lavender.  Sea campion.  All present and correct.  Oh, and a lot of dead brown leaves.

I have mixed feelings about the Eleagnus hedge.  It grows so fast, and looks so dreadful when cut back to virtually the same line that it has inexorably got wider with the years, and spills on to the drive.  It has to be cut back specially for oil deliveries, and anything else planned involving a large vehicle, and I daren't ask the aggregates delivery driver to even attempt to come right into the garden.  This August we are going to have to bite the bullet, and with our hearts in our mouths (or at least my heart in my mouth) cut the side of it along the drive really hard, a good three feet out of it, probably four or more.  Perhaps it will die.  Or perhaps some plants in it will die, which is something Eleagnus x ebbingei tends to do around this age, according to the books.

And yet it is such a useful hedge.  It makes a fabulous windbreak.  The difference this afternoon between the exposed side and the downwind one was dramatic.  And the silvery leaves are handsome, and make a better visual backdrop for the gravel planting than clipped hornbeam would do.  It is drought tolerant, and fixes its own nitrogen.  The small white flowers in autumn smell deliciously of clove carnations (though we will have to sacrifice half of them to cut it), and are followed by fruit which the birds love (including the chickens).  Blackbirds nest in it without fail every year.  For a wild, windy country garden it has a lot to commend it.

I have seen Eleagnus x ebbingei planted around the neat little front garden of a newly built house, and laughed inwardly, in a hollow, schadenfreudish sort of way.  Once it got going the occupants would not be able to see out of their ground floor windows, and barely out of their second storey ones.  In fact, they would not be able to get into the garden at all.  The only way you could have kept it to an acceptable size would have been by clipping it so often and so hard that it wouldn't have had any leaves.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

success with succulents (or not)

I am pleased with my little collection of succulents outside the conservatory.  Succulents are like that, strangely moreish.  You start off with one or two, and before you know where you are they've turned into a collection.  Mine is not a very good collection, in the sense that I don't know any of their names, apart from Aeonium 'Zwartzkop', and I'm as sure as you can be without knowing what they are that none of them are rare.  One I bought at a Yellow Book open garden in the pouring rain from a knowledgable and charming local gardener, who deserved nicer weather for her open day.  A few I grew from a packet of mixed seed.  One was a cutting from an armful of branches brought in by a customer at the plant centre, who seemed strangely determined that we should have them.  I was given the job of turning the armful into pots of cuttings, and when all the available bench space was used up I was allowed to keep a couple of misshapen side shoots.

There is always a good display of them at the Chatto gardens, somewhere near the house or at the end of the nursery, and they raise theirs up on tiers made out of old planks.  I didn't have room for anything on that scale, or indeed that many plants, or the space to over-winter them under cover. However, I did have the battered remains of a nucleus beehive, which was wrecked for beekeeping purposes when a large tree fell on the shed it was stored in at the time.  I also found a small plank, with rounded edges artfully crusted with moss, which the Systems Administrator had been using to put under a leg of the scaffolding to spread the weight.  The plank exactly fitted on top of the beehive, and suddenly voila, a rustic wooden plant stand straight out of a Chelsea Flower Show Artisan Garden.  It just goes to show you should keep old junk lying around in case it comes in useful, instead of breaking it up for the fire with a lump hammer, which I had been meaning to do and not getting round to for years.

I have got on better with the succulents since learning to put a great deal of grit in their compost. A previous incarnation of Aeonium 'Zwartkop' grew very tall and leggy, and I chopped it down and used the rosettes for cuttings, and they rooted but did not make good root systems, and kept falling over in their pots.  When I bought my large and handsome many branched green Aeonium from the owner of the open garden, I was amazed at how heavy the pot was, and when I came to transfer my trophy (it was only five pounds for an absolutely huge plant) to a terracotta pot for display purposes, the penny dropped.  It was potted in a mixture that was half grit.  I repotted my other plants in something similar, and they soon became much happier.

The trouble with that sort of summer display is that you do need somewhere to store the plants for the winter.  They don't need to be warm, but they mustn't freeze, or get too soggy in their pots.  Go to the Chatto Gardens out of season and you will see rows of them crammed into a greenhouse.  If you really don't have anywhere to overwinter tender succulents then you can always stick to houseleeks.  I am very fond of houseleeks, and have them in pots on the low wall around two sides of the terrace (or patio).  I have bought a few fancy named ones, like Sempervivum arachnoideum, which is covered in fine white threads like cobwebs, but they always seemed to die out, and most of what I've got nowadays is simply from seed.  When the pot gets too congested and the individual rosettes start getting smaller you can break the whole plant up and repot the individual pieces, which will take advantage of their new space to grow large and luxuriant.  Alas, my stock of fresh plants coming along in the greenhouse has been ravaged by root aphid, and although I have almost finished dosing them with insecticidal drench, they have yet to recover.