Saturday, 31 March 2018

waking up the dahlias

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 March 2018


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

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 March 2018

two exhibtions

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

mend or replace

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

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

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

Our Ginger is too old and sensible for these capers.

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

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

volunteer treasurer

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

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

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

Monday, 26 March 2018

things we should probably not have planted

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 March 2018

all change

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

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

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

Saturday, 24 March 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 March 2018

still chopping back

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 March 2018

more pruning

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

more pruning

The willow leaf bay Gherkin in the back garden is shaping up nicely, except that each time I think I've finished I see a few more tufty bits at the top when I step back from it.  I can just reach the top with the pole lopper extended to its fullest extent, but it is practically impossible to see exactly where the jaws are positioned when I pull the string, so cutting the top of the Gherkin is hit and miss and extremely laborious.  Every so often a small piece of bay falls down and tells me that I'd found the mark, but there are a lot of misses.

A fifteen foot pole weighted at the far end with a heavy duty lopper exerts a fair amount of leverage.  As soon as it starts to dip from the vertical it wants to fall, and I alternated between working on the Gherkin and pruning the roses, to give my arms a break.  A bright day is good for tidying up shrub roses, because the sun brings out the colour of the twigs.  Those with a nice green sheen are alive, while the dark brown ones are dead.  On a dull day they all look grey.  The trick is always to work backwards from the tips until you find the point where the stem is still alive.  It is much harder to tell which of the mature stems are dead, and disheartening to chop through what you think is dead wood at the base, only to find it had fresh young growth coming from it further up.

The normal pattern of growth on a shrub rose that's doing well is that it puts out strong, upright young stems every season from the base, while the older stems become more branched and more arched, until the tips and some of the side branches start to die.  In the spring tidy up you want to remove all the dead wood, and a proportion of the oldest stems.  I shorten some of the longest new stems if they are very tall or waving around too much, but in a more naturalistic setting than the edge of a flower bed I'd probably leave them.

Our Ginger appreciated the sun, and came into the back garden with me.  It is nice to see him getting some fresh air and exercise.  We have only seen Mr Cool twice all day, once when he came in for some lunch, and again when he came in for his tea.

Late in the afternoon the nurse called me.  I'd been back to see her on Monday morning, because after four days of antibiotics I though my ear was no better at all.  She had been polite, but slightly frosty about my returning quite so soon, saying that four days was not so long in the grand scheme of things.  She did however take a swab from the wretched ear, and told me they would check which strain of infection it was, in case a different antibiotic was needed.  She sounded distinctly less frosty when she rang me, and it transpired that the drops I'd been taking so far had not been helping because it was a fungal infection.  Tomorrow morning I will pick up my new prescription and try again.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018


Today is the vernal equinox.  Well, I suppose it was almost spring-like.  The sun shone, the air was not raw, I opened the doors of the greenhouse and the conservatory, and at one point I was warm enough to take off my hat and scarf.  The air didn't have the gentle, seductive kiss of true spring, though.

Clad in full winter gardening gear, a Musto polo neck base layer, two t-shirts under my cotton shirt, my sailing smock, and my fleece, with thermal leggings under my trousers and minus only the hat and scarf at times, I set about pruning the buddleias in the back garden.  There are two bushes of the B. davidii variety 'Black Knight'.  The general rule is that you take B. davidii down hard in February, close to ground level or to a framework three or four feet high, depending on the situation and what it is you would like the buddleia to do.  These are at the back of a large bed, so I let them keep permanent legs to give them some more height.  The flowers are dark purple, very attractive to the human eye and to butterflies.  They are planted below the veranda, which gives a good view of the Peacocks and Red Admirals.  It is a mark of how cold and discouraging the year to date has been that although I am a month late in pruning them, you would not think it from looking at their state of growth.  'Black Knight' holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit, and has been around since the late 1950s.

There is also a specimen of Buddleja fallowiana 'Alba', propagated by somebody who gave it to me as a thank you for delivering some plants.  This is a more tender species than Buddleja davidii, with very pale grey, felty leaves.  The whole plant is brittle and rather fragile.  Mine split in two under its own weight as the donor lifted it up from his greenhouse bench, and as I tidied it up today I had to clear away several stems that had ripped clean off or split in the recent gales.  I had a crisis of confidence as to whether I was supposed to touch it now, and checked on the internet and in both my pruning books.  It is not as vigorous as 'Black Knight' and I did not take it down as hard.

There are still roses to be tidied up, and it's time to stool the Paulownia grown for their leaves.  The big pruning job, however, is the willow leaved bay, Laurus nobilis 'Angustifolia'.  This is such a nice plant, I am surprised it is not more popular.  I got mine from Architectural Plants near Gatwick, and I tried to interest the owner in stocking it at the plant centre where I worked, but he was having none of it.  Besides having long, willow shaped leaves which are attractive and clip beautifully, the tree has a strongly upright growth habit.  I put one in behind the shrub roses to give the bed some bulk and height, as roses make twiggy, shapeless bushes, and am trying to keep it clipped to a neat pyramid.  Originally I think I envisaged something close to a cone, but it is evolving towards something more closely resembling Norman Foster's Gherkin.  The only trouble with it is that it would like to be large, and takes a lot of clipping.  I can only reach most of it using the pole loppers, and have to work in short bursts to avoid getting a horribly cricked neck.

I asked the Systems Administrator as a favour, since I was so behind with the garden what with the weather and my ailments, if he could possibly cart away the debris at some point if I piled it up on the lawn, so that I could concentrate on the pruning.  The SA kindly agreed.  There is an awful lot of debris, and I haven't nearly finished yet.

Monday, 19 March 2018

under glass

There is real warmth in the sun by now, although today's brisk north-easterly made it feel perishingly cold outside.  I went to check the greenhouse and conservatory, and found I needed to do a substantial amount of watering.  You'd have thought that with the snow and the cold not much would have happened out there, unless anything else died of cold.  The forecast for the next week is for it to remain above freezing, and after that we will be so close to April that I hope I won't need to run the heaters any more.  Glass is capable of keeping off a normal light night frost, as long as things get the chance to warm up again in the daytime.  It is better then polythene in this respect.

I turfed the pots of Solidago back out of the greenhouse, so that I had somewhere to put my feet, but left the hyacinths until tomorrow.  They are just opening, and it seemed a pity to subject their flowers to the icy blast when it's soon due to be so much warmer.  After all, flowering is the only interesting thing that hyacinths do.  It's not as though there was lovely autumn foliage or anything else to look forward to.  In the meantime they are making the greenhouse smell rather nice.  This year's variety is 'Splendid Cornelia', an unusual shade of pale purple that has become bang on-trend since I ordered the bulbs.  They were not my first choice.  I think I originally opted for 'City of Bradford' but the bulb merchant contacted me to warn that the quality of the bulbs their supplier had sent them was so poor they had sent the whole lot back.  They are planted in quincunx formation, five to a pot, and in one pot one of the five has irritatingly failed to emerge.

The tomato seedlings were looking good, the second sowing emerging and the seedlings from the first sowing a healthy colour and reasonably sturdy.  One hopeful loop of stem was just breaking the surface of the compost of my pot of Geranium nodosum.  With any luck that was merely the first sign of life and I will get more than one plant.  I tested the weight of the pots of seeds carefully, to see if any needed watering, and mopped the condensation from the floor of the heated propagator.

I'm afraid the Tibouchina has had it.  I bought it at a Plant Heritage meeting a few years back, and it made it though the first winter in the conservatory but struggled with the second, suffering major dieback.  I chopped it down hard, and it was beginning to respond but now the new growth is limp and pale fawn coloured, when it is supposed to be evergreen.  There have never been any more on the Plant Heritage stall from where that one came from, but I suppose I could buy one commercially.  It has large, exotic, purple flowers, when it is alive and well, and the Systems Administator liked it.

Last year's Arctotis don't look great either, despite my careful efforts to water them on the Goldilocks principal, not too much but not too little.  Only one of last autumn's cuttings struck, and that was pink and not the burnt orange that I particularly liked.  I am waiting to see if they will show signs of sprouting from the base now the temperature's rising inside the greenhouse.  Otherwise do I succumb to the temptation of Sarah Raven's Dark Rich Arctotis Collection?  A catalogue arrived in the post the other day, so I am hanging on to it in case I want to use the twenty per cent off voucher.  Crocus are my new gardening friends, since I subscribed to their marketing email list to qualify for a discount on my order, and keep sending me cheery messages about the things I ought to be doing (or buying).  I have redirected them to the folder named Marketing, which I check sometimes in case there are any useful offers, without feeling the need to read all the contents in detail.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

a concert

The chairman of the music society emailed a couple of days ago asking if I was better and whether if I would be able to come and put the stage up in the church after morning service for this afternoon's concert.  I agreed to go and help, on the grounds that I'd missed the young musicians' concert and so failed to provide the promised egg sandwiches as well as a bum on a seat, because we were snowed in.  And she sounded worried about a shortage of volunteers, or at least volunteers who understood how the stage fitted together, and where to start building it so that it would fit in the gap between the pulpit and the lectern.

With the wretched ear I was not really better, but I didn't think that she wanted to know about that.  On the whole people don't.  They would like you to be better, for the pleasure of your company or because they want you to do something for them or because they dislike thinking about illness.  As a compromise, and so that I would not have to crawl around on the floor trying to work above head height, I asked the Systems Administrator to come and help, although the music society and the stage were strictly speaking not his problem.  Once in a committee meeting we were discussing another jazz concert, and the chairman referred to the SA as a real jazz aficionado and was surprised when I said in confusion that the SA hated jazz.  But he came to a jazz concert, she said.  He was extremely polite, I explained.

The Systems Administrator said that it was no problem to come and help with the stage, and offered to drive.  The lanes were icy, although the main roads were OK, and we arrived before the service had finished and had a chilly walk up and down the high street until the agreed starting time.  I think the others might have coped with the stage without us, but it was probably easier with the extra hands, and our joint presence tipped the balance in favour of those who knew where the stage needed to begin and which way round to put the boards.

The chairman had other problems to deal with, because due to the snow the clarinetist was stuck in the Home Counties.  Luckily the second violin had an uncle who was also a professional clarinetist, free at short notice, and willing to fill in.  That's the trouble with putting on concerts in obscure locations in the winter months, about one year in five weather causes a serious hitch.  It's no good trying to hold them in the summer, though, because people are on holiday or don't want to give up their afternoon outdoors.

By the time we got home my ear was aching from the cold, and I decided that having done my duty by the stage and produced an additional competent volunteer in the form of the SA, I could not face driving back for a second time, or spending two hours in a rather cold church, or the journey home in the dark up the icy lanes.  I was half deaf anyway.  And so I stayed tucked up in front of the fire, once again failing to add to the tally of bums on seats.  It's a shame.  If I hadn't been feeling as though somebody had poured glue into my head I should have enjoyed it.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

the traveler returns

When I looked out of the bathroom window this morning, braced for the snow to be deep, crisp, even and a damn nuisance, I saw tufts of grass still poking through the sprinkling on the lawn.  It was still snowing, though, in a half-hearted way, so I thought I'd better get to the supermarket before it got more whole-hearted about it.  The traffic going into Colchester was light, and Waitrose was very quiet.  Evidently the new mini-beast from the East had not prompted a wave of panic buying.

In fact, we had enough of everything to have lasted until next week, unless the milk went off, except for cat biscuits.  The trouble with running out of cat biscuits is that Mr Fidget prefers them to tinned food, and you cannot explain to a cat why you have run out.  If the milk's off we can drink black coffee and have porridge instead of cereal, but you cannot use that logic on a cat.

The Systems Administrator reappeared safely just before noon, having left the Forest of Dean before seven.  Hotel prices in Cheltenham rocket during the Festival, and the SA's racing circle went self-catering a long time ago.  One of them spotted a wild boar in the forest this time round, but the SA was driving so had his eyes on the road and didn't see it.  The SA sympathised about my ear, promised to come and help me put the stage up tomorrow morning for the music society's concert as long as we weren't snowed in by then, and was grateful not to have to turn round and go out again to go to the supermarket.

It is a sign of what a quiet day it has been, what with the snow and the earache, that when Waitrose sent me an email asking if I'd fill in a questionnaire about my shopping experience to help them improve their customer experience, I clicked on the link to the survey.  I felt bad when I found I'd got to the end with no opportunity to make comments, because I'd clicked No when asked if any member of staff helped or inspired me.  I hope they don't get into trouble for that, because honestly I was happy not to be Inspired and didn't need any help, since everything I wanted to buy was in the same place it had been the last time I shopped there.  When you have earache and half an eye on the snow falling outside the last thing you want is to be accosted by some desperate John Lewis group partner trying to Inspire you with new recipes.  I wanted cat biscuits, the ingredients for a Flemish lamb stew, a loaf of bread and some long dated milk and to be out of there.  And since my ear was making my head feel like a balloon and half deaf I didn't want to make cheerful small talk with the young lad on the till.  He was a bit slow scanning my basket, but he had lovely curly hair and looked as though he was doing his best, so I rated him Good in the survey.

Friday, 16 March 2018

a mild interlude

There was real warmth in the sun when I went to open the chicken house, and so I took myself and my wretched ear outside, dosed with antibiotic eye drops and stoppered with a piece of cotton wool.  I used to suffer from earaches as a child, and really thought I'd outgrown them, but it seems as though every year I revert closer to my inner five year old.  The advantage of being middle aged rather than five is having an additional fifty years of practicing how to put pain to one side, so that although it's there it doesn't ruin your day.  The disadvantage is that you have read all those newspaper articles about people whose ear infection moved to their inner ear leaving them deaf, or worse.

The cats all appreciated the sun in their own characteristic fashions.  Our Ginger lay on the front doorstep with Mr Fluffy, and later I glanced up from weeding and saw him sitting neatly tucked among the shrubs further along the flower bed.  Mr Fidget occasionally rushed across my field of vision with a mad, joyous expression.  Mr Cool patrolled at a leisurely pace, stopping to say hello to me a couple of times, and sniffing the place where Our Ginger had been sitting very carefully.  As I was putting the pots of hyacinths and poppies back in the greenhouse for the weekend Mr Cool came over and made his feelings known about tea, leading me back to the house with tiny squeaks as he walked just out of my reach to show that he did not want to be fussed, he wanted to be fed.

It seems incredible that it is going to snow in the night, and that tomorrow the thermometer will not rise above freezing.  This is one reason why some north American shrubs can be tricky to grow in the English climate.  They are used to a regime where it is constantly winter until it is permanently spring.  A few days or weeks of balmy weather that encourages their sap to rise and their new leaves to unfurl followed by an icy blast does for them.

The leaves of Gladiolus tristis have slowly turned brown.  I hope the bulbs are still alive, but the snow has not done them any good.  The pink flowered Watsonia isn't looking happy either.  They are both on the side of the turning circle that faced the blast coming across the fields and so got the worst of the weather.

I hope it does not snow too much.  I need to get to the shops because we are about to run out of cat biscuits.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

you are running low on storage capacity

My intermittent cold has manifested itself in a new and unpleasant way, and migrated to my ear.  It was feeling slightly tender on Tuesday, a bit worse yesterday morning, and by yesterday evening I wouldn't have wanted the optician anywhere near it, so this morning I saw the nurse at the GP surgery, who pronounced it full of debris and prescribed antibiotic drops for the infection.  Rather confusingly, as both she and the pharmacist warned me, they are labelled as eye drops.  I wish spring would come, instead of more snow.

Meanwhile I am locked in a war of attrition with my phone, which periodically warns me that it is running low on memory and suggests deleting the apps I haven't used for three days.  No.  I only have about half a dozen apps that I downloaded myself, and I don't need to use them as often as twice a week, but I want them to be there for when I do use them.  I like to be able to read the Guardian online or play Sudoku if I am stuck waiting somewhere without a book.  I have the AA app installed in case I should break down, because it helps the rescue truck find your location.  I have a QR and barcode scanner loaded in case I should be in a museum that uses them, and the Art Fund app in case I should want to find a museum or gallery near me.  I have the National Rail app because I sometimes travel by train, although not every three days, and it might be useful to be able to look train times up.  And I have the Wittr app because it is fun, and the good doctors make a lot of money out of it.  OK, that's seven apps.

The apps that are really eating storage are not even the ones I chose to have, but the ones Samsung and Android foisted upon me and that I can't get rid of.  I don't want to listen to music or watch films or YouTube clips on my phone.  I don't take photographs.  I don't need Excel or Word or Powerpoint.  I don't want to Skype anybody: I'm sure my friends would be happy with a text.  I am certainly not going to risk buying anything on eBay, and have no idea what Hangouts even is.  The BBC weather is useful, although thinking about it perhaps I put that there.  I like being able to check my emails on the go because I am of the middle aged generation that uses email a lot and has not graduated to Snapchat or WhatsApp or whatever has replaced them by now in the affections of the young.  Google maps is jolly useful if I'm lost, and once in a while it's handy to be able to check things on the internet, but the phone is full of things I don't want or use, or at least not on my phone.

The other day it was badgering me to use Memo to keep track of lists and ideas.  For goodness sake, that's what the blank pages at the back of my diary and old shopping lists written on torn off pages of my Zen daily desk calendar are for.  The phone doesn't have enough memory space as it is, without my adding lists and ideas to it.

I suppose in due course I will end up having to buy a new and bigger phone, and I confidently predict that Google and Android will promptly think of new, memory hungry applications that fill it up again.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

new glasses

I finally went for my eye test that's been due since last December.  The good news was that my eyes were pronounced healthy.  As I was discussing with a friend the other day, and the unwelcome reading for my cholesterol demonstrated, one of the drawbacks of being middle aged is that you can no longer waltz into health checks blithely assuming that everything will be fine, because it quite possibly won't be.

The bad news was that my prescription had changed enough for me to need new glasses.  I'd rather thought they might have, since I've had the old glasses over two years, and my eyes have never been stable for longer than that in the past.  It was not just the optician trying to sell me stuff, since when she covered over my right eye I could see her chart of letters go fuzzy before my left one.

I didn't even bother browsing the racks of frames until the salesman had finished serving his previous customer.  I'd already clocked them on the way in, in a general way, and they were all huge, in line with the prevailing fashion.  I don't know why the design of spectacles is quite so heavily fashion led.  True, you wear them on your face and so they are up front and central in terms of your appearance, but they are also functional medical appliances.  If you try to wear huge glasses when you are as short sighted as I am the lenses will be so thick around the edges that you will end up looking as though you had the bottoms of a couple of jam jars stuck into your frames.

Once the assistant was free I told him that we'd better start with the children's frames like I had last time, since the adult ones were all going to be too big given how strong my lenses had to be and how small my face was.  In fact, I would like new glasses as close as possible identical to my existing ones.  Once he'd looked at the prescription and the size of my face he agreed, and we picked out frames for new varifocals and reading glasses in what might be a record time.  We were shadowed by a young work experience person with pink hair, whose previous job had been in Marks and Spencer and who cheerfully admitted that she knew very little about glasses.  The salesman explained to her how lenses were cut out of a bigger piece of glass to fit the frame, and the importance of centreing the lens over the pupil, and I waxed so lyrical on the problems of large frames when you were very short sighted that he asked if I were looking for a job.

One of the advantages of children's frames is that they are relatively cheap.  I suppose you are not paying for any glamour conferred by association with a fashion brand.  Nobody bothers advertising kids' glasses in Vogue.  I did change my mind half way through the consultation, though, and trade up to the top grade of varifocal lens.  Now that I know I get on with them it seemed worthwhile having as small an area of fuzz as possible in my peripheral vision, and I worked out that the extra fifty pounds came to about fifty pence per week if the new glasses followed past form and lasted two years.  The salesman was mildly amazed that I did the arithmetic in my head.  There are fifty two weeks in the year, I pointed out, so fifty quid comes to roughly a pound a week over one year so fifty pence over two.  Fifty pence per month to see better sounded like quite good value.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

an afternoon out

I was out this afternoon, but managed to fit in three hours' weeding first, while keeping an eye on the time so that I did not suddenly realize I'd left five minutes to scrub the earth from under my finger nails and make myself presentable, especially as a friend was giving me a lift.  To be late oneself is bad enough, but to make other people late is worse.  I have nearly finished forking the weeds out from around the wildly suckering stems of the old roses, and the next stretch of bed is less fiddly to get at so with any luck progress will speed up.

I got to my friend's house with several minutes in hand, and then one of my fellow liftees was a quarter of an hour late, so I need not have worried, except that I would still rather not be late myself.  By the time we'd driven up the road to collect the fourth person we found her patiently standing out on the pavement holding a plate of sandwiches.

Our visit was to a Salvation Army citadel.  I have just determinedly ducked an attempt to rope me in as assistant programme secretary, not having the time to take on any extra committees, besides which programme secretary has to be the most nerve racking job on any committee.  I hate ringing people up to ask them to do things, and even when some of them say Yes you still have to worry in case they are ill or have double booked themselves or written the wrong month in their diary or got snowed in.

I don't know who came up with the idea of visiting a Salvation Army citadel, but it was interesting.  I always think of their work with the homeless, or Salvation Army bands, but of course they are a church as well.  The movement was founded as an offshoot of Methodism.  Nowadays their hostels are partly funded by government, meaning the Salvation Army has to tender at intervals for the management contracts, so that theory the Salvation Army could be left owning a hostel but not actually managing it.  I applaud the practical work they do in the community, although I would find the organisation's policy of moving its staff regularly around the country very difficult.  Leeway is now given for children in school approaching critical stages of exams, but essentially they must expect to be on the move every few years.

After the talk we had tea, hence the egg sandwiches, and I passed another milestone of middle age by feeling mildly rebellious and daring at eating a sausage roll and a second piece of flapjack.  I had never bothered with the over 50s health check on the grounds that since I didn't smoke, scarcely drank, took a lot of exercise, was not fat, and knew the rules on fruit and vegetables even if I didn't always quite hit five different ones, there was not a lot of point.  The GP seized his opportunity when I finally went to see him about my endless colds, and so I made the unwelcome discovery that while my chest was apparently as sound as a bell and my blood oxygen level better than his, my cholesterol was too high.  Hey ho.  It's several years since caffeine became something to be carefully rationed from mid afternoon onwards, and now cake is a treat.

Monday, 12 March 2018

rain stopped play

Twice today it has stopped raining and I have gone out into the garden, only to be driven indoors again an hour later, followed shortly afterwards by a damp and irritated Mr Cool.  Looking at the forecast for the week ahead I wondered sadly why every day I was due to be at home and hoping to get on with the garden was set to be wet, when on the days I'd arranged to go out it was forecast to be dry.  Today's rain was not even a proper, groundwater recharging soaking for the most part, just a miserable sift of the sort of drizzle you could try to ignore, before discovering after fifteen minutes that like Mr Cool you were actually quite wet.

I spoke to the postman who had a parcel for me, and he asked how long we had been cut off during the snow.  I said we had been able to get cars out on the Monday morning, after somebody from the farm scraped the drifts off the lane, and it turned out that we were one of only five houses on his round that he'd been unable to reach.  He had taken photographs, though whether purely for amusement or in case we should grumble about not getting deliveries for five days I wouldn't like to say.  Poor postman.  I do get cross when they randomly reassign mail between neighbouring properties, or houses anywhere in the area with the same name, but I don't expect him to clamber through three foot drifts.

In one of the rain breaks I ordered some Pulsatilla vulgaris that were on special offer at Crocus, along with a drought tolerant, partial shade tolerant, suckering, not-too-tall, butterfly friendly shrub that sounded just the thing for ground cover along the side of the wood.  Then I turned to my pile of gardening magazines, and was struck by the charms of a willow with pink catkins, that was apparently happy in soil that was less than permanently damp and a spot that was less than sunny, and thrived on regular hard pruning.  That sounded just the thing for the edge of the wood as well, and I was chagrined to find that Crocus sold it too, since by then I'd used the twenty per cent discount voucher they gave me as a bribe to sign up to the mailing list.  I told myself sternly that the site wasn't yet weeded and ready to go planting willows, and that in any case I might decide I'd rather have an acer.  That's the trouble with being all eager and ready to garden on a wet day.  You end up buying plants instead, before you have anywhere ready to put them.

Sunday, 11 March 2018


The snow and icy winds bought a temporary halt to work in the greenhouse.  I'd almost finished sowing my first batch of seeds before the Beast from the East struck, but ran out of seed compost and wanted some more tomatoes.  I got both at the Clacton garden centre just before the foul weather arrived, following which I would not have wanted to mess around out there, and anyway the floor was entirely covered with pots brought in for temporary shelter so there was no room.

Finally I have got around to sowing the second half of the tomatoes, and it will be interesting to see if they catch up with the first batch, now that the days are longer.  I normally aim to sow tomatoes with heat in February, but March shouldn't be too late to get a crop.  After germinating normally, some of last year's seedlings came to a crashing halt.  Picking the brains of various gardening friends and keeping my eye on any tomato growing advice in the gardening magazines I gathered that young tomato plants are highly sensitive to chilling, so I think that was my fault for removing them from the protection of their covered seed trays too early.  I shall know not to do it again this year, though as there is no room on the greenhouse bench for another tray it's going to be tricky when I prick them out individually.

Two packets of seeds that needed overnight soaking never managed to get sown before the compost ran out, so I did those as well.  One is the drought tolerant, dark red flowered form of a kind of legume I saw and admired at least year's Chelsea, and the other a blue species lupin.

Progress among the previous sowing has been slow, apart from the tomatoes.  I have a pot of nice little seedlings of the snowy woodrush, Luzula nivea, and some sturdy little plants of a species of Macedonian sage, plus some Verbascum phoeniceum in mixed colours that came free with a magazine but are none the worse for that.  There are tentative signs of life from the pot of perennial flax, and to my delight the sea daffodil and Hesperaloe are both germinating.  One Clivia seed is looking good on the kitchen window sill, but the second is struggling and the third succumbed to mould while still in the airing cupboard.  And that's about it, so far.

Mature plants of snowy woodrush sell for about five pounds, and I would like quite a lot to go round the edge of the pond, so in fact if that one pot of seedlings makes it to the stage of being planted out in the garden they will pretty much have paid for this year's seed orders, but I hope some more pots will germinate.  Maybe the cold weather held them back.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

compost and storm damage

The air had lost its raw edge today, and I was able to get out into the garden, though the rain at lunchtime was a disappointment.  The compost in one of my bins is ready to use, which is handy as I need to mulch the long border in the front garden and had run out of space in the bins, with bags of shredded Eleagnus prunings and the cut-down tops of last year's herbaceous plants waiting to go on the heaps.  I am a big fan of home made compost.  It seems to have a more enlivening effect on the soil than the spent mushroom compost I would have to buy otherwise, quite apart from the fact that I do not have to drive four miles up the road to collect it or pay £1.75 a bag for it after shoveling it odiferously into my own bags.  Although now that I come to think of it, I worked out last year that after the garden centre pushed the price of the mushroom compost up it was actually cheaper per litre to get bales of B&Q multipurpose.  And the pre-packed bales are faster and cleaner to load into the car, so they are a tempting thought when the home made runs out, a shame when using mushroom compost recycles a byproduct of the food industry, and every B&Q bale generates a new plastic bag.

The next bin along has the contents of last year's tomato growing bags plus the compost from the pots of bulbs and Cosmos, and looks almost ready to spread on the borders.  I don't suppose it contains much in the way of nutrients, but it will serve to raise the organic content of the top few inches of soil, improving the soil structure and ability to retain water.  A bit.  There is not all that much you can do with a very sandy soil, except grow plants that enjoy the keen drainage and aren't too bothered about nutrients.  One long standing inhabitants of the bed is a Grevillea rosemarinifolia that has to be the largest I have ever seen.  It is a member of the Protea family, and knowing that actual Protea are adapted to poor soil to the point where fertiliser containing phosphates kills them, I have never dared feed the Grevillea.

The leaves of the Gladiolus tristis in the gravel garden in the middle of the turning circle have come through the icy winds and the snow apparently unscathed.  I am surprised, and delighted, since it is a South African species and only borderline hardy in Britain.  It isn't due to produce its elegant, pale yellow flowers for another month or two yet, and it may be that the extreme cold spell has put paid to them for this year, but at least I still have the plant.  It was bought originally as one experimental bulb, that lived for its first year in the greenhouse before being cast out into the gravel to see how it did, and last year was the first time that it flowered.  It is bulking up well enough to make me think that perhaps I should invest in a second bulb.  The leaves of its fellow South Africans the Watsonia are looking rather the worse for wear, pale and mottled, and I don't think they liked being snowed on at all, though I hope they will shoot again from the base.

Euphorbia x pasteurii 'John Phillips' is not looking great either, though I think it will pull round.  This is a large, woody spurge, with a branching habit.  One of its parents is Euphorbia mellifera, originally from Madeira, and the other Euphorbia stygiana, from the Azores, not a combination designed for days of snow and a wind chill factor down into negative double digits.  Poor old 'John Phillips' was planted in the gravel garden in May 2011, so I think the recent cold spell was the worst it has had to endure so far.  Specialist nurseryman and lover of the exotic Nick Macer at Pan-Global Plants describes it as 'very tough but safest in a sheltered spot'.  The front garden did not look at all sheltered ten days ago, as the Beast from the East ripped through and over the hedge as though it wasn't there.

Friday, 9 March 2018

good guess

A minor amusement in these dark, cold months is playing The Times' daily online quiz.  I am too mean to subscribe to The Times, but the Systems Administrator does and has added my laptop to his account.  We consider our answers separately, and then compare notes on how we did in a spirit of amiable non-competition.  There are fifteen questions, and my best ever score was twelve, my lowest a measly two.  The below the line comments provide a benchmark on how easy or difficult that day's quiz was.

The really interesting thing about the quiz is not how much of it you know absolutely, but how far you can get on the basis of limited knowledge and guesswork.  Some things are impossible to guess.  If you don't know the names of any New Zealand opening batsmen or eighteenth century Austrian philosophers and have never watched Mad Men then summoning a name out of thin air is very unlikely to help.  There is always at least one question on sport, and this is one reason why I am almost certainly not going to score a perfect fifteen.  There is always a photographic question as well, today's being a photo of a smiling woman in evening dress with the caption Who is this retired Olympic champion?  I wondered if she were a rower, since the UK seems to be quite good at that sort of thing, but it was Sally Gunnell.

Simply knowing stuff is not all that interesting.  Given a photograph of a blue flower and the information that its botanical name was Nemophila menziesii, I knew that its common name was Baby Blue Eyes because I have spent a lot of time reading seed catalogues, and I did not guess forget-me-not because I knew that they were Myosotis.  There was no skill involved, just boring one hundred per cent memorised facts.  The fun starts when you know more than nothing, but not the definitive answer.  In this photograph of a Renault, what model is shown?  Now I know practically nothing about cars, so little that I was in my twenties before discovering that there was more than one kind of BMW and that series seven were impressive, series five fairly impressive, and series three risible.  But I did remember those intensely annoying TV adverts with Nicole and Papa, so guessed Renault Clio, which turned out to be the correct answer.

If in doubt go for the first possibility that occurs to you.  On this basis I decided that Robert Capa's photograph series The Magnificent Eleven depicted troops landing on Omaha beach, and I was right.  If I'd spent any time thinking what beaches there were I would also have come up with Sword and Juno, but that would only have brought me down to a one in three chance.  Sometimes the odds are quite good.  A question about which colour rhino is the largest, oldest, or rarest, can only really be a choice between black and white.  I guessed correctly that time, although faced with a photo of a Channel Islands cow and asked for the breed I did summon up my memories of the Jerseys I'd seen to decide that this one was probably a Guernsey.  The SA, who has not been to as many agricultural shows as I have, went for Jersey, so the thing-you-first-thought-of rule is not infallible.

Sometimes you can work it out from the language.  I did not know that Dentalgia was the medical term for toothache, but it seemed a good guess, given dentist, dentine, dental, certainly a better candidate than backache or stomach ache.  I was pleased with myself the other day for managing to work out the Spanish word for a tongue from the French name for a type of long, thin biscuit.

I reckon that on average a good half to two thirds of my correct answers come from educated guesses.  The SA says the same, and over the long run we do about equally well, though on slightly different areas of knowledge, or guesswork.  If you were devising an assessment process for any serious purpose instead of a bit of fun you would need to be aware that differences in candidates' scores could be telling you at least as much about their willingness to guess as their actual knowledge of the subject.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

things that go bump in the night

Waking in the night, I heard a faint sound of thundering and crashing coming up through the floor from the study.  Deciding it was the cats and not burglars I didn't bother getting up to investigate, and in the morning the Systems Administrator confirmed that there had been a stramash in the night as he had found the cats' beds scattered all over the floor, and the cat door was missing.  I struggled to absorb the last piece of information.  How could they loose a cat door?  Thinking about the noise of the nocturnal chase I suggested we look under the furniture in the study, and there was the cat flap complete with the indoors half of its frame, lying under a table.  A cat must have rushed in through the flap, carried the whole thing away from the wall, and run into the study with the door hung around its neck like a garland.

I should have liked to see that, although I hope that whoever was rushing in did so in play and an excess of high spirits and not because there was anything genuinely threatening outside.  I would not like to think the local foxes were turning nasty.  There were reports some years back of a black Beast in the neighbouring village, memorably written up in the parish magazine which quoted a local as saying that his wife and child had seen it using binoculars.  More recently there was supposed to be an escaped lion in St Osyth, but to much ridicule it was exposed as being a ginger Maine Coon.

It is still too cold and windy to be at all nice outside.  It is not just me thinking so.  When in the middle of the morning all three kitties are lined up in their beds on top of the cupboard you know that it really isn't very pleasant out of doors.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

a technical break

Four days after the thaw started there are still piles of snow lying around the edge of the garden in the lee of the hedge.  Grubby and tired with rounded edges where they have been melting, but hanging grimly on.  It goes to show what a difference the sun makes, since the base of the hedge is in shade for most of the day, and how much energy it takes to melt a big lump of snow.  In the bathroom a sad little pile of dead ladybirds has appeared on the window sill.  I can only assume that they were hibernating behind the roller blind and that during the gale from Siberia the extreme cold got to them.

The garden today felt not extremely cold, but definitely chilly, a miserable dank chill that came from the air being damp.  Dry cold is not so bad, but damp cold is a horror, and I decided it was a day for getting on with indoors tasks.  I needed to revise a talk on garden bulbs.  I last gave it several years and one laptop ago, and wanted to make some tweaks and include some more species.  It was a pity that the only copy of the images I could find was as JPEGs on a memory stick.  Converting them back into PowerPoint to enable editing turned out not to be at all straightforward.  I had to ask for the Systems Administrator's help, and may yet end up starting again.

The talks are not for a few weeks, so there is plenty of time to mess around.  I remember some of my more youthful fellow students at horticultural college tripping themselves up when they had to make presentations to the rest of the class because they had left preparing their visual aids until the day of the talk, only to hit technical problems.  One of the aims of the assignment was presumably to teach them not to take that risk.  The lesson I must learn this time round is to be more careful when transferring files to a new computer, and maybe not to leave it next time until the old laptop is at death's door.  And I should be more thorough about backing files up to central storage, or the cloud.

I wish it would warm up.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

back in the garden

As the snow has melted some of the small bulbs have emerged amazingly unscathed.  The cyclamen along the front of the house look completely unruffled, their fleshy little pink flowers as cheerful as ever.  Who would ever have guessed that these Mediterranean flowers would shrug off being buried in snow so insouciantly?  Some dwarf iris that were in full bloom when the snow arrived have likewise emerged intact.  But any open flowers on the Japanese quince and the camellias have been ruined, and I am waiting to see if the remaining buds will open, or if the cold killed them too.  Likewise the tantalising fat buds on the Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Raffill'.  I was so close to seeing what it was finally going to do, and maybe now I'll have to wait another year.  Although you could say what was another year, when I had already waited fifteen?

I turfed the pots of hyacinths out of the greenhouse again, now that the fierce cold spell has passed, along with the pots of Solidago and rooted box cuttings that I hid in there when the Beast from the East was imminent.  Normal frosts should not hurt them, and the floor was so completely covered I couldn't get in there to do any watering.  The pots of violas came out as well.  They spent the winter under cover, after last year when I left them out of doors and lost more plants than I was expecting to, even though they were in a sheltered place and had been cut back in late summer to encourage them to make bushy overwintering clumps.  The worst of the winter should be over now, though, or at least we hope so, and they should be OK outside.

I returned to weeding and spreading home made compost on the long flower bed in the front garden.  The bits of it that didn't get weeded and topped up with Strulch last year had got rather spectacularly weedy, making it a fiddly job, but it was good to be outside.  The birds have suddenly started singing again, now that the cold has gone, making spring seem much nearer.

I should have been at the garden club's monthly meeting tonight, but in a final flourish the snow has put paid to that, as the nurseryman who should have given the talk is still snowed in somewhere in Wales.

Addendum  My loaf of bread that mysteriously failed to rise has had the ultimate vote of no confidence from the chickens, who declined to eat any more of it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

an exhibition

This morning I finally made it off the premises by car.  I spent nearly half an hour before going out lifting slabs of compacted icy snow out of the lane with a large garden fork, and chopping further lumps off the edges of the remaining drifts where the clearance even for a Skoda still looked a bit tight, but then succeeded in skating down the track at the first attempt, with revs up and in first gear, only sliding sideways a couple of times.  Once I got to the farmyard slush and the open road awaited.

The object of my excursion was Tate Britain, whose exhibition Impressionists in London runs until 7 May.  It's been on for some time already, and a friend and I had been meaning to go, today being the date we'd finally agreed as being good for both of us.  Lucky we hadn't fixed on last week, or we'd have been back to square one.

The first room was not exactly what I'd expected, being about Paris rather than London, and it took me a moment to get my brain into gear and realise that the point of it was to set the scene in terms of the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris, and the chain of events in France that had sent various French painters off to London in the first place.  I had not known that Tissot served as a stretcher bearer, and learning that made me see his subsequent polished pictures of the middle classes at leisure in a different light.  Actually, I have always liked Tissot.  I get the impression from the BBC art documentaries we watch that he is rather out of fashion at the moment, but I shall not let that put me off.

About all I knew of the siege of Paris was which war it was in and the date, and the fact that Arnold Bennett maroons one of his heroines there in The Old Wives' Tale.  I could not have told you anything about the communards, and my friend knew no more than I did.  We agreed that we would have to look it up when we got home and so expand our knowledge of French history.  As we went on to the next rooms we discovered our knowledge of French art history was even less than we'd thought, because there were several artists represented we'd never heard of at all, some of whom we really liked, as well as Camille Pissarro (who we had heard of and do like.  As originally constructed that sentence appeared to place him in opposition to painters we liked.  Tricky thing, prose, at the end of a long day).

Finally we got to Monet's views of the Thames, gathered together from museums on both sides of the Atlantic and across Europe, and worth the trip all by themselves.  We spent a long time looking at them and debating which one we liked best, and how on earth he did it, when the surface of the paintings so clearly represented water when seen from several yards away, while only looking like multi-coloured splodges at the distance Monet must have been standing at while he painted them.  The exhibition was not terribly busy and so we were able to indulge ourselves doing that annoying thing of standing with our faces right up in front of the canvases looking at the individual brush marks, without incurring the silent hatred of hordes standing behind us who wanted to see the Monets and not the backs of our heads.  I could not pick a favourite.  Like with Rothkos the quieter ones would probably grow on you after you'd looked at them for an hour or two, and we decided the best solution would simply be to have all of them.

I thought Monet must be the end and suggested coming back for another look after we'd had a cup of tea, but there turned out to be one more room, with three vivid and cheerful Thames views by Derain.  I adored Fauvism from my first childhood trip to the Courtauld, and it would have been a very hard choice between one of those and the Monets.  Neither being available we went for tea, and then came back for a final look.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

free at last

I had another go at making bread yesterday.  I didn't like the bread making experiment to end on a note of failure.  That is how you come to believe that things are impossibly difficult.  Besides, there wasn't a lot else to do, and it would have been nice to have some bread.

I changed several variables at once, which was not experimentally perfect.  In a perfect world I'd have only changed one variable, or rather drawn up a latin square and tested every combination of them, but I only had one bag of flour, one loaf tin, and one morning to fill.  I warmed the flour more thoroughly than I had the first time round, in case it had been too cold coming out of a very chilly kitchen cupboard, and I doubled up on the quantity of dried yeast.  The resulting dough felt lively at first, didn't rise as convincingly as I remember bread rising in the first proving, and definitely didn't reach the level of the top of the tin in the second.  I didn't bother extending the proving time hours beyond what the book said and what I have given it in the past, since I tried that last time and it didn't help.

The resulting loaf was edible but dense.  I had some toasted for breakfast with honey, and it was hearty.  Just the thing for cold weather, really.  You wouldn't be in any doubt that you'd had breakfast after eating a couple of slices.  We had some more toasted with Heinz tomato soup for lunch, and the Systems Administrator said kindly that if he'd been given it in a restaurant and told it was artisanal Danish  smnorrbrod he'd have thought it was fine.  Actually, it tasted OK, but it was about twice as solid as an Elizabeth David basic loaf is supposed to be.

We now have competing bread failure hypotheses.  The SA is strongly of the opinion that I should buy some new yeast, while I am becoming suspicious about the flour, which was from a supermarket basics range and perhaps not as strong as bread making flour needs to be.  I will probably try again with new yeast and a different brand of flour, since my competitive instincts are now aroused.  It is not rocket science.  I refuse to be defeated by a loaf of bread.

The drifts in the lane were still large and filthier than ever after breakfast, the top six inches of snow slushy and stained brown by the earth blown off the field.  Underneath the melting top layer the rest of the drift was still crisp, white, and completely solid.  We both had a go shovelling snow from the tops of the drifts on to the verges and the shallow areas where snow had not drifted and the thaw had already revealed the tarmac.  The SA confirmed that heavy rain was still forecast for later, and promised to go and spread the drifts around some when it came to speed the melting.

Going back after lunch to see how the drifts were doing I found they had gone.  Heavy tyre tracks in the slush and great slabs of snow on the side of the lane confirmed that some kind person from the farm must have taken pity on us and gone up the lane on a tractor with a bulldozer blade.  The SA inspected the tyre marks and said that they had been made by a small tractor, not one of the farm's big John Deeres, and that it must have been our neighbour's son.  He has a little Ferguson he uses for cutting their grass, only we didn't know he had a bulldozer blade.  It was very kind of them, whoever it was.  There were still patches of compacted ice six inches thick in patches, but the rain would get rid of them given another hour or two.  Or perhaps overnight.  I have been more optimistic than the SA about how quickly the drifts would disappear, and so far the SA has been closer to the mark than me.

Saturday, 3 March 2018


The thaw had begun by this morning, as forecast, and I squelched though the melting snow down to the gate, shovel in hand, to attack the drifts.  They looked long and large in the dismal light of morn, and I could not see anybody else moving anywhere on the farm.

The surface of the snow was already stained brown in places with blown soil, and I thought that is why you don't want to leave your ground bare for any length of time.  Your topsoil will drift away.  The old joke goes that there are farms up towards Thetford that are either in Suffolk or Norfolk, depending on which way the wind is blowing.  As I chopped through the edge of the first drift, where the wind had looped around the end of the boundary hedge, the snow fell away in layers and I could see how it lay in distinct deposits from the different periods of snowfall and the wind-driven drift in between.  The hedge on the upwind side of the lane had been no protection at all against drifting, in fact, it had made things in the lane slightly worse.  The hedge must have slowed the wind just enough for it to have dropped more of its load of snow than it would have otherwise.

After half an hour it became clear that digging out was not an option.  A builder's bag of snow would be lighter than one of gravel, but snow is still heavy, and this snow was tending to come up in such large slabs that each shovelful weighed about as much as one of gravel.  I had cleared half the width of the track to a distance of about four metres, and my right forearm was already starting to ache.  Bitter experience from shovelling gravel has taught me where that ends up.  I went back into the house and informed the Systems Administrator that I did not think we could dig ourselves out, and the SA, who had never seemed inclined to join in with the digging project, said No, he didn't think we could.

The chairman of the music society emailed with an update on tomorrow's concert for young musicians, saying that we now had seven performers and the weather was on our side.  I replied warning her that I really did not think I was going to be able to get out tomorrow, and certainly not in time to go to the supermarket and then make sandwiches before the concert.  After a while she responded that somebody else was going to do the sandwiches and she was sure I would be able to get out by tomorrow afternoon given the rate of the thaw.

I summoned the heart to go and look at the contents of the greenhouse and the conservatory, and found things not as bad as I'd been afraid they might be.  The conservatory has fared better, being double glazed and protected from the worst of the wind by the house and the wood.  In fact, if it weren't for the snow outside I'd scarcely have guessed that anything had happened.  The greenhouse had taken more of a battering.  Some of the Plectranthus were half dead from cold, a Melianthus major had gone yellow from either chill or incorrect watering, and the Arctotis and Gazania were mostly brown and shrunken and looked pretty dire, but enough had survived to make me think it had been worth running the heater.  The big specimens of evergreen Agapanthus would cost over thirty pounds a pop to replace in a garden centre.

By late afternoon the chickens finally consented to come out into their run.  I gave them a handful of sultanas, and reflected that at least I now didn't have to worry that they weren't getting any water.  I walked down to the gate and had a look at the lane, but the drifts did not seem to have shrunk appreciably.  The Systems Administrator had broken up some more of the snow next to where I'd been digging to encourage it to thaw faster, but there were still tens of yards of unbroken drifts between us and the open road of the farm.

Friday, 2 March 2018

a culinary failure

I walked down to the gate again this morning and looked at the track to the farm, and if anything it looked worse than it did yesterday afternoon, heaped up in long stretches to fully two thirds of the height of the posts along the neighbours' fence, and rather higher than that on the upwind side.  Mind you, the wind blew all last night and the field on the windward side was largely stripped of snow, except what had collected in the furrows.  The Systems Administrator said that it was just as well they ploughed it last week, otherwise even more would have blown off and on to the track.

The bread still had not risen.  I left it in a cupboard overnight to see if it would finish its second proving, but it still lay in the bottom of the tin like a sad, damp slug.  I put it back on the Aga warming plate, resting on a saucepan so that the bottom would not get too hot, and waited to see if it would do something.

According to the forecast it was snowing heavily with a probability of ninety per cent, except that it wasn't.  Then smears of what looked like rain began to spot the glass of the front door.  I opened the door and tested one with my finger tip to see if it was actual rain, or the freezing rain they'd been talking about on the Today programme, but it felt wet enough.

By teatime I decided to cook the bread anyway, since the chickens would probably eat it.  Poor chickens, I gave them another bowl of clean water in their house this morning in case they were thirsty, but by the time I went to check them again before shutting their house for the night they'd kicked it over and scuffed sawdust in it, again.  I washed and refilled it, since when they are out in their run they do often take a drink of water before going in to roost, and gave them a handful of sultanas by way of small consolation.  I checked the egg box just in case, although I was not expecting them to keep laying all through the blizzard, and found six eggs.  They are very diligent chickens.  And they still have all their toes.  Actually, they looked more cheerful than I was expecting them to after spending four days hiding in their house in the snow.

The bread rose alarmingly in the middle, and the SA thought we might be able to eat it anyway.  I have seen more peculiar looking loaves for sale on artisan market stalls for quite a lot of money, but I had some doubts about how this one would taste.  They turned out to be academic, because it was stuck fast in the tin.  I could not shake it out for its final fifteen minutes of cooking, and still couldn't get it out when it was supposed to be done.  Banging the tin upside down had no effect at all.  I tried to slide a non-serrated knife around the edge, but the loaf was stuck so firmly the knife wouldn't slide, and I began to worry about scratching the enamel of the tin, which is a good one, so had a go with a silicon spatula instead.  Then I tried to prise the loaf out with a metal spatula, but it refused to budge.  It is no good, it will have to be dismantled in situ for chicken bread and then I will have to soak the tin.

I can't work out what went wrong.  I've made bread successfully enough before from that recipe.  Should I have used more yeast?  It is such a long time since I last made bread I can't honestly remember how much I normally use, and it was a very cold day, and perhaps the yeast is getting a bit old, although it worked fine quite recently for waffles.  The trouble with the recipe is that it assumes fresh yeast.  Perhaps there are amateur home bread makers persuading their high street baker or supermarket in-store bakery to let them have a piece of fresh yeast each time they want to bake, but I doubt it.  Surely most people making bread at home use dried yeast nowadays?  Only professional food writers seem to cling to the fresh yeast myth, or else quantify their dried yeast in sachets.  Please.  How big is a sachet?  And how many home cooks have scales able to weigh ten grammes accurately?  What's wrong with the unambiguous standard 5 ml teaspoon?

The forecast now is for heavy snow with ninety per cent probability until midnight.  Then fog.  And then, joy of joys, for the temperature to rise above freezing and remain there.  This is the warm air coming in from the west.  It is not actually snowing at the moment, or not very much.  I really hope it doesn't.  Tomorrow morning I have to start digging, and there is quite enough snow to dig as it is.

Thursday, 1 March 2018


The Systems Administrator went to London as planned for yesterday's lunch.  It took two changes of train each way.  On the return journey, waiting at Colchester for the local connection, the SA saw one train delayed for fifteen minutes because the sliding doors had frozen open.  When the SA's train stopped at Colchester Hythe the doors failed to open, and it set off again with the Hythe-bound passengers still trapped inside.  They managed to escape at Wivenhoe via a door at the front of the train that was working, and the SA was able to alight at our local station by the same door and yomped back across the fields in the dark.  The lane to the house had already filled with drifts up to knee height, blowing off the fields.

I walked down to the gate to look at the lane after breakfast, expecting some drifts, and found the entire track covered with about a foot of snow, drifting to two or three feet in places.  That answered the question of whether the Skoda was going to the garage this morning for its annual service and MoT.  They did ring yesterday afternoon and I had to warn them then that while I hadn't forgotten about the service, it depended on whether I could get the car off the farm.  I rang back first thing this morning to break the bad news, but the manager was very nice about it.  His own usual route to work was impassible this morning due to drifting snow, which probably made him more inclined to believe me.

The chickens still will not come out of their house.  I stood by their door making coaxing noises, and a couple of them poked their heads out making small pitiful burbles but they would not budge.  I began to worry that they were not getting anything to drink, and cracked and put a basin of water in the house.  I had thought that thirst was such a powerful instinct that they would come out for water if they were really thirsty, and it can only be a matter of time now before they kick sawdust in to the bowl and tip it over, which I was trying to avoid since it must be quite bad enough at the moment being a chicken as it is, without having a wet house.  It is difficult to know what to do for the best.

We are running out of bread.  I started to make a loaf, on the grounds that it would be quite nice to have some bread in this weather, and for something to do.  After two hours of proving the dough, far from being spongy and elastic, is still determindley solid, so we may have fresh bread later on, or may be stuck with ryvita and oat cakes for the duration.

The cats are very bored and very irritable, except for Our Ginger who is philosophical about these things and didn't want to go outside that badly in the first place.  Mr Fidget went out briefly and caught a thrush, to my extreme annoyance.  Roll on the thaw, although I think we will need to start digging once the wind drops if we don't want to be stuck here for days.