Thursday, 19 October 2017


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

a dark cold day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

back to the big chop

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 October 2017

gardening under glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 October 2017

more weeding

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

along the edge of the wood

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 October 2017

hedge cutting

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

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

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

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

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