Tuesday, 31 October 2017

a morning in town

My mother and I went into Colchester to have a look at an exhibition currently on at The Minories, and a spot of lunch.  By way of researching our lunch spot we walked through the top of Castle Park past the castle to look at a couple of the cafes she used to go to with my father, when they both used to go to language classes in Colchester.  Both had changed hands, or at least style, and the Italian she used to like had turned into the sort of place that puts big photos of the food on the menu displayed outside.  That did not fill us with hope.

As a bonus, though, we did discover a splendid piece of municipal bedding in the park, where a foliage covered model of a vintage car stood surrounded by several quite lively woven willow figures.  The remains of the summer's bedding, still valiantly flowering in places, told that the installation must have been there for months, only neither of us had visited Castle Park.  My mother was very taken with the figures, but my particular passion was reserved for the car and the Castle Park name all planted up with succulents.  I have a great weakness for 3-D carpet bedding.  It is always a thrill when Birmingham or some other metropolitan authority brings some to the Chelsea Great Pavilion.

The artist at The Minories was rather good.  His name is John Doubleday, and the show covers works from the early 1960s to the current day, all still-lifes on a narrow range of themes, mostly stone bottles, jars and flowers, with some bronzes thrown in.  I tried to decide why you would want a bronze casting of a jar with paint brushes in it, when you could simply get a jar and some brushes and have the real thing, but failed to come to an opinion.  His use of colour in the paintings was muted and subtle, and grew on us both as we spent time looking.  I would hazard a guess that Paul Nash was an influence.  It was a selling exhibition, and some of the paintings had sold, mainly the ones with flowers in, which might say something about the great British picture buying public, but I was not in the market for a picture.

We had meant to get lunch in the cafe at the Minories, but when we got there we found an angry woman shouting at the only two members of staff in sight that she would not pay sixty pence for hot water, no other cafes charged for hot water, you did not charge for hot water, was there a manager present she could speak to.  The two members of staff ignored us, and the two other people standing by the counter possibly waiting to pay, and the angry woman ignored her baby, which was screaming.  We left.  My mother said she did not like the smell anyway, and I wondered how much fuss it was really appropriate to make about the cost of hot water.  If you could afford to visit a cafe at all you were probably not down to your last sixty pence, and you could always recoup the cost by withholding the tip and then fire off a stiff letter to the manager explaining that nowhere charged for hot water and that you would not be back.  We went to Prezzo instead, which has the full five stars for food hygiene, and I had goat cheese and beetroot salad.  I am extremely partial to goat cheese and beetroot salad, and tiramisu.

Monday, 30 October 2017

these short days

When I wound up the bathroom blind this morning there was no frost on the lawn.  That was good, as I'd finished putting most of the tender plants under glass for the winter, but not quite all of them.  As I scouted round for stragglers I found the Lotus berthelotii still sitting on the patio.  In case you had forgotten, this is a trailing member of the pea family, with striking burnt orange flowers and fine silver leaves.  I'm glad it didn't get caught, as I am fond of it and the garden centre where I found my original plants a couple of years ago didn't seem to be stocking them this summer.  I'm sure I could track one down somewhere, but it would be easier to hang on to the plant I've already got.  In fact, given how hit and miss it is finding them for sale locally perhaps I should try and make some more.

I Googled Lotus berthelotii propagation, wondering if you could take cuttings since I have never observed my plant setting seed, and if so whether I should have done so in August.  Top of the search came an old article by Carol Klein for the Telegraph, suggesting I could keep on taking cuttings right through the winter.  Maybe for the sake of ten minutes' work and a small pot of compost I'll give it a try.  If I get round to it.

Once the postman had been it was time to carry the Henchman round to the front face of the Eleagnus hedge, to cut the top along the side of the drive.  I keep thinking there is just one more day's work with that hedge, without ever finishing.  It is like the philosopher's arrow that covers half the remaining distance, and then half the remaining distance, and so on, and never reaches the target.  Of course the afternoons are so short now the clocks have changed.  I got up at a more sensible hour this morning, and was preening myself that by half past eight I'd already cooked a batch of scones, but then by four o'clock it was getting dark.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

the days draw in

I was puzzled when I woke up that I had slept so late, until the Systems Administrator pointed out to me that because the clocks had changed it was only ten past seven in biological time, not ten past eight.  Ah.  That would explain why I woke previously at what my digital clock radio, that had recalibrated itself in the night, told me was only ten to six.  Believing it, I went back to sleep for another hour, otherwise I'd have got up then.

I spent a chunk of the day moving the tender plants in pots into the greenhouse and the conservatory, just in case there is a frost tonight.  Even if the thermometer doesn't dip to zero yet, still we are nearly into November and it's high time the pelargoniums and aeoniums were under cover.  Before packing up in the garden for the day I closed the greenhouse and conservatory doors, and as I was about to shut the conservatory I unplugged the water feature.  I like the constant trickle of water playing into a trough, but by this stage of the year and once I start shutting the doors I certainly don't want to raise the humidity in there.  I had already shut the greenhouse when I remembered that Our Ginger was curled up asleep on a partly used bag of compost, and had to go and rescue him.

Thence to Wrabness, where there was another youngish string quartet playing in the church.  They gave us Haydn, Borodin, and Beethoven, and I liked the reason they gave why the Borodin had replaced whatever else it was they were originally due to perform, which was that they'd had so many concerts this month they simply hadn't had time to learn the advertised piece.

I originally heard about the concerts at Wrabness during a visit to their garden club, and this afternoon one of the concerts returned the favour, as there was a pile of fliers at the door for a lecture next month by Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter fame.  There was an illustrated invitation to Colchester's Firstsite as well, because Firstsite is staging a Grayson Perry exhibition based on the holiday house he designed in Wrabness.  At last.  Firstsite is supposed to stage contemporary art (that is why almost none of the interior walls are vertical, to discourage anybody who should want to do anything as old-fashioned as hang a painting on them) and Grayson Perry is a major, Turner Prize winning contemporary artist and cultural commentator who grew up and still lives in Essex.  Really, what took them so long?

Saturday, 28 October 2017

talking about trees

I had a surprise this morning when I looked in my diary and discovered that this afternoon I was supposed to be in Stowupland for the monthly Plant Heritage lecture.  If asked when it was due I'd have been forced to concede it must be today, but as it was I hadn't thought about it at all.  I like the Plant Heritage lectures, and besides I volunteered earlier in the year to go and help put the chairs out.  Last Wednesday I also volunteered to take back the cooking for a bit, since the Systems Administrator had done all of it in the past month, and as I contemplated the collection of ingredients I'd picked up on the way back from the hairdressers and the contents of my diary for the next couple of days I began to sense a mismatch between the two.

Never mind.  Tonight's chicken breasts that were going to be Moroccan chicken with honey were summarily redesignated as chicken with rosemary and olives, because it is about the easiest and quickest recipe for chicken I know, and tomorrow's lamb that was going to be curry was turned into Lindsay Barham's tomato bredie while the chicken was cooking, to be reheated later, because tomato bredie is more straightforward than curry.  I might need to get a tub of pasta sauce out of the freezer to tide us over until I have time to assemble the courgette and cheese bake I was planning to do.  And then I had better try and think of something that doesn't involve tomatoes.

The head of propagation had already started on the chairs by the time I arrived because she was early and had finished arranging her plant stall.  We put out what we thought was a good number and then the person in charge of the meeting arrived and put out some more.  And then the meeting was not very well attended, for some reason, so that they weren't all needed, and the ladies from the WI had a lot of slices of cake left over at the end.  I don't know why attendance should have been down.  The talk was about autumn colour in trees, by a confident and well established local nurseryman, and what gardener doesn't like trees in the autumn?  Though people who go to garden clubs tend to be at the older end of the age spectrum, and perhaps don't have very large gardens any more, and perhaps are more interested in hearing about perennials they might have a hope of growing themselves than about large woody plants.  Or perhaps it was nothing personal against trees or the nurseryman, but just that a lot of people happened to have something else on today.

It was a good talk, except that I always hope there will be some new and exciting plants I haven't heard of before, and nowadays there often aren't, and today was no exception.  I had already heard of all the trees the nurseryman mentioned in his talk, grew five or six of them, and disagreed with him about Cotoneaster 'Rothschildianus'.  It is a large, arching shrub, although nurseries love to sell young ones trained up into little standards, and in my garden is definitely not evergreen even in a normal winter, and responds to pruning by throwing up vertical shoots from the shortened branches, which would not be a good look in any garden situation I can think of.  If you don't have a space for it about twelve feet wide and tall I wouldn't bother planting one.  You will only upset each other.

I did like the look of the leaves on the branches of Acer saccharinum he brought to show us.  This is the north American silver maple, the sugar maple being A. saccharum.  The leaves of the silver maple were quite deeply cut, more so than an English sycamore, with attractive pale undersides.  My ears pricked up when the nurseryman said it preferred damp acid soil and was one of the dominant trees in the maple forests of New England, even though it did not colour quite so magnificently here as over there.  Forests are quite dark places.  Would young plants of Acer saccharinum tolerate shade, I asked, if they were planted in gaps among existing trees?  They would, said the nurseryman, though they might grow spindly as young plants.  I filed that away for future reference.  If the ash trees die in our little bit of woodland I might want to plant something to grow up in their place, and an awful lot of trees require sun if you believe the books.  It's faintly baffling, since while in parks and gardens you see trees planted as single specimens, in the wild most grow alongside lots of other trees, but still it's hard to find anything that might cope with being inserted into gaps in established woodland.

Friday, 27 October 2017

a charity talk

I did a woodland charity talk yesterday evening.  It was booked months ago, via a friend who belongs to a small conservation group.  They are struggling slightly to keep the whole thing going, as the members get older and new younger people don't seem to want to join, and once I knew it was safely after the funeral there didn't seem any point in messing them about by insisting they find another speaker at less than three weeks' notice.  I did have my friend on standby beforehand, just in case the dates clashed, to give her a little more time to think of an alternative evening's entertainment.  If I ran a group like that I think I'd have a quiz tucked away in case of emergencies.

It was not quite the talk it should have been, since the charity recently issued a new one, or rather images and scripts for a suite of talks we are at liberty to customize depending on our audience.  An email arrived with a link and password to access a restricted area of the charity's site, where full details were available to download.  There was never really a good moment to look at it all, and I decided that the old talk would have to do for one more outing.  The fundamentals can't have changed that much.

Finding village halls up single track turnings off B roads is a skill that improves with practice, and so when confirming the arrangements with the club secretary I asked her if there was anything at all that I might be able to see in the dark along the B road that would tell me when I had reached my turning. There was no convenient pub or garage to help me on my way, but thank goodness for bus shelters, even unilluminated ones.  Unfortunately the village hall car park was equally unlit, and so I now have a new scrape on my front bumper where I failed to spot a small and evil retaining wall as I was turning round.  Ah well.  The damage is superficial and purely cosmetic, and it's not as though I was hoping to sell the Skoda.

It was an extraordinarily solidly built hall.  My friend, when she called to check that I knew how to find it, and possibly to check in the most tactful way possible that I had remembered I was going, described it as being built of cob.  In my mind's eye I'd had a vision of a wooden chalet style affair, so I must have been thinking of the hall of some other village in that neck of the woods.  When first opened up it felt rather damp and chilly and I worried that my sweater was not going to be warm enough, but once the overhead infrared heaters had been running for an hour it became quite toasty.  In fact, for the last ten minutes of talking I was distinctly hot, and as soon as I'd got to the end I tried to peel the sweater off, only to discover that I'd put the pin of my volunteer speaker name badge through my t-shirt as well as the sweater, so it's just as well I didn't attempt that manoeuvre between slides.

They were a nice group, who made a very generous donation given their modest numbers, and this morning sent me a friendly email saying a couple of people intended to sign up to the charity.  And the biscuits with the tea after the talk were proper McVities chocolate digestives.  You can tell a lot about a group by the quality of its biscuits.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

the search for the platonic boot

I was in Colchester yesterday morning to have my hair cut, before doing the bees, and since I was there I thought I would go into the Clarks shoe shop and try on their desert boots for size.  I adore desert boots, which have to be one of the most perfectly comfortable forms of footwear ever devised, besides being pleasingly androgynous.  I had a pair of Clarks black suede ones for a good twenty years, and wore them with practically everything, jeans, short skirts, long dresses.  I tried not to go out in them on days when rain was forecast, and they repaid me by remaining resolutely uncreased and unshiny.  Then one day the soles came unstuck.

I took them to Timpsons, where the man sucked his teeth and said that you did not see crepe soles very often nowadays, pity as it was very hardwearing, only it was practically impossible to glue.  He would try sticking the soles back on for me if I liked, but he couldn't guarantee the result.  I thanked him but thought that paying shoe repair shop prices for glue that probably wouldn't stick was not worth it, and took them home, where the Systems Administrator mended them with the most likely looking glue in the workshop.  They lasted for a few more outings, and then the soles came unstuck again when I was in the middle of a woodland conservation lecture.  I was afraid that having the soles of my shoes flapping about did not convey a very professional image, and sadly consigned them to the bin when I got home.

Then I kept noticing all the social occasions for which the black desert boots would have been ideal.  Clarks are not the only firm selling ladies' desert boots: Cotton Traders do them, and I have seen them in the Seasalt catalogue, both for less money than Clarks charge.  But I bought some Cotton Traders ones and they were not as good, made out of thicker suede that creased and lost colour along the creases after they had been worn a few times, and cut in a clunkier and altogether less refined style.  It was a case of Accept No Cheap Imitations.

I began to stalk the Clarks website, hoping there would be a mid-season sale, end of season sale or any kind of sale, but no matter what kind of sale it was black suede desert boots did not feature.  In the meantime I read the online reviews, several of which said that the boots were very narrow.  Now I have wide hobbit feet, so narrow is not good.  On the other hand the boots were supposed to be the original classic design, and the last ones I bought over twenty years ago fitted beautifully.

This is why I thought it would be a good idea to try some on in the Clarks shop while I was in Colchester.  It didn't even matter what colour they had, so long as they had a five and a half and a six.  They did not, because as the assistant explained they did not stock ladies' desert boots in the shop.  They had some mens' ones, she added hopefully, which were almost the same, only they did not go down to such a small size.  She showed me the mens' ones, while I wondered quite how this was supposed to help, given she knew I knew what a desert boot was and had owned some before.  I said, mildly, that it seemed odd not to have one of the firm's most classic products available in-store, especially when the website warned that they came up so narrow and people might like to try them on, and that after all Cotton Traders and Seasalt sold them, so it was not as if desert boots were not a thing.  She said brightly that she had seen the Seasalt ones, and that it was true, the Clarks boots did come up very narrow, one of her colleagues had some only she was not wearing them today, and that the nearest Clarks shop that would have any was probably Lakeside or Thurrock, and that she could order me some to try on but I would have to pay for them in advance.  I said that was kind, but I might as well order them online and save another trip to Colchester.

So this morning I ordered some online.  Delivery is free for orders over £50, cheaper than going back to the store to collect them.  If they do not fit I can return them in the shop so I suppose there is some synergy between Clarks' physical and digital presences.  Not very much, though.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

animal husbandry

Today was warm, calm, and sunny, and I finally went to see how the bees were getting on with their last lot of syrup.  I had thought about them at various points in the past couple of weeks, but what with my chest infection, storm Brian, and the funeral, there never seemed a good hour to go and look at them, and after all it was not as though they were going to starve to death imminently.  Even if a hive is a bit light going into winter, there are ways and means of dealing with this, as long as the beekeeper knows the colony was low on stores.

Two colonies had finished their last bucket of syrup, and two had some left.  One of the hives that had emptied their bucket felt good and heavy, so that's them done for the winter, barring a mouse guard over the door and then a trickle of oxalic acid when it gets colder.  The other three hives felt slightly lighter than I'd have liked, and I decided to try them all with some more syrup and see if any of it went down.  It is late to be giving syrup, but on the basis that I've seen bees foraging in the past couple of days on the Mahonia and the asters I thought they ought to be able to cope with a bit of syrup if they wanted it.

The bees in the heavy hive were rather grumpy about being disturbed.  I shall have to see how they go next season, on the other hand the slightly tetchy colonies are often the most productive ones.  This particular lot remain a mystery to me.  This year they produced almost nothing, last year they made masses of honey, the year before that, nothing.  In my enthusiasm I had lolloped off to the apiary wearing an old long sleeved t shirt under my bee suit, and so got stung on the wrist through my glove by some of the grumpier bees.  You would think that by now I would remember to put on a proper shirt with buttoned cuffs so that the sleeves couldn't ride up.

After lunch we took Mr Fidget to the vet for a check up.  A fortnight ago he suddenly went off colour and spent a couple of days mostly sitting on the sofa and not eating, while we wondered why these things always happened just before the weekend.  He lost a lot of weight quite quickly, and was grooming himself frequently and occasionally drinking large amounts of water from his water bowl.  By the following week he was more lively, but failed to regain the lost weight, as far as we could tell without the benefit of suitable scales.  We dosed him for fleas, having found a flea on him, but the excessive grooming continued and his inside thighs began to go slightly bald.  We worried.  I remembered the time last year when Mr Fidget suddenly stopped eating and started running a temperature, and the Systems Administrator made the mistake of looking up excess grooming on the internet.  Turns out it can be a sign of all sorts of things, since grooming releases endorphins and cats do it to sooth themselves.  After a weekend spent scrutinizing Mr Fidget's hollow flanks from different angles and picking him up to try and guess the weight of the cat, while running a hand over his shoulder blades and his hip bones, we booked him into the vet.

The vet was running late after having had to put somebody's cat down, and was not having a good day, though I hope vaccinating the very small and very sweet puppy ahead of us in the queue might have cheered her up a bit.  She listened to our anxieties about Mr Fidget and put him on the scales, remarking that he was not a small cat as she showed us that he weighed 0.1 kilos more than when he had his last vaccination.  Then she ran a fine comb through his coat and found fleas.  Ah, that would explain the excess grooming.  We protested faintly that we had de-flead him ten days ago and a month before that.  The vet said that we should have been doing him every month, without fail, and that the kind of flea treatment they sold in pharmacies was so ineffectual that the vets had stopped selling it.  Then she put a thermometer up Mr Fidget's bottom to take his temperature, which was normal.

We have known this vet for a long time, and I was glad when I heard our appointment was with her, because in the past she has had a good instinct for when a cat is not right, and so I have to accept her diagnosis that Mr Fidget probably had a slight virus a couple of weeks ago, but was now pretty much over it and mainly had fleas.  Remarkably, she declined to charge us for the examination because she had been running late, and we were sent away having purchased a box of approved anti-flea doses for the cats, and a can of spray for the house.  We must spray everything, said the vet severely, including the car.  I still believe that Mr Fidget is thinner and not as shiny as he was two weeks ago, but I am relieved that he is not seriously ill.  I only hope that none of my relations picked up any fleas at the funeral tea, though if anybody was bitten I shall blame the late mosquitoes.  It's this warm weather, you know.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

the day of the funeral

We held a quiet family service for my father, then everyone came back to our house for tea.

Monday, 23 October 2017

the day before the funeral

We are hosting the funeral tea tomorrow.  It will literally be tea, the 3.30 slot apparently being the least popular at the local crematoriums.  In preparation I made a Victoria sandwich, realizing as I put it in the oven that it was some time since I'd done one and I couldn't remember whether I needed to put a metal sheet above it to cut down the heat in the bottom oven of the Aga.  It rose OK, but things were looking dodgy after the first twenty-five minutes, when I thought trifle might be on the menu later in the week while I had another go at cake making after lunch.  Or bought a cake, said the Systems Administrator.

The SA fetched the ladder and the long handled duster and swept down the cobwebs that had been peacefully collecting in the upper reaches of the sitting room for quite some time.  I used to keep noticing them after guests had already arrived and were sitting down on the sofa, and by that point leaping up to remove the skein of spider silk from the right hand side of the painting over the fireplace always seemed worse than pretending it wasn't there and trusting everyone else to follow suit.

Then we counted on our fingers trying to work out how many people might eat a pork pie, and whether I had bought enough, and if we should get some chocolate biscuits as well.  Tomorrow morning I will make scones.  It seems an odd way to mark a life, worrying about sandwiches between wondering exactly what I am going to say at the crematorium, but what else do you do?

Sunday, 22 October 2017

start of the concert season

The year is advancing.  Today the music society's concert new season began, with a youngish quartet playing Haydn, Schumann and Beethoven.  There was a good turnout, which was especially pleasing since the first autumn meeting of any society that breaks for the summer is apt to be tricky, as people have fallen out of the habit of going and they fail to notice that things have started again and go and do something else instead, or just sit at home until it is too late.

One of my former colleagues from the plant centre was there, looking extremely chipper, and someone else who I last heard of as being extremely unwell following an embolism had made it, albeit wearing surgical hose which he flashed at me under the hems of his trousers when I said it was good to see him out and about again.  But somebody who was perfectly fit the last time I saw him back in the spring seemed to have shrunk to half his former volume, and was walking slowly and painfully with a stick.

I liked the programme.  I adore Papa Haydn, whose music always sounds so fundamentally good natured.  Robert Schumann is not a composer I've ever got to grips with, and I don't think I have a single recording of anything of his, but I liked his quartet in A minor well enough, and when I asked my uncle the other day what new thing I should listen to next he suggested Schumann's Rhenish symphony, so probably I ought to make an effort with Schumann.  The Beethoven was late and strange, with passages in the middle that I'd probably have guessed were written in the middle of the twentieth century, if I'd heard them on the radio without any prior warning of what they were.

My friend from the music society was not entirely convinced by the young quartet's rendering of the Haydn, muttering that something was missing.  I pointed out that she didn't like Baroque music anyway, which she conceded.  It had sounded perfectly fine to me, but I do like the Baroque, despite knowing awfully little about it.  For a fair test we should both do a blind listening to the young quartet and to a quartet of acknowledged Haydn specialists, and say which version we thought was better and if possible why, and see whether we'd both backed the experts over the newcomers.  My friend thought there were some iffy passages in the Schumann as well, which again sounded OK to me.  Everybody agreed that the Beethoven was very fine.

I had to stay after the concert for the society's AGM because I was taking the minutes.  It was a model of brevity, and rather sparsely attended.  I am afraid that most concert goers are not interested in how the society is run or the idea of membership.  Somebody else has arranged for professional musicians to come and play to them on a Sunday afternoon and for tea to be served in the interval.  They come, they listen, they drink their tea and chat to their friends, and they go home, without the bother and expense of having to get themselves to the Wigmore Hall.  They are perfectly happy with that, and the fact that if they buy a season ticket they become a member of the music society concerns them not one jot.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

background reading

It rained this morning at a point when the Met Office forecast gave a five per cent chance of rain, and then Storm Brian blew in in a half-hearted fashion.  The Systems Administrator trundled out between showers then in again like the little people in a cuckoo clock, only to the accompaniment of rumbling from the up-and-over garage door instead of a mechanical cuckoo.

I tidied away the muddle of pots of things waiting to be planted that had collected outside the front door, refilled the council brown bin from the bags of stuff waiting to go in the bin, wondered again if I should get a second bin, moved some of the bags of Eleagnus shreddings from the edge of the drive to the compost bin, and decided I had done my bit outdoors for the day.  The shreddings are not all going to fit on the heap unless it squashes down a lot more, and in any case I am trying to layer them between bucket loads of less woody material, so some are going to remain in their bags for a fair while yet, but at least they are now doing it out of sight of the house.

Instead I went on reading though my pile of garden magazines and noting down any nurseries of interest, particular plant recommendations that might fill a gap, and gardens open to the public that might fit in with future holiday plans.  Tracking down gardens to visit is not entirely straightforward, once you start looking beyond the National Trust, English Heritage, and the big name stately homes like Alnwick or Chatsworth.  Those that open for charities like the National Gardens Scheme or the Red Cross are easily looked up, and as many open on other days as well or by appointment the Yellow Book is always a good place to start, as is the list of RHS Partnership Gardens.  The Daily Telegraph book used to be a reliable source, but as it hasn't been revised for years it is getting steadily more out of date.  I have an almost equally old guide to Cornish gardens, but there aren't any guide books to most areas outside the tourist honeypots.  Links from tourism websites can be surprisingly hit and miss, a marker perhaps that in general privately owned gardens, even if they run to a little tea room in the summer, don't have a marketing department.  We always keep our eyes peeled for leaflets, though when you are only visiting an area for a week you may not see the leaflet until too late in the holiday.  Learning half way through the week that there is a garden you would have liked to see, but it was open yesterday afternoon, or is a thirty mile drive from where you are staying and near to the castle you already visited on Tuesday, is not entirely helpful.  So articles in garden magazines or national papers can be very useful.  We first became aware of Mapperton in Dorset and Herterton in Northumberland via pieces in the press, and both turned out to be wonderful gardens and very untouristy.

The main pitfall of binge reading garden magazines is the risk of succumbing to garden envy, or at least feelings of profound inadequacy.  After viewing an almost endless parade of manor houses, honey coloured stone, ancient walls, miles of yew hedging, inherited mature trees, lakes, natural streams, and tonnes of lead and bronze statuary, our scruffy couple of acres wrapped around a miniscule wood and 1960s shoebox of a house can start to seem inadequate.  And for every owner who admits in print to having at least one full time gardener (or three gardeners and two trainees for one especially lovely expanse of rolling lawns, borders, yew, and stone, plus I'm guessing the Keswick name might have been a clue to an underlying family banking fortune) there seem to be three more who maintain their several acres of high horticulture all by themselves, with just one day of help a week.

Maybe.  Or perhaps they don't remember to count the chap who comes in annually to do the tree work and big hedges as help.  Or they managed to acquire plots that did not have horsetail, creeping thistle and sheeps' sorrel to contend with (though we don't have ground elder or lesser celandine, and doesn't everybody's garden have something?).  And buying all their plants instead of raising any from seeds or cuttings would save time.  Or perhaps gardening in places with better soil and more rain so that the things you plant grow faster and don't die as often is quicker.  But perhaps the owners in the glossy magazines are telling the exact truth, and it's just that they work harder than I do, putting in a full forty hour week on their gardens and not catching colds.  It's a mystery.


Friday, 20 October 2017

nothing doing

We abandoned the plan to visit Sandringham.  It was too windy and too grey, with the promise of storm Brian arriving later.  I do feel a degree of irritation with the Met Office seven day forecast, which last Sunday showed the middle and latter part of the week as being dry and intermittently bright.  If they'd managed to get it right three to five days ahead perhaps we'd have gone on Monday or Tuesday, when at least it wasn't windy.  Hey ho.  Maybe next year.

I gave up on ideas of Outside, and spent the day tucked up in front of the new electric bar fire with the pile of old gardening magazines.  The Systems Administrator spent the morning fighting the Thirty Years War on the sofa before venturing out to do some more shredding.  Mr Fidget plonked himself down in the top deck of my filing tray, which cracked even more.  In lifting it off so that it could be reinforced one of the metal legs detached itself and disappeared under a cupboard.  I scraped around hopefully with a ruler but unearthed nothing except a lot of fluff and some chewed cardboard.  Mr Fluffy was disappointed to find that his filing tray had gone and tried to sit on the contents of the lower deck instead, putting muddy footprints over the booklet outlining Eon's terms and conditions.  Mr Cool slunk off into the approaching storm.  Our Ginger was happy, though, now that the Aga is back up to full heat.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

sorted

Fred the DPD driver appeared silently outside the front door just after lunch.  We have told him there is enough room for his van to drive around the turning circle, but he always reverses up to the house, stopping short of the porch.  He says he is afraid of running over a flower, and that we have a beautiful garden.

He was a welcome visitor, because he brought a box containing the replacement fan for the Aga.  The Systems Administrator opened up the top this morning, removing the louvred enamelled boxes that cover the electronics and the fan, and vacuumed out the dust that had collected since the last time the fan was changed, exclaiming with relief that the old fan unit looked exactly like the one he ordered yesterday, but after that there was nothing more to be done until the cavalry arrived in the form of Fred, and I sat eyeing up the disemboweled machine through lunch, thinking that I had never understood electricity when Mr Swift was trying to drill into my head for A level physics, and did not trust it now.  The SA assured me that it was extremely straightforward.

And so it appears to have been.  After no more than an hour and a half of poking about in the innards of the Aga, the top is back on and a flashing red light indicates that it is charging itself up using (gulp) daytime rate electricity.  Normally, vampire-like, it only feeds at night.  By tomorrow evening it should be hot enough to cook the pizzas I have already bought on the strength of the fan being on order.  That's if everything is working properly.  I rather wish I had not looked up the flashing red light on Google, which led me to a string of queries from people whose electric Agas were not charging properly, or not at the right time, but the SA did say that in the search for a new fan he had found instructions for the timer, a completely non-intuitive piece of equipment that neither of us have ever really understood how to alter, so I expect it will all work in the end.

Outside it was so cold and damp and grey, and my nose so snivelling and neck so stiff, that I decided the garden would have to look after itself.  Instead I finished tidying up my desk, filing away nine months' worth of things that needed filing and chucking out a great many other things, until I could see bare wood.  Now I am amusing myself going through the garden magazines that were mixed up in the pile, before filing them too in date order in boxes down in the garage.  Mr Fluffy also thought it was just too horrible to go outside, and filed himself in my in-tray for the second day running.  It is not large enough for him now that he is a fully grown cat, and he has to sleep with his legs trailing over the edge, and the plastic has already cracked under his weight so that I had to line it with paper in case he should trap his toes, but he is not deterred, returning there for the afternoon as soon as he had eaten his lunch.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

a dark cold day

We have just lit our first stove of the autumn.  The weather forecast got it wrong about it not raining today in north Essex.  It drizzled periodically through the morning, while a succession of peeved and damp cats shuttled in and out from the garden, torn between hope that it was not raining and irritation that it actually was.  Then it poured, and they all came in, wet and indignant, apart from Our Ginger who had prudently spent the morning snoozing in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Aga has broken down.  Yesterday afternoon it began to make a strange whirring noise, which it is not supposed to do.  An Aga is essentially silent.  If it makes any kind of noise then something is wrong.  The Systems Administrator came and listened to the noise and made ominous pronouncements about bearings, and the fan that is supposed to redistribute hot air from the electric core to the rest of the machine.  When we came downstairs this morning we found that the Aga had switched itself off in the night.

You could say thank goodness for modern safety cut-outs.  I remember coming downstairs once when I was a child and lifting the lid of my mother's anthracite powered Aga to find the whole hotplate glowing cherry red, and about twenty years ago a faulty back boiler exploded at the pub at Lamb's Corner (now closed) causing injuries.  And at least since we are not after all on holiday this week the poor old housesitters haven't found themselves without a cooker half way through their sit.  True, we do have a microwave, a bottom-of-the-range model, by now ancient, but there is no back-up oven or gas ring.

The Systems Administrator said he would have to order a new fan, and I said that next week's funeral party would have to make do with a cold collation, and the SA looked shocked and said the fan shouldn't take that long to arrive.  The SA knows how to fit a replacement fan, at least in theory, since the chap who came to mend the Aga last time the fan failed showed him how and said it was not very difficult.  He was a specialist in electric Agas, and did most of his business in France installing them for English families who had bought properties over there.  It was nice of him to teach the SA how to maintain his own Aga, far nicer than the man from the local stove shop who used to charge me seventy quid to come and poke spider's webs out of a venturi tube with a paintbrush, and I fear that with Brexit his business may be suffering.

In the meantime we put the lamb and the chicken the SA had been intending to cook in the freezer, and will have to heat up the remains of last night's curry in the microwave.  I ventured into Colchester to buy pitta bread to eat with the curry, since neither of us fancied trying to microwave rice, and called in at The Range to get some small cyclamen for the shelf in the porch.  I found I was out of step with the seasons at The Range, where they have already got to Christmas, leapfrogging Halloween and Bonfire Night, and there were only seven pots of small white cyclamen left and one of them was at death's door.  Luckily I only wanted six.  I'd have preferred pure white without any pink at the base of the petals, which some of them had, but decided I didn't feel strongly enough about it to embark on a full blown Quest.

I did have a stroke of last minute luck elsewhere.  I had been greatly taken with a tunic from Seasalt because the pattern was so lovely, a 1950s inspired design of greenish-blue and black elliptical leaves on a burnt orange ground, but by the time I got round to thinking about it again they had sold out of every size except 18, and then the entire garment vanished from their website, suggesting it was not coming back any time soon.  I did not strictly need a new tunic, but I liked it very much, and felt rather pathetic that the month so far had been rubbish one way and another.  Then I remembered that John Lewis stock some Seasalt designs, and had a look on their website, and lo and behold they had eight left in a size 12.  So I ordered one yesterday, and collected it from Waitrose along with buying the pitta bread.

I know that psychological research says that acquiring objects does not make us happy, and that we should focus on personal relationships and experiences, but I think it depends partly on how many objects you acquire in total.  In the year to date total additions to my wardrobe had comprised one pair of short wellington boots, one pack of boot socks, a pack of fleece insoles, some Danish felt house shoes, one pair of jeans (in a sale), one pair of sandals, a multipack of Tesco knickers and another of socks,two cheap wristwatches that both misted up, and two t-shirts.  In that context a new dress was quite exciting.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

back to the big chop

Today, after I had potted up the substitute hyacinths that arrived later than the rest of the order, I returned to the mammoth task of cutting the Eleagnus hedge.  The main part still to be done is the top, which is a fiddle, because after carefully positioning the pole lopper and snipping through the longest shoots I then have to flick them off the hedge.  Sometimes they refuse to be flicked, and I have to try and grasp them gently with the jaws of the lopper, like a retriever holding a dead pheasant in its jaws without breaking the skin.  I don't know how much the pole lopper weighs.  The Amazon website puts the cutting head and the extendable pole at exactly two kilos each, which seems remarkably tidy, not to say a coincidence, but at any rate it feels quite heavy, particularly when operated while balancing on a step ladder.

The warm weather brought Our Ginger bustling out into the garden, and he kept me company while I worked, sitting either at the base of the step ladder so that I had to disturb him each time I wanted to move it, or else in the spot I needed to move the ladder to.  He stared intently into the base of the hedge, but nothing came out.  In the final days of the old cats there were sometimes baby rabbits scuffling around under the Eleagnus, but not any more.

I think I am on the home straight with the hedge, and that one more day's work might do it.  Realistically that probably translates to two, on the basis that I am an incurable optimist about how long gardening jobs are going to take, but it should be a matter of days now rather than weeks.  I need to get it done because the daffodils need to go in the ground pronto, and then that will be this year's bulb order planted, except for the tulips that don't get done until November.  I always feel a slight pang that I didn't get more bulbs, and have to remind myself that I ordered quite as many as I could afford or had time to plant.

We were going to take a day off from it all tomorrow and go and visit Sandringham, as a consolation prize for not making it to Westonbirt or Stourhead this autumn.  Sandringham is supposed to have a fine collection of trees, and is open until next weekend.  But the Systems Administrator has just checked the weather forecast for King's Lynn, prompted by a big lump of rain showing on the rain radar, and it seems that tomorrow is going to be wet all day up there.  There seems no point in driving all the way to north Norfolk for the sake of going if it is going to be pouring with rain, especially as the rain band is due to miss north east Essex so we could be getting on with things here.  Perhaps I will finish the hedge tomorrow after all.

Monday, 16 October 2017

gardening under glass

I spent a quiet morning in the conservatory, watering, sweeping, pruning, and in one case potting.  I am very fond of the conservatory, indeed, if I were having my own Grand Designs house built I would wrap it around a two storey atrium filled with plants.  Our actual conservatory is not nearly so large or elaborate, an almost square aluminium framed lean-to rising to something under four metres at the back, but it is great fun for growing plants in, which is how I use it.  There are two rattan chairs (with slightly mould stained cushions) and a small table where we can sit to drink tea, but that's it, everything else gets watered regularly.  No rugs, throws, carpet, sofa, tablecloth or any of the other domestic paraphernalia that properly belong in a sitting room or a sun room.

The ginger lilies have finished flowering and I deadheaded them.  The foliage was mostly looking pretty smart, suggesting I managed to water them enough this summer.  Hedychium throw up new shoots in the spring, great fleshy stems bearing leaves at intervals along their entire length, then one flower spike develops at the tip of each stem.  If allowed to get too dry at the root the edges of the leaves turn pale brown and crispy and look horrid.  If protected from frost the stems will last until next year, and I like to keep them over the winter if possible since the leaves help feed the plant, only cutting them down as the new shoots start to appear, but it's a hard call if they have gone tatty.  This year they are all set to provide a lush jungle background for a few more months.  Their other habit, which I have noticed in grand glasshouses open to the public, is to sent their stems strongly sideways towards the light, so that a plant that should have been a couple of metres tall ends up almost that far across.  I have seen ginger lily stems growing in a glasshouse border propped up and penned back with canes to keep them off the path, but that isn't an option growing them in pots.  I solved the problem by turning a couple of the worst offending pots around so that the leaves rested against the window.

I potted on the Hardenbergia violacea.  I will have to be careful not to over water it through the winter, but autumn is the traditional time for planting shrubs out in the ground, and I don't see why it shouldn't get on with making new roots in its pot, since it had filled the old one.  I was partly looking in its pot to check for any signs of vine weevil and root aphid, but found neither.  Hardenbergia is a twining climber with delicate stems and purple flowers in April.  I got mine at an RHS London show, and it is not as rampant as I should like, with an unnerving habit of allowing entire stems to die off, but it is growing.  Jasmines do the same dead stem trick.

One of the ginger lilies had split its pot, or rather pushed out a segment that had previously been glued back in place.  The only spare pot I could find was the same size, and I chopped a piece off the rhizome to make it fit its replacement quarters.  Ginger lilies behave superficially like bearded iris, sending out fresh growth and new shoots at one end of the rhizome while the other remains as an inert lump.  Unlike bearded iris the inertia is only temporary.  If you chop off the old and apparently no longer sprouting sections of rhizome in the course of repotting the plant, and bury them in the compost heap as I did, then a few months or a year or two down the line you will find them happily sprouting anew.  If you are like me you then feel compelled to pot them, when they have tried so hard to live.  This is one reason why I have slightly more ginger lilies in the conservatory than there is comfortably room for, and two more in the greenhouse.

I prodded the compost around climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' and it was alarmingly soft.  Further investigation revealed that 'Lady Boothby' did not have nearly so many roots as she should have done.  A fuchsia that's been in the same pot for several years is normally bursting with roots.  I did not find any vine weevil grubs, on the other hand I could not tip 'Lady Boothby' out of the pot because she was three metres tall and tied to the wall in several places.  Have I over watered her?  Are there vine weevils further down and out of sight?  How long does a fuchsia live in a pot?  'Lady Boothby' was a present from a former colleague who ordered a set of plants from a newspaper reader offer in a fit of enthusiasm before realizing he only really needed one, and that was years ago, maybe a decade or even more.  I took four cuttings as an attempted insurance policy while suspecting that mid October was too late in the season, even with a heated propagator.

The compost from the fallen Impatiens went in the council brown bin, vine weevil grubs and all.  I hope the cuttings I took from that strike, although if they don't at least I can buy a new plant from Dibleys next year.  Begonia luxurians, which was so lovely last year and the year before with its huge exotic many fingered leaves, was a sad object this year, and I can't work out why it failed to thrive, so perhaps one way and another a Dibleys order is calling.

I accidentally broke a piece off the regal pelargonium 'Joy' so chopped that up and made it into cuttings.  They might root.  Zonals and scented leaf forms are generally very obliging, but I haven't tried propagating 'Joy' before.  She is very charming, with frilly, white centred flowers in a startling shade of pink.  My original plant was bought on a visit to Mapperton House in Dorset, a remote Jacobean manor with a splendid and totally unexpected Italianate garden, whose disintegrating orangery was being rescued just in the nick of time by the fees for featuring in the film version of Far From the Madding Crowd.  'Joy' Mark I promptly got an attack of aphid, then seemed disillusioned by life in the greenhouse in her first winter, and quietly died, but I was able to source a replacement from Fibrex Nurseries.  'Joy' Mark II lives in the sunniest corner of the conservatory near the door, so fresh air blows over her all summer, and is happy so far.  I have never done particularly well keeping regal pelargoniums going in the past.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

more weeding

I woke up feeling as though I definitely might be developing a cold, or resuming the cold that had just been going away when my father's health took a dramatic turn for the worse. Aching, snivelling, sore throated, sticky, smelly, and generally not very nice to know.  But after a shower I thought I might as well put on my gardening clothes and see how I felt once I'd had some breakfast, before abandoning myself to a day spent sniffing on the sofa, and once I'd had some breakfast I felt better than I had when I got up, and the sun was shining and it was forecast to be unseasonably warm, so I tottered out.  Not up the scaffolding to resume battle with the hedge, but up the the meadow to continue with the weeding.  Falling off the Henchman seemed like a bad idea, but crawling about it would be easy enough to lie down if I suddenly felt worse.

In fact, fresh air and sunshine and messing about with plants had the opposite effect, as it usually does.  I dibbled up copious quantities of goose grass seedlings and hairy bittercress, cut off the flowering stems of nettles (please let them not have shed their seeds yet) and bagged them up to take to the dump, and tugged and chopped at the odd brambles that had sprouted again from the bits of root I failed to dig out last time round.  Into the newly cleared space I planted white violets and some of the young hellebores that have been growing on in the cold frame.

I didn't have the heart to disturb the primroses, which have sprung back into life with the autumn weather and looked so fine and leafy it seemed a shame to dig them up.  Instead I went and lifted some of the plants that had seeded themselves into the bottom lawn in the back garden.  In contrast to the lush specimens in the meadow, they were still in their shrivelled summer state.  By the time the birches, the Zelkova and the wild cherry at the bottom of the garden have drunk their fill it doesn't leave a lot for shallow rooted plants like primroses at this time of year.  By spring I daresay they'll have staged a miraculous recovery.

Back in the meadow alongside the wood the soil got appreciably drier close to the base of a birch that seeded itself near the wildlife pond, and which we left since it was making rather a nice job of softening the transition from wood to garden.  It seemed a waste to plant any of the hellebores too close to it, and so I still have an arc of bare soil to fill and no plants to hand to go in it.  Epimedium  x perralchium 'Frohnleichten' sprang to mind, evergreen and drought tolerant.  All epimediums are not equally forgiving of dry shade, but that one is supposed to be bullet proof.  The Chatto gardens have them in stock according to their website.  Click and collect at the Chatto gardens is very tempting.  I still have a box of three geraniums and two orange flowered poppies sitting by the front door waiting to be planted out since the last time I let my fingers do the walking.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

along the edge of the wood

My forearms, my right index finger, and my left shoulder are all smarting.  That is because the nettles are virulent by this time of year.  The back of my throat and my nose are tickling and slightly sore, but that is because I am on the brink of getting a cold.  I used to debate the nature of colds with my GP, now retired.  He maintained that you either had a cold or you hadn't, while I was of the opinion that they lurked in your system like childhood exposure to chickenpox, ready to break out again in times of exhaustion or stress.

Pulling up the latest crop of weeds by the mysteriously dry wildlife pond seemed like a worthwhile and soothing way of spending the day, and kept me out of earshot of the shredder while the Systems Administrator chewed through the enormous pile of hedge trimmings from yesterday's mammoth pruning session.  I have nineteen small hellebore plants to go into the space, and it would be nice to get them planted out this autumn rather than leave them sitting in their little plastic pots all winter.  Hellebores in pots are not always the easiest things to manage long term. There should have been twenty, but the pink spotted one that was very small indeed when it arrived failed to grow on, and quietly died in the privacy of the cold frame.

I might risk splitting and moving some more primroses.  In theory I should have done so after flowering, and maybe primroses are one of those plants that don't grow much in the autumn, and perhaps I will kill them doing it now, but somehow I doubt it.  The soil is still warm and reasonably damp, but drains well, and my hunch is that they will be fine.  I have in the past got away with splitting asters in autumn, despite the received wisdom that it should be done in the spring when they are in active growth.  The biggest risk on soil like ours is plants dying from lack of water in spring and summer, not rotting in the ground.

There is some self seeded Tellima grandiflora among the weeds.  That can stay, as it covers the ground and is quite pretty, though it can become too much of a good thing.  There are forget-me-not seedlings, though I honestly don't know where they came from.  There are seedlings of a sedge that might have originated from the one that used to be in the other pond, and which I have been heartlessly weeding up since it is one of the dullest plants imaginable, grows quite large and seeds itself insanely.  There are bulbs of actual wild bluebells, self seeded out of the wood.  There are some young foxglove plants.  And then there is an awful lot of bare soil, which on the one hand represents a thrilling planting opportunity, and on the other hand an awful lot of future work weeding, since I don't have plants growing on to cover all of it.

I do have some of the true Poet's Narcissus waiting to go in there, Narcissus recurvus, bought from Peter Nyssen and recently potted.  It will need companions that don't swamp it while it is growing. I am hoping my pots of Sarcococca cuttings will root, then they can fill in at the back between the purely hypothetical small trees I haven't even planted yet.  And I have just remembered that I have some trays of sweet violet, nibbled off the existing plants in the back garden last spring. They will be fine so long as the cats continue to scare the rabbits away.  Rabbits do not like hellebores or daffodils, but they will happily chew their way through Viola odorata, or at least ours will.

Friday, 13 October 2017

hedge cutting

I don't usually reread my posts, but I did look at yesterday's, and saw I had used proper and properly too many times in the first paragraph.  I blame Events.  Today I decided I had caught up with enough sleep to trust myself up on the Henchman platform, and resumed chopping bits off the back of the Eleagnus hedge.  It would be nice to finish cutting it.  I am getting quite bored with the task.  I would like it to start regrowing as soon as possible.  I have got three bags of daffodil bulbs to go in the lawn next to it that should have been planted a good month ago, and don't want to start digging holes until I have finished using the step ladder there.  That's three reasons, which surely counts as several.

The Systems Administrator appeared around tea time to see how it was going, and exclaimed at how well I was getting on.  It is true I am probably on the home straight with the back of the hedge, but the top still needs an awful lot doing.  The way it grows is to throw up tall, straight, spindly shoots.  These gradually get fatter and begin to branch out.  I am not trying to cut the top of the hedge to a level surface, which would be impossible and in any case look ridiculous, but I would like to reduce its average height by thinning out the upright shoots.  That's the basis on which we trim the native hedge around the boundary, and the result looks pleasingly relaxed.

Unfortunately the Eleagnus hedge is far too fat for me to reach most of the top, even after reducing its width by a good metre and more.  The only way to reach the middle of it is with the long handled string operated loppers.  I stand on the Henchman, reach into the hedge with my long pole, position the cutting jaws around a likely stem, and pull the string.  If the stem I've chosen isn't too fat it will sever.  Then, because the jaws of the lopper don't grip the piece I've just cut off, I spend a minute or three with the long pole flicking the cut stem towards me until I can reach it to pull it out of the hedge.  The alternative would be to leave a thatch of dead cut stems where they fell and wait for them to blow off.

Sometimes the cut twigs don't want to be flicked, because they are intertwined with other twigs, especially the ones that gave up growing vertically some time ago and have been wandering sideways around the top of the hedge, and the long pole is quite heavy.  By tea time my shoulders were beginning to ache.  When I returned after tea intending to do a final hour's work and found Mr Fidget devouring the head of a pigeon surrounded by feathers, while Mr Cool and Our Ginger sat watching, I decided that perhaps I had had enough of the daffodil lawn for one day, and went to weed the gravel instead, until I found the weed I'd just pulled up was a tuft of Dianthus carthusianorum, at which point I decided it was getting too dark.

Some of the growth along the top of the hedge is too thick to cut with the pole loppers anyway.  A few times I discovered I had bitten off more than I could chew, and had to jiggle the pole frantically until the cutting blades came loose from the overly fat stem they were half embedded in.  Once I've done as much as I can by hand, the SA will have to finish the job with the long handled electric chainsaw.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

survival of the fittest

Nature, they say, is red in tooth and claw.  Sometimes nature's ruthless survivalist instincts takes an unexpected form, in this case the amiable persona of Mr Fluffy.  Now Mr Fluffy is a sweetie.  He has a white face, and a white bib, and a white tummy, and four shaggy white paws, and white whiskers, and the rest of him is black.  Most of the time he wears the expression of a slightly baffled panda, except when he is chasing birds or butterflies, and now that he is a proper grown up cat he doesn't bother to do that as often as he did, preferring to spend a good hunk of his day asleep in a cardboard box.  He is often to be found hanging out with Our Ginger and they wash each other, a proper bromance.  He invariably purrs when I pick him up, and never grumbles at being scooped up and carried to a different room, merely ambling back to where he intended to be in the first place once I've finished petting him.  He has taken to flopping down in my lap in the evenings, when again he purrs  a lot.  And, as his name suggests, he is properly long haired and very fluffy.

No, you would not expect Mr Fluffy to be a ruthless survivalist.  He looks like the sweetest natured cat you could hope to meet, besides being slightly dopey.  But Mr Fluffy is a terror when it comes to food, his own and everybody else's.  It started innocently enough, with Mr Fluffy finishing up anything the other cats had left on their plates with a Can I have that if you don't want it? expression.  Then, as the kittens got older and more independent and started going outside at odd times so that we couldn't always feed all four of the cats together, we noticed that if one of the others missed a meal and we put food down for him later when he came in, Mr Fluffy was sure to appear as if by magic and ended up being fed as well.  Sometimes he would emerge from his cardboard box, and sometimes come bursting through the cat door, but he could sense the scraping of a spoon in a tin or the rattle of biscuits at fifty paces.

He was always the first to fall upon any food put down, so much so that there was no sense in trying to feed the other cats until you had given food to Mr Fluffy.  He was always amiable, never growled, never hissed, but he developed the unnerving habit of putting his foot across his brothers' necks and calmly shoving them out of the way.  I was out today at lunchtime, but the Systems Administrator told me that Mr Fluffy had learned a new trick, pushing first one brother and then the other off their food before returning to consume his own dish.  They didn't push back, or growl or hiss, but sat there looking pathetic until the SA put down more.

Despite regularly consuming three lunches, two teas and two suppers, Mr Fluffy is not fat.  I suppose we had better worm him again, but I suspect he is simply not a good feed converter. However, it is not nice for his brothers not to be able to finish their meals in peace, or even start them.  I think we might have to start feeding Mr Fluffy by himself, in the kitchen.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

gardening under glass

I have been trying to pack away my pots in the greenhouse for the winter, while observing the following principles:

The things that are most sensitive to the cold must not go next to the glass.

The things that will break if I knock against them can't go next to the aisle.

Things that need regular watering through the winter must not be hidden behind other, taller pots so that I don't see them.

Things that retain their leaves all winter mustn't be squashed up under the canopy of other things so that they don't get enough light.

I have to leave room for the dahlia pots but they can't go inside until the stalks have died down naturally.

It's complicated.

Meanwhile, the pots of Agapanthus have had a dose of their special new blue fertiliser, since the man giving the talk said there was still time to give them a final feed this season, and that was only a week ago.  Some of the older geranium cuttings that were coming on very nicely have gone and got root aphid.  I decided to be bold, take cuttings from them, and throw the infested roots away.  If the cuttings fail to strike I'll have lost the plant, but they are varieties I could buy again from one of the specialist nurseries if I had to, and geraniums (or rather pelargoniums) are generally very reliable about rooting.

In the conservatory the orange flowered Impatiens that was just starting to look respectable has keeled over, again, its roots having been destroyed by vine weevil, again.  I took cuttings of that too and found them a place in the heated propagator, where they will have to stay all winter unless the Systems Administrator lets me put them on the kitchen window sill.

I have been remembering to stick one of the new green labels into anything that will need action in the spring, saying whether I need to take cuttings, pot on a size, or split the plant.  It all seems entirely obvious now, but by March or April it may not be.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

a day out

I met some of my former colleagues for lunch today in London.  I'd wondered whether I'd have the heart to go, or if it would be in some way disrespectful, but decided that I had and it wouldn't be. Cutting myself off from my friends was not going to help, indeed if anything I rather fancied a few hours off before plunging back into matters of funeral arrangements, helping my mother sort out my father's possessions, and the intricacies of Probate.  If the lunch hadn't already been in my diary I certainly wouldn't have been emailing around trying to arrange one, but it was fixed about three months ago and had already been rescheduled once.

My friends received my news with an appropriate mixture of sympathy and aplomb.  That is one advantage of being at the upper end of middle age, if not the younger end of being old.  People have seen and done bereavement before.  When the Systems Administrator's father died during the SA's first year at university many of his fellow students had absolutely no idea what to say and tried to avoid the subject entirely.  Mind you, so did some of the tutors.

After lunch I went to have a look at Matisse in the studio at the Royal Academy.  The RA is part way through a refurbishment, and the ladies loo has moved and been enlarged and upgraded since my last visit, while the ticket desk is temporarily located in a portacabin in the courtyard, the very short queue presided over by a woman managing to sow confusion about how to queue where there was none before.  The Matisse exhibition is tucked away up in the Sackler Gallery and is not very big, and has consequently sometimes been very crowded.  When the wife of one of my lunch companions went a couple of months back it was rammed, and a notice today said Friends of the Royal Academy were required to book.  This is one of the principal reasons why I am no longer a Friend.

Today it was not especially busy.  The conceit of the exhibition is to show some of the objects Matisse collected in his life and incorporated into his art, alongside some of the artworks they featured in or inspired, and gigantic photographs of his splendidly curated house and studio.  I enjoyed it, apart from the fact that I am still absolutely knackered, since I like Matisse anyway, and seeing some of his original source material had a definite charm.  I am not convinced that Matisse had any truck with the peculiarly Western distinction between Fine and Decorative art, indeed, I think his interiors should count as part of his body of work.

After Matisse I didn't feel up to iconic images of flags, targets, numbers, maps and light bulbs, and gave Jasper Johns a miss.  The Matisse is worth catching, but it is only on now until the twelfth of November.

Monday, 9 October 2017

in the midst of life

Death does seem to have a knack of crash landing on life, and so yesterday evening we gathered at my brother's house and ate the ham and the Waldorf salad that they had ordered from Marks and Spencer before we knew the trajectory of my father's final illness.  After all, my mother had to eat something, and probably did not want to spend her eightieth birthday sitting in the dark by herself, and it was an extremely good ham and it would have been a shame to end up tipping half of it into the food recycling bin.  After some muttered behind-the-scenes debate my brother even brought out the Happy Eightieth Birthday chocolate cake that had been hidden while he saw how things went, on the grounds that my father would have wanted her to have a nice birthday, and that she and my sister-in-law and the grandchildren all like chocolate cake.  The emergency back up plan had been to slice it up so that you couldn't read the words on the icing any more, and give it to the local church.

This morning I took my mother back to the hospital to collect the medical certificate, one of the many documents she will need to present to the Registrar of Births and Deaths to obtain a death certificate.  I saw from the useful booklet the hospital gave us on Saturday, and which I managed to snaffle two copies of so that I could have one as well as my mother, that we were required to register the death within five days.  That's quite a tight timescale, especially given the office at the Bereavement Suite only opens on weekdays.  If your loved one dies after office hours on a Friday it seems you have already used up two of your five days before you can even get the medical certificate.

On the way home my mother asked me what people did whose religions require them to be buried on the same day, and I had to admit I didn't know.  I think they would just have to ask their deity to excuse them, on the grounds that the local laws and customs were not adapted to their religion.

Then we drank tea in her kitchen and admired the collection of cards that had already dropped through the letterbox while trying to remember who else we ought to tell, and the name of the solicitors holding my father's will, and discussing the relative merits of Colchester and Weeley crematoriums.  I suspect that the great rush of things they need to do keeps people going until after the funeral.  Then the whole situation probably hits them like a tonne of bricks.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My father died yesterday evening.  Today is my mother's eightieth birthday.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

I managed to get the next lot of syrup on the bees, and planted the rest of the bag of Crocus tommasinianus.  And then I went to the hospital.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

With the trips to the hospital I have not finished feeding the bees.  You are supposed to keep giving them syrup until they don't take any more down to store in the hive, but I hadn't been for a few days to see if they had finished the last lot.  After breakfast I took myself up to the apiary, and found that two colonies had sucked their feeders dry, and the other two had made reasonable inroads into the last lot of syrup but not yet finished it.  On that basis I dissolved another two big bags of granulated sugar in water, to give to them later once it had cooled down.  I could have made the syrup last night, but you never know how much they are going to want and it is galling to end up pouring a gallon of sugar syrup down the sink.

Luckily the weather is still warm and forecast to remain so for several days yet, so it is not unreasonable to ask the bees to process liquid sugar solution, even though the feeding should have been done last month.  In an emergency if they were running out of food in the winter I would give them fondant, and indeed I have a small stock of the splendidly named Bienenfutterteig Feed Paste down in the garage.  I have heard it said by some old and disapproving beekeepers that some young and new apiarists can't be bothered to make up sugar syrup at all and only give their bees fondant.  This they hold to be reprehensible because of the perceived extravagance, and because it is harder work for the bees since they have to collect water to dissolve the fondant before they can eat it.  On the basis that I have never heard old beekeepers warn against over-wintering your bees on oilseed rape honey, which sets within weeks of collection, I am not sure the water collection argument is valid, and anyway there's probably enough condensation in the hive from the bees breathing.

Then I began to plant this year's addition to the crocus population in the bottom lawn, another hundred bulbs of the straight species Crocus tommasinianus.  I used to feel jealous of all the garden owners featured in magazines who said they had planted fifty bulbs ten or twenty years ago and now had thousands, since mine are not bulking up anything like that rapidly.  Then it occurred to me that since we don't cut the long grass down until the autumn it might be too thick and smothering for the crocus to seed themselves, meaning that I was relying on the bulbs producing offsets to multiply.  It was a slow process because I was tidying away the fallen remains of the long grass that the power scythe missed as I went along.

In the afternoon I went to the hospital.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

I took my mother to the hospital this morning and we sat by my father's bedside.  In the afternoon after I had taken her home I went and bought some compost to pot the bulb order, and a plastic storage box to keep my growing collection of speciality plant foods.  And then I realised I was simply too tired to do anything else.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

learning from the grower

This evening's lecture at the garden club was by a National Collection holder of Agapanthus, Nerine, and Tuhlbagia (and Clivia, but he didn't talk about them, which was a pity, but you can't cover everything in one evening).  It was a very good and instructive talk, and by the end of it I had learned several things that might explain why some of my plants were doing or not doing various things.

I was pleased to discover that I had pretty much worked out the correct principles of growing Agapanthus in pots from experience, including the point that while young plants flower earlier if moderately pot bound, mature plants do not flower well once their roots are completely congested in their pot.  The collection holder's rule of thumb was to move them on to a larger pot every two years until they were in as large a pot as you could handle, at which point you split them and started again, which is the answer I eventually came to.  I had to smile inwardly at the question from the audience as to whether you really chopped them up or teased the roots apart, as I should like to see anyone tease the root ball of a thoroughly pot bound clump of Agapanthus apart.  I blunted a bread knife sawing mine up, and tonight's speaker produced an array of the knives he uses for the task, the largest of which was a full-blown cleaver.

I had not thought of leaving the chopped up root ball exposed to the air for twenty four hours to callus over before potting the pieces, to reduce the chance of it rotting.  On the other hand I had discovered empirically that you could divide evergreen Agapanthus in the autumn.  During the talk we were told to do it in the spring, but chatting to the grower afterwards he said that of course on the nursery they split plants throughout the year to keep up with demand.  I had got my winter watering regime pretty much spot on, which is to keep them dry in the coldest months when they are not growing at all.  Where I fell down totally was on feeding.  It turns out that Agapanthus like their feed to be phenomenally high in phosphate.  Tomato food, said the lecturer, did not have the right mix of the main nutrients, let alone the necessary trace elements, and was really designed for annual crops (like tomatoes) rather than long term projects like potted Agapanthus.

Nerine are one of my gardening bugbears.  The hardy outdoor form, Nerine bowdenii, almost never flowers for me despite being on well drained soil in sunny parts of the garden, while the tender varieties leave me anxious about when I am supposed to water them and when I should withhold water, so that they end up scarcely getting watered at all, and barely surviving in their pots.  Following the talk I suspect that my problem with the hardy ones is that I don't feed them enough and that I have tried to cram them into areas where there are already so many other plants that they get shaded.  I am on the right track now with the watering regime for my pots of tender varieties, but ought to feed them.

The hybrid between Nerine and Amaryllis belladonna sounded very promising, with flowers like Nerine only bigger on taller stalks, and a reasonable degree of hardiness inherited from the Nerine side of the family.  On the other hand the question of why my non-flowering Amaryllis belladonna only flowered about one year in four remained unanswered, because apparently Amaryllis are notoriously fickle and even the experts don't agree on how to get them to flower.  Some say to give more water while others say to give less.  At any rate it is not a simple question of correct feeding.  A bulb merchant in the audience had a theory that the flower buds of Amaryllis grown in the open ground could be vulnerable to frost, which sounded as good as any other theory, though it would not explain why my Amaryllis never flowered when it was in its pot, which is how it came to be planted out in the open ground in the first place.

Something I would never have guessed was that big mature clumps of Tulbaghia tend not to produce many flowers, so instead of merely moving my overcrowded plant into an even bigger pot I ought to cut the root ball up into halves or quarters and pot each of them individually.  I should do that in the spring, however.

I was so inspired by the end of it that I bought three pots of specially formulated food, blue for Agapanthus, pink for Nerine and yellow for Clivia.  Apparently there is still time to give the Agapanthus one feed before putting them away for the winter.

Monday, 2 October 2017

keeping on

My father is ill in hospital.  But in between the hospital visits life goes on, because after all what else do you do?  And so today I took another five bags of long grass from the bottom lawn to the dump without incurring the ire or suspicion of the staff, then bagged up the slightly twiggy but usable-as-mulch compost from the end bin to make room for the bags of shreddings and small twigs from the Eleagnus hedge.  As easy wins in gardening went, reducing the quantity of large white plastic sacks lying around the front garden was a very quick way of making the place look tidier, and besides, the Systems Administrator had run out of bags to put more shreddings in.  I cut some more off the top of the hedge, but then it got too windy to feel safe standing up on the Henchman, and anyway the hedge was waving around too much for me to see the line of it.  At teatime my bulbs order from Peter Nyssen arrived and they had remembered to put in the extra daffodils that I ordered at the last minute.  So it was a normal sort of day, except that it wasn't.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

jobs for later

Last spring I meant to take cuttings of a dusky pink, single dahlia, and another in a good shade of soft yellow, that grew from a packet of mixed seed that came free with a garden magazine.  The previous summer while the dahlias were in flower I stuck labels in the pots to remind me, since the time to do dahlia cuttings is when they first come into growth and before the stems become hollow (so theory says.  I have never actually taken cuttings from dahlias).  By the time it came to spring, however, I could not find the marked pots among the dahlias, all with white labels, crammed pot thick into the greenhouse with only a narrow aisle along the side of the bench left for me to walk along, and missed my chance.

Accordingly, yesterday at the Plant Heritage meeting I bought a packet of green plastic stick in labels.  The idea is that the coloured labels will show up among the white, and I can tag pots where the plant needs attention.   I thought of having a coded system, red for  taking cuttings, say, and yellow for splitting, but that seemed overly complicated.  If it isn't obvious what needs doing then I can always write on the label.

The Tulbaghia violacea need splitting.  A tender member of the onion family, it produces fine leaves in summer that smell strongly of onion when touched, and delicate nodding flowers on long stalks.  I have two forms, one with white flowers, one with mauve flowers and variegated leaves. Both have filled their pots while pushing themselves upwards so that by now the compost, densely crammed with roots, is level with the top of the pot and it's difficult to water them properly.  I could move them into even larger pots, but the pots they are in are quite large enough to lift. Better to saw the rootballs in half, cut off the bottoms so that they will fit in their pots with headroom for watering, and start them off again in similar sized pots.  I daresay that some fresh compost will give them a new lease of life, and I might manage to extract the dandelions that have infiltrated the roots while I'm at it.

Some of the evergreen Agapanthus need splitting as well, since their pots are so huge already that I can barely lift them.  The thought of taking the bread knife to 'Queen Mum' makes me quite anxious, when she has grown from a modest little thing with just one flower stalk into such a fine clump, but I know that flowering will decline if I leave her as she is for another year.  Agapanthus in pots like to be well fed and well watered in the summer, and don't flower at all well if truly pot bound, even if they don't want their fleshy roots to be sitting around in loads of spare compost. Tuesday's garden club lecture is about Agapanthus and Nerine, so if I might pick up some useful tips if I manage to get along.

I don't know what to do about Salvia confertiflora, which has not looked awfully happy this season and was very late into flower despite being in another pot so big I can scarcely move it.  I rather think the plants I saw at Kiftsgate and East Ruston all had sole possession of absolutely enormous pots, suggesting it is a species that requires a lavish root run to give of its best.  I have been trying to work out if it could live permanently in the conservatory so that I wouldn't have to move it, then it could have an even bigger pot, but after much mental juggling of the inhabitants still can't work out where it could go.