Thursday, 30 April 2015

weeding and mulching

Forecasts for the rain that was threatened or promised. depending on your point of view, have been continually scaled back over the past twenty-four hours, and today stayed dry, allowing me to continue weeding, feeding and Strulching along the base of the veranda.  Weeding was slow and fiddly work as I untangled a lattice of interlocking roots and rooted stems belonging to one wanted and two unwanted species.  They don't teach root identification as a specific skill at horticultural college, but it's something you learn on the job if you have the kind of complex garden where hand weeding and mulch are the order of the day, rather than hoeing, and if ambition outstrips resources so that there always are weeds.

The wanted plant was Jasminum beesianum, an agreeable if unspectacular climber with small pink flowers and a faint scent, definitely not one of those jasmines to make you swoon.  The Bluebell Arboretum consider it garden worthy enough to stock it, and I quite like it without feeling very strongly about it.  It climbs by twining, like other jasmines, and suffers from an amount of dieback each year without any apparent ill effect, again like other jasmines.  My plant is not totally sold on the twining, climbing idea, and tries to run across the ground with almost equal enthusiasm.  Quite a lot of climbers do, many honeysuckles and ivy for starters.  I chop it off when it gets to the path across the back of the rose bed, and allow it to form a frondy mass of ground cover along the bottom of the veranda if that's what it wants to do.

Unfortunately a couple of stinging nettles had got a toehold at the bottom of the decaying trellis under the veranda.  It doesn't matter that the trellis is getting a bit shabby, at least until the point when it collapses completely, since it is totally hidden by a rampaging Clematis montana, variety unknown as it was already here when we moved in, plus climbing roses 'New Dawn' and 'Climbing Etoile Holland', and a honeysuckle, another legacy from the previous owners and variety likewise unknown.  There used to be a Russian vine, which was so rampant I resorted to strong poison fairly early on, and a blue flowered potato vine that I was quite fond of until it fell to bits, probably from old age.  There used to be an inherited Clematis texensis 'Duchy of Albany'.  I knew the variety, because the previous owners had left the label on and it was still legible, but I haven't seen her yet this year.  Trachelospermum jasminoides would have smelt lovely if it hadn't died, twice, but I think Dregea sinensis might still be alive.  It is another climber with an almost cloyingly gorgeous scent, plus milky sap that brings me up in a rash, though not everybody, so I may yet regret planting it.  But I always garden in long sleeves anyway.

Stinging nettles have bright yellow underground roots, that don't look too much like many other things, and also send stems running along the ground that root where they touch.  They are initially reddish and mature to a dull buff.  Neither looks too much like the stems and roots of the Jasminum beesianum, but disentangling two interlaced sets of horizontal stems and running roots while keeping one of them reasonably intact is a fiddle.

I recognised the other unwanted plant without knowing its name.  It is a wildflower with dull little spikes of flowers that the bees like, and I wouldn't have minded leaving one or two in the back of the bed if it hadn't had running roots.  A runner that you don't even like is a no-no in a border.  Fat, white, and mercifully not too brittle underground stems ran from one stalk to the rest, and took some pulling out because they kept ducking under the jasmine.

There were ivy seedlings as well, and yet more Geum urbanum or Herb Bennet, which is another dull wildflower that I don't mind in the wood but don't want all over the borders.  And there was a bit of goosegrass or cleavers.  Goosegrass, like the poor, ye have always with ye.  But they were quick to root out in comparison.  Once I reached the box hedge surrounding the hybrid tea roses there were unwanted seedlings of Campanula lactiflora, demonstrating that a weed is in part a plant in the wrong place, since I am perfectly happy with 'Loddon Anna' elsewhere in the bed, I just don't want a monoculture of her seedlings.

One more push tomorrow should do it, unless the forecast for rain is resurrected, and then it's on to the island bed, where several cistus that were looking perfectly good until those sharp late overnight frosts have now died, and Coronilla varia needs yanking out by the handful.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

frame building and cake baking

I spent the afternoon fitting foundation into brood frames and making a cake, a honey recipe I hadn't tried before, that used wholemeal flour and vegetable oil instead of butter.  The book said it needed to cook for about an hour and a half at 170 degrees Celsius, and since the Aga doesn't do anything between 180 C and just below boiling I was going to have to improvise, so sitting in the kitchen to react to the first smell of burning seemed a better bet than disappearing into the garden with the timer in my pocket.  Besides, it had rained over lunchtime leaving a legacy of wet foliage and distinctly cold air and I didn't think my chest would take kindly to either.

The brood frames in a commercial beehive measure sixteen inches by ten, hung landscape wise. Two vertical end bars with grooves on their inward sides are nailed to a top bar.  The wax foundation, which is impressed with hexagons the size of worker bee larvae cells, is reinforced with a zig zag strand of wire that projects in loops at the top and bottom of the wax sheet.  You bend one set of loops through ninety degrees and put the wax sheet in the wooden frame so that the wire loops rest on the underside of the top bar, while the sides of the sheet of foundation slip into the grooves in the side bars.

With me so far?  This is where a YouTube tutorial video would come in handy, if you actually wanted to fit foundation into a frame yourself.  Once the wax sheet is lying snug and flat in its frame, top edge close up against the top bar, sides neatly caught by the side bars, bottom resting on a very thin bottom bar that you've previously tapped into its tiny receiving slots and tacked to the side bars, you then nail a batten over the top wire loops, holding them securely.  Then you fit a second very thin bottom bar to the bottom of the sides so that the bottom of the foundation sheet rests between them but is not tacked in place.  What could be simpler?

Quite a lot of things, as it happens.  You want the wax to be at a comfortable working temperature, not too cold or it will be brittle, but not too warm or it will start bending and breaking in your fingers like over-warm pastry.  The kitchen gets to about the right temperature at this time of year with the Aga, but you wouldn't want to be doing it in a cold shed in winter.  You don't want to be doing it in a shed in the warmer months, either, unless it's bee proof, because the smell of fresh wax will soon bring them along to investigate, and accidents can happen.  The Systems Administrator got stung that way, making up frames in a workshop with several curious bees.

You want to tap the wax into its side slots gently, working from both faces and not applying too much force, so as to keep clean edges.  As soon as the edges get bent or broken it becomes much harder to get both sides to fit into their slots all the way down.  Wax foundation is not the easiest stuff to transport, being apt to melt or break if it gets too hot or cold or is roughly handled, and I was pleased that the fifty sheets I ordered from a new supplier I haven't tried before arrived in mint, crisp condition.  If the sheet is catching anywhere on either end it will buckle and refuse to lie flat.  If it does that do not force it, investigate where the sticking point is and gently ease it into the slot.  When it's sitting properly it will lie absolutely level.

Now comes tacking on the batten that's going to hold it to the top bar.  You press the batten in place and turn the frame upside down, resting it on a solid surface, in my case the kitchen table. You take a tiny nail, half an inch long or a shade longer, and hammer it through the batten so that it goes through one of the wire loops and into the top bar.  You repeat with all the wire loops, and maybe add one or two nails for luck if the batten doesn't feel absolutely secure.  Once the bees have drawn out the comb and filled it with brood and stores on both sides it will be heavy, you will need to pick it up regularly and turn it over to look at both sides, and you really, really don't want the frame disintegrating in the middle of a hive inspection.

Notice how I glossed over the tricky bit there.  You hammer the nail through the batten.  Just like that.  You just hammer it.  Which means that you take a half inch nail in your right hand (assuming you are right handed) and position it where you want it to be, pressing it into the wood as much as you can with your bare fingers.  Then you hold the nail between two fingers of your left hand so that its tiny head is just proud of your fingernails, and tap it with a small hammer.  The tip of the nail is resting less than half an inch out from the wax sheet, which will limit your room to manoeuvre, and you would like the nail to go in reasonably vertically.

Now all sorts of things can happen.  Possibly the tip of the nail will skate sideways over the batten, and you will have to put down the hammer, reposition the nail and start again.  Once you feel the nail start to grip you can take your left fingers away and use them to press the batten firmly up against the wax while you hammer.  At this point the nail may prove not to have started to grip after all, and jump out of its hole, skating across the kitchen table if it doesn't disappear behind the batten, in which case you will need to retrieve it because otherwise the batten won't sit snugly against the frame.  If you are unlucky then at this point the wax will drop out of its grooves and you are back to square one.  Maybe the nail will go in half way, and just as you think you are home and dry the next hammer blow will send it at a mad diagonal, so that it barely reaches through the batten to the frame and is of no use at all.

My first frame took me so long I began to think that at this rate the bees would have swarmed before I'd completed a brood box's worth.  Then I got back into the rhythm of it, and had done a couple of dozen by the time the SA wanted the kitchen to make the supper.  I didn't think the smell of fried onions would agree with the foundation, and was obliged to give the kitchen back over to culinary purposes.

I made a mistake with the cake.  It rose spectacularly, much more than I was expecting, but after an hour the top was just starting to catch and I tried moving it over to the simmer oven like you do with Christmas cake, where it collapsed in the middle.  Only then did I twig that of course Christmas cake uses plain flour and no raising agent and barely rises at all, whereas this recipe used self raising with a teaspoon of bicarb for good measure.  I shall try again, cutting out some discs of greaseproof paper and tinfoil to put over the top after the first hour to stop it burning.  Of course it would be easier simply to ignore any recipes for cakes cooked at less than 180 C, but before I do that I need to prove to my own satisfaction that I can't wangle a way round the problem somehow. There are people who keep a second cooker for such difficulties, but we don't.  It's Aga or nothing. Or in this case honey cake modelled on a Polo Mint.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


I have just deadheaded the daffodils in the lawn.  Books and gardening articles say that you should, to preserve the bulbs' energies for flowering next year, all except Christopher Lloyd who said that we deadheaded them to make ourselves feel better.  After all, we didn't deadhead the snowdrops, and they flowered perfectly well the following year.  He's right about snowdrops.  And I don't deadhead any of the small bulbs in the gravel, the dwarf tulips, scilla and Chionodoxa, or the crocus in the bottom lawn, or the grape hyacinths, and they multiply by seeding and still keep on flowering so that the display grows year by year.  Either daffodils are particularly lacking in stamina and need special help, or Christopher Lloyd was right.  One could design a proper trial, with patches of deadheaded and not deadheaded bulbs of different species, and see how they performed the following season, but I'm not going to.

What I am very particular about is leaving the foliage to die down naturally.  Bulbs in pots that are destined for the garden are cleared to one side and left to go on growing for a few more weeks after flowering before being disturbed.  I grow four pots of hyacinths every year, to stand by the formal pond, and move them out into the borders afterwards.  They are extremely long lived plants in the ground, and after more than two decades of planting twenty bulbs (give or take, allowing for mice and weather catastrophes) we have a generous scattering through the front and back gardens. The ideal time to add to the display is when the faded foliage has not quite disappeared, so that you can see where the gaps are.

Tulips are likewise only asked to do one year in a pot, then allowed to die back completely in their containers, while I remember to water them and sometimes even feed them.  Then I empty the pots, and sort through the bulbs, discarding the very small ones.  The bigger ones that are worth keeping to replant are stored dry until November, though there was a glitch last summer when mice found them in the garage and ate half of them.  They go into the dahlia bed nowadays, where as there is no way of telling what's already there I have to take pot luck on the risk of digging up the existing occupants.  The display in the dahlia bed tends to be slightly irregular and gappy, but overall looks cheerful enough and reasonably full, especially with the red and orange stakes. Before I hit on the idea of using the dahlia bed for tulips in the spring I planted some previously potted tulips around the edge of the vegetable patch, in very poor unimproved sand.  Most have vanished without trace, but there is a fine stand of 'Ballerina', a lily flowered variety in a lovely luminous shade of orange.  'Ballerina' is said to be relatively long lived in the soil, as is the pillar box red* 'Apeldoorn', and in this case what is said chimes with my experience here.  It doesn't always.

*  Pillar boxes were originally painted sage green, and were not changed to the familiar red until 1874, according to a website about Anthony Trollope that Google threw up while I was checking to see if pillar box was properly one word or two.  That nugget might come in useful in a quiz, or to fill a conversational lull at a particularly stilted social occasion.  As it is it has filled a paragraph.

Monday, 27 April 2015

nature is not cooperating

It didn't get warm enough to open the bees.  I was afraid it wouldn't.  I watched the thermometer, and gauged the feeling of the air on my face periodically, but the former only briefly crept up to thirteen degrees before sliding down again, and the latter maintained a raw, nippy quality. Showers are forecast for the next three days, and a maximum temperature of eleven degrees.  I don't have a good feeling about this, and am kicking myself that I didn't force myself to inspect them the week before last, the day after I went to London, but there you go.  One of the commercial beekeepers at last Thursday's club meeting was saying how his colonies were being slow to build up, and he blamed it on the mild autumn allowing another couple of generations of varroa mite at the end of the season, weakening the hives going into the winter.  He probably wouldn't have expected my colonies to be building up so rapidly any more than I did.

Meanwhile, the last three days' worth of clips from the wildlife camera make grim viewing.  There are rabbits in the back garden, morning, noon, and evening.  Also muntjac in the middle of the afternoon.  The field of vision of the wildlife camera is not very big, and the video clips don't last very long, so we haven't yet worked out exactly where the rabbits are coming from and going to, but it looks as though they, or it, could be living in the rose bank.  There was only ever one rabbit in shot at a time.  It was an adult and not a baby, but apart from that one wild rabbit looks much like another to me.  The Systems Administrator has reset the camera, now pointing directly at the suspect point in the bank rather than along its base, and we'll see what we get in the next day or two.  I blame the Romans.

It was tranquil in the greenhouse, apart from a little mollusc damage.  I sprinkled a few slug pellets on the affected trays of seedlings, and on the dahlia pots as the first dahlia leaves are just starting to emerge.  I don't use slug pellets widely around the garden.  Most plants are big and tough enough to take a little damage, and if things are real martyrs I tend to let them disappear and plant something else.  Thus my collection of hostas in the open ground is limited to the yellow leaved form 'Sum and Substance'.  I believe that what puts the slugs and snails off is not the colour of the leaves but their thickness.  Even 'Sum and Substance' is not immune, getting mildly nibbled by the end of summer.  It depends partly on how many molluscs you have and how desperate they are.  I recommended 'Sum and Substance' to my mother, but in her garden it was reduced to nothing, as was 'Red October' (a rather nice form with red leaf stems) in mine.

The greenhouse is full to bursting and then some, and I'll be relieved when the chance of overnight frost is pretty much over and I can risk putting the overwintering geraniums and other tender things outside.  By dint of shuffling trays of slightly more advanced seedlings and cuttings out to the cold frames I just about made space for everything I needed to prick out (some of it should have been pricked out days ago) but I really am starting to run out of room to put anything down.  I broke a stem off a marguerite stepping past it to get to the staging, and rather than waste it trimmed off the side shoots for cuttings, though if they take then that will be another half dozen pots needing somewhere to live.  I did consign one badly root aphid infested Geranium maderense to a bag of waste destined for the dump, since I have more plants coming on.  It would be nice to eliminate the root aphid this summer if possible, through a programme of planting out, Provado and ruthless throwing away of infected pots.  While I've got it I can't even resort to the generous gardener's method of making space, which is to give pots of plants away whether people want them or not.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

poised for action, weather permitting

Once the Systems Administrator had drilled holes in the metal covers for the beehive roofs the rest of the construction went together really easily.  I finished assembling my fifty frames, as far as I could with only three sheets of wax foundation to go in them, and have sent off for some more foundation and another roof and entrance block.  With the complete frames left over from last year and the three I did this morning I have enough for a full size hive and a half sized nuc.  I've got two nucs, three brand new spare brood boxes and an emergency fourth consisting of an old national hive with an extra inch and a half stuck on top so that it can take the larger commercial sized frames.  I have spare floors, though they are solid and not my preferred open mesh, three complete roofs, spare crown boards and entrance blocks, and some sturdy ekes normally used for holding food buckets in the autumn that will do as makeshift stands.  I am all set to try and control swarms, except that if next week's weather forecast is right it won't be warm enough to open the bees.

In the longer run I need more open mesh floors, some more proper stands, a couple more entrance blocks and probably some more crown boards.  And the discipline to unite colonies come this autumn if they all make it through the summer so that I don't go into next winter with as many as six colonies, let alone more.  The trouble is that most methods of swarm control leave you with two sets of bees where there was only one before.  Pick up a swarm or two and you can find your number of hives has doubled in the course of a season.  For every hive you really need to reckon on having a spare, for use at this time of the year when they're thinking about swarming.  It's easy to end up perpetually short of kit.

As the treasurer of the local beekeepers I see how many hives all the members own up to when I'm processing their bee disease insurance payments, and it never ceases to surprise me the number who reckon they won't have more than three colonies at any stage of the year.  If you start the season with more than one you are quite likely to get up to at least four at some point, if you want to either do artificial swarms or simply split your colonies to prevent them swarming.  I fear many people must do what I've done myself often enough in the past, which is to stare anxiously into their beehives, conclude they don't know what the bees are doing or if they've already done it, and leave them to get on with it.  You will probably not lose all your bees that way, but you're unlikely to get much honey, and the bees you do lose may end up causing a nuisance to somebody.

The day was so cold and dank that I gave up on my plan of working in the greenhouse when I'd finished with the beehive equipment, and began to tackle the mess on my desk instead.  Apparently the UK is going to be hit by an Arctic Plume.  I think I'll hold off on buying new pelargoniums for the pots by the pond for another week or two.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

hive assembly

I've spent most of today in that traditional Saturday activity, assembling flat pack furniture, only mine was furniture for bees.  Thinking that I'd be well prepared in advance of the swarming season, back in January I ordered some self assembly brood boxes and beehive roofs from a well known national supplier of beekeeping equipment in their sale.  It took a long time to arrive, even longer than the warning on their website said it might, and then three heavy, slightly battered cardboard boxes turned up.  Since late February they have been sitting in a dark corner of the downstairs sitting room.

Winter is the ideal time to build hives and get ready for the season ahead, or so the theory goes. But in practice assembling the hives never rose to the top of my list of things to do, because it still seemed likes months or at least weeks until I'd need to use them, and there was always something else more urgent to do, and as I struggled with what seemed like an endless series of colds I didn't feel like building beehives, and I hoped the Systems Administrator who is much handier than I am at these things might offer to do it.  Until suddenly the swarming season had started, and it became urgent.  And the SA showed no inclination to spend a day assembling beehives.

The brood box is the bee factory within the hive.  It is the bottom box of the stack, where the queen lives and lays eggs and the workers raise the next generation of bees.  I use commercial brood boxes, which are large enough to accommodate frames sixteen inches wide by ten inches deep.  That's large by beehive standards, the idea being that it gives the queen plenty of room to lay.  It needs to be reasonably solid, and I'd gone for western red cedar, seven eighths of an inch thick.  And to save further on cost I'd gone for seconds.

I'd heard mixed reviews of these seconds.  Some people said they were straightforward to assemble as long as you were prepared to finesse things as you went along, while others said they were infuriating to the point of impossibility.  Both camps turned out to be more or less right.  To give structural strength and rigidity the corners were formed of mortice and tenon joins.  You couldn't have any kind of reinforcing corner vertical piece inside the box because it would get in the way of the frames, so all the strength has to come from the joint itself.  Except that the slots and the sticky out bits (there must be a technical carpentry term for those) on the adjacent side that were supposed to fit into the slots did not exactly align, by a big enough margin for it to matter.  Not just a bit tight so that if you gave it a good couple of whacks with a hammer it would slide home, but extra sixteenths of an inch of wood so that the joint absolutely would not fit together, even when hit quite hard with a lump hammer (using a wooden dolly so as not to damage the joint.  I don't know much about carpentry but I do know that).

I cadged a metal file from the SA's workshop, and made painfully slow progress filing the joints down to enlarge the holes.  After a while the SA saw the extent of the problem and found me a rougher file out of the stash of railway modelling equipment, which speeded things up a bit, but out of the dozen corners I had to assemble (three brood boxes) I reckon only one went together without substantial preparatory work.  So it was conceptually simple, but horribly time consuming, and if you didn't have a rough file to hand you've have been stuffed until you'd gone out and bought one.

I was working at the kitchen table, not having anywhere else, and it seemed like a nice reversal of the traditional domestic roles at lunchtime that I was the one apologising that the kitchen was full of bits of wood and glue and nails, while the SA graciously said that it didn't matter.  The kitchen table is not the ideal working surface, being a bit too bouncy for hammering things together, and I could see why in proper engineering workshops the benches are massively heavy and made out of metal.  Still, I didn't have one of those.

By mid afternoon I'd progressed to the three roofs.  The wooden interiors went together quite easily, being far smaller than the deep boxes, with fewer slots and bits-that-go-into-slots to worry about, but I could not for the life of me see how I was supposed to attach the wooden part to the aluminium roof.  The metal cover is to make the roof weatherproof, and if you were building a hive from scratch and were very cost conscious I don't see why you shouldn't use roofing felt, but if you buy the flat packs then metal comes as standard.  Without any holes drilled in it to put nails through to attach it to the wooden superstructure.  I puzzled about this, and tried knocking holes in it using a nail, but the main thing that happened was that the nail bent.  I went and begged an awl from the SA, who gave it to me with some misgivings, warning me that it was fairly lethal, and I managed to knock two holes through the first metal roof before bending the tip of the awl.  So I had to confess that I'd knackered it (though the SA will be able to sharpen it back to a point) and ask very nicely if the SA could possibly drill some holes through all three pieces of metal in the morning.  I don't understand why they don't come already drilled, when you get everything else down to the drawing pins used to fix the little bits of mesh over the ventilation slots, and maybe I am missing a trick and they are not supposed to be nailed on, but I really can't see how else to keep them in place.  There were no instructions with the roofs.  I did look.

Friday, 24 April 2015

slim pickings in the asparagus bed

I have started cutting the asparagus, a mere handful of spears each time.  I suddenly noticed a few days ago that there were a few stems ready to harvest.  Since then I've read that St George's day was the traditional start of the asparagus season, but I didn't know that when I cut them.

Apparently the UK is set for a bumper harvest, because last year's good summer and this year's mild spring are what asparagus likes.  I don't think that will apply to our crop.  I haven't looked after it very well, indeed, when I started clearing the vegetable patch over the winter I had grave doubts whether it was still alive.  There didn't seem to be many old fronds from last year, and asparagus is one of those plants that disappears completely below ground in winter with no dormant buds at ground level to reassure you that there's still life down there.

The current bed is my second attempt, which put us back for starters when you're supposed to give plants time to become established and build up their strength before cutting any spears at all.  I planted the first one in the ground without doing much to it first, having read that asparagus liked good drainage and thinking we had that.  A few sad stems pushed their way up through what seemed almost a solid carpet of stones, and were eaten by a pest which may have been the asparagus beetle.  I decided it was time to start again in a different bed, this time boosted by the addition of lots of compost, and bought some pot grown plants that were going cheap at work after the manager had potted up some packaged roots that were left languishing unsold in their bags.

Unfortunately due to a communications failure with the Systems Administrator when the SA was going through a vegetable growing stage they were dug up and thrown on the compost heap.  I rescued as many pots as I could find and replanted them.  They were supposed to be an all male variety, but as some carried berries and bird sown asparagus started popping up in the gravel they clearly weren't.  There hadn't been enough pots to fill the whole bed, and two or three years ago I sent off to one of the seed companies for some bare rooted plants of an allegedly superior variety. There followed a horrendously dry summer, and while I tried to water them they were a long way from the house and there were a lot of other possibly dying plants that needed watering as well.

I did manage to get the bed weeded and Strulched, and for a while it looked under control, but last year I don't think it was weeded at all, and by then the covering of Strulch had broken down, so it was a sadly overgrown and weedy asparagus patch that greeted me this winter when I decided to try and have another go.  Some of the most recently planted posh plants had become exposed, so that the central part of the clump was above the level of the soil, held in place by its surrounding circle of roots.  They looked completely dessicated and very unpromising.

I gave it a preliminary weed which got the big stuff out, though I need to go round again and scrape out more oxalis, and delve away at the running roots of a grass that's set up camp in the middle. And there are a couple of bramble roots I haven't got out completely, and some strawberry plants that rooted from runners making a break from the strawberry bed, and that can stay there just for the minute in case I need them.  But the asparagus is no longer competing with any large weeds, and I have watered it once or twice.  I intend to spread a layer of mushroom compost over the bed, just as soon as I can get round to it, which the exposed roots will probably appreciate.  They are throwing up a few incredibly thin and weedy  shoots from underground, so are not dead yet. Indeed, I've a feeling I've read about asparagus fields surviving ploughing, so the essential life of the plant must be located quite far down.

I've only taken my small crop from the older plants, which have been sending up some good fat spears as well as the weedy sprue, and I reckon are strong enough to take it, though I don't think I'll be picking until June.  There was nowhere near enough for it to be worth serving with hollandaise sauce, but it made a good flavouring for a couple of cheese flans.  Home grown asparagus and our own eggs, but that's as close to the Good Life as it's going to get, since we are definitely not keeping a cow.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

more threats to the honey bee

Tonight was the monthly beekeepers' meeting.  We had a lecture about the small hive beetle, which was interesting but has increased by one the list of things to worry about.  It is a pest of honey bees, which is not in the UK, yet, but has spread across America and Australia and is heading in our direction.

It came originally from sub-Saharan Africa, where it is only a minor pest, because their bees are extremely good at clearing intruders out of their hives, and are generally much more fierce than the European honey bee.  Left to its own devices it would probably have stayed there, as it can only fly about seven miles at the most, and sub-Saharan Africa is bounded on two sides by ocean and on the third by the Sahara.  Thanks to human beings moving so much stuff about the planet, not just bees but food, plants, and plant based products, the small hive beetle has made a break for it, and is established on every continent (except Antarctica).  In Europe it is still confined to southern Italy, after a Portuguese outbreak arising directly from the importation of honey bees was spotted quickly and wiped out, but you have a nasty feeling it's only a matter of time.

The beetle is quite a lot smaller than a bee, maybe a bit bigger than a bee's head.  It lives and lays its eggs in bee colonies.  The grubs are truly revolting, wriggly maggots that eat everything. Honey, pollen, bee larvae.  They move throughout the hive, chewing their way through the wax, and defecate as they go.  You wouldn't fancy honey that contained beetle larvae frass anyway, but in case you did, their excrement contains a yeast that causes the honey to ferment and break out of its cells.  The bees mop up the honey and store it again, which merely spreads the yeast further through the hive.

The larvae have to leave the hive and burrow into the ground to pupate, so there might be some prospect of controlling them during that phase of their lifecycle using parasitic nematodes.  The adult beetles tend to congregate together in corners out of the way of the bees, who will harass them, so there is some scope for trapping using corrugated card that you then remove and destroy with the beetles inside, or with liquid traps containing cider vinegar, to which they are extremely partial until the point where they drown.  It sounds like putting out half grapefruit skins and beer traps for the slugs, and is probably about as effective.  There is no chemical treatment available. Mind you, the varroa experience has shown that finding an insecticide that will target the insect pest without also harming the bees is extremely difficult, and if there were just one then the target would soon develop resistance.  And there's the problem of not leaving residues in the honey. Honey containing larval droppings sounds bad enough, but at least they're organic.  Pesticide residues, anybody?

The Systems Administrator asked when I got home if I had had a nice time, and I said that it had been very interesting and I'd spoken to people and eaten a chocolate biscuit, which was nice, only it was all rather depressing.  This worried the SA, until we'd established that it was the prospect of disgusting wriggly larvae that was depressing, not that anybody had died, at which the SA looked simultaneously amused and relieved.  I slightly wish I hadn't seen that video clip of the larvae wriggling, though, as I don't want it coming back into my mind if I wake up at three in the morning.  It really was singularly unpleasant.  The commercial beekeeper there said that what we should really be worrying about was not the small hive beetle, but the Asian hornet, which is already as close to the UK as France and will eat fifty adult bees an hour and forms vast colonies containing thirty or forty thousand destroying insects.  So that's two extra things to worry about.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

the folk awards

We've just been listening to the Radio 2 Folk Awards.  I couldn't guess who was going to win in any of the categories, or rather when I did guess, I guessed wrong.  The Furrow Collective, who (which?) I saw at the Colchester Arts Centre a few weeks back were up for two awards, but didn't get either.  I thought they'd be pipped to the post for Best Group by The Gloaming, which (who?) by all accounts are fabulously glamorous and includes Martin Hayes, that most fey and faerie of Irish fiddlers.  Who would ever have thought it would go to three young a capella male singers from Stockton?  Not the members of The Young'Uns, to judge from their amiable acceptance speech. Nobody at the Folk Awards ever admits they expected to win, but The Young'Uns did sound genuinely surprised.

I was pleased that Loudon Wainwright III was given a lifetime achievement award, and was waiting for him to thank his producer and Jesus Christ in his acceptance speech, only he didn't, although he thanked lots of other people.  The Systems Administrator and I were early adopters of Loudon Wainwright, and have his first album on cassette.  It still reminds me of lying at anchor on the river Deben, after we played it a lot one summer sailing holiday.  As a proud father he is probably chuffed to bits when the newspaper column inches are filled with praise of Rufus and Martha (I wish I had heard her version of Seven Deadly Sins.  I imagine it would be quite something) but he is probably pleased when the media remembers that his own musical career isn't over yet.

I was surprised that Cara Dillon didn't get anything.  The Radio 2 folk programme has been all over her new album since it came out, and she is so elfin and beautiful.  I thought there should be a Most Elfin award, and it could be given to Cara Dillon, Julie Fowlis and Martin Hayes in turn.  The SA nominated the creation of a Best Bellowhead award, to be awarded annually to Bellowhead.

I am rather sorry that I didn't go to see Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, who I am pretty sure were on recently at the Arts Centre.  But I had a cold, the seats in the Arts Centre are so uncomfortable that it has to be something really compellingly good to persuade the SA to sit on them for an entire evening, and I was already booked to go to another gig there with the friend who is quite into folk music (though not nerdily steeped in it since infancy) and didn't want to overload her.

Looking at the full list of nominees, I have seen quite a few of them live, rarely in a venue seating more than three hundred, and seldom paying more than twenty pounds for a ticket.  Tim Dowling made a joke in his speech about how the four groups nominated in the category where he was presenting the prize were all dedicated to the tradition while pushing the boundaries (or words to that effect) while all other folk musicians were just in it for the money.  He got a laugh, but it was a bit near the bone.  How many other musicians up for national awards have to man their own merchandise stand during the interval?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

a question of priorities

After saying that I must concentrate on spreading Strulch, today I did not touch so much as a single bucket of it.  First of all I watered the ditch bed, and then I helped the Systems Administrator move the piles of cut brambles down from the meadow to the bonfire heap, now that we have a working lawn tractor, and then I inspected the bees, and then I finished watering the ditch bed and watered all the pots.  And by the time I'd had a tiny fit of domesticity and emptied the dishwasher it was gone seven and time to sit down.

The ditch bed and the retro kidney shaped bed round the three river birches are looking very pretty. A fresh crop of weeds is coming through, when you look closely, and some of the flower stems have been eaten off by rabbits or muntjac, but there are primroses, violets, pulmonaria and anemonella, and great clumps of Erythronium 'Pagoda', which seems the easiest of the trout lilies.  The primroses are mostly the wild yellow sort, but there are some pink ones, a few of the little purple 'Wanda', some odd dark red, and a soft pink and white double which are both lasting remarkably well.  Double primroses are not always long lived plants, and I tend not to get round to splitting them and replanting in fresh enriched soil as I would if I were more of a primrose specialist.  There are little violets in a good shade of pinky mauve, and bigger ones in blue.  The pink violets and the primroses have seeded themselves into the shaded part of the lawn where it is turning to moss.  The hellebore flowers are ageing gracefully, as hellebores do, and the spotted leaves of Arum italicum 'Pictum' are making fine fat clumps, since for once nothing has dug up and eaten the tubers.  So the ditch and birch beds are looking very nice, and I enjoyed standing looking as I gently played the hose over them.

There were a lot of brambles.  If I'd been properly on top of them over the past couple of years there wouldn't have been so many, so if I can have a go at the roots with the pickaxe over the remainder of the year then it shouldn't be so bad next year.  Rubus cockburnianus simply needs to go.  It is much, much too rampant.  I can imagine situations in which it could be useful, if you had a spare acre to cover, or if it were safely confined on an island, or maybe in the middle of an area of grass that was mowed weekly so that its questing adventitious shoots were regularly cut down, but it is a menace in a normal garden setting, even in a large garden.  We did not manage to get all the brambles and hedge prunings back in today's session, because after a couple of hours the old lawn tractor began to get rather hot and bothered.  It was quite enough anyway, since by then the Systems Administrator's back had gone.

Four of the bee colonies were bursting out of their boxes and were beginning to think about swarming.  I should really have looked at them last week, only I was committed to going to London on the one really hot day, and the following day when it was warmish my chest was so bunged up I couldn't cope with the idea of opening the bees, and then the chilly easterly started blowing again. Admittedly I could have put supers on, but I expect they'd have started to think about swarming anyway.  They are good natured bees, every hive, but swarmy.  The fifth colony was not doing so well, for reasons that remain mysterious, but the small colony in the nuc, that never built up or did anything useful all last summer, was crammed with bees and had brood on every one of its five frames but without any signs of wanting to swarm.  The sixth colony was almost beeless.  It was originally the other half of the mysteriously weak fifth colony, created by splitting a strong colony last spring, and I had never been able to find any obvious symptoms of disease or reason for its lacklustre performance since.

I gave the full size box from the failed colony to the nuc.  This was at one level a risky strategy, given that I didn't know why the failed colony didn't thrive, and it might have been something infectious.  But the nuc was failing for most of last year, before rallying to the point where it needed a bigger box, and I don't have an endless supply of beehives to give every colony a brand new, guaranteed infection free one every time.  Putting a slightly suspect small colony into a slightly suspect box and reserving my new boxes for swarm control in the booming colonies seemed the best solution.

Besides which, I haven't made up the new boxes yet, I've been so busy with other things.  And now it's urgent.  It remains to be seen how much of the Strulch will ever find it's way on to the borders before winter.

Monday, 20 April 2015

bulk delivery

The Strulch arrived.  The driver had the sense to reverse in, but ignored the request to go round the outside of the turning circle and scraped his way up the eleagnus hedge, though he made it further towards the house than the last one.  I could hear faint fries of protest from the cab because he could not get out, before he emerged through the nearside door.  I found him a piece of board so that he could run his mechanised pallet trolley off the back of the tail lift, and that was as far as it was going on the gravel.

I read an article the other day about the advice from some doctor who was urging the population to take much more exercise for the good of its health.  A stroll around the golf course or gardening were not enough, he said.  We needed aerobic and load bearing exercise.  I don't think his idea of gardening can have been the same as mine, because after the lorry had gone I shifted the entire pallet load off the drive, a bag at a time.  Each bag weights 13.5 kilogrammes, so that's six hundred and seventy five kilos.  Plus the pallet.  Plus dragging a substantial piece of exterior grade plywood over from the workshop and putting it away afterwards.  Shifting approximately eleven times your own bodyweight in materials before teatime counts as load bearing and aerobic in my book.

The Strulch is now cached in fairly neat piles near to where I need to use it, some in the back garden, some next to the remaining bag of gravel in the turning circle, and some by the entrance bed.  I wasn't sure exactly how much I'd need where, so stacked some on the concrete by the pot shed where it would be out of the way and could be brought out as and when needed.  Applying it seems terribly urgent.  The foliage in the borders is expanding by the day, and it is getting difficult to apply mulch.  I resumed Strulching in the bog bed, on the grounds that the thalictrum leaves were growing faster and fluffier than anything else, but really it's a case of everything needing doing at once.  I feel the rest of the week is going to be devoted to mulch.  Apart from the fact that some cosmos need pricking out, and the recently planted heathers and box plants need watering.

Meanwhile, we have a new postbox.  One day last week, as I drove past the spot where the previous one used to be, I passed a builder's van and a pair of workman in high visibility vests carrying a bright and shiny red box.  I considered stopping and asking them what had happened to the old one, and if it had been stolen or needed upgrading to fit modern security standards or something.  But then I thought that their job was simply to install the new box and they could not be expected to know the whys and wherefores of what happened to its predecessor.

The new box was not immediately open for business, having a bag taped over its head, and I wondered hopefully whether there was going to be a grand opening, with Councillor Heaney and Bernard Jenkin making speeches about the importance of rural postboxes before ceremonially cutting a ribbon, but the Systems Administrator said it was probably to do with keys.  It was still bagged up this morning when the SA went to the supermarket, but by this evening when I got back from the beekeepers committee meeting the bag had gone.  I am glad we have a new box.  I did sometimes walk to the old one, and it's a four mile round trip to the next nearest, plus stopping in the lane to post a letter when you're passing is easier than parking is in the neighbouring villages. The school and even the church in our village were converted to residential use long ago, so the postbox was the only amenity we had left.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

mend your own lawn tractor

The Systems Administrator has got the old lawn tractor running again.  We had problems last summer with it stuttering and struggling to go uphill, apparently due to fuel starvation, and at some point in the autumn it stopped running at all and spent the winter sitting outside the greenhouse on deflated tyres.  I wondered whether it would ever work again or if I was going to have a dead lawnmower next to the dahlia bed for several years until we worked out how to get rid of it, while the SA promised periodically to look at it once it got a little warmer for working outside.

The tractor's cutting deck gave up the ghost several years ago, and its battery would no longer hold a charge so that it had to be jump started each time using a portable jump starter, but it was useful for towing the trailer around the garden to collect prunings, and I've missed it while it's been out of action.  Fixing it entailed removing a lot of gunk from the carburettor, unjamming a little ball thing that is supposed to regulate the flow of fuel and had got stuck, fabricating a new gasket because the previous one had perished and the machine is so old that the SA couldn't find any gaskets to fit, changing the spark plug courtesy of Halfords, re-inflating the tyres which go down overnight, and buying a new jump starter because the old one was knackered.  The new one came with a small compressor built in, which will be handy as the SA can fix the tyres with the tractor out in the garden instead of having to limp back to the workshop on flats.

I was impressed by the DIY gasket.  It was made out of multiple layers of adhesive paper, cut to shape with a laser cutter and stuck together.  It may not last very long, but as the SA said there was no point in buying the materials to try and make a better one before the tractor was up and running, in case there turned out to be some other fault as well as the fuel system, one that the SA couldn't cure.  All that remains is to try and find a copy of the workshop manual online, so that the SA can mug up on what the fuel flow ought to be.  Still, the machine ran, making it to the meadow and towing back a trailer full of bramble stems and twigs that's been sitting by the pond for weeks. I had just about managed to drag the trailer by hand a few times, with the SA pushing at the back on the return journey, but it is much, much easier with a machine.  And beats multiple trips on foot carrying armfuls of bramble stems.  So next week we should be able to make a clean sweep of the remaining debris in the meadow.

Meanwhile I have almost got to the end of the neolithic barrow compost heap.  The vegetable beds really didn't need any more compost, so I spread some of it around the base of the hornbeam hedge. It is not a happy hedge, not as bushy as it should be, and twigs keep dying back, and as it is on horrible thin starving sand I thought that some nice organic material around its roots plus a dose of fish, blood and bone might cheer it up.  Plus it is close to the compost heap, and I didn't fancy barrowing the compost to the other end of the garden.  And I couldn't think what else to do with the compost.  It's full of weed seeds so I don't want to put it on the borders.  Around the base of the hedge I can give it a stir with the hoe.

The episode of the neolithic compost barrow illustrates one of the things I have learned about gardening since living here, which is that compost is really important.  Unless you have the tiniest of tiny gardens and absolutely don't have space for a compost bin, then learn to make your own and work out how you are going to get rid of anything pernicious or weedy that can't be safely composted at home.  Homemade compost is gold dust, but it is better when it is weed free.  The temporary demise of the tractor illustrates another of the things I have learned, which is to get kit appropriate for the size of your garden, be it a pocket handkerchief or rolling acres.  I wasted much time in the early years messing around with wheelbarrows, buckets and a small tipping trailer, before we grasped that for this amount of space we needed a proper four wheeled trailer towed behind a tractor.  I have felt the lack of it for the past few months, and am thrilled that the SA has managed to fix it.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

supporting young artists

The music society is putting on a concert for young performers later this afternoon.  They are quite high level young musicians: two are bound for national music colleges this autumn.  One plays the marimba, and I've seen him on YouTube and he is pretty good.  Duty demands that I support the concert, but in truth I'm not overly keen on young musicians.  I know that people's careers have to start somewhere, and so I try to be nice about them, just as I try not to show my annoyance at the learner drivers who wobble all over Colchester's (admittedly confusing) roundabouts and totter through forty zones at twenty-eight miles an hour while indicating so far in advance of their turning that I can't work out what they're doing.  But I secretly wish musicians could spring forth fully formed, or at least that I could wait to see them until they are ready to grace LSO St Luke's.

We are not at all sure how many people will come to the concert.  There are apparently other concerts on today, and it may be that the bulk of the music loving public who are not themselves the proud parents of the performers share my reservations about young artists.  This uncertainty over numbers complicates the catering.  The chairman asked us to bring simple nibbles, definitely not canapes.  I'm not at all sure what constitutes a simple nibble.  When we have friends round it means Waitrose pretzels and retro cheese footballs, or maybe olives if we're feeling lavish.  The chairman announced her intention to bring some mini pork pies and cherry tomatoes that could be held in reserve unopened, ready to be deployed if needed and redeployed at another arts event on Monday if not.

She also bagsied the cucumber sandwich option, and somebody else volunteered her usual cheese and olive scones, adding firmly that they were already made and in the freezer.  I'd quite fancied cucumber sandwiches, not least because you can buy a cucumber for a quid and having to throw away uneaten cucumber sandwiches would be less painful than chucking out half a tray of uneaten ham.  The chairman suggested things that could be frozen if not eaten on the day, but I couldn't think of anything, given that the scone option had already gone.

So I made a batch of my usual Good Housekeeping cheese straws, which I consider superior to the boxes of ready made Fudge's ones.  Since learning how to make them it has appalled me how much supermarkets charge for premium cheese straws.  That seemed a bit stingy on its own, so I made some mini egg sandwiches as well.  It seemed like a good idea before I began, after all, we have lots of eggs.  My confidence took a slight dip when I discovered that nowadays sliced bread doesn't seem to come thinly sliced, you can have thick or medium.  It took another dip when I discovered that the Hovis I'd bought in a fit of generosity instead of going for the cheapest own brand loaf felt on the dry side although I bought it specially this morning.

I took the crusts off, keeping them for the chickens who are partial to a bit of brown bread, and tried to work out how many pieces to cut each sandwich into, and ended up using an awful lot of knives as I didn't want to dip one that had been in the egg and mayo mix in the butter.  I opted for six mini sandwiches from each pair of slices, but I don't like the way that small pieces of egg were beginning to bulge out of the edges.  I put them in the fridge until I was ready to go out, having a healthy fear of food poisoning when it comes to pre-prepared salads and sandwiches, and in the hope it would stiffen the mayonnaise (Heinz finest, and I bought a new jar for the occasion), but goodness knows what they'll be like after half an hour in the car and spending the first half of the concert on a table in the back of the church.  I can see trouble ahead with the vestry carpet, and honestly I wish I'd gone for smoked salmon fragments.  I shall know next time, if there is a next time.  One of the committee members has been rallying support for another jazz concert.  I kept quiet in the committee meeting about my almost pathological hatred of most jazz, not wishing to seem hostile and negative.  If it happens I shall feel obliged to go to that as well, but I don't know if a jazz concert requires simple nibbles, or merely crisps and copious amounts of alcohol.

Friday, 17 April 2015

visiting wildlife

The night camera footage of the bottom of the garden was inconclusive.  There were a lot of shots of Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat.  He was here this morning, too, sleeping in the rose bed.  I wonder what and when he eats.  I never catch him coming in through the cat door to help himself to our cats' food, so does he go home for meals and then come back to spend the rest of the time in our garden?  Or does he hunt?  Or is he in fact a demonic being in the shape of a spectacularly ragged eared and sinister cat that doesn't eat?

More surprising were pictures of Our Ginger at half past four in the morning.  After spending the evening in our laps or sprawled on the hearthrug he evidently has another life later on, when he goes out into the garden and patrols as the great orange hunter.

Two muntjac were an unwelcome surprise, as was the fox the Systems Administrator caught on camera last week.  The muntjac appeared in front of a shrubby honeysuckle, eyes glaring, but there was no clue as to how they got in or where they went.  And there was that wretched rabbit.

By day there were pigeons, blackbirds, a pheasant, a jay, several empty shots where it wasn't clear what had triggered the camera. and the rabbit.  Just the one rabbit again, moving across the grass in short hops and nibbling as it went.  If it would strictly limit itself to grass that would be fine, it could be my friend, but it doesn't.

I found another clue to the visiting wildlife in the form of an owl pellet under the Metasequoia.  I thought for a moment it was a large dried cat turd, the slightly furry texture being not unlike the droppings of a cat that's been swallowing too much of its own fur, before spotting the mess of little bones embedded in it.  They were very thoroughly dislocated and disassembled, in no way resembling a mouse skeleton, though the whole thing did have a vaguely mouse-like air, as if a mouse had been put through a miniature car crusher.

I put it carefully on the edge of the System's Administrator's sitting out deck so that I wouldn't lose it, but when I remembered that evening that I'd left it there, the SA did not show any desire to see it, enquiring rather whether it would not be unhygienic to bring it inside.  I could not see what was unhygienic about it, beyond the fact that it had been sicked up by an owl, and used to be a mouse, but I am afraid that the SA does not share my enthusiasm for natural history.  I tried to think who else among my friends and acquaintances would appreciate an owl pellet, but no names immediately sprang to mind.  I did notice that while in 2013 the Barn Owl Trust was offering mouse pellet dissection kits in their Christmas catalogue, complete with pellet, they had dropped them the following year.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

a rabbit but no Strulch

We are definitely not winning.  I went out into the front garden at half past seven this morning to open the anti-rabbit gate and saw one hopping in a leisurely fashion from the eleagnus hedge into the bed by the entrance.  A large, fat, adult.  Only the one, and no babies, thank goodness, so no evidence that they are breeding in the garden, but they seem to be living in it, or at least one is.  I went and fetched Our Ginger and carried him down to the gate, while he purred, pleased with the attention, followed at a distance by the short indignant tabby, shouting loudly and presumably displeased at my sudden disappearance before she'd decided if she wanted any more breakfast.  I set Our Ginger down on the gravel pointing at the bed where the rabbit had gone, and he stared at it politely but in apparent bafflement, and five minutes later was back outside the cat door.

The Strulch did not come.  I bit the bullet at the weekend and ordered another pallet.  I am so almost on top of the weeding in the formal garden for once, I'd like to keep it that way.  Rusted iron plant supports or a sculpture for the garden would have been nice, but mulch is more important.  The leaves of everything are expanding by the day, so I would have liked the Strulch for the weekend, if not tomorrow morning.  Besides which, I'd been hanging around within sight of the gate and keeping a regular check on the phone since yesterday morning.  I rang after lunch to enquire, and discovered that there had been a problem with the bags which had thrown everything out of synch.  The owner sounded harassed.  It is a wonderful product, but a bit of a one woman show when it comes to ordering and delivery.

She had rescheduled it for tomorrow, when I had said on the order form that it must NOT come on Friday.  I have to go out, and it seems unfair to end up leaving the Systems Administrator to offload another fifty bags, plus I absolutely do not want to find the lane out blocked by a delivery lorry at the point when I have to leave.  We agreed she would reschedule it again for Monday, and she thanked me for being so understanding, and I thought that I must have managed to sound more understanding than I felt.

Once I didn't have to keep an eye out for the Strulch lorry I was free to roam, so I disappeared to the bottom of the back garden, where the bog bed needed watering.  It is incongruous to have to water a bog, and I was afraid that might happen when I planted the area up.  Two years ago after the very wet winter the bed was mud soup to a depth of nine inches.  It isn't now.  Nothing I planted positively demands to be in liquid mud, but the primula and ferns certainly don't want it dry.  It was nice anyway to have a reason to work down there, since the fritllaries are out in the lawn and the great white cherry is in full blast.  I collected up dead bamboo leaves, noting a small piece of wandering root that needs digging out before it can spread further outside the circle of galvanised lawn edging that is supposed to delineate the limits of the bamboo, and pulled up hairy bittercress and nettle seedlings in preparation for the Strulch.

I repotted the orchids as well, now I'm fully kitted up with chopped coco husk chips and perlite. The anxiety of disturbing their roots was intense and I shall worry about them for a fortnight until I see they are none the worse for my messing around with them.  The leaves on one of the two Erythrina crista-galli seedlings suddenly began to shrivel in the greenhouse a couple of days ago. You just never know with plants.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

win some, lose some

I don't think we are winning in the war against the rabbits.  The new gate proved not to be making any difference, as the Systems Administrator discovered on going out at dusk recently and seeing rabbits in the drive.  They scooted towards the gate and dived off to one side, disappearing into the undergrowth.  It took me the best part of a morning chopping back the brambles by the gate to establish that there was a ten foot run where there was no wire, and make good the deficiency. There used to be some ornamental hurdles, many years ago, but they'd rotted away.  Luckily we had half a roll of quite tall wire netting left over from something else, and even more amazingly I knew where it was.

This morning, emerging from the greenhouse and heading back to the house, I saw a large rabbit scampering about inside the gate, in broad daylight.  It ran out into the neighbour's field when it saw me, but things are getting pretty desperate when they come into the garden in the middle of the morning.  The gate has to stay open during the day, since we can't expect the postman or any other delivery drivers to get out of their vehicles to open it, let alone shut it behind them on the way out.  A new generation of cats seems the only solution, sweet little kittens that Our Ginger and the short indignant tabby will have time to get used to before they grow up to be huge ravening beasts.  That's assuming they do turn into ferocious hunters.  After all, the short indignant tabby didn't.  She doesn't even really approve of grass, much preferring man-made surfaces like concrete, or better still staying indoors.

The Amateur Gardening readers' offer lavenders arrived with today's post.  I wasn't expecting them until the end of the month, but never mind, I was here when the postman called, and they were all potted up into two seed trays by lunchtime.  They were tiny little plugs, but that's what you get for £5.95 for forty-eight plants, and they were very bushy, with multiple shoots from ground level though still less than an inch tall.  I wondered how they were made. The lowest leaves were a different shape to the others, rounder and with wavy edges, so definitely not minuscule cuttings. They might have been seed raised, though named varieties strictly shouldn't be, and then I thought perhaps they were micro-propagated.  They came in four strips of a dozen plants, each strip consisting of a row of blunt-bottomed V shaped pots, divided down the middle so that you could bend the two halves apart to release the small rootball, and held in a moulded flat plastic box inside a shiny cardboard sleeve for postage.  It worked, the little plants arrived in perfect condition, but it was industrial plant production.  How very different to the Plant Heritage propagation mornings and plant stall.

The flower on the Plant Heritage Clivia in the conservatory is opening.  It consists of a cluster of individual trumpet shaped blooms at the top of a fat stalk, the general arrangement not unlike an agapanthus.  The petals appear lustrous and slightly fleshy, in a luminous shade of orange.  I think it is marvellous, very glamorous.  I've fancied trying one for years, but not seen a plant for sale before.  Of course now I've got the ordinary orange sort I covet the rarer yellow form, but conservatory plants in general are not the easiest things to track down.  I suppose it is such a small market.  Most conservatories are used as garden rooms, with soft furnishings, and plants don't get much of a look in.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

portraits of artists and friends

I went today to see the Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  He was a prolific chap, Sargent.  This was the third exhibition devoted to his work I've been to in my gallery visiting lifetime, the previous two being the National Gallery's blockbuster including(so far as I can remember) the notorious portrait of Madame Gautreau with her haughty nose and chalk white skin above her plunging neckline, and the second being Sargent and the Sea, a sideways look at his output by the Royal Academy.  Look, he didn't just paint Society portraits, he did seascapes too.  As I recall they were good but didn't quite pack the punch of Madame Gautreau.

The current show, which runs until 25th May, concentrates on Sargent's pictures of his friends, family, and other creative people of the day.  You don't get as many sumptuous dresses as with the society portraits, but the personalities are livelier.  And you get Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, though I think that's normally on view in the Tate anyway.  It is pretty, though it always makes me think of the Ruggles family and their unfortunate decision to call their eldest daughter Lily Rose, who grows up a stout child with red hair who is neither lily nor rose like.

I like portraiture as an art form, and I particularly like it when I already know a little about some of the subjects. Gabriel Faure as painted by Sargent is a dreamy man with gentle eyes and a huge, soft moustache.  I can easily believe he wrote Faure's Requiem.  Edmund Gosse is highly strung and slightly tormented with a blue vein pulsing in his temple.  My companion had not read Father and Son and was not so struck by Gosse as I was.  We agreed that the Spanish dancer looked a complete pain, and Asher Wertheimer as if he would be thoroughly good company, while Robert Louis Stevenson looked as nervy and intense as you would expect of the inventor of Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island.  Sargent was a very, very successful portrait painter in his day and you can see why.

I don't actually think he was a particularly good draughtsman.  Some of his people don't make me believe for a minute that there is a real skeleton covered in actual human musculature underneath their clothes.  The Spanish dancer's feet don't seem to me to be quite in right place given where her head is, and her hand doesn't really look as though it was on her hip, if I thought she had any hips under her orange flounces, which I didn't.  But it doesn't matter.  He was brilliant at faces, and more than that he was brilliant at personalities and attitude.  The anatomy of Cezanne's card players is all over the place, after all, and those are some of the most valuable paintings on the planet.

We had lunch in Dishoom, a cafe I have vaguely heard of and which I know now I have looked at their website pays loving homage to the Irani cafes that were once part of the fabric of life in Bombay.  They serve an interesting roti, very large and very thin, so that I wondered whether it had started off as a piece of dough rolled out to paper thin dinner plate size (in which case how do they handle it?) or poured as batter.  If I ever go back I shall ask.  And I wore a new (in the mid season sale) Toast shirt in a fetching (I think) shade of burnt orange.  I felt quite trendy, but now it's back to weeding, compost, and poached eggs for lunch for the rest of the month.

Monday, 13 April 2015

warmer weather beckons

After seeing the weather forecast for the rest of the week I thought it was time to get the shading paint on to the greenhouse.  Damping down the floor will get you so far, but shade is more reliable, and it's a sad thing to go out for the day and come home to trays of shrivelled and dessicated seedlings.

Years ago I used to buy an expensive high tech paint that was supposed to go transparent when it rained, and cloudy again when the sun shone.  The idea was that the plants received maximum light on dull days without cooking on hot ones.  It was frankly not worth the price or the hassle, and nowadays I use a basic titanium dioxide based powder, a couple of sachets mixed up in an old fertiliser bucket in half a litre of water and applied with a long handled decorator's roller.

High status greenhouse management it is not.  The roller gives a thick enough covering to do the job, but the result is uneven, and you can see the greyish stains on the wood where I spilled over the glazing bars.  It is a world away from the pristine greenhouses on display at Chelsea or advertised in the glossy magazines.  There again, it is a working plant factory, and I'm not sure how well some of the glamorous but unshaded greenhouses would perform in practice.  One year I copied an idea from a gardening TV programme (I think Monty Don was the culprit, though he is normally pretty reliable) and threw the shading paint over the greenhouse roof, but besides being very wasteful of paint the end result looked as though an entire flock of seagulls had catastrophically crapped on it.

Space inside is very, very tight and I am going to have to evict anything reasonably tough that's still rooting in to the cold frames, to make space for the next round of pricking out.  I might have to sow some broad beans in pots, as there is still not a single one emerging in the veg patch.  How can broad beans not germinate?  They are huge great seeds, supposed to be tough as old boots and idiot proof.

The Systems Administrator, who has been waiting for days for the wind to go round to the east to have a bonfire, seized the moment late this afternoon and had one, and as promised the enormous heap of brambles and woody waste waiting to be burned vanished in scarcely any time at all.  I'm glad it's gone, as there is still plenty to come down from the meadow and it makes space for more. If the Met Office are right about it being a hot summer (and I'm not holding my breath) then we need to stay up to date with bonfires, before everything gets so hot and dry that it isn't safe to have another until the autumn.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

an old butler's trick

Now the weather's warming up (not to mention the wind blowing half a gale) the hoses are coming back into commission.  In the winter I water the pots by hand when they need doing.  It's not that many trips with the watering can because the plants' water needs drop right back, and it's easier to avoid overwatering things if you aren't splashing a hose everywhere.  Plus, I learned from the year I left the spray attachments in situ attached to the hoses and they must have had water in them because one cold night they split like unlagged pipes in the frost.  Nowadays I know to take them off at about the same time as I move the pelargoniums and Geranium maderense back into the greenhouse, and the white holey stone and glass danglers into the spare room for the winter.

One of the spray guns worked perfectly when I tried it, but the other didn't.  They are rather over-engineered for my purposes, having heads you can rotate to give a variety of spray patterns, when most of the time I only want the one marked 'shower', that produces a diffuse but not too wide spread sprinkle like a watering can rose.  Sod's law dictated that the rest of the spray settings worked beautifully, the overly fierce jet, the fine mist, the flat jet (who on earth does use that?) and all the other patterns that some designer dreamt up, but not the one I wanted.  When I set the head to 'shower' lumps of water fell out of every joint in the gun, dribbling on my trousers and other places where I didn't want it.

Thinking about it logically it seemed likely that it was not actually a case of sod's law, but the holes in the head I used regularly having got clogged up with use.  I'm not sure if our water technically counts as hard, since we aren't in a chalk area, but mineral deposits rapidly collect on the kettle, the taps, the draining board and everything else it comes into contact with.  It seemed extremely likely it would be capable of blocking the channels in a spray gun, and one thing I learned working in the plant centre is that as soon as the water in a lance stops flowing quickly through the holes it was designed to flow through, it starts dribbling out everywhere else.

I could have started messing around with lime scale remover, but had a hunch that vinegar would do the trick.  Vinegar was what butlers used to use to clean decanters that were marked with mineral stains.  I remembered that from our guided tours around various stately homes servants quarters, and Margaret Powell probably mentions it in Below Stairs.  I didn't even have to dunk the whole end of the gun in vinegar, after the Systems Administrator showed me that the rotating part of the spray head unscrewed.  The only trouble with cleaning with vinegar is that it makes your house smell powerfully of nothing else, and after about five minutes I put the bowl in the porch. Twenty-four hours later I remembered it, fished out the end of the spray head, gave it a good rinse and screwed it back in place.  It worked perfectly.  No dribbles, no mess.

I was rather gratified.  The Systems Administrator picked up the current spray heads in Tesco a couple of summers ago, for a ridiculously small amount of money, but they no longer seem to be doing them, or maybe it is too early, while B&Q were charging between twelve and twenty quid. To have actually succeeded in mending a mechanical device, and saved myself a meaningful amount of money in the process, is a rare and sweet pleasure.

Addendum  The box of orchids ended up spending the night shut in the downstairs loo before being safely removed to the conservatory, as I had a sudden horrid vision of Our Ginger deciding to sleep in the box.  They are mysterious little things.  I truly have no idea whether the long green growths coming up from one of them are roots or shoots.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

conservatory gardening

I have been researching the needs of my new orchids.  Three of them prefer to be pot bound, so beyond transferring them very carefully from their plastic into tiny terracotta pots for purely presentational reasons, I don't need to do anything to them other than give them a little bit of orchid food occasionally.  The fourth, a winter hardy species I could plant in the border if I wanted to, and which I fell for partly after hearing the grower describe how rapidly it would bulk up, is a more demanding character.  It needs to go into a bigger pot to give it room to spread, but ordinary multipurpose compost will not do, instead it needs a mixture of finely crushed bark and perlite.  I do not have any of either among my stocks of gardening supplies, and the extra potting medium is going to cost me as much as the original plant, but it will be very nice if it does really double in size this year.  Apparently masses of water during the growing season should do the trick, and a dose of tomato fertiliser every fortnight.

It is called Calanthe brevicornu, a name I still keep forgetting because it is so completely unfamiliar.  My other new acquisitions are epiphytes, living in the wild in the tree canopy with no proper soil as such, so their roots need to be tucked into a minimum quantity of very free draining compost and kept bone dry in the winter, but the Calanthe is a woodlander from north India.  The nurseryman was entirely confident that it would be hardy outside in our climate, and I had brief rococo images of establishing a drift of it in the very end of the wood.  The vendors did not think that slugs ate it, or rabbits, and the plants came in a lovely range of amber and mauve shades, so that I had real difficulty only choosing one.  But in the real world I had better see if I can keep my one plant alive before attempting any drifts.  It is only flowering now because it has been under glass for the winter.  If grown outside the new growth would barely be showing above ground by this stage of the year.

I haven't yet taken any of them down to the conservatory.  All four are still sitting in a small box on the dining room table while I contemplate them and consider their precise requirements.  They should be fine there for now, and they are getting at least as much light as they would be if they were still in the RHS halls at Vincent Square.

I have been scrubbing the deck outside the conservatory.  It's the first time I've done it since the Systems Administrator laid it, and apparently that was four years ago.  The SA can date it precisely because the cricket world cup was on at the time.  The Western Red Cedar has faded from its original rather bright orange shade to something more subtle, though not so silvery as weathered oak, and it is rewarding to see the colour come back as the layers of dirt and algae scrub away.  It is a lot of scrubbing, though.  The SA is not keen on using the pressure washer because it can too easily rip up the grain of the wood, and at least doing it by hand I don't spatter filth over the conservatory windows and neighbouring plants.  The only cleaning product I'm using is a little bit of Ecover washing up liquid in a bucket of water, plus fresh water sprayed out of the hose.

I did take a break from the deck to wash the kitchen floor.  Even I began to feel a sense of warped priorities to be putting that much effort into cleaning my garden at the same time as the floor of the room where we prepare food had a fine swirl of cat hair in every corner, plus a spattering of coffee grounds.

Friday, 10 April 2015

art and orchids

I went to London today.  My real business was with the RHS orchid show in Vincent Square, but I wanted to get maximum value from my travelling time and off-peak rail fare, and fitted in a couple of exhibitions first.  It's a slightly back to front way of planning a day out to save the main event until last, when you might be getting tired, but I thought that if I were to buy any plants I would probably not be allowed to take them into a gallery.  I might be wrong about that.  I have never tried taking a carrier bag of orchids into the Tate, and if I were going to attack the artworks a small Dendrobium would not be my weapon of choice, but I was afraid that the staff might take a dim view, and even if they didn't it would be a faff carrying the plants all round the exhibitions without squashing them.

The exhibitions on at Tate Britain at the moment were not necessarily top of my list of things I wanted to see, but Millbank is very close to Vincent Square, and I was quite sure I would be able to get in on the grounds that (a) I have a membership card which offers immediate entry to all temporary exhibitions and (b) neither exhibition has received blockbuster rave reviews and they were most unlikely to be full (so unlikely I would put it in the same category of implausibility as Gladstone slapping Queen Victoria on the back the first time he met her and offering her a cigar. It's possible, but you know it didn't happen).

Salt and Silver, early photography 1840 to 1860, is rather good in a quiet way.  It shows a small part of a very large collection amassed by Michael G Wilson, who in his day job is a film producer who has worked on the James Bond franchise, and is also an Art Fund trustee.  The photos are visually attractive, in a soft, small way, and interesting as historic documents of vanished people and places.  I am not a photographer and let the technicalities wash past me, apart from being amazed that the processes described could possibly have produced coherent images (and in my hands I'm pretty sure they wouldn't).  So that was nice.

Sculpture Victorious is simply bonkers.  The Tate has filled several rooms with stuff the Victorians made, apparently largely because they could.   Busts of Queen Victoria, nude statues of nymphs and athletes with tight buttocks, some caught in the act of wrestling snakes or slaying eagles (what did the Victorians have against eagles?), huge strange contraptions for putting salt or candles in, elephants, dead birds.  They used a vast range of materials (because they could), marble, imitation marble, ivory (poor elephants), pottery, wood, bronze, copper and zinc, plaster.  Most of it was unremittingly hideous.  I don't understand how an era that could produce Middlemarch and Jane Eyre could lose its way so utterly when it came to the visual arts, but there you go.

The orchids seemed less over the top than they would have otherwise, after viewing the Victorian sculpture.  They were still quite overwhelming.  When I visit Chelsea nowadays I have a rough idea of what quite a lot of the plants are.  By no means all of them, and not the tropical displays, but on many of the stands I have a general idea of what I'm looking at, or direct experience of trying to grow some of them.  With orchids my knowledge and experience pretty much end with the supermarket moth orchids on the kitchen window sill.  Two large halls full of strange and unfamiliar flowers in every colour you can think of (except true blue) coming from every corner of the Far East and Latin America, that's something else.  They were wonderful, and I wandered around gawping.

I made a few small (young plants) and modest (by orchid standards) purchases, after asking a couple of exhibitors if they had anything that would grow in the conditions I had to offer, frost free but no warmer in winter, west facing so only partial sunlight.  People were extraordinarily nice. One man spent ages explaining Dendrobium to me, brushing aside my concerns that he was spending a lot of time over a potential six pound purchase.  I suppose you only go into that line of work if you really like orchids.  You certainly don't do it to become rich.  And today's tentative beginner might be a keen collector in a few year's time, and might click on your website ahead of others because they remember that you were helpful to them, but I think mainly they are driven by enthusiasm.  I'll see how I get on with my embryonic collection, and let you know whether they live and flower, or merely live, or quietly die.

Addendum  Today's literary crib is from GK Chesterton, who would believe the impossible but not the improbable.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

my new TV crush

We are hooked on a BBC2 historical food programme.  Or maybe it should be described as a reenactment.  Or a reinvention of reality TV.  It is called Back in Time for Dinner.  The fact that it was on totally passed us by until half way through the series, but in these modern times we have been catching up on the iPlayer.

A family are eating their way through British food culture since the 1950s, at the scale of one day per year, while the ground floor of their house is redecorated in the style of each decade, complete with historic kitchen appliances and going to the lengths of blanking off the kitchen extension for the 1950s because the room wouldn't have been that large then.  Clothes, cars and music of the period complete the atmosphere.  Giles Coren presents, popping up periodically in between leaving the family to their own devices, Mary Berry and a hairy biker make guest appearances, and there is a food historian on hand.  The family themselves are delightful, funny and reflective by turns.

The format allows scope for plenty of date driven jokes, along the line of the bread being mouldy but they've had it since 1962, and there is some slapstick action with some of the vintage kitchen equipment.  First prize must go to their efforts to open a tin of pilchards (though at least they did get their pilchards eventually rather than beating the tin to a shape so horrible and misshapen that they threw it in the Thames).  But the real draw is the social history.

When did smoky bacon flavour crisps first enter British food culture?  And who knew that people used to go out to dinner at the first motorway service stations, which were regarded as glamorous destinations but were not given licences to serve alcohol, even though there was no drink-driving legislation at the time?  Episode one on the 1950s felt like history.  Well, it was before our time. We began to recognise bits of the 1960s, and as for the 1970s, those brown and orange storage canisters, that checked orange and brown furnishing fabric, the visits to the freezer centre.  Space hoppers.  Power cuts.  OK, it was a bit more long winded than simply nibbling a madeleine, but we were off down memory lane like bloodhounds on the trail of a packet of sausages.  I can't wait for the 1980s from the trailer, those rubic cubes and the bright red handles on all the kitchen cupboards take me straight back to the Swiss Cottage branch of Habitat.

I love food history.  Partly, I like food, but how and what people cook and eat says so much about how they live and how they relate to each other and what their values are and how their country's economy is doing.  And food history covering the second half of the twentieth century rather than the Victorian era or the Tudor kitchen allows us to calibrate our own experiences against the general trend.  I think that by the mid 1970s my mother was doing more cooking from scratch than the average, despite have a full time university lecturer's post.  The Systems Administrator was not allowed to have Angel Delight at home, poor mite.  Since starting to watch Back in time for Dinner we've been trying to date our own culinary habits, and come to the conclusion that we are quite old fashioned.  We both like corned beef hash, but possess no cookery books by Yotam Ottolenghi.

You have eleven days to catch part one, and presumably longer to watch the later episodes.  It's worth watching.  Apart from Wolf Hall, it's the only thing on TV all year that I've liked so much I've been actively looking forward to the next episode.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

chopping and pruning

My latest thorn proof pruning gloves have dyed my fingers yellow, so that they look as though I had a severe smoking habit.  I was afraid that was going to happen as I eyed up the bright ginger gauntlets that were the only pruning gloves on offer in the Clacton Garden Centre, but the seams had gone down the index fingers of my old ones, and I needed replacements at that moment.  I wish somebody would take the issue of protective gloves for gardeners seriously.  I look enviously at workwear sites on the web, where specialist gloves for various industries are numerically graded in terms of cut resistance.  The most you can find out about most gardening gloves is Amazon user feedback along the lines of 'the lining came unstitched the first time I wore them'.  Everyday green gardening gloves from supermarkets are a gamble when they sell them (in the summer months only, since nobody gardens in the winter).  Some are fine, just as good as the branded ones in the garden centres but less than half the price, but others dye your fingers green.  If having nicotine coloured fingers is bad then having green ones is worse, making you look vaguely gangrenous.

I borrowed the Systems Administrator's welding gauntlets recently, to deal with some particularly vicious brambles in the meadow.  The trouble with most industrial workwear is that it only comes in large sizes.  I take a size 7 in gloves, and wearing the SA's size 10s is like gardening dressed up as a flappy handed clown.  I suppose that the market for people doing heavyweight garden work by hand is tiny.  Field hedges are all cut with flails nowadays, and a farmer's or professional landscaper's response to an unwanted patch of brambles would be to petrol strim or bulldoze the lot.  Only a few fanatical but disorganised gardeners end up dealing with problems like a fallen but still growing oak tree that has filled with brambles to a height of about fifteen feet, and need to remove the brambles by hand while keeping the oak.

They have gone now, and I have rounded up the straggling stems of the rambling rose that is supposed to be 'Ethel' and shoved them in the direction of the oak canopy.  Whatever the rose is, it's a good clinger-on.  It took me a long time to extract it from the other shrubs it had grown through instead of climbing the oak tree, as it clung tenaciously to the neighbouring shrub roses, a holly and the remaining litter of cut bramble stems on the ground.  At times it seemed to have clasped its hands around its old companions, refusing to let go.  If it can be persuaded to get going in the oak instead it should be secure up there, not like 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' which is a slippery beast.

Late in the afternoon I pollarded the pussy willow that seeded itself in the bog bed a few years ago. I felt rather mean chopping it now, partly because a few pussies hadn't quite gone over and a few bees were foraging on it, and partly because the leaf buds were swelling and about to break.  But I can't work out when else to do it.  I want it as a pollard, a neat lollipop like you see along rivers, because otherwise it will grow far too big and cast too much shade.  It's not as though it's meant to be there at all, I already have an orange tinted alder in that bed.  And I want the pussies, because otherwise what's the point of growing it at all.  If I pollard in the winter when it's dormant I won't get the flowers, so the only time I can think of to do it is immediately after flowering, but it feels wrong to be removing all those swelling leaf buds.  I told myself that willows were tough old things that would root from cuttings even when you stuck them in upside down.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

the mystery of the vanishing rabbits

Curiouser and curiouser.  The camera footage of the bottom of the big sloping bed in the back garden showed absolutely nothing at all, except for a chicken.  Otherwise a complete blank, no bunnies.  So the back of the top of that border is a rabbit superhighway, then at the bottom of it there are no rabbits whatsoever.  In between is a very solid wire netting fence that appears to be entirely rabbit proof.  An Agatha Christie locked room murder mystery of rabbits.

So where do they come from and where are they going?  We agreed that we must pursue a logical search pattern, and follow the rabbit activity from its last known position, rather than setting the camera at random here and there all over the back garden.  The camera is now set on the fence a bit downhill of the previous night's sighting, as we try to follow them down the hill.  They must be getting to the back of the top of the bed from somewhere, and when we can find out where it is we can block it up.  Unless they are living in the garden.

There are no visible warren entrances.  I've crawled over almost every inch of all the beds in the back garden, or at least peered into the recesses of the larger shrubs, generally in pursuit of bramble roots, and I haven't seen any signs of that much digging.  There is always the nasty possibility they could have taken up residence under the rose bank.  That would be a tough one. The bank is covered with Mypex fabric, which is in turn covered in a solid tangle of rambling roses and honeysuckle to a depth of between four and about ten feet.  I have no idea how we would ever find even one entrance to a burrow under that lot, let alone several.  Time for the Systems Administrator to spend some long summer evenings on a scaffold with some camouflage netting and an air rifle, if there are rabbits living among the roses.  But with any luck it will not come to that. What we need now is information, but with only the one camera to track them it feels like a painfully slow process.

The roots of Penstemon grandiflorus surprised me as well.  I dug up the first of my non-doing plants, expecting to drop it into the rubbish bin and chalk the attempt to grow it in that spot down to experience.  Instead of finding a single woody rootstock as I was expecting for a Penstemon, I found it was made up of multiple shoots, each with its own shuttlecock shaped cluster of quite fleshy and not very branching roots.  The clump started to come apart quite naturally in my hands, rather like dividing up a primrose, and I thought it had to be worth potting up the individual clumps and see how they did.  While the article I'd read about Penstemon said they did not transplant well, these little individual shoots looked eminently pottable.

Time was getting on by then.  I only dug the plant up at that moment because I was Strulching that part of the border while keeping an eye on the chickens, and I hadn't been expecting to find anything salvageable.  I put the bits of root in a plastic bag, folded the end over and put it on top of the bucket of fish, blood and bone in the garage so that I'd be sure to find it the next day and so remember to pot it.  Then I spent the morning clearing prunings out of the meadow and the wood, and only came upon the bag with the Penstemon in it after lunch.  I was not so horrified by the delay as I would have been ten years ago, having seen how many days commercially supplied bare root plants for potting typically spend in their plastic bags before they are all potted up.

The pieces went into my new supply of 7cm square black pots, bought courtesy of Amazon after realising how useful the old ones left over from a consignment of alpines were, tucked away out of direct sun at the bottom of the greenhouse staging, and I wait to see what happens next.  The same horrible stretch of soil that did for the Penstemon virtually killed some Campanula punctata 'Silver Bells', and the miserable fragments of root and shoot I salvaged last autumn from the wreckage are starting to throw up leaves and looking as though they might come to something, so I have hopes.

Monday, 6 April 2015

loose ends

I filled the bed in the vegetable patch where the potatoes are supposed to go with compost from the remains of the great heap, and planted the potatoes.  I suppose it would have been traditional to do this on Good Friday, but I was busy doing other things that day.  A date that moves from year to year and takes no account of the weather seems a very arbitrary guide to gardening anyway. April 6th felt as good a date as any.  The great heap grows rather good potatoes from the odd old tuber that's got left in there, so it will be interesting to see if it can deliver the goods when moved to a bed in the veg patch.

I inspected the spot where I'd sown the broad beans, but there was nothing.  The sowing date on the label said 22nd March.  I checked the germination time for broad beans later on in my Doctor Hessayon guide (still the most useful vegetable book I have.  By now you have to ignore practically everything he says about disease control, because he is heavily chemical dependent and most of them have been withdrawn, but the basic stuff about spacing and timings is easy to find.  His book is not nearly so pretty or aspirational as those glossy publications about ornamental potagers and French vegetable gardens, but it is my go-to place for the germination times of broad beans).  The book said 7 to 14 days.  Hmn.  That's about now.  Maybe I should sow some more in pots in the greenhouse, risking the root aphid and coping with the complete lack of space somehow.

Some loose ends.  The Systems Administrator really liked the mincemeat pie, so I might have to persist with the impossible pastry, and go easier with the milk next time.  I wasn't convinced the grated apple added anything, and the tart would be quicker to make without it.  I did think it might work with a layer of cherry jam and some tinned cherries, or fresh if you had any.  The idea of the mixture of jam and whole cherries is not mine, I borrowed it from a slightly complicated looking Dan Lepard recipe for a cherry polenta cake I haven't tried yet.

The camera showed a procession of rabbits going up and down the line of the hedge, so our guess that it was a bunny highway was correct.  The Systems Administrator who viewed the camera footage said it was a veritable Mekong trail for rabbits, and we could bomb the garden and napalm the vegetation.  The camera is now set up on the lowest corner of that bed, to try and get some idea where they are coming from, though the first thing the SA will see tomorrow is a lot of pictures of chickens, because two of them headed straight down there when I let them out.

A really old loose end.  We got rid of the rats under the shed, but had to resort to poison when after a fortnight we had not zapped a single one in the electric rat zapper.  I fear the answer is to keep a very keen eye on the shed, and deploy warfarin at the first sign of infestation without messing about with other methods.  It would probably use less poison in the end than letting them establish themselves while trying unsuccessfully to electrocute or trap them.

I am delighted that the new Radio 3 controller, stung by the critical report on Radio 3's dumbed down wannabe Classic FM tendencies, has dropped the awful format of the current breakfast show. No more phone-ins, hurrah.  I am not a bit interested in hearing about why somebody I've never met or heard of likes Handel's Messiah.  Radio 3 lost me at noon last Thursday since the Composer of the Week was Judith Weir.  I really can't take to her music, nor the Thursday afternoon opera.  Opera on the radio so there is no dancing or costumes or set to look at, sung in a language you don't speak and when you don't already know the plot, tends to be pretty tedious.  Over the Easter break I've been listening to Classic FM's Hall of Fame.  The idea of voting for one's favourite three pieces of music is clearly preposterous, but the outcome is entertaining and on the whole the great British public has pretty good taste.  I don't think Judith Weir made it into the top three hundred, though.