Monday, 31 July 2017

making progress on two fronts

The Systems Administrator cleared away the heap of juniper branches and roots, all except the stump which I helped lift into the trailer before the SA packed up for the afternoon and went to cook supper.  I need to give the remains of the gravel a final tidying up, pulling out the last roots and treading it flat, and the SA has offered to sweep the newly accessible concrete parking area in the morning, and then it will only need a fresh coat of gravel and the juniper clearance project will be finished.  When I added Sort out conifers by concrete to free up parking to the list of things to do (currently number 67) I imagined cutting them back without entirely butchering them, but the drive looks much better with them gone.  It just goes to show that it is worth trying to look at a garden with a fresh eye.  Once plants have been there for a long time it is easy to regard them as fixtures, but really anything can be up for grabs at any time, except for trees with Preservation Orders on them.

Meanwhile I am close to finishing weeding the mess just inside the entrance to the garden.  I haven't managed to get every last bramble root out, and I expect they will shoot again in due course, but I shall be ready for them with glyphosate.  I took the SA to see what I'd been doing after tea, and set out my requests for projects with which I should like help, which sounded rather long when presented as a list, even when hedged around with disclaimers about some of them not being urgent, and more something for the SA to ponder possible solutions in odd moments.

I should like a screen for the bins, so that the first thing one saw on entering the garden was not the dustbin and the brown garden waste recycling wheelie bin.  I should also like a screen for the grass clippings the SA dumps into the odd corner of the next field which under the way the farm was carved up ended up as part of our garden.  I should like to fix a reed screen up to head height, or perhaps split bamboo might be more durable, along the back of the newly weeded and cleared border at the top of the slope, so that when I replanted it with whatever shrubs I decide might cope with the wind and sand they would have a more attractive background than brambles, a pile of grass clippings, and any stuff the neighbours had left lying around their field at the time. Sometimes they have a portable miniature football goal, though that hasn't been in evidence recently.  And I should like help installing (for which read like the SA to install) my new artwork. The artwork was more urgent, since I had already bought it, and in fact the screen along the back of the bed was quite urgent, since I should like to get on with planting up the border.

It sounded like a long list, and I felt rather mean, when garden artworks are part of my hobby and not really anything to do with the Systems Administrator.  The SA drew a deep breath and explained that as this was an exceptionally windy corner, exposed to the full blast of the south westerlies, that movable screens for bins and lawn clippings would be quite difficult to design so that they did not fall to bits after a few months.  Likewise there was the risk that a bamboo screen along the back of the border would blow apart.  On the other hand, the SA could see my point that as the top corner of the slope was visible along both of the main paths through the back garden and along the drive from the house it would be better if it did not consist of some wire rabbit netting and a mound of brambles.  The SA began to talk about battens and to warm to the theme, and we agreed that as a roll of split bamboo screen would not be vastly expensive that I would get one, the SA would fix it, and we would see how it worked out.

The artwork provoked similar anxiety about the wind, and we ended up with a compromise that it could be fixed at waist rather than head height.  I have just bought a set of ten capital letters in an elegant serif font, stamped out of thin rusted metal sheet, and I want them fastened up by the entrance to the garden where they will spell out a line from Samuel Beckett which could be every gardener's motto (and is especially apt for this dry and windy corner where I have struggled for nearly a quarter of a century with a series of unsuccessful planting schemes).  Instead of a view of dustbins as you arrive I want people to see the words:


Sunday, 30 July 2017

the stump is out

The juniper stump is out.  The pile of debris next to where the juniper used to be is taller than I am, though the Systems Administrator has offered to move it to the bonfire heap tomorrow.  I feel rather stiff but mightily self-satisfied.  Also relieved, as there was a point about half way through the excavation when I began to wonder if I was going to be able to get it out by hand.

Poor juniper, I still feel mean removing a healthy plant, and it was a very healthy specimen. Having said that they will not regenerate from old wood, there were a few little points of new leaves sprouting right in the very heart of the plant.  I would not rely on being able to cut one down to stumps and it reclothing itself in fresh growth in any sensible time period, though.

The roots went mostly horizontally, echoing the growth habit above ground, and I was able to dig most of them out.  Branches and roots are both made of soft wood and easy to cut by hand.  The Systems Administrator spent ten minutes before lunch today cutting down the last couple of feet of the main stems with the chainsaw, which had reached four to six inches in diameter after two decades, but I dismantled most of the canopy with a manual pruning saw and loppers.

Getting the roots out was hard work, but not the part that almost threw me.  It was getting the stump out that was the real challenge.  It was made up of several stems, occupying a space getting on for a yard long and half as wide.  After working my way round the centre several times, sawing and cutting through the roots as I went, I had to start undercutting the mass of stems in the middle using the pick axe, and keep chopping the ends of the severed roots ever shorter using loppers and the pruning saw, so that the great central lump began to shrink down to a more reasonable size and I stood a chance of eventually cutting my way right to the centre.

There was no central massive anchoring tap root, as there is under some plants, but several smallish roots plunging straight down from underneath the cluster of trunks.  At the end, when I'd undercut so far that the rootball wobbled under my touch, it still refused to lift out of the hole, and I had to tip it as far as I could to one side, feel under it to see where it was anchored, and then reach under it while still managing to keep it tipped and cut through the remaining roots, identifying them by touch.

The cats seemed mildly appalled to see a shrub, a hitherto dependable garden fixture, disappearing in front of their eyes.  Change is bad, when you are a cat.  Mr Cool was especially fascinated by the hole, which he came and inspected very carefully, while Mr Fluffy unfortunately took the large area of freshly disturbed earth to be a new and magnificent lavatory.

I do wish that gardening programmes on TV would be more honest about the work it takes to dig out mature shrubs by hand.  They make it look as though after ten minutes of digging with a spade you will have a trench right around the shrub, while a few more brisk chops will cut under the root ball, and it is really not like that, or at least not most of the time.  The main roots of the juniper were over two inches in diameter and the smaller ones an inch, and if I'd chopped at them with a spade all that would have happened is I'd have jarred my arms painfully until the spade broke. The pick axe bounced off them if I hit them directly.  Instead I dug down to them and with the blade under them used the leverage of the handle to raise them to a point where I could sever them, or if they were too thick to lift at all I dug a hole on either side to give access to saw through them.

Anyway, it is out now, and I have almost finished filling the hole and smoothing off the site, and it looks much better.  All it needs now is a tonne of gravel.  I feel rather stiff, but I don't think I've torn or injured anything.  I was very careful to let the axe do the work.  I know someone who managed to rip a couple of ribs loose by dint of tugging furiously at a thing she was trying to dislodge, but brute strength is not the answer, not when you are small and no longer young. Cunning, leverage, gravity, and sharp cutting tools, that's the way to do it.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

talking about trees

The setting for today's woodland charity talk was rather different to some.  For a start, it was in Suffolk.  For years I have tried to explain to a series of volunteer organizers that I live close to the county boundary.  It takes me, on average, just over twenty minutes to get into Suffolk, versus a good hour and a quarter to get to Romford and longer by the time I've allowed for delays on the A12, but they have all insisted on running things on a strictly county driven basis.  I was once offered a booking in Stansted Mountfitchet, still part of Essex but the other side of the M11, and it came as a revelation to the administrative assistant concerned that if she were to look at a map she would see that Hertford and Cambridge were both much closer to Stansted Mountfitchet than I was starting from the east of Colchester.

Hats off, therefore, to the latest volunteer manager, who seems to have a better grasp of geography and a less blinkered view of county boundaries than many of her predecessors.  She has also issued me with a name badge, a set of business cards which have my name printed on them and not just generic cards for the charity on which I am supposed to write my details in biro, and a portable banner on a stand.  I feel we are going places.

Today's talk was unusual for being on a Saturday morning.  Who goes to talks on a Saturday morning?  It was part of a summer long festival of trees and gardening, the first time the organizers had run one.  I didn't know what to expect, and was reconciled to nobody wanting to come to an ad hoc Saturday morning lecture on woodlands.  In the event there was an audience, small but friendly, and I did not feel an idiot talking to them, as I might have done if the festival organizers had outnumbered the members of the public.

If they do it again I think they could do with roping in somebody with flair and experience to help with the publicity.  It must be difficult running a series of events when you have no history, no database of past supporters, and pretty much no budget, but there was no notice outside the venue to say that a talk would be taking place on Saturday morning.  I saw nothing about the festival in any of the local papers I read online, and it didn't get a mention at the garden club, which meets not very far away, or any publicity at their Open Gardens.  The only person I know who lives in the town didn't know there was a festival of trees and gardening running over the summer.  Still, it was brave of the organizers to try, and it must be as potentially embarrassing for them as for their speakers to stage events and risk nobody turning up.  More so, in fact, as my name wasn't on the programme.  They were doing a guided tree walk this afternoon, so I hope some people went to that, because it began to rain soon after lunch.

Friday, 28 July 2017

a party of cats

Whatever Mr Cool was doing on his travels yesterday must have exhausted him, for he spent most of today sleeping in the trug I use to carry twigs to the woodland charity talks, and is now lying sprawled across the end of the kitchen table.  It is going to be a blow to him when after tomorrow's talk the trug goes back down to the garage and he has to make do with his wicker cat bed and whatever assortment of cardboard boxes we have lying around at the time*.

I spent much of the day sawing my way through the gigantic juniper at the end of the dahlia bed**.The pile of prunings on the concrete is already vast, and I haven't finished yet***.I think it is large enough that it will be worthwhile for the Systems Administrator to pump up the tyre of the old tractor, which has a slow puncture, and sort out whatever the problem with the fuel system is to get it to run, so that we can clear the heap using the big trailer rather than making twenty journeys with the little, hand pulled one.

There is something sad about dismantling a healthy plant simply because it has outgrown its space, but it has to be admitted that the drive is already starting to look better without it.  Seeing the gap highlights how the juniper had ceased to have any useful purpose.  It blocked access on foot and for vehicles to places to which there ought to be access, and created a thirty foot detour in getting from one side of the dahlia bed to the other, and it was not a thing of such beauty that one didn't mind accommodating it.  Almost the first exercise we did in class in the first term at Writtle was to conduct a landscape appraisal, which means looking at everything in a landscape and deciding what its function was.  The poor old juniper had no function.

The SA has offered to cut through the thickest branches with the chainsaw, if I remove the lighter top layers by hand.  That will speed things up, but still leaves the roots to dig out.  I have a nasty feeling that is going to be a pig of a job with the pick axe, the juniper being in the pink of health, unlike the sea buckthorns, and presumably having a massive root system to match its enormous top growth.  There are twenty years' worth of fallen and decaying needles to scoop up as well, and the gravel will need replenishing.  In fact, I think I had better order an extra bag****when I buy the next load.

*In the time it took me to type that last sentence Mr Cool returned to the trug.

**Mr Cool was promptly replaced by Our Ginger and Mr Fluffy.  Our Ginger gave the top of Mr Fluffy's head a good wash, and Mr Fluffy is now lying down looking cute and purring at one end of the table while Our Ginger lies at the other end with his paw on my arm, purring.  Stereo purring.

***Now Mr Fidget has arrived and he and Mr Fluffy are washing each other.  The kitchen table is getting rather crowded.

****Mr Cool began to feel lonely in his trug and has joined the party on the table.  Four cats.  Ernest Hemingway, eat your heart out.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

the mystery of the vanishing mr cool

Mr Cool was not in for his breakfast this morning.  Initially I was not too fussed, since he likes to go out and normally shows up by nine or half past.  When he had not come in by ten I walked up the side of the wood calling for him, and round the back garden, but he didn't appear.  I had to go out soon after midday for an afternoon woodland charity talk, and as I set off there was still no sign of him.

I fretted about him all the way up the A12, then managed to stop thinking about him once I was set up in the hall, ready to go.  Today's group was a U3A with a proper sound system including big speakers on stands, a lapel microphone that didn't keep cutting out or depend on my holding my head in exactly the right position at all times, and a cheerful man who knew how it all worked. Since the first part of the talk is accompanied by actual twigs, and I tend to move about and use my hands to illustrate points while lecturing, it is a lot easier not to be rooted to a microphone stand or desperately concentrating on holding the microphone the correct distance from my chin with one hand while operating the projector or rifling through a basket of twigs with the other. The only technical issue today was that the hall's big screen was above the stage, and even with maximum tilt on my projector table and a magazine wedged under the projector's front feet the image still fell short of the top of the screen, and I had to raid my pile of leaflets for extra packing.

The U3A seemed to enjoy the talk, or at they stayed awake and some of them were smiling and some came up afterwards to say that they had enjoyed it.  I'd give this afternoon's effort an alpha minus, whereas I rated the last one beta double plus.  It is very hard to tell, though, like trying to say how you did after an exam.  There have been times when the audience have sat through a talk so solemnly and stiffly I've been amazed to get a call a year or two later inviting me back, but other times when people seemed to love the talk on the day then I never heard from any of them again.

As I packed up my things I remembered that Mr Cool had not been seen since about ten last night. I drove back up the A12 telling myself that when I got home the Systems Administrator would greet me with the news that Mr Cool was back, but Mr Cool was not back and it was raining.  The SA had been up the side of the wood and through the wood calling him before the rain, to no avail.  I changed into my gardening clothes to start looking for Mr Cool, and Mr Cool appeared, soaking wet.  He graciously consented to be clasped to my bosom while water soaked into my t shirt, then he ate some tea, or perhaps it was a late lunch or breakfast, and then he went to sleep in my chair in the study.

Today was the longest we have gone so far without sight of him.  Even when he isn't hungry he pops in after we've got up to say hello, and he generally wants lunch.  There were strange people here this afternoon, first of all some friends kindly bringing us straw bales for the chicken run, and then our cheerful local boiler specialist to do the annual service and measure up to replace the heated towel rails, which are leaking.  Mr Cool hates strange people, so perhaps once they started to turn up he remained out of sight until they had gone and it started to rain.  That doesn't explain why he ignored us calling for him earlier, when yesterday he was enormously friendly, but that's cats for you.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

a decision

This morning, as I headed off to the railway gravel to plant out some more of the stash of plants in pots by the greenhouse, an idea struck me with great clarity, and I realized that I should remove the large semi prostrate juniper at the end of the dahlia bed.  It is a specimen of Juniperus x pfizeriana 'Pfitzeriana Aurea', a name that does not exactly trip off the tongue, and was planted nearly twenty years ago, since when it has overwhelmed two other, lesser prostrate junipers, and changed its name from the slightly more manageable Juniperus x media.

You would probably recognize it if you saw one, even though you might not know its name, for it is a classic landscaping plant of the 1970s, and none the worse for that.  Willing to live in miserable soil, or shade, and gently spreading to fill odd shaped gaps or corners with a weed proof, impenetrable, evergreen cover, it used to be one of the plants that landscape architects reached for when they had an awkward space to fill.  It will tolerate regular trimming, but woe betide you if you cut hard into old wood behind the current growth.  It will not reshoot, and you will be left looking at the stumps.

My regular trimming has not been regular enough, so that after two decades the juniper has spread to occupy the end of the dahlia bed and almost a car's length of parking on the drive, as well as creeping nearly mid way across the concrete so blocking half of the overflow parking area, and has advanced towards the long bed until there is only a pinched, eighteen inch path left between them.  I have been fiddling around trying to reduce it to improve access to the concrete and the railway, but the real solution is to chop it all out.  Suddenly we would regain a space as large as some small front gardens.

Most of it would not be space for new planting, just parking, but it would still be welcome, and I would want to put something in its place to mark the end of the dahlia bed.  For a few hours I toyed with the idea of a dwarf pine, not too tiny or slow growing but that wouldn't get too large.  I love pines, and all those we've tried so far have done extremely well in the sand.  A form of the native Pinus sylvestris whose new growth emerged pale yellow, perhaps, or a dark, gnarled pine like the ones seen in some recent Chelsea gardens.  But neither of these felt right, and my budget would not stretch to the sort of pines seen at Chelsea, and how long would I have to wait for one to reach that size?  No, the answer, it turned out, was another yew, to echo the two topiary domes topped with cake stands in the long bed.  I would not make another cake stand, but perhaps a spiral, or a sort of Cleopatra's needle obelisk.

Yew is by no means instant, but it will make getting on for eighteen inches annual growth when young if fed and watered, and it likes good drainage.  In damp ground it is vulnerable to phytophthora, but in sand it is pretty bullet proof.  There is not, so far and touching wood, a yew blight to go with box blight.

I ran the idea past the Systems Administrator, who turned out to be delighted at the prospect of the juniper going, so pleased in fact that I thought the SA could always have asked before.  I suppose it is part of our modus vivendi that my plants are allowed to do their thing without criticism in case I should dearly love them, the main exception being when they block the signal to the Sky dish.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

an unwelcome discovery

I finished moving the Tithonia on into bigger containers, so they are now in 27cm diameter pots and we shall see how that works.  They had made a lot of roots in their old pots, and I am coming to the view that they are better with plenty of space, plenty of water, and probably plenty of food.  In contrast one of the Zinnia 'Queen Red Lime' had collapsed over the past few days, and I'm pretty sure that was because it got too wet, from the spells of very heavy rain as much as from my over watering it.  Luckily I had one plant left in the greenhouse, still in its two litre plastic pot, so I was able to substitute that for the dying one.  It looks as though with Zinnia you want to keep the pot on the small side, and try to keep them from getting soggy.

I potted on the Nicotiana mutablis by the front door, all except one because I ran out of the right size pots, and then I made a very unwelcome discovery about the fuchsias.  I have been fretting since mid spring when they came back into growth that most were not bushing up as well as I'd like.  They produced leaves, and some flowers, but not many new shoots, and as the summer went on the rate of production of leaves and flowers started to tail off instead of gaining momentum.  I wondered if I had fed them too little, or too much, or with the wrong kind of food and they didn't like Vitax Q4, or if they had been too wet on average, or allowed to get too dry between waterings in the hot weather.

This afternoon as I was picking off the fallen flowers and snipping off the fruits from those that set berries I noticed a distorted shoot tip.  Peering over the top of my safety spectacles, my nose pressed up close to the foliage so that I could see, I found more misshapen growth, stems fattened and flattened, leaves stunted, flower buds distorted.  I went and checked the symptoms on the internet, but I was already pretty sure what I'd got, fuchsia gall mite.  It is a relatively new pest in the UK.  The RHS magazine had warned that enquiries about it were rocketing up their league table of most asked about pests and diseases, so I suppose that like Hemerocallis gall midge it was only a matter of time before it found its way here.

I felt quite cast down anyway, a sort of Vissi d'arte gardening moment.  Here I am trying to mind my own business and remain mostly harmless, diligently concocting cheese puddings out of stale bread and cheese to avoid wasting them, still wearing t-shirts that are a quarter of a century old because they have not actually dropped to bits yet, solemnly sorting out the recycling every week, and taking all my holidays in the UK instead of flying.  Why does the ungrateful earth have to unleash a debilitating foreign fuchsia pest upon my garden when I have been decorating my particular altar with flowers with sincere faith?

It is a tiny, tiny mite, resistant to any pesticide available to amateurs, and in any case since fuchsia flowers are attractive to bees you wouldn't want the whole plant laced with pesticide.  I threw out the two worst affected small plants, snipped off every dodgy looking shoot I could see on the others, and sprayed them all with an organic soap based treatment.  The soap will kill those mites it envelops by physical smothering, but they are so small and tucked away in the crevices of the plants that it won't touch all of them.  All I can do is keep trimming out visible damage and soap spraying at frequent intervals, and see if I can get on top of the problem.  In the autumn I shall cut all the fuchsias down very hard so that I get rid of most of the infected material, and hope that they shoot back from ground level in the spring.  Then I had better get going at once with soap spray, and if there are still mites then bin the fuchsias.  That would be a great shame, as I am very fond of fuchsias and had just started to build up a little collection.  It is sheer chance that I didn't buy more recently.  I was all set to put in another order with Other Fellow Fuchsias when the variety I particularly wanted went out of stock and I decided to leave it for the time being.

On a happier note, the replacements arrived for the five primula that should have been orange but all flowered purple.  As the driver hunted for the right box in the back of his van he said that the garden was lovely, he really liked the way we'd done it though it must be a lot of work.  He sounded as though he meant it, and I was deeply touched.  Somehow I hadn't expected a young man driving a white van to be interested.

Monday, 24 July 2017

potting on

I spent the day potting on various plants raised from seed, that were gently grinding to a halt in their trays or existing small pots.  A dark red Gaillardia, Gaura, some white poppies, a few sad foxgloves, two varieties of wallflowers, sweet williams, and another species of long stemmed Dianthus for the gravel since the Dianthus carthusianorum worked so well.  I'm pleased I finally remembered to sow some wallflowers at the right time, which is summer.  There are so many other things to do in June that it's easy to forget about seeds, but early summer is the time to sow biennials.

I am very fond of wallflowers.  I like the scent, the dusky colours, and the whole old-fashioned vibe.  A couple of years ago I bought some bare root wallflowers by mail order, but they failed to make very satisfactory plants, remaining rather spindly.  It was as if they had never got over the indignity of being posted.  I don't understand why, when almost every other bedding plant under the sun is sold in a container, the tradition of bare root wallflowers persists.  I read somewhere that wallflowers were not suitable for selling in pots as young plants because their rootballs didn't hold together, but the ones I potted on this afternoon had perfectly normal looking roots.  They held together in the shape of their divided tray without seeming congested, and I have every hope they will do the same in small pots until the autumn when I can plant them in some of the containers currently in use for summer bedding.  Seed company Thompson and Morgan advise on their website that biennials are usually sown in a nursery bed where they can grow undisturbed until ready for transplanting, and I wonder why?  How many gardens nowadays have a nursery bed? If my young potted wallflower plants suddenly keel over, or gradually dwindle to nothing before the autumn, then I'll know that maybe I should have found a nursery bed for them, but as it is I fail to see why they can't be grown in little pots, like the young cabbage plants garden sold in garden centres and DIY stores to home vegetable growers.

Members of the cabbage family, including wallflowers, can suffer from club root, so one advantage of growing your own from seed instead of buying bare root plants is knowing that you are definitely not introducing club root to the garden.  You would hope that no reputable mail order company would allow such a thing to happen, but you never know.  And seed raised plants are cheaper, when a packet of seed costs a couple of pounds if it doesn't come free with a gardening magazine, while bare root mail order plants are forty or fifty pence each, and demand to be planted as soon as they arrive.

The Arctotis that got held up in the post and had gone yellow and mouldy by the time they arrived have finally filled their plastic nine centimetre pots with enough roots for me to be willing to move them on into five inch terracotta pots and stand them outside.  Hayloft did refund me for one pack, which seemed about fair since all the plants survived in the end and I probably shouldn't expect to get two packs entirely for free.  Let's hope that after all the trouble with them they survive the winter in the greenhouse, so that I get a full season out of them next year.  In principle they should, indeed in theory I can multiply them by taking cuttings.

As I went to buy more potting compost and some larger pots for the Tithonia, I stopped at the Chatto gardens to buy a dark leaved, tiny flowered form of verbena, Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora 'Bampton'.  It is fairly new introduction, though I have been eyeing them up covetously for a year or two and am going to try one in a pot with the other purple and dark red flowers.  The Chatto gardens describe it as a particularly fine form, in contrast to other inferior versions which have been grown from seed, leaving me thinking that I ought to be able to take some sort of cuttings from that as well.  I can feel a Google search for 'Verbena officinalis propagation' coming on.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

spud day

Today was the garden club Spud Day, when we took our competition potatoes to be weighed.  The tubers were dished out at the start of the year, one each for everyone wanting to take part, to be grown in a builders' bucket, only I did not know the bit in the rules about it being a literal bucket, having not taken part before, and was growing mine in a large black pot left over from buying some tree or shrub.  And I didn't get my tuber until March, since I missed the February meeting after poking myself in the eye the day before, and even then it spent several days sitting on the hall table while I kept forgetting to plant it.  One way and another I was not optimistic about my chances in the potato competition, but it's the taking part that counts, and people told me that there was always a lovely tea.

The Programme Secretary who hosts the Spud Day in her garden said it didn't matter this time about the bucket, since I hadn't known, and advised me not to keep the potato in the greenhouse as it would get too hot.  I ejected it from the greenhouse, and the top leaves were nipped by a late frost.  I became marginally less optimistic than I was before.  The potato grew some more leaves before the foliage started to yellow, and by early July the leaves had well and truly died down.  I stopped watering it, having visions of my competition entry rotting unseen beneath the compost, but I did not think that having finished growing three weeks before judging put me in a favourable position.

In the Programme Secretary's garden volunteers were tipping the potatoes out of their buckets on to a tarpaulin and painstakingly raking with their fingers through the compost to find every last tuber, however tiny, because as the chap disinterring my pot told me as he winkled out another marble sized potato, it could come down to the last half ounce and every potato counted.

Actually I was quite pleasantly surprised at how many potatoes there were in the pot, at least a couple of meals' worth of ones large enough to be worth cooking, plus a scattering of tinies.  I wasn't expecting to win, but it would have been embarrassing if there had still been just one potato.  They weighed in at a moderately respectable two pounds three ounces, behind my friend from my Writtle who managed two pounds and six ounces, but quite a few buckets held only just over the one pound mark, and a few didn't make that.  The winner came in at over three.

I think the potato competition goes to show that gardening skills are largely transferable, since the winner is a very keen gardener but had never grown a potato in a bucket before.  Her specialist interest is snowdrops, which are not a great deal like potatoes.  When asked how she did it she said she had added a little fertiliser to the compost at the start but no more since, and that she had watered the potato twice every day.  Twice.  Morning and evening.  That's dedication for you. In second place was last year's winner, who clearly has a honed technique.

I showed my pot of potatoes to the Systems Administrator when I got home, with the request that we eat the larger ones.  The SA looked mildly surprised, having obviously been infected with my pessimism about the chances of there being an actual crop of potatoes in the pot, and promised that yes, of course we could cook some of them, but could I not drop earth on the hall floor.

The main reason I grew my potato in a flowerpot was that I was too mean to drill holes in the bottom and spoil a perfectly good bucket, but my competitive potato growing juices are rising now I have had a taste of it and seen what can be done.  I might enter again next year with a real, approved bucket, and if I could manage not to be ill and miss the first two meetings I could get the potato off to an earlier start, chitting it properly and everything.  Perhaps I might remember to put the bucket in the greenhouse on nights when there was a risk of frost, and if I were more diligent about watering it in exceptionally hot spells the potato might keep growing for longer.  It's a whole new area of horticulture to explore.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

mobile issues

I read in the paper about a mobile app that would let you make lists that you could update from your phone or tablet and share with your nearest and dearest, so that when you thought of something needing doing, like Buy more cornflakes, or Book cats into vet for vaccinations, you could add it to the list at that moment, and whoever next happened to be in a suitable shop could buy the necessaries instead of getting home and being told, Oh if I'd known you were going to the supermarket  I'd have asked you to buy cornflakes.  For a moment it almost seemed like a good idea, but the Systems Administrator objected that then he would have to take his phone with him to the shops.

Our current system is lower tech.  On my desk is a small box of old pages torn from my page-a-day Zen desk calendar, and we pin one to the board in the hall, with a pencil propped on top.  When either of us notices that we are running out of cornflakes, or sunflower oil, or cat biscuits, we write it on the list.  Whoever is going shopping takes the list with them.  Then we start again with a new list.  The system only breaks down if we forget the list, or if anything on the list is out of stock, in which case we need to remember to transfer it to the new Zen page.  But with the app based system we would have to go through the list deleting things when we bought them, at least until such a time as the app can seamlessly interface with the supermarket till receipt, which will no doubt come.  Going through the app each time you went shopping deleting the things you'd just bought, particularly if the list was all mixed up with reminders to book the cats into the vet or arrange to have the boiler serviced, would surely take ages.  The SA said yes, but people had to have something to do while they were drinking their six pound cups of artisanal coffee in their bicycle repair cafes.

Using mobile technology seems to take ages as it is.  I got a text today to say that my phone bill was ready, which this month would come to £12.82.  That was nearly a third more than I was expecting so I logged into my account and found that my tariff had risen without explanation.  The next twenty minutes were spent in an online dialogue with somebody whose approach to answering the question of why has it gone up so much? was to repeat back what I'd just told them as a question, and I began to feel as if I might be dealing with Dead Ringers' version of Hilary Mantel.  You say that you took this mobile phone contract out in the past?  After being told that my Loyalty Bonus had expired, the first I'd heard about even having a Loyalty Bonus, and then that I had upgraded my phone the previous day, news to me since I hadn't been in contact with O2 at all, I gave up and rang to speak to a human being instead.

The human being insisted that I had had a Loyalty Bonus in operation, it was just that the sales person in Colchester must have failed to tell me about it when I bought the phone, and that if I texted LOYALTY in upper case letters to the number he gave me it would probably be reinstated. After I grumbled a bit about how this was no way to treat a loyal customer, and why had they taken it away when I more loyal now than I was last year when I bought the phone, he said that I could have the same package of texts, minutes and data for £7.50 a month which would be less than the £9.82 I had been paying before the expiry of the Loyalty Bonus.  And that he would credit ten pounds to my account to make up for the aggravation.  Then I spoke to another human being in sales, who said they could give me the same package for ten pounds a month.  When I said that the previous human being had just said seven pounds fifty, he countered with six, with no Loyalty Bonus included so it would not jump in twelve months time, merely rise in line with inflation.

I settled for six, but I despair of UK business, or rather the mobile industry in general since my supplier is actually a subsidiary of Telefonica.  They could have kept me on £9.82 plus inflationary increases if they'd left me alone.  If they'd told me in advance I needed to text LOYALTY to them I'd probably have sighed and done it, and they'd still have had me on £9.82.  Now they've bothered me enough to spend three quarters of an hour thinking about my phone contract they have me on six pounds a month which is less than two thirds of what they were getting before.  I suppose they rely on all the people who don't bother to look at their monthly bill or can't be bothered to query it, but it seems a mad way of doing business.

Friday, 21 July 2017

jobs done and half done

Running along the bottom of Hyde Park from the Albert Memorial to the top of Kensington High Street is The Flower Walk.  Wide borders on each side, it has a sign at the end forbidding dogs and a little gate to keep them out.  The planting is pretty good, in big blocks, with plenty of colour. Many of the flowers would be attractive to insects, and there are some nice trees.  We walked along it yesterday, and as we reached the Kensington High Street end I made a discovery that was chastening or enlightening depending on your point of view.  There was a large patch of Tithonia, and I saw what Tithonia look like when they are happy.  The ones growing in Hyde Park are an awful lot better than mine, bright fresh green with scarcely any browning leaves, with well-developed, long, strong, flowering side shoots.  The side shoots on my plants are still vestigial stubs, all the flowers are at the top, and I keep having to trim dead leaves off them.  Now I know what I am aiming at, and the problem is not that Tithonia always make rank, horrible plants, but that I am not growing them right.

This morning I moved a couple of the plants on the terrace (or patio) into larger pots.  Their roots were not congested and I was not sure if lack of root run was the main problem, but they have been drying out quickly, and if I can stop them doing so it might help.  But perhaps they are going brown because of the wind, and there's nothing I can do about that.  And I did not have enough pots, because I needed to move the Nicotiana mutablis into larger containers as well to stop them blowing over by the front door.  Hyde Park's Flower Walk had them too, and I took some consolation from the fact that at least my Nicotiana were measuring up relatively well.  For anybody who is considering repotting either species I can report that the Tithonia slid out of their machine made, terracotta pots very easily, but the Nicotiana hung on and I had to slide the bread knife around the outside of the rootball to loosen it.

After losing the first half of the morning messing around with pots I didn't feel like spending the other half going to the garden centre to buy more, and returned to the gravel.  I finished planting out the tray of red leaved sedum, and the pots of Aethionema schistosum, and spread a couple more barrow loads of gravel which emptied the bag.  Eyeing up the amount of railway garden there was still to go, and the bald patches in the drive, I had to acknowledge that I really needed two more bags.  The aggregates company took so long to answer their phone I checked that I was not calling a random wrong number, and when I finally got through they told me that their computer had been down all day and that they could not take any orders over the phone.

Meanwhile, the Systems Administrator managed to mend the showers in the ensuite bathroom and the other bathroom that would be described as the family bathroom in estate agent's details, neither of which would work this morning, by dint of bleeding the system and soaking the limescale off both shower heads and the insides of one of the valves.  It is never entirely satisfying to have got something to work without knowing exactly what was broken before or what you did to fix it, since doubt always lurks that it might stop working again, like an unidentified intermittent electrical fault on a car, but at least they are working now, and the SA has looked up all sorts of part numbers and is primed with theories of what to try next if they stop working again.  I was impressed, since if the problem had been left to me to sort out I'd have been on the phone to the bathroom company at five past nine this morning.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

from the banks of the Serpentine to Kensington High Street

I took a day off from spreading gravel and went art gallery visiting in London, starting at the Serpentine Galleries where they are showing The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!  That is what Grayson Perry called it, and it is his exhibition.  The friend I went with is another diehard Grayson Perry fan, and we were not disappointed.  He is a great cultural commentator.  He is funny.  He makes stuff himself.  He is skilled across a range of media.  He combines a sharp intellect with a kind heart, a much more useful combination than possessing an abundance of one in the absence of the other.  He is well on track to become a National Treasure if he is not one already.  He is a transvestite potter and thoroughly good bloke.  Really, what's not to like?  My personal highlight of today's show was the large (computer woven) tapestry showing an English landscape of considerable bleakness, except for the rainbow mysteriously arcing across it.  The bronze skull of The Fallen Giant looked at first and second glance like a scaled up model of the sort of thing they sell in Whitby Goth souvenir shops, until I looked a third time and began to see that it was studded with images of England, telephone boxes, acorns, Nelson's column, a double decker bus.

The Serpentine Gallery does not open on Mondays.  We found this out last year when we tried to go on a Monday, and had to make do with the summer pavilion.  This year's is the first by an African architect, four curving walls of blue painted blocks partially enclosing the space under a circular roof sloping down to a central open air circle.  According to the review in the Guardian it was inspired by a tree in the architect's home village in Burkina Faso which acts as a meeting place.  Rereading Oliver Wainwright's article I see the phrase for the roof I was groping for was funnel shaped roof.  Today it was not funneling quite perfectly as there was one drip, and enough of a wind to blow the Caution Wet Floor sign over, but it is a delightful pavilion, and although it has a coffee stand nobody told us we couldn't eat our Pret sandwiches in there.  It is a good place to sit, half inside, half outside, with views of the trees but protected from the rain, as long as you avoid the drip.

The rain was followed by brilliant sun and so I began to fret slightly about the greenhouse as we set off across the park for Kensington, and to wish I had worn a better sunhat instead of the one I was wearing, which was too small and had earlier blown off into a puddle.  We found ourselves passing near the Albert Memorial so took a small detour to look at it.  I had never actually been up close to it before, only seen it from across the road outside the Albert Hall.  It is very large, when you get right under it, and much brighter and shinier than it used to be when I used to go to the Albert Hall.  I think it has been refurbished.  Guided tours are available on Sundays and I thought that if I were ever in Hyde Park on a Sunday, which I'm not, they would be quite interesting and one might find out who all the great number of people sculpted around the base of the memorial were.  As it was they had pigeons sitting on their heads, hastening the day when the memorial will need cleaning again.  We departed back across the park towards Kensington High Street, having learned merely that Albert was greatly beloved and dead.  It is an extraordinary monument, amazingly ugly in the way that St Pancras is ugly, so ornate that it is fun to look at, and you certainly wouldn't want it torn down, but ugly all the same.

Our target in Kensington was the Leighton House Museum, the home and studio of Frederick, Lord Leighton, former President of the Royal Academy.  His house had been on my cultural radar since first reading about it several years ago, and at the moment it is hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Laurence Alma-Tadema, one of those Victorian painters I had vaguely heard about without knowing much about.  The house, I had read, was an opulent confection of Moorish influences, with only one bedroom because Lord Leighton hated having people to stay.  Or at least that is what I remembered.  I still can't say about the bedrooms, because we never saw any, but the hall and staircase were fabulous, hung with decorated Islamic tiles which I guessed Lord Leighton had imported, surrounded by shinier deep blue tiles which I guessed were England's finest.  I am still guessing, because there was remarkably little visitor interpretation on offer, or room guides, so now I have seen the interior I shall have to read up on it.  At any rate the tiles were beautiful, and by the time you'd added the perforated screens, the gold mosaics, the stained glass, and the fountain the effect was quite overwhelming.  There was a lot of Iznik pottery scattered through the house as well, on loan from a private collector.  I said, How nice of them to lend it, and my friend suggested it was probably one of those arrangements where to save tax you have to make art works available to the public.  Whichever way, I am extremely fond of Iznik pottery.

Alma-Tadema is somebody else I will read more about now I've seen the paintings.  They are very Victorian, mostly of middle class Victorian manners playing out in Greek or Roman costume against a backdrop of classical architecture.  They are delightful fluff, and beautifully done.  He was really good at fabric, and his second wife and daughter were pretty decent painters as well.  His major artistic legacy appears to lie not in the world of painting but in film, as one room was running a series of clips from Cecil B de Mille through to Gladiator, next to the Alma-Tadema painting each most closely resembled, and you realised it was all there in the films, costumes, buildings, pools, columns, furniture, the lot.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

still spreading gravel

As I spread more gravel around the planting by the garden railway I realised with a sinking heart that I was going to have to order another bag.  I am so far down the current one that I can see the bottom, so there can't be more than three or four barrow's worth left in it.  That is not going to be enough to cover all the remaining thin patches.  Hey ho.  It would be tempting to leave it until later, but by now I have an I've started so I'll finish feeling about the railway garden.  I would like to be able to look at it and think Right, that's done, and tick it off the list.  The gravel on the drive near the entrance has got bald patches as well, where the ancient tarmac shows through, so some of an extra bag could go on those.  And that bit would be quite quick to do, because I wouldn't have to push the wheelbarrow very far and it would be on a solid substrate.

Gravel is not to everybody's taste.  For wheelchair users it is hell.  But it is about the cheapest way of covering shabby tarmac.  The plant centre used it throughout the plant display area and the car park, and some would-be customers were not happy with it, and I could see their point, only installing any kind of block paving over the whole area would probably have cost more than the plant centre made in profits in its entire history.  Descriptions of gardens in the NGS Yellow Book are careful to say whether gravel is used, and through how much of the garden, along with whether there are steps or steep slopes, to give potential visitors an idea of accessibility.  Our garden would come off badly: gravel, grass slopes, steep steps without handrails, but we are not open to the public.

I have not seen buying two or three large builders' bags of gravel and then shovelling it into a wheelbarrow and pushing it up a slight slope on more gravel laid on earth before shovelling it back out of the wheelbarrow recommended as a form of load bearing exercise to encourage ladies' ageing frames to hang on to the calcium in their bones, but I daresay it will do as well as going to the gym.  And you do not have to pay a gym membership fee, and you end up with some gravel spread where you wanted it.

Meanwhile, I was telling you about the summer pots last night when supper was ready before I had got to the set that hasn't worked, leaving the worst until last.  The pale yellow and blue scheme did not really come off at all.  The flowers of the blue Convolvulus sabatius turned out much more purple than I was expecting.  This showed up badly next to the blue of the Salvia patens 'Cambridge Blue' which really was a true, pale sky blue.  The pale yellow Cosmos barely grew, and made such weedy little plants that I ended up moving their pots off display back to the hard standing outside the greenhouse.  The yellow Argyranthemum overwintered from last year refused to make any fresh growth, despite watering, feeding, and checking the roots for root aphid (there wasn't any).  The pale yellow dahlia was OK but not as pale as I'd hoped, and now keeps blowing over because the wind turns out to whistle round the corner of the patio (or terrace) and hit that group of pots with peculiar violence.  I believe it is traditional on Facebook and Instagram to offer up an edited, idealised version, but on cardunculus you get the unvarnished truth about gardening. This particular effort was rubbish.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

summer pots

In a brief interlude from weeding the garden railway and spreading gravel I deadheaded the dahlias and Cosmos, while thinking that that was the sort of ladylike gardening people are supposed to do in the middle of July.  Why, I could even do it while floating about in a floral print dress and sandals, and a wide brimmed straw hat with a ribbon tied round the crown.  I tried to imagine this delicate vision of horticultural loveliness in the face of the reality of patched elasticated waist trousers of a cut so unflattering that they got one star on the Cotton Traders website, a checked shirt of dubious vintage, a disintegrating Tilley hat, half length wellingtons and dirt under my finger nails, and gave up.

The medley of pink and purple dahlias, pink Cosmos, two sorts of Zinnia, and purple leaved Ricinus communis is working very well.  I'm happy with that scheme.  Good colour mix in the flowers, reasonable interest in the foliage with the feathery bright green of the Cosmos to enliven the dahlia leaves, which can be stodgy, and the Zinnia leaves holding up much better than last year. Zinnia have a reputation for being tricky, and I have been very careful this year to try not to over water them.

The orange corner is working fairly well too, with some reservations.  This is the first year I have succeeded in growing Tithonia, at my second attempt.  They have started to flower in a shade of orange so bright it is positively startling, and which I like, but the foliage is a bit rank.  It remains to be seen if the ratio of flowers (good) to leaves (so-so) will end up in the Tithonia's favour. There again, I may not be growing them very well yet.  This year's Zinnia have made much nicer plants than last year's ever did, so it doesn't always do to write things off at the first attempt.

In the ancestral pot by the front door the pink miniature petunias have not thrived at all, and I don't know why not.  I've grown them in that pot before and they were fine, spilling down the sides of the pot and flowering for months.  This lot have made little growth and few flowers.  They are sharing the pot with pink trailing verbena, which is a combination I've used before, and the verbena were doing perfectly well until snails began to graze on them, and are managing to make new buds since I applied a sprinkling of blue slug pellets.  This is a case where I really don't think a few pellets are going to harm the local wildlife, since I can't see the thrushes coming and picking snails out of a pot right next to the front door.  The non-performance of the Calibrachoa is a disappointment, since I like them.

The Nicotiana mutablis are starting to flower on tall spikes, opening white and gradually darkening to pink.  So far they have only got to shell pink, but from memories of seeing them on the Avon Bulbs stand at the Chelsea Flower Show they will eventually go quite dark, giving a multi-coloured effect on the plant as more buds open.  The only problem is that the snails have been nibbling their leaves as well.  The fuchsias are not making as much new growth as I'd hoped for, so that while they are flowering it is mostly on rather sparse bushes.  I'm not too sure what to do about them either.  They had a dose of Vitax Q4 when they came out of the greenhouse for the summer, and I have fed them again since, but am nervous about feeding them too often.  Lack of food can leave plants stunted, but excess can be toxic.

If only it was as easy as wafting around in a nice frock snipping at dead heads and spraying everything with some kind of one-size-fits-all fertiliser that would make everything in the garden bloom wonderfully over immaculate foliage.

Monday, 17 July 2017

more gravel gardening

Metric measurements have not really entered the English language.  I was about to type that inch by inch I am working my way up the railway garden, weeding, adding shovelfuls of fresh gravel, trimming the overgrown ivy hedge and picking dead ivy leaves out from its base, and it occurred to me that nobody would say centimetre by centimetre they were making progress, or Give him a centimetre, he'll take a kilometre.  Inching is a verb, but centimetreing is most definitely not.

I am slightly nervous about planting anything at this time of year.  Who is to say how hot it will be between now and mid September, or if we will get any more meaningful rain?  Especially when you are filling in odd gaps in a mature garden it can be difficult to remember where you put new plants, and if it doesn't rain and they need watering it is hard work trudging round with cans or laboriously hauling the hose across lawns and round corners without scything across the edges of any of the beds.

I might make an exception for my seed raised new plants for the gravel.  It would make sense to plant them before using up any of my stock of clean gravel top dressing the area, and they were chosen to be drought tolerant so will be better off in the free drainage of the gravel garden over the winter than sitting rotting in plastic pots.  One is a spring flowering member of the cabbage family called Aethionema schistosum and the other a close relative of thyme called Acinos alpinus.  The latter are flowering now in their little seven centimetre pots*, and are supposed to go on until September.  If they do that would extend the flowering season usefully after the thyme had finished.  Seeds of both came from Chiltern Seeds, who are a good source of unusual things.

I also have a tray of prostrate sedum cuttings to go in, a very good red leaved form whose name I have unfortunately lost.  It is almost idiotically easy to propagate, nip the ends of twenty-four shoots and poke them into a divided tray and in due course you will have twenty-four new sedum plants.  A friend who is not a keen gardener once admired it growing in a shallow pot on the low wall by the terrace, and I gave her half a dozen cuttings in a plastic bag and promised her that they were terribly easy to make grow, but I am not sure she had the confidence to try.

*Having said that English was still not really metric, seven centimetre pot sounds fine and less pedantic than two and three quarter inches.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

gravel gardening

As I weeded by the entrance to the garden and chopped at bramble roots with my pick axe, reflecting regretfully that tinier and weedier stems of bramble would grow back from the small remaining pieces of root and that there was nothing to be done about that short of an excavation larger and deeper than I was prepared to carry out, I got to the point where some of the roots I wanted to attack were underneath the large builders' bag of gravel that has been sitting there for months.  I was afraid when I ordered two bags that it would take me for ever to use both of them, but the hassle of having gravel delivered is so great that I decided to double up anyway, then I wouldn't have to do it again for longer.

Weeding the railway gravel made a nice change from digging out bramble and sea buckthorn roots, all that finger tip tweaking.  It is real finger tip work: by yesterday afternoon I'd worn through the index finger of my right hand glove doing it.  Once a patch of gravel is clean there is the pleasure of tipping a top-up shovelful of new gravel over it, tucking it carefully around the crowns of the plants and brushing any stray stones off them.

The Whetman pinks are starting to do very nicely, now that they are not being grazed off by rabbits as fast as they can grow.  I gave them a sprinkling of blood, fish, and bone back in the spring, which they seem to have appreciated.  They are now good bushy little plants and flowered this year, though they are not yet meeting up to form a continuous mat of foliage, which was the idea when I planted them.

The perennial, spiny, grey leaved, pink flowered Alyssum spinosum 'Roseum' has perked up too after feeding and a few really good showers through the growing season.  They are still very tiny, but at least they are no longer half full of small dead branches.  They are supposed to like good drainage, but there is good drainage and then there is our garden.  Antennaria dioica is truly happy, making spreading mats of grey, spoon shaped leaves.  Earlier in the summer they were covered in fluffy, pink clusters of flowers on little stalks. Other alpines have found the whole desert experience too much.  I have lists, rather depressing in the circumstances, of what I planted there and in many cases I should be hard pressed to match up the names with the sorry remains.  Dwarf hebes do not cope with dry sand beyond a certain point, whatever articles about plants for dry gardens may say.

Round the corner from the railway and towards the entrance, the southern African species Berkheya purpurea is making ever spreading clumps of grey, scallop edged leaves, flowering, and in a sign that it likes conditions in the gravel is seeding itself about.  So is the rosette forming Eryngium eburneum, so named because the small, prickly ball shaped flowers are white rather than the more usual bluish grey.  There is one Eryngium of the sea holly type that has flowers of a more electrifying shade of blue than any of the others, and I must try and work out which it is so that I can add some more.  I planted several different sorts, and since I didn't want the hamsters' graveyard effect of labelling them all individually it can be tricky several years down the road to work out which is which.

All of the dwarf pines are doing very well.  If you have an extremely sandy site you could do much worse than dedicate it to a collection of small pines.  I sometimes think I should have done the entire front garden as gravel with south African exotics, flints and pines, and not had a conventional border at all, then I remember how much work weeding the gravel is.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

a rain interlude

When I wrote last night that the wheat, or rye, or whatever it was growing in the fields of the farm may have been carted off to a boiler, I don't think that was right.  My friends said the cereals growing around them were being used for biofuel, as in a substitute for petrol and diesel. Ethanol?  Produced in some kind of a digester?  But not a boiler.  It was late and I wanted to post something before going to bed, having not sat down to type anything before going out because I was busy in the garden and a barbecue starting at seven only gave me until twenty past six, allowing for twenty minutes to scrub the worst of the dirt off my hands and feed the cats.

Now I am sitting down to type early because it has started raining.  I can't say I wasn't warned as the Met Office seven day forecast showed heavy rain today (Saturday) at 11.00 am, but I forgot, until little specks of moisture started landing on my skin which meant they were also falling on my tablet, which I was using to binge on past episodes of Tim Harford's series on Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, played through my scruffy gardening radio so as not to have to wear headphones.  It is a fascinating series, and after antibiotics, barcodes, banking, and compilers I was just getting into concrete when the rain started.  It is an annoying feature of the tablet that it stores podcasts by alphabetical order of title, not date, so once I've got to the end of the backlog of episodes downloaded so far I shall have to search through all of them each time to find the subsequent installments.  I would much rather have them in order of date broadcast, with the most recent at the top of the list, but computer knows best, or at least I don't know how to change it.  (The first computer programming language, incidentally, was pioneered by a woman in her spare time, because the nascent computer industry wasn't interested in it.  The staff of the early computer manufacturers were not keen on giving their customers a language in which to programme the computers they had bought, preferring to preserve the mystique of doing it for them).

It is still not raining properly.  Do I assume that that was it, and the heavy rain has dissipated the other side of Colchester as it so often does, or will it start in earnest if I lug my bucket of tools and the tablet and radio back outside?

Meanwhile I have been digging out the stumps and roots of the sea buckthorns.  I suspect some kind of honey fungus is involved, having found a white layer between the bark and the wood of some of the larger roots.  According to the RHS this is the most characteristic symptom.  Still, there are many strains of honey fungus and some are far more virulent than others, so that while some will rapidly kill woody hosts, others only move in on specimens that are already dead, or on their way out.  I've found similar traces on moribund elderly Cistus when removing them, without honey fungus subsequently running rampant through the affected bed.  An inherited Wisteria that never did well until I dug it out was suffering likewise, and a Coprosma I put where the Wisteria used to be did brilliantly until dying very suddenly, but since removing the remains of the Coprosma I've had no more problems in the same area.  Likewise when I dug out a large buddleia from the front garden that had gone rapidly downhill I found that the core of its roots had turned to a mushroom smelling watery mush, but the replacement shrubs planted in the same place have been fine.  After we moved into the house we had problems for years with the lawn where the roots of a large oak tree that was cut down not long before we arrived were being broken down by a fungus that had the side effect of filling the earth surrounding the roots with waxy mycelium, making it almost impermeable to rain and creating dead, brown lines in the turf.  Back in those days the RHS was allowed to advise you to water the lawn with washing up liquid to break the waxy substance down.  Something fungussy is going on in the garden, but it may not be disastrous. In the meantime I am hunting around for sea buckthorn roots with my pick axe.

Friday, 14 July 2017

how does your countryside grow?

I was at a barbecue with assorted beekeepers this evening.  In the course of one conversation I picked up a new theory as to what the cereal crop on the lettuce farm might have been about. Apparently the farms north of Colchester, around Wormingford and Aldham, have been growing maize and rye for biomass.  It has been harvested stalks and all, before it is even ripe, and carted off to feed the boilers.  That would account for why there was no straw left when the fields around us were harvested, and why they were cut before any of the other cereal fields I've driven past in recent days.  If the grains weren't even wanted for animal feed, never mind flour, it wouldn't matter if they weren't yet fully ripe.

The Wormingford beekeeper was lamenting that this year there was nothing in the countryside for his bees.  Maize and rye are no good for them (grasses being wind pollinated) and potato flowers not much better, and they have been having to scrape by on what they can find in local gardens. When we bought our house I did not know that I was going to take up beekeeping, but we have been lucky with the woods and hedgerows, and the number of field margins and headlands left as rough grass, so that there are wild flowers and brambles, sweet chestnut and wild gean, and some fragments of the old orchards.  The English countryside can offer very thin pickings to honey bees, and it's no wonder that numbers of bumble bees and other wild insects are in long term decline.

The garden helps, but of course it would take a huge number of border plants to match the floral output of one mature chestnut.  Recently the bees have been all over the lavender, the thyme in the railway garden, and the oregano which is gradually spreading from its original toeholds in the herb bed and one end of the long be in the front garden to colonize the other end of the long bed and the edge of the drive, and a few years ago managed to set up one outpost in the back garden. Single roses are acceptable, though not completely full doubles.  Cistus are good.  In late summer the intense humming coming from the Boston ivy tells us that the bees are assiduously working its flowers, which are almost too small to see.  The parsley which has gone to seed is of little interest to bees, but there is some kind of small red fly whose name I do not know that adores it.  In general umbellifers seem particularly attractive to hoverflies.

Maybe once UK agriculture no longer falls within the CAP we will adopt (and pay for) countryside policies that help conserve wild bees and butterflies.  But maybe we won't.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

experiments with South African bulbs

After the success of Gladiolus tristis in the gravel centre of the turning circle, Gladiolus papilio 'Ruby' is now blooming.  I can't say yet whether it is doing as well as G. tristis since the latter has started to bulk up, and from one initial bulb after a wait of three years I now have a small clump. I planted three bulbs of 'Ruby' last year, and three flower spikes on three discrete fans of leaves is what I have got.  Broadleigh Gardens, from whom I got my three bulbs, say that it is stoloniferous so if it starts to creep about I will know then that it is truly happy.

The flowers are very exciting, in an opulent way far removed from the kind of brilliant gladioli Dame Edna would brandish.  The colour is a rich, luminous cherry, the texture dense and almost fleshy, the shape of the individual blooms cupped rather than tubular.  I am not yet sure how hardy 'Ruby' will be.  Indeed, the more I read about it the more confused I become.  I bought it as a hybrid of the species Gladiolus papilio, which is how Broadleigh still describe it, but Avon Bulbs say it is now thought to be more closely related to Gladiolus ecklonii.  Lady Skelmersdale and Chris Ireland-Jones are both titans of the bulbs world so who to believe?  Avon advise it might be worth mulching 'Ruby' in cold gardens, and I think it's safe to assume that it's on the tender side, like G. tristis, although the Pacific Bulb Society says G. papilio is claimed to be hardy, grown in the UK since 1866.

In the greenhouse I still have my precious pot of seedlings of the suicide lily, Gladiolus flanaganii. I don't know how many more years it will be until they reach flowering size, but a single bulb from Pottertons, whose catalogue arrived in today's post, would set me back a fiver.  Pottertons say they are hardy in a well drained soil in full sun, which I can offer them, but I'm not risking putting them out until they're bigger.

A South African bulb which is naturalising in the gravel is Watsonia pillansii.  They have spikes of warm orange, tubular flowers, out now.  A recent visitor claimed to have them in his garden, which I wasn't going to argue about having never seen his garden, but I wondered if he actually had Crocosmia.  I have seen pots of Watsonia offered for sale at the splendid Beeches nursery near Saffron Walden, but it is not something you will pick up at most garden centres.  I raised my original plants from seed and kept them in pots to give them winter protection, and they were not thrilled with life in a pot.  Once planted into the soil they began to grow much better, and to flower.  Derry Watkins of Special Plants says they like sun or light shade, but not to be too dry. From my own observation I would say that while they might like not to be too dry, they put up with it pretty well, or at least they will get by with an average of twenty-one inches annual rainfall and no supplementary watering in soil one degree removed from builders' sand.  They are borderline hardy and the foliage of most of my clumps went badly brown after the cold nights late last winter, but all except a few seedlings recovered.  And, and this is the crunch point and why I say they are naturalising, they are not just seeding themselves about successfully but this year the seedlings are flowering.

I also have a pink hybrid form, bought from Beeches, which alas does not seem to set seed but is clumping up well, and a terracotta form also from Beeches which is disappearing into the fond embrace of a Teucrium fruticans.  I thought when I planted the Watsonia that the shrub would give it some useful winter protection, but the Teucrium wants to swallow it alive.  The Teucrium, incidentally, is the brighter blue form 'Azureum' which is supposed to be less hardy than the type, but has survived in its present spot since April 2012.  If you have succeeded or failed in growing T. fruticans in your own garden that might give you an idea of the conditions in which the Watsonia are growing.  I had better move the brick red clump to give it a proper space of its own.  When the right time to do that would be I am not sure.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

weeding, tidying and planning

As I remove the pebble mulch from the top of the sloping bed in the back garden, to be reused elsewhere, I am amazed at how far down into the ground they go.  Stone mulches have an astonishing ability to vanish into the earth without the height of the mulched area ever rising. The longer I garden the fewer situations I think are improved by use of a permeable membrane, but places where you plan to lay a pebble mulch might be one of them.  What you do about the edges of the membrane is another story.

Mr Fidget found the sight of somebody putting pebbles into a bucket quite fascinating, and came and watched me work.  You never know what will appeal to a cat.

Weeding is far easier after the night's rain.  We must have had a good inch, and roots that were clinging to the soil yesterday as if growing in cement are now yielding to the slightest flick of the wrist (though the fact I switched from using a hand fork to a small border fork may have something to do with that).  So far I have not found any sinister bootlaces that would lead me to suspect that the sea buckthorns died of honey fungus, but I have not yet begun to dig out the stumps.

Meanwhile my armchair gardening has moved on to bulbs for autumn planting, tulips and hyacinths for the pots, and whatever else I can afford and think I'll have time to plant in the rest of the garden.  I am rather jealous of those people featured in garden magazines who claim to have planted a handful of Crocus tommasinianus twenty years ago and to now have sheets numbering in the thousands.  I have been planting them in the bottom lawn every year since 2006, only missing out 2009 for some reason, and still don't have anything like a sheet.  I think it is because the grass is too rank and we cut it too late in the year for them to seed themselves successfully.  Perversely a few have succeeded in sowing themselves into the top lawn, where they are not wanted and I feel mean when the flowers get mown.  I expect I will diligently stick another hundred in this year, still dreaming of that elusive sheet, but what else to choose?

Can I pop a few Colchicum in among the early flowering, red pulmonaria or will the former's big spreading leaves smother the latter?  Both Peter Nyssen and Kevock are offering what purports to be Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, the true pheasant's eye, later, smaller and altogether superior to the more commonly offered N. 'Actaea' according to Mary Keen.  Would it grow along the side of the wood?  Am I kidding myself that I will have cleared that area by next spring?  And would the elegant little lemon yellow 'W P Milner' survive?  It is a heritage variety dating from before 1869, which disappeared without trace after a season in the dry sand of the long bed.  Maybe I should do just one pot each of some varieties of scented daffodils to stand by the front door while they are out.  Decisions, decisions.  The price of bulbs has risen post Brexit.  Tulips that cost £11 for fifty bulbs last year are now £12.50.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

waiting for the rain

Mr Cool and Mr Fidget were not in when I got up this morning.  I wasn't too fussed at first.  They are country cats and like to go outside.  I called for them, which had the effect of bringing Mr Fluffy rushing out of the front door.  By the time I'd put a straw bale down in the chicken run to stop them churning the ground to mud when the rain arrived and had my breakfast, Mr Fidget had turned up, squeaking loudly, but not Mr Cool.  He must be busy, I told myself, but I was starting to feel vaguely plaintive by mid morning and went and called for him again all along the side of the wood.  Eventually I found him rabbiting along the ditch.  The rabbit seemed to have got away when Mr Cool made the mistake of putting it down, and Mr Cool was trying hard to look casual as if he hadn't really wanted a rabbit anyway.  He consented to come and sit on my lap for a minute, then I left all three of the artists formerly known as kittens in search of Mr Cool's lost prey.

Mr Cool didn't put in another appearance until early afternoon when the first, very heavy shower finally arrived, followed by Mr Cool shimmying in through the cat flap, wet and squeaking quite loudly, for him.  He is normally a silent creature, just making a single, small, high pitched cry to announce his return, or appearing behind you so that he is suddenly there when you turn round. He ate some lunch, followed by some more lunch, then spent the afternoon asleep on the sofa before taking up position on the doormat by the cat flap to keep an eye on the rain.  The Systems Administrator's theory is that Mr Cool thinks it might stop raining if he stares at it hard enough.  It is still not raining properly, but the forecast is for twelve solid hours from nineteen hundred hours tonight until seven tomorrow morning.  I hope so.  Mr Cool can jolly well spend the night inside.

Working in the back garden until the rain arrived I chopped down an elderly Cistus that kept flopping over the grass in spite of all my efforts to tie it up.  I don't mind a certain amount of overflow from the borders.  It makes the garden look more relaxed and is infinitely more attractive than a razor sharp edge and deep gully over which no tendril of vegetation is ever permitted to cross.  It also makes mowing the lawn more complicated and cutting the edges takes longer.  It is one of the strange facts of gardening that it often takes a lot of work to appear delightfully informal.  I didn't bother starting to dig out the stump because it didn't seem worth getting the pick axe out when rain was imminent, but I began to think what I could do with the gap.

I have three pots of an unnamed, very good tall bearded iris from the garden of a friend who in turn found it dumped in a ditch in Sussex about forty years ago.  Also a tall growing and vigorous form of Diascia grown from a cutting taken at last year's garden society plant propagation evening. They both seemed likely candidates for the space.  The Cistus must have sown itself, since I wouldn't have planted it only a foot from the edge of the lawn, and with age it was getting ever more sprawling, and it has never been cooperative about my efforts to tie it to a stake so that it wouldn't be so much in the way of mowing the grass.  As the rain still hadn't arrived I switched to weeding at the top of the slope where the sea buckthorns mysteriously died, and began to think that perhaps I could plant more Cistus in the newly opened gap.  They would be happy on the stony substrate of what used to be the track to the garage, and wouldn't mind the wind.

It is sad when plants die while you still liked them, doubly so if they played a structural role in the garden, but it is fun to get a new bit of empty ground to play with.  Planning what to do, poring over books and nursery websites and considering and rejecting possible schemes, can provide hours of amusement before you ever buy a single plant.  So far in my head the gap at the top of the slope has contained a Buddleia alternifolia, a Contoneaster 'Cornubia' and a tamarisk, and I still haven't decided.

Monday, 10 July 2017

it was a hot and a humid day

The BBC weather person reading the forecast just before the R4 news at six sounded as if they were commiserating with us as they warned it would not be so warm for the rest of the week, although they did admit that the rain would be welcome to gardeners.  You bet.  The Met Office forecast is for about ten hours of heavy rain, lasting all Tuesday evening and into the small hours of Wednesday.  After seeing that I decided not to continue watering the parched borders in the back garden this morning as originally planned.  Thundery showers can so easily pass us by, and today's did except for the briefest downpour after lunch, but even the Clacton coastal strip shouldn't be able to miss a band of rain so large it is expected to take all night to move through. But please let it be cooler, or at least be less sticky, and who are all the people the BBC expects to be sorry if it does cool down?  Mad, masochistic people, or people who do not need to go to work, or use public transport, or drive, or move, or do anything?  People who are going to remain shut inside their air conditioned houses until it feels fresher outside?  There are not many such people. Radio 4 is merely paying heedless lip service to the notion that hot weather is automatically good, less hot weather therefore less good.

The Systems Administrator ground to a halt, heat and humidity being the SA's passport to a headache.  The cats didn't do much better and spent the day crashed out, though their gracious response to being petted suggested they didn't have headaches, just a total disinclination to do anything.

I slowly and carefully pulled up weeds from the borders in the back garden, snipped off dead heads, trimmed whiskery shrubs back to their intended clipped outlines with laborious precision, clipped another section of the lawn edges, and wondered how I had managed to achieve quite so little in the course of an entire day.  That's the trouble with warm weather.  A day in July is worth a morning in September.  I suppose some of the day went on watering the pots, which had managed to dry out remarkably given how humid it felt.

The bits of border I tweaked did look remarkably fresher when I'd finished.  It's easy for gardens to run out of steam in high and late summer.  Easter and the early days of summer can see people rush to garden centres in a fit of post winter gardening enthusiasm, leaving them with gardens that are full of spring and early summering plants with nothing much to follow because they didn't go shopping again in July or August, but maintenance also plays a part.  Seed heads (unless they are architectural but foxgloves frankly aren't), withered petals of spent flowers clinging to stems that still have more flowers to open (Hemerocallis, I am thinking of you), weeds that register subliminally even if they aren't glaringly obvious, odd clusters of brown leaves where a summer gale has broken a twig, shrubs that were meant to be clipped to tight shapes gone madly whiskery, all of these things add up to give the garden a tired and dishevelled air.  Finding the time to tidy makes the late season flowers look so much better.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

a garden tour

We had people over to tea today, meaning that we now have a relatively clean and tidy house, and half a cake.  I don't generally invite people specifically to see the garden, since those who don't care for gardens would not be interested while anyone who worries about neatness and tidiness is horrified by the weeds.  The most discouraging reaction ever came from somebody who, on seeing the view down the garden from the veranda for the first time screamed faintly Oh!  How will you ever sell your house?  Fellow gardeners are apt to suck their teeth and remark that it is a lot of work, and I don't enjoy having having the outstanding pruning pointed out to me or people commenting that the roses must have been much better two weeks ago.  The garden therefore generally remains the background to the rest of my life, something I enjoy doing, not a creation to be shown off.

I make an exception for today's visitor because she seems to like the garden so wholeheartedly. She doesn't particularly enjoy gardening herself, and I am inclined to believe her when she says she can't see the weeds.  Instead she enjoys the romantic and faintly ramshackle atmosphere and whatever flowers are out at the time.  I feel bad that I didn't manage to invite her over while 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' was doing its annual thing up the wild cherry, but today we had Romneya coulteri, which is turning into a magnificent specimen, and hydrangeas, and Crocosmia 'Lucifer', and the gravel planting is doing its best impersonation of a Chelsea Flower Show unkempt Mediterranean landscape (with South African overtones), while the pots of dahlias and cosmos are starting to get into their stride.

Walking around did reveal several areas of planting in the back garden that were starting to collapse, and so after the visitors had gone I spent two hours with the hose.  The leaves of the bricky red, early flowering Pulmonaria had wilted badly.  I watered the patch, but am not too concerned about it since it shrivels easily in response to drought but perks up readily given water, and it has finished flowering for this year so there is no worry about buds aborting.  I watered the two hydrangeas next to it, just to be on the safe side, though neither of them were visibly flagging, and hydrangeas will make it very obvious when they want a drink.  They have just started to flower, and it would be a shame to spoil the display for want of a few gallons of water.

I watered the recently planted shade lovers in the corner, noting that the small seedling Iris foetidissima I moved from places where they were on top of other plants were still alive.  It wasn't a given that they would consent to be transplanted in summer in this heat, and I watered them in gratitude.  The small yews I moved in the spring were still going, with enough modest signs of new growth to make me think they might be settling down.

The big leaves of the chestnut leaved Rodgersia were badly browned round the edges from lack of water.  Alas, I should have watered them more before, but there is a limit to now much watering one can do.  The Ligularia were just starting to wilt, but will bounce back overnight.  I hunted around in some panic for my new purple flowered Plant Heritage Lychnis (or was it a Silene?) before finding it hiding under a foxglove leaf looking shrunken with drought.  I watered it copiously, and will have to hope it forgives me.  At the top of the slope the Kalimeris incisa planted earlier this year were clinging to life, alongside a rare aster, while the Digitalis stewartii which is supposed to be the tallest of the foxgloves was flowering charmingly at knee height, except for the plant I allowed to set seed last year which was too exhausted to flower at all.

Tomorrow had better be another day of watering, and weeding.  I think my friend, who cheerfully admits she feels under no compunction to do anything in particular, probably enjoys the hot weather more than I do.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

the mystery of the missing straw

As I drove back from the supermarket this morning past the freshly combined lettuce farm the thought crystallised that I had not seen straw bales in any of the fields.  If I'd missed seeing them in just one field, and if I hadn't been out for a couple of days, I might have believed that they had been collected up, but I couldn't have not seen all of them in any of the fields.  I can only assume that the combine was working like a mulch lawnmower and chopping the straw into little bits to be ploughed in with the stubble in due course.

That would make sense.  Any soil, and certainly sand, is all the better for added organic material, and as there isn't much livestock reared around here there probably isn't that much demand for straw.  Several years ago I heard of straw from north Essex being transported up the A1 to Yorkshire to feed biomass boilers, in some quota driven and subsidised green energy scheme, and thought then that it couldn't possibly help the environment overall to drive straw a couple of hundred miles in order to burn it.  With any luck tighter rules on subsidies have put paid to that particular silliness.  If you don't want straw for animal bedding, and don't have a handy biomass boiler, then using it to build up your soil would be a good use for it.

If only I ever saw the farmer other than in passing, him in his Range Rover and me in my Skoda, I could ask him.  I expect he would be happy to tell me.  When I have met him he has always seemed very nice, but I almost never do meet him.  Once on Open Farm Sunday, when he drove us around the polytunnels in his Range Rover.  Once at a party for the locals hosted by our now deceased neighbour.  Once when I flagged him down to give him some leaflets about the Essex Wildlife Trust's barn owl box project, and his expression of fear turned to palpable relief when he discovered I wanted to talk to him about owls and wasn't going to complain about some aspect of the farm.  The last time I saw him not in his car was probably at our neighbour's funeral.

The farming community seems almost hermetically sealed.  We saw a little of our late neighbour, the retired apple farmer, and I know a bee farmer who did conventional farming in his youth, but apart from that I think I have visited the home of one farmer socially in nearly a quarter of a century of living surrounded by fields, and that was the partner of an ex colleague and the acquaintance lapsed as soon as they ceased to be an item.  And he was a working farmer.  One of the reasons why his relationship with my friend foundered was that he spent about twelve hours a day on his tractor, six and a half days a week.  When it comes to the landed gentry we are about as likely to be invited into the home of an inhabitant of Stamford Hill's Orthodox community as to be asked to dinner by any of the gentlemen farmers.  One thing the Archers' scriptwriters got right was Glebelands, the modern housing development in Ambridge sometimes referred to in passing, but whose inhabitants don't get speaking roles.  They wouldn't. None of the farming characters, the Archers and the Aldridges, would know any of them.

It is a pity.  Somebody ought to write an idiot's guide to farming, for people who aren't planning to take it up themselves but would like to be able to recognise and understand what is going on around them every day in the countryside.  I would write it myself if only I knew any farmers to collaborate with.

Friday, 7 July 2017

harvest time

The lettuce farm has been mostly growing wheat this year.  The polytunnels have reverted to growing rocket, since the contract for growing medicinal cannabis they had last year was not renewed.  I think it is now being produced on a larger scale in tunnels warmed by the waste heat from one of British Sugar's processing plants.  When we saw the fields had been sown with some kind of grass last autumn we initially assumed it was a grass ley, to try and build up the organic content of the soil and avoid leaving it bare all winter, but as spring came and the grass kept growing I began to think they were leaving it very late to plough it in.  By the time it was a foot tall and producing heads of some kind of grain I decided it had to be a crop and not merely a soil conditioner.  There followed a debate about whether it was wheat or barley, since the total amount either of us know about cereal farming doesn't add up to much.  If I'd known it was a crop I'd have felt guiltier about treading on it when we were cutting our hedge from the field side, though we only trod a tiny bit on the very edges and I don't suppose it hurt it.

In the end I decided it was wheat.  It didn't look whiskery enough to be barley, and I'm not sure that winter sown barley is a thing whereas I have heard of winter sown wheat.  It was not very tall, but that might have been the breed.  We watched an interesting series about the history of British farming in the twentieth century which included an episode about wheat, and some modern varieties are terribly short.  However, I think the startling variations in height across the field next to us from short to downright midget must have been down to the soil.  After one season trying to grow lettuces in that field when the farmer first acquired the land, he left it fallow to grass for several years because he said the soil was so dreadful, varying from poor to atrocious, that he couldn't do anything with it.

If I'd seen the farmer to chat to I'd have asked about the wheat.  Did the soil need a break from a monoculture of lettuces?  Perhaps pests and diseases build up and a rotation is healthy.  Or had the effort of trying to grow salad outdoors in the UK proved not worthwhile, what with droughts and deluges making cultivation a gamble and consumer demand a lottery, or supermarkets wanting lettuce at less than cost price or suddenly not wanting it at all if their weather forecasts indicated that consumers wouldn't be in the mood for salad?  Or is this the beginning of the post Brexit shortage of horticultural labour?  Perhaps his Latvians and Lithuanians did not want to spend their summer planting and harvesting lettuces for a pound that was worth twenty per cent less than last year, in a country that seemed to hate them.

The combine has been working on the farm for the past three days.  I was about to type trundling, but combine harvesters don't really trundle.  A bit like footage of tanks in action, they go much faster than I expected they would.  Yesterday was the turn of the field next to our house.  It was very noisy, very dusty while it lasted, and all over in about three hours.  I found Mr Cool during the harvest, lying down in the shade of the garden trailer next to the chicken run, which is one of his favoured places, with little pieces of chopped straw and chaff drifting down over his beautiful fur. We could really do with some rain now, since every plant in the front garden and especially those with large or hairy leaves is covered with fragmented straw.  The dust has shown up how many spider webs there are in the garden in summer.  You notice them in the winter when they are covered in dew, but it turns out they are still here.  Unfortunately the effect of the chopped straw is not nearly so picturesque as that of the morning dew.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

lecture not as advertised

I went to the Art Society's monthly lecture this morning, on English gardens of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but as my friend and I sat chatting and waiting for the lecture to start she pointed out to me that in the slideshow running before the talk, advertising forthcoming trips and study days and asking us to turn our phones off, there was a notice announcing that the topic of the day's lecture had been switched to the art of Spain's Golden Age.  The reason for this turned out to be that the lecturer had been switched from the original lecturer, who was stuck in a train somewhere outside Oxford, to a very obliging art historian who lived in Essex and was willing to rearrange her morning at less than two hour's notice.

I was mildly disappointed, since I was genuinely curious to hear an alternative overview of contemporary garden design to that chosen to feature in glossy garden magazines.  Depending on the contents of the lecture I even had a question up my sleeve, whether the lecturer thought contemporary English gardens were narrower in scope than in the previous century, and if so why, or whether it was just that the editors of Gardens Illustrated and other aspirational lifestyle publications had homed in on a particular aesthetic that they thought their readers would like. Instead I put my garden talks notebook back in my bag and settled down to learn about Spanish art.  Probably I was not so disappointed as the booking secretary from one of the local garden clubs who is not even a member of the Art Society, but came with her husband this one time because it was a talk on gardens.

Last month's lecture began a good twenty minutes late because the trains out of London were running very slowly, meaning that the poor lecturer had to gallop through at breakneck speed so that the audience could move their cars before the late morning parking restrictions designed to stop people parking there all day for work kicked in, so the society has had an unlucky run with trains.  Either that, or it is a sad indictment of the state of England's railways.  You must need nerves of steel to run a large club that depends on outside lecturers when most of them are travelling from elsewhere.  I presume the organisers keep a list of emergency contacts, art experts who live locally and might be willing to fill in at short notice.  I've filled in for a few garden clubs over the years, but agreed a couple of days in advance, not two hours.

Fortunately the art of Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is interesting, both intrinsically and for the influence it cast on some much later artists.  I had spotted the similarity between one of the slides of El Greco she showed us and Picasso's cubist nude bathers before she flashed a picture of the Picasso up next to the El Greco to make the point.  And she told us about the developments going on in Bishop's Auckland, where a successful hedge fund manager is setting up a museum of Spanish art.  I had heard of the new Spanish art foundation, and the lecture certainly whetted my appetite to visit once it was opened.  The date of that could be slipping so it might be next year, but it might not be until 2019.

There are no lectures for the next couple of months, as the Art Society, along with the Suffolk Plant Heritage group and all the chamber music series I support, gives up for the holiday season. It helps add to the sense of the year's rhythm, like only eating strawberries or asparagus when they are in season in England.  Come the shorter and cooler days, just as we start to think about having a small fire in the evening, the clubs and societies reconvene.  Only the garden club continues resolutely through the holiday season, instead declining to compete with Christmas and taking a break in December.