Friday, 31 July 2015

unleash the cats and chickens of destruction

I saw Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat this morning for the first time in ages, slinking across from the turning circle towards the patio.  He gave no indication that he'd seen me, and looked as disreputable as ever, and possibly a trifle thinner.  I was pleased to see him, as he's not been round for so long that we were beginning to wonder if he was still alive.  He is not a pleasant cat, but I'm used to having him around, and feel that any garden with Killer Cat hanging about in it becomes several degrees less attractive to the bunnies at a stroke.  I don't know whether, when he's not with us, he goes off on tour around other local gardens, or if he goes home.  He does nominally belong to one of the neighbours, though I don't think they like each other.

That was after I'd spent quite a long time picking shards of picture glass off the kitchen floor.  I came downstairs to find the lithograph of a ginger cat on a mat, that normally lives next to the larder above the coffee machine, lying on the floor, its glass smashed.  My initial reaction was to blame the cats, since they have been responsible for a long litany of broken things over the years. My rooster mug, smashed when a chase ran over the draining board, an odd Staffordshire china dog on the cloakroom window sill, smashed when a cat tried to climb on to the sill (or out of the window), a hand thrown pottery dish on the dining room table, smashed when they somehow managed to sweep it from the middle of the table to the floor, the turned burr oak bowl that replaced it and went the same way.  But then I reasoned that the cats really couldn't have got at the wall, and they are getting too old for that sort of lark anyway.  I wondered vaguely if there had been another small earthquake, then saw that the string was in two parts, having rotted through.

Thinking about it I should have checked the string before now, since I've had the picture for about thirty years, and it has hung on the same piece of cotton string for all that time.  Fortunately the artwork itself was undamaged, so I have added getting the lithograph reframed to my list of things to do.  The original frame wasn't very smart, a screw together aluminium job, and the picture wasn't mounted.  The framer in the art shop at Little Clacton could make a better job of it than that.  I could get the pair of Soviet posters I gave the Systems Administrator for Christmas framed at the same time while I'm at it.  One proclaims that we will achieve the Five Year Plan in four years, and I must admit I can't remember what the other one means, since they are both in Russian.  If I can find space for them in the cloakroom they can set up a cold war dialogue with the Dig For Victory poster over the loo.  And I should probably check the string on the other pictures, and if any are on ordinary cotton kitchen string swap it for synthetic.

Later on we let the hens out for a run for the first time since losing one.  They do enjoy coming out so much, it seems too harsh to keep them locked up for ever for their own safety.  They amused themselves in the gravel and the bottom of the eleagnus hedge for quite a long time, but then came down to the back garden where I was poised to meet them.  For a moment all four flocked together beautifully, and I thought that those chickens had indeed organised themselves, but then the flock split apart, as some but not all four determined on a visit right down to the ditch bed, and as they went back up the slope I lost track of how many were still in the back garden.  How many hens went through to the front drive?  Was it three or was it four?  Am I feeling lucky?  After wandering about in circles for a bit the SA confirmed that all four were now poking about in the front.  I can't think of any way of conveying to them that if only they would flock better they could come out more.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

two exhibitions

Today's forecast was for showers in the afternoon and I'd been waiting for a wet day to take a break from gardening and catch a couple of exhibitions, so I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see their show of Eric Ravilious watercolours, and the British Museum to catch Indigenous Australia before it ends this weekend.

I started with Ravilious, on the basis that it was best to begin at the furthest point and work backwards.  And I am a very big fan of Ravilious, while my curiosity about indigenous Australia is more of a polite curiosity, heavily based on Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines and a bonkers police thriller Mystery Road that we watched recently on DVD, neither of which should be regarded as an entirely reliable source.  The works at London Bridge mean that trains to north Dulwich are still suspended, and I sulked rather before the event about the faff of having to go round to Victoria to catch a train to west Dulwich instead.  In the event I was lucky with the Circle line and the Orpington train (though travellers at Victoria might have been surprised to see a grey haired woman in an egg yolk coloured raincoat sprinting quite so fast across the concourse) and west Dulwich station turned out to be a shorter walk to the gallery than the other (though not as picturesque because you don't see anything of Dulwich village).  Once London Bridge is finished I'll probably revert to my usual route.

The Ravilious exhibition was very, very good and rather crowded.  There was a queue to buy a ticket, and another to get into the exhibition, and I was glad I hadn't arranged for anybody else to come with me.  My former colleague who has decamped to south London and likes the Dulwich gallery has a low tolerance threshold for queues, of approximately thirty seconds.  The great British public likes Ravilious.  The show still has over a month to run, and the crowd was at about the upper limit of what is compatible with seeing and enjoying the pictures.  But it was worth it for Ravilious.  I love his palette, his obsession with rendering texture, the complex geometry of his interiors (he notices and includes ceilings), the general absence of figures, and the eerie, other worldly atmosphere of his work.  I like his choice of subject matter, coastal scenes, downland slopes, derelict machinery.  I am basically a total fan.

I like the Dulwich gallery too, other than not being impressed by their pop-up coffee shop, where a sole young woman struggled to keep up with the queue of people who just wanted a hot drink and a nibble rather than a restaurant lunch.  Fumblingly slow with anxiety lurking behind her polite smile, I don't think that her dreams of her future included dispensing tea made with not quite boiling water out of an urn in a small tent in Dulwich.  In her efforts to keep the queue moving she had failed to start a new jug of filter coffee until it almost ran out, so that my cardboard cup contained the last of the old coffee topped up with the first of the new after a couple of minutes' delay while it percolated.  The resulting brew was predictably lukewarm, also bitter, and if I weren't  hopelessly meek mannered and English I'd have demanded a fresh cup of something hot.

Indigenous Australia was small but interesting, and about as depressing as you'd expect the history of Australia's aboriginal people to be.  The skill and craftsmanship that must have gone into weaving such nets and baskets from plants and hair was quite wonderful.  Indeed, the exhibition finishes with a video of the last person making baskets by the traditional method.  Examples of his work are to be found in Australia's major museums.  In his day job he works at a recycling centre.  I liked the paintings, in fact, I'd have been happy to see more of them.  I know that they are full of symbolic meanings I can't read, and that I can't tell to what extent they've been modified to suit western tastes or churned out commercially, but I liked them anyway.  Though apart from being reminded that Australia is a large continent and that its indigenous population was not homogeneous, I'm not sure my grasp of Aboriginal culture is much greater now than it was after reading The Songlines and watching Mystery Road, other than that I now know that some tribes produced very beautiful two horned baskets.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

trouble with suckers

The rabbits haven't yet eaten my newly planted Hedychium and Hemerocallis in the meadow.  I sprayed them lavishly with Grazers after planting them out, and took some comfort in the fact that in the formal garden the resident bunnies haven't touched the mature leaves of any of the daylilies. They had a nibble at the emerging foliage back in the winter, but nothing since.  They don't seem at all interested in Crocosmia, so I'm hoping that my plantings of 'Lucifer' will be safe.  This afternoon I gave everything a second dose of Grazers.

Now I'm bashing my way up the bed foot by foot.  It isn't actually too weedy.  There are clumps of the dratted rye grass, and tree seedlings, and moss, which indicates that the soil lacks fertility, but not a huge variety of weeds.  The main nuisance is the nettles, and the suckers sprouting from the hedge.  The nettles are coming up quite nicely after the rain.  They are not established matted patches, which are a different and altogether more difficult proposition, but individual plants maybe a year old.  If I get my fork in under the stems and lift the central portion of the root system, the long running roots can be pulled out of the soil in a satisfying fashion.  Nettle roots are bright yellow, and stringy rather than fleshy.

The suckers are the worst problem.  The culprit is the common dogwood, Cornus sanguinea.  It's generally included as a component of native hedging mixtures, indeed the plant centre where I used to work sold it every year.  And yes, it is native and it is good for wildlife and it has attractive autumn colour.  What nobody mentions is that it spreads like crazy, seeding lavishly, suckering, and sending out long floppy side branches that root where they touch the ground.  Hawthorn is a relatively well behaved hedging plant, one that will grow large but can be kept clipped to a neat shape if you have the time and the inclination.  You will find the odd small hawthorn seedling around the place and that will be it.  Dogwood is incontinent.

I pulled up the smaller suckers by hand.  They'll be back, as the dogwood's root system spreads far beyond the thickness of the hedge and I'm not about to grub the hedge out.  The bigger ones have turned into witches brooms where twenty stems sprouted from each stump of a large sucker that I cut down in the winter when I was trimming the hedge.  I have had to resort to the pick axe to chop out their bases one by one, though it's going to be a slow job getting all the way to the end of the meadow, and there are some tricky stumps tucked in among shrubs I want to keep, where it's going to be difficult to get a proper swing at them with the pick axe.  I'm sure small suckers will soon regrow, so I need to tackle them as they appear and not let them turn into full size shrubs.  I have come to the conclusion that there are two sorts of gardener, those who use a pick axe when gardening, and those who don't.

Addendum  The courgette and cheese bake and the cherry tart were both very well received, so I'll add them to the repertoire.  I'm quite happy taking the time to prepare fiddly recipes provided whoever's eating it makes the right appreciative noises.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

notes from the kitchen

The vegetarian curry went down very well.  We ate the leftovers cold for lunch, with some of the ratatouille, which made a surprisingly good combination.  And anyway, as I told the Systems Administrator, the last time I went to a trendy eatery in Kings Cross next door to the Central School of Art, main courses consisting of improbable mixtures of dishes were definitely In, along with faux hand typed menus stuck to hardboard clipboards with frayed corners.  Which almost certainly means that they are now so 2014, and definitely Out, but never mind.  Leftover curry and ratatouille was what we had.

I did the curry from a little Hamlyn paperback I've had since my student days.  I know that, because it has my initials and pre-marriage surname written inside the front cover.  It's simply called Indian Cooking by Attia Hosain and Sita Pasricha, and is an extremely useful book which deserves to be a classic, though it has probably sunk without trace.  It was first published in 1963, revised in 1981, and has no photos at all.  Its merits are twofold, firstly that everything I have ever made from it has tasted good, and secondly that the recipes are entirely based on things that you could buy in the English provinces more than three decades ago, which means that you can knock up supper out of things you already have in the cupboards, rather than scouring the exotic ingredients aisles of your local supermarket, if not ending up making a special trip to an Indian grocer.  Which is fine if you live in north London but not so convenient in north east Essex.  And you don't end up with several part used jars and packets that sit around the kitchen for ages until they end up being thrown away.  Instead, last night's prosaically named Vegetable Curry number 2 used up some small potatoes and slightly ancient carrots that had been hanging around the fridge for ages.

I use their basic method for dal as well, which is to boil the lentils with some turmeric until they're soft, and season them with fried onion spiced with a lot of chilli and ginger.  You want the onion to be searing on its own, so that by the time it's mixed in with the lentils the mixture will taste of something besides lentil.  Which is not honestly the most interesting vegetable on its own, but great at soaking up other flavours.  I used green lentils, because that's what I had in the cupboard, and they double up for a Spanish sausage recipe I cut out of a magazine some time in the 1980s.

Tonight I'm trying a tart and a bake neither of which I've done before.  The tart is a cherry and polenta recipe out of Dan Lepard's baking book.  The cake mixture, which contains ground almonds and cornmeal as well as flour, is spread out in a wide tin, you scoop out channels in it, and fill them with cherry compote.  The compote is made with tinned cherries and cherry jam, and was a pain to do.   The book said to cook the cherries with a small amount of water for about five minutes until most of the liquid had gone, but my cherries kept releasing moisture more or less indefinitely, and it got worse once I'd added the jam.  In the end I got fed up and thickened them with a tiny amount of cornflour.  The Best Before date on the packet was an embarrassingly long time ago, but the contents smelt OK and there was nothing crawling around in it, so I thought half a teaspoon wouldn't hurt us, before throwing the rest away and adding cornflour to the shopping list.  I made sure the cornflour was thoroughly cooked, but the compote tasted rather mere to me, and in a fit of doubt I doubled up on the amount of jam.

The courgette bake turned out to be more of a performance than I was expecting, once I read the recipe properly.  I enjoyed those of the Two Greedy Italian programmes I saw on the telly, and got the book, thinking that recipes you could do in the back of a camper van couldn't be too complicated, but I'm not sure how much overlap there is between the TV and the book, other than the nice pictures of the two chefs and the Italian countryside.  It turns out you have to coat the courgettes in beaten egg and flour and fry them, turning them into fritters before you even start assembling the bake.  And my version may be a bit courgette heavy, because I didn't know how many slices of junior marrow equated to three courgettes.

Still, the way to avoid being bored by cooking as you rotate the six things you know how to cook is to try new things.  Some become loved staples, and some are left as a once in a lifetime experience (Delia, I am thinking especially of your meatballs).  So maybe the tart and the bake will be delicious, and maybe they won't be.  But by tomorrow night I think we'll both be glad to retreat to the simplicity of a packet of sausages.  Especially if the Systems Administrator cooks them.

Monday, 27 July 2015

gardener and cook

One answer to yesterday's parting question might be Sedum acre, but any other ideas will be gratefully received.  I did suggest box to the Systems Administrator, who harrumphed and said that the previous box hadn't grown at all.  I had to point out that given it hadn't been fed or watered and weeds had been allowed to grow round it, the fact that it was still alive at all was a minor triumph. The SA's book on Planting your Garden Railway wasn't very helpful.  The list of plants for dry shade was short, and the main thrust of its advice was to improve the soil and remove the source of shade, but the soil in our front garden is almost as resistant to improvement as Lady Macbeth's little hand to the perfumes of Arabia, and if we remove the source of shade that leaves us with an uninterrupted view of the lettuce field, and no shelter at all from the easterly winds.

Now it is windy, and the garden looks curiously uninviting.  Unfortunately it's forecast to be windy tomorrow, and the day after that.  Meanwhile I am taking a turn as chief cook and bottle washer, so the morning disappeared in a haze of shopping and cooking.  I went to inspect the courgette plants after breakfast, and found that one of them had suddenly grown a small marrow since the last time I looked at it.  I thought that it must be a very young marrow, and that if I diced it into bits and turned it into ratatouille nobody would notice that it was no longer a courgette, so I got a packet of peppers and some tomatoes while I was out.  I follow Keith Floyd's instructions for ratatouille, other than that I don't bother with any parsley, and he is emphatic that it's very important that each vegetable be cooked separately before combining them.  So I do, and it makes very nice ratatouille, but takes absolutely ages, by the time you've fried onions, and then peppers, and then courgette, and then the tomatoes, and then cooked them all up together for ten minutes. At twenty to one it was still boiling in the saucepan, and we were supposed to be eating it cold, or at least at room temperature, with the one o'clock news.

There is still two thirds of the marrow left, and tomorrow we are having the Greedy Italians' courgette and cheese bake.  I reckon that part of the deal with cooking is that so long as you don't insist on serving up things that the rest of the household actively hate or are allergic to, you can make what you like, and I like vegetarian food.  Tonight we're having vegetable curry.  When the SA asked whether I'd got tomorrow's supper as well I just said Yes, so that the SA couldn't lodge an advance objection to the bake, but I did soften and buy some sausages for Wednesday.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

planting improvisations

I thought I might get most of a morning's gardening in before the rain arrived, but by half past ten I could feel light spits against my skin.  I carried on weeding regardless, in case it was just the very advance edge of the coming band of rain, but ten minutes later it was proper, serious rain that nobody could ignore, and I had to concede defeat and come inside.  Ah well, I needed to wash the kitchen floor after yesterday's honey extraction.

Nipping out to water the greenhouse first thing, since while the pots outside have had ample watering from the sky, those under cover might have been getting dry, I was reminded of several more trays of plants that are bound for the wild border in the meadow.  There are some Gaillardia, three long term survivors in pots from a previous packet of free seed, that I germinated and could then never find anywhere to use them, and some young plants grown this year from a different lot of free seed.  They lack the poise of many garden flowers, and I'm not entirely sure I like them as specimens, but they should look cheerful if they manage to muddle along with everything else, and they ought to be good bee plants.

The Echium vulgare, or viper's bugloss, are definitely good bee plants, but should have been planted out into the soil weeks ago.  This has bright blue flowers held over rather coarse leaves, and will die after flowering.  I'm not sure whether my stunted plants will ever manage to put on a good display now, on the other hand if they do manage to flower then with any luck they'll seed themselves.  In the wild it is found in dry, bare and waste places, so our garden should make it feel thoroughly at home.

Then there are some tall, apricot flowered evening primrose.  I sowed the remainder of an open packet of seed, or maybe it was a free packet, without really thinking about it, and have since realised that I've already got it flowering by the Systems Administrator's blue hut, and don't need any more for the formal garden.  But it seems a shame to throw them away, and they should look reasonably harmonious with the dark red and tawny shades of the Hemerocallis.

They might be joined by three or four sprouting roots of Hedychium.  I am not sure which one, the reason being that when I repotted the plants in the conservatory I threw the oldest roots without any visible buds on to the compost heap.  Nestled under a nice, warm, moist blanket of prunings and poultry litter the old roots staged a remarkable revival, and I found them sprouting when I turned the compost.  There really isn't room for any more ginger lilies in the conservatory, so I might as well try them in the meadow, next to a stand of Arundo donax that was a present from a friend who picked some shoots while on holiday in Madeira and brought them back in her sponge bag.  The soil in that part of the meadow is slightly moister than elsewhere, which is how the Arundo has survived, so it might do for the Hedychium.

It sounds a very improvised, hugger mugger style of gardening, making do with all sorts of oddments acquired by accident or duplicated in other parts of the garden.  And it is.  If I had greater resources, gardeners to do the weeding and an estate carpenter and gamekeeper to deal with the rabbits, and an unlimited budget to buy plants, I would be pickier about it.  I could spend hours drawing up planting plans, specifying five of this, seven of that, and nineteen of the other. But as it is I'm making do with what I've got.  The meadow is an informal part of the garden, run as much for the birds, bees and butterflies as anything else, and anything cheap (or free) that can survive a fair degree of neglect is welcome to fill the gaps between the shrubs and trees.

Meanwhile I am pondering the next challenge, a stretch of the railway garden where the SA isn't planning to put any model buildings in the medium term, and wants the soil covered before a fresh crop of weeds can grow.  What has small leaves, is evergreen, will tolerate partial shade and root competition from the hedge, grow in very light, sandy soil, cover the ground reasonably quickly, but not spread inexorably over the tracks then look hideous when cut back?

Saturday, 25 July 2015

after the rain

We recorded 33 millimetres of rain in the end.  That's a useful amount, an inch and a third in old money.  To put it in context, our annual average total is around 500 to 550 millimetres, or 20 to 22 inches, or to put it another way, we've just had about six per cent of our annual rainfall in twenty-four hours.  The garden already looks better for it, the plants more relaxed, and I can take a break from manoeuvring the hose round corners from one bed to the next.  The top few inches of soil are suddenly miraculously soft, so that when weeding you've got a sporting chance of lifting the roots instead of just scraping at the top growth.

I busied myself pulling rye grass out of the bed in the meadow opposite the wildlife pond.  Chopping the hedge back last winter has let more light in, and the occupants are looking happier than they were, but the planting is gappy, and where you leave gaps you will find weeds.  The rye grass is a curse, a legacy of our first three months here, when the chap renting the next door field sowed it to a rye ley, and sowed our meadow too before we'd had time to fence it off, because he didn't know where the boundary was.  At the time the Systems Administrator said that at least it was grass, but with the benefit of hindsight I should have bought a knapsack sprayer and bulk container of glyphosate that first summer and sprayed every last tuft to oblivion, or kicked up a fuss and insisted the farmer who'd trespassed on our land and sowed it without our permission did it for me. Rye is a horrible coarse grass, that never mows to a close sward, and where it flowers in the areas we keep as long grass it sends its seeds far and wide and clumps of the wretched stuff pop up all over the place.

I've got a motley collection of home propagated plants sitting by the greenhouse that are in urgent need of getting out of their pots and into the ground.  There are Hemerocallis, a purple leaved Persicaria, mallows, red hot pokers, Crocosmia, and some Kalimeris incisa.  They come from a variety of sources.  The Hemerocallis started off as budding plantlets on the flower stems of stock I was tidying up at the plant centre after the flowers had finished.  Some varieties, though by no means all of them, develop little clumps of leaves with a swollen base mid way up their flower stalks.  Tidying the plants meant removing the old stalks and any dead leaves, but it seemed a waste to throw the plantlets on the compost heap, so I took them home and experimentally potted them up.  The strike rate was pretty much one hundred per cent, making it one of the easiest propagation methods ever, as long as you have variety that makes plantlets in the first place.  Most of mine are 'Chicago Knockout' (I think.  They are labelled but I'm not going outside to look at them).

The Persicaria rooted themselves in the compost bin from cut stems I'd thrown in there when I was tidying up in the autumn.  I found them growing some time later, and potted them up.  That might be a rival contender for easiest propagation method ever.

The mallows were grown from seed that came free with a magazine.  They were looking very good about two months ago, and are now looking desperately pot bound in their nine centimetre pots, so I'll see if they recover once they're in the soil, or if they have gone past the point of no return.  The variety is 'Mystic Merlin', and they should be capable of growing a metre tall, if they are not permanently stunted by their check.  The Kalimeris incisa were grown from seed that I bought, and are still looking pretty good, but have just hit the roof of the cold frame so that they are starting to kink and are only in circular nine centimetre pots so need planting out or potting on fairly soon.

The red hot pokers are seedlings I salvaged when I was weeding down by the gate.  The parent plants were grown from seed labelled Kniphofia rooperi, but since red hot pokers will hybridize at the drop of a hat I probably shouldn't claim that name for their offspring.  They make large, vigorous plants with fat red and yellow pokers, and I am fond of them.  I already have some growing in the meadow, but am happy to fill the gaps with a few more.  The Crocosmia are seedlings of 'Lucifer', grown from seed I harvested from the plants in the back garden.

The great question is whether any of them will manage to survive.  I've come across rabbits in the meadow in the middle of the morning, when going up to the bees.  I don't know whether they're living inside the rabbit wire, or are getting through it, over it or under it from the wood, and while I hope to eradicate them, it certainly won't be by the end of next week, or even next year.  The competition from the hedge roots will be ferocious, and I won't manage more than sporadic watering in a wild part of the garden so far from the tap.  I'll get a load of mushroom compost so that they can have a mulch to start them off, and spray them with Grazers, and I might even put up some wire netting as a temporary barrier against the rabbits, as I've got lots in the shed, but in the long run they're on their own.  Rabbits don't seem to touch Crocosmia or Kniphofia, but if they like eating Malva and Kalimeris then they probably will.

Friday, 24 July 2015

garden plants from Latin America

It's raining.  I am sorry for anybody trying to hold any sort of outside entertainment tonight, or tomorrow morning, but from a purely personal point of view I am delighted.  When the Met Office started forecasting rain for Friday, a couple of days ago, I didn't entirely believe them.  So often rain has been forecast, and then the forecast been revised, or the rain petered out the other side of Colchester or swept away to the north without ever reaching us.  There were a few drops as I went to let the hens into their run, and straight after breakfast I headed up to the apiary with a wheelbarrow to pick up a couple of supers that were ready for harvest, before it could start raining properly, but by the time I got back to the house it had stopped again.  I asked the Systems Administrator whether we were in fact going to get rain this time, and the SA without a word swivelled the laptop around so that I could see the rain radar up on the screen, where a solid block of blue covered most of the southern half of the country.  It was actually coming.  We've had 16 millimetres now, and counting.  With any luck it will keep going all night.  So I'm sorry if you are getting married tomorrow, or it's your village open day, but this gardener is really happy.

Thinking about what South African plants I grow led me on to Latin America.  I have just planted Salvia 'Amistad', a gorgeous, not entirely hardy variety with purple flowers and black calyces, bought at some expense (given it was only in a nine centimetre pot) from Crocus.  As I checked online to remind myself how tall it grew so that I could judge how far back in the bed to put it, I came on the delightful piece of advice that it was a magnet for hummingbirds.  Not in north east Essex, alas.  It is a form of Salvia guaranitica, which is found in the wild in Brazil, Paraguay, Uraguay and Argentina.  I already grow the form 'Black and Blue', which has blue flowers and black calyces (the clue's in the name), and that seems pretty happy after several years in the ground, the clump getting gradually wider.  Like many dubiously hardy plants I originally tried it in a pot, and like many things I had in pots for their own protection it did not flourish there.

Another native of southern Brazil, Uraguay and Argentina is Salvia uliginosa, the bog sage.  I've had it for several years at the front of the bog bed, which is by no means boggy, and it seems happy enough.  I've seen them growing in what looks like normal border soil in other people's gardens, but I don't think it wants to be too dry, even if it doesn't positively demand a swamp.  The flowers, which come usefully late in the autumn, are an electric shade of blue, very eye catching.  Bees adore it.  The stems are inclined to flop, and each year when they do I tell myself that next year I should stake it, and then by the time next year comes around I've forgotten.  It runs at the root, making a spreading patch and not necessarily remaining where it started off, but is not the most vigorous competitor.  Mine is being jostled by an iris and a Persicaria, and I might have to take judicial action in favour of the bog sage this winter.

Quite a few Latin American plants have long flowers, because they are adapted to pollination by humming birds.  Fuchsia, Phygelius.  I grow varieties of both, and again cold UK winters can be problematic.  The recent hard winters killed the top growth of all my so-called hardy fuchsias, though they came back from ground level, but you're probably wise to only use them as a hedge if you live in Cornwall.  I've had mixed success with Phygelius.  Some species are hardier than others, which translates to some hybrids being tougher than others.  Over the years some of those I've planted have lived and some have died, and since those that have lived have run at the root most have ended up without labels, and I'm not entirely sure which they are.

Puya are quite another kettle of fish.  They are evergreen succulents, members of the Bromeliaceae meaning they are distantly related to pineapples, and hailing from the Andes and southern central America.  I have two species, P. venusta and P. berteroniana, both raised from seed supplied by Chiltern Seeds, and I am astonished to see (courtesy of Wikipedia) how many species there are in total.  Puya are not the most convenient plants to cultivate.  On the plus side, they germinate very easily, transplant easily, are massively tolerant of almost total lack of water, and if they grow large enough will produce a huge and exotic flower spike.  On the minus side, after producing the huge flower spike they will die, and they will probably die anyway from cold and/or wet if left outside in the UK in winter.  I have seen them growing in the ground at Cambridge Botanic, covered by panes of glass in beds next to a greenhouse, and they did not look happy.  Mine are in pots so that they can come inside.  The leaf margins are armed with backwards facing spines, designed to capture sheep and hold them until they die and provide a nitrogen rich, nutritious mulch.  You can guess that Puya come from infertile and stony places.  They need to be handled with caution, as the spines deliver a nasty scratch.  Because they germinate so easily, and are so rare and exotic that I couldn't bear to throw any seedlings away, I have more plants than I want or need, but when I ask gardening friends whether they would like a sheep eating plant that they will have to keep in their greenhouse over the winter and will probably scratch them, they tend to decline.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

art interlude

I went up to London today with a friend for a trip to Tate Modern.  The main focus of the expedition was their Agnes Martin exhibition, which opened last month and runs until October. Agnes Martin was a Canadian artist.  I'd never heard of her until I read about the show in the Tate magazine, and my friend hadn't heard of her either until she saw a review in Time Out, but we agreed that she sounded worthy of further investigation.  And a big part of the point of buying membership is to reduce the marginal cost of entry to exhibitions to zero, as an encouragement to try new things and those you aren't sure you're going to like.

We were pretty sure we would like Agnes Martin, and were not disappointed.  She was primarily a painter, active from the 1950s until her death in 2004 aged 92.  Her paintings are very, very abstract.  Once she produced a small and perfect preparatory drawing of the outline of an egg, carefully measured out, and translated to a drawing of an egg consisting of a series of neatly calibrated parallel lines in the exact shape of an egg but with no outline at all. The majority of the others are based on grids, sometimes filled with pale washes of colour, sometimes with a zillion individually painted dots that must have taken an almost unbelievably long time to do.

She did not appear to have employed studio assistants.  No Agnes Martin factory to rival the Andy Warhol factory, or Damien Hirst's dot painting minions.  The exhibition notes said that she suffered from schizophrenia, and our assumption was that making her subtly varied, almost endlessly repeating arrays of thin lines and dots was her form of self treatment.  Their effect was mesmerising, beautiful and strangely calming.  The colours were so subtle that on first going into each room we struggled to make sense of the paintings, as there seemed to be almost nothing there.  Then as our eyes (or minds) adjusted the colours became progressively stronger.  My friend is a cognitive psychologist by profession, though her speciality is language processing rather than vision, but it was right up her street.

We were reminded more than once of Rothko, whose Seagram series I find unfathomably beautiful and endlessly fascinating despite the fact that almost nothing is happening.  Mark Rothko was a depressive who eventually killed himself, and afterwards I thought how strange it was that two such meditative and calming bodies of work had been produced by artists who both suffered from mental illness.  Coincidence, or were the paintings attempts at self-soothing that somehow ended up with the ability to sooth onlookers as well?

After Agnes Martin and lunch we made a return visit to Sonia Delaunay, which ends early next month.  That was far busier than the first exhibition, proof either that Tate visitors like brightly coloured, swirling pictures more than pale, still ones, or else that lots of people had suddenly realised that the show was about to finish and they still hadn't seen it.  Sonia Delaunay was great.  I love her palette, especially from her middle period, and the vivid sense of movement in her paintings, and the fact that she designed textiles as well as painted.  We saw the two in the right order, putting the pale and unfamiliar before the previously viewed, colourful and rumbustious. The two combined make a great day trip.  You have until the end of the first week of August to catch the pair of them.

Addendum  There was one worrying moment on the way home when the train doors stuck and wouldn't open at a station, but apart from that Abellio Greater Anglia almost did us proud, only ten minutes or so late on the way in.  They aren't running Sunday morning services until quarter past ten, though, for as long ahead as they forecast on their website, which has put the dampers on my planned trip to the Kew steam museum and gardens with the Systems Administrator, since weekends are when the engines are steaming.  My friend and I agreed that it was great to live close enough to London to be able to go up for day trips, but it would be even better if we could do it on Sundays.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

more South Africans in Essex

I have been considering what other South African plants I grow in the garden.  Berkheya purpurea springs to mind.  It's a member of the daisy family, producing spikes of fairly large, mauve, rayed flowers with dark centres, just finishing now.  The leaves are a delight, grey and hairy with crimped edges like an old fashioned pie crust.  They don't look particularly appetising, but when I first grew Berkheya in the middle of the long bed I had trouble with snail damage.  Now I have them in the middle of some gravel, and molluscs don't bother them.  The plants disappear entirely from sight in the winter, but perhaps keeping their dormant growth buds below ground level is partly how they survive the British winter, because they come back faithfully every year in the spring.  According to Wikipedia they can be invasive outside their native habitat, but in coastal north east Essex they seed just the right amount, a new plant popping up here and there but not enough to cause a nuisance.

Crinum is another.  I haven't had nearly as much success with Crinum as I have with Berkheya.  It is a bulbous species, producing fat, strap shaped, mid green leaves from a huge pointed bulb, and, if you are lucky, stout stems topped with a cluster of big, funnel shaped, pink or white flowers that open in series over a period of time, rather than all at once.  My plants, one pink and one alleged white, are both Crinum x powellii, a hybrid between C. bulbispermum and C. moorei.

Both started life in pots so that they could be taken into the greenhouse for the winter, since I was worried about their hardiness.  For several years the pink one produced the grand total of one flower spike, apart from the year when it pushed the boat out and managed two.  The alleged white has never flowered at all, so its true colour is anyone's guess.  After several years of humping the pots in and out, I began to grudge giving so much valuable winter greenhouse space for so little return, and once I'd seen Crinum growing in the ground in other gardens that was it.  The plants were turfed out to take their chances in the Italian garden.  They lived, and indeed grew, though the alleged white still hasn't flowered.  As of this moment the pink one has precisely one flower stem on it, though I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt, in case it decides to make another before the season is out.

Perhaps they are too dry.  The clue might be in the name, since the common name of C. bulbispermum is hardy swamp lily, and according to that fount of botanical knowledge Wikipedia they are best grown in deep soil that receives and holds a lot of moisture during the growing season.  Just to rub it in Wikipedia adds that they thrive in wet places.  It doesn't have anything to say about the cultural requirements of C. moorei, but I have a nasty feeling that perhaps if I watered my Crinum in the spring and summer they might do more.

Crocosmia are native to the grasslands of southern and eastern Africa.  I've had mixed success with those.  The two that have done well here are 'Lucifer', a tall, splendid hybrid bred by Alan Bloom (of Blooms of Bressingham, he of the steam engines, and earrings when he hit seventy) and 'George Davison'.  I don't know how much of South Africa is in their parentage, as against other bits of Africa.  'Lucifer' is an early flowerer by Crocosmia standards, ours being out now.  It is tall, hitting three feet here, with dramatic, pleated leaves and deep red flowers.  The bobbly seed heads are fun later on, and yield seed that comes true and germinates easily.  I like 'Lucifer' a lot, though it does tent to flop out over the lawn.  'George Davison' is still in tight bud.  It will flower at only half the height of 'Lucifer' in a clean, bright egg yolk yellow.  My patch spreads steadily, but I haven't noticed any seedlings cropping up at a distance as I do with 'Lucifer'.  I suspect George multiplies purely through his corms.

I have tried the delicious, tawny 'Emily Mckenzie' a couple of times, but she has resolutely died. Too cold?  Too dry?  I've had the bronze leaved 'Solfaterre' in two different places, clay and then sand, but it has never thrived, producing sad little leaves and few flowers.  Too dry again?  I haven't experimented further.  I'm running out of space, and have become distracted by Alstoemeria, which are not South African but South American in origin.  Another story.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

South African plants outdoors in Essex

I promised yesterday I would tell you something about some of the South African plants in the front garden.  Chatting to a professional bulb merchant at the lily study day, he said that my soil ought to be great for them, and there are several when I tot them up.  I've never been there, but always admire any displays of South African flowers going at Chelsea.  It is a vast flora, spanning a range of different growing conditions, and among them are some species that find ultra sharp drainage in the Clacton coastal strip an acceptable substitute.

Not the proteas.  I wasted time and money sourcing various proteas from Cornish nurseries before admitting that the winters here were just too sharp for them, and if I wanted to enjoy their exotic flowers I'd have to do so at Chelsea, or else go to a florist.  But some herbaceous and bulbous species do well.

Agapanthus have naturalised.  Most people would recognise an Agapanthus by now, even if they didn't know what it was called.  Imagine bright green strap shaped leaves, and a tall flower stem topped by a ball of slender, blue, funnel shaped flowers, and you have an Agapanthus.  I was once challenged by a colleague at the plant centre when I remarked that they seeded themselves in my garden.  She did not believe they could do that, and thought I must be mistaken and they were running at the root, but there's no mistake, they seed.  I have to grub unwanted plants out from the gaps between paving slabs.  The seeds are large and dark, and don't travel far, so their rate of colonisation into new territory is slow, but give them another couple of decades and they would cover the turning circle.  I'm not sure they could cross the drive to reach the rest of the front garden, but they are very happy in the middle.  I have never been without them since first putting in my first few plants nearly twenty years ago, so I should say they were reliably winter hardy in north Essex, given good drainage.

My original plants were bought as Headbourne hybrids, a name given to a strain was once the by-word in Agapanthus, but has come to signify little after years of seeding and lack of quality control over the results.  The plants in the garden here very considerably, some flowering in a strong shade of fairly dark blue, and others in a soft blue with a lot of grey in it.  I have seen the latter dismissed as muddy, but I like both.  A mix of colours looks more relaxed and natural to my eye than a uniform sea of the strongest possible blue.

Most people have probably seen Dierama before as well.  Their common name is Angel's Fishing Rods.  Long, flexible flower stems rise at this time of the year from tufts of grassy leaves that can look pretty tatty.  Funnel shaped flowers (again) hang down from the stems, not grouped in a ball like the agapanthus but strung out individually at intervals, and the stem and flowers move in the slightest breeze.  Most of mine are pink, from pale to middling, and I don't have full names for most of them, because many are seed raised, either from bought seed or self sown, and they hybridize like mad.

They grow from bulbs, unlike Agapanthus, which some people who have never dug one up assume must be bulbs from their appearance, but are actually herbaceous, growing from great masses of fleshy white roots.  And unlike the hardy Agapanthus, Dierama are evergreen, or should be.  They are not always the easiest things to transplant, but once they settle you will have lots, if they decide they like you.  A different colleague at the plant centre gave me a white flowered seedling from her garden, which is growing in the back garden but no longer flowering as a conifer encroaches on it, and I need to decide whether to risk moving it, and if so when.

You may not know Watsonia.  I went on a visit with a local garden club last year to a garden that grows some, and most people didn't seem to recognise it.  It is another bulb, with evergreen foliage,  more substantial than that of Dierama.  Imagine a glossy Iris foetida, and you're about there.  The plant is borderline hardy, and the leaves appear to hate cold winds.  My first plants were of Watsonia pillansii, which I raised from seed and initially kept in pots in the greenhouse because I knew they weren't supposed to be fully hardy.  They hated life in pots and barely grew or flowered, so in summer 2013 I turfed them out into the gravel to see how they did, as they weren't doing me any good where they were.  They started to bulk up and look shinier and happier almost immediately, and flowered modestly last year.  Since then they have come through one fairly hard and one mild winter, but I did find that the plants that were relatively well sheltered from wind looked much better at the winter's end than the one near the entrance, that gets the main blast of the south-westerlies.  When unhappy, leaves brown at the tips, or die to the base, but remain on the plant and have to be individually cut or pulled out.

They are currently flowering abundantly, in yet another variation on the flowering spike.  The stems are slender but sturdy, upright though sometimes developing with a sinuous curve, and the flowers, held individually at intervals up the stem and opening sequentially from the bottom, are wide mouthed, outwards facing funnels.  My strain of Watsonia pillansii is a luminous shade of apricot, though in the wild I believe they vary.  I know that not everybody likes orange flowers. Indeed, some people seem to regard it as a marker of good taste not to like orange flowers, or yellow, but Watsonia pillansii are simply beautiful, especially when the sun shines through them. Buoyed up by my early success, last year I bought a brick red hybrid and a dwarf pink from the excellent Beeches Nursery, and if I come across any more plants or seed for sale I'll try them. Meanwhile there are tiny, strap leaved seedlings around the feet of the more sheltered W. pillansii which I think are its babies.  Whether they will come through the winter without greenhouse protection is another matter, but it would be exciting if they did.  Otherwise, the plants set masses of seed if I should feel the need to raise more.  Frustratingly, neither of the hybrids from Beeches made any seed last year, so maybe they are sterile.

Monday, 20 July 2015

summer pursuits

I have patched my gardening trousers.  Fortunately Lands End make all their trousers for customers who are six feet tall, just on the off chance, and since I'm well short of that I had some material left over from lopping the bottom off the last pair.  I must admit that this time round I was too idle to take them up, and simply rolled the hems over several times.  That was a false economy of effort, since dust and gravel collect in the turn-ups, and occasionally deposit themselves in little heaps on the bedroom carpet when I get changed.  This is why, if you call on us unexpectedly, you may find a pair of filthy chinos hooked over the handle of the door to the outer lobby, because when I remember I take them off downstairs rather than in the bedroom.

I spent the rest of the day weeding and watering, since the other morning's notwithstanding forecast rain never arrived.  The humidity this morning was so high that there was rain first thing, but it was not so much proper rain as moisture simply condensing out of the air.  We got some fine spray blowing in later on from the lettuce irrigation system in the next field, and I was relieved I wasn't trying to varnish anything outdoors, since the finish would have been ruined.  I ended up watering the area where I was going to put the dwarf lavenders before planting them, because it made it so much easier to dig the holes.

And now I am sitting here churning ice cream at half past eight in the evening.  I got rather carried away buying ingredients when I thought it was going to rain, and then when it didn't I got on with the gardening, and now the cream is dated to expire so I'd better use it.  It is Dulche de Leche Ice Cream, from the big, pink jacketed, Grub Street book on the subject by Caroline and Robin Weir. They are marvellously thorough, and give long and detailed instructions on how to boil the can of condensed milk to caramelise it, before mentioning as a PS that nowadays you can buy tins ready caramelised.  Grub Street are splendid publishers if you are interested in cooking, or aviation.

The South African plants in the gravel in the front garden are looking rather fine, but I think I had better tell you about those tomorrow since my attention now is rather taken up with the ice cream. When the note of the motor starts to change, it will be nearly ready.  And it's getting too late to devote the time I should to describing the delights of Watsonia.  Something to look forward to.

I feel there should be a fifth paragraph.  Just as the advice is to plant in odd numbers, I think three or five would look better on the page than four.  But the noise the ice cream maker is making has just risen perceptibly in pitch.  It should not burn its motor out, since there's an automatic cut-out if the ice cream gets too thick, but once it stops churning you need to switch it off and get the contents out very quickly, or they freeze to the bottom of the churn like cement.  The make is Gaggia and I recommend it, if you are serious about ice cream.  Before I bought it I made the mistake of reading so many Amazon reviews that I researched myself to a standstill.  Every model seemed to have something wrong with it.  The worst you can say of the Gaggia is that it is quite noisy, but it certainly doesn't have any silly little plastic catches that break off or other serious drawbacks as highlighted in the reviews of some other makes.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

no satisfaction

My gardening trousers have gone through at the knee.  It's always the left knee.  Maybe it's something to do with being right handed that makes me kneel more on that knee than the other.  If you are the sort of gardener who likes to get down close and personal with your soil, rather than poking at your weeds with a hoe from a standing position, physios and doctors will recommend the posture of going down on one knee as if making a proposal of marriage, and cultivating the areas you can comfortably reach.  It places less strain on the lower back than kneeling on all fours to work.  That's OK so long as you keep your weight evenly distributed between arms and legs, but you have to learn to resist the temptation to lean forward to get to the weeds that are just out of reach in front of you.  And it is very tempting, once you've found somewhere to put both knees and a hand that isn't squashing anything, to do as much as you can before moving.

I am irritated about the trousers.  Not surprised, since my gardening trousers always go at the knee, but cross at the idea of spending an hour sewing a patch on, or hard cash forking out on a new pair. It annoys me that nobody sells proper gardening trousers with reinforced knees in women's sizes. I've experimented with men's cargo trousers, sold as workwear, but they've been made out of light cotton that ripped at the first rose thorn.  I've searched for army surplus combat trousers in a 28 inch waist but without success.  There is a firm that advertises ladies' gardening clothes in the garden glossies, but I've eyed up their wares at Chelsea and thought they looked too flimsy.  I don't want rose patterns and pink, I want an extremely heavyweight cotton twill with reinforcing patches over the knees.

So much of what is sold for gardeners is pretty crap.  Badly designed, badly manufactured, and half the time marketed at rip off prices.  Like my bronze four way distributor for the outside tap, which I bought because I was fed up with plastic ones leaking and then breaking.  A year to the day after I bought the bronze one, the inlet sheared off.  A manufacturing fault, said the Systems Administrator.  So now I'm back to Hozelock, and to give them credit it isn't leaking yet, but I know it will, even if I bring it in for the winter to save it from frost.  The sunlight will get to it, it will become brittle, and the drips will start, before one day there's a full blown jet shooting out and it's broken.  That's how the last one went, and every plastic hose fitting I have ever owned.  At least, and to give Hozelock some more credit, they haven't changed the design of the wall fitting since the last time I had one of their four way distributors, so the new one slotted straight on to the old bracket which was still screwed to the kitchen wall.  And it came with two hose end fittings included in the price, which I wasn't expecting.  So I am happier than I might be, but still not impressed at a world in which I have to regard four way hose distributors as a disposable item, to be replaced annually.

And gardening gloves.  I have lost count of the number of pairs of gloves I've bought over the years that have dyed my hands either green or a lurid shade of tan by lunchtime.  Not because I've got them soaking wet, or handled solvents, but just from the friction and sweat of normal wear.  Don't the manufacturers test them?  Do they think that amateur gardeners want their hands to look as though they were very badly made up for an extras role in Shaun of the Dead?  And as for buying welding gloves in a size seven, forget it.  Welding is clearly the exclusive preserve of big, strong men taking at least a size ten in gloves.

And the fruit cage.  It was not the manufacturer's fault that I left the netting on mine one winter, believing it never snowed that much in Essex, but it was definitely their fault that when I came to replace the bent roof sections, or rather to try to replace them, the connectors joining the roof struts to the uprights had corroded immovably in place.  The same thing happened to a friend, whose fruit cage was damaged not by snow but by wind, after she had queried with the manufacturers whether they had really sent all the parts she needed, or whether there should not have been some more bracing elements.  They said she had all the necessary bits, then after the cage had bent in the wind admitted that she was right and there should have been some more struts.  And by then, just like ours, the roof connectors were hopelessly stuck and impossible to remove.

The little cages for individual vegetable beds sold in garden centres are no better.  At the plant centre we once assembled one, to show customers what they would get in their expensive box, and I watched as it gradually fell to bits, the plastic corners disintegrating.  It didn't last more than a couple of years.  By the time you'd factored the cost of crop protection into people's home grown vegetables, they might as well have saved themselves some work and simply ordered them from Riverside Organic.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

livestock losses and planting schemes

The remaining hens do not understand why they weren't let out for a late afternoon run, and stood on the roosting board in the hen house, peering out of the window into the front garden like prisoners.  I feel sorry for them, but assuming we do have a fox with a taste for chickens in the vicinity, it seems sensible to break the habit of providing free range chicken dinner for at least a few days.  July has been a bad month for fox attacks in the past.  I've a vague feeling it might be tied in with their breeding cycle and the point when vixens need the most food for their cubs.  The hens are still laying, and so far I haven't collected another of the peculiar, long, thin, soft shelled eggs, so maybe they were from the hen that vanished.

Sombre news came in a group email from the secretary of the beekeepers association that somebody had a hive stolen from their apiary in one of the neighbouring villages.  She warned us to be vigilant of our own bees, and to watch out for any equipment offered for sale in suspicious circumstances.  I consoled myself with the thought that my apiary is about as secure as it could be. Not quite as safe as the hives that one member keeps inside the military correction centre at Colchester, but pretty good.  They are out of sight, the track to our house is a dead end, and it stops at the house, so any hive thief has a choice between lifting the hives out through the hedge to an accomplice in the lettuce field, or barrowing them the two hundred yards back down the meadow to their vehicle, which they would have to park in our front garden or else down the lane in full view of the lettuce farm.

I spent the day weeding the gravel outside the blue summerhouse, where I am planning a Nicole de Vesian inspired (rip off) scheme of clipped Mediterranean evergreens.  So far I have planted five Santolina cuttings, which is all that I have, and three of my tray of Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum'.  I think I've got enough Teucrium chamaedrys, the low growing wall germander, and enough of the small leafed myrtle Myrtus communis 'Tarrentina', but I'm short of box.  I had a low strike rate, for reasons I have not yet divined, and those that did take haven't finished rooting into their nine centimetre pots enough to plant out yet, so there'll have to be a gap for now.  The readers' offer free lavenders (just send £5.95 for postage and packing) did very well, with only one of the forty eight mysteriously shrivelling and dying by degrees, and are ready to go out.

I ran the hose on the planting in the railway garden as I worked, getting up to move it every few minutes.  Some of the heathers have been hit by the drought, and I cannot find one dwarf berberis at all.  It was a very small specimen when it arrived, smaller than I honestly imagined it would be when I ordered it, and I'm afraid I should have put a cane in next to it when I planted it.  Now I simply can't remember where I put it, and though I've walked around peering at the carpet of thyme and sedums and trying to spot it, I haven't seen it yet.  Maybe it has quietly and secretly died, but with any luck I've been looking straight through it and it's in there somewhere.

The thymes have been covered with bees, honey bees as well as wild ones, but for some reason the honey bees have been giving the lavender flowers in the Italian garden a wide berth.  There have been bumbles on them, and a tiny little wild bee that's not even a centimetre long, though you can tell they're bees because they have coloured pollen loads on their legs.  It's an attractive thing, a thyme carpet, at this time of year.  I have odd moments when I wonder if I should have done the whole front garden as a gravel planting and not bothered with a conventional border at all.  Then I remember how long it takes to weed the railway garden and pick all the fallen leaves out it, and do the same for the South African inspired gravel strip at the entrance, and the Italian garden and beach garden in the turning circle, and I have to admit that I couldn't cope with a whole front garden's worth.

Friday, 17 July 2015

weeding, planting, and watering

Notwithstanding the rain that's forecast for Sunday, I have been watering the front garden.  It's a lovely word, notwithstanding.  I wonder whether Michael Gove has forbidden civil servants to start sentences with Notwithstanding, as well as However.  I am quite partial to However myself.  And And.  Lucky I don't work for Michael Gove.  Though he might like the Oxford comma in tonight's title.

I have been planting Salvia turkestanica in the long bed.  This is a good plant in a rather coarse way, with hairy grey leaves and spikes of papery white or mauve, unmistakably salvia shaped flowers. They are not the longest lived plants, often dying after flowering though not invariably, and I should have planted my poor seedlings out six weeks ago.  As it is they have become stunted in their pots, but I'm hoping that given a bigger root run in the open ground they'll find a new lease of life, as long as I water them.  Salvia turkestanica does have one peculiarity, in that the musky odour detectable when you rub against many members of its species has been magnified to the point where it  smells positively sweaty, but this need not be a disadvantage as long as you put it in the middle of a border where you aren't going to touch the leaves.  It's not one to plant along a path so that you brush against it each time you go by, unless the whiff of stale sweat happens to be your thing.

I'm about half way through three trays of dwarf pinks, also raised from seed, slipping them into gaps around the edge of the Italian garden in the turning circle, and the arid centre of the long bed where almost nothing thrives, except for a golden leaved Scots pine, Pulsatilla, and, rather improbably, Gladiolus papilio.  Even the felty grey leaves of that stalwart of magazine articles on plants for dry sunny gardens, Stachys lanata,  have shrivelled back to little defensive tufts, and I had to water the Verbascum nigrum a couple of weeks ago to keep them from collapsing entirely.

My method is to weed and plant with the hose running nearby through its normal spray head, to spread the water across the bed.  I periodically move the sprayer, aiming to give things a good soaking that will keep them ticking over happily for a couple of weeks, not just a quick sprinkle. The Penstemon in the long bed that I rescued from death's door two or three weeks ago are still looking glossy and much happier, though not growing and flowering as they should.  I should have watered more and earlier to get a decent show.  The neighbour's Leucanthemum superbum in their recently planted flowerbed are blooming densely at a height of about 80 centimetres, whereas mine are flowering sparsely at about a quarter of that, a testament to the fact that their gardener has been watering her handiwork more assiduously through the season than I have.

I've been watering the plantings in the gravel of the railway garden as well.   Many of them are recent, and can't be expected to fend for themselves in this drought.  Rabbits have grazed the tops off several things, including a nice prostrate blue veronica that flowered so well in the spring that I thought I must get some more.  They have been eating the scarlet pimpernel as well, but that's not much of a compensation.  They don't touch pinks, and don't seem interested in Parahebe so far, which is strange as the long bed was the first planting I started when we moved here over twenty years ago, and back then they ate some true hebes to stumps.  They don't eat prostrate Gypsophila either, or thrift, but do eat Aethionema, and have had a nibble at a couple of the Rhodohypoxis in the exotic gravel planting by the entrance.  The ways of rabbits are strange.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

lily study day

I spent today learning about lilies under the auspices of Plant Heritage, at the garden at Fullers Mill.  Since being scooped up by a pair of determined ladies from the Suffolk Plant Heritage group I've been to several of their events, and they have all been very good.  Today was no exception.  It was my second visit to Fullers Mill, and I was as enchanted as I was the first time.  I'd go oftener if it wasn't such a long drive, the other side of Bury St Edmunds.

Apparently the Suffolk group put on a plant study day every year, but this was the first one I'd been on.  Last year was about woody plants with my former employer, which both he and I would have found odd, and I'm not sure it even went ahead.  I gather that take up from Plant Heritage members was not very high, but most people don't have room for that many trees in their garden, and by the time they reach an age to be supporting Plant Heritage activities they have probably planted most of those they are going to.  On the other hand practically everybody could squeeze a couple of lilies in somewhere.  They are such vertical plants, they can hover over other inhabitants of the border, or you can grow them in pots.

I don't know much about them, which was a very good reason to grow on the study day.  I've had a few in pots over the years, and one orange flowered variety flourished in the small borders of our old house, but that's about it.  The potted ones gradually dwindled, but I did not look after them very well, and anyway as Noel Kingsbury wrote the other day in the Telegraph, they tend to be ephemeral.  Viruses and wet winters can see them off.  I find the displays of lilies at Chelsea wonderful, in an overpowering way, while suspecting that the growing conditions in our garden would not generally be to their liking.  And I am aware that the pollen is acutely toxic to cats. True, lots of things in the garden are poisonous to cats, and people too, but lily pollen is very sticky and if it gets on the cats' fur they will ingest it when they wash, which they have to do, whereas I trust them not to go about randomly chewing the leaves of Aconitum.

By the end of the day we'd covered growing conditions, pot culture, pests and diseases and propagation, instructed by the Fullers Mill gardeners and the chairman of the RHS lily group, been given fistfuls of handouts, consumed coffee and biscuits on arrival, sandwiches and fresh fruit at lunchtime, and tea and cake before being sent on our way with several packets of seed and a rooted scale in a pot.  And a guided tour of the upper parts of the garden at Fullers Mill with the gardeners and Bernard Tickner, whose life's work it is.  All this for fifteen quid.  Gardens Illustrated and Garden Museum study days, eat your hearts out.  Spaces on the course were limited to twenty, and I thought it was pretty mean that five people had not shown up on the day, and not let the organisers know so that they could fill the places.  I think that next year they'll at least be charging up front instead of trustingly letting us pay on arrival.

One piece of bad news from my point of view is that many of the species I particularly liked do better on alkaline soil.  The gardeners said encouragingly that I could always grow them in pots or go for the oriental hybrids, but I noticed they didn't grow many in pots themselves, and I didn't want plants with brightly coloured flowers the size of a plate.  I have a lot of pots to look after already, and what I really fancied was lilies mid way back in the borders, where the cats wouldn't rub up against them, with wild looking flowers that would blend in with the general vibe of the garden.  Or classically lily shaped trumpets, but they turned out to require alkaline soil.

Being realistic about it the borders are too full already, but I could grow lilies in the end of the wood, if I thought I had time to keep on top of the nettles and push the edge of the cultivated garden back slightly.  And martagon lilies, which have dainty nodding flowers with swept back tips, like soil on the acid side, and unlike many lilies are said to be long lived, once they get established. And seed themselves, though they take six or seven years to reach flowering size.  Seed, apparently, is the only way of propagating them, unlike other lilies which will grow new little bulbs from their individual bulb scales if you detach them, and that is why martagon lilies are so expensive.  Which they are, and is one reason why I haven't made a serious attempt to grow them. Knowing that if I do plant some they should see me out instead of disappearing in a year or two makes me more inclined to try.

Looking at the garden at Fullers Mill helped crystallise some of my thoughts about my own.  It is a superb garden, very relaxed and natural, but each plant is given space to the point of being grown in isolation, surrounded by a neat mulch of gravel or shredded bark, and one visitor said how nice it was to be able to see each plant properly.  We are not going to do that.  I like the jungly look, and for the ground to be covered so that annual weeds find it harder to get a toe hold and I can't see the horsetail.  But stretches of our borders have got too crowded and heavy.  I've been thinking that since early summer, as several of the roses toppled their iron supports and slumped out over the lawn.  Next to them a herbaceous clematis has disappeared beneath a heap of roses and angelica seedlings, while a patch of Acanthus spinosus is running across the bed and sweeping all before it, including some oriental poppies 'Patty's Plum' that I haven't seen at all this year.

I asked the gardener how she kept their Acanthus to such modest, manageable clumps, and she said they were ruthless with a spade in the autumn, following it up with glyphosate if necessary.  So there you have it, the relaxed and natural garden is a carefully managed illusion, kept in check and balance by determined intervention.  I can see that I need to do a serious amount of pruning among the shrub roses this autumn, and take the pick axe to Acanthus spinosus.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

one of our chickens is missing

We are down one hen.  We let them out for a run at six.  The Systems Administrator was busy in the front garden working on the railway, and I was weeding and planting down by the entrance.  We heard nothing, saw nothing untoward, but as the evening drew on, and the chickens came home to roost as chickens do, there were only four.  The grand old lady Maran was there, and the speckeldy with the funny neck, but one of the others was missing.

I could see the Systems Administrator looking at the hen house, and guessed that all was not well. Hens are quite hard to count, when they keep running about and going in and out of the house and the run, but after a few years you develop a sense for when you are one short.  We counted the number roosting, and opened the door of the house and looked inside in case there was one down on the floor or in the egg box, and checked along the length of the run, but in our hearts we knew there was one missing.

We shut the remaining four in, and walked around the garden, looking for an errant hen, one that had forgotten the time, or more realistically for a few feathers to mark the spot where the fox had struck.  Nothing.  The other hens didn't look in the least upset or as if they'd had a narrow escape. But we'd lost one.

My immediate assumption was that it was a fox.  A couple of the hens were especially keen on charging down to the bottom of the garden, and I imagined that while we thought that while she was with the others fussing around in the hedge, she'd gone walkabout and met a sticky end.  That is the most likely reason for her disappearance.  But perhaps she just died under a bush.  We've had two drop dead in front of our eyes over the years, presumably from heart attacks.  Or massive strokes.  We tried to work out when we got the speckeldies, and how old they must be, but couldn't remember.  The SA thought they were at least four or five, which is beginning to be a respectable age for a chicken.  At any rate it's remarkable we've been letting them free range part time for that long without losing one before.

I found an abnormally pale shelled egg the other day.  When hens that normally lay brown eggs produce pale ones it's a sign that all is not well.  Before that one was laying unnaturally soft shelled eggs.  None of them looked poorly, but if the supply of dodgy eggs stops we might assume that the hen was dodgy too.  And if, in the weeks or months ahead, I find a carcass of dark grey feathers under a bush when I'm weeding and pruning, we'll know it was natural causes.  Though if I don't we won't know that a scavenger didn't come and collect the remains in the night.

Poor hen.  It was probably a fox, and I feel a slightly negligent owner who should have tracked their movements more closely and followed on down to the back garden if that's where one went. We probably won't let them out for a few days now, and will then keep a closer eye on them for a while, and then if nothing happens over the next weeks and months slide back into the more relaxed attitude we'd developed by the time of this evening's loss.  Such is human nature.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

planting out (at a leisurely pace)

The Systems Administrator has been photographing the garden through the summer, and got a set of pictures running as a motion activated slideshow on a digital photo screen, switching images every thirty seconds.  It's nice to be reminded of what's been going on out there over the past few months, and rather poignant to think how quickly things fade and pass.  The sea of pink thrift, the yellow stars of Ashphodeline luteus, the papery petals of the oriental poppies, all now just memories and photographs until next summer.

Some of the shots of single rose flowers make the flowers look so round and sumptuous they are worthy of the David Austin catalogue, and the SA admitted to having used a bit of subtle flash to lift them.  Other rose blooms are equally gorgeous, but the pictures serve as a blunt reminder to me that the bushes have got black spot.  I can't see myself spraying them.  I did relax my no-spray policy just a little, to treat the box balls in front of the house, but they are (a) structural and (b) physically isolated.  The roses are too mixed up with and surrounded by other plants, and a whole ecosystem of insects and spiders, and I don't want to spray them, even with fungicide.  The roses will have to live with a bit of black spot, or die and be replaced by something else.

I have been trying to reduce the great stash of plants sitting on the concrete outside the greenhouse, waiting to be planted.  Nowadays they are the feast or famine results of home propagation rather than things I've bought without having a place for them at that moment, apart from three geums and a salvia whose place is not in doubt, but where I've been holding fire while I see if my efforts blocking the gap in the bottom fence have cut back on muntjac visits to the garden.  The geums are to bulk up my current tally of one 'Totally Tangerine', now that I've tested a pioneer plant there and it hasn't proved too dry, but muntjac have been grazing that part of the border particularly heavily, eating nearly all of Rudbeckia 'Henry Eilers' and reducing a plant of Knautia macedonica to a non-blooming dome of basal leaves.  Since they seem fixated on that stretch of planting I thought it prudent to hold back on the new geums, ordered specially and at great expense from Crocus, and they've been sitting outside the front door for two or three weeks. Even our muntjac and rabbits don't graze right up to the door step.

It is a slightly mad time of year to be planting, when the ground is so dry and there's no proper rain in the offing, but the plants are deteriorating sitting in their plastic pots on the concrete, and will be better off in the ground.  So long as I remember to water them.  Things planted in discrete groups, like the Agapanthus 'Lilliput' I've just put in the gravel by the entrance, are relatively easy to keep track of.  I can look in my gardening diary to jog my memory.  Harder are the ones where I've dropped one into the borders here and one there, as I did with some Campanula a few weeks ago.  It will be their second attempt in the ground for both.  I had the Agapanthus in the long bed in the front garden, and the Campanula in the sloping border in the back garden.  Neither did at all well.  The Agapanthus were in about the dryest and most arid part of the bed, and struggled with the soil and the competition from surrounding plants.  The Campanula were likewise in a rather nasty stretch of soil where nothing seems to grow very well.  I dug up what pathetic remains of the plants I could find in both cases, mere scraps of root with weakly shoot attached, potted them up, and grew them on in the greenhouse for several months until they'd recovered to something that looked strong enough to risk planting out.

I hadn't managed to get much done by the time I finally gave up, driven indoors by incessant fine drizzly rain.  It was really infuriating rain, not enough to give any help to the plants, just enough to make the gardener slimy and uncomfortable after twenty minutes of crawling about in it.  The rain radar shows proper rain all afternoon only three miles to the north of us, but that might as well be in another country.

Monday, 13 July 2015

in the bank

I banked the beekeepers' money from the Tendring Show first thing this morning, after spending most of yesterday counting and double counting it, and digging through files to see how the results compared with last year.  A big improvement on 2014 is the answer, but we'd better not get too cocky about that, since sales were only back to where they were in 2013.

Journalists, analysts and futurologists who predict the imminent demise of cash seem not to have thought about voluntary organisations and summer fairs.  We managed with four tin cash boxes and a tupperware container.  Would we run to five hand held terminals for swiping people's contactless cards?  I doubt it.  And would I agree to take responsibility for the results, and any ensuing arguments about their transactions?  Definitely not.  At least when somebody hands you a five pound note you and they both know that money has changed hands.

The count took all morning, and anybody who ran their own shop would probably have done it much faster, but I don't often handle much cash.  I did spend two days of my life preparing, double and triple checking a two hundred and fifty million pound programme trade in medium cap UK equities, and once signed off on a sale of BP shares that ran into the low billions, when the investment company I worked for was reducing its weighting in oil stocks, but most of my own shopping is done with digital money.  So I am not used to having the best part of sixteen hundred pounds swirling around on the dining room table.

My first step was to remove the floats, note for note and coin for coin, and restore them to where I'd borrowed them from in the first place, forty quid to the Systems Administrator, sundry coppers to the change pot in the study, and the balance to the store of accumulated beekeepers' tea and raffle money I'd been delaying banking specifically so that I would have a supply of pound coins for the show.  Then I counted the tea and raffle money again, and was very happy that it came to the same amount as it had before I took the floats out of it.  Then I counted the contents of every cash box in turn, and for each individual box and the tea money I made a note of how much there was in twenty pound notes, how much in tens, and so on right down to the one pence pieces.  Then I worked out how much I should have across all the pools of money in each denomination, added that up, and was very happy indeed when it came to the same amount as the grand total for the separate totals for sales of cakes, honey and candles, and squash, plus candle rolling, bee colouring, and the pre-show tea and raffle money.

Then I checked all my calculations again, and checked the money again as I bagged it up in accordance with the instructions on the bank's plastic bags, twenty pounds in one or two pound coins, ten pounds in ten pence pieces and so on.  This is why it took all morning, but I was pretty sure at the end of it that I was right.  Which is why I was not best pleased when the bank teller claimed that I was ten pounds short, and demanded to know what I wanted to do about it.  She recounted the pennies in front of my eyes, which was not at all helpful since pennies clearly had nothing to do with it, and made incomprehensible jottings on a piece of paper.  I asked if she could tell me which part of the payment was wrong, and she elaborated that it was the ten and twenty pence pieces.  I checked that there was not a stray bag of change left in my two layers of plastic carriers, although I already knew that there wasn't, and began to wonder if I could possibly have left a bag on the dining table, though I knew that I hadn't, or else got confused between bags made up to ten pounds and those made up to twenty.

Despairing as to how I'd made a mistake when I'd taken so much care over it, I had got to the stage of meekly getting a ten pound note out of my purse, and the teller putting it in a drawer, before she discovered the missing bag of ten pence coins sitting on the cluttered little desk in front of her. Even then I had to remind her to give me my ten pound note back, and there was a very long queue behind me by the time we'd finished.  Still, given I've been gloating that we get free banking, I can't really grumble if something we don't pay for turns out not to be very good.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

learning by doing

I make mistakes so that you don't have to.  It's amazing how the things we don't think about trip us up.  Take the example of the row of five begonias in pots on the shelf in the porch.  The porch faces east, and is recessed into the side of the house to a depth of around two and a half feet.  The exact dimensions are not important, and since Our Ginger has just got comfy tucked up against my hip as I type this, I'm afraid I'm not about to get up and go outside with a tape measure.  The Systems Administrator built the shelf so that I could display pots of flowers, and after experimenting with various combinations I've decided that simple is more stylish, so nowadays use a row of identical pots of the same plant.  Last winter it was pink cyclamen and white cyclamen the one before, and this summer it is orange flowered begonias with purple leaves, in new, crisp, fairly bright terracotta pots that coordinate with the colour of the flowers.

They were something of an impulse purchase, though as the porch doesn't get a great deal of light the range of what I can grow there is somewhat restricted.  I don't think pelargoniums would be happy, so when I went shopping for summer bedding begonias or impatiens were on my mental shortlist.  It so happened that I saw and rather liked the begonias, and didn't see any classic white flowered New Guinea impatiens, which I might well have bought if I'd found them first.  The begonias are maybe a tiny bit insistent, and I'm not sure whether at the end of summer I'll attempt to overwinter them, or decide they were good for a few months but I've had my fun and discard them.  Probably the former, knowing my visceral affection for plants, though sentiment and good garden design don't always go together.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that the begonia at the front of the shelf, that got more sun than the others, was shorter and more floriferous.  Wanting them to be an even height, without thinking I switched it with the one at the back.  This was an error.  Plucked forth from its shady corner and exposed to full sun for part of each day the plant from the back of the row has got sun scorched.  I am slowly turning it so as to hide its damaged leaves, but another consequence of having been in the corner is that it has grown unevenly as well as lankily, and if I turn it too far I'm looking at mainly stalks plus the backs of the leaves.  So now you know.  Plants that can habituate by degrees to strong sun don't necessarily cope well if thrust abruptly from shade to bright light.

The second error was a mechanical one, another cake failure.  I am slightly more disappointed with myself about this mistake since I noticed at the time that the instructions were anomalous, and failed to think the problem all the way through.  Once again it happened with an unfamiliar Julie Duff recipe, she of Cakes Regional and Traditional, but this time it isn't really her fault.  I followed a recipe for a honey sponge cake, made with wholemeal flour and brown sugar but otherwise the same proportions as a classic Victoria sponge or her reliable lemon loaf, identical weights each of flour, butter and sugar, and one egg per two ounces of flour, with six ounces of each of the dry ingredients and three eggs.  She said that she always cooked it in a seven inch ring mould and could not imagine it in any other shape, adding that if you didn't have a ring mould you could use an ordinary tin instead.

I hadn't and so I did.  I was surprised enough at the time that the cooking time was given as only thirty to forty minutes to check my recollection that the lemon cake, made with the same weight of ingredients, needed fifty to sixty at the same temperature, but not so curious that I thought about it further.  The cake felt firm to the touch after forty minutes, and a skewer came out clean, but by the time I'd followed the final stage of the instructions and poured eight ounces of warm melted honey over it the centre had sunk slightly but ominously, and as I tried to turn the cake back the right way up the middle fell out.  It was not cooked through, and being unused to cooking with wholemeal flour I'd been misled by how brown it was and how firm it felt.  But I should have persisted with my instinct that the suggested cooking time could not be long enough, and of course a cake cooked in a ring mould with no centre would be ready in a shorter time.

It just goes to show how it's always worth thinking what you're doing with cake, and not just blindly following the written instructions in front of you.  Fortunately although underdone in the middle the cake was not disgusting, and the Systems Administrator suggested we hot it up, serve it with cream and call it pudding.  I have ordered myself a ring mould for next time, as I've fancied one for a while.  There are some sponges that specifically need one, just to get the lifting effect of that column of hot air up the middle.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Show day

Today was the Tendring Show.  The Systems Administrator asked me when I got home whether it had gone well, but I never feel I know that until mid way through the following day, when I've gone through the cash and seen whether it all makes sense or not.  Certainly our stand looked very nice, and the volunteer helpers and visitors both seemed pleased with it.

The Show organisers had given us a generous amount of space, with a larger marquee than we've had in some years, and room for a veritable tent city of overflow gazebos at the end, plus space to park a van.  We always keep a vehicle next to the stand, just in case there is any sort of serious problem with the observation hives containing live bees, and we need to bundle a cover over them and get them out of the way quickly.  Having enough space to set everything out without different sections being virtually on top of each other made for a much better flow of visitors through the tents than in some years, and there were no volunteers who could say that their section had been neglected because the public never made it as far as that corner of the tent.

Our membership secretary, who is also chairman of her local gardening club, had done a great job setting up an array of bee friendly plants in pots in front of the tent, behind a natty little picket fence.  As I arrived at a very unearthly hour of the morning (it's ages since I was up in time for the shipping forecast, and I felt quite nostalgic) and peered along the line of tents in the wildlife and countryside area, trying to work out which one was our's, the barrage of flowers hit me from a hundred yards away.  She deserves double credit for persistence, because the chairman was very unenthusiastic about the idea of flowers, afraid they would be tatty, and triple credit for spending the entire day dressed as a bee wearing a pair of gauze wings, and black and yellow deely boppers on her head.

You meet all sorts of people at the Show, and so I ran into my former GP, an old colleague from the plant centre, and a couple from the music society who seemed surprised to discover I kept bees. They said I had kept it very quiet, but it isn't something that necessarily crops up at a concert.  I was manning our tent all morning, but free to wander in the afternoon, and my favourite parts were definitely the demonstration of traction engine driven threshing, and the golden eagle on the hunt stand.  And the goats.  I like goats.  The sheep lie down in their pens, resigned, but the goats look as though they were plotting their escape, and they have those mad eyes with strange oblong pupils.  Actually, the cattle were pretty good as well, and the judge explained something about what he was looking for in each class and why the winners had won, which made it more interesting.

The Systems Administrator came first in the photographic class for a picture of A Bee.  I don't think there is a prize, but I brought home the little piece of red cardboard saying First Prize for the SA to see.  I didn't do so well in the novice honey, since all of us who entered had made such bad mistakes that the judges refused to judge it.  There was no feedback about what it was that we had done wrong, so I have learned nothing from the experience to help me to do better next time round, beyond having my lack of enthusiasm for showing honey reinforced.  The only reason I entered any honey in the Show was so that I'd be eligible to sell some, and since my honey had sold out by lunchtime I was happy with the verdict of the public.  And surprised.  I really wasn't sure they'd go for a dark honey, but only two of us had brought any, and not much at that, and it was the first to run out.

Friday, 10 July 2015

an evening of folk and blues

I went last night to the Mercury Theatre in Colchester to hear a couple of blues guitarists.  They were on as part of the theatre's first ever Lights Up! festival, a celebration of the extraordinary range of creative and performing arts talent on display here in Colchester and in North Essex (that's what it said in the brochure).  I am not sure if the Mercury's Artistic Director found the extent of local talent extraordinary because it was so much than you would find anywhere else, or if it was simply more than he expected because he didn't imagine north Essex would throw up any artistic talent, but either way he's having a festival of it.

The show was billed as an evening of contemporary folk and blues, and featured Ramon Goose and Adrian Nation.  I'd never heard of Ramon Goose, but blues isn't my specialist subject so that didn't mean he wasn't famous in blues circles.  I'd heard Adrian Nation a couple of times before and thought he was good, so was prepared to take a chance on Ramon Goose.  Adrian Nation lives in Clacton-on-Sea, not renowned for being a cultural hotspot.  He is tall and thin, with long hair and an earring, with a very Essex line in sardonic chat, and I suspect an extremely kind heart, and he is a very good guitarist.  My dad has also heard him and liked him, and thought he'd heard Ramon Goose as well, though when we got to the interval he had to admit that he'd muddled him up with someone else and hadn't.

The Mercury was nowhere near full, which was a shame given the quality of the guitar playing on offer.  I wasn't entirely surprised.  Blues is a pretty niche interest, and a hot evening in July is not the easiest time to fill a theatre.  I got the impression that Adrian Nation had brought his own fan base, but that Ramon Goose had lived away from the area for too long and hadn't.  He turned out to be a technically superb guitarist as well, though I preferred his traditional blues and spiritual numbers to his self penned songs.  It is very, very hard to write good songs.  Many try and few succeed.  Ramon Goose was rather a contrast to Adrian Nation, being short and roundish with cropped hair and a boyish face, and I fell to wondering once or twice at the fickleness of fate, that the short, round, good natured Ed Sheeran who hails from these parts was playing Wembley stadium, while the almost certainly technically superior Goose was playing to a half empty Mercury theatre.  I guess charisma and luck come into it, or maybe Ed Sheeran writes better songs, thought the ones I've heard on Radio 2 haven't left me rushing to buy the album.

The audience were very well behaved, apart from the man in the row in front of us who kept putting his phone on.  Gentlemen and ladies, that little luminous screen is highly visible in the dark to everybody in the rows behind you.  Your texts can keep until later.  He seemed to know Adrian Nation, but that made it more annoying since he should have been behaving.  One of the things I like about live classical music is that while you get the odd bit of programme rustling, digital devices remain firmly out of sight for the most part.  Ramon Goose seemed rather spooked by the silence, and invited us to natter since he was playing blues, but thankfully nobody took him up on the suggestion.  If I've set an evening aside to go to a concert and forked out on two tickets (belated father's day present) I'd like to concentrate on the music when I get there.

I'm not sure the Mercury will do it again.  Adrian Nation and Ramon Goose would probably have been better off at the Headgate Theatre, which has got a track record of putting on acoustic folk and blues, and has a smaller auditorium that they might have filled.  Or else the Arts Centre, which knows how to make itself look full by setting up cafe style tables and chairs at the front for folk acts that haven't sold enough tickets to fill the central aisle.