Thursday, 31 December 2015

in the wood

Given the unseasonably mild weather I thought I'd better finish clearing the last branches and twigs from our last bout of tree work out of the end of the wood, before snowdrops and bluebells were poking up everywhere.  The wood must have been hit by an exceptionally violent gust of wind a couple of years ago, if not a mini tornado, because as well as toppling a multi-stemmed birch and a wild cherry, it half threw some hollies that weren't directly hit by the other trees falling on them.

The birch lodged against some other substantial trees, and there it stayed until we ended up getting professionals in to drop and section it, since it was too big and too heavy for the Systems Administrator to tackle.  I cleared out the debris from the birch some time ago, and by now most of it has been used as firewood, or shredded for mulch.  The cherry was smaller and lighter, and the SA was able to deal with it.  We are most of the way through burning the bigger bits, so today's job was to finish clearing out the brash, the twigs and small ends plus branches of hazel coppice that got broken in the original fall or had to be cut through to extract the remains of the cherry.

Way leads on to way in gardening.  Originally I was just going to clear the debris and thought I'd be finished by lunchtime, but then I began pulling up odd bramble seedlings from around the main snowdrop area, and strands of ivy that were running across the ground.  As I went slightly further into the wood there was an awful lot of ivy, much of it in areas where bluebells should be coming up later, and some thick patches of eager young brambles.  My builders' bucket rapidly filled, and filled again.

I avoid working in the wood when the wind's too strong.  I adore trees, and it would be a sad irony to be killed by one falling on me.  The wet ground in the wood doesn't offer a firm root hold, and the alder coppice stools are old and not particularly sound.  Best to keep out when the wind is blowing, and seize the moment when it's not to do anything that needs to be done.  Today felt like a good day for working among geriatric trees, and I pulled up ivy and brambles with a will, piling up any half rotten pieces of branch into little wildlife habitats.  I found a patch of stinking hellebore, which could be genuinely wild or more likely a garden escape, given I grow it in the borders.  There are a lot of ferns, and they are wild apart from a few very close to the house, but I introduced the primroses.

By the time it got towards dusk and twig-poking-in-the-eye accident time I hadn't quite finished, but had stripped out a lot of brambles and ivy, liberating various wild flowers in the process.  There is opposite leaved golden saxifrage in the damp flushes, which is not rare nationally but is uncommon in eastern England, and does not deserve to have smothering stems of ivy running over it.  There are clumps of campion, but the main beneficiary of the extra light let in by the toppling of the birch and the cherry seems to be wood avens, Geum urbanum.  This species is not content to live in the wood, but tries hard to colonise the garden, where it spreads in weedy and moderately irritating fashion.

We left a good length of the birch trunks lying on the ground for the benefit of wood boring creatures, our largesse partly dictated by the fact that half the tree was already pretty rotten.  A delightful clump of a miniature fern is growing out the root plate, and the tree is regenerating from the base, sending up a cluster of vertical shoots.  Deer or rabbits have nibbled them, but the largest are getting going now and set fair to make another full sized birch with time.  Many woodland and wildlife experts now consider they were too quick to tidy up after the Great Storm of 1987.  Fallen trees will often regenerate given the chance, either shooting from the base of the original trunk or rooting where the fallen trunk touches the ground and then sending up new trunks vertically from the side of the old one.

My aim is to garden the end of the wood nearest the house but with a light touch, giving the ferns and campions light and air to breathe, and introducing a few species of my own that will fit with the woodland vibe and not be invasive.  I don't want the wood to look manicured, but would far rather have a carpet of snowdrops than a solid swathe of ivy.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

winter tidy

The ground is rather soggy and today was quite windy, but given the flood chaos and misery going on in the north it would be churlish to mind.  The bottom of the garden is reasonably tucked out of the wind, and I crawled and crouched my way through the bog bed and up into the sloping bed, cutting down brown and faded stems, rooting out weeds and feeling quietly grateful that life and gardening in north Essex were able to continue as per normal.

The bog bed is currently no more than damp, and not really distinguishable from the other borders which are also damp.  After the very wet winter of three years ago it turned to almost knee deep mud soup, but the temporary spring has run dry again, and though it's odd to think about at a time of flooding, I'll probably need to water it once or twice in the summer.  In the meantime it makes it easier to tidy away the straw dry stems of Thalictrum, Ligularia, Osmunda and Filpendula.  The thalictrums are already sending up clumps of glaucous new shoots of extreme fragility, and not stepping on them is an exercise in mindfulness.  The bog primula have mostly disappeared without trace, which used to send me into a panic that they had died until I got used to it.

There are rather too many self sown seedlings of sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis.  I was amused to read in an article about Tom Stuart-Smith that, liking it, he grows it in his own garden but doesn't specify it for clients because of its generous seeding habit.  The young plants pull up easily enough, so it is relatively easy to control, but needs a little of the gardener's time during the year if you aren't to end up with altogether too much of a good thing.

The Japanese anemones have died down, and now is the time to trim away the tatty remains of the basal foliage as well as the spent flower stalks, before the fresh crop of leaves comes through. Ours are mostly the white 'Honorine Jobert', apart from some pink at one end where I must have got in a muddle about what I was buying.  They might be 'September Charm'.  There are bulbs among the anemones to extend the season in that part of the bed, since the anemones don't do anything interesting until autumn but equally don't grow too tall in the first half of the year.  Bright yellow, fully double daffodils are followed by alliums.  Using the latter was a tip I gleaned from the writings of Graham Stuart Thomas.

The daffodils were my own idea.  They are another instance of less than perfect record keeping, as I think they are 'Pencrebar' but am not one hundred per cent sure.  The first lot I planted did so well I thought I'd like some more, at which point I discovered I hadn't written the variety down.  They looked like illustrations of 'Pencrebar' in the catalogues, so I added some and so far it hasn't looked as though I've got two different sorts mixed together.  The soil in that part of the bed is not terribly nice, a sort of claggy, stony clay overlaying a fairly impermeable clay sub layer, and the poor old Japanese anemones don't especially like it, though they cope.  The first lot of daffodils have positively thrived for years, so it is a pity not to be entirely sure what variety it is that will live so happily in such conditions.

I started trimming the leaves off the smart Ashwood hellebores, ready for the emerging flowers. Opinions vary about whether to defoliate hellebore hybrids as a matter of routine before flowering, or whether to only take off any leaves that look unhealthy.  The leaves this year didn't look too bad, but there were a few black blotches and a couple of years ago I had problems with the flower stems rotting, so nowadays to be on the safe side I clear away every leaf once I can see the buds. At the moment the clumps I've finished tidying each have one odd leaf stuck back into the soil, to mark them until I've finished working there so that I don't tread or kneel on them without noticing.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

the puzzle of the sickly broom

I am not sure whether the Mount Etna broom in the front garden is alive or not.  As an experienced gardener I feel I ought to be able to tell, but bits of it are green, and bits are not, and whether it is on its way out or just resting for the winter is a puzzle.

I've been worried about the broom since the exceptional storm just over two years ago.  The whole shrub was left slightly tilted by the force of the wind, and I feared that this did not bode well, since members of the pea family notoriously don't like having their roots disturbed. A Buddleia 'Black Knight' in the back garden was blown clean out of the ground by a really bad storm in 2002, a year after it was planted, and after I'd planted a replacement the first one regenerated from the roots so we now have two, but I did not think the broom was going to be similarly resilient.

Come the spring it came back into leaf, however, and flowered, and did the same last summer, although leaning further and further across the pond.  I pruned off some of the downhill branches last year and some more this, trying to restore some balance and make it more upright.  I've been trying to thin out the number of branches since it was a baby anyway, since while the Genista aetnensis in the gravel garden round at Beth Chatto's have made nice, smallish trees, our broom has always been infuriatingly multi-stemmed and bushy.

The distinction between leaves and twigs in a Mount Etna broom is not clear to the naked eye at the best of times.  The leaves are so narrow they look almost like twigs, while the young stems are green.  As autumn came this year and the broom shed its load of leaves into the gravel, I didn't like the way some of the twigs had turned brown.  When I flexed them experimentally between my fingers they snapped, for they were dead and tinder dry.

Peripheral dieback in a shrubby plant is rarely a good sign.  For a tree or shrub to discard the oldest branches, those low down or buried deep within the crown that don't get much light, is pretty normal, but when the most recent, freshest growth that's getting plenty of light goes and dies on you that rings alarm bells.  Particularly in the case of the broom, because its roots were rocked so badly by the wind a couple of years previously.  On the other hand, the branches at the base are still green and sappy.  I know this because I sawed two more off that were hanging right down over the pond, rather expecting it to be the beginning of a major clearance session with bow saw and pick axe, and was halted in my tracks by clear evidence of life.

The best I can do is to leave it until spring and see if it surprises me for a third time by coming back into leaf, or whether by then the main stems are as dead as the twigs.  All is not lost if the broom does die, since it has left a number of progeny seeded into the gravel.  The largest is up to the three foot mark, and the smallest still only six inches tall, all of them a bright, dark green and unambiguously alive.  In a few years I'd have a little grove of Genista aetnensis.  I had thought about potting them up when they were very small, but left it because I knew they disliked root disturbance and now I'm glad I didn't.

There is also the complication of the self seeded rose, which had just begun to get going growing up into the broom and was showing me how it ought to be done when ramblers are left to choose their own spot.  It is almost evergreen, with white flowers and extremely healthy foliage.  I didn't intend to have a rambling rose in the middle of the front garden, and am slightly nervous about how large this one might grow, but after an early and unsuccessful attempt to dig it out I haven't tried again because I am so impressed that any rose will grow that well in sand that hasn't seen any organic mulch for a decade that I haven't liked to destroy it.  Its roots are neatly tucked in close to the original broom and its branches are naturally following those of its host, quite unlike my struggle to persuade 'Paul's Himalayan Must' that it wants to go up the wild cherry in the back garden.  Persuading the rose in the gravel to transfer its affections to a new host, and keeping it in check while the seedling brooms got large enough to support a climber, feels as though it could be a long project.

Monday, 28 December 2015

pruning the willows

The Systems Administrator got roped in to help with the gardening today, to trim the willow and ash shooting up at the back of the ditch bed.  I have experimented with using the electric pole saw, but found it too heavy to be controllable.  I'd have been fairly safe at my end of the handle, but the prospect of the bladed tip crashing down unexpectedly on the surrounding plants and any cats or people who happened to be within range made me realise that this was one gardening task where being stronger if not taller was not just desirable, but essential for safety's sake.

The SA does not especially enjoy handling the pole saw.  Trying to cut through branches ten or twelve feet above your head, using a very long handled tool which you can only grasp at one end when most of its weight is concentrated at the other, while simultaneously squinting upwards to see what you are doing and trying not to tread on any of the plants in the border you are standing in, is basically not fun.

Some of the side branches of willow that had grown out over the bed were only lightweight, and their severed ends bounced harmlessly off the hydrangeas and hellebores below.  Rather more problematic were three upright stems of willow and one of ash, that we'd cut back at waist level several years ago, then topped out at around the ten foot mark, that were now pushing twenty feet and leaning out over the ditch bed.  I wanted them to go on the grounds that they would shade the bed too much at the size they were now, and would be even more difficult to remove after another year's growth than they were already.  A special plea was put in on behalf of a small and rather fragile Magnolia stellata growing in the middle of the bed.

The SA decided not to mess around trying to top them off again with the pole saw, and cut them back to waist height instead using the main chain saw, managing to drop each in turn along the back of the border.  I was genuinely impressed, and the weedy magnolia lost only one small twig.  I have never learned to use a chain saw.  I suppose there's no reason why I shouldn't manage at least a lightweight electric model, but the idea seems intimidating.  I heaped gratitude and praise upon the SA, who handed out the cut branches from the back of the border and returned to the house in a trail of glory and electric cables.

My part of the project was to clear up the aftermath.  By the time I'd removed the remaining twigs from the border and tickled up the compost mulch where it had been trodden on, you'd have scarcely known that we'd be in there, and the snowdrops can now finish coming up with no more disturbance.  I think there's a lesson, though, one of those things we didn't think about when starting the garden, which is that if you plant close to mature trees, particularly fast growing and unstable species like willow that are always drooping and sagging over your plantings, you will struggle over the years to keep the trees in order.  I had better keep the regrowth from these willows trimmed as quasi pollards and not let it go shooting up to the twenty foot mark again.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

early flowers and a dead daphne

The unseasonal warmth is bringing the garden hurrying along.  The flowers on the pots of witch hazel are opening en masse, while in the ditch bed I found one early snowdrop, in the gravel a solitary iris and a clump of deep red anemone, and up by the compost heap two daffodils were full out.

I spent the day working my way along the ditch bed, since the leaves of the emerging snowdrops are lengthening by the day, and the sooner it is weeded and covered with a layer of home made compost so that I don't have to tread on it again for a month the better.  As I crouched at the back of the bed, trying and mostly managing not to kneel on any of the hellebore buds, I was relieved to be as small as I am.  There are times when it would be useful to be taller, or stronger, but for fine work among delicate new growth having short little legs and quite small feet is a definite plus.

The Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' in the ditch bed appears to have died.  I hadn't consciously looked at it for a while, but as I pulled out goose grass seedlings and tiny, innocent looking little baby Herb Roberts it struck me that the bare twigs I was weeding among belonged to the daphne, and that they ought not to be bare.  It's not as though we've just had a sudden sharp frost that might have prompted it to drop all its leaves in shock, and while I don't know what is wrong with it I suspect it's terminal.  It has been pretty wet recently, so maybe it has succumbed to phytophthora or some other soil borne disease.  Perhaps it got too shaded where it was as the other plants in the bed grew, or succumbed to a virus.

Or perhaps it simply died of being a daphne.  They have a reputation for sudden death, and for not being the longest lived plants.  This one was planted in March 2004.  Is eleven years a good innings for Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'?  I should very much like another, or perhaps to try 'Eternal Fragrance', but I really can't see where I could fit one in.

The grass has been growing all winter.  It would be nice to cut it, except that the ground is so wet the mower would probably bog down.  It's too late to cut the areas with naturalised bulbs anyway, as the daffodil foliage is already well up, and I'm starting to wonder if we'll see the crocus flowers at all or if they'll be overtopped by the grass.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

winter flowering clematis

Our Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica is in flower.  It looks a little underwhelmed by life, but is tentatively pushing out a few small, pale flowers as it scrambles among the Amelanchier and the Daphne below the rose bank.  I see from my records that it represents my third attempt to get a C. cirrhosa form going in that bed: I planted 'Freckles' in 2005 and C. balearica in 2007 and again in 2009.  The third and final planting date is still before the two unusually cold, long winters that we had, so although C. cirrhosa is not the most reliably cold hardy species it may not have been the cold that did for the first two.

Perhaps it was waterlogging.  After prolonged heavy rain various springs rise up in the bottom garden, including one at the base of the rose bank.  We lost a Japanese paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha, that way and I had to start again at the other end of the bed where it's drier.  Or maybe it was summer drought.  Or perhaps it was cold, less intense than the following two winters, but still too much for a newly planted specimen.  I see from my records that the first two were both planted in November, probably because that's when the plant centre got them in stock ahead of their winter flowering period.  The final and third time lucky plant didn't go out until March.  Or maybe weather had nothing to do with it, and the first two were eaten by slugs or voles.  That's the trouble with having a large, slapdash garden.  You look at part of it and realise something has failed, but you don't know exactly when or why.

I thought our third plant was going to join the first two specimens in the great compost heap in the sky and was all set to give up with Clematis cirrhosa this summer, when I saw its leaves had gone brown, but now I read on the Thorncroft Clematis website that they can have a natural dormant period in summer.  Ours has suffered as well a couple of times from being inadvertently pruned.  It is a lanky thing, disliking the spot where it is planted in the middle of the bed and growing some way upwards and south towards the light before consenting to put out any leaves.  It is very easy to snip the bare stems through by mistake when clearing out unwanted and too-rampant growths of honeysuckle from the rose bank, or tidying the hard-prune viticella type 'Confetti' that adorns Daphne bholua in late summer when it would not otherwise be doing anything interesting.  It is a deeply demoralising moment to realise you have just severed six feet of growth that you wanted to keep, but it happens and there is nothing to be done about it except try and be more careful next time.

In an ideal world you plant climbers together that have compatible pruning regimes, but there is a handy trick if you've got a clematis needing hard pruning growing through one that doesn't.  Find the roots of the plant to be pruned, work upwards from there and sever every stem close enough to the base that you can be certain you've got the plant you actually want to cut back.  Now go away and get on with something else until the leaves on the hard pruned plant have had time to wilt. Then you can see which stems to remove.  Of course this only works if you tackle the pruning before the leaves have all gone brown anyway.

What there is of C. cirrhosa var. balearica is quite pretty, with dainty, finely divided ferny green leaves and little pendant creamy flowers, though it would be better if there were rather more of it. I must feed and mulch it lavishly this spring and perhaps it will bush out.  I saw a splendid winter flowering clematis some years ago absolutely rampaging along a low wall at Hyde Hall, but they don't seem to like our garden so well.  One bashful specimen out of three attempts to grow it doesn't suggest I've found the ideal spot.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

the day before Christmas

We are now well and truly decked with holly.  And ivy.  The Systems Administrator firmly believes that they mustn't be brought in until Christmas Eve, which is possibly something to do with being half Welsh.  The Christmas tree, which is only a recent German cultural import, is allowed in the week before, but the pagan greenery has to wait until December 24th.  As a half west midlands, quarter scouser and quarter Polish jew, I don't feel strongly about it one way or the other, but it's best not to bring the holly and ivy in too soon, or they get thoroughly dried up, dull and horrid well before twelfth night.

The mantelpiece is piled high with holly twigs, including many more berries than usual because it's been so mild that the blackbirds haven't yet scoffed the lot.  There are ivy berries as well, and some conker sized, apricot coloured hips from the rose 'Meg'.  (The Peter Beales catalogue, normally a mine of information, still says None for hip colour and shape, but our 'Meg' faithfully bears huge hips every year.  She is a climbing hybrid tea with orangey pink, semi double flowers and is quite lovely, though contrary to what the Beales website says she doesn't do much in the way of repeat flowering.  Or doesn't on our soil.  Maybe she would in a better spot, but at any rate they are wrong about the hips.)

The bannisters are laced with wild strands of ivy and a string of white fairy lights.  There is a tablecloth on the dining table, an effort we only make at Christmas, and the giant pillar candle in its glass shade has been brought out of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom.  It is lit, along with the fat church candles on the mantelpiece and the one on its five foot metal stand.  The whole effect is quite Wolf Hall.  I have picked tiny posies of white and mauve daphne, winter flowering viburnum, sweet box (not quite out yet), iris, and yellow winter jasmine (not scented), and the daphne and viburnum are filling the ground floor with a heavy, spicy perfume.

I have made the florentines and the stollen.  After some searching for a recipe I used Felicity Cloak's perfect florentines method from the Guardian, except that I substituted alternatives for practically all the fruits and nuts.  There's no point in cooking with dried cranberries when I'm not keen on them, and while I'm extremely partial to pistachios I didn't have any.  The resulting biscuits are a little too dominated by orange flavour from the mixed peel for my taste, but I'm sure we'll eat them.  The stollen is fine, though every stage of proving took about twice as long as the book said and I didn't finish it until half way through the nine lessons and carols.  While I suspect the florentines are not so nice as Fudge's, on which basis one might as well buy them and save a lot of effort, the stollen is better than the plastic wrapped ones you get in the supermarket.  Anyway, it's a pleasant way to spend a wet Christmas Eve, messing around in the kitchen while listening to Haydn.

And that's as wild as our Christmas gets.  Later on we will eat steak and chips with a tomato and a giant mushroom on the side, because that is what we always have for supper on Christmas Eve.  We will listen to Christmas music ancient, traditional, and pagan, from the New College choir and Thea Gilmore to The Watersons and The Pogues.  We will put the candles out carefully before we go to bed.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

cui bono?

Tesco had chestnut stuffing, so that was all right.  The sausage meat has gone in the freezer, to be turned into a meatloaf as soon as the fuss is over.  The fruit is soaking for a stollen, and I bought a jar of mincemeat large enough to keep us in mince pies until Easter.  Plus an emergency packet of chocolate Liebnitz, and I was planning to make a batch of florentines tomorrow morning, having discovered a stash of best before the end of December flaked almonds in my box of baking supplies. It's easy to forget that Christmas only lasts a couple of days, and that there are only two of us.

The chickens came out for a run after lunch, and I cleaned their roosting board, a job that's better done when it's not windy.  I thought I might make progress weeding the herb bed next to the hen house but they had other ideas and wanted to go and stand in the back garden behind the Eleagnus hedge.  Chickens are creatures of limited but firmly fixed ideas and it was easier to go with the flow, so I went and trimmed some of the remaining whiskery bits off a box hedge that gave me a strategic view of them.

Mid-winter is not generally recommended as the time to cut box, but as Christopher Lloyd put it, the best time to do many gardening jobs is when you have time, just as the best time to take cuttings can be when somebody offers to give you some.  I started cutting the box in September but the hens didn't stay by the hedge long enough for me to finish it, and anyway it's easier on the back done in short bursts.  I have seen some very beautiful gardens created and maintained by their owners that included significant amounts of low, formal, clipped evergreens, the wonderful Herterton in Northumberland being a prime example, but in general I suspect you find it in gardens where there is paid help and that it is one of the jobs that even hands-on owners tend to delegate. Actually, I believe that part of the point of really extensive formal hedging is to signal that you are so wealthy, you can afford to pay someone to do all this, just as extensive areas of close scythed turf were before the advent of the mechanised lawnmower.

You can see the difference between professionally designed modern gardens and hobbyists' gardens if you flick through the pages of the glossy magazines.  It is not just that the designed gardens include more, higher quality and much more expensive hard landscaping than the enthusiasts' private plots.  On the whole the designed outdoor living spaces would not be nearly so much fun to look after, with a limited plant range and a heavy requirement for routine tidying in the form of sweeping, scrubbing and trimming.  Outdoor housework, in fact, which is fine if it's all going to be done by somebody else anyway.  The limited plant range may not be a bad thing in purely design terms, creating visual unity and clarity, but looking after it could feel more like work than play.

It's a question to ask yourself the next time you're looking at a designed green space.  Is it more fun for the onlooker or the gardener?

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

the Christmas shop

I did the Christmas shop this morning  Christmas shops are not what they used to be, now that supermarket opening hours have extended so far.  The useful Budgens in Elmstead Market is even open for a couple of hours on Christmas morning.  It's not like the old days when the queues in Tesco used to stretch half way back up the aisles as the population panicked that they would not be able to buy anything for two whole days.

The traffic in Colchester was so light that I began to wonder if I had missed the Government warning to remain in my home and await further instructions, and I had a choice of parking spaces in the Waitrose car park.  I think I was just quick off the mark, though.  By the time I was waiting my turn at the till, staff were having to organise the queue of people behind me.  If you could just tuck your trolley over that would let people get past, thank you madam.

The Systems Administrator did not come shopping, having a prior engagement for lunch with friends at the George and Vulture.  They'll do you Welsh rarebit and a Barnsley chop, in a menu plucked straight out of Dickens.  The SA did suggest we could do The Shop tomorrow, but I'm busy in the morning and thought that leaving it until the afternoon before Christmas Eve might be pushing our luck.  Christmas lunch is such a highly ritualised meal that it's difficult to leave anything out or substitute something else as you would on any other day of the year, and I didn't fancy embarking on an eleventh hour pan Colchester supermarket trawl in search of a decent piece of ham.

When we both worked full time we did the weekly shop together each Saturday morning, but now that we have lunch together most days we don't need joint food retail time as well.  Whoever is cooking generally shops.  On Christmas day that will be the SA, who is good at roasts, whereas I struggle to get more than two dishes to be ready to eat at the same time.  When I'm cooking we have mainly boiled things that can be kept hot almost indefinitely while they wait for other things to be done, or one pot meals.  Not roasts.  So I can look on The Shop as my contribution to the festivities.  I think going supermarket shopping together is quite romantic, though.  We do when we're on holiday, and I was touched to bump into a widowed friend with her new chap in Waitrose the other day.  Going to concerts is one thing, but trawling up and down the pasta and pulses aisle is a sign of true togetherness.

The Christmas shop was almost but not quite successful.  Waitrose do not seem to sell chestnut stuffing.  At all.  There wasn't even a shelf label for it and a gap in the chiller cabinet where it should have been.  I grappled with the enormity of this omission for some minutes.  The SA has said in the past that it's better if I do The Shop because I have more definite ideas about what we ought to eat, and that's probably right.  There ought to be chestnut stuffing as well as sage and onion, which by tradition is always the dry packeted sort.  After some deliberation I bought a packet of sausage meat and a packet of dried chestnuts that will keep until 2017 if not opened, so that as a last resort I could make my own.  But I think tomorrow I will brave the queues in Tesco with a hand held basket and see if I can get some there.  It would be easier for the SA on the day than having me fussing around the kitchen with an experimental stuffing recipe while the SA tries to cook about seventeen other things at the same time.

There was a year we bought red currant jelly by mistake instead of cranberry but it is best to draw a veil over that episode.

Monday, 21 December 2015

rain later

The day started off so promisingly.  The sky was blue, the garden glowed in the sunlight, and I set off to buy more mushroom compost convinced I'd have it all spread before the afternoon was out. Why, I might even have time to go and get some more to restock before the garden centre closed for Christmas.

The first couple of bags were used up in no time at all, and by lunchtime I'd applied the contents of four of them, tucking it in generous handfuls around the stems of the old rose 'Juno'.  She is a centifolia, bred in 1832 and still going strong, with scented, muddled, middling pink, flowers. After previous applications of manure she is currently happy enough with life to be spreading at the root, though thin sand isn't generally the best soil for growing roses.  However, as the brown tide swept past 'Juno' the sky began to darken and the wind gusted more sharply, and by lunchtime it was clear I was looking at a rerun of yesterday, and it was going to rain.  The Systems Administrator assured me that rain had been forecast from the outset, but in my enthusiasm to get out into the sun that had truly passed me by.

Instead I cleaned.  Keen gardeners tend to have cleaner houses during wet spells, but in honour of Christmas I'd have had to do the cleaning at some point anyway.  Needles from the Christmas tree have already found their way as far as the kitchen.  I vacuumed and wiped, and even swept as many cobwebs as I could reach down from the ceilings, and by the time I'd finished it was all quite clean and remarkably tidy by our standards.  I fear that one reason why cleaning seems easier than it did a decade ago is that my eyesight has got worse, but since our friends and relations are likewise ten years older than they were maybe the illusion will work on them as well.

I thought it was unfriendly of the short indignant tabby to come and march around the kitchen shouting for her supper on wet and filthy feet, after I'd washed the floor, but such is life with pets. The internet is full of advice on festive clothes to wear on Christmas day, silver and sparkly being my favourite suggestion, but in our case it will have to be the same sort of clothes we always wear at home, that is things that will not be ruined by contact with Our Ginger.  And are reasonably warm.  Quite possibly the same sweater I'm wearing now.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

rain stopped play

The brown tide of spent mushroom compost was advancing splendidly up the long bed and it came as a blow when after lunch I realised that it was raining.  Not just the sort of pervasive dampness that scarcely counts as rain so much as moisture condensing out of the air, but proper drops falling from the sky.  Fortunately I'd bought my radio in for a mid-session charge, the battery not being what it was, but I had to scurry out to retrieve my tools.  Rain was not forecast at all, but when the Systems Administrator checked the rain radar there it was, a great solid lump moving across the south eastern corner of England.  So much for weather forecasts.  Come to that, I don't remember any screaming newspaper headlines in the autumn warning us of the Barbecue Xmas, I'm sure they just carried the usual dire warnings that it could be a very cold winter.  There's still time for that, of course.

So far I have managed to stick to the plan of not wearing my new glasses for gardening.  I am terribly pleased with them.  The hinges in the side arms are very lightly sprung, and this together with the fact that they are much lighter than my old ones means that they stick to my face almost as if they were glued on, and sit on the bridge of my nose instead of sliding half way down it. Pushing my glasses back up my nose has become such a nervous tic I find myself still trying to do it wearing the new glasses, and they already are up.  If they went any further up they'd be in my hairline.

In the afternoon I wrapped parcels, since I could not garden, made a shopping list for the Christmas food, and tidied some more of the mess on my desk.  I've done most of it but am now down to an apparently endless residue of slightly dog eared bits of paper which it might or might not be OK to throw away, or which might require some action on my part.  When I started I was able to make the great heap of mess smaller quite quickly by dint of putting anything doubtful to one side, and chucking out the obvious rubbish, but now I'm down to the hard core of things that have already been put aside once, and there is really no help for it but to work down through the pile, forcing myself to make a decision about each sheet, like a chess game where once you touch a piece you have to play it.

The Systems Administrator nobly tackled the other end of the study a few days ago, and cleared out so much stuff it took two trips to the dump to get rid of it.  A tottering pile of books over two feet high is now back on the shelves, and the surface of an Ikea desk I hadn't seen for years has come to light.  I have put Christmas cards on it to celebrate.

We are no closer to answering the question of why we have not trapped any rabbits.  The wildlife camera was left trained on the bottom lawn for three nights, but didn't take any pictures.   The SA first of all blamed the camera card, and then tried new batteries, but nothing worked so it is now drying in the airing cupboard to see if that does the trick.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

another mild day

The flow of warm air from the Azores continues.  Last night was the warmest UK December night ever, and today was set to break the record for the warmest day.  I wonder what the bees are doing?  Do they have the sense to know that there are few flowers out, and short days, and now is not the time to make more bees, even if it is mild as May?  They won't need to eat much to keep warm in this weather, but suppose they are chomping through their stores raising brood?  The time around Christmas is reckoned to be ideal for applying oxalic acid as an antidote to the varroa mite, but that's on the basis that little brood will be present.  At this rate I'll be doing an inspection to see if they need emergency feeding.  And should I apply oxalic acid while it's so warm, or leave it in the hope that it will get colder in the New Year?  Not that I've bought the acid yet.  It goes off in storage, so you don't want to buy it until close to when you plan to use it.

In the meantime I'm still weeding and mulching the long bed.  Another four bags of mushroom compost went on this morning, and the tide of brown goo now reaches right across the bed. Progress in some areas is much faster than in others, depending on the nature of the weeds. Disentangling the bright green threads of the nameless fine leaved annual weed grass from the slumbering patches of prostrate gypsophila is a slow business, then a yard further on it's merely a question of pulling out the odd tuft of hairy bittercress.  The local garden centre closes for Christmas next Wednesday, and the woman I asked the last time I was there was not very certain when it reopened but thought it might be weather dependent, so I must make sure I go into the holiday period stocked up with muck.  Though when I run out there are plenty of other jobs to be getting on with.

In the back garden the stems of Salvia uliginosa are still green.  This is a very beautiful and slightly tender form of sage with electric blue flowers.  Rosy Hardy mentioned it in her Plant Heritage talk on late season flowers, and advised not cutting it back until it had died down naturally.  The mature stems are hollow, like dahlias, and her theory was that if you cut them before they had gone brown as the plant sealed them off then you were creating a route for damp and infection to get into the rootstock and your plant might rot over the winter.  I took her advice to heart, being eager to do the best for my S. uliginosa, but wasn't expecting them to still be green and leafy six days before Christmas.  And it has to be admitted that in past years I have chopped them down, still green, when I got to that part of the bed, and the plant has not died yet.  It runs at the root without forming a very dense patch, and this year there was not so much of it as I should like and it was rather hemmed in at the front of the border, so when I come to clear and tidy the bog bed I must remove some of the all too eager Persicaria and Iris to give the salvia some breathing space.

The chickens have forgiven or forgotten the boot liner incident, because they came out of their run readily enough, but after that they did not want to stray far from their front door.  In the summer I sometimes end up hunting around looking for them because they've wandered off, eventually catching up with them at the very bottom of the back garden, but today I was able to weed the herb bed next to the hen house without interruption.  Indeed, I stuck my head round the corner a few times to check that they were eating grass outside their run and hadn't gone back inside.  They came and poked around the herb bed with me after a while, but their rambling instincts seem definitely curtailed at this time of year.

Friday, 18 December 2015

dressing the tree and upsetting the chickens

We put the Christmas tree up today, along with a decorated twig for the study.  The tree had been sitting down in the garage for a week, still in its netting bag because the Systems Administrator warned that if we unbagged it in the garage it would get tangled up with the lawn mower, the overwintering garden furniture and everything else and be a complete pig to get out again and up the stairs to the sitting room.

Our tree was labelled 'locally grown' and in a flash of bald retail honesty 'needle drop'.  I like traditional Norway spruces, though.  True, they shed, but the needle retaining Nordmann pines don't have that fabulous resinous smell.  A trail of needles followed the progress of the tree into the house, and there was a moment of tension after we'd screwed it upright in its stand and cut through the netting, in case every needle fell in a shivering heap leaving a skeleton of bare branches, but they didn't.  We'll be sweeping up leaves through the Christmas period and finding the odd needle for the rest of next year, but that's traditional.  I sawed an inch off the bottom of the trunk and gave it plenty of water to try and mitigate the rate of drop.

Untangling the lights took a very long time, but both sets worked, which was a relief since B&Q have probably sold out by now, and Our Ginger lost interest in them before getting shouted at or electrifying himself.  He did not look at all impressed when we first brought the tree inside.  It's an outrage to the normal order of the world, having trees in the sitting room.  Cats are nothing if not creatures of routine.  At least he didn't scent mark it, as was the fate of a previous tree many years and some other cats ago.

The hazel twig in the study is a bit of fun, to give us something sparkly to look at when we're sitting by the stove.  It is propped up in a flower pot I already had using cobble stones borrowed from the back garden, and decorated with silver, gold and bronze balls that we already had but had stopped using on the main tree.  The festive red and white gingham table cloth is likewise left over from an anniversary party (and home made with fabric from Colchester's now sadly defunct remnant shop).

It seemed a waste of a dry and extraordinarily warm afternoon to spend it decorating the tree and the twig, so once they were both installed in their containers I left it until after dark to dress them, which gave the spruce a chance to relax and spread its branches after a week done up in netting. Meanwhile I went to buy another load of bag your own mushroom compost.  It was very wet and very sticky after the recent rain, and I got a spectacular amount of it on my trousers and a fair amount on my fleece.

I let the hens out as soon as I got back, thinking that they could have a short spell out in the garden while I unloaded the compost and did some weeding.  It was unlucky that they had just fussed their way round the edge of the drive to the outside tap at the moment that I went over to the tap carrying my boot liner in order to rinse it.  The chickens did not like the boot liner at all.  Two of them flew four feet vertically into the air, clucking frantically, and fled back to their run then refused to come out again, standing in a huddle and staring at me suspiciously.  I considered shutting them in so that I could get on with spreading the manure unhindered, but decided I felt too mean about spoiling their walk, and ended up bribing them to come back out with sultanas.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

the last of the bulk bag

I finally finished spreading the contents of the bulk bag of gravel that's been sitting in the drive for months.  I ordered two, thinking I'd need that much and it would save on the aggravation of having it delivered to get a couple in one go, but ended up taking a very long time to empty the second.  It was destined for the railway garden and the small exotic dry garden near the entrance, meaning that every shovel full had to be pushed half way round the front garden barrow load by laborious barrow load, and there was no point in spreading it on top of the weeds, meaning that every square foot of gravel I topped up had to be weeded first.  My feeling of triumph, as I tipped the last fragments out of the bulk bag and bundled it up out of sight were considerable.

The layout of the front garden is fundamentally wrong.  I can see this now, without possessing the will or the finances to do anything about it.  With the benefit of hindsight we should have done several things differently.  We should have arranged to screen the parked cars and my greenhouse from the rest of the front garden, and we should have provided an area for bulk materials for the garden to be delivered where they could sit out of sight until needed.  Neither would have been easy, since we are at the end of a single track lane so that all traffic has to go out the way it came in, and there was not that much width in the garden beyond the existing turning circle.

Anyway, it's too late now, but it means that all the time you are looking at the planting in the front garden, some of which is quite good, and the miniature railway, which is quite amusing, you are also aware of our cars, your car, my dilapidated working greenhouse complete with shading paint and non-matching replacement panes in the roof, a pile of as yet unused Strulch, the stash of propagated plants outside the greenhouse, next season's tulip or dahlia pots growing on until ready to go out on display, and any bags of gravel.  All of these things should have been tidied away behind a wall or a hedge, only we did not realise that at the outset.  Fixing it now would require a wholesale clearance of sheds, greenhouse, borders and railway, and major investment in hardcore and concrete, and is not going to happen.

It's left me buying mushroom compost by the bag full when it would be quicker and cheaper to have it dumped by the load: there is nowhere to dump it.  Or at least, we could have it tipped on to the concrete in front of the greenhouse, right by the drive, but the thought of looking out of the kitchen window at a heap of ordure for weeks or months until I managed to spread all of it on the borders is deeply unappealing.  It's just taken me months to use up half a bulk bag of gravel, so whose to say how long it could take to spread an entire lorry load of manure, if the weather was unhelpful or I wasn't well.

I toyed with the idea of ordering another bag of gravel for the railway, but I think that for now I'll stick to skimming some from the drive where it's built up into thick patches.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

a visit to the emerald forest

I met a friend for coffee today at the Acorn Village in Mistley.  Other friends have spoken well of the cafe there, and it's conveniently midway between our two houses.  We had a very nice time. Nice, and humbling.

Acorn Village has been going for longer than I've lived in the area.  It provides sheltered living for adults with learning disabilities, and part of their ethos is to be part of the local community, not a ghetto.  Hence one reason for the cafe, which is used by the residents as well as outside visitors.  Indeed, the residents are very much in evidence.  I was greeted as I got out of my car by a chatty woman on a tricycle, who quizzed me cheerfully about what I'd been doing today and yesterday as she guided me to the cafe.

The cafe is very nice, small and warm, and incredibly good value.  Where else can you get two decent Americanos, a mince pie and a piece of mocha cake for £3.60?  After catching up on our news we checked out the shop next door.  None of the clothes or china appealed, but in the book section I found an astonishing collection of photographs of Warsaw, with an English language preface but lacking a publication date or ISBN number, which the Systems Administrator and I later decided must be postwar Soviet era propaganda.  For a quid.

The volunteers in the shop were as cheerful and chatty as the lady on the tricycle, and were very happy to accept the donation of the SA's old Corby trouser press, which has been gathering dust since the SA quit working in the City.  The only time I ever expect to see the SA in a suit again is for weddings and funerals (assuming nobody invites us to a Bar mitzvah, though I'd love to go to one to see what it was like) and the trouser press was surplus to requirements, but it seemed a waste to take it to the dump when it worked perfectly well.

Around the corner from the shop was something called the Creative Craft Centre.  We peered in through the door, but seeing a notice requiring visitors to sign in with staff decided it was not for us, and were leaving when we were hailed by a member of staff.  Far from warding us off his vulnerable charges he was keen for us to go in and see the crafts for sale and the Emerald Forest.

The Emerald Forest turned out to be the Acorn Village's Christmas grotto, which the residents had been working on since May.  Reached down a corridor of white papier mache trees it was a room lined with Christmas trees and papier mache models.  There was a castle, a unicorn that managed to be simultaneously bashful and bolshy, a dragon, a throne, a witch, all sorts of assorted small creatures, and a lot of fairy lights.  And the models were really good, and I realised that it was ridiculous to assume that because people had learning difficulties they lacked imagination, or didn't have a sense of fantasy or aesthetics.  And the amount of sheer hard work that had gone into making it was quite massive.

Another member of staff chatted to us as we left, telling us how long it had taken them to make and encouraging us to come back to their other events.  They no longer do a fireworks display on bonfire night, alas, which was something I did go to many years ago, but health and safety put a stop to it.  I will certainly be back for coffee, though.  It is one of the friendliest, most open places I've been for ages, and I could see why my friends are so keen on it.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

two exhibitions

I went gallery visiting today.  Once again my choice of what to see was slightly determined by what finishes soonest.  The V&A's The Fabric of India and the National Portrait Gallery's Giacometti: Pure Presence both end on 10th January.  We won't have any trains between Christmas and the New Year, so I thought that if I didn't want to end up squeezing into the final week I'd better go this side of Christmas.  That's not to say I wanted to see them more than the Dutch paintings at the Queen's Gallery or Liotard at the RA, but I've got slightly longer to get organised with the other two.  Indian textiles and Swiss existentialism make a reasonable pairing, as it happens, being so different that I'm not likely to muddle one with the other in my memory afterwards.

I love textiles.  They could easily have been my thing, if I hadn't settled on gardening, and India has produced some brilliant examples.  The show is very sensibly organised, starting with an introduction to some traditional techniques of weaving, printing, dying and embroidery, and going on to examples of all of them applied across a wide range of clothing and furnishings.  The historic skill of the Indians in adapting their output to the tastes of different export markets is explored, and then the threat posed to their industry in the nineteenth century by cheap imports from Britain's mechanised factories, leading to the politicisation of home produced fabric and the Nehru jacket.  The final section is on contemporary work.

There are a lot of beautiful things, my favourites being the vegetable dyed woven silks, though some of the wrap around dress-cum-jackets are pretty good.  Indeed, they'd adapt well to contemporary Western boho style.  Boho may have gone out of high fashion after its Sienna Miller heyday, but those of us who bought our first Monsoon dress in the 1970s will probably never totally abandon the look.

The Giacometti exhibition focuses on the paintings, drawings and sculptures he made of his family and friends, so there are very few of the stick insect figures that I'd immediately associate with the name.  The works are strange and compelling, though I found the curator's attempts to explain what they are about strayed perilously close to pseud's corner, with the added irritation that they were all mounted slightly too far up the wall for a short person wearing varifocals to read without getting a crick in their neck.  I'm still not sure what they were about, and they are certainly not decorative or pretty, but if the ghastly bronzes on sale every year at the Chelsea Flower Show are at one end of a scale, Giacometti's bronzes are at the other end.  Interesting.  Vital.  True.

I thought about trying to take in the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait competition as well, but decided that was enough for one day and my brain was full.

Monday, 14 December 2015

back in the garden

At last it stopped raining, and I was able to spend a full day in the garden.  Even when it was raining I should have been counting my blessings, given there are parts of the UK where it rained so much people have just been flooded, but it was still an enormous delight to be able to get outside. Friends who are not enthusiastic gardeners find this mania for winter gardening difficult to understand.  But what is there for you to do, they enquire with wrinkled brows, and isn't it fearfully cold?

The answer to the first question is, loads.  Weeding, planting, pruning, tidying, picking up leaves, lots of stuff.  There is no way it would all get done between Easter and the middle of May.  And today was not that cold.  When I nipped down to the village after lunch to post the Christmas cards the car thermometer read 8.6 degrees, which is plenty if there's no wind chill to contend with.  I wore thermals top and bottom, two shirts, a fleece jacket and fleece scarf and hat and thick socks and felt perfectly comfortable, and I wasn't even moving about that much.  Bad cold is when you start losing sensation in your feet and your hands no longer work properly, and once the ground is frozen your gardening options are severely limited.  Make hay while the sun shines, or at least weed the gravel while it's not raining.

I planted five hollyhocks by the blue summerhouse.  They came from a free packet of seed, and I probably wouldn't have bought them left to my own devices, but actually I like hollyhocks.  They seem to prefer their own space, or at least some of the best ones I've seen have been growing in the narrow strips of earth between the house front and pavement in a village street.  I've raised hollyhocks before, some with sumptuous dark purple flowers and some of the yellow ones with fig shaped leaves that are supposed to be more resistant to rust, but none have liked life in the borders. Today's free plants were the variety 'Halo Red', which should have single, bright red flowers with yellow centres.  Bright red would show off to advantage in front of the blue paintwork, and go with the cherry red flowers of the pots of Pelargonium 'Wilhelm Langath' that stand on the shed's miniature porch in summer.  I gave each plant a generous sprinkle of bonemeal, they will get sun for most of the day and I'm not asking them to compete with the roots of other plants.  Maybe this time they will be happy.

I spent the rest of the time fingertip weeding the gravel and putting down a shovel full of fresh gravel each time I found a spot where it was too thin.  It's best to top up as you go along, otherwise it's hard to spot where it's needed, until the next crop of weeds germinate.  The mild weather has thrown some things out of synch and I found two grape hyacinth flowers.  Also evidence that the rabbits have been nibbling some of the alpines.  If I don't catch anything soon in the back garden maybe I should try moving one of the traps round to the front.  Or buy more traps, but it seems perverse to invest in more when we haven't caught a thing with the ones we've borrowed.  I would like proof of concept first.

I let the chickens out in the afternoon, which seemed to make them very happy since they've spent the past three days locked in their run.  Two of them initially disappeared into the back garden which was a nuisance as I wanted to work at the front.  The third, torn, ran back and forth, unable to decide whether to flock with the other hens or stay with me, then the two stragglers returned and we all had a productive hour and a half until it got dark.  The good news is that today sunset is as early as it's going to be.    It will go on being at a quarter to four until Thursday, when it will creep later by a minute, and by Boxing Day it will be five minutes later.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

wet day in the country

It rained again, not heavily but persistently, the sort of fine, sifting rain that would make you very wet indeed if you spent all day out in it.  I walked down to the neighbours' houses to deliver their Christmas cards and met nobody except for one neighbour's arborist son in the distance.  It was a relief to see that I hadn't actually left a muddy tyre track on the other neighbour's grass when I reversed on to it by mistake taking round a thank you card the day after his lunch party.  I was afraid that I had, and it would have rather negated the point of the card to have knackered his verge delivering it.

When I went up to the village to buy more stamps there were no other customers in Budgens, and the young man behind the counter had the sad air of retail staff on a quiet day, when thoughts turn to whose hours are going to be cut if it goes on like this.  I suppose that quite a few of their customers live in the village and normally walk to the shop, so they probably don't bother on a day like today unless they have to.

We still have not caught a rabbit.  Something has been nibbling at the carrot in the lower trap, either mice or slugs, demonstrating that is a perfectly good carrot, only the rabbits don't fancy it. The Systems Administrator agreed to set the wildlife camera once it stops raining, so that we can see what the rabbits are doing.  They might be ignoring the traps, or downright suspicious of them, or not currently active in that corner of the garden.  They seem to move around.

I did catch a mouse in the greenhouse, the first victim this winter of the electric zapper.  I felt sorry for it, having no personal animus against mice, but most of my pots of miniature tulips and fritillaries have been eaten for the past two years and my heart is hardened against mice living in the greenhouse.  I was so concerned about it happening again that every pot of dwarf bulbs is protected inside a propagating case up on the staging, and the lids of some of them are sealed down with gaffer tape.  The electric zappers are on top of the cases, so I do not think the intentions of this mouse were pure.  It's not as though it was just sheltering from the rain down on the floor.

In the back garden the Daphne bholua are coming into flower, but their intense, spicy perfume was barely detectable in the drizzle.  Three days ago when it was dry the smell was piercing.  If I were more organised I would keep a diary of when things first come out, but I don't.  I tried once and was bored to idiocy, consequently I don't know if this is early for 'Jacqueline Postill' or about normal for our garden.  The shrub is suckering enthusiastically so never mind articles suggesting a width of four feet, we are going to have a thicket.  I potted up some suckers a few years ago and planted two along the edge of the wood, which were still alive under the nettles when I weeded there in the autumn.  My idea was to have the scent drifting up to the bedroom window but they haven't flowered yet.  Maybe next year.  Maybe next spring we will get our first flower on Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill'.  You need a dose of optimism on a wet December day in rural north Essex.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

the festive round

It rained for most of the day.  Saturday was always forecast to be foul, so I had it down as the day to write our Christmas cards, which are now for the most part finished apart from the ones that need a letter to go in with them, and those where I had a hideous moment of doubt about the names of people's children.  Every third small child you meet nowadays seems to be called Jack or Lucy, but I am sure that getting it wrong would cause their parents grave offence.  And I didn't buy enough stamps.  Maybe it would be easier to be on Facebook and simply post a picture of us and Our Ginger wearing reindeer antlers, with a vague expression of goodwill to all who know us.

My round of Christmas parties has pretty much come to an end, though the Systems Administrator still has a couple of ex work reunion lunches to go.  I am not sure I am very good at parties anyway.  I enjoy talking to people I know and like, or can find a common thread of interest with, but that doesn't always happen.  An article in the Guardian claimed at the top that it would tell you how to talk to anyone, but the suggestion for striking up a conversation with strange grown ups was to wear unusual earrings or carry a novelty handbag.  I couldn't see myself making a chat about why on earth I had a bag shaped like a giant expensive KitKat dangling from my wrist last for more than about two and a half seconds, and I shouldn't think that most of the people I'd actually like if I knew them wanting to talk about it either.

A different Guardian article had a more useful tip on coping as an introvert at parties, which was to ask the other person a reasonably open question and let them do the talking.  That can work very well, though it is going to be more interesting if they are home on leave from their job at a polar research station or have an amusing dog.  The shocking level of private school fees and London house prices can demand the same special polite face needed for the slot before the interval in a concert where the musicians sneak in one of those pieces of modern music that only three people would buy a ticket to go and hear, if that was all there was on the programme.

At one of the parties we went to the hosts unexpectedly sprung a quiz on us all at half past ten. Or at least, it was unexpected to us because it was the first year they'd invited us, but I gathered it was a tradition.  Our team won the general knowledge round, striking lucky on some of the more obscure questions with the SA knowing what a baldrick* was.  To balance things out we came last in the music round.  Way too much disco.

I am cooking again tonight and have made pasta from scratch.  I don't have a pasta machine, but thought after seeing the two greedy Italians rolling it out in a camper van on the telly that it couldn't be that difficult.  It isn't, but takes a lot of rolling.  The strips have been drying in the kitchen with the door shut so that I wouldn't go in and find Our Ginger sleeping on them, and now I must go and put them on to boil.

*A sash.  Not a hat.

Friday, 11 December 2015

retro cook

One task is embedded in another this morning like a Russian doll.  We are going to go and buy a Christmas tree before the weekend while there's still choice, my theory being that while we might get a fresher one by leaving it later if the local garden centres were to order more in when they got low, they probably won't and if we leave it until next week we'll only be scrabbling around the broken and misshapen ones left over from today.

In order to buy the tree the Systems Administrator needs to put the roof rack on the Skoda, now that we no longer have a truck, and in any case the SA doesn't want to go out until the postman has arrived in case the parcel from Germany that's out there somewhere turns up today and needs signing for.  So I thought I might as well fill in the time by making the soup for lunch, only now the vegetables need to sweat for fifteen minutes with my only input being to swirl them around occasionally.  It is going to be curried parsnip soup out of Gregg Wallace's vegetable cookbook, though he admits he took it from Jane Grigson.

I made his lamb pasties last night, except that half way I wimped out and made a pie instead.  As I read the instructions about cutting six inch circles and sealing them down around the pasty mixture with beaten egg, and began to realise quite how much pastry he was telling me to make for only four pies, and looked at how runny the lamb and diced vegetable mixture was, and saw that I should have boiled a potato in its skin ready to peel and dice to add to the filling, only I hadn't, I decided that life was too short and that it would be easier to put the lamb mix in a pie dish with a sensible amount of pastry on top.

The pasty filling was rather nice except that I should have simmered it for longer to really soften the celery before proceeding with the pie.  I have been caught out that way before with celery. You cook your minced lamb (only I used finely diced because Waitrose had run out of mince) in a pan until lightly coloured then add a mixture of diced carrot, parsnip, swede, celery, onion and garlic and sweat it some more.  Then you flour it, cook it a little more, and add lamb stock (or in my case a stock cube) and simmer it until it's done.  He breaks the timings down into little slots of five, ten or fifteen minutes and I followed them to the letter, but they weren't quite enough.  It is seasoned, rather bizarrely, with sage, rosemary and soy sauce, which turn out to work together remarkably well, and the end result is quite sweet, what with all the root vegetables.  Cutting the vegetables into tiny dice is a bit of a fiddle and did seem like a wasted effort once I'd decided I wasn't making pasties, but it does mean that each mouthful is a meat and vegetable medley rather than being neat swede or concentrated parsnip.

The end result is very, very retro, and made me think of the sort of thing I might have had if we'd gone for lunch in the middle of winter at one of the Sidmouth sea front hotels some time in the early 1970s, with a view of the promenade through steamed up windows and plain boiled potatoes (which is how I served it).  The Systems Administrator liked it.  The SA's mother was in her mid forties when the SA came along, fifteen years behind the older children, and we never dared ask whether it was an accident.  Her core cooking repertoire dated firmly from before the 1960s bistro revolution in British eating habits, leaving the SA with a great fondness for plain pies and boiled potato.

The previous evening I took another trip back to the 70s with Rose Elliott's Baked butter beans and cheese.  This is good, and really simple.  You sweat onion, carrots, celery and garlic in butter, add a tin of butter beans and one of tomatoes plus a bouquet garni, a dash of chilli powder and some stock, and cook for a good hour so that the celery's done.  Rose Elliott's method assumes you soak dried beans and gives cooking times accordingly, but Waitrose didn't even have dried butter beans when I looked.  Then you transfer it to a casserole dish, top with a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated cheese, and bake until it's crisp.  It says something about modern times that Waitrose do sell pots of ready made crumbs, and out of curiosity I must check how much they charge for them the next time I'm in there.  The SA's guess was more than a loaf of bread.  I don't think it enters into the spirit of this sort of food to buy crumbs, as part of the point of it is to use up ends of bread you have in the fridge.  Wednesday's bean bake finished off the heel of a white loaf and the last six inches of a French stick, and both had gone satisfyingly hard so that I could grate them.

The postman still has not come.

Addendum  There were no rabbits in the traps.  It is going to get repetitive if I keep writing that so from now on no news means no rabbits.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

weeding the long bed

I have started weeding the long bed in the front garden.  I couldn't decide which end to start, and compromised on starting in the middle, which makes sense since that's where the small bulbs are concentrated.  The weeds aren't too bad, apart from various sorts of grass, but the blanket of Strulch has completely rotted down, and the whole bed needs mulching with bulky organic material, feeding, and topping with fresh Strulch.  How much of that happens is another story, dependent on weather and health.  If it stays reasonably mild and I remain fit and healthy I might even get it done.  If it freezes solid after Christmas and I succumb to a series of colds it most definitely won't.

Sometimes I think that the long bed was a mistake, and that I should have laid out the whole of the front garden as a spectacular gravel planting to make the most of the drainage, but after a day or two fingertip weeding the gravel I do have and picking out autumn leaves I remember that I wouldn't have the time or energy to look after that much gravel.  You can't chuck down bags of weed suppressing Strulch over gravel.  Derry Watkins of the Special Plants Nursery near Bath writes that gravel itself can indeed act as a curb to weeds, but you need to lay it eight inches thick. That's too much gravel.

The weed grass comes in several varieties.  There is one with a running root, which has infiltrated the ivy hedge round the border.  I pull up what I can, but know that I will never get it all out of the hedge.  It mostly runs, but odd roots plunge deep, and in past years when I've cleared quite large patches of the bed for replanting and dug them over extremely thoroughly the grass has still bobbed up here and there in the dug over areas.  Since I am not going to strip away the bed and the ivy hedge and get someone in to sterilise the soil under black plastic for an entire season using the sort of horticultural chemicals that aren't available to the public I have to live with the running grass, and winkle pieces out when I see them.

There is another that makes big tufts and sends up fat seed heads on straight stalks two feet tall. Last summer I resorted to dead heading some of the tufts, so that at least they would not seed further before I'd had time to deal with them.  The tufts do not run at the root and are straightforward to dig out when you have time to crawl in among all the other things to do it.

Today's nuisance was a fine leaved annual grass, much daintier than Poa annua, which forms gradually widening little clumps that coalesce into mats where it's thick.  It lives in the gravel as well, given a chance.  I managed to weed much of it out two years ago before it could set seed, and this summer it wasn't so bad in the gravel, but has formed extensive patches in the long bed without the protection of the Strulch.  I stand a sporting chance of winning against this grass in the end if I keep at it.

The first couple of sessions spent on the long bed are always vaguely disheartening, because it seems so large and the little area one has cleared looks so small.  The planting in the bed is fairly mature by now, with shrubs that have been in there for up to twenty years, and as you try to move among it for maintenance there are numerous dead ends.  I am trying to plan the work so that I don't have to keep walking across areas after I've weeded and mulched them, but this does mean my first two bags of spent mushroom compost have gone down in an obscure space at the back, not even visible from the drive, which contributed to the overall sense of much work and little visible progress.  Still, experience teaches that as long as I can keep at it the mulched area will advance like the stealthy passage of the tide up a beach.

Addendum  We didn't catch any rabbits.  I wasn't really expecting to on the first night, and as I pulled up the bathroom blind the mocking spot of orange carrot in the trap confirmed that I still had the bait and no bunny.  I went to check the other as well after breakfast, and again in the afternoon before it got dark, but had no luck.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

postcard from wrabness

Besides the Christmas cards, yesterday's post brought a postcard sized shiny photograph of three pointed gables, decorated with black and white triangles and dramatically side lit against a pale blue sky.  Turning it over I saw my name and address printed below a facsimile of a Christmas stamp and a Guernsey postmark.  On the left hand side of the card where traditionally one writes a message was a short printed one.  For a microsecond my brain wondered what it was trying to sell, before grasping that it wasn't some kind of personalised marketing shot, and was in fact from a friend.  She'd mentioned the last time we met that she was going to walk her dog via the Grayson Perry house at Wrabness, and the triangular patterned gables must be part of the house, since the message read Visited the edifice by Grayson Perry today.  It looked good in the sunlight.

It did look good too.  The house is hired out as a one of a kind holiday let, and I don't believe it has a gift shop selling postcards, so the photo must have been her own work.  She is a pretty good photographer, and since a lot of what she photographs is birds a house that keeps still for as long as you want it to must make a nice change.

I was ridiculously pleased with the postcard.  I can't quite work out quite why I liked it so much.  It is good to know that your friends have thought of you, even better to know that they remember something about what you are interested in, but that could be conveyed in a text.  Photo sharing is easy too, via a myriad of routes.  There's Instagram, though I haven't signed up to it and don't know exactly how it works, or the good old fashioned email attachment, or a link to a Dropbox file, or Facebook if you're on it, or just waving your mobile phone screen under somebody's nose the next time you see them.

Bothering to convert a photo to hard format and sending it by traditional mail seems quite wonderfully old fashioned.  Maybe that's its charm.  Vinyl albums are having a mini renaissance, and the growth in sales of e-books has stalled.  Retro is in the zeitgeist, and along with baking, home poultry keeping, and camping holidays in Cornwall, postcards are having a thing and somebody has bothered to create an app that lets you send your picture and message through the post as a glossy print.  In an age when we can all bring images up on multiple screens, instantly, the printed card has a strange authority. I put it on the pinboard in the hall, where it will still be long after yesterday's emails have disappeared way below the bottom of the screen in my inbox.

Addendum  After lunch I set both rabbit traps, baited with pieces of carrot.  One Amazon reviewer said that his rabbits had managed to take the carrot out of his traps without triggering the mechanism.  I told this to the Systems Administrator, who said I should be really worried if ours took the bottom out of the trap with an angle grinder.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

the card season

The Christmas card season is upon us.  We've had four, and haven't sent any yet.  Two of the four were handed to me at last Saturday's party by friends who planned ahead and saved on stamps.  One was from our hosts, who knew we were coming, and the other from somebody who presumably took a view that we would be going.  I am always very cautious and cowardly about asking anybody whether they are going to anything, in case they haven't been invited, but if we hadn't been there I suppose she'd have taken it home again.

The other two cards arrived in this morning's post, one all the way from El Paso, Texas.  It makes me think I must get organised and start writing ours.  I have bought them, ignoring the annual article from a journalist casting around for a Christmas related topic arguing that in the age of texts and Skype we don't need to go on sending each other tacky pieces of cardboard.  If he has friends who send him tacky cards that's his problem, but some of us know people with better taste. And you can't put a row of text messages on the mantel piece.  I like Christmas cards.

They're not without their complications, though.  I am now four fifths of the way through In Search of Lost Time, and Proust has still not turned his attention to the matter of sending and receiving Christmas cards, but if he had done he'd have had a field day.  Never mind the outrageous cost of stamps, the semiotics of who gets one and why is as complex as anything that happens at one of his minutely dissected social gatherings.

Family are fairly easy.  Blood relatives and their spouses get a card, even if you only see each other at weddings, funerals and major anniversaries.  Adult nephews and nieces complicate matters once they move out of the parental home, since they never think of telling their ancient uncle and aunt their current address.  When they've only just flown the nest and are probably returning to their childhood home for Christmas you can get away with including them on the family card as per previous years, but once you know they've bought a house, let alone got married, they count as a fully fledged independent domestic unit and ought to get their own card, if only you knew where to send it.

Close friends are easy.  They get a card, end of.  Ditto the neighbours if you have managed to find out their names and irrespective of whether you socialise during the year.  That's just diplomacy. And when I worked for a small family firm the unspoken rule was that everybody gave everyone a card, even the ones who hated each other.  It's when you get to the rest of your friends and acquaintances that the fun and games start.

If I were of the Facebook generation, or at least one of the middle aged people who went on Facebook even though it wasn't really meant for them, I would be used to the whole business of friending and unfriending.  If I spoke German or French I could agonise about the point at which I switched to addressing somebody as Du or Tu, though I dare say that nowadays everyone except doctor's receptionists adopts the intimate form at the outset.  But the English language lacks such niceties and I'm not on Facebook, so deciding when to add someone to the Christmas card list, or delete them, is the nearest I get, my once a year chance to decide which of the people I've met through clubs or societies have by now become personal friends.  At one level it is only a piece of coloured cardboard, but at another it is a social signal.  You only want to signal the offer of friendship to people who want to be friends, otherwise it's embarrassing at a deeper level than their failure to send you some coloured cardboard.

Then there are the people you used to see a lot, and now never hear from.  After you have become exhausted with the effort of trying to revive the friendship do you still send a Christmas card and defer the issue for another year, or do you stop?  Hope they blink and stop first? And the cards from people you weren't expecting a card from, that arrive so close to Christmas that you can't send one back.  Should you send one anyway?  Maybe scuff the envelope so that it looks as though it had spent days mislaid in the postal system, but that is just sad and devious.  When somebody dies and you didn't know their partner very well, for how many years do you go on sending cards to them if you used to send them a card as a couple?  What should you do about your partner's old school friends or colleagues whose partners keep sending you both a card, even though you know your respective spouses haven't bothered to meet up for years?

Of course you can avoid the whole problem by not sending cards, which could be the Facebook generation's solution, or at the other extreme sending cards to everybody you have ever known, regardless.  After our neighbour's wife died, and about twenty years after we had moved into what used to be his house, I stopped taking cards round for him that were still addressed here, especially if they were addressed to his wife as well.  I thought that if someone didn't know after two decades that he had moved, or that his wife had died, he probably didn't need to hear from them.

Anyway, if you get a card from us you will know that deep thought has gone into it.

Monday, 7 December 2015

a domestic day

We still have not deployed the rabbit traps.  I don't suppose we'd catch one on the first night, but tomorrow is forecast to pour with rain and we have relatives coming to lunch, and I don't want to be tottering around in the rain with ten minutes to go until I have to go and collect my parents, trying to work out how to release a live rabbit from the cage.  I am reluctant to set them anyway when it's due to rain too hard, since it would be miserable to be trapped in a wire basket for several hours in a deluge, and I don't want to torture the rabbits, just relocate them.  We had further confirmation this morning that something needs to be done as the Systems Administrator went to retrieve the wheelbarrow from the bottom of the garden and disturbed two in broad daylight.

There isn't really much to be said about the day, since it was spent cooking and cleaning. Supermarkets get a bad press for being big and impersonal, but the Colchester Waitrose is as good as a village shop.  This morning I met one of the other music society committee members, last time I went I was greeted by name in the checkout queue by somebody who'd heard me speak to her garden club, and two trips before that I ran across a fellow beekeeper.  On the last trip when I didn't meet anybody I knew (or who knew me) I still had a pleasant conversation with the woman ahead of me at the till, who was stocking up on dog food prior to going into hospital to have her hip done.  It was a rescue Bedlington, who loved people but disliked other dogs and was afraid of rain.

I took a couple of breaks from guest preparations, to update the music society's website and check the watering in the greenhouse.  The website was my first chance to copy in a big chunk of text, since the group booked for the final concert in the season had notified us of a change of line-up due to illness.  I doubted whether any member of the public would really pay that much attention to music society's website between this lunchtime and Wednesday morning, but I was sure the Chairman would, and since I didn't want her to think that I wasn't serious in my offer to keep the site updated I thought I'd better get on with it.

I had a nasty moment when I went into the greenhouse and discovered that my Lotus berthelotii had wilted dreadfully.  I watered the pot while cursing myself for not checking the greenhouse yesterday, but assumed it was a goner.  Silver leaved plants tend to react badly to being dried out so much that they wilt, and I fully expected the curled up foliage to remain crisped and drop off over the next couple of days, but when I looked at it later in the afternoon it seemed to have plumped up again, so maybe it is more tolerant than I thought.  Do not try this trick with Callistemon, you will kill them for sure.

Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat has taken up temporary residence in the conservatory.  We mentioned this over lunch yesterday to our neighbour who is his nominal owner, and she said that he was a horrible cat.  Our other neighbour who has Airedales said that they were terrified of Alsatian Killer, and he had seen the cat pin one of the dogs into a corner so as to be able to attack it properly.  We have been drinking our tea in the sitting room, out of harm's way.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

a new front in the war of the rabbits

We are trying a new tactic in the war of the rabbits.  A friend of a friend, who is a pest controller, has lent us a couple of rabbit traps.  The idea of trapping occurred to me after seeing a pile of traps in the friend's garage, which he had on loan from his friend.  I was quite prepared to buy my own until I looked at some on Amazon and began to worry about the door mechanism, and whether they would slam shut on the cat's tail if he decided to investigate.  A previous cat lost his tail after a window dropped on it.  I sought the friend's advice on tails, and whether traps worked on wily adult rabbits and not just gauche youngsters, as some Amazon reviews suggested they didn't.  This resulted in the offer of the loan of the traps, for which I was grateful, and the suggestion that it would be much easier to show me how they worked than try and explain it by email.

The pest controller and his wife dropped them off this morning, on their way back from somewhere else.  Seen in 3D reality rather than on the Amazon website it was clear that they would not hurt Our Ginger, should he choose to explore.  They are made of very lightweight steel, and the door is not spring loaded but just drops down under gravity.  It is held open by a thin metal prop resting on an inclined plate, and in theory any rabbit that goes inside will tread the plate flat, releasing the prop.  The traps don't look particularly inviting, and I'm not sure the cat would go inside, but you never know with cats.  They are cardboard box fetishists, but a cage trap is not so inviting and enclosed as a box.

I asked the pest controller what the best thing was to use as bait, and he said carrots generally worked.  The Systems Administrator asked our friend the same question last night, and he replied that what I needed to do was pull up whatever plant the rabbits were eating and put it in the trap. Ha ha.  The rabbits are even less in my good books than they were before since I discovered a couple of days ago that they had bitten through all the stems but one of the Abelia x grandiflora that I bought at the Great Dixter plant fair.  They hadn't even eaten the bitten stems, just left them lying on the ground around the plant.  I made a wire cage to protect the poor denuded remains, but it confirmed that the rabbits really did have to go.

Our friend warned us that the rabbits wouldn't go in straight away while the traps were new and strange, but were likely to after a while once they'd got used to them.  They should already be used to things appearing and disappearing around the garden, like the wheelbarrow, buckets, step ladder, rake and pick axe, so I'm hoping that the traps will appear like just another thing and the rabbits will not divine their sinister intent.  Though our intent is not as sinister as it could be.  The Systems Administrator did not like the idea of executing them at point blank range in cold blood, and nor would I, so the plan if we ever catch one is to release it at the far end of the wood, beyond the beehives.  This confirms that we are at heart soft city folk who only live in the countryside for the big garden and to gawp at birds, since the pest controller's wife was saying encouragingly that we'd soon have a freezer full.

We saw our neighbour for lunch today, who requested that we didn't release any rabbits down at his end of the farm.  He pursued one in his garden into a bush and walloped at it with a spade, and chased another off with a broom, to the amazement of his daughter who hadn't seen him run that fast for some time.  They do that to you, rabbits.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

taking cover

Gardening is not so much fun when it's windy.  It seems like no time at all that storm Clodagh was blowing through, and now Desmond is raging, though the north is getting the worse of it.  Parts of Cumbria have had 150 millimetres of rain in one shot, that's nearly a third of our entire annual rainfall.  I went outside today to hang up the latest four strings of stones with holes in, that I assembled during the last bout of foul weather and never got round to installing, and as the gusts buffeted me and upended the cardboard box containing offcuts of fishing line I thought that being in the front garden was really no fun.

Instead I went and worked at the bottom of the back garden, which is about as sheltered as it gets here, thanks to the lie of the land and the hedge and surrounding trees.  There is quite a large space right in the far bottom corner, behind the not-a-swamp cypress and the Ent.  It is dark and rooty, but a saxifrage I got from Beth Chatto is doing nicely there, as is a bird sown holly which I shall topiarise in due course.  There might or might not be a patch of Cardamine quinquefolia.  My first plant was doing well, so I bought a couple more, and the rabbits ate all of them.  By summer it would be dormant anyway, so it's a question of wait and see whether they have the strength to come up again next year, and whether the rabbits eat them if they do.  If I haven't managed to get rid of the rabbits by then.

Last summer I got as far as filling my shopping basket at shade specialists Long Acre Plants with varieties that should cope with that most challenging of conditions, deep dry shade, but then decided I had too many other things to be getting on with and never clicked on place your order. But next spring I shall.  I have nearly finished pulling up the ivy stems that had run everywhere, and dug out the bramble roots and self sown elders.  It is the only remaining blank plantable space out at the back in what is by now a crowded garden and it would be nice to grow something more exciting than ivy.

I've got another wild holly further up the slope, with a good straight stem, that I plan to turn into a lollipop.  I've been trimming off the lowest side branches for a year or two to get a clean leg, and it's almost up to the height I want.  Once it gets there I'll take the tip off the leader.  It can't be very tall or I won't be able to reach to trim it.  Looking at it today I suddenly realised it should be a double pompom, a small ball over a larger one.  I like the idea of having the odd highly trained evergreen dropped in among what is otherwise fairly naturalistic planting, and of making use of plants that have just arrived by themselves.

There is a third self seeded holly dome uphill of the future lollipop that I originally tried to get rid of, but eventually gave up as it kept growing back.  It is now trimmed to a dome, and I'm trying to persuade a Clematis orientalis to scramble over it, though the Clematis is being rather slow to make progress in the root infested clay infused with stones in which it finds itself growing.  The holly, meanwhile, likes clay and stones so much that I couldn't quite reach the middle of the top the last time I was trimming it, and need to have another go using the step ladder.  If I still can't reach it will have to be reduced to a size where I can.  Thus does the garden reflect the person of the gardener.  If only I were bigger my topiary could be a foot taller and wider.

I was too cowardly to carry the debris of my afternoon's work past the chicken run to the bonfire heap, because I did not want to have to ignore the hopeful faces of the hens as they thought I might be coming to let them out.  They would only have sheltered from the wind in the Eleagnus hedge, and I've have been left crawling around the gravel in half a gale.  Poor old chickens.  I've said it before, it's pretty dismal being a hen in winter.

Friday, 4 December 2015

winter weeding

The winter flowering cherry is in bloom.  It's not just ours, I noticed one studded with flowers in the car park of a local church.  I mentioned it to a friend who said that hers wasn't out, before remembering that she didn't grow it.  I'm on my second, the first having suffered a half death by drowning when the water table rose under it.  They like good drainage, cherries, and I wouldn't recommend planting one anywhere that's liable to get periodically squelchy.

It is unseasonably warm, and I'm making the most of it tidying more edges in the back garden, though this morning I veered away from the edge and started clearing the mess of elder seedlings and ivy stems in the far bottom corner.  Although it's on the list of things to do I wouldn't say it was the single most urgent thing, but I was passing, and it's been so mild that some plants I'd been planning on cutting down as I got to them working my way back up the hill are still in active growth.  Remembering Rosy Hardy's advice I am waiting until Salvia uliginosa has died back naturally before cutting it down, and borders tend to look silly with most of the contents chopped down and a few isolated clumps left in place, so I might as well get on with some other job while I wait.

I found a few brave seedlings of Bowles golden grass, Milium effusum 'Aureum', tucked in among the ivy stems.  The original parent plant was a present from a friend, but I thought I'd lost it several years ago, then last year some seedlings popped up, but then the rabbits ate them.  It was supposed to be bringing a glint of light to a shady corner, though by now the corner might be too shady.  I don't suppose I'll get a chance to find out until I can get rid of the rabbits.

In the afternoon I let the hens out, hoping that they would stay with me while I weeded the gravel and the paved square next to the formal pond.  They did, excellent and estimable chickens.  I am still trying to work out the identity of several seedlings with fairly thick, sword shaped leaves.  Are they Watsonia or stinking iris?  They are quite near a couple of Watsonia, and not so close to any iris, on the other hand Iris foetidissima is pretty good at getting around.  Fortunately I like it.  I am sure that the young plants right under the skirts of Watsonia pillansii are more Watsonia, and to have it naturalising in the gravel would be quite something.  I should have given the leaves of the mystery plants a good squeeze and a sniff, to see if they have that stinking iris roast beef smell. The weather pundits are still talking about the possibility of a sharp cold spell in February, so I'd better wait and see how many Watsonia I still have by March before getting too excited.

Less welcome is the red leaved creeping oxalis, which thrives in the gravel and thence seeds itself into the pots of tender stuff I put out for the summer.  The oxalis is almost impossible to eliminate. Ignore the qualifying 'almost', oxalis is impossible to eradicate, short of spraying the entire front garden with Agent Orange.  However carefully you try to weed it out a fragment of rooted stem or underground tuber will remain.  A dose of glyphosate makes the top growth shrivel and appear dead for a couple of weeks, then the plant bounces back.  Nowadays I just fork out what I can, knowing that it will be back and I'll have to do it again.

Fairly soon I'll want to start on the long bed.  It will be a big job weeding and mulching all of it, and the spring bulbs are probably starting to come through even now.  The question is, can the hens be persuaded to come and scrape around in the long bed with me?