Sunday, 30 April 2017

hedge trimming

As a change from cutting the edges of the lawn, I trimmed the side of the Eleagnus hedge facing the drive.  I gave it a very hard chop the autumn before last, because it had grown so far out over the drive that we were never going to be able to have another oil delivery.  It looked dire after that, virtually bald on that side, and has gradually grown back fairly well.  I now try to make sure I trim it regularly, to keep it off the drive and to encourage the regrowth to bush out.  After the first flush of spring growth it seemed time to do it again, and to get rid of the odd, very long, straggly and unbranching new shoots flopping out of it.  The postman and all other visitors have been willing to do as we do, and simply drive into them, but it's not a good look having lax two foot stems sticking at random out of your hedge.  Besides, we need more oil inside the next month.

The problematic part was the stretch near the entrance where the gravel lorry shoved his wing mirror the other day, though he was only following in the path of the driver who delivered a sheet of foam a couple of months ago.  I was rather exasperated about that.  The Systems Administrator was using a kind of thin, stiff foam sheet to construct model buildings, and had discovered that it was much cheaper per square foot if you ordered a large sheet about four foot by six than buying it cut down into little A4 sized pieces.  I was in the front garden one day and looked up to see a truly enormous lorry advancing up the drive, the driver oblivious to the fact that he was crashing his offside mirror through the hedge.  I went and negotiated for him to stop and reverse up to the entrance, and he opened the back of the lorry, which contained nothing except the sheet of foam and a couple of pallets.  I asked hopefully if I could have the pallets, but he said they were not spare, and was totally unapologetic about the state of the hedge.  The fact that the SA will not use that supplier again is no consolation, since the enormous piece of foam will keep us in model buildings for about five years anyway.

Since then a couple of branches have died where they were bashed about, and others have flopped out over the drive, so that the only thing to do was cut them back until I'd got rid of the worst of the lump.  They had probably sagged out over the drive a little to start with, which is why the lorry stuck at that point, but they were much worse afterwards.  I am now left with a fresh bald patch, which with any luck will start to fill in with new growth over the summer.  Luckily it is near the entrance, and doesn't form the backdrop to anything you'd spend time looking at.

I am nervous about the state of the hedge.  It is a good age for Eleagnus x ebbingei, planted in 1994 though several plants had to be replaced as it went in just at the start of a prolonged dry spell and at a time when we had no mains water and were both still commuting to London, so they did not get the sort of loving care and regular watering you would like to give to a new pot grown hedge in a drought.  I have had to trim odd dead twigs out of the length of the hedge this time, and am uneasily aware that entire plants could easily die, as Eleagnus x ebbingei is given to doing in its third decade.  The thought of replacing the hedge appals me, the sheer quantity of top growth we would have to clear away and burn and then the labour of digging out the roots, and the idea of living without a windbreak along the side of the drive for several years while a new hedge grew is even worse.Our boundary hedge and the neighbour's trees offer more shelter than they did twenty years ago, but still I do not want the olive tree, the myrtles, the Watsonia and Gladiolus tristis and the little Persian silk tree exposed to the full blast of the south westerlies.  Gardening on pure sand is difficult enough.  One of the things that makes it worthwhile is using the sharp drainage to grow marginally hardy plants.

If I knew then what I know now I'd have planted hornbeam, or even yew.  Oh well, that's gardening for you.  Learning by doing.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

cutting the edges

As a change from spreading gravel I have been cutting the edges of the grass in the back garden. I'd rather not do either two days on the trot, to vary the load on my middle aged body and so (I hope) lessen the chance of sprains, tears, and general seizing up.  I cut the edges with hand shears, bent on one knee as if about to make a proposal of marriage to the roses, since keeping one foot flat on the ground when kneeling reduces the strain on the lower back.  I have in the past experimented with long handled lawn shears, two pairs, one with vertical and one with horizontal blades, and a very long time ago I possessed a lightweight battery powered strimmer, but I've ended up back where I started, with hand shears.  The edges are too varied, sometimes disappearing under overhanging shrubs, sometimes infested with clover that has started to run into the adjacent bed and needs prising up, or with tufts of coarse grass, or little points where the grass has begun to root and run into the bed, or places where the herbaceous occupants of the border have run right up to the front and need parting from the grass with both hands before you can cut the latter.  The long handled shears couldn't cope and it was a fiddle swapping between them, and I hate strimmers, too noisy, and too hazardous to wildlife.  Every other month there is a horrific account in the parish magazine of some animal that has sustained awful injuries being accidentally caught by a garden strimmer.

The cultural expectation in western gardens is that edges will be kept trimmed.  On a Writtle college visit to Wakehurst Place in West Sussex the gardener showing us around told us, if you only have time to do one thing, mow the lawn, and if you don't have time to do that, do the edges. Flicking on the radio the other day I heard a voice opining that there was no point in cutting the grass if you didn't cut the edges.  It is What One Does, a social marker that you are doing things properly, adhering to norms, taking it seriously.  But I am sure that one of the tutors on the garden history modules mentioned that in Regency gardens the edges were allowed to stay whiskery.

The Arts and Crafts movement and Lutyens and Jekyll solved the problem with the use of mowing strips, broad lines of paving round the edges of the lawn, probably Cotswold stone to match the house and the rest of the garden architecture.  Then plants flopping out of the borders, that bane of the tidy edge fetishist's life, can sprawl on the stone without damaging the hallowed lawn, and the mower can run over the other edge of the strip without damage.  Given the tendency of turf to creep across slabs you'd need to go along cutting it back with a half moon edger every so often, but it would be much less work than having edges to maintain.  And the edging strips would give you access to look at the borders when the grass was frozen or very wet and you'd rather not walk on it. I once suggested to the National Trust that they could do with some wide ones along the dahlia borders at Anglesey Abbey, to avoid having to shut them off to visitors every time we have a wet autumn, but they rejected the idea huffily saying that it was not in Lord Fairhaven's original design (it wasn't, but nor was having tens of thousands of visitors annually).

It is true that edging strips do alter the look of a garden considerably, and may not be what you had in mind.  And they would be very expensive, with not just the cost of the paving but the installation with proper layers of hard core and so on, if you wanted them to remain firm and level and with good weed resistant joins between the slabs.  I have covetously eyed up metal edging strips as used in Oxford quadrangles and the little modernist gardens outside City of London offices where money is no object because the hard landscaping is small change compared to the cost of the rest of the development.  I imagine what smooth curves and reliable straight edges I could make with the metal strips, that would not creep or sag like my existing combination of wooden edges and no edging strip at all.  I imagine the Systems Administrator being able to take the lawnmower right up to the neat, beautiful, tidy edge, so that there was virtually no trimming afterwards to be done with the shears.  But the metal edging strips would cost an obscene amount of money which this garden could not justify even if I could afford it.

There are people who will not tolerate any plant spilling out of their borders on to The Lawn.  It might kill or injure some of the grass, or at least mean they cannot mow in neat lines.  I am in the opposing camp, and like the relaxed air that it gives a garden when the odd plant sprawls as it wants to.  I like the edges to have clean lines under the vegetation, be they curves or straight lines, but I don't mind the line being crossed here and there.  The Systems Administrator, who does most of the mowing, obligingly cuts around any wandering plants, only complaining slightly if they are prickly or at the wrong height to duck under.  Worse still are the folk who make great terrifying gullies between lawn and border.  There was a garden down in south Essex, lovely in many other respects with some very tasteful plant combinations and nice use of colour, whose sterile, gaping voids between planting and lawn were terribly jarring on the eye.  Actually, the whole thing was a bit too tidy for my taste.  You could not imagine that you were going to bump into the great god Pan around the next corner in that garden.

Edges do take ages, which is one reason why our back garden has a few large borders and not loads of twiddly little ones, and why edges, like so many other aspects of gardening, can be used as statements of wealth and prestige.  The next time you visit a garden with lines of pleached or trimmed hornbeam or holm oak, have a look at how they are set in the ground.  The easy version is to plant them in the path, surrounded by gravel or hoggin, with the lawn or border running straight alongside.  But there is a more elaborate variant in which the adjacent lawn has a keyhole or crenellated edge, so that each trunk sits in a square of hoggin with a rectangle of turf between it and the next trunk.  Imagine how fiddly that is to cut and the extra work created.  It looks great as long as it's kept neatly trimmed but be warned, if you don't have the staff and it gets whiskery it will look awfully tatty.

Friday, 28 April 2017

the gravel arrives

It's just as well I was up and about early this morning, because just after eight as I was checking the watering in the greenhouse I heard the sound of the lorry arriving with my two large bags of gravel.  I rushed towards the entrance, palms outwards to signal to the driver to stop as he advanced inexorably, dragging his nearside mirror through the unfortunate Eleagnus hedge, and panic stricken cats scattered in all directions.  Eventually the lorry stopped and I persuaded the driver to come down from his cab so that we could talk to each other over the noise of the engine, and I was able to explain that I'd like him to offload the two bags next to the drive just inside the entrance and that he needn't come into the garden at all.  I don't know what it is about men and lorries.  Put a man in a lorry and send him to deliver something to a private house and he seems to have an irresistible urge to drive right up to the front door, instead of stopping when the going gets narrow and advancing on foot to see what the plan is like a sensible person.

Part of the gravel is destined for the middle of the turning circle, where I have been digging out some of the clumps of ornamental grass.  It had seeded itself madly until there was far more of it than I wanted, and was no longer ornamental because a lot of the clumps had become thoroughly congested before dying in patches and collapsing.  I am not at all sure what it is, since one of the difficulties of growing self seeding plants is that they aren't labelled.  It might be Eragrostis curvula, which I did plant in that part of the garden in May 1998, but I'm not going to go through all 3.409 lines of my planting spreadsheet looking for the names of any other grasses planted in the turning circle.  I am not at all good on the names of grasses.

This one has an odd growth habit, making little tufts of growth on long stems as well as flowering, and if I were to note down an exact description (maybe even take a photo) and ask an expert I could probably work out what it was.  The young plants are very pretty when the wind ripples through them, and since it seeds so freely I am being ruthlessly taking out a lot of the old ones.  I expect to get replacements, though if I do I shall edit them severely because I'd like to use the newly liberated space for something other than grass.  And if no more come up then that's fine, given I have other plans.

I thought I would scatter seeds of prickly poppy, Argemone grandiflora, and a lovely burnt orange double poppy, Papaver ruprifragum.  I tried starting them both in pots last year and they hated it. The true poppy didn't survive pricking out, and the Argemone made sad little plants that barely did anything when planted out, when they should grow over two feet high and carry white, poppy like flowers over glaucous, prickly, poppy-like leaves.  I ordered fresh packets of seed from Derry Watkins' Special Plants nursery and shall try simply chucking them about where I want them to grow.

I spread quite a lot of the first bag of gravel before it was time to come in.  I feel rather guilty about the young man who leaped up to give me his seat the last time I used the London underground, especially as his ankle was in a cast.  I don't suppose he imagined that I spend my spare time spreading barrow loads of gravel with a large shovel, as a change from digging up roots with a pick axe.  It is important not to overdo these things, though.  I was talking to somebody who turned out to have injured her shoulder so badly it needed surgery spreading a load of gravel on her drive after none of the rest of her family would help her.  I am far more circumspect.  Ten shovel loads make a barrowful.  Spread them, then switch to weeding and picking up dead leaves until I have a bucket's worth before the next barrow of gravel.

Mr Cool thought that playing with gravel was a great game and that his part in in was to lie in the wheelbarrow.  And I can't get rid of all the old clumps of grass because they are Mr Fidget's den.  I could see a white nose and two bright green eyes peering out at me as I weeded.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

home cooking

It's been a cold, disgusting day, with just enough rain to make things wet but, as the Systems Administrator said, not enough to water the ground.  It didn't actually start raining until the afternoon, but I never managed to do any gardening in the morning because I was cooking, having promised in a moment of enthusiasm to make a flan for lunch.  After all, what's the point of having your own eggs if you don't cook with them?

My breakthrough flan moment came not long ago, when following Jane Grigson's instructions for Betty Bolgar's leek and mushroom tart to the letter.  It is a very good recipe, which I've used over the years for entertaining, filled with leeks, onions and mushrooms lightly cooked and mixed with a mixture of single cream, milk, and egg, and because Jane Grigson said to mix the cooked vegetables with the beaten egg and milk and stir into the pastry case that's what I did.  It dawned on me that this made an immensely better tart than my normal quick lunchtime flan method of putting the fried onion, grated cheese and whatever else I was using into the pastry case and pouring the custard part of the filling over them, and that is what I have done ever since.

Today's flan contained onion, gently fried until soft and a little caramelised, grated cheshire cheese because we have managed to end up with three packets of it, all of which need eating, and slices of tomato on top because just cheese and onion might have been a bit basic.  We didn't have any cream, but semi skimmed milk was fine, with all the cheese.  I blind baked the case first, using my fairly recently acquired baking beans, which are a vast improvement on my former method of pricking holes in the base, since dribbles of egg filling used to leak through the fork holes.  The tart with filling was cooked for just under the hour in the top part of the lower oven of a four door Aga. I have never found any reliable one-to-one translation between Aga cooking positions and oven temperatures in degrees Celsius, and it so so long since I've baked on mains gas that I have to look up gas mark settings before I can follow recipes using them, so you will have to work it out for yourself based on your own oven.  But I should say longer and cooler is better than hotter and faster when it comes to egg based tart fillings.  The bottom of the Aga is too cool.  You still have liquid custard swilling around in your pastry case after the hour.

Leeks or mushrooms, or leeks and mushrooms, are good.  Ham is good, or a couple of rashers of bacon snipped up and fried.  Almost any variation on the onion theme works, red onions or spring onions.  The SA and I debated over lunch how we would do one with goat's cheese, and decided that red pepper would work, and onion, and that it would need to be a crumbly cheese.  I like making flans.  Granted, shortcrust pastry and a wodge of cheese and fried onion may not constitute healthy eating, but it is very cheering on a day like today.

In the same spirit I made a honey loaf, using my own honey, but the SA did not have room for any at teatime because he was still full of flan.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

visit to an exhibition

I went today to Tate Modern's David Hockney exhibition.  It is one of the year's Must Sees, because the great British public loves David Hockney, and the exhibition and the cafe and the members' room were all more crowded than usual.  It was worth it, though, because it's a good exhibition, and although the rooms were very full there was a good community spirit with people mostly trying not to stand in each other's way, and being gracious about sharing their cafe tables.  And luckily many of the works were large so a lot of people could look at them at once, not like having half a dozen faces clustered around a small Vermeer while everybody else had time to study the backs of their heads.

The show canters through his career from the early 1960s to the past eighteen months, and so some of the earlier works were comfortingly familiar from previous retrospectives, or because they form part of the Tate's permanent collection.  It was fun, though to see Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy hung along other large portraits made at around the same time.(though the cat in the painting was not actually Percy, but Blanche.  According to Wikipedia her presence on Ossie Clark's lap symbolises infidelity and envy, while the white lilies on the table by Celia symbolise purity and refer back to pictures of the Annunciation.  She was pregnant at the time).  I liked the cheerfully unsubtle symbolism of the corn cob and banana in his otherwise decorous double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and Dan Bachardy.  I liked too the energy in art collector (I deduce they were collectors) Marcia Weisman's face, but why is her husband's face painted with less care and detail than the terrazzo floor tiles?  The big portraits are great fun, and Hockney was an absolute wizard at shadows and textures.

A Bigger Splash is in the exhibition, of course.  Who does not love A Bigger Splash, and all the swimming pool paintings?

The next thing I really, really liked were the early multi-viewpoint Polaroid collages.  The ones dated from the early 1980s are laid out in a strict grid pattern, while the later ones use overlapping and angled photos, and there is something charming about the grid.  I love the way that the Polaroids capture the way that when we see things we pay more attention to the aspects of the scene that interest us, so in a picture of Christopher Isherwood (again) and (I presume) Dan Bachardy, Hockney's camera has lingered on Dan Bachardy's head and shows it from about five different angles, while his feet are tiny, tucked away at the bottom of the collage.  They are playful pictures.  Billy Wilder appears to be photographing Hockney photographing him.

There are some of the huge landscape paintings of Yorkshire, as exhibited at the Royal Academy a few years back, and then an installation I hadn't seen before.  The same rural lane is shown in a four minute video over banks of screens on all four walls of the room, recorded in spring, summer, autumn and winter.  As in the photo collages made three decades previously, the piece of the scene on each screen does not exactly match up with its neighbours.  The camera moves up the lane very slowly, from the same spot and at the same pace on all four walls, so you pass the black gate on the right at exactly the same moment in every season, in winter standing out against the snow and in spring barely noticeable among the lush growth.  In spring a car drives up the lane towards the camera and pulls over and you realise, it is pulling over for us.  In summer a white van is parked among the trees on the left, but you don't know why or who it belongs to or how long it has been there.  The idea that the same place looks different through the seasons is scarcely revolutionary, but Hockney presents it with great panache.

The last room is devoted to his drawings made on iPhone and iPad, shown on screens rather than printed out as I've seen them before.  The image on each screen periodically changes, as if it were an advertising hoarding, and some are animated so you see the drawing appear, stroke by stroke. One even has rubbing out, presumably as a joke and a teaching aid.  They are fun, an assured draughtsman and lively colourist at play.  I enjoyed them, while being reminded of the early and brilliant Pink Panther cartoon of the panther painting everything pink while the furious little workman paints everything blue.

It is fun.  It is worth seeing, and it is very impressive the way he has developed a whole new body of work in electronic media in his seventies.  His portraits do not move me as Rembrandt does, and his landscapes do not thrill me like late Turner or Van Gogh, but David Hockney deserves his National Treasure status.  On until 29 May.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

domestic touches

It's hard sometimes visualising how things are going to turn out.  I ordered a set of new food dishes for the cats, because I was fed up with the way they kept pushing their food off an existing set of melamine plates and on to the hall floor.  I thought I might be able to get a set of plastic dishes sold for picnic and barbecue use, but when I looked in Tesco and The Range all the bowls were too deep, and I thought the cats would get cricks in their necks trying to eat out of them regularly.  I ended up on Amazon buying some stainless steel bowls with non-slip bases meant for cats and shallow faced dogs, not because I was interested in the non-slip base but because they were only 3.5 cm high.  And they sounded hygienic and easy to wash.  Another vendor was offering biodegradable dishes made out of bamboo that would decompose after three to five years in landfill, but I had visions of them starting to biodegrade after being left to soak in the kitchen sink. The cats are perfectly happy with their new dishes, but when they eat biscuits out of them there is a strange tinkling sound.  And Mr Cool dealt with the problem of not being allowed to push his food off his plate by seizing up a large spoonful of tinned food in his jaws and dropping it on the floor.

At much the same time I ordered two new doormats, because when I beat the old mats together to shake the dirt out, little pieces of doormat kept breaking off the edges as the PVC backing disintegrated, and I was bored of picking small tufts of plastic backed coir out of the gravel and tired of living with doormats that had the outline of Kansas, straight edges for the most part but with irregular pieces nibbled out of the corners.  I chose a pair of magnificent one hundred per cent coir mats from John Lewis, thinking that with no PVC back to give way they would withstand any amount of beating, and only realised when I unpacked them that they were so thick that one wouldn't fit under the door it was intended to sit by.  Luckily the actual front door allowed just enough clearance, and I swapped the other over with an existing mat, and all ended happily as the cats adored both of the new mats instantly, and practically queue up to take turns sleeping on them.  I don't suppose they'd have taken half as much notice if I'd got them a set of luxury cat beds from OKA.  As it was I had to move the one under the letterbox to one side so that the postman would not accidentally drop the post on Mr Fluffy.

So that is my piece of practical advice for today.  If you are buying a doormat and the door is supposed to open over it, measure the gap under the door and check the thickness of the mat.

For my next act I was intending to make some new bedroom curtains, but I had probably better spend a bit longer thinking that project through in detail than I did on choosing the doormats.

Monday, 24 April 2017

repairs, maintenance, and a small triumph

The promised afternoon of heavy rain did not materialise.  Instead we got a heavy shower at teatime just as I was settled on the sofa with Our Ginger on my lap and Mr Cool nestled alongside, having left my tools and garden radio out in the garden.  At least it meant that the Systems Administrator had time to put new felt on the pot shed roof where a large piece blew off in the last gale.  It was the lower strip along the side facing the herb bed, and the SA managed to slide the replacement length in under the bottom edge of the upper strip by dint of lifting the latter with the blade of a hoe while we both pushed the new piece into place, very gently so that it would not buckle or rip.  The whole roof has been reinforced with eight lengths of batten, which I painted with wood preservative last week, and with any luck it will last for a while.

I am pretty fed up with roofing felt, as however carefully you try to fasten it down the gales always seem to find their way in underneath at some point and rip it, and then you have to lay out on new felt and battens and spend half a day messing around with ladders repairing it. The roof is only made out of rough planks, patched with offcuts of composite board following some previous mishap, and is full of gaps and not at all airtight, so perhaps part of the problem is pressure building up inside the shed when there's a full gale blowing.  That is not as daft as it sounds.  I was chatting to a gardening friend a couple of Plant Heritage meetings ago, and she told me about somewhere she used to work where they had learnt to open the doors at both ends of the glasshouses when it was very windy.  Counterintuitive, you would think, not to seek to protect their plants from the blast of the wind, but if the doors were left shut the gale forced air in through the cracks until the pressure burst the panes outwards.

I weeded the dahlia bed, where the remaining Strulch was doing a pretty good job against soft annual weeds, but quite a few tree seedlings had popped up.  Then I fed it with fish, blood and bone, and began to water it as we have had so little rain, to encourage the dahlias into growth and wash their food down into the soil.  Tomorrow I might add some 6X just to get the dahlias off to a good start, since my dawning realisation last year that the foliage really is supposed to be the shade of dark green shown in Monet's painting of his garden, and that I was not feeding mine nearly enough.  The tulips that live among the dahlias are more than half over, and a dose of feed might help them keep up their strength so that they flower again next year.

I disturbed the Strulch in order to sow seeds of Calendula and Nasturtium.  In the past I've tried starting them off in modules and planting them out, but it was all too much of a fiddle.  I don't have time, and they didn't do well.  Since I had lots of seeds, thanks partly to the packets that keep arriving with garden magazines, I thought I'd try direct sowing them instead, but as the Strulch is designed to stop germination this may not work any better.  It needs topping up, though, so maybe I'll get some plants come up from the direct sowings, and I'll wait until things have grown before topping up the Strulch.

There is one success in the front garden, Gladiolus tristis, which is in flower for the first time.  It is a lovely thing, the individual pale yellow flowers recognisably gladiolus shaped, but smaller and daintier than the modern hybrids, and well spaced along the stalks.  I counted the stems and there were ten of them.  Ten!  Checking my records I see I bought one bulb from Avon Bulbs in 2014, which cost me five pounds.  That felt like a great deal of money for one small bulb, which I potted up and kept in the greenhouse where I remember it sent up about one spindly leaf.  G. tristis comes from South Africa and is only borderline hardy in the UK, and just to make things more difficult for itself and the gardener is a winter growing species, dormant in summer.  At home it is adapted to winter rainfall.  In my damp greenhouse in Essex I was terrified of it rotting.  In July 2015 I planted it out in the gravel of the turning circle, where at least it would have guaranteed perfect drainage. It grew through the winter of 2015-16 and sent up three or four flower spikes, which failed to develop to maturity.  Maybe there was a cold night at exactly the wrong stage of development. Finally I have a proper patch of it, and my five pounds seems well spent.  The Pacific Bulb Society warns it can spread by bulblets and seed, but frankly if it chooses to spread more than it already has I shall be delighted.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

the drought worsens

I returned today to digging nettles out of the meadow, in the great blank area where the Systems Administrator spent ages chopping down the brambles and I dug out most of their roots.  I'd been thinking I'd better return to the project of reclaiming that piece of garden to keep the momentum going, and then yesterday evening the SA asked me slightly plaintively what I meant to do about the nettles which were shooting up by the day.  The SA really did work very hard on the brambles, and it would be too discouraging to see all that effort go to nought, so as soon as I'd finished the morning's round watering the pots I set off with pick axe and border fork plus small hand tools and a film review programme podcast to keep me going.

When I got there I found I was going to have to water in the meadow as well, because the big patch of primroses that had been doing so well I was planning to divide them and have more had suddenly collapsed.  I was talking about them at yesterday's Plant Heritage meeting with somebody who grows primula far more seriously than I do, and she confirmed my observation that rabbits don't bother with them, so they seemed good ground cover for the meadow, along with the hellebores. Except that now they were shrivelling before my eyes, leaves as limp and wrinkled as a lettuce that had spent a week in the fridge.

We have a hose permanently run up the side of the wood as far as the compost heaps, where it connects to a tap so that we can attach a further hose to take up into the meadow or water the vegetables, when we're growing any vegetables.  A long length of hose was looped multiple times over a fence post for that purpose, but I hadn't used it for months, and it took some fiddling around in the undergrowth to uncoil it.  Rather to my surprise the system then ran without major leaks or mystery blockages, and the spray gun I found sitting on top of an old water butt still worked, so I was able to leave it to sprinkle the primroses while I weeded.  The existing hellebores were starting to flag, though not as spectacularly as the primroses, so I gave them a drink as well.

The wildlife pond is another worry.  Being merely a hole that we dug and lined with a butyl sheet it depends on rainwater to fill it up, or in the absence of rain the hose.  I'd rather leave it to its own devices, since rainwater is probably better for the wildlife than tap, and besides it's an awfully big hole and we are on a water meter.  But by now some of the marginal plants that should be in the shallows are entirely exposed, and a planting basket is sticking up like the remains of a drowned village emerging above the waters of a reservoir during a drought year.  And it is only April.  It is going to have to be given a couple of inches of tap water and I set the hose to start topping it up, but I don't really want to fill it to the brim from the mains.  It's no good, we need rain.

The rest of the day was spent digging out nettles, miscellaneous weeds and the odd bramble, and collecting up the stems from the great clearance that didn't make it to the bonfire in the last round.  Foxgloves have sprung up in places, and I worked round the bigger patches since I can't do all of it at once so we might as well enjoy them flowering before I disturb their roots.  They will probably die after they've bloomed anyway, since Digitalis purpurea is normally pretty convincingly biennial.  Remember that when you are tempted to pay four pounds for one plant in a garden centre.  I found a few wild arums and tried to avoid digging them up, likewise the seedlings of some kind of sedge which I'm hoping might be the relatively dainty Luzula nivea, which is producing its fluffy white flowers now.  If they turn out to be something bigger and coarser out of the wood I'll remove them.

I had to stop at six because I was knackered.  Forget joining a gym, just spend your Sunday digging up nettles and bramble roots with a pick axe to work those biceps.  I hope I have done enough to reassure the SA that I'm on the case.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

a plant talk

This afternoon I went to the last Suffolk Plant Heritage Lecture before the summer break.  The speaker was Bob Brown, owner of the nursery Cotswold Garden Flowers, whose website I sometimes refer to when considering trying a new plant, because he posts critical appraisals not just of the things he currently lists for sale, but many other species and varieties he has experience of growing, or trying to grow.  That is a useful habit I wish other growers would follow, especially if they have previously sold the plant and so have the information already to hand in the right format. Though I suppose it could be embarrassing if you changed your mind about a plant to list its deficiencies when you had sold to people it in the past.

Bob Brown was talking about new and garden worthy plants, and began with the caveat that many new plant releases had not been trialled for long enough to find out whether they were garden worthy, and that many weren't.  Certainly I remember how disappointingly short lived the new, exciting, rusty pink Verbascum 'Helen Johnson' turned out to be, when I managed to lay my hands on some plants after a wait (such was the demand) a couple of decades ago when it was new on the market.  I try to be more cautious now, and had already sidestepped the charming but not reliably perennial foxglove cross 'Illumination Pink' that was the big new thing a few seasons back, after trawling round several garden forums and coming to the conclusion that it couldn't be trusted to live, and that was Bob Brown's first target.

I'd hoped to be introduced to some new plants I didn't know and that would be good for our garden. Looking at my notes I've scribbled down the names and brief descriptions of a few things I might like to be better acquainted with.  Eryngium 'Pen Blue' looked promising, because its flowers were so very blue, and Eryngium generally do well on our light soil.  Epimedium 'Spine Tingler' was worth bearing in mind for some future scheme, having large, long, thick and substantial, shiny leaves with splendid spines around the edges, the sort of leaves that remind you that Epimedium is in the same family as Berberis.  And I liked the sound of mophead Hydrangea 'Zebra' with its white flowers on black stems, and the trick of flowering over a long season because it can bloom on the current year's growth as well as last year's wood like a traditional mophead.  And Ribes valdiviana was pretty, looking from the slide rather like the hybrid Ribes x gordonianum which is a cross between the traditional cottage garden R. sanguineum and the scented yellow buffalo currant R. odoratum. I am partial to flowering currants, though I would want to know more about Ribes valdiviana before ordering one.

But I also realised as the lecture went on how individual tastes in plants are, and how difficult it is to predict what will be reliable in a garden setting.  Primula 'Wanda' was declared unkillable, along with a jibe that the colour scheme was unappealing.  Now I am fond of 'Wanda', which has little purple flowers with a yellow eye and was the first cultivar name of any plant that I remember learning, but I have not found it at all indestructible in north Essex, and from some muttering across the aisle I gathered that other East Anglian gardeners had lost it as well.  Likewise the old variety Primula 'Garryard Guinevere' was said to be reliable, although we would not have heard of it.  I had heard of it and am pretty sure that Margery Fish mentions it, and I have tried to grow it, but it didn't last.  Conclusions  based on growing in Worcestershire on heavy clay soil and with cold winters aren't necessarily a good guide to what will prosper on the Essex coastal strip.

And some of Bob Brown's plant choices were just horrid.  Horrid to my eyes, that is.  I am sure he was sincere in liking them and I expect that some of the other people in the room like them as well, but written next to my note "Heuchera 'Pink Pearl' lots of pink fl April-Oct" I have put my own comment in square brackets [dumpy plant].  Honestly, they were nasty lumpy little things.  I get the same feeling looking at most Astilbe.  And I thought the variegated Trachelospermum with orange and yellow leaves truly nasty even before Bob Brown told us that ladies often recoiled from it (note to all garden lecturers: do not try to get laughs by digs at ladies.  Look around the room. About three quarters of your audience are ladies.  Do you think we are amused by banter about our timid tastes or inability to water things properly?).

I did not buy any plants from Bob Brown or the Plant Heritage stall, being fixed firmly on weeding and mulching following which I will put in a couple of carefully researched internet orders for plants to do very particular jobs in selected places.  It has taken three decades of gardening to get to that level of discipline.  I did have a nice piece of coffee and walnut cake, though.

Friday, 21 April 2017

from the hideous to the sublime

Today I abandoned the garden and took myself off to London.  I wanted to see the exhibition of Sussex Modernists at Two Temple Place before it closed, which it does this Sunday, following which the building itself will be closed to casual visitors until the 2018 exhibition.  I've heard odd snippets about the place over the years, and been curious to see it, but never got organised.  I had even arranged to go with a friend last week, but that fell through because she was ill.

I am still recovering from my visit, in a sort of low-key but mind-boggled way.  The exhibition was amazingly full with people all well over the age of fifty, as if the contents of three coaches had been deposited simultaneously.  Perhaps they had.  I was surprised that a small exhibition of Modernism was so popular, even though it does finish this weekend, but perhaps like me they were largely there for the building.  Which was staggering, in that Two Temple Place is one of the most hideous buildings I've been in for ages.  Not just casually ugly, but monumentally contrived to be that way at quite vast expense.  It's no good, I'm still boggled.

It was built, or rebuilt, for William Waldorf Astor at the end of the nineteenth century, and following the death of his father William Waldorf Astor was the richest man in America.  Two Temple Place was constructed as his office, though it had a flat above, handily situated just south of The Strand and Covent Garden, mid way between the City and the West End and convenient for the law courts.  The future Lord Astor favoured the Tudor aesthetic, and Two Temple Place was just the warm-up act before he bought Hever Castle and built an entire Tudor village.  And it is stupendously ugly.  There's nothing wrong with lots of brown wood and carving per se, but Two Temple Place unfortunately fails to capture the bluff Tudor energy of a Levens Hall, and its carvings lack the vivacity of Grinling Gibbons or the masters who adorned our Medieval churches.

It provides a most incongruous background to an exhibition of Modernism of any kind.  Some of the works had to fend for themselves against the mock Tudor panelling, while others were mounted on white screens that partly blocked the view of the room, but Two Temple Place's brief is to display objects from regional museums.  That is a good objective per se, only in this case it did not lead to a marriage made in heaven.  There were some good things.  I liked the photographs by Lee Miller, and the scale model of the pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea which I have still not managed to visit.  I was mystified by the black and white documentary about the life cycle of the lobster playing on a continuous loop.  And there were some pretty terrible things.  I'm sorry, but I don't think Duncan Grant was a good painter, and if it weren't for his role within the Bloomsbury set I doubt we'd take any notice of him.

Admission was free, and I left satisfied that I had gratified my curiosity to see the building while having absolutely no desire ever to see it again.  From there to Tate Modern and their display of photographs from Elton John's collection, The Radical Eye.  This was displayed in the new Switch House in the sort of big, white rooms where the Sussex Modernists would have looked much more at home, and was not crowded at all.  They were almost entirely silver gelatin prints, dating for the most part from the mid 1920s through to 1950, and were an interesting selection, though I believe that Sir Elton has lots more at home, having been collecting for many years since photographs were less collectible than they are now.  Not that he is short of a bob or two.  Anyway, he has a good eye.  My personal favourites were the portraits and the architectural shots.

There is a fabulous run of Irving Penn portraits, and a series of famous artists hung side by side. One of Irving Penn's things was to pose his subjects in a narrow corner in his studio built from a couple of flats, and it is certainly interesting how they responded to the space.  Noel Coward stands with his arms close to his body, looking wary, while Duke Ellington sprawls genially in a chair.  On the other hand if you did not already recognise the artists you would scarcely guess them to be artists. You might suspect French Surrealist Tanguy whose comical, fluffy, sticky-up hair suggested he might inhabit some sort of creative milieu, but Derain's sturdy face and level gaze could just as well have belonged to a successful small builder or your child's geography teacher, and Satie's neatly trimmed beard would not look out of place at a Rotary meeting.

The Switch House is a splendid building, and I like the way that its broad landings have been designed as a public space for people to hang out in between moments of looking at art, with big, brown wipe clean cushions on the window sills.  The floors are staining very badly, though, and the new members' room was closed for improvements less than a year after it opened.  Maybe they are trying to damp the noise down, as it was very echoey and much too loud when I went.  I don't really have any sympathy for the people who are complaining that their new luxury flats are directly overlooked by the new Tate viewing platform, since they should have known the extension was planned when they bought the flats.  Tate Modern was the third most visited attraction in the UK in 2016 with 5.8 million visitors.  If you are going to buy a flat with external walls almost entirely made of glass right opposite the third most popular visitor attraction in the country what can you expect?

Thursday, 20 April 2017

back in the garden

Enough of housework and personal grooming.  Both are necessary for modern civilisation, but terribly dull.  Since being taken for the day to a fairly posh spa some years ago I have considered pampering one of the greatest wastes of time imaginable, when one could be doing something so much more interesting than lying on a slab having a stranger prod at one's pores.  Today with a feeling of joy and liberation I headed back into the garden, ancient red hat crammed down over the new curls because it was rather chilly first thing.  I am relieved there has not actually been a frost, since while I remembered to shut the doors of the greenhouse and conservatory for the past couple of nights I completely forgot to put my garden club competition potato under cover.  You will hear more of the potato in July when it is the great tuber unearthing and weigh-in at the competition organiser's house, but I am not at all confident.  Really I have no idea what I am doing with this potato, only the anxious impression garnered from barely remembered gardening articles that if I feed it with the wrong thing it will make lots of impressive top growth but no more potatoes.

I decide to deal with the nettles behind the oil tank.  It was not the obvious choice when there were lots of more front-line, visible tasks to be addressed, but I'd got some climbers planted in there and didn't want the nettles taking a firm hold, and I thought that if I rooted them out now I could use the last bags of Strulch on the area and keep it clean for the rest of the year.  And I'd got some nice little Sarcococca confusa waiting to go in the space.  Again, it might seem odd to stuff them away behind the tank where they will barely be visible, but I chose them for that spot for the scent.  They will be quite close to the house, the chicken run and the path to the workshop, and I thought that drifts of their sweet, spicy smell on a winter's day would be welcome.  And S. confusa makes a very, very dense canopy once it gets going, which should be a long term solution to the weeds.

The nettles were not yet flowering, so I chopped off their hairy stems to go on the compost heap, where they can add some useful greenery to what tends to be a rather brown heap, while saving space in the bags of roots destined for the tip.  When I made it through to reveal the climbers their fortunes were mixed.  Rambling rose 'Albertine' was really going for it, throwing up vigorous, thick new shoots.  This is on its own roots and was given to me as a rooted cutting by a friend.  It spent some time in its pot because I did not know where to put it, and barely existed, then I moved it into a bigger pot but it was still not happy, until I worked out that it could climb up a substantial and slightly tatty holly and planted it in the ground, where suddenly it perked up no end.

Around the corner from it rambling rose 'Blushing Lucy', bought from Trevor White, was also making growth although none of its new stems were as impressive as those of 'Albertine'.  Lucy is intended to climb up a hawthorn and arch attractively out over the path to the bonfire, accompanied by Clematis x triternata 'Rubromarginata'.  Taylors describe this as being the most scented clematis there is, growing in conditions that other clematis would not tolerate such as a spot at the base of a conifer that is very dry and does not see much sunlight, and I know from having seen them in bloom that the little, starry, four petalled pink and white flowers are very pretty, and they come at a useful time of year in late summer through to autumn.  All in all it would have been an ideal choice except that mine was entirely brown and might be dead.  I watered it anyway, in case the roots were still clinging on to life and it had the energy to reshoot.  Clematis can be very good at reappearing from underground, but I am not overly optimistic.  It didn't romp away last year as well as some of the others I planted at the same time, and I don't think it has got its roots down.

I fed everything with fish, blood and bone when I'd got the weeds out, and spread Strulch, and watered them all, and went on spreading Strulch in the corners I hadn't done yet in front of the oil tank, until I ran out of Strulch.  I wish it would rain, otherwise the clematis is not going to be the last casualty by a long chalk.  It is practically impossible to remember where everything is that's been planted in the past two years, and to get water to all of them.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


I escaped from the cleaning to go and get my hair cut.  I am currently growing it, in a lets-see-where-this-goes experimental sort of way.  This started because it was even shaggier than usual when I went in for my six weekly cut, either because it had grown fast or because the six weeks had slipped to seven for some reason I can't remember but probably to do with holidays, in which case it was almost certainly my hairdresser's holiday and not mine.  She screamed faintly at how much it had grown, and I suggested on a whim that we try doing something with the extra length instead of taking it back to the crop it had been in for the past few years.

I have never had much success telling hairdressers what sort of haircut I would like, because my hair is so insistent on doing its own thing.  The Rachel, the power bob, swishy hair as favoured by the Duchess of Cambridge, any kind of style involving straight hair, I could forget them all.  There was no point in looking at the magazines of hairstyles in salons that had them, since the answer to Could I have that? would always be No.  My hair, naturally curly and very thick, did not adapt itself to The Rachel, and I didn't help matters by wanting a wash and go cut because first of all I was busy leaving the house at six in the morning to go to work, and then I was busy in the garden and took up wearing hats whenever it was cold or the sun came out, which was most of the time except for a few weeks around March and October, and either way I wasn't willing to spend any time with a hair dryer or straighteners.  And I hated the feeling of product in my hair.  And if I had spent half an hour subduing it into something more groomed it would have sprung back into the natural curl at the first drop of rain.

Sometimes when I was younger I would get it down as far as my shoulders.  It would alternate between looking quite attractive in an exotic way and wildly frizzy, until the split ends defeated me and I had it cut short again.  Short was better for sailing because then it couldn't blow across my face.  Many hairdressers I tried over the years had no idea what to do with it either way, and I tried everywhere from a salon in Albemarle Street to a little local village parlour where at least parking was free.  An assistant at the latter, who was covering for her boss who more or less knew how to cut it but was ill, was so panic stricken by the bulk of it that she practically tonsured me, but I wouldn't say the Albemarle Street chap did a particularly good job.

I grew it one time after seeing a load of cyclists come into a cafe on a Netherlands sailing holiday, and deciding that having it short made me look like a Dutch housewife.  The last time I had it chopped off was because as it went greyer I was afraid that it made me look not so much like pre-Raphaelite angel as Gandalf.  Persuading stylists that I wanted it really short was always an uphill task.  I would cite Judi Dench and Emma Watson in her pixie crop phase as models, and the hairdresser would mutter about styling products.  Apparently Judi Dench does not just wash her hair in the shower, let it dry while she eats her breakfast, and voila, her hair will look like it does in photoshoots.

My present hairdresser is supremely talented at dealing with it.  She is half Italian and has curly hair herself, which helps, and she finds out and remembers how much time and effort her clients are planning to put into their hair styles and cuts accordingly.  One of her predecessors at the salon where she used to work before starting her own business used to cut it quite nicely, before spending ten minutes straightening my fringe with tongs.  It looked jolly good and I could have stepped straight on to either front bench of the House of Commons with hair like that, except that I did not possess any straightening irons and did not propose to buy them or spend ten minutes in the morning messing with my fringe, not to mention the rain and the hats.

So we will see where we get to with the new, longer and growing by the day hair.  The thing that encouraged me to persist was discovering how curly it still was despite being so grey.  That and the fact that my hairdresser persuaded me to spend the outrageous sum of fifteen pounds on a tube of Curl Creator.  She promised that it would last for ages as I only needed to use a pea sized blob after washing it, and that it would not make my hair feel sticky, and as I trust her judgement I agreed to give it a try.  She says that the secret of persuading the hair to form curls instead of sticking out in a huge frizzy cloud is to thin when cutting.  In the last couple of years young people have been colouring their hair grey, and apparently curls are now back in fashion along with the whole cheesecloth smock and flares Seventies revival, so my natural silver equivalent of a bubble perm could be bang on trend.  If it doesn't work we can always chop it off and go back to the Dutch housewife, sub Dame Judi look.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

more cleaning

The great cleaning project continues.  I am writing this earlier than usual just to get away from it for a bit.  I have vacuumed the bedroom.  Boy, have I vacuumed, all the bits of carpet and skirting board you can't reach in a normal session when you remain standing and just push the sweeper head around the floor at the end of its metal tube.  Assembling and disassembling the cleaner into different combinations of sweeper and tubes and wriggling on my stomach I have done under the very middle of the bed, and the skirting boards behind the chests of drawers, and the top of the wardrobe.  And the curtains, and the shades of both bedside lights.  Balanced on my dressing table stool with the vacuum cleaner I have done the lampshade of the central pendant ceiling light.  I took everything out of the wicker laundry basket and cleaned that, and vacuumed underneath it.

It began to feel as though I was going through the full Good Housekeeping routine recently lampooned by Lucy Mangan in her excellent Guardian column, except that I did not unscrew the bulb of the ceiling light and wipe it.  She is right, it is a ridiculous way for a sentient human being to spend their day, except that unfortunately houses do get so extraordinarily filthy, and in the end my Quentin Crisp-like disdain for dust cracked.  Something had to be done.

I took the shoes and fleeces out of the bottom of my wardrobe and vacuumed the floor, and in violation of the Systems Administrator's privacy removed the shoes, backpack and ancient computer bag repaired with a homemade knotted string handle (no, I don't know why either.  I expect it was something we took on the boat) from the SA's wardrobe and vacuumed the bottom of that as well. I took everything off the SA's bedside table and sorted it out.  The assortment of bolts, screws and an electric screwdriver bit are bound for the workshop, as is the instruction booklet for the leaf blower.  Nobody needs to keep a leaf blower booklet on their bedside table.  The assorted loose change went in the change pot in the study, and the test match tickets from 2013 went in the bin. I don't think the SA was keeping them as a souvenir, but I put all the old race cards in the spare room to be boxed away with the others when I get round to it.

I polished my dressing table and both chests of drawers and the bedside tables and the wooden boxes where I keep my sewing kit and necklaces with balsam flavoured wood cream.  They looked happier afterwards, and the room smelt reassuringly of cleaning, which was nice since last night's shepherd's pie must have dripped in the Aga making the clean kitchen smelt discouragingly of burnt gravy.  Actually, I was rather disappointed at how quickly Saturday's efforts were dissipating.  Joan Rivers hated housework because you make the beds, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again, but it would be good if it could last more than a day before the floors began to accumulate the next layer of gravel, cat hairs, and fluff.  When I came downstairs this morning I found a dead leaf in the middle of the kitchen table.  How did that get there?

I sorted out the pile of things that had been sitting on one of the chests of drawers since moving them out of reach of the cats months ago to stop them being broken.  I investigated whether the light bulbs I bought to replace one in a reading light that got broken when Mr Fluffy knocked it off a table fitted (they did) and decided to risk reinstating the bowl of wooden fruit on the dining table, and the mirrored boat shaped ornament that was a twenty-fifth anniversary present on the sitting room window sill.  That may yet prove to be a rash move since it isn't so very long since the cats destroyed a pair of binoculars knocking them off the window sill, but I thought we couldn't keep everything in storage for ever.

I vacuumed the slats of the bed, and put my pillows on to wash, one pillow at a time.  I dusted the tops of the picture frames, and as much of the ceiling as I could reach.  I wiped the tiny splatters of bird crap off the electric bar fire I keep for chilly mornings, and wondered what a bird was doing in the bedroom in the first place, and vacuumed the crevices behind the radiator and washed the top of it and the annoying little indentations along the bottom, while thinking how if only we had underfloor heating I wouldn't have to.  There is no way we are going to get underfloor heating, or a cleaner, which would be how I wouldn't have to do any of it.  One of the bargains you make when you downshift is that some of your newly free time will be spent making, mending, and cleaning things which when you were in full time gainful employment you paid other people to mend or clean, or bought new ones.  Actually, when we were both in full time employment we still didn't have a cleaner.  We tried once, but disliked the routine of having to tidy up before she came, and she hated the cats.  And I don't really want somebody else rooting around in the bottom of my wardrobe.  And unless you find a real treasure I darkly suspect they don't vacuum the bed slats or the tops of wardrobes.

I am now off to clean the bathroom.  Tomorrow I had better do something else, before we all give up with boredom.

Monday, 17 April 2017

garden wildlife wanted and unwanted

I saw a fox walk across the back garden today at ten past five in the afternoon.  It emerged from the island bed, calmly and confidently crossed the top lawn, and disappeared into the rose bed under the veranda.  I went outside to chase it away, but it was nowhere to be seen, already gone or else hiding.  I am glad the kitties are no longer small.  Luckily the hens were shut in their run, which has a wire netting roof, but Reynard's visit in broad daylight does illustrate the difficulty of letting them out.  I read the other day in the paper about somebody who opened his door every evening for the local fox and fed it sultanas in his living room, and was amazed.  Townies are different.  They do not understand.  The fox would have every one of the chickens, given the chance.

At least the cats are on the case with the rabbit problem.  Mr Fidget caught a baby last night, and Our Ginger has just come in growling furiously with another one.  The Systems Administrator shooed him out with it, closely followed by Mr Fidget.  I don't know if he will be allowed a share or if it will be like the little boy's request for a taste of somebody else's apple: ain't gonna be no core. Mr Fluffy did not try to join in.  He shows no interest in killing mammals at all, only birds, but fortunately he doesn't get those very often.

The starlings seem to be back this year nesting in the roof in the front of the house.  They didn't come last year, and we missed them.  There has been a lot of starling chattering from that end of the front garden, and this morning I saw a pair swoop down from the direction of the eaves, but didn't see them actually emerge from the hole since I was not looking up at the time.  I adore starlings.  They are such characterful birds, bustling about and making their strange staccato clicks and calls.  When they do nest in the roof they never seem to come out and forage in the garden, instead they shoot away in the direction of the farm.

Even a couple of days spent doing indoor things means I've missed things opening in the garden.  As I went out in pursuit of the fox I saw that the blue flowers of the Camassia leichtilinii had started to open.  They do excellently on clay, which is not the case for many bulbous species, but I am still trying to work out what can coexist with them to cover the space from the second half of summer onwards when their leaves have died down.  Whatever it is has to be happy with the clay, and able to tolerate having its emerging leaves shaded at this time of year, or else be very late to emerge itself.

The Paulownia is in full bloom, and while it is covered in its purple-blue candelabras of foxglove shaped flowers I feel the effort of trying to prune it afterwards must be worth it.  Last spring I swore to myself I'd cut it right down in the winter, but then relented as it had made rather a nice balanced shape and was already in bud again.  It can't be allowed to grow to full size, being too close to the house and in the middle of a rose bed, and it was not originally intended to be a tree at all, but to be coppiced annually for the huge leaves.  One stem of coppice escaped the pruning saw and produced buds, I soft-heartedly left it until it had flowered just to see it bloom, and it took it from there.  The way that it bounced back from last spring's pruning session suggests that conceptually it can be managed as a large standard shrub, only getting at it to prune it in the middle of the rose bed is so cumbersome.  We are not talking piddly little floribundas, you understand, but big sprawling shrub roses.  Parts of 'William Lobb' are currently lashed to the trunk of the Paulownia to stop them from flopping over everything else.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

spring cleaning

Cleanliness is next to godliness.  So John Wesley preached in a sermon in 1778, though the idea is far older, and as I don't like cleaning very much and quite enjoy choral evensong on Radio 3 I was almost tempted by the injunction in The Times to go to church anyway on Easter Sunay, unbeliever or not.  The Church of England is certainly broad enough to accommodate my woolly brand of agnosticism, and sometimes when I am with with those of my friends and acquaintances who are practicing Christians I wonder if I should accept the past fifteen hundred years of my country's history and simply join in.  The brain's desire to reduce cognitive dissonance might mean that where behaviour went, belief would follow.

Instead I started on the cleaning, which has been waiting for the wet day that never came.  Today's forecast looked about the rainiest, though in the event all we got was a miserable little spatter for a couple of hours from mid-afternoon, not enough to do the garden any good, but I resolutely ignored the sunny view from the kitchen as I wiped, scrubbed, and washed.  I'd warned the Systems Administrator in advance that cleaning day was on Sunday, and that it was going to be a big one, and the SA nobly volunteered to do the vacuuming and made a really thorough job of it, lifting up the furniture and the rugs.  The other kind of vaccuming is the rushed sort when you have people coming round and hastily do the visible bits, while knowing there are still drifts of cat fluff in the dim recesses under the desks.

I haven't finished.  I am prone to hopeless over-optimism about how long jobs are going to take, though that may not be uniquely my problem so much as part of the human condition, and by half past six when I was absolutely knackered with cleaning and needed to get the supper on to cook I'd finished the kitchen, or as much of the kitchen as was on today's list, but not nearly done the bedroom.  The SA showed further willing by wiping every flat surface in the sitting room with a damp cloth, removing a lot of cat footprints from the window sill in the process, so the sitting room is done, but not the hall, apart from cleaning the floor and washing the cats' blankets.

Apart from a general desire to be less scuzzy and tidier, and the fact that we have a guest coming round next week and I needed to clean the kitchen before jarring up some honey, my principal target this time is dust, which is why the limescale in the kitchen sink can wait to another day. After sniffing my way through the entire year so far I decided that this couldn't still be the effects of a cold, and Googled hayfever.  Hayfever leads you straight to rhinitis, which is not a diagnosis per se so much as a description, like when I asked a GP what conjunctivitis actually was and he said it was the latin for red eye.  What is causing the rhinitis is still a moot point, but the account of the symptoms on the NHS website could have been written to describe me.  Runny nose, blocked nose, watering eyes, facial discomfort, can lead to headaches. Yup, that's about it.

It is not uncommon to develop allergies in middle age, so it is possible that by now I do have hayfever, though if so it's a bit of a bugger because there is no way I am going to remain indoors or avoid picking up leaves.  Likewise if I've become allergic to cats that would be just too bad.  But I thought it was worth doing something about the dust, since a headache that comes on while I'm asleep could be triggered by something in the bedroom, and the cats don't come in there except for Our Ginger in the mornings, while if pollen were the main culprit I'd expect to feel worse when I went out of doors.  So vacuuming the bed slats is on the list of things to do, along with washing my pillows.  And a trick recommended on the internet is to rub a slick of vaseline inside your nostrils to trap irritants.  It sounds gross, but no worse than going around perpetually clutching a collection of grubby paper hankies.  And I will consult our local pharmacist when they reopen, though I already know she doesn't approve of having animals in the house.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

rebuilding the steps

The Systems Administrator has finished rebuilding the wooden steps down to the bottom lawn.  The old ones lasted for years, but reached the point of rottenness where I wouldn't risk leading visitors up them, and then one of the middle treads broke, and the whole flight was rendered impassable by the sprawl of rambling rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk', which has never seen why it should restrict itself to climbing up the wild cherry when there was all that lovely sunlight to be had by sprawling out over the deck, the lawn, the steps and anywhere its wild tentacles could reach.

I had made footling efforts to tuck the errant growths in rather than cut them all off, but that simply made the problem with the steps worse as the curved stems bulged out over the route, and I was even more loathe to cut them off because they were supporting growth somewhere inside the great mass of rose.  Then I steeled myself to give the rose a severe pruning to open up the steps, but it was not severe enough, so last autumn I gave it a second going over.  Then one day when I was using the steps to lead a hose down to the beds in the bottom part of the garden a second tread disintegrated, and I made an inelegant descent on my bottom.

As this spring's drought wore on I was awfully keen to have some usable steps, while not wanting to nag the Systems Administrator about it.  Domestic life is rarely improved by nagging, and after years of working with and for a series of wildly unreasonable and aggressive people I have an almost pathological dislike of trying to make people do things.  But the steps were jolly useful, because they gave a straight line of access from the corner of the house where the outdoor tap is right down the garden, ideal for pulling a hose along.  The only other route meant taking the hose across the lawn, being careful not to pull it into either rose bed, and through a one hundred and eighty degree bend before taking it back across the garden being careful not to pull it across the fritillary lawn.

Happily the SA announced that he was going to build new steps without the impetus of frequent reminders, AKA nagging, and it even turned out that we had some suitable wood in stock.  Years ago the SA bought a job lot of pine salvaged from some old pews that came out of a chapel that a colleague's father-in-law was renovating, not with any particular use in mind for it but because the SA had room to store it and they agreed it would be a shame to waste it and it would come in useful eventually.  And now it has.  The design proved more difficult than the SA expected, not being a regular at building steps, and the first attempt was too steep because the pews were slightly shorter than the existing flight.  If you make steps too steep then the useable width of tread is reduced because the one above it hangs over it, not so much of an issue when going up but tricky going down, and the only way round the problem is to increase the rise, which is not user friendly either. Also the two sides have to be absolute mirror images of each other, otherwise the treads will not be level.  The steps accordingly went through a couple of preliminary incarnations before coming good, and the sides are peppered with dowels filling the extra holes drilled during the earlier attempts, but that isn't a structural issue.  Painted with Sadolin to get maximum life out of the pews they look the part, and the supports for the treads will never rot because they are recycled plastic, left over from a garden railway project.

I am very pleased with them and have said so a number of times.  Come next week I shall be taking the hose down them.  And it is nice when walking round the garden to be able to come back by a different route, even if it's only a matter of reappearing at the opposite side of a not very big lawn.

Friday, 14 April 2017

spring cleaning in the garden

I needed to water the drought stricken bog bed, and thought that once I'd dragged the hose down to the bottom of the garden I might as well take the pressure jet down there as well and wash the Systems Administrator's sitting-out deck, and then I thought that if I was pressure jetting I could go whole hog and clean the bench on the terrace (or patio) and the two dining chairs as well.  The dining chairs were not actually too grubby, having spent the winter in the garage partly to protect them from the weather and partly to stop them blowing through the conservatory windows if we got a particularly severe gale.

The bench was a fiddle.  I got on better once I'd worked out that I needed to stand on the seat to clean it, since holding the lance up to do it from floor level was giving me a crick in my shoulder.  I don't really like the pressure jet.  I like it better than scrubbing that amount of wood by hand, but that's not to say that I like it.  The thin hose to the jet and the electric cable keep getting wound round each other and round my legs, the vibrations make my hands ache after ten minutes, the compressor is noisy, and the feeling of the water supply to the jet vibrating when it accidentally touches my leg is just weird.  A great deal of green scuzz came off the bench in the end, leaving two strange patches of greyish green on the ground once the patio dried, but I expect they will wash through the gaps between the slabs if I sluice them down each time I water the pots.

The deck really did take ages.  The Systems Administrator's sitting-out deck is at the very back of the bog bed, shaded on three sides by the hedge, a large clump of yellow stemmed bamboo that is currently kept in check by a perimeter of galvanised lawn edging after it began to wander alarmingly and I had to dig a chunk of it out with the pick axe, and the Metasequoia glyptostroboides that I planted under the fond impression that it was a swamp cypress.  The SA built the deck to have somewhere to sit sheltered from the wind and the sun and listen to the cricket on the radio.  It works for that purpose very well, being very sheltered, and gives a pleasant view over the bog bed, when it is flowering, and out past the bamboo and across the bottom part of the garden.

There are only a couple of practical problems.  Decking that's in almost permanent shade does get particularly green and slimy, and birds do like to roost in trees, and when birds roost they squit.  So the narrow walkway to the deck, which has a Japanese inspired bend half way across to the deck to encourage visitors to slow down and pay attention, commands attention in an additional and less charming fashion by having a permanent white streak of guano across it.  The birds also crap on a large clump of the yellow flowered form of Iris foetidissima, which I am rather annoyed by, and a blameless Lamium orvala.  Still, that's the reality of wildlife.  Sometimes it's pretty and fluffy, fluttering, buzzing and singing in a delightful fashion, and sometimes it's munching through plants and crapping on the place.

There is a pair of reclining seats that live on the deck in the summer.  I don't sit on mine very often, but like the idea that it's there and I could if I wanted to.  When not in use they fold up and rest against the back wall of the sitting-out deck, but even offering minimal surface area to the birds they do suffer from the odd strike.  A lounger that's got bird droppings on it is no use to anyone, and I didn't enjoy washing them last autumn before putting them away, so I have been saying that I would make a cover for them for this year, something that would be easy to run under the tap if it did score a hit.  Then I thought I might be able to adapt a readymade storage bag or suit holder, to save the trouble of trying to sow a double layer of PVC coated fabric, which felt as though it was going to be hard work, but I couldn't find anything suitable online.  The only purpose made chair cover was so startlingly ugly and tacky that I wouldn't have it in the garden.  The Systems Administrator proposed a far easier solution: buy a PVC coated tablecloth of the right size and attach battens to the two long sides to weigh it down, then simply drape it over the chairs which are leaning up side by side against the back of the deck when not in use.  Simples, and certainly much easier than sewing anything.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

the dahlias arrive

I was crawling around the middle of the turning circle rootling weeds out from between the paving slabs when the post van arrived, so I uncoiled myself and went to take the post to save the postman from having to get out of the van and trudge up to the front door.  He had a small, flattish box ready for me on the dashboard which I realised with a little surprised thrill of pleasure must be my dahlias.  I ordered them from Halls of Heddon back in very early February, and left it to their discretion when to dispatch them, working on the basis that I had a frost free greenhouse.  They are what Halls call mini plants, that is well rooted cuttings, and it's handy that the next few days are forecast to be lightly overcast, so they will be able to settle in the greenhouse without my worrying that they are getting too hot.

I love the Halls catalogue.  I don't buy from them every year, since dahlias are fairly reliably perennial given a modicum of luck, but it's fun to try a few new varieties every now and then, and the choice Halls offer is massively more than you will find in any garden centre.  The young plants grow away very well, barring catastrophes with heatwaves or major watering errors.  In fact, if you know what you are doing you can get an enormous plant by the end of the first growing season, as shown in one of the slides at last year's garden club lecture by a local dahlia expert.  I've had some disappointing experiences with tubers, both mail order and packed in plastic bags at garden centres, that have turned out on close inspection and sans packaging to be desiccated or damaged, so I'm happy to take my chances with the mini plants.

I followed the enclosed instructions exactly, potting the little plants into nine centimetre pots using John Innes number 2 compost, and watering them in.  I am not supposed to water them again for a few days to give the roots time to settle, and I am supposed to shade them if there is a hot and sunny spell.  Fingers crossed, there won't be.  This is the trickiest part of acquiring a new dahlia.  If planting tubers you need to be careful not to overwater them in the early stages, or the developing root system may rot.  It can be tricky in hot weather, as they can make a lot of top growth quickly and you feel that they must need plenty of water, but if you've got one that's failing to develop or whose stems have gone brown and died back in mid season it's worth checking what's going on below ground.

It's long enough since I ordered the plants that it will be like a new shopping experience looking them up and reminding myself what each one is supposed to do.  I know there is a very pale yellow single, destined to go in a pot alongside pots of the pale yellow Cosmos I'm growing from seed, and the light blue Convolvulus sabiatus I haven't actually ordered yet.  There is a dark red single that will make a great pairing with the purple leaved and red flowering snapdragons that are coming along in a cold frame, apart from the fact that I haven't yet worked out where to put this pleasing display and the snapdragons are still only an inch tall.  Most of the others flower in shades of pink or mauve and are intended to go with the conventional pink Cosmos and existing pink dahlias.

As the tender things in pots that have been overwintering in the greenhouse begin to push out new leaves it is becoming pretty clear that some of them have quietly died at some point.  Could have been the cold, since we had a couple of sharp nights when I didn't set the heater, or overwatering, or leaving them too dry in an attempt not to overwater them.  It is hard to say.  A couple of silver leaved Plectranthus that were right up against the glass are not showing any signs of life, and I fear there is no life to be shown signs of.  They were raised from seed, and I still have some seed left, though it must be very old, plus one plant in the conservatory that's being very slow about leafing up but is definitely stirring, so I could take cuttings from that later in the season.

It's more annoying that Salvia 'Love and Wishes' has got no signs of buds at all, and worse than that has got the subtly dried out, angular look of death that comes to shrubs where there is no sap rising.  I got that at the Great Dixter plant fair, and thought I had been very careful with it. Various sources sell them by mail order, but it is galling to have to pay the delivery charge when you only want one or two plants.  I suppose, thinking back to the dahlia delivery, that if nothing died there wouldn't be room to try new things.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

feeding and tidying

I looked again at the pots of by now going over dwarf tulips that should have been orange, and even in their faded state they were definitely pink and not orange.  I have a theory, which is that I was sent 'Little Beauty' instead of 'Little Princess'.  I have grown 'Little Beauty' in the past, and there are still a few scattered survivors around the gravel.  The flowers are dark pink or pale red, according to how you look at these things, with a dark blue centre, and I reckon that somewhere along the supply chain somebody read the words 'tulip little' and then didn't register any further.  I like 'Little Beauty' so it isn't a problem per se, except that it is nice to be sent what you asked for.

The best value dwarf tulips in the gravel have to be tulipa bakeri 'Lilac Wonder' which are naturalising themselves so that I now have more than I planted.  They wander around the fringes of some lavender bushes and a Euphorbia x pasteurii that is getting quite large, and are happy unless completely overshadowed by shrubs.  Tomorrow I shall plant my four little pots of the rare and precious Tulipa sprengeri, three bulbs bought at vast expense (from the chap who sold me the rogue princesses so let's hope they are the real deal) and a clump very kindly dug up for me by the couple whose garden I visited last autumn with the garden club.  T. sprengeri flowers late, for a tulip, in a vivid shade of red, and will naturalise if happy.  I should very much like to have them spreading freely in the turning circle.  They are extremely pretty, and in the wonderful world of garden one-upmanship you get bonus points for growing them.  Or at least, you used to.  Perhaps the oneuppers have moved on to a new target by now, just as growing the dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' no longer carries the kudos it did two or three decades ago.

Meanwhile, I fed the pots of dahlias in the greenhouse, and the potted box by the pond, and the rows of Dianthus on the terrace (or patio), and gave the merest dusting of food to the pots of alpines, since the garden club lecturer said they did not need much nourishment, coming from such rocky and inhospitable places, but in a pot I thought they might want something.  I fed the pans of Sempervivum and Sedum on the wall along the front of the terrace, trying to pull the rosettes of leaves carefully apart so that the fertiliser landed on the compost instead of lodging on the leaves. I fed the little collection of shade lovers in pots in the dark corner outside the conservatory.  I still could not bring myself to sprinkle whole pellets of Vitax Q4 on the smaller pots and laboriously crushed them with the pestle and mortar I have liberated from the kitchen for the duration, while cursing whoever decided to offer amateur gardeners the wretched supposedly easy-to-use pellets instead of good old-fashioned granules.

I also tidied the front corner of the garage where I keep my gardening tools.  It felt like a slightly bizarre priority, if not a displacement activity, when there were plenty of actual gardening jobs to be getting on with, but I was getting fed up with not being able to find things when I wanted them, and although the Systems Administrator didn't grumble about it I'm pretty sure he was fed up with having to scoop the mess out of the way every time he needed to get the lawnmower out.  I found all sorts of useful things, my second pair of swivel handled secateurs I haven't seen for ages, an entire bucket's worth of gloves that didn't have any obvious holes in them, two unopened packets of Rootgrow, and a spare lump hammer that the SA would like back for the workshop.  I like things to be tidy, it's just getting them that way that eludes me so much of the time.

No rain is forecast.  The house is unbelievably grubby because I have been saving the cleaning for a wet day, but sometime soon I am going to have to declare it an honorary wet day even if it's dry and devote myself to housework.  I am not alone in this.  Most keen gardeners will admit that their houses are cleaner and tidier and they finally get on top of the ironing when there's a run of wet or freezing weather.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

spring feeding

Things are growing visibly by the day, apart from those things which are not growing, and it's a tricky decision which to focus on.  The growing things include the herbaceous plants, sending their expanding leaves out over the borders and making it harder to find anywhere safe to put my feet, and the weeds.  I need to get my last bags of Strulch down as soon as possible, to try and curb the weed growth, which will make the borders look better and save me a load of work next autumn and winter.  In an ideal world it would all have been applied by the end of March, but we have to deal with the world as we find it, which is generally not ideal.

Some of the things that are not growing are simply natural late starters, like the little oak tree that is only just breaking bud.  I'm not worried about the little oak tree.  It will get going in its own good time, along with the coppiced Paulownia and the Rhus.  Some things, on the other hand, need feeding and I am more concerned about them.  The witch hazels in pots that were looking rather sparse last year, the dahlias that were not so green as they should have been, the hornbeam hedge on its diet of miserable thin sand, the tired looking pots of Dianthus on the terrace (or patio) and the frankly disgraceful pots of what were supposed to be box balls, but look more like Before photos in an advertisement for some kind of rescue remedy plant food, the unhappy roses in the front garden that are not nearly so leafy as the ones in the back that are on stiffer soil to start with and have had a dose of blood, fish and bone this year, all of these need feeding, and they need feeding now because now is when they will make their rush of spring growth, not in August.

Today feeding won, and I weeded the potted shrubs in the back garden, the Hamamelis and Acer and the one solitary Camellia and single Hydrangea, and gave them all a dose of Vitax Q4.  I don't like the pellets, I really don't.  It is so much easier to judge the amount and get even cover with granules.  I wonder whether the Q4 is really better than blood, fish and bone, or if I should go back to using that for everything?

I used to have more Camellia in pots.  I must have been up to six or seven ranged outside the study window, and they did reasonably well there in semi-shade, but the pots always blew over in gales, especially the bigger plants.  Then came the two successive cold winters and all except the largest plants died.  I planted them out into a border, where one took immediately and the other turned chlorotic yellow and lingered at death's door for a good two seasons before regular watering and doses of special camellia food persuaded it to rejoin the land of the living.  It is not easy moving large plants out of pots into the ground, and if I were buying in a garden centre to plant out I would always go for the smaller specimen given a choice.  In fact, growing Camellia in pots is not that easy.  I say mine did reasonably well, and they did in the sense that they had leaves all over and flowered, but they never looked nearly as glossy and luxuriant as three growing in a nearby border, that were equally exposed to the wind but had the luxury of their roots in the ground.

I had a vision this morning of how the Hydrangea could and should look, going along the riverside walk in Wivenhoe with my parents.  The houses along that stretch look out on to the river and have no front gardens as such, but apparently own the land to the river with merely a requirement to keep a two metre walkway accessible to pedestrians, so most have put tables and chairs outside and many have pots.  The pots range from the tragic and neglected to the thoroughly excellent, and the most impressive were two massive, fat, bronze leaved hydrangeas in big pots.  They were bushy.  Boy, were they bushy, bursting with health and new growth, and the owners must have got them like that by loving care and diligent maintenance.  I have never seen hydrangeas that big offered for sale by any garden centre or nursery, ever.  In contrast my purple leaved hydrangea in a pot has more of the form recommended for a correctly pruned apple tree, in that you could throw a wellington boot through it.

Monday, 10 April 2017

tulip time

It's tulip season.  I do pots holding a dozen bulbs each to go by the formal pond opposite the front door.  For many years they were a confetti of hot colours, chosen to try and get some colour over as many weeks as possible, then I shifted tack to fewer varieties to get more of a massed display while they were out.  Last year I experimented with pink and yellow, but this year it's back to the reds and purples.  I like them, and any bulbs big enough to be worth planting out when I come to empty the pots can go in the dahlia bed with all the other red and orange tulips from earlier years.

'Ile de France' is a new one for me this year.  It is a Triumph type, a very tulip shaped tulip with classic, flat bottomed goblet shaped blooms.  Described by supplier Peter Nyssen as cardinal coloured, I would call them a deep cherry red.  Backlit so that the sun shines through the petals they absolutely glow.  They opened at the same time as 'Jan Reus', a variety I have grown before and like very much.  Its flowers are a deep, satisfying burgundy.  Opening a couple of days later but overlapping enough for it not to be an issue came 'Havran', another Triumph, providing a sombre bass note of dark purple.  It provides a nice contrast of shape with the other two, having elegantly pointed petals.

The only one I am not quite sure about is 'Cairo'.  The orange petals with subtle bronze streaking looked so pretty on the screen, but in the flesh are slightly muddy, and opened significantly later than the others.  Maybe next time I will go back to the elegant, lily flowered 'Ballerina', a beautiful warm orange and a good doer, with the corresponding advantage that the bulbs are relatively cheap.  I must think carefully about dates.  Two or three years ago I grew an absolutely beautiful, clear, soft orange variety so if I looked back through my old orders I might be able to work out what it was and when it would come out.

In the gravel I've been planting out the pots of Tulipa hageri 'Splendens' to add to the existing display.  They are relatively tall for dwarf tulips, which used to bother me slightly whereas now I like them better than the ground hugging Tulipa batalinii varieties.  Ones tastes vary, and in a couple of years I may change my mind again.  T. hageri 'Splendens' has burnt orange flowers with buffy yellow streaking and a jaunty growth habit, slightly more relaxed than the big hybrids.  I have it growing next to a large and wandering patch of Libertia peregrinans, which has bronze and orange streaked foliage that goes very well with the tulip flowers, apart from the way that the Libertia, which is well named being very peregrinating, tends to wander across the clumps of tulips.  The Libertia's habit of growth it to send up discrete clumps of its sword shaped leaves at intervals, and if the tulips were content to live in the gaps all would be well, but they find the competition a bit much.

I'm also planting the more dwarf variety 'Little Princess', or rather bulbs supplied to me as 'Little Princess'.  They have been flowering away in their pots by the greenhouse and the flowers were perfectly attractive but had quite a lot of pink in them, whereas 'Little Princess' is described as being orange-red, copper-orange, or dark orange with a rosey flash, according to which catalogue you believe.  Flower colours are difficult to describe or photograph, and can vary depending on growing conditions, and perhaps they are 'Little Princess', but I'm not convinced.  I am no tulip expert, though, and don't honestly know.  I didn't get the bulbs from Peter Nyssen but from a small firm that started up fairly recently, and somebody whose garden I visited last year mentioned that they had had a mislabelled bag of tulips from that firm.  They knew enough about tulips to know from the appearance of the bulbs that it was the wrong variety, even before planting them and seeing what came up, and the supplier refused to admit that the customer might know about that particular plant and might be right that it was mislabelled.  Of course, most UK bulb merchants don't grow their own tulips but import them from Holland, and as the expert gardener said, when you are the new kid on the block you aren't going to get the pick of the crop from the Dutch growers.

On the terrace (or patio) I've got tulip 'Fur Elise' flowering away.  This is a Greigii type, smaller than the Triumphs and starting earlier, and is extraordinarily pretty, with flowers in a soft shade of yellow tinged with apricot, not acid at all, and nice purple markings on its leaves.  I am very fond of the Greigii and Kaufmanniana tulips, the only trouble is finding anywhere in the garden where they might naturalise afterwards.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

sprucing up the bog bed

Today's papers brought a warning that farmers in the eastern counties were going to have to start irrigating their crops two to four weeks earlier than normal, and those that did not have farm reservoirs but took their water directly out of the rivers could be limited in how much they could extract, while there have been couple of heath fires in Suffolk over the weekend.  A Met Office spokeswoman was quoted in The Times as saying that we had been spoiled by having such good weather and would notice when temperatures returned to normal next week.  It depends on what you regard as good weather.  I damped down the greenhouse and cold frame several times during the day, and watered some flagging seedlings at lunchtime, but I am afraid that some of them have still cooked.  Freak hot days in early April may be good if you want to sunbathe on Brighton beach, but they are something to dread when you have trays of tiny plants grown from seed.

In between fussing over the greenhouse I carried on weeding and watering the bog bed, that has sadly ceased to be a bog.  I decided a while back that a large patch of iris that was spreading militantly far beyond anything I imagined when I planted it would have to go.  Due to less than perfect labelling and record keeping I am not entirely sure which it is, probably 'Roy Davidson' or 'Tiger Brother', but whereas I bought them fondly imagining that they had the yellow flag iris somewhere in their ancestry and would spread a bit, it turned out to have almost all the terrifying vigour of the straight species.  The flowers were lovely, yellow laced and overlaid with brown, and I am a sucker for brown iris flowers, but the plant itself was a menace, overwhelming another, more restrained iris, two or three clumps or Sanguisorba, and most of the Primula florindae.

I advanced on it with fork and pick axe, not sure how brutal a removal job it was going to be.  You never know until you try.  Some things that you think would dig out fairly easily turn out to have entrenched themselves with tough roots going half way to Australia.  Other things that you imagine are going to be a real battle to extract almost pop out of the ground with a neat, defined rootball. The iris turns out not to have very deep or strong roots, so although the rhizomes are fat and in the centre of the patch extremely congested, still with careful positioning of the fork you can lever them up one at a time.  I toyed with the idea of simply reducing the clump, since the flowers are so pretty, but decided that there was a limit to how many invasive plants I had time to keep on top of, and the iris did not make the cut.  Its other annoying habit is that the leaves spread rather than growing upwards in nice, near vertical accents.  It makes the shape of the plant less interesting than many other types of iris, and means that even a moderate area of root takes up a disproportionate amount of space in the bed.

I found a few valiant remnant Primula florindae hanging on to life in the middle of the clump, another reason to prise it out carefully with a fork rather than going at it energetically with an axe.  I couldn't help disturbing them, though, and watered them before packing up for the day.    I got three more from Long Acre Plants as I was paying postage on the ferns order anyway, but they set me back three pounds thirty each, and I should like several more than three.  Primula florindae has the common name of Himalayan Cowslip (though you are safer sticking to Primula florindae then there can be no ambiguity or confusion) and produces tall stems of scented yellow flowers towards the end of the primula season.  It does like it wet, though.  At the Edinburgh botanic gardens we saw them growing in the bed of an (artificial) stream in an area devoted to Himalayan plants, and when the bog bed was a bog P. florindae was very happy and seeded itself.  It remains to be seen if it will be satisfied with occasional watering, which is another reason not to go mad and buy loads all at once.

The balance of the bed began to look immediately better as the iris began to disappear.  I always feel a pang having to abolish a healthy plant, but it was too domineering, too big and coarse and spreading for its position.  I was surprised though relieved to find the Sanguisorba still clinging on to life under the suffocating embrace of the iris, and can already imagine how that corner could look with airier and more restrained planting.  At least realising that you have planted a stupid iris is not so bad as realising that you have planted a stupid and inappropriate tree.