Wednesday, 31 January 2018

outdoor and indoor gardening

In the garden the Iris unguicularis along the south wall of the house are having another flush of flowers.  I like this winter flowering iris, which appears to ask for nothing except to be put in a sunny, well drained spot, and to be left alone.  There are named varieties with darker, paler, larger or otherwise supposedly superior flowers, but the straight species is perfectly nice.  The flowers have a sort of wild grace, and there are enough of them over a longish period to make the exercise worthwhile.  Although it doesn't seem to affect flowering one jot, the effect will be smarter if at some point before it starts you take the time to trim out the old, dead leaves.  Also snails tend to live among the foliage, and take the odd chunk out of the petals.  And over many years the clumps form thick, knobbly, almost woody bases and I am starting to wonder if there is any risk ours could have risen above the damp course.  Apart from that it is no trouble once it is growing, although it is not the easiest thing to establish.

In the gravel of the turning circle the first, dark purple, dwarf iris is full out.  I wish I knew exactly which variety it was, but over the years I have planted out a lot of pots of several sorts of iris.  I have never attempted to label them, to avoid the hamsters' graveyard aesthetic and because the labels would only get kicked over anyway.  It is not 'Cantab' because that is light blue.  It could be 'George', or 'JS Dijt' which Sarah Raven says is very similar, since I have planted both in the turning circle, although I haven't planted any 'JS Dijt' since 2005.  I've planted 'Harmony' several times but that looks as though it is blue rather than dark purple on the bulb merchants' websites.  It is definitely not the strange, smoky, mixed coloured 'Katharine Hodgkin' or 'Sheila Ann Germaney'.  Perhaps it is just straight Iris reticulata which I've also tried in the gravel a couple of times.  Dwarf iris generally last more than one year in the ground, given sun and good drainage, but not necessarily for twenty years, which is when I first started planting dwarf bulbs in the turning circle.

Indoors I prised the lid off the old ice cream box of damp vermiculite in the airing cupboard to see if my seeds of yellow flowering Clivia miniata from Derry Watkins were doing anything.  All three were just starting to push out their first fat shoot.  I put the lid back on the box and left them to it.  Fortunately I had a practice run at germinating Clivia using seeds harvested from my existing orange flowered Plant Heritage stall plant, and based on previous experience I think the shoots want to be a bit longer and better developed before I ask them to make the transfer from their bed of vermiculite granules to a pot of compost.  Then I have special dispensation from the Systems Administrator to keep them on the kitchen window sill, since I can't evict them to the greenhouse in this weather.  The window sill is not supposed to be an overflow greenhouse, but there are exceptions.  There was nowhere else to put the amaryllis, which is now busy sending out enormous and slightly floppy leaves.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

winter flowers

This morning I sneezed so hard that Mr Fluffy, who was sitting on my lap, ran away in a panic.  The air when I ventured outside prickled against the top of my nose in a way that told me I'd better not spend the day outdoors, even though the sun was shining and once the frost had burned off the grass it was, objectively speaking, a nice day.  I wanted to look at the snowdrops and the witch hazel, though, since what's the point of growing winter flowering plants if you don't see them?

I could actually see one of the witch hazels flowering from the bathroom window.  First off the block this winter is Hamamelis x intermedia 'Vesna', which has fairly large, amber flowers, showy enough to make an impact seen from a first floor window on the opposite side of the garden.  This is an old variety, raised at the Kalmthout arboretum in Belgium in 1954, and unfairly overlooked by the nursery trade, according to Chris Lane who holds a major UK collection (and wrote a book about them).  It can't be that overlooked, since I bought a plant.  However, I see on Chris Lane's web site that he has cancelled his witch hazel open days for 2018, since due to illness last year he has no young plants for sale.  He is an important wholesale grower for the less well known varieties, and I predict shortages in UK garden centres this year.  Vesna is the Russian goddess of spring, and her namesake holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

The other Hamamelis are in bud or coming into flower.  There were a few dark red blooms open on 'Diane'.  They are a good colour, but not large.  It is another Kalmthout introduction, and Chris Lane reckoned it was the best of the reds when he wrote his book.  I have planted the more recent variety 'Livia' in the end of the wood, which is reckoned by some to be even better since the red flowers do not fade as they age, but I think it is finding life a little too shady.  I need to do some judicious tree pruning to open the area up.  I associate the name Livia firstly with the terrifying Roman matriarch, wife of Augustus, played by Sian Phillips  in the 1976 miniseries, and secondly with the equally terrifying mother of mafia boss Tony Soprano, but the witch hazel 'Livia' is named after a junior scion of the Kalmthout de Belder family.

The snowdrops are putting on a brave show in the near end of the wood, along the ditch bed, and in my most recent planting around some of the shrub roses.  At yesterday's garden club committee meeting the chairman showed us a very special snowdrop she had bought, with neat, bright green markings on the outside of its outstretched petals.  It was so expensive that she only bought the one.  It was very pretty, but still my favourite way to look at snowdrops is en masse in drifts in a landscape.  I am not planning to plant any more this year.  Apart from all the other things there are to do, I feel it is long enough since I started that the existing plants ought to be able to spread themselves to places where they are happy.  I know there are areas where I've planted them, two, three, five, or ten years ago, where they have not persisted because it was critically too wet, or too dry, or too dark, or in some way not to their liking.  The older clumps in the places where they do like it have grown good and fat, but are flowering well so I see no rush to split them.

Back in 2005 I planted Daphne bholua 'Jaqueline Postill' in the lower part of the garden, and by 2012 it had produced enough suckers for me to be able to pot and root some, a couple of which were planted in the wood at the very edge, right up against the rabbit fence.  I hoped that the smell of the flowers would carry up to the front garden, then as the trees around them grew I feared it would be too shady for them to flower at all.  This spring one is flowering for the first time, not as profusely as its parent but enough to get the scent.  That may be what I have smelled recently near the chicken house.  It's enough to make me think that come the spring I should see if there are any more suckers to be had.  I am sure that spare Daphne bholua would go down well at some garden society plant stall.

Monday, 29 January 2018

there really is a lot of it about

By the middle of last week the Systems Administrator was over the bug enough to haul and chop several loads of firewood and make a start clearing out the unwanted tangle of climbers from under the veranda.  I, meanwhile, after my day in the garden, began to feel unnaturally chilly and then hot and clammy by turns.  It was either the bug coming back for another bite, or a new and unwelcome hormonal development in my career as a middle aged lady.

Feeling so much better the SA spent Saturday at a long-planned day at the races, returning the next morning bright eyed and bushy tailed, except that during Sunday evening he began to mutter that he felt hot and shivery, before tottering up to bed uncharacteristically early and barely after what would count as grownup's bedtime, the point at which it is OK to disappear up to bed without appearing antisocial.  This morning the SA rallied enough to go to the supermarket, but suddenly began to feel very hot and sticky in the queue for the checkout.

At lunchtime the phone rang, and it was the SA's oldest brother with an oddly familiar tale.  He'd meant to ring us at Christmas, but after just about making it through most of Christmas Day he had gone down with a cold and chest infection that put him in bed and then hung around for three weeks.  By the middle of last week he was feeling better, enjoyed a day on the golf course, and found himself back to square one and back in bed with a tight chest and the shivers.

I was so disheartened by my second relapse that I spent the following three days sitting still in the warm, going outside only to see to the chickens, and pulling my layers of fleece on and off according to whether I felt hot or cold.  This afternoon I decided I was probably fit to attend the garden club committee meeting and that I ought to go, as it was my first one since being installed as treasurer.  I managed to drive there and back and make it through the whole meeting without once feeling hot or cold.

I was very relieved.  In fact, I was rather relieved when the SA began to complain of feeling hot and cold and sticky, since if we both had it that made my symptoms more likely to be a bug.  It's not that I was glad the SA was ill, but with a bug, even a nasty lingering one, there is the prospect of it being gone in a few weeks.  Proper hot flushes could go on for years.

Sunday, 28 January 2018


Around the fringes of the wood the hazel is in flower.  One tall tree is crossing branches with the neighbouring holly, its yellow tassels looking especially bright against the dark, shiny leaves of the holly.  Gardeners easily succumb to dreadful snobbery.  If the hazel was an exotic import, difficult to grow, fussy about having exactly the right soil moisture and acidity, almost impossible to propagate and correspondingly rare and expensive, people would be queueing up to buy one.  As it is, when it gets a mention it's generally in the context of growing your own pea sticks.

As we have all these hazels we should in theory have had some nuts, but I have never managed to pick a single nut that looked ripe and ready to eat.  The squirrels and mice get there first, the evidence plain to see in the shattered nut shells that collect under every hazel tree.  The squirrels are messy eaters, breaking their shells into irregular pieces.  Mice gnaw neat holes.  In principle you can tell from the tooth marks whether ordinary wood mice or dormice have been at work, although when I have reminded myself of the telltale signs and gone out to look at some hazel shells I have never found any signs of dormouse activity.

It's a sign of how popular the nuts are with wildlife that small hazel plants pop up all over the place, where jays or squirrels have stashed them for later.  They do the same with acorns, and we even have a steady supply of seedlings of the evergreen holm oak, despite the fact that the nearest mature trees are in a garden half a mile up the lane.  The fruit may indeed land close to the tree, but where it gets to after that is another matter.

Before the tree gets to the nuts stage, the catkins are a valuable early source of pollen for the bees.  By this stage of the year they are starting to raise brood, and need to consume pollen as well as nectar, in order to be able to make the secretions they feed to the developing larvae.  Which is another reason to plant hazel, apart from the fact that it is pretty, a good doer, and obliging about being coppiced so you can keep the size of your tree under control if needs be while producing a supply of pea sticks.  If you had room for several you could call it a nuttery, come over all Vita Sackville-West, and underplant it with polyanthus.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

a family tree

One of my Christmas presents was a book about plant families, RHS Genealogy for Gardeners.  In just over two hundred pages it takes a brisk tour of the main plant families, from the oldest and simplest non-flowering species to the familiar plants we grow in our gardens.  It is a timely review from my point of view, since apart from giving an overview of all sorts of plants I don't know much about, the botanists have reclassified lots of species in recent years in the light of DNA evidence.  For a middle aged gardener like me, who finds themself resistant to the idea that what used to be Aster may now be Euribya or Symphyotrichum (or Almutaster, Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eucephalus, Ionactis, Oligoneuron, Oreostemma, or Sericocarphus), it is helpful to be reminded that science and horticulture move on, and it's no good trying to freeze my plant terminology at about two years after the point that I left horticultural college.

The book starts with a family tree.  In the beginning came the Brypohytes, plants of damp places lacking roots or internal means of transporting water, then the Clubmosses and Ferns, and only then the flowering plants.  The earliest of those were the Gymnosperms, with their naked seeds, including modern day Cycads, Conifers, Ginkgo, and the Gnetophytes which are not generally found in gardens.  Then came the flowering plants, the Angiosperms, at which point I began to feel in more familiar territory, apart from when the botanists had moved things.

The family tree of the Angiosperms is designed so that close relatives in evolutionary terms sit closer together on the tree, at which point it becomes truly counterintuitive.  Who would have guessed that mallows and rock roses would sit on one half of a branch the other half of which was occupied by cabbage?  Or that stonecrops, witch hazels, peonies and saxifrages all lived at the end of the same branch?  Meanwhile, elders and honeysuckles are as far from cabbages as you can get, but heathers and primroses share a branch.  It's all come a long way from Victorian botanists counting stamens.

The Asparagus family, which used to be tiny clan, if not classed as merely a part of the Lily family, has risen to become one of the largest among the monocots, that group of flowering plants including grasses that have only one seed leaf, and generally strap shaped leaves with parallel veins.  Grasses, daffodils, daylilies, that sort of thing.  Meanwhile the Lily family, as well as losing asparagus, has also lost colchicums and melianthus to new families, and maples and horse chestnuts have been sent off to join lychees in the previously mostly exotic Sapindaceae.

It is interesting, though, being told which plants are closely related, and sometimes once it's been pointed out you start to see similarities that you didn't notice before.  Clematis, buttercups, columbines, larkspur and monkshood are all members of the Buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae, and when you think about it their leaves are often quite similar and many prefer it not to be too dry, while members of the Ericaceae tend to prefer acid soil.

The introduction contains keys to the major plant groups.  In theory botanical keys are a brilliant idea.  They pose a series of linked questions, and depending on whether you answer Yes or No you are sent on to one of two further questions, and so on until you arrive at the answer, so having confidently decided No, the plant is not a succulent, several questions later once you have said Yes to the proposition that the flowers are bilaterally symmetrical you have reached the point where you know it is a member of the Violet family.  The last time I tried to use one for UK native trees it told me conclusively that the twig in my hand was lime, the only problem being that I knew it was definitely hazel.

Friday, 26 January 2018

a long wait

This might be the year when our Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill' finally flowers.  If so, it will be a landmark occasion.  I knew when I planted it that Magnolia campbellii could not be expected to flower as a young plant.  Capable of growing to a large tree, it takes its time.  Reckoned by the International Dendrology Society to be 'perhaps the most magnificent of the magnolias' I had thought that it would be worth the wait.  I did choose 'Charles Raffill' under the impression that it might flower a bit sooner than the straight species, but the nurseries selling it I checked just now on the web are all rather coy about exactly how soon a bit sooner might be, to the extent of not mentioning the wait at all.  The IDS puts it at fifteen to twenty years plus for the subspecies campbellii, while some seedlings of the subspecies mollicomata have flowered in under twenty years.  'Charles Raffill' has both in its parentage.  Grafting is supposed to speed the flowering process up.

The flowers, when they come, should be large, 23 centimetres in diameter, purple in bud, opening to rose-purple without and white flushed pink at the margin within, and faintly scented.  In the meantime my tree has shot up in its clearing in the wood, surviving an early attack on its young bark by browsing deer, the two cold winters around 2010, and the dramatic collapse of a nearby mature ash and subsequent precautionary reduction of two neighbouring ash trees.  It is difficult to estimate quite how tall it is now, since it is surrounded by other trees, but it must be planted a good couple of metres downhill of the house, and you gaze up into its crown from a first storey window.  Up to now it has never flowered, the swelling buds each year opening to reveal only leaves, but this week, looking out of the bedroom window, I thought I saw different shaped buds on its upright branches, more visible and shaped like pointed eggs.  I was curious enough to ask the Systems Administrator to look at them through binoculars, and the SA confirmed that they looked like buds, not old leaves that had hung on since last autumn.

There is still many a possible slip between cup and lip.  Flowering early in the year, tree magnolias are vulnerable to frost damage.  One unlucky cold night as the buds open could spell the end of any display before it has fairly begun.  And it is only when it finally flowers that I will know whether it is the right thing.  Magnolias have a nasty habit of getting muddled up in commerce.  Out of leaf they all look pretty similar to a non-expert, and mistakes seem to happen in the supply chain, by the time batches have been moved around, labelled and relabelled by staff who are not experts, and are probably badly paid and sometimes working outside in unpleasant weather.  It seemed as though every year some justifiably disgruntled customer would return to the plant centre because their pink magnolia had come out white, or vice versa.  We would apologise and refund them or replace the plant, but at least the error came to light fairly quickly, while how do you compensate somebody for a lost twenty years?

So I wait with bated breath.  Even one giant pink flower would be enough, if frost ruined everything the same night, just to tell me that the long wait has not been wasted.  It has been fifteen years since I planted my tree.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

winter pruning

It was a bright, still, and mild morning, and I made a start pruning the vines around the weedy area that used to be the vegetable patch.  Looking at the state of the beds I found it difficult to imagine that I'd be growing any vegetables this year, but we'll see how things go.  The patch is surrounded by wire netting to keep the rabbits out, although the last time I tried my hand at vegetables I discovered that the netting had come loose at one corner, and rabbits ate or dug up several of my efforts.  The vines were planted to hide the netting and make the whole area more visually appealing, rather than in any serious hope of grapes.  One year I spent a long time thinning the bunches, and the grapes were still tiny, pippy, and disgusting, so nowadays I leave them to the birds, though I have used the leaves in cooking.

There are a lot of highly technical systems for pruning grape vines, and mine are not pruned according to any of them.  I have read about them, and I am sure it would be lovely to know how to do it properly, but my efforts are always limited to a desperate dash to bring the vines back within bounds before the sap starts to rise.  Grape vines are notorious for bleeding, and garden writers are always advising their readers to prune them before the New Year.  It was on my list of things to do, if I hadn't gone down with the lurgi.  A couple of years back in a spirit of scientific enquiry I cut one stem of the vine when I thought the sap would be rising, just to see how much it bled and what a vine bleeding looked like.  The result was spectacular, a steady stream of sap running out of the severed end.

Fortunately the sap had not started rising by this morning.  I began to feel slightly reassured yesterday reading Dan Pearson's book, in which he airly writes about pruning vines in February.  I feel sorry for the vine, though, having me chopping away at it with the sole aim of reducing it.  I have encountered hairdressers whose main response to being asked to cut my hair was an overwhelming desire for there to be less of it, and the result was never a good haircut.  I don't want the vine to do anything beyond hide the wire netting and not bleed to death, so my random ministrations should be good enough, but still I feel bad that I don't understand the way the vine grows.  It makes enormously long growths every year, and I never know how much to shorten them, and the next year there always seem to be little dead branches a few inches long and I wonder if I should have cut them right back to the base.  Sometimes entire older branches die as well, which makes me think I need to be keeping some of the long growths to train in as replacements.  It always feels like a gigantic muddle, whereas when I prune rose bushes I feel I know what I'd doing.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

unexpected problem

This morning I finally ventured out into the garden.  It was remarkably mild, with rain forecast by lunchtime, but I fancied the fresh air and wanted to try and fill or at least partially fill the brown garden waste bin before Friday's collection.  It is only emptied once a fortnight, and I didn't want to waste one twenty-fifth of its annual capacity.  Nowadays I try to keep the contents of the compost bins reasonably clean so that when I use the compost on the beds I am not spreading weeds around plus seedlings of those garden plants that self-seed too readily.  I love Verbena bonariensis, Hesperis matronalis, and the evening primrose from Dulwich beach, but that doesn't mean I want them coming up everywhere.

In consequence there is always plenty to go to the dump, or in the brown bin.  I try to use the brown bin for the dampest, muddiest, and heaviest buckets of weeds, to save putting them in the car.  When I looked outside this morning at what there was to go I found a tub trug half full of weedy stuff, now saturated by rain, and a couple of old Strulch bags' worth.  That was enough to half fill the bin, and I managed to cut some more of the tufty grass along the bottom of the rose bank and dig out some nettle roots before the rain arrived.

The snowdrops are about to open.  The first of the witch hazels have opened, and it would be nice to get the back garden sorted out, presentable, and ready for the new flowering year.  The Met Office seven day forecast on the internet says that tomorrow will be dry, but the lunchtime Radio 4 weatherman said that rain would spread to all areas, so who to believe?  And will I feel up to gardening, or slithered back down another snake in the snakes and ladders game of who currently has a cold?

Meanwhile, as I browsed through nursery websites imaging what might grow up the side of the wood, one shrub that at first sight seemed a candidate was ruled out for a novel reason.  I was looking at the Trehane Nursery site, my mind running on camellias as a possibility for part of the back line of planting, inside the rabbit fence.  I like camellias, and since they grow sturdily, albeit slowly, in the horrible dry bed opposite the dustbins, they should cope along the side of the wood.  They are much more drought tolerant than most rhododendrons, and the soil is acid enough for them.

Trehane offer a few species as well as the named varieties of Camellia japonica and the C. x williamsii hybrids.  I thought that something with smaller flowers would suit a wild part of the garden, and was eying up Camellia oleifera, a beauty with flowers like a white Japanese anemone and the added bonus of being scented and flowering before Christmas.  Then I thought that while I had proved that the usual garden centre camellias would live here happily despite the sand and low rainfall, there was no guarantee that C. oleifera would be equally obliging, so I Googled it.  I soon discovered that it was the source of a camellia oil, then came on an article from the Journal of Apicultural Research ominously titled The toxic honey plant Camellia oleifera.  It turned out that Camellia oleifera would probably not grow especially well where I was proposing to put it, since it requires sunlight and comes from an area with annual rainfall approximately twice ours.  More to the point, it turned out that I wouldn't want to grow it because the nectar is toxic to honey bees, containing caffeine and galactose.  Colonies feeding on it can show symptoms of poisoning, adults developing distended abdomens and larvae actually dying, either because they lack the enzymes to digest the galactose or because the caffeine disrupts their metabolisms.

Well I never.  I knew that some kinds of lime made bees drunk, and that the honey from some rhododendrons was toxic.  Myth has it that Xenophon's army was poisoned by eating rhododendron honey.  It would never have occurred to me to worry about a Camellia.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

armchair gardening

The only gardening I did today was in my head.  I am halfway through Dan Pearson's Natural Selection: a year in the garden, a collection from his Observer column over the past decade.  I liked his Chelsea show garden based on Chatsworth very much indeed, and his thoughts on gardening make a pleasant distraction when you aren't going outside yourself.  He is very keen on Tulipa sprengeri, which seems to get more mentions than any other plant in the book.  I did think it was unwise to include a glowing tribute to ash in an early chapter, presumably published in The Observer before ash dieback reached the UK, and then not follow it up with a post-dieback essay (I checked the index and there isn't one), since readers wouldn't know if they could still safely plant Fraxinus ornus and F. americana or not, now that our native F. excelsior is a no-no, or at least only to be planted in a spirit of scientific enquiry to see if by any chance it will be resistant to the dieback disease.

Then there were garden projects to be looked forward to once my nose has stopped running and I dare put my head out of doors.  Maybe this will be the year I finally manage to get the vegetable beds going running again, in which case where is the best place to buy some scaffolding planks to edge them?  Should I splash out on some more Colchicum?  I thought about it last year, but time and the gardening budget ran out.  Catalogues for autumn flowering bulbs seem to arrive earlier and earlier, in a sort of mail order bulbs arms race, and the one from Pottertons arrived a week or so back.  Their cyclamen were very good, but it feels mad to be ordering bulbs in January for despatch in September.

Or perhaps I should get some more blue glass danglers to go in the crab apple by the blue shed.  The tree has grown since I bought the others so that there aren't really enough to go round.  I like the glass decorations, and felt rather crushed when I sat fairly recently behind two other gardening ladies of a certain age at a lecture, and they were discussing some garden they had both visited.  It had glass danglers, and both considered them very vulgar.

There will be room for some small trees along the side of the wood where we have removed the great expanse of evil white stemmed brambles, and the Bluebell Nursery website provided useful reading.  The site is fairly sheltered, gets partial sun, is on the acid side of neutral, and is well drained to the point of being dry in a hot summer.  Perhaps a relatively drought tolerant form of Acer?  I used to fancy magnolias, but their big leaves are very smothering of the ground level plants when they drop, so much so that Peter Smithers, diplomat and politician, who made a great woodland garden in Switzerland, had to adapt his design for the ground planting below his magnolias because the interweaving medley of shade loving plants he imagined could not cope with having magnolia leaves dumped on them.  It's true that with only one or two trees and not a whole hillside of them I could in theory pick the leaves up, but it would be another thing to do, that might not get done.  Acer leaves are daintier and better behaved.  And a drought tolerant Acer might be easier to find than a drought tolerant magnolia, though Lord Blakenham persuaded them to grow on top of his hill outside Ipswich, which can't have been the dampest place.  He died recently, poor thing.

Monday, 22 January 2018

a relapse

I really thought I was getting over this bug.  Yesterday I managed to submit my tax return, go to the music society concert, and write and post a couple of birthday cards and this year's sub for the ladies' group.  It was all quite enjoyable, apart from the tax return, and at least that made me feel good when it was finished.  But by this morning I'd relapsed and the bug was back.

I remembered what my beekeeping friend had said, that it was a really nasty bug and kept getting worse just as she thought she was getting better, which sounds like the same one.  There was nothing to be done except stay in, keep warm and take it easy.  It is getting very dull, though.  When I set out to keep a blog it was going to be about the garden with a bit of art appreciation and cookery thrown in, not a chronicle of tedious minor illnesses.

I tottered out in the late afternoon to shut the hen house and breathe a couple of lungfuls of fresh air, and smelt a spicy, penetrating sweetness.  It wasn't coming from the hen house, which needs cleaning out as soon as I am fit to do it.  I think the small Sarcococca confusa I planted last year by the oil tank must be alive and well among the weeds.  Weeding them and topping up their Strulch is another thing on the list of things to do.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

a new musical experience

This afternoon I went to the music society's accordion recital.  My cold had abated enough for me to feel some enthusiasm for the idea, and to worry that turnout might be embarrassingly low.  The classical accordion is a fairly obscure instrument, which might not be at the top of many people's Must Hear At Least Once list, and it was pouring with rain, having finished snowing.  I asked the Systems Administrator whether he would like to come too, but the SA indicated politely that he would leave me to it.

I felt some responsibility for the accordion recital, because I had spoken up in favour of the idea at the committee meeting when the choice of young artist from the sponsored scheme the society belongs to was discussed.  I did have a rationale, apart from a random desire to hear what the classical accordion sounded like, which was that the accordion player's career seemed to be several years further advanced than most of the young artists on the scheme.  On that basis I thought he might be relatively good, the best accordion player we ever had.  In fairness to the other young artists the bar is set pretty high for them to get on to the scheme at all, but still they would all be anything between five and twenty-five years behind all the other musicians appearing at the music society.  And I was curious to hear a classical accordion player.  It is good to try new things.  And the club would be taking less of a financial risk booking an unusual instrument with a sponsored young artist.  I explained my reasoning to the committee, and the chairman bravely said that she fancied trying the accordion, and nobody else had the heart to argue us out of it, but still I would have felt responsible if there had only been ten people in the audience.

I arrived early, and noticed that the chairs were generously spaced, as organisers will do when they are worried about numbers and want the room to look full.  Happily the chairs filled up, despite the weather, and we had to put two more rows out.  Even more happily, the accordion player was really good.

He was playing a large button accordion.  As he said to us, some people might only have seen accordions with a keyboard like a piano, but the buttons allowed for more notes, so his instrument had a range of five octaves.  I thought he must have worked his programme out carefully.  He eased us into the sound world of accordion with a transcription of a Scarlatti sonata, a reassuringly familiar Baroque construction.  After that we were firmly in the twentieth century for the rest of the first half, and began to hear what the accordion could really do, which turned out to be more than I imagined, as modern accordion music doesn't just use the bellows to sound notes, but enlists the noises they can make by themselves as percussion and sound effects.  By the time we'd heard pieces inspired by the ruins of Dresden's firebombed cathedral and the gulags I was starting to wonder why no film producer had commissioned a soundtrack made entirely of accordion music.  But the accordion player had a shrewd idea of how much programme music an average audience could take, and sweetened the mixture with some pretty things and an accordion transcription of a Bach keyboard transcription of an oboe concerto, rounding off his performance with Piazzolla's Libertango.

It was good, and somebody who had come to support his other half admitted to me that he hadn't been looking forward to an evening of classical accordion beforehand, and had enjoyed it.  You can't ask for more than that.  There were even a couple there who had never been to any of our concerts before, and came to this one specially because she was learning the accordion.

I bumped into one of my former colleagues from the plant centre and we sat together.  She too has had a cold.  Felt awful for ages, runny nose, unable to concentrate on anything, dodgy stomach.  Sounds like the same thing everybody else has had.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

a wet day

It rained all day, and so I did not go any further than the hen house, to give the chickens the end of a brown loaf, top up their pellets, and collect the eggs.  They have been laying assiduously all through the winter, apart from the old lady Maran who is a pensioner and no longer does eggs.  The run looked as though it would turn to mud, given another day or two of rain, and I thought that as soon as it stopped raining I had better give them the final straw bale.  After that I will have to work out where I can get some more straw.  Tracking down small bales when you are not part of the farming set is a perpetual challenge.

Mr Fluffy took much the same view of the rain as I did, and spent the day asleep in his furry bed on top of the cupboard.  Mr Cool was so desperate to get out that he disappeared up the side of the wood, even though he hates rain, returning with wet fur and a large, soggy mouse, which the Systems Administrator made him eat outside.  The Systems Administrator succumbed to cabin fever and went to Clacton to buy chainsaw oil.  The SA asked if I needed anything, and I said that some chocolate biscuits would be nice.

I, meanwhile, have made it through a Maelstrom level Sudoku without hints and in record time, not because my time was at all quick but because it was the first time I'd managed to complete one at that level at all.  Sudoku is either a terrible waste of time or good practice to keep one's brain working, but I still haven't decided which.

Now I am going through the Chiltern Seeds catalogue putting together a sensible sized order.  The useful sounding High Line aster and geum will go on the list, and I might as well try the snowy rush, Luzula nivea, as I know I want some more and if I could raise them from seed that would be better than paying around six pounds a plant.  And I thought I would buy an AGM rated variety of Cosmos instead of relying on the free seeds that always come with gardening magazines.  The RHS recently published the results of their Cosmos trial and said that many of the older varieties in circulation were now of variable quality, some plants taking ages to flower or going over very quickly, which exactly describes how my Cosmos did last summer.

I am not going to let myself choose any umbellifers or anything else that needs to be sown fresh.  Instead I might put in an order for fresh seed to Derry Watkins in the autumn.  And I am trying to resist plants that sound intriguing if I don't have any idea where to put them.  Climbing asparagus is certainly unusual, but I can't honestly think of any garden prospect that would be improved by draping it with a fifteen foot long swag of asparagus fern.  Actually, the catalogue gives the height as 165 feet but I am pretty sure this is a mistake.  And I must remember that I really don't have room for more tender shrubs in pots, and that trees originating in tropical rainforests and needing a minimum temperature of ten or fifteen degrees Celsius will not survive the winter in the conservatory.

It is going to rain tomorrow as well, but I won't be bored.  I have to do my tax return.

Friday, 19 January 2018

there's a lot of it about

A friend rang to say the quiz night she had been trying to organize in aid of village hall funds had been cancelled, or rather postponed, due to lack of support.  Two potential teams were going to watch the football that evening, one couple were going to a Burns Night celebration, and another had said unenthusiastically that they could make the date but were about to go on holiday then and would rather not catch anything.

My friend and her husband had both had the bug.  I asked about the bug, wondering if it was the same one as we'd both got.  She was rather vague about specifics, but said it had been really nasty.  You kept feeling as though you were getting over it, she said, then it got worse again.  That sounded just like our bug.  She was recovering now and had spent an afternoon washing flower pots, though she still didn't dare work out in the garden while it was so cold.  Her husband, who has an underlying heart condition, had actually spent a night in hospital with it after she took him to the walk-in centre and he was referred straight to A&E.

The friend I should have been to the ladies' group AGM with if I'd been feeling better spent three days in bed after Christmas with the bug, and said her nose was still running.  There's a lot of it about.  Still, as archy the cockroach put it:

germs are very
objectionable to men
but a germ
thinks of a man
as only the swamp
in which
he has to live

And as for the weather, archy also wrote:

don t cuss the climate
it probably doesn t like you
any better
than you like it

Thursday, 18 January 2018

venturing out

Last night's wind popped two panes of acrylic out of the greenhouse.  Luckily they didn't snap, and luckily the rain arrived before the wind, so the pots of overwintering fuchsias and agapanthus were not soaked.  It was a wild night.  Looking at the reports in the local papers of trees down and damage to the overhead rail lines I thought we must have got it easier here than the other side of Colchester.  We don't seem to have lost any trees, or even major limbs, though I haven't been to look all round the garden.

It was also lucky for us that the wind didn't arrive six hours earlier, since the Systems Administrator was in London for a charity sporting quiz night and might never have got back at all if it had been as windy at ten last night as it was at five this morning.  Meanwhile I completely forgot that the bin collection day was finally back to normal after Christmas and didn't put them out.  The SA remembered, and nobly lugged the contents of the kitchen bin and two recycling boxes of tins and plastic bottles down to the gate when he got back, in the dark, the pouring rain, and half a gale.  This morning the bin men kindly tucked the dustbin back inside the gate after emptying it, so that it should not blow away.

We put the acrylic back in the greenhouse roof, and this afternoon I rallied myself enough to check the watering.  It's a finely balanced judgement, watering pots of dormant, over-wintering plants.  It's all too easy to slosh some water on every few weeks and then find come the spring that they have rotted away in their pots, but no use going to the opposite extreme.  Every year I hopefully exhume a few dry pots to find - nothing.  The task of watering at this time of the year is not made any easier by the fact that the greenhouse is so crammed with pots that there is scarcely space to put one's feet down.

Once I'm back out and about I could probably safely evict the pots of hyacinths, now that they are showing growth above the compost and must be full of roots.  The pots of daffodils in the cold frames could come outside on the same basis, then there would be room in the cold frames to stand some of the trays of young herbaceous plants currently in the greenhouse, or the pots of violas that I brought inside after last winter's losses were higher than I'd bargained for.  As it is some of the trays ended up balanced on top of the hyacinth pots, and the emerging shoots of one hyacinth have gone yellow.  I dareasy it will recover once it's in the light.  After all, you start forced hyacinths off in a dark cupboard without the fear that they will be ruined if you don't check the cupboard every single day.

I checked the pots of cuttings in the propagating cases.  The strike rate for Arctotis has been low, and the verbena and penstemon cuttings rotted.  Probably summer would have been better than autumn for taking them.  The good news was that the two pots of Sarcocca confusa cuttings given bottom heat were showing fat white roots through the drainage holes of their pots.  The pots stood without heat weren't, so I moved them over into the heated space freed up by the dead verbena to try and get them going.  They looked slightly yellow compared to the rooted pots, so we shall see.  When I asked around last autumn nobody seemed to know whether bottom heat would be either helpful or necessary, which is partly why I did some pots both ways, to find out.

Not much in the conservatory needed watering.  It always looks rather sad at this time of the year, and I wondered how many of the geraniums and Streptocarpus were going to recover once the weather warms up.  The Begonia fuchsioides wasn't looking at all happy either, but fortunately the three cuttings in the heated case in the greenhouse are growing away.

One plant was putting in a good performance, though, the tender perennial nasturtium Tropaeolum tricolor.  This persists from year to year as a large, smooth tuber, which at some point in the winter sends up an impossibly spindly stem, that soon twines around whatever it can find so woe betide you if you haven't provided it with a suitable support in time.  For years I used to keep in the greenhouse, thinking that once it had nicely covered its little metal tripod and was about to flower I would take it down to the conservatory, and it used to elude me, bypass the tripod and attach itself to the struts of the greenhouse, or the spiny leaves of an overwintering Puya.  Once I failed to notice it had started into growth and moved the pot, breaking off the entire stem.  So now it lives permanently in the greenhouse, pot tucked in behind two others.  As I checked whether it needed watering today, worrying that it wasn't making much in the way of growth, I looked up and suddenly realised that it had grown.  Ignoring the bamboo cane in its pot it had draped itself over the evergreen crown of a neighbouring shrub, where its small divided leaves and little red and orange flowers looked very well against the solid background.  The fluffy seed heads of an evergreen clematis that always lives growing though the same shrub completed the picture.  For years I used to fret that my Tropaeolum made such a modest spectacle compared to the solidly covered tripods I'd seen in glasshouses at botanic gardens, before beginning to suspect that they were using several tubers to get that density of foliage.  Now I have seen it wandering airly over a plant host with contrasting leaves I think that is a much nicer way of displaying it anyway than as a single lump.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

vicarious gardening

I cried off going to the AGM of my ladies' group today, on the grounds that I felt grotty enough not to want to go anywhere unless I had to, and there was no point in spreading my germs around a packed room with about thirty other people.  The friend I should have gone with said never mind, there was always next year's AGM, and the main thing was to keep warm, rest, and get better.  By way of consoling me she pointed out how the snowdrops were coming through, the primroses would be next and then the daffodils, and spring was on its way.  I knew she meant kindly and I wasn't going to argue with her, but I was already acutely aware of how time was marching on when there was still had so much to do in the garden.  If I could just shake off my cold and then the snowdrops could stay exactly as they were for another couple of weeks while I caught up with myself that would have been better.

In the meantime I have all the books I was given for Christmas, including one on New York's High Line.  I have never seen the High Line in real life, but there have been plenty of articles about it in the British press and I love the idea, a mile and a half long linear park planted with wildlife friendly species, free to use every day (snowfall permitting), making use of an existing city structure, a disused railway, not blocking any historic views.  Quite unlike London's proposed garden bridge, which I was never at all keen on.

The book has very nice photos, just the thing somebody for stuck indoors with a runny nose and a headache on a cold and windy day.  The planting was designed to evoke the atmosphere of the self-sown wild planting that grew up in the years when the railway was abandoned.  I imagined that growing conditions must have been pretty fierce up there, with no original soil, exposed to the blast of the wind off the Hudson river, and began to look hopefully for plants that might cope in our meagre soil and low rainfall.  I could just see some of those woodland edge asters and geums along the edge of our wood.  The authors did admit that at the start of the project the line had been cleared to clean it up ready for human visitors, stripping off lead paint and so on, and I began to wonder what depth of soil they had introduced before replanting, and whether it was irrigated once it was a park.

It's just as well I checked.  The soil is not very deep, and must freeze pretty much solid in a New York winter, so anything pictured in the book should be able to withstand an Essex winter, but they did instal drip irrigation.  I realised I didn't know how much it rained in New York.  Oh, the beauty of the internet.  You can look these things up, when past generations could have spent hours arguing about it without ever coming to any definite answer.  New York has over 46 inches of precipitation annually, falling on average one day in three.  That is over twice as much as we get here, so even the pre-park weeds making do on whatever dust and leaffall they could find were off to a flying start compared to life in my garden, and it is no wonder that the High Line's Gillenia trifoliata develops lovely red foliage in the autumn, when mine just goes brown and dries up.

Moral: always check your sources.  I cannot nick ideas straight from the High Line any more than I can from Great Dixter.  I do rather fancy the sound of Aster oblongifolius and Geum triflorum, though.  It looks as though both are available as seed.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

all the way from Australia

I was initially puzzled this morning when the Systems Administrator handed me a small envelope with a cheerful stamp on it showing a field of sunflowers and the word Australia.  I don't know anybody in Australia.  The SA said that it must be my seeds.  I had forgotten about the Persian violets.

Inside was a tiny plastic envelope stapled to a sheet of paper.  On the paper were the instructions.

Growing method

For sowing seeds, the soil should be loose and well airy.

Seeds are planted in early spring.  At the bottom of the pot should be the drainage and the soil is constantly maintained in a wet state.

Fertilizers are added to the soil beforehand.  Seeds are sown evenly, then lightly is sprinkled with sand and covered with a glass bulb, or plastic film.

The temperature is kept around 20 degrees Celsius before the appearance sprouts.  You need to air regularly shoots for fresh air supply.  As soon as the first shoots appear, you need provide a constant light for 10-12 hours per day.

Seedlings dive into separate containers after germination.  Seedlings pinch out after a while, when it take root in the new location.

Diseases and pests

Persian violet is often affected spider mites, aphids, Quadraspidiotus perniciosus.

If you a flower too often is watering, the roots will begin to rot.  Insufficient watering and dry land, leads to drying and lethargy of leaves and flowers.

The seeds themselves are absolutely tiny.

At the top of their letterhead the vendors thank me for supporting their small business.  I think it is wonderful to be able to buy seeds of something that I want and nobody in the UK bothers to stock, all the way from Australia.  English is clearly not their first language, but the instructions make perfect sense.  In fact, they are detailed and precise when you look past the language barrier.  It would save a lot of time if my seedlings would dive into separate containers after germination, instead of my having to prick them out, but the phrase 'lethargy of leaves and flowers' to describe a plant suffering from water stress is brilliant.  I wish I'd thought of it.

Monday, 15 January 2018


I made waffles this lunchtime.  Or rather, I spent nearly half the morning making waffles, and we ate some for lunch.  I am very fond of waffles, also pancakes, and flatbreads (and indeed Yorkshire pudding).  There is something about batter, and the fact that you can make a bread that puffs up into a hollow pouch from a flat disc of dough.  Ever since I saw someone on a Claudia Roden TV programme years ago pour a thin spiral stream of batter on to a large hot metal disc, where it magically turned into a flatbread, I have been curious about the liminal area of cookery where pancakes meet bread.

The Systems Administrator gave me an electric waffle iron a few birthdays back.  It was not even ironic, I had asked for a waffle iron, but the first waffles made with pancake batter aerated with baking powder as per the recipes in the instruction booklet were sad and flabby affairs.  Later the SA gave me a copy of Ruth Van Waerebeek's The Taste of Belgium, which I think I dropped brick sized hints about, and I discovered a whole section of yeast based waffle recipes and no mention of baking powder.  Yeast raised batters are much better, producing fatter, fluffier, fuller tasting, more substantial waffles.  The ones made with baking powder are more like pancakes that have got slightly above themselves.

The only trouble is that they are not quick to make.  You need melted butter, warmed milk, beaten egg whites, plus sugar and flour.  The resulting washing up came to one saucepan, four small basins, one covered in melted butter, a large basin, a big mixing bowl, the steel bowl from the whisk and the whisk balloon, a hand whisk because the flour went a bit lumpy in the batter, a sieve, a knife for the butter, a metal spoon, a wooden spoon, and a teaspoon.  I haven't washed up the plates of the iron yet because they were cooling down.  It is a bit of a faff getting the electric whisk in and out of the cupboard where it normally lives behind the multiple recycling bins.

The recipe in the book must make a quite enormous number of waffles.  I halved it, in case dividing it by three should be too stingy if I messed up the first attempt, and it still made many more than two people could eat for lunch, even if they'd done anything all morning, which we hadn't.  The books says they keep well in the fridge and reheat OK, or can be frozen, and that the author's mother always said it wasn't worth heating up the iron just to make six or eight waffles.

The Systems Administrator appeared in the kitchen before I'd finished cooking the last one, and asked how you knew how much batter to put in the iron.  The instruction booklet doesn't really give any guidance on that.  If you don't put enough then the waffle won't rise to fill the space inside the iron and the top won't touch the lid and won't brown nicely.  If you put too much in the surplus will ooze out over the kitchen worktop and later you will spend a long time trying to clean the body of the machine.  That is how you know how much to put in.  In practice you want the raised bumps in the base of the iron to be covered by batter, but only just.  The machine takes several minutes to reach working temperature, when a green light will come on, although the thin layer of sunflower oil you applied before switching it on will have started smoking a couple of minutes previously.  The booklet doesn't tell you that bit either.

It is a great toy, and fresh waffles are a treat on a cold day for anybody who is not yet on a low carb or gluten free diet.  They are not a good choice for anybody in a hurry.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Roman remains

Nicholas Crane has quite a lot to say about Colchester in The Making of the British Landscape, because it was the first Roman centre and as such the first British town.  Pre Boudicca it had no Roman walls: they came after.  Bettany Hughes in her recent series on key events in the history of the Roman empire devoted an episode to Boudicca, complete with computer graphics of what the main public buildings would have looked like, before the Iceni burned them down.

It set me thinking that Colchester should have a Roman city app.  With it loaded on our phones curious locals and tourists alike could see when we were walking along the lines of Roman streets, and trace the locations of the Roman buildings.  The one in Bettany Hughes' programme was huge.  It works for Pokemon so why not for ruins?  I fancy standing outside Fenwick, phone in hand, able to see the lines of a giant Roman temple superimposed on the modern day High Street.

Colchester has not really done very well with its Roman past.  The quiet lane that ran alongside one of the largest remaining visible stretches of Roman wall even as early as the start of the last century is now a dual carriageway.  A second length of wall borders a municipal car park.  At least the council has recently refurbished the car park and a new wooden barrier keeps cars back from the base of the wall, so you can see along the length of it and try and mentally block out the line of parked vehicles.  There are the remains of a chariot racing track somewhere on the other side of town, but you wouldn't know it from a visit to the town centre.  I've seen the odd article in the local paper, without ever quite being moved to go and look.

Firstsite has a Roman mosaic.  It is displayed in a glass covered pit in the floor, which gives a more realistic impression of what it would have looked like as a floor than if it were mounted vertically.  The trouble is, the glass floor had got dusty from people's feet, and also sticky, perhaps from classes of visiting primary school children being made to sit on the floor the way children always are in galleries, and has also picked up a few scratches.  Honestly, you do not get a very good view of the mosaic.  I think it might be better on a wall.  Or on a low plinth, roped off so that people wouldn't walk on it.

I believe there is an excavation of something Roman in the Dutch quarter, which I vaguely remember having peered at through some viewing window at some time in the distant past.  I can't remember what it was, and there are no signs in the High Street to encourage me to go and look at it again.

The most interactive Roman relict is the arch in the wall, opposite the multi-storey car park, which you can walk through.  You would think that the prospect of walking through an arch a couple of thousand years old that actual, real Romans had used would be at least vaguely entertaining, but I have never seen anybody else bother, even though it is freely accessible and not cordoned off.  You just have to be prepared to deviate a couple of yards from your desire line into the centre of town or back to your car, and walk on setts instead of asphalt for a couple of paces.  Nicholas Crane gives it a mention in the book and says it was always a pedestrian arch, to the side of the main gate.  There is a risk if you take the arch that you will look as though you are deliberately avoiding the Big Issue seller who always stands on the other side of the pavement at that point.

It doesn't add up to a lot, but still a great deal more than you would see of actual Viking remains in York.  I suppose the trouble is that York has the Minster, one of the great Mediaeval cathedrals of Europe.  Colchester has Britain's largest ever Norman castle keep.  But it also has terrible, terrible traffic.  And York has the national railway museum.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

a reading day

I walked to the postbox, since I had a couple of letters that needed to catch today's post (Saturday's collection is at the earlier time of 10.30 am, a trap for the unwary).  It was enough to make me think I'd better give gardening a miss for another day, as my not-developed-into-a-cold but not-gone-away-yet snivelliness and incipient sore throat felt worse in the raw air.  A waste, since it was not raining or freezing.

Still, what is the point of being given a pile of books for Christmas and not making the time to read them?  Reading in the daytime, when you could be doing something else, is different to picking up a book for an hour in the evening after a busy day, when you are already tired from whatever it is you were doing all day.  Since Christmas I have finished The Wars of the Roses and Alison Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which usefully goes over events already covered in The Plantagenets in more detail.

I think I could now list from memory all the kings and queens of England from the Norman conquest to the present day.  I have not got them quite off pat, since I get slightly hazy around Edward IV, and a lot of the dates are still plus or minus a decade or two, apart from the battle of Bosworth field and for some reason the death of King John.  It's a shame that learning lists of monarchs has been so out of favour for so long.  We certainly weren't taught them when I was at school.  I have a feeling that Michael Gove might have wanted to reinstate them when he had the cabinet brief for schools, but that didn't last long.  It's not just that Mediaeval power politics and skullduggery have so many modern day parallels, but that the list of monarchs makes a useful framework on which to hang other facets of history.  Visited an interesting building, heard some music, read how a whole town disappeared into the sea, listened to a Radio 4 documentary about the development of cutlery?  With a rough internal timeline you can catalogue everything in chronological order and have some idea what was happening at the same time, and what came two centuries before or afterwards. It doesn't stop you from imagining what it would have felt like to be a woman on one of the Crusades as well, if you want to, but you are less likely to end up with a steampunk mashup of history in which the Peasants' Revolt sweeps past Nelson's column.

After Eleanor I toured the North Sea in Tom Blass' fascinating The Naked Shore, and ambled around England with Matthew Engel in Engel's England, an amiable and only slightly cricket infused tour of thirty-nine counties.  He seemed to quite like Essex, despite having retreated to Herefordshire about a quarter of a century ago.  And after that I leaped back twelve centuries to the point when the British Isles emerged from the last Ice Age, with Nicholas Crane's The Making of the British Landscape.  You can see another facet of my historical investigations emerging, which is that I wait for them to come out in paperback.

Friday, 12 January 2018

volunteer treasurer

My plan to set up the spreadsheets for the garden club accounts came to nought a few days ago, when I discovered I did not have a copy of last year's income and expenditure and balance sheet, as presented at the AGM, at which I'd been present.  To limit costs and cut down on waste paper the organisers had limited copies to one per table rather than one each, but I'm pretty sure I did leave the annual supper with one in my handbag.  What I did with it after that is a mystery, and there wasn't one in the folder the outgoing treasurer gave to me.

Never mind.  The chairman made a copy and gave it to me at the lecture, and so this morning I sat down again at the kitchen table, prepared to Get to Grips with it all.  I was a little worried about how I would fill in the gap between the end of the last financial year and the committee meeting held two weeks into the current one, when I took custody of the box containing the club's entire financial records since inception, plus a roll of white banqueting fabric, and box containing a cruet set with some pieces missing.

The outgoing treasurer had forwarded me the bank statements which were still being sent to her house, even though we called at the bank in mid November to complete the paperwork to change the contact details and signatory.  The statements ran from mid month to mid month, while the club's financial year ended on the last day of October, but it was soon obvious that the bank balance on 31 October plus the £41.16 I'd signed for in cash did not remotely equal the year end balance at cash and bank.  I remembered there was a deposit account.  Any sensible club booking paid speakers in advance makes sure it keeps some funds aside for a rainy day.  Only I had not seen a deposit account statement when I read through the folder on Monday.  Probably the bank only sends them out quarterly, or every six months.  I went and looked in the other folders in the box in the spare bedroom, but couldn't find any statement for the deposit account there either.

I turned my attention to the current account statements, and began checking off the payments that had gone through since the year end against the stubs in the cheque book.  Several related to cheques written before the year end, and I realised that there were no creditors shown on the balance sheet as presented at the AGM.  Presumably they were netted off the year end cash, otherwise the balance sheet wouldn't have balanced.  I couldn't ask the person who prepared the accounts, because they are currently on holiday.  Whale watching, in New Zealand.  I looked hopefully at the gigantic blue ledger in which past income and expenditure were meticulously recorded in biro with red auditors ticks against them, but couldn't find anything that obviously looked like the balance of the year end cash.

I decided that there were too many unknowns, and that I had better wait for the whale watcher to return and then ask politely how it was done.  I know how to maintain accurate records my way, and present them as income and expenditure at the end of the year.  I even know that the club assets at the end of the current year have to equal the total of last year's assets and this year's surplus or deficit, a concept that eluded the new treasurer of one club my mother was involved in.  Determined to accomplish something, and reassure myself that I hadn't made a mistake, yet, I set up a sheet for the petty cash, entered everything I'd received and paid out at my first meeting, and filed the receipts and dockets in my new folder.  To my slight relief the total physical cash as of this morning reconciled with the total of the £41.16 I started off with and the transactions I thought I'd made at the meeting.  Then I ordered myself a cash box from Amazon.  Having in the course of the evening been given money for future visits, paid out for expenses to do with the hall, and had to find the small change in my own purse to reimburse a volunteer for refreshments, I could see that if I didn't keep a very beady eye on the cash I was soon going to get in a complete muddle, and that stuffing envelopes of money and cheques into my handbag at intervals wasn't going to be enough.

The club is affiliated to the RHS, and I got the renewal form off in good time, so I think that so far I have done everything I was supposed to do.  I still don't understand the opening balance sheet, but I have months to work that out.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

a remarkable woman

The lecture at this month's meeting of The Arts Society, Colchester (not to be confused with Colchester Art Society) was about the wartime photography of Lee Miller, and to give it an added frisson the lecturer was her son.  I first heard of Lee Miller when I saw a strange and visually arresting photograph of a strikingly beautiful woman in profile at an exhibition of Man Ray's work at the National Portrait Gallery.  The caption said that the model was called Lee Miller, Man Ray's muse and surrealist collaborator, and that the strange appearance of the photograph was due to a process called solarisation, caused by exposing the photograph to light during the development process.  The effect had been known about for years without anyone doing anything much with it.  The idea that Man Ray could exploit it to do something interesting came from Lee Miller.

After that I might not have thought much more about Lee Miller, if the Imperial War Museum hadn't put on an exhibition of her war photography a couple of years ago.  The Systems Administrator and I went, and discovered that while the photographs were good, the life of Lee Miller was riveting.  She reinvented herself many times in her life, as a model in New York, surrealist artist in pre-war Paris, a fashion photographer for Vogue, an accredited war photographer attached to the US army in the aftermath of D-Day, wife, mother, and finally gourmet cook.  Friend of Picasso and Miro, she suffered from years of depression leading to alcohol abuse after what she had witnessed in the war, dragging herself back to sanity and sobriety in her later years, described by her son as her finest achievement.  She was a truly remarkable woman.

You couldn't get through all that in one lecture, and today's talk focused on her photographic work during the war, which started on the home front with pictures of women's war work and utility fashion, and ended with Lee Miller bathing in Hitler's bath and arriving to document some of the Nazi death camps within hours of their being liberated.  She was a good photographer, besides being brave, determined, and bloody-minded.  At one point she and her fellow American Life correspondent David E Scherman were three miles ahead of the advancing US army.  Her former home is now a museum, her son one of the custodians of her archive, and he spoke well and movingly.  It is a matter of public record that in her post-war, depressed, drinking years she was not an easy mother.

After the IWM exhibition I couldn't understand why nobody had made a film of her life.  Apparently one is now afoot, with plans for Kate Winslet to play Lee Miller.  That would be worth seeing, if it comes to fruition.  Her son said that it should be on our screens in 2019 or 2020.  Something has started happening because he had photographs of Kate Winslet at the old family home and studying the archive.  But when I checked on Kate Winslet's IMDb entry there was no mention of it as being in pre-production or filming, so I'd better not get too excited quite yet.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

a brief glory

The first flowering of the amaryllis was just the warm-up act.  The second flowering stem rose to twice the height of the first, so tall that if it had grown another inch the tips of the closed buds would have been bumping against the top of the window.  There were six flowers, compared to a measly two on the first stem, of which four opened together and then the last pair a couple of days later.  The great pink head was so wide that I had to move the pot from the window sill to the kitchen table, because otherwise the outward facing trumpets were pressed against the glass.  You didn't notice so much from inside, but from outside it looked bizarre, like a face squashed up against a window pane.

Alas, the glory was short-lived.  Coming downstairs yesterday morning I found the monstrous bloom hanging over the edge of the table, the stem having buckled.  I staked it with a thin cane, but the hollow stalk had split at the bottom, and now the flowers are beginning to fade.  There again, the first stem didn't last very long either.

I saw the bulb merchant who'd donated it to the garden club raffle at the last club meeting.  He seemed puzzled by my surprise and enthusiasm that the amaryllis had flowered.  I suppose, when you are a bulb merchant, that is what amaryllis are meant to do.  Apparently any high potash fertiliser will suit it, then in September I should stop watering and let it dry out for ten weeks before starting the whole cycle off again.  Although he didn't say so, I suspect he was thinking that alternatively I could buy a new one.

I don't know if the Systems Administrator will want an amaryllis living permanently on the kitchen window sill.  One of my orchids died, so there is a space.  Although I did rather fancy a new orchid.  The trouble with the amaryllis is that while it is spectacular in flower, there are going to be a lot of weeks in the year when it is not doing anything much.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

the winter tidy continues

I have been spreading home made compost along the edge of one bed I never managed to get to last year.  The nice, dark brown, level layer looks so neat, almost edible, that it comes as a jolt to remember that left like that it would be a fabulous seedbed to every weed going.  It won't look nearly so glamorous once I've spread Strulch on it, since the Strulch looks like nothing so much as grass clippings after they've gone brown, while the home made compost looks like dark chocolate.  The Strulch does stop the weeds, though, or at least most of them.  Fergus Garrett talked about scraping holes in their mulch to give desired self-seeders a chance, but in our garden what with the blackbirds and the cats there always seem to be some gaps left for more Verbena bonariensis to pop up.

I think one of the tree lupins has died.  I haven't examined it closely, since I am working my way down the slope and haven't got to that bit of the bed yet, but viewed from the edge there don't seem to be any live branches left.  It will probably have left me some potential replacements, since tree lupins self seed prolifically given half a chance, so I should be able to choose one that's put itself in a sensible place.  What colour it will be is another matter.  My original plant had yellow flowers, but in recent years they've come up with yellow and pink two-tone spikes.  It have not been so dramatic I have rushed to tell Thompson and Morgan in case they wanted to introduce it as a new lupin colour break, but it has been quite pretty.

A Cistus seems to be on its last legs as well.  I blame old age rather than the cold, since another Cistus right next to it is fine.  Perhaps it will have left me a replacement too.  They do self seed occasionally, sometimes at a considerable distance from any parent plant, and I have a feeling that they grow better sown in situ than transplanted out of pots.  Most Cistus don't seem naturally long lived, though I have one monster of incredible age and size in the meadow, and if you have the space and can tolerate the lack of control I think one of the best ways to grow them and tree lupins is as part of a shifting, self-seeding community of slightly ephemeral plants.  If you like tidiness in your borders, with a place for everything and everything in its place, then you will be annoyed each time one of them dies.

Monday, 8 January 2018

still tidying

The garden did not really look very inviting this morning, although at least the wind had dropped.  I thought maybe I should set up the spreadsheets for the garden club accounts before tomorrow's meeting, but ground to a halt because I could not find a copy of last year's accounts.  I think I had one at the AGM, but where I put it is another matter, and the outgoing treasurer's file didn't have one, though I did spend an enlightening hour reading the minutes of past committee meetings.  Then I ventured out into the garden, where it was not as cold as I'd thought it might be.

I spent a long time trimming lengths of honeysuckle out of the rose bank, while thinking that planting roses and honeysuckle together really might not have been a good idea.  Some of the roses are rampant, but the honeysuckle is inexorable, mounding and twining itself over and around everything.  There is not going to be enough space in the compost bins for all the honeysuckle stems and the leaves from the Eryngium pandanifolium.  For now I am stuffing them in old Strulch bags to worry about later.

The Systems Administrator had a bonfire and got rid of some of the great trail of bramble stems, bracken stalks, rose prunings, shrub prunings, lengths of ivy hauled out of the backs of borders, unwanted Cornus suckers, and general woody debris that's been accumulating for months.  I once heard Bob Flowerdew suggest on the radio that instead of burning our woody garden waste we should tie it together into bundles and leave it in quiet corners as wildlife habitats, which is a nice idea, but would only work if you had lots of quiet corners relative to the quantity of woody plants in your garden.  Even after sifting out everything that can be used as firewood or shredded to make mulch or compost, our remaining woody garden waste would fill several industrial skips.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

winter tidy

The dump was surprisingly busy.  The last couple of times I went before Christmas the staff outnumbered the customers, and helpful employees rushed to empty my bags of garden waste, while I didn't manage to do anything much beyond stand there saying gosh, thank you, that's really kind.  There were a few Christmas trees in the garden waste bins today, but mostly the kind of debris you generate when you're having a clearout, stems of ivy and all the opportunistic plants that make themselves busy in neglected corners.  There were carfuls of household junk as well, old lampshades, small pieces of broken furniture, and other domestic detritus, and truck loads of old pallets and rotting wood.  New year, new start.  Projects underway, out with the old and in with the new.

At the garden centre they were down to their last 25 kg bag of fish, blood, and bone, which I hastily heaved into my trolley while thanking fate that they hadn't run out.  The Clacton garden centre shifts an impressive quantity of soil improvers, much more than the plant centre ever did.  I imagine there are quite a few serious growers in the bungalows of Clacton, retired taxi drivers and other East Enders with impressively robust dahlias and brilliant green lawns.  My favourite gardening gloves were in stock as well, so I was in luck.  I bought a small bag of seed compost while I was there, since the order from Special Seeds includes some that are supposed to be sown straight away, and it would be helpful to have some fresh compost ready when they arrive.

The wind was icy, and it was too cold to open the bees even for five minutes.  I should have treated them for varroa a week ago, if I had been on the ball and remembered to order the treatment before Christmas, but there's no point in doing them if it's so cold that I kill the bees as well as the varroa.  We had to destroy the village in order to save it.  I now have my eye on Tuesday, when it is forecast to be less windy.

Instead I occupied myself with a series of odd jobs in the back garden where I was out of the worst of the wind, and was moving around some of the time to keep warm.  I cut back the turf where it had crept out over the slab path across the top lawn, pruned some of the roses, and finally had a go at the lawn edges once the light began to go.  I much prefer pruning while it's sunny, when the difference in stem colour between the living and dead shoots is obvious and I can see where the buds are.  On a dull day and towards dusk everything looks greyish brown, irrespective of whether it is alive or not.

Several stems from the clump of yellow stemmed bamboo had tipped out over the lawn, and I cut them off at ground level.  The whole clump could do with thinning, but that is a job for a nice, warm, calm sort of day when I can concentrate on what I'm doing.  The patch had spread far too much, and a few years back I chopped a lot of it out with the pickaxe and surrounded what was left with a perimeter of galvanised lawn edging, buried so that a couple of inches remained above ground level.  So far the bamboo has not dived under the barrier nor climbed over it, and I would go so far as to say that the technique has worked.  Part of the point of edging the clump was to have a clear marker, beyond which I would immediately remove any wayward growths, but I was hoping the edging would keep it in check as well.

It is forecast to be cold but not frosty all week.  And it is already the end of the first week of January.  There is still a lot to do out there.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

wrong plant, wrong place

I decided today, the Eryngium pandanifolium has got to go.  It is an uncomfortable thing to do, removing a perfectly healthy plant, besides which the Eryngium came from Great Dixter meaning that digging it out is akin to desecrating a sacred relict.  Nonetheless, I am resolved.  It is going.

It is one of the rosette forming eryngiums, built on a massive scale.  It looked quite innocent fifteen years ago when I bought it as a single rosette in a pot that was no more than two or three litres.  By now it has bulked out to form many, many rosettes, and each individual strap shaped leaf is four or five feet long.  The clump must be eight feet across, and has burst through a box hedge in one direction and is swamping a path in the other.

I am not precious about hedges.  All of mine tend to undulate, and are often whiskery, and the concept of the regulated line of the hedge being broken by a gigantic, spiky herbaceous plant could be fun, like the Headington shark crashing through the roof of the house in Oxford.  I'm all for challenging the concept of what a hedge should be.  The problem is with Eryngium pandanifolium.

It is evergreen, but with a high turnover of leaves.  Those around the outside of the rosette go brown and die but remain on the plant looking visibly tatty until somebody (me) comes round and chops them off.  Because there are so many rosettes lots of brown foliage keeps developing inside the clump, and reaching into the plant to extract all of it takes a long time, and has to be done frequently,  while the old leaves recoil and keep springing out of whatever bag or large bucket I am trying to collect them in.  They also tend to bend and break mid way along their length while still green, when again they look tatty like a dog-eared book.  Perhaps this is my fault for planting the Eryngium where the wind can get to it.  Perhaps it would be happier and not break in a more sheltered garden, a garden of rooms more like Great Dixter.  The tall flower spikes when they arrive late in the year are quite dramatic, but not enough to make up for the aggravation of having lived with the great clump of browning, breaking leaves for the previous nine months.

So it is going to go.  I asked the Systems Administrator yesterday what the SA thought, and the SA replied that it looked out of place where it was.  Once it has gone there will be a nice little space for something else in that bed, after I've filled in the gap in the hedge.  There's a Hemerocallis that needs moving because it is too shaded by the roses where it is.  Or my enthusiasm for spiky plants remains undimmed and my seed order to Derry Watkins included a packet of a hardy Hesperaloe.  That is supposed to be slow growing.

Friday, 5 January 2018

winter gardening

Last night's wind blew one of the acrylic panes out of the greenhouse.  Fortunately it didn't break, but it is a two person job getting them in again, and so I had to drag the poor old Systems Administrator out into the cold.  The wind had slammed the lid of one of the cold frames open, and as I shut it again I saw the first daffodil shoots nosing their way clear of the compost.  I ordered fifty of the true pheasant's eye last summer to go by the wildlife pond in the meadow, and they are currently growing on in pots so that I can see where to put the clumps when everything else is coming up as well.  I have done a few clay pots of fancier varieties as well, to stand by the front door.

Returning to the sloping bed in the back garden once the rain had passed I found more emerging daffodil snouts.  For all that the days are still short, damp, and cold, the garden is hurtling back towards life.  That is one of the reasons why I have never found January a particularly depressing month, as long as I don't have a cold and it doesn't rain or snow all the time.  There is always lots to do, and every time I manage a session in the garden I find something else has started sending out its first hopeful leaves.  Of course the more starts to come up the more difficult it is to tread on the borders without squashing something, so it is an urgent time of year.  Which reminds me, I must prune the grape vines, just as soon as I've trickled oxalic acid on the bees.

In the current pots by the front door the little viola 'Honey Bee' is flowering madly, and has been ever since I planted it, undeterred by the snow, the wind, or anything else.  Meanwhile, the large flowered mahogany coloured pansies that I bought late in the season, because I wanted to test the new Littlethorpe pot outside through the winter before deciding whether to order a set and the garden centres had pretty much run out of bedding by the time the pot arrived, have not made any new flowers at all beyond the one each that they already had when I got them.  Perhaps they will do better come the spring, but for winter long interest the violas have it.  Some mauve and white ones I got for the pot by my mother's front door are doing equally well.  'Honey Bee' was highlighted as a promising new variety in a 2013 trial by Which?, and Which? got it absolutely right.  The flowers are a strange and pretty mixture of purple and mustard green.

The row of slightly tender white cyclamen in the porch were looking rather tatty the last time I examined them closely.  I must deadhead them and remove the odd shrivelled leaves.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

an afternoon in the garden

As I peered hopefully out of the bathroom window this morning it did not seem to be raining, but when I got downstairs and went to let the hens into their run it was drizzling.  It went on raining thinly until midday, while looking as though it might stop at any minute, and so I sat at the kitchen table in my gardening clothes while Mr Fluffy and Mr Fidget took it in turns to go out, and come in again five minutes later with fur beaded in moisture and irritated expressions.

I used the time to put my seed order in to the Special Plants Nursery.  There were many more varieties listed online than in the printed catalogue, and it took some self restraint to keep the order to a sensible number of packets.  My admiration for Derry Watkins grew apace when I saw that every plant description in the seed section of her website includes its germination requirements.  That is so much easier than having to keep a sheaf of empty packets (generally compost stained) in order to be able to refer to the instructions printed on the back, or having to search through your books and take pot luck from the advice on the internet because the seeds didn't come with any instructions at all.

Eventually the sun came out in a watery and uncertain fashion, and the cats and I escaped into the garden, which was soggy underfoot.  A sweet, spicy, pervasive smell told me that the Daphne bholua had opened.  I grow two forms, the pinky-mauve 'Jacqueline Postill', and the white one, which is not so vigorous.  The white has opened slightly ahead of the mauve, and the whole shrub has flopped over rather irritatingly since the snow.  I shall have to get a fine tree stake, and very carefully see if I can get the top of it more upright so that it doesn't stick out over the lawn, without yanking at the roots.  They make upright plants, except when they flop over, taller than I am, and 'Jacqueline Postill' suckers enthusiastically.  They would like shelter, some sun, and that mythical moist but well-drained soil we keep being told so many plants want, when it is so scarce in our gardens.  My daphnes have hit the sweet spot at the bottom of a bank where the water table does normally keep them reliably moist but not saturated.  An Edgeworthia further along the same bank was not so lucky and drowned, and a rare shrubby honeysuckle took years to recover after the last wet winter.

The scent of Daphne bholua is definitely exotic.  If daffodils are innocent, daphnes reek of experience and intrigue.  I love them, and would grow more if only I had more places to their liking.

I am not entirely sure it was a good idea to include honeysuckles in the rose bank.  The scent when they are in bloom is lovely, and last autumn they flowered on late into the year, long after the roses had finished.  They are very rampant, though, twining themselves around the roses, mounding themselves up, and making a break into any small tree within reach.  I always have to disentangle the Amelanchier at the bottom of the rose bank from their choking embrace, and see that this time they have surpassed themselves and made a leap up into the Prunus 'Tai-haku'.  I am being stern now and removing a lot of honeysuckle shoots and stems while there are no flowers or buds to distract me from what needs to be done.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

a windy day

At breakfast time yesterday I admired the vivid streaks of cherry and orange in the sunrise across the fields, before remembering that red sky in the morning was shepherds' warning, and so it proved.  By early evening it was raining and in the small hours of the night Storm Eleanor came screaming through the wood.  It was a relief on looking out of the bedroom window this morning to see that nothing had obviously blown over or broken, and another to find when I went to let the chickens into their run that the hen house still had a roof.

The Orwell Bridge at Ipswich was, predictably, closed for the morning.  The problem of the Orwell Bridge is a tricky one, since when it shuts the entire A14 traffic flow is diverted through central Ipswich and gridlock ensues, on the other hand it is not shut all that often and the cost of a northern bypass would be immense, not to mention the opposition.  The council did start assembling the land for a bypass route many years ago, but in the face of furious protests they gave up.

Less explicably, the Colchester multistorey carpark in Balkerne Hill was closed.  Was that due to the high winds?  The other, older multistorey at the bottom of the hill was open, though I managed to get myself in the wrong lane for the turning and ended up doing an extra circuit of the town centre while trying not to drive down a bus lane by mistake.  Colchester's one way system and bus lanes are enough to get one's blood pressure up before the day has fairly started, and I try to stick to the route and the car park that I know.  And not go into Colchester very much, which was probably not the council's intention when they introduced their delphically signed traffic schemes, and car parks where to be on the safe side you end up paying for an hour's more parking than you use.  My brother and I had to go to the solicitor's office and both coughed up the extra.

It was still very windy when I got home, so I spent a productive afternoon fashioning a new presentation from the latest sets of slides the woodland charity sent out.  Besides what they called the core beginning and end there were slides about tree diseases and pests, woodland creation, urban trees, community and school tree packs, and woods under threat, and if I'd strung them all together I'd have needed a miniseries to get through them all.  I think the idea might be that we can tailor different talks to the particular interests of specific groups, but a general talk will have to do.  That's what most groups want, and it is hard work mugging up on a new talk so that you know what and how much to say as each slide comes up.  I can't face changing it each time.  At least now the charity sends a link to a shared file service with all the slides on it as a series of Powerpoint presentations that volunteers can edit as they see fit.  When I started they used to send a box of acetates in the post, and if you wanted to alter or shorten the presentation at all you had to physically move the slides around in the carousel, making sure you put them back the right way up.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

more seeds

Several years ago we visited Wallington in Northumberland, an estate west of Morpeth now in the keeping of the National Trust.  It has an unusual and charming walled ornamental garden, nestled into the slope of a small valley, and near the bottom of the hill we found the gardeners' own plant stall, where they sold surplus plants they had raised themselves, all proceeds going to the upkeep of the garden.  My eye was caught by a little plant covered in small, mauve flowers which the label said was a Persian violet.  The Systems Administrator suggested I could get one at the National Trust shop on the way back to the car, but I am a firm believer that the time to buy an unusual plant is when you see it, and my instinct was right, because the main shop did not have any Persian violets.

The plant lived on the kitchen window sill for the summer, but come the autumn it became clear that the Persian violet, or Exacum affine as I discovered it was called, was an annual, at least under window sill growing conditions.  I consoled myself with the thought that I could buy seed the following year and raise my own plant, only when I came to look nobody seemed to be selling seed in the UK, apart from one website that had attracted such negative customer feedback that I didn't think I'd bother.

Leafing through my Special Seeds list I suddenly remembered the Persian violet, and had a look to see if this year somebody might be offering it, but even the vendor I shied clear of last time had dropped it.  Someone on Amazon did list Persian violet, true, but were using the name to refer to Nigella damascena, which is generally called Love-in-the-Mist.  (This is where botanical plant names come in useful.  They are really not designed to baffle or embarrass beginners).  Persian violets seemed much more popular in the US and Australia, and I toyed wildly with the idea of asking friends who had family in the States if they could buy a packet for me.  But then I saw that seeds were available on eBay from an Australian seed company with an approval rating of over 99 per cent, who would dispatch internationally for a charge and accepted PayPal.  PayPal helpfully told me what the Australian dollar conversion rate was, otherwise I would not have had any idea how much my Persian violet seeds were going to cost me.  Fired up with the desire to possess a new Persian violet, and possibly swayed by the information that 16 packets had been sold and 5 remained, I clicked.  For under a fiver it seemed worth a punt.

One of the great things about ordering plants or seeds from home in your own time is that you can check the growing conditions they need, how large they get, and any unsavoury habits they might have, before deciding whether to go ahead.  It is an enjoyable way of passing a wet afternoon, and so I amused myself Googling some of Derry Watkins' list.  It is more important to order the dark flowered form of the drought resistant dwarf legume Anthyllis vulneraria than I'd grasped, since the flowers of the ordinary one are not pink as I'd assumed, but yellow.  She is offering a pale cream form of the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica 'Alba', which I hadn't noticed before.  They grow very well in the gravel, and the SA liked the pale California poppies we saw at Chelsea, so that's one for the basket.

Shopping is not an entirely rational activity.  Since I am willing to pay the postage charge on one packet of seeds from Australia, will I be prepared to do the same to get a packet of sea daffodil seed from Plant World Seeds in Newton Abbot?