Wednesday, 31 May 2017

works in progress

I went to the hairdresser this morning, and like Spike Milligan who could not understand why they cut down hundred foot trees to make him look shorter, was bemused to emerge with seemingly so much less hair when I am trying to grow it.  My hairdresser did explain before she started to do anything that we had reached a decision point.  Was my aim now to continue to grow my hair, or keep it at around its present length, which is a lot longer than it was but nowhere near collar length?  I said I wanted to let it grow longer to see what it would be like, since if it turned out to be awful it she could always chop it off again, and she was pleased because growing out naturally curly silver hair is a project she doesn't get to do every day, while middling length crops for middle aged ladies are bread and butter fare.  Though as she is a shrewd businesswoman and all round decent human being I daresay she'd have sounded enthusiastic if I'd said that the current curly halo was as far as I was going.

Apparently we have now reached a tricky phase of the project, as the bit growing on top of my head has to grow down to reach the sides before the whole thing can be shaped into a proper bob. Once that's done the hair can be allowed go down further or be kept up around the level of my jawline without any major reworking.  She warned me that the top might go increasingly sticky-uppy for the next five weeks or so, before gravity defeated it and it consented to grow downwards instead, so in the meantime she would shape the bits round the back to make the top look more as though it was that length on purpose.  I have trust in her judgement, and anyway I'm curious to see what happens next.  If the whole project comes to naught and she ends up cutting it short then never mind, having vaguely comical hair for a few weeks is not a major problem in the grand scheme of things.  I think she is genuinely fired up by the great reshaping project.  Apparently she has persuaded one of her other clients who has had short hair for ages to try growing it.

I saw my parents for lunch, while the Systems Administrator waited for my mystery parcel.  I am expecting a couple of consignments of plants, and thought this one might be from the nursery in deepest Lincolnshire that does some unusual things at very reasonable prices, but does not use Paypal or have a secure online credit card facility so that I ended up sending them a limit cheque. An email from the delivery company arrived yesterday saying that the parcel would be arriving today, but didn't say who the parcel was from, which fitted with the Lincolnshire nursery's slight lack of polish in the customer facing direction.  However, when I got home the box standing in the hall was branded Ashwood Nurseries.  I was impressed.  I only put the order in with them the day before yesterday.

It was a tall, narrow box, and I cut the parcel tape so that I could look in at the top to see my plants nicely nestled at the bottom, all leafy and intact.  The instructions on the box actually said to open the bottom of the box and let the plants slide out, which I did, carefully, and out they came accompanied by a scattering of compost over the kitchen floor.  I have bought from Ashwood before and they have lovely packaging.  The plants had bags round their pots, to keep the compost in (or at least most of it) and the roots damp while keeping the packaging dry, then the bagged pots were taped into a shallow box that fitted snugly inside the deep one.  The pots could not move around and would not tumble over each other if the package were tipped during transit, so much better than jamming everything in with balls of scrunched up newspaper.

They were three salvias.  Not strictly necessary, since I have enough other things to be getting on with in the garden without introducing three extra pots to water, but I love salvias and they are so good for late summer colour when a lot of the border perennials have finished flowering.  The absolute pick was Salvia tubiflora, with orange flowers, which I have wanted for ages but last year Ashwood ran out of stock before I got round to ordering any.  Then I got a red 'Royal Bumble' to go with the new red dahlia, and the snapdragons growing on from seed.  The SA admired 'Royal Bumble' at Chelsea and while I am officer in charge of plant sourcing I do try to take account of what the SA likes as well as indulging my own tastes.  Finally I went for Salvia patens 'Cambridge Blue' to go on the terrace.  The pale yellow dahlia it is supposed to go with is growing on nicely, but the Cosmos 'Xanthos' are still weedy little things and the pale blue Convolulus sabiatus is still in Lincolnshire, so that particular scheme may or may not be working out.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

two exhibitions

I went today to see the Chris Ofili tapestry Weaving Magic at the National Gallery.  It had flickered on my cultural radar but no more, however the friend I went with had picked up on it, and we agreed that it would make a good pairing with Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery.

The tapestry is really very impressive and great fun.  It hangs in splendid isolation in the Sunley room, where the walls have been covered in coordinating Ofili designed grisaille figures.  The original design for the tapestry, or strictly speaking the three tapestries because it consists of a triptych, was done in watercolour, not even the dry, precise watercolour of an eighteenth century landscape painter but the bleeding, splashy sort that really puts the water into colour.  Unlike Grayson Perry's tapestries, the new Ofili tapestry was handwoven by a team of five people working for three years in close collaboration with the artist.  After the exhibition it will hang permanently in the Clothworkers' Hall in the City of London.

As was explained in the accompanying short film, the Clothworkers' Company offered the commission to Chris Ofili partly on the strength of his some of his previous work designing stage sets, because they knew he could envisage his work at that scale.  He was initially cautious in case a commission meant that they would want to influence the the work, but accepted their assurances that they wanted a genuine Ofili and would not interfere.  The choice of watercolour had an element of mischief: he wanted to see how the weavers could translate something so graduated and subtle into the solid medium of wool.  The answer turned out to be, with great skill.

Figures in the two side panels pull back curtains to reveal two other figures in a landscape beyond, one playing a guitar while the other reclines drinking from a cocktail glass perennially replenished by a barman in the sky.  It is a very watery landscape.  The whole thing is done in jewel colours, purples, emerald greens and bright blues, very rich and intense and very subtly blended.  The whole thing is wonderful, and possibly slightly kitsch.  I would need to think about that.  Most people would not class the Fauvists or Henry Matisse as kitsch, so would I count the original Ofili watercolour as kitsch, or was that my response to seeing it blown up quite so large and enacted in tapestry?

My only gripe was that I would have liked to know more about the process of weaving, how they started a new colour in and secured it so that there weren't any sags or bobbles, whether they floated threads across the back between areas using that colour, what was the thread count (or whatever the term is when it is tapestry), how many colours there were in total, and so on.  I wish they had made two little extra bits to hang somewhere in the room, that we were allowed to touch and so that we could see what the back looked like.  The accompanying book cost twenty-five pounds and didn't give any more information than we'd already gleaned from the short film.  I don't know why I would have liked to be told all that when I am quite happy to spend an afternoon looking at Dutch landscapes of the Golden Age without a tutorial on oil painting techniques, but that's what happens when you start crossing the divide between Art and Craft, suddenly you want to know how it's done.

I went into the Howard Hodgkin knowing very little about him, beyond the bare facts that he was moderately famous, died recently, collected Indian art which he loaned to a very well reviewed exhibition at the Ashmolean which I should have loved to go to but didn't, and that his paintings were colourful.  And I liked the one the gallery was using in the advert.  My friend knew slightly less, so we visited in a spirit of open minded curiosity.

All except the very early works were pretty abstract, since rather than represent what his sitters looked like, he was painting what he felt when he thought about the encounter.  In fact, if I'd been whoever was represented by the rather muddy square of colours on the way in to the exhibition I'd have worried that Howard Hodgkin might not have enjoyed the time he spent with me very much. The show was hung chronologically, and for the first couple of rooms as we progressed through the 1960s I wondered whether my friend minded having paid ten quid to get in.  As we hit the 1980s Hodgkin's use of paint became freer, and we began to get to paintings like the one in the advert, and I began to feel cheerful.  And I liked the way he continued the paintings up over the frames.

It is probably very shallow and childish to like colour and movement, but I do.  Anyway, if a painting is almost utterly devoid of anything representational, and carries no narrative content that anybody not privy to the contents of the artist's head could understand, what are you left with?  So I love Rothko and Paul Klee, and I liked some of the later Howard Hodgkins a lot.  I am sorry that he died just before the exhibition opened so could not see his paintings from so many decades gathered together, and a new audience discovering them.

Monday, 29 May 2017

planting, weeding and making more

My gamble that I could get away with leaving watering the pots outside the greenhouse until morning after getting back from yesterday's concert paid off, as the overnight thunderstorm brought heavy rain.  The three downpours we've had in the past couple of weeks have been enough to make a real difference to at least the top few inches of soil.  Planting things out in the back garden today I didn't find a solid layer of bone dry earth just a couple of inches below the surface, as often happens after summer rain.  The aquifers must be low after the driest winter in twenty years and there may be trouble ahead (though Tendring has never had a hosepipe ban yet.  The last time I saw figures we had the lowest leakage rate and the most expensive water of anywhere in the country, but we have never had a ban) but for the time being garden catastrophe is averted.

Most of what I planted today and yesterday was left over from last year's seed sowing, and looking rather the worse for wear in their pots, so I hope that planting them was not a complete waste of time.  The contrast between the huge, fat Digitalis x mertonensis I planted in the ditch bed last autumn, and the wizened little plants that stayed in their pots, was stark.  But given an unrestricted root run the latter might find a new lease of life.  And I weeded as I went, so the day's work won't have been entirely futile.  I gave the Digitalis a scattering of pink Viola odorata around their skirts to finish them off.  Those came from the already rooting side shoots I potted up back in the spring, when the parent plants were flowering and I could see what colour they were.  The sweet violets had rooted nicely in their seven centimetre pots, so I now know that if you have an existing patch and would like more they are extremely easy to bulk up.

The lupins have suddenly gone over, both the tree lupins and the delightful blue Lupinus chamissonis, a Californian native that can't quite make up its mind whether it is a shrub or not.  It is woodier and more branching than a traditional herbaceous border lupin, but laxer and lower growing than your classic Lupinus arboreus.  I was slightly surprised they had faded so quickly, and that they did not appear to be setting seed, and when I looked more closely the denuded flower spikes were seething with lupin aphids.  Lupin aphids are horrible, larger than normal greenfly, and I guess they must be unpalatable to birds because nothing seems to eat them.  Greenfly on the roses is never an issue, and I rejoice in the mornings when I pull the bathroom blind up and see the great tits scuttling up and down the stems of the roses, but lupin aphids are another matter.  I wondered briefly whether to spray them, but hoped that ladybirds or something would sort the problem out, and of course the trouble with spraying, even with the sort of organic spray that doesn't have a withdrawal period for edible crops, is that you spray the ladybirds as well as the aphids.

The Californian tree poppy is getting into its stride, at last.  It was planted in June 2012, my third attempt at getting one to go and if it didn't work I had sworn there wouldn't be a fourth, while feeling very frustrated because although Romneya coulteri is notoriously difficult to establish in the garden from a pot, our conditions would have been ideal for it if only any of the previous plants had lived long enough to find out.  This spring I have finally seen shoots emerging a yard from the position of the original plant.  It has started to run, which is what they will do when they are happy.  The grey leaves and white flowers are so beautiful that one is delighted that it is, in fact, rather a thug once it gets going.

The Althaea cannabina have started spreading usefully as well.  This is a pink mallow like a very refined hollyhock, tall and multistemmed whose leaves are smaller and more pointed than hollyhock leaves, and flowers smaller than hollyhock flowers.  I bought one after admiring it in Beth Chatto's dry garden, then bought a couple more because my attempts to raise more from seed had come to nought.  The young plants were grazed by rabbits last year then ravaged by drought this spring, and the only self sown seedlings germinated right at the front of the bed so I had to move them, wondering if I had left it too late since the advice on the web was that they disliked transplanting and it should be done while they were young.  Now all three of the plants I bought have begun to shoot up, and the transplanted seedlings are still alive, apart from one that I pulled up by mistake with a handful of horsetail, and my plan to have a veil of small pink hollyhocks hovering over the asters along with the Verbena bonariensis is starting to take shape.  I replanted my unintended victim with a sprinkling of miccorrhizae and half a can of water and hoped for the best, but I can see why they wouldn't move well as mature plants, for it had a long, deep tap root.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

out for the summer

I finally got around to putting the more fragile garden ornaments back outside for the summer. There is the white stone with the hole in it, abstracted from a beach near Flamborough Head, and as seen at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.  The designer was interviewed on the BBC and said that all her stones were going back to the beach after the show was over.  I felt a bit bad at the time about nicking mine, sneaking it quickly into my anorak pocket, but it was only the one.  It wasn't as though I were scooping them up by the bulk bag.

There are the two painted hens with folk art flowers all over them from the Culture Vulture catalogue.  I quite like them but they are kitsch and the paint quality is slightly iffy.  It was the first time I had bought anything from Culture Vulture, and the hens came courtesy of a heavy discount on your initial purchase.  I made a mental note that Culture Vulture must employ a very good photographer to illustrate their catalogue, so that I could apply the requisite degree of scepticism the next time anything caught my eye.  The hens go out on the terrace (or patio) which is becoming so cluttered with pots of alpines, cottage pinks and now the orange corner that a touch of kitsch folk artery fits in fine.

Then there are the blue glass leaves that I hang from the branches of the crab apple by the blue summerhouse.  I do rather like the blue glass, and could do with some more since the tree has grown.  They are rounded, the shape of elongated pancakes, and quite thick.  I bring them in for the winter because I am afraid that if frost gets into the tops where the metal hanging loops are embedded in the glass then they will fracture, though they would look nice dangling from the bare branches on a winter's day.  I once overheard somebody grumbling to her friend that the neighbours hung crystals in their garden which bounced light in through her office window in a very distracting way, and her friend said that having crystals in your garden was rather vulgar anyway.  I wondered if the glass leaves were vulgar, but decided it didn't matter, although I'm quite sure that Nicole de Vesian doesn't have them in her garden.

Mr Fluffy decided that hanging things from the tree was very exciting, and raced up it.  Then he advanced as far as he could towards the ends of the branches, and for extra support rested his front feet on my head.  Then he sat in the middle of the tree, purring and squeaking, until eventually he was persuaded to bounce back down without breaking off either of the clumps of mistletoe.  I smeared ripe berries against the underside of some of the branches a few years ago, then pretty much forgot that I'd done it, and was excited when I discovered I actually had two mistletoe plants. The tree is not very big yet, so I hope they will not harm it.  In the meantime I have no feeling for how fragile the mistletoe is, or its powers of regeneration if the whole plant should be broken off at the base.

I came in from the garden early to go to hear the Albion Quartet at Wrabness church.  They were very exciting, though being a hopeless middlebrow I enjoyed the Schubert they finished with much more than the Gerald Barry at the start.  I keep hoping that if I go on listening to contemporary classical music then eventually the penny will drop and I will Get It, but I still don't.  The performers must know in their hearts that most of us don't, as they never risk placing it at the end of the programme, when we could leave before it started.  As I set off on my way home it began to rain heavily, and I drove the rest of the way hoping that it was raining on the garden and not just at the far end of the Tendring peninsular.  By a strange coincidence Radio 3 was broadcasting on the topic O Albion in Words and Music.  You just knew the poem about lying in bed at four in the morning panicking about death had to be by Larkin.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

ever the optimist

Today I spent mostly pottering about in the greenhouse.  Originally it was just going to be for a couple of hours, before I went and planted yesterday's abandoned wheelbarrow of plants in the back garden, but then I kept going, apart from the interlude after I ran inside when it began to rain very hard and I remembered that I had left the bedroom window open and thought the rain would splash in and mark the top of the Shaker boxes that live on the chest of drawers under the window. Then instead of running back out again in the rain I ended up writing a reply to an email from my Japanese gardening friend.  This is how the hours vanish.  One minute you are potting on Papaver orientale seedlings, the next emailing Japan.

I am not sure why I had a tray of Papaver orientale 'Royal Wedding' seedlings.  Oriental poppies do well here, putting up happily with the light soil, and I see on the internet that 'Royal Wedding' is very attractive, white with a black central splotch, but why did I order a white one?  I ended up putting in three seed orders, one from Derry Watkins because she does such interesting plants, and one with Chiltern Seeds because they had some things that I wanted, and then a third with a friend's gardening club because I could get a discount, and she was keen to sign up as many takers as possible to make sure the club qualified for the full fifty per cent off (we did).  Perhaps at some point 'Royal Wedding' sounded appealing, or maybe the packet came free with a magazine.

Acinos alpinus was definitely bought on purpose.  A member of the same family as mint and oregano, it is a low grower with small leaves that look rather like thyme, and should have little purple flowers, attractive to insects.  After pricking out I had one and a third trays of seedlings, which had grown on into chunky plantlets with roots filling their modules.  I moved them on into seven centimetre pots with the intention of planting them out into the gravel of the railway garden once they have fully rooted into their new pots.  I don't want them sitting around in a cold frame until next year.  I don't have the space, and they look like the sort of thing that would quietly rot and die.  Sharp drainage, sunshine and fresh air is what I think they need.

Marrubium supinum, with the delightful common name of Scallop Shell Horehound, is another drought tolerant labiate.  If you have never heard of it under either guise I wouldn't be surprised.  I certainly hadn't, and if you Google it the first entries to come up are all from American nurseries. Alas, in north Essex it will not be graced by hummingbirds, but I look forward to it being cold, heat and drought tolerant and needing NO SUMMER WATER.  As the seedlings grew the leaves were bigger than I'd visualised, though attractive in a wavy, furry, felty way, but out of scale for the railway planting.  I potted on the seedlings anyway while wondering quite what to do with them, before inspiration struck and I thought they would do very well for ground cover by the entrance to the garden, where the soil was bad to begin with and worse after the remains of a bulk bag of builders' sand got dumped there, and they would be highly unlikely to receive any SUMMER WATER beyond what fell from the heavens.

At the moment the site is a muddle with two dead sea buckthorn, cause of death unknown, several odd fence posts from now defunct fencing schemes, a wooden anti rabbit gate long out of use and that you couldn't shut if you wanted to because brambles have grown through it, a lot of weedy grass growing back where I weeded it previously, and the dustbins.  Just as soon as I have a spare couple of days it will be transformed with a Buddleia alternifolia (so long as my investigations don't suggest the sea buckthorn died of honey fungus, but I'm working on the assumption it was lousy soil plus wind rock), ground cover (the Marrubium.  There is not going to be enough but with any luck it will seed itself), an art installation based on a quotation from Samuel Beckett, and maybe even a reed screen to hide the brambles and a box for the dustbins.  I will need the Systems Administrator's input for the latter, and indeed to install the installation, and to take the chainsaw to the dead buckthorn to save me having to do it by hand with the bow saw.  I have a roll of reed screen left over from something else, but we do not have anything to make a dustbin compound out of, unless the SA has got something stashed away, like the recycled pews that in the end yielded a set of steps and an auricula stand.  Actually, I know there are some oak planks down in the garage that were surplus to requirements when reflooring the study, but I suspect the SA would be resistant to the idea of using them for the dustbins.

You can see why the morning's potting took all day.  The task of sorting out the entrance that I blithely described as needing a couple of spare days is more like a week's project, when you go through all the things that need to be done.  There's about three square metres of cobble mulch that would need moving as well.  That's no light task.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Britain basks, I weed

It is the sort of weather during which Britain is traditionally expected to bask.  That's what the newspapers always say, Britain basks in the however many degrees celsius it was, illustrated with a photograph of a middle aged couple in deckchairs on Brighton beach or young people lying down in Hyde Park.  I must admit I am not awfully keen on basking.  I can manage a couple of days in July with a reasonably good grace, but that's about my limit, and late May is definitely too early.  I've got things to do, without spending all day lying down.

Still, with James Basson winning another Chelsea gold medal for another Mediterranean themed show garden, our front garden is bang on trend.  Olive tree, fig, myrtles, fennel, Phlomis italica, lavender, they are all happy to bask.  The foliage of the little bulbs is yellowing rapidly in the heat, and adds that James Basson show garden weedy look, as do the actual weeds.  The Dianthus carthusianorum, raised from seed and planted last year, are sending up their spindly stalks topped with pink flowers, also very Chelsea, and I have a tray of Dianthus cruentus seedlings coming along to keep them company.  The little Viola corsica I planted out a few weeks back are battling along, but I watered them to be on the safe side.  Self sown asparagus is sending up great fat stalks that are far better than anything I managed to grow in the vegetable garden.

The planting in the front garden is chosen to be highly drought tolerant.  Where it was not chosen wisely it has evolved to be so: the list of plants tried in the long bed and no longer with me is long, and depressing or educational depending on your point of view.  Trying Phlox was just silly, but I blame youthful enthusiasm and inexperience coupled with the Svengali influence of Christopher Lloyd.  It pays to choose your guru carefully.  Falling under the sway of somebody gardening on clay that has already been cultivated as a garden for a century is not the best idea when you garden on deep sand and gravel in the driest part of the country.  I was surprised that alliums weren't having it, but they weren't, and while Centaura montana looks as though it might be drought tolerant with its grey leaves it turns out it is much happier on clay in the back garden. Cardoons likewise were a dwarf fiasco.

Colutea x media 'Copper Beauty' is very happy.  It has grey leaves and burnt orange pea-shaped flowers, out now.  I grow it near a purple leaved cherry, with bronze fennel and an orange flowered Potentilla within hailing distance, and they make a good combination.  I am very fond of the Colutea and was gratified to see them extensively used in part of the Piet Oudolf designed walled garden at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire.  The orange flowered Agastache I tried did not last. Agastache is not the longest lived thing, but they didn't seed themselves either.  Life is too short to keep replacing it.

The grey leaved Perovskia that should have formed part of the group was an utter failure.  Some journalists claim that it is a great plant for dry soil, the drier and poorer the better, but they can't have tried it themselves.  It looks as though it should be happy in those conditions with its fine grey leaves, but it doesn't do at all.  I must have killed half a dozen in various parts of the long bed before conceding that it was a very bad idea and was never going to work.

Even with the drought tolerant Mediterranean species I am going to have to do some watering.  I noticed when watering in the greenhouse that the little myrtles I put in by the Systems Administrator's blue summerhouse in 2015 were looking very stressed.  And as for the back garden. There is nothing as ambitious and ill-chosen as Phlox, but the asters are starting to look stressed, and some Digitalis x mertonensis I planted last year are beginning to droop.  And I'm worried about the clematis, especially the ones that only went in a year ago.  And I had better clamber in behind the oil tank and find out what is happening to the Sarcococca and rambling roses.  Clearly there is no time to be wasted in basking.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

mistaken identity

I wandered down to the bottom of the garden this morning to see what it was doing.  As I stood contemplating the rather dry bog bed, a series of high thin squeaks behind me revealed the presence of Mr Cool.  He seemed pleased to see me, and as I stroked him a series of loud squawks announced the arrival of Our Ginger, followed by a black blur and a thud that were Mr Fluffy dropping out of a tree.  I hadn't noticed him up there, but he is a keen and agile climber.  Looking out of the greenhouse the other morning I saw him in the very top of the cut leaved elder in front of the oil tank, apparently hanging on to the thin branches with all four legs while the whole shrub swayed, like a cat in a cartoon.

Something in the scene was not right, however, apart from it raining cats.  There should not have been a string of five purple primula weaving through the orange ones.  I have never deliberately planted purple primula in the bog bed, whereas I did plant five more of what were purportedly the orange flowered Primula bulleyana earlier in the year.  I could only conclude that the firm I dealt with had sent me the wrong thing.

Mistakes will happen.  I know from experience in my own greenhouse and from working at the plant centre how difficult it can be to keep track of different batches of plants stood near each other.  In the early stages of cultivation you tend to rely on standing them in blocks of the same variety rather than go to all the labour of writing or printing a label for every pot and sticking it in.  So easy to muddle the blocks if you need to move them for any reason, or to pick pots out of the wrong block, because you are in a hurry and they look similar, or because even though they look wildly different you don't have the faintest idea what either of them are.  I was once sent a Berkheya instead of a Beschorneria yuccoides, the former being a prickly leaved grey herbaceous species from South Africa and the latter having rosettes of strap shaped leaves and hailing from Mexico.  When I rang to complain the person I spoke to initially suggested that maybe young plants looked different to mature ones, and when I explained that on the contrary the plant I'd been sent wasn't even a monocotyledon they insisted I sent a photo.  After that they congratulated me on my plant identification skills and agreed that it was indeed a Berkheya, and I got a replacement.

Being English I hate having to complain to shops.  I kept quiet about the twenty-five pink 'Little Beauty' tulips that should have been the orange 'Little Princess', partly because I see the vendor socially at gardening events and it would be embarrassing and partly because as I grow both varieties it didn't matter so much.  My protest when one entire third of a viola order two years ago turned out to be substitutes was confined to some weak whimpering down the phone when the nursery person's mother who had been roped in to call to say the order was being dispatched mentioned it.  I will not buy anything from either of them again, and they will never know the reason why, and that is the English way of doing things.  But I did not want five purple primulas.  I did not want them in absolute terms, because I wanted a big patch of apricot orange, not a mixture, and I did not want them anywhere near the orange ones because if they were what I suspected they were then they would hybridize and I would not get reliably apricot coloured seedlings in future, but a mixture of orange, purple and every colour in between.

So I managed to find the original confirmation email from the supplier that showed I had ordered Primula bulleyana, and sent off a reply explaining that I had been delighted with the plants and they were all doing very well, only the Primula bulleyana had all come out purple and must be something else, and they replied very promptly saying that in that case they must have been P. beesiana, which has identical leaves, and will cross with P. bulleyana.  That was what I had guessed they were and was why I didn't want them, quite apart from the fact that they were the wrong colour.  The supplier offered to send some more in a month's time when the next batch were ready, and I said that would be great and as I had been planning to buy some more from them maybe I could do that at the same time.  I felt mean that they would incur a second delivery cost on the replacements, but what can you do?  People who take themselves seriously as gardeners, and those who sell plants for a living, are apt to look down on the punters who are so shallow that they only buy plants from garden centres when they are in flower, but at least that way you know what you are getting.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

we went to Chelsea

We spent yesterday at the Chelsea Flower Show.  In the ordinary way I'd have blogged about it when I got home, but as I made my final tour of the Grand Pavilion I began to feel unnaturally tired, and on the train coming back began to feel rather shivery and prickly, and when we got in I simply went to bed, leaving the Systems Administrator to water the plants in the greenhouse.

Chelsea is changing, I am afraid.  Doubtless I am changing too, and after attending for the past three decades I can't expect it to have the same impact as it did when I started off.  I have encountered more plants since then, so the thrill of making new discoveries is less than when practically everything was a new discovery, and every show garden now is weighed up against my memories of hundreds of other show gardens.  Nonetheless, Chelsea is changing, and not necessarily in a good way.  It is becoming more of a lifestyle show, which is all very well, but not what it primarily used to be or what I would like it to be.

In the Grand Pavilion, which was always my favourite part of a fabulous whole, there were still some excellent displays and some proper nurseries.  Rosy Hardy was there with the largest stand I've seen her on yet, and Kevock from Scotland where I could feast my eyes on blue Himalayan poppies and the wonderful red Meconopsis punicea without falling into the trap of trying to grow them in Essex.  The City of Birmingham had produced a completely over-the-top tower of bedding in every colour imaginable so long as it was bright, topped by a Heath Robinsonesque animated train.  There were sumptuous exotic orchids, and Protea from Kirstenboch exhibited by two fabulously enthusiastic South Africans.  There was the identical same display of unbelievably huge and perfect delphiniums above massive bright orange begonias that Blackmore and Langdon have exhibited at every Chelsea I've been to, and so far as I know at every Chelsea since the very first show.  Kelways had brought mouthwatering intersectional peonies with petals like tissue paper, Blom's tulips were as splendid as ever, and there was a fascinating display of tubers of different potato varieties.

And yet.  There were no auriculas.  There was one stand with violas, but it must have been very small for I never found it.  In fact, there was a marked decrease in the number of smaller nurseries taking part, with the sort of stand where you can ask for advice from somebody who actually grows the plants and knows how they behave.  The flower arranging section was much larger than in previous years, but floral art leaves us both cold.  The big site around the war memorial, that was inhabited by Notcutts for years before passing to Hillier, had been subdivided leaving Hiller with a smaller stand, and the rest of the space given to the Wedgwood tea garden.  Proof comes from the show catalogue (now priced at an eye watering ten pounds) where the list of exhibitors of perennial plants is half the length of the list of exhibitors selling sculptures and there are more firms listed under Stationery than Trees and Shrubs.  Maybe the cost of exhibiting at Chelsea, now it extends to an extra day and everything to do with London from the congestion charge to the price of overnight accommodation is so expensive, puts smaller firms off.  Maybe now they can showcase their wares via the internet they don't need to come in person to hand out catalogues to potential customers. Whatever, the reason, they are not coming and I miss them.

It had been well flagged in the press that the number of show gardens was down, only eight in the large Show Garden category, with a ninth sponsored by the RHS based on ideas for greening City developments.  That was designed by Prof Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University, who was responsible for the Olympic Park gardens.  I have a lot of time for Nigel Dunnett and liked his Chelsea design.  Of the other eight we only really liked one, the Royal Bank of Canada's wetland forest garden.  The garden based on the Chinese Silk Road was madly kitsch and quite hideous, the garden about breaking down barriers in education cluttered with weird structures vaguely resembling giant wine racks that were presumably meant to symbolize barriers being broken down but failed to divide the space in any aesthetically meaningful way, and we didn't see one of the gardens at all.  The design inspired by Maggie's Keswick Jencks' cancer centres was one of those enclosed gardens where you have to queue to file past it, and we looked at the length of the queue and decided not to join it.

The County of Yorkshire had sent a diorama of a boat on a beach, below a slope of wild flowers and a decidedly dodgy background painting of Yorkshire scenery.  Dioramas used to be a big thing at garden shows before falling out of fashion and this one was quite fun, except that somebody had decided that the way to create the effect of waves on the beach was to attach one of the three mooring buoys to an underwater motor that sent it plunging up and down like a space hopper.

It had also been well flagged in the press that many of the design stars of recent years, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Cleve West, and Andy Sturgeon, were all taking a break from Chelsea.  That needn't be a barrier per se.  I like all of their work, probably in that order, but it's good to make space for new talent to come through.  If only it does.  There has also been talk of the lack of sponsors, variously blamed on Brexit in particular or the climate of uncertainty in general.  It was depressing to read in the Standard on the train home that the winner of the Fresh Gardens section, which was a really good expression of ideas for planting around some low rise flats, had been unable to find a sponsor despite having won three previous Chelsea gold medals, and ended up financing her entry from her own landscaping business.  Does that confirm a general lack of available sponsorship, or just prejudice against female designers?

In the Artisan Gardens category there was one standout good display, based on the greening of a post industrial landscape using rusting cranes, recycled wood and metal and some covetable rusted metal sculptures, and we were pleased when we found out it had won in its category.  The others were pleasant if not brilliant.  The difference between Artisan and Fresh Gardens seems to be that if it references traditional crafts or historic customs it is Artisan, and if it includes giant pink perspex triangles and half the planting is hidden underground it is probably Fresh.

I had one shopping mission for the day, to buy a packet of beige plastic stick in plant labels.  Beige does not sound very exciting, but that is the point, since it blends discreetly into the background in terracotta pots and I wanted some for my display pots, but I drew a blank since the place I got them last time didn't have any.  A quick Google search this morning revealed that of course I can get them somewhere else online though the cost of delivery will be almost twice that of the labels.

So that was Chelsea.  Nice but not as thrilling as it should have been.  The trouble with the plethora of sculptures, statuary gifts, ceramics, candles and diffusers, jewellery, and non-gardening accessories and footwear is threefold.  Firstly, many are quite horrible and I wouldn't receive them with joy as a gift. Secondly, I couldn't afford to buy most of them even if I wanted them.  And thirdly, I could look at that sort of thing at the Country Living Fair for £14 or the London Art Fair for £15, instead of paying the RHS £72 for the privilege of going to the first members' day at the Chelsea Flower Show.  We agreed as we left that we would go next year, but if it continues down the same path I doubt we'll be there in three years' time.

Monday, 22 May 2017

summer bedding

As I continued excavating the contents of the greenhouse I discovered some more plants for the orange corner.  In among the Zinnia and Cosmos seedlings were some Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch'. Tithonia grows quite tall and has warm orange flowers.  I saw it somewhere, possibly on Gardeners' World, and was charmed, though I have since heard that it needs a warm summer to do anything useful.  I sowed seed a year or two ago, but barely any germinated and the resulting miserable seedlings never came to anything.  Probably I watered them too much or too little at some critical stage.  This year's sowing germinated far better, and since I moved the seedlings into individual tiny pots they have continued to grow, although not race away.  Today I potted them on to nine centimetre pots, not knowing if it was safe to put them straight into their final containers or if they would take umbrage at all that unused damp compost around them and rot off.  The tiny pots were gratifyingly full of roots.  So far, so good.

The splendid garden near Lavenham I visited last autumn with the garden club had a small patch of what I correctly guessed was Tithonia near the house, and the owner was rather shamefaced about it.  I saw no need to be apologetic.  You do not get nearly as many points for large orange flowered bedding plants as for rare cyclamen, but a garden containing nothing but small obscure bulbs would not be half as much fun.

The Zinnia went into nine centimetre pots.  I said last year I would not grow Zinnia again, because they were such miffy plants, resentful of over and underwatering, stems rotting off at the least opportunity, and with such coarse leaves.  I relented because the fat, multi-petalled flowers are so theatrical and make such vivid pops of colour in among airier things like the Cosmos.  I had some seed left of last year's bright purple variety, which germinated well.  Clearly it is worth husbanding Zinnia seed from year to year.  New this year is a lime green and pink variety I saw on Derry Watkins' website and fell for.  This time as an experiment I used John Innes compost for sowing and pricking out, to see if it overcame the problem of small pots drying out in the greenhouse, or sitting too wet as I over watered them in an attempt not to let them dry out.  Perhaps Zinnia prefer JI to B&Q multipurpose, or perhaps the weather has been more to their liking, or I have been luckier or more careful with the watering, but so far none of them have collapsed.

The Cosmos were sad little things.  I sowed a pale yellow called 'Xanthos' from Derry Watkins and two different sorts of pink ones that came free with garden magazines, and they all germinated quickly as Cosmos do, but have been slow to grow on, and have not made nearly such good roots as the Tithonia.  Perhaps Cosmos don't like John Innes.  Or the weather.  Or they are not such vigorous varieties as the 'Sensation Mixed' I've grown for the past few years.  I moved the Cosmos directly into the pots they will be displayed in because I've always moved them up to a big pot in one fell swoop in the past and they haven't minded.  At the moment they look so small and spindly it's difficult to imagine there will be anything to display.

The only bedding I have bought this year are five white flowered Begonia boliviana alba for the porch, and two Calibrachoa and two trailing Verbena in coordinating shades of raspberry for the ancestral pot.  I don't think you get any points at all for the Begonia, but I like them.  They have long, pointed leaves and the flowers are not brilliant white but a nice, muted shade of cream.  And they will grow on a shelf that gets half sun at the front and is in shade much of the time at the back.  There are lots of critical things one could say about seasonal bedding.  It is time consuming. It is not sustainable.  Piet Oudolf and Nigel Dunnett would not have anything to do with it.  But it is great fun, and helps carry the garden on into late summer when otherwise there would be a lull until the leaves changed colour and the berries ripened.  And just think, having all these plants in pots is one of the reasons why I almost never go anywhere, so in the moral stakes I can offset my two bales of compost and a few nights of the greenhouse fan heater in winter against your weekend break to Barcelona.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

in the orange corner

I spent the day getting the pots of tender summer flowering stuff out of the greenhouse, and starting to pot on things that need it.  The weather forecast out to Saturday 27 May doesn't show any night with temperatures even in single figures, and I think the risk of frost is over for this spring.  The welter, the absolute chaos of pots, is incredible.  I hope I am at peak mess, and that by tomorrow evening I'll have started to restore some sort of order, though frankly, I don't understand how so many pots fitted in the greenhouse in the first place.

Last year's dahlias, those that survived the winter, are arrayed in three sections.  Some are to go outside the conservatory, arranged in the order I want them to end up, pale yellow and dusky pink at one end, deep purple at the other.  One bright purple cactus variety, new last year, has not come back to life, its tuber sitting apparently solid but entirely inactive in the compost.  As a compensation, the mini plants I bought this year from Halls of Heddon have all made sturdy plants which are now filling their nine centimetre pots with fat roots.  I am potting them into two litre pots, and will grow them on in the greenhouse for a while longer before moving them into terracotta pots for display.  And I will keep the terracotta a size smaller than the ones they are destined to end up in.  I think I over watered some of the newer dahlias last year and their roots rotted.

The second cache of dahlia pots is destined for the shell pink and mid purple scheme outside the garage, and there are a couple of big, blowsy ones in a soft orange to go in the orange corner on the patio (or terrace), along with some other tender, orange flowered plants that have made it through the winter.  I've had Lobelia salicifolia for years, and am glad it's still going as I haven't seen it for sale recently.  It produces tall, thin stems with narrow, willow-like leaves and tubular orange flowers, and runs gently at the root, and I have moved it into a larger pot to give it more scope.  I did experiment planting some out in the garden the last time I split it, but I haven't noticed any signs of life from them so it's just as well I still have the potful.

Sitting on the low retaining terrace wall I have put my Lotus berthelotii, bought as summer bedding a couple of years ago and experimentally nursed through the following winters, kept frost free and on the dry side.  It produces long, lax,branching stems clad in very fine grey leaves, which have a distressing propensity to drop if it is allowed to get too dry, and I think that of the three little plants in the original bedding scheme only one now survives.  Again, I am glad that it does as the garden centre where I bought it didn't have any this year when I called in to buy something else. The flowers are claw shaped and a dark, fierce shade of orange, and I am very fond of them.

Salvia confertiflora has been shuffled round the corner from the conservatory to the corner of the terrace, as I thought it might like a real baking and I'm making a thing of orange this season.  It makes a big plant, and mine is not so bushy and splendid as the ones I saw first at Kiftsgate and then noticed once I had got my eye in at East Ruston Old Vicarage.  I have promised to feed it more, but wondered if it would like a change of aspect.  The flowers are tubular, individually smallish, carried on tall spikes, in a nice bricky shade of orange.  I got my plant at Kiftsgate Court when we visited on holiday, and it spent the rest of the week by the kitchen window of our rented flat, horrifying me each time it wilted as I got the hang of the watering regime.  It is quite thirsty when in growth, with its big felty leaves.  In winter I keep it pretty dry, terrified of it rotting.

I fell for the charms of Dicliptera suberecta when we visited Spetchley Park in Worcestershire.  It is a grey leaved, woolly sub shrub that sends up vertical flowering stems with whorls of soft orange flowers.  I wanted one very much, but it is not the easiest thing to track down, and eventually I discovered that a nursery in Lincolnshire that I was buying some verbascums and other bits and pieces from stocked it.  It is slowly clumping up at the root and was filling its pot, so I have given it a larger one.  Again, I keep it quite dry in winter.

A trio of seed raised silver leaved Gazania left over from last year will complete the orange corner. For several years I raised a whole divided tray's worth of plants and put them out in the gravel, but they struggled in the drought and the sand, and I have gradually realised that they do well in pots, and make it through the winter in the greenhouse quite reliably.  Pot culture is the way ahead, I think.  I would have liked some Arctotis 'Flame' since seeing them in the gardens near the house at the Hillier Arboretum, but I have not managed to find anywhere that would let me buy a sensible number of just that variety.  Instead they came bundled up with other colours so that I'd have ended up buying nine or fifteen plants, six or ten or which I didn't greatly want.  I have read that Arctotis come readily from cuttings, so if I could just lay my hands on one plant that would get me started. I certainly don't want to buy fifteen.  They are easy from seed, only I did like the colour of 'Flame' and none of the ones I've grown from mixed seed have been quite as good.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

finishing a half done job

Today I finally finished washing the conservatory windows, a task which has been sitting half done since last weekend.  In the meantime it was not possible to sit in there, or very easy to move around to do the watering, because I had moved so many of the pots in order to get at the glass.  It was a slow and fiddly job, shuffling things over to make space to put the step ladder up, climbing up and down with my damp cloth and finally rinsing the windows with the hose, all the while trying not to snap any stems or break off any fat emerging shoots.

In order to get at the outside of the windows in the shadiest corner I had to lift all the shade loving plants out of the way, except for the big Fatsia japonica which I tried to shuffle to one side.  Its pot had been broken and glued back together at some point in the past, and without thinking I pulled on a glued piece, which came off in my hand.  I looked at the triangle of exposed root ball, pushed the broken piece back into the space, looked at it some more while I calculated that there was no way I could glue it in place while the plant was in its pot, and the loose triangle fell out of the pot and smashed into half a dozen small bits.

That answered that question.  I was going to have to repot the Fatsia, which added to the length and complication of the proceedings as I had to go and hunt in the pot shed to see what I had that was suitable, and fetch down some compost from the greenhouse.  I ended up using a large egg pot that previously held one of the Hamamelis, before I settled on classic Italianate orange pots for them.  The egg pot was quite handsome, with a pattern of delicate horizontal ribs, but as I found out with the Hamamelis was not ideal for long term shrub plantings, because the fattest point of the pot is just below the rim and the root ball will not slide out when you want it to for repotting. But I already had the egg pot and didn't want to have to go out and buy another large container. They went through a period of being fashionable several years ago and then fell out of fashion so that when half the Hamamelis pots disintegrated in a hard winter and I had to replace them I found it was impossible to buy any more in the same style.  It was at that point that I discovered how difficult it is to remove a mature shrub from an egg pot that has not already broken apart.

It was a fiddle getting at the Fatsia, as the deck outside the conservatory was cluttered with the smaller shade loving plants I'd moved to get at the window, plus the succulents that are brought out for the summer which I'd just moved to make space inside to move the ginger lilies away from the glass, plus a Geranium maderense that is flowering on a stem so lopsided it has to be propped up on its neighbours.

Eventually it was all done.  The orange Clivia that I bought at a Plant Heritage meeting and the brilliant red Clianthus grown from seed, that are both in full flower, can now bloom against a backdrop of sparkling windows (at least when the sun doesn't shine directly through them and show up the smears) and swept and tidy floor.  The Eriobotrya jaonica 'Coppertone' has been relieved of its tatty spent flowers so that you can admire the soft bronze and grey of the emerging leaves.  The two Regal pelargoniums are making lots of bushy growth since I fed them, making me think I had better do that oftener.  The purple flowered Tibouchina is starting to produce new shoots from the bases of some of the older and fatter stems, confirming that it is alive, though I think it was a close-run thing.

Both of the triphylla fuchsias that overwintered in there are stone dead, never a sign of a single new shoot since the weather warmed up.  It must have been critically too cold for them at some point.  I lost a plant of the purple flowered Fuchsia arborescens in similar fashion a few years back. A souvenir of a visit to Powis Castle, it was doing pretty well and grew quite a lot, then after one cold night every leaf fell off, never to reappear.

Tomorrow we can have tea in there.  We were going to today, but I hadn't finished tidying up, and anyway Mr Cool had bagged one chair and Our Ginger the other, and they didn't look as though they wanted to move.

Friday, 19 May 2017

fiddling about

I was slow off the mark this morning, deciding I did want a second mug of tea after breakfast, answering a couple of emails, and walking with a letter up to the postbox with a swift detour to fit some more green waste in the brown bin before the binmen came.  By the time I'd changed into my gardening clothes and sorted out my bucket of tools it had begun to drizzle.  I stood in the fine, sifting rain with the bucket, trying to decide if it was real rain or not enough to count, and decided that it was really raining and that I, and the contents of the bucket, were getting wet.

After the rain passed it was quite grimly chilly, in that bone piercing way that a cold, grey, damp spring day feels colder than a dry, sunny winter one that is, objectively speaking, colder.  The thought of toiling in the cold and the damp was not very appealing, and I thought I would go and get some growbags for the tomatoes, since I was going to need them soon.  As I approached my car I thought that the nearside front tyre was bulging oddly over the gravel.  I prodded it experimentally and it felt squishy.  Car tyres should not be yielding to the touch.  I summoned the Systems Administrator for a second opinion, who confirmed that the tyre was partially flat.

The SA had independently planned to go to Screwfix to pick up an order via the dump to drop off five bags of rubbish from clearing out the workshop, and suggested I could come too as there is a branch of The Range opposite Screwfix, and get the bags there.  As we trundled towards Clacton I said we knew we were really middle aged when we were going to the dump together and then to a DIY and homeware store.  The SA said that for the complete effect we should stop at a garden centre for a cup of tea on the way home.

The SA experimentally turned left back out on to the main road instead of going back the way we had come, to test a theory that we would be able to cut up to the industrial estate and avoid the traffic in Clacton.  Instead we found ourselves entering Holland-on-Sea.  I once went to give a woodland charity talk in Holland-on-Sea and got horribly lost on the way there because I had made the mistake of thinking I knew where Holland-on-Sea was, and instead found myself in an industrial estate.  Now we were looking for the industrial estate and had got to Holland-on-Sea.  We drove across the Holland gap, the low lying area separating Clacton from what you suddenly see are the lofty heights of Frinton, doubled round, and eventually found ourselves popping out by the Skoda garage in Little Clacton.

By the time we got home it had warmed up, and I started getting the pots of overwintering pelargoniums out of the greenhouse on the basis that the five day forecast gets me through to 25 May, and if there isn't frost forecast by that point then there isn't going to be any.  Some had got fresh infestations of root aphid, to my annoyance.  I checked all the plants I gave to a couple of plant sales, and they were clean, so it was disappointing to find root aphids on my display specimens.  A couple had outbreaks of sap sucking pests on their leaves, and really the sooner they are out of the greenhouse the better.

I'd volunteered to cook supper, and made a baked dish of courgette fritters layered with tomato sauce and cheese from the Two Greedy Italians book.  It is a good recipe, like a vegetarian lasagne but using layers of battered courgette slice instead of pasta, but I'd forgotten how long it took to make, what with having to fry all the fritters in batches before you can assemble it and then waiting forty minutes for it to cook in the oven.

Tomorrow I will be fantastically productive and get out there straight after breakfast, moving things out of the greenhouse and setting up my growbags, instead of fiddling around with letters and shopping and getting lost in magical mystery tours of the outskirts of Clacton.  Or perhaps not.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

the stately homes of Essex

I went on a visit this afternoon to Layer Marney Tower.  It is Grade I listed and has the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England.  I've been there a couple of times in the past, once to attend the AGM when I briefly belonged to the Essex Gardens Trust, and once to buy a historic rare breeds Christmas turkey, when I got hopelessly lost in the maze of lanes and had to ask a man in a Land Rover. Today, having studied Google maps carefully before setting out, I did not get lost on the way there, but did get lost on the way back because I had not thought to visualise my planned route in reverse, and so my mother and I saw more of the new housing developments going up around Colchester garrison than we had intended.

The Tudor brickwork is really very fine, although the owner who was showing our party around delighted in pointing out where the Tudor builders had slipped up and the pattern of black bricks weaving through the red had gone awry.  The battlements, which look like carved stone, are actually early UK examples of terracotta.  Layer Marney Tower was built by a courtier to Henry VIII, a successful courtier in that he started under Henry VII, achieved the rare feat of staying on in the court of the next king, and died very rich and at a ripe old age before Layer Marney Tower was finished.  What we see today is the stupendous gatehouse and one side of what should have been a whole palace surrounding a courtyard.  His only son only outlived him by a couple of years, following which nobody had any interest in finishing the building project.  By great good fortune it has passed down through a series of owners who all managed to keep it more or less structurally intact but lacked the means to substantially alter it.

Inside the house the room that is now the main hall, originally a carriage arch, provides a rare opportunity to see genuine Tudor and reproduction Edwardian Tudor panelling side by side.  The owner during the early twentieth century recycled some original Tudor panels from elsewhere to do up the archway, but ran out and had to finish one wall with reproductions.  The Edwardian craftsmanship is fine, but you can see the difference between the machine cut wood and the entirely hand crafted panels.

Upstairs in what is now called the large spare bedroom is a rare ceiling, decorated with hexagons and pentagons in the Italian renaissance style, but without the decorative Tudor roses and acorns that came into fashion after the split from Rome as the English upper classes strove to show how patriotic and definitely not Italian or Papist they were.  So said our hostess, and I am inclined to believe her.  Before marrying the heir to Layer Marney Towers she took a degree in art history at Manchester.

The tower commands a clear view towards the mouth of the river Blackwater, Bradwell power station, St Peter's chapel and all.  According to our guide this is not accidental.  Following the Norman invasion of 1066 a whole string of manorships along the ridge north of the river were granted to loyal Norman knights, so that centuries later you still see their names in the names of the villages strung out along the line of the hill, Layer Marney, Layer Breton, Layer de la Haye, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D'Arcy.  I had never thought about why there was this localised outbreak of French sounding names among the more usual Thorpes and Wicks of Essex, so I am quite prepared to believe the theory.

Some of the stories were more personal.  When the first generation of Charringtons to live at Layer Marney Tower decided to move out and hand the tower on to the next generation they took enough furniture with them to fill their new house and split what was left among their four children, leaving the heirs to Layer Marney with nineteen rooms and nine chairs in total.  A while later Charrington senior was visiting his club and discovered that it was being refurbished.  He rang his son and told him, I've got you some chairs but you have to come and get them now.  And so it was that Sheila Charrington found herself in Pall Mall outside the Athenaeum taking dining chairs out of a skip and loading them into a livestock trailer.

The village church is close to the house, and although it was and remains part of the Church of England and not the property of the Layer Marney estate, it was still reclad in matching brick and extended when the hall was being built.  There are tombs for the first Lord Marney and his son, the father's effigy being notably more finely carved.  At the time of the visit I didn't understand why it should have been made out of black Cornish granite, but looking the family up afterwards on Wikipedia I saw that an ancestor married a Cornish heiress.  There is a medieval wall painting of St Christopher, gently and inexorably peeling off the limestone plaster.  According to Sheila Charrington the wall paintings in churches would have been repainted many times to keep them going, but since the convention switched from restoration to conservation the practice has stopped, and since no method of conservation has been found that can cope with the inexorable movement of water through lime plaster, in another two or three hundred years they will all have vanished.

A highly sociable and agreeable ginger cat accompanied the tour, strolling into the hall as we assembled there and following our group into every room, lounging on the large spare bedroom bed, reclining on the billiard table in the tower, and finally popping up in the tea room where perhaps it hoped to be allowed to lick out a dish of cream from the cream teas.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

lunch is served

The lunch happened.  The food seemed to go down very well, and unless I hear of a mass outbreak of poisoning in the next twenty-four hours I shall count it a success.  Not that I ever have poisoned anybody that I know of, but scaling up cooking seems to result in things sitting in the kitchen at room temperature awaiting their turn in the oven or on the stove for longer than they would normally.  The friend who roped me into the society in the first place recounted how in her young days she cooked fish for a dinner party, only she had previously done the recipe for just two people, herself and her husband.  Fish and vegetables were all duly served and it looked very promising until they discovered that most of the fish was not nearly cooked after being packed so many together in the cooking pot.  The vegetables had to go back in the serving dishes and the fish back in the oven, and the rest of the party is a blur in her memory, though whether from shame or because they had all drunk so much by the time dinner was finally served I am not sure.

There were a few last minute drop-outs, the saddest being the person who thought she was going to have to go with her husband to the vet to have their dog put down.  He adores the dog and will be bereft without it.  There was also at least one drop-in as somebody appeared whose name definitely wasn't on the list.  There again, the chairman hadn't remembered to sign the list, but I deduced she was coming.

The village hall kitchen was splendid.  It was refurbished only last year and was resplendent with hygienic stainless steel counters and enough space to put everything down, and a huge fridge. Some of the puddings involved cream and I wasn't sure if we were going to need the third flan, so it was handy being able to keep them at a proper hygienic food storage temperature until wanted, and to be able to keep the wine cool while we had the lecture before lunch.  Not that most people were drinking, but it's nice for those who fancy a glass to be able to have one, and it was chilled when I left home so I was pleased to be able to keep it that way.  There are a few club members who have grumbled about meeting in village halls instead of members' houses, but as the outgoing chairman pointed out at the last AGM, as they downshift from their family home into smaller houses they are running out of members with enough space to host, and village halls have lovely big car parks and spare the hostess from spending the previous day humping sofas about.

I had done two made salads, one with black eyed beans and mixed vegetables that evolved from the useful bean stew I've mentioned before, and a Holiday Vegetable Salad.  I love the Holiday salad, which is a recipe out of a 1970s vegetarian cookery book by a Polish American.  It has everything in it, salad potatoes and apple and cooked carrot and peas and mushrooms and chopped hard boiled eggs.  The mushrooms are marinaded in spiced vinegar and you add sliced gherkins and cocktail onions, so that the whole thing has a slightly spicy, pickled edge to it, offset by mayonnaise made with sour cream and more hard boiled egg.  You decorate the top with fresh red pepper and radishes, and the recipe makes a quite enormous amount.  It looks and tastes like something from another century and another continent (which it is) but most people seem to like it when they try it.

The flans were mushroom and leek, from Jane Grigson.  They would have been best warm and fresh from the oven, which is how the book says to serve them, but they are nice cold, and I have done them often enough that I was fairly sure they were going to work.  My friend sliced the first one into eight pieces and worried they were too big, so cut it into sixteen pieces which were probably rather small, and what with that and the drop-outs, and the fact that I hadn't expected to use all of all three anyway but two might not have been enough, we ended up with one untouched, which went home with her as she is expecting visitors tomorrow and it solved the problem of what to feed them.

Volunteers had brought green salad and bread by prior arrangement, which I was grateful for as I don't know when I'd have had time to go and buy either, and it was very superior bread with cheese on it.  Other volunteers had done chocolate puddings and lemon biscuit pudding, and I'd made an Eton mess because I didn't know how big the lemon thing was going to be, and the great thing about Eton mess is that you can do the meringue part a couple of days beforehand and then the final assembly is really quick.  And as it stopped pouring before I went out I had picked some flowers from the garden, which another volunteer arranged in small vases.  And somebody else had brought tablecloths to help make the village hall look less institutional.

Tomorrow I will have to work out roughly what it all cost and make my report to the Treasurer, allowing for all the ingredients where I didn't need the whole packet, and the leftovers.  It was quite fun.  I like cooking, only next time I would not spend half the day garden visiting.  And I forgot to take a milk jug.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

multi tasking

I think I might have over-reached myself today.  Early in the year I agreed to help at a lunch in one of the local village halls, which morphed into agreeing to host the lunch, which ended up meaning cooking the lunch, barring some help with the puddings.  When I saw that a garden club visit fell on the day before the lunch I thought I wouldn't be able to go, since I'd be cooking, then I thought that cooking lunch needn't take all day and it was a morning visit so I could go and look at the garden and then do the cooking in the afternoon.

Which I did, and it turns out that cooking lunch for two dozen people in a form that can be transported to a village hall in the car and then served cold does take more than an afternoon.  It was twenty to nine by the time I'd put the last leek and mushroom flan in the Aga, and here I am still waiting for it to cool down enough to put it in the fridge.  More of the lunch tomorrow, and a little of the garden now.

The garden was tucked in behind the church in Lavenham and is open at the end of the month for the National Garden Scheme, so you can go and see it yourself if you would like to.  It is described as being built around the ruins of the original ecclesiastical site and they are honestly pretty ruined, contributing more of an unevenness in the ground than crumbling walls a la Ninfa.  The fishpond, which I guess is very old, takes up fully a fifth of the five acre site.  There are some pleasant borders that proceed in a vaguely Arts and Crafts fashion away from a house that looks as though it might have been revamped at the same time, though I would bet that the core of the building is much, much older.  There are some nice trees, a vegetable patch with some cultivated beds, some bits awaiting reclamation, and some cheerful free range chickens who are not allowed in the rest of the garden and have to be fenced out of the cultivated areas of vegetable.

There are a lot of bronze sculptures made by one of the owners, who does them professionally. Some were too buttoned up for my taste, but some of the more freely executed ones were pretty good, but it was academic as I couldn't afford any of them, so I didn't bother going on the mailing list for the sculpture gallery.

Lavenham was looking delightful, and there were swallows swooping overhead by the hall, and some recently sheared sheep smelling strongly sheep like, and I remembered that I like the smell of sheep.  It seemed very fitting for a town whose prosperity was originally built on wool.

Then some of us went for a coffee and I discovered that the garden club plant sale had made over a thousand, which is what we needed.  So it was a very nice morning out, except that I should really have been cooking and packing up what I need for tomorrow.  My grateful thanks go to the Systems Administrator who on being warned in advance that I would need the kitchen for an unknown length of time on Tuesday evening suggested calmly that we have pizza so that there would be no preparation at all for our supper, and then refrained from asking when I expected to be finished or what I wanted to do about supper, not even once.  I hope the last flan has cooled down now as I should like to go to bed.

Monday, 15 May 2017

if you want to know the time

I made an unwelcome discovery after the clocks changed at the end of March, when I tried to reset the hands of my Mondaine Swiss railway watch and the little knob for adjusting them wouldn't engage with them.  I fiddled with it gently, and all that happened was that it fell out of the watch entirely.  I felt highly aggrieved, since I loved the red second hand of the Mondaine without reason. How dare it break when I'd had it practically no time at all, and just after I'd forked out on a new battery?

Trying to work out how long I'd had it I checked my Amazon account, and found that I'd ordered a new strap for it in August 2011.  That made it older than I remembered, and suggested I'd bought it some time in 2010.  I wondered sadly how much it would cost to repair, and decided the answer was probably a lot, and not necessarily worth it given that the strap needed replacing imminently as well.  And I don't think there is a Mondaine stockist in Colchester.  It had to be admitted that it was an expensive watch to run.  The batteries never lasted more than a week beyond their one year guarantee, and the Mondaine straps cracked so quickly that after I'd bought the first branded replacement I switched to just choosing a red one that fitted.  I put the pieces away in a small box in case I ever did decide to get it repaired, while still feeling disgruntled that Swiss branded engineering ought to be good for more than six or seven years.

Meanwhile I needed a watch for wearing out of doors, so that I would know when I was supposed to come in again.  This will be an unfamiliar problem to modern people who carry their smart phones with them at all times, but I do not take my phone with me when I'm gardening.  It certainly wouldn't last a quarter as long as the Mondaine had.  The Systems Administrator suggested I follow his lead, and buy a cheap watch that lasts a couple of years until the battery runs out, at which point the SA replaces it.  It is a sad indictment of our culture that it is much cheaper to buy an entire new watch than have a new battery fitted to the one you already have, but that's how it is.

I ordered a Ravel ladies watch on an elasticated metal bracelet with a very plain and legible face for less than a third of the cost of replacing the battery in the Mondaine, and was delighted with it for about a month, until I looked down at my wrist and discovered that the Ravel had water inside the glass.  Not just a little mist, but great drops of water.  I had not submerged it or done anything more aggressive than wear it while washing my hands or out in the garden, and was rather cross. Then followed a couple of tedious weeks of leaving it in the airing cupboard to dry, moving it in and out of the airing cupboard to encourage air movement in and out of the watch as it warmed and cooled, and shutting it in a snap top box with every sachet of silica gel we possessed.  Nothing seemed to shift the water, and I took to wearing the watch anyway because it was so inconvenient having to refer to the muddy face of my gardening digital radio each time I wanted to know if I were late to lunch.  After washing my hands one time it seemed to have even more water in it than it did before.

I gave it a one star review on Amazon, and ordered a unisex water resistant Casio.  Casio is what the Systems Administrator always buys, and the SA swears that the batteries last two years.  It is slightly larger than I'd like in an ideal world, but very plain, with a black plastic strap that seems comfortable enough, and all of the Amazon reviews were three stars or above with nobody saying that it leaked or broke after a month.  It took so long to arrive that I thought that I or the Amazon vendor I bought it from ought to be paying to rent warehouse space from the Royal Mail, but cost less than a third of the price of a Mondaine battery, and provided the battery does last two years I'm guessing I'll be able to keep myself in Casios for a decade for less than the cost of getting the Mondaine repaired.  It's a shame, though, as I did like the red second hand and the red strap.

It goes to show that there is an implicit bias in online reviews.  I panned the Ravel when it filled with water after only a month, but I won't know for two years whether or not the Casio performs up to scratch, and even if it does will I remember to post a five star write up after all that time?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

titivating the conservatory

I woke up thinking of what I was going to do in the garden today, and as I pulled up the blind in the bathroom and gazed out at the back garden realised that the fine drumming sound I could hear was rain on the conservatory roof.  It wasn't enough rain to do any good, but the showers persisted until ten, which truncated the morning rather.  On the other hand, heavy rain was forecast for Wednesday.  Fingers crossed.  I decided to give up on my original plan to plant the sad pots of Teucrium hirsutum from last year's seed sowings in the area I had cleared in the meadow, and wash the conservatory glass instead.  Digging in the meadow would be easier if we really did get a day of proper rain, and the Teucrium could go on suffering until Friday.

The Solidago and Lychnis I sowed last season are still perfectly happy in their pots, but the Teucrium have only made very small and pathetic shoots this year, after getting off to a lively start when they were young.  It may be that it is too late to plant them out and they will never come to anything, in which case I could start again with a new packet of seed as they germinated readily last time, but it would be extra work and the loss of two growing seasons.  That is the trouble with raising your own plants.  You order seed and sow it in February or March, with no idea how the year is going to go and whether you will have anywhere ready to plant the resulting crop by autumn, or if it will be OK waiting until the following year in pots.

The conservatory glass has needed doing all year, getting gently and steadily greener.  Fine algae grows on the windows, grittier and harder to wash off on the outside than the inside, along with an accumulation of dust and the odd snail dropping.  It detracts from the experience of sitting in there to look out at the garden through a greenish bloom, and since the conservatory faces north east and is double glazed light levels are not great to begin with, without allowing muck to grow all over the windows.  Washing them does not feel like high horticulture, but it has to be done.

It is not my favourite job.  Water runs down my arms, for a start, and as the conservatory is very full of plants it is an endless careful juggling act moving the pots out of the way and trying not to step on them or snap anything.  I made the mistake of counting the panes before I started, and there were five on each side, so fifteen in all, giving thirty faces to wash, plus the high level panes going up into the roof.  It felt discouraging after I'd washed the first couple of panes on the outside, rubbing them with a cloth wrung out in warm water with a dash of Ecover washing up liquid and rinsing them with the hose, to think that I was still only one fifteenth of the way through, and that was ignoring the roof section, and that access to the outside was much easier than getting at the inward faces of the panes.

After a while I allowed myself to be distracted into deadheading the Eriobotrya japonica 'Coppertone' and trimming off odd dead twigs and picking up fallen leaves, as well as washing.  It made for a more interesting afternoon, and the Eriobotrya does need deadheading.  The flowers are fading, and I might as well do it before they have a chance to shed dead petals all over the smaller plants underneath.  It is a long winded job, as by now it is quite a big bush and the new leaves emerge just below the flower clusters so you have to be careful not to break them off.  If it were growing out in the garden I probably wouldn't bother, but in the close quarters of the conservatory things need to look groomed, besides which snipping off the entire clusters is infinitely preferable to trying to pick the individual small petals out of the Aloe and Agave rosettes.

By half past six I was beginning to feel tired and had still not finished, so had to leave the pots still in a complete jumble which is going to make watering difficult until I can finish tidying up.  I did notice that none of the modern gardens featured in Tim Richardson's book of his pick of twenty-first century designs included a conservatory.  They used to be de rigeur a hundred years previously, and wandering around a conservatory filled with ferns or geraniums and interesting climbers is one of my favourite bits of visiting gardens designed from Edwardian times to the 1930s, but of course those owners had staff to wash the windows for them and did not have to spend a day with water running down their arms and shuffling all the pots round in small circles.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

the plant sale

Today was the garden club plant sale.  They had negotiated to hold it in the pub garden in the middle of the village, and I knew they were going to have a gazebo, and that was all I did know.  I duly turned up at half past eight, having sorted out the plants I was going to take yesterday, writing labels for them and checking all the pots for vine weevil or root aphid, and found the tables in the gazebo already fairly full of plants, but the committee were still happy to get more.

I hadn't much idea what to expect, though given how much money they managed to raise two years ago it was obviously going to be more than a trestle table in somebody's driveway.  Today as well as the borrowed gazebo full of plants they had a smaller gazebo for the cakes and jam, belonging to the garden club and unfortunately sporting a few holes since the mice got at it last winter.  A third even smaller gazebo turned out to be where the treasurer and her assistant were taking the money for the plants, and Plant Heritage had got a little stand as well.  Somebody put bunting along the front of the large gazebo, and it all looked very festive and terribly English.

The plants were a mixed lot.  There were the things that come readily from seed where you tend to end up with spares, lots of tomato plants, baby chili seedlings, courgettes and Cosmos.  There were things that seed themselves in the garden but make you pot them up when you weed them out by dint of looking so much like real plants that you can't bear to put them on the compost heap.  A great many geraniums, mostly unlabelled beyond 'Geranium' and maybe an indication of what colour they were, fell into this category, along with a solitary potted yew, presumably bird sown. And there were things you just can't resist taking cuttings of, like Pelargonium and quite a few hydrangeas.  Some very smart chrysanthemums presented in two litre pots with illustrated labels had been propagated specially for the sale by a couple of club supporters.

My offering was equally mixed, the result of splitting overcrowded things (evergreen Agapanthus bursting out of its black plastic pots after the original plant had literally burst its terracotta display pot), precautionary cuttings now surplus to requirements (cottage pinks, Pelargonium, and an odd fuchsia), excess from deliberate seed sowings (one odd Physalis, some Verbena bonariensis, and some Puya) and survivors rescued and repotted after vine weevil infestations (Sempervivum).  And things that refused to be simply thrown away, like the Libertia peregrinans rescued from digging the remains of the wind thrown Mount Etna broom out of the gravel.  Though by the time I potted them up I did know the plant sale would be happening.  Mine were a bargain at three quid since at Beth Chatto's (where they originally came from) they would cost you a fiver.

It was a good idea having the Plant Heritage stand as well, to provide some rarities for any keen gardeners who were not going to be satisfied by tomato plants and salmon pink Pelargonium, names unknown,  I don't know whether the Suffolk Plant Heritage head propagator really sold enough plants and gave out enough leaflets to make it worth her while spending a morning there, or if she was doing it partly as a favour to the garden club chairman, but either way it was good to have her. I ended up buying two of her plants, an orange flowered perennial pea that I nearly bought a couple of months ago but didn't, and might have bought last month but she didn't bring any more to the next meeting, and a Lychnis that I hadn't been planning on buying, but that looked like something that might suit our garden.  From the plant club stand I got a hairy leaved version of London Pride, that can go down in the shady bottom corner of the back garden I'm in the process of revamping, and a mallow relative I really hadn't meant to buy at all, only the chairman who had propagated it gave it such a glowing review.

I still managed a net reduction in plants, which was one of the aims of the exercise (besides helping the garden club).  The chairman bought my Geranium maderense before the sale even started, and I think most of the Sempervivum went to club members.  All three Puya sold, a big one and two smaller ones, one of the latter to a little boy who seemed very pleased with it.  I hope his mother had taken on board quite how extraordinarily prickly it was.  I wondered whether to point out the inwards facing spines designed to catch and hold sheep by their wool, but I didn't.  The interesting part was what didn't sell.  None of my ginger lilies found a taker, or the Watsonia pillansii seedling. Maybe it was because they are tender, or maybe people were steering clear of orange flowers.  I was surprised not to have any takers for the cottage pink 'Gran's Favourite'.  They were even in bud. Are pinks totally out of fashion?

Nobody wanted the Lychnis chalcedonica, which were also in bud.  I grew them from a packet of seed that came free with a garden magazine, and then the following year was given another packet, so have more than enough.  Their common name is Maltese Cross, they produce vivid red flowers on good tall stalks, and have proved very obliging about being dotted through dense stands of Thalictrum and iris and sending up little points of red here and there.  The plants that went in last year have lasted through the winter and have bulked up since being planted out of their one litre pots.  I find them attractive additions to the border, but then I am keen on little dots of red, and allow Knautia macedonica to seed about for the same purpose.  I suppose if pastels or careful colour coordination were your thing you might not want random spots of red, but I like pink and dark red, very Rothko.  I don't think I would make a big block of Lychnis chalcedonica.  It is a slightly coarse plant with not terribly interesting leaves.

It rained a bit, but by then we had sold most of what we were going to sell.  The surplus tomato plants were donated to the local school, and I was home by lunchtime.

Friday, 12 May 2017

posh plants

My anxiety in case my three bulbs of Tulipa sprengeri should turn out to be something else were unfounded.  Each sent up a flowering stem, and each stem bore single, long bud, which gradually swelled until opening into the real thing.  Later than all the other tulips, Tulipa sprengeri still has the air of the wildling about it, although it has not been seen in the wild in its native Turkey since the 1890s and my stock must have been in cultivation for over a century.  The petals are long and pointed, like a tulip from a Mughal painting, so that the flowers look starry when fully open. Closed, you see that the backs of the petals are a soft, glowing orange.

I was mystified why the bulbs are so expensive, when the plants set seed so readily, but apart from the fact that the bulbs pull themselves deep into the soil and are pigs to extract, according to Avon Bulbs the seedlings resent handling until almost of flowering size.  If my flowers set seed, and there is no reason why they shouldn't, I had better sow it in little pinches in small pots of gritty compost and then plant the contents of the pots out in their entirety (assuming that the seeds germinate). I've a feeling they take about six years to get to flowering size (another reason why they are expensive) but deferred gratification is a large part of gardening.  I am only regretful I didn't splurge on a few bulbs a decade ago, then I could have a proper colony of them by now.

In the back garden Paeonia rockii is in full flower, and it is astounding.  I was astounded last year and probably said so on this blog, but this year it is even better because it has grown bigger.  P. rockii is a tree peony from Gansu province in China, with vast, scented, soft white flowers blotched in the centre with purple.  Or at least that is the theory.  According to the website of the Peony Society, which I had never heard of until just now when Googling Paeonia rockii, and whose credentials I have no idea of, many of the plants sold as Paeonia rockii are not the real thing at all. Speaking as a gardener and not a botanist I am not too fussed.  The plant in our garden is absolutely stunning.  It must be eight feet across by now, and I have not attempted to count the flowers, but there are loads.  The whole bush is covered in them.

It is growing on a north west facing slope, with a bay tree and other shrubs to the south, so is in partial shade but open to the sky, not under the canopy of anything else.  The soil is light though if you go down far enough you would hit London clay.  I have no idea how far the peony has gone down.  The spot is fairly well sheltered from the wind now the surrounding hedges and our neighbours' trees have grown up, but air circulation in the back garden is pretty good.  It was planted as a little, single stem twig in September 2005, and tied to a stout, short stake so that it would not thrash and break itself in the gales and I would not tread on it.  The first year it attempted to produce one flower I cut it off because I was worried about the extra top hamper and risk it would snap itself.  It has never been pruned except to remove old flowers and any dead wood, and there has been very little dead wood.  According to Wikipedia it is noted for its resistance to drought and frost, and certainly in the past dozen years it has been exposed to both.

I am terribly pleased with it.  I have never seen a better specimen anywhere else.  I feel rather nervous writing that, in case I go out tomorrow morning to find that a freak tornado or marauding deer, or wild boar, or a lump of ice falling off a passing aeroplane have pulverised it.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

the hunter returns

Mr Cool scarcely came in yesterday.  The Systems Administrator saw him first thing slipping around the side of the house with a dead rabbit, followed by Mr Fluffy, then the next sighting wasn't until mid afternoon when he appeared outside my greenhouse and allowed himself to be briefly tickled. He met the Systems Administrator at one point, but glanced levelly at him and walked on.  And that was it.  He never came in during the evening, and when I got up this morning he was still out and didn't come for his breakfast when called.

The SA said he would turn up, and I said that I knew that he would but I liked to see him in the mornings.  At half past nine, just as I was about to change into some tidier clothes to go the monthly NADFAS lecture, I heard soft wailing from the hall that announced the return of Mr Cool. This time he had got a mole clasped in his jaws, which he dropped on the floor.  I shrieked for the Systems Administrator, and the mole twitched in a feeble and distressing way that indicated it was not quite dead.  The SA told Mr Cool very sternly to take his mole out, and Mr Cool went through the whole dismissive glancing routine again.  Our Ginger mercifully resolved the situation by killing the mole with a single bite to the back of the neck before giving Mr Cool and the SA a look that said that they were both hopeless.

Yesterday's expedition and the mole catching episode must have worn Mr Cool out, as he spent the rest of the morning curled up on the sofa, according to the SA.  I was off to the lecture by then, though I had to rub a second dose of organic lavender hand cream into my fingers before I could use them to pull a pair of tights on.  That is one problem with gardening.  After a while your idea of tidy clothes becomes your tidiest pair of jeans, because anything involving a dress becomes so much effort.

The lecture was about the art of thirteenth century Ife and sixteenth century Benin in west Africa. The British Museum did a really good exhibition on them a few years ago, which I'd enjoyed very much, and I was looking forward to it.  Second time around I realised that the works I'd really admired as visual objects were the ones from Ife.  The lecturer's academic background, unusually for NADFAS, was primarily in political science rather than art history, though he had become interested in historic Nigerian art after working in Nigeria as a young VSO teacher.  I thought it made a good starting point for a room full of people not steeped in west African aesthetics, and entitled him to his pithy views on both colonialism and modern day corruption.  I still think the sculpted heads from Ife are quite stunningly beautiful.

As I was sitting with the music society friend who persuaded me to sign up for NADFAS in the first place we were approached by a member of the committee, hopefully looking for volunteers.  I was flattered to be asked, but had to tell her that I absolutely did not have time.  My friend, who already volunteers for a big local music festival, said she did not have time either, and nor did our mutual friend who appeared half way through the appeal.  The committee member said sadly that the trouble was that all the people who would have been useful on the committee were already busy.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

a walk in the woods

Today I visited Stour Woods with a friend.  Originally we were due to go to Hyde Hall, but she was scheduled to drive down the A12 twice this week already, and couldn't face doing it a third time.  I said not to worry and I'd think of another garden closer to home, but nothing sprang to mind.  There was not a single Yellow Book garden opening today in Essex or Suffolk.  Then the Systems Administrator suggested we go garden visiting in Norfolk, so I was going to get my fix of gardens anyway.  Suddenly the answer came to me.  Go and look at a woodland instead.

I like woods at all times of the year, unless the wind is blowing too hard, when it seems only sensible not to go and hang around underneath all those trees when you don't have to.  And early May is fabulous, with the new leaves just opening all bright green and hopeful.  The bluebells have gone an intense dark shade of blue, and the curled fronds of ferns are uncoiling.  I love the way that as you move through a wood the areas of bluebells, or wood anemones, or particular kinds of fern, abruptly stop or start again as they find local conditions to their liking, or not.

Stour Woods is next door to Copperas Wood on the south bank of the Stour.  The railway line to Harwich also runs next to the river, with the Essex Way sandwiched between the two.  There are only a limited number of points where you can cross the railway, and we never found one until we were quite a long way down Copperas Wood, instead taking a path between the two woods along the edge of the fields.  The farmers are already making silage.

The RSPB and the Woodland Trust have been doing a lot of coppicing, and it was good to see the coppice stools successfully sprouting fresh growth.  The increasing number of deer in the countryside can make active coppice management very difficult, if not impossible, if they browse the emerging new growth.  One way of keeping the deer off is to pile the brushwood around the cut stools, and we had to backtrack at one point when our path vanished into a sea of recently cut trunks and branches.  If you did not know what was going on and how coppicing works you could get quite upset, thinking that the wood was being destroyed, when in fact coppicing extends the life of the tree.  Trees can be adept at extending their own lives too, and the Woodland Trust does not keep Stour Wood too tidy so you can see examples of trees that have toppled in a storm sending up new vertical trunks from their upended root plates and along the length of their prone trunks.

We walked for two hours, except for the time we spent sitting on a bench looking at the river, which my friend put at ten minutes and I thought might have been fifteen.  Anyway, it was a good stretch.  In all that time we saw six other people and six dogs.  It seems a sad waste, to have so much natural beauty and the potential for fresh air and exercise going unused right on people's doorsteps.  And it is free.  We stopped in Mistley on the way home for coffee and enjoyed another view out over the Stour, complete with swans, for just over a fiver for two people including the tip. Country life is great on a sunny day.