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.