Thursday, 31 March 2016

bunny and magnolia sightings

The cats do not go on bunny patrol at night, if last night's footage of the cat door is anything to go by.  Our Ginger popped out at nine yesterday evening, sat on the front doorstep for approximately one minute and went in again.  The short indignant tabby went out at eleven, but was back two minutes later, out just long enough to have performed her natural functions in the gravel.

Our Ginger went out again shortly after eleven, just after we went to bed.  At this point the camera record is incomplete, or he knows something about how to get into the house that I don't, because there is no photograph of him going in, but at quarter to four he comes out again.  That time he is out for all of a quarter of an hour before climbing back in through the cat door.  And that's it.  No dawn bunny patrol.

We spotted the solitary rabbit on the far side of the lawn as we drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits (on special offer in Waitrose) in the conservatory.  Our Ginger slunk out of the door to the edge of the deck, and waited stock still and very patiently for an amazingly long time, trying to work out how he could get to the rabbit before the rabbit reached cover, but the answer was that he couldn't.  I saw it again at dusk from the bedroom window, but by then Our Ginger had given up for the day and was curled up in a cardboard box in the study.

My anxiety that there didn't seem to be many Scilla siberica was premature.  They are now up in a blue wash in their quadrant of the gravel around the formal pond, so the first few plants that I noticed days ago when I wondered where the others had got to were merely the vanguard.  In the wild they have a huge natural range, so it wouldn't be surprising if some forms in cultivation were earlier than others.

The Magnolia stellata 'Waterlily' in the ditch bed is opening.  I have not had great success with magnolias overall.  Most of our soil is not right for them, either far too light or too claggy, I have tried to squeeze them into spaces where there was not really room for another shrub, and those planted in the meadow were overwhelmed by weeds and drought.  'Waterlily' has been in the ground for a dozen years, and is still barely taller than I am, but quite broad by now so that it is starting to make a proper display and not just three flowers on a twig.  It grew away quite vigorously after I planted it, flowered each spring, then after about its third flowering the top growth died.  Before I got round to digging out the roots it sprouted again from the base.  I have heard of other magnolias pull the same stunt, so if you have one that seemed to start off well then went sharply into reverse you might not want to be too swift in exhuming the remains.

Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill' is without flowers for another year.  It was planted in 2003, so for the past couple of seasons I have started daring to hope that I might, this year, get one or two flowers.  I'd like one just to reassure myself that I have been sold the right thing.  It is not unknown for labels to get mixed up on magnolias, as out of flower one variety can honestly look very like another.  I chose 'Charles Raffill' partly because I admired the huge, pink goblets, and because among the tree magnolias it is supposed to flower at a relatively young age, maybe even from ten according to the most optimistic sources.

My plant must have been a couple of years old by the time I bought it, so it should be coming up to fifteen.  The Millais Nurseries website says flowering may be delayed until fifteen or more, while Bluebell and Burncoose don't even mention the matter of delayed flowering.  Perhaps they don't want to put prospective customers off.  Ah well, good things come to those who wait.  Our tree has grown hugely, my only other magnolia success, shooting upwards in a space I found for it towards the end of the wood.  At least its growth rate matches the description for 'Charles Raffill'.  I'd like to see just one big pink flower, though.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

pest problems

Something has been picking the flower heads off the Anemone blanda.  The display is not so thick as it was a few days ago after I'd put the potted bulbs out, and examining the plants I can see the truncated stalks.  Most of the missing heads have disappeared, presumed eaten, but whatever it is has thrown the odd one on the ground.  Muttering to myself I sprayed the whole of the ditch bed with another dose of Grazers, and treated the remaining trays of Anemone I still haven't planted out yet.  Should I blame the rabbits or the pheasants?  I saw a cock pheasant skulking along the back of the bed as I pulled up the bathroom blind this morning, and they certainly eat fritillary flowers.

Last night's camera footage of the further rose bed showed one rabbit hopping about in the bed between seven at night and six in the morning, but no actual photographic evidence of it eating the Viola cornuta.  I don't know what it was doing poking around among the clumps of Aconitum napellus, since the whole plant is acutely toxic to human beings, and if only it would eat that it might save me a lot of trouble.  I gave the violas a second treatment of Grazers as well, and then since I had half a sprayer of solution left I went and used it on the bulb foliage in the gravel near the entrance, which was eaten to stumps last year.  The autumn crocus and emerging fritillaries have escaped so far, but something has had a hard chew at the dwarf pinks and some of the alpines in the railway garden.  I started to spray them and it began to rain.

I do miss the big tabby and the black cat.  I love Our Ginger dearly, but we never had all this nonsense with plants being eaten while we had hunting cats in their prime.  I was all for setting the camera on the railway garden, to see if the rabbits are feeding there currently, or if the damage is older and I only just noticed it.  The Systems Administrator wanted to put the camera on the cat door, however, to find out whether Our Ginger goes out after we've gone to bed, and whether he does a dawn patrol now that it's getting slightly warmer.  He was not outside our bedroom door wailing to be let in this morning, and he usually is.  He cried outside the greenhouse yesterday until I let him in, whereupon he stomped about briefly and curled up on top of one of the dahlia pots. That's all very well for now, but won't be so good as soon as the dahlia leaves start emerging.

I set the camera on the cat door.  Is it entirely ethical to spy on your cat?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

still in the greenhouse

There was a cold wind blowing, and once again I took refuge in the greenhouse.  By dint of shuffling some plants out into the cold frames, which meant spending a chilly hour setting the existing occupants of a cold frame out on to the concrete, I made space on the bench for some seed trays, and that hour was enough to convince me that I was better off in the greenhouse.  I also freed up some room by throwing out those pots of things that had died over the winter.

There weren't too many casualties.  A couple of seedlings of Beschorneria septrionalis had died, assumed cause over watering, but looking on the bright side I still have half a dozen left, and don't need more than one or two plants.  They were sown last year, the seed coming from Derry Watkins' Special Plants Nursery.

My remaining 2015 sowings of Melianthus major were leggy but still alive.  It is not the easiest plant to keep happy in a pot, seeming susceptible to both over and under watering, and I'd already thrown out a couple of small plants.  I have four or five left, which is enough for my purposes, especially since I rather recall taking cuttings successfully in the past.  I gave the seed raised plants a good watering and moved them up into slightly bigger pots, now it is spring and they seem minded to grow.

There was room in the heated propagator as more than half its occupants from my February seed sowings have germinated by now, and been taken off the heat.  I am leaving the porcupine tomatoes to cook a little longer, as they might find the inside of the heated propagating case a more realistic approximation of Madagascar while they're so small.  But there was space for pots of Cosmos.  I have sowed more 'Sensation Mixed Colours' as they did so well last year, and I keep getting free packets of seed with garden magazines, and some of last year's open packet of the white variety 'Purity', and a yellow flowered mixture I haven't grown before called Cosmos sulphureus 'Bright Lights'.  It is another from Derry Watkins' stable, and I trust her eye for a good plant implicitly.

I pricked out a pot of Malva moschata, which yielded two trays of seedlings, and sowed two lots of sunflowers into seven centimetre pots, and that was as many trays as there was room for on the bench, which is a nuisance as there is another pot of Malva equally ready to be pricked out.  I hope I am growing the right species when it comes to the Malva.  I have spotted a pink mallow with divided leaves growing happily in long grass at East Ruston and in the Bishop's garden at Norwich, and leafing through my wild flower books thought it was probably M. moschata.  I wanted to repeat the effect at home to jazz up our grass after the spring bulbs are over, and thought I should be in with a sporting chance copying ideas from other gardens on light soil in the low rainfall of East Anglia.  But perhaps I have the wrong plant, or there may be some key difference between their gardens and ours which I have not spotted.  I've got pots of Centaurea nigra and Knautia arvensis on the go as well as part of the same project.  It is my second attempt at raising C. nigra from seed, my first sowing having yielded precisely one plant.  Which is doing very nicely in its pot and I must plant it out in the daffodil lawn.

Two Helleborus foetidus have made handsome specimens in nine centimetre pots, despite spending the winter lurking in among a lot of geranium cuttings and getting very dry a couple of times. There was a third, but it rotted and died at a tender age.  They look exactly like normal stinking hellebores, but are supposed to be the named variety 'Miss Jekyll's scented' and to produce an overpowering fragrance from the pendulous purple lipped flowers.  That is what the seed catalogue says, but they have not flowered yet.  Normally the flowers don't smell strongly of anything, and the stinking part of the name refers to the foliage if you bruise it.  The ordinary H. foetidus in the back garden have been bothered by some kind of black death in the past couple of years, so I need to consider where to put my two fragrant beauties.

The tiny corms of Gladiolus flanaganii are already sending up little threads of leaves.  I was quite excited to see that.

Monday, 28 March 2016

in the greenhouse

I can't keep up with these named storms.  It turns out that Saturday's wind was not storm Katie, just an anonymous warm-up act.  Storm Katie was today.  Fortunately not much broke.  The garden chairs are still in the garage, and most of the shrubs that were going to disintegrate already have. A perspex replacement pane popped out of my greenhouse, but did not snap and was easy to slide in again, and the Mount Etna broom by the pond has tipped over even further, but it has been dying since the big storm of October 2013 first rocked its roots, and has sown its own successors.

Under glass things are warming up, and I'm having to adjust from my winter mindset where a heavy hand with the watering can too easily spell death by rot, to the summer watering regime in which if you don't water plants they die.  I had a panic yesterday when I found my tomato 'Sungold' seedlings totally collapsed, limp, shrivelled and a dull shade of green.  'Sungold' is an F1 hybrid that was singled out by the Thompson and Morgan new product manager in his talk to Plant Heritage as being one of the sweetest tomatoes known to man, and the seeds are about as expensive as you'd expect F1 seeds to be.  I was not pleased to have wasted four of them, plus the growing time since I sowed them several weeks ago.  I stood the pot in a tray of water, upbraiding myself for my carelessness, and today they look fine, lush and bright green with not even a single dead leaf to show for their experience.

In truth the tomato seedlings are rather leggy.  Tomorrow when the wind is not rattling around the greenhouse so hard I must separate them out and pot them individually.  Remembering Monty Don's advice in his current garden series I will bury them to their first leaves so that they root from their stems, though it will go against the grain.  Burying stems always makes me nervous, worrying about rot.  I sow the seeds four to a four inch pot simply because I don't have space in the heated propagator to sow them in individual pots.  They don't seem to mind being separated out later.

Some tiny seedlings of 'Sungold''s relative, Solanum pyracanthos, have emerged.  This is a tropical shrub from Madagascar, with long, lobed, slightly fuzzy leaves.  The flowers are purplish, potato-like and nothing to write home about.  What made me fall in love with it when I saw one in the conservatory at East Ruston was the large orange thorns protruding from the central veins of every leaf.  The plant is stuffed with alkaloids and every part is poisonous, but with spines like that nobody is going to stroke it and I don't expect the cats to eat it.

Just as I had started to give up on them a few thread-like bright green leaves have appeared in the pots of home saved seed of Fritillaria meleagris.  They were sown on 15 February of last year, and have been sculling around in the greenhouse ever since.  The pots have certainly dried out once or twice during that time, and they should probably have been in a cold frame where they would have remained cooler and got a winter chilling, but I can't cope with seed pots in the cold frames.  I really would over or under water them, and the mice would probably eat the seeds.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

new trousers

I have bought some new gardening trousers.  My old ones were starting to physically disintegrate, and some even older ones I discovered in the bottom of the wardrobe had frayed through at the crotch.  That's not so bad at this time of the year while I'm wearing thermals underneath, but could still lead to some embarrassing encounters with the postman.  Time to go hunting in the sale section of the Lands' End and Cotton Traders websites for heavily discounted chinos.

The winner on this occasion was Lands' End.  Cotton Traders had some but only in size 14 and in dusky pink.  Mud covered khaki is one thing, but filth encrusted pink trousers a size or two too big is a sartorial step too far even for me.  The Lands' End trousers were a pound more at ten quid but sounded practically perfect for my purposes.

They reviewed very badly, which is presumably why they were reduced to a tenner.  The one person to have bought some and then bothered to give any customer feedback summarised their key points as follows:

Droops at crotch
Huge rear
Needs remaking
Poor fit
Poor quality
Sits too high above waist


That sounded like gardening trousers.  When you are crawling around in the borders then nether garments that are cut generously around the rump and high in the waist are just the job, to avoid freezing your kidneys or presenting the postman with an unladylike view of your bum cleavage. The elasticated waistband, while style death, is likewise comfortable when you're bent double.  The only feature I regret is the lack of a belt loop, as I collect any rounded pebbles or stones with holes in that I find, dropping them in my pockets if I don't have a plastic flowerpot to hand, and the trousers might not stay up under the weight.  But otherwise they are ideal.  And they were even cheaper by the time I bought them.

I am not the only person with a use for horrible cheap trousers.  When I ordered them four days ago they were available in every size, and I took a punt and bought two pairs.  By last night they were sold out except in size four.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

spring cleaning

If it had still been spring I would not have been cleaning, of course, I'd have been out in the garden. But storm Katie arrived, the forecast gale raged, it was cold and horrible and I did not feel like crawling around with buckets of Strulch and handfuls of bonemeal and 6X poultry manure blowing everywhere.

Maybe this is what the first three months of the year have always been like.  Perhaps the spring days spent playing in the garden among the polyanthus and wandering around in the weak sunshine looking at daffodils are creations of my imagination, based on a couple of warm days when I was six and about one outing to look at daffodils.  The Systems Administrator reminded me that when we had a boat this was typical fitting out weather, sitting around in the boatyard unable to apply varnish because it was too windy or spitting with rain.  Indeed, our boats never seemed to be ready to go in the water until about the beginning of June, so maybe the SA is right.

I thought of the times I'd unwrapped deliveries of Italian shrubs at the plant centre in the snow during March, and the time it snowed for their spring Open Weekend so nobody came, and the beekeepers' candle making day on 23rd March having to be cancelled because snow was blowing into the garage where it was to be held.  Perhaps this is what an English spring is really like and I should get used to it.

I went shopping, and bought small clay flower pots, and sisal string and jute string, and a new hygienic small watering can to be used for seed sowing only and then stored upside down so that it should dry and algae would not grow in it like they have in my current small can.  I bought postcrete in B&Q to mend the potholes, where an eager staff member approached me trying to help, but was stumped for advice once I'd said what I wanted the instant cement for.  I presume he was primed to tell me about putting up posts.  I bought general fertiliser with added seaweed for my plants in pots, to use in the first part of the season to get them growing before switching to tomato food to promote flowering.  I bought the ingredients for enough meals to last us to Thursday, and escaped from Colchester just in time, as the traffic was building.  I don't think I was the only person to have decided that Easter Saturday was a washout and they would go shopping instead.

Then I vacuumed the study and the bedroom and cleaned the kitchen.  I didn't quite get all the way round the cupboard fronts and the sinks, but the forecast for tomorrow and Monday are dire, so I've got plenty of time to finish the job.  Keen gardeners generally have cleaner houses when the weather's bad.

Friday, 25 March 2016

spring, special offer, one day only

Finally, a day of spring.  Yesterday the air still had a raw nip to it, despite the sunshine, and tomorrow it is forecast to blow half a gale, then rain for the rest of the week.  Still, today it felt like spring.  The sun shone, the air was gentle, I had to remove my fleece, and even at one stage the paint stained sailing smock that forms the intermediate wind proof layer over my assorted shirts.  I found I needed my Tilly hat to keep the sun off my face.  I was warm.  There were bees working the flowers, and one butterfly.  The Systems Administrator sat in a deckchair by the porch before lunch, and the short indignant tabby went outside and rolled around on the gravel.

I pruned the buddleias, better late than never.  If they die or fail to flower this year I'll let you know, but I expect they'll be fine.  The woodier stems will be shredded to make mulch, and the greener stems were snipped into shortish pieces and have gone on the compost heap.  I sawed out a few dead, dry branches where the bushes hadn't responded as well as buddleia is supposed to to heavy pruning, and added them to our stock of kindling.

I cleared away the remaining heaps of brambles, dead rose stems and excessively twiggy hedge cuttings to the bonfire heap.  If the weather is going to finally get to the point where we might actually use the garden, as distinct from my trying to work on it, then it might as well not look too much like a work in progress with piles of debris littered about.  The Systems Administrator inspected the lawn, but pronounced it still too soggy.  It would be nice to get that cut.

Then I returned to weeding, feeding and Strulching.  Warmer weather will bring the perennials along, and it is a race against time now to get as much Strulch on to the beds as possible before I find myself smashing another emerging shoot with every movement.  I am deeply suspicious about how much Coronilla varia remains in the island bed.  It is not even a new nuisance plant, I now know.  I was re-reading one of Gertrude Jekyll's books the other day, and suddenly noticed her almost throwaway warning that some alpine nurseries had started selling it, and it looked very pretty but was far too invasive for use in a conventional border.

Thursday, 24 March 2016


By the time it started to rain this afternoon I'd reduced two of the piles of branches lying around the garden to bags of shredded twigs and stacks of dewhiskered branches.  I quite enjoy shredding, for there is a kind of satisfaction in starting with a big heap of mess and ending up with smaller heaps of something useful, in this case weed suppressant mulch for the area around the compost bins and future firewood.  It is not the most skilled gardening task, though, and it takes a fair time. I lamented as much to the Systems Administrator as I trimmed the smallest side growths too thin to be worth shredding off the branches destined for firewood, and the SA pointed out that tree surgeons have machines to do it.  Ah, I have a pair of secateurs.

The branches are rather wet to be much use at the moment, but come the autumn they will have dried out and will be splendid for getting the stove going.  In the meantime I am stacking them out of the way on a pallet by the compost bins.  While I was fiddling around with the small stuff the Systems Administrator spent some time heaving lumps of tree trunk out of the wood, and splitting it.  The saying goes that wood warms you three times, once when you haul it, once when you split it, and again when you burn it, but nowadays we have a log splitter.  The SA originally bought it when we had a fallen poplar tree, finding the axe simply bounced off poplar wood, but when you have a splitter it's tempting to use it.

Film maker Debra Granik does so to brilliant, nerve racking effect in her 2010 feature Winter's Bone.  Jennifer Lawrence splitting wood, her menacing and sinister uncle Teardrop played by John Hawkes padding lightly towards her, and the splitter grinding away.  You really don't know whether the scene is about to erupt into horrible violence.  Granik directed and co-adapted the screenplay, and the film received four nominations for Oscars.  Why hasn't she done more since?  There was a 2014 documentary about a Vietnam veteran who loves small dogs, but that seems to have passed the UK by entirely.

Once the rain arrived I went and bought more fish, blood and bone, and some John Innes No. 2 compost which I need for the reckless plants, and was pleased to see on the bag has a pH of six to seven, so I can use it on my gentian 'Strathmore' which needs ericaceous compost and which I want to move into a bigger pot so that its stems don't dangle over the edge like they did last year.  I was able to get grit as well, to mix with the John Innes.  There seem to be an enormous number of recipes for compost for potted auriculas, but trying to reach a consensus opinion it looks as though a mixture of JI and grit should do it.  A bit of grit probably wouldn't hurt the gentian either.  The Clacton Garden Centre was the source of all these useful things.  They are very good at gardening sundries, and stock blood, fish and bone in 25 kilo bags, which is the most economical way to buy it.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

more rabbits

The rabbits are breeding in the back garden.  Perhaps not like rabbits, for we have seen only one teeny tiny one sitting at the top of the rose bank.  The Systems Administrator tried to take a shot at it yesterday morning but it sensed the window opening and darted back under cover, and tried again this morning but missed.  Our Ginger spotted it yesterday at tea time before we did, as we all sat in the conservatory, and went and stared meaningfully at it, but could not work out how to cross the lawn without it noticing.

There are still adults skulking about.  There would be really, to produce babies.  I got the Systems Administrator to show me how to set up the motion sensor camera, since I'm the one who most wants to know what the rabbits are doing in the garden and it seemed easier for me to monitor them myself than keep nagging the SA to do it.  Two nights ago I established that there are a vast quantity of rabbits by the wildlife pond in the meadow, and last night I got single shot of a solitary bunny in the bottom far corner of the back garden.

I have given up with the traps.  In two months of trying I didn't catch a single rabbit, but did catch a blackbird.  That's not good.  I like blackbirds.  I'm afraid I can't expect much of Our Ginger, who is getting quite old and likes to spend his evenings on the hearthrug in front of the stove, not marauding around the garden.  Instead I have bought a fresh bottle of Grazers, this time one large enough to treat a hectare, and spent an hour this afternoon spraying it on the borders.  It did seem to reduce the amount of damage last year.  It is a bore, though, what with the time, and the expense, and the risk of missing some precious plant out and possibility the Grazers might not put the rabbits off anyway.  It doesn't work on bark either, only foliage, and the wretched creatures have been gnawing the bases of the Romneya stems.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

duty done

I made it to my Rotary Club talk in Chelmsford.  Much of the credit goes to the Systems Administrator.  I was agonising on Sunday about whether I could face driving up the A12 before navigating my way to an unfamiliar place in Chelmsford and standing up and talking to a roomful of Rotarians and flogging back up the A12.  The SA offered to drive me, going to the useful model shop in Chelmsford during the talk, so that I could focus my efforts on the meeting, and I accepted with gratitude.  The last time I tried to get somewhere in Chelmsford I got lost en route, and as the SA said then once I'd rallied for the talk I could flake out on the way home.  I experienced a moment of frisson as we arrived at the outer reaches of Chelmsford and the SA announced that he had memorised the map and hoped he could remember the route because we didn't have a road atlas in the car, but we sailed around the Army and Navy roundabout and drew up outside the Marconi Club without a missed turning.

They were a very nice group of people, and gave me lunch before the talk.  I am impressed by the energy of the Rotarians.  They meet weekly, except for Christmas and holidays, and do good works in between times.  This group are scurrying around collecting old computers which they clean up and ship out to Tanzania, where they are distributed to rural schools (or at least those that have mains power) by another Rotarian.  And they are organising a charity half marathon and fun run. They have a speaker to follow their lunches at three meetings out of four, the first of the month being reserved for club business, and following recent talks from a canine rescue centre and the guide dogs for the blind now have a couple of sponsored dogs to worry about.  I don't know where they find the time.

They only wanted a twenty to twenty-five minute presentation, which is about half the time I usually take, so I tried to clip through the main points at a brisk pace without looking as though I were staring at my watch too often or sounding as though I was gabbling.  I think they liked it.  I was not convinced it was the most polished performance I'd ever given, but trying to condense your normal material down to half its usual running length while recuperating from a bad cold and after eating a lump of chicken that would have made dinner for two people is hard work.  Anyway, duty was done, and I dare say it was better than leaving them with a gap in their programme at short notice, or trying to twist my fellow local volunteer's arm to cover for me.

My phone buzzed on the way home, and it was an email from the woodland charity asking if I'd be willing to do an evening talk starting at quarter to eight at a WI that as far as I could gather was somewhere near Bishop's Stortford, in either November or January.  At the thought of flogging over practically to Hertfordshire and back at night in the depths of winter my heart failed me, and when I got home I compromised by suggesting to the WI that I'd be happy to go sometime from spring through to autumn, but really not in November or the first half of January.  I'll see what they say. Lots of clubs try to stick to local speakers then anyway, to reduce the chance of their evening's entertainment crying off due to fog or snow.

The woodland charity seems short of volunteers to cover talks towards the M25 and M11, or at least this isn't the first time I've been asked if I can manage a talk around Bishop's Stortford or Saffron Walden, and they are honestly quite a long way from the Tendring peninsular.  The charity organises their voluntary speakers by county so I never get offered gigs in Suffolk, despite living only a twenty minute drive from the border.

Monday, 21 March 2016

spring gardening under glass

I decided it was time to start waking up the plants in the conservatory.  They've been ticking along over the winter, while my biggest risk has been over watering them.  By now the days are lengthening, there's more heat in the sun, and it is getting quite warm in there.  In fact, when I went to inspect things I found a couple of pots were dryer than they should have been.

I've been watering anything that looked as though it needed it with a watering can, but once the whole room needs doing regularly it's time for the hose, otherwise it amounts to an awful lot of trips up and down the steps with the Haws.  Last autumn I put all the spray heads from the hoses away somewhere safe and dry for the winter, so that they would not split during the frosts, which can easily happen if you leave them on the end of the hose and they happen to have water in them. Predictably, I could not remember where I had put them, and spent several minutes wandering in small circles and peering into the back of the pot shed before spotting them in a bucket in the garage.

I dusted every pot with a little fish, blood and bone as well, apart from the orchids.  I'll probably make up some cans of liquid feed fairly soon, to give things a boost, but a background treatment of slow release fertiliser seemed a useful start to the season.  And I repotted the things that needed extra space, apart from some of the ginger lilies.  I had a go at them a year or two ago, and some are getting congested in their pots again, but they are such monsters to get out of their pots that I thought I'd save that job until I was feeling more energetic.  They are barely making new shoots yet, so there's no rush.  But a tall, orange flowered Impatiens from Dibleys went into a bigger pot, as did Begonia luxurians.  The poor begonia does not look at all luxuriant and I fear it finds winter temperatures of just frost free rather too chilly.  The Impatiens has surprised me by maintaining quite a lot of healthy stem through the winter, and I think it needs to end up in a much bigger pot, but I thought I'd move it up in stages.

Salvia confertiflora, a souvenir of our visit to Kiftsgate, went into a bigger pot.  It has made rather a lanky plant, and I remembered the ones I'd seen growing in other people's gardens were in huge containers.  They have spikes of small, burnt orange flowers, and quite big leaves, and when well grown make magnificent specimens.  I pruned it as hard as I dared, but it only has one stem at the base and I didn't risk cutting through that.  It is a brittle plant, best kept away from anywhere you have to squeeze past it, and as I moved things around in the conservatory the salvia ended up with a couple fewer branches than I meant it to.

A triphylla type fuschsia went into a bigger pot, and was found on tipping it out of its old one to have root aphid, so it got a dose of Provado.  I never suffered with root aphid in the garden until a couple of years ago, on the other hand since then I have encountered it in pots at nurseries as well, so perhaps it is getting more frequent.  An acacia seedling that was a present from a friend but has barely grown, and a Dicliptera that has done very little since I bought it went into larger pots as well.  There was nothing visibly wrong with their roots, and they weren't actually crowded, but I hoped some fresh compost might encourage them.  It has worked in the past for plants that were just sitting there, not dying but not growing either.  A Hoya, another present, clung to life by the thinnest thread while refusing to grow any new roots for months until in despair I risked disturbing the few fragile roots it had by repotting it, after which it romped away.

I watered in the greenhouse as well, and dosed the agapanthus and pelargoniums with a dilute general feed to encourage them back into growth.  I can see a problem looming in the greenhouse, which is that it is already almost entirely full.  Some of my pots of seeds need pricking out, but I can't evict the perlargoniums or dahlias for another five weeks until the risk of frost is gone.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

hints of spring

Today was the first day of spring, though I'd forgotten about it until the Google doodle reminded me.  The bees thought it was spring, though, at least for an hour before lunch, and were all over the Japanese quince under the kitchen window and the pots of hyacinths.

Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant' has popped up in the last few days.  This is such a good small bulb, persisting doughtily from year to year in the gravel.  It does not self seed markedly, not that I'd mind, but self seeding bulbs can be a nuisance in tidier gardens than ours.  I have no personal objection to the grape hyacinths that spread themselves lavishly around part of the long bed and the railway gravel, but I know that some gardeners loathe them.  The Chionodoxa has neat, starry, pale pink flowers, darker towards the tips of the petals.  The wild species comes from the mountains of Turkey, and as a garden plant the cultivated variety seems tough as old boots.  You might guess that from the common name, Glory of the Snow.

More Scilla siberica have emerged to my relief, since when the first few burst into flower I thought there ought to be more plants than that, but couldn't see any more clumps of leaves as I peered over the gravel.  This is the Siberian squill, though it actually comes from south west Russia, the Caucasus and Turkey.  Neat little tufts of green leaves, only two or four of them per bulb, surround the small flower stems, each with up to three bright blue flowers.  According to my list of things growing (or at least planted at some time) in the garden I have planted three batches of Scilla siberica in different years.  One patch is slightly darker in flower than the others.  Somebody I used to work with at the plant centre swore by it for dry gardens, and looking at the gravel I could still do with more.  It is supposed to self seed, which I'd be very happy with, but doesn't seem to be spreading by itself, so something about the gravel may not be quite right for it.

I noticed a big clump of Gladiolus tristis in one of Fergus Garrett's slides yesterday.  Mine has still not opened, but the buds remain, unspoiled so far by frosts or marauding pheasants.  In the greenhouse there are two fresh green leaves emerging from my pot of home saved Amaryllis belladonna seed.  I do like bulbs with their capacity to come up and surprise you, and then disappear again so you don't have to worry about them for the rest of the year, except to avoid planting other things on top of them.  Fergus Garrett's advice on bulbs was sound: don't go mad and order half the catalogue.  Buy some and work out where you are going to plant them where they will fit in with the existing plants, then next year buy some more.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

advice from a horticultural guru

I made it to the Plant Heritage lecture.  If it had been a usual monthly talk and not Fergus Garrett I probably wouldn't have driven all the way to Stowupland, but I did want to hear him.  Once there I didn't hug or kiss anybody by way of greeting, or even touch a doorknob, so I hope I kept my germs to myself.

Fergus Garrett is the head gardener at Great Dixter.  More than that, he is Christopher Lloyd's anointed successor.  Picked out from among a crowd of visiting students, Fergus worked closely with Lloyd for years until the latter's death, which I am shocked to realise was now a decade ago. There is a sense in which any plantsman's garden dies with them, so Sissinghurst today is no longer Vita Sackville West's garden, but the spirit of the garden can linger when the baton is passed on directly from the original creator to a like-minded successor.  So I was keen to hear what Christopher Lloyd's horticultural heir had to say, and eager to hear Fergus Garrett on his own account.  Having seen Great Dixter last autumn I knew it was still a brilliant garden, irrespective of whether this or that was what Christo would have done.

The topic was Succession Planting in the Mixed Border.  Mixed borders have not been at the forefront of fashion in recent years, with the vogue for sweeping New Perennial plantings of grasses and billowing tall herbaceous plants.  How garden fashions come and go: the famous mid twentieth designer Russell Page dismissed herbaceous plants as 'coloured hay'.  All of our borders are mixed, however.  I have always liked woody plants, and bulbs, and having read Christopher Lloyd's books at an impressionable stage of my gardening career took his advice to heart that a third of any planting scheme could usefully be evergreen.

It was a very good lecture, much more than just a list of desirable plants with their qualities and tips on cultivation, which can be useful and entertaining but in a different way.  The aim of succession planting is to have the border being as interesting as possible for as long as possible. One strategy is to choose things that perform for longer rather than shorter periods.  That's not to say don't grow any peonies if you love them, but if you are planting a hardy geranium why not use one that flowers for three months rather than one?  Another is to broaden your definition of interest beyond flowers to include buds, seed heads, foliage, bark and overall form.

Fergus Garrett made the distinction between techniques that require no extra work, some extra work and so much work that he wasn't necessarily recommending that private gardeners not opening to the public and without a paid workforce even attempted them.  Choosing varieties with longer seasons over shorter falls into the first category, obviously.  Under planting with naturalised bulbs he also puts in the no extra work category, once you have planted the bulbs, though I might put it in the second because their emerging foliage in the spring does make weeding more complicated.  Managing self seeders requires some work, and bedding out potentially means a lot of work.  In which case, he suggested, think about how much you could do.  One patch of Cosmos or a few pots could be enough to give an area of the garden a lift.

I did like his suggestion that you should lay down the bones of the planting scheme first, and then see what could be done with the remaining available space, be that with under planted bulbs or a late flowering climber to scramble over an earlier flowering host.  At this point, he stressed, you must match the vigour of the plants providing extra flourishes with their neighbours.  Certainly I have seen attractive, mature specimen shrubs disfigured by over-exuberant, smothering climbers to the point where the host had to be removed, but I hadn't thought of bulb foliage killing off its neighbours.  It can happen that way round, if a lush leaved bulb that's early into growth or stays green for a long time is planted among late emerging herbaceous plants.  At Great Dixter when appraising new varieties of tulip one of the things they look at is the size of the leaves, when deciding whether to drop bulbs into areas of mixed planting.  Slides of allium and tulip foliage lined up next to each other brought home the point.  You would need to test grow most varieties of bulbs a year in advance, since bulb catalogues almost never mention anything about the foliage.

His other advice was that from July and August onwards you needed to de-brown.  Removing dead foliage, spent flower heads or excess stalks of things like teasel could make the borders look much fresher.  The nice question is how much to take, if you want the winter look of frosted seed heads. He's right, though.  One of the things I noticed on our last holiday as we walked around the vaguely disappointing garden of Kingston Maurwood was how much better some of the planting could have looked if only somebody, anybody, had had time to go around dead heading and doing some minor tidying.

Observation and personal knowledge of how particular plants do in your growing conditions is all.  I already knew most of the ideas Fergus Garrett set out, in theory, but he is much better at putting them into concrete practice than I am.

Friday, 18 March 2016

writing history

I wrote up the minutes of the music society committee meeting today.  They took rather a long time.  The chairman's verdict was that they seemed accurate though she felt they made the discussion sound more organised than it had been, which is what she said about the last lot of minutes.  In fact it was a pretty structured conversation, it just didn't stick to the running order on the agenda.  It never does, so by now I know to copy out the agenda headings before I type anything else (though not number them because that sets Word off making unwanted indentations.  I wish Microsoft would not keep trying to be helpful).  Then I go through my notes and enter each point worth minuting under the relevant heading, so all of the discussion on any given topic ends up minuted together, even if it cropped up several times during the meeting.

So they are not an accurate transcription of temporal events, but are a fair reflection of the topics covered during the course of the meeting.  Maybe that is more accurate than a straight he said, she said reiteration of the conversation.  It certainly makes them more useful if you ever want to check anything in them afterwards.

I am becoming a mistress of tact as well.  That might come as a surprise to those who know me in daily life.  Tactfulness is not a strong family trait.  But by now I have a fair idea when to elaborate on how a decision was reached, and which critiques of village life and personalities to skip lightly over.  The chairman gets first dibs on checking the minutes before I circulate them to the rest of the committee, but it's a while since she has wanted to change anything beyond misspellings of real names and the odd typo.  This time there weren't even any of those.

As I went through my eight pages of scribbled longhand notes, with the odd invented abbreviation, I noticed a couple of points where we hadn't actually reached a conclusion or agreed to do whatever was being proposed.  Sometimes if I notice during the meeting that we're moving on from a point before deciding anything I will chirp up and ask what we've decided as I need to write it down. Sometimes I'll decide it suits our purpose not to decide anything and leave it to the chairman.

Sometimes I'm so confused I really don't know what we've said, and have to do my best with the scribbles afterwards.  That doesn't happen often.  The last chairman nominated a former journalist on the committee as her chosen minutes taker when the previous one retired due to illness, but actually years of sitting through investment meetings in which somebody is generally trying to pull the wool over someone else's eyes about something is pretty good training for taking notes of the proceedings of an amateur committee.  My appointment came as a gentle relief to the retired university departmental secretary on the committee, who was already doing tickets and did not want to be stuck with the minutes as well.

Finally, when I'm sure everything that ought to be minuted has been included once and once only, I number the agenda items and highlight them in bold.  This time I made sure to double check the start time of the next meeting, as I got the last one wrong.  I think we had discussed both 5.00 and 5.30 pm, and I'd put the wrong one down.  Only one person noticed, and it's not as though it made any difference to when we did start, and the actual start time was sent out in advance with the agenda.  Be nice to minutes secretaries.  It's their record of what was agreed to that everybody will have in front of them months hence, when nobody can quite remember.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

art, gardens and artistic influence

I made it to the Impressionist gardens and back, and am now sitting at the kitchen table feeling slightly wheezy but delighted to have seen them.  I was not at all sure yesterday that I'd be up to it, but by this morning I was less chilly and it was forecast to be a dry day, so I thought that if I used the tube and didn't try to walk over to the West End from Liverpool Street I'd probably be OK to stand about looking at pictures for a couple of hours.  And it seemed such a shame to waste my advance ticket, when I'd been looking forward to the exhibition since Christmas when the Systems Administrator gave me the book.  And it would have been very galling to try and rebook later when I was feeling better and find it had sold out.  So I went, fingers tightly crossed that the trains would run smoothly.

It is a lovely exhibition, and very popular, though not actually such a crush as I'd feared it might be.  A combination of Impressionist paintings and gardening is practically tailor made to fit the English psyche.  Really, the only thing that could make it nicer would be if Mary Berry were to wander around the Royal Academy halls handing out slices of free cake.

There are paintings by Monet and Manet, Renoir and Pissarro, Vuillard and Bonnard, John Singer Sergeant, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, and Spanish, Scandinavian, German and American artists I'd never heard of (or at least not until I read the book).  There are photographs of them cultivating their gardens.  Monet was into dahlias before his Giverney days and used to go to horticultural shows with his friend Caillebotte, who was an early adopter of the domestic greenhouse.  Pissarro was teased by his contemporaries for preferring to paint vegetable patches instead of flowers.  Emil Nolde was a new discovery for me: his poppies glow red as furnaces.  Monet's gigantic late triptych of water lilies, reunited for this exhibition from the three different American museums that bought a section each after the artist's death, is a mysterious shimmer of lilac and blue-green.

It is usually summer in the paintings.  There is one garden in snow and one snowy street, and some of Monet's scenes are autumnal, but in general there are roses, peonies, azaleas, or at any rate nothing coming later in the year than hydrangeas and the dark green, heavy foliage of late summer.  Maybe the artists thought that summer was what gardens were about.  It is a big exhibition, there are more than a hundred and twenty works in total, and I've have happily given house room to most of them, not that the water lilies triptych would fit.  It doesn't honestly explore the relationship between art and gardening in any deep way that I could discern.  Domestic gardening grew more popular in the period the exhibition covers, between the 1860s and 1920s. Some artists took up gardening, but so did lots of other people who weren't artists, and some artists painted gardens, but they also painted interiors, portraits, dancers, street scenes, racecourses and so on, while other artists didn't paint gardens or painted other people's gardens without doing much gardening of their own.  Gardens were a thing at the time.  They got painted.  It doesn't matter, the exhibition is lovely to look at.

In fact it was my second exhibition of the day, as I went to Delacroix and the rise of modern art at the National Gallery first.  That wasn't the original plan.  I would normally aim to fit more than one thing into a London trip, once I've taken the day to get there and forked out for the railway ticket, but as I was still feeling a bit coldy I thought I should take it easy.  But the trouble with booked, timed tickets (and why I like Tate membership so much, giving the ability to swan in to temporary exhibitions without any need for booking) is that if you live outside London you have to allow for train delays, and I'd allowed an extra bit for traffic jams getting to the station, as Colchester has a new and hideous set of roadworks.  In the event the only hold up was the drive to the station taking maybe five minutes more than usual, and I waited no more than a minute for the tube, so as I rumbled into Leicester Square I realised I had over two hours in hand.  Two hours is too long to hang around in Costa, and I didn't want to end up wandering about Piccadilly, so spending the time in a nice warm gallery seemed a better bet.

I didn't know much about Delacroix, which was a good reason to go and find out.  He was born at the very end of the eighteenth century, and was a real painters' painter, admired and collected by other artists in his lifetime and after his death in 1863.  The art establishment of his day gave him a more uneven ride, at times allowing his work to grace the salons, at others rejecting it or mauling him critically.  He tackled a dizzying range of subjects, experimented with colour, was more interested in expressing emotion than strictly accurate figure drawing, and was generally one of those artists who move their subject on.

Some of his major works were vast, elaborate murals for churches and civic buildings, which you have to view via short films, but they are good quality films and give you an idea of what he did. Otherwise the exhibition couples his paintings with works of other artists believed to have been influenced by him, whether his use of colour or his subject matter, and I found the comparisons utterly convincing.  And as several of his admirers crop up in the RA show going to the National Gallery first was a good preparation.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

swamp of germs

My cold is still hanging around.  It comes and goes, almost gone one day then back again the next.  Yesterday I was functioning, not with enormous joie de vivre, but enough to do a day in the garden without feeling tired or unwell, and go out to tea.  Today I woke feeling chilly, a bone-deep cold that neither a hot shower nor porridge nor two mugs of tea could shift, and decided that there was no way I was spending the day outside, pruning or no pruning.  Instead I huddled close to the Aga, aching gently, stiff-necked and snivelling.  And cold.

I've been more worried all along about the cold than the bad back.  The latter sounded so much more dramatic and has elicited more sympathy from my friends and relations, but the cold was the reason my back seized up.  I've been working on my back for over a decade, and if only the cold would go away I know how to sort out the back, but I have no way of sorting out the cold.  Whoever cracks that medical mystery will become very, very rich.

I did make it to the music society committee meeting.  Since one of the only useful things I do is take the minutes it seemed a pity not to be there.  I resisted the attempts of my host to take my coat at the door, saying that I'd been feeling cold all day and thought I'd keep it for now.  Looking on the positive side, he did not express any doubts about my fitness to be out, and he is a retired doctor.  I ought to write up the notes of the meeting now while it is all fresh in my mind, but I think I might save them for the morning, when I might be feeling more energetic.

A fluctuating but non-serious ailment like a persistent cold leaves one terribly in limbo.  I have got a ticket for the Royal Academy tomorrow, booked weeks ago.  Will I feel fit enough to go?  What about Saturday's Plant Heritage lecture by Fergus Garrett?  That's by ticket only and it's sold out, and I've been looking forward to it all year and bought my ticket two months ago.  Next week I'm supposed to be talking to a Rotary Club in Chelmsford about the woodland charity.  I don't want to miss things I've paid for and was expecting to enjoy.  I don't want to mess the Rotary Club around.  I wish I didn't have a cold.  It is such a pathetic ailment.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

weed control

The tide mark of Strulch is creeping slowly up the border that runs the length of the back garden.  I am not sure why I am Strulching when I could be pruning, except that there seem to be a lot of things that need doing now, or preferably a fortnight ago, and Strulching seemed as good as any.  I started yesterday afternoon so I went on.

I already weeded the bed once at some point over the winter, so it was fairly clear of big weeds, or at least visible ones.  I chiselled out as much as I could of the dandelion roots using a long, pointy trowel, but I know they will be back.  Dandelions' powers of regeneration put Dr Who to shame. Today I found a number of small bramble shoots that I missed last time, and dug out what I could of the roots, knowing that they too would be back.  When the questing tips of bramble stems first touch down and send out a rosette of fat white roots they are easy to remove.  Once they've sent down a tap root they are practically ineradicable if you don't want to dig up great sections of the border.  I pull and chop them out as far below ground level as I can manage, but the remaining root always sends up another weedy stem.

There are little goose grass seedlings, but maybe not as many as in past years.  Perhaps I am getting on top of the goose grass, or maybe it's simply that it's been cold in the past couple of weeks.  Maybe once spring arrives they will be up like cress.  That's a good reason to get the Strulch on now.

There are lots of ivy seedlings.  There always are, all over the garden, evidence of the abundant local population of berrying ivy and birds to eat it.  Hawthorn and dogwood too.  I'm applying a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone as I go, and the little tree seedlings tend to show up better once the surrounding earth is dusted with grey powder.  That's another reason to get on with the Strulching during a dry spell, so that it shakes off my plants instead of sticking to the foliage.

Perhaps another reason for Strulching the sloping border is that it produces a reassuring feeling of having done something.  Made progress.  Look at all those yards of tidy brown chopped straw, with the hellebores neatly poking out of it.  I did that.  It's under control.  Goose grass eat your heart out.  But tomorrow I shall have to tackle the remaining pruning in the near rose bed, including the buddleias that should have been done in February and are by now in full leaf.  I am sure they will recover from the operation, since the only reason I've got two plants of 'Black Knight' is that I replaced the first after it blew clean out of the ground in a gale and the original plant surprised me by growing back from the roots.  Anything that can recover from being bodily ripped out of the soil is unlikely to be killed by some late pruning.  But it will be a sorry business, chopping off all those healthy, newly emerged leaves.

I must spray the border with Grazers as well.  I don't know if it's supposed to work on mice, but something is eating altogether too much of the Viola odorata, and they want all the protection they can get.

Monday, 14 March 2016

the spring tidy continues in the absence of spring

It was a chilly sort of day.  There was some warmth in the sun, but the wind was cold.  It's blowing from the north east, and looking at the forecast for the rest of the week is set to stay there.  That's quite usual for the east coast at this time of the year.  The garden knows it is not really spring yet. There are sad little curled up flowers on the pulmonaria and the primroses, but they aren't expanding with any kind of spring-like abandon.  I ended up working at the bottom of the back garden, not necessarily because those were the most urgent jobs, but because it offered me the most shelter from the wind.

I have been planting out pots of Anemone blanda in the ditch bed.  I was worried that previous plantings disappeared, but looking again there were enough emerging anemone buds to make me think it would not be a total waste to plant more.  I will hedge my bets and try some in the gravel as well.  The ditch bed has a depressing number of mouse holes in it, and every so often there is a patch of violas, or sweet rocket, or whatever it might be, that has been nibbled off to stalks in a manner that's more mouse than rabbit.

I noticed when we visited the Chatto gardens that they had Anemone blanda growing in the gravel, so it must cope with those conditions for at least a season or two.  The trouble with adopting ideas for potential ephemerals like bulbs from gardens that open to the public is that you can never know how frequently they top up their plantings to maintain the display, whereas I'm after a high percentage of bulbs that will naturalise.  I used to have more crocus in the borders in the back garden before mice (or squirrels) stripped most of them out.

It is a good time of year to plant out small pots of bulbs, as you can see most of what's coming up. The snowdrops have been in growth for months, of course, but by now the snouts of Erythronium are just about visible, and the Corydalis are poking through.  Some things come later, and there is no sign yet of the lily of the valley.  I remember panicking last year that I couldn't see it, and then it turned up.  Solomon's seal isn't visible yet either.  With those you have to remember roughly where they are, and if the tip of your trowel encounters resistance them stop digging.

I've been squeezing more daffodil 'Tete a tete' into the front of the border at the top of the bog bed. £6.50 of bulbs from Peter Nyssen seemed to produce a gratifyingly large number of pots to plant out, though against that I should set off the failure of the white fritillaries and Narcissus 'Pacific Coast'.

I am pruning the hydrangeas as well, as I get to them.  If you shorten the branches on mopheads and lacecaps you will lose a lot of the coming season's flowers, so the solution if they get too big is to remove some of the oldest and longest branches at the base.  Hydrangea grandiflora and H. arborescens 'Annabelle' with her huge balls of flower can both be taken down quite hard as they will flower on this summer's growth, giving you fewer but larger flowers on a more manageable sized shrub.  'Annabelle' tends to flop, her stems not being quite up to the weight of the monster blooms, so shorter is probably structurally better (though heavier flowers aren't necessarily).  I have been eyeing up a smart rusted iron support for her, but she isn't getting one this year.  There are some fine, straight suckers on a grafted hazel by the dustbins that I urgently need to cut out, so I could see if they are flexible enough to bend into some kind of home made support.

The poor old chickens weren't allowed out, despite the sunshine.  I couldn't face the idea of hanging around the front garden with them in the teeth of the wind.  In fact, it was so cold that I packed up at four, fully an hour before they'd have gone back into their run.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

a new musical experience

I have just been to the last concert of the season with my music society.  The Systems Administrator asked when I got in whether I'd enjoyed the concert, and I had to reply that I didn't know, which is not an entirely encouraging response to any artistic event, though better than hating it, or worse still finding it boring.

We ended the 2015-16 season with the Baroque specialists Red Priest.  They are to Baroque Music as the late, great, lamented Bellowhead were to folk music, which is to say they play around with their material, introducing musical jokes and odd segues between composers and genres, and use sound effects.  They dress up, leap around, make faces, and camp it up.  Throughout, and this is the important bit, they have enormous technical command of their instruments and deep knowledge of the material they're messing about with.

So why didn't I like Red Priest as much as I liked Bellowhead?  I love the Baroque, which put me one step ahead of the friend sitting next to me, who confessed to not liking Handel, or Vivaldi.  Perhaps my cultural expectations for classical music, including the Baroque, are that it should be taken seriously by performers and audience alike.  Musicians larking about with New York Gals are one thing, but inserting a scrap of The Irish Washerwoman into Vivaldi is quite another.  But why should that be so?

Maybe it was slight embarrassment about the setting.  Red Priest seemed very close, standing on their little stage at the front of the church, and brightly and plainly lit because the violinist needed to see the score.  Perhaps too close for comfortable clowning.  When I saw Bellowhead live they were on a full sized theatre stage and we were quite a long way away up in the balcony.  There was a light show, and I rather think there was imitation smoke.  The whole setting was more theatrical, which made the jumping about seem more natural.

Or perhaps it was just that the joke ran thin.  The concert was billed as a family concert, with the hope that people would bring children along to experience the excitement of live classical music, and the clowning was partly designed to appeal to children.  The leader of the group had previously done school workshops with several hundred local children, which apparently went down very well. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the odd musical joke, but the cumulative effect of having every piece messed about with was wearing.

Maybe it was simply that it was the first time I'd ever seen them.  People tend to like what they are used to.  If I saw them several times until I got used to them maybe I'd be a huge fan.

But I wasn't bored, and it set me thinking about why we like some things and dislike others, and whether I take classical music too seriously when I'm perfectly happy with literary parodies or visual puns.  And if a work of art makes you think then it has succeeded.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

home saved clivia seed

Today I sowed my home grown Clivia seed.  I bought the plant last year at a Plant Heritage meeting, already in bud and about to bloom, and was pleased when after flowering it developed a cluster of seed pods.  I don't have any other Clivia to act as pollinators, so that wasn't a given.  Each individual pod swelled to about the size of a cherry tomato, in a bright, fetching shade of green.  I have never grown Clivia from seed and didn't know what to expect, but looking on the web I discovered that they could take up to a year to ripen, and would be fit to pick once they felt soft.

How soft is soft?  This is a question that has perplexed many a cook, faced with the not terribly yielding end of an avocado, pineapple or melon.  The seed pods surprised me by turning red in due course, when I'd assumed they would go brown and papery when ripe.  They still felt extremely solid even after changing colour, but in the past few days I've thought they were more squidgy to the touch.  I debated whether to just take one or two pods and open them to see what was going on, then decided to stop pussy footing around and pick the stalk.  The pods were soft.  I think I bought the plant last March, so they'd had the best part of a year to ripen.

The red outer coat turned out to be quite leathery, and peeled away in discreet strips.  Beneath that was a thin pulpy pinky-orange layer like the flesh of an over-ripe peach, and inside that several huge seeds neatly packed together, each inside a coating resembling thick orange pith. The universal advice on the web seemed to be that all these must be removed, and the seeds should then be washed.  It took a jolly long time to peel off all the outer layers of gunk, and I imagined how it would feel to be a plant collector doing it in my tent out in the field, instead of sitting at the kitchen table with access to running water.

Some sites recommended washing the extracted seeds in a dilute fungicide solution, but as an amateur I don't have access to the same chemicals as commercial growers.  That was one of the things that put me off the idea of bulb scaling as a method of bulking up my stock, the fact that a key stage was to wash to cut scales in fungicide.  If one didn't have any fungicide then dilute washing up liquid seemed to be the favoured substitute for Clivia seeds, so I washed my seeds in several changes of Ecover solution, each of which managed to float off more lumps of pith from seeds I thought were already clean.  I gave them a final rinse in the sieve and there they sat, like a handful of bald, pale gold hazel nut kernels.

One flower head had produced quite a lot of seeds, so I split my bets and put half in a tray of damp perlite in the airing cupboard, and the rest half buried in compost in the heated propagator.  The idea with the airing cupboard lot is that if or when they sprout I'll be able to see it, and can pot the growing ones.  The website I got the suggestion from actually specified vermuculite, but I didn't have any, and the perlite bag said that it had a great ability to hold both air and moisture and was good for cuttings, so I dare say it will do.  Air and moisture are what I want.

If anything is going to happen I think it should do so within the next few weeks.  Of course, if the seeds do germinate it will then take them three or four years to grow to flowering sized plants, and then I might or might not find out that they are all orange like their parent.  As the greenhouse was full to overflowing this winter I'm not even sure where I could put a whole batch of baby Clivia.  But I'll worry about that if anything actually emerges.

Friday, 11 March 2016

out and about

We went to the Colchester Arts Centre last night.  That represented something of a minor triumph, as on Tuesday I was not at all convinced I'd be able to sit on an Arts Centre chair for an entire evening, but fortunately by Wednesday afternoon my back was looser.  We had tickets to see Andy Zaltzman, which were part of my Christmas present to the Systems Administrator, and it would have been a shame to miss it, for us and also for him in that he cracked a gag about partially filling the central aisle of  a large church, and if we had not gone it would have been even more partially filled.  His sometime comedy partner has gone on to be gigantic in the US.  Andy Zaltzman has not and is able to be extremely funny on the subject.  They have just recorded a new podcast together for the first time in nine months, which the SA will doubtless be listening to shortly.

It was the second time we've seen him at the Arts Centre, so the management must be relaxed about not entirely filling the central aisle on a Thursday night.  We both laughed a lot, as did the other eighty or so people who were there.  If you are interested in politics and know roughly what Schrodinger's cat is you will probably like Andy Zaltzman.  He operates towards the cerebral end of the comedy scale.

I spent today waking up the greenhouse, turfing out the pots of hardy plants that were overwintering under cover to protect them from the worst of the weather, picking the dead leaves off the pelargoniums, and upping the watering to start them back into growth, along with the pots of dahlias.  It seemed like a nice gentle introduction to gardening, some standing, some kneeling, some walking about, no pick axes or heavy lifting.  My back felt OK at the time but the great unknown is what it is going to feel like later.  Still, the only way to find out is to try.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

experiments with species gladiolus

I think I am on the verge of success with Gladiolus tristis.  This is a species gladiolus, rather different to the great Dame Edna bunches of hybrids grown for cutting, and according to the Pacific Bulb Society is one of the more widespread species in winter rainfall areas of southern Africa.  My solitary bulb came more prosaically from Avon Bulbs as part of my autumn 2014 order. I potted it up and grew it on in the greenhouse, since turfing a South African bulb straight out into the English winter didn't seem very friendly.  It produced a few rather straggly leaves, and one small flower spike.  I was interested to see them, but in display terms you couldn't consider it a horticultural triumph.

It was destined for the open ground, since I had seen photographs of a clump looking ravishingly pretty, demure pale yellow trumpets hanging gracefully from arched stalks and contrasting well with the silver leaved foliage plants around them.  I rather think it may have been a Christopher Lloyd scheme.  It is supposed to be fragrant as well, though you wouldn't know that from the photograph.  Those books and articles I'd found that mentioned the subject at all cautioned that it was only borderline hardy, but might do outside in the UK given shelter and sharp drainage.  It certainly wasn't doing me any good in a pot, as it looked less than enthusiastic about the whole proceedings and I was always worried about when I should water it or stop watering it, and how I would know when it was time to start watering it again.

Last July I tucked my sad little plant into a corner by the path across the turning circle, marking its position with a short cane.  The leaves soon disappeared, and I wondered if I'd see it again, but this winter a tuft of leaves appeared by the cane.  I thought it was obtuse of it come into active growth through our winter instead of waiting for the spring, but that's how Gladiolus tristis wants to do things.  Now there is a healthy looking clump of foliage over a foot tall, and three flower stalks developing.  The flowering stalks start off by pointing at the sky, then develop a more arching habit as they grow.  The leaves could be confused at a casual glance with Dierama, of which we have a lot in the gravel, but they are ribbed (or rolled) and much thicker to the touch.  The leaves must be hardier than you might expect for something with a reputation for tenderness.  They appear unscathed by the recent frosts, which have burned some of the Watsonia leaves and completely blackened some experimental plantings of Aristea.  It may be that the buds are not so frost tolerant, and that the next freezing night will put an end to them, but so far, so good.

I was right to be anxious about watering and witholding water when it comes to gladiolus.  Surfing the web before lunch I came on a page by somebody called Dave Selinger hosted on the university of Arizona's website, though the opinions are all the author's own, which sets out the cultural requirements of various species, as well as their ability to set seed.  It seems that species gladiolus can be fussy.  Some will abort their flowers and immediately go into dormancy if even briefly short of water during their growth phase, some will tolerate being watered while dormant but others will rot.  I think it's as much by luck as by judgement that I managed to keep Gladiolus tristis going in a pot for as long as nine or ten months.

According to Dave at the university of Arizona Gladiolus tristis is not self fertile, so I fear I will not get seeds from my one original bulb, unless it manages to hybridise with any other species gladiolus growing in the neighbourhood, which is not likely since I think my others all flower later in the year.  Apparently they are a promiscuous lot.

Fired up by the continued survival of G. tristis I potted up my carefully saved envelope of tiny Gladiolus flanaganii bulbs, grown from seed last year.  The consensus on the net is that these definitely do not want to be wet over the winter, so my instinct to take them out of their compost for the winter was probably correct.  They have been repotted with extra sand stirred into the compost to sharpen the drainage.  This species will have red flowers, if it ever gets that far, and in the wild grows on inaccessible cliffs, making collection so hazardous it has been nicknamed The Suicide Lily.

Reading The Pacific Bulb Society's account of where Gladiolus tristis grows in the wild is a reminder that if following the ecological gardening mantra that if you provide the growing conditions a plant would experience in the wild then all will be well, you had better be sure to replicate all the conditions.  Apparently in the wilds of southern Africa G. tristis is found in marshy areas and poorly drained seeps.  I don't have anywhere near enough of it to be willing to experiment with how it does in a poorly drained seep here, but I am fairly sure that in an Essex winter it would rot and die.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

pots by post

The auricula pots arrived this afternoon.  The delivery driver warned us as he handed over the parcel that it might have some paint on it, as another parcel in the van had just burst.  The box was done up with a great deal of gaffer tape, and I couldn't see any paint splashes, but opened it in the hall to be on the safe side.

The pots were individually wrapped in newspaper and nested inside each other in two rows, wedged in with a mixture of crumpled newspaper, lumps of polystyrene, and a short section of that plastic air filled sausage that mail order companies sometimes use.  I had difficulty in separating two of the pots, and it wasn't a great surprise when I unwrapped the inner of the pair and found that it had broken lengthwise into three parts.  It must have got too firmly wedged inside its fellow at some point during transit.  Nesting pottery is a dodgy operation at the best of times, apt to end up with something getting cracked, and it would probably have been better to pad every pot with more paper and wedge them in individually.  There would have been room, given the size of the box, and anyway the vendors could have used a bigger box.

Other than the breakage they were quite nice pots.  Somewhat worn, and not a perfectly matching set, but I couldn't expect that when they were being sold as vintage reclaims.  Some could have done with a scrub to remove a few lingering clinging roots and scraps of compost, but from the smell of disinfectant on my hands after I'd finished unpacking them I'd say they had been dunked in a bucket of Jeyes fluid or similar before dispatch.

Was I delighted?  No.  If the aim of mail order retailers should be to leave the customer surprised and delighted then this couple didn't quite make the grade.  There again, they are semi amateurs, rescuing and recycling vintage terracotta on the side while also managing day jobs.  Was I so disappointed I felt completely ripped off?  No, not that either.  They are quite reasonable pots, and will look better once I've given them a good scrub.  Could I be bothered to complain about the broken one?  Honestly, no.  The Systems Administrator should be able to glue it back together again with builder's grade polyurethane foam glue, which should give a more durable result than my tube of Evostick.  Would I use the suppliers again?  Possibly, but not if I could find an alternative source of three inch long toms.

I don't understand why nobody seems to be making them.  Whichford sell a small pot they describe as an auricula pot, but it has a rim and curved sides and lacks the simplicity of the old fashioned long tom.  I have some miniature Whichford pots and use them for cyclamen, but they are not what I want for the reckless plants.  They also have a range of small long toms, but even the smallest is slightly bigger than I want, and again they have curved sides, not straight.  I have scoured the internet and keep an eye out in garden centres, and have never found a supplier of new, classic, straight-sided, rimless, miniature long tom pots.  If I suddenly stumbled on a source I'd buy lots.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

them reckless plants

My order of reckless plants arrived.  That is how the great post-war garden writer Margery Fish says an old country gardener she knew referred to auriculas, as 'them reckless plants' and the phrase stuck with me because it is difficult to imagine a less reckless plant than an auricula, with its neat rosettes of leaves and tidy flowers so perfect they scarcely seem real.  They do not run at the root nor do they seed incontinently, and nor are they especially prone to die.

They were beautifully packaged in boxes just large enough to hold six small square pots, with slices of expanded polystyrene tucked between and around the pots to stop them shifting in transit.  Each plant had a piece of tissue paper carefully tucked around the crown, secured to the pot with two pieces of masking tape.  Masking tape actually seems rather a brilliant thing to use, since it is designed to stick but also to peel off easily.  The instructions (with apologies in parenthesis to experienced growers) said to stand them somewhere cool and shady for a few days to recover from their journey, following which it would be OK to repot them at this time of year.  If destined for the open ground the growers suggested waiting to plant them out until the soil is a little warmer.

Mine are going to go in pots, and since the pots haven't arrived yet I couldn't pot them immediately anyway.  Instead they are standing in a tray in the space in the cold frame vacated by the rotten daffodils.  Once potted I shall try them on the deck above the conservatory, where they will be open to the sky but shaded from direct sun.  If that turns out to be too dark for them I'll have to think again.   I was going to make them a shelf out of a plank and some old bricks, since I have planks and bricks.  The catalogues at this time of the year are full of dinky purpose built plant stands, but it will probably have to be the plank for now.  I would rather like an auricula theatre with an arch above it, painted in Victorian fairground style and proclaiming Them Reckless Plants, but I have nowhere to stand one and my graphic skills aren't up to much so I couldn't do the paintwork.

After cooing over the auriculas I cautiously and experimentally weeded in the turning circle for an hour before lunch and another couple of hours afterwards.  I tried yesterday, but decided fairly quickly that it was simply too cold.  It is supposed to be warming up by the end of the week, which will not be a day too soon, though I suppose on the downside that then the weeds will start growing.  As it was I made the unwelcome discovery that the underside of a mat of prostrate thyme was coated with root aphid where it sprawled over the paving.  I'd have hoped the cold weather would have put a stop to that.  I inspected every pot as I brought it into the greenhouse last autumn, and any infected plants were either thrown out or dosed with Provado systemic insecticidal drench for roots, but what's the good of that if there's a reservoir of infection right on top of the paving?  The compost the auriculas came in already contains vine weevil treatment, good for the next twelve months.

Monday, 7 March 2016

daffodil, thou art sick

The pots of Anemone blanda are blooming away merrily by the greenhouse, awaiting slightly warmer weather for me to plant them out.  The pots of Narcissus 'February Gold' went into the daffodil lawn two or three weeks ago, and I was half way through planting out the pots of 'Tete a tete' when the cold struck, while N. 'Golden Bells' was ready to go out into the grass so long ago I've practically forgotten about it.  The Scilla mitshenkoana 'Tubergenia' (a big name for a small plant) have found a home in the long border, and the Scilla sibirica and S. bifolia are hot to trot as soon as it warms up enough (for me, not them.  They don't look bothered).  Dwarf iris 'Sheila Ann Germaney' is ensconced in the gravel, and the purple checkerboard fritillaries went out into the fritillary lawn, while the bulbs of the white ones have been investigated and found wanting.  In fact, rule of thumb, if any bulbs planted in containers last autumn aren't in vigorous growth by now there's probably something wrong with them.

So it proved when I investigated the pots of Narcissus 'Pacific Coast' in one of the cold frames.  They were potted up last autumn, three bulbs to a one litre pot, at the same time and using the same compost as all the other bulbs.  I noticed a while back when I was checking the watering that their foliage was looking rather patchy.  At first I wondered if they were simply a late variety, slower into growth than 'February Gold' which is an early daffodil, but even a late variety ought so be showing leaf above the surface of the compost by now, growing in the protection of a cold frame.

I upended a pot with no top growth at all, and found an undersized collection of brownish roots, not a good sign.  Healthy daffodil roots are brilliant white and by this stage of the winter should be bursting against the walls of the pot.  I scraped the top layer of compost out of a pot with two sets of apparently healthy leaves rather than the expected three until I uncovered the nose of the third bulb.  It had no roots at all, and numerous small grey maggots wriggled over the surface of the bulb.  Definitely not a good sign.  The bulb itself was soft and brown, the outer layers falling away when pressed between my fingers.  I cut it in half, and it was brown and rotten all the way through, but not hollow.

If I were a proper horticulturalist I would have known exactly what was wrong with them, but as it happens, I didn't.  I am not an expert on daffodil pests and diseases.  We did one module on P&D at Writtle.  You wouldn't expect your GP to be able to diagnose any disease that walked into their surgery on the basis of one second year module, and they only have to treat human beings, while your generalist gardener has to know about lots of other plants besides bulbs.  I had heard of narcissus bulb fly, so that seemed a good place to start, but looking it up on the internet it seemed pretty clear that a bulb attacked by narcissus bulb fly should be hollow, containing maybe only one grub in its eaten-out core.  My bulbs were disintegrating from the the outside in.  I soon learned there is also a small narcissus bulb fly, which manifests itself in more and smaller maggots per bulb.  That sounded more like what I'd found, on the other hand traditional wisdom had it that the small bulb fly only attacked bulbs that were already weakened by something else.  And while the internet was pretty definite about the life cycle of the normal fly, it was annoyingly vague about the habits of the small one, so I couldn't work out whether it was likely to be already present in dried bulbs that looked entirely fat and healthy when planted.

My best guess is that the maggots were those of the small narcissus bulb fly, and that the bulbs were suffering from something else, possibly fusarium.  Whatever it was, I think disease was involved.  I considered whether I might have killed them myself, perhaps through over watering, but I don't think I did.  They have not been watered particularly heavily, all other plants in the frame were fine, and the three trays of bulbs were all affected despite not standing next to each other in the cold frame, so it's not as if they were all under the same leak in the roof.  The maggots may have been causal agents of death, but may have been simply feeding on the dead roots after the event.  Whatever was wrong, I didn't fancy rescuing the growing bulbs from among the others and planting them out in case they brought something nasty with them.  Especially I did not want to introduce fusarium to the soil in the back garden.

With some irritation I tipped every pot of 'Pacific Coast' into a plastic sack to go to the dump, eight quid's worth of bulbs down the drain, plus compost, plus time, plus valuable space occupied since last September in the cold frame.  Plus my disappointment, since I was looking forward to them. Primrose yellow with a deeper cup, lovely soft fragrance, very prolific in flower and a good naturalising variety, that's what the website said.  Hey ho.  Fortunately we gardeners are incorrigible optimists.  Next bulb season I'm sure it will be great.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

exercise and retail therapy

Moving gently around is far better for the back than keeping very still in case it hurts.  I took periodic short walks around the garden, but the sight of all those jobs crying out to be done was depressing, so after lunch I persuaded the Systems Administrator to take me to see Beth Chatto's garden.  I fancied a change of scene, and can get in free on my RHS card until the end of March. Plus, I had an ulterior motive in that I hoped they might have some pink flowered Anemone pavonina for sale.  I bought a white one a few weeks ago, at which point white was all they had, and would like some more pink for the gravel (my home saved and sown seed has so far come to nothing except mould).

The Chatto garden was still looking as defiantly wintry as ours, except without the piles of abandoned prunings, pick axe and step ladder.  Their grass if anything was muddier, but that's what happens when you open to the public in winter.  There were not very many other people walking around the garden, despite the SA's anxieties about it being Mother's Day, which I had over-ridden with the argument that it was cold and most mothers wouldn't want to walk about outside.  There is a fine specimen of Camellia 'Donation', grown to truly tree like proportions, which was in full flush, and a reasonable sprinkling of daffodils, but nothing that stopped me in my tracks thinking Why don't I grow that?  The SA asked whether I had really expected that there would be, but hope springs eternal that there are new and interesting plants just waiting to be discovered.  We could probably usefully grow some more of the variegated leaf arum.  Actually, I'd have more if something didn't periodically dig my plants up and eat the roots.  Anyway, it was nice to get out. There were no pink anemones.

Meanwhile I have been indulging in some retail therapy.  At last year's Chelsea I greatly liked the display of violas by a young couple who won Silver Gilt at their first attempt.  They trade under the name Wildgoose Nursery, having taken over the business of Bouts violas who used to exhibit at Chelsea.  I thought I would buy some more varieties of Viola cornuta, a great ground covering plant with a long flowering season and a pleasing knack of winding its way in among other plants, but by the time I got round to ordering they were sold out of some of the varieties I wanted.  They only despatch plants between late March and late June, so I made a note to get my order in sometime in early 2016.

I have chosen half a dozen traditional violas as well.  I love the flowers, but my previous attempt to grow them many years ago ended in failure, the plants fizzling out to nothing in the face of drought and competition.  This time round I plan to keep them in pots by the front door (or possibly the back door) where I can keep an eye on them.  Magpie like, I have only ordered one of each variety, including the cornutas.  One viola will not go very far in a garden of this size, but they are supposed to be easy from cuttings.  August is the time, according to my book on violas, and if I shear my stock plants back after flowering they should produce lots of bushy new shoots which I can then use as propagating material.  Well, the nice young couple have to make their plants somehow, so why shouldn't I?  If it all works according to plan and the violas do not succumb to aphids, vine weevil or mice then I can buy some more varieties next year.

I also put in an order for some auriculas, and some recycled antique three inch long tom pots to grow them in.  I adore auriculas, and every year at Chelsea say we must grow some, and do nothing about it because the flowering season is just over and then I forget.  I've got a slightly motley collection of border auriculas in pots, grown from seed, and they have lasted enough years to make me think that buying some more might not be a single season wonder.  I went to Drointon Nurseries, who exhibited at last year's Chelsea.  They are relatively new kids on the block in Chelsea terms, and their website is user friendly.  Lockyer have for several years staged the most wonderful, traditional auricula displays and appear at Chelsea wearing their florist's bowler hats and I have nothing but respect for their plants and growing skills, but they don't seem to offer any kind of online retail faciltiy, and he who waits for the customer to send off for a paper list is increasingly lost.

Wildgoose have gone one better, and place a little tick against each variety in the main catalogue as you select it.  I'd worked out what I wanted in the old fashioned way with paper and pencil before I started shopping, but it is nice being able to see what you've chosen and consider the balance of colours as you scroll up and down the screen, without having to open your basket.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

anatomy of a bad back

My back is bad, in a quite different way to how it normally plays up.  We have long history, my bad back and I, although at first I did not know it for what it was.  It initially revealed itself in the form of brief sciatic episodes in my twenties.  Once they had passed I didn't think too much about them, which with the benefit of hindsight was a bad idea.  In my early thirties it presented itself in the form of a pain in my lower leg, which the company doctor diagnosed as split shin.  I protested that it couldn't be, since I hadn't suddenly taken up jogging or anything.  The physio the doctor sent me to eventually pronounced that there was nothing wrong with my leg, the problem lay in my back, and gave me back exercises.  Once the pain in my leg had gone away I stopped doing them.

Oh, the folly of youth.  In my forties the bad back reappeared in the guise of a most peculiar range of symptoms, the sensation of water splashing on my thighs, pins and needles in my feet, and roving pains through my pelvis.  None of the specialists I saw thought any of them had anything to do with my back, and I saw a gynaecologist, a bowel specialist, and an orthopedic surgeon who tapped my knees, watched me touch my toes, and pronounced that my spine was in better condition than his. After about two years of rogue symptoms I was convinced that my troubles were lower back related, for the simple reason that when I went and did any weeding or lifting in the garden they got worse, and when I spent all my time except when I was at work lying on the sofa they got better.  Plus by then the weird symptoms were accompanied by a tight pain across the very base of my spine.

I referred myself to a physio.  If you are able and willing to pay you can go straight to a physio without waiting for weeks for a GP's referral.  Of course, not everybody can afford to pay, but when it's a choice between spending all your spare time lying on a sofa and spending forty quid seeing if you can get your back sorted out most people would probably sacrifice almost all forms of discretionary spending in favour of the physio's fee.  They have a red light system of symptoms that they won't even attempt to treat, sending you back to a doctor instead, and my physio didn't initially like the sound of my symptoms, but after I'd promised her I'd seen umpteen doctors in the past two years and had recent blood tests she agreed to look at my back.

It is a forlorn moment, standing in front of a complete stranger in your underwear and hoping they can put your life back together.  I told her about the orthopedic surgeon's verdict and in her answer heard the first glimmer of hope.  Well, his back must be diabolical, she said, because yours is dreadful.  It turned out that the only reason I was able to touch my toes was that my hips were practically hypermobile.  My lower back was as rigid as a board, and  I was standing all wrong.  I had spent the first four decades of my life standing and walking all wrong.  It was not just that I carried my head too far forwards, as lots of people do, but that the tilt of my pelvis was wrong.  I lay on her couch and she told me to flatten the small of my back against the mattress.  I protested that nobody could do that, and she explained that people with normally functioning backs could, actually.

She kneaded away at my spine, vertebra by vertebra, to start trying to get the rigid block of muscle to relax, and sent me away with some simple exercises.  After several sessions I was no longer in pain, unless I overdid things in the garden, and a year or two after I stopped seeing her I thought I should adopt some kind of lifelong maintenance routine and found a Pilates teacher, who taught me more exercises and to take a more nuanced view of my posture.  For several years now I have been able to do as much as I want to in the garden without triggering any problems at all, most of the time.

Which makes the current episode all the more galling, since when it started I was not doing anything except lying down.  And it is an entirely novel experience, a new kind of back problem, though talking to the Systems Administrator a common one.  This time round it went into spasm, feeling acutely painful from the base of my spine to the bottom of my shoulder blades.  Sitting down was difficult, standing up again was difficult, shifting my weight from resting back in a chair to sitting forward over my lap impossible without using my arms as levers.  Rolling from my back on to my side in bed was difficult, and any unlucky twist of my pelvis produced shooting pains.  I had to work out a strategy before I could get out of bed.  And to think that two weeks ago I could lie on the floor, knees raised, arms stretched flat above my head, and rise to a sitting position without my feet lifting.  How is the carefully cultivated back fallen low.

Making a cup of tea at breakfast time I suddenly felt faint, and had to sit down at the kitchen table.  I'd have liked to lay my head flat on the table, if only I could have bent that far.  The SA found me and asked whether I felt faint.  I admitted that I did.  Did I feel sick?  I admitted I had felt sick, too.  Had I been lifting anything when it happened?  The kettle.  This, according to the SA, was entirely normal with this kind of back problem, or at least it happens to the SA and to the SA's closest friend, both of whom are long term back spasm sufferers.  I had almost certainly twisted my back slightly while concentrating on making the tea, and was feeling faint and sick with pain.  It was entirely possible that I might be sick in the early stages.  It was a relief to hear from first hand experience that back ache could do that to a person, so I could stop worrying about more sinister illnesses, but also demoralising.

The Systems Administrator is actually jolly good at producing relevant information at the right moment without seeming to supervise all the time, and now passed on the advice of the physio who treated the SA's frozen shoulder.  You cannot exercise your way out of spasm, counselled the SA. While muscles are in spasm all you can do is rest them.  Once they have stopped spasming gentle exercise will help loosen them.  Do not overdo the exercise in the early stages.  If the exercise starts hurting more than the muscles do already then stop.  If you send them back into spasm you will set yourself back and delay your recovery, not speed it up.  On that basis I'm afraid my early morning session with my spiky massage balls after my shower and before making the tea may have been a mistake.

I have spent the day sitting in an upright chair with good lumbar support, and periodically going for very short walks around the garden when it's not raining, or else shuffling up and down the house like C-3PO without the arm movements.  My back is slowly feeling looser, and I have not triggered any more spasms for several hours.  I hope that the total recovery time will not be too long.  After all, it was working perfectly well ten days ago and it's not as though I've ripped or pulled anything. After the amount I've invested in it over the past decade in blood and treasure it ought to be a Rolls Royce of a back.  My hat goes off to the SA, the SA's friend and all other back spasm sufferers, though.  It is awful.

Addendum  There is a moral to this story, which is at the first sniff of any kind of back trouble at any age to get your posture checked out by a specialist, get your core strength checked, learn any corrections or exercises they tell you, and practice them religiously for the rest of your life. Ignore incipient back trouble in your twenties and it may come back and bite you in your forties, as the natural resilience of youth wears off.  Go to a physio or Pilates teacher, who know what a well functioning muscular-skeletal system should look like.  Orthopedic surgeons mainly know how to do surgery, and I don't think posture takes up much space in the GPs' curriculum.  You'd probably be better off going to a finishing school.