Friday, 31 March 2017

oversights and omissions

Poor chickens, I have accidentally mistreated them.  Before going up to London yesterday I rinsed and refilled their galvanised water dispenser, and topped up their food.  The food hopper lives in the henhouse, which is not conventional but stops it being rained on, and since the house is rat proof means vermin can't get at the food at night.  When I opened the end door of the house to get at the food a couple of the hens, seeing grass, made a charge for the exit.  I flapped a hand in front of their faces to shoo them back and shut the door rather hurriedly.  Hens lack the sense of purpose of Steve McQueen and co in The Great Escape, and they were easily persuaded to go back out into their run by dint of throwing down a small handful of grain, then I shut the pop hole of the hen house so that I could top up the food hopper without any of them making a run for it.

By the time I got home it was almost dark, and as I detoured to the hen house to shut them in for the night I saw from the protruding handle of the sliding door that the Systems Administrator had already done it.  It was only as we were about to go to bed and I was locking the front door that I ritually said You've shut the hens.  The SA denied having shut the hen house.  I was momentarily confused.  I had definitely seen the handle of the door pulled over, hadn't I?  I changed from my Swedish house shoes into my wellingtons, unlocked the front door, and went to check.

I found a pathetic huddle of hens trying to roost against the front of their house, and realised horribly that after filling their food hopper I must have forgotten to let them back in again.  Poor hens, at least they had had access to water all day, but they must have had very little to eat, and a nasty couple of hours sitting outside in the dark and listening to the creatures of the night.  The owls, although loud, were not so bad since owls don't eat chickens, but some of the other noises sounded more predatory.  Also, as I counted them I realised there were only five.  Surely a fox had not got into the run and taken one hen?  Or had she been shut in the house all day?  Casting my torch over the run I saw her sitting by herself in the furthest corner, body pressed low to the ground.

I opened the pop hole but the hens, even though awake, did not want to move.  While the main part of the run has almost got standing room for a human, the immediate six feet outside the hen house, built back in the early days when we thought they would be free range for most of the time, is built on the same lines as a guinea pig run and only has standing room for a hen.  Systems Administrator came out to see what was going on, and we made encouraging noises and shone our torches at the open door, but to no avail.  At last I tried opening the main door of the house and rattling their food, on the basis that although hens don't normally go for midnight feasts, on this occasion they might be hungry.  One went in, another followed, but there were still two who refused to move. There was nothing for it in the end but to crawl up the guinea pig run until I could reach them to prod them in.  The SA offered to fetch a stick, but I thought they'd had a bad enough day already without being poked with sticks.

Then I went to retrieve the straggler.  I was relieved when at my approach she got to her feet and began to walk quite briskly towards her house, since previous hens who have left the rest of the flock at night and gone to sit in that corner have done so as a prelude to dying, but it turned out that the corner's big attraction, apart from the fact that it was more out of the way and less obvious than staying right outside the pop hole, was the fact that a couple of eggs had been laid in it.  Of course as well as not being able to get at their food they had not been able to use their nest box.

I took the eggs, ushered the straggler home, and we shut the hen house door.  Poor hens.  I am an incompetent owner.  The Systems Administrator said he had been past the run several times and seen the hens pootling about normally, so had simply not noticed that their house was shut.  They hadn't made any noises demanding food, otherwise the SA would have investigated more closely.

This morning all six came bounding out of the pop hole for their morning snack of sultanas and left-over boiled potato as if nothing had happened.  I must pot up some clods of turf for them, though. They wanted that grass so badly, and they are still supposed to be kept in the run out of contact with wild birds.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

a reunion lunch and an exhibition

I met some of my old fund management colleagues for lunch today.  It will be seventeen years come this summer since we all stopped working together, and there were moments when it felt as though it was going to take almost that long to find a lunchtime when we were all free.  In the event we liked it so much that we agreed a date for the next lunch before leaving, so much easier than endless rounds of texts.  We went to the branch of the Cote chain in St Christopher's Place, which has changed a great deal since my City days.  Then it was a sleepy backwater with a useful boutique where I used to buy suits, and a shop selling nothing but amber jewellery.  Now it is bustling with people and stuffed wall to wall with restaurants.  I couldn't believe there could be enough demand to fill them all, but it seemed there was.  Cote didn't even exist in those days, or if it did it was as two branches somewhere like Clapham, while now it has been rolled out all over London, but chains are about the only way to get a sit down meal in central London nowadays unless you are in serious expense account territory.  Cote does quite decent food, my only problem is that my stomach is no longer up to whitebait and steak and chips plus a quarter of a bottle of red at lunchtime.

Afterwards I went to see Revolution: Russian Art 1917 to 1932 at the Royal Academy.  Originally I was planning on going to the RHS spring show at Vincent Square, but then I realised that as the Russian show ends on 17 April then if I didn't catch it today I almost certainly wasn't going to.  It is a good exhibition, and quite large, and by the time we got to the end of it my old colleague who had volunteered to come too was gasping for a cup of tea.  There are paintings, posters, photographs, clips of film, textiles, and some pottery, and between them they give the impression of a time of great upheaval and intellectual fervour that didn't necessarily result in the production of world class art before Stalin's mad censorship really clamped down.  But as the Systems Administrator says, some artists and their work didn't survive and others fled, so it's very hard to tell exactly what was going on at the time.

There are some standout paintings, a couple of Kandinskys, a wonderful cubist inflected landscape by a painter whose name I've already forgotten, and a haunting portrait of a couple standing either side of a samovar.  He looks wistful, she looks away from him with arms crossed over the body and an enigmatic expression, the samovar is a wonder of impressionism.  There are some very good silver gelatin prints of industrial and domestic scenes.  There is some frankly incongruous porcelain, images of factories and workers painted on fine china much as Catherine the Great had scenes of English country houses.  I was particularly taken by the china figurine of a bourgeois selling her possessions, since what is more bourgeois than a china figurine?  Some of the portraits are haunting, with poet Anna Akhmatova, who lost two husbands and a son to the purges, theatre director Vsevolod Mayerhold, imprisoned and executed, and pioneering film maker Eisenstein looking exceptionally fluffy and unfit to be let out to face Stalin's Russia.

It's worth catching.  And no, it does not glorify Stalin, contrary to one newspaper review the Systems Administrator read.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

gardening under glass

From wild gardening to the most artificial sort of gardening you can do, growing plants in containers under glass.  I was shocked yesterday when I went to water the conservatory to see how many leaves had fallen or turned red preparatory to falling on the Eriobotrya 'Coppertone'.  Quite a few evergreen shrubs have a spring moult, which can be irritating of them just when everything else is looking fresh and pristine, but the Eriobotrya was clearly hungry.  It was repotted a couple of years ago into the largest pot it is ever going to have, a vast dark grey plastic tub nearly a yard across, which it enjoyed very much at the time, but it was clearly time to feed it.

The conservatory was in need of a sweep and tidy anyway.  It's not that long since I did it, but since then the climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' had remembered that she is not actually evergreen and dropped thin pale brown leaves all over the back, after hanging on to them for a remarkably long time.  Last year's leaves on the two terrestrial orchids were looking desperately tatty and in need of cutting off.  There was some random dieback in the yellow flowered Jasminum mesnyi and a general air of dishevelment.  And I'd been planning to pot on various things once the weather warmed up, which it now has.

The Streptocarpus all seem to have come through the winter.  I kept them pretty dry, and tried not to panic as the leaves on a couple of them died back to virtually nothing.  I buy them as plug plants from Dibleys, who always do a wonderful display at Chelsea and whose catalogue is a dazzling source of temptation, but they don't make very big plants in their first year so it is a nuisance to have to start again every season,  Besides which, all those three pound twenties plus six quid for post and packing start adding up if you have to keep replacing them.  Dibleys advise you to only put your new plugs in a little three inch pots for their first season, and I potted on last year's plants into slightly larger ones, and gave each pot a dose of Dibleys proprietary Streptocarpus food.

The Dibleys Begonia did not do so well.  They were the rhizomatous type, grown for their foliage, which I tried as an experiment after picking up a couple at general plant nurseries that did well, but the Dibleys plants were made of weaker stuff, or I had not got the hang of growing them.  They were not especially keen on growing even in the summer, and the winter did for them entirely.  Ah well, we learn by trying.  Ferns seem to do pretty well in pots in the conservatory, both the elegant silvery leaved Athyrium nipponicum and the common wild ferns out of the wood that have seeded themselves into other pots, so I will probably invest in some more of them instead.

The evergreen Clematis cartmanii 'Early Sensation' is just coming into flower.  I used to try and grow it around a tripod which it thoroughly disliked.  It got far too big for the tripod and wanted to grow upwards, so I tried moving it to the back wall of the conservatory which it didn't much care for either, sending up one long shoot that shot right up to the roof where it waved around despairingly and sent out a few flowers, its lower regions still growing through the now obsolete and ridiculous tripod.  Eventually in exasperation I cut it hard back to disentangle it from the support, and left it to see if it would shoot again.  It did eventually, after sitting apparently moribund for months, and it is now in the sunniest corner of the room where it amuses itself growing through the Eriobotrya.  It has dark green, finely divided leaves that look well popping out among the smooth oval leaves of its host.  The white flowers are not scented but are very pretty.  It will easily outstrip the six to eight feet that most suppliers suggest it will reach.

The Hardenbergia violacea that I bought at an RHS London show last spring is just coming into flower.  Most of last year was a battle to stop it being destroyed by red spider mite, and I am not sure we have a long term future together.  It hasn't grown very much.  The little Tropaeolum tricolor is in full flower.  This sends up incredibly thin and weedy shoots in autumn from a smooth, fat tuber and at this time of the year covers itself with small, tubular, orange, purple and yellow flowers.  Once they fade the dinky little lobed leaves start to yellow, and before long the whole thing has disappeared.  I repotted mine last autumn into a deeper pot after reading that the tubers liked to be buried deep.  I have had my tuber for years so I must be doing something right, but as my plant never grows as large or flowers for as long as its Wikipedia entry claims it ought to do I still need to refine my growing technique.

The hairy leaved Bergenia ciliata that I bought by mail order after seeing one at the Lavenham open garden I visited last August has produced one rather prissy head of white flowers.  Christopher Lloyd used to wax lyrical about the beauty of its leaves.  The whole plant is so fleshy and delicate that I've been mildly amazed every time I've looked at it that it hasn't collapsed into a mush over the winter.

I moved the two Regal Pelargonium into bigger pots to encourage them, and nipped out their tips to try and make them bushier, and fed everthing except for the potted palm with a light dusting of Vitax Q4, which made the conservatory smell jolly agricultural.  All that's left to do now is buy a very large pot for a ginger lily that's burst out of its old one.  Literally.  The pot is in two pieces.  If I can't get a big enough pot I shall have to saw the root into two or three, but since I have loads of other things to be getting on with I'm hoping to be able to take the easy route for now, and simply dump it intact into a new container.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

the wild garden

Mr Fidget liked his painkiller and lapped it happily from the syringe, which made life easier than if we'd had to squirt it in between his clenched teeth before he spat most of it out over the kitchen table.  He is not a very good invalid and keeps prancing about the garden, but I suppose that means his feet don't feel too bad.  The vets sent me a text to remind me that they looked forward to seeing us tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Systems Administrator's back, which had held up to all the hedge cutting remarkably well, finally revolted when asked to pick up the small debris from the grass in the meadow and do one more session with the electric pole saw.  I offered to pick up the last twigs and rubbish out of the grass in the meadow, since the grass is now growing and we don't want it mixed up with a load of prunings, and the SA had worked so hard on the great hedge reduction project that it would be nice to be able to look at it and say it was finished.  What seemed like not all that many twigs and trimmings still managed to fill up a lot of trailer loads, but I am now done with tidying up the grass barring moving the final three bags of chippings and scooping up the pile of brambles that I cut from behind the beehives.

Once I'd dragged myself away from applying Strulch to have a go in the meadow I thought I'd better get on with cutting down the brambles that were invading the roses by the wildlife pond and clambering into a lilac, a rose, and my circle of yews.  The birds will be starting to build nests any day now, but these brambles were fairly low and not yet very dense and I hoped for the best and that there wouldn't be any birds building in there.  I kept a keen eye out and didn't find any signs of fresh or partly built nests.  In an ideal world I'd have done the job a month ago.  Actually, in a really ideal world the brambles wouldn't have got out of control in the first place.

Nettles are springing up at a tremendous rate where the SA cut down the brambles earlier in the spring.  The conservation charity Plantlife recently warned that atmospheric pollution was damaging the country's wild flora by supplying excessive nitrogen which encouraged nettles and other nitrogen loving plants to dominate the landscape.  Certainly I have never known the nettles advance as quickly as they are this spring.  It will be a race against time if we have a dry spring to see how many roots I can dig out before the ground becomes too hard.  Some of the more sensible medium range forecasters are warning that the odds are that April will be drier than average.

What's good for nettles is good for primroses too.  The clumps in the meadow beyond the wildlife pond have grown massively, and once they have finished flowering I should be able to split them and use them to cover more of the ground.  As we get rid of the brambles, and the nettles, the newly cleared space offers a whole new exciting area to plant, but the weeds will find it equally inviting and I can't afford to Strulch it.

Monday, 27 March 2017

the misfortunes of Mr Fidget

I don't really believe that fate stalks us, ready to punish us when tempted by over-optimistic words. And yet.  On Saturday evening as the Systems Administrator put a hot saucepan with left-over meat sauce in it to the back of the kitchen worktop to cool down before putting it in the fridge I remarked that the cats seemed to have got the idea about avoiding hot things.  An hour or so later as we sat in the study and Mr Fidget lay on the window sill, there was a sudden blur of motion as Mr Fidget leaped from the direction of the wood burning stove and ran out of the room.  We found him in the corridor, whimpering, and realised that he must have jumped from the window sill on to the top of the lit stove.

Whimpering is not good in a cat.  They are normally very stoic animals who endure injuries in silence.  Mr Fidget did not want to let us look at his feet, but we managed to ascertain that the pads were not actually raw.  Beyond that it was difficult to tell exactly how much damage he'd done himself.  I thought that we should really run his feet under cold water for five minutes to take the heat out of the burns, as you would for a human, except that we would have terrified him and he would have fought like mad, so that wasn't a realistic treatment option.  When we put him down he scuttled into the garden, followed by the other cats, but consented to be lured back into the house by biscuits, following the others.  I shut the glass door and said that we were having a litter tray and not letting him out with the risk of him slinking away to hide under a bush in the dark until he had calmed down and we had some more idea how badly he was hurt.

By bedtime his pads looked rather too shiny but they still had skin on them.  I was afraid he was in a lot of pain which no quantity of Dreamies could make up for, but it didn't seem quite bad enough to track down an emergency vet on a Saturday night.  We decided that now the initial panic was over he wouldn't be going anywhere and opened the hall door, to the relief of the other cats.  By the next day he seemed more cheerful and was walking normally, and he spent the morning lying on the kitchen table and lounging on his favourite pouffe.  Then in the afternoon he went outside, so the SA told me when I got back from the concert, stayed out for some time and came back limping, and went to lie down in the dark in the Systems Administrator's bathroom.

Cats curling up by themselves in darkened rooms is not a good sign either, and we agreed that he would have to go to the vet in the morning.  I set the alarm clock so that I'd be up in time to call the surgery at eight when it opened, eight being seven in body clock time thanks to the clocks changing that day.  In fact I didn't get through to the receptionists until twenty to nine, but that was my own fault for being too impatient.  When I rang at eight on the dot I got a recorded message telling me to press one for emergencies and two for repeat prescriptions, then each time I pressed redial I got the same recorded voice thanking me for calling the surgery, and assumed that they must be busy signing in pets for surgery and still weren't answering the phone.  Only when I finally listened again beyond the thanks for calling did I discover that after the introduction the rest of the message was now different, and pressing one would get me through to speak to a receptionist.

We got an appointment for twenty past ten.  In the meantime the glass door remained shut so that Mr Fidget wouldn't choose to disappear before we had to go out.  To my relief the other cats took this change of routine in their stride, Mr Cool mewing to be let in from the garden instead of taking one look at the closed door, suspecting a trap and disappearing for the rest of the morning, which is what I was afraid he would do.

It was lucky that Colchester's traffic was having a good day.  Mr Fidget doesn't seem to mind being in a cat basket but hates moving cars, and wailed all the time we were in motion, only stopping when we stopped at traffic lights.  The vet spoke to Mr Fidget kindly and persuaded him to show her each of his feet with remarkably little fuss.  Cats can sense the power of vets.  There's no way he'd have done that for us on the kitchen table, we had to wait until he chose to lie down and then look at his feet sideways.  The pads of his front toes were lightly scorched, while the worst damage was to the big pad on his right hind foot, which was weeping slightly.

The vet gave Mr Fidget a pain killing injection, an antibiotic shot, and some little biscuits out of a tin box to cheer him up, and said that as his feet did not have any open wounds she would not bandage them and we might as well let him go outside if he wanted to, as the opposite would only distress him.  We were sent away with a vial of painkilling liquid to be fed daily with food through a plastic syringe and an appointment to bring him back for a checkup in a couple of days, though she hoped that as the accident had happened on Saturday night he was not going to get worse from that point.

As I said, I do not really believe that one can tempt fate, or only in the sense of becoming over-confident then behaving rashly, and it was not me who jumped on the hot stove but Mr Fidget.  But there was I thinking that this week I had very few appointments giving four whole uninterrupted days to get on with the gardening.  Some hope.  Two of them are now being truncated by visits to the vet.  The whole thing is much more painful for Mr Fidget, but I hope that somewhere in his small, mad, hyperactive brain the idea has now firmly lodged that the stove is hot when it is lit.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

a concert at the end of the land

This afternoon I dragged myself away from the mulch and the pots of bulbs waiting to be planted out and went to the concert at Wrabness.  I like Wrabness.  It has a thriving garden club, a railway station,  a church, a community shop, a woodland burial site, and a faintly arty vibe.  In fact, as the hipster artists are priced out of Hoxton I could see them settling very happily at the far end of the Tendring peninsular, under the big skies, with the London art market a train ride away, and the stimulating mixture of marshes straight out of Dickens or Arthur Ransome and the twenty-four hour hum from Felixstowe Docks.  And Grayson Perry put his House for Essex at Wrabness, not the electoral bellwether Basildon or the posh heights of Danbury.

I had made one trifling miscalculation, which was to think that I knew where the church was. As I eventually discovered you have to turn right over the railway bridge after passing the village hall. If you go straight on, believing as I did that the church will be on your right, you end up going around in a gigantic loop and finishing up where you were five minutes ago.  My Essex street atlas, which I thought covered everywhere, did not have a detailed map for Wrabness and I couldn't get a signal to use the map on my phone.  Luckily there were some people about to ask for directions.  They told me how to get to the church and asked whether I'd been going round in circles in friendly but amused tones that suggested that a lot of people did.

As the lanes around Wrabness twist and bend they periodically reveal views across the river Stour to Felixstowe, which vanish again at the next corner.  The sky is very, very big by the time you get to the church, and you have the sense that you are near the end of the land.  There was a skylark singing high overhead in the opposite field.  The church is small, plain and sweet, dating mainly from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, though it was extended as recently as 1908.  It is Grade II* listed.    The bell tower collapsed in the seventeenth century and they have been managing since then with a wooden bell cage in the church yard.

The musicians were a young up-and-coming quartet, the Castalian String Quartet, who were playing a programme of Schumann, Thomas Ades and Beethoven that they'll be repeating as a Wigmore Hall coffee concert in three weeks' time.  Rather than put them at one end of the small church they were seated in the middle, facing each other, and played in the round.  It meant that pretty much everyone in the audience had one player's back to them, but with no piano to completely block the view it worked fine, and certainly provided an intimate chamber music experience.  The people in the front seats could have almost touched the musicians if they'd leaned forward.  I was not that close after my detour, and on account of having parked some way back from the church because I didn't know if there'd be spaces left any closer (there were ) but found a seat towards the east end that was raised up a step from the performers, so had a reasonable view. Wrabness only put on about three concerts each year and do not have a stage.

The music was great, though I thought they warmed up as they went along and seemed more into the Beethoven than the Schumann.  The Thomas Ades (born 1971) was a puzzle.  I didn't mind it, but I don't understand why if composers want to write that sort of music they limit themselves to a string quartet instead of making use of electronics.  I am on the Wrabness concert mailing list now. It makes a pleasant outing for a Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

putting on a show

I went this afternoon to the monthly meeting of the Suffolk Plant Heritage group.  Two of the members were talking about their rather different experiences of exhibiting at the Chelsea Flower Show.  The first was the National Collection holder of Cedric Morris iris.  He was a Suffolk based artist who ran an art school near Hadleigh (but of course you knew that) where Lucien Freud briefly trained as a very young man.  He was also a great gardener who bred bearded iris cultivars, beautiful, elegant, understated flowers in subtle shades of mauve and brown, many of which were plunged into obscurity after his death in the 1960s as fashions moved on.

For more than a decade today's speaker has been on a mission to track down as many of the original Cedric Morris cultivars as possible and she is now up to almost thirty.  She doesn't expect to get beyond that, barring some happy accident, since to obtain them for collection purposes she needs both the plant and a definitive name.  Of the original ninety varieties some are probably extinct, while others may live on anonymously in gardens but with no method of assigning a name or provenance to them.  Her own garden is now overflowing with old fashioned iris, named and unnamed, and she wonders what to do with the latter.  The future of around twenty of the named ones is now more secure as she has passed material to a Norfolk wholesale grower, Howard Nurseries, and they have bulked them up to the point where they are starting to sell them via selected garden centres.  Beth Chatto were offering a few varieties last year.  They would have set you back about ten pounds which is a lot for an iris, but you would only need to buy one and be patient for a couple of years, given the way bearded iris normally spread.

Her experience of exhibiting at Chelsea was a happy one, albeit exhausting.  Howard Nurseries who have a lot of practice at growing for Chelsea grew the plants and built the stand.  She came up with the concept which incorporated a big drift of iris plants and a mock studio with cut iris flowers, and got an artist friend to paint the backdrop of the studio.  With the help and cooperation of many people it went up without a hitch and won a Gold medal.  She would never do it again.  It got a lot of notice at the time and achieved her aim of getting Cedric Morris iris into the public eye and back into commerce.  It also took some courage to do, since Howard started growing on two thousand pots of irs and the artist friend began painting the scenery before they knew they had been accepted for the show.  Incidentally, of those two thousand pots seven hundred made the journey to Chelsea and five hundred were used on the stand.  Before leaving Norfolk every individual flower was wrapped in a piece of kitchen roll held with a rubber band, Howard's skill in exhibiting being such that they had even tested what strength rubber band to use, and once on the stand every plant was dead headed each morning before the show opened, so the display had to be designed to allow access to all the pots.

The second speaker was a second generation grower specialising in hostas, who likewise has National Collection status.  She did her first and only Chelsea in 2010, a cold spring in which the hostas were reluctant to grow.  Selling plants for a living meant that she was also booked to go to the Malvern and Harrogate shows before Chelsea, and since she couldn't turn up at those with nothing most of the plants that had been earmarked for Chelsea got used before then.  A hosta that has already been to Harrogate and back in a van is not in a fit state to exhibit in the great pavilion at Chelsea afterwards.  She scraped together what plants she could muster and arrived at Chelsea to find that the staging on her allotted site was a foot too high.  Nobody was around to adjust it for her.  Her space was just next to one of the doors to the pavilion, and outside on a display garden they were still cutting stone after the deadline when they should have finished, so grit and dust blew in over the hostas.  It was bad enough that when the team on the display garden came to hose down their finished stonework she got them to hose down her plants as well.  The stand was also next to a water point, and every half hour or so one or another exhibitor would fill up their watering can to refresh their plants, reminding her that she would really like to go to the loo, but she was alone on the stand.  She was thrilled with her Bronze medal given the circumstances, and has not done Chelsea since, but did eight other shows last year and won Gold at every one of them.

Friday, 24 March 2017

bird painting

The metal birds in the back garden were looking rather the worse for wear after the winter, with patches of green algae and bubbles of rust.  There used to be a fashion for them some years back, but I'm not sure you see them about so much nowadays, which is a shame for the craftspeople in Africa who used to sculpt them out of scrap.  Some were much better than others.  I got mine from a firm of importers who exhibited at the Hampton Court Flower Show and had tracked down a particularly good source, so that their sculptures had a vitality lacked by some of their competitors.  One of ours is a heron and the other a secretary bird, each standing something over three feet tall, one in the bog bed gazing diagonally up the garden, and the other on the further deck by the Hamamelis pots, staring down towards the far corner.  They used to look at each other, but the shrubs have grown up between them in the intervening years.  I don't know exactly how long we've had them, but it's a long time since I've been to Hampton Court.

Every so often I give them a spray of metal paint, the sort you can apply directly to raw metal or rust.  According to the instructions on the can I was supposed to rub the metal down with a wire brush and emery paper before degreasing it, but I think if I'd done that the brush would have gone right through the bodywork in places, and with all their feathers and streamers there were too many crevices where you couldn't get a brush.  I just washed them with a squirt of detergent, using an old face flannel I'd kept for that sort of project, and left them to dry in the sun, the bird off the deck propped against a bush as I didn't want to spray on the deck, then in the middle of the lawn with its feet weighed down with the pick axe while the paint dried.

The feet of the bird in the border are pinned to a buried lump of concrete, which was one reason why I needed to get on with the job now, before the surrounding plants grew too tall.  The heron stands in the middle of a patch of Thalictrum and purple leaved Persicaria, from which it peeps coyly in high summer.  I didn't want to spray the emerging foliage as well as the metalwork, and found an old duvet cover and a couple of pillowcases in the garage, which I draped over the clumps of leaves.  Judging by the specks of teal paint on them I previously used them when I was painting the hall.

One can of Hammerite doesn't go very far.  There was enough for two coats on each bird, and a single coat on the seat of the two-seater metal bench under the Great White Cherry, which had started to go rusty.  Hunting hopefully in the garage I found an old can of paint which was enough to do a second coat on the seat, but I thought two coats would do for the birds.  My efforts are merely slowing down the inevitable decay, as they inexorably rust away like the bodywork of a 1970s Fiat.  It is a very wasteful way of applying paint, spraying an irregular shape like that in the open air, but much, much quicker than it would have been buying liquid paint and going over every bird twice with a half inch brush.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

alas poor partridge

Our Ginger didn't squawk at the bedroom door to be let in this morning, and as I showered and got dressed I hoped this didn't mean he had been taken ill in the night.  I came downstairs to discover a blizzard of feathers, Mr Fidget and Mr Fluffy looking fey, and Our Ginger sitting disapprovingly on the far side of the field of feathers and apparently unwilling to cross it.  He has never been a one for birds.

Besides the feathers there were two wings, larger than a song bird but smaller than a pigeon, and one red leg.  I am not much of an ornithologist and I didn't have much of the bird left to go on, but I think it was a red legged partridge.  The wings were brown with a reddish tinge, and some of the feathers were striped, which would fit with it being a partridge, and of course there was the leg.  I don't know what they did with the other leg, and whether they ate it or if we will eventually find the mummified remains under the furniture.  Partridges are pretty common around here, they do come into the garden, and they spend a lot of time on the ground.  With any luck the others will take note of the cats and learn to be more cautious.  Poor partridge.  Fortunately the cats don't often take birds.

I am more hard-hearted when it comes to rodents.  The violets, the Muscari, and small Scilla and other little spring flowers in the back garden are flowering so much better this year than last that it brings it home how damaging it really is if you have rabbits living in the garden.  The new shoots of clematis are emerging uneaten.  It is altogether better and more hopeful under the reign of the young cats.  Mr Cool excelled himself yesterday evening when I opened the door of the kitchen cupboard where I keep the cat biscuits and thought I saw a tail twitch out of sight.  It was so quick, I wasn't sure if I'd seen it or not.  I told the Systems Administrator I thought there was a mouse in the cupboard and opened the door again.  There was a mouse, and as I leaped back in surprise Mr Cool leaped forward, and in a single movement grabbed it, and departed triumphantly through the cat door with it clamped in his jaws. Poetry in motion, that is Mr Cool.  It is true that the mouse would not have been in the kitchen in the first place if a cat had not left it there.  Mr Cool now looks at the door of the food cupboard with renewed interest, regarding it, as the Systems Administrator said, as a live buffet.

Actually the partridges have not learned anything now I think of it, because as I came in for my lunch I caught up with Mr Cool slinking at great speed across the terrace, belly only inches from the ground.  He was clearly intent on creeping up on something, and as we both went round the corner of the house a pair of partridges rose from the gravel by the front door.  They eat seeds and roots, according to the RSPB website, and why they should be hanging around outside the front door I do not know.  I don't throw grain down for the chickens there or anything.  The hens are still not allowed out of their run, but you should never encourage your poultry to hang around your doorstep, or you will be treading through a mess of droppings every time you go in or out.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

sweet violets

The sweet violets, Viola odorata, have been flowering under the roses and in the sloping bed that runs down the side of the back garden.  Last year and the year before there were scarcely any, because the rabbits ate them.  Indeed, the rabbits ate so many of the leaves that I wasn't sure how big the patches of violets were or if they had survived.  It turns out they can bounce back pretty well from grazing, at least after one or two years.  Incidentally, Viola odorata appears on the RHS list of relatively rabbit resistant plants, but I'm afraid that just goes to show that rabbits, as the RHS themselves admit, will eat practically anything.  I left a tray of young sunflower plants out last year, also on the list, and they were eaten to stumps overnight.

Sweet violets disappear almost completely over the winter, but by spring they are pushing up clumps of bright green, heart shaped leaves.  I think they must seed themselves, because they pop up in odd places here and there, but the big patches are formed by runners, which root periodically, and questing underground stems.  They seem to like the heavier patches of soil best.

They are mostly white, bright pink or purple, though there are a few smaller clumps in interesting shades of mauvish blue, and I planted three pale pink ones last autumn which have come through the winter but not begun to spread yet.  Because of their creeping habit they are very difficult to label, unless you keep a meticulous eye on them and prevent each patch from infiltrating its neighbours.  Encouraging plants to mingle with each other is one of the cornerstones of my approach to gardening, and labels generally get broken or dug up anyway, and if they don't they make the borders look like a pets' graveyard.  Consequently I don't know for certain what any of my sweet violets are, apart from the pale pink ones I bought last year, which are 'Cordelia'.  Looking at my records I see I have at various times over the past twenty years planted some that were sold simply as the straight species, the old rose pink variety 'Coeur d'Alsace', and quite a lot of the modern Miracle series in a variety of colours, as the plant centre stocked them and I used to buy myself a pot from time to time as a reward for my ten hour spring shifts.

I was set to buy some more from Hayloft, who for the past couple of seasons were offering them at quite a cheap rate per plant if you bought three dozen, then this year they stopped doing them. After my initial disappoinment had worn off I told myself that as I was a gardener I had no business to be spending money on bulk buying Viola odorata anyway, but really ought to propagate what I had.  Accordingly I have been digging up little hand sized patches from some of the big clumps, where the missing piece should fill in soon enough, dividing them into single rooted pieces and potting them into seven centimetre pots.  These are stood against the north facing wall of the house where they shouldn't get too hot while I wait to see if the pots will fill up with roots.  It's looking good so far, but it's early days yet.  You never quite know how plants will respond to having their roots messed around with.  Last year I pricked out a lot of very healthy and promising Primula florindae seedlings, and one by one they shrivelled and died.

The Miracle violas are protected by plant breeders' rights, so if I do end up as I hope with four trays of useful ground covering violets then they will all be for my personal use in my own garden, with none to spare for the garden club plant sale.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

what's cooking?

I am slipping miserably in the fruit and vegetable portion stakes.  Last night's black-eyed beans with mushrooms had only four kinds of vegetable, the beans, the mushrooms, onion, and tomato, plus some garlic and coriander, and tonight's leeks and ham with pasta will have only one, the leeks. Worse still, I have realised that I am guilty of cultural misrepresentation in my cooking habits. Thai red curry with noodles on Saturday, curried beans and mushrooms last night, and Moroccan chicken with honey planned for Wednesday, when I am not Thai or Indian or Moroccan, and have never even visited any of those countries.  What business have I to be cooking versions of their food which are almost certainly not what they would be like at home, and what business have the cookery book authors to write about it?

At least Madhur Jaffrey is Indian, giving her some claim to write recipes for Lobhia aur khumbi without it counting as an act of micro-aggression, but Claudia Roden is Egyptian, not Moroccan, and regarding that as practically the same thing because they both come from North Africa surely counts as a crass act of cultural imperialism, even though she has done lots of research.  And Diana Henry of the red curry is Irish.  And her original version in the book is made with left over roast chicken, which I don't suppose they have in Thailand.

If I am to avoid the sin of cultural misrepresentation in future then I'm afraid most of my cookery library will be bound for the charity shop, which is rather a shame as I was enjoying cooking from The Taste of Belgium, The Two Greedy Italians, Floyd on France, and my cherished copy of Austrian Cooking which I was so happy to find in the Highgate bookshop as a reprint after my mother was unaccountably unwilling to give up her original 1950s copy.  And I was looking forward to Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome.  At least I will still be OK with Claudia Roden's and Faye Levy's books of Jewish food since I have Jewish ancestry on my father's side, though I suppose if I am being strict about cultural appropriation I should stick with the Ashkenazi sections, since my great-grandparents would have known nothing of aubergines in their shtetl.

It doesn't leave a lot.  There is Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food, but even there I shall have to tread carefully as when I opened it up at random the first two recipes I saw were for Bombe Favorite and Salade au Truffes.  Most of Elizabeth David is out, with her Mediterranean Food and her French Provincial Cooking, but I have her book of English Bread and Yeast Cookery so at least I will be able to make bread.  And we could work our way through Marguerite Patten's Century of British Cooking, although some of the early recipes might prove tricky.  It is not very easy to buy giblets or eels nowadays.  And I have some of the little books of favourite regional recipes published by Salmon, including the one for Devon which is where I grew up.  I have made their Exeter Stew with Savoury Doughboys and very nice it was too, though the doughboys might be a bit stodgy for the summer months.  But then should I really be meddling with Cornish recipes purely on the basis of having been there on holiday, when they are very keen on having their own identity?

And what about all these culturally appropriated ingredients?  Tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, runner beans, grapes?  Pasta.  Soy sauce.  Rice.  Perhaps we shouldn't be using them.  I might have to cast right back to Colin Spencer's history of British Food and go by what our Anglo Saxon forebears ate. Leeks grew in the early English garth, I think, and people used to eat weeds like Good King Henry. I think that if I were in charge of catering at Pembroke College I might just feed the students on a culturally non-misrepresented diet of oatmeal gruel and stewed leeks until the end of term or until they promised not to be so silly.

Monday, 20 March 2017

ten a day

I was amused by Stuart Heritage's account in the Guardian of his attempt to clock up his ten-a-day of fruit and vegetables.  He felt, he said, like a sentient composter.  Five a day is not so difficult if you cook at least one meal from scratch.  Ten is trickier, and part of the art, as it eventually dawned on Stuart Heritage, is that it's almost impossible to get there by having fruit or vegetables with your food.  The fruit and especially the vegetables have to be the food.

I did well for several days last week with a black eyed bean stew that originally derived from Rose Elliot's useful Bean Book.  Since I started making it I have gradually modified the method and the ingredients to the point where it is not really her recipe any more, except that it is a stew and contains beans and vegetables.  Black eyed beans are fun, such a dinky size and quite sweet and nutty.  I no longer cook them with the vegetables except in the final stages of preparation.  Instead I boil them by themselves so that I can stop when they are soft, without having to wait for any other ingredients to be ready.  They are perfectly edible if cooked to a mush, but I've decided the texture of the stew is more interesting if the beans are still whole.

Another deviation from the book is that I now start by frying the chopped celery, onion and carrot in butter.  The books just says to simmer them, but I have got tired of being caught out by celery in various recipes that remained obstinately hard and stringy even when chopped into tiny pieces while the rest of the dish turned soggy or burnt around it from over-cooking.  And frying in butter brings out the flavour of the ingredients splendidly and is the foundation of many dishes.  Then I add a tin of tomatoes, a chopped red pepper, some garlic, and some tomato paste if I remember. Last time I forgot and it was fine.  This mixture can be simmered until the pepper is just cooked, and them kept warm and mixed with the beans when they are just cooked, so that the finished stew still has some texture.

The latest deviation from the Rose Elliot original is to add some diced sweet potato at the carrot and onion stage.  The sweetness works well, and the orange colour.  So that is five chopped vegetables, plus the tomatoes makes six, and the beans count as one so that's seven.  Seven out of the day's target of ten in one bowl, not bad.  Eight if you count the garlic.  Quantities are up to you but six ounces of dry beans, a couple of celery sticks, a couple of carrots, a single pepper, a smallish sweet potato or half a big one and a couple of smallish onions or one giant Spanish one will provide several helpings of stew.  It is nice cold, to the point where if I were doing a cold buffet for a lot of people I would think about making one as a salad, and goes well with a gherkin or two, in which case you would be up to eight vegetables.

After making the stew I was left with half a sweet potato because Tesco only had large ones and I was trying to keep it in proportion with everything else.  I wasn't immediately sure what to do with it so put it in the fridge in case inspiration struck, and last night it did.  Worried that the defrosted pot of Two Greedy Italians' meat stew looked rather stingy for two I was casting around for ideas to bulk it up beyond making an awful lot of mashed potato, and hit on the idea of roasted vegetables. I chopped the half sweet potato and a couple of carrots into largish pieces, boiled them until just soft and roasted them in olive oil along with a few shallots left over from a bag I bought to make a Thai red curry.  The shallots were there partly for flavour and I'm not sure two each counts as a portion, but it must have added two and half to our daily vegetable tally.

In the interests of clearing old food out of the freezer I simmered an ancient packet of blueberries, since I don't believe plain fruit frozen without any added fat actually goes off.  Probably if an ancient mammoth had been frozen along with some blueberries you could still eat them.  These were dated 2011 and they were fine.  I dutifully put them on my breakfast porridge, but they weren't honestly as nice as golden syrup would have been.  And the black currants I stewed with Bramley apples added two to the daily score, except that the amount of sugar that you have to add to black currants rather ruins the effect.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

another concert

The music society's season came to a rousing conclusion with a German chamber orchestra, and the church was packed, which was an especially creditable effort when Trevor Pinnock was performing in another church not too far away.  The leader of the orchestra introduced the members of his orchestra as coming from several European countries plus Japan, and said that they were all united in music and that this afternoon we also would be united.  I got the impression he was not pro Brexit.  The media has been reporting all sorts of dire warnings from the arts world about how the UK will be cut off from Europe post Brexit by new and insurmountable difficulties over obtaining work permits or travelling with instruments without paying import duties on them.  Or something.  I do hope this will not turn out to be the case.  It should be quite straightforward to establish some sort of certification system that would confirm that German chamber orchestras are only here temporarily to play music and will take their instruments with them when they leave, and that in the meantime they will place no demands on the housing stock or the education system or seek to register with a GP or otherwise carry on like Immigrants.

The afternoon's programme was unashamedly populist in the best way.  I wasn't grabbed by the opening Hugo Wolf (who enjoyed the support of Franz Liszt according to the programme notes.  I am consistent in my prejudices) but after that came Johan Hummel's Trumpet Concerto which is a brisk and tuneful piece from the Age of Enlightment, a Suite by Carl Nielson with a splendid sinister waltz for its second movement, a rondo from Schubert, Faure's Pavane, and Grieg's Holberg Suite. The trumpet sounded really splendid in the church and we all admired the virtuosity of the twiddly bits.  I am a sucker for sinister waltzes.  Faure himself described his pavane as elegant, but not otherwise important, and it is extremely elegant.  And everybody likes the Holberg Suite with its hummable main theme and outbursts of Scandinavian folk influenced fiddling.  They were pieces you can hear regularly on Classic FM, and Classic FM plays the sort of music people like.

The audience clapped very enthusiastically, including before the end of the second encore (a lively bit of Argentinian tango.  By that stage I was thinking that supper was going to be late since I had to peel the potatoes and do the vegetables when I got home) and there was a buzz of happy chatter as they filed out of the church at the end.  I must admit it was nice to go to a concert where the final piece before the interval wasn't all contemporary dissonance when it takes me a minute to work out that the musicians aren't still tuning their instruments and it has actually started.

It is difficult for the artists, I suppose.  Perhaps the trumpeter with the German chamber orchestra does get bored having to trot out Hummel time after time, and would like to do something bold and experimental.  The music society had an issue once with a young string player and their proposed programme.  I had discovered that the previous season they had played Brahms op 78 and asked the Chairman if we could have that.  One of the other committee members is fanatical about Brahms, and the request was duly put in to the young player's agent.  Back came the reply that they would have 'moved on' from Brahms by then.  None of the committee could get very excited about the suggested list of pieces, with the Chairman driven to remark that at least one of them was only ten minutes long.  She tried the agent again, but the reply came, definitely no Brahms.  It was difficult for the young artist, explained the agent, because they would be very focused by then on preparing for their Wigmore Hall recital, and at least the suggested programme did not include 'the usual fare' like the Cesar Franck sonata.

I was rather crushed to hear Franck dismissed as the usual fare, since his sonata was one of the first string pieces I really liked, and I still have my grandmother's vinyl recording of it as well as a more recent one on CD.  It was also irritating to see the music society concert for which we would be paying a full professional fee being treated as a paid dress rehearsal for the Wigmore Hall.  But yet what is a young artist to do?  Perhaps they can't go on playing Brahms op 78 for ever.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

a tricky piece of weeding

It got quite windy during the night, and when I looked out at the garden this morning I saw that the pile of empty Strulch bags I'd left on the patio, weighted down under a bag of weeds, had supplemented my mulching efforts by scattering themselves over the borders.  Fortunately when I went to retrieve them I found that nothing was broken.  It is always dispiriting to find new shoots and flower stems snapped off before they can come to anything, and I was not best pleased yesterday when I dropped a fair size branch on a tree peony and broke off several emerging stems.

Plants and weeds are both growing apace, and now that I've tucked Strulch around the unfolding clumps of Brunnera in the back garden, suddenly the most urgent mulching task seemed to be to do the bed of coloured stems and hellebores by the oil tank.  The previous layer of Strulch had largely broken down, not helped by the piles of earth thrown up by the tremendous amount of mole activity in that bed or the tendency of the kittens when they were first let out to regard it as a handy loo, not too far from the safety of the cat flap.

It is easier to get into the bed since chopping the coloured stems down fairly hard, but still a fiddle, trying to fold yourself in among the Cornus and under the canopy of the Mahonia x media and the white flowered Chaenomeles without kneeling on any of the hellebores or digging into them with your toes without even being aware of what you are doing.  There are times in the garden when it would be a distinct advantage to be taller, but weeding by the oil tank reminds me that some jobs are easier when you are small.  For the first half hour I seemed to be making no progress at all, but then I managed to finish clearing as much of a patch as I could reach without moving and after that things moved along visibly.  The principle weed is hedge garlic, which has come up in places as thick as the punnets of cress you used to be able to buy in greengrocers, and perhaps can still get in supermarkets.  Then there are a few seedlings of goose grass, some of a coarse perennial grass that's seeded in from the rough grass by the chicken run, and a few dandelions, but it's mainly hedge garlic.  I quite like the white flowers of hedge garlic while they are out, but they don't last long and the old plants and dead flower spikes are hopelessly messy, so if I were going to grow it the right place would be in some wild part of the meadow and not in the most inaccessible and impossible to weed border in the garden.  Of course it does not want to grow in the meadow, it particularly wants to grow by the oil tank.

The hellebore flower stems that were so horribly brittle when they started to emerge are quite tough now, while the new leaves have barely started to appear.  That's one reason to get the Strulch down soon, before the new crop of leaves gets in the way.  I was careful not to kneel on any of them or rest my kneeling feet on them, but as I moved among them I notice that first one and then another began to droop.  It was quite extroardinary.  Hybrid hellebores will appear to collapse in cold weather, which I have been told is actually a mechanism to protect themselves against frost: they droop because they have reduced the amount of water in their cells, thus leaving room for expansion should the cells freeze, so the cell walls do not rupture.  I can't immediately find a scientific article to confirm this theory, but it sounds plausible.  So did the plants use the same mechanism to response to the mechanical stress of me moving among them, so reducing the chance that I would snap and break their stems?  Or did I do some damage I wasn't aware of?  If tomorrow or over the next few days they collapse entirely I'll know I damaged them somehow, but if by morning they are once more firm and upright then this afternoon's wilting was a temporary phenomenon.  In that case what triggered it and how and why did the plants do it?

Friday, 17 March 2017

growing from seed

This morning I sowed the seeds of Ricinus communis, Ipomoea and Mina lobata that I remembered to put to soak yesterday morning before setting off for London.  I had a session in the greenhouse sowing other things on Wednesday, but when I looked at the seed packets of these three I found I was supposed to soak them for twenty-four hours first, and of course there was no point in putting them on to soak straight away because I was going to be out on Thursday.

Ricinus communis is the castor oil plant, source of the poison ricin, as used by the KGB to murder Georgi Markov, and also of castor oil, as spooned down generations of children and used as an engine lubricant.  How you end up with either a deadly poison or a medicine from the same plant I have not understood.  It makes a very fine foliage plant for the summer, and may produce fluffy flowers which may be followed by viable seeds.  I know they can ripen adequately in this country because I have had them germinate in other pots that had been standing close by, and a gardening friend has had them come up in her compost heap.  Last summer I saved a few to sow and put the others carefully into the dustbin, since the kittens were still at the chew anything stage and I didn't know quite how poisonous the raw seeds were*.  I therefore had two sets to sow this morning, a fine purple leaved variety called 'New Zealand Purple' which came from Chiltern Seeds and my own home saved seeds from a variety called 'Implala'.  'Impala' has beautiful lead coloured leaves and pink flowers, and it remains to be seen what its offspring will be like.  I must admit I never bothered with soaking Ricinus seeds before, but that is what the packet said and I'm not sure I got one hundred per cent germination last time.  They went into the heated propagator to encourage them, and I washed my hands carefully afterwards.

The Ipomoea or Morning Glory was the variety 'Heavenly Blue' which came free with a gardening magazine.  The seed packet contained more seeds than one could possibly want, unless raising in bulk for a plant sale or unless the seed company anticipated a very low germination rate.  I compromised and soaked eight or ten seeds, and when I looked at them this morning they were already sprouting.  I've never grown it before so am not planning how to dispose of my surplus just yet, in case it is one of those species that starts promisingly and then starts falling by the wayside with seedlings collapsing for no particular reason that you can fathom.  If they grow they will make rapid, tender annual climbers with blue (naturally) saucer shaped flowers.  I have space for one in a pot on the patio, and I end up with several then perhaps my garden club plant sale in May would like one.

The Mina lobata was another freebie.  Its common name is Spanish Flag and I have grown it before in the distant past.  It is another tender climber, producing upright spikes of yellow and orange two tone flowers which look vaguely as if they might be in the pea family, though it is actually a member of the Convolvulaceae and is now properly called Ipomoea lobata.  It flowers late in the summer and according to an old Telegraph article by Val Bourne does not mind a bit of shade.  She cautions that it doesn't do to give them too rich a soil or they will be all leaf and no flower, but that is not generally a problem in this garden.  If I have any success with my seeds I shall use the plants in pots alongside dahlias, and if I have any left over they could slot into gaps in the dahlia bed, or go to the plant sale.

The Cosmos seeds I sowed only a couple of days ago were already germinating in their clean and shiny new propagating cases.  I am trying a new (to me) pale yellow form I bought from Derry Watkins, and which I think I thought I was buying last year when I ended up with a vivid shade of yellow half way to orange.  In my head I'm already there with a tasteful pale yellow and blue colour scheme, using a pale yellow single dahlia (on order from Halls of Heddon), a pot of the tender blue Convolvulus sabiatus (available from Cottage Nurseries in Lincolnshire), and the Cosmos.  All I actually have as of this minute is some seedlings not even on to the first true leaf stage and a rather scruffy cutting of a yellow flowered Argyranthemum.

I'm also growing two sorts of pink, red and white Cosmos, both free with magazines, and these will be combined with dahlias in various shades of pink and mauve and the Ricinus, if they work out. After last year when I sowed far too much Cosmos 'Sensation Mixed' and then pricked out far too many seedlings because they were there and I hated to throw them away, then lacked the space in the greenhouse to look after them properly, this year I counted out the seeds individually and limited myself to twelve from each packet.

I'm using Westland's John Innes number one seed compost this year and am pleased with it so far.  I was taken aback at how deeply it settled in the pots when I watered them before sowing, but so far it has been retaining sufficient moisture without staying soggy, none of the emerging seedlings have gone yellow, sulked and died, and the surface of the compost has not gone green even on the first sowings I made over a month ago.  As all of these disasters have befallen my attempts at growing from seed at various points in the past, things are going pretty well in comparison.  So far.  One unseasonably baking hot sunny day when I'm out and not there to damp the floor down, or worse still have left the door shut, and the whole lot could still cook.

*Very, according to Wikipedia, but not especially digestible unless you chew them well, in which case four or five could kill you, unless you are a duck, which for some reason are highly resistant to ricin.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

music and art

The year really is galloping madly towards summer.  I went today to the last of the LSO St Lukes lunchtime concerts I had booked.  The final music society concert of the 2016-17 season is this coming weekend, the following Sunday I'm going to hear a youngish quartet in the church at Wrabness, and then that's it, the end of classical concert going until October.

Today the Nash Ensemble were making an appearance.  I bought the ticket nearly six months ago, back in October of last year, and I'd forgotten what combination of elements from the Nash Ensemble to expect or what they were playing.  The answer turned out to be Bruch's piano quintet in G minor, and the four string players sans piano doing a late Vaughan Williams string quartet, number 2 in A minor.  Wearing my music society committee hat I was impressed at the idea of having a piano and then not even using it for half the concert, but I'm sure St Lukes has the piano anyway.  Out in the sticks by the time we've paid five hundred pounds to hire one we don't want any downtime.

I don't believe I ever heard the Bruch quintet before, or at least not knowingly.  The only bit of Bruch I would recognise is his violin concerto, which probably leaves me in the same boat as the majority of middlebrow music enthusiasts.  The quintet is absolutely lovely, madly romantic, and as the programme notes said belongs firmly in the tonal realm of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, which is one of the places I feel happier.  The notes said that Bruch despised the New German school of Liszt and Wagner.  I wouldn't dare despise Liszt, but I don't warm to him, and I find The Ride of the Valkyries plus the Liebestod between them provide quite enough Wagner (and I mainly like the Valkyries for their association with Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers).  So in a division of late nineteenth century German music I that puts me firmly in team Bruch.

The Vaughan Williams was first performed at the height of the second world war, and when I saw in the programme notes that it was in a tonal idiom with a sharp edge derived from its insistence on the dissonant interval of a tritone my heart sank, but in the event as it went on I liked it a lot.  The first movement was indeed agitated and dissonant and if it had gone on like that for twenty minutes I'd have been wishing that it could just stop, but having set his agitated scene Vaughan Williams progressed to quieter and spookier things (some recycled from earlier work on film scores.  The great Baroque composers recycled their material so why shouldn't Ralph?) and the whole effect ended up being very satisfactory and not too long, which is not meant to damn it with faint praise, only there is a limit to how much dissonance I can take.

The Nash Ensemble were marvellous and looked as though they were having a ball, and I think Lawrence Power is rapidly replacing Jon Boden in my affections.  Fiona Talkington of Radio 3 told us that today was a special birthday for him.  Well, that is one way to celebrate your fortieth.

In the afternoon I went to see Portrait of the Artist at The Queen's Gallery.  It's on for another month, and it is a really good exhibition, and was practically empty.  As I entered the largest gallery the attendant commented that I had it to myself, and I expressed my amazement and asked why it was so quiet and she said that was what she had been asking herself.  She thought the topic must sound obscure or dull, plus it wasn't very colourful and there weren't that many paintings by big names.  It is true that there is a high proportion of drawings and engravings in the exhibition, but they are of superb quality, and there are some fantastic oils, including a trio of self-portraits by Rembrant, Rubens and Daniel Mytens that once hung in the breakfast room of Charles I, and Artemisia Gentileschi's extraodinary foreshortened self-portrait in the act of painting.  I was greatly struck by Judith grasping the head of Holofernes by the hair as she stared straight out of the canvas, but had to read the caption to discover how it fitted into the exhibition theme, the answer being that the model for Judith was the artist's ex lover, and the head was his own.  Some of the works show artists and engravers depicting each other, until you end up with an engraving showing an artist holding an engraving based on a painting by somebody else (or something.  I lost track).   There are some nice miniatures too.  It is a great exhibition, and if you buy your ticket there and have it stamped before you go it will get you into the next two exhibitions as well, on Canaletto, and art of the Stuart court.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

a trip to the apiary

Straight after breakfast I went to see the bees.  My first task was to cut back the brambles encroaching on the hives, which has been on the To Do list for a long time, with a note to do it on a cold day when the bees wouldn't come out to investigate what I was doing.  The hives are arranged so that their entrances face away from the centre of the patch of rough grass where I keep them, which is for my convenience during inspections so that I can move about the apiary without bees shooting out of their front doors and straight into me.  There is a corresponding disincentive to stand right in front of the hive entrances to trim the brambles, which had advanced on two sides until they were virtually touching the hives.  I wasn't sure how the bees would react to the prolonged sound of me moving about near their hives, even though I was only going to use secateurs and not a strimmer.  Bees can be funny about the noise of power driven machinery, and by this stage of the year the Systems Administrator keeps an eye out for them while cutting up the fallen tree at the far end of the meadow, in case they decide to take umbrage.

Unfortunately on the cold, damp days that we had I didn't feel up to doing much outside, and then suddenly it turned warm, and I realised that we were halfway through March.  Strulch or no Strulch, I needed to devote a couple of hours to the bees.  Cutting down the brambles was only the preliminary to opening up the hives, and I wore my bee suit, plus the Systems Administrator's welding gloves over my bee gauntlets while I tackled the brambles.  Cutting back brambles while wearing a net veil that you really don't want to tear takes a certain amount of concentration, and as I worked I realised that the morning was turning out much warmer than I'd expected and I had to retreat to a safe distance so that I could unveil myself while I took my fleece off.  The bees became very active, confirming that all four colonies certainly had live bees in them, and I was pleased to see that the foragers were bringing back pollen, suggesting that they were raising brood, but luckily they didn't seem to take much notice of me, even when I worked very close to the hives or at the point where sweat began to run down my face.  Bees hate the smell of sweat.

The next stage was the thing I have been obscurely worried about since last autumn, when I realised after deciding to leave the hives to over-winter with supers of their own honey that I would need to remove the queen excluders so that the cluster of bees could move up into the super without leaving the queen behind below the excluder.  The question that loomed in my mind was, what would I do in spring when it came to the time to put the queen excluder back if by then the queen was laying up in the super?  I tried asking a couple of other beekeepers at a dinner we had in Frinton, but they didn't have any definitive answer.  Work it out as you go along depending on what the bees are doing, seemed to be the consensus.

I started with the hive that contained the most bees when I trickled the oxalic acid on back in January.  There were quite a lot of bees in the super.  I blew smoke down into it until most of them had retreated, and removed a frame from the centre of the super to see what they were doing up there.  They had eaten some of their stores, but I could not see any brood, or even eggs.  Bee eggs are not the easiest things to see, especially wearing a black net over your face, but the light was good and I though I would probably have seen them if there had been any to see.  Besides, before the queen lays in a patch of comb the workers polish it for her, and the comb on the frame I was looking at hadn't been polished.  I checked some more frames, ignoring the outer ones because experience teaches that the queen always starts somewhere in the middle, and only ever uses the outer frames in high season when she is running out of space.  No brood, no eggs that I could see.  I smoked the bees a little more, thinking that since the queen normally runs away from the light that if she had been originally been up in the super she probably wasn't by now, and lifted it off.

Putting the queen excluder back over the brood box and under the super was not the swift, seamless action I'd anticipated, and it's just as well that it was a warm day.  The bees had been busy over the winter filling in the gap between the two sets of frames with brace comb, which needed scraping off so that the queen excluder would lay flat.  Bees kept popping up out of the box to see what I was doing, and since I didn't want to squash them I had to keep breaking off from scraping to give them further puffs of smoke or brush them gently aside with my finger.  Given that all the time the hive was open heat was being lost from the brood nest I really didn't want this stage to take too long.

I reassembled the hive, removed the strip of galvanised metal with bee-sized holes in it that had been pinned over the door all winter to stop mice getting in, and felt reasonably happy that things had gone well.  Then I went through the same process again with the other hives and did not find signs the queens had been laying in any of the supers.  Bees do like to store their food above the brood nest, so while the queens might have found their way upstairs eventually it seems it is not their first choice.  If we have a warmish day next week I could look in the supers again to double check that none have signs of a queen living in them, but I'm fairly confident.  Then I shall have to wait until it's warm enough to inspect the brood frames and find out what's going on, but that probably won't be this month.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

a female pursuit

I was rather surprised to get into NADFAS this year.  I seemed to be one of the only people on the music society committee who was not a member of the not-so-snappily named National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies and a friend was keen I should join.  She took me along to a few lectures, and they were good.  When I protested that I did not have time to join another society one of the other music society committee members, who was also on the committee of the Colchester NADFAS, recommended that I get my name on the waiting list because it was long and growing, since as he put it, members were not dying as fast as they used to.  For the sake of five pounds to be on a waiting list I duly filled in my form, thinking that it would be nice for some hypothetical point in the medium term when the garden might be under control.  The following February I got an email informing me I had got in.

The current year's series of lectures really looked very good and I thought it would be worth squeezing one Thursday morning a month into my diary.  There was a form about the many volunteering opportunities, which I read and put to one side, and an invitation to coffee at the Chairman's house to meet him and other members of the committee plus other new members.  I dithered about that, being knee deep in post-flu outstanding gardening jobs.  Anyway, I already knew the Chairman and his wife to chat to because we all belong to the same gardening club and they quite often come to the concerts.  Then I thought I was being silly, since I didn't know any of the rest of the committee and almost none of the members apart from the ones I've met via the music society, and if you are going to join a club you might as well make a bit of an effort.  And I was curious to see the Chairman's garden in passing.

The other members of the committee turned out to be very pleasant, as did those of the other new members who came, and I discovered that one reason why I'd shot up through the ranks of the waiting so rapidly was because they had had an unusually high rate of non-renewals last year. People move away, or give up driving so that getting themselves to a church a way from the centre of Colchester becomes less attractive.  Or they die.  I was glad I'd made the effort to go.  The committee each told us in turn what they did, and there were appeals to join all sorts of sub-groups, but I held fast to my resolution that monthly lectures were one thing but I really did not have time to start archiving the Munnings collection or helping Colchester museum pack up objects for removal from the castle to a new storage unit at Severalls business park.

It was the Chairman who commented on one thing I couldn't help noticing.  Of the fifteen or so new members who had turned up, all but one were women, and he was the sole male representative on the committee.  They needed to do something to encourage men to join, he said.  I wondered where all the men were.  Still working when their female partners had retired?  Dead?  Given the historic tendency of women to marry men older than themselves who then die at a younger age you will find a fair sprinkling of widows at all the clubs I belong to locally, but these new lady members didn't all look that old.  Do men really not like art?  But the list of NADFAS approved lecturers has lots of men on it, and art historians like Andrew Graham-Dixon and Dr James Fox regularly turn up on BBC4, while some of our most famous museum directors have been men.  It can't be that men don't like art, they just don't like art societies for some reason.

The Chairman said that some men had told him that once they were retired they just wanted to have a rest.  That and play golf.  And I suppose that some interests are heavily gendered the other way.  The Systems Administrator has not yet taken the plunge and joined any of the local model railway groups, but I'd hazard a guess that the membership is predominantly male.  And those annoying lycra clad cyclists reenacting the Tour de France at weekends around the rural roads of north Essex are almost always men.  Maybe men play more golf, though I wouldn't know, having never belonged to a golf club.  My aunt used to play, and I knew a couple of female fund managers who did, but it seems more of a male pursuit, hence it took the withdrawal of rights to stage the Open to persuade Muirfield to vote today to finally admit women as members after 273 years. When I've done woodland charity talks to Rotary Clubs they have all admitted women, but it has been a predominantly male audience.  So the men are not all dead yet, but busy elsewhere.  It would be very interesting to do some research.  Asking people at random why they didn't belong to an art society or the Rotary Club might not be very helpful, but you could ask people who did belong to something whether they had a partner, and if so what their partner was doing instead while they were there.

At least NADFAS has addressed the issue of their obscure name, and as from May will officially be called The Arts Society.  My branch will become The Arts Society Colchester, not to be confused with the Colchester Art Society.  I expect it will be.

Monday, 13 March 2017

a lovely day

It was a lovely day for applying mulch, and the brown tide rose steadily up the border along the side of the back garden, as I spread Strulch after picking up several sacks of leaves and winkling out odd weeds, grass stems and the inevitable goose grass seedlings.  On the whole the bed wasn't too weedy, as I'd been over it once during the winter.

The little dark pink flowered Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' is in full flower on bare branches.  Every year its leaves roll up, pucker, and look dreadful, and I wonder if a sap sucking insect has been at work and whether the tree will survive, but so far it has pleasantly surprised me each spring by coming back into flower.  I ought to try and find out what goes wrong with the leaves, except that as I don't want to slip into the pattern of spraying entire trees there isn't much I could do about it. It will have to make it under its own steam, or not at all, though I did give it a good sprinkling of fish, blood and bone when I Strulched it.  The flowers are really very pretty, though they don't last for very long.  Later in the season the tree plays host to a perennial sweet pea, giving a second spell of flowering in that stretch of the border and masking the horrible leaves, otherwise I should slightly grudge the space and more so in a smaller garden.

The Crocus tommasinianus in the bottom lawn are starting to go over.  The pale lilac ones have finished, while a darker purple variety is still flowering.  Unfortunately I don't know precisely which either of them are.  I see from my planting notes that I have at various times planted the straight species and the varieties 'Barr's Purple', 'Ruby Giant' and 'Whitewell Purple'.  That's one difficulty in naturalising bulbs, it is impossible to label individual clumps so you don't always know exactly what you've got flowering in the garden.  I think I like the pale ones best, but obviously it would be a good idea to plant a mixture to extend the season.  If I remember I could ask the specialist bulb suppliers at the Chelsea Flower Show.  A little persistence can be required to get the attention of whoever it is on the stand who knows the plants in that much detail, since often you find yourself at first asking somebody who normally works in the office and is only there to hand out catalogues.

The Iris unguicularis against the south wall of the house are still going great guns.  I ought to keep a diary of when they start and stop flowering, since I've a feeling it is quite variable.  This year they didn't really get going until the New Year and I was starting to fret that they hadn't liked something about last year's growing conditions and weren't going to put on much of a show this winter.  I'm sure that some years they have got going well before Christmas.  The flowers are very graceful, smaller than those of the bearded iris, and a good shade of mid purple.  I am extremely fond of them, and seeing them out now is a reward for all the time I spent last autumn grooming dead leaves out of the clumps.

The foliage of the Watsonia in the gravel looks dreadful, brown and more than half dead, in one case nine-tenths dead.  They were doing pretty well, but the last set of frosts hit them hard.  I am hoping that new growth will emerge from within the clumps, and in the meantime I am leaving the old leaves on as protection.  Tidying them up if it does is going to be a fiddly job.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

a garden talk

I missed my garden club's February meeting because of poking myself in the eye the previous day on a rogue Cornus twig and being in no fit state to drive.  A gardening friend spotted that the same lecturer was appearing this afternoon at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury, and asked if I'd like to go.  I was initially rather startled.  I didn't know Sudbury had a theatre, Sunday afternoon is not a traditional time for garden lectures, and she and I normally go garden visiting, but then I thought, why not?  We hadn't been out together for ages, and a lecture would probably be as entertaining as going together to solemnly stare at some hellebores.

It proved to be an entertaining hour.  Chunks of what he said were not new to either of us, but his technique for clipping topiary was much faster and neater than mine.  Hold one blade steady, guiding it to form the shape, and move the other blade to cut against it, was his advice.  I'm not quite sure how topiary got into the mix, as most of the talk was on green gardening techniques and the talk was promoted by a group called Greener Sudbury, but he started off as a tree surgeon and part of his message was to always use sharp cutting tools, be they shears or the blades on your lawnmower.  His epiphany against the practice of tree surgery as a full time occupation came when he was walking around the Windsor Great Park, admiring the specimen trees there, and realised he could not stop himself from mentally calculating how to fell and section every one of them.

At home we already practice most of the green techniques he advocated, having trees, ponds, long grass and lots of flowers, trying to avoid having bare earth and cramming plants in to bursting point, and doing as little digging as possible.  Where I mainly fell down was in my failure to grow my own vegetables, but that's not because I don't like the idea in theory, merely that in practice I haven't managed to find the time to mend the broken beds, clear them of weeds, sow them and then keep the crop weeded and watered until harvest.  Some years I have got to a later stage of the sequence before failing, other years I haven't even attempted to start.  I know that home grown vegetables are nice, it's just that cultivating them takes ages and there are only so many hours in the week.  The ornamental garden is visible from every window of the house and is my passion.  If I gave it up to grow vegetables instead, the amount we would save each week on buying vegetables would not pay for even two hours of a skilled gardener's time to keep the rest of the garden in good trim.

Something I did already do, and get right albeit at a glacial pace, is to make my own compost.  As of this moment all of our bins are bursting at the seams with garden debris, free of weed roots and more or less free of weed seed, plus green kitchen waste, slowly and magisterially rotting own to nice, crumbly garden compost.  They would rot faster if we put the lawn clippings in, but the Systems Administrator doesn't do that because they are full of weed seeds.  The lecturer would like us to use the compost on our vegetable patches so that the minerals contained in them, harvested by our plants from our own soil, could be recycled and taken up by our food crops and eaten by us to the benefit of our health.  He might be on to something there, since I think I've read that organically grown crops tend to contain more trace elements, and selenium, molybdenium and the rest of them are supposed to be very goo for us in small amounts.  On the other hand home made compost does wonders for the borders.  It is an entirely theoretical choice in any case until the time when I manage to try again at growing vegetables.

I fear I won't be using the wool and bracken base potting compost produced in the Lake District. He passed a bucket of it around the auditorium and it felt lovely, and apparently in use the wool slowly decomposes and feeds the plants with nitrogen, while retaining moisture.  The snag is that it costs ten pounds for a thirty litre bag.  I still feel bad that my normal compost contains peat and is contributing to the destruction of peat bogs, but I would feel less bad about it if I didn't know that peat is still being burned in industrial quantities in power stations.

The chap is called Darren Lerigo, and he is entertaining in a light-hearted way, to be recommended if he crops up at a garden club near you.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

feed and mulch

It was a great day for mulching, calm, warm and dry.  Calm is good because then the fish, blood and bone falls where I sprinkle it instead of drifting everywhere, the Strulch doesn't blow about, and I remain calm.  Warm is good because it is more comfortable.  You don't exactly work up a sweat mulching, and it's much more pleasant crawling around the borders being careful where you put your hands and knees as you pull out tiny goose grass seedlings when you have the sun on your back and balmy air in your lungs.  And dry is good for the same reason, and because then the fish, blood and bone don't stick to the leaves of your plants.  Today was perfect, and I was disappointed when it got to a quarter to six and I had to admit that I could no longer see as well as I did and the dew was falling.

I finished the smaller of the two rose beds around the top lawn, and started on the big, sloping bed that runs from the entrance gate to the bottom of the garden.  The middle section is edged with a gaudy display of polyanthus and primrose hybrids.  Some have been recycled from winter pots, some grown from seed, some were bought at a bungalow gate en route to a Pilates lesson, and some were incredibly good value at B&Q.  There is no colour scheme to speak of.  They are predominantly yellow towards the top of the slope and mainly pink and purple towards the lower end of the patch, but that's about it.

The effect is extremely un-Tom Stuart-Smith, and would not win a spot in Gardens Illustrated, but I am fond of them.  They remind me of childhood hours playing with my plastic toy animals in the flower beds, they are cheerful, and the Systems Administrator likes them, proclaiming them a splash of colour.  There are patches of Muscari too where the mice haven't eaten them, some dark purple and some Cambridge blue that might be 'Valerie Finnis', though I have a feeling she disappeared and I ordered a second pale blue variety.  There are a few hyacinths, recycled from pots, and this afternoon I added last year's 'Splendid Cornelia', which were potted up again last autumn and have made such good flowering plants I could have reused them in the big containers.

I started by mulching around the polyanthus on the grounds that their leaves are expanding by the day so it will be easier now than in a week's time, and because since they are doing their thing for the year now they might as well do it against a tidy, weed free background.  The next low growing plant at the front of the bed as you go down the hill is a big patch of Omphalodes verna, a perennial forget-me-not type with bright blue flowers that runs more aggressively than you would want in a bed of treasures.  Occasionally I fret that it is a bit of thug, but on the whole I am grateful to it for covering the ground for much of the year, and the blue flowers are very pretty.  It dies away to nothing but stalks and bare, stringy runners in the winter, but the leaves are now expanding fast and need their covering of Strulch directly.

Pieris japonica 'White Pearl' is full out at the front of the bed.  It is well named, the individual flowers being brilliant white and round so that they look like clusters of pearls.  It was an impulse purchase from the plant centre when I worked there, and then I began to think that it was a tiny bit vulgar, but as it grows I like it more.  It has proved very slow growing, which may be its nature but is probably also because the soil in the lower part of that bed is a sort of horrible, stagnant, stony clay that is less horrible than it was after years of mulching but still not very nice.  The fat clusters of flowers practically cover the bush at this time of year, and the result has more presence and for some reason is less vulgar now the plant is not so absolutely tiny.

Friday, 10 March 2017

survivors of the Great Fire

I went today on a guided walk around the City of London's surviving churches from before the Great Fire of 1666.  Of the ninety-seven churches that stood before the fire, only eight survive today, and some of those later suffered severe damage from the blitz and IRA mainland bombing campaign.  I thought I had poked around a lot of the City's architectural nooks and crannies during my years working there and subsequent visits to London, but I had never looked at half of them, so it was a day well spent.

We started at St Ethtelburga's on Bishopsgate.  I must have walked past its modest front hundreds of times, and was aware of its almost-destruction in the bomb blast of 1993 and subsequent restoration, but had never ventured inside.  It is tiny, plain and beautiful, and still a consecrated church, though now it is home to the Centre of Reconciliation and Peace which has a modern steel and glass office behind the church, plus a little garden and incongruous but charming Turkish tent.

Just around the corner is St Helen's Bishopsgate, the largest surviving parish church in the City, with massive roof beams and a fine collection of tombs and memorials.  I particularly liked the medieval couple in alabaster lying side by side, she with her feet resting on what looked like two tiny pet dogs, and his on a lion with a magnificent mane but whose rounded snout looked more like a sheep or a guinea pig.  St Helen's Bishopsgate is an evangelical church, so there are chairs instead of pews, a baptismal bath sunk in the ground, carefully walled off with some of the chairs so that people wouldn't walk into it, while there was a drum kit piled in one corner.

We didn't go into St Andrew Undershaft.  The name derives from the large maypole that stood outside before being banished by the puritans.  We did go into All Hallows by the Tower, a large, gaunt building near the Tower of London and Trinity House.  Pepys watched London burn from its tower, having buried his Parmesan cheese in the garden.  It was badly damaged in the blitz, but possesses a marvellous Grinling Gibbon font cover, and I liked the stained glass windows commemorating various shipping companies.

St Katherine Cree was rebuilt on the site of a Medieval church just before the Great Fire.  It is quite restrained by Baroque standards, with a fine rose window, partially restored following blast damage in 1993.  The organist in our party looked longingly up at the organ, which was not accessible. Apparently it is a very good one, played in times past by Purcell and Handel.  My favourite of them all is St Olave Hart Street, the sister church of St Katherine Cree.  Pepys is buried there, and the maritime and Trinity House connection is apparent in the ship models.  It was badly damaged in the war and has been restored, but has a lovely warm atmosphere, and there are some wonderful seventeenth century memorials.  It hosts lunchtime concerts, and I have heard my aunt play the cello there in the past, which is another reason why I like it.

We popped into a couple of Wren churches while we were at it, to see the model of the Medieval London Bridge in St Magnus the Martyr in Lower Thames Street, and the display of pattens in St Margaret Pattens.  And we climbed up the Monument, though only four out of our party of ten would attempt the 311 steps.  In all my years of working in the Square Mile I had never once been up the Monument, but it is worth the climb.  The view may not be as panoramic as it would be from the Shard, but right in among the glass towers of the City you have a bird's eye view.  London is still changing at a great pace: to the west the horizon was rimmed with cranes.

When we got back to Liverpool Street the party unaccountably did not have any appetite to go and look at Smithfield, and we agreed to catch a train back to Colchester.  I could not have absorbed any more information about any more churches, but it was a good day out.  And one final snippet of church lore:  St Botolph is the patron saint of innkeepers and hoteliers, and the church of St Botolph is always outside the walls.  Sure enough, the one in Bishopsgate is just north of the line of the old city walls along London Wall, while the Colchester St Botolph's Priory is just beyond the remains of the Roman town wall.