Tuesday, 28 February 2017

the mulch arrives

The Strulch arrived today.  Strulch stands for straw mulch.  It consists of chopped up straw, treated with a mystery mixture of minerals, that prevents annual weeds from germinating in the borders, helps keep moisture in the soil, and lasts for about two years before rotting down.  It is very useful in the garden, though not so exciting as some new plants or a sculpture would be.  None of the local garden centres stock it.  You can buy it by the bag from Crocus, but it is much cheaper per litre if you buy it by the pallet load direct from the manufacturers.

This must have been my fourth or fifth order, which represents an awful lot of plants and sculptures I could have had, but also an awful lot of hours I could have spent weeding and watering.  I ordered by phone, to make sure I got my five per cent off for ordering before the end of February and to try and give precise delivery instructions.  The company founder, who still answers the phone herself by name when you ring up, balked at the instructions, saying plaintively that the delivery company only gave her a very small box in which to write anything.

It is the delivery stage that is most problematic when buying a pallet of Strulch.  Ordering it is fine. The company founder is always polite and very pleased that you are buying her product, the Strulch always arrives on the day you have specified, the correct amount is always charged to your credit card.  Persuading the carrier to communicate anything about the delivery to the driver is another matter.  Add that to the unpredictable and congested roads of the south east and you have a perfect witches' brew.  There was the time the lorry didn't arrive until dusk due to catastrophic traffic delays on the M25 and the A12, and still had more deliveries to make after unloading ours.  There was no working interior light, and as the driver lowered the tail lift with the pallet on it the whole thing collapsed, scattering bags all over the drive.  There was the time the driver could not get the pallet jack off the tail lift because it bogged down in the gravel, and we ended up breaking down the pallet in situ.  He was jolly grumpy about that.  It does say in the terms and conditions that the driver is not obliged to handle the bags.  There was the driver who drove in forwards, having not read my instructions to reverse up the track because they were taped to the pallet with no copy in the cab.  We had to give up with the tail lift that time and offload every bad individually off the side of the lorry.  I think that driver was quite cheerful about it.  The others blur into a composite of wing mirrors sticking in the eleagnus hedge, and the jack never, ever working on the gravel.  I know they don't, but gravel is what we've got.

I wanted to tell today's driver to reverse up to the house, but the instructions on how to find the house and when to start reversing wouldn't fit in the little box, so I told Strulch that he (or she, but it is always a he) should ring us when they got to the farm and we would come and explain.  The message didn't get through, as usual, and I spent the morning cleaning the kitchen within earshot of the phone which never rang, until at noon I went out to do some weeding by way of a change, still within easy reach of the phone, and instead heard a lorry which seemed not to be part of the lettuce farm because it was getting nearer.  I scooted down the track and explained he would do better to reverse in then he could drive straight out, and it took him ages to turn round at the farm and come back up again.  I was slightly puzzled that the lorry belonged to a firm of sash window specialists, and the driver said that his lorry was being serviced and he had never driven this one before.

Then it took some time to unhook the rear curtain which was very stiff.  Our pallet was impressively guyed with several ropes and seemed to be the only cargo, and the pallet trolley provided was barely able to lift it off the floor.  The driver asked hopefully if the Systems Adminstrator could come up and push.  I stepped well back out of the way, wondering what the penalties for the driver would be if there was any kind of accident, and ready to shout if the SA looked like stepping backwards off the tail lift.  The pallet did not want to be pushed, and the tail lift was barely wide enough for it, but eventually they got the pallet to the ground, and then the trolley would not wheel off the lift, even though we were doing the whole exercise at the gate where it's mostly just tarmac.  I suggested they might be able to topple the whole thing off, since it wouldn't hurt the Strulch, but it was too heavy, and we ended up dragging all fifty bags off by hand as usual.

Fifty one hundred and fifty litre bags of straw mulch make an impressive barricade, and the driver now saw why I was so keen on him reversing in, if he hadn't before, while I was very glad we didn't have to move all fifty bags past the lorry before he could leave.  The SA set about hauling half the bags in the garden trolley over to the concrete by the greenhouse for later use, and I humped the other half round to the back garden to use more immediately, and luckily no other vehicles arrived before we'd finished.  Lunch was very late, and there were no pancakes left over for breakfast even though I'd made a pint of batter.

It rained in the afternoon, and I honestly felt as though I'd lifted enough straw mulch for one day. I'm all set to go, though.  I have fifty bags of Strulch and twenty-five kilos of blood, fish and bone. A full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes.  It's dark and I'm wearing prescription safety glasses. There is going to be some serious mulching going on in the next couple of weeks.

Monday, 27 February 2017

a grand send-off

The funeral was enormous.  We arrived half an hour before time, and had to queue to turn off the main road into the lane leading to the church because cars were stacked up nose to tail all the way down the lane to the farmyard that had been co-opted for overflow parking.  There was somebody on car park duty, and we were relieved to be given a spot that felt as though there was something reasonably solid underneath the mud.

When one of the neighbours told us that there was going to be a marquee at the church I didn't quite believe him, but there was, and even then there was not room for everybody to sit down and there were people standing all around the edges of the marquee.  We watched the service relayed to two screens by the same firm that does the sound system for the Tendring Show every year.  It was a good service.  There is something rather poignant about hearing about the early life of someone you only knew when they were old.  Our late neighbour used to play hockey as a young man, and I'd never have guessed that, or imagined him as tall and as thin as he was when he got married, several years before I was born.

Although the funeral service was held in the local church where he used to be a church warden the commital was held in the crematorium at Colchester, for family only, which gave us a breathing space to go home and dish out the cats' lunch.  As we turned up the track to our house we could see somebody down on the farm in a high visibility jacket frantically waving to us to let us know we were heading in the wrong direction and funeral parking was over here.  We gave it half an hour before walking down to the second marquee in our late neighbour's garden, and it was another hour before the family arrived.

At a big country funeral you see how different strands of life tie together.  We met another of the local beekeepers and his mother who did the teas when he hosted beekeepers' meetings in his garden.  The treasurer of my music society came with his wife.  There were a couple of ladies from my ladies' group, and the owner of the lettuce farm.  Even the caterer was a familiar face because he did the drinks and nibbles for the Dedham party we went to only three weeks ago, at which point our neighbour was still alive and comparatively well.  Our late neighbour was a sociable man who after his wife died went to a lot of trouble hosting lunch parties, including the odd gathering for the locals, and he continued the tradition even in death as we met the couple who live in another of the houses on the farm.  Tucked away down our separate tracks we don't bump into each other very often.

In the afternoon we performed a second social duty and went to help take down the stage in the church left from yesterday's concert.  There were four of us including the guardian of the stage who is eighty-six and has just had an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome so was not supposed to be lifting anything but seemed very keen to carry things anyway in his one good hand, and the stage came down pretty easily.  I persuaded the Systems Administrator to come and help in case we needed the extra muscle power or technical input from a person who was technically competent, since I and my fellow volunteer who writes the programme notes will both cheerfully admit that we are no good with machinery.  It was certainly faster with all of us, but we could have done it without the SA's help if we'd had to.  The chairman, who is forbidden to lift anything at the moment following a cataract operation, appeared just as we were finishing with the offer of tea.

It rained all day, so it's not as if I missed any gardening.  The cats were bored stiff.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

out and about

I have been out enough that the cats look reproachful when I come in.  Last night soon after getting back from the lecture on Meconopsis I was off out again to a quiz night, organised by a friend to raise funds for her village hall.  Village halls do sometimes seem to take on a life of their own, existing to host events to raise the money needed to run the hall.  Though this one does hold external events as well.

Our table managed to turn in a solidly middling performance, so we did not win but neither did we disgrace ourselves.  We did very badly on the sports round and not much better on the TV soaps, which was not surprising given that nobody around the table followed either.  I was disappointed that we did so badly on the UK geography round, but they were hard questions.  Would you know which was Britain's second largest cathedral?  Or in which port Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens were born?  I didn't, and I have read a biography of Brunel.  I can't have been paying attention.  But I did know that Pilsner was brewed in Czechoslovakia and make a correct guess that the Midlands town where Marston's was originally brewed was Burton-upon-Trent, based on the fact that I knew that something had been brewed there on account of Burton-upon-Trent's highly suitable water supply, and as nobody else around the table had any better idea then it might have been Marston's.  And I managed to dredge from the depths of my memory the name of the firm that Reginald Perrin worked for.  Sunshine Desserts.  Eleven minutes late, staff difficulties.

The cats were rather hurt when I got home at quarter to eleven and I had to sit up with them for a while.  Then this afternoon I abandoned them again for a music society concert.  I was slightly later than I meant to be getting there because as I got into the car I realised that the chickens were looking at me so had to go and check what it was that they wanted.  They had run out of food and since I couldn't drive off and leave them hungry until after chicken bedtime I had to unlock the front door again and sort out some food for them.  When I arrived at the church it was already quite full, but fortuitously there was a seat vacant next to my former colleague from the plant centre in a spot that gave a proper sight line to the stage, not hidden behind a pillar which is is the risk if you arrive late.

We had a string quartet and they played Shostakovich, Borodin, Beethoven, and two pieces by still living composers who I had never heard of, and one of which I spelled wrong on the website until the chairman pointed it out.  The third movement from Borodin's string quartet no. 2 is one of those bits of music that make you go Oh, this, when you hear it, because it is so familiar.  How it came to be so much more familiar than the other three movements of the same quartet I can't work out. Somebody told me it was used in Kismet, but I haven't seen Kismet so that can't be it.  The Borodin was immensely pretty, and there is nothing wrong with music being attractive sometimes, but it was the Shostakovich that made my skin prickle.  Beethoven was muscular and admirable.

The modern piece by the Irish composer was recognisably Irish and quite interesting, with fragments of My Lagan Love underneath the Radiophonic Workshop effects, or so it seemed to me. Whether it was more interesting than a straight set of Irish airs played by Martin Hayes is a moot point.  The modern piece by a Norwegian composer did not sound Scandinavian at all to me, more like Bloch, but maybe he wasn't aiming to sound Norwegian.

By the time I got home the Systems Administrator had returned from a racing mini-tour taking in Exeter and Chepstow, having had a very nice time but having caught a cold, possibly from getting rained on at Chepstow.  The SA had fed the cats, which was just as well as half way to the concert I remembered I'd forgotten to give them an advance on their tea to tide them over.  Apparently they were pleased to see the SA, a fresh face after two and half days of nobody but me.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

dreams of blue poppies

I went to the monthly Suffolk Plant Heritage meeting this afternoon.  The lecture was by Christopher Grey-Wilson, former senior Kew botanist, plant hunter, authority on alpines, cyclamen guru, and expert extraordinaire.  He was talking on the subject of blue poppies, which don't really grow awfully well in East Anglia, but it doesn't hurt to dream of things you aren't going to do yourself.  After all, I enjoy the art documentaries on BBC4 despite the fact that I am never going to own a Rembrandt or a Rothko.

Christopher Grey-Wilson assured us that we could grow a few species of Meconopsis even in the dry flatlands, but since his suggested method involved half barrels filled with leaf mould over a base layer of manure I thought I probably wouldn't try.  I don't really have a sheltered, semi-shaded spot within easy reach of a tap where I could stand the half barrel, assuming that I had a half barrel, which I haven't.  I could always get one, or make do with the old log basket that's been sitting in the garage since the bottom fell out, in case it came in useful as a planter lined with an old compost bag turned black side out.  But I could not conjure up the damp air they would prefer. Blue poppies, and the white and yellow and purple and red flowered species of Meconopsis, are children of the monsoon.  They would like a great deal of rain between May and June, and to be shrouded in mist.  They are not going to feel at home in the Clacton coastal strip, the driest bit of land in England.

They all come from north Asia, the great mountainous sweep of Tibet, the western reaches of China, Bhutan, the far north of India and northern Myanmar.  The species from really high altitudes, eighteen or twenty thousand feet, are almost impossible to grow in the UK even for the experts at Kew.  Some species from lower altitudes and relatively low rainfall areas will grow beautifully in Scottish and Irish gardens and the Lake District.  I have seen blue poppies growing in an Essex garden, and their owner was very proud of them, but they did not honestly luxuriate like the ones in a photograph of a Scottish garden shown to us by Christopher Grey-Wilson in his talk.

Many species are not perennial even if you can get them to grow.  A plant that takes between two and six years to form a rosette up to a yard across before throwing up a magnificent spike of flowers, following which it promptly dies, is not going to be easy to incorporate into a normal smallish garden designed for low to medium maintenance.  I wish now I had asked Christopher Grey-Wilson what, if anything, people who grow them use to fill the gaps while the rosettes are building up to full size, since you would not want anything that competed with the poppies or that was so rare and precious that you would mind if the poppies' expanding rosettes smothered it.  The lovely little red flowered Meconopsis punicea, star of the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, almost always dies after flowering and to add insult to injury does not set seed in the Essex climate.

The cheerful little Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, has been reclassified by the botanists and is no longer considered a member of the genus.  I have never introduced them to our garden because their reputation for reckless self seeding makes even me nervous, and because I am not sure I am so keen on that shade of yellow that I want it everywhere all summer.

So it was an enjoyable talk, and it was nice to catch up with a former colleague from the plant centre whom I hadn't seen for a while, but I think I will go on enjoying blue poppies in the pages of magazines and at Chelsea, and leave the challenge of growing them to other people.

Friday, 24 February 2017

shredding and sowing

As I pulled up the bathroom blind this morning it was a relief to see all the trees still standing in the wake of Storm Doris.  Overall the damage hasn't been too bad.  Some roof felt is flapping on the Systems Administrator's summerhouse, but it was due to be re-roofed with corrugated sheets anyway since the SA got fed up with mending it after gales.  Some felt has gone on my pot shed as well, which was more of a blow since the pot shed was not scheduled for a new roof this summer. The battens we installed to stop the felt ballooning up and ripping in a gale had snapped in one corner, so they must have rotted.  An acrylic pane popped out of the greenhouse roof but did not break and can be slid in again.  And that was about it.  I feared worse.

I spent the morning processing hedge trimmings between firewood and smaller bits for shredding. Truthfully I'd rather have been doing something that felt more like gardening, but I thought I'd better show my appreciation of the hours the Systems Administrator has put into cutting the hedge rather than appearing to ignore the meadow entirely.  Work got off to a slow start since pieces of willow from the far bottom corner of the back garden had got mixed up with everything else in the muddle of branches round the bonfire heap.  Willow doesn't go through our rather elderly shredder properly and wraps itself around the insides in long strips instead of emerging as chunky chips of wood ready to be used as mulch around the compost bins.  It is possible to tell the difference between willow branches and the rest, hawthorn, hazel, dogwood and field maple when they are all out of leaf, but it is not the easiest thing to do in a hurry.  The buds and habit of growth and texture of the bark are all different, but the buds are difficult to see clearly when you are as short sighted and middle aged as I am and wearing distance glasses instead of varifocals.

By lunchtime I'd got half a dozen big bags of chippings and made a pitifully small dent on the trail of branches in the meadow, but I decided that would have to do for the time being.  After lunch I set about starting to sow seeds in the greenhouse, after a long preamble moving pots around to make room on the bench for my new propagating cases.  Those Fritillaria meleagris that were in full growth were stood outside on the concrete, where I am hoping Mr Cool will defend them from attack by rodents.  Some bulbs had gone mouldy in their pots despite my best efforts not to over water them.  It is faintly surprising that they are so fussy about their watering regime in pots when you think that in the wild they grow in damp river meadows, but they are.

I rinsed the inside of the heated propagating case, wiped it with kitchen towel and sprayed it with Milton for luck.  Mould is one of the big problems when trying to raise plants from seed in a crowded multi-purpose greenhouse.  It is disheartening when nothing even comes up while a fuzzy layer of fungus spreads over the surface of the compost.  Mind you, sometimes you can see it started on the coats of the seeds themselves.  I used to water the seed pots with the copper based fungicide Cheshunt compound, but it was withdrawn a few years ago, and there is nothing now marketed to amateurs to treat pots of seeds.  Good hygiene and sparse sowing to avoid overcrowding the seedlings are about the best you can do.

I hope the seed compost will be all right.  Seed composts need to be low in nutrients and drain well while simultaneously not drying right out too easily.  I bought a new bag of a John Innes type compost last week, and fluffed it with my fingers to break up any lumps while avoiding tamping it down to leave the air in it, but was rather surprised at how much it settled in the pots as soon as I watered it.  I am using new pots as well, and only sowing half the packet if there are plenty of seeds in it so I can have another go if the first sowing fails.  I enjoy growing things from seed, and it is a great way of getting lots of plants if you need to cover the ground and of obtaining things you won't see offered for sale in most garden centres, but I am more relaxed about it a couple of weeks after sowing when I can see the first tiny shoots emerging and no mass outbreak of mould, and know that the compost was OK and I got the watering right.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


Storm Doris put paid to outdoor work today, and is upsetting the cats.  Strong winds always make them jumpy and reluctant to go outside.  Instead they spent the day mostly indoors, staring out of the window, sitting in boxes, wandering around aimlessly, creeping up to me for reassurance, and rioting in turn.

I occupied myself for the first part of the morning clearing out a cache of geriatric marmalade from the garage.  I made a great deal too much in February 2011.  I don't know what I was thinking of, except that I like making marmalade and I think the first batch had come out a bit too dark and I was keen for another go.  After six years what is left had darkened to a colour close to treacle, and crystallised rock hard on to the walls of the jars.  It would have been nice just to chuck the whole lot into a bin bag, but good citizen that I am I felt obliged to scoop out what I could and put it in the food recycling bin, and put the jars to soak until I could get the solidified shards of marmalade out prior to putting the jars in the glass recycling skip.

Then I began to sort out our CD collection, thus marking myself down as deeply nerdy on at least two counts.  But it needed sorting out because it had got to the point where it was very difficult to find whatever you wanted to listen to, because as I kept buying CDs work in the same genre and even by the same artist got split between different shelves and boxes.  And as I intend to go on buying CDs I needed space to slot future purchases in.  I know it wholly unnecessary and I could buy downloads instead and help save the planet, since I am so anxious about recycling jam jars and old marmalade, but I like CDs.  I like owning a physical thing that I can put in a machine and it will work, most of the time.  I still have all my old vinyl as well.  Some of my CDs date from the earliest days of the technology and they still play, contrary to some dire predictions, while no computer I have ever owned has lasted more than five years tops.  I know I could store downloads in the cloud, but it seems so much easier just to have a small box on a shelf.  And I am not the most computer literate person and can imagine myself getting in a real muddle by the time I'd bought downloads from Presto Classical and Amazon and direct from artists websites, trying to integrate them all into one collection and keep tabs of what was being safeguarded by whom.  I trust Amazon to look after the books on my Kindle, but they won't be interested in curating music bought from other sources.

As if to preempt my thought that I should sort out the CDs the cats got the ball rolling by tipping over one of the stands the CDs live in.  Once I'd picked those up off the floor I thought I might as well keep going, and took all of them from their various shelves, racks, boxes and carousels, and spread them out over the floor in a sort of cognitive map of music.  Early music, Baroque music, Irish folk, Scottish folk, English folk.  West African folk.  Welsh folk. German classical composers. Twentieth century British composers.  1970s and 1980s rock and pop.  Folk rock.  Klezmer. Comedy. Rhythm and Blues.  Blues.  Music of the American Civil War.  1990s pop, some slightly regrettable. Touches of Country.  The frankly unclassifiable.  In general I'm not keen on putting art in boxes, but there needs to be a system.  If you were looking for Gerry Rafferty or Trio Medieval or Satie how would you know where to look?

I am going to need more boxes, that's the conclusion.  Trying to file music or books at ninety-eight per cent shelf capacity is about as inefficient as trying to run a hospital with ninety-eight per cent bed occupancy.  It can't be done.  I stole a couple of boxes the cats had been sleeping in to hold the overflow until I can get to The Range and buy some more of their useful brown faux leather boxes.

Among the marmalade I found a jar of something labelled Apple Chutney 2009.  I don't know what was in it, but since emptying the jar and trying to rinse it I can't get the smell off my hands however much I wash them.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

pruning and pots

This morning, as I probed with a sewing needle at the rose thorn lodged in the pad of my left thumb, I wondered why it was that so much of the equipment available for gardeners is so rubbish. Other hobbies have embraced modern technology and materials.  What do we get?  Pruning gloves still made out of leather, that aren't thorn proof and go as stiff as a board the first time they get wet, while dyeing your fingers orange for good measure.  Why can't we have gloves made out of kevlar or something that actually works?  Gardening is supposed to be one of the biggest leisure activities in the UK.  Perhaps gardeners are viewed as hopeless reactionaries, people who make their own cold frames out of old windows and wouldn't spend the money to buy decent kit, lacking the commercial potential to sell boys' toys of cycling or even cookery.

Once I had dethorned my thumb and failed to get a tiny, tiny prickle out of my finger I returned to the pruning, and pollarded the orange twigged lime, following which I felt like a tree murderer. The trunk was studded with adventitious shoots and there were visible little dormant buds at the point on the trunk which I have arbitrarily decided is going to be the top of the pollard (it is not really arbitrary but driven by the height I feel comfortable working at from the step ladder.  If I were taller it might have been six or eight inches higher).  I left a few side branches to lessen the shock and give it some leaves for this spring to be going on with, and I am intellectually fairly confident that it will throw out lots of lovely new orange twigs, and that I will end up with a nice ball of bright green foliage for the summer and vivid twigs for the winter, that doesn't cast too much shade over the rest of the bed.  I have read Monty Don's account of the joy of pleaching orange stemmed limes after admiring the warm colour of the twigs all winter.  I know that as the old branches fade to a nondescript shade of greyish green and the brightest colour is on the young twigs that my trained shrub lime will be more colourful than if it were allowed to grow on into a full sized tree.  It is just that I really hate taking the top out of a fast growing, healthy young tree. Now the fell deed is done maybe it will feel better next year, just as I don't mind cutting the topiary yews and box.

Then I found a lot more dead material to come out of the shrub roses, really a surprising amount more given that I thought I was getting to the end of it yesterday.  In the course of removing the latest bits of 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' to have spread across the wooden steps to the bottom lawn I put my feet right through one of the treads.  It is fortunate that the Systems Administrator, having been rather resistant to the idea of having to rebuild the steps, suddenly agreed this lunchtime and even had a plan about what sort of wood to use and where to source it (scaffolding boards, available from Wickes in a small lorry and with a time specific delivery slot).

Finally I decided I'd chopped through enough branches for one day and spent a happy hour tidying up the auriculas and the pots of violets, picking off the dead leaves and shrivelled viola stems.  The auriculas have come through the winter with a one hundred per cent survival rate, eleven out of eleven pots.  I lost one last summer but that was due to soaking it until it was too wet after it had got too dry in a too small pot.  Now they are in classic five inch terracotta long tom pots, slightly bigger than you would see used for showing, but easier to manage for general garden use.  The vintage pots I bought unseen and second hand turned out to be critically too small.  The auriculas have wintered standing against the back wall of the conservatory facing the wall of the house, so in rain shadow from two directions, open to the sky overhead but out of the direct sun, tucked out of the line of the westerly gales but with plenty of air circulation.  The situation seems to suit them, and now I've found a supply of pots I might add to the collection in due course.  Exhibitors growing for show would divide the plants to reduce them to one rosette each, but I am not going to bother, since I'm not growing for exhibition and don't have time and anyway am quite happy with the idea of a bigger plant with presumably more flowers.

The violas did not fare so well, especially Viola cornuta where only one plant out of four looked entirely healthy, the other three looking very dubiously alive if not fairly certainly dead.  Six out of seven of the miniature pansy like violas were green and healthy but the brown remains of the seventh lifted clean away from the compost with no signs of life beneath.  The violas were in the same passage way as the auriculas, though the pansy types were against the house wall and so got more sun, and potentially more rain.  I cut them all hard down last autumn as the growers' websites advise, and don't yet have a theory on why some died.

As everything was in active growth, the auricula pushing out fat little new leaves and the violas making new shoots below the chopped down remains of last year's foliage, it seemed like time to apply a dose of Vitax Q4.  I opened my newly purchased tub, and as I darkly suspected it would be it was formed into little pellets, looking though not smelling just like rabbit food.  My searches on the internet seemed to suggest that Vitax Q4 as sold to the retail market was now pelleted and hence Dust Free.  Original Formula Vitax Q4 was available, but only in bags of twenty kilos or more, presumably aimed at professionals.  I thought that it would take me rather a long time to get through twenty kilos of Vitax Q4, even using it in the conservatory as well as the auricula pots, so opted for the pellets while wondering why I had to be protected from dust when it was apparently fine if only I bought five times as much of it.

I tried scattering a few pellets of rabbit food around a viola and it did not look right, the great lumps of plant food out of proportion to the size of the pot so that I had no idea how many to use, and I certainly wasn't applying them to the auriculas.  Instead using the pestle and mortar out of the kitchen I reduced the wretched lumps to the sort of granules I'd wanted in the first place and scattered them carefully around my plants with a teaspoon.  I don't suppose that's what the bright spark who decided I couldn't be trusted with powder and must have huge great pellets intended, but that's tough.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

my safety glasses arrive

My prescription safety glasses arrived in the morning post.  That's pretty good going, since I ordered them on 8 February.  On 9 February somebody from the company rang me to check that I really had put the correct distance between my pupils on the online order form, and to suggest that a different choice of frames might be better.  She had worked out that if the measurements I'd given were correct then I must have a small face, while the frames I'd chosen were enormous.  With visions of my gigantic safety glasses sliding perpetually down my nose, weighed down by their fat extra strength lenses sticking out beyond the rim of the frame, I chose different ones.  The sales person spent ages explaining all this to me and the glasses I ended up with were cheaper than the ones I'd originally chosen, so there was nothing in it for her beyond a happy customer, and it is not as though I'm likely to buy another pair in the next year or two or be ordering them on behalf of my firm for my whole workforce.  The firm is safetyspecs.co.uk and they deserve ten out of ten for customer service.  I would unhesitatingly recommend them to any of my friends, except that none of them are planning to buy prescription safety glasses so far as I know.

The safety glasses I ended up with are almost exactly the same size as my normal glasses, but with the curved side pieces at the outer edge of each eye.  I wore them for most of the day, and they seem pretty comfortable.  At first you are acutely aware of the side guards lurking at the edge of your field of vision, like having dental work done and being unable to ignore the strange new contours of your teeth against your tongue.  After a while your brain filters out the novel but pointless stimulus and you cease to notice.  Opting for distance vision turned out to be the correct choice.  I can see perfectly clearly at arms length, which is where I'm mostly working, and can see where I'm putting my feet.  I would struggle to use a computer or check my phone wearing them, but I don't need to.

Emboldened by my new protective eyewear I went on pruning the roses.  I am on the home straight, I think, and not a day too soon.  Pruning shrub roses that are growing well is a pleasure, as all you have to do is take out any dead or moribund old stems, while the more recent growth emerges plump and shining green as the old, gnarled and twiggy brown is stripped away.  Cutting the buddleia back hard feels unkind, although I know they will bounce back, making six or eight feet of new growth by the end of the season.  Meanwhile their neighbouring roses will enjoy the extra light.  It feels very drastic to take so much off a woody plant, but buddleia can regenerate from the roots.  I know, since the only reason I have two is that I planted a second after the first was ripped out of the ground by a gale.  In due course the first came back.

I pollarded all the Paulownia shoots, of which there were many because it suckers.  Cutting them down feels drastic too, though not as poignant as cutting down the buddleia because they do not yet have any leaves.  The Paulownia will send up new shoots up to ten or fifteen feet tall by the end of the summer, clothed in gigantic furry leaves.  I haven't seen it generally used among shrub roses.  I put a couple into the bed, grown from seed, because the roses had such boring little leaves and I thought the Paulownia would make it more exciting.  A few years ago I let one hopeful shoot flower, and somehow never got around to cutting it down, so now have a foxglove tree in the middle of the bed.  After pruning it once as a standard flowering shrub I swore that it was going to have to come down, but somehow it is still there.  The flowers are such fun, like a cross between a foxglove and a horse chestnut, carried in mauvish blue candles in early summer, and the veranda gives such a good vantage point to look at them.  Staring up at bluish flowers against a blue sky can be an unrewarding experience, which is why you are advised to plant a foxglove tree downhill of your viewing point if you can.  By accident I have.  And the crown is conveniently placed to block the view from the sitting room of the next door farm's wind turbine.  If I just saw off one low branch to lift the crown and then keep at it with the pole lopper maybe I can manage it as a standard after all.

I have not yet pollarded the orange twigged lime but I must, as I really can't have a full sized lime tree growing that close to the house.  I should remember the notice in the extraordinarily good garden we visited in Richmond, explaining to visitors that a virtually leafless and branchless yew had been hard pruned to control its size, but would recover, and that they did a lot of that sort of maintenance in the garden to keep the plants in scale.  It would be nice to have tens of acres, though, and be able to let my trees grow huge.  They would like it, and so would I.

Monday, 20 February 2017

spring is in the air

The warm weather brought everybody out.  The Systems Administrator reported that bees were charging up and down the meadow.  The kittens raced around the garden.  Our Ginger sat magisterially on the front door step.  Business at the Clacton garden centre and the tip (sorry, recycling centre) was booming.

I needed to call in at the garden centre since I wanted seed compost plus industrial quantities of blood, fish and bone, I was hoping they might have crushed oyster shell for the chickens, and one of my wellington boots had split.  I'd have like some Vitax Q4 as well for the pots of violas and auriculas, as recommended by the growers at Chelsea, but couldn't see any.  I got everything else on the list, though, and in a fit of extravagance treated myself to two new large propagating cases for the seeds.  The lids of my old ones have chipped at the corners and gone yellow with age, and while I managed to gaffer tape over the holes well enough to keep the mice off the small bulbs this winter, I thought I couldn't be messing around with taped together lids for seed pots where I need to check the watering daily, and the yellowing and crazing must cut down the light considerably.  Not so important when you're waiting for tulip bulbs to form roots, not so good when you're trying to prevent seedlings from becoming leggy.

The tip is just around the corner from the garden centre so I generally try to combine the two into one trip.  As I drove to Clacton a trail of bamboo prunings along the road told me I was not the only gardener going to the tip today.  Sure enough, when I turned off the main road into Jaywick lane there was another final piece of bamboo ahead of me on the tarmac.  Somebody didn't secure their trailer properly.  I wanted to dump the hellebore leaves, which filled several sacks by the time I'd finished cutting them off and are not supposed to go on the home compost heap to avoid spreading any hellebore leaf diseases.  If I had left the sacks for six months or a year the leaves would have shrunk down to nothing, but since I needed the compost and everything else I thought I might as well not be stuck with several large bags of decaying hellebore leaves for the summer.  A very polite, very helpful, very heavily tattooed young member of staff emptied most of my bags, for which I was duly grateful, though at the garden centre afterwards when the woman on the till seemed quite reluctant to believe that I could load my 25 kilo bag of fish, blood and bone into the car myself I began to wonder if I was looking particularly decrepit.

Actually, my hands were feeling it after yesterday's pruning session so to give them a break I started clearing the overwintering pots of herbaceous plants out of the greenhouse, and investigating the ones still on the concrete that never made it into the greenhouse due to lack of space.  Most of the Verbascum chaixii have overwintered successfully out in the open on the concrete, some in 1L and some in 2L pots.  It is a nuisance that they are supposed to be the white form but most flowered yellow last year.  The Lysimachia atropurpurea died, but they are basically annuals.  I raised them intending to plant them in the vegetable patch to use for cutting, but never got round to the planting bit.  It makes me a little cross when I see garden centres selling them alongside their perennial plants and priced at several pounds each, when they are generally very short lived.  The Linaria purpurea 'Canon Went' also mostly died, but not before seeding themselves into their pots and most of the neighbouring pots, so I shall not be short of pink toadflax this summer.  The Aquilegia that didn't manage to squeeze inside seem absolutely fine in 1L and 9cm pots.  A tray of rooted box cuttings look starving but have survived.

I looked online for Vitax Q4 and Amazon came up trumps, yet again.  If somebody can draft UK tax law properly so that they pay their fair share I don't even mind paying more for their products, but it is so useful to be able to press a button and have garden sundries you need urgently arrive the next day in a van.  After I lost the spring of my secateurs I ordered the replacement at half past three in the afternoon and it was with me by half past ten the following morning.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

pruning the willow leaved bay

When I went to see the gardens of the Italian lakes and visited the Villa del Balbianello one of the things that intrigued me was how their evergreen oaks were persuaded to grow as such perfect mushroom domes.  The answer, it turns out, is that arborists clamber around inside them like monkeys carrying out high level pruning.  We don't manage anything so glamorous, but today I did prune the willow leaved bay.

Laurus nobilis 'Angustifolia' is a really good plant.  I got mine from Architectural Plants in 2002 and liked it so much I tried to persuade the plant centre to stock it when I worked there, but they didn't, dismissing it as not that different from ordinary bay.  They were wrong, but the RHS now lists fourteen suppliers so it would not be too difficult to track one down if you wanted to.  The leaves are much more slender than those of the normal bay, like evergreen versions of willow leaves, hence the name.  The growth habit is strongly upright, and with annual clipping it will make a dense, nicely tapered specimen.  According to Architectural Plants it is hardier than the type, and certainly mine came through the two successive very cold winters we had about five years ago with no more damage than some burnt and brown leaves.  Normal bay can be cut to the ground in harsh winters, and while it will generally sucker generously from the root and regenerate over a few years I did not want mine to sucker, because I wanted it as a fastigiate specimen on a single trunk.

Architectural Plants say it is not a particularly fast grower and the excellent Bluebell Nursery describe it as slow to moderate.  I'd say it was more moderate than slow, given that I've been lopping shoots up to two feet long off the top of mine, and as it was planted fifteen years ago it is no longer in the first flush of youth.  In that last sentence the misleading element is the casual use of the word lopping.

If the bay were standing alone in the middle of a lawn or a nice big patch of gravel, or even surrounded by something low growing like lavender, cutting it would be quite straightforward.  I would get a step ladder and the Henchman out and away I'd go with the secateurs and loppers.  The bay, however, is standing in a large border surrounded by shrub roses, a couple of buddleia, a rare and precious tree peony, the knobbly stems of Tetrapanax papyrifera, a deciduous ceanothus, and a couple of ludicrously expensive metal tripods with clematis on them.  Towards the edges of the bed are snowdrops and the emerging snouts of hyacinths.  Under the shrub roses is a ground cover of herbaceous plants just beginning to emerge from their winter slumbers.  The bed slopes quite steeply.  Getting any kind of scaffolding in there is completely out of the question.  I can wedge the step ladder against the uphill side of the bay to help me reach slightly further up it by hand, but the vast bulk of the pruning is done with a pole lopper.

It was ideal weather for pole lopping, not too cold, not windy, and overcast.  You do not want to be squinting into the sun as you try to locate a stem fifteen feet above your head with what is essentially a pair of heavily geared secateurs on a very long stick, and you do not want the stems to be lashing around in the wind while you do it.  It is hard work, though, holding up the pole and not letting it crash down across the very precious tree peony or anything else, and looking upwards all the time gives you a crick in your neck.  In an ideal world you would step back from any piece of topiary quite frequently while cutting it, to check how you are doing, but stepping back from the bay means wriggling out from among the roses and everything else, being terribly careful with every step where you are putting your feet.

I now feel rather stiff but with this mild weather there is no time to be lost with the rest of the pruning.  Buds are swelling, things emerging from below ground just waiting to be trodden on, and the sooner it is all done the better.

Saturday, 18 February 2017


Now it's the second half of February I feel free to cut down all the herbaceous stems left standing over the winter so that the birds could eat the seed heads, and in hopes of getting some of those mornings you see photographed in magazines when every stalk and withered flower head is rendered miraculous by frost.  Or else heavy dew shining magically on the spiders' webs.  We had maybe half a dozen such mornings.  But now bulbs are coming through and the ground level buds of this year's herbaceous plants swelling, all waiting to be trodden on, and the sooner I am on those beds to do my work and off again the better.  The only problem is deciding what to do first.

I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves and reduced the shrub rose 'Sally Holmes' hard.  I've been psyching myself up to do the deed for months.  'Sally Holmes' is a modern shrub rose, with clusters of creamy white shading to soft pink, single flowers produced in successive flushes through the summer, with good hips if you aren't too enthusiastic about deadheading the final flush.  In the past couple of years she has not performed as well as she used to.  I tried taking her down fairly drastically once before and she did not like it and I vowed not to do it again, but then I began to remember how Christopher Lloyd wrote that you would not kill a middle aged rose by hard pruning, on the contrary it could be rejuvenating.  And I remembered the Systems Administrator's story of the SA's father performing drastic surgery learned on a pruning course at Wisley on the straggly hedge of the rose 'Elizabeth' in the front garden of their new house.  The neighbours were horrified by the Wisley chop, and the next year 'Elizabeth' had never performed so well.

I have not one but three plants of 'Sally Holmes'.  When I bought them I didn't grasp that they would grow quite so large, well over six feet tall and as much across.  Still, in a large garden you don't want the planting to be too bitty, so I am happy with the group of three.  The trouble was that after years of dead heading and taking out dead wood, the framework of branches was an awkward muddle of twiggy growth going in all directions above bare trunks.  As plants they were not beautiful, and they weren't flowering as freely as they once did.  My researches unearthed one contributor to an internet forum who said that as 'Sally Holmes' tended to flower best on new wood, owners who were continually removing most of the recent growth to limit its size could be left with few flowers.  I haven't been doing that, but in the past couple of years mine haven't made all that much new wood.  Growth, they say, follows the knife.  I shall feed my plants very generously when I top up the Strulch and keep feeding them through the season.

That kind of pruning takes concentration.  I normally listen to the radio while I'm working on the borders, but I can't while doing major pruning, it is too distracting when I am trying to decide where to place every cut and how much to take off.  A lot, was the answer.  A couple of hydrangeas next to the clump will be relieved to no longer have a stray arm flung across their heads.

It was so emotionally draining that when I finished I stuck to cutting down herbaceous stems in the island bed for the rest of the afternoon.  Tomorrow or the next day the Buddleja davidii 'Black Knight' are for chop, and I shall have to steel myself to cut down the dogwoods and willow grown for their coloured stems, and worse still pollard the orange twigged lime.  I am not a naturally enthusiastic pruner.  I like plants to grow, and it seems so ungrateful to lop their efforts off.  Some people enjoy it, causing ructions between couples where one (often though not always a man) loves chopping things down, and the other (frequently though not invariably a woman) is for a fuller, more natural look.  But it has to be done.  Our back garden is over twenty years old and in danger of getting dark and woody.  It needs a ruthless hand on the saw from time to time.

Friday, 17 February 2017

winter flowering shrubs and winter gardening

The Systems Administrator spent the morning cutting the hedge and the pile of debris waiting to be sorted and shredded is mounting, but I left it for another day.  Instead I spent a happy hour pulling goose grass seedlings out of the ditch bed.  It seemed like, and probably was, a gardening indulgence, but the snowdrops are out and looking good now, and I wanted to be able to admire the effect without the distracting presence of hundreds of bright little green weeds, each just waiting its chance to grow into a sprawling burr producing machine.  And it was very nice down in the bottom part of the garden.  Part of the point of having a garden is to be in it as well as to toil on it, even if being in it takes the form of some very light hand weeding.  Though weeding among the snowdrops is better exercise than you might think, because you have to be so careful not to put a foot down on a clump of bulbs that it ends up like a solo variant of Twister.

Both the Daphne bholua are out.  I have the white form and the pinky-mauve 'Jacqueline Postill'. The latter is the more vigorous grower.  The white one makes a much smaller shrub, maybe six feet tall but not much more than a couple of feet across, while 'Jacqueline Postill' is taller and is suckering into a thicket.  She seems pretty robust, while her white flowered neighbour is leaning on her as if it were not entirely root firm.  I hope this is not a bad sign of things to come, but the white one has been wonky for years.  My garden records show that 'Jacqueline Postill' was planted in 2005 and the white one in 2008, so they can be reasonably long lived if you can persuade them to settle.  The scent is wonderful, heavy and sweet, and by late morning had attracted some foraging bees.

There are clusters of small, dark red flowers like witch hazel on the Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica.  Since I have got my plant spreadsheet open I can tell you that this is coming up to its twentieth anniversary.  It has made a multi-stemmed tree, more upright than many I've seen in gardens I've visited, but maybe it will spread more with age.  I am not great at estimating heights and didn't think about trying when I was in the garden, but it must be fifteen or twenty feet high. The autumn leaf colour is splendid and is one of the reasons why you would plant a Parrotia.  The bark is not yet flaking in the beautiful way that mature trees do.  It is one of the least demanding trees I have met.  No pruning required, no litter of twigs to tidy up.  Just plant it somewhere where it will have room to spread and leave it to get on with it for a few decades.  It would like a nice fertile soil that doesn't dry out, and some shelter from the wind.  Tucked against the corner of the wood and close to the ditch ours seems happy enough, but I wouldn't rate its chances in the front garden.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' has been producing its scented pink flowers for weeks. Months.  It is a good value winter shrub if you can give it what it wants, which is much the same as the Parrotia.  I tried one on the sandy soil of the front garden and it very slowly dwindled and died. I like to think I would know better now.

Then I turned my attentions to pruning the roses, carefully because my safety glasses have not yet arrived.  A solitary rose bush is actually fairly unlikely to catch you in the eye as the twigs generally come straight at you.  If you don't wear glasses normally then I suppose you could step straight into a cut end, but I have never had one sneak in behind my spectacles.  A bed of roses growing within touching distance of each other gets trickier since you can have shoots coming at you from all angles.  I did not poke myself in the eye but I shall be glad when the glasses arrive.

Meanwhile the spring fell out of my heavy duty secateurs as I was working over a patch of Pachysandra, a shade tolerant evergreen ground cover that after a slow start is spreading well.  I conducted a fingertip search as well as I could without squashing it, but couldn't find the lost spring.  Thank goodness for Amazon Prime, which will have a replacement plus spare with me by one o'clock tomorrow.  I'll keep an eye out for the original and it may yet turn up, but until then I won't be without the number sevens.

By the time it got too dark to continue safely the lawn was a sea of rose prunings and I haven't nearly finished yet.  When the wind does turn to the east it is going to be a jolly long bonfire.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

planting and potting

The Systems Administrator kindly moved the rest of the bits of hedge sawed out of the far bottom corner in the back garden up to the utility area, and lopped the smaller shreddable side shoots off the fatter main branches destined for firewood.  I protested faintly that the side branches had been put on top of the vast pile of bits to be burned when the wind is from the east and the Systems Administrator is in the mood.  The SA said I could still shred them and nothing else would be dumped on top of them as the pile was too high, but if they were still there by the time of the bonfire they were going to be burned with the rest.  I take the SA's point that the sheer quantity of woody prunings in the meadow and around the bonfire heap is becoming almost unmanageable, but need every bag of wood chippings I can get so had better have another shredding session before the wind changes.

I finally managed to extract the last piece of landscape fabric from the corner of the ditch bed. Soil must have washed downhill and settled on it to bury it so deeply.  I really don't see how a layer of decomposed bark mulch and even twenty years of fallen leaves could have produced four inches of topsoil.  The hedge had opportunistically started to send roots out into it forming a solid mat in places, which is why it took so long to get the fabric out.  I felt rather mean chopping roots off the hedge, but told myself that it had lots of others and would respond to my root pruning by growing more.

Then, at last, I planted the ten Cyclamen hederifolium which had been sitting in a box in the sink of the downstairs cloakroom for a full week.  They were very nice plants, and Pottertons had made a neat job of bagging up the tuberts to keep the roots moist while letting the leaves breathe, but they were starting to wilt and I felt a pang that I had not managed to get them planted as soon as they arrived.  I read recently that C. hederifolium keeps its roots even when the leaves die down, and that if the plant is dried out and loses its roots the tuber can be reluctant to make new ones. That would account for them being so hit and miss if bought as dried tubers.  I don't think my plants got to the stage  of total root death and I watered them in thoroughly, so they should be OK.  I have got some home grown seedlings of Milium effusum 'Aureum', Bowles Golden Grass, to go in that corner but ferns and anything else will have to be squeezed into the gardening budget somehow.  I fancy the white flowered form of Geranium phaeum, which if it is anything like the purple flowered blotchy leaved variety 'Samobar' will seed itself about.  I do have some spare 'Samobar' seedlings in pots, but white flowers would show up better in the gloom, and charming as 'Samobar' is I already have lots further up the slope.  I only potted up the seedlings because I was replanting an area and it seemed such a waste to throw them out.

Then I planted the three extra Cyclamen cilicium with the others by the wall of the house in the front garden, improving each planting area with a generous handful of home made compost.  I peered carefully at the tubers but could not see whether the tops dipped in the centre because the leaf stalks were in the way.  Their roots appeared to grow from the upper surface of the tubers in a ring outside the leaves, leaving a bald underside with nothing growing from it at all, and definitely convex rather than concave.  So if you found yourself in possession of a tuber of C. cilicium with no idea of which way up to plant it I should say put the bare side down and the side with whiskery remains coming out of it pointing upwards.  Then pray that C. cilicium does not resent being dried out too badly.  They were all very nice healthy looking plants and hats off to Pottertons.  It is not their fault I fiddled around trying to do ten things at once instead of planting them immediately.

I potted the rest of the order and made space for them in a greenhouse case by evicting two lots of dwarf tulips and some crocus that by now are in full growth, roots coming out of the bottoms of their pots.  I stood them on the concrete where I think the new cats now patrol regularly enough that mice will not bother them.  In the greenhouse in the depths of winter they can do dreadful damage to potted bulbs.  I have lost whole trays of tulips and fritillaries, the cost of the bulbs running well into double digits, apart from the disappointment and the wasted effort.  I hope I am right about the concrete now being a fairly pest free zone, but the greenhouse is bursting at the seams.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

clearing up

One of the reasons why things always take longer than I think they're going to is because of my tendency to underestimate how long the clearing up is going to take.  Take the case of the hedge along the meadow.  I did my best cutting the front face with loppers and the bow saw a couple of years ago when the Systems Administrator had a frozen shoulder and was off hedging duties, but I had to leave the strongest upright branches along the centre line.  Since then and boosted by last year's wet spring the hedge has grown massively, to the point where it was not so much a hedge as a line of trees, and was beginning to grow into the telephone line.  The SA now restored to fitness announced last month that he was going to cut it, and has been taking anything up to fifteen feet out of the top with the chain saw and pole saw.  I promised to clear the trimmings so that the SA would have time to keep on cutting before the buds broke and the birds started nesting, while finding a series of other jobs to do that felt more urgent and more like proper gardening.  By Monday the piles of debris had got to the point where the SA announced it was becoming impossible to move, so while the SA was out for the day I busied myself dragging cut branches out of the meadow.

I shredded as much as I could because I need the chippings as a weed suppressing mulch round the compost bins, and stacked the fatter branches outside the SA's workshop to be cut up for firewood. I hadn't nearly finished by the time it was time to stop and get ready for my woodland talk, but I hoped I'd made enough of a dent in the great pile of debris for the SA to be happy.  It is going to take me several more full days to process all the hedge cuttings as the SA is still hard at work and there is an immense quantity of material to come out.  It needs doing, and yet dragging branches back to the shed and sawing them up and feeding the smaller ones through the shredder does not feel like proper gardening, not like pruning the roses and the buddleia and cutting down the herbaceous stems in the back garden and sowing the tomato seeds, and all the nice jobs fiddling around with plants that I should like to be getting on with.

Yesterday I thought I'd have an afternoon's gardening after my morning meeting, but ended up taking the duvet to the cleaners.  Never mind, there was always today.  I have been asking the SA to take the pole saw to some branches that are growing out over the corner of the ditch bed in the back garden to make it less preposterously shady so that I can plant it up with ferns and cyclamen. I have even got some cyclamen, which have been sitting in their box for days in the downstairs loo waiting for me to have time to plant them.  The SA obligingly cut the branches, but that left me with the best part of another day's work carting the pieces away.

In the same shady corner a long time ago I laid woven landscape fabric along the line of the rabbit fence.  At the time I had no plan to cultivate the area and wanted to suppress weeds.  Since then a couple of trees have started to mature and the shrubs that stood in front of the landscape fabric have been shaded out, leaving a fair sized area of deep shade with nothing much growing in it.  It seemed a waste, particularly as it is now overlooked by the SA's deck for listening to Test Match Special while sitting out of the wind.  But before I could plant ferns, cyclamen or anything else I had to remove the landscape fabric, by now buried to a depth of approximately four inches.  When it was new I probably covered it with chipped bark to hide it, which has since rotted down, but most of the four inches of loose, friable soil must be the effect of two decades' worth of fallen leaves and twigs.  It was surprisingly heavy, and made the task of lifting the fabric awfully laborious.  I ended up cutting it away in small sections, scrabbling the soil aside and back on to the area I'd just freed, while extracting the odd surface tree root.  The ground under the fabric was as hard as you'd expect after having no leaf fall of any kind of compost added to it for the past twenty years.

I had not nearly finished lifting the fabric when it began to rain, and tomorrow at some point I have to go and collect the duvet.  Meanwhile the cyclamen bulbs are still in their box and the tomato seeds in their packets.  It just takes so amazingly long to get to the point of doing any actual proper gardening.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

twice bitten

Mr Fidget has taken to scrabbling at the bedroom door and wailing pathetically in the corridor in the mornings.  He knows that we are in there with Our Ginger, and feels left out.  Or something. The first time we let him in did not end well when he peed on my bedside rug.  I was amazed at how well it washed out and that the rug did not smell of cat pee afterwards, but it wasn't something I wanted to make a habit of.  After that the bedroom was strictly out of bounds to Mr Fidget.  Mr Fluffy was included in the ban, despite not having done anything wrong, while Mr Cool never showed any signs of wanting to join in.

This morning we felt sorry for Mr Fidget, sounding so desperate and so left out, and let him in, closely followed by Mr Fluffy who thought it was wonderful and galloped around the bedroom.  Our Ginger thought it was a terrible idea and sulked furiously, in between bouts of thumping poor Mr Fluffy.  Mr Fidget peed on the bed.

The Systems Administrator was remarkably restrained on emerging from the shower to find piles of bed linen plus the duvet dumped in the upstairs corridor.  I took the question What happened? to be rhetorical since it was not hard to guess what had happened.  I put the duvet cover and sheet on to wash and investigated whether and how you could wash an electric blanket.  Ours has instructions on it, and the answer is that you can.  Meanwhile the SA had Googled How to wash an electric blanket and came up with what I was already doing, which was to hand wash the affected area and run it a great deal under the tap.  Then I had to go out, having draped the electric blanket over the kitchen table and blotted it as dry as I could with a towel.  Do Not Use When Wet, said the instructions.

When I got back the SA had turned it over a couple of times and it was almost dry.  I hung the duvet cover and sheet on the rack in the laundry room to dry and put the mattress cover on to wash, then set off out again with the duvet stuffed into a bin bag in search of somewhere to wash it. Originally I was going to try a launderette in Clacton I found on Google, but a friend at this morning's meeting told me there was one in Manningtree that did service washes.  Reader, I succumbed to temptation and left the duvet to be cared for by experts at vast expense rather than sitting watching it go round for an hour or two.  Once I'd given my details and booked the duvet in I did confess that the reason why I'd brought it now was that the cat had had an accident on it.  The woman in the laundry just looked at me.  England must be full of duvets that could probably do with a wash if only it wasn't such a hassle, and only finally make it to the launderette when something sordid happens.

When I got home the mattress cover had finished washing, and I had to drape it over two chairs in front of the Aga to start drying since there didn't seem any point in piling things three deep on the laundry room rack.  We do not have a tumble drier.

I grumbled about Mr Fidget's unpleasant behaviour to a friend who used to keep pugs, and she said yes, her pugs had to be kept out of her bedroom because they wanted to pee on her pillow.  It seems it is not just us and Mr Fidget, then, but something about their owners' beds that gets some animals thoroughly over-excited.  After two mishaps in the bedroom Mr Fidget is not going the given a third chance, pathetic scrabbling and wailing notwithstanding.  Our Ginger will be delighted.

Monday, 13 February 2017

charity talk

This evening I did a woodland charity talk.  They were a very nice group, who had warned me in advance that they were not very large, and they met in a church in one of the tiny roads off Colchester High Street.  I was relieved not to overshoot the end of the road, since you are only allowed to drive down the High Street and the tiny road was one way.  I was trying to work out the fastest way to try again if I missed the turning, and I think it would be about a five mile round trip, back to the inner ring road, through the roadworks and potential rush hour jam near Colchester north station, and back up Balkerne Hill.  Every so often Colchester borough council makes noises about wanting to shut the high street to cars.  How anybody is then supposed to access the Dutch quarter remains a mystery to me.  Tonight's group had their own screen and projector stand but I'm still not carrying the box containing my projector and assorted bits plus a Sussex trug of twigs on the bus.  Or the mile and a bit up an unlit lane to the bus stop.

I have a new piece of kit to add to the list since the charity just sent me a pop-up banner with their logo and a picture of trees on it.  It is an ingenious design with an aluminium box at the bottom, supported by two feet that swivel out, while the banner rolls away into the box for storage and the aluminium pole that holds it up breaks down into three sections that also fit in the box.  The banner is on a spring to make it disappear back into the box, like the vacuum cleaner flex, only this spring is much stronger than the one on the vacuum cleaner, and the total length of the pole when assembled puts the top of it slightly higher than I can comfortably reach.  I tried to hook the end of the banner over it and failed, so lay it on the floor and tried to assemble it that way.  The banner promptly tried to roll itself back into the box.  I rested a foot on the box to stop it winding itself on to the banner, which left me still struggling to reach the far end of the pole, until I accidentally let go of the top end of the banner and it wound itself all the way up with a mighty thump.  The assembled ladies gasped, and somebody kindly offered to hold the box while I sorted out the other end.  We agreed that it was a very fine banner, but I think I am going to have to find a volunteer each time to help me put it up.  Or perhaps it will work if I stand on a chair.  I managed to put it up by myself in the kitchen when it first arrived, but then I did not have an audience and was not working against the clock.

I couldn't find my smart new badge with my name on it and the word Volunteer, and feared it must have fallen out of the hole that had appeared in the bottom of the paper carrier bag of leaflets which was where I remembered putting it last time.  Fortunately it turned up in the bottom of the bag as I was tidying away the leaflets at the end, so I will not have to confess to my volunteer manager that I have lost it.  I put it in the padded case with the projector instead for safe keeping.

In sharp contrast to most church and community halls and meeting rooms this one was extremely well heated, and as I started to talk I began to think that I should not have worn thermals under my trousers and a polo neck wool sweater.  I wondered briefly if I could take the sweater off but decided not in mid flight, and not without the risk of displaying more of my vest to the audience than would be professional.

I always start the talk with a trug of twigs, and tell the audience a little about each species, the oak, the ash, the birch, the alder and the sweet chestnut.  I stole the idea from a couple of the lecturers at Writtle, and have kept it as the warm up act before going on to the slides because it seems to work well.  Tonight's meeting room was not very big and the front row was very close, so I was slightly anxious in case I should poke anybody in the face in my enthusiasm.  I didn't.  They all seemed pleased and grateful at the end, and the organiser told me that I had been recommended by somebody at a conservation group I spoke to last year.  One of them actually heard me last year at her garden club so it was nice of her to come along for a second dose.  It is true what they say, that volunteering makes you feel good.  Well, it does as long as everything goes smoothly.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

we went to a marvellous party

There was no gardening today, nor any hedge trimming, because we went to an At Home in Dedham.  It was very kind of our hostess to invite us, and I have still not discovered why she hosts an annual drinks and nibbles party in February, since I have made discreet enquiries to check that it is not her birthday.  It is an inspired idea in any event since February can be a dismal month.  The festivities of Christmas were ages ago but spring still feels a long way off.  What could be nicer than to chat to people you know and some that you don't while kindly caterers ply you with glasses of fizz and miniature yorkshire puddings with slivers of beef?  They were lovely nibbles, but alas mostly too sophisticated for me to try and copy for the music society.  I tried making miniature profiteroles once but they didn't puff up.

News of our neighbour's death has spread.  A couple from half way to Hadleigh over the county border in Suffolk had heard.  It's a small world in the provinces.  He was once in business with our late neighbour's son, and she was very fond of our neighbour and said the funeral would indeed be huge.  Unfortunately I couldn't help her with the address of his daughter or any of his children.

Full of canapes, champagne and goodwill I didn't feel like venturing out into the cold when we got back, even though there would have been time.  People are not At Home for very long, so an hour and three quarters after the party starts the miniature sausages on sticks and neat slices of vegetable fritatta give way to little squares of chocolate brownie as a discreet signal that lunch is ending.

We called into the Co-op on Dedham High Street on our way back to the car in the hope that they would have fruit flavoured yogurt, since the Systems Adminstrator forgot to get any on the last supermarket shop.  As the SA said it has to be the poshest Co-op in the country.  But they only had giant pots of Yeo Valley strawberry and not the individual servings.

It is forecast to be warmer by the middle of next week, and as today's party was almost the end of my current social run I might finally be able to knuckle down to some serious gardening.  It is already practically the middle of February so really there is no time to be lost.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

a dark cold day

I hadn't expected there to be snow on the lawn when I got up.  The last weather forecast I looked at yesterday evening before going out definitely said that Saturday was going to be overcast but dry.  It was due to be warmer, too, a whole four degrees, and I was looking forward to planting and potting up the box of bulbs that arrived yesterday from Pottertons.  Scant hope.  The Systems Administrator said snow had been expected, but all I can say is that the forecast must have changed.

After a while more snow began to fall, big wet flakes that barely settled.  The kittens are starting to work out that wet snow is no fun.  Mr Cool went and sat on one of the dining chairs, staring out of the window into the sodden garden with a resentful expression, and Mr Fluffy simply gave up and went to sleep in a cardboard box.  Mr Fidget occupied himself chewing at the log basket and began to eat a piece of twig he had managed to pull out of the weave.  I  did not fancy having to track down an emergency vet on a Sunday because Mr Fidget had a perforated bowel from eating dried twigs, and found an old toilet roll centre for him to chew instead.  Mr Fidget seized the cardboard happily in his jaws and ran around the house holding it.  Mr Fluffy became fascinated by the birds on the bird table and ran out to catch one, but by the time he had climbed on to the table they had all flown away.  Mr Cool tried going out but came in again with filthy feet and left black footprints over the kitchen floor.

There was a quiet rhythmic knock at the front door before lunch.  I went to see who it was, wondering if the front door bell had broken, and it was one of the people from the cottages down the lane to tell us that our neighbour from the old farmhouse had died.  He had a fall, went into hospital and had a heart attack.  That's a shame.  I saw him only days ago when he brought the parish magazine around.  He did say then that his bronchitis had knocked him back.

News of a death spreads like ripples.  I began to think I should tell one of my beekeeping friends who knew him.  By a strange irony it is not so very long since he was telling me that he had seen her at another funeral.  She and I belong to the same women's group as his sister, and so she passed the word on to the group's chairman, plus a friend of hers who knew him  By chance the friend and I saw each other at the lecture last night, and she emailed me asking me to let her know if I found out when the funeral was.  As I know his sister I thought I had better send her a card, since while I've met his children I don't have addresses for any of them.  Our neighbour lived his whole life in the parish, used to be on the parish council and served as a church warden, and knew everybody.  I wonder where they will have the funeral.  A lot of people are going to want to attend.

Friday, 10 February 2017


I have been making cheese straws for the music society's annual lecture.  I had never been one for making nibbles, visitors to our house only getting shop bought crisps or olives, or (my particular favourite) 1970s retro cheese puffs, but when I was recruited to the music society committee I discovered that catering was part of the brief.  I knew somebody who made delicious cheese straws who when complimented upon them would only ever say Oh, they're really easy, but without giving me the recipe. I ended up searching through my cookery books and online before settling on the method in the Good Housekeeping cookery book.  They turned out to be so nice that I never tried any others.  Some recipes had such a high proportion of cheese in them they were practically baked cheese, which sounded unpleasant and expensive.  The Good Housekeeping recipe calls for two ounces of salted butter and two of grated cheese per four ounces of flour, plus an egg yolk and a dash of cayenne pepper, with water to mix.  I roll them very thin and cook them briefly in a fairly hot oven, and do not mess around putting twists into them or anything else.  And it turned out to be true, they are very easy.

Presently I shall assemble some fishy things, small squares of rye bread with a little dollop of either trout or salmon pate, which I shall arrange in alternating rows of each on a small tray.  It will be almost as 1970s retro as bright orange cheese puffs.  Now I've discovered the joy of making my own nibbles I am keen to expand my repertoire, but so many recipes are for things supposed to be served hot, at once, straight from the oven.  What use is that to the home cook?  If we are entertaining at home I want to spend the time before supper with our guests, not toiling in the kitchen and occasionally rushing through to the sitting room with a plate of sizzling prawns, while for community events you need nibbles that can be served cold and made in advance without becoming soggy and disgusting.

Back in the 1970s my aunt used to serve vol au vents.  I remember helping remove the little centres, the tops of which were then replaced on the prawn in mayonnaise or whatever it was she had put in the middle.  Aged about ten I thought that was the height of sophistication, but I don't know if you can even buy ready made vol au vent cases now.  I have never noticed them in the supermarkets.  Waitrose had some ready made blinis next to their smoked fish which I eyed up, especially as they were reduced, but their expiry date was yesterday.

I am not keen on dips, having read too many articles about the proportion of people who double dip, going back for a second dollop after they have already taken a bite out of their carrot stick, just as I avoid bar counter bowls of peanuts and the curious Bombay mix they put out in some Indian takeaways.  Cheese straws are good from that point of view.  You can't dig your fingers into the bowl and scoop up a handful.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

cleaning the decks

It is properly, bitterly, raw cold today, the sort of damp cold that goes through to your bones.  This morning I finished pressure jetting the decking which I started yesterday and then retreated inside. When I nipped round to the Chatto gardens after lunch to get a present for somebody the woman in the shop said it had snowed tiny snowflakes in Elmstead Market this morning.  Mind you, the Systems Administrator read in the newspaper that a foot of snow was forecast to fall in New York.

Decking now has much the same image as the avocado bathroom suite had by the start of the 1980s.  You could still wash yourself perfectly adequately in it, but your bathroom had become a byword for the out of date and ridiculous.  Decking, beloved of a multitude of Alan Titchmarsh and Groundforce inspired garden makeovers, now evokes at best a wince or a sneer from garden fashionistas.  Unless it is made out of green oak or an interesting exotic wood precision machined to the last millimetre, as used as Chelsea, and then they do not use the word Decking in the handout about the garden.

All this is rather silly.  Decking has its uses.  It is quick, easy and cheap to build, compared to laying hard paving on proper foundations, which is one reason why it was so popular on Groundforce.  This is especially true on a sloping site.  If made from wood from a certified source decking is environmentally friendlier than concrete, which takes a great deal of energy to manufacture.  If you change your mind about the layout of your garden for whatever reason decking is easy to take up, and the bits can be reused as new decking or for structures like compost bins, and eventually firewood.

I have just counted and we have six areas of decking in total, of which I have cleaned the four largest.  We have a deck outside the conservatory, creating a flat area for a table and some pots on a fairly steep slope without going to the trouble and expense of building a retaining wall and buying in aggregate to level the ground.  We have an L shaped deck on the far side of the lawn, built to cover a pile of subsoil excavated when the conservatory was built, which now houses a collection of Hamamelis in pots.  It squares off that corner of the back garden rather nicely, creating a feeling of enclosure, and is a lot better than trying to grow shrubs or groundcover on the pile of subsoil. We could have hired a skip and trundled all the spoil round to the front garden in about a hundred wheelbarrow journeys, but I wasn't feeling that energetic.

We have decking along the back of the house, which is partly cosmetic to cover some not very beautiful concrete and partly structural, to bridge a large hole.  The back garden slopes steeply away from the house, and so to keep construction costs down and also maintain the view from the study we ended up having the conservatory built away from the house instead of attached to it. The top of the back wall of the conservatory is at the same level as the bottom of the study windows, and there is a chasm between the house and the conservatory wall where the builders dug in to build the wall (which is on very substantial foundations).  I pay particular attention to the condition of the bit of decking over the hole.

We have a tiny bit of decking outside the front door, which hides a concrete doorstep and a drain cover, and allows some of the gravel stuck to people's shoes to drop off outside instead of in the hall.  There is another small bit of decking at the bottom of some wooden steps down to the lower lawn which I built myself.  The Systems Administrator did all the rest but was at that point fed up with building decking and resistant to the idea of doing any more.  I am rather proud of my two square yards, which took me ages.  I very carefully made sure it was level using a spirit level, and then discovered it did not line up with the steps because they weren't.  The steps are currently blocked by the rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' and several of the treads have rotted through, so I need to do some pruning and possibly order some wood so that the SA can replace them.  I didn't clean that bit of decking, and I didn't clean the most recent bit of deck that the SA built right at the bottom of the garden to provide somewhere shady out of the wind to sit and listen to the cricket on hot days.  It could probably do with a scrub in due course.

Decking has the reputation of being slippery.  It can be, especially in shade, but I'm not sure it is worse than other hard surfaces.  I have nearly gone over on real stone paving in somebody's drive and on a piece of concrete in the car park at the hospital's walk in unit (at least it wouldn't have been far to go if I'd broken anything).  Look how they put up signs on the Liverpool Street station concourse when it's been raining warning passengers it is slippery.  The designers must have known that the travelling public would tread water in, which makes me think it is simply difficult to find any kind of hard surface that is truly slip resistant when wet.  I have compromised on aesthetics and stapled fine grade chicken wire over the way to the bird table and the conservatory door.  The owners who have the kind of green oak decking photographed in the pages of Gardens Illustrated must just walk carefully.

Our current decks are made of western red cedar, except for my tiny one that is left over from the days of the previous, inferior timber.  Western red cedar is a nice wood, naturally rot resistant, that can be left untreated.  It is a slightly vivid orange when new or if varnished, which softens as it weathers to an agreeable soft brown.  It is not quite as swanky as the grey of weathered oak, but pretty good.  It doesn't look out of place in Essex, a county with no natural building stone.  In fact I think it looks more in place than Indian sandstone.  The Systems Administrator was originally rather unwilling to let me loose on it with a pressure jet, afraid that I would damage the grain of the wood, but once I'd explained that I really couldn't scrub that much deck by hand I was allowed to use mechanical aid, with instructions to keep the jet moving.

It isn't my favourite gardening task, but it isn't bad either.  You get the immediate gratification of seeing the colour of the wood come up strip by strip under your eyes as you blast away the layer of greenish algae and dirt.  On the other hand it is a bit like vacuum cleaning.  It is noisy, and there are too many cables and hoses.  There is the power lead from the house, and the flex that plugs into the power lead, and the big hose from the tap, and the thin hose from the compressor unit to the lance, and when I use them they all get tangled up with each other and my legs.  Cleaning around the Hamamelis is particularly fiddly, since they are in fifty-five centimetre terracotta pots and there is no way I am moving them.  As I squeezed between them I was very, very careful not to poke myself in the eye.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

safety first

It was only when my mother rang up to ask if I was all right that I discovered I hadn't published yesterday's post.  I now have so today is a two post day, possibly the first ever.

After my recent adventures I thought I should take up the Systems Administrator's suggestion and buy some prescription safety glasses.  As and when they arrive and I have tried to do a morning's gardening wearing them I will let you know what they are like.  Buying them felt as though it took half this morning.

I don't know about other glasses wearers but I had never really looked at my prescription.  The optician gives me a copy after each eye test, which I take home and put in a filing tray where it stays until it gets thrown away about two years later, some time after the next eye test.  I was aware in theory that you could buy glasses on the internet, but having fairly severe short sight with astigmatism thrown in, and being a convert to varifocals, I always felt I wanted a trained person to fit my glasses, in a proper opticians where I could go back and complain if I didn't get on with the result.  Specifying glasses myself off the web felt too much like Caveat Emptor.

I don't think Vision Express does safety glasses, though.  One chap who used to do my eye tests tried hard and on repeated visits to convince me that as well as glasses for everyday I would like contact lenses for special occasions.  Eventually I managed to convince him that I very rarely went to those sorts of dressed up parties, and that when I did I wanted to be able to concentrate on the other people there and having a nice time, not on managing some unfamiliar in-eye hardware.  Another told me I should always wear goggles to garden.  He didn't look like somebody who did a great deal of outdoor physical work himself, otherwise he would have known why that wasn't a good idea. Nobody has ever tried to sell me safety glasses.  Maybe they are missing a trick.  Or maybe it is a strictly minority interest.

The Systems Administrator, whose eyes are not as bad as mine and who is more confident about technical specifications, has bought glasses online and assured me it was easy.  I thought I wasn't going to drive in them, so really how hard could it be to copy some numbers from my prescription to an order form?  It turned out the SA was more worried I would have lost the prescription, but I had not.  It was in the same filing tray where I always put it, and I saw it only last month when I was doing my annual desk tidy as part of filling in my tax return.

Starting on the basis of zero knowledge of safety glasses I chose a firm that came near the top of the Google search, and the CAT brand because at least I'd heard of it, and they did a model with sprung arms.  My current main glasses (which were from the children's section at Vision Express) have sprung arms and stay on my face so much better than all previous, trendier and more grownup glasses that I would never buy unsprung ones again.  I asked the optician once why my glasses always slid down my nose and was told that it was because I had a petite bridge.  I always think of safety glasses as being worn by people operating lathes and Michael Portillo visiting factories by train, but looking at the website I realised there was another whole market for people who play sport, and man sized wraparounds were not what I was after.

I did not understand the prescription at all but carefully and mechanically copied over the numbers of Sph, Cyl, Axis and Add, and gave it to the Systems Administrator to check.  The SA said very confidently that I did not have a Base or a V Prism, as if it all made perfect sense, and briskly measured the distance between my pupils using metal engineering calipers, which seemed much easier than trying to do it myself in a mirror with a ruler.  Then I had to make a decision about what sort of lens I wanted but the website quibbled over my choice.  Did I really want standard glass and not the lighter, scratch resistant and shatterproof polycarbonate?  The SA suggested that for ten quid extra I wanted lighter.  Did I want the glasses for distant or near vision or both?  I said both, and the website said I couldn't have both because I was too old and too shortsighted.  The SA said in that case I wanted Distant.  I protested that nothing was going to poke me in the eye from a distance and I wanted the glasses for close work, and the SA said that if I chose Close it would be like walking around all day in my reading glasses.  That did not sound very comfortable, and anyway for pruning I do need to be able to see where I am putting my feet.

After I fired the form off and got a confirmation email another email arrived later saying that I had failed to tick a box confirming that a number did not exceed 6.5 and would I go back to complete the form and authorise the extra payment.  I read this email twice in total bafflement and then rang them up, and at the precise moment that someone answered the phone Mr Cool jumped on to the kitchen table and walked across my keyboard.  The email disappeared.  The woman on the phone explained that I had to add two numbers together to get to the number they wanted, and as the total did exceed 6.5 it meant that I could not have normal lenses and needed extra strength ones.  That didn't surprise me.  Visits to the optician are like visits to the hairdresser in that there is no point in looking at all the current styles and choosing which one I like, instead I need to start by establishing all the ones I can't have, thanks to my bottle thick lenses or curly hair.  She sent me another email with a link to the supplementary order page and I meekly paid up for my super strength lenses.

You have to pay VAT on safety glasses.  Any guilt I felt at having made no direct contribution at all to the cost of yesterday's NHS treatment once the local pharmacist had saved me from paying a prescription charge vanished when I found out.  Delivery time is two to four weeks.  In the meantime I had better dig out the dreaded goggles before pruning the roses, and then I will let you know how I get on with the safety glasses.  Maybe they are something that GPs and the nurses at minor injuries units should gently suggest to people who come in with scratched eyes, particularly if they can see from your patient record that it isn't the first time it's happened.  But maybe there is a reason why safety glasses haven't caught on for general leisure use.  We shall find out.

a minor injury

Addendum  This post was written yesterday but I failed to press the Publish button.  For reasons which will become apparent.

There was no more gardening for me today.  It was a damp and drizzly day, for starters, but more to the point I scratched my eye yesterday.  I was very careful working among the shrubs by the oil tank, but as I leaned over the chicken proof picket fence to snip off the last few old hellebore leaves a small side shoot of one of the coloured stem dogwoods slid behind my glasses and glanced across my eyeball.  At first I didn't think it was too bad, but as the evening wore on it got worse rather than better.  I hoped a night's sleep would calm things down, but did not sleep very well, and in the morning as I looked at the puffy and dropping flesh over my eyelid and contemplated the stream of tears and snot I had to admit that I was going to have to see somebody about it.

We opted for the walk in centre in Colchester.  It seemed an easier prospect than trying to get through to the GP practice on the phone and then trying to convince the receptionist that I really did want to see somebody today rather than be fitted in on Thursday afternoon.  I had to ask the Systems Administrator to drive me, since the other eye was had got quite damp in sympathy and I really couldn't see well enough to drive, besides which I find it hard enough to judge distances even with two eyes.  And I knew the drill, having stupidly done this in the past.  In order to inspect the damage they put anaesthetic drops in the eye, followed by an orange dye that makes the scratch show up under blue light, and then they want to put a patch on the eye to protect it until the anaesthetic wears off.  The first question anybody will ask you when presented at a health facility with a minor eye injury is Did you drive yourself here?

The rolling information board at the walk in centre said rather discouragingly that the wait for walk in patients was three hours, which might make anybody who didn't honestly think they were that ill turn round and walk out again.  We were puzzled, since there weren't that many people in the waiting room, and in fact I was seen after forty minutes by a nurse.  I explained the accident and she made me go out into the corridor and do a sight test with each eye.  I could only get to the third line down with the injured eye, but only a couple of lines further with the good eye because it was weeping in sympathy.  Then the nurse went through the whole scratched eye drill and told me it was quite a big scratch and that she would give me a prescription for chloramphenicol and I must apply it four time daily for at least five days, and if the eye was not better by tomorrow or was worse I must go and see my GP as large scratches like that could become ulcerated, slightly stressing the word GP as if that was where I should have gone in the first place.  I asked what chloramphenicol was and she said it was an antibiotic, and called in a second nurse for a second opinion, who looked at the scratch and said cheerfully that it would be fine, they heal really quickly.  The first nurse apologised that as a medical professional she had to warn me of the worst case scenario, and taped an enormous wad of gauze over my eye.  I was slightly disappointed since I'd been hoping for a piratical black patch and it was so bulky that I couldn't get my glasses close enough to my face to be able to see with the remaining eye.  I thanked her and she told me to have a nice day.

We came home via the friendly local pharmacy and the pharmacist observed that I had been in the wars, and told me about her friend who had caught her eye on the corner of her car door while washing it.  I paid for my prescription and sat down in a chair waiting for it to be dispensed, although there is nothing very complicated about putting a tube of ointment in a bag.  Then the pharmacist said that she would refund the prescription charge since she had realised that it would be cheaper for me to simply buy the chloramphenicol.

The Systems Administrator had a very sensible idea which I shall act on as soon as I can see properly, which is to get some prescription safety glasses.  I can order them on the internet since I've got my prescription, and it's not as if they have to be fitted like varifocals.  Given that it is (ahem) the third time that I've suffered this particular accident I ought to do something.  An incredibly dapper optician once told me that I should wear goggles at all times when gardening. He can't have tried it.  They are uncomfortable and impede your vision at the best of times, and in hot weather they steam up.  I suppose I could go the whole hog and buy a welding mask, like the man who always sailed in one and said that the tinted glass cast a rosy glow on the world and made him think the weather was about to improve.