Sunday, 31 May 2015

the great wall of vegetation

The rain was disappointing in the end, as it so often is.  We were promised heavy rain all morning, tailing off to light rain in the afternoon, then the forecast was scaled back to a brief burst of heavy rain followed by light rain until lunchtime, but all that materialised were occasional light showers from a grey and blustery sky and sullen gusts of wind.  I wouldn't say I was counting on that rain, because bitter experience has taught me not to trust the Met Office's forecasts for rain in the Clacton coastal strip, even if they do let you select the Beth Chatto gardens as your location and pretend it is different to the Colchester forecast.  So often the rain seems to peter out the other side of Colchester.  I could have done with it, though, for the vegetables and the bog bed.

I sauntered around the garden, in between light showers and to check that a couple of recently planted things weren't frazzling up in the absence of a solid downpour.  The small Trollius looked fine, and as I was inspecting the bog bed (which is no longer a bog) I made a mental note that I needed to move a primula I planted last year, which is being totally overshadowed by a huge ornamental rhubarb leaf and doesn't look impressed.

The back garden has almost achieved my objective, which is for the borders to be completely covered by the end of May, taking a leaf from Stephen Lacey's comment that if by June you could see bare earth in his garden then something had died.  There is some bare earth, or rather Strulch, in the island bed where several Cistus did die, and the theoretically evergreen Stipa gigantea died right back for reasons that I don't understand, though they are recovering now.  Plus there are a lot of asters in that bed, and they are tightly clump forming and don't flower until autumn so are correspondingly late in developing their full canopy of foliage in the spring.  You can see the ground between the Japanese anemones as well, though I make use of the space in the first part of the year for daffodils, which like to get some light on their leaves after flowering, and then alliums.  Likewise I use the gaps between the clumps of perennial peas for a display of oriental poppies, before the peas engulf that part of the border entirely.  The poppies have died down by then and don't seem to mind.

But overall the borders are pretty packed, foxgloves and Aquilegia springing up between the roses, many self sown, angelica looming up through the gaps, Astrantia, geraniums, Brunnera, violas, Camassia and Hemerocallis mingling and fighting it out with bulbous irises, Centaura montana, and Acanthus and Phlomis that will take more space than I want them to have, given half a chance. The roses have doubled in volume in a month, and are flopping over some of the peonies, while a herbaceous clematis that I never managed to buy a tripod for in the spring has disappeared into the maelstrom.

It isn't a garden for timorous plants that can't grab their space.  I try to arbitrate, judiciously trimming, chopping back and grubbing out at the end of each growing season, but come the May rush it's slightly a case of every plant for himself.  Sometimes I'm sorry to find that I've lost things, like a nice Alstroemeria that gradually got shaded out as rose 'Sally Holmes' grew and the territorial ambitions of the neighbouring Brunnera proved too much for it.  But the effect by this time of the year is undoubtedly romantic, lush, colourful, and slightly alarmingly out of control, which is how I like gardens to be.  It shouldn't seem too unlikely that round the next corner you could meet Pan.

And of course the great wall of planned vegetation helps keep the weeds down, which is why I have been working towards this point for years, even if by now I'm stuck for anywhere to plant new things I should like to grow.  Strulch plus lawn-to-lawn greenery means there are not nearly so many seeding weeds as there were in the early years of the garden, or even five years ago.  The odd tuft of goose grass or real grass gets through, and I hoick them out when I get round to it, but there aren't so many nowadays.  I am still waging war on the entrenched dandelions, that bounce back each time from my efforts to dig them out or poison them.  And of course there's the horsetail.

Horsetail is an eternal weed.  The Equisetopsida grew in the Paleozoic forests for a hundred million years, and Equisetum arvense is not about to give up now.  Forget digging it out, forget glyphosating it to death, forget covering your garden in black polythene for a couple of years and waiting for it to die out.  It will not die, and you will have wasted good money on glyphosate or two years of gardening time.  The best way to deal with horsetail is to learn to live with it.

The leaves don't start emerging until late spring, so you can enjoy whatever displays of spring bulbs and other small treasures you were planning without interference.  Fortunately while horsetail when present can be a ubiquitous weed, it is not strongly competitive.  Its thick, brittle black roots run straight down into the soil and other plants don't seem to mind it.  What I do is pull the leaves off as I see them, in May and June, which is a bore because you know the task will have to be repeated indefinitely and if only you didn't have horsetail you could be spending the time on something constructive, but it isn't difficult.  The leaves grow back but more weakly, and often flat against the soil instead of vertically.  This is where the jungle of smothering ground cover plants comes into play, hiding the regrowth so that a casual observer might not spot the horsetail.

A keen and eagle eyed gardener would soon see it, but our eyes are tuned to such things.  Just as the Zen motorcyclist registers the bike whose engine is out of tune or the cat lover the cat with a staring coat, the dedicated gardener will detect horsetail.  It is there, but it need not be a big problem.  The funny thing, it is not an intrinsically ugly plant.  If it were difficult to grow we should be proud of it.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

bird watching

The leeks did not appreciate having their protective overstorey of weeds removed, and frazzled up in the sun.  I found some rows of carrots as well, nestling in among the weeds, and two rows of lettuces.  I am more optimistic about the lettuces than the leeks, and not at all optimistic about finding the annuals I sowed for cutting, since I won't necessarily recognise their leaves and sprinkled the seed in patches so the seedlings won't even be in rows to give me a clue.

I fear that if I am ever going to grow vegetables I need to alter my gardening routine to include the vegetable patch.  I could adopt the rule that on a gardening day, before going and playing with the borders or anything else, I will weed a couple of the vegetable beds.  If they were done regularly they wouldn't ever get very weedy, and it wouldn't take too long.  Mind you, I said that about cutting the lawn edges, just half an hour at them every time I went out in the garden and I'd stay on top of them, and they are still a bit whiskery.

I heard a strange, harsh, chattering noise as I weeded, sounding like some sort of very agitated bird, and looking up I saw a buzzard being mobbed by two crows.  The buzzard flew low this way and that above the meadow, with the crows screaming and dropping repeatedly down towards its back.  I could see the brown of its feathers and its long, powerful legs.  Then one of the crows gave up, but the other continued to harry the buzzard until the two passed out of view and I never saw how the encounter ended.  Presumably once the buzzard was far enough from what the crows considered their home patch the second pursuer left it in peace.

Why do corvids bother to attack buzzards?  Do buzzards eat young crows?  I thought they were largely carrion eaters, but there again so are crows, so maybe the latter resent any competition for food.  Or maybe it is simply irrational hatred.  We hear the local owls being mobbed by groups of song birds in the daytime, and yet owls hunt rodents and shouldn't need to have anything to do with blackbirds.  Different food sources, different nesting habits, should be a case of separate lives.

Later on coming up the steps to the conservatory I heard the cheeping of baby birds from above head height, and after a while tracked it to one of the starling boxes on the end of the house.  We put the boxes up several years ago to compensate the starlings for blocking the entrance to the roof space over our bedroom, because we could not stand the racket they made at four o'clock in the morning.  It used to sound as though they had a Kango drill up there.  The starlings utterly despised the boxes, though happily we are not without them because they go on living in the space above the spare room.  Last year the middle box was used by bumble bees, but it's ages since any of them had birds in them.  As I stared up at the row of boxes, trying to work out which one the noise was coming from, a small bird swooped towards the boxes, then jinxed away when it saw me looking up.  As it settled in a nearby tree I saw it was a great tit.

It's nice to have great tits nesting on the end of the house.  More convenient than the robins, which have taken up residence in the workshop.  I warned the Systems Administrator a while ago that I'd encountered a small bird flying out of the door a couple of times when I went in, and thought there was something nesting in there.  The workshop is due for a thorough clear-out and tidy, as neither of us are very good at putting things away and while all the SA's tools have a place, most of them aren't in it.  The SA spent part of the morning tidying up, and discovered the robin upon firing up the vacuum cleaner, at which point a small terrified bird started flying around the room.  The SA beat a tactful retreat, to allow it to settle again, and will have to tidy up in small bursts, presumably without vacuuming.

I must admit I was relieved when the robin didn't nest in the greenhouse this year.  I met one in there a couple of times, eyeing the place up in a speculative manner, but no nest appeared.  In theory it is a privilege that this little wild creature wants to share its life with you, but in practice it is a complete nuisance not being able to water several pots and being made to feel guilty for spending too long working in one's own greenhouse.

It was a good day for bird watching, all in all.  This afternoon I heard my first cuckoo of the season.

Friday, 29 May 2015

the trouble with vegetables

The weeds have grown incredibly quickly in the vegetable beds, and I am beginning to remember why in past years my good intentions to grow my own have come unstuck by about the end of May. The broad beans look OK, rising above the sea of fat hen, but when I delved down among the bitter cress, baby nettles, grass, goosegrass, and shepherds purse to look to see if any peas had germinated, it seemed as though they might have but something had eaten them.

The seedling leeks are very thin, and I think I should have fertilised the bed at the outset instead of relying on the dressing of home made compost.  There are some parsnips in among the weeds, but whether they will ever come to anything is debatable.  I didn't have time to look for the beetroot.

The asparagus bed which did not receive a layer of compost definitely needs some blood, fish and bone and some mushroom compost, as even the weeds were on the skinny side, and the asparagus plants are infuriatingly not as good as the self sown one that has plonked itself in the gravel by the formal pond, despite the fact that the latter is growing in almost totally unimproved soil.  The asparagus roots I planted a couple of years ago are barely alive, but a few very thin and frail stems tell me that they are just clinging to life.  The centre of the bed has been infiltrated by a weed grass with a running habit, and as I began to tease grass roots out from the asparagus crowns I reflected that it was going to be a slow process cleaning the bed up.  There's a lot of red leaved oxalis as well, an almost ineradicable weed that was already in the sole border when we moved here, and has since set up outposts throughout the garden in spite of my best efforts.

I planted out my pot raised sweetcorn, dwarf French beans, courgettes and cucumbers.  The beans were starting to look slightly yellow from sitting in their pots, though I've seen worse offered for sale, and the other plants actually looked quite decent, though the wind may have given them a battering by now.  Everything needs watering.

My best approach is probably to view 2015 as a year of preparation.  None of the current crop of weeds have set seed yet.  If I can clear them, and keep the beds roughly hoed, that will be the first step to getting the soil into a better state.  I have got rid of most of the perennial weeds, apart from some obstinate bramble roots.  The beds need manure in the autumn, to put more body into the soil since the home made compost was clearly not sufficient, and lime at some stage.  Then I could draw up a proper planting plan over the winter, and go into spring with the ground ready to use, give or take the odd weed, whereas at the start of this year the whole patch was a mess of weeds, including brambles, docks and perennial grasses.  If I could rid the greenhouse of root aphid I could start more vegetables in modules, which is how I've done leeks and beet in the past.

This plan does contain quite a few Ifs.  If I can make time to keep up with the weeding all summer. If I manage to get round to making that many extra trips for manure.  If I can eliminate the root aphid.  The idea of home grown vegetables is delightful.  It's just unfortunate that I can go and buy leeks in a supermarket quite easily, while the amount we'd have to pay a gardener for even one day's work keeping the lawn edges tidy would keep us in leeks for several months.  Not that I would ever want to hire a gardener even if I could afford one.  It would no longer be entirely my garden.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

lessons from a bee farmer

I have just been to a thoroughly entertaining lecture on commercial bee farming.  There are some commercial bee farmers in the UK, though not very many: their association has only around three hundred members, and of those only a hundred are farming on a really large scale with more than five hundred hives.  Our local bee farmer has scaled down to just under a hundred now he is in his late sixties and as he says, his knees have gone.

Bee farming has many advantages in his view, one of them being the comparative lack of competition, though he admitted that he started as a regular farmer keeping the bees on the side as a hobby, albeit a large scale one, and only made the final step to concentrating solely on bees once his mortgage was paid off.  Most people know what honey is, and many like it, so the bee farmer doesn't have to promote the virtues of an unfamiliar foodstuff.  Honey can be stored at ambient temperature, no chilling or freezing required, and can be kept from one year to the next, so the bee farmer can smooth out ups and downs in production and keep customers supplied fifty two weeks of the year.  That certainly sounds easier than lettuces, which have to be kept chilled, and who wants to buy last week's lettuce?

There is little technical innovation in beekeeping, and most of the equipment lasts for decades, so the capital requirements are lower than for many enterprises.  It hasn't felt like that to me this year as I've been sending off what are rapidly becoming monthly orders to Mann Lake, but he's right.  The brood boxes and roofs I've bought this year will still be perfectly serviceable long after I've given up beekeeping.

It's a job that you do outdoors in nice weather in the summer, but not in the winter.  You can avoid the rush hour traffic, as most apiary tasks don't need to happen before about ten in the morning. Outlets tend to be pretty loyal to their honey supplier, and he has been selling to some of the same shops for decades.  When they run low on stocks they call him, and he takes some more jars round.

It is a physical job, he admits.  His annual production runs to tonnes of honey, and every pound of it is lifted several times, what with hive inspections and then collecting the full supers from the hives and unloading and processing them at the other end.  That bit doesn't worry me so much.  There is only one snag that I can see, and that is that you have to get a honey crop from your bees. Stopping them swarming is absolutely crucial.  Our professional bee farmer does not clip his queens, and rarely marks them, but he must be able to see the blessed things.  He advocates Buckfast pedigree queens, which he says make productive colonies and will go for three years without swarming, but faced with swarming he pre-empts them by swarming them artificially.  I am sure he has a natural talent for beekeeping, but it must help that he started keeping bees when he was fifteen so by now has over fifty years experience.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


A friend and I went on a cultural expedition to London today.  We started with the Estorick in Islington, because she'd read a positive review in Time Out of the current temporary exhibition of Modigliani drawings and wanted to see them.  I warned her that the Estorick when you got there was not so big as reviewers tended to make you think it was going to be, but was quite happy to take a short detour to north London.  It turned into a slightly longer detour than it need have been due to my inability to read the signposts at Moorgate station, as aiming for the overground we ended up in the underground and walking up from the Angel.  Still, it was a nice, sunny day and we sussed out a bus stop for later, as well as a sleeveless shirt dress in Hobbs in a fetching shade of greyish blue linen, that probably would suit me, and that I almost certainly won't buy, being living proof of the French adage that the reason why English women are so shabby is that they spend all their money on their gardens.  The Modigliani drawings are nice in an understated way, and very much of their time, with strong elements of Art Deco and the influence of Japanese prints coming through.

From Islington it was a wiggly bus ride through the City to London bridge, which took us past Wesley's chapel and within sight of historic pub The Eagle, as in Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle, that's the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel.  From London bridge it is a short and pleasant walk along the south bank, mostly by the river, to Tate Modern, but we passed up on the foodie delights of the Borough Market food stalls for lunch.  The queues are too long and the prices too steep, and we went to Pret instead.  My friend did introduce me to a useful covered area under the railway arches, kitted out with flowers, seats and public loos, where we were able to sit down and eat our lunch, which is easier than trying to stroll along the south bank consuming an avocado wrap without most of it ending up on the pavement or your shirt.

Tate Modern is showing Sonia Delaunay until 9th August.  She was an affluent middle class Russian jew who escaped to Paris as soon as she could, just in time for the great Parisian artistic flowering of the early twentieth century.  There she met the artists of the day, made a marriage of convenience to a homosexual friend so that her family would let her stay in Paris, soon met fellow artist Robert Delaunay who became the love of her life and married him instead, and had a flourishing career as an artist and textile designer, producing opera costumes, couture garments and fabrics.  I've seen references to the Delaunays in other exhibitions, and gather that they were one of the glamorous and glittering power couples of the art world.  The Russian revolution meant that Sonia's flow of funds from home dried up, and they had to take their commercial work more seriously after that, but Sonia appears to have been an astute business woman, or at least an energetic and entrepreneurial one.

Robert died in 1941, and after his death Sonia devoted herself in large part to preserving his legacy. During their lifetimes I gather that he was generally considered a more substantial artist than she was.  Her merits seem to have been reappraised and her marks revised upwards in recent decades. Perhaps she was not always taken entirely seriously as an artist because she also worked as a designer, and the art establishment did not take textile and costume design seriously.  Or perhaps they followed her lead in giving their main attention to Robert.  Or maybe they were simply sexist. Sonia, quamquam est femina.  It's hard to tell from this exhibition because it deliberately does not talk about Robert very much.

I loved her work, in particular her palette from the middle period, when she used the same rich, earth colours as Paul Klee, and some of her textile designs for the Amsterdam firm of Metz. Everything she did had a marvellous swirling sense of movement.  My friend especially loved a semi abstract picture of people dancing spread over a wide canvas, and was sorry at the end of the exhibition to find that there was no postcard, and the reproduction of it in the catalogue running across across two pages and disappearing down the crack in the middle did not do it justice.  Some of the costumes, patchworks and embroideries were lovely too, but of course the art establishment didn't generally accept those as Art, relegating them to mere Craft.

After all that walking about and thinking we needed a cup of tea, and then before coming home we went to say hello to the Rothkos for a quarter of an hour.  Though there is something about the Seagram murals, I could quite happily sit and look at them all afternoon.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

after the wedding

I missed yesterday's post, though I can't say it has resulted in an avalanche of enquiries from my anxious friends and relations, demanding to know whether I am All Right.  We left the house early yesterday morning to go to a wedding, and by the time we got home it was gone midnight and I'd missed Monday's deadline, even if we hadn't been so tired that the only thing either of us wanted to do was go to bed.

I could have written something about flowers in advance, saved it as a draft, and quickly pressed Publish before going out, but I didn't.  We were keen to get on the road, and I didn't so much as switch my computer on before we left.  I could have written something about weddings in advance, and in fact I did, but with the intention of posting it when we got back.  Even though only about three people read the blog, and one of those is my mother, still advertising the fact on the internet that you are going to be out all day feels unwise.  There's nobody here, come and burgle our house, take your time.  Of course that's what most people do who are on Facebook, as they post their holiday photos in real time.

The wedding was in Herefordshire, which is a lovely county but a long way from Essex, and when the invitation first arrived I thought we we'd have to stay over there, which would have meant two nights, as we'd have been too early to book into a hotel before the ceremony, and it would have been rather late by the time we left the reception.  Which would have meant finding someone to look after the menagerie and all my pots and seed trays.  Which realistically would have meant booking a house sitter, in which case was it worth extending it to three nights and having time to look at a garden or two?  But this is such a busy time of year with our garden and the bees, that didn't seem a great idea even though Hergest Croft is one of my favourite gardens, not to mention the ballooning cost of the whole enterprise.  Then the Systems Administrator said that we could get out and back in a day, and I thought that if the SA was up for the drive that solved a lot of problems.

The wedding was held in a magnificent converted stone barn with a view of rolling green hills and sheep baaing in the middle distance.  It was a relaxed affair, in fact it was the only wedding I've ever been to with a lacrosse game going on during the drinks and canapes stage between the ceremony and the wedding breakfast.  That was because the groom is a lacrosse coach, but participation was optional so we didn't, what with the SA's dodgy knee and my dislike of team sport or anything involving balls and running.  But we did manage to catch up with the family news, and were introduced to our latest great nephew and great niece.  There were a lot of small children there, and they behaved extremely well, with just a few squeaks and no tantrums at all.  And driving back the same evening gave us a gentlemanly excuse to miss most of the evening party, which suited us since evening dos with bands are wasted on us.  The music is always so loud you can't hear anything anybody says, so conversation is at an end, we can't dance the night away because the SA doesn't dance, and I hate loud noise anyway.  I like dancing as it happens, but I can't grumble because the SA has never danced, or even pretended to.

Journalists with lifestyle sections to fill love to write articles about the cost of holding and attending weddings.  Obviously it's a more exciting story if the total is as large as possible, and so they always assume that you buy a new outfit, but I wore exactly the same dress, jacket and hat as I wore to the last family wedding three years ago, relying on the fact that nobody notices, remembers or cares what middle aged aunts wear, so long as they look clean and vaguely festive. It's not as though my niece and nephew are going to sit down and compare wedding videos, memories of their special days ruined when they uncover the horrible truth.  OMG, I can't believe she wore the same outfit to my wedding as she did to yours.

Weddings can be weird.  I wouldn't go so far as Matthew Parris, who wrote a few years ago that once he reached an age where he realised that his remaining stock of weekends was finite, he would rather not have to waste any more of them on going to weddings, but if you're going to make the effort as a guest then you would like to have a reasonably good time.  I know it's the bride's day, but if you've given up your Saturday or the entire weekend, maybe travelled a long way, forked out on a hotel and a new hat and bought the happy couple a toaster, it's galling to be made to queue in a corridor for half an hour after the service with nothing to eat or drink while the bridal party faffs about.  Thank goodness the receiving line appears to have gone completely out of fashion.  And now that neither of us are office drones we don't have to go to office weddings.  I was taken to one many years ago by the SA, who was working at the time with the groom.  They went to the pub together after work, but we'd certainly never been asked round to supper or Sunday lunch, and the first and only time the SA and I ever set eyes on the bride was on her wedding day. So I have no idea what we were doing at their wedding, other than making up the numbers.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

a curate's egg

Splitting the brood has not worked as far as I can see.  I now have more boxes of bees than I want, most of them without many bees in them and without laying queens, and I am afraid I have been responsible for sending out several swarms.  I hope none of them have caused too much of a nuisance.  All I can do now is try very hard to find and mark the new queens, assuming they are in there somewhere and will start laying in due course, then I'll be better placed for swarm control next spring.  And next year I'd better start putting supers on really early, even before it feels warm enough to do an inspection.  And if I could avoid having a semi-permanent four month long cold all through the start of the season that would help, as it made it very difficult to stay on top of things. And beyond that I'm stuck for ideas.  Get less swarmy bees?

The warm dry weather lasted just long enough for me to work my ways through the hives without rushing.  I'd have liked to check them yesterday, but a cold wind was blowing and the field next door was full of Eastern Europeans planting lettuces, then fixing up the irrigation system.  If yesterday's weather had been perfect and the forecast for the next three days completely vile then maybe I'd have decided that opening the hives was the lesser of two evils and chanced it, but in general I try not to disturb the bees when there are farm workers busy in the next field.  I haven't had any trouble from any of the hives this year or last, but you can never be entirely sure.  Even nice bees could have an off day, and I don't want them displaying inappropriate guarding behaviour and randomly stinging any harmless Lithuanian lettuce planters who just happen to be standing on the other side of the hedge at that moment, or deciding they don't like the vibrations from the tractor engines.

Bees can be funny about motors.  If you are ever mowing or strimming grass anywhere near a beehive it always pays to keep an eye on the bees, in case they are getting annoyed.  If they start bouncing off your head then that is their polite way of telling you that they don't like it, and your chance to back off before they sting you.  Of course if you bash your mower or strimmer into the hive itself then you very probably will get stung, and have only yourself to blame.

The forecast afternoon showers arrived, but were mostly so light that I could have worked outside, just taking shelter from the sharpest ones, but I decided that it was officially raining and time to catch up on some of the rainy day outstanding tasks.  There are generally lots of those.  I blame the Clacton coastal strip effect for the fact that it has taken me approximately four months to change the lightbulb in my bathroom, but today I did it.  It is a ceiling mounted light with a glass cover that is a pig to unscrew without dropping it, and the bulb is a weird halogen capsule that you can't just buy in a supermarket but have to go to an electrical specialist or track one down online, and is then really fiddly to fit.  Plus the other two bathroom lights were still working so I could still see, especially as the days got longer, so all in all there were lots of reasons to put off fixing the light, and the new bulb has been sitting in a padded envelope for weeks since I managed to decipher the faded letters on the old one and find one like it on Amazon.  But today was the day, although I fell at the final hurdle and had to ask for the Systems Administrator's help in fitting the new bulb.

So I am an inept beekeeper and an incompetent electrician, but at least this afternoon's cake came out well.  I love baking, but it's another rainy day job that means we have more cake in foul weather than fair.  I made honey flapjacks, and this time paid more attention to the injunction in the recipe to leave in the baking tin until cold, and the flapjack came out of the tin in slices instead of half of it staying stuck to the tin in an overall effect more like granola than biscuits.  I cooked a honey and sultana cake as well while I was at it, since both will keep for days.  And what's the point of having lovely home laid eggs and not baking with them from time to time?

Saturday, 23 May 2015

hold the front page

It is almost midnight, and I haven't blogged yet because we've been watching the Eurovision Song Contest.

Addendum  Right, that got today's date in the bag, otherwise if I hadn't pressed Publish until after 24:00 hours it would have been tomorrow's post.  It is rather late to be blogging, but there wasn't time earlier.  I let the chickens out for a run, and they didn't want to go back in until well after seven.  I was beginning to feel slightly pathetic as I crawled around pulling leaves and weeds out from under the hedge surrounded by happy hens while the evening got steadily cooler, and was relieved when suddenly the Systems Administrator arrived waving a long piece of bamboo and saying Right, two had gone in, where were the other two?

Then I did my back exercises, as I didn't do them yesterday, and after that there was only an odd ten minutes until the show began.

It took me a while to get my eye in, as I was so distracted by why the first contestant was wearing a pair of huge headphones that wouldn't have looked out of place on a sound engineer plus a dress that seemed to have been made out of a net curtain.  I didn't actually think the UK entry was that bad, but it wasn't that good either, distinctly sub Caro Emerald and not at all Eurovision.

I liked the Belgian entry best, although that was not at all Eurovision either, and the SA said that the Belgian wanted to be Kraftwerk when he grew up.  I wouldn't mind hearing the Belgian again, which is more than I could say for some of the others, but you don't really watch Eurovision for the quality of the music, more for the stage presentation, overall camp magnificence, and Graham Norton's snide comments.  I still don't understand why the Austrians set their piano on fire, or why the tattooed Latvian elf was stuck immobile inside that extremely peculiar red dress.  The Hungarian contestant had a sweet voice, not at all Eurovision but if she learned The Plains of Waterloo and Bonny Woodhall I reckon she could have a successful summer at the UK's folk festivals.  Conchita's couple of numbers were enough to remind me how difficult that kind of big emotional power ballad is to do well, and this year's voters were rightly dismissive of most of this year's efforts in the genre.  One or two of them didn't even meet the standard of Can dance a little. I was somewhat impressed and vaguely terrified by the enormous Serbian diva, and relieved that the solemn bespectacled Cypriot got some points, because he was sweet.

I don't understand why Australia was in it either.  Just because it's the sixtieth anniversary of the competition doesn't make Australia suddenly part of Europe, but never mind.  As the SA reminded me, it's Eurovision.  You're not supposed to understand it.

Friday, 22 May 2015

playing with pots

We slept right through the earthquake, but when I went down to the bottom of the garden this morning the Whichford Pottery torso of a maiden was lying flat on her back in the border.  I righted her, wondering whether she had been pushed over by a passing muntjac or felled by earth tremors. I mentioned it to the Systems Administrator, who initially poo-poohed the earthquake hypothesis, but then added that come to think of it, some little pots of modelling of paint had been lying on their sides in the blue shed, making the SA fear another outbreak of mice.  Although the epicentre was in Kent, the map on the Telegraph website showed earthquake symbols going as far as the Essex coast, and which is more likely, that we should have been hit by a very tiny tremor, or that a garden statue and the SA's shed should both have suffered animal attacks in the same night?  If the mice are back in the blue shed the SA will soon know about it, since they'll start eating the paint pots.

I spent a happy day sorting through the plants in the greenhouse, moving tender ornamentals out to the paved square by the pond now that it's the latter part of May and frosts are unlikely in southern England.  My ears pricked up when one radio weather forecast talked about the risk of overnight frost, but that was for parts of Scotland.  Some of the overwintering geraniums have still got root aphid despite previous treatments with Provado.  I treated those that were only lightly infested again, and put some of the worst rootballs in an old compost bag to take to the dump, after taking cuttings.  If the cuttings fail then that's just tough.  I don't think any of them are so rare and precious that I couldn't buy replacements, though the fact that I don't know most of their names might be more of an obstacle.

I have been planting up pots to go in front of the house, where I cleared away the overbearing conifer.  I've got two different tobacco plants that I raised from seed, the straight white scented Nicotiana sylvestris, and a variety called 'Tinkerbell' whose red flowers are green on the reverse, and with a green eye.  More seeds germinated than I could possibly use in pots, even though I didn't sow the whole contents of the packets, and I pricked out more seedlings than I needed, in case of losses further down the track and because I couldn't bear to throw them away.  I'm moving the spares on in to nine centimetre pots for now, in the hope that I can use them in the garden, but I've a dark suspicion that some will end up on the compost heap.

I called into one of the local garden centres on my way back from the dump to buy some hand cream, and departed with the hand cream plus six bedding plants, three of a dark purple leafed ipomea and three of the trailing silvery leafed and orange flowered lotus.  Each trio went into a separate pot.  Mixed pots can be fabulous, and maybe I should be more adventurous and try and unleash my inner Powis castle gardener, but I tend to find unmixed single variety pots easier to manage.  It means that everything in the pot has the same water requirement and saves me the problem of something always starting to flag while its neighbours are still wet, or one element of the planting starting to look distinctly past its best when the others are still good, or proving unexpectedly vigorous and crowding everything else out.  Or maybe its because the unmixed pots look bolder, given that my mixed pots of alpines don't seem to cause any trouble.  Anyway, that's my way of doing bedding in pots.  The ipomea is destined to go by the pink flowering fuchsias outside what is functionally the back door though actually at the front, and the lotus next to the apricot and amber calibrachoa next to the front door.  The two displays, one themed around soft shades of orange and the other in pink, red, and purple, will be separated by only the width of a box cushion, since the front door which we only ever use for building works, parties and getting the Christmas tree in and out is also at the front, where you'd expect it to be.  I am hoping they will not clash, but I don't have as much space to play with as on the terrace at Powis.

I know that bedding is not ecologically friendly, but it is great fun.  Not for nothing did the prize for the best display in the whole Chelsea pavilion go to Birmingham City Council's joyous extravaganza.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

a mystery parcel

I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee after a trip to the dump and garden centre when a large Parcelforce van drew up.  I went to the front door, thinking vaguely that it must be something for the Systems Administrator, and signed for a medium sized box, which I could see was addressed to me.  The driver said that it was very heavy, which ruled out it being the 5 litre sprayer for Grazers I'm expecting any week now, just as soon as Amazon get round to dispatching it.  I took the box, agreeing that it was heavy, and adding that I didn't have a clue what was in it but assumed I must have ordered it since it had my name on it.  Then I saw the name of the sender on the address label, and the penny dropped that it was my Pottertons alpines.

I set the box down in the hall, and went to find a sharp knife to cut through the parcel tape.  The space underneath the lid was stuffed with crumpled newspaper and beneath that was a layer of shredded paper, through which I could feel the outlines of pots.  I was afraid that if I unpacked it outside I'd scatter shredded paper over the gravel, before spending a tedious half hour picking it out with my fingertips, so thought I might as well unpack it in the hall.  The SA was at the cricket, so it wasn't as if I was going to be in anybody's way.

It was the first time I'd used Pottertons, since I started buying drought tolerant low growing plants to clothe the gravel in the railway garden, and I can't remember what put me on to them.  I did think maybe I saw them at Chelsea, but looking on their website at the list of shows they're attending they don't seem to be doing any RHS ones, and it was probably that they came up online as suppliers of some plant or other that I was after.  That can be as good a way as any of finding interesting new nurseries, just Google the name of an unusual plant you'd like to find and see who sells it, and what else they list.  Pottertons were one of the nurseries I looked at last summer when I was buying alpines, but they lost out to a couple of other suppliers for no particular reason except that I can't buy plants from everybody each time.  Still, they had a few things I particularly wanted, and since in mail order plant shopping it pays to concentrate one's business to avoid paying too many sets of postage and delivery charges, they made the final cut this time round.

The plants were very thoroughly wrapped inside their shredded paper.  It must have taken somebody ages to do it, and made the postage and packing charge of £9.50 including transporting the quite heavy box from Caistor to north Essex seem an absolute bargain.  The foliage of the lowest growing plants was protected by covering each pot in a cap of folded newspaper, stuck on to the pot with multiple strips of sellotape.  Under the cap a layer of lightly scrumpled paper tucked around the crown stopped loose compost and the layer of grit covering each pot from shaking around among the leaves.  Taller growing plants had the same scrumpled paper cover, then a second pot inverted over the first and stuck on with parcel tape.  In all there was a generous amount of tape, and I needed scissors to get it off.

They were only in three inch pots, and I fetched some seed trays to stand the pots in as I unwrapped them.  Then I realised that one of the trays had a lot of ants on it, which had started to run round the hall floor.  I didn't fancy kneeling in the middle of a crowd of ants while I finished unpacking the box, so sprinkled a little ant powder around the tray, and then thought it really was just as well that the SA was out.  Though the SA is generally phlegmatic about these things, and was quite relaxed about my using the kitchen table to build beehive parts on, still not everybody appreciates their hall being filled with shredded paper, trays of small plants, and piles of ant powder.

The plants had the blinking and bewildered air that plants have after being packaged up in the dark, leaves pointing in different directions, but not a twig or leaf was broken.  They'll settle quickly enough back in the light, and look normal again once their leaves orient themselves again with respect to the sun.  I have got some more of a mat former with pink flowers called Aethionema 'Warley Rose', since the ones I planted last year are doing OK, a couple of prostrate small leafed sedums, something that was recommended in the SA's book on landscaping garden railways called Frankenia thymifolia with leaves rather like thyme, a prostrate gypsophila with very fine leaves which I never heard of before but sounds as if it would be OK on light soil, plus some small berberis and a tiny Corokia cotoneaster with zigzag stems.  Potterton's offer of small and correspondingly cheap specimens of dwarf shrubs was partly what made me want to put an order together.  They'll grow, and I don't especially want to have to buy fully grown specimens for the railway at ten or twelve quid a pop.

Then there was an experimental white flowered ashphodeline for the gravel by the entrance, and an experimental Chatham Island forget-me-not for the deck by the conservatory.  Asphodeline taurica seemed worth trying, since the yellow Asphodeline lutea sows itself so generously in the turning circle that it is almost a weed.  Myosotidum hortensis is a lovely thing, with big fleshy mid green leaves that slugs love, and bright blue flowers.  It is usually expensive and not easy to find. Opinions vary as to how difficult it is to keep going, but there was a strand of online opinion that it would be good in a pot for a couple of years, and I thought it would look exotic in the shady patch by the conservatory where I've already got some ferns and a hosta, and could come inside for the winter.  Some bloggers say it's fairly easy from fresh seed, but of course I don't know if I'll get seed with only one plant.  Still, Pottertons would sell me a youngish and fairly small plant for a fiver, and that I thought was worth a try, so my young plant is already potted into a larger terracotta pot using the same mixture of multipurpose and perlite I used for the terrestrial orchid, topped off with a few slug pellets, and I shall see how it does.

The Border Alpines order is all planted except for the gentian, and I bought a small bag of ericaceous compost for that purpose today.  After Chelsea I should like some pinks and some violas, but had better deal with Pottertons first, not to mention the small army of home made plants in urgent need of potting on in the greenhouse.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

another talk

I did another woodland charity talk this afternoon.  Talks are sometimes like buses, you wait for ages and then three come along at once.  I did one a fortnight ago, and have a third in another couple of weeks time, then my diary is a complete blank when it comes to woodland talks for the rest of the year.  I did have an enquiry for November from a group in Romford, but when I made a counter offer of next summer because I didn't fancy the drive down the A12 in the dark and potential November weather they replied saying that it was too far to ask anyone to come at all, and rescinded their invitation.

Today's was a repeat booking, which is always gently reassuring.  I can't remember exactly when I saw them before but it was several years ago, before ash dieback disease hit the UK.  I am puzzled in that I recognised the hall, but remembered the meeting being held in an upstairs room.  My hosts denied having ever used the upstairs room, and said they used to meet somewhere else anyway, which left me wondering whether I'd spoken to some other group in that hall, or muddled it up with a different one.

I was so focused on the talk that I'd completely forgotten that I had a beekeeping show committee meeting this evening.  Luckily the Systems Administrator had remembered, replying when I asked whether the pizza in today's shopping was for his supper tomorrow when he got back from the cricket that no, it was for his supper tonight because I was going out.  I'm not sure that I contribute a great deal to the show committee.  I have never entered the honey show, and have no strong feelings about tent layout, but thought that as Treasurer I'd better show moral support, and be ready to chip in on any subjects with financial ramifications.

So that leaves me with an odd little bit of time, not enough to get stuck into any major task or for it to be worth changing back into my gardening clothes, too long to spend all of it looking at pictures of surfing dogs and tiger kittens on the Telegraph website.  I doubt if I shall renew my online subscription this autumn when it runs out.  Their news content seems to get thinner while their analysis gets more biased.  One of their journalists kept insisting yesterday that the charmless column of ceramic tulips in the great pavilion at Chelsea was eight feet tall, when I knew it was much taller than that because I'd just seen it myself.  Only in the picture caption was it revealed that they meant eight metres.  I'd miss Dan Hodges, on the other hand I could probably summarise his articles for the next two years in the phrase 'Labour is still useless'.  And think of all the other things I could do with my time if I wasn't looking at photographs of tiger cubs and reading articles about how to wear trousers.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

another year, another Chelsea

Chelsea was wonderful.  I say that every year, and I went to my first one almost thirty years ago.  I think it was in 1986 that a friend gave me a spare ticket his mother couldn't use, and I've been every year since.

2015 didn't feel like a ground breaking year.  There were some good show gardens, plus the usual rump that leave you aghast that somebody did this on purpose and invested a great deal of money and effort in it, but there wasn't anything that looked as though it was ushering in a new decades long trend.  Unless it was the rise and rise of the less than perfect maintenance garden, in which case ours is going to be bang on trend without my doing a thing differently.

The prize for the best show garden went to Dan Pearson's evocation of one of the wilder parts of the garden at Chatsworth, and it was well deserved.  They'd got a big, triangular site which has thrown up some interesting designs, in particular one a couple of years ago depicting the North Korean border.  The Chatsworth inspired garden was less earnest, just some very big boulders, skilfully placed so that they looked entirely natural, and some very good naturalistic planting with all sorts of choice, faintly wild plants, and weeds.  Annual meadow grass, yarrow, all sorts of things that I spend time yanking out of the borders and the gravel.  The way the garden plants and the weeds intermingled was amazing, and I cannot imagine how anyone managed to plant them to look that natural.

A perfumer's garden based on the Provencal landscape and traditional perfumier's ingredients was also shown in a state of semi dereliction, reflecting the industry's move in recent years away from natural plant based products.  That also had some cleverly placed weeds, plus areas of roughly tended bare soil symbolising how the garden was starting to be reclaimed.  It had a lovely atmosphere, helped by little canals modelled on the traditional irrigation channels, and a real sense of place.  So maybe that's the garden zeitgeist in the age of austerity, weeds and a sense that things cannot be maintained as they used to be.  Though nobody told the United Arab Emirates, who had brought a great deal of white marble to the party.

There were lots of other good things and nice touches, but if you wanted to know about them you'd be watching the BBC programmes.  We will be, and we were there.

In the pavilion there still seemed to be plenty of UK nurseries, despite annual fears that the cost of mounting a Chelsea exhibit is now so great that people will stop doing it, and we'll be left with exotic set pieces that are really puffs for foreign tourist boards.  Old stagers like Broadleigh step back from the rigours of Chelsea, but new ones like Kevock take their place.  There are lots of very, very beautiful plants to admire, and since I'm fairly sure that himalayan poppies will not thrive in the dry air of north east Essex no matter how much I water them, the best place to enjoy them is in my annual pilgrimage to Chelsea.  You get a little sense of the sheer effort that goes into the displays from the snippets you pick up as you walk round.  The Devon based growers of pinks didn't just have to bring their plants to perfection, they dyed a hundred and fifty metres of hessian the right shade of sea green to provide a backdrop for the foliage, by hand.

In the old days of dropping twenty and fifty pence pieces in tupperware boxes I would come home with a bag full of catalogues, but nowadays everyone has a website.  My show catalogue is sitting at my right elbow, and I shall spend many happy evenings looking up the Devon pinks, the lilies, pelargoniums, violas, and auriculas, and unusual plants for shade, and putting some orders together.

Monday, 18 May 2015

build your own

I returned this morning to the pile of flat pack self assembly beehive parts, deciding to start with the hive stands.  A hive stand, I reasoned, could not be very difficult to construct, and once I'd finished those it would put me in a more positive frame of mind to grapple with the mystery of the floors.

There were no instructions for the stands.  Four pieces of wood can still be fairly baffling, and while I could see what to do with three of them, I wasn't so sure what to do with the fourth.  The two mirror image sections with tenon joints at one end were clearly the sides, and the third piece with corresponding joints obviously connected them, but what about the big bit cut through at two different diagonals?  I went to consult the supplier's website in search of a photo of the finished product, but it looked so little like the bits I had that I began to wonder if they'd sent me the wrong thing.  I looked at the picture for the stands for a different type of hive, and suddenly saw how the fourth side worked.  It was in fact the fourth plinth, the sloping approach to the entrance door that allowed any tired bee crash landing a few inches short to stagger up to the safety of home, and I was fooled by the optical illusion that made one face of it, the side corresponding to the outer ends of the cross cut diagonals, look impossibly long.  Turn it over and suddenly the shorter face matched up to the cross cut ends of the sides.  And that, dear reader, is why the manufacturers of budget beehives don't always even try to write instructions.

Nailing the fourth, sloping side on was not so easy as imagining it had been, as it kept sliding out of place, and I thought, not for the first time, that really if God had meant human beings to do carpentry He would have given us more than two hands, but I got there.  I'd have liked a little more timber in the back corners as well, since the joints seemed somewhat fragile, but still, once a hive stand is set down you don't move it very often.  It's not like the supers that come off at every inspection, or brood boxes that get lugged about with a heavy load of honey, brood and bees inside.

Next I tackled the odd super that I'd added into the order to get me up to the free delivery mark. It's of no practical use as of this moment, because I didn't get any frames for it and I only have a couple of spares, but while I had the glue and all the tools out I though I might as well finish making up everything in one go.  The super consisted of two large pieces of wood with slots grooved into each end, and two slightly smaller pieces of wood that clearly went into the slots, which were the sides and the front and back respectively, and four thinner pieces of wood cut to two different complicated cross sections.  And some instructions.  Whippee.  Step three: Slide end boards into grooves, ensuring chamfered edge is towards to and slopes down and out.  The top edge must be 7/16" below the top edge of the side panel.  So that's clear, then.  Fortunately I knew what a finished super ought to look like, and with the aid of a spare frame to check I'd got the internal layout right I managed to assemble it with only one of the smaller pieces initially going in back to front, ignoring the instruction to try and slide anything, and just banging it together with glue from table level upwards, then checking carefully against an existing box that it was square before nailing it together.

That left the floors, which weren't any more obvious than they had been last time, though at least forewarned is forearmed and this time I managed to avoid slashing my knuckles on the edge of the galvanised mesh floor.  The Systems Administrator appeared in search of coffee just as I was contemplating the floors, and asked how it was going.  I explained how there seemed to be a cross bit missing, unless I was supposed to have the piece of ply with cross piece already nailed on permanently installed, but I didn't want that and anyway the dimensions weren't quite right and I couldn't see how I was supposed to fasten it in.  The SA looked at the three parts that with much painful thought I'd managed to put together last time, and agreed that they looked right.

Then I looked in the box, and discovered that while the floor I was trying to build had three pieces of wood plus the wooden floor, two of the other kits had four and the last had five.  In other words, I was trying to assemble my first floor with a piece missing.  Once we'd sorted that out it suddenly all made sense, I had a rigid square with a level top on which to stand the rest of the beehive, one face cut down to the level of the mesh to leave a gap where the entrance block would go, and grooves beneath the mesh into which I could slide the wooden tray if I wanted a solid floor for purposes of monitoring what varroa and other debris were falling off the bees.  That's why I didn't want it there all the time, as part of the point of not having a solid floor is that varroa mites that lose their hold on the bees fall right out of the hive.

It took all morning.  I darkly suspect that the SA left me to do it myself on purpose on the grounds that it would be good for me to learn.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

weed control

I have been planting my sedum cuttings out into the gravel.  They were slow to make roots in their pots, while throwing out white aerial roots from their stems, and will probably be happier in the ground than sitting in their compost in the cold frame.

They looked astonishingly unlike the parent plants growing outside.  In comparison, the cuttings had bigger leaves and laxer habits, with their leaves much further apart on the stems (or longer internodes, if you want to be technical about it).  Their colour was different too.  Old gold had turned to pale lime green, and bronze red to plain grey.  If I hadn't taken the cuttings myself, and labelled the pots, I'd have had grave doubts as to whether they were even the same variety.  They looked desperately floppy and vulnerable set down in the gravel, but should harden off, and by next year appear totally at home.  The outdoor plants, harder grown and with higher light exposure, were considerably more attractive.

The thyme in the gravel is bushing out nicely, and the flowers when they come should be very attractive, to our eyes and to the bees.  The sedums are all low growing varieties, and are being slotted into gaps between the thymes, the aim being that in the summer months there should be a solid carpet of foliage, broken only by narrow paths.  We may need some subsidiary paths or at least stepping stones to give access to the little buildings as the railway landscaping takes shape, but that bit is up to the Systems Administrator.  My aim is just to cut down on the area of exposed, weed infested gravel.

I could do with more sedums, and it occurred to me as I dug holes large enough to take their rootballs that next time there was no need to finish them in 9cm pots before planting them out.  If I used four by eight divided trays, and stuck one cutting in per module, I reckon I could drop the plugs straight into the gravel as soon as they were rooted.  That's how I did the thyme originally, though by now my original planting has been usefully bulked up by self seeding.

The parts of the railway gravel I didn't manage to weed in the spring are still infested with an annual grass whose name I don't know.  It is not the common Poa annua, instead it has very narrow, fine foliage and a strongly upright habit.  It is just running up to seed, but fortunately is mostly tall enough to stand above the mats of thyme and Arenaria monatana, so that I can run my hand across them and pull the grass stems out in handfuls.  The area I weeded earlier in the year is relatively grass free, and if I can pull it out before it seeds this year then I think I'll be well on the way to controlling it.  It used to infest parts of the long border in the front garden before I managed to largely eliminate it through a combination of weeding and Strulch, but of course I can't mulch the gravel except with more gravel.

Less easy to control are the patches of perennial weed grasses with running roots.  Some have worked their way in among the SA's little conifers and other small shrubs, and I don't suppose we'll ever managed to eliminate them entirely.  My strategy at the moment is to dig out what roots I can get at without causing too much damage to the planting in the gravel, then do it again once I can see the regrowth, then try hitting the further regrowth with glyphosate.  Weeds with running roots are one of the hardest things to control in a densely planted garden.  In the back garden we've got creeping thistle wandering through the rose beds* and bog bed, and some kind of loosestrife entrenched among the roots of a Japanese quince, from whence it ventures out through an area of polyanthus.  There's another outbreak of loosestrife in the rose bed, along with something like a less prickly thistle that's new this year.  I don't recognise the leaves, but don't trust the look of them.

As the creeping weeds emerge in the spring a dead calm early morning in April or early May will see me out there with the weedkiller, trying to very carefully drizzle it down the stems of the thistle and loosestrife while not letting it drip or drift on to anything else.  By summer the borders are such a jungle of growth that it's difficult to get at the thistles, let alone spray them and not their neighbours, so all I can do is yank them out, each stem with a pathetic piece of root attached.  Thus I never get rid of them entirely, and they return anew every spring, weaker than they would be without my efforts but not vanquished.

*I recall from some book read in childhood a character crooning the ditty 'For where you plant a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow'.  This is patently untrue.  Roses do not suppress thistles.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

mysteries of nature

I don't think I know what some of my bee colonies are doing.  Trying to control bees is sometimes like pruning an overgrown shrub, where you can't see how the tangled mass of branches in front of you maps on to the 'before' picture in the book, never mind 'afterwards'.  I have added space and split the brood, as the Telegraph article criticised middle class beekeepers for failing to do, the implication being that if they did then urban swarms wouldn't happen.  If it had worked then half of my smaller split colonies would have the old queen still busily laying away, while the other half would be busying themselves making new queens.  Instead I seem to have a lot of boxes with nectar stored in the brood area, a sign that laying is not imminent, and no young brood or eggs.  So did they swarm anyway? Or had they swarmed shortly before I split them?  Did I damage the queen I marked so that they killed her?  Bees will dispose of defective leaders with a readiness that makes the Tories look like rank amateurs, never mind Labour.

Whatever they are doing, I can only leave them to get on with it.  In the battle of the middle class beekeeper against swarming it is one human being set against about two hundred and fifty million years of evolution, so the odds were never stacked in my favour.  My biggest and best colony has not yet swarmed, though they are thinking about it.  I saw eggs, and the three supers were stuffed with bees and honey, the latter frustratingly not ready to take off.  Disillusioned with the results of splitting colonies, and running out of equipment, I shook the bees off every frame in the brood box, destroyed every queen cell, and gave them two extra supers, one below the queen excluder to get them on to brood and a half.  Some of the experienced beekeepers swear by brood and a half, but I hadn't thought it would be necessary with the large Commercial brood boxes.  I'm still not keen on the idea, because at the next inspection I shall have to look at double the number of brood frames, but it might help in this case.

All the bees were very good natured, even when I was shaking them off the comb, and cutting free comb out that one lot had made in the roof space instead of using the full extent of their box.  A very long standing beekeeper remarked recently that it was easy to have good tempered bees as long as there was a nectar flow on and weather fit for flying, it was when the food supply dried up or they were penned indoors that they got grumpy.  I'm sure he's right, but in general this current generation of bees are nice.  Beekeeping would be no fun at all with mean tempered stock.

After doing the bees I finished weeding outside the Systems Administrator's blue hut, marvelling at the distance the debris from the mechanical flail had been flung out of the hedge.  You would definitely not want to be within thirty feet of anybody operating one of those unless you were kitted out with industrial strength eye protection.  I planted out the three Phyteuma scheuchzeri, and gloated over the number of seedlings of Silene maritima, and the fact that one plant of evening primrose is suckering nicely.  The other planted at the same time appears to be three quarters dead, but you can't always be lucky.

The rabbits are still showing up on the camera hopping out of the rose bank at six in the evening on nights when we're not there, but obstinately failed to show again as the SA spent the early part of this evening sitting on the far side of the lawn with a gun.  He didn't think they'd seen him at that distance, but they appear to be less bunny brained and more alert and cunning than we initially gave them credit.  Our Ginger went hunting, but only caught a mouse.  I've told him, mice don't count, we want bunnies.

Friday, 15 May 2015

small plants for gravel gardening

I have been getting some of my new plants by post into the ground.  Nowadays I've learnt to make a note of where things on order are supposed to go, so that when the parcel arrives, days, weeks or in the case of bulbs months later, I'm not left scratching my head over how drought tolerant Phyteuma scheuchzeri is, and what I meant to do with it in the first place.  The answer in the case of the Phyteuma turned out to be fairly, and it was meant to go outside the Systems Administrator's blue hut, and not in the gravel by the entrance.  It has blue, spiky looking flowers and will pick up on the seaside vibe, though it is not a coastal species.

Antennaria dioica has proved itself to be good on very light soil, spreading to form reasonably dense though not entirely weed proof mats, and I added some more of those.  I did get a packet of seeds to germinate, but killed them through over watering.  The bought plants are all of named varieties, which are presumably slightly more floriferous or impressive than the straight species I'd have ended up with if I'd managed to grow my own.  It has greyish foliage, and small pink flowers having something faintly whiskery about them that gives away the fact that it is a member of the daisy family.  I'll probably try again with a packet of seeds in due course, or try to save some home collected ones, since it's spreading more than most of the ground cover in the railway garden, and I should like the ground to be covered.  Life isn't long enough to spend too much of it pulling weeds out of gravel.

Armeria juniperifolia, the juniper leaved thrift, has proved to be another reasonably good doer in the circumstances, though slower and smaller in all its parts than the Armeria maritima that seeds itself cheerfully about the turning circle.  I did once try to germinate a bought packet of seed of A. juniperifolia, with absolutely no success whatsoever, not a glimmer of germination to give me any seedlings to kill afterwards.  The 'Bevan's Variety' in the gravel doesn't show any signs of self seeding, unfortunately, and I bought three more.  It's a slow spreader, though, and I reckon I could cover the entire area of the railway in Axminster for the cost of clothing it in Armeria juniperifolia.

Two Rhodohypoxis were destined for the gravel by the entrance, where one I planted out last year is sending up leaves and has spread, or at least I think it has.  There is a patch of hopeful looking bright green strap shaped leaves emerging, and I can't think what except Rhodohypoxis they could be.  They hail originally from the eastern parts of South Africa, and are supposed to be very happy in a shallow pan, except that you cannot leave it outside over a British winter and expect them to live.  I speak as one who has tested this empirically, killing four different sorts bought at the Hampton Court Flower Show in the process.  The flowers are rather like small pink or white squills, appearing in June.  Today's planting brought my total in the gravel to three, all pink and all different, and since I haven't labelled them I don't suppose I shall ever be quite sure which is which.

Thalictrum tuberosum sounded worth a punt, on the strength of an article by Val Bourne, usually a sensible garden journalist, who said that unlike most thalictrums this one positively basked in a sunny, well drained place, the hotter and drier the better.  Hot and dry is one thing that gardening on almost pure sand in the Clacton coastal strip can deliver, and since Thalictrum tuberosum is only going to grow a foot high at most it will escape the worst of the wind.  If I'd understood the soil better when starting off I'd have given up more space in the front garden to providing shelter, then made more use of the extraordinary drainage to grow tender things from southern climes that absolutely demand dry feet in the winter.  As it is the drainage is perfect, but the north and east winds can be lethal.

I fed the bits of gravel I'd finished weeding with fish, blood and bone, since while the sand provides perfect drainage it also delivers a starvation diet.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


I went to London today.  It was all arranged before I knew that Thursday was going to be wet, wet, wet, so instead of spending the day puzzling over how on earth my bargain flat pack hive floors are supposed to go together, I spent it looking at art and getting slightly damp.

I was meeting an old colleague for lunch near the Queen's Gallery, but ended up with time to spare beforehand, since I'd built in a margin for error with the trains and another for the tube and not needed either of them.  Wondering what I could usefully do in less than an hour near Green Park tube station I suddenly remembered a review I read in the Telegraph of Prunella Clough at the Osborne Samuel Gallery.  She was a postwar artist who painted industrial scenes in a muted palette, and I'd liked what I saw of her work on the Telegraph website.  I felt rather cheeky making my way into what was a selling exhibition just off Berkeley Square, when I knew I wasn't in any position to buy even a tiny drawing, but reasoned that if they didn't want art enthusiasts wandering in off the street they shouldn't have got themselves a puff in a national newspaper.  In fact it turned out to be very easy.  I'm sure that the girl on the desk clocked instantly that I wasn't a prospective customer, but I stood in respectful attitudes in front of the pictures, taking great care not to let my wet boots squeak on the nice wooden floor, and as I wasn't causing her any trouble she didn't bother me.  I liked Prunella Clough very much, in particular a small square picture of dockside cranes that already had a red sticker, and a bigger painting of a printer checking proofs that wasn't sold, but without looking at a price list I was sure that I couldn't have afforded either of them.

The Queen's Gallery is showing Painting Paradise, a mad, barely curated exhibition about gardens and art.  It is a vast subject, which needn't be a problem since Her Majesty has an exceedingly large collection to draw from, but there wouldn't have been room for all of it in the gallery, which is not very big.  So you get tapestries with pictures of gardens, plans of lost gardens from previous centuries, water colours of Edwardian herbaceous borders, a family picture of Henry VIII with the future King Edward and some surviving female relatives plus two tiny glimpses of garden in the background, plates painted with botanical art, Dutch flower paintings, Faberge vases of glass and crystal flowers, furniture inlaid with pictures of flowers, a Royal child's wheelbarrow and small rake...You get the idea.  It's good as long as you're happy to take each piece as it comes, and not worry about the lack of an overarching narrative.  The main thing I would have liked was contemporary views and plans of the historic gardens like Chatsworth, to show how what's there now maps on to what was there previously.

I parted company with my friend at the gates of the Royal Academy, and went in to see their exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn, a US postwar abstract impressionist who became figurative for a short while in the late 1950s then turned back to abstraction, this time with a different palette, a smoother paint surface and more straight lines.  I liked his early works the best.  In fact, I could happily have looked at them for hours and taken several of them home, if it had been a selling exhibition and I'd been rich.  I tried to work out whether, in spite of being abstract, they had a right way up or would have worked just as well lying on their sides or inverted, and suspected that they did have a visual centre of gravity, though I couldn't explain why.  He possessed great graphic skill, as amply demonstrated in the second room when he was going through his figurative period, but although you could argue that a five year old could have done the works in the first room, I don't think most five year olds could, any more than they could produce a Rothko.  If I were given a six foot square canvas and a generous allowance of paint I fear I could not produce my own Diebenkorn, any more than I could knock out a Constable.

I toyed with the idea of the Duke of Wellington at the National Portrait Gallery, but decided that I was damp and had seen as much art as I could enjoy in one day.  Queuing in the traffic coming home, near Colchester station, at six o'clock I saw one of the new park and ride buses heading out of the town centre to the park bit of the scheme.  It had one passenger on it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

plants by post

The postman arrived early this morning, and tapped on the door because he had a parcel for me.  He seemed mildly disconcerted by the sight of the ample white tummy of Our Ginger, who was lying flat on his back in the hall soaking up the morning sun, and didn't move a whisker as I stepped past him and opened the front door to within inches of his head.  He is a friendly postman, and wished me a nice day.  The box contained my tiny plants from Dibleys, so I was glad to have it in my hands and not discover it hours later cooking gently in the porch.

Dibleys Nurseries are specialists in streptocarpus, plus African violets, begonias, and assorted other tender plants.  They are based in North Wales, and every year put on a brilliant display at Chelsea. We were once driving home around a congested M25 and kept passing and being passed by a Dibleys van, since when we've shared a standing joke that it is still circling the London orbital, trying to gather sufficient momentum to break free in Douglas Adams fashion and escape back to Ruthin.

This year's Dibleys order was mostly begonias.  Last year I majored on streptocarpus.  They don't really like the minimum temperatures the conservatory hits during the winter, but survive if kept dry.  I managed to kill one of them early on.  I don't know how, having been careful with the watering, but it never rooted out of its little mesh bag and dwindled away.  The others survived, and I potted them into slightly larger pots a couple of weeks ago.  They arrive as plugs, and Dibleys are strict that they must not be overpotted in their first year.  I had a tradescantia as well, which made lots of nice trailing growth then went mouldy and died in the winter, but I have read up on them since then and know that I should have kept it very dry, and that it would have been easy to propagate from cuttings so I could have brought one inside as an insurance.  Buoyed up by my new theoretical expertise I have ordered a replacement, and a couple more streptocarpus, but mainly begonias.

I think foliage begonias must be more popular in the US than here.  Dibleys website isn't overly generous in the information it gives on overwintering begonias, seeming to assume they will be houseplants, but digging around on the web produced a couple of helpful US based sites that suggested they would survive at temperatures not much above freezing, as long as they were kept dry.  They might defoliate completely, but would bounce back with the warmer weather.  I fancy them for the back of the conservatory, and maybe for my new display by the front door, neither of which get sun for the full day.  The front garden might be too windy for them, but I can experiment, provided I can get them past the vulnerable plug stage.  I potted them into small pots, watered them moderately, and stood them on a shelf out of direct sunlight in the greenhouse.  Now it's fingers crossed that they decide to start growing, rather than finding the whole trip from Ruthin simply too exhausting.

A bigger box arrived mid morning, which was my Border Alpines delivery.  I used them last year, and was very pleased with the quality of their plants and the speed with which they arrived. Today's parcel was theoretically tracked, but all I could tell in practice from the delivery company website was that my plants had been to Exeter after leaving Newton Abbot, then Tamworth, then Chelmsford, then on to another van, delivery originally scheduled for Tuesday but rescheduled for before close of business on Wednesday, whatever time that is.  They hadn't taken any real harm from their extra day in a box, and are straightening themselves out now that I've unpacked them, stood them upright and given them a drink.  There are some more drought tolerant ground covering things for the gravel around the railway, plus assorted oddments, a stray Trollius to replace one of a group of three (not from Border Alpines) that failed to reappear after the winter, an auricula because I liked the sound of it and had a couple of spare auricula pots, and an autumn flowering gentian for the terrace (or patio) which I can't do anything with until I've bought some ericaceous compost.

It is going to take me a while to plant everything, in addition to which I've got quite a few home raised plants ready to go out, so common sense suggests I curb my acquisitive instincts and hold off on any more plant orders for a while.

Addendum  There was a most peculiar headline on the Daily Telegraph website, Middle class urban beekeepers blamed for town centre swarms.  The rest of the article was more sensible, suggesting that with the rise in popularity of beekeeping, inexperienced beekeepers in towns were losing swarms which were making a nuisance of themselves.  That's fair enough, but I couldn't work out why the Telegraph's headline writer wanted to drag social class into it.  Nothing in the body of the article had any bearing on the beekeepers' class, merely the suggestion that they hadn't learned some of the basics of beekeeping.  Though even if they had, adding space to your colonies in spring is by no means guaranteed to prevent swarming.

I suppose beekeeping is middle class in as far as it costs some money to do it, but so do most hobbies.  The Telegraph might as well preface articles about cyclists, model makers or home weavers with the adjective middle class.  I'm not sure they do, but type middle class beekeepers into the search box on the Telegraph website and you get quite a few headlines.  I thought about the beekeepers I've known and it came to a pretty broad swathe of society, including several teachers, a dentist, a doctor, a vicar, a Colonel, a former Major turned rare book dealer, an oil industry engineer, someone who used to be in the merchant navy, a hairdresser, a plumber, a pest controller, a former paramedic turned masseur, women whose first priorities were their families rather than their careers, an artisan biscuit maker, a key cutter and engraver, a farmer and a retired factory worker.  And lots of people whose occupations and educational backgrounds I have never discovered, because we are happy to talk about our shared hobby without trying to discover whether the other is middle class.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

in meetings

We had a beekeepers' committee meeting here this evening.  At the moment beekeeping meetings seem to be a weekly fixture, what with the Show Committee and the 2016 Conference Committee on top of the main committee and the monthly club meeting.  I have begun to loose track of the rationale of why which meetings were held where, but think this one ended up in my sitting room because we were bumped out of the hall we'd been using by the Parish Council, which had switched to a different Monday this month because of the bank holiday.

Wearing my Treasurer's hat I was anyway disturbed by the rate at which I was having to write cheques out for meeting rooms.  When members fork out for their strips of raffle tickets at the club meeting I imagine they intend the proceeds to go towards activities everybody can join in with, rather than the committee members sitting down in a series of meeting rooms.  And as fund raising efforts go, I would rather offer the hospitality of my house for a couple of hours than spend a day making cakes or candles that might or might not sell at a country show, since at least this way I get the spin-off benefit of having cleaned the house instead of having to take home slices of cake that have sat in a tent all day.

It must be the warmer weather, for the committee members like the cats are not eating so much as they did when it was colder, and there is quite a lot of cake left over.  It's just as well that yesterday, at the point when I was going to make some biscuits for us after doing the cakes for the beekeepers, I found that I'd run out of self raising flour and caster sugar.  As it is we shall be feasting on leftovers for several days, but fortunately the honey and sultana cake keeps fairly well.

Our Ginger was delighted with the committee meeting and came and sat on several laps, in between lying on his front on the hearthrug and snoring, and lying on his back on the hearthrug and purring.  He loves visitors, especially when they are sitting down and not paying him too much overt attention, what with all those lap-clambering opportunities at his discretion, and a room full of seated people being unlikely to tread on him.  The short indignant tabby loathes strangers, and went and shouted at the Systems Administrator in the study before stomping off into the garden.  She didn't reappear until three quarters of an hour after the coast was clear, just to be on the safe side, and was so overcome with emotion that she climbed on to the arm of my chair and purred. The short indignant tabby never, ever sits in anybody's lap, and rarely ventures on to a chair, having a sort of latent distrust of furniture, so that was a rare occurrence, a mark of how pleased she was to see the visitors go.

It was a productive meeting, and it sounds as though we are making progress with a potential site for a divisional apiary, which would also allow us the use of meeting rooms for committees.  If so that would be a useful saving, since I think we are paying twenty-eight pounds for the next meeting, which equates to an awful lot of raffle tickets.

Monday, 11 May 2015

counting the damage

I gave the borders in the back garden another dose of Grazers this morning, trying to focus on what the rabbits seem to eat.  They are very partial to violets and violas.  My three Viola 'Grovemont Blue', a form of the long flowering V. cornuta in a lovely dusty soft blue, have been eaten to compact cushions with not the sniff of a flower in sight.  The viola and low growing campanula in the rose bed at the top of the bank where the rabbits are living have likewise been nibbled to a non-flowering carpet, and where there should be a covering of sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, there is simply nothing except the layer of Strulch.  Rabbits have eaten it to ground level.

They are partial to geraniums, that is the true perennial geranium, not the tender pelargoniums that confusingly get called geraniums.  Or at least they might eat them too, but they haven't had a chance as I haven't put any out yet.  Some geraniums have been comprehensively defoliated and others not touched, yet, so I gave all I could see a precautionary spray.  I've been spraying the hemerocallis, since back in the winter rabbits were eating the leaves, and while they've stopped doing that I don't want to find they've chewed out the developing buds.

They certainly eat Epimedium flowers.  Most of my clumps have now managed to grow a fresh crop of leaves, both the deciduous forms and the evergreen ones I cut down in February, but I've had precious few flowers.  It has definitely been a poor spring for Pulmonaria and Epimedium displays, and the geums I planted last summer are looking suspiciously stump-like where I suspect there should be buds by now.  In the further rose bed a Cephalaria gigantea is half the size it should be, and an unusual small perennial flowering pea that was a present from a friend has been eaten to a tuft of stalks two inches high.

They don't seem to touch hellebores, though as voles eat the flower buds I'll be treating those with Grazers come the turn of the year, if I decide that it works.  They haven't touched any kind of iris so far.  The sweet rocket is running up unchecked, as are the foxgloves, but I'd expect that given they're poisonous.  They don't seem interested in primroses (though something eats the flowers of the ones on the daffodil bank.  I used to blame the birds, before deciding it was probably voles or mice).  Various kinds of Dicentra and Thalictrum re unscathed.  They don't seem to like any kind of Polygonatum, or Sanguisorba.  In fact, given the choice there are quite a lot of things they haven't eaten, but I've missed the contribution of the ones they have.

It is still early to say how effective the treatment is.  The pink flowered cow parsley relative I treated a few days is now managing to bloom, albeit at ankle height, after being grazed down just as it was on the cusp of flowering.  I haven't noticed any further damage to the geraniums since the first treatment.  As I sprayed this morning I tried to fix the size of various susceptible plants in my mind, so that I can check in a few days time whether they have managed to grow at all.  I treated the tender pinky-bronze new leaves of the Mahonia japonica while I was at it, not as a defence against rabbits but in expectation of another visit by the muntjac.  They had every flower bud out of that shrub a couple of years ago, and might find the young foliage palatable.

At least one rabbit will not be eating any more violets.  The Systems Administrator disappeared back upstairs this morning after breakfast carrying the air gun, now fully calibrated, and took one out in a clean shot as it disported itself among the roses.  It is a pity.  I don't like killing things for the sake of it, but rabbits and gardens really don't mix.  It should have stayed in the wood, or our neighbour's field, where it could have had all the grass and wild flowers that it liked.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

some more flowers

Wandering around the garden today I think I was rather harsh yesterday about the paucity of flowers.  It so happens there aren't many in view from the conservatory, where we were sitting yesterday afternoon, and I was working on the ditch bed which does look rather quiet now the primroses have gone over, so perhaps that coloured my overall impression, just as the public perception of the risks of air travel rises in the immediate aftermath of a plane crash.

I left the Clematis montana under the veranda out of yesterday's reckoning.  I don't know the variety, since it was already here when we came.  That makes it over twenty years old, and it is a good doer, whatever it is, smothered in pink flowers as of now.  They are very vigorous climbers, not for a small space, and there have been periods when this one has billowed far further out from the house than I would like, but it seems reasonably under control at the moment.  It is busily flowering on its old wood while sending out long, hopeful shoots, and I shall go round sometime soon and cut those back to the general outline of the rest of the plant.  It is not scented, but hey, nobody's perfect.  The 'Broughton Star' I planted to go up a holly tree at the edge of the wood is not out yet.

The Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, is also full out, bare pink branches lavishly studded with dark pink pea like flowers.  This has been a slow grower with me.  It did not get off to the best start, arriving as a little plant from the Bluebell nursery with a please look after this bear sort of note attached saying it was so small, could I hold off planting it outside until June?  I did, and it soon became even smaller as rabbits ate half of it.  Since then it has gradually bulked out so that it is now a reasonably respectable shrub, but it's still a long way off being a multi-stemmed tree like I see in other people's gardens.  There is a named variety available called 'Bodnant' with bigger flowers, and I sometimes wonder if I should have gone for that, but it's too late now.

The bearded iris are opening.  I love the flowers, but they make such tedious and tatty plants, forever wanting to be lifted and divided and not able to fight their corner when other things flop over the rhizomes or seed into the patch, that I'm not entirely convinced by them, but I couldn't resist a Peter Beales special offer a couple of years ago of bare root plants from the wholesale firm Howard's Nurseries.  I potted quite a few Howard iris in my years working at the plant centre, and the thought of getting them at something close to the wholesale price was irresistible.  They mostly look lovely now they're out, except that I have managed to get a pale lemon yellow one too close to the salmon pink Chaenomeles that I've already moved because it was too close to a shell pink crab apple.  The ornamental quince certainly isn't moving again, so the iris will have to shift once it's finished flowering, though I'm not sure where to.  One advantage of buying iris in full bloom and planting them then is that you can see what their neighbours are going to be and avoid such unfortunate combinations.

The alpines are out.  I have a few in pots, and some planted last year as ground cover for the model railway.  I didn't try to label them individually to avoid the hamster's graveyard effect, so it requires some detective work with my planting lists to try and work out what everything is.  It would be a good idea to identify the mystery items in the gravel that are doing well, then I could order some more.  I was amazed the other evening when I was looking at the list to see that the gentian in the pot on the terrace is in its eighth season.  It is Gentiana verna angulosa, or should be, and has flowered faithfully every year, forming a very gradually spreading little patch of blue. I would have bothered to get it ericaceous compost if that was what the label said it wanted, and since then it has had nothing except possibly a tiny sprinkling of fish blood and bone or splash of liquid seaweed manure, standing outside in its pot through every winter and being watered with ordinary tap water.  I always imagined gentians would be miffy, an impression that was reinforced when a Gentiana sino-ornata purchased a couple of years later went mouldy and died very quickly, but I was so buoyed up when I realised quite how well G. verna had done that I have ordered an autumn flowering one to go in a pot currently holding some not very inspiring houseleeks, that can go out in the gravel.

Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' is flowering madly.  It is a sterile perennial wallflower, longer lived than some of the other shrubby wallflowers but still not lasting many years.  I think they flower themselves to death, having such a long season.  It is a cheerful shade of mid purple, and the bees love it.  I have a few cuttings on the go, and must take some more.  I could do some sedum cuttings while I'm at it, since a nice trailing form called 'Ruby Glow' that I had for a late summer pot before ripping the contents apart and experimentally setting them out in the gravel has survived the experience and is making a good bushy plant, so I should like some more.  Since discovering quite how ridiculously easy sedums are to propagate I can't see why you would ever buy more than one of any variety.  I have just sent off for a low growing form with pale pink flowers for the railway, and I intend to give it a haircut before planting it out and multiply it.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

spring growth

There is such a rush of leafy growth in the garden, I am slightly amazed to think that I unleashed all of it.  We sat drinking mugs of tea in the conservatory at four o'clock, and I reflected that I had planted everything I could see in the garden, apart from the wild cherry by the septic tank.  All the others, the 'Tai Haku', the wavering spire of the not-a-swamp-cypress, the roses, the poisonous mounds of Aconitum, the emerging peony foliage, either came home as a wee thing in my car, or arrived in a box or bag that I'd ordered, or else seeded itself after I'd conjured up its parent.  Over the years it has turned into a vast amount of plant growth that at this time of the year feels like a glorious tidal wave.

There are not a huge number of flowers in the second week of May, though it scarcely matters because the green leaves are so fresh and many hued.  The wild primroses have finished and so has the gean and 'Tai Haku' and the amelanchier, the tulips are going over, the blue flowers of Brunnera are starting to fade.  The huge ping pong ball flowers of Paeonia rockii are tantalisingly still closed. In the further rose bed Camassia leichtlinii and Centraura montana are making a haze of blue.  In the ditch bed the arching stems of Solomons seal and fluffier white flowers of Smilacina racemosa are out, and lily-of-the-valley is creeping about at ankle level.

In the sloping bed the double gean is still in bloom.  It comes usefully later than the wild single form, and being sterile the flowers last longer.  Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride' is just opening, and the yellow scented azalea is hanging on in there, but the great bulk of flowers have still to come.  At the top of the sloping bed the sombre purple flowers of Geranium phaeum are going their thing.  This is a useful geranium for shady dry corners, though it seeds itself almost too much.

But the main impression is the explosive energy of all that leafy growth.  I looked up at the Metasequoia, and remembered how I picked it out at a now-defunct local conifer nursery under the firm impression that I was buying a swamp cypress.  I looked at the fresh green serrated leaves of the Zelkova, and remembered it as a lanky lopsided seedling in the greenhouse, and I was gently amazed at how stuff grows.