Wednesday, 13 December 2017

found

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

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

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


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

missing

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

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

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

Monday, 11 December 2017

rasputitsa

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 December 2017

snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 December 2017

fending off the cold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 December 2017

the devil finds work for idle paws

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, 7 December 2017

sinus trouble

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

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

warriors of ancient Siberia

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

caution deep water

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 December 2017

where the wood meets the garden

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 3 December 2017

dank

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

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

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

Saturday, 2 December 2017

something happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 December 2017

a garden talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 30 November 2017

winter gardening

It was a day to keep moving, not a fingertip weeding, crawling around sort of day, and so I set off to have another go at the brambles and nettles along the side of the wood.  The saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing, may apply to coast to coast walks but doesn't always apply to gardening, because if the ground is frozen or slimy with rain that limits what you can do.  But today the frost had held off in the lee of the wood and the soil was quite dry, so the limitation was quite definitely the endurance of the gardener.

By this stage of the year I wear seven layers on my upper half: a cotton vest, a Musto thermal polo neck, an old long-sleeved t-shirt, a proper shirt, another t-shirt, a cotton sailing smock, and a fleece.  The fleece maybe only counts as three quarters of a layer because the zip has broken.  I have a fleece scarf, a fleece hat, thermal leggings, cotton trousers and thick socks from the local tool hire shop, which are slightly on the large side because nobody with size 39 feet ever buys boot socks, obviously.  I have leather gloves that are rather stiff, so that after the first hour I had to put a plaster on the arthritic bulge on the little finger of my right hand to stop the glove from rubbing, and short wellington boots.

It was enough.  I did not feel cold as I chopped away with my pick axe and scrabbled up bits of root.  In general dry cold is fine, so long as you are moving.  When we were younger, and winters were reliably colder and drier than they seem to be now, we used to go fell walking each February.  The prospect of darkness falling by five is enough to keep you moving at a fair clip, and we walked solidly all day, carrying emergency supplies of Kendal Mint Cake, but not stopping to eat sandwiches or anything else at lunch time, because it was too cold to stop walking for longer than a thirty second breather after the steepest stretches.  We enjoyed ourselves.  Winter gardening is a doddle in comparison, and after all you can always come inside for a hot drink and to warm up any time you fancy.

It is supposed to snow later this evening, only very lightly before it turns to sleet.  That's a bore, because I am honour bound to go to a lecture by Fergus Garrett at Wrabness, having asked the organisers to save me a ticket to pick up on the door and not yet paid for it.  Besides, I want to hear Fergus Garrett.  By Sunday it is supposed to be warming up, and I should be able to plant the rest of the small hellebores, the rooted divisions of sweet violets, the plants I bought recently from Dorset Perennials, the sad left-over Sarcococca that's been sitting by the greenhouse for months, and at least one of the potted roses I've been growing on since last year.

A robin watched me intently as I worked.  I read somewhere that in nature they would follow wild boar about waiting for the ground to be disturbed, and that gardeners could think of themselves as substitute pigs.  Mr Fidget rushed past at one point and stared at me with mad eyes before rushing off again.  He too had the right idea.  Keep moving and you won't be cold.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

the roses arrive

The bare root roses arrived today from rose grower Trevor White, only ten days after ordering them.  An email popped up in my inbox in the middle of the morning to say they'd been dispatched and would arrive within three working days, so I thought I'd better go and buy some compost.  The advantages of buying bare root roses by mail order rather than container grown plants are firstly that you have a much wider choice, and secondly that they are cheaper.  In fact my strategy now for ramblers is to start them off for their first season in large containers, bigger than the deep 3 litre pots garden centres use, and let them make some extension growth before planting them out.  This is based on bitter experience, that roses tend to be slow to get going in their first summer, and if everything around them has shot up by midsummer they tend to languish in the shade and never manage to grow at all, fading away quietly over a season or two.  When I got to B&Q they had some reasonably priced large plastic pots that were highly suitable for my purpose, apart from the fact that for some bizarre reason they had been manufactured without drainage holes.

When I got home I the paper sack of roses was already waiting on the doorstep.  The Systems Administrator obligingly drilled holes in the bases of the pots, and I opened the paper sack, and the black plastic bag inside the paper sack, and started trying to disentangle the roses from each other while keeping their roots covered as much as possible.  There was a cold wind blowing, and you really don't want to have bare roots waving around in the wind, or they will dry out in no time.  They looked very good plants, with generous root systems and lots of stems.

One was not a climber and went straight into the ground, the rugosa rose 'Sarah van Fleet'.  The rugosas originate in Japan and are splendid roses for light soil.  I have seen them growing in the sides of a Dutch marina in what was basically a sand dune.  They shrug off the leaf diseases, despising black spot and mildew.  Indeed, their mid green, somewhat pleated foliage does not look especially rose-like.  Rugosas generally have splendid round hips, and flower in shades of pink or white, often at the same time as the large, round hips.  'Sarah van Fleet' has scented, double, pale pink flowers produced over a long period.  Robin Lane Fox awarded her his award for submarine rose of the year, after observing how well one bounced back in a seaside garden that was flooded for a fortnight.  I do not expect our garden to be flooded, or at least if it is then how well the roses cope will be the least of my problems, but I do want 'Sarah van Fleet' to grow in a windy spot at the top of the sloping bed in horrible dry sand.  I dug a lot of compost into the bed earlier in the year, and I will mulch it, but even so it is a tough spot for a rose.  My other choice would have been Rosa pimpinellifolia, but I already have one of those which is doing very well in an even windier spot just inside the entrance.

I debated whether to plant 'Rambling Rector' directly into the ground by the little oak tree, and decided I would start that off in a pot like the other ramblers.  Once it can get up into the oak it will enjoy plenty of sun, but first it has to move out of the shadow of the Eleagnus hedge so it could probably do with a head start.  It is an old variety, described by Peter Beales as being of great age and by Trevor White as Very Old, and it is extremely vigorous.  We saw a wonderful specimen at the Boxford Open Gardens, that required fierce pruning to keep it even halfway under control, and a couple of splendid plants on our trip to Norfolk rose gardens this summer.  The flowers are white and scented, the foliage glossy and healthy, and we agreed that it looked just the sort of thing to grow into an oak tree.  I will have to water it regularly and feed it lavishly in its first few years, and hope that it can get its feet down.

'Ayrshire Splendens' is fairly old, dating from 1835.  This has small, fully double, myrrh scented, pale pink flowers emerging from purplish buds, according to the website, and very pliant growth, which made it sound a good bet to tie in to the space under the veranda.  I would have liked 'Dundee Rambler' which we saw at Mannington, but David Austin was the only supplier who listed that and they were out of stock.  I thought I would rather press on with the veranda project, and maybe find somewhere else to put 'Dundee Rambler' later on if I managed to get hold of one.  To keep 'Ayrshire Splendens' company I plumped for 'Phyllis Bide', a rambler with the unusual habit for a rambling rose of repeat flowering, which I did have on the rose bank but see less of every year as it is smothered by other, more rampant varieties.  'Phyllis Bide' has flowers in a mixture of pink and yellow, which sounds as though it might be horrid but is actually delightful.  When I unpacked the paper sack and checked it against what I'd ordered I found I had actually managed to order two 'Phyllis Bide' by mistake, but the veranda is quite long and I might as well plant both.

'Francis E Lester', white single flowers, and 'La Mortola', also white, are back-up replacement plants for the side of the wood, where the specimens I put straight into the soil have not fared well, shaded out by the summer rush of growth which the potting technique is intended to overcome.  I was tempted by Peter Beales offer of the tiny flowered white 'Mannington Cascade' and purple 'Mannington Mauve', but resisted, pending a space to put them.  Maybe next year if I manage to clear more of the brambles along the side of the wood, and the growing on in pots works.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

a day in town

I took the day off from gardening to meet up with an old friend in London, and visit the current exhibition at the Courtauld.  My friend is working out of an office in Farringdon, so the geography of the whole trip tied together rather nicely.

I love walking through Clerkenwell at the moment, because you have never seen so many office furniture shops.  Clerkenwell is vying with Shoreditch as the hipster capital of London, and I suppose you can't have a tech startup without getting a couple of trendy chairs for your workspace.  Some of them were really very nice, and I felt quite regretful that I was not in the market for any office chairs.

You could tell that the restaurant we were meeting in had strong hipster leanings from the complete absence of ceilings.  Instead there was a clear view of all the service ducts, bolted to the underside of the concrete floor of the next storey, which must make maintenance easy.  Also there were a lot of Anglepoises.  The Systems Administrator and I have had a pair of Anglepoise lamps in the study since before the hipster movement gained traction, and they are not actually all that well made, since all the bits that are supposed to make them adjustable became loose or lost their spring quite quickly, and the lamps became fixed in a single downward facing posture of submission.  Various attempts to botch a repair with slivers of cardboard and sellotape have never proved effective.  I digress.

My friend was in a sombre mood, having just learned that a business pitch she was involved in had been unsuccessful.  She is in the business of advising small tech companies on their applications for EU grants.  The applications are graded by moderators, and those with the highest score win the pot.  There is no feedback on how the scores are derived, so my friend is left not knowing if the assessors didn't believe in the technology, did believe in the technology but didn't like the business plan, couldn't understand the application (which would be her fault), or simply chose half a dozen winners at random and then went out for a good lunch.

I love the Courtauld Gallery even more than I enjoy walking through Clerkenwell and observing the hipsters.  The current temporary exhibition, on until 21 January, is of portraits by a mid twentieth century artist I'd never heard of until it came along, Chaim Soutine.  Jewish, born in Russia but working in Paris, this show concentrates on paintings he made of hotel staff and pastry cooks.  They are remarkable, vivid and touching in a sort of Grand Budapest Hotel way, and I can quite see why the Evening Standard gave it five stars.  Soutine found commercial success and critical recognition in his lifetime, but died in 1943 aged only fifty.  The biographical details given in the exhibition were sparse and I wondered if he had been a casualty of Nazi anti-Semitism, given the date and place.  According to Wikipedia he was , but in an indirect fashion, dying of a perforated stomach ulcer for which he could not seek proper treatment because by then he was in hiding and on the run.

The Courtauld's temporary exhibitions are never big, and I always look at some of the permanent collection as well since one ticket covers both.  It keeps being rehung, with the less famous pictures rotating on and off display and occasional conspicuous absences when paintings go on loan to other galleries, and I am still mourning the disappearance of Braque's The White Ship which they had for several years on loan from a private collection and have no longer, but I have been visiting some of the pictures for over forty years.

Monday, 27 November 2017

rain stopped play

It was still raining when I got up, and I was disappointed when I logged on to my laptop to see that the Met Office forecast gave an eighty per cent chance of rain until ten o'clock.  The Systems Administrator said that he'd thought I'd been a tad optimistic putting on my gardening clothes, and I countered that I was an eternal optimist when it came to gardening.  Sure enough, by nine it had stopped raining and I was able to get on with weeding the sloping border in the back garden.  It would have been more comfortable if the ground hadn't been wet, and I couldn't apply fish, blood and bone because it would have stuck to the foliage, meaning I couldn't apply any Strulch, but I could weed and prune.

I think I have got all the dead branches out of the Chaenomeles 'Moerloosei' now, though each time I thought that I seemed to notice another streak of coral spot or peeling bark.  Still, it looks fresher and less cluttered, and I can always have another go at it once it comes into leaf and I can see any branches that don't.  Having a good look at it in better light would help, since today was so grey and murky that everything looked dull and lifeless.

There was some dieback in the yellow berried Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Rothschildianus'.  It looked unnervingly like text book descriptions of fireblight, a bacterial disease of the rose family, with blackened leaves still hanging on the dead twigs.  The RHS is emphatic that it only affects members of the rose family in the sub-family Pomoideae, and so it is not the same thing as whatever it is that can cause whole sprays of mature rosemary bushes to blacken and die.  I followed the RHS advice and cut out the affected shoots I could see using the pole lopper, though I did not go back beyond the visible damage by as much as the one to two feet the RHS recommends.  By then, although it was only early afternoon, the light was so bad I could scarcely see what I was doing, and I couldn't reach one dubious looking shoot without wriggling round to the back of the bed with the pole lopper, which I was reluctant bother doing in the gloom.  I need a good, bright but not overly sunny day so that I can see the condition of the individual shoots.  Nursery growers keen to promote fast growing evergreens for quick screening love to recommend C. salicifolius.  All I can say is that in a country garden with cold winds, on poor soil, in a dry area of the country, it is not reliably evergreen.

Fireblight is a potentially serious plant disease, but still I am not too cast down about the cotoneaster's prospects, because I am an incorrigible optimist and it might not be that bad.  A Pyracantha in our previous garden had what looked like touches of it, but survived.  The Cotoneaster salicifolius did not get fed and mulched last year because I had run out of Strulch before I got to the back of that part of the bed, so I am sure that if I feed and mulch it now that will encourage it.

By three it was raining hard.  This morning's Met Office forecast didn't forecast rain in the afternoon, and I felt rather short-changed.  It is so frustratingly slow trying to get anything done when it keeps freezing and raining and getting dark.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

another cold day

There was another frost overnight, which meant another late start in the garden.  The lawn remained obstinately icy until mid morning, although I managed to get on to the border before then and spent a useful hour pulling ivy out from around the mature shrubs, where the frost hadn't penetrated.  Self seeded ivy is a perpetual problem: the birds eat the berries, perch and crap, as birds do, and ivy seedlings spring up under every branch.  Deep under the shelter of mature shrubs they proliferate, sending long stems out across the surface of the border, and climbing up into the crowns of the shrubs themselves.  Brambles perform the same trick on a lesser scale.

I had a go at the ivy up the back of the sloping border last winter, but didn't finish clearing it.  Some gardening jobs feel more urgent than others, and tidying the front parts of a border that are in clear view will always trump clearing ground level weeds out of the back.  The ivy does not do the shrubs any good, though, competing with them for water and nourishment, and once it starts to climb it becomes a visible nuisance as well.

When I worked at the plant centre I met one customer who needed to clear a section of woodland floor of ivy, and had been told by the owner's pet landscaper to dose it with glyphosate.  I disagreed.  That would be damaging to any other ground flora she wanted to keep, expensive, and not very effective because glyphosate is not good at penetrating ivy's shiny leaves.  Take a firm hold of one of the spreading horizontal stems and pull steadily.  If you are lucky you will be able to pull the whole shoot clear in one length.  If it breaks no matter, try again with another shoot.  Gradually you will be able to see where the roots are, and can use a trowel or fork (or pick axe) as required to dig them out.  The whole exercise is easier to do in open woodland than when your face is buried under a flowering currant as mine was this morning, but if you persist you will make progress.

The brambles required the point of a trowel to dig out the base.  This is how I know quite how dry the soil still is.  They will shoot again from the roots, which I can't dig out because of all the roots of the shrubs and the hedge that I don't want to dig up.  In due course I will have to repeat the process, and so it will go on.  The regrowth from old bramble roots in competition with mature shrubs is miserably small and weedy compared with what a new bramble can do in fresh soil, so it isn't a big problem.

By the afternoon I'd worked my way down the slope as far as the Prunus mume, and saw that its buds were already visibly swelling, a promise of glory to come.  I always think that people who describe winter as being a dead time have never gone outside and looked at it properly.

Meanwhile the Systems Administrator over the course of the past two afternoons has managed to cut all the grass, including the whole of the lower lawn so that it shouldn't be too long when the crocus come through.  It is a great relief to have got that done.  Even though the soil in the borders is dry, the grass always seems to be wet at this time of year.  It must be the dew.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

frost and short days

There was a frost this morning.  Belatedly, I realised that I still had not brought in the spray heads from the ends of the hoses.  I tried to disconnect the one from the hose that leads to the greenhouse when I went to open the greenhouse door, and found I could not release it because the connector was frozen.  I laid it on the concrete where the sun could shine on it, and remembered to remove it later on, along with the spray head from the hose that lives coiled in a pot outside the conservatory, and the one snaked up to the meadow.  The hose for the greenhouse went away for the winter, curled in big loops on the ground behind the woodshed, and I retrieved the hose from the meadow, which broke but fortunately only a few inches from an existing join.  All watering from now on will be done by hand from a can, unless I get to the point of being ready to refill the wildlife pond.

Frosts do shorten the gardening day.  The sun did not burn the ice off the grass enough for me to be happy walking on it until mid morning.  That is the trouble with having access to large parts of a garden via grass paths: in winter you are limited as to when you can walk on them, unless you want to risk leaving a trail of black footprints.  In the meantime I finished cutting down the dahlia stems in the dahlia bed, and weeded some of the gravel outside the Systems Administrator's blue shed.  It was not a very deep or penetrating frost, as the gravel and the ground beneath it were not frozen.

The Chaenomeles speciosa 'Apple Blossom' (also called 'Moerloosei' but 'Apple Blossom is more descriptive as well as being easier to spell) in the sloping border had several dead branches in it.  I planted it in March 1994, so it has been in place for over twenty years, which is not a bad age.  It has taken to suckering, and has managed to establish quite a convincing subsidiary centre on the downhill side, which was looking healthier than the original plant last summer, while there are still young shoots in among the dead branches growing from the old centre.  I surmise that it is neither naturally short lived nor diseased, but that perhaps and especially on poor soil it likes to spread, and renews itself by abandoning some of its oldest wood.  A growth habit, in fact, not unlike the shrub and old roses, and Chaenomeles is a member of the rose family.

Some of the dead branches were infected with coral spot, which doesn't normally attack living wood but is still better on the bonfire than lying around the garden.  I am in the process of removing all the dead, and shaping the sprawling bulk to something roughly dome shaped.  Nobody could ever make a convincing case that the Japanese quinces were architectural, for they all seem desperately twiggy and heading in every direction at once, and while I like 'Appleblossom' I don't want to devote a twelve foot width of the border to it, and I should like to be able to see the plants behind it.  As it will flower on old wood it is a prime candidate for a touch of very light topiary.

I had to vacate the back garden before I'd finished renovating the shrub because the Systems Administrator needed to mow the lawn, so I needed to move all my buckets and tools and bags of Strulch and collected debris out of the way.  Instead I went and raked leaves up in the meadow until I had filled the leaf bin, and it got dark.  With a measly eight hours and twenty-one minutes of daylight today it's no wonder I notice the loss when frost takes a big dent out of the usable hours.

Friday, 24 November 2017

eventually finished

Earlier this evening I was about to start typing when Mr Fidget appeared on the arm of my chair, kneading at my fleece and looking as though he might want to climb into my lap.  He sits in laps almost vanishingly rarely, and I was quite charmed by the prospect when Mr Cool pushed past him and draped himself across my thighs.  Mr Fidget retreated back to my desk and curled up behind the Systems Administrator's head, and I put my computer back on the floor and settled down to admire Mr Cool, who does not come and sit in my lap every night of the week, although I did feel that Mr Fidget should have been given a chance.  He has been in an oddly skittish mood today, running away in panic at the slightest things.

Earlier in the day I finally emptied the two partly used bags of gravel that have been sitting inside the entrance for months.  I never meant them to stay there for so long, although knowing when I bought them how easy it is for bulk bags of building materials to linger.  With this latest delivery I was making good progress spreading the gravel, then overdid things and tweaked something in my back, which took a long time to settle down, then there was my father's illness and then I went down with a chest infection, and the weeks just passed.  Meanwhile a great deal of goose grass seedlings and baby Euphorbia sprang up in the gravel around the bags, which I had to weed out before I could empty them.

I am going to need more gravel.  There are still bald patches in the drive where the tarmac shows through, and thin bits in the railway garden, and a patch that needs topping up next to the doorstep, and a wildly weedy corner at the end of the miniature desert wash that will be mostly bare earth by the time I've extracted the weeds.  But on the basis that I still have forty seven and a half bags of Strulch to spread on the borders I might leave buying more gravel for a while.  Then I might try my luck with our friendly local plant hire company, since at least they know where the farm is and might not be so grumpy about the private road as the man on the telephone was at the last place I used.  The driver when he delivered the gravel was perfectly cheerful about the access and said that the trouble with the customer service chap was that he drove a desk, not a lorry, but gardening is supposed to be fun and life is too short to spend dealing with miserable people on the telephone.

The rusted iron letters FAIL BETTER look so much finer and more artistic now they are not standing above two collapsed bulk builders' bags and a thatch of weeds, I feel regretful I didn't manage to finish moving the gravel before.  I invited the Systems Administrator to come and admire his handiwork now it could be seen uncluttered, but the SA was more relieved that the bamboo screen he put up at the same time hadn't blown down in the gale of two nights ago.


Thursday, 23 November 2017

slow retail

Following on from the slow food movement and then slow TV, comes slow retail.  It is a fine experience so long as you are not in a hurry.  The story went as follows: back in July I placed an order online for some more auricula pots with the same Yorkshire pottery I got the last lot from.  Their online retail process does not extend to payment, because they have to calculate the delivery charge for each order depending on bulk and weight.  I was rather surprised not to hear back from them after I'd emailed and left a phone message asking about payment.  After calling every week or two for a couple of months I was starting to wonder what had happened to them, although the fact that their website was still up and running suggested they were still going.

In September I got an apologetic email explaining that they had sent me a quotation for the full cost including delivery, only it had got stuck in their draft mail folder and was never delivered.  Some of the pots I wanted were not in stock, but they would be making and firing more.  I said I still wanted to go ahead and settled down to wait, since making terracotta pots is not a process that can be hurried.  Once thrown, they have to dry to the right consistency before they can be fired or else they explode in the kiln, or at least that's my understanding.

At the end of the first week of November I got an email saying the pots had been fired and would be packed and dispatched the following week.  A week passed and I heard nothing more, so wrote to ask politely when they would be coming.  Finally at the start of this week I got an email to say they had been picked up by the pottery's courier and would be with me mid week, and sure enough yesterday they arrived, pretty much four months after I ordered them.  They are really nice pots, only I have missed the window to pot on the last lot of auriculas I bought, which will have to stay in their black plastic pots until they come back into active growth in the spring.

As well as the auricula pots I bought one experimental larger pot, to see if it would do for tulips now that the Whichford pottery has disappeared into the stratosphere and only sells highly decorated pots at equally elevated prices.  My new, hand thrown, small Tuscan planter from Yorkshire is wonderfully plain but exactly right for the job of displaying tulips en masse.  Ten inches high by thirteen across, it should be stable in the wind while being visually balanced.  The lip and raised band around the top feel reassuringly solid and should make the pot easy to lift and move when it is planted up.  There is a good sized drainage hole in the middle of the base, and four more low down around the sides.  The terracotta is a nice, soft shade of brown.  I ordered one to see what they were like, and will test it over the winter to check it really is frost proof, though I haven't had any problems with the auricula pots.  It cost eighteen pounds, at which price I could buy a set if I wanted to.

If you want your own traditional hand made British flower pots the firm is the Littlethorpe Potteries.  They are lovely, polite people to deal with and the pots are great, only you have to not be in a hurry.  If you needed a pot for a deadline like a birthday you might not want to risk it, and they don't accept PayPal so you have to be willing to send your cheque off and then not receive anything for weeks.  I would be entirely happy buying from them again, and will probably be ordering more small Tuscan pots and maybe some alpine pans in due course.

Mr Fidget thought that the parcel was absolutely fascinating, and watched keenly as I opened it while I had to be careful not to stab him in the eye as I cut through the parcel tape.  I laid the pots down on the rug in the hall for the time being because I wasn't going outside in the dark and three quarters of a gale to put them away properly.  I was pleased to find them wedged in place with the cardboard egg trays and not plastic, since the cardboard is biodegradable on the compost heap or makes good bee smoker fuel.  I left the cats the box and some of the egg trays to play with, but after a session jumping in and out of the box they curled up around the pots and went to sleep.

Addendum  In the night the three quarters of a gale turned into a full one, and we were woken at 4.21 am by the television aerial blowing off the roof.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

raking leaves

I spent a couple of hours this morning raking up leaves in the back garden.  There are two reasons to collect leaves.  One is that they are going to cause damage if they stay where they are, dead smothered patches in the lawn and rotted crowns among the dormant perennials in the borders.  The other reason to rake up leaves is that you want them to make leaf compost.

My raking belongs largely in the second category, because the garden is so exposed that if I don't get around to collecting the leaves they manage to disappear by themselves over the course of a few gales.  Leaf mould is fantastic stuff, though, so I try to round them up while I can and put them in a heap to rot down.  They only need a bit of netting round them to stop the heap drifting, but take a long time to decay completely, so I have two heaps next to each other, a bigger enclosure that I try to fill each autumn and then top up a couple of times as the leaves pack down, and a smaller enclosure into which I shovel the year-old contents of the bigger bin at this time of year before I refill it.

It is a frustratingly low yielding process, as what seems like several cubic metres of leaves eventually decomposes into barely more than two or three barrow loads of compost.  It is lovely compost.  I spread it reverently on the bed along the ditch and tell myself that the snowdrops and cyclamen will love it, though when I run out they have to make do with spent mushroom compost.

There were yellow warnings in place for high winds for today and tomorrow, so I thought I would at least salvage the leaves that were still lying neatly in a pool under the 'Tai-haku' before they were scattered all over the back lawn.  The wild gean has almost finished shedding, but its leaves have mostly blown straight into the wood, where they will do the blubells good but are no use to me.  The little oak tree by the daffodil lawn is generally a good source, but is still hanging on to its leaves, unless tonight's gale brings them down.  The big chestnut trees along the side of the wood have dropped about half their leaves so far, which were lying temptingly in the meadow.  By mid morning I had to go out, so I suggested hopefully to the Systems Administrator that he might like to rake some leaves to help fill the leaf bin, but the SA did not look convinced.  I hope they don't all blow away before I can get back to them.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

back on the road

Today, as the Systems Administrator was standing in the hall, he saw a hare go lolloping across the front garden.  It did not appear to be in any great hurry or to be running away.  Initially the SA took it for a munjac from its size, before paying attention and seeing that it had long ears and a hare's gait.  I saw one in the lane a year or two back, around dusk, but never in the garden, let alone right by the house.  Hares are a menace in very cold weather because they will ring and kill trees, but I rather like the idea of the odd one passing through.  They are unmistakably different to rabbits, much longer legs, a more purposeful, loping run, and generally wilder aspect.

The level of coolant in my car had not dropped since the SA topped it up.  The handbook said that on no account was I supposed to just top it up, and that I should take it to a specialist garage immediately to have the coolant chemically rebalanced and the reason why the car lost coolant in the first place identified.  The SA said that the handbook was written by the manufacturers who had a vested interest in sending business to Skoda dealerships, that the coolant had fallen only just under the minimum level when it triggered the alarm, and that in the first instance it was fine to top it up and see if the level fell again and if so how quickly.  Certainly when we were young we used to fill our car radiators without a second thought.  I remember coming back from the vet in Ipswich with one of the previous cats in a basket and having to stop in the outskirts at a convenience store to buy an emergency bottle of mineral water because the engine was over-heating.  The car, and the cat, both lived to a ripe old age.

The SA announced that as a precaution he would come with me on a trip to the dump to test the car.  We set off with two emergency bottles of water, and the SA promising to take over and nurse the car home if anything happened, like steam coming out of the bonnet.  Nothing did happen, and we went to the dump, and the useful garden centre to buy chicken food and gardening gloves, and the other useful garden centre to buy locally made beeswax hand cream which the first garden centre declines to stock.  At th end of it the coolant was at the same level as it had been at the start, though I am still suspicious as to why the level dropped, when it never has before.

In the afternoon the plants arrived from the nursery in Dorset,  called (unsurprisingly) Dorset Perennials.  It was the second time I'd used them, which is always an encouraging sign.  I only placed the order on Sunday morning, and they sent everything I'd asked for (assuming that everything is correctly labelled, but their last lot of plants were, unlike the wretched bog primulas), and it arrived undamaged within the hour's time slot that their courier emailed me this morning.  They accept PayPal, give free delivery on orders of £39 or more, and do not sent out pots with weeds in them.  All of this puts them considerably ahead of several of the other mail order suppliers I've tried.  Their list is not the longest, but they offer good forms of what they grow, and you could furnish a very respectable border from them without looking any further.

Monday, 20 November 2017

cats sleeping in inconvenient places

I had business in Colchester this morning.  When I looked at the state of my hands even after taking a shower and washing my hair I thought that perhaps they were not very nice to take into a meeting with a solicitor.  The appointment was not until half past ten, so I fished the washing out of the accumulated pile that was waiting to be done by hand.  The friction of rubbing all that wool and a dose of Stergene often works wonders for dislodging the grime that other soaps cannot reach.

I did the dark colours together first, and when I looked round Mr Cool had made himself comfortable on the kitchen table in the laundry basket.  He had the expression of a cat that could get used to sleeping on a bed of silk and linen-and-cotton mix, and looked hurt when I removed him, before hopping back in.  The laundry basket became his new favourite place for the rest of the morning, even without the benefit of my best vest and ancient but still good sweater.  He was still there when I returned home in the early afternoon, rolling over to show me his tummy and looking suddenly kittenish when I came in.  Apparently he lay in the laundry basket all through the Systems Administrator's lunch, peeping coyly through the side and watching as the SA ate.

Once Mr Cool had come out of the basket to eat his tea I wiped the fine layer of hairs out of the bottom and put it away in the laundry.  I felt rather mean confiscating his new toy, but we really cannot live with a plastic basket containing a large cat permanently in the middle of the kitchen table.

Mr Cool and Mr Fidget do not share Our Ginger's and Mr Fluffy's taste for pouring themselves into impossibly small and square boxes.  For a thorough analysis of that phenomenon may I refer you to ig Nobel Prize winner M A Fardin's paper On the rheology of cats.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

a fine cold day

This morning, when I pulled up the blind in the bathroom to have a look at the day, there was a frost.  Last night must have been crucially colder or more still than the one before.  I congratulated myself that I had remembered to shut the greenhouse and conservatory doors, and settled down after breakfast to a pleasant compare-and-contrast session with the Chatto Gardens and Dorset Perennials websites, looking at who listed what, who had what in stock, and who was cheaper.  Five of a particularly drought tolerant form of Epimedium, some non-running comfrey and some spotted leaf arums are now on their way from Dorset, and I have my eye on a few shade tolerant plants from Chatto.

Then I cleaned the chickens' roosting board, which needed doing.  The contents were a welcome addition to the piles of shredded Eleagnus leaves, of which I still have an awful lot of bags left to go on the compost heaps.  After the frosty start it had turned into the best sort of November weather, the sun brilliant but so low in the sky that the shadows were interesting.  A light sheen of ice on the pots of tulip bulbs by the greenhouse warned me that it was not planting weather, however, and I spent the rest of the morning cutting down the dahlias in pots and moving the pots into the greenhouse.  They yielded two big buckets of stems, which made a useful layer on the compost heaps so that I could empty one more bag of the apparently infinite supply of hedge trimmings on top, and the pots took up almost all the remaining floor space in the greenhouse.

I managed to fit in the pots of violas, which overwintered outside last year with mixed results, and that was it.  The greenhouse is full.  In fact it is over-full, since several trays of nine inch pots are currently resting on top of the dahlia pots, which is going to be a nuisance when I need to water the nine inch pots given the dahlias need to be kept dry, and will not be viable at all once the dahlias start back into growth.  I am looking on it as a reminder that I need to press on weeding the meadow to make space to plant out the Gaillardia, and do some renovations in the long bed in the front garden which largely missed out last spring as time ran out.

The ground had thawed by lunchtime, and in the afternoon I weeded and spread Strulch at the top of the sloping bed in the back garden, where I cleared the dead sea buckthorns and replanted the area back in the summer.  The new plants at the top end have made massive growth since being released in August from their plastic pots.  A pink flowered kind of prostrate mallow, Malvum lateritum, which I got at the garden club plant sale and which sat in its pot outside the greenhouse for three months doing nothing at all has leaped into life.  Dosing it for the root aphid I found it was suffering from when I came to plant it out may have played a part in its transformation, but a Sphaeralcea munroana that did not have root aphid has been similarly transformed, and some elderly seed raised specimens of Lepechinia hastata, a slightly tender, sage like species with deep pink flowers that had been languishing for ages in the greenhouse have sprung back into active growth.  The oriental poppy 'Royal Wedding' planted out as part of this scheme must be ten times the size of the rest of the batch that are still in their pots on the concrete, while the Diascia personata brought home as a cutting from last year's garden club propagating evening, and that had got horribly potbound before I found somewhere in the garden to put it, is making a burgeoning clump with lots of fine, fat new shoots at the base.

Several of the plants listed in the last paragraph are only doubtfully hardy.  Let us hope we don't have a hard winter.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

more weeding and clearing

To my surprise there was no frost on the grass this morning.  Indeed, by eleven I spotted one industrious honeybee foraging on the Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'.  Unfortunately I missed the first part of this unexpected good fortune as I needed to go to the supermarket, where I experienced a moment of anxiety after finishing my shopping when I couldn't see my car where I knew I'd left it, before remembering that I was looking for the Systems Administrator's silver Skoda and not a red one.  I did find it difficult to believe that anybody would have stolen my car in broad daylight from the Waitrose car park.  It is fairly battered, first registered in March 2006, and is so entry level that when I bought it, the salesman pointed out the plastic clip inside the windscreen for holding car park tickets, not in a spirit of irony but because there were no other features to highlight.

With what remained of the day I bashed on clearing the weeds around the wildlife pond.  There are an awful lot of goose grass seedlings, which is a nuisance since it means there is going to go on being a lot of goose grass coming up every year for the foreseeable future.  Come retreat to the easy-to-manage retirement bungalow or death, whichever happens sooner, I am pretty sure that goose grass will still be coming up.

I chopped at the nettle and bramble roots with my pick axe and hauled lustily, only remembering late in the afternoon that I'd forgotten to take my wedding ring off.  Fortunately I had not bent it again.  By the time it got dark I'd filled two old Strulch bags with bits of nettle and sprays of burdock seeds, and the Systems Administrator's small garden trailer with bits of bramble.  At least the docks are not resprouting too badly.  I read somewhere that as long as you take off the top few inches of root they will not shoot again from the buried tip, unlike dandelions, and it seems to be true.  I dug out a lot of docks out in the spring and they have mostly not grown back.

I have got to plant something on the cleared earth, though.  I spread the existing primroses around a bit, which will help, but I need ground cover, otherwise I am locked into an endless Sisyphean  cycle of weeding every winter, only to see the weeds grow back each summer.  The Beth Chatto and Dorset Perennials websites beckon.

Friday, 17 November 2017

frost

A light frost was glittering on the grass when I pulled the bathroom blind up this morning, and I was glad that the plumber had come yesterday to fit the new radiator.  The drizzle that set in yesterday afternoon and was barely gone by the time I came out of my talk had been displaced by what newspapers love to call a blast of arctic air, though it was a very quiet blast.  The front garden looked lovely in the low rays of the early morning sun, dew and tiny ice crystals shimmering in the clear air.  November can be a very beautiful month, when it is not raining or foggy.

The trouble with frost is that the effective gardening day gets even shorter.  I used the enforced hiatus to catch up with indoor jobs like bottling some more honey and sorting out the invoice of my new friend, the plumber, but the ground wasn't in a fit state to be weeded until near on half past eleven, and by half past three it was getting dark.  At least by this stage of the winter the days are only getting shorter very slowly, and with less than five weeks to go to the solstice dusk is within twenty minutes of being as early as it's going to be.  The days are so short, though.  The first spring bulbs will be coming up within a couple of months, and in three or four months the weeds will be growing again.

I chopped down nettles along the side of the wood and stuffed them into old Strulch bags to take to the dump, along with their yellow roots which I dug out with the pick axe.  I carefully dismantled the skeletal remains of several statuesque burdocks, and put their branching, seed-laden tops in sections into the bags as well.  Burdock is a fine and handsome plant, with huge basal leaves and truly magnificent seed heads, but their giant burrs are a menace anywhere near a long haired cat like Mr Fluffy.  My immediate aim is to clear the ground around the wildlife pond so that I can finish planting my budget hellebores, a stray Sarcococca that's been sitting around in its pot all summer, and maybe the tray of variegated box cuttings.  Then I'll have to see how far I get.  I've got pots of seed raised Solidago and Gaillardia waiting to go in the meadow, if only I could clear the space for them.

Last night's frost has properly blackened the dahlia tops, so I now feel free to chop them down in text book fashion.  That could be a job for the morning.  There was a sky full of stars tonight, so there will be another frost tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

one step forward, one step back

At eight-thirty on the dot a white van drew up outside the front door.  It was the plumber.  A couple of weeks ago the first frost of the year had focused my mind on the fact that the radiator in my bathroom was so rusty it had had to be turned off, as the odd drip had developed into a flow.  I'd managed over the summer by dint of spreading my bath towel out on the bed to dry each morning, but I drew the line at going through the winter with no heating in the bathroom.  The radiator in what estate agents would call the family bathroom, although unless we have guests it is the Systems Administrator's bathroom, was still at the slow drip stage, but the SA said that if we were having one done we might as well get them both replaced at the same time.

I had a go at finding somebody to fix the problem in the summer, asking our friendly boiler repair man to quote when he came to do the boiler's annual service.  It said on his business card that he also did general plumbing, but after weeks when nothing happened he admitted that actually he did not have time to do the radiators.  I ended up ringing somebody who bothered to advertise in the parish magazine, knowing nothing about him beyond the fact that he possessed the gumption to advertise and had a genuine local landline number.  Asking friends for personal recommendations for builders is never as helpful as you think it ought to be.  Generally they have not employed that sort of specialist directly, or else their builder is on the verge of retirement and only does odd bits of work for people he already knows or is fully booked until the middle of next year or otherwise unavailable, or was so ghastly they would never admit them over the threshold again.

Our nominated new plumber came round to quote promptly, and supplied a very reasonable quotation to do the job practically the following week, and was cheerful, and had a small, silent teenage boy in tow who I guess was his son learning how to be a plumber.  He measured the radiators so fast I was amazed he could be confident about the answer, and assured me there would be no problem in getting replacements that would fit the existing plumbing exactly.  He was true to his word.  In under an hour and a half we had two new radiators and not a tile out of place.  They are warm.  It is wonderful.  I am waiting for any of my friends and acquaintances who live locally to mention that they need a plumber so that I can leap forward and recommend mine.

The SA and I tried to go out once the plumber had finished, only a red warning light flashed on the dashboard of my car.  I felt mildly crushed that no sooner had I got the radiator problem fixed when something else went wrong.  We had to hurriedly switch to the Systems Administrator's car and the SA promised to look into the warning light as soon as he had a moment.  In the meantime I am still driving his car, which is almost the same as mine but has a subtly different gear ratios and gearbox, so that on the way to my emergency substitute speaker woodland charity talk I was half the time dawdling on to roundabouts more sluggishly than I'd have liked, and the other half of the time pulling away from junctions with an inadvertent squeal of tyres.  The WI liked the talk, fortunately, and one sweet old  lady with a mischievous face came up to me afterwards and told me she'd enjoyed it much more than if it had been the scheduled talk about nutrition.  I should think so too.  Who wants to worry about nutrition in the run up to Christmas?  The time to agonize about that is in January.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

replacement box

Every time I think I must have finished weeding the gravel in the turning circle, I spot another square yard I've missed.  Sheeps' sorrel poking up through the tufts of thrift, innocent little strands of wild vetch that look so sweet now but will be lanky, smothering masses come next summer, brown Eleagnus leaves tucked down between the plants, nascent rosettes of dandelion, and clumps of the slender leaved weed grass that plagues the light soil in the back garden but not the heavy soil at the back, they all need clearing away.  The end result is a lot cleaner and fresher but makes it obvious that the gravel needs topping up.

I managed to plant one more Limonium caspium, then side-tracked myself into clearing the dead roots of the waterlogged box out of its planter, and planting the new, replacement box in its place in fresh compost.  I picked up the new box ball at the Clacton branch of Tesco, of all places, where there was a Danish trolley of them outside the front door for ten pounds each.  They looked very healthy and very bushy, and while they were not nearly as large as the one that died I thought that for a tenner I could afford to wait, compared to buying a fully formed specimen for three or four times that amount from a nursery.  Box is not especially slow if treated nicely.

It wasn't obvious when I exhumed the remains of the old box why the container had been failing to drain so badly.  I'd assumed that the drainage holes must have become blocked by roots, but they hadn't been, so far as I could tell.  Box makes a dense and fibrous root system, as you will discover if you ever try to weed next to a box hedge, and I can only assume that the mass of compost and feeding roots had acted like a plug.  Waterlogging was certainly an issue, as after long spells of rain water used to lie on the surface of the compost for hours.  There were only three small holes for drainage, which was probably stingy given the size of the container.  Two were still covered by their crocks when I excavated them, further proof that big roots hadn't grown down through the holes and blocked them completely.  I never found the third crock, but it is probably in the recycling bin by now along with the rest of the old compost.

It was a calculated gamble planting the new box ball directly into its new home.  In theory I ought to pot it up one size of pot at a time, so that it wouldn't sit in excess wet compost and rot.  But I thought I had so many other things to do that I should like to get it planted and be done with it, and if it was planted into an intermediate sized pot it would have to stand on another upturned pot to bring it up to the right height, and then it would keep blowing over.  I have in the past got away with massively over-potting an Acer straight from a two or three litre container into a big fifty centimetre diameter pot, when I wanted to plant something to make the back garden look kempt for a party, and the Acer established itself quite happily with no problems of rotting or anything else.  Perhaps box will be similarly tolerant.  For a tenner I'm prepared to take the risk and find out.

Then gardening came to another premature close because I was booked to go and do a garden talk.  The talk seemed to go reasonably well, though I saw a few heads nodding.  That's the trouble with early afternoon talks, you hit the post-lunch slump.  I mentally marked myself down as having been competent but not electrifying, although trying to electrify a Townswomen's Guild at two o'clock in the afternoon is quite a tall order.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

all in a day's work

I was taken aback when I went to let the chickens out of their house and it was drizzling.  I hadn't expected this morning to be wet.  But by mid morning the sun was shining and I cracked on with weeding the gravel and planting my seed raised Dianthus and Limonium.  Just one more day's work, one final push, and I'll finish.  I feel sure I will.

As I was pulling up sheep's sorrel and dibbling planting holes I thought I heard the phone ring, and trotted into the house in time to pick it up before it went to answerphone.  It turned out to be somebody from one of the local branches of the WI, who wondered if I might be free on Thursday evening?  Their booked speaker now couldn't make it, and she was looking for a replacement act, urgently.  I wasn't free, but though I could rearrange things so that I would be.  As we talked she disclosed that her mother had died the previous week.  While it wasn't a total shock at the age of ninety-four, still there was a lot to sort out and she said she could have done without having to find a new speaker on top of everything else.  I thought that maybe somebody else on her committee should have stepped in to sort it out, but who am I to dictate how the WI runs its affairs?  Apparently I come highly recommended.

The day's gardening was cut short because I had a garden club meeting of my new committee, preceded by a trip to the bank to arrange the change of signatories and new address for statements.  The bank meeting went remarkably smoothly compared to some of my efforts to get extra signatories added to the beekeepers' bank account.  In fact, one of them resigned from the committee before I ever managed to get them put on.  The committee meeting was not too long, cordial, and efficient, which is how I like meetings to be, and we had smoked salmon sandwiches and Victoria sponge with cream as well as jam in the middle, but apparently it was a special tea because it was somebody's birthday, and normally there is only cake, not necessarily with cream.  Even so it looks like my sort of committee.  The only downside is that as incoming Treasurer I have inherited the cardboard box containing the club's financial records plus a cruet set, two pieces missing since the AGM supper, which will have to find lodging in the spare bedroom.  Also walking to my car in the dark through the narrow gap between two other cars drawn up in front of the outgoing Treasurer's door I failed to see that one of them had a towing bar fitted until I hit it, quite hard, with my knee.

Monday, 13 November 2017

lost and found

Yesterday, as I was weeding in the middle of the turning circle, I suddenly noticed a glint of something bright in the gravel by my right knee.  It was a gold butterfly clip from an earring for pierced ears.  I pulled my gloves off, put my hand up to my right ear, and felt my ex-office pearl stud where it should have been on my earlobe, clip snugly against the back of my ear.  Left hand, left ear, nothing.  A blank.

I peered hopefully at the gravel, since if the clip had only just fallen off the post with the pearl on it might not be too far away.  A moonstone stud once fell out when we were visiting the Marks Hall Arboretum and the Systems Administrator managed to find it by retracing our exact path and looking at the grass very, very carefully.  I was delighted to get it back since I was particularly fond of the moonstone earrings, and the SA was very relieved to find it because it was my birthday, and losing the earring would have cast a pall over the proceedings even if I'd tried not to make a fuss.

Maybe moonstones show up better in grass, or perhaps the SA is better at looking for things.  Looking for a lost pearl in ten millimetre gravel turned out to be a thankless task.  I couldn't see the earring anywhere along the stretch of the drive where I'd been working when I found the backing clip.  It occurred to me that I might have scooped the earring up along with the dead leaves and bits of sheep sorrel I'd been collecting in my bucket, so I took everything out of the bucket, piled it in a heap on the gravel, and put it back in the bucket piece by piece.  No pearl.  Ah well.  I wore the old office earrings for gardening because they had corrosion proof gold posts and so were less likely to work loose and drop out than silver ones, and because I regarded them in the same light as my old office shirts, of no sentimental value.  Even so I would still rather not not lose a perfectly good pearl stud.  I might still find it, but I wasn't holding out much hope, and it soon wouldn't be in very good condition if I did, sculling around in the gravel.

Today, as I was in the downstairs loo, I saw a pale, round shape lying next to the base of the lavatory.  My lost pearl.  How extremely fortunate that I had put the odd one and the stray clip away in a little box, instead of chucking them out in a temper.  The set is now reunited in the pot where I keep all my stud earrings.  But what is the chance that, after the post fell out of my ear in the downstairs loo, of the clip managing to stay stuck to my sweaty little head until I had got all the way outside, before falling off in a place where I actually saw it?