Wednesday, 28 February 2018

more snow

The chickens would not come out of their house.  I defrosted their water this morning, and again at lunchtime, and just now put a pot of water right outside the pop hole so that they could drink without venturing more than a step outside.  I was concerned that there were no footprints to show that they had been out at all, though as the wind keeps blowing the snow prints might not have lasted very long.

I opened their house briefly to top up their food, and found a dead mouse on the floor.  I presume it crept in looking for food and shelter, and they killed it.  Chickens can be very territorial about their coop, and they don't seem to like rodents.  Poor hens, all they have done all day is skulk in the bottom of their house, or bob up and down on their perch peering out of the window and making grumbling noises.  They do still have all their toes, however.

The leaves on the evergreen climber Pileostegia viburnoides on the front of the house have turned brown.  I don't like to think what else is dead or maimed under the snow.  The cold is bitter with the wind whipping down from the north, and the postman did not make it today.  It's no good, I hate snow.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

country snow

It snowed in the night.  About four inches, looking at what had settled on top of the wall outside the study and the stout wooden posts in the turning circle.  The Systems Administrator went out to open the chicken house and defrost their water, but they would not come out.  After breakfast I managed to tempt them through their pop hole with some leftover cold boiled potato, but once they'd eaten that they went in again, and there they stayed.  In the middle of the afternoon I checked their water was not frozen, and some scratchy footprints in the snow showed that they had got as far as the water, but no further.  Poor chickens.  There is plenty of sawdust down on the floor of the house, and if they huddle together I hope they will be warm enough.

According to a book I had as a child, Along Came a Dog, by Meindert DeJong, if a hen's feet get too cold its toes will drop off.  This happened to the hen heroine, who was no longer able to perch on the farmer's shoulder as was her habit.  He solved the problem by cutting out two squares of rubber with holes in the middle and sewing them to the shoulder of his jacket.  When the hen wanted to perch he shoved her knuckle bones into the holes to secure her.  As a child I believed this piece of hen biology implicitly, and fifty years later I still don't want to test it empirically.  However, the previous lot of hens survived the last cold winter with their toes intact.

Mr Fluffy went out in the snow very briefly, and spent the rest of the day sleeping in his fleecy cat bed on top of the cupboard.  That was something of a relief as last time it snowed he got lost.  Mr Fidget and Mr Cool thought the snow great fun, and spent most of the morning exploring.  At one point I saw them chasing each other across the back garden, two black cats against the white, which would have made a great photograph if anyone had been there to capture it.

I took all the mess out of the bottom of a kitchen cupboard I've been meaning to tidy one wet day, vacuumed up the accumulated fluff, and put the mess back in a more structured and less messy form.  Some of the things in the cupboard turned out to be useful.  There were two sheets of what looked at first like dressmaker's interlining, except that that seemed an unlikely thing to have in a kitchen cupboard, so I asked the SA if it was a filter and if so did it fit anything we still had?  The SA said that it was for the extractor fan, and in fact he could fit a new piece quite soon.  There were a great many pots and bottles of polish and unguents for treating shoes, which whittled down to fewer by the time I'd thrown away the ones that had gone dry or completely solid.  I don't understand why I had a bottle of something that appeared to be designed for snakeskin.  The instructions were in several languages but not English, and I have never bought anything made out of snakeskin in my life.  I threw it away, along with a brush with a nice wooden handle and pure bristle hairs, that would have been excellent if the hairs hadn't been falling out in handfuls.  I was pleased to find two pots of leather balsam, and celebrated by polishing all my leather boots and my satchel.

The post arrived this morning as normal, but there were no tyre tracks so the poor old postman must have walked up from the farm.  The Systems Administrator kept an eye on what Greater Anglia were up to, and said that after the rush hour there were no trains at all on our branch line for the rest of the day, but that although passenger services had been drastically curtailed all over East Anglia, freight trains were still pouring out of Felixstowe.  Then on Radio 4's PM programme I heard that the normal timetable had been reinstated.  Tendring Council have suspended bin collections from any roads that have not been gritted.  That's most roads, then.  Certainly ours.

Monday, 26 February 2018

still waiting

Britain braced for blizzards, says a headline in The Times, above a photograph of a glum-faced member of the household cavalry sitting on a stoical horse while snowflakes fall around them.  There was a photo of Russell Square too, and in places the snow was so thick that the grass barely poked through it.  Greater Anglia has already preemptively introduced a reduced timetable until Friday.  Ah well, we shall see.  I think that tonight it probably is going to snow properly.  So far we have merely had spasmodic flurries, heavy enough to send the cats stomping back indoors, but not enough to settle.

Still, it is jolly cold.  I belatedly rescued the pots of cyclamen from the porch and stood them in the hall for the duration.  They are not really frost hardy, and the one nearest the front already got caught a couple of nights ago, prompting me to shuffle all the pots to the very back of the porch to keep them from the worst of the cold, but this morning I took pity on them.

I kept my word and made nourishing soup for lunch and cleaned the kitchen.  The Systems Administrator, who had ventured out to cut more firewood, appeared in the kitchen and said Ah, I had made soup, what sort was it? but I couldn't decide which the dominant ingredient was to give a concise answer.  There was an onion and a large carrot, and some red lentils and tomato paste, and I used a pot of chicken stock that had been in the freezer for rather a long time but tasted OK when I chiselled a little frozen piece off with a teaspoon.  It was flavoured with thyme, black pepper and cumin, only when I first checked the flavour it seemed rather mere, so I added more tomato paste and thyme, a tiny nip of chilli pepper and a pinch of salt.  That seemed to do the trick.  We ate all of it, but after a morning spent cutting wood the SA would probably have eaten hotted-up wallpaper paste.

Having just seen a blackbird trying to reach into the tits' fat ball feeder I went out to put a couple of broken-up fat balls on the bird table for it.  I found the table stripped completely bare, although I covered it this morning with the last of a bag of something sold as robin mix, topped up with extra sunflower hearts.  In normal winter weather they stop off at the table, but are choosy about which bits of the mixture they will eat, picking out their favourites and leaving the little round yellow seeds that seem to be included in every brand.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

before the big freeze

It was a very beautiful day, looked at from indoors, but outside it was bitterly cold.  The Systems Administrator sawed some more firewood after lunch, before coming in saying it was too cold to stand there sawing.  I went shopping and bought what I think the SA privately considered a ludicrous quantity of food.  Tesco, which I visited for the slabs of cat food and because their in-store branch of Timpsons had my dry cleaning, was rather busy, Waitrose markedly less hectic.  The fact that I was willing to spend time visiting a second supermarket in order to buy my preferred brands of fruit flavoured yogurt and muesli tells you quite how uninviting the day was for gardening.

It is difficult to tell what to expect.  My mother, survival instincts honed by spending a decade living nine hundred feet up a hill in rural Wales, reassured me that she already had a fortnight's worth of food in stock.  The Systems Administrator is convinced that the trains will be running normally now the railway has heated points, and hopes and expects to meet a friend for lunch in London on Wednesday as planned.  Lots of people are hoping to get to work.  My brother needs to get to Croydon.  A friend has a week's holiday booked in Cuba so presumably has to get to Gatwick, or Heathrow.  I would like to take my car to the garage as booked on Thursday before its MoT runs out.  I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wasn't trying to make it to Cuba since we don't go on that sort of holiday.  The Systems Administrator said Never Mind, we would be able to experience what life was like in Cuba here once Jeremy Corbyn got in, if you believed the Daily Mail.

I shall have no excuse not to clean the kitchen, since I won't be doing anything outside, though I might take refuge in some bulb catalogues from time to time.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

awaiting the arctic blast

The little red flowers of the Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' have opened in the past couple of days.  Red is indeed an eye-catching colour.  I first spotted them out of the sitting room window across the full width of the garden, and this morning went out for a closer look before the Arctic Blast could spoil them.  I hope it doesn't, as they are so pretty, and the one attractive thing that the tree does in the entire year.  With some plants you can console yourself that there will be a second flush of flowers, or that the autumn leaves are good, but some sap-sucking insect always attacks the Prunus, causing its leaves to pucker and twist horribly.  In fact, I am amazed it has grown as much as it has given how damaged its leaves appear each summer.

This is my second attempt at growing it.  There used to be a fashion for offering little top-worked standards of 'Beni-chidori' and I bought one to grow in a pot, thinking the flowers would harmonise well with the pink camellia outside the conservatory, but the branches of the standard kept dying back until it was almost reduced to a stub, and I threw it away.  I managed to find a small tree just grown as a normal tree, not trained as a lollipop, and planted it in the open border in not especially nice soil.  You could tell the soil was not so good in that stretch, firstly because the hedge never grew as fast, and secondly because the previous tree refused to grow until eventually it gave up the ghost entirely.  The Prunus, cosseted with regular applications of mushroom compost and blood, fish and bone, is gently but steadily growing.  I hope its flowers last beyond Tuesday, but don't know how they will respond to snow.

The Crocus tommasinianus in the bottom lawn were stretched wide open to the sun this morning.  Poor, deluded Crocus.  No bees were flying to pollinate them in this wind.  I am not sure there will be anything left of them either after the snow.

In the afternoon I went to a plant lecture which, unusually for plant lectures around here, was frankly dreadful.  That was an achievement in itself, since the topic was Kirstenbosch, which has a fascinating and diverse flora, and it would take a real talent not to make it interesting, but the lecturer persevered.  He had acetate slides, which kept sticking in the projector, and he did not have a remote control so kept standing right by the machine and in front of the image, provoking heckling from the front row.  Some of the slides were so dark you really couldn't see anything anyway, and sometimes as the lecturer strove to make out what was on them he addressed his remarks to the back wall of the hall on which they were projected, instead of the audience.  The talk itself rambled about with no structure that I could discover, beyond what he did on his holidays, or rather what he did on a field trip seventeen years ago.  There were frequent references to a map, but he did not show us the map at the beginning, though he had copies in a box on the stage for people to take away afterwards.  And he was not projecting his voice, so while I could hear in the third row I don't suppose they could at the back, and he did not enunciate so I missed the names of the plants I didn't already know.

I thought grumpily as I drove home that really it had not been worth giving up an afternoon's gardening and a round trip of over forty miles.  Getting out of the car when I arrived home, though, as the icy wind hit me I had to admit that even if I hadn't been to the talk I might not have been gardening.

Friday, 23 February 2018

more winter tidying

It was another cold day, but again amazingly almost frost free overnight.  I woke up needing to go to the loo, and the sound of human activity in the bedroom set Our Ginger howling in the corridor, so I had to give up any idea of going back to sleep, and was out in the garden by half past eight.  I am making the most of it before the Arctic Blast.  The seven day Met Office forecast shows the thermometer dropping to minus three for four nights in a row, and not rising above freezing on Wednesday and Thursday.  I hope the greenhouse heater will be able to cope.  But in the meantime I might as well get on with weeding while the sun shines, if not make hay.

The ivy hedge around the long bed is growing back from the hard pruning it received last year.  Much of it has turned to the mature, flowering form by now, and in order to reduce it back to size I had to go hard into the old wood.  Sections of it ended up bare and leafless, and I wondered if it would recover, while trying not to dwell on the prospect that it might not.  There are times when it is a nuisance, but the thought of digging out all the roots and having to buy enough box, Eleagnus or anything else to replace well over two hundred feet of dwarf hedging was daunting.  By now, however, most of the bare patches are at least partially clothed, and the hedge had made enough random new growth to need trimming again.

In an ideal world you would not weed among emerging Muscari.  I felt bad each time I broke the stem of one of the as-yet unopened flowers, and some of the leaves are looking a bit mashed up.  I did not manage to touch this stretch of the bed last year, and I've a feeling some patches at the back didn't get treated with Strulch the year before.  The difference in weed growth where the layer of mulch has not been kept topped up is dramatic.

Living at the far end of a farm track and nearly two miles from the nearest road that ever sees a gritter leaves us slightly in limbo as we wait for the Arctic Blast.  The Systems Administrator told me that the cold spell might not last very long as several weather models suggested a counter movement of warm air from the south west might push the cold air back.  However, heavy falls of snow were possible where the two air masses met.  It would be a great relief if the deep chill did not last too long, on the other hand the possibility of heavy snow left me feeling rather cautious about arranging to do any of the myriad things I have been supposed to be doing since Christmas.  I am overdue an eye test, ditto a visit to the dentist, need to buy some bookcases, and find a builder to look at the damp patch in the sitting room, and was supposed to be meeting my old university friend in London for lunch in January.  None of these activities combine well with heavy falls of snow.  We shall see.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

more winter weeding

It was a cold day, but bright and dry, and amazingly with no overnight frost, so I was able to get in a full day of weeding in the front garden.  There was great satisfaction in seeing the emerging noses of the grape hyacinths appear from among the grass and general litter.  Once I'd cleared a fair sized patch I began to spread a layer of home made compost on the area I'd weeded.  There is no point in starting to spread mulch at the beginning, as you just end up flicking weeds and mess on the bits you've done, and spilling compost over places where you haven't weeded yet, only to find the weeds later.  The freshly spread compost was satisfyingly dark and crumbly and looked almost good enough to eat.

The long bed in the front garden is plagued by several different sorts of weedy grass.  I don't know any of their names, not being a field botanist and grasses being notoriously difficult to identify even when you are keen on wild flowers, but I recognise mine when I see them.  The stretch of border I was doing today is bothered by three different ones.  There is an annual grass, very fine leaved, that is capable of producing a dense sward if allowed to grow thickly such that when you pull it up a good centimetre or two of soil comes with it.  It then takes an age to batter and shake some of the earth off each handful.  It also seeds itself into the gravel and is an absolute menace, able to infiltrate the supposedly ground covering carpet of thyme.  With repeated weeding over the past few years it is not so bad as it was, and if I can stop it seeding to any great extent this year I hope to have even less of it.

Then there is a tufty grass, not dissimilar to rye grass but not growing as large.  You need to get the tines of a hand weeding fork under the larger clumps when pulling them out, otherwise the top growth comes away leaving a basal plate that I darkly suspect of being able to regenerate.  Clumps of this grass had sown themselves in among the stems of an old rose that determindley suckers around despite the awful soil.  It is quite satisfying to weed, pulling up quite easily and leaving a clear patch behind.

Then there is a running grass which is a devil.  It is not couch grass, also called twitch, but finer in all its parts, with thinner leaves that make ratty little tufts.  It produces some fat white roots, but also a network of very thin ones.  Both are brittle and tend to break when pulled.  It has gone in to the ivy hedge and under the skirts of the topiary yews and among the roses, and I shall never be free of it.  I have visited gardens open to the public where the management has so despaired of the way perennial weeds have infested a border that they have cleared every single plant, dosed it with strong poison, and left it fallow under plastic sheeting for a year or two.  I am not going to do that, since I am not going to rip out the shrubs, and could not buy the strong poison as an amateur, and would not want to if I could.  Instead I probe at the roots of the wretched grass with my hand fork and a sharp border fork, pull out as much as I can, and make a mental note to self to keep pulling out the regrowth to weaken it.

I am weeding out the self sown plants of the white flowered form of Lychnis coronaria as well, which is ungrateful of me when it is so eager to grow in that bed and a single plant of it in a nine centimetre pot would set me back a fiver.  The trouble is, it is too eager, and if left unchecked forms a smothering mat that chokes out everything else.  And it is not in truth the prettiest plant.  The youngsters form nice little grey felty rosettes, but with age they become gross and accumulate floppy half dead leaves giving them a nasty brownish tone.

Much nicer is Pulsatilla vulgaris, which is just starting to show exciting knobbles of fresh growth above ground.  This is the Pasque flower, found in the wild in chalk grassland, but it does perfectly well in border conditions in acid sand.  After the flowers have finished the seed heads are attractive, fluffy and silky, resembling the seed heads of some clematis, for both are in the buttercup family.  I ought to have a lot more of them.  They seed themselves, but not so much as they used to since I started using Strulch.  Seed probably needs to be fresh, as it does for most Ranunculaceae, making them not the most reliable prospect from bought seed.  I have just noticed that Crocus has plants in nine centimetre pots on special offer, a tempting thought.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

winter weeding

I ventured out after lunch to do some weeding.  One advantage of gardening on the light soil of the front garden is that it dries out so rapidly after rain.  I didn't fancy squelching around in the back, because I object to crawling around with wet shins, and I didn't want to compact the borders by treading on them, but the long bed in the front already felt fine to walk on.  The winter flowering cherry is producing another flush of flowers, at least until next week when the Arctic Blast arrives, and the buds on the pink Prunus x blireana are swelling, and it would be nice to see them blossoming and the spring bulbs emerging over a neat blanket of Strulch, instead of amidst a muddle of last year's fennel stalks and tufts of grass.

Looking up the name of the pink cherry on my gardening spreadsheet made me realise how slowly it is growing.  Both were planted in 2011 and are still very much works in progress, whereas a Malus transitoria planted only two years earlier by the end of the wood now looks like a proper small tree.  The soil in that bed is very mere for trees, even with periodic doses of blood, fish, and bone, compost, and Strulch.  Still, they are toddling along, and I don't want them to be huge.  I had a winter flowering cherry before in the back garden, but the water table rose under it and it drowned by degrees, suffering from hideous dieback until I lost patience with it and chopped it down (or probably asked the Systems Administrator to take it down with the chainsaw).  The stump, contrary to my normal practice, is still there because I lacked the energy to dig it out by hand.

Growing in front of the pink cherry are hyacinths, which are showing the tips of their leaves and flowering stems above ground but have prudently slowed down their emergence as the weather turned colder, and a rather nice little pale blue thing with an icy turquoise tinge which I think must be Scilla mischtschenkoana.  It was a toss-up deciding whether it was that or Puschkinia libanotica, which I have also planted in the bed, but the Scilla flowers earlier.  I wish I were better at keeping track of the names of the bulbs scattered around the garden, but it's impossible to label a scatter.  I should need loads of labels, they would look terrible like a demented pets' graveyard, and before long they'd have got kicked over, dug up, or broken.  The Scilla is very pretty and perhaps this year I should buy lots more to make a drift further through the bed.  It is a pity I didn't manage to weed around them before they came out, since now I've dropped earth on the petals.

I was going to prune the buddleias as is traditional in February, but with the freezing forecast for next week I thought I'd better leave it for now.  I don't suppose it would do them any good to have snow blowing down into the cut ends of their hollow stems and freezing there.  I do hope the weather is not going to be as savage as some of the more ghoulish forecasters are predicting.  I don't have as many borderline hardy shrubs as I had going into the two cold winters around 2011, having replaced the lost Pittosporum, Corokia, Leptospermum and Cistus in large part with less tender alternatives, but I could still be looking at some nasty losses if the thermometer really plummets below minus five and stays there, with the added chill of an easterly wind and snow.  Ah well, we shall get what we get.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018


The ground outside is becoming sodden.  There is a muddy trail leading to the bonfire area, and a puddle has developed in the chicken's run.  I had to summon the Systems Administrator to help me lift my last bale of straw into a wheelbarrow, because it was soaked too, and scattered it in wet lumps in the run to try and keep it from getting any muddier.  Poor chickens.  It is not good for them to let mud build up on their feet, and besides it gets on the eggs.

I will need to buy some more straw from somewhere, and am not at all sure where.  The last lot came from friends who had got it from their neighbouring farmer as seating for a big family party in their garden, and who kindly brought it over in their trailer, but that's not to say they've got any more, and I don't want to sound as though I am expecting them to keep delivering it when it's a round trip of forty miles.  Another friend used to live with a farmer and he was willing to sell me straw, but they separated, and the only farmer I know locally is the lettuce farmer, who isn't likely to have any.  There is a place up the road advertising equestrian feed and tack so I thought that could be my next port of call.  Somebody might be advertising small bales, unless horses are all bedded on sawdust nowadays.  Otherwise I suppose I am on to friends of friends.  A beekeeping friend of mine buys milk from her farming friend (unusual even to find a dairy farmer in this part of the world) and would the farmer have any spare straw and would they be willing to let me have some?  It is amazing how it is possible to live surrounded by fields and not really know any farmers.  I would rather find a local source too, since now we don't have the truck I am limited to what I can fit in the Skoda, unless somebody brings it.

The back lawn is so wet that the Systems Administrator was unwilling to walk on it, and spent the day salvaging the remains of a large fallen ash from the far end of the wood.  Today's papers are running the stories that load bearing exercise is good for your bones (who'd have guessed) and even light gardening reduces your chances of dying (if you are a man.  The study didn't include any women).  Neither article specifically mentioned the health benefits of chopping up a large tree and then carrying it piece by piece uphill in the mud, but I am sure there are some, as long as the SA doesn't strain his back.

I washed my socks, the alpaca ones that are better done by hand.  My GP told me to take it easy.

Monday, 19 February 2018

over-wintering tender cuttings

I had to rescue a pot of cuttings of orange flowered Impatiens from the heated propagator in the greenhouse because they were pressed hard up against the plastic lid and growing sideways.  They are Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata, originally bought as a little mail order rooted plug from Dibleys some time in 2014, and which I have managed to keep going through a succession of cuttings since.  They root ridiculously easily, and from that point of view I could have dozens by now if I wanted to.  They are not the easiest things to keep once rooted because they are extraordinarily attractive to vine weevils.  Twice now I have gone into the conservatory to find the current plant collapsed on the ground with all its roots eaten away.  Each time I have quickly cut the ends off some of its stems to use as cuttings, and so started again.

The Impatiens makes a fair sized plant when happy, getting on for a yard in all directions, and so I have always whittled the cuttings down to one as that's all there's room for in the conservatory.  Dibleys suggest it would be good as a bedding plant, but I don't do that sort of gardening, and in winter it definitely needs to be under cover.  In fact, once I'd liberated the latest rooted cuttings from the warmth of the propagator I thought I couldn't just leave them on the greenhouse bench.  It would be too cold for them, especially at night, and the shock would probably kill them.  Instead I put them on the kitchen window sill, trying to hide them in the corner behind an orchid.  The kitchen window sill is not really supposed to be used for gardening, and it already had a pot with the albino Clivia seedlings on it.  Adding three large wonky Impatiens cuttings made it look even more like an impromptu propagating area.

The kitchen is reliably warmish thanks to the Aga, but much less humid than the inside of a heated propagating case, and the leaves of the Impatiens collapsed almost immediately.  Then over the next few days half of them stiffened up again, while the other half shrivelled and fell off.  I am not too fussed, since they are already starting to make side shoots from the leaf axils, and come the spring should roar into growth and the loss of some leaves will be history.  When I overwintered the mature plants in the conservatory, only just above freezing, they used to drop many of their leaves anyway.  It is all very messy, though, and I have to admit I don't have the right facilities for propagating Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata starting in autumn.  Maybe I should have chopped the tops off the cuttings and left them in the heated propagator, but I didn't think of that at the time and anyway I wanted the space for the tomatoes.

The three very small cuttings I took in autumn as an insurance policy cum experiment from Begonia fuchsioides all struck with bottom heat, and have been growing at a measured pace and even flowering.  Their leaves are a nice dark green and they look a lot better than the parent plant down in the chill of the conservatory.  It spent last winter in my bathroom because I was afraid of it catching cold, but it was so much in the way that this winter I decided to try cuttings instead.  Now I have seen how readily it roots I shall take more cuttings in the spring.  It is an enormously pretty plant and not offered for sale very often.  I first saw it at the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, who didn't have any to sell, and I got mine from Fibrex Nurseries at an RHS London show.  If I grew some spare I should think people at my garden clubs might like it as well.

They are the successes, by the way.  My cuttings of two sorts of Argyranthemum and a dark stemmed Verbena failed utterly. as did most of the Arctotis.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

hellebores and roses

There was some real warmth in the sun, and I spent a useful few hours tidying by the oil tank and cutting the leaves off the hellebores.  It should have been done weeks ago, but better late than never.  The flowers show up better without last year's old leaves, and removing them annually is supposed to help prevent leaf diseases getting hold.  I duly bagged them up to take to the dump at some point, instead of putting them on the compost heap.  They are not very smart hellebores, mostly seedlings from a few original plantings from the Lady series, which has since been overtaken by more exciting selections, and they flower in subdued shades of middling pink and white that very critical or demanding gardeners could deem boring.  But they are good natured about surviving, flowering and seeding in a fairly dry, mere spot, in light soil and in competition with shrubs, and I am fond of them.  Their leaves, in this unpropitious site, are actually remarkably healthy.

One of the shrubs is a Mahonia, which does a splendid job of hiding the oil tank, and produces yellow flowers in November that are a big hit with me and the bees.  Unfortunately, tidying around it you encounter its less pleasant habit, which is that it sheds cascades of old leaves that are prickly, slow to rot down, and stick to your gloves when you try to gather them up.  Also less than appetising were the piles of feathers and one dismembered wing left by the cats, since that border is one of their favourite places for dismantling pigeons.  Looking on the bright side, they don't seem to use it as a loo.

The two rambling roses planted behind the tank a couple of years ago to go up the trees at the side of the wood had both made an immense amount of growth since I last clambered back there to look.  They didn't seem very keen on climbing their supports, instead sending most of their new, long, whippy branches out over the ground and the long suffering Sarcococca confusa.  I twiddled the stems upwards in the direction I wanted them to go, and hoped that they'd get the idea.  The Sarcococca did not seem to mind having been partially submerged in roses.

One is 'Albertine', a present from a friend and growing on its own roots.  It spent rather a long time doing nothing in its pot, because when she gave it to me I could not immediately think where to put it.  In the two years it has been in the ground it must have made six to eight feet of extension growth, after doing almost nothing in the previous couple of years.  It is an old variety, first introduced in 1921, and should be capable of growing to fifteen feet according to Peter Beales.  Looking at how much it has done already my hunch is it will comfortably exceed that.  The flowers are double, highly scented, in a shade described by Peter Beales as lobster pink, although most sources stick to salmon-pink or coppery.  I have pointed it up a large holly and expect the result to be exciting, so long as the holly doesn't collapse.  It has Clematis montana 'Broughton Star' on its other side, but it is a big tree.

The other rose is 'Blushing Lucy', bought from the excellent Trevor White.  She has semi-double flowers in pale pink, and I am hoping she will not quarrel with 'Albertine', but I shall try to steer them in different directions.  'Blushing Lucy' is supposed to flower late in the season, and might keep the show going after 'Albertine' has finished.  Fragrant and attractive to bees, I am hoping she will produce hips, although the catalogue doesn't mention them.  Picking up her wandering stems from the ground I discovered that one had already started to root, and after a moment's consideration dibbled the roots back into the soil and weighted it down with a brick.  I do not myself need a second 'Blushing Lucy', but the plant stall at one of my garden clubs might.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

an interruption

We were without power for half the morning as Network Power were renewing the electricity cables across the farm, including the wire to our house.  Somebody called by a few weeks ago to warn us that they'd be doing the work in about six to eight weeks' time, then on Thursday they said they'd be doing the work on Saturday, and as well as cutting off the supply from nine onwards they would need access to the meter before starting the work and when they'd finished.

Two days did seem rather short notice.  We might easily have been on holiday, or due to go out for the day, and there's no way I'd give up something like the Chelsea Flower Show because a utility company wanted to get into the house with two days' warning.  And it could have been awkward expecting guests with no central heating and Network Power lorries blocking the lane.  But fortunately we had nothing planned, and with the Aga for cooking and the Systems Administrator having remembered to charge up the backup dongle for the wifi, life was able to continue much as usual, although each time I wanted to fetch something from the garage I flipped the light switch out of habit before remembering that I needed a torch.

The whole crew sounded as if they were Scottish so they were a long way from home, but thinking about it perhaps they have to cover a huge area.  This was the first time the lines have been renewed in the twenty-five years we've lived here, so going where the work is at any given time might take you a long way.  It seemed strange for them to be doing routine work on a Saturday, but perhaps they were running out of time to finish everything they had to do in the Tendring peninsular, and next week they will be in Basildon, or Gloucestershire.  Anyway, they were very polite and don't seem to have squashed or broken anything in the garden.  It is a pity we failed to discover the headless and wingless torso of a pheasant by the front door before they arrived.  I don't know if it was the work of a fox or the cats, but it did rather create the impression that they were in redneck country.

Meanwhile I sowed more seeds, and am experimenting with Derry Watkin's advice to put the ones needing a cold period before they will germinate in the fridge with some damp vermiculite.  I have a bag of vermiculite (it holds more moisture than perlite), and two small glass jars salvaged from the recycling that originally held Waitrose chilli sauce did nicely for pots.  The first packet only contained ten seeds, and after mixing them with vermiculite in a ramekin dish and pouring the mixture carefully into the jar I realised I'd used far too much vermiculite, and was going to have to spread the mixture over an unnecessarily large pot when it came to sowing.  Then I seemed to have added too much water as the contents of the jar became not so much damp as sodden, and I had to wick some of it out again with torn-off strips of kitchen roll.  This counts as Learning by Doing.

I made a diary note when to get the seeds out, and tucked them away in the kitchen fridge in a little tray intended for keeping butter in.  It has to be a better bet than leaving pots of damp compost in there.  I tried that last year with the overflow spare fridge and the compost dried out, upon which, discouraged, I never got round to clearing it away, until the pot got tipped over by a rogue bag of potatoes.  This morning I finally got around to cleaning up the mess.  It took a very long time to wipe the last bits of compost out of the grooves where the shelf slides in.

Friday, 16 February 2018

sowing seeds

I evicted the pots of hyacinths from the greenhouse, since they should be well rooted now and able to cope with the rain, and the top growth is frost proof.  Indeed, for years I used to start them off outdoors and they were fine, until one particularly wet and cold winter when the basal plates rotted before they ever got going.  With the hyacinths gone and some judicial shuffling of the pots of violas and bags of compost I was able to make space to stand at the potting tray, and could start sowing this year's seeds.

There were more seeds than I was expecting in the packet of sea daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, and they were the sort of seeds to strike joy into a gardener's heart, large and easy to handle, with the instructions on the packet promising that germination should occur within a couple of weeks.  It may, it may not, and if they germinate the young plants may then prove tricky to keep alive, or take years to grow to flowering size.  There is many a slip between cup and lip in the dark art of growing your own from seed, and I tried not to imagine the beach themed end of the turning circle studded with exotic white flowers too vividly.  It would be fun, though.

The seeds of Hesperaloe parviflora were similarly large, and generous in number, and I tried to be equally restrained in my hopes for them while mentally indulging in visions of how I could donate the surplus plants to various garden club stalls.  I don't really have room for more than one or two plants in the garden, and it wouldn't have broken the bank to simply buy a plant, but growing things from seed is part of the fun.

I hope my latest sowing of the wood sage, Teucrium hircanum 'Purple Tails', succeeds, because I would like a lot more plants.  I raised some before, and they made lovely chunky specimens and flowered in their first year in pots, but the area where they were supposed to go was not ready in time to plant them out, and by the second year they had deteriorated markedly.  Those I eventually managed to get into the ground along the side of the wood seemed to start to recover and thicken out at the base, and I am optimistic that this year they will be fine, but I had to throw the remaining pots on the compost heap.  When you would like a couple of dozen plants or more, and they cost five or six pounds from the Chatto Gardens or Dorset Perennials, then it really does pay to grow your own from a two pound packet of seed, if you can.

The seeds of the Persian violet, Echium affine, were absolutely tiny, mere specks, smaller than a grain of sand.  It was difficult to get them out of their little plastic bag, and I hope that some landed on the compost.  They were too small to cover with any compost.  Germination is supposed to take no more than a couple of weeks, so I shall know fairly soon if I have got anything.  If any do come up then my next propagating experiment had better be learning to take Persian violet cuttings.

I inspected the tub of damp vermiculite in the airing cupboard with its three seeds of yellow flowered Clivia miniata.  One had made a good long root and begun to grow its first leaf, one had a smaller root, but the third had a lump of mould on one side where I fear that the emerging root had been.  I potted the first two and put them on the kitchen window sill, where I trust the albino leaf will green up.  I cleaned the mould off the third and put it back in the airing cupboard, but don't really expect anything else to happen.  When I was originally reading up on how to germinate Clivia I gathered that mould growing on the seeds was one of the risks.  I should have inspected them more frequently.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

a lecture

I went this evening to a talk about Clement Attlee.  It was organised by a local bookshop, and my mother asked if I was interested, and I thought, actually I am interested in Attlee.  It was to be given by somebody who had written a biography of Attlee, who turned out when we got there to be John Bew, Professor in History and Foreign Policy in the War Studies Department at King's College, London.  I had not heard of him, or his book, which was something of an achievement given that I found it had won three different prizes and received glowing reviews across the board.  When Daniel Finkelstein, Tom Watson, Tristram Hunt and Ferdinand Mount all say good things about a political biography you can be pretty sure the author has made a decent fist of it.

Rather than ask Professor Bew to stand there and talk about the book what he wrote for fifty minutes he had come with a co-presenter, so that they could have a conversation.  Some of the co-presenter's questions were so long they made James Naughtie's much-missed interviews on the Today Programme sound like incisive models of concision, but the format worked.  I had previously read a short and workmanlike biography of Attlee as part of a series on British Prime Ministers, but the Prof's book went into much more depth.  I had not known, for example, that in the early days of the second world war it was the Labour elements of the coalition that were squarely behind Churchill, and furiously against the notion of appeasement still favoured by some Conservatives.

I found myself liking Professor Bew and his book so much that in the interval I bought a copy, having gone there not intending to buy any more books since I already have several boxes of my late father's history books in the spare bedroom, waiting for me to get around to start reading them, and indeed buy a bookcase to put them in.  In the Q&A at the end somebody asked him why he chose Attlee, and he said partly because there hadn't been a major biography for thirty years, but also because he liked writing about the non-flamboyant people in history.  I cheered mentally.  Introverts of the world, unite.

The audience made interesting viewing in themselves.  I'm pretty sure quite a few were attached to the university, there was a significant contingent of under forties, and at least half were men.  Indeed, walking back to my mother's house afterwards she said she didn't think she had seen so many men for ages.  It goes to show, they do exist and they will turn out for lectures.  They just don't seem to want to come to talks on either gardening or art in anything like the same numbers as women.

The book is called Citizen Clem, and I recommend it, subject to the caveat that I haven't actually read it yet.  Don't buy the hardback, though.  The author himself admitted that after doing the research the writing stage was completed in only six to eight months in a panic-stricken rush, and there are a few nasty errors, corrected in the paperback edition.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

a haircut

I went for a haircut this morning, arriving rather early because I'd allowed for traffic and it was too cold to wander about window shopping.  My hairdresser was still busy with her previous client, who was in the middle of having her hair coloured and sitting with pieces of foil all over her head.  As I sat waiting with my great head of wildly curly grey hair I thought that hairdressers needed to be total diplomats.  My hair is wonderful, naturally, and her last customer was also entirely right to spend a great deal of money and half the morning having the grey skilfully eliminated.

The third customer was a small girl.  From where I was sitting I couldn't initially see her, but gathered from the overheard conversation that she was six, she was in year one, her hair had been growing since she was two, and she was having enough of it chopped off to be worthwhile donating to the Little Princess charity that makes wigs for child cancer patients.  There were before and after photographs taken on the hairdresser's phone, and talk of putting pictures on Facebook if Mummy said that was OK.  Apparently the way to do the big chop, which I suppose keeps the hair nicely together for the wig makers, is to plait it first and then cut off the plaits, before giving the remains a proper haircut.

Once it was my turn the hairdresser told me that this time she was going to trim the ends and continue to chip weight out of it, but that she did not need to take it in any more at the back because by now it was already in a bob, and I told her that she was the expert and I didn't understand any of it.  After that it was remarkable how removing what seemed like quite a small amount of hair, to judge from the quantity of debris, suddenly made it look much more like a hairstyle and less as if I had started living in my car.

The hairdresser's colleague had shaped the little girl's hair into a very smart cut that just skimmed her shoulders.  They fetched a mirror to show her the back, and my hairdresser showed me the plaits and I was duly impressed.  Actually, I think several little girls must agree to sacrifice their hair to produce enough for a whole wig.  After she had gone I reflected that there were not many things you could control in your life when you were six, but having your hair cut off was one of them.  It had been an elegant cut, that made the little girl look very poised, and possibly older.  Ah, said the hairdresser's colleague, that would be why Daddy wasn't keen on her having it done.

I made my next appointment for eight weeks' time and trundled on my way.  The hair foils woman was still sitting in her chair.  She gave me half a smile as I passed her, each of us probably secretly convinced of the superiority of our chosen method.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

last call to revolutionary art

We went to catch Tate Modern's Red Star Over Russia today, before it closes this weekend.  I'd mentioned it to the Systems Administrator before Christmas, as the SA is interested in Soviet history, and we'd agreed to visit in the new year, but then we both succumbed to colds, it snowed, and we never found a day to go.  But the forecast for today was looking too miserable to do anything in the garden, wet and cold, and so we thought we might as well go and see the exhibition instead.  What with one thing and another it was ages since we'd had a day out.

It was a very interesting exhibition, with the proviso that you might not think so if you were not at least vaguely interested in Russian history in the first half of the twentieth century, or the awful workings of totalitarian regimes.  If you wanted your art to be nice and consoling it would be a bad choice, since most of it was fairly grim.  Even the optimism and buoyancy of the early posters exhorting Soviet unity is rather undermined by the fact that we, unlike the Russians at the time, know what is going to come next.

Especially fascinating and poignant were the group photographs and montages with the faces of those who had by then fallen foul of the regime eradicated, scribbled over or physically cut out.  It left me all the more keen to see Armando Ianucci's film The Death Of Stalin as soon as it is available on rental.

Originally we had thought we might wander down to the Imperial War Museum afterwards, since we were on the south bank, but it was so cold we wimped out of the walk, or the uncertain wait at a bus stop.  Instead we wandered around the rest of the Tate to see what there was.  We liked a lot of the photographs, ranging from silver gelatin prints of unfolding fern fronds to Martin Parr full technicolour, and failed to get most of the conceptual art.  The Tate extension is great and we loved the Brutalist aesthetic, but it needs more lifts.  The Modigliani exhibition looked very full and we passed on by, since the SA is not a great Modigliani fan.  I was relieved to find Rothko's Seagram murals, after beginning to worry that they had vanished from display, but regret the absence of most of the Impressionists that I remember from teenage visits to The Tate when it was only at Millbank, long before Tate Modern was thought of.

The Turbine Hall's current installation is a sort of playground with swings and a thick stripey carpet, and a giant silver pendulum swinging overhead.  It seems to have annoyed various art critics quite a lot.  I have no idea if it counts as Art, or even what Art is in the twenty-first century, but it certainly made a difference to how people behaved.  I have never seen so many of them gathered together in the Turbine Hall, playing on the swings, running about, laughing, and lying on their backs looking up at the swinging silver ball.

Monday, 12 February 2018

in the herb bed

The back garden was glittering with frost this morning, so it's just as well that the Systems Administrator nudged me to go and set the heaters late last night.  I'd thought it wasn't going to freeze, but when I looked again I realised I'd had my laptop switched to the London forecast.  Rural areas are indeed a degree or two colder.

While I waited for the frost to burn off the grass I got on with cutting down the remaining stems of mint and gone-to-seed parsley in the herb bed.  In any case the front garden is a more comfortable place to work first thing on a cold morning, because it catches the morning sun.  It was a very beautiful day, with a brilliant blue sky, and pleasant to be outside in, although cold.  The sun soon began to melt the frost in the gravel, and so I began weeding as well as cutting down, and the upshot was that I spent all day on it.  I thought I might finish, but it got too cold and too dark for hand weeding before I'd quite got to the end.  Still, one more push really will do it.  Now I need to order a bag of gravel to top up the mulch, which has got very thin.

I am in two minds about herb gardens.  Christopher Lloyd detested them.  Herbs on the whole are not architectural plants, and a whole bed of them does look rather weedy and floppy for quite a lot of the year.  I have tried to give ours more presence with the addition of a snazzy diamond patterned paving and cobble path, flanked on both sides with rusted iron tripods, but the clematis I planted to go up the tripods have mostly struggled.  Clematis alpina and C. macropetala are supposed to be able to cope with poorer soil, but obviously not as poor as our herb bed.

There is a flourishing sage bush, which we rarely cook with because the Systems Administrator keeps buying pots of the dried sort.  Every now and again I remind the SA of the sage bush's existence, and the SA says Which is it again? and I explain it is the one with grey leaves, that smell of sage.  The SA seems to have a blind spot when it comes to sage bushes, although completely happy to cook with rosemary out of the garden.

There is a lot of self seeded parsley, which goes to seed rather quickly because it would prefer somewhere richer and damper, but at least it germinates.  Parsley is notoriously tricky to start from bought seed.  There are theories about how you should warm the soil with hot water out of the kettle, but probably you need fresh seed and bought seed is often too old.

There is a lot of mint, which would also prefer somewhere richer, damper and possibly shadier, but grows anyway.  I sometimes cook with it, and have made fresh mint tea.  And there is a lot of oregano.  I am not even sure if it is a variety meant for cooking, but the flowers are immensely attractive to butterflies and bees.  And lemon verbena.  I once tried making a herbal tea from the lemon verbena, but it tasted exactly like a lemon flavoured cough sweet.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

winter tidying

The promised not-raining and not-frosty day materialised, and I took the opportunity to start topping up the Strulch around the emerging Camassia leaves before they could get any taller.  Still only a couple of inches tall and quite stiff, the mulch would still shake down around them, although it would have been easier if it hadn't got damp.  Unfortunately I don't have anywhere under cover to store the bags.  I could try and fasten a tarpaulin over them, but it would probably flap about annoyingly and blow off in every gale.  I was relieved to get that done, since once bulb foliage becomes floppy it is the devil's own job tucking mulch between the clumps.

The leaves of the patches of Aconitum were through, close to the ground but usefully visible, so I managed to avoid standing on most of them.  It is always a crushing moment, psychologically speaking, to find you have just trampled on the new growth of an emerging plant.  I am not entirely sure what sort of Aconitum they are.  I was given some unnamed plants, which I provisionally identified as Aconitum napellus, and bought some of the useful late flowering ''Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'.  I also planted the pale blue 'Stainless Steel', which exuded sophistication in their pots in the nursery, but soon died in the ground.  The others have seeded themselves about,  habit I encourage.  They are highly poisonous, but we are not planning to eat them.  The new foliage looks quite a lot like that of the little, yellow flowered Eranthis hymale, the winter aconite, and you can see how the latter got their common name.  They are distant cousins, both being members of the buttercup family.

The soil in the bed was very wet, and the lawn horribly squelchy, and I thought that really I should not have been walking on them at all, but there are simply not enough days when it is not raining, not frosty, and the ground is not sodden, to do everything in ideal conditions.  In the real world it is often a choice between doing things in non-ideal conditions and not doing them at all.  The other classic advice to avoid compacting your soil is to put boards down and only tread on them, to spread your weight, but how can you put boards down when the bed is scattered with young foliage you don't want to squash?  At least I am fairly small so weigh less than I might.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

rain stopped play

There was frost on the lawn this morning, and I congratulated myself that I had remembered to set the glasshouse heaters, but it was not actually a very hard frost, and by ten I'd checked the watering in the conservatory and the greenhouse and was happily ensconced in the herb bed with trowel, hand fork, secateurs, a bucket for the weeds and a big bin for the dead dry stems that could go on the bonfire heap, and the latest film review podcast.  Tidying the herb bed was one of those half-done jobs that surely couldn't take more than another day to finish, tops, and I'd been saving it for a day when it was too cold to walk on the grass but not so cold I would develop hypothermia while weeding.

It was all going so well for the first hour, and I began to plot how I could soon put in a builders' merchant order for another bag of gravel to top up the mulch, along with some scaffolding boards for the vegetable beds, and perhaps some corrugated stuff to mend the roof of the blue shed, where a recent gale lifted the roofing felt yet again.  Then it began to feel colder, and I had to go and get an extra layer, and then it began to spit with rain so I had to abandon the podcast half way through before my tablet got too wet.

The Systems Administrator said that it had always been due to rain later, but that it had arrived earlier than forecast, and was going to last for the rest of the day, having started.  Tomorrow would be nicer, he added by way of consolation, but it is maddening getting such miserable little dribs and drabs of time to spend outside.  I suppose a professional gardener would just keep going, but I am doing this for fun, and am prone to respiratory infections.  And by the time your average Medieval peasant or Victorian farm labourer was my age they were dead, or crippled with rheumatism.

I resorted to doing my ironing, since the pile of crumpled clothes on the spare bed had grown to the point where there were more of my shirts on the bed than in the drawers in our room.  And it would make me feel good being able to tick Ironing off the list, and I could finish the podcast while I did it.  In fact there was so much ironing it took an episode of The Kitchen Cabinet and one and a half of Tim Harford's Fifty Things that Changed the World, as well as the rest of the film programme, but then I ran out of ironing so don't know how the story of Bakelite ended.  I do now feel a warm glow at being able to pull open the drawers and see stacks of clean t shirts, graded into piles by tattiness, from the fairly new Pima cotton not to be worn anywhere near the cats, to the less smart but fit to be seen, to the frankly shabby and for layering only.  I suppose there is no real point in ironing the latter, but I still do.  I did stop ironing my gardening t shirts a while back, but there is something demoralising about unironed shirts, as if the next step could be going to Tesco in my pyjamas.

One of the cats must have lost a mouse under the hall dresser, because Mr Fluffy spent all morning peering into the space beneath and poking his front legs in as far as he could reach, while Mr Fidget went and helped when he managed to concentrate for that long.  Mr Cool curled up in his basket as soon as it started raining and would not have anything to do with the mouse party in the hall.  I have a dark suspicion it was probably his mouse, as he has previous form on dropping things indoors that immediately run off.  With the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to choose a dresser with a solid base instead of one cut in ornamental curves, so that lost items of prey couldn't disappear underneath.

Friday, 9 February 2018

a cold wet day

I was relieved to hear it raining in the night, because I had taken the weather forecast at face value and not set the greenhouse heater, and when I went to bed it still clear and already so cold that if the rain hadn't come I'd probably have been looking at a greenhouse full of frosted plants in the morning.  The Systems Administrator warned me this morning that there was a fifty-fifty chance of a prolonged freezing spell at the end of the month, according to one of the more reliable forecasters he follows (have you noticed how the newspapers love to run headlines screaming that Britain is heading for a Big Freeze, then don't say anything if it doesn't happen?).  A Big Freeze would be an extremely Bad Thing, so let us hope for good luck in the flip of the weather coin.

It was still jolly cold today, though, and once I'd been to Colchester to run various errands I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to go outside.  Even Mr Cool, who loves the outside, had to give up after half an hour, and hung about with the irritated air of a cat who in his head is in outdoor mode, but is forced to be indoors by circumstances.  I tried to stroke him, but he skittered away from under my hand and went back to staring out of the windows.  Mr Fluffy, who takes a more relaxed approach to life, pragmatically settled down after several helpings of breakfast and went to sleep in his fleecy bed.  Our Ginger planted himself firmly in front of the electric fire, and Mr Fidget who is a law unto himself went to sleep in his favourite chair in the unheated sitting room at the other end of the house.  The Systems Administrator, who has got the bit between his teeth in the great project to remove the thicket of climbers from below the veranda, went out for a bit but came in again saying that it was too cold and about to rain, and then it did rain.

The veranda already looks massively better for not being hemmed in by plants.  Suddenly the view down into the garden is opened up again, with only the wooden handrail and two strands of rigging wire between the house and the garden.  There is a moral there, to keep looking afresh at your garden, your house, and the relationship between them.  Over a couple of decades plants can grow massively, but slowly, so that you don't register how dark and congested an area has become.  This is where it can be helpful, if you are a plant lover, to ally yourself with somebody who is not at all sentimental about individual plants and may look at the scene with a clearer eye.

I called at the Chatto Gardens en route to Colchester, and found them in the middle of a revamp that made our veranda project look like an afternoon's light pruning.  Signs said that the drive was being resurfaced.  In the meantime access was via a surprisingly solid temporary hard track next to the drive, but all around was a sea of mud, with great mounds of soil, stationary earth moving machines, and glum faced men trudging around in the rain in high vis jackets.  In the car park were several vans  with names painted on the side invoking Drainage Solutions.  An apologetic notice by the till explained that due to the wet weather the resurfacing was taking longer and proving more complicated than expected.  Given how dry the famous Chatto dry garden on the site of the old car park is, I was amazed that the route from there to the main road could be quite so wet, but it was.  That's the trouble with building.  You never know quite what you are going to find until you start digging.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

a talk and a fall

This month's Arts Society, Colchester was about Fin-de-Siecle Vienna.  Based on what I knew from the BBC 4 programme with Dr James Fox (which was delightful and is sure to be repeated, frequently, so you can watch it too) I was expecting Gustav Klimt and middle class angst in about equal measure.  Today's lecturer took the same view of affairs as Dr Fox, and the lecture contained plenty of both, plus Egon Schiele.  I'd forgotten about him, despite having been to the Courtauld's 2015 exhibition.

Happily, today's lecture also contained a fair proportion of architecture, which Dr Fox didn't cover so much.  I was pleased to be introduced to the work of Otto Wagner, no relation of the composer, who worked in variations of the modernist and Art Nouveaux idioms.  The lecturer did not use either of those terms, but that is how Otto Wagner was characterised on a tourist website which I found afterwards.  However you would label him, I liked his plain, square buildings with their ebullient gold decorations and colourful tiles.  He designed some beautiful railway stations, although they failed to convert the elderly Kaiser to the pleasures of rail travel, and if I were planning to visit Vienna I probably would get the bus out of town to see the church with its soaring gold dome he designed for a mental institution.  Only I'm not.

My only disappointment was that the lecturer did not mention Stephan Zweig or Joseph Roth and so I could not award myself points for having read their collected correspondence (in translation) and my full and sincere intention to read the book about them, Summer before the dark, which came out two years ago and has been on my Amazon wish list since then after reading the reviews.

I was rather late meeting the friend who introduced me to the society, though she touchingly insisted that she'd been sure I was coming.  Firstly, I had forgotten that proceedings would start a quarter of an hour early to allow time for the AGM before the lecture.  My usual rule is never to go to AGMs unless I am on the committee, but there was no escaping this one, and it lasted longer than some.  But secondly, I was delayed playing an ineffectual good samaritan as an elderly chap who was making his way up the road just ahead of me fell over outside the church.  I initially assumed he'd tripped over a small bollard sticking up at the edge of the car park, and as he seemed keen to get back to his feet I tried to help him, but it soon became clear that he couldn't get up.

We were joined by a woman who said she didn't like the look of this and she was going to ring for a paramedic.  The chap said he didn't want a paramedic, and I had grave doubts as to how quickly they would come, given that the patient was conscious and quite voluble.  He said his legs had gone under him, and that he'd been fine most of the way walking from central Colchester.  A little group of people en route to the lecture stopped to see what was going on, and we talked at cross purposes as it transpired that the first rescuer behind me was not going to the meeting herself, and had assumed that the old chap was trying to go home rather than into the church twenty yards away.  Once she discovered that he was among people some of whom knew him she left him in their care, somebody fetched a chair, somebody else offered water, he said he'd rather have a coffee, and two men helped him in to the building.  I expect he ought to go and get himself checked by his GP fairly soon, but he really didn't seem to be having a stroke or a heart attack at that minute.  The chairman of the music society was among the crowd, and I explained that I'd been walking just behind him and he had been staggering a bit but I'd put that down to age.  The chairman snorted and said that he was not that old, and was supposed to be going on the Arts Society holiday with them.  I hope he makes it.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

last call to Cezanne

I went today to the National Portrait Gallery to catch their exhibition of Cezanne portraits before it ends this weekend.  I'd already missed Tove Janson at Dulwich, which finished at the end of January, and I'd been looking forward to that since it was announced about this time last year.  Next winter I should probably make a point of catching any exhibitions I particularly want to see ahead of Christmas, before I go down with a cold or it snows.

Somebody from the garden club who did see the Cezanne last November urged me to go, saying it was very good and not too crowded.  Unfortunately by this stage I was not the only person to have worked out that if we didn't go now we'd have missed it, and it was quite busy.  Never mind.  The National Portrait Gallery is sensible about not selling so many tickets for each slot that nobody can see anything or move.

As a child I loved Cezanne's still lifes, his bowls of apples and amazing multi-coloured, crumpled white cloths.  As a grownup I came to respect his angular landscapes in the Courtauld's permanent collection.  I didn't immediately associate him with portraiture, and I didn't know much about his private life.  And in a way I was right not to think of him as a portrait painter, in that he painted almost portraits for money.  His career was built on the bowls of apples and sweeping hillside views.  The sitters for his portraits were almost entirely family, friends, and servants.

They are strange paintings.  I got very little feeling of most of the sitters as human beings, and then read in the introduction to one of the rooms that Cezanne soon rejected the psychological aspect of portrait painting.  I felt pretty sure from the paintings that Cezanne had not been a people person.  Holbein I imagine as a very shrewd observer, and I am sure that Sir Anthony Van Dyck charmed and smoozed his way through sittings with his aristocratic and royal subjects.  I got the impression that Cezanne must not have been very comfortable with people most of the time, and then read in the text on the walls that Cezanne had only one real friend as an adult, and saw that I could have been to a lecture exploring his volatile relationships and personality.  He wasn't interested in figure drawing either, in any classical sense, so that while his sitters have mass and volume you get no sense of normal anatomy under their clothes.  I remembered our exotic (to my provincial teenage eyes) Hungarian school art teacher pointing out to us that the card players' arms came out from their rib cages.

By the time you've jettisoned the idea of figure drawing, any indication of personality, and all but a rough idea of a likeness, you might not have much left, but that was not the case at all.  The critics gave the exhibition what seemed like a clean sweep of five star reviews, and they were very absorbing paintings, in a slightly uneasy, brooding, compelling, odd sort of way.  Cezanne's own verdict on one of them, at the point where he gave up working on it, was that the shirt wasn't too bad, and indeed the shirt was extraordinarily good.  A small self portrait, done from a photograph, had the most peculiar hands, which Cezanne had had to invent because they were cut out of the photo, and I overheard another visitor say to her friend that the hands were dreadful but she loved the background, and indeed the mottled, teal blue background was wonderful.  The way that Cezanne conjured his wife's nose and eye socket from slabs of blue and pale paint was wonderful.

There was only one painting I would have really liked to take home and so I spent a long time looking at it, an early portrait of the future Madame Cezanne, sitting in a blue jacket and striped dress on a red chair.  It dated from the point in his career when he was closest to the Impressionists, and his sitter's impassive expression and monumental stillness reminded me of the young Polynesian women in the Courtauld's two Gaugins.  And I liked the colours.  It was not really typical of the rest of the exhibition, though.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

snowdrop talk

The talk at this month's garden club meeting was about snowdrops and other small early flowering bulbs, by somebody who has been growing them for nearly fifty years in the sort of garden that gets written up in national gardening magazines.  It looks lovely in the articles, and he opens for the National Gardens Scheme, only Beccles always seems a long way to drive and especially in February.

I learnt some useful things.  The grey leaved Galanthus elwesii is content in sunny places and to be baked in summer, unlike the familiar common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis.  The bulbs should be planted deep, though, and may pull themselves down to a foot below ground.  And the name is pronounced Ell-wess-ee-i.  It's one of those names I've seen written down often enough in books and catalogues without ever actually knowing how I was supposed to say it, and whether the second syllable should rhyme with tress or wheeze.

Snowdrops can be fickle.  Sometimes a patch that has done fine for years suddenly dwindles to nothing.  That makes me feel better about the way that some have vanished from our garden.  Lifting and splitting them is not a sure-fire exercise.  Sometimes they fail to take when replanted and you have killed them.  That makes me feel better about buying a box every few years when I want more, rather than trying to be self-sufficient and digging up my fattest colonies to spread them about.

He passed pots of bulbs around for us to look at and admire their tiny perfection and individual differences close up.  Pale yellow aconites are much, much more beautiful than the normal brassy yellow sort, which I am not awfully keen on, which is just as well as they will not grow for me.  He said that quite a few people found winter aconites impossible, and he thought it was down to the soil conditions, and that they would not take sand and needed a moist, organic soil.  But the chairman spoke up and said that they seeded themselves in her gravel.  The speaker was not offended.  They know each other, and both are experienced enough gardeners to know that what makes plants happy in one place and not another is mysterious.  The palest aconite he sold was called 'Pauline' and really was very beautiful, only at eight pounds a bulb I am not going to buy one.

Yellow snowdrops tend not to be good doers.  A few years back somebody paid a thousand pounds for a single bulb of 'Wendy's Gold', thinking they would bulk it up and make a profit on their investment.  To get identical plants you cut the original bulb into slivers and put them in a warm, dark, moist, sterile place until new little bulbils form on the pieces of the old bulb.  'Wendy's Gold' died.

If I were to plant Cyclamen repandum I could extend the cyclamen season into June.  The colour range is not as great as with C. coum, mostly reddish purple with a few white ones, but it's a thought.  I like cyclamen and the shady areas of the garden have mostly run out of flowers by June.

I came home with envelopes of cash and assorted cheques for the upcoming garden visits, so very soon I will need to count them and pay everything in to the bank.  I still haven't had the bill for hall hire for the past two meetings, but I do now have the phone number of the hall's treasurer written down on a paper hankie.

Monday, 5 February 2018

balancing the books

There was a very thin layer of snow over the garden when I pulled up the bathroom blind this morning.  It covered the lawn, except that the path of inset slabs stood out clearly as dark snow-free rectangles.  At the time I registered that you could see I had just trimmed the grass around the edges, but now I'm wondering why the snow lay on the lawn but melted so quickly on the slabs.  Is it that they retained some warmth from yesterday's sunshine?  Or that snow falling on grass is partially insulated from the warmth in the soil by air?  On mornings when it is just cold enough for a light frost you can see it lying on freshly applied Strulch, which is still fluffy, but not on the older and wetter areas of Strulch that have had time to compact down.

By mid morning all the snow had melted, but I stayed indoors because today was the day I got to grip with the garden club accounts.  When I looked again at the previous treasurer's handwritten ledger I could see exactly what cash transactions there had been in the first couple of weeks of the current year before I took over, and what the opening cash balance had been, and it reconciled with the cash she handed over to me.  I thought it would have to, since she seemed a very competent woman, but the last time I looked at her ledger while suffering from a cold the answer did not leap off the page.

A three monthly statement for the deposit account finally turned up in the post the other day.  As I expected, and hoped because it would explain why I hadn't had one before, the bank only sends one out quarterly.  Monthly printed statements for an account on which there are no transactions other than interest received of approximately five pence would be rather over the top.  Indeed, when I think how keen the high street banks normally are to save money I don't understand why they still provide accounts to small clubs at all.  They must look on it as a kind of PR, a way of demonstrating their social responsibility, because they certainly can't make money out of it.

Armed with the balance on the year end deposit as well as the current account and the year end cash I finally stood a sporting chance of reconciling last year's accounts to the cash at bank.  There had to be a creditor at the year end, and I needed to know what it was so that I didn't count it as an expense in the current year.  After poring through the bank statements again and asking the membership secretary's advice I decided that the balancing item I was looking for was the cost of a visit to a garden whose owners had been very tardy about banking their cheque, and that two other small payments made close to the year end must have fallen through the net and would have to be expensed in the current year.  I was left with an odd two pence, which distressed me since there is no such thing as an odd two pence: it could be a thousand pounds one way and £999.98 the other.  However given I was dealing with a village gardening society it probably wasn't.

I told the Systems Administrator that I'd agreed with the membership secretary to sort the balance sheet out somehow and start from scratch with this year's transactions.  That was what the board of Carillion said, replied the Systems Administrator.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

winter losses

It has not been a good week for livestock.  After finding that the old lady Maran had, quite literally, fallen off her perch, today I went to put varroa treatment on the bees and discovered that two of the colonies were dead.  I don't know why they died.  It wasn't starvation, for both hives were still heavy enough with stores.  They looked fine when I fed them in the autumn, but by now all that was left was a small cluster of dead and mouldy bees on the comb.  There are so many bee diseases about nowadays, they presumably succumbed to one of them, but I shall never know.  One was my box of golden bees, which I was sorry to lose although they did tend to suffer from chalkbrood.  The other was going fine all last year and I really have no idea why they should have died.

I treated the remaining hives with Apivar, a product only just licensed for use in the UK although it has been around on the Continent for a while.  It comes in the form of strips which release a chemical toxic to varroa mites over a period of weeks, long enough to kill successive generations of mites.  Originally I was planning to use a product based on oxalic acid which is trickled over the adult bees, but that needs to be applied when there is no brood in the colony.  Varroa larvae develop inside the brood cells with the bee larvae, so a single treatment won't touch them once the bee brood is capped with wax, and then they emerge to start the whole cycle of infection off again.  I missed the boat with the trickling treatment early in the year due to illness and foul weather, and by now there will be brood, so when the new treatment became available I thought it might be a better option.  I wasn't expecting half the colonies to be dead, though.

A very experienced beekeeping friend lost every colony except one to wasps last autumn.  Another was down to a single colony after losses for unspecified reasons, and was saying that if they died too then she was going to call it a day.  The Asian hornet is on its way to these shores, which will be yet another pest to worry about.  Sometimes it feels rather discouraging, although if my two remaining hives make it through to spring I may feel more optimistic.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

pest control the organic way

It only gradually dawned on me that so far this winter I have still not noticed any rodent damage to the plants in the greenhouse.  In the previous two or three years it suffered from repeated mouse incursions.  Mice are lethal when it comes to pots of small tulips or fritillaries, digging out and eating almost every bulb while leaving the foliage strewn across the compost like an unwanted salad garnish from a pub sandwich.  One year they hollowed the emerging shoots out of half the hyacinths.  They also took to digging into the rootballs of the larger pots of geraniums in search of a cosy winter home.

I ended up stationing a pair of battery powered electric mouse zappers on the staging and balanced across the rims of pots on the floor, which yielded a steady supply of stiff, sad little corpses.  I don't like killing mice, with their big eyes and tiny, neat paws, but I can't have them living in the greenhouse.  They have hundreds of yards of hedge, an acre of woodland and the whole of the meadow to choose from, so it's not as if they had nowhere else to go.  I drew the line with mechanical traps, which don't always deliver a clean death, but still don't like tipping the contents of the zapper out into the hedge before resetting it baited with a fresh peanut.

This winter, so far, fingers crossed, no mouse damage at all.  I am happy not to have to deal with the bodies, or the disappointment of losing a year's growing and twenty quid's worth of bulbs.  And I am happy not to have to keep buying replacement electric zappers.  Even when I managed to find a place for the zappers where they wouldn't get dripped on, and avoided watering them, the damp of the greenhouse in a British winter played havoc with their electrics and they would trigger before a mouse even touched them.  I would find the kill warning light flashing, but no mouse and half the time no peanut either.  Drying the zapper out indoors in a warm room sometimes got them going again for a time, but I still had to view them as essentially disposable.  Electric rat zappers are not cheap.

Credit must go to the young cats.  All that time they spend hanging around the concrete outside the greenhouse must have brought the local mouse population crashing down.  I am sure there are still plenty left in the meadow and the wood, indeed I find the entrances to their burrows in the flower beds each time I do any weeding, but the plague of mice in the greenhouse has ended.  There haven't been any more rat outbreaks under the chicken house either.  And all done without using rodenticides.

Friday, 2 February 2018

goodbye old lady

Only four hens ran out of the pop hole when I opened the chicken house this morning.  I checked in the nesting box to see if one was laying an egg, but she wasn't, so I looked in through the window and saw a black body lying crumpled below the perch.  It was the old lady Maran.  She seemed fine yesterday and earlier in the week, flocking as normal with the Speckeldies, so she must have had a heart attack or stroke in the night.  She was very, very old, for a chicken.  We tried to remember when we got her, since she predates the Speckeldies and we are now on to the second generation with them.  I thought she must have been seven or eight, and the Systems Administrator countered that she was more like ten.  Either way she had a good innings.  She stopped laying eggs a long time ago, but seemed happy enough in her retirement.

The Speckeldies wolfed down their morning sprinkle of porridge oats and sultanas as eagerly as if nothing had happened, and stood bouncing on the spot and staring at me hopefully in case I was going to give them another treat.  It has to be said that they do not appear grief stricken, though I have seen hens exhibit fellow feeling for other birds.  The big tabby once caught a pigeon and reduced the hens to hysterics by eating it outside the hen run, while rabbits suffering a similar fate have left them completely unmoved.

Nobody told the Speckeldies they were allowed to go off lay at this time of year, and they have been churning out eggs all winter at a phenomenal rate.  They are a  Rhode Island Red - Maran cross, bred for the commercial organic free range egg sector, and we went for them instead of getting more rare breed pure Marans because the Speckeldies sounded as though they would be good doers.  They have been.  They are not quite as large as the Marans, and the eggs are not quite as dark a brown, but they certainly exhibit hybrid vigour.  They seem nice natured hens, and do not bully or peck each other, though that may be partly down to their having a large enough run that they don't have to be in each other's faces all the time.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

a cold day in the country

The wind was icy today, and any thoughts of returning to gardening had to wait until after tonight's long-booked woodland charity talk.  I have never yet had to drop out of a talk at the last minute due to illness, and I try very hard not to, since if people are good enough to make the effort to run any kind of club or society the last thing they need is to be faced with a hall full of members and no entertainment.  To be on the safe side I was not going to risk knackering myself again by trying to squeeze in a quick pruning session just to see how I felt, let alone crawl around weeding.

As a compromise I walked to the post box for a brief dose of exercise, sun and fresh air.  The air was a great deal too fresh for me to want more than twenty minutes of it, but it was good to be out.  I saw a substantial flock of what I took to be fieldfares darting around the trees in the lane, brown birds the size and shape of large thrushes.  The Systems Administrator agreed that they probably were fieldfares.  Apparently redwings, which look similar, are much rarer.

Opposite the post box the old churchyard was full of snowdrops.  The church was converted to residential use in the 1970s, but a van of council workmen still arrive every now and then and keep the churchyard in about the right degree of order, so that it looks romantic and slightly wild while not being overrun with brambles and elder bushes.  When metal thieves stole the gate a few years ago they even replaced it, to my surprise.  If I lived in the church house I don't think I could resist sneaking out and planting a few cyclamen among the snowdrops every year, hoping that they would spread to form great patches.

Just around the corner a short length of the verge is thick with snowdrops, before they abruptly stop.  Perhaps the soil conditions suddenly change and are no longer to their liking, but I wonder whether they are a relict of the house that old Ordnance Survey maps show once stood there.  There are no actual ruins visible from the road, but did the long gone inhabitants once plant snowdrops along the lane in front?  You would not get planning permission to build there now.

The owners of one of the cottages on the farm bought an extra acre of the old apple orchard facing their cottage a few years after moving in.  At the time they said the main reason was that the farmer had been making noises about wanting to build on-site accommodation for the farm manager, and they wanted to make sure that if there was a new house it didn't go up right opposite theirs.  In the event there was no farm manager's house.  From what I've seen the planners take a dim view of attempts to build new farm houses in the countryside on farms where the existing farm house and cottages have only recently been sold separately from the land, so perhaps a farm manager's house was never really in the offing.

The neighbours have never done much with their acre beyond keeping the grass mown around the remaining apple trees, but I noticed walking back from the post box that their acre is starting to design itself, as columns of evergreen holm oak are growing up around several of the trees where the mower has not got to them.  If the neighbours keep mowing, and the jays keep burying acorns, then in another decade or so they will have a regular grid of evergreen columns like something Tom Stuart-Smith might have designed.