Sunday, 25 June 2017

care and maintenance

I made a flan for lunch today, and apart from that I spent the day tidying around the top lawns, and watering.  To deal with the flan first, it contained leek, goat cheese, and pulled ham, more trouble than heating up a supermarket one but nicer, and besides we have plenty of eggs.

In the back garden the edges need cutting.  In fact, they have needed cutting for weeks and to my chagrin have shot up to produce flowering heads of grass, which I thought I really had better cut down before they seeded into the borders.  In the borders I needed to chop down the spent flowering stems of the Camassia and the last few Aquilegia.  I'd had a couple of goes at those already but plenty of flower stems still remained.  The top spikes of many of the Aconitum had gone over leaving smaller side stems of flowers further down, so I took out the spent main spikes to improve the look of the remaining ones.  I removed the finished flowers of Cephalaria gigantea on the same basis.  I deadheaded the David Austin roses, though some show no signs currently of sending up fresh flowering growth and may not unless we get some proper rain or I give them a good soaking with the hose.

I pulled up horsetail, which again I started doing a month ago but did not have time to get right round the beds.  The regrowth in the areas I did before is much lower and less dense.  Horsetail appears impossible to eradicate though weeding or poison, but if you keep pulling it when you see it the plants get weaker, and will be hidden by ground cover if you go for something reasonably tall and bushy.  The big leaves of Brunnera macrophylla do a pretty good job.  Horsetail is not a strongly competitive weed and does not crowd out other occupants of the border, or at least not if they are chosen on the scale of Brunnera and the like, but it improves the look of the thing to pull it out.

There are patches of creeping thistle in both rose beds.  Where the surrounding planting is too dense to risk using glyphosate at this time of year I pulled the stems up, for the look of the thing and to try and weaken it.  Where I can safely get at the stems to spray them I'll do that next week. I sprayed the emerging growth in the spring, but creeping thistle is a tough beast that doesn't give up that easily.

The Strulch is doing a good job of keeping down most seed borne weeds.  I pulled out numerous tiny hollies, ivies, dogwoods and field maples, and noted the position of a useful yew seedling to be moved in the autumn.  There were a few strands of goose grass but not too much.

I cut off the long arms of the rambling roses that were yet again making a bid for freedom from the rose bank, leaving them in a trail along the middle of the lawn to be picked up later, along with any dead wood I noticed which was trimmed out as I went along.  The rose 'Mrs Oakley Fisher' is making a strong new stem from low down, and may yet win a reprieve if she will just keep doing that.

It is all very satisfying, seeing the borders emerge from the fuzz of rank edges and dead heads.  If I were not trying to do so many other things as well I would go round them more often than I do. This kind of routine maintenance is a major, and unsung, part of gardening, and essential to having a good garden.  Magazine articles tend to play up the planting associations, while advertisements for the DIY sheds would have you believe that the thing you need to do to rejuvenate your garden and ready it for summer is go and buy bedding, hanging baskets and barbecues.  In fact, far more than adding new plants at this time of year, making the most of what you already have by trimming and tweaking is key.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

is it a weed?

As I was going out to the greenhouse my eye fell upon a bindweed that was twining its way up the base of one of the tripods in the herb bed, that more properly belonged to a still reluctant Clematis alpina.  The bindweed flowers had a pinkish tinge to them, and were objectively speaking pretty, and I thought how culturally determined our ideas are of what constitutes a weed.  I greatly coveted the bindweed's relative that I saw growing at the foot of Sissinghurst's tower.  Its flowers were a deeper shade of pink than the bindweed in my herb bed, and its leaves were considerably more interesting, but many garden plants with frankly dull leaves are still counted as plants and not weeds.

I am with Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan when they identify the rankly weedy nature of weeds. Their speed of growth, love of disturbed earth and ability to spread themselves mark them out as weeds.  There is a pat saying that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, but that is not so.  As I argued to the last person who quoted it to me, supposing you had a huge and majestic oriental plane tree that somebody had planted in an inappropriately small front garden.  That would not make it a weed; it would still be a splendid tree but one that someone had planted in a very silly place.

Others see it differently.  The local Chinese were apparently baffled by the interest shown in their wild flora by nineteenth and early twentieth century plant hunters.  There were very settled ideas in Chinese culture about what constituted a garden plant.  Chrysanthemums, Yulan magnolia, plum blossom, bamboo, and other garden plants all had their symbolic meanings and featured in Chinese painting and poetry as well as their gardens.  Wild plants had no meaning and no place in the garden, and the locals did not see why the foreigners should be interested in them.  Modern day east coast Americans have been baffled by the presence of the ephemeral spring flowering Mertensia virginica in English garden borders.  Used to seeing it in huge quantities in the wild, they can't see why anybody would bother to grow it.

I am sometimes asked to identify mystery plants in the gardens of my friends and acquaintances, and I have come to realise that often when they ask Is it a weed they are asking in the Chinese sense, not the Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan sense of inherent weediness.  They do not just mean, Is it a thug, will it smother everything else and seed everywhere or send mad, running roots through the entire border, rather they mean Will I be laughed at for growing it?  Is it a socially acceptable thing to have or will its presence mark me out as ignorant and my garden as unkempt?

I allow quite a lot of cow parsley in the garden, and some hogweed.  I am aware that they both have the potential to seed alarmingly, but I like cow parsley and the hogweed is quite attractive in a coarser and stouter way, and reliably perennial, unlike some of the more refined umbellifers. Some tidier minded gardeners would not approve of them, or the flourishing clump of red campion that has taken up permanent residence at the edge of the island bed.  I keep meaning to try and get parsnips going in the rose beds, since I observed early in my spasmodic vegetable growing career that parsnip flowers were rather pretty.  Cleve West then went and used them in a Chelsea garden so I'd have looked as though I were copying him, but that was several years ago now.  Surely you can have anything in a flower bed that you like and that will grow there and is in rough balance with the other occupants of the bed, vigorous enough to survive but not so rampant it takes over.

I will pull up the bindweed in the herb bed when I get round to it, though.  Digging the roots out completely is almost impossible, but if you keep pulling the tops off that keeps them in check. Bindweed really is too inherently weedy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

casting light into a dark corner

Our neighbours have cleared away a lot of trees and scrub from the ditch along the bottom of their field.  This lets more light into our shady bottom corner, which is a good thing from my point of view since the corner is still quite shady enough.  I don't think any of the ferns or the Geranium phaeum will be curling up in horror at the sight of that blistering orb in the sky.  On the downside where previously the shady planting had a backdrop of densely planted young trees, against which you could see the rabbit fence if you looked closely but it wasn't offensively obvious, the fence is now starkly visible against a background of the ivy which has run all over the formerly shaded ground of the field.

I have been harvesting yew seedlings found around the garden to make a hedge inside the field hedge by the shady corner.  The plan is to keep it densely clipped so that it forms a backdrop for the ferns and the museum shop copy of the head of Thalia, the Roman muse of comedy, and to top it off at about five feet.  It is a slightly risky plan in that if we get another freakishly wet year and the water table rises again then the yews will drown, like they did the previous time I tried making an evergreen hedge with some bought yews left over from another project.  But we have only had one such impossibly wet period once in twenty-four years, so the yews might see out our tenure.  It is true that the largest yew in the projected hedge is still less than a foot high and so it will be several years before it actually hides the fence, but there you go.

It was the Systems Administrator who called me down to the bottom of the garden to see how much lighter it was, and in return I invited the SA to admire my stumpery of one stump.  The SA said that if I wanted more stumps there might be some suitable ones in the wood where some small alders had come down, and promised to investigate in the autumn.  I am all in favour of home grown stumps where possible.  I got the existing stump from a firm exhibiting at the Hampton Court Flower Show, but they ceased trading years ago.  Quick searches online have not thrown up any obvious successor, though I am intrigued by the offer from a vendor in Hampshire of a large box of collected driftwood, scarcely used.  Free stumps with no stump miles attached would be better, though.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

a visit to the UK's one hundred and thirty fourth most popular visitor attraction (2016)

My mother and I went to Sissinghurst, and made it back from Sissinghurst, with the only thundery shower happening just after we had gone inside the vast garden centre just off the M25 where the coach stopped for an early lunch and comfort break, and we were extremely lucky with the traffic, so the logistics of the visit worked much better than I was afraid they might.

Sissinghurst looked just like it does in all the books and magazine articles and TV articles that have been devoted to it, except that there were other people in it, which there never are when Monty Don features it as one of his eighty gardens of the world, or Marcus Harpur gets up at four in the morning to photograph it.  But there were not nearly as many people as I thought there would be.

What can anybody say about Sissinghurst that hasn't been said already?  It is one of the most famous gardens in England, which probably makes it one of the most famous in the world, gardens being one of the things the English are renowned for being peculiarly good at.  The planting is still lavish, the yew hedges enclosing the internal paths are slightly too close together.  It is not quite as it was in Harold and Vita's day, partly because it has to accommodate so many more visitors, 198,255 in 2016 according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and partly because gardens refuse to stand still.  The soil along the nut walk became primrose sick and primulas could not be grown there any more, and that was that.

If you want to know about the famous (and much copied) white garden or the hot coloured cottage garden, the internet is already awash with descriptions and photographs of them.  I did not take any pictures, preferring to pay attention to the experience of actually being there, but my mother and I were in the minority not walking about with our phones held out in front of us.  Nowadays I refuse to shuffle out of the way when a stranger wielding a phone steps into my personal space.  In the old days if somebody had bothered to bring a camera, especially one with a big lens on the front, I used to feel obliged not to interfere with their shot when they had gone to so much trouble and were taking it so seriously, but mere possession of a phone does not entitle you to barge other people out of the way.

There are lots of roses, and lots of clematis, and I was reminded again how much I like each of them and how well they go together.  Apart from that I noted a few plants in my little black garden visiting notebook.  The first was Ammi majus, which I have read about but not knowingly seen growing.  It is an umbellifer, an annual which has to be sown from fresh seed, and is better sown where it is to flower (although I see Crocus do offer plugs).  Thanks to these requirements I have never managed to get round to trying to grow it.  Derry Watkins of Special Plants sells fresh seed in autumn of Ammi and other species, many umbelliferous, that need to be sown at once, so in principle I could buy the seed, but with the crowded nature of the garden and the Strulch I'm not sure where to sow it.  Having seen Ammi in the flesh I am more convinced that it would be worth the effort to try and find the space and organise the soil to its liking.  To call it a refined cow parsley is to understate its charms, and I say that as somebody who likes cow parsley.  Ammi positively shines in all its parts, leaves, stems and luminously white flowers.

Another name I wrote down was Asphodeline liburnica.  It did have a label buried deep beneath the clump, which was pointed out to me by the kind gardener who also told me the name of the Ammi. I had guessed the Asphodeline part of the name, but it was useful to have the whole confirmed.  It was growing in the cottage garden, and had airy spikes of individually dainty flowers in a good but bright shade of yellow, on top of stems with slender, whorled, greyish leaves.  I liked the poise of the plant, and thought it looked as though it would be drought tolerant, and the fact that it was flowering now when the Asphodeline lutea that I already grow has finished would be handy. Looking online I see that Beth Chatto would sell me some, though I was discouraged to see that it required rich soil, but all the other mentions I looked at before supper made it sound tougher than that.  Apparently the flowers only open in the afternoons, which was when we saw it.  I would not order any without further research, but it could be a good one for the garden at home.

The kindly gardener, who was very polite about being interrupted just as she was trying to spray a lupin, did not know the full name of the little pink climbing thing I had noticed at the foot of the tower, beyond confirming that it looked like some sort of convolvulus because it was.  My initial Google search for pink flowered convolvulus produced lots of entries for Convolvulus cneorum, which does not even have pink flowers but lots of people want to sell them, and common bindweed. Once I changed my search terms to pink convolvulus sissinghurst tower it was up there near the top of the first page in somebody else's blog entry, nestling by the base of the tower, Convolvulus altheoides ssp tenuissimus.  It had the most delightful grey divided leaves, and I liked it very much, though at this moment I still have three unanswered questions.  Is is hardy?  Is it as invasive as common bindweed?  And is it available in commerce if the answers to the first two questions should be Yes and No?

So Sissinghurst was far less crowded than I expected, and I am very glad to have finally seen it given it is so historic, and I liked it, but with the caveat that rather like Hidcote it has lost its original essence.  Once gardens have to carry that many visitors, and the original creating minds are no longer present, they change.  Kiftsgate just down the lane from Hidcote is still in the same family, and is still alive.  The brilliant little town garden we visited in Richmond was bursting with its own essence, and the private garden near Haverhill I saw with the garden club.  Great Dixter retains its vitality under Fergus Garrett's direction, but he worked with Christopher Lloyd for many years.  Sissinghurst is very pretty, but in some way I can't quite put my finger on it feels like a pastiche of itself.  Maybe if I could wander around it alone in the early morning it would come fully to life.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

the hottest day

I made it to London and back without any train delays.  On the hottest day of the year this came as a major relief.  Mind you, I did abandon any plans of going to a gallery or museum in the afternoon, which I would normally do to extract maximum value from my day return.  Instead, catching the 3.18 out of Liverpool Street and escaping from London before the rush hour seemed the sensible course of action.  One of my former colleagues was heading straight back to Lewisham on the same principle.

There are many ways of telling that you really are well and truly middle aged, but one is finding yourself, when you are in Oxford Street with three quarters of an hour to spare before lunch, down in the basement of John Lewis looking at frying pans.  I did not buy one, because I did not want to turn up to my work reunion lunch carrying a frying pan, and supposing I had decided to risk the rush hour trains and go to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum they would probably not have let me in with a frying pan.

When I got home I read the online review of the pan I'd liked the look of, though if there is anything more middle aged than hanging around the John Lewis kitchenware department it has to be looking up online reviews of frying pans.  Some people said the pan was brilliant and some said it chipped and ceased to be non-stick very quickly, and I became totally undecided and gave up.  We will just have to go on eating fragments of Teflon coating each time we cook using the old one for a bit longer.  I am fed up with pans coated with non-stick finishes that scratch however careful you are, but I would like a pan that I could make omelettes and pancakes in without them sticking to the base.  The Systems Administrator wants a metal handle so that the pan can go in the oven.  It would be easier in so many ways to be less middle aged and never cook and to spend any odd three quarters of an hour that I had in Oxford Street looking at shoes.  Though John Lewis' basement has very nice air conditioning, and they do not call it a basement, with its connotations of spiders and boilers and psychotic caretakers; it is the Lower Ground Floor.

When I got home the SA had done most of the watering, and I would have had time to assemble ten new frames so that I could add a super to one of the beehives that needs it, only the parcel containing the parts for the frames that was sent yesterday for next working day delivery, and that was out for delivery by 07.54 this morning, never arrived and is still travelling around Essex in a van somewhere.  Actually, by now it is probably back in the depot in Chelmsford.  I thought I had enough frames, but when I went to get the supers on Monday the wax moth had got into one of them.  I feel rather mean leaving the SA on FedEx watch two days running, but I suppose I have spent quite a few days myself keeping an eye out for delivery vans bearing discounted military history books and bits for the model railway.

Tomorrow we are due to have a thundery breakdown while I am in a coach travelling to Kent with my mother.  This is unfortunate.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

hot weather gardening

My aunt gave a cello recital today, and I did not go.  I felt rather mean about that, because it was a while since I'd been to one and she told me about it weeks ago, but I am already due to go to London tomorrow and on another trip on Thursday, and could not cope with making it three days in a row when I'd have to prevail upon the Systems Administrator to water in the greenhouse and cold frames and all the smaller pots on the terrace, because in this heat they cannot make it through the day without a lunchtime top up.  And in truth I dreaded the idea of the train to London.  The SA went to the cricket yesterday and the journey home took two and a half hours, with Abellio Greater Anglia first of all cancelling the connection from Colchester to Wivenhoe because there were no drivers, and then relenting and stumping up for taxis for the twenty or so people who needed to get there.  When I asked if the SA had had a nice day the answer was yes, up until the train journey back.  The temperature in London is forecast to hit 32 C tomorrow, and never mind travelling with a bottle of water, I feel I should be taking an entire carboy.

Today I watered the recent plantings up by the wood, which did not look too bad.  They are in shade for part of the day and sheltered from the wind, so hadn't dried out as much as I feared.  I still had a hose draped along the line of the fence and around the pond from the last time I needed to water up there, when the primroses were collapsing with drought, so didn't have to sort that out again, but getting it to work was as aggravating as running long, seldom used stretches of hose usually is.   Nothing came out of the spray head when I squeezed the trigger, after an initial trickle, and when I went to investigate I found the initial run of hose from the house had come loose at the point where it joined the metal tube attached to the remote outdoor tap.  I had to go and borrow a screwdriver from the workshop so that I could reattach the jubilee clip, and that was so stiff that I couldn't shift it at first and thought I was going to go and have to ask the SA to fix the hose for me. By the time I'd managed to work the clip loose enough to slide it back over the end of the metal pipe and then do it up again I'd forgotten whether I'd turned the remote tap off or not, and confused myself thoroughly turning it both ways trying to remember which way was on, in the absence of any feedback because I was fifty yards from the business end of the hose.  By the time I'd finally got things up and running I'd walked from halfway up the meadow to the remote tap and back to the main tap on the house a lot of times.

The pink rambling rose 'Ethel' has finally got into its stride in the meadow and is sprawling delightfully through a fallen but still live oak.  Some of the rose stems saw no need to exert themselves climbing, and instead have made a bolt towards the middle of the meadow, weaving their way through a nearby shrub rose in the process.  The combination of pale pink 'Ethel' and the darker pink shrub rose flowers is very pretty, and I need to get the mess of bracken, goose grass, and other weeds out of the way so that I can assess the situation and see if they can stay like that, or if 'Ethel' is going to have to be either bodily shoved into the oak tree or else pruned.  In the back garden the rambler 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is going over, and it's worth knowing that 'Ethel' flowers significantly later, since if you wanted to prolong the season of small pink pompoms cascading from large trees you could use both.

There are an awful lot of weeds, and where I ran out of time to dig the bramble roots out they are busily sending up new shoots.  Now I have finished assembling pots and the pricking out is mostly done for this year I had better devote more of my gardening time to the area up the side of the wood, otherwise most of last winter's effort chopping back the brambles will be wasted.

Monday, 19 June 2017


Suddenly with the hot weather I'm having to water anything I recently planted.  This means I have to remember where it was, which is harder when you are filling in odd gaps in a mature garden than when you are planting an entire border and just need to water everything.  I dragged the hose down the steps by the conservatory, across the top lawn and down to the very far corner at the bottom of the back garden where there are the new shade loving plants.  Then I had a moment of panic that I could not find my hairy leaved saxifrage.  Surely something could not have eaten it in its entirety already?  The panic ended when I found it not where I thought I had planted it, but somewhere objectively more sensible.

One of the hydrangeas were starting to wilt in the heat so I watered that as well, and the early flowering red pulmonaria that had collapsed.  Since the hydrangea is about to flower and the pulmonaria has finished flowering for this year, the hydrangea's need is greater, so long as the pulmonaria does not actually die, but it seemed churlish to leave it wilting when I had a hose there.

Seeing the purple flowering primula that should have been orange reminded me that I had better dig them up while I could still tell which they were.  The flowers were fading, and if I'd left it to the end of the week I don't think I'd have been able to identify which were which.  The leaves are identical to the apricot ones, which was how the confusion arose on the nursery in the first place.  I wasn't really very sure what to do with them once I'd dug them out, but potted them into two litre containers in a mixture of John Innes and multipurpose compost.  I am not awfully optimistic about their prospects long term in pots, since vine weevils are very partial to primula, but I don't have another damp and lightly shady area to put them in the ground.  For now they are having to make do with the shade cast by the potted Nordmann fir outside the greenhouse.  I don't really want them in the display of shade loving plants outside the conservatory, since now they have finished flowering all they are going to do for the rest of the year is grow increasingly tatty leaves until they die down entirely.

The leaves of the dahlias in the dahlia bed are still not the right shade of dark green as seen on my visit to the field of commercially grown dahlias for cutting, or as painted by the French Impressionists.  I gave them a sprinkling of 6X poultry manure, having bought some the last time I called at the Clacton garden centre, and began to water that in.  I gave some 6X to the climbing rose 'Meg' that is still not throwing up any new stems despite previous doses of fish, blood and bone and bouts of watering, and watered around the rose, and watered the clematis on tripods that it is slightly unreasonable to expect to live at all in such light soil.  I watered all the pots.  Tomorrow I must get the hose in the meadow working and water the hellebores and Teucrium I planted from pots and the primroses I split, and in the back garden I need to water the extra Verbena bonariensis and Linaria purpurea 'Canon Went' I added to the island bed, which basically means watering the bed, since I'll never spot all of them otherwise.  The asters and the clematis that only went in last year will be grateful anyway.

I am not honestly a fan of heatwaves.  I know it is ungrateful of me, when people go on holiday to get weather like this, but if the thermometer could just hit the low twenties and stay there that would suit me fine.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

a hot day

I could hear a skylark singing early this morning, and when I looked out across the fields I could see it, dipping along in typical skylark fashion with madly fluttering winds and singing all the while. Then our neighbour fired up a chainsaw and I could no longer hear the lark.  I thought that twenty to nine on a Sunday morning was rather early to be using a chainsaw, but the Systems Administrator said that it didn't happen very often and that they were probably clearing their boundary to put up more wire to keep the Airedales in.  They have fenced most of the way along the lane, though there are no signs yet of a gate of any kind, but perhaps the Airedales would strike out for open country across the ditch.  I am relieved they have finally decided to fence their garden, since I had got thoroughly fed up with the dogs coming into ours.  They did not tell us they were going to do it, and the first section of fence they put up blocked the access to the pile of grass cuttings we had been dumping on our land but reached down a yard of their track.  Clearing new access to the grass dump through a bank of brambles has been keeping the SA busy, but fortunately no birds were nesting in there.

I ended up spending most of the day weeding around the bonfire heap and compost bins, where great trails of goose grass had sprung up and reached almost triffid like proportions.  Never mind one year's seeding, seven years' weeding, it would have been more like seven centuries if they had been allowed to ripen their seed, and I certainly didn't want it in the compost or the leaf bins.  It was a great waste to allow so many weeds to shoot up at the same time as I had bags of shredded hedge trimmings waiting to go down as mulch, but I simply never found the time to finish tidying that area back in the spring.  There were nettles hiding in among the goose grass, and even though I was sweltering in long trousers and a long sleeved shirt, my shins and right forearm are still tingling.

Really it was too hot to do anything.  The cats lay around in various states of collapse, especially Mr Fluffy who looked quite doleful under all his fur, when he is normally such a cheerful cat.  The SA declined to do anything this morning in the workshop, saying that it was too hot for resin to go off properly and no fun doing any kind of woodworking when the sawdust just stuck to your sweat. Later in the day when the sun had gone off the workshop and a breeze had got up, the SA made a frame to go round the begonia pots on the shelf in the porch to stop them toppling off in a gust of wind.  After last year when the Coleus reached a critical height and then blew off, and the previous year when I had begonias again and three of them smashed themselves one windy afternoon in late summer, I was anxious for a pot frame so that it should not be third time unlucky, but I did not like to keep reminding (AKA nagging) the SA about it, and I was delighted when the frame appeared.  I think it might be made out of a little bit more recycled pew.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

wild flowers in the mini meadow

The ox eye daisies in the daffodil lawn are putting on a great show.  I'm pleased about that.  They have a reputation for being fickle things, abundant one year then practically absent a couple of years later, perhaps mysteriously reappearing a few more years down the line.  Ours have been a steady feature of the lawn in mid summer for several years now, so fingers crossed they continue.

There are a few plants flowering of the common knapweed, Centaurea nigra.  They were raised from seed and planted out from nine centimetre pots, and since I planted a lot more than two I am peering hopefully at the long grass to try and spot if there are more tucked away in there, or if only a few established.  The wild plant conservation charity Plantlife describes common knapweed, or hardheads or black knapweed as it is also known, as one of the toughest meadow plants.  Its flowering season is supposed to run from June to September, so there's time yet for more plants to show themselves.

So far there are only a couple of field scabious visible.  This is Knautia arvensis, a lilac flowered cousin of the red Knautia macedonica sold in some garden centres and grown in some gardens, including mine.  Googling Knautia arvensis I see that it too is marketed as a garden flower, albeit for wilder parts of the garden.  It flowers well on into the autumn and is a pretty thing in a wild and slightly weedy way.  Both hardheads and field scabious are highly attractive to pollinating insects.

The final flowering species I've tried to introduce is musk mallow, Malva moschata.  I've seen it growing in long grass in other people's gardens and feel that it ought to grow in ours.  A perennial of slightly neglected open grassland on well drained soils, according to wild flower seed specialists Emorsgate, that sounds like a description of our daffodil lawn.  Musk mallow has dainty, finely cut leaves and I think I've spotted some growing up through the grass, but there hasn't been a single pink flower so far.  Musk mallow is another UK native that you may see offered in garden centres, although designers, and Val Bourne writing for the Telegraph, seem to prefer the white form.  That might be easier said than done, since in my experience seed raised plants that are supposed to be the white form of things have an infuriating habit of coming out in the original colour.  The plant centre once sold an entire tray of white Malva moschata to one of the nicer and politer designers that shopped there, and her niceness and politeness were tested as they all flowered pink in the white flowering scheme she had installed for a client, and the nursery the plant centre had got them from in the first place was very slow about producing any genuinely white replacements.

In the gardening snob stakes you do not get any points for growing ox eye daisies.  The designer Tom Stuart-Smith in his book about the creation of his own garden recounts how he was very proud of the ox eye daisies in his newly sown meadow, only to have a cousin drawl on seeing them 'ah yes...motorway daisies'.  His ox eyes took the criticism to heart, or merely lived up to their inherent fickleness, and five years later had all but disappeared.

The garden near Haverhill I visited last week had orchids growing in their meadow.  The owner did not plant them, they arrived by themselves.  Orchids have never shown any signs of arriving here and I have always assumed that conditions were not suitable, but perhaps there is nowhere local for them to arrive from.  The owner claimed that the area was very dry, the driest in the country, which I privately disbelieved since I thought that crown belonged to St Osyth, but a quick look online suggests Haverhill is indeed dry, maybe only ten millimetres more annual rainfall than we get here.  She told us her soil was light and almost neutral, but I would guess on the alkaline side of neutral, while ours is slightly acid and in the top part of the garden takes the concept of lightness to a whole new level.  Maybe I should experiment buying a few orchids and seeing if they spread.  I am put off because plants are so expensive and I have little faith that the experiment would work. Experimenting with plants you have raised yourself from seed is easier.

Friday, 16 June 2017

a day in the garden

I planted out the purple leaved Primula 'Garryade Guinevere' from Lincolnshire at the bottom of the garden, and remembered why there was still such a large gap at the front of the bed, which was because I had meant to move something else forwards from its current position too far back in the border where it was being overshadowed.  That meant I needed to move a small geranium I only planted the other day, to keep the gap clear and available until the autumn.  I was sorely tempted to go ahead with moving the hidden plants when I first thought of it in April, but since by then we were well into a drought it did not seem sensible to be uprooting things about as far from the tap as you could get.

After that it was a day for general garden maintenance.  I dead headed roses that had the potential to flower again if not allowed to set seed the first time, and those that don't form good hips.  It is one of the attractive features of David Austen's breeding programme to produce new varieties of repeat flowering roses in the old fashioned style that they tend to have attractive hips, so it's worth holding back with your secateurs at the end of the season and not being too greedy for a final flush of flowers.

The curved beds running either side of the top lawn in the back garden are notionally rose beds, though there are a lot of other plants in them besides roses.  The roses have all been in for some time, and are increasingly dividing themselves into two camps, those that are doing jolly well and those that are struggling miserably.  Some have grown far taller than I ever imagined or the books and catalogues said they would, and despite my pruning them quite hard last winter several have flopped over.  I am going to have to wriggle in among them with stakes and the lump hammer and try and get them back roughly upright for the rest of the summer, until the herbaceous lower storey of the planting has died down and the leaves are off the roses and I can see what I'm doing.  At that point I might start talking nicely to the Systems Administrator about wooden tripods.

As for the roses that are struggling, I took half a dozen red flowered hybrid teas out last winter, and am starting to eye up 'Mrs Oakley Fisher' sourly.  Bred in the 1920s, it carries apricot single flowers and is one of relatively few roses allowed to remain in the gardens at Great Dixter, and if mine were growing well they would be lovely indeed, but they are not growing well and have never grown well.  Life on the yellow clay subsoil that was left at the surface after the previous owners contoured the back garden is too tough for poor 'Mrs Oakley Fisher'.  When I planted up the further rose bed I was working on the principle that the gardening books said that roses liked clay.  Having grown up in a garden on sandstone and never having gardened on clay before until discovering veins of it in the back garden of the present house, I did not at first grasp the difference between a good clay soil, well worked with plenty of humus, and the awful yellow stuff that emerged in bands in our garden.

I cut down the spent stems of the Camassia in the rose bed, and the early flowering Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus, and the columbines.  I pulled up horsetail, an ancient and infuriating weed that signals the presence of the evil clay below, for in over thirty years I have only ever found it in the back garden and not a single stem growing in the sandy soil at the top of the hill.  I pruned off long, hopeful shoots from the rambling roses in the bank, that were setting off across the rose bed, and pulled dead leaves out of the monstrous clump of Eryngium pandanifolium.  That's a Great Dixter plant, and I do sometimes wonder if it's worth the space.  It is supposed to provide a spiky, dramatic, architectural punctuation point, then in late summer it produces very tall stems of prickly flowers, but it seems to fill up with dead leaves making it look very tatty at awfully frequent intervals.

It is fun watching the garden sharpen up as the spent flowers, old flowering stems, dead leaves and unwanted growth are stripped away, and deaheading gives time to look at the rose flowers up close and personal.  Meanwhile the SA cut down the dead sea buckthorn by the entrance, opening up a surprisingly large space.  My past planting efforts in that corner have been tempered by the knowledge that if the drains collapsed again or there was any other reason why we needed to get a digger into the back garden then that would be its entry point.  The sea buckthorn was chosen to be disposable if needs be, but it has disposed of itself by dying.  Once we had eyed up the theoretical digger route there was still room for a decent sized smallish tree.  Happy thought.  I shall be browsing the Bluebell Nursery website between now and October.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

a visit to Mannington gardens

Today I visited another garden, at Mannington Hall in Norfolk.  The Systems Administrator and I have been saying for years that in June we should visit a garden with roses, especially as we normally take our holiday in the autumn when the roses are mostly finished.  And every year June has gone by in a flurry of busyness, and suddenly it has been the second half of July, too late for the ramblers and the once flowering old roses, and we have shelved the idea for another year. Finally we managed to get organised, I unceremoniously rearranged coffee with a passing relative (sorry, uncle John) and we headed off for north Norfolk.

The only trouble with north Norfolk is that there is no way of avoiding the A140 and Norwich itself. If you take the train as far as Norwich you are still left with the problem of how to get to any of the gardens outside Norwich itself, so it doesn't really help.  The A140 is single carriageway for its entire length, blighted by accidents, and limited to 50 mph for great sections without which there would be even more accidents.  Today as an added bonus they were repainting the white lines up the middle.  It took three hours to get to Mannington, which is one reason why in over thirty years of living in north Essex we had never been there before.

Still, it was very nice when we got there.  There is a moated medieval house, jazzed up in Victorian times to look more like a Victorian gentleman's idea of what a moated medieval house should look like so that by now it is uber romantic and medieval.  You can cross the moat over a little wooden drawbridge which if I lived there I would pull up every night after shutting the hens in, just for the hell of it.  There are bulgy yew hedges, and lots and lots of roses.

It was very interesting to see so many of them in a garden setting, many of them labelled.  The Peter Beales and David Austen stands at the Chelsea Flower Show are always wonderful, but not the same as seeing how the roses perform in real life.  A notice by the entrance to the walled garden, replanted in the 1980s with a collection of roses dating from the middle ages to the present day, explained that some of the plants were old to the point of being decrepit, but were retained in all their tattiness because they were so rare.  Walking around the collection we saw that some were indeed sad little clumps of sticks with one or two flowers, while others were great plants, fully clothed with healthy leaves and lots of blooms.  The overall effect, if you stopped thinking about it and just absorbed it, was very pleasant.

The trip confirmed several things I've been beginning to think about roses in recent years.  Firstly, roses should make good plants.  However lovely the individual flowers are, if they are held on a sickly, gappy, stick of a plant with sparse or diseased leaves they don't add to the garden ambiance and should be given no quarter.  If they can't be nursed back to health then scrap them.  Secondly, I don't like the visual effect of bare soil under roses.  If they aren't bushy enough to cover their own feet or robust enough to coexist with some low growing ground covering plants then I'd rather not grow them.  And finally, ramblers are fantastic, up trees or on walls or through trellis or along low wicker fences, they are fabulous.  This is the direction of travel I've been taking at home, where all the roses I've bought in the past couple of seasons have been ramblers to go up trees, and without explicitly mentioning it to the Systems Administrator I have dug out another half a dozen hybrid teas that refused to grow properly however much I fed and cossetted them.  Their space is going to be given to a herbaceous clematis that's currently sitting in a pot by the greenhouse.

Names I have written down in my notebook are 'Mannington Cascade', a rambler with tiny white flowers that grows to great effect against the walls of the house, 'Pearl Drift', a shrub rose with luminously beautiful semi double white flowers, a good bushy habit and very healthy, large, dark green leaves which I also admired in the garden I saw yesterday, 'Rambling Rector' which we previously eyed up at the Boxford open gardens and which I now know is far older than I thought it was, and 'Dundee Rambler' which was producing delightful pompoms of white flowers up an apple tree.  In general the roses in the areas of garden showcasing the oldest varieties, from the middle ages through to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were better shrubs than the later varieties.  More breeding has so often gone into making more exotic blooms rather than a better plant.  Rugosa varieties are honourable exceptions to this rule of thumb.

We looked at the ruined Saxon church as well, and walked around the small and peaceful lakes, and saw the mysterious hollows where underground springs apparently changed their course in the eighteenth century and swallowed several mature trees whole, and the melancholy horses' graves in a dark tunnel of yew and rhododendron, watched over by a sorrowful sculpture of a horse's head. We admired the way the crenellation of the house was echoed in a single gap in one yew hedge, and the foresight that had planted replacement cedars before they were needed.  I was reminded what a good rose the repeat rambler 'Phyllis Bide' is and vowed to try and find a space for another since my original is being overrun by the ever so rampant 'Sanders' White' and honeysuckle in the rose bank.

When we got home the Systems Administrator asked whether we could not grow roses up the little oak tree.  Result.  I've thought about it in the past, but wondered if the tree was too dignified to be messed up with roses, but if the SA thinks it's OK then let's go for it.  The SA has specified white roses, but that still leaves lots to choose from.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

a garden visit

I went garden visiting this afternoon with the garden club.  They had arranged a trip to Parsonage House at Wiggens Green near Helions Bumpstead.  Helions Bumpstead is a marvelous name for a place, only I had no idea where it was, and when I discovered that it was near Haverhill I grumbled about it and was minded not to go.  The committee member who organizes speakers and trips said that it was a very nice garden, and in a fit of enthusiasm I signed up for it, then as the day approached and I looked at the state of my own garden and the number of other things in my diary wondered why I was going.  There is a school of thought that says you should never sign up to do anything long in advance that you would not agree to it it were happening next week.  If I followed that maxim the number of things I do would be drastically reduced, and I am not sure it is good advice.

The countryside around Haverhill is rolling, agricultural and pretty.  You dip briefly into Suffolk on the road to Helions Bumpstead, and out again back into Essex.  As well as Helions Bumpstead there is a Steeple Bumpstead, which is a really fabulous name, somewhere either invented by PG Woodhouse or where there is shortly going to be a horrid murder that will be solved by a dotty little old lady after totally baffling the local police.  Parsonage House and its garden are really, insanely pretty.  The fifteenth century house does not open to the public so we could only appreciate its prettiness from the outside, but the owner gave us a full tour of the garden and it was terrific.

It shows what can be achieved in three decades, if you apply yourself and set about things in a sensible order.  Created from farmland, the owners planted shelter belts and specimen trees early on, laid out yew hedges fairly early in the project so that by now they are fully ten feet tall, and sowed a former cornfield with fine grasses to create a permanent meadow that has now been colonised by orchids and cowslips.  It does have to be admitted that having a goodly wodge of money to throw at the project does help too.  If it had been my garden I would not have bothered with the swimming pool or the tennis court, since I hate tennis and pool chemicals disagree with my chest, but the services of a professional gardener would make it easier to have clipped edges and not so many weeds as I always have in my garden.  And none of the topiary was whiskery, and things that needed staking were ingeniously and unobtrusively staked, and the gravel was weed free, and the lawns tidily mowed.  It was all very well done and apparently relaxed with none of the over-manicured aggressive tidiness that makes some gardens feel unwelcoming, but a lot had been done.  And I spotted large Room-in-the-Garden obelisks in the borders and Whichford Pottery pots by the potager.

The owner was a keen plantswoman as well as a designer, and there were some interesting species grown from seed and some quite unusual shrubs.  Although everything flowed together into a slightly muted, pink, mauve, white and silver palette, when you looked closely it was much more to it than the paint-by-numbers, box balls and lavender against ancient architecture formula that will get you a feature in the gardening press.  I was impressed and charmed in equal measure, and impressive gardens are not always charming.  Money was no object, though, or very little object. So it was not just that pleached Malus 'Evereste' were being used to screen the tennis court, which I don't think came in as little knee high whips, but that the boundary between the gravel where they were planted and the surrounding grass was cut into a keyhole design, giving three times as much edge to keep trimmed.

The soil was a free draining and almost neutral sandy loam over chalk.  I know, because I asked. They spread mulch made from recycled green waste on the borders.  I knew they must use something to get that much growth.  The owner said they were very dry, though I don't think Haverhill is drier than the Clacton coastal strip.

It opens sometimes under the National Gardens Scheme and is well worth a visit.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

cooking with lemon curd

I have nearly finished arranging the outdoor pots for the summer, and even I have to admit that I have enough plants in pots.  No more, not unless something dies.  There is a double row outside the garage in coordinating shades of pink and mauve.  On the patio (or terrace) the orange corner has met up with the alpine pots, then there is a small red themed collection, and the pots of pale yellow and blue flowers which are not currently shaping up too well since the monstrous Eleagnus hedge is shading the spot where they were supposed to stand and the Cosmos 'Xanthos' remain resolutely small and weedy.  There are geraniums around the seating area in the turning circle and cottage pinks along the path across it, which is now so congested with pots and overhanging Mediterranean shrubs that it is no use as a short cut, especially if you are carrying shopping bags. In the back garden outside the conservatory there are the pots of dahlias, plus an array of succulents, and various shade lovers close under the wall of the house.  Outside the study are the auriculas and violas, the latter not doing awfully well for reasons I have not yet managed to pin down.  Enough, no more.

A couple of weeks ago I made some lemon curd, because we had ended up with a lot of lemons after we each independently bought a bag of them, and we had plenty of eggs.  Since then I've been meaning to do something with the curd.  Today besides eating some I made a Lancastrian lemon tart and some lemon curd ice cream.  The tart was from a recipe I cut out of the weekend section of the Financial Times years ago.  It is quite an elaborate recipe by my standards, because you have to make the pastry case and the lemon curd and then an almond sponge layer.  I made the pastry straight after breakfast when my hands had recently come out of the shower and before I started sticking them in potting compost, and left it to cool in a cupboard so that Mr Fidget would not eat it, and when I came to do the rest of the tart the bottom of the pastry case had split.  I don't know why it did that, it hasn't done it before.  It split just as I was feeling pleased with myself that I had got the hang of lining a 24 centimetre tin with shortcrust pastry made with only four ounces of flour.  Maybe that is why, it was very thin.

I did not think I could ladle lemon curd into a pastry case with a great rip across the bottom and expect it to work.  The curd would run out through the hole, stick to the tin, drip on the floor of the Aga and generally make a mess, not to mention a soggy bottom.  I tried to think of some method of mending badly cracked pastry, and remembered that I had a large packet of marzipan left over from Christmas when I failed to make a stollen.  Excellent, instant pastry case liner.  I rolled out a circle to go inside the broken pastry and proceeded as per the recipe, spread lemon curd generously over the base, top with a mixture of ground almonds, melted butter, vanilla sugar and eggs, and bake at 200 degrees C.  The top caught slightly well before the cooking time was up. Deciding where in the Aga you should cook anything made following a recipe not written specifically for the Aga is always a bit hit and miss.  I can never work out whether this is something to do with the nature of the heat in the Aga or merely that some recipes are more easy going than others about being cooked at a range of temperatures.  The edge of the marzipan lining bubbled up as well and went black and I had to trim the burnt pieces off with a sharp knife.  The tart is not supposed to be eaten hot, and we have not tried it yet.

The lemon curd ice cream conveniently used up the remains of a pot of whipping cream and an open pot of natural yogurt as well as most of the rest of the lemon curd.  I have tried that because I licked out the bowl of the ice cream machine and it was very nice.  I tend to associate lemons with sorbet more than ice cream, but sorbets are made with sugar syrup, which is a skill I have yet to master.  I'm not even sure we possess a suitable thermometer.

Monday, 12 June 2017

dratted wind

I am not the only one to find the constant wind exasperating.  I met some old beekeeping friends for coffee, and one recounted how she and her husband had planted courgettes through a piece of landscape fabric, to keep the weeds at bay and the developing fruits clean.  Alas, one edge of the fabric was not securely fastened down and the wind lifted it, dragging the stems of the courgette plants through the planting holes and stripping off every leaf.

Here, it feels as though the pots are drying out before I've finished watering them, and the wind will be drying all that useful rain out of the soil.  Hoping vaguely that the weather will settle down soon, I am uncomfortably aware that there's no reason why it should.  I remember one sailing holiday when the shipping forecast never had less than a force seven in it for some part of the British Isles in the next twenty-four hours for the entire fortnight.  Once it settles to a pattern of lows blowing in from the west it can go on that way for weeks.

The Phlomis italica recovered from the heavy storm far better than I expected it would once it dried off, but now the poor old fig is looking awfully battered, just at the point when it should be most luxurious.  Its big leaves have developed a vaguely tatty air from days of being blown around, and the stems are starting to lean away from the house, a reaction to the wind bouncing back off the wall.  One of this morning's gathering had to pick all her peony flowers for vases after the wind bent and flattened every stem at the point where they touched the top of the plant support, and another had her plants flattened entirely while for good measure the flowers were browned and balled by the rain so they weren't even any use for picking.

I am having to soak all the pots of cottage pinks, which have dried out dreadfully in the wind.  I spent this afternoon trimming off the dead and damaged leaves and staking the flower stems with florists' canes.  I have no idea why these are manufactured in such a lurid shade of green.  I'd much rather have had black, but bright green was all that the Clacton garden centre had.  They will fade in time, but that's no consolation at this minute.  Tomorrow the pots are going to a new home along the path to the formal pond in the front garden, since they are getting too shaded by the Eleagnus hedge in the back.  The hedge needs cutting back hard, but that will have to wait until the birds have finished nesting and the wild flowers in the daffodil lawn have done their stuff.  At the moment it's mainly ox eye daisies, but I am hoping that the knapweeds and mallows I planted last autumn will do something at some stage, if they survived the dry spell and if the grass has not overpowered them.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

in the shady corner

I have been planting up the shady corner at the far bottom of the back garden.  Originally it was not so shady, and was home to a couple of hydrangeas and a little shrub with glaucous new leaves and white bell shaped flowers called Zenobia pulverentula.  You don't see them about very often, and you won't see mine now because as the surrounding trees grew up the Zenobia and the hydrangeas died.  The corner remained empty and largely ignored because there were a lot of other things to be getting on with.  A few years ago I started to plant it with species that would live in deep shade, but this coincided with the last generation of cats getting so old and doddery that the rabbits ceased to take them seriously.  Rabbits, it turned out, eat Cardamine quinquefolia, and Bowles golden grass, and once we had rabbits living in the rose bank it became pointless buying new woodland plants for the back garden.

Now, thanks to the Systems Administrator's sustained campaign of sniping from the bedroom window over two years, and more especially thanks to the new generation of cats, the back garden is rabbit free.  Last winter while the bulbs and herbaceous plants were safely below ground for the most part, the SA manoeuvred the electric pole saw into the corner and cut back the overhanging top of the hedge so that there was a clear chimney of light to the sky.  I planted the bare root Cyclamen hederifolium from Pottertons, and then two trios of ferns from shade specialists Long Acre.  The Cardamine came back to life and produced leaves and flowers that were not eaten within days of emerging.

Today I added three Geranium phaeum 'Album', which I am hoping will seed about after flowering next spring.  I already have the form with dark flowers and dark blotches on its leaves which is very obliging about filling in dry, dark corners under a shrub rose further up the hill.  Sometimes the white form of a species is not so vigorous as the rest, but the new plants looked pretty chunky and no shrinking violets.  I added another fern, an unusual form of saxifrage that looks at first sight like ordinary London Pride but has hairy leaves, a spotted dead nettle Lamium maculatum 'White Nancy', and an entire tray of Milium effusum 'Aureum' or Bowles golden grass, raised from seed. This is a small, dainty, airy little grass with warm yellow foliage and I am hoping that dotting it around will create the illusion of dappled sunlight.

I installed a water worn tree stump, recycled from the scheme that is due to be demolished at the top of the back garden since the sea buckthorns that were at the heart of it died, cause of death still to be determined.  The stump looked very well in the shady corner, and I thought wistfully that what I needed now was several more stumps, but they will have to take their place in the queue of nice-to-haves for the garden.  After all, nobody actually needs a tree stump.  Wanting several is a very first world problem.

Some Disporopsis pernyi and Maiantemum dilitatum from Pottertons went in as well.  They have been growing on in pots in a cold frame, which the Disporopsis took to a great deal better than the Mainanthemum.  The Disporopsis is a sort of miniature Solomon's Seal, and had begun to clump up quite hopefully in its pots.  The Mainanthemum has the potential to be invasive, but at the current rate of progress I shall be quite relieved if it lives at all.  Some white violets went along the front of the border, along with an interesting kind of Lychnis I hadn't seen before encountering it on a Plant Heritage plant stall.  It is all starting to shape up quite nicely, just so long as the Muntjac don't pay a visit before things have had time to grow and spread themselves about.  They have been barking a lot close to the house in the past few days.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

under the weather and back out again

I woke up this morning and the headache that had been persistently there since I woke with it on Tuesday, sometimes thumping and sometimes just hovering in the background, had gone.  The humidity level was half what it had been the previous night, and as the headache arrived overnight with Tuesday's storm so it vanished as the foul weather finally blew through.  Suddenly all things were possible, and so I vacuumed up the little piles of dirt that had fallen from my gardening trousers on to the bedroom carpet on Monday evening, and made ice cream out of the cream that had been sitting in the fridge since I bought it on Saturday.

A friend who suffered from proper, disabling migraines in her youth grew out of them in her later years.  I never used to get headaches, unless I had done something to deserve them like drink too much, but in recent years have grown into them.  I fear they are part and parcel of the age that I'm at.  Faced with the choice between HRT and occasional headaches I'll take the headaches.  And faced with the choice between cancelling my plans or plugging on despite the headache I would rather plug on.  Better to be a reliable than an unreliable friend until you are really decrepit and need people's indulgence.  Otherwise in an ideal world I would not have taken my headache to a talk about compost or an art lecture in a crowded and slightly stuffy church or to London on the train.

The plants from Lincolnshire had suffered slightly on account of the headache, since while the Systems Administrator had checked the greenhouse and cold frames yesterday afternoon and given things that looked dry a splash, I had only made a rather perfunctory tour when I got home, telling myself that it had been a very humid day and things would keep until the morning.  In the meantime the cut leaved Argyranthemum and a Symphytum sitting down on the greenhouse floor had got dry, and were wilting pitifully by the time I found them today.  They have recovered now that they've had a good soaking, and been moved on into bigger pots, the daisy for display and the Symphytum to grow on until I'm ready to plant it up by the wood.

I moved this year's new dahlias into terracotta pots ready for display.  After managing to kill a couple of last year's new dahlias by over watering them so that they rotted I am being more cautious about the pace at which I move them on into full sized big pots, so this year's introductions are all in intermediate sized pots and won't come out of them until they are bursting with roots.  I potted the Convolvulus sabatius and the Salvia 'Love and Wishes' that arrived with the plants from Lincolnshire, and began potting the Tithonia and Zinnia grown from seed.  Then I ran out of pots, and once I'd watered the pots in the back garden I'd run out of time.  The trouble with feeling under the weather (almost literally in this case) for a few days is that you spend the next several days scurrying around like a demented thing trying to catch up with yourself.

Friday, 9 June 2017

a day out

I went up to London today for lunch with an old university friend.  With the benefit of hindsight we shouldn't have fixed it for the day when I'd have been sitting up until two in the morning watching the election results unfold on TV, but back then commentators were predicting a solid Tory majority.  How things change in a few weeks.  I am no tribal Tory, but I am utterly mortified at how astoundingly bad their campaign was.  Looking on the bright side there are a record number of women MPs and the unutterably annoying Alex Salmond lost his seat, but that isn't really adequate compensation for the shambles, out of which we are supposed to somehow negotiate a good deal for Brexit.  My friend was not impressed either, but as she holds dual German citizenship at least she has the option of retiring to Germany.

Her offices are in Farringdon and so I got a tantalising glimpse of the Crossrail site in passing.  The Systems Administrator and I saw a documentary recently about the new station at Farringdon and it was an astounding civil engineering project.  We lunched in a pizza place on the Clerkenwell Road which was actually not part of a chain, practically unheard of in central London.  I opted for gnocchi because I guessed we'd be having pizza at home tonight, but I ate a small piece of my friend's while I was waiting for the gnocchi to arrive and the base was very thin and the tomato sauce was very good.  They served craft beers as well, and my lack of sleep and political trauma were such that I could have been tempted to break my normal rule of never drinking at lunchtime and order a half, but the waitress who was very young came and hovered over us before I was anywhere near deciding, and they all seemed to have very high ABVs for lunchtime except for one which was said to have citrus overtones, which I didn't really fancy, and my friend doesn't drink beer, so I gave up on that idea.  It is called Wedge Issue Pizza which is a peculiar sort of name but what do I know, and we were the oldest and least hipsterish people in the room by a significant margin.

Clerkenwell Road put me handily on my way towards the British Museum where I thought I would catch The American Dream before it finishes in nine days' time.  It is an exhibition of prints from the 1960s to the present day, starting with Andy Warhol's screen prints and including Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, and several US artists I had honestly never heard of.  The subject matter veered from consumer culture to the political, with a rather well put together film clip showing contemporary news and advertising footage on one large screen, complete with sound track and tongue in cheek subtitled stage directions, and reproductions of works in the exhibition influenced by those events on a second screen.  I have liked graphic art since childhood and found a lot in this exhibition to like.  I was greatly taken with Jim Dine's lithographs of household objects, successive impressions becoming denser and darker as he added more and more to the plate, but felt vindicated in my decision not to spend half a day on seeing Robert Rauschenberg's recent retrospective at Tate Modern.  It's no good, I can't see the objective difference between his assemblage of cardboard boxes and the one made by the artists formerly known as kittens on the study floor out of the destroyed remains of their former favourite bed and some scrumpled up brown paper that arrived as packing around the cordless drill the SA bought recently.

I'm afraid the recent attacks have taken the edge off the careless joy of being in London.  I thought so on my last visit, feeling exposed crossing London Bridge and telling myself that the statistical chances of being caught up in anything were tiny, and two and a half days and several hundred thousand pedestrians later there was an attack on that very bridge.  All the galleries I've visited since the Manchester outrage have limited the number of entrances and carried out bag searches. At the British Museum visitors are channelled off to one side of the large open space in front of the museum down a very long series of chicanes made out of metal crash barriers, and the searches are conducted in a large upmarket portacabin.  This gets the queue and disruption out of the museum proper, and means that once inside Lord Foster's magnificent covered courtyard you can console yourself that your fellow visitors have been screened, and it also means that any would-be attacker would be denied the media spectacle of creating death and mayhem in the Great Court and have to make do with a measly portacabin, but it is all rather depressing.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

plants by post

I have been buying plants by mail order.  On the whole I am a fan of mail order.  You can go to specialists who list a far bigger range of whatever it is you are interested in than your local garden centre will offer.  You can read up on unfamiliar plants at your leisure and so discover whether they will invade the entire border, almost certainly die in their first winter, or otherwise prove unsuitable without being swayed by their charms in the flesh.  I would not have bought Coronilla varia if I had read the online comments about how it was suitable for stabilising embankments, and you would not buy Rubus cockburnianus if you had been reading this blog.  Small nurseries who only sell online and at their local markets are frequently cheaper, not having the running cost of a garden centre to cover.  Even allowing for delivery charges home shopping can be a net saving, especially once you've factored in your own time and petrol.

Top marks in the latest sortie into mail order plant buying go to Ashwood Nurseries.  Owner John Massey acquired the nursery fifty years ago as a teenager, fresh from school.  He now holds the highest honour awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour, for his work in hybridising new varieties and his astounding displays at RHS shows.  I bought some of his hellebores a few years ago, feeling terribly extravagant, and they were superb plants.  This time I went to Ashwood for salvias, another of their specialities.  The species I really wanted was Salvia tubiflora, which has orange flowers, and while I was at it I bought the red 'Royal Bumble' which the Systems Administrator had admired at Chelsea and a pale blue Salvia patens, to make myself feel better about the delivery charge.  I'd have bought the dark purple 'Nachtvlinder' as well but they were sold out for 2017.  My email enquiry about whether it would be coming back into stock this season was answered promptly, and my plants arrived within forty-eight hours of my placing the order.  They were packed in a tall, Ashwood branded box, pots secured in a box within-a-box at the base but leaves and stems free to breathe the air in the box rather than wrapped and sweating.  The carrier had obeyed the injunction to keep the box the right way up and nothing was broken, which is an achievement in that salvias can be brittle plants.  Ashwood's prices are not the cheapest but neither are they the most expensive.  My only regret is that things seem to come in and out of stock quite rapidly and are not available throughout the year, so it can be difficult to combine all the things you would like to buy from them into one order.

I am a bit cross with Hayloft and have no compunction in saying so publicly, because Hayloft are big enough to look after themselves.  They keep taking out full price advertisements in the gardening magazines, so it is not as if they were some enthusiastic small grower fresh out of college who had not yet got a feel for how many cuttings their stock plants would yield in a season. I had not used Hayloft before, but succumbed because they had Arctotis 'Flame' which I have been fussing about obtaining since admiring it in the Hillier Gardens a couple of years ago.  I was reconciled to not finding it and then my desire was reignited when somebody used it on their Chelsea stand, only when I looked at their website afterwards they did not actually sell either of the two plants on their display I should have liked to buy.  So I drew a deep breath and ordered three 'Flame' from Hayloft, and while I was at it some very young, very cheap hellebore plugs to grow on and use in the planting up the side of the wood.  I like hellebores, and rabbits do not eat them.  And I also succumbed to a pink variety of Arctotis on the basis that you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb and they would look good with the pink dahlias and Zinnia.  The delivery date for all of them was indicated on the website as 9 June plus or minus 14 days, and I'd already checked that only one delivery charge applied even if the plants came in more than one delivery.

Two boxes arrived with Monday morning's post, which turned out to be the Arctotis and one lot of hellebores.  The hellebores were fine, but Arctotis looked dreadful, limp and yellowing with some dead and mouldy leaves.  I wondered how long they had been in the post.  I don't know whether the Royal Mail's forty-eight hour delivery service counts Sunday as a day, when there are no deliveries on Sundays, but even if it did count then Hayloft would have had to dispatch the plants on Saturday, and I had a sneaking suspicion that was not very likely.  If they'd sent them on Friday that would have been silly, since they couldn't arrive until Monday.  If they had been posted on Thursday that meant the Royal Mail had messed up the delivery.  The plants looked as though they could have spent four days in their plastic tubes inside the boxes.  I cleaned them up, potted them into nine centimetre pots and stood them at the airy end of the greenhouse.  After twenty-four hours they had started to look less yellow and more grey, which is the colour they are supposed to be.  By this afternoon more leaves had died, but the shoots looked as though they might recover.  I emailed Hayloft on Monday to query when the package had been dispatched and warn them the plants looked pretty sick, so that if they didn't recover I'd be in a stronger position to complain, but I haven't heard back from them.

The third order was from a nursery in north Lincolnshire which I have used before.  I found his website originally when I was searching for somebody who might have Verbascum 'Gainsborough' in stock, and discovered he listed all sorts of quite unusual and hard to find things.  I got my Dicliptera suberecta from him, a charming, grey, felty sub-shrub with orange flowers that you don't see for sale very often.  He does quite a few tender plants, in season, and a good range of Sanguisorba, and a long list of perennial geraniums, and his prices are very reasonable.  His website is clearly organised and easy to navigate around, and choosing plants is a breeze.  It just gets a little less twenty-first century when it comes to paying and taking delivery of them.  He does not use any of the proprietary systems like SagePay for online credit card payments and he does not take PayPal. Instead you have to pay by card over the phone or send a cheque, and the onus is on you to make contact to pay.  I know this because after submitting my order I wanted to add an odd Lamium, so I emailed asking if this was possible and suggesting that if he let me know what was available I could post him a cheque.  I heard nothing back for several days so rang up.

From my own time working in the plant centre I know it is not helpful if people ring and immediately launch into a long explanation of what they want, because half the time when you answer the phone you are nowhere near the computer or any paperwork and by the time you get back to your desk you have forgotten what they said their name was or when they placed the order and have to start again.  I said I'd called about a recent order and waited for him to say something. He didn't so I asked Would you like my name and order number.  That would be helpful said the man from north Lincolnshire.  It turned out he thought he had most of the order and I was all set to pay by credit card, but when he said reassuringly that he wouldn't charge my card until the order was ready to be dispatched I began to think that it might not be an awfully good idea to have my card details sitting on a desk in an office in Lincolnshire where goodness knows who could see them, so I ended up sending a limit cheque and it eventually took over a month from placing the order to receiving the box this morning.  I rang last week to find out when it was going to be and check that they would email when it was sent, having visions of it being left outside our dead neighbour's empty house like the computer mouse the SA ordered from Amazon that a delivery driver pushed though the neighbour's door, and which only turned up a week later after the neighbour's daughter came to check on the house and kindly brought it round.  Yours is down for delivery next week, said the man from north Lincolnshire.

I got an email yesterday to say the delivery would be coming today.  The plants arrived safely, wrapped in damp copies of the Grimsby Telegraph and copious amounts of clingfilm.  They looked a little shocked by their two days in a box, as plants do, but they seemed healthy enough and will be fine.  They include a form of Argyranthemum with very fine leaves, similar to one I saw in pots at Audley End and really wanted, only they didn't sell them in their shop, and a Convolvus sabatius, and a heliotrope promised to have the full old fashioned scent, and a couple of rarish primroses, and two sorts of Sanguisorba I couldn't have found locally.  Some of the pots were slightly weedy, and while I had ordered three of a prostrate form of Veronica for the railway only one had been packed.  A Symphytum and a Viola I wanted were out of stock, but I had not been charged for them.  I wondered whether to contact the man in north Lincolnshire again and ask for a cheque for £4.50 for the two missing Veronica prostrata, and decided I couldn't face the hassle.  Mistakes happen, and his prices really are very reasonable: his Geranium phaeum 'Album' were only £3.95 compared to £4.95 at Beth Chatto and his Salvia 'Love and Wishes' was nearly two pounds less than I'd have paid at Ashwood.  I think I would use him again, and I would know to post a limit cheque for the full possible amount as soon as I placed the order.  It is just a bit of a drag not knowing when the box is going to arrive since you can't stay in all the time for weeks, and would the carrier obey my instruction to leave it in the porch without a signature if we were out?  And I would highlight in the Comments box on the order form where I had ordered more than one of something. He is at Cottage Nurseries at Thoresthorpe, north Lincolnshire, if you want to try for yourself.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

the cost of going green

Last night's talk at the garden club was by a distributor for peat free compost made from wool and bracken.  It was developed in the Lake District by a fifth generation shepherd and his partner who is an environmental scientist.  Bracken is harvested from the fells in September before it spores, which is just as well as you wouldn't want to risk spores germinating in the compost and you don't want to breathe them in during harvest since they are carcinogenic.  There is a lot of bracken in the Lake District.  The wool comes mostly from the local Herdwick, which produce a coarse wool that will do for carpets but not clothing.  In consequence demand has been so depressed that the sale price of a fleece doesn't even repay the expense of shearing.  The two are mixed together in a process that is kept a proprietary secret since it took the couple eight years to develop, and in variable proportions depending on how much nitrogen the resulting compost is designed to contain.

The speaker passed around some buckets of different grades of compost and it felt lovely, light and fluffy.  He assured us that it had excellent water retaining properties while not sitting too wet, that as the wool continued to decompose it would slowly release nutrients to the plants over a six month period, that the need to water would be reduced along with the need to feed over those six months. He passed around photos of plants grown in the wool and bracken compost next to ones growing in other compost, and the wool and peat based plants looked very impressive.

It seemed like lovely compost.  I'd have happily switched to it, subject to an initial trial run, a superior product made from natural waste products, bracken and coarse wool, that didn't involve damaging peat bogs or the risk of introducing some plant disease or a dose of weedkiller from a dodgy batch of green waste.  There was just one snag.  He was retailing it at ten pounds for a thirty litre bag, and that is a pound less than if you buy direct from the manufacturers.

Now B&Q own brand peat based multipurpose compost, which is normally pretty good subject to the drawbacks of peat, that if once dried out it is fiendishly difficult to rewet, retails at £6.93 for a 125 litre bag.  Four bags of wool and bracken would set you back £40.  That's under six pence per litre versus over thirty-three pence.  A lot of garden centre plants are sold in one or two litre pots, and shrubs are often in three or five litre pots, trees in ten litre pots.  You can do the maths.

The bracken and peat mixture was also marketed as a mulch and soil conditioner, suggested application rate one thirty litre bag per square metre, cost ten pounds.  When my home made compost runs out, as it always does, I can buy spent mushroom compost at £1.50 for thirty litres (plus the cost of driving three miles up the road to collect it and whatever I should charge myself in labour and laundry bills for shoveling it into bags).  For ten quid a square metre you could afford to cover your beds in laminate flooring with change left over for a nice rug.  Strulch bought by the pallet load comes in at just under £1.60 per square metre, so mulching with mushroom compost and then a coating of Strulch comes in at roughly a third of top dressing with wool and bracken at the recommended rate, and with the wool and bracken mixture you wouldn't get the weed suppressant effect.

I don't understand why it is so expensive.  If it were even twice as much as peat based I could draw a deep breath, think of the environment (though until countries stop burning peat in power stations the difference gardeners can make by eschewing peat based compost seems minimal) and make the switch, but six times as much?  How can something made out of raw materials that have practically no value be so expensive?  True, there was the cost of developing it, but likewise there was for Strulch.  True, it has to be processed and packaged and transported, but so do all other composts. So does laminate flooring.

Afterwards the chairman of the garden club quietly lamented that if the Plant Heritage propagation group were to pay that much for compost they would have to put their prices up.  I was left with a feeling of regret that a good product that had the potential to go mainstream was being limited to a tiny niche market by its manufacturer's pricing policy.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

summer storm

The kittens, by now cats, could not believe that it rained solidly all yesterday evening, and kept rushing out of the cat door and coming in again, damp and indignant.  They like to go out around dusk, and they especially like to go out and frolic in the garden after they have had their supper. Instead they had to make do with frolicking in the study while we were trying to watch an improving documentary about the history of weather forecasting, tobogganing across the nice slidey wooden floor on the broken cardboard box that is their current favourite bed, until they ripped the lid off.

It was rather piquant to get a summer storm, since last night's episode covered the efforts to forecast the weather ahead of D-Day, which was postponed at short notice for twenty-four hours after the Met Office warned of a storm coming in from the Atlantic.  Their model of cold fronts, then quite newly developed, had something to do with it, but so did the actual readings submitted every hour from a weather station in the far west of Ireland.  What hits Blacksod tonight will hit the English Channel tomorrow afternoon.  Today, 6 June, is the anniversary of the landings, and looking at the trees thrashing about outside I could see why you would not have attempted beach landings in such weather.

The artists formerly known as kittens were even less impressed when it continued to rain all through the morning and we got a lot more of the going out, coming straight back in routine, until one by one they gave up and went to sleep.  Asleep is how Mr Fluffy spends most of his morning anyway, but he likes to go out and run around for half an hour first.  Or perhaps he likes the idea that he could go out if he wanted to.  The Systems Administrator had set the day aside for vacuuming since it was forecast to be wet, and the cats did not like the vacuum cleaner either.  Mr Fidget and Mr Fluffy eyed it warily, but Mr Cool hid behind the sofa before going and taking refuge in the conservatory.

I don't think too much has broken.  I stood the chairs from outside the conservatory down on the lawn so that they could not be blown through the windows, and put the umbrella inside the conservatory in case it should snap, and then remembered to take the auricula pots off the top shelf of their pew-theatre, just in case, and I shut the greenhouse and windward conservatory doors.  The gale has made a mess, though.  The sage bush in the herb bed and the Phlomis italica in the turning circle have been rather bashed about.  Both are lax and not terribly solid shrubs, sending up long flowering spikes that will subsequently be cut off quite far down as the new growth will come from inside the bush, and their flowering stems are now pointing in every direction and chunks of the sage have sagged so that the bush is open in the middle.  I fear that now they have flopped they may remain that way until pruning time and next year's new growth restore order.

Monday, 5 June 2017

clearing the way

The Eleagnus hedge has been encroaching where it was not wanted again, this time across the path from the front garden to the terrace (or patio).  I nibble away at the end of the hedge every now and again, but never quite enough, while the top of it has arched over to make a tunnel against the house.  The tunnel is rather fun, except when the gales make the hedge thrash about and scrape the wood stain off the cedar clad upper storey.  I had a good go at the arching over bits only a couple of months ago with the pole lopper and had got them clear of the wood cladding, except that of course by now the hedge has grown again.  However, the passageway at the bottom had got awfully narrow.  Things came to a head when I knocked an iron stake into the corner of the flower bed along the wall of the house so that I could run the hose around the corner without it digging into a box ball and squashing the winter flowering iris, and the Systems Administrator pointed out to me that as he already had to cut through the border to avoid the hedge, with the stake there he could only go round the corner himself bent at a very odd angle to keep his knees clear of the stake and his shoulders clear of the hedge.

That is the trouble with entrusting the heavy maintenance to a small person.  Any route I make between or underneath branches tends to be practically hobbit sized.  The SA is fully eight inches taller than I am, with much broader shoulders, and gaps that I can happily toddle through, foliage just skimming the top of my Tilley hat, leave the SA bent double.  I promised to cut the end of the hedge back properly, and the SA magnanimously agreed that the stake could stay and he would get used to it.  As the weather hots up and the number of pots at the end of the house increases it is jolly useful having a hose guide.

After lunch I thought I had better stick to my side of the bargain and do something about the hedge.  The problem was that several large branches had sagged over time until they stuck out half way across the path at about the height of the SA's shoulders, and there was nothing to be done but take a deep breath and saw them off.  The end result wasn't as bad as I'd feared, with only one large bald patch, and I managed to salvage some young whippy shoots with leaves that could be pushed up inside the end of the hedge instead of cutting them off.  I expect it will regenerate.  It has so far, but cutting hard into two decades old Eleagnus x ebbingei is nerve wracking.  Do not plant it as a hedge.  Choose hornbeam, or yew.

The finished path was much better, though, and I flagged down the SA when he was passing and made him walk through it to try it for size.  The SA said it was fine, and I took off a few more branches at shoulder height for good measure.  Come the autumn when we cut down the long grass on the daffodil lawn I am going to have to take the back of the hedge back, as it is bulging out across the lawn and shading the terrace (or patio).  Then we will have to look at the butchered remains from the sitting room window for months.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

open gardens

We took the morning off from gardening to go garden visiting.  This time it was not the grand gardens of Norfolk, but Boxford Open Gardens.  I like Open Gardens, with their chance to see what other people manage to do on a domestic scale, and tend to try a new place each time, so in the past we've been to Wrabness, Stoke-by-Nayland, and Chelsworth, and last summer my gardening friend and I worked our way around the open gardens of Sudbury so thoroughly that I don't think we missed a single one.  It cannot be denied that sheer nosiness plays a part, for who is not curious about what goes on behind all those garden walls and fences and behind the rows of facades?

Boxford is a pretty village.  Besides the village hall, where the garden club meets, and the church across the lane from the village hall, where I once went to a concert, and the pub in the main street where I caught the coach for the garden society outing and helped with the plant stall, I had never really looked at the rest of it.  As in nearby Lavenham there must have been money around in Medieval and Tudor times and then not so much afterwards, though Boxford managed to acquire more Georgian frontages on buildings that were much older behind the new front (or so we surmised from looking at the roof lines).  In fact, we saw some fabulous roofs, hipped and gabled, upper storeys jettying out to leave perilously narrow gaps between adjacent roofs, and eclectic mixtures of tiles and slate on different bits of the same roof.  The river Box runs through Boxford and several of the gardens we saw backed on to it, but according to one owner I asked it doesn't overtop its banks, or hasn't in her memory.  There is a doctor's surgery, an infants school, a couple of pubs and several shops, and a pleasant air of it being a real place and not just a dormitory of Sudbury, Hadleigh, or Colchester.

The best garden belonged to the chairman of the garden club.  I knew it would be pretty good, having seen a magazine article about it and knowing that the chairman is a knowledgeable plantswoman.  Not very big since it is her downsized garden now she is in her eighties, no lawn, beds filled with interesting plants, good combinations of climbers on the walls, some clipped evergreen standards to add height and substance.  It was exactly the sort of garden I should like to do when I am in my eighties.

I enquired enviously why her Nicotiana mutablis was already flowering when mine were still little things in nine centimetre pots, and she explained that hers was over a year old rather than from a spring sowing, and that it would behave as a perennial if given some protection in winter, pointing out the medium sized pot nestling in the bed.  I had truly not known that plants would over-winter, and am glad I found out before doing anything else with mine, since it will influence what sized pots I use and how densely I pack them.  The chairman's pot was about eight inches across and I think had just the one plant in it.  Nicotiana mutablis is a species of tobacco flower whose flowers open white and turn pink then magenta as they age, giving a mixture of colours on the same plant. I first encountered it on the Avon Bulbs stand at Chelsea years ago, and it has taken me that long to get organised to grow any.

None of the other gardens were as outstandingly good, though we had a nice time walking around. We saw a solitary Dianthus carthusianorum standing in splendid isolation in one border and I thought that they really were catching on before reflecting that it was probably one of the plants I donated to the garden club plant stall.  I was admiring a rambling rose in another garden, with large clusters of small white double flowers with central bosses that were large in proportion to the size of the flower, healthy leaves, and relatively few thorns, and wondering what it was when a charming man with a border terrier appeared and told me that it was 'Rambling Rector'.  A sweet and romantic cottage garden with overflowing borders contained an effusive and very friendly spaniel, and a narrow border behind a house in a modern cul-de-sac had a sad little row of pets' headstones.  Refreshments were being sold in the village hall and we had tea and very good homemade Victoria sponge for a miserly two pounds a head.  There was bunting hung out across the lane between the hall and the village school.  The sun shone.  It was all very nice.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

gardening at the wood's edge

Finally I have got around to planting out the four Harvington hellebores I bought at the Chatto gardens in early February.  It was never meant to take so long, but every time I thought I was going to spend a couple of days weeding along the side of the wood and clear a space for them I ended up doing something else instead.  The Strulch needed spreading in the back garden, or it was time to sow seeds, or seedlings needed pricking out, or non gardening activities intruded into time that I'd earmarked for gardening.

One advantage of leaving it this long is that the remaining bits of bramble root have had time to send up fresh shoots, meaning that I can see where they are and have another go at digging them out.  I'll be chiseling out tiny shoots of bramble for years, as I do in the back garden, but it would have been a shame to have planted the hellebores and then find a large bramble root ran under them.  Likewise there are a few fresh shoots of Gardeners' Garters, which told me where I should dig to extract the last bits of root before planting anything.  Gardeners' Garters does not appear to regenerate readily from fragments of root, which is a relief, not like couch grass and its ilk.

One intractable set of roots ran right under a large clump of primroses which I had to lift in order to get them out properly.  That was fine since I was intending the split some of the clumps and spread them around, and after flowering is the textbook time to do it.  There have been several torrential downpours in the past couple of weeks and the top few inches of soil are now nicely wet, so conditions are on my side for once.  The large clump broke down into half a dozen decent sized pieces, and I was careful to pick their roots clean of any last, fat pieces of Gardeners' Garter roots before replanting them, leaves chopped off to save them from losing moisture while they reestablish.

I planted out the first tray of sad little Teucrium hircanum 'Purple Tails', while wondering if they will come to anything.  They were ready to go out last summer, only the site was nowhere ready to receive them, and have really not liked spending the past year in pots.

The small and lopsided Styrax japonica is in flower, little white bells dangling.  It has led a hard life, being overrun by brambles each time we lose control of that area, and an oak tree that fell over but continues to grow lying on its side.  Once a large section of its crown died, shaded out, and it has developed with a very crooked trunk as it attempted to escape from the embrace of the oak.  Poor little tree.  I shall have to tell myself that its winding stem gives it character.  It is certainly testament to a powerful will to live.