Friday, 20 April 2018

almost on holiday

We are practically on holiday.  The house is as clean as it is going to be.  The important bits are really clean, like the bathroom and the kitchen sink.  The windows need washing but I never got round to tackling them.  The Smiths have house sat for us several times in the past, so they know pretty much what they are letting themselves in for.  If dirty windows were going to put them off they'd have given up before now.

Roll on Cornwall.  I am absolutely knackered.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

the hottest day

The plants in the greenhouse have survived the hottest April day since 1949.  Or at least the hottest in London, where St James Park reached 28.3 degrees, a little short of the 29.4 degrees the thermometer hit in 1949, but still awfully hot.  Fortunately it was not as hot as that in north Essex.  Our outdoor thermometer seems to have packed up, or is no longer speaking to the weather station, but according to the Met Office Elmstead Market was due to see 21 degrees.  That's still nearly twice the April average maximum temperature.

The BBC sounded jolly chirpy about it throughout the day, with the weather forecasters telling us what the lovely weather had been today before describing tomorrow as still lovely although not quite as hot, as though heat equated with loveliness.  The presenters on the World at One and the Six o'clock News sounded equally enthusiastic.  Although what broadcasters say about weather makes no earthly difference to what the weather does, I wished, not for the first time, that they could just present the facts and leave their listeners to add their own value judgements.

I was relieved to make it through to lunchtime, and then through the afternoon, without going into the greenhouse to find that half my pots of seedlings had collapsed.  Every door and window that could be opened was open.  I put the shading paint on just before the weather started to warm up.  I watered every pot first thing this morning, and damped down the floor of the greenhouse to get the evaporative cooling effect as it dried.  That was all I could do.  Sometimes it is not enough.  One scorchingly hot day in April, when seedlings have emerged but are still tiny and fragile, can be enough to undo tens of hours of planning, sowing, and pricking out.  In fact I have been holding back from doing any more pricking out since last weekend, knowing it was likely to get hot and not wanting the young plants to go into the mini-heatwave with freshly disturbed roots.

I had been toying with the idea of going to London today to catch the current exhibition at Dulwich, which ends in a couple of weeks, or else the Queen's Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power ends in the middle of next month.  Since we are about to disappear to Cornwall time to see either is running out.  I gave up on that idea as it became clear how hot it was due to be this week, since London in 28.3 degrees would be horrible and I wanted to be able to keep an eye on the greenhouse.  Avoiding the Queen's Gallery was probably a good call in any event, since I heard on the news that the Queen was hosting the Commonwealth heads at Buckingham Palace, so access to the gallery would probably have been tricky.  I once arrived just as they were about to Troop the Colour, and was kettled on the wrong side of the road for ages.  Goodness knows what delays there would be with the heads of the Commonwealth and Theresa May all turning up.

Tomorrow is forecast to be slightly fresher, and then temperatures should drift down into next week.  I shall be perfectly happy if it is not this hot while we are away, as it will save me from worrying too much about my seedlings.  I am sure Mr and Mrs Smith will do their best, but seedlings are not the easiest things to manage.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

tidying the gravel garden

Rather a lot of coarse leaved, clump forming grass has seeded itself into the gravel of the turning circle.  I am not sure where it came from, since I didn't let anything like it seed itself last year.  I suppose seeds hang around in the soil for ages, and maybe the odd clump got away from me.  I spent a chunk of today pulling it up, along with a finer leaved but also clumping grass, plus a small weed with blue flowers whose name I don't know, and tufts of sheep's sorrel.

The Teucrium fruticans is horribly burnt after the cold spell, but alive.  I began the task of trying to clip it into a neat dome, which should make it more resistant to cold spells in future, if a book I read recently on Mediterranean gardening is to be believed, and will stop it from rampaging over its neighbours at that end of the turning circle.

Gladiolus tristis is looking very triste indeed, entirely brown above ground.  I suppose it will be interesting to see if new growth ever emerges from the base, but frankly it's an experiment I'd as soon not have made.  The fancy hybrid Watsonia bought from a nursery are both burnt brown, while the seed raised W. pillansii are looking horrible but in many cases have signs of green life low down.  Isn't that the way?  Things that self-seeded for free surviving better than their relatives that you paid good money for, and drove all the way to Saffron Walden to buy.

The Dierama have seeded themselves so generously I am reduced to pulling out unwanted young plants like weeds.  Once they are unwanted I guess they are weeds.  Libertia peregrinans has been peregrinating more than I want as well.  It felt awfully wasteful putting the pieces I pulled up in the bucket of stuff bound for compost, instead of potting them up for the garden society or some other future hypothetical plant sale, but I am running out of space in the cold frames and sometimes life is too short.  I noticed a plug tray of tiny plants yesterday in the propagation tunnel at the Chatto gardens, which is where I bought my original plants.  With the benefit of hindsight I needn't have bought more than one.  It is a nice-looking plant, Libertia peregrinans, with fans of stiff, olive and burnt orange leaves, but it does like to move about, sending out runners just below the soil surface that periodically root and send up new fans.

There are no signs of growth as yet on the lemon scented shrub Aloysia triphylla.  Maybe it will shoot again and maybe it won't.  It is always late into leaf.  I trimmed the twiggy ends of last year's stems off to make it look slightly tidier, having noticed at one of last summer's garden visits to Norfolk that they cut theirs back.

The warmth of the last few days, coming after the rain, has been enough to wake up the back garden.  The lawn is growing rampantly, and practically dry enough to cut, the cherry blossom opening, and there is a genuine spring-like vibe in the air, although a tree lupin and some Cistus in the island bed are quite dead.  The poor singed Mediterraneans and South Africans in the gravel are taking longer to recover.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

a look behind the scenes

I went this morning on a garden club visit with a difference, to see the propagation tunnels and stock beds at the Beth Chatto Gardens.  I have gazed curiously over from the plant sales area towards their collection of polytunnels, and wondered what they did and how they did it.  I now have a much better idea, and it is like home gardening, only done with better equipment and on a comparatively massive scale.

The plant centre where I used to work didn't really do propagation.  They bought in bags of roots each winter from a couple of specialist growers in Norfolk and the Netherlands, and potted them up, and sometimes if there were pots left over at the end of the season the manager would split them.  He would very occasionally take cuttings or sow seeds from a few of the plants in the garden, but essentially it was a retail outfit, and I bit my lip when one customer earnestly told me how she liked buying plants from people who raised them themselves.

Writtle once took us on a visit to the plant production arm of the Nottcutts garden centres, and we stood respectfully looking out over a sea of identical hebe in a vast glasshouse.  It was spun off from Nottcutts, and has since gone bust.  Bulk plant production is a brutal business.  The Hardy Plant Society organised a trip to a nursery near Sudbury that I think might once have been part of the Wyevale chain, but was independent by the time we got there.  The tunnels were dilapidated and there were a great many weeds, and some pots of plants that had seen better days, a long time previously.  It has gone bust as well.

The Chatto tunnels in comparison were a model of tidy industry, although not as mechanised as the Woodbridge outfit, but they were dealing with a far wider range of plants, some quite rare.  We saw the stock beds, from which plants propagated by division are lifted, to be split, potted, and grown on to root into their pots before being sold.  We saw pans of seedlings in tunnels protected only by shade netting, and more cossetted pans living on waist high heated benches with an automated overhead misting system, and modular trays of young plants waiting to go into their full sized pots.  We saw stem cuttings and root cuttings.  We saw plastic covered tunnels of plants busy rooting into their final pots, at which point they could be sent outside and released for sale in the nursery or by mail order.  Every one had a bar code so that the computer system knew where they were.  We heard how the person in charge of seed sowing kept records of what she had sown, and knew when to go round the garden to collect seeds, and which seed companies they trusted to buy seed from when necessary.  It was all gently impressive, in a way that any keen home gardener could grasp.  No micropropagation, sterile cabinets, or automated potting machines, but a very sound underlying organisation.  They deal with over two thousand species and varieties.  Start muddling up the labels and the pots with that lot and you are truly sunk.

I came home with a severe case of polytunnel envy.  Imagine the luxury of having a waist high, heated propagating bench with an overhead water supply that would reliably spray your seeds and cuttings with a fine mist of water each time they reached a set level of dryness.

The gardens were looking nice, but the tour had taken well over two hours and despite all the media fuss about the impending heatwave the air still had a nip to it.  My friend and I had a quick scoot round, then felt we'd seen as much as we could take in and wanted our lunch.

Monday, 16 April 2018

before we go

We are almost on holiday.  I have been looking rather dolefully at the swelling buds on 'Tai-haku' and trying to work out what else we are going to miss.  Like Prince Charles, leaving our own garden suddenly seems like a terribly bad idea.  On the other hand, the gardens in Cornwall will be very nice.  Normally we do not go away at this time of year, but I have not had any kind of holiday for eighteen months and could really do with a break .

Since we can't leave the cats and the chickens and my myriad pots unattended for a week, the faithful Mr and Mrs Smith will come to look after them, which has rather focused my attention on cleaning.  Obviously we have to clean the house sometimes regardless, but there is nothing like imagining somebody else living in your house to make you realize how much needs doing.  There is something about other people's dirt that seems more repellent than one's own.

On which note I must now go and clean the downstairs cloakroom.  I had to interupt my labours to go to a garden society committee meeting, although I am very grateful to the Systems Administrator while I was out.  The need to clean is more urgent than it would have been otherwise since I have invited a gardening friend back to lunch tomorrow after our garden club outing to the Chatto Gardens.  We are going to be taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of their polytunnels, which should be very interesting.  Come to think of it, I need to organize the cheque to pay the balance of the cost of the visit before cleaning the cloakroom.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

the heat is on

It is forecast to be warmer from tomorrow.  The wind has swung round to the south, bring warm air from, I believe, Africa.  More to the point, it is forecast to be sunny.  That cheery orange disc with the lines radiating around it, that has been a stranger to our seven day forecasts for so long, is up there on my screen for four solid days at the end of next week, not even peering coyly from behind a cotton wool ball.

This meant it was time to get shading paint on the greenhouse.  I used to find it an odd notion, deliberately cutting down the light getting into the greenhouse, when the gardening books stressed the importance of not siting them in shade, and the desirability of a north-south axis for the ridge, but experience taught that if you are using your greenhouse to raise young plants from seed then at the point when the sun warms up in April they need some shade.  Otherwise they cook.  Later on in the season the tomatoes just have to make do with warmth and dappled light.

Language is full of phrases we use metaphorically and by extension, only grasping the reality of their meaning when we finally encounter the situation they originally described.  Chickens come home to roost.  A situation is touch and go.  Only when you have kept free range hens, and seen them converge inexorably on the hen house as dusk approaches, or felt the judders as the keel of your boat scrapes over a sandbank with no room to spare whatsoever, do you realize the original, literal truth of such phrases.  So while most people who refer to the greenhouse effect are talking about global warming and the effect of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, still when the sun's rays fall on an actual greenhouse it gets too hot inside, alarmingly quickly.

I looked hopefully in the greenhouse for the packet of shading powder, but I'd used it up last year.  Buying some more ended up being a long-winded process since the useful Clacton garden centre turned out not to open until ten on a Sunday, and the other garden centre I thought I could call at on the way home turned out not to sell it.  I ended up going back to Clacton, since I did need shading paint.  Apparently it is all to do with your total covered selling area, and not your financial turnover or whether you are an independent business rather than part of a supermarket chain.  At least I will remember for next time.

The packaging had changed since last year and I had a moment of panic that Clacton didn't have any shading paint either, but it was merely that it is now sold as a liquid that you dilute instead of a powder that you dissolve.  I apply it using a rather grubby long handled paint roller that lives in the shed from year to year awaiting its one moment of utility each April.  The whole bottle would have made more shading paint solution than I needed, so I am hoping that like the powder the other half will keep until next year.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

daffodil, though art sick

I thought that by now I had seen most kinds of plant failure.  Bad or at least over-optimistic choice of planting site meaning it was too wet, or dry, or shady, or sunny, or windy.  Over or under-watering the pot.  Attack by rabbits, scale insects, aphids, or molluscs.  Death by the short indignant tabby persistently rolling on it.  Vine weevils.   Starvation.  Botrytis.  Phytophera.  Being crushed by falling trees, or crowded out by over-exuberant neighbours, or dug up by badgers.  Unusual and extreme cold, or heat.  Being trodden on.  Trouble at the roots and trouble on top.  Normally I have some idea what went wrong.

A small pot of daffodils I had by the front door has stumped me.  They are the variety 'Minnow', very dainty and very pretty with several little, open cupped, pale yellow flowers on each little stalk.  I planted ten in a pot that looked as though it was in scale with the bulbs, grew them on under the protection of a cold frame all winter, and only brought them out into the open when the leaves were well advanced and they seemed firmly rooted in their pot.  They sent up flower stems, and as the buds opened I moved the pot over to the front of the house.

All seemed well for about two days, then yesterday, quite suddenly, the whole display flopped, leaves and flower stems alike.  I hadn't let them dry out.  All the other pots of bulbs are absolutely fine.  I gathered the leaves and stalks up and ran some string around the edge of the pot tied to florist's canes to support them.  It didn't look great, and now the flowers are shriveling prematurely.  I really have no idea why or what has gone wrong.  In my quest to find out I even upended the pot and tipped the contents carefully into my hand so that I could look at the roots.  They were white, and looked healthy.  It has been very wet, but if they had rotted in their pot I'd have expected to see evidence.

I am stumped.  Baffled.  It has rained a great deal, and so my best guess is that their collapse is something to do with getting too wet, but why this one pot and no other is so badly affected beats me.  And daffodils are normally so easy going.  It's a pity.  I like 'Minnow' and was looking forward to seeing them for more than two days.  And while I am resigned to plants dying and things in the garden not going according to plan I would rather have some idea what went wrong.

Friday, 13 April 2018

natural pest controls

The leaves of some of the plants in the conservatory bore the notched marks of vine weevil damage, and the compost around climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' felt looser than it should have done, while last year a mature Impatiens keeled over and had to be salvaged by taking emergency cuttings, which are now cluttering up the kitchen window sill.  The real damage done by vine weevils, unsightly as the notches are, is the way their larvae eat the roots of your plants.  Chemical drenches are available, although for how much longer who knows, but this year I am going organic.  Accordingly I ordered a pack of vine weevil grub-eating nematodes.  The theory is that they burrow down into the potting compost and parasitise any larvae they find, killing them and breeding new generations of nematodes to keep up the good work, until they run out of vine weevil larvae and die.  Of course really effective parasites don't kill their hosts, which is one reason why the common cold is more common than rabies, but they are in an artificial situation in a pot.  In the garden I suppose they just keep going looking for things to feed on, which is partly why I wouldn't use them in the open ground.  I am not sure they are entirely host specific to vine weevils, but any kind of larvae in my pots are fair game.

They arrived in a little plastic tray which had to be kept in the fridge until wanted, and looked rather like fresh yeast that had started to go off.  I mixed them with water according to the instructions on the packet and watered all the pots in the conservatory, apart from the palm which I am nervous of upsetting since according to my book on palms they have sensitive roots.  I watered the auricula pots, and various other pots of primulas since vine weevils are especially partial to primulas, and the houseleeks because I've had problems with them in the past.  The instructions didn't say how much water per pot, only that the quantity supplied was sufficient to treat 12 square metres or 160 pots of unspecified size, but I shouldn't think my pots came to more than 12 square metres so I hope they have had a sufficient dose.  I watered the pots before the treatment because the instructions said they had to be damp, but didn't follow the advice to water them again since they were quite wet enough already and I didn't want to save them from weevil attack only to kill them by over-watering.

Then I made a diary note to apply another packet in six weeks' time as advised on the packet.  I shall report back in due course as to whether they seem to have had any effect.

Addendum:  I checked inside the worm bin earlier today and found three of my new charges climbing up the sides.  I put them back down on their potato peelings, but when I went this evening to add some more potato and carrot scraps to the bin I found one determined worm trying to escape again.  Foolish worms.  They should be glad they came to me, when I am not going to use them as fishing bait or feed them to reptiles and only want them to eat potato peelings and breed more worms.  I remembered that the worm catalogues had said something about buying coir bedding for your worms, so in the absence of any specially purchased coir I fetched them a few shovelfuls of compost from the most rotted down heap, so see if they liked living in that better than newspaper and potato peelings.  I began to remember that last time round worm farming had felt a bit like keeping a hamster: you had to buy it all sorts of expensive accessories and then it died anyway.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

alas poor Basingstoke

This month's Art Society lecture had the teasing title Basingstoke and its contribution to world culture.  The introduction on the society's website explained that it was essentially a case study in post war modern planning.  My interest was piqued.  I went to school in Exeter, another victim of post war modern planning following the damage inflicted by the Baedeker raids, and as a teenager I found the rebuilt High Street and newly created shopping precincts astonishingly ugly and desperately dull.  Revisiting twenty-five years on for a school reunion confirmed my childhood view that they were dreadful.  My sole experience of Basingstoke was of being stuck outside it on a train for a very long time, as I recall without a seat and holding a poinsettia intended as a gift to my aunt when we finally arrived, but I was familiar with Basingstoke's reputation for taking dullness and ugliness to epic new levels.  The lecture sounded like a must-hear, plus I gathered from the music society chairman who had been programme secretary of the art society at the point when the lecturer was booked that he delivered the whole thing entirely straight, and that it was very funny.

Poor Basingstoke.  It featured in the Domesday Book, and since then when it has figured in history, which is not very often, people have dismissed it as shabby and dull.  Gilbert White of later Selborne fame went to school there and amused himself in the evenings with his friends by undermining the ruins of the medieval chapel that stood at the end of the town.  A visiting Medici duke passed through it in the seventeenth century on his way to London and found it so boring it was scarcely worth his while to walk more than a few steps to look at it.  Even its own inhabitants had scant regard for it, demolishing a fine seventeenth century town hall in the following century to make space to expand the cattle market.

It survived the last war pretty much unscathed, having no strategic industries and not featuring in Baedeker, but caught the eye of the planners looking for somewhere to decant hundreds of thousands of Londoners into new and better housing.  Many of the new towns were built around small villages, but in the case of Basingstoke one hundred and forty acres of the centre of the town were compulsorily purchased, boarded off, and bulldozed and blown up.  The photographs of pre-demolition Basingstoke show a normal, slightly shabby 1960s provincial town, with buildings from Tudor to Victorian times, of the kind that nowadays would be very charming if the money was there, and still shabby if it wasn't.  In the case of the brave new Basingstoke the money ran out before the planners' great vision was completed, and features like the grand civic centre remained unbuilt.  The shopping centres have not aged well, and the new centre is raised up thirty feet above the level of the original town within a vast retaining brick wall known locally as the Great Wall of Basingstoke.

The lecturer stressed that he was not having a dig at the inhabitants of Basingstoke.  As a town it has among the highest employment rates and average wages in the country.  The people are friendly.  It is just that it is so hideously, stultifyingly ugly, and was built at the expense of bulldozing an entire, historic, potentially perfectly good town centre.  Incidentally, the displaced inhabitants were not well compensated for the loss of their homes and shops, and while many of the incoming East Enders were thrilled to have new homes with modern kitchens and indoor lavatories, there was a high suicide rate among the original inhabitants.

Basingstoke did turn out to have made a few contributions to world culture, apart from providing a case study in How Not To Develop a New Town.  A furniture maker supplied the writing slope given to Jane Austen by her father for her nineteenth birthday.  The Burberry clothing brand was invented there, although the tailor's original workshop has disappeared under the Great Wall, and the founder of Merton College lived there, although the site of his house is now covered by a pedestrian footbridge.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

your data is safe with us

Changes are coming in next month to the laws covering data protection.  It's striking how on the whole the organisations that have already contacted me to ask whether they can go on contacting me are the ones you would judge from all the evidence that I have the strongest relationship with.  When I've been a member of a charity for years, given them a direct debit authority to take my annual subscription from my bank account, supported their special appeals, bought their Christmas cards and completed their membership surveys, that indicates pretty strongly that I would like to go on hearing from them about their work.  Even so they have to ask me whether I still want to receive their communications, otherwise as the RSPB solemnly warned me, I would not get their magazine ever again.  It is not just the big charities that are on the case: the Barn Owl Trust who operate out of something only slightly grander than a portacabin on the fringes of Dartmoor got their request for continued contact in early as well.

In contrast, internet retailers from whom I have bought something maybe once in my life and who have taken that as an excuse to send me marketing emails at least weekly ever since, have been very backward in coming forward.  I am waiting for the last minute rush.  Unless there is one then an awful lot of companies, some of them household names, are going to be breaking the law as of 24 May.  Unless the new law only affects charities and not commercial enterprises, which would seem bizarre.

The committee decided that the music society fell under the new regulations.  We hold a list of the names of people who've bought tickets in recent years, along with their postal addresses, email addresses or both, and the Treasurer knows which of the members agreed to Gift Aid, although that is only held in hard copy.  Last summer when we sent out the annual newsletter and brochure for the following year we did ask those we hadn't heard from for a few years whether they would like to go on getting our mailshot.  The motive at that time was mainly to cut down on the cost of stamps.  Our Treasurer was confident that as long as we asked everybody the same question again at the next mailing we would be fine, as long as we made sure we held their data securely and didn't misuse it.  We were not planning to misuse it anyway, but we are nice people.  That is the trouble with this sort of legislation.  Scrupulous organisations like the Barn Owl Trust who were never going to make a nuisance of themselves in the first place dutifully use up some of their modest resources to make sure they comply, while I don't suppose the volume of mail in my spam folder will be any smaller by June than it was on 23 May.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

getting the wormery going

Now the weather is warming up I am trying to get the wormery back in commission.  In theory they sound such a great idea, producing liquid plant feed and nutrient rich worm casts from your kitchen scraps.  The wormery was a present several years back, at my suggestion.  It consists of a robust plastic bin, with a lid, and an added layer of insulating foam around the outside so that the worms do not freeze in winter.  On the lid is the instruction No Hot Ashes To Be Added, suggesting that the core of the bin was adapted from a normal dustbin, which is fair enough since womeries might be quite a niche market to tool up for specially, and who on earth would think it was a good idea to add hot ashes to their worms?  A perforated base sits several inches above the bottom of the bin, so that the worms are supported above the level of whatever liquid collects, and there is a tap at the bottom to drain off the liquid plant food from time to time.

Unfortunately it turned out that worms are not as straightforward to keep in a plastic bin as you would think.  The numbers kept dwindling rather than increasing, and I sometimes caught them climbing up the inside of the bin as if they were trying to escape.  I bought more, at some expense, but became discouraged at their general failure to thrive.  I tried asking for advice at the RHS stand one Chelsea, but the RHS scientist on duty looked at me with haunted eyes and said that running a wormery was not all that easy.  Thinking about it, they are probably more of an amateur gardening and allotment thing than a plant science thing.  I managed to obtain an honours degree in horticulture without being taught anything at all about composting worms.  And so when the worms died out again the bin lapsed.

Today I excavated the contents, which looked more like normal garden compost than a mass of worm casts, and had way too many crushed egg shells in it, plus various little bits of plastic than must have come off old cardboard boxes added to the mix in an attempt to make it less wet, and a couple of foil discs I reckon were originally attached to banana skins.  Instead I put in a generous amount of crumpled and ripped newspaper, an elderly apple and the last couple of sticks from some old and limp celery, and a couple of ripped up ginger lily leaves from the compost heap, because they looked so leafy.  According to the worm composting advice I read on the internet I should stick to newspaper and brown cardboard boxes, and avoid glossy or shredded office grade paper because of the chemicals used in the latter, and not include onion or citrus peel, which were too acidic or otherwise not to the worms' liking.  And given what I found left from the previous attempt I'd better omit eggshells.  In other words, rather than looking on the wormery as a receptacle for the contents of the kitchen green waste bin, I should treat it as a home for the worms and only feed them things I thought they would like to eat, as with the chickens.  I asked the Systems Administrator to save me any peelings from potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables, separate from any onions or leeks.

Then I added the new worms, which came from Yorkshire.  The previous worms came from the cutely named Wiggly Wigglers, who advertise in all the garden magazines, and who charge accordingly for their worms, £15.95 for their smallest pack plus £3.95 delivery.  This time round I found Yorkshire Worms online, whose prices started at £4.35, albeit for a much smaller pack, including delivery.  Their only concession to cuteness is a logo of a white York rose with a cartoon worm in the middle of it, and they are aiming at the fishing bait and live reptile feed markets as much as home composting.  The worms appeared inert in their packet, but once tipped out into the bin began to move purposefully.  You could not honestly have called it wriggling, or writhing.  After five minutes they had all vanished from sight.

Later I began to worry that the worms might have dropped down through the drainage holes in the base plate and into the sump, so had to go and decant the contents of the bin into a plastic bucket so that I could line it with a thick layer of newspaper.  I found that it had tipped over, although fortunately the lid had stayed clipped down, for which I blame the cats jumping on it.  They have never taken any interest in the bin before, but neither have I since they have lived here, until today.  The worms I could see among the newspaper and peelings did not look so lively as when they went into the bin, and I am gently worried about them.  My pet worms.

Monday, 9 April 2018

admin and drill

The garden did not look at all inviting when I pulled up the bathroom blind this morning, but ever hopeful I put on my gardening clothes.  It was a blow as I sat down with my muesli and opened my laptop to see that the forecast was for light rain all day.  I protested about this to the Systems Administrator who asked mildly what I had been expecting.  Apparently by yesterday the forecast for today was for rain, but I'd failed to notice.  Hope springs eternal.

Thinking that if I didn't have the excuse of being out in the garden I could at least catch up on some admin, I settled down to write an account for the music society's website of our education projects in the past year.  This was a process of clunking, agonising slowness as I had not personally witnessed any of the projects, and was reliant on trawling through my inbox for whatever emails the chairman had sent about them, with associated links.  Eventually I had half a dozen paragraphs giving a factually correct if slightly dull account of our efforts during the year.  I pressed the Update Website button and got a page saying the page I was looking for was unavailable.  When I navigated my way back to the editing function of the website the only part remaining of my laboriously crafted post was the title.  I started again, this time in Word.  Memo to self: the music society website does not have Autosave.

The phone rang in the middle of this excruciating exercise, and it was a man with a foreign accent, calling from a noisy room, who after struggling to pronounce my name told me that he was calling because my computer had been infected.  I told him that I thought he was a scammer, which was much more polite than what I said to the previous person who rang up to warn me about my computer.  Since he'd rung from an actual number instead of a Number Witheld I thought I might as well report it to the Information Comissioner's Office, but it took several minutes to find the right page on their website, and then several minutes more to pick up the thread of where I'd got to.

The phone rang again, and it was not another scammer but the secretary of the history society where I did my woodland charity talk, asking if she could have another copy of the little book about their memorial woods for the centenary of the Great War, because she had given the first one away.  It was handy that she rang, and even handier that she wanted another book, as it meant that I had an address so that the charity could write to acknowledge their donation.  She wanted my address so that she could write to thank me, and I learned that the person who donated his raffle prize to the charity was the grandson of the property developer who first set out the plotlands in the 1920s.  Jaywick may be a byword for deprivation nowadays, but when first created it was an affordable holiday escape for East End families, their own little bit of paradise by the sea.

Her call galvanized me to write a covering letter to the charity so that I could get both donations in the post on my way out this afternoon.  Then I remembered that a recent email from the house sitting agency included their invoice, which I needed to pay if I wanted the faithful Mr and Mrs Smith to come and look after the cats and chickens and water the pots while we are away.

The Inland Revenue emailed to remind me that I could now submit my 2017-18 tax return, but I thought that was a step too far, and that I would feel more motivated about it when it was more urgent.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

conservatory gardening

I spent today spring cleaning the conservatory, since it was raining.  Rain had been forecast, and I'd had the morning marked down accordingly.  Things have now been pruned, fed as appropriate, sprayed in a couple of cases, watered, and shuffled about.  I swept up the dead leaves from the floor and wiped the table.  By the time I'd finished it looked quite inviting, but smelt rather agricultural due to the fertilizer.  I'm assuming that will pass, although the greenhouse still smells pretty ripe and I finished titivating the pots in there several days ago.

There is one pleasing success, the Hardenbergia violacea, which has twined its way up to the ceiling and is flowering enthusiastically.  It is a member of the pea family, with dangling racemes of small, purple flowers and largish, longish, evergreen leaves.  It was one of those plants that was vaguely on my radar for the conservatory, since it sounded pretty and did not seem to require too much winter heat.  I bought one from Fibrex Nurseries at an RHS London plant fair a couple of years ago, because it was in flower and was pretty and I was feeling sporting.  It has progressed in fits and starts, at one point suffering an alarming amount of dieback, and this is the first year it has made a proper show.  I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it had quietly climbed the thirteen feet or so right up the back wall of the conservatory without my noticing, until it drew attention to itself by flowering.  The conservatory faces west, if not north-west, and is double glazed with a polycarbonate roof, so we can conclude that the Hardenbergia is capable of flowering in a lot less than full light, which is useful to know, and that it can comfortably exceed the RHS's estimated height of two metres.  It is still in a fairly small pot.  It is a twiner and so needs something to twine around.  In this case it has found one of the vertical wires strung up the wall as well as the neighbouring plants.

Begonia fuchsioides, also bought from Fibrex, is not such a happy story, but it is my own fault because they warned me when I bought it that a frost-free conservatory would not really be warm enough.  A couple of stems were dead, and the others have very few leaves.  Fortunately I have three or four rooted cuttings coming on in the greenhouse, which spent the winter in the heated propagator.  The parent plant spent the previous winter in my bathroom, where it was so much in the way that I decided I'd rather not do that again.  Now I've seen how badly it reacts to the frost-free conservatory I may have to reconsider.  Somebody should make a larger heated case than those meant for propagation, on the lines of a Wardian case, for keen gardeners who can't afford to heat their whole conservatory but would like to bring some choice tender things through the winter.

Salvia confertiflora was looking very gaunt and sulky, but alive.  I moved it into an even larger pot, now I have decided that there is no point in moving it outside for the summer because it always blows over.  I have a feeling that the plants I've admired at Kiftsgate, where I bought mine, and East Ruston Old Vicarage, were in gargantuan pots.  In my quest for the perfect burnt orange flower I would do quite a lot to make Salvia confertiflora happy, short of moving its new pot.

One of the roof lights has been leaking.  I first noticed before Christmas, when one corner of the conservatory became wet and I discovered snow had blown in.  The problem has since got worse, and I found this morning that the large Phoenix palm that lives in that corner and which should have been dry through the winter was sitting wet.  I asked the Systems Administrator if mending the  window could possibly rise up the SA's list of things to do, since the drips were now causing problems, subject to caveats about glue, whether it needed to be applied on a dry day, and minimum temperatures.  The instructions on the glue pot must have been favourable, because the window is now glued, clamped and drying.  As originally installed the windows had temperature controlled opening mechanisms, but as is the way of such things they stopped working and we never got round to fitting replacements.  Given the cats go on the roof I am quite happy for the windows to remain firmly shut.  If you open the doors at both ends enough breeze blows through to stop it getting dangerously hot.  It would be a different story if the conservatory were south facing.

The noise of rain on a polycarbonate roof always makes it sound much heavier and more dramatic than it is, though it is not as noisy as the sound of Mr Fluffy amusing himself sliding down the roof.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

what's out

We wandered down the back garden this afternoon with our mugs of tea to see what was happening.  It was a mixed picture.  Some of the shrubs have sailed through the snow, no problem.  The buds of Magnolia stellata 'Waterlily' have opened in the past couple of days and the bush is smothered in pristine, double, snaky-petalled flowers.  You would not guess the Beast From the East had been anywhere near it.  Corylopsis sinensis var. sinensis has been putting on a fine show for a few days now.  I can see it from the bathroom window, since it has grown much larger than I was expecting.  The RHS gives its ultimate height and spread as anywhere between 2.5 and 4 metres so I can't say I wasn't warned.  It goes under at least two synonyms, Corylopsis willmottiae and Corylopsis yunannensis, and I think I must simply have got in a muddle.  Most articles about Corylopsis start by reassuring the reader that they are medium sized shrubs.  It has dangling racemes of pale yellow flowers, produced in huge numbers, and is a pretty thing.  But large.

Poor old Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' is another case entirely.  Immediately after the cold spell many of the leaves fell off, and I hoped that this was merely a spring moult, since some varieties of D. bholua can be evergreen or deciduous depending on the weather.  This afternoon, though, the twigs had a shriveled air, and I didn't like the look of them at all.  If I lose the top growth perhaps it will shoot again from the base, since it has been suckering merrily around the bed and some of the suckers at the back look fine, but it is a pity it looks so poorly.  It was a very fine specimen.

At ground level the multi-coloured polyanthus are fine, and the hyacinths are having a superb year.  The latter are all relicts of past displays in pots, the bulbs salvaged and planted out in the borders after flowering.  Hyacinths make very long lasting plants in the garden.  The polyanthus are a cheerful mishmash of plants raised from seed, and bought from here and there, B&Q, garden centres, and a plant stall outside a bungalow near my former Pilates teacher's house.  There is no colour scheme to speak of, beyond being more mauve at one end and more yellow at the other, and some of the individual flowers are big and brash.  They would not pass muster in a garden of impeccable good taste, but I like them because they chime with my childhood memories of polyanthus, and the Systems Administrator likes them because they are colourful and in the SA's book you can have too much Good Taste in a garden.  The SA has not yet learned to share my enthusiasm for small green flowers, for example.

The evergreen foliage of the clumps of Libertia grandiflora and Watsonia pillansii is badly browned and scorched, and altogether the garden still wears a rather shabby and shell-shocked air, between the isolated bursts of colour.

Friday, 6 April 2018

another talk

I wait months for a talk, and then two come along at once.  Having recently done talks for the woodland charity twice in six days, this evening I was at a Colchester gardening club talking about bulbs, and will be doing the same talk again on Monday.  After that there's a hiatus until June, when the woodland charity gets another outing.

Part of the fun of nature talks for audiences, especially the older audience members, is being reminded of scenes from their childhoods.  I'd spoken about fritillaries, and one elderly chap came up afterwards to tell me about the patch he found as a boy in Warwickshire, growing wild in a damp corner of farmland.  The following year they'd gone, the field drained and improved, the native flowers diminished.  His wife joined us, and asked if Crocosmia didn't need to grow in shade, as they had when the couple lived in Africa.  I reminded them that the sun was a lot higher and hotter in Africa, so shade there might equal full light here.  They agreed that was the case, and said that they felt in the mood for gardening after the talk, which was the general idea.

The garden club meets in the hall of an Orthodox church, and the car park was unexpectedly busy, with a sudden outburst of singing from next door just as I was beginning to speak.  I thought vaguely at the time that maybe the Friday after Easter had some significance, but maybe the date of Easter is different.  Because there were so many cars somebody had put out signs telling us to park on the grass so I did, then decided I'd better turn around while it was still light to avoid running over any of the sad little shrubs that had been planted in it.  Somebody should clear a grass-free patch around them all, or they will take ages to grow, if they don't simply die.  A case for co-operation between the garden club and the church.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

greenhouse gardening

Two of individual pots of salvia seedlings were completely blank this afternoon, with not even the shriveled remains of their little leaves to show me that they had failed to survive the shock of being transplanted.  Something must have eaten them.  I put more blue pellets over the remaining pots, while thinking that if they carried on being such snail magnets compared to everything else in the greenhouse then they were not going to do very well in the open garden.  Although perhaps it was mice.  There were a few slime traces, but not as many as I'd have expected from a concerted snail attack.

I pricked out the remaining tomato seedlings, burying as much of their stems as would fit in the pots.  The idea is that they form extra roots from the buried stems, besides making stockier plants.  Then I pricked out the pot of Silene alba seedlings, which yielded two full modular divided trays' worth of plants.  In a sudden fit of suspicion I put a few slug pellets around the trays as well.  Silene alba is our native white campion.  It grows naturally in this area along the hedgerows and verges, and there is some in the garden but not so much as I should like.  I thought I could easily fit in quite a lot of plants along the side of the wood.

Two more of the small hellebores that I bought as plugs and was growing on had died.  I got them as an experiment, because they were so cheap per plant and I wanted a lot of hellebores to go along the side of the wood, but some of the plugs were tiny, and really needed more individual attention and finely judged watering than I managed to give them.  Twelve Nunns sell bigger plugs of their Harvington Hellebores that are ready to pot into one litre pots, and they might be a better bet.  They raise lovely plants.  I have bought them in two litre pots ready to be planted out into the garden from the Chatto nursery.  Enough of the baby Hayloft plants survived for me to feel the exercise was not a total waste, but it depresses me when bought plants die, even when they were individually cheap.

A couple of the cuttings I took at the garden club's propagating evening have struck.  I took quite a few cuttings in total, but we were only given one pot each so they had to share.  Somewhere among my filing is the piece of paper where I wrote down all their names, so I will need to play the game of matching names to the survivors.  One looks like a fuchsia and the other a salvia, but I've a feeling I tried a couple of different salvias.  A third cutting has roots but no leaves as yet, so I will have to see if leaves follow in due course, or if it has given up.  The others were weeded out over the course of the winter as they became obviously dead, and in some cases mouldy.

There are a few more pots to tidy up in the greenhouse, and more than a few still scattered around the concrete, and then I really need to get back to the borders, now that they are starting to dry out, but first I need to make my last sowing of ornamentals, so that they can get on with germinating while I spread Strulch.  There are still Cosmos, Zinnia and castor oil plant to go.  There's no point in sowing them too early, because they end up sitting around for too long in their small pots in the greenhouse, and anyway until I'd moved the tomatoes out the heated propagator was full.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

making more

I remembered to get my two pots of stratifying seeds out of the fridge after their six weeks of chilling.  Unfortunately the germination instructions for the woolly mountain lavender, Lavandula lanata, turned out to have been wide of the mark, because far from germinating slowly and erratically over the next three months following their spell of cold, they had already sprouted in the fridge.  The jar contained a sad little muddle of pale, etiolated shoots like very weedy bean sprouts, and they had started to go mouldy.  The mess was reluctant to come out of the jar, and as I surveyed it having finally dislodged it I came to the conclusion that there was no point in trying to prick any of it out.  So that's £2.94 down the drain, or rather on the compost heap.  I suppose the lesson is to keep an eye on any seeds left to stratify and check them before the full period of chilling the seed company suggests.  But I have been ill, tired, and busy, and thought I was doing pretty well making a note of the time when I was supposed to get them out of the fridge and then remembering to do so.  Never mind.  Probably the woolly lavender would have died of cold next winter or the year after anyway, and I have saved myself pointless future work in not having any.

The pot of Amsonia hubrichtii had not done anything visible, which was as it should be.  I tipped the mixture of damp vermiculite and seeds on to a pot of seed compost and put it in a propagating case, hoping for germination in due course.

Two congested pots of Tulbaghia violacea spent the winter in the greenhouse.  This is a South African member of the onion family, an affiliation that becomes obvious when you handle the leaves and are suddenly hit by a strong onion smell.  It is on the tender side, which is why my plants live in pots and come under cover for the winter, and makes gradually spreading clumps with densely matted roots.  A nurseryman who specialises in them, along with Agapanthus, came and talked to the garden society last year, and advised us that old plants did not flower so well, and that it was a good idea to split them from time to time and not just move them into a larger pot.  Certainly mine had not been flowering as generously as they used to, and they had pushed themselves upwards in their pots so that it was impossible to water them properly, and I had been planning to move them up a pot size, but instead I followed his advice and sawed each into four parts with the bread knife that has never been so sharp as the other bread knife since I used it to get Agapanthus out of their pots a few years ago.  The Tulbaghia sliced up with very little resistance, and I remembered to dust the largest wounds with yellow sulphur powder before settling each in a new pot.

The disadvantage was that space in the greenhouse was already at a premium, and where I had two pots to fit in before I now had eight.  I do not need eight Tulbaghia myself, but I daresay the spares could find takers at one of my garden clubs.  They are not the most common variety, one having plain green leaves but white flowers rather than mauve, and the other having pinkish-violet flowers but variegated leaves.  They flower for a long time in summer when they are growing well, and I am fond of them in a quiet way.

Splitting Agapanthus 'Queen Mum' was more of a struggle.  I was afraid it would be.  I marked the pots I needed to split at the end of last summer by sticking green labels in them, and 'Queen Mum' was one of them.  I can no longer remember why that particular Agapanthus needed doing and not the others, but logically it must have been that it was drying out too quickly after watering, indicating that it was getting pot bound.  Contrary to popular belief Agapanthus do not flower better for being over-crowded in their pots, on the contrary, they stop flowering.  That was my theory based on observations over several years of growing them, and was what the Agapanthus and Tulbaghia man said in his talk.  I got through the fleshy white roots using the bread knife, with a certain amount of difficulty, but splitting the base of the above ground portion defeated me, and I had to go and hunt out my old pruning saw.  Eventually 'Queen Mum' was divided into two unequal parts, the larger of which is going to stay with me, while the smaller part will be spare, once I'm sure that my bit has taken.  Plant Breeders Rights apply, so technically I should find somebody to give it to since it should not be sold, not even in aid of garden club funds.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

two talks

I have just got in from my second woodland charity talk in six days.  It is quite efficient having them bunched together, as I go through the presentation before the first one to remind myself what I'm supposed to be talking about for which slide, and can then remember it for the second without any more preparation.  This time round I even made my samples of twigs of native trees last for both meetings, as they didn't have any leaves to wilt.

The first was to a newly formed wildlife group in the Dengie peninsula.  Dengie is a long-winded place to get to from north Essex, due to Essex having the longest coastline of any county in the UK (allegedly.  Cornwall is a contender, so it depends on who you ask).  You have to cross the river Blackwater, and the lowest bridging point is Maldon.  By the time I got to my destination, all of an hour and half after leaving home, I could see the houses of West Mersea with the naked eye, which are only a hop, skip and jump from Colchester.

It was only the wildlife group's second meeting.  The last one was cancelled due to snow, and I could see why the organizer had contacted me ten days before the scheduled date to check I was still able to come, and again the day before to reassure himself that I had not forgotten.  Cancelling two months on the trot could have killed the nascent club stone dead before it had fairly got going.  As it is there was a decent turnout, certainly as many as you could have fitted into the bijou church annexe where we were meeting.  They charged four pounds a head on the door to get in, and I realized afterwards that four pounds was probably my personal record.  Mostly I speak at clubs where meetings are free to members, or a pound at most.

They were very nice, friendly people, and made an exceptionally generous donation to the charity, especially considering that as a new club they ought to be building up some financial reserves.  In the chat before the talk the organizer told me about the sad plight of the curlew, which is threatened.  They are failing to breed successfully for some reason.  I was truly saddened.  The cry of curlews over the marshes has to be one of the most magical sounds there is.

The Dengie peninsula is an interesting place, with one of Britain's oldest chapels, and I'd originally been hoping to get a talk date for later in the year, when it would have been warmer and I could have gone earlier in the afternoon and explored.  One of the Systems Administrator's tutors at Oxford was a world expert on the field patterns of Dengie.  Mad Eric, as he was fondly known.  The SA remembers seeing the maps strewn across Mad Eric's desk, but at the time had never heard of it and didn't pay more than cursory attention.  If only we had known.

Tonight's talk was on my doorstep, although I managed to be massively early after allowing for non-existent rush hour traffic approaching Clacton, and the risk of getting caught for ages at the level crossing.  It was to a local history group.  I warned the chairman when he rang up last year that the talk was not just historical, but he said that didn't matter.  After some minutes of chat on the phone we got on to dates, and I discovered that they met on the first Tuesday of the month which clashed with my garden club, but it seemed too mean to suddenly back-pedal and say that I couldn't talk to them after all.

They had a sound system which the chairman politely but firmly requested that I use, as some of the members were hard of hearing, so I used it.  Most village hall and club sound systems are dire.  This one had a head-mounted microphone, so at least I didn't have to devote half my attention to holding a cranky hand mic the correct distance from my mouth for the whole talk.  I asked them at the start if it sounded OK or was buzzing, and adjusted the position of the mic until they said it was OK, but in the interval the man in charge of it came up to say that some people found it was buzzing too much, though it wasn't my fault, it was that the village hall speakers were the wrong sort.  I did the second half without, and nobody shouted that they couldn't hear.  If people can't hear it would be much better if they would say so at the time, instead of simmering in resentful silence.  At the end one person who had been right at the back told me she could hear perfectly in both halves, but I thought that perhaps whether people had problems depended on the nature of their hearing loss.  Actually, if they know they do have hearing loss I wish they would not fail to put their hearing aids in and then sit at the back when there are plenty of seats at the front.

The chairman in his vote of thanks told me that he had enjoyed it much more than he was expecting, and then came and explained afterwards that that had not come out right.  He meant that he had not known exactly what a talk on trees would be about, and was not sure that he would be interested.  Everybody else who said anything said they had liked it, and the man who won the cash raffle prize donated it to the charity, so on balance it seemed to be a success, apart from the cross deaf person at the back who left at half time.

The talk was in Jaywick.  As a matter of course I don't generally name places, but the only things that most people know about Jaywick are that it was badly flooded in 1953 and is now the most deprived community in the UK on many measures of deprivation.  I should like to state for the record that it has a thriving local history society.

Monday, 2 April 2018

in the greenhouse

It was another Bank Holiday washout.  We hadn't been planning to go anywhere, but I felt sorry for the people who'd been trying to organize events.  The local papers were a litany of cancelled lower league football matches and abandoned country fairs.  I took refuge in the greenhouse, where at least it was dry apart from the drips.  We need a nice day to scrape the moss out of the glazing bars and try and wedge the sheets of glass and replacement plastic back in place.

Something nibbled my pot of Salvia jurisicii seedlings.  I thought at first it was a mouse, as something detached a small tuft of leaves from one of the Pulsatilla I bought from Crocus and stood in the greenhouse pending planting.  I set a mousetrap, but it has not triggered and the peanut is still in place.  Then I blamed snails, and put down a couple of blue pellets, but they don't seem to have been touched either.  The seedlings were still alive, albeit minus a few leaves, and yielded me a tray and a half of seven centimetre pots when I pricked them out individually.  S. jurisicii comes originally from Macedonia, and promises to have eye-catching, grey-green, pinnate foliage (according to Chiltern Seeds).  Though I am sure, having handled the seedlings only a few hours ago, that their first true leaves were entire and not pinnate, but maybe that comes later.  They are still very small.

The pot of Luzula nivea produced nearly two four-by-eight modular tray's worth of plants, by the time I'd pricked them out individually.  This is the snowy woodrush, a delicate rush with fluffy white flowers in summer.  It is happy in light shade, and while it would prefer it dampish the soil around the wildlife pond is not too mere, and L. nivea is said to be adaptable.  I have visions of it fringing the margins of the pond in a delightful fashion.

Not looking so good was the pot of Persian violets, where I'm sure I saw a couple of tiny, tiny seedlings the last time I checked, while today there was nothing.  Too wet, too cold?  They were absolutely minute seeds and I was afraid they weren't going to be easy.  Also I found I'd allowed some of the pots of tomato seedlings to wilt badly.

Last autumn's cuttings of trailing Verbena almost all struck.  I split them apart into individual plants and potted them.  Some insect has been attacking their leaves which are mottled and marked, only I don't know what.  I sprayed them with SB Plant Invigorator pending a better theory.  The roots of trailing Verbena are thin and extensive and I caused a lot of damage getting the cuttings apart.  Obviously I should have done it sooner, but it has felt too cold to be disturbing cuttings.  Now I know how high the strike rate is I might start future cuttings in individual small pots, then I wouldn't have to disturb the roots.

The Sarcococca confusa cuttings that were given bottom heat from the beginning have made very good sturdy roots, and started throwing new shoots from below ground.  The roots are thick, white, unbranching, and strong, and the contents of each pot came apart with no teasing or tugging at all.  I potted them individually.  If you wanted a Sarcococca hedge it would be quite feasible to raise your own plants.  Obviously you would have to plan a couple of years in advance, but it would not be difficult.

Some of the overwintered Plectranthus argenteus cuttings were unambiguously alive, although not happy, others were iffy, and one was quite definitely dead.  A frost free greenhouse is really too cold for them.  All the pots were stood close together on the bench, and it's curious how some fared so much better than others.  Did it come down to some localised draught, or was I more or less heavy handed with the watering can?  P. argenteus is a useful summer bedding plant, having big furry grey leaves, and rather unexpectedly being happy in partial shade.  It is vigorous when it gets going, and I daresay the sad looking cuttings will perk up once the weather warms up.

In the meantime overcast days are actually rather good for pricking out and dividing pots of cuttings, as things have time to recover from the root disturbance while it isn't too warm.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

potting and tidying

I finished repotting the dahlias.  A few split into separate clumps of tubers as I was rubbing away the old compost, so I potted the spares into plastic pots.  If they grow we might be able to sell them at a garden club meeting in the late summer to supplement club funds, especially if they manage to flower in their first season so that people can see what they are getting.  When I worked out roughly how much per meeting we might have for speakers, given the expected membership and after we'd paid for the hall, it came to less than the cost of booking a good speaker, which rather brought home the continued necessity of plant sales and other means of boosting club income over and above the annual subscription.

I lined the pots up outside the greenhouse because I didn't have anywhere else to put them, and then began to worry that quite apart from the risk from frosts, which I could at least fleece against, they were going to get too wet.  It is going to pour with rain tomorrow and on Wednesday, but maybe on Tuesday I can reorganise the greenhouse and find a way of getting them back under cover.  It does not help that the lid of one of the cold frames has broken, and we don't have any odd pieces of any suitable plastic left to mend it.  I will have to buy some, but that isn't going to happen before Wednesday.

Most of the pots of plants that were left to take their chances on the concrete through the winter because I'd run out of space under cover have survived.  Verbascum chaixii, Kalimeris incisa, Aquilegia, Lychnis chalcedonica, seedling geraniums that are descendants of the variety 'Brookside', Hemerocallis, and even two out of four Verbena bonariensis.  I was impressed, and quite surprised.  It has been cold and wet, and I was resigned to taking most of the pots to the compost heap.  Some Kniphofia that I potted up when weeding because it seemed too wasteful to throw them away are looking pretty dire, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do with all of them anyway.  I managed to get rid of a few at plant stalls last year, but red hot pokers are not terribly fashionable at the moment, and many people are cautious about orange flowers.

The old compost from the dahlia pots can go on the long bed in the front garden as a mulch.  It doesn't look as crumbly and nourishing as the homemade compost off the heap, but it is organic material.  It is bagged up for now in old compost bags, tops tucked over to try and stop the rain from turning it into compost soup, and if I stir some 6X in before spreading it I am sure it will do some good.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

waking up the dahlias

It rained again.  I managed to weed some more of the shrub rose bed after the overnight rain had ceased and before the lunchtime rain started, tickling the soil with my hand fork, dusting it with fish, blood and bone, and tucking Strulch around the allium stems.  It was a job that would have been much easier three weeks ago.  On the plus side, foliage has now started to emerge on the too-numerous clumps of self-sown Campanula lactiflora, enabling me to find them to dig out the ones I don't want.  C. lactiflora is a perfectly nice plant, in a rubustious way.  Indeed, the parent of my unwanted largesse, the soft lilac variety 'Loddon Anna', holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  It's just that you can have too much of a good thing.  The smaller roses do not like being loomed over, and I don't want to stare at a monoculture of Campanula in that corner of the bed.

While it was only raining a bit I went to buy some more compost for the dahlias.  Last year's display was slightly disappointing, and I decided then that I really would try to find the time and energy to restart the tubers this season in fresh compost and set at the correct level in their pots so that there was a space at the top for watering.  It is so tempting, with all the other things to do in the spring, to just start them back into growth in their existing compost and tell yourself that with some liquid tomato feed everything will be fine.

The old compost came away from the tubers like dust as I probed at it with my fingers, and I felt a conscientious glow that for once I was doing the right thing by the dahlias as I settled them down in fresh compost, tapping the pots lightly on the ground and pushing compost down into the pot, but not too hard, to try and make sure I didn't leave any air pockets.  For good measure I topped every pot off with a sprinkling of Vitax Q4.  Some of the tubers were massive and I moved them into slightly bigger pots.  One yielded a couple of offsets, each with a portion of stem and three swollen storage lobes, that will make new plants, but others showed no signs of wanting to be split and I left them intact.

The greenhouse is bursting at the seams so I stood the pots out on the concrete, feeling vaguely radical since dahlias are not frost hardy.  But the ones left in the ground over the winter normally survive, and manage to come back into growth without being destroyed by frost, and I thought that I could fleece the pots when frost was forecast.  I was just so keen to get myself some working space in the greenhouse, so that I could space the pots of overwintering tender shrubs and herbaceous plants more widely, and have some elbow room while I tided them up and fed them.

By teatime it was raining properly again and I gave up for the day.  It is awfully disappointing weather for the Easter weekend.

Friday, 30 March 2018


I dug out some more Acanthus roots and planted a couple more pots of the 'White Triumphator' tulips at the bottom of the shrub rose bed, and then I had to give up working down there because it was too wet.  The soil of the rose bed came up in sticky lumps of glistening clay when I probed through it with my fork, the lumps refused to fall back down to fill the tulips' planting holes, and the lawn squelched audibly when I walked on it.

I retreated further up the slope to where the soil is lighter, and began to tidy among the roses and along the edge of the bed, picking up leaves, pulling out the odd tuft of annual grass or bittercress, and rooting out seedling goosegrass and young plants of burdock and common hogweed.  A giant burdock managed to flower last year, tucked away in the middle of the bed, and I do not want its progeny.  It's not that burdock isn't a handsome plant.  It is.  I admired one yesterday deployed to great effect in the foreground of one of the Italian Renaissance paintings in the Royal Academy's exhibition, complete with seedheads.  It's just that in real life they make massive plants, out of scale for use as ground cover in a rose bed, and the seeds stick to Mr Fluffy like the very devil and are quite impossible to remove without pulling out a lot of fur during the process.  Burdock is not a good thing to have in your garden if you have a long haired cat.

I put up with some hogweed.  I was talking about it this morning with a friend who is badly allergic to it.  Accidental contact with the sap was enough to bring her arm up in blisters at once, and her skin remained photosensitive for the next three years where the hogweed had burnt it.  And she has young grandchildren.  I don't seem to be that badly affected, and in any case I always garden in long sleeves, even in summer, so I don't mind having some tucked away in the borders.  It is an architectural plant, in a coarse way, usefully tall, tough, able to muscle its way up through lower layers of planting and the overshadowing roses, and it is perennial.  I grow angelica as well, which looks splendid in the first part of the summer, but dies disgracefully thereafter and then you have to manage where it puts its babies if you want any more next year.

It started to drizzle before noon, and while I managed to ignore it for a while, it had turned to proper rain that could not be ignored before half past twelve.  The rain radar confirmed what the Met Office had forecast, that once rain started it would be with us for the rest of the day, a huge slab of it sitting over the whole of Kent and the Thames estuary and moving steadily towards East Anglia.  Sure enough, it has rained ever since.  I read some of my stash of gardening magazines, but I would much rather have been outside.  The window for applying mulch is narrowing steadily, before the emerging leaves of the herbaceous plants are too big and too much in the way to work round them, and quite a lot of the existing mulch has reached the point of thinness where if it isn't topped up weeds are going to be able to germinate through it this season.  It is not supposed to rain tomorrow, but the soil will be wetter than ever.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

two exhibtions

Today I made a dash to London to catch two exhibitions that are going to end soon.  Modigliani at Tate Modern finishes this Sunday, and as there won't be any trains on the Colchester line over the Easter weekend it was a case of now or never.  The Royal Academy's show reuniting the art collection of Charles I runs until 15 April, but I wasn't sure I'd make it to town again before then, and as it's been well reviewed I thought I might as well not leave it until the last minute rush along with all the other people who still hadn't seen it.  Otherwise in an ideal world I wouldn't have crammed both exhibitions into one day.  They were both good, in their very different ways, but my brain is now aching.

I am not sure what I think about Modigliani, which isn't to say I didn't enjoy spending an hour and a half looking at his paintings.  Some of the early portraits were very clearly influenced by Cezanne, whom Modigliani admired.  Swap a cello for one of the card player's cards and you have it, same palette, similar mood.  A later work of a sultry, sideways glancing woman in an orange dress had a background lifted straight from Matisse.  The portraits of Modigliani's first dealer, dating from fairly early in his (anyway fairly short) career were fun, capturing a jaunty, chin-in-the-air, spivvy confidence that may or may not have been an accurate reflection of the sitter.  The little peasant sitting stolidly in his chair in one of the later rooms took us straight back to Cezanne.  In between were lots of nude women with wide hips, tiny mouths and rebellious expressions.  They were very decorative and I could imagine them looking absolutely splendid in a smart interwar apartment, along with some Art Deco furniture and maybe a few lines of cocaine laid out on the baby grand.

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian says it was a gorgeous show about a slightly silly artist.  I don't always agree with Jonathan Jones but on this occasion I think he got it spot on.

I see from the Royal Academy's latest email news (which may be my last since they still have not asked my permission to send me emails after the new data protection law comes in.  They only have my address because I am a lapsed Friend and ages ago bought a ticket in advance to something) that the Queen recently visited Charles I: King and Collector.  That must have been a mixed experience for her, since on the one hand a lot of the paintings were reacquired by the Royal Collection after it was dispersed during the Commonwealth so she has seen them before and lent them to the RA in the first place, but on the other hand when she looked at the pictures that were now in European or American ownership she might have been thinking that if only Charles I had managed things a bit better they would still have been One's.

I liked Charles I: King and Collector, firstly because it was fascinating to get an overview of Royal and aristocratic taste at that discrete point in history, and secondly because I really liked some of the pictures.  There are lots of Van Dycks and I like Van Dyck, and some lovely Northern Renaissance paintings, and some splendid Titians (and I was charmed by the inclusion of a small, eager dog advancing on a spitting tabby cat under the table where Christ was supping with two of his disciples at Emmaus), and some nice Tudor miniatures.  There are three wonderful Holbein portrait drawings, including one of Sir Thomas More's son who sits with averted eyes and downcast head, looking young and awkward and miserable, which touched me in a way that nothing in the Modigliani exhibition did.  There again, there was nothing even remotely silly about Holbein.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

mend or replace

The cats have demolished their cat flap again.  Last time the Systems Administrator managed to cobble it back together, but I think that this time we are going to have to get a new one.  They do not greatly approve of having a cat sized hole in the side of the house, even though a strange cat could theoretically have come through the flap anyway.  They certainly don't approve of the rain.  Mr Cool spent a hunk of the morning sitting disconsolately on the door mat, glowering out through the glass at the widening puddles.

Meanwhile, the volume control of my shower has gone on the blink, again.  It failed before, and the SA managed to coax it back into life, so we will have to see if he can repeat the trick or if we are going to have to buy a new one.

Mr Fidget has lost a mouse somewhere.  At least, I am pretty sure it is Mr Fidget's mouse.  It seems to have been in the paper recycling basket at one point during the night, as by morning the cats had pushed the basket clear of the wall and were standing around it, surrounded by scattered envelopes and old Whiskas boxes.  By lunchtime action had moved to the other end of the house, with all three black and white kitties staring into the cupboard under the stairs, one of those glory holes full of discarded electronic equipment needing to be sorted out if only one had a spare day.  Actually I would like the space to put my father's records in, so it probably will get tidied sooner or later.  By mid afternoon Mr Fluffy had lost interest in the chase and retreated back to the sofa, but Mr Fidget was still on guard.

Our Ginger is too old and sensible for these capers.

I collected my new seeing glasses and my new half price for the second pair reading glasses from the optician.  The new seeing glasses are an improvement on the old pair.  I had to admit, sat in the optician's chair, that my left eye had got even more short sighted, and the world through the new glasses looks marvelously crisp and clear even on a very soggy day.  The fact that I upgraded to a top-of-the-range varifocal lens once I'd seen how I got on with them probably helped too.  I do not like the new frames as much as the old, but they were the best the children's section could offer.  I don't suppose anybody else will even notice the difference, only I think they are a bit too rectangular.  The optician wanted me to get prescription sun glasses rather than reading glasses, when she heard that I did a lot of gardening.  I protested that I always wore a hat between April and October, and that I hated the way sunglasses changed the colour of everything.  It was to prevent cataracts, she said sternly, UV light exposure gives you cataracts which was why people in southern Europe develop them at a younger age than we do.  It was especially important as you got older.  I continued to resist.  The UK is as far north as Newfoundland, for goodness sake.  I do not believe there is any public health directive that over fifties should don UV protective eyewear every time they go outside the house.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

volunteer treasurer

I spent the afternoon grappling with the garden club accounts.  They are not conceptually difficult, but I haven't yet got into the rhythm of how information is supposed to flow through them, even though I ought to know as I wrote the spreadsheets.  Members pay their annual subscriptions and then pay extra for trips, using cash and cheques, and I need to keep track of who has paid what for which event, when some physical payments cover more than one visit, or a visit plus the annual membership, or two different people's tickets for the same visit, and make sure that all the payments on the Trips page of the spreadsheet makes it through to the Income page, and that the Income page reconciles with the bank statement.  The Membership Secretary has taken some of the subs straight to the bank or the post office herself, which saves me a trip to Colchester, and she is very good about giving me a breakdown of what she's paid in that tallies with the totals on the bank statement.

Only it took me a long time this afternoon to work out that I was missing the breakdown of two of the February payments into the bank, and as it's the first year I've done it I'm not yet familiar with most of the members' names and it's not immediately obvious how many there ought to be or whether some must have fallen off the list.  And when you pay in several batches of membership fees all of eleven pounds you end up with two subtotals for the same amount and start to go mad trying to keep track of which is which.  The paying-in book has room for only ten cheques per slip, there is no carbon copy, and the bank statement doesn't include a paying-in slip number, so if I don't keep a clear record of which payments went on each slip and write the totals on the stub I could spend hours fiddling with possible permutations of cheques trying to get them to fit with the amounts that arrived in the bank statement.  It didn't help that I forgot to take the paying-in book with me to the bank and had to ask the desk clerk to write me a receipt, and she made a transposition error in one of the totals.  The Membership Secretary had only just got back from holiday on the other side of the world and was severely jet lagged for the first committee meeting of the year, and the second one was reduced to an exchange of emails by the snow, so I feel I am still finding my feet. 

The difference between a number and a transposition error of that number is always divisible by nine.  It should have been a clue.

Monday, 26 March 2018

things we should probably not have planted

A few days ago I agreed to do a talk to my garden club next year.  The Programme Secretary asked what I was talking about at the moment, and I suggested reviving a talk I did several years ago for an open day at the plant centre where I used to work, about the things I now knew about gardening that I wish I'd known when I started.  It is a good umbrella subject that gives scope for covering some quite useful and serious topics like soil conditioners and mulch, as well as poking fun at your own unwise plant choices, and I recollect it got some laughs first time round.

It seemed an apt choice this morning as I spent half a day chopping unwanted Acanthus spinosus out of one of the rose beds with a pickaxe, and foraging for more roots with a border fork.  It is a thankless task trying to remove an acanthus, since they will regenerate from any remaining root fragments and you will never get all the roots out.  They are brittle, and go wide and deep.  One of the lecturers at Writtle warned us to be very sure where we wanted Acanthus before planting it, since if we moved it later we would have two, the one we'd moved plus the regrowth in the original site.  But that was after I'd planted mine.

They are handsome plants, it is true, though now somewhat out of fashion with the rise of prairie planting and the New Perennials movement.  The leaves, as garden books used to regularly mention, were the inspiration for the foliage at the top of classical columns, and they are fine, unless they get mildew, which they are distressingly prone to do.  The flowers are handsome too, sombre, prickly spires of purple and white.  What the books did not emphasise as much as they maybe should have was that the roots would travel energetically through your borders, and that if you let the flowers run to seed they would do with fierce abandon.

On a visit to the lovely and superbly maintained garden at Fullers Mill I noticed they had controlled, not too massive clumps of Acanthus spinosus in their borders and asked the gardener how they managed it.  With the use of a pickaxe and glyphosate, came the reply.  I am planting potfuls of tulips in the gap opened up by my efforts, and replanting the snowdrops that got dislodged.  They will both have vanished below ground by mid-summer, leaving me a clear run until autumn with the glyphosate.

At this afternoon's garden club committee meeting the Programme Secretary expressed concern that the speaker booked for the May meeting was proving very elusive.  Could I possibly have something on standby, just in case we found ourselves faced with a hall full of people and no speaker?  I shall have to start reconstructing the talk sooner than expected, just in case.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

all change

I woke up this morning, and wondered why I felt so little like getting up when it was eight o'clock and the Systems Administrator was already out of bed.  Then I remembered that the clocks changed last night, and that my bedside digital clock radio had already helpfully reset itself.  The kitchen clock speaks to a remote transmitter that tells it what time it is, so that had changed to the new time before I got down to breakfast.  It's probably just as well they know, since I always struggle to remember whether everything gets earlier or later when the clocks change in March, and again in October.  A friend said it was easy, just remember Spring forward and Fall back, but I never found that helped very much.  My best guide is the memory of how as a student I went with a friend to watch the boat race, and the next day we were due to go to lunch with friends of hers and were late.  So the Sunday after the boat race everything is earlier than your stomach or Saturday's setting of your watch tell you it ought to be.

It's handy because the clock in my car is now only one minute fast instead of an hour and a minute.  To alter the time on the clock you have to turn a tiny plastic knob, one way to advance the hours and the other for the minutes.  I can never remember whether clockwise or anticlockwise does the hours, and since if you forget and add a minute you then have to scroll through the other fifty-nine of them to get back to where they ought to be, and it is a very tiny and fiddly knob, it is easier just to leave the clock unaltered and make a mental adjustment in the winter months.

I reset my gardening watch because I wore it today, but not my tidy watch or my other gardening watch.  Scope for confusion lies ahead.  I suppose young people do not have to worry about these things because they tell the time from their phones.

Saturday, 24 March 2018


It drizzled for the middle part of the morning, just as I'd finished watering in the greenhouse and the conservatory and got my bucket of hand tools and tub of fish, blood and bone ready to continue mulching the long bed in the front garden.  I hastily put the tools and fertiliser under cover, and occupied myself in the greenhouse with last year's new auricula plants and this year's new dahlia tubers.

The auriculas have started into growth.  They stood outside all year in the shelter of the house, their little pots freezing solid in the cold spells, watered only by snow and rain.  The books and specialist catalogues promise that cold will not kill them.  Their enemy is damp.  Through the coldest months they did nothing, little tufts of wizened leaves in apparent stasis, but in the past couple of weeks they have been on the move, new leaves emerging and expanding.  There are even a few embryonic flower stems.

The year before last's auriculas are in clay pots, but the second batch ended up spending the winter in their deep three inch plastic pots, because due to a communication glitch with the pottery their terracotta pots did not arrive until the autumn when the plants were entering dormancy.  The books and specialist suppliers are united in their advice that you must not pot them on in autumn.  When damp is anathema to them, leaving them to sit through the winter in a wodge of new, unoccupied compost is asking for trouble.

I am using a mixture of John Innes number three cut with a generous proportion of horticultural gravel.  It is a fairly fine, sharp gravel, smaller and sharper than some bags I've bought, and I feel it should do wonders for the drainage of the John Innes.  Two things became apparent as I potted.  The first was that the interior volume of the terracotta pots is not as much larger than the plastic ones as you'd think, because their walls are so thick, although they are almost two inches deeper.  The second was that the amount of root growth the new auriculas had made varied considerably.  Some had thick, strong roots filling the compost in their plastic pots, and will certainly be glad of the extra space.  The others had begun to explore, but not yet fully exploited their existing space, apart from one that had completely failed to root down into the compost below its original root ball.  I didn't risk moving that one into an even bigger pot, and contented myself with giving it a small vintage clay pot in place of the plastic.  Even then its root ball broke up as I was lowering it down into its new container.

I like clay pots for auriculas, partly on aesthetic grounds but also because unglazed terracotta is a breathable material and I feel the extra air and evaporative cooling can only be good for their roots.

I got the dahlia tubers from a specialist nursery whose owner sits on an RHS panel to do with dahlias, and who sounds as though she eats, breathes and lives dahlias, and who promised on her website to send the genuine variety for 'Waltzing Mathilda' and not just some vaguely similar orange-pink substitute.  I am feeling rather grumpy about substitutes after getting the wrong thing from several suppliers in the past couple of years.  Some took my order and then ran out, and others sent things incorrectly labelled that turned out not to be what they said they were.  One of this year's pots of hyacinths, which are supposed to be a dusky shade of violet, includes a rogue pale pink.

The dahlia tubers differ in shape from one variety to another.  'Waltzing Mathilda' has pointed storage lobes that naturally hand downwards like a shuttlecock.  They would fit in deepish one litre pots, but the tubers of 'Gallery Art Deco' were much bigger with globular lobes held stiffly outwards, and needed two litre pots.  I kept to the smallest pot sizes I physically could while fitting the tubers in, to reduce the risk of over watering, as sitting in wet compost can cause the tubers to rot before they manage to grow. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

still chopping back

I still feel as though somebody had poured glue into the right side of my head, while the Systems Administrator woke up this morning with a sore throat and a headache.  Really, we are a fine pair.  I thought I'd better volunteer to go to the supermarket, since I seemed to be marginally less ailing, but the whole situation is turning into a monumental bore.

Then, since it was not too cold outside and my ear was going to hurt whether I did anything or not, I finished cutting the hornbeam hedge.  I have allowed the hedge to get out of hand so that it is now wider than double my maximum reach, which is a fairly fundamental error.  I had to resort to a variety of tactics to cut the middle of the top, manoeuvring the step ladder carefully inside the hedge and wriggling my shoulders up through it, or leaning heavily in from the outside.  A couple of times I resorted to climbing the main trunks to get at particularly hard to reach shoots, if they offered suitable footholds, although I couldn't help thinking of the Mitch Benn song about Keith Richards falling out of a tree.  Oi, Keith, get out of that tree.  You silly old bugger, you're sixty-three.  Oh no, he's hurt his head nee-naw nee-naw nee-naw.  One of these years I must take the front face back hard, but not now.

After that I turned my attentions to the brambles along the side of the wood.  It has been so cold, I don't think the birds have started nest building yet, but it can't be long now.  Another week or two and I reckon any dense patches of unwanted undergrowth will just have to stay untouched until autumn, by which time the brambles will have sent out yards more shoots in all directions.

In the field next to us they seem to have been planting onions.  I thought they might be doing onions somewhere on the farm when I went out a couple of days ago and saw a patch of little brown bulbs spilled on the side of the farm lane, that looked like miniature onions.  The fields were ploughed before the snow, then there was a hiatus because the soil was so wet, or at least I assume that was the reason for the delay.  Somebody tried to break the clods down into a fine tilth in one field but gave up, and the tractor sat there for days while water lay in the tyre tracks.  Eventually the fields were prepared for sowing, and they were not shaped into the beds used for lettuces or the heaped mounds used for potatoes.  Yesterday a tractor with a box and a man on the back trundled round and round the field.  I wondered what it was doing, and it seemed the operators might not have been too confident either since it stopped rather often while the man on the back and the driver conferred.  From my vantage point at the top of the stepladder I could see little brown round things scattered over the ground that looked like small onions, then a tractor with rollers on the back drove round pressing them into the soil.  We wondered, if it was onions, why it didn't matter which way up they went, and decided that it must be that they could right themselves when they were small.

Onions should be nice quiet neighbours.  There will be rather a pong for a couple of days when it comes to harvest, but luckily we both like the smell of onions.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

more pruning

Eventually I managed to get the top of the bay Gherkin trimmed to my satisfaction.  Then I pruned the orange stemmed lime, which is in the process of being trained into a freestanding pleached something-or-other, although I have not decided precisely what yet.  I liked the idea of a proper hedge on stilts, or better still a lime walk, but there was not room anywhere, yet the orange twigs were so pretty I could not resist.  And the rose bed needed more winter interest.  Lime wood is almost as soft as butter when you prune it.  I can see why it was the material of choice for Grinling Gibbons.

Then, as the sap is rising and the buds swelling by the day now the weather has warmed up, I got on with cutting the hornbeam hedge by the compost heaps.  It has been on the list of things to do since last August, the traditional time for cutting hornbeam.  As previously discussed, I can't think of any actual reason why you shouldn't prune it during the winter, and eventually decided that August had become traditional because it was an otherwise quiet time in the Edwardian Arts and Craft garden, and so custom decreed the gardeners spend it tidying the yards of hedging which would then look crisp through the winter months.  I have remembered to feed the hornbeam hedge a couple of times in recent years, and it is growing much better than it used to, though I can't square its habit of throwing strong vertical growths from the top so thick I need the pruning saw to cut them with my memories of snipping at a hornbeam hedge with shears during a practical class at Writtle.

Before starting on the pruning I pulled up weeds in the front garden until I had enough to fill the council's brown bin, since it is emptied tomorrow.  It seems slightly back to front to decide what you are going to do in the garden according to what debris it generates, but it would be a shame to waste any capacity in the brown bin.  And the weeding does need doing, so making sure I collect at least a brown bin's worth of non-compostable rubbish every fortnight helps keep the momentum going.  When I say non-compostable of course I mean the sort of things I do not want in the compost bins at home.  Veolia will compost them, and with any luck at a temperature that does manage to kill all the weeds and disease spores, but their heaps will be truly massive.  I always enjoy looking at professional compost heaps, when I get the chance.

Addendum  We watched Michael Portillo's train journeys in Ukraine yesterday evening.  I find him an agreeable guide: he is no Colin Thubron, but radiates such apparent enthusiasm for trains and the places he visits.  Last night Lviv was on the itinerary, along with Kiev and Odessa.  I thought about this and asked the Systems Administrator if Lviv had not been annexed from Poland at the end of the last war.  The SA thought about it and said No, I was confusing it with Lvov, but I was not convinced and looked it up afterwards on Wikipedia.  The two names refer to the same place in Ukrainian and Russian respectively, as does Lwow if you are Polish and Lemberg if German.  At the end of WW2 the geography of Poland shifted to the west, as Stalin hung on to parts of the east, while former Prussian territories on the western border were transferred to Poland by way of compensation and to cut post-war Germany down to size.  It resulted in a massive transfer of population, as ethnic Poles, Germans and Ukrainians were forced to relocate to within the new borders of their countries.  I recently read a fascinating book by Norman Davies describing the Polonisation of Breslau as it found itself in Poland after the war, rechristened Wroclaw.  TV travel presented as light entertainment can be awfully misleading.  Michael Portillo commented that the architecture of Lviv was straight out of the Habsburg Empire and the churches were Catholic and not Orthodox, but apart from that all the Ukrainians he spoke to were desperate to stress their Cossack heritage, and that they were not Russians.  According to Wikipedia, Lviv was part of the Kingdom of Poland from the late middle ages until annexed by the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century, then reverted to Poland in the twentieth century between the wars, and up until the breakdown of the former Soviet Union had only ever been briefly part of Ukraine in 1918.  I suppose that is one reason why everybody Michael Portillo spoke to was so keen to emphasise their Cossack and Ukrainian heritage, just as in Wroclaw the emphasis after WW2 was on the medieval Polish past, glossing over the subsequent centuries of German rule, but you would not have guessed this convoluted history from the TV programme.