Wednesday, 31 August 2016

we want to see your kittens

We had guests to lunch.  By this morning the house was fairly clean and tidy.  I'd already wiped the kitchen units, sides as well as the worktops, and cleaned the Aga and washed the floor, and the Systems Administrator had vacuumed everywhere else, and I'd washed the hall floor and cleaned the downstairs cloakroom.  I'd put out fresh hand towels and checked the visible supplies of soap and loo roll were not about to run out.  The SA had put fresh newspaper under the kittens' food plates and their litter tray.  Altogether things were looking quite presentable by our standards.  This morning I added a few finishing touches like wiping the mantelpiece, something that doesn't normally bother me personally since I am too short to see it unless I stand on tiptoe.

By mid morning the kittens had had their breakfast, been out, come in again, and two were sitting quietly under one of the chairs in front of the television.  Suspiciously quietly as it turned out, because a few minutes later we discovered they had a mouse.  The SA got rid of the mouse.  I got on with making Jane Grigson's leek and mushroom tart, with only a brief moment of panic when I emerged briefly from the kitchen and found the energetic kitten in the hall with a dead bird.  The SA put the energetic kitten out, together with his bird, and vacuumed up the feathers.  By half past eleven we were all sitting down quietly, even the energetic kitten, waiting for our visitors, until the serious kitten started wrestling with Mr Fluffy on the sofa.

As soon as the guests arrived the serious kitten disappeared.  He hates and distrusts visitors.  The other two stared at the strange people from a safe distance, before the energetic kitten decided that they were not dangerous and consented to sit looking kittenish on the pouffe and occasionally chase his tail in an entertaining way.  This is the trouble with people declaring they want to see our kittens, apart from the fact that the kittens are virtually six months old and well on the way to being small cats.  There's no guaranteeing whether they will want to be seen.  Our Ginger obliged, and sat with us all before lunch then toured the garden with us afterwards, but we were a trifle light in the delightful balls of fluff stakes.  Though on the plus side we did not have any more birds or mice.  I still remember the time a couple staying with us in our previous house opened their bedroom door in the morning to find a dead rat laid out in the lobby.

Mr Fluffy did not want to consort with the visitors up close and personal, but consented to come in. The serious kitten would not come into the house at all, even when the SA waved a plate of food at him.  The combination of heat, tail chasing and general excitement seemed to have blunted the energetic kitten's appetite, so Mr Fluffy was able to eat most of his brothers' lunch as well as his own, and retreated to the garden to spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping it off.

The troops regrouped once the scary visitors had gone away, and all three followed me over to the greenhouse to do the watering, then Mr Fluffy thought that dragging the hose round the garden was such a good game that he stayed with me while I watered the rest of the pots in the front garden.  I am mildly regretful that they can't be depended on to entertain visitors, but that's cats for you. They like who they like.  Our Ginger likes everybody and the short indignant tabby detested everyone except us.  The Maine Coons were pretty sociable, the black cat gave strangers a wide berth.  The new generation of cats will suit themselves according to their individual personalities. Mr Fluffy will probably learn to oblige once he gets used to the idea, but I don't hold out much hope of the serious kitten.  A pity as he is growing into an elegant cat, and he is extremely affectionate to us, when he's in the mood to be fussed.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

grow your own tomatoes

As the end of summer approaches I have been considering the success or otherwise of the tomato plants.  I don't really understand tomatoes.  All those rules about determinate and indeterminate and bush forms, and stopping, and de-leafing, never seem to make much sense confronted with the enthusiastic mass of growth that my tomato plants make in the greenhouse.  I even bought a book about tomato growing from Amazon, which left me more confused than before as the author talked about optimum temperature and humidity levels and the chemistry of tomato fertilisers.  The temperature and humidity in my rather rickety greenhouse will be whatever they are, depending on the weather, and as for the chemistry of fertilisers, I don't mind applying some Tomorite from time to time but that's about it.  Looking at Amazon now I see that my book doesn't even appear on the first two search pages, but a new crop of tomato growing books has taken its place.  Maybe I should get a second opinion from a different tomato guru.

The tomatoes are growing in branded tomato grow bags from The Range, not the cheapest grow bags on offer but I suspect that with grow bags you get what you pay for, and if I was going to go to the trouble of trying to grow tomatoes I didn't want to stuff them into completely rubbish compost. I made a reasonably competent job of tying them to a framework of bamboo canes this year, after last year when I let them flop over the floor rather as the summer wore on without producing much of a crop and I became discouraged.  Then at the eleventh hour they ripened quite a lot of fruit and I didn't really fancy eating the ones growing at ankle level that had been splashed by dirt off the greenhouse floor.

The first bag has got 'Sungold' in it.  I bought a packet of seeds after hearing the man from Thompson and Morgan single out 'Sungold' for its high sugar content in the talk he gave to Suffolk Plant Heritage.  It is an F1 hybrid and the seeds are correspondingly expensive, and as tomato plants normally germinate readily I only sowed four out of my packet, wanting three plants, and saved the rest for next year.  I am pleased with 'Sungold'.  It is a cherry tomato, individual fruits varying in size from a small marble to a good sized cherry, and they are very sweet but with a good, tangy, strong tomato taste.  The skins are noticeably chewy in the mouth, but I don't know if that is typical of 'Sungold' or due to my less than perfect tomato cultivation skills.  They caught me out when they first started to ripen because I had not realised that even when fully ripe they remained a pallid shade of orange.  I was still waiting for them to go darker than that when they began to go squishy and split on the vine.  They are quite prone to split during picking, and again I don't know if that's down to them or something I did.  The tomatoes on each individual truss don't all ripen at the same time, so they would be useless as premium vine ripened tomatoes.

The second bag is of 'Cherry Belle', another F1 hybrid, which came free with a magazine.  A red cherry tomato sounded a useful thing to have, but the fruit are actually larger than cherry tomatoes generally are, or indeed cherries.  They have made the smallest plants of the five varieties but are the most difficult to water, and I wonder if I failed to bash their grow bag around hard enough to break up the compost before cutting my three crosses in the top and planting my tomatoes.  After them comes what is supposed to 'Gardener's Delight'.  Either my plants are all infected with virus, or there was a mix-up at the seed merchant and a striped variety like 'Tigeralla' got mistakenly packaged up as 'Gardener's Delight', because every one of them produces striped fruit, two-tone green ripening to red and orange.  The next bag is of 'Nimbus F1', another magazine freebie that is cropping prolifically with round, red, medium sized tomatoes.  Unfortunately none of the three are great as salad tomatoes, tasting better when liberally laced with Branston pickle than they do neat.  I don't know if that is down to the varieties or my lack of skill with tomatoes.  A mixture of whatever happens to be ripe at the time cooks to a quite decent tomato soup, mixed with carrot and onion well sweated in butter and a sprinkling of dried basil.

The fifth and final bag is planted with a giant variety called 'Black Russian'.  The few tomatoes I got last year were well flavoured and made rather exotic salad, but as yet I have not had a single fruit ripen this year, and with only a day to go to September I don't feel 'Black Russian' is earning its keep.  They are at the less sunny end of the greenhouse so maybe they have not been given a fair chance.  I will read up on tomatoes over the winter, and decide whether to give 'Black Russian' a final go in a better position.  I need to take the top off the hedge as well to stop it shading the greenhouse so badly.  I fancy a classic plum tomato for cooking, and a proper red cherry tomato for salads.  And I ought to buy my grow bags earlier in the season before The Range practically runs out.  I am still not completely convinced by home grown tomatoes.  In theory eating something absolutely fresh that you know hasn't been sprayed with anything ought to be wonderful, and it seems a waste not to use the greenhouse space over the summer.  In practice it seems quite a lot of work and a moderate amount of expense for a mixed bag of tomatoes, three quarters of which aren't actually as nice as the ones we buy in Waitrose.

Monday, 29 August 2016

clean and tidy

I have spent most of the Bank Holiday Monday carrying bits of muddle from one room to another and cleaning the kitchen.  It needed doing, certainly before we go on holiday, and with no convenient wet day forecast I thought I'd better get on and start doing it.  The most startling result of the tidying up phase was the discovery of a bird nest in the garage.  Feeling inside a largish white ceramic cache pot that once held a pot plant to see if it had another smaller pot stuffed inside or if I could use it to store various spare hose fittings, my fingers recoiled at the touch of something rough and organic.  Pulling the pot down from the shelf and peering in I was amazed to discover the base of it filled with moss and fine twigs, with a very neat circular depression in the centre barely two inches across.  The pot was a good six or seven inches wide at the base, so whatever had made the nest had moved a phenomenal amount of material.  There were no eggs or fragments of eggs, no feathers, no droppings and no indication that the nest had been used.

What made it?  A wren?  And if so how did it (or they) get in?  There were days earlier in the summer when the door was open during the daytime, but I always shut it at night and didn't open up before nine or so in the morning.  Wouldn't whatever bird was eyeing up that pot as a potential nesting site have worked out that it kept being blocked off before the nest was half finished?  Or was there a tiny, bird sized gap somewhere we hadn't noticed?  I peered at the sides of the up-and-over door, and couldn't see one.

Cleaning the kitchen isn't so bad in that I can listen to the iPod on speakers, so it's my chance to catch up with music the Systems Administrator is not keen on.  Today it was Gibbons, Haydn's Nelson Mass, Tinariwen's Radio Tisdas Sessions, the Brandenburg concertos, Talking Heads' Fear of Music, Elvis Costello and Lloyd Cole.  I started with the more ethereal and classical, and got louder and poppier as I began to flag.  Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, a very good motto to clean your kitchen to.

I have got a new pot of Aga cleaner.  Exasperated by all branded Aga abrasives now being sold in tiny tubes which would never seal up properly after the first couple of times I used them, due to the nozzle blocking up, whereupon the rest of the contents of the tube dried up and became impossible to squeeze out, I grumbled to the SA who succeeded in finding an online vintage and homeware supplier who would sell me an enormous pot of goo suitable for cleaning the Aga for less than the price of the tiny tube, with the promise that if it began to dry out I could simply add water.

Problems with cleaning your Aga are about as first world as they come, but the trouble with an Aga is that it is hot all the time, and cooking splashes bake on ferociously hard.  You need an abrasive paste, and a plastic scouring pad to apply it.  I know, I've tried wiping the Aga with normal kitchen cleaner and a dishcloth, and felt like Lady Macbeth washing her hands.  It was hopeless.  But the abrasive paste must not be too harsh, or you'll scratch the lovely enamel.  Hurrah for Betty Twyford's Aga Enamel Cleaning Paste.

The Systems Administrator, not to be outdone, spent part of the morning rodding some friends' drains.  The SA has got a good, practical, engineering bent and understands drains.  The engineering bent might be needed in the morning, as the serious kitten, who is normally so sensible, forgot himself after supper and bit right through the lead to a pair of quite good headphones belonging to the SA.  The SA thought they could be microsoldered back together, but that probably depends on quite how many bits they are in.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

a musical curiosity

I went this evening to a concert forming part of The Suffolk Villages Festival, a recital on the theorbo by Fred Jacobs.  In truth I had never heard of Fred Jacobs before, or indeed the theorbo, but I saw in the festival leaflet that it was a kind of gigantic lute.  I've been to a few Suffolk Villages Festival events over the years, though I am not a regular supporter, and always enjoyed myself, and I was intrigued by the idea of adding the theorbo to the tally of obscure stringed instruments I've seen performed, to go with the oud and the clavichord.  And the concert was held in the church at Nayland, which ought to be interesting itself whatever the theorbo was like.

There was a free talk before the concert, which I went to as well since if I were bothering to go to Nayland to hear an obscure early musical instrument I might as well learn something about it.  The first theorbo in England was brought from the Continent in 1605 by Inigo Jones, who was marched off to explain its innocent purpose to the authorities who suspected it of being some engine of war to be used against the King.  After that they caught on to a moderate degree , before going the same way as the lute and being swept aside by classicism and the rise of the orchestra.

A theorbo is like a lute with a very long neck, but tuned differently.  That I think is the essence of it in a nutshell, according to the lecture.  The point of the long neck is so that the bass strings can be longer and thinner, which gives better and more carrying sound quality than trying to get the low notes by putting very thick strings on a lute.  The problem is that the top strings then break while trying to get them tight enough to hit the high notes, so the top one or two strings on a theorbo are dropped by an octave.  If they aren't then it is just a lute with a very long neck.  Some modern theorbos are strung with wire, which seems to be cheating according to the early music purists, and some modern theorbos are so small to make doing twiddly bits easier that they might as well be lutes.

I counted fourteen tuning pegs on this evening's instrument, implying fourteen strings if I counted right, seven at the head of the instrument and seven half way down the neck.  The longest strings were not fretted, but flew at a slight diagonal over the lower set of tuning pegs to end up closest to the performer's body when playing.  The shorter strings starting half way down the neck were all fretted, I think.  I'd have liked to take a closer look, but it wasn't really possible.  They were all gut strings and took a lot of tuning, because, as Fred Jacobs explained not entirely approvingly, we were all breathing.  In order to reach to tune the bass strings he had to stand and up-end the theorbo, which was several inches taller than he was.

The theorbo can form part of the continuo in an ensemble, and I think Fred Jacobs was doing just that earlier in the festival, but tonight was a solo gig.  The first half was by Giovanni Giralomo Kapsberger (1580 - 1651) and the second by Robert de Visee, and beyond that I know not because I never managed to buy a programme.  They weren't obviously around before the lecture, and when I tried in the interval nobody had them for sale, but surreptitiously sneaking a look at somebody else's I gathered that it covered the whole festival with only one page about tonight's concert, and I didn't really need the entire words to The Coronation of Poppea.

I enjoyed the theorbo.  Not so much that I'm necessarily going to buy an album, as I did after my first live encounter with a marimba.  I would not say it has the expressive powers of the cello, or the sheer pizzazz of the harpsichord.  But it is a delicate sound, worth listening to for its own sake and because it takes your imagination back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Pepys recorded in his diary that he was having four extra strings added to his lute, and the theorbo was the in thing at the court of Louis XIV.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

non slip surface

I have finally started fixing fine grade chicken wire to the deck and wooden steps en route to the conservatory.  The look is not very Chelsea Flower Show or Gardens Illustrated.  Nobody in the world of designer gardens has any worries about slipping over on their exterior wooden surfaces, it seems.  Or they reckon their insurance will cover the damage if the gardener breaks his wrist.  Who knows?  But back in the real world of daily watering, the decking does get slippery after rain even when it's clean, and there are times when it needs cleaning, and I've been meaning to staple some wire along the strip leading to the conservatory door for a long time.  I even got as far as buying a roll of one centimetre hexagonal mesh, it's just that having bought it I put it in the garage instead of unwrapping it and fastening it to the deck.

I began to feel more urgent about the task because our holiday is approaching, and I do not want the housesitters slipping over and hurting themselves while trying to water our pots.  They are nice people and I should feel bad about it.  And they have always got on so well with the cats, though they have yet to meet the kittens.  And they have done very well with the watering, given that neither claim to be keen gardeners.  And when you find people who apparently like your house and your animals and have got the knack of keeping your plants alive for a week, you cling on to them.

The sense of urgency was heightened when I heard that somebody I know had broken her wrist in two places falling over.  Initially I was told that she broke it at a funeral, then it transpired that she had broken it handing round plates of sandwiches at the do afterwards, when she slipped on some wet decking.  That has to be marginally better than interrupting the main proceedings by tripping over in the crematorium.  Just as the vicar or the oldest friend of the deceased is about to say nice things about them there comes a thud and a howl of pain from one of the pews.  That would be really bad.  But still, to break your wrist when you are only trying to be helpful is bad enough, especially as it is her left wrist and she is left handed.

So I thought I'd better get on with fastening the chicken wire down.  It is taking a phenomenal quantity of staples.  Once I'd managed to remember where I put the big staples for the staple gun (in a spare cache pot on a shelf in the garage, not in the box in the study with my pen knife and magnifying glass, or in the drawer in the study with the normal staples for the desk stapler), I fetched a couple of strips and used them all so quickly it felt as though I must be trying to make the deck non slip using nothing but staples.  A finalist on some television gardening competition a long time ago actually did use nothing but zinc nails, and very elegant it was too, but he was driving them into full blown railway sleepers, not just decking boards.  I went back down to the garage to fetch the entire box, and was grateful it was almost full.

As it is I suspect I'm going to run out of netting before I've done all the steps.  I didn't measure up and do any proper QA before starting, just bought a roll of chicken wire when I was in B&Q, and each step is using more than it looked as if it was going to.  Happily and by pure fluke the steps were slightly wider than the netting by a very small margin so the wire fitted neatly without having to cut one side.  The passage along the side of the conservatory was slightly narrower than the roll of netting, but I managed to bend the surplus down over the edge of the deck without it fouling the track of the conservatory door.

Vita Sackville West never had to worry about such things, or Gertrude Jekyll, or Marjorie Fish, or Christopher Lloyd.  And yes, I know that using decking in the UK climate is asking for trouble, especially in shade,  But York paving can get pretty slippy as well.  If you want to create level areas on a sloping site, which we did, or camouflage a miscellany of concrete rafts resulting from different building projects at different times, which we did as well, and don't have a budget comfortably stretching into five figures for the project, which we hadn't, decking is a very useful material.  Ours is American red cedar.

Friday, 26 August 2016


What a difference a day makes.  The Systems Administrator returned from day two of the Clacton Airshow having seen a full flying programme and with eight hundred photos to prove it, one of which, the SA said hopefully, ought to be good.  That was one of the things my friend and I pondered as we looked at the Victorian photographs in the Tate exhibition.  How different was your approach to taking a photograph when each shot cost you such effort and expense in developing and printing it?

Meanwhile my headache was steadily on the retreat.  As somebody who used not to get headaches unless I had drunk too much, in which case it was my own fault, and now does through no fault of my own that I can see other than the shifting hormones of middle age, I never grasped how much of a nuisance they were until I started getting them.  They are, I guess, medium grade headaches.  I can still function.  I don't have to lie down in a darkened room.  If I have agreed to do something it would be awkward to cancel I will do it, fortified by three aspirins and regular supplies of carbohydrate to keep my blood sugar level up.  But they destroy my concentration, enthusiasm and general desire to do anything except sit down and not have to try and think about anything, let alone move.  They are thieves of time and action, headaches.

So it was with great pleasure that I realised when I woke up this morning that this one was on the wane.  A two day headache generally needs another day to calm down, and I wouldn't have tried to do any sustained gardening, let alone cut the long grass or the eleagnus hedge which are two tasks near the top of the list, but as it happened I'd arranged to have lunch with a friend, so all I had to do was sit in her kitchen and then under the shade of an umbrella in her garden, only rousing myself to defend our lunchtime ham from her cat while she was still assembling the salad.

I'm looking forward to autumn, though, which I know is deeply ungrateful of me.  There is our holiday to look forward to, and all that long grass to be cut and the daffodil lawn planted up with the little mallows and knapweeds that have been baking in their pots on the concrete all summer. I've been eyeing up roll necked sweaters and corduroy coats in rich earth and jewel colours in the newly published autumn catalogues.  Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo will be back from their holidays and normal service will resume on the film review programme.  In only six days it will be September, one of my absolute favourite months, and by the time we go on holiday we should be able to put aside the hot, dusty interlude that is the British summer for another year.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

the dog days of summer

The phone rang mid afternoon and I picked it up hoping it would be the delivery driver with my two sheets of clear acrylic for mending the greenhouse roof.  Ordered on 11 August, delivery normally between four and nine working days, I rang on Monday to enquire as to progress and was told they should be with me on Wednesday.  That was yesterday so I rang again this morning and was told they were with the courier, she would find out more and ring me back.  Nobody did and the plastic still hasn't arrived.

It was not white van man on the phone but the Systems Administrator, back at Great Bentley station and wanting to know if we needed any milk.  The SA had gone to the Clacton airshow, but as fog rolled in from the sea and the Tornado performed behind a sheet of low cloud while the Gunfleet wind farm slowly disappeared from view, the SA took a view that there wasn't going to be much of a display that afternoon, and grabbed the one train an hour while the going was good.  With its modern equipment the Tornado is fully up to charging around in thick cloud, but the vintage aircraft aren't, and anyway there's not a lot of point if nobody on the ground can see what they're doing.  The wind was coming in off the sea so all the people lining the seafront were frustratingly bathed in brilliant sunlight as the fog burned off over the land, but out over the water it was a different story.

It is a shame for the organisers and everybody who went, especially those who had travelled from a distance.  The SA hadn't, and parking is free at Great Bentley, so apart from the disappointment of not seeing the planes it was not such a great loss for the SA as for some other people.  Maybe it will be clearer tomorrow.  Maybe it won't be.  Today's weather is not what was forecast twenty-four hours ago.

I cannot fathom why people voluntarily go on holiday to places where they expect it to be as hot as it is this week in north Essex.  I don't understand why the weather forecasters on the radio and TV present each searing new day as a delight.  Somebody on the Today programme this morning was sniffy about Norwich where the temperature might be twenty-two degrees today.  Twenty-two degrees sounds lovely to me.  As it is I am hot, sticky, tired, and have had a raging headache for the past forty-eight hours.  I know it is a very British thing to moan as soon as it gets even moderately hot, but nowadays I can't shake off the feeling that the last week of August is something to be got through, before the sanity of September when it all starts cooling down and I can get on with stuff.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

envelope stuffing

Today was the music society's annual envelope stuffing ritual.  Until the Chairman started emailing us with draft texts for all the things we were due to send out in the mailing I'd forgotten quite how much of it there was.  There is a small but glossy brochure giving brief details of all the events, plus a newsletter, and an additional letter sent to members with their summarised copy of the accounts, and this year we were also giving out a bookmark with even briefer concert listings plus, crucially, the website address.  Then we'd agreed to enclose a flier for a local music festival, and finally we'd decided to audit the mailing list.  Even a second class stamp is now 55 pence, and while once you've paid the set up costs for having the brochure printed you don't save a lot by having fewer of them produced, still with the envelopes as well mailshots are a costly business.

We were quite slick this year.  It helped that everybody involved did it last year, and that there were not too many of us to fit comfortably round the Chairman's dining table, and that the Chairman takes a methodical and organised approach to life.  She had split the mailing list into three parts before we arrived, members, people who had been to a concert in the past two seasons, and those who as far as we knew we hadn't heard from for at least two years.

Members are simply season ticket holders, so everybody who bought a season ticket last year counted.  In addition there are a few people who receive honorary membership in gratitude for their past work for the music society.  Current committee members, on the other hand, are expected to buy their tickets and do not get in for free.  This is a less generous policy towards helpers than some local arts organisations adopt, but I think rather admirable.  And when we're asking local firms for sponsorship we can't have the committee seeming to freeload.  The membership secretary dealt with the envelopes destined for members and any complimentary tickets, having to ring up her husband in mid meeting to ask him to find the cheque some ultra keen member had already given her so that she knew who to send the first paid-for ticket of the 2016-17 season to.  As the Chairman observed, people think they're being helpful paying early, but at the margin it just complicates things.  Several years ago after we had sealed up a great many envelopes we realised we had forgotten to put the notice of the AGM into the envelopes destined for members, which by now were muddled up with all the other envelopes, but we didn't make that mistake this time

Meanwhile, production line style, two people were assembling packs for the recent non-attenders, bookmark and festival flier tucked inside the newsletter, yellow form asking them to confirm if they wished to stay on the mailing list on top where they would see it, the whole tucked inside the glossy brochure, while a third person put address labels on envelopes, and the Chairman kept the names and addresses of those who had attended recently under her personal control, so that we wouldn't muddle the two lists up and hurt anybody's feelings.  Only once all the possible drop-outs' envelopes had been sealed would she release the envelopes of the faithful to the rest of the table.

As we stuck the stamps on we made separate piles for envelopes to local addresses which could be delivered by hand.  There were quite a few of those, and at 55 pence per stamp it all adds up.  The stamped envelopes went in mail sacks which the Chairman had collected from the post office and is apparently how they like to receive bulk mailings.  The list ran to nearly five hundred names, so I suppose we couldn't really stuff that many letters into the local post box.  The final pile of envelopes was surprisingly heavy.

The whole exercise took five of us a shade under two hours, which is equivalent to more than a day's work when you think about it.  The next time you hurry past a village notice board with its drawing-pinned on A4 posters for concerts. illustrated talks. novelty dog competitions, and the annual flower and produce show, spare a thought for all the kitchens and dining rooms around England where people are poring over their proofs from the local printer and diligently stuffing leaflets into envelopes with hand applied wonky labels and stamps slightly awry.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

trouble with ivy

I've been pruning the ivy hedge around the long bed, and it is a mammoth task.  To begin at the beginning, the bed was not originally intended to have any kind of hedge around it, but after I'd planted Hebe and hardy geraniums and other things that took my fancy in the early days of planning the garden, and they had been eaten to stumps by rabbits, I realised they needed to be fenced off somehow since there was no viable way of eliminating rabbits from the garden.  And the reason for that was that the house was at the end of a single track lane with a turning circle in the front garden.  We could not expect the postman to open a gate and then shut it behind him again every single morning.  We could have put a mailbox at our boundary but then he'd have had to reverse the two hundred yards down the lane, and he wouldn't have liked that either.

We looked into electronic gates, briefly, but they were fabulously expensive and it was a legal safety requirement that the cable be laid in a trench so we'd have had to dig up the hundred or so yards of driveway from the house to the gate.  We gave up on the idea of an electronic gate. Putting low fences around the beds in the front garden was the compromise solution.

So I bought a lot of rolls of chicken wire and some wooden stakes, and the Systems Administrator cut them into lengths with pointed ends, and I put the fences up.  They looked horrid, so I needed something to hide them.  The long bed is about fifty yards long, and I balked at the idea of buying that much box, or cutting it afterwards.  Instead I plumped for ivy, which could be planted eight feet rather than a trowel's length apart.

The ivy took its time to get going.  I knew enough to train the first growths along the ground at the base of the wire fence, sacrificing initial height for horizontal cover.  It took several years for all the plants to meet up, and a couple of years after that before every gap was filled.  The long bed is on very poor sand, and we had two very dry summers just after moving in, and were on a private water supply at that point so couldn't do much watering.  In better conditions things might have gone more quickly.

Once it joined up and hid the netting the ivy went through a period of looking quite nice.  However, I discovered it was not low maintenance.  It did not only want to send out horizontal growths along the soil at the base of the fence, it wanted to colonise the border and surrounding drive and lawn (later gravel) as well.  Ivy does that.  Go into a wood with wild ivy and you will see it striking out across the woodland floor as well as climbing the trees.  I had to go along both sides of the fence, dibbling my fingers under the strands of ivy that were growing out into the bed, pulling them up and chopping them off at the base of the hedge.  It was pretty time consuming, and work that has to be done at ankle height is not the most comfortable.  Sometimes the ivy got ahead of me and began to overwhelm some of the rightful occupants of the bed, and over time the ivy hedge began to grow fatter at the base as it was difficult to cut off the last inch or two of these wandering shoots.

Once it had got to the top of its wire and a few more years had passed, the ivy began to throw up mature flowering shoots.  They were, objectively speaking, quite attractive.  I like shrubby ivy as a spectacle.  But they added to the height of the hedge, and each time I pruned them the hedge got a little bit bigger as I tried to cut back to a leaf and create a tidy finish. Sections of the hedge had got much too big by last year, and this year's wet June finally sent it bonkers.  It is quite salutary how much woody growth a mature garden can throw up in a good growing season.  The hedge was supposed to be about twenty inches high, and in places was two or three times that.  It was ridiculous.  You couldn't even see half the things in the bed unless you went right up to it and looked over the ivy hedge.  Something had to be done.

I have been taking the hedge back to its intended height.  In places this has just left it looking a bit bald, but some stretches have been left virtually leafless by the time I'd chopped away all the unwanted shoots.  I am running the hose on it, to encourage the old wood to break, and I'll feed it with blood, fish and bone and probably some 6X poultry manure as well.  It is kill or cure.  I am reasonably optimistic it will come back, on the grounds that when I've wanted to remove ivy from other parts of the garden it has proved jolly resilient, but a little part of my mind is aware of quite what a vast job it will be if I end up having to dig it out.  Even cutting it is a vast job.  I'm not half way along the back yet, which is worse than the front, and the debris has already filled the trailer so many times I've lost count.

I am still relieved I didn't plant box.  I could not have coped with trimming that much box.  I don't manage to keep up with the small amount we do have, and now there's box blight to worry about. But I am convinced that those garden designers who sing the praises of ivy on wire as a quick way of providing a narrow hedge have not done it themselves and then managed the results over two decades.  It isn't as easy as they make it sound.

Monday, 22 August 2016

new tricks

The evenings are drawing in.  Half an hour ago the kittens were rather peeved when I lured them in with biscuits and then shut the glass inner door, but I told them they had to come in from the garden because they were only little and it was getting dark.  And now, at not even a quarter to nine, it is dark.  The serious kitten is lying in the hall, staring meaningfully out into the night, but I don't think the other two actually want to be outside.

They have been going though another rite of passage towards being adult cats, learning how to use the new cat door.  The old one broke so that you couldn't lock the flap to stop cats going out or coming in, so the Systems Administrator removed it to get them used to going through the hole. They were quite happy with that after the first go, though I don't think Our Ginger approved at suddenly having a hole opened up in his hall.  Now the SA has fitted the new flap they have a choice between operating it or waiting until one of us happens to be passing by and opens the front door.

Cats are inherently suspicious of new things (except, for some reason, cardboard boxes.  I never yet met a cat that wouldn't immediately adopt a new cardboard box, without worrying about leaving it in the corner for a couple of days to check it wasn't a trap and let the strange smell wear off).  Our Ginger did not like the new cat flap, which was exactly the same as his old one apart from being a great deal cleaner and not broken.  He sniffed it grudgingly and ostentatiously, before consenting to poke his imperial nose through it with a martyred air, followed by the rest of him.

The serious kitten looked intently at the new door, and almost immediately got the hang of it once I'd flapped it for him with my finger a couple of times.  He is by far the most outdoors of the kittens, and already an effective hunter, and probably wanted to go out more than they did.  And that is the way he does things.  He weighs them up, and once he's decided he just does it, be it ten minutes to using the new cat door or several weeks before trusting either of us to sit on our laps.

Mr Fluffy and the energetic kitten were not happy about the new door.  They did not like it when I flapped it, and did not want to push it for themselves, instead preferring to sit by it and wail pathetically until somebody came and gave them what they wanted, which was to be let in or out. Eventually they consented to go through the hole if I held the flap up for them, though I dropped it as soon as they were half way through so that they'd get used to the feeling of the plastic flap on their backs.  They must have been learning how the new door worked by watching Our Ginger and the serious kitten, even if they didn't like it, and by Saturday the lure of being the other side of the flap became too strong and they managed to operate it for themselves, though their technique is not what I would call confident.  There's rather a lot of nervous scrabbling, then once they've got their nose under the flap they scuttle through at double speed before something dreadful can happen.

Addendum  We never did hear back from Colchester Cat Rescue.  We can't have been deemed suitable to look after kittens.  Maybe that was because of Our Ginger, but really, if this place isn't suitable for kittens I don't know where on earth is.  A quarter of a mile up a farm road off a lane, no traffic except the postman and the mail order delivery drivers, and somebody is here practically all the time.  The kittens have the run of a vast garden, several rooms of the house, the conservatory and the greenhouse.  They have been registered with a vet and neutered and microchipped.  They have a litter tray indoors (though I'm hoping that won't last for ever).  Apart from not having their own iPads with a butterfly swiping game I can't see what else we could have done for them.  My hairdresser who failed to get a kitten from Colchester Cat Rescue because she lived on a road and went out to work said she thought the only people they'd give cats to would have to be retired, live in the middle of  field and stay at home all the time, but we practically do, and we still weren't offered one.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

storm damage

The gale has done for my row of Coleus on the shelf in the porch.  I bought them as a pack of six small plants and put each into an individual five inch terracotta pot which initially seemed overly large, and has recently seemed rather small relative to the height of the plants.  They had two-tone leaves, with a lime green outer zone and a dark red heart, and I enjoyed the way the ones at the back where it is shadier grew tallest and with more and brighter green in their leaves, while the one at the front was the shortest and reddest.  I liked the way they grew into and around each other, neatly fitting together into one tiered whole.  They soon told me if they needed watering, by drooping pathetically, and they needed water most days, but they did pretty well.

And then a gust in yesterday's gale sent the pots crashing to the ground, just as it did the begonias* last year.  Two of the pots broke, and most of the plants were smashed past saving.  The stocky specimen from the front was relatively uninjured, and I took it down to the conservatory in a fit of sentiment and because it will look quite at home in there, but the rest are now set to become crocks and compost.  Alas.  The Systems Administrator asked me the other day if they were OK up there, and in truth they were not, but short of standing them all down on the floor which rather negated the point of having them there wasn't a lot I could do about it.

The SA suggested that what I needed was a box to stop them tipping over.  A half hour's search on the web over a mug of coffee produced precisely one trough that was the right size, long enough without being too wide.  It was as it happened quite an attractive design, a fairly plain affair in glass fibre.  I discovered two web sites selling it, one pricing it at £96 and the other at £105.  The cheaper of the two said that there was a six to eight week delay on that product, and the only phone number given was a mobile.  I didn't feel totally reassured, and anyway I didn't want to spend as much as ninety six quid to stop half a dozen flower pots falling off a shelf.

Help is at hand.  The SA on hearing how much window boxes were has agreed to make a neat, plain restraint out of wood for next summer's pots.  Winter is not an issue, since I'll probably do cyclamen again and they don't get top heavy like Coleus and begonias.  With any luck once the SA starts the project can expand to include a little stand for the auriculas as well.  There are some nice wooden ones in some of the catalogues, but they are phenomenally expensive for what is only, when you strip it down to essentials, a few pieces of wood.

*The begonias were the variety 'Glowing Embers', with dark leaves and orange flowers.  They had made tubers by the autumn, and I kept them in their individual pots over the winter in the greenhouse, watering them very sparingly.  One died and four lived.  The survivors were moved into one big pot and have made a vast and gaudy mound of bronze and orange in a sheltered, shady space by the conservatory.  They were slow to come back into leaf, but then made up for lost time. If you have been tempted by 'Glowing Embers' in your local garden centre and can store them frost free, and more to the point have somewhere to start them into growth in the spring, it's worth bothering, since three plug plants from Thompson and Morgan would set you back £9.99.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

the beauty of the Persian silk tree

My Albizia julibrissin f. rosea is flowering for the first time this year.  I am rather excited about this, since it is a very attractive thing, and I grew it from seed.  I don't know why, but seeing woody plants flower that you've raised yourself from seed has an additional frisson, over and above the pleasure to be had from herbaceous perennials, or annuals.  What started off as a parcel of seed packets dropping on to the doormat is on the way to being a tree.

Albizia julibrissin came originally from the near East, where it grows from Afghanistan to Korea, and has a distinctly exotic vibe.  It is a member of the pea family, and looks not unlike some kind of mimosa, except that it has pink flowers.  The leaves are large but airy and graceful, being divided into many sub-leaves which in turn are divided again into smaller leaflets.  The full botanical description as given in W J Bean puts it thus: Leaves doubly pinnate, with from six to twelve pairs of main divisions (pinnae), each of which consists of twenty to thirty pairs of leaflets, the entire leaf being 9 to 18 inches long, half as wide.  Each leaflet is 1/3 to 1/2 in. long, 1/8 in. wide, oblong, oblique due to the blade developing only on the side of the midrib towards the base of the pinna.  Who knew leaves could be so complicated?

They are a middling shade of greyish green, and have developed an attractive bronze sheen in the sun.  Garden centres offer named selections that have been picked out for their chocolate leaves, but I think the shading is prettier than all-over dark chocolate foliage would be.  The pink flowers consist mainly of tufts of long stamens, and have been gradually opening over the past week, with plenty more still to come.

The original species, Albizia julibrissin, is included in Bean but with the proviso that it is not hardy at Kew in the open, though he mentions that a form introduced from Korea in 1918 is quite hardy in the open at the Arnold Arboretum, and is of a smaller, more spreading habit than the common form.  I presume this is what has been dubbed A. julibrissin f. roseum, which has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  AGMs are only dished out to plants judged in trials to be reliable in a range of garden conditions, and when I ordered my seed the comment in the catalogue (probably Chiltern) was that it was hardier than the plain form.

Certainly my plant wants to spread.  I first saw Albizia for sale at the plant centre, imported from an Italian nursery and a good ten feet tall with clean standard stems, and imagined my seedling would do that, but it is reluctant to make a main trunk.  I chose the likeliest one and tied it to a stake, then pruned the others last summer, but they have defiantly grown again and apart from the stake you couldn't honestly tell which is supposed to be the leader.  Last year when we visited the Hillier Arboretum I noticed a young Albizia in a bed near the house, a year or two ahead of mine and equally spreading.  Maybe that goes with the type, along with the increased hardiness and pinker flowers.  But, and here's a thought, it could be something to do with how the plants were raised.  The self sown Genista aetnensis now growing in the gravel are making much less branched and more tree like shrubs than their parent, which I grew from seed and planted out.  It was still quite small when I planted it, but started life in a pot, and through its life it insisted on making many more stems from low down than I wanted it to.  And I have read that Zelkova in the wild make tall trees when in cultivation they generally make multi-branched specimens like gigantic besom brooms, which is just what mine (also grown from seed and planted out while still small) is doing.

According to the RHS sapling Albizia should flower in three years, so mine has been a touch slow, unless last year's pruning inadvertently removed what would have been the flowering wood.  But it is to be flowering now on this year's growth, so I don't think that was the issue.  Architectural Plants offer some cultivation advice on their website, and explain that in the wild it experiences hotter summers and colder winters than we do here.  British summers may not be warm enough to ripen its wood, or to coax it into leaf before June, which can lead to problems with die back in the winter when the inadequately hardened growth is hit by frost.  My plant went into the ground in May 2011, and I haven't noticed it being desperately late into leaf, nor has it suffered from die back to date.  As I recall 2010-11 was the second of the recent hard winters, while 2011-12 was horribly wet, so it hasn't yet been tested in a really cold year.  Architectural Plants do reassuringly promise that I can prune it as much as I like in spring and summer.

I don't have a spare wall I could grow the Albizia against as Architectural Plants suggest, but our garden would probably count as very sunny, which is one of the situations in which they suggest it should be OK in the open.  The high light level was one of the factors cited by the lettuce farm in their decision to locate here.  And areas mulched with gravel get hotter than the equivalent space covered in an organic mulch or grass (I know I've read articles on that, but can't lay my hands on one to refer you to at this moment).  At any rate, after five years out in the garden the Albizia is coping nicely so far.  I have a second, since two germinated, and that lives in a pot in the conservatory, is a fraction of the size of the one planted out, and shows no signs of flowering. True, members of the pea family can be funny in pots.  An Acacia dealbata seedling given to me by a friend who germinated it from seed from her own tree (before the two successive hard winters killed it) never thrived, and eventually petered out and died, despite my very best efforts to care for it, and a Sutherlandia frutescens and several Lupinus 'Silver Fleece' raised from seed went the same way.  Yet again it has proved easier to keep something in the ground than in a pot.

Friday, 19 August 2016

more art

I went to London today with a friend for more art viewing.  The trip was born out of a good review she saw in Time Out about the Alex Katz exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.  I'd never been to any of their exhibitions before, though I've been along to look at a few of their summer pavilions (2008, 2009 and 2011, I worked out from the photos in the gallery foyer).  The Serpentine Gallery is not big, it is free to go in, but it is closed on Mondays.  It was very nice, clean spaces and friendly staff.  I'd go again, if I liked the sound of the featured artist.

Alex Katz was fun.  Born in Brooklyn in 1928 he is still working in his 90s, and according to one of the helpful gallery staff goes jogging every day.  The paintings were mostly huge so there were not very many of them, some done within the past few years and some decades old.  We both liked some of the fairly abstract landscapes very much, and neither of us were convinced by his people. I hadn't heard of Alex Katz until my friend told me about the Time Out review, but I'm glad I went.

Nowadays the Serpentine Gallery has a second gallery space just the other side of the road bridge across the actual Serpentine.  I saw on the gallery website that that was hosting another exhibition by another artist I'd never heard of, the Lebanese Etel Adnan.  It seemed perverse not to go and see what that was about while we were there, and were glad that we did, as it turned out to be about colourful abstraction including some tapestries.  I thought Etel Adnan inhabited the same visual world as Klee and Kandinsky, and must try and found out some more about her now that I've seen some of her work.  The building holding the second branch of the Serpentine, the Sackler Gallery, was an interesting structure, consisting of a converted gunpowder store from the Napoleonic era, with a curved restaurant space by Zaha Hadid stuck on the back.

From there we went to Tate Britain to catch Painting with Light, an investigation of how early photography and British art fed off and influenced each other from the first days of photography to Edwardian times.  It was very interesting, in a gentle and nerdy way, and not very full, since there were no Monet water lilies or other high status loaned items on offer.  Instead there were paintings, many Pre-Raphaelite, from the Tate's permanent collection or on loan from mostly local sources like the City of London.  I'd probably seen more than half the paintings before at one time or another, but not the photographs, and they were fascinating.  There were so many different methods of printing, the possibilities of combining or messing about with negatives were realised so early, the spectacle of respectable Victorians dressing up in cod Medieval costumes to recreate scenes from Tennyson was so funny, and the later photographs of country life fascinating and poignant when you realised that they were taken at the same time as Munnings was painting gypsies and carters and Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams were frantically collecting folk songs.  It is a really nice, low key exhibition, which will win you no brownie points for attendance from the sort of people whose idea of a worthwhile art experience is limited to blockbuster Impressionist exhibitions and the opera.

We debated on the way home whether we'd been to three exhibitions or if the two halves of the Serpentine counted as one and we'd only done two.  Either way we were exhausted.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

finally we visit the Munnings museum

We went to visit the Munnings Museum in Dedham this afternoon.  I'd been vaguely meaning to go for ages, ages in this case being several years, without ever actually getting round to it, then when it appeared in an episode of Fake or Fortune we agreed we really would go.  That was months ago, and today we finally went.

It occupies Munning's former home, a gracious house on the edge of the village that was steadily added to and adapted from the days of Dedham's riches and pomp as a wool town through to the Georgian era.  The downstairs rooms open to the public are still furnished as a house, with Munnings' paintings on the walls, then there is more of his work displayed in the hall and in a couple of the upstairs rooms, plus photographs and memorabilia of his life.  I am not sure whether in his lifetime he hung quite so much of his own work in his house, which seems a little akin to a musician going on Desert Island Discs and choosing eight of their own recordings, or whether he collected works by other artists.  Either way, it is a very nice house and I can imagine Munnings and his well-connected second wife living the life of country gents there.

I really liked Munnings' paintings.  He was one of those painters who was a commercial success in his own lifetime, and became very much part of the establishment in his later years after relatively modest beginnings as a miller's son in Norfolk.  He received a knighthood and was president of The Royal Academy, and all I knew of his work originally was that he painted horses.  My desire to see his museum was initially prompted mainly by curiosity, because it was there on my doorstep.  Then we learned from Fake or Fortune that he was a fair landscape painter as well, but I still wanted to visit the museum largely in a spirit of enquiry, rather than any fixed conviction that I would love his work.

But I did.  Sir Alfred James Munnings was a thoroughgoing Englishman, who liked horses and dogs and the English landscape, and liked painting them.  I can see why the Establishment took to him and why he was so popular in his lifetime.  His pictures are full of light and the effects of light, bright colours expressed in thick layers of paint.  Roger Fry hated him, and the dislike was mutual. Munnings disliked modernism and mocked it.  But I find it perfectly possible to like Barbara Hepworth and Alfred Munnings.  I am myself a thoroughgoing Englishwoman who likes animals and the English landscape, and found his plein air oil painting of a sow and her piglets standing in the dappled shade of a tree on a hot day a very jolly thing which I would happily live with in my own house.  I would happily live with a Hepworth bronze as well, while reconciled to the fact that I'm not going to get either of them.

Apart from his easy, breezy charm,  I actually think Munnings was a far better painter than Fry gave him credit for.  His local scenes were absolutely spot on in terms of catching the East Anglian light. It is a real thing, the fabled quality of the light under the big skies of East Anglia, and Munnings got it.  He was no mere generic hedge painter.

There is a tea room at the museum, with plenty of big tables outside and two tiny ones under cover, so I don't know how they manage on wet days.  The outside tables command a view over a paddock where a white pony and a mysteriously hooded horse were grazing.  The pony nicely echoed the presence of other white ponies in several of the paintings, though the modern day equine is called Dinky.  The mysterious hooded horse was Thomas.  The scones in our cream tea were excellent but we weren't convinced by the Pukka Tea version of English Breakfast tea.  It said English Breakfast on the tag, but the flavour was oddly herbal.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

field of flowers

Late last winter my garden club hosted a talk by a local dahlia grower.  It was a very good talk, full of useful practical advice from somebody who had actually done all the things he was talking about, and coming at the right time of year for people to order dahlia plants.  And it was pleasant in the short cold days of winter to be reminded of the bright, confident flowers of late summer. Now that they are flowering in reality as well as memory the garden club staged a follow on visit to the grower's dahlia field, so that we could see them in the flesh.

The grower and his wife moved over to Suffolk from Worcestershire in 2012 and have crammed a truly exhausting amount of activity into the subsequent four and a half years, for two people who are nominally retired.  They have restored  and converted a traditional barn into a house, cleared and fenced a six acre site, turned part of it into a garden, demolished a concrete barn, relocated the entrance and driveway to the property, rebuilt two large derelict polytunnels and installed a thirty-five foot greenhouse, constructed a large fruit cage, kept up to fifty chickens (and lost the last of them to the fox), run a tea room until their daughter presented them with several grandchildren, survived four floods and two storms that took out several mature trees and a cart shed, built a new cart shed, planted hundreds more trees, and planted an acre or so of dahlias.

The dahlia field was great.  I took my notebook with me, but rapidly gave up on the idea of writing down the names of any varieties I particularly liked, since odds were they wouldn't be available for sale anyway, and just enjoyed walking about looking at them.  Red, orange, soft pink, white, purple, simple singles and huge shaggy doubles, tiny pompoms, two tone petals shading from flame to yellow, strange bicolours, every kind of dahlia you can imagine.  The grower and his wife sell them as cut flowers, at the gate and to local florists, and out in the field there is no attempt to arrange them artistically.  They are in rows for ease of cultivation, and some clash violently with their neighbours when viewed close up and in detail.

The massed effect was stunning, like a painting out of the RA's exhibition Painting the Modern Garden.  Indeed, looking at them I realised how true the Impressionist paintings of massed dahlias actually were.  I ended up making a little frame out of my fingers through which to view them, so that there would be no background of fence and grass and trees, just serried ranks of dahlias, their flowers dots of bright colour above dark green foliage.  And the foliage was dark green.  The dahlia field was on heavy Suffolk clay, and clay is a fertile soil.  I realised I must feed my dahlias much more than I had been doing.

After the tour of the field came the refreshments, and wine and cheese turned out to be a sit down do with a plate each of a selection of cheese and crackers and a retro piece of celery and some Branston pickle.  I'd been expecting to stand about nibbling a few bits off circulating platters, or else take a little sliver of cheese from a buffet like we do at the music society's AGM.  This was supper, and gratefully eaten with great rapidity by somebody I know from our Writtle college days who had barely had any lunch.  I declined the offer of wine on the grounds that I was driving, and was promptly given a glass of water followed up by the rest of the bottle.  I bet they did good teas when they had the tea room.

Addendum  I discovered that the garden in Lavenham I visited on Sunday with a different Writtle friend had over four hundred visitors, the most of any garden opening this year in Suffolk for the NGS.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016


Suddenly the figs are ripening.  Figs don't give you a lot of warning.  One day they are starting to colour, but still too firm to be worth eating, for an underripe fig is a sad disappointment with little taste and less sweetness.  A couple of days later and you find some have already shrivelled on the tree.  In a typical year you also find that just as they reach the point of ripeness they are destroyed by wasps, which in turn takes the pleasure out of picking them as you hesitate to close your fingers around each fruit in case you get a handful of wasp into the bargain.  But this year for some reason there are no wasps on the figs at all.

I ate some of the slightly shrivelled ones straight from the tree, sticky and tasting of utter distilled essence of fig.  Experience teaches that they don't keep in the fridge so it's a case of eat them or waste them.  And no, I didn't even wash them first, given they had never been touched by human hand and bore no marks of wasp or bird damage.  In truth, though we are normally conscientious about washing raw fruit and salad I do wonder whether running something under a cold tap really makes a difference.  The others that were ready to pick went into a wide, flat bowl in the fridge and I must eat them as soon as possible.  The Systems Administrator does not share my love of figs, so they are all mine, to eat as many as I can before they go off.  Or I could I suppose cook with them, but then I would be left with some sort of fig pudding that the SA didn't like either, which seems to expand rather than solve the problem.

The tree is a 'Brown Turkey'.  I chose it because that was the variety I'd heard of, and it was supposed to be a reliable cropper in the UK.  It lived for several years in a fair sized pot in the conservatory, where it never produced more than about three half-hearted fruit, and the undersized leaves and wavering branches had a defeated air.  One summer's day, walking along a street in Southwold with friends and seeing a fig hanging over somebody's garden wall on to the pavement and laden with figs which our friend promptly ate, I had to admit that my potted fig was a travesty compared to this beauty.  The huge leaves, the air of luxuriance and abundance, the fruit.  This was how a fig should be.

In November 2009 I planted my sad potted specimen out into the narrow bed below the terrace (or patio), where it sat in a south-west facing corner between the retaining terrace (or patio) wall and the garage door, which is white so reflects any light going.  It had a stretch of paving in front of it, to soak up and radiate heat, a brick wall at its back, and its feet in the stoniest soil you have ever seen.  When I laid the paving outside the garage I had to winkle out flints with the point of a pickaxe, and filled buckets of them.  They could not all have been native to the site, and I presume the people who built the house dumped them there to make a firm track to the garage, in the days when it might actually have been used as a garage instead of a gardening and beekeeping equipment store cum utility room.  The soil was so awful I thought I could safely dispense with the received wisdom about putting paving slabs or old washing machine drums or anything else around the roots of the fig to restrict them and direct its energies into fruiting.

Maybe it was unkind of me to plant it out just ahead of winter.  I imagine I had got fed up with having it in the conservatory, and anyway the corner it was going to was very sheltered and impeccably well drained.  The fig felt the shock, though, after all that time in its big pot, and did nothing much for a year or so.  Then it began to grow, giving up on the sad little branches that had seen it through its wilderness years in the conservatory, and throwing up strong straight shoots from ground level.  The leaves on the new growth were double the size of the old ones, a better shade of green, closer together and everything you could desire from a 'Brown Turkey'.  This year's crop of figs is the heaviest yet.  Maybe a wet June followed by a baking period has suited it.

It has grown so much this season it is threatening to block the way into the garage.  I bargained with the SA for it a few weeks back, pleading to be allowed to keep as much growth as possible until after the fig harvest.  I might need to trim the longest ends tomorrow since I have been lobbying the SA to give the lawn a cut, and the fig really is blocking the garage door.  The ends of the longest shoots don't have any figs on them anyway.  At some point over the winter it will need a hard chop to keep it within bounds, which is what it had last year, otherwise as well as blocking the garage it starts to shade the terrace (or patio), and there's no point in having figs so high I can't reach to pick them.  Figs seem to tolerate a great deal of training if they have to.  You see them in old walled gardens now restored to fruit and vegetable production, where they have been tightly trained in against the wall, and looking at the base of the plant a whole forest of shoots must have come off to achieve that shape.  I am not so strict with mine, because I enjoy the romantic, jungly look, but we do need to be able to get in and out of the garage.

Monday, 15 August 2016

more honey

Today is an early blog post, as I take a breather after extracting another batch of honey, and before venturing forth to clean out the hen house.  In the interests of health and hygiene I thought I should do them in that order, starting on the honey straight after breakfast, fresh from the shower and before I could make myself grubby again on anything except the products of the hive.  I am now distinctly grubby, my left hand stained nicotine yellow from holding the lugs of the frames during uncapping.  The sole of my right foot feels sticky, although I've washed it twice, and the inside of my Birkenstock.  I have washed the extractor, and the worktop, and the kitchen table, and the kitchen floor.  I have wiped the handle of the spare bedroom door, which had got unaccountably sticky, and cleaned up the smears along the upstairs landing left from my last extraction session when I didn't make a very good job of wiping it.  The Systems Administrator has gone to Lords, but when the SA gets back things will doubtless still be pronounced sticky.  It is lucky that the SA does not get upset about such things.

The Lands' End t-shirts arrived.  I feel rather guilty nowadays seeing the Hermes courier on the doorstep, having read in the paper how badly they are paid.  I washed my hands yet again, and carefully tried one t-shirt on.  It was horrible, the arms and body seemingly designed for somebody at least seven feet tall, they were so long, while, while the fabric had a strange, clinging quality.  I am not shy about my arms, which are in better shape than many women half my age thanks to a combination of lucky genes and all that time spent humping boxes of honey around or labouring in the garden, but I didn't think the clinging was a good look, especially when the garment was cut too wide across the back so that it gaped oddly away from the nape of my neck.  The shade of orange I'd chosen that had seemed vibrant and cheerful in the catalogue in real life was so fierce I looked as though I was dressed to carry out some kind of community service order.  There didn't seem any point in trying on the other two, and they will have to go back.  I must make this my final lesson: no more cheap t-shirts.  Ever.  It must be top quality cotton or nothing.  Pima works out cheaper in the long run anyway, taking a twenty year view.

It is too hot for the little cats, which are all lying asleep scattered around the sitting room.  I came out of the kitchen this morning to take a quick breather from the honey, and found Our Ginger sitting in the hall with two of them.  For all that he hisses at them and grumbles I am sure he likes them really, otherwise he could have disappeared into the garden.  Mr Fluffy when he is awake and out and about has begun to explore the veranda, but is still trying to get his head round the idea that the door on the veranda leads him back into the house, when it is open.  He stood outside at one point this morning mewing, but I had a heart of stone and left him to make his own way back to the cat door.  Once a cat get the idea that you will open a door or window for them if they stand outside it squeaking, you are condemned to be jumping out of your seat like jack-in-the-box for the rest of the creature's life.

Ah well, there are a couple of minor corrections to make to the music society's website, now that our helpful designer has got it working again, and then there is no help for it, I'm going to have to clean the chickens,

Sunday, 14 August 2016

a garden visit

I went to visit a Yellow Book open garden today.  It was a new entry to the scheme this year, and the supply of NGS openings trails off markedly after mid July, so I was intrigued.  It was in Lavenham, and my garden visiting chum who lives in that neck of the woods had spotted it.  We agreed to meet there at half past two, the theory being that we'd have time to look at the garden and then have tea before the cake ran out.

It was on the very edge of the village, where the streets plunge down quite a steep hill to a little river, more of a stream after a dry spell at this time of year.  Following its fantastically wiggly path downstream on Google maps I think it is an upper stretch of the river Brett, which passes through Hadleigh before joining the Stour south of Higham.  And it turned out you got a very good view of the stream from the garden, because most of the garden consisted of a long thin strip along the river bank, a good three hundred feet long but no more than thirty feet wide and gradually tapering off to nothing.

It was clearly a real plant enthusiast's garden.  We'd assumed it must be, because otherwise who would open in mid August in the dry expanses of East Anglia?  A good garden has something to offer in every season, but in truth July and August can be challenging around here in a hot, dry summer. June more or less takes care of itself, which is why so many village Open Gardens happen then. Roses, hardy geraniums, some nepeta and a peony or two and you're away.  The leaves are still fresh and the grass is still green.  English gardens just fall into place in June.  By mid August if you haven't done some planning there's not going to be a lot to see.

I hoped for exotics, and was made gently happy by what I found (both the plants and the fact that almost everything was labelled).  The gravelled area at the front of the small, rambling cottage, given over for the day to the teas and plant sales, had some very interesting things in pots, and I imagined the elegant and almost empty greenhouse would be full to bursting come the winter.  I was smitten anew by the charms of Amicia zygomeris, a strange half hardy member of the pea family with extraordinary leaves, and two different sorts of Erythrina as well as the usual E. christa-galli, with big, spiny leaves.  In a little bed tucked up against the cottage walls were two beautiful specimens of Bergenia ciliata, their gigantic softly hairy leaves miraculously uneaten by slugs (as were the cannas).  Christopher Lloyd raved about B. ciliata in his books, and I could see why.

There were flowers too.  Although the plant palette was exotic, the planting style was more spaced out than mine, and being given their own space suited the many Echinacea very well.  Somebody, and I think it was one of the tutors at Writtle, told me that the reason why so many people lose this species from their gardens was that it disliked being thrust into a mass of competing plants.  Given that the many named varieties in vivid shades of yellow and pink that have been released in recent years retail at eight or ten quid a pop, it must be upsetting to buy them only to find the next year that they are nowhere to be seen.  There were hydrangeas, and some roses and clematis, and a sprinkling of penstemon flowers though they were largely over (despite the claim for them in some quarters that they flower 'all summer').  There were quite a few grasses, and their seed heads were looking very good.  There were yellow daisies, as there always are by late summer, and some dahlias but not as many as I might have expected.

The other name I wrote down in my notebook was Melianthus villosus which had made a handsome shrub about four feet tall and at least as wide.  Its leaves are less grey than the more commonly seen Melianthus major, beautifully pleated, and it made a bush plant well furnished down to ground level.  M. major can get very leggy.  Spikes of brown seed heads showed it had flowered and we'd missed it, but I wasn't really worried about the flowers.  The internet tells me they are brown.  I was simply enchanted by the leaves.  It's no good, though, I really don't have room for one unless I were to remove something else equally substantial.

By the time we got to the tea stall it looked almost as if the cakes were running out, but there was some chocolate sponge left which pleased my friend, and I got the tail end of an obviously home made lemon drizzle cake, which looked hideous but was a huge slice because of being the end of the loaf, and just deliciously slightly tart rather than super saturated in sugar.  So the teas were a hit, and so was the plant stall.  Rather than sell odds and bobs they'd raised themselves (which can be a good way of picking up really obscure plants) the owners had invited in a local nursery who were giving a percentage to the NGS.  Initially I couldn't see anything I wanted as I looked over the plants on offer while waiting for my friend, then suddenly I realised that sitting on the ground was a sole specimen of Salvia 'Amistad'.  It is a particularly handsome variety with purple flowers emerging from black calyces with black stems to reinforce the point. I bought one last year but it didn't come through the winter planted out in the border, and I wanted to try again, but balked at paying a full mail order delivery charge for a single plant.  Most mail order suppliers seemed to have run out anyway.  Suddenly a well grown specimen in a two litre pot was mine for six pounds.  I haven't yet decided whether to risk it again in the ground or if it should become an honorary dahlia and live in a big pot in the greenhouse for the winter.

Lavenham is a very pretty little town.  When the Systems Administrator and I went there to the church concert it rained, so we didn't wander about and look at it as much as we'd planned, but at least it meant I knew where the car park was.  This time as I ambled through the centre from the car park to the banks of the Brett and back again I had a good look.  The buildings are fabulous, and I rather enjoyed the quantity and variety of tubs and window boxes in the almost universal absence of front gardens.  Top marks go to the square dark grey tubs planted with standard lavender and the tender blue flowered Convolvulus sabiatus, the booby prize to the display of dead Helichrysum petiolaris and dessicated lobelia.  Best not to bother if you aren't going to water them.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

computer says no

This will be a brief and late blog post as I was wrestling with another internet posting challenge after coming in from the garden, trying to update the music society's website.  The template was put together for us practically pro-bono by a helpful chap who does them for various small arts organisations plus his local pub.  I haven't entirely worked out why he should go to such trouble on our behalf, and can only think it is his way of charity volunteering.  I do talks for the woodland charity because I would like to support it and after my previous career I know how to talk.  He must wish to support the arts and know how to do websites.  We are limited to variations on his basic template, and you can see the family resemblance between his various clients, but it looks very nice and for our purposes is ideal.  The way he does links is actually more elegant than the links facility in Blogspot.

Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago the site went into mini meltdown, which was not his fault but something to do with the server.  It began to scramble dates, which is pretty terminal when you are trying to advertise concerts.  I could understand the process whereby Sunday 5 March was transmuted to 3 May, but why 9 October turned into 29 September had me stumped.  Our adviser became very cross with the host provider, and the whole site had to come down for a time and when it reappeared had initially lost all the input data, which upset the Chairman a good deal and me quite a bit as it took me the whole morning to input the 2016-17 season last time.

Unfortunately the introduction to our bargain website designer came via the Chairman's other arts connections, and when I tactfully enquired whether I might communicate directly with him so as not to have to route everything through her or whether she would prefer to manage the relationship herself, the designer did not sound keen on my contacting him.  He is doing us a massive favour producing our site for practically nothing, so if he wants to speak to the organ grinder rather than the monkey I can't complain.

The server problem was supposed to have been fixed, and I sat down this evening to input an extra concert we are staging for local amateur musicians, conscious that I had promised to do it yesterday, and go through all the pages to check that everything was all tickety-boo.  Alas, it is not.  The site has eaten the ticket order form which was stored as a PDF, along with the other stored documents, and it will not let me input it again.  Or at least, in edit mode it says the document has been uploaded, but when I click on the booking form in the list of documents it says Server Error.  As I am not supposed to approach the designer directly I have had to lob the whole issue back to the chairman, who has quite enough other things to do.

Friday, 12 August 2016

viola cornuta

I said I would return to the subject of Viola cornuta, or at least I said that was another story, the implication being I might return to it.  I bought four different varieties as part of my viola order. Originally I was going to buy them in sets of three of each type, as I planned to use them among the roses and one plant doesn't go very far, but then I thought that maybe I could propagate my own and went for a single one of each type to use as a stock plant.  Now, looking up how to make cuttings, I see that I should have cut them back in July to promote a strong flush of regrowth, since what I want are strongly growing basal shoots two to three inches long.  Perhaps subconsciously I delayed getting on with them because until the rabbit problem is resolved there doesn't seem an awful lot of point going to much trouble to make new viola plants for the flower beds, since they will probably get eaten.  As it is I've got a batch of plants  raised from seed that came free with a magazine languishing in a cold frame, because I can't enthuse myself to plant them out.

Ah well, I will just have to get my four stock plants through the winter and try again in the spring. I shall follow the advice given in an article I found by Val Bourne (written for Saga.  I wouldn't think of the Saga magazine as the first place to go to for gardening advice, but Val Bourne is a sensible journalist who writes on the basis of having done stuff herself, rather than regurgitating ideas out of books).  She says that I should cut my plants back in September so that they make some new growth before they stop growing and go into winter as nice tight, weather resistant domes of foliage.

There will be a lot to cut back, because Viola cornuta has a rambling growth habit, making long trailing arms that continue to lengthen and flower as the summer progresses.  They will weave through other plants, and hoist themselves a little way up the stems of shrubs, and are altogether delightful (when not eaten by rabbits).  I already have an un-named blue form, and did have a rather nice light blue named 'Belmont Blue', though I am not sure if it has survived the combined onslaught of the rabbits and the rampant growth of its neighbours.  Meanwhile, the plants in pots have got a bit straggly by this stage of the summer, but not disgustingly so.

They are 'Victoria Cawthorne', with flowers in a clean shade of mid mauve with delicate purple rays, 'Victoria's Blush', a pale pink with mauve staining on the lower petals and purple rays, 'Alba' which is white (as you'd expect) and 'Clouded Yellow'.  The latter is very pretty, having pale yellow petals mottled with soft purple, on the other hand it is not what I ordered.  I wanted 'Pat Kavanagh', a plain yellow I've admired often at Chelsea and thought would look well under yellow roses with the plain blue form.  Ah well, next year.  All are delicately scented, not the sort of strong perfume that carries on the breeze, but a subtle fragrance that's clearly there if you put your nose close to them.

While I was at it I potted on a tender salvia bought at last year's Dixter plant fair, which is flowering but not increasing in size or looking as happy as it should.  It seems as though shrubby salvia can be very miffy about being given an inadequate root run, or at least being potted on cheered up S. confertiflora enormously, and my 'Stormy Pink' also bought at the plant fair doubled in size seemingly overnight when it was finally released from its pot into the freedom of a border.

I'm not sure where else the day went.  I took a super off the big colony, put a clearer board on another, peeked into two more and decided the honey was still not quite ready.  I washed the kitchen floor since it still seemed to be rather sticky, dead headed the pots and some of the lavender,  did the watering including feeding the pots that get liquid feed at this time of year, and planted all of two Dianthus carthusianorum into the gravel.  And looked at the wildlife camera card (foxes, one muntjac, one sighting of Our Ginger at three in the morning, blackbird, squirrel, no rabbits) and wrote out a cheque for an order of auricula pots from a Yorkshire pottery that doesn't use PayPal (why on earth not?).  How can that be a full day's work?  August always feels as though normal life had been suspended, no Pienaar's politics and the film review programme presented by stand-ins.  It is very ungrateful not to be revelling in the lovely hot weather, but I look at the asters wilting and feel that they and I would be perfectly happy if the thermometer didn't rise above about twenty-two degrees.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

reflections on ironing: quality will out

There was a light sprinkling of rain this morning, just enough to make the prospect of gardening thoroughly uninviting without doing the garden any good at all.  Instead I tackled the pile of ironing which had been growing on the spare bed.  I don't actually mind ironing, since I can listen to music while I do it and the results are gratifyingly instantaneous, big pile of crumpled clothes reduced to small neat piles of usefully wearable garments, but I generally save it for days when it's raining, or I need to go out mid morning and need something I can do until then without covering myself in mess.  But it hasn't been wet recently and I haven't had any appointments requiring me to hang around at home in a presentable state until ten thirty or so, and I was starting to scrape the barrel in terms of wearable t-shirts.

Seeing most of your shirt collection laid out before your eyes is a reminder of how quality pays. The oldest of my Peruvian Connection pima cotton long sleeved t-shirts must have been in my wardrobe for over twenty years, but are still wearable.  Faded though pleasantly so, some stretched to slightly odd shapes or mildly bobbled, I wouldn't put them on display under a jacket for a day out, but layered under other clothes I don't plan to take off they're fine.  I used to wear them two or even three thick on winter's days working at the plant centre, and goodness knows how many times they have been washed.  One had started to fray visibly round the neck and was chucked into the drawer of gardening clothes without being ironed, but the rest are good for a few more years yet.

Boden have reduced the quality of their t-shirts, I'm sure of it.  Three rather nice scoop necked ones with a very fine rib and narrow satin trim around the neck which I know I bought while I was still working in the City are still going strong after at least sixteen years, a bit faded but otherwise intact.  The next generation of Boden t-shirts have all descended to the garden clothes drawer as they got shorter and broader while their hems came unstitched, then they started unravelling into small holes.  The most recent Boden purchases turned out to be in a lighter weight jersey which I can't think will last anything like sixteen years and is a sod to press.  It gathers under the iron and ends up getting creases ironed into it.  The seams on the arms aren't straight either.  Boden's prices do not seem to have dropped in line with the decrease in quality of their t-shirts, and I've rather given up with them.

Boden also developed an unfortunate mania for stripes.  Now stripes can be great fun in their way, but a working wardrobe is not made of stripes alone.  If you are planning to wear a cardigan or scarf with a pattern, or a tailored formal jacket and a necklace, you don't want stripes but a plain coloured base layer picking out one of the colours in the pattern or your jewellery.  Not a fun t-shirt trying to get in on the act.  I have sat drinking tea in the atrium cafe at the British Museum and seen so many other middle aged ladies wearing striped t-shirts, you would think there had been an edict that we had all got to wear them on pain of fine or imprisonment.

I went through a brief phase of supermarket ultra cheap t-shirts, but have given up on them as well. You don't expect cheap goods to be built to last, but they don't age gracefully, and shabby chic works better if the item was chic to start with.  Lands' End garments are almost entirely lacking in panache, but built to last.  I have just sent off for three more on special offer as a stop gap, hoping that the scooped neckline might make them more elegant than the crew neck version, so that I will have some more vaguely tidy ones.  My absolute favourites of the current crop are two from Peruvian Connection with three quarter length sleeves, one in black and one in bluish green, but alas those were the only colours they did in that design and now they've stopped doing them at all. Those and the John Smedley sea island cotton polo neck bought to wear to a winter wedding are definitely the nicest things in my t-shirt drawers.  In the long run you can't beat sea island cotton and pima.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

how the violas did so far

Continuing the theme of bigger pots, I have been moving my experimental collection of potted viola into larger accommodation, since the specialists who supplied most of my plants say they need a deep root run.  In fact, their website said a minimum of thirty centimetres, although I'm not convinced that some of their photos of container grown plants show pots that deep.  I haven't run to thirty centimetres yet, but invested in a stock of plain, utilitarian but not too bad twenty-five by twenty-one centimetre pots from my local garden centre, and will see how those go.  For the potting medium I am using seven parts John Innes number two cut with one part perlite, as advised by the kindly chap from Victorian Violas at Chelsea, who will be in the frame for any further additions to the collection, after the five varieties of their selection debacle with my first choice of supplier.

While I was potting I noted down how each plant was doing by this stage of the summer.  Of the hybrid viola varieties, and leaving Viola cornuta out of it for now, the top prize for still flowering in the second week of August goes to 'Dawn', a mid yellow, scented variety that is still blooming abundantly.  I am pleased with 'Dawn', and have to admit that she was one of the substitutes.  Also pretty good were 'Fiona Lawrenson', one of my selections with cream and lilac flowers and a delicate scent, and 'Julian', which for some reason keeps cropping up in the lists of alpine nurseries, which is where I bought it.  The flowers of 'Julian' are a vivid purplish-blue, and it has been flowering its socks off for months.

'Ivory Queen', another substitute, is still doing pretty well, with lightly scented pale yellow flowers. I ordered 'Beshlie', which is a stronger shade of yellow as far as you can tell from pictures on the web.  'Ivory Queen' is nice, but similar to 'Dawn', which should in turn have been 'Glenholme',  'Josie' which was on my original list had a few flowers left by the time I'd finished dead heading it, in a pleasant shade of cream.  Unfortunately cream on top of two kinds of pale yellow has ended up a bit samey.

'May Mott' was trailing in the floral stakes, with just one remaining flower, though that was large and handsome, two violet petals standing above three cream ones with violet edges.  She should have been 'Maggie Mott' which is pale blue.  There were no flowers at all on 'Mauve Haze', not even any faded ones to tidy off, since 'Mauve Haze' shot its bolt and finished flowering weeks ago.  So far as I can remember it was mauve when it did flower.  It should have been 'Mayfly', which is white edged with blue and strongly fragrant, according to the catalogues.

The plants until now have been growing in classic six inch plastic pots, which they had fully rooted into but not to the extent of becoming pot bound.  They have stood under a house wall where they are in shade for part of the day and receive sunlight for part of the afternoon.  They have been watered pretty faithfully, and deadheaded but not every few days as I perhaps should for maximum effect.  I am still feeling my way with violas.  I am growing them in pots because attempts to grow them in the open garden in years past have ended in failure: the garden is too big, too wild and woolly and too dry for the most part, and violas ended up being swamped, eaten or dying of drought.  The container displays at Chelsea every year are so pretty I thought I'd try again in pots, and the space behind the house on the way to the conservatory seemed a good place to put them, where the plants would get some sun without being baked and could be incorporated in the normal watering routine.

The remaining pots contain Viola cornuta, but that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

a bigger pot

I said I might tell you something about the trio of exotics that did much better once moved to larger pots, Salvia confertiflora, Begonia luxurians and Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata.  I don't think any of them have common names in English, so we will just have to bear with the botanical ones.

The Impatiens came to me courtesy of Dibleys.  I love the Dibleys catalogue, and their stand every year at Chelsea.  Choosing from the Dibleys list produces the sort of thrill that takes me back to the age of deciding how to spend my sixpence at the pick and mix counter in the sweetie shop.  Some of the plants I've tried from them have not survived the winter in my frost free conservatory, some have struggled along, and some have been happy as larry once I worked out how to care for them. The Impatiens falls into the last category.

Dibleys send their plants out as plugs, little things that are vulnerable to over-potting, over-watering, and drying out in summer heatwaves.  The order arrives with care instructions, and Dibleys always say to start the plants off in small pots, no more than nine centimetres.  The Impatiens duly went into a small pot, and once it filled that into a bigger pot, maybe fifteen centimetres.  It sent up a single juicy, tapering green shoot, produced a few side shoots, and flowered moderately.  It did not look ebullient, and come the winter it dropped its leaves.  The stems didn't die back, so it was not dead, but neither was it happy.  Come the spring I moved it into a twenty-one centimetre pot, and the change was dramatic.  The central juicy stem grew, side stems shot out, the leaves became twice the size, and it began to flower with abandon.

It is now eighty-five centimetres high and wide (I measured it in the interests of accurate reportage because I knew I wanted to blog about it).  Every stem ends in a cluster of flowers, each flower consisting of a pointed hood in soft orange atop a soft yellow pouch.  It is enormously cheerful, and quite exotic, and co-ordinates very well with the orange flowers of Begonia sutherlandii, which began life in its own pot and is gradually colonising as many other pots as I will let it.  The Impatiens lives at the back of the conservatory so is in nothing like full sun, and seems very happy with its lot.  I have not yet tried propagating it, since I don't really need any more frost tender exotics nearly a yard across, and suspect that none of my friends want one.  Sometime in a spirit of enquiry I should sacrifice a cluster of flowers and stick the end of a shoot in a glass of water, just to see if it roots as easily as bizzie lizzies did when I was a child first getting hooked on gardening.

Begonia luxurians is also available from Dibleys, although I can't remember if I got mine from there or if it was cheaper somewhere else.  This is another frost tender species happy in semi shade, and is grown mainly for its leaves.  They are gloriously exotic, fans of many pointed leaflets radiating from a single point rather like cannabis, though glossier and more classy.  The point where the leaflets meet the leaf stem is decorated with a second whorl of much smaller leaves, like a little ruff.  The flowers are quite nice, open sprays of tiny white flowers with visible yellow stamens, but it is really for the leaves that you grow Begonia luxurians.

Mine was not initially so luxuriant as I'd hoped it would be, sending up one spindly stem whose lower leaves went brown and shrivelled as it grew.  It made it through the winter, though reduced to about one functioning leaf at the top of the lanky stalk, but it did not create anything like the desired ambience of tropical abundance.  Really it was rather an embarrassment.  In my round of spring repotting I moved it up to a twenty-nine centimetre pot, and it responded in the same way as the Impatiens.  It is now taller than I am, even deducting the height of the pot, and the leaflets on the biggest leaf are fully thirty centimetres long (again, I measured them).  Best of all it is sending up a second stem from ground level, so in due course should start to look bushier and less spindly. It lives at the back of the conservatory, and rather than tie it to a cane I let it sprawl across its neighbours for support.  Its upper parts are entwined with a jasmine and a tree aloe, and all seem happy with the arrangement.

I first saw Salvia confertiflora going around the garden at Kiftsgate, or at least that is where I first consciously registered it.  I did not know what it was, other than that it was a salvia and presumably tender since all their specimens were growing in big pots, but I loved it.  The flowers are individually tiny, carried in vertical spikes, and each small reddish orange flower sits in a hairy red calyx as large as the flower.  The leaves are big and grey and slightly furry, and the whole effect is warm and exotic.  To my delight they had plants for sale at the plant stall by the gate, so I found out the name of the object of my desire and was able to buy one.  It spent the rest of our holiday standing by the window of our gardenless city centre flat, and I panicked each time we got back from touristing and it had wilted.  It is a thirsty thing, despite the grey leaves giving a deceptive impression that it might be drought tolerant.

It grew, I potted it up, but it still had a skinny and unconvinced air about life.  It made it through the winter in the conservatory, with some die back and botrytis in the ends of the stems, a common problem with tender salvia under glass.  I cut it back as much as I dared in the spring, hoping that it would bush out, but it was still not nearly as good as the plants I saw at Kiftsgate.  This spring I moved it up again into a thirty-five centimetre pot and it is getting bushier.  Like the Begonia it is finally throwing up a second stem from ground level.  I have seen it used at (I think) East Ruston Old Vicarage in an absolutely enormous pot, and next year I might move it up once more.  It stands outside for the summer, rubbing along with the dahlias outside the conservatory, and goes back under glass for the winter, squeezed in as near to the front as I can manage so that it will get what light's going.  You do not have to go all the way to Kiftsgate Court to buy it, although you are unlikely to run across one in your local garden centre.  Ashwood Nursery lists it as part of their long list of salvia, and so do Burncoose and Great Dixter, and some others.  I see in the photograph on Great Dixter's website that they have it bedded out for the summer, and give its height as two metres, which increases my suspicion that my plant would like a still bigger pot.