Saturday, 30 April 2016

from sapling to cricket bat

Today we went on a guided tour of a cricket bat willow farm, organised by the Suffolk volunteer committee of the Art Fund.  I'd been hoping their programme of events might include the chance to see gardens not normally open to the public, as it did last year only they were oversubscribed and my cheque was returned with apologies, but this year there were no secret gardens on offer. However, cricket bat willow production sounded just the ticket for a pair of retired small company fund managers with a passion for trees (me) and cricket (the Systems Administrator).

Essex and Suffolk account for three quarters of all UK cricket bat willow production, and there are only four growers nationwide.  Our host today started off in what he imagined would be a part-time diversification from the family farm near Woodbridge, buying out a local grower who wanted to retire.  Twenty-nine years later he's growing patches of willow across the country.  Sometimes he supplies young trees to landowners and they do all the work thereafter until he buys the finished trees back, but increasingly he and his team of three plant and maintain the trees as well, renting the land.  With increasing field sizes farmers are finding they have odd headlands and corners they can't do anything else with and might as well get some income from, but they don't have the workforce or expertise to tend the trees themselves.

It takes a good while before you get any cash out of a willow plantation.  The trees are grown from cuttings, so first of all you have to produce your cutting material, which you do by planting fat living willow posts about three inches across, and harvesting their long whippy side shoots the following year.  You choose your propagating material from your best trees, and correct spacing at this stage will ensure the side shoots don't fork or have large side shoots themselves.  The side shoots are stuck in the ground at their final spacing ten metres apart, working from December through to February assuming you can get on the land, bearing in mind willows grow on damp ground.

As the young trees grow you have to clean their stems to a height of about twelve feet.  If large side branches are allowed to develop they will leave knots, which will reduce the value of the timber.  Once you know that the difference in sale price between a top quality and a bottom quality cricket bat blank is around forty-five pounds versus a fiver, you can see that keeping up quality is key.  The trees are ready to harvest when the trunk is fatter at breast height than the span of a grown man's arms, about 56 inches.  It takes an average of eighteen years to reach that size.  So you are looking at around two decades from the start of production until you have anything to sell.  Willow is a fibrous wood requiring careful handling during felling, otherwise it will split, and twenty years of investment will be reduced to a pile of not very good firewood.  A fully grown tree should yield enough material for about thirty bats.

What is counted a good quality piece of wood is a strange mixture of the scientific and the arbitrary.  Closer grains coming from a slower grown tree is objectively speaking better because it will be mechanically stronger than a coarser grained wood.  Uniform whiteness is also prized, on the other hand, and that is purely cosmetic.  Professional cricket players know that areas of brown staining make no difference to the playing qualities of the bat.  The manufacturers have their tricks, such as using strategically placed stickers to cover up cosmetic irregularities.

Once felled each trunk should yield five sections each capable of being divided into several bats' worth of pieces.  Our host debarked one for us, and a puddle of sap formed beneath.  It's a wet wood.  The initial cleaving is done by hand or using a mechanical splitter, rather than a band saw, to ensure the grain runs straight down the bat.  Then the blanks are roughly shaped on one saw bench, and finished to a uniform profile on a second, before being kiln dried over six weeks to get the moisture content down.  They are so wet to start with that the air in the kiln has to be constantly circulated and the excess moisture condensed out, or the wood would go mouldy in the heat.  The end grain of each blank is sealed with wax before drying, to make sure the moisture is lost evenly over the whole piece.

Ninety per cent of the finished blanks are exported, largely to India, so there's a little slice of rural Suffolk doing its bit towards the UK's balance of payments.  We were both absolutely fascinated.

We saw something else fascinating but terrible.  Walking down from the timber yard to one of the host's own plantations by the Deben our route took us through a small area of mixed woodland.  It had been stripped of most of the good trees before his father bought the farm, and he'd been replanting it.  Many of the young trees were ash, and eighty per cent of them were dead.  At a casual glance you might not have realised that anything was wrong, since it's a little early for ash to have leafed up anyway, but he pointed out the vertical cracks in the bark, and patches of faintly pinkish discolouration in the bark near the base of the trees.  So that's ash dieback, Chalara fraxinia.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  I dutifully sprayed Mr Muscle kitchen cleaner on the soles of my boots when I got home, but it was a mainly symbolic gesture.  It's on its way, ash dieback, on the wind, on the feet of birds, the tyres of vehicles.  No wood is an island.

Friday, 29 April 2016

goodbye puss

We are a one cat family.  Yesterday evening at twenty past eight the short indignant tabby made brief scrabbling noises at the back of the study and quietly died.  It was not a total surprise.  She wouldn't eat her breakfast yesterday, or her cat treats, and was not tempted even when I opened a different flavoured tin.  By the middle of the day her breathing became too visible, as she sat in one of her favourite places in the middle of the hall doorway.  I stopped to stroke the top of her head each time I passed by, and she purred.  Later on she became fidgety, wandering from room to room, and no longer responded to being tickled.  She had the look of a cat that was not long for this world.

She was seventeen years old, the short indignant tabby, and had outlived her brother and the two Maine Coones that we got at the same time in the summer of 1999.  We always said she would be the last cat standing out of that cohort.  She was a good doer, never suffered from a septic bite in her life, partly because she was too sensible to get into fights or stick her feet down rat holes.  In the past couple of years she appeared to become completely deaf, and there were a few accidents, but not so many that clearing them up ever became a big issue.

She disliked strangers, disliked sitting on laps, distrusted grass and the great outdoors.  I never saw her catch a mouse or bird in her life.  Inside the house she lived mainly in the hall, the kitchen and the study, rarely venturing upstairs.  She liked sunbathing on the concrete on warm days.  She liked us.  On cold or wet days when I sat at the kitchen table she would lie at my feet, purring,   Sometimes she would lie under my chair, and I would have to be very careful each time I got up not to tread on her or push the legs of the chair into her.  Small, self-contained, fierce, loyal, she lived her life on her own terms.

It was a good exit.  Cats are stoical animals and it is difficult to tell when they are in pain, but she was eating normally and going outside when she wanted the loo until the day before she died.  She didn't have to undergo the stress of the cat basket and the car journey and the vet's waiting room with its strangers and dogs for that final appointment.  We were around.  Our Ginger, with whom she got on in a grudging sort of way, was around.  She was here, and then she wasn't.  It was still just light enough last night to bury her at the bottom of the garden next to the big anxious tabby, decently shrouded in a pillowcase.  I miss her small, independent, trusting presence, lying in doorways and dark corridors and believing implicitly that neither of us would step on her.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

how to do mail order: version 2

Today's post brought me another mail order delivery of plants, this time of fuchsias which I'll use in pots by the front door and in the conservatory.  I like fuchsias, and have been writing down the names of varieties that caught my eye at Chelsea for years without doing anything more about it than buying a few of whatever the local garden centre had on offer.  And with the rabbits taking such a toll of the herbaceous planting in the open garden, pots close to the house where the rabbits are unlikely to venture seem an increasingly attractive option until such a time as we can eliminate the bunny menace.

The fuchsias came as plug plants, little rooted cuttings in mesh growing tubes ready for potting up, as is often the way when buying from a specialist grower who offers a huge choice.  My pelargoniums when they arrive will be plugs though I think that supplier goes one better and roots cuttings to order, and Dibleys send out their Streptocarpus and Begonia as plugs.  I found the firm by chance on the internet.  I was all set to use a Suffolk supplier, only they did not list a variety with small red flowers called 'Katjan' which I had fallen completely in love with at Chelsea, for reasons I couldn't explain.  The other firm that exhibited at Chelsea last year didn't appear to do mail order (though it beats me why not, when they went to the bother and expense of staging a Chelsea exhibit and fuchsia plugs are relatively straightforward to send by post).  Hunting online for alternative suppliers of 'Katjan' I found one, a chap in Gloucestershire whose website said he had started the business as a retirement project because he liked fuchsias.

His list ran to over eight hundred varieties, all illustrated and comprehensively described, and although I'd not heard of him, let alone seen him at Chelsea, I was pretty sure he was genuine. Nobody goes to that much trouble to fake a website selling fuchsia plugs at £2.25 each, and Paypal are currently taking the buyer's side in the case of complaint, from what I've read in the papers.  I was prepared to risk half a dozen plugs plus standard delivery.

I placed the order on April 25, and the plants arrived today.  That's pretty quick.  He emailed yesterday to say they'd been dispatched, so the Post Office twenty-four hour service worked fine, cost £4.41 for up to six plants.  The supplier recommended special delivery as being the most reliable way of making sure the plants arrived the next day, but apart from costing £8.36 it meant the hassle of having to be around to sign for the parcel.  The plants were securely packaged, clearly labelled and in good physical condition.

That's the good news.  The bad news is that two of the six were substitutes.  For a third of your order to be not actually what you chose yourself is not great.  Fortunately 'Katjan' was included, otherwise I'd have been quite annoyed given that was the reason I'd gone to him in the first place.  I am sure I agreed to accept substitutes, since I didn't want to end up paying the postage for only two or three plants.  It's worth thinking about your strategy regarding substitutes when placing any order for mail order plants.  Nowadays if there's one thing in particular that I want, or that makes up a large part of the value of the order, while the others are plants that I do want but could probably get elsewhere, I tend to specify that I'll cancel the order if they can't do the key element. Otherwise, you risk ending up with something that you don't want as much as the thing you originally chose, or else paying a delivery charge out of proportion to the list of plants they are able to supply.

The substitutions were reasonably intelligent without necessarily producing what I wanted.  Instead of a red and purple single flowered bush fuchsia he'd sent a semi-trailing variety in a similar colour scheme.  I didn't like it quite as much as the one I'd chosen, but as part of a collection of pots by the front door I'm sure it will be fine.  The other substitution was trickier.  I'd selected a species introduced into western cultivation in 1832, having pink flowers with green tips which tended to flower in the winter months.  I liked the look of it, and thought it would be an interesting counterpart to the Correa in the conservatory, popularly known as the Australian bush fuchsia, which also blooms in the winter with pink and yellowish green tubular flowers.  Instead I was sent a different historic variety, which produces very long, bright red, tubular flowers at the usual time of year rather than in winter, and which is said to need a very large pot in time because it grows nearly 4 metres tall.  I daresay I can fit it in somewhere at the back of the conservatory, where it can be a friend for climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby', and as a bonus the berries are apparently good to eat and suitable for making pies or jam, but it is not really what I had in mind.

Presumably by way of compensation for the substitutions he sent me two extra plants free of charge, both hardy fuchsia varieties, one with graceful purple and magenta flowers, and the other with rather chunky white flowers quite unlike anything else in my order, and which I can't immediately imagine anywhere in the garden.  I potted it up anyway, not having checked to see what it was at that stage, and haven't unpotted it because I don't like to be cruel to plants, and perhaps it will grow on me, or I will suddenly see how I could use it.  It is said to like sun, so maybe it could be a companion for the purple and white potted dahlias?  Meanwhile the pink and green flowered lovely which I would really rather have liked is still shown on the website as being available from late April.

So that was my fuschsia online buying experience, eight healthy looking plants for under two pounds each inclusive of delivery, most or all of which I wouldn't have found in my local garden centre, one of which I particularly wanted and half of which I didn't choose myself.  If you want to give it a whirl the firm is called Other Fellow Fuchsias.  It is named after a fuchsia variety called Other Fellow, which the owner particularly likes.  I wasn't grabbed by its description, but it's a funny thing, what makes people like some plants more than others.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

how to do mail order

On Sunday afternoon as the north wind blew and my nose ran, I indulged in some retail therapy to cheer myself up, embarking on a long-hatched plan to do something with one of the pots sitting unused in the pot shed.  It was one of those vertical towers with holes in the side, marketed by garden centres as herb pots, though they would be too small for most herbs.  At one time I had Sedum in it, which were nice for a while then died by degrees.  With the benefit of hindsight I should have used grit in the potting mix, and dosed regularly for vine weevil, but we are talking about a long time ago.

I'd thought that what would look really good in the pot would be a matching set of Lewisia.  These are rosette forming plants with fleshy leaves, flowering in late spring, that are said to be excellent for planting in walls because they hate sitting wet or to have moisture around their crowns.  I didn't have any kind of dry stone wall suitable for planting up, but the herb pot looked like a possible substitute.  I even got as far as sowing a packet of Lewisia seed, but only got four plants while the herb pot had eight planting holes and I would need a ninth plant for the top.  The Plant Centre only sold Lewisia in litre pots at about four pounds a time, and I didn't want a Lewisia tower badly enough to lavish forty-five pounds on it, plus the rootballs would have been too large to fit in the pot .  My seed raised plants ended up doing very nicely, thank you, in an ordinary pot, and the herb tower stayed in the pot shed.

Then when I was looking for alpines online and in quantity to plant up the railway garden gravel I discovered that some of the alpine specialists sold Lewisia in seven or nine centimetre pots at only two pounds fifty.  I made a note of their names, thinking it was a project for the spring then at least I'd get one season's enjoyment out of it before having to work out how to over-winter the pot. I'd narrowed the choice of variety down too to one called 'Little Plum', smaller than some and described by the Scottish nursery I'd used with success for the railway as being very rain resistant and growing well in any kind of pot or container.

Unfortunately when I selected nine 'Little Plum' on their website it told me to reduce the quantity because they did not have that many in stock.  For the herb pot it was nine or nothing, so I turned to a Devon supplier, Plants for Small Gardens, that I hadn't previously used but whose website I'd come across in the process of fossicking around for railway garden plants.  I would now like to give them the most ringing endorsement possible (to be rescinded only if any of the plants turn out to be rogues when they bloom, I suppose).  I placed the order on Sunday afternoon, an email arrived at seven minutes past eight on Monday morning thanking me for my order and saying they hoped to despatch the plants on Tuesday.  This lunchtime they arrived, less than seventy-two hours after I'd decided I wanted them.  They were securely packed in purpose made plastic cases holding six pots each, inside an adequately stout cardboard box of the right size, with a little bubble wrap to make sure the plastic boxes didn't rattle around in transit.  Everything was labelled, everything I'd ordered was there, there were no substitutes, I got a free plant (OK, it was just an Iberis but it's the thought that counts), and nothing was wilting or broken.

I was very pleased.  I would go so far as to say I was a delighted customer, and you don't get many of them.  No wodges of damp newspaper, no breakages, no discovering that while it was in stock on the website in practice three of the things you'd ordered had been substituted with alternatives that weren't even particularly similar.  No recycled box that had originally held crisps and wasn't honestly up to the weight of the plants.  No delivery company that said you'd been out when you knew you hadn't been and invited you to collect your parcel from your 'local' depot a fifty mile round trip away.  The roots of the plants I've potted up so far have been perfect, filling their little seven centimetre pots but not pot-bound.

I must confess I didn't just order one set of Lewisia, I bought two.  I had two herb pots sitting in the shed, you see.  Originally I was just going to do one and see how it went then plant the other if it was a success.  But then I saw that if I made my total order value up to sixty pounds I could have free delivery, which meant in effect planting a third of the second Lewisia  pot for free.  'Litle Plum' has a sister called 'Little Peach', which sounds very pretty as well, and I was cross about the number of small plants in the garden that hadn't managed to flower this year because the rabbits had eaten them.  An orgy of Lewisia would be a small compensation.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

adventures in ice cream

Earlier in the month, while my cold had abated and before the wind settled in the north bringing hail on the Arctic air, I fired up the ice cream maker.  I love home made ice cream.  It is a quantum nicer than the shop bought sort, and is not generally difficult with the right sort of machine, but it isn't something you want to mess around with while breathing germs on it.

I started with Caroline and Robin Weir's Dulche de Leche ice cream.  This is truly straightforward, now that you can buy tins of ready-caramelised condensed milk.  You dissolve the condensed milk and light brown sugar in whole milk, which takes some stirring over heat but no brain power, chill it and freeze it with whipping cream, job done.  The quantities, should you want to give it a go, are one 397 gramme can of condensed milk, 50 grammes of light brown soft sugar, 375 millilitres of whole milk and 250 millilitres of whipping cream (or heavy cream if you are an American).  I wouldn't answer for the result without an ice cream machine, but mechanical stirring during freezing produces a beautiful, smooth, fine grained ice cream.

Ice cream number two was the Weir's Malted Chocolate, made by adding Horlicks to their Everyday Chocolate recipe.  Everyday chocolate ice cream takes 30 grammes of unsweetened cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate), 100 grammes of granulated sugar, 125 millilitres of condensed milk, 375 millilitres of whole milk, 250 millilitres of whipping cream, and a teaspoon (that's 5 millilitres) of vanilla extract.  It is slightly more fiddly than the Dulche de Leche, because you have to cook the cocoa powder.  I couldn't be bothered messing around supervising a double boiler for half an hour, and went for the quick and brutal method whereby you put the cocoa and sugar with both kinds of milk in a pan, bring to the boil, and cook for five minutes stirring continuously.  Five minutes is not very long if you use a timer and put something decent on the iPod, and the Aga is good at that kind of gentle simmering.  If you only had a rather fierce gas ring you might prefer the double boiler route.  Once chilled you freeze the chocolate mixture with the heavy cream, vanilla, and 8 tablespoons of Horlicks (other malted milk powders are doubtless available).  The book says to combine the malt powder with everything else using a liquidiser.  I thought about washing the liquidiser and gradually added the cream to the Horlicks with the aid of a wire whisk, which worked fine, though I did sieve the Horlicks first to be on the safe side.  Freeze and churn. Delicious.

Pride cometh and all that.  For my third act I thought I would make Sour Cream Ice Cream with Russian Toffee, a two part combo in which a soft toffee fudge is swirled through a vanilla flavoured ice made with sour cream rather than whipping, and an egg custard.  I made the egg custard carefully over a water bath, stirring constantly, but as I tipped it into the ice cream machine I saw that it had gone slightly lumpy.  Bother.  Panic.  I wondered briefly whether to switch off the freezer, decant the custard and sour cream mixture into a jug and pass it through a sieve, but decided to let it go on churning and hope the lumps would come out.  Reader, they did.  The sour cream ice cream was rather nice and would probably go well on its own with apple pie or suchlike.

The Russian Toffee, on the other hand, was a complete pain in the fundament.  What you do, according to the book, is take equal weights of butter, honey, dark chocolate and unrefined granulated sugar, and warm them together over a low heat.  After five to six minutes the sugar should have dissolved, you then cook it for another two minutes to bring it to a medium dropping consistency suitable for swirling through ice cream.  Except that after six minutes the sugar had nowhere near dissolved.  I could see crystals on the base of the pan as I stirred, and when I tasted a drop on a teaspoon it was gritty.  Gritty is absolutely no good for ice cream.  I kept gently heating and stirring, and tasting for grittiness until I'd used every teaspoon in the drawer, while occasionally adding a tiny amount of water.  Reader, it took over twenty minutes for the sugar to dissolve, and the mixture cooled to a solid mass that would swirl through ice cream about as well as a golf ball. Added water slid off it as water off a duck's back.  Overcoming previous qualms about ending up with half my ingredients stuck to the inside of the liquidiser I tipped the ball and the water in, but while the motor made agonising high pitched screams the extra water obdurately refused to incorporate into the Russian Toffee.

You don't have much time to work when you're decanting home churned ice cream from a domestic machine before the mixture melts.  I blobbed great lumps of toffee into the sour cream base as best as I could, stirred it around without managing to distribute it any more evenly, and put the whole lot in the freezer.  I am sure the idea of the recipe is that when you eat it you should be able to spoon up some ice cream mixture and a bit of fudge with every mouthful.  With my version you eat the ice cream, and when you get to the lumps of toffee you have to gnaw at them separately.  Oh, and the ice cream sets extremely hard once its been in the freezer for more than a couple of hours. If you don't remember to put it in the fridge to soften half an hour before you intend to serve it then you'll be at risk of RSI trying to get it out of the container.

Sometimes when recipes don't work I can see where I went wrong, but I am stumped by the Russian Toffee.  I absolutely cannot see how you could get that sugar to dissolve in the cooking time they say.

Monday, 25 April 2016

mystery solved

We have discovered what was taking the rabbit treats out of the traps.  Mice.  The wildlife camera picked one up, a little moving blob entering the cage through the wire mesh, then exiting a moment later towards the cover of the shrubs at the back of the bed at tremendous speed.  It must have held the entire biscuit clamped between its jaws, to run that fast while carrying it, though the image was too small and blurry to be sure.  The mice didn't hang about before making their move either, since the clip was timed barely an hour after dark.  At least my curiosity is gratified, and photographing a mouse in action proves that the camera was working.  There were no images of rabbits.

I don't think they are regularly coming in from the top, I think they are spreading out from their fastness underneath the rose bank and the deck.  Tonight the camera is trained on the edge of the further deck, and my newly baited trap, not using biscuits.  The wild rabbits might or might not like pet treats, but the evidence so far is that the mice will get there first.  Instead I am back to carrots.

Our neighbour the retired apple farmer called around with the parish magazine, and as I bounded out of the house because I still haven't paid for 2016 we fell into conversation, initially about tulips and thence to rabbits via what it might have been that decapitated some of his tulips.  Once he had checked that I was not having him on when I claimed to have bought pet treats to bait my rabbit traps, he explained that if using carrots I needed to cut them up, and lay a trail of pieces towards the trap.  It was not easy to get rabbits to enter traps, but he had done it using carrots.  I defer to his experience.  He has lived on the farm all his life, and if you want to know about pest control ask a farmer.  So we shall see tonight whether the rabbits take any notice of the carrot* segments whatsoever, or go hippity-hoppitying past them in search of nicer food, like sweet violets and Geranium maculatum.

The Systems Administrator saw one and possibly two on the top lawn after the rain had stopped, but they moved out of sight before the SA was ready with the gun.  I have agreed to trim the top of a prostrate yew that's obscuring the line of fire from the bedroom window.  Thus do we drift towards madness.  Memo to self: do not pour gasoline down any holes and set light to it.  It could be time to reread Second Nature very soon.

*AKA POV - Popular Orange Vegetable

Sunday, 24 April 2016

my sympathies are with Mr McGregor

The Systems Administrator and I had a difference of opinion yesterday evening as to where the camera should be set next.  I wanted to know what was taking the bait out of the rabbit traps, out of simple curiosity as much as anything.  The Systems Administrator wanted to stick to a rational search plan, and find out more about whether rabbits were getting in at the top corner of the garden near the gate.  It is the SA's camera, and the SA's view prevailed, with the camera left duly pointing up the grass path from the lower lawn towards the gate.

The only pictures we got, apart from wobbly shots of the sky taken while mounting and dismounting the camera on its tripod, were a couple of blank photographs of the grass path and border with no clue as to what had triggered the image, and one shot of Our Ginger proceeding from right to left across the frame.  As the SA said, at least it proved that he was patrolling out of hours, though we knew that anyway because the oven glove we'd left on the kitchen table last night had got Strulch on it from Our Ginger going for a walk through the borders and then sleeping on the glove.  Once again the bait had been surgically removed from both traps without triggering them.

There was a rabbit sitting at the back of the further rose bed when I got up.  It was there yesterday morning as well.  The SA took a shot at it both times, and missed, both times, which prompted the SA to check the calibration of the sight on the air rifle.  It had drifted or been knocked out by two inches over whatever the distance is from the bedroom window to the rose bed, which would explain why the SA hadn't got any rabbits recently.  To test a gun sight you mark some test crosses on a target (a cardboard box does nicely and is self supporting), shoot at them and see where the pellet hits, adjust the sight if the shot is out of centre in any systematic fashion, and repeat until you hit the target centres.  The SA's test shots showed a neat pattern across three crosses, two inches off to the right, an inch off and third time spot on.  Obviously this only works if you can shoot straight in the first place.  I can't, so I don't try.

Anybody who takes a sentimental view of wild rabbits would be up in arms at this point.  I would point to the litany of damage in the garden.  Lathyrus vernus (raised by me from seed) and Lathyrus niger (a present from a friend) eaten to ground level.  Ditto Omphalodes verna.  No flowers on the Viola odorata.  None on the Sanguisorba canadensis.  Half the clumps of perennial geraniums chewed down each time they try to grow.  Grape hyacinths at half strength, maximum. Anemone blanda planted out in full bloom trimmed back to green buns within days.  Fritillaries in the gravel, stumps.  Vegans are entitled to object to our shooting the rabbits in the garden.  Anyone who eats meat or milk or wears leather had better examine their own relationship with the animal kingdom first.

Tonight we have compromised, with the camera still on the top corner but directed towards the trap in the upper end of the sloping bed, which I have re-baited, though I didn't bother baiting the one in the rose bed.  That way we should see if rabbits are hippity-hopping about in the flower bed near the gate, and might see what is taking the bait and how it is doing it.  Or at least, if it's anything as large as a rabbit, rat or squirrel we should.  I'm not sure mice would show up on the camera, and slugs probably don't move fast enough to trigger it.  Meanwhile the SA has been furiously checking the view of the rose bed from the bedroom window, only now there are no rabbits.  Maybe they got fed up with having pot shots taken at them and are sitting about at the bottom of the rose bank instead.  The pace at which we can gather intelligence with one camera is frustratingly slow, meanwhile the enemy keeps changing tactics.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

the gardens of West Dean

I went this afternoon to the last Suffolk Plant Heritage talk of the season.  They take a break from Saturday afternoon lectures over the summer, presumably because people would rather be outside looking at actual gardens, or else are on holiday.  Today's lecturer was Sarah Wain, a Kew trained horticulturalist who with her husband Jim Buckland has spent the past quarter century restoring the gardens of West Dean in Sussex.

I've never been to West Dean.  I've heard of the gardens, and knew they held an annual chilli festival, and by coincidence there was a piece about them in the Telegraph a couple of days ago which made the gardens sound very nice, though after our rather disappointing visit to Kingston Maurwood last year I still harbour a residual suspicion of historic gardens attached to further education colleges.

The gardens of  West Dean, or at least the walled kitchen garden that was the subject of today's talk, are absolutely immaculate, if Sarah Wain's comprehensive set of slides are anything to go by. Renovated Victorian glasshouses and cold frames house neat rows of salad crops, infeasibly long trusses of tomatoes drip from giant cordon tomato plants inside the glasshouses, bunches of grapes are thinned and peach blossoms hand pollinated by an army of about forty volunteers, unusually knobbly cucumbers abound, and flower pots are uniformly terracotta, not plastic.  It looks wonderful.  I should think it would be at its best from high summer to mid autumn, when it was in full productive clatter.  She said that the beds of flowers for picking are designed to peak from July through to the end of summer, when visitor numbers are at their highest.

We thought about going to Sussex for this year's holiday.  There are so many gardens down there that I haven't visited, and it is a pig of a drive for the day from north Essex.  This plan foundered because there seemed to be virtually no holiday cottages for rent.  Our preferred go-to agency listed approximately fifty cottages for the whole of east and west Sussex, most of which seemed to consist of people's converted garages or pool rooms, as against five hundred for Yorkshire.  I suppose the market down there is so strong that people can rent their properties out by the year at a good rate and don't need to mess around with weekly hand-overs and bed linen.  We are going to Yorkshire.

We could have tried a different booking agent, but trust this one because their properties have so far turned out to actually exist and be pretty much as described and adequately hygienic, and the instructions for finding the key and getting in have matched up to the physical reality on the ground.  Unlike the agency who listed the flat in Gloucester docks with the wrong flat number and no warning that the latch on the front door to the building was defective and needed a special knack to open it after keying in the entry pad number, while the parking permit that would have let us leave our car somewhere legal was inside the flat we couldn't find or get into.

I digress.  We will probably not be going to visit West Dean in the near future.  But I happily would, if I happened to be near Chichester.

Addendum  There were no rabbits, blackbirds or anything else in the traps this morning, but something had taken the bait of two Tiny Friends Farm Russel Rabbit Munchies (carrot and leek) from both traps, very neatly, without triggering the mechanism and without leaving a crumb.

Friday, 22 April 2016

tulip time

We're well into the tulip season here, and the big tulip pots haven't worked out quite as well as I'd hoped.  They haven't gone disastrously wrong, in that all the bulbs have come up and and look healthy enough, positively blooming, one might say, but the timings haven't worked exactly.

I have fourteen tulip pots.  A few years back Whichford Pottery used to offer a ten per cent discount off anything in the range ordered early in the year.  Presumably trade was slack then, Christmas being over and the weather not conducive to people thinking about their gardens.  Over a period of about three years I built up a set of matching pots, not too tall and fairly plain, slightly flared and decorated with a basket weave lattice.  They seem to have discontinued the exact model, but since they have also hiked their prices and changed the New Year offer to a discount on selected items only I probably wouldn't be buying more anyway.

In previous years I have done a jumble of varieties, only one per pot but every pot different, in a hot palette of reds, oranges, purple and the odd shot of bright yellow.  This year I decided on a different colour scheme, pink and yellow, and limited myself to only three varieties, a pink Darwin, a pale yellow Darwin, and a lily flowered tulip that combined pink and yellow, fifty each of the Darwins and eighty of the lily flowered, giving me four pots each of the single coloured varieties and six of the bicolour.

Darwin tulips are big, solid looking, and have flowers of the typical tulip shape.  They are said to last in the ground from year to year better than many large flowered tulips.  The flowers of the lily flowered varieties have pointed petals, and are slightly nipped in to a waist in the middle.  The effect is very graceful, and I thought it would contrast well with the sturdy Darwins.

Except that they have not all come out at the same time.  First to open was 'Pink Impression', which is probably half way through its flowering period by now.  The yellow 'Ivory Floradale' was a few days behind, and the pink and yellow 'Elegant Lady' is still in bud with no colour showing, and I don't think will be out before the other two have gone over.  It means I'll have some tulip pots on display for longer, but the aim was to have more of a concentrated burst, and get the contrasting flower shapes, while 'Elegant Lady' was supposed to tie the colours of the other two together.  It hasn't worked out like that.

Individually the two Darwins are very nice.  'Pink Impression' is a strong middling pink, but has that Rothko-like tulip quality of not really being the same colour all over.  I like it and wouldn't mind growing it again.  'Ivory Floradale' has come out more yellow and less ivory than I was expecting, but is an attractive pale yellow buttery colour, again with that shimmer of colour variation across the petals.  Really I like tulips very much.  If I were terribly rich I would have many more than fourteen pots of them.  'Elegant Lady' remains to be revealed, though I'm sure I've admired her at Chelsea over the years.  She won't do as a companion for the Darwins, however.

'Pink Impression' and 'Ivory Floradale' both have absolutely huge, floppy leaves.  Fergus Garrett warned of this in his lecture when talking about using tulips in mixed plantings, advising that we should avoid using those with big leaves because they were capable of shading out their perennial neighbours.  When they trial new tulip varieties at Great Dixter before ordering them en masse one of the things they check for is the size of the leaves.

I suppose I could conduct miniature trials and do one pot each of varieties I'm thinking of using the next year, except that the excellent and good value Peter Nyssen sell their Darwins in a minimum of fifty bulbs.  I could buy ready coordinated collections from somebody like Sarah Raven, but that would be much more expensive, and anyway it's more fun to come up with your own ideas.  Though more so when they work.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

chicken exercise time

Letting the hens out for a run does concentrate the mind on how cold it still is.  The Systems Administrator released them after tea, and they didn't want to go back into their run until close on seven, and then only with some persuading.  By the time they allowed themselves to be safely locked up I was back to wearing full thermals, and the SA was looking frankly pinched.  They had a very jolly time for the first couple of hours, scraping around at the bottom of the garden where they can't do much damage, but were then insistent that they wanted to dig up my newly applied Strulch in the rose bed under the veranda.  As I crawled under the roses on elbows and knees to chase them out I was pretty sure that Vita Sackville-West had not had to resort to such antics.

The old lady Maran completed her afternoon's entertainment by breaking into the dahlia bed.  I fixed the black bird netting along the front yesterday before we let the chickens out, so that they would not scrape around in it destroying the tulips and any emerging dahlia shoots.  The old lady, however, had hopped over the two foot wall at the back of the bed to gain entry, or at least that's how she got out again when discovered by the SA.  Chickens, I have said before, are brighter than many people give them credit for.  Being able to plan a detour to get to a desired destination when the direct route is blocked requires a certain amount of brain power, the more so when the goal is out of sight during the roundabout route, and the old lady can't see over the wall.

The alternative explanation for how she ended up in the dahlia bed would be that she just randomly jumped on the wall and then discovered to her surprise that the delicious mixture of tulips and Strulch lay below her so hopped down the other side.  She might have.  Chickens do like perching on things as well as scraping around in straw mulch.  Sometimes they perch on the wooden breakwater dividing the middle of the turning circle.  I would have to provide a variety of perches around the garden and count how often they climbed on to each of them, then see if there was a bias towards the wall that cut them off from access to the dahlias, but I'm not going to.  I remain convinced, though, that chickens are brighter than many people think.  Or at least, the ones that make it to an advanced age while being allowed to free range for some of the time are.

Last night's camera session produced nothing at all, leading the SA to check on the camera set-up and discover that the cheap batteries we were using weren't suitable.  Too many amps and not enough volts, or the other way round, and rechargeables would be better.  Fortunately we have lots of the recommended type of rechargeable battery, only they weren't charged.  This technical glitch means that I have to take the result of previous nights that have produced few photos with a big pinch of salt. The rabbits may have been there but not triggering the camera.  I have cracked and set the traps again, this time baited with carrot and leek flavoured rabbit treats bought from the local garden centre.  Who knows, the smell of high calorie cereal snacks might prove irresistible.  They have ignored fresh carrots, celery and apples, and I'm hoping the blackbirds won't go for rabbit food.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

great white cherry

The great white cherry, 'Tai-haku', is at its absolute flowering peak.  The flowers are single, large for a cherry at up to a couple of inches across, and carried in generous clusters.  And white, obviously.  They open just before the leaves, and are at their most glorious for no more than a couple of days before starting to fall.  The Systems Administrator spent some time this morning photographing the tree, so that we'd have a souvenir for the next fifty-one weeks until it does it again.

Flowering cherries have had a bad rap in recent years in fashion terms, their punishment for having been too popular in the middle of the last century.  One season trees, the cry went up from about 1980 onwards, one week of blossom then nothing for the rest of the year.  Instead Amelanchier was touted as the new darling, the delicate flowers like butterflies, the bright autumn colour, the fruit. If I were worried about garden fashions I wouldn't plant an Amelanchier now, as in another ten years it will have become the arboricultural equivalent of the avocado bathroom suite.

The cherry detractors are in any case wrong.  'Tai-haku' is a decent tree at all times of the year.  It has a spreading habit, holding its branches strongly horizontally thus creating a very natural looking space in which to put a seat.  Sitting under the crown of a great white cherry in full flower and looking up through the branches to the pure blue of a spring sky is as classy a garden experience as you will find, while seats always look the better for having a reason to be there.  The young leaves are a pleasant shade of bronze, and the autumn colour is good.  It isn't the longest lasting display, but nor is that of the Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Ballerina' which I also grow, and whose autumn leaves are honestly a rather dirty shade of red, three times out of four.

'Tai-haku' has a romantic back story too.  It was thought to be lost to horticulture, then in 1926 a British gardener and acknowledged international expert on cherries Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram was shown a painting of it at a Japanese cherry conference, and recognised the lost plant which he knew a rather poorly specimen growing in a garden in Sussex.  I used to believe that story implicitly.  Nowadays I wonder whether the Sussex cherry was really the same as the one in the painting shown to Cherry Ingram.  The Japanese paintings I've seen have not been that strongly representational, and one white cherry might look like another, portrayed as an elegant Japanese brush and ink wash.  No matter, 'Tai-haku' is a splendid tree.  It will grow broad in time and is not one for a tiny garden.

When I sat down to write this post I thought I should focus on the positive and tell you about something nice.  I am pleased with 'Tai-haku' but what I am really exercised about is the rabbits. They have eaten all my fritillaries in the gravel by the entrance, except for one clump that were hidden behind an artwork, and grazed the Omphalodes verna in the sloping bed down to stumps, likewise the asters in the island bed, while the previously emerging clumps of Althea cannabina have vanished entirely.  I am Very Annoyed.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

supporting live music

As I said, we went out last night.  Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman were playing at the Colchester Arts Centre, with support by Kelly Oliver.  I think Kathryn Roberts has a superb voice, and Sean Lakeman is a good guitarist, so I was keen to go, and the Systems Administrator nobly agreed to submit to the Arts Centre's desperately uncomfortable chairs and come with me.

I'd never heard of Kelly Oliver before yesterday evening, though she has had some airplay on Radio 6 Music and Radio 2.  I was going to check her website last night when we got home, but AVG told me not to go there and I didn't feel that strongly about it.  She has some big supporters in the folk world, for she is not a local north Essex girl and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman specifically asked for her to be their support.  She's done support for Cara Dillon as well, which is not such a coincidence as it might seem when you know that Cara Dillon is married to another of the Lakeman brothers, while Thea Gilmore and her husband and producer Nigel Stonier both worked on her album.

She was actually much better than most of the support acts at the Colchester folk club.  They tend to be local, and one has to be careful not to voice one's candid opinion of some of them in the Arts Centre because their friends and relations might be sitting in the next row.  I don't even know why the folk club has support acts.  I'm off to hear an up-and-coming early music ensemble in June, and I don't expect to get a local amateur madrigals group first as a warm up act.  As it is, the folk club doors open at quarter to eight, the musicians you have actually come to hear start an hour later, and you don't get away until nearly eleven, which is late for people with jobs to go to in the morning, last buses or baby sitters.

Anyway, Kelly Oliver can play the guitar pretty well, and has a decent voice, and I could hear almost all the words despite the slightly foggy acoustics of the Arts Centre.  She writes her own songs, which had coherent narratives instead of fuzzily emoting for ages while leaving me none the wiser what the singer is on about, and were rhythmically quite interesting.  I didn't instantly love her so much I bought the album in the interval, but I quite liked her.

That's the trouble with support acts.  There you are, you've been sitting in your uncomfortable chairs for an hour and haven't got on to the thing you came for.  Here we are, at least half way through the blog and I've barely got on to the main act.  They were really good, as I thought they would be.  Indeed, they are up for this year's Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Duo, which they won in 2013.  They sing a mixture of traditional and modern folk, including some of their own compositions, and they write pretty decent songs, maybe not stand-out brilliant songs like Martin Simpson's song to his father or Kevin Littlewood's On Morecombe Bay, but good well put together songs.

Some of their traditional material is magnificently rude (or earthy, as my English Literature O Level teacher put it.  One girl in the class got an A grade.  I was not that child).  Rude songs, and bloody ballads of ancient slights and terrible revenge, balanced out with the sad, the poignant and the sweet.  They have a good line in stage chat, relaxed, funny, and kindly.  They talk about their eight year old twins and their home on the edge of Dartmoor, and you feel that they would be fun people to have living just down the road.  And Kathryn Roberts has a great voice, rich and controlled.  She can slip from breathy innocence to full throated soul diva, and that's a rare trick in the folk world, where vocalists tend to be one trick ponies.  It may be a very good trick, but you know at the start of the evening that pure reedy warbling or emphatic gusto is all you are going to get.

Having heaped praise upon them, I have to admit that I don't have any of their albums.  I should really, but you can't buy everything, or indeed find time to listen to it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

little creatures

Yesterday's efforts must have exhausted Our Ginger, who spent the entire morning asleep in a cardboard box in the hall.  The box measures nine inches square and four and a half inches deep, and when Our Ginger is intent on looking very asleep he is capable of curling himself up in it so that none of him sticks up above the rim.  The last time he had to go to the vet he tipped the scales at a stone,  and how he fits all of that cat into the box I have no idea, but I wish my back was as in as good a state at his.

Meanwhile, last night's camera footage showed one rabbit hopping about in the rose bed and nibbling on the patch of Viola cornuta.  I suppose one rabbit is an improvement on two, but it's still one too many, and I darkly suspect there are more on the other side of the garden.  I have set the camera tonight on the sloping bed where the damage is worst to try and discover the worst.  I may be becoming mildly unhinged about the rabbits.  At least I have read Michael Pollan's Second Nature, and his awful warning about his battle with the woodchucks.  That way madness lies.

I very quickly lifted the lid of every beehive this morning.  It wasn't warm enough to take a proper look at what was going on, but I was concerned that they might need extra space by now.  One colony had started to build and use free comb in their eke, the shallow extra box that made space for a packet of fondant when I thought the hive felt a bit light and needed feeding.  They got their first super, as did a second colony that had spread all the way across the brood box.  Three others looked well enough but not out of space yet, two of them coming from a strain that always seems to get going relatively late in the spring.  One hive had rather few bees in, but they will get going or they won't.  Bees are strange things.  I had a tiny colony that spent a full year in a half sized box, always looking healthy but refusing to get any bigger, before suddenly expanding back to a normal size.  The seventh colony appeared to have died.

I'm not too worried about losing one, since I didn't want to start the season with seven colonies anyway.  I should have united some of them last autumn but never got round to it.  I think the weather was iffy, and the time I did try I couldn't find the queens, even though they were marked. Perhaps at heart I was reluctant to mess with them.  They were all treated for varroa over the winter and fed as necessary.  Beyond that it's up to them.  Natural selection should leave me with the strong colonies and the ones that do well under my style of beekeeping.

Addendum  I am not really writing this blog at half past eleven at night.  I wrote most of it before going out for the evening, of which more anon, but didn't have time to make the final check and press Publish.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


Our Ginger is rediscovering his inner hunter.  He was not waiting in the corridor outside the bedroom this morning, nor was he sitting by the cat food dishes for his breakfast, or asleep on a dining chair or in his current favourite cardboard box, or any of the other places where I'd expect to find him when I got up.  I was rattled enough to make a quick tour round the garden looking for him, though looking for a cat that is not leaping forward to be found is a fairly futile exercise.  Our Ginger did not come rushing up to greet me, but as I returned to the house I suddenly saw him there ahead of me, sauntering towards the front door from the direction of the concrete.

As soon as he had eaten some breakfast I heard the rattle of the cat flap as he went out again, and he stayed out patrolling the garden for most of the morning.  Our Ginger is not normally a morning cat, and so much activity before lunchtime is almost unprecedented.  This afternoon while we had our tea he sat staring fixedly into the prostrate yew outside the conservatory, and going through a great pantomime of trying to see around the yew to the far end of the lawn without being seen, though peering out from our vantage point inside the conservatory we couldn't see that anything was there, and presently Our Ginger came to the same conclusion, gave up and came and sat on our laps.

I don't think he has actually caught anything today, but he is making a sterling effort.  Meanwhile the Systems Administrator managed to knock off two young rabbits yesterday that were feeding on the top lawn and in the rose bed.  My last wildlife camera footage of that bed showed up to two rabbits at the same time, but I don't know if it was the same two every time or if there are many more than two living in that part of the garden.

Over in the sloping bed that runs down the garden's southern boundary the rabbit situation is dire. Despite my best efforts with Grazers they have nibbled down whole patches of Viola odorata, chewed the top half off clumps of bulb foliage, and reduced the emerging leaves of the Omphalodes to stalks.  No room in the house directly overlooks this bed, so the SA can't easily cover it with the air rifle.  I have a nasty feeling that these might not be the same rabbits that have been making free in the rose bed, and if the SA can't shoot them then we are dependent on Our Ginger's efforts, unless we can think of something to bait the rabbit traps that will actually attract rabbits, while not appealing to birds.

Meanwhile, the great ginger hunter is now spark out, sprawled over the arm of my chair and snoring.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

lovely spring

Yuk.  It's raining, and it's cold, and it's mid-April.  April showers bring May flowers.  Oh, the joys of an English spring.

It wasn't so bad earlier, and so I have finished sweeping the terrace (or patio) and hauling great clumps of Erigeron karvinskianus from between the paving slabs.  I am shaken with inward laughter when I see pots of it on sale in garden centres for five quid a pop.  It is a pretty thing, with tiny white flowers over a very long season that fade to pink as they age, so that the plant is a medley of pink and white.  Christopher Lloyd allowed it to naturalise in the steps and walls at Great Dixter, indeed naturalised Mexican fleabane is something of an Arts and Craft hallmark.  Boy, does it naturalise.  It is not very keen on competing with grass, so it has largely stayed out of the daffodil lawn, unless the reason for that is that it would like some lime in its surroundings.  At any rate, give it some badly grouted paving and it's away.  It is terribly easy from seed, and for five pounds you could buy two packets, which would supply you and all your family and the entire neighbourhood with as much Erigeron as you could conceivably want.

It smothers the narrow bed at the base of the retaining wall holding up the terrace (or patio), an impossibly dry and stony spot that not much else would grow in (I say, thinking of all the 'drought resistant' plants that have shrivelled and died in the long bed over the past twenty years).  It grows happily in the steps, where I have edited it to make sure there is still some room for our feet.  I just decided I didn't want great mats of it on the terrace (or patio).  It was taking up too much space where I want to stand pots of Cosmos and dahlias, and seeding itself incontinently into my pots of alpines.

Then I returned to weeding the sloping bed, sprinkling it with 6X and blood, fish and bone, and tucking Strulch carefully around the rapidly emerging clumps of day lily foliage.  And then it began to spit with rain, and by now it's pouring, great dismal dollops of water making lumpen sounds on the study window.  It is so cold the Systems Administrator has lit the stove, even though we're going out later.

Oh, to be in England now that April's there.  Though you would be lucky to see tiny leaf around an elm-tree bole now, alas.  I did see three swallows sitting on a telephone wire on Wednesday, though, my first of the season.

Friday, 15 April 2016

best laid plans

It was raining this morning when I got up, not hard.  The forecast for Friday had been rainy for a couple of days, and I'd planned accordingly.  I was going to make ice cream and spend a pleasant couple of hours pottering around the kitchen.  I'd even remembered to buy full fat milk and whipping cream on my way back from the station yesterday.

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry, and my plans are not always the best laid.  When I worked in an office and was subjected to those psychological tests (I believe now academically discredited) that City employers loved in the 1990s, I always came up as relatively weak on what was called in the jargon of the day the Completer-Finisher dimension.  Dotting the i-s and crossing the t-s.  The tests may have been intellectually flawed, but the results were remarkably consistent across time, and as somebody who has in the past been to buy curtains without measuring the window first, I didn't quibble.

The first seeds of the ice cream plan going awry were planted on Wednesday, when I got back from my lecture and lunch to discover a parcel company card for a missed delivery jammed in the letterbox.  The automatic option of attempting redelivery the following day wasn't going to work, because I was going to London and the Systems Administrator was in Cheltenham.  I didn't know what was in the parcel, and assumed it was something to do with the SA, but it seemed graceful to deal with it, so I called the number on the card, followed the instructions given by the automated voice, and opted for delivery on Friday.  When the SA was due back at lunchtime, while I would be at home in the morning because I would be making Dulce de leche ice cream.

Except that when I looked in the larder we had no condensed milk.  I'd been convinced that we had, for no good reason given that I hadn't checked, but no.  Evaporated milk, tinned rice pudding, tinned cherries, butter beans, rather a lot of chick peas (I had better make something healthy to eat) but no condensed milk.  And I could not go and buy any until the SA got back because of the parcel.  I thought maybe I could make chocolate ice cream instead but we had no chocolate.  I didn't really fancy plain vanilla, and I needed a recipe that would use the cream.

The rain had stopped by eleven.  I went outside and looked at the sky, which didn't look too ominous.  I thought that if it was not raining and I didn't have the right ingredients for ice cream then I might as well do some weeding while waiting for the parcel, changed into my gardening clothes, and settled down to winkle grass out of the iris in the turning circle.  It began to rain again, lightly and then not so lightly, until I had to admit it was not going to stop and that I was getting wet.

The SA got home just before lunchtime, as expected, and after lunch I went to buy condensed milk, and another roll of wrapping paper because I had somehow lost the one I bought yesterday, and the part of the present which I had forgotten to buy at all even though it was on my shopping list.  By the time I got back half the afternoon seemed to have gone, and all of the morning, and I hadn't really done anything except go round in small circles.  Weak Completer Finisher indeed.  At least the parcel turned up.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

more art and music

I went to London today for one of LSO St Luke's lunchtime concerts.  I booked the ticket months ago, one of five chosen at carefully spaced intervals and to catch the artists or repertoire that I really wanted to hear.  Today's artist was up-and-coming violinist Jennifer Pike, who appeared a year or two ago to great acclaim as part of Colchester's music festival Roman River.  I was not organised enough then to get myself a ticket, and all my music loving local friends said how good she was.

The trouble with booking ages in advance is that sometimes other competing calls on your time come up afterwards, or you find on the day that you aren't well or it's raining or you are terribly busy at home and all things being equal you wouldn't bother going to London.  The advantage of booking ages in advance is that you don't find you've agreed to do things on the day of the most interesting concert that could perfectly well have been done on some other day, or keep postponing your visit until you are less busy, or ill, or the weather is better and the trains more reliable, with the result that the season ends and you have never been at all.  I have meant for the past two years to sign up to the monthly concerts held in Brightlingsea, only to find that I'm already doing something else for the first, ill for the second, don't so much like the programme for the third, and suddenly they've finished for another year.

Jennifer Pike was accompanied by Peter Limonov on the piano, and they were great.  They played Elgar's Violin Sonata, which I couldn't recall having heard before and I listen to a lot of Radio 3 and Classic FM while I'm weeding.  The friend I went with had not heard it either, and he used to be an avid concert goer.  Then they played the original version of The Lark Ascending.  I hadn't realised it was first written for violin and piano, since on the radio you always get the orchestral version, but that came later.  Then they played Elgar's Sospiri, before moving swiftly on to an encore because as Jennifer Pike said, she wouldn't normally be so presumptuous about doing the encore straight away but she knew some people needed to get back to work.

I really like the format of the lunchtime concerts.  An hour of top quality chamber music is a good amount.  I can concentrate properly for that long.  There's time to have something to eat and catch up on the news beforehand if meeting a friend, as we did today, and you're out and finished by just after two, giving a full afternoon to visit a gallery or whatever else you were thinking of doing.

I'd been thinking of visiting the British Museum's Sicily exhibition, but discovered when I got there that I'd jumped the gun as it hasn't opened yet.  Ah well, never mind, I can go after the next concert, which is my last ticket for this season.  It's not as though I'm going to run out of things to look at in the British Museum.  I went to see a free temporary display about a vast woven Hindu textile illustrating episodes from the life of Krishna, which I didn't know was on until I saw the posters, and the Waddesdon bequest, which I'd read about in the papers as it has recently been rehoused in a refurbished dedicated room.  Then I wandered through a display on the Enlightenment, housed in one of the oldest parts of the building, which shows the sorts of objects our eighteenth century forebears collected displayed in the sort of ways they displayed them, with some of the criteria they applied and the conclusions they reached, thus functioning on two levels, as a display and as an exercise in historiography.  The Waddesdon bequest is magnificent, quite mind bogglingly lavish, though the Rothschilds had a good eye on the whole.  There are some fakes, faking having begun as soon as collecting did, but not all that many.  And no, I couldn't tell the difference.  Given a choice between owning a collection of Renaissance rock crystal and a Rothko, I personally would plump for the Rothko, but it's fun to be able to go and look at all of that gold and enamel and carving and over-the-top bling.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

the essex scrubber

I went today to a thoroughly entertaining talk about how to succeed in business.  I really wasn't sure what to expect from the title, The Essex Scrubber, and the friend who took me did not elaborate.  Since she is a sensible person and from what I have seen of her women's group they are all sensible people as well, I thought we would not go too far wrong and went along with an open mind.

Appearances can be deceptive.  Not knowing most of the members of the group I couldn't work out who the guest speaker was as we took our seats in somebody's farmhouse sitting room, and even once she was revealed as the woman with a lively expression, brown hair escaping from her French pleat and a long piece of cream coloured crochet work wound round her neck I was still none the wiser about what The Essex Scrubber might entail.  A talk about Braintree town museum, perhaps?

Wrong.  The Essex Scrubber, MBE, had built up a cleaning business employing 850 people and turning over £3.5 million by the time she sold it, chaired a commission into the cleaning industry for the Blair Government, been the only woman on the board of the Cleaning and Support Service Association, advised Frank Field about some of the practical realities of life on a low income, and was the first female Rotarian in Colchester.  And she was very funny.

She did not set out to be a cleaning entrepreneur.  Cleaning was born of financial necessity, because shortly after giving up a salaried management position in engineering sales to set up his own export business, her husband was diagnosed with melanoma.  The outlook for melanoma patients is not great now, and it was worse in 1975.  They had a mortgage and two small children, she had a part time job as a school secretary.  In the evenings she went moonlighting, cleaning in Ipswich because she was ashamed for her friends and acquaintances in Colchester to know she had stooped to a menial job.

One thing leads to another, when you are clever, and desperate.  Her father was a wartime Polish bomber pilot, her mother a Cheltenham lady who had taught her to ride a horse and write proper thank you notes, but not how to clean.  She was taught cleaning on one of her first jobs by a woman who was such a natural teacher that years later she came to work in the business as a trainer.  She employed a few other people at first on a couple of small contracts, then got a break with Norman Foster's recently built and award winning Willis Faber building.  She did not think she could face running the business alone when her husband died, then looking at the assembled Willis Faber cleaning workforce as they stood waiting to learn if they still had jobs she changed her mind. They were going to grow the business.

She had two revolutionary ideas.  The firm tried very hard to weed out the no-hopers at the recruitment stage, interviewing them in their own homes and trying to assess whether they would last the course before taking them on.  That's unusual in a badly paid service industry where normal staff turnover is two hundred percent.  And then she treated her employees as people.  Individuals with names, and families, and particular circumstances that were in many cases very difficult. People who could not necessarily read very well, or fill out forms.  And she was polite to them, and went out cleaning herself on new contracts to learn the wrinkles, and treated her staff with the consideration with which the daughter of an officer and a Cheltenham lady had grown up expecting to be treated.  And they responded in kind.  And as the business grew she promoted from within, and had a welfare department to help with government forms and setting up bank accounts, and held an annual cleaners ball.

And was not above going herself to find out why the cleaner working at Pauls in Ipswich docks had phoned up incoherent with tears, and on discovering that the reason was the a mouse had got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner dismantled the machine, plucked the mouse out by the tail, and dropped it out of the window, before fainting.  To be brought round by her cleaner fanning her and saying, She knew it was against the rules but could she make the boss a cup of tea?  And after laughing at the cleaner's parting shot about how they had better not go into pest control, resolving on the way home to add pest control to the list of services offered, but outsource it.

Her name is Christine Beedle, and she has written a book (all profits going to charity) about it, which somebody is now looking at turning into a TV series.  After her talk I felt as though I had seen a Fry or a Cadbury, reincarnated in female form for the late twentieth century.  I'd have liked to ask her about how TUPE, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations had affected her business' ability to take new contracts on, but as she began to tell me one of our hosts whisked her away for her lunch.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

chicken exercise time

I thought I'd let the chickens out this afternoon.  They have been confined to their run instead of being allowed to free range around the garden for weeks as part of the fallout from our colds.  We haven't felt like committing ourselves to guarding over them until dusk falls and they decide to go back into their run, especially with the wind stuck in the north and east most of the time and feeling decidedly chilly by about half past five.  And on afternoons when I have been out in the garden I've been working like mad to get the Strulch down and overdue pruning finished, and haven't wanted to be distracted by the need to keep an eye on the hens.

But today it was sunny and quite warm, and I felt sorry for them, and unkind that they hadn't been out more.  I thought I'd let them out after tea, as soon as I'd got to the end of the film review podcast I was listening to.  Five minutes after I went back to scraping weeds out of the patio it began to rain.  I scuttled around putting my tablet and the radio under cover and collecting up my tools, while thinking that the rain and accompanying rumbles of thunder had definitely not been in the forecast.

I retreated to the greenhouse to prick out seedlings while waiting to see how quickly it would pass, and by six all was calm again and I thought I'd let the hens out for a quick run.  They wouldn't go far starting that late, I thought, and would be back in their house within the hour.  Not so.  They tore round the front garden like demons, and I had to break off from weeding periodically and hunt around for them, in case they had disappeared into the back.  They hadn't, but I had to chase one out of the dahlia bed, where she was busily ripping up tulips.

They finally went back into their run at a quarter to eight, by which time I was getting cold and thinking regretfully about my supper and the pelargonium order I need to place in the next couple of days.  It's enough to make me yearn for one of those Italian Maremma dogs that chicken farmers use against foxes, even if I did have to introduce it personally to the postman, the bin men, and all the delivery drivers on our round.  Imagine being able to leave the dog outside to look after the hens while you could retreat to the warmth of the kitchen and get on with making supper. Unfortunately Our Ginger and the short indignant tabby would hate it.

Monday, 11 April 2016

we shall go to the ball

Our Chelsea Flower Show tickets arrived this morning.  Every year, once it's only a couple of months to go until the show, I fret with every post that they don't come until they do.  They always have, so far, and the Systems Administrator always tells me that they will, but I can't help thinking of the times when subscription magazines haven't arrived, and the garden magazine that did arrive addressed to somebody at another house with the same name (which I even bothered to take round to them) and the Landrover magazine for one of the neighbours that was shoved through our letterbox, and the assorted letters addressed to a random assortment of other local houses that have been left here over the years, some of which were clearly junk mail but some of which looked from the envelopes as though they might contain financial information.  In short, I don't trust the post. So I whinge and worry every year about the Chelsea tickets, once the ticket agency could conceivably have posted them, until they turn up and I'm happy.

The Systems Administrator tested the new pressure jet, and showed me how it worked.  It made short work of cleaning a patch of decking that would have taken me much longer by hand, and I was duly impressed.  Given a piece of new equipment the SA became quite enthusiastic about the project, and volunteered to clean some of the deck as it was a nice day, then went on to do the whole of the deck outside the study and the steps down to the back garden, including the brick and cobbled sections, both of which came up beautifully.  Reader, was I hoping that this might be the outcome and that I would not have to do all of it myself?  You decide.

The pots of hyacinths have finished.  Objectively speaking they are good value.  They last two or three times as long as even the most tenacious bunch of cut flowers, and my twenty-five bulbs from Kevock cost me nine pounds.  That was enough to do four pots, with five left over which I used in a small trough I had knocking about in the shed.  Add in another pound for compost and it's a lot of floral decoration for a tenner.  The bulbs will in due course go out into the garden, where they should live and flower happily for years.  Hyacinths do well in the ground on a variety of soils, from light to quite heavy.  They are happy in shade for part of the day, and if anything the flowers last longer than when they are in full sun.  I still feel regretful when I have to trundle the pots back to the concrete by the greenhouse, though.  The pots of Tulip kaufmanniana have finished as well, and the pots of taller Darwin and lily flowered tulips aren't quite ready yet.

As further proof that spring is advancing, today I unhooked the long hose that has spent the winter coiled over the end of the former coal bunker by the dustbins and dug out the spray attachment from the garage.  The spray head is at least two seasons old and the setting I use most frequently has started to corrode or else mineralise up, I am not sure which.  It is a symbolic step towards summer, the point at which there is too much watering to do in the greenhouse and on the concrete for me to trundle back and forth to the outside tap with a can.  Twiddling the kinks out of the hose, cutting out the short damaged section and leaking joint where a vehicle must have driven over it last season, and hunting around for the head, I felt that summer must be on its way.

There are absolutely no signs of life from any of the dahlia pots.  I had marked two plants that I wanted to take cuttings from, but one of the labels has fallen out.  Unfortunately while with fuchsias and geraniums you can wait until they flower and then choose your propagating material according to which ones you like, the time to take dahlia cuttings is when the new shoots are only a few inches long, before they become hollow, and months before they flower.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

ups and downs

Things were looking up again by lunchtime.  It was not raining, the sun was shining, the temperature several degrees above yesterday's and the humidity about twenty per cent lower. Miraculously, my chest eased, my nose almost stopped running and my throat felt less sore.

And Our Ginger caught another baby rabbit.  He was very emphatic that he wanted to eat it in the house, so much so that the Systems Administrator ended up letting him inside with it.  We want to encourage him, after all.

In the greenhouse one of the seedling Solanum pyracanthum, or porcupine tomatoes, has grown two tiny spines on one of its first true leaves.  They are still the same greyish green as the rest of the leaf, not yet orange, but it is interesting to see it expressing its true nature at such a tender age.

The fat root of one of the Clivia seedlings had developed a ring of white fuzz where it touched the compost, which I took to be some sort of mould infection after all the warnings on the web about the importance of sterilising the seeds, but when I tried gently scraping it off it seemed to be part of the root, and searching around the tray I saw a second seed doing the same thing.  I have a lot to learn about growing Clivia from seed.  So far they don't seem to be like anything else, whereas the Solanum are behaving just like tomatoes, apart from the spines.

My rabbit and thoracic health induced good mood took a dip after lunch, when I tried to get the SA to show me how to operate the pressure jet and to agree that I could use it to clean the decking. The SA has never been very keen on my pressure jetting it, concerned that too much pressure could strip out the grain and damage the wood, but I scrubbed the deck by the conservatory last year and it took ages.  There really isn't time to do all of them by hand.  And yes, I know that decking is fearfully Groundforce and 1990s and we have no business to have five separate areas of it in 2016, or six if you include the front doorstep, but it is a very effective solution if you want to create a level, solid surface on a slope, which we did, or to cover a pile of builder's spoil, which we also did, or to clad areas of 1960s concrete while bridging a large hole and blending visually with the materials used in other parts of the garden, which we did too.  And you can argue that using sustainably harvested wood is more environmentally friendly than cement and imported Indian sandstone.

The extension cable the SA fetched first of all was not quite long enough, so we had to find a second reel of cable, and then the jet did not come on.  We narrowed this problem down to the socket in the conservatory rather than the cable, which means there is now another malfunctioning thing that needs looking at, and plugged the compressor into a socket in the hall instead.  The resulting jet did not have any pressure to speak off, and the SA decreed that the hose was too long, so we had to take a section of hose off the end of the very long composite hose that will reach to the bottom of the garden in times of drought, and switch connectors over from other hoses.  The jet still took longer to clean a strip of plank approximately six inches long than I would have done scrubbing it by hand, while the engine made strange stuttering noises.  The SA said that the compressor ought not to be making that noise, and that the diaphragm had probably gone. Apparently we have had it for sixteen years, in which time the SA has mended it twice, but we now need a new one.  So that was half an hour of Sunday gone in interminable trailing around with cables and hose connections, at the end of which we had achieved nothing.  Machinery is wonderful when it works, but sometimes I can see why I don't honestly like it.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

win some, lose some

Our Ginger caught a rabbit.  Oh, splendid and noble cat.  I was sitting in front of the stove yesterday evening, the Systems Administrator left the room to do something or other, and then the scrape and rattle of fire irons and sound of the front door being opened and shut told me that one of the cats had either been sick in the hall or Our Ginger had left a dead thing lying about.  The SA reappeared and reported that there had been a headless rabbit in the middle of the downstairs sitting room.  Fine and worthy cat, I salute you.  We can discount the short indignant tabby.  I have never seen her catch anything in her entire life, and I am sure she is not going to start now, seventeen this month, stone deaf, and thin as a rake.

My feeling of triumph was dampened this morning when I pulled up the bathroom blind and saw a small rabbit run across the lawn, and crushed when it hopped into the further rose bed and began to nibble on a patch of Viola cornuta which I've dosed with Grazers at least twice this spring.  No wonder it is not growing.  My disappointment was complete once I'd retrieved the wildlife camera from the bottom lawn, and found footage of not one but two rabbits foraging on plants in the ditch bed, which again has been treated recently with anti-rabbit spray.  Grazers is supposed to make herbage unpalatable to rabbits, but our rabbits evidently have no palates.  The photos were taken after the SA's discovery of the headless corpse, so I can't even comfort myself that the two rabbits might by now be down to one.  And the odds are fifty-fifty that they could be a he and a she, and we know where that will lead.

Meanwhile, either frost blasted the buds on Gladiolus tristis, or it flowered for about one day and I missed it.  When I looked at them hopefully yesterday morning to see if they were close to coming out they had turned brown and withered.  Whatever happened, I won't be getting flowers this year. Something went wrong, or else the photos of the clump flowering at Great Dixter were taken with precision timing.  My cold is back as well, after feeling almost better for a few days.

Friday, 8 April 2016

third time lucky

I went to London today.  Twice in two weeks is above my natural rate nowadays, and I'm going to a concert next week, but I was catching up with my very patient and twice postponed university friend.  I should have been suspicious when I arrived at Colchester station that the man behind me in the queue for the cash machine was talking on his mobile about how a taxi to Ipswich would be thirty pounds, but it took me a minute to twig that some kind of major disruption was unfolding. As all services to and from Ipswich and Norwich began to disappear from the board I heard a mention of the emergency services being called to an incident near Manningtree, and gathered that something very bad had happened.

The chap at the ticket office said that the 10.32 ought to be running normally because that came from Clacton, so I bought a ticket and texted my friend to warn her that my entire budgeted extra travel time for contingencies had now gone.  Then Abellio Greater Anglia had the unexpectedly brilliant idea of turning round the terminated Norwich train and redesignating it the 10.03 to Liverpool Street, which was the service I'd been trying to catch.  After that I wouldn't have known there was anything amiss, apart from the guard walking up and down the train checking that everybody on it understood that they were now going to London and not Norwich.  And the poor woman sitting next to me, who had paid to park at Manningtree before discovering there were no trains, driven to Colchester, paid to park again, and was now trying very hard not to be stressed while rearranging her day.

We met for lunch at the St Pancras branch of Fortnum and Mason.  I had no idea there was such a thing, but the location suited my friend, and practically everywhere there is to eat in central London seems to be part of a corporate chain nowadays.  I opted for avocado on toast, which I enjoyed at the time, only to see in the Evening Standard on the way home that peak avocado has been reached, avocado is So Last Year, and Instagram is practically collapsing under the weight of avocado on toast photographs. That is my life as a country bumpkin.  By the time I even hear of a thing it is already over.  But I like avocado, and didn't want the chicken salad because the menu didn't say anything about it being free range, though I managed to not preachily point this out to my friend, who had chosen chicken.

We had scones by way of pudding, which came with the most enormous pots of jam I have ever seen served as part of a cream tea.  I ate as much jam as I could fit on my scones, and put the remaining half jar in my handbag for later, and my friend enquired whether I would like hers as well.  When I asked if she didn't want it she pulled a slight face and said that she was worried about leakage.  She did have a meeting to go to that afternoon, and I can see that turning up to a business meeting and then discovering that your handbag was full of jam would not enhance your image as a management consultant.  I, on the other hand, am free to channel my inner Moominmamma with impunity.  I like jam, and it seemed a shame to waste it.

After lunch I went to see Artist and Empire at Tate Britain, which closes this Sunday, another last minute dash to something I have almost missed.  I did miss Frank Auerbach, which left me mildly regretful since while it's good to try things I don't think I much like Auerbach from what I've seen of him.  I was pretty confident that with two days ago the exhibition would not be heaving.  It has had mixed reviews, five out of five stars and billed as a captivating view by the Guardian, but dammed as painfully earnest by the Telegraph, and only one star from Time Out.  By now the whole idea of Empire is so toxic that people seem to find it difficult to say anything sensible on the subject, but I thought it was an interesting show.  Not visually ravishing, for the most part, definitely art as message rather than medium, but interesting.  Most of the works in it are depictions by western artists of their colonial realms and subjects, there are a few objects brought back from Empire but not too many (otherwise the exhibition would have to be the size of the British Museum), and some works by the Imperial subjects themselves.  And yes, a sketch map of the Society Islands by a Polynesian with the local names written on is an interesting counterpoint to the painting of the fortifications at Whitby, Tangiers.

My absolute favourite thing was a carving by a Yoruba artist of the future Edward VIII.  The side parting, those very full lower lids, and most of all the faintly pained, faintly bored, utterly entitled expression, the artist had got him down to a T.  There were some great colonial officials on bicycles and at their desks as well.  All the time we were finding our Empire exotic, they were finding us equally strange.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

a visit to the fritillaries

I went this afternoon on the garden club repeat visit to see the fritillaries, and for once my cold worked in my favour, because they were absolutely at their peak and there were many more than there would have been two weeks ago.  There were maybe a dozen of us who didn't go last time for one reason or another, and it made me think that for garden club visits to private gardens with limited parking or seating or other reasons that made it difficult to accommodate too many visitors at once, it might make a lot of sense to split visits between two dates, if the garden owner could bear it.  Apparently a great deal of weeding went on in today's garden once the owner told his wife that thirty people from the local garden club were coming for a tour,

The fritillaries looked quite beautiful.  There were primroses too, and a patch of spotted orchids, each clump of leaves carefully marked with a bamboo cane, and cowslips, and some wild daffodils, but the really striking feature was the fritillaries.  Purple chequerboard, pure white, white with brown stripes down the back of each petal, brown chequerboard, nodding gracefully above the fresh green spring grass.

I like the way that bulbs form natural clusters where the conditions are most to their liking.  You can see it in bluebell woods, where the bluebells grow thick in some places and are absent elsewhere.  It's something to try and copy if planting bulbs for a naturalised effect, and more to the point something to observe when you are planting.  It's a waste to put new bulbs where they are not going to thrive, and when I top up the snowdrops in the wood I have to try and remember where I've tried them before, since there's no point in replanting them in patches where they failed last time. Fritillaria meleagris is a great self seeder if conditions are right, so today's display will in part have found their own chosen spots.

I learnt some more about the raising in a box technique our host described in his lecture.  He sowed the seed initially in a normal seed tray, and then moved the small bulbs into the boxes to grow on. His growing medium was just potting compost with some topsoil, no grit.  He said that after all fritillaries liked moisture.  That's true, but so does Primula florindae when it's a grown plant, and that didn't stop me killing my entire crop of seedlings last year through over watering the pot.

Our host used yellow rattle in places to control the vigour of his grass, but didn't have any tips on how to get it to establish.  My sowing of fresh seed begged from the plant centre failed, and so did a relative's attempt with (very expensive) bought seed.  On the other hand we could copy his technique of mowing his long grass a couple of times during the winter after the initial scything, so that come spring it starts growing from a lower base.  Today's garden didn't include crocus in the mix, and we'd have to be careful about the crocus leaves which come up pretty early, but there should be scope for a winter cut.

Wild flower gardening and gardening for nature do not necessarily mean the garden has to be run on organic principles.  Our host today uses weedkillers, to clear small areas of grass so that planted out perennials have more of a chance to establish, and to help deal with weeds like dock and creeping thistle.  A graceful flowering fritillary meadow may look natural, apart from knowing that somebody planted the fritillaries and mows it a few times in the year, but in reality it is a heavily edited version of nature.  The top part of today's garden was the domain of our host's wife, and as estate agents' parlance would put it is laid to grass with borders.  The lower part with the long grass and wild flowers was our host's special project.  A couple of today's visitors, after exclaiming at the amount of work needed to look after the top part of the garden, said hopefully that there could not be so much to do in the bottom half.  I suspect there might be a lot of work involved in looking that natural.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Chinese witch hazel

The Corylopsis sinensis var. sinensis in the little half moon shaped bed below the rose bank is full out.  This is a Chinese species (the clue's in the name) which evidently likes its position in slightly damp but not heavy soil, lightly shaded for the first part of the day, and well sheltered from the wind.  However these things are partly in the lap of the gods.  Its predecessor, Corylopsis willmottiae 'Spring Purple', planted in almost identical conditions on the opposite side of the lawn, appeared to do very well for a couple of years and then died quickly and dramatically for no reason that I could discover.  I think that what was sold as C. willmottiae back in 1997 is the same species as is now designated C. sinensis var. sinensis on the RHS website.

Corylopsis are in the same family as witch hazels, and most of them prefer acid conditions and that fabled entity, moist but well drained soil.  Our soil is acid, and the current Corylopsis has ended up in the sweet spot as regards moisture.  As you go along the base of the rose bank the ground gets steadily damper, to the point where after prolonged heavy rain the water table comes to the surface at one end.  An Edgworthia chrysantha planted at what turned out to be the wet end died of drowning one very rainy winter, and a Lonicera elisae has still not recovered since half drowning in the wet winter a few years ago.  By the time you get to the two Daphne bholua and the Corylopsis you are on terra firma, and in a dry county they get enough moisture to make them happy.

The Corylopsis has the charming characteristic of flowering before its leaves break, so the display is not hidden by greenery.  The flowers are soft yellow, lightly scented, individually tiny, and held in little dangling racemes.  The remains of the scales that protected the buds through the winter remain at the top of each raceme, looking like miniature hats loosely modelled on the Sidney Opera House.  The whole effect is delightful, and coordinates very well with the primroses which are just getting into their stride.  'Spring Purple' also has yellow flowers, but purple flushed young foliage, if it lives.

I was not really expecting the Corylopsis to grow as fast and large as it has, or perhaps I was ignoring the problem as I attempted to shoehorn as many shrubs as possible into the end of the bed where they would not drown.  Tucked into its skirts are a Pieris and a replacement Edgeworthia, and to the other side is an Amelanchier 'Ballerina'.  They are rubbing along together so far, but if some of them don't slow down soon I may have to make a painful choice about what comes out.  In the meantime I sometimes take the odd branch out of the Corylopsis to prevent it from overpowering its smaller neighbours.  I don't remember ever reading an article about pruning them, but am not convinced it is a terrible idea, as long as you try to keep the remaining branches growing in a graceful line and don't chop it all over like a hedgehog.  When we went garden visiting in Cornwall some years ago I noticed a lot of Corylopsis that were flowering madly about fifteen feet above the ground but had become completely bald and leggy at eye level, and I wondered then if a steady regime of tipping them back would have maintained more cover at the base.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

wild flower gardening

I have just got back from my garden club.  Tonight's talk was by a local gardener who has spent thirty years creating a wild flower garden out of a paddock.  I hoped that some of his experiences might be relevant to our garden, though once he'd said in his introductory remarks that the garden was largely damp and on extremely fertile loam with a neutral pH I realised that his practises weren't going to translate directly to our situation.  But it's always interesting to hear how other people do things, and after missing last month's talk on growing exotics with the help of microclimates it was nice to be out and about again.

My gardening friend from Writtle was there, who had to cancel our proposed snowdrop visit to the Chatto gardens because she had a cold.  She was still a bit chesty, and told me that the bug had torn through the entire family with the exception of one son-in-law.  Some had sore throats, others blocked up ears, her toddler grandson had a temperature, and everybody had felt ill for weeks, with odd days of remission raising their hopes periodically before they were struck low again.  It sounded like the same thing that the Systems Administrator and I have had, and she and I both found it something of a relief to hear that other people had had it too, and we were not imagining it or uniquely sickly.

Although our soil is not very like that of tonight's lecturer, I could certainly borrow his method of raising snake's head fritillaries on a practically industrial scale.  He sowed 7,500 seeds and ended up with 3.500 usable bulbs.  At Peter Nyssen's rate of £12 for a hundred that comes to four hundred and twenty pounds' worth, though they probably do a discount for size, but home grown bulbs could be planted directly in the green, instead of going to the labour and expense of potting them first. Trying to cram 3,500 bulbs into our lawn would be a case of more is less, apart from the fact that I couldn't face planting that many, but I'd like to raise a few hundred instead of two measly pots full.

Tonight's lecturer saved his own seed, which I could do on a larger scale than I did last year, and sowed it in rectangular storage boxes from a DIY shed with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. The advantage of using a tall box is that mice cannot climb into it.  The way to deal with moss and liverwort growing on the surface is to top dress it in the autumn with fresh compost.  As the bulbs grow they are automatically buried deeper.  The box lives outdoors all year, and the one key piece of care it needs is that it must not be allowed to dry out in the spring.

The club had arranged a visit to his garden for the third week of April.  I put my name down for it, then the date was changed to the last week of March because with the warm spring it looked as though the fritillaries would be over before the visit.  I stayed signed up to the new date, which was the day after my woodland charity talk in Chelmsford, then when it came to the day I could not summon the energy to drive, or navigate, or walk about, or talk nicely to strange people about gardens or anything else.  I sent my apologies, then a couple of days ago got an email to say they were doing a repeat viewing this week for those who missed the previous trip (including two members of the committee who were on holiday for the revised date, and it seems hard lines to do all the work of serving on a committee and then miss the outings).  We will not get the splendid tea that was served last time, but since the weather cooled virtually the same day the date was changed there will be about twice as many fritillaries out.