Monday, 21 August 2017

planting the gap

As they used to say on Ground Force, and now the planting.  I have finally planted up the space at the top of the sloping bed.  A bamboo cane marks the gap for a rugosa rose, probably 'Sarah van Fleet', and I expect a few other bits and bobs will find their way in to the mix in due course, given my penchant for complex matrix plantings, but it is essentially done.  The plants all look rather small and surprised at the moment, but I have high hopes of them.

I put Tamarix ramosissima 'Pink Cascade' in the middle, though further towards the back than the front.  It has feathery, light greyish green foliage and produces little airy tufts of pink flowers at this time of the year, which would be useful when the garden is starting to wind down in terms of what's flowering.  It should cope with the wind in what is a windy corner: think of all the tamarisks you have seen on beaches.  It is supposed to be fast growing.  Yes, I am very hopeful, notwithstanding that another tamarisk planted half way up the bank by the drive several years ago has scarcely done anything.  The new tamarisk has had lots of lovely compost dug into its dire, sandy soil, and is not half way up a steep slope so will be easier to water, and will not have a sea buckthorn collapsing on top of it.  Surely it will do well.

Caryopteris x clandonensis 'Heavenly Blue' has grey leaves and deep blue flowers, also out now, which are manna to bees.  It likes sun and good drainage, which it will get.  Boy, will it get good drainage.  But I have dug in so much compost, it might be happy there.  In spring it will get a severe pruning, to keep it bushy.

Buddleia davidii 'Wisteria Lane' is a bit of a punt.  It is quite a new variety, which is supposed to have very long and pendant racemes of mauve, honey scented flowers.  The flower clusters on my new plant are not in truth that long, on the other hand it is a very young plant.  They are certainly pleasantly scented.  I chose Buddleia davidii for that corner because, again, I wanted something that would flower late in the summer, buddlejas are good insect plants, and since you can see self sown seedlings of B. davidii growing out of the faces of buildings I thought it had a good chance of coping with the meagre soil.  I needed a variety that would not grow too big, which narrowed things down, and 'Wisteria Lane' was one of the smaller types that Crocus offered and I thought it was pretty.  But you never know.  I tried the newish hybrid 'Silver Anniversary' in the gravel in the turning circle and it was an abject failure.  I watered it and cared for it but it just wouldn't grow, finding the burning sand altogether too terryifying.

I am confident about Cistus 'Silver Pink'.  Cistus like the light soil in the top part of the back garden, and even seed themselves around.  They do not greatly like manure, but I don't think I've managed to add enough soil improver to this bed to upset it.

I have never grown Sphaeralcea munroana before, but it looks good on paper.  It is a native of the western side of the United States, where it grows happily in regions with ten to twenty inches of annual rainfall.  According to a US nursery whose website I turned to for guidance it is highly resistant to browsing by deer and rabbits, loves sun, and is cold hardy down to US zone 4, which is cold.  My plant came from the man in Lincolnshire, and I afraid it has not especially enjoyed spending the summer sitting in its plastic pot until I had a space to plant it, so I hope it takes. From what I've read they are not the longest lived plants, which is not necessarily a problem once you have it in the garden because it will seed itself, but mine has not set seed.  If I left it too long in the pot and it quietly fades away over the winter then I could always buy seed next spring, assuming I could find somebody selling seed, and that the articles that came up in my Google search for Sphaeralcea seed about overcoming dormancy don't mean that growing from seed is really difficult.  It has orange flowers, by the way.  That might put some people off, though not me.

The only other plant I bought for this project was a tiny pot of Malvastrum lateritium, the False Mallow, which is supposed to be happy creeping about in a very hot, sunny, well drained soil where it will produce mallow shaped green leaves and single, round, pinkish flowers.  Mine came from a plant sale months ago, since when it has done nothing, and when I came to tip it out of its tiny pot I discovered that its little root ball was suffering from a bad case of root aphid.  It is not utterly reliably winter hardy either.  I have dosed it with Provado vine weevil treatment, planted it anyway, and hoped for the best.  Otherwise a couple of nurseries in the eastern region sell it, or the person who provided the original plant might have some more.

Everything else that went in I grew myself from seed or cuttings.  That might be a story for tomorrow.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

and even more compost

I bought more compost.  After thinking about it I decided I could put ten bags in the car, since although the weight makes the Skoda sink visibly on its suspension, I would be perfectly happy carrying three people and an adult passenger must weigh as much as three and a bit bags of compost, if not more.

In the half hour or so it took me to fill the bags only three other customers arrived, two of whom were together, and yesterday there were none at all while I was there.  August is a quiet month for gardening, but even so I began to wonder how long that kind of low key garden centre could survive.  It will be a pity when they all go, and there is nowhere left selling things like spent mushroom compost.  I would have to buy packaged, commercially produced soil conditioner each time I ran out of home made compost.  Then I calculated that at current prices B&Q large bales of multi-purpose compost actually worked out fractionally cheaper per litre than the mushroom compost, at £6.93 for 125 litres versus £7.00 for 120 litres.

That would explain why I saw bags of it laid out along the verge recently by a garden where contractors were planting a new laurel hedge.  And buying bales of compost would save me the time and effort of filling my own bags, and would make less of a mess and a smell in the car.  It would be a pity to have to buy new plastic packaging each time instead of reusing it to collect something that exists as a by-product of food production.  But I reckon I'd save time overall, even allowing for having to drive down to Colchester Hythe instead of just going round the corner.  If and when the Colchester branch of B&Q finally closes and the site turns into a Sainsbury then I'd have to go to Clacton, and that would take longer.  But if the little garden centre around the corner closed I'd have no choice.

I did cheer up when I realized that since potting compost cost the same as mulch, I need not feel bad I had wasted compost potting up too many Nicotiana mutabilis.  Those I didn't use myself or manage to give away are destined for the compost heap, but since I always need more home made compost it turns out the only thing I have wasted is my time in potting them on, and some water keeping them growing.  Likewise if I decide to grow more pots of tulips (I haven't) or repot all the dahlias (I might next spring) I shouldn't worry about the incremental expense of multi-purpose. Every litre of discarded potting medium on the compost heap is a litre of mushroom compost saved.

By late afternoon I was finally ready to start planting.  Mr Cool came and curled up on the drive nearby while I worked, then uncoiled himself, stretched elaborately, and strolled into the house with me for his supper.  Sometimes I think my adoration of Mr Cool might be mutual, although now I've fed him he has disappeared again.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

more compost needed

My plants from Crocus came.  I had only just followed the link on their email informing me that the order was with the courier to arrive today and seen that there were no deliveries ahead of mine when there was the scrunch of white van wheels on gravel and they arrived.  The driver did not even want a signature, so if I wanted to order anything else I could risk doing it in a week when I couldn't guarantee to be around.  The box was encouragingly tall, and was handed over to me the right way up and uncrushed.

It had a little lid which I removed, and looked down lovingly at the plants while wondering how I was going to lift them out, before discovering I did not need to lift them out of the box, instead I could lift the box off them.  You pulled a tab near the base, like the ones on detergent powder boxes, and the whole of the top of the box ripped off, leaving the plants sitting nestled into a shallow inner tray inside the base of the big box.  Each pot was wrapped in polythene and taped securely to the tray, so even if the main box had been tipped over in transit the pots would probably have stayed put.  I love it when mail order plant companies invest in proper packaging and don't just try to wedge everything in with balls of newspaper.

The cats now have the lid, the base of the box, the inner tray, and a tunnel formed by the body of the big box which I've put by my desk for them to play with because they like tunnels.  Mr Fluffy spent part of the morning sleeping in it.  I have the plants, and they all look very healthy, while the tamarisk is taller and bushier than I thought it might be, and the buddleia that was described as being in a 9 centimetre pot and which I thought might have to be potted on for planting out next spring looks substantial enough to go out now.

All I have to do is get the border ready for them.  I went and bought another eight bags of bag-your-own spent mushroom compost, and dug that in, and used all the home made compost that was ready the last time I turned the compost heaps earlier in the summer.  That means the new bit of border has had sixteen bags of bought compost and ten bags of home made.  The mushroom compost bags held thirty litres because that's the size of the bucket the garden centre sells it by, while I didn't measure out the home made compost but on average there must have been more than thirty litres in each bag, so the new stretch of border has had over 780 litres of organic matter added to it but needs more.  I haven't even covered all of it yet, and some of it is still so sandy and meagre when dug over that it looks quite unfit to plant anything in.

I shall have to go and get another load mushroom compost in the morning.  I wish they would give me a loyalty card like coffee shops do, buy ten bags of bag-your-own mushroom compost, get an extra one free.

Friday, 18 August 2017

at the museum of east anglian life

Today is our thirty-third wedding anniversary.  When I initially suggested to the Systems Administrator a few days ago that we could go out on Friday the SA, who was suffering from a cold and getting increasingly stressed about the car, stared at me rather wild eyed and asked Where do you want to go?  I said I didn't know, somewhere local like last year when we went to the Munnings Museum, but that we didn't have to go out.  By the next day the cold and the car panic were abating, and the SA suggested that we could go to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, adding as a clincher and proof that this was not just a casual idea that he had checked it was open.

That's the difference between being at home and on holiday.  If we were just visiting west Suffolk for the week we would certainly make the effort to go to a museum of East Anglian life.  Living on the fringes of East Anglia we have not bothered to visit once in over thirty years.  So we set off. The SA checked the traffic on Google maps before we went out and reported that everything was flowing freely.  When we got to the fringes of Ipswich the dot matrix signs on the A12 said that the A14 was closed between J50 and J49.  Where, enquired the SA, wa J50?  I looked at the road atlas and discovered that J50 to J49 was the stretch of the A14 that is effectively the Stowmarket bypass.  Ah.  We came off two junctions early and took the back route through the lanes, along with quite a lot of other people who could read road signs, and then sat in traffic in Stowmarket with all the other people who had been turfed off the A14 whether they had been reading the roadside warnings or not, but we got there.

The museum turned out to be bigger than I expected, though tiny compared to Beamish or Blists Hill.  They have got some old buildings rescued and reconstructed from various bits of Suffolk, which mostly house exhibitions.  There is a lot about agriculture from the late Victorian era through to the mid twentieth century, a lot about the many engineering firms that developed out of Suffolk's need to service the agricultural sector, and a little bit of domestic history with a few room sets and a Victorian school room.  There is a tiny bit about the fishing industry, which is fair enough since Stowmarket is well inland and there are museums on the coast that major in fishing (which we have not been to either).  I would have liked something about the silk weaving industry, though I suppose the Warner archive in Braintree covers that.  There are traditional East Anglian breeds of farm animals in modern wire enclosed paddocks, with signs around the museum appealing for funds to build them a Victorian farm.  There is a watermill, and a windmill originally used to power a drainage pump rather than thresh corn.  A Victorian octagonal shelter looking as though it had escaped from the seaside, except that it is too enclosed, came from the cattle market in Bury St Edmunds where it was used to settle livestock trading accounts.  There are charcoal burning and hurdle making equipment, neither in use today.  There is a restored walled garden in full productive clatter with vegetables, fruit and flowers for cutting.  If we had stayed on until tonight we could have seen the outdoor cinema showing Mary Poppins.

It is a slightly confusing site to navigate your way around.  The signs are not awfully clear as to what things are and which buildings you are supposed to go into, and more than once we found we'd started an exhibition somewhere in the middle and only got to the welcoming orientation panel that would have told us what it was all about at the end.  The key to the map they give you with your entrance sticker does not list the numbered attractions in any order that would make any sense to somebody who didn't know the site, so it took ages to decipher, and I was simply baffled by the little banner flapping in the wind on a patch of grass that said First Aid Point.  We never saw anybody there and there was no first aid equipment so I don't suppose what you were supposed to do if you needed first aid.  Lie down on the grass until somebody noticed.

Still, the food in the cafe was quite nice, and I got to scratch a Large Black Pig called Tim behind the ears, and after much painful thought understood how the mechanism of a church clock built in 1607 worked to transmit gravitational force from the weight to the pendulum so that it kept swinging.  The key according to the SA was the escapement at the top, and it all became much clearer once I worked out I needed to think about the mechanism from the top downwards, instead of fixating on the largest cogwheel and then working upwards.

The museum is taking its time expanding, since it was first opened in 1967.  There is plenty of space for some more buildings, as and when suitable buildings and more critically the finance become available.  Still, we spent three and half hours walking around looking at stuff, and left feeling our brains were full, just as it began to spit with rain.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

site preparation

The top of the sloping bed is tantalisingly close to being weeded and cleared for planting, bramble stumps grubbed out and the majority of the sea buckthorn roots extracted.  It is remarkable how it has managed to look as though it is almost clear for several days, while taking hours more work to finish clearing it.  Thinking I must be nearly there, I went to measure the space before ordering shrubs to go in it.  It is a very odd shaped hexagon, and I am still trying to work out how the back can consist of two not quite in-line stretches of 3.3 metres each, when the front is only 3.3 metres in total.  I am fairly sure each individual measurement is right, and the answer must be that it's due to the uphill end of the border being deeper than the downhill one, and the downhill edge not meeting the back and front edges at anything like a right angle.

This morning I stood in the very light drizzle with a handful of bamboo canes, poking them into the ground and trying to check whether there was really room for a Tamarix, a small Buddleja, a Caryopteris and a pale pink Cistus, plus rose 'Sarah van Fleet', or if that would be too many shrubs, or not enough and I would actually need more than one cistus.  I wasn't buying more than one Caryopteris, since they are easy from cuttings.  I was accompanied by Mr Cool who alternated between trying to climb up my leg so as not to have to stand on the wet grass, and chewing the ends off the bamboo canes.  I decided that one each of the shrubs would be enough, and stomped back indoors to order them, unhooking Mr Cool from my knee.  The rose will come from the excellent Trevor White roses once it is the bare root rose season, and I ordered the others from Crocus.  I have used Crocus before and found them utterly professional, as befits a firm that supplies plants to several Chelsea show gardens every year.

By the afternoon the rain had passed and I set off to buy mushroom compost to dig into the soil at the top of the bed, which consists of incredibly thin soil made worse by the addition of left-over builders' sand, on top of an old track.  The mushroom compost had gone up by twenty-five pence per bag since the last time I bought any.  The woman on the till told me briskly that it was still very good value compared to other, bagged composts and she was right, but I would have preferred her to feel my pain.  After all, it isn't bagged.  I had to shovel every last one of the two hundred and forty litres I bought today myself.  At least I know to take my own stainless steel spade.  Life is too short to dig spent mushroom compost with a plastic shovel.

I spread it across the end of the bed, and was dismayed at how far it went, or rather didn't go.  I was evidently going to need another car load, and more probably two.  And I was aghast as I began to fork it into the soil at how quickly it vanished.  I'd spread a good generous layer, but the sand simply ate it.  In fact, I couldn't understand how there was quite so much builders' sand.  How much had our builder had left over?  Based on my recent gravel spreading experience there seemed to be a couple of bulk bags of the stuff, coming up in discouraging off-white seams with every turn of the fork.

I arranged for the Crocus shrubs to be delivered on Saturday, and in my mind's eye by Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning at the latest, I was going to be arranging them in the freshly cleared and compost laden space, along with quite a few of the plants that have been languishing in pots outside the greenhouse all summer.  By Monday morning it was all going to be done, barring the composted straw mulch that will have to wait until I psych myself up to order another pallet load. I now see that was a complete delusion.  By Sunday afternoon I might just about have managed to bag, cart and incorporate in the border enough organic material to give the new planting at least a vague chance of survival.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

at last we collect the car

I switched on my computer this morning and it was fine, uploading emails entirely normally and letting me scoot round the Times website while I ate my muesli.  I have discovered what it was doing last night, which was uploading the new Microsoft Office.  There were new and unasked for buttons on the toolbar, including Outlook, which I don't use, and some kind of search engine called Bing, which I'd never heard of.  I opened Bing to see what it was, and couldn't find any way of closing it again, and had to call on the Systems Administrator for help, who couldn't initially close it either and kept harrumphing from the aggravation of the car still being at the garage and the government website being down so it was impossible to see if it had passed its second MoT or not. I really wish Microsoft wouldn't do that.  Supposing I had badly needed to use my laptop last night, if I'd been up against a deadline to finish a report or something, I'd have been stuck.

Finally the government site worked, and a little tick appeared against the car's MoT status, and the garage rang to say it was ready to collect.  It goes to a Jaguar dealership for servicing because of the electronics.  There are so many of them it is basically a computer on wheels, and it is of an age where they have started to play up, so although it passed the MoT first time round in July except for the cracked windscreen, the Systems Administrator was not entirely confident that it would necessarily pass again.  The Jaguar dealership is in a retail park to the east of Ipswich, and there are two ways of getting there from here.  You could walk a mile to a railway station and get a train to Colchester where you could change trains for Ipswich, then get a bus from the centre of Ipswich.  Or you could drive there in another car.  The SA quite understandably preferred the latter option.  The garage is in the same retail park as the Ipswich John Lewis at Home store, and so it was a reasonably productive journey because after collecting the car we were able to go and buy a couple of oven gloves and some frying pans.

Having a car stuck at the garage for over a fortnight while Autoglass fails to replace the windscreen on a weekly basis is not the worst of problems to have, in the grand scheme of things. It's not as if it was our only car.  I have a friend who needs to sell her house, who is on permanent standby in case of viewers, having to keep the house unnaturally clean and tidy, all social plans subject to revision and cancellation in case a potential buyer should materialize, and afraid to book any kind of holiday.  The Colchester housing market has gone soft and she is getting quite demoralised being tied to home all through the summer.  Compared to that being on standby to go and collect the car is a minor inconvenience.  Even so it is a nuisance.  Arrangements to see people and go to places have kept getting bumped forward to try and keep my diary clear.  I was hoping to revisit the Tate's Giacometti exhibition with one friend before they go into hospital for an operation that will leave them immobile for a bit, but I fear we've run out of time.

The garage somehow swung it so that the SA was not charged for the second MoT.  It would have been deeply unfair to have to pay twice, when the only reason for the first failure was the windscreen and it would have been the work of two minutes to see that the windscreen had been changed and the paperwork showed it had been done by a qualified installer, and the car had been parked at the garage all the meantime.  Still, technically it was outside the ten working day period to qualify for a retest, and the SA was more or less resigned to paying twice and then deciding whether the hassle of trying to reclaim the cost of the second test from the insurers and the windscreen firm was worth it.

The oven gloves were plain black ones from John Lewis' Essentials range.  We already have some, and they give much better insulation than many branded ones at four times the price.  In the end we split the difference on whether to go for upmarket frying pans or get cheap ones and just replace them as often as the non-stick coating scratched, buying a fairly expensive saute pan that fits our existing lids and has a metal handle so can go in the oven, and two budget frying pans, one of which was marked with a piece of kitchen string through the handle as soon as we got home so that it can be kept for pancakes and omelets.  John Lewis at Home is really rather a terrifying temple to consumerism.  I read in one of the Sunday papers that inflatable flamingos were A Thing, but I didn't entirely believe it until I saw they have them in Ipswich.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

computer says no

This could be a short post.  I think my computer is doing something.  I didn't ask it to do anything, because I wanted to use it, but I think it has gone ahead and is running its scan or update or whatever it wanted to do anyway.  The cursor sticks and becomes unresponsive for seconds at a time, if not minutes, and it is a test of my touch typing when whole clauses, whole sentences, don't appear on the screen for a minute or more after I've typed them.  I gave it half an hour to see if it would finish but it is still doing it.  Corrections are practically impossible as I end up overcorrecting.

In fact, that is me done for the day.  Typing the first paragraph took over ten minutes.  Try again tomorrow.

Monday, 14 August 2017

a house visit

A friend who decided to downsize from the family home following the death of her husband has finally moved, and today I called round to see her in the new place.  It must be three or four years since her husband died, and one of the things that enraged her even amidst the fog of grief was the number of people asking when she would move, or stating as a given fact that of course she would move now, before the earth had even settled on her husband's grave.  I had assumed that she would move in due course, since the family home was a money pit, a wonderful vast crumbling Victorian pile with antique wiring, rotting window frames and no central heating, but had the tact not to mention it until she told me last summer that she had decided on it.  Then I was mightily relieved to hear that she would be staying in the area and not migrating to be near any of her children, but as she said, she has over forty year's worth of friends and contacts here in north Essex, and who is to say any of her children would stay put if she followed them.  Moving to the other side of the country to be near your son is all very well, but finding yourself living in a place where you know nobody after your son has had to relocate two hundred miles for work is something else.

She is worried about her cat, who is not yet allowed out but is used to roaming miles across the countryside.  The cat was sent to a cattery for a week over the actual move, and spent its first two days in the new house hiding under a bed, before it started to prowl the house looking miserable.  The only upside is that the cat, from being an independent entity before the move, has taken to sitting in her lap for consolation during the evenings, so at least they have bonded over the moving experience.  But she is still worried about what will happen when she lets the cat out, as she will have to do after another couple of weeks.  I told her about our cat that had moved house with us twice, and forbore to mention the other cat that disappeared a couple of weeks after our move to our present house.  I take her point when she says the cat is the main thing she is worried about, more than adjusting to the sudden shock of having neighbours while not yet having any curtains.  And she says she will boil, moving from having no central heating to having underfloor heating, but I'm sure she will get used to it.  She can turn the thermostat right down.

I promised to help design the garden since she asked, though I suggested we get the Systems Administrator to look at it as well, given the SA designed much of the layout of our back garden and has a better eye for proportion and layout than I have.  It is a promising space, roughly square, mostly sunny, and the developers have managed to arrange the development so that none of the houses loom over next door's back garden.  It is laid to turf, in estate agent's parlance, which is growing alarmingly fast after the rain.  It is by no means a blank canvas, however, since the finished garden will need to include a collection of plants brought from the old garden, plus a metal arbour, small pond, butler's sink, and collection of chimney pots, also brought with her (the pond liner, that is, not the contents.  Fortunately while small it is quite deep).  Plus a weeping silver pear promised by friends who gave the one that had to be left behind in the old garden because it was too well established to dig up (Silver Anniversary present) and sundry other gifts of plants.  Plus space for a shed, and compost bins, and a rotary clothes dryer.  Some of the lawn has to remain for visiting grandchildren to play on.  The grass had stuck itself down so firmly that I couldn't get at the soil to rub it between my fingers, but I'd hazard a guess it is sandy.

From my initial very rough sketch and list I am beginning to have the germ of an idea.  It will be better if the SA considers the problem independently, before I say what my idea is.  Once somebody has told you they are thinking of X it makes it harder to come up with an alternative that's not influenced by X in some way.  The SA did seem a little disappointed to hear that the garden was fairly level, and that I did not think my friend would be up for major earth moving or raised beds.

At the front she is lumbered with some unsuitable laurel that householders have to keep until the estate is finished.  After that it will go, otherwise it will block all the light from the dining room and half the pavement.  I did suggest that in the meantime she could go along it occasionally with a spade and sever the roots a little way out from it, so that it still has nice compact roots when she comes to dig it out.  She fancies lavender, a much better choice.  I wouldn't bother about trying to save the sad browning variegated Spiraea the developers have lumbered her with, though.  If they should quietly die before next spring I should call that a blessed release.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

companion animals (not)

Mr Cool was not in for his breakfast.  His body clock seems to run on a longer than twenty-four hour cycle, whereby he will spend an entire day hanging around the house, and then disappear for most of the next day.  Yesterday was a sleeping-in-the-trug day, and so I wasn't entirely surprised when today was a nowhere-to-be-seen day, as I am slowly getting used to Mr Cool's way of doing things.  I'd still rather he waited faithfully outside the bedroom door every morning like Mr Fluffy.

When he hadn't shown up by half past twelve I tried calling for him.  Mr Fidget came trotting from the direction of the compost bins and bonfire heap, followed by Mr Cool at a leisurely pace, while Mr Fluffy bustled around the side of the house with a you-wanted-me expression.  I dished out half a tin of cat food between the three of them, and Mr Cool licked all the jelly off his and stalked off again.

That was the last I saw of him until mid afternoon, when I heard feline squeaking so faint I checked in case I had accidentally locked a cat in the laundry room, but it was Mr Cool out on the drive, carrying a large mouse which he proceeded to eat, starting at the head end.

The third time I saw him he strolled into the kitchen, sat under the table ignoring my blandishments to come and be stroked, and eventually allowed me to pick him up and cuddle him, though really he wanted his tea.  Once he'd had that he went back out.  The Systems Administrator saw more of him than I did, because Mr Cool went to sit with the SA under a tree in the back garden, but I don't really feel I've had an adequate daily fix of a pet as adored as Mr Cool is.

I expect we will see more of him come the winter, once it is wet and cold, since Mr Cool appears to regard being rained on as a personal outrage.  The Systems Administrator said we had better hope we didn't get too many long wet spells.  Mr Cool got quite grumpy enough the other day when it rained for twelve hours, pacing about the house and sitting on the doormat staring out thunderously through the glass door at the rain.  I don't like to imagine what he'd be like after a week confined to barracks.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

a day in the garden

The lawn, which the Systems Administrator cut on Monday, needs mowing again.  The SA is sure it was Monday because the cricket was on the radio.  I suppose Monday was five days ago.  Suddenly we are getting a taste of what gardening is normally like in the great swathes of the UK that don't have annual rainfall only fifteen centimetres above what would technically count as semi-arid. Here the lawn almost never needs cutting twice in a week in late summer, just a quick trim every ten days to take the whiskery bits off.

The pots were drying out by today, and I am grateful that no more of the zinnias have collapsed. Watering a zinnia in a pot continuously for twelve hours is no way to persuade it to live.  I am delighted with 'Queen Red Lime', whose flowers are a good colour at all stages, fading to a brownish pink that co-ordinates well with the brown tinged pink of the Ricinus flowers and seed pods.  Having sworn last year that I would not grow zinnia again I am becoming a fan.  I won't bother with Tithonia next year, though.  If I had good, deep soil in a sheltered spot I might, but in pots on a windy patio they are a travesty of what they should be.  Ah well, I have tried and got Tithonia envy out of my system.

The ivy hedge in the front garden is shaping up reasonably.  Ivy presents various issues as a hedge, which I did not foresee when I planted it and which the garden designers who still happily peddle the idea in the media do not seem to foresee either, or at least do not admit to.  One is its habit of sending shoots running out across the ground.  Yes, you can trim them off, but it is fiddly work and hard on the back compared to trimming a regular hedge, especially when they run into the border and mix themselves up with the border plants.  Another is ivy's habit, once it has got to the top of its wire support and accepted that it can go no further, of switching to the mature, fruiting form.  This is perfectly attractive per se, but difficult to trim to a neat, hedge-like finish, and impossible to cut so that it retains a decent covering of leaves each time without finding it rapidly balloons in size.  Earlier in the year I took some stretches of hedge that had grown to be level with my chest back down to knee height where they were supposed to be, and the remaining woody framework was entirely bald.  I wasn't at all sure if they would reclothe themselves, or if I had just added Replace Ivy Hedge to my list of things to do.  They have sprouted anew, and I am spared a major gardening headache.  For now.  There again, if I had used box originally I could have found myself battling with three hundred metres of box blight.

There was a steam special running today on the branch line.  The Systems Administrator thought of going to stand by the track to take photos, and give Tornado a wave as she went past, but decided against it.  From the garden we could just hear the sound of the engine from the point where the line passes closest to the house, and the wild shriek of a steam whistle.

Friday, 11 August 2017


I have been deadheading the lavenders in the turning circle, as a change from trimming the ivy hedge and to give a mixture of clippings to go on the compost heap so that it doesn't end up with a two foot layer of ivy.  I don't know if it will really make much difference, since the lavender stems are about as woody as the ivy, and what I really need is some nice soft green stuff, but there's nothing suitable.  The lawn is so full of weeds the Systems Administrator tips the contents of the lawnmower grass catcher on to its own slimy pile, rather than add it to the compost bin.

I am not good at lavender.  I diligently read books and study the websites of specialist lavender nurseries, and try to remember whether Lavandula x intermedia or Lavandula angustifolia is better on acid soil, and which cultivar names belong to each type, and my brain shies away in sheer boredom and refuses to retain the information.  I buy named varieties, plant them, and two years later cannot remember which is which, and then a few years after that they have seeded themselves and I am even less clear about what anything is.  Lavender is a grey leaved plant with spikes of purple flowers, and that is as much as my subconscious seems to want to know about the subject.  Odd, when I always really enjoy looking at the Downderry Nursery display at flower shows.

I have tried taking cuttings, and they have always shrivelled and died, as if the lavender could detect my basic lack of interest.  And yet as a child I loved lavender.  There was a hedge of it across the full width of the garden, perched on top of a little dry stone retaining wall of rough lime blocks, that was always full of bees when it was in flower, and that was one of the things that kindled my interest in beekeeping.  We used to pick stems, dry them and make lavender bags out of muslin.  How can I be so cack handed about propagating something I grew up with, when I am fine with Dianthus, with Perlargonium, and Hebe, and Penstemon cuttings?

In the meantime I am cutting off the spent flower stems, taking off the top few growth buds from each stalk to encourage the plants to remain bushy, while making sure to leave some on every stem.  Some stems have died entirely, which I remove as I go.  I don't know why they have died, except that lavenders are not the longest lived plants, and perhaps something about the acidity or lack of alkalinity is not to my plants' liking.  A tall white variety given to me by a colleague at the plant centre and which I think she described as Old English White is looking very sad.  The plants look sparse and ratty after their haircut.  I read a gardening article the other day that said that the silver leaves of lavender looked attractive at all times of the year.  Not in my garden, they don't.  They are shockers by the end of winter as well, until their pinched buds swell and they produce a new crop of leaves.  Maybe they are lovelier in other people's gardens, who have the right kind of light soil and understand their whims.  Or maybe the article was a piece of wishful thinking.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

after the rain

The rain gauge in the front garden recorded fifty-five millimetres yesterday, which sounds about right since somebody in Elmstead Market  posted a reading of  fifty-seven.  That's a lot, two inches in old money, or ten per cent of our average annual rainfall.  It had stopped by this morning, leaving a very soggy garden.  The cats were delighted to get out after spending yesterday evening stuck inside.  It was touching the way they followed us from room to room, but the way they tried to chew my hair, my shoes and each other did suggest they would rather have been out on their evening patrol.

One of the advantages of light soil is that you can get on it about five minutes after it has stopped raining.  I gave the water laden foliage and sodden clay of the back garden a wide berth, and carried on weeding and deadheading the thrift in the gravel at the front.  The sheep's sorrel has crept about some more since the last time I weeded the turning circle, and rather infuriatingly some of it has seeded.  The worst bits to winkle out are where it has grown up through the cushions of thrift.  Sheep's sorrel in light ground is like horsetail in poorly drained clay, you will never get rid of all of it.  The best you can do is pull out as much of both as you can, and learn to live with the rest.

The gravel in the turning circle is thin in places, and I have a nasty feeling I should have ordered a third bag, except that I'm not sure I could face spreading as many as three and I didn't want the third hanging about for months.  My back is still feeling tender from the second, and there's half of that left to do.  I have read (though not understood) how in order to build up muscles you have to break them down first, a statement I saw repeated this morning on the Telegraph website (not in a Premium article.  We don't subscribe to the Telegraph) and my back feels just as if I might have been breaking down my muscles.  I trust they will grow again, better than before.  The photo illustrating the article was of a male torso, but I daresay it works for middle aged ladies too, not that we are supposed to want muscles.

The car will not be ready this week.  Having first of all told the Systems Administrator that the new windscreen had arrived damaged and the work would have to be postponed to today, the latest tale of woe is that some necessary clips were missing, and they can't do the work until next Tuesday afternoon.  That will take it more than ten working days from the MoT, meaning that in theory it will need another full test and not just a retest.  In the meantime it is stuck at the garage in Ipswich.  Lucky they have plenty of space.  Lucky I had not made any plans for next week beyond Tuesday morning.  So much for all those Autoglass repair, Autoglass replace adverts on Classic FM.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

the rain it raineth pretty much all of the day long oh

The forecast at breakfast time showed the rain was not due to arrive until lunchtime, and I thought my niece might just about manage her morning's garden work experience without getting wet, but alas, it began sooner than expected.  I'd scarcely got her started deadheading lavender when it began, lightly at first so that I didn't notice from the kitchen.  She stayed valiantly kneeling in the drizzle until the Systems Administrator pointed out to me that it was raining, at which point I told her to move to the backup plan, which was to pick the tomatoes and do some potting inside the greenhouse.  By half past eleven when she came in with the tomatoes it really was raining quite a lot.  I asked if she was getting damp out there and she said she was, rather, so I gave her some tea and she made herself useful stringing together a box of holey stones that I'd collected over the past months and not got round to doing anything with.  I paid her for the full morning's work, since she is a nice girl and it was not her fault that it rained, warning her that wouldn't happen when she worked for a grasping small business owner who expected to take her rest breaks unpaid, but that doting aunts were different.

The artists formerly known as kittens were not very welcoming.  I was afraid they wouldn't be, and had warned her in advance not to expect much from them.  They did all look at her warily from a safe distance, which is slight progress from fleeing the house at the first sight of visitors and not returning until the visitors have gone, but not ideal for a cat loving teenager.  Mr Fidget did consent to come into the kitchen with us to eat a couple of Dreamies, but then rushed out again, overcome by his own daring, and Mr Cool abruptly left the building.

By the time I'd driven her home it was still raining solidly, so I went to look for Mr Cool and found him as expected sitting in one of the chairs in the conservatory.  I tucked him inside my waterproof jacket and carried him back into the house, since he had not had his lunch and had no way of telling when it was safe to come back indoors without venturing out into the rain, and he hates being rained on.  He was happy to be carried, delighted to be reunited with Our Ginger, and had something to eat before settling into his favourite chair in the study for the afternoon.  And so we all sat, Our Ginger on the doormat staring out at the rain, the SA in his usual corner of the sofa in the sitting room, me in my usual corner of the other sofa, Mr Fidget lying upside down on a chair downstairs, and Mr Fluffy curled in the new favourite cardboard box, a tall one they soon knocked over so that it had a roof, and which we have christened the sentry box.  It is such a coveted location that when Our Ginger is already in it, one of the other cats will go and lie on the floor in front of it, communing with Our Ginger and waiting their turn in the box.

It is sluicing down now with almost tropical intensity.  There is nothing like an English summer.

I recommend the Guardian's underwhelming photos of cats.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

a domestic day

I might have been over-optimistic thinking I could fit in a couple of hours' gardening before meeting a friend for coffee, then a trip to B&Q and Waitrose before doing the cleaning.  The Systems Administrator, returning from a day at Lords, found me still pushing the vacuum cleaner round the study at gone eight, which felt like my cue to stop.  The SA has kindly agreed to vacuum the upstairs sitting room in the morning.

I had hoped to buy a replacement box ball in B&Q, or a medium sized box that could be trained into a ball fairly quickly.  One of the four in tubs by the pond has drowned, not anything to do with the pond but because its drainage holes must have blocked up.  Water has been sitting on top of the compost when it rains, or if I water it too much, and while I was thinking that I had better investigate the problem and repot the plant it quietly died.  August is really too early in the year to buy box, as by a strange convention it is one of those things garden centres tend to stock up on in the autumn, but I thought I might find some in B&Q.  I did, but half the plants had nasty looking brown patches, that might have been down to erratic watering but equally might have been box blight, and I wasn't taking the risk of buying one to find out.

As I set off to Waitrose it suddenly occurred to me that they might sell box balls at some point.  If they do I expect they will be immaculately healthy and correspondingly expensive, but they didn't have any today.  Maybe in the autumn.  They did not have any caramelised condensed milk either. Just now as I opened my laptop a new email popped up, which was a survey by Waitrose asking about my shopping experience.  I filled it in, because I am an obliging creature, and in the box asking how they could have made my shopping experience better wrote that they could stock caramelised condensed milk, and added that the lamb steaks could have been longer dated.  After I'd gone on from that page I began to wish I'd added that their bread wasn't awfully good, though I wasn't actually buying bread today.  I am afraid they ask rather a lot of their staff.  I wasn't inspired and enthused about food by any member of staff, but I wasn't expecting to be and would have found it off putting if they'd tried.  I had a list, or rather two lists, the one from the pin board in the hall and the notes I'd made on the bottom of the list of things to get in B&Q.  If I'd been unable to find anything on the list I'd have been happy to ask a member of staff where it was, but I knew it was no good asking about the caramelised condensed milk because Waitrose don't stock it.  They never have it, and there is no gap for it on the shelf next to the ordinary sort.

I bought the Systems Administrator a pork pie, as the SA had asked me specially to get one.  It was a proper Melton Mowbray pie, which have enjoyed Protected Geographical Indication Status since 2009, and said on the wrapper that it was succulent.  That, as the SA said, was to distinguish it from the dry pork pies people might buy otherwise.  Pork pies are one of the SA's favourite things, for a treat.  I am partial to a pork pie myself, though I have never been especially keen on Melton Mowbray since we stopped there on a long car journey to grab some lunch and a comfort break, but found it seemed to have no public lavatories, and ended up having to go back and buy another half an hour's parking to give me time to nip into a pub and drink a tomato juice I didn't want so that I could use their loo.

Monday, 7 August 2017

the best laid plans

By quarter to nine this morning the outline plan for the week had pretty much unravelled.  The phone rang, which at that hour is either a nuisance call or presages something ominous.  It turned out to be Autoglass, who were booked to replace the windscreen on the Systems Administrator's car, which is currently at the garage in Ipswich.  A chip that had been there for so many years the SA had discounted it suddenly propagated into a crack just as the car was due for its annual service and MoT.  The SA blamed the stresses of the hot weather for the crack, which was bad enough to constitute an MoT failure.  The garage pointed out, rather brilliantly, that it was worth checking to see if the windscreen replacement was covered by the insurance (it was) and that Autoglass could carry out the work at the garage, rather than the SA collect the car, have the work done in the drive, and then return to the garage for a retest.  This morning Autoglass were going to fit the new windscreen and this afternoon I was going to drive the SA to Ipswich to collect the car, taking in John Lewis en route to buy a frying pan.

Autoglass rang to say that the new windscreen had arrived damaged.  The job has had to be put back to Thursday, which leaves one day in hand of the ten working days allowed for an MoT retest. The SA was philosophical about the delay, which was doubly disappointing since originally the SA had been planning to go today to the county match at Lords.  That trip was rescheduled to tomorrow to allow for picking up the car, and the London forecast for tomorrow now shows a fifty per cent chance of rain from two onwards, whereas today was dry.

The deteriorating forecast was the second cause of the week's plans unravelling, since I'd arranged for my niece to come over on Wednesday to do some gardening (of the safe, carefully vetted kind designed not to involve being poked in the eye, sprained, scratched, or blistered by toxic sap) to earn something towards her new phone and because she is said to be interested in gardens.  It is now forecast to rain on Wednesday, rising to ninety per cent probability of heavy rain by lunchtime, with a Met Office Yellow Warning of potential traffic disruption.  I had been planning to start her off on deadheading lavender then maybe offer some potting by way of variety.  I am not sure she would want to spend all morning in the greenhouse in the rain, the roof leaks, and anyway I don't think there are enough things to pot to last for two hours.  It sounds like a recipe guaranteed to put a teenager off gardening for the next three decades.

I will speak to her mother and see what they want to do.  She could come on Thursday if she doesn't have anything else planned, and we could collect the car after taking her home and go to John Lewis another day.  Or she could come on Wednesday and we could make ice cream, or bread.  We could get the car on Friday and have loads of time to go to John Lewis.  It will all work out one way or another.  It's just that I am enough of a nerd to like to know what the plan is in advance.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

overdoing it

Mr Fidget fell in the pond.  I was weeding by the pond and there were no cats in it, then a moment later when I went into the kitchen the Systems Administrator gestured to me through the window to come and look at something, and there was a wet and pathetic Mr Fidget, little ratty tail all draggly and fur sticking up in punk spikes.  He must have climbed straight out after he fell in, to judge from the large wet patch along one side of the pond and absence of water at the top of either of the wooden ramps that are still in place from when the kittens were first allowed outside, and he seemed entirely unharmed except in his feelings.  It might be just as well that yesterday I topped the pond up because the water level had dropped by four or five inches and I was afraid that it would be too far to climb out if any of the cats fell in.  It would happen to Mr Fidget.  We were starting to hope that he might be getting less accident prone as he got older.  I dried him on the kitchen towel and gave him some biscuits, but he went on looking pathetic.  As the SA said, he was probably not very happy at all his fur smelling of pond water.

I went on weeding by the model railway and moving gravel, until on about the fourth barrow my back suddenly twinged in a way that told me that I had better stop.  It is frustrating since I would very much like to finish spreading the contents of the second bulk bag, and not have it sitting by the gate for months.  In the meantime I shifted to weeding the turning circle, a meticulous but lightweight fingertip job.  The thrift needs deadheading, since the old heads are not especially ornamental and the tight buns of foliage look better without them, but am leaving the brown, spiky heads of Eryngium and the bobbly spent flower stems of Asphodeline lutea until winter. Both are attractive in a decaying sort of way, especially early in the morning with dew or frost on them, and contrast nicely with the smooth domes of the deadheaded thrift.

There is lots of sheep's sorrel.  However much I pull up, it always comes back.  Dead Eleagnus leaves have tucked themselves down among the other plants and need scooping out.  It's debatable whether to leave the old stems and seedheads of Nigella damascena any longer, or if they have already passed beyond the architectural stage to become merely tatty.  There is some sort of native plant whose name I don't know, that looks quite like salsify but has yellow daisy flowers instead of pink, and seeds itself more than I should like.  I pull the seedlings out, a slightly fiddly task since the small ones are easy to confuse with Asphodeline at a casual glance.  As long as they come up with a white tap root and not a cluster of yellow roots I know I haven't got the wrong one.  There is a running grass that dives among the roots of the Iris florentina.  In the past I have lifted all the iris and dug the area over, but since a tiny bit of grass always escapes it's easier just to pull the grass out and resign yourself to doing it again in due course.  There are brown, dead, not even remotely architectural stems of Silybum marianum, that need to be pulled up and added to the pile of stuff bound for the bonfire.  They are extremely prickly.

Our Ginger came to watch me work, and wanted to sit in my lap as I kneeled.  I petted him for a while then fetched him a spare foam kneeling mat to sit on, but he wasn't having any of it and stomped off.

Saturday, 5 August 2017


The forecast (with seventy per cent probability) thunderstorms did not materialize.  There was a torrential downpour at around three, and by half past four it was dry enough to change back into our gardening clothes and go back outside into what turned into a beautiful evening, bathed in golden light.  I was relieved the thunder missed us, because I hate thunder, or more accurately I hate lightning.  The Systems Administrator said I was more scared of thunder than the cats, and I pointed out that that was entirely reasonable since the cats did not know they were living in a house with a roof made out of compressed straw.

I am glad it is a nice evening, since the grandson of the neighbour who lives in the further of the cottages in the lane called round a month ago to warn us that he would be having a party.  By this morning they had got two portaloos in their field, and a pair of gazebos, and it would have been a pity if it had rained.  He plays in a band, or used to a couple of years ago when he warned us he was having another party, at which his band would be playing.  They weren't bad, from what I could hear of them across the field, and then the music switched to something else with a female vocalist and I thought Blimey, she is really good, and then realized it was Debbie Harry in one of the tracks from Parallel Lines.

In between the spells of rain the Systems Administrator had time to finish fitting the bamboo screen across the back of the sloping bed just inside the entrance.  We will see how it stands up to the gales.  I am reasonably optimistic, barring a full blown top end Force Ten*, since it is permeable and flexible, but I think the SA had visions of the top breaking and disintegrating in the wind.  As long as it lasts for a few years it won't matter so much, since that will give time for plant cover in the border to grow.  The immediate effect is to make the back garden appear more enclosed, and is a great improvement.

The sense of enclosure is one of those design effects that's important but difficult to pin down. You don't need a full blown system of garden rooms with hedges and walls above head height.  A waist high barrier can do it, or a strip of tall but see-through planting.  You can feel enclosed but still be able to see out.  But to have something around the edge that's substantial enough to prevent people passing over or through it, at least assuming they are following norms of behaviour and not chasing around like Bodie and Doyle, makes an area feel more secure, and more like a distinct place.  And blocking views of the more mundane or unattractive surroundings helps build the illusion of the garden being its own contained world.  The top of the sloping bed was in practical terms already fairly well enclosed, having a rabbit fence along the back of it, and behind the rabbit fence a pile of grass clippings, and beyond the grass clippings a patch of brambles.  But it was not an attractive little corner, and as your eye passed over the rabbit fence you mentally left the garden.  From all the rest of the back garden once you are in it you could see nothing except the garden, the wood, and the sky.

The turning circle is an area where the sense of enclosure gradually built up, and was all the better for it.  First of all it was just a scruffy lawn.  Nobody would ever have wanted to sit there. We dug a pond, replaced the grass with gravel, and laid a path across it and a square of paving next to the pond.  It was still not a place to linger, even when the first planting of bulbs and low growing plants started to take shape.  Now there are banks of lavender, a bulky Phlomis italica, a semi-prostrate rosemary, an olive tree, a young Persian silk tree, a sprawling Teucrium fruticans, myrtles, and other shrubs that thrive on sun and sharp drainage.  The little metal cafe table and two chairs at the heart of it feel like a real place to sit, though it is still overlooked by the house and you can eyeball the postman and the Amazon delivery drivers from your chair.

In contrast, the field hedge around the front garden doesn't feel quite as enclosing as I should like, especially in winter when the leaves have fallen.  It is a good practical barrier, with rabbit fencing on both sides and quite bushy, and in most places you'd be hard pushed to climb through it, but there is something distracting and exposed about being able to see the field so clearly.  I realized that in the odd places where we'd planted a dwarf pine or box close to it the effect was much better, even though you could still see through the hedge above the line of the evergreen shrubs, and so planted more box in front of the hedge with the aim of keeping them clipped to about four feet as they grew.  Distant views of the far side of the field and the trees are fine, it is just something about having the field margin in the foreground that feels wrong.  As I said, the sense of enclosure is tricky, important, mutable and hard to define.  Cats notice it too.  Why else would they be so keen on sitting in cardboard boxes, even tiny low sided ones?

*Which is a Storm, not a Gale.  On the Beaufort Scale Storms are stronger than Gales, contrary to much popular usage.  There used to be an advertisement for, of all people, the RNLI, appealing for us to support them when their crews would go out in Force Ten Gales for us, and it irritated me every time I saw it.  I have no idea why the RNLI let their advertising agency run with it, except that most people probably think a Gale sounds the baddest thing there is, except for a Hurricane and we very rarely get those in the UK.  It isn't.  A Storm is bigger.

Friday, 4 August 2017

a glut

Mr Cool disgraced himself by catching a green woodpecker.  He brought it into the house, where he was intercepted by the Systems Administrator who shouted at Mr Cool and made him drop his quarry.  The woodpecker from shamming dead became very much alive and flew about the study. The SA chased Mr Cool out of the room, shut the blinds and opened the back door, and the bird flew towards the light and freedom.  Mr Cool seemed rather abashed by what he had done, and spent the rest of the day lying in an armchair looking subdued.  Goodness knows how he caught it, but of course they feed on the ground when they are going after ant colonies, and it was probably a young one that had not yet learned about cats.  None of the previous cats have ever caught a woodpecker, and there are a lot in the garden.  Fortunately the current generation have not caught on to the idea of drilling into beehives.

The fig tree is cropping prodigiously, and blocking more of the garage door day by day.  You would not think it was the same sad plant that used to exist in a pot in the conservatory.  This year's figs are escaping the attention of the birds, perhaps in part due to the presence of the young cats, though there hasn't been any wasp damage either and I can't credit the cats with keeping wasps at bay.  It is a pity that fresh figs keep for such a short time even in the fridge, and that the SA does not like figs.

I looked through some of my cookery books and online for ideas on what to do with them, but after discounting savory partnerships with ham, which the SA would not eat with any degree of enthusiasm, regarding it as a waste of good ham, that left various enormous cakes.  The cakes didn't sound as though they would have terribly long shelf lives, and converting a glut of more figs than one person could eat into an even larger cake that one person couldn't eat either wouldn't really help matters.  I briefly considered fig jam, but wasn't sure when even I would eat that, and lacked confidence in my ability to tell when boiling sugar had reached the pearl stage.  Spoiling a bag of sugar and half wrecking a saucepan in my attempts not to waste the figs would be a false economy.  In the end I followed Jane Grigson's method of baking some with vanilla sugar, which I thought would help them keep a while longer in the fridge, and ate some raw for lunch.  Last night I paired some with the end of a tub of vanilla ice cream and some honey, and that was good.

I am nearly at the bottom of the first bag of gravel.  In fact, I have seen the bottom, though I am still busy scraping shovel loads of gravel out from around the sides.  When I consider the rate at which I am shifting it I should remember that of course I am lifting it twice, once when I fill the wheelbarrow and again when I spread it, and in between the two stages I have to push it in the wheelbarrow.  It takes ages to dig the last bits out as the edges of the bag keep flopping over and getting in the way.  Builders' merchants never seem to put a deposit on the bags nowadays, or ask for them back, and I wonder whether health and safety now dictates that they are single use, or whether on building sites where time is money people slit the bags rather than fiddling about trying to dig from them.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

the gravel arrives

The gravel arrived.  I was out in the garden by half past eight, keeping a beady eye out for the lorry, before an email arrived at 08.59 confirming that my order would be arriving between 07.00 and 13.00.  That was better than the customer service desk had told me yesterday when they said they couldn't guarantee a delivery time, since while it wasn't a very tight slot at least it didn't mean I was committed to waiting for the lorry all afternoon.  Lucky it didn't come between seven and half past eight, though.

It was unlucky that it seemed to be a particularly noisy morning on the farm, which sent me regularly scuttling down to the entrance each time I heard a heavy diesel engine revving or the bleep of a vehicle reversing, only to see a lettuce lorry about to depart or another trailer load of freshly harvested salad arriving.  It was unlucky too that it was such a windy day.  I had the front door propped open so that I'd hear the phone as I weeded and waited, but when finally the sound of a lorry down at the farm did turn out to be the gravel, by the time I'd walked down the lane to meet him the driver had had time to leave messages on the landline and my mobile.  And no, I didn't take my mobile into the garden with me.  I never do.  It would only get broken.

The driver was much more amiable than the man on the customer service desk, and said he would walk up the lane to have a look at the access.  He seemed perfectly happy with it, and when I said that the dustmen had been only that morning he said confidently that anywhere a dustcart could go, he could go.  I said that I hadn't been able to understand why the customer service desk had got quite so agitated about the lane, and he said that was because the man on the desk didn't drive a lorry, just sat at a desk, and as he had been there yesterday when I rang it would have been better if he had spoken to me directly.  I conceded that it was difficult to form a view about access when you hadn't seen it, and he reversed his lorry up the lane and offloaded the gravel without any trouble.  He was not even worried about the high-up bits of the farm's trees and the neighbour's hedge obscuring his wing mirrors, because his lorry had a camera on the back, and he told me not to worry about the dustmen because they always had somebody in the passenger seat who could look out that side.

His firm announced their results today, and profits were down on turnover that was up, reflecting a margin squeeze from higher import costs due to weak sterling and subdued activity in the housing market, but they still made a five per cent margin, so they still seem as solid as they were twenty years ago.  Materials distribution is not an inherently high quality business, as witness the collapse of the firm I used to buy acrylic sheet from.  It was only because I'd paid using PayPal that I got a refund when after a series of increasingly unconvincing excuses the acrylic still hadn't arrived by the time their website vanished and the consensus among their unhappy customers on the internet was that they'd gone bust.  Being quoted is no protection against going bust, but total failure is normally preceded by a couple of profits warnings.

I asked the driver how much a large bulk bag of gravel actually weighed, and he said around a tonne, just over if it was very wet, otherwise just under.  I set to work with my wheelbarrow once he'd gone, and spread fresh gravel over the area where the juniper used to be, and started topping up the dry garden planting and the edges of the drive along the base of the ivy hedges where the gravel was thin.  I alternated between barrowing gravel and weeding, so as not to strain anything, but by early evening the big muscles between my shoulder blades were starting to ache and I thought that might be enough for one day.  I must have spread over half the bag, maybe even two thirds of it, pacing myself over about seven hours.  In comparison, when The Flying Scotsman broke the 100 mph barrier in 1934 her fireman shovelled about nine tonnes of coal in five hours, and at the World Coal Shovelling Championship in Tasmania the record for shovelling half a tonne stands at 26 seconds.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

retail stress

Yesterday I bought a nice, bushy yew about eighteen inches high from the Chatto Gardens, having noticed that they had some when I called in before to buy the Verbena officinalis.  At that point I didn't know I would be wanting yew, but the fact that it was in stock registered.  August is not a usual time to buy hedging plants.  I already had two dahlias growing on in pots and some homemade compost to bulk up the soil before planting, so all that remained to complete the project was more gravel.

After the experience of the collapsing acrylic sheet distributor I am probably neurotic about small materials suppliers.  This was one reason why I left it a couple of weeks after my first attempt to buy gravel when I was told the local aggregate merchant's computer was down on Friday and still down on Saturday.  Their website was still there yesterday, but when I rang the man who answered the phone sounded very doubtful when I said I wanted to buy two bulk bags of washed shingle, and said he would have to ring me back.  Somebody else did ring me back, in more than two minutes, but by then I had lost my nerve and gone to one of the builder's merchants, a quoted company and one which back in the day when I followed the building sector was reckoned to be extremely conservatively run.  Mind you, a lot can change in two decades.  When I worked for Lloyds TSB they were reckoned to be well and conservatively managed, making a positive virtue out of dullness, and look what they went and did next.

I ordered my gravel online, ticking the box that said I was a DIY customer and not trade, and the one that said access was not suitable for HGVs, and giving details of the single track approach to the house, necessitating reversing one way.  An email arrived saying that my delivery would come from the Colchester branch who would contact me to arrange a delivery date.  The ETA was given as Wednesday, which suited me fine as I wanted to get on with spreading the gravel.  I hovered around near the entrance keeping an ear out for the lorry while weeding, so that I could head the driver off at the pass before he embedded his wing mirrors in the Eleagnus hedge trying to drive right into the garden, and I kept an eye on my phone for my advisory text saying when the gravel was coming.

By lunchtime I'd had neither text nor gravel, and it was forecast to rain, so I rang up the Colchester branch.  The conversation went badly from the start.  I explained I'd ordered some bulk bags online, would like to know when they were coming, and had the online order number.  The man at the Colchester branch said that was not much use and a name and address would be better.  I gave him my name and address.  He asked when I'd ordered the gravel and I said, Yesterday, and the email had suggested it would be coming today, and I would like to know when it would be coming so that I could be there to make sure it was put down in the right place and the lorry did not try to come into the garden.  He did not like the fact that we were not on the public highway at all, or that I was asking his lorry to reverse up a single track lane.  Did I know that the lorry could not go off road?  I said that I was not asking it to go off road, it was a perfectly good lane, all other lorries managed to get up the lane, including the dustcart that did it every week, the oil delivery lorry, and the local aggregates' firm lorry that had delivered the last lot of gravel a couple of months ago.  It was just that there was not room to turn at the top.  How was it supposed to reverse?  Would there be a banksman to help?  I said that I would be there.  He told me that he couldn't give a time for the delivery.  I said that was all right, I would wait in the garden all day.  He warned me the driver would do his best, and some of their drivers went above and beyond the call of duty, but they only delivered to addresses on the road.  They were not insured to go off the public highway.  And I should have rung them to say that I'd ordered gravel to be delivered to a property with such limited access, it said so on the website.

It doesn't, or if it does it is in size 6 font on a page tucked away in the website's furthest recesses. And I had ticked the box that said it was not suitable for HGVs and given as many details of the lane as I could fit on the online order form.  And the confirmation email said that the branch would contact me.  And it must be utter bollocks that they are not insured to go off the public highway.  They are a builder's merchant.  They deliver to building sites and new estates whose roads have not yet been adopted, for goodness sake.  And if the company didn't want private punters like me to order stuff they wouldn't have an open access e-commerce site, but one where you had to register as a trade customer and then log on before you could order anything.  I can only assume that he had the hump because I'd ordered online and that the firm's business model meant he made less from that than if I'd ordered from the branch, which would be a very silly business model if that was the problem.  Perhaps he was just having a very bad day.  Whichever way, I won't be using them again, and I shouldn't think the Systems Administrator will be getting the Coroline corrugated roofing to reroof the blue summerhouse from them when that finally rises to the top of the SA's list of Things to Do.

I hate buying gravel.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

of witch hazel and wisteria

This will be a late and probably short blog post, since I was late in from the monthly meeting of the garden club, and never got round to posting anything before I went out because I was gardening.  I had reminded the Systems Administrator in advance that I would not be around for supper today because it was the first Tuesday of the month, and this morning asked the SA to give me a nudge if I looked as though I might have forgotten that I was supposed to be going out.  At this time of the year I'm usually out in the garden until half past six, if not seven, and it is very easy to get engrossed in what you are doing and forget to come inside in time to get cleaned up and have something to eat.  Sure enough, when the SA came over at quarter to six to check I'd remembered I was going out I was still busily planting up the newly cleared end of the dahlia bed and only vaguely starting to think about packing up.

Tonight's lecturer was a highly knowledgeable and experienced nurseryman, Chris Lane, who holds a National Collection of Hamamelis and another of Wisteria.  I have heard him speak a couple of times before, but am always happy to hear a shrub expert who really knows their stuff holding forth.  I have his book on witch hazels, purchased second hand from a US based seller after it had gone out of print and hit astronomical prices in the UK.  My nice and very clean copy was remaindered from the Orange County library service.  He is working on another book on wisteria which I shall certainly buy, if and when it comes out, since he was working on it the last time I heard him talk and that must have been a year ago.

I picked up some new strange and interesting snippets.  I knew that Hamamelis were traditionally propagated by grafting, and it turns out that they still are.  I wondered if nowadays they might be micropropagated, but it turns out that the numbers involved are too small to be commercially attractive, and that in any event it doesn't work with witch hazel.  Plant science has got so sophisticated, it wouldn't have occurred to me that you couldn't micropropagate pretty much any woody species if you wanted to, but apparently not.  The tubes fill with strange brown gunk and it just doesn't work.  For home gardeners who haven't mastered the art of grafting you can layer them, giving the branches a couple of years to root, or even air layer them, but in commercial nurseries they are still grafted, as plants have been for hundreds of years.

Young wisteria need generous watering to get them going.  Once established they are fine with normal watering, and water logging is fatal, but until then they need lots of water.  That will be why my plant that's supposed to be growing up the scaffolding pole is not doing anything.  I watered it in dry spells early on to keep it from dying, but I have not regularly lavished water upon it.  I had better give it more.

He elaborated on his statement in a previous talk that wisteria tends not to flower until it has reached the limits of whatever it is growing on, be that a six foot pole or a large tree.  The mechanism is that the new, whippy young growths will not extend more than a yard or so beyond their support.  If at that point they sense they are still flailing around with nothing to cling on to, they stop growing.  So if a wisteria has a whole tree to explore it will keep growing until is has poked its way out of the tree by the requisite yard, while if it only has a pergola, or a pole, it will reach the point of no support rather sooner.  Once it has discovered it has nowhere else to go it will start putting more of its energies into flowering.

Chris Lane sells strictly by wholesale, except on his nursery open days.  The dates of those tend to be advertised on his website only a few weeks in advance, because the timing of flowering is so dependent on the weather.  The sight of his stock beds of witch hazels must be a sight to behold.  I need to convince the SA of this, since I don't think I should have the energy to drive all the way to Faversham in my Skoda in February.  I was thinking how good a garden club coach trip would be, until the winner of the potato competition who was sitting next to me pointed out that you couldn't book a coach when you didn't know in advance when the witch hazels were going to be out.