Thursday, 19 October 2017


Fred the DPD driver appeared silently outside the front door just after lunch.  We have told him there is enough room for his van to drive around the turning circle, but he always reverses up to the house, stopping short of the porch.  He says he is afraid of running over a flower, and that we have a beautiful garden.

He was a welcome visitor, because he brought a box containing the replacement fan for the Aga.  The Systems Administrator opened up the top this morning, removing the louvred enamelled boxes that cover the electronics and the fan, and vacuumed out the dust that had collected since the last time the fan was changed, exclaiming with relief that the old fan unit looked exactly like the one he ordered yesterday, but after that there was nothing more to be done until the cavalry arrived in the form of Fred, and I sat eyeing up the disemboweled machine through lunch, thinking that I had never understood electricity when Mr Swift was trying to drill into my head for A level physics, and did not trust it now.  The SA assured me that it was extremely straightforward.

And so it appears to have been.  After no more than an hour and a half of poking about in the innards of the Aga, the top is back on and a flashing red light indicates that it is charging itself up using (gulp) daytime rate electricity.  Normally, vampire-like, it only feeds at night.  By tomorrow evening it should be hot enough to cook the pizzas I have already bought on the strength of the fan being on order.  That's if everything is working properly.  I rather wish I had not looked up the flashing red light on Google, which led me to a string of queries from people whose electric Agas were not charging properly, or not at the right time, but the SA did say that in the search for a new fan he had found instructions for the timer, a completely non-intuitive piece of equipment that neither of us have ever really understood how to alter, so I expect it will all work in the end.

Outside it was so cold and damp and grey, and my nose so snivelling and neck so stiff, that I decided the garden would have to look after itself.  Instead I finished tidying up my desk, filing away nine months' worth of things that needed filing and chucking out a great many other things, until I could see bare wood.  Now I am amusing myself going through the garden magazines that were mixed up in the pile, before filing them too in date order in boxes down in the garage.  Mr Fluffy also thought it was just too horrible to go outside, and filed himself in my in-tray for the second day running.  It is not large enough for him now that he is a fully grown cat, and he has to sleep with his legs trailing over the edge, and the plastic has already cracked under his weight so that I had to line it with paper in case he should trap his toes, but he is not deterred, returning there for the afternoon as soon as he had eaten his lunch.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

a dark cold day

We have just lit our first stove of the autumn.  The weather forecast got it wrong about it not raining today in north Essex.  It drizzled periodically through the morning, while a succession of peeved and damp cats shuttled in and out from the garden, torn between hope that it was not raining and irritation that it actually was.  Then it poured, and they all came in, wet and indignant, apart from Our Ginger who had prudently spent the morning snoozing in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Aga has broken down.  Yesterday afternoon it began to make a strange whirring noise, which it is not supposed to do.  An Aga is essentially silent.  If it makes any kind of noise then something is wrong.  The Systems Administrator came and listened to the noise and made ominous pronouncements about bearings, and the fan that is supposed to redistribute hot air from the electric core to the rest of the machine.  When we came downstairs this morning we found that the Aga had switched itself off in the night.

You could say thank goodness for modern safety cut-outs.  I remember coming downstairs once when I was a child and lifting the lid of my mother's anthracite powered Aga to find the whole hotplate glowing cherry red, and about twenty years ago a faulty back boiler exploded at the pub at Lamb's Corner (now closed) causing injuries.  And at least since we are not after all on holiday this week the poor old housesitters haven't found themselves without a cooker half way through their sit.  True, we do have a microwave, a bottom-of-the-range model, by now ancient, but there is no back-up oven or gas ring.

The Systems Administrator said he would have to order a new fan, and I said that next week's funeral party would have to make do with a cold collation, and the SA looked shocked and said the fan shouldn't take that long to arrive.  The SA knows how to fit a replacement fan, at least in theory, since the chap who came to mend the Aga last time the fan failed showed him how and said it was not very difficult.  He was a specialist in electric Agas, and did most of his business in France installing them for English families who had bought properties over there.  It was nice of him to teach the SA how to maintain his own Aga, far nicer than the man from the local stove shop who used to charge me seventy quid to come and poke spider's webs out of a venturi tube with a paintbrush, and I fear that with Brexit his business may be suffering.

In the meantime we put the lamb and the chicken the SA had been intending to cook in the freezer, and will have to heat up the remains of last night's curry in the microwave.  I ventured into Colchester to buy pitta bread to eat with the curry, since neither of us fancied trying to microwave rice, and called in at The Range to get some small cyclamen for the shelf in the porch.  I found I was out of step with the seasons at The Range, where they have already got to Christmas, leapfrogging Halloween and Bonfire Night, and there were only seven pots of small white cyclamen left and one of them was at death's door.  Luckily I only wanted six.  I'd have preferred pure white without any pink at the base of the petals, which some of them had, but decided I didn't feel strongly enough about it to embark on a full blown Quest.

I did have a stroke of last minute luck elsewhere.  I had been greatly taken with a tunic from Seasalt because the pattern was so lovely, a 1950s inspired design of greenish-blue and black elliptical leaves on a burnt orange ground, but by the time I got round to thinking about it again they had sold out of every size except 18, and then the entire garment vanished from their website, suggesting it was not coming back any time soon.  I did not strictly need a new tunic, but I liked it very much, and felt rather pathetic that the month so far had been rubbish one way and another.  Then I remembered that John Lewis stock some Seasalt designs, and had a look on their website, and lo and behold they had eight left in a size 12.  So I ordered one yesterday, and collected it from Waitrose along with buying the pitta bread.

I know that psychological research says that acquiring objects does not make us happy, and that we should focus on personal relationships and experiences, but I think it depends partly on how many objects you acquire in total.  In the year to date total additions to my wardrobe had comprised one pair of short wellington boots, one pack of boot socks, a pack of fleece insoles, some Danish felt house shoes, one pair of jeans (in a sale), one pair of sandals, a multipack of Tesco knickers and another of socks,two cheap wristwatches that both misted up, and two t-shirts.  In that context a new dress was quite exciting.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

back to the big chop

Today, after I had potted up the substitute hyacinths that arrived later than the rest of the order, I returned to the mammoth task of cutting the Eleagnus hedge.  The main part still to be done is the top, which is a fiddle, because after carefully positioning the pole lopper and snipping through the longest shoots I then have to flick them off the hedge.  Sometimes they refuse to be flicked, and I have to try and grasp them gently with the jaws of the lopper, like a retriever holding a dead pheasant in its jaws without breaking the skin.  I don't know how much the pole lopper weighs.  The Amazon website puts the cutting head and the extendable pole at exactly two kilos each, which seems remarkably tidy, not to say a coincidence, but at any rate it feels quite heavy, particularly when operated while balancing on a step ladder.

The warm weather brought Our Ginger bustling out into the garden, and he kept me company while I worked, sitting either at the base of the step ladder so that I had to disturb him each time I wanted to move it, or else in the spot I needed to move the ladder to.  He stared intently into the base of the hedge, but nothing came out.  In the final days of the old cats there were sometimes baby rabbits scuffling around under the Eleagnus, but not any more.

I think I am on the home straight with the hedge, and that one more day's work might do it.  Realistically that probably translates to two, on the basis that I am an incurable optimist about how long gardening jobs are going to take, but it should be a matter of days now rather than weeks.  I need to get it done because the daffodils need to go in the ground pronto, and then that will be this year's bulb order planted, except for the tulips that don't get done until November.  I always feel a slight pang that I didn't get more bulbs, and have to remind myself that I ordered quite as many as I could afford or had time to plant.

We were going to take a day off from it all tomorrow and go and visit Sandringham, as a consolation prize for not making it to Westonbirt or Stourhead this autumn.  Sandringham is supposed to have a fine collection of trees, and is open until next weekend.  But the Systems Administrator has just checked the weather forecast for King's Lynn, prompted by a big lump of rain showing on the rain radar, and it seems that tomorrow is going to be wet all day up there.  There seems no point in driving all the way to north Norfolk for the sake of going if it is going to be pouring with rain, especially as the rain band is due to miss north east Essex so we could be getting on with things here.  Perhaps I will finish the hedge tomorrow after all.

Monday, 16 October 2017

gardening under glass

I spent a quiet morning in the conservatory, watering, sweeping, pruning, and in one case potting.  I am very fond of the conservatory, indeed, if I were having my own Grand Designs house built I would wrap it around a two storey atrium filled with plants.  Our actual conservatory is not nearly so large or elaborate, an almost square aluminium framed lean-to rising to something under four metres at the back, but it is great fun for growing plants in, which is how I use it.  There are two rattan chairs (with slightly mould stained cushions) and a small table where we can sit to drink tea, but that's it, everything else gets watered regularly.  No rugs, throws, carpet, sofa, tablecloth or any of the other domestic paraphernalia that properly belong in a sitting room or a sun room.

The ginger lilies have finished flowering and I deadheaded them.  The foliage was mostly looking pretty smart, suggesting I managed to water them enough this summer.  Hedychium throw up new shoots in the spring, great fleshy stems bearing leaves at intervals along their entire length, then one flower spike develops at the tip of each stem.  If allowed to get too dry at the root the edges of the leaves turn pale brown and crispy and look horrid.  If protected from frost the stems will last until next year, and I like to keep them over the winter if possible since the leaves help feed the plant, only cutting them down as the new shoots start to appear, but it's a hard call if they have gone tatty.  This year they are all set to provide a lush jungle background for a few more months.  Their other habit, which I have noticed in grand glasshouses open to the public, is to sent their stems strongly sideways towards the light, so that a plant that should have been a couple of metres tall ends up almost that far across.  I have seen ginger lily stems growing in a glasshouse border propped up and penned back with canes to keep them off the path, but that isn't an option growing them in pots.  I solved the problem by turning a couple of the worst offending pots around so that the leaves rested against the window.

I potted on the Hardenbergia violacea.  I will have to be careful not to over water it through the winter, but autumn is the traditional time for planting shrubs out in the ground, and I don't see why it shouldn't get on with making new roots in its pot, since it had filled the old one.  I was partly looking in its pot to check for any signs of vine weevil and root aphid, but found neither.  Hardenbergia is a twining climber with delicate stems and purple flowers in April.  I got mine at an RHS London show, and it is not as rampant as I should like, with an unnerving habit of allowing entire stems to die off, but it is growing.  Jasmines do the same dead stem trick.

One of the ginger lilies had split its pot, or rather pushed out a segment that had previously been glued back in place.  The only spare pot I could find was the same size, and I chopped a piece off the rhizome to make it fit its replacement quarters.  Ginger lilies behave superficially like bearded iris, sending out fresh growth and new shoots at one end of the rhizome while the other remains as an inert lump.  Unlike bearded iris the inertia is only temporary.  If you chop off the old and apparently no longer sprouting sections of rhizome in the course of repotting the plant, and bury them in the compost heap as I did, then a few months or a year or two down the line you will find them happily sprouting anew.  If you are like me you then feel compelled to pot them, when they have tried so hard to live.  This is one reason why I have slightly more ginger lilies in the conservatory than there is comfortably room for, and two more in the greenhouse.

I prodded the compost around climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' and it was alarmingly soft.  Further investigation revealed that 'Lady Boothby' did not have nearly so many roots as she should have done.  A fuchsia that's been in the same pot for several years is normally bursting with roots.  I did not find any vine weevil grubs, on the other hand I could not tip 'Lady Boothby' out of the pot because she was three metres tall and tied to the wall in several places.  Have I over watered her?  Are there vine weevils further down and out of sight?  How long does a fuchsia live in a pot?  'Lady Boothby' was a present from a former colleague who ordered a set of plants from a newspaper reader offer in a fit of enthusiasm before realizing he only really needed one, and that was years ago, maybe a decade or even more.  I took four cuttings as an attempted insurance policy while suspecting that mid October was too late in the season, even with a heated propagator.

The compost from the fallen Impatiens went in the council brown bin, vine weevil grubs and all.  I hope the cuttings I took from that strike, although if they don't at least I can buy a new plant from Dibleys next year.  Begonia luxurians, which was so lovely last year and the year before with its huge exotic many fingered leaves, was a sad object this year, and I can't work out why it failed to thrive, so perhaps one way and another a Dibleys order is calling.

I accidentally broke a piece off the regal pelargonium 'Joy' so chopped that up and made it into cuttings.  They might root.  Zonals and scented leaf forms are generally very obliging, but I haven't tried propagating 'Joy' before.  She is very charming, with frilly, white centred flowers in a startling shade of pink.  My original plant was bought on a visit to Mapperton House in Dorset, a remote Jacobean manor with a splendid and totally unexpected Italianate garden, whose disintegrating orangery was being rescued just in the nick of time by the fees for featuring in the film version of Far From the Madding Crowd.  'Joy' Mark I promptly got an attack of aphid, then seemed disillusioned by life in the greenhouse in her first winter, and quietly died, but I was able to source a replacement from Fibrex Nurseries.  'Joy' Mark II lives in the sunniest corner of the conservatory near the door, so fresh air blows over her all summer, and is happy so far.  I have never done particularly well keeping regal pelargoniums going in the past.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

more weeding

I woke up feeling as though I definitely might be developing a cold, or resuming the cold that had just been going away when my father's health took a dramatic turn for the worse. Aching, snivelling, sore throated, sticky, smelly, and generally not very nice to know.  But after a shower I thought I might as well put on my gardening clothes and see how I felt once I'd had some breakfast, before abandoning myself to a day spent sniffing on the sofa, and once I'd had some breakfast I felt better than I had when I got up, and the sun was shining and it was forecast to be unseasonably warm, so I tottered out.  Not up the scaffolding to resume battle with the hedge, but up the the meadow to continue with the weeding.  Falling off the Henchman seemed like a bad idea, but crawling about it would be easy enough to lie down if I suddenly felt worse.

In fact, fresh air and sunshine and messing about with plants had the opposite effect, as it usually does.  I dibbled up copious quantities of goose grass seedlings and hairy bittercress, cut off the flowering stems of nettles (please let them not have shed their seeds yet) and bagged them up to take to the dump, and tugged and chopped at the odd brambles that had sprouted again from the bits of root I failed to dig out last time round.  Into the newly cleared space I planted white violets and some of the young hellebores that have been growing on in the cold frame.

I didn't have the heart to disturb the primroses, which have sprung back into life with the autumn weather and looked so fine and leafy it seemed a shame to dig them up.  Instead I went and lifted some of the plants that had seeded themselves into the bottom lawn in the back garden.  In contrast to the lush specimens in the meadow, they were still in their shrivelled summer state.  By the time the birches, the Zelkova and the wild cherry at the bottom of the garden have drunk their fill it doesn't leave a lot for shallow rooted plants like primroses at this time of year.  By spring I daresay they'll have staged a miraculous recovery.

Back in the meadow alongside the wood the soil got appreciably drier close to the base of a birch that seeded itself near the wildlife pond, and which we left since it was making rather a nice job of softening the transition from wood to garden.  It seemed a waste to plant any of the hellebores too close to it, and so I still have an arc of bare soil to fill and no plants to hand to go in it.  Epimedium  x perralchium 'Frohnleichten' sprang to mind, evergreen and drought tolerant.  All epimediums are not equally forgiving of dry shade, but that one is supposed to be bullet proof.  The Chatto gardens have them in stock according to their website.  Click and collect at the Chatto gardens is very tempting.  I still have a box of three geraniums and two orange flowered poppies sitting by the front door waiting to be planted out since the last time I let my fingers do the walking.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

along the edge of the wood

My forearms, my right index finger, and my left shoulder are all smarting.  That is because the nettles are virulent by this time of year.  The back of my throat and my nose are tickling and slightly sore, but that is because I am on the brink of getting a cold.  I used to debate the nature of colds with my GP, now retired.  He maintained that you either had a cold or you hadn't, while I was of the opinion that they lurked in your system like childhood exposure to chickenpox, ready to break out again in times of exhaustion or stress.

Pulling up the latest crop of weeds by the mysteriously dry wildlife pond seemed like a worthwhile and soothing way of spending the day, and kept me out of earshot of the shredder while the Systems Administrator chewed through the enormous pile of hedge trimmings from yesterday's mammoth pruning session.  I have nineteen small hellebore plants to go into the space, and it would be nice to get them planted out this autumn rather than leave them sitting in their little plastic pots all winter.  Hellebores in pots are not always the easiest things to manage long term. There should have been twenty, but the pink spotted one that was very small indeed when it arrived failed to grow on, and quietly died in the privacy of the cold frame.

I might risk splitting and moving some more primroses.  In theory I should have done so after flowering, and maybe primroses are one of those plants that don't grow much in the autumn, and perhaps I will kill them doing it now, but somehow I doubt it.  The soil is still warm and reasonably damp, but drains well, and my hunch is that they will be fine.  I have in the past got away with splitting asters in autumn, despite the received wisdom that it should be done in the spring when they are in active growth.  The biggest risk on soil like ours is plants dying from lack of water in spring and summer, not rotting in the ground.

There is some self seeded Tellima grandiflora among the weeds.  That can stay, as it covers the ground and is quite pretty, though it can become too much of a good thing.  There are forget-me-not seedlings, though I honestly don't know where they came from.  There are seedlings of a sedge that might have originated from the one that used to be in the other pond, and which I have been heartlessly weeding up since it is one of the dullest plants imaginable, grows quite large and seeds itself insanely.  There are bulbs of actual wild bluebells, self seeded out of the wood.  There are some young foxglove plants.  And then there is an awful lot of bare soil, which on the one hand represents a thrilling planting opportunity, and on the other hand an awful lot of future work weeding, since I don't have plants growing on to cover all of it.

I do have some of the true Poet's Narcissus waiting to go in there, Narcissus recurvus, bought from Peter Nyssen and recently potted.  It will need companions that don't swamp it while it is growing. I am hoping my pots of Sarcococca cuttings will root, then they can fill in at the back between the purely hypothetical small trees I haven't even planted yet.  And I have just remembered that I have some trays of sweet violet, nibbled off the existing plants in the back garden last spring. They will be fine so long as the cats continue to scare the rabbits away.  Rabbits do not like hellebores or daffodils, but they will happily chew their way through Viola odorata, or at least ours will.

Friday, 13 October 2017

hedge cutting

I don't usually reread my posts, but I did look at yesterday's, and saw I had used proper and properly too many times in the first paragraph.  I blame Events.  Today I decided I had caught up with enough sleep to trust myself up on the Henchman platform, and resumed chopping bits off the back of the Eleagnus hedge.  It would be nice to finish cutting it.  I am getting quite bored with the task.  I would like it to start regrowing as soon as possible.  I have got three bags of daffodil bulbs to go in the lawn next to it that should have been planted a good month ago, and don't want to start digging holes until I have finished using the step ladder there.  That's three reasons, which surely counts as several.

The Systems Administrator appeared around tea time to see how it was going, and exclaimed at how well I was getting on.  It is true I am probably on the home straight with the back of the hedge, but the top still needs an awful lot doing.  The way it grows is to throw up tall, straight, spindly shoots.  These gradually get fatter and begin to branch out.  I am not trying to cut the top of the hedge to a level surface, which would be impossible and in any case look ridiculous, but I would like to reduce its average height by thinning out the upright shoots.  That's the basis on which we trim the native hedge around the boundary, and the result looks pleasingly relaxed.

Unfortunately the Eleagnus hedge is far too fat for me to reach most of the top, even after reducing its width by a good metre and more.  The only way to reach the middle of it is with the long handled string operated loppers.  I stand on the Henchman, reach into the hedge with my long pole, position the cutting jaws around a likely stem, and pull the string.  If the stem I've chosen isn't too fat it will sever.  Then, because the jaws of the lopper don't grip the piece I've just cut off, I spend a minute or three with the long pole flicking the cut stem towards me until I can reach it to pull it out of the hedge.  The alternative would be to leave a thatch of dead cut stems where they fell and wait for them to blow off.

Sometimes the cut twigs don't want to be flicked, because they are intertwined with other twigs, especially the ones that gave up growing vertically some time ago and have been wandering sideways around the top of the hedge, and the long pole is quite heavy.  By tea time my shoulders were beginning to ache.  When I returned after tea intending to do a final hour's work and found Mr Fidget devouring the head of a pigeon surrounded by feathers, while Mr Cool and Our Ginger sat watching, I decided that perhaps I had had enough of the daffodil lawn for one day, and went to weed the gravel instead, until I found the weed I'd just pulled up was a tuft of Dianthus carthusianorum, at which point I decided it was getting too dark.

Some of the growth along the top of the hedge is too thick to cut with the pole loppers anyway.  A few times I discovered I had bitten off more than I could chew, and had to jiggle the pole frantically until the cutting blades came loose from the overly fat stem they were half embedded in.  Once I've done as much as I can by hand, the SA will have to finish the job with the long handled electric chainsaw.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

survival of the fittest

Nature, they say, is red in tooth and claw.  Sometimes nature's ruthless survivalist instincts takes an unexpected form, in this case the amiable persona of Mr Fluffy.  Now Mr Fluffy is a sweetie.  He has a white face, and a white bib, and a white tummy, and four shaggy white paws, and white whiskers, and the rest of him is black.  Most of the time he wears the expression of a slightly baffled panda, except when he is chasing birds or butterflies, and now that he is a proper grown up cat he doesn't bother to do that as often as he did, preferring to spend a good hunk of his day asleep in a cardboard box.  He is often to be found hanging out with Our Ginger and they wash each other, a proper bromance.  He invariably purrs when I pick him up, and never grumbles at being scooped up and carried to a different room, merely ambling back to where he intended to be in the first place once I've finished petting him.  He has taken to flopping down in my lap in the evenings, when again he purrs  a lot.  And, as his name suggests, he is properly long haired and very fluffy.

No, you would not expect Mr Fluffy to be a ruthless survivalist.  He looks like the sweetest natured cat you could hope to meet, besides being slightly dopey.  But Mr Fluffy is a terror when it comes to food, his own and everybody else's.  It started innocently enough, with Mr Fluffy finishing up anything the other cats had left on their plates with a Can I have that if you don't want it? expression.  Then, as the kittens got older and more independent and started going outside at odd times so that we couldn't always feed all four of the cats together, we noticed that if one of the others missed a meal and we put food down for him later when he came in, Mr Fluffy was sure to appear as if by magic and ended up being fed as well.  Sometimes he would emerge from his cardboard box, and sometimes come bursting through the cat door, but he could sense the scraping of a spoon in a tin or the rattle of biscuits at fifty paces.

He was always the first to fall upon any food put down, so much so that there was no sense in trying to feed the other cats until you had given food to Mr Fluffy.  He was always amiable, never growled, never hissed, but he developed the unnerving habit of putting his foot across his brothers' necks and calmly shoving them out of the way.  I was out today at lunchtime, but the Systems Administrator told me that Mr Fluffy had learned a new trick, pushing first one brother and then the other off their food before returning to consume his own dish.  They didn't push back, or growl or hiss, but sat there looking pathetic until the SA put down more.

Despite regularly consuming three lunches, two teas and two suppers, Mr Fluffy is not fat.  I suppose we had better worm him again, but I suspect he is simply not a good feed converter. However, it is not nice for his brothers not to be able to finish their meals in peace, or even start them.  I think we might have to start feeding Mr Fluffy by himself, in the kitchen.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

gardening under glass

I have been trying to pack away my pots in the greenhouse for the winter, while observing the following principles:

The things that are most sensitive to the cold must not go next to the glass.

The things that will break if I knock against them can't go next to the aisle.

Things that need regular watering through the winter must not be hidden behind other, taller pots so that I don't see them.

Things that retain their leaves all winter mustn't be squashed up under the canopy of other things so that they don't get enough light.

I have to leave room for the dahlia pots but they can't go inside until the stalks have died down naturally.

It's complicated.

Meanwhile, the pots of Agapanthus have had a dose of their special new blue fertiliser, since the man giving the talk said there was still time to give them a final feed this season, and that was only a week ago.  Some of the older geranium cuttings that were coming on very nicely have gone and got root aphid.  I decided to be bold, take cuttings from them, and throw the infested roots away.  If the cuttings fail to strike I'll have lost the plant, but they are varieties I could buy again from one of the specialist nurseries if I had to, and geraniums (or rather pelargoniums) are generally very reliable about rooting.

In the conservatory the orange flowered Impatiens that was just starting to look respectable has keeled over, again, its roots having been destroyed by vine weevil, again.  I took cuttings of that too and found them a place in the heated propagator, where they will have to stay all winter unless the Systems Administrator lets me put them on the kitchen window sill.

I have been remembering to stick one of the new green labels into anything that will need action in the spring, saying whether I need to take cuttings, pot on a size, or split the plant.  It all seems entirely obvious now, but by March or April it may not be.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

a day out

I met some of my former colleagues for lunch today in London.  I'd wondered whether I'd have the heart to go, or if it would be in some way disrespectful, but decided that I had and it wouldn't be. Cutting myself off from my friends was not going to help, indeed if anything I rather fancied a few hours off before plunging back into matters of funeral arrangements, helping my mother sort out my father's possessions, and the intricacies of Probate.  If the lunch hadn't already been in my diary I certainly wouldn't have been emailing around trying to arrange one, but it was fixed about three months ago and had already been rescheduled once.

My friends received my news with an appropriate mixture of sympathy and aplomb.  That is one advantage of being at the upper end of middle age, if not the younger end of being old.  People have seen and done bereavement before.  When the Systems Administrator's father died during the SA's first year at university many of his fellow students had absolutely no idea what to say and tried to avoid the subject entirely.  Mind you, so did some of the tutors.

After lunch I went to have a look at Matisse in the studio at the Royal Academy.  The RA is part way through a refurbishment, and the ladies loo has moved and been enlarged and upgraded since my last visit, while the ticket desk is temporarily located in a portacabin in the courtyard, the very short queue presided over by a woman managing to sow confusion about how to queue where there was none before.  The Matisse exhibition is tucked away up in the Sackler Gallery and is not very big, and has consequently sometimes been very crowded.  When the wife of one of my lunch companions went a couple of months back it was rammed, and a notice today said Friends of the Royal Academy were required to book.  This is one of the principal reasons why I am no longer a Friend.

Today it was not especially busy.  The conceit of the exhibition is to show some of the objects Matisse collected in his life and incorporated into his art, alongside some of the artworks they featured in or inspired, and gigantic photographs of his splendidly curated house and studio.  I enjoyed it, apart from the fact that I am still absolutely knackered, since I like Matisse anyway, and seeing some of his original source material had a definite charm.  I am not convinced that Matisse had any truck with the peculiarly Western distinction between Fine and Decorative art, indeed, I think his interiors should count as part of his body of work.

After Matisse I didn't feel up to iconic images of flags, targets, numbers, maps and light bulbs, and gave Jasper Johns a miss.  The Matisse is worth catching, but it is only on now until the twelfth of November.

Monday, 9 October 2017

in the midst of life

Death does seem to have a knack of crash landing on life, and so yesterday evening we gathered at my brother's house and ate the ham and the Waldorf salad that they had ordered from Marks and Spencer before we knew the trajectory of my father's final illness.  After all, my mother had to eat something, and probably did not want to spend her eightieth birthday sitting in the dark by herself, and it was an extremely good ham and it would have been a shame to end up tipping half of it into the food recycling bin.  After some muttered behind-the-scenes debate my brother even brought out the Happy Eightieth Birthday chocolate cake that had been hidden while he saw how things went, on the grounds that my father would have wanted her to have a nice birthday, and that she and my sister-in-law and the grandchildren all like chocolate cake.  The emergency back up plan had been to slice it up so that you couldn't read the words on the icing any more, and give it to the local church.

This morning I took my mother back to the hospital to collect the medical certificate, one of the many documents she will need to present to the Registrar of Births and Deaths to obtain a death certificate.  I saw from the useful booklet the hospital gave us on Saturday, and which I managed to snaffle two copies of so that I could have one as well as my mother, that we were required to register the death within five days.  That's quite a tight timescale, especially given the office at the Bereavement Suite only opens on weekdays.  If your loved one dies after office hours on a Friday it seems you have already used up two of your five days before you can even get the medical certificate.

On the way home my mother asked me what people did whose religions require them to be buried on the same day, and I had to admit I didn't know.  I think they would just have to ask their deity to excuse them, on the grounds that the local laws and customs were not adapted to their religion.

Then we drank tea in her kitchen and admired the collection of cards that had already dropped through the letterbox while trying to remember who else we ought to tell, and the name of the solicitors holding my father's will, and discussing the relative merits of Colchester and Weeley crematoriums.  I suspect that the great rush of things they need to do keeps people going until after the funeral.  Then the whole situation probably hits them like a tonne of bricks.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My father died yesterday evening.  Today is my mother's eightieth birthday.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

I managed to get the next lot of syrup on the bees, and planted the rest of the bag of Crocus tommasinianus.  And then I went to the hospital.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

With the trips to the hospital I have not finished feeding the bees.  You are supposed to keep giving them syrup until they don't take any more down to store in the hive, but I hadn't been for a few days to see if they had finished the last lot.  After breakfast I took myself up to the apiary, and found that two colonies had sucked their feeders dry, and the other two had made reasonable inroads into the last lot of syrup but not yet finished it.  On that basis I dissolved another two big bags of granulated sugar in water, to give to them later once it had cooled down.  I could have made the syrup last night, but you never know how much they are going to want and it is galling to end up pouring a gallon of sugar syrup down the sink.

Luckily the weather is still warm and forecast to remain so for several days yet, so it is not unreasonable to ask the bees to process liquid sugar solution, even though the feeding should have been done last month.  In an emergency if they were running out of food in the winter I would give them fondant, and indeed I have a small stock of the splendidly named Bienenfutterteig Feed Paste down in the garage.  I have heard it said by some old and disapproving beekeepers that some young and new apiarists can't be bothered to make up sugar syrup at all and only give their bees fondant.  This they hold to be reprehensible because of the perceived extravagance, and because it is harder work for the bees since they have to collect water to dissolve the fondant before they can eat it.  On the basis that I have never heard old beekeepers warn against over-wintering your bees on oilseed rape honey, which sets within weeks of collection, I am not sure the water collection argument is valid, and anyway there's probably enough condensation in the hive from the bees breathing.

Then I began to plant this year's addition to the crocus population in the bottom lawn, another hundred bulbs of the straight species Crocus tommasinianus.  I used to feel jealous of all the garden owners featured in magazines who said they had planted fifty bulbs ten or twenty years ago and now had thousands, since mine are not bulking up anything like that rapidly.  Then it occurred to me that since we don't cut the long grass down until the autumn it might be too thick and smothering for the crocus to seed themselves, meaning that I was relying on the bulbs producing offsets to multiply.  It was a slow process because I was tidying away the fallen remains of the long grass that the power scythe missed as I went along.

In the afternoon I went to the hospital.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

I took my mother to the hospital this morning and we sat by my father's bedside.  In the afternoon after I had taken her home I went and bought some compost to pot the bulb order, and a plastic storage box to keep my growing collection of speciality plant foods.  And then I realised I was simply too tired to do anything else.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

learning from the grower

This evening's lecture at the garden club was by a National Collection holder of Agapanthus, Nerine, and Tuhlbagia (and Clivia, but he didn't talk about them, which was a pity, but you can't cover everything in one evening).  It was a very good and instructive talk, and by the end of it I had learned several things that might explain why some of my plants were doing or not doing various things.

I was pleased to discover that I had pretty much worked out the correct principles of growing Agapanthus in pots from experience, including the point that while young plants flower earlier if moderately pot bound, mature plants do not flower well once their roots are completely congested in their pot.  The collection holder's rule of thumb was to move them on to a larger pot every two years until they were in as large a pot as you could handle, at which point you split them and started again, which is the answer I eventually came to.  I had to smile inwardly at the question from the audience as to whether you really chopped them up or teased the roots apart, as I should like to see anyone tease the root ball of a thoroughly pot bound clump of Agapanthus apart.  I blunted a bread knife sawing mine up, and tonight's speaker produced an array of the knives he uses for the task, the largest of which was a full-blown cleaver.

I had not thought of leaving the chopped up root ball exposed to the air for twenty four hours to callus over before potting the pieces, to reduce the chance of it rotting.  On the other hand I had discovered empirically that you could divide evergreen Agapanthus in the autumn.  During the talk we were told to do it in the spring, but chatting to the grower afterwards he said that of course on the nursery they split plants throughout the year to keep up with demand.  I had got my winter watering regime pretty much spot on, which is to keep them dry in the coldest months when they are not growing at all.  Where I fell down totally was on feeding.  It turns out that Agapanthus like their feed to be phenomenally high in phosphate.  Tomato food, said the lecturer, did not have the right mix of the main nutrients, let alone the necessary trace elements, and was really designed for annual crops (like tomatoes) rather than long term projects like potted Agapanthus.

Nerine are one of my gardening bugbears.  The hardy outdoor form, Nerine bowdenii, almost never flowers for me despite being on well drained soil in sunny parts of the garden, while the tender varieties leave me anxious about when I am supposed to water them and when I should withhold water, so that they end up scarcely getting watered at all, and barely surviving in their pots.  Following the talk I suspect that my problem with the hardy ones is that I don't feed them enough and that I have tried to cram them into areas where there are already so many other plants that they get shaded.  I am on the right track now with the watering regime for my pots of tender varieties, but ought to feed them.

The hybrid between Nerine and Amaryllis belladonna sounded very promising, with flowers like Nerine only bigger on taller stalks, and a reasonable degree of hardiness inherited from the Nerine side of the family.  On the other hand the question of why my non-flowering Amaryllis belladonna only flowered about one year in four remained unanswered, because apparently Amaryllis are notoriously fickle and even the experts don't agree on how to get them to flower.  Some say to give more water while others say to give less.  At any rate it is not a simple question of correct feeding.  A bulb merchant in the audience had a theory that the flower buds of Amaryllis grown in the open ground could be vulnerable to frost, which sounded as good as any other theory, though it would not explain why my Amaryllis never flowered when it was in its pot, which is how it came to be planted out in the open ground in the first place.

Something I would never have guessed was that big mature clumps of Tulbaghia tend not to produce many flowers, so instead of merely moving my overcrowded plant into an even bigger pot I ought to cut the root ball up into halves or quarters and pot each of them individually.  I should do that in the spring, however.

I was so inspired by the end of it that I bought three pots of specially formulated food, blue for Agapanthus, pink for Nerine and yellow for Clivia.  Apparently there is still time to give the Agapanthus one feed before putting them away for the winter.

Monday, 2 October 2017

keeping on

My father is ill in hospital.  But in between the hospital visits life goes on, because after all what else do you do?  And so today I took another five bags of long grass from the bottom lawn to the dump without incurring the ire or suspicion of the staff, then bagged up the slightly twiggy but usable-as-mulch compost from the end bin to make room for the bags of shreddings and small twigs from the Eleagnus hedge.  As easy wins in gardening went, reducing the quantity of large white plastic sacks lying around the front garden was a very quick way of making the place look tidier, and besides, the Systems Administrator had run out of bags to put more shreddings in.  I cut some more off the top of the hedge, but then it got too windy to feel safe standing up on the Henchman, and anyway the hedge was waving around too much for me to see the line of it.  At teatime my bulbs order from Peter Nyssen arrived and they had remembered to put in the extra daffodils that I ordered at the last minute.  So it was a normal sort of day, except that it wasn't.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

jobs for later

Last spring I meant to take cuttings of a dusky pink, single dahlia, and another in a good shade of soft yellow, that grew from a packet of mixed seed that came free with a garden magazine.  The previous summer while the dahlias were in flower I stuck labels in the pots to remind me, since the time to do dahlia cuttings is when they first come into growth and before the stems become hollow (so theory says.  I have never actually taken cuttings from dahlias).  By the time it came to spring, however, I could not find the marked pots among the dahlias, all with white labels, crammed pot thick into the greenhouse with only a narrow aisle along the side of the bench left for me to walk along, and missed my chance.

Accordingly, yesterday at the Plant Heritage meeting I bought a packet of green plastic stick in labels.  The idea is that the coloured labels will show up among the white, and I can tag pots where the plant needs attention.   I thought of having a coded system, red for  taking cuttings, say, and yellow for splitting, but that seemed overly complicated.  If it isn't obvious what needs doing then I can always write on the label.

The Tulbaghia violacea need splitting.  A tender member of the onion family, it produces fine leaves in summer that smell strongly of onion when touched, and delicate nodding flowers on long stalks.  I have two forms, one with white flowers, one with mauve flowers and variegated leaves. Both have filled their pots while pushing themselves upwards so that by now the compost, densely crammed with roots, is level with the top of the pot and it's difficult to water them properly.  I could move them into even larger pots, but the pots they are in are quite large enough to lift. Better to saw the rootballs in half, cut off the bottoms so that they will fit in their pots with headroom for watering, and start them off again in similar sized pots.  I daresay that some fresh compost will give them a new lease of life, and I might manage to extract the dandelions that have infiltrated the roots while I'm at it.

Some of the evergreen Agapanthus need splitting as well, since their pots are so huge already that I can barely lift them.  The thought of taking the bread knife to 'Queen Mum' makes me quite anxious, when she has grown from a modest little thing with just one flower stalk into such a fine clump, but I know that flowering will decline if I leave her as she is for another year.  Agapanthus in pots like to be well fed and well watered in the summer, and don't flower at all well if truly pot bound, even if they don't want their fleshy roots to be sitting around in loads of spare compost. Tuesday's garden club lecture is about Agapanthus and Nerine, so if I might pick up some useful tips if I manage to get along.

I don't know what to do about Salvia confertiflora, which has not looked awfully happy this season and was very late into flower despite being in another pot so big I can scarcely move it.  I rather think the plants I saw at Kiftsgate and East Ruston all had sole possession of absolutely enormous pots, suggesting it is a species that requires a lavish root run to give of its best.  I have been trying to work out if it could live permanently in the conservatory so that I wouldn't have to move it, then it could have an even bigger pot, but after much mental juggling of the inhabitants still can't work out where it could go.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

thoughts of warmer climes

The Suffolk Plant Heritage monthly lectures have started up again now that summer is over. Today's talk was not as well attended as usual, which was a pity as it was about the wild flora of parts of Greece and really quite interesting.  Perhaps people wanted to make the most of the last of the warm weather to get on with jobs in their own gardens, or maybe they had forgotten that the lectures recommenced in September.

I was greatly taken with the sea daffodil.  A bulb producing white, vaguely daffodil shaped flowers in autumn, it grows in the wild on the beaches of Crete, where it is being driven to extinction by the tourist trade.  Typing sea daffodil into Google when I got home I discovered that its botanical name is Pancratium maritinum, and that I can buy seeds from Plant World Seeds.  I am very tempted but must do more research before committing my £3.35.  Conditions in our front garden are a bit like a beach in Crete, but I would be deluding myself if I did not admit that in winters Crete must be appreciably warmer and summers much hotter.  Some other Mediterranean climate bulbs have done OK, though, so it is definitely worth investigating.

I liked the sound of Centaura pumilio as well, a low growing, sprawling, sand dwelling little knapweed that would look delightful growing in the gravel, but my quick internet search didn't throw up any seed suppliers in the UK.  That is the trouble with trying to glean garden ideas from talks on the wild flora of overseas places: so many are not commercially available.  I didn't even bother writing down the names of the strange spiny Euphorbia and Verbascum species he showed us.

I canvassed the opinions of two people on whether I should separate my rooted cuttings of Plectranthus argenteus now or leave them in their current groups until spring.  They seem to be growing at a rate of knots, and by spring their roots might be so dense and entangled that I'll do real damage separating them, on the other hand they must slow down soon as the days get shorter and cooler, and if I move them now into individual pots they might simply rot.  One person said to leave them, while the person she referred me to for a second opinion said to pot them on now. Since I have three pots of cuttings in all I could take the experimental scientific approach and pot some on while leaving at least one pot undivided.  Some were rooted with bottom heat and some without, and the strike rate by both methods looks like a hundred per cent.  If they all make it through to next season I shall have many more Plectranthus argenteus than I want, on the other hand they are tricky to keep alive in a damp and chilly greenhouse, so I might not end up with any.

Friday, 29 September 2017

we value your opinion

The woodland charity I support sent me a questionnaire to fill in with my last magazine.  As a long term supporter and believer that trees are generally a Good Thing I sat down with the form and a cup of tea, and began to work my way through the tick boxes.  As usual, I soon began to get that feeling that sometimes none of the options available really applied.  They so often don't.

Would you recommend this newspaper to a friend?  Online reader surveys love that question.  If I truthfully answer No they will presumably infer that I have a negative opinion of their paper, when it's simply that I don't recommend newspapers to friends.  At their age they already know what they think of The Times.  I might murmur that the Guardian website is good on film and takes architecture seriously, if we happened to be talking about arts coverage, but that's about it.

Did we exceed your expectations?  That's another standard question, and the answer is almost always No, but as long as they met my expectations I'm perfectly happy.  My expectations were probably quite high to start with or I wouldn't have been using them, unless it was a service where there was no alternative like the trains to London, and they never ask me what I think anyway. And if I'm making repeat purchases the only way for them to continually exceed my expectations would be to keep pushing their performance higher and higher, supposing that were possible, which it often isn't.  Once somebody has sent the thing you asked for as soon as you ordered it, and it has arrived promptly and intact, there isn't a lot else they can do.  I mean, it would be nice to receive free of charge extra goods that I haven't ordered or paid for but which they have correctly guessed from my purchasing history that I do actually want, and to have them serenaded up the lane by a brass band or even a celestial choir, but I don't expect it to happen.

The woodland charity wanted to know how often I visited my local park or green space, which flummoxed me since I wasn't sure where would count.  There is Castle Park in Colchester, but that's five miles away so not very local.  The last time I set foot in Castle Park must have been three years ago, when we walked through it to get back from somebody's house to where we were parked, but does that count as visiting?  And does the farm count as a green space, and if so what do I have to do to visit it?  Is driving down the farm lane or walking to the postbox enough, or do I have to stop and pay specific attention to the surrounding fields?  If I say I haven't visited either in the past year this makes me sound as though I am not interested in parks or green spaces, when in fact I am very partial to both, it's just that living in the countryside there are no designated green spaces, or rather practically all of it is a green space.

I didn't score well on how often I visited woods either, which made me sound not very keen at all. I went on the guided tour of the wood the other side of Colchester only a couple of weeks ago, and met a friend for a walk down at Wrabness back in the summer, and I can't remember when the last time was before that.  Maybe a year ago when we visited Hackfall while we were on holiday in Yorkshire.  Three visits in twelve months is a pretty pathetic total.  But I see two ancient woods every morning when I look across the fields from the bathroom window, and our own very tiny wood every time I step out of the house.  This spring when I wanted to look at bluebells I had only to step through the gate from the back garden, and that's what I did, because I had masses to do in the garden and didn't want to go and visit anywhere else.

Troublesome things, surveys.  I think the most useful ones are the simplest, stars out of five and whatever comment the reviewer wants to make in their own words.  I have just given five stars to Crocus, and ducked an invitation to sign up to the Nextdoor website on the basis of universal one star online reviews.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

my lazarus sedge

Sometimes you think you have lost a plant, and then you find it again.  Five years ago I was smitten by the quiet charm of a sedge, Carex grayi.  There was a plastic tray of half a dozen of them in the van that used to call weekly at the plant centre with racks of the sort of plants garden centres put in the front line of display, intended as impulse purchases.  You have almost certainly seen them if you visit garden centres along the Suffolk and Essex border: I have recognised their little pots of snowdrops and dwarf iris in flower even at the Chatto gardens.

It was the manager's job to choose what to buy out of the van, and I was not always allowed to look, but sometimes I was and it was great fun, a fairy grotto of flowers, and made a welcome change from watering.  I exclaimed so enthusiastically over the sedge that he took a tray.  I promptly bought one, and then felt vaguely guilty as the others lingered for rather a long time in the grasses section.  Evidently my taste for obscure sedges was in advance of that of the general plant buying public.

Carex grayi is a delight, in a very low key way.  The leaves are mid green, rushy and typically sedge like, but the thing you buy it for is the flowers, which form spikey clusters like a little medieval mace.  One of its common names is the mace sedge, though in its native United States where armed medieval warfare was not a thing they call it gray sedge, not because it is grey but because it is named after a great American botanist, Asa Gray.

Sedges tend to like it dampish and I planted my new treasure in the bog bed, which is one of the damper bits of the garden though not actually boggy unless we get a very long wet spell so that the water table rises.  I no longer remember the exact spot, which tends to be the problem with planting treasures in a large and wild garden, and the sedge did not remain to remind me but disappeared, I think fairly rapidly.  Perhaps it was too dry, or even too wet as the water table rose astonishingly for a while around then and turned part of the bed into knee deep mud soup. Perhaps it couldn't compete with the self seeding Thalictrum and ever expanding Persicaria.  At any rate it was lost.

Then this summer a sedge appeared growing in the gap between two of the concrete slabs outside the greenhouse where the original wooden former had rotted away.  I initially assumed it was seedlings of the tedious sedge I used to have growing in the formal pond until I lost patience with its rampancy and lack of charm and pulled it out, since when seedlings have been cropping up all round the paving slabs by the pond and in the pond itself.  Before I could get round to weeding it up or poisoning it, however, it began to flower and I saw it was not the dull, dangly sedge of the pond but Carex grayi.  Reader, I left it to get on with it, and a couple of days ago picked all the ripe seed heads and brought them indoors.  Today I painstakingly pulled every dry brown mace apart and picked out several dozen fat seeds, which are now in an envelope for sowing next year, then if they come up and I get several I can try to find a place more to its liking, and maybe keep one in a pot by the conservatory as a friend for the sedge I bought at the Great Dixter plant fair.

It's true you can buy seed of Carex grayi, so I could have replaced mine before now, but I haven't. There is a limit to how many packets it feels sensible to buy, after all, when you know you have to look after all the seedlings, and Carex grayi never made it to the top of the list.  But home saved seed is another thing entirely.  What amazes me is how something that was planted out at the bottom of the back garden in August of 2012 managed to suddenly reappear five years later outside the greenhouse in the front garden.  It would have stood on the concrete waiting to be planted, so did it seed itself then and the seeds lay dormant in the crack for five years before springing to life?  After an effort like that it deserves another chance in the garden, though actually I still haven't pulled the mystery plants out of the concrete.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

arise, arise

I had to get up early this morning, and set the alarm on my bedside clock-radio, and then because it was important that I didn't oversleep and I don't set the alarm very often, I set the alarm on my phone as a back-up.  It was just as well I'd set something, because I did not wake up at the required time as I'd thought I might, knowing I had to go out.  Instead I was woken at quarter to six by the restrained beeping of the clock-radio plus the phone playing a truly horrible jingle that is Samsung's default alarm setting.  At which point I discovered I did not know how to silence the phone alarm.  After some futile swiping and tapping in my befuddled state I had to flee with it to the bathroom, where I managed to activate the Snooze function, giving me five minutes to cancel the alarm before it played the awful tune again.

Sounds of earlier than usual activity brought Our Ginger upstairs, who yowled hopefully outside the bedroom door.  Apologising to the Systems Administrator for the phone, I asked if I should let the cat in or if the SA might go back to sleep, and the SA said the latter.  I don't know how anybody could sleep again after an awakening like that, but Our Ginger and I went downstairs and left the SA to it.  There were no kitties.  As I suspected, the Artists Formerly Known As Kittens go outside around dawn.

By the time I returned the SA was feeding bits of hedge rather carefully into the shredder.  I volunteered to pull pieces off the tottering pile and sort them between bits small and leafy enough to shred, bits so small and sappy they would jam the shredder, and woody stems to go on the bonfire heap, and by the time the SA's back had had enough for the day we had made a respectable dent in the pile.  It was really quite encouraging, as I had visions of the hedge taking from now to the end of October to finish.  The side facing the drive seemed to take weeks, but of course it is easier working on the back where you don't have to worry about keeping the drive clear of rubbish for access.  I hadn't expected the Systems Administrator to risk any kind of garden work at all today, or even this week, but the SA's view was that it was better to keep moving, albeit in small doses.

By way of an extra reward for the gargantuan labour of reducing the hedge, I rang Peter Nyssen and ordered some more daffodils to be tacked on to my existing order.  It will be nice next spring to look over the daffodil lawn and see daffodils across its full expanse and not just the strip that hadn't been devoured by the hedge.  It turned out they needed to speak to me in any event because the stock of the hyacinth I'd ordered had arrived in such a sad state that they'd sent it back, and I had to choose a substitute.  I went with what they suggested, which I did grow anyway in 2015.  I'd rather have had my original choice but there you go, it wasn't available.

I must remember to work out how to switch off the phone alarm before the next time I need to use it in earnest.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

musings on design

I found it too distracting to listen to the radio while cutting the hedge, a pretty sure indication that it had got beyond needing a simple trim to a case of serious pruning.  In much the same way as I have to flick the car radio off when approaching a complicated junction, some gardening tasks need enough brain power that I can't cope with distractions.  Weeding, even quite elaborate weeding when I want to keep the self sown seedlings of some things, is fine with the radio on. Seed sowing, pricking out, and potting on are all an absolute doddle.  Cutting the edges, no sweat. But setting out a new planting scheme requires concentration, and so does all except simple pruning.

It was a very beautiful morning, with soft, slightly hazy sunshine and little wind, ideal for working with a pruning saw from the top of a ladder.  The view from the top of the Henchmean platform across the fields at the back of the house was wonderful, our trees and hedge and the neighbour's developing copse somehow managing to hide the wind turbine, solar farm, and other signs of modern countryside living that I can see out of the bathroom window.  Only if I looked closely at one birch tree could I just make out the blade of the wind turbine at the top of its sweep.

As I chopped out great sections from the side of the hedge, and the space that used to be part of the lawn until it was engulfed by the hedge opened up, the proportions began to look much better, even though the ragged side of the hedge looked a complete mess, and I began to muse about masses and voids in the garden.  Masses and voids, as I explained a couple of times to our friend who is just starting off with her blank square of grass after moving house, are the key to garden design.  The masses are all those things that you cannot see through, hedges, trees, flower beds, sheds, sculptures.  Big stuff.  The voids are the things you can see over, lawns, paving, gravel, ponds, low planting.  The main circulation of people around the garden occurs through the voids, though not all voids are designed to be walked on.  Ponds, for example, or the grass of some Oxford colleges.

A garden needs the right balance of masses and voids to feel comfortable.  Ah, but what is comfortable?  Well, that depends partly on where the garden is and what you want to use it for, but a very open garden may not feel like a place you want to linger, while a garden stuffed mainly with mass can feel claustrophobic.  I think that probably lies at the heart of why the Systems Administrator didn't like Hidcote on either of our visits.  It is a garden of rooms, the rooms filled with planting, quite overpowering.  Part of the power of Great Dixter lies in the contrast between the dense planting close to the house, and the open expanse of meadow running right up to the main border.

Our hedge had got too massive, making the void of the daffodil lawn too pinched and the patio feel hemmed in.  Less hedge and more daffodil lawn should restore the balance.  There is some new growth coming from the heart of the hedge, so I am reasonably optimistic it will recover from its severe hack.  The cats, on the other hand, are aghast that I am opening up and destroying their climbing frame, and I'm afraid that come next spring the blackbirds won't be too impressed either.

Monday, 25 September 2017

hedge cutting (for the forseeable future)

The Systems Administrator got up unusually early, not out of boundless desire to rise to meet the challenges of the day ahead, but because of the sudden onset of backache after turning over in the night.  Three Nurofen and a hot shower later and barely able to get his socks on unaided, the SA slowly and stiffly made his way downstairs for a day of alternating between sitting very carefully on the sofa, walking very carefully round the room, and doing very gentle exercises to try and coax his back out of spasm.

It was a blow on two fronts, firstly because it was extremely painful for the Systems Administrator, and secondly because the Systems Administrator had been going to help with the hedge. Yesterday the SA hauled away trailer loads of woody prunings to the bonfire heap and fed the leafier ones through the shredder, and that helped a lot.  Left to tackle my own mountain of debris as I went along, my progress today along the back of the hedge was even more painfully slow than it would have been anyway.

By lunchtime I had nibbled out one little section of hedge beside the patio.  It did not reach across the full width of the patio, or the full height of the hedge, and looked even smaller and more inadequate from the dining room window than it had when I stood in front of it.  Part of the problem is that in the past I had tucked long, wavering growths back inside the hedge instead of ruthlessly pruning them off.  They have now thickened, lengthened, and produced side shoots, while sagging down in great loops far beyond the point where I should like the outside of the hedge to be.  Disentangling them from the rest of the hedge and extracting them, sometimes in several sections, is taking ages.

I told myself that at least I didn't have to do this along the full length of the hedge, since it has not grown nearly so much on the further section facing the little oak tree, and that once I got beyond the patio I would find I had not tucked in so many wayward growths, and sawing off the spreading branches would be quicker work.  I did speed up after lunch, but there is still an awful lot of hedge to go.  And it drizzled.  It was not supposed to drizzle and I had to cover up the electric shredder just to be on the safe side.

By way of light relief I potted up my remaining seed raised wallflowers into terracotta pots.  The young plants I potted on last week had already begun to overtake the last tray of seedlings that I didn't get round to doing last time.  They were not too pot bound when I tipped them out of their black plastic pots, but definitely not doing as well as the plants with a bigger root run.

There is still some young growth on the basil plants in the greenhouse, so I used some of it to make a herb topping for some baked tomatoes.  You whizz the basil and some breadcrumbs up together and add a little dribble of olive oil.  It was rather nice.  All sorts of things might be improved by the addition of a herb crust.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

the hardest chop

As it was Sunday and there would be no postman, I took the opportunity to set up the Henchman platform in the drive and cut as much as I could reach of the top of the Eleagnus hedge.  I have a nasty feeling that when I have repeated the exercise from the other side there will still some tall growth along the middle that I can't reach from either side.  My plan is to try and get at that using the pole loppers from the Henchman, and if any of it is too thick for the loppers to summon the Systems Administrator to tackle it with the electric pole chainsaw.  Actually, I am starting to ache just thinking about it.

Tomorrow the big reduction begins on the side facing the patio and the daffodil lawn, unless I seize up in the night after today's efforts.  The SA and I looked at the hedge together and agreed that it needed to come back to the line of the edge of the patio.  At the moment it is taking up easily two feet of paving, and twice that much of the daffodil lawn, if not more.  There is no way of reclaiming the lost space except by giving the hedge a really hard chop, following which that side of it will be completely bald and will look terrible.  Unfortunately this is where you end up after years of trimming Eleagnus so as to keep a reasonably leafy surface: year by year it has expanded.

We discussed the possibility that I might kill it.  Part of me shrinks from the idea, because it would be such a lot of work replacing it.  I can't begin to think how many gazillion trailer loads of stuff for the bonfire it would generate, and I would have to dig out the roots.  In fact I think I might lobby for us to hire a small digger so that the SA could dig out the stumps mechanically.  Then I would have to refresh the soil and replant with something else, probably hornbeam, and then there would be a tedious wait of several years for the replacement to grow into a respectable hedge.  The other part of me thinks that the garden is more sheltered than it was twenty years ago, as other planting and the neighbours' trees have grown up, so we could live with a small hedge for a few years, and that the Eleagnus is a monster so that while I would not set out to remove it on purpose, I wouldn't be heartbroken if I ended up having to take it out.

The birds would miss it.  There are always blackbirds nesting in it every year, and today I found a small, tightly built nest high up and quite close to the outside.  This is why any major operations have to happen outside the nesting season.  Mr Fluffy likes climbing it, which is a good reason for the birds to nest as high and as far out as possible.  Mr Fluffy may also have been falling out of it, as he has picked up three different scratches on his nose in the past few days.

And if it dies I won't have to keep picking its leathery, brown fallen leaves out of the gravel.  I must remember that as I set to with my pruning saw tomorrow.  The worst case would be if just a couple of plants died, leaving me with the decision of what to do next.  Still, the front face reclothed itself very well, though it took a couple of years.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

garden design on the fly

At the second attempt we made it over to my friend's new garden, and spent a couple of hours arranging lengths of rope and bamboo canes until we had a layout to her liking.  We left her with the ropes, assuring her that there was no rush to give them back, and a can of white tennis court marking paint so that once she was quite sure she had a design she liked she could mark it out more permanently.  It is impossible to cut beds out of a lawn guided only by the pieces of rope or hosepipe you used to mark them out.  I know this having tried to do it.  Five minutes after you have started digging, the markers will have got pushed out of position.

The new garden was roughly square, larger than the gardens on many new housing developments but still not very big, and the design needed to incorporate a fairly large wrought iron gazebo which my friend was slightly worried about, but could not leave behind for sentimental reasons. Slotted in behind the garage was another much smaller square, which was rather handy in terms of giving somewhere to put a shed and a compost bin where they would be out of sight from the house.  There was one immovable object, a rotary clothes drier which had already been concreted into the ground.  The soil from digging the hole was in a plastic flower pot and was sandy, as I thought it would be.  Our previous house was only half a mile away along the same hillside, and although soil can vary a great deal in half a mile I had a hunch that in this case it didn't.

When planting up a new garden on a freshly built estate, and especially when the builders have already turfed the entire space, it is very easy to end up digging a border all around the edges and leave your nice new lawn in the middle.  When designing a garden in a small space, especially when you previously had a large area, it is very tempting to make the borders small.  Resist the obvious.  Narrow borders are harder to plant than more generous ones, and putting them around the edges allows you to see the whole garden at once.  On the other hand you don't want to go to the opposite extreme of trying to divide your little space into rooms until it feels more like a maze for laboratory rats than a garden.  And you should avoid creating zillions of little beds dotted about unless you really enjoy cutting lawn edges.

The gazebo was a challenge.  In the middle of the garden it risked looking like a bandstand, while pushed over to the edge it might seem arbitrarily large and simply there for the sake of it (which in a way it was).  And we couldn't suggest digging up too much of the lawn the builders had left because my friend needed somewhere for visiting grandchildren to play.

The design the Systems Administrator had come up with on paper, based on my rough sketch, approximate dimensions, and description of the site, was based on two interlocking serpentine curves.  A promontory of planting would project from the sunnier side of the garden to the centre, with the gazebo at the end of it, the SA reasoning that this would anchor the gazebo and make it look less as though it had simply been plonked down in the middle.  A concave curve of planting would sweep round from the patio, up the shady side of the garden, and along the back, swelling outwards from the back fence towards its end so that there would be room for a damson tree and an Eleagnus that had to be fitted in somewhere.  Half of the north facing side wall of the neighbour's garage would be left unplanted until the grandchildren were older so that they could kick a football against it, and when the grandchildren were not visiting a bench could stand there giving my friend somewhere to sit out of the sun.

The pond, also non-negotiable since my friend already had the plastic liner and her sister had given her a water feature, could fit into the end of the convex bed by the patio.  The bench could sit on some hard standing within the line of the bed so that the smooth curve of the edge would not be interrupted and she would not have to move the bench when she wanted to mow the lawn. A drain cover that was placed rather obviously in the lawn close to the clothes dryer could be just incorporated into the end of the projecting bed, then it could be hidden by planting.  The Systems Administrator suggested adding an extra square of paving to give more space for bins inside the side gate, and we were very careful to eliminate any stupid little corners or odd triangles of grass that would be a pain to mow.  My friend asked if she should keep the grass inside the gazebo and we said with one voice No.  It would be an utter nightmare to cut, and anyway as the climbers grew up on the gazebo it would be too shaded.

There were an awful lot of existing plants to be accommodated, plants brought from the old, much larger garden which were of sentimental value or which my friend simply liked, and housewarming presents of new plants.  I am sure the latter were kindly meant, but I am not sure a plant in a pot is actually the best present for somebody whose garden currently consists of nothing but turf.  They will have to look after it for weeks, and more realistically months, until their new garden is ready for planting, and then they will have to work out how to incorporate it into their design.  Depending on the plants that could end up too much like a cookery challenge where you have to produce a meal from a collection of random ingredients including a tin of baked beans and a grapefruit.  It was lucky I'd seen the stash of pots a month ago when it was easier to tell what some of them were, and so had a rough idea of how the borders might be themed into pink and purple versus yellow and red areas.  I realized on the way home that there weren't really enough evergreens, though, and emailed her suggesting that if there was any space left over she could do with some more.

We got as far as you could with the ropes and bamboos, and then stopped for tea and cake, leaving her with the advice to check the design from the upstairs windows.  I thought it looked very promising.  She could have had professional designers in and paid a few hundred quid and not come up with anything objectively better, apart from having a nice drawn plan instead of some old ropes and a can of DIY spray paint.  And they would not have been nearly so obliging about trying to find homes for the existing eclectic collection of plants.  But it is up to her.  In due course I'll see if it gets built out roughly as suggested, or ends up as something completely different.

Friday, 22 September 2017

grow your own herbs

I am half way through tidying up the herb bed for the winter.  The herb bed is at times practical, containing mint, parsley, chives, sage, and a small bay tree, all of which I did use in cooking at some point during the summer.  There is also a large amount of lemon verbena, which I have never found any practical use for, and a lot of origanum that I haven't cooked with either, being vague about its provenance or culinary properties.  The answer would be to try a bit, since I don't suppose it would kill me.  As I was tidying up I found a thyme plant that I'd forgotten about, looking amazingly healthy and bushy amidst the undergrowth, so I could start cooking with that. There is some lavender, purely decorative because I dislike the flavour of lavender in food, but no rosemary because that lives somewhere else.  There were originally several flavours of mint, but I have forgotten what they were, and according to Jekka McVicar on the radio if you grow more than one variety together and let their roots touch they will all taste the same anyway.  There is some borage, whose flowers I have still not frozen in ice cubes and used to decorate drinks. Everything runs or seeds itself dementedly, the parsley going to seed very quickly because the soil is really too dry for it, and the borage only a quarter of the size of the borage that sprang up next to the compost heap last year.  Mint is not supposed to like dry soil, but it survives pretty well, being a tough plant.

It is just the sort of herb bed that Christopher Lloyd would have disliked a lot, floppy, structureless, and messy for much of the summer, despite my best efforts with rusted iron tripods of clematis (not entirely successful) and a diagonal path of mixed paving slabs and cobbles. Insects adore it, though and once the origanum and lemon verbena and mint flower it is a mass of wild bees, honey bees, and butterflies.  It looks pretty too, in a floppy, messy way, but by now the parsley stems are yellow, the sage has the jagged spikes of spent flower stems jutting up among the new foliage, the origanum is brown, and the chives are being infiltrated by grass pretending to be chives.  Time for a big tidy, stems with seed heads to the bonfire, stems I can salvage without seed heads to the compost heap, grass seedlings and the latest crop of wild vetch and plantain in the council brown bin.

I planted a horseradish root out of a little nine centimetre pot a few years ago in a fit of enthusiasm after reading some book about eastern European cooking.  It was a stupid place to put horseradish, since the bed is mulched with gravel and not intended to be dug up, and how else do you harvest horseradish root?  The horseradish has shown what it thinks of the sand by staying sedately where it was planted and only slowly growing larger, when if it was happy it would be running yards in all directions.  If I were ever to manage to get the vegetable plot back into production I would move the horseradish there, planting it in a bottomless pot if I were feeling especially bullish about its prospects.  In the meantime we have not had horseradish and beetroot or any of the other things I was probably imagining when I bought it.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

autumn flowers

After a shaky start, September is settling into a gorgeous run of autumn days.  In the entrance garden the autumn flowering crocus are getting into their stride, yesterday some clumps of violet blue flowers opening wide in the sun, today more purplish spikes showing through the gravel. They are Crocus speciosus, initially raised in small pots and planted out in the ground in March 2015 when I could see what else was coming up.  I've heard grumbles from other gardeners in the past who tried autumn flowering crocus that didn't come to anything, but there are a great many species and varieties, as I only began to fully appreciate when I looked at some specialist bulb catalogues.  Some are rare and expensive.  I went for one that was relatively cheap, partly because I wanted a lot.  A group of three bulbs of something the size of a crocus doesn't honestly make much of an impact in an acre of wild and woolly garden.  But also varieties that survive and bulk up well tend to be cheaper, so price is often a good indication of reliability and longevity.  On my experience so far I would heartily recommend Crocus speciosus for light soil.  The small bulb expert whose garden I visited last autumn with the garden club had warm words for 'Zephyr', but the balance of advice I found online said that it would like a moister soil than I was planning to offer it.  Now the C. speciosus are out I am wishing I had bought some more.  I still could from Pottertons, but I was trying to be sensible about how many bulbs I could afford or would have time to plant.

In the back garden the marginally tender Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii' is putting on a great show.  It is a big plant, taller than I am, and from tentative looking patches of leaves in spring it spends the summer sending up long flowering stems, which by now are tipped with vivid pink heads of typically sage shaped flowers, fairly large.  Knowing that it was slightly tender I tried growing my first plant in a pot in the shelter of the conservatory, which it detested.  Let loose in a border it lets rip.  This plant has been in situ since March 2014, so has made it through three normal coastal Essex winters but not yet been exposed to a really cold one.  It is on fairly free draining soil on a slope, which probably helps.  I ought to have taken cuttings as an insurance policy, but so far I haven't, and the heated propagator is now full.

In the same bed is Kniphofia caulescens, which is still only thinking about flowering, its spikes of buds not yet showing any hint of colour.  When the flowers do open they will be red and yellow, which doesn't go particularly well with the last of the asters and the pink chrysanthemums, but by that stage of the autumn who is grumbling?  It is just nice still to have flowers coming out at all. The leaves look superficially more like a yucca, glaucous and held in clumps on short trunks.  The plant can become a bit tattered by the end of winter, but all it needs is for the dead brown outer leaves to be cleared away.  Mine was planted fifteen years ago since when it has survived two very cold winters and the long wet winter that followed, so despite looking distinctly exotic I think you can safely regard it as hardy, at least in the south of England.

There are more autumn flowers to talk about, but now it is gone half past eight and I should like my dinner.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

clearing the decks

I have started clearing away the pots of summer bedding.  Some still have a scattering of flowers, but many have finished so that the overall effect is slightly dismal.  I thought at first that if I removed the worst of them, like the Tithonia which have well and truly given up the ghost, then maybe I could group the others together and salvage something from the display for another couple of weeks, but extracting the shabbiest ones has simply exposed the failings of the others. The wet, dull August can't have helped, the fuschia gall mite certainly didn't, and I don't think Tithonia can be suited to pot culture.  I did fall for them after seeing them in Monty Don's garden on Gardeners' World, which is in Herefordshire with clay soil, a high water table, and moister air than coastal Essex.  Still, I tried, and have now got Tithonia envy out of my system.

The Nicotiana mutabilis are still going strong by the front door, or at least their lower leaves are rather puckered as if some sap sucking insect had attacked them, but there are great sprays of pink and white flowers up top.  They have spent all summer with an east facing aspect, so clearly thrive in less than full sun, which could be useful to know.  The Arctotis and Gazania have had full sun, and are still flowering.  They ought to in mid September, since that was when I was first smitten by Arctotis 'Flame' at the Hillier gardens.  But the dahlias are running out of oomph.  I should probably have fed them more, and next spring I shall repot them all and move this year's new plants into bigger pots.  They did jolly well, though, when you think that they arrived as rooted cuttings in April.  When I went to the garden club lecture on dahlia growing in February of last year I could not entirely believe the photograph of a flowering plant a couple of feet high that had come from a cutting taken that season, but they are incredibly vigorous when young.

I've also started to clear the tomato plants out of the greenhouse, picking the last of the ripe tomatoes plus those green fruit I think might ripen given a bit of luck and a whiff of ethylene, and consigning the vines to the compost heap.  As long as it remains dry I will delay starting to pack the pots of tender plants inside, as damp and fungal infections are a bigger risk than frost at this stage, but I should like to have the space freed up so that I can get them under cover fairly quickly when the weather turns.  The dahlias ought to wait outside until they've been touched by frost, which since the garden club talk I know is to stimulate the tubers to seal themselves off from the stems before cutting them down, since the hollow stems of dahlias can act as a route for infection.  It's a bit of a nuisance, as I should like to put the dahlia pots around the edge of the greenhouse, and the things with tender stems further away from the glass, in case the thermometer drops precipitously one winter's night.  And the salivas are tender, but need to go near the door to get as much air as possible on days when I open the greenhouse, because they are the most susceptible to botrytis, except that they mustn't go right by the little path I leave myself because their stems are brittle and break easily if knocked into.

Really I need a larger greenhouse.  Or perhaps fewer plants.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

hedge cutting and compost heaps

I have been trimming the side of the Eleagnus hedge facing the drive.  I had to reduce it severely a couple of years ago, otherwise we would never have had another oil delivery, and by the time I'd finished it was almost bald.  I was nervous about its prospects of recovery, but implacable in my desire for a continued supply of hot water, so the oil delivery won.  The hedge grew back lustily, and after being tipped back several times is getting quite dense on that side, so today's trim was a case of shortening the long new growths to keep it bushy and off the drive.  I will need to get the Henchman platform out to reach the top, and thought I'd leave that until after Saturday's post, so in the meantime it is ridiculously top heavy where recent gales have blown the new, high  whippy growth out sideways.

Then I shall have to steel my nerves to give the back a hard chop.  The hedge has got inexorably fatter and saggier over time, and is now taking up a good yard of the patio and daffodil lawn.  It is too tall as well, and shades the summer pots on the patio for too much of the day.  It is good practice if you have to take a hedge back hard to do one side at a time, and let the first recover before tackling the second.  Let us hope the Eleagnus can repeat its Lazarus trick for a second time.  If I had known twenty years ago what I know now I'd have planted hornbeam or yew.  Alas, I did not.

The compost heaps are already rather full, which is not ideal when there is so much to come off the garden in the next few months.  Hedge trimmings, the tomato plants, the dahlia tops, and then all the herbaceous material in the borders, plus the spent compost from the summer pots.  I eyed up the bins hopefully to see if there was any compost ready use on the borders.  If it is only going on as a mulch rather than being dug in then I reckon that it doesn't need to be one hundred per cent fine and crumbly, and some remaining stems and twiggy bits will be fine and give the worms something to do.  I decided the contents of the two oldest bins were worth bagging up to put on the long bed, if I picked the largest uncomposted pieces of stem and Santolina branches out.  The middle bin was not quite ready, but getting there, so it could have the contents of the tomato grow bags when I get round to emptying them, and the potting compost from the Tithonia and Cosmos pots.

That left three bays of garden waste mixed with litter from the hen house and kitchen vegetable waste that were nowhere near composted, so for now all fresh clippings and prunings can go on them.  I put the bits of Eleagnus on, except for the thickest stems.  Evergreen leaves are slow to rot, but they get there eventually.  The Eleagnus stems were individually too small and fiddly to fork on to the bonfire anyway, and I have quite enough bags of non-compostable waste waiting to go to the dump already.  There was another bag of long grass once the Systems Administrator had cut the sloping edge of the daffodil lawn, using an electric hedge trimmer, as it happens.  (I bought the electric trimmer for just that purpose, because it took such a dispiritingly long time to do it with shears, not to mention the time I strained my wrist cutting it in the second week of December and it wasn't right again until well into the New Year.  The electric hedge trimmer is not allowed anywhere near a hedge.  I do the Eleagnus with secateurs, to make sure each cut is made just above a leaf).

Raking out dead leaves and pulling up weeds from under the hedge filled another bag, and I'm not even half way along yet.  I began to feel rather dismayed about the bags.  Today's tally brings me back up to thirteen.  How many car loads to the dump can I manage before Love and Dear give way to questions about whether I am sure that I don't have a gardening round?

Monday, 18 September 2017

to the dump

I went to the dump this morning to get rid of some of the long grass we cut down in the back garden.  There were seventeen bags of it, which at the current rate of progress will need at least three trips.  I could only get five bags in the car today, but maybe as it wilts and packs down a bit I'll be able to squeeze an extra one in the boot.  They could go in the council brown bin, but at one collection per fortnight that would take three or four months, at the end of which I'd have a fresh collection of bags of other weedy waste I don't want to put on the compost heap.

The compaction machine for green waste at the dump must have broken.  You used to be able to empty your bags into a metal bin at ground level with a ram moving too and fro which pushed the contents away into the dark recesses of the skip.  That disappeared, and we are back to the old fashioned method of having to lug the bags up a flight of steps and empty them in at the top. Except that today I didn't have to climb the steps at all, because three different members of staff rushed to take my bags and empty them for me.

I was happy to have my bags emptied, even though I am perfectly capable of carrying five large bags stuffed with cut grass up a flight of steps and emptying them over the side of a skip.  If I had been a perpetually militant feminist I might have been offended by the implication that I was not able to carry them, or enraged at being cheerfully addressed by all three as Love and Dear.  As it happens I was not at all offended.  They were trying to be nice, and it's always good to appreciate attempts at niceness in others.  And although my back is fine at the moment and perfectly up to carrying bags, lots of people do have back and shoulder problems.  And I don't think that calling me Love or Dear was intended to imply that they considered me a lesser human being.  While lots of things do bring out the militant feminist in me, the cheerful staff at the Clacton dump are not one of them.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

rarer than pandas

Today we saw some of the rarest animals in the world, without travelling anywhere more exotic than the other side of Colchester.  The Suffolk Horse Society were holding their annual horse spectacular at the Marks Hall Estate.  There are fewer than five hundred Suffolk horses in existence, making them England's rarest horse and meaning they are rarer than giant pandas.  By lunchtime we must have seen close on five per cent of the global population.

You would recognise a Suffolk horse if you saw one.  They are barrel bodied, immensely strong beasts, always some shade of chestnut and with clean legs instead of the hairy, feathered legs of shire horses.  Their powerful build makes them look stocky, but this is an illusion.  The breed standard says they should be sixteen to seventeen hands high, and seen close up you realize they are truly massive.  And they are truly rare because, well, how many people nowadays are able to keep a seventeen hand horse bred for field work as a pet?

I only discovered about the event at Marks Hall because I happened to pick up a leaflet in the museum at Stowmarket.  It turns out to be an annual get together, though this was the first time it had been held in Essex instead of Suffolk.  The leaflet said Gates open at ten, and the Systems Administrator was reluctant to believe there would be any point in arriving on the dot, so we ambled up at a quarter past, and it was just as well we did, because judging for the supreme champion was already well underway.  They were all very patient about being alternately paraded up and down and made to stand about, including a mare with a foal at foot (sixteen weeks and already massive).  Then there was a class for ridden Suffolks, part of the strategy to save the breed from extinction since more people might be willing to keep a Suffolk if they thought they could ride it.  The thunder of hooves as a Suffolk passes at even a slow canter is quite something. We saw Suffolks pulling vintage outfits and agricultural machinery and helping load logs on to a cart, and standing politely while complete strangers stroked their noses, and finally the young handlers' class in which they were led around the ring by children the oldest of whom was fourteen and the youngest of whom looked about ten.

The Suffolk Horse Society and all the owners taking part must have massive trust in their horses, to have them cantering in a tight circle no more than twenty feet from spectators separated from them only by a row of angle irons and some green plastic, hauling a traditional hay wagon downhill without brakes, being led about by small children, and petted by complete strangers.  If one had careered out of the ring it could have done severe damage, and a single kick could kill you, but they all behaved impeccably.  It was the first show for one of the horses in the ridden class, who ended up standing in the middle of the ring to get used to the whole thing while the others trotted around him, but overall they behaved impeccably.  I stroked the muzzle of the logging horse, and it was like velvet.  He was a very laid back creature, lending his huge weight to haul each log up the skids on to the cart at a word from his handler, and relaxed as anything as soon as he'd finished.

There were lots of happy, well behaved dogs as well, and while we were there we took a turn around the walled garden, which is maturing beautifully since being laid out in a cutting edge design within the old walls at the turn of the millennium, while having managed to become very much of its era and distinctly vintage in less than twenty years.  It was a very nice day out.  I worry about the long term future of the horses, though.  They don't truly look very comfortable to ride, being so broad, and will there be enough horse logging, funeral corteges and heritage museum gigs to go round?  Five hundred is really not very many