Monday, 29 February 2016

doing what you can

My cold has reached the rich, bubbling stage, and I have hit the evening slump.  I went out to do some gentle weeding and tidying once the frost had burned off the grass, as there was real heat in the sun and the wind had dropped away.  I managed a couple of hours before lunch, then another measly hour and a half afterwards, before I began to feel chilly and it seemed time to retreat back into the house.  A sad waste of perfect gardening weather, alas.

The flower buds are starting to swell on the Osmanthus delavayi.  This is an evergreen shrub with small, neat, dark green leaves.  I have seen them growing unpruned in light shade, where they make quite open shrubs, but mine is in full sun on the corner of a bed grown as a clipped ball, a punctuation point I pinched shamelessly from the writings of Christopher Lloyd before ever visiting Great Dixter.  There is an inherent tension in growing O. delavayi as a trimmed specimen, since its great glory is the scent of its flowers in spring, and keeping it cut to a tight ball risks removing the flowering wood.

Mine is still not so tight and close as I'd like it to be or as the Great Dixter ones are, probably because I am not so ruthless about trimming it as I should be, but also because Christopher Lloyd had a head start of several years.  I gave mine its main trim last year straight after flowering, then a second less stringent tidy in the autumn, and it looks as though the remaining twigs are set to flower to their tips.  It's grown a little whiskery again, but every twig removed between now and April will be a spray of flowers lost, so the time to prune it is later.

One of the recent frosts has slightly singed the new growth on some of the Cistus and the Romneya coulteri.  I noticed the last time I was at the Beth Chatto gardens, which must have been in the first week of February, that they had cut their plant down quite hard.  I have left mine untouched until now in the vague help that retaining the old stems on top would help protect the bottom, and today I only reduced last year's growth by around a half, thinking that if another frost nipped the ends there'd be more left below.  It took me three goes to persuade R. coulteri to grow, and I feel rather protective of it.

I found a few shoots emerging of Coronilla varia, which I decided last year was simply too rampant to be given house room in that bed, or indeed anywhere in the garden.  I can see situations where it would come in useful.  Stabilising the embankment of a new bypass, perhaps.  It blooms for a very long time and the bees love the flowers, so it has its positive points, but it is too vigorous to be allowed in a domestic garden, even a large one.  I tried to trace the shoots down to their origin, but didn't manage to unearth any meaningful bits of root.  It has infiltrated the roots of a Yucca anyway, and I'm not digging that up.  I am resigned to a long, slow war of attrition, and to be pulling out the odd strand of Coronilla for years.

And then it began to get cold, and I started to feel really not awfully well, while my nose began to run as if somebody had turned a valve, so I tottered inside for a mug of tea and an armchair in front of the fire.  It's all rather a waste.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

the cold came back

My cold has come around again for another outing.  It has never really gone away since the start of the year.  I met somebody at last Wednesday's talk who said in some puzzlement that he had a cold that seemed to keep coming back: the previous week he'd felt fine, and now he didn't.  I knew how he felt.  By Friday night I had an ominous dry cough and a slight sore throat, and by yesterday I was aching from head to toe.  It's a small consolation that it's not just me that's suffering.  Something is doing the rounds that is never desperately bad, but is extremely unwilling to let go once it's got you.

It is all very annoying.  The garden is piled with cut branches that ought to go to the bonfire heap and be converted into useful shreddings and firewood.  The hedges and borders are stuffed with uncut branches whose buds are bursting into life by the day, and urgently need cutting.  There are three separate piles of Strulch bags scattered around the garden, whose contents ought to go on to the borders so that they can start doing their useful work and I can stop looking at the bags.  There are seeds to be sown, pots of bulbs to be planted out, and the only thing I've done in the vegetable patch this year is to prune the vine.  The hen house needs cleaning out.

Instead of doing any of these things I am sitting in front of the electric fire.  I walked as far as the bottom of the garden this morning to check the rabbit trap, which contained no rabbits, and did not like the way my chest tightened even further in the cold air, while my arms ache as if I'd taken up amateur boxing, not done a moderate amount of light pruning the day before yesterday.  It is very dull, but I would so much like to get better quickly and I'm not sure that dragging my reluctant body out into the garden is the way to do it.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Should you tell people when you feel ill?  I tend to let it known in a general way when I am not well.  I don't expect them to listen to endless recitations of symptoms, but if I am going to be disorganised, bad tempered or cancel things at the last minute I'd rather they knew there was a problem.  It might save them taking my behaviour too personally.  As it is I am supposed to be going to my new garden club on Tuesday, where I hope to see my friend who had to cancel our snowdrop visit because she had a cold.  On Wednesday I am supposed to be seeing another friend who is taking me to a tea party, and on Friday I am supposed to be seeing a third friend for our rescheduled lunch from last week when I double booked myself.  I very much hope to be fit to get to everything that's in the diary, but if any of us don't make it then at least let's admit it's because we have colds, or our middle aged lady hormones are making us disorganised, and not start making unconvincing excuses.  There's no shame in a cold, but who wants to be flaky?

Saturday, 27 February 2016

a town centre talk

I arrived at the church hall for last night's talk in good time, to find the car park filled to bursting with cars.  If I'd turned in through the gates my only possible next move would have been to reverse out again on to the main road.  Confused, I drove on past.  Was I late to the talk?  I was sure the organiser had said the meeting started at half past seven, not seven.  I was also sure I remembered her remarking that most of the members walked there.

I hoped I'd find somewhere to pull over so that I could leave the car and walk up to the hall to find out what was going on, but the main road had double yellow lines all the way to the next traffic lights and nowhere obvious to turn round.  I looped round the block, took another turn along Magdalen Street and back up to the church.  The car park was still full of cars, but this time I was prepared and turned right into the opposite side street, worried briefly that it would be too narrow to turn round, found space to turn, and crawled back to the end of the road looking for somewhere to hover while I watched the car park.

By the time I could see the church I was so close to the end of the road I'd have blocked the junction if I'd stopped, and I found my only choice was to turn left, so did a second loop round the block, this time circumnavigating the St Botolph's roundabout, before approaching the church for the third time.  I thought maybe I could park further down my side street, before spotting the no right turn sign and realising I shouldn't have been down there before.  Instead I took the first left hand turning I came too, and was finally able to slow down enough to read the signs about the parking restrictions.  Off at six, thank goodness.

I parked and walked up to the church, carrying my projector table and a trug of twigs as time was getting on.  The car park was still full of cars but now with signs of human life, mainly women with small children.  I did not think they were from the garden club.  It was now ten minutes before the meeting was due to start.  Beginning to feel distinctly rattled I rang the organiser once my phone, which I'd remembered to switch off before leaving home so that it wouldn't ring while I was talking, had finished taking what seemed like an age to boot itself up again.

The man who answered sounded suspicious when I asked for the organiser by name, then mellowed slightly when I asked if she was at her garden club.  I explained that I was the speaker, and was confused by the church hall being full of children with no signs of a garden club.  He seemed confused as well, and told me I was at the wrong church.  I ought to be by a big white building.  I protested that I was by a big white building, wondering where the hell I ought to be if not there and wishing that the organiser had confirmed by letter instead of doing everything by telephone.

At that moment a short, somewhat stout, elderly lady hove into view, and phone in hand I rushed towards her.  Was she from the garden club?  She was, and said the organiser was inside.  I apologised to the organiser's husband who said it was all right, he had been able to hear our conversation.  I went inside and found the hall still full of mothers and children, all chattering volubly in a foreign language.  It was the Russians, explained my hosts, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.  They have an evening club for the children.  They're supposed to be out by seven but their idea of by seven is not the same as ours.  They'll be gone in a minute.

The organiser came back with me to my car, managed to climb in over the rolled up projector screen to the passenger seat, and we drove back to the church, the organiser assuring me that it would all be fine as long as the Russians didn't have a feast day.  They don't always remember to tell the garden club when they do, and then their meetings over-run, but it's their church.  It can make it very awkward when the garden club has a speaker, especially if they've travelled a long way.

The car park was now magically empty except for one car.  I set up my equipment, the audience drifted in at a relaxed pace, and we had a very pleasant evening.  Or at least, several people said they enjoyed the talk, some took leaflets, nobody went to sleep, and I was cordially invited to their Open Gardens day in June.  I wish they had warned me about the Russians, though.

Friday, 26 February 2016

hedges and twigs

I have left it slightly too late to cut the hedge down the southern side of the back garden.  It has been casting more shade than I'd like over the border, and I'd been meaning to take the top out.  It is not a desperately good hedge, not as dense at the base as I'd like and rather more like a line of closely planted trees.  It's made up of hawthorn, field maple, dogwood (which suckers wickedly) and hazel.  We never wanted a formal, straight edged hedge around such a rural garden, but I fear that over the years we should have clipped it more closely and regularly than we did.  Hawthorn will make a beautifully dense, twiggy hedge if cut often enough.

A few years back we took down some of the tallest trunks by almost a half, which let a lot more light into the garden, but it has crept back to almost its original height.  I've been aware through the winter that I needed to do something about the hedge, but somehow not got round to it.  I suppose I was also trying to get round to weeding and mulching the borders, digging out the brambles in the meadow, and various other winter tasks.  Today I set out armed with saws, loppers, secateurs and a step ladder, and discovered on closer exception that the buds were already breaking.

Bother.  The ideal time to reduce a woody plant is before the buds have swelled and broken.  You don't want it mobilising its stored reserves of food and moving them up into the twigs only for you to immediately cut half of them off, or at least that's what they taught us at Writtle.  On the other hand some of the branches are hanging out over the sloping border, and will shade the other things in the bed too much.  I decided I would have to compromise, and remove the overhanging ones now while leaving the centre of the hedge intact until the autumn.

I can't remember why we didn't do it back in November, and whether it was last September that the Systems Administrator developed a frozen shoulder or the year before.  Certainly if it was last autumn that would explain why we weren't messing around with scaffolding and the electric pole saw before Christmas.  But maybe we were just busy doing other things.  Winter days are so short and the weather is often so unhelpful.  You need a dry, calm day for work with an electric pole saw.

Meanwhile at the other end of the garden I am running out of accessible twigs.  I like to introduce my woodland talk with a trug of twigs and a quick account of a few native trees, to get the audience warmed up before we turn the lights out and look at slides.  At this time of year I can ask them to do a winter twig identification which is generally entertaining and saves the embarrassment of the twigs having wilted badly by the time I get to the talk.  One of the species I mention is birch, and there are almost no twigs left within reach on the tree I've been raiding for samples.  Tonight I can recycle Wednesday's twigs, since they still look fine, but fairly soon I shall have to take a ladder as well as my secateurs when I go twig collecting.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

two deliveries

My bulb order from Broadleigh arrived this morning.  I knew the postman had some sort of parcel for one of us, because he stopped his van a couple of yards short of the front door, the way he does when he's going to come and knock at the door by the kitchen.  There's always a moment of frisson opening a plant order: will everything you wanted be there or will a crop failure have intervened between the moment when you clicked on Add to Basket and the point when the nursery came to package up your order?  The main thing I wanted from Broadleigh were Cyclamen cilicium, and I'd stated firmly on the order form that if they weren't available then I didn't want the rest of the order because it wouldn't be worth paying the delivery charge, having been caught out that way in the past over some iris.

Everything was there, fat and healthy, with no signs of rot or mould, and wrapped in pages from The Times, which what I'd expect from Broadleigh.  The owner is Lady Christine Skelmersdale VMH, past member of the RHS council and wife of the seventh Baron Skelmersdale, who in person exudes a head girlish, tweed and pearls, kindly but no-nonsense charm.  I inspected the bag of Cyclamen eagerly and as I hoped and expected from Broadleigh and at this time of the year, they had roots, confirming that they were alive, and more to the point telling me which way up I should plant them.  My initial bargain purchase of Cyclamen cilicium turned out not to be such a bargain at all, because I couldn't tell decide with any confidence which was the top and which the bottom, and half of them never came up at all.  Whether that was because I planted them upside down or because they were already dead when they arrived I shall never know.

The Broadleigh cyclamen were planted with due ceremony and a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone in the gravel under the front wall of the house, tucked around the metal stand of a clay pot. Facing south east they will get the sun for the first part of the day plus a little warmth from the house, which seems to suit the survivors out of the first batch pretty well.  The cats have rather annoyingly been using that patch by the house as a loo, but I am hoping the pot stand will get in the way and save the cyclamen from being dug up.

I also bought three Gladiolus 'Ruby', three Roscoea beesiana, and an odd Smilacina racemosa, now properly called Maianthemum.  The gladiolus went into individual nine centimetre pots and then straight into a propagating case in the greenhouse, to keep the mice off them.  I don't know if mice like them, but at nine quid for three bulbs I don't want to give them the chance to find out.  I have seen plants of 'Ruby' in flower and they were sumptuous, with clusters rather than long spikes of almost hellebore-like, fairly large deep red flowers.  The three bulbs are destined for the middle of the long bed in the front garden, a patch of particularly arid sand where all sorts of things have failed to thrive, but where species gladiolus have prospered.  Something about the sun and drainage suits them.  'Ruby' is related to Gladiolus papilio, which has similar flowers but in a strange shade of pinkish green, and has spread quite busily in that area by underground stolons.  'Ruby' is supposed to have the same growth habit and I'm hoping my three bulbs will develop into a decent patch.  Both should flower from late summer into autumn.

The Roscoea are to fill a gap in the ditch bed where a small rhododendron died of mysterious causes.  They are related to ginger lilies, and should send up clumps of strap shaped leaves followed by vaguely orchid-like exotic yellow flowers in July and August.  After all else read the instructions.  Broadleigh did not send any planting instructions in the parcel, relying on their customers to be grown up gardeners who can work these things out for ourselves.  After potting my three bulbs, multi-pronged affairs like a cross between a dahlia tuber and a shuttlecock, I browsed Google entries for Roscoea beesiana while drinking a mug of coffee, and found the universal advice was to plant them deep for frost protection.  Val Bourne, a very experienced garden journalist, suggested the crown should be four to six inches deep.  I began to remember that at the plant centre we always sold them in deep pots: that would be why.  I decided to leave mine as they were and plant them out as soon as the first hint of a leaf appeared, plunging them deeper at that point.

The Smilacina racemosa is destined for a shady corner at the end of the ditch bed, where I already have a patch and thought it would be nice to have some more.  I was not sure whether the very corner of the bed would be too dark and dry for it, which is why I decided to experiment on a four pound root from Broadleigh rather than a six pound growing plant from Long Acre.  I potted my root up in a two litre pot and stood it in the greenhouse, where it should turn into the equivalent of the six pounder given a few weeks.  If it is a rip roaring success in that corner I can always get some more.

It was a good day for deliveries.  The Strulch arrived just before noon, saving me from spending the rest of the day waiting around for it, and managed not to coincide with the postman or the recycling collection so nobody got held up in the lane.  The driver had received the warning to back up the track, instead of the delivery instructions being taped to the pallet in the back of the truck like they were last time, and had followed my advice. His pallet jack wouldn't work on the gravel, as neither of us thought it would, but at least he could use the tail lift to bring the load down to ground level, and it didn't take us too long to offload the pallet at the back of the lorry, after which he was free to go.  When the last load of Strulch arrived the driver came in forwards, baulked at the gate, couldn't use the tail lift because his way out would then have been blocked by fifty bags of chopped straw, and ended up handing down every one of the fifty bags to us from the side of the lorry.  He was not a happy man by the time we'd finished, while I wasn't too impressed myself.  Gardening is supposed to be a relaxing hobby, I'd paid handsomely for the Strulch, and it wasn't my fault that his employers couldn't follow a simple set of instructions.  It took me an hour to move the bags after he'd gone, but it was a lovely sunny day.  Success all round.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

charity talks

I did a woodland charity talk this evening.  It was my first outing with the new set of slides (although they've been digital for years now I still think of them as slides.  Images doesn't sound quite right, and pictures certainly doesn't).  They arrived as a download in Powerpoint, and I was quite proud of myself that I managed to remember how to edit them in Powerpoint (insert speaker's name here, plus I spotted a rogue comma in one of the titles, and decided to ignore the volunteer manager's instruction that I should not change the order), and then copy them all over to a memory stick in JPEG format, without having to ask the Systems Administrator for help half way through.

The slides came with a set of notes which should form the basis of the presentation, and actually flowed pretty coherently.  It can be tricky talking off someone else's script if you don't find the ideas flow in a natural sequence.  I suppose everybody has their own views on what constitutes a natural sequence, but I think there are some ground rules irrespective of personal style.  A good talk covers each topic in turn, as fully as it is going to given the time available and the nature of the audience, and then moves on to the next one.  It doesn't suddenly flip back to the same topic three slides on, and it should be possible to work out what you're supposed to be talking about from the nature of the slide even when there isn't much text.

I have an absolute rule never to talk from notes.  Radio programmes where the presenter sounds as though they are reading out an essay rather than talking to their listeners directly are almost always dire, and in a live talk it's good to make eye contact with the audience.  It works as long as you know the subject, but it's a lot easier when the slides act as natural prompts, not so good when by the seventeenth picture of a tree you are struggling to remember what on earth you are supposed to say at this point.  The new presentation has only half as many slides as the old one, and I think that makes it easier, one slide per topic.  As soon as you have two or three you're in danger of finding you've run out of material by the time you get to the third, or still haven't covered everything you meant to by the end of the second slide only to find that there isn't a third.

They were a nice group, and made a more than generous donation to the charity.  I only told them at the end that they'd been my guinea pigs as I hadn't done this version of the talk before.  I am due to do the talk again the day after tomorrow, after my diary muddle, so by the end of two performances in three days I should be completely fluent.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

signs of spring

Spring is on its way.  The bees were flying today, buzzing around the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window.  They even found their way to two small pots of hyacinths blooming outside the greenhouse, though you wouldn't think it was worth the scout bees' time to go all the way back to the beehive and recruit foragers to a patch of flowers as modest as six hyacinth flowers.  The bulbs are left over from last year's bigger pots by the pond, by the way, and were only potted up again last autumn because I never got round to moving them out into the garden after they'd finished flowering.  They were lovely fat bulbs, much too good to waste, so I repotted them in five inch pots meaning to plant them out in the spring when I could see what else was growing in the borders. They spent the winter in the greenhouse, along with the new bulbs in this year's big pots, since I have learned the hard way that potted hyacinth bulbs can rot at the base if left outside in a wet winter, and for some reason the home saved bulbs are far more advanced than the others.

I've seen a couple of bumblebees as well in the past couple of days, further proof that spring really is on its way.  At this time of the year they must be queens, newly emerged from hibernation and looking for somewhere to nest.  Neither worker nor drone bumbles live from one season to the next. The queens need to find forage, since they will have to start building their nests and feeding their young entirely unassisted until the first generation of workers mature and can take over the housework.  All the more reason to plant early spring flowers.

The potted Fritillaria meleagris have been a mixed success.  I got one hundred bulbs of the ordinary purple chequered ones last autumn, and twenty-five white, the white being approximately four times as expensive, and potted them up at three bulbs to a deep nine centimetre pot inside sealed propagating cases in the greenhouse, to try and keep the mice off them.  The mice were finally kept at bay, after two years of abject failure, and the purple sort came up beautifully.  I have planted most of them out now, and where the compost fell away from the tops of the bulbs could see that they were huge, fat, and bursting with health.  Half the pots of white ones didn't come up at all, and when I tipped the contents out of the pots I found the bulbs had rotted.

It can't have been a dodgy batch of compost.  The purple fritillaries and scilla potted at the same time were absolutely fine.  Maybe I over-watered them, though they were sharing a case with a dozen pots of Scilla bifolia and those are all emerging normally, suggesting I didn't slosh water into that tray with a heavier hand than on any of the others.  I am left with the dark suspicion that the bulbs could not have been very good, and carried the mouldy seeds of their own destruction within them.  Still, the purple ones made splendid plants, so compared to buying that many from a garden centre in a month's time when they are on the point of flowering I'm still quids in on the exercise. Whether they will manage to flower is another matter, since I fear the rabbits may have a taste for fritillaries.  I found some suspicious looking chewed leaves in the grass when I was planting them out, but am hoping the rabbits won't find all of them.

I still haven't caught any.  I moved the traps again yesterday, as they seem to have abandoned the front garden and be round at the back again, to judge from the most recent scrapes in the borders. I have tried baiting the traps with apples, following advice from the Systems Administrator who spent some time researching online rabbit trapping forums.  Some people advise pouring cheap apple juice over the traps to disguise the smell of humans, but their rabbits must be picker than ours.  Our rabbits will eat things overnight I've just planted that day, not in the least deterred by the fact that I was handling them less than twelve hours previously, and did not douse them in fruit juice afterwards.

Monday, 22 February 2016

by the skin of my teeth

I met some friends for coffee this morning, and one of the things we talked about was nuisance phone calls.  None of us ever answered them if they showed as Number Withheld or International.  I remarked that some genuine callers, especially older people and those living alone, did choose to withhold their number, but they could always leave a message.

Early this evening the phone rang, but glancing at it I saw it was a withheld number, so didn't pick it up.  It went to answerphone, and when the light stopped flashing and the infuriating new message beeping began I hit Play, expecting a recorded message about how changes in government legislation meant I needed a new boiler.  But no, the caller gave their name, the name of a Colchester garden club and a Colchester phone number, and briskly announced that she was just ringing to check I was OK for Friday's talk.

Friday's talk?  Before going off to my coffee I'd almost finished sorting out the details of lunch in London with a friend on Friday, an agreement which has stood in principle since about the second of January while the date was fixed a couple of weeks ago.  But the name of the garden club rang a definite bell.  I checked my Sent emails and sure enough, I'd emailed to the woodland charity on the 26th of November to let them know I'd be doing the talk.  I must have then forgotten to write it in my diary, or else failed to transfer it to my 2016 diary.

I was utterly mortified.  In over a decade of volunteering I have never double booked myself for a talk.  I had to cancel at short notice for my mother-in-law's funeral, and then I managed to track down another local volunteer who agreed to take the booking in my place.  My email to my friend confessing I had made a grave error and couldn't make it to town this Friday crossed with hers confirming which John Lewis cafe we were meeting in at 12.15 and saying she was looking forward to seeing me.

Fortunately she was extremely nice about shifting the date for lunch, assuring me that as she was very busy with work next week would suit her better anyway, and reassuring me that she had forgotten to go to an appointment at the US embassy the other week to renew her daughter's passport.  These things happen.  I suppose they do, but thank goodness the garden club booking secretary had a withheld telephone number, so I was able to check where I was supposed to be going on Friday and unscramble my other arrangements before calling her back, sounding as if I knew exactly what was going on, calm as a swan although I was paddling frantically under water.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

winter tidy

I spent today tidying the rose bed at the top of the bank, pruning the roses, cutting back the bits of honeysuckle and rambling rose that didn't see why they should be confined to the bank and wanted to share the rose bed too, picking out the by now dry and brittle remains of Baptisia australis, and finally dosing the ground with a generous sprinkling of fish, blood and bone and a topping of Strulch.  The emerging leaves of Camassia and Aconitum were already well advanced, making it a slightly fiddly job feeding the Strulch down around them, and I had to be careful where I trod.

The ground is very wet.  In an ideal world I wouldn't be walking on it at all, but in an ideal world I'd have done all this about three weeks ago when the herbaceous understorey hadn't grown so much. But the world is not ideal, and three weeks ago the ground was even wetter.  The far rose bed sits on a vein of evil clay, clay so sticky, yellow, and lacking in natural humus that I'm not even sure it was originally topsoil.  The people who built the house had the slope of the back garden remodelled to give an approximately level area halfway down the back garden, but they weren't gardeners at all, and I'm not sure whether the digger driver took any notice of the soil.

I thought when I made the bed that roses liked clay, but there's clay and then there's clay.  I am not sure they really like our sort, and some have dwindled to nothing over time.  Unfortunately due to my lack of collector's instinct when it comes to names I'm not entirely sure about the identity of the survivors.  I kept a planting list, so must make a real effort this summer when they're out to match names to faces, and hunt around to see what labels I can find.  The Camassia, on the other hand, absolutely adore the conditions, and self seed lavishly in the years when the Strulch isn't so thick.  The Baptisia has made huge clumps as well, though it hasn't flowered so well in the past couple of years.  Rosy Hardy's advice when I asked her was to feed it a high potash fertiliser, but so far it has simply had blood, fish and bone along with everything else.

Clematis have for the most part struggled.  There are a couple of survivors, and again I must look at my list of everything I've ever planted in that bed and try and work out which they are.  On the other hand Viola cornuta is spreading rampantly.  Hooray, let's hope the rabbits don't eat it all.

Our Ginger came out to keep me company for a while, or rather expected me to keep him company, squawking at me to stroke him and standing by the bucket of Stulch so that he ended up being lightly mulched.  He spent some time staring into the rose bank, waiting for things to come out, but nothing did.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

historic daffodils

It's all go today.  I've just been to a Suffolk Plant Heritage talk on early daffodil varieties, and I'm about to go out to the music society jazz concert.

Suffolk Plant Heritage goes from strength to strength.  The hall where they meet was full to practically bursting today, and they've nearly sold out of tickets for next month's celebrity lecture with Fergus Garrett.  It goes to show that people will still join clubs and societies, if you put on a good enough programme, and especially with the added incentives of an interesting sales stall and nice cake.

The early daffodil specialist keeps them as a labour of love.  He and his wife sell a few surplus bulbs, but the returns are nowhere near commercial if they were to cost their own labour at anything like a realistic level.  Their chief aim, he admitted, was to learn more about plants they are both fascinated by, and to try and restore their rightful names to at least some old varieties, and keep them in cultivation.  His explanation of how one sets about researching historic daffodils would serve as a case study on a garden restoration course.  You scan old commercial catalogues and magazines, pray to find an historic garden where the owner at the time kept a planting list, and pick the brains of by now elderly retired growers and owners about what they were growing or helping to plant decades ago.  You take everything you are told with a huge pinch of salt.  If you can find a collaborator from the land owning classes so much the better, as they may gain admission to houses with big old gardens that don't open to the public

One problem with identifying daffodils surviving in long established gardens is that they are rarely labelled, since they were generally grown in drifts in grass.  And overcrowded, starved, excessively wet or dry clumps may have atypical flowers, longer or narrower than the type.  And apart from the tendency of owners and their ancient relatives to misremember the identities of bulbs they helped plant in the 1930s, nursery men have been selling mislabelled plants as long as there's been a nursery trade. When 'King Alfred' is new and wildly popular, the temptation to sell other bright yellow trumpet daffodils as 'King Alfred' is there.

The daffodil grower and his wife had an increasing rump of plants that they weren't entirely sure what to do with, because they couldn't attach an historic name to them with certainty, and couldn't give them a new name because they almost certainly had one already, which must stand by the rules of nomenclature.  One solution was to hang on to a core holding of the variety, in the hopes of identifying it at some point, and sell the surplus under a trade name, which could be given the true name if it was ever discovered.  I thought that sounded entirely reasonable, but then I am not very good at names for a member of Plant Heritage.  Obviously I'd rather know what things are, because then I can discuss my experience of growing them and how well they did in my conditions with other people.  But as long a plant is interesting and healthy my pleasure in it is not much diminished by the fact that I don't know quite what it is.  From that point of view I lack the collector's instinct, but given the amount of self seeding that goes on in our garden most of the Dierama and Pulmonaria don't have proper names anyway.

Friday, 19 February 2016

weeds and washing

It was a beautiful morning, bright, clear and sunny, frost glistening on the grasses and seed heads.  It was impossible to weed while the ground was frozen, so despite the beauty I took an hour out to go and buy compost via a trip to the dump.  My car sounded positively perky about starting, so while the battery is undoubtedly approaching the shadow of its life, it will still accept a charge.  I studied the way the charger was attached very carefully, in case I should need to do this for myself, and the Systems Administrator warned me to turn the charger off before disconnecting it from the battery, to avoid accidents with the positive terminal.  When we first met the SA had a great raised scar across one wrist, the result of accidentally wiring a metal watch strap into a car battery.  It took many years to fade, and is probably one reason why I have always looked on batteries with nervous suspicion.

While I was at B&Q a tray of ostentatiously large but pretty pink primroses found their way on to my trolley along with the compost.  I put them down on the front doorstep when I got back, thinking I might pot them up and enjoy the bling by the front door for this spring, before finding them a permanent home in my not very colour coordinated collection of polyanthus.  This nudged me into tidying away the collection of used pots and other bits and pieces that had collected by the door, and wash the two large trays and lids that I'll need for pots of seeds very soon, now they aren't full of bulbs.

If I were rich and were having my dream house built to my own design, it would definitely have a garden utility room with a big sink and hot as well as cold running water, for washing trays and pots.  I swished the worst of the mud off the big trays under the outside tap, but had to wash them in the kitchen, splashing the floor liberally in the process and creating a mess of muddy footprints where I trod in the wet bits.  A big garden sink would be ideal, like the huge ones in period sculleries.  I'd have an outside loo too, so that I could go for a pee without having to take my boots off, or treading mud down the hall when I forgot.  And it would have hot water and soap and a towel and a working light, unlike some I've seen.

As it is I shall go on washing pots and seed trays in the kitchen sink and trailing mud down the hall, but never mind.

I risked letting the chickens out after lunch, as they have been looking so hopeful and pleading in recent days, and it was not so cold today.  There was no way of explaining to them that they were on probation, and that if they wasted my afternoon running all over the garden so that I couldn't settle to any work then they weren't coming out next time.  As it was they behaved pretty well, trundling around the gravel and only disappearing briefly behind the Eleagnus hedge.  Even then I could hear them scratching about, but of course there's always the risk I might be listening to only two hens while the third had gone exploring at the bottom of the garden.  But by now natural selection may have played a part, since the last solo explorer became fox food a while back.  They did annoy me digging around in my carefully applied Strulch in the dahlia bed, including climbing back into the bed after I'd shooed them out once.  I don't want them disturbing the Strulch, or snapping off the emerging tulip shoots, but if I put the netting back along the front of the bed that will stop their game, unless any of them remember that they can climb in over the wall at the back.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

car troubles

I was all set to go to the supermarket this morning.  It was drizzling, not the sort of wintry weather that would have justified the Met Office's yellow triangle Be Aware warning for Essex (though when I investigated that more closely yesterday evening it seemed to be based on the possibility of light snow in Saffron Walden), but not gardening weather either.  And anyway, I'd offered to cook.

My car would not start.  It's been sounding a bit iffy for a few months, the engine reluctant to turn over on cold mornings, and today it finally gave up the attempt, making an intermittent grrr sound, and then increasingly spasmodic grr...grr...grrs at subsequent turns of the ignition key.  Having bade the Systems Administrator a chirpy farewell I was back in the study two minutes later, shopping bags in hand.  My car won't start, I explained.  This didn't come as a particular shock to either of us, since it's been increasingly reluctant to start for some time, but I had hoped it would last until the annual service next month.  The battery is the original, ten years old, so it's done pretty well, especially when you consider that while few of my journeys are less than two miles, very few of them are more than twenty-five.

The Systems Administrator came and tried starting the car, and it grrd even more lethargically than before.  The SA pronounced that the battery was completely dead and promised to put it on charge. In the meantime I borrowed the SA's Skoda, which was very kind of the SA.  It is much cleaner than mine, has done fewer miles, and has a whizzier engine.  Despite the fact that they are both Fabias and their gearboxes are arranged in exactly the same way, five forward gears, reverse away from you and to the left, it feels completely different to drive.  It took me three goes to get it into reverse, and I still hadn't got a real feel for how much accelerator it needed to pull away smoothly in first by the time I got home.  If you saw an anxious middle aged lady in a grey Fabia making boy racer noises at the lights in Clingoe Hill today, that was me trying not to roll back on to the car behind during my hill start.

The boot of the Systems Administrator's car is much cleaner than mine, so clean you can put groceries in it.  This morning it contained a sack of coal, a camouflage jacket and a sink plunger. The SA should really put the coal in the woodshed to save carrying round the extra weight.  The sink plunger is left over from the time the SA went over to help try and unblock some friends' drains.  There again, my own car always contains a pair of filthy red bath towels, not for wrapping up any roadkill that takes my fancy, but for when I want to transport garden related things on the back seats.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

small bulbs

I am still working my way along the long bed.  You haven't lived until you've hand weeded a large patch of grape hyacinths, and the weeding is a mere prelude to coaxing a fresh dressing of mushroom compost down among their leaves and topping them off with Strulch.  I'm not honestly sure how I'm going to manage that, but mulched they must be or the problem will only be worse in three months' time.  The creeping grass has got in among the iris, and will be back.  Even if I lift the iris and dig that part of the bed over, the grass is in among the roots of the ivy.

In the back garden and the wood the snowdrops are looking very good, absolutely at their peak if not a day past it.  Their flower stems are starting to elongate and the first few petals have turned faintly brown, while there are not many tightly furled buds left to open.  I could have a longer season if I grew different varieties instead of sticking with plain Galanthus nivalis, but I'm not sure I want one.  An intense burst for two or three weeks is enough.

The crocus in the lawn are good as well, though they only open out when it's warm enough.  In the spirit of scientific enquiry I ought to put a thermometer by them and see what the trigger temperature is, but sun on the flowers is not sufficient by itself.  I went to look at them yesterday morning once the worst of the frost had melted from the grass, and although the sun was shining brightly many of the flowers were still held shut.  It makes sense from the crocus' point of view, since why expose your valuable pollen to the elements when there are no pollinating insects flying? I fear the grass is too thick for them to seed very much, since while individual clumps get fatter from year to year they don't seem to spread themselves around.  I read with envy those magazine articles in which people with sheets of crocus airily claim to have planted 'a couple of dozen' ten or twenty years ago.  I have been planting an extra couple of hundred every year or two for a good decade, and still don't have a sheet.

My pots of Anemone blanda are sitting outside the front door while I reconsider what to do with them.  Excited by the prospect of getting a hundred tubers for twelve quid, I ordered a hundred from Kevock, and at five knobbly little black corms per nine centimetre pot I now have twenty pots.  They feel like an absolute bargain when garden centres charge over four pounds for a single pot in bloom, and I was going to plant them in the ditch bed among the snowdrops and primroses. But it has to be admitted that previous plantings of Anemone blanda along the ditch have not lasted well, and I wonder whether the mice are eating them.  I used to have a lot of Crocus chrysanthus in that border, then over the course of a couple of seasons they almost totally vanished as something ate them.  I knew the crocus were being eaten because I saw the evidence of digging, and the nipped off leaves left abandoned on the soil.

It seems silly to spend twelve pounds and go to the trouble of planting up twenty pots in order to provide mouse food, so maybe the Anemone blanda should go in the gravel in the front garden.  In this country they always seem to be used as woodland garden plants, but they come originally from Turkey, Syria and south-eastern Europe, and are supposed to grow in any well drained soil that dries out in summer.  The gravel certainly does that.  Wikipedia says they rapidly colonise any favoured location, and as they have signally failed to colonise the ditch bed I should probably try them somewhere else instead.  I should have thought about it all more carefully before buying a hundred, but bulb catalogues are so enticing, it is easy to be swept away into visions of loveliness.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

best laid plans

I was going to visit the Beth Chatto gardens today, but I didn't.  The trip had been in the offing since the start of the year, as a friend who is another keen gardener and I agreed it would be nice to go and see a garden fairly soon, and snowdrops seemed the obvious choice.  By the start of this month we'd narrowed it down to a trip to Beth Chatto's.  I've always liked the sound of Benington Lordship and its Norman moat full of snowdrops, but it's a long drive while Beth Chatto is just round the corner.  We went there once before on an organised snowdrop day, which was interesting but insanely cold, and the display was pretty good.  And as RHS members we could get in free in February.  As an added incentive I promised my friend some lunch afterwards.

As I watched the progress of our own snowdrops I tried to gauge when we should make our visit. The weather remained mild, and I began to think we had better get on and pick a date, but then storm Imogen rolled in, and I had to plant the bare root roses, while my cold which had seemed to have passed showed ominous signs of returning.

By last Friday the roses were planted at last, and I suggested Sunday or Monday.  My friend replied that she would love to go, but had that morning woken up with a cold, and suggested Tuesday.  Sun was forecast, and she was sure she would be better by then.  My own view of colds being bleaker than that, I was not at all confident she would be up to garden visiting by Tuesday.  I rather thought she might have just reached the full stage of bubbling awfulness by then, but it seemed churlish to say so, and we agreed Tuesday, with the proviso that if she were not well it was not a problem and we would go later in the spring.

There was already a message on the answering machine when we got up this morning.  My friend sounded absolutely dreadful, and it was clear she would not be going anywhere.  I rang back to commiserate, promised we would go out once she was better, and urged her to take it very easy.

Colds are absolutely crap, there is no denying it.  Another friend missed the posh party the other weekend because she had a stinker and wasn't fit to go out.  My nose is still alternating between dripping tap and dense snuffle, and I woke up again today with a headache that neither a quiet morning in the warm making soup, nor a burst of fresh air weeding once the ground had thawed would shift.  I was quite relieved to meet someone the other day who announced baldly that she had felt ill all year, and blamed a virus.  Not pleased that she was ill, that would be a very unpleasant case of schadenfreude and anyway I like her, just relieved that someone else would admit that these bugs can hang on for weeks turning to months, and are not always 'only' and over in a week.

Monday, 15 February 2016


It was another day of weeding.  It's beginning to sound as though I have a terribly weedy garden, and I probably do, but I never understand quite how other people have significantly less weedy ones, unless their gardens are tiny and they live surrounded by incredibly tidy neighbours who don't have any weeds either.  Those people who get by with simply mowing or strimming their new perennial plantings and leaving the debris in place as a mulch must have different weed populations to us.

I am working my way along the long bed in the front garden.  This is on light, acid soil which ranges from sandy to so light it is practically incapable of supporting plant life.  Creeping sorrel on that kind of soil is practically a given.  I have reduced the amount of ours by dint of pulling it up by hand for about two decades, but I don't see how you could strim it or mow it away.

Top weeds are, in no particular order, the annual grass whose name I have still not discovered but which is not Poa annua, having far finer leaves; a running grass whose name I don't know either but which is not couch grass, having much more slender roots between the tufts, and the ability to send out long, jointed aerial shoots which root where they touch; a third, coarse, clump forming grass that is relatively easy to pull up; and Lychnis coronaria.

The latter is generally classified as a garden plant, and if you look around in garden centres this summer you may find it on sale at four pounds a pot.  With me it is a weed because it seeds so incontinently.  You might think I would be grateful for a garden plant that was happy to live on the sand, but the Lychnis forms dense mats that prevent what rain there is from reaching the soil, to the detriment of their neighbours, and as the clumps age they look steadily browner and tattier.

The bed is surrounded by a low ivy hedge, planted originally to hide the wire netting that was necessary to stop rabbits eating most of the contents, and chosen because I could not afford that much box and didn't want to be committed to cutting it.  The ivy took its time to cover the wire and has proved a mixed blessing.  One of its less desirable traits is that, not content with growing on the netting, it sends horizontal shoots out over the ground that I have to go round cutting off.  I count trimming the escaping fronds of hedge as weeding in the context of the long bed.

There is also some kind of St John's wort that tries to grow in the bed and that I don't want, along with lots of ivy seedlings, the odd tree seedling and bramble, hairy bittercress (which is everywhere), and various rosette formers including dandelions with pretty much ineradicable roots. I dig out as much as I can with a very long trowel, but they always bounce back.

Strimming or mowing would in any case not be an option because it is a mixed border with a backbone of shrubs, two small trees and a couple of topiary yews.  I was heavily under the influence of Christopher Lloyd's writings when I made it, and in any case the New Perennial Movement had not really got going in England at that time, but since I like shrubs and trees I'd probably do it that way again, if I were having a border and not just a vast expanse of planted gravel, which might have been the better option for the site.

And there are a lot of bulbs, which by now are coming through.  There are hyacinths, grape hyacinths, some daffodils, fritillaries, and small flowered forms of gladiolus.  I am very fond of spring bulbs, especially the sort that naturalise and increase from year to year without my having to do anything about it, but they mean I can't hoe for fear of slicing off their emerging snouts. There are patches of bearded iris as well, and I couldn't hoe among their rhizomes either.  Hand weeding it is, followed by feed and mulch.

The light soil eats feed and mulch.  The whole border has been mulched with compost many times, and Strulched more than once since I started using Strulch, but the stretch I was working on today had absorbed all of it without trace, and the surface of the soil had developed a covering of spongy green moss instead, a sign that the soil was both acid and hungry.  I picked up the moss along with the weeds, and the ivy, and will be off to the local garden centre in the next couple of days to buy more mushroom compost, having used all my bins of home made compost weeks ago.

So that is why gardening goes on all winter, weather permitting, if you have a big garden and no gardener and you are keen and want to grow a wide range of plants, and why people who murmur that there can't be anything to do at this time of the year are so wide of the mark.  It's a race against time to get all the weeds pulled up, and the mulch spread, before things start growing too much.

There's pruning as well, and hedges, but that's another story.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

winter days

Summer's lease hath all too short a date, wrote Shakespeare.  The Bard was right, but Winter's lease seems even shorter when you are trying to get stuff done outside.  Look at yesterday, when it rained and I didn't get anything done.  Today looked ominously damp when I peered out of the bathroom window, but by the time I'd eaten my breakfast it had stopped raining, the sun had come out and it felt as though the worse of the gunk stuffing up my sinuses might have drained from my face.  I wrapped up warm and went out into the garden.

It was cold.  Not frozen, sunny, but cold.  I was wearing a thermal polo neck base layer left over from my sailing days, two long sleeved tee shirts, a cotton smock, a fleece jacket, a fleece scarf, a fleece hat, gloves, thermal long johns and trousers so crusted with mud that it must constitute an extra insulating layer in its own right, and I noticed that it was cold.  Partly because each time I breathed inside my scarf my glasses steamed up.

I opened the greenhouse and the conservatory, noted with pleasure a new flower bud forming on my Plant Heritage plant stall Clivia, watered in the conservatory, picked up some dead leaves off the floor, and planted out the last four pots of instant daffodils.  Then there was just time to listen to last Friday's film review podcast while weeding before being only slightly late to lunch.  I needed a full hour by the Aga and two mugs of tea to warm up, then didn't even manage two more hours outside weeding the long bed before it began to hail, and I decided that enough was enough.

So that's February's lease, light at eight and too cold to venture out before nine, dark by half past five but virtually freezing by four, giving seven hours of usable daylight of which you lose over an hour warming up between the morning and afternoon shifts.  As for rough winds shaking the darling buds of May, Shakespeare can take it from me that the rough winds shaking the tightly clenched buds of February are considerably worse.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

reading day

On Thursday, the Met Office forecast said that it was going to rain heavily all day on Saturday.  By yesterday they said it was going to be dry, but by this morning we were back to Plan A.  The first heavy drops splashed on to the wheelbarrow of logs parked outside the kitchen window as I finished my breakfast, and after that it didn't stop until too late in the day to contemplate doing anything outside.  It was jolly cold, too.

Trying to make the best of it, I have been continuing with the Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey.  I picked a clean used copy of a slightly out of date edition from Amazon a couple of years ago, thinking it sounded interesting, and added it to the pile of unread books by my bed until the moment when I should get round to reading it.  Prompted by Michael Wood's current series about China on the BBC that moment arrived a couple of days ago.

I am finding both histories quite hard to follow.  It's not that either are badly presented: Patricia Buckley Ebrey's prose is a model of clarity, her book is broken down into manageable sections and there are lots of nice self contained illustrated text boxes on specific aspects of culture, plus a generous sprinkling of maps.  And Michael Wood is never a less than chatty and enjoyable guide on the telly: I enjoyed his series The Story of India, and read the book of the series afterwards when the Systems Administrator gave me a copy.

I think my problems are twofold, firstly that the names are unfamiliar and to a western ear sound similar, and secondly that I don't know where any of the places are.  I keep turning to the maps to find out, but when a people with a name you don't recognise and can't pronounce invade an unknown district whose name you can't pronounce either, and are in due turn invaded by a different war lord with an unfamiliar name, I lack hooks to hang any of this information on, and it turns into a blur, so that afterwards I'm left mainly with a series of Wows.  The Chinese had crossbows a thousand years before we did in Europe, invented printing sometime BC by the western calender, built huge walled cities on a grid plan when the English were muddling around with small random groupings of huts, and so on.

By now I am agog to know why it was that having been so far ahead of the West technologically, development in China stalled while the West went on to have the industrial revolution.  I hope that either Michael Wood or Patricia Buckley Ebrey or both will tell me.

I looked her up on Google and discovered that she is an American academic now at the University of Washington.  A Sinophile since the 1960s, it was not until several years after gaining her PhD that she was able to visit China for the first time.   Michael Wood has been Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester since 2013, after a career as a TV historian spanning Beowulf, Domesday, Shakespeare and the Trojan Wars as well as India and China.  I hadn't realised he'd made so many other programmes and we'd missed them, but with any luck some will come round again on BBC4.  I really don't mind that he is a generalist and didn't finish his DPhil, because he is a brilliant communicator, and besides, I'm only trying to pick up a very generalist understanding or China or India myself.

Friday, 12 February 2016

dwarf bulbs

From visions on a grand scale to the world of the miniature, yesterday I was planting roses that I hope will scramble twenty feet into the trees, and today I was planting dwarf bulbs in the front garden.  Planting the roses was muddier but warmer, what with the digging and hacking out more bramble roots with the pickaxe.

It's the first time I've grown Iris 'Sheila Ann Germaney'.  I bought twenty-five bulbs last autumn from Peter Nyssen, enough to make up eight small pots, and grew them on inside a propagating case in the greenhouse, sealed against mice.  I don't know whether mice are as keen on dwarf iris as they are on tulips, fritillaries and scilla, but after the previous two years' losses I wasn't taking any chances.  Most were fully out several days ago, but I don't know if that's their normal time or whether the additional warmth of the greenhouse brought them on early.

They are a pale, delicate blue.  I've previously grown another pale blue dwarf iris, 'Katherine Hodgkin', which is generally one of the last to flower, and in our gravel has lasted pretty well from one year to the next.  I like 'Katherine Hodgkin' but thought I'd try the other just to see what it was like.  According to the Pacific Bulb Society it is a paler shade of blue, with less yellow in it, but I don't have a great absolute memory for colour and as they haven't both emerged at the same time I can't compare them directly.  Anyway, I am very pleased with my eight pots and doubly so given that the price of my twenty-five bulbs from Peter Nyssen was six pounds, which would barely buy me a couple of pots of ready planted iris now in a garden centre.  Three bulbs per 9 centimetre pot is sufficient, as they don't look better for being crowded, and the contents of a 9 centimetre pot are easier to plant out without it breaking up and disintegrating all over the gravel than a one litre pot.  Bulbs tend not to make very solid rootballs, and their roots don't regrow if broken.

Scilla mischtschenkoana 'Tubergeniana' is altogether more frou-frou.  Individually quite large ice blue flowers open on quite small spikes, the whole having a touch of pink about it, at least when grown under glass, that made me think they would look well in the long bed under a cherry with fairly dark pink, double flowers.  I have never grown these before either.  I think I tried a year or two back, and the mice got them.  The books and catalogues all say they want sun and good drainage, so I am hoping they will be happy in the long bed.  Hyacinths, grape hyacinths and pasque flowers all do well there, while some hybrid tea roses shrivelled and died.  Of course as with the iris it may be that left to its own devices the scilla doesn't flower yet, in which case it may not coincide with the cherry's flowering, which would be a pity.  The real nuisance would be if it managed to clash with something else, but since it is supposed to flower in February and March it should be fine.  I can't see anything about to erupt into bloom in the area that would quarrel with ice blue.

The scilla cost me eleven pounds from Kevock for fifty bulbs, giving me more than eight pots to play with.  I saw ready potted ones on sale recently at Beth Chatto's nursery when I visited in search of a hostess present and birthday card, and like the iris there is a quantum saving to be made if you can pot your own the previous autumn.  Beware the mice, though.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

the roses and the ring

There was a slight frost overnight.  I wasn't expecting one, and the white sheen on the lawn came as a surprise as I pulled up the bathroom blind.  Attempting to refill the chickens' water container before letting them out of their house I found the frost wasn't so slight as all that.  The top of the galvanised drinker was frozen to the bottom, and I had to pour warm water over it before I could get the top off.  The sun was shining, but as I went to open the greenhouse I could see frost sparkling on top of the pots of bulbs.

That was a nuisance, since I was finally ready to plant the bare root roses.  In all other respects the conditions were perfect for handling bare root plants, with nice still air that would not rip the moisture out of the roots the moment I took them out of the bag.  A couple of minutes exposure to biting wind is enough to kill roots, or so I've been told either at Writtle or at some community tree planting event.  I decided to hold fire on the roses until late morning to give the ground time to defrost properly.  Earth is a very good thermal insulator, so if you bury little icy fragments from the top layer of frosted soil in the depths of your planting hole, they will sit there chilling the roots of your new plant for ages.

Instead I set off to see if I could get my ring repaired.  It felt so strange not having it there at the base of my fourth finger, after more than three decades of wearing it pretty much continuously.  I had never realised what a habit it had become to feel for it across my palm with my left thumb, until it wasn't there any more.  I decided to try Marisa Arna first off, in Thorpe le Soken.  I didn't even know whether she did repairs, and felt slightly abashed that it was not a very glamorous or creative job, but she is a designer who makes jewellery as well as selling it, and I felt a vaguely reassuring sense of connection that I knew who she was.  One of her sons is great friends with the son of one of my friends, which somehow made her seem safer than an unknown jeweller picked at random off the internet.  A wedding ring, after all, is a deeply personal item, and the idea of leaving it with somebody you don't know at all is not entirely comfortable.

Marisa Arna was in her shop.  She looked at the sad oval and agreed that I had squashed it. Probably lifting something.  People did quite often, and she was surprised it hadn't happened before.  The ring was fragile because it was quite slim, and eighteen carat rather than nine.  She took it into the workshop at the back of her shop, slid it over a metal rod, tapped at it, and moments later gave it back to me, still slightly oval but no longer ludicrously so.  That, she explained, was as much as she dared do without heating it, in case it broke.  If I wanted it made entirely circular she could do it, but not until after half term, and I would have to leave it with her.  After heating it would need polishing.  The cost for the full refurbishment would be in the order of thirty pounds, hammering it back into an approximation of a circle was free and gratis.

I was enormously grateful, and we agreed that I would see how I got on with it and bring it back if I didn't settle down with the not-quite-circular version, and that I should probably take it off for gardening.  She used to be a potter before she became a jeweller, and told me that she didn't wear hers for years because she took it off while handling clay and by the end of the day her fingers were too swollen to get it back on again.  She congratulated me that mine fitted so loosely after more than three decades: I had obviously not put on weight.  I haven't, but the easy fit may not last anyway.  The joint above the knuckle of the little finger on my right hand has swollen with arthritis in the past couple of years, so perhaps the others will follow.  In the meantime I have found a glazed bowl to go on my dressing table, the idea being that while I am in my gardening clothes and filthy glasses the ring lives safely in the dish.

Marisa Arna sells extremely nice jewellery, by the way, with the emphasis on semi-precious materials plus craftsmanship and design, so her prices remain within reach of the real world.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

the mystery of the ring

I have managed to do the most bizarre thing while gardening, and I have no idea how or when it happened.  Just now, as I rubbed my left thumb over the base of my fourth finger, wondering what to type, my wedding ring felt odd against my hand.  Investigating, I found it had been squashed out of true into more of a wedding oval.  My finger and hand were completely undamaged.

I removed the ring with considerable difficulty as it stuck over the second joint, and looked at it in complete bafflement.  I know that gold is a soft metal, which is why you should never let anybody change the battery on a gold watch who has not been trained to do so, in case they bend the back trying to get it off.  It isn't that soft, though.  I squeezed the oval hopefully along its long axis, and it didn't give any signs of bending back.

I showed the damage to the Systems Administrator, but the SA didn't want to risk trying to repair it.  I see the SA's point.  With no finger sized former and no tools beyond a monkey wrench or pliers the result could be to make things a great deal worse.  With great apologies and assurances that the SA should not take it personally I put the ring in a pot on my desk so that I wouldn't lose it, until I can find a jeweller to mend it.  Most annoyingly my go-to jewellers for repairs in Colchester have closed, the shop turned into a vaping store, and I'm not immediately sure where to go instead.  I don't know whether the chains like H Samuel tackle repairs.

In the meantime my left hand feels naked, with an edge of subconscious anxiety in case I have lost the ring, even though I know it is in a pot on my desk.  And I am utterly baffled how I came to bend it.  I dug up some roots with a pickaxe and pulled at others, I sawed through a small branch, I dug over the places where the climbing roses are going to go, picked out stones and dug in mushroom compost.  I hung onto the edge of the deck as I slid around on the earth bank beneath it while trying to dig.  I pulled and pushed the trailer of brambles to the bonfire heap, emptied it and pulled it back again.  At some point in all this I applied enough pressure to my left hand to distort the gold ring I was wearing, without feeling a thing or leaving any mark on my hand.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

four galleries

I went to London again today.  A friend had spotted that the Mayoral Gallery in Duke Street was showing a recreation of Miro's studio, and as we are both keen on Miro we agreed that it would form a good basis for a day out.  It was a small exhibition, but evocative, with some of his paintings and the original furniture from his Mallorcan studio upstairs, and a short documentary about him playing downstairs, along with his letters concerning the studio.  The vintage film footage made him sound an utterly delightful man.  It had been his dream for years to have a really big studio.  Once in mid life an architect friend designed one for him, he was so overawed by the space that it took him two years before he could work in it.  Construction ran late as well, but in his letters he always sounded optimistic that it was about to speed up.  I was deeply touched by his rocking chair, and his paint spattered radiator, and the eclectic collection of small domestic utensils, ornaments, shells, leaves and magazine and newspaper cuttings with which he had surrounded himself.  The exhibition is only on for another couple of days, and I still haven't worked out why a gallery just off Piccadilly bothered to stage a free to view recreation of Miro's studio in the first place, but I'm pleased that they did.  I have never asked a gallery owner, but I am sure that any West End art dealer who knew their trade could tell instantly from my body language that I was not in the market for a Miro, irrespective of how I was dressed.

From Duke Street it is a short walk to the Institute of Contemporary Art who are showing the fairly recent works of a living artist (the clue's in the name), Betty Woodman.  The review in Time Out said she worked partly in ceramics, and as Grayson Perry devotees we thought we would go and see somebody else's take on ceramics in the early part of the twenty-first century.  I'd never been to the ICA before, unless it was ever used to host a reception in my City days, and on the whole anything with mixed media in the description leaves me feeling deeply suspicious before I've even seen it.  I'm afraid I don't get a lot of contemporary art, and I could not work out what anybody would do with the assemblages of objects laid out on the floor on sheets of paper.  What exactly were they for and how would you vacuum?  And I couldn't honestly see the essential difference between most of the ceramics and the brightly coloured naive painted pots I might find in a garden centre.  But that is probably my fault for being a hopeless reactionary.  I tried, though.

From the ICA is another short walk to the Mall Galleries which are showing the finalists in a figurative painting competition.  I don't know whether figurative painting is even taught in art schools any more, or whether it is regarded as being about as relevant to contemporary art as the arts of stained glass and tapestry weaving.  I'm not sure whether you can't go all the way through art school without doing any sort of painting.  As a hopeless reactionary I'm partial to the genre. From Rembrandt to Rothko, there should be something there for everybody.  The winning picture showed three men hard at work in a traditional umbrella making workshop.  It must have been about the last traditional umbrella manufacturer in the whole of the UK, and the painting was skilfully done in a traditional way.  Some of the other entries were wackier, some derivative, one made a clever and explicit reference to Hogarth.  I didn't leave feeling I'd seen the new Rembrandt, but there were several I'd have happily lived with (though I'd rather have had a Miro).

Finally we stopped off at Somerset House which is hosting an exhibition about post-war public art, put together by Historic England to coincide with the recent listing of some 1050s and 1960s works, and to highlight the risks posed by theft, neglect and redevelopment.  Historic England is one of the bodies spun out of the old English Heritage, and has inherited its late parent's lack of nous in presenting things for public viewing.  White type on a mid blue background is not the most legible choice for labelling exhibits, especially presented at chest height in a fairly dim room, and what is the point of putting Do Not Touch signs on a bronze that has spent the past few decades in a public outdoors space where anybody can touch it?  Especially in an exhibition where you are showing photographs of people interacting with the artworks, that is touching them or climbing on them, as if this were a thing to be encouraged.  But the ideas in the exhibition are interesting, even if the presentation is creaky, and I'm glad somebody is championing the concept of public art in these times of austerity.

On our final walk back through the City to Liverpool Street we made a particular point of taking the route through Paternoster Square with its Elizabeth Frink bronze of a shepherd and his sheep, and as one, we touched their legs.

Monday, 8 February 2016

wild days

I shouldn't really grumble about storm Imogen.  Out here on the east coast we are getting off lightly compared to most of the UK.  Giant waves are smashing into the promenade at Aberystwyth, people have been killed by walls blowing over, cars crushed by falling trees, and the map of UK flood warnings shows a solid mass of red and yellow blobs other than a narrow strip down the right hand side of the map.  Here there's been a gale raging since lunchtime, and the wooden bar that holds the pot shed door closed snapped overnight, but that seems to be the only structural damage.

I went and hefted the bee hives first thing, in case any of them needed feeding, but none felt too light.  It's a nice question, how heavy a hive ought to be, and one of those imponderables that are almost impossible to set down as a tidy rule in a text book, any more than it's easy to quantify how heavy a flower pot should be for it to need or not need watering.  With practice you start to know what feels right.  If it had been autumn I'd have thought they were a bit light to go through the winter, and tried to get them to take another bucket of syrup, but none felt as though they were about to run out of food imminently.  And once Imogen blows through they might be able to get out and forage.  Some were on the camellias the other day, in a gap between storms.

Then I went and bought mushroom compost, ready for planting the bare root roses.  I was the only customer at the local garden centre.  Maybe I was their only customer all day.  It really wasn't the weather for gardening.  I found the roses in the porch when I got home.  The instructions on the bag said that while I should plant them as soon as possible, they would keep for a few days stored in a cool place.  I thought that once the roots were exposed to the full blast of Imogen they would last for approximately two and a half minutes, so put the bag away in the chilly end of the house to deal with later.

I lasted crawling around pulling up nettles by the oil tank until lunchtime, then gave up in disgust as Imogen intensified and the first spots of rain arrived.  We never got much rain, though.  You could see it on the rain radar, sweeping across the country then evaporating as it got east of Chelmsford.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

we went to a marvellous party

There was no gardening today, because we were invited to a party, drinks at twelve.  Obviously one can't review one's friends' parties on the internet, so there is not much to say, except that it was very nice, standing chatting in a smart drawing room with a view out over a beautiful garden while having my glass regularly refilled and plates of nibbles wafted in front of me.  And having an excuse to dress up.  Silk trousers don't get much of a look in at home, where they would be covered in cat fur after thirty seconds and have the first thread pulled inside five minutes, and the only point of wearing pearls at this time of the year would be to give them some skin contact to keep them oiled, since they would be quite invisible under my layers of jumpers.

I met another keen gardener, and we agreed that actually we'd rather like a quick snoop round the garden, but since our hostess wasn't ushering us outside that would have been rude.  And the wind was piercing despite the sunshine, one of those days when you can quite believe that there really isn't much between rural Essex and the Urals.

Hot nibbles are a luxury.  I scan the cookery columns of the papers with a keen eye, hoping to glean new ideas for the music society, or even for home if we were ever to have more than two people around at a time and wanted to break out from offering them cheese footballs and miniature pretzels.  Instead I always end up making cheese straws or slivers of some kind of smoked fish on some sort of bread, and it would be nice to have a change, but the newspaper recipes for nibbles always seem to end with instructions to serve them fresh from the oven, if not (horror of horrors) deep fry them.  If I were giving a party I should like to be free to socialise at it rather than hovering over the cooker, and anything for the music society has to be done several hours in advance, so that's not a lot of help.

Our hostess has a splendid, smoke coloured, fluffy cat.  The Systems Administrator saw it sitting out in the garden, staring in through the window at the assembled strangers with an expression of disdain bordering on loathing.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

brambles and daffodils

The roses did not arrive, which was slightly annoying of them, since the Systems Administrator hung around all morning within earshot of the front door, just in case, while I hacked away at more brambles in the meadow to try and get the planting site ready for two of them.  On the assumption that the parcel company doesn't deliver on Sundays they won't come now before Monday, by which point they'll have been bagged and in transit for five days.  I felt slightly irritated with the rose company for despatching them so late in the week, but I suppose they have to spread their workload over the full five days so not everybody can have their roses lifted on a Tuesday, arriving on Friday ready for the weekend.

When I cleared the brambles from the meadow last winter I only chopped down and dug out those inside the rabbit fence.  Those that remained along the edge of the wood outside the fence have been doing their lusty best to reconquer the garden, sending long shoots back into the meadow that have started to root where they touched down.  The speed and vigour with which brambles can spread is slightly terrifying.  This time round I am climbing over the fence and digging up the outside plants as well.  I know they make a splendid wildlife habitat, indeed I found several old bird nests as I tugged away at the mass of prickly stalks, but they can't be a habitat along the edge of the garden.  They just don't know when to stop.

By lunchtime I was all brambled out, and the storm had reached a pitch where working immediately next to some geriatric trees when I didn't need to seemed unwise.  As did messing about with anything sharp or prickly.  I find strong winds distracting, and they make me curiously clumsy.  After I'd jabbed the cut end of a particularly thick bramble into my lip, and it had bled for several minutes, that seemed another good reason to stop.

It took an act of will to drag myself back outside after lunch, but by then the worst of the wind had eased and I spent a comparatively peaceful afternoon planting instant daffodils in the daffodil lawn.  I didn't especially want them to be in bloom by the time I planted them out of their containers, since I like to bury the bulbs an inch or two deeper than there was room for in the pots, and it is quite difficult to keep the foliage upright and not bunched so that it looks natural.  But this year I am topping up the 'February Gold' and they are always early, more so when started off in a cold frame.  The alternative would be to plant the bulbs directly into the soil in the autumn, after cutting the grass, but then I couldn't see where the existing clumps are.

Friday, 5 February 2016

coming up roses

An email arrived yesterday from the rose firm to say that they had lifted and despatched my roses, and the delivery would be with me in one to three working days.  When a woman knows she is to receive a bag of bare root roses in two or three days, never mind a fortnight, it concentrates her mind wonderfully, particularly when the planting sites are not yet completely ready.

Unfortunately it was raining first thing.  It stopped after a while, and I went out into the garden and continued pulling up ivy and the roots of nettles behind the oil tank.  The drizzle resumed within the hour, however, and after a few minutes of drizzle I realised that this was by now serious rain.  I gathered up my tools and retreated.  Weather one, gardener nil.  And I need to pick up another load of manure to dig into the planting holes.

I know that gardeners and agricultural workers in the old days could not afford to be so squeamish about rain, but I expect they all suffered from rheumatism before dying of exhaustion or pneumonia at what we should regard as a prematurely early age.  The great canal engineer James Brindley died aged 56 after contracting a chill precipitated by being caught in a severe rainstorm, the last of many soakings in his busy working life.  My nose is already dripping like a faulty tap, and I maintain that getting damp is not good for people.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

music and mobiles

I had a ticket to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet this lunchtime at LSO St Lukes, but a couple of days ago a letter arrived followed by an email advising me that the wife of a member of the quartet had been taken suddenly and seriously ill, causing the Pavel Haas to cancel all their engagements for February, and that their place this Thursday would be taken by the Skampa Quartet, with a change of programme to accommodate the very short notice.  I could have had a refund, but reading the small print I'd have had to present my original ticket at the box office twenty-four hours in advance.  Since the train fare to London was twice the value of the ticket and I didn't have a spare day to go up to town that wasn't really an option, and anyway the Skampa Quartet are every bit as illustrious, if not more so, so I was happy to go with the substitution.

I'd chosen today's concert out of the four the Pavel Haas were due to perform because it was going to be a double bill of Smetana, and I'd heard some Smetana chamber music on the radio and thought I'd like to hear some more.  We still got his string quartet number one, but it was followed by Janacek's quartet number one, The Kreutzer Sonata.  I couldn't have hummed the theme before going, and I couldn't hum it to you now, but after the first couple of bars I recognised it.  I am still feeling my way with Eastern European composers, whose music is not as cheerful and instantly soothing as Papa Haydn, but I enjoyed both.

My only gripe about the whole proceedings was the woman three seats along from me who coughed repeatedly, not just the sort of sudden tickle in the throat cough that could take you by surprise, but a full phlegm-clearing chest cough that she must have known she was suffering from before entering the concert hall.  And she didn't appear to have come prepared with anything to calm it down or muffle it, like a bottle of water or throat sweets or a scarf to cough into.  Coughing during a string quartet is horribly audible to the entire room, not like coughing during a symphony, where if you can hang on until the loud bits you can at least half hide it, and the movements in a quartet are only five minutes long.  If you can't stop yourself coughing for as long as five minutes I really think you should consider whether you are fit to go, or if it might not be kinder to everybody else to stay at home.

From Old Street it's a short walk down to Bankside, where Tate Modern has got an exhibition of Alexander Calder on until early April.  I adore Alexander Calder's mobiles.  There were a few in a show at the Royal Academy several years ago, and I loved them.  Layer upon layer of leaf forms and circles hang from delicately curved wires.  The shapes are beautiful, and it is a marvel how everything balances.  He made them in the couple of decades leading up to the second world war, and their curves foreshadow the 1950s aesthetic of little amoeba shaped tables perched on tripods of tapered legs, which I like as well.

I wasn't aware of his early work.  Before progressing to mobiles he started off with airy wire sculptures like three dimensional line drawings, almost cartoonish in their simplicity and astonishingly lively.  Hercules wrestles with a lion, acrobats balance on each other, and two loops of wire miraculously transform into a Homburg hat viewed from the right angle, like the drawings of Henri Matisse with an added dollop of humour thrown in.  They are wonderful.

I was sorely tempted by the exhibition guide, but frustratingly they don't photograph especially well.  Seen in only two dimensions you lose some of the point.  And this was one exhibition where I wished the gallery had made a video explaining how he did it.  How did he get the mobiles to balance so exactly?  As long as you stick to horizontal wires it's just O level physics, turning momentum equals mass times distance from the pivot point, but many of Calder's connecting wires aren't level but hang tantalisingly at an angle.  Did Calder mock the whole structure up with simple weights before cutting out his leaves and circles?  Did he add small dead weights to some of the leaves where necessary to adjust the hang?  I couldn't see any.  Did he start at the bottom and work upwards to construct these multi-layered balancing creations?  However he did it, it's a brilliant exhibition.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

weeding the drive

It has suddenly got colder.  I'm not sure the thermometer bears this out, but it feels colder.  A few days back I found myself peeling off my scarf, then discarding my hat, before finally taking off my fleece because I was getting too hot as I dug up brambles.  A couple of days ago I was nipping outside in my tee shirt.  Today I found I needed a coat as I prised weeds out of the gravel.

It is amazing how long it takes to weed a little piece of gravel, and how much rubbish comes off an area that does not look that spectacularly weedy to start with.  I worked my way round from the end of the bed by the dustbins to the beginning of the Eleagnus hedge.  I found little tufts of grass, Poa annua, baby groundsels, lots of hedge garlic by the dustbin bed, that wretched oxalis with purple leaves that it is quite impossible to eradicate, small speedwells, and dandelions.  Nettles were trying to establish themselves in the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window, and strands of ivy were creeping about in the back of the bed.

There were Mahonia leaves from the 'Winter Sun' in front of the oil tank, oak leaves and some off the Eleagnus hedge, plus fragments of bark that dropped off the firewood, and some very small twigs.  Also a few mummified dollops of cat crap.  I can't really blame them, since how are they supposed to understand that all that loose gravel is not a litter tray?

There are times when gardening would be easier, or at least quicker, if I were happy to spray the whole area with a long lasting residual herbicide, but I don't like the thought of the cats sunbathing and the chickens scratching around in the residue, not to mention the Systems Administrator sitting out in the deckchair on the gravel on chicken watching duty in the summer, and me crawling around in it as I pick up the next round of Eleagnus leaves.  And the bumble bees nesting round the edges and all the rest of the assorted wildlife.  Purists may say that claiming your garden is a bit organic is like saying you're a bit pregnant, but they haven't seen me hand weeding the drive, even if I do resort to the occasional dose of Provado on container grown plants under glass and the odd targeted squirt of glyphosate.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

an evening at the garden society

I have just been to a meeting of my new garden society.  The chairman announced at the start of the meeting that they are already up to 85 paid up members, which is a very good tally.  In my experience of hobby based local clubs the membership secretary is often still badgering people by the end of March to see if they want to renew their subscription.  Five of the 85 members were new this year.

Tonight's talk was on dahlias.  I have no ambition to grow dahlias for show, and was relieved to hear from a professional that I seemed to be doing most of it right if all I want is a display for the garden, but his explanation of how to take cuttings was very useful.  Mature dahlia stems are hollow and don't root at all reliably, so you need to take cuttings when the shoots are still young and before they have had time to become hollow.  This I knew in theory, but his photographs brought home to me quite how small is small, no larger than my ring finger, and I have quite small hands.

There was also detailed advice on feeding, where I could do better than my general regime of blood, fish and bone for everything, and tomato food for things I want to flower.  Apparently with dahlias you want to start them into growth on high nitrogen, then switch to high potash to promote flowering later on.  Tweaking the way I feed them could also cure the tendency of some flowers to flop over under their own weight, by stiffening up the stems.

I switched off while he talked about spraying for pollen beetle, though.  I am not prepared to conduct any kind of blanket spraying operation outdoors, not just because of my bees but for the sake of the general garden ecology, and it did strike me that while he was lamenting that he had ended up spraying four times last year because of the weather, I hadn't sprayed at all and hadn't suffered any major insect problems.  Given a few days the birds and the ladybirds and hoverflies generally sort everything out.  Bunches of flowers will soon rid themselves of pollen beetles anyway, since once indoors the beetles move towards the light very quickly (I know, they came in with the sweet peas last summer) and you can just sweep them up off the window sill.  I am not growing cut flowers for sale, though.

Although it was only my second meeting, or my third counting last year's coach trip, I am already up to at least eight people who knew me by name, three committee members, two of whom I also see at the Plant Heritage meetings, two people who were fellow mature students at Writtle, a couple who also go to the music society concerts, and another Plant Heritage member who was on the lily study day and runs a small bulb business.  A good lecture on a subject one's interested in is always enjoyable, but it's nice to meet people as well.

Monday, 1 February 2016

a musical triumph

Last night's concert at the music society was really, really good.  It was good in its own right, a virtuoso performance from the two musicians, but also because it was a triumph snatched from the jaws of potential disaster.

The line-up originally consisted of a very eminent specialist in early pianos, performing on his own historic 1828 Broadwood piano, a cellist and a violinist.  With a few days to go, both the string players had to pull out for separate and inescapable reasons, leaving us with the prospect of an evening of solo piano music, which would probably have been very good but not what our audience was expecting.  A replacement violinist was found, who was himself in the middle of moving house and whose partner was expecting a baby rather shortly, so his presence was contingent on the baby not arriving early.  They had about four hours to rehearse together and the violinist's scores were already packed away in boxes, so he was playing from printouts downloaded from the internet.

And they were brilliant.  Nothing they played was on the original programme, which was a waste when the concert's sponsors had kindly paid for us to have glossy coloured professionally printed ones instead of the usual home printed black and white, but apart from one disappointed concert goer heard to declare on the door that if there wasn't any Schubert she wasn't coming, nobody else seemed to mind.  And we had sold a lot of extra tickets, so the audience wasn't limited to regular supporters who know the Chairman and would try to avoid upsetting her.

Instead of Beethoven's Archduke trio and the Schubert we got Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelsshon, plus variations for solo piano on Robin Adair (as mentioned in Jane Austen's Emma which tied in nicely with the topic of the year before last's annual lecture, which was What Matters in Jane Austen? Answer: Everything).  The violinist explained about his photocopied score before one of the Beethoven pieces then announced that he had the wrong one, and disappeared to the vestry to get the right bits of paper.  The period piano went out of tune so frequently that the eminent pianist retuned it not just between pieces, but between some of the movements.

And the playing was electric.  I thought of those scenes in Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey novels when the captain and Stephen Maturin play Beethoven's chamber music together and the reader is reminded with a jolt that in the early 1800s Beethoven's music was new and cutting edge, and that people played it for fun.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the impromptu programme and lack of rehearsal time and makeshift scores and the piano drifting out of tune in the chilly air of the church, this concert crackled with the energy and sense of improvisation of people playing new music for the fun of it.

The heroes of the hour were David Owen Norris, pianist, scholar, composer and TV and radio presenter, and Adrian Chandler, baroque violinist and leader of ensemble La Serenissima.  I would leap at any chance I got to hear either or both of them again.