Sunday, 31 December 2017

happy new year

The Systems Administrator's cold has lingered on, and my incipient cold has got worse, after hanging around ominously in the background for the past week.  We compared notes on symptoms and decided it sounded like we both had the same one.  My true love hath my cold and I have his.  I have done slightly better out of the bargain since I retain possession of the marital bedroom with the en suite, while the SA has retreated to the ironing room, which doesn't have a working radiator since the SA borrowed the control to replace one in the sitting room that had broken and never got round to ordering a replacement.

Fortunately neither of us have ever been great fans of New Year's Eve, so we are not missing anything.  I don't think any of our friends are having giant parties they haven't invited us to anyway.  Some are celebrating with their children, and I think some ask the neighbours round for a quiet glass of champagne, but we don't live within strolling distance of any of them.

Maybe 2018 will be really good.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

a gardening day

Suddenly the wind has swung round to the west, and it is warm enough to garden.  Indeed, by the middle of the day I was so warm that I had to take my scarf off as I continued working my way down the slope in the back, weeding, chopping down the remains of the herbaceous plants, sprinkling blood, fish and bone over the border, and topping up the Strulch.

The brambles would take over if they could.  From the few rootstocks tucked in close to the trunks of the mature shrubs, where I never had time to dig them out last year, they have sent long arms arching and scrambling forward across the bed.  Every time they touch down they root at the tip.  Here and there along the bed are irritating little mini-brambles, growing from the rooted tips of past incursions that I never got to in time to extract them completely.  I chisel them out with my trowel, but they don't wholly die, sending up new, spindly, irritating shoots from their remaining roots.  The shoots from the main roots are fatter and faster, much more visible now the leaves have dropped from the shrubs than they were in the summer.  I cleared arcs of bramble stem out of the flowering currants and the Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride', disentangled them from the rose 'Fritz Nobis', and nipped a few in the bud that were just starting to think about exploring the golden yew.

I must make the time to work my way back uphill along the rear of the bed, and attack them at the root.  It is tempting, when time is limited, to focus your efforts on the fronts of the beds because they show more, but in the end you need to clear up behind the scenes as well.  There are great long shoots of bird-sown ivy running over the ground at the back of the bed and creeping outwards under the shrubs.  Give it another season and it will start climbing them.  It already had begun to loop its way through the yellow berried Cotoneaster 'Rothschildeanus'.

There is a patch of Allium triquetrum in the bed.  A native of the Mediterranean, this has become a fearsome weed in some parts of the world, and is regarded with suspicion by many British gardeners because it spreads so readily.  It is in fact listed on Schedule 9 of the Countryside Act, meaning that it is an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow it in the wild.  That doesn't stop the RHS listing thirteen suppliers in their Plant Finder.  If I had known quite how rampant it was when I first planted it I might not have chosen to include it, on the other hand it copes valiantly in a rather nasty stretch of claggy soil and only spreads at the edges of the patch.  I have never found it coming up anywhere else in the garden or wood, or else I should worry.  The flowers are white and quite pretty in a small, wild way.  The foliage is dense and weed suppressing when it's out, which it is now, but it will disappear by the summer.

Friday, 29 December 2017

special seeds

The post between Christmas and the New Year has brought more gardening catalogues, including one of my current favourites, Derry Watkins' seed list from her nursery near Bath, Special Plants.  It is an excellent list, not the longest but including all sorts of things that I should like to grow, many of them rare, and many sounding as if they actually would grow in southern England.  Most are herbaceous, and her descriptions of perennials are admirably nuanced, identifying those species that are naturally short-lived as well as those that are only marginally hardy.

I always feel sorry for people spending several pounds on something they may have seen in a magazine without realizing that after a couple of seasons it will almost certainly die.  Lysimachia atropurpurea 'Beaujolais' springs to mind, and every Agastache I have ever attempted to grow.  They may well seed themselves, given the chance, but anyone thinking they had invested in a permanent feature for their border will be disappointed.  Some will then vent their disappointment on the front-line retail staff at their local garden centre, who were not responsible for the less than complete descriptions on the plant labels.

The Special Plants seed list also makes life easy for its customers by pricing all packets at two pounds.  If a species produces seed freely and plentifully then you get more in a packet, and the converse if seed is only sparsely produced or tricky to harvest.  Ten packets, twenty quid plus postage.  Most seed catalogues are addicted to odd price points, £1.89, £1.55. £4.50, £2.72.

This year's catalogue includes a couple of things that I knew I wanted.  After seven years of trouble- free existence, my specimen of the herbaceous yellow flowered climber Dicentra scandens failed to come up last spring.  I have no idea why, if something about the weather proved its undoing, or if it too has a shortish life span, albeit more than two seasons, or whether something ate its resting core last winter.  It is a pretty thing, with dangling locket shaped flowers, attractively divided foliage, and deceptively vigorous, fragile, fleshy stems, which in the course of the season make a good three metres of growth.  I have never seen plants offered for sale, and given its growth habit I can imagine they would be very difficult to manage on a nursery.  They would soon grow into each other and everything around them, and by the time you'd disentangled them they'd be a mess of broken stems.  I grew mine from seed.  Until it disappeared it used to sprawl over a Magnolia stellata for the summer.  The Magnolia had finished flowering before the Dicentra got going, and didn't seem to mind its passenger.  The seed is not the rarest and most difficult thing to find, but neither is it common.

She has Teucrium hircanum as well.  I raised some previously from seed, which made splendid plants in their pots in their first year, but then began to go downhill rapidly.  Some things will sit patiently in pots for ages waiting to go out into the ground, and some won't.  One problem with growing your own garden plants from seed is that after you have sown them, site clearance may not progress as rapidly as you had hoped, and so it proved with the Teucrium and the brambles in the meadow.  The tray of plants I managed to get into the ground last spring staged a remarkable recovery, having looked so weak and half dead when I planted them that I wondered if I was wasting my time, but the rest that I didn't manage to plant out faded away quietly in their pots.  Teucrium hircanum produces vertical spikes of purple flowers that are very, very attractive to bees.  They are nice-looking plants in a slightly wild way, just the thing for a naturalistic part of the garden, and I should like some more.  They are said to be drought tolerant and to self-sow, both of which would be useful along the side of the wood.

At the last Chelsea Flower Show I was greatly taken by something called Anthyllis vulneraria in a display of drought tolerant planting.  I am always looking for good plants for dry sand, and this one had clover-like flowers in a fetching shade of dark red.  When I got home I looked at the exhibitor's website, which is surely largely the point of exhibiting at Chelsea, but they did not sell it.  Derry Watkins offers seed though, of the dark red form as seen at Chelsea and not the ordinary pink.

That's only three packets so I can choose a few more.  There's no point in buying too many, since they all have to be sown, and pricked out, and potted on, and a space found for them in the garden.  But the postage will be £1.50 whether I buy three packets or ten.  Maybe this year I should try the small flowered red Zinnia that I admired in Rod Leeds' garden without knowing it was a Zinnia.  Or I have never tried growing flax.  Or there's a tall, rusty red kind of Tagetes from Great Dixter that might make better plants in pots than the unhappy Tithonia did.  So much choice, it is like standing before the sweetie counter, aged six, with pennies to spend and the competing charms of gobstoppers and sherbet dib-dabs to weigh up.

The other reason why I like Derry Watkins so much is that she highlights species that really need to be sown fresh to germinate, and then offers seed through the year when it is fresh.  Most seed catalogues don't, and after sowing my fair share of umbellifers and anemone that never came up, I am rather exasperated with them.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

a visit to Firstsite

This morning I went with a friend to see the Grayson Perry exhibition at Colchester's Firstsite.  The gallery was opened in 2011, late and over budget, and you can get a pretty good idea of how well it has done since when I tell you that, despite living only five miles away and liking art enough to be paid-up supporter of the Tate and the Art Fund, I have been there twice before today.

It was built, amidst much local derision, to showcase contemporary art.  I like some contemporary art.  I like Grayson Perry enough to have traveled all the way to Margate to visit one of his shows, but an awful lot of it passes me by.  Still, if it is good enough for Hoxton who is to say that the good people of north Essex shouldn't have some as well?  To make sure that Firstsite could not be used for anything more than a small exhibition of traditional art it was designed with practically no vertical interior walls that you could hang anything on.  And the roof leaked.  One of my previous visits to Firstsite was to hear a string quartet, and it turned out that it was not a good venue for chamber music either, because during the quiet passages you could hear the thumping bass line from one of the town centre's clubs.

The main reason I didn't take to visiting Firstsite is that they never seemed to have anything on that I liked the sound of.  It required a certain amount of effort to find out what they were up to, as the pages on their website take an extraordinarily long time to load and they never managed to put me on a mailing list, but nothing I heard about seemed worth the extra hour's parking and a trip to that end of town.  Never mind the star architect and statement building, if you don't have a good management team putting on interesting exhibitions you might as well not bother.  I have looked enviously over the past six years at the good reviews of shows in the regional galleries along the south coast at Chichester, Eastbourne, and Bexhill-on-Sea, wishing that they could tour to Firstsite as well, but they never did.    I don't know what the problem was, if Colchester was unlucky with its curators, or if the terms and conditions on offer weren't good enough to attract the best in a limited pool of talent.  At one point the manager of Colchester Arts Centre stepped into the breach.  He managed to increase footfall by dint of stunts like putting a van in the foyer (actually, most of Vinoly's design looks like part of the foyer) and holding food fairs, but that still left us short of any serious art.

A few months ago I read in the local paper that a new curator had been hired, so I live in hope that things will look up.  Getting Grayson Perry was a step in the right direction.  He designed a house at Wrabness a while back, a sort of extraordinary Mughal gingerbread house, intended to be let out (at great expense) so that people could holiday surrounded by a work of contemporary art, though you can see the outside from the public footpath.  The current exhibition is about the ideas behind the house, which is envisaged as a shrine to an upwardly mobile Essex Everywoman.  There are four big tapestries and five woodcuts (all displayed on the limited vertical hanging space), some preparatory sketches, photographs of the house, a stylised ceramic model of it, and a green ceramic Sheela Na Gig tile like those that decorate it, plus an essay about the imaginary Everywoman's life narrated by the artist and playing on a continuous loop.  It is really good, if you like Grayson Perry.  It is not very big, though.  Janet Street-Porter came specially from London to see it, and tweeted about the fact that Firstsite was not signposted from the town centre, and I wonder if she felt the effort had been worthwhile.

Entry is free.  We managed to arrive and leave without interacting with any member of staff, and Firstsite still don't have my details so that they could tell me about future exhibitions.  The loos are very clean, and there is a cafe (or rather some tables and chairs and a counter) in the end of the endless foyer nearest the door, though we didn't stay.  My friend looked at a mug in the shop as we left, but it was £25.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

what to do on the day after boxing day

I was out gardening on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, which is pretty good going, but today as the rain gave way to horizontal sleet it was clear that I would not be spending the day out of doors.  I considered whether to start getting to grips with the new woodland charity presentation and the garden club accounts, but decided that the gap between Christmas and the New Year was still officially holiday.

One of the pleasures of the post Christmas period is having left over Christmas pudding for breakfast, fried gently in butter and served with left over cream.  I was able to indulge yesterday and this morning, and then the Systems Administrator asked whether there was any left, and I was obliged to yield up the last slice.  I couldn't really complain since I'd had more than half of it.  Instead I made some mince pies, smarting slightly that the BBC's Victorian Bakers at Christmas had dismissed shortcrust pastry as the poor people's inferior version.  I am rather proud of my shortcrust.  Given I had all day ahead of me I could have chosen to embark on making rough puff, or flaky, but I wasn't feeling that energetic.

The Systems Administrator's cold was better than it was yesterday.  Anybody who want to eat  Christmas pudding for breakfast can't be at death's door.  Nonetheless it was very bubbly and unpleasant.

The cats were bored.  They would have liked to go out.  Sometimes, between showers, they did go out, before coming in again as the next wave of sleet arrived.  Then they prowled about restlessly before grudgingly settling down in their baskets.  Last night, after the Systems Administrator had gone to bed early with the cold, Our Ginger sat for a long time in front of the cupboard containing the overflow fridge in which there was the remains of the roast chicken, and next to him sat his apprentice in crime, Mr Fluffy.  This afternoon I picked over the chicken carcass for them.  Somehow we didn't fancy it, knowing the cats had been at it.  There was still quite a lot of meat on it and I felt rather cross, even though we have lots of gammon left to eat up and are behindhand with eating the leftovers anyway, what with the SA being ill.  I'll have to look on it as the cats' revenge for not getting £22 each of Christmas presents like the average pet.

A ritual of Christmas is escaping from the confines of the study for a few days.  It is nice to sit by the open fire in the sitting room, with the Christmas tree and the cards and the greenery decorating the mantelpiece.  After two months of spending evenings hunkered down in the study and the prospect of another three months of winter to go, we appreciate the brief change of scenery.  This afternoon, as the thermometer outside plummeted, so did the the temperature inside as the sitting room's barn-like void swallowed all the heat that both radiators and the log fire could throw at it.  We gave up and retreated back to the study.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

the fridge thief

Like many households we have hung on to the old fridge from before our fitted kitchen, fridge-freezer days.  Sometimes I wonder how much it costs us to run, and worry about the environmental extravagance of having two fridges.  But the fact that we waste very little food and have not so far given ourselves food poisoning is not unconnected with the quantity of fridge space.  And it is useful for chilling drinks and having somewhere to store salad and puddings when we have guests.  Many people keep their overflow fridge in their garage.  Ours lives in a useful, fridge sized space in a cupboard in the downstairs sitting room, complete with electrical socket, dating from when the house was first built and that room was in fact the kitchen.

This morning as I came downstairs I saw the door to the cupboard was open.  That was not unusual, neither of us being tidy people, but what was unusual was that the fridge door was open as well.  I went to shut it, hoping that the leftover Christmas ham had not got too warm, and wondering how on earth the fridge had come to be open.  Presumably the roasting trays balanced on top of the bag of King Edwards had slid forward and stopped it from latching fully.

When I looked in the fridge I saw that the tinfoil had gone from over the breast of the small free range Duchy Organic chicken.  Ah.  Cats.  Your reaction to discovering that your cats have been eating the remains of your Christmas roast is a test of your devotion as a pet owner.  If your immediate thought is that they have only had the breast and not the legs and so have almost certainly not swallowed any sharp bones that could hurt them that marks you down as a hopelessly devoted owner.  I am quite hopelessly devoted, though I was also relieved that on the balance of probabilities I was not going to spend the rest of the Christmas holiday trying to track down an emergency vet.

I shoved the tray of chicken back in the fridge and shut the door, thinking I would sort it out later and telling myself that ham was a preserved meat and the downstairs sitting room must have been pretty cold anyway overnight so it would be fine.  I did feel a pang that there would be no cold chicken breast with cranberry jelly, and wondered if it would be worth salvaging the meat off the legs for a pie, or if neither of us would really fancy it knowing that the cats had been at it.

Much later in the day the Systems Administrator noticed Mr Fluffy sitting near the fridge, looking guilty.  The SA went to investigate whatever it was that Mr Fluffy was guilty about, and found Our Ginger with his paw hooked around the edge of the fridge door, yanking at it.  Intent on his mission, Our Ginger did not pay a great deal of attention to the SA, and presently managed to jerk the door of the fridge open.  So much for theories about sliding roasting tins.  The cat can open the fridge, if he thinks it's worth his while.

The cupboard door is now firmly shut.

Monday, 25 December 2017

happy christmas

Happy Christmas, one and all.  We have made it.  The Systems Administrator, although still nursing a cold and a sore throat, rallied sufficiently to cook and eat lunch, a small free range Duchy organic chicken (that was the only free range chicken Waitrose had last Thursday that was good until December 25th, most of the space that would normally contain free range chicken being given over to turkeys) and all the trimmings, and last year's Christmas pudding.  Gifts have been exchanged.  Christmas music has been listened to.  None of the kitties have gone missing or broken anything.  Mr Fluffy had a go at tobogganing on the tablecloth and rampaging among the cards, but that was before I'd laid the table, and Mr Fidget sat quietly on a chair all through lunch without trying to jump up.  By dusk I was starting to feel a little plaintive that I hadn't seen Mr Cool since breakfast time, but when I went down to shut the conservatory door there he was, dozing quietly out of the wind.  Our Ginger has been omnipresent, with the air of a cat that knows a party is going on that he hasn't been invited to fully join in with.  My mother emailed.  My Japanese gardening friend emailed and my card to her arrived in time.

It is a relief.  The ritual has been accomplished, and there is enough cold food to last for days without our having to do much cooking.  One of us will have to venture out tomorrow because the SA is running out of cold remedies and I have been eking out the cat biscuits since Friday.  I feel rather bad at having bought such monstrous quantities of food for us and forgotten to get more biscuits for the cats.  We have a good stock of tins but they don't want tinned food, they want biscuits.

The chickens spoofed me into fetching them an extra helping of sultanas because it was Christmas day and they looked so hopeful when I went past to bring in more firewood.  I gave the Systems Administrator a pair of Danish felt house shoes, AKA slippers, in an entirely non-ironic way because I have found mine so warm and light and comfortable.  The SA admits they are all of those things.

It doesn't sound very much like the Perfect Christmas that the papers have been banging on about since around mid November, but compared to last year it was a triumph.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

the day before christmas

The omens for Christmas did not look too good first thing this morning, as the Systems Administrator's lingering, will-it won't-it cold had got worse in the night.  He rallied a bit by mid morning, and managed to take a shower, eat some lunch, and collect the holly and ivy for the mantelpiece, but I remain agnostic about whether we will be sitting down to roast chicken and all the trimmings at lunchtime tomorrow, or if I will be going through the contents of the fridge to see what needs to go in the freezer.  My own cold feels as though it had not gone but merely stepped into the next room.

Meanwhile the mantelpiece looks suitably wild and pagan for the spirits to live in, and very pretty, though the birds had eaten almost all the berries off the holly.  They always do, but I think that after the cold spell at the start of the month there are even fewer left than usual.  We use rose hips instead, though they had eaten quite a lot of those as well.

The cats have been very good about the Christmas tree.  In fact, they have mostly ignored it, apart from Mr Fluffy who has been sitting under it.  We only used plastic baubles, so that they would bounce instead of breaking if dragged off the tree, and if they did break they would not be expensive or impossible to replace, and the bits would not be as dangerous as glass, and there are no lights because we were afraid the cats would chew them, but they have behaved in an exemplary fashion with only the briefest and most desultory batting at the baubles.  You can never tell with animals.

I spend a useful day weeding and mulching in the back garden.  Things are indeed gently moving on: the first hyacinth snouts are already poking through.  I was more than usually aware that I really must not poke myself in the eye, since having to seek treatment at the walk in centre on Christmas Eve seemed like a very bad idea.  Cornus is the worst with its fine, pointed side stems coming off the main branch almost at right angles, and I did catch one piece of dogwood tapping on the side piece of my safety glasses.

By half past three it was too dark to see properly to weed, or to avoid sneaky sideways twigs, and I finished listening to the nine lessons and carols in the kitchen with Mr Fidget.  Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

back outside

Finally, after the extensive preamble about the tulip bulbs salvaged from last spring's pots, I went out to plant them into the dahlia bed and found they were dead.  Half had been hollowed out by some sort of insect, turning to grey powdery dust inside their tunics when I touched them, and the other half had rotted in their bags.  This is why it is safer to start with fresh bulbs from a bulb merchant if you know you definitely want tulips.  I daresay they use temperature controlled stores and insecticidal treatments and all sorts of precautions to ensure that they still have a live crop come autumn.  It was a disappointment, though not the first one.  Two or three years ago I found mice had got into the garage and eaten them.

After the debacle of the tulips I cleaned the hens' roosting board, which I had been put off doing while it was drizzling and cold outside and until I did not have a streaming nose and a headache.  I gave them another straw bale for their run as well, so that they could amuse themselves by picking it apart and searching for insects.  In fact, they still hadn't made a very complete job of spreading it out by the end of the afternoon, and I might scatter it around the run before letting them out tomorrow.  A layer of straw on the ground helps keep their feet clean, which is nicer for them and stops them leaving muddy footprints on the eggs.

Then I was able to return to the task of tidying the sloping bed in the back garden, weeding, feeding, cutting down the old herbaceous growth, and topping up the Strulch.  It was very good to get back outside, and I advanced a gratifyingly long way down the slope.  The rate of progress was slightly illusory as I'd already weeded that stretch before the weather turned horrible, only the foliage was too damp then to sprinkle the blood, fish and bone without it sticking to everything.  Fairly soon I will get to the stretch where evil tentacles of brambles reach out from the back of the bed, where their roots are tucked away under the canopies of various large shrubs so that it will be very difficult to get a proper swing at them with the pick axe.

The buds on the Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' are already swelling, and in the front garden the winter flowering cherry has produced a flush of its little pale pink blossoms.  The other day I saw the snout of an emerging snowdrop already above ground level.  Things keep moving gently on.

Friday, 22 December 2017

a winter posy

We had guests to tea, and so I wandered around the garden this morning looking for things to go in a small vase to make the low table in front of the sofas look suitably festive.  The garden looked very brown, very drippy, and not terribly festive at all, but I was sure there had to be something.

Holly leaves are the obvious starting point, and I nipped the tips off some side branches of the variegated Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata'.  This is not an especially rare variety, and if you have ever bought a ready trained variegated standard holly from a garden centre that was quite possibly the one.  The pale variegation runs around the leaf edges, and in young growth is often attractively tinged pink.  I very rarely, if ever, have to trim pieces out that have reverted to plain green, which can be a problem with variegated shrubs.  In general they are less likely to revert if they have a pale band around the margin rather than a white splash in the centre.  I don't understand why that is, biologically speaking, and have just taken a few minutes to dig around on the web before coming up with an article by Anna Pavord, whom I trust implicitly, confirming I'd got it the right way round and wasn't just lucky with this specimen.

Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata' is a female variety, so theoretically bears berries as long as there's a pollinating male somewhere nearby, but there were none on ours.  I think the birds have already eaten them, so made do with some hips off the rose 'Fritz Nobis'.  This is a largish shrub rose, blooming only once in summer but with a generous display of double pink flowers, followed by nice, round, fairly large, orange-red hips, and good healthy foliage.  The excellent Trevor White will sell you one if you are so inclined.  I planted mine by accident, having ordered (not from Trevor White) the altogether smaller and daintier Rosa 'Fimbriata'.  Both varieties begin with F and I guess somebody got in a muddle.  I planted 'Fritz Nobis' anyway, as it was there, and have grown very fond of it.  It is beginning to sprawl rather, and perhaps I should be brave and prune it hard, and then feed it a lot.

The arrow shaped leaves of Arum italicum 'Marmoratum' are good in arrangements.  You sometimes see them in the little vases of flowers in the Chatto gardens cafe at this time of year.  The leaves are darkish green with an elaborate pattern of pale green stripes inside a plain dark margin, and ruffled edges.  They grow from tubers, which multiply underground to build up into nice patches unless something digs them up and eats them, but that hasn't happened this winter (yet).  I believe they are rich in starch.  For some plain green leaves I nipped the ends out of a few shoots of a Pittosporum which I am pretty sure is 'Wrinkled Blue'.  I wish I was entirely sure, since it appears to be relatively hardy and it would be useful to know which variety it was.  Pittosporum hail originally from New Zealand, and I used to grow more than I do now before the two successive unusually cold winters we had on the trot a few years back.  It is a nuisance when plants that were supposed to be evergreen structural features die on you, or become massively scruffy taking several years to recover fully, and it put me off rather.

The weather had turned the promising pink flowers of Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' to an off-pink shade of fawn, when I went and looked at them closely.  There will be more coming on before the end of winter, but in the meantime I cut a few heads from the winter iris, Iris unguicularis, searching carefully for ones that hadn't been nibbled by snails.  They grow in a dry, rubbly bed against the south end of the house, where they are in sun for much of the day, and they like it there, except that their dense foliage against the brickwork does make a paradise for snails.  I ought to do something about them, either hide some slug pellets down among the leaves, or else go out by torchlight and pick the snails off.  I have seen thrushes in the back garden, which is a good reason not to use pellets, but since I don't like snail hunting I have been putting up with the damage.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

the shortest day

Today is the winter solstice.  I don't know if latter day druids and followers of wicca still gather at Stonehenge, now visitors have to go in via the new English Heritage visitor centre and it costs an arm and a leg, and the stones are a ten minute shuttle bus ride away though visitors aren't allowed right up to them anyway, but if they did go they must have got terribly damp.  I went to Waitrose.

I think I got everything we need to put on Christmas lunch, and tea for my relations tomorrow afternoon, and to keep ourselves fed until next week.  If possible I would prefer not to go near a supermarket until then, although I have just noticed that we're running rather low on cat biscuits so I might have to go to Budgens.  Waitrose wasn't too bad first thing this morning, but as December 25th draws nearer it can only get worse.  In fact, if I've forgotten anything I think we might just smile wanly and agree to do without it.

Christmas last year never happened because we both had flu, we had to cancel this year's annual holiday, we have both been nursing incipient colds all month that mock us by seeming to start getting better for a couple of days and then come back, and frankly if we both remain reasonably well between tomorrow and Boxing Day, and able to cook and eat a large meal containing most of the right constituents of a Christmas lunch, and the cats do not disappear or do anything that requires the attention of a vet, I will be entirely satisfied.  Start with modest expectations and they are more likely to be exceeded.  The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, a small tree with a limited selection of plastic ornaments that the cats can't break or electrocute themselves on, the usual collection of Christmas music, and a mince pie and some nuts and raisins, will be sufficient entertainment.  I have not decided on my Christmas Outfit but I am fairly sure it will be something warm that won't be spoiled if a cat decides to sit on my lap, in other words whatever I would have been wearing on any other Sunday spent at home when I am not out in the garden.

Meanwhile, the amaryllis is opening just in time for Christmas, which was very clever of whoever prepared the bulb.  I read that left to their own devices they would bloom in April or May.  The flower is a wonderful shade of pink, the kind of intense pink I associate with lacecap hydrangeas.  You see it in interiors painted by Bonnard and Matisse, suffusing a wall or a tablecloth, then it crops up in the work of Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury set, and other early twentieth century movements.  The petals are thick, fleshy and luxurious, with a green tinge on their backs and a slightly rough, warty texture.  I wish I could have a big scarf made out of wild silk in just that shade of pink, lightly shaded with green.  As it is I am enjoying looking at the amaryllis when doing the washing up.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

christmas preparations

I had to go into Colchester this morning because I was due for a haircut.  My hairdresser was beginning to flag from the weight of Christmas preparations on top of work and had a cold.  As she washed my hair it became apparent that the boiler, which had only just been serviced, was not entirely working.  It didn't stop her making a very good job of my haircut, but I felt for her as I ambled off into the drizzle, leaving her to sort out the hot water system and keep working flat out until Saturday afternoon.  It is not even as though I was having my hair done specially for Christmas, it was simply eight weeks since the last appointment.

The only other customer was a grey haired woman about two decades my senior, who was clearly a regular.  As we sat side by side to be washed she asked if the curl was natural, and as I left she told me that my hair was very pretty.  It is certainly very 1980s.  My hairdresser talked about keeping the cut light around the sides because I only had a small face, but reassured me that no, she would not give me a mullet.  Pampering is a hobby that has passed me by: facials, manicures, pedicures, eyebrow threading (what on earth is eyebrow threading?), bikini waxes, any kind of waxes, sunbeds (very bad for the skin), wrapping yourself in seaweed, wrapping yourself in mud, all of these seem a sublime waste of time and money.  I do enjoy having my hair cut, though.

I went home via the vet to stock up on flea and worm capsules.  Poor cats, they are not getting gift selection boxes containing two handmade white and pink sugar mice, a gingerbread toy, and organic catnip, a snip at £45.  For that you can buy a box with six doses of Broadline flea and worm treatment, thank you very much.  I am sure they will be perfectly happy playing with the wrapping paper from our presents, even though it is just from an ordinary roll from Waitrose and not special pet friendly paper made from soy based ink.

I called in at Tesco as well in search of stuffing.  There was a slight atmosphere of contained panic, despite there still being three days to go before Christmas Eve and the fact that Tesco will be open again on Boxing Day.  Anxious people with lists milled about, and I joined them, circling the chilled aisles several times before finally managing to track down pork and chestnut stuffing.  The Paxo was easy.  Tesco, bless them, had put it somewhere obvious.  I am glad pork and chestnut stuffing is still a thing and I do not have to buy a pouch of vacuum packed chestnuts and start learning to make my own.

My cunning plan to wrap presents this afternoon while the Systems Administrator was out came to a premature close because I ran out of sellotape.  I thought we had some, but maybe we used it up.  Or perhaps the Systems Administrator has put it somewhere, since the last thing to be gift wrapped was probably my birthday presents, but it did not seem a good time of the year to start poking about in the SA's railway room.  I think I had better buy some gift tags as well, since my mother and the SA have radically different tastes in reading matter and it wouldn't do to mix the parcels up.

The drizzle did not lift, and my sinuses screamed in protest each time I took them outside.  I looked regretfully at the latest drift of oak leaves on the lawn, and the dripping mess of the herb bed, and decided that they were going to have to stay like that for another day.  Probably several, looking at the weather forecast.  According to The Times, December is the foggiest month of the year.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

a winter's day

Didn't they have another baby? I asked the Systems Administrator last week, as I was working my way through the address book to write the Christmas cards.  Brow furrowed, the SA admitted that he thought they probably did, but neither of us could remember what it was called.  I deputed the SA to find out the details, since they were his relations, and put their card down as o/s on my spreadsheet.  Fortunately they are organised people and a card from them arrived in yesterday's post, signed on behalf of all of them including the mystery baby.  Otherwise unless the SA had come up with the info they wouldn't have got one from us, since you can't send a card to Ali, Claire, Georgia, and the other one (you did have another, didn't you?).

I walked up to the post box with it, congratulating myself that when I was in one of the last two remaining post offices within a five mile radius I had bought some first class stamps, so our card should still arrive decently before Christmas.  And then I was able to delete Christmas cards from the list of Things to Do.

The walk to the post box was enough to convince me that it was too cold to be outside.  The cats came to the same conclusion, and by lunchtime all four were curled up in the study, Our Ginger on the stool in front of the electric fire, and the three kitties in a row in their baskets on top of the cupboard.  Even the sight of the birds on the bird table wasn't enough to get them back outdoors.  I did see Mr Fidget on the gravel earlier eating a mouse, which he promptly sicked up in the hall, so perhaps he had had enough of the outdoors for one day.

We are going to have to do something to stop the fake fur Cat Snoozers sliding off the cupboard.  Mr Fluffy has just jumped up, only for the bed and Mr Fluffy with it to toboggan straight off the other side.  I am relying on the SA to come up with a technical solution.  I did the Christmas cards, after all.  The list of Things to Do did not end up any shorter, though, because reading though my pile of gardening magazines reminded me that I needed to add Prune the grape vines.

Monday, 18 December 2017

back in the garden

Finally it thawed out, a bit.  I was all set to plant the tulip bulbs from last year's pots in the dahlia bed, but by mid morning there was still frost lying on top of the Strulch, and I decided I'd better stick to weeding and deadheading.  Soil is an extremely efficient insulator, so you really don't want to go burying cold or frozen lumps of it six inches down, where they will sit like little blocks of ice, chilling the roots of your plants.  Tulips and dahlias, both left permanently in the ground, live together quite happily, the former having pretty much finished doing anything for the year by the time the latter have really got going.  I suppose, following on from what Fergus Garrett said in his lecture, that you would not want to have a tulip with massive, broad leaves right next to any of the dahlia crowns in case it shaded out the new dahlia shoots, but I don't pack them into the bed that densely.

The combination started as a way of reusing the bulbs from the displays in pots, unless they had split into tiny offsets that wouldn't be capable of flowering for years, because it seemed a shame to throw them away and I couldn't think where else to put them.  I didn't want to risk reusing them in the pots in case they didn't flower again.  Like my amaryllis on the kitchen window sill, bedding tulips bought from a bulb merchant are virtually guaranteed to flower in year one, but the following seasons are more hit and miss.  I didn't mind a miss or two in the open ground, but pots with only two or three flowers in a display that was mainly leaves would be a disappointment.

The only issue with replanting the bulbs afterwards, apart from making time to actually do it, is that your choice of colour scheme for the pots is then limited by what you've already got in the garden.  The tulips in the dahlia bed are a medley of hot colours, deep reds, orange, purple and bright yellow.  If I fancied soft pinks or cream in the pots for a change I'd have to think of something else to do with the bulbs.  A couple of years ago I did opt for pink and soft yellow, and the bulbs that were fit to be reused ended up being planted around the hybrid tea roses.  This time to make things easier for myself I have gone back to purple and red.  We both like the hot colours anyway, and they go well with the lime green flowers of Euphorbia characias that are out at the same time.

Some people plant their spent tulip bulbs in grass that's allowed to grow long, taking the view that if they die out after a season or two it doesn't matter.  Prince Charles used to have them at Highgrove, though he may have bought them specially for the purpose, before deciding that it was not a green or sustainable form of gardening and switching to Camassia.  I toyed with the idea, but couldn't think of a piece of grass where they would look right, and doubted I would get much of a display even in year one.  Asking a tulip to cope with competition from grass as well as our dreadful soil seemed too much.

The tall bedding varieties are not reliably perennial in the ground anyway.  A few stalwarts last for years, of which the most determined has to be the pillar box red 'Apeldoorn'.  I even have an odd tulip that looks just like 'Appeldoorn' that comes up reliably every year in the gravel, close under the house wall in a spot where I never planted it.  I think it sowed itself there, otherwise if it is a legacy of the previous owners it has survived since 1993.  'Appeldoorn' is a Darwin hybrid, and they are reckoned to be among the best of the tall tulips for permanent plantings.  The lily flowered orange 'Ballerina' is pretty good as well.

I am running ahead of myself, though, since I never got as far as planting any tulips today, and had to make do with deadheading lavender and pulling sheep sorrel out of the gravel.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

the bleak midwinter

There was a proper, hard frost last night.  A thick sheet of sculpted ice covered the Systems Administrator's Skoda even though it was parked in the shelter of the house, the gravel had lost its crunch and was welded into one solid mass, the lawns glittered whitely, and the frosted seed heads would have been a joy if it had not been too cold to want to hang around outside looking at them.  I had to defrost the hens' galvanised drinker with hot water, and was mightily relieved on looking in the greenhouse to see that the electric fan heater had managed to prevent the geraniums from freezing.

The early morning sun was beautiful, a deep orange globe still not fully risen above the horizon.  By mid morning it hung low in the sky, a pale orb to the east, while across the fields to the west freezing fog had settled in, the thermometer was still a couple of degrees below zero, and I was relieved that we did not have to drive anywhere.  By lunchtime the freezing conditions had given way seamlessly to rain, and I turned the heaters off.  Tonight it is not supposed to freeze, and I will risk leaving them off.  The geraniums do not know what a precarious existence they lead at this time of the year, ignorant inhabitants of the Shires with the Nazgul ever prowling at the periphery.

I thought I could spend the afternoon usefully mugging up on my new woodland charity presentation.  They notified me that it was ready on their website three days after my father died, and for obvious reasons I did not get round to looking at it at the time.  The old presentation did perfectly well for my last booking of the season, and then had to be pressed into service again for the additional talk I did at a couple of days' notice, but I might as well be ready for next year.  I managed to find the woodland charity's original email in my inbox, but the link to the new presentation was only valid for thirty days so I couldn't download it.  Ah well, it was a good idea.  I hope somebody will be there next week to send me a fresh link, since we are getting towards the stage of the year when everything grinds to a halt until 2 January 2018.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

in the supermarket

I went to Waitrose to get more Christmas cards, since it was that or central Colchester.  The emergency cards I ended up buying at Tesco a few years ago had such tacky artwork and naff wording that I still remember them with shame.  Since I needed to go to a supermarket I thought I might as well combine it with a preliminary Christmas shop, for things like nuts and ginger beer that are not going to go off between now and Boxing Day.

Waitrose was not at all crowded when I arrived, though it was getting busier by the time I left.  I spent a long time looking forlornly for Paxo stuffing, but couldn't find any.  How can there be so many kinds of risotto rice but no packets of stuffing mixture?  We eat Paxo stuffing once a year and once only, as part of Christmas lunch.  It is traditional.  I know it is awfully 1970s, but that's the point of traditions.  I couldn't find any sausage meat and chestnut stuffing in the chiller cabinets either.  Perhaps stuffing is just hopelessly out of fashion, like being called Mildred or standing up when the national anthem is played.  Maybe people who shop in Waitrose don't eat stuffing, or make their own from sourdough breadcrumbs and fresh herbs.  Or perhaps it was somewhere and I just couldn't find it.  I shall try in Tesco the next time I am passing.  There are 364 other days in the year to eat quinoa and red wild rice, and for Christmas lunch I want Paxo sage and onion.

I stared for a long time at the packets of biscuits to eat with cheese, wondering if there was any point in buying anything besides Carr's water biscuits.  They are the perfect cheese biscuit.  There is nothing, simply nothing so good with a soft French cheese as a plain water biscuit.  Once, by mistake, the Systems Administrator picked up a packet that were flavoured with black pepper.  Flavoured is too kind a description: they were adulterated.  I wish manufacturers would not try to extend their range without making it obvious on the packaging whether you are buying the original article.  I was joined by another, equally indecisive, customer, and we agreed that there was too much choice, and that some biscuits were too strongly flavoured when the cheese had a flavour of its own and the biscuits weren't supposed to compete, and perhaps it was safer to stick to what you knew but perhaps that was boring.

The queue for the till was not too long.  Instead the hazard lay on the other side, where a Rotarian was hovering.  He offered to help pack my bags, and I said that was kind but I would rather pack them myself.  A Rotarian might have been better than a Scout, but I really do prefer to do my own packing.  That way I can be sure that all the heavy things end up in bags together at the bottom of the trolley, unlike the time in Sainsbury when we succumbed to the pressure to let the staff help us pack to keep the queue moving, and found when we got home that the tiny demented woman wearing a Santa hat had pushed the edge of a tin through the foil lid of some yogurt, while a melamine tray that she had with much trouble succeeded in squeezing into a plastic bag had been left behind during the confusion.  Also, I would rather chocolates destined to be given as presents didn't emerge with spots of condensation or worse on their packaging because they'd been shoved in next to the pork chops.  The Rotarian seemed reluctant to be rebuffed, and hovered over me, standing inside what I still considered to be my personal space even in a fairly busy supermarket and watching as I packed.

As soon as anybody watches me do anything, especially if I am trying to do it a hurry, I become slower and clumsier.  It got worse when I lifted the second bag to put it in the trolley and the bottom split, shooting ginger beer bottles and bags of nuts over the checkout.  The Rotarian by now was standing next to me in the aisle, squawking faintly, and I told him again that I would really, really, really rather do my own packing.  The woman on the till could see I was trying to keep the heavy things together, and pointedly handed me a four-pack of tinned tomatoes to go with the mincemeat and flour, and the Rotarian finally retreated.  When I got home I saw in the Body and Mind section of my free Telegraph that for £149 I could buy a Wellbe wearable device, that would measure my blood pressure, track my location, and tell me what situations I had found stressful.  Thank you kindly, Zach Sivan and Doron Libshtein of the meditation site Mentors Channel, but I think I already know that.  The random conversation with a stranger about cheese biscuits was fine.

Addendum  Mr Fluffy has spent the entire afternoon curled loosely in his new fleece Cat Snoozer, not looking as if he were voluntarily going anywhere.  I went and bought a second one to go on the remaining space on top of the cupboard, so that they could have a bed each.  Touching beds might not be a good idea, however.  We put the old blanket in the gap last night, and with two cats side by side there was a certain amount of tail swishing followed by prodding, so it may be that cat beds need to be the feline equivalent of two swords' lengths apart, like the front benches in the House of Commons.

Friday, 15 December 2017

indoor gardening

The green shoot on the amaryllis I won in the garden club raffle, that I thought was an emerging leaf, has turned out to be a flower bud.  It is such a long time since I grew an amaryllis that I'd forgotten what order they did things in.  Now I have one I suddenly see amaryllis everywhere, even in the Marks and Spencer food hall alongside the Christmas chocolates and Prosecco, and it's clear that flowers before leaves is the normal order of events.

The bud is one of a cluster, still held tightly together and pointing upwards so that I can't yet see how many flowers it contains.  The flower stem is lengthening by the day after a slow start, and must be six inches tall by now, while at its base a second bud is emerging from the top of the bulb.  Now I am starting to get my eye in I can see how from the first moment it appears it is subtly fatter than a leaf would be.  At the very bottom of the new bud, just clear of the bulb itself, is what might finally be a leaf.  Although a third flower stalk would be even more exciting.

None of this has anything to do with my efforts as a gardener, beyond the bare fact that I gave the bulb some water while managing not to let it rot.  The embryonic blooms were packed away inside the bulb when I got it, all down to the efforts of some (probably Dutch) grower.  The challenge for me will be to persuade the plant to ever do it again.  I shall have to ask the bulb merchant who donated it to the raffle the next time I see him, would it prefer clivia food, nerine food, agapanthus food, or something else?  And does it ever want to be dried out, or once in growth would it rather keep its roots all year round like a Crinum?  He would probably rather I didn't ask so many questions and simply bought another one next year, but he is an amiable chap.

Meanwhile the day was so cold and raw that I couldn't face attempting to garden.  The Systems Administrator went out briefly to move more of the fallen ash from the far end of the meadow, and clear my bits of overhanging hazel branches and dead rhododendron off the lawn, but I stayed by the Aga writing Christmas cards, only venturing out to go to the post office and in the hope that the Chatto gardens or Budgens might sell Christmas cards, since I was half a dozen short.  They didn't, and the post office counter in the garage had a sign up saying the Post Office was closed until further notice.  That's rural life nowadays, driving two miles to a post office that turns out not to exist any more.

Wherever Mr Fluffy disappeared to the other day I think it was definitely an error, and not a prelude to moving out, since he spent most of today lying on the new cat bed on top of the cupboard.  It has an elliptical base of faux sheep skin, just the right size for a largish cat to fill it completely, and a rim like a squashed, furry life belt, low enough for the cat to look over it but tall enough to curl up against.  We've put an old wicker cat bed at the other end of the cupboard, but on a cold day like today that still left one cat over, as Mr Fidget didn't get a bed and sat staring enviously at his brothers.  I am going to have to buy another fake sheepskin, and the Systems Administrator has had to find a new place for the electrical chargers that used to live on the cupboard.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

christmas is coming

This morning was the Art Society's monthly lecture, which was of course Christmas themed.  I imagine that as the years roll by it might get difficult to find a fresh topic each December.  Today we got the Three Kings, who are not actually described as Kings in the bible, but as magi, and while they are described as bringing three kinds of gift there is no record that there were three of them.  Never mind.  Their bones are now interred in a very splendid sarcophagus in Cologne cathedral, though when the contents were analysed there were remains from more than three bodies.  I have enjoyed the Art Society enough to sign up for another year.  Indeed, I liked the sound of the January study course on the history of architecture, but really can't spare three Mondays.

As I was in Colchester I stopped to do a little shopping, and bought crushed oyster shell for the hens and a new and superior cat blanket to go on top of the cupboard in the study, and most important of all a 2018 classic boats calendar for the hall.  The latter is the work of a local photographer, and we have had one for more years than I can remember.  I suppose at some point she will retire, but with any luck she has a stock of images that will keep the calendar going for years to come.

Colchester wasn't looking too bad.  Fenwick keeps expanding down the High Street.  A branch of Hotel Chocolat has opened, which is good, and The White Stuff, whose clothes are pitched at the middle to upper end of the high street, though I have never actually bought any, but I like Schuh, which opened a couple of years ago.  There is a very good independent bookshop as well as a Waterstones.  Letters to the local paper always seem to bewail Colchester as a litter strewn dump full of pound shops and drunks, but it isn't remotely that bad.  It is about to acquire a branch of Wahaca.  My travels took me to Marks and Spencer, where I bumped into somebody from the garden club, and the book shop, and Millets because when I was looking for my winter gloves a couple of days ago I could only find one.

Millets had a whole rack of gloves, stretching away out of reach up the wall, but when I moved to climb on to a step to get to the ones on the top row, an assistant whisked the step away from me and said she would get them down for me.  I wasn't able to tell her which ones I was definitely interested in, since I was still looking, and she thrust a pair of black and a pair of grey knitted ones into my hands and flounced off.  Both were size nine, while I take a seven and a half.  In the end I bought some by The North Face with furry backs, that felt as though they should be warm but allowed me to move my hands, and were reduced in the sale, and left.  The irony of a shop that sells outdoor equipment not allowing customers to climb on to a step a foot high seemed lost on the assistant, along with the idea of offering any kind of helpful advice to customers.  There is another outdoor shop further down the High Street, so I will go there next time, if I don't give up and simply shop online.  Although it is quite nice to try gloves on.  One pair I tried were so fat my hands felt like the Michelin man and I couldn't move my fingers, a second were too tight over the palm, while a third had the thumbs in completely the wrong place.

It was all rather a waste of good gardening weather.  Retailers and town planners take note, you really need to make the shopping experience more like the independent bookshop and less like Millets if you want people to haul themselves into the middle of town and pay £2.70 for parking, when they could be spending the day doing something else, and do their shopping in the evening from the comfort of their own armchair.  I have my calendar now, and Christmas comes but once a year.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


After I had posted yesterday's blog entry Mr Fluffy appeared through the cat door.  He did not look like a cat that had been wandering lost all day in the snow and the slush: his feet were too clean, his fur too dry, and his whole demeanour too self-possessed.  He consented to be clasped to my chest, ate some supper, went out of the cat door, came in again, ate some Dreamies in lieu of a fatted calf, and spent the rest of the evening reposing in the bosom of his family, looking gradually more relaxed as he remembered about home.  The Systems Administrator's theory is that he sneaked into a neighbour's garage and got locked in for the day, escaping when they got home.  My mother reminded me of the cat we had when I was a child, that used to go around to be fed by the inhabitants of a nearby bungalow.  They rang up when it snowed and he didn't call on them to check that he was all right.  I am more inclined to the locked-in than the social visiting theory at this stage because Mr Fluffy had never vanished for anything approaching that length of time before, and it seemed unlikely he would choose the coldest day of his short life to start visiting, and stay for so long on his first visit.

We will probably never know where he was yesterday, unless we happen to bump into a neighbour who happens to mention that they saw our cat.  If he starts making a habit of going out for longer we will know not to start worrying so soon, though we can then start worrying in case he is planning to move in somewhere else.

The garden is thawing nicely.  The thermometer sat above freezing all day, and the remaining lumps of snow and patches of ice got steadily smaller, then it rained which helped melt them.  Most of the shrubs that were bowed down by the snow have bounced back without damage, though I was irritated to discover that a piece of the evergreen, hydrangea-like climber Pileostegia viburnoides had been peeled off the front of the house.  It was already on a remedial feeding programme because the leaves had turned so yellow in the poor soil, and I don't want to have to cut a large piece off.  The Systems Administrator will fasten a couple of screws into the mortar for me and I will try tying the loose branches back in, but my provisional assessment of Pileostegia is that once the plant senses a stem is no longer firmly attached to its support it is reluctant to make further growth.  A well grown plant is a joy, but on sand it turns out to need a lot of extra care.  I have been feeding my plant, but clearly not enough.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


We have not seen Mr Fluffy all day.  He was not around when we got up, and didn't come in when called.  As the morning wore on we began to look for him, at first searching around the garden, and then longer trawls up the sides of the wood, down the brook, and along the lanes.  We walked, we stopped, we called, we listened, we found no trace.

If he were accustomed to wandering I wouldn't be so worried, but he is normally very keen about turning up to meals, and comes running when called if within earshot, and it seems odd for him to decide to start travelling further afield on the coldest night of the year.  Who knows where he has gone.  Perhaps he wandered to the edge of his normal territory and lost his bearings in the snow.  Or met a fox that was bolder and more opportunistic than usual because of the cold.  Or found his way on to ice, or fell while climbing.  He could be anywhere, alive or dead, over a large area.  He is cautious of strange people and seems unlikely to have managed to get locked in somewhere between eleven at night and eight in the morning.

I am deeply upset.  I am very fond of Mr Fluffy, and he gets on so well with the others and we like having a gang of cats.  If he never turns up we can't just get another kitten in a year's time.  Perhaps he will find his way home.  He is microchipped, so if he is lost maybe somebody will manage to bribe him with food, catch him, and take him to a vet.  If he has found his way on to a road and been run down someone might stop to investigate.  Perhaps he won't turn up and we will never know what happened.

Monday, 11 December 2017


Today was as if we were in the Russian season of rasputitsa, when the rains turn the ground to mud.  It rained.  It sleeted.  Yesterday's snow melted in patches.  General Winter and Field Marshall Mud triumphed.

Mr Fidget was curled up in his favourite armchair in the distinctly chilly sitting room when I got up, though according to the Systems Administrator he'd had some breakfast and been for a gallop around the garden.  Mr Cool was in agonies of frustration because it was so wet and so cold outside.  If he'd been a human being he'd have been wringing his hands.  As it was he was writhing on the door mat like Uriah Heep, creeping up to the cat door and recoiling in horror at what lay beyond.  When I opened the front door to go and see to the hens Mr Cool dithered transfixed in the open doorway, before giving it all up as a bad job and spending the rest of the day lying on his blanket on the cupboard in the study.  A few times when boredom overcame him he roused himself to conduct a one-sided fight with the hearthrug or partially disembowel the paper recycling box.

Mr Fluffy was bored and wandered about looking for things to chew, before slumping down on the study window sill to watch the bird table.  Every so often he stiffened at the sight of an especially tempting bird, but mostly he dozed.  A couple of times he went to chew the cord of the wooden blind, and I had to retrieve him in case he should forget himself and jump on top of the stove.  I don't think he would generally touch it, but mistakes can happen when creatures are in a bored, fey mood.

I sorted out a few points of admin that I'd been saving for a rainy day, read through a pile of old beekeeping magazines, ripping out the articles with nuggets of good practical advice that I wanted to keep, and caught up with my backlog of art magazines, occasionally reading out the interesting bits to the Systems Administrator, who may not have been listening given his response to the information that entry to the first exhibition at the newly refurbished Hayward Gallery cost £14.50 with a National Art Pass or £7.25 standard was Uh-huh.

Sunday, 10 December 2017


I woke up this morning and lay fretting that I was sleeping so badly, before looking at the alarm clock and seeing that it was in fact half past seven, and the reason why it felt much earlier was that it was still so dark.  It had not snowed in the night, but the Systems Administrator said that the snow wasn't due until later.  At eleven on the dot, exactly as predicted in the Met Office seven day forecast*, it began.

The cats had not seen snow before, apart from Our Ginger, who does not think much of it, and snoozed in front of the Aga before sleeping in turn on my lap, on the hearthrug, curled up on the little stool that has never been the same since the Artists Formerly Known as Kittens were kittens, or shuffling on and off the Aga warming plate.

Mr Cool was not impressed.  The snow made everything look different, and was not good snow, very wet, and Mr Cool hates change and hates getting wet.  He had eaten a substantial breakfast, all of his own and half of Mr Fluffy's and Mr Fidget's, plus most of Our Ginger's because Our Ginger seems to have decided he does not like one of the flavours in the current packs of cat food.  After that he spent the rest of the morning sleeping on the blanket the Systems Administrator put on the cupboard next to his chair as a sop to try and stop Our Ginger from sleeping on his computer keyboard, and the afternoon staring balefully out of the study window.  He went out a couple of times and came straight in again.

Mr Fluffy thought the snow was great fun, and kept bouncing out of the cat door to frisk around in it before coming in damply to warm up.  Mr Fidget found it amazing but faintly suspicious, and dashed around the front garden in between staring out of the windows at the swirling white blobs.  The tracks in the drive showed neither ventured very far from the house.  There were trails of footprints over to the middle of the turning circle and the concrete outside the greenhouse, but beyond that was virgin territory.  Neither of us could work out what had made the long, straight tracks, unless it was the hare passing through again.

I hate snow.  If I were on holiday and it was not lying on my garden, and if it was dry, crisp snow under a brilliant blue sky or at least an atmospheric gleam of sunshine, I might like it, if only it could look like one of Sisley's winter landscapes or my favourite photograph of a park by Andre Kertesz.  When it is weighing down my plants and threatening to break them, or freeze them, or suffocate them, I do not like it at all.  The only consolation about today's snow was that it was so wet that it began to drop off the trees even while it was still falling.  As I looked out over the back garden I saw one rose bush shake itself convulsively as a mass of snow slid off.

It should rain before too long, which will get rid of the lying snow, thank goodness.  In the meantime it is forecast to freeze, and I have warned the Systems Administrator to be very careful if going out to fetch more firewood.  When I went to shut the hens there were puddles lying on the snow on the doorstep, and once that freezes it will be an ice rink.

* As I frequently whinge when their forecast is wrong it is only fair to highlight when it is absolutely spot on. 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

fending off the cold

It is perishingly cold.  I set the heaters in the greenhouse and conservatory last night for the first time this winter, and have set them again this evening.  They are only small electric fan heaters, but enough to keep things ticking along above freezing overnight when the thermometer outside dips below zero.  It's forecast to hit minus two degrees Celsius by midnight, so they will be needed.  In a long cold spell, if the thermometer went well below that and stayed there, the heaters would not be enough, but it's a trade off between the heating costs and how many plants I am prepared to lose.

My big specimen plants under glass could all take a light freezing if it came to it.  The Wollemi pine, which by now is bumping up against the conservatory roof, and the standard Eriobotrya 'Coppertone' that was a birthday present from the Systems Administrator and has been repotted twice since then, would both be impossible to obtain at anywhere near the size they are now, and replacements at the largest size I could get would be expensive.  Besides which, I am sentimentally attached to them.  The ginger lily roots would survive even if their leaves were damaged, as would the evergreen Agapanthus.  I am pretty sure the dwarf pomegranates I raised from seed could take a light frost, given that you see them growing outside in sheltered walled gardens.

I take more risks with the small stuff.  No pelargoniums like to freeze, and some are more tolerant of low temperatures than others.  Generally it seems as though the scented leaf types and Uniques are tougher than some of the zonals.  I would rather not lose any of them, on the other hand I don't grow any that I couldn't replace from a specialist supplier, other than that a few were presents or bought unnamed on garden visits and I don't know what they are.  Replacements would come in at around two to six pounds each, depending on rarity, which makes them worth a few nights of the heater.

The succulents I grow are mostly Aeonium and Echeveria, none rare but some quite old and correspondingly large.  They absolutely will not tolerate freezing, which includes being allowed to touch the greenhouse glass on a freezing night.  I proved this empirically last winter trying to cram an unfortunate Aeonium 'Schwartzkopf' on to the top greenhouse shelf, so you can learn from my error and not make the same mistake.  The rosette turned to mush and fell off, and I kept the stalk hoping it would make new shoots but that died as well.

The African violets are frankly a gamble.  They all started off as rooted plugs from Dibleys, and the conservatory is theoretically much too cold for them, on the other hand I don't have anywhere suitable in the house.  The trouble with regarding them as bedding is that it takes most of the season to get the plugs to a nice flowering size.  Of course, I could not grow Streptocarpus, but I like them.  The Begonia fuchsioides is not supposed to go down below about ten degrees either, according to the nursery woman who sold it to me and who I think was quite reluctant to let me have it in case I killed it.  It spent last winter in my bathroom because I was so worried about it, but it was terribly in the way and this time round it is still in the conservatory.  I have struck three cuttings, though, which are in a heated propagator.

My potted fuchsias are a mixed bunch.  Some would be hardy if grown outdoors, at least at the root, and I only have them in pots for display purposes.  Others are rated as needing frost protection.  I have chopped them all down very low in my campaign to try and eradicate the fuchsia gall mite, before deciding whether I will have to follow the RHS advice and throw them all away, and by now the pots should be pretty dry.  Keeping doubtfully hardy plants dry in winter can help them survive the cold.  Also, when I was packing the greenhouse I put the pots of the most tender things towards the middle, and the relatively hardy things next to the glass.

After tonight I might not need the heaters for the rest of the week.

Friday, 8 December 2017

the devil finds work for idle paws

The cats are finding the onset of winter a shock to their routine.  They went outside after breakfast, except for Our Ginger who settled down for a snooze, but came in rather quickly because outside was so cold and windy.  Then they lounged around looking bored and sulky because they would rather have been out.  Then they fiddled with stuff because they were bored until they managed to knock it over, or badgered Our Ginger until they got a reaction.  Go out, come in, repeat.

Mr Cool hung around the food cupboard and dishes with a meaningful air.  He has grown into an immensely long cat, who must need a lot of food, and the weather has turned colder, but I didn't like to feed him again when he had just had his breakfast, simply because he was bored.  Our Ginger is already shaped like a rugby ball with legs, and I don't want the next generation of cats following suit.  Mr Cool walked all around the kitchen worktops and along the side of the sink, searching for any unattended scraps of food, only there weren't any, and then lay on the worktop scowling and fiddling with the knobs on the cupboard doors.  The climate of boredom even infected Our Ginger, who began to play a variant on how to get round the room without treading on the floor, taking a good half dozen attempts to climb directly from the shelf with the Sky box in it to the SA's desk chair.

There was a loud crash from the sitting room, which was Mr Fluffy upsetting the bowl of wooden fruit on the dining table.  He'd knocked a hand turned, locally made, yew pepper grinder on to the floor as well.  I picked everything up, and a couple of hours later there was another crash, and I found Mr Fluffy at the bottom of the stairs, along with a wooden lemon.  It might have been an accident when he upset the bowl of fruit the first time, but not the second.  I put it away out of reach in the spare bedroom.  Mr Fluffy went back outside to inspect the bird table.

The bird table stands by the steps down to the back garden.  It is a simple, plain design, easy to keep clean, which the Systems Administrator built several years ago, with a roof to keep the worst of the rain off the food.  Earlier in the week the SA fixed wire netting to close off two sides of it that were accessible from the path outside the study, because Mr Fluffy, who has always shown a regrettable interest in birds, had taken to lying directly below it where any birds actually on the table couldn't see him, before leaping four feet vertically straight into the table.  Mr Cool, meanwhile, liked to sit on the table crammed in under the little roof.  I don't think he necessarily expected the birds to come down while he was there, it was just that he liked the view from the table.  Mr Fluffy checked again that the netting was still there, and then climbed on to the roof and managed to knock the fat ball that the SA had left on the table down to the ground.  Cats are not supposed to eat fat balls, and the SA had to go outside and confiscate it.

At various points through the day Mr Fluffy thought he could share my lap with Our Ginger, and there would be some loud purring and mutual washing for all of five minutes, until the washing degenerated into chewing.  Things would end with Our Ginger howling, Mr Fluffy upside down and kicking, and both flouncing off in a huff, only for Our Ginger to return and the sequence to repeat, until Mr Fluffy gained sole possession of the lap by dint of lying on Our Ginger and purring until Our Ginger got tired of being lain on.

If the young cats are this bored after one wintry day then goodness knows that they are going to be like by April, if we get a cold winter.  Today's good conduct prize goes rather unexpectedly to Mr Fidget, who spent all morning lying on a blanket on top of a cupboard and looking cute, and whose only mishap was to get accidentally locked in the laundry for five minutes.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

sinus trouble

I spent today closeted in front of the fire with Mr Cool, who hates rain.  My face hurts, my nose keeps running, and I have a headache.  It was a waste of a wet and windy day, when I could have been getting to grips with the garden club accounts or measuring up for new bedroom curtains or any number of useful things, but I couldn't summon the enthusiasm.  Something is amiss with my sinuses and mucous membranes, but I daresay it will sort itself out given rest, warmth, regular hot drinks, and a dollop of ibuprofen.  Alas.  Looking on the bright side, I made it through the recent rush of social events, and my diary now goes from feast to famine and has nothing in it until the Art Society lecture next Thursday, which could carry on perfectly well without me, so I can go on sitting in front of the fire until I feel better.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

warriors of ancient Siberia

I went today to see the British Museum's Scythians exhibition.  It finishes on the fourteenth of January, so time was in danger of running out if I didn't get round to visiting this side of Christmas.  The Scythians were nomadic tribes who roamed the steppes from the borders of modern day China to the Black Sea between 800 and 200 BC, precursors to the Goths, the Huns, and the hordes of Ghengis Khan.  I was curious about them, and besides the Guardian gave the exhibition five stars.

The Scythians did not have any written culture, and what we know about them is based largely on their grave goods, the Scythians appearing to have quite elaborate burial rituals and the climate of Siberia being conducive to preservation.  The exhibition thus offers a fascinating but skewed portrait of Scythian culture.  There are gold torques and belt buckles, fragments of the kind of clothes the most powerful people were buried in, weapons, drinking cups, horse bridles, and cooking pots.  It is amazing that textiles over two thousand years old have survived at all, and fairly amazing that the horse bridles did.

We learn that the Sythians warred among their separate tribes as well as raiding the settled communities on the periphery of their territories.  They also traded with the settled people for things that a livestock based nomadic lifestyle could not supply, which must have led to some interesting conversations.  Their bows and arrow were of sophisticated design.  Although they did not have a written culture, the Greeks did record some observations of the Scythians, and so we know they burned hemp seeds for pleasure, and did inhale.  Their art was heavily based on natural forms, real and mythical animals, and plants.  To a non-expert eye there seemed to be some similarities with Viking art.  The women wore tall, pointed head dresses and shaved their heads, or was that only after death as part of the funeral ritual?

That leaves an awful lot we don't know from the grave goods and passing Greek commentators.  Their surviving clothing was sown together with the most tiny stitches, and seemed to be made from very small bits of cloth.  How did they do it?  How did they make needles, what did they use for thread, what were their looms like?  How did they supplement their horse milk and meat diet so as not to get all sorts of deficiency diseases?  Did they have priests?  Shamans?  Slaves?  What were women allowed or expected to do, or not allowed to do?

It seemed a slight waste to be visiting a gallery on a dry and warmish day, but I had already agreed to go and see my aunt and uncle in north London afterwards.  As I walked up the hill from Tufnell Park tube station a parakeet flew shrieking across the road.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

caution deep water

Today was a short gardening day, because I went to a carol service in the morning, followed by lunch.  I'd offered to bring food and help with the lunch, and so ended up having to set the alarm clock because the hostess asked if I could do some cheese scones, and a scone made the previous day is nothing compared to one made the same morning.  I've never actually made cheese scones before, and never got to try one, but I gather they were fine.  They looked nice.  Maybe one of these days I will make some for our lunch, and we could have them with soup.  The Systems Administrator admitted to being partial to a cheese scone.

The SA was hard at work while I was out building a pond cover out of wooden battens and galvanised wire netting.  Mr Fidget has fallen in the pond twice so far, and as the season for frozen ponds approached we realised we both had the same uneasy vision of Mr Fidget running out to the middle of the ice and falling through, before surfacing under the ice or else scrabbling unsuccessfully at the edges of the hole he'd made as they crumbled further.  Neither of us wanted to lose Mr Fidget, or to spend the next fifteen years reimagining his last moments, and neither of us trusted him to stay off the ice.  It is true that none of the previous cats have managed to kill themselves in the pond, but Mr Fidget is in a league of his own, jumping on top of the wood burning stove while it was lit, and prancing crabwise up to the neighbours' Airedale at the tender age of four months in the belief that it would run away.

It was the Systems Administrator who came up with the idea of covering the pond, and we debated various methods and materials before settling on a solution.  At one point a floating framework was mooted, but the final design sits over the pond.  The battens sag under their own weight, and if any of the cats try to walk along them they will soon get wet feet, which with any luck will put them off.  If they fall off the wire will stop them going right under, though they will get very wet indeed, and even if one of the battens broke the wire would still act as scramble netting.  What we did not want to do was build a structure that was supposed to make the pond safer, only to find that it tempted the cats on to the pond when they might otherwise have ignored it, or trapped them in some way.  Two corners of the frame are weighed down with paving slabs, and even without the weight it feels too heavy for the cats to move, and it is so low that I don't think the wind will shift it.

Come the spring the cross battens can be unscrewed so that the rest of the frame rolls up for storage.  We shouldn't need it for more than a year or two, as surely Mr Fidget must become a little less hyperactive as he gets older.  Mustn't he?

I spent a useful hour cutting the edges of the lawn until it got dark.  Thus does progress in the garden creep on.

Monday, 4 December 2017

where the wood meets the garden

I am trying again with rambling roses behind the deck along the side of the wood in the back garden.  'Paul's Himalayan Musk' does great things up the wild cherry, and I wanted to carry the effect round the corner in a splash of darker pink.  Only, it proved to be too dark in the shade of the deck for the roses to get going, and even though they were theoretically capable of climbing to fifteen feet or more, the first yard eluded them and they never made it up into the light.

I ordered replacements and grew them on in pots, hoping to give them a head start.  They didn't make quite such long new stems as I'd hoped, but I wasn't convinced that a second year in pots would improve matters, and decided to stick to the plan of planting them out this autumn.  In fact, I have missed the boat as by now it's early winter, but the soil is still quite warm and I thought they should start getting their roots out before the spring.  As the old saying goes, plant a tree before Christmas and ask it to grow, plant a tree after Christmas and beg it to grow.

The first is Rosa multiflora 'Platyphylla'.  It is an old variety, bred in 1815, and promises blooms in various shades from white through to pink and lilac.  Perhaps that is how it got its alternative name of the Seven Sisters Rose.  To keep it company I chose 'Alexandre Girault', which should have apple scented flowers of reddish pink.  They have got two large multistem hazels and one side of the wild gean to play in, so there should be plenty of room for both, if I can just get them to start growing and up into the light.

To try and give them a fighting chance I took my saw and the pole lopper and trimmed the front of the hazels to open up a clear line from where I judged the sun would be in summer to the base of the roses, while trying to keep the hazels looking untrimmed and as natural as possible.  They mark the end of the wood, and I really wanted to avoid the faced-up, supermarket car park look.  Trimming shrubs to tight domes and flat planes need not be restricted to evergreens: I have seen the yellow leaved Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus' used very effectively as a series of tightly shaped balls.  Before ever taking saw and secateurs to any woody plant, though, you need to be clear what kind of finish you are aiming for.

While I'd got the saw and stepladder out I tidied the entrance to the wood.  It used to be shaping up rather nicely with a curved tunnel of holly, so that the view into the wood opened out gradually as you stepped through the gate instead of being visible all at once from the garden, then a freak wind sent the hollies sideways and I had to cut one to the ground.  The stump is now regenerating enthusiastically, but one of the others had slumped further so that the tunnel would have been fine for hobbits but was too low for the Systems Administrator.  I trimmed a great many sticky-out and dangly bits and it all began to look more promising.  There is a general perception among gardeners that holly is slow, but I think the truth is more nuanced than that.  Some of the variegated varieties are slower, and the hedgehog hollies seem especially slow growers, but plain green wild holly is not particularly sluggish.  All hollies, however, seem to dislike transplanting so that hollies planted out of pots from the garden centre lag behind self-sown wild ones.  People try to compensate by buying bigger specimens, which of course take even longer to get going.  That's my theory.  If you are going to buy holly your best bet is probably to get one of the young, small, cheap plants sold for winter containers, as long as you can find the variety you want.

Sunday, 3 December 2017


It was a dank day.  My best bet seemed to be to start cutting the edges of the lawn, since everything was wet and every leaf and branch I touched dumped moisture on my clothes, while the surface of the soil threatened to turn to a muddy slick, even though I know that a foot down it is still dry as a brick.  At least trimming the lawn edges most of you does not need to touch anything damp, apart from your shins kneeling on the wet grass.  Even so, by the time I'd made it past the end of the box hedge my gloves were soaked.

Towards lunch time it began to drizzle very finely.  I tried to decide whether this was proper rain, or just moisture condensing out of the air.  It grew steadily more insistent, and after a couple of minutes I had to admit that it really was raining.  It was a good thing I only had my shears and kneeling mat out, and had not left a trail of tools all around the back garden.  Putting them away in a hurry you always miss one, and find it a day or two later, sad and slightly rusty.  I caught up with the Systems Administrator in the kitchen, who had also been driven indoors by the rain, and had held off taking kit all the way up to the end of the meadow to work on the fallen tree there because it was just so damp.

The band of rain passed, and I was able to have another go at the edges after lunch, before packing up early to go to the music society's annual lecture.  I had been sulking that cold weather was forecast to return in the second half of the week, just when I had more free days to get on with gardening, but perhaps dry cold might be better than all this damp.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

something happened

Something happened this morning, only we don't know what it was.  We were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, when there was a sudden explosion of activity in the hall as cats rushed in all directions.  We found Mr Cool sitting on my desk in the study, staring fixedly towards the cat door.  Mr Fluffy had taken refuge at the top of the stairs, while Our Ginger sat paternally a few steps down.  Mr Fidget, who had been bouncing in and out of the house ever since we got up, had bounced back into the garden but climbed on the pot shed roof.  Mr Cool stayed looking at the cat door and would not come out of the study for a long time.

I took a handful of sultanas for the chickens and wandered out to collect the eggs.  The galvanised water container, that had been fine when the Systems Administrator let them into their run, was lying on its side, and two of the hens were in the hen house and did not come out even at the offer of sultanas.  Something had happened.  A fox walking past the house?  A sonic boom inaudible to us but frightening to animals?  I could believe that one of the cats took fright at nothing and spooked the others, but not the hens outside as well.

You can see how easy it would be to believe in the supernatural if you were that way inclined.  I assumed there must have been a passing predator I didn't see, or a noise I didn't hear, but I could just as easily have taken the upset as evidence for ghosts or poltergeists if I had wanted to.

Meanwhile, the gigantic bulb in the kitchen, which I have been referring to as an amaryllis though just to be clear it is a variety of Hippeastrum, is finally showing signs of life with the tip of a leaf appearing half an inch proud of the chopped off ends of last year's foliage.  I am pleased about that, since talking to a gardening friend who recounted how she was given one in a box for Christmas, and when she finally got round to potting it up in March it leaped into life immediately and grew at the rate of inches a day, I was beginning to think that mine must be dead.

I am making progress with the bramble stumps around the pond.  There are still a lot left to dig out, but it is beginning to look like a job that might be doable, rather than a hopeless task with no end in sight.  In the space I'd cleared previously I planted a Sarcococca confusa, horribly yellow after spending too many months in a small pot but the roots looked OK so it might pull round with the benefit of fresh soil and a sprinkling of 6X, the allegedly non-running comphrey Symphytum x uplandicum 'Moorland Heather', some more of the small hybrid hellebores, and one of last year's potted rambling roses, Rosa helenae.

The last is a beautiful thing.  I have seen it trained on a large iron frame at the excellent Millgate House garden in Richmond, north Yorkshire, and am planning to persuade ours to climb up an oak tree.  R. helenae has white, fragrant flowers that are attractive to insects, followed by orange hips.  It is certainly built for climbing.  The thorns are not very long, but backwards pointing, and I had to disentangle its stems from other plants and rescue my fleece hat several times in the course of transporting the rose from its quarters outside the greenhouse to its final planting hole.  The current year's growth is a soft red, and quite pretty in an understated way.  I did not give it any bonemeal on planting because I did not want to encourage the foxes to dig it up, but it had a sprinkle of 6X and can have more in the spring, and I might give it a bag of homemade compost as a mulch to encourage it.

Friday, 1 December 2017

a garden talk

Last night's snow and sleet did not materialise, and I drove to Wrabness in patchy light drizzle.  The village hall was packed and my ticket was waiting on the door as promised.  Fergus Garrett had arrived and was not stuck in a traffic jam on the A12, and all was well.

Great Dixter remains one of my favourite gardens.  Certainly Christopher Lloyd's writings were a huge influence on me, albeit not always a benign one.  Just as many young poets failed to find their own voices under the sway of the great W. B. Yeats, so a garden on rich clay that has been cultivated for decades is not the best model for somebody starting out on acid sand that's spent the past half century as a commercial orchard, soaked in weedkillers to make sure that no blade of grass competed with the apple trees.  And it rains more at Northiam than north Essex.  Not as much more as I thought, since Fergus Garrett said they have 28 to 30 inches, but that's still thirty per cent more than us.  And Great Dixter has four full time gardeners and a minimum of three or four students, who are all energetic and young, when I just have me, plus as much of the Systems Administrator as I can muster.

Still, I have huge respect for Fergus Garrett, and hope that by now I know enough not to take some of his ideas too literally, so while twenty-five years ago I attempted to grow border phlox after reading The Well Tempered Garden, now my mind zones out when he mentions them.  Even so I noticed how much fatter and leafier the drought tolerant Artemisia 'Powis Castle' grew in his photographs of Great Dixter than it does in my front garden.

The subject of the talk was succession planting, how to get the longest possible season of interest from your garden, and it covered the points you would expect.  Plan so that something is in flower throughout the year, choose varieties that have longer flowering seasons, extend your definition of interest to include good stems, leaves, form, fruit, and seed heads, as well as simply flowers, combine plants that are active at different times of the year in the same space.  That is all good standard advice.  The real interest was in the detail.

Neighbours can so easily crowd each other out, if one is already in full leafy growth just as the other is trying to get going at ground level.  I have proved this to myself most recently with the rambling roses planted at a foot high along the side of the wood, that never found the strength to send their first tall shoots into the light as everything around them shot up first.  You can do the same damage with combinations of herbaceous plants, and with bulb foliage.  He cautioned us that some of the larger leafed allium varieties would shade out and kill companions like asters, and forget-me-nots were singled out for special mention, as they self-seed generously and those innocent looking seedlings can quickly grow to bushy clumps a full spade's length across (on Dixter's soil.  I have never produced a forget-me-not here that would not have comfortably packed in a shoe box).

The practical solution, apart from very careful observation of when and how fast the plants in your garden come into growth, was to create no-man's-lands between the patches of herbaceous plants and use those to host the alliums, the opium poppies, and other bulbs and self seeders that would otherwise swamp the asters and suchlike.  Some of the photographs showed sections of winter border looking unfathomably neat, with the position of each individual herbaceous plant marked with a little stake, bamboo canes laid down to delineate the boundary of each clump, and the gaps between.  My borders never seem that organized, but it was a great idea.

My major doubt, which I wasn't going to try and argue in front of a hall full of a hundred people, was the extent to which the layer upon layer planting style of Dixter can ever transplant truly successfully to the driest part of the country.  Fergus Garrett may tell me to look critically at my borders in spring and find the gaps are between perennials where I could put more primroses, but the gaps between my clumps of daylilies are solidly packed with Hemerocallis roots battling for existence, and I am pretty sure that if I put primroses in there they would simply fade away from lack of water.  A couple of years ago I was given a book about the natural vegetation of the world's steppes, which was absolutely fascinating, but one of the characteristics of plant communities in dry areas is that the individual plants tend to be well spaced out.  That is the way plants often try to grow in our garden, despite my best efforts with mulch and fish, blood and bone to reach a more burgeoning aesthetic, and that is the distinctive look of some of East Anglia's famous and feted plantings like Beth Chatto's dry garden and the desert wash at East Ruston.

But that's not to say that trying to choose plants so that you have something interesting to look at on any day of the year, and fitting in as many plants as your growing conditions will support, is not a thoroughly good idea.