Saturday, 30 September 2017

thoughts of warmer climes

The Suffolk Plant Heritage monthly lectures have started up again now that summer is over. Today's talk was not as well attended as usual, which was a pity as it was about the wild flora of parts of Greece and really quite interesting.  Perhaps people wanted to make the most of the last of the warm weather to get on with jobs in their own gardens, or maybe they had forgotten that the lectures recommenced in September.

I was greatly taken with the sea daffodil.  A bulb producing white, vaguely daffodil shaped flowers in autumn, it grows in the wild on the beaches of Crete, where it is being driven to extinction by the tourist trade.  Typing sea daffodil into Google when I got home I discovered that its botanical name is Pancratium maritinum, and that I can buy seeds from Plant World Seeds.  I am very tempted but must do more research before committing my £3.35.  Conditions in our front garden are a bit like a beach in Crete, but I would be deluding myself if I did not admit that in winters Crete must be appreciably warmer and summers much hotter.  Some other Mediterranean climate bulbs have done OK, though, so it is definitely worth investigating.

I liked the sound of Centaura pumilio as well, a low growing, sprawling, sand dwelling little knapweed that would look delightful growing in the gravel, but my quick internet search didn't throw up any seed suppliers in the UK.  That is the trouble with trying to glean garden ideas from talks on the wild flora of overseas places: so many are not commercially available.  I didn't even bother writing down the names of the strange spiny Euphorbia and Verbascum species he showed us.

I canvassed the opinions of two people on whether I should separate my rooted cuttings of Plectranthus argenteus now or leave them in their current groups until spring.  They seem to be growing at a rate of knots, and by spring their roots might be so dense and entangled that I'll do real damage separating them, on the other hand they must slow down soon as the days get shorter and cooler, and if I move them now into individual pots they might simply rot.  One person said to leave them, while the person she referred me to for a second opinion said to pot them on now. Since I have three pots of cuttings in all I could take the experimental scientific approach and pot some on while leaving at least one pot undivided.  Some were rooted with bottom heat and some without, and the strike rate by both methods looks like a hundred per cent.  If they all make it through to next season I shall have many more Plectranthus argenteus than I want, on the other hand they are tricky to keep alive in a damp and chilly greenhouse, so I might not end up with any.

Friday, 29 September 2017

we value your opinion

The woodland charity I support sent me a questionnaire to fill in with my last magazine.  As a long term supporter and believer that trees are generally a Good Thing I sat down with the form and a cup of tea, and began to work my way through the tick boxes.  As usual, I soon began to get that feeling that sometimes none of the options available really applied.  They so often don't.

Would you recommend this newspaper to a friend?  Online reader surveys love that question.  If I truthfully answer No they will presumably infer that I have a negative opinion of their paper, when it's simply that I don't recommend newspapers to friends.  At their age they already know what they think of The Times.  I might murmur that the Guardian website is good on film and takes architecture seriously, if we happened to be talking about arts coverage, but that's about it.

Did we exceed your expectations?  That's another standard question, and the answer is almost always No, but as long as they met my expectations I'm perfectly happy.  My expectations were probably quite high to start with or I wouldn't have been using them, unless it was a service where there was no alternative like the trains to London, and they never ask me what I think anyway. And if I'm making repeat purchases the only way for them to continually exceed my expectations would be to keep pushing their performance higher and higher, supposing that were possible, which it often isn't.  Once somebody has sent the thing you asked for as soon as you ordered it, and it has arrived promptly and intact, there isn't a lot else they can do.  I mean, it would be nice to receive free of charge extra goods that I haven't ordered or paid for but which they have correctly guessed from my purchasing history that I do actually want, and to have them serenaded up the lane by a brass band or even a celestial choir, but I don't expect it to happen.

The woodland charity wanted to know how often I visited my local park or green space, which flummoxed me since I wasn't sure where would count.  There is Castle Park in Colchester, but that's five miles away so not very local.  The last time I set foot in Castle Park must have been three years ago, when we walked through it to get back from somebody's house to where we were parked, but does that count as visiting?  And does the farm count as a green space, and if so what do I have to do to visit it?  Is driving down the farm lane or walking to the postbox enough, or do I have to stop and pay specific attention to the surrounding fields?  If I say I haven't visited either in the past year this makes me sound as though I am not interested in parks or green spaces, when in fact I am very partial to both, it's just that living in the countryside there are no designated green spaces, or rather practically all of it is a green space.

I didn't score well on how often I visited woods either, which made me sound not very keen at all. I went on the guided tour of the wood the other side of Colchester only a couple of weeks ago, and met a friend for a walk down at Wrabness back in the summer, and I can't remember when the last time was before that.  Maybe a year ago when we visited Hackfall while we were on holiday in Yorkshire.  Three visits in twelve months is a pretty pathetic total.  But I see two ancient woods every morning when I look across the fields from the bathroom window, and our own very tiny wood every time I step out of the house.  This spring when I wanted to look at bluebells I had only to step through the gate from the back garden, and that's what I did, because I had masses to do in the garden and didn't want to go and visit anywhere else.

Troublesome things, surveys.  I think the most useful ones are the simplest, stars out of five and whatever comment the reviewer wants to make in their own words.  I have just given five stars to Crocus, and ducked an invitation to sign up to the Nextdoor website on the basis of universal one star online reviews.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

my lazarus sedge

Sometimes you think you have lost a plant, and then you find it again.  Five years ago I was smitten by the quiet charm of a sedge, Carex grayi.  There was a plastic tray of half a dozen of them in the van that used to call weekly at the plant centre with racks of the sort of plants garden centres put in the front line of display, intended as impulse purchases.  You have almost certainly seen them if you visit garden centres along the Suffolk and Essex border: I have recognised their little pots of snowdrops and dwarf iris in flower even at the Chatto gardens.

It was the manager's job to choose what to buy out of the van, and I was not always allowed to look, but sometimes I was and it was great fun, a fairy grotto of flowers, and made a welcome change from watering.  I exclaimed so enthusiastically over the sedge that he took a tray.  I promptly bought one, and then felt vaguely guilty as the others lingered for rather a long time in the grasses section.  Evidently my taste for obscure sedges was in advance of that of the general plant buying public.

Carex grayi is a delight, in a very low key way.  The leaves are mid green, rushy and typically sedge like, but the thing you buy it for is the flowers, which form spikey clusters like a little medieval mace.  One of its common names is the mace sedge, though in its native United States where armed medieval warfare was not a thing they call it gray sedge, not because it is grey but because it is named after a great American botanist, Asa Gray.

Sedges tend to like it dampish and I planted my new treasure in the bog bed, which is one of the damper bits of the garden though not actually boggy unless we get a very long wet spell so that the water table rises.  I no longer remember the exact spot, which tends to be the problem with planting treasures in a large and wild garden, and the sedge did not remain to remind me but disappeared, I think fairly rapidly.  Perhaps it was too dry, or even too wet as the water table rose astonishingly for a while around then and turned part of the bed into knee deep mud soup. Perhaps it couldn't compete with the self seeding Thalictrum and ever expanding Persicaria.  At any rate it was lost.

Then this summer a sedge appeared growing in the gap between two of the concrete slabs outside the greenhouse where the original wooden former had rotted away.  I initially assumed it was seedlings of the tedious sedge I used to have growing in the formal pond until I lost patience with its rampancy and lack of charm and pulled it out, since when seedlings have been cropping up all round the paving slabs by the pond and in the pond itself.  Before I could get round to weeding it up or poisoning it, however, it began to flower and I saw it was not the dull, dangly sedge of the pond but Carex grayi.  Reader, I left it to get on with it, and a couple of days ago picked all the ripe seed heads and brought them indoors.  Today I painstakingly pulled every dry brown mace apart and picked out several dozen fat seeds, which are now in an envelope for sowing next year, then if they come up and I get several I can try to find a place more to its liking, and maybe keep one in a pot by the conservatory as a friend for the sedge I bought at the Great Dixter plant fair.

It's true you can buy seed of Carex grayi, so I could have replaced mine before now, but I haven't. There is a limit to how many packets it feels sensible to buy, after all, when you know you have to look after all the seedlings, and Carex grayi never made it to the top of the list.  But home saved seed is another thing entirely.  What amazes me is how something that was planted out at the bottom of the back garden in August of 2012 managed to suddenly reappear five years later outside the greenhouse in the front garden.  It would have stood on the concrete waiting to be planted, so did it seed itself then and the seeds lay dormant in the crack for five years before springing to life?  After an effort like that it deserves another chance in the garden, though actually I still haven't pulled the mystery plants out of the concrete.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

arise, arise

I had to get up early this morning, and set the alarm on my bedside clock-radio, and then because it was important that I didn't oversleep and I don't set the alarm very often, I set the alarm on my phone as a back-up.  It was just as well I'd set something, because I did not wake up at the required time as I'd thought I might, knowing I had to go out.  Instead I was woken at quarter to six by the restrained beeping of the clock-radio plus the phone playing a truly horrible jingle that is Samsung's default alarm setting.  At which point I discovered I did not know how to silence the phone alarm.  After some futile swiping and tapping in my befuddled state I had to flee with it to the bathroom, where I managed to activate the Snooze function, giving me five minutes to cancel the alarm before it played the awful tune again.

Sounds of earlier than usual activity brought Our Ginger upstairs, who yowled hopefully outside the bedroom door.  Apologising to the Systems Administrator for the phone, I asked if I should let the cat in or if the SA might go back to sleep, and the SA said the latter.  I don't know how anybody could sleep again after an awakening like that, but Our Ginger and I went downstairs and left the SA to it.  There were no kitties.  As I suspected, the Artists Formerly Known As Kittens go outside around dawn.

By the time I returned the SA was feeding bits of hedge rather carefully into the shredder.  I volunteered to pull pieces off the tottering pile and sort them between bits small and leafy enough to shred, bits so small and sappy they would jam the shredder, and woody stems to go on the bonfire heap, and by the time the SA's back had had enough for the day we had made a respectable dent in the pile.  It was really quite encouraging, as I had visions of the hedge taking from now to the end of October to finish.  The side facing the drive seemed to take weeks, but of course it is easier working on the back where you don't have to worry about keeping the drive clear of rubbish for access.  I hadn't expected the Systems Administrator to risk any kind of garden work at all today, or even this week, but the SA's view was that it was better to keep moving, albeit in small doses.

By way of an extra reward for the gargantuan labour of reducing the hedge, I rang Peter Nyssen and ordered some more daffodils to be tacked on to my existing order.  It will be nice next spring to look over the daffodil lawn and see daffodils across its full expanse and not just the strip that hadn't been devoured by the hedge.  It turned out they needed to speak to me in any event because the stock of the hyacinth I'd ordered had arrived in such a sad state that they'd sent it back, and I had to choose a substitute.  I went with what they suggested, which I did grow anyway in 2015.  I'd rather have had my original choice but there you go, it wasn't available.

I must remember to work out how to switch off the phone alarm before the next time I need to use it in earnest.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

musings on design

I found it too distracting to listen to the radio while cutting the hedge, a pretty sure indication that it had got beyond needing a simple trim to a case of serious pruning.  In much the same way as I have to flick the car radio off when approaching a complicated junction, some gardening tasks need enough brain power that I can't cope with distractions.  Weeding, even quite elaborate weeding when I want to keep the self sown seedlings of some things, is fine with the radio on. Seed sowing, pricking out, and potting on are all an absolute doddle.  Cutting the edges, no sweat. But setting out a new planting scheme requires concentration, and so does all except simple pruning.

It was a very beautiful morning, with soft, slightly hazy sunshine and little wind, ideal for working with a pruning saw from the top of a ladder.  The view from the top of the Henchmean platform across the fields at the back of the house was wonderful, our trees and hedge and the neighbour's developing copse somehow managing to hide the wind turbine, solar farm, and other signs of modern countryside living that I can see out of the bathroom window.  Only if I looked closely at one birch tree could I just make out the blade of the wind turbine at the top of its sweep.

As I chopped out great sections from the side of the hedge, and the space that used to be part of the lawn until it was engulfed by the hedge opened up, the proportions began to look much better, even though the ragged side of the hedge looked a complete mess, and I began to muse about masses and voids in the garden.  Masses and voids, as I explained a couple of times to our friend who is just starting off with her blank square of grass after moving house, are the key to garden design.  The masses are all those things that you cannot see through, hedges, trees, flower beds, sheds, sculptures.  Big stuff.  The voids are the things you can see over, lawns, paving, gravel, ponds, low planting.  The main circulation of people around the garden occurs through the voids, though not all voids are designed to be walked on.  Ponds, for example, or the grass of some Oxford colleges.

A garden needs the right balance of masses and voids to feel comfortable.  Ah, but what is comfortable?  Well, that depends partly on where the garden is and what you want to use it for, but a very open garden may not feel like a place you want to linger, while a garden stuffed mainly with mass can feel claustrophobic.  I think that probably lies at the heart of why the Systems Administrator didn't like Hidcote on either of our visits.  It is a garden of rooms, the rooms filled with planting, quite overpowering.  Part of the power of Great Dixter lies in the contrast between the dense planting close to the house, and the open expanse of meadow running right up to the main border.

Our hedge had got too massive, making the void of the daffodil lawn too pinched and the patio feel hemmed in.  Less hedge and more daffodil lawn should restore the balance.  There is some new growth coming from the heart of the hedge, so I am reasonably optimistic it will recover from its severe hack.  The cats, on the other hand, are aghast that I am opening up and destroying their climbing frame, and I'm afraid that come next spring the blackbirds won't be too impressed either.

Monday, 25 September 2017

hedge cutting (for the forseeable future)

The Systems Administrator got up unusually early, not out of boundless desire to rise to meet the challenges of the day ahead, but because of the sudden onset of backache after turning over in the night.  Three Nurofen and a hot shower later and barely able to get his socks on unaided, the SA slowly and stiffly made his way downstairs for a day of alternating between sitting very carefully on the sofa, walking very carefully round the room, and doing very gentle exercises to try and coax his back out of spasm.

It was a blow on two fronts, firstly because it was extremely painful for the Systems Administrator, and secondly because the Systems Administrator had been going to help with the hedge. Yesterday the SA hauled away trailer loads of woody prunings to the bonfire heap and fed the leafier ones through the shredder, and that helped a lot.  Left to tackle my own mountain of debris as I went along, my progress today along the back of the hedge was even more painfully slow than it would have been anyway.

By lunchtime I had nibbled out one little section of hedge beside the patio.  It did not reach across the full width of the patio, or the full height of the hedge, and looked even smaller and more inadequate from the dining room window than it had when I stood in front of it.  Part of the problem is that in the past I had tucked long, wavering growths back inside the hedge instead of ruthlessly pruning them off.  They have now thickened, lengthened, and produced side shoots, while sagging down in great loops far beyond the point where I should like the outside of the hedge to be.  Disentangling them from the rest of the hedge and extracting them, sometimes in several sections, is taking ages.

I told myself that at least I didn't have to do this along the full length of the hedge, since it has not grown nearly so much on the further section facing the little oak tree, and that once I got beyond the patio I would find I had not tucked in so many wayward growths, and sawing off the spreading branches would be quicker work.  I did speed up after lunch, but there is still an awful lot of hedge to go.  And it drizzled.  It was not supposed to drizzle and I had to cover up the electric shredder just to be on the safe side.

By way of light relief I potted up my remaining seed raised wallflowers into terracotta pots.  The young plants I potted on last week had already begun to overtake the last tray of seedlings that I didn't get round to doing last time.  They were not too pot bound when I tipped them out of their black plastic pots, but definitely not doing as well as the plants with a bigger root run.

There is still some young growth on the basil plants in the greenhouse, so I used some of it to make a herb topping for some baked tomatoes.  You whizz the basil and some breadcrumbs up together and add a little dribble of olive oil.  It was rather nice.  All sorts of things might be improved by the addition of a herb crust.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

the hardest chop

As it was Sunday and there would be no postman, I took the opportunity to set up the Henchman platform in the drive and cut as much as I could reach of the top of the Eleagnus hedge.  I have a nasty feeling that when I have repeated the exercise from the other side there will still some tall growth along the middle that I can't reach from either side.  My plan is to try and get at that using the pole loppers from the Henchman, and if any of it is too thick for the loppers to summon the Systems Administrator to tackle it with the electric pole chainsaw.  Actually, I am starting to ache just thinking about it.

Tomorrow the big reduction begins on the side facing the patio and the daffodil lawn, unless I seize up in the night after today's efforts.  The SA and I looked at the hedge together and agreed that it needed to come back to the line of the edge of the patio.  At the moment it is taking up easily two feet of paving, and twice that much of the daffodil lawn, if not more.  There is no way of reclaiming the lost space except by giving the hedge a really hard chop, following which that side of it will be completely bald and will look terrible.  Unfortunately this is where you end up after years of trimming Eleagnus so as to keep a reasonably leafy surface: year by year it has expanded.

We discussed the possibility that I might kill it.  Part of me shrinks from the idea, because it would be such a lot of work replacing it.  I can't begin to think how many gazillion trailer loads of stuff for the bonfire it would generate, and I would have to dig out the roots.  In fact I think I might lobby for us to hire a small digger so that the SA could dig out the stumps mechanically.  Then I would have to refresh the soil and replant with something else, probably hornbeam, and then there would be a tedious wait of several years for the replacement to grow into a respectable hedge.  The other part of me thinks that the garden is more sheltered than it was twenty years ago, as other planting and the neighbours' trees have grown up, so we could live with a small hedge for a few years, and that the Eleagnus is a monster so that while I would not set out to remove it on purpose, I wouldn't be heartbroken if I ended up having to take it out.

The birds would miss it.  There are always blackbirds nesting in it every year, and today I found a small, tightly built nest high up and quite close to the outside.  This is why any major operations have to happen outside the nesting season.  Mr Fluffy likes climbing it, which is a good reason for the birds to nest as high and as far out as possible.  Mr Fluffy may also have been falling out of it, as he has picked up three different scratches on his nose in the past few days.

And if it dies I won't have to keep picking its leathery, brown fallen leaves out of the gravel.  I must remember that as I set to with my pruning saw tomorrow.  The worst case would be if just a couple of plants died, leaving me with the decision of what to do next.  Still, the front face reclothed itself very well, though it took a couple of years.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

garden design on the fly

At the second attempt we made it over to my friend's new garden, and spent a couple of hours arranging lengths of rope and bamboo canes until we had a layout to her liking.  We left her with the ropes, assuring her that there was no rush to give them back, and a can of white tennis court marking paint so that once she was quite sure she had a design she liked she could mark it out more permanently.  It is impossible to cut beds out of a lawn guided only by the pieces of rope or hosepipe you used to mark them out.  I know this having tried to do it.  Five minutes after you have started digging, the markers will have got pushed out of position.

The new garden was roughly square, larger than the gardens on many new housing developments but still not very big, and the design needed to incorporate a fairly large wrought iron gazebo which my friend was slightly worried about, but could not leave behind for sentimental reasons. Slotted in behind the garage was another much smaller square, which was rather handy in terms of giving somewhere to put a shed and a compost bin where they would be out of sight from the house.  There was one immovable object, a rotary clothes drier which had already been concreted into the ground.  The soil from digging the hole was in a plastic flower pot and was sandy, as I thought it would be.  Our previous house was only half a mile away along the same hillside, and although soil can vary a great deal in half a mile I had a hunch that in this case it didn't.

When planting up a new garden on a freshly built estate, and especially when the builders have already turfed the entire space, it is very easy to end up digging a border all around the edges and leave your nice new lawn in the middle.  When designing a garden in a small space, especially when you previously had a large area, it is very tempting to make the borders small.  Resist the obvious.  Narrow borders are harder to plant than more generous ones, and putting them around the edges allows you to see the whole garden at once.  On the other hand you don't want to go to the opposite extreme of trying to divide your little space into rooms until it feels more like a maze for laboratory rats than a garden.  And you should avoid creating zillions of little beds dotted about unless you really enjoy cutting lawn edges.

The gazebo was a challenge.  In the middle of the garden it risked looking like a bandstand, while pushed over to the edge it might seem arbitrarily large and simply there for the sake of it (which in a way it was).  And we couldn't suggest digging up too much of the lawn the builders had left because my friend needed somewhere for visiting grandchildren to play.

The design the Systems Administrator had come up with on paper, based on my rough sketch, approximate dimensions, and description of the site, was based on two interlocking serpentine curves.  A promontory of planting would project from the sunnier side of the garden to the centre, with the gazebo at the end of it, the SA reasoning that this would anchor the gazebo and make it look less as though it had simply been plonked down in the middle.  A concave curve of planting would sweep round from the patio, up the shady side of the garden, and along the back, swelling outwards from the back fence towards its end so that there would be room for a damson tree and an Eleagnus that had to be fitted in somewhere.  Half of the north facing side wall of the neighbour's garage would be left unplanted until the grandchildren were older so that they could kick a football against it, and when the grandchildren were not visiting a bench could stand there giving my friend somewhere to sit out of the sun.

The pond, also non-negotiable since my friend already had the plastic liner and her sister had given her a water feature, could fit into the end of the convex bed by the patio.  The bench could sit on some hard standing within the line of the bed so that the smooth curve of the edge would not be interrupted and she would not have to move the bench when she wanted to mow the lawn. A drain cover that was placed rather obviously in the lawn close to the clothes dryer could be just incorporated into the end of the projecting bed, then it could be hidden by planting.  The Systems Administrator suggested adding an extra square of paving to give more space for bins inside the side gate, and we were very careful to eliminate any stupid little corners or odd triangles of grass that would be a pain to mow.  My friend asked if she should keep the grass inside the gazebo and we said with one voice No.  It would be an utter nightmare to cut, and anyway as the climbers grew up on the gazebo it would be too shaded.

There were an awful lot of existing plants to be accommodated, plants brought from the old, much larger garden which were of sentimental value or which my friend simply liked, and housewarming presents of new plants.  I am sure the latter were kindly meant, but I am not sure a plant in a pot is actually the best present for somebody whose garden currently consists of nothing but turf.  They will have to look after it for weeks, and more realistically months, until their new garden is ready for planting, and then they will have to work out how to incorporate it into their design.  Depending on the plants that could end up too much like a cookery challenge where you have to produce a meal from a collection of random ingredients including a tin of baked beans and a grapefruit.  It was lucky I'd seen the stash of pots a month ago when it was easier to tell what some of them were, and so had a rough idea of how the borders might be themed into pink and purple versus yellow and red areas.  I realized on the way home that there weren't really enough evergreens, though, and emailed her suggesting that if there was any space left over she could do with some more.

We got as far as you could with the ropes and bamboos, and then stopped for tea and cake, leaving her with the advice to check the design from the upstairs windows.  I thought it looked very promising.  She could have had professional designers in and paid a few hundred quid and not come up with anything objectively better, apart from having a nice drawn plan instead of some old ropes and a can of DIY spray paint.  And they would not have been nearly so obliging about trying to find homes for the existing eclectic collection of plants.  But it is up to her.  In due course I'll see if it gets built out roughly as suggested, or ends up as something completely different.

Friday, 22 September 2017

grow your own herbs

I am half way through tidying up the herb bed for the winter.  The herb bed is at times practical, containing mint, parsley, chives, sage, and a small bay tree, all of which I did use in cooking at some point during the summer.  There is also a large amount of lemon verbena, which I have never found any practical use for, and a lot of origanum that I haven't cooked with either, being vague about its provenance or culinary properties.  The answer would be to try a bit, since I don't suppose it would kill me.  As I was tidying up I found a thyme plant that I'd forgotten about, looking amazingly healthy and bushy amidst the undergrowth, so I could start cooking with that. There is some lavender, purely decorative because I dislike the flavour of lavender in food, but no rosemary because that lives somewhere else.  There were originally several flavours of mint, but I have forgotten what they were, and according to Jekka McVicar on the radio if you grow more than one variety together and let their roots touch they will all taste the same anyway.  There is some borage, whose flowers I have still not frozen in ice cubes and used to decorate drinks. Everything runs or seeds itself dementedly, the parsley going to seed very quickly because the soil is really too dry for it, and the borage only a quarter of the size of the borage that sprang up next to the compost heap last year.  Mint is not supposed to like dry soil, but it survives pretty well, being a tough plant.

It is just the sort of herb bed that Christopher Lloyd would have disliked a lot, floppy, structureless, and messy for much of the summer, despite my best efforts with rusted iron tripods of clematis (not entirely successful) and a diagonal path of mixed paving slabs and cobbles. Insects adore it, though and once the origanum and lemon verbena and mint flower it is a mass of wild bees, honey bees, and butterflies.  It looks pretty too, in a floppy, messy way, but by now the parsley stems are yellow, the sage has the jagged spikes of spent flower stems jutting up among the new foliage, the origanum is brown, and the chives are being infiltrated by grass pretending to be chives.  Time for a big tidy, stems with seed heads to the bonfire, stems I can salvage without seed heads to the compost heap, grass seedlings and the latest crop of wild vetch and plantain in the council brown bin.

I planted a horseradish root out of a little nine centimetre pot a few years ago in a fit of enthusiasm after reading some book about eastern European cooking.  It was a stupid place to put horseradish, since the bed is mulched with gravel and not intended to be dug up, and how else do you harvest horseradish root?  The horseradish has shown what it thinks of the sand by staying sedately where it was planted and only slowly growing larger, when if it was happy it would be running yards in all directions.  If I were ever to manage to get the vegetable plot back into production I would move the horseradish there, planting it in a bottomless pot if I were feeling especially bullish about its prospects.  In the meantime we have not had horseradish and beetroot or any of the other things I was probably imagining when I bought it.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

autumn flowers

After a shaky start, September is settling into a gorgeous run of autumn days.  In the entrance garden the autumn flowering crocus are getting into their stride, yesterday some clumps of violet blue flowers opening wide in the sun, today more purplish spikes showing through the gravel. They are Crocus speciosus, initially raised in small pots and planted out in the ground in March 2015 when I could see what else was coming up.  I've heard grumbles from other gardeners in the past who tried autumn flowering crocus that didn't come to anything, but there are a great many species and varieties, as I only began to fully appreciate when I looked at some specialist bulb catalogues.  Some are rare and expensive.  I went for one that was relatively cheap, partly because I wanted a lot.  A group of three bulbs of something the size of a crocus doesn't honestly make much of an impact in an acre of wild and woolly garden.  But also varieties that survive and bulk up well tend to be cheaper, so price is often a good indication of reliability and longevity.  On my experience so far I would heartily recommend Crocus speciosus for light soil.  The small bulb expert whose garden I visited last autumn with the garden club had warm words for 'Zephyr', but the balance of advice I found online said that it would like a moister soil than I was planning to offer it.  Now the C. speciosus are out I am wishing I had bought some more.  I still could from Pottertons, but I was trying to be sensible about how many bulbs I could afford or would have time to plant.

In the back garden the marginally tender Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii' is putting on a great show.  It is a big plant, taller than I am, and from tentative looking patches of leaves in spring it spends the summer sending up long flowering stems, which by now are tipped with vivid pink heads of typically sage shaped flowers, fairly large.  Knowing that it was slightly tender I tried growing my first plant in a pot in the shelter of the conservatory, which it detested.  Let loose in a border it lets rip.  This plant has been in situ since March 2014, so has made it through three normal coastal Essex winters but not yet been exposed to a really cold one.  It is on fairly free draining soil on a slope, which probably helps.  I ought to have taken cuttings as an insurance policy, but so far I haven't, and the heated propagator is now full.

In the same bed is Kniphofia caulescens, which is still only thinking about flowering, its spikes of buds not yet showing any hint of colour.  When the flowers do open they will be red and yellow, which doesn't go particularly well with the last of the asters and the pink chrysanthemums, but by that stage of the autumn who is grumbling?  It is just nice still to have flowers coming out at all. The leaves look superficially more like a yucca, glaucous and held in clumps on short trunks.  The plant can become a bit tattered by the end of winter, but all it needs is for the dead brown outer leaves to be cleared away.  Mine was planted fifteen years ago since when it has survived two very cold winters and the long wet winter that followed, so despite looking distinctly exotic I think you can safely regard it as hardy, at least in the south of England.

There are more autumn flowers to talk about, but now it is gone half past eight and I should like my dinner.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

clearing the decks

I have started clearing away the pots of summer bedding.  Some still have a scattering of flowers, but many have finished so that the overall effect is slightly dismal.  I thought at first that if I removed the worst of them, like the Tithonia which have well and truly given up the ghost, then maybe I could group the others together and salvage something from the display for another couple of weeks, but extracting the shabbiest ones has simply exposed the failings of the others. The wet, dull August can't have helped, the fuschia gall mite certainly didn't, and I don't think Tithonia can be suited to pot culture.  I did fall for them after seeing them in Monty Don's garden on Gardeners' World, which is in Herefordshire with clay soil, a high water table, and moister air than coastal Essex.  Still, I tried, and have now got Tithonia envy out of my system.

The Nicotiana mutabilis are still going strong by the front door, or at least their lower leaves are rather puckered as if some sap sucking insect had attacked them, but there are great sprays of pink and white flowers up top.  They have spent all summer with an east facing aspect, so clearly thrive in less than full sun, which could be useful to know.  The Arctotis and Gazania have had full sun, and are still flowering.  They ought to in mid September, since that was when I was first smitten by Arctotis 'Flame' at the Hillier gardens.  But the dahlias are running out of oomph.  I should probably have fed them more, and next spring I shall repot them all and move this year's new plants into bigger pots.  They did jolly well, though, when you think that they arrived as rooted cuttings in April.  When I went to the garden club lecture on dahlia growing in February of last year I could not entirely believe the photograph of a flowering plant a couple of feet high that had come from a cutting taken that season, but they are incredibly vigorous when young.

I've also started to clear the tomato plants out of the greenhouse, picking the last of the ripe tomatoes plus those green fruit I think might ripen given a bit of luck and a whiff of ethylene, and consigning the vines to the compost heap.  As long as it remains dry I will delay starting to pack the pots of tender plants inside, as damp and fungal infections are a bigger risk than frost at this stage, but I should like to have the space freed up so that I can get them under cover fairly quickly when the weather turns.  The dahlias ought to wait outside until they've been touched by frost, which since the garden club talk I know is to stimulate the tubers to seal themselves off from the stems before cutting them down, since the hollow stems of dahlias can act as a route for infection.  It's a bit of a nuisance, as I should like to put the dahlia pots around the edge of the greenhouse, and the things with tender stems further away from the glass, in case the thermometer drops precipitously one winter's night.  And the salivas are tender, but need to go near the door to get as much air as possible on days when I open the greenhouse, because they are the most susceptible to botrytis, except that they mustn't go right by the little path I leave myself because their stems are brittle and break easily if knocked into.

Really I need a larger greenhouse.  Or perhaps fewer plants.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

hedge cutting and compost heaps

I have been trimming the side of the Eleagnus hedge facing the drive.  I had to reduce it severely a couple of years ago, otherwise we would never have had another oil delivery, and by the time I'd finished it was almost bald.  I was nervous about its prospects of recovery, but implacable in my desire for a continued supply of hot water, so the oil delivery won.  The hedge grew back lustily, and after being tipped back several times is getting quite dense on that side, so today's trim was a case of shortening the long new growths to keep it bushy and off the drive.  I will need to get the Henchman platform out to reach the top, and thought I'd leave that until after Saturday's post, so in the meantime it is ridiculously top heavy where recent gales have blown the new, high  whippy growth out sideways.

Then I shall have to steel my nerves to give the back a hard chop.  The hedge has got inexorably fatter and saggier over time, and is now taking up a good yard of the patio and daffodil lawn.  It is too tall as well, and shades the summer pots on the patio for too much of the day.  It is good practice if you have to take a hedge back hard to do one side at a time, and let the first recover before tackling the second.  Let us hope the Eleagnus can repeat its Lazarus trick for a second time.  If I had known twenty years ago what I know now I'd have planted hornbeam or yew.  Alas, I did not.

The compost heaps are already rather full, which is not ideal when there is so much to come off the garden in the next few months.  Hedge trimmings, the tomato plants, the dahlia tops, and then all the herbaceous material in the borders, plus the spent compost from the summer pots.  I eyed up the bins hopefully to see if there was any compost ready use on the borders.  If it is only going on as a mulch rather than being dug in then I reckon that it doesn't need to be one hundred per cent fine and crumbly, and some remaining stems and twiggy bits will be fine and give the worms something to do.  I decided the contents of the two oldest bins were worth bagging up to put on the long bed, if I picked the largest uncomposted pieces of stem and Santolina branches out.  The middle bin was not quite ready, but getting there, so it could have the contents of the tomato grow bags when I get round to emptying them, and the potting compost from the Tithonia and Cosmos pots.

That left three bays of garden waste mixed with litter from the hen house and kitchen vegetable waste that were nowhere near composted, so for now all fresh clippings and prunings can go on them.  I put the bits of Eleagnus on, except for the thickest stems.  Evergreen leaves are slow to rot, but they get there eventually.  The Eleagnus stems were individually too small and fiddly to fork on to the bonfire anyway, and I have quite enough bags of non-compostable waste waiting to go to the dump already.  There was another bag of long grass once the Systems Administrator had cut the sloping edge of the daffodil lawn, using an electric hedge trimmer, as it happens.  (I bought the electric trimmer for just that purpose, because it took such a dispiritingly long time to do it with shears, not to mention the time I strained my wrist cutting it in the second week of December and it wasn't right again until well into the New Year.  The electric hedge trimmer is not allowed anywhere near a hedge.  I do the Eleagnus with secateurs, to make sure each cut is made just above a leaf).

Raking out dead leaves and pulling up weeds from under the hedge filled another bag, and I'm not even half way along yet.  I began to feel rather dismayed about the bags.  Today's tally brings me back up to thirteen.  How many car loads to the dump can I manage before Love and Dear give way to questions about whether I am sure that I don't have a gardening round?

Monday, 18 September 2017

to the dump

I went to the dump this morning to get rid of some of the long grass we cut down in the back garden.  There were seventeen bags of it, which at the current rate of progress will need at least three trips.  I could only get five bags in the car today, but maybe as it wilts and packs down a bit I'll be able to squeeze an extra one in the boot.  They could go in the council brown bin, but at one collection per fortnight that would take three or four months, at the end of which I'd have a fresh collection of bags of other weedy waste I don't want to put on the compost heap.

The compaction machine for green waste at the dump must have broken.  You used to be able to empty your bags into a metal bin at ground level with a ram moving too and fro which pushed the contents away into the dark recesses of the skip.  That disappeared, and we are back to the old fashioned method of having to lug the bags up a flight of steps and empty them in at the top. Except that today I didn't have to climb the steps at all, because three different members of staff rushed to take my bags and empty them for me.

I was happy to have my bags emptied, even though I am perfectly capable of carrying five large bags stuffed with cut grass up a flight of steps and emptying them over the side of a skip.  If I had been a perpetually militant feminist I might have been offended by the implication that I was not able to carry them, or enraged at being cheerfully addressed by all three as Love and Dear.  As it happens I was not at all offended.  They were trying to be nice, and it's always good to appreciate attempts at niceness in others.  And although my back is fine at the moment and perfectly up to carrying bags, lots of people do have back and shoulder problems.  And I don't think that calling me Love or Dear was intended to imply that they considered me a lesser human being.  While lots of things do bring out the militant feminist in me, the cheerful staff at the Clacton dump are not one of them.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

rarer than pandas

Today we saw some of the rarest animals in the world, without travelling anywhere more exotic than the other side of Colchester.  The Suffolk Horse Society were holding their annual horse spectacular at the Marks Hall Estate.  There are fewer than five hundred Suffolk horses in existence, making them England's rarest horse and meaning they are rarer than giant pandas.  By lunchtime we must have seen close on five per cent of the global population.

You would recognise a Suffolk horse if you saw one.  They are barrel bodied, immensely strong beasts, always some shade of chestnut and with clean legs instead of the hairy, feathered legs of shire horses.  Their powerful build makes them look stocky, but this is an illusion.  The breed standard says they should be sixteen to seventeen hands high, and seen close up you realize they are truly massive.  And they are truly rare because, well, how many people nowadays are able to keep a seventeen hand horse bred for field work as a pet?

I only discovered about the event at Marks Hall because I happened to pick up a leaflet in the museum at Stowmarket.  It turns out to be an annual get together, though this was the first time it had been held in Essex instead of Suffolk.  The leaflet said Gates open at ten, and the Systems Administrator was reluctant to believe there would be any point in arriving on the dot, so we ambled up at a quarter past, and it was just as well we did, because judging for the supreme champion was already well underway.  They were all very patient about being alternately paraded up and down and made to stand about, including a mare with a foal at foot (sixteen weeks and already massive).  Then there was a class for ridden Suffolks, part of the strategy to save the breed from extinction since more people might be willing to keep a Suffolk if they thought they could ride it.  The thunder of hooves as a Suffolk passes at even a slow canter is quite something. We saw Suffolks pulling vintage outfits and agricultural machinery and helping load logs on to a cart, and standing politely while complete strangers stroked their noses, and finally the young handlers' class in which they were led around the ring by children the oldest of whom was fourteen and the youngest of whom looked about ten.

The Suffolk Horse Society and all the owners taking part must have massive trust in their horses, to have them cantering in a tight circle no more than twenty feet from spectators separated from them only by a row of angle irons and some green plastic, hauling a traditional hay wagon downhill without brakes, being led about by small children, and petted by complete strangers.  If one had careered out of the ring it could have done severe damage, and a single kick could kill you, but they all behaved impeccably.  It was the first show for one of the horses in the ridden class, who ended up standing in the middle of the ring to get used to the whole thing while the others trotted around him, but overall they behaved impeccably.  I stroked the muzzle of the logging horse, and it was like velvet.  He was a very laid back creature, lending his huge weight to haul each log up the skids on to the cart at a word from his handler, and relaxed as anything as soon as he'd finished.

There were lots of happy, well behaved dogs as well, and while we were there we took a turn around the walled garden, which is maturing beautifully since being laid out in a cutting edge design within the old walls at the turn of the millennium, while having managed to become very much of its era and distinctly vintage in less than twenty years.  It was a very nice day out.  I worry about the long term future of the horses, though.  They don't truly look very comfortable to ride, being so broad, and will there be enough horse logging, funeral corteges and heritage museum gigs to go round?  Five hundred is really not very many

Saturday, 16 September 2017

a mystery solved

The mystery of the Marie Celeste pottery was solved when I got a rather apologetic email from them saying that they had just discovered their reply to my email about post and packing costs was still in their Draft folder, and did I still want the pots?  After a little flurry of email courtesies confirming that yes, I did still want them, although none are ready to send out at the moment, I learnt that moreover if you ring while they are on the phone and leave a message it gets put on a Sky answering machine where they can't retrieve it.  Despite all this they are ridiculously busy. Unfortunately the new batch of pots won't be dry enough to fire for another three or four weeks by which time it will be too late to repot the auriculas this year.

My own email has a habit of saying there is still a message in the Draft folder even after I've pressed Send, and I am quite neurotic about checking whether there is really a Draft message there, or whether the message I thought I'd sent is in the Sent folder and the so-called Draft will vanish when I refresh the page.  In the light of the auricula pots experience this now seems not so much neurotic as sensible.

The pottery liked my idea of asking the specialist auricula nurseries if they would put links on their websites to the pottery, since new handmade auricula pots are so hard to find.  I'd have thought it was a blindingly obvious suggestion.  I eventually stumbled across them after a long internet search, but they weren't easy to find.  Now I know their name I have noticed one reference to them in a magazine article about an Arne Maynard garden mentioning that the pots were from Littlethorpe, but they don't advertise in any of the national magazines.  There again, if they are already ridiculously busy why should they?

I spent most of the day weeding up by the wildlife pond, and was rather worried to see that that the water level had dropped right down.  The pond has the shallow sloping beach on one side that you are supposed to create for wildlife ponds, so that things can creep and hop in and out, so it always tends to dry out in summer because the surface area is large relative to the volume, but after the wet summer we've had I wouldn't expect it to be that low.  I am horribly afraid it must have a leak.

I put syrup on the bees as well.  The book says to do it in the first week of September, so I am only a week late.  I have been meaning to do it since last Monday.

Friday, 15 September 2017


The plan today was to cut down the long grass in the back garden.  I am a big fan of letting some of the lawn grow long in all except the titchiest garden.  It provides a good wildlife habitat, it saves you the time and effort of cutting it for several months, and the contrast in height and texture with the short grass gives you a whole new flexible and low cost design element to play with.  If you are going for spring flowers you can keep the area short from midsummer onwards, or you can leave it long all summer and give it an autumn cut.  It must be cut at least once a year, or after a few seasons it will have turned into scrub, so you don't want to leave it much later than now because at some point during the winter it will collapse and then it really will be difficult to cut.

Ours gets an autumn cut, because we like the late summer bleached, waving seed heads effect, and because it represents that much less lawn mowing over the summer.  We used to struggle to cut it with the lawn tractor, but the screams from the engine and cutting gear warned that any moment of this mechanical abuse could be their last, and then we resorted to spending long, back-wrenching hours walking up and down swinging a petrol driven strimmer, before the Systems Administrator invested in a power scythe at the Chelsea Flower Show about fifteen years ago.  The scythe spends fifty-one weeks of the year sitting in the garage, and for the other week it is invaluable.

For the past couple of weeks we have been watching the weather forecasts in between other commitments, and today turned out to be the day.  As the Systems Administrator said, the grass was not going to get any drier from this point.  The SA got the scythe out of the garage, and I was on standby with the rake to haul the cut grass out of the way.  Then there was an anxious half hour in which the SA peered into the scythe's innards and fiddled with it while the scythe refused to run.  I had got as far as finding the advert for the local garden machinery services firm in the parish magazine before the scythe finally consented to go and keep going, fuelled by an excessively rich mixture which the SA thought gave us limited running time before the whole machine would need stripping down to do something to the carburettor.

The SA drove the scythe, which is no fun and is the SA's least favourite gardening job of the whole year.  The machine is self-propelled, indeed, you need to keep it under firm control to make sure it doesn't leap into a flower bed and mangle the inhabitants, but it vibrates fiercely and is very hard on the arms.  I raked like crazy, which is also hard on the arms in a different way, and stuffed the cut grass into old Strulch bags to take to the dump.  It can't go on the compost heap because it is full of weed seeds.  Two years ago it ended up by the bonfire, in the vain hope we might be able to burn it on the tail end of bonfires, and most of it was not burnt but had to go to the dump eventually, and by then half of it had got mixed up with rose prunings and made the most almighty muddle that it took me ages to clear up.  Last year it went straight into bags, which required two trips to the dump to get rid of, but was still quicker than messing around trying to burn it.

Sometimes I have fantasies of getting a proper manual scythe and learning to use it.  You can go on courses.  I don't think it would work, though.  I think the grass has to be dry to cut properly, and by autumn it never is.  Hay is made in mid summer and after that I think the ground was traditionally grazed for the rest of the year.  Still, at least we only have to do the long grass once a year.  I am just so relieved that in the end the machine worked when needed.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

plywood at the V&A

My aunt was giving a recital today, her only London concert this autumn, so I thought I'd better go as I missed the last one.  I suggested the Systems Administrator might come with me since the programme was not too scary, and then we could go to the V&A's plywood exhibition afterwards. Mendelssohn, JS Bach, and Ethel Smyth.  Who is Ethel Smyth? asked the SA.  I explained that she had written the Suffragette's anthem, and hummed a bit, but it didn't help.  She is an interesting pairing with Felix Mendelssohn, given that he was so snotty about Fanny continuing to compose once she got married, even though her husband was absolutely fine with it.  I slightly wish I didn't know that, when Felix wrote such attractive music and is a delight otherwise.  And now you know it too, if you didn't before.

The plywood exhibition is only small, a temporary display in one room with no admission charge. The big thing at the moment is Pink Floyd, which is ticketed and you would definitely need to book.  The queue of people waiting to go in stretched through the Portraits and Memorial Sculptures and half way to the shop.  I was taken aback that almost everybody wanting to see Pink Floyd looked so old, and then realised that that was the age that the original Pink Floyd fans were nowadays.  We are on the young side for Pink Floyd, and my hair is like a cross between Margaret Attwood and Sir Simon Rattle.

It was only recently I discovered that the thin layers of wood to make plywood are formed by turning logs on a giant spindle and peeling them on a lathe into a single, immensely long piece of veneer, which is then cut down into sheets.  I don't know how else I thought they did it, when a piece of ply is wider and longer than the diameter of a tree.  Even when I found out how the sheets were cut up I hadn't realised how long ago the rotary lathe technique was developed.  It turns out the first versions were in use in the mid nineteenth century, and I always think of ply as a twentieth century phenomenon.

I tried to imagine sitting in the birch ply body of the 1967 racing car as it whizzed around the track at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, and could only think that it was no wonder that so many racing drivers had died.  We were on safer ground with the chairs, some of which were very beautiful, especially the 1930s Scandinavian armchair formed out of a single piece of ply, although none of the imitators managed to be as graceful and enticingly buttock shaped as the original 1947 Eames DCM.

The pictures of the Mirror dinghy brought back memories, since my family used to have one, and I remembered too that in our early sailing days on the East Coast there used to be a small, possibly kit built cabin cruiser called Maid of Ply.

Up to now moulded plywood has had to be glued, laminated and pressed in one operation.  It lends itself to small scale production, but the Finns have come up with a technical improvement, a ply that can be heated and then shaped under pressure in a cold mould as a single sheet.  If anybody was going to improve on plywood it would probably be the Finns, seeing that Finland has so many conifers waiting to be turned into plywood.  If only conifers were the main source.  At the end of the exhibition we learned that the plywood industry is a major driver of illegal logging and deforestation, trees being turned into veneer in one small factory and pressed into ply in another, by which time the source of the wood is pretty much untraceable.  The UK is one of the worst culprits for buying the finished product.  I left feeling rather chastened.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

a woodland tour

I went on a guided walk around part of the woodland site at Fordham today, west of Colchester.  A swathe of arable land was donated early in the millennium to be used for woodland creation. Since then I've followed tales of its development, some early conflict between dog walkers wanting access to the whole area and the woodland manager trying to protect the new plantings from rabbits and hares, barn owl breeding success, the return of otters to the Colne, but not actually been for a walk around.  The Stour woods at Wrabness, ancient and beautiful, are easier to get to starting from here, and visually more appealing than a new wood still at the muddy field of twigs stage.  Twelve or fifteen years on, however, many of the young trees at Fordham are two or three times my height.

Quite a lot of the five hundred acres are taken up with grassland for various reasons.  Electricity lines run over the site and gas and water mains under it, and there is enough evidence of Roman activity at one end of the estate to discourage digging and tree planting, while the inhabitants of the village of Fordham which was set to be surrounded by the new wood were understandably anxious about having full sized forest trees pressed right up against their garden fences.  It's not really a problem, since grassland is good wildlife habitat in its own right, as is woodland edge.  In conservation terms you don't necessarily want five hundred unbroken acres of solid tree cover.

The area of planting we looked at first was doing pretty well, apart from the large number of dead or dying ash trees.  So far no ash on the site have recovered once they showed the first signs of ash dieback, which does not bode well for hopes that a reasonable proportion of the UK population might turn out to be resistant.  Behind the scenes in the UK, rows of thousands of ash seedlings are being grown at research stations in the hope of finding some that are proof against ash dieback, so that we can start to develop resistant strains.  Let us hope.

Over the brow of the hill was a different scene, compartments of trees planted a year later but only a quarter of the size, and full of gaps.  We were invited to hazard a guess at what might have caused the difference, but none of us came close.  According to the present operations manager, who had previously notched up thirty years of experience in commercial forestry, the secret lay in the soil.  The more successful trees were planted on what had been the less productive fields, which had frequently been left fallow when it was a farm.  The fields where the trees were struggling had been ploughed to within an inch of their lives, and had developed a plough pan, a hard layer of compacted clay that tree roots couldn't penetrate, and that on the sloping part of the field sent rainfall rushing downhill.  The trees had then been mechanically planted using a type of plough that smeared the sides of the planting rows, the resulting lines in the clay acting as mole drains so rain rushed away even faster, and cracks opened up along the rows in summer. What with the effort of trying to penetrate the solid lines created in the clay, the pressure of water running past them when it rained and the drought when it didn't, many of the trees had barely managed to grow any roots a decade after planting.  The best solution was going to be to clear the worst performing areas of the new wood, till the soil deeply to break up the plough pan, and start again.

The topic of bracken came up, though there isn't much at Fordham, and I payed attention since we have it at home in parts of the wood, from which it is advancing out into the meadow.  The best way to get rid of bracken, it turns out, is to break and bruise the new stems just before they have finished uncurling in spring.  This is what was meant by the term bracken bashing, in the days when physical damage was the way you controlled it.  The crushed bracken was said to poison itself so that after three seasons you are virtually clear of it.  I don't understand exactly how bracken would literally poison itself, and maybe the effect of bashing is simply to weaken the plant by depriving it of viable leaves over several years, but apparently bashing is about equally effective as spraying the bracken with a strong salt based treatment which is what you would use if you had the right licence for that sort of thing.  I am sure it is not available to amateurs, and even professional landscape managers are starting to look for alternatives to chemical weed controls.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

a modest proposal

I got back from a session with the bees to find that the Systems Administrator had disappeared, not to be seen or heard in the house, and I knew the SA wasn't up in the meadow because I'd just come from there.  Then I heard muffled thumping noises coming from outside, and saw a piece of vegetation waving wildly outside the dining room window.  Excellent, the SA had started cutting back the climbers that had overrun the veranda, a job that was on my things to do list but hadn't made it to the top.  The SA was being far more ruthless about it than I ever manage to be, and indeed the climbers, shorn of their hold on the guard rails of the veranda, had begun to sag outwards and were going to need tying in.

I was due to meet a friend for lunch and left the SA to it.  When she opened her front door to me she also picked up the post, which included a small hand written envelope.  She opened the envelope, which turned out to contain an invitation - to an internment of ashes at Colchester Crematorium.  That is one of the troubles of aging, when the funerals start to outnumber the weddings.  The deceased died rather suddenly and unexpectedly at a not especially old age, of oesophageal cancer, and she had already been to his wake, but dutifully looked in her diary and wrote in the crematorium ceremony as well.  I didn't know the internment of ashes was a thing.

By the time I got back the Systems Administrator had finished gardening for the day, and as we unpacked the groceries I'd bought on the way home the SA announced that he had had an Idea about the back garden which he would share with me once I'd had a cup of tea.  I felt a pang of nerves in case I should hate the Idea, mixed with pleasure that the SA was taking an interest in the garden, and a sort of scrupulous intellectual awareness that I couldn't expect another person to contribute their mechanical skills and muscle power indefinitely without being given any say in the project.  Mug in hand, I braced myself.

The Idea turned out to be bold, as far as it went, and probably correct.  The Systems Administrator proposed cutting down every climber along the back of the house to ground level, likewise the self seeded elder bushes that I pollarded last winter and which have made a good couple of metres growth over the summer so that they block the view from the hall through the study door.  The honeysuckle and Boston ivy that keep growing up to engulf the handrail and guard wires of the veranda, sweep out to cover the floor, the barbecue and the pair of steamer chairs, and the pink flowered jasmine that has no scent and not very exciting flowers, all should go.  It used to be nice when we could sit on the veranda and see out, said the SA, but it feels claustrophobic now walled in behind the barrier of vegetation even when it hasn't grown all over the chairs.  Having cut all the climbers right down we should dig out the roots, and in their place I could plant climbing roses given that we'd been trying to think of places to put some, not too large or rampant varieties, so that we would be able to sit down and still see out.

I took the Systems Administrator's point about the honeysuckle and the jasmine.  We have masses of honeysuckle in the rose bank, and it does get everywhere and smother everything, while the jasmine is monumentally dull.  Jasminum beesianum is its name, and if you haven't got one I wouldn't bother.  And the Boston ivy is a menace.  There are marks on the bedroom wall where it previously grew in through the window, and it has already half murdered a Pileostegia and sabotaged the dining room window sill so that rain leaked in and did awful things to the wooden floor.  I was rather wistful about the idea of losing the Clematis montana, but the SA softened the Idea a little and said that perhaps we did not have to grub out the roots of the clematis, and it might survive, and would be easier to prune if it were not all mixed up with the honeysuckle, while I admitted that it was pretty rampant and perhaps I could find room for one up a tree along the side of the wood.

So we agreed that this winter when the plants below the veranda are dormant and the things that get cut down have been, the SA would remove the great tangle of vegetation along the back of the house and I would tackle renovating the soil and plant some climbing roses, manageable varieties supposed to reach three metres or so and not rambling monsters like 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'.  In my heart I know the SA is right, and that while we're in there I ought to take out a couple of metres from the top of the willow leafed bay.  Mature gardens do start to get dark and overgrown, and if there's somebody on the case who can be ruthless about what needs to come out or at least be drastically reduced then that's all to the good.  Hats off to Sir Roy Strong who had the guts to do it in his own garden.  Most of us need a nudge from somebody less intimately bound up in the whole enterprise.

Monday, 11 September 2017


I picked more 'Ailsa Craig' and a few 'Roma' today, and finally two giant brown beefsteak 'Black Russian' tomatoes that had not split on the vine.  There were already a couple of bowls of tomatoes hanging around in the fridge, so I thought I'd better do something with them, having bothered to grow them.  Leaving them in the fridge until they went mouldy does not count as doing something.

The consensus of opinion on the internet seemed to be that you could freeze raw tomatoes, and that it was worth skinning and de-pipping them first.  I duly poured boiling water over them, in two batches, slipped the skins off, chopped them into quarters, scraped the pips out into a sieve, stirred the contents of the sieve around vigorously with a wooden spoon to get the juice since reading somewhere that the liquid around the pips is one of the best bits, put them in five separate containers in batches that looked about the right size for cooking one meal for two people, and put them in the freezer, hoping to be able to combine the lumps of frozen tomato into fewer containers later on to save space.

It was not an unpleasant task, and once it began to thunder and pour with rain I couldn't have been doing anything outside anyway.  It did take ages, though.  It's true that I'd have had to do the same thing if I were prepping fresh tomatoes while cooking, the only difference being that I was doing five meals' worth at once and not just one, but it still felt like a lot of effort compared to picking up a four-pack of Waitrose Essential tinned tomatoes.

There was the scrunch of heavy boots on gravel soon after the downpour began, as the Systems Administrator dashed in from the wood (followed five minutes later by a wet and disgruntled Mr Cool).  The SA came into the kitchen and remarked that I was doing something with the tomatoes. I agreed that I was.  The Systems Administrator has been doing the cooking recently, and has been trying to use them up, but the problem is that not everything in the SA's repertoire is based on tomatoes, and there have been evenings when the SA has wanted to put something together quickly after a hard day pulling up brambles, and has not felt like spending an extra twenty minutes skinning and de-seeding tomatoes.

This is one problem with grow-your-own, when the grower and the cook are not one and the same person.  It must have been the same in the old days of grand houses with cook and head gardener, when presumably the cook knew what was in season and what crops were coming along and would ready herself to get creative with a non-stop supply of broad beans, and perhaps the head gardener was amenable to feedback from the kitchen that there was a limit to how many peas or marrows one household could eat.  But now people are used to being able to go to the shops and buy practically any vegetable they fancy at most times of the year, they are used to cooking what they feel like doing and not being dictated to by the supply of ingredients.

We do possess a passata making machine, bought years ago during the Systems Administrator's vegetable growing phase.  I think it came from the Seeds of Italy catalogue.  You tip whole tomatoes into the top, turn a handle, and it mysteriously separates out the skins and pips from the flesh.  I did not use it today because I am not honestly sure how it works, and wasn't sure the faff of disassembling it and washing it at the end would be worth it for the volume of tomatoes that I had.  I shall have to see whether recipes cooked with the frozen home grown tomatoes are noticeably nicer than if I'd just chucked a tin of Waitrose plum tomatoes in juice in.  Otherwise the temptation not to bother is quite strong.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

utility gardening

Nettles are definitely more vitriolic at this time of the year.  I have been weeding around the compost bins, and the Systems Administrator tackling the undergrowth along the side of the wood, and we have both been stung through our clothes.  My hands are now tingling where my plasticised green gardening gloves, normally proof against anything short of thorns, were no match for the nettles, and the SA has caught it on the legs and the stomach.  Old bees have a similar trick, their venom becoming more concentrated as they age.

It would be nice to get to the end of weeding the utility area.  Goodness knows, we have enough bags of shredded twigs from the great hedge reduction project, waiting to be used as mulch.  I tackled a lot over the winter, and mulched the parts I'd weeded, but fresh weeds managed to germinate here and there and then formed spreading mats over the mulch.  It was a relief on pulling them up to see most of the original layer of twigs still intact beneath.  But there are stretches where I didn't weed before, behind the row of bins and towards the hedge, and there the nettles have grown tall and venomous, while over towards the Systems Administrator's old greenhouse there is a great patch of wild mallow, which is all very nice while it's out but seeds itself everywhere and gets mixed up with the piles of stuff waiting to go on the bonfire.  I shouldn't have left the job half done last time, only weeding around the bonfire heap and the compost bins is not nearly half so much fun as working in the borders, or as urgent in spring as pricking out young seedlings, and so what with one thing and another it slipped down the list of things to do.

There is a fine patch of free range raspberry canes in front of one of the compost bins, where roots from the original canes in the fruit cage have run.  They are rather in the way of the bin where they are, and besides the blackbirds would have most of the fruit, but they are so much bigger and better than their parent canes, it tells you what they think about life on the site of a former compost heap compared to life in their allotted quarters next to a hedge.  Mending the fruit cage is another of those jobs that just didn't manage to get done last winter, but maybe this autumn.  In the meantime I am saving the splendid canes until I can move them, and I can see that if and when I do I had better give them a very generous dose of compost and manure.

There are some Jerusalem artichokes as well, originally planted to screen the view of the Systems Administrator's greenhouse when it was new.  That plan didn't turn out well.  Half of the artichokes got buried by piles of bonfire-bound rose prunings, which in turn got covered by long grass raked from the daffodil lawn after mowing, an error which it took me hours to disentangle and which will not be repeated.  The other half turned out to be too close to the site of the bonfire and got scorched.  I planned to dig the tubers up last winter and replant them in the vegetable garden, but only got as far as the first half of the plan before being wiped out by flu over Christmas.  They stayed in a bucket in the garage for some weeks, while I fretted periodically that I needed to clear a bed for them and replant them, but before I managed to do anything about it they had dried up and decayed.  I thought I would just have to buy a fresh packet of tubers as and when I had a bed ready to plant them in, when a fresh crop of stalks next to the bonfire heap announced that I had not dug nearly all the tubers out.  This puts me pretty much where I was this time last year, except that this time I will prepare the planting site for them before digging them up, if I have time.  In the meantime the foliage of several is withered and blackened since the SA had a couple of bonfires recently.

The hornbeam hedge is looking better than it has for years.  I fed it last winter with fish, blood and bone, and it has shown its appreciation by making some bushy growth and not just sending out long, pathetic twigs as it desperately tries to turn into a tree.  The polytunnel, on the other hand, needs reskinning before it would be good for anything except any vermin living in the mass of brambles inside it.  And there are self sown ash trees growing behind the compost bins.  I was thinking I'd have to dig their roots out and quailing at the thought, but I might just cut them down flush with the ground and cover the stumps with Mypex.  One is showing signs of ash dieback anyway.

I like the idea of growing fresh fruit and vegetables, I really do.  It's just the practical reality of the nettles and the brambles and the ash seedlings and the collapsing fruit cage and knackered polytunnel, all requiring more time and effort to sort them out than I ever manage to muster.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

radio silence

I was out this morning, and on the way home just as I turned into the farm lane the car radio stopped working.  I thought for a moment that the signal must have been interrupted, but looking down at the display saw that it had gone blank and dark, not a case of station unavailable, but a case of nothing whatsoever.  I tried hopefully turning the radio off and turning it on again, and flicking the preset button for a different channel, but nothing happened.

It has been iffy for years, occasionally retuning itself to Radio 1 for no reason, but this was the first time it had cut out entirely.  I felt a pang of dismay.  I have only just got the window fixed, and didn't want to have to pay yet another visit to the garage in Clacton, or rather two visits, one to drop the car off and one to get it back, or shell out another dollop of cash to have it repaired.

After lunch I hopefully asked the Systems Administrator to have a look at it at some point.  One of the beauties of the internet is that nowadays instruction manuals for practically everything are available if you hunt around, and the SA had soon found the complete Skoda Fabia wiring manual. The SA looked at the section on radios and said that according to the manual it was possible to get the radio out if necessary.  In the good old days it was easy.  The radio slotted into a hole in the dashboard and if it stopped working you could go and get another one at Halfords.  In any case, the SA added encouragingly, it was probably the fuse.

The Systems Administrator did have a look after tea, and returned to announce that the radio was now working and the problem must be a loose connection.  The SA had discovered this while banging the dashboard trying to get the fuse holder back into its slot, when the radio suddenly started, having retuned itself to Radio 1.  Until it stops working again it is impossible to say which connection is giving problems, though the SA assured me that there were not many of them.  It's a relief that I don't need a new radio.  I only hope the Skoda has not reached that point where bits begin to fail randomly on a regular basis.

Friday, 8 September 2017

a damp day

There has just been a stampede of cats through the cat door, suggesting that it must finally be raining.  It has been threatening to rain all day, when it hasn't been spitting, not the sort of weather to make you want to pile out into the garden with all your tools.  The Systems Administrator tried to sit outside, but got drizzled on.


There has been a hiatus since I wrote the first paragraph, because Mr Fluffy decided to jump on to the arm of the sofa beside me without noticing the open Gardens Illustrated magazine lying there. He slid to a halt and sat in the rumpled pages looking confused.  I lifted him to the other end of the sofa, and tidied the magazine out of the way, whereupon Mr Fluffy headed back across my keyboard to where he had been sitting before, adding a few letters from the top row to the end of paragraph one en route.

Then he lay on his back in my lap for a good quarter of an hour while I tried to get the remains of a burdock seedhead out of the fur on his tummy.  Burdock is a fine and statuesque plant, in its grand, wild and weedy way, but the seeds are a menace when you have a long haired cat.  Mr Fluffy had managed to get about half of this seedhead out by himself since I noticed it stuck there yesterday evening, but the remaining part was well and truly embedded in his coat.  He turns out to be remarkably happy about having the fur on his stomach pulled in the name of grooming, more obliging than any previous cat, and lay there purring loudly although I'd have thought I was pulling the hair a lot.  The tangle was so close to the soft skin of his tummy that there was no way we could risk using scissors, so it was coming out by his teeth or my fingers.  By the time he'd had enough I'd got one lump out, and loosened the second.  I should not allow burdock in the garden.  I wonder which part of the plant you make dandelion and burdock out of?

It was only then that I noticed he had expanded the page I was using to fill the whole screen and I'd lost the tabs and toolbar.  I couldn't work out which function key he had trodden on, and ended up forcing a restart by the brutal expedient of holding the on button down for several seconds until the laptop switched off.  Maybe in the modern world, The cat erased my project can replace The dog ate my homework as an excuse.

Now Mr Fluffy is lying on the arm of the sofa looking languid, while Our Ginger is sleeping on my foot.  Mr Fidget and Mr Cool are curled up on the dining table.  A happy family scene.  It was thundering a minute ago.  I shall have to disturb Our Ginger presently to go and shut the chickens, or ask the Systems Administrator to do it, pleading that I am not wearing outdoor shoes and have in any case got the cat on my foot.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

start of the cyclamen season

The Cyclamen cilicium (if that's what they are) along the front of the house have started to push their first, tentative flowers and tiny leaves through the gravel, which made me think I had better weed and tidy around them.  The area near the house is plagued by the wretched purple leaved weedy Oxalis, and as I prised up one long section with the hand weeding fork I found myself levering a cyclamen tuber out of the ground.  Hastily, I stopped, telling myself that anything with a growth habit like a cyclamen must be adapted to cope with a degree of disturbance, but I did notice that the tuber was larger than when I planted them.

I was also prompted to remove the piece of Pileostegia viburnoides that had died over the past few weeks.  This is a self-clinging relation of the climbing hydrangea, very beautiful if grown well as seen at Bodnant (I'm pretty sure) the last time I was there, but not easy to grow well.  My first plant died.  My second plant, treated with more consideration and watered in summer when I was watering the pots, began to grow up its allotted section of wall and I was very happy with it, then allowed it to be swamped by the Boston ivy that had grown all the way round from the back of the house.  The Pileostegia did not like being covered in summer by rampant Boston ivy foliage, and the stems on the house wall mostly died again, while the low growing branches made a break for freedom across the gravel.

The Systems Administrator removed the Boston ivy from the end of the house, where it had got under the plastic base of the big window in the sitting room and lifted it so that it leaked, staining the wooden floor.  I managed to twiddle one Pileostegia branch around so that it was pointing back at the house, and weighted it down with a stone to keep it going that way.  They are brittle stems and it was not easy.  Freed of the embrace of the Boston ivy it began to climb again.  Meanwhile what was left of the original stem had given up holding on to the wall, and I had to tie it in to a nail and the bottom of the stove pipe.  Perhaps it could sense that it was no longer firmly attached to anything, but this summer it didn't bother growing, and in the past few weeks the leaves paled, browned, and fell off.

The rest of the Pileostegia is looking rather pale.  I have fed it a couple of times over the summer with fish, blood and bone, and watered it.  Maybe I should feed it more.  Maybe sprinkles of fish, blood and bone are not enough to make it want to live in sand.  Or perhaps something more sinister is going on.  A Podocarpus that used to live in that spot flourished until suddenly the needles turned dull, and it died very quickly.  On exhumation the roots were soft and smelled of mushrooms.  I dug out every last scrap I could find, but maybe some nasty fungal disease lurks in the bed.

The Cyclamen cilicium looked better without their surround of dead Pileostegia leaves.  My final act in tidying this section of border will be to trim the box domes along the front of the house.  All have been grown from quite small box plants bought and planted at different times, with the result that all three are of visibly different types of box.  I am trying to keep them as smooth, elegant domes, but am not awfully good at shaping freehand curves.  Lumpy mound and cloud pruning would be much easier.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

more cuttings

The garden club monthly meeting last night consisted of another practical propagation session. Two rows of tables had been set up in the village hall, covered in polythene which I noticed was still frugally attached to the roll so that it could all be rolled up again and reused, and bundles of stems were laid out for us to chop into pieces and stick hopefully into the pots of compost and vermiculite provided.  Before we were let loose the chairman and the head propagator at Suffolk Plant Heritage gave a short talk on basic techniques, and then the audience fell upon the plants like crowds at the Harrods sale.

I thought I had missed my chance to get a piece of a dark red flowered salvia I'd had my eye on, before finding the bundle in the scrum.  Last year's salvia cuttings rotted before they could root, as did the rare hardy fuchsia, but hope springs eternal.  I did get two usable plants out of the last propagation meeting, an upright growing hardy pink Diascia, D. personata, and a rare geranium with lovely dusky pink undersides to its leaves, Pelargonium 'Gustav Emich'.  I have just planted the Diascia out in the stretch of border I revamped at the top of the sloping bed in the back garden, so perhaps I should take a few cuttings from my cutting in case it is not so hardy after all, or can't cope with the sand, even with additional compost.

I am not entirely sure what I would do with either of the willows I hopefully stuck in my pot, if they were to root, but it's partly the joining in that counts, and seeing what will grow.  After last year's session I experimentally tried rooting sections from the stems of a rather good pink form of Gaura that is growing in the gravel after spending its first summer in a pot by the front door, and before seeing the bunch of Gaura among the pile of cuttings material at the garden club it had never occurred to me that I could take cuttings of it.  Only two of my cuttings struck and made it through the winter, but that's still two more plants than I would have had otherwise, and since I had lost the labels from the pot I couldn't have bought more if I'd wanted to.

Now I am speculatively casting an eye around to see what else might be worth cutting up and sticking in a pot.  It looks as though snapdragons are worth a shot.  I have got two pots of 'Black Prince' on the go currently, and since they are not always the easiest things from seed I could try some cuttings.  I was wondering about overwintering the old plants if I can find room for their pots in the greenhouse, but I could try both methods and see which works better, or at all.  And I must remember to take slips from the pink Arctotis.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

two churches

This morning I went on a tour of two churches, St John at Great Wenham, still a working parish church, and All Saints at Little Wenham, now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Apparently they hate it when people refer to their churches as 'redundant'.  Our guide was a former field officer for the eastern region of the Churches Conservation Trust, and so I learned more than I might have by just wandering about and looking at them.  Great Wenham is not generally open in any event, theft and vandalism being endemic problems for rural Suffolk churches.

There has probably been a church on the site at Great Wenham since Saxon times.  The church is mentioned in the Domesday book, and what we see now dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, or at least I think that is what our guide said.  I didn't take notes, thinking it would seem rather odd, and if I'd wanted to remember dates I should have.  The chancel is older than the nave, and the nave older than the tower, and then the whole thing was heavily restored in the mid nineteenth century by a wealthy and enthusiastic Rector.  As our guide said, we should not dismiss the Victorian work out of hand, since it was done with great craftsmanship and in a style historically in keeping with the original fabric.  And he was right, the new (Victorian) roof was a beautiful piece of work.

The organ occupies the whole of the arch between the nave and the tower, so that the enterprising Victorian Rector was obliged to burrow down beneath the tower to make a little vestry.  One of the local keepers of the church told us that it was a superb organ, one of the best in the region, so good that the organists of St Pauls and Westminster Abbey had come to play it. At the opposite end of the church are some rare Medieval encaustic tiles.  I thought the shape of the windows in the tower was rather nice as well.  John Constable's sister is buried in the churchyard. The parishioners who had turned out to serve us coffee and home made cakes were very hospitable, and I recognised one of them from my plant centre days and because she ran the novelty dog show we went to a few years ago.  It's a small world along the Essex-Suffolk border, or at least the subsection of it that occupies itself with gardens and church visits and animals.

The church at Little Wenham is not quite of this world.  It is reached up a long, unmade track, past first one and then another timber framed house that I thought must be the old house I'd read about the previous day on Wikipedia, before discovering that both were twentieth century, and that the actual old manor house was the crenellated, stone built tower we could just see from the church.  It is a surviving fortified Medieval manor house and must be one of the oldest houses in East Anglia.  All Saints church is slightly more recent than St John, but was not done up by the Victorians.  Indeed, after the roof collapsed in the latter part of the nineteenth century the parish council was all set to vote to demolish it, until one lone voice in the meeting protested that the old church had been there for six hundred years and they should let 'er be.  The parishioners changed their minds, and in the early twentieth century a benefactor paid an Ipswich architect to do a sensitive but limited restoration.

All Saints now has a very plain, historically appropriate roof.  Some Medieval wall paintings remain, and a very fine brass.  A small door high in the wall marks the place where the end of the rood screen would once have stood, and the tiny, very narrow steps up to it are accessible, though I didn't try to squeeze up because they were so grubby and I was wearing a relatively tidy sweater and we were going for lunch in the pub afterwards.  The pews are a mixed set, taken from nearby Capel St May when they were having a clear out, some recent but a couple genuine early Tudor with linenfold panelling (and narrow and spectacularly uncomfortable.  You wouldn't doze through the sermon).

There are bats in the church, which is all very good in as far as they are rare, interesting and protected animals, but not so good from the point of the view of the fabric of the building.  If you want to know whether mystery small, thin, brown droppings are from bats or mice you can tell by rolling them between thumb and finger, according to our guide.  If they crumble to dust they were from a bat, and consisted of insect carapaces, hence the crumbliness.  If they don't crumble then you have just fingered some mouse poo.

Monday, 4 September 2017

how the tomatoes did

It is getting towards the end of the tomato season, and time to weigh up how they have done, and whether I am going to do them next year, and if so which.  I have not been anything like organised enough to actually weigh the edible crop off each variety, but I have a pretty good idea how well they've done relative to each other.  All were grown in the greenhouse in growbags, three to a bag.

First off, the cherry tomatoes.  I grew 'Sungold' again this year, a yellow F1 hybrid said by the man from Thompson and Morgan who talked to Suffolk Plant Heritage a couple of years ago to be the sweetest tomato there is, although according to Gardeners' World there are sweeter varieties around.  Tomato sweetness is measured on the Brix scale, and is dependent on the mixture of sugar and acidity.  When I was looking that up just now because I had forgotten what the scale was called, I stumbled upon a site run by somebody called Wayne Schmidt who personally tested the sweetness of his early tomatoes using an electroni pH meter and a refractometer.  He confimed that 'Sungold' scored well because it had very low acidity.  I tested the sweetness of my tomatoes by eating them, and can confirm that 'Sungold' was very tasty.  The only difficulty I found was that they split easily, so much so that I ended up using flower snips to cut through the stalks when picking them rather than pulling the fruit off the plant.  Curiously, Wayne Schmidt said that 'Sungold' appeared almost impervious to cracking, which just goes to show how differently plants can behave depending on how they're grown.  'Sungold' was the first to start cropping, and there aren't many tomatoes left to come, even green ones.  The plants were prolific while they lasted. Conclusion: I would happily grow 'Sungold' next year.

I also grew a red cherry variety, 'Sweet Million', another F1 hybrid.  I was pleased with them too. The plants were slightly later to start fruiting than 'Sungold' and still have quite a lot of fruit on that looks as though it has a sporting chance of ripening.  They showed very little propensity to split, tasted good, and made an attractive mixture with the yellow cherries in salad.  Conclusion: I would grow 'Sweet Million' again next year as well.

I'm not so sure about the brown cherry variety 'Chocolate Cherry', yet another F1.  I ended up with one odd plant after half the seedlings I was raising myself stopped growing, and I had to scuttle around the local garden centres and the trollies outside Waitrose seeing what I could get to replace them.  The brown fruits did look fun with the red and pale orange, and tasted fine, though the skins were maybe a little bit tough.  One problem was that I wasn't very efficient about picking them, there being only the one plant and the brown fruit not standing out visually, so quite a few ended up on the greenhouse floor and being fed to the chickens.  My sole plant didn't seem to crop as generously as the other two cherry varieties, but I think this was partly because it got too dry one day and several clusters of flowers aborted.  It is not really fair making a comparison on such a small sample, but it could be that 'Chocolate Cherry' is not as forgiving of erratic watering as some of the other varieties.  Conclusion:  I wouldn't devote a whole growbag to this variety, but might grow one plant for fun and would know to try harder with the watering.

I also tried a brown beefsteak variety, 'Black Russian', because someone from the upmarket commune that I used to work with at the plant centre told me it was the best flavoured tomato ever and I must grow it, a sentiment echoed on internet discussions of tomatoes.  The chickens would be able to tell you more about the flavour than I can, because every time I found a fruit that looked brown, juicy and ready to pick, I found it had split.  The plants proved very difficult to keep wet enough in their growbags, and when they got dry the flowers tended to drop off, while fruit that had already set developed blossom end rot.  On the other hand, the fruit that were almost right did look very tempting.  Conclusion: I might try once more with 'Black Russian' but only with a better growing system, and I wouldn't do three plants, maybe share a bag between them and 'Chocolate Cherry' and try and get my eye in for harvesting brown fruits.

I did one classic round red tomato, 'Ailsa Craig', and could see why this variety has been around for sixty years.  My three plants set lots of fruit, which did not split, did not abort their flowers, and did not on the whole suffer from blossom end rot.  I have already picked more than we needed to cook with at the time, and there is more to come which are already large and pink enough to make me think they will ripen in due course.  I can't actually report on the flavour eaten raw because we have kept using the cherries, but we cooked with some and they seemed perfectly nice and tomato flavoured.  I don't really fancy a tomato at this minute but I must make sure to eat one raw in a spirit of enquiry to find out what they are like.  Conclusion:  'Ailsa Craig' is worth growing on account of its yield, relative earliness, and tolerance of my less than perfect watering regime.

I grew two different types of plum tomato on account of having to scrabble round for replacement plants, and it's just as well, since the two 'Roma' I bought as young plants are doing much better than the three 'Follia' grown from seed, an F1 hybrid from Mr Fothergill.  'Roma' is an open pollinated variety that's been around for ages and I don't know how much variety there is among plants sold under that name.  Unfortunately as there are so many different tomatoes growing in the greenhouse and potentially cross pollinating each other it wouldn't be worth saving seed from the plants I bought.  'Roma' has set a lot of fruit and has not been prone to blossom end rot or splitting.  The Systems Administrator cooked with some and said they peeled very easily because the skins were thick, though by the same token they needed peeling.  They have been late to ripen, and the SA who has grown plum tomatoes in the past says they always are.  That is one advantage of growing them alongside an earlier large round variety like 'Ailsa Craig'.  In contrast, 'Follia' has set few fruit and most of those that ripened had blossom end rot and have gone to the chickens.  Conclusion:  If I grow tomatoes next year I will get 'Roma' seed and give more space to them, but 'Follia' F1 seems to be a bad case of plant breeders taking something that worked perfectly well before and making it worse in the cause of novelty.

The growing bags I used this year and last were Westland Gro-Sure from The Range.  They are relatively expensive as growing bags go, which I found interesting in that The Range don't normally offer premium products, and the reason why they cost about twice as much as some growbags is probably that they contain much better compost.  I could tell it was really nice compost by how much better the plants in the growbags did than a couple of spare seedlings I stuck in pots of ordinary B&Q multi-purpose.  The bags were fed with proprietary tomato food but not so often as they should have been because it was so difficult getting water into them.  It was also difficult telling when they needed watering, and by half way through the summer I'd decided that if I did this again I was decanting the contents of the bags into individual pots, so that I could see how wet the surface was and heft them individually to feel the weight.  This year and last The Range was doing the bags at a cheaper individual rate if bought in multiples of two, and they sold out fairly early in the season.  Other growbags are available (lots of them) but I was impressed by the compost in these.

Overall I feel I am almost but not quite there growing tomatoes under glass.  If I totted up the cost of the bags, the seed, the emergency young plants, the liquid tomato food, and the string, it would probably have bought me about the same quantity of tomatoes in Waitrose.  Excluding the underperforming varieties the maths would look better, and home grown tomatoes fresh from the plant are very delicious.  And the chickens have enjoyed the split 'Sungold' and 'Black Russian' and don't seem fussed about blossom end rot.

The other slight issue is that we share the cooking, and the Systems Administrator does not want to be obliged to cook with tomatoes at every meal.  If I get a final glut of 'Roma' I could skin and freeze them, or the SA might feel motivated to make passata.  In the meantime the fridge has been cluttered for the past fortnight with little pots holding successive pickings of cherry tomatoes.