Saturday, 31 October 2015

candle making

Today is All Hallows Eve, the festival of darkness, but we spent the morning at a friend's house in a celebration of light, making candles in her garage.  Pure beeswax candles are a joy to burn, smelling sweetly of wax and casting a flattering golden glow that is very kind to middle aged complexions.  Candles are not difficult to make if you have the right kit, but the equipment is not cheap and the process is messy.  Making them occasionally in somebody else's premises, using the beekeeping society's equipment supplemented by your host's, and dripping wax on their garage floor and not your own kitchen, is the way to do it.  One of the Suffolk seasonal bee inspectors told me she once caused a small fire in her kitchen when the newspaper she was using to keep wax drips off the worktops accidentally caught in the flame of the gas hob.

You can melt beeswax in a water bath.  The water does not need to be boiling, and it is better not to let it boil in case it boils over, like ours did this morning.  Wax floats, so you can clean wax from the hive by adding it to a pan of water and heating it, then skimming the wax from the surface while the dirt and impurities drop away through the water.  Do not do as someone did writing recently in the British beekeepers' magazine, and let the whole thing cool down, then put it back on the heat if it has formed a continuous layer of solid wax on top.  The water boiled before the capping melted, and the resulting jet of escaping steam shot bits of wax over his kitchen ceiling. After that his wife banished all activities involving wax to a shed in the garden.

You can make a lot of candles when you are getting the wax at cost, four long one inch diameter dipped ones and three small moulded ones for a tenner.  Moulds are made out of silicon rubber nowadays and are marvellous.  You don't need to coat them with any kind of release agent, and the candles come out with lovely crisp detail, as long as they're given enough time to cool first.  The rest of the equipment is less high tech, pairs of cocktail sticks tied together with rubber bands to rest across the top of the mould, gripping the wick so that it stays upright in the centre of the candle, and little bulldog grips to clip the wicks of the dipped candles, so that you can hang them from a nail while they cool and harden between dunkings.  Otherwise you would have to stand there holding them, and would not be able to drink coffee and eat biscuits while candle making.

Something I did not know until this morning is that you cannot melt wax in any old saucepan.  The wax contains acids that will attack some mild steels.  I filed this snippet away along with Matthew Parris' advice not to heat wax in any saucepan you ever wished to use again for any other purpose, though I'm not planning to heat wax at all, except at candle making events organised by somebody else.  I can see the attraction, though.  Maybe after today I am a little more tempted than before.

Oh, and wear shoes you don't mind dripping wax on as well.  That's my other piece of advice.  And don't even think of doing any of this outside when it's warm enough for the bees to be flying in numbers, or you'll have a garage full of bees attracted by the smell.  We had a few even today, in late October, and when we got home there were some out foraging on the Mahonia.

Friday, 30 October 2015

indoor gardening

I spent part of today tidying the conservatory.  Ours is a conservatory in the Victorian sense of the word, a glazed garden room used to grow plants.  There are two chairs and a little table, but no soft furnishings except for a couple of modest cushions that came with the chairs, and are by now slightly mildew stained, also lightly covered in cat hair because Our Ginger and Black and White Killer Cat both like to sit in there (though not at the same time).  No sofa, no scatter cushions, no chintz table cloth, no rag rugs, practically none of the set dressing beloved of garden magazine photographers.  The floor is tiled with utilitarian red terracotta, and there is a central drain for excess water to drain away when I'm watering the many pots.  There is an elaborate circular wirework multi-tiered plant support in the middle, bought in a sale, and a small wall fountain.  It is so crammed with pots it would be a squeeze for more than two people to sit in there.

We sometimes have tea in the conservatory in the afternoons, though not today because I'd made such a muddle tidying it up.  Back in the summer I fitted some white fairy lights around the top of the windows, and was very pleased with myself until the first time I demonstrated the effect to the Systems Administrator, who remarked mildly that I'd used the wrong lights.  I was supposed to have used some LEDs bought last year for the Christmas pot of hazel twigs in the study, which were much too long but the only ones left in B&Q by the time we got round to buying them.  We'd agreed that I would use those in the conservatory and get a shorter string for next Christmas' twigs.  By midsummer my memory of the Christmas lights was fairly hazy, and what I'd actually taken was the non LED set the SA uses for the bannisters.  Both are nominally white, but the LEDs cast a bluish light, while the conventional bulbs are a warm yellow and come with a controller with a choice of elaborate sequences, and the SA wanted them back.

The conservatory as built came with a full set of plastic rings on a sliding track, meant for fitting curtains.  We have never wanted curtains in there, and while the odd ring has got broken in the course of using them to tie up wayward branches, most are intact.  The conservatory is aluminium, and I've never felt comfortable about drilling holes in it to fit hooks for tying in plants the way I would if it were wood.  I had fastened up the first set of lights by tying them to the plastic rings with the coated wire fasteners from a packet of sandwich bags, which meant that today I had to go round untying the wires before repeating the exercise with a different set of lights.  It turned out that I had not been consistent over whether I twisted the wires around each other clockwise or anticlockwise, and it was not very easy to see what I was doing, peering up in the dim autumn light.

The new lights are actually a better length, reaching around all three of the glazed sides of the room.  The rear wall is brick, but had to have its own wall built instead of being tacked on to the back of the house because we are on such a slope.  It's a shame in some ways that it isn't en suite to the rest of the house, and it would probably add more value to the property if it were and could be counted as an extra room for marketing purposes, on the other hand it would cut down the light to the study, and it's nice to have the view.

Meanwhile the plants in the conservatory are starting to think that it's autumn.  Some of the begonias have defoliated and dropped half their brittle stems.  I'm reasonably optimistic that if I can strike the right balance between not letting them sit too wet and not letting them dry out completely then they will shoot again next year, though experience teaches that they are quite late into growth and it's necessary not to panic when by late spring still nothing is happening.  The tips of most of the shoots on the Correa have suddenly lost their leaves as well.  That is more of a mystery, in fact a complete mystery.  I have no good theory why the Correa is going bald from the tips backwards.  I trimmed off the bare shoots before they could die and go mouldy, which is no bad thing as it should encourage it to stay bushy, searched for pests but couldn't find any large munching creatures, tut-tutted over some small patches of sooty mould indicating a sap sucker had been at it, and will probably give it a precautionary dose of insecticide when I've finished working in there.

I found a terracotta pot for display purposes for the new Tibouchina urvilleana, as near in size to its existing black plastic pot as possible.  I don't want it sitting in lots of unused compost over the winter, on the other hand a bog standard 3 litre black plastic nursery pot is not a thing of beauty, and everything else in there is in clay, except for the Eriobotrya 'Coppertone' that needed potting on for its health, and is now in a container so large that if I could ever find a clay one that large it would set me back an amount in three figures.  Four figures from the Whichford pottery.  And I would not be able to lift either to get them round into the back garden and up into the conservatory.  The Eriobotrya was repotted last autumn, and I agonised at the time about whether that was the right thing to do.  I can now report that it was a complete success.  I tried to direct water on to the original rootball through the winter, until it had had time to root into the new compost, and over the next few months the leaves greened up and the problem of leaf spotting disappeared, there was a healthy flush of new leaves in spring, and the whole canopy thickened.  I will never be able to find a larger container than the one it's in now, so if and when it becomes root bound again it will have to be root pruned and repotted in the same tub.  Let as hope that is not for a few years.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

a dog's life

Acorns are poisonous to dogs.  I did not know this.  Never having had a dog, I've picked up odd snippets about what they should and shouldn't eat, but not in any systematic way, and some of the advice seemed overly cautious anyway.  When I read that grapes were poisonous to dogs I remembered Gerald Durrell's account of the family dog Roger crunching his way through bunches of them on the vine and thought Oh, really?  Roger was still alive in the next chapter.

My dog owning friend equally did not know that acorns are poisonous to dogs, and when she saw her dalmation Lucy eating acorns on a walk the other day she did not stop her, merely remarking that she was sure Lucy shouldn't be doing that since acorns weren't good for her.  Turns out they are more than not good for her.  Lucy's ensuing stomach upset was quite horrendous, and she is now on a course of pills from the vet that my friend has strict instructions to make sure she finishes, and a diet of chicken and boiled rice.

I am selfishly relieved I went round for coffee today, and not earlier in the week.  Lucy is now quite bouncy, and almost restored to health.  She does not like the pills, and my friend found one spat out in the corridor while I was there.  She is pretty bored by the chicken and rice diet as well, and ate the cat's food when the cat was not quick enough off the mark emptying the dish.

The cat is not allowed to have a cat flap, since the previous cat had a habit of bringing live rats into the house.  Instead she comes in from the garden under direct human supervision to make sure she is rat free, either through the door or the kitchen window, which my friend jumped up to open for her more than once in the time it took me to drink two cups of coffee and eat two biscuits. Then the cat had to have some more food out of a dish on the table, because the dog had eaten the first lot.  My friend apologized, but I didn't mind.  It's a relief to see that other people's animals are about as firmly in the driving seat as ours.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

out with the old

I had a moment of panic as a spreadsheet transferred over from my old to my new laptop failed to open, the computer saying that no programme existed.  The panic was mixed with confusion, since other spreadsheets had opened perfectly well.  I went and presented the problem to the Systems Administrator, then after a few minutes watching what the SA was doing while he muttered and clicked buttons realised that the puzzle might be easier to solve without me sitting there exuding anxiety at every pore.

The root of the problem was that the old laptop had been running on Excel 1997-2003.  That is quite old, 1997 is getting on for twenty years ago.  It couldn't have been the latest version of Excel when the SA originally installed it, but I suppose it was what we had a licence for at the time and was not so ludicrously old when the old laptop was new.  The answer turned out to be that while I couldn't open the affected spreadsheets via the file manager, I could get into them if I opened Excel first.  The SA advised me to stop running anything in compatibility mode and start saving them all in the current version.

It's quite sobering how quickly digital storage technologies go out of date.  When I got my first computer it was back in the days of floppy discs, and then my second computer didn't have a floppy disc drive, and I bought a plug in one.  I have no idea whether that is compatible with my latest laptop, but if it isn't then anything I've still got on floppy is lost to me.  It's enough to make one appreciate the value of writing important things down on vellum, even now, a medium requiring no other device to read it, which if kept dry and protected from rats will still be perfectly legible a thousand years hence just stored in normal atmospheric conditions.  One of the details I like about Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale is her conceit of the story being a narrative uncovered by future historians, who are unable to read it for some time until they have found or built a suitable reader for the storage device.

Spurred on by the panic over the spreadsheets, and the fact that I have just bought a pack of cheap USB sticks on Amazon, I enlisted the SA's help and finally switched on the even older computer, the desktop that was superseded by the old laptop and has been sitting gathering dust on my desk ever since.  I stripped all the documents I needed out of it when I got the old laptop, but not the photos, such as they are.  It had lost its keyboard in the intervening years, and the SA had to lend me one, and fish out a mouse, but to our joint amazement it started up with no protest, apart from some whinging that its Kapersky subscription had lapsed.  The SA had thought it might be freaked out by the mighty capacity of the cheap USB sticks, but I was able to download the photos with no hitches at all.  The SA even managed to salvage my old screensaver, a photograph of the hollow interior of an oak tree that I'm rather fond of, and will be replacing Microsoft's tacky barley field with a young woman walking through it just as soon as the SA can remember how to do screensavers on my new machine.

The old desktop will be off to the dump the next time I'm going that way.  For form's sake the SA had better remove the hard drive first, though really if anybody can be bothered to reconstruct my decade old tax returns from it they're welcome to them, likewise if they want to look at some pictures of the garden and a now deceased cat that's fine by me.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

trouble with cats

I went to London today because my aunt was giving a lunchtime concert.  I felt a slight pang because it was forecast to be the only dry day for the rest of the week, but that couldn't be helped, as today was when the concert was.  In the end it's all swings and roundabouts, since the last time I met a friend in town we turned out to have chosen the only wet day.  She solicitously asked me whether I wanted to change the date, but spending a rainy day at lunch and then in the British Museum suited me fine.  Still, fanatical as I am about gardening, even I have grasped that a life built on only bothering to see your friends and relations if it's wet is not tenable, not if you want to keep your friends and for your relations to be speaking to you.

After the concert we went to catch up on the family news over a cup of tea.  My aunt and uncle are currently up to eight cats.  Three are only kittens, a few weeks old and still at the pointy tailed stage, but the other five are permanent residents, two breeding females, a male stud imported all the way from America, and two neutered toms.  I had forgotten that some time ago I warned my aunt that once you have five cats you are in borderline mad cat lady territory, but apparently I did. It remains my view now that we are down to two, and my aunt admitted she had to agree with me.

The cats are Korats.  I'd never heard of the breed, being more of an Essex mog afficionado apart from our one foray into the world of the Maine Coon.  They are very pretty, neat, chatty little cats with short, dense, smoke dark fur.  Some time ago I agreed that if anything were to happen to both my uncle and aunt, the Systems Administrator and I would agree to be the Korats' guardians.  The agreement still stands, though I think I was imagining two or three cats rather than eight.

According to their association website they are generally of a gentle disposition, intelligent and enjoy company.  Certainly the last time I met any of them they were delightful, but apparently they have recently been getting on each other's nerves.  One of the breeding females has taken to beating up the neutered males, who in turn hate the stud.  The stud can have only limited access to the house, otherwise my uncle and aunt would be knee deep in unplanned kittens, so has his own cat house in the back garden, only it got too hot in the summer and now it is getting too cold. When he was living in his cat house one of the neutered toms used to sit in my aunt's music room at the back of the house, glaring at him out of the window.  Now he is living in the music room the neutered tom lurks on the other side of the door, waiting for his chance to strike.

Meanwhile, my uncle and aunt have found themselves signed up with a hyper-vigilant vet, who diagnosed a heart murmur in one of the neutered toms, then a couple of kittens, and now the American stud.  Since he'd only just arrived from the States with a clean bill of health, and I imagine at vast expense, my uncle and aunt were not best pleased about this, and insisted on a referral to the best feline cardiologist in England.  She fortunately practices in Enfield.  Miles away, said my uncle crossly.  Not as far as Manchester, said I.  The feline cardiologist did an ECG on the stud, and said it looked entirely normal.  So did the cat have a heart murmur, my aunt demanded to know.  Impossible to say, said the cardiologist.  Heart murmurs in cats are funny things.  They can be there one day, worse the next, gone the day after that.

My advice was to find a new vet, one that wasn't over sensitive to the possibility of finding feline heart defects, and not to allow the three kittens anywhere near the existing one, even if he did owe them £132 morally speaking for the ECG.  If he raises the possibility that the kittens could have heart murmurs that will make them difficult to sell, and before they know where they are my uncle and aunt really will have eight cats.  Plus future kittens, planned or unplanned.  I wouldn't bet on anybody being able to get through a whole winter with an entire tom on one side of the music room door and two calling females on the other.

Monday, 26 October 2015

dark evenings

The days are getting too short.  It seems worse since the clocks changed, but that's not the root cause of the problem, since I could perfectly well set my alarm to get up an hour earlier than I do to make the most of the daylight.  I always thought that the argument that if the clocks didn't change in the winter then farmers would have to start work in the dark was pretty weak, since there aren't many farmers, and they are largely autonomous, if no longer self-employed, so it's entirely up to them how they schedule their working day.  The cows can't tell the time, just go and milk them when it's convenient.  It's not as if farmers had to interface with the public, day in, day out.

I have to admit, though, that it's hard to shift your whole day out of kilter with what it says on the clock.  Lunchtime radio programmes wouldn't come at lunchtime, and evenings out could feel very late indeed if you'd started the day an hour ahead of everybody else.  Habit rules, and we are still eating our lunch when The World At One is on, while by half past four I can't see properly to weed. But the basic problem is that today sunrise in Colchester was at 06.40 and sunset at 16.40.  That's ten hours of daylight, and it's getting shorter by four minutes per day.  By Christmas it will be a measly seven hours and forty-six minutes.

We have shifted our ritual afternoon tea break later until it's dark and the chickens have gone in, if they were out in the first place.  That wins back an extra twenty minutes of daylight.  I could cut back on the time I take for lunch if I'm not going to get up earlier, but I do like taking half an hour to digest before getting back to the weeding.  Maybe I should set the alarm and try and be in the garden by eight.

In the meantime, since I was indoors by five, I am attempting a new sort of cake, chocolate honey fudge squares out of Geraldine Holt's legendary book.  The cake base is still cooling in its tin, so the moment of truth when I discover if it's cooked all the way through has yet to come.  The fudge topping sounds a lot more trouble than the chocolate icing you can make by melting a good cooking chocolate with double cream, so it had better be worth it, but I thought it was time to break out of the pattern of alternating between honey sponge, lemon drizzle, and Victoria sandwich.

I have offered to make refreshments for the young musicians' concert this weekend if required, but they are certainly not getting chocolate honey fudge squares.  Numbers for the concert are still uncertain, but on reflection I hope the chairman does ask me to make cake and not egg sandwiches, since at least you can freeze left-over cake or simply make something like flapjack that keeps for days.  Left-over egg sandwiches are no use to man nor beast.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

on the radio

I experienced an odd moment of connection with my father's younger brother this morning, as I was spreading compost on the sloping bed in the back garden while listening with maybe three quarters of an ear to Rob Cowan's Sunday morning programme on Radio 3.  He was reading out listeners' emails, as R3 presenters are obliged to do nowadays, and suddenly there was my uncle's name, with an observation about somebody Rob Cowan had just featured, who my uncle had worked with.  The name of the musician they were talking about meant nothing to me, but it was a pleasant moment. Generally I find listeners' emails quite tedious, and today's episode hasn't changed that, since the proportion of people listening to Rob Cowan who know my uncle must be infinitesimally small, and the rest of them probably find the reactions of random strangers to Radio 3's output as dull and mildly distracting as I do.

My aunt will not necessarily be amused that I heard my uncle's name read out on the radio, since she believes that music is a serious business that deserves the listener's undivided attention, not three quarters of an ear.  When I mentioned once that I listened to classical music while gardening she fixed me with a stern gaze and enquired Why?  Is it so very boring?

I don't find weeding boring, but in general it leaves enough of my mind free to listen to the radio if I feel like it.  Sometimes I don't, and listen to the birds, or the wind, or don't listen because I'm thinking, but quite often I fancy a background shimmer of music or conversation.  If it gets interesting I can give it a whole ear, and if I hear something I really like I might even make a note of what it is with a view to adding it to my CD collection.  I first discovered Trio Medieval on the car radio, and sat transfixed at the edge of a garage forecourt before filling up because I didn't want to get out of the car until they had finished.

I can't listen to anything while I'm setting out pots in their planting positions.  That requires all of my attention, and the radio is an unwelcome distraction.  This afternoon I planted out the nice little Abelia x grandiflora that I bought at Great Dixter, some seed raised and shockingly pot bound Digitalis x mertonensis, three cuttings of a purple leaved sedum whose name I need to work out from my notes, since all the label said was that they came from the plant at the back of the long bed, and one of three seed raised Digitalis stewartii.  It was my fault there were only three since I over-watered them while they were germinating, but with any luck between the three of them they will flower and set seed and I'll be back to raising them in bulk, only a year late.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

afternoon lecture with plant stall and cake

I went this afternoon to this month's Suffolk Plant Heritage talk.  I have really taken to their meetings, apart from the mild drag of having to drive to Stowupland.  All the lectures have been interesting, the people are friendly, the plant stall has some unusual and good value plants on it, with profits going to a good cause, and the cakes are excellent and downright cheap.  Really, what's not to like?

Today's lecture was by Thomson and Morgan's manager responsible for introducing new plants to their catalogue.  He turned out, rather implausibly, to be a hipster, with hair cut short at the sides and sticky-up long on top, beard a trifle longer than is favoured by oldies like the Systems Administrator, drainpipe jeans and canvas shoes.  Today was his birthday, and he was only thirty-three or thirty-four.  There is no earthly reason why T&M's new products manager should not be trendy and under forty, it's just that most plantspeople aren't.

His talk was more of an overview of the Thomson and Morgan group than a detailed look at unusual plants, but still quite interesting.  Did you know that the sweetness of fruit and tomatoes could be measured on the Brix scale?  I did not, though since it is apparently used in wine making, home vintners may be familiar with it.

I thought I could sense the Plant Heritage audience tensing with polite hostility as he extolled the virtues of a begonia smothered in very large, very double, very yellow flowers.  When I tell you that the plant on the sales table of particular interest this month was a rare aster with little pale pink flowers about the size of a penny, and that by the end of the meeting all but two had sold, you can get some idea of where the tastes of the average Suffolk Plant Heritage member lie.  But I quite liked the sound of a new hybrid begonia with big dark purple leaves, bred to be sturdier than the beautiful but brittle types that Great Dixter will not even send out by mail order.  It sounded as though it could be useful for next summer's display outside the front door.

I was one of those who bought a rare pink aster, along with a tender shrub for the conservatory, Tibouchina urvilleana.  I've hankered after one for ages since seeing them at various open gardens. It is a native of Brazil, but should allegedly be OK if kept no warmer than frost free over the winter, though I gather from my internet researches since bringing it home that getting the watering right can be tricky.  If it makes it through the winter it will be happy to go outside for the summer months, and a couple of people told me that it is easily propagated from cuttings.  Which leaves me wondering why in that case there aren't more of them about, but I suppose not that many people have a place for a plant that demands winter protection, is unforgiving about being over- or under-watered, and will grow ten feet high given half a chance.  You can prune it, indeed, pruning is highly recommended to make it bushy.  The leaves are grey and furry, the flowers large, purple and exotic.  I jibbed at paying £14.50 plus postage to buy one by post from Burncoose, but thought that for eight quid going to Plant Heritage I'd give it a whirl.

The rare aster is Aster 'Vasterival', and my internet researches have revealed that Le Vasterival is a French botanic garden.  I think it may originally have been the garden of Princess Greta Sturdza, but their website is entirely in French (English language version coming soon) and my French is painfully slow for a non-essential query this late on a Saturday evening.  The Plant Heritage propagators obtained their material from the National Collection holder, and I forgot to ask who that was.  'Vasterival' is not unknown in UK commerce, but as I looked at the descriptions given by the various nurseries who sell it I began to feel a mounting sense of confusion.  Multiple Chelsea Gold Medal winners Knoll Gardens describe it as having large pink flowers, but the plant I bought this afternoon, delightful as it is, does not fit that description, unless you are a Borrower or a Lilliputian.  Asters are prone to confusion, with Christopher Lloyd opining that most of the plants sold as 'Monch' were rank imposters and not the real thing.  Whatever the true identify of my new plant, it is very pretty, and the head of the plant stall promised me that it would be happy in light shade, and was easy to grow, spreading by underground stolons.  A bit of spreading is fine by me, so long as it is not as rampageous as Coronilla varia, but I don't think Plant Heritage would do that to me.

Friday, 23 October 2015

making space

It's not just Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans' that makes a nicer plant when it's younger.  Thinking back to our previous garden, I planted a Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Boulevard' which started off as an engaging mound of fluffy grey foliage, only to become lanky and gappy with unattractive brown patches by the time it hit the five foot mark.  As far as I can remember I left that gardening problem behind me when we moved for the people who bought the house to deal with.  I'm sure it was soon gone.  I revisited just once, because they rang to say that a parcel for the Systems Administrator had been delivered in error to our former address, and a nice fastigiate yew that was just getting going and the row of 'Little White Pet' roses that used to line the path to the front door had both gone, so I don't suppose 'Boulevard' was allowed to linger.

I have finished digging over the gap in the bed where the conifer was.  Spurred on by the space opened up by the conifer's departure I have also removed three fuchsias, a spindly F. riccartonii with a sapling ash growing up through its heart, a sad specimen of F. genii, which makes a plump thicket of golden leaves that clash slightly with its pink flowers if it's happy, though mine wasn't, and a stunted bush of the variegated F. magellanica 'Versicolor' that had half reverted to plain green.  The looming presence of the conifer didn't help, but the top of the bed is really too dry for fuchsias.  It was probably too dry for the Cryptomeria too.

I dug up a lot of seedlings of Geranium phaeum 'Samobar', keeping the ones that retained the dark blotch on the leaves and binning the others.  I thought I could pot them up, and they might be useful for filling in odd gaps at the back later on.  G. phaeum is a good shade plant.  The flowers, dark maroon in the case of 'Samobar', are on the small side and come in late spring.  Bees love them.  If you trim the plant over soon after flowering it will produce a fresh crop of basal leaves and look quite tidy for the rest of the season.  If you don't remove the spent flower stalks you'll end up with a lot of seedlings, which may be as nice as the parent plant, or they may not be.

The dreaded Euphorbia robbiae has been lurking hard up against the hedge in semi-darkness at the back of the bed, and is starting to spread outwards.  I once planted it on purpose, then a few years later spent several days digging out as much of it as I could, because it was such an inveterate spreader.  It still gets recommended in books and articles, so other people don't seem to have found it as aggressive as I did.  I chiselled out the growths nearest the front of the bed, while wondering whether to leave the growth nearest the hedge, as after all it is providing ground cover in a very inhospitable spot, or whether to eradicate every last piece I can see before it can invade the new planting I'll soon be making in the empty spot.

A couple of starved looking foxgloves that had flowered this summer but without dying outright afterwards as Digitalis purpurea is prone to do were hoiked out as well, and some very weedy honesty seedlings.  There is a shrub rose, 'Anne of Gierstein', in the upper part of the area where I'm working, and I can't dig the bed over too close to the rose for fear of damaging its roots, but as far as possible I wanted a clean sweep for planting.  I began to spread home made compost over the gap, before being sidetracked by the imploring faces of the chickens wanting to be let out.  I released them for an hour's run before chicken bedtime, but then had to stay with them while they poked around in the newly dug earth.

They were very good about flocking together and not disappearing down to the bottom of the garden.  When they behave well and stay in one group, instead of all charging off in different directions with the independent one heading for the isolation of the bottom of the garden, we are more likely to let them out again the next day.  Afternoons spent walking round in small circles looking for a hen can be very frustrating, and we end up less willing to go to the trouble of letting them out the next day.  Whether chickens are capable of forming associations on that time scale, or require a more immediate connection between behaviour and reward, I do not know.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

out, out, damned stump

The Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans' stump is out.  It was not such a big job when I got down to it as I'd feared it might be, when I was just scrabbling around the edge.  In fact, in true Wittertainment style I could meet the question How do you get the stump of a ten foot conifer out? with the answer You just get it out.

If anybody is wondering what the conifer had done to deserve such a fate, the answer is that it had ceased to be beautiful.  When it was young it was pretty (as are many human beings, who sadly tend to fail to realise it at the time and only appreciate later when looking at photographs of their younger selves that, as Maureen Lipman observed, they had really been quite good looking) but as it grew it became gaunter and distinctly less ornamental.  And larger.  I tried tipping it back as described in Adrian Bloom's useful book on conifers, but after a few years it stopped making a rash of lovely new growth to hide the cut ends, and just sat and sulked, angular, brown in some places and bald in others, and visibly truncated.

One of the most useful and hardest things that any garden owner can do, especially in a mature garden, is summon the courage to remove plants that aren't working.  Maybe they never worked in that spot.  Perhaps they did, but have grown tired or simply too big.  Maybe our ideas about the garden have evolved and they aren't plants we'd choose if we were starting now.  Obviously there's a limit, otherwise you risk ending up with one of those gardens that never looks fully grown because most things get whipped out just as they are reaching their full potential, but having what Harold Nicolson called the courage to abolish ugly and unsuccessful plants is a valuable tool in the gardener's chest.  That, and a pick axe.

The way that you get the stump of a ten foot Cryptomeria out is to dig a trench around the trunk with a pick axe, about a foot out, severing every root you meet by levering on the axe handle until it breaks (the root, that is, not the pick axe handle.  Unless you are dealing with a Eucalyptus, a crowbar and a mechanical digger, in which case the crowbar may give way before the root does), or else by cutting it.  As the trench deepens you start to undercut the ball of soil in the middle, and chop away at its edges, removing the ends of the roots so that you work closer to the trunk and can reach to undercut further in.  Periodically you test whether there is any play in the trunk, which you previously cut off at the three foot mark and not ground level so that it could act as a lever. Eventually you will start to feel the trunk give, like a slightly wobbly tooth, until you reach the point where a good shove pushes it over.  Job done, and all you have to do now is retrieve as much earth as possible from the rootball using the pointed end of the axe, so that you aren't left with too big a hole to fill in the bed.

And then if you are me you go and do a quarter of an hour of stretching exercises, very diligently, because your lower back is feeling it.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

autumn leaves

The leaves are turning.  We've been exclaiming to each other for a few days what wonderful shades of red the maples in pots have gone.  Yesterday afternoon, with the low sun streaming on them, they looked positively luminous.  The field maples in the hedge are going butter yellow in irregular patches, and the vase shaped crab apple Malus tschonoskii is assuming bright shades of amber, though its leaves don't last very long before they drop.  The birches are turning pale yellow, and only the willows along the ditch refuse to play, dropping their leaves without any attempt at an autumn show.

The oak trees are more sombre.  They have started to turn a muted shade of brown, but don't have any truck with these bright bonfire shades, whereas driving through Elmstead Market today I noticed a tree on the verge turning to a beautiful medley of dark oranges and yellows.  It has divided leaves, but is not a common ash, and I should park up there sometime and wander along with my tree book to see if I can identify it.  Black walnut?

It's a good game, once you know what a local tree is, watching how it behaves through the seasons. If you happen to see it close up for any reason, at a point when it is doing something characteristic that allows you to work out what kind of tree it is, then you can give it a quick glance each time you drive past, or a longer one if stuck in traffic, and start to get the feel of its habit, the shape of its naked branches when it's out of leaf, what its fruits are and whether it suckers at the base.  So many keys to trees focus mainly on leaves and twigs, it's easy to forget the whole tree.

BBC Four showed a documentary a couple of weeks ago about a year in the life of an oak tree, which is still available on the iPlayer for another sixteen days.  It's worth watching, if you like trees, with some clever time lapse photography, and an impressive and painstaking excavation of the entire root system of a young oak, but I didn't agree with the presenter when he described the tree in winter as looking dead.  A healthy oak in winter is so clearly alive, with its ordered network of branches dividing to small twigs, each terminating in a cluster of solid buds.  Equating leaves with life, and the absence of leaves with death, is anthropomorphising the tree.

It's a shame we don't have room to plant any more trees at home.  Indeed, some of the ones we do have are too close together, while some that I tried to squeeze into particularly barren and inhospitable corners have died.  But no amount of space is enough, if you really want to plant trees. The Hillier gardens cover 180 acres, admittedly not all given over to the arboretum, and if they had more space I'm sure they could easily fill it with good, garden worthy species and without repeating themselves.  Maybe we should drag ourselves away from the garden at home and pay a visit to Marks Hall, now the leaves are turning.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

substitute speaker

I was out again this evening, but home at a rather more civilised hour.  About three days ago I got a phone call from the chairman of a Colchester garden society, who had been given my details by somebody I know at another garden society.  He had heard that I did talks, and if so would I be able to do one at short notice?  Next Tuesday?  The speaker he'd originally booked was in hospital, and the replacement had called in twenty-four hours later with laryngitis.

I offered to do a woodland charity talk.  It's a few months since I've done one, after a rash of activity in the summer, and in the faintly terrifying two page letter detailing the role of the volunteer speaker, sent to me by my new Task Manager, was the requirement to market my talks. Since receiving it I have done precisely no marketing, being busy with other things and working on the basis that some bookings would probably turn up in due course, as they had fairly consistently over the past decade.  So I thought I had better seize the moment and promote the charity.

The organiser agreed.  I think that with three days to go until he would be faced with a hut full of garden club members and no entertainment for them, that if I'd offered to do a presentation on eelworms he'd have still said yes.  A talking person armed with a projector and screen willing to stand at the front of the room for an hour and make any kind of horticulture related noises would probably have done it.  But people like trees and ash disease is topical, while autumn is a fine time to go for a walk in the woods, all those nice piles of leaves to kick up, and the low sunlight glinting on  cobwebs and holly berries.

They turned out to be a very nice audience, though the hut was a tiny bit chilly because the previous group had ignored the instructions NOT to turn the heaters off, but only to turn them down to the lowest temperature setting.  The pilot lights, once extinguished, were very reluctant to ignite again, and the caretaker had to sit on the floor clicking the starter button repeatedly, then do it again when the flame cut out five minutes later, and so on.  Still, I could not actually smell gas so thought we were probably not all about to be blown to kingdom come.

Over the tea after the talk someone came and asked me for my details as she would like to book me for her ladies' group some time next year.  Bingo, I have done some marketing.  And feel a vague warm glow of virtue at having helped the club out of a fix, and slightly enhanced the image of my contact at the other garden club, who is a thoroughly nice bloke.  Clubs and societies sometimes pay less to charity volunteers than they do to speakers who are doing it for the money, maybe justifying it on the grounds that after all the charity is being given a chance to promote itself, and anyway it helps balance the books.  Tonight's donation, however, came in at a commercial rate, so I will be able to send the cheque off in triumph to the new Task Manager.  I'm on the case, you see, even if I haven't visibly done anything since June.

Monday, 19 October 2015

late post

There is barely going to be a blog today, because I have only just got back from the Colchester Folk Club and it's a quarter to midnight.  If I haven't pressed the Publish button in the next fifteen minutes then that's it, it will be tomorrow.  Why the folk club insists on arranging its affairs so that by the time I've dropped my father off in Wivenhoe and got home it is the middle of the night, especially as they meet on a Monday which is not a traditional late night given people have to be at work in the morning, is a source of perpetual mystery to me.

So my review of Nancy Kerr and James Fagan will have to wait until tomorrow.  Maybe not even then if something else catches my eye in the meantime.

As I drove up to the anti-rabbit gate just now a large and fat rabbit ran away into our neighbours' field, on the outside of the gate, proof that at least sometimes it does some good.  It is rather demoralising otherwise to think of the faff we go to trotting down to open it in the mornings before the postman can arrive, and going out in the rain to shut it at night, when there's no sign of marauding bunnies to demonstrate that it is at least protecting the garden from something.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

dreams of lilies

I planted my Martagon lily bulbs, and they were neither shrivelled nor mouldy after spending a few days in their plastic bags.  I can see why the organisers of the lily study day were so keen that we buy bulbs from a specialist supplier.  I haven't much experience of growing lilies, not feeling I had the right garden conditions and being cautious about the pollen's toxicity to cats, but compared to the few bulbs I've had from garden centres and DIY stores, these were a revelation.

Lily bulbs are made up of layers of overlapping scales, without a surrounding outer jacket of any kind.  Compared to tulips with their tunics, let alone daffodils or hyacinths with their papery outer layers and general air of solidity, lily bulbs are fragile.  They are prone to drying out, and to scales being knocked off.  The scales of my Martagons were held tightly shut like a globe artichoke head, and out of the whole order of twenty bulbs I managed to break just one scale off one unlucky bulb. Compared to my past experiences of shop bought lilies with their scales gaping apart, sometimes with shavings of sawdust tucked between them, these were different plants.  They had roots too, which appeared to be alive and functioning rather than dead and dry appendages.

I marked the position of each bulb with a bamboo cane, which looks mad at the moment, but I will need a reminder of where they are.  The planting instructions warned that Martagons hate being moved, and that I might not see any growth in the next season, but that would not mean that they were dead, they could be establishing their new root systems.  In fact, the leaflet that came with the lilies said confidently that they would be busy growing roots, but it will be hard to remain entirely optimistic if nothing comes up.  So many things could go wrong.  The soil might be too acid.  Slugs and snails might eat them, or voles.  Or muntjac, or rats.  It might be too dry.  It could be too wet.  Or too dark.

Still, the only way to find out whether I can grow them is to try.  Fiona Edmond had some fine stands under trees at Green Island Gardens when we visited last year, and I can't believe her soil is materially less acid than mine.  I chose my spot carefully, rejecting the upper reaches of the slope where the ground was still dust dry under the top half inch, even though we've had enough rain recently to turn the top lawn squelchy.  The area just inside the wood does not have true woodland soil, a legacy of earth being shifted around when the house was built, and I didn't want to put my lilies in dubious subsoil.  A little further down the hill the earth suddenly became dark and crumbly, looking much more promising from a lily's point of view.

If they flower, and if they set seed, and if they like it in the end of the wood, they should spread, and I could harvest some seed and help them along.  Martagon bulbs take several years to reach flowering size, one reason why they cost what they do, but I'd feel happier about testing the drier edges of the wood with young plants I'd raised myself than bulbs I'd paid up to four pounds each for. Likewise, I thought I'd better try out the growing conditions with the ordinary species before going for any of the beautiful and expensive named varieties.

My supplier in this adventure is HW Hyde and Sons.  So far they seem to have been doing their bit beautifully, so it's down to me now.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

harps ancient and modern

I went last night to the Colchester Arts Centre to see Seckou Keita, a Senegalese kora player.  I'd barely heard of him until I read in the arts centre brochure that he was coming to Colchester, didn't have a very clear notion of what Senegalese music was like, and had only a hazy idea of what a kora was, but the idea of a twenty-two stringed African harp was irresistible.  Not to the Systems Administrator, who is less enthusiastic about world music and who needs to want to see something at the arts centre very, very badly to be willing to spend an evening sitting on their chairs, but a friend agreed to come.

The kora is absolutely fascinating.  The body is made out of a gourd, faced with an animal skin on one side, standing on little legs like a stool, with a long wooden neck coming out of the top, a bridge protruding horizontally from the side with the skin, two long pegs on top that the musician holds lightly to steady the instrument, and the twenty-two strings running between the neck and the bridge in a great fan.  The tuning of the strings is like nothing else I have heard, and I got the impression that to switch the key or pitch of whatever you were playing or singing you changed instruments, as with a penny whistle.  One of the two kora on stage last night actually had two sets of strings on separate necks, but I never saw Seckou Keita play on more than one set within a single tune  (I'm not utterly sure about that, though, since unluckily we got two very tall as well as broad people sitting in front of us).

The rhythms of Seckou Keita's music were beautiful and strange and complicated, and not a million miles away from what I've heard of Malian music, which was not surprising since the countries are near neighbours.  The sound of the kora was wonderful and strange as well, though of course what we were listening to was the electric kora.  The unamplified arrangement of calabash and strings would barely reach to the back row of the arts centre, as was demonstrated when it briefly became unplugged.  I enjoyed his whole performance very much, while realising that I still didn't know anything about how he fitted into the broad scene of Senegalese music, and I had no idea whether I was listening to the folk-rock version, like a Senegalese Fairport Convention, or more of a Watersons hard core traditional take.

A twenty-two stringed instrument based on a large pumpkin does take quite a lot of tuning, and as Seckou Keita tended to his strings he told us that in his country tuning up was part of the performance.  I should think it is.  He was playing a westernised concert version of the kora, with metal tuning pegs, but in the accompanying background video the traditional instruments just had plaited leather wrapped around the necks to support the strings.  They must need tuning about every two minutes.

The koras were the second interesting musical instruments I've seen this week.  One of the exhibits in the British Museum's Celts exhibition was a medieval harp dating from around 1450, now sitting in splendid isolation in a large, ornate Victorian cabinet.  I was struck by how small it was, not even two feet high.  It was made of hornbeam, according to the museum label.  Hornbeam is a very close grained and dense wood, once used for making butcher's blocks and notorious for blunting carpenters' tools, and I wondered whether it was deliberately chosen for its density and if that contributed to the quality of the sound in some way.  Completely the opposite of a calabash, in any event.

It was quite a thought, trying to imagine where the harp might have played, before ending up as a family heirloom in a glass case, unstrung.  I'd have liked to see it with strings, even if they were left with no tension on them to avoid stressing the ancient frame.  It would have looked like a proper working instrument.  As it was, it looked mute and sad, stuck inside its elaborate cabinet. The koras, decorated with studwork and shining under the stage lights, were very much alive.

Friday, 16 October 2015

taking notes

It rained and drizzled all day.  Looking on the bright side, I've plenty of indoor jobs to be getting on with, and it's easier to discipline myself to do them when the outdoors looks so totally uninviting. But I hope the Martagon lilies aren't going mouldy in their bags.  Perhaps I should unpack them, but then they might dry out.  The rain is supposed to stop by tomorrow afternoon, and Sunday is forecast to be dry, so with any luck I'll be able to simply get on and plant them.  Of course if I were that worried about them I could have got on with it today, rain or no rain, but after my run of bad colds last winter I was reluctant to tempt fate crawling about in the damp.

The minutes of Wednesday's music society committee meeting were not really difficult, other than that the meeting covered all the right topics but not necessarily in the right order.  I decided to sacrifice real world running order in the interests of grouping the discussion points under the headings in the agenda, in case anybody ever wanted to refer to them ever again.  They probably won't.  Proper minutes are a good thing to have, in case of later debate over what it was that was agreed, and I would guess are a requirement of being registered charity, but I don't believe that half the members of the committee ever do more than skim through them.  When at each meeting the Chairman asks us if we agree the minutes of the last one, my reply is always that I believed them at the time when I wrote them.

The minutes secretary is potentially in a position of power.  It's my version of events being laid down for future reference, ready to be whipped out sometime next year when nobody can remember exactly what anybody said the previous October.  Since the music society committee is rather sensible, though, it is generally a purely theoretical power.  The most contentious thing I've recorded recently is who it was that offered to provide a sandwich lunch for a ten piece visiting German orchestra, and yesterday was mostly about various people updating the rest on ticket sales, changes to the programme and possible artists for next year's season.  About the most urgent thing we need to do is make sure the heating is turned on in the church for the first concert, since the verger is ill, and I scarcely got to write it was agreed (highlighted in bold type) at all.

A certain amount of lobbying goes on in committee meetings.  The member who likes jazz sought to establish a jazz concert as a regular extra event, to be staged in alternate years, while the member who is keen on education did the same for young musician's concerts, but upped the stakes and sought to instate one as an annual event.  The Chairman swerved giving an absolute commitment on either count, but so gracefully that you could easily have missed the fact that she hadn't actually said Yes.  I didn't like to lobby for more baroque music, suspecting that it was a minority taste and one already catered for by another local society, but couldn't resist slipping in a sly hint of a suggestion when emailing the draft minutes to the Chairman for comment.

There are two issues with staging concerts as a platform for young musicians.  One is the audience. Local people who are very happy to hear professional chamber groups with international careers performing conveniently on their doorsteps, saving them schlepping off to the Wigmore Hall or St John's Smith Square, are unaccountably less enthusiastic about giving up a Sunday afternoon to listen to an unknown fourteen year old, even if he has reached Grade 8 on the piano.  OK, he might be the next Stephen Hough and they saw him here first, but he might not be.  And the average performance slot in a young musician's concert lasts about three and a half minutes, so you need lots of them, and none of them have agents, so the Chairman has to negotiate with umpteen sets of parents and music teachers.

I have still not entirely recovered from listening to a quartet of small boys playing trombones at Dulwich College, but noblesse obliges, I shall be there, buoyed up by the thought of the Chairman's tiny scones at the cream tea afterwards.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

music and history

I went up to London today (are there parts of the British Isles from which one goes down to London? North of Watford, perhaps).  Radio 3 record some of their lunchtime concerts at LSO St Lukes in Old Broad Street, and today's performance was by Florilegium, the opening concert in R3's first ever lunchtime concert series wholly dedicated to early music.  Well, that's what they say in the programme, though I don't really think of Handel as early music.  The theme of the series is music composed in London around the time that LSO St Lukes was built, and besides Handel we got Johann Christoph Pepush, Francesco Barsanti, and home grown composer John Bannister.  Bannister died in 1679 or thereabouts, and St Lukes was built between 1727 and 1733, but he squeezes in because he is thought to have been London's first ever concert promoter, charging people a shilling to hear performances in a room at a Whitefriars tavern.

I'd heard of Florilegium, but never seen them live before.  Now that I have I'd make the effort to see them again.  I rather think that the Suffolk Villages Festival booked them not very long ago, and I was too mean to pay the ticket price and too idle to drive to wherever it was they were performing.  Today's line up consisted of harpsichord, viola da gamba, violin, and their director alternating between flute and recorder, and they were great fun.  I love that kind of early eighteenth century music when it's done with a bit of bounce and panache, but it can be a bit twiddly diddly after a while, and an hour's worth is just right.  Today we got an hour and five because they gave a burst of Telemann as an encore, saying they weren't in a hurry if we weren't.

And the crypt cafe had millionaire's shortbread back on the menu, so I was happy on all counts. The only tiny blemish in the whole experience was that I found myself sitting behind a programme fiddler.  People who go to classical concerts should be made to swear a solemn oath when they buy tickets that they will not fiddle with their programme during the performance.  It is distracting to those sitting directly behind them to keep catching the flicker of moving white pages out of the corner of their eye, and creates an unfortunate impression that your fellow audience member might not be very interested, which detracts from the shared concert experience.  If you are not interested that's tough.  Just practice your best expression of polite neutrality.  It's bound to come in useful on other occasions, for weddings, speech days and so on.

From Old Street it's a short walk to the British Museum, whose exhibition about the Celts runs until the end of January, so you have ages to go and see it if you like the sound of it.  There are a lot of broaches, an awful lot of torcs, weapons, cauldrons, and a reconstruction of a Celtic chariot with a rather dinky leather suspension system.  I was pleased to discover that the first recorded Celtic stone  cross acquired the now trademark circle of stone because when it was initially made without it the cross arms fell off under their own weight.  I would really have liked to know how you put the torcs on.  Were they flexible enough to bend open enough to slip around the neck?  I couldn't see hinges on any of the British examples.

The trouble with interpreting Celtic history and culture is that so little is actually known about it. The purpose of the mysterious spoon with a hole in it may have been to drip liquid through the hole and use the pattern of the drops as a tool for divination but honestly, how d'you know?  The last section of the exhibition deals with the hokum cooked up about the Celts from the eighteenth century onwards and Celtic inspired trends in Victorian homewares and jewellery.  The Avebury stone circle predates any written reference to Druids by about two thousand years, by the way.

It's a good exhibition, though, and certainly worth seeing, and worth taking your time over because the details on much of the jewellery and pottery are quite faint and you need to look at them carefully to see them.  I don't think I ever did believe there was a homogeneous people called The Celts spread across modern day Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, so the purpose of the exhibition to debunk that myth was a bit lost on me, and by the end of it I think my ideas of the Celts were still mainly derived from the novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, but I enjoyed looking at the objects.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

chilly days

Autumn is edging towards winter.  It's not there yet, and we still haven't put the central heating on, but the fire is lit in the sitting room after several attempts and much newspaper, because I forgot to buy firelighters when I was shopping and we only have one left, which the Systems Administrator is saving for later to light the stove in the study.  The fire eventually got going once we added a beeswax candle stub to the starter mix, but we need to get back into the habit of buying firelighters.  John, Susan, Titty and Roger may have managed with dry twigs and only one match, but we must have the wrong sort of twigs.

Tonight's supper is Chicken Marengo, another recipe from Good Housekeeping, chosen partly because it would use up some of the celery and carrots I'd already got, without leaving me with half a cabbage or three extra packets of spice.  I am still trying to work out how you add stock to flour that you've fried in the remains of the oil without it turning into a gigantically lumpy mess.  I ended up rubbing the lumps through a sieve, while making a mental note that next time it would be easier just to dust the fried vegetables and chicken with cornflour and give them a good stir before pouring the liquid in.

I still haven't planted my lily bulbs in the wood.  I finished pulling up the brambles, and got as far as rounding up twenty bamboo canes to mark where I'd planted each one and taking the box of lily bulbs out to the wood, and then it began to rain, quite hard.  Just after the rain started I heard the SA's feet crunching down the path by the dustbins, and thought firstly how sweet that the SA was coming to see me, and then was seized with alarm that something must be wrong and the SA was coming to fetch me, but it was merely the SA going to retrieve the jump starter pack left out on the lawn with the ailing lawn tractor.

And now I must go and see how the supper's getting on.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

more cheffy moments

The celery softened in the end, and I was rather pleased with the bean casserole.  The flavours of the bean and tomato filling had melded by the time the celery was finally cooked, without the beans collapsing, and the recipe included enough herbs for it to taste of something else besides beans.  Which are pretty bland, even a committed vegetarian would have to admit.  The instructions for the bread crumb and cheese topping were vague since Rose Elliot just said 'crumbs' without specifying how many, so I used a lot, having a leftover lump of unsliced wholemeal bread in the fridge, and it came out good and cheesy and very crunchy.  The Systems Administrator only took a small helping, blaming inactivity for the loss of appetite, but I fear the truth is that the SA is not awfully keen on bean casseroles.

Baked beans are allowed (I heard a great story about Jane Grigson, who was lamenting she found it so hard to think of things to feed her infant daughter.  Somebody asked why she didn't just give the young Sophie baked beans?  What a good idea, said Jane Grigson, only the trouble is, they take so long to cook).  Ours are tinned.  And the SA will eat dal once in a while, especially if it's offered up with some other curry as well.  But any kind of bake that looks as though it might have escaped from a Cranks restaurant is an object of polite suspicion.

Tonight we were back on the meat, with a pork stew from The Essential Goa Cookbook by Maria Teresa Menezes.  I have never been to Goa, and have only the haziest idea of what their food is supposed to taste like, but I think I must once have eaten something described as Goan in a curry house and liked it enough to want to find out more  The flavours of southern India are overlaid in Goan cooking with the traditions of Portugal, but I have never been to Portugal either.  Never mind. The pork stew is very straightforward  There is a list of ingredients, pork, onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric and cumin, chilli and vinegar.  You are supposed to grind cloves and cardamon seeds finely, but I just put the whole spices in, and substituted ground cinnamon for grinding my own stick.  The instructions are concise: Mix all the ingredients and cook on a low heat till done.

I like the economy of Maria Teresa Menezes' style.  You feel it belongs to a previous age, yet the book was originally published as recently as 2000.  Maybe she wrote the recipes down decades ago then they languished unpublished in a drawer, as she was born in 1926 .  The Systems Administrator liked the pork stew a lot, and said so.  I thought it would have benefited from really slow cooking, and if I'm doing it again I'll try putting the ingredients together at lunchtime and letting them spend all afternoon in the simmer oven of the Aga, which sits just below boiling.  It would probably taste good reheated the next day, to give the flavours a chance to develop.  They are pleasantly sour, because of the vinegar (the only added liquid), and quite hot, though how hot depends on your chillies.

I made a pudding as well, using some of our own apples, and served with what the SA considers to be proper custard, that is made with Bird's custard powder rather than eggs.  Wanting something simple and traditional, I turned to the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.  Although I refer to it quite frequently when I want to know the answer to a question like how to make saute potatoes, I hadn't really looked at the illustrations for ages.  Blimey, those glossy colour photos of food served up in round wooden bowls laid out on a brown hessian cloth, brown wooden salt and pepper mills in view.  Food styling dates as quickly as hairdos and cars.  My copy of Good Housekeeping is definitely from the same era as The Sweeney.

Monday, 12 October 2015

job done

I finished cutting the back of the hedge.  Cue fanfares of trumpets, streamers, fireworks, and a vintage biplane chugging across the sky pulling a banner proclaiming She Has Finished Cutting The Back Of The Hedge.  It might need a little tweaking and tidying here and there once we've cleared the great piles of prunings out of the way and I can get a proper look at it, but it is essentially Done.  It took me the best part of three weeks to do the other side of it last autumn, and I was braced for the back to take at least half as long as that.  I haven't cut into it so hard, since losing a couple of feet of the daffodil lawn isn't the same as losing two feet of the drive and being unable to ever receive another delivery of heating oil, so it was less of a fiddle.  It looks bad, but not nearly as bad as the front did by the time I'd finished.  Fingers crossed it survives.

I found three old bird nests while I was working, and was frequently supervised by a rather peeved looking robin.  First of all we chopped down his singing post on top of the Cryptomeria japonica, and now I've massacred his hedge.  When the revolution comes robins will receive the respect they deserve.

After lunch I returned to clearing brambles out of the end of the wood.  My lilies from Hyde arrived this morning, so I need to get on and plant them tomorrow.  I thought I might get to the end of the brambles as well, but that was pushing my gardener's eternal optimism too far.  By five it was getting to that stage of the darkness before dusk where I'm liable to end up poking myself in the eye on a cut stem I didn't see in time, so I gave up for the day before that could happen with quite a few clumps of brambles still to go.  Our Ginger, who had been sitting waiting for things to come out, came in with me.  I don't think he really does the wood when he's by himself.  If so it's all to the good.  He is very fox coloured, and I wouldn't like a passing rabbiter to take a shot at him.

Now I am back on chef duties.  I volunteered, since the Systems Administrator cooked all last week and has now got a cold.  Tonight is supposed to be a butter bean bake from Rose Elliot's Bean Book, but I have been caught out by how long celery takes to cook, not for the first time.  Her instructions assume you soaked dry beans, and need to boil them for ages, but Waitrose only had tinned.  I checked the cooking time on the side of the tin and saw that they only needed heating for five minutes, without focusing on the fact that even if the beans didn't need cooking for ages, the celery did.  I have been caught out by celery before, it's an awkward customer.  Fortunately I thought to check whether the bean filling was cooked just before doling it into the greased casserole dish and sprinkling the cheese and breadcrumb topping over it, so it is still bubbling away in its saucepan.  I shall be irritated if the beans disintegrate before the wretched celery is done.

While we were on holiday we ate ready meals some evenings.  When you are used to cooking from scratch it is actually a massive treat just to stick a prefab mushroom and ham pasta bake in the oven without guilt.  We did rather feel we'd done pasta by the end of the week, mind you, and I have put the plan to make my own egg lasagne sheets on hold for now.  We don't possess a pasta rolling machine, but after all that hedge trimming and pick axing I feel I'll be up to rolling it out by hand, no problem.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

it will be tidy when I've finished

The pile of Eleagnus prunings is growing.  One more day of hedge cutting should do it.  I say that about all sorts of jobs, and then they end up taking half the week, but in the case of the hedge I think it's true.  I've pretty much finished taking out the great overhanging lumps by the terrace, and at the other end where it's shaded by the oak tree it hasn't grown nearly so much.

The shade cast by trees, or competition from their roots, will slow hedges down.  We saw the effect on a visit to East Ruston Old Vicarage, where clipped holly hedges passed close to trees, and dipped as they passed.  It's something to bear in mind when designing any formal scheme.  You can use a run of the same kind of plant across a site, but if growth conditions are more favourable in some parts than others, you won't necessarily end up with a uniform feature.

Cutting the hedge hard back where it was bulging out most dramatically has left a couple of large holes in the back.  I hope they fill in over time.  The front did, so fingers crossed, but next spring's daffodils are going to be displayed against an extremely mangy backdrop.  It had to be done, though.  Next time I think that planting a hundred yard hedge of Eleagnus x ebbingei would be a good idea I must lie down until the feeling passes.  Yew is the answer, or hornbeam in a damp site.

Tidying the garden has so far made it a quantum messier.  Branches of elder and dead holly are scattered over the lawn outside the conservatory, together with the wire netting and stakes I removed from the shrubs at the end of the wood.  There are piles of dead tree lupin stems and perennial pea stalks on the path down to the lower lawn.  They've been there a while, because I forgot about them when clearing up the last time the Systems Administrator cut the lawn, so when I do move them the grass will have gone yellow underneath.  The daffodil lawn has almost disappeared under the avalanche of Eleagnus prunings, and my work seems to have spread another layer of dead Eleagnus leaves over the lawn, after I'd carefully raked the first lot up.  The dead leaves are large, brown, obvious and persistent, another good reason to plant yew or hornbeam.

The lawn edges have been trimmed at intervals in random stretches, dictated by where the hens had got to and so where I was working while I watched them.  I still haven't finished cutting the long grass on the bank, or clearing away all the grass I have cut.

Out of chaos will come order, I tell myself, and anyway there's only us to see it.  Goodness knows how gardens manage that are open to the public full time.  They must be better organised than I am, and not trying to simultaneously make black bean soup and keep an eye on a flock of vagrant chickens.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

slow food

I made black bean soup with tomato and avocado relish for lunch, since I had some black beans, and some tomatoes, and half a pot of coriander that needed using up, using a recipe from Lindsey Bareham's big red book of tomatoes.  It was quite nice, but possibly not nice enough to justify the effort, or at least not on a fine sunny day when I could have been outside in the garden.  You have to dice the onions, which is a fiddle, and later in the process you have to liquidise half the beans. The book said to push them through a sieve after pureeing them in a food-processor or mouli-legumes, but if life is too short to stuff a mushroom it is definitely too short to mess around trying to poke cooked pulses through a sieve.  And I'm a reasonably adventurous cook, but I do not possess a mouli-legumes.  Or a food-processor, so I used the blender, but you still have to wash it up afterwards.

And then you have to dice half an avocado, if you are making soup for two people, which leaves you with the other half, and skin some raw tomatoes for the relish.  And skin and chop up enough tomatoes for the soup, if you are using up home grown ones and not just opening a tin like the book tells you to.  The end result, served with a dollop of soured cream, is probably fresher tasting than a pot of ready made soup from the supermarket, but I wasn't convinced the difference was so marked it was worth taking half the morning over it.

I was going to make some pitta to eat with the soup, then wimped out when I got the recipe out and remembered how much fiddling around pitta takes, telling myself there was already a lot of soup, then back-tracked thinking that if soup was all there was for lunch, the Systems Administrator would probably like some sort of side plate of carbohydrate with it, and made chapatis instead.  They are much quicker to do than pitta, not involving any yeast or repeated kneading, and I thought they weren't a million miles from tortillas and would be fine with spicy tomato soup.  They were, except that I tried rolling them out half an hour before lunch and stacking them separated by squares of greaseproof paper, so that I could wash the pastry board and finish wiping the table before cooking them quickly at the last minute, and they stuck to the paper and ended up looking peculiarly wrinkled and horrible.  They tasted fine, though, and we agreed that griddle cooked flatbread was handy if you suddenly fancied some sort of hot bread with soup.

In the afternoon I started reducing the back of the Eleagnus hedge.  The middle section had not fallen out on to the lawn so badly, and gave me a sort of false optimism that the job was not going to be too long winded, or too brutal, but now I'm getting to the stretch by the terrace (or patio) and things are getting much trickier.  Great long branches have flopped out of the top of the hedge, and by the time I've taken those back so that the hedge skirts politely around the paving as it's supposed to, instead of half smothering it, I'm afraid it is going to look very bald indeed.  Will it recover, or will this be year I finally kill it?

Friday, 9 October 2015

woodland gardening

By this morning the wallflowers I potted up yesterday were looking a bit happier.  Not standing up like soldiers exactly, but less limp and a better shade of green than they were yesterday afternoon. I had to go and buy some more compost before I could finish planting the final bundles, and the second lot looked worse than the first.  If they don't revive then I'll reuse the compost for the tulips, since the wallflowers won't have had any goodness out of it.  Still, they might surprise me.  It will be a little moment of revelation tomorrow morning, skipping across the concrete and seeing whether they have perked up or collapsed entirely.

Back in August I placed an experimental order for some Martagon lilies, fired up by my Plant Heritage lily study day and remembering how nice they had looked under trees at the Green Island garden we visited last year.  They were due to be delivered in September, and for the past few days I've been vaguely wondering where they had got to, while reminding myself that I was probably at the end of the list as somebody who'd ordered my lilies very late in the day.  This morning I got an email to say they had been despatched and were now in transit, so I thought I'd better get on with clearing the brambles out of the end of the wood where I want to put them.

It was quite dark in the wood, darker than I remembered or imagined.  That's the thing about clearing small gaps in woodland cover, the surrounding trees go rushing in to the new patch of light and soon fill it.  Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill' has grown a lot, and I allowed myself to indulge in a brief, wistful hope that maybe next spring it would finally flower.  It was planted in 2003 and was not a tiny twig then, so must be fourteen or fifteen years old by now.  Isn't that old enough to hope for one or two flowers?  Apart from anything else, I'd like confirmation that I've got the right thing, since muddles with magnolia varieties can and do happen in the trade.

The alder and hazel coppice have been busily growing as well, and an entire elder bush had sprung up where I didn't remember there being one at all.  That soon went with the aid of the pick axe.  I made a mental note of which hazel stems needed to come out this winter once it gets to the right season for coppicing, but I might mark them tomorrow with a dab of red paint rather than believing that I'll remember until the New Year.  Things always look so different once the leaves are off, it can be difficult to remember how ruthless you meant to be.

I removed the protective wire circles from some of the shrubs while I was at it.  Oemleria cerasiformis had started to sucker as it's supposed to, and was growing outside and through its wire guard without anything eating it as far as I could see, and I think Daphne might be toxic to browsing animals anyway.  I partly put the wire surrounds on when they were very small young plants partly to remind myself where they were.

The Eucryphia x nymansensis was looking green and healthy inside its protective circle of netting, but hadn't grown very much.  I never got round to cutting down an elder bush I meant to remove because it was shading the Eucryphia, so must do that tomorrow.  I stopped work in the wood after tea, since fiddling around with brambles in fading light is a sovereign recipe for scratching oneself in the eye, but ended up crawling around weeding under a large Cotoneaster in the back garden instead, because that was where the chickens insisted on going.  It will soon be too cold to sit out with them, so we thought we'd better make the most of the last warmish days and let them out for a run.

Thursday, 8 October 2015


Flushed by the relative success of the pots of Cosmos, and caught at the strategic psychological moment by an advertisement from Mr Fothergill for bare root wallflower plants, I am attempting to do pots of wallflowers.  I adore wallflowers.  I like their smell, and the range of tawny, tabby colours they come in, and the whole old fashioned vibe.  Each year I sigh over pictures and descriptions of them in the seed catalogues, and then don't order any seed, and if it ever comes free with a magazine I always forget to sow it at whatever odd stage of the summer you are supposed to sow biennials, just when it's hot in the greenhouse and you are busy with other things. And all the borders are densely planted up with permanent residents, except in the odd gaps for renovation where things have died or got too big for their boots, so there is nowhere suitable for bedding out.

Wallflowers in containers were clearly the answer.  True, I would then have to buy more compost, and it would be yet more pots to water, but still, that scent, and those velvety, four petalled flowers.  I ordered a bundle of dark orange ones and a bundle of purple, which entitled me to a third free bundle.  Yesterday an email arrived saying they had been dispatched, and this morning the postman appeared at the front door carrying the box carefully in both hands like a chalice, and the right way up.

I was planning to buy some more absolutely plain, straight sided, traditional flower pot shaped pots of 33cm diameter.  I'll need some anyway next year for the dahlias, and I thought I could get them now and use them in the meantime for the winter bedding.  It's a good, practical pot design in any case, allowing you to slide the root ball out for repotting.  The Salvia confertiflora in the conservatory needs to go into a bigger pot next year, though I won't do it now.  Altogether some more 33cm pots would be useful.

Except that the local garden centres have stopped doing them.  I went first to the one where I got a couple of straight sided pots back in the summer to repot some Agapanthus, but the stand where they used to be had been restocked with a different brand, one using rather bright orange terracotta and whose classic flower pots only went up to 11 inches.  It was the same at the other two places I tried as I doglegged my way home.  That was a blow.  I've been using that type of pot for the past twenty years.  They weren't totally frost proof, and did tend to crack if they fell over, but they were easy to handle and relatively cheap, and their mirror smooth interior finish helped when potting on.  It is much, much harder extracting a root ball from a pot whose inside surface is rough, or worse still ridged.

Instead the wallflowers are going into an eclectic collection of whatever medium sized pots I had in the shed.  They are in umpteen different designs, all with curved sides and many with mouths narrower than their maximum diameter, which makes them unsuitable for anything you might ever want to remove intact, but OK for bedding.  The initial result was not promising, since the plants seemed to have ridiculously tiny roots compared to their tops and had wilted in transit, so stood at odd angles looking pathetically floppy, but I told myself that wallflowers were traditionally sold bare root wrapped in newspaper, members of the cabbage family had a great capacity to wilt when transplanted before recovering miraculously overnight, Mr Fothergill knew what they were doing, and it would be fine.  I went on planting until I ran out of compost, watered my poor drooping plants into their new homes, and left them to it, thankful that it wasn't windy.

That leaves the longer term question of where to find 33cm straight sided pots with a smooth interior finish.  The siren voice in my head is saying that it is time to start collecting them from Whichford Pottery, now that I've got enough tulip pots.  I bought those over the space of about three years, and the cost was eye watering at the time, but of course now I've got them they'll last for the rest of my gardening career, unless I drop them.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

gone on her holidays*

When I slid the door of the chicken house open this morning only one hen came out.  That wasn't normal.  Usually they all come tumbling out one after another, eager for their sprinkle of porridge oats with sultanas.  I could see another through the window, bouncing up and down on the roosting board.  I thought there must be something down on the floor she was afraid of, and wondered if a rat had got in, but when I opened the big door at the end of the house to have a look one of the hens was lying dead, face down on the floor.

It was the one with the funny tuft of feathers on her neck, and I wasn't completely surprised.  She's been reluctant to flock with the others for a few days when the Systems Administrator has let them out, preferring to hang about near the hen house instead of going to scratch around under the Eleagnus hedge, and retiring early to bed.  She used to be an adventurous creature, the one that once got locked out of the run all night by mistake because she was very late returning to the chicken house and we lost count and thought they were all inside.  She has been less venturesome for a while.  We wondered if perhaps she'd had a fright out in the garden, but evidently she was ailing.

The body was lying near the chicken house entrance, but not blocking it, so the other two hens could have got out into the run if they'd wanted to.  I thought it showed more sensibility than you might expect from chickens that they didn't like to pass that close to their late companion's corpse, and appeared agitated by the death, or the body.  On that basis keeping hens in sheds in huge flocks where the farm workers routinely have to go around each morning picking up the bodies is even worse than it would be anyway.

So we are down to three hens.  Three is OK, but if we lose any more we'll have to think about getting a couple of new ones.  We couldn't risk ending up with just one on her own.  They are social animals, and it would be very cruel.  I don't know how on that basis we ever stop when we decide to give up poultry keeping, unless a mass fox catastrophe proved the catalyst, which is how quite a lot of people end up stopping.  Give the sole survivor to a hen keeping friend, I suppose, and not ask too many questions about what they would do with her.  We are basically escaped townies with a taste for gardening, and leave all our hens to live out their natural span until infirmity or the fox get them, long beyond their productive egg years, but true country dwellers are not so indulgent.

Poor old hen.  Still, she had a pretty good life as hens go, and she was mourned by her companions, at least briefly.

*If you don't get the reference, re-watch Chicken Run, which is in any case a work of genius.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

real ice cream and art

When I got to Liverpool Street the concourse was as wet and slippery as if somebody had thrown buckets of water over it, but when I cautiously stuck my nose outside the station it was only drizzling very lightly.  The rain storm had evidently passed, leaving behind it the sort of muggy air that almost makes you long for winter and a crisp frost.

I walked over to Covent Garden as I had oodles of time before I was due to meet my old university friend for lunch, feeling relieved that I'd decided against wearing an extra layer on top of my tee shirt, since it was quite sweaty enough in my raincoat as it was.  We were meeting in Tavistock Street, which is wall to wall full of chain restaurants.  You would not think there were so many people wanting bistro food, but there must be.  My friend had chosen Cote (as in coast, there should be an accent over the O but I don't know how to do it), which was a new one on me, but there are dozens of them all over the place.  Well, all over London, and we could have eaten in one in Dorchester when we were on holiday.  Only three in East Anglia, but that's the Eastern counties for you.  There are none in Essex.

We went on somewhere else for pudding.  When the idea was floated in advance this struck me as being the height of metropolitan decadence.  Bistro chain puddings not good enough for you, then? But I was swayed by the promise of excellent ice cream, and if anything my friend undersold the wonders of Gelatorino.  It is a tiny little shop in Russell Street, selling real Italian ice cream made by real Italians.  There are a few tables at the back, or you can have a cardboard pot of ice cream to go.  The pot come in three sizes, and even the smallest seemed pretty generous by the time the ice cream has been piled up.  If you were going for the largest one I definitely wouldn't have any other lunch first.  You can choose your combination of flavours, and since it's dished out by the pot rather than rigidly by the scoop you could make your mix of flavours as complicated as you liked. Overwhelmed by choice I followed my friend's lead and opted for hazelnut and chocolate, which was delicious, but they also do salted caramel.  And pistachio.  I shall have to go there with everybody I ever go to London with, apart from the one person who doesn't eat sweet things. Maybe with her too, and I'll have her share.

Then I went to Tate Britain for another look at the Barbara Hepworth before it closes.  This time I sat all the way through a vintage BFI film about the links between her work and the Cornish landscape, complete with shots of her wearing huge jewellery and no safety goggles, bashing away vigorously at blocks of wood and stone.  Having the link spelled out to me between some of her forms and the surrounding natural landscape did make me go back and look at them more carefully.  There are at least ten or a dozen works in the exhibition I should like to take home.

Monday, 5 October 2015

wet days and favourite colours

Today was devoted to housework so not terribly exciting.  I try to save the cleaning for a rainy day, and it was fortuitous that today was rainy since I had to clean the house in any event for the beekeepers' committee meeting (or at least the downstairs bits).  I'm stepping down as Treasurer at the next AGM on the grounds that four years is long enough for anybody to be Treasurer, so that external source of motivation will soon be gone.  I'll just have to tell myself that the Systems Administrator and I deserve a vaguely clean and tidy house anyway.

I nipped out into the garden to pick a small posy, to try and brighten the place up.  My first thought was to use some of the hips from Rosa glauca, which were looking lovely the last time I noticed them, but when I looked for them this time I found they had all gone.  The birds had taken every last one.  They always do that with the holly berries about a week before Christmas, so that a fortnight before the day you think there are going to be lots for decorations, and come Christmas Eve the SA is left scrabbling about to find a token few.

There are still some late roses here and there, and with Cosmos and a dahlia or two they made a decent bunch, very pink, but pink is a good colour.  Rather inextricably linked in contemporary western culture with princesses and breast cancer campaigns, but a good colour nonetheless.  Are there any colours that human beings are truly hardwired to like or dislike?  Red is said to be the colour of danger, because it is the colour of blood.  I've heard it stated in a garden lecture that the eye is instinctively drawn to it, hence we should be careful how we used it in garden designs.  I've even read a theory that sports teams wearing red shirts win more often than other teams.  But in China red is the colour of luck, and how does luck equate with danger?  I think the lecturer (it was Lady Skelmersdale) was right about red in the garden.  Red Japanese bridges, gigantic red tree rhododendrons, they do act as optical magnets and you just can't help noticing them first.

The current marker of good taste is to dislike yellow in the garden.  I've never heard anybody say flatly that they don't like blue.  True blues are thin on the ground in the garden, and most blue flowers have at least a tinge of purple.  Nobody seems to dislike purple, either.

It is due to rain tomorrow, but I'm due to meet an old friend in London so wouldn't be gardening anyway.  As we were making the final arrangements she did ask whether I wanted to rearrange, given that the weather forecast was so awful, but I said I didn't mind the rain as long as she didn't. Living in England if you start cancelling your social life each time it's due to be showery you'll soon be a hermit.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

my new plants

I spent part of this afternoon fussing over my newly acquired plants from the Great Dixter plant fair.  Some are destined for pots long term, others for the garden borders but I don't want to plant them out until spring.  A couple merely need planting and are sitting outside the greenhouse having received nothing more than a drink of water and a dose of admiration.

I bought Pelargonium sidioides after seeing and being instantly smitten by a grey leaved, tiny flowered deep red pelargonium in one of the pots outside the front door at Great Dixter.  Needless to say, it was not labelled.  Nothing in the garden is, Christopher Lloyd disliking the look of labels and finding that visitors stole them, moved them or trampled on things to get to them.  There is a whole anti garden label policy displayed in the shed where you pay for your plants.  So I don't know whether the Dixter pot plant was P. sidioides or something else similar, and I don't know enough about species and near species pelargoniums to know whether there is anything else that resembles P. sidioides that closely.  It doesn't matter, since once I saw that I could buy P. sidioides I was happy with that.  According to the interweb (that the young people use) it should grow quickly, make a nice mat of leaves and flower profusely.  I have moved it into a clay pot, for the look of the thing and because I think clay allows more air to the roots which is helpful with anything needing good drainage, but I only moved it up the bare minimum of pot size to convert it from square pot to round, given the time of year.

Salvia 'Love and Wishes' is so posh it has its own website.  I was instantly charmed by its rich reddish purple flowers, thought that they would go well with the fuschias by the front door, and when I read that it would be happy with shade for part of the day and made a medium sized plant it was a done deal.  It was being offered by Dyson, who are specialist salvia growers, and they introduced it to the UK at Chelsea this year, though I have now learned that it was bred in Australia.  I did check with Mr Dyson that it would over-winter happily in a pot in a frost free conservatory.  I am slightly worried by the prospect of it succumbing to fungal diseases as salvia are martyrs to botrytis, but took courage from the fact that the Salvia confertiflora bought last autumn at Kiftsgate survived last winter in the conservatory.  It got a slightly larger clay pot than its existing plastic, just to give it some space to play with over the next couple of weeks as it's still in active growth, but I didn't want it sitting in too much extra compost.  I'll move it on again in the spring, if it survives.

Erysimum 'Parrish's' was an impulse buy in that I'd not heard of it, but I knew I can grow Erysimum in our soil and thought it was a very good shade of purple, plummier than 'Bowles Mauve'.  I moved it into a somewhat bigger plastic pot since the other varieties I grow seem to fill 9 centimetre pots very quickly, with the aim of growing it on between now and next spring then taking some cuttings and planting the original specimen out.

Begonia scharfii, on the other hand, went down a couple of pot sizes.  This purchase was frankly a punt.  I fell for its big fleshy leaves, hairy on their undersides, and thought how nice it would look at the back of the conservatory, or in a shady corner just outside it in the summer months.  Visitors to the plant fair had the full run of the regular nursery, but in addition Great Dixter had a stall, and the tray of Begonia scharfii were sitting next to their stall, looking ignored.  I knew from their catalogue that they will not send begonias by mail order because they are too fragile to post, so it was a question of grabbing one when I saw it or abandoning the idea.  The girl on the stall did not seem very clear whether or not the begonia would overwinter in a frost free conservatory, saying she thought I'd be OK, but not with the authority of somebody who actually knew how they were overwintered at Dixter.  I decided that for six quid I'd risk it, and the begonia travelled all the way back on the coach tucked between my feet, because I didn't dare trust its fleshy stems and brittle leaves to the luggage hold.

When I came to move it into a clay pot lumps of compost fell away, and for an anxious moment I thought its rootball was rotting, before seeing the outline of a perfectly solid, normal pot-shaped but smaller rootball within the compost.  It had evidently been repotted very recently, maybe in an attempt to stop the plants from toppling over.  I'd noticed walking around the nursery that some groups of pots were marked as having been recently potted on, and was mildly irritated that the begonia hadn't been, but thought it would be much better off over the winter without all that extra compost sitting round its roots, and found a clay pot that fitted the actual rootball exactly.  Great Dixter's catalogue doesn't give any advice on how I'm supposed to get it through the winter, and I can't find anything else about it on the web apart from one old newspaper article by Christopher Lloyd that's equally silent on the subject of winter treatment.  I'll just have to try it and see. Begonia luxurians came through last winter in the conservatory with its stems intact, so I must be in with a chance.  B. scharfii looks so watery that rot attacking its stems and those big hairy leaves must be my biggest risk.

Penstemon 'Garnet' was another Great Dixter plant, since I thought that Dixter was very unlikely to sell mislabelled plants, and after having serious doubts about the identity of one I bought in a garden centre that was supposed to be 'Garnet' I wanted to have what I hoped was a verified 'Garnet' to compare it with.  Like the Erysimum it was moved into a somewhat but not extravagantly larger pot, to encourage it to keep growing in the greenhouse, with the intention of taking cuttings from it and planting the parent out in a border next year.

Abelia x grandiflora is not rare or exotic at all, but I knew I wanted one to go in part of the gap that will be freed up once I've taken the conifer stump out, and Great Dixter had some nice young plants for six quid.  Smallish young plants that are growing fast and haven't had time to think about getting pot bound are always a pleasure, so I thought there was no point in paying twice as much for one from a garden centre.  And at the margin I'd rather support Great Dixter than a multiple that's more interested in gas barbecues than plants.

Then I bought a kind of papyrus, said to be hardy, because I liked the shape of its seed heads and thought it would look just right outside the conservatory with the ferns, the hosta, and the huge felty leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Rex'.  That was another Dixter plant, and the label said Self Seeds, which I gathered anyway from the way they were scattered around the garden, but I thought it couldn't get up to too much mischief in the corner where I planned to put it.  It got a modestly larger clay pot.  I had better do some internet research and check whether it will be OK outside in its pot all winter.  I have twice raised true papyrus from seed, and lost it each time before discovering it really does need warmer conditions than frost free, but looking at the Papyrus vegetus scattered around the garden at Great Dixter it must be hardier than that.