Saturday, 28 February 2015

another quiet day

And another day of sitting close to the Aga and not doing much.  At least I don't have to go to work. It would be awkward to ring your employers and announce that you weren't going to work because you had a cold, on the other hand a day standing in the plant centre with this cold (or either of the last two) would have left me with pneumonia, and probably post-viral fatigue syndrome to boot. And infected the entire workforce, given the system of shared telephones and radios.  And as for doing teas...  At least my nose isn't running as much today.  Unfortunately the headache is still with me, kept at a low background level only by regular doses of aspirin and carbohydrate.  It's a shame that I ate all the cake.  I am sure fruit cake is good for colds, all that vitamin C in the fruit.

I have been rereading Matthew Fort's Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons in a desultory sort of way.  It's an account of his travels around Sicily on a Vespa in search of authentic regional food.  Cookery travel is a marvellous genre for when you don't feel well (unless you feel sick, in which case I suppose it might not be a good idea).  There's no plot to keep up with, and the descriptions of delicious food and picturesque scenery are comforting.  Ignore the cover blurb comparing him to a cross between Elizabeth David and Jack Kerouac, for he is far sweeter natured than the latter and infinitely more riddled with self-doubt than the former.  Though I am a big fan of Elizabeth D. (couldn't stand Kerouac, irritating man).

I was taken by his description of the gigantic broad beans of central Sicily, fava larga di Leonforte, containing a massive 27 per cent protein, and a staple up until the second world war.  By the time he wrote his book a few years back they were endangered, and they still are, as far as I can discover from the internet.  Alas, no UK seed merchant seems to offer them.  Of course, it might be that beans from central Sicily wouldn't grow too well here, but I wouldn't mind giving it a try. Given I have natives of Australia and South Africa scattered around the garden and doing pretty well, beans from Sicily seem worth a try.  Have the dried beans sold as ingredients been subjected to any more treatments than the simple drying out a seed merchant would do?  I don't know, but if I ever saw a packet of dried giant beans in a deli it would be worth buying them and experimentally sowing a few.

Friday, 27 February 2015

another day done gone

There's not much more to be said, what with the cold.  I have a nagging headache that seems impervious to aspirin, a cough that brings up vile tasting phlegm (though according to something I heard on Radio 4 bringing up phlegm when you cough is good, it's the stuff that sits in your lungs until they become infected that does the damage), and the attention span of a gnat.  The Systems Administrator is sympathetic as I waste another day of my life, while keeping a safe distance, which is entirely understandable.  I asked whether I had a husky sexy voice like Sigourney Weaver in the Kermode and Mayo's Film Review Programme interview, or just sounded disgusting, but it's the latter.  Looking on the bright side, the SA didn't think I had pneumonia either.  My nose isn't running quite as much as yesterday, for which I am grateful as the skin is peeling off around my nostrils as it is.

That's probably more than you wanted to know, but I can't think of anything else to write about. Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

anatomy of a cold

It has been said that love and a cold cannot be hid, and it's no good denying it, I have another cold. Not flu, just a cold.  Which is to say, a nose that drips like a tap with occasional bouts of gushing and sneezing fits, a slightly swollen neck, sore muscles and a general feeling of befuddlement.  I can eat, indeed cake seems one of life's few consolations.  I don't have a temperature.  Just a cold and a foul temper surrounded by a miasma of tissues.  I was afraid earlier I was running out of tissues, but to my great relief found a double pack of Waitrose ultra soft ones in the study, and blessed the Systems Administrator for stocking up during my last cold.

I realised all was not entirely well driving back from the Plant Heritage lecture on Saturday, as I began to feel very slightly clammy with the merest hint of a sore throat, and caught a whiff of that unwholesome sweaty smell that people with colds have.  I trundled through Sunday muttering darkly that I was going down with something again, and by Monday had a headache.

I steeled myself to go to a meal in a local Italian with friends on Monday night, since we'd already had one drop-out and to leave the last two in the lurch seemed too mean.  Besides, I was the organiser.  I washed my hands before going, tried not to touch anything except my own glass and cutlery (though I failed with the shared bottle of water) and fended off one of my companions when she tried to give me a goodnight hug.  On Tuesday I woke feeling bunged up, but decided after breakfast to see how it went in the garden, and found I was OK cutting brambles once I was up and moving.  I'd been planning to go to a natural history lecture in the evening, though, and gave that a miss.  Lucky I had intimations the cold would get worse before it got better and didn't call a friend to ask her to come along as originally planned.

By yesterday the cold was in full, disgusting flow, and gardening or doing anything useful was out of the question, and it's the same today.  It is intensely frustrating, as buds are swelling and bulbs pushing through the earth, and every day the time left to do all sorts of necessary garden tasks diminishes.  Meanwhile the garden is littered with the debris of half completed projects, equipment not put away, Strulch still sitting in the drive, piles of plant debris.  It detracts from the overall appearance at a time of year when I've gone to quite a lot of trouble to have some planting interest, what with the dwarf iris and snowdrops, the daphnes, winter flowering viburnum and Japanese paper bush, and the coloured stems (which will need pruning very soon).

I am baffled.  It can't be a general immune deficiency, since everything else is working fine.  I am forever picking up small scratches and puncture wounds from gardening and they almost always heal quickly, no septic cuts or cellulitis.  Apart from needing treatment for a couple of scratched eyes I've only been once to the doctor to get antibiotics for a thorn in my knuckles that I didn't like the look of, and that must have been eight or ten years ago.  I have suffered from one urinary tract infection in my entire adult life, while the last time my stomach was badly upset was pre 1996 (from food poisoning after lunch at the Savoy).  I can't think when I last ran a temperature.  It only seems to be when it comes to the common cold that my immune system throws up its hands and says Sorry Gov, nothing to do with me.

At least I was OK last week, when I was due to do my pond lecture.  It would have been a shame to miss that when I'd put a lot of work into preparing it, besides leaving the garden club in the lurch. And it would have been a pity to miss my hair appointment in my hairdresser's first week of trading, since she's bound to be anxious about whether her venture will work out.  And I was OK for the trip to London.  Again, it would have been a nuisance trying to reschedule that, since the exhibitions end fairly soon and the person I went with works full time and can't take days off just like that. And this week I didn't have so much planned, though I'll miss tonight's monthly beekeeping meeting as well as Tuesday's stag beetles.  But I was aiming to get all sorts of things done at home.

Non-fatal, infectious, ubiquitous, the common cold has got it sussed.  And it is a damn nuisance.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

visit from an engineer

As promised, BT came to mend our broadband connection on Wednesday.  It's good for businesses to keep their promises, less impressive that in an era where ministers make speeches about the importance of rolling out ultra fast rural broadband, the monopoly infrastructure supplier is happy to leave customers without any internet connectivity at all for four days after the line fault was reported.  Lucky we have not one but two back-up 3 Mobile dongles.   Lucky for us, that is.  I don't suppose BT cares one way or the other.

A BT Openworld van drew up outside the kitchen while I was still eating my porridge, and an engineer appeared at the door saying I had a fault with my telephone?  He didn't offer any form of identification or fault report number, but on the basis that we had reported a fault and the chances of a fraudster turning up at that moment in a proper BT badged van were slim, I let him in to look at the modem.  If I'd know someone was coming round maybe I'd have cleared the boxes of beehive parts out of the hall and run the vacuum cleaner over the worst of the cat fluff.

It's a nice question of etiquette whether to hover over a stranger who arrives at your house unannounced but sort of expected.  You don't want to look as though you don't trust them not to fiddle with your stuff, let alone nick something, but on the other hand you wouldn't normally leave an unknown person unsupervised in a room containing a lot of electronics and financial papers lying about.  I decided that human decency required I take him at face value, and retreated to the kitchen to eat my porridge.  He stuck his head round the door in a few minutes to check that I wouldn't be going anywhere in the next couple of hours, as he'd put a pinger on the line and it told him that the fault was seventeen hundred and something metres away, so he needed to go and look for it, then come back to collect the test device.

He returned less than two hours later, saying it had taken him a little while to work out where the wires went, and the fault when he'd found it was an odd one.  Somebody had cut the wire.  I queried this, and he elaborated.  Someone doing other work had disconnected our line and left it, presumably not knowing what it did.  A BT Openworld someone?  He shrugged.  They used a lot of contractors, he said.  I digested this.  Someone, presumably an engineer either directly employed by our broadband provider or subcontracted by them, had randomly decided to disconnect our broadband one Friday and just leave it.  What does this do, then?  Dunno, never mind.  I suggested, gently since it was not this engineer's fault, that it might be worthwhile mentioning this to management, who would presumably have records of who was working in the area last Friday, since it was not very good to leave customers without a service they were paying for for four days, and having to pay extra for a replacement service from a different provider.  An engineer deliberately disconnecting our line was rather different to, say, a tree branch rubbing on it and damaging it.

He agreed.  He seemed a perfectly nice man, but I don't suppose he'll take it any further.  It's a pretty rubbish way to run a business, though.  We aren't happy customers, and BT have had the expense of sending an engineer plus van to fix something that apparently they caused in the first place.

Years ago there was a proposal to introduce fast wireless broadband in the area.  The intended mast would have had a clear line of sight to our house, and we liked the sound of it.  BT invested just enough in increasing the speed of the local internet service to kill the wireless project, but no more.  Even now we can't reliably live stream from the BBC iplayer without multiple distracting thirty second pauses.  And we are not in the wilds of the Welsh borders, but one of the most populous counties in England, less than seventy miles from the centre of London as the crow flies. Fast rural broadband would be very nice.  Merely adequate commuter belt broadband would be even better.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

delayed gratification

My bargain flat pack beehives finally arrived today.  I bought them as seconds in a sale, trusting that the Systems Administrator would be able to coax them into shape even if they weren't as perfect as firsts.  That was in early January, and the suppliers warned on their website that due to the popularity of their sale delivery might be three weeks.  When after a month I'd heard nothing I rang them, and spoke to a very nice woman who patently knew nothing about my beehives, and didn't seem to have access to a computer that could have told her when they were due to arrive, but assured me that so long as I had a customer order number the matter was in hand.  I decided to leave it another month before enquiring again with more urgency, and lo, yesterday I got an email to say they had been despatched.

It was by sheer chance that I happened to have come in from the garden for a coffee at the point when the FedEx driver rang.  He couldn't find the house.  That's no great surprise.  Drivers who haven't been here before can almost never find the house.  I told him where we were, and looking out over the field could see his van heading in the right direction.  I sat down again to finish my coffee, and after a while thought he should have arrived by now, so got up again to look where he'd got to and saw the van heading back in the wrong direction.  Confusion briefly reigned, as we both tried to ring each other, then there was another delay as having reached the final turning he couldn't believe he had to turn right yet again.  I could see the top of the van bobbing back and forth above the line of the hedge.  Finally he made it, declaring cheerfully that he would never have found the place.  I don't know which part of the instructions Turn right at the lettuce farm car park is so difficult, but it is.

Buying a self assembly beehive in January is a curiously unrewarding retail experience.  True, there is the knowledge that you've saved quite a lot of money, and that come the swarming season at least you will have enough boxes to put the bees in.  But there is no immediate thrill of acquisition. Nothing arrives for six weeks, for starters, and when it does you have to build it before you can do anything with it, and even then you don't need to use it for another month or two.  The nearest comparable experience is probably buying bulbs, where you make your choice in June, the box doesn't arrive until autumn, you don't plant tulips until November and you don't get any flowers until the following year.  Though at least with bulbs the website or catalogue has nice colour pictures of what you can expect (if the mice and rabbits don't eat them).  There is nothing beautiful or picturesque about a commercial brood box and roof to stir the imagination.

Addendum  I was reflecting after my last London concert how strange it was that musicians still play from paper scores whose pages need turning.  I'm not alone in my surprise, since the Independent has an article about a pianist who has taken to playing from scores loaded on to his iPad.  He turns the electronic pages using a Bluetooth switch activated with his foot, but there are apps that will follow the performance and move on to the next page automatically.  The trick with the iPad is apparently to make sure the battery is fully charged, kill all other apps, and disable the wifi so that it can't start trying to do updates or anything else in mid performance.

Monday, 23 February 2015

some live and some die

There are a lot of brambles growing in the meadow down the side of the wood, probably more than I let myself realise.  The high tide mark at which attempts at gardening largely stop, other than mowing the grass once in a while, ebbs and flows closer to the house and further away, depending on the weather, how energetic I'm feeling, and what else I'm trying to do.  The past two or three years have seen a lot of catch-up required in the main garden, to make good the losses of two very cold winters (by recent standards) and one insanely wet one, and I've retrenched in the meadow, scarcely touching it.

It's not all bad news.  Some shrubs have finally got their roots down and made generous growth in the past couple of seasons, various hollies that were sad and wispy specimens for years shooting up and plumping out.  The circle of yew trees is more than head height, though in bad need of shaping and de-brambling, a couple of berberis are doing well, and some of the roses, while a Hypericum 'Hidcote' that went in as a wee and weedy plant is now large, round and fat.

But against this there have been losses, and there'll be more unless I get the brambles out.  They have just reached that stage where a loose tangle of exploratory branches is about to turn into an impenetrable thicket.  Bracken is invading from the wood as well, which is equally smothering, and a nuisance since it has running roots.  At least with brambles you can take a pickaxe to the core, if they're too well established to pull out, but there's nothing to do about bracken except pull it and pull it again.

The looming deadline is down to the bird nesting season.  I've got a couple of weeks, maybe three in the less densely infested areas, to chop down the top growth before the birds start building, and work has to stop until the autumn.  And by then I'm not averse to leaving things until I'm sure I won't disturb a wasp nest, for my own sake rather than that of the wasps.  I can work on digging out the roots at my leisure (chance would be a fine thing), or rather do as much as I can when I have time until the ground gets too hard, if it's a dry summer.  But clearing the thickets can't go on much longer.

I keep coming upon the long and shiny shoots of a rambling rose.  It is supposed to be 'Ethel', a cheerful pink double I saw and fell for at East Ruston Old Vicarage, but until I see it flower I won't know if it is 'Ethel' or her rootstock.  She wasn't looking well the last time I saw her.  She is meant to be climbing up a fallen but still growing oak tree, but doesn't seem to think much of that, preferring to make a break out towards the sunlit central patch of grass.  I am leaving chopping the rose shoots until I arrive at the root, and see quite what's going on.  Perhaps I can poke some of the long shoots into the tree.  I've got an 'Albertine' on its own roots languishing in the greenhouse, that was a present from a friend and I'm not entirely sure what to do with.  I'm not sure that 'Ethel' and 'Albertine' would make a happy combination, or if the strong pink of 'Ethel' would overshadow the other.  But the long shoots may not be 'Ethel' anyway.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

overgrown hedges, brambles, saplings, and fallen trees

Vast quantities of material have come off the hedge along the side of the meadow.  The Systems Administrator had a go at some of the taller bits this morning with the pole saw, and spent a couple of hours feeding the thinner branches through the shredder, and the meadow is still covered with piles of pieces of hedge, the more solid to be separated out between shredding and firewood, the twiggiest and prickliest to go straight to the bonfire heap.

We had the best of the sunshine in the morning, but it never got terribly warm, so I took advantage of the fact that the bees weren't flying to cut back the brambles encroaching on the beehives.  By lunchtime I had quite a tidy looking apiary.  I hope they aren't too confused when they next come out and find their surroundings drastically altered.  I cut a number of seedling trees down while I was at it, that had managed to gain a foothold in the rough grass, or keep their heads above the brambles.  The most common species was ash, but alder was running it a close second even though the meadow is not especially damp.  I have let some alders grow up at the far end where we could do with something to screen an especially large telegraph pole, and not all the Italian alders I planted years ago survived.  Italian alder, Alnus cordata, is recommended in books as a screening tree, fast growing, glossy leaved and tolerant of poor soil, but I'm perfectly happy with native alder, Alnus glutinosa, if that's what wants to grow there.

I found healthy patches of bluebells under the brambles.  The books say that the native wild bluebell is a poor coloniser, spreading only slowly into new areas, but we have odd ones popping up all around the garden.  Mind you, I think I've read in one book that alder scarcely manages to spread by seed, and that's clearly not the case here.

Half hidden under the wreckage of an ivy covered mature ash that toppled into the garden but still has enough roots in the ground to keep growing I found a young Azara microphylla, a small leaved, evergreen, shade tolerant and slightly tender tree, which has vanilla scented flowers in late winter or early spring.  This one may even have been grateful for the shelter provided by the encircling branches of the fallen ash, but it can't stay in there indefinitely.  Besides, I don't want an almost horizontal ash growing across the garden.  The Systems Administrator had begun to trim some of its outer branches, and I continued the job, being careful not to drop any pieces on the Azara. Removing the highest placed ones without disaster is going to be a nerve wracking process.  The Azara did so well to survive the original collapse, it would be a shame to crush it at this stage.

The ash was already starting to send up vertical shoots from its prostrate trunk, as is the way of fallen trees that are not dead.  If we take it back to the fence it can send up as many as it likes, until chalara gets it, which I'm afraid it probably will.  The mass of ivy almost but not quite clobbered a tree heather and a small leaved conifer.  In both cases the part of the crown that was inside the ivy mass has died, while the branches that remained exposed to the light are fine. Rabbits are digging around the base of another tree heather.  This is gardening at the frontier.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

yesterday and today

To resume where we left off.  Our broadband is still down, and I'm using the Systems Administrator's portable modem to access the internet.  Which the SA pays for by the day, or week, when we are already paying for the broadband service.  Which may be back up by Wednesday, so far as I know.

London Bridge station is largely closed for the next year for building works, so if you want to go to Dulwich it's better to catch the line from Victoria, which you can intercept at Blackfriars if starting from points east.  Our railway guru advised us to change at Herne Hill and travel one more stop to West Dulwich, but Herne Hill isn't that much longer a walk, so since it wasn't raining and the indicator board was showing an eighteen minute wait for the next West Dulwich bound train, we just walked from there.  It takes about twenty minutes.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is doing two good things at the moment.  Their current temporary exhibition, on until 15th March, is of a Canadian painter I'd never heard of called Emily Carr.  Not having heard of her puts me in the same position as about 99 per cent of the British population, so I'm not feeling too guilty about that.  She worked in the first half of the last century, painting and drawing the trees and landscapes of her native Western Canada, and the canoes and totem poles of its first nation inhabitants (though relatively few actual people).  Her work is absolutely marvellous, swirling with vitality, movement and strong colour.  You can see a range of influences, so there is a touch of Van Gogh, a dash of Cezanne, a hint of Vorticism and another of cubism, but she is no mere copyist.  Her trees breathe life and essence of tree.

The other thing Dulwich has done is buy a fake Old Master from China over the internet.  There is a regular market in them, sold not with any pretence of authenticity but offered in the same spirit as reproduction furniture.  Dulwich has bought one, put it in a nice old frame and hung it somewhere in the permanent collection, with an invitation to visitors to spot the fake if they can, and at any rate think about the nature of art and what it is we value in paintings.  I thought this was an absolutely brilliant idea.  The art critic of the Guardian thought it was dreadful, but since I seem to disagree with him about most things I'm not letting that put me off.  I couldn't identify the Chinese imposter at all.

All will be revealed in April when the modern copy will be identified, and hung side by side with the original so that visitors can compare and contrast.  I certainly want to go back for another look to see the two of them together.  Copies are interesting the more you think about them.  After all, it's generally accepted that Rubens had cohorts of assistants doing a lot of the grunt work for some of his paintings, limiting his own input to sketching out the initial idea and then adding finishing touches (and presumably executing any really difficult bits), while he himself was an accomplished copyist when needs arose in the interests of diplomacy.

After Dulwich we went to the National Portrait Gallery where Grayson Perry's series of fourteen artworks Who are You? are on free display tucked in among the permanent collection, also until 15th March.  I adore Grayson Perry (I've a feeling the art critic of the Guardian doesn't like him either, or at least not his Reith Lectures, which I really enjoyed) and I'd watched the TV series about the creation of the works.  If you like Grayson Perry and are tickled by the idea of Chris Huhne represented by a broken pot decorated with repetitive phallic patterns, smashed and glued back together with gold paste along the cracks, or if you find the concept of a TV reality star painted in the style of an Elizabethan miniature (complete with lock of hair in the back) amusing, you will love the display.  If you don't like Grayson Perry you might as well wait until it's gone before visiting.  There was one of his trademark maps on the way in, this one of his own mental state, which was as clever and tongue in cheek as his maps always are, but I was surprised to see a Philip Larkin corner.  I wouldn't have had Grayson Perry down as a Larkin fan, but that's one more thing to like about him.

That was yesterday.  This afternoon I went to a Plant Heritage lecture by Peter Gibbs, who was thoroughly entertaining, and I now know what the difference between air and ground frosts is.  I ran into one of my former colleagues for the second time in three days, having met her at the Chatto gardens, and my old manager, so it was a mini plant centre reunion as well as a lecture. Plant Heritage do extremely good cake as well, courtesy of the WI.  I saw from the posters studded along the road that the inhabitants of Stowupland do not want a development of 190 houses built there, which bears out my theory that most communities don't want more housing, despite the housing shortage at a national level.  Hilary Benn, take note.

Friday, 20 February 2015

defeated by technology

This is probably going to be a short blog post, because most of our technology seems to be scarcely working.  I got home from a very nice day out in London to find that broadband was down.  Thank you, BT.  I knew it wasn't working earlier because the Systems Administrator told me when I rang from Liverpool Street to say what train I was on.  I was apparently lucky to get through, as the land line was out as well for most of the day.

I am connected to the web via a 3 Mobile portable modem, though the SA warned me the speed of that has been patchy through the day.  I am not sure whether my laptop's glacial speed just now when I tried to look at my emails and the Daily Telegraph website was down to the dongle, or the laptop.  After I'd closed Chrome down and it refused to let me open it again I resorted to rebooting the machine, and we are now tripping along a little faster, but I don't have much confidence in the proceedings.

The SA has managed to negotiate BT's online fault reporting system, presumably using the powers of 3 Mobile, and received an automated reply saying that they have a fault on their system and it should be fixed by Wednesday.  Thanks, guys.  The laptop has chosen this moment after being switched off and incommunicado for the entire day to want to download all sorts of updates, over the dodgy dongle.  Thanks but no thanks.

So while I have been to Dulwich and the National Portrait Gallery, including a special detour via a Sutton train from Blackfriars because London Bridge is pretty much closed for the next year, I think I will tell you about it tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

a garden visit

The radio controlled clock in the kitchen has suddenly lost it.  I had just started typing when I heard a strange noise and after peering about in confusion tracked it down to the clock, whose hands were racing madly around the face.  After a couple of minutes all went quiet, and the time was safely back at two minutes past four where it should be, so the clock must have advanced itself by twelve hours.  My laptop is still working, and I don't see aeroplanes falling out of the sky, so I presume this is a small local problem and not the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it, but it's rather odd.

Meanwhile, back in the non-paranormal world, I visited the Chatto gardens this morning with a friend.  We started by walking round the gardens, or rather, we started by her buying a small jug painted with snowdrops as a present for her sister, after one of the staff had kindly filled it with water so that she could check it poured cleanly.  It did.  Apparently she has a coffee pot which was a wedding present but dribbled so much that she and her husband only used it once.  It is now a collector's item, so as I pointed out it's quite handy they didn't use it, otherwise it might have got broken.

The borders at the Chatto gardens and especially the little woodland area were thick with snowdrops, and there were big patches of variegated leaf arum and some drifts of winter aconites. The first hellebores were coming out, but we were a little early for those.  A huge and very healthy camellia 'Donation' was studded with flowers in that strong but clean middling dark pink, and the Cornus mas were out.  The wind was biting.  My friend's verdict was that she preferred the smaller kind of snowdrops, plain Galanthus nivalis, and I agree with her.  The big ones at the Chatto gardens are more showy, and certainly the gardens are very nice and worth a visit (especially if you can get in free with your RHS membership card until the end of the month), but the daintier wild kind of snowdrop has more charm.

Then we went for coffee and cake, having worked out that if we looked at the gardens first then we'd feel we'd earned cake after walking about in the cold.  And then we had a quick look in the nursery to see if they had any Cyclamen coum, but there were only three or four very sorry looking pots.  We kept bumping into one of my former colleagues, who was there on a similar mission to ours with a galanthophile friend, and she told us that they had them in stock at the plant centre where I used to work, but I'm not sure my friend wanted one badly enough to drive that far.

The wind was still raw when I got home, and rain was forecast by mid afternoon (and arrived by half past two) so I gave up on the idea of gardening, and made a cake instead.  I need to check the oven in fourteen seconds.

She checks the oven

The cake looks on track.  Digital kitchen timers are a wonderful thing.  That and not allowing myself to leave something cooking and then nip out into the garden.  I destroyed a Le Creuset saucepan that way, years ago, losing track of time.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

the field hedge

I went for my six-weekly haircut this morning in my hairdresser's new salon.  It was her first week of trading, and she looked exhausted after all the panic of getting the building fitted out, but triumphant.  It looked smart.  She asked if it was too girly, before declaring that it was impossible to be too girly, and actually with the butterflies pattern extending from the wallpaper to the hair dryers it was pretty girly, but in a stylish way.  She'd gone for purple rather than pink as her corporate colour, which toned it down a bit.  I took her a jar of honey by way of a salon warming present.  She gave me a leaflet for beauty treatments as I left, with a discount voucher, but I had to warn her that I wasn't very good at beauty.

Then it was back to the hedge along the meadow.  We can't have touched that hedge for at least two years, and it was a case of not a trim but of lopping off eight foot branches.  My conclusion, after living with a mixed native field hedge for twenty years, is that dogwood and gardens do not mix.  It suckers madly, it seeds itself, and where the branches touch the ground they layer themselves.  Dogwood does not want to be a hedge, it has ambitions to become a thicket, while field maple wants to become a full sized tree.  The idea of a mixed hedge is delightful, and the yellow autumn leaves of field maple are very pretty, but from a practical gardening point of view I suspect that plain hawthorn would be better.  Or maybe with some hazel for the catkins, which provide such good forage for the bees on mild winter days.  Hazel is not so invasive as dogwood nor so huge as field maple.

I took out quite a lot of the overhanging high branches with the long handled loppers, but it could do with a session with the electric pole saw, to take the tops out of some of the field maples before they really do turn into full sized trees.  Not that they don't make very attractive trees, but I don't want that much shade, and I do want the hedge to remain thick at the bottom, so that at least in summer it will screen us from the lettuce field.  At this time of the year it is entirely see-through.

In theory it is supposed to contain some hedgerow trees.  Planting them was a condition of the grant that our contractor somehow managed to obtain on our behalf.  There must have been more public money sloshing around the rural economy in the early 1990s.  The contractor duly included some oaks, swaddled in tree tubes, and while we did not harm them, we did not favour them more than the rest of the hedge.  Soon after the hedge was planted we had two brutally dry summers in a row, at a time when we were still on a private water supply and watering several hundred feet of hedging a long distance from the house was impossible.  Some of the trees survived, and some seem to have disappeared.  There is one chestnut that's looking particularly tree like, but I think that had better be managed as a pollard.  Pollarding is a traditional treatment for trees, although chestnut was usually coppiced, and we don't want a full sized chestnut tree looming over the meadow. Chestnuts grow huge.  If all the contractor's grant stipulated trees had survived and grown to maturity we wouldn't have a meadow any more, we'd have a shady edge of woodland path.

On the other side of the meadow the brambles are running riot along the edge of the wood.  I feel as though I'm working against the clock now, only another two or three weeks to do all the cutting back and bramble extracting I can, before the birds start nesting in earnest and it's game over until the autumn.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

pond talk

This a late post, and will probably be a short one, as I'm tired, and if I spend long over it then by the time I press Publish it will be tomorrow's.  I was out earlier this evening, doing my pond talk.  I could have blogged before going out, but it was a nice afternoon, and after spending the first half of the morning mugging up on the talk I was busy doing the garden.

The talk went OK.  Or rather, it went well in that they seemed to enjoy it, but I miscalculated the timing and over-ran.  That can happen to the best of people.  I've seen Roy Lancaster go on beyond his allotted slot until he was rudely cut off before he'd got through all his material (a miscalculation by the organisers, I thought, since what Roy Lancaster had to say about plants was much more interesting than what the RHS apparatchik had to say about the RHS).  I was not cut off, nor did any of my audience leave the hall or go to sleep, but it's still disappointing not to manage to keep to the timetable.  I have to console myself with the thought that it was the first time I'd done the talk to an audience, and it's very difficult to be certain of how the time will work out live when you've only been through it in your head.

It's also a relief to have got the first run out of the way, given that a month ago while I had plenty of ideas I had no script, no slides and not much firm data.  Ponds are (is?) a big topic, if you include the aesthetics of how they might fit into a designed landscape and the nuts and bolts of building and maintaining one.  Liners, levels, filters, fountains, fish or no fish, oxygenating plants, invasive species of oxygenating plants (now banned by Defra), there's a lot to think about.  I say the first run, as things stand the world premiere could be the only performance, but some other garden club might like to know about ponds at some point.  The first run went well enough that I'd be happy offering it to other clubs, now I know to tighten up on the timing.

Anyway, that was ponds.  Time to press Publish before it turns into Wednesday.

Monday, 16 February 2015

gardens with chickens

The chickens did not live up to my previous favourable report of their behaviour.  I let them out at two, which was with hindsight too early.  They joined me for a while on the gravel in the turning circle, scratching about for things to eat while I weeded, and kept glancing at them beady eyed in case they were ripping the buds from the emerging bulbs.  But after half an hour of playing in the gravel they'd had enough, and I suddenly looked up from my task of teasing grass seedlings out from around the stems of Asphodeline luteus, whose strap shaped foliage looks not completely unlike grass except that it is a different shade of green, to discover that all my chickens had gone.

I tracked them down to the sloping bed in the back garden, where they were once again busy scratching about, so I went and got a rake and the shears and went on raking oak leaves from the daffodil bank and cutting the remaining long grass.  That's a job I'd have finished comfortably before Christmas if I hadn't overdone it and sprained my arm.  I realised that I was now down to four hens, but since there hadn't been any screaming I presumed the fifth was around somewhere, and we hadn't suffered a visit from the fox.  Also, Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat was sitting in the driveway entrance, looking vaguely antagonistic as he usually does, but quite calm.  Alsatian Killer does not attack chickens, but I don't think he'd sit impassively in the face of a fox attack.

The sloping bed kept the chickens happy for a while, then they headed downhill to the bog bed, which is not especially boggy at the moment.  It was one of their favourite places last year.  I never imagined that hens would enjoy paddling in mud, but it turned out that they did.  I fetched buckets, some secateurs and the pickaxe, and busied myself chopping down old iris foliage, pulling up weeds and chopping out a piece of bamboo which had escaped beyond the ring of galvanised lawn edging intended to delineate where it is allowed to be.  I'd been meaning to do that for ages.

Then the chickens tired of the bog bed and went back up the hill to the front garden.  They move quickly once they get going, and by the time I'd collected my tools and emptied the bucket of weeds I'd temporarily lost them again.  In the front garden they rejoined the fifth hen, who was standing in front of the hen house.  Maybe she'd popped in to lay an egg, and when she came out they'd all gone.  After that they stayed in the front garden, and I was able to return to what I'd been doing originally, having left a trail of sweepings and prunings behind me stretching the length of the garden.  That can be the trouble with gardening with hens.  You do a bit of this and a bit of that and don't finish anything, but I suppose looking on the bright side I'm unlikely to sprain my arm if I never stick to doing the same thing for more than half an hour.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

winter flowers

I finished my first seed sowing this morning.  The sunflowers which germinate rapidly and make big strong seedlings can wait until March, like it says on the packet, as can the half hardy annuals.  I don't normally raise many of those, having nowhere to grow them, but schemes for a pot garden by the back door and a cutting bed in the veg patch could use some.  If I get that far.  Ideas that seem absolutely brilliant in February have a way of unravelling by May.  As I went through the box of seed packets I remembered the other reason why I start sowing now, which is that there isn't room in the heated propagator to do everything at once.

The beds around the bottom lawn in the back garden are looking really good, as is the end of the wood, so much so that I persuaded the Systems Administrator to go and have a look at them after lunch.  The snowdrops are hitting their peak season, and are standing in lovely fat, tall clumps. They must have liked the weather over the past year.  The Daphne bholua are still in full bloom, and were humming with bees when the sun came out, and Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' is still going strong.  This viburnum is fantastic value in the garden, because it has such a long flowering season, but don't try to grow on on light soil where it has to compete with an established hedge.  I did, and 'Charles Lamont''s predecessor gradually died.

The punctuation of that last sentence looks iffy.  'Charles Lamont' needs to be in single apostrophes because varietal plant names should be, and I am a firm believer in the use of the possessive apostrophe.  It is not difficult or confusing and people who say it should be abolished are simply wrong.  But the two apostrophes together look odd.  I must browse through Christopher Lloyd's writings when I have an evening to spare and see how he and his editors dealt with it.  Maybe I should just have said its.

Near the daphnes the Edgeworthia chrysantha is starting to open its flowers.  They are the most unlikely looking blooms, fleshy yellow and white funnels held in cone shaped clusters, with a marvellous scent.  This is also the Mark II version, the first having been doing very nicely until the water table rose under it and it drowned.  We tried to rescue it by digging a soakaway, but when a crowbar we were using to investigate the ground disappeared two feet into the soil under minimal pressure we realised that corner of the garden had turned to quicksand, and had to abandon the original Edgeworthia to its fate.  Its successor has recovered from the cold winters, which nipped it back, and as well as being covered in exciting clusters of fat buds is suckering lavishly at the base. The stems are so flexible you can tie them in knots without breaking them should you want to, though I don't myself, and the bark can be used to make paper, but I'm not planning on doing that either.

The white flowered forsythia relative, Abeliophyllum distichum, is still doing precisely nothing.  It is supposed to flower on last year's growth, when it flowers, to which end it benefits from a feeding and pruning regime to encourage it to make strong new shoots each year.  I was obviously not generous or brutal enough, because mine didn't send up much in the way of fresh growth.  What there was has got tiny, rather shrivelled, greyish brown bobbles on it, but I'm not convinced they are going to suddenly swell and open into starry white flowers.  Maybe I am being too hasty in writing it off.  It is one of those shrubs which look irresistible when seen flowering in a garden centre, carefully pumped and primed by the nursery grower, but I've seldom seen it ever looking so floriferous again in anybody's garden.

I let the chickens out for a run for the second half of the afternoon.  They behaved very well, keeping together in a tight flock and staying in the front garden where I was working, so I could get on with things instead of spending a chilly and unproductive hour following them about or trying to be in two places at once as they split up.  Little do they know, but behaving nicely when let out is their best guarantee of being let out again.  Unless they do know?  Chickens are brighter than you think, but I'm not sure they're that bright.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

sowing seeds

I started sowing my stash of seeds today.  I vary the catalogues I buy from in the years when I buy seeds, for a change of list, and there's always a great pile of free packets that came with magazines, some useful and others varieties I wouldn't give house (or rather garden) room to.  This year was the turn of Chiltern Seeds and for the first time I'm trying Derry Watkins' Special Plants Nursery.  Other years I use Thompson and Morgan, Mr Fothergill, DT Brown or Plant World Seeds.  I haven't noticed that one firm produces consistently better or worse germination than another.  The main variables seem to be the compost and the weather.  After last year's disappointing growth, when most pots germinated but several utterly failed to make any further progress, I'm not bothering with a special low nutrient seed compost but simply giving it a go in my usual brand of multi-purpose.

I usually do the main sowing in the second week of February.  After I'd finished for the day I read the leaflet that Derry Watkins enclosed with her order, and discovered that she recommends leaving tender plants until April or May when light levels are higher.  Ah well, too late.  I've found the problem with April sowings is that it only takes one hot day when I'm out for them to cook.  Not that I don't paint the greenhouse with shading paint, but there can be a lot of heat in the sun by May, and keeping the temperature in a domestic greenhouse at an equable level for tiny seedlings when you aren't there to damp the floor down at lunchtime can be tricky.  So I'd rather my sowings had graduated to the level of young plants by then, able to take a little more stress on the odd occasion.  I ignore Chiltern's sternly worded advice to use a soil based seed compost as well.  I've tried John Innes, never got on with it.

I didn't start actually sowing until after lunch, because up to that point I was shuffling trays around to make space, and cleaning any dead leaves off the overwintering plants.  They act as magnets for botrytis, and it's a job I should have done before, though actually things weren't looking too bad.  A few weeds had sprung up in some of the pots since the autumn, and I had those too while I was at it.

The depressing task was sorting through the trays of bulbs that the mice had got at.  I haven't had the heart to go through my list of last autumn's orders and see exactly what I've lost, but it's quite a few things.  The autumn flowering crocus and small species tulips were safe, because I put those in large propagating cases from the start, but mice managed to get inside a smaller case and destroy some fritillaries, and have eaten things they never showed an interest in before, Muscari, Scilla, Puschkinia, Corydalis and Erythronium.  They even excavated one of the pots of hyacinths that were tucked under the bench to keep them from the worst of the winter weather, ripping off the leaves and well-developed bud to eat the top of the bulb, and reducing my neat quincunx to an irregular foursome.  I am beginning to take this personally and to hate the mice with a passion. Next year everything apart from the daffodils is going to have to go under cover, and I might even seal the lids on to the trays with gaffer tape.

I don't know what to do about the hyacinths, other than make space for them up high and set traps beneath.  Which is a nuisance, since room in the light is at a premium in the greenhouse during the winter, and bulbs are perfectly happy in the darkness under the bench, if only things wouldn't eat them.  Thank goodness daffodils are poisonous and the mice don't seem to touch them.  Though who on earth confuses them with onions?  They don't smell remotely like onions, either raw or cooked (not that I have ever cooked a daffodil but I'm sure it doesn't suddenly start tasting like onions).  No, I am with The Now Show, and anyone daft enough to eat a daffodil deserves a Darwin Award and will be doing the rest of the human race a favour by removing themselves from the gene pool.  I make an exception for small children who will eat anything, but they aren't going to be shopping in the supermarket vegetable aisles and wouldn't be able to read the warning notices anyway.

Friday, 13 February 2015

the arrival of the mulch

The Strulch arrived this afternoon, all fifty one hundred and fifty litre bags of it.  They claim on their website that it is probably the best garden mulch ever made, and I think they are probably right.  I first tried it after seeing a favourable mention in an article by Bunny Guinness, and have been raving about it ever since to anyone who will listen.  Anyone who I think might benefit from garden mulch, that is.

Strulch consists of mineralised chopped straw.  It is one hundred per cent weed free, prevents the vast majority of annual weeds from germinating, and somehow manages to slow down water loss from the soil through evaporation while not causing the crowns of plants to go mouldy or woody stems to rot.  My pallet of fifty bags was the most expensive purchase I have made all year, and I look on it as a clear trade-off between cash outlay and my own time.  A border that can be weeded and Strulched before it really starts into growth will require very little weeding for the rest of the growing season, apart from my ongoing war with the horsetail in the back garden, but that's another story, and by now it is not so much a war as armed neutrality.

The worst part of Strulch is getting it delivered.  It came on the day the company said it would, after I'd chased them up to ask, and within the specified period of eight to five.  Indeed, it considerately waited until five minutes after the film review programme had finished.  It came on a small lorry as requested.  Small, though, is a relative term.  When we say that this is a small lorry, we do not mean the same as when we say this is a small ant.  A 7.5 tonne lorry is still quite large, and this one drove the opposite side of the turning circle to the one I'd have liked it to take, and got itself wedged against the eleagnus hedge.

The carrier company had not given the driver any of my instructions on how to find us, where we would like the load dropped, or the advice to reverse in.  A copy was taped to the load, but that wasn't a great deal of use.  This keeps happening, and I have no idea why the UK's delivery companies and firms that despatch goods by mail order persist in their quaint belief in the ability of delivery drivers to read instructions that are stuck to a box in the back of the van, instead of a clipboard in the cab.  Maybe they think they are psychic.  Ours was the driver's second difficult delivery, the last one having involved tight access plus horse food, and he was not a happy man, though not blaming me in particular.

We ended up having to break the load on the lorry, which is what always seems to happen with Strulch in spite of my best efforts with instructions and cutting the hedge back, and the driver handed down every one of the fifty bags to me and the Systems Administrator, who rushed back and forth stacking them around the edge of the drive.  I felt that was beyond his job description when he was supposed to be simply offloading a pallet, especially at twenty past four on a Friday afternoon when he still had further deliveries to make.  I slipped him a fiver, and that and my profuse apologies that he was being put to all this trouble might have made his afternoon a little brighter, for he gave us a second pallet as well as ours.  Clean new pallets, made out of fresh untreated softwood, burn beautifully in the log burner.

The driver managed to reverse out without too much difficulty, once he'd extracted himself from the hedge.  The Systems Administrator's bad shoulder got wrenched in the rush, and the front garden looks as though we expecting flooding or to come under enemy fire, with a barricade of large white bags round the edge of the drive.  I shall have to move them on to a stack on the concrete over the weekend, since they look ludicrous and more to the point would shade out and kill the ivy hedge if left where they are.  Strulch is a marvellous product, but having it delivered is a complete pain.

Addendum  Why do I keep buying it in such large loads, then?  It is so much cheaper that way.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

culture trip

I went to London today because I had a ticket for a lunchtime concert at LSO St Lukes.  I booked it long enough ago that I'd forgotten what I was going to hear, and was pleased when I was given my programme notes on the door to discover that it was a string trio put together by Natalie Clein who is doing a mini-residency, performing the Goldberg Variations arranged by Dmitry Sitkovetsky for violin, viola and cello.

I'd arrived with plenty of time in hand in case the trains were delayed, and the concert hall wasn't open, so I went for a cup of tea in the basement cafe.  Surveying my fellow concert goers it seemed to be true that classical music fans are an ageing breed.  Many of them were alone as well, one per square table set with four chairs, until the last solo table was occupied and they had to start doubling up, with the ritual enquiry Do You Mind if I Sit Here, followed by no further conversation.

I felt a little mean not to have asked a friend, but I booked a set of four tickets spread over several months to make sure I went to some concerts and take advantage of the reduced rate for four or more concerts while saving on booking fees, and I simply couldn't face the hassle of trying to get anyone else to decide that far in advance if they wanted to commit to going to a lunchtime concert on a particular Thursday.  I did mention it at last weekend's party to a friend who said we ought to go sometime, but she looked slightly askance and said she was busy that day.  Probably people would rather plan things together rather than being asked to tag along at tactlessly short notice, but I would have asked her sooner if I hadn't been struggling to catch up with myself post cold.

The concert wasn't a sell-out, but the auditorium was almost full, and the eventual age of the audience wasn't quite so old as the sample in the cafe had suggested.  If you work in the area with a finite amount of time for lunch, and aren't trying to make allowances for late trains, you presumably don't hang around in the cafe beforehand.  Though I don't share the view that it's a problem if classical music appeals more to older people, so long as the average age of the audience isn't rising.  Obviously if classical fans just get older and older until we're all dead then that is a problem, but if in their youth people want to follow Ed Sheeran before realising in their middle years that Schubert is more interesting, that's fine.

The string version of the Goldberg Variations was very beautiful, from the stately first variation through all the furious triplets and twiddly bits, slow bits and quiet bits, to the final variation where the music arrives where it started and knows it for the first time.  I'm not convinced that Western civilisation has yet surpassed the height it reached with the music of JS Bach.

The programme notes made much of the famous orchestras that Natalie Clein has played with, the Philharmonia, Halle, Royal Philharmonic, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and more.  The last time I saw her was three or four years ago and she was performing Dvorak's cello concerto with the Ipswich Symphony Orchestra, but that didn't get a mention.

One thing that struck me was how odd it was that musicians still play from paper music.  In the era of tablets, when an app on your smartphone will identify a piece of recorded music accurately (down to which choir, not just the title) from a two second sample, as we stand on the brink of the age of the driverless car, musicians still balance printed booklets on stands and have to quickly turn the page between movements or in a little gap when they aren't playing.  Why can't they have it scrolling before them on a screen, no page turning, no struggling to find fifty copies of the score for your choir because another choir in the region is putting on the same piece?  Instead the entire repertoire could be available at the press of a button.

Afterwards I caught the two exhibitions at The Queen's Gallery before they close on 22nd February. In 1862 the future King Edward VII was sent on an educational tour of the middle east, planned by Prince Albert, who'd unfortunately died by then.  It may have been a blessing for young Albert (the future Edward) and Victoria to get a four month break from each other, given that she blamed him for upsetting Albert senior and contributing to his death.  It isn't clear from the exhibition how much the young prince learned about the state of affairs in the eastern Mediterranean, but he seems to have had a fantastic holiday, visiting the sites, shooting things and doing a mild spot of tomb robbing.  His entourage included photographer Francis Bedford who amassed an impressive collection of pictures of ruins and vistas.  Some are beautifully composed and framed, and all are technical marvels when you consider that he was using glass negatives which he then had to process in a mobile dark room made out of a tent.

The other exhibition is about gold.  Actual gold blingy things, gilding in religious art, golden light, ingenious painted representations of gold.  The Royal Collection has a lot of gold.  There are some interesting objects, like the gilded wooden tiger's head taken from Tippoo Sultan's throne, but apart from wondering exactly how much a 19 kilo* solid gold Georgian tray is worth, they are mostly not so absorbing as the photographs next door.  Or perhaps they might be if you liked bling.

*Or it might have been pounds.  It is vast, engraved with the symbol of every honour George IV held at the time of his coronation, and hideous.  In fact the only gold object I really liked as an object was a small jug made in the early Bronze age.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

sitting in the kitchen

The Systems Administrator is out for the day, meeting with an old friend for a walk and a curry. The SA made sure yesterday to leave me with a plentiful supply of sawn logs and instructions about which were dry and which unseasoned so that I could mix them in the stove.  It was a kind thought, but in practice I haven't used either, because I haven't lit the stove.  I was busy doing things, and then I was happy to sit at the kitchen table until it was time for Wolf Hall, and the electric heater took the chill off the study for the hour.  Now I'm back in the kitchen.

We differ fundamentally in our attitude to sitting in the kitchen.  I like settling down at the kitchen table.  The AGA is warm, the kettle close to hand, the table is generally less cluttered than my desk and more comfortable for using my laptop than my lap is.  The chairs are solid wood but shaped so as not to cut off the circulation to one's nether regions.  On a wet or frosty day I can sit here for hours.  The SA finds it slightly strange and pitiful that I haven't bothered to light a stove, and never sits at the kitchen table for longer than it takes to drink a mug of tea mid afternoon, mealtimes excepted.

The difference probably dates back to our childhoods.  The kitchen in the house where I grew up had an AGA, an anthracite fired one that required stoking twice daily and covered everything in a fine layer of dust.  In the depths of winter it was the only warm room in the house during the day, until we had the fire lit in the evening, and sitting round the kitchen table seemed a natural thing to do.  It was not an Elizabeth David style wooden table but a table of its times, wood pattern formica with an extending section that slotted away underneath when not required, but the effect was cosy.  Kitchens appeared to me to be a place to hang out.

The System Administrator's mother's kitchen had a breakfast bar, if I remember correctly, but I'm not sure that many meals were eaten there apart from breakfast.  The kitchen was definitely the SA's mother's domain, and I never got the impression her husband and sons were encouraged to hang around in it.  This functional view of the kitchen seems to have pursued the SA into adulthood.  But it might simply be that the SA's back is worse than mine, and the wooden chairs less bearable.

We do have a pine table, courtesy of my brother, who was going to banish his old dining table to the garage after buying a swanky new glass topped one when I bummed it off him.  It was a fair exchange, since I'd just spent half the week surveying the garden of his new house and drawing up a design and planting plan for him.  It is rather more scratched and battered than when it was his dining table, but it's better for it to be used than sitting in a garage.  We held off getting a table for years, convinced it would be in the way as we moved from cooker to sink to fridge, but once we had it I was amazed we hadn't got one long before.  One corner has warped slightly, so that the fourth leg doesn't quite touch the floor.  When we got the table it had a piece of cardboard taped to the foot, and after a decade in our ownership the short leg is still resting on a small offcut of oak flooring.  It's only inconvenient when you wash the floor and the offcut goes walkabout.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

late accounts and animal care

The phone rang before nine this morning.  As we looked at each other wondering whether it was a real person at that hour and possibly an emergency it went to voicemail before either of us answered it.  The caller left a message, and was not a recorded voice trying to sell us a new boiler or get us to seek compensation for our mis-sold PPI or recent accident, but the county treasurer of the beekeepers, enquiring whether I was still divisional treasurer and if so had I sent him the 2014 accounts, because he couldn't find them.

I felt a pang of terrible guilt.  I hadn't sent him the accounts, for the simple reason that I completely forgot about it.  I emailed them over, with apologies that I was very sorry they were late, but I'd had an awful cold and after the relief of getting them approved by the inspector and voted through at the AGM, I'd forgotten that I was supposed to do anything else with them.  The county treasurer replied later in the morning that at least my accounts added up.

The next challenge was to dose Our Ginger for worms, since the state of his bottom last night reminded me that a worm pill was overdue.  Worming Our Ginger, or performing any other kind of medical service, is a task to be approached with dread.  In all other respects he is intensely loving and very trusting, so much so that he often gets in the way.  If he is stretched out on the hearthrug in front of the stove he won't move while one of us tries to refuel it, the possibility that we might drop a log on him, let alone thrust him into the flames, having apparently never crossed his mind. But try to get a pill down him and a whole new facet of his personality emerges.  He fights like a demon, wriggling so violently that we are scared in case we break his neck, and slashing with his front claws.  In theory you can stop that by wrapping the creature in a towel, but in practice a cat that's determined to resist will wriggle its legs free within seconds.

We have succeeded in tricking him, by sticking the pill to a cat treat with butter and slipping it to him after giving him a couple of unadulterated treats first to put him in the mood, but nowadays he seems to be able to take or leave treats.  It's the short indignant tabby who shouts for them after breakfast.  I went to the vet, and joy of joys, the dab-on-the-back-of-the-neck flea treatment is now available in a formulation that kills all types of worms.  So no more worm pills, ever.  That will make life much easier, for Our Ginger as well as for us (we once wasted an inordinate amount of time trying to get a pill down the big anxious tabby, who kept hiding it in the side of his mouth until we let go of him when he spat it out, until in desperation we simply offered him the pill, and he ate it).

My favourite piece of wildly inappropriate advice on animal care was from the Australian official who suggested that people having to evacuate their homes in an emergency due to bush fires, who had pets but no pet baskets, could carry their cats inside pillowcases.  Had he ever tried to carry a stone of panic stricken cat in a pillowcase, I wonder, let alone five cats?  I haven't, but I don't believe it would work.

Monday, 9 February 2015

a promise of spring

There was real warmth in the sun today, and the bees were out, working the snowdrops, the japonica, the daphnes, and the first few crocus in the lawn.  It was a pleasure to see them.  I am fairly sure that they were from my hives, since there was a winter years ago when my bees died and the red japonica under the kitchen window stood silent and empty on even the warmest days. There are other local beekeepers but none very close by, and I suppose that bees don't travel far for forage at this time of year and that scouts from other people's colonies didn't make it as far as our garden.

It was a relief to see the crocuses, as I'd begun to worry that something might have eaten them. The yellow ones on the roundabout at the top of the Hythe in Colchester have been out for ages, and I remember our purple Crocus tomasinianus overlapping with the snowdrop season.  They only open for the sun, remaining firmly closed otherwise, and the narrow, dull purple shafts are not easy to see from a distance, but they are coming up.  Open and with the sun streaming through the petals they make splashes of brilliant mauve, with vivid dots of orange pollen at the centre.  I planted another two hundred and fifty hundred bulbs last autumn, but should probably just draw a deep breath next time round and order a thousand.  I read articles about gardeners who started with fifty bulbs and now reckon them in tens of thousands, but mine don't seem to increase that quickly.

The sap from the sectioned birch must be sweet, since the Systems Administrator reported that there were bees in the wood paying great attention to the sawdust.  A fat lot of good that will do them.  They were probably interested in the snowdrops as well.

I had to go out later on, and remembered to take a thank you card for yesterday's hospitality with me.  I was rather taken aback on turning the corner of the lane to find that the post box had gone. Vanished.  Disappeared entirely, with nothing but a little bald indentation in the hedge and area of freshly dug earth to show where it had been.  I could only conclude that the Royal Mail removed it as a cost cutting exercise, to save emptying it.  It served a handful of houses, probably no more than fifteen or twenty within a half mile walk of it, and if it hadn't already been there I wouldn't have expected them to install one.  I was surprised, though, that there hadn't been any notice taped to it previously warning of its imminent demise.  Alternatively someone could have stolen it, though since the world price of metals peaked and regulations on scrap dealers tightened that seems less likely.  But thieves did take the metal gate from the old churchyard on the opposite side of the lane, a few years back.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

gracious living

We went to a party this lunchtime, in Dedham.  The car park was being patrolled by an attendant who looked as though he was ready to break up a full-blown fight with broken bottles outside a night club, despite the fact that it was just before mid-day and the most outrageous thing he'd probably have to deal with was somebody not putting their two pounds in the machine.  He appeared so determined that the Systems Administrator waited with the car while I went to pay, otherwise I was sure we'd have been ticketed in the time it took us to walk across the car park and back.

I thought I'd enjoy myself at the party, and I did.  Nice and sensible hostess with a very elegant house and friends who like talking about books and films, what's not to like?  The SA meanwhile had found some other people to talk about photography, racing and cricket, so all tastes were catered for.  And the nibbles were a class act.  I can't see myself running to perfectly cooked individual scampi in little pots with a tiny helping of miniature chips, but the bite sized blinis with smoked salmon were an idea.  I think they were done with cream cheese rather than soured cream, so that they didn't drip down people's fronts and on the carpet.

It is very lux getting professional caterers in.  We have never done it, because we almost never give parties, and when we do guests have to make do with my cooking.  Which is not bad.  I am particularly fond of the salad from a 1970s vegetarian cookery book, containing potatoes, hard boiled eggs, gherkins, peppers, radishes, carrots and enough other ingredients that it's impossible to make one serving fewer than about twenty people.  But having posh hot finger food (teeny tiny sausages and very small satay) brought to you in an endless stream while you talk is extremely nice.  As is having your glass refilled, and someone appearing at your elbow offering to relieve you of your cocktail stick as soon as you've finished your tiny sausage.  I recognised the caterers from last year, and they would certainly be my first port of call if I suddenly found I needed some.

Getting home from a lunchtime do is always a case of back to earth with a bump, since the first thing we have to do is rush upstairs and change out of our tidy clothes before they can get cat fur on them.  Even that scarcely works.  I've had a supposedly tidy black cardigan hanging on the front of the wardrobe for days waiting for me to dab the white and ginger fur off it with sellotape.  The cats wore a plaintive and martyred air because their lunch was so late.  They should think themselves lucky.  Our hostess' two cats had to go and hide from the horrible visitors for the duration.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

on Jane Austen, nibbles, moss and mulch

The lecture was very entertaining, though it turns out that the answer to the question What Matters in Jane Austen is Everything.  I've read the books several times, apart from Sanditon which the professor excluded from the main body of work, but realised within the first five minutes that I hadn't been paying proper attention.  Essex features once, apparently.  Emma's sister Isabella and her family holidayed at Southend, where they were not inconvenienced by the mud.  I'd a vague feeling that somebody went to Harwich, but on second thoughts maybe that was in Trollope.   Or Dickens.

Between us we had managed a lavish collection of nibbles, though I think I may need to up my game and master the mini quiche.  I keep a hopeful eye on the newspaper cookery columns but when they feature nibbles recipes they always seem to be things that need cooking at the last minute.  I really can't work out the target audience for these, since who asks people round for drinks only to be messing around with oven timings and grease during the party?  In the real world trays of individual hot flaky pastry savouries and deep fried prawns with dipping sauce belong to the realm of the professional caterer.  DIY nibbles need to be something you can prepare in advance, and store safely with less than three fridges' worth of space.

I have been trying to extract the weeds and ivy seedlings from the moss lawn without pulling up too much of the moss.  At the moment it looks rather patchy, but I can imagine it being an attractive feature.  Not labour saving, though.  None of my conventional gardening books have any advice on how to manage a moss lawn, indeed, the reflex English position would be to start trying to eliminate the moss, but I've a feeling I've read something about it somewhere.  Possibly in a book on Japanese gardens, or maybe in an article about a sculpture garden.  Working from first principles I should say the two main jobs are to pick up twigs and fallen leaves, and to remove weeds.  At least the moss doesn't mind light foot traffic.  I think that with some Scandinavian mosses, or possibly lichen, you have to avoid treading on them because you'll kill them.  Though if that's the case then how do they cope in the wild with reindeer tramping about?

At lunchtime I ordered this year's supply of Strulch, before my five per cent off discount voucher valid to the middle of the month expired.  And because I should be around for most of next week to take delivery of it.  The last load of Strulch arrived very late in the day, because the driver had got held up in traffic, and I was due to go out that evening and had to leave it to the Systems Administrator to deal with.  The lorry driver didn't manage to negotiate the reverse into the garden in the dark, and as he tried to offload the pallet in the entrance the tail lift collapsed, and fifty 150 litre bags spilled out over the drive.  The lorry as well as a defective tail lift had no working interior light, and the two of them were left scrabbling around by torchlight trying to clear the bags off the drive.  I hope that this time round it will arrive in daylight and they'll manage to offload it in a controlled fashion instead of dropping it. Now I've cut back the brambles at the entrance the lorry should be able to get further than the gate.

I noticed from the Strulch website that they'd applied a basic bit of psychology and reworded their delivery terms.  If access to your property is tight and you need a small lorry, as we do, Strulch used to make a delivery surcharge, while standard delivery in a large lorry was free, and it always galled to have to pay the extra.  Nowadays standard delivery costs £10.50, in a small lorry, and you can get free delivery if you have space for the big lorry, which comes to exactly the same thing but sounds much better.  Beware, though, that if you try to go for the large lorry and it can't get to your property, there will be a penalty of not £10.50 but £30 for making the driver come back the next day in a smaller vehicle.

Friday, 6 February 2015

cheese straws and weeds

Yesterday afternoon's light scattering of snow was still sitting on the lawn when I wound the bathroom blind up this morning, making the garden look singularly uninviting.  Fortunately gardening was not top of the agenda, since I needed to make cheese straws for this evening's music society annual non-musical event.  With any luck, by the time I'd finished them the snow would have melted.  When I went down to the kitchen I saw the snow in the front garden already had.

I am quite proud of my cheese straws.  I follow a recipe out of my late 1970s copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, and the proportion of cheese is modest compared to some modern recipes, but it works.  When I joined the committee they warned me that one of the duties was to provide nibbles for the after-concert drinks, and I needed something that I could take easily in the car and didn't need last minute reheating.  Relatively cheap ingredients seemed a bonus, and anyway I wasn't convinced that some of the ultra high cheese recipes would be very nice, since overcooked hard cheese can easily go bitter.  The Good Housekeeping cheese straws are nothing but ordinary shortcrust pastry enriched with an egg yolk and some grated cheddar, plus a smidgin of cayenne pepper, but they puff up slightly and become agreeably flaky.

By mid morning the nibbles were safely out of the oven and cooling on two racks behind a closed door, with a note to the Systems Administrator saying that the door was shut on purpose to keep the cats out.  I wouldn't trust Our Ginger anywhere near a tray of cheese straws.  If he didn't eat them he's quite capable of breathing all over them, and I'm not sure he wouldn't eat them.  I found him trying to eat a home made chip the other day, though with a martyred expression as though the point of the exercise were not so much to actually eat potato cooked in olive oil as to lobby for more cat food.

After that I weeded the herb bed for a while, though I had to pack up for the day after the film review programme because it was simply too cold.  The saying goes, one year's seeding, seven year's weeding, and at some point in the last seven years (probably as recently as last year) I have allowed weed grasses to go to seed in the herb bed, so now their progeny are springing up all over. If I could make 2015 the year when that didn't happen again then things would start to improve. Weed control in a garden can fall into in a virtuous or a vicious spiral.  Let them run riot for whatever reason, and there'll be more weeds the following season, so that weeding takes longer, and you are even more likely to end up with some borders where the weeds run to seed.  Bang them on the head for the whole season, and next year while there will still be some, your work will be less and your chances of preventing them from seeding improved.  Perennial weeds are a whole other story, though even there persistent and diligent rooting out of what you can reach limits their growth.

Tonight's lecture is on What Matters in Jane Austen, by UCL's Professor of English, and I am looking forward to it.  I invited the SA to come with me, but an apologetic mumble that it wasn't the SA's sort of thing turned to enthusiasm at realising the lecture was this Friday.  The SA, you see, wants to watch the England -Wales opener to the Six Nations live on the telly, and if I'm going out to a lecture that saves the embarrassment of leaving me alone in the kitchen on a Friday night while the SA is glued to the sport.  The SA will be cheering for England, despite being half Welsh.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

winter garden tidy

The lettuce farm has cut their side of the hedge that separates us.  It is our hedge, and as a matter of courtesy they called round yesterday to say that they were going to trim it, and ask if there was anything in it they should be careful of.  There isn't, but it was nice of them to ask, and I was pleased that they only took off the bits that were sticking out into the field margin, and didn't try to go along the top levelling it.  That would have had me rushing hysterically towards the driver, arms flailing like windmills.

An industrial sized mechanical hedge cutter is extremely noisy, and sends small pieces of mashed up twig shooting twenty or thirty feet beyond the side of the hedge that's not even being cut, so I thought that while they did their side, I'd better go and do something safely out of the way.  The hornbeam would have to wait for another day.  I retreated to the bottom of the back garden as being about as far away from the monster machine as I could get, and spent a happy hour picking weeds and litter from the willows on the lower boundary out of the ditch bed, while admiring the snowdrops and deploring the evidence of rabbits (there are still no crocus to be seen in the bottom lawn.  Is it still too early for them, or are they being eaten?).

Spending time in the ditch bed confirmed my previous thought that we needed to cut back various overhanging branches that had sagged out from the straggly row of trees along the ditch.  I am still not entirely sure whether they are ours, or belong to the neighbouring farm (not the lettuce farm, but the one who were prepared to sell their land for a monster gravel pit).  Although untrustworthy in matters of mineral extraction, we seem to have a good though unspoken understanding about the trees along our mutual boundary, which is that if anything falls on to their field, they deal with it, and if it falls into our garden we do.  The willows are miserably unstable trees, and I wouldn't recommend them as the backdrop to a border if you were starting from scratch, but we weren't since they were already there when we arrived.  I think probably the best way to manage willows is as picturesque pollards.

The Systems Administrator required a little coaxing to come out into the garden with the electric pole saw, having already mapped out a day that did not include tree surgery, but obliged.  I was keen to press on, having started, so that I could clear away the wreckage, give the bed a final tidy and enjoy the snowdrops before they start going over.  They are just coming into their prime, with the first to open still fat and pristine, and more buds opening daily.  Of course it would have been better to have done all this two or three weeks ago, before the snowdrops were so far advanced, but we didn't.  Sometimes things just have to get done when you get around to doing them.

A lot of material came off the willows, and the odd, doomed ash and bulging hazels.  They took many, many trips to the bonfire and wood chopping area, and I still have't moved quite all of them. The cut stumps always look horribly raw immediately after lopping branches, but the freshly cut wood soon darkens, and come spring new growth will soften them.  The plants in the ditch bed will certainly be glad of the extra light.  There's shade, and then there's shade.  It's just as well the SA came out before lunch, because it sleeted in the afternoon.

I contemplated the mossy lawn and its crop of cyclamen and primroses as I collected willow prunings.  I think I have changed my mind, and will not move the cyclamen to the wood but leave them where they are and hope that the moss takes over completely from the grass in that corner. One of the best bits of Killerton, my favourite garden as a child, was a beech avenue carpeted with moss and cyclamen.  We don't run to an avenue, but the wild cherry and the three river birches are doing OK at promoting moss.  I have a nasty suspicion that the moss lawn is going to require weeding to keep it clear of herb Robert and cow parsley, and the wildflower whose name I don't know.  I saw a reference to it the other day with a photo in a gardening article which confirmed it was a geum, and was pleased I was right then promptly forgot its name again.

A Sarcocca which was never at all happy under the deep shade of the wild gean turns out to have leapt the fence, and established a little patch in the edge of the wood.  Did it seed itself, I wonder, or sucker?  I haven't found any elsewhere in the garden so it certainly isn't seeding widely.  The reason why I was peering over the fence was to investigate a multi-stemmed wild cherry that was leaning at a crazy angle, and the reason for this turned out to be that its root plate had lifted.  It must have either been hit by the birch as it fell, or caught in the same freak gust.  It needs to come down, since it looks daft as it is.  I rather have my eye on the gap for an Amelanchier.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

wildlife in your garden

I began work today on the hornbeam hedge by the compost bins.   I am utterly confused about the whys and wherefores of when to cut hornbeam.  By tradition it is done in August, but is that for the hornbeam's own good, or because it fitted in with the gardeners' other work?  I wouldn't say August was a slack month, because there never seems to be such a thing, but it isn't a month for digging or sowing, it's too late for staking, too early for lifting and dividing.  And growth is generally slowing so a hedge trimmed in August should stay trim until the following spring.  I read somewhere, and I thought it was in the RHS magazine, that hornbeam was prone to bleed if cut in February, but then I read somewhere else, and again I thought it was the RHS magazine, that if a hornbeam hedge needed hard renewal pruning the time to do it was February.  So I'm confused.

I am now fairly certain that the tradition of an August cut for yew is all about fitting it into the gardeners' calender of work, and not because yew will take harm if cut later, having read enough articles about gardens with extensive hedges and topiary where cutting starts in late summer and continues right through the winter because that's how long it takes to do it.  Anyway, I have started cutting the hornbeam hedge now simply because I've been thinking about it since last August but not found time before, and it is not bleeding visibly, not like the vine stem I experimentally cut a couple of years back which ran like a tap.

By lunchtime my feet were getting chilly, so in the afternoon I switched to clearing the logs and coppice prunings from the back garden.  Climbing up and down a flight of steps carrying a large lump of wood gets the blood flowing back into your feet pretty briskly.  I wasn't sure I'd shift it all today, but as dusk approached the end was in sight, and the incentive was strong to lug the last, thickest logs into the wheelbarrow and heave them up the hill so that I could say I'd finished and tick that job off the list.

I heard a strange, harsh cry as I worked, which I'd heard before lunch, and looking up saw a pair of buzzards flying around a large hedgerow oak at the bottom of the neighbours' field.  One repeatedly flew upwards then hurtled down again, and occasionally managed to hover for a few seconds, kestrel like.  So perhaps they were kestrels, but they looked too large and too square winged. Maybe they are staking their claim to the oak tree and intend to nest there.

We make such value judgements when it comes to wildlife.  I was pleased to see the buzzards, or kestrels or whatever they were, just as I welcome the robins and great tits to the bird table. They've been joined in recent days by a small buff coloured tit with an almond shaped black cap and a tiny dark smudge on its chest.  Looking at the bird books it is either a willow tit or a marsh tit, neither of which are stunningly rare but nor are they especially common.  Telling them apart seems to be a job for an expert.  However I was not at all happy to go into the greenhouse and find that even with two mouse traps set some more pots of small bulbs had been destroyed.  Song birds and raptors v. good, mice v.v. bad.  There are rabbit pellets everywhere in the back garden, but the Systems Administrator was not enthusiastic about my suggestion that once it warmed up he could lie out at dusk under a camouflage net with the air rifle.  Rabbits expletive deleted unspeakably bad.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

the bunnies are back

I was suspicious the other day that the grass in the middle section of the top lawn, near the 'Tai Haku', looked shorter than the rest.  Was it merely that the soil wasn't as good there?  That stretch is never as damp as the area in front of the conservatory, which is particularly lush (by Essex standards.  This isn't great natural grass territory.  It was noticeable when the dairy company Robert Wiseman floated on the stock exchange in the 1990s that the maps showing the source of their raw milk put it all on the western side of the UK.  I digress).  But I wasn't sure that was the whole reason.

This morning, dragging lengths of sawn holly and birch up to the utility area for final reduction to firewood, wood chip mulch and bonfire material, I saw piles of rabbit pellets on the lawn.  That's what I was afraid of.  Rabbits are either coming in after dark for a free meal, or worse still living somewhere in the back garden, possibly in the rose bank.  The trouble is that we are now down to two elderly cats, who don't hang around the garden at night any more than I do.

We had the same problem last time round when the previous generation of cats aged.  At their peak a few years ago we had five large, fit, intimidating predatory beasts, four of which were good hunters, though thankfully only one was interested in song birds.  The fifth, the short indignant tabby, has never killed so much as a mouse so far as I know, but at least she looked and smelt like an active cat.  Nowadays she spends her days lying in front of the Aga or in the hall, going outside only for calls of nature.  True, Our Ginger caught a mouse this morning, and another one a couple of days ago, but he spends his evenings with us in front of the stove and by the morning he is wailing in the corridor for somebody to open the bedroom door and the party to start.  He might go out into the garden in the cold after we've gone to bed, persecuting the rabbits with the zeal of a Reformation iconoclast tearing down graven images, but I don't think so.

There's been digging in the drive along the Eleagnus hedge as well, and a little damage to the bark of one of the hollies in the bed by the entrance.  Realistically there is nothing to be done about it. The Systems Administrator can't be expected to lie in wait for hours after dark in this weather with an air rifle, and we can't inflict younger cats on the old ones.  We can't have a gate to keep the rabbits out at night unless we are prepared either to always go and open it before the postman arrives, which isn't going to happen, or install an automated one, which isn't going to happen either.  We looked at it briefly a long time ago, and as soon as we realised it meant installing armoured cable at a depth of two feet down the entire length of the drive we gave up on that idea. At least the garden is in a fairly mature phase at the moment, so I'm not doing any wholesale planting.  Rabbits always seem to make a special point of eating newly planted things, which are least able to withstand the damage.

Meanwhile, a crop of hopeful young shoots is springing up from the downhill side of the fallen birch's partially upended root plate.  A rash of foxgloves have sprung up in the ripped earth as well, and on the rotting parts of the stump.  It is going to be extremely pretty, come the summer, and I shall pile the last of the birch twigs around the regrowth to keep the rabbits and deer from grazing on it.  Looking at the amount of space that's opening up as I clear the brambles, I'm beginning to consider a new scheme, to rescue some of the cyclamen that have seeded themselves into the bottom lawn where they lead an uneasy coexistence with the lawnmower, and try them in the edge of the wood.  If they would seed themselves around the fringes of the hollies and the one rhododendron that would be quite something.  Under the canopy of rhododendrons is not generally a great planting spot, but this one is getting so tall it has abandoned most of its lower branches, and the ground isn't too dark and dry.  It wouldn't cost anything to experiment, apart from the opportunity cost of not using the cyclamen somewhere else, since they grew without any effort on my part and aren't a great deal of use in the lawn.

Monday, 2 February 2015

in the wood again

The end of the wood is starting to open up nicely.  I finished moving the pile of sawn logs that's all that remains of one of the fallen multi-stemmed birch trunks.  There's still a couple of days' work to go to get the other trunk out, but I think that in hindsight I was over-optimistic thinking that I could shift an entire tree in two days.  Which is fair enough.  Gardeners need a touch of over-optimism. If we were to take a totally realistic view of the weather, the soil, the time we had available to devote to our projects and our own physical and financial limitations, we would realise that the whole thing was quite impossible and never get anything done at all.

I trimmed the side branches off one of the two main stems of the holly that collapsed at some point during the great birch disaster, either hit by the birch as it fell or caught in a freak gust of wind.  I just managed to reach to saw the last eight feet or so off, leaving me with the bare trunk, which I felled with the bow saw.  It is sad at one level having to section and remove a fairly large young tree, and its loss has somewhat spoilt the dark tunnel of holly I'd been carefully pruning as the way through from the garden into the wood, but the removal is only temporary, since I'm sure it will shoot again from the base, probably with several stems.  The second trunk defeated me, being critically too far above ground for me to be able to reach to take the weight out of the top of it. I'll need the Systems Administrator's help for that.  I could get it down, but only by dropping it in an uncontrolled fashion on the snowdrops, and I'd rather it came out in pieces with someone there to catch them.

I took out a sagging branch from a coppiced hazel as well, and have been eyeing up a young birch that's been pushed over to such an extreme angle that it will never form a stable tree.  It looks like a prime candidate for coppicing, and with any luck would grow back with several white trunks, very smart.  I love birch trees, and half have my eye on an incredibly expensive and authoritative book on the genus, published by Kew, though I probably won't get it.  I do feel that birches look more at home in a wood or country garden than suburbia, though.  They are popular with garden designers for their fast growth that gives relatively fast maturity to a new garden, and their light canopies, but I always feel a little jolt of incongruity at the group of them I pass in a front garden in Dulwich on visits to the art gallery.  It's entirely unreasonable of me, since a birch is no more odd or arbitrary a choice outside an Edwardian red brick villa than an Amelanchier or a cherry.  But I still find them oddly out of place.

The brambles weren't as bad as they look at first sight.  You have to admire the sheer efficiency of brambles, the way their long arching branches take root when they touch, soon forming a zig-zagging impenetrable thicket.  The patches of them at the southern end of the wood had spread to cover quite an area, but many of the rooted tips hadn't really got their feet down, and pulled out without too much scrabbling around, while the older clumps hadn't yet grown the kind of solid rootballs that there's no shifting without a pick axe.  I snipped the weaving stems into manageable lengths and hauled the roots out as I came to them, pulling up some of the ivy stems criss-crossing the ground as well for good measure.

When we first moved here the previous owners couldn't have touched the wood for years, and whole sections of it were completely lost under thickets of brambles, head high and taller.  They were so smothering and tangled and jagged, with great dead stems thicker than my thumb whose hard brittle thorns were ready to snap themselves off in your flesh, and snaking growths reaching twenty feet and more into the holly and hazel trees, we needed safety visors while we tackled them.  I assume the brambles made much of that growth after the 1987 storm when tree losses suddenly let more light in.  They respond rapidly to light, and are never much of a bother in the darkest corners.

There are some big patches further up the wood where the wildlife trust did the bulk of their coppicing a few years ago, but they may have to wait until autumn since I'm not sure I'll have time to tackle them now.  Resuming coppicing in neglected coppice is in theory good for wildlife and increasing biodiversity, but having seen the effects on our wood I think it has to be planned in conjunction with a realistic view of how much time will be available for subsequent maintenance. Under the reduced tree cover brambles and bracken spread faster than bluebells can.  I got the impression the wildlife trust had some money available at the time for renewal coppicing which they were eager to use, but they should probably have followed it up with an annual site visit to see how the wood, and the owner, were doing.